TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s Mission Creep in Iraq

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US President Barack Obama speaks about the US involvement in Iraq, as well as the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, August 18, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

For George W. Bush it was "Mission Accomplished." For Barack Obama, it may be "mission creep."

In 2003, George W. Bush was too quick to declare that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” In 2014, Barack Obama may be too slow to admit that they are just beginning.

On Monday, President Obama boasted to White House reporters that U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi forces reclaim the Mosul Dam, which Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters captured in early August. That was great news. A dam breach — from sabotage or poor maintenance — could have drowned thousands and even flooded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But it was not an objective Obama had publicly mentioned before, even though ISIS had controlled the dam for two weeks. Does Obama worry about “mission creep,” asked a Reuters correspondent? No way, Obama said. “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to re-engage in combat,” the President said.

“Typically what happens with mission creep is we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Obama added.

Of course, mission creep doesn’t have to mean a huge ground force, or going it alone. (America became mired in Vietnam while fighting in tandem with South Vietnamese forces.) It can simply mean expanding goals that lead to an unexpectedly large military campaign. And we’re already seeing signs of that in Iraq.

Rewind to August 7, when Obama spoke in prime time to announce his first airstrikes in Iraq. He described two limited and discrete operations. One was “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel” in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which ISIS was threatening to capture. The other was a humanitarian mission to save thousands of Yazidi civilians trapped by ISIS on a mountain and facing what Obama called “an act of genocide.”

Obama can check those boxes: A Kurdish counteroffensive backed by the U.S. and Baghdad has driven ISIS away from Erbil. As for the Yezidis, Obama said on Friday that “the situation on the mountain has greatly improved” thanks to U.S. efforts, and that most have escaped to safety.

But then another item was quietly added to the to-do list: the Mosul Dam. Announced with little fanfare by a Sunday White House statement, the operation entailed 35 airstrikes on ISIS positions in the area.

On Monday Obama justified that action as “directly tied to our objective of protecting Americans in Iraq,” because a dam breach would have “endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad.”

Never mind that Baghdad is more than 250 miles south of Mosul, presumably allowing time for a relocation or evacuation of U.S. personnel. It’s hard to fault a casualty-free operation that might have averted a catastrophe — and killed some ISIS fanatics along the way.

The worry is that Obama’s rationale of “protecting Americans in Iraq” can be stretched to justify almost any kind of military action — especially now that he has more than doubled the U.S. presence in Iraq to nearly 2000 personnel since June. (A key stage of mission creep in Vietnam involved sending troops to protect U.S. air bases in that country.)

But Obama has given himself even broader license than that. When he announced the dispatch of 300 military advisors to Iraq back on June 19, Obama wrote himself something like a blank check.

“[W]e will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action,” Obama said, “if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

That language covers even more action that Obama’s protect-Americans vow. ISIS is little too close to Baghdad? Boom. Intel about suicide bombers eyeing Erbil? Boom. Imminent slaughter somewhere? Boom, boom, boom.

You can support all those actions and still find Obama’s explanations a little cloudy. After all, Obama has promised “limited” military action before — only to shatter those limits. In March 2011, Obama said he was ordering airstrikes in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by regime forces in Benghazi. The ensuing air campaign lasted for seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties by a multinational coalition.

Could we be at the start of something similar? The Pentagon says the U.S. has already conducted 68 airstrikes in Iraq since August 8, and Obama is talking about more assistance for the new government forming in Baghdad.

Fortunately for Obama, the public isn’t creeped out just yet. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of his airstrikes so far, according to an August 18 Pew Research Center-USA Today poll.

But that support may be fragile. Pew also found that 51 percent of Americans worry Obama “will go too far getting involved in the situation.”

Obama’s vow not to commit ground troops to combat will help maintain political support. Still, that number could grow — especially if he doesn’t explain clearly how his mission can be neither accomplished nor creeping.

TIME National Security

Experts Warn of Terrorism Blowback From Iraq Air Strikes

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Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes with ISIS militants on August 9, 2014 Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has long threatened America openly — will Obama's strikes inspire it to act?

