Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

Give Syrian Kurdish Leader a Visa

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.

Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:

  • First, there is no specific information about the PYD to tie it to terrorism. Indeed, the PYD has taken pains to distinguish itself from the broader PKK in Turkey.
  • Second, the Turkish government has begun peace talks with the PKK. It is ironic that Washington would do Ankara’s dirty work, when even the Turkish government no longer operates under the pretense that the PKK must be isolated.
  • Third, despite efforts by Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani to assert his control over Kurdish regions in Syria, it is Salih Muslim and the PYD to whom Syrian Kurds overwhelmingly turn. It is the PYD which administers territory, runs schools, and has restored a modicum of normalcy to territory it controls.
  • Fourth, the PYD is a secular movement. Its main opponent—the Nusra Front—no longer hides the fact that it is an al-Qaeda affiliate. By failing to recognize–let alone coordinate with–the PYD, the Obama administration is effectively strengthening a group which, unlike the PYD, is dedicated to killing Americans.
  • Fifth, as soon as the PKK and the Turkish government announced their peace process, the Assad regime reportedly responded by attacking neighborhoods in Aleppo in which Kurds reside and which have a heavy PYD presence. According to one Turkish journalist familiar with the situation, the assault seemed to be Iran’s warning to the Syrian Kurds that Iran would oppose Kurdish empowerment at any cost (Iran has a large Kurdish minority unhappy with the Islamic Republic for both ethnic and sectarian reasons).

Let us hope that the decision to sit on Salih Muslim’s application is just the result of some junior Foreign Service officer who doesn’t know better, and doesn’t have instructions. After all, Kerry is busy traveling and so has yet to get his house in order. Still, it is a pretty sad testament to the lack of any coherent policy in Washington that U.S. policy defaults, in effect, to the same side as both al-Qaeda and Iran.  

Read Less

Al-Qaeda’s Growth in Syria

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.

Read More

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.

The announcement posted yesterday on jihadi forums under Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s name detailing the union of the Nusra Front in Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq confirms what many analysts have long suspected. “It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and world that al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it,” he declared. In effect, the Nusra Front becomes one more al-Qaeda affiliate to join al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Ash-Shabaab in Somalia. The Nusra Front is not simply about Syria: Recent postings by Saudi fighters, demands directed to Beijing by Chinese Muslims fighting in Syria, and the eulogy of a Swedish member all underline the internationalization of the Nusra Front. In effect, Syria has become the new Chechnya.

That should put Washington in a diplomatic quandary. Qatari and Turkish support for the Nusra Front is now effectively aiding an al-Qaeda affiliate sworn not only to kill Bashar al-Assad but also Americans. If Gulf analysts in Bahrain and Kuwait are to be believed, Qatar is mucking about with such groups not simply out of religious solidarity, but also because the emir of Qatar is high on the notion that tiny Qatar can afford to muck about and be a player on the international stage. Turkey would rather pump money to an al-Qaeda affiliate than recognize the rights of Syrian Kurds who will not pay fealty to Turkey’s leader, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which now controls most Kurdish areas in Syria.

A no-fly zone, such as that Max Boot advocates, would have once helped ordinary Syrians protect themselves against the excesses of Bashar al-Assad’s rule. And it still may not be such a bad idea, so long as it simply does not do the Nusra Front’s work for it. Nor is simply funding the Syrian opposition wise since neither the State Department nor Central Intelligence Agency is skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff among Syrian opposition groups. Liberals will not rise to the top in any safe-haven when faced with a group bent on their repression at any cost. Whether we like it or not, any strategy for Syria must now prioritize crushing the Nusra Front. Defeating Assad and hoping for the best is not a strategy that will bolster U.S. interests.

Read Less

Libya Is Still Unraveling

Barack Obama became president in no small part by castigating the Bush administration for its errors in Iraq. Now, ironically enough, as president he appears bent on repeating the biggest Bush error of all—namely toppling an existing Middle East strongman without doing enough to build up a stable state in his wake.

Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times has filed a disturbing report from the southern Libyan city of Sabha that vividly shows the consequences of administration inaction. He finds, almost a year and a half after Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, a total absence of Libyan security forces. Instead ill-armed, unpaid militiamen are  “battling smugglers, illegal migrants bound for Europe and armed extremists who stream across a swath of the Sahara near the porous intersection of southern Libya, ChadNiger, and Algeria.” That is, they are battling these threats when they are not battling each other—which is a more common occurrence.

Read More

Barack Obama became president in no small part by castigating the Bush administration for its errors in Iraq. Now, ironically enough, as president he appears bent on repeating the biggest Bush error of all—namely toppling an existing Middle East strongman without doing enough to build up a stable state in his wake.

Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times has filed a disturbing report from the southern Libyan city of Sabha that vividly shows the consequences of administration inaction. He finds, almost a year and a half after Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, a total absence of Libyan security forces. Instead ill-armed, unpaid militiamen are  “battling smugglers, illegal migrants bound for Europe and armed extremists who stream across a swath of the Sahara near the porous intersection of southern Libya, ChadNiger, and Algeria.” That is, they are battling these threats when they are not battling each other—which is a more common occurrence.

This is a matter that should be of urgent attention to the United States. As Fleishman notes:

Even under Qaddafi, the nation produced Islamic militants who reached well beyond the country’s borders. Libyan extremists are now connected to an Al Qaeda branch in Algeria, rebels in Syria and the fighters trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in Mali. Security officials also are concerned about reports of militant training camps with caches of weapons hidden in the desert south of Sabha.

Government officials in the south shy away from discussing the region’s chaos. An activist was recently shot and killed after publicly criticizing the lack of law and order. Much of the danger stems from tribal animosities that were suppressed during four decades of Qaddafi’s rule and are now playing out in the kind of security vacuum that Islamic militants have exploited in countries such as Somalia and Yemen.

