December 31, 2010

New Year's Information Vacuum: U.S. Concerned in Yemen

At least something went out by Friday’s deadline. Yemen’s government has already pushed onward with April’s parliamentary election, postponed in February 2009 in order for the government to institute political reforms. Next came an amendment to compose next April’s election commission from judges instead of party representatives. Both moves met resistance and boycott threats from the opposition, who accuses Sana’a of skipping the reform promised in 2009.

Now the latest reports have put a spook in the White House. According to local media, Yemen plans to hold a parliamentary vote on Saturday to eliminate the limit of two consecutive terms as president, offering the chance of permanent rule to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The U.S. State Department quickly released a statement from spokesman Mark Toner:
“The United States has seen reports regarding the apparent decision by Yemen’s ruling General People’s Conference to vote on a package of Constitutional reforms at a parliamentary session on Saturday, January 1. Previously, we consistently welcomed and supported the commitments of both the government and the opposition to address issues related to Constitutional reforms and other election reforms through the National Dialogue. We continue to believe that the interests of the Yemeni people will be best served through that process of negotiations. In that regard, we welcome reports that President Saleh has decided to appoint a new team from the ruling party to re-engage with the opposition in a new effort to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion. For that reason, we urgently call on all parties to delay parliamentary action and to return to the negotiating table to reach an agreement that will be welcomed by the Yemeni people as well as Yemen’s friends.”
We won’t go so far as to say this statement is worth less than the speck of memory to display it onscreen. Something is better than nothing, and the power of the State’s response cannot be lost in its feebleness. Toner’s statement breaks many rules of successful information warfare, all irrelevant when it comes to Saleh. He surely heard the message.

But will most Americans or Yemenis?

The State Department wouldn’t express its concern if it didn’t want people to hear; getting that message out is half the battle in fourth-generation warfare. But releasing a statement on Friday night - New Year's Eve of all days - and into the weekend is classic information exile. Perhaps the White House didn’t know of Yemen’s parliamentary schedule until today, but any statements are quickly lost in the weekend’s void.

Some Yemenis celebrate New Years too.

Furthermore, the White House’s level of concern once again fails to match the speaker. While parliament’s intentions remain unknown, making a preliminary statement permissible, major U.S. officials consistently avoid Yemen by deferring to spokespeople and under-officials. Though Washington’s establishment has equated Yemen’s danger to Pakistan, neither President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have much to say publicly.

This schism has contributed to America’s disconnection with the Yemeni people, who hear military speak from the Pentagon’s highest levels and relatively little of the White House’s concern for political and economic reform. Obama has no desire to touch Yemen personally, preferring to wield his influence with Saleh in private. Yet this trade-off loses the average Yemeni.

WikiLeaks simply magnified the gap.

Maybe the White House is saving its ammunition for April 27th, fearful of rocking the boat too much. Another party member told AFP the proposed amendment would be submitted to a referendum rather than a parliamentary vote, which would be held simultaneously with parliamentary elections. Saleh has also promised to approve international monitors, so a soft approach may yield more than a hard line.

We worry, though, that this policy could encourage Saleh and his political allies to continue about their “reforms,” which quickly escalated from the electoral commission to presidential terms. The dynamic between Washington and Sana’a is unstable enough, and though relying deeply on the other, the friction between Saleh and Yemenis has put a dagger in the heart of any real counterinsurgency effort.

The time to connect with Yemenis is before April, not after. Washington has waited too long as it is.

West Sees 2011 as Make-or-Break for Afghanistan

Until 2012, that is. From The Los Angeles Times:

Kabul, Afghanistan — A U.S. troop buildup in 2010 was meant to blunt the momentum of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Now it is 2011 that has become the make-or-break year.

U.S. and NATO officials have sought to put a positive face on the last 12 months of fighting here, citing significant military gains in the Taliban's southern heartland, a concerted campaign of strikes targeting the insurgents' midlevel field command and the growth of the NATO force to levels at last deemed adequate for the task at hand.

"We are convinced … that we are actually making progress; we have proven that progress is possible," German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, told journalists in Kabul in December. "We will keep up the pressure on the insurgency."But some ominous developments, both on and off the battlefield, bode ill for the new year.

The Taliban made deep inroads in swaths of the country previously regarded as relatively safe — the north, northwest and center — eroding confidence in the West's ability to protect the Afghan populace and hampering aid and reconstruction efforts. Parliamentary elections in September intended as a democratic showpiece devolved into fraud and chaos. Corruption tightened its grip on the government of President Hamid Karzai.

By midsummer, combat casualties among U.S. troops and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force as a whole had already reached their highest annual levels of the war. On Friday, the American military toll stood just short of a grim milestone: 498 deaths, according to the independent website icasualties.org, more than in the previous two years put together.

Altogether, Western troops suffered more than 700 fatalities in 2010, heightening unease on the part of European governments keenly aware of the war's unpopularity at home. While the NATO allies presented a united front at a conference in November, the Americans — whose troops make up two-thirds of the 150,000-member Western force — privately fretted about the likelihood of the United States shouldering an even larger share of the military burden in coming years.

As violence burgeoned, civilian casualties did too, jumping by 20% in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with the same period in the previous year, according to the United Nations. Most of the 2,412 noncombatant deaths in that period were attributed to the Taliban. But many Afghans, to the frustration of Western military officials, tend to place the overall blame on Western forces, seeing their presence as a magnet for insurgent attacks that kill and injure civilians.

With both the Taliban and the West promising to intensify their military actions in months ahead, civilians will continue to take the brunt of suicide attacks and roadside bombings that haunt daily life in many parts of the country, officials have said. On Friday, local officials near Kandahar reported that insurgents threw hand grenades into two homes in a still-unexplained attack that killed a child and wounded six other people.

"Sometimes we feel there is simply nowhere safe for us," said Samira Khan, a teacher in Kandahar province, a focal point of the fighting. "We keep waiting for life to get better, but it always seems we have to wait some more."

At the outset of 2010, Kandahar was declared a testing ground for the U.S.-led military push in the south. After months of delays, Western forces did manage to drive the Taliban out of key districts surrounding Kandahar city, which the movement regards as its spiritual home.

But the offensive did not begin in earnest until late summer, postponed in part after U.S. officials recognized the difficulties of bringing security and governance to the much smaller town of Marja, in neighboring Helmand province, the scene of an earlier campaign led by U.S. Marines. In the interim, the Taliban sowed terror in Kandahar by assassinating people affiliated with the government or with foreign forces.

The durability of gains touted in Kandahar province will probably not be apparent until springtime, Western commanders have acknowledged. Much depends on whether the insurgents are able to regroup and rearm over the winter in their traditional sanctuaries in Pakistan, which remain beyond the reach of NATO ground forces.

The insurgents' havens in Pakistan's tribal areas became somewhat less safe with a dramatic increase in strikes by U.S. aerial drones over the last year. But President Obama's year-end war review, issued almost exactly 12 months after he ordered the 30,000-troop buildup, was sharply critical of Pakistan's inaction against militants sheltering on its soil.

U.S. officials still publicly insist that the July 2011 target for the start of a troop drawdown from Afghanistan has not been abandoned. But a new date, 2014, has come to the fore. That is when it is hoped that Afghan security forces will be ready to take the lead in safeguarding the country.

Although intensive recruitment efforts have swelled the Afghan police and army to a quarter of a million, their Western trainers must grapple with an array of problems in the ranks: drug abuse, illiteracy, ethnic tensions and the occasional violent and unexpected display of loyalty to the Taliban.

Even Western officials who describe an improving picture in Afghanistan, such as Staffan de Mistura, the head of the U.N. mission here, acknowledge that the coming year is likely to be a difficult one.

"Our assessment," he told the Nations Security Council last week, "is before it gets better, it may get worse."

2009's assessment, 2010's assessment, 2011's assessment, 2012's assessment...

Cote d'Ivoire’s Ominous Calm

It would be one thing if the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) remained clueless of Laurent Gbagbo intentions, and paid him a visit to ascertain his final position. Feigning military might is sensible in this case, as ECOWAS had prepared to offer exile to Côte d'Ivoire’s embattled and disputed president. From the beginning, however, Gbagbo signaled no intention of stepping down.

And it didn’t take much skill to call ECOWAS’s bluff.

ECOWAS’s subsequent decision to back away from military force is both a gift and curse. While the group continues to deliberate force requirements and preparations, its appetite for invading Côte d'Ivoire is running justifiably low. William Fitzgerald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department's Bureau African Affairs, told reporters that Gbagbo is, “making a lot of threats and I think he realizes that his time in office is limited and that the pressure's getting to him.”

But one Western diplomat following ECOWAS deliberations in Abuja, Nigeria told reporters, “The ECOWAS standby force is something that exists only on paper. They would not be able to survive any kind of fight with Gbagbo’s forces.”