The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.

President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.

ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.

The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.

“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”

Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.

“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”

Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”

Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.

But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.

“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.

At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.

“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”

“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”

TIME Foreign Policy

How Obama Evolved on the Issue of ‘Genocide’ in Iraq

President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington.
President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department following the U.S. -Africa Summit in Washington, Aug. 6, 2014. Doug Mills—The New York Times

Hard choices for a gun-shy President

As a first-time presidential candidate in 2007, Barack Obama built his campaign around a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Nothing could shake him from his plan to end what he called a “dumb” war. At a New Hampshire campaign stop that July, Obama was asked whether he might delay a pullout if it meant preventing outright genocide in Iraq.

No, Obama said. “[If] that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done.”

Almost exactly seven years later, Obama has ordered military action in Iraq “to prevent a potential act of genocide,” as he put it in his public remarks Thursday night.

For now, that action will consist of airlifting supplies to thousands of members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious sect, trapped atop a mountain and surrounded by the fanatical Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). But it could also include air strikes against those ISIS fighters.

Did Obama flip-flop on a matter as serious as genocide? That would be too glib a conclusion. Seven years after Obama’s comments in New Hampshire, Iraq is a different place. The U.S. Army is long gone, and taking action there doesn’t prolong an ongoing occupation. Nor is Obama ordering anything like a reinvasion of the country. He has authorized — though not yet specifically ordered — only limited strikes against ISIS fighters in the region. “We are not launching a sustained US campaign against [ISIS] here,” a senior Administration official told reporters Thursday night.

What’s more, Obama’s new urgency, while framed mainly in humanitarian terms, is about something broader. Obama is also prepared to use air strikes to prevent Sunni militants from storming the Kurdish capital of Erbil — a vital city to an important regional ally, and one the U.S. would protect even if dozens of U.S. diplomats and military advisers were not stationed there. If Obama decides to strike at ISIS, then, he’ll have strategic and national security reasons, as well as humanitarian ones, to do so.

But even if Obama did act solely to protect the Yazidi, that would be consistent with the quasi doctrine for humanitarian action he described when he ordered air strikes in Libya in March 2011. The Libya intervention may now be remembered mainly for the long NATO air campaign that eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi. But remember that Obama justified acting not to end Gaddafi’s regime, but to protect the people of Benghazi from impending slaughter — “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world” — at the hands of Gaddafi forces who had encircled the city. (It is a particularly bitter irony for Obama that Benghazi is now synonymous with tragedy and scandal, and not the rescue of thousands of innocent lives.)

In announcing his Libya action, Obama explained that the U.S. can’t intervene everywhere something awful is happening. But, he argued, the U.S. should intervene in those cases where limited military action is likely to save many lives with low risks:

It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

Mount Sinjar today has much in common with the Benghazi of 2011. The U.S. can act in a limited way to prevent a great atrocity (and, in this case, with the support of the national government — which the senior Obama official says would give any air strikes legitimacy under international law).

Why not Syria? Or for that matter the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Central African Republic, or anywhere else that innocents are dying every day? Because, Obama would surely say, the nature of those conflicts make limited U.S. intervention with clear and achievable goals impossible.

In his 2007 comments about genocide, Obama at least seemed to imply that, because the U.S. can’t prevent slaughter everywhere, it shouldn’t take humanitarian action anywhere. But as President he has adopted a different point, first in Libya and now in Iraq: Just because we intervene in some places doesn’t mean we have to intervene everywhere.

That doesn’t make for a very tidy doctrine. Nor will it console the miserable people of Syria. But it will bring jubilation to the terrified thousands on Mount Sinjar, for whom salvation is now coming.

TIME Israel

Israelis Unhappy to See World-Class Military ‘Surprised’ Again

An Israeli soldier prays next to Merkava tanks at an unspecified location near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, Aug. 6, 2014.
An Israeli soldier prays next to Merkava tanks at an unspecified location near the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, Aug. 6, 2014. Abir Sultan—EPA

A high Israeli troop death toll in Gaza, with inconclusive results, reminds some of a "severe sense of failure" after a 2006 ground war

Updated 10:42 a.m. E.T. on Aug. 7

Israel’s military can be fearsomely destructive. From the day in July 1967 when Israeli planes preempted an Egyptian attack by destroying Cairo’s air force on the ground, to surgical airstrikes on nuclear reactor projects in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, the Israel Defense Forces have displayed crack intelligence and technical skill.