Yet the Obama administration is doing far too little to buttress the pro-Western government of Libya so that it can field security forces capable of controlling its own soil. We have already paid a heavy price for this inaction with the death of our ambassador and other government employees in Benghazi last September 11. The price of a hands-off American policy will only continue to grow if, as appears likely, Islamist militants have greater success in the future in exploiting the Libyan security vacuum.

Read Less

Will Somalia Backslide Again?

That may seem like a silly question to those whose memory of Somalia stopped with Black Hawk Down and piracy, but over the past year there has been some real progress in the east African country which has become synonymous with state failure.

Somalia has made surprising progress. Mogadishu Airport is open to real airlines, piracy is on the decline thanks to a robust international military presence and, in January 2013, the U.S. re-established formal relations with the Somali government for the first time in decades.

Responsibility for progress on the ground in Somalia rests not with international diplomats, but with AMISOM, an African Union military mission manned by Kenyans, Ugandans, Djibouti, and Burundi. Sometimes, military force matters far more than the best intentions of diplomats and UN debates.

Read More

That may seem like a silly question to those whose memory of Somalia stopped with Black Hawk Down and piracy, but over the past year there has been some real progress in the east African country which has become synonymous with state failure.

Somalia has made surprising progress. Mogadishu Airport is open to real airlines, piracy is on the decline thanks to a robust international military presence and, in January 2013, the U.S. re-established formal relations with the Somali government for the first time in decades.

Responsibility for progress on the ground in Somalia rests not with international diplomats, but with AMISOM, an African Union military mission manned by Kenyans, Ugandans, Djibouti, and Burundi. Sometimes, military force matters far more than the best intentions of diplomats and UN debates.

For years, southern Somalia was a no go-area. Several years ago, I had arranged a trip to Mogadishu (a trip that, because of some subsequent events on the ground, never came off). Planning the trip, however, was eye-opening. I spoke with former intelligence officials, Somali businessmen, and assorted Somalia-watchers. I was urged by them to fly into a former Italian airfield north of Somalia accessible by various privately-owned Somali airlines which operate out of Dubai. Whatever I did, they said, don’t try to enter Somalia from Kenya because southern Somalia was the most dangerous region and had become, essentially, a stronghold for Islamist terrorists.

Southern Somalia is home to Kismayo, a port city which acts as the commercial capital of the country. By controlling the port, the terrorist group Ash-Shabaab was able to survive financially. After all, not every militant is a true believer: Many are in it for the patronage. For years, the assumption was that because of Kismayo’s economic importance, Ash-Shabaab and other terrorists would fight to the death in order to maintain their stranglehold over the city. Diplomats dawdled for years about whether AMISOM forces should enter, and what the diplomatic ramifications would be. But last September, AMISOM went in and Ash-Shabaab fled. Local officials—not necessarily subordinate to Mogadishu authorities–resumed their control of the city. One wonders what death might have been prevented had diplomats not been so reticent and blessed the move months earlier.

Now, all the gains not only in Kismayo but across the region appear in jeopardy. Earlier this month, the UN lifted the decades-long arms embargo on Somalia. Doing so allowed the UN to pretend to be relevant, and to confirm progress on the ground. The logic for the UN move was to strengthen the Somali army and central government control. The reality has been the opposite: Corruption is rife throughout Somalia and the lifting of the arms embargo has flooded the black market.  Now, it seems extremists are making a comeback in Kismayo as political deadlock between the Somali central government and local clans in Kismayo exacerbate the problem.

Ash-Shabaab may not be as much of an al-Qaeda affiliate as it claims, but that’s neither here nor there. It is an Islamist extremist group and readily engages in terrorism. It is responsible for thousands of deaths, some in the most brutal fashion. It is not enough to claim victory; such affiliates and terrorist groups have to be hunted into oblivion. That certainly does not mean U.S. intervention is needed. AMISOM is doing the job. The key for the White House is to make sure that nothing is allowed to get in their way. While AMISOM’s formation and activities are blessed by the UN, that should not mean that Ban Ki-moon and his legions of ill-intentioned meddlers should interfere with success. If they do, any progress will be quickly lost. It already is in Kismayo.

Read Less

Karzai Needs the U.S. More Than the U.S. Needs Him

If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

Read More

If the standard by which we judge policymakers is the same as for physicians–first, do no harm–than Chuck Hagel’s foray to Afghanistan, his first as defense secretary, was a success. There were no big achievements to boast of but also no major slip-ups. Hagel certainly gets points for the patience he displayed with Hamid Karzai, who was even more exasperating than usual.

In recent days the Afghan president has tried to push U.S. Special Forces out of Wardak Province, a Taliban-infested area near Kabul; tried to renege on the pledge he had made to give the U.S. veto authority over prisoner releases at the major detention facility in Parwan province; and even claimed that the U.S. secretly supported the Taliban to give us an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Hagel handled it all with equanimity, replying, when asked by the press about such issues, “it’s complicated”–which is the appropriate noncommittal reply when dealing with such a prickly ally.

Alissa Rubin, the New York Times‘s knowledgeable bureau chief in Kabul, is surely right that Karzai is trying to salvage his historical reputation–he is “desperately trying to shake his widely held image as an American lackey by appealing to nationalist sentiments and invoking Afghanistan’s sovereignty.”

The problem is that Karzai is paying attention only to Afghan popular opinion–or at least the version of popular opinion that reaches him in the palace where he spends his days–while ignoring American popular opinion and, more specifically, American political opinion.

Karzai seems to think that the U.S. needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the U.S. He couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, the U.S. needs to use bases in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda and its ilk on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier–but the perceived need is less now than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was still alive. Yet there has been no diminution in the need of Karzai–and his successor, whoever that will be–to have the U.S. continue buttressing his shaky security forces and to continue funding his government (which gets more than 90 percent of its funding from foreign aid).

