Obama to al-Qaeda: “We have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.” But we will also withdraw from Afghanistan no matter what. Which means that the message is that our enemies just need to hang on until we get tired and they will prevail.
Topic: Arabian Peninsula
“And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.”
And if not, we’re leaving anyway.
The sheer size of the proposed $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia makes it worth critical reflection. The types of weapon systems in the Saudi shopping list are even more eye-catching. News outlets report that the sale is to be understood as a means of bolstering Saudi defenses and security confidence in the face of the threat from Iran. But the weapon systems in question don’t support that theory.
Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.
The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.
The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iran presents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism. But the counterinsurgency warfare model (e.g., the U.S.’s in Iraq) is inapplicable in this case: population numbers and terrain inhibit the rise on the Arabian Peninsula of insurgencies with the profile of Hezbollah or the Taliban. The number of modern systems the Saudis propose to purchase outstrips such a requirement considerably.
They can’t be contemplating the invasion of Iran, even as a counter to an Iranian attack. Numbers and terrain are decisively arrayed against that as well. Riyadh is buying an unusually large number of weapons with which to project power and fight a land campaign at a greater range than ever before – but the weapons are a mismatch for the likely dimensions of a confrontation with Iran.
Perhaps the Saudis see a potential need to fight Iran on Iraqi or Kuwaiti territory in the future. It would certainly have to be a distant future, given the substantial U.S. military presence in those countries. This expeditionary concept would also be highly uncharacteristic in Saudi strategic thinking.
But Riyadh may be arming as a regional rival to Iran – not for the defense of its own territory but as the leader of an Arab coalition, formed to gain ascendancy over Iran as the power broker in the Levant. Western analysts tend to miss the fact that Iran’s moves against Israel constitute a plan to effectively occupy territory that the Arab nations consider theirs to fight for. The concerns on both sides are more than ethnic and historical: they involve competing eschatological ideas.
The resurgence of Turkey, erstwhile Ottoman ruler, only accelerates the sense of powerful regional rivals polishing up their designs on the Levant. The Saudis’ military shopping list doesn’t match their defensive requirements against Iran, but if the strategic driver is a race to Jerusalem, it contains exactly what they need. Congress should take a critical look at the numbers involved – and the U.S. should take one at our disjointed and increasingly passive approach to the region.
One of the most useful prisms through which to view Yemen and Somalia is that of the “Biden strategy” for the War on Terror. The strategy’s outlines are provided in this article, one of many recounting Biden’s advocacy of over-the-horizon counterterrorism during the interminable seminar on Afghanistan last year:
Biden urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission, heavy on Special Forces and Predator drone strikes, which would require far less manpower than the military was seeking. … [He] continues to argue that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan at a reasonable cost.
Administration policy in Yemen and Somalia has been an even purer example of applying the Biden strategy. Team Obama has disavowed any intention of enlarging U.S. goals or the military footprint in either nation (see here and here, for example). The U.S. is there only to hunt terrorists, suppress piracy, and supply humanitarian aid, with a little military aid thrown in on the side.
Obama has so rigorously eschewed having any greater designs on the region that his administration seems to have missed some very basic geopolitical facts; e.g., that the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden lie between Yemen and Somalia and are the main path by which terrorists — and refugees — travel between their unruly shores. Yemen and Somalia function, in many ways, as a “system”; they share problems and displaced populations; and their neighbors — like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan — claim equities in their turmoil. Proposing to interact with this region solely by executing drone attacks and distributing aid, as if that will immunize the U.S. against unpleasant levels of involvement, is as much a fool’s errand as it is in Central Asia.
The U.S. is already deeply embedded in the region, with our naval task force combating piracy, our joint military headquarters in Djibouti, and our Special Forces and military training activities in Yemen. Now Obama wants to increase our counterterrorism activities in Yemen, deeming it a greater source of terrorism than Pakistan. In Somalia, meanwhile, where the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is trying to retake the south from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab terror group, the commander of U.S. Africa Command has stated — for the first time — a U.S. willingness to train Somali TFG troops directly.
The intensifying war on terrorists in Yemen is reminiscent of the U.S. posture in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. There are, unfortunately, parallels in multiple realms. Human-rights groups are decrying the collateral damage done by U.S. strikes (like this one in December 2009). Yemen itself is rent by factional insurgencies; one of them, the Southern Movement, has ambiguous relations with al-Qaeda. The moral hazard of U.S. cooperation being exploited by the Yemeni government to go after its internal opposition cannot be discounted. Such allegations are already being made by Amnesty International and others. But the strongest parallel with Southeast Asia 50 years ago is the administration’s passion for Special Forces, military advisers, and standoff air strikes.
