October 30, 2010

US Tuned Out of Yemen

Here we go again. Without issuing a formal claim to explosive packages shipped to Chicago, al-Qaeda’s local branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has triggered an avalanche in Washington and the US media. President Barack Obama vowed, “the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms.”

But who can be confident in a strategy that fights terror with terror?

This is neither the definition of counter-terrorism, which Washington believes it’s employing, nor counterinsurgency, which it isn’t even making an attempt at. Stuck in the third-generation during a fourth-generation war, America continues to fight through pinpoint technology rather than networks. So it's no surprise that the conflict has intensified in the short and long-term.

Because Yemen’s unpopular government lacks the credibility and troop saturation to control its entire territory, and both the government and local tribes oppose a US presence on the ground, a traditional counterinsurgency is rendered impossible. Worse still, Yemeni analysts believe President Ali Abdullah Saleh extends the war for financial purposes. With Saleh entrenched in power and minimal aid trickling down to the people, Washington has little to offer Yemenis other than misery. Even though they may oppose al-Qaeda, when all parties converge they uproot thousands upon thousands of Yemenis with no reason to trust their government or America.

And they fear being the next Afghanistan.

While Yemen is a long way off from Afghanistan in terms of US resources, parts of southern Yemen have become a conventional war-zone. In Abyan province Reaper drones fly day and night, providing eyes for waves of Yemeni ground forces and augmenting its air-force by concentrating its power. US Special Forces supposedly limit themselves to training counter-terrorism teams, however denial is Washington’s standard procedure (Pakistan, Algeria). “Trainers” means the same thing today as it did in Vietnam.

Given that Special Forces actively stalk Somalia, there’s no reason to believe differently in Yemen, especially when US intelligence has begun to blur AQAP’s leadership with al-Shabab.

But without an equal progression in non-military operations in Yemen, America is left with a one-dimensional strategy dominated by militarism and aiming for the wrong targets. Counter-terrorism attacks terrorists or insurgents themselves, and only succeeds as part of counterinsurgency, not a stand-alone strategy. Counterinsurgency “attacks” networks by repairing and befriending them so that they work in the government’s favor.

On the surface US policy may appear multi-dimensional, and Obama was careful to include both sides of the equation: “Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate. We'll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.”

Yet multiple studies have concluded in recent months that US operations produce negative results. al-Qaeda recruits are up along with its attacks on Yemeni security forces, and US intervention has fanned small flames into a constant blaze of ambushes, security sweeps, and forced evacuations. Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi recently denounced US air-strikes for having no effect, a truthful statement despite its propaganda value (al-Kurbi later claimed he was misquoted). He would also request $10 billion in economic aid as Washington considers a billion dollar military package.

Meanwhile the government has yet to reach out to southern Secessionist Movement. In reality Sana’a has no intention of negotiating with the Secessionists, who, conscious of US approval, accuse the government of suppressing them in the name of al-Qaeda. Much of the war is fought in the volatile south.

America has built more of an embargo than a real strategy to cure Yemen’s instability. Buttressed by Saudi Arabia and Britain, supporting Sana’a gives the appearance of international cooperation. Unfortunately the networks inside the country remain far beyond influence. And while humanitarian assistance is increasing, the rate doesn’t come close to equaling Western military funding. Then it falls into the cracks of corruption, leaving a hollow military shell of a counterinsurgency.

But the main threat to regional stability stems from AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. According to one US official, "He is pushing the less sensational. There appears to be a good amount of debate within Al Qaeda, and al-Awlaki is pushing for more hits, but on a smaller scale. He also believes that even when attacks are scrubbed or foiled, they nonetheless are successful if it terrorizes the United States.''

These attacks succeed because they disperse the West’s resources, but also because they provoke Washington into reactionary decision-making - into terrorizing Yemenis.

Although Yemeni officials and al-Awlaki’s tribe both warn against his assassination, Washington believes (with good reason) that the threat is imminent and has reportedly intensified efforts to track him down. However killing him outright would be a colossal error, an act of defiance towards Sana’a that turns al-Awlaki into a martyr and further inflames the conflict. Pure revenge for the Fort Hood shooting, his death would fail to qualify as counter-terrorism let alone counterinsurgency.

Yemeni officials, albeit working in their own interests, rightfully declare that al-Awlaki must be tried in a Yemeni court by the constitution. It’s the best of the worst options available, and one that shouldn’t be ignored. In a possible sign that Sana’a feels disrespected, “Diplomats in San'a privately say they believe that the Yemenis haven't made his capture a priority in their counter-terrorism campaign.”

The political pressure of an imminent attack, coupled with Obama’s logic in Afghanistan, is forcing Washington to overreact to Yemen’s insurgency. Failing to move would contradict the Afghan war, for Obama promised to chase al-Qaeda wherever it spreads. Unfortunately this logic also plays directly into al-Qaeda’s war of attrition. And because of local opposition and resource shortages, America has brought a conventional war to Yemen, not counterinsurgency.

While both the government and AQAP have warned against the consequences of intervention - even as AQAP successfully baits its trap - Washington still refuses to listen.

October 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Going forward, we will continue to strengthen our cooperation with the Yemeni government to disrupt plotting by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and to destroy this al Qaeda affiliate. We'll also continue our efforts to strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups do not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.

The events of the past 24 hours underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism. As usual, our intelligence, law enforcement and Homeland Security professionals have served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand. We're also coordinating closely and effectively with our friends and our allies, who are essential to this fight.

As we obtain more information we will keep the public fully informed. But at this stage, the American people should know that the counter-terrorism professionals are taking this threat very seriously and are taking all necessary and prudent steps to ensure our security. And the American people should be confident that we will not waver in our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to root out violent extremism in all its forms."

- US President Barack Obama, addressing explosive laden packages shipped from Yemen to Jewish centers in Chicago - and seemingly oblivious that US policy is antagonizing the multi-layered conflict by breeding insurgents, distrust, and fear.

Counter-terrorism makes for poor counterinsurgency.

Drones Spur Yemenis' Distrust of Government and US

From Reuters:

An afternoon tribal meeting in a remote desert valley in Yemen is interrupted by the unmistakable hum of an unmanned drone. The men, gathered in their chieftain's courtyard, rise to look at the sky.

"I wish I had a weapon that could reach that aircraft," tribesman Salim Hassan told the other men at the gathering as he squinted against the sunlight.

The drone is hunting for members of al Qaeda as part of the Yemeni government's U.S.-backed crackdown on the group, launched after al Qaeda's Yemen branch tried to bomb a Detroit-bound plane last December.

Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland and a neighbor to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, Yemen looked set to become al Qaeda's latest launchpad for attacks in a strategic region vital to the shipment of oil and goods, and beyond.

But the government must tread carefully in Wadi Abida, in the volatile eastern province of Maarib, lest it alienates the very tribes it needs to engage if it is to defeat the militants who hide and train in their midst.

Until a few months ago, Wadi Abida's harsh climate and impenetrable landscape meant militants could operate there relatively undisturbed. Impoverished and heavily armed, local tribes' loyalty to the government had always been flimsy at best.

But tensions between the government and local tribes are growing in Wadi Abida, which is dominated by a vast expanse of sand but is also home to some of Yemen's largest energy reserves; reserves the government needs to run one of the world's poorest countries.

Earlier this year the valley, on the southern edge of the Empty Quarter, saw some of the heaviest fighting between government forces and militants yet and residents say drones still circle their area for hours every day.

The occasional attacks target militants, but have also struck civilians in the valley that is home to 40,000 people. In May, an errant air raid targeting al Qaeda killed five people, among them Jaber al-Shabwani, the province's deputy governor who was mediating between the government and the militants.

"Now children and women are terrified and can't sleep. After Jaber was hit, people are haunted. They expect the next strike to hit the innocent and not the fugitives," his uncle, Saleh al-Shabwani, told Reuters.

The killing so angered Shabwani's tribesmen that in the subsequent weeks they fought heavily with government security forces, twice attacking a major oil pipeline in Maarib.

Maarib's governor, Naji al-Zaidi, told Reuters there were only a dozen or so militants, a mixture of Yemenis and other nationalities, hiding in his province. Zaidi insisted the drones only gather intelligence and are not involved in any attacks.


The cash-strapped government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh does not itself own any drones and Wadi Abida's inhabitants -- along with many Yemenis elsewhere -- are in no doubt about who is behind these operations: Washington.

What is more, in this isolated part of Yemen, where the near-lunar landscape is dotted with only a few houses here and there, many believe the United States' ultimate aim is to come and rule them and their land.

"People are worried. They feel they will be colonized like Iraq and Afghanistan," local tribal chief Mabkhout al-Eradah said.

It would not be the first time U.S. drones hunted fugitives from the skies above Maarib. In 2002, a CIA drone flying over the province fired a missile that killed al Qaeda's then leader in the southern Arabian Peninsula country, prompting a public outcry.

