Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

The Obama Foreign-Policy “Successes”

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Read More

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Yes, Obama has removed U.S. troops from Iraq–but the consequences have been disastrous. Violence is back up to 2008 levels and al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is back in control of major chunks of Anbar Province. Its fighters are now advancing on Baghdad where they regularly set off car bombs while Iranian-backed militias are committing their own atrocities in retaliation.

Yes, Obama is “winding down our war in Afghanistan”–but “their” war goes on unabated. Sure, the president can pull U.S. troops out by the end of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict will end. The more likely outcome is that, as in Iraq, our pullout will embolden our enemies and lead to greater levels of fighting.

Yes, “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated” and Osama bin Laden killed, but in many ways al-Qaeda itself is stronger than ever. Its affiliates have spread to Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and, above all, Syria, which U.S. intelligence officials warn is now as dangerous to the United States as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

I applaud the ingenuity of the president’s speechwriters who managed to put forward their claims in a way that is technically true–but they are presenting a misleading impression and everyone who doesn’t work in the West Wing of the White House knows it.

Read Less

Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

Read More

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

Read Less

Maliki’s Power Play

What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

Read More

What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”

Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again. 

Part of the problem here is the Syrian civil war, which has spilled over the border into western Iraq. But the largest part of the problem is Maliki’s conspiratorial, dictatorial worldview that treats as enemies those he should have been trying to win over.

The course he is embarked on is terrible for Iraq but it seems that it is good for his political prospects. In the recently completed elections his State of Law party emerged as the top vote-getter, winning 92 seats in parliament. That puts Maliki in a strong position to cobble together a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office for a third term, thereby allowing him to further increase his already worrisome accumulation of power.

Why did Maliki win the election in spite of the terrible impact of his policies? He is in the position of arsonist turned firefighter: Having stoked sectarian passions and alarmed Shiites, he is now posturing as a strongman who can save the Shiites from further violence. This perception does not accord with the facts–Maliki is the problem, not the solution–but it is not the first or last time that voters have fallen for a politician who abets the very insecurity he is purporting to solve. Vladimir Putin is a beneficiary of the same trend, although he has increasingly disposed with the trappings of democracy which Iraq still has–but for how long?

Read Less

FBI Confronts Reality of War on Terror

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Read More

Michael Schmidt of the New York Times has a fascinating article on the new FBI director, James Comey, who came into office expecting to downsize the agency’s focus on terrorism. After all, hasn’t President Obama himself repeatedly said that al-Qaeda is “decimated” and on the “path to defeat”? Not so fast.

With access to top-secret intelligence, Comey has learned that al-Qaeda’s affiliates and fellow travelers–in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Nigeria–are more threatening than ever, not just to local citizens (such as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram) but to American interests and even the American homeland. He tells the Times: “I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become. There are both many more than I appreciated, and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Thus Comey has elected to continue making counter-terrorism the bureau’s primary responsibility. That sounds like a wise choice and it is also a brave one because it undermines the president’s attempts to make all wars–including the one on terrorism–go away. Even the very term “Global War on Terror” has been banished from the administration’s lexicon.

Reality, alas, is not cooperating. The “tide of war” is actually cresting, not receding, and in some measure (although not entirely) because Obama has chosen to pull back from the Middle East. His attempt to follow a less interventionist (though, to be sure, not isolationist) path is not reducing anti-American antagonism. It is instead giving al-Qaeda and its affiliates–not to mention the Iranian Quds Force and its affiliates–more room to operate.

It would be nice if the president, who is presumably reading the same intelligence as Comey (and even getting access to information that the FBI director doesn’t see), had a similar awakening and reversed the drastic drawdown in U.S. defense spending which puts at risk our military readiness. That, alas, seems unlikely to happen because the president is so locked into his own narrative that he is ending wars, not starting them.

Read Less

Iran’s War on America

According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

Read More

According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

Back in 1998, al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States, but the Clinton administration couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously. There followed attacks in the United States embassies in East Africa, an attack on the USS Cole offshore Aden, Yemen, and finally the 9/11 attacks.

How strange it is after that experience that the response of the Obama administration to a declaration of war against the United States is to offer an ever-increasing series of concessions and incentives to the country whose trusted military elite have made that declaration.

Read Less

International Crisis Group’s Recipe for an Iraq Bloodbath

There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

Read More

There’s a conceit out there prevalent among both past and present diplomats and conflict resolution activists that if only all parties sat down and engaged in dialogue, seemingly inextricable crises would evaporate. It really is kindergarten philosophy which, when applied to the real world, can and will backfire.

Hence it is with the most recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on Iraq. The ICG has some very good people but, because it embraces a sometimes simplistic notion of dialogue, most of its reports are predictable. Separatists beheading Christians in Southeastasiastan? It’s imperative that the two sides sit down and talk. Civil war breaks out in Formersovietakazia? Dialogue. Tribal violence erupts in Centralafricaland? Negotiations. Al-Qaeda rears its ugly head in Iraq? More talks. And if there already is a precedent of talks failing, and failing miserably? No matter. That must be the exception rather than the rule, no matter if reality shows exceptions to trump the rule each and every time.

On April 28, the International Crisis Group released “Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain” which seeks to put the crisis in al-Anbar in the following context:

When in December 2013 Iraq’s central authorities cleared a year-long sit-in in the city that was demanding better treatment from Baghdad, Falluja’s residents took to the streets. ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) took advantage of the ensuing chaos, moved forces into the city and asserted it had seized control. The claim was greatly exaggerated: while it raised its black flag above some administration buildings in the city centre, locals blocked most of their forays and forced them to retreat to the outskirts.

But Baghdad had a casus belli: it besieged the city, ignored local attempts to mediate an ISIL withdrawal and threatened to attack. Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army – seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper. The city’s rebels struck a Faustian bargain, forming an alliance of convenience with ISIL. The jihadis’ military might kept the army at bay, but their presence justified the government’s claim that the entire city was under jihadi control. A self-reinforcing cycle has taken root: jihadi activity encourages government truculence that in turn requires greater jihadi protection.