Already stretched thin, ECOWAS would encounter the full spectrum of war in Côte d'Ivoire, from the state's conventional regular forces and police to Gbagbo’s unconventional units - the 1,000 member Republican Guard, his private militia “Young Patriots,” and political supporters who could form civilian cells. Liberian tribesmen/mercenaries are joining both sides.

ECOWAS would enter a hazardous environment to fight this complex war. Roughly the size of Vietnam, Gbagbo has threatened attacks on roughly half of Côte d'Ivoire’s 20 million people: challenger Alassane Ouattara’s supporters and millions of immigrants, particularly those from nations participating in the invasion. Some estimates account for 20% of Ivory Coast's population as immigrants, many of them Muslims in the north - Ouattara’s base.

He has relatively no power in the Christian south, Gbagbo’s stronghold, putting an international force at a great disadvantage to control government arteries in Abidjan. Any attempt to occupy the pseudo-capital could lead to wide-scale urban warfare.

Neither observers nor ECOWAS itself believes it possesses the capabilities for such a task, a comforting thought if only for a moment. Refusing to fight an unwinnable war is sound judgment. However Gbagbo also realized how foolish intervention would be, and the consequences of ECOWAS’s failed bluff have already begun to manifest.

“The question now is what will happen next?” said Elkanah Odembo, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States. “What will we do next?” Whatever the strategy, it needs to happen fast.”

Reports are flying out of Côte d'Ivoire of night raids, potential mass graves, ethnic conflict, sporadic attacks on UN peacekeepers, media manipulation, and suppression of foreign journalists. At least 200 people have been killed, another 50+ missing, up to 30,000 fleeing to Liberia, numbers that rise in real time. Time noted a decrease in roadblocks, but most government installations and TV stations remain heavily fortified. At least 10 foreign journalists have been arrested in the past month, many more hearing warning shots from AK-47’s whistle past them.

Prices for food and basic necessities have tripled since the late November election.

But none of that is the immediate problem. With ECOWAS backing down, Gbagbo's “trusted enforcer” Charles Ble Goude, commander of the Young Patriots, threatened on Wednesday to storm the Golf hotel in Abidjan on Saturday. Ble Gloude’s self-stated goal is to “liberate the Golf Hotel with our bare hands,” where 800 UN peacekeeper currently guard Ouattara and his staff. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned, "Any attack against peacekeepers constitutes a crime under international law, for which the perpetrators and those who instigate them will be held accountable."

Why would Gbagbo believe him?

Telling an interview
with Euronews that his exile wouldn’t “guarantee peace,” Gbagbo responded passive aggressively: “I do not think about a civil war. But obviously, if the pressures continue we could end up in a civil war, a confrontation.”

The situation calls for rapid planning and action. Neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara appear willing to step down or share power, an unsustainable stalemate in the fragile country. Negotiations are obviously preferable. Unfortunately ECOWAS and France, who Gbagbo accuses of orchestrating the whole plot against him, have left themselves little room to maneuver after playing the final card of military force. Now anything less is likely to leave Gbagbo in office, and encouraged by his staying power.

“There’s a strong sense here that if they let another wishy-washy power-sharing arrangement emerge in Côte d’Ivoire, it will create a very bad precedent,” said the Western diplomat in Abuja. “The stakes here are unusually high. Either Gbagbo loses everything, or it will be a tremendous loss of face for Ecowas.”

What happens over the weekend could jump-start ECOWAS’s urgency. Côte d’Ivoire is moving fast and an assault on the Golf Hotel would speed up the crisis. Simple exile of Ouattara could temporarily diffuse the situation, as his supporters stand little chance against Gbagbo’s security apparatus, though an insurgency could develop from the New Forces. Whether a new group evolves into full-blown civil war remains to be seen, however the possibility rises as the conflict drags on.

"We must act quickly,” said Ouattara after giving a New Year address to the nation. “We must learn from everything that has happened. It is time to act and get out of this situation.”

ECOWAS, the AU, and UN must press forward with a new strategy now that Gbagbo has dared them to attack. No side can afford to back down. As Côte d’Ivoire must learn, so too must Africa learn. Having risked all their credibility, both ECOWAS and the AU are painfully aware that the region’s future depends on Côte d’Ivoire’s fate, starting immediately with elections in Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Liberia.

"Beyond Cote d'Ivoire, the way this crisis will be solved will affect the future of democratic elections in Africa," says one Ivoirian executive who wished to remain anonymous. "The democratic process has to win."

But it’s not looking good so far.

December 30, 2010

Netanyahu: Palestinians Evading Negotiations

From the Haaretz:

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that the Palestinians are responsible for the deadlock in peace talks, saying they have been evading negotiations while Israel is striving for peace.

Speaking at a conference of Foreign Ministry representatives, Netanyahu referred to the comments made by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this week, who said the Palestinian Authority is illegitimate and that Israel should not reach an agreement with them.

"The government, in my leadership, is striving to achieve peace. This is our target and objective – to reach an agreement in negotiations with the Palestinians," Netanyahu said Thursday.

"Unfortunately, the Palestinians have thus far been evading negotiations."

On Sunday, Lieberman attacked the Palestinian Authority as well as Netanyahu's promises for peace, saying the Palestinians will never sign a peace deal with Israel and that Netanyahu was unrealistic in his attempts to achieve a peace agreement with the PA within a year.

"Even if we offer the Palestinians Tel Aviv and a retreat to 1947 borders, they will find a reason not to sign a peace agreement with us," Lieberman told Israeli diplomats at a conference on Sunday.

In response to Lieberman's comment, Netanyahu issued a statement Sunday saying that only the prime minister decides Israeli polices, and that every government minister is entitled to his own opinions.

On Monday, Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 10 that talks with the Palestinians could result in an interim peace agreement.

"There could well be a situation that if we enter into talks with the Palestinians and we hit a wall on the issues of Jerusalem and refugees, the result would be an interim agreement," Netanyahu said. "That is certainly a possibility."

Netanyahu doesn’t need worry about evasion. The Palestinians - and the international community - are coming for him in 2011.

December 29, 2010

The Ends of Iraq’s Insurgency

Far away in their plush offices, comfy apartments, and mansions, some 7,000 miles from Baghdad, U.S. officials have consistently painted a stable Iraq in 2010.

With an impending deadline for U.S. troops and Iraq’s political gridlock enabling a new campaign amongst insurgents, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hailed the country’s strides towards democracy and prosperity. As hundreds of civilians and Iraqi security forces falling victim to war in May, June, July, and August, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared that Iraq was enjoying its lowest level of violence on record.

This dichotomy is both truthful and sickly perverted.

Thankfully the bloodbaths of 2006 and 2007, when hundreds of civilians could die on any given day, have subsided. However, their gross inhumanity also makes any other year appear livable even when it may not be. Call it the Saddam theory: the present beats anything that came before. But that thinking offers little respite to those suffering in the present. While Iraq’s casualties have stabilized compared to its darkest days, many Iraqis complain that social services have also regressed. Baghdad remains haunted by militias.

Although Iraq’s new government may alleviate some of these concerns, life is still unbearably hard for too many people. Iraq Body Count prefaces its 2010 summary, “For those who have lost loved ones in 2010, there is no sense in which the year can represent an ‘improvement’ on 2009.”

IBC’s 2010 review doesn’t necessarily contribute anything new to the war’s history. Its biggest “news” comes in the form of 15,000 to 23,000 unknown deaths added by WikiLeaks, raising IBC’s total above 108,000 civilian casualties. Considering that U.S. estimates lowball Iraqi and international figures, Washington seems concerned with its cover-ups first, U.S. soldiers second. But who didn’t know that?

IBC does, however, generate a question U.S. official have no answer for: how long will Iraq’s insurgency persist?

According to the IBC’s 2009 analysis, the group reached a tentative conclusion that “the situation is no longer improving.” Though Iraq has stabilized relative to 2006, IBC claims its “somber observation is largely borne out by 2010’s data,” and thus expects, “a persistent low-level conflict in Iraq that will continue to kill civilians at a similar rate for years to come.”

Many observers already realize this tragic fact, yet few can accurately predict when Iraq’s insurgency will finally run out of steam. No answer can be given at once, leaving the possibilities to be explored over next year. But four scenarios briefly surmise the main possibilities:

Insurgents fight until all U.S. troops withdraw in December 2011 - 0%

IBC’s figures register 80% of 2009 and 2010 attacks as “unknown” perpetrators, demonstrating the enigmatic nature of Iraq’s insurgency. al-Qaeda remains a key driver, as do Sunni and Shia criminal gangs, Iranian-supported Shia networks, independent foreign agents, and neutral detractors of the government. IBC hopefully remarks that deaths after “the end of combat missions” in August 2010 (273) gave way to an immediate halving of civilian deaths in September (130), with lower levels continuing into December (99).

But it’s probable that Iraq’s insurgency fell off to regroup after peaking in August. Next summer will undergo a similar cycle. Most insurgents have just as much stake in a post-U.S. Iraq, thus only a limited number of fighters are likely to consider their mission over with the last U.S. troop gone. Which leads to...

