Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The New Yorker

 Mandela's Dream for South Africa Is in Ruins

On June 16, 1976, thousands of Black South African children poured out of their classrooms to peacefully protest the government’s decision to forcibly teach them in Afrikaans, the language of Dutch settlers. As a young foreign correspondent, I covered the chaos as police fired noxious plumes of tear gas and then live bullets at the kids in Soweto, an impoverished Black township outside Johannesburg. The children’s courage, amid poverty and political depravity embedded in national laws, was stunning. This month, South Africa witnessed the worst violence since the end of the apartheid era. Hundreds died; 40,000 business were vandalized or burned. The government eventually had to deploy 25,000 troops to contain the violence around Durban, the port, Johannesburg, the financial hub, and Pretoria, the capital. “It almost brought our country to its knees," a cabinet minister, said. Tragically, South Africa is today among the world’s most unequal countries, the World Bank reported in March. Inequality has only worsened since apartheid formally ended in 1994. Riddled with corruption, divided politically, unsettled by deadly turmoil, and overcome by the pandemic, the state is increasingly unable to address its people’s woes. South Africa teeters. Read on...

Monday, July 19, 2021

The New Yorker

Iran's Hollywood Kidnapping Plot Exposes Its Paranoia

At first, Masih Alinejad didn’t believe the F.B.I. The Iranian-born journalist and activist thought that she was safe after going into exile, in 2009, even as government propaganda continued to target her from afar. State television variously reported that she was a drug addict and accused her of being a spy for Western governments. Her parents and siblings, who remained in Iran, were harassed, threatened with loss of employment, and instructed to lure Alinejad to neighboring Turkey for a “family reunion,” so that agents could supposedly “just talk” to her. “Stalin would have been proud,” Alinejad recounted. Her brother, Alireza, warned her about a potential trap. In 2019, he was arrested, and the next year he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He remains in jail.

Yet the warning from the F.B.I., late last year, struck Alinejad—who now has five million followers on Instagram, a million on her Facebook campaign against compulsory hijab, and a show on the Voice of America’s Persian-language service—as too bizarre even for the Islamic Republic. In September, F.B.I. agents showed up at her home in Brooklyn, where she was living with her husband and stepchildren, to report that they had uncovered a plot by Iranian intelligence to kidnap or kill her. “My first reaction was laughing. I was making a joke,” she told me. “I told them, ‘I’m used to it. I received death threats daily on social media.’ ” The agents then revealed that private investigators, allegedly hired by an Iranian intelligence network, had been closely surveilling her for months. They showed her photographs that the operatives had taken of her hourly movements, and also pictures of her family, friends, visitors, home, and even the cars in her neighborhood. “When I saw my photos—they even took pictures of my stepson—I was shocked. I got goosebumps. He’s fourteen,” she said. She agreed to go to a safe house—first one, then another, then a third, over several months. It was the beginning of a series of traumas that included separation from her stepchildren, helping the F.B.I. agents create traps for the Iranian network, and the demise of her unwatered houseplants. Read on...

Friday, April 9, 2021

The New Yorker

 Why It's So Hard For America to End Its Wars

For millennia, politicians, from Cicero to Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon, have opined about “peace with honor” to end military engagements; writers, from Shakespeare and Edmund Burke to A. A. Milne, have waxed eloquent on the challenges. Biden is the fourth President to try to achieve it in the Middle East and South Asia in the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of debate in Washington about what he should do—and whether the U.S. should simply pack up and pull out of the region, which is what it did in Vietnam, in 1973, and in Lebanon, in 1984, under pressure from ragtag militias with vintage weaponry who were better strategists and willing to sacrifice more lives. With the pivot to Asia—a.k.a. China—and American energy independence, why stay longer? From a distance, it’s appealing; from the ground, it’s a more challenging call.

