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Guest Host: Susan Page
The hostage crisis in Algeria. French forces clash with rebels in Mali. And Pakistan’s Supreme Court orders the arrest of its prime minister. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Matt Frei Washington correspondent of the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.
- Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
- Michael Hirsh Chief correspondent at National Journal magazine and author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of "USA Today," sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a cold. The fate of hostages taken at an Algerian gas plant is still unclear a day after a raid by the Algerian government. French forces clash with rebels in Mali and Pakistan Supreme Court orders the arrest of its prime minister.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me in the studio for this week's international news roundup, Matt Frei of UK's Channel 4 News. Elise Labott of CNN and Michael Hirsh of "National Journal" magazine. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
MR. MATT FREIThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. We'll take your calls later in this hour. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Matt, what's the latest on what's happening in Algeria?
FREIWell, that's a very good question, being asked in various capitals around the world and I'm afraid the answer that I'm going to have to give you is about as fluid as, I think, many of the answers being given in these capitals.
FREIYou never want to have the adjectives fluid, murky and complex attached to any crisis but that is, genuinely I think, where we are. As far as we know at the moment there are 60 foreign hostages that are still unaccounted for. Now, whether that means that they ran away and are hiding somewhere in the desert, whether they're held captive by this organization which relishes the name of "Signed in Blood," or whether indeed they've been killed, we just don't know.
FREIWe also don't know if they've been killed by the hostage takers or by the Algerian forces who launched this raid yesterday, lunchtime Algerian time, without consulting British or American or French and this is what's really upset people in London and also in Washington, that the Algerian's basically took it upon themselves to launch a rescue raid in an international facility.
FREII mean, this is a multi-national complex owned by lots of different companies around the world with lots of different foreigners in it and they went in, exercising what they would say is their legitimate sovereign right and as the Algerian minister of information said, "If you think we're going to negotiate with terrorists, you are delusional."
FREIAnd that's precisely what they did, they went after this man who they've already declared guilty in absentia in a number of trials, who runs this organization. And one could say that it was a sort of personal issue between the Algerian government and this particular terrorist leader, Moktar Belmoktar.
PAGEWhat is it that he wants, Elise?
LABOTTWell, at first this group, the "Signed in Blood" or they're also called the Masked Brigades, led by this gentleman, Moktar Belmoktar, an Algerian who's been kind of, really kind of, got his street credits in Afghanistan. They're saying that they, this is a revenge for Algerians giving the French their airspace to launch their offense into Mali, battling Islamists there.
LABOTTHowever, sources are telling us that the sophistication and the level of planning that was involved indicate that this really predates any French intervention in the conflict. So the question is, this group does have a lot of history doing kidnappings, smuggling. Were they originally trying to get money and they're using this in excuse?
LABOTTThey're also calling for release of some of their prisoners who are held in Algeria and elsewhere and now they're calling for the release of this, the Blind Sheik, responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, which is kind of someone that you throw when you're asking for any Islamists to be released, very in vogue.
PAGEMichael, we have heard from some of the hostages who managed to escape. What are they telling us?
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHWell, I mean it's a very dicey situation. We don't know the exact motivation, as Elise was saying, and, you know, we don't know how many of them are alive or dead or hiding somewhere around the facility or in the desert somewhere at this point. This is a very, very remote location and there are far more unknowns than there known's right now.
PAGEHow does this relate to what's happening in Mali, Matt?
FREIWell, the organization that's responsible for this has claimed that this is in direct retaliation for the French military strikes that began in northern Mali on Friday. But, you know, as Elise was saying, this is apparently a very well planned operation and this is a guy, Moktar Belmoktar, known by some by the way, by his followers as the Prince, by the French as the Uncatchable and also by many people, as Mr. Marlboro, perhaps the Marlboro Man because he was the kingpin of illegal cigarette smuggling in the Sahel region, in that bit of the Sahara Desert.
HIRSHI mean, this is a guy who's been in the kidnapping business for a decade. This is a guy who's been -- and kidnapping not to kill people, but kidnapping for ransom. He made, you know, the seed capital for his empire, his illegal empire, was based on kidnapping money that he got with a very batch of foreigners in 2003 apparently.
FREIBut at the same time he's allied himself with genuine Jihadists movements. He had links with senior al Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, apparently he once met Osama bin Laden himself and then he broke away from al Qaida and the Islamist megrim last year when there was a tiff over turf. So he's a, he straddles that grey area between basically a contraband and smuggling, almost a kind of Robin Hood figure and a genuine Jihadist terrorist.
LABOTTAnd I think that what's interesting here and I think illustrates that, this group, this Masked Brigades, they're based in Mali, they have a presence in Libya and they're believed to have infiltrated through Libya where there's no government really to speak of there right now and this shows this kind of hornet's nest of Islamic extremism and terrorism that is really taken in root in North Africa.
