September 30, 2011

Al-Awlaki’s Poisonous Bait: Saleh “Proves” That America Needs Him

According to statements from Yemen’s Defense Ministry, the New Mexican-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in a U.S air-strike on a suspected convoy. Anwar serves as a propaganda and operational planner inside al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and is one of America’s main targets in Yemen. AQAP’s presence has justified U.S. support for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s murderous regime, and his death would be a boost for these joint counterterrorism efforts.

So as the Western and Arab medias go haywire with this information and plaster it on their front pages, briefly consider a few recent events:
  • On May 6th, days after Saleh refused to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “power transfer” for a second time, reports surface that al-Awlaki has been targeted by U.S. assets and “nearly killed.” The Wall Street Journal confirms through Yemeni sources that Saleh has begun feeding new information to keep himself useful. U.S. counterterrorism support continues as air-strikes escalate.
  • On August 28th, with Saleh periodically announcing his return amid the shadowy battle for Zinjibar, AQAP leader Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi is reported killed by government officials. His body is never confirmed and fighting continues.
  • Having returned to Sana’a from his medical leave in Riyadh, Saleh immediately holds the opposition responsible for Yemen’s "criminal" uprising and the recent outburst of violence in Sana’a, accusing his political enemies of collaborating with AQAP. Saleh then conjures up a flimsy fatwa from a group of Yemeni scholars, which declares protests to be “ungodly” and gives Saleh another excuse to crack down on the revolutionaries. The collective message of his speeches is that Saleh isn’t stepping down before a presidential election is held, at an indefinite point in the future. Then, on the eve of al-Awalki’s purported death, he accuses the U.S. of pressuring an “ally” in the war against al-Qaeda - and presto.
Journalists received a text on Friday morning - as mass rallies are being prepared against Saleh - from the Yemeni Defense Ministry claiming, "The terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions.” The Yemeni Observer, a front for the government, issued a similarly vague but coordinated statement. A Defense Ministry official told CBS News he was killed without offering further details, although 9:55 AM is offered as a time of operation. CBS News' Khaled Wassef points out that Al-Awlaki “was reported dead following U.S. air strikes on southern Yemen in December 2009 and November 2010.”

Anwar may in fact be eliminated from Yemen’s equation - several local U.S. journalists have tentatively confirmed - but recent history suggests otherwise. Some sources put his death between the al-Jawf and Ma'rib governorates, while others report a battle in Shawbah governorate, an odd divergence. The final conclusion, however, is that al-Awlaki’s death accomplishes little to nothing on the U.S. side. His tribe has vowed retaliation in the event of an extrajudicial killing and his position will be swiftly filled, if not his unique skill-set. U.S. policy will hoist its trophy but continue hammering Yemen’s southern territories in search of AQAP’s other leaders. Protesters will continue viewing U.S. policy as irreversibly immoral and short-sighted.

And the main beneficiary of al-Awlaki’s death, through no coincidence, would be Ali Saleh, who stands ready to crush the revolutionary spirit out of Yemen.

September 29, 2011

Michael Mullen: Another Casualty of Real COIN

One of the many tragedies of Afghanistan and Iraq is how quickly its hard lessons are already being discarded. During the haze of Vietnam’s aftermath, U.S. policy-makers and generals avoided a full understanding of its experiences, wishing to put the war behind them and move on to the next one. Laced with unconventional theories from a century of “small wars,” conventional warfare remained in fashion as the U.S. military continued to distance itself technologically from the rest of the world.

Ironically, the multilateral support necessary to sustain a counterinsurgency was lost in the Gulf War’s electronic blur. Washington’s collective mind eased. Counterinsurgency and fourth-generation warfare (4GW) would remain fringe topics, setting up the failures that unfolded in Somalia, North Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Now Vietnam’s memory lapse is on the verge of repeating. With the U.S. and NATO governments failing to apply true COIN to Afghanistan, high-tech counterterrorism (or CT) has reassumed its place atop the military spectrum, a view that automatically creates a dangerous top-down strategy. Because America and NATO allies lacked the resources, regional unity and local understanding to engage all levels of Afghanistan, full-spectrum COIN was never truly applied. Despite David Petraeus’s claim that a government “cannot kill its way out of an insurgency,” the U.S. military attempted to do just that with tens of thousands of night-raids and sorties.

Military operations inevitably bridged the expanding gap between political, economic and social progress, so it’s not accurate to say that counterinsurgency is officially dead. Michael Mullen and all those caught in his vortex are merely COIN’s latest casualties.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is scheduled to resign tomorrow and leave his mess for someone else to mop up. Praised by his higher-ups, peers and admirers, Mullen has been billed as an acute student of Pakistan’s environment and a friendly face to its military. Evidence of these claims runs short in Islamabad. Mullen spent the last several years alienating Pakistanis with his comments, which generally shift the majority of Afghanistan's blame on Islamabad, and his visits often failed to quell the disagreement he was sent to patch. Pakistani officials are too aware that Washington uses them as an automatic scapegoat, and Mullen’s statements have triggered cyclical anti-American protests.

Rather than demonstrate an understanding of Pakistan’s entire sphere, the Admiral once again proved how little Washington has learned about real counterinsurgency. The White House quickly found itself in an exaggerated argument with journalists over whether President Barack Obama personally disagreed with Mullen’s statements, when the White House never contradicted the essence of his warning. Press secretary Jay Carney responded to one question by saying, "It's not language that I would use,” but those urging the White House to directly target Pakistan appear to have missed Carney’s other statements.

“The continuing safe havens that the Haqqani network enjoys in Pakistan and the links between the Pakistani military and the Haqqani network are troubling. And we want action taken against them. And that is a conversation we have had with the Pakistani government for a long time, not just in recent days and weeks... It is also true that our cooperation with Pakistan has been extremely important, and that Pakistan has been very helpful to the United States in our fight against al Qaeda in particular. But they do need to take action against the Haqqani network, to deprive the network of the safe havens that it has in Pakistan.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that the administration is "in the final formal review" for designating the Haqqani network as a terrorist organization.

Mullen has since been forced to clarify his remarks, organizing a series of media interviews to repeat his story. When asked if he would change what he said, the outgoing Admiral remarked, "Not a word. I phrased it the way I wanted it to be phrased." Except he is treading backwards, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “With respect to the ISI, we enjoy in ways a very positive relationship in some areas, we're focused on shared interests, we've operated together, and from that perspective it's been very positive and actually improving.”

“I’m not asserting that the Pakistan military or the ISI has complete control over the Haqqanis,” he explained to NPR.

These words blur the red line - “veritable” is synonym with genuine or indubitable - meaning Mullen can have it both ways. In an interview scheduled to be broadcast on Sunday, Mullen told Zakaria that, “there are elements I think of the ISI very active with Haqqanis... that are so focused on sending Taliban and insurgents into Afghanistan.” ISI elements are providing the Haqqanis with, “financial support, logistic support and, actually, sort of free passage in the safe haven and those links are part of what enable the Haqqanis to carry out their mission.”

That the ISI possesses no links to the Haqqanis and Taliban is non-sense; Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI’s chief, responded to Mullen’s claims by declaring, "We have never paid a penny or provided even a single bullet to the Haqqani network." Instead he pushes the blame onto India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), arguing, “There are other intelligence networks supporting groups who operate inside Afghanistan.” This counter-claim may hold a kernel of truth, but ignores the central issue that the Haqqnis represent a nationalist insurgency, not a transitional jihadist threat.

“The Haqqanis run that safe haven,” Mullen says of Pakistan’s tribal sanctuaries in North Waziristan. “They’re also a home to al Qaeda in that safe haven. And I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it’s got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.”

Thus the Haqqanis qualify as a terrorist organization not because they’re harboring al-Qaeda cells, or killing Afghans and Pakistanis - but killing American soldiers. Occupying soldiers, to many. To these people, the solution isn’t to open another front but for America to increase the pace of its withdrawal. In amplifying the focus on the Haqqani network, the U.S. is tacitly admitting that its drone campaign failed to significantly weaken the group, which became the Predators’ objective after Islamabad consistently vetoed an operation into North Waziristan.

Drones have reduced al-Qaeda’s network, but they are ineffective in eliminating a nationalist entity like the Haqqanis, which is rooted in Afghanistan’s environment. Former Pakistani ambassador Ayaz Wazir remarked, “Jalaluddin Haqqani was part of the Taliban right from Day One, I would say. Haqqani and Taliban are one and the same thing.”

U.S. officials will never successfully persuade Islamabad or a sizable number of Afghans that the Haqqanis are “separate and distinct” from the Taliban shura. The network has launched few attacks on Pakistan forces, instead concentrating the bulk of its operations against U.S. and NATO targets. Breaking the Haqqanis’ away from the Taliban’s network is part of the mad scramble after drones failed to degrade their sub-network. This trend precedes the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a major Tajik leader. The U.S. never intended to sincerely negotiate with any part of the Taliban, only pound it into submission.

