Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

Will Mauritania be the New Terrorist Haven?

When it comes to the Middle East, Americans and Europeans are good at neither prediction nor threat assessment. The Middle East today looks very different from what anyone ever expected just two decades ago. In 1991, there was huge optimism in Washington when Secretary of State James Baker, capturing the momentum of the lightening quick victory in Operation Desert Storm, cobbled together the Madrid Conference, bringing together most of the Middle East’s most intractable foes (minus Iran) for the first time. That optimism culminated in 1993 with the Oslo Accords and the famous handshake between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn. Read More

When it comes to the Middle East, Americans and Europeans are good at neither prediction nor threat assessment. The Middle East today looks very different from what anyone ever expected just two decades ago. In 1991, there was huge optimism in Washington when Secretary of State James Baker, capturing the momentum of the lightening quick victory in Operation Desert Storm, cobbled together the Madrid Conference, bringing together most of the Middle East’s most intractable foes (minus Iran) for the first time. That optimism culminated in 1993 with the Oslo Accords and the famous handshake between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn.

Leaving Saddam in power was a huge mistake, however. Not only did he retrench himself, but it also gave Iran time to train and cultivate Iraqi Shi’ites who previously had comparatively little to do with their neighbor to the east. Meanwhile, the hope that diplomats and professional peace-processors placed in Arafat quickly proved naïve. Iraq and the Palestinian question became slow-burning fuses. They are real problems but, until the eruption of the Islamic State in the former, they remained essentially local problems.

How ironic it was that the two issues that soaked up so much diplomatic attention ended up being so peripheral to the real forces that would destabilize the region. Sure, partisans can debate the 2003 Iraq War, but what has happened in the Middle East in recent years is much bigger than Baghdad. Likewise, while the Palestinian-Israel conflict is an equally virulent obsession among activists or activists masquerading as journalists. No matter how much Americans may like to navel-gaze, and no matter how shrilly biased European officials may be on the issue, neither the Arab Spring nor the rise of al-Qaeda and its violent offshoots have had much if anything to do with questions over the fate of Jerusalem. For Bin Laden, Israel was an occasional talking point thrown into his “Mad Libs”-style rants. Simply put, the West is neither responsible for everything that occurs in the region nor can American and European bureaucrats wielding screwdrivers thousands of miles long be able to tweak policies and implement some magic formula.

Consider how unexpected events in the region have been over the past few years:

  • Popular uprisings have swept aside dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.
  • Civil war continues to rage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
  • Turkey and Qatar are catalysts of regional instability.
  • al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists continue to destabilize Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula
  • Mali, once scored by Freedom House as the most democratic majority Muslim country, remains chaotic after an al-Qaeda group seized its northern half until French forces drove them out.
  • There have been two successions in Saudi Arabia.
  • Kurdistan is on the verge of statehood.

If the Middle East were the Powerball Lottery, no one would have won the pot that would be worth billions by now. So what problem do policymakers ignore that might rear its ugly head on the horizon to the detriment of U.S. and European security? As a historian, I’m paid to predict the past, but in this case I’ll stick my neck out based simply on growing whispered concern in North Africa and Europe. The problem to watch is Mauritania.

A largely desert country wedged between Senegal and Morocco, Mauritania has the population of the Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area but spread over an area more than twice the size of California.

Diplomatically, Mauritania has been all over the map. It declared war on Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, but only joined the Arab League six years later. In 1999, however, Mauritania recognized Israel, becoming only the third Arab country (after Egypt and Jordan) to do so. That openness and moderation would not last long. On August 5, 2009, the current president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, overthrew the democratically elected leader and returned Mauritania largely into the geopolitical rejectionist camp.

Mauritania is also an Islamic Republic and culturally embraces some noxious practices. While Islamic State slavery is the stuff of headlines, slavery has long been rife in Mauritania, with the Arab Berbers victimizing the country’s black population. (When I was in Senegal in 1989, I visited refugee camps filled with black Mauritanian refugees fleeing the country).

The problem is not Mauritanian human rights or lack thereof, but rather poor governance coupled with lack of government control over broad swaths of the country mixed with loose weaponry pouring in from unsecured Libyan depots looted against the backdrop of Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, as well as militants who have poured into Mauritania to escape French intervention in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also has unfettered access to most of the country. In short, Mauritania increasingly resembles Fezzan, the southern portion of Libya that is a virtual Club Med for terrorists, smugglers, and weapons dealers. The government in Nouakchott is both unable and unwilling to crack down and control its territory. In short, Mauritania is now pre-9/11 Afghanistan, only with a greater number of terrorist groups calling it home. The next devastating attack on Europe or the United States might just as easily be planned in this West African country as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. The only difference between them is that Mauritania is much closer to both Europe and the United States.

The United States no more pays attention to Mauritania than the European Union concerns itself with Honduras, but just because a country is peripheral to U.S. interest and Washington largely defers policy to Europe doesn’t mean that country cannot pose a threat. Indeed, ask any European security professional, and Mauritania is the grave and growing threat that they have on their radar. It is the next domino to fall, but the culture of counter-terrorism and diplomacy in the White House today is to ignore threats until terrorists shed the blood of innocents.

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Who Will Be the First to Suggest Negotiating with Islamic State?

There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

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There’s an unfortunate tendency among American diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes. It becomes sophisticated in the minds of diplomats to transform terrorists that are pariahs one year into targets for diplomacy the next.

In Years of Upheaval, Kissinger ridiculed the notion of talking with terrorists. “We did not have a high incentive to advance the ‘dialogue’ with the PLO, as the fashionable phrase ran later,” he wrote, “not because of Israeli pressures but because of our perception of the American national interest.” He further explained how, “Before 1973, the PLO rarely intruded into international negotiations. In the 1972 communiqué ending Nixon’s Moscow summit, there was no reference to Palestinians, much less to the PLO…. The idea of a Palestinian state run by the PLO was not a subject for serious discourse.” In 1972, Black September, a PLO offshoot-proxy, attacked the Munich Olympics, and a year later, the National Security Agency heard PLO leader Yasir Arafat give the order to murder U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel who had been taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Khartoum. Simply put, you can’t get more pariah than that.

But, just six years later, Andrew Young, a civil rights hero whom Carter had appointed to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met secretly with Zehdi Terzi, the PLO’s representative at the UN, ostensibly to determine whether there was any formula by which the PLO would accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. The State Department had never authorized the meeting between Young and a PLO representative. When reprimanded, the defiant Young resigned. President Carter, true to form, privately blamed Israel for forcing the issue to a head. And while many conservatives lionize President Ronald Reagan for his moral clarity, it was at the tail end of the Reagan administration that the State Department—with Reagan National Security Council permission—began talking to PLO representatives.