So why does Israel keep getting caught by surprise when it fights ground wars against its neighboring enemies?

Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza over the past three weeks—more than six times the 10 lost in Israel’s 2008 incursion into the Palestinian territory. The Gaza incursion “revealed worrisome shortcomings in the Israel Defense Forces in battle readiness and management,” the Israeli daily Haaretz laments. The chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is vowing to investigate both diplomatic and military failures, including the use of a poorly-armored personnel carrier in which seven Israeli soldiers were killed by a single missile last month. Military experts also say the IDF was generally “operating from an old playbook and [was] not fully prepared for a more sophisticated, battle-ready adversary.”

Other Israeli politicians are also asking “why the extent of the Hamas tunnel system into Israel was either not known or not prepared for better,” the New York Times reports, which adds that the tunnels were “a psychological and tactical surprise.”

Israelis may be angry and frustrated. But they shouldn’t be shocked. Israel has been here before.

Eight years ago, Israel mounted a ground offensive against Hizballah in southern Lebanon. In that operation, Israeli soldiers discovered that the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group came equipped with sophisticated weapons, training and tactics. “They are trained and highly qualified,” an Israeli soldier told the Times that year. “All of us were kind of surprised.” Israel lost 121 soldiers in that conflict, widely considered a failure that produced months of soul-searching within the country’s leadership.

Lo and behold, many of the dynamics from Lebanon in 2006 also apply to the fight in Gaza, which remains on hold at least for now under a cease-fire agreement. Israel was fighting to stop Hizballah rocket fire into its territory; the IDF’s incursion killed more than one thousand civilians; and Hizballah skillfully publicized those innocent deaths to damage Israel’s world image.

And the unhappy parallels may continue: Israel had hoped the 2006 offensive would wipe out Hizballah’s rocket arsenal and lead to a demilitarization of southern Lebanon. It didn’t happen. Seven years later, the IDF estimates Hizballah’s arsenal at a staggering 60,000 rockets. While there’s talk now of a long-term cease-fire deal that will disarm Hamas, many Israelis are understandably skeptical.

“Hamas was not defeated; the organization will remain in power in Gaza and the key partner in any future agreement. If the cease-fire leads to a lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip, Hamas may consider the heavy price worthwhile,” writes Amos Harel in Haaretz. Even so, he argues, “[t]he second-guessing now underway in Israel now “does not resemble the severe sense of failure after the Second Lebanon War.” But as Harel notes, that could change depending on what kind of lasting cease-fire deal emerges from current negotiations.

An Israeli government official is more upbeat, calling recent polls that show sky-high approval ratings for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top military officials “a better indication of the public mood.” The official also calls a replay of the post-2006 aftermath is unlikely, given that the current regime in Egypt — which controls Gaza’s only border that does not touch Israel — has no love for Hamas and will partner with Israel to prevent the group’s rearmament. No such actor existed to clamp down on Hizballah after 2006.

Still, in Gaza this summer, Israel has been re-acquainted with the limits of its military power. (Never mind other memorably bungled Israeli operations, like the 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, or the cinematically bizarre 2007 assassination-and-revival of Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal.) Israel has again found that its intelligence is not infallible. And, while it enjoys massive military superiority over its rivals, it still faces painful limits when it fights guerilla-style groups on its borders.

Strange as it may sound, taking out an entire air force can be easier than winning a fight with a determined militant group — especially if you’ve underestimated its readiness for battle.

Updated: The original version of this story has been updated to include comments by an Israeli government official.

