Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

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

Does Kerry Think Al-Qaeda is a Human Rights Organization?

The State Department annual human rights report is a valuable tool but if compiled carelessly, it hemorrhages credibility. Alas, such is the case with the State Department most recent human rights report.  

In its most recent report on the United Arab Emirates, for example, diplomats are either on autopilot, simply cutting-and-pasting from previous reports without regard to new information, or they are purposely ignoring U.S. government designation both that some of their source material derives from an al-Qaeda front and that one of those whom they identify as an oppressed human rights activist is actually an Al Qaeda sympathizer if not activist.

The problem relates to Alkarama, a self-described human rights organization whose reporting the State Department, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have uncritically incorporated into their reporting.  The problem is that the founder of Alkarama, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, is also an al-Qaeda financier. Most recently, Mourad Dhina, executive director of Alkarama, signed a letter of support for Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who has since returned to terrorism.

Read More

The State Department annual human rights report is a valuable tool but if compiled carelessly, it hemorrhages credibility. Alas, such is the case with the State Department most recent human rights report.  

In its most recent report on the United Arab Emirates, for example, diplomats are either on autopilot, simply cutting-and-pasting from previous reports without regard to new information, or they are purposely ignoring U.S. government designation both that some of their source material derives from an al-Qaeda front and that one of those whom they identify as an oppressed human rights activist is actually an Al Qaeda sympathizer if not activist.

The problem relates to Alkarama, a self-described human rights organization whose reporting the State Department, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have uncritically incorporated into their reporting.  The problem is that the founder of Alkarama, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, is also an al-Qaeda financier. Most recently, Mourad Dhina, executive director of Alkarama, signed a letter of support for Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who has since returned to terrorism.

Alas, Kerry (and the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi) chose to ignore the U.S. Treasury Department terror designation of Alkarama founder Abdul Rahman Bin Umair Al Nuaimi’s and take information provided by him uncritically to castigate the United Arab Emirates, a reliable U.S. ally. The latest human rights report, for example, continues to lend credence to Alkarama’s accusation that the detention in the United Arab Emirates of Ummah Conference founder Hassan al-Diqqi is without merit. It is a case I previously blogged about, here, in the context of some Human Rights Watch report. Diqqi is no political dissident, as the State Department suggests; he is a full-fledged terror supporter, as worthy of life in prison as American Taliban John Walker Lindh or blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Make no mistakes: There are human rights problems in the United Arab Emirates, but to cast Diqqi as a victim simply tarnishes any legitimate criticism.

Perhaps it’s time that Secretary of State John Kerry stops considering miles flown as a metric of success and actually pay attention to what is going on in his home office unless, of course, he actually believes that his organization should consider Al Qaeda-affiliated groups to be impartial and credible sources of human rights criticism.

Read Less

Is Morocco the Antidote to Saudi-Sponsored Extremism?

Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

Read More

Emeritus Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, probably the greatest living historian of the Middle East, once tried to explain the impact of Saudi Arabia upon the practice of Islam in the modern era by the following analogy:

“Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.”

Lewis is right, of course, that the Saudi use of petrodollars to fund an intolerant interpretation of Islam has greased radicalism from West Africa through Southeast Asia and, of course, throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America as well.

De-radicalization may be fashionable among European officials, Western NGOs, and the State Department, but there is little evidence that U.S. and European programs are anything more than an expensive boondoggle.

Increasingly, Morocco appears to be the antidote to decades of Saudi-sponsored radicalism. I have highlighted here before the innovative “Mourchidat” program. Now Morocco is beginning to expand its imam training program to Tunisia and Libya in North Africa, as well as Guinea in West Africa. This follows a similar program conducted on behalf of imams in Mali, which has faced a severe challenge from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

President Obama will soon travel to Saudi Arabia. This is wise, as Obama seeks to repair ties with the Saudi Kingdom undercut by his own diplomatic tin ear. Still, if Obama really wants to support friends, he should move to bolster U.S. ties with Morocco, which is pulling far beyond its weight in efforts to promote peace, stability, and moderation not only among Arab states, but also across Africa, a continent Obama once described as a priority. Rather than throw money at de-radicalization programs that don’t have anything to show for their efforts, perhaps it is time to actually work through allies to support what does work.

