Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

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

Are There Any Winners in Syria?

Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

Read More

Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

A pair of stories in the UK Telegraph draw attention to the strategy gap. The paper reports that Bashar al-Assad accurately gauged the West’s (understandable) hesitation to do anything that could inadvertently empower Islamist terrorists in Syria:

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels and al-Qaeda defectors.

Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, intelligence sources have told The Daily Telegraph.

Rebels and defectors say the regime also deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including al-Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.

The allegations by Western intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are in part a public response to demands by Assad that the focus of peace talks due to begin in Switzerland tomorrow be switched from replacing his government to co-operating against al-Qaeda in the “war on terrorism”.

If true—and a follow-up story lends credence to it—Assad has very skillfully played the West. But the headline of that follow-up story might give the West too much credit, failing to learn the lesson of its own revelations: “Syria’s duplicity over al-Qaeda means West will not trust Assad.” Syria’s duplicity means the West should not trust Assad. But Western leaders, in agreeing to the Russian chemical-weapons proposal to partner with Assad, may not have given themselves much of a choice at this point.

Which means ultimately they—the West—will lose by being made to look feckless in pronouncing that Assad must go and also having Islamist terror networks thrive in place of moderate rebels partially because of—not in spite of—the West’s decision to sit this one out. Assad will lose too, because terrorist groups will not willingly give up lucrative real estate in Syria, instigating a war of attrition against Assad. If Assad ultimately loses, so does Russia. The moderate rebels will lose for all the obvious reasons, including that they basically already have lost. Come to think of it, perhaps there will be a winner after all: thus far, everything’s coming up al-Qaeda.

Read Less

Europe’s Jihadis in Syria Will Come Home to Roost

As world leaders gather in Switzerland for the Syrian peace summit, there are still ever more horrific stories of atrocities emerging daily from Syria. The cost of Syria’s ongoing civil war has, of course, first and foremost been paid by Syrians. Thus far Western countries have experienced little in the way of repercussions from their policy of non-intervention and inaction.

However, increasingly Western intelligence agencies are growing concerned about the phenomenon of Muslims from their own countries traveling to Syria to join Islamist militants fighting there. The concern being that with tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including from Europe and even the United States, the day will come when these men will seek to return to their home countries, highly radicalized and well trained for terrorist activities.

Read More

As world leaders gather in Switzerland for the Syrian peace summit, there are still ever more horrific stories of atrocities emerging daily from Syria. The cost of Syria’s ongoing civil war has, of course, first and foremost been paid by Syrians. Thus far Western countries have experienced little in the way of repercussions from their policy of non-intervention and inaction.

However, increasingly Western intelligence agencies are growing concerned about the phenomenon of Muslims from their own countries traveling to Syria to join Islamist militants fighting there. The concern being that with tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including from Europe and even the United States, the day will come when these men will seek to return to their home countries, highly radicalized and well trained for terrorist activities.

Indeed, the Daily Telegraph has recently reported on this subject after having received information from a militant insider who defected from the Islamist faction ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). The defector confirmed that al-Qaeda in Syria is indoctrinating and training young men from European countries and encouraging them to travel back to their countries of origin to establish terror cells there.

Currently it is thought that among the foreign fighters in Syria there are, for instance, as many as 700 from France alone. Estimates put Britain close behind with around 500 Muslims from there believed to have joined jihadists in Syria. MI5 is reported to be continually increasing the resources it allocates to confronting this security threat, while French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has said that this phenomenon is the biggest threat that his country faces in coming years.   

Indeed, the Telegraph’s informant told the paper of the extent to which young European Muslims coming to Syria are being initiated into a hardline anti-Western ideology, with many of the foreign fighters expressing that they are “proud of 9/11 and the London bombings.”

On the one hand this growing threat is a reminder that non-intervention can have its own unforeseen consequences and that refusing to take responsibility for problems around the world, under the attitude that the West always makes matters worse, comes with a price. Allowing this kind of instability to ferment in one place only opens the way for it to spread to others.

Yet, the threat to European countries from al-Qaeda-trained jihadis returning from Syria has also grown out of an irresponsible policy at home. Many European countries have taken a laissez faire attitude to integrating their immigrant communities and this, coupled with bouts of an active policy of multiculturalism, has allowed for the development of a sizable minority that not only feels no loyalty to their host country, but that can also be all-too-easily persuaded to become thoroughly hostile the values of that host society.  

