Iraq spoiler for U.S.-Iran talks?
Washington may be moving toward engaging Tehran, but it must do so while American forces are under fire in Iraq from Iranian-backed militants, an analysis said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for "tough but direct" talks with Iran, but any negotiations with Iran will take place while the so-called Special Groups are attacking American forces in Iraq, according to a policy review by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Tehran has used its influence to court political allies in Iraq, and that influence extends beyond politics to the funding, training and general support for Iraqi militants. Several analysts, the review said, point to a covert program to expand the reach of Iranian proxies in Iraq that has been in place for decades.
That effort has brought the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group to the forefront in Iraq as a force specializing in explosively formed projectiles. The review said that while EFPs account for less than 10 percent of all roadside bombs, they are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. casualties.
With Washington moving toward engagement, Tehran may seek to strengthen its position through provocation in Iraq.
"Ongoing Iranian-backed proxy warfare against the United States needs to be factored into contingency planning related to any U.S.-Iranian dialogue," the review concluded.
Iraq calls for economic ties with U.S.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh met with U.S. embassy officials in Iraq to discuss ways to boost economic relations between both countries.
The Iraqi Parliament earlier passed a long-awaited budget for 2008 that included drastic cutbacks due to declines in oil revenue.
Saleh met with economic officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to find ways to foster trade relations and bring U.S. investors to Iraq in order to boost the national economy, the Voices of Iraq news agency reports.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended her choice of Christopher Hill for the ambassador to Iraq following a challenge from Republican lawmakers, ABC News reports.
Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Sam Brownback said Hill was not qualified for the position due to his lack of military experience and work in the Middle East.
"I think both of those criticisms are unjustified and unfounded," Clinton said. "Chris Hill is a distinguished, experienced diplomat who has served in some very difficult positions on behalf of our country."
Hill served as the U.S. envoy to Korea, leading the six-party talks regarding the North Korean nuclear program. Prior to that, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004.
Kirkuk focus of de Mistura efforts
The U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, discussed with top political leaders brokering a power-sharing agreement for Kirkuk.
De Mistura told the U.N. Security Council in February that there must be a "firm recognition" that the issues surrounding Kirkuk are key to national security and durable peace.
Kirkuk lies at the center of disputes between Iraqi Kurds, who seek its annexation, and their Arab counterparts. Iraq held provincial elections in January, but the dispute prompted a delay for Kirkuk. A vote in the Kurdish provinces and Kirkuk is scheduled tentatively for May.
The special envoy is in consultations with Iraqi and Kurdish leaders over a power-sharing structure in Kirkuk, meeting with members of the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and provincial leaders in Kirkuk, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq reports.
Resolving the conflict in Kirkuk may remove several of the obstacles contributing to bitter relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad.
Maliki, who won major concessions in the January vote, is looking to secure his position in parliamentary elections scheduled for later in the year, which may leave the dispute unresolved in the interim.
Afghan surge questioned
The notion that the success of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq can be duplicated in Afghanistan with a troop surge is incorrect, a U.S. general said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his military advisers have unveiled a strategy to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in operations modeled in part after a similar effort in Iraq, dubbed the surge.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, who served as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan and deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that what worked in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan.
"The beefed-up effort has been fueled by the belief that the successful surge in Iraq can be replicated in Afghanistan," he wrote. "It can't."
He added, however, that while the situation in Afghanistan is daunting, a custom strategy there that considers the varied dynamics, from the rural population to the crumbling infrastructure, may prove viable.
Olson notes that while ground-up, localized strategies are successful in dealing with an insurgency, the troop deployment designated currently for Afghanistan is not strong enough, nor is it trained adequately.
"The mission of the surge force needs to be rethought with a primary focus on achieving the ability to build effective local security forces," he said.
He credited the move from Washington to court moderate elements within the Taliban regime but added that U.S. and NATO officials need better cooperation with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, while encouraging greater international support for the Afghan effort.
Doubts linger over Afghan vote
Afghans in the conflict-burdened eastern and southern provinces are skeptical about the pending elections, putting the vote in question, an analysis said.
In 2004, Afghans faced security risks and warnings from Taliban insurgents, but the election was heralded by the international community as a positive step for the war-torn country.
Five years later, however, several Afghans have grown disenfranchised with the democratic experience as government inefficiency and security matters complicate the effort there, an analysis in Foreign Policy magazine noted.
Election officials have agreed to an Aug. 20 vote, three months after President Hamid Karzai's term ends. That, and complaints over corruption, have contributed to calls for Karzai to step aside in May, putting the political landscape in uncertain territory.
Meanwhile, Afghan election officials have barely managed to register about 500,000 people in the embattled Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz and Uruzgan provinces combined.
While expectations for Afghanistan are often optimistic, the analysis said, it is vital to push ahead with credible national elections where all ethnic groups can make their voice heard, including in the volatile southern and eastern provinces.
Afghan police secure Bagram Air Base
Afghanistan's national police force is taking the lead in operations to provide security for the Bagram Air Base, U.S. military reports said.
Afghan National Police forces acted as the first responders to a suicide bomber employing an explosive-laden vehicle outside the gates of the airfield in early March.
U.S. Army Maj. Luis Ortiz said Afghan police are responding "very well" to security breaches at the air base located in Parwan province.
"It doesn't matter what time of day it is," Ortiz said. "If there is a patrol, then the ANP are always out there working alongside us."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Afghanistan said the size of the Afghan military has grown to 80,000 members, adding that they are taking the lead on several operations.
"As we look out toward 2009 and into 2010, we must sustain the momentum that is with the Afghan National Army while adding focus to the Afghan National Police," said Army Maj. Gen. Richard Formica.