Read Less

What Al-Qaeda’s Departure Says About Iran

In the wake of 9/11, when it became clear that the United States would go after al-Qaeda without mercy, several senior al-Qaeda leaders accepted safe-haven in Iran, often staying under regime control in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases, for example outside of the Caspian Sea town of Chalus. That Iran would cooperate with al-Qaeda is not news, at least not to anyone who read the 9/11 Commission Report. Al-Qaeda might be Sunni and the Islamic Republic Shi’ite, but sometimes hatred of the United States makes strange bedfellows. That Iran became a transit point for the 9/11 hijackers during the administration of Mohammad Khatami is an inconvenient fact that many forget, for it shows that Khatami was either not sincere in his “Dialogue of Civilizations” or simply did not have the policymaking power that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has. In either case, it raises questions about current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity or power.

At any rate, according to the Washington Post, senior al-Qaeda officials long sheltered by Iran are now leaving that country:

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including some senior personnel, fled to Iran. It has never been clear how much freedom of movement they enjoyed while in the country, but for some the welcome appears to be over. In the past two years, up to a dozen notable figures have left Iran, and two — Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman — have subsequently ended up in U.S. custody.

Read More

In the wake of 9/11, when it became clear that the United States would go after al-Qaeda without mercy, several senior al-Qaeda leaders accepted safe-haven in Iran, often staying under regime control in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases, for example outside of the Caspian Sea town of Chalus. That Iran would cooperate with al-Qaeda is not news, at least not to anyone who read the 9/11 Commission Report. Al-Qaeda might be Sunni and the Islamic Republic Shi’ite, but sometimes hatred of the United States makes strange bedfellows. That Iran became a transit point for the 9/11 hijackers during the administration of Mohammad Khatami is an inconvenient fact that many forget, for it shows that Khatami was either not sincere in his “Dialogue of Civilizations” or simply did not have the policymaking power that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has. In either case, it raises questions about current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity or power.

At any rate, according to the Washington Post, senior al-Qaeda officials long sheltered by Iran are now leaving that country:

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, including some senior personnel, fled to Iran. It has never been clear how much freedom of movement they enjoyed while in the country, but for some the welcome appears to be over. In the past two years, up to a dozen notable figures have left Iran, and two — Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, accused in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman — have subsequently ended up in U.S. custody.

What the Washington Post doesn’t mention is that it is no thanks to Iran (or Turkey, which refused to release Sulaiman Abu Ghaith to U.S. custody) that any al-Qaeda figures have ended up in U.S. custody. If Iran has really reformed and if it really is serious about coming in from the cold, perhaps it behooves the White House or the press corps to ask why Iranian authorities are not handing al-Qaeda figures over to the United States. Let us hope that the reason isn’t that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry haven’t simply neglected to ask for fear of what the answer might be. Regardless, Iran has every reason to hate al-Qaeda, all the more so since Tehran and al-Qaeda are on opposite sides of the Syria fight. That Iran would rather set al-Qaeda leadership free than allow them to face justice in the United States once again reinforces that there has been no significant change in the mindset of Iran’s leaders.

Read Less

It’s Not Just Regime vs. Al-Qaeda in Syria

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Read More

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Other changes provide new opportunities not recognized in a policy debate that seems stuck on repeat. Last month, I spent several days in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, home to Syria’s Kurdish minority, thousands of Syriac Christians, and many Arabs as well. While the United States refuses to deal with the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian administration set up in this region largely out of deference to Turkey, which does not like the idea of another federal Kurdish region on its borders, the Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of Rojava have done a remarkable job ousting al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and other radicals, and putting in place a functioning administration. I described some of this in a Wall Street Journal piece last Friday.

It seems remarkable that with the disaster that is Syria today, the White House would not jump at a chance to support a stable, secular, and secure region that is relative pro-American. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to do. The residents of Hasakah, or Rojava as Kurds call the region, don’t ask for much: just an end to the blockade imposed not only by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose president, Masud Barzani, sees Rojava as potential political competition) so that they can received donated medicine and rice. The region’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) and their Syriac Christian and Arab corollaries have successfully neutralized the regime and pushed by radical Islamist elements without international assistance. Should the West decide to support Syria’s secular elements even further, they might stabilize portions of Syria under a federal model, much like in Iraq. That isn’t a magic formula but, as in Iraq, perhaps embracing stability in some provinces can be a useful first step if achieving stability in all provinces is not immediately possible. Rather than simply regurgitate three-year-old talking points about arming the opposition, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the current situation on the ground and support Rojava.