This is a pretty problematic recasting of a narrative of what happened. While I fault Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for letting electoral calculations color the timing of military action against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar (and while I find reason to criticize Maliki for other aspects of his administration as well), it is inane to suggest that the protest camps did not include al-Qaeda elements. Indeed, there is quite a lot of video evidence to suggest they did. The ICG, for its part, confuses chronology when they declare, “The crisis has rescued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s chances in the parliamentary elections, which, until ISIL entered the picture, appeared grim.” As the Syrian conflict has metathesized, ISIL had been a growing threat in Iraq, responsible for dozens of attacks that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. And while Maliki’s third term was and is far from certain, the idea that his chances were ever “grim” is simply wrong. Elections should determine destiny. Alas, rather than simply let elections determine al-Anbar’s fate, the ICG appears to castigate the many Sunnis from local parties who have joined in coalition against the terrorists in al-Anbar. Encouraging cross-sectarian (and cross-ethnic) political groupings is something the ICG should encourage. Shame on them and anyone else who does not do so.

The ICG continues—as per its apparent organizational template—to recommend that the central government begin negotiations with Fallujah’s military council. This seems to be the repeat of the disastrous experience with the so-called Fallujah brigades at the beginning of the insurgency in 2004. Hence, once again, the religion of dialogue trumps empirical evidence that talking to the wrong people can make matters much, much worse.

Twisting reality to encourage dialogue permeates the report. The Baath Party was an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist party that imposed a brutal dictatorship responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of people. Here’s how the ICG describes it, though: “An ostensibly secular party that monopolized political representation under Saddam Hussein.” It describes the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) as “nationalists” and suggests they want merely to establish “a new political system without sectarian and ethnic quotas.” First of all, they are not simply nationalists. Both have embraced the most brutal terror tactics and pronounced their desire to target “unbelievers,” which suggests that religion trumps nationalism in their worldview. As for eliminating sectarian quotas, that’s merely the slogan both groups have sold to gullible Westerners to explain their vision to purge Iraq of all sectarian diversity altogether.It’s akin to apologists for Attila the Hun to describe his refusal to take prisoners and engage in wholesale massacres as evidence that he is truly committed to reducing prison overpopulation.

The ICG is no better when it comes to individuals. It describes Harith al-Dhari, who is on Interpol’s wanted list and is also sanctioned by the UN for al-Qaeda activity, merely as “a cleric with an affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood.” It describes Izzat al-Duri, Saddam Hussein’s former deputy and the most wanted man still on the run, as merely “an ex-senior official under Saddam and reputed Sufi.”

There’s a time and a place for dialogue, but that dialogue should never extend to those who reject constitutionalism, disregard the rule of law or, absent a broad-based revolution such as that which heralded the collapse of the Eastern bloc or Brotherhood rule in Syria, seek to achieve through violence what they are unable to achieve via the ballot box. Nor in the face of terrorism—a military challenge that rejects every aspect of the established order—is it wise to recommend that the United States cut off assistance to the Iraqi government. Terrorists respond to weakness not with compromise, but with redoubling their efforts.

Just as when the American Friends Service Committee–the official NGO of the Quakers–embraced the Khmer Rouge, good intentions are not an excuse when the result is the empowerment of hateful groups which do not recognize the value of human life for those who do not share their beliefs. The ICG has wrapped itself in an ideological cocoon from which it has crafted a reality that does not match what is on the ground. The result of following ICG recommendations would be a bloodbath. Talking to terrorists doesn’t bring peace; it simply legitimizes and empowers terrorists. Most Iraqis recognize this. Let us hope that John Kerry’s State Department does as well.

Read Less

How Turkey Helps Jihadists in Syria

The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

Read More

The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

CNN has reported on the jihadis flying into Hatay and then paying bribes to Turkish border guards to cross into Syria. Now the Kurdish media based in Syria has interviewed captured jihadis who have talked about how they, too, transited Turkey.

It is ironic that Turkey has, for mainly ideological and sectarian reasons, largely led the diplomatic calls for the United States to be more active in its assistance to the Syrian opposition but has, through its very actions, created the chief impediment to such action. Perhaps rather than organize high-profile conferences or new photo opportunities replete with empty American promises, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to instead pressure Turkey to stop serving as the chief route for terrorists flooding into Syria.

Read Less

Intel and Military Presence Go Hand in Hand

One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

Read More

One of the less appreciated consequences of a U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan is that it also necessitates an intelligence drawdown. The armed forces and the CIA are apparently at loggerheads because the CIA is busy closing its bases around Afghanistan and laying off its militias (known as Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams) just as the summer fighting season begins. This raises the danger to U.S. troops who will remain through at least the fall.

It obviously makes sense for the CIA to delay its drawdown and to synchronize more closely with the military. It is especially stupid to lay off thousands of armed fighters without a plan for the Afghan National Security Forces to absorb them–it is a virtual invitation for them to seek employment with drug lords or the Taliban. 

But no matter what happens this year the larger issue remains: what kind of military and intelligence footprint will the U.S. have in Afghanistan post-2014? The two are more intimately connected than proponents of a military drawdown find it comfortable to acknowledge. Many of those opposed to keeping at least 10,000 U.S. troops after this year, as recommended by General Joe Dunford, imagine that we could keep a smaller Special Operations force solely to chase al-Qaeda’s remnants.

Leave aside the issue of whether we can afford to focus on al-Qaeda alone when other jihadist groups such as the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban present just as big a threat to American interests. The point I want to emphasize here is that there is no way to maintain the intelligence networks we need to effectively target terrorists (whether al-Qaeda or Haqqani or Taliban) unless there is a substantial military presence in place to provide logistics and security. The Los Angeles Times quotes one “former CIA operator who has spoken to current officers about the pullback” as saying: “There is no stomach in the building for going out there on our own. We are not putting our people out there without U.S. forces.”