The same lack of resolve holds true with Hamas. In 2003, Richard Haass, at the time director of policy planning at the State Department (and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations) dismissed any notion of talking to Hamas. Speaking on PBS Newshour, he said, “There are some groups out there you can negotiate with. You have to decide whether there are terms you can live with,” he explained. “But groups like Hamas … have political agendas that I would suggest are beyond negotiation. And for them…, there’s got to be an intelligence, a law enforcement, and a military answer.” Just three years later, however, he suddenly began to advocate for engagement with Hamas.

Haass’ turnaround was consistent with the Council on Foreign Relations’ informal role as the barometer of elite opinion, rather than its path breaker. Already, in 2005, the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway had argued that political power might moderate Hamas by forcing its accountability to a constituency, never mind that donations from terror sponsoring regimes insulate Hamas from popular accountability. Chris Patten, the European Union’s former chief diplomat, in a March 13, 2007 Financial Times op-ed, counseled forgetting Hamas’s past and starting anew, never mind that in the run-up to the elections, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar vowed, “We will join the Legislative Council with our weapons in our hands.” Jimmy Carter was just as willing to whitewash the record. He told NBC’s Meredith Vieira in January 2009, for example, that Hamas had upheld its ceasefire with Israel—seemingly unaware that the group had fired over 600 mortars and rockets into Israel the previous month. The next month, Paddy Ashdown and ten other former statesmen and politicians signed a letter published in The Times of London saying, “We have learnt first-hand that there is no substitute for direct and sustained negotiations with all parties to a conflict, and rarely if ever a durable peace without them. Isolation only bolsters hardliners and their policies of intransigence. Engagement can strengthen pragmatic elements and their ability to strike the hard compromises needed for peace.” Even Hillary Clinton got in on the act: Her State Department approved a direct meeting between diplomat Rachel Schneller and the Hamas representative in Lebanon. Through it all, had Hamas changed? No. Its charter still embraces genocide, and the group remains just as committed to terrorism, if not more so now that it knows it can act without losing diplomatic credibility.

As for Iran, Sohrab Ahmari’s “The 36-Year Project to Whitewash Iran” says it all. Seldom has a regime so intent in rhetoric and practice to murder Americans been given so many repeated free passes on it actions.

Time has even laundered Al Qaeda and it fellow travelers among proponents of engagement. Secretary of State Colin Powell was roundly ridiculed for suggesting outreach to “moderate Taliban” just months after 9/11, but that’s exactly what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently made the policy of the United States. As for Al Qaeda proper? It only took four years before the first academic researchers began suggesting dialogue with Al Qaeda. While a moderate Syrian opposition existed in the first months of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, it was quickly pushed aside, defeated, or co-opted by far more radical groups. The Nusra Front made no secret of its fealty to Al Qaeda. When the Islamic State went its own way, suddenly the Nusra Front looked moderate by comparison. Was it moderate? Absolutely not, but that has not stopped the Turkish government, whose counter-terrorism work the State Department still praises, from arming it. Members of the Syrian National Coalition, which the State Department supports, also advocate negotiation with the Nusra Front.

This brings us to the Islamic State. Far from degrading and defeating the group, President Obama’s strategy has at best been ineffective and at worst allowed the group space to grow. It has consolidated control over territory and has begun brainwashing a generation of children. Some among a more radical fringe have already suggested negotiations with the group. While most analysts would recognize the futility and ridiculousness of such a position given the murderous ideology which the Islamic State embraces, the absence of moral clarity among diplomats means that it’s only a matter of time until the Islamic State becomes a fact of life in the diplomatic mind, and some ambitious diplomat or Nobel Prize-seeking Secretary of State quietly suggests letting bygones be bygones and insisting that realism mandates talking to the enemy. Such a scenario might sound ridiculous today, but it’s the only outcome of a rudderless, valueless foreign policy. After all, if the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Taliban, chemical weapons-wielding Syrian regime, and even Nusra Front can become partners, then there is no behavior so evil as to force permanent pariah status. That is, unless both Republicans and Democrats in Congress recognize just how sick U.S. diplomatic culture as become and re-assert their oversight role in earnest, use the power of the purse to constrain the State Department, and legislate to set the parameters of a more responsible policy.

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Obama Wins Small Victories While Suffering Big Defeats Against Terrorists

As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

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As the Wall Street Journal editorialists note, the Obama administration has a few small wins—emphasize small—to celebrate in the past week against terrorism. A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while US F-15s over Libya may have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Al Qaeda renegade who in 2013 led the capture of an Algerian gas plant, a terrorist operation in which 38 foreign hostages were killed. Meanwhile Kurdish YPG guerrillas, in cooperation with other moderate fighters, seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, an important border crossing point with Turkey, from ISIS. If we extend our time frame a bit longer, we can add in the earlier success of Iraqi forces in seizing Tikrit from ISIS and in holding onto at least part of Beiji, an important oil refinery location in Iraq, as well as the Delta Force raid into Syria which killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf.

These are all nice little victories. Wuhayshi and Belmokhtar certainly deserved to die, as punishment for their crimes, and it’s good to see any towns liberated from ISIS’ murderous grips. But weighed on the scales against all of the victories that terrorists have been enjoying lately these seem like small change.

ISIS has taken over roughly half of Syria and a third of Iraq, most recently capturing the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. It has also expanded its operations to Libya, where an ISIS offshoot is battling with other extremists for control of ungoverned territory, as well as to Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, and other countries which it has ambitiously declared to be provinces of its caliphate. Meanwhile the Al Nusra Front, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has helped to take Idlib and is expanding its operations elsewhere in Syria, while al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has succeeded in exerting significant territorial control in Yemen. In Afghanistan the Taliban and Haqqani Network remain as active as ever, as do Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, etc. There is even a newish Al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which is threatening to unleash another reign of terror in countries such as India and Bangladesh—a threat to take seriously given the large Muslim population on the subcontinent.

And don’t forget the flip side of all of these Sunni jihadist groups—Shiite jihadist groups, under the thumb of Iran, which now the most powerful actors in the ostensibly government-controlled regions of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, all of which are becoming virtual provinces of Greater Iran.

Sad to say, none of these alarming trends will be shaken in the slightest by the death of a couple of terrorist commanders or the loss of a town or two. Given the way that terrorist groups have been expanding into the vacuum of so many lands across the Greater Middle East, it takes a willful denial of reality to claim that we are winning what used to be known as the war on terror.

The most that can be said is that we have enjoyed some success in avoiding a repeat of 9/11 on our soil; while terror attacks such as the Boston marathon bombing have occurred, they have mercifully been on a smaller if still terrible scale. But alas we can expect more attacks on the homeland as well as on our interests abroad because ISIS, the most high-profile terrorist group of the moment, is ramping up its international operations. As this graphic shows it has already been linked to numerous attacks from Australia to Texas, and we can expect more in the future.