Read Less

Dissolve the Congressional Turkey Caucus

Any congressman who remains in the “Caucus on U.S. Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans,” is either asleep at the switch or does not mind using their position as a shield for a government that:

  • Supports Hamas
  • Helps Iran evade sanctions
  • Turns a blind eye to jihadis transiting its territory
  • Finances and perhaps supplies al-Qaeda affiliates inside Syria
  • Peddles cheap anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracies
  • Systematically eviscerates the free press and seeks China-style censorship over the Internet
  • Undercuts NATO security by threatening to compromise software to the Chinese

The cherry on top now is a recording (start at 0:30) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that emerged on Friday that appears to show Erdoğan interceding with the mayor of Istanbul on behalf of the business interests of Yasin al-Qadi. Al-Qadi, of course, is designated by the U.S. government as an al-Qaeda financier. After reports suggested that both Cuneyt Zapsu, a top advisor to Erdoğan, and Zapsu’s mother had made donations to al-Qadi, Erdoğan shrugged off the matter saying he believed in al-Qadi as he believed in himself. Now, it seems that Erdoğan’s partnership with this apparent al-Qaeda-financier went much deeper.

Read More

Any congressman who remains in the “Caucus on U.S. Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans,” is either asleep at the switch or does not mind using their position as a shield for a government that:

  • Supports Hamas
  • Helps Iran evade sanctions
  • Turns a blind eye to jihadis transiting its territory
  • Finances and perhaps supplies al-Qaeda affiliates inside Syria
  • Peddles cheap anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracies
  • Systematically eviscerates the free press and seeks China-style censorship over the Internet
  • Undercuts NATO security by threatening to compromise software to the Chinese

The cherry on top now is a recording (start at 0:30) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that emerged on Friday that appears to show Erdoğan interceding with the mayor of Istanbul on behalf of the business interests of Yasin al-Qadi. Al-Qadi, of course, is designated by the U.S. government as an al-Qaeda financier. After reports suggested that both Cuneyt Zapsu, a top advisor to Erdoğan, and Zapsu’s mother had made donations to al-Qadi, Erdoğan shrugged off the matter saying he believed in al-Qadi as he believed in himself. Now, it seems that Erdoğan’s partnership with this apparent al-Qaeda-financier went much deeper.

Many congressmen joining the Congressional Turkey Caucus are well-meaning. They may believe Turkey to be a strong ally, a NATO partner, and a force for stability. They are wrong: that was the Turkey of a decade ago, not Turkey today. Given the Pakistani government’s support for terror groups, flirtation with China, and anti-American incitement, few congressmen would affix their names to a Congressional Pakistan Caucus, yet continuing in the Turkey Caucus has the same impact. If congressmen want to support a secular, pro-Western, Muslim majority state that seeks partnership with the United States, they might join the Azerbaijan caucus instead. But to remain in the Turkey Caucus affirms the worst behavior of Erdoğan and his cronies and ultimately undercuts U.S. national security.

Read Less

Iraq’s Sectarian Slide

It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

Read More

It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.

So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007.

The Washington Post quotes one Asaid Ahl al-Haq commander as saying, “We have to be much more active. Those who are trying to incite sectarianism, we have to deal with them,” while “drawing his hand over his throat like a knife.”

This is yet another ominous sign of how Iraq is sliding back toward the abyss from which it was only narrowly rescued in 2007-2008 by the U.S.-led surge. The crux of General David Petraeus’s strategy was to target al-Qaeda first in the expectation that, once its threat had receded, Shiites would turn away from militant groups claiming to defend them. This gamble paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Maliki targeted Sadrists in both Basra and Sadr City. Such a strategy could work again, but Maliki first would have to do a better job of recruiting Sunni sheikhs to his side to turn the tide against al-Qaeda and then he would have to show willingness to turn once again on his Shiite brethren.

In short, the onus is once again on the prime minister to show statesmanship and vision–neither, alas, one of his strong suits to judge by his record in office.