Read Less

Why Does HRW Support the Ummah Conference?

I have written here, here, and here about the implications upon Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International of the U.S. Treasury Department designation of the leader of Alkarama because of his financing of al-Qaeda. In short, Alkarama was less a human-rights organization than a radical political organization dedicated to the promotion of an extremist religious agenda. Given what has now emerged regarding its former partner, any responsible leadership at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International should temporarily rescind, review and, if necessary, reissue any reports absent the input from its flawed and politicized partner.

Alas, rather than restore credibility to its report, HRW especially seems to be doubling down on jihadi organizations. It has actively advocated on behalf of the Ummah Conference, and has described the organization falsely as political activists who seek to advance peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights. The Ummah Conference is nothing of the sort, and HRW should be the first to realize that.

This past autumn, HRW issued a report documenting crimes conducted by Islamist militias inside Syria, among whom is the Ahrar al-Sham. The HRW condemnation was somewhat ironic considering that Ahrar al-Sham receives support from and coordinates with the Ummah Conference. Muhammad al-Abduli, an Emirati leader of the Ummah Conference, fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham in Syria until early last year, when he was killed by a Syrian government sniper. To defend the Ummah Conference, however, HRW has relied upon the word of Alkarama, its partner whose president now appears to have been working on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Back to HRW’s laundering of Ummah Council figures and activities:

Read More

I have written here, here, and here about the implications upon Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International of the U.S. Treasury Department designation of the leader of Alkarama because of his financing of al-Qaeda. In short, Alkarama was less a human-rights organization than a radical political organization dedicated to the promotion of an extremist religious agenda. Given what has now emerged regarding its former partner, any responsible leadership at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International should temporarily rescind, review and, if necessary, reissue any reports absent the input from its flawed and politicized partner.

Alas, rather than restore credibility to its report, HRW especially seems to be doubling down on jihadi organizations. It has actively advocated on behalf of the Ummah Conference, and has described the organization falsely as political activists who seek to advance peaceful political reform, democracy, and human rights. The Ummah Conference is nothing of the sort, and HRW should be the first to realize that.

This past autumn, HRW issued a report documenting crimes conducted by Islamist militias inside Syria, among whom is the Ahrar al-Sham. The HRW condemnation was somewhat ironic considering that Ahrar al-Sham receives support from and coordinates with the Ummah Conference. Muhammad al-Abduli, an Emirati leader of the Ummah Conference, fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham in Syria until early last year, when he was killed by a Syrian government sniper. To defend the Ummah Conference, however, HRW has relied upon the word of Alkarama, its partner whose president now appears to have been working on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Back to HRW’s laundering of Ummah Council figures and activities:

In its 2009 report, HRW accused the United Arab Emirates of singling out Ummah Conference leader Hassan al-Diqqi and suggested that Diqqi’s detention was an example of a “human rights defender and government critic fac[ing] harassment, including criminal charges.” What the report omitted, however, was Diqqi’s repeated calls for violent jihad. Certainly, photos of Diqqi with the al-Qaeda-sympathizing Ummah Brigade in Syria do not depict a man committed to nonviolence or democracy, nor did the fact that he had established a training camp for Syrian jihadist fighters. Human Rights Watch also omitted the fact that Diqqi had authored a book advocating for violent jihad in 2002.

Then, in a 2011 report, HRW targeted Saudi authorities for arresting Saudi-based Ummah Party leaders. HRW described them as “political activists.” Perhaps they are political activists, if advocacy for al-Qaeda and support for its affiliates in Syria will, as HRW describes Saudi Arabia’s Ummah Party’s mission, serve the “promotion of human rights, including free speech the right to peacefully protest, and promotion of women and civil society….”

It’s not surprising that Alkarama would advocate so fiercely for the Ummah Conference, and falsely attest to that group’s moderation to Alkarama’s partners in Human Rights Watch. Alkarama was founded by five like-minded individuals: Designated terror financier Abd al-Rahman Omar al-Nuaimi and Khalifa Muhammad Raban who, like Nuaimi, is a Qatari citizen, and three leaders from Algeria’s Ummah Conference affiliate. Indeed, Mourad Dhina, one of the Algerian Alkarama founders and Ummah Conference members, was the supervisor of the executive office of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front from 2002-2004. Readers should remember the Islamic Salvation Front as the front group for the Armed Islamic Group, one side of the Algerian civil war that engaged in gross violations of human rights and committed atrocities in the conflict that claimed perhaps 100,000 lives.