Without considerable American assistance post-2014, odds are that Afghanistan will sink into a civil war and the Taliban will fight their way back into power. And yet there is little support in the United States–and especially in the administration itself–to continue providing such aid.

President Obama and Secretary Hagel are not viscerally committed to Afghanistan the way that President Bush was to Iraq. In fact, they are looking for an excuse to leave–or if not leave, then at least draw down our commitment as rapidly as possible. If he is not careful, Karzai will give the decision-makers in the White House the excuse they need to write off Afghanistan as ungovernable and unsalvageable.

Read Less

CIA Plan Shows Mistake of Iraq Withdrawal

What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

Read More

What to make of this Wall Street Journal report that, under a program launched by the Obama administration last year, the CIA has stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service which includes Iraqi Special Operations units that were trained and mentored in the past by U.S. Special Operations forces? Iraqi forces are now working with American clandestine operatives to target al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the al-Nusra Front.

On one level this is an implicit acknowledgement from President Obama that his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011 was a mistake: Contrary to his overoptimistic claims, Iraq was not, and still is not, ready to take over its entire defense. There has been a corresponding degradation of Iraq’s capacity to fight groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which helps to account for their resurgence in the past year and now their spread to Syria.

Obama claimed that the pullout was necessary because Iraqi political leaders, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would not countenance an American role with immunity from prosecution. Does that mean that these CIA operatives are now subject to Iraqi criminal prosecution? One doubts it. Rather, one suspects that the Iraqis have granted the CIA a secret immunity deal, although if one exists it goes unmentioned in the Journal article.

But it is hard to imagine the CIA risking its operatives in such a quasi-public role without some legal protection. If in fact the Iraqis have granted such immunity to the CIA, it suggests they probably would have been willing to grant it to a limited contingent of military personnel as well–if only Obama had not made the onerous and unnecessary demand, opposed by his own negotiating team, that any immunity deal be approved by Iraq’s parliament.

Given the inability of the U.S. military to operate in Iraq, the CIA mission sounds like a reasonable stopgap, but almost surely there is a loss of capability in relying on the CIA rather than on seasoned American military organizations which built up long-term connections with their Iraqi counterparts and had more resources and expertise to devote to counterterrorism than an organization that is primarily devoted to the collection of intelligence. The CIA can make ample use of former military personnel–and perhaps some active-duty ones as well–but it simply is not as capable in carrying out this kind of mission as the U.S. Special Operations Command or other Defense Department organizations would be. Nor can the CIA presence, which is necessarily hidden and limited, provide the same kind of political clout to influence Maliki that the presence of uniformed military personnel could provide.

This is, in essence, a second-best solution–better than nothing but not as good as keeping an American military contingent after 2011 as America’s military commanders on the ground had argued for. Does President Obama now regret, one wonders, not trying harder to secure a Status of Forces Agreement?

Read Less

Obama Fails Counterterrorism Diplomacy

Max Boot is absolutely right that the United States has not figured out how to treat captured terrorists, like bin Laden son-in-law and former al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. The question comes down to a dispute about whether terrorism is a legal matter to be resolved in courts, or a military matter to be resolved on the battlefield. The problem with the former is that evidence needed for a conviction would require exposing intelligence, sources, and methods that might spoil their utility to prevent future attacks or the forensic data available after an attack. A military response enables the United States government to protect its civilians and eliminate the perpetrators without compromising its own security. That al-Qaeda has declared war on America should have made the debate moot but, alas, Washington sophistication means never having to bow to common sense.

Counterterrorism requires not only military strategies, but diplomatic ones as well. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was first arrested in Turkey, but then released despite U.S. requests that he be extradited to the United States. It was Jordan which complied with the extradition request.

Read More

Max Boot is absolutely right that the United States has not figured out how to treat captured terrorists, like bin Laden son-in-law and former al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. The question comes down to a dispute about whether terrorism is a legal matter to be resolved in courts, or a military matter to be resolved on the battlefield. The problem with the former is that evidence needed for a conviction would require exposing intelligence, sources, and methods that might spoil their utility to prevent future attacks or the forensic data available after an attack. A military response enables the United States government to protect its civilians and eliminate the perpetrators without compromising its own security. That al-Qaeda has declared war on America should have made the debate moot but, alas, Washington sophistication means never having to bow to common sense.

Counterterrorism requires not only military strategies, but diplomatic ones as well. Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was first arrested in Turkey, but then released despite U.S. requests that he be extradited to the United States. It was Jordan which complied with the extradition request.

Turkey is a NATO member and both the White House and diplomats say it is an ally of the United States. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, NATO invoked Article V of the Washington Treaty calling for collective defense after the al-Qaeda strike on New York and Washington D.C. Perhaps the Turks forgot. Or perhaps—as this Turkish ambassador suggests—Turkey no long considers al-Qaeda to be terrorists.

Either way, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to ask why it is that a supposed ally set free a wanted al-Qaeda terrorist. More importantly, it may be time for the White House and State Department to consider what the proper response should be for a country that shelters if not supports terrorists bent on the destruction of the United States. Strong leaders might curtail aid, withdraw the ambassador for consultations, demarche the Turkish ambassador in Washington, or restrict the flow of military equipment. President Obama, alas, seeks instead to offer Turkey state of the art weaponry and even give it warships. Perhaps it is time for the State Department to recognize that diplomacy is more complicated than ameliorating adversaries, and for Congress to ask some hard questions of Obama and Kerry regarding how they perceive U.S. interests and why, under their leadership, U.S. counter terrorism diplomacy has become laughable.

Read Less

Losing Afghanistan

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.  

As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.

