Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

The Iranian Enemy of Our Enemy Is Also Our Enemy

Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

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Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

Before anyone hops on the bandwagon forming to welcome Iranian intervention in the widening conflict in Iraq, it’s important to remember that these same hopes were once widely expressed about Tehran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Though Iran has more at stake in any battle to preserve the government of fellow Shiites in Baghdad, anyone who believes Tehran’s goal is regional stability hasn’t been paying attention to Iranian foreign policy over the last 20 years.

Iran’s goals in the Middle East have been remarkably consistent for decades. It worked hard to forge an alliance with Syria to outflank Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with which it fought a bloody war in the 1980s. Saddam’s fall and ultimate replacement by a majority-Shiite government gave Iran the opportunity to make Iraq an ally. Tehran did its best to hamper U.S. efforts to create stability–although it ultimately acquiesced in the creation of a majority-Shiite government. When President Obama left Iraq with no structure in place to maintain U.S. interests, that too worked to Iran’s advantage. Saddam—for all his massive, homicidal villainy—did serve as a check on Iran.

But the main battle that has interested Tehran in more recent years has been the one it has waged in Syria to preserve the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. When President Obama called for Assad to leave office but failed to do anything to bring about that result, the Iranians stepped into the vacuum, sending massive amounts of military aid and deploying their auxiliaries in the form of Hezbollah shock troops to shore up a tottering Damascus government. While the West dithered, Iran’s troops turned the tide.There is little doubt that Assad’s hold on power—despite murdering more than 100,000 Syrians—is secure.

Iran’s victory in Syria combined with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon have created a pro-Tehran axis that threatens the security of moderate Arab governments in the region, as well as that of Israel, as much as al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Rather than a solution to America’s problems, every effort to move closer to Iran is tantamount to placing a Western imprimatur on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just as the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva gives Iran’s nuclear program a Western seal of approval, additional cooperation with Tehran elsewhere creates a perilous situation in which the West, in its folly, is agreeing to the existence of an Iranian sphere of influence that fundamentally alters the balance of power in the region.

Every advantage the U.S. thinks it gains from détente with Iran in the present will be paid in the future as the Islamist regime consolidates its power, especially if the diplomatic shell game Tehran is playing with Kerry leads to the complete collapse of Western economic sanctions. That is the key for the Iranians, because once that happens there will be no reassembling the reluctant coalition that the U.S. spent the last decade cobbling together.

A wise U.S. foreign policy would be one that recognizes that common ground with Iran is a Western illusion. The gap that separates the U.S. from a radical Islamist, anti-Semitic and terror-sponsoring government in Tehran, one with an openly-stated goal of annihilating the State of Israel cannot be bridged by a misguided understanding of realpolitik or the perception of shared interests in either Syria or Iraq. Dreams of détente with Iran will only lead to a nightmare Middle East in which genuine U.S. allies are left alone to deal with a genocidal Islamist nuclear regional power. The enemy of our enemy in Iraq is still our enemy.

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What’s Really Happening in Iraq?

The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

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The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

Perhaps Maliki should not have timed the raid on the Ramadi protest camp in the manner he did, and it is unfortunate that the timing appears to have been colored by partisan politics: With the elections forthcoming in April, the theory that Maliki ordered the raid to prove his “Shi’ite” credentials is believable among a wide segment of Iraqi society. It would also be good to reinforce the notion of blind justice by moving with similar seriousness against those Shi’ites and Kurds who engage in murder and terrorism. Again, the answer to that is not immunity for the perpetrators in al-Anbar, but rather greater action against Shi’ite abusers of Iraqi law.

The spark, however, was the raid on the Ramadi camp. According to residents of al-Anbar, most residents of the protest camp were unemployed youth who joined the camp both for the free food and the camaraderie. Residents do acknowledge supporters of al-Qaeda were present—and, indeed, their presence is undeniable and caught on YouTube videos—but locals dismiss the al-Qaeda presence as few and far between (somewhat akin to the way “International ANSWER” or “Code Pink” show up at random protests to try to hijack the press attention).

Perhaps, however, the al-Qaeda presence was underestimated: After all, al-Qaeda didn’t spontaneously organize to the point that they could seize Fallujah in just a week. The al-Qaeda presence was not created in the mind of the prime minister, as it is too easy to imagine from the safety of Washington or New York.

It is fashionable to blame Baghdad for the alleged discrimination which fuels the unrest in Al-Anbar but, once again, the situation is more complicated. There are huge differences in the proportion of allocated budgets actually spent from province to province. The way the Iraqi system works, some governors explain to me, is that the province has a budget, but only when a certain amount of money is spent will they receive the next infusion of cash. Kirkuk spends almost all of its budget, and has the results to show for it. In Ninewah and al-Anbar, the proportion spent is miniscule. What is unclear is whether the reason for that is a capacity issue in Mosul and Ramadi, or whether there is some bureaucratic blockage in Baghdad. Either way, if the protestors simply buy into the sectarian rhetoric, they will be no further to solving the very real problems which impact predominantly Sunni areas.

