Author Archive

Dot Dot Dot: Taking Everyone’s Favorite Metaphor For Failure Out For A Spin

Monday, December 28th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

In the wake of the attempted terrorist attack on a Amsterdam-to-Detroit airliner, the WaPo’s editorial page breaks out my favorite way that the burden of failure is transferred from actual people to abstract concepts: “Connecting the dots.” From the editorial:

THE THWARTED Christmas Day airplane bombing raises three causes for alarm. First, it illustrates a screening system that remains porous enough to let a suspect board with the same explosive shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to use in 2001

Okay, I’ll give him that one, but it’s not exactly like it was unknown that the TSA is a complete disaster. Since 9/11, reporters and government types alike have repeatedly defeated the TSA’s security and gotten everything from box-cutters to guns to mock explosives aboard airplanes. So color me unsurprised.

Second, it exposes a terrorism bureaucracy too clumsy to catapult the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, at least to a higher level of preflight scrutiny after his father came forward with warnings that he might pose a danger.”

That may have something to do with the fact that both the no-fly list and the “extra attention” list are literally swamped with hundreds of thousands of names, ninety percent of whom seem to be on there for no apparent reason. This is thanks to a system called TIDEMART that literally runs off of a laptop in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and NSA data-mining run amok. Add in an element of political intimidation (scores of antiwar activists found themselves on one of the lists during the Bush Administration) and you have the recipe for a system that may be worse than not having one at all.

And his father did warn the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had been radicalized, which did get him on the increased scrutiny list. Why no more than that you ask? Well, two reasons: One, the CTC and NSA are absolutely flooded with vague warnings from all over the world that may or may not be the real deal, which basically reduces it to going with the odds-on favorite. Two, despite the fact that pretty much every CIA officer in the world using official cover poses as a Foreign Service embassy official, the striped-pants set from the State Department and the spooks from Langley are generally at each others’ throats. Then you add in the disdain that the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterterrorism, has for the CIA (the saying is, “FBI catches bank robbers; CIA robs banks”) and it is yet again a recipe for disaster.

Expect to hear about “breaking information stovepipes” (my second favorite in terms of blaming abstract concepts) and “not just moving boxes around on a chart” when moving the boxes into an arrangement that makes a lick of sense would probably be a good idea.

Third, if it is true that the suspect received explosives training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, the incident underscores the emergence of that troubled nation as a training ground for terrorists.

This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil. Yemen is not “emerging” as a training ground for terrorists, Al Qaeda has been there at least since bin Laden was kicked out of the Sudan and moved to Afghanistan in the Nineties. Yemen acted as sort of a regional command center for AQ Central in the Persian Gulf, given that the ruling council was in a Central Asian country on the far side of Iran.

I mean, Yemen had a direct role in 9/11. Two of the hijackers came to America from Yemen; one actually returned there and came back during preparations for the hijackings. In fact, the best example of not “connecting the dots” before 9/11 involves Yemen. It goes like this: The NSA was actually tapping the communications of the Yemen command center, and identified those two future hijackers as AQ and on their way to America. The NSA told the CTC, but the call was taken by an FBI agent seconded to the Agency, who told his CIA boss, who for reasons unknown sat on the information.

At least this explains our targeted strikes in Yemen recently..

No screening system can be foolproof, and every system must balance security against the need to allow an acceptably free flow of travel. But the system apparently failed in the case of Mr. Abdulmutallab in significant part because available technologies were not employed. The explosive PETN, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly carried would not be found through normal X-rays or metal detectors. However, it is detectable by bomb-sniffing dogs, by “sniffer” technology that blows particles off travelers, or by swabbing passengers for traces of explosives; full-body imaging might also have been helpful.

This is a whole bunch of words that can be boiled down to this: If someone in Lagos or Amsterdam had put the guy through a bomb sniffer, this would never have happened. Period.

The episode also serves as another sobering reminder that eliminating Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist planning is necessary but not sufficient. Yemen will be “a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future,” Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine warned in a report last month for the Center for a New American Security.

Al Qaeda is in more than eighty countries, including every Sunni-ruled country in the Middle East, multiple countries in Africa, the Philippines, you name it. In spite of the fact that no one seems to know or care about it, Operation Enduring Freedom (the initial attack on Afghanistan) also included a Philippines component, with Special Forces pursuing and eliminating members of Jamaat al-Islamyiah, an AQ offshoot. So, again, color me less than surprised.

Hopefully this will be the final kick in the ass that will spark some serious intelligence and counterterrorism reform, but Your Humble Author remains doubtful. If 9/11 couldn’t do it, what can?

How I Learned To Hate The Bomb Redux: The New York Times Gets In On The Act

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

Another give-war-a-chance Op-Ed about Iran, hitting most of the same bunk talking points I covered yesterday in my post about yet another holiday season hysteria over the ayatollahs (with as many Nazi references as you can get in).

Now, this Op-Ed wouldn’t look out of place at all any time since 2002 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, who have been rah-rahing a war with Iran for quite awhile now. The interesting thing is that it is the New York Times running this particular opinion piece.

This leaves Your Humble Author wondering if this is an attempt to mainstream the idea of an Iranian war with moderates and the center-left. Think back to 2002 and the hawkish stance on Iraq expounded upon by Thomas Friedman or Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaraia.

I covered most of the niggling details of an Iranian nuclear breakout and what it means to America and Israel yesterday, so let’s just hit the high points and call it a wrap:

Complete dismissal of diplomacy with a total disregard for the consequences of military action?

Tehran’s rejection of the original proposal is revealing. It shows that Iran, for domestic political reasons, cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program, regardless of incentives or sanctions.

Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try.

Check.

Subtle potshots at Obama painting him as an appeaser in the mold of Jimmy Carter or (now officially the most overused analogy in foreign policy) Neville Chamberlain?

This would let Iran run the reactor, retain the bulk of its enriched uranium and continue to enrich more — a bargain unacceptable even to the Obama administration.

Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement.

Check.

Pretending that borderline-crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real leader of Iran and not the pragmatic Supreme Ayatollah?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program. But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.

Check.

Repurposed Iraq War talking points?

Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes. Even President Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents support this weapons traffic. If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb.

Check.

Completely destroying your own argument that a preemptive strike will constrain Iranian nuclear ambitions while acting as if it supports your case?

But history suggests that military strikes could work. Israel’s 1981 attack on the nearly finished Osirak reactor prevented Iraq’s rapid acquisition of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon and compelled it to pursue a more gradual, uranium-based bomb program. A decade later, the Persian Gulf war uncovered and enabled the destruction of that uranium initiative, which finally deterred Saddam Hussein from further pursuit of nuclear weapons (a fact that eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion).

Checkmate.

How I Learned To Hate The Bomb: The Renewed Campaign To Spark Hysteria Over Iran

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

First up, from Foreign Policy’s article on deterring and containing Iran:

Deterrence in the Middle East, they [policymakers and foreign policy analysts] argue, could be just as stable as it was between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. “Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon,” wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Oct. 12 edition of Newsweek. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran.”

But this historical analogy is dangerously misconceived. In reality, defusing an Israeli-Iranian nuclear standoff will be far more difficult than averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. This is true even if those Iranians with their fingers on the nuclear trigger are not given to messianic doomsday thinking. Here are five factors that will make an Israeli-Iranian nuclear confrontation potentially explosive.

Before we dive into these five factors, I’ll just pause to say that comparing a nuclear Iran to the American-Soviet standoff or even comparing Cuba during the Crisis with Iran is pretty specious and silly. And so:

Communication and trust.

The October 1962 negotiations that settled the Cuban missile crisis were conducted through a fairly effective, though imperfect, communication system between the United States and Russia. There was also a limited degree of mutual trust between the two superpowers. This did not prevent confusion and suspicion, but it did facilitate the rivals’ ability to understand the other’s side and eventually resolve the crisis.

Israel and Iran, however, have no such avenues for communication. They don’t even have embassies or fast and effective back-channel contacts — and, what’s more, they mistrust each other completely. Israel has heard Iranian leaders — and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — call for its destruction. Meanwhile, Iranian leaders remain prone to paranoid and conspiratorial views of the outside world, especially Israel and the United States. In any future Iranian-Israeli crisis, each side could easily misinterpret the other’s moves, leading to disaster. A proxy war conducted by Iran through Hezbollah or Hamas against Israel could quickly lead to a series of escalating threats.

This actually is a serious problem. The Cold War MAD-speak for it is “redlines,” a series of negotiated agreements between America and the Soviet Union on what provocations from the other side could cause a nuclear response. The name comes from the Red Line, the teletype device that directly linked the White House and the Kremlin, installed in the wake of several clashes with the Soviets that almost led to nuclear Armageddon.