What happens in Yemen will not stay in Yemen: it will spill over and affect the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight terror there, but it does mean we will be unprepared for the consequences of doing so if we rely only on the Biden strategy. Perhaps the American people have let Team Obama maintain the fiction that we are executing a distant, hands-off strategy there, but regional circumstances won’t allow it much longer. Obama is inviting things to come to a head by ramping up Special Forces operations and drone attacks in Yemen, which will stretch the Biden method to the breaking point.
We are already involved in Yemen’s fate: we’ve been shooting there for years. Somalia may be next. We are backing into a problem we should be meeting head-on. Our strategy should, at the very least, recognize the limits of our ability to ignore local and regional politics when we are hunting our enemies and enforcing our policies on someone else’s territory.
As Noah points out, the flotilla was many things — ingenious, sinister, deceptive, etc. — but not peaceful. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren writes in the New York Times:
Peace activists are people who demonstrate nonviolently for peaceful co-existence and human rights. The mob that assaulted Israeli special forces on the deck of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on Monday was not motivated by peace. On the contrary, the religious extremists embedded among those on board were paid and equipped to attack Israelis — both by their own hands as well as by aiding Hamas — and to destroy any hope of peace.
Millions have already seen the Al Jazeera broadcast showing these “activists” chanting “Khaibar! Khaibar!”— a reference to a Muslim massacre of Jews in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. YouTube viewers saw Israeli troops, armed with crowd-dispersing paintball guns and side arms for emergency protection, being beaten and hurled over the railings of the ship by attackers wielding iron bars.
He also shares some additional information: 100 of the activists had large wads of cash; spent bullet cartridges of a type not used by the commandos were found on board; and there was a propaganda film “showing passengers ‘injured’ by Israeli forces; these videos, however, were filmed during daylight, hours before the nighttime operation occurred.”
He then dismantles the propaganda — eagerly regurgitated by the Times and others — according to which this was critical humanitarian aid:
Just as Hamas gunmen hide behind civilians in Gaza, so, too, do their sponsors cower behind shipments of seemingly innocent aid.
This is why the organizers of the flotilla repeatedly rejected Israeli offers to transfer its cargo to Gaza once it was inspected for military contraband. They also rebuffed an Israeli request to earmark some aid packages for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas for four years.
In the recent past, Israeli forces have diverted nine such flotillas, all without incident, and peacefully boarded five of the ships in this week’s convoy. Their cargoes, after proper inspection, were delivered to non-Hamas institutions in Gaza. Only the Marmara, a vessel too large to be neutralized by technical means such as fouling the propeller, violently resisted. It is no coincidence that the ship was dispatched by Insani Yardim Vakfi (also called the I.H.H.), a supposed charity that Israeli and other intelligence services have linked to Islamic extremists. …
Each day, Israel facilitates the passage into Gaza of more than 100 truckloads of food and medicine — there is no shortage of either.
The task of beating back the Palestinian PR machine is enormous. The left and the media (I repeat myself) feverishly lap up the “humanitarian” propaganda. But in the end, it’s not all that hard to figure out what’s going on. As Sen. Joe Lieberman crisply puts it in a released statement that reads, in part:
We should be very clear about who is responsible for the unfortunate loss of life in the attempt to break the blockade in Gaza. Hamas and its allies are the responsible parties for the recent violence and the continued difficulties for the people of Gaza. Israel exercised her legitimate right of self defense.
The blockade exists because Hamas, which is increasingly acting as a proxy for the Iranian regime, has fired thousands of rockets upon Israel even after Israel withdrew from Gaza. The flotilla was a clear provocation and was not an effort to improve the lives of the people of Gaza but rather an attempt to score political propaganda points. The Palestinian people have legitimate rights to a state that is a peaceful neighbor of Israel, but those who assist Hamas only undermine that goal and a peaceful resolution. Support of Hamas and its aims is not the humanitarian path to peace, but rather enables continued violence and conflict.
He adds that he appreciates it that “the Obama Administration has refused to join the international herd that has rushed to convict Israel before the facts were known and has apparently forgotten that Israel is a democratic nation and Hamas is a terrorist group.”)
Lieberman also makes a key point about timing: “At difficult moments like this, it is more important than ever for the U.S. to stand steadfastly with our democratic ally, Israel.” In the midst of the fray, it’s neither helpful nor fair, nor even possible, to begin the inquisition. As Israel has begun to do, it is critical first to get the complete facts out concerning the flotilla terrorists so the analysis can be accurate and the madcap race to judgment can be slowed. I’m hardly one to complain about the 24/7 news cycle, which has tremendous benefits, but it also provides the opportunity for a great deal of foolishness.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence put out a 55-page report finding 14 significant intelligence failings in connection with the Christmas Day bombing plot. These included problems with the terrorist watch list (which also bedeviled officials in connection with the Times Square bombing scheme), failure to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, failure to collect and disseminate intelligence, and failure to analyze intelligence. (“Analysts across the Intelligence Community were primarily focused on threats to U.S. interests in Yemen posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], rather than on potential AQAP threats to the U.S. Homeland.”) The chairman and ranking member were blunt in a statement:
“The attempted Christmas Day attack was marked by several intelligence failures,” Senator Feinstein said. “It’s vital that reforms be made quickly to prevent future attacks by al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist groups. The Christmas Day attempt and the recent attempted bombing in Times Square show that we are targets, and we must stay one step ahead of the terrorists.”