As a private organization, HRW can ultimately do what it wants, even if it loses credibility by corrupting human-rights reporting by enabling radical partners to inject political agendas into their reports, effectively rendering them into tools of propaganda rather than human-rights advocacy.

So too can the United Nations Human Rights Council, an organization which has made a mockery of its own mission, which in 2009 adopted an opinion against the United Arab Emirates for its arrest of al-Diqqi. (In 2010, Alkarama took credit for the UN opinion, showing how conscious their efforts are to use human-rights organizations to launder their own jihadist agenda.)

The problem is that many in the State Department, unaware or too lazy to read Human Rights Watch reports with a critical eye, effectively parrot the language inserted by Alkarama and other radical partners into annual State Department human-rights reports. Rather than get out of the embassy and investigate human rights on their own, U.S. diplomats charged with writing the Saudi chapter on human rights simply took HRW’s word for it when it came to the crackdown on Ummah Party leaders. In its 2012 human rights report, for example, the State Department wrote, “According to a Human Rights Watch citation of the request, they appeared to have been detained solely for trying to create a party whose professed aims included ‘supporting the peaceful reform movement.’” Make no mistake: Saudi Arabia can be guilty of tremendous human-rights abuses, but that does not mean those who are radical even by Saudi standards are any better. Often, they can be far worse.

Given Human Rights Watch’s rampant politicization across the Middle East from Morocco and the Western Sahara to the United Arab Emirates, perhaps it is time to mandate that the State Department cannot utilize any HRW findings or data until HRW restores its quality control and excises agenda politics from its reporting.

Read Less

Obama Does Right on Morocco. Will Kerry?

On January 17, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Appropriation Bill passed by Congress which includes for the first time language mandating that U.S. assistance designated for Morocco be used in the Western Sahara. That move reinforces the policy of the United States to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara while at the same time Rabat grants the former Spanish colonial territory local autonomy.

The Western Sahara might seem irrelevant to U.S. national security, but it is not. Morocco is the only truly stable and friendly country in the Maghreb or the Sahel, and the Western Sahara is on the front line of the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Morocco has also been at the center of some earlier Obama administration missteps when Susan Rice, first as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and then subsequently as national security advisor, sought to empower that the United Nations’ failed mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara also monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. The problem with such an arrangement is, as with everything else in the United Nations, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes subordinate objective fact to propaganda and politics.

Read More

On January 17, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Appropriation Bill passed by Congress which includes for the first time language mandating that U.S. assistance designated for Morocco be used in the Western Sahara. That move reinforces the policy of the United States to support Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara while at the same time Rabat grants the former Spanish colonial territory local autonomy.

The Western Sahara might seem irrelevant to U.S. national security, but it is not. Morocco is the only truly stable and friendly country in the Maghreb or the Sahel, and the Western Sahara is on the front line of the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Morocco has also been at the center of some earlier Obama administration missteps when Susan Rice, first as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations and then subsequently as national security advisor, sought to empower that the United Nations’ failed mission for a referendum on the Western Sahara also monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. The problem with such an arrangement is, as with everything else in the United Nations, authoritarian and anti-Western regimes subordinate objective fact to propaganda and politics.

Morocco’s respect for human rights has improved tremendously over recent years, as has the access it grants human-rights activists and monitors. Neighboring Algeria—a reactionary, military-dominated regime which has a dismal record and denies access regularly to journalists, diplomats, and human-rights monitors—regularly accuses Morocco of abuses. It knows and takes advantage of the fact that human-rights groups effectively punish access. Why Rice would work to subvert a friendly state and a U.S. ally to the advantage of an unfriendly state and abuser of basic rights remains unclear to the present day, as she has never explained her actions nor her willingness to impose a new change absent consultations with her colleagues across the administration.

Just because two countries might dispute a territory does not mean that the United States should be neutral: Washington should always side with allies and democrats over adversaries and autocrats. Whether with regard to the West Bank, Abkhazia, or Senkaku, the obsessive desire for neutrality simply encourages radicals to stake out more extreme positions. Perhaps Obama hasn’t fully learned that friendship matters but, at least with regard to Morocco and the Western Sahara, he seems headed down the right path.