For Biden, his legacy could be either of two extremes—a President who finally extricated America from quagmires in the messy Middle East, or a leader who ceded ground to isis jihadis and the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria, Sunni extremists and well-armed Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not to mention Russia, which now has access to bases on the Mediterranean, in Syria, and in Libya, farther west than it’s ever been. Biden’s legacy will shape America’s legacy, too. Read on....

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The New Yorker

 On Afghanistan, An Anguishing Choice about Withdrawing Troops

Five factors will influence the U.S. role and the prospects for peace after two decades of war.

By Robin Wright 

There’s a prophetic scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the film that chronicles a flamboyant Texas congressman (played by Tom Hanks) and a rogue C.I.A. agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mobilizing what was then the largest U.S. covert intelligence operation in history. Operation Cyclone facilitated the training, arming, and empowering of the Afghan mujahideen—holy warriors—to fight the Soviet Union in the nineteen-eighties. America’s proxies prevailed, in the sense that the Soviets realized that their decade-long presence had become too costly—financially, politically, and militarily—and that they couldn’t achieve their goals. “What, are we going to sit there forever?” the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly told the Politburo in 1986. “Or should we be ending this war? Otherwise, we’ll disgrace ourselves in every respect.” In 1989, after losing more than fourteen thousand troops and spending at least fifty billion dollars, the Soviets withdrew. They just wanted out of an unpopular war. Afghanistan soon collapsed into a civil war that pitted rival warlords against one another, until the Taliban seized power, in 1996, imposed strict Islamic law, and welcomed other jihadis such as Al Qaeda. After Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001, U.S. forces helped their Afghan allies to topple the Taliban. A new U.S.-backed government was ensconced in Kabul.

Two decades later, Joe Biden now faces an anguishing choice over whether to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st. The deadline is part of an agreement brokered by the Trump Administration with the Taliban a year ago. Like Gorbachev, Biden clearly wants to go—and has, for more than a decade. In 2010, when he was Vice-President, he promised a pullout. “We’re starting it in July of 2011, and we’re going to be totally out of there—come hell or high water—by 2014,” Biden vowed, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Last year, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote, “It is past time to end the forever wars.” Recent polls indicate that Americans are largely ambivalent about or uninterested in Afghanistan; twenty to thirty per cent of respondents in recent surveys didn’t even bother to answer about a pullout. The national fury spurred by the trauma of the 9/11 attacks has evaporated.

Yet walking away isn’t so easy. Even after an investment of more than a trillion dollars, the U.S. hasn’t fully achieved the goals of its longest war, either. Navigating a way out—especially securing a comprehensive peace agreement—is proving to be messy and potentially deadly, too. In an interview with ABC News last week, Biden conceded that it may be “tough” to withdraw. He has no good choices; neither does the U.S. military, which has reduced troop levels from fifteen thousand when the U.S.-Taliban pact was signed a year ago to around three thousand today. If American troops withdraw, almost ten thousand nato troops from thirty-six nations and more than twenty-four thousand contractors who support the Afghan state and military are almost certain to leave, too.

On a rainy day in Kabul last week, the military headquarters of U.S. and nato troops in Afghanistan was a spooky place. You have to take a military helicopter from the airport to the nearby compound because driving is unsafe. The complex is surrounded by layers of concrete blast walls topped with barbed wire. Haunting murals adorn the barricades. One features a giant painting of a woman in uniform captioned, in black stencilled letters, “afghan female police a force for good.” Another advertises the Invictus Games, for wounded warriors. More than a hundred thousand Afghans, twenty-three hundred Americans, and hundreds of soldiers from nato countries have died in the twenty-year conflict; another twenty thousand Americans have been injured.

Biden’s decision will be influenced by five factors, according to current and former U.S. officials whom I interviewed in Afghanistan and the United States. The first is whether frantic last-ditch diplomacy will salvage peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As the U.S. deadline to withdraw approaches, the Administration is throwing spaghetti at the diplomatic wall to see if anything will stick. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a blunt letter to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, demanding that he “understand the urgency of my tone,” and calling for his “urgent leadership.” The peace talks, hosted by Qatar, have deadlocked since they started in September of last year as a sequel to the U.S. deal with the Taliban that February. In a new set of proposals, Blinken recommended creating an interim government in which the Taliban and current Afghan leaders share power. It sounded more like an ultimatum than a proposal.