So if we want to maintain “situational awareness” of terrorist plots emanating not just from Afghanistan but also from Pakistan, then we need to keep at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in order to support intelligence personnel who can generate “actionable” intelligence and Special Operations Forces who can act on it. If President Obama keeps fewer than 10,000 troops, the military will pull back to Kabul and Bagram Air Base just north of it, dramatically decreasing our ability to uncover and disrupt terrorist machinations in other parts of the country–especially in the still-volatile east and south.

Read Less

Helping Nigeria in the Long Term

I am deeply ambivalent about the current cry to #freeourgirls–the international Twitter campaign to pressure Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, to release some 300 girls it has kidnapped. Like everyone else I am appalled at the brutality and inhumanity of Boko Haram, which has even some jihadists disassociating themselves from its actions. And I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of the U.S. working with the Nigerian government to free the captives. 

As Michael Rubin notes, this is the kind of humanitarian mission that can engender a lot of goodwill. The problem is that such goodwill can evaporate quickly–as it did in Pakistan after the U.S. helped provide relief following a 2005 earthquake. Pakistanis were grateful but today that country remains as anti-American as ever, with 74 percent of those surveyed by Pew in 2012 describing the U.S. as an enemy.

Read More

I am deeply ambivalent about the current cry to #freeourgirls–the international Twitter campaign to pressure Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, to release some 300 girls it has kidnapped. Like everyone else I am appalled at the brutality and inhumanity of Boko Haram, which has even some jihadists disassociating themselves from its actions. And I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of the U.S. working with the Nigerian government to free the captives. 

As Michael Rubin notes, this is the kind of humanitarian mission that can engender a lot of goodwill. The problem is that such goodwill can evaporate quickly–as it did in Pakistan after the U.S. helped provide relief following a 2005 earthquake. Pakistanis were grateful but today that country remains as anti-American as ever, with 74 percent of those surveyed by Pew in 2012 describing the U.S. as an enemy.

What we really need in Pakistan is the same thing we need in Nigeria: not one-off humanitarian assistance but a sustained and serious commitment to nation-building. It is the lack of effective governance that has allowed Pakistan and to a lesser extent Nigeria to become a playground for jihadists ranging from al-Qaeda to the Haqqani Network and Boko Haram. Whatever the fate of those poor kidnapped girls–and everything practicable should be done to liberate them–many more innocents will die in Nigeria unless the government can reduce its rampant corruption and increase its effectiveness such that it can effectively curb Boko Haram in the future.

That is a big job, and one primarily for the Nigerians. But the U.S. also has a stake in the outcome because we don’t want Islamist extremists destabilizing the No. 1 oil producer in Africa. Unlike Michael, I do believe that nation-building is a job for the U.S. military–at least, it is a job that the military has been doing ever since the Lewis and Clark expedition laid the foundations for America’s expansion from sea to shining sea. But it is not a job for our military alone. There needs to be a major interagency effort–with a big contribution from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, not just the Department of Defense–to help Nigeria to build more effective and accountable governmental institutions starting with its security forces.

This is obviously a long-term project that will not offer a quick payoff such as a mission to rescue the kidnapped girls. But it has the potential to do more good in the long run.

Read Less

When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

Read More

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

Read Less

Where Is America’s Anti-Corruption Strategy?

Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

Read More

Boko Haram’s kidnapping schoolgirls and its threats to sell them like chattel horrifies the international community, highlights the dangers of certain strains of Islamist thought, and has led to a decision to utilize American assets to help locate the hostages. There may be much more to the story than simply the headlines, however. It’s no secret that Nigeria is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Indeed, some reports place the embezzlement by Nigerian leaders at $400 billion since 1960.

A report in the Italian daily Il Foglio yesterday highlighted the rumors that Boko Haram couldn’t have conducted its operation without the complicity of corrupt officials. The Open Source Center provided a translation:

Some sources, that Il Foglio has spoken with, referred to the possible involvement of members of the police and the intelligence services in transforming the high school students into human shields, to prevent the intervention of the military. The second reason that makes international intervention necessary is the high level of corruption in the country, from which it is alleged that the jihadist groups, led by Abubakar Shekau, also profit. These groups allegedly benefit from consolidated collusion among certain political and government circles. On Sunday came news alleging that the former Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, had his passport withdrawn on direct orders from the President, Goodluck Jonathan, and that he has been prevented from leaving the country to go to France. Sanusi was suspended in February from his post as Governor of the central bank, after accusing the national oil company of having fraudulently siphoned off more than 14 billion euros from public funds. Some of these funds allegedly later ended up, according to our talking-partners, in the hands of important political and government figures, as well as — and this is even more deplorable — in the hands of Boko Haram, in order to guarantee the security of oil installations. Obviously Lamido Sanusi was allegedly stopped, before his departure for France, by none other than the men from the “Secret Service for the Security of the State.” In other words, the security service that is most compromised with the Boko Haram jihadists.

Just because a European paper says it doesn’t make it true, nor does it diminish the ideological and theological component to Boko Haram. But it is important to recognize that corruption likely enables such groups to thrive, be it Boko Haram in northern Nigeria or Osama Bin Laden monitoring al-Qaeda from Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Back in 2005, I wrote a piece for Lebanon’s Daily Star calling corruption the real bane of the Middle East. I shouldn’t have limited that to the Middle East, however. While terrorism victimizes hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, corruption impacts hundreds of millions. It threatens to unravel all that has been done in Afghanistan, and it continues to undercut Iraq’s growth and development. While the State Department often talks about the need for foreign aid, it does far less to explain how that aid will be shielded from the impact of corruption or, indeed, whether flooding a country with money and resources might actually make that corruption worse. The World Bank, for its part, is no better: rather than address growing corruption, it simply ignores it or covers it up.