Political culture is also a problem. One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting and analyzing Iraq is meeting politicians of all backgrounds in their homes, offices, and in restaurants and hearing their assessments of the situation: They are down to earth, calm, and assess the situation rationally. Put the same politician in front of a television camera, however, and the personality shifts 100 percent: it’s fire and sectarian brimstone. Iraqi politicians all acknowledge the problem, but no one is willing to address the problem.

Within the United States, the surge colors analysis. The surge was a very successful military strategy in the short-term, but it created and exacerbated very real long-term political problems. General David Petraeus sometimes promised what he did not have the power to implement, and throughout his career seems to have prioritized short-term stability and security over the long-term viability of his strategies. If the situation went to heck after his departure, too often his successors would be blamed even if the seeds had been sown under his command. The unfortunate fact is that the surge rewarded violence and convinced some elements of Iraqi society that if they simply hold out longer or threaten (or even engage in violence), that they can win concessions through violence that they will never win through the ballot box. Proponents of the surge may not like to see the long-term consequence tarnish their legacy, but to pin the blame on the prime minister would be dishonest: the problem isn’t Maliki, but rather the absolutist vein which continues to course through Al-Anbar’s body politic.

So what can be done? A civil war in Iraq would be tragic, but offering concessions in the face of terrorism would simply pour fuel on the fire. If terrorism is motivated by ideology and, indeed, when facing al-Qaeda, both Iraq and the West are facing a corrosive ideology, then the only solution can be to kill the terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry might be right when he says the United States no longer should be involved in the fight inside Iraq, but let us hope then that the United States will not get squeamish when Iraqi security forces do what must be done.

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What Was Human Rights Watch Thinking?

I blogged here last week regarding the failure of Human Rights Watch to rescind and reinvestigate reports for which it had relied on information contributed by al-Karama, whose president the U.S. Treasury Department recently designated as an al-Qaeda financier. When it comes to any reporting, regardless of subject, the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Human Rights Watch can certainly plead ignorance that it was not aware of al-Karama president Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaimi’s financial transfers. What Human Rights Watch should have been aware of, however, was Nuaimi’s other public activities.

Nuaimi was secretary-general of an organization called the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign (GAAC), an umbrella group which coordinated leading luminaries from al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ummah Conference. Here is a statement from the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign explaining its mission:

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I blogged here last week regarding the failure of Human Rights Watch to rescind and reinvestigate reports for which it had relied on information contributed by al-Karama, whose president the U.S. Treasury Department recently designated as an al-Qaeda financier. When it comes to any reporting, regardless of subject, the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Human Rights Watch can certainly plead ignorance that it was not aware of al-Karama president Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaimi’s financial transfers. What Human Rights Watch should have been aware of, however, was Nuaimi’s other public activities.

Nuaimi was secretary-general of an organization called the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign (GAAC), an umbrella group which coordinated leading luminaries from al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ummah Conference. Here is a statement from the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign explaining its mission:

The Muslim ummah – in this era – is facing a vicious aggression from the powers of tyranny and injustice, from the Zionist power and the American administration led by the extreme right, which is working to achieve control over nations and peoples, and is stealing their wealth, and annihilating their will, and changing their educational curriculums and social orders.

 And this aggression of a totalitarian nature has been portrayed through falsifying truths about Islam’s teachings and in attacks against the Quran and the Prophet Mohammad may peace be upon him, as well as through misleading media campaigns and economic extortion. The worst of its examples is the armed occupation of countries and peaceful peoples, similar to what has happened in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which have destroyed the core and foundations of society and shed the blood of women, children, and elders, and destroyed cities upon the heads of its residents, insulting human dignity, which all creeds and religions have honored, and ignoring agreements and covenants. This is all in addition to what is carried out by the Zionists in occupying the lands of Palestine and killing and displacing its resilient people, and insulting their rights and desecrating their holy sites for more than half a century.

 This vicious aggression sets humanity back to the despised era of colonialism when colonizing countries attacked the dignity of weak peoples, stole their wealth, undermined their positions, and this legality of the villain was superior. And in resistance to this aggression, the signatories of this statement announce the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign as a vessel uniting the efforts of the children of the ummah, and to remind [the ummah] of its obligation for victory, and to raise [the ummah’s] awareness for its right of self-defense, and to combat the aggressor in a legal manner through effective tools.”

So, Human Rights Watch chose as its partner a man who accepted uncritically the most vile conspiracy theories and had dedicated himself to advancing the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and similar groups. His vessel, in this mission, was not only the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign but also Human Rights Watch, utilizing the group to defend the Muslim Brotherhood and its adherents, and to castigate and tar those who sought to combat the group through legal means. Hence, when the United Arab Emirates in just one instance disrupted a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah group to stage a coup, al-Karama swung into action and, in partnership with Human Rights Watch, simply attacked the United Arab Emirates.

Human Rights Watch got used, plain and simple. It’s the biggest misstep by a human-rights advocacy group since the American Friends Service Committee shilled for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. At least when the true ideology and actions of the Khmer Rouge were exposed, the American Friends Service Committee had the decency to acknowledge its error. As for Human Rights Watch, its researchers speak Arabic and so it was either aware of the activities of its partner’s president, or it was negligent in its most basic assessments. Either way, it should be deeply embarrassed. Withdrawing any report which al-Karama touched should only be the beginning. Perhaps it is time for Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director, to submit himself to the questioning of his board and to explain just how Human Rights Watch came to partner with a man whose views are outlined so starkly in the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign manifest.