TIME Khaled Mashaal

The Man Who Haunts Israel

Khaled Mashaal in Doha, Qatar in 2013.
Khaled Mashaal in Doha, Qatar in 2013. Kate Geraghty—The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Khaled Mashaal was nearly assassinated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Then Israel's Prime Minister was forced to bring the Hamas leader back to life. Now their deadly history hangs over the conflict that roils the Middle East

Khaled Mashaal lay dying in a hospital bed as poison flowed through his bloodstream, slowly shutting down his respiratory system. With a machine pumping air into his lungs, he had, at best, a few days to live. An antidote could save the Hamas leader’s life. But the only person who could provide it was the very man who had tried to kill him: Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu… Read the full story

TIME Gaza

Why Obama Wants Israel to ‘Do More’ About Civilian Deaths

Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014.
Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

And why Israel doesn't like it

As the death toll in Gaza escalates, so does the pressure from Washington on Israel to limit the killing. President Obama has conveyed his “concern” about Palestinian civilian casualties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Hell of a pinpoint operation,” John Kerry sardonically cracked on Sunday. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN Tuesday that Israel appears to be “over doing it,” and is hurting its “moral authority.”

But while the U.S. is clearly distressed about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, now at around 650 Palestinian dead, the Obama administration won’t say what it wants Israel to do about it.

“I think probably they could take some greater steps, maybe could do a little bit more,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday.

But when pressed to explain what “do more” actually means, Harf demurred. “I don’t have any specifics for you. It’s a conversation we’ll continue having with them.”

Harf wasn’t going off message. Later in the day, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also said that Israel “can do more” to curtail the death of innocents. But Rhodes did not elaborate either.

So it’s not quite clear just what the Obama team is trying to say. There are a few ways Israel could “do more” to limit Palestinian casualties, but we have to guess at what Washington means.

One would be for Israel to hold its fire entirely. But that’s clearly not the U.S. position. Obama wants Israel to agree to a ceasefire, but not a unilateral one. U.S. officials repeat over and over that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas’s rocket attacks.

Is it Israel’s ground invasion that America opposes? It is true that the U.S. sought to dissuade it. “Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on July 14, days before Israeli troops crossed Gaza’s border. But the U.S. has not appealed for an Israeli ground withdrawal.

That leaves the question of specific targeting decisions. Israel says it is extremely careful in this regard, noting that it takes steps to warn innocents about impending attacks, including evacuation notices, cell phone calls and low-explosive warning “knocks.” But it has still killed numerous Palestinians in their homes. Two weeks ago it killed several young boys playing on a beach. This week, its tanks shelled a Palestinian hospital that Israel said Palestinian militants were using as a base. Both tragic and damaging to Israel’s reputation, these are probably the sorts of incidents the U.S. would like to prevent.

Israeli officials say that of course they don’t want to bomb hospitals—but that they’re in an impossible position. Hamas fighters operate in civilian areas, and store weapons or plan battles from places like homes and hospitals, they say. The Israelis even argue that Hamas actually welcomes and facilitates the death of its people. Hamas has urged Gazans to ignore Israeli evacuation orders. In recent footage from Hamas’s television network shown to TIME by an Israeli official, a Hamas leader says: “We, Hamas, call on our people to adopt this practice” of “sacrificing themselves to defend their homes.”

In this challenging environment, Israeli officials say they analyze every strike, consulting military lawyers as they run a calculation that involves a kind of moral mathematics. As Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer told reporters yesterday, that means weighing the civilian toll of a strike against the potential future harm to Israeli soldiers and civilians that might come from inaction.

That’s obviously an extremely difficult—and highly subjective—calculation. Dermer says Israel would never kill fifty children in a classroom to destroy one Hamas rocket; whereas he says one civilian death would be an acceptable price for destroying 200 rockets. But where’s the line? Would Israel accept the death of one child to destroy a dozen rockets? A dozen children for 500 rockets? Bear in mind that those rockets almost never land with lethal results; two Israelis have been killed by the roughly 2000 Hamas rockets fired this summer. That’s a 0.1 percent fatality rate per rocket. And yet any given rocket could destroy a school bus or nursing home and render that figure tragically obsolete.