Read More

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. Special Forces to leave Wardak Province following reports—rejected by U.S. forces—that they were involved in the disappearance of nine people. Karzai’s decision—and the apparent willingness of U.S. forces to go along with it—really do signal the beginning of the end. U.S. forces will withdraw not with a mission accomplished, but in defeat. Political and military claims to the contrary are nonsense, and show a profound ignorance of Afghanistan and Afghan history more than a decade into our latest involvement in that country. The defeat need not have been though; it was far more a political decision on the part of the White House than the result of any military weakness.  

As my AEI colleague Ahmad Majidyar—hands down the best analyst of Afghan politics there is in the United States right now, and someone not limited by security to ISAF headquarters or our many Forward Operating Base or otherwise sucked into the military-information bubble—notes Wardak is the gateway to Kabul, the path which Taliban fighters use to infiltrate Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks. The security situation in Wardak has been declining in the past year. The Taliban have prioritized moving into Wardak as foreign forces leave.

The reason why the United States or, more specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency was so interested in Hamid Karzai after 9/11 was that he was a man who had a foot in every camp, and a finger in every pie. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher, for example, wanted to reach out to the Taliban in 1995, the Taliban middleman to whom he turned was … Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president personifies the Afghan trait of never losing a war, only defecting to the winning side.

Karzai’s actions—both the ban on Special Forces in Wardak and the prohibition of NATO airstrikes in civilian areas—are meant to bolster the Taliban. Karzai sees the Taliban as winning, and has convinced himself that he can pivot to represent them and their Pakistani patrons rather than the Americans. In this he is wrong: Pakistan’s ISI trust Karzai about as much as Washington should have, and will not hesitate to dispose of him once the Americans are gone.

So what is the American strategy? Talks. There has been no breakthrough in Qatar, however. This should not surprise. We are talking to the same exact Taliban officials who lied their way to 9/11, yet the State Department has never bothered to assess what went wrong with talks in the 1990s. The Taliban are most interested in springing Taliban prisoners, not political compromise. That Taliban members released from detention in Pakistan have rejoined the insurgency should not surprise, nor should the fact that Pakistani authorities didn’t coordinate their prisoner release with Kabul, let alone Washington.

In 2014, against the backdrop of planned Afghan elections, the United States will abandon Afghanistan. Rhetoric about continuing relations fall short given how such promises fell short with Iraq. Afghans are already preparing for the civil war which will follow. Some, like Karzai, will try to pivot and then grovel in the hope of maintaining their position. Others will flee, their money already safely stowed away in Dubai real estate or Swiss banks. Many tribal leaders and officials have sons in both camps, trying desperately to preserve their family’s security come what may. The notion that the Taliban are only interested in predominantly Pushtun areas is silly. Their occupation of Herat in 1995, Kabul in 1996, and Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997 and again in 1998 should put to rest the idea that their appetite is satiable.

The coming civil war will be bloody. There are more stake-holders than after the “Peshawar 7” ousted Najibullah in 1992. American officials can claim victory, but they are abandoning our Afghan allies and women in a way which will reverberate far beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and have yet to articulate a strategy to ensure that the vacuum that enabled an al-Qaeda presence doesn’t once again open, endangering U.S. national security.

The most dangerous lessons drawn from the Afghanistan war are those already grasped by our opponents and with which the United States will have to grapple for decades to come: First is the fact that it is easy to outlast America, and second is that embraced by Pakistan—distract America with a proxy, because diplomats will always treat that proxy as an independent actor. Under Obama, we have become like a cat, swatting a string and never bothering to look at who is dangling it.

Read Less

Al-Qaeda in the United States

Yesterday, Jonathan remembered the 20th anniversary of the first attack on the World Trade Center by pointing out that, while we’ve come a long way since 9/11, we are at risk of putting the dangers of al-Qaeda and radical Islam “in our collective rear-view mirrors.” It was also 20 years ago that Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down.” Today, our strategy against al-Qaeda is to win by defining victory down, and focusing only on the damage we do to its so-called core. That wrongly elevates drone strikes from a tool into a strategy, ignores the recruiting appeal of the Islamist ideology that is at the heart of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and neglects the fact that we are not very good at anticipating how al-Qaeda’s franchises and allies will grow, cooperate, and spread. Last year, very few analysts worried about Islamist militants in the Maghreb; today, they control half a country.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, as Jonathan points out, “here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up.” My colleague Jessica Zuckerman has chronicled the 54 terrorist plots against domestic targets that have been thwarted since 9/11. The latest featured a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Raees Alam Qazi, and his older brother. It “adds to the large number of terrorist attacks that could be considered to be homegrown.” It is hard to believe that a country which has thwarted about a plot every other month for over a decade, watched the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, and seen an anniversary attack on its consulate in Benghazi could become complacent. It is even harder to ignore the political savvy of the Obama administration and the appeal of its fantasy that the war is over.

Read More

Yesterday, Jonathan remembered the 20th anniversary of the first attack on the World Trade Center by pointing out that, while we’ve come a long way since 9/11, we are at risk of putting the dangers of al-Qaeda and radical Islam “in our collective rear-view mirrors.” It was also 20 years ago that Senator Daniel Moynihan warned of the dangers of “defining deviancy down.” Today, our strategy against al-Qaeda is to win by defining victory down, and focusing only on the damage we do to its so-called core. That wrongly elevates drone strikes from a tool into a strategy, ignores the recruiting appeal of the Islamist ideology that is at the heart of the danger posed by al-Qaeda, and neglects the fact that we are not very good at anticipating how al-Qaeda’s franchises and allies will grow, cooperate, and spread. Last year, very few analysts worried about Islamist militants in the Maghreb; today, they control half a country.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, as Jonathan points out, “here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up.” My colleague Jessica Zuckerman has chronicled the 54 terrorist plots against domestic targets that have been thwarted since 9/11. The latest featured a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan, Raees Alam Qazi, and his older brother. It “adds to the large number of terrorist attacks that could be considered to be homegrown.” It is hard to believe that a country which has thwarted about a plot every other month for over a decade, watched the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, and seen an anniversary attack on its consulate in Benghazi could become complacent. It is even harder to ignore the political savvy of the Obama administration and the appeal of its fantasy that the war is over.