Read on....History is at stake!

Friday, February 5, 2021

The New Yorker

The World Likes Biden But Doubts the U.S. Can Reclaim Global Leadership

 Joe Biden’s “first love,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, mused this week, “is foreign policy.” His lifelong interest showed on Thursday when the President, just two weeks in office, addressed the world from the State Department, on his first foray to a federal agency. President Trump only ventured the five blocks to the State Department once, in 2018, sixteen months after taking office, and only for the ceremonial swearing-in of Mike Pompeo, his second Secretary of State. Biden’s speech marked the beginning of his long schlep to repair America’s place in the world after Trump. “America is back,” Biden vowed. “We are a country that does big things. American diplomacy makes it happen. And our Administration is ready to take up the mantle and lead once again.”

But noble goals and principled intentions alone won’t solve the problem of America’s depleted international standing. The world likes Joe Biden but doubts whether America can reclaim its global leadership role. Read on....

Friday, January 22, 2021

The New Yorker

 The Awe and Anguish of Being an American Today

The lofty language and political togetherness of Joe Biden’s Inauguration made for a day to believe, again, in America and the idea of sharing power, even among people who disagree about almost everything. Listening to the enchanting young poet Amanda Gorman, I got a little weepy as she told us, “While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust.” Lady Gaga’s powerful rendition of our anthem—pounding home the line “Our flag was still there”—was as relevant to the treasonous challenge to Congress this month as it was when British warships bombarded Fort McHenry, in 1814. On the very site of an insurrection that, two weeks earlier, threatened our union and resulted in five deaths, Joe Biden, our new President, promised that “democracy has prevailed.” His optimistic energy was infectious.

The problem, after any Inauguration, is all those other days. We need to be honest with ourselves about the health of our democracy. America has made gradual progress, no doubt. We are evolving, albeit with millions still denying the election results. On Wednesday, a woman born to Black and South Asian parents took the oath of office for the Vice-Presidency from a Latina Supreme Court Justice, another woman. “We dream. We shoot for the moon,” Kamala Harris said on Wednesday night. “We are undaunted in our belief that we will overcome.” Others will surely feel the same way. Biden has appointed the most diverse staff in history—men and a record number of women; Blacks, whites, and a Native American; a gay man and a transgender woman—who finally represent the splendid diversity of our land.

Yet we are still vulnerable to the selfish and voracious demands by many for more rights than others who are legally their equals. And to the belief in an alternative truth untethered to reality. During this sacred transition, some twenty-five thousand troops were deployed in my beloved Washington, D.C., in concentric circles, in an area of only five square miles—four times as many personnel as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined. On Inauguration Day, there was still spray paint on the Capitol’s marble columns—“A chilling reminder of what happened there just two weeks ago,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told NPR. Amid the calls to mend fences, the most striking images of the day were new fences, topped with prickly barbed wire, which prevented the public from participating in the celebration of their votes. Read on....

Monday, January 18, 2021

The New Yorker

 Biden Faces More Aggressive Rivals and a Fraying World Order

In a recent conversation, Sir John Scarlett, the elegant former spymaster of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or M.I.6, pondered the foreign-policy challenges facing Joe Biden when he enters the White House—and the jarring differences since he left it four years ago. The bottom line, Scarlett told me, is that America’s adversaries are now “more assertive, aggressive, and self-confident.” Many of the threats were building in 2017, but they have escalated exponentially. As Biden returns to power in 2021, the variety and depth of hazards facing the United States—from nations and non-state militias, jihadi terrorists, drug lords, criminal syndicates, and hackers—are greater than at any time since the U.S. became a superpower after the Second World War.