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Human Rights Watch Should Rescind Reports

It should be terribly embarrassing that both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) partnered with al-Karama, a group whose Qatari leader now appears to have been an al-Qaeda financier. National-security reporter Eli Lake, who broke the story, wrote:

On Wednesday [December 18], the Treasury Department issued a designation of [Abdul Rahman Umayr ] al-Naimi that said he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen over the last 11 years. In 2013, the designation says, al-Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via the group’s representative in Syria. In the same notice, the Treasury Department also designated Abdulwahab Al-Humayqani, al-Karama’s representative in Yemen, as a financier and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen affiliate.

It’s bad enough that HRW and AI partnered with such groups, for if they cannot accurately assess their own partners, then it raises questions about how well they can assess others. It is possible that the leadership and analysts at HRW and AI were blinded by their own politics. After all, if al-Karama criticized the right targets, then why should HRW or AI criticize its motives?

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It should be terribly embarrassing that both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) partnered with al-Karama, a group whose Qatari leader now appears to have been an al-Qaeda financier. National-security reporter Eli Lake, who broke the story, wrote:

On Wednesday [December 18], the Treasury Department issued a designation of [Abdul Rahman Umayr ] al-Naimi that said he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen over the last 11 years. In 2013, the designation says, al-Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via the group’s representative in Syria. In the same notice, the Treasury Department also designated Abdulwahab Al-Humayqani, al-Karama’s representative in Yemen, as a financier and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen affiliate.

It’s bad enough that HRW and AI partnered with such groups, for if they cannot accurately assess their own partners, then it raises questions about how well they can assess others. It is possible that the leadership and analysts at HRW and AI were blinded by their own politics. After all, if al-Karama criticized the right targets, then why should HRW or AI criticize its motives?

What is truly reprehensible, however, is that given the questions now surfacing with regard to al-Karama, Human Rights Watch has not rescinded the reports in whose development it had partnered with al-Karama. Take the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which last year successfully busted a coup plot by al-Islah, the local affiliation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Human Rights Watch condemned the UAE and accused it of torture in a study that it conducted in conjunction with al-Karama. Now it seems that its partner’s leader was committed not only in rhetoric but also fact to advancing al-Qaeda’s goals. Can HRW really, in hindsight, take seriously the group’s work which castigated a government which has cracked down on al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood? Frankly, it seems plausible that al-Karama’s leadership wanted to use HRW’s mantle to castigate those it saw as ideological enemies.

Now, the UAE isn’t the only target of al-Karama/HRW partnership. And it is possible that human-rights violations did occur in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. But, if HRW is a professional organization that wants to uphold the highest standards of analysis, it should begin 2014 with a recall of any and all reports to which al-Karama researchers or the organization contributed and, if necessary, apologies to governments like the United Arab Emirates. The sanctity and impartiality of human-rights research should trump political advocacy and the desire to avoid organizational embarrassment. What HRW and Amnesty International should not do, alas, is obfuscate and delay, the very strategy in which they now seek to engage.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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The Ongoing Barbarism in Syria

It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

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It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

Nor are the atrocities limited to Syria. Just yesterday a powerful bomb exploded in Beirut killing Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and ambassador to Washington who was a prominent critic of Syria and a member of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s political bloc. The culprits are undoubtedly to be found among Hezbollah and the Syrian and Iranian intelligence services, which are so closely aligned as to be almost indistinguishable.

This is surely part of the spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has already resulted in bomb attacks on Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. Another sign of the spillover can be seen in Iraq, where the Baghdad government is losing a war against a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.

If the administration has a policy to deal with this ongoing catastrophe, I am not aware of it. The last we heard was that the moderate Syrian opposition was so weak that the administration was suspending delivery of nonlethal supplies. And the administration has always been hesitant to provide much in the way of arms and training to the rebel forces.

So we are left with a situation where two increasingly barbaric factions–the government and Hezbollah and the Quds force on one side, the Sunni Islamists on the other–are left to fight it out. Those who take grim satisfaction from this state of affairs should recall the human cost to innocent Syrians–and the strategic cost to the U.S. and its allies if these Sunni and Shiite extremists divide Syria’s soil between them, as appears increasingly likely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what pre-9/11 Afghanistan was–a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. There is nothing inevitable about this outcome–it has been made possible by an abdication of American power and responsibility.

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Turkey Scandal’s Al-Qaeda Angle

Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

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Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

Fast forward to the present day: According to Turkish interlocutors, there are consistent irregularities in 28 government tenders totaling in the tens of billions of dollars, in which kickbacks and other payments were made, a portion of which Turkish investigators believe ended up with al-Qadi’s funds and charities. These funds and charities were then used to support al-Qaeda affiliates and other radical Islamist groups operating in Syria like the Nusra Front. Erdoğan thought he had his plausible denial, but it seems that Turkish government funds supported the growth of these groups, which are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and which subsumed the more moderate opposition.