Now let us hope that Kerry will ensure that the State Department adheres to the will of Congress and actively invests in Morocco’s Western Sahara even if it makes Algeria mad. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat should actively assist U.S. firms that want to do business in the Western Sahara or off its coast. At the same time, the Pentagon should reinforce Morocco’s claim by scheduling port calls for destroyers or cruisers in the Western Sahara, an economic boon to the hotels, resorts, and restaurants of the region’s pristine port cities.

Read Less

Has Turkey Become Pakistan on the Med?

Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

Read More

Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

There have been reports in the Western press about how police stopped a truck apparently carrying weapons destined for the Nusra Front and other radical factions in Syria. The back story is interesting: after a local prosecutor ordered a search, the governor of Adana ordered police to stop their search and explained that the prime minister wanted the police search warrant canceled and the shipment to go through to Syria.

When the Turkish government is knowingly allowing its territory to be used to support al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and when, indeed, it seems to be directly supplying such factions with arms, money, and material, then it has become a sponsor of terrorism as directly as Iran is with regard to Hezbollah, and Pakistan should be considered with regard to the Taliban.

As a side note, several years ago I testified in the first full House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing dedicated to Turkey’s changing foreign policy. During the course of the hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia democratic and co-chair of the Congressional Turkey Caucus, took umbrage toward all the witnesses, and made it clear that he did not see criticism of Turkey’s foreign-policy direction to be legitimate. He was wrong, but he was not alone. How unfortunate it is that rather than use its influence to keep Turkey from going so far off the rails, the men and women of the Congressional Turkey Caucus used their position to obfuscate and defend Turkey, even at the expense of American national security. It is tragic that they could have prevented real damage but, for the sake of some cocktails at the Turkish ambassador’s residence and some junkets to Istanbul, they chose not to do so. It should never be too late, however, for those who truly care about Turkey to demand real accountability for its actions, before it moves further down the path of Pakistan and terror sponsorship.

Read Less

Cooperating with Assad

Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

Read More

Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

Yet the fact that the intelligence representatives of these countries, which have broken diplomatic relations with Damascus, are willing to meet with Assad’s thugs is very telling–and what it tells us is that they have basically accommodated themselves to the perpetual existence of the Assad regime. And why shouldn’t they, when the U.S., which would have to lead any coalition to oust Assad, refuses to do so?

President Obama has even discontinued providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition for fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Instead he has struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, which essentially makes the U.S. a partner of the Syrian regime.

It is only a small step from where we are today toward tacit toleration for Assad’s atrocities, much as the West provided tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Maybe there really is no other choice left in Syria–maybe the only alternative to Assad’s thuggery is the thuggery of al-Qaeda on the other side–but if so, that’s a pretty damning indictment of the moral and practical failure of Western (read: American) policy in Syria.

Read Less

Ringing a Fire Bell in the Night

This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

Read More

This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

(a) President Obama is presiding over a substantial decline in defense spending that “has led to a readiness crisis that recalls the hollow army days of the 1970s.” (Boot)

(b) We are trying to convince ourselves that al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa are not really a threat to us. “We may indeed convince ourselves, but that will not change the reality that they are a serious threat…. The tide of war – of this war, of al Qaeda’s war against us – is not receding, it is advancing.” (Kagan)

(c) When President Obama boasted repeatedly in the 2012 presidential campaign that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” he was “defining al Qaeda down. But redefining al Qaeda is quite different from killing it.” (Hayes)

(d) We are seeing the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “AQI is fighting in Iraq and Syria under its new banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Solutions to Iraq’s current crisis cannot be found uniquely in Iraq. The United States needs to take action to degrade al Qaeda affiliates in Syria while also acting to degrade [Bashar] Assad’s capabilities.” (Lewis)

(e) “Al Qaeda’s policy of aggressive geographic expansion has been largely successful of late… The war in Syria has been a boon for al Qaeda… If anything, Obama now defines al Qaeda more narrowly than ever before, even as al Qaeda’s many branches have become more virulent.” (Joscelyn)

(f) “The entire region – states and nonstate actors, ethnic and sectarian groups, militants of all stripes, and the ordinary people on the street – is engaged in a two-fold contest for power: over who will control the future of the region and who will control the future of Islam. We can pretend that the context does not affect us, but if the enemy wins, he has promised to bring the war home to us again. We may have lost interest in the Middle East, but the Middle East has not lost interest in us.” (Donnelly and Habeck)

I’ve quoted these authors at length because what they say not only seems right to me but urgent as well. The American people are “war weary,” to use a common phrase these days. Our commander in chief is diffident and irresolute. He does not understand the nature of the struggle. Our enemies, on the other hand, do. They are malevolent, determined, on the rise.  They once again view America as “the weak horse.”