Yemen has fought al Qaeda on and off since before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, often with Washington's help, but al Qaeda has continued to plan and carry out attacks both in Yemen and beyond.

In July 2007, a car bomb killed seven Spaniards who were visiting Maarib.

Four months after December's attempted plane bombing, an al Qaeda video showed the would-be bomber, Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attending a militant training camp in the desert and apparently being given a martyr's farewell. It was not clear where the footage was shot but it provided additional evidence that al Qaeda fighters operate with relative freedom in Yemen.

Its government, facing multiple political and economic challenges in different parts of the country, has always had to be careful in publicizing the extent of its cooperation with U.S. forces in order to keep public opinion in check.

Apart from battling against a resurgent al Qaeda wing, Yemen is also struggling to contain simmering unrest from a growing secessionist movement in the south. A six-year conflict with northern rebels only came to an end earlier this year, having displaced over 350,000 people.

The government is helpless in the face of grinding poverty and rampant unemployment, with more than 40 percent of Yemenis living on under $2 a day. Analysts see the ailing economy as a greater risk to Yemen's stability than any security concerns.

"U.S. policy in the region is unpopular in Yemen, and Yemenis are very much politicized, so this is something the government does have to take into consideration," said Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Center.

"At the moment the government is so much under pressure that they don't want another source of trouble."

Sanaa now denies direct U.S. involvement in the airstrikes on militants, despite Washington becoming increasingly frank.

In August, U.S. security officials said Washington was looking to increase air strikes against al Qaeda's Yemen wing in an attempt to emulate what they consider a successful CIA-run programme using drones in Pakistan.

The Yemeni government was quick to dispute these statements, insisting Yemen did not need "foreign parties" to lead its fight against al Qaeda -- assertions that stood in contrast to previous pleas for assistance from abroad.

When the Obama administration gave the CIA the green light to kill or capture a leading figure with links to al Qaeda, the American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen's prime minister responded by saying that any U.S. assassination on Yemeni soil would be unacceptable.

"Public cooperation would also play into the hands of the militants who argue that the Yemeni government is just a puppet of the United States," Stracke said.

Yemen's U.S.-backed campaign against al Qaeda has prompted the militant group to lash out against state and foreign targets alike and recent messages the group posted on Islamist websites criticize Saleh's relationship with Washington.

Back in Wadi Abida, residents say that while they do not support al Qaeda, they do not accept U.S. intervention on their soil.

"When America is in the sky, the Almighty God is above it. And when it is on the ground, we are here and it will see only war and destruction," Eradah said.

October 28, 2010

Half Stories, Half Truths about Kashmir

by Pradeep Magazine:
Sanjay Kak is a Kashmiri Pandit who has made an evocative documentary, Jashn-e-Azadi, which captures various forms of protests in the Valley and traces the deep sense of alienation of Muslims. The word azadi, in that film, acquires a meaning far deeper than just freedom or secession. The concept of azadi is so entrenched in the Kashmiri Muslim consciousness that neither State largesse nor repression can restore peace to the valley, if their struggle isn’t understood in human terms.

Kak’s documentary also brings out the angst of Kashmiri Pandits, their longing for a home from which they’ve been uprooted. A few years ago, I watched this disturbing human drama and, as a Pandit myself, admired Kak’s courage in confronting vested interests, including his own community. As we came out of the theatre, a relative of mine lamented, “I feel guilty."

This guilt did not arise, as mine did, from the realization that the Kashmir issue is not a religious-fundamentalist movement, as the Indian state portrays. He, instead, felt that “by watching the film he was endorsing the outrageous, misleading propaganda his own community member (Kak) was spreading.” Kashmiri Pandit activists have prevented the screening of Kak’s film in Delhi through protests you can’t call peaceful.

This preamble is to put in perspective the story about last week’s seminar, ‘Azadi, the only way’, which has spawned many versions, each wildly different in its perception of what transpired. Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s call for azadi there has outraged Indians; they want him and Arundhati Roy — whom the middle class hates as much as V P Singh for his Mandal experiment — to be tried for sedition.

As a witness to the event, I must admit that the 400-strong audience, comprising mostly young Kashmiris, erupted in frenzied applause every time a speaker referred to the oppression by the Indian state in Kashmir. There were speakers from the ultra left too, who underlined the brutal suppression of just mass struggles across India. Their speeches were equally anti-State, but they weren’t hate speeches nor did they advocate violence.

In this charged atmosphere, the problem began when Roy began to speak. She was heckled, for ignoring the injustices against Kashmiri Hindus, as she blasted the Indian State. The taunts of the hecklers, numbering just a dozen, were drowned in the thunderous applause of the majority, which wanted the seminar to continue.

A brief pause later, Roy raised some pertinent points for the separatists to ponder. She argued that the Kashmiris should join protest movements against injustices all across India and not care only about their own cause. She also demanded to know what kind of state the separatists envisage — whether the minorities, like the Pandits, would have equal rights and made to feel a sense of belonging in Kashmir, unlike now.

As the crowd lapped up each word Roy spoke, I felt proud that our democracy has become mature enough to allow leaders of radical movements to express themselves in the very heart of India. But my pride ebbed when Geelani began to speak — a handful of protesters began to raise cries of Bharat Mata ki jai, unfurl the tricolour and make threatening advances towards the stage. They were asked to listen peacefully or leave. Ultimately, the police escorted them out.

Geelani, the ‘incorrigible hawk’, appealed to India to talk to Kashmiris in the language of insaniyat. Responding to Roy’s query, he said an independent Kashmir will grant equal rights to all. He reiterated his demand for a referendum in the undivided J&K, promising to abide by the verdict, even if it went in India’s favour. He expressed hope of India becoming a superpower, outstripping even the US and China.

This was what I heard and saw. But the story in the media was quiet different — there was only the heckling and humiliation of Geelani and Arundhati Roy.

That the Kashmir story has an alternative narrative, which Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi depicts and the seminar in Delhi fleetingly touched upon, needs to be told to India’s masses without hecklers hijacking the agenda.

California’s International Proposition

Uncertainty is a legitimate cause for fear. That which is uncertain entails risk and humans, despite a fascination with risk, thrive on routine and safety. Legalizing production and consumption of small amounts of marijuana in California, in accordance with the upcoming Proposition 19, will disrupt routine. No one agrees by how much either.

Ambiguity plagues Prop 19. The knock on Richard Lee’s bill, organized from Oakland, California, is that it leaves every detail to local interpretation. The wording, along with marijuana's general controversy, has chased away mainstream politicians like Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. It’s true that drug laws would benefit from universality over a patch-work of local interpretations, while still allowing for individual variances.

Lee is also ticking to his own watch. Politico reports that major political and financial backers advised Lee to delay his push until the 2012 presidential elective cycle, expecting Democrats to turn out in larger numbers while anticipating a GOP comeback in 2010. Lee believed the opportunity couldn’t wait. As a result Prop 19’s fund-raising hit a wall, with the billionaire quartet of George Soros, John Sperling, Peter Lewis, and Bob Wilson all staying neutral. Each is presumably gun-shy after supporting Prop 5, a 2008 decriminalization bill, and watching it fall short at 40%.

Nor can the effects on economics, crime, or Mexico’s war against drug cartels be measured with accuracy. A RAND report scared away undecided voters after theorizing a 300% drop in prices and 80% spike in use, undermining one of Prop 19’s main selling points. Proponents claim up to $1.4 billion could be taxed off an estimated $12 billion market, while opponents argue that reduced prices could yield what RAND estimated as a negligible $300 million. Cannabis tourism would have to offset the loss, leading to new potential hazards.

And the cartels, rather than losing one of their income sources, might establish legal growing operations. A later RAND report concluded that only 2-4% of the cartels’ revenue would be erased by domestic marijuana, and that California’s crop would have to spread nation-wide to begin eating into the cartels’ revenue. This leads to the dilemma of other states feeling California’s potentially unwanted effects.

These factors and more have triggered fluctuating poll numbers. With summer support hovering between 49%, 50%, and 52%, Prop 19 appeared headed for a tight vote until federal warnings dropped polls into the mid-40s. As usual the controversy of marijuana itself adds to uncertainty. A general consensus has formed to explain why automated polls consistently yield higher support than human questionnaires: voters respond with more honestly to a machine when discussing currently illegal activities.

Varying poll figures and a lack of funding have spiraled into a negative loop. With financiers awaiting a conclusive signal to jump in, Prop 19’s minimal advertising could jeopardize voter turnout. It’s understandable why public figures wouldn’t chance their fortune and reputation on an uncertain outcome, but uncertainty also happens to be the main reason to support Prop 19. Californians can’t be that unaware of the bill.

For advocates, now is the time to push hardest and breach the tipping point. George Soros realized this and held back his million until the final stretch.