Pakistan inherently disagrees with this strategy. One intelligence official rhetorically asked, “Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot? After 2014, we’ll be left right where we were after the Afghan jihad.”

What U.S. officials are demanding simply cannot, and will not, be done. “I just think those links have to be broken,” Mullen said, adding that this would be a long-term process. “But if they’re broken, I think that fundamentally changes the viability of that safe haven and the overall strategy.” As sensible as his thinking appears, Mullen simplifies the fundamentals on Pakistan’s side. The Pentagon would sacrifice all non-military dimensions to achieve a military objective, readying the most unpopular assault possible. Estimates put the Haqqani network between 5,000 and 10,000, and most could avoid a fight. Those that aren’t in Afghanistan could easily cross the border.

The Haqqanis, contrary to mainstream reporting, have also diversified beyond North Waziristan after anticipating an invasion for several years. No pure military solution exists.

Washington is ultimately demanding that Pakistan assume all of the risk in North Waziristan and eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan must fight half of America’s war against the Haqqanis and TTP, one created by the Soviet invasion and the other after 9/11. Washington expects Islamabad to “trust us,” when the Pakistani haven’t been offered the proper incentive to break a truce with one of Afghanistan's largest, most well trained groups. And if the U.S. can’t financially support the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has no chance of picking up the economic slack.

"Pakistan cannot be pressured to do more, but the doors are still open from our side for talks and discussion," said Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani. "We reject these allegations. God willing, we can face these challenges with unity. We are committed to defend our independence and sovereignty."

Yet the disarray between the U.S. and Pakistani governments may be exceeded by the chaos now overrunning the U.S. media. Far from a productive policy debate, the war of words within Washington has further deteriorated confidence in U.S. leadership and strategy. With divisions consuming Washington and Islamabad - and Kabul in crisis - South Asia remains a Bermuda triangle of political and information warfare. The Haqqanis’ media feud benefits the Taliban more than any attack that induced Mullen to call Islamabad out - this division may even be the Taliban’s primary objective.

The U.S. is revealed as desperate, potential Taliban recruits may sense weakness and the insurgency can react to ongoing public statements. Such is the brilliant counterterrorism of Mullen and company.

September 28, 2011

What Can Be Done in Yemen? Too Much

For years we’ve watched those who watch Yemen. More than a few U.S. analysts initially stuck to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime when the uprising struck, either out of necessity or choice. The general belief contended that if Saleh wasn’t a true ally, his government offered the most pragmatic option to combating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These analysts also pushed for a transition when many protesters had already buried the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) proposal, having perceived through Saleh’s joint stalling tactics with Washington and Riyadh.

Only a minority of U.S. observers were willing to unconditionally oppose the Obama administration’s policy, without concern for the potential loss of media access.

Perhaps our impressions are wrong, but this summer seemed to bring a noticeable drop in Yemeni coverage from these same analysts. Our assumption is that their predictions didn’t work out so well, leaving them to vicariously experience the White House’s nerves. Every media-approved analyst has since resurfaced with feverish activity, especially in light of Yemen’s recent violence and Saleh’s “surprise” return. Three major pieces dropped yesterday in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Council on Foreign Relations. Each appears comprehensive on the surface, only to bail out of a deeper decent into Yemen’s revolution.

The key to U.S. analysis is diversion. The majority of reports apply a relatively equal focus to AQAP, Saleh and his family, and Yemen’s political opposition, while also mixing light criticism with an excuse of U.S. policy. The core youth movement is granted token recognition before moving on to the traditional power brokers, who certainly manifest enormous influence on Yemen’s environment, but not to the point that the youth should be negated. Treated like children at the adult’s dinner table, U.S. and Saudi officials have encouraged fragmentation between the opposition and youth movement. While Washington accepts suspected al-Qaeda elements in Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), al-Qaeda’s presence is exploited to keep Yemen’s opposition divided - similar to Saleh’s “snake dancing."

Whether inside government meeting rooms or the U.S. media, every piece of Yemen’s puzzle is being discussed above the popular protesters. Charlies Schmitz, an associate professor of geography at Towson University, is versed in this style of writing. Arguing that the “bad guy won” in his latest Foreign Policy piece, “Yemen’s Unhappy Ending,” Schmitz waits until his conclusion to get tough with the Obama administration. Apparently buying Saleh’s plot in Abyan, he then ridicules U.S. officials for believing his “facts on the ground.”

U.S. policy is “comical,” Schmitz says, but that’s all he says.

Gregory Johnsen, billed as the leading mainstream expert on Yemen, released a similar analysis through the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), only he attempts to “reset U.S. policy.” Johnsen’s council sounds wise in a vacuum, but his conclusion is that the U.S. should try what has already failed. In particular, Saleh and his son Ahmed have been warned in private and public to leave the country. Whether they were explicitly threatened with sanctions is undetermined, but Johnsen suggests another attempt of this three-pronged approach, after Saleh just returned from Riyadh and stirred up mayhem. He’s also requested a fatwa from the Yemeni Clerics Association, to be applied to whoever rejects his false dialogue.

That Yemen’s future is being hashed out in private by U.S. and Saudi officials only contributes to their own loss of credibility.

Other “solutions” will also do more harm than good. On top of political subservience to the GCC, which Yemen isn’t an official member of, Johnsen suggests a Special Fund to stabilize the transitional process. While Yemen requires extensive economic assistance, its revolutionaries share Egyptian protesters’ distrust of Western and Gulf funding. Most of the GCC’s funds would flow from Saudi Arabia, sustaining its breach in Yemen’s sovereignty. Johnsen also ignores a genuine public outreach in favor of a “joint center for public awareness,” established by U.S. policymakers and “their Saudi and Yemeni colleagues.”

“The center would seek to deprive AQAP of one of its main assets: unchallenged public assertions. At the moment, no entity in Yemen is speaking up in Arabic against AQAP, which means that the organization is able to shape its public message uncontested. The joint center would work to make al-Qaeda as synonymous with terrorism in Yemen as it is in the United States.”

The U.S. needs to develop relations with Yemen’s people by speaking through policy, not by countering AQAP’s propaganda. U.S. policy is AQAP’s propaganda; too many Yemenis believe the group is funded by Saleh for a U.S. initiative to succeed. It must be homegrown, and grown out of a genuine reset in U.S. policy. Johnsen also praised Schmitz’s article as the “must read” of the day, a warning sign in itself. The majority of U.S. analysts are relatively coordinated in their opinions, creating a group think that has limited public awareness and understanding of Yemen’s situation.

The Atlantic’s John Dana Stuster, an intern at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), authored the trio’s most blunt assessment, digging deeper into the GCC’s grime and spending more text on the youth movement. This isn’t surprising given that he’s the youngest of the three analysts, and Stuster follows Yemen’s plot until he runs into the same wall of “what can America really do?”

The answer is plenty.

Saleh’s plots run too deep for U.S. light to reach. As a basic reset, the Obama administration must officially end its support for the GCC initiative and begin a process of empowerment towards the Yemeni youth. No fair election is possible with Saleh in power or his regime in control of a transitional council. Rather than offer another chance to Saleh - he won’t take it - President Obama himself must unequivocally end America’s political and military relationship with his regime. “Encouraging” Saleh two days before a massacre is obviously the wrong route, as is faking “surprise” upon his return to Sana’a.

Increased high-level involvement should start with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The administration must stop destroying its own credibility through silence, clueless sources and half-baked, low-level statements. A meltdown in U.S. policy has created a negative cycle in which officials fear getting too close, effectively ending their diplomacy. Instead John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief, has assumed the lead with a host of defense officials, reinforcing the perception that America is obsessed with terrorism - to the point that it creates militants. This policy must be reversed.

U.S. officials can easily stop legitimizing the regime through constant meetings, if they actually wished to do so. On Thursday one of Clinton's deputies, Jeffrey Feltman, met with Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi in Washington, after Al-Qirbi used his time in the UN to denounce Yemen’s opposition as the source of violence. Meanwhile Ambassador Gerald Feierstein met with Saleh’s impotent vice president, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and subsequently declared, "We have heard optimistic talks from all sides."

These aren’t sincere attempts to assist the revolutionaries or stay in contact with the government, and are akin to friendly meetings with the Assads or Gaddafis.

Perhaps more challenging of all, the administration should temporary halt U.S. air strikes until Saleh’s regime is removed. These strikes aren’t making much “progress” anyway and serve as the administration’s excuse to delay a real change in policy. More damage will be dealt to AQAP if Washington ends its military operations and manages to pull out of its political death spiral. These suggestions may sound unrealistic, but the other “realistic” options have already failed. The Obama administration's problem isn’t that America can only do so much in Yemen, but that it must do too much - that too much change must occur too fast, and that too much influence will be lost.