If the Obama administration has an effective way to fight back, it has been carefully concealed for the moment. It is important to break ISIS’ hold over its “caliphate” in order to dispel its mystique and to lessen its attraction to foreign jihadists. But the most effective ground forces to oppose ISIS in Syria are the YPG, which, even if we ignore their ties to the PKK Marxist terrorist group, are still limited in what they can do—they cannot take and hold non-Kurdish areas. The same goes for the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite militias which have the most effective counter-ISIS forces in Iraq: their reach is effectively limited to areas occupied by their own groups.

Defeating ISIS, a Qaeda and their ilk will require an ambitious agenda far beyond any developed or even contemplated, as far as I can tell, by the Obama administration, which prefers to bomb from long range in a way that is destined to remain ineffectual.  There is no American strategy that I can see that will seriously shake the hold that these terrorists groups have been developing on ever-more extensive territory. And that means that recent successes, however welcome, are likely to be inconsequential.

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More Evidence Turkey Supports Al Qaeda

Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

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Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

Both the Iraqi government and the Syrian Kurds who have done more than anyone else to fight the Islamic State have long complained that Turkey was not only turning a blind eye to the most radical groups in Syria, but also actively supporting them.

First, there’s the passive support. If Turkey wanted to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, it could simply tweak its visa rules for those countries that are the source to require visas for those under the age of 40. This wouldn’t impact most businessmen, but would stop the impulsive Jihadi. It could stop allowing thousands of foreign fighters to traverse its territory virtually unmolested. Stopping two dozen, when more than 100 times as many get a free pass, isn’t counter-terrorism; it is optics, equivalent to when Pakistan arrests a Taliban shadow governor, all the while supporting the rest. It could stop extending its medical services to wounded terrorists, all the while denying care to pro-democracy protestors beaten by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Brown Shirts.

Then, there is more active Turkish support, including allegations that Turkey has armed and supplied al Qaeda elements in Syria. These accusations are now more fire than smoke. One Islamic State commander, for example, has acknowledged Turkey’s material help. There is also documentary evidence about the relationship.

Last month, Turkey arrested 17 Turkish soldiers who intercepted an arms shipment destined to radicals in Syria. The arms shipment had been authorized by Turkish intelligence. Now, a Turkish judge has issued an arrest warrant for five more who sought to prevent the Turkish supply of weaponry to al Qaeda. So, here we have a titular NATO ally, which instead of arresting al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists instead throws the book at those seeking to stop their supply. Welcome to the reality of Turkey, an undeniable sponsor of terror and a force for instability and sectarian hatred throughout the region. Diplomats can put lipstick on a pig, but there’s no denying this pig.

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The U.S. Still Has Options on Syria

Last week I had a discussion with Khaled Khoja, a physician who is currently president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces—i.e., the government in exile. He tried hard, as you might expect to draw some hope out of a bleak situation in which more than 225,000 of his countrymen have been killed and millions more displaced from their homes. He suggested, correctly I think, that the present strength of the Al Nusra Front (an Al Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS among the rebel forces is not a sign that most Syrians want to be ruled by extreme jihadists. Rather it has come about because those groups have more funding and arms than their moderate rebels. As a result, he argued, many relatively moderate fighters have migrated to the Al Nusra Front, in particular, but that if the extremists were to lose strength and the moderates to gain it, many fighters would opportunistically switch to the stronger, more pro-Western side.

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Last week I had a discussion with Khaled Khoja, a physician who is currently president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces—i.e., the government in exile. He tried hard, as you might expect to draw some hope out of a bleak situation in which more than 225,000 of his countrymen have been killed and millions more displaced from their homes. He suggested, correctly I think, that the present strength of the Al Nusra Front (an Al Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS among the rebel forces is not a sign that most Syrians want to be ruled by extreme jihadists. Rather it has come about because those groups have more funding and arms than their moderate rebels. As a result, he argued, many relatively moderate fighters have migrated to the Al Nusra Front, in particular, but that if the extremists were to lose strength and the moderates to gain it, many fighters would opportunistically switch to the stronger, more pro-Western side.

What would it take to lessen the appeal of the extremists? He argued that it is imperative for the U.S. and its allies to back the establishment of “safe zones” where the National Coalition could establish a functioning government on Syrian soil free from the threat of air attacks from Bashar Assad’s murderous regime. He argued, too, for the West to do more to train and arm the Free Syrian Army and especially to provide it with anti-aircraft weapons.

Khoja is right and he should be listened to, now more than ever. The Assad regime has failed to retake Aleppo and it has lost Idlib. There are signs of dissension at the top. As the Washington Post’s astute editorialists note: “The shift of momentum could create an opportunity for the United States and its allies to leverage the change of rulers in Syria that President Obama first endorsed nearly four years ago. But it could also lead to disaster, if the crumbling regime is replaced by the jihadist forces of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, as already occurred in eastern Syria.”

To seize the opportunity and avert another catastrophe, the Post advocates “a U.S.-backed safe zone, along with an expanded military training program,” in short pretty much the same things Khoja is advocating. It would have been far better if the administration had done this years ago but even now it’s not too late. Even these modest steps are hardly sufficient to ensure that a Syria free of Assad does not continue to be a haven for extremists; that would require a far more ambitious commitment to an international peacekeeping force that is unlikely under the present circumstances. But even the more modest proposals for safe zones and enhanced training can help to shrink the extremists’ zone of control. It would also be the first step toward creating a coherent U.S. policy toward Syria, something that, as the Post notes, does not now exist.

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Is the Tide Turning Back Against Assad?

After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

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After an uprising began in Syria in March 2011, the expectation was that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. But he managed to hang onto power with surprising tenacity, thanks in no small part to significant assistance from Iran and its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. In more recent months the conventional wisdom had gone from “Assad’s a goner” to “Assad’s a winner.” But that latter judgment may be premature.

The recent fall of Idlib city and much of its surrounding countryside to rebel fighters suggests that Assad’s power may be waning. “After seizing most of Idlib province in recent weeks,” the Washington Post notes, “the rebels are pressing south toward the government strongholds of Hama and Homs and are threatening the ­Assad family’s coastal heartland of Latakia.” Other signs also point to a regime not as strong as commonly believed: notably the failure of earlier government offensives against Aleppo and rebel strongholds in the south.