LABOTTThis is why the French are involved there. This is what's getting everyone very nervous and the question is, the U.S. has been really lukewarm to this French intervention in Mali. Is this going to drag the U.S. back into the conflict? Are they going to have to get involved in a greater way to protect U.S. and Western interests in the region?
HIRSHYes, I mean, there's been now a suggestion from the Obama Administration that they're going to at least be in a support role to the French but they're not happy about this. there's reason to be not happy about it because this French intervention, you know, has echoes that go all the back to the French colonial period, 100 years ago.
HIRSHThere's a good argument to be made that a lot of the radicalization of the Arab world came out of that period. So it's kind of like, you know, this whole cycle repeating itself. And it also, interestingly, you know, it has some echoes of Benghazi in that, as Elise was saying and Matt was saying, there were, there is evidence that this was organized. But was it an opportunistic attack in which they used the excuse of the French intervention to justify something they were already planning to do? Or was it actually provoked by the French?
FREIYou know what's really interesting, and you've referred to this, Michael, that, you know, that there are French colonial roots, as are in fact in most conflicts around the world and most of the time we blame the Brits but sometimes it's the French who are to blame for kind of haphazard borders drawn badly a century ago.
FREIBut the point is also that there was very little in France which is an incredibly fractious country at the moment, about this military intervention. You know, the vast majority of French were behind it. the question as ever is, you know, even if the French military, as they seem to be doing at the moment, are successful in repelling the advance of the jihadists, the Islamists towards the capital, which is in the south of this vast country, which is by the way twice the size of France although not as populated obviously.
FREIWhat happens then? You know, do they, do the extremists melt away into the local population? How long will the French actually stay there? and that was really on a BBC website this morning, that one of the correspondents who's in there was talking to a French commander who said, "If you know how long we're intended to stay here, do let me know as well because I haven't got a clue."
LABOTTBecause it's pretty clear that the French could, you know, end this and help the Malians beat back the Islamists. But Mali is very politically fractured, the Tuaregs that are in the north were trying to fight for autonomy. A lot of them went to Libya where they were aligned with Muammar Gaddafi.
LABOTTThey came back home, they were better trained, they had a lot more weapons and now they've kind of gotten together with the Islamists against government. The French imposed kind of a peace on the civil war in 2002. In 2011 they stopped another civil war by kind of toppling the president there. and unless there's some kind of political bargain that's made with these Tuaregs and made with the country so that they can move once again towards democracy, the French are going to be there for a very long time.
FREIJust also briefly, I mean, we talk about Moktar Belmoktar as the kind of, you know, the one-eyed figure, this rather colorful figure who lost his eye. We're not sure whether it was Afghanistan or in Algeria, a veteran of many wars. But he's also very clever in a tribal way. I mean, he's, one of his wives, he's got four wives, one of them comes from Timbuktu, which is in Mali.
FREIOne of them is from the Tuareg region in the north of the country, which has had all this, sort of, you know, where's a huge separatist movement. Another I think has Libyan connections and the fourth one comes from Algeria. So he is sort of, through martial politics, almost like a medieval prince has sort of straddled the entire Sahara region and is apparently quite popular amongst local tribesmen because whenever he takes money, he gives quite a lot of it back to the local community.
HIRSHAnd let's not forget also that this French intervention is in support of a military government, which, you know, is not terribly legitimate. And again this goes back to the old cycle of problems here. Many of the jihadists in the Arab world were rebelling against U.S. and Western backed governments regimes.
PAGEMatt, you mentioned that the Algerian government undertook this risky rescue without consulting with us. Did the French consult with us before they decided to take such aggressive military action in Mali?
FREII think they did and, in fact, they asked for some American help and I think they got some help in the form of surveillance drones but I'm not sure when they started this conversation. I think it was a fairly swift process and the French are very adamant that they thought this was the right time to intervene because they were looking at the map and they were looking at the advance of Islamists forces towards the capital.
FREIAnd they thought unless we intervene now this whole country will be in Islamist hands and the French with their 5 million Algerian immigrants at home in France with more recent attacks, you know, by Islamic extremists against French interests and Jewish interests, kind of feel this is something that we have to take very seriously indeed.
LABOTTThe U.S. is also going to help provide airlift of practically a whole French battalion into the region so that, into the area, the border so that they can go in. But back to the Algerian point about the consultation, not only were the U.S. and the Brits and others not getting consultation about the mission. Even while it's going on none of these countries were being informed about the fate of their citizens. So really these countries are in the dark, they do have a lot of confidence in the Algerians in terms of their counterterrorism ability but there's a lot of frustration in terms of the lack of information that's going on right now.