“Unfortunately, there is no longer any doubt that major intelligence failures allowed the Christmas Day bomber to almost turn our airplanes into deadly weapons once again,” said Senator Bond. “We cannot depend on dumb luck, incompetent terrorists, and alert citizens to keep our families safe. It is critical we make changes to prevent these types of intelligence failures in the future.”
Obama, who supposedly oversees the most transparent administration in history, ordered no such review and report from the executive branch and, of course, fired no one after the incident. The Senate Committee should be commended for doing what the Obama team did not and for refusing to hide the administration’s incompetence. Let’s hope the committee keeps up the good work.
In the never-ending debate about General Petraeus and Israel, a few more data points are in — and they buttress what I have said earlier, that he is hardly the Israel-basher that some on the Left (and in the Arab world) celebrate and others on the Right denounce.
Point 1: at the Woodrow Wilson Center on April 13, Petraeus noted that some commentators had seized on one of the 11 factors he had mentioned to Congress as being important in shaping the Middle East — namely lack of progress “toward a comprehensive Middle East Peace.” He noted of his congressional statement: “It did not say anything about settlements. It didn’t say anything about putting our soldiers at risk or something like that. But it [lack of progress] does create an environment. It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.” And then he added: “I think it’s fair to say you could have said, ‘General, nonetheless, Israel is — has been, is and will be an important strategic ally of the United States.’ And that is fair enough. And I think that that’s something that we could and should have included in that, just to make sure that there was no missed perception about what we were implying by this.”
Point 2: at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony on April 15, Petraeus paid tribute to survivors: “The men and women who walked or were carried out of the death camps, and their descendents, have enriched our world immeasurably in the sciences and in the arts, in literature and in philanthropy. They have made extraordinary contributions in academia, in business, and in government. And, they have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies. The survivors have, in short, made our country and our world better, leaving lasting achievements wherever they settled.” The line about building “a nation that stands as one of our great allies” was picked up in a news story by the Jerusalem Post. The newspaper might also have noted another section of his comments, which I intrepret as an oblique reference to Iran: “It is instructive, periodically, that we remember what can happen when demonic dictators are able to hijack a country. We should never forget that.”
Point 3: Petraeus sent a letter on March 30 to Congressman Buck McKeon, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who had asked for further clarification of the general’s views of Israel. The letter (which has not previously been released) noted Centcom’s “highest priorities… the issues that keep us up at night” are not Israeli-Palestinian relations but rather “militant groups, hostile states, and [weapons of mass destruction," along with "the instability in South Asia, the activities and policies of the Iranian regime, the situation in Iraq and the growth of [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen.” Petreaus said that the peace process is important but no more important than “other cross-cutting factors mentioned.” He noted, as well, that neither an internal study that Centcom had conducted of the issue “nor my posture statement assigns blame for this lack of progress [in peace talks], nor do they link the lack of progress with the lives of U.S. service members.”
In sum, while Petraeus may assign greater importance to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process than some analysts (including myself) would, he is hardly anti-Israel. He hasn’t even expressed an opinion on the future of Israeli settlements, much less endorsed President Obama’s push to ban all Israeli building activity in East Jerusalem. That’s not his role. As I’ve said before, those who are (rightly) unhappy with the turn in U.S. policy against Israel should address their concerns to the White House, not to Centcom, where General Petraeus is primarily focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran — not on Israel.
…and no, it’s not Rush Limbaugh.
Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spent years in the United States as an imam, is in hiding in Yemen. He has been the focus of intense scrutiny since he was linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25.
American counterterrorism officials say Mr. Awlaki is an operative of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They say they believe that he has become a recruiter for the terrorist network, feeding prospects into plots aimed at the United States and at Americans abroad, the officials said.
It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said.
Nice to know.