Of course, comparing the Israel-Iran situation to the Cold War is ludicrous, the best comparison is undoubtedly the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Here as in a hypothetical Middle Eastern cold war, there are no redlines and no communication between Islamabad and Mumbai on this issue. And, in the author’s favor, we have come to the brink of a third India-Pakistan war that most likely would have involved nuclear exchanges twice since 9/11.

Both times, both sides were slowly pushed back from the brink by Washington. I’ll pick back up on this in a minute.

Goals.

The Soviets wanted to extend their power and spread Communism — they never pledged the annihilation of America. Iranian leaders, however, have called for Israel to be “wiped off the map of the Middle East.” After the street protests that followed the June presidential election, Iran has entered into chronic instability. In a moment of heightened tension and urgent need for popular support, an Iranian leader could escalate not only rhetoric but action.

There is a strong precedent in the Middle East of such escalation leading to war. Arab threats to destroy any Jewish state preceded a massive invasion of the new Israeli state in May 1948. In May and June 1967, Egypt’s President Gamal Abd al-Nasser loudly proclaimed his intent to “liberate Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its 1949 borders), and moved his panzer divisions to Israel’s border. The result was the Six Day War.

The revisionist history that has sprung up around the Cold War in the two decades since its end is quite fascinating. Does Krushchev banging his shoe at the United Nations and shouting “We will bury you!” count for nothing anymore?

The author of the piece is right that despite all the rantings and threats, the main goal of the Soviet Union was to extend their power and influence into the Third World under the guise of World Socialism and to stay militarily competitive with America. But the same is also true with Iran: Despite the loud, blustery threats from the ayatollahs lo these last three decades, Iran has time and again proved itself to be a ruthless and crafty player of the Great Game, certainly not an irrational actor.

The analogy to the Six Day War is baffling and somewhat deceptive. It wasn’t Nasser’s rhetoric that caused the war, it was him moving his armies to the Israeli border. And the analogy is doubly misleading because Iran has very little conventional capability, their influence in the Middle East is almost entirely based on assymetric power.

And by the way: Panzer divisions? Really? That’s about as subtle as a kick to the groin.

Command and control.

In 1962, the two superpowers possessed sophisticated command-and-control systems securing their nuclear weapons. Both also employed effective centralized decision-making systems. Neither may be the case with Iran: Its control technology will be rudimentary at first, and Tehran’s decision-making process is relatively chaotic. Within Iran’s byzantine power structure, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mounts an army and navy of its own alongside the regular army and navy, and internal differences within the regime over nuclear diplomacy are evidence of conflicting lines of authority. Recent events suggest that the IRGC, allied with Ahmadinejad, has increasingly infringed on the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a result, no one can be certain how decisions are made and who makes them.

This one’s pretty easy. The entire nuclear program is under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the Sepha-i Pasdaran), a shadow military and secret police that reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah Khamein’i. Simple. There is no issue with unity of command despite their recent civil unrest.

Mutual deterrence.

Both the United States and USSR had second-strike capability made credible by huge land masses. They possessed hardened missile silos scattered throughout the countryside, large air forces equipped with nuclear bombs, and missile-launching submarines. In the Middle East, Iran stretches across a vast 636,000 square miles, against Israel’s (pre-1967) 8,500 square miles of territory. This point was made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2001, who noted, “Israel is much smaller than Iran in land mass, and therefore far more vulnerable to nuclear attack.” If this is the way an Iranian pragmatist thinks, how are the hard-liners thinking?

In contrast, by 1962, the two superpowers implicitly recognized the logic of mutually assured destruction. And yet, they still came relatively close to war — in John F. Kennedy’s words, the risk of a nuclear conflict was “between one out of three and even.” When Iran goes nuclear, the huge disparity in size will pose a psychological obstacle for its recognition of mutual deterrence.

All things being equal, Israel’s small size would be a detriment to a mutually-assured destruction strategy. But things aren’t equal. Even if Iran obtains a handful of nuclear weapons and halfway decent missiles to shoot them at people with, Israel will be the only side that has a credible second-strike capability. Combined with the certainty of American assistance, this doesn’t seem like much of an impediment to MAD.

Even assuming the United States promises Israel a retaliatory nuclear umbrella, Iran will doubt U.S. resolve. The mullahs will be tempted to conclude that with Israel gone, the United States would see no point in destroying Iran. Given the criticism leveled today against President Harry Truman for using the bomb against Japanese civilians in World War II, what are the chances of American retaliation against Iran, especially if the Islamic Republic has not attacked the United States?

I seriously doubt the mullahs doubt American resolve when it comes to the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf. Nuclear missiles exploding near the oil would be seriously bad for business, and if there’s one thing you can guarantee, it’s that America will respond swiftly and strongly to any perceived threat to our energy security. Not to mention, Israel is quite popular here in the States and they have a very vocal political lobby.

And the last sentence presupposes that if Israel is nuked by Iran, that America will have to nuke Iran in retaliation. We just might, but even if we don’t, American conventional power is strong enough to level the entire country in a month (despite its huge size, much of Iran is uninhabitable, and the population is clustered around urban and semi-urban areas). There isn’t a doubt in the world that America would descend upon Iran like the Wrath of God if they were to ever do something so stupid.

Crisis instability.

In view of the above dangers, if and when a grave crisis does erupt, Israel would be tempted to strike first in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack, which would devastate its urban core. Iran will be well aware of Israel’s calculations and, in the early years of becoming a nuclear power, will have a smaller and probably more vulnerable nuclear arsenal. This will give it, in turn, strong incentives to launch its own preemptive strike.

This will not happen as long as America has such a heavy military presence in the Middle East. Period. This favorite talking point of war hawk pundits was put to bed decisively in 2007 during the Bush Administration. They came to Washington to ask for the latest generation in nuclear bunker-busters for a strike on Iran (as well as permission to cross Iraqi airspace) and were turned down flat by Condi Rice and Bob Gates, who threatened to end the American-Israeli relationship permanently if they did go ahead and do it anyway.

Yes, you read that right. Israel wants to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program by dropping nuclear weapons on them. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Just a few more points to wrap up:

Once Iran is a nuclear power, the Middle East is likely to enter a fast-moving process of nuclear proliferation. Until now, most Arab governments have not made an effort to match Israel’s  nuclear arsenal.

Already happening. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have all those Chinese ballistic missiles hidden out in the Empty Quarter for nothing. But the fall of Iraq has as much to do with it as Iran’s nuclear program; that’s a whole ‘nother story though.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of some analysts that the possession of nuclear weapons could make Iran more cautious, a nuclear Iran will likely be emboldened. It could press Hezbollah to be more aggressive in Lebanon, flex its muscles in the Persian Gulf, and step up its challenges against U.S. forces in the region.

Iran is pretty bold now. Things really couldn’t be going any better for them if they had tried. Their unconventional warfare power by proxy in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, western Afghanistan and a host of other places makes them the de facto regional hegemon.

The most important point, and the one all these pro-war Iran pieces leave out, is that the critical factor in the Israeli-Iranian relationship is how the American-Iranian one  is doing. And it’s doing very very well, if you’re an ayatollah. With American forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient numbers to pacify both countries, Iran has become sort of the unofficial peacekeeper in southern Iraq (where in true Iranian fashion they back every side and just wait to see who wins) and Herat in western A-stan. With a phone call they can make life very unpleasant for American soldiers in Iraq or start another Hizb’allah-Israeli conflict.

Bottom line, as long as these conditions persist America has very little influence to stop the Iranian nuclear program, but enough influence to stop Israel from attacking them preemptively, which is going to mean an enforced stalemate until something crazy happens or the strategic calculus changes drastically.

Everybody Loves David: Another Exciting Capitol Hill Hearing

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

General Petraeus goes to Washington:

The chief of the regional U.S. Central Command told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “additional mission force elements” would be sent to Afghanistan in the spring, but he declined to provide details in an open congressional hearing.

Although such “elements” have not been publicly discussed in the administration’s strategy announcements, counterterrorism efforts — missiles fired at specific insurgent targets from unmanned aircraft and bombs from manned planes, as well the use of Special Forces units and intelligence surveillance — are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more U.S. ground troops.

Off top, it’s nice to see someone talking about counterterrorism in Afghanistan rather than counterinsurgency.  Most folks think they are the same thing, and they are most definitely not.