FREIBut I think also the Algerians point out, you know, they say this is a matter of national sovereignty and of course for them it's absolutely vital that these oil and gas installations are secure because that's where they get their money from. But it's also personal, the man who's in charge of Algerian intelligence and these sort of operations has been charge since the early '90s when Algeria had a fully fledged civil war and one of their enemies was the guy who's taken these hostages.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll go to the phones in just a few minutes. Our lines are now open, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio for the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup Matt Frei, Washington correspondent of the UK's Channel 4 News. Elise Labott, she's foreign affairs reporter for CNN and Michael Hirsch, chief correspondent at National Journal. He's the author of "At War With Ourselves: Why America is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World."
PAGEWell, Michael, let me turn to you to talk about what's happening in Syria. News this week of a civilian massacre.
HIRSHYes. I mean, the bloodshed goes on. More than 60,000 dead. The government of Bashar al Assad appears increasingly desperate. There were questions this week about whether he had verged over the red line that the U.S. had drawn against the use of chemical weapons. The State Department later said that there wasn't evidence of this. But meanwhile there were a couple of terrible explosions in Aleppo at the university there. Still questions about whether this was actually government -- you know, government forces that detonated these bombs.
HIRSHAnd again a lot of hand wringing in the West about if and how to intervene with no solution after more than a year of this. It really is a very, very terrible humanitarian crisis.
PAGEElise, I know you wrote about the issue of whether chemical weapons, in fact, had been used. What do we know this week about that?
LABOTTWell, basically what happened is there was an article in Foreign Policy magazine, the cable blog about a cable that was sent from Washington -- from Istanbul to Washington about an investigation on chemical weapons. Basically what happened is there were some claims from Syrians to U.S. partners in Syria that chemical weapons could've been used in a December attack in the city of Homs. And a lot of people fell ill. The consulate in Istanbul did a lot of interviews and basically determined that -- with Syrians and -- who claim chemical weapons were used.
LABOTTThey -- basically the consulate said it was inconclusive. They sent that back to the United States and there was more thorough investigation with their experts and their doctors. And they determined that chemical weapons were not used but it was more of a very dangerous riot gas that was used very intensively. It didn't disburse into the air but people really breathed this in. And the closer your proximity to it, you got -- there were much greater illnesses.
LABOTTNow the question is, did the Syrians skirt across the red line that the U.S. says -- or the use of chemical weapons? President Obama has been very clear, no use of chemical weapons. That would trigger a more robust U.S. response. Maybe technically no, but is the U.S. here really skirting the red line and forcing Bashar al-Assad to skirt even closer to it and test these limits.
LABOTTTechnically maybe it wasn't a chemical weapon but clearly Bashar al-Assad and his regime are using more deadly tactics against the people. This guess, while it may not have been a chemical weapon, certainly about 100 people were injured, six people were killed. And should this trigger a more robust U.S. response?
FREIYou know, we've been talking about Syria on a sort of regular periodic basis ever since that started, in this studio. And on the sliding scale of horror and casualties things get worse and worse. But one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the unwillingness of western powers, Especially this one to get involved somehow, whether it's 30,000' or on the ground. And I think essentially they just don't know what -- how to get out of this crisis.
FREIYou know, if you get involved does that strengthen, you know, the Islamist extremists who are already getting a stronger hand in Syria? If you don't get involved do you then suffer the retribution of not having done anything later down the line? If you don't get involved does Syria generally explode, disintegrate and become a sort of Balkans within the Middle East? I don't think anyone really knows the answer. There are no obvious solutions, not even semi-obvious solutions to all this.
FREIAnd I suspect that when the red line of chemical weapons was first imposed by the administration, those who did so kind of thought, this is one point which Assad himself, despite his destructive tendencies, will probably never reach because he's not a suicidal maniac. This is about the self preservation of his regime, his family and his tribe. Therefore, that's a red line we won't have to discuss. But as Elise said, maybe the Assad regime itself is inching ever closer to it to test the ground.
HIRSHYeah, you know, stepping back, this is really a demonstration of what the Obama Administration has done regarding the issue of humanitarian intervention. I mean, you recall in the 1990s in Bosnia, Kosovo there was slaughter going on and the U.S. did get involved. This is no less of a humanitarian challenge than those were and yet this administration coming after a decade of wars that Obama has said he wants to get the United States out of has just been obviously motivated to play down the severity of this. And I think that's one of the reasons that this debate is going on over chemical weapons now because are they simply trying to avoid the subject?
PAGESo given that mixed record, what is the Obama doctrine when it comes to when the United States will intervene and when it won't?