A lack of political will, not a viable alternative, is sinking U.S. policy in Yemen.

September 27, 2011

Taliban Outmaneuvering U.S. Information Operations

The Haqqani network is terrifying. Responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Afghans and Pakistanis - whether through IEDs, raids or provoking a Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan’s Kurram Agency - the Haqqanis have spread instability across the Durand Line. Yet they also lack an expressed agenda to attack any targets outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and don’t abide by a global fatwa. The Haqqanis weren’t involved in 9/11. While conjoined with al-Qaeda elements, they’ve stayed true to nationalist insurgency from the beginning of their resistance.

To classify the Haqqanis as terrorists simply because they’re attacking an occupation is part of the longstanding rhetorical war between governments and guerrillas. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, goes the cliche/truism.

Revolutionary maxims, like the wars they attempt to explain, seem to take longer to die. The differences between guerrilla warfare in the 1960s and 2010s have become steadily pronounced, particularly in regards to technology, but the basic convergence between political and military factors remain unchanged. For instance, insurgents invariably seek to cross international borders and acquire foreign support (state or non-state). South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham also displayed how little U.S. Senators have learned from Vietnam, injecting himself into a heated debate by announcing his support for unilateral actions into Pakistan. Few Senators back the war with greater vigor, except pressuring Islamabad in such a manner offers a quick path to stalemate or defeat.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will resign from his post on September 30th, leaving everyone else to put out the fire he started last week. After an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the assassination of Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullen accused Islamabad of direct links to the Haqqani network and demanded action. His partner, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, took this as a cue to promise a response to the Senators, who nodded in agreement. Ultimately they have a negligible understanding of guerrilla warfare, indicated by their demands for immediate military action to conceal Washington’s non-military shortcomings.

"Certainly they expected more results from Afghanistan, which they have not been able to achieve as yet," Yusuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, told Reuters. "They have not achieved what they visualized."

Regardless of their military progress against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Pentagon and CIA would concede this point in private (and under a heavy dose of truth serum). The Obama administration’s militarized surge was planned from the start, but this trend increased as the Taliban’s resiliency kicked in and the White House began to run out of time. U.S. strategy is based on the principle that America needs to grab what it can get, militarily speaking, before the public’s alarm expires - including a campaign into North Waziristan and Kurram, the Haqqanis’ main sanctuaries in Pakistan. These operations would displaced hundreds of thousands of residents, cost a similar amount in millions and trigger potential retaliation from the network, which maintains a longstanding non-aggression pact with Islamabad.

“The United States will suffer more losses than they did in Afghanistan,” Sirajuddin Haqqani warned in a recent interview, daring U.S. forces to enter North Waziristan.

The Pakistanis have refused to add such a heavy meal to their full plate since the Obama administration ordered its surge in 2009. Beyond maintaining relations with Afghan Taliban for strategic purposes and limiting local attacks, Pakistani policymakers and civilians alike feel that the country shouldn’t pay for all of America’s mistakes. They quickly point out that Washington funded Jalaluddin in his jihad against the Russians, and now seeks to eliminate him because he’s fighting American troops. This double-standard of occupation persuades few Pakistanis. Most supporters of military action support operations in the tribal agencies on national grounds, in order to avoid U.S. retaliation and preserve economic ties.

"The negative messaging, naturally that is disturbing my people," Gilani said in the interview. "If there is messaging that is not appropriate to our friendship, then naturally it is extremely difficult to convince my public. Therefore they should be sending positive messages."

U.S. officials shouldn’t expect to get anywhere by openly threatening Pakistani officials, yet they continue to do so despite counterproductive results. The same outcome applies to placing the Haqqanis on America’s terror list, and by definition punishing Pakistan as a state-sponsor. Some, though hardly all, of Washington’s problems in Afghanistan stem from across the border, and moving against Islamabad actually shields the Haqqani network’s bubble. The Taliban, on the other hand, are acutely sensitive to these developments, as evidenced by Sirajuddin’s cryptic denial of recent attacks. In contrast to the U.S. policymakers and generals trampling on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s information spheres, the Taliban’s shura has decided to defer to Islamabad while rallying its own nationalist elements.

Many Afghans and Pakistanis will blow the Taliban’s statement off as propaganda, however the group is clearly attuned to the Haqqanis’ significance in the media: “The respected Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani (the group’s founder) is (one of the) Islamic Emirate’s honorable and dignified personalities and receives all guidance for operations from the leader of the Islamic Emirate.”

U.S. officials have cast the Haqqanis as independent of the Taliban for two main reasons: to corner Pakistan into military action, and to portray the Taliban’s central network as weaker than it truly is. The Haqqanis are integral to the Afghan Taliban, and often clash with the Hakimullah-led faction of the Pakistani Taliban.

“America wants to spread chaos in Pakistan through various means, weaken its government and make it dependent upon them,” read the statement. “That is why it is trying to make this government collide with its citizens and with this excuse, make them fight each other to show that there is what they like to call terrorist sanctuaries there.”

The Taliban’s ability to incorporate Western complaints into its own rhetoric also demonstrates the potential for U.S. pressure to backfire amongst neutral Afghans. The shura would call out “American officials and especially General Petreaus” for “repeatedly lying and feeding wrong information to its nation about them having the upper hand in the Afghan situation.” Instead of “baseless accusations, more casualties and a constant attempt to conceal losses and failures,” the Taliban advises, “it would be better for America and her allies to put an end to the occupation of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and do now what must inevitably be done.”

Although the Taliban initially denied involved in Rabbani’s assassination, the group had every reason to carry out the hit. This message is very simple, carries farther than America’s and appeals to many Afghans, Pakistanis and Americans: the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces is non-negotiable.

September 26, 2011

Abbas Dares Israel, U.S. to Make Peace

Mahmoud Abbas may not be as popular as his jubilant reception in Ramallah suggest, but he’s no longer the lame duck that many pegged for dead.

Clinging to his expired term as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Abbas is mired in unfavorable negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, highlighting his as impotence against Israel and the international community. Fatah and Hamas have failed to reconcile despite a series of meetings to outline a transition forward, including the next presidential election. Yet Abbas is still standing, perhaps at his highest point in six years as PNA chairman. Despite his flaws, Abbas ultimately offers an appropriate symbol for the Palestinian’s bid for statehood: down but not out.

“We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here,” Abbas told a crowd of celebrators in the West Bank. “A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal.”

Reckless abandon has its advantages, and Abbas successfully rallied a large segment of the international community to push his statehood bid through the United Nations. The body began to consider his proposal on Monday, a process expected to take an undetermined period of weeks. Nawaf Salam, Lebanon’s Ambassador to the UN and current Council President, briefly emerged to tell reporters that a formal meeting would be held on Wednesday “to transmit the bid to a committee on admission of new members which includes all 15 council nations.” Approval in either the Security Council or through a "special report" to the General Assembly would continue Abbas’s impressive turnaround - just as long as the PNA reacts accordingly to the situation.

Recent polling from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates that Abbas remains perched on the edge, ready to leap or fall with his people. Aware of his position, Abbas told the crowd upon his return to Ramallah, “Dear brothers, we are realistic. Our international journey has begun and a long journey lies ahead.”

PCPSR’s numbers aren’t surprising. 83% of respondents support Abbas’s bid to the UN, with 74% believing that, “there is no point in returning to negotiations with Israel without acceptable terms of reference or without freezing settlement construction.” Through no coincidence, 64% also replied that an Arab Spring-inspired uprising would fail to end the occupation. Abbas’s own approval drops considerably, to 52%, as he loses support from Gaza and assumes the West Bank’s disenchantment. If new presidential elections were held today, Abbas would defeat Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh 59% to 34%, with a 51% rating in Gaza.

The question of statehood is loaded, emotionally speaking. Regardless of their personal beliefs, most Palestinians are likely to support the idea of an international recognized state, even as a starting point to full-fledged statehood. Any movement, to them, is forward progress regardless of the potential confrontation with Israeli settlers and the IDF, since these experiences are already endemic. Whatever his personal popularity, Abbas appears to have a solid mandate to advance the Palestinians’ cause through the UN. Many feel that they have more to gain than lose, whereas Israelis generally lean in the opposite direction.

A 70% majority of Israelis would accept the UN’s decision, in line with frequent polls on a two-state solution, but 57% of respondents said that Israel should first try to obstruct Abbas’s appeal.

The de facto PNA president has tried to explain that UN status isn’t a declaration of war against Israel, nor is Abbas’s intention to isolate the Israeli people. While the Palestinians’ cause is now supported by a majority of states, no sensible argument can be made that Israel is more isolated on the ground, and its international support outweighs the Palestinians’ numbers. The Palestinians are trying to break their own blockade, not apply a siege to Israel, but this process has been mixed up in an intense counter-media campaign. Abbas also repeated that negotiations would restart in conjunction with UN status, but U.S. and Israeli officials initially brushed him aside.