Insurgents fight for three to five more years - 60%

Modern insurgencies last a decade on average. Some, as Afghanistan and Somalia demonstrate, stretch three or four times longer, a trend that appears to be increasing in the 21st century. Three years would set Iraq on par, yet the insurgency’s resiliency and Iraq’s chronic woes suggest a longer time frame. Obviously this outcome is determined by Iraq’s political and economic progress, and the state is leaps ahead of Afghanistan or Somalia. A relatively successful four years could lock Iraq on track towards stability. Another few years like 2010 and the insurgency could drift to...

Insurgents fight past 2015 to 2020 - 30%

Although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has finally put his foot down on an extension to U.S. forces, it remains to be seen whether he follows through. A solid year of governance is mandatory. Many of Iraqi commanders have floated 2020 until their security forces are fully independent, a possible ploy for aid that happens to be tinged with realism. It’s difficult to imagine hundreds of Iraqi casualties into 2015 let alone 2020 - that, surely, would reach Saddam’s level. But insurgencies are resilient by nature, and the wrong political moves in Iraq could send it past 2015, down 2020’s way to join Afghanistan...

Fighting beyond 2020 - 10%

Perhaps the least realistic scenario, it’s also disturbingly possible for one reason. Were Iraq to remain destabilized past 2020, this suggests a permanent level of insurgency and criminality connected to the Gulf’s overall status. A destabilized Iraq post-2020 would power itself on a destabilized Middle East.

For Iraq to rid itself completely of its insurgency it needs the entire region to stabilize - Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. One can hope, but that won’t be enough by itself. The whole region must adequately address its political, economic, and demographic issues in the next decade, otherwise Iraqis may still find themselves caught in a steady insurgency in 2023.

Of course any strike on Iran will create unforeseen disturbances in Iraq’s time-line. Maybe 10% is too low after all.

Is al-Qaeda Deploying to Mogadishu?

As reported last week, a great battle looms in Mogadishu’s future. In a capital where battles are more common that public services, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and al-Shabab continue to mobilize in hopes of scoring a decisive victory.

TFG and African Union (AU) officials have skillfully marketed recent gains against al-Shabab to boost the AU’s force level from 8,000 to 12,000. 1,800 Ugandans await deployment, and President Yoweri Museveni promises the rest as soon as America and the EU pay up. Although Museveni has clung to a 20,000 ceiling, he’s also declared Uganda’s ability to raise three million soldiers if he must.

Meanwhile al-Shabab has temporarily aligned with Hizbul-Islam to reinvigorate itself from a power rift. Friction between leader Sheikh Moktar Ali “Godane” Zubeyr and deputy Sheikh Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, considered the moderate of the two, has interrupted the group’s decision cycle going into a pivotal 2011. TFG and AU officials have vowed to “eradicate” al-Shabab’s presence from Mogadishu before the TFG and AU’s mandates expire in August and September, respectively.

Zubeyr and Robow have downplayed tensions at various times, and with al-Shabab continuing to operate in Mogadishu and northern Somalia, any infighting probably would’ve resolved itself. AU reinforcements proved immediate motivation as the group assimilated Hizbul Islam, its former ally and rival.

However, as also reported days ago, unconfirmed sources alleged that al-Qaeda leadership replaced Zubeyr after failing to resolve al-Shabab’s dispute. Though unverified, this information still warranted attention because of its implications. Instead it was swept away by al-Shabab’s call for global jihadists and conversion threat against President Barack Obama.

Zubeyr’s status remains unconfirmed.

So what is known? According to Sheikh Hassan Ya’kub Ali, al-Shabab’s spokesman in Kismayo, the group is mobilizing reinforcements from the southern port for battle in Mogadishu. And the man al-Qaeda supposedly chose to replace Zubeyr - Sheikh Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee'aad "al-Afghani" - heads the Kismayo administration. Mareeg questions whether these troops would differ from reinforcements sent to various parts of the country.

Though largely serving an operational/training role behind al-Shabab’s ranks, al-Qaeda may believe now is the time to enter the fight directly.

al-Qaeda doesn’t like to “fight.” Fighting wastes energy. After suffering massive casualties during the Afghan invasion, the group has evolved its force multiplication by streamlining insurgencies and terror campaigns for third parties - like free software. Most members killed in Pakistan are plotters. Although dying by the thousands, al-Qaeda also managed multiply Iraq’s chaos to the brink of civil war. And its leadership has enhanced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magrib (AQIM), and al-Shabab’s tactics, profile, and recruiting.

But in a place like Somalia, where limited air-power could allow several hundred fighters to temporarily alter the balance of power, it’s possible that al-Qaeda is considering expending some of the estimated 500-1,000 operatives inside the state.

All possibilities must be considered as forces descend upon Mogadishu.

December 28, 2010

Aid Groups Challenge U.S. Claims of Taliban Retreat

From McClatchy:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Citing evidence that Taliban insurgents have expanded their reach across Afghanistan, aid groups and security analysts in the country are challenging as misleading the Obama administration's recent claim that insurgents now control less territory than they did a year ago.

"Absolutely, without any reservation, it is our opinion that the situation is a lot more insecure this year than it was last year," said Nic Lee, the director of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent organization that analyzes security dangers for aid groups.

"We don't see COIN has had any impact on the five-year trajectory," he said, referring to the counterinsurgency strategy that U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, has championed.

While U.S.-led forces have driven insurgents out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, Taliban advances in the rest of the country may have offset those gains, a cross section of year-end estimates suggests.

Insurgent attacks have jumped at least 66 percent this year, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

Security analysts say that Taliban shadow governors still exert control in all but one of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

A recent United Nations security estimate of the risks that U.N. personnel face as they travel around Afghanistan concluded that security was deteriorating in growing pockets across the country.

In one example, the U.N.'s World Food Program no longer sends its own trucks along the road that links Kabul to Bamiyan, one of the country's safest regions, because a bomb killed four of its staff members on the route in July.

"Our ability to use these routes has decreased," said Challiss McDonough, a Kabul-based spokeswoman for the international food program. "There are fewer places where we have completely unimpeded access."

A 20 percent increase in civilian casualties in 2010 and the highest coalition death toll in nine years of war add to the belief in Afghanistan that insecurity is growing, not declining.

"I can't understand how they can say it is more secure than last year," said Hashim Mayar, the acting director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella group that represents more than 100 Afghan and international aid groups working in Afghanistan.

"Insecurity has extended to some parts of the county that were relatively safe last year."

President Barack Obama offered the assessment of diminished Taliban control on Dec. 3 during a surprise visit to the country.

"Today we can be proud that there are fewer areas under Taliban control and more Afghans have a chance to build a more hopeful future," said Obama told U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated the claim two weeks later in discussing the findings of a 40-page still-secret assessment of U.S. progress in Afghanistan that was announced Dec. 16.

"As a result of the tough fight under way, the Taliban control far less territory today than they did a year ago," Gates said.

The five-page unclassified version of that assessment doesn't include the statement about territorial control, but it leaves the impression that the Taliban are on the run.

"The surge in coalition military and civilian resources... has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country," the unclassified version says.

In the days since its release, the White House and U.S. officials in Kabul have declined to provide specifics, saying only that the conclusion was based on a variety of measures that include the number of districts under Taliban or government control, estimates of Taliban freedom of movement and information about roadside bombs.

"There's just not a lot more we can offer without getting into classified information," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday in an e-mail message.

Last month, the Pentagon concluded that Afghan insurgents' "capabilities and operational reach have been qualitatively and geographically expanding."

Asked whether that assessment conflicts with the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, a military spokesman said that both could be true.

"You can, in fact, lose ground but be more geographically dispersed," said U.S. Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the communications director for the American-led military in Afghanistan.

Smith produced military maps that showed expanding "ink spots" of security around Afghanistan's biggest population centers, including Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan.

Smith argued that by focusing on protecting the country's largest population centers under the administration's counterinsurgency strategy, the U.S.-led military has contained much of the violence and is protecting a growing percentage of the country's 28 million residents, even if the Taliban are operating more widely.

In the past year, Smith said, the U.S. military has managed to reduce the number of Afghan districts that account for half of the violence from 14 to nine.

"They will expend a force to go somewhere thinking that we will follow them out of the main . . . population centers," Smith said. "Well, they're mistaken. We're not going to get sucked into chasing them around the country."

Even so, Smith said the military couldn't vouch for the White House assertion that the Taliban control less territory, which he said was based on a CIA study, not a military one.

"It's not a metric that we're able to validate from an ISAF perspective," he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the official name of the coalition. "Not that I disagree with it, but the agency that does that is a three-letter agency."

A former senior U.S. intelligence official who closely tracks the conflict in Afghanistan said that his own count, based on news reports, showed insurgency-related violence in at least 231 out of the country's 400 districts in November.