In a manner fitting of the drug in question, the unknown justifies experimentation. Humans must test and evaluate new ways forward, whether politically, scientifically, socially, or artistically. Invention is especially applicable to a problem in need of a solution, such as a continental supply chain orchestrated by Mexican cartels exploiting America’s unregulated drug market. Some entity must clarify legalization by experimenting and observing what happens, and no test-range is better suited than California.

Prop 19 isn’t exactly surrounded by negativity either. While the precise figure of marijuana advocates remains a mystery, the optimistic view of California’s divided populace is that nearly 50% favor legalization as the most popular option of control. (Nation-wide appeal is up too.) Many negative editorials in the state media begin by placating those in favor of Prop 19, arguing that the bill’s wording, not the principle or timing, is the problem. Health benefits will rival the disadvantages. Tourism and its all-encompassing economics could generate more revenue than a straight tax on marijuana.

And though use will surely rise, society is likely to absorb the change since many people already have access to the drug. Long-term trends suggest a majority will be reached in 2012 or beyond if not 2010.

Those taking a wider view of Prop 19 - national politicians and states eying similar laws - have long seen California as the first domino to fall. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and New York are monitoring Prop 19’s blueprint and outcome in 2012 with thoughts of improving on the bill. Regardless of whether state laws are actually enforceable over federal law, California would launch a movement to shake up the status quo lingering over the “War on Drugs.” Legalization may not be the answer either, but this “war” has been acknowledged as a failure by US and international leaders alike.

As California moves at the forefront of America’s liberalization, the US itself lags behind Europe and South America’s progression of treating drugs as a civil rights and public health issue. Former South American heads of state regularly advocate decriminalization or legalization, having witnessed firsthand the lack of progress in the “War on Drugs." The scale has successfully increased from Portugal to the Czech Republic (and many other European states), to Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, all of which relaxed substance laws in the last decade. Canada could be next.

California could tip a lot of dominoes.

And beyond consumer tourism California would also play host to the international community, attracting policy makers and scientists to study Prop 19’s long-term effects. Universities could enter a new phase of medical research later disclosed at conferences hosted in California’s many major cities. Since the findings would influence further states and sub-states, California would be problem-solving even if its experiment fails.

Failure can be of great use to civilization’s advance.

California’s future is most accurately viewed through an international lens. America, the biggest user, is considered the last major obstacle and now California finds itself positioned simultaneously at the rear and vanguard of liberalization, the missing link to the outside world. America needs a location to export an international movement trending towards decriminalization and legalization. California is the perfect forum.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has even called for a proper debate on the issue, conceding that security forces are inflaming the war. However Calderón did flip flop on the issue, a recent development that requires its own focus. And President Barack Obama doesn’t sound like he’ll be signing up for the debate. Instead US Attorney General Eric Holder declared war on Prop 19 and anyone who potentially abides by it.

"We will vigorously enforce the (federal law) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law,” he warned in early October.

True to form Washington has only offered a wall. Californians must topple America's first domino themselves.

[Note: This analysis was completed last week. Current analysis soon.]

October 26, 2010

AQIM’s Real Global Threat

In 2008 a report surfaced from the US Department of Homeland Security warning against “the most significant development in the criminal exploitation of aircraft since 9/11." Authored by an anonymous official, the report detailed a makeshift fleet running drugs from South America to West Africa, where they're smuggled into Europe. The report cautioned that a verifiable link had yet to be connected to al-Qaeda, but it seemed likely given the group’s intensifying focus on Africa.

Yet for some unknown reason Washington, which never misses an opportunity to sound al-Qaeda's alarm, buried the report until Reuters unearthed it in January 2010. Responding to the story, the “dismayed” official stated in apparent shock, "You've got an established terrorist connection on this side of the Atlantic. Now on the Africa side you have the al Qaeda connection and it's extremely disturbing and a little bit mystifying that it's not one of the top priorities of the government.”

So why downplay or ignore al-Qaeda’s potentially airborne network - and what could be two-way flights - when Western governments have played up its African offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), since 2002? Has a fear of inducing panic held Washington back? Or does it seek to fuel the conflict in order to justify gradual military intervention?

The latter possibility is hardly far-fetched.

Although the Homeland Security report and Reuters’s follow up are “old” news, their trail remains white hot. This month the United Nations Office for Drug and Crime launched a much-anticipated initiative to “establish secure communication between airports in West Africa and Latin America.” Since cartels and smugglers, whether affiliated with al-Qaeda or not, have taken advantage of poor regional coordination, “AIRCOP” will form a transnational counter-narcotics network between Brazil, Cape Verde, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, and Mali. A key ally in the West’s battle against AQIM, Mali also serves as Reuters’s point of origin for two overriding reasons.

Last November authorities discovered a burnt out Boeing 727 laced with traces of cocaine, estimated between five and ten tons upon landing. A month later three AQIM operatives from Mali turned up in a New York courthouse, charged with offering DEA agents a smuggling route into Spain.

Of the many rumors surrounding AQIM - particularly its range into Europe - a network from Mexico to the Sahara may be the most concrete. The UN estimates an annual 200 to 300 tons of cocaine feed Europe’s appetite, with 50 to 100 tons exported from South America via West Africa. AQIM doesn’t have its hands on every bag and multiple cases surfaced of smugglers flashing AQIM in name only, likely a common ruse. But cocaine smuggling still forms a major portion of AQIM’s budget along with kidnapping ransoms and human trafficking.

An influx of cash coupled with a relatively low number of fighters (estimated around 400) has dispersed a technologically advanced group over an area half the size of Europe - the very threat Western officials now warn against.

So why overlook the Homeland Security report and ignore ways to dry up AQIM’s revenue? Why did AIRCOP, a $3 million dollar program, take years to get off the ground while Washington ships tens of millions in military funding to North African states? Corrupt or rogue elements in these governments and militaries have been known to offload, transport, and protect drug shipments.

To a point one must concede the obstacles at hand. Policing the Atlantic for 10 to 20 planes isn’t easy, especially when they mix their flight patterns and change routes before or mid-takeoff. Planes have directly landed at African airports, but more often use abandoned or makeshift runways cut out of the bush and hastily paved. The planes themselves, including Gulfstreams, have been outfitted with additional fuel tanks and on at least one occasion flew a Red Cross symbol. Outsmarting South American cartels and African drug runners is never simple.

Not when they bribe government and airport officials to land their cargo, a tactic readily employed in North Africa.

Further complicating matters, the DEA claims that all aircraft seized in West Africa departed from Venezuela. Though the DEA provokes a high degree of skepticism in certain quarters, rumors of the FARC flying drugs out of Venezuela have circulated for years. The state is ideally positioned geographically and remains one of several South American states without a DEA presence on the ground (the air is another story). Venezuelan troops have seized several planes, more proof of the drug network’s vitality, but President Hugo Chavez’s well-known opinion of America suggests duplicity.

Lack of cooperation from the main staging-ground severely hinders an efficient counter-narcotics network.

However these factors can, to varying degrees, be laid at Washington’s feet. Despite the appearance of international cooperation, US and European leadership has largely restricted itself to military cooperation when addressing North Africa. More public attention has been devoted to AQIM threats in the last month than its drug pipeline has received entirely. Only threats are hyped, not solutions, and a global problem has yet to be treated as such at the highest levels.

Alexandre Schmidt, the regional UN representative for West and Central Africa who helped organize AIRCOP, remarked back in January, "This should be the highest concern for governments.”

Western attitudes toward AQIM and North African militancy must undergo total renovation in thought and message. This message must remain globalized at all times, as both the problem and solution are global in nature. Rooted in disenfranchisement, corruption and poverty, conflict in North Africa inputs South American drugs and exports them into Europe along with heroin from Asia, fostering a variety of insurgencies along the way. The cartels’ market itself shifted because of security developments on the US-Mexican border, creating more reward for their risk in Africa.

The global implications of AQIM far outweigh its own global ambitions.

A shift in consciousness entails financial restructuring. 4,000 miles of ocean must shrink under an expanding radar blanket, which extends only to the Caribbean and north Atlantic corridors through fixed radar and P3 aircraft. Drug smugglers reportedly fly without fear of radar detection for absurd reasons. According to Interpol, planes landing in the Bijagos Archipelago, no more than 100 miles off the African coast, haven’t been intercepted due to lack of resources.

Meanwhile the DEA maintains field offices in most Latin and South American states, including Venezuela, while it doesn’t even list Africa as a region on its website. Unfortunately America’s over-extension has funneled a disproportionate share of DEA agents to Afghanistan while AQIM’s territory - over four times larger than the Taliban's - suffers from malnutrition. With only four African offices in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, and Sudan, the DEA clearly needs to expand its presence across North Africa if Washington sincerely intends to shut down this global pipeline.

Funding for international narcotics control and law enforcement in 2009 modestly exceeded a single, $4.5 million military shipment to Mali.