However, I respectfully request, Mr. President, that the following be added to your hit list:
• Customer-service rep #2346 at Time Warner Cable, Queens, New York
• Customer-service rep “Treacle” at Verizon Wireless
• Customer-service rep “Chandra” at Dell
• Customer-service rep “Mahmoud” at Vonage
• Customer-service rep “Captain Nightmare” at Citibank
• Whoever thought this was a good idea
Joe Klein has a characteristically paranoid post in which he says that the criticisms of Barack Obama lodged by AIPAC and other “American Likudniks… teeter on the brink of treachery.” The AIPAC statement called on the administration “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension” with Israel. This is treachery? What happened to dissent being the highest form of patriotism? Klein adds:
They are making their case in ways that encourage right-wing American extremists who deny the legitimacy of our President. They are walking on very thin ice here.
I’m not sure what he’s getting at here, but it sounds like he’s saying that if something bad happens to Barack Obama, it will be because some Americans criticized the administration’s treatment of Israel, including 327 members of the House of Representatives. Klein is indeed an ugly paranoiac when it comes to American politics. But he is also a high-flying ignoramus about the Middle East. He writes that Hebron is “the largest West Bank city and home to 500,000 Palestinians.” And that:
[Jews who live in Hebron] claim, correctly, that Hebron was a Jewish city 3000 years ago (as, of course, Arabs can claim evidence of their presence throughout the current land of Israel as least as long-standing).
There are not 500,000 Palestinians living in Hebron — there are about 163,000, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Klein is confusing the Hebron governorate with the city of Hebron. The Hebron governorate comprises around half the southern territory of the West Bank. This is like confusing the region of southern California with the city of Los Angeles.
But the best Kleinism is the block-quoted text above, in which he says that the Arabs have been in Hebron at least as long as the Jews. He apparently isn’t aware of the Arab conquests. You see, the Arabs originally came from Arabia, and after the death of Mohammad in the 7th century, they emerged from the Arabian peninsula and swept across the Middle East and North Africa, even into Spain, spreading Islam and Arabic in what today Joe Klein would call an illegal preemptive war to spread colonialism and empire.
Perhaps the Arabs were actually the first neocons? Klein surely has an opinion (I think, in keeping with his high political ideals, he should call for the removal of the illegal Arab settlements in Hebron, which are an obstruction to the peace process). But one thing that is not up for debate is how long Jews and Arabs have lived in Hebron: the Jews have been there for over 3,000 years; the Arabs, since the 7th century CE.
When you read Joe Klein, it’s hard to tell which is worse, the sloppiness or the ignorance.
Eli Lake reports:
U.S. and allied counterterrorism authorities have launched a global manhunt for English-speaking terrorists trained in Yemen who are planning attacks on the United States, based on intelligence provided by the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day bombing after he began cooperating. . .
Said one official: “It’s safe to say that Abdulmutallab is not the only bullet in the chamber for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” the Islamist terrorist group based in Yemen.
“Farouk took a month to get operational. Once he left [training in Yemen], it did not take very long,” the official said.
So in the five weeks of silence, did the other English-speaking terrorists go into hiding? Are the leads still good? We don’t know, but it is precisely this concern and the danger of leads gone cold that strike at the core of the Obami’s approach. They are concerned about extending constitutional principles to terrorists (and gaining convictions); they should have been focused like a laser on getting all the actionable data as soon as possible to prevent future attacks. Now it seems as though we are scrambling to catch up — and the Obami are trying to prepare us in the event we can’t catch up:
The data about the additional terrorist plots is thought to be one factor behind alarming congressional testimony two weeks ago from senior U.S. intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Mr. Blair said he was “certain” that it was al-Qaeda’s priority to attempt an attack on the United States within three to six months.
The increased threat of terrorism emanating from Yemen was outlined in a majority staff report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made public last month. The report warned that U.S. criminals were migrating to Yemen for terrorist training.
A smart national security observer makes an additional point: “Enhanced interrogation is something also envisioned by Obama and it need not be torture. The HIG–high value interrogation group–was chartered for this kind of non torture/enhanced interrogation. It was not set up. So getting to him need not have meant waterboarding.” Conservatives would dispute whether waterboarding is torture, but the point is correct: even under the Obami’s own interrogation rules, it is hard to condone this missed opportunity.
So the question comes down to this: what if in the five weeks of the Christmas Day bomber’s Mirandized silence other terrorists got away? And if the unimaginable happens and one of these should strike, what then? Even the potential for such a calamity should convince all but the most hardened Obama sycophants that we are in danger now, greater danger than we would otherwise be, had the search for mass-murders-in-training begun weeks earlier.
There is no excuse for such malfeasance. Those officials who came up with this cockeyed scheme and have now put Americans in greater danger should be sacked. And the American people, once the full account comes out, may well conclude that this includes Obama. He is commander in chief after all.
