From New DNI, Moderate View on North Korea And Warning About Iran's Role in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Monday, February 16, 2009

In his first presentation to Congress last Thursday outlining the worldwide threats to the United States, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair offered a collection of facts and judgments that failed to make headlines but are worth remembering in the coming weeks and months.

Blair, in his rundown of North Korea's nuclear ambitions, said, "Pyongyang probably views its nuclear weapons as being more for deterrence and coercive diplomacy than for warfighting." He went on to say that the intelligence community's assessment is that "Pyongyang probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or territory unless it perceived the regime to be on the verge of military defeat and risked an irretrievable loss of control."

That seemed like new, moderate language, given the Bush administration's rapid push almost seven years ago to have a missile defense system in place against a possible nuclear attack launched by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But a year ago, Blair's predecessor, Mike McConnell, used almost the exact same language in his prepared statement for the 2008 worldwide threat hearing. The difference is that McConnell talked not of Pyongyang's "nuclear weapons" but of its "capabilities."

The underlying thought, that Kim would not order the use of a nuclear weapon against U.S. forces or territory unless he faced imminent military defeat, is reminiscent of the CIA's comments in October 2002 to Congress: Despite what senior Bush officials were saying, agency analysts judged that Saddam Hussein would not turn over weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against the United States or use them himself unless the country was invaded and he faced military defeat.

Regarding Iran, Blair said Tehran is pursuing "multiple tracks" on neighboring Afghanistan. On the one hand, Iran has "focused on promoting a friendly central government in Kabul" by providing "political and economic support to the Karzai government." On the other hand, it is "developing relationships with actors across the political spectrum."

Blair's description of Iran's relationship with one of those actors, the Taliban, is most interesting. He said the intelligence community's judgment is that "Iran distrusts the Taliban and its return to power." Thus, he said, Tehran has opposed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's attempts to have reconciliation talks with the Taliban "as risking an increase in the group's influence and legitimacy."

But Blair also said Iran is providing the Taliban some "lethal aid," to help keep pressure on U.S. and NATO forces, to gather intelligence on what is going on, and as insurance in case the Taliban ends up controlling the country.

On the Palestinian territories, Blair said the competition between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority will get more intense, but he also forecast problems within Fatah, the secular nationalist movement that controls the West Bank.

He said this internal clash, which pits old-guard Fatah leaders against younger elements who want more reform, has worsened. As a result, the sides are arguing over the location and attendees for the long-delayed Fatah General Congress. Without a settlement, Fatah could fracture in the run-up to elections in 2009 or early 2010 for the Palestinian Authority president and legislature. Meanwhile, Blair said, there is no consensus on a replacement for the authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, who has not groomed a successor.

In discussing the impact of disease and health worldwide, Blair described Russia as having "the overall worst health indicators of any industrialized country." Poor heath in Russian children and falling birthrates are threatening Russia's military readiness. Blair said one result will be that Russia will have half as many eligible military recruits in 2018 as it had in 2005.

For Iraq, Blair listed several events that could halt or reverse the political and security progress being made.

First on the list, and described by Blair as "the greatest threat to government stability," would be the inability to solve internal boundary disputes, primarily in northern Iraq, where Kurds are facing off against Arabs and others around oil-rich Kirkuk.

Another threat is the perception, by the varied ethnic groups in Iraq, that the Shiite-dominated government has undertaken "a broad and enduring campaign of repression" that "could lead to widespread violence."

A third threat would involve a new infusion of foreign support to insurgent or militia groups to destabilize the government.

Finally, with declining oil revenue, the Iraqi government might face funding difficulties that could limit the modernization of its security forces, the expansion of public employment, and infrastructure development programs such as electricity, water and sewage.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

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