Though security investments require expansion in coordination and technology, the most important factor depends on whether the West can lead with non-military funding. Over $65 million in development assistance went to Mali in 2010, $50 million to Senegal, and $71 million to Ghana, but
collectively Guinea-Bissau, Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger received less than five million from the US State Department. These figures should be standardized. Policy and message are inseparable in fourth-generation warfare, and long-term stability in North Africa can only be forged through political, economic, and social growth. Corruption is the primary enemy, not AQIM, and an influx in non-military funding cannot be siphoned off.

So long as the West continues to support African militaries without a corresponding progression in non-military spheres, AQIM and common smugglers alike will continue their operations with minimal disruption. The region sinks deeper into conflict. And with so many pieces out of place it’s hard not to wonder if the puzzle has been intentionally ignored, or whether al-Qaeda could smuggle itself back into America.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

October 25, 2010

Yemen Recruits Tribesmen to Hunt al-Qaida

From The Associated Press:
The Yemeni government has begun a new experiment in fighting al-Qaida, paying off tribes and providing them with weapons to hunt down militants, officials said Monday.

The tactic resembles the U.S. military's policy of persuading Sunni tribes in Iraq to turn against al-Qaida and form armed "Awakening Councils" to fight the insurgents, an effort that had major success in tamping down the terror group's offshoot there. But it is far more tenuous in Yemen, where powerful tribes frequently shift loyalties and often have branches that support al-Qaida militants.

Yemeni opponents of the policy cast doubt on whether it will be effective and warn that it could further destabilize the situation by fueling infighting among tribes.

Al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is believed to have several hundred of fighters hidden in the mountainous reaches of the country, and the Obama administration has dramatically stepped up its aid to Yemen's military to uproot it. The group has carried out a campaign of violence against security forces and attacks on U.S. and European facilities in the capital — and claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the U.S.

Yemeni troops have been pursuing al-Qaida militants. But on Monday, the governor of Shabwa province — believed to be where many militants are hiding — announced in a speech that a joint team of solider and tribal fighters had carried out sweeps together for the first time in nearby mountains, hunting for al-Qaida fugitives.

Governor Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi said the Awalik tribe, one of the biggest in the province, had agreed to cooperate in fighting al-Qaida after a meeting last week with tribal representatives.

"The Awalik tribes assured that they are against al-Qaida and they are ready to confront them if any of their elements appeared in their regions," he said.

The Awalik is a large tribe made up of several branches, including one to which radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki belongs. The United States has put him on a kill-or-capture list, accusing him of becoming an active al-Qaida operative.

Al-Awlaki is on Yemen's list of wanted fugitives, meaning he would be among those the tribal militias are hunting, security officials said. But the tribal militias' focus appeared to be more on a cell of militants suspected in an attempt earlier this month to assassinate al-Ahmadi.

Yemeni security officials and several members of the Awalik tribe said the government was now providing monthly stipends and ammunition to tribal fighters to help in the hunt for al-Qaida members. The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the program.

Hassan Bannan, a leader of one of the Awalik branches in Shabwa and an opponent of the policy, told The Associated Press that more than 2,500 tribesmen have been divided into small groups to carry out daily searches. Another tribesman, Awad al-Awlaki, said 180 of his fellow tribesmen in the Shabwa town of al-Saaid each received 100 automatic rife bullets and a daily stipend of $50.

The central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has little direct control outside the capital, San'a, and powerful, well-armed tribes control large parts of the country. Saleh often strikes alliances with tribes or parts of tribes, using money, jobs or other patronage to keep their support. But even allied tribes show great independence, bristle at central control and balk at following policies from San'a.

That makes enlisting tribes to hunt al-Qaida an uncertain prospect. Moreover, some tribes are believed to give refuge to al-Qaida fighters in their territory, so tribesmen may be unwilling to hunt down militants protected by their kinsmen — or risk intertribal clashes if they do.

"This will cause discord among members of the tribes. It will incite a war inside the tribes. Now each single tribe is divided between supporters and opponents," Bannan said.

Bannan doubted the government was serious in the policy, accusing it of trying to "deceive the Americans," which are funneling some $150 million in military assistance to Yemen this year along with a similar amount for humanitarian and development aid.

"They want to show to the Americans that they are serious about combating al-Qaida and at the same time they want to keep the aid flowing," he said.

A coalition of Yemen's biggest opposition parties issued a statement condemning the policy and saying the government was imitating the Awakening Councils in Iraq.

"Cloning other experiments implemented in other parts of the world, such as the Awakening Councils, and trying to implement them in Shabwa is like planting land mines," the coalition said. "It will bring nothing but destruction and discord. The fruits will threaten the future of coming generations."

Sounds like a great idea.

Quote of the Day

"This is official evidence that there was a cover-up of crimes, either by turning suspects over or torturing them directly. The truth is the Pentagon Papers did affect public opinion. It did not affect Nixon's policy. I don't have confidence that even a massive change of public opinion will have an effect, but even if there is a small chance it could change policy it is worth it."

- Daniel Ellsberg, lamenting the apathy and lethargy plaguing US foreign policy

Ellsberg had addressed WikiLeaks' press conference in London by saying, "Secrecy is essential to empire."

October 24, 2010

US Creeping Into Algeria

AQIM commander Abu Zeid

For once America seems to be acting correctly in its endless war against al-Qaeda. The consensus among historic and modern counterinsurgency studies dictates an early response, exploiting the guerrilla’s weakest stage and, more importantly, heading off grievances before they snowball. So as al-Qaeda’s newest branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), begins to bear fruit in Algeria and the Sahel, US officials almost make sense when they raise Yemen and Somalia as examples of states that ran away from the West.

America, Britain, and France are determined not to make the same mistake again.

Unfortunately so much more lurks beneath the desert. AQIM isn’t new but the evolution of another group, Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), that in turn was part of a long-standing radicalization of the region, specifically Libya. Western governments have also sounded AQIM’s alarm since GSPC, a gradual intervention into North Africa. So despite AQIM’s small numbers, around 400, its earliest form is long passed, leaving the conflict deep in life-span and progression of US activity.

Though COIN manuals agree on a proactive strategy, they also believe that honesty and integrity defeat insurgencies, while clandestine activity encourages them. What Washington and Paris consider a righteous task hasn’t stopped their Special Forces from operating in the shadows, once again checked by justifiable anti-imperialism. The progression is straightforward: intelligence sharing, military supplies and funding, followed by training and reconnaissance from US Special Forces, surveillance equipment like drones, and finally, if necessary, Special Forces raids and air-strikes.

Yemen and Somalia are waist deep in the final level. And according to AQIM’s northern commander Abu Zeid, also known as Abid Hammadou, America has reached the second-to-last phase in Algeria.

Zeid isn’t the most credible source of intelligence, though his decade of fighting lends evidence to the conflict’s age. Alleging that his troops spotted US Special Forces at an Algerian base in Tamanrasset, near the Malian border where Zeid is supposedly headquartered, his actions indicate how susceptible and oppositional AQIM believes Algerians are to US operations. His claim was confirmed by The Washington Post’s designated expert, Mathieu Guidere at the University of Geneva.

According to Guidere, Zeid recently ordered his unit to halt satellite communications in the face of US drones and satellite systems.

This potential truth creates a problem since the Algerian government rejects a Western presence inside its borders, despite several publicized raids by French forces. As a regional leader - and a state founded on a successful insurgency against colonial France - succumbing to Western assistance could inflame nationalistic and Islamic passions, ultimately fueling the insurgency. Such is the case in Yemen and Pakistan, where hyper-sensitivity of their sovereignty presents a major obstacle to US influence.

Logic also works in Zeid’s favor. In September 2009, The New York Times revealed an expanded Special Forces directive authored by David Petraeus during his tenure at Central Command (CENTCOM). In conjunction with the CIA, Special Forces units have inserted themselves into over 70 countries, many of them hostile, with missions ranging from reconnaissance to building local alliances, to tracking, lacing, and capturing potential targets.

Special Forces already operate in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, and the US Navy maintains an active presence in the Mediterranean, so an outfit in Algeria seems reasonable in light of developing US activity. All hardware comes with some form of personnel - that’s how Washington's game works.

The main question is what comes next. Dramatic changes are unlikely in the immediate future. AQIM lacks the ability and, without orders from al-Qaeda leadership, the motive to stage an attack in Europe (though the two cells are in contact). And North African states aren’t in danger of being over-run by AQIM’s tiny guerrilla force. Openly challenging Algerian and US forces is suicidal, but the region also remains unprepared for US air-strikes on vulnerable AQIM positions, a temptation in the vast expanses of desert.

Panic-inducing air-strikes would repeat the new-found success of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

AQIM is also being used as a scapegoat by Paris, where threats of AQIM have escalated in relation to France’s economic unrest. Ties with Algerian intelligence (DRS), a mainstream conspiracy inside and outside Algeria, have yet to be conclusively disproved, and neighboring states have criticized Algeria for chasing AQIM fighters across their borders. The group simply doesn't pose the exaggerated threat it's made out to be.

