Posts Tagged ‘Islamists’

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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.<-->

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The Five-State Solution: Idealism Trumps Reality Yet Again Concerning Israel

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

by Tommy Brown

The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman,  he of the fabled Friedman Unit (“The next six months in Iraq. . . .”), has written yet another slightly creepy op-ed where he pretends to be a foreign leader writing to the American president. This time he’s pretending to be Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdullah:

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your inauguration and for quickly dispatching your new envoy, George Mitchell, a good man, to the Middle East. I wish Mitchell could resume where he left off eight years ago, but the death of Arafat, the decline of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon, the 2009 Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, the continued expansion of colonial Israeli settlements and the deepening involvement of Iran with Hamas and Hezbollah have all created a new reality.

Specifically, the Palestinian Authority is in no position today to assume control of the West Bank, Hamas is incapable of managing Gaza and the introduction of rockets provided by Iran to Hamas has created a situation whereby Israel won’t turn over the West Bank to any Palestinians now because it fears Hamas would use it to launch rockets on Israel’s international airport. But if we do nothing, Zionist settlers would devour the rest of the West Bank and holy Jerusalem. What can be done?

I am proposing what I would call a five-state solution:

I’d like to tackle each part of the solution he proposes separately. They are idealistic, noble and totally unconnected from reality.

1. Israel agrees in principle to withdraw from every inch of the West Bank and Arab districts of East Jerusalem, as it has from Gaza. Any territories Israel might retain in the West Bank for its settlers would have to be swapped — inch for inch — with land from Israel proper.

Total withdrawal for the West Bank, for one, is a total nonstarter. Israel relies on the headwaters of the Jordan River (inconveniently located within the Occupied Territories) for the majority of its water. This is naturally a major security interest for the Israelis; they fought a war with the Arab League over the attempted damming of the Jordan, water being a big deal in the desert, go figure.

The other two are just as fantastic. While there is the chance that Israel would recognize mostly-Arab East Jerusalem as the ceremonial capital of a Palestinian state, there is no way in hell they are going to give up control of probably the most holy city in the world, or let it be divided Berlin-style that way it was between Israel and Jordan before the Six Day War of 1967.

Regarding a land-swap, settler territory for actual Israeli land to become part of the Palestinian Authority: The fundamentalist right wing in Israel, the characters who are the force behind the attempt to settle the entire area that was once ancient Judea and Samarra, will never ever let an inch of Israeli territory be given to the Palestinians. They’re not even that hot on giving them land in the Occupied Territories. And they have never shied away from violence to prevent this; Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and was assassinated shortly afterward by a “lone gunman” right-wing Zionist; Ariel Sharon withdrew the settlements from the Gaza Strip and shortly afterwards fell victim to a mysterious stroke (I’m no conspiracy theorist, but still).

2. The Palestinians — Hamas and Fatah — agree to form a national unity government. This government then agrees to accept a limited number of Egyptian troops and police to help Palestinians secure Gaza and monitor its borders, as well as Jordanian troops and police to do the same in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority would agree to five-year “security assistance programs” with Egypt in Gaza and with Jordan in the West Bank.

With Egypt and Jordan helping to maintain order, Palestinians could focus on building their own credible security and political institutions to support their full independence at the end of five years.

The ground truth is that Hamas and Fatah are locked in a civil war for control of the Occupied Territories (leaving America in the bizarre position of financially backing Fatah when we pushed for the elections that knocked them out of power and started the war in the first place). Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamist group, while Fatah, the former Palestinian Liberation Organization, is a secular nationalist organization composed of Muslims. Huge difference. There is pretty much zero chance of the two reaching any sort of power-sharing agreement, as Hamas considers Fatah to be apostate rulers.

The idea that the Israelis letting Jordanian security forces into the West Bank is similarly insane; the Israelis took the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the first place. It’s never ever ever going to happen. And despite the Camp David Accords with Egypt, letting them put guys with guns into the Territories is another fantasy. Despite their mutual diplomatic recognition and the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the received wisdom in Israel is that President Hosni Mubarak pays but lip service to the agreement, while turning a blind eye to the smugglers supplying Gaza despite the blockade.

3. Israel would engage in a phased withdrawal over these five years from all of its settlements in the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem — except those agreed to be granted to Israel as part of land swaps — at the same pace that the Palestinians meet the security and governance metrics agreed to in advance by all the parties. The U.S. would be the sole arbiter of whether the metrics have been met by both sides.