These setbacks have been accompanied by rumors of high-level dissension. As the Post notes: “On Friday, pro-government news outlets reported the death of political security director Rustom Ghazaleh, a longtime Assad stalwart, after months of rumors that he had fallen out with the regime, had been badly beaten up by a rival and was languishing in a hospital. The reports followed the firing last month of the military intelligence chief, Rafiq Shehadeh, another inner-circle loyalist. Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.” Even Assad’s family appears to be cracking to some extent. One of Bashar’s cousins was fired as head of security in Damascus and fled the country while another cousin was detained “amid rumors that he had been plotting a coup.”

No less an observer than Robert Ford, an astute Arabist who was the last U.S. ambassador to Damascus, writes: “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.”

Of course one must stay skeptical about such reports, which sound so suspiciously similar to reports from 2011-2012 which prematurely wrote a political obituary for Assad. But even if it’s true that the end is nigh for the Assad regime, that’s hardly unalloyed good news.

True, no one can shed any tears over the potential demise of a government that has been responsible for murdering more than 200,000 of its own citizens. But there is a big question as to what comes next.

The losses the government has been suffering lately are not at the hands of the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army, which has been all but abandoned by the United States. Rather, recent military victories against Assad are ascribed to a new rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest. It includes some of the more moderate battalions that make up the Free Syrian Army but its core is the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Its primary patrons are not the Americans or Europeans but rather Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, all Islamist states. Replacing an Iranian-backed regime in Damascus with an al-Qaeda regime would hardly be cause for celebration, even if ISIS, the other major Islamist army in Syria, is even more radical than al-Nusra.

There was nothing inevitable about the triumph of the extremists—it has come about primarily because President Obama missed his opportunity to support the more moderate rebels in a more sustained way earlier in the conflict. If anything, the potential crumbling of the Assad regime should be a wakeup call to the administration that it needs to step up its aid to the Free Syrian Army and to create liberated enclaves, protected by American airpower, where the moderate Syrian opposition, which has been recognized as the true government by the U.S. and its allies, can start to rule on Syrian territory.

But realistically even such steps would not be enough to significantly alter the balance of power on the ground in the short term. If the Assad regime collapses in the near future, it’s hard to imagine the power vacuum being filled by anyone other than Sunni jihadists—unless the international community is prepared to intervene with a large-scale peacekeeping force, a la Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor. But if the U.S. and its allies failed to send such a force to Libya after Gaddafi’s downfall (as I urged at the time), it’s unlikely to do so now in the far more dangerous circumstances of Syria where foreign forces would be ripe for attack not only from the al-Nusra Front and Assad’s remaining champions but also from ISIS.

It’s hard to imagine Syria—already a war-ravaged land that has become a magnet for foreign jihadists, both Shiite and Sunni—getting any worse after Assad’s downfall. But it’s also hard to imagine it getting any better unless the West steps up to do more than it has been willing to do for the past four years.

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The al-Qaeda Hostages and Deteriorating U.S. Intel

Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

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Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”

The only people who might be remotely surprised by this mistake would be those technologists and futurists who once argued that advances in computing power would make possible “perfect information awareness,” thereby turning war into a sterile targeting exercise. The U.S. military in the 1990s to some extent bought into this orthodoxy, which became known as “network-centric operations.” Although the limitations of information technology were brutally exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where no number of precision airstrikes could defeat determined insurgencies, there has remained a political vogue for “precise,” “surgical” airstrikes—now done by drones rather than by manned aircraft. This has, in fact, become the preferred Obama way of warfare.

There is no question that drone strikes are a useful tool of counter-terrorism policy, but the mistaken killing of the two hostages shows the limits of our intelligence. It would be all too easy to kill the enemy if we knew precisely where he was, but we don’t—insurgents like to hide in plain sight and it takes a lot of work to distinguish them from the civilian population. To be sure, high-tech reconnaissance and surveillance can enable this process but human-intelligence is necessary too, both the kind acquired by spies and the kind acquired by interrogators.

As it happens, the Joint Special Operations Command under Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Bill McRaven became very, very good at doing battlefield interrogations without using torture. It was their success in getting detainees to talk that enabled JSOC operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that is now a lot harder to pull off because the U.S. is no longer holding detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have transitioned the detention process over to the Iraqis and Afghans, with predictably dismal results. Many hardened killers who have blood on their hands were set free.

Moreover, Obama is refusing to send any new detainees to Guantanamo and continuing George W. Bush’s policy of releasing detainees, roughly a third of whom return to their old tricks. Finally Obama, like all presidents, is averse to putting American troops on the ground in harm’s way. Thus the strong preference for U.S. counter-terrorism strikes is to kill rather than to capture terrorists. But dead men tell no tales. The fact that we are not capturing and interrogating more bad guys means, inevitably, that the quality of our intelligence is going down, thus raising the likelihood of mistakes such as the ones that killed hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is fine for Westerns, but in the real world live terrorists are far more useful than dead ones.

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What Obama Should Be Apologizing For

President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

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President Obama stepped before the cameras this morning to apologize for the deaths of two Western hostages, including one American, in a U.S. drone strike on an al-Qaeda target. Speaking in a dignified and sorrowful tone that marked a strong contrast with most of his press appearances, the president expressed profound regret about the deaths on behalf of the government and vowed that it would do its best not to repeat the mistake. While the families deserved to hear his apology, the rest of us do not. But the American people are owed an apology for something else. As we add to the total of Americans killed as a result of terrorism by a group we were informed by the Obama re-election team was on the run and finished, sometime before the president leaves office it would be far more appropriate for him to own up to the mistakes he made that have led us to a moment in history when Islamist terror is more dangerous than ever.

It’s important to give credit to the president for providing some transparency about the fate of both hostages. Going public with the news about the fact that the hostages were killed as a result of U.S. action was the right thing to do. So was the apology to the family. But, like his refusals to ransom other hostages held by terrorists, the president was right not to try to buy the freedom of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto and also correct to order the attack on an al-Qaeda stronghold even if the results of these decisions were tragic.

Second-guessing about specific operations is easy for critics but useless. No one seriously believes the strike would have been planned and approved had anyone known about the presence of the hostages. The only apologies truly needed for this incident should come from the terrorists who seized two innocent people—both aid workers who were in the region to help, not wage war—and are responsible for their deaths, no matter the origin of the bomb that ultimately killed them.

But any discussion about al-Qaeda must start and end with an honest evaluation of the administration’s counter-terrorism policy in the context of its broader foreign-policy goals. And it is here that apologies are warranted.

The president has taken a beating from some on the left as well as their unlikely libertarian allies on the right such as Senator Rand Paul for the extensive use of drones to kill terrorists. Those criticisms are largely unfounded. These are legitimate targets, and taking out these killers and their infrastructure is both necessary and justified.