As Stephen Hayes details, the Christmas Day bomber is now talking and the Obami have changed their tune. For days and weeks we heard from Obama’s flacks and from leaks in mainstream news outlets that in Abdulmutallab’s 50-minute interview, FBI agents got out all that we needed. And then we were told that he stopped talking even before the Miranda warnings were given. The spin-athon was on to convince us that ”nothing was lost” by allowing him to lawyer up and sit mutely for five weeks. Now he’s talking and we are hearing that intelligence officials are (finally) extracting valuable data. Well, the information we are eliciting might have been even more valuable five weeks ago. Hayes sums up the Keystone Kops display that we have witnessed:
Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials — including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter — were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack. John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of “an isolated extremist.” Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP’s “determination” to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab — only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.
The Obama team is straining to maintain credibility, to convince the public that their criminal-justice model really does make sense, and to assure us that they have not blundered by throwing overboard Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. But let’s get real here: the problem, as well as the spin, started when Abdulmutallab, with no input from intelligence officials, was treated like a common criminal and then clammed up. The last five weeks have been spent by the Obami trying to undue that damage. Let’s hope nothing was lost in the interim. Let’s hope the leads we get (if we get any) have not gone cold. And let’s hope we didn’t give Abdulmutallab a “deal” in order to get him to resume talking.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden is the latest and among the most credible critics of the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day bombing. He writes:
We got it wrong in Detroit on Christmas Day. We allowed an enemy combatant the protections of our Constitution before we had adequately interrogated him. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not “an isolated extremist.” He is the tip of the spear of a complex al-Qaeda plot to kill Americans in our homeland.
In the 50 minutes the FBI had to question him, agents reportedly got actionable intelligence. Good. But were there any experts on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the room (other than Abdulmutallab)? Was there anyone intimately familiar with any National Security Agency raw traffic to, from or about the captured terrorist? Did they have a list or photos of suspected recruits?
This is, as Hayden points out, one in a long list of misjudgments that began when we limited our interrogations to the Army Field Manual, stripped the CIA of its interrogation responsibilities (and then failed to implement the high-value detainee interrogation team), released the interrogation memos, began the re-investigation of CIA operatives, decided to try KSM, and, of course, determined to close Guantanamo without a reasonable alternative. Our anti-terror policies now have an entirely legalistic cast, and our intelligence-gathering has been subsumed to a new priority: the extension of constitutional protections to terrorists. As Hadyen dryly concludes:
In August, the government unveiled the [ High Value Interrogation Group] for questioning al-Qaeda and announced that the FBI would begin questioning CIA officers about the alleged abuses in the 2004 inspector general’s report. They are apparently still getting organized for the al-Qaeda interrogations. But the interrogations of CIA personnel are well underway.
Aside from the political controversy this has created and the lack of confidence it has inspired among the American people, the question remains whether we are now safer, and our intelligence agencies, more focused. Almost certainly, we are neither. This has been a grand experiment — allowing leftist lawyers to run our national-security policy. Perhaps after a year, we can now see how foolhardy the endeavor was. If the president cannot pivot (just as on domestic policy), it is time for Congress to step forward, use the power of the purse, and exercise its authority over the federal courts’ jurisdiction. Members of Congress, too, have an obligation to attend to the national security of the country. They would be well advised to review, assess, and then depart from the Obami’s ill-fated escapade.
The profile of Country A in Yemen associates it with domestic military raids by the corrupt, ineffective central government. Country B’s profile in Yemen involves contracts to build a railroad and new electric power plant and sell the Sanaa government billions in new military equipment. Country C is Yemen’s largest trading partner, representing more than a third of its foreign trade, its biggest source of foreign investment, and the majority of its oil and gas sales.
Country A is, of course, the United States of America. Countries B and C are Russia and China. The year is 2010, and the war on terror is relying as never before on assassination strikes against terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Standoff drone attacks have increased in the AfPak theater – dramatically so this month. For the new push in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), U.S. reliance is on facilitating strikes performed by the national government. America has promised to double security assistance to Yemen, offering $150 million in 2010 for fighting AQAP. Humanitarian assistance from USAID, meanwhile, is projected to increase to $50 million in 2010. The U.S. also proposes to help the Saleh government fight internal corruption and improve its democratic practices.
As a Voice of America reporter points out from on-scene in Sanaa, Yemenis are not taking the increase in outside intervention well. The Saleh government faces a serious challenge in its effort to downplay the dimensions of foreign involvement. The Obama administration’s preference for light-footprint, standoff antiterrorism operations would seem to accord nicely with the Yemeni government’s desires, but there is hardly a one-to-one correspondence in the size of our presence and its effective political profile. AQAP, which claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, already seeks to attack Americans; it will not be appeased by the absence of conventionally organized U.S. ground troops in Yemen. Yemenis themselves are now associating their government’s attacks, in which civilians are being killed, with American backing.