However North Africa’s conflict is poised for growth, and it may be a matter of time before US or French drone raids. In conjunction with Washington, the quartet of Algeria , Mali, Mauritania, and Niger have signed a security pact and established outposts in the desert, with bases under development. A corresponding increase in kidnappings and ransoms is assured. To demonstrate its strength and ideology, AQIM might begin systematically raiding Algerian positions in the coming years, triggering an overt backlash.

This reaction would feed back into Washington's military expansionism.

But with the West increasing its activity without the necessary diversification, the Sahara offers AQIM an endless expanse to grow into its own. That North Africa poses an “easier” threat is only relative to failed states such as Somalia. North African contains over 100 million people, many of them impoverished, unemployed, politically marginalized, and looking for an outlet. AQIM holds a monopoly on the region too, a key advantage that already elevated it to the transnational level. One day it might connect to Somalia and Yemen's cells.

US opposition doesn’t run as high as the Middle East, a small advantage that must be nourished. Mali polls well in Pew global surveys, and none of the states infected by AQIM lean towards al-Qaeda’s ideology. This doesn’t mean Western military activity is welcome though. Each state is susceptible to disinformation and alienation. Even Mali military officials warn against Western forces getting too far ahead in the battle. Done wrong and AQIM will have all the support it needs.

While regional security cooperation is a must, military coordination should function as the base of a wide political and social platform, not drive the policy. Countries must attack their own political marginalization, corruption, and other areas of inequality. If the West seeks a preventative counterinsurgency, it must correct the failed strategy of leading with force and expending the majority of funds on military operations. Many of AQIM’s recruits also verge on the criminally-minded, concerned more with West Africa’s traditional arms and drug routes than global or national jihad.

It mustn’t be forgotten that AQIM partly stems from a drug pandemic in Europe and Asia, requiring an internationally holistic solution - one more reason to fight the war out of the shadows.

Counter-terrorism remains a poor substitute for counterinsurgency, as non-military operations invested in the population exceed military benefits in the long-term. Counterinsurgency is about networking with the local population, something that can’t be accomplished from the sky and behind a veil of secrecy. For now the West’s strategy remains dominated by military measures.

Not the way to enter its newest showdown against al-Qaeda.

October 22, 2010

Pentagon Replays Fear Card on WikiLeaks

With Washington almost egging WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to release his cache of Iraq war files in preparation for the blow, US officials have fanned out and taken up positions to contain the damage. Pentagon spokesmen teamed up on WikiLeaks while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned, "in the most clear terms the disclosure of any information by individuals and or organizations which puts the lives of United States and its partners' service members and civilians at risk.”

Yet the main group Washington appears to be defending is itself, along with the sputtering life of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to the Associated Press, which obtained a Pentagon letter to Congress authored by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, WikiLeaks compromised no US intelligence sources or practices in Afghanistan. And, “Although US officials still think the leaks could cause significant damage to US security interests, the assessment suggests that some of the administration’s worst fears about the July disclosure have so far failed to materialize.”

That hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from reusing its faulty arguments in Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. David Lapen told reporters, "We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large.”

These arguments tend to get convoluted too. Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, called the leaks “tactical” rather than “strategic,” implying a lesser degree of damage, before arguing, “They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane,and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled in news stories, books and films and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.”

He then added, “By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us... This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed.”

It’s admittedly difficult to verify what level of impact WikiLeaks has on US soldiers, foreign-trained soldiers, and civilians in the battlefield. But few reports have been released after the first leak documenting coalition or civilian deaths in Afghanistan, reports the Pentagon would presumably disseminate. Given the lack of conclusive links and the Pentagon’s own overestimation, the danger to US troops and their sources falls below other agendas at risk.

First and foremost the Pentagon is protecting its own interests, not specifically America’s, and what many view as failed strategy in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This includes the strategies themselves and the image of these strategies as viewed by the US, European, and Muslim populaces.WikiLeaks aims to tip public support against the wars and so far have accomplished that objective. The Pentagon is both the primary target and sufferer of these leaks, not US troops or the foreign security forces and civilians they operate with.

Thus it has no recourse except to hype fear and threats of profuse bloodshed that have yet to materialize in Afghanistan, save for the wreckage caused by foreign and Taliban soldiers.

The Pentagon also seeks to conceal the tragic reality that Iraq’s war is far from over and the country barely stabilized, another objective of Assange: "I'm hoping that people understand that the Iraq war goes on.” The Pentagon strives, rather vainly, to obscure the files pertaining to torture allegations against Iraqi security forces, said to eclipse 1,000 with several hundred medically-documented cases. These files shed plenty of new light on how high-ranking US officials cover up human rights abuses.

Finally, Washington’s end game plans to neutralize demand for a US investigation and potential tribunal into the Iraq war, which it wishes to continue in a discreet capacity. Iraqi military sources claim they’re waiting for a new government to form before requesting an extension to the Status of Forces Agreement, which stipulates the withdrawal of all US forces by December 31st, 2011. Gates patiently awaits their demand.

"I think we have an agreement with the Iraqis that both governments have agreed to, that we will be out of Iraq at the end of 2011," he said in August. "If a new government is formed there and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we're obviously open to that discussion. But that initiative will have to come from the Iraqis."

White House and Pentagon officials concluded that WikiLeaks’ most responsible course of action is to remove and turn over all classified data in its possession. They probably want the entire trove. But their own words and actions are laughable, a clear cover-up of their own questionable and failing policies. Perhaps they would receive more sympathy were their responses not so absolute - a zero tolerance policy on truth - and close-minded to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Much of the damage is self-inflicted.

October 21, 2010

Chatham House: Western Presence Fuels Somalia, Yemen Insurgencies

It’s always amusing when the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts negative news of Somalia and Yemen. As a propaganda outlet thinly disguised as a legitimate news source, VOA has no choice except to report both sides of the conflicts, in this case another study warning against military unilateralism. VOA also ran a parallel report: US Calls for More Aggressive International Response to Somalia Crisis.
A new report says Western security measures in Yemen and Somalia are fueling militancy because local populations see it as a form of aggression.

Yemen expert Ginny Hill co-authored the report that was published by the London-based research group Chatham House.

"The U.S. administration has been providing training and military equipment to the Yemeni armed forces for several years now," said Hill. "And there has been an increase in that cooperation and that relation over the course of the last year. There have been a number of strikes where the U.S. is alleged to have been involved. The key thing to note is that al-Qaida's leadership remains intact despite the increase in resources and the increase in activity."

Yemen became a focus of Western security concerns after a Yemen based group linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound flight last December.

Earlier this month, militants in Yemen's capital attacked an armed British embassy car that was carrying a senior British diplomat.

Hill says there is a danger that Western-backed security measures could contribute to tension inside Yemen.

"It is driving a wedge between the president and the tribes and in a country where there is an enormous amount of hostility towards American foreign policy in the region, it is contributing to perceptions that the government of Yemen does not legitimately represent its population," Hill said.

She says rather than a military focus, the drive should be towards bringing economic and political stability to the country.

Co-author Sally Healy, also from Chatham House, says the report wanted to highlight the acute differences between Somalia and Yemen. She says it is dangerous for security experts to lump them together.

Western policies in both countries, she says, should look at the real issues in each country.

"It should be imbedded in political settlements that make sense locally, and just giving security assistance to an ally or a friend in the region does not stabilize the situation if there are a lot of outstanding political problems yet to be resolved," Healy said.

A new prime minister has recently been appointed in Somalia. Since the current government was formed in 2004, it has had two presidents and three prime ministers. Rebel groups control much of the south and center of the country.

The report says Washington is arming, training, and funding local proxies in Yemen in order to combat terrorism. It says Washington channels its support for the transitional government in Somalia through the African peacekeeping force.
Full analysis in progress.

Quote of the Day

"I used to say we sucked at IO, but the more I read ISAF/NYT reporting out of Afghanistan, the more I question that."

- Center for a New American Security (CNAS) analyst Andrew Exum, justifiably lumping NATO and The New York Times together. And not just because of Carlotta Gall's latest report, Coalition Routing Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.

Grand Bargain or Big Zero?

In the 13 days since the Arab League rescued US President Barack Obama from another embarrassing failure, reports of Israeli settlement activity seem to outnumber those detailing negotiations with the Palestinians. US envoy George Mitchell left the region before the Arab League summit without a compromise and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still holding out hope, said that Mitchell would return next week.

That leaves nearly a month-long vacuum on the edge of collapse.

Practically speaking, Mitchell had no reason to stay in the region with neither side willing to cave. But the time gap has worked against the continuation of negotiations. The White House opted to unilaterally negotiate with Israel in return for an extension of its “freeze” on new settlement activity, offering terms that weakened the Palestinian position and further depressed the odds of a breakthrough. And at the propaganda level, Palestinians hear more chatter of settlements than anything America has to offer them.