The “additional elements” are almost certainly Special Forces and Special Operations teams that will spend a good portion of their time hunting Al Qaeda chiefs in the Pakistani borderlands. Throw in some more Predators and CIA paramilitary spooks for good measure. And here’s why:

The use of air attacks in Afghanistan has been curtailed in recent months as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander there, sought to avoid civilian casualties. But as described by Petraeus, the new concentration on pushing the Taliban out of population centers will allow more robust action against fighters in the countryside.

U.S. drone attacks have been used extensively against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, although their frequency has diminished recently as the Pakistani military has been engaged in a ground assault in South Waziristan. Obama has warned Pakistan that it must step up its effort in that region and others along the border it shares with Afghanistan or risk an escalation of U.S. activity.

The Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan, which is where the Al Qaeda ruling council most likely resides, is a joke, we most likely cut back drone strikes to avoid accidentally killing a Pakistani soldier and sparking a diplomatic incident.  Pakistan’s army is a conventional force that is geared entirely towards a land war with India, so we’re talking armor, mechanized infantry and lots and lots of artillery.

They are not cut out to fight insurgents in extremely mountainous terrain. They have engaged the Pashtun tribes several times over the years since 9/11 and managed to lose decisively to ragtag tribal militias. So this is either a public relations stunt to keep American aid flowing, or they think they can get the anti-Pakistani Taliban faction that has been giving them so much trouble in the Swat Valley, because they’ve been known to kick it with Al Qaeda from time to time.

These are not the same Taliban who are attacking us in Afghanistan. The leaders of the major Afghan factions like Haqqani, Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are good friends with the Pakistani military and secret police.

Senators sharply questioned the officials about remarks Tuesday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said he anticipated a U.S. combat presence in his country for five more years — about the same timeline Obama described, beginning with an initial troop escalation that started in the summer and leading to a withdrawal that would start in July 2011, depending on Afghan capabilities. Karzai said he envisioned U.S. funding for Afghanistan’s own security forces to continue for 15 years, a cost that Petraeus estimated would total about $10 billion a year.

Noting that Karzai’s timeline would extend to 2024, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) noted that “we’re talking about $150 billion just on the security side,” for Afghan forces alone, “before we get to the development side.”

You have to admire Karzai’s cojones for just blatantly coming out and saying it, when most politicians would deny such a long-term commitment would happen despite the fact that they knew it was inevitable.  Not to mention that American-funded security for a decade or so is probably the only thing that would keep the Pakistanis from killing him (they’ve already tried twice). They see Karzai as pro-India (which he is) and the shady way he bounced pro-Pakistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah out of the election has probably made them ever less happy.

Petraeus also provided additional details on plans to “reintegrate” Taliban fighters into Afghan society or security forces with monetary and other incentives. He described a new Force Reintegration Cell, headed by a retired British general who held the same job under Petraeus when the latter was the U.S. commander in Iraq, that will identify insurgents likely to switch sides if provided the right incentives.

This is the part that is going to drive both sides of the political spectrum insane, because the Taliban has been conflated with Al Qaeda for so long. I’ve said it before, but how long do you have to kill people for their government having bad house guests? It’s been almost a decade; they’ve most likely learned their lesson. Of course the strategy is sound, every counterinsurgency ends with political negotiations, but try explaining that to your average American.

Those who cannot be reintegrated “can be killed, captured or run off,” Petraeus said. But the idea, he said, was to make individual fighters “part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said Wednesday that they are funding a raise in Afghan military pay — from $180 a month to about $240 for an entry-level soldier, along with other tangible benefits — to compete with the Taliban, which offers up to $300 a month.

Word. Good ideas.

The strategy also includes development of “community defense” forces, tapping local leaders to defend their territory in conjunction with coalition and Afghan forces. That effort has long been pushed by the U.S. Special Forces Command, which has argued that the extremely localized nature of Afghan culture should be matched by a localized U.S. approach.

“It’s a village-by-village, valley-by-valley effort,” Petraeus said, “and we’re using some of our best Special Forces teams right now to really experiment with this.”

This puts the American Special Forces in the role they are best at: Force multiplication and foreign internal defense. Though most people see them as elite hunter-killer teams (and there’s no doubt that they are),  a Special Forces A-Team of just twelve men can raise, train and command a company-sized unit of militia fighters. They are experts at turning a bunch of ragtag native fighters into a disciplined and effective fighting unit. Foreign internal defense (FID) is milspeak for fighting an insurgency inside a “host nation.”

And why are we just trying this now eight years later you ask? Well, it’s simple: It’s office politics. The Cold Warriors who trained to fight the Soviets in Europe that now run the Army have a reflexive distrust of the individual branches’ Special Operations Forces and especially the Special Operations Command, which covers the whole world and thus don’t fall under the authority of the individual theater commander where they are operating at.

Why? It could be resistance from generals who were lieutenants either during Vietnam or in the immediate aftermath and swore never to fight another counterinsurgency. It could be that the Army is a crazily massive bureaucracy (you would not believe the amount of typing and filing it takes to kill people in significant numbers all across the word) and turning it to a new direction is a painfully slow process. It could be that they don’t believe in the COIN mission and think there’s a better way

It’s most likely a combination of all three. Eventually, though, they need to accept the fact that unconventional warfare is the Next Big Thing, and that the combination of Special Operations units, SF operators, close air support and indigenous fighters can accomplish with less than a thousand soldiers and airmen what it used to take a massive conventional force to do.

If one looks at history, every occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster, but punitive strikes have worked multiple times: Get in, kill a bunch of people, and depart posthaste. One would think the ghost of William Macnaughten would hover over our politicians’ shoulders in this debate, but how many do you think knew who he was or what he did?

Hell Freezes Over: Are The Feds Actually Cooperating With The NYPD In Counterterrorism?

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

By Tommy Brown

A piece from Newsweek on the recent arrest of a mope planning to set off a bomb in NYC:

This, according to these same [NYPD and FBI] officials, is what the countdown looked like:

It is Wednesday, Sept. 9, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and just five days before Obama is scheduled to make a major speech on Wall Street, only a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. A week after that, the U.N. General Assembly will be in full session, with some 150 heads of state gridlocking Manhattan. And now the FBI tells the NYPD it’s concerned about the activities of this guy, Najibullah Zazi, whom agents have been watching for months in Colorado. The Feds have good reason to believe he’s been trained in bombmaking in Pakistan. They say they know he’s been stockpiling the same kind of chemical components—hydrogen peroxide and acetone—used to concoct the explosives used in the horrific London subway bombings in 2005. Over the past few days surveillance suggests he’s not only been cooking them up, he’s allegedly been calling friends to make sure he gets the mixture just right. The New York City connection? He was brought up in Queens in a neighborhood long known to be full of Taliban supporters. And at this moment he is in a rental car headed east. The FBI is watching him. The bureau normally works with more than 100 NYPD detectives in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but on this one it wants Cohen’s Intelligence Division working the case, too.

Now this is how domestic counterterrorism is supposed to work. “Breaking down stovepipes” and all that, actually sharing intel instead of engaging in the usual law enforcement agency pissing matches over jurisdiction or credit for the collar.

A couple of years ago, that kind of cooperation didn’t exist. After Police Commissioner Ray Kelly reorganized the force in the wake of 9/11 and brought in Cohen, the Intelligence Division had an extremely rocky relationship with the FBI field office. Cohen’s detectives focus on preventing new attacks, not pulling together cases for prosecution after the fact, which is what FBI agents traditionally have been tasked to do. The NYPD intelligence unit works undercover and gathers human intelligence in New York City, in the wider United States, and even overseas. FBI agents, used to believing they have a monopoly on that kind of work, wanted to keep it, and the infighting was legendary.

Despite all that, FBI Director Robert Mueller—who has tried to shift the FBI law-enforcement culture from after-the-fact prosecution toward more aggressive measures to prevent terrorism—has developed a good working relationship with Kelly. And since Joseph Demarest took over as the head of the FBI field office in New York late last year, according to law-enforcement officials, cooperation on the ground has improved dramatically. One of those officials says that the FBI has worked closely with the NYPD intel detectives on more than two dozen important cases in the past several months.

“An extremely rocky relationship” is a very very mild way of putting it concerning the interactions of the NYPD and FBI. Even before 9/11, the rivalry and contempt between “the Feebs” and the “local yokels” was the stuff of legend. In the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which was tasked with Al Qaeda investigations worldwide before 9/11, the federal agents constantly short-shrifted the NYPD detectives on cases or treated them like gofers.