Trying to play this game without “skin” in it is likely to backfire on us and on our partner in Yemen, the Saleh government. In the coming months, that already-weak government will face a cadre of American advisers urging it to do things that make it more and more unpopular. Three other foreign governments – in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia – will be bringing cash and looking for opportunities that may conflict directly with the course we have chosen, including competition for Saleh’s favor and loyalty. Iran will continue to jockey for a surrogate foothold on the peninsula and will find our commitment there a made-to-order front on which to oppose and confound the U.S.
The latter factor alone ought to prompt formation of the interagency task force proposed on Jan. 14 by Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch. But our administration’s emerging reliance on targeted “leadership” strikes – now to be conducted by proxy in Yemen – is also widening an uncomfortable gap between its actual policy and the ideal of constructive use of all forms of national power. There is a real risk of doing just enough to enrage AQAP and the Yemeni populace but not enough to improve conditions and promote a long-term favorable outcome. Now is the time to mount a more deliberate approach.
Frederick Kagan and Christopher Harnisch have a useful think piece in the Wall Street Journal today on applying “smart power” in Yemen. Their series of excellent points culminates in the suggestion of Yemen as the venue in which to test a prototype multiagency task force designed to wield all the elements of national power — diplomatic, informational, military, and economic — in the effort to produce stability in Yemen and immunize it against use by al-Qaeda. “Despite years of talk about the need to develop this kind of capability in the State Department or elsewhere in Washington,” they point out, “it does not exist. It must be built now, and quickly.”
Kagan and Harnisch are right that the question of U.S. involvement in Yemen is not whether we will be involved but how. Their case is strong that our effort should be a multiagency one, rather than expanding from its current minimal level on the traditional model of military intervention. But however we organize it, the key to engaging with Yemen is understanding what we are walking into. Yemen’s internal battle is not being fought in a geopolitical vacuum, and our intervention there has the potential to turn very quickly into a proxy confrontation with other regional actors.
Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the most obvious one, along with Iran, which arms the Shia “Houthi” rebels against Yemen’s central government. But an increased level of U.S. effort is likely to draw in other actors, like Somalia’s radical al-Shabaab terror group, which promised last week to send fighters to Yemen in support of the Houthi rebels. This is a legitimate threat; Iran and Eritrea keep al-Shabaab armed, and maritime traffic between Somalia and Yemen is routine and very hard to interdict.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in Yemeni stability, meanwhile, is direct and proprietary. Riyadh is concerned about incursions into its territory, of course, but is equally concerned about Iran — or other outside powers — gaining influence over Yemen. Yemen’s location brings the most significant of suitors to its door: Russia and China are the two top suppliers of arms to the Saleh regime, and at the end of December, both of them capped decades of extensive involvement in Yemen with major financial assistance and cooperation agreements. We are not the only great power proposing to influence events in Yemen with monetary aid and military cooperation; in fact, we’re at the back of the line. Russia was reported a year ago to be planning to re-establish its Cold War–era naval base on Yemen’s Socotra Island and will not remain passive in the face of a U.S. policy adopted on the energetic lines proposed by Kagan and Harnisch.
Yemen is more than a poor, unstable nation that makes a natural hideout for al-Qaeda; it is, due to its location, a geostrategic prize. As the Nigerian airplane bomber demonstrated, we must increase our involvement there. This is an opportunity, not just a regrettable necessity, for both Yemen and us — if we approach it with positive objectives in mind. Succeeding there will inevitably have the effect of sidelining Iran and Russia, and we will need to be prepared for their reactions. We might even be able to achieve a limited partnership with the Russians if we avoid harboring illusions about their objectives. As Kagan and Harnisch suggest, a Yemen intervention looks like a natural fit for a high-level multiagency task force, as opposed to one centered mainly on military or intelligence activities. The “measure of effectiveness” for that task force would be its success in defining U.S. interests proactively rather than reactively, and in preparing us to deal with the interests already being actively asserted by third parties.
There seemed to be both a bureaucratic and an analytical “disconnect” in the posture communicated by the Obama administration yesterday on the Christmas airliner bombing. On the bureaucratic side, we heard a lot about processing intelligence faster and better, but nothing about executive accountability or improved criteria for the “no-fly list” except the promise of further review. Even more disquieting was the chief analytical point made both in the published White House report and in the oral comments of Obama’s officials: that our intelligence community had not realized the extent to which al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had graduated from an “aspirational” to an “operational” terrorist group.
Forget, for the moment, whether the intelligence community ought to have realized it. The more fundamental question is why keeping a traveler with known terrorist associations off a passenger jet should have been contingent on intelligence believing his specific group to have gone beyond the “aspirational” level. In the simplest analytical terms, the main way in which we figure out which groups have become operational, as opposed to aspirational, is seeing them mount attacks. Waiting on that level of proof, rather than acting earlier and on more general suspicion, is a very dangerous approach.