The expanding gap between parties and relative silence from Washington outlines the immediate future of negotiations. The White House has at least several more weeks until after mid-term elections, roughly the month designated by the Arab League, and another extension remains possible. But time will pass as quickly as the preceding seven weeks of stalemate.

Hardening in both the Israeli and Palestinian positions, coupled with the White House’s preference to work behind Israel’s curtain, hints towards one of two outcomes after the November 2nd election: a furiously negotiated agreement at the deadline, or an outright collapse. Though it seems unlikely that all parties would eject now, the ground points in that direction.

An ill omen of Israel's gridlock, senior Labor minister Avishay Braverman warned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until the end of the year to resume talks, or else Labor will walk out of the government.

The main obstacles between Israel and the Palestinians stretch far beyond settlement units. However, Israel continues to ignore the reality that settlements have become symbolic of its commitment to a fair peace process. The entire international community, including the Quartet of America, the EU, Russia, and the UN, recognizes Israeli settlements in Palestinian-designated territory as illegal. US officials criticized Israel’s latest tenders for 238 units in East Jerusalem, and Clinton reaffirmed that US opposition to settlements “is well known and has not changed.”

Of course this isn’t true. Clinton glowingly praised Netanyahu’s 10-month freeze on “new” construction that failed to even accomplish that goal, drawing immediate rebuke from the Palestinians and Arab states. But the fact remains that Washington has been forced into a corner and Israel tore up the memo.

"We noticed that [settlement building] is getting significantly faster after the Israelis refused to renew the freeze," Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian spokesman, told The Christian Science Monitor last week. "That's the main indicator to the Palestinian public and to the Palestinian politicians about the lack of seriousness.''

And when the Associated Press later lowballed its estimate of 500 new units in construction since September 26th, Khatib would respond, “This figure is alarming and is another indicator that Israel is not serious about the peace process, which is supposed to be about ending the occupation.”

David Haivri, a spokesman affiliated with Yesha Council, the regional body representing Israeli communities in the West Bank, confirmed: "I expect that in the few months left till the end of the year 2010, we will compensate for our downtime and begin building at least as many homes as we did in 2008.”

Netanyahu argued that new construction “has no real effect on the map of a possible (peace) agreement." His words alone are enough to scare off Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

As further evidence
of a clash over compromise the Palestinians are moving as though they don’t expect US resolution, finally breaking the monopoly Washington holds on the peace process. This seems to be the best method of achieving the fairest terms possible. Targets include the UN General Assembly (to avoid a US veto in the Security Council), the International Court of Justice, which mediates legal disputes submitted by states, the UN Human Rights Council, and signatories of the Geneva Conventions. The Palestinians will start with settlements and progress towards statehood, a bargaining spectrum dictated by Israel’s actions.

“We don’t have strong cards, but we want to convince the world to take a position and gain recognition of a Palestinian state,” said Hanna Amireh, a member of the P.L.O.’s ruling circle, in an interview in his Ramallah office. “We feel we need to go beyond the United States to the world.”

Unfortunately this strategy, while accurate from the Palestinian viewpoint, may not produce the desired effects. One Senior Israeli official warned, “A lot of members of the international community believe that since the Palestinians are the weaker party, if they get more support it will help them in the direct talks with us. But it works in the opposite direction. This would kill a negotiated settlement.”

Clearly Israel will accept no mediator except for America, another sign of imbalance and one more strike against the possibility of a compromise.

Like Israel’s recent behavior, the White House has offered the Palestinians no reason to believe they’ll obtain a sovereign state. With both sides dug in the situation lies in Obama’s hands, who remains reluctant to enter the fray outside of perfectly choreographed dinners at the White House. Now is the time to personally intervene if he actually believes in a sovereign Palestinian state, complete with 1967 borders, East Jerusalem, and a military - and isn’t playing politics with the conflict.

Netanyahu’s train, powered by the US Congress, Israeli lobby, and the various Israeli players inside the White House currently shaping negotiations, leads to a dead end.

October 20, 2010

US: The Dishonest Broker

From Al Jazeera:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been both a major concern of American diplomacy since 1967 and the arena of persistent failure.

There are many reasons for America’s failure to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians but the most fundamental one is that it is a dishonest broker. As a result of its palpable partiality towards Israel, America has lost all credibility in the eyes not only of the Palestinians but of the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.

The so-called peace process has been all process and no peace. Peace talks that go nowhere slowly provide Israel with just the cover it needs to pursue its expansionist agenda on the West Bank.

The asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is so great that only a third party can bridge the gap. In plain language, this means leaning on Israel to end the occupation and to permit the emergence of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In theory America is committed to a two-state solution to the conflict but in practice it has done very little to push Israel into such a settlement. It is not that America lacks the means to bring pressure to bear on Israel. On the contrary, Israel is crucially, and almost exclusively, dependent on America for military, diplomatic, and financial support.

America’s financial support amounts to three billion dollars a year. So the leverage is there. The real problem is that American leaders are either unable or unwilling to exercise this leverage in order to promote a just settlement of this tragic conflict.

The most depressing aspect of the situation is that despite its proven inability to make progress on the Palestinian track, America continues to cling to its monopoly over the peace process. In the aftermath of the June 1967 War, America arrogated to itself a near-monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

During the Cold War, the main purpose of American diplomacy was to exclude the Soviet Union, the ally of radical Arab states, from the quest for peace in the Middle East. After the end of the Cold war, America continued to marginalize Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. The UN has the authority as well as a duty to regulate this conflict because it is a threat to international peace and security. But the Americans undermined its efforts and routinely used their veto on the Security Council to defeat resolutions that were critical of Israel.

American contempt towards the UN reached a new height during the two Republican administrations of George W. Bush. The attitude of the neoconservatives is illustrated by the following conversation between a senior UN official and a venerable Republican Senator. The official asked "Why are you Americans so hostile to the UN? Is it ignorance or is it indifference?"

And the Senator allegedly replied: "I don’t know and I don’t care!"
Barack Obama's election was widely expected to usher in a more even-handed policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Cairo speech of June 4 2009, Obama stated that the bond with Israel is unbreakable but he also expressed deep empathy for the Palestinians and wanted there to be no doubt that: "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own".

Obama is an inspiring orator. However, to use an American phrase, he has talked the talk but he has not walked the walk. The rhetoric has changed but in practical terms there has been more continuity than change. Partiality towards Israel remains the order of the day and it vitiates the possibility of a genuinely even-handed policy.

To be fair to Obama, he recognized at the outset that Jewish settlements on the West Bank are the main obstacle to progress. He admitted, in effect, that there can be a peace process but no peace if Israel continues the colonization of the West Bank. At his first meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on May 18 2008, Obama insisted on a complete settlement freeze.

A week later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained: "The President wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions… That is our position...And we intend to press that point". The position was admirably clear but she and the president failed to press the point. They backed down.

The direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched by Secretary Clinton in Washington on September 2 are the best that could be expected after this and subsequent climb-downs. But these talks are an exercise in futility.

There is an Arabic saying that something that starts crooked, remains crooked. These peace talks started in a crooked way because they did not meet the most fundamental Palestinian requirement: a complete freeze on settlement activity.

All that Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to was a partial settlement freeze for a period of ten months. The ban did not apply to the 3,000 housing units that had already been approved or to East Jerusalem, which Israel had illegally annexed following the June 1967 Six-Day War.

When the ban expired on September 27, Netanyahu refused to extend it. Shirking his responsibility as prime minister, he simply called on the settlers to exercise restraint. A more vacuous statement is difficult to imagine. Predictably, as the Israeli media has reported, the bulldozers are back at work in the Jewish settlements near Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron.

The conclusion is inescapable: Netanyahu is not a genuine partner for the Palestinians on the road to peace. Land-grabbing and peace-making simply do not go together and Netanyahu has opted for the former.

Netanyahu is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it.

The American position is pusillanimous and feeble. Instead of taking a firm position on the side of the Palestinians and pressing the point of principle, they press the weaker party to make more and more concessions. Under these conditions, the prospects of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are close to zero.

There is no light at the end of the tunnel, only more illegal settlements, and consequently more strife, more violence, more bloodshed, and ultimately another war.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (Verso). This article first appeared on the University of Oxford, Department of Politics and International Relations Blog.

October 19, 2010

US Wants All of Iraq’s Cake

Ayad Allawi meets Muqtada al-Sadr in Syria

Nearly eight years have passed since George Bush uttered his “Sixteen Words” during the 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” During the ensuing controversy, the White House itself conceded that the line of "yellowcake" should have been omitted. And with no sign of WMDs added to a persistently destabilized Iraq, even the fallback claim of “liberation” rings hollow to many Iraqis and Westerners.