LABOTTIntervention, if it's quick, if it's easy, if the U.S. doesn't have to commit a lot of resources. You saw what it did in the Libya, the so called leading from behind where the French and the British and others took the lead. The U.S. just had to provide certain assets that they didn't have. That was kind of low-hanging fruit. They said that they were going in to prevent the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people.
LABOTTBasically the U.S. went into Libya to prevent exactly what is happening in Syria. But the U.S. realizes this is a much riskier proposition. It would require a lot more U.S. resources, perhaps a lot of blood and treasure. And there are no easy answers for Syria. And what the U.S. is doing is hoping against hope that these rebels are going to overtake the regime. They're getting arms from other places and the U.S. has some tacit knowledge of that. But at the same time, they're not doing anything to really help tip the balance.
LABOTTAnd so what really is going to happen is a lot of people think it'll just be a war of attrition for going on the...
HIRSHAnd look at the outcome in Libya. I mean, those who were reluctant to intervene and this new foreign policy team that's about to come in for Obama's second term, particularly Chuck Hagel who's nominated to be Secretary of Defense, are exactly the kind of people that counsel against these interventions. You know, the outcome in Libya is chaos, the rise of various violent Jihadist groups. And the terrible, you know, humiliation and anguish of the first U.S. Ambassador to be killed in action since 1979. So that's not exactly a highly, you know, motivating factor to get involved in Syria now.
FREIIt seems to me, I think you, Michael wrote in a piece recently that, you know, the trauma for Afghanistan is abandonment just as much as the trauma for America is 9/11. And, you know, every country has its own traumas. I think even if there's no obvious military solution to getting involved in Syria, the idea that the State Department or the Pentagon or whoever is not working hell for leather on cobbling together these various desperate opposition groups inside Syria, to at least say we've made a political investment in how this country's run in the future is horribly negligent. I mean, this is something that they will have to pay for eventually.
HIRSHAnd frankly, like Benghazi, this is a cloud that hangs over Hillary Clinton's tenure, I think, as Secretary of State as she is about to leave. It's something that she can't really escape.
PAGELet's go to the phone, invite some of our listeners to pose their questions or make their comments. Let's go first to San Antonio, Texas and talk to Moyed. Moyed, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MOYEDHi. Thank you for taking my call. I have a quick comment to make. And me as an American and African, a Muslim and a culturally Arab, I recommend that the United States either take one of two choices. Either to commit fully to the war and make it its own, and that could cause a lot of implications. Or stand back and be -- don't intervene partially because that would make the U.S. image look very weak. Or sometimes to the French it might look like (unintelligible) working so (unintelligible) .
PAGEAll right, Moyed. Thank you so much for your call. Elise.
LABOTTIs he talking about the -- is the caller talking about the war on Mali right now?
LABOTTI think that the U.S. doesn't want to get involved. It made it quite clear to the French that it didn't want to. It wanted the U.S. to -- they wanted the French to wait, go to the United Nations. Perhaps that could take almost nine months. I think now it's realizing that something needs to be done to stop these Islamist extremists from advancing, from spreading throughout North Africa. And that's in Europe's backyard.
LABOTTI don't think you're going to see a full on U.S. intervention. I think that they'll -- they know that the French are going in. They know that they need some kind of help. And they'll do as much -- as little as they can with the most effect that they can do.
FREII have to say, I mean, the Obama Administration -- we were talking earlier about how we describe the doctrine. And I guess the doctrine is stay at home but send drones when you can. And of course the drone policy has been extenuated, exacerbated, underpinned consistently in the last few years, ever since Obama came to power. And it is quite possible, thinking in practical terms here, that, you know, especially with large empty desert territory, that a couple of drones that make people like Mokhtar Belmokhtar look up at the sky more often than they want to might be quite effective.
FREIBut ultimately, you know, this is a patch. This is not a foreign policy. So there's only so much that the drones can do but I'm pretty sure that there will be more drones floating above that part of the Sahara Desert than there have been in the past.
PAGEWell, we know -- you mentioned Chuck Hagel's -- the nominee for -- to head the Pentagon, his skepticism about engagements in foreign wars. What do we know about John Cary's attitude toward that, Michael? Of course he's the nominee to be the new Secretary of State.
HIRSHWell, it's interesting because there is a real parallel to Hagel. I mean, Cary and Hagel, both Vietnam veterans, both have talked eloquently over the years about the lessons of Vietnam, which to them are not to get involved in conflicts unless you absolutely have to. And certainly to be thinking about the grunts, if you will, on the ground. The people who are going to be on the frontlines.
HIRSHAnd so you have two key cabinet members in national security who are both going to try to avoid military involvement. I mean, in Cary's case, the Secretary of State, I think you have someone who was described to me by one of his aids, is someone who's going to get on the plane and go out to negotiate when almost no one else will. And everyone says don't try because he really believes passionately in the need to avoid conflict.