There is no indication from the White House, however, of an intention to change that approach. Our analytical delay in recognizing AQAP as operational is instead being offered as a central reason for the failure – as if there were no impetus to act, in a given situation, without such recognition. The nature of the threat should convince us otherwise, of course: terrorist activity will never be so distinctive and detectable that we can afford to dismiss as definitive the absence of indicators. We must acknowledge, moreover, that in Abdulmutallab’s case, there was no absence of indicators; rather, there was a ridiculously comprehensive list of indicators. Apparently the only thing missing was the intelligence community’s judgment that AQAP had become operational.
The lesson from Abdulmutallab’s bombing attempt is that our own criteria for action are creating a serious vulnerability for us. I am far less interested in which counterterrorism officials took vacation time after the Christmas Day attack than in the dangerous implications of this complacent security posture. This basic confusion about the urgency our suspicion ought to have – this, right here – is what needs to be corrected. If it is not, American lives will remain hostage to an overly bureaucratic approach to national security.
Yesterday President Obama declared that in light of the “unsettled situation” in Yemen, he will not be transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to that country. At the same time, Obama declared:
But make no mistake: We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
On the surface, that sounds like a persuasive case. Here’s why it’s not.
While the presence of Guantanamo Bay is used as a “recruiting tool” for al-Qaeda, it’s important to understand that, as Charles Krauthammer points out here, al-Qaeda’s grievances against America are almost endless. Like a game of Whack-A-Mole, if we got rid of one grievance, it would be replaced by another, and another, and another. Indeed, if Gitmo were closed, does anyone seriously think that it would satiate the demands of militant jihadists like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri? Would it make any difference in their war on us – or make it less likely that they could recruit people like the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks?
We are not dealing with rational state-to-state actors with whom we can negotiate reasonable demands; rather, we are dealing with Islamic fanatics who want to cut our throats and watch us bleed and watch us die. Closing Gitmo won’t change that. The roots of their hatred for America go much deeper than that.
It’s worth bearing in mind that in his 1996 fatwa, “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” bin Laden said the latest indignity against Islam – “one of the worst catastrophes to befall the Muslims since the death of the Prophet” – was the presence of American and coalition troops in Saudi Arabia. And a 1998 fatwa cited grievances against America that included sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and “serv[ing] the Jews’ petty state [Israel].” At that time, those were the “recruiting tools” for al-Qaeda. New ones emerge whenever it is convenient for al-Qaeda. And of course the attacks on 9/11 came before we were detaining any Islamic terrorists in Guantanamo Bay.
President Obama has convinced himself that closing Guantanamo Bay is of crucial, and perhaps decisive, importance in our war against jihadism. That is self-delusion on a large scale and something we have seen before (witness Obama’s statement during the campaign that meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions might well convince the Iranian regime to fundamentally change its behavior). More than that, it means that on some basic level the president still does not understand the true nature of this struggle, of what is driving it, and what will be needed to eventually prevail in it.
If and when Obama finally does get around to closing Guantanamo Bay, he will discover how insignificant an issue it has been for jihadists. Militant Islamists will want to murder us as much then as they do now.
I recall visiting Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago and being briefed by Saudi officials on their program to reeducate and rehabilitate Islamist extremists in their prisons. The program had long been seen as a model effort; it influenced a similar program created in the U.S. detention system in Iraq that is now being replicated in Afghanistan. But recent events suggest the Saudi program was not all it was cracked up to be.
As the Financial Times notes, “The revelation that two of the alleged leaders of the plot to blow up a US passenger jet were released by a Saudi militant rehabilitation centre has thrown a renewed spotlight on the programme and the kingdom’s response to terrorism.” That includes Said bin Ali al-Shihri, second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Overall, the FT reports, 120 inmates from Guantanamo were released to the Saudis under the Bush administration. The result? The paper quotes Chris Boucek of the Carnegie Middle East program: “Of the Guantánamo prisoners, about 26 are wanted, in custody or killed – it is about [a] 20 per cent failure rate.”
That should be of great concern. The Obama administration is right to suspend repatriations of detainees to Yemen; perhaps it should suspend sending them to Saudi Arabia, as well. The Saudis have done an impressive job of cracking down on terrorists within the kingdom, but the suspicion remains that they deal with some of these troublemakers by encouraging them to emigrate to countries like Yemen or Pakistan, thereby exacerbating the problems there — and potentially here in the United States as well. The real issue is not the fate of Gitmo; it is whether we are locking up dangerous terrorists, whether on Cuban or American soil. Continued detainee releases — which, it should be noted, started under the Bush administration — are endangering our safety.