Read Less

Turkey’s AKP Should Be Diplomatic Pariahs

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Read More

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Many analysts, diplomats, and journalists privately recognized Turkey’s transformation, but whether because of a desire for access, cynical self-censorship as their think-tanks raised money from businessmen affiliated with the prime minister, or outright denial, many refused to declare publicly the change inside Turkey they privately acknowledged (the same holds true with Qatar, but no one has ever confused that state with a democracy). The ostrich-syndrome changed, of course, with the bombshell revelations of corruption and investigations that accompanied the divorce between Erdoğan and his one-time backer, powerful Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen.

Whatever the motivations for making public the Erdoğan administration’s corruption, there are few who doubt the evidence regarding corruption is truthful. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan in recent weeks has redoubled his efforts to block any public discussion of the topic. In recent days, Erdoğan’s political party, which dominates parliament, has passed a law requiring all Internet providers to obey the government-appointed president of the State Communications Board or his state-appointed deputies to shut down any website or webpage they find objectionable within four hours. Because there is no longer a judicial process to seek a shutdown, Turkey now finds itself in the same category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. So much for liberalizing and moving closer to Europe.

In addition, social media will be subject to bans based on keywords. Mention “bribery” or “corruption” on Facebook or Twitter, and the state will delete your entire account. To the State Department’s credit, it has expressed concern regarding the new Internet regulations, although the message from the U.S. embassy regarding recent events has been decidedly mixed.

Erdoğan has gone even farther in recent days. It has now emerged in Turkey that, while traveling in Morocco last June, he called the television station Habertürk to demand the manager remove coverage of an opposition leader. Alas, this has become a pattern. Last Tuesday, the official Turkish state broadcaster TRT cut its coverage of parliament during a speech by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As soon as Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech ended, live coverage of the parliamentary session resumed.

Then, in order to quash coverage of the corruption allegations against several of Erdoğan’s hand-picked ministers, he changed procedure to prevent the case going to parliament, which addresses issues-based ministers’ immunity. The AKP-dominated parliament would not have allowed the prosecutions to continue at any rate, but by bypassing parliament, Erdoğan prevented publication of the details of the charges.

Nevertheless, the stories of corruption keep pouring in. In order to save an ailing media company owned by a close friend of the prime minister, Erdoğan reportedly had his minister of transportation ask several contractors doing business with his government to donate a total of $630 million to a pool. An armored car circulated to pick up the cash. Several businessmen had to take out loans from Ziraat Bankası, a government bank, to pay their shares.

What can be done? What happens in Turkey has never stayed in Turkey. When Turkey was liberalizing and developing as a democracy, successive U.S. administrations treated it as a model. Now that Turkey is reverting to a dictatorship, and a terror-supporting one at that, it is important to criticize its trajectory with the same vehemence with which the United States once supported it. Rather than supplicate to Turkey or provide bully pulpits for Erdoğan and ministers involved in corruption, it is time to treat them—and their representatives in the United States—as pariahs. Rather than meet senior U.S. officials, they should be offered face time only with desk officers or lower-ranking diplomats. Congressmen should re-think their participation in the Congressional Turkey Caucus, unless they really wish to endorse that for which Turkey now stands. And institutions and think-tanks which seek to profit off their partnership with Turkey should be shamed in the same way that those soliciting money from Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Kremlin would.

Read Less

Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Read More

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

Read Less

The Costs of Obama’s Syrian Disaster

When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

Read More

When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

While granting Russia pre-eminence in Syria diplomacy was a matter of concern, many in Washington believed that doing so would at least contain the Syrian war and allow the administration to stay out of the conflict without paying any tangible penalty for its humiliation. But punting on Syria has left the country in the hands of two horrible forces: Assad and his Iran/Hezbollah allies and the potent Islamist forces that seem to have superseded moderates as the principal alternative to the ruling regime.

Just as Obama’s two years of fatal indecision on Syrian action left him with few good options by the time he woke up to the fact that he had to make some decision last summer, it appears that several more months of delay have only served to make the situation look even more grim. If Kerry has now conceded that the Russians can’t be trusted and has disclosed to Congress the potentially lethal nature of the threat from al-Qaeda, it is obvious that Obama’s diplomacy has succeeded only in creating new problems that may not be contained within Syria’s borders.

Much as the administration would prefer to stifle any efforts to use Kerry’s remarks as a way to initiate a new examination of its Syria policy, the U.S. failure must also unquestionably influence all present and future discussions of the president’s efforts to foster détente with Iran.