HIRSHIn the case of Hagel you have someone who defies his own party over the Iraq invasion in terms of his skepticism on the way George W. Bush conducted the war on terror. One of the reasons he's having so much trouble now getting the votes for his confirmation. So I think this is really President Obama's way of saying, it's not just now, it's not just Mali and Syria. I plan to stay out of these fights in the future as well.
LABOTTDon't forget that John Cary went to Syria to try and negotiate with Bashar al-Assad for some kind of engagement with the Obama Administration. He, in the infancy of that engagement, called him a reformer. I think he was a little bit slow to come around to the fact that this is not going to be a reformer and was slow to react to the crackdown on the people. I think right now John Cary is a little ambivalent about Syria. On one hand he recognizes what's at stake, you know, about lives being lost. I think he's talked in some ways about arming some of the rebels. But I certainly don't think he's ready to advocate any kind of U.S. intervention.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're reading your emails. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to George. he's calling us from Huntington, Ind. George, you're on the air.
GEORGEGood morning. Recognizing I might be running contrary to human nature, I'm calling to question whether or not media might reconsider how eagerly and completely it identifies people such as the leader of this group that took hostages in Algeria and in a sense heroizing them or folk heroizing them. It seems to me that there are many such people, and perhaps gun violence people among them, who really seek that sort of public limelight. And if they could be dealt with in a more anonymous way that that perhaps might be a more fitting way to deal with them.
PAGEGeorge, that's such a thoughtful point. Matt, what do you think?
FREII think it's very thoughtful and I think it's a good point up to a point. We also want to know what goes on. We want to know -- we have to understand as journalists and the State Department analysts and anyone interested in this situation, especially the relatives of those who've been either killed or captured or are hiding someone that did it, why this happened. Why was it allowed to happen? Why it went wrong and what motivates the people who took hostages.
FREIAnd I think unless you understand the nature of this person, who I think we've named probably enough on the program, let me name him one more time, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It took me a day to get hold of the pronunciation so I'm going to use it now. But unless we understand what this guy's about -- and it is that sort of combination of, you know, kidnapping for ransom, for profit, and at the same time he's wedded, in a rather prickly way, to the Jihadist' cause, you're not going to get anywhere with these people.
FREII mean, you can't use a kind of blunt military instrument to put them out of business and nor can you just stand by the side and say, we don't understand what this is all about. Let's not get involved.
HIRSHYeah, his career is very unusual. he's kind of a lone terrorist and he is a terrorist. Let's not turn him into a folk hero. But it points up, you know, a larger issue about what's going on across the Arab world in the aftermath of this two-year-old so called Arab Spring. Which is you've had the rise of genuinely democratic movements that have produced Islamist results to a large extent. And we have to decide -- we being the United States of America, which of these Islamists we're going to deal with.
HIRSHFor example, the president of Egypt who comes out of the Muslim Brotherhood and has actually shown a willingness to negotiate and even to tacitly acknowledge Israel's existence, which would be a first for, you know, any Islamist leader, in the sense that he's agreeing to uphold the Israel Egypt peace treaty. So you have, you know, him on sort of one end of the spectrum. Although obviously there are questions about how committed he is to democracy right now.
HIRSHAnd on the other end of the spectrum you have these violent Jihadist groups that are arising out of nowhere, as in Mali. And, you know, we the West have to figure out how to deal with those. So it's an enormously complex and very new situation. And frankly, no one in the State Department or anywhere else has really figured out how to deal with it.
FREIYeah, and for fear of upsetting the caller one more time, it's interesting to go back into context with this. The reason why this chap went back to Algeria, having fought the Jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets with his mate Osama bin Laden, is that Algeria had its own civil war between a military government and the Islamic salvation front in its follows. And as you may remember the Islamic salvation front was the first party in a first genuinely free Arab election to actually win the first round of an election in a landslide. This was in 1992.
FREIAnd between the first and the second round of the elections we had a military coup. And it's because of that military coup that put the democracy experiment in Algeria, which is widely watched by the Arab world and of course in France -- neighboring France, on hold. People like this chap, now the unmentionable basically had a new cause to fight. So I think that it's worth -- the more we find out about this guy the more interesting it becomes and the more context we get. And surely that is good news for everyone.
LABOTTWell, and I think also the U.S. here has a kind of mixed message in terms of how -- as Michael was saying, how it -- whether it supports democracy in the region. If you're going to support a democratic election, yes a democracy does not -- election does not a democracy make. But you have to either respect the outcome or not be calling for democratic elections. And here in Algeria that is not a democracy. President Bouteflika has been in there what, for 40 years?