The former official, who agreed to discuss his findings only if he weren't identified, because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the count showed the Taliban's reach expanding.

"Even in unclassified sources, it's clear that the Taliban are showing they have greater reach than ever before," he said. "I don't know if they have the staying power." But they can reach previously unaffected areas, he said, "and that means terror. That means they can punish anybody anywhere."

"There were a lot more districts in contention than there were a year ago," he said.

Recent U.N. security estimates that The Wall Street Journal obtained appeared to support that view.

The maps, which assess the safety risks for U.N. staff traveling around Afghanistan, showed security deteriorating in growing pockets across the country.

Problems from March to October of this year worsened in eight provinces and overall travel risks improved in only two, the Journal reported.

December 27, 2010

Pakistan: Between Haven and Hell

Analysis by Robert Grenier, from Al Jazeera:

The tone of the question was startlingly hostile – not what one expects in the hushed, tony recesses of New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, perhaps the preeminent foreign-affairs think-tank in the United States and one whose membership is a virtual "Who’s Who" of the American foreign policy elite. The questioner, a highly respected former government official, was visibly angry. "When," he demanded to know, "are we going to do something about Pakistan? We’re providing them with billions per year in assistance, and yet they refuse to take action against terrorist safe havens on their territory, and their intelligence service provides support to insurgents who are killing American troops. Just how much longer are we going to remain patient?"

The gentleman’s sentiments were hardly new, but they reflect a view which is gaining wider currency in the US, to include both Congress and the Executive branch. They are an indication of the wide gulf in perspective which divides the US from its putative Pakistani ally, and serve as a stark warning for the future. In the words of one of my fellow panelists speaking before the Council, "We are only one successful car bomb away from an abrupt breach in our relations with Pakistan, and a radically different approach [in US policy]." In short, the status quo in US-Pakistan relations is like a ticking time bomb.

Haven and hell

In the US, it is often put as an either/or proposition: Is Pakistan simply unwilling to take action against the terrorist and insurgent safe havens on their side of the border, or do they lack the ability, as they claim? The answer, unfortunately, is: Both.

Pakistan’s military is legitimately over-stretched. It has fought major campaigns over the past two years in Bajaur, in the Swat Valley, and in South Waziristan; fighting continues sporadically in many parts of the country’s north-west, particularly in Orakzai, to say nothing of the devastating terrorist bombing campaign which has struck many parts of the country. Hostilities with Pakistani-based militants have cost the country thousands in military casualties, tens of thousands in civilian losses, and hundreds of thousands in internally-displaced persons – and that is before one even takes into consideration the unimaginable devastation of the country’s recent historic floods, for which the Pakistani military has also had to take the lead in humanitarian relief. It is hardly a wonder that military leaders are hesitant to launch yet another bloody, protracted conflict in North Waziristan, despite US insistence that they move against the al-Qa’ida terrorists and Haqqani-family-led Afghan insurgents who shelter there.

It must also be conceded, however, that even if it were at liberty to do so, Pakistan would be loathe to take action against the Afghan Taliban, for at least two reasons. First, Pakistan has its hands full with its own militants, who include – but are not limited to – the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and who have reacted to Pakistani attempts to interfere with their operations across the Durand Line by striking back at the Pakistani state. Part of the tacit – or perhaps explicit – understanding between Pakistan and the Afghan insurgents is that the latter will refrain from providing assistance to militants who target Pakistan. This is not a natural state of affairs, as the Afghan Taliban’s natural sympathies would tend to lie with their co-militants; indeed, Tehrik-e Taliban founder Baitullah Mehsud swore bayat to Mullah Omar before his missile-induced demise.

Were Pakistan to disrupt its marriage of convenience with any of the various elements of the Afghan insurgency – and particularly the Haqqanis -- the wronged party could well opt to combine forces in support of the Pakistani insurgents, which would be a most unwelcome development in Islamabad.

Even more critically, however, Pakistan has compelling national security interests in Afghanistan which it believes are not well served by the current government in Kabul. With the staying power of the US and its NATO allies very much in question, Pakistani strategists confront the near-term prospect of another Afghan civil war – a civil war again pitting the Pashtuns against Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities -- which would inevitably trigger a proxy struggle between India and Pakistan. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that Pakistan will opt to forego harmonious ties with Afghan actors who provide its sole viable means of countering a perceived Indian attempt at encirclement.

A delicate balance between allies

As to the more extreme elements of the US bill of particulars against Pakistan, I have not seen compelling evidence that Pakistan is providing material support, either military or financial, to the Afghan insurgents. It is clear, however, that Pakistan is maintaining an active dialogue with insurgent elements, turning a blind eye to their cross-border activities, and collaborating, at least on occasion, against non-NATO (read: Indian) targets – all of which, to American eyes, amounts to the moral equivalent of betrayal.

When President Obama rolled out his new Afghan strategy at West Point in December, 2009, he stressed that a broad partnership with Pakistan would be one of the fundamental elements of US policy toward the region. This was coded language for inducing Pakistan to take action against the insurgent safe havens whose continuation, in the US military view, could ultimately doom the US-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. To their credit, Obama administration spokesmen quietly stressed that the effort to bring the Pakistanis around would not be based on the usual hectoring, but instead on creating a strategic environment in which Pakistan would see cooperation against the so-called “Quetta Shura,” the Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as serving its national interests.

As has been so often the case with this administration, execution of the Obama strategy in the region has been very much at odds with its stated intent. Yes, the Americans have helped to foster some marginal improvements in tactical cooperation between Pakistan and the Kabul regime; and yes, the US is stepping up financial support both for Pakistan’s domestic counter-insurgency operations and its economic development. But on the critical issues of war and peace in Afghanistan, to include desultory efforts at fostering reconciliation between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban, the US has clearly refused to bring the Pakistani government into its confidence.

Indeed, if there were a viable process toward reconciliation with at least some elements of the insurgency, the US would be most unlikely to reveal it to the Pakistanis, for the simple reason that there is no trust between the two; the US and Afghanistan would fear Pakistani sabotage of any Coalition initiative which it might perceive to work against its clients. In short, there is nothing approaching alignment of strategic interests, let alone strategic coordination on Afghanistan between the US and Pakistan, and their respective policies there remain fundamentally adversarial. Unless decisively addressed, this situation will inevitably lead to a serious rupture between two states which, whether they like it or not, desperately need one another.

When a plan comes together

So, what should the US do? First of all, it needs to show that it is both committed and capable of remaining engaged in Afghanistan indefinitely, if necessary. To do this, paradoxically, it should scale back both the size of its presence and the extent of its core objectives in Afghanistan to a point where the latter is achievable, and the former sustainable. Transparent sustainability of effort would serve to demonstrate to the Taliban that it can never defeat the current government, nor assert its control over Kabul and the non-Pashtun regions of the country. The prospect of an open-ended, unwinnable civil war in Afghanistan should convince both the Taliban and the Pakistani government that the status quo does not serve their interests.

Second, the US must strongly encourage the Afghan government to re-channel Indian assistance and shift the Indian presence in a transparent way designed to allay Pakistani fears. This does not mean that Afghanistan should reject a relationship with India from which it clearly benefits, but it should manage the relationship in a way which does not appear to threaten Pakistan.

This is simple prudence, and an Indian government more devoted to enlightened self-interest would be willing to cooperate. There are a number of regional powers, including Iran, which have strong national interests at stake in Afghanistan, but none whose interests match Pakistan’s in perceived importance. Like it or not, these interests must be at least minimally accommodated if there is to be peace. On the other hand, Afghans can comfort themselves that Pakistan can never begin to control their country, for even the Pashtuns reflexively distrust the Punjabi-dominated state next door.

Third, with the above two conditioning factors in place, the US, Pakistan, and the Afghan regime – in coordination with other regional powers as necessary -- must come to agreement on the broad outlines of a viable Afghan settlement toward which all can work. For Pakistan, the price of inclusion in this regional consultation would be its commitment to exert its influence, including some degree of coercive pressure, on the Afghan insurgents to reach political accommodation at home.

Such a process would inevitably be messy and uncertain. Although the Taliban has always used traditional tactical accommodations to advance its interests, there is little in the movement’s history to suggest a willingness to bargain in good faith over strategic outcomes. Should a negotiated agreement with the Quetta Shura and the Haqqanis prove impossible, as it likely, the Pakistanis must be willing to use their influence and leverage to help undermine the current Taliban leadership and induce local commanders to enter the political process in their home areas – preferably under a reformed and decentralized Afghan political scheme designed in part to coopt them.

Reformulating influence

The Pakistanis have long over-estimated their influence over the insurgents, very much to include the Haqqanis, and in any case would have to work within the constraints imposed by their current military limitations and their fear of collusion between the Afghan insurgents and Pakistani militants. If, however, they could develop a common strategic framework with Washington and Kabul, the frictions which would inevitably arise among them would at least be confined to matters related to differences of perception on tactics and capabilities – not strategic intent.

