The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.
The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”
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.
Many of Chuck Hagel’s more vocal supporters have trumpeted his supposed anti-war credentials: He was against the Iraq war (after he was for it) and he was a skeptic about the Afghan war (again, after he was for it). Let’s put aside the fact that while senators can blow with the wind, the job of the defense secretary isn’t to abandon conflict when the winds of war change, but to adjust strategy in order regain momentum, fulfill the mission, and achieve the best results for U.S. national security.
There are plenty of mistakes to go around in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban government are not among them. What drove up the cost of the conflicts in both countries was not the initial military action, but rather all the nation building in which the United States subsequently engaged. While diplomats and politicians speak loftily of soft-power and development, the truth is that neither worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony here, of course, is that while Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker have endorsed Hagel, they were the ones most responsible for the prolongation of the Iraq mission with their decision to scrap plans for a provisional government prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (and, no, despite the nonsense in the press, pre-war plans did not envision anointing Ahmad Chalabi as Iraqi leader). Had the United States exited Iraq in 2003, Iraq would not look much different than it does today. Likewise, if the United States abandons Afghanistan—as it seems the Obama administration is wont to do—it will simply return that country to the dark days of its civil war.
Presenting his nominee for secretary of defense yesterday, President Obama began with a self-congratulatory assessment of his own national security record, asserting he had protected American security “by ending the war in Iraq, and beginning a transition in Afghanistan.”
As Bret Stephens notes in the Wall Street Journal, it was President Bush whose surge in Iraq (against the advice of Senators Obama, Kerry and Hagel) ended that war, and whose status of forces agreement with Iraq could have led to a long-term U.S. security relationship, had President Obama not fumbled it. In Afghanistan, Obama approved a 3/4 surge, announcing it with a speech setting a time limit and asserting the country he really wanted to build was his own. He will “transition” next year without a victory. In that regard, it may be useful to recall President Bush’s December 1, 2008 interview with Charlie Gibson:
The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.
Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”
The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.
Last week, as Max Boot wrote here, Iraqi security forces took into custody guards employed by Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, an Iraqi Sunni Arab. Issawi was a former member of the fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party and subsequently formed his own party which, in the last elections, ran under the banner of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya list. The arrest of Issawi’s guards touched off a series of protests in Al-Anbar and other Sunni-dominated areas. Max called the arrest of the body guard a sign of “Maliki’s Dangerous Sectarian Agenda.”
It would be wrong to give Maliki a free pass to do whatever he likes, but it is as dangerous to label legal action against prominent Sunni Arabs automatically illegitimate and driven by sectarianism. To do so would be to give some Sunni Arab Iraqi figures a free pass to conduct terror. In effect, such blind sectarian criticism of Maliki plays into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Large, noisy demonstrations have flared across Anbar Province in recent days to protest what is widely perceived to be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s witch-hunt against Iraq’s Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki’s security force raided Issawi’s compound and arrested 10 of his bodyguards–following the same M.O. that led last year to Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi being convicted of murder in absentia after his bodyguards were allegedly tortured. (Hashemi has fled to Turkey.)
Maliki insists the security forces are simply following the law and investigating credible allegations that Issawi, like Hashemi, has been involved in terrorism. As it happens, a friend has provided me with a letter that General Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wrote to Maliki in 2010. The letter (which is in Arabic) says that U.S. intelligence agencies have thoroughly investigated the charges against Issawi and found them to be uncorroborated. In the murky world of Iraqi politics, where courts are corrupt and government agencies often sectarian, this is about as convincing an exoneration as Issawi could get–coming as it did at a time when the U.S. still had a substantial military and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq, something that is no longer the case.
The death of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf will call up, for many Americans, a certain nostalgia for a supposedly better time when we actually “won” wars. The Gulf War of 1991 was, after all, the last truly feel-good war that America has had—the last one that ended in a victory parade back home. But of course on slightly closer examination the definitive nature of the Gulf War—once so obvious—becomes decidedly fuzzy.
The war was a clear-cut victory only in the sense that Kuwait was liberated. But the good feelings deriving from this outcome were dissipated in large measure when Saddam Hussein remained in power and used his remaining military forces to crush Shiite and Kurd rebellions that had been encouraged by the United States. The U.S., in turn, was to spend the next decade enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq—and then in 2003 George W. Bush launched another war to finish what his father had started. That war, in turn, would drag on for nearly another decade and end inconclusively with a unilateral American withdrawal.
While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.
Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.
Remember the “Axis of Evil,” George W. Bush’s much-mocked phrase to refer to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq? Admittedly it was a bit of a stretch to suggest that all three nations were cooperating. But there is a new axis which is, alas, much more grounded in reality: Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Their cooperation has already borne fruit in one dangerous area: the development of ballistic missiles.
In recent weeks North Korea has tested a missile and Syria has fired Scud missiles at its own people. The two missile programs are closely related, largely through Iranian intermediaries. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian experts being on hand to help the North Koreans with their missile launch. In the past there has been credible evidence of North Korea exporting missiles to Iran and Syria. Now, at least in the case of Iran, the help seems to be going the other way.
A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:
When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.
Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.
In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.
It is hardly surprising to read that the flow of Iranian arms continues to reach Syria via Iraqi airspace. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promised the Obama administration that he would inspect aircraft overflying his country, but his promise has proved hollow. As the New York Times reports:
The Iraqis have inspected only two [flights], most recently on Oct. 27. No weapons were found, but one of the two planes that landed in Iraq for inspection was on its way back to Iran after delivering its cargo in Syria.
Adding to the United States’ frustrations, Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, American officials say, citing classified reports by American intelligence analysts.