The drone attacks are wrongly blamed for making the terrorists popular. As much as many in Pakistan and Afghanistan resent them, the factor that drives terror recruitment is the notion that they are prevailing in the struggle against the West, not resentment of successful attacks that prove they are not winning. But what isn’t working is the foreign policy that makes the context for military action and which has given the terrorists good reason to believe that they are succeeding.

We now know that administration decisions to pull out of Iraq precipitously rather than stay and negotiate a deal that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in the country facilitated the rise of ISIS. The same can be said for the president’s dithering about the civil war in Syria when decisive Western action in the opening months of the struggle probably also would have made it difficult for ISIS to establish a foothold there as well. In Afghanistan, the continued strength of the Taliban even after setbacks they experienced as a result of the surge the president ordered in his first term is largely due to Obama’s announcement of a pullout date for U.S. troops even as reinforcements were arriving.

The problem is that the president was so eager to declare wars over or ending that he forgot that the terrorists were not getting the memo about their being defeated. The same applies to al-Qaeda, whose defeat was supposed to be sealed with the death of Osama bin Laden, a centerpiece of the president’s reelection campaign rhetoric. Yet while the administration was trying to tell us that al-Qaeda was decimated or on the run or effectively out of business, it was continuing to dig in and expand. Now it appears that its affiliates are as strong or stronger than in bin Laden’s time. Combined with the efforts of their ISIS rivals, it’s clear terrorism is as great a threat to U.S. security as ever. Add in the ongoing activities of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Houthi in Yemen, all of which are prospering because of the active aid of Iran, a nation that is the object of the president’s efforts at détente, and the picture becomes even darker.

This is an administration that is more concerned with withdrawing from the Middle East than in showing that it will stay and fight until victory. The appeasement of Iran on the nuclear issue and the refusal of the president to insist that Iran stop supporting terror as part of the negotiations (indeed, his Democratic allies in the Senate successfully insisted that any accountability on terror be left out of the Corker-Menendez bill on the Iran deal) also undermine any notion that it is a priority.

It is that dismal situation and not a tragic if honorable failure to know that hostages might die with their terrorist captors in a drone strikes that merits a presidential apology.

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The Ineffective Campaign in Yemen

Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

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Almost a month ago, on March 25, the Saudis launched what they called Operation Decisive Storm to stop the onslaught of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. It turns out that, to no one’s surprise, Decisive Storm isn’t actually decisive.

The Saudis have been bombing rather freely, killing by UN estimates more than 600 people, at least half of them civilians. On March 31, for example, Saudi bombs hit a dairy factory killing 31 civilians, the kind of mistake that would be greeted with global outrage if it were committed by the Israeli Air Force but it is met with polite silence when it’s the Saudis.

Alas, while the Saudis are doing an efficient job of killing civilians (and thereby no doubt driving their relatives into the Houthis’ arms), there is little evidence that they are being effective in stopping the Houthis. Instead, the primary impact of their aerial campaign seems to be to create space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to expand its sphere of control. To be sure, the U.S. continues to fly drones, now from Saudi soil, that continue to kill AQAP leaders. But that makes little difference on the ground where, with the disintegration of central authority, there is no longer an effective counterweight to AQAP.

As the New York Times reports: “Al Qaeda’s adversaries in Yemen are largely in disarray or distracted by other fighting. Military units have melted away or put up little resistance as Al Qaeda has advanced. The Houthis, a militia movement from northern Yemen that is considered Al Qaeda’s most determined foe, have been preoccupied with battles against rival militias across the country, and their fighters have been battered by aerial assaults from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which is trying to restore the exiled government to power.”

As a result AQAP is on the march. The Times again: “Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen took control of a major airport and an oil export terminal in the southern part of the country on Thursday, expanding the resurgent militant group’s reach just two weeks after it seized the nearby city of Al Mukalla and emptied its bank and prison.”

Yemen, in short, is a mess and getting worse. And the U.S. role—carrying out a few drone strikes, while providing intelligence to the Saudis to facilitate their own bombing—seems to be almost entirely irrelevant. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Obama administration officials are increasingly uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between Washington and its ally in Riyadh.” But while the White House may be uneasy, there is no sign it is formulating a different strategy.

All of this is of a piece with the overall state of the war on terror: Both Shiite and Sunni jihadists are advancing across the Arab world while the U.S. fumbles for a response. Perhaps the next administration will formulate a more effective strategy, but unfortunately we can’t afford to wait more than 21 months before doing something about worsening conditions in this strategically vital region.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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Why Yemen Will Continue to Be a Mess

News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

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News that Iraqi forces have conquered Tikrit should be taken with caution: victory has been claimed before and it has not materialized. And if it is the case that ISIS fighters have been expelled from Tikrit, the triumph will belong to Iranian-backed Shiite militias which constitute the vast majority of the attacking force and which, in spite of U.S. claims, have not pulled back. Thus if U.S. airpower succeeds in routing ISIS out of this town, it will be a victory for Iran and its proxies.

Whatever its impact, the offensive in Tikrit contains an important lesson for the Saudi/Egyptian offensive now occurring in Yemen: namely, that it is not enough to hit your enemies from the air as the Saudis are now doing with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. Military success requires a combined-arms assault—i.e., there must be ground troops in place to exploit the opening created by modern airpower. In Tikrit, as previously mentioned, most of those ground troops are Iranian-backed militiamen. What about in Yemen?

There are troops still loyal to deposed president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who are now battling Houthi fighters in the streets of Aden, but it is far from clear that, even with Saudi air support, they will be able roll back the Houthi militia—not to mention al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is also a major threat but one that the Saudis aren’t focusing on at the moment. Perhaps there is coordination between the Saudi air strikes and Hadi’s ground troops, but so far it isn’t apparent. And perhaps the Saudis are providing support in terms of arms and training to Hadi’s troops, but that too isn’t apparent.

What is apparent is that the Saudis are bombing pretty freely and not in a very precise way. The latest reports indicate that Saudi aircraft struck the Al Mazraq refugee camp, killing at least 19 people, including women and children. If it had been Israeli warplanes dropping those bombs, it would have been described as a war crime and pressure would have been applied at the United Nations to stop this barbarous assault. Because it’s the Saudis, the international community will not say or do much, but there is still the real risk that by inflicting needless civilian casualties the Saudis will alienate potential allies and drive them into the arms of the Houthis or AQAP for protection.

The Saudis, and the Egyptians who are helping them, have made some threats about sending ground forces to clean out Yemen but they do not appear to be doing so, at least not for the time being—which may be just as well. We have all seen the difficulties encountered over the last decade by U.S. troops—the best in the world—fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no reason to expect that the challenge of pacifying Yemen, a notoriously lawless land, would be any less, but there is a great deal of reason to worry that Egyptian and Saudi troops don’t have nearly the combat capacity of U.S. forces.