Armed conflict should always be the policy of last resort, but this administration’s avoidance of force has become its single, guiding principle. This does not go unnoticed by our foes, be they al-Qaeda or Iran. In Syria we have seen what happens when the West is unwilling and/or unable to muster forces to back its own threats of the use of force to end a brutal regime that murders its people by the tens of thousands. Rather than containing the problem to a small Middle Eastern country about which few Americans care, the implosion within Syria now threatens to mushroom into a conflict that could, if Kerry and intelligence director James Clapper are to be believed, eventually pose a threat to the United States. That is a problem that won’t be solved by U.S. reliance on the Russians or their Iranian partners in the Syrian catastrophe.

The connection to the Iran nuclear talks  can’t be denied. Syria did far more than highlight the irresolution of Obama’s foreign policy. It gave a textbook illustration of the mortal dangers of weakness on the international stage. That weakness was not lost on Iran when it negotiated an interim nuclear deal in which the U.S. discarded its economic and military leverage and tacitly recognized Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Just as Assad believes the current diplomatic track in Syria will not undermine his rule, so, too, his Iranian backers are understandably confident of their ability to negotiate and achieve Western recognition for their nuclear program. And just as America’s inability to act in Syria may have engendered a powerful al-Qaeda enclave there, blind faith in diplomacy is setting in motion a train of events that could lead directly to an Iranian bomb. The result of all this is not only a more dangerous Middle East but also an American homeland that is demonstrably less secure because of Obama’s continuing and uncomprehending failures.

Read Less

No, Iraq’s Al-Anbar Protests Were Not Peaceful

The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

Read More

The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

There is a narrative put forward by some diplomats and military analysts that the current problems in al-Anbar are simply the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoking those in al-Anbar. For more than a year, some local residents had sat in protest camps to protest unemployment, sectarian discrimination, and voice other complaints. While that was certainly the case with some young participants, al-Qaeda elements were a presence in the camps long before Maliki sought to clear them out. Here are a few examples

  • At around 48 seconds in this YouTube video, the preacher declares fealty to al-Qaeda.
  • This video shows al-Qaeda members openly displaying their flag in Ramadi last October.
  • Here is a march from last November in which participants declared their loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and quote Abu Masab az-Zarqawi.
  • And here is another protest from last autumn in which protesters raised the ISIS flag.

I spent a part of last week in Tikrit and Mosul, Iraqi cities with large Sunni Arab populations. Locals expressed a great deal of unease about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and what they saw as the sectarian character of his government. Unlike some analysts outside of Iraq, though, they did not downplay or dismiss the presence of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar long before Maliki’s raid on the protest camps. They recognize that al-Qaeda poses as much a threat to Sunni Iraqis as it does to Shi’ites.

As the Iraqi army begins its operations to clear al-Qaeda from Fallujah, many Iraqi Sunnis hope that long-term Anbari residents can wear the uniform of the Iraqi army to clean house in their own home province. No one but Anbaris have ever been welcome in Anbar in a military sense, and so tribal elements hope that they rather than Shi’ite recruits from distant provinces will be the ones who do what is necessary. Here, Iraqis hope the United States will play just a supporting role, ensuring the Iraqi army has a qualitative military edge over al-Qaeda, and recognizing that al-Qaeda exists because of its ideology and its foreign sponsors; it did not simply materialize because of some political grievance, nor had it been absent from the protest camps which some outsiders describe as pure and nonviolent.

Read Less

Karzai Pushing U.S. Out?

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

Read More

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

In the first place, most Afghans do want us there. A continued U.S. presence was strongly endorsed by the Loya Jirga that Karzai convened and it has been endorsed by practically the entire Karzai cabinet. The issue isn’t the people of Afghanistan; it’s the behavior of Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in April.

We can’t hold the future of our commitment in Afghanistan hostage to his whims because there are larger issues at stake. As the New York Times notes today, “The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.” Those are valid concerns because drones such as the Predator and Reaper have relatively short ranges; they need to be based close to the areas where they operate and if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will have no other nearby air base from which to monitor Pakistan’s troubled frontier regions.

At this point, we need to simply ignore Karzai and try to develop a better relationship with whoever succeeds him. Because if we don’t stay in Afghanistan—and that means more than the 1,000 or 2,000 troops that Joe Biden is said to favor—there is a real danger of the country succumbing once again to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

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.