From the beginning of the republic, not one of America’s forty-five previous Presidents has had it easy when he took office. Poor George Washington had to create the Presidency in a war-ravaged nation that was little more than a political experiment with limited financial resources, raging feuds among the Founding Fathers, and no international presence. America was so polarized when Abraham Lincoln took office that South Carolina had already seceded, and Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon followed. Woodrow Wilson simultaneously faced the First World War and the influenza pandemic, which killed more than a half million Americans and almost felled him, too. Franklin Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression and was then confronted by the Second World War.
Biden inherits a mess on both the domestic and international fronts, compounded by a pandemic that has produced mass death, rampant unemployment, and a global economic crisis. Read on....

Friday, January 8, 2021

The New Yorker

 The World Shook as America Raged

One of the darkest days in American history played out in a barely two-square-mile area, but it rippled across the globe. Authoritarian leaders were gleeful about the chaos in the world’s most powerful democracy. As armed insurrectionists, white supremacists, and rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela—a failing state with rival claims to the Presidency, and shortages of power, food, and medicine—tweeted a warning about political polarization in the United States. With more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, Jorge Arreaza wished Americans well in finding “a new path towards stability and social justice.”

Officials in Turkey, which has witnessed a dramatic erosion of democracy amid arrests of dissidents and journalists, called on all parties in Washington “to maintain restraint and prudence”—and then warned its own citizens in the United States to avoid crowded places. Iranian state television ran live coverage of the chaos at the Capitol, with a running ticker underneath, as Hossein Dehghan, a former Revolutionary Guard and a Presidential candidate in the upcoming June election, tweeted, “The world is watching the American dream.” The Russian deputy U.N. Ambassador compared the turmoil in Washington, D.C., to the 2014 protests in Kyiv that toppled the Ukrainian government. On social media platforms like Telegram, supporters of isis and Al Qaeda celebrated the turmoil in the United States. An isis publication predicted that America would be consumed with turmoil for the next four years.

America’s allies were also appalled—and posted their own undiplomatic admonitions on social media. Boris Johnson, a long-standing ally and personal friend of Donald Trump’s, chastised the President. “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol,” he said. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted that “the American people’s will and vote must be respected.” In a tweet, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, condemned the “shocking” scenes out of Washington. “We must call this out for what it is: a deliberate assault on Democracy by a sitting President & his supporters, attempting to overturn a free & fair election! The world is watching!” Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, appealed directly to the President. “Dear Donald Trump, recognise Joe Biden as the next president today.”

Worldwide, the broader question was about the impact on the credibility of liberal democracy if it could produce such turmoil in a country known for its strong institutions, laws, and checks and balances. Read on....

Monday, January 4, 2021

The New Yorker

 Biden Faces a Minefield in New Diplomacy with Iran

By Robin Wright
Joe Biden knows Iran better than any American President since its 1979 revolution. He has personally dealt with its top officials—a few of them for decades. “When I was Iran’s representative to the U.N., I had several meetings with Biden,” the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarifacknowledged after the U.S. election, in an interview with Entekhab, a Tehran publication. The two aren’t exactly friends. Their meetings “can be described as professional relations based on mutual respect,” Zarif said. But Biden does have the Iranian’s personal e-mail address, as well as his cell-phone number.
As one of his first acts on foreign policy, Biden wants to renew diplomacy with the Islamic Republic—and reŃ‘nter the nuclear accord that President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden wrote, in an essay for CNN, in September. Yet the President-elect already faces a minefield over basic issues—such as, what exactly is “compliance”? Who moves first? And how? And what about all those other flash points not in the 2015 accord—Iran’s growing array of missiles, its proxy militias and political meddling, which have extended Tehran’s influence across the Middle East, and the regime’s flagrant human-rights abuses?
After Biden is inaugurated, he will have only a sliver of time—six to eight weeks—to jump-start the process before the political calendar in Iran threatens to derail potential diplomacy over the nuclear deal, Read on....