Yesterday, Britain’s Henry Jackson Society entered the field with a massive publication that provides hard data on the scope of al-Qaeda’s threat to the U.S. In Al-Qaeda in the United States: A Complete Analysis of Terrorist Offenses, Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer do for the U.S. what Simcox and colleagues did in 2010 for Britain: provide a comprehensive overview of those who have carried out, or sought to carry out, terrorist attacks on the U.S. As General Michael Hayden says in his forward, it is “a remarkable work … not just for its diligence but also for its sense of a shared future between the people of the United States and Great Britain.” The analysis Simcox and Dyer provide confirms Jonathan’s fears: U.S. terrorists are young and male (which is no surprise), geographically diverse, well-educated, employed, and overwhelmingly U.S. residents. A quarter were converts to Islam, a share that rose to half of the U.S. born offenders.

It is hard, looking at this remarkable report, to find much evidence for the thesis that economic deprivation produces terrorists: 60 percent of the individuals that Simcox and Dyer profile had received a college education. Ideology matters more, though explaining why an individual gravitates to an ideology is the toughest question a biographer can ask of a subject. But what Simcox and Dyer make overwhelmingly clear is that the al-Qaeda threat–and their report is only the criminal tip of the ideological iceberg–is persistent, widespread, and highly-motivated. We have done an excellent job of playing the role of the hockey goaltender, and have blocked shot after shot. But there are many more shots to come, and sooner or later the Obama administration’s ostrich strategy is going to be exposed as a dangerous mistake.

Read Less

The Day the War on America Began

Exactly 20 years ago on this date, a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center took the lives of six people and injured more than a thousand others. The tragedy shocked the nation but, as with other al-Qaeda attacks in the years that followed, the WTC bombing did not alter the country’s basic approach to Islamist terrorism. For the next eight and a half years, the United States carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward the subject. The lack of urgency applied to the subject, as well as the disorganized and sometimes slap-dash nature of the security establishment’s counter-terrorist operations, led to the far greater tragedy of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda managed to accomplish what it failed to do in 1993: knock down the towers and slaughter thousands.

All these years after 9/11 and the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, are there any further lessons to be drawn from that initial tragedy? To listen to the chattering classes, you would think the answer is a definitive no. Few are marking this anniversary and even fewer seem to think there is anything more to be said about what we no longer call the war on terror. But as much as many of us may wish to consign this anniversary to the realm of the history books, the lessons of the day the war on America began still need to be heeded.

Read More

Exactly 20 years ago on this date, a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center took the lives of six people and injured more than a thousand others. The tragedy shocked the nation but, as with other al-Qaeda attacks in the years that followed, the WTC bombing did not alter the country’s basic approach to Islamist terrorism. For the next eight and a half years, the United States carried on with a business-as-usual attitude toward the subject. The lack of urgency applied to the subject, as well as the disorganized and sometimes slap-dash nature of the security establishment’s counter-terrorist operations, led to the far greater tragedy of September 11, 2001 when al-Qaeda managed to accomplish what it failed to do in 1993: knock down the towers and slaughter thousands.

All these years after 9/11 and the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden, are there any further lessons to be drawn from that initial tragedy? To listen to the chattering classes, you would think the answer is a definitive no. Few are marking this anniversary and even fewer seem to think there is anything more to be said about what we no longer call the war on terror. But as much as many of us may wish to consign this anniversary to the realm of the history books, the lessons of the day the war on America began still need to be heeded.

It should be acknowledged that the United States has come a long way in the last 20 years when it comes to awareness of the forces that launched that first attack. The 9/11 attacks changed the government’s priorities and forced those in charge of the security apparatus to make fighting al-Qaeda a priority, which was something that was nowhere on the country’s radar screen even after the atrocity that took place on February 26, 1993. The death of bin Laden in 2011 seemed to signal that the long battle against the Islamists had been fought and won by the U.S., allowing Americans to go back to sleep about terror–or at least to put it in our collective rear-view mirrors.

But as the 9/11/2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya demonstrated once again, the forces that launched the attacks on America are by no means as dead as bin Laden. Indeed, they continue to be a potent force throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East. The Taliban, al-Qaeda’s old allies and hosts, are poised for a comeback in Afghanistan as the United States gradually abandons what President Obama and the Democrats once called the “good war.”

Even more ominously, al-Qaeda’s ideological allies in the Muslim Brotherhood now rule Egypt in place of a secular regime, which, though undemocratic, was a vital ally in the global war on Islamist terror.

Here in the U.S., cases of home-grown Islamist terror continue to crop up as a new generation of Islamists continue to sow the seeds of an unending war against the “Great Satan” of the United States as well as its Israeli ally.

Unlike in 1993, the problem is no longer whether our intelligence and security establishment is serious about fighting terror, but rather whether we as a nation have the will and the patience to go on doing so. The willingness of the Obama administration to embrace the Brotherhood and to go on, as it did after Benghazi, pretending that the war on terror is over, is a sign that our will may be faltering.

It is no small thing that the Islamist government of Egypt that the U.S. has embraced has called for the freeing of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” who was the al-Qaeda mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. As we think back on the 20 years since six Americans died as a prelude to the murder of thousands more by the same group, the sympathy for their killer ought to remind us that the fight against Islamism is far from over.

Read Less

Lessons from Turkey’s Al Qaeda Magazine

İslam Dünyası or “Islamic World” is the Turkish language edition of Al Qaeda’s magazine. I had previously referenced it here when, late last year, the magazine called for attacks on the United States. The latest edition is now available, at least in Jihadi chat rooms. What is most interesting is that it provides biographies for three slain Turkish fighters, two of whom were killed fighting against NATO in Afghanistan, and the third of whom was killed fighting for radicals in Syria.