President Obama has called Erdoğan one of the five foreign leaders he most trusted. Such trust was entirely undeserved and, given the snowballing revelations about just what Erdoğan and his close associates were doing, seems to increasingly symbolize the lack of Obama’s judgment in picking friends and confidants.

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The President Who Lost Iraq

The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

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The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

It’s unclear whether America’s “patchwork response,” in the words of the Times, will make any real differences when it comes to pacifying Iraq. And one gets the sense that the outcome doesn’t really matter to Mr. Obama. In his make-believe world, the president actually counts Iraq as a success on his watch. 

As we have seen in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, when the president loses interest in foreign events, he simply deems them to be successes. If they don’t interest him, they shouldn’t interest us. So civil wars, mass death, the collapse of central governments, the weakening of pro-American regimes, and the rise of militant Islamic forces are perfectly acceptable. As long as we avert our eyes from what’s happening, all will be right with the world. Or so Mr. Obama seems to believe.

He’s wrong about this, as he is wrong about so many other things. After hard-earned and heroic gains, Barack Obama is the president who lost Iraq.

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Algeria’s Aid Scam Threatens U.S. Security

Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

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Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

The reason why the Polisario doesn’t let the refugees in whose name it claims to speak go home is that holding them hostage is quite lucrative. The United Nations provides humanitarian aid for those refugees, which the Polisario effectively administers, as they control the camps when the UN officials retreat to their headquarters. Herein lays the scam: While the Polisario claims its camps hold 120,000 refugees, most diplomats and independent observers place the figure at closer to 40,000. And many of these residents are not even refugees, as they originate in Algeria and Mauritania. Back-of-the-napkin calculation based on informal surveying of escapees from the Polisario camps: maybe only 20,000 technically qualify as refugees. Both Algeria and the Polisario know this, and so they refuse to allow the United Nations to conduct any census. Rather than stand up for accountability or suspend relief operations until the Algerians enable such a census, the United Nations simply accepts the fiction of the Polisario claims, and supplies relief for perhaps five times the number of refugees who actually live in the Polisario’s camps.

This is where corruption crosses the line into a threat to security: Across North Africa and the Sahel, Polisario smugglers are taking relief supplies given by the international community and indirectly subsidized by U.S. donations to the United Nations and selling them for profit. Many security analysts have already pointed out the growing interplay between the Polisario Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which uses the Polisario camps for recruitment and may increasingly cooperate with the Islamist terrorist groups wreaking havoc across the Sahel. Like so many other regional countries, smuggling of international relief in response to the Polisario Front’s tenuous claims, therefore, has now crossed the line into a security problem as AQIM co-opts the smuggling routes enabled by fraudulent relief to expand its coffers and fund its operations. Algeria now seems to acquiesce to the bargain: turn a blind eye toward jihadists so long as they conduct their operations outside Algerian borders, no matter what the cost to Mali, Libya, Tunisia, or Morocco.

The solution is blindly obvious: If the Obama administration and Congress are truly committed to preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence in the post-bin Laden-era; if they also care about making sure taxpayer funds and foreign assistance are not wasted in an age of budget cutbacks and austerity; and if President Obama and Ambassador Samantha Power truly want to ensure the United Nations has credibility, then it behooves everyone to ensure that no money goes to the Polisario camps until there is basic accountability. Ignoring corruption is no longer a question of preventing waste; increasingly, it is a matter of national security.

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AQAP’s Global Threat

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula doesn’t get the kind of publicity that al-Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, receives but it has emerged as one of the deadliest terrorist groups on the planet–and one that is a direct threat to the United States.

If you want to know how bad AQAP is, all you have to do is look at the horrifying video footage of its attack on a military hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The Wall Street Journal summarizes some of the atrocities the terrorists committed:

A gunman walks toward more than a dozen men and women clustered in the hospital corridor. He raises his assault rifle in his left hand as if to shoot them, but then puts his right hand up and tosses a grenade into the crowd a few feet away. It lands at the feet of a frail-looking man stooped over an IV pole. He stares down at it for a moment, then a woman lunges to try to clear the grenade, her black robe whirling around her in the seconds before it explodes.

Some 63 people died in this ruthless and merciless mass murder spree.

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Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula doesn’t get the kind of publicity that al-Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, receives but it has emerged as one of the deadliest terrorist groups on the planet–and one that is a direct threat to the United States.

If you want to know how bad AQAP is, all you have to do is look at the horrifying video footage of its attack on a military hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The Wall Street Journal summarizes some of the atrocities the terrorists committed:

A gunman walks toward more than a dozen men and women clustered in the hospital corridor. He raises his assault rifle in his left hand as if to shoot them, but then puts his right hand up and tosses a grenade into the crowd a few feet away. It lands at the feet of a frail-looking man stooped over an IV pole. He stares down at it for a moment, then a woman lunges to try to clear the grenade, her black robe whirling around her in the seconds before it explodes.

Some 63 people died in this ruthless and merciless mass murder spree.