Corruption did not cause Boko Haram nor create al-Qaeda, nor does it alone explain the Taliban. Nevertheless, the failure of the West to create a comprehensive strategy to root out corruption enables the phenomenon to spread like a cancer, depressing societal immunity, and enabling groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda a broader ability to act. Rather than throw millions of dollars at problems as they occur, perhaps it is time for Secretary of State John Kerry to outline what America is doing to weed out corruption among its aid recipients, and the metrics if any that the State Department is using to judge its success.

Read Less

Address, Don’t Deny Religious Component to Boko Haram

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

Read More

News out of Nigeria continues to horrify, as the radical Islamist group Boko Haram refuses to release kidnapped school girls and now threatens to sell them into marriage, slavery, or worse. Boko Haram, whose very name in Hausa professes the sinfulness of Western education, roots its belief in religion although, as is so often the case, it often confuses pure theology with local custom. For its victims, however, such footnotes are academic. The group has become infamous in Nigeria for the slaughter of Christians. Boko Haram is neither the first nor will it be the last group to spark outrage on the world stage by embracing and imposing retrograde religious interpretation on society.

The shock of the Islamic Revolution in Iran was that it shook faith in the forward momentum of history. The shah was far from perfect, but he actively sought to modernize his country. That he did so unevenly and brokered few means to dissent legally simply threw fuel on the Islamist backlash that ultimately ushered in reactionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Far from being the “progressive force for human rights” that William Miller, now with The Iran Project described, or a man whom the United States should trust, as Princeton University’s Richard Falk suggested, Khomeini took women, minorities, and much of Iranian society headlong into the past, stripping Iranians of centuries of rights and brutalizing them in manners once thought condemned to centuries past. The problem is not Shi’ism, per se, but rather Khomeini’s and his successor Ali Khamenei’s interpretation. To this day, their exegesis remains a minority view, forced on society at the barrel of a gun, with dissenting clergy marginalized, imprisoned, or worse.

The same was true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The notion that the Central Intelligence Agency created the Taliban is silly, the product of anachronistic and lazy analysis. Some Afghans embraced the Taliban in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan because the group promised security, but the group itself was quickly co-opted by Pakistan. Ever since the loss of East Pakistan and its subsequent independence as Bangladesh in 1971, leaders in West Pakistan—or simply Pakistan as it became—embraced religious radicalism as a glue to hold their fissiparous country together. While more than a decade of war has conditioned Americans to see infiltration across the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as one way from Pakistan into Afghanistan, throughout much of the last century, Afghan irregulars were infiltrating—if not outright invading—Pakistan.

Because the ethnic fault lines in Pakistan are seldom far beneath the surface of society, sponsoring the Taliban—and thereby prioritizing religion over Pashto identity—was meant to immunize the Northwest Frontier Province from the attractiveness of Pashto nationalism. That it came upon the blood and repression of Afghan women was a price the Pakistani leadership was willing to bear. The shear brutality of the Taliban shocked the world, even though the State Department was more than willing to normalize ties with the group. The Taliban really were a throwback to the twelfth century, albeit harboring a twentieth and now twenty-first century technology to kill.

Any number of other religious radicals has reinterpreted faith to justify horror. The Muslim Brotherhood has justified the murder of those who do not share their vision, and some Brotherhood theologians have contributed directly to the vision embraced by al-Qaeda.

There is a tendency among many to deny the religious component to much modern terrorism. That is what drives, for example, UN bodies to try to criminalize so-called Islamophobia, and also drives local groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stigmatize and punish free speech and open debate. To do so is a mistake, and to deny that those from Boko Haram’s leaders to 9/11 hijackers to the Beslan child murders were not motivated by Islam, however twisted and irregular an interpretation, is disingenuous.

Too many who deny the role of religion say that Islam is misunderstood. Jihad, for example, means not Holy War but an internal struggle to improve oneself. While it is true that a 21st century interpretation of jihad prioritizes internal struggle or defensive fighting, there is a logical flaw inherent in embracing only the most evolved interpretation of jihad. Islamist radicals dismiss 21st century society as a perversion, corrupted by Western thought and liberalism. They uphold instead an interpretation of centuries past as the golden age of Islamic civilization and so strip away centuries of religious interpretation as illegitimate and corrupt. Just as zealous Christians might have burned a woman at the stake 500 years ago for the sin of publicly reading the Bible, the manner in which Boko Haram treats local girls and women is rooted in an interpretation of Islam that it seeks to revive from the past.

While I fully support the separation of church and state that the U.S. Constitution demands (although I agree with Jonathan’s interpretation here), too many American policymakers use that separation to paralyze the American policy response on the global stage. American diplomats and officials should not promote religion but they cannot ignore it either, as it plays a far greater place in the world than perhaps it does in the fairly elite schools from which many diplomats come. Peoples from Afghanistan to Iran to Nigeria are engaged in a battle of religious interpretation. Those who would deny a relationship between Islam on one hand, at least as practiced by the Taliban and Boko Haram, and terrorism and misogyny on the other simply surrender the battlefield to those promoting extreme interpretations.

Too often, American officials and religious activists, whether out of excessive political correctness or some other motive, dismiss religious motivation to terrorism by decreeing that the actions of those radicals—Taliban stoning women in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda hijacking planes in America, or Boko Haram kidnapping and selling girls in Nigeria—do not represent true Islam. Make no mistake: It is not the job of any American official—from the president on down—to determine what true religion is. We have to accept that religion is what its practitioners believe it to be in any time and place; what the president says, an ambassador says, or a professor of theology says is simply academic.