Nor are fatalities the only relevant metric. Israel is also trying to measure the impact of those rockets on its society, economy, and tourism industry. And how to weigh the economic and psychological cost of cancelled flights into Israel’s Ben Gurion international airport? Then there’s the additional matter of Hamas’s underground tunnels, meant to enable terrorism and kidnapping within Israel, and the stated reason for Israel’s ground invasion.

When Obama officials ask Israel to “do more,” they seem to be encouraging a revised moral equation. Of course, the U.S. can never micromanage individual targeting decisions. But Obama may want Israel to conduct fewer strikes, perhaps omitting targets like hospitals, even that if it means accepting more risk to its soldiers and civilians. Some philosophers contend that demonstrably accepting more risk to protect civilians is the grim duty of a just combatant against an enemy using civilian shields.

Beyond the humanitarian and philosophical argument for that, there’s also a strategic one. Israel must weigh the Hamas threat against a more intangible threat to its international reputation. The United Nations’ top human rights official is suggesting that Israel (along with Hamas) may be guilty of war crimes. Yes, we’ve been here before: a 2009 U.N. report charged Israel with targeting civilians during its 2006 offensive in Lebanon. Its chief author later recanted that conclusion—but not before real damage was done to Israel’s image.

Which brings us back to Obama. The president doesn’t want to appear indifferent to Palestinian suffering—one senior official recalls how his standing in the Muslim world plunged after he seemed to condone Israel’s December 2008 Gaza incursion—even if he sympathizes with Israel, and might even respond in much the same way. Obama has accepted plenty of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and from U.S. drone strikes elsewhere, after all. But he evidently feels he needs to say something, even if it’s not very clear what he means.

TIME Foreign Policy

Inside John Kerry’s Diplomatic Save in Afghanistan

Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014.
Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, right, and Ashraf Ghani embrace at a news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry where a deal to audit ballots was announced, in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014. Jim Bourg—The New York Times/Redux

Up to one million might have died, an Afghan leader warned.

As the sun went down over Kabul on Saturday July 13, Afghanistan’s future hung in the balance. Accusations of fraud in the country’s recent presidential election had paralyzed the country’s politics and threatened to trigger a civil war that could destroy the progress America’s costly military and diplomatic efforts had delivered since 2001. The parties in the dispute had convened at the residence of the American ambassador in Kabul, but the two sides couldn’t reach agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on the scene that Saturday evening just as key Afghan players were headed out to the patio for their evening prayers. Scheduled to depart 90 minutes earlier for Vienna, where he was to join the ongoing international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Kerry had delayed his departure to make a last ditch effort to broker a deal.

It was a dangerous moment, and not just for the Afghans. Without an agreement between second place finisher Abdullah Abdullah and the election’s declared winner, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan was at risk of an implosion like the one that enabled the Taliban to take power in 1996—creating a safe haven for Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 attacks. And Kerry’s visit defied the advice of other Obama officials who warned any diplomatic intervention on the U.S. part held “the risk of complete failure,” in the words of a senior official.

The details of how Kerry defused the stalemate, based on accounts from a half-dozen officials familiar with the talks, reveals an Afghanistan closer to the brink than many outsiders may appreciate. It also illuminates rare foreign policy win for Kerry and for an Obama administration staggered by months of setbacks, one whose importance has been overshadowed by turmoil in the Middle East and Ukraine. Finally, it shows how fragile the country remains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw the last of its combat troops later this year.

The crisis was the result of the inconclusive June 14 presidential vote to replace the longtime Afghan ruler Hamid Karzai. Abdullah, the losing candidate, was insisting the vote had been rigged to the tune of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots. By mid-July, Abdullah’s supporters had threatened to create a kind of protest government. Rumors swirled of an armed rebellion, with the potential to ignite dormant ethnic and tribal rivalries. “We will accept death but not defeat,” Ghani’s running mate, the notorious ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, had recently vowed. “It was pretty frightening. People were preparing for civil war,” says one official.

On July 8 President Obama called Abdullah directly, warning that American aid to country could be cut off if he didn’t stand down. The call bought time but didn’t resolve the core dispute. “The president’s role was to intervene at a point where it looked like the dispute was threatening the stability of Kabul and the country. But that didn’t necessarily mean there was enough pressure to come to an agreement,” says one senior administration official. “Both candidates remained pretty dug in to their positions,” says another.