After 9/11, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were so incensed at the lack of federal cooperation (and lack of federal counterterrorism funds) in the city that is the biggest terrorist target on the planet that they literally created their own CIA and a sort of municipal hybrid of the FBI and Britain’s MI-5.

The Intelligence Division sent detectives all over the country and even the world to sniff out plots against NYC before they had a chance to become operational. The fact that the Deputy Commissioner for the Intel Division is the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service says it all. The CT Divsion was focused on preemptive action and rolling up terrorist networks in the city, using the kind of preemptive action that the FBI had a deep institutional aversion to (and with good reason, but that’s another story).

It’s Sept. 11. FBI agents and Intelligence Division detectives meeting that morning believe they have a good handle on the Zazi case. They have found this source, Afzali, who knows quite a lot about Zazi and his friends. The suspect is under surveillance, and a warrant has been obtained to search his rental car and the laptop inside. Then word comes that a phone call has been intercepted from someone telling Mohammed Zazi the cops are asking about his son. The name of the caller is not the one the cops have been using. The top Intelligence Division detective at the meeting steps out of the room to phone his office and check. Yeah, that’s Afzali, he says when he comes back in.

The next day, Saturday, Najibullah Zazi is on a plane back to Denver, and there are a lot of loose ends. How much of a network was Zazi involved with? (“You study these things and they get bigger, then smaller, then bigger—like an accordion,” as one veteran counterterrorism analyst puts it.) Where are the explosives or their components? No one seems to know.

On Wednesday the 16th, the FBI in Denver began questioning Zazi directly. His father was brought in as well, and Afzali was picked up in New York. On Saturday the 19th all three men were charged with allegedly lying to federal officers. On Sept. 24, Najibullah Zazi was indicted for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

The investigation continues. More than 120 detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division remain assigned to the case.

With the (almost entirely true) horror stories about the dearth of actual domestic security against these kind of threats, this pitch-perfect CT investigation ending in the roll-up of most of the cell before they could achieve their explosive aims is quite heartening. In fact, one may notice that the Department of Homeland Security did not seem to be involved in this investigation in any way, which speaks volumes about their effectiveness.

Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a golden era of cooperation between the NYPD Intel detectives  and the federales . Given the traditional Bureau disdain for the CIA and spook types in general (the saying goes, “FBI catches bank robbers for a living; CIA robs banks”), I wouldn’t hold my breath. While I would love to believe that all the stuff about the two agencies playing nice is as rosy as this article portrays, both the Bureau and the NYPD have a reputation for snowballing the media for positive press coverage.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The lead sentence of the article:

“The ticking bomb” is a cliché in movies about cops and spies and terrorists, but sometimes in real life, with real terrorists, it’s the real deal.

This was not a ticking time bomb scenario. This was rolling up a network before they could become operational.

Please stop it Newsweek. There is no reason to give the Jack Bauer counterterrorism crowd more ammunition for their fallacious arguments.

Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

“Caught With Their Hand In The Cookie Jar,” Or Why The World Is Pretending To Be Surprised About Iran’s Nuclear Program

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

From the article  “Obama’s Iran Trap” in Foreign Policy:

The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

First off, you should treat any paragraph that begins with “the conventional wisdom” with deep skepticism, because what it really means is “what the chattering class thinks” and that’s never a good barometer of reality.  Secondly, how in the world is the fact that Iran has multiple sites for its nuclear program an astonishing revelation? Even cable news has been talking about this for four years, how airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations would involve hundreds of sorties on dozens of targets. Is the fact that President Ahmadinejad disclosed the existence of just one of the numerous sites that even the public knows exists, let alone the CIA or Mossad, really all that jaw-dropping?

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

Obama has not painted himself into any sort of corner with this declaration. Here’s why. This “astonishing” announcement is just yet another in a series of posturing United Nations pressers that have been going on since former president Bush threw down the gauntlet concerning the Iranian nuclear program years ago, and almost all of it has been for naught.

And the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran  against the wishes of  Washington is virtually nil. A little known story is that at the end of the Bush Administration, then-Prime Minister Olmert had decided that Israel would take out the nuclear facilites at Natanz and other sites with, of all things, nuclear bunker-busters, to reach the facilities deep underground. Apparently oblivious to the irony, the Israelis approached the Bush White House with a request for the latest in air-dropped tactical nukes, and Olmert was told in no uncertain terms by Bob Gates and Condi Rice that the United States would not support it. The strikes, which were far enough along that pilots were already flying practice sorties, were quietly  scrapped.

Besides that, an Israeli attack into Iran would require traversing Iraqi airspace. Under the new Status of Forces agreement, Iraqi airspace actually belongs to the Iraqis again, and their Shi’ite-dominated government is very buddy-buddy with the mullahs.

For one thing, it’s not clear that “the Russians” have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should “calm down” over Iran’s latest missile test and “not give way to emotions.”) And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not sanctions are actually pushed through the Security Council, Iran has been under sanctions for well over a decade and doesn’t seem too distraught about it. The only sanctions that would truly hurt them would be oil sanctions, but there is no way in hell China or especially Britain would ever go for that. The faux-dramatic press conference is just the usual dog-and-pony show while the real action takes place in the smoky back room.

The real dope is that whether or not the Russians will support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, they are in a position to make Iran’s life difficult in much more meaningful ways. They are their main arms supplier and have been supplying them with nuclear tech and know-how. The deal that was struck to scrap the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe seems to have been a straight-up horse trade with Medvedev (well, Putin really, as the article points out): Russia gets breathing room in the Near Abroad, and America gets transit rights involving Afghanistan and a stronger public stance from Moscow on an Iranian nuclear breakout. How much pressure Medvedev is willing to apply outside the auspices of the UN is the real question.

. . . .[T]he Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions “time to work” — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

I’m not sure how much of a headache it’s really going to be, considering that no one in any position to affect American foreign policy should give a tinker’s damn what the American neoconservatives or the Likudniks (the Israeli neocons), especially Netanyahu, after seven years of watching that failed ideology drive our country’s national security and international clout off a cliff. Of course, there is a valid point to the observation, because our Very Serious journalists in the op-ed pages and cable news will hang on the prognostications of Bill Kristol et al. as if they have any credibility left after being spectacularly wrong about everything since 2002.

The one thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Obama does not really have any good options concerning Iran, at least not if people expect the endgame to be Iran giving up their nuclear program. Like chess, where there are scores of possible opening moves but only a few that won’t result in your quick defeat, the president doesn’t have many diplomatic options to choose from. The absolute best-case scenario is that Iran only wants to attain a status like Germany and Japan, with no actual atomic built but the capability to put one together in a couple weeks if necessary. The more likely scenario, given that an Iranian nuclear breakout is virtually assured unless someone goes to war over it, is that America will have to switch its priorities from nonproliferation to counterproliferation, keeping Iran from selling its knowledge to even nuttier and more unstable Third World countries.

Much Love For The Steel City: The G-20 And The Rust Belt Renaissance

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

As the apparatchiks of the globalized economy departed my fair hometown this past Saturday, I am happy to report that Pittsburgh came out looking very well in pretty much all aspects. Our image as Steeltown USA (“hell with the lid off”) and/or a dying Rust Belt town crippled by the loss of the industry that defined us for generations has been put to bed, hopefully for good.

The most powerful men on the planet and their international entourages pleasantly surprised to find a formerly depressed city that had shed its industrial roots and reinvented itself for the information/service economy of the new century.  Maybe even a model for the dozens of other Rust Belt cities between the Mon Valley and Chicago dying a slow and painful economic death.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s some articles from the national and international media:

From Forbes:

. . . President Barack Obama sees in Pittsburgh a way forward for the American city in the 21st century. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It’s an area that has seen its share of economic woes in the past but because of foresight and investment is now renewed–giving birth to … industries that are creating the jobs of the future. And I think [Obama] believes it would be a good place to highlight some of that.”

Pittsburgh boasts world-class culture and president-approved industries crucial to the growth of the nation (education, health care, technology, energy), but it will never be New York. Pittsburgh is also a conglomeration of neighborhoods, where mom-and-pop stores are still a staple and people greet their neighbors in the supermarket, but it’s no small town. In the city’s historic South Side, mega-chains like Urban Outfitters coexist with tiny consignment boutiques that have persisted for over a decade, and a Cheesecake Factory is just a stone’s throw from a row of old biker bars.

Pittsburgh is, in other words, a big city with a small-city mindset. Or maybe it’s a small city with big-city ideas. Either way, it is negotiating–sometimes precariously, sometimes with aplomb–a balance between these two spheres. As city councilman Bill Peduto says, “It is figuring out how to become global while staying local.” Which is perhaps the greatest challenge in this age of rapid globalization and economic turmoil.