LABOTTAnd right now this is basically one of the most starwort U.S. allies in the region. The U.S. -- Secretary Clinton has been there twice in the last several months. There have been several visits to Washington. They're really working very hard with the Algerians right now.
PAGEElise Labott. She's CNN foreign affairs reporter. And we're also joined in the studio this hour by Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at National Journal and Matt Frei, Washington correspondent of the UK's Channel 4 News. We're going to take a short break and when we come back we'll talk about what's happening in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. We'll take some of your calls. We'll read some of your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEElise, the Supreme Court in Pakistan ordered the arrest of the prime minister. What's the charge?
LABOTTAh basically that the Prime Minister Ashraf took bribes years ago when he was the minister of water. The electricity problem in Pakistan is very great and so they rely a lot on these private projects so the question is, did he take bribes for certain projects?
LABOTTI find Pakistani politics so entertaining because, you know, it's like indictments of sitting officials. They don't have to give up their post while they're being indicted or even arrested and on trial. But basically what happens is, the question is this is all along the lines of whether the government of President Zardari is going to be able to make it through to the elections coming up in May that would presumably have a new government in place.
LABOTTAt the same time you have this Muslim cleric Tahir ul-Qadri who has come back from Canada to Pakistan, launched this great call for a revolution for early elections and all of this is putting a lot of pressure on the Zardari government to basically step down and put a caretaker government in place.
FREIIt's one of those extraordinary facts about Pakistan and there's no shortage of them, let's be honest that no civilian government has ever completed its term since the founding of the nation. And I should add by the way that Ashraf is not going to be arrested despite the orders of the Supreme Court because the anti-corruption commission of the government announced I think just this morning that actually they're going to drop.
FREIYou know, there's not enough evidence on which to arrest him. Having said that the man who was leading the investigation into Ashraf was also found hanging from a ceiling and is dead, committed suicide, a chap called Kamran Faisal. So it gets murkier and murkier.
FREIBut had he been arrested you would have had a current prime minister in jail on corruption charges and his predecessor, Prime Minister Gilani on trial this week or beginning of next week, also for corruption charges. He was the last prime minister to try and run this country.
FREIAnd the fact that this man Muhammad ul-Qadri, who Elise mentioned, who has no members of parliament, he promised a 'Million Man March' in the streets of Islamabad and it turned out to be a lot less than that mainly because of torrential rain. But the fact that this man with a relatively small movement was able to extract concessions from the government shows you that the fundamental problem here is an amazing brittleness and fluidity of the institutions of the state that should kind of know their place and should be running the country but are not.
FREIYou know when you've got a Supreme Court trying to arrest the prime minister, when you've got intelligence services working sometimes against the civilian government, sometimes not, when you've got these relatively spurious opposition movements of which, you know, were actually quite peaceful. I mean this was an amazing rally because it didn't end in a suicide bombing and that was deemed to be a huge success for Pakistani politics.
HIRSHIt's a measure of how dysfunctional Pakistan is right now that Matt was alluding to, come March the enormously unpopular President Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto who himself spent time in prison for graft may become the first elected civilian leader to actually complete his term.
HIRSHAnd people are so unwilling to get involved that even in a situation where previously you've almost always had some sort of military coup the current army chief of staff has, you know, sworn to stay out of civilian government. So it's almost become an ungovernable situation.
LABOTTBut the question is, are the generals, is the army working behind the scenes? Some people think that this Chief Justice Chaudhry is in cahoots with the military trying to unseat the civilian government. It's basically harder to get rid of a new government that comes in than President Zardari because he is known for so much corruption and is losing a lot of popularity.
LABOTTAnd the question is, is this Mr. ul-Qadri also in cahoots with the government, with the army? A lot of times in Pakistan while there is this democratic process in the end the army is always in the shadows and there's always this fear in Pakistan that I think leads to a lot of tensions in the country about whether the army is going to launch another coup because as we've just said it's been a very long time since a democratically-elected government finished its term.
FREIIn fact ul-Qadri supported the coup that brought Musharraf to power in 1999 so he's got pretty. But I just want to tell you a quick anecdote that kind of illustrates what Elise was saying.
FREII was in Pakistan a few years ago and I got an interview with President Zardari and I remembered prepping for the interview and talking to a senior Western intelligence official. And I said, you know, what do you think I should ask him? And this is after the death of his estranged, now late-wife Benazir Bhutto who was killed on her return to Pakistan.
FREIAnd he said, the one question I'd really like to know is, did you kill your own wife? Did you have her killed? And I mean it's just...
PAGESo did you ask that question?
FREI...he wasn't entirely joking.
FREIThey cancelled the interview the day before it was supposed to take place. Perhaps they got wind of the question.
