On our radar screen: Controversial summitry, wasted Afghanistan aid, and Iranian explosives chambers

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The May 20th-21st NATO summit in Chicago stirred little public interest but provoked much commentary by those who obsess over Washington’s relationship with its European allies, whose economies are mostly in trouble and whose defense spending is steeply declining.

For one perspective on the summit’s impact, one can read a transcript posted by the sober, steady journal Foreign Affairs of a news conference it arranged at the summit’s conclusion for U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder. In it, he describes the communique as a “quite remarkable document” that clarified the path to a withdrawal from Afghanistan and set in motion “a process” toward a reduction of tactical nuclear arms with Russia someday.

For another perspective, one can read a scorching assessment in Foreign Affairs’ scrappy junior rival — the journal Foreign Policy — by Stephen M. Walt, the former Harvard Kennedy School dean. In his familiar take-no-prisoners style, Walt archly compares the summit to NASCAR races and the Burning Man festival as the “most useless waste of time, money, and fuel” imaginable. The Afghanistan decisions were “just acknowledging a foregone conclusion,” Walt writes, and the communique’s enthusiasms for missile defenses and enhanced military cooperation were pious but meaningless.

You can pick which assessment you like more.

For those keen to learn, meanwhile, exactly what we’ve been buying in Afghanistan over the past decade, there is a brief but useful new report on that subject by Anthony Cordesman, the Pentagon’s former director of intelligence assessment who has written interestingly about the Middle East wars for decades. He graphs the flow of money and in just 13 pages draws these conclusions:

  • Most funds went directly to the Afghan security forces, instead of to the country’s development.
  • The aid ebbed and flowed erratically, making long-term projects hard to plan and sustain.
  • The bulk of the aid has been given in the past three or four years, producing what Cordesman calls “a clear case of too much, too late.”
  • There have been few if any measures of effectiveness, and no one has been able to say how much of the aid wound up in Afghani hands.

“The system,” Cordesman writes, “virtually invited waste, fraud and abuse.”

Finally, for those who are closely following the West’s confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, it may be worth tuning into an intense debate now underway between different experts over the validity of a demand by international inspectors for access to a building alleged to hold smoking gun evidence of inappropriate Iranian bomb-building.

The building is located at Parchin, just outside Tehran, in the midst of a vast ammunition and explosives factory, and the government there has so far refused an International Atomic Energy Agency visit to it, on grounds that it has nothing to do with nuclear work – the only matter over which the agency has jurisdiction. (The inspectors have been to the huge plant twice, but not to the building in question.)

The IAEA disclosed last November that another government had asserted Iran constructed a “large explosives containment vessel” there around 12 years ago to conduct experiments, possibly involving fissile materials and meant to model how a bomb would work. Its statement provoked high-pitched alarms from David Albright, a past adviser to IAEA officials who heads a Washington-based group called the Institute for Science and International Security.

In a posting on May 8, Albright and colleague Paul Brannan embraced the IAEA’s concerns about the building and claimed that satellite photos showed Iran was trying to wash away telltale evidence of its wrongdoing there. “Iran should immediately allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin site and allow access to this specific building,” as well as explain streams of water seen in the photos obtained by ISIS, Albright wrote.

Strong pushback came this week from Robert Kelley, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. nuclear weapons program who directed key IAEA nuclear inspections in Iraq and is now a senior research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In his own posting, Kelley wrote that the containment vessel in question is evidently the wrong size to be of use in nuclear weapons development, and bluntly accused the IAEA of “risking its technical reputation on tenuous premises.” He also said the Iranian “wash-down systems” are appropriate.

“If the IAEA succeeds in visiting the site and does not find evidence of nuclear weapons activities, its credibility will be seriously damaged and it will be unable to persuasively make the case for visits to more serious sites of concern inside Iran,” said Kelley. Although they formerly worked together — Albright claims on his website that Kelley invited him to participate in an Iraq inspection — they are now poles apart. Again, you can decide for yourself who has the better argument.

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