These are dangerous days, and it’s important that at least some among us ring a fire bell in the night.

Read Less

Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

Read More

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.

Read Less

Is America More Sectarian Than Iraq?

The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

Read More

The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

The sectarian narrative is simple to grasp, and many do. Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), John Nagl, and Emma Sky, all of whom served admirably in Iraq, blame Maliki for pursuing sectarian vendettas. While Sky is right to say that the prime minister has worked to remove and marginalize rivals, she continues:

The trumped up warrant against the former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December 2012 sparked widespread year-long protests by Sunnis aggrieved at their marginalization. A raid last April by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on a protest camp in Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis. Last month, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and horrific attacks against Shia civilians, Maliki ordered the ISF to raid an al Qaeda training camp in the deserts of western Anbar province. But when 24 Iraqi soldiers, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division, died in the raid, Maliki then ordered ISF into the city of Ramadi to arrest a Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed Alwani, and to close down the protest camps, which he accused of being occupied by al Qaeda.

While this creates a damning narrative, what she omits is also important: How trumped-up were the charges against Issawi when he himself has paid blood money to make settlement with the families of victims in whose murders he was complicit? Likewise, while the raid on Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis, Iraqi forces first went in with water cannons until they were fired upon with heavy weapons by the protestors. Only then did the raid turn violent. Hawija has for years been a hotbed of radicalism widely sympathetic to al-Qaeda and hostile to any Shi’ite or Kurd who might step foot in the town. It is true that the Iraqi government might have exaggerated the numbers of al-Qaeda present in the protest camps of Ramadi, but what is certain—at least according to YouTube videos of Friday sermons and rallies and Facebook declarations—is that al-Qaeda was present. That raises the question about how much al-Qaeda presence Maliki should tolerate and, just as important, how much al-Qaeda presence Sunni residents of Anbar should tolerate before being forced to react or expecting an Iraqi government reactions. To transpose that question to the United States, how much al-Qaeda presence should the United States tolerate in its midst before taking action?

Mansoor’s narrative is also one-sided:

Prime Minister Maliki, emboldened by the improvements in security, turned on his political enemies with a mailed fist. His first target was Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president of Iraq and longtime political adversary. Hashemi escaped the country, but Maliki had the courts try him in absentia and sentence him to death. The prime minister didn’t stop there. Faced with non-violent Sunni resistance to his increasingly authoritarian leadership style, Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into protest camps last April and again a week ago.

The question Mansoor does not address is whether Hashemi was guilty of terrorism and, indeed, it seems overwhelmingly that he was. A follow-on question would then be whether Hashemi’s sectarian preference should be a mitigating factor. The answer to that is clearly no. More complicated would be the question whether Maliki or others should decline to pursue those engaging in terrorism if they know the result of that pursuit might be violence. That is tricky, but to fail to pursue terrorists out of fear of violence would, in effect, be succumbing to blackmail. Again, it is useful to transpose the question to the United States: Should American police refuse to pursue cases against extremist militias for fear that prosecuting them might encourage revenge? Again, the answer to that question is no.

The Baghdad government should take steps to ameliorate the grievances of al-Anbar, so long as those grievances are not the democratic system itself: Too many al-Anbar residents and their politicians—including those who participate in the Awakening Councils—seem unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and that no amount of encouragement to their community from sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will return Iraq to its pre-2003 order.

It seems, unfortunately, that too many Americans have bit into the sectarian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Because Americans—especially those whose background is in CENTCOM, which has its own distinct culture and biases based on its operations and interactions with the militaries and governments of sectarian Sunni emirates, kingdoms, and republics—now wear sectarian blinders, many refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in which Sunni victims complain to a Shi’ite government about abuses by Sunni politicians, as was the case with both Hashemi and Issawi. Likewise, that Sunnis displaced from Anbar choose to take refuge in predominantly Shi’ite Karbala rather than neighboring (and largely Sunni) Ninewah governorate or Jordan says a lot about the complexity of Iraq today.

Sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism do exist in Iraq, but it is dangerous for Americans to base analysis on a narrative that may have been truer during their service many years ago, when the situation has evolved significantly since. When Americans are more sectarian in their judgments than many Iraqis, they risk reigniting sectarianism rather than ameliorating it. The United States should not accept blindly the narrative whispered by Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish diplomats and generals. More dangerous is the implication of such sectarianism in the Western narrative: to suggest that al-Qaeda has legitimate grievances in Iraq, as Politico’s introduction appears to have done, risks setting policy down a slippery slope that will nullify the war on terror not only in Iraq but far beyond.

Read Less

Isolationism on Syria Breeds Terror

Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

Read More

Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

Perhaps he thinks we should simply exit the entire region, not just Syria. Well, President Obama appears to be trying to do just that and the result is not peace and stability breaking out–it is more violence which already threatens American interests in the region and which could easily someday threaten America’s physical security.

We shouldn’t wait until the first Syrian-trained suicide bombers show up in London or New York; we should act now (indeed, we should have been acting for the past two years) to bolster the more moderate opposition elements who are even now battling al-Qaeda militants for control of the parts of Syria that are outside the government’s grasp.

Read Less

The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

Read More

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

Read Less

Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

Read More

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

Read Less

No Blank Check for Maliki

President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

Read More

President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

If this were a Republican administration, such talk would lead to accusations that the administration is questioning Menendez’s patriotism. But in fact the Democratic senator has a good point–it will take a lot more than Apaches and Hellfires to stop AQI. It will take a political overture from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni tribes of Anbar, similar to the Awakening orchestrated in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI will have no trouble regenerating its losses. Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents (which, with an election looming, may be the point), is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition.

Selling Maliki military hardware without preconditions is a bad idea. What’s needed is a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy centered on political outreach. If Maliki launches such an effort, the U.S. should support him–even flying armed Predators to directly target AQI if Maliki agrees. But unless and until Maliki ends his sectarian attacks on prominent Sunnis, giving him a military blank check, as the administration wants to do, would be counterproductive.

Read Less

Al-Qaeda and the Benghazi Question

The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

Read More

The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

Some of these groups are working with al-Qaeda affiliates and some aren’t. How does that fit into the administration’s paradigm that our “enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates,” strictly speaking? Does the administration mean to say that jihadists coming from Afghanistan—where we are still fighting the “good war”—and joining in alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, but not joining al-Qaeda de jure, are not our enemy?

The Post story shows why so many observers got the feeling the Times story started from a conclusion–Republicans must be wrong–and worked in reverse to reconstruct what happened based on that conclusion. The Post writes about a former Guantanamo prison inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007 and then released by the Libyan government the following year, named Abu Sufian bin Qumu. The Post reports on Qumu’s alleged role in the Benghazi attack and that American officials are expected to designate him and branches of his Ansar al-Sharia group as foreign terrorist organizations.

Then the Post adds the crucial context:

Qumu, 54, a Libyan from Darnah, is well known to U.S. intelligence officials. A former tank driver in the Libyan army, he served 10 years in prison in the country before fleeing to Egypt and then to Afghanistan.

According to U.S. military files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Qumu trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan and later worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, where the al-Qaeda leader lived for three years.

Qumu fought alongside the Taliban against the United States in Afghanistan; he then fled to Pakistan and was later arrested in Peshawar. He was turned over to the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay.

He has a “long-term association with Islamic extremist jihad and members of al-Qaida and other extremist groups,” according to the military files. “Detainee’s alias is found on a list of probable al-Qaida personnel receiving monthly stipends.”

Qumu also had links to Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known by his alias Abu Zubaida, a key al-Qaeda facilitator who is being held indefinitely at Guantanamo.

There are two aspects to this that illustrate why the Times piece was problematic, and they both revolve around Qumu’s role. The Times story was apparently written last summer and held, which could explain this sentence in the Times piece:

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.

That’s not what American officials appear to believe now, if they ever did. But it undermines the Times’s account of the entire episode because it shows it to be either too dated to be trusted or based on unreliable sources, which when mixed with an ideological predisposition against the conservative assessment of the administration’s spin only elevates and justifies the paper’s critics.

But it’s also part of the ongoing discrediting of the administration’s confused approach to national security, trying to wish away or minimize those terrorists who are not part of “al-Qaeda Central.” The president’s desire to end wars is understandable. His habit of pretending they have ended because of his own impatience is reckless.

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.