From WaPo’s “Pittsburgh Shows How the Rust Belt Can Be Polished Up”:

Pittsburgh has shaken off its smoky image, transformed by an industrial collapse that drove out half of the city’s population in the early 1980s. As the Group of 20 gathers Thursday, members are more likely to ask what Pittsburgh can teach them than why they had to come here.The city’s unemployment rate is well below the national average. Wages and housing prices are stable or up. Nearby Cleveland has experienced rampant foreclosures, but here they are relatively uncommon.

The city’s main industries — health care and education — are thriving. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an $8 billion health-care company, employs 50,000 people in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s health services business has almost tripled in size since 1979, creating more than 100,000 jobs.

It is quite a turnaround for a city that lost 120,000 jobs between 1981 and 1984, after its steel industry collapsed. Thousands of young residents fled the city to find work, and unemployment reached 17 percent among those who remained. Much as with Detroit today, many wondered whether Pittsburgh could continue to exist.

“But here we are, still a major center and doing well,” said Christopher Briem, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “The lesson is that there’s life after your defining industry dies.”

From the BBC, with the can’t-resist-the-stupid-pun headline “Pittsburgh Steeled to be Host City”:

Another [thought by the White House] was ensuring that the Pittsburgh story told a positive story about Obama’s America.

Later in the article. . .

And the symbolism?

Well, the population of Pittsburgh seems remarkably on-message. Local politicians, business leaders and folks in cafes and bars will all tell you the same story.

Pittsburgh – the grimy old steel town that was a powerhouse of American heavy industry and made its money under choking clouds of smoke from its mills and mines – is no more.

Locals have been making their feelings clear about declining industries

In its place is a clean, green example of regeneration. A city where pleasure cruisers carry tourists between the wooded banks of its three rivers and where people make a living in services such as health and education or in hi-tech business.

No-one puts it better than Frank Coonelly, president of the city’s baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates: “It’s a remarkable transformation, not just of the economy but of the city itself from an industrial steel town to a city that now really is driven by hi-tech and service sectors.

“People who think of Pittsburgh as a smoky steel town, when they come in here this week they’ll see quite a different thing.”

It feels like the perfect message for the Obama administration to send out from a city which is about become the backdrop for 1,000 TV reporters from around the world.

And a piece from Voice of America on our new wave of immigration in a city that has always been defined by an ethnic makeup of Irish, Italian, “hunky” (those of Eastern European descent) and black:

European immigrants flocked to western Pennsylvania at the dawn of the industrial age to work in the steel mills and factories of Pittsburgh, which was the world-famous “Steel City” well into the 20th century. Over the past 50 years, however, heavy industry has been leaving Pittsburgh, along with tens of thousands of jobs. But over time Pittsburgh essentially “reinvented” itself, and the city is now best known for high-technology enterprises, medical specialties, banks and universities. That transformation has prompted a new wave of immigrants, this time including many from south Asia. Families originally from India now are one of Pittsburgh’s largest ethnic communities, and they are thriving.

Your Humble Author has to admit a certain amount of hometown pride in seeing a city that when I was a child and teenager was written off as another Gary, Indiana or Baltimore in the making become the example for other ailing metropolises to adapt to the 21st century.

Massive Surprise: Taliban-Pakistan Truce Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

In Sunday’s New York Times there was a great article on the recent truce between the Taliban and the Pakistani government in the semi-lawless tribal region of Swat. From the article:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A provincial government official in the disputed area of Swat announced details of what he called a “permanent cease-fire” with the Taliban on Saturday.

But hours later, the most powerful Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, said over his FM radio station that he had only agreed to a 10-day truce and would consider an extension at the end of that period.

The different positions suggested that the truce agreed to five days ago by the national government, under which the army would stop hostilities in exchange for being allowed to put in place a system of Islamic law, remained in flux.

That deal was widely criticized by Western governments and moderate Pakistanis who described it as a government surrender to ruthless militants. Now it appears that Mr. Fazlullah, whose forces have swept through the territory in the past six months, has not signed on to it.

The national government said Monday that it had agreed to a deal with another Taliban leader, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who lacks the powerful forces of Mr. Fazlullah, his son-in-law. Mr. Fazlullah has the backing of the umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban.

Read the rest of this disturbing article here.

Goldberg and Miller Get Their Wires Crossed: Are These Movies Conservative Or Fascist?

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

by Tommy Brown

When I came across an article by the National Review‘s John Miller listing the twenty-five greatest conservative movies,  I got a pretty good laugh out of it. Movies such as Team America: World Police, Groundhog Day and The Dark Knight made the list, with reasons ranging from “they make fun of Hollywood actors” to “it’s a metaphor for Bush and the War on Terror.” Pretty amusing stuff.

Now, before this, his coworker Jonah Goldberg wrote in his seminal wingnut tome Liberal Fascism that many Hollywood movies are fascist in theme or tone. These movies included Dead Poet’s Society, The Matrix and Fight Club. But the really really entertaining part is that a few of the movies on Miller’s conservative movie list made it onto Goldberg’s fascist movie list as well.

My favorite? Forrest Gump. Miller writes:

Forrest Gump (1994): It won an Oscar for best picture — beating Pulp Fiction, a movie that’s far more expressive of Hollywood’s worldview. Tom Hanks plays the title character, an amiable dunce who is far too smart to embrace the lethal values of the 1960s. The love of his life, wonderfully played by Robin Wright Penn, chooses a different path; she becomes a drug-addled hippie, with disastrous results. Forrest’s IQ may be room temperature, but he serves as an unexpected font of wisdom. Put ’em on a Whitman’s Sampler, but Mama Gump’s famous words about life’s being like a box of chocolates ring true.

But in Liberal Fascism, Goldberg takes Mr. Hanks and Co. to task for their film:

Of course, sometimes it is not a psychosexual breakthrough that redeems the white man but a physical abnormality or injury usually resulting in the suppression of his ability to reason. In Forrest Gump a retarded white man is the only reliably moral force during the chaos of the 1960s and the 1970s

It gets better. Miller’s article lauds the films 300 and Braveheart, perennial favorites among conservatives and people who just like to see heads get chopped off:

300 (2007): During the Bush years, Hollywood neglected the heroism of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan — but it did release this action film about martial honor, unflinching courage, and the oft-ignored truth that freedom isn’t free. Beneath a layer of egregious non-history — including goblin-like creatures that belong in a fantasy epic — is a stylized story about the ancient battle of Thermopylae and the Spartan defense of the West’s fledgling institutions. It contrasts a small band of Spartans, motivated by their convictions and a commitment to the law, with a Persian horde that is driven forward by whips. In the words recorded by the real-life Herodotus: “Law is their master, which they fear more than your men[, Xerxes,] fear you.”

Braveheart (1995): Forget the travesty this soaring action film makes of the historical record. Braveheart raised its hero, medieval Scottish warrior William Wallace, to the level of myth and won five Oscars, including best director for Mel Gibson, who played Wallace as he led a spirited revolt against English tyranny. Braveheart taught that freedom is not just worth dying for, but also worth killing for, in defense of hearth and homeland. Six years later, amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Gibson’s message resonated with a generation of American youth who signed up to fight terrorists, instead of inviting them to join a “constructive dialogue.” Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since.

Of course, once again Mr. Goldberg takes the opposite stance, and throws in The Last Samurai for good measure. Quoth Jonah:

Consider such popular films as Braveheart, The Last Samurai and 300. Many conservatives loved them because they depicted resistance to tyranny and celebrated “freedom.” But the “liberty” of these films was not individual liberty per se so much as the freedom of the tribe to behave according to its own relativistic values. The clans of the Scottish Highlands were hardly constitutional republics. Tom Cruise portrays the proto-fascist culture of the Meiji-era samurai as morally superior to that of the decadent West, echoing the German fascination with the Orient. And the Spartans of 300 are a eugenic (and vaguely homoerotic) warrior caste that would have had Hitler applauding in the aisle, despite valiant efforts to Americanize them.

Who to believe, who to believe. You just can’t make this stuff up.

Does It Count If It’s Not Screaming Pundits? Actual Interrogators On The Torture Ban

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

By Tommy Brown


Music to Your Humble Author’s ears. From an article on HuffPo:

Interrogators are lauding President Obama for signing an executive order that will shut down secret CIA prisons and place the use of coercive interrogation techniques completely off limits.

“[The order] closes an unconscionable period in our history, in which those who knew least, professed to know most about interrogations,” said Joe Navarro, a former special agent and supervisor with the FBI.