The Saudis have essentially no combat experience and what combat experience the Egyptians have comes from internal security operations against the Muslim Brotherhood and various jihadist groups in the Sinai. It is a very different matter to project force into a foreign country—one that is on Saudi Arabia’s border, admittedly, but that is 1,400 miles from Cairo—and to put down a foreign insurgency. The Egyptians last tried that trick in Yemen in the 1960s and they lost at a cost of 25,000 fatalities. The danger is that if the Saudis and Egyptians were to go in on the ground and if the campaign were to go badly for them, the resulting backlash could destabilize the Sisi regime and the Saudi royal family.

The fear of getting embroiled in what could prove to be a quagmire may very well deter the Saudis and Egyptians from sending ground forces to Yemen, but failing an outside intervention it’s hard to see how it will be possible to defeat the Houthis, much less AQAP, and pacify Yemen. The best bet is for the U.S., working with the Saudis and other allies, to put a lot more time, energy, and resources into training Hadi’s troops than they have hitherto done, but such training programs are protracted affairs and are unlikely to produce results unless the regime the troops are fighting for is widely perceived to be legitimate—which is probably not the case in Yemen. Hadi, after all, took office after the overthrow of the previous dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was once fighting the Houthis but is now in league with them.

Sadly Yemen is a mess and likely to stay that way. The best bet may simply be that the Saudis, through the judicious application of air power, can prevent Iran from consolidating its grip on that country. But if the Saudis have a strategy for actually defeating the Houthis (and AQAP!) and pacifying Yemen, it remains a closely guarded secret.

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Was the Houthi Takeover in Yemen Inevitable?

Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

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Yemen is in free-fall. Its former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a cynic, and his vice president and post-Arab Spring successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, indecisive. Throw into the mix ungovernable spaces, southern separatism, and an al-Qaeda branch, and the Houthis are simply the icing on a cake of dysfunction.

The Houthis, of course, have not always been Iranian proxies. Just a few years ago, the Iranian press largely ignored them. They might have been Shi‘ite, but they were Zaydi rather than Twlever Shi‘ites. Theologically, this means that they diverged in their recognition of who was the rightful Imam somewhere toward the end of the seventh century AD. In reality, while technically Shi‘ite, the Houthis have long hewn closer to the Sunnis in terms of jurisprudence. When I bumped into a Houthi delegation in Karbala, Iraq, late last fall, some joked that they were there to get up to speed on the Shi‘ite credentials they had lacked for centuries.

That said, it’s hard to deny Iranian influence among the Houthis, circa 2015 at least. When looking back over the past few months, the rise of the Houthis to their current position seems far from inevitable. The Houthis waited several weeks on the outskirts of Sana’a before taking the capital in September 2014. Even then, however, they waited several months before staging the coup against Hadi, never mind driving southward toward Aden.

Many analysts have compared the Houthis to Lebanese Hezbollah. They are both members of the Shi‘ite minority within their respective countries, but have accepted Iranian largesse and training and, apparently, at times command and control. There are major differences, of course. The Houthis are far from as disciplined and organized as Hezbollah although, to be fair, Hezbollah has more than a 30-year head start on that. Nor did Hezbollah ever try to digest the whole country as it appears the Houthis now aspire, at least since late January.

The Houthis probably never imagined getting this far. At first, it seemed as if the Houthis were simply taking a page from Hezbollah’s 2008 playbook. That year, Hezbollah deployed its fighters to the center of Beirut and turned its guns on fellow Lebanese, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shi‘ite. Hezbollah did not stage a coup, however, choosing instead to accept veto power over the Lebanese government. Why take responsibility for governance, they seem to have figured, when they can blame the government for any ills, not have to hold themselves accountable for the delivery of services, and prevent their political opponents from acting in any way that undercuts their organizational interests?

So why have the Houthis pressed on while Hezbollah stopped? Alas, the answer is more opportunity than naked ambition. At every key moment, the Houthis paused. They stopped outside Sana’a waiting for the United States and the wider world to react, to send some signal that they should not push on. There was none. Then, they entered Sana’a, but then stood down. Again, they were waiting for a response which never came. Fearing no consequence for their actions, they next staged their coup. Then, they pushed further south and eventually came to Yemeni military bases. But here, too, they paused. Some in the military and State Department have suggested that if only the United States had reinforced its presence rather than evacuated it, the Houthis and their sponsors would have understood they could go no farther. I’m not on the ground in Yemen, and certainly am not privy to the intelligence surrounding the Houthi advance, so that’s just speculation, albeit conjecture based on those who are or have been there in recent weeks and months. Regardless, the Houthis advanced, seized the bases, and, along with them, sensitive U.S. intelligence information.

The Houthis and their Iranian sponsors may have pushed too far this time, however, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and like-minded Arab countries decided enough was enough. Nevertheless, in hindsight, it’s pretty incredible: One of the most amazing things about the complete and utter strategic collapse of the United States in the Middle East is that even U.S. enemies wait to see a response and seem unable to believe their luck when they understand that none will be forthcoming. Seldom if ever are ice hockey metaphors made with regard to Yemen, but there’s always a first time: When we look at how the strategic situation plays itself out there, it’s almost as if President Obama was coaching an ice hockey team and simply decided to pull his goalie in the first period for no reason whatsoever, handing his opponent an effective victory.

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Yemen’s Lesson For the Future of Terror

“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

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“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” —President Obama, Nov. 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” —President Obama, Sept. 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” —Reuters, March 21

The above items are largely self-explanatory. Far from decimated, Al Qaeda is, in combination with the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, chasing the US out of Yemen, which, far from being a shining example of US counter-terrorism policy in action, is an abysmal failure. This is a serious blow to US national security because Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has long been judged the Al Qaeda affiliate most interested in striking the US homeland. Thus the attacks on AQAP that Special Operations Forces have carried out in Yemen have been necessary to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians.

We will not be entirely helpless to fight AQAP even now–there is a Special Operations base in Djibouti directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and there is reportedly a secret CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia. But even if Predators and other aircraft can still reach targets in Yemen with ease, it will be harder to identify high-value targets without any American personnel on the background–and you can bet that if Embassy and Special Operations personnel have pulled out, so have CIA, NSA, and other intelligence officers.

The only other point to make is that this is a cautionary tale for the future of Afghanistan. President Obama seems to think that it would still be possible for a small number of US Special Operations Forces to be based in Afghanistan in order to target Al Qaeda personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if all other US forces are pulled out after 2016. Yemen shows why this is a very bad idea–not even the most skilled SOF forces can operate in a country that is in utter chaos as Yemen is today. Afghanistan needs to be minimally stable in order to be a useful platform for launching SOF strikes, and to keep it minimally stable will require a long-term commitment of at least 10,000 US troops. But to make that kind of commitment Obama will have to admit that, contrary to his earlier boasts, the war in Afghanistan is not “winding down,” just as Al Qaeda is not “decimated,” and Yemen is not an example of “successfully” fighting terrorists.