One can only wonder how the situation would have been different if the Obama administration had made a serious effort to continue an American military presence in Iraq post-2011. If a Status of Forces Agreement had been negotiated, Iraqi airspace would now be patrolled by the U.S. Air Force–and the Iranian Quds Force would lose a main route for arming its Syrian allies. Bashar Assad might well have fallen already if that were the case, and thousands of Syrian lives might have been saved.
Kim and Fred Kagan have a typically trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post today on the minimal force requirements necessary for post-2014 Afghanistan. Bottom line up front: They argue a force of at least 30,000 personnel will be needed for a bare-bones counterterrorism and advisory mission.
They begin by assuming that the U.S. will need three major bases outside Kabul–in Jalalabad, Khost, and Kandahar. Each base will require a battalion of ground troops, primarily for protection, and a battalion of combat-aviation to enable drone strikes and operations by Special Mission Units. That adds up to two brigades, or 10,000 troops. Add in 5,000 or so logisticians to keep those bases supplied and you’re up to 15,000. To prevent the areas around those bases from going to hell, it will also be necessary to send some advisors to the local Afghan army and police headquarters. That adds another 6,000 or so personnel. If you add in “the security forces for a base near Kabul, a theater headquarters, route-clearance packages, theater logisticians and other ancillary units,” you are pushing “the requirement above 30,000.”
I was doing a post-doc and living in Jerusalem during the 2001-2002 terror campaign that preceded Operation Defensive Shield, a military campaign best remembered for the media’s false accusations of a “Jenin Massacre.” As the campaign ramped up, many journalist friends came to Israel to report for CNN, BBC, and other major networks. Sometimes we’d meet up for drinks afterwards and talk about work. I was surprised to learn that most paid “fixers” to work in Gaza.
Producers explained—privately—that the implication for not hiring a fixer was that not only would Fatah (at the time still in control of Gaza) and more extreme factions not grant interviews, but they would also not grant “protection.” The flip side of this, of course, was that networks were effectively paying for stories and were also self-censoring based on their fixers’ affiliation.
I largely agree with Max Boot’s post from Friday evening. Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq’s release from an Iraqi prison and apparent return to Lebanon is a rebuff for President Barack Obama. Certainly, his release is a sign of Iranian pressure on both Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally and on Iraq in general. While it’s easy to blame Maliki, with American forces withdrawn and so little ability to counter Iranian pressure, his options were limited. Certainly, he might have extradited Daqduq, but having been thrown to the Iranian wolves, doing so might have engendered a response Maliki feared more than Joe Biden’s bluster. For what it’s worth, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement here explaining its decision.
Let me say that I hope there is a Predator with Daqduq’s name on it. If a targeted assassination happens to take out his known associates, all the better. Let’s hope that the intelligence community has the ability to track Daqduq, and that Obama has the wherewithal to order such a strike. The alternative would be waiting around until, with tongue firmly in cheek, Islamist mobs again become enraged at a YouTube video and spontaneously conduct a man-made disaster.
The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.
The loathsome Ali Musa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who engineered the kidnapping and killing of five American soldiers in Iraq in 2007, is reportedly back in Beirut, no doubt basking in his new-found freedom to plan fresh terrorist outrages. His release from Iraqi custody, while not unexpected, is nevertheless dismaying. The U.S., after having released all other detainees, turned him over last to Iraqi custody in 2011 hoping against hope that the Iraqis could somehow be persuaded to keep him locked up. Fat chance.
What makes the whole situation really pathetic is that Vice President Biden called Prime Minister Maliki in recent days pleading for Daqduq not to be released. The fact that he was set free anyway is hardly a sign of Maliki’s respect for the rule of law. It is a sign of how little influence the U.S. now wields in Iraq and how much influence Iran now has. Daqduq, after all, was in Iraq working for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to train Shiite militants to attack U.S. personnel. His release is a big victory for Iran and a big defeat for the United States.
Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”
Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.
“What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down.” So said President Obama in Tuesday night’s debate. And he was speaking the truth, as readers of Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s fine new book The Endgame can attest, even though Obama was ostensibly committed in 2011 to maintaining a continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Gordon and Trainor note that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops he was willing to keep in Iraq. Commanders wanted more than 20,000 initially, but the president eventually was willing to provide fewer than 5,000. And he insisted on such strict conditions in Status of Forces negotiations—the Obama administration demanded that the Iraqi parliament ratify any grant of immunity to U.S. troops even though there was no legal or political requirement to do so—that Iraqi leaders got a clear signal that the U.S. wasn’t committed to their country. That made them less willing to compromise in negotiations. And Obama did not give enough time to those negotiations in any case—they only began in the middle of 2011 even though the last such negotiations, in 2008, had taken nearly a year. Then, when the negotiations ran into obstacles, Obama pulled the plug and trumpeted the return of the troops.
Seth has already noted one instance where President Obama sounded positively Bushesque in the third debate. Let me note another. It was when he bragged about his intervention in Libya, saying “that we were able to, without putting troops on the ground at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq, liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years. Got rid of a despot who had killed Americans and as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying America is our friend. We stand with them.”
Like Bush in Iraq, Obama was emphasizing the liberation of an oppressed Arab country and the resulting ties of friendship with its inhabitants, but–also like Bush–he was not focusing on what came after the dictator. In both Iraq and Libya the result has been chaos. The old security services have been dissolved and nothing has taken their place. In both cases the U.S. government has given little thought—and less commitment—to Phase IV, the post-overthrow part of the operation. The consequences of this failure have been less severe in Libya than in Iraq, but they have been bad enough—witness the attack that destroyed our consulate and killed our ambassador, and the destabilizing role that militias of various stripes continue to play in Libya.