Denying horror won’t make it go away. Nor is it the place of the United States to preach. But just as radicals in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere promote these horrific groups—the Turkish government has apparently supplied Boko Haram—it behooves the United States to support those seeking to roll them back, be they Egyptian generals, Indonesian Sufis, or Moroccan mourchidat. While America promotes and encourages religious tolerance and seeks to strengthen liberal and moderate interpretations of Islam, those who feed and justify Boko Haram’s ideological hate—even if American allies—must be recognized for what they are: culpable in terrorism.

Read Less

No, Egypt’s Generals Don’t Cause Terrorism

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

Read More

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, dedicates his monthly Washington Post column to argue that Egypt’s provisional government does not deserve U.S. support. He begins:

One wonders how much further the United States will allow itself to be dragged down into the deepening abyss that is today’s Egypt. Those in the Obama administration and Congress who favor continued U.S. military aid to the dictatorship in Cairo insist that although such aid may run counter to American ideals, it does serve American interests. I would argue the contrary, that American interests are being harmed every day that support continues.

Far from aiding the United States in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists. Whatever one thought of the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and there was much to criticize, it came to office by fair and legitimate electoral means, just as U.S. policy had demanded, and it was headed toward a second election that it probably would have lost.

Alas, while his argument is powerful, it is also based on several faulty assumptions. Underlying his argument is the assumption that the motivation for terrorism lies in grievance, not ideology. That may be comforting to many diplomats because it leads to the idea that if diplomats only address those grievances, terrorism will fade away. However, it completely ignores the ideological component of Islamist terrorism fully embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a topic which I touched upon for this COMMENTARY article a couple years back.

To follow Kagan’s logic, and admittedly, that of many others whom I admire—that the United States should have simply let the Morsi government hang the Muslim Brotherhood with a rope its leadership provided—is optimistic, for it assumes that Morsi was committed to the electoral process. In this regard, Kagan is more optimistic than tens of millions of Egyptians listening to Morsi in Arabic, living under Muslim Brotherhood rule and, frankly, millions of one-time Morsi supporters who recognized that rhetoric aside, Morsi was unrepentant and unreformed.

If the Muslim Brotherhood would have held elections under the narrow and bigoted constitution they rammed through, they likely would not have entertained a wider stable of candidates than those able to run in the Islamic Republic of Iran after that theocracy’s unelected Guardian Council got through with its vetting. It is true that the Egyptian counter-revolution rejected the established electoral calendar, much as did almost every Arab Spring uprising in the first place, revolutions that Kagan (and I) both embraced.

Nor does the “product of society” argument hold much water. To imply as, unfortunately Kagan does, that it is understandable that some Egyptians will turn to terrorism as a result of last summer’s events is to accept the same logic that al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on 9/11 were somehow the understandable backlash of American foreign policy. When terrorists set off bombs in Cairo, Alexandria, or Asyut, there simply is no legitimate excuse, ever. Period.

The Egyptian generals are no saints, but they have moved forward with the electoral process. The jury is out about how genuine the roadmap to democracy is, but it is essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. True, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi will probably win, but he is also probably the most popular politician in Egypt right now. Hopefully, he will recognize the mistakes that led to the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in the first place, and not make the same compromises with crony capitalists and corrupt generals.

U.S. interests are well-served by engagement with the Egyptian leadership during the current transition and into the future. Support should not be blind, but it is essential to recognize that the best chance to encourage real and lasting democratic reform comes only when the Muslim Brotherhood—a group as antithetical to democracy as the terrorist movements it has spawned—is defeated. Just as military analysts preached the importance of stability and security in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to enable those countries to move forward, so it is true also with Egypt. It is ironic—and inconsistent—for those cheerleading security in some countries to treat it with such disdain in others.

Read Less

The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Read More

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

Read Less

The Iraqi Military’s Downward Spiral

The best article on Afghanistan that I have read recently is an article about Iraq. Specifically, this article in the Wall Street Journal on the travails of the Iraqi military in facing an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq is now called). 

The “nut” graph: “More than two years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, as the country prepares for its first post-occupation parliamentary elections on Wednesday, its demoralized, underequipped military is losing the fight against Islamist militants, who are better armed, better trained, and better motivated, according to Iraqi and American generals, politicians and analysts.”

Further down, reporters Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan expand on some of the Iraqi security forces’ problems. They write:

Read More

The best article on Afghanistan that I have read recently is an article about Iraq. Specifically, this article in the Wall Street Journal on the travails of the Iraqi military in facing an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (as al-Qaeda in Iraq is now called). 

The “nut” graph: “More than two years after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, as the country prepares for its first post-occupation parliamentary elections on Wednesday, its demoralized, underequipped military is losing the fight against Islamist militants, who are better armed, better trained, and better motivated, according to Iraqi and American generals, politicians and analysts.”

Further down, reporters Matt Bradley and Ali Nabhan expand on some of the Iraqi security forces’ problems. They write:

Even the most basic maneuvers can stymie the Iraqi military. Regional commanders who lack basic knowledge of military logistics often are clumsy when transporting food for soldiers on the move, leaving many enlistees to scrounge for themselves or go hungry, say officers and observers. 

Without meals, some soldiers simply leave. Though there are no official statistics, military personnel cite desertion as a persistent and growing problem, particularly for troops deployed in Anbar and other areas to the north where ISIS is active.

This is dismaying considering how much time and effort the United States spent in standing up the Iraqi security forces. By the time that U.S. troops pulled out at the end of 2011, the Iraqi security forces numbered more than 600,000 and appeared, at least on paper, to be more than capable of safeguarding their country.

Appearances, it turned out, were illusory. The Iraqi troops are perfectly capable of fighting if well-supplied, -supported, and -led. But supplying them–much less planning their operations and providing the kind of integrated intelligence and fire support they need–is beyond the rudimentary abilities of the Iraqi military. U.S. advisers filled in the gaps, but now they are gone and Iraq is spiraling downward.