Kerry had arrived late on the night of July 10 from Beijing, diverting from his planned itinerary to Geneva for the Iran talks. Over the next three days, through long meetings, first with Abdullah’s camp, and then with Ghani’s, Kerry’s team hammered out a plan.

Afghanistan’s election commission, under international supervision, would audit every one of the eight million ballots cast in the June 14 vote (a runoff after an initial April 5 election.) The plan also called for a power-sharing arrangement that would give Abdullah an important role in the new Afghan government, potentially as a kind of deputy national leader. (The details have yet to be finalized and officials called reports of a European-style parliamentary system premature.)

A key asset in establishing the framework for the deal, officials say, was the relationship Kerry had built with the major players—Abdullah, Ghani, and also Karzai—over many years, dating to his tenure as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Abdullah contested a fraud-rife 2009 election that returned Karzai to power, Kerry rushed to the country for long meetings with both men after a distrustful Karzai refused to talk to the U.S. special envoy to the country, Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is even less inclined to trust Washington today, and rarely speaks with President Obama. But the Afghan leader does maintain a good rapport with Kerry.

“Obviously a lot of the machinery of this took place from the White House and by phone. But ultimately a large part of why this got sealed is that Kerry had built up a relationship with Ghani, Abdullah and Karzai going all the way back to 2009,” says Jonah Blank, an Afghanistan expert with the RAND Corporation

Though the framework of the deal had been hammered out over the previous two days, the decisive moment came that Saturday evening, at the residence of U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham, after Abdullah and his retinue had finished prayers and broken their Ramadan fast. Ghani and his allies were elsewhere on the heavily fortified U.S. embassy compound; the two contenders for Afghanistan’s presidency had not yet met face-to-face.

Kerry had been buoyed by an earlier meeting with Karzai, who agreed to delay the country’s scheduled August 3 presidential inauguration, which a time-consuming audit of every ballot would require. But when Kerry arrived at Cunningham’s residence, Abdullah still wasn’t sold on a deal. Could he really trust an election process run by the government of Ghani’s ally Karzai?

Kerry pleaded with Abdullah to accept the deal. “I’m asking you as a friend to trust me,” he said. Kerry walked the group through several chapters in his life story, from the Vietnam War to the 2004 presidential campaign, and concluded by calling the meeting among the most important he’d ever attended. He urged Abdullah and his allies to consider the millions of Afghans who had voted despite Taliban threats—the Americans who had done so much for Afghanistan. “U.S. soldiers didn’t come here to fight and die to see this election fail,” Kerry said.

“You could tell that shifted the dynamic,” says an official who was present. Shortly after 9pm, Abdullah agreed to the deal.

Within half an hour, Ghani had arrived to clinch the agreement with his rival in person. The discourse between the Abdullah and Ghani camps had not been civil of late—at one rally, Abdullah’s running mate had called Ghani a name that roughly translates as “dried-up intestine.” But the men greeted each other warmly. If they felt personal hostility, says one official, “they did a good job of hiding it.”

As they headed to a midnight press conference, officials present say the men seemed to take pride in an agreement that had spared their country the threat of a nightmarish descent into chaos.

On July 16, President Obama opened his press conference announcing new economic sanctions against Russia by congratulating his Secretary of State for brokering the Afghan deal. Obama said it had preserved “the first democratic transfer of power in the history of that nation.”

In a conversation the day after Kerry’s departure, Ghani shared his relief over the outcome. The agreement, he said, may have saved one million Afghan lives.

TIME Foreign Policy

Officials Say Iran Is Hamas’ ‘Enabler’ in Fight Against Israel

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-GAZA-CONFLICT
A picture taken from the southern Israeli Gaza border shows a militant rocket being launched from the Gaza strip into Israel, on July 11, 2014. Menahem Kahana—AFP/Getty Images

Tehran's fingerprints are all over Hamas's rocket arsenal, officials say

In a reminder of the Middle East’s intertwined nature, the latest violence between Israel and Hamas has U.S. and Israeli officials lamenting the role of a key actor hundreds of miles east of Gaza: Iran.