HIRSHI should just add that the reason this is interesting or important to Americans is that the U.S. and NATO and the (word?) countries are now undergoing a major drawdown next door in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and particularly Pakistan or ISI, that its intelligence service supported jihadist elements across the border in the northwest territory region are continuing to be the chief obstacle to stability in Afghanistan.
HIRSHAnd so the fact that this country, that is Pakistan, is so ungovernable right now is of enormous concern to the U.S.
PAGELet's talk for a moment about what happened in Afghanistan this week. We saw Taliban militants attack the headquarters of the Afghan intelligence agency on Wednesday, not the first time we've seen these kinds of attacks. Elise?
LABOTTNo and in fact there were a lot of attacks recently on the NDS, the National Directive of Security in recent months because of its renewed crackdown against the Taliban and against extremists. And it basically just adds to all these questions about whether Afghan forces are going to be ready to have a handover of all security responsibility and lead, come later this year.
LABOTTPresident Karzai was recently in Washington trying to talk to the U.S. about how long there could be a U.S. presence in Afghanistan and that's a very big question because one of these big attacks, this last that you mentioned, was in the so-called Kabul security zone and it just raises questions about the Taliban's continued access to these areas.
PAGEWe know that President Obama is now considering whether U.S. troops will continue to be deployed in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of most combat troops or how many would be there. Matt, what's your sense of where that decision stands and what he is likely to do?
FREII think a lot of it depends on how the transition period goes in the next few months and the next year. There's no way they could, having talked about abandonment and the phobia of it in Afghanistan, I don't think there can be complete abandonment if the place disintegrates totally in the next few months.
FREIAnd maybe this is a dilemma which the Taliban are trying to create for this administration. But I think if you're going to see troops left behind, I would have thought the number was going to be in the thousands, not tens of thousands. This is something which is entirely within, consistent within what they've been saying in the past and within keeping of this sort of relatively light, if I can call it, footprint that the Obama administration wants to have around the world but a footprint nonetheless. That's more of a toehold than a foothold.
HIRSHYeah, I mean, there's a general sense in the Obama administration that the counterinsurgency strategy or nation-building, whatever you want to call it, has been, at best, only marginally successful. I think the president is kind of where his Vice President Joe Biden was in this debate in 2009. Biden was one of those who wanted to keep a very minimal footprint. I mean that's kind of where they're headed.
HIRSHAt the same time, Obama has made a ten-year commitment after 2014 toward cooperation, a strategic agreement which involves a lot of aid and I think one of the real questions and this comes back to Pakistan is, you know, where is the diplomatic vision for this region?
HIRSHYou have this enormously comprehensive military alliance there, 28 NATO countries, 22 non-NATO countries that have been involved many of whom have lost soldiers in this conflict to Pakistan-supported insurgents. So the question is, you know, where is this sort of concerted diplomatic vision? To put the pressure on Pakistan you need to, and to deal with long-term prospects for Afghanistan.
PAGEAnd we have an email from Anita who is writing us from Indiana, from Mishawaka. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. She writes: ''Your commentators are presenting conclusions based on an unspoken foreign policy goal. What is your foreign policy goal? Is it carrying democracy to the Middle East? Is it a duty to intervene? Is it supporting NATO allies? Is it protecting U.S. citizens working abroad?''
PAGE"Your answer helps to determine what action should be taken by the administration." Has the administration answered that question, Elise?
LABOTTAll of the above...
FREIIn different degrees...
LABOTTAnd in different times and in different degrees, I don't think they really know. They say that they have these longer goals. The idea is that if you have a democratic country, if you have a country that has values and institutions and governance that this will be a stable country and that this will promote stability in the Middle East.
LABOTTBut what they find is, and we've talked about this in Algeria for instance, dictatorship, authoritarian governments sometimes are the most stable and when you look at countries, you know, there are a lot of questions about what President Morsi is doing in Egypt with the constitution.
LABOTTEven though the U.S. has said it has concerns, at the end of the day they want someone who is going to be able to control their country.
FREII think if one thing we've learnt, I'm sorry...
HIRSHNo, I was just going to say, I think, the Obama administration's unspoken goal can be summed up in four words, keep the lid on. Basically all of these situations, from Afghanistan to Algeria, to post-conflict Libya are situations that are so difficult, in which, you know, this is not an administration that's doing, you know, promoting democracy very much, certainly not doing nation-building. It's like keep it from becoming too bad a mess.
FREII think if there's one thing we've learned about Obama and the way he handles these things is that he's profoundly pragmatic and as a profound pragmatist the less you can opine about a doctrine or you make that doctrine obvious the way that George W. Bush did, the less you will be judged against the failure to deliver it.