Removing the settlements is not a bad idea at all, but, as noted above, attempting to give the Palestinians their own land or withdraw the settlements seems to lead to the death or incapacitation of Israeli prime ministers. And if Bibi Netanyahu of the Likud Party becomes PM, this will become another fantasy.

The real issue with this one is that it somehow assumes that either the Palestinians or the Israelis will somehow view America as some kind of impartial judge after eight years of abandoning the role of mediator and siding with the Israelis entirely. Not to mention the aforementioned elections that made Hamas the legitimate government of the Territories. Less than a few weeks ago, during the Gaza War, Prime Minister Olmert actually demanded to speak with President Bush and convinced him not to sign onto to a UN-brokered ceasefire that Condi Rice, his Secretary of State, had drafted the majority of. Something tells me Israel is going to attempt to continue this kind of relationship, though with the new administration it’s totally up in the air. And both Fatah and Hamas view America as betrayers of their interests more than ever.

4. Saudi Arabia would pay all the costs of the Egyptian and Jordanian trustees, plus a $1 billion a year service fee to each country — as well as all the budgetary needs of the Palestinian Authority. The entire plan would be based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and blessed by the U.N. Security Council.

This one is my favorite suggestion of Friedman’s, for a couple reasons. One, Saudi Arabia is already the major funder of both Fatah and Hamas. They have financed the PLO and other resistance groups since the creation of Israel in 1948, financed the Arab League in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and their resident religious nuts (which is most of the country) strongly supported and backed Hamas during the still-smoldering Gaza War.

Despite King ‘Abdullah’s profession that he wants peace, and it is little known that in 2003 he offered diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for the US dropping its planned invasion of Iraq, his proposals always contain enough caveats that make them basically impossible to implement. This is remarkably similar to former President Bush’s “road map for peace,” in which Israel quietly logged seventeen “reservations” about the plan that effectively scuttled it.

And “basing the entire plan” on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 is the problem to begin with, because they call for Israel’s total withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, which would include returning the Golan Heights to Syria (not a huge deal) and returning the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Jordanians. As discussed in detail above, the West Bank is too important to Israel’s strategic interests and they will never accept a divided Jerusalem again. It also means that the Jordanian security forces Friedman proposes would not just be there to help the Palestinians, but would be a precursor to Jordan’s eventual reintegration of the territory into their country.

And this is from supposedly one of the finest foreign policy minds in the country?

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Autocracy Meets Facebook, Or How The Internets Ate Egypt

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

Egypt has been one of America’s staunchest allies since we wooed them away from the Soviets after the disaster that was the Yom Kippur War. The billions in aid we give them ensure their gratitude. The country is theoretically a democracy of some sort, but in reality it is a brutal military government that brooks no political dissent or opposition parties, especially concerning their current maximum leader, Hosni Mubarak.

The secular pan-Arab movement was first created in Egypt, under the watchful eye of original gangster Gamal Abdel Nasser, and spread across the Middle East throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Its utter failure as a political system, following two crushing defeats by Israel and the Camp David Accords, is one of the key reasons political Islamists have enjoyed such resurgence in the last three decades. Along with Syria, it is one of the last countries to still govern by what is generally considered a failed ideology.

But things are changing, thanks to the spread of internet social networking, as pointed out by this New York Times article:

Anti-Israel demonstrations in Arab capitals are nothing new. From Amman to Riyadh, governments have long viewed protests against Israel as a useful safety valve to allow citizens to let off steam without addressing grievances closer to home. But in Egypt, this time, the protests were different: some of the anger was aimed directly at the government of President Hosni Mubarak. In defiance of threats from the police, and in contravention of a national taboo, some demonstrators chanted slogans against Mubarak, condemning his government for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel, for exporting natural gas to the country and for restricting movement through Egypt’s border with Gaza.
As the street protests went on, young Egyptians also were mobilizing and venting their anger over Gaza on what would, until recently, have seemed an unlikely venue: Facebook, the social-networking site. In most countries in the Arab world, Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians has Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group are on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. This month, hundreds of Egyptian Facebook members, in private homes and at Internet cafes, have set up Gaza-related “groups.” Most expressed hatred for Israel and the United States, but each one had its own focus. Some sought to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza, some criticized the Egyptian government, some criticized other Arab countries for blaming Egypt for the conflict and still others railed against Hamas. When I sat down in the middle of January with an Arabic-language translator to look through Facebook, we found one new group with almost 2,000 members called “I’m sure I can find 1,000,000 members who hate Israel!!!” and another called “With all due respect, Gaza, I don’t support you,” which blamed Palestinian suffering on Hamas and lamented the recent shooting of two Egyptian border guards, which had been attributed to Hamas fire. Another group implored God to “destroy and burn the hearts of the Zionists.” Some Egyptian Facebook users had joined all three groups.