The White House and State Department later switched to arguing that negotiations must be unconditional after encountering criticism from U.S. and foreign reporters. These claims similarly misrepresented the situation, driven by domestic and foreign criticism that Obama is “too hard” on Israel. Leaving a favorable U.S. position aside, Netanyahu’s idea of “negotiations without preconditions” includes no right of return, no Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and no military.

It’s not surprising that two unilaterally-minded governments seek to deprive others of the same liberty.

“The United States and Israel are more closely coordinated now than they have been at any time in the last two years,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. “We see things very much eye-to-eye on how to move forward. We see the United States as Israel emphasizes that there is no alternative to direct negotiations.”

Some participants and observers expect open conflict by October, and 68% of polled Palestinians expect some form of a backlash from Israel. Others sound like they’ll start a conflict if one doesn’t break out upon the UN adoption of Palestinian statehood. Roughly one third of respondents, presumably weighted in Gaza, told PCPSR that they still support an armed intifada in the event of a veto. These elements will profit from international disarray instead of being forced to confront an open path towards legitimacy. Meanwhile Netanyahu leads the Israeli contingent of obstructionists, although he tried to “make peace” to the UN. “The truth is that Israel wants peace; the truth is that I want peace,” he insisted, adding that he “noticed the Arab peace initiative.”

Only the Israeli media is having its own field day with Netanyahu’s two-faced rhetoric, and few politicians conjure more distrust and acrimony between the Palestinians than the hard-line premier. Avidgor Liberman is one of them. Netanyahu’s foreign minister recently told Israeli Army Radio, “That would bring us to an altogether new situation and this would have repercussions, severe repercussions. Any unilateral step will without a doubt bring an Israeli reaction.”

Realizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all its ramifications - political, military, economic, social and religious - prevents a smooth or speedy resolution, U.S. and Israeli policy-makers are also guilty of negative thinking. Fear of the unknown and a reduction in power is making them paranoid of existing shadows, inducing panic in the dark. The Palestinians are attempting to balance what is currently a biased two-state solution in Israel’s favor, and this struggle has triggered a nationalist reaction enflamed by Netanyahu and Lieberman. Washington, naturally, has shadowed them all the way to the UN.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat emphasized this point during an interview with Charlie Rose, explaining that the White House never wavered from its promise to veto any UN action - Arab Spring be damned. The administration hopes to avoid a veto by swaying Bosnia, Colombia, Nigeria and Gabon to “return to negotiations,” which would give the Palestinians only six votes in the Security Council. With the UK, France, Germany and Portugal set to abstain, these previous countries would tip the balance against China, Russia, Lebanon, Brazil, India and South Africa.

Suddenly India and Brazil have become obstacles to America. Such is the irony of the weak overpowering the strong in order to overpower the weak.

To persuade the toss-up states, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has mixed honey and poison to reopen the negotiating room (Quartet efforts are targeting foreign states, not the Palestinians). After praising Abbas and other notable officials for all of their hard work, the White House rejects the UN as a valid entity in the conflict while simultaneously expecting a solution by the end of 2012. An unrealistic goal considering the last two+ years, this tactic is merely a ploy in the vein of George Bush’s last-ditch Annapolis summit in 2007. These efforts are contributing to the potential for violence, as though U.S. and Israeli officials require bloodshed to sustain their policy.

Sounds similar to certain militant factions in Gaza.

If the Obama administration put this much energy into supporting the Palestinians’ legitimate statehood, Abbas probably wouldn’t have gone to the UN and explicitly dared the U.S. to veto in the first place. The White House should dare Netanyahu’s government to make peace instead.

Yemenis Reject Saleh's Fatal Dialogue

“Our protests will escalate and we are confident we will win. We will arrest him and bring him to court.”

- Tawakul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains, and a rogue member of Yemen's Islah party, the dominant faction within the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

Karman, who immediately rallied in January and inspired more protests after getting arrested, split off to announce a revolutionary council independent from the JMP's National Council. The JMP has sought to broker a power deal for themselves, but officials have so far resisted Ali Abdullah Saleh's latest "offer" for "dialogue" with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). At least 100 people - protesters, anti-government militiamen and government forces alike - have been killed in the last six days, with untold hundreds wounded over the last two weeks of fighting.

Local estimates exceed the foreign media's. Yemen's
Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) released the following press release after Saleh's speech on Sunday:

"The speech delivered by President Ali Abdullah Saleh tonight did not present anything new, it rather left many questions unanswered. Although his tone and volume of voice reflected his physical weakness, his language included lots of accusations to his political opponents. The accusations he brought in his televised speech of being terrorists and violent imply a deep desire for violence and revenge. Most dangerously he also indirectly accused his opponents of being behind the June 03, attack on his presidential mosque, in which first-rank state officials including his own self were injured.

The speech on 49th anniversary of 26 September revolution provide grounded evidence that Saleh physically and constitutionally incapable of achieving the aspirations of Yemenis. His sudden return from Saudi – in a secret way – shows his decreasing support inside Yemen and in plain words he is not welcome any more. He made calls for ceasefire upon his return according to the government spokesperson, but his own army – led by his eldest son Ahmed and central security forces, launched one of the most aggressive assaults on protesters killing some 44 in an overnight assault on Friday 23, 20110.

Saleh in his first appearance after his return to Yemen from Saudi repeated his unserious calls for dialogue & early elections. He pointed out that he delegated authority to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to sign the GCC deal.

Although Saleh expressed his welcome of the international and regional calls to peacefully transfer power according to the GCC deal, his language showed discontent and discomfort with particularly the belated statement of GCC ministers of interiors on the recent causalities and the over 150 killed by his forces.

Saleh is trying to buy himself some time, while it is too late by swapping the responsibility to his Vice President. He showed in more than one occasions his unwillingness to step down and hand over power in a peaceful manner. This attitude could trigger violence and has done so in several occasions.

As our initial and ultimate reaction, we - the Coordinating Council of the Yemeni Revolution for Change (CCYRC) – consider Saleh’s speech worthless and meaningless. The CCYRC will continue the revolutionary escalation. We will continue our peaceful demonstrations to oust Saleh and his children. We dream of a new Yemen without family rule, aggression, bloodshed and social discrimination and divide. Saleh has to listen to our peaceful and continuous calls asking him to step down and save Yemen all the tragic losses.

We also denounce all forms of violence committed by Saleh’s family army and security forces and we call upon all regional and international powers to practice further pressure on Saleh to step down immediately."

Protesters held massive demonstrations on Monday in Sana'a and
Ta'izz, calling for immediate regime change and justice for Saleh's human rights abuses. They realize that his "peaceful and orderly transition" is a myth, but when will the Obama administration and U.S. media stop telling it?

Mainstream Media: The Necessary Evil

Interesting poll from Pew Research. Extensive data on use and perceptions of the U.S. news medium and social media:
Negative opinions about the performance of news organizations now equal or surpass all-time highs on nine of 12 core measures the Pew Research Center has been tracking since 1985. However, these bleak findings are put into some perspective by the fact that news organizations are more trusted sources of information than are many other institutions, including government and business.
Other contrasting headlines:

Broad Criticism of Press Performance
Press More Trusted Than Government, Business
Most Say News Organizations Are Highly Professional

Media Trusted More than Other Sources

TV Still Top News Source (66% to the Internet’s 43%)

More See Press Hurting Democracy
Most Want News with No Political Point of View

September 25, 2011

Holding Ali Abdullah Saleh Accountable

John Brennan’s day doesn’t seem to end. Assigned to a platoon of defense officials led by Secretary Leon Panetta, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism adviser has been tasked with leading America’s post-bin Laden strategy against al-Qaeda. Flipping the group’s strength back and forth with David Petraeus (CIA Director), Michael Vickers (Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence) and Matt Olsen (head of the National Counterterrorism Center), U.S. officials are following “al-Qaeda 2.0” out of “AfPak” and into North Africa, Somalia and Yemen.

Although Yemen is squarely centered in the Pentagon and CIA’s crosshairs, none of their officials have spent any time examining their real fear: a loss of influence due to the country’s nine-month revolution.

By labeling AQAP as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous “node,” the administration has amplified domestic panic to obscure a collapse in foreign policy. Built on a single man - Ali Abdullah Saleh - and his familial circle of security commanders, U.S. counterterrorism operations are now crumbling on their unstable foundation. al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is organized to a relatively high degree and declared its intent to attack America in glossy magazines, except Saleh also decided to employ his U.S.-trained counterterrorism units against his political opponents. AQAP has feasted on his decaying regime and American alliance to recruit locally - and so have Yemen’s revolutionaries.