If you want to know why this of concern beyond Yemen’s borders, consider the little-noticed arrest over the weekend of an airport technician in Wichita, Kansas, named Terry Lee Loewen. (Why do assassins and would-be assassins always seem to have three names?) He was arrested for plotting to set off a car bomb at the Wichita airport. Luckily the FBI was onto his plot and the man who he thought was helping him turned out to be an FBI agent. Easy to overlook in the perfunctory news reports on Loewen’s arrest was the fact that he was a jihadist with a devotion to AQAP whose act of would-be violence was inspired by AQAP’s late propagandist, the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki.

Of course the threat from jihadist terrorists is hardly confined to AQAP. The Iraq and Syria chapters of al-Qaeda, among others, remain particularly active and particularly deadly. Al-Qaeda bombings in Iraq, in particular, have become so commonplace that they barely make the news anymore. (See, e.g., the latest, little-noticed report of an attack that killed 23 Shiite religious pilgrims who were walking from Baghdad to Karbala.)

Keep all this in mind as you read of proposals to “reform” or rein in the NSA. What is it in the international scene that makes so many people so confident we don’t need the kind of wide-ranging surveillance NSA has undertaken since 9/11? We’re lucky not to have seen “another 9/11″ on American soil, but our success in stopping terrorist plots has been due in part to the very measures which are now deemed “controversial” and likely to be tapered off.

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The American Commitment to Afghanistan

The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

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The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

* Promote multiethnic coalitions—rather than individual candidates—for the 2014 presidential election and, for the eventual winner, encourage the appointment of a cabinet and senior officials that represent Afghanistan’s ethnic and cultural constituencies

* Pursue a foreign internal defense mission that includes between eight thousand and twelve thousand residual American troops, plus additional NATO forces.

* Support Afghan government–led discussions with the Taliban and other groups over prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires, and the reintegration of fighters….But U.S. policymakers  recognize that a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

* Foreign donors should continue to provide $5 billion a year in funding to sustain the ANSF. The United States and other international donors should also provide economic assistance of $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year through 2017.

One can quibble with this recommendation or that, but on the whole this is a very sensible proposal informed by Jones’s considerable time on the ground working with U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The question is whether these policy options will actually be implemented. The obstacle is not just Karzai’s intransigence; there is a big question as to whether the Obama administration will support a commitment of this size. Given where the conversation stands in Washington, sending 12,000 U.S. troops is as at the high end of what’s possible even though U.S. military commanders have testified that a minimum of 13,000 or so troops is really needed.

I hope that President Obama himself reads the report and especially the section that outlines the stakes in Afghanistan: “A civil war or successful Taliban led insurgency,” the authors rightly warn, “would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkare-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan.” And a civil war or successful Taliban takeover is likely absent the kind of U.S. commitment outlined in the report.

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Desperate Syrian Rebels Turn to Al-Qaeda

Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

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Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that jihadist extremists are coming to the fore is utterly predictable. In fact, Saleh predicted it himself: “a Syrian insurgency with nowhere else to turn, he said nearly a year ago, would tilt toward foreign fighters and Al Qaeda.”

And why does the Syrian insurgency have nowhere else to turn? In large part because the U.S., the only country with commensurate resources, has refused to step into the vacuum and provide a counter-balance to the copious aid being provided to Bashar Assad’s odious regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Sure, President Obama has allowed the CIA to provide some arms and training, but not very much. He has refused to provide, in particular, the antitank weapons the rebels need. Nor has he been willing to use American airpower to ground Assad’s air force and to hit regime targets–as he did previously in Libya and as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo and Bosnia.

If the U.S. had not done more in those previous conflicts, undoubtedly jihadists would have gained more of a foothold in those Muslim lands. Now that the U.S. is doing so little in Syria, the jihadists are predictably ascendant on the rebel side while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force are growing increasingly powerful on the government side.

This grim outcome was not inevitable–it is the direct result of American inaction.

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The NSA and Abu Musab al-Suri

Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

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Michael Hirsch is no hard-line hawk. A longtime editor at Newsweek who is now chief correspondent at National Journal, he espouses the views you might expect of a paid-up member of the East Coast media elite. So it is worth paying attention when he takes a stand so at odds with the conventional wisdom about the NSA, which claims that the spy agency is engaged in a dangerous and unproductive violation of civil liberties.

To the contrary, Hirsch argues in National Journal that the NSA’s far-flung surveillance is necessary to deal with the changing threat from al-Qaeda, which is morphing from mega-attacks like 9/11 to encouraging more “lone wolf” attacks such as those at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon. He notes that Abu Musab al-Suri, a student of classic insurgent theory (I write about him a little in my history of guerrilla warfare, Invisible Armies), has emerged after Osama bin Laden’s death as an increasingly influential jihadist leader, and he has favored lower-level attacks all along.

Hirsch writes that the NSA’s opponents:

may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors. For the foreseeable future, al-Suri’s approach will mean more terrorist attacks against more targets—albeit with a much lower level of organization and competence. “It’s harder to track. Future attacks against the homeland will be less sophisticated and less lethal, but there’s just going to be more of them,” says Michael Hayden, the former NSA director who steered the agency after 9/11 toward deep dives into Internet and telephonic data. Adds Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “I think al-Qaida’s capabilities for a strike into the United States are more dangerous and more numerous than before 9/11.” For better or worse, the only hope to track them all is an exceptionally deep, organized, and free-ranging intelligence apparatus, experts say.