Over time, and with the development of a greater level of trust, Pakistan’s relations with the insurgents would begin to appear more as a strategic asset, and less an indication of perfidy.

The US-Pakistan strategic partnership should very much extend to the eastern side of the Durand line, where US military and economic support must be harnessed to fundamentally transform the status of the tribal areas. The precise nature of that transformation would have to be worked out in consultation with the inhabitants of those areas, but must end in the reliable extension of responsible state authority over erstwhile militant safe havens.

Establishing a stable and benign political arrangement in Afghanistan will take years, and the effort to incorporate the lawless tribal areas into the Pakistani state many years more. But the strategic understandings underlying both of these projects cannot come soon enough, for the anger I witnessed in the otherwise staid halls of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the corresponding resentment building in Islamabad threaten to blow up any chance of genuine partnership between two countries whose most compelling national aspirations depend, perhaps more than either realizes, on the cooperation of the other.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

Quote of the Day

"It's not a bluff. The soldiers are coming much faster than anyone thinks."

- senior adviser to Alassane Ouattara, speaking on condition of anonymity

December 26, 2010

Côte d'Ivoire: All Sides Showing War


Like an anaconda, the West and African states have converged on Côte d'Ivoire to squeeze the life out of disputed president Laurent Gbagbo. Round after round of sanctions have frozen his family’s assets and grounded his private plane, at the request of challenger and internationally-recognized president Alassane Ouattara. As these measures proved insufficient in themselves, both America and France (through the UN) and neighboring African states have threatened the legitimate use of force as a last resort.

While this warning could sound like a necessary bluff to force Gbagbo’s resignation, the UN and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) better have their chips ready. Côte d'Ivoire perches on the abyss of another civil war and only an 11th hour miracle will save it.

Côte d'Ivoire’s future could very well be decided Tuesday when an ECOWAS delegation from Benin, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde visits Abidjan. Gbagbo's Interior Minister, Emile Guirieoulou, told a news conference that his government would "welcome the three heads of states as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey.” However these “brothers and friends” are expected to deliver an ultimatum that Gbagbo stand down or be removed from power.

And Gbagbo still isn’t listening to this message.

"I think that the use of force is forbidden in the international relation of any country," Yao Gnamien, Gbagbo's special adviser, told Al Jazeera from Abdijan. "It [force] is against the charter of the United Nations. The UN cannot use force against the president. The AU cannot use force against our president... The AU or the UN have to identify clearly what the purpose of the crisis and they have to sit down and solve the problem. Why do we have to use force?"

Gbagbo himself told Le Figaro, "If there is an internal conflict, a civil war, there will be risks because we will not allow our rights, our constitution, to be trampled on. People have to remember that. We are not afraid. We are not the aggressors."

Though Gbagbo talks a big game, so far his actions match his bravado. Gbagbo accuses ECOWAS of conspiring a “Western plot direct by France,” an allegation often thrown at the technocratic Ouattara, who’s worked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and enjoys support from the New Front rebels.

Ensuring a battle of wills, Ouattara's camp presently refuses any power sharing agreement like Kenya or Zimbabwe. So do ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). Ouattara, who believes he won the November 28 election outright, has been waiting too long to evict Gbagbo, whose term expired in 2005. The rising tide of international condemnation, plus the realistic possibility of force, has only steeled his will.

As for the AU and ECOWAS, they realize a power-sharing agreement would lead to a prolonged standoff rather than stability, much like Zimbabwe. They must get Côte d'Ivoire right now or deal with its long-term consequences.

Thus Ouattara has decided to play his trump card at this pivotal moment. ECOWAS’s delegation will land amid a general strike, which Ouattara's party announced by declaring, "We should not let them steal our victory." Ouattara’s supporters took to the streets in vain last week, meeting Gbagbo’s presidential guard and suffering at least 30 casualties. Since then the movement has laid low, especially as security personnel, paramilitary figures, and mercenaries conduct a fear campaign by night.

But with the world’s eye directly on Côte d'Ivoire, Ouattara appears to perceive the following days and weeks as the decisive moment. Calling for his supporters, theoretically over half of Côte d'Ivoire’s eligible voters, to “cease all activity” until Gbagbo resigns, Ouattara’s strike puts Côte d'Ivoire one step away from peace or war.

Looking ahead in the event that Gbagbo shuns the international community and prepares for an invasion, BBC’s John James reports that an international force would launch from Nigeria. ECOWAS’s leading member, president Goodluck Jonathan also happens to be presiding over the bloc, so Nigeria makes sense as a political and military staging ground. Although there could be some interplay between Côte d'Ivoire’s demands and Nigeria’s own insurgency, MEND (which we will examine shortly).

As for the invasion and war itself, Côte d'Ivoire is a fourth-generation disaster in the making. Though Gbabgo may be evicted from office with minimal effort, he’ll conduct a guerrilla insurgency from inside or outside the country until captured or terminated. Unlikely to meet an international force head on, Gbabgo will rely on guerrilla tactics and foreign mercenaries to drag the force down.

And make governering extremely difficult for Ouattara.

Already unstable and pervaded with armed groups, any large-scale campaign could displace millions and strain Côte d'Ivoire’s neighbors, similar to its previous civil war. The UN estimates that 15,000 have already fled the country's quarantined borders. Côte d'Ivoire could also lure AQIM-affiliated drug and weapons smugglers who run cocaine through the country.

Gbabgo will fight Ouattara to the death rather than accept his rule, which the ECOWAS, the AU, UN, Europe, and America must realize. They can’t bluff him when he’s willing to call them.

Yemen’s Arhabi: Media Exaggerate al-Qaida’s Influence

Abd-A-Karim Al-Arhabi is the deputy prime minister for economic affairs and the minister of planning and international cooperation for the Republic of Yemen. He is also the founder and managing director of the Social Fund for Development.

This past April, Arhabi received a public service award from the World Bank, citing him as a “key champion in the battle to reduce poverty, improve governance and broaden economic growth for Yemen.”

The Media Line’s Felice Friedson recently spoke with the Deputy Prime Minister in his office in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. From The Jerusalem Post:

TML: Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abd-A-Karim Al-Arhabi, thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Arhabi: You're welcome.

TML: It's rare in the West to hear anything [about Yemen] without the words al-Qaida. Is that accurate? Is that a fair assessment?

Arhabi: No, it is not. It cannot be. You yourself are in Sana'a and you see how Sana'a is. We have some isolated incidents of al-Qaida types from time to time, but many countries are subjected to some threats, so it's not only Yemen. Other countries are subject to similar terror acts. The media is exaggerating. Talking about al-Qaida is exciting and it attracts readers and viewers. That's why whatever relates to al-Qaida is being very much exaggerated and it overshadows the image of Yemen, which is most unfair.

TML: On one hand, there is a story to tell about Yemen, the country. A poor country, but a country with a rich history and beautiful architecture. On the other hand, there are serious incidents in rural areas with al-Qaida and terrorism, so how do you contain that terrorism?

Arhabi: I think the government is doing its best. Yemen unfortunately went through several cycles: or permanent cycles of conflict.

You are first, absolutely right. Yemen is a very interesting country; a unique country; has a rich culture; has a beautiful landscape and a long history of civilization which extends back to 1700 B.C. We have a civilization that is 3,700 years old. The country has very limited resources and unfortunately went through continuous cycles of conflict for 50 years which has drained resources and energy.

At the present time, the government is trying its best to combat terrorism and al-Qaida -- but we all know that Yemen has very little in terms of financial resources and human resources necessary to deal with al-Qaida. The government is doing its best; and has had several successes in combating al-Qaida.

TML: Does Yemen welcome American assistance and guidance in countering terrorism?

Arhabi: Terrorism is a global threat and unless we all join forces together, we will not be able to defeat that threat. That's why we need to cooperate -- all of us --in exchanging information, experience and so on; and providing all kinds of necessary support. It is an official position of the Yemeni government to accept support, whether it is coming from the United States or any other development partners.

TML: It is known that poor countries like Yemen have areas where al-Qaida seeks out young people in order to drag them into terrorism. How do you prevent that?

Arhabi: You are absolutely right. The young people are most vulnerable to being influenced by al-Qaida and the extremists. The young people who don't have proper education and skill training and a respectable life can be misled and used for any purpose. That's why it is of extreme importance that we focus on young people to provide them with good education, focusing on skills, training and jobs. Otherwise, it can be extremely dangerous. Extremists usually target young people to indoctrinate them. That's a big danger, actually. Young people who have no perspectives in life, have to be careful and Yemen needs to provide young people with hope and perspectives.

TML: Yemen appears to be making serious efforts towards democratization. Is the West helping sufficiently? Are you satisfied with that assistance or should there be more?