“Some die-hards on the right — who have never interrogated anyone — are already arguing that forcing interrogations to be conducted within army field manual guidelines is a step backward and will result in ‘coddling’ dangerous terrorists,” retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, who served for more than 30 years as a military intelligence officer, said soon after the order was signed. “This is a common, but uninformed view. Experienced, well-trained, professional interrogators know that interrogation is an art. It is a battle of wits, not muscle. It is a challenge that can be accomplished within the military guidelines without resorting to brutality.”

The way interrogation works is largely misunderstood by the general public and some senior policy makers, according to Navarro, Herrington and other intelligence professionals.

“Interrogation is not like a faucet that you can turn on – and the harder you turn, the more information will pour out,” explains Herrington, who conducted a classified review of detention and interrogation practices in Iraq for the U.S. Army.

I wrote an article about the origin of our “enhanced interrogation techniques” last year, but long story short: The techniques were “reverse-engineered” from SERE, a military program that teaches select soldiers how to resist torture. The problem is, the torture used in the program is based on Communist Russia and Chinese methods designed to elicit false confessions. So, bad news all around.

As everyone within radio range of Earth in the last month has heard, President Obama signed an order prohibiting any torture by American personnel or on prisoners in American custody (keep in mind, though, this does not make extraordinary renditions to third-party countries like Egypt for torture illegal). Now that torture in America is once again illegal-a phrase I never thought I’d type-and whistleblowers are safe from retribution, actual military and intelligence interrogators are emerging to side with the President as the Right screams bloody murder about it.

Like this fellow here:

Getting a suspected terrorist to talk is much more subtle than what one typically sees in the movies or on TV. A new book, How to Break A Terrorist by Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), provides an inside look at how interrogation can yield more information if it is done humanely.

Alexander developed the intelligence that led U.S. forces to al-Zarqawi, the former chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq. While some were using abusive techniques to try to crack detainees, Alexander used a smarter, more sophisticated approach. He learned what the detainees cared about and then used that information to get what he wanted.

And this guy:

Another recently published book, Mission: Black List #1 by Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, shows how the author, an interrogator stationed in Tikrit, developed the intelligence that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. Maddox was hunting one of the most wanted men in Iraq. Like Alexander he did not try to “break” detainees by beating them up; he talked to them.

Maddox was an information junkie who patiently interrogated hundreds of detainees and slowly pieced together a picture that led him to Saddam. He also intuitively understood that, if possible, you want the detainees to not only answer your questions, but also tell you which questions to ask. He induced a detainee who was a close friend (and former driver) of one of Saddam’s closest confidants to join his “team.” The former driver joined Maddox in interrogations. Detainees “broke” the moment that Maddox and the former driver started interrogating them.

Indeed, this is exactly what the FBI has been saying since literally 9/11 plus one, that interrogation is an art and information obtained under torture is not reliable. FBI agents walked out of interrogation permanently at the brand-new Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo shortly after they started, knowing that any association with torture would destroy the Bureau’s credibility in the courtroom for years to come.

And they were right. Ironically, this is the dilemma that now faces the American government with the GTMO detainees, because of the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to give them the minimal level of Geneva protections.

Talkin’ Geopolitics With Joe Biden: Waiting For The Inevitable Gaffe.

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

One of the things that will be most amusing about the Obama administration in the coming years will be watching Joe Biden stick his foot in his mouth, and then make it worse trying to get it out. This is pretty much a guarantee. But at the Munich Security Conference ten days ago, the Vice President was all business, delivering the first major foreign policy speech since the inauguration.

Reuters compiled a last of significant quotes from the speech, and I taking a look at them one by one would be interesting:

“I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration, an administration that is determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world. That new tone is rooted in a strong bipartisanship to meet these common challenges. And we recognise that meeting these challenges is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.”

So he’s taking a more conciliatory, if measured, tone towards foreign policy, but it’s not like this is hard to do after eight years of the fuck-you-if-you-don’t-like-it Bush Doctrine.

ASKING MORE FROM PARTNERS

“As we seek a lasting framework for our common struggle against extremism, we will have to work cooperatively with nations around the world – and we will need your help. For example, we will be asking others to take responsibility for some of those now at Guantanamo as we determine to close it. Our security is shared. So, too, I respectfully suggest, is our responsibility to defend it.”

“America will do more. That’s the good news. The bad news is that America will ask for more from our partners as well.”

A nice little one-two punch at our European allies, making good on the promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but also a put-up-or-shut-up call for help.

AMERICA WILL LISTEN

“We believe that international alliances and organizations do not diminish America’s power. We believe they help us advance our collective security, economic interests and our values. So we’ll engage. We’ll listen. We’ll consult.”

An unsurprising paean to the gurus of the loosely organized Western international order, but again, after Bush, a welcome one. Republicans, of course, will use this as a bludgeon to beat Obama about the head and neck with.

USING FORCE

“Our administration has set ambitious goals … to advance democracy not through its imposition by force from the outside, but by working with moderates in government and civil society to build the institutions that will protect freedom.”

“As America renews our emphasis on diplomacy, development, democracy and preserving our planet, we will ask our allies to rethink some of their own approaches – including their willingness to use force when all else fails.”

This is a pretty fascinating development, because it’s not exactly abandoning the “democracy is great for everyone” aspect of the Bush Doctrine, which was surprising to Your Humble Author;  they should be running away screaming from any of Bush’s policies. Also, the second quote seems to imply that the preemptive war doctrine aspect is also still in effect,  its’ just implied. These are not the improvements I was hoping for: America always has preemptive war in its pocket (though it will be much more difficult now), there’s no reason to state it or even subtly imply that we intend to keep it. Best left unsaid.

IRAN

“The Iranian people are a great people. The Persian civilization is a great civilization. But Iran has acted in ways that are not conducive to peace in the region or to the prosperity of its people; its illicit nuclear program is but one of those manifestations. Our administration is reviewing policy toward Iran, but this much is clear: We will be willing to talk.”

“We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.”

Hopefully this is the first shot fired across the bow of Iran in efforts to start a dialogue, beginning with the State Department and hopefully ending at the White House. A carrot-and-stick approach is probably the only way to contain Iran’s ambitions nuclear-wise; there’s no way to stop them from developing nuclear weapons, but you can delay it. The focus on Iran’s atomic ambitions is baffling to me, when the already currently nuke-capable Pakistan is the far greater danger.

ISRAEL

“It is long time past for us to secure a just Two State solution. We will work to achieve it, and to defeat the extremists who would perpetuate the conflict. And, building on the positive elements of the Arab Peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia, we will work toward a broader regional peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.”

More of the usual. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

AFGHANISTAN

“The result must be a comprehensive strategy for which we all take responsibility that brings together our civilian and military resources that prevents a terrorist safe haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future. But no strategy for Afghanistan, in my humble opinion, can succeed without Pakistan.”

If Joe were being honest, this quote would end with, “And Pakistan is not going to help us.” Pakistan’s civilian government is now back in the hands of the folks who created and funded the Taliban to begin with, and the military is run by Pervez Musharraf’s right-hand man; naturally, the deeply Islamist armed forces, secret police and fundamentalist political parties that support them are all covertly aiding the Taliban, if not Al Qaeda.

This statement is also more nation-building nonsense about Afghanistan, where a surge along the borderlands has less of a chance of succeeding than it’s already-improbably cousin in Iraq. Afghans as a whole aren’t too keen about the whole idea of a central government in general, to say nothing about military occupation by infidels.  Admittedly, I do agree that there does need to be a nation-building apparatus in the State Department that coordinates with the military. After all, we’re going to go to war again at some point, and the general consensus these days is that after you blow it up you have to fix it too.

MUSLIM WORLD

“America will extend a hand, as the President has said, to those who unclench their fists.”

“In the Muslim world, a small and I believe very small, number of terrorists are beyond the call of reason. We will and we must defeat them. But hundreds of millions of hearts and minds in the Muslim world share the values we hold dear. We must reach them.”

The VP is of course being polite with the facts, but the truth is that probably ten percent of Muslims (a not-insignificant hundred sixty million people) are at least passive supporters of what we in the West call “Islamism.” The Sunni Ikhwan, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, is organized politically in at least a dozen Middle Eastern countries and often held down through repressive policies by their host government; Al Qaeda has morphed into a worldwide ideology in the last seven years despite the actual group’s limited resources, based almost solely on Osama bin Laden’s marketing as a latter-day Saladin; The Taliban, their Pakistani franchise and the Kashmir jihadists all enjoy massive popular support; the Shi’ite Hizb’allah in Lebanon is widely admired by Arabs even of other religious persuasions for forcing Israel to end a twenty-year occupation of the Galilee.