Speaking through a series of media events scheduled around 9/11’s 10th anniversary, Brennan attempted to squeeze an unbalanced military strategy inside “laws and values” during a recent address to Harvard Law School. Beginning with the priority of U.S. national security and references to drones, Brennan highlighted the less glamorous elements integral to counterterrorism: economic, legal and intelligence countermeasures, detention and interrogation. Counterterrorism is inherently complex and requires full-spectrum warfare - the use of all available tools, military and non-military - to employ on a sustainable basis. Many tools also lose their edge when deployed around a government, rather than in cooperation with it, and begin to break when paired with an autocratic regime.

This brings the White House’s counterterrorism chief to “capacity building abroad,” a main theme of the administration’s new Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).

“These efforts are not a blank check,” Brennan clarifies. “As a condition of our funding, training, and cooperation, we require that our partners comply with certain legal and humanitarian standards. At times, we have curtailed or suspended security assistance when these standards are not met. We encourage these countries to build a more just, more transparent system that can gain the respect and support of their own people.”

The main problem in Yemen’s case is that the administration failed to hold Saleh’s regime accountable. Security assistance increased even though he failed to comply to international humanitarian standards, and abused U.S. military and economic funding to pursue his own gains. According to 2009-10 cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats ignored repeated warnings from Hamid al-Ahmar, a tribal leader in Saleh’s Hashid tribe and former strategic ally, who predicted an uprising if fair (or fairer) political conditions weren’t met (they weren’t). The Saudis refer to Saleh as “the devil that we know,” and WikiLeaks exposed a “secret” agreement with Petraeus to conduct air operations under cover of the Yemeni Air Force.

An errant cruise missile would kill the deputy governor of Marib governorate less than six months later, putting a temporarily lid on the strikes. However the Pentagon and CIA’s operational plan continued to expand off radar. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal both reported leaks on a potential CIA base inside the country, approved shortly after Yemen’s revolution began in January, and aerial operations resumed in May despite Saleh’s refusal to sign a U.S.-sponsored power transfer (complete with immunity). Counterterrorism support remains ongoing as U.S.-trained security forces open fire on peaceful protesters, and Pentagon officials openly express their approval of unilateral actions in Yemen. Defense officials now speak of learning from Pakistan’s mistakes - proactively engaging al-Qaeda branches before they mature - but unconditional support for Saleh’s regime is repeating the alienation of Pakistan’s population.

This relationship, while mutually beneficial in the short-term, validates al-Qaeda’s political ideology and sacrifices the local support needed to permanently dismantle AQAP. Brennan would reject the “false choice between security and values,” yet this dilemma has fully manifested on the Arabian Peninsula.

“A partnership with the people of Yemen, not dictators such as Saleh, is the most effective way to uproot and defeat extremists,” advises Yemen’s National Council of the Peaceful Revolutionary Forces (NCPRF). “Saleh has proven himself again to be an incapable and unreliable partner in the global efforts to promote regional security and combat terrorism.”

Unfortunately the Obama administration continues to repeat its errors through a series of “encouraging” statements, all voicing support for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unpopular initiative. Over 125 people are estimated to have been killed, and hundreds wounded, in the nine days since the State Department pressed for a political resolution - in “one week.” The administration would regret the loss of life and acknowledge the need for an investigation, but President Obama held out hope for “a peaceful and orderly transition of power” during his speech to the UN General Assembly. These statements were followed by a Washington meeting between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, and a GCC meeting attended by Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Obama administration pleaded ignorance when Saleh landed in Sana’a on Friday, but these conferences tipped his “surprise” return from Riyadh.

Amid rumors that Saleh will delegate authority to his son, Ahmed, or hold snap elections, gunfire and artillery immediately marked his “triumphant” return home and continue despite rumors of a ceasefire. Fresh clashes have been instigated by Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, both trained and equipped by U.S. personnel, and protesters in Change Square have come under direct assault. Government sources explained that he came home to “put Yemen’s house in order” and prepare for elections, as stipulated by Western diplomats. Opponents believe he’s come home to play “hero" and squash his political opponents, defected General Ali Mohsen and the Al-Ahmar brothers.

Local accounts have Saleh's vice president, Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, headed out of the country instead of receiving his executive authority through the GCC's initiative.

Either way Saleh’s presence has already snuffed out any hope for a legitimate representative process, and he wasted no time using “dialogue” and “understanding” to divert Yemen’s uprising. Another prevalent rumor speculates that he was booted from Saudi Arabia after refusing to sign the GCC’s initiative, but U.S. officials simply reiterated, "a political solution is the best way to avoid bloodshed.” On Saturday a global “silent protest” demonstrated against the international community’s silence, including a stop at the White House. The State Department would respond to the weekend's violence by embellishing its previous statements.

More than rhetoric is necessary to correct U.S. policy in Yemen and hold Saleh accountable for three decades of misrule; drastic recalibration is required now that he personally intends to out-maneuver Yemen’s popular revolutionaries. The U.S. must lead a genuine international campaign to isolate his regime, starting with the dissolution of the GCC’s initiative. The Obama administration is negotiating with a murderer, not the legitimate president of Yemen, and supporting any terms other than unconditional surrender will legitimize the regime. In seeking an alternative to the GCC, the administration must sever its military support for Saleh’s personal guards and begin to build relations with the Yemeni people. The UNHRC’s call for an impartial investigation into human rights abuses should be complied with.

Returning to Sana'a was Saleh’s worst mistake yet and he will eventually pay for his regime’s crimes. The White House can no longer protect him, and must also realize that Yemen’s people are waiting to stamp out AQAP. In its latest appeal to the international community, the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) promised, "The Yemeni people are committed to a peaceful struggle and nothing on the ground will change that."

Now more than ever is the time to support their fledgling democracy.

September 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

"We strongly reject assertions of complicity with the Haqqanis or of proxy war... The allegations betray a confusion and policy disarray within the U.S. establishment on the way forward in Afghanistan."

- Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani

Changless Face of U.S. Policy in Yemen

Today the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) released a statement condemning the use of heavy weapons against peaceful protesters in Yemen, while simultaneously calling for a "peaceful and orderly transition of power." The Obama administration claims to be "perplexed" by Saleh's return, however U.S.-KSA-GCC actions continue to unfold in synchronization. The State Department's latest statement copies the GCC to the letter:
The United States takes note of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) September 23 statement and joins it in expressing deep concern about the current situation in Yemen. We again express our sincere condolences to all those who have lost loved ones as a result of recent violence. We urge all parties to cease violence and exercise maximum restraint. We support the GCC’s call for the formation of a committee to investigate events that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. Too many Yemenis have lost their lives and each day that passes without a peaceful and orderly transition is another day that the Yemeni people are forced to live in an unstable environment that threatens their security and livelihood.

The Yemeni government must immediately address the democratic aspirations of its people. The Yemeni people have made clear their desire for a peaceful and orderly transition that is responsive to their calls for peace, reconciliation, prosperity, and security.

We again urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power without delay and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of the year within the framework of the GCC initiative. The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path toward a unified, stable, secure, and democratic Yemen. We will continue to work with the GCC and others in the international community to support the Yemeni people's aspirations.
The GCC's initiative is rejected by the majority of Yemen's revolutionaries, who are stepping up their international awareness campaign against a thick media blockade. But like Saleh himself, they have generally stopped listening to the Obama administration.

September 23, 2011

Yemen Moving While Standing Still

In many ways Ali Abulldah Saleh’s return to Yemen means nothing in its grand scheme.

Little has changed before and after June 3rd, when the besieged strongman fled to Saudi Arabia on medical leave, except for Yemen's body count. The violence that has unnerved the wider population of Sana’a and Taiz continues to take lives as security forces battle with oppositional militias. Saleh returned from Riyadh with his usual olive branch in one hand and rifle in the other, posturing around the “dialogue,” “constitutional legitimacy” and “elections” that have nourished him through nine months of revolution. Few protesters trust the Kingdom to act in their interests, so allowing his return wasn’t a surprise once the initial shock wore off.

Saleh expects to remain in power until a presidential election is held, and possibly afterward. Nevertheless, U.S. officials explicitly state that the Obama administration's policy hasn’t changed - that Saleh’s location doesn’t matter, and that he needs to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) “power transfer.”

“Our position remains unchanged,” the State Department’s Victoria Nuland told reporters on August 24th. “Whether he stays, whether he comes back, we need him to sign this GCC agreement and move on, allow his country to move on. So our position is unchanged.”

She would repeat on Friday, “Whether President Saleh is in or out of the country, he can make that happen by signing this accord, stepping down from power and allowing his country to move forward.”