So, through the magic of the interwebs, your activist Egyptian youngster can now criticize the Mubarak government (or the Israelis or Hamas) without being hauled away by the Mukhabarat in the middle of the night. This is undoubtedly a positive development, as there seems to be a genuine thirst for real democracy in the country. In fact, Hosni Mubarak was worried enough to pull a head-fake of massive proportions in 2005, when he agreed to allow a real election with actual opposition parties; then, when the dissenters came out of the woodwork, he had them jailed, exiled or disappeared.

Now, the downside: The best-organized resistance to the Mubarak junta is the Ikwhan al Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamist organization that plays Sinn Fein to Al Qaeda’s and Hamas’ IRA. Any loosening of the brutal Egyptian regime would likely lead to large political gains for the Ikwhan and people who want an Islamic government in general. Thus, Mubarak uses the same “devil you know” argument with America employed by Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf: I might be bad, and repressive, but take me out of power and the Islamists will be running the country tomorrow.

A Facebook-organized democratic resistance to the Egyptian government is already coalescing. The trick is, how do you promote the people who want pluralistic democracy while restraining the groups that want to install a Saudi-style theocracy?<–>

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The Grim Market For Historical Revisionism: “Bush Won Iraq” Begins In Earnest

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

Your Humble Author’s jaw damn near hit the ground when I saw this article by the Wall Street Journal‘s William McGurn, titled, of all things, “Bush’s Real Sin Was Winning In Iraq.” From the article:

In a few hours, George W. Bush will walk out of the Oval Office for the last time as president. As he leaves, he carries with him the near-universal opprobrium of the permanent class that inhabits our nation’s capital. Yet perhaps the most important reason for this unpopularity is the one least commented on.

Here’s a hint: It’s not because of his failures. To the contrary, Mr. Bush’s disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.

Here in the afterglow of the turnaround led by Gen. David Petraeus, it’s easy to forget what the smart set was saying two years ago — and how categorical they all were in their certainty. The president was a simpleton, it was agreed. Didn’t he know that Iraq was a civil war, and the only answer was to get out as fast as we could?

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the man who will be sworn in as vice president today — didn’t limit himself to his own opinion. Days before the president announced the surge, Joe Biden suggested to the Washington Post he knew the president’s people had also concluded the war was lost. They were, he said, just trying to “keep it from totally collapsing” until they could “hand it off to the next guy.”

This is the kind of crazy political revisionism one would expect from Bushie partisans desperate to salvge some kind of legacy for the former President, who-with the exception of tax cuts that look monumentally stupid in retrospect-doesn’t have much have much to hang his hat on. Most of the items snidely referred to as untruths by Mr. McGurn are in fact true. To wit:

George Bush is indeed despised by the Beltway chattering class, but also by the great majority of the American populace; the former because of Bush’s utter disdain for them, and the latter because his administration can be only charitably described as a resounding disappointment. Americans love the underdog, but in the end, they love winners more. And for all the talk of “how history will view him” aside, so far Bush equals massive fail, especially on Iraq.

As I commented on in my article A Tale of Three Cities, conservative partisans have decided that because after five-plus years we managed to get a handle on the very  basics of the security situation (as in, a significant reduction in jihadists driving suicide truck bombs into crowded markets), we have “won” Iraq. Now this is just a rhetorical trick based off of the “What does victory in Iraq mean?” talking point bandied about by the Left, but it seems to me that there was a pretty simple scenario for victory: We would overthrow Saddam Hussein, and Iraq would become a secular Western-style democracy, multiethnic and nonsectarian, that would serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the autocratic Middle East.

We have not come close to accomplishing any of these objectives. And yet, because basic security has been partially restored (even though basic services like water and electricity haven’t) we’ve won in Iraq? What am I missing?

Also, one might wonder that if there was no civil war, what was up with all the Sunnis abducted by cops and soldiers and murdered? The people who had power drills stuck through their foreheads and then were dumped in the street with their ID card plainly visible to show their religious affiliation? The fact that in less than three years, Baghdad went from being fifty percent Sunni to seventy-five percent, or that mixed-sect neighborhoods no longer exist there?