These are the exact words the Bush Administration was mouthing for two full terms, so I’ll believe it when it’s backed up with an actually effective hearts and minds campaign.

NATO

“Our Alliance must be better equipped to help stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons, to tackle terrorism and cyber-security, to expand the writ of energy security and to act in and out of area more effectively.”

The only worrying part of this is the “expand the writ of energy security” part, because it’s an obvious shot at Russia’s current stinginess with shipping natural gas to Europe and the Near Abroad. One wonders what “acting in and out of area more effectively” really means.

MISSILE DEFENCE

“We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven and it is cost effective. We will do so in consultation with you our NATO allies and with Russia.”

This is just plain stupid, sticking our finger in the Russian’s eye for no good reason. Everyone knows the real reason for so-called missile defense in Eastern Europe is to intimidate the Bear into backing off from the Near Abroad countries. Someone get back to me when we actually have a missile interceptor that can stop an ICBM or IRBM that uses countermeasures.

RUSSIA

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It’s time, to paraphrase President Obama, to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.”

This doesn’t really mean anything besides, “We are unwilling or unable to discuss our strategy for Russia.”

So out of the starting gate, Obama’s foreign policy is looking like a mixed bag. As a president who’s almost guaranteed to have a doctrine named after him, this needs to be at least as much of a focal point of the administration as the economy. Things cannot be allowed to drift, a la the first Clinton term, because the consequences could be catastrophic. America’s standing in the world means more and more in an increasingly close-knit world, and repairing it better be at least Job Two on Obama’s to-do list. Ending “enhanced interrogation techniques” and closing Gitmo is a good start though, and hopefully picking foreing policy guru Biden as Vice President (where he inherits a national security staff larger than the National Security Council’s thanks to Dick Cheney) means they plan on taking this seriously.

By This Definition, What Isn’t Fascism?

Monday, February 9th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

So I finally picked up a copy of Liberal Fascism from the library on a lark, a tome authored by my favorite nepotistic neoconservative, Jonah Goldberg. The book’s thesis, of course, is that fascism is a left-wing ideology (and, thus, modern American liberals are “smiley-face fascists”). Now I haven’t even gotten beyond the first chapter, because in the introduction he admits that there is no concrete definition for fascism, but then proceeds to lay out what he feels are the similarities between political movements that make them fascist:

1. The quest for community.

2. The urge to “get beyond” politics

3. Faith in the perfectability of man and the authority of experts

4. An obsession with the aesthetics of youth and the “cult of action.”

5. The need for a powerful state to coordinate society

6. The belief in the ability to create a better world.

I leave it to the reader to contemplate the depths of madness required for those to be your prerequsites for fascism.

(And, yes, I know this was done a million times when the book came out, but it still made my jaw drop)

A Gun To His Own Head: How Pervez Musharraf Played America

Monday, February 9th, 2009

By Tommy Brown

“Pakistan now negotiates with its allies and friends by pointing a gun to its own head,” an anonymous diplomat is quoted as saying in Stephen Cohen’s The Idea of Pakistan, and there is probably not a more pithy and accurate perception of America’s relationship with the turbulent Muslim nation and its former generalissimo, the wily and unpredictable Pervez Musharraf. For seven-plus years Pakistan has been one of America’s key strategic allies in the “War on Terror,”, and from 9/11 until his resignation as president on 18 August 2008, Musharraf ruthlessly pursued what he perceived to be his own nation’s interests while paying naught but lip service to his benefactors in Washington. The severity of the situation is little-known outside of political circles, but the consequences could be catastrophic (and possible apocalyptic) for the entire region between Kazakhstan and India.

Understanding why Musharraf acted the way he did is impossible without first grasping the two most important factors in his political life: the military and the disputed region of Kashmir. The military and its attendant secret police, the Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, have run Pakistan virtually since its inception, even when civilian governments were putatively in charge.  And unlike the “Deep State” Turkish military, which turns the Ankara government’s rudder in a more secular direction when radical Islam occasionally pops up, the Pakistani armed forces rely on the support of a coalition of Islamist political parties.  The fact that the army and ISI are popularly perceived (in America at any rate) as the secular bulwark against the rising tide of Islamic extremism is probably the most successful propaganda operation of the 21st Century, because nothing could be further from the truth.

This Is How He Balled

The answer to Musharraf’s support for violent extremists inside his own country lies in Kashmir, the majority-Muslim province straddling the border between Pakistan and India. Every single political issue in Pakistan must be seen through the lens of Kashmir, from their terse nuclear standoff with India to the ISI’s active support of the Taliban. Indeed, Musharraf first gained international prominence in the late Nineties as the general who recklessly started the Kargil War in Kashmir, which came within a hair’s-breadth of leading to atomic winter over South Asia, and cemented his reputation as both an ardent nationalist and being capricious and unpredictable

When questioned about why Pakistan had done a total one-eighty on their relationship with America following 9/11, Musharraf simply replied, “Our national interest has changed.” But it hadn’t changed that much. Cracking down on radical Islamist terrorists was a total nonstarter for the self-styled Chief Executive: His own intelligence service had basically created and put the Taliban into power, and his power base was very keen to continue the proxy war in Kashmir with extremist groups in the south.  So after the requisite bowing and scraping to the Bush Administration before and during the Afghan War, Musharraf freely allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters to cross the border into the hinterlands of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. At the same time, he was assuring Washington and the world that he was sealing off the escape routes, which was ludicrous on its face, because an actual border between Afghanistan and Pakistan only existed in the mind of a long-dead Englishman named Durand.

The general played the game very shrewdly: The Islamist-dominated ISI assisted the CIA in hunting down AQ operatives south of the borderlands, for which Musharraf received billions of dollars in aid and military support, a good portion of which ended up financing the Taliban for its insurgency in Afghanistan, all the while denying that they existed in FATA at all. Almost every single time before he met with Americans, Afghanis or the United Nations, there would always be a much-hyped “crackdown on insurgents” to allow him to keep face. It was also a good excuse to disappear or jail nationalist Baloch and Sindhi rebels who were giving his regime a headache in the southwest.

All Fall Down

Of course, while Musharraf happy-talked the international community, the Islamists were pursuing totally different interests. Mullah Omar set up his Taliban shura (ruling council) in the city of Quetta, with no government interference as long as he kept it a non-Arab, non-AQ organization, at least officially.  These rules did not apply to FATA; Al Qaeda led the efforts to “Talibanize” the Pashtun border regions from South Waziristan to the North-West Frontier Province. Eventually, they forged links with the Kashmir groups and even the nationalist insurgencies that were not explicitly Islamist. Islamic extremism in Pakistan had become, in the words of journalist Ahmed Rashid, a “multilayered terrorist cake,” starting with the Talibanized Pashtun tribesmen in FATA, who provided a bolthole and logistics; the Afghan Taliban who settled there after the war; Sunni militants from the Middle East, Central Asia, Chechnya and Kashmir who wanted to be where the jihad was; and finally the Arabs, from Al Qaeda’s shura (bin Laden et al.) to those trusted to protect them.

The jihadists, as per usual, weren’t very grateful, still viewing Musharraf as a secular apostate leader along the lines of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Despite his largesse towards jihadists in general, there were two assassination attempts against him in 2003, one of which was narrowly foiled by American-supplied signal jammers. This did not derail his long-term strategy of mostly talk and some ceremonial action, despite the irony of the fact his intelligence service and military were assisting the same people trying to kill him. Any criticism of his weak counterterrorism policies was itself countered with the “devil you know” argument: Better a man like Musharraf in charge, then an unknown quantity, and if he was pushed too hard, his regime would collapse.

By 2006, the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda had reconstituted their strength to the point that they launched an all-out offensive in southern Afghanistan, focusing on the city of Kandahar and the opium-rich Hemland Province. While they were repulsed in the end, and it was a significant tactical defeat by any measure, it was a propaganda coup on par with Tet that shocked both the global media and the Afghans into realizing that the Taliban was much more powerful, and much more of a threat, than the conventional wisdom held them to be. Musharraf, pushed into action by White House pressure and world opinion, moved the Pakistani military (what little he was willing to spare from the Indian border) into the borderlands, but met with very little success. The Taliban continued to strike into Afghanistan and then retreat across the borderlands, and the occasional Hellfire missile strike from a Predator or Special Forces team crossing into Pakistan was not going to make much of a difference.