Nuland appears to be all the administration can muster, a sacrificial pawn to be sure. The Obama administration is used to avoiding Yemen’s revolutionaries if possible, due to the fact that they oppose the GCC’s initiative. Then there’s the deluge in media reporting the surface of Yemen’s uprising, including the standard biographies of Saleh and emphasis on Yemen’s diverse (and often dysfunctional) opposition. Although main factors in the revolution, they often ignore or underestimate the protesters rejecting all usurpation of their struggle. If they can’t gain autonomy of their revolution, no other force will be able to get rid of them either.

They wanted him to come back anyway and face justice.

Saleh’s return, of course, isn’t insignificant and a national address is tentatively scheduled for Sunday. His presence could both stall and accelerate the revolution; for better or worse, regime change can now reach an end game with him back in the country. Violence may spike with the ebb and flow of his political maneuvers, and oppositional military elements - Sadiq, Hamid and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar - are likely to increase their own operations. This situation becomes especially likely if Saleh accuses any of them of his attempted assassination, whose origins remain a public mystery. Delegation of power to his son, Ahmed, would push the revolution into overdrive and potentially into Libya-lite, where Saleh’s security apparatus must be hunted down but civil war is avoided.

The greatest challenge of all remains the transition through a democratic transformation - an obstacle that hasn’t changed since January.

Libya’s Revolution Marching Forward

Libya, on the other hand, has seen years of change over the last eight months. Protesters were in the infant stage of organizing their rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi when Gene Cretz was forced to evacuate in January. Sworn in by Condoleezza Rice in December 2008, America’s ambassador to Libya found his assessment of Gaddafi’s fears exposed by WikiLeaks two years later. Recalled by the administration after receiving local threats - and amid rumors of his dismissal - Cretz would observe Thursday’s flag-raising ceremony at the reopened U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

"At that time, I could not imagine that I would be returning to a new, free Libya that is brimming with joy, optimism and newfound freedoms.”

On this occasion we are inclined to agree with a U.S. ambassador with negligible military knowledge. By organizing and eventually overthrowing Gaddafi from Tripoli in such a brief period, Libya’s revolutionaries have proven themselves ready to face the real challenges of basic governance, political reconciliation and economic growth - as ready as revolutionaries can be. The National Transitional Council’s (NTC) relative strength, coupled with Gaddafi’s weaknesses, suggested a limited insurgency that would eventually die out with the Colonel. The NTC’s organization, popular appeal and international requests also create a buffer against unwanted NATO interference.

"It's a question of time before Gadhafi and his remaining loyalists are finished off," Cretz predicts... "I don't think the Libyan people, after all the blood that has been shed in the last six months, are going to let their revolution be hijacked.”

The NTC still needs to assert its authority over several areas of resistance before fully transitioning towards a political mandate, but appears capable of doing so within NATO’s three-month extension. Elamin Belhaj, a senior member of the NTC, told CNN that the fighting could end within a month, although a longer period is likely necessary to ensure lasting stability. Tripoli is now largely secured after falling to the NTC in late August and civilians are living in relative safety; a repeat of Baghdad appears unlikely. Revolutionary forces have also quarantined the remaining pockets of anti-NTC resistance, whether pro-Gaddafi or pro-status quo. The bulk of Sabha, a logical base for a southern “insurgency,” recently fell to NTC units with minimal resistance, and produced a cache of yellowcake suspected of being stored in the area.

The Al-Jufra oasis cluster (roughly 200 miles northeast of Sabha) was liberated 24 hours later. Revolutionaries also took control of Ubari, 100 miles to Sabha’s southwest. Those loyalists holding out in Al Fugaha, situated roughly 100 miles south of Al-Jufra, will likely collapse within the next month.

Seizing Sabha and neighboring towns has shrunk the triangle of resistance between Bani Walid and Sirte, classified as Gaddafi’s remaining “strongholds” even though many citizens fear reprisals or fight out of their own interests. With Sabha under relative control and momentum firmly on their side, fighters around Bani Walid can take their time mopping up the remaining resistance. Meanwhile NTC units are taking artillery fire roughly 30 miles outside of Sirte, but their main enemy is the degraded conditions inside Gaddafi’s hometown: no electricity, no hospital, no phone service, and limited water.

The NTC would commit a strategic mistake by prematurely raiding the city, and waiting for its evacuation will pay off during a potential invasion.

Given the relative security of Libya, out-waiting all of Gaddafi’s remaining loyalists will produce less friction on its social fabric. As for Libya’s political status, the NTC claims it will wait until the entire country is secured before official forming a government. This move parallels the sound military decisions on the ground and will limit political resistance. Libya’s war, as both its revolutionaries and NATO caution, has yet to conclude, but recent developments indicate that fears of another Afghanistan or Iraq are overblown.

Gaddafi could never rely on an insurgency to rally against Libya’s real insurgency against him

Saleh Returns to Yemen, Readies Counterattack

Yemeni state television has reported that Ali Abdullah Saleh landed in Sana’a on Friday morning. His return sparked immediate gun battles and tipped the capital even further on edge. Mass protests were already organized for Friday and the turnout should reach its apex. The possibility for violence hasn’t risen due to a phantom truce negotiated between the regime and opposition forces loyal to the al-Ahmar brothers and General Ali Mohsen. Dozens of Yemenis have been killed in the last three days of fighting.

However Saleh’s return could boost the conflict to the previous weekend’s level, or beyond.

On top of anti-Saleh protests, demonstrations will presumably zero in on Saudi Arabia for allowing him to return, and on the Obama administration for legitimizing his regime. As Washington isolates Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi met with several U.S. officials in Washington on Thursday. Aside from Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, al-Qirbi also spoke with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who “stressed the adherence of Washington to the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s initiative.”

Burns also reaffirmed counter-terrorism support with Saleh’s regime. Western officials are reporting surprise by his return, except this plot was foretold by these meetings.

The U.S. policy in Yemen is both shameful and unsustainable. Once again blood is about to spilled because of external political obstruction. Saleh hasn’t returned to the sign the GCC’s widely unpopular proposal, which the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) now rejects on the grounds of his illegitimacy. Rumors are floating a ruling party meeting and resignation speech "within hours," but he will likely stall any political agreement until a presidential election is held.

Saleh is expected to address his remaining supporters within hours. Deputy Information Minister Abdo Al Janadi immediately outlined the "constitutional" scenario on state TV, and Saleh could cling to power indefinitely until the revolution topples his entire regime. Or his son, Ahmed, could take over. Anyone he appoints will be a puppet by definition.

Janadi has since countered that Yemen's oppositional elements spread the rumor of his resignation.

Few pro-democracy protesters will listen to anything the Obama administration has to say, other than total severance with Saleh’s regime. A full analysis was set to be published on Friday - titled "Holding Ali Abdullah Saleh Accountable" - only to lose its value, so we will update as Yemen's situation demands.

September 22, 2011

Pentagon Chasing Taliban’s Psy-Ops

They came armed to the teeth with prepared statements and talking points.

Roughly six months have elapsed since the Taliban began to target a progressively higher profile of Afghan officials, and the Pentagon needed answers for a Congress short on patience and funds. Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Leon Panetta and Michael Mullen, America’s Defense Secretary and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave Congress what they wanted to hear. Nor could they allow the Taliban to outmaneuver them on the information battlefield.

The U.S. military and NATO are, "working with our Afghan counterparts to discuss with them how we can provide better protection against these attacks,” Panetta promised. “But the bottom line is that we can't let these sporadic events deter us from the progress that we've made.”

Not everyone is as certain of this progress. That the U.S. military and its allies have dealt a relentless series of blows to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan is “undeniable,” as Panetta testifies. However the Pentagon was always going to “get its numbers,” so to speak. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers, hundreds of mid-level commanders and over a dozen high-ranking officials have been eliminated in over 10,000 night raids and air assaults. Afghanistan’s northern provinces are relatively secure and incidents are gradually reducing in the south. U.S. casualties stand at 332, compared to 360 at the same point in 2010.

Only the Taliban are “adapting,” Mullen admits. U.S. commander had predicted a wider shift towards assassination, but the pair would leave out how the Pentagon was initially overwhelmed by these attacks. One can see and hear their concern in their language and body language - that Afghanistan’s main story during summer 2011 was the killing of Hamid Wali Karzai, not U.S. progress. Mullen and Panetta did everything in their power to counter the impression of insecurity wafting out of Afghanistan, but no amount of Senate testimony will convince the Afghan who isn’t feeling safe on their own street.

“While my overall assessment of Afghanistan is headed in the right direction, although we have to be clear-eyed about the challenges that remain,” Panetta remarks in an attempt to downplay the Taliban’s assassination campaign. “First, as the Taliban lost control of territory last year, they shifted away from large attacks on our forces to greater reliance on headline-grabbing attacks... Overall we judge this change in tactics to be a result of a shift in momentum to our favor, and a sign of weakness in the insurgency. Overall violence is trending down and down substantially in areas where we concentrated our surge.”