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The Disastrous World Obama Has Helped Create

Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

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Remember the good old days, when, in the words of President Obama, al-Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” (2011) and ISIS was a “jayvee team” (2014)? Well, those days were never nearly as good as he claimed–and things are much worse now than they were.

The Islamic State has now taken control of much of Syria and large parts of Iraq. Libya has descended into violence and chaos; it’s becoming a terrorist haven. The U.S.-backed government in Yemen has collapsed. And Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, has taken an oath of allegiance to the Islamic State, reinforcing fears that ISIS is expanding its support well beyond its base in Syria and Iraq.

These developments have created a rising sense of gloom among current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials. The Washington Post provides a useful summary:

  • In congressional testimony recently, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” (Mr. Clapper testified last month that more than 20,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria, including at least 3,400 from the West — “a pool of operatives who potentially have access to the United States.”)
  • Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in the Middle East, told participants on a counter­terrorism strategy call that he regarded the Islamic State as a greater menace than al-Qaeda ever was.
  • Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA under President Obama, said he had come to doubt that he would live to see the end of al-Qaeda and its spawn. “This is long term,” he said. “My children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight.”
  • “You’ve got a much bigger counterterrorism problem than you had a few years ago,” said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA. Terrorist groups “have never had territory of this magnitude. Never had this much money. Never this much access to Western passport holders. Never had the narrative they have now.”

All of this illustrates how farcical the upbeat assessments by Mr. Obama were.

I’d also urge people to recall the president’s June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, where Mr. Obama promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. Mr. Obama’s ascent to the presidency would usher in an unprecedented era of cooperation, he told us. “We have the power to make the world we seek,” the president declared. This came after Mr. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, promised to “repair this world.”

It turns out that by “mutual respect” and “repair this world” Mr. Obama really meant “disdain and contempt” and “do substantial, durable damage to it.”

President Obama, through a pernicious combination of staggering ineptness and intention–he is the first president of the post-World War II generation who does not believe American power is a force for good in the world–has done incalculable harm when it comes to creating a stable world order that advances justice and upholds human dignity.

As the Post story reminds us, DNI James Clapper was asked whether he stood by his assertion that the country was beset by more crises and threats that at any other time in his 50-year career. “Yes, sir,” he said, “and if I’m here next year, I’ll probably say it again.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s New Beginning.

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Obama’s Anti-ISIS AUMF: A Classic Muddle

Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

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Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

I refer to the president’s request to Congress to pass an Authorization for the Limited Use of Military Force (ALUMF) against ISIS. Now, the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August and the administration has been talking about how to produce an AUMF that will allow Congress to weigh in without unduly cramping the president’s options. The result of all these deliberations? A request that allows the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” So far so good: this is the kind of robust authority that the president needs to fight this band of jihadist fanatics.

But then come the limitations. First, the authority does not extend to “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground operations.” Second, the authority will expire in three years. Presumably these are sops intended to appeal to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican isolationists who are upset about the prospect of the U.S. waging “another” war in the Middle East. But do they make any sense?

The way the first restriction is worded–what the heck is an “enduring offensive ground operation” and how does it differ from a “temporary defensive ground operation”?–will, admittedly, make it largely meaningless. But still: the intent is clear and it’s to prevent the U.S. from engaging in ground combat against ISIS even if there is no good tactical alternative to such action.

Likewise the deadline–a favorite Obama limitation on the use of military force–is not as binding as it sounds. After all, if Obama has been able to fight ISIS for more than six months based on his executive authority and with no AUMF, it stands to reason that a future president could continue such action even after the AUMF expires. But the symbolism is clear–it is meant to imply that the U.S. will end its anti-ISIS operation within three years, whether that group is defeated or not.

This may be welcome to the ears of anti-war Democrats, but to our allies and enemies in the Middle East this, along with the restriction on the use of ground combat forces, sends a message of irresolution that will make it tougher for our troops to accomplish their mission.

At least we can be grateful that Obama is not seeking the repeal or rewrite of the unlimited post-9/11 AUMF against al-Qaeda, something he has been talking about doing since at least 2013. The last thing the U.S. military and intelligence community need are greater limitations on their ability to combat the monsters who burn and behead hostages.

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The “Yemen Model” Goes Down in Flames

Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

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Yemen has been cited a couple of times in recent years by the Obama administration as a model for what it wants to accomplish in the Middle East. In 2011, after an Arab Spring uprising in Yemen, the administration helped to engineer the peaceful transfer of power from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president (and staunch American ally) Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. This was hailed as a model of democracy ascendant. More recently in September 2014 Obama hailed Yemen, along with Somalia, as a model of the kind of “small footprint” approach he favored for fighting terrorism–sending American advisers and drones but not combat troops.

The last few days have brutally exposed the falsity of these claims, which is no doubt why Yemen went entirely unmentioned in the State of the Union. The Houthi militia, a Shiite group armed and supported by Iran, has overrun Sana, the capital, and seized the presidential palace. It only agreed to release President Hadi after he agreed to share power with them. This does not sit well with Sunni tribes who are threatening war on the Houthis, which will undoubtedly draw them into league with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group which has taken responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Hadi government and major adversary of Iran and its proxies, is vowing to cut off all aid to Yemen as long as the Houthis are in control. Yemen, in short, is on the verge of plunging into a Libya-like or Syria-like abyss, which would certainly make it representative of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East but not in the way the president intended.

The administration in recent weeks has softened its anti-Houthi rhetoric. Many inside and outside the administration are tempted to see the Houthis as allies because they are fighting AQAP. This is a big mistake. The Houthis are, like Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia whose slogan is “God is great; death to America; death to Israel.” They are hardly potential allies for Washington. Any attempt to align American policy with them will only drive Sunnis further into the camp of al-Qaeda–exactly the same phenomenon we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq where a perceived American tilt toward Iran and its murderous proxies has driven many Sunnis to side for protection with ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.

There is no easy or obvious solution in Yemen beyond the continuing need to support relative moderates such as Hadi and to press for political solutions that can work rather than to simply be content with killing a few terrorists with air strikes–which seems to be the Obama administration’s preferred approach to the entire Middle East. The administration’s policy can be characterized as general lethargy and disengagement punctuated by periodic outbursts of carefully targeted violence. This is a policy that cannot possibly work, and it hasn’t. The administration hasn’t created the chaos that is gripping the Middle East–chaos that is a Petri dish for extremism–but it certainly hasn’t done much to stop it.