This is a warning of what could happen in Afghanistan. As I learned on a visit to Kabul and Kandahar last week, the Afghan Security Forces, which now number 370,000 (counting the local police), are more capable than ever. They can take the fight to the Taliban but they lack the ability to execute their own logistics, planning, budgeting, intelligence, and other important tasks. Those gaps are currently being filled by American advisers, but no one knows what will happen after this year. 

Both the leading candidates for president–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani–have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Accord, which would allow U.S. forces to remain. But it is far from clear how many troops we are willing to leave behind. U.S. commanders want at least 10,000, but the White House is leaking figures of 5,000 or fewer. 

As I note in the Wall Street Journal today, it would be disastrous to leave fewer than 10,000 behind. However solid the Afghan National Security Forces look today, coming off their safeguarding of the first round of presidential balloting, the experience of Iraq shows how quickly even a much bigger army can crumble if American support is withdrawn.

Read Less

Iraqis at the Polls

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

Read More

I arrived in London yesterday as Iraqis here began early voting ahead of Wednesday polls, and ever more photos of Iraqi expatriates voting around the world now mark Facebook. Given the videos of campaigning inside Iraq, as well as the chatter from Iraqis there, it certainly seems that Iraqis will embrace new national elections with enthusiasm, and as a chance to resolve critical questions which Iraq’s political class has so far kicked down the road. There are many issues to be resolved.

First and foremost, is the position of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, about whom the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins recently penned a study worth reading, even if some of his assumptions are questionable and despite the fact that he appears to have allowed American officials both to exaggerate and whitewash their roles. Maliki—like pretty much all of his political rivals—is flawed. Many of the aspersions his rivals throw at him perhaps reflect their own projection. Maliki is no autocrat—he has not the power to be one at present and few autocrats worry about losing at the polls. That said, Iraqis fear that after a third term he could push Iraq in that direction by further reshaping the civil service in his image.

Ayad Allawi remains more popular among military analysts in Washington and royal family members in Jordan and Saudi Arabia than he is in Iraq, largely because he spends so much time abroad. And it is unclear whether Ammar al-Hakim’s grouping will remain immune to forces that might seek to co-opt its members after the election. That said, any change in power might benefit Iraq simply by setting a precedent. If Maliki is unable to form a new coalition—more on that later—then hopefully any successor will be wise enough to allow Maliki to retire in peace rather than engage in political retaliation.

The second issue which the elections should resolve is the question of the presidency. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, remains paralyzed, impaired cognitively, and barely able to speak. Kurdish officials have released only two sets of photographs since he suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2012, and his family refuses him visitors or to release videos. Those who suggest Talabani is recuperating well have become the second coming of Saddam’s former Information Minister Muhammed Saeed “There are no Americans in Baghdad” al-Sahaf.

The only certainty from this new election is that it will usher in a new presidency. I have written before about the Masud Barzani option. Visiting Baghdad last month, I also heard rumors that Barzani’s uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, could fill the position, thereby creating a vacancy in the foreign ministry. While many Americans may hope that former Kurdish prime minister and Iraqi Minister of Planning Barham Salih could fit the bill for president, Barham has to overcome two hurdles working against him: First is that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he represents, has steadily hemorrhaged voter support. Many Iraqis would rightly question why the plum post of the presidency should go to the third-place finisher. Iraq, after all, isn’t like the European Union, where failed national politicians get plum posts as consolation prizes.

A greater obstacle for Barham is the animosity which Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani’s wife and the keeper of PUK finances, has for him. Simply put, she hates him and would do anything she can to scuttle any promotion for him. That is too bad, because if Hoshyar Zebari takes the presidency, Barham would make an excellent foreign minister. Hero is too small-minded to care, but short-sightedness has always been the Kurds’ No. 1 enemy. That said, many Iraqis question why the Kurds should automatically consider the presidency reserved for them. If the Kurds do succeed in taking the presidency, then it confirms the Lebanese confessional model in Iraq, a model that does not have a strong track record of preserving peace.

Many other issues remain unresolved which I will write about after the election: The situation in Kirkuk remains volatile, even as most across the political, ethnic, and sectarian spectrum acknowledge that Governor Najmaldin Karim has done an excellent job. The question of oil and, more broadly, relations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government remains unresolved. Sectarianism continues to eat away at Iraqi society, and al-Qaeda’s rise will challenge a third Maliki term or a new premier. All major Iraqi political figures utilize their sons and immediate family members to engage in what at best would appear to be a conflict of interest and at worst is blatant corruption.

Unless Maliki wins a majority outright rather than a plurality, Iraq is in for a rough ride. Should Maliki not top fifty percent of the vote, Iraqis can expect it to takes months if not more than a year to put together a new government. The bidding and brinkmanship will make previous Iraqi caucuses pale in comparison because the opposition will calculate that they either rid themselves of Maliki at this junction, or they live with him forever. Iraq’s Kurds will use that brinkmanship to up the ante on autonomy, unresolved issues relating to Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and power in Baghdad. Some sectarian parties—and not only those in Anbar and Mosul—might calculate that they can utilize violence to bolster their position at the negotiating table or, conversely, to undercut their opponents. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran will not hesitate to interfere for sectarian reasons and to support their respective proxies.

Let us hope that Iraqis—all Iraqis—have on Wednesday a successful election not marred by violence. But once the polls close and the ballots are pointed, the real struggle will begin. America no longer occupies Iraq, but it is essential to remain engaged in what will become a long period of diplomatic need.

UPDATE: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan late this afternoon Iraqi time released its first video of President Jalal Talabani since his stroke. While it depicts him as wheelchair bound and without speaking, it clearly shows him moving his arms. Still, he does not appear in any condition to exercise his functions as president.