Hirsch’s entire article is well worth reading and pondering. It may shake the anti-NSA bias that seems to be creeping into our public discourse.

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Iraqis Thank U.S. Troops and Seek New Partnership

President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

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President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

I typically visit Iraq twice each year, and gratitude Iraqis feel toward the United States remains. True, many Iraqis had grown frustrated with American occupation in the interim years, and they do not hesitate to point out what they see as mistakes (re-Baathification rather than de-Baathification chief among them) but they value liberty more than those who so often try to speak on Iraqis’ behalf in various circles. Now that the Americans are gone—and with the American diplomatic presence pretty much invisible behind the embassy’s blast walls—Iraqis increasingly look at an American presence–not occupation certainly but a presence–with longing. Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Lukman Faily, Iraq’s talented new ambassador to the United States, has an important thank you in today’s USA Today. He begins:

My first trip to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery was on a rainy Friday afternoon, soon after my arrival in Washington. As the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from Iraq, it was important for me to honor the brave American men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion so that the people I represent may live to be free. Standing before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gazing over the rolling hills of Arlington, I was struck by the depth of the sacrifices borne by the United States to defeat tyranny, support the oppressed and build democratic institutions around the world.

And he gives credit where so much credit is due:

In my country, nearly 2 million more U.S. military personnel served and helped liberate my country from Saddam Hussein and defeat al-Qaeda. Iraq is on track to join other countries that have benefited from America’s sacrifices. Our economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, oil production is growing, democratic institutions are maturing and our sixth round of elections is scheduled for April of next year. These successes were not generated solely by Iraqis. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and foreign service officers helped set Iraq on the path to success — and we are thankful to all of those brave men and women.

Having come to Washington after several years in Tokyo, Ambassador Faily understands the importance of post-war relationships. How tragic it is, then, that the United States has been so lacking in maximizing its relationship with Iraq. Iraq wants greater ties. Iraq and the United States face a common foe in al-Qaeda. It is short-sighted not to grasp Iraq’s outstretched hand but for much of the past two years, the United States has effectively closed the door on its relationship with Iraq. When Faily concludes, “The United States remains Iraq’s ally of choice; on this day, we reflect on, and learn from our past, and look forward to building on our partnership in the years to come,” let us hope that the White House and Congress are listening.

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Is Turkey Supporting Al-Qaeda in Syria?

Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

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Perhaps the most dangerous group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Nusra Front. The group does not hide its sympathy for al-Qaeda and targets more moderate Syrian opposition groups alongside the Syrian regime. While Syrians comprise most Syrian opposition groups, the Nusra Front counts Libyans, Saudis, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, Germans, and Turks among its fighters. Around Syria, it is an open secret that Turkey supports—or at least has supported—the Nusra Front.

Not only has Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the Nusra Front are terrorists—more like honorable jihadists, he suggested in the face of questions from an opposition leader—but Turkish forces have also apparently used al-Nusra as a proxy against the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party linked to Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which remains overwhelmingly popular among Syria’s Kurdish population. If it comes to a choice between an al-Qaeda affiliate and a secular Kurdish party controlling territory, Erdoğan sides with al-Qaeda.

When I asked Iraqi counterterrorism officials who monitor the transit of al-Qaeda last summer about the Turkish relationship with the Nusra Front, they were careful. “Let’s just say that whenever the Nusra Front wants to have a meeting, they know they can do so inside Turkey and won’t be bothered,” one official told me. While diplomatic tension between Iraq and Turkey remains strong, the official was able to give very specific examples that suggest he was not simply trying to tar Turkey.

Erdoğan, himself, however has bristled at any suggestion Turkey provides safe haven or even free passage to the Nusra Front. Now, however, there is video evidence. CNN International has an excellent video report on the transit of jihadis through the Hatay airport in Turkey and into Syria. Perhaps it is time for officials to question the judgment of President Obama for his friendship with and personal endorsement of Erdoğan, who appears not only to sympathize with the most radical elements in Syria’s civil war, but also to be a liar.

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Britain Pushes Back on Snowden

Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

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Edward Snowden’s defenders–and, alas, he has many, even after he has shown his true colors by taking refuge in Vladimir Putin’s illiberal fiefdom–claim that he is not damaging American security but simply fostering a much-needed debate about once-secret NSA surveillance.

That’s not how our British allies see it. The chiefs of the major British intelligence agencies–MI5, MI6, and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to NSA)–have just testified before Parliament that his leaks have done grave harm to British security and aided al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports:

“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, and they’ve put our operations at risk,” said John Sawers, the head of the foreign intelligence service, MI6. “It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al Qaeda is lapping it up.”

Iain Lobban, the director of the eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, said terrorist groups in Afghanistan, South Asia and the Middle East “and closer to home” have discussed the Snowden revelations. They have assessed “the communications packages they use now and the communication packages they wish to move to,” he said, “to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.”

Mr. Lobban called that “a direct consequence” of the leaks, adding: “Yes, I can say that explicitly. The cumulative effect of global media coverage will make our job far, far harder for years to come.”