According to SITE monitoring, which translated the biographies, one of the three grew up in Istanbul, and two grew up in Ankara. All were from poor families and began taking Islam classes in Turkey.

The reason why this is important is simple: The Turkish government has long acknowledged that Turks were active in Al Qaeda and its affiliates (under the group Taifetul Mansura), but always claimed that Turkish Jihadists were Diaspora Turks radicalized in Germany. Now it looks like this isn’t the case, and the real problem is in Turkey itself.

Read More

İslam Dünyası or “Islamic World” is the Turkish language edition of Al Qaeda’s magazine. I had previously referenced it here when, late last year, the magazine called for attacks on the United States. The latest edition is now available, at least in Jihadi chat rooms. What is most interesting is that it provides biographies for three slain Turkish fighters, two of whom were killed fighting against NATO in Afghanistan, and the third of whom was killed fighting for radicals in Syria.

According to SITE monitoring, which translated the biographies, one of the three grew up in Istanbul, and two grew up in Ankara. All were from poor families and began taking Islam classes in Turkey.

The reason why this is important is simple: The Turkish government has long acknowledged that Turks were active in Al Qaeda and its affiliates (under the group Taifetul Mansura), but always claimed that Turkish Jihadists were Diaspora Turks radicalized in Germany. Now it looks like this isn’t the case, and the real problem is in Turkey itself.

Here, the Turkish government is culpable: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has revised his predecessors’ regulations that had regulated Koran schools to prevent radical cleric from leading them and had also placed minimum age and maximum time limitations on the supplemental schools. Back in 2005 and 2006, Erdoğan’s hostility toward any regulation checking the promulgation of religious incitement or radicalism had grown so great that illegal Koran schools advertised openly in Turkey’s Islamist newspapers.

The question for Turkish policymakers—and a question members of the Congressional Turkish Caucus should put forward to Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States is this: Regardless of past blame, now that Al Qaeda is openly acknowledging that terrorists are being indoctrinated and recruited inside Turkey and not abroad, what steps is Turkey taking to rectify the situation?

Alas, I suspect the answer is hiçbiri, none.

Read Less

A Drone Court is a Terrible Idea

With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.

There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.

Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.

Read More

With controversy growing over the Obama administration’s use of drones to kill suspected terrorists—even, on a few occasions American citizens—interest appears to be growing in some kind of “drone court” modeled on the court authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize national-security wiretaps. Even Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense who is as centrist as they come, appeared to indicate on CNN yesterday that he was in favor of more oversight of the drone strikes, possibly from such a court.

There is no doubt that putting judicial imprimatur on such strikes would help to dissipate growing opposition to the use of drones and could help to rein in capricious decision-making by this administration or a future administration. This proposal is sure to gain traction on both the antiwar left and the anti-government right—as well as among many in the general public who have a certain unease about the idea of presidentially ordered “assassinations” a la fictional characters like Jason Bourne.

Nevertheless creating such a court would be a very bad idea because it would constitute a dangerous infringement on the president’s authority as commander-in-chief.

To be sure, there are few cases of drone strikes involving American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki and it would probably not be any great burden in the war on terror to have those instances reviewed by a court. The danger is that this would be the establishment of a dangerous precedent, with judges soon being called upon to approve all drone strikes, whether the targets are American citizens or not. There is already a fair amount of bureaucracy to vet such strikes and minimize collateral damage, which sometimes results in the suspects making an escape before approval to fire a Hellfire missile can be obtained. Introducing judges into the mix would make such operations intolerably slow and unwieldy.

If judges were given power to review military or CIA strikes taking place outside the country, where would this trend end? With troops having to read detainees on a foreign battlefield their Miranda rights? With judges having to approve in advance all military plans—including armored offensives and artillery barrages—to make sure they don’t infringe on someone’s civil rights?

Such scenarios are not as crazy as they sound. Civil liberties lawyers have already been trying to get the U.S. courts to assume oversight of detainees held in Afghanistan—one federal judge even ruled that these detainees had a right to a hearing before being overruled by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Constitutional guarantees of rights are the bedrock of our democracy—but they don’t apply to foreign combatants. Not even if they happen to be citizens—as the entire Confederate Army was during the Civil War. The FISA court is well and good but it only operates on our soil. It doesn’t limit the National Security Agency from carrying out wiretaps abroad. So, too, no “drone court” should be established to judicially regulate the use of lethal force abroad by the military or covert forces of the United States government.

This is not to say that such operations should be above any outside review. Congress has the right to step in and, if it so desires, cut off funding for the drone program. Or it can rescind or narrow the Authorization for the Use of Force that was passed on September 14, 2001, and is the legal basis for the drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. What Congress cannot do—because I suspect the appeals courts and the Supreme Court would not allow it—is to try to delegate to the judiciary the job of making decisions on the use of military force abroad.

Read Less

AQIM Attack in Algeria Only the Beginning

After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

Read More

After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

The weapons included RPGs that had come out of Libya, the newspaper said, adding that many of the attackers were Tunisian and Libyan. The assault began when a lorry delivering food to the barracks was hi-jacked, filled with weapons and used to force a way into the installation, while a second group opened fire in a diversionary attack. The fire-fight lasted three hours. The Algerian military used warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery to beat off the attack, according to the report.

The death of Osama Bin Laden effectively put an expiration date upon all the intelligence that was seized in his compound. The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency did a good job of exploiting that intelligence to the fullest, but we are once again fighting blind. Ayman Zawahiri may have officially succeeded bin Laden, but all the al-Qaeda franchises are now, effectively, competing for leadership by staging spectacular attacks. AQIM—spanning seven countries and with a drug running network spanning from southern Europe to Mozambique—is certainly making its claim to be the top franchise.