Read Less

The Myth at the Heart of the 9/11 Museum Film Backlash

Can you tell the story of the 9/11 attacks without frequent mention of the words “Islamist” and “jihad?” To anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the war being waged on the United States and the West by al-Qaeda, such a suggestion is as absurd as it is unthinkable. The 9/11 terrorists were part of a movement that embarked on a campaign aimed at mass murder because of their religious beliefs. Those beliefs are not shared by all Muslims, but to edit them out of the story or to portray them as either incidental to the attacks or an inconvenient detail that must be minimized, if it is to be mentioned at all, does a disservice to the truth as well as to the public-policy aspects of 9/11 memorials. But, as the New York Times reports, that is exactly what the members of an interfaith advisory group to the soon-to-be-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum are demanding.

After a preview of a film that will be part of the museum’s permanent exhibit titled “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” the interfaith group is demanding the movie be changed to eliminate the use of terms like Islamist and jihad and to alter the depiction of the terrorists so as to avoid prejudicing its audience against them. They believe that the film, which is narrated by NBC’s Brian Williams, will exacerbate interfaith tensions and cause those who visit the museum to come away with the impression that will associate all Muslims with the crimes of 9/11. They even believe that having the statements of the 9/11 terrorists read in Arab-accented English is an act of prejudice that will promote hate.

Yet the impulse driving this protest has little to do with the truth about 9/11. In fact, it is just the opposite. Their agenda is one that regards the need to understand what drove the terrorists to their crimes as less important than a desire to absolve Islam of any connection with al-Qaeda. At the heart of this controversy is the myth about a post-9/11 backlash against American Muslims that is utterly disconnected from the facts. But by promoting the idea that the nation’s primary duty in the wake of the atrocity was to protect the good name of Islam rather than to root out Islamist extremism, interfaith advocates are not only telling lies about al-Qaeda; they are undermining any hope of genuine reconciliation in the wake of 9/11.

Read More

Can you tell the story of the 9/11 attacks without frequent mention of the words “Islamist” and “jihad?” To anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the war being waged on the United States and the West by al-Qaeda, such a suggestion is as absurd as it is unthinkable. The 9/11 terrorists were part of a movement that embarked on a campaign aimed at mass murder because of their religious beliefs. Those beliefs are not shared by all Muslims, but to edit them out of the story or to portray them as either incidental to the attacks or an inconvenient detail that must be minimized, if it is to be mentioned at all, does a disservice to the truth as well as to the public-policy aspects of 9/11 memorials. But, as the New York Times reports, that is exactly what the members of an interfaith advisory group to the soon-to-be-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum are demanding.

After a preview of a film that will be part of the museum’s permanent exhibit titled “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” the interfaith group is demanding the movie be changed to eliminate the use of terms like Islamist and jihad and to alter the depiction of the terrorists so as to avoid prejudicing its audience against them. They believe that the film, which is narrated by NBC’s Brian Williams, will exacerbate interfaith tensions and cause those who visit the museum to come away with the impression that will associate all Muslims with the crimes of 9/11. They even believe that having the statements of the 9/11 terrorists read in Arab-accented English is an act of prejudice that will promote hate.

Yet the impulse driving this protest has little to do with the truth about 9/11. In fact, it is just the opposite. Their agenda is one that regards the need to understand what drove the terrorists to their crimes as less important than a desire to absolve Islam of any connection with al-Qaeda. At the heart of this controversy is the myth about a post-9/11 backlash against American Muslims that is utterly disconnected from the facts. But by promoting the idea that the nation’s primary duty in the wake of the atrocity was to protect the good name of Islam rather than to root out Islamist extremism, interfaith advocates are not only telling lies about al-Qaeda; they are undermining any hope of genuine reconciliation in the wake of 9/11.

As I first wrote in COMMENTARY in 2010 at the height of the debate about the plans to build a mosque in the shadow of the remains of the World Trade Center, the media-driven narrative about a wave of discrimination against Muslims after 9/11 is largely made up out of whole cloth. No credible study of any kind has demonstrated that there was an increase in bias in this country. Each subsequent year since then, FBI statistics about religion-based hate crimes have demonstrated that anti-Muslim attacks are statistically insignificant and are but a fraction of those committed against Jews in the United States. But driven by the media as well as by a pop culture establishment that largely treated any mention of Muslim connections to terror as an expression of prejudice, the notion that 9/11 created such a backlash has become entrenched in the public consciousness.

While the Ground Zero mosque was never built in spite of the support that the idea drew from most of New York’s elites and political leadership, the narrative that emerged from the controversy in which the need to absolve Islam from any ties to the terrorists or al-Qaeda has prevailed. And it is on that basis that the interfaith group protesting the 9/11 museum film may hope to force the institution to surrender.

But the argument about the museum film goes deeper than just the question of whether a group of Lower Manhattan clerics have the political pull to force the museum to pull the film. As 9/11 recedes further into our historical memory, the desire to treat the events of that day as a singular crime disconnected from history or from an international conflict that began long before it and will continue long after it has become more pronounced. Part of this is rooted in a desire to return to the world of September 10, 2011, when Americans could ignore the Islamist threat–a sentiment that has gained traction in the wake of the long and inconclusive wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But rather than think seriously about the implications of a significant segment of the adherents of a major world faith regarding themselves as being at war with the West and the United States, many Americans prefer to simply pretend it isn’t true. They tell us that jihad is an internal struggle for self-improvement, not a duty to wage holy war against non-Muslims that is integral to the history of that faith’s interactions with the rest of the world. They wish to pretend that the radical Islam that motivated al-Qaeda on 9/11 and continues to drive its adherents to terror attacks on Westerners and Americans to this day is marginal when we know that in much of the Islamic world, it is those who preach peace with the West who are the outliers.

In promoting this sanitized version of 9/11 in which Islam was not the primary motivation for the attackers, they hope to spare Muslims from the taint of the crime. But what they are really doing is disarming Americans against a potent threat that continues to simmer abroad and even at home as the homegrown extremists who have perpetrated several attacks since then, including the Boston Marathon bombing whose anniversary we just commemorated, have shown.