Naturally Snowden and his acolytes will dispute such claims as being self-serving propaganda from unaccountable spy chiefs. And really there is no way to prove the damage Snowden has done. Even if terrorist plots are carried out in the future and innocents die, there is no assurance they would have been disrupted if Snowden had not come forward to inform the whole world of the NSA’s capabilities.

But at the very least let us not compound the damage that this arrogant traitor–who takes upon himself the role of determining which intelligence operations are legitimate and which are not–has done by curbing or shutting down the NSA’s surveillance. As they used to say after 9/11: that would be allowing the terrorists to win.

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Iraq’s Violence: What Can Be Done?

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is in the United States this week for high-level meetings, including a sit down today with President Obama. It seems like an awfully long time ago that Obama proclaimed the Iraq War a “success” and claimed “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” 

That speech–Obama’s own “Mission Accomplished” moment–occurred on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Nearly two years later Iraq is unraveling. Violence has returned to 2008 levels, with an average of 68 car bombings a month. No exact figures exist, but it’s estimated that 7,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks this year, and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, is warning “it could easily get worse,” with a “continued downward spiral that takes you to a civil war.” 

Even the White House concedes that al-Qaeda in Iraq has staged a dismaying comeback, spreading its tentacles into Syria and emerging as “a ‘transnational threat network’ that could possibly reach from the Mideast to the United States.” There is, in fact, a very real danger that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, as al-Qaeda in Iraq has now restyled itself, can consolidate a fundamentalist emirate stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria which will become what Afghanistan was prior to 2001: a magnet and breeding ground for jihadist terrorists.

To be sure, not all is awful in Iraq today. One of the few bright spots is surging oil production, which has increased 50 percent since 2005. Iraqi Kurdistan, almost a separate country by now, is also flourishing. But the overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Feeling cornered, the Sunnis have fought back the only way they know how—with car bombs targeted against Shiites. This is the deadly strategy perfected by al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and it is risking a repeat of what happened in those dark days when Shiite death squads retaliated by torturing and killing innocent Sunnis.

Problem is, while it’s easy to see the toxic trend, it’s hard to reverse it. The administration, never particularly interested in Iraq in the first place, lost most of its leverage when it pulled U.S. troops out at the end of 2011. Maliki is now hoping to buy high-end American hardware including F-16 fighters and attack helicopters, and that gives us a bit of leverage–but only a bit. Iraq is rich enough to buy from Russia or China or, for that matter, France if the U.S. decides not to sell it weaponry. 

There are, however, certain capabilities that the U.S. has that no other nation can match, and it is those that should be used to try to affect Iraqi behavior. As the Edward Snowden revelations have made plain, the U.S. has unrivaled intelligence capabilities, especially in the sphere of electronic snooping, which could be shared with the Iraqis. So, too, we have drones and Special Operations Forces that once helped to unravel al-Qaeda in Iraq’s networks. If sent back into Iraq, they could probably do it again.

Obama should offer Maliki the use of these forces and capabilities, but only on certain conditions: namely that Maliki start accommodating and stop persecuting the Sunnis. Specifically, he should re-start the Sons of Iraq program, which between 2007 and 2008 enrolled some 100,000 Sunni men to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. This pro-government militia was critical to the success of “the surge” in Iraq, and it could help to catalyze a new, smaller surge—one that would not involve any conventional American ground troops but that would send more Special Operations and intelligence personnel to work with their Iraqi counterparts. 

Re-establishing relationships which once existed between the U.S. and Iraqi military could pay further dividends by giving the U.S. side greater “situational awareness” of events in Iraq. This would allow American personnel to help their Iraqi partners in the security forces to resist Maliki’s attempts to misuse them for political purposes. 

It would also give the U.S. greater insight into Iranian machinations in Iraq: Iran has been gaining power ever since the departure of U.S. troops. Not having the U.S. support to fall back on, Maliki has turned to the Iranians for advice and support in fighting back against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Iranians are Shiite hardliners whose involvement only further radicalizes the Sunnis and makes the situation more toxic.

Greater U.S. involvement in Iraq is necessary to counter the Iranians, but it is unlikely to happen because it conflicts with Obama’s desire to pull out of the Middle East at all costs. The cocksure president is also unlikely to take any action which suggests that his 2011 troop pullout was a mistake—which it was. That, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that Iraq will continue to drown in a sea of blood.

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New Benghazi Information, Same Story of Clinton’s Incompetence

Conservatives are basically of two minds regarding the report on the attack on the American mission in Benghazi aired by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night. On the one hand, it always was a legitimate story and it’s encouraging for any mainstream network to emerge even temporarily from the president’s tank and acknowledge reality. Indeed, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson put up with plenty of nonsense for her willingness to do great reporting on the attack.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice the timing. The media became collectively unmoored from the pretense of balanced journalism during the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney dared criticize President Obama’s incompetent handling of the event and the administration’s dishonesty thereafter. Who can forget CNN’s Candy Crowley diving into a debate she was “moderating” to shield Obama from criticism despite having her facts wrong? (Then again, who can blame members of the Obama administration’s farm team from playing for the name on the front of their jerseys?)