The question is how long it will take the United States to recognize that it cannot simply afford to stand on the sidelines with groups which are sworn to seek America’s demise. If there is one lesson we should learn from the Clinton years, it is that we pay a great price for allowing terrorists to metastasize while we flail around for a strategy. Does that mean direct, on-the-ground military intervention in the Sahel? Absolutely not. But does it mean that we should use all power at our disposal not to allow AQIM leaders to sleep in the same location for more than a night while we try to pick them off? Absolutely. The French have intervened. Let’s hope that in a second-term Obama administration, with John Kerry as secretary of state and perhaps Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, we have not become the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”  The costs of inaction would simply be too great.

Read Less

Obama Drone Memo is a Careful, Responsible Document

Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.

But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)

Read More

Pete Wehner makes a fair point in dinging President Obama for hypocrisy because Obama once expressed outrage over the Bush administration’s use of torture (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”) while now defending the legality of his own policy of ordering the targeted killing of al-Qaeda members even if they’re U.S. citizens. There is no judicial review in either policy–and the latter results in death rather than discomfort.

But I’d much rather that the president be hypocritical than wrong on the issue of targeted killings. In this case I think he deserves applause for taking the right stance in spite of the criticism from some of his own supporters in the “human rights” lobby. (I use quote marks because groups like Amnesty International seldom if ever recognize that actions taken by Western states to defend themselves against terrorist attacks are a defense of the basic right to live without fear of assault.)

Drone strikes are by no means risk free, the biggest risk being that by killing innocent civilians they will cause a backlash and thereby create more enemies for the U.S. than they eliminate. There is no doubt that some of these strikes have killed the wrong people–as the New York Times account highlights in one incident in Yemen. There is also little doubt, moreover, that drone strikes are no substitute for a comprehensive counterinsurgency and state-building policy designed to permanently safeguard vulnerable countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali from the incursions of radical jihadists. But drone strikes have been effective in disrupting al-Qaeda operations and they have been conducted with less collateral damage and more precision than in the past.

It is hard to assess what impact they have had on public opinion in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, but there is at least as much evidence that these strikes are applauded by locals who are terrorized by al-Qaeda thugs as there is evidence that the strikes are reviled for killing fellow clansmen. As the Times notes: “Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.”

Given the need to continue these drone strikes, it would be silly and self-destructive to grant certain al-Qaeda figures immunity just because they happen to have American citizenship. In past wars such as the U.S. Civil War and World War II the U.S. military never hesitated to kill or capture enemy combatants simply because they happened to hold American citizenship. Why should today be any different?

Obviously the U.S. government is not going to engage in targeted killings on our home soil, and there is no need to do so–al-Qaeda operatives in the U.S. can always be arrested. That’s not the case in Pakistan or Yemen, where the alternative is typically either to let them go or kill them in a drone strike. The Justice Department memo leaked to NBC News, which justifies such attacks, seems to me a model of careful legal reasoning which preserves the commander-in-chief’s authority to wage war on our enemies without trampling on civil liberties at home.

“This is a chilling document,” says an ACLU lawyer (predictably). No, it’s not. It’s an encouraging document. It shows that, however committed Obama may be to a policy of retrenchment abroad and to dangerous cuts in defense spending, he is still willing to doing what it takes to defend us from al-Qaeda and its ilk.

Read Less

Obama Is Hypocritical but Right on Drones

I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.

But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.

Read More

I agree completely with Pete about the rank hypocrisy of President Obama when it comes to using his powers to fight terrorism. Liberals and Democrats accused President Bush, Vice President Cheney and those associated with conducting the war on terror of being immoral lawbreakers–but now hold their tongues when it is Obama and his colleagues who have asserted the power to hold prisoners in indefinite captivity or order the deaths of terror suspects. Everyone on the left, up to and including the president, owes Bush, Cheney and company an abject apology on this score, though I’m afraid it will never be forthcoming.

But it is important to note that those on the right who are inclined to give Obama a taste of his own medicine on the issue of drone strikes against al-Qaeda figures should take a deep breath and think more about what is good for the country as opposed to what the president deserves. It may be, as Pete noted, that the used of “enhanced interrogation” was nothing when compared to the brutality and casualties incurred as a result of Obama’s drone strikes, but that is no excuse for any Congressional action aimed at restricting the executive branch’s ability to wage war against America’s foes. Even in the cases of American citizens who have been marked for death via drones without benefit of a judicial process, conservatives and civil libertarians alike should understand that these are reasonable measures taken to defend against those seeking to murder American citizens.

Let’s understand that the discussion about drone strikes is not a matter of the government seeking to stifle dissent. Those who have joined al-Qaeda and become part of its leadership are not trying to change America; they are waging war on it. Thus, even in the absence of what the Justice Department memo on such strikes referred to as an “imminent threat” of a specific terror attack, there is no question that any al-Qaeda leader is in the business of killing Americans in any way and at any time or place possible.

The power to designate a person an enemy combatant is fearful and should be used with caution. But when such persons do exist, it is the duty of the U.S. government to either capture or kill them in an expeditious manner. To ask the commander-in-chief and those charged with our defense to treat this conflict as a police matter is absurd. Subjecting each such decision to court review in advance of action would hamper the ability of our forces to effectively fight terrorism. Though our current conflicts are legally murkier than declared wars, killing al-Qaeda leaders is morally equivalent to attacks launched by U.S. forces on enemies during World War II. The U.S. Navy didn’t need a court order to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto as they did in 1943. The president and his team shouldn’t need one to kill any al-Qaeda functionary no matter his country of origin or who is with him at the time of the strike. The administration is correct when it argues that the laws of war give them the right to act in this manner.