And the fact is, Joe Biden was right. The point of the surge was to wrap Iraq in duct tape, with troop levels they knew couldn’t be maintained for more than a couple of years, until it could be passed onto the next administration. The political benchmarks laid out by the author of the surge plan, Frederick Kagan, never even came close to fruition. The Iraqi central government remains paralyzed even on important issues like oil-revenue sharing and the status of the city of Kirkuk (the Kurdish Jerusalem); the Iranian-allied theocratic Shi’ites that run the central government are fighting the nationalist theocratic Shi’ites that want to run the country; the Sunnis have formed their own militias, funded and supplied by us, and have no intention of playing nice with the Shi’a; and the Kurds are one vote they don’t like away from declaring independence.

If this is victory, I would hate to see what defeat would have looked like.

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Post-Feminist Foreign Policy: Liberal Internationalism In Action

Monday, January 26th, 2009

by Tommy Brown

From a really bizarre article in the online version of Newsweek by Anna Quindlen, titled “The End of Swagger:”

As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton begin to use their uncommon authority and intelligence to implement a new American international agenda, it might behoove them to read a speech given some years ago in Beijing. It read in part: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights for one and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely—and the right to be heard. Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries if we want freedom and democracy to thrive and endure.”

Secretary Clinton was first lady when she spoke those words at a United Nations conference on women in 1995. Some of the participants wept to hear an influential American commit to a view of the world so many of them shared: that the way for nations to prosper was to pay attention to women’s rights, women’s welfare and women’s concerns.

A noble cause, to be sure, but one that immediately runs up against the brick wall of reality, in that the only belief in women’s rights that most countries where the Western Enlightenment never penetrated have is that a woman has a right to bear children and serve her husband. While of course it is a noble cause to push for women’s rights worldwide, Your Humble Author seems to recall that this particular message was a key one in both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, and in the end, turned out to be so much horse manure. And this is in a situation where we invaded, broke down their old society, and re-wrote their laws. Accomplishing it through less direct means like diplomacy may be a tad more difficult.

Now, I’m sure this will offend some (if not most) people, but foreign policy is not missionary work, and our relationships with unpleasant regimes shouldn’t hinge on whether women have to wear the burqa or not. I’m all for soft diplomatic power to encourage women’s rights, and using the UN to push for it, in the same manner that we led the fight against human rights violations (until recently). But in matters where important national security interests are at stake, this is the definition of a non-issue.

A story most don’t know is that the main roadblock towards America extending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government, and thus being able to negotiate with them in the years before 9/11, was that a group led by Mavis Leno (wife of Tonight Show host Jay) lobbied and convinced then-President Clinton that recognition should be denied until the Taliban gave their women Western-style civil rights. The fact that everyone in Afghanistan lacked any sort of Enlightenment-style human rights seems to have escaped everyone involved.

But here’s where the article gets a bit bizarre:

Those are the kinds of conclusions that put people’s backs up, particularly if those people happen to be male. Isn’t it just another form of sexism, they argue, to suggest that women are better, or different? Hasn’t Secretary Clinton shown herself to possess a killer instinct as finally honed as that of any male counterpart? Yes, she has, and perhaps now that everyone knows she can be the toughest person in the room, she is uniquely positioned to go the other way. “Soft diplomacy could be her greatest strength,” says Kavita Ramdas, president of the Global Fund for Women. “This is the time to get rid of militarism as a dominant theme, not only because it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t work.”

It truly makes one wonder about the premise for this entire article, considering that the former Secretary of State passing the torch to Hillary Clinton is also a woman (though perhaps because she is a Republican it does not count).  So what does Madam Clinton being a woman have to do with getting ridding of “militarism as a dominant theme” and moving towards soft diplomacy? Obviously a woman can be just as hawkish as a man, in the case of both Condi and Hillary, and the author points that out the latter before making a totally contradictory point.

In the end, this is a difference of ideology, not yet another skirmish in the Battle of the Sexes. The Bush administration was composed of neoconservative hawks; the Obama administration is composed mostly of neoliberal hawks with the occasional internationalist thrown in.  This makes it pretty likely that negotiation is going to take a dominant position over militarism and saber-rattling, but I am at a loss as to why the SecState being a woman has anything to do with it.

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