What Panetta avoids mentioning is how the Taliban planned from the beginning to weather the surge until U.S. reinforcements began to withdraw. Everyone involved in Washington, including the Pentagon, knows that the Taliban doesn’t need to wear a watch. This strategy was tipped immediately in February 2010, when Taliban fighters put up a loose defense of Marjah and ceded the city-center, and the insurgency immediately shifted its emphasis north and east. The Taliban has suffered extensive damage, but the insurgency draws on too many sources to be militarily defeated on a regional scale.

A concentrated assassination campaign is the correct military response to the surge in Afghan and foreign forces; not only does it spare direct confrontation with superior units, the Taliban has kept Afghanistan’s non-military momentum in its favor.

The core of this strategy, Mullen, explains is “maximum psychological impact for a minimal investment in manpower or military capabilities.” Although sold as a sign of weakness, the Taliban would be in a far weaker state had the group wasted its energy defending territory, which an insurgent isn’t supposed to do if he can’t hold it. The Pentagon wished that the Taliban would stand its ground - but that isn’t courage, only recklessness. Despite all of its flaws, the Taliban is following guerrilla strategy without substantially dropping the pressure on U.S. forces. Iraq witnessed an average of 800 casualties per year from 2004 to 2007, then experienced a drop to 30, followed by 150, to 60 in 2010. 32 soldiers were killed in hostile incidents in 2011, after combat operations were declared “over.”

By contrast, U.S. forces suffered less than 100 deaths for the first six years of war in Afghanistan. In 2008 casualties jumped from 150 to 300, to 500 in 2010, and 2011 will end somewhere in the low 400’s. If a substantial number of U.S. forces (above 50,000) remain on the offensive through 2014, they will experience more casualties than 60.

Afghanistan’s military sphere is less positive than Mullan and Panetta’s portrayal, and Washington holds its primary advantage on this battlefield. The lack of progress in Afghanistan’s non-military spheres frightens Congress, the American people and Afghans alike. Long before Barack Obama ordered a surge of over 50,000 troops, the central question was always whether America could actually win the political war, one involving Afghanistan’s government, various ethnic parties and Pakistanis. Though not necessarily “undeniable,” it can be argued that the Obama administration has lost the “hearts and minds” of most political actors, from the average Afghan and Pakistani to Kabul and Islamabad.

As with the assault on America’s embassy in Kabul, the damage of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s assassination has punctured another hole in Afghanistan's security image. U.S.-Pakistani relations, however, has been hit hardest in each time due to the Haqqani network, indicating that the Taliban realizes the benefits of their personal instability. The Taliban often suffers in the short-term after various quarrels, with each side trying to repair whatever damage had been created, but this outcome is safer than a genuine alliance between Washington and Islamabad.

For now the Taliban has denied responsibility, just as Sirajuddin Haqqani stated last week.

The Haqqani network and its links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence may be responsible for many of the Taliban’s recent publicity assaults. What this means, in the end, is that Washington failed to align Islamabad's interests with its own, and is incapable of sharing a mutual policy. No level of provocation from the Haqqani network strategically justifies the barrage that Mullen and Panetta unleashed on Pakistan; despite their connections and tentative truce, the Haqqani network still acts independently of Islamabad. And while Mullen claims Pakistan has “lost that bet,” meaning its strategic depth of insurgent groups, many Pakistanis and Afghans won’t forget that America bankrolled that bet.

While Panetta generally has no conception of diplomacy or the public aspect of counterinsurgency, Mullen has admitted his failure to improve U.S-Pakistani relations. Now he appears to be gunning it with less than a week remaining in the Joint Chiefs.

"In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence... While Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of solution. I believe that a flawed and difficult relationship is better than no relationship at all."

Whatever U.S. officials believe or demand, they won’t obtain their desired invasion into North Waziristan with a blunt approach.

Panetta does concede that Pakistanis “should be the first one to take action on this,” but this appears to be little more than a qualifier. “The only way to deal with the Pakistanis is to send a clear message about where the lines are,” he says, adding that all administration officials must speak with one voice. Acting as if no working relationship exists with Islamabad, Panetta assured Congress, "Anything that makes clear to them that we cannot tolerate their providing this kind of safe haven to the Haqqanis, and that they have to take action — any signal that we can send to them — I think would be important to do.”

Including unilateral action and Pakistan’s potential designation as a state sponsor of terror.

Both Islamabad and Pakistanis loathe when Washington unloads all of Afghanistan's blame onto them, and do not respond productively to threats. Their message is the same message as Washington’s, reminding Panetta that Islamabad will “never” allow any troops on the ground. Pentagon officials are simply making their own job harder, even as they claim the war is gradually easing. Their argument, like Iraq’s, is that Afghanistan was spiraling out of control, and now any improvement is conclusive and permanent.

“The end is in sight,” Mullen says through classic tunnel vision, “and there’s potential for 26 million people to live a better life.”

He and Panetta would argue that Afghanistan’s mission is headed for completion, and that America must now “put to use” its lessons in Yemen and Somalia - when many of the same mistakes are already being committed.

Ethar El-Katatney Speaks On Charlie Rose

Insightful interview on Egypt's ongoing revolution, with journalist Ethar El-Kataney.

September 21, 2011

The Dream That Was Cairo

President Barack Obama first arrived in Cairo to a reception equal to (and possibly greater than) the American jubilation that swept him into office. Despite the warnings signs that all might be as advertised (Afghanistan “the good war,” unilateral action into Pakistan, Israeli boosting), Muslims in general were ecstatic to be rid of George Bush and his shadows. The euphoria inevitably spawned a backlash amongst those fearing a switch of the mask.

Obama admitted that “change cannot happen overnight” and acknowledged the publicity of his arrival in Egypt, but cautioned, “no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point.” Nevertheless, he found himself on stage at Cairo University precisely to stem the tide of mutual distrust.

“I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he told a cheering audience, “one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Unfortunately Obama has yet to deliver on his global promises, and his administration’s foreign policy suggests that a major realignment is unlikely. While the administration has attempted to reach out through economic initiatives and social media, the core problems in U.S. foreign policy remain unchanged and feed back into a negative media cycle. It would be too easy to draw a distinct line between Cairo 2009 and Obama’s latest speech to the UN General Assembly; he would undersell Afghanistan, oversell Iraq and tilt towards the Israelis in Cairo. A key difference isn’t rhetorical but circumstantial.

After promising false hope in 2009, his administration is now covering up the trail in 2011.

Opening with a Utopian vision, Obama muses on the vast cause-and-effect of history, the ceaseless nature of war and the hardship of peace. His opening could have created a welcoming stage to reject the Palestinians’ bid for statehood, if only he was speaking truthfully. Seemingly taking credit for supporting every revolution in the Arab Spring, Obama also emphasizes progress in Iraq and Afghanistan with the flip of a few sentences. Amid the token warning signs that “peace is hard,” the President spoke as though all was well in his foreign policy.

“I took office at a time of two wars for the United States. Moreover, the violent extremists who drew us into war in the first place - Osama bin Laden, and his al Qaeda organization - remained at large. Today, we've set a new direction. At the end of this year, America’s military operation in Iraq will be over. We will have a normal relationship with a sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq - for its government and for its security forces, for its people and for their aspirations.”

“So let there be no doubt,” Obama declared. “The tide of war is receding. When I took office, roughly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to decline... Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a position of strength.”

Some of these claims are surviving on technicalities. As of this moment Baghdad hasn’t issued a formal delay of the U.S. withdrawal, but Washington will approve a residual force as soon as politically possible. Few Iraqis believe the U.S. will leave their country as a sovereign nation. Meanwhile U.S. troops are slowly beginning to redeploy from Afghanistan - months after his July deadline - and the war won’t be copying Iraq’s drop in violence any time soon, instead emulating Iraq’s chronic instability at a higher intensity.

That al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan has suffered a major blow is evident in the numbers and names. What’s frightening other parts of the world is a new tide of war creeping into their counties. As Obama implores the world to choose peace over war, his administration has leaked a variety of reports on the CIA’s drone grid over Africa and the Indian Ocean. This new counter-terrorism policy isn’t based on sound counterinsurgency - limit troop levels and connect with the local population - but on America’s weakening military and economic position. If the switch to “CT” was genuinely concerned with eliminating terrorism and supporting democratic aspirations, U.S. policy in Yemen would be the opposite of its current state.

Here the administration has blocked the revolution of a peaceful and open-minded people with threats of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemenis are eager to rid themselves of al-Qaeda and Ali Abdullah Saleh at the same time, yet both are being forced onto them by external forces.

“Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change. In Yemen, men, women and children gather by the thousands in towns and city squares every day with the hope that their determination and spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports those aspirations. We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible.”