In a few hours, Obama went from not wanting to point fingers to labeling the intelligence community as the root of the Christmas Day bombing fiasco. The New York Times reports:
President Obama said Tuesday that the United States government had sufficient information to uncover the terror plot to bring down an airplane on Christmas Day, but intelligence officials “failed to connect those dots” that would have prevented the young Nigerian man from boarding the plane in Amsterdam.The Obama administration also suspended the transfer of detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay to Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there and the rising terror threats emanating in the country. Only days before the attempted bombing on Christmas, the United States sent six detainees back to Yemen. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence, it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had,” Mr. Obama said after a two-hour meeting with his national security team at the White House. He added, “We have to do better, we will do better and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.”
But again, Obama’s actions never quite match his rhetoric, even the newer and more improved variety. As the Times dryly notes, “His remarks suggested that he was standing by his top national security officials, including those whose agencies failed to communicate with one another.” And although he won’t for now be repopulating the terrorist ranks in Yemen with any more Guantanamo detainees, he’s still bent on closing that facility. Why? We hear the same recycled campaign lines and the same unproven and increasingly unbelievable talking points:
We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda. In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And, as I’ve always said, we will do so — we will close the prison in a manner that keeps the American people safe and secure.
Like health care, he told the base he would get it done, and it’s not coming off the list, now matter how many practical and political barriers remain. And as for his claim that we are shutting it down in a manner that keeps us safe, we know that simply isn’t true. In this instance, we have one or more detainees linked to the plot, and we know, although the Obami have been stingy on disclosure, that we have a significant recidivism problem. And really, how long are we going to buy into the “recruiting tool” argument? (America’s relationship with Israel is no doubt a tool for jihadist recruitment so. . . Well, better not go there.) Any word on a review of the interrogation procedures employed in this instance (with the potential that more dots will be lost when we don’t ask the right questions and get every bit of data we can from one of these terrorists)? Any sign that a multi-year public trial for KSM – the mother of all “recruitment tools” — might be reconsidered? Nope.
One thing is certain: the Obami realize the political peril they are in. The rhetoric becomes more robust and the tone more serious with each day. But until those words are matched by action, the American people have every right to be concerned that the president still has not grasped the nature of our enemy and is reluctant to implement policies commensurate with the risk we face.
In his remarkably unenthusiastic and perfunctory appearance yesterday (couldn’t he at least have shaved or put on a tie?), Obama uttered this line: “This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.” Huh? Is he really an isolated extremist? (An extremist what, by the way? The word the president dares not speak except in praise: “Islamic.”) An avalanche of news reports suggests that the bomber has some connection to al-Qaeda.
While cautioning against speculation about the exact role of released Guantanamo detainees, Tom Joscelyn explains that “we know the following: [the al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula] has claimed responsibility for the attack and this is consistent with other evidence, including Abdulmutallab’s own admissions. Some of AQAP’s most senior positions are held by former Gitmo detainees, so there is a strong possibility that they played a role in this attack.” In its statement, AQAP suggests this was anything but an “isolated extremist” and promises more attacks on Americans.
So why is the president spouting the “isolated extremist” line? Well, it fits nicely with the criminal-justice model upon which the president is fixated — lone suspect, read him his rights, try him in civilian court, etc. But does this line bear any resemblance to reality? Increasingly, Obama’s utterances seem divorced from facts readily available to the public. The public must be wondering what the president is talking about and why he keeps saying things that just aren’t so.
The differences are greater than the similarities, but somehow the Saudi decision to send exiled politician Nawaz Sharif back to Pakistan on an airplane belonging to King Abdullah reminds me of the Germans’ decision to transport V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back to Russia in a sealed railway car in 1917. Winston Churchill famously wrote of the Germans: “It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus into Russia.”
The German hope that Lenin would launch a revolution that would undermine the czarist regime fighting Germany was fully realized. But, while the short-term consequences were extremely favorable to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded by the new Bolshevik regime, took Russia out of the war and granted Germany huge territorial concessions), in the long term, the German move backfired. The Communist regime proved to be a more formidable and ruthless adversary to Germany than its czarist predecessor had been. By 1945 Russian soldiers were wandering through the ruins of Berlin, thanks to an offensive overseen by Lenin’s successor.
Will the Saudi move to send Sharif to Pakistan backfire as badly? Probably not. But it could still have negative repercussions.
The Saudis are more comfortable with Nawaz Sharif, an Islamic conservative who tried to impose sharia law during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990′s, than with Benazir Bhutto, a liberal, pro-Western woman. From the Saudi perspective, a woman shouldn’t be driving a car, much less running a country, especially not an Islamic country. No doubt the Saudis were alarmed by the sight of Bhutto returning to Pakistan with American help, and they wanted to get “their” candidate back into the political arena. Significantly, Sharif had spent the past eight years living on Saudi soil, while Bhutto spent her wilderness years in the freer air of Dubai and London.