Yet the stated intentions of Britain’s Iraq Inquiry have nothing to do with punishment, only avoiding a similar situation in the future, while America is unlikely to ever hold a proper war trial. Washington’s recent actions make clear that it failed to learn any real humility either. As de facto Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Tehran, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters, “We are concerned about any neighboring country that would meddle in Iraq's affairs.”

This from the country that invaded on pretext and without a short or long-term plan for regional stability.

It became clear from the start that President Barack Obama wanted everything to go his own way in Iraq. Relentlessly bashing Bush’s war and his surge to inflate weak foreign policy credentials, Obama ran on the basic principle of “Iraq bad, Afghanistan good.” Nor did he cave to Iraq’s intermediate success when questioned on the surge’s progress and how it allowed him withdraw significant US troops, which Obama would later highlight as a fulfilled campaign promise.

Dick Cheney himself would criticize the duplicitous act of taking credit without praising Bush.

Fortunately for Cheney, Obama has also indicated that no Iraqi war trial lurks in the future, no punishment for those who should be held accountable for the egregious planning that Obama voted against as a junior Senator and campaigned on. Obama has repeatedly stated that he “wants to look forward” in Iraq, craving both sides of the pie. Unfortunately for Iraqis, this trend extends to the status of US forces and the formation of a new government.

The tragic irony of al-Maliki’s visit to Iran can hardly be any thicker. Though US officials kept their profiles low in the seven months following Iraq’s parliamentary election in March, their choice for prime minister is no stranger to anyone. As Iran coerced a reluctant Muqtada al-Sadr into al-Maliki’s coalition last month, Washington busied itself massaging the Sunnis in preparation for al-Maliki’s administration. Around the same time the Shia cleric cast his 39 parliamentary seats behind al-Maliki’s second term, US Vice President Joe Biden called al-Maliki’s rival, Iraqiya chief Ayad Allawi, to press for a “compromise” - to support a government dominated by Shia blocs.

"The vice president urged Dr. Allawi, as he is urging all Iraqi leaders, to expedite efforts to form an inclusive and legitimate government responsive to the needs of the Iraqi people," Biden's office later said.

The irony reaches its peak in the possibility that al-Maliki may be more pro-Iranian than the nationalistic al-Sadr. Crowley would claim on Monday, "Ultimately, this has to be an Iraqi decision as part of its own political process... We would expect the Iraqi government to work on behalf of its own citizens rather than on behalf of another country." Yet Washington and Iran both have their hands deep in al-Maliki’s return to power.

They are partners in meddling.

Of course nothing else can be expected from these two arch enemies, but the effects of insurgency are manifesting in their political struggle. On a guerrilla battlefield where the laws of war break down, the government or occupying force must embody a higher standard than the guerrilla, whose potential cruelty receives leniency from the population. The same law applies politically to America in regards to Iran - operating at the same level leads to defeat for the counterinsurgent.

America’s argument of Iranian meddling is rendered obsolete by Washington’s own meddling, a fact it may privately realize but refuses to accept in public. This “Great Hypocrisy” impedes any legitimate appeal to Iraqi sovereignty and is frequently raised to counter US allegations.

Worst still, US officials initially refused to publicly enter Iraq’s political negotiations, waiting until the situation grew dire before voicing their urgency. But with America’s influence stamped on al-Maliki’s second term, the last six months become a waste of time that Washington should have actively engaged from the beginning. Iraqi officials alleged in the meantime that the White House tuned out of Iraq once its surge commenced in Afghanistan. Delaying comes with a heavy price: the necessary allegiance of al-Sadr.

Here too Washington’s meddling is easily visible. As with Hamas and Hezbollah, US officials refuse to acknowledge his democratically-won seats and have worked to lock him out of a power-sharing agreement. But with al-Maliki desperate for Shia support, it was only a matter of time before al-Sadr found himself in the kingmaker role that many anticipated after his electoral success. Blocking him from the political system was always a futile hope.

Now Washington must swallow a bitter pill to stabilize Iraq, weakening America’s overall position in the country.

Yet al-Sadr’s support, coupled with US and Iranian blessings, stands to further destabilize Iraq. While vacillating in his resistance to al-Maliki, Allawi offers no tangible evidence that he intends to cooperate with a Shia-led government, especially when his Sunni/secular Iraqiya list beat out al-Maliki's State of Law coalition by two seats, 91 to 89. Sunni tribesman once on the government payroll were cut off months ago, reverting back to militiamen with some being recruited by al-Qaeda’s double payments.

Without Sunni representation at the highest level, conditions are ripe for the political and economic marginalization that dumps into the insurgency. Despite Washington’s support for al-Maliki and an inclusive government, the two concepts tend to violate each other.

The danger posed by al-Sadr is just as acute, if not more serious than Allawi’s potential alienation. Many suspected that Washington intends to re-negotiate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) before August, when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that US troops would stay past 2011 “if asked.” Iraq’s lack of progress has only reaffirmed him and unilateral support for al-Maliki solidifies these rumors, already fanned by Iraqi security forces who speak of the need for long-term US military support.

Unfortunately for US troops staying past 2011, their number one enemy will shift from al-Qaeda to the Mahdi army, al-Sadr’s personal militia, leaving two networks to combat. And the Mahdi army’s network dwarfs al-Qaeda’s. The organization went underground in 2007, when al-Sadr announced a ceasefire, and continued to disappear from the battlefield after being confronted by Iraqi and US forces in 2008. But the underground army evolved its social services in the process, likely translating into votes for al-Sadr last March.

It’s no secret why Washington supports al-Maliki but, when he meets al-Sadr in Iran, criticizes the meeting and opposes “Iranian interference.” More than a few al-Sadr officials speak of the new Mahdi army, composed of small tactical units specialized in guerrilla warfare. Well armed and fighting on nationalism and religion, they would pose a far more sophisticated and deadly threat to US troops than al-Qaeda. The Mahdi army has already declared war as of January 1st, 2012.

al-Maliki’s reported exchange of “security guarantees” to al-Sadr offers the latest evidence that America still hopes to extend the SOFA.

Obama didn’t instigate Iraq's war and isn’t to blame for the current conditions stemming from the invasion, but his early opposition adds to the foulness of his own “post-war” strategy. US policy seeks to extend US forces and isolate al-Sadr as a criminal of the state, rather than a democratically and morally supported cleric. At the highest strategic level, Washington seeks to isolate Iraq from its neighbor before a potential strike on its nuclear program.

“Liberation,” like WMDs, hasn’t stopped America from pursuing its own interests in Iraq above all others. And so long as America continues meddling in Iraqi politics, surrounding countries have all the more reason to continue their own interference. Admittedly easier said than done, Washington must drop its support of al-Maliki and lobby for Allawi as an equal partner, while accepting al-Sadr’s legitimacy. Though less likely to create a favorable US ally, neutrality may be the only means of permanent stabilization.

And perhaps the only real punishment to those who sought to financially exploit the war’s aftermath.

October 18, 2010

Marjah Haunted by Vietnam's Ghost

This Associated Press report is liable to cause Vietnam flashbacks in America and France. The Vietnam People's Army, first as the Viet Minh and later the Viet Cong, mastered the art of “cleaning a battlefield.”

MARJAH, Afghanistan (AP) — The Marines have found bloody clothes and spent bullet casings and bombs meant to kill them. They've heard bullets flying overhead and seen muzzle flashes in tree lines.

In this southern Afghan town that coalition forces seized from Taliban fighters eight months ago — and are still clearing — you don't have to go far to find the insurgency. But finding insurgents is another story altogether.

"The only time we see them is when we're in contact" in a gunfight, said Cpl. Chuck Martin, 24, of Middletown, R.I.

And even catching a glimpse of them during gunbattles can be rare.

When U.S.-led coalition forces poured into Marjah in February, they ended years of Taliban control here. But the Taliban never left — they simply went underground, blending in among civilians, taking advantage of the region's terrain of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches to stage daily ambushes of American patrols.

Today, U.S. troops are knee-deep in a classic guerrilla war, in what sometimes seems to be an endless turf battle against an often-invisible enemy that fights one minute, pretends to farm the next.

"I've seen the Taliban a couple of times, but it's only for brief seconds," said Lance Cpl. Benjamin Long, 21, of Trussville, Ala., who knew they were close on one recent patrol when machine gun rounds suddenly began kicking up dust near his feet. "It's like fighting ghosts. They're in and they're out. They're quick. They've been doing this a long time ... (and) they're good at it."

When U.S. forces go out on patrol, children and farmers come out of their homes and watch them closely. Some are just curious. Others use cell phones to tell insurgents what the Americans are doing.

When gunbattles erupt, Marines must simultaneously take cover and figure out where the Taliban are so they can return fire. They first listen to the crack and pop of gunshots, then look for muzzle flashes — although sometimes gunmen are hiding in foliage so thick they can't even see those.

Firefights often last around 15 or 20 minutes because the Taliban know how long it takes for troops to call in helicopter gunships or mortar barrages, Marines say. If air support doesn't arrive, the gunmen often start shooting again.