Arhabi: Well, our needs are unlimited, to be fair, in terms of democratization; and in terms of meeting the basic needs of the population. Our needs are unlimited, but we welcome any support. We have some donors and development partners that have been providing us with support for the last three and four decades. But still, what Yemen is getting is very limited. I can give you some examples. The official development assistance that Yemen is getting is between $13 and $15 per capita per year while the average per capita in the least developing countries is more than $40 per capita per year. Yemen is very much under-funded. This is a well-known fact. Sometimes you have donors that are focusing on specific parts of the world to provide assistance and sometimes donors confuse us with the Peninsula as a whole. They feel we are part of the huge wealth in the Peninsula which is not true. Yemen is a very poor country.

TML: As managing director of the Social Fund for Development, at what rate is Yemen's economy moving forward? How fast is it growing?

Arhabi: We had ambitious plans. We thought that we would be able to reach high economic growth: to be able to reduce poverty in the country. Our population growth is 3 % and we planned to have economic growth of 7.1% for the three to five years according to a plan spanning from 2006 to 2010. Unfortunately, we couldn't reach that goal. It was too ambitious and we had so many problems in the country. What we achieved was an average of 4.6% economic growth, which is reasonable if you take into consideration the difficulties and challenges the country is facing.

TML: The Social Fund for Development is now backing the expansion of the coffee industry. Some of the coffee suppliers that I spoke with expressed concerned over the government's lack of assistance in the area of water -- that they need dams -- and that they need internationally-recognized grading systems in order to move the coffee industry forward. What does the government need to do in order to make that difference?

Arhabi: Again, it is the same problem. The needs are unlimited and the resources are very limited. The government has been providing assistance to the farmers but it's not enough, I agree with that. However, our planning is to have special programs to support the coffee growers and farmers and provide them with the necessary assistance in terms of capacity building; building dams and modern irrigation systems. We are determined to provide such assistance to the coffee farmers.

TML: Is the plan to be able to help coffee growers distribute better or is it to actually process the coffee here and ship directly?

Arhabi: We would like to provide them with comprehensive assistance. We will intensify our assistance to the coffee farmers by providing them with capacity building but also to provide them with some basic services they need like you mentioned: the water. We will try to help them building rainwater harvesting schemes in their areas. At the same time, we have several microfinance programs and small enterprise financing programs that could provide funding as well for the processing and trade of coffee. Such assistance is available and accessible to the coffee farmers and coffee traders and those who are interested in processing.

TML: Looking at the rest of Yemen, the other industry that has room to grow is the grape industry. Are grapes second-class citizens to coffee beans?

Arhabi: No, I think we have assorted programs in the country to promote economic activities all over the country. Those are limited programs and cannot meet all the needs and demands for services all over the country so we have several programs targeting different sectors; different areas of the country; and also different products.

TML: What is your biggest frustration in speaking to the American or Western markets?

Arhabi: To the Western markets? Of course we want to have better access to those markets. At the present time, we are negotiating with the different countries for access to the World Trade Organization. Hopefully, we’ll get good deals in those negotiations with the different countries.

TML: When the Western world looks at the Middle East, almost reflexively the conversation comes around to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, there are a number of other Middle Eastern issues. Here in Yemen, how does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rank among conflicts?

Arhabi: Well, this is a major conflict that is occupying everybody. I think everybody is very much interested to resolve this conflict. Everyone is interested in a fair settlement of the conflict. This is a very sensitive issue to all Arabs and Muslims in general and hopefully the Americans, the Europeans can really help in reaching a fair settlement for this issue and Palestinians can regain their rights again.

TML: Does it impact Yemen directly?

Arhabi: It impacts all Arab countries -- no doubt about that whatsoever.

TML: Issues of women in the region do not exactly fall under the category of your ministry, they are serious issues today in terms of the nation’s development. How do you rate Yemen ranks in terms of how its women are treated and its progress in that direction?

Arhabi: We have no doubt that the gender issue is a big issue in the country. It is being discussed at all levels. In the first place, we admit we have a problem and that's the first step toward doing something about it. We have several programs which are addressed toward women in this country. Yemen is one of the first countries that signed several conventions and treaties related to women's rights and the gender issue. The government is focused very much on girls' education. Girls' education is one of the areas that will help really enrich the level of equality between men and women; and will enable women to contribute substantially to the nation’s development. If you look into Yemen now and compare it with the Yemen of two or three decades ago, you will see a big difference. The woman has really gained a lot during the last few decades and is now participating actively in the labor market. The growth of employment of women in the government agencies is growing continuously; and the whole society now recognizes that women have their own advantages when it comes to the workplace. They are recognized for being more disciplined and organized; and so there is a lot of acceptance for employment of women whether in the private sector or in government agencies. We made significant progress but of course it is not enough. Within the plan for the next five years, we have a chapter on gender issues, so we will endorse several policies that will promote the development and participation of woman in business and government.

TML: Two issues women view as being seriously backward are healthcare for women and allowing women to take vacations from work. Are these going to be resolved in the near future?

Arhabi: These are some of the challenges that we are aware of and we are doing our best to deal with them. But as I said, the needs are huge and the resources extremely limited in this country.

TML: What is the biggest challenge you face personally in the next 10 years?

Arhabi: There are so many challenges but I think education is a very big challenge. We still have millions of kids who have no access to schools, who drop out. We have problems of educational quality. We have problems to provide the right skill training that the market needs. I think the biggest challenge is education. Education can deal with other challenges, like population growth, health and other money challenges. So I think education is a big, big concern.

TML: Thank you very much for the time, Mr. Deputy Minister.

December 25, 2010

U.S. Gaining No Ground in Yemen

Last week John Brennan deployed to brief an esteemed audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The White House couldn’t ignore Yemen one day after releasing its review of the Afghan war, having declared Yemen an equal threat to Pakistan, so it sent its counter-terrorism chief to “The Global Think Tank.” While Brennan repeated that exact warning, he also tried to tone down the militarized narrative pervading Yemen.

“So let me say this,” Brennan vowed, “even if there are no threats to our security emanating from Yemen, the circumstances that I have described so far would be more than worthy of American attention. Yemen matters, the people of Yemen matter. And as President Obama has made clear, our common humanity connects us to those Yemenis who are struggling to make ends meet and to live in freedom and dignity.”

Apparently this was enough to fool some observers into believing U.S. policy is finally progressing on the right track. They should have waited for the other boot to drop.

One week later, to mark the “anniversary” of the failed Christmas bombing out of Yemen, Brennan phoned President Ali Abdullah Saleh to, "emphasize the importance of taking forceful action against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in order to thwart its plans to carry out terrorist attacks in Yemen as well as in other countries, including in the U.S. homeland.”

Brennan’s speech to Carnegie displayed the Pakistani pattern: repeated calls for military action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) concealed in politico-economic overtones. The dreaded "do more." He also mirrored U.S. counterinsurgency in general: more talk than action. While State Department officials have spent months waving attention towards Yemen’s non-military needs, U.S. policy on the ground has yet to catch the ideal vision they've painted.

Although Washington has raised humanitarian aid and tapped the international community to keep pace with ballooning military aid, U.S. focus remains predominately security-related. Brennan calls for patience, but by packaging military escalation with political and economic “reform,” U.S. officials are selling an incomplete “comprehensive” solution.

“We frequently push the Yemenis to move further and faster along the path of economic and political reform,” Brennan told Carnegie last week, “and to be more aggressive in the actions they take against Al Qaeda.”

The White House and Pentagon’s spin is undoubtedly complex. $130 million went to non-military accounts in 2010, as opposed to $150 million in military aid, and the White House plans to increase non-military aid in 2011. Voice of America reports that $300 million is allocated for 2011, half of which Brennan claims will go towards non-military assistance. However military aid will top $250 million in 2011.

Perhaps the complete figures haven’t been finalized, but Washington seems to be amplifying the image of its non-military aid to create a false perception. Regardless, Yemen's vast demands require a non-military-to-military ratio above 1-1, not a mere even trade. With 40% unemployment and an oil-based economy that's running dry, Yemen needs $225 million just to implement its Humanitarian Response Plan for 2011, and billions over the long term.

Except Western donors doubt that their funds will end up in the right place. Yemen’s ills are no different than Afghanistan's.

Brennan’s politico-speak at Carnegie increased over time, including the section that generated the most buzz. Flipping WikiLeaks into a token of trust with Yemen’s government, Brennan apologized and conveyed President Barack Obama’s gratitude to an “understanding” Saleh. Thus far WikiLeaks has revealed an air-strike arrangement between Saleh and U.S. General David Petraeus, misappropriated U.S. military aid towards the northern Houthi insurgency and southern secessionists, and U.S. ammo sent to Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis.

“For their part, the Yemenis complain that our security and development assistance flows are too slow and encumbered by bureaucratic requirements and complications, that we expect economic and political reforms virtually overnight without understanding the implications of such reforms on Yemeni society and stability, and that we are more interested in fighting Al Qaeda than in helping the Yemeni people.”

“A healthy tension,” Brennan calls it.