Rather than seek to edit Islam out of the 9/11 story, those who truly wish to promote better interfaith relations must continue to point out the dangers of these beliefs and the peril of either tolerating them or pretending that they are no longer a threat. As I wrote in October 2010:

Unlike planned memorials at Ground Zero that should serve to perpetuate the memory of the thousands of victims of 9/11 who perished at the hands of Islamist fanatics determined to pursue their war against the West, Park51’s ultimate purpose will be to reinterpret that national tragedy in a way that will fundamentally distort that memory. The shift in the debate threatens to transmute 9/11 into a story of a strange one-off event that led to a mythical reign of domestic terror in which Muslims and their faith came under siege. It exempts every major branch of Islam from even the most remote connection to al-Qaeda and it casts the adherents of that faith as the ultimate sufferers of 9/11.

This account is an effort to redirect, redefine, and rewrite the unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. To achieve this aim, those who propound it are painting a vicious and libelous portrait of the United States and its citizens as hostile to and violent toward a minority population that was almost entirely left in peace and protected from any implication of involvement in the 9/11 crimes.

It now appears that in the absence of the proposed Muslim community center, interfaith advocates seek to transform the official September 11 memorial into a place where that false narrative and misleading mission may be pursued. Those who care about the memory of 9/11 and those who regard the need to defend Americans of all faiths against the Islamist threat must see to it that they don’t succeed.

Read Less

Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Read More

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Read Less

No Moderation from the Monstrous Taliban

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

Read More

One sometimes hears, from those who oppose a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, that the Taliban have changed. They have supposedly moderated from the bad old days of the 1990s. Now, we are told, they will not be as abusive of human rights nor as likely to ally with al-Qaeda.

Anyone who still harbors such illusions should read this article on last week’s Taliban attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul. The lead is chilling:

His handgun drawn, the clean-cut insurgent stood in the restaurant of the Serena Hotel in Kabul, listening to the mother of three as she begged, “Take my life, but please don’t kill my kids.”

Her pleading made no difference. As frightened hotel staff members watched from the kitchen, the young militant shot the children first before killing their mother, some of the first casualties inflicted by four Taliban attackers who rampaged through the luxurious hotel on Thursday. The assault killed at least nine people and struck at the heart of the fortified existence enjoyed here by Westerners and the moneyed Afghan elite.

The Taliban remain monsters who kill small children–not as the accidental collateral damage from a larger attack but deliberately and at pointblank range. This is the true face of the enemy in Afghanistan, and it is why the civilized world cannot abandon Afghanistan to its fate.

The Afghan security forces are now much bigger and better organized than they once were. They are now taking the lead in 95 percent of all coalition operations in Afghanistan and suffering 95 percent of coalition casualties. But to defeat an insurgency which enjoys safe havens in Pakistan, they still need continuing American assistance. If we don’t provide it–and our ability to help will be contingent on Hamid Karzai’s successor signing a Bilateral Security Accord–then we will be leaving Afghanistan and indeed the entire region to the tender mercies of child killers.

Read Less

A Tale of Two Terror Resolutions

On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

Read More

On March 12-13, I attended Iraq’s “first international counterterrorism conference” in Baghdad. It wasn’t the most organized conference, but it did enjoy attendance from most European countries, many African, Arab, and Asian countries, and the United States. Saudi Arabia and Qatar boycotted, and there was no high-level Turkish representation. The speeches were as one might predict: condemnations of terrorism, laments at international inaction, and frustration at growing sectarianism. The Iranian deputy foreign minister was tone deaf as he used his ten minutes at the podium to pursue the usual Iranian bugaboos, topics in which few others at the conference had any real interest, given the recognition that the problems facing Iraq and the Middle East can’t simply be blamed on those whom Iran sees as enemies.

Iraq has suffered immensely from terrorism over the past decade. While many American opponents of military action to oust Saddam Hussein blame that action for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths in the intervening years, Iraqis recognize that the only ones to blame for deaths at the hands of terrorists are the terrorists themselves and those states who sponsor such terrorism.

Three thousand miles away, in Marrakech, Morocco, Arab interior ministers issued a declaration enunciating a “total rejection of terrorism,” regardless of cause or justification. While a lack of universal definition of terrorism will always undercut the fight against it, the good news is that so many Arab countries are now taking terrorism seriously now that they recognize that playing with fire has gotten them burned. Both Morocco and Iraq have been victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, and while Morocco tends to have been more successful in rolling back radicalism and countering terrorism, both face neighbors intent on utilizing terror as a tool of foreign policy.

Algeria, for example, still subsidizes and shelters the Polisario Front, whose unnecessary camps increasingly are used as recruitment centers for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Iraq faces the influx of not only Iranian-backed militias, but also Turkish and Saudi support for al-Qaeda factions in Al-Anbar, Mosul, and other large Sunni areas.

Still, problems remain that will continue to undercut any real progress in the fight against terrorism. First is the lack of any universally-recognized definition of terrorism. Here, the United States could take the lead but making any counterterrorism assistance granted to allies contingent on their acceptance of a definition of terrorism put forward by the United States.

Second is the continued attempt by Iran, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to criminalize “Islamophobia,” by which they mean the association of Islam with terrorism. The problem isn’t Islam per se, but rather the interpretation of Islam embraced by radical factions, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis. The battle is not one of civilizations, but rather one of theological interpretations. Denying that, and criminalizing debate, will only exacerbate terrorism rather than contain it.

Lastly, the United States must recognize that countries it has long considered top partners in the region—Qatar and Turkey—are now those, alongside Iran, who do the most to fan the flames of terrorism rather than contain it. Diplomatic nicety should not be a substitute for progress in fighting the scourge of terror. Perhaps rather than treat Turkey and Qatar with kid gloves, it is time to work through countries like Iraq and Morocco who recognize the problem and are no longer willing to sit by and ignore it.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.