But while it may seem too late for the media to try and earn some of its credibility back on Benghazi, it’s worth pointing out that the straight reporting offered by CBS is still somewhat gutsy. After all, the tick-tock of the tragedy paints then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as staggeringly incompetent and irresponsible with power. And Clintonworld has already been working overtime to chill coverage of her ahead of her expected 2016 presidential candidacy.

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Conservatives are basically of two minds regarding the report on the attack on the American mission in Benghazi aired by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night. On the one hand, it always was a legitimate story and it’s encouraging for any mainstream network to emerge even temporarily from the president’s tank and acknowledge reality. Indeed, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson put up with plenty of nonsense for her willingness to do great reporting on the attack.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice the timing. The media became collectively unmoored from the pretense of balanced journalism during the 2012 presidential election when Mitt Romney dared criticize President Obama’s incompetent handling of the event and the administration’s dishonesty thereafter. Who can forget CNN’s Candy Crowley diving into a debate she was “moderating” to shield Obama from criticism despite having her facts wrong? (Then again, who can blame members of the Obama administration’s farm team from playing for the name on the front of their jerseys?)

But while it may seem too late for the media to try and earn some of its credibility back on Benghazi, it’s worth pointing out that the straight reporting offered by CBS is still somewhat gutsy. After all, the tick-tock of the tragedy paints then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as staggeringly incompetent and irresponsible with power. And Clintonworld has already been working overtime to chill coverage of her ahead of her expected 2016 presidential candidacy.

The Benghazi reporting has followed a pattern conservatives recognize a mile away. The press first does its best to ignore or downplay a story damaging to vulnerable Democrats. When the conservative media are able to drive the story into the open, the conservatives themselves become the story. (How dare conservative politicians politicize politics! Etc.) If a member of the mainstream media breaks ranks and eventually files a story on it after the initial storm has passed, the response from the left is that there’s really nothing new here anyway, so it’s not a game changer.

Now it’s true, of course, that last night’s report isn’t a game changer. But that should not be confused with something that is unimportant. CBS correspondent Lara Logan spoke with a security official in Benghazi now using the pseudonym Morgan Jones (he appeared on camera, as you can see at the initial link). Jones arrived in Benghazi several months before the attack and immediately noticed that “black flags of al-Qaeda” were flying over buildings in the city. He then arrived at the American compound to see a woefully inadequate band of security guards. His warnings went ignored, and then proved prophetic.

Logan also spoke with others who had previously testified on Benghazi, like Gregory Hicks. That all the increased reporting and testimony confirms, rather than upends, what we know about Benghazi should not be helpful to Clinton. The picture that emerged last year and has been confirmed time and again was that there were patterns that suggested the mission was in danger and then warnings that made the threat more explicit. Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists threatened various targets, including the American mission, and then followed through, and all the while Washington ignored the warnings they received on the ground and the intelligence that predicted the attack.

It is not uncommon for both left and right to look at the same set of facts and come to radically different conclusions as to their implications. But if CBS’s reporting, along with a slightly less defensive posture from the media, is any indication, Obama may be mostly in the clear–but Clinton cannot expect to join him there quite yet.

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Is Iraq’s Present Afghanistan’s Future?

Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

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Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan? It’s too soon to say, but there is cause for concern when one reads articles like this one in the New York Times today reporting that “NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American.” That translates into 5,300 to 8,000 U.S. troops, considerably below the 13,600 that Gen. Jim Mattis, former commander of Central Command, estimated to be necessary–and that itself was a low-ball estimate in the judgment of many military experts.

At some point there is a real risk of Afghan politicos, like their Iraqi counterparts, deciding there is no point in having their sovereignty violated and being exposed to anti-American criticism in return for a token force that can accomplish little. If that were to happen, the future of Afghanistan isn’t hard to imagine. Just look at Iraq today–only Afghanistan will probably be worse off because it faces a more malignant insurgency with more entrenched cross-border bases and its government and security forces are weaker than their Iraqi counterparts.

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The Temptation of Relying on Anti-Terror Raids

The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

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The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

That is a much-needed message to send, and it helps in a small way to begin undoing some of the damage from Obama’s vacillation over Syria, which signaled American confusion and retreat. But, while important and welcome, Special Operations raids and drone strikes will not by themselves win the war on terror. That is why, even as these surgical strikes have proliferated in recent years, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have spread their reach further than ever. To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own.

The U.S. track record in this regard is mixed. Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya. Libya has not been nearly as successful, because the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.  

The situation is even worse in Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq has managed to revive itself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Violence rates have soared back to 2008 levels, while al-Qaeda in Iraq has also exported its operations to neighboring Syria, where the U.S. seems to have no strategy for rolling back gains being made by both Shiite and Sunni extremists.

The picture in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is mixed: The U.S. has made a massive troop commitment to bolster the government in Kabul, but it is not clear if the U.S. will maintain any forces after 2014 to build on the gains that have been made. The latest news reports indicate that the White House is once again threatening to pull all U.S. troops if an impasse over the terms of their deployment is not resolved. If the “zero option” does come to pass, it risks undoing everything that U.S. troops have fought for.

So by all means send out the special operators to collar or kill the bad guys. That is risky but necessary. But also remember that this is only one “line of operation” in a larger strategy that we desperately need to counter the continuing growth of Islamist extremism.

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