Yet he’s simply being coy, or else Brennan is dangerously tuned out of Yemen's environment. Does he truly believe, as he claims, that WikiLeaks didn’t constrain U.S.-Yemeni relations or harm Saleh’s relationship with the Yemeni people? He’s the only one if so. The Yemeni people have come to expect lies from its government and meddling by foreign powers, so they weren't shocked. But they also have no trust in Sana'a and Washington.

More likely, Brennan consciously ignored Saleh’s flat-lined popularity because the White House has no solution to this problem. Although he believes that WikiLeaks can be overcome through “a bilateral relationship based on honesty,” Brennan's speech to Carnegie was riddled with deception. And he immediately encountered - and dodged - the most critical question of U.S. policy during the Q&A portion.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch asks, “can you say with confidence today that no U.S. assistance is being diverted by Yemen for the fight against the Houthis or the southern secessionists?”

Brennan’s reply: “On the first question regarding WikiLeaks, I’m not going to address any specifics that might have been in the press about the contents of purported cables. You know, al-Qaeda and other terrorists will use whatever they can to try to recruit individuals and additional adherents to their twisted ideology. So they might point to certain developments, to certain things that come out in the public, in the press. But as I’ve said, they’re going to seize upon whatever they can. They are, as I said, a bunch of murderous thugs. They are individuals that are just determined to destroy and kill. And I think more and more individuals in Yemen, as well as other parts of the world, are seeing that, you know, al-Qaeda’s supposed, sort of, religious banner is a facade for this murderous agenda.”

Three errors strike this propaganda out. First, the U.S. and international medias cropped Brennan’s non-denial denial for a lead quote, never providing the question’s context. Second, Washington clearly cannot guarantee that U.S. military assistance won’t be diverted against the Houthis or Southern Movement, two conflicts that continue to burn. This lack of oversight has nothing to do with security concerns, and its damage is already done.

The Houthis have blamed America for funding Saleh before 2009.

Thus Brennan lowers the White House to al-Qaeda’s standards. Julian Assange isn't responsible for Saleh and Petraeus’s lie - Washington knowingly lost track of helicopters and U.S.-trained counter-terrorism units in the south, and passed ammunition to the Saudis to use against the Houthis. It’s also possible that “secret” U.S. air-strikes were floating in Brennan’s mind, the ones responsible for dozens of civilian casualties that Washington tried to cover up.

Either way Brennan turned America’s own murderous actions into a rant against al-Qaeda, exploiting America’s misguided policy into propaganda for that very policy. Isn’t that his accusation against al-Qaeda? Brennan never answers Mr. Malinowski’s question, but the Pentagon and CIA shouldn’t offer so much material if they want to avoid AQAP’s Inspire magazine and slick promo videos.

Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews introduced Brennan with the highest praise, confidently announcing, “I think there probably is no better person to address all of these questions than our speaker here.” Luckily she qualified herself because Brennan, an old CIA hand, didn’t meet these expectations. His title says counter-terrorism for a reason. Yemen poses a full-scale counterinsurgency, where non-military thinking must dominate the military sphere.

Washington’s policy doesn’t appear to have gained any ground in 2010. Rather than lead off with a politico-economic theme, U.S. officials rushed directly into military-emergency mode and must now correct themselves. A comprehensive solution should have developed at the onset if everyone realized its necessity. One of COIN’s central laws, as America learned the hard way in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, holds the beginning of an insurgency as the pivotal moment for a counterinsurgency.

Waiting even one year has cost America in the battle for perceptions - a race that it already lagged behind in - and WikiLeaks just caved the ground from underneath it. Now AQAP’s strength shows no indication of depleting. Although Washington has trained its quota of counter-terrorism units, increased intelligence sharing, and is funding new counter-terrorism bases in some of Yemen’s poorest and most volatile provinces, these are its only accomplishments. So maybe Brennan was the man to explain that particular job.

But without substantial progress in the political and economic realms, an isolated counter-terrorism policy either treads water or drowns.

December 24, 2010

Radical Change in Somalia's Future?

Rapid events out of Somalia. After a week of speculation and several days of assimilation, al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam officials formally united at Nasrudin mosque in Mogadishu. Obviously they wasted no time promising a joint campaign against African Union (AU) troops protecting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

And Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, the spokesman of Al Shabaab, wasted no time upstaging the merger with Hizbul-Islam by calling on jihadists around the world to take part in Somalia’s campaign. Although Uganda and Kenya warn that al-Shabab has boosted its African recruiting, Rage’s call is far more provocative and bound to attract U.S. attention. Last Thursday, Pakistan was al-Qaeda’s greatest threat to the U.S. homeland and Europe. On Friday it was Yemen.

Somalia may be tomorrow.

So how did Rage’s headline find itself kicked off stage as well? According to preliminary reports, al-Qaeda leadership has just replaced al-Shabab leader Moktar Ali Zubeyr (Muktar Abdirahman "Godane") with Ibrahim Haji Jama, the governor of Kismayo administration. Zubeyr has supposedly refused to step down, and it’s unclear whether these reports are accurate or how al-Qaeda could remove Zubeyr.

What is clear are the forces moving towards Somalia. Another 2,200 Ugandan soldiers stand on deck, having witnessed 1,800 deploy immediately after the UN raised the AU’s force level from 8,000 to 12,000. al-Shahab has summoned fighters from across the globe, a flow adjustment surely approved by AQ leadership. And its latest decision, if true, will swing wildly between two options, neither of them peaceful.

Without getting too deep into potentially false information, sacking Zubeyr likely necessitates his termination. What makes al-Qaeda’s decision so strange is that Zubeyr, not his deputy Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur), supports foreign fighters in Somalia. So removing Zubeyr over Robow to squash their feud, which has reduced al-Shabab’s efficiency, seems counterintuitive, and could generate further infighting among the ranks.

Or al-Qaeda might have decided that Zubeyr was simply too divisive and jettisoned him for someone more controllable.

Conversely, al-Shabab could reap the benefits if al-Qaeda manages to end the group’s political dispute. While not life-threatening, the feud has shortened its reach and allowed the AU to pick over its territory in Mogadishu. al-Qaeda clearly sees the schism as counterproductive, and al-Shabab will assume a more formidable foe against AU reinforcements if it can straighten out.

al-Qaeda’s move is nevertheless fascinating in its level of intervention. One of al-Shabab’s primary knocks from its own fighters is the dominating influence of foreigners. While Zubyer has declared his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, theoretically ceding authority to him, no action is so overt as regime change.

Perhaps al-Qaeda hasn’t concerned itself with al-Shabab’s health so much as taking over the group. Until now AQ leadership in Somalia has kept to security roles, leaving administrative governance to al-Shabab officials and sheiks. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan wanted for the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, currently heads al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia, with several Saudis and Pakistanis in charge of financing and training.

With the promotion of Haji Jama, known as “Al-Afghani,” al-Qaeda might be trying to usurp al-Shabab’s command structure rather than fix it.

More on these reports as information becomes available.

Second Gaza War Still Long-Shot

A voice of reason or a trap? Today Mahmud Zahar, one of Hamas’s co-founders and current foreign minister, reaffirmed the group’s ceasefire with Israel. IDF forces have escalated their response to sporadic rocket fire from the Gaza strip, drawing rebuke from PLO leadership in the West Bank. But Zahar claims there’s nothing to worry about.

"We declare our commitment to respecting the truce between us and the occupier," he told a gathering in Khan Yunis. "Despite the sacrifices, we announce that we continue to respect the truce... it's a sign of power and anyone could look to what the occupation's military leaders are talking about.”

So is Zahar lying?

Recent events are certainly disturbing. With the Gaza war’s anniversary nearing (December 27th) and the U.S. peace process in shambles, the region is accumulating tension as it braces for potential conflict. The latest international wave of Palestinian recognition has further aggravated Israeli officials, who feel they must once more reassert their dominance in the territories.

Technically the U.S. peace process hasn’t collapsed because it hasn’t moved in the first place. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, still hanging onto negotiations after their delay in September, recently told EU representatives that an IDF operation into Gaza would “lead to the collapse of all international efforts aimed at salvaging peace.”

"Military solutions such as these won't attain a thing and would only complicate the situation," warned Saeb Erekat, Abbas’s senior negotiator.

Hamas possesses several reasons to keep cool. As Zahar himself boasted, the group is using the ceasefire to rearm beyond its pre-war stock, similar to Hezbollah’s massive rearming after the July war. Any major IDF operation will interrupt the international weapons flow and Hamas’s own domestic arms production.

Hamas also wants to stay relatively popular with its soldiers and people; two wars in three years could lead to mutiny. In the midst of a “hearts and minds” campaign, Hamas is trying to boost its support ahead of a potential election in the Palestinian territories. And it knows that interrupting Gaza’s painstaking reconstruction would be disastrously foolish.