The administration’s conversion to this point of view from the president’s previous stands against Bush’s policies may be hypocritical. But it is nonetheless correct. I expect John Brennan, the president’s nominee to head the CIA, to be asked about these issues at his confirmation hearing tomorrow. But let’s hope that Republicans who defended the Bush policies will not become as hypocritical as their Democratic colleagues on this point. There are many points on which the Obama administration may be faulted, but their willingness to kill al-Qaeda leaders is not one of them.

Read Less

Assassination Rocks Tunisia

That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

Read More

That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

A prominent Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, in a killing the prime minister condemned as a political assassination and a strike against the “Arab Spring” revolution. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the identity of the killer of Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government, was unknown.

Belaid, who died in the hospital after being shot in the capital Tunis, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. The government has faced many protests over economic hardship. Hampered by declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone, it has struggled to deliver the better living standards that many Tunisians had hoped for.

And it says Al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police, who demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office last month, say they do not have the appropriate resources to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and domestic Islamist militants who have easy access to weapons from neighboring Libya.

Let us hope that the Obama administration’s response to the cutting down of a prominent secular politician will not be to supply Tunisia’s Islamist rulers with F-16s or other advanced weaponry. And let us hope that the Obama administration and the State Department have a plan to prevent the Al Qaeda threat from taking root in Tunisia, and that the plan is not simply to sit on the sidelines and let the worst scenarios develop, something which has contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise in northern Mali and utter chaos in Syria.

Read Less

The Risk of Iraqi Civil War

It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.

This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.

Read More

It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Iraq was badly shaken by an incident that occurred Friday in Fallujah: security forces fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters, killing at least seven people. The people of Fallujah got their revenge by killing at least two soldiers and kidnapping three more. As press accounts note, mourners in Falluja shouted, “The blood of our people will not be lost in vain,” and they set fire to an army checkpoint.

This is, to put it mildly, a worrisome situation. Fallujah was one of the epicenters of Al Qaeda in Iraq and, more generally, of Sunni resistance to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Along with the rest of Anbar Province, it has been relatively peaceful since the “surge” of 2007-2008, when most Sunnis elected to join with the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, but the situation is now becoming volatile because of the vendetta that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing against senior Sunni politicians.

Unless Maliki does something concrete to placate Sunnis and convince them that he is not a Shiite sectarian, then the odds are that some incident–if not this one, then some future clash–could well set off a more general outbreak of civil war. And of course with U.S. troops entirely gone, there is no external stabilizing force. The Iraqis are on their own.

Read Less

Obama Flunks Mali’s Lesson

After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.

Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.

Read More

After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.

Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.

Only with last year’s coup—and the acceleration of insurgency fueled by loose weapons from Libya—has Mali come to America’s strategic notice. Simply put, with the consolidation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s presence in northern Mali, officials on both sides of the Atlantic recognize the danger of a vacuum.

Obama may congratulate himself on once again leading from behind, but his actions on Mali only highlight the fact that the president does not understand—or care—that far from resolving the problem, he is on the verge of making it worse. Perhaps France, in conjunction with contingents from some neighboring West African states, will contain the problems in Mali, but Obama does not recognize that by creating a vacuum in Afghanistan, he will be setting the stage for further Al Qaeda empowerment. No one will be able to rely on neighboring states when those states are Iran and Pakistan. And while India should take a greater regional role, it is too inward looking—and the logistical hurdles too great for landlocked Afghanistan—for it to take the actions it should to help buttress Afghanistan.

With the United States abdicating its international responsibilities so that Obama can claim to be true to his own political schedule, the question is not who will fill the vacuum Obama helps to create in Afghanistan, but rather who will be the victims of Al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan.

Read Less

Radical Islamists vs. the People of Mali

Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Read More

Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Such draconian decrees are hardly popular with ordinary Malians who practice a tolerant brand of Islam. Bennoune quotes the acting principal of a coed high school “who had been attending public punishments to document the atrocities. This meant repeatedly watching his fellow citizens get flogged. He has seen what it looks like when a ‘convict’ has his foot sawed off. Close to tears, he said: ‘No one can stand it, but it is imposed on us. Those of us who attend, we cry.’ ”

Such sentiments are hardly surprising to anyone who has ever visited Afghanistan or Iraq’s Anbar Province–two more places where a harsh brand of Salafism was once imposed at gunpoint. In both places the people turned against the self-proclaimed religious enforcers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq, respectively. Now in Mali they are happy to turn against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups, provided the French army protects them from the terrorists’ retribution.

The only way that such extremists can gain power is at gunpoint–something that is unfortunately easy to do in countries such as post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, post-Taliban Afghanistan, and post-coup Mali where the security services are weak to nonexistent and social order is breaking down. In such circumstances Islamists can at least claim that they are restoring law and order. But when the people see what their “law and order” consists of, they invariably recoil and pray that someone will rescue them from these theocratic tyrants.

Read Less

In Mali, Stand with the French

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

Read More

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

The administration has finally agreed to airlift a French battalion into the fight but is still holding off on a French request for aerial refueling. The reason for the administration’s reluctance is truly bizarre: According to the New York Times, “A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning American tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the United States appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.”

If accurate, this would suggest that “some officials in Washington” are worried that by fighting terrorists we ourselves will become a target for terrorism. Earth to Washington: the jihadists already hate us and are already doing everything possible to do us harm.

Americans, after all, were just killed along with the citizens of other countries in the hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria. It seems a little far-fetched at this late date to imagine that we might propitiate the extremists by not fighting them too hard. Actually, if we abstain from the fight, the most likely result is that the Islamists will be able to consolidate their gains in Mali and then turn Mali into a base for terrorism against Western interests—including American interests.

The French may not always stand with us, but in the present instance we must stand with the French and not imagine that we can somehow get out of the line of fire.

Read Less