“Who is the enabler for Hamas? Where do they get those rockets?” asked House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce Friday morning. “It’s Iran.”

American and Israeli officials have long accused Iran of helping Hamas build up its massive arsenal of rockets, including some with a particularly long range, which it is now firing into Israeli cities and towns.

“Iran continues to do everything it can to push rockets into Gaza,” says Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. “Iran obviously is a supporter of Hamas. And Islamic Jihad is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran” (Islamic Jihad is militant group smaller than Hamas that also operates within Gaza.)

The current wave of violence was triggered after the murder of several teenagers, three Israelis and then one Palestinian, apparently by extremists on both sides. More broadly, it is the product of the historical conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But it also represents the latest chapter in an intermittently violent cold war between Israel and Iran, which has long funded and supplied arms to Palestinian militants who attack Israel.

At issue now is Iran’s shipments of rockets into Gaza, shipments that are thought to have gone on for years. The rockets are transported by ship from Iran to Sudan, driven into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and then smuggled into Gaza through secret underground tunnels that run from Egypt into Gaza. Israel has blockaded Gaza’s borders ever since Hamas—which openly calls for Israel’s destruction—assumed power there in 2007.

Hamas can probably thank Iran for some of the most dangerous rockets it fired into Israel this week. They appear to be M-302s, whose range of 100 miles is longer than most in Hamas’s arsenal—which typically travel about ten miles—and can threaten northern Israeli cities. In March, Israel interdicted a ship carrying forty M-302 rockets it said were destined for Gaza; a United Nations report concluded last month that the rockets originated in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Israeli officials don’t believe that shipment was the only one of its kind.

The good news from Israel’s perspective is that smuggling arms to Hamas has become harder since last summer’s military coup in Egypt deposed a pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo. The new regime of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who strongly opposes Hamas, has mostly sealed the tunnels into Gaza (Both Hamas and Iran have denied such shipments.)

Hamas isn’t solely reliant on outsiders for its weapons. “A lot of the rockets are coming now from being domestically manufactured,” said Dermer on a conference call with reporters Friday. “That was not the case 18 months ago. Eighteen months ago, most of the rockets were coming from outside.”

However, even those homemade rockets bear Iranian fingerprints, say Israeli officials. Tehran has assisted Hamas and Islamic Jihad in developing their own manufacturing capabilities inside Gaza. “Iran is the principle source of know-how” for such efforts, an Israeli military intelligence official said in June.

There is no sign that Israel intends to retaliate against Iran. But some analysts believe that Israel uses confrontations like this one to send a message to Tehran, which also arms the anti-Israel group Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and whose nuclear program some Israeli leaders declare an existential threat. When Israel last clashed with Hamas in November of 2012, for instance, one columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote that Israel’s response “seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may see the current crisis as an opportunity to deal a crippling blow to Hamas, which one former Obama administration official with Middle East expertise describes as “desperate” now that Egypt has sealed many of its underground smuggling routes. Hamas’s relationship with Iran has also wobbled over the Syrian civil war, as the the Sunni Palestinian group and Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime have supported different sides in that sectarian conflict (although the two have recently struck a friendlier tone.)

Iran’s stake in the Israel-Hamas fight means that Tehran has a hand in three live conflicts at the moment. In addition to its strong support of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, Iran has provided military aid to Iraq’s Shi’ite ruler, Nouri al-Maliki, who is fending off an invasion from Sunni radical group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and its Iraqi Sunni allies.

Meanwhile, Iran’s support for groups that oppose and attack Israel will remain a thorny issue in U.S.-Iranian relations as Washington tries to strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. Many of the economic sanctions currently imposed on Iran are based on the country’s support for terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Iran’s supply of rockets to Hamas “does raise the issue of how Iran is a proliferator,” said Chairman Royce, who spoke at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. He said any talks with Iran should include the question of “how do you stop this penchant for proliferation?”

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