After one recent firefight, one Marine squad scooped up spent bullet cartridges from a compound insurgents had just fired from. It was the first time they'd found such a trace since arriving in July, said Sgt. Jeffrey Benson, 34, of Medina, Ohio.

"Usually they take everything after a firefight," Benson said. "They're real good at getting their dead and injured out."

During another 20-minute battle two days later, guerrillas ambushed Marines from the broken windows of a small, abandoned school compound. When Marines pushed up to it, they found more spent bullet casings — but again, no dead or wounded.

Soon, they began taking fire again from two more locations; the insurgents had merely withdrawn and found somewhere else to shoot from.

"It's like a little cat-and-mouse game," Martin said. "We try and get them. They hide their weapons ... then they just come back to the same location, pick up the same rifle, shoot at us again."

During the second gunbattle, Marines radioed for a mortar bombardment to suppress their attackers. A wave of shells exploded along the outer wall of a compound, shaking the area and kicking up vast brown clouds of dust.

When Martin arrived afterward to assess the damage, he found the father of a family who claimed he'd seen no Taliban in the area at all — a common refrain.

"It's one of the most frustrating things out here," Martin said. "We know there's Taliban in the area, and they're like, 'No, they're not.'"

"I pressed him about it because I saw the guy right outside his compound shooting at me with a rifle, but he still said no," Martin said. "I'm not sure if they think we're stupid, or if they're so afraid of the Taliban they won't talk."

U.S. forces across Afghanistan say the key to turning the tide in the nine-year war rests largely on civilians turning against the Taliban. In Marjah, though, that has yet to happen on any significant level, despite the steady presence for more than eight months of two Marine battalions and their Afghan counterparts.

"They always ask us, 'why do you need our help anyway? You're the ones with the guns ... you have the planes, you have the helicopters,'" Martin said. "They don't realize that just the information that they give us is the most helpful thing."

Some residents, having heard about President Barack Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing Americans from Afghanistan next summer, believe U.S. forces are not going to be in Marjah for long, Marines say. And whenever U.S. forces leave, they people who live here think they'll be left with an ineffective and undedicated force of Afghan police and soldiers — and of course, the Taliban, who are already among them.

"They don't know who to trust," Long said.

Neither do the Marines.

On the eve of the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, one U.S. base in Marjah hosted a delegation of 20 government poll organizers. Two of them were detained, though, after they were found to have smuggled in a pressure-plate bomb and a pair of grenades.

On election day, the base was attacked in a six-hour firefight that saw insurgents — with clear knowledge of the base's interior — angling their machine gun fire up and over the walls in an attempt to strike the vulnerable tents inside.

During a patrol one week later, Marines were astonished to find a crude drawing of what was clearly the exterior of the base, scrawled in white chalk on a wall in a man's home. Lines of fire were drawn at what appeared to be the post's guard towers.

"This looks a lot like an attack plan to me," said Lance Cpl. Patrick Cassidy, 23, of Stroudsburg, Pa. The Marines' base was only a couple dozen meters (yards) away, on the other side of a wide canal built with U.S. aid money half a century ago.

Bismullah Nazir Ali, the home's white-bearded owner, pleaded innocence. No Taliban had been there or in his fields, he said.

As he spoke, another gunbattle raged a few hundred meters away. Cobra attack helicopters were pounding targets with rockets that shook the area.

"Those are just flowers, children's drawings," Ali said, before being detained and carted away.

India, Kashmir’s Next Battleground: Obama

Like a calm between two storms, Kashmir’s independence movement nears a decisive point in its campaign. Relative peace has fallen on Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir after four months of low-intensity conflict, with both sides resetting their positions. New Delhi has offered an 8-point plan along with three interlocutors while maintaining strict protests in Kashmir, leaving the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to plan the next phases of its strategy and, for the time being, keep strikes to a minimum.

This will change in the run-up to US President Barack Obama’s Indian tour in early November.

In a statement issued to the press, APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq announced, “The Executive Committee and the General Council of Hurriyat have resolved to call for third party mediation as Islamabad and New Delhi have failed to make significant progress as far as solution of Kashmir issue is concerned. We will be launching a signature campaign across J&K from Monday calling for US intervention ahead of President Obama's visit to India.”

If the APHC can deliver, its strategy offers the likeliest chance of success in achieving its goals. During fourth-generation warfare (4GW) waged through political and civil-disobedience, a movement must extend beyond the streets into the international media, generating pressure for the state in question to ease its restrictions and for the international community to intervene. At first this usually means bloody images, but over time a systematic machine must pump visual propaganda and intellectual arguments into international view.

As the Palestinians did during the First Intifada and today, spilt blood must be converted into US and European currency.

The same goes for Kashmir’s struggle, which still barely penetrates the US media and only in times of bloodshed, not the crucial periods of calm when the issue itself should be debated. The APHC needs to light a permanent fire under the international media and slowly burn its way into America. But given the perfect timing, Obama’s visit provides a potential backdoor onto the international stage that must remain occupied after he’s gone.

Kashmir is helpless without international attention and mediation, and despite a poor track record with the Palestinians, Washington remains the biggest player on the block. Still technically neutral in comparison to Pakistan and China, US support would pave the way for a possible UN resolution. Mirwaiz said the APHC reached a consensus that America should become involved in the dispute, which is recognized by the UN.

A complete strike has been scheduled for October 27, the “black day” when the Indian army first landed in Jammu and Kashmir. Mirwaiz further explained that Hurriyat leaders, if they can elude Indian house arrest, will lead peaceful marches to the UN Military Observers Group in Sonawar, culminating in protests for withdrawal of Indian troops from the territory.

Directly addressing 4GW, “Processions will be held on the day to attract attention of international community towards the fact that India was continuously denying Kashmiris their inalienable right to self-determination.”

Meanwhile a signature campaign is supposedly planned inside America.

The difference is easy to picture. On one side, a quiet conflict that Obama can pass over. On the other, massive protests on the UN in Obama’s name, protests likely to provoke Indian aggression. This creates the potent 4GW mixture of dead civilians, hostile state troops suppressing an occupied people, and demands for an international dialogue that Obama, having ignored the conflict since assuming office, would find hard to avoid.

But despite a well-organized unit in the APHC - as organized as diversity allows anyway - the situation would be dramatically altered if not for India’s continual procrastination. To a point India can be sympathized with; the loss of a territory is traumatic in itself, and especially when water rights are concerned. Kashmir also houses millions of non-Muslims who mustn’t be discriminated against or marginalized during a potential partition. Ending Kashmir’s dispute cannot come at the expense of one group over another.

However, India’s current policy is only deteriorating its position. New Delhi still clings to the idea that Kashmir is an “integral part of India” and can only be negotiated in such a context, when neither the UN, Pakistan, nor any of Kashmir’s separatist leaders agree. Over 95% of Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir’s regional capital, adheres to Islam along with 67% of the whole territory. Polls conclude that 80% or more of the population demands independence and even if Kashmir's independence movement is the work of a minority, as India claims, 4GW is designed to amply that minority.

So while appointing interlocutors appears a good start, even if they are criticized by the APHC and Indian politicians alike, they lack any real value until India begins to moderate its position.

For now New Delhi hopes to outlast Kashmiri protesters, believing with some justification that four months of striking has exacted a material and mental toll. Yet these people have risked their lives for something far greater than themselves and the urge to resist doesn’t die easily. Without resolving the roots of Kashmir’s conflict, India's strategy has forced it to create a new demon to justify a hardening in Kashmir’s position.

Well aware that Pakistan has pressured Washington on Kashmir as a means of payment for the war in Afghanistan, New Delhi rightfully expects Obama to raise the dispute whether in public or private. But it’s unwilling to take any blame.

India tensely awaits Obama, a highly symbolic visit that could be overshadowed by a bloody valley beyond its borders, because it has failed to address Kashmir with sincerity, decisiveness, and consideration for the 21st century’s low tolerance for occupations. LeT “infiltrators” along the Line of Control (LoC) have spawned new threats of Pakistani interference. Indian authorities just arrested Masarat Alam, secretary-general of hardline leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as if this action will actually halt Kashmiri protests and stone throwers. And now, rather than a corresponding reaction to its own policy, New Delhi claims that China has asserted hegemony over Pakistan and urged Kashmiri leaders to hold out until Obama arrives.

Recent statements by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna insinuated that Kashmiri leaders rejected India’s proposal once they became aware of Pakistan and China’s support. Yet it’s doubtful that they needed to be told to dig in.

While their struggle suffers from unquestionable disadvantages in funding and lack of outside support, the APHC has a working grasp of 4GW, a style of warfare designed to counter these very weaknesses. Slowly but surely, Kashmir is going global. To what degree the APHC can force Obama’s intervention goes a long way in deciding their ultimate objective of breaking India’s political will in Jammu and Kashmir.