Even France’s president, Francois Hollande, is lambasting Obama for creating a power vacuum in the Middle East. When a French socialist, of all people, is attacking him for not being interventionist enough, that should tell Obama something. But if the State of the Union is any indication, he is feeling too cocky at the moment, because of better economic news, to seriously take on board and address the catastrophic failure of his foreign policy in Yemen and beyond.

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Every Presidential Candidate Should Pledge Release of Missing 9/11 Pages

More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

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More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

And yet, so much remains inexplicably unknown about that day. President George W. Bush redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities report. A number of congressmen have read the redacted pages. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, said, “I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.” He added, however, “There is nothing in there that would affect our national security,” and suggested it was a desire not to embarrass some states that led the Bush administration to withhold the Commission’s findings. Steven Lynch, a Democratic representing Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional district, agreed. “These documents speak for themselves. We have a situation where an extensive investigation was conducted, but then the Bush [administration] decided for whatever purposes to excise 28 pages from the report,” he said, adding: “Maybe there were legitimate reasons to keep this classified. But that time has long passed.” Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has also been at the forefront of efforts to declassify and release those 28 pages.

Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, addressed the issue of the 28-pages in a recent New Yorker article:

A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations. Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations abuse declassification. Simply put, the purpose of classification is to protect sources and methods. Protection from political embarrassment and exposure of hypocrisy are not legal reasons to shield information from the public. Now, certainly, some of the information in the 28-pages might have been derived from sensitive sources, but more than 13 years on, the idea that keeping them secret would protect methods is risible. If the U.S. intelligence community and its capabilities haven’t evolved in the last 13 years, then the real scandal is how exposed and insecure the United States really is. Fortunately, however, the intelligence community has largely kept up with the times.

If any Saudi officials were culpable in the 9/11 attacks—or members of any other government—then the least of what they should be concerned about is embarrassment and public antipathy for their actions. The passage of time already inures the Saudis to the rage that might result; after all, Riyadh can claim that it is reformed and changed. While Saudi counter-terror cooperation was half-hearted at best up to and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, once Saudi Arabia began experiencing blowback from the monster it helped create and fund, it became a far more honest partner. Saudi Arabia today is no Pakistan, Qatar, or Turkey. But no country should get a free pass for the involvement of any of its citizens, princes, or officials in an attack on the United States. In effect, arbitrarily classifying material or delaying its declassification is politicization of intelligence, plain and simple.

As for the bin Laden documents: President Obama rhetorically both casts himself as the anti-Bush and has promised to be the most transparent president ever. And yet, when it comes to opacity on issues of terror, Obama is really no different than his predecessor. The issue for Obama is not simply the 28 pages. When Navy SEALS raided bin Laden’s compound, they removed millions of files. The second the SEALS landed in Abbottabad, there began a countdown on the utility of the intelligence seized.

The Obama administration, however, has ignored the bin Laden cache’s operational expiration date, and released only 17 documents. While still chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers argued that far more than the 17 documents might be released, and that the United States could learn from their contents. Administrations should stop underestimating the American ability to handle complexity and deal with the reality of the world, rather than the simplistic notion of adversaries and diplomacy that too often they seek to project.

On January 20, 2017, a new president will take the oath of office. Already, a handful of Democrats and perhaps a dozen Republicans are exploring their options, starting the carefully calibrated game of footsie with the press. Journalists should not let any candidate off the hook. Every aspirant to the presidency should pledge him or herself to full transparency and to complete the historical reckoning from 9/11 that all the victims, their families, and, indeed, every American deserves.

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Obama’s Pass-the-Buck Foreign Policy

So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

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So how’s the anti-ISIS campaign the administration launched back in August going? Not so well, as a couple of news articles make clear.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqis are frustrated with the U.S. campaign which they deride as “too slow and too small.” The U.S. has been especially remiss in not doing more to mobilize Sunni tribes; most of our aid is going to Kurdish forces, even though they can’t take and hold Sunni Arab areas, and to government security forces, even though they are deeply penetrated by Iranian militias that are anathema to Sunnis.

The fact that the U.S. isn’t doing more is leading to the growth of conspiracy theories which hold that the U.S. secretly wants ISIS to succeed. And this despite the fact that there has been some progress in Iraq in checking ISIS’s advance and even pushing it out of some contested areas–if not out of Mosul and Fallujah, the major cities it captured last year.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Another Journal article notes that “jihadist fighters have enlarged their hold in Syria since the U.S. started hitting the group’s strongholds there in September.” About the only thing the U.S. has accomplished in Syria is to prevent the border town of Kobani, held by Kurds, from falling to ISIS. Everywhere else ISIS remains on the offensive. The fact that ISIS enjoys a safe haven in Syria also makes it virtually impossible to defeat it in Iraq: If you squeeze too hard in Iraq, ISIS fighters can always retreat and regroup across the border.

Much of the problem in Syria is that the U.S. has no reliable proxy on the ground to coordinate and exploit air strikes. Yet the Obama administration still refuses to launch the kind of crash training program for the Free Syrian Army that it should have undertaken years ago. Nor will it declare a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s air force from bombing moderate rebels or set up buffer zones along Syria’s borders where anti-Assad forces can mobilize a more moderate alternative to ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Admittedly, given the administration’s scandalous and stupid neglect of Syria, it may be too late to accomplish any of this–but the attempt must still be made.

The fact that the administration isn’t doing more suggests that President Obama may well be content to run out the clock on his administration–only two more years to go!–and hand off the problem to his successor. But while that may be the most politically expedient path, it is not a course likely to defeat the jihadist menace that looms not only over the Middle East but over France and the U.S., among other Western states, as well.

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Interplay Between Turkey and al-Qaeda Revealed?

Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

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Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Such documents—which appear to be legitimate and the leaking of which the Turkish government has responded to by trying to shut down accounts housing them, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook as well—are, according to initial reports, the statements of those questioned when the Turkish military raided trucks heading into Syria carrying arms and weaponry. The trucks, it turns out, were driven by employees of the MIT. The arms were apparently destined for more radical groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When the police stopped the trucks, the Erdoğan regime was furious, and ordered the press not to report on the incident, declaring it “a state secret.” Alas, just as dictators in North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, or the former Soviet Union have learned, it is impossible to completely control news and the flow of information.

Turkey is not simply wrong on policy; it appears to be a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Simply put, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) likely would not exist if it were not for Turkish assistance and Qatari financing. At the very least, the United States, every member of the European Union, and every Arab state should call Turkish ambassadors in and read them the riot act. If the documents are real, Turkey should no longer avoid designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it’s long past time the United States and its Canadian and European allies began a serious dialogue about Turkey’s role in NATO.

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