FREIAnd I think that's, the reason why they're quite reticent about what they want to do, why their actions often speak louder than their words is that I think that they've realized that words in this extremely messy world where you have bespoke foreign policy for each country, you know, is just the right way to go about it.
LABOTTAnd I think that the doctrine is, we were talking about this a little bit in the previous hour is, look inward. The United States has so many domestic challenges, so many economic challenges and the president has so many other priorities, the fiscal cliff, immigration, the war on guns right now. I think that the administration wants to have as few entanglements around the world as possible.
LABOTTIt'll help out while it can but it really is looking for other countries to take more of a lead, the so-called leading from behind. The U.S. can't lead everywhere and doesn't, wants to, not say that it won't lead anywhere but it doesn't really want to have to commit too many resources that could be used to rebuild America.
PAGEAnd in fact perhaps what may be seen as the most consequential actions of the Obama administration foreign policy could be not being involved in places but withdrawing from two wars.
HIRSHAnd ratcheting up the drone program dramatically...
PAGEYes, right. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Tondi. He's calling us from Charlotte, N.C. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
TONDIHow are you doing today?
TONDIMy question is with the instability that we have in North Africa now, Libya, Algeria and Mali. How much of this can be attributed to the power vacuum that was left after Gaddafi was toppled? And in retrospect why was getting out of power such a wise decision?
PAGEIt goes to the unintended consequences of actions. What do you think Matt?
FREII think, you know, the cliche was always that Libya implodes and Syria explodes. Well, clearly Libya has also exploded a little bit and that's how we see, you know, its impact on the Sahel region, the fact that there's a degree of lawlessness there and people like the unmentionable one can operate quite freely in that country.
FREIYeah, this is a problem. But then look at Algeria, as we've also talked about on the program, Algeria is a fairly coherent national state with a, you know, run by an iron-fisted military that's been in charge for decades and there's been very little internal dissent since the end of their own civil war at the end of the 1990s.
FREISo again, you know, the Arab Spring has moved the furniture in that part of the world. It has created an awful lot of insecurity and complexity but this is the region that you have. You have to deal with that reality on the ground.
LABOTTAnd this is also the dilemma that the U.S. faces that we've been talking about. They say they don't want to promote democracy. They say they don't want to nation-build. But if you have a country that is lawless, that doesn't have a strong government, in Mali, in Somalia, in Libya. This is where extremists are able to flourish, are able to recruit, have a safe haven and they can operate to spread their instability to more, to other countries.
PAGEWe started the hour talking about the situation in Algeria and Mali and you know people who listen to the show week after week, those are not countries we have been talking about in the past. And I wonder should Americans now be prepared to have continuing attention to what is happening in those new countries?
LABOTTI think that if this is going to be the modus operandi of these Islamic groups, that you don't, you're not going to, maybe you, as the U.S. hardens in the West, hardens its targets and embassies and consulates in the wake of the Benghazi attack they could be going to soft targets. You have thousands of companies in North Africa operating, that the U.S. is saying to them, harden your security right now because they feel that this is what Islamic extremists are going to be going after, Western interests, U.S. citizens in these regions.
PAGEWell our thoughts are with the American hostages and the other hostages being held, who were captured there and we hope their situation resolves itself in a good way. Matt, we had expected to talk today about a speech by Prime Minister David Cameron. This morning he cancelled it because of these crises. What was he going to say?
FREIWell, the prime minister was going to go to Amsterdam and talk about Britain's relationship with Europe which is a little bit like a sort of long-running Milton Boone saga about a dysfunctional marriage or a troubled romance.
FREIAnd he was going to set straight once and for all that Britain's best interest is not to quit the EU altogether but to stay in the European Union but not as part member of the European monetary unit so they wouldn't adopt the euro which no one really wants in the EU anyway for obvious reasons but that they would not disengage completely.
FREIAnd, I mean you could hear the audible sighs of relief in London as the prime minister was far more dramatic about this crisis than his counterparts were in this country. I mean here it was all fairly sort of low key but the prime minister went on the record yesterday and said this is extremely serious. We have to expect some bad news therefore I'm going to cancel this speech.
FREIAnd I think this is a speech that no British prime minister from the Tory Party ever wants to give but every British prime minister from the Tory Party ends up having to give because the Conservatives are deeply split between their head which tells them that being members of Europe in one form or another is good for business and their gut that tells them that the closer you nudge up to the European Union, within the European Union the more you're going to have this sovereign island run by Brussels.
PAGESo will he give the speech at a later point?
FREIOh, he'll have to. It's so widely announced that he'll have to give the speech but we can sort of guess what he's going to say in it and the question is what happens then and does this exacerbate the splits within his own party?
PAGEMatt Frei from the U.K.'s Channel 4 News, Elise Labott from CNN, Michael Hirsh from National Journal, thanks for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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