Perhaps Obama is oblivious to the level of animosity towards U.S. policy in Yemen, or he simply doesn’t want to confront widespread disappointment with his personal silence. Shia Bahrainis quickly received the same treatment: forced dialogue meant to suppress their uprising. Few “steps have been taken toward reform and accountability” and Obama’s administration should have little to be “pleased with,” even if “more is required.” To his credit Obama doesn’t hide the fact that “America is a close friend of Bahrain,” unlike his non-mention of support for Saleh’s regime, but still calls for “the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.”

Many grassroots followers of Al Wefaq are now demanding the end of King Hamad’s monarchy.

On top of highlighting the hypocrisy between Libya and Syria - Egyptians are also unhappy with the White House’s response - these are the shortcuts that Obama is now accusing the Palestinians of taking. After promising to engage the peace process from day one, his administration appointed a number of “Israel-firsters,” getting George Mitchell bounced after a series of humiliating settlement announcements and personal confrontations with Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s Prime Minister quickly became Obama’s antagonist, obstructing attempts to make a quick deal in favor of the Israelis. Netanyahu seeks an unconditional surrender from the Palestinians, not a fair two state solution.

Taking their statehood bid to the UN remains a divisive proposition for the Palestinians. With Mahmoud Abbas’s own legitimacy in limbo and Hamas isolated in Gaza, some are of the opinion that the Palestinians should put their own political house in order, then proceed to the UN with increased strength. This thinking is valid and may prove correct in hindsight, but Abbas’s game of chicken could also move the process forward. Spinning negotiations as the only option ignores the lack of progress in direct negotiations, and it’s doubtful that the administration will jumpstart a permanent dialogue after September.

Netanyahu claims that “avoiding these negotiations is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for peace,” when his ingratitude has drawn the ire of Obama’s own security council.

For the record Abbas has pledged to return to negotiations if a resolution is passed. The Palestinians’ bid, for better and worse, is a proactive step borne out of necessity. Something has gone terribly wrong when the only ones applauding are U.S. lawmakers and Netanyahu, who commended Obama for resisting the “automatic majority against Israel” on a “position of principle.” Netanyahu hailed Obama’s veto of Palestinian statehood as a “badge of honor,” and hoped that “others will follow your example, Mr. President.”

Judging by America’s “unbreakable” commitment to Israel - “stronger than it has ever been” - Netanyahu doesn’t have to worry about his own hope being popped.

Obama would declare that, “each nation must chart its own course to fulfill the aspirations of its people, and America does not expect to agree with every party or person who expresses themselves politically.” He pledges to “always stand up for the universal rights that were embraced by this Assembly.” Except this fallacy is a main cause of misfortune. The Arab revolutions have reinforced the impression that America doesn’t believe in universal rights, putting its interests above those who pursue peace against U.S.-supported regimes.

Obama's bridge to the Muslim world remains a bridge to nowhere. The end result is a speech of conflict, shrouded in historical poetics and a rhetorical style that has expired along with his visions of hope.

September 20, 2011

Standing Still In Afghanistan

The Taliban, as most of the observing world knows, has struck again in spectacular fashion. Unlike last week’s assault in Kabul, when Taliban gunmen stirred up anarchy for 20 hours, a substantial military event lies within the media blast-waves. Whereas attacking the U.S. Embassy was designed to undermine the impression of Afghanistan’s security, the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and political figurehead in the National Alliance, is a direct blow to the country’s stability.

Rabbani’s positive influence amongst Afghanistan’s Tajik is modest for his stature, but many local and regional analysts suspect that hawkish Tajik commanders will capitalize on his death to reengage the Taliban in earnest. Rashid Dostum, the Alliance’s most infamous general and warlord, immediately comes to mind. Dostum told The Washington Times in 2009, “If you support me, I will destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda. I don’t want to be a minister, not even the defense minister. I need to be with my soldiers. Give me the task and I will do it.”

The prevailing fear is that Rabbani’s death will now serve as a prelude for civil war between Pashtuns and Tajiks, releasing a decade of pent-up energy that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was trying to minimize through the Afghan Peace Council. Rabbani’s absence will surely impact Afghanistan’s social fabric across the country. Yet reconciliation in the strictest sense was always unlikely, and both low and high-level progress has failed to materialize. The New York Times recently reported that out of 173,000 army recruits enrolled since 2009, only 1,200 hailed from the Taliban’s spiritual heartland in Kandahar and Helmand, where America’s surge was supposed to drive the Taliban’s rank-and-file into the government’s arms.

And while Rabbani managed to soften his image from the 1990’s, when his presidency collapsed from infighting and external forces, he isn’t the saint that Western officials are making him out to be.

"The face of the peace initiative has been attacked," said U.S. Gen. John Allen, the commander of the international military coalition in Afghanistan. "This is another outrageous indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war.”

Rabbani attracted a good deal of suspicion for accepting the chair of Karzai’s Peace Council. The aged politician presumably wished to avoid another direct war with the Taliban, or blunt its momentum at the least. Perhaps Rabbani wanted to take the high road so that when negotiations did inevitably fail, the Northern Alliance would hold the upper political hand in justifying a military campaign (not that NATO wouldn’t support one anyway). Others believe the $200 million fund for reintegration - and the power that went with it - can be attributed to Rabbani’s decision.

Never a true friend of Karzai’s, he contemplated a 2009 presidential run according to Time: “Every year the problems are getting worse, security is deteriorating, corruption is getting worse and national trust in government is being lost. I see the roots of these problems in the weakness and incapability of the government.”

Furthermore, Washington is no less insincere about negotiating than the Taliban, only using the political track to buffer criticism of a militarized surge. The U.S. doesn’t seek a compromise so much as total surrender, demanding a long-term military presence and the Taliban’s disarmament. In a farewell speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen admitted that Iran has also been left out of the picture, warning that the U.S. “won’t get it right” without non-existent regional input. As much as Rabbani’s assassination sticks a dagger through the reconciliation process, removing an anti-Taliban figure and simultaneously shocking the Tajiks cancels out any major shift in the odds.

They remain slightly above zero.

Rather than a formal resolution between all ethnic parties and the Afghan, Pakistani, Iranian and American governments, the political situation would level itself out according to the post-2014 military situation. A de facto equilibrium would set in, with each side positioning themselves towards Kabul. This is the same way Afghanistan's last civil war started, and both Taliban and Northern Alliance leadership remain unwilling to accept the other’s rule. A partition is then thrown into the mix, further complicating a permanent conclusion to decades of war.

In any event, Rabbani’s assassination has once again undermined the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. From the physical bombing to its psychological impact, to U.S.-Pakistani relations and upcoming international summits, the Taliban is sending progressively larger shockwaves through Afghanistan’s environment. Once again an operative detonated a turban bomb inside a major politician’s home, apparently under the guise of “talking peace.” Bashir Pizhand, a political analyst, visited the house after the explosion and spoke to Mr. Rabbani's relatives, saying he “came back today from Dubai, because he was told that an important Taliban negotiator wanted to meet him.”

Karzai’s former strongman in Oruzgan, Jan Mohammad Khan, met a similar fate in his home when two Taliban “students” duped his security detail. The string of attacks in Kabul has put much of the country on heightened alert, and wrecked havoc on U.S. assessments of the war. Nor do many Tajiks possess any confidence in Karzai’s ability to govern or secure their territory; remove enough Tajik leadership and Karzai could become their main target.

Contrary to the U.S. and NATO version of the Taliban’s high-level assassination campaign - a sign of weakness rather than strength - coalition forces are failing to adapt to the insurgency’s shift in tactics. (Mullen would concede this point in his speech.) An increasingly asymmetric battlefield makes sense to the Taliban: the group can shield its ranks from superior forces, eliminate high-level leadership, outlast the U.S. and wait for the government to sink. In one of today’s more insightful posts, The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins observes, “It’s a basic notion of warfare: you sue for peace when you have to—when it hurts too much to carry on. The Taliban appear to be experiencing no weakening of their resolve, no matter the military pressure.”

Mullen would also comment on the Haqqani network (already accused of Rabbani’s killing), saying “the Haqqani piece of this has to be reversed. Period.” Except Washington is again putting itself on a failed collision course with Islamabad.

Even when the Taliban gained a military advantage in late 2008, forcing the Obama administration to deploy over 50,000 troops between February and December 2009, the insurgency was unlikely to sweep into Kabul and across the country. The combination of foreign and Tajik forces reduces this possibility considerably from the mid-1990’s. Similarly, coalition forces are unable to defeat the Taliban at their own high point. Insurgencies dwell in stalemate until one side gains the upper hand, and often continue despite - and because of - asymmetric conditions.

Afghanistan is mired in stalemate, one that displays no sign of breaking post-2014. An inherent problem of counterinsurgency is that a tie usually goes to the guerrillas.