Lawyers > Guns And Money

It was few months later that Musharraf made the first serious mistake that eventually led to his downfall: He spat in the eye of the legal profession. On 13 March 2007, he suspended the Chief Justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court on the traditional Third World charge of Attempted Judicial Enforcement In A Banana Republic. A dangerously honest Court might have prevented Musharraf from winning the upcoming presidential election in which he hoped to legitimize his rule. Across the country, lawyers and judges formed a protest group, Judicial Activism, boycotting all court proceedings and rallying in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and even fundamentalist Quetta. Four months later, amid these massive protests, the Chief Justice was reinstated.

The Chief Executive knew that his grip on power was slipping away; shortly after his legal woes, the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident occurred. The week-long siege, organized by Talibanized students who had declared an alternate sharia-based legal system, showed the world that Islamists were much more powerful in Pakistan than had been believed. Musharraf himself was now besieged on all sides, with the legal system calling for his resignation as army chief, Chief Executive or both, and the return of his two mortal political enemies, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, all the while trying to win the upcoming presidential election

Still, on 28 September 2007, Pervez Musharraf was elected President of Pakistan by plebiscite. Several days later, he stepped down as head of the armed forces, appointing his right hand man. But hopes for a return to normalcy were dashed when he declared a state of emergency in November, suspending the Constitution, putting the Supreme Court under house arrest and taking control of the media outlets. Unrest was further intensified by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had deposed as prime minister in the 1999 coup, about a week before general elections were to be held. The elections were delayed until March.

Musharraf spoke of “an era of democracy” and putting Pakistan “on the track of development,” but the 2008 elections destroyed any authority he had left. The Pakistan People’s Party of the martyred Bhutto and Sharif’s Pakistani Muslim League-N combined to win sixty-three percent of the votes, putting their coalition in the governmental driver’s seat. Under threat of impeachment by the new government, President Musharraf resigned his position after only five months of legitimate rule, replaced by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

The Perfect Storm

In the final analysis, Musharraf’s rule from the start of the “War on Terror” until his resignation can only be deemed a failure, not just for American interests but for Pakistani ones also. Secure in the tribal hinterlands, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have not only reconstituted, but have spun off a Pakistani Taliban franchise and forged close links with the Kashmiri terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba. Lashkar and the Taliban, once fully-owned subsidiaries of the ISI and the military, have turned on their former masters with a vengeance, vowing to destroy the secular apostate government. The recent Mumbai attacks may signal that they are attempting to provoke a full-out war with India to accomplish this, which could very easily turn into a nuclear exchange.

America’s prospects in Pakistan are even bleaker, from the standpoint of terrorism. Through our willful blindness concerning Musharraf and our bafflingly counterproductive actions, we have turned a semi-stable, secular military dictatorship into a country whose government is on the brink of dissolution, thanks to a homegrown Islamist movement assisted by sympathizers in military/intelligence circles; where the president and the majority party are the ones who funded the Afghan Taliban movement in the first place; where Al Qaeda has reconstituted to pre-9/11 strength and has rebuilt its training-camp network and leadership. And while the average person had little idea that any of these events were occurring, the Bush Administration and both the State and Defense Departments were well aware of these developments and turned a blind eye to them..

In short, Pakistan makes Iran, with its ruthless but pragmatic mullahs attempting to build a nuclear weapon, look like Canada in comparison. Pakistan has become the nightmare nexus we have been warned about since 9/11: nuclear weapons, a government on the verge of an Islamist revolution, and terrorist groups working unchecked inside its borders

Flashpoint: Kirkuk, Or Why Mosul Isn’t The Real Problem

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

A little backstory from the New York Time’s article on the Mosul elections the day before they took place:

“This is our fate,” Mohammed Shakir, 67, the top candidate running for the local council with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said post-boom a few days before the provincial elections here. “There is no politics when there is chaos and car bombing.”

Around a largely quiet Iraq, the elections on Saturday — considered crucial as the first widely contested balloting since the American invasion in 2003 — will take place in something like normality.

But in Mosul, the chief city in the north, long torn between Arabs and Kurds, the violence has not ended. A civilian died in this car bombing. A day later a bomb exploded down the street from the Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters, killing four Iraqi soldiers.

This is the test of the provincial elections in Mosul, a last bastion of the Sunni and jihadi insurgency: whether a political system that more closely reflects local ethnic and sectarian splits will be a first step toward stability. The issue is the same in places around Iraq where calm is still fragile: whether democracy can trump violence.

There are some encouraging signs here in Mosul, even if many people fear the elections are simply another means for Arabs and Kurds to continue their bloody struggle over land, oil and sovereignty. Certainly there is no progress on the more threatening issue of Kirkuk, a city to the southeast so full of oil and ethnic tension that elections there were postponed.

The city of Mosul, located in northern Iraq on the border of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is a sort of Cold War Berlin on the Tigris, with the river acting as the wall between a mostly Arab west bank and a mostly Kurdish east bank.  After their forced eviction from al Anbar and the rest of the Sunni Triangle last year, the nationalist and jihadi insurgents have alit upon Mosul as a potential flashpoint in the ongoing Iraqi sectarian drama. And it had been working too, because due to the Sunni boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, the Kurds, who comprise about a third of the population, controlled more than two-thirds of the local legislature and thus the city. This led to lots of grumbling and resentment from the local Arabs, who mostly view Kurds as foreigners.

The results of the elections have changed the dynamics considerably. From the Associated Press article:

Furthermore, Sunni Arabs appear to have regained power at the expense of the Kurds in the volatile Mosul area, the last remaining battlefield between U.S. troops and Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq.

That could help take the steam out of the Sunni insurgency there if the Sunni community in Mosul feels it has a stake in the local government.

It could also sharpen tensions between the government and the powerful Kurdish parties that are already estranged from the national leadership in Baghdad.

Much will depend on the margin of victory in each of the 14 provinces where voting was held. A low turnout of 51 percent nationwide also signaled a high level of apathy and frustration among Iraqis that politicians had failed them.

If the margins prove narrow, winners and second-place finishers could end up with the same number of council seats. A second-place finisher could strike enough deals with minor parties to control the local government, even without winning the biggest share of the votes.

That could leave the religious parties — which have close ties to Iraqi security services — with enough power to recoup in time for national parliamentary elections by the end of the year.

The dealmaking and political conniving that will play out in the coming weeks could threaten what the U.S. wants most out of the election — stability.

While the Mosul outcome seems on its face to be a good thing, “stability” being the Road Runner America’s Wile E. Coyote has been chasing for five-plus years, most likely it will exacerbate tensions throughout the city. The jihadists are pissed because they don’t want representative democracy beyond “one man, one vote, one time.” The Sunni fundamentalists are pissed because it was the secular nationalists that won most of the votes. The secular Sunnis are pissed because of the intimidation from the Islamist parties (in the Sunni Triangle, the Sons of Iraq are threatening war if the fundamentalists come out on top in the elections) and the Kurds’ possessive attitude towards the whole region. The Kurds are pissed because they consider Mosul to be a traditionally Kurdish city “Arabized” by Saddam Hussein and want it to be part of Kurdistan. Despite the nonstop happytalk these last few days about the elections, this is merely the reshuffling of the pieces on the board before the next sectarian clash.

The worst part of the whole thing is, the Mosul vote is just the dress rehearsal for the real electoral problem in the region, and the biggest threat to the stability of northern Iraq: Kirkuk. To the Kurds, it is their Jerusalem; during the Anfal, Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the Eighties, Kurds were given two choices: Leave the city and travel north into the mountains, or die. Large parts of the city were razed to the ground and tens of thousands of Shi’ites from the south were settled there to Arabize the population. Kirkuk was the rallying cry for Kurdish independence all through the pre-war years, the symbol of what they had lost under the Ba’athist government. The original pre-2003 Kurdish constitution named Kirkuk as the capital of Kurdistan, even though it was not under their control.

Since the regime collapsed under the weight of American tanks in 2003, it has been the most explosive issue between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. Despite numerous calls for a referendum to determine the status of the city, the vast oil wealth located there has left the central government stalled, divided and unwilling to sanction it. No matter what happens, one side or the other is going to be seriously unhappy, which is why in our post-election euphoria we have decided to ignore the fact that the Kirkuk vote has been delayed numerous times because of the looming threat of sectarian violence. And with the Sunnis (specifically the secular nationalists who used to run the government that attempted to exterminate the Kurdish people) retaking power in northern Iraq, the situation is only going to become more and more unstable the longer the referendum is held off. America ignores this at its own risk.<-->