Finally, Hamas provoked the first Gaza war to stay relevant in the region and to bait Israel into a disproportionate response, which it would then exploit as political, legal, and information warfare. Achieving both of these objectives to a degree, the latter more than the former, Hamas no longer needs to cast Israel as “the bad guy.” Israel has done that itself following the Gaza war.

Now completely isolated and fearful of the international community stripping Washington's mediation, the last thing Hamas should do is create sympathy for Israel.

That leaves Israel, who does have reason to launch a comprehensive assault on Hamas, as the potential aggressor - basically for the reasons Hamas shouldn’t attack. Israel would like to stunt Hamas's regenerating military capabilities, interrupt its PR campaign, and spin itself into the victim before negotiating with Abbas. Although Fatah and Hamas remain hostile to each other to the point where Hamas just halted reconciliation talks, Erekat accurately noted that Israel holds a strategic interest in sowing division between the West Bank and Hamas.

This goes for inside Gaza too. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, told Army Radio on Wednesday that Hamas isn’t doing enough to prevent rocket attacks from militant groups, and warned that Israel won’t cease its response until all fire is eliminated. On one hand Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket attacks inside the Gaza strip, and on the other undermines Hamas’s rule through the blockade and IDF military activity.

Israel wants Hamas to eliminate these harder-line groups, yet its policy seeks to radicalize minority factions in order to subvert Hamas's authority.

Both Israel and Hamas have more to lose than gain through another war, unless one side overtly provokes the other. Thus a second Gaza war appears unlikely, at least for now. But this havoc is typical of a stalled peace process.

If war were to break out again, Washington would deserve a healthy share of the blame.

December 23, 2010

Sudan’s Worst Case Scenarios

President Barack Obama has spent the last few months encouraging leaders in Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and the African Union as a whole to accept the results of Sudan’s upcoming referendum on statehood. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer told reporters that, “ongoing aggressive diplomatic effort with the parties in Sudan and with its neighbors reflecting our intense interest in having a successful referendum."

Hammer insisted that Sudan is one of Obama’s top foreign priorities, concluding, "We believe that an on-time referendum is the best means of preventing the resumption of a full-scale war between northern and southern Sudan.”

Unfortunately the referendum stands a good chance of descending into a broad spectrum of warfare, as the UN has predicted in a report obtained by The Associated Press.

Outlining the worst case scenarios following Sudan’s January 9th election, the UN estimates that 2.8 million people could be at risk of violence, displacement, or starvation if one or both sides reject the referendum’s outcome. The UN, “is in consultation with the southern government” based on the assessment that, “during the referendum period and its aftermath, a number of unprecedented risks are likely to emerge.”

While the White House hopes that everything goes smoothly - as if it ever does - the odds of each scenario must be analyzed and factored into a pre and post-election strategy.

The best news out of Sudan is an overall softening in regional tensions. Although the Obama administration has championed the virtues of democracy and progressing African politics, these talking points didn’t sell Sudanese and other African leaders. At first the AU resisted the thought of secession, as the bloc’s policy opposes breakaway territories out of fear of empowering Africa’s numerous liberation groups. But the White House impressed upon Sudan’s neighbors that, in the event of regional warfare, the spill-over will contaminate them all - and the “domino theory” argument has won out.

The UN’s document warns, "deterioration of the North-South relationship, as well as tensions within northern and southern Sudan could lead to large-scale outflow of people to neighboring countries."

It’s also believed that the north has finally given up on the south. Nafie Ali Nafie, an aide to President Omar al-Bashir, recently accepted the south’s independence after regretting that unity efforts failed. Perhaps the international walls have finally closed around Khartoum, or else the north and south realize they need each other too much. 75% of Sudan’s proven oil reserves lie in the south while its refineries and port operate in northern territory. With oil accounting for 45% of northern revenues and 98% of southern revenues, both sides would be choking themselves if they attacked each other.

The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA), the south’s armed forces, even signed a framework agreement over oilfields and related infrastructure in the South. Of all the forces keeping Sudan in a tense equilibrium, this mutual dependence may be the most solid.

Oil, of course, is also a powder-keg awaiting detonation from a thousand sparks. Sudan embodies a state of Murphy’s Law - so many things can wrong that conflict must be expected. Hammer declares with confidence, "Over the past four months, the administration has redoubled our efforts to support referendum preparations and peace negotiations between the two parties."

While failing to hold the referendum on time would potentially unleash another civil war, the White House’s support isn’t without a double dose of irony. Support of the referendum’s outcome, to be specific. In the White House’s mind, as in nearly every Southerner, independence is “inevitable.” Other inevitabilities: voting irregularities, political persecution, night-raids, air-raids, and prolonged insurgency. Sadly both of Sudan’s choices risk intense conflict. Americans know at least a few things about the lesser of two evils.

According to Pagun Amum, south Sudan government's minister of peace, "I am sure 100 percent that the voting will go very peacefully unless someone in Khartoum decides to interrupt the process. It is not a very high probability, but of course it is there."

The probability is too high in Sudan.

Despite their public acceptance of a southern Sudan, northern officials appear to be lulling people to sleep. Officials from the north recently met with Libyan and Egyptian officials to discuss holding the election in a "climate of freedom, transparency and credibility.” Not very comforting coming after Cairo’s own suppressive parliamentary election. Massive vote-rigging is possible.

al-Bashir also issued the alarming statement that, if the south does succeed, Sharia law will be rigorously enforced: “we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity." The half million southern Sudanese living in the north could become immediate targets for persecution.

On top of the north’s general resentment of southern secession and the continual hostilities with Sudan’s many armed factions, Abyei’s “special administrative status” remains a provocative unknown. Still undefined by its borders, the central region is considered key despite its oil reserves trending downward. But Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, the White House’s envoy and one of its most optimistic officials, recently conceded that Abyei isn’t in position to hold its referendum.

Since the parties involved have enough of a challenge defining Abyei’s borders, Gration believes a political resolution should split the territory to avoid conflict. This seems like a recipe for conflict, one of many detonators for both states. Amum believes that Khartoum should consider just handing over Abyei to the south, an even quicker path to war. The people of Abyei are worried that whatever side they shun will retaliate.

Once down the warpath Sudan’s territories are left with three worst case scenarios: insurgency, conventional warfare mixed with insurgency, and outright conventional warfare. The last possibility, though still feasible, is least likely for several reasons. In addition to a presumed U.S./EU/AU military response, Khartoum won’t resort directly to its military when it operates its own paramilitary in the Janjaweed, Popular Defense Force, and foreign mercenaries.

Any warfare will mix conventional air operations with unconventional ground operations, backed by regular units where necessary.

Yet this step down is only slight comfort to those who have witnessed the Janjaweed in action, many of which were absorbed into the Sudanese military. They could deploy independently. One can sense the return of Sudan’s armed groups like a desert that just drained a rainstorm, the battlefield gradually stirring to life again, virtually assuring an armed conflict of some type following the referendum. According to the UN report, both the northern and southern militaries and paramilitiaries are hastily stocking arms and reinforcing their positions along the border, limiting aid work.

The resulting competition over positioning has sparked dozens of clashes between the Sudanese military and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Darfur’s main insurgent group. JEM claims that government forces just attacked a position near Dar al Salaam, while also declaring to fight alongside the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) for the first time.

Clearly the referendum can touch off Darfur as well.

And the White House recently warned Khartoum to end its bombing raids on the south, not the kind of pre-election atmosphere Washington had in mind. Attacks on November 12, November 24, and December 6 are still being investigated by the Sudanese government, but Susan Rice isn’t buying any of it. The US ambassador to the UN (and the White House’s toughest critic of Khartoum) told reporters after a Security Council meeting on the referendum, "The United States calls on the government of Sudan to immediately halt aerial bombardments.”

In the event that one or both sides reject the electoral process and/or results, the World Food Program and other aid organizations have already begun “pre-propositioning the six core pipelines” (food, nutrition, non-food items and emergency shelter, emergency medical kits, seeds and tools, and water, sanitation and hygiene supplies). One million people in need will exhaust the West’s capabilities let alone 2.8 million. Sudan’s Afghan-like infrastructure also led the UN to predict, “as the conflict drags out, local level government structures will become inoperative and social service delivery and trade will be seriously disrupted.”

The strong possibility exists that Sudan’s insurgent groups will use the chaos to seize whatever territory they can grab under the banner of “self-determination.” Also possible: al-Qaeda slips in undercover or Sudanese-Muslim insurgents take refuge in the Sahel, Somalia, or Yemen.

Southern Sudan would make for a wonderful African tale if it didn't have so many bad endings to choose from. al-Bashir, the world’s most powerful war criminal, would be further isolated by a Southern Sudan, allowing for easier containment or removal. Except every indication points to conflict on some level. The White House waged its policy on a successful referendum, ignoring criticism from Save Darfur for going too soft on al-Bashir. The south will be free if it can just get to January 9th.

But the White House better be prepared for democracy’s Hyde side.