March 2, 2010

Counterinsurgency Around the World

Political science and counterinsurgency are active sciences, if the latter can be called one. Analysis requires constant updating, predictions need continual tracking, no different than tracking whales or birds’ migratory paths for research.

After all, humans are animals.

It may not be our choice of conflicts so much as the world itself, but the future came quick. After speculating on Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, China, and Iran, the entire block of insurgency rose up in a matter of days. We’ve highlighted the latest activity and those angles downplayed or ignored.


Operation Moshtarak isn’t over by any definition. US and NATO officials remain exceedingly optimistic, but they admit a few more weeks will be necessary to clear the last pockets of Taliban fighters. Still, so much talk has fallen on Kandahar that Helmand seems like an afterthought.

Marjah is secure enough that General McChrystal’s boxed has sprung open. Today Vice President Karim Khalili met 300 elders in the largest shura since the operation began, a political score that doesn’t say as much about the security front. Those Taliban left are lying low, not hanging around the town’s center.

Or are they?

Propaganda tells much of the reality. One AP report runs the headline Afghan complaints show obstacles ahead in war. Detailing how Khalili’s meeting soon turned to an airing of grievances wasn’t pretty for America, but a McClatchy report goes further: Marjah's residents wary of U.S. after Taliban ouster.

Unlike the AP, McClatchy writes, “There was not much public jubilation when Khalili walked down Marjah's main street with a group of Afghan security forces and NATO officials, passing shuttered shops and austere town buildings, which U.S. Marines are transforming into military compounds. At the afternoon shura, residents greeted Khalili with tepid applause.”

What both report don’t mention is how those with grievances could be Taliban; the tone of several characters suggests so. Several other reports contains similar events, often including a Taliban audience.

The bottom line: while most of the remaining Taliban being to bide their time, there is a strong chance those with political influence attend every meeting with US and NATO forces. US officials rightly say the battle is political and could be indefinite.

Khalili implored, "You've got to give us time."

Real progress will start to form when the Taliban is forced out physically and politically, which could be a long process if they’re actually from the Marjah area. Right now Taliban still walk in town, and they aren’t far away.

Lt. Col. Cal Worth, commander of the 1,500-member 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C., now based in the heart of Marjah, is optimistic. And yet, "You can go two clicks to the west, and it's almost like Taliban country.”


Two days ago we argued that force is not the answer in Yemen, at least not be the first option to its nation-wide insurgency. Instead Yemen took the Brookings route, applying excessive force against a nebulous, possibly trivial, and potential explosive target: Ali Saleh al-Yafi'e.

Who is Ali Saleh al-Yafi'e? No one is exactly sure. The al-Qaeda label certainly comes from the Yemen government, through the state-funded Saba Net, but it only mentions the death of two other “wanted fugitives.”

Maybe, maybe not.

al-Yafi’e is an arms smuggler between al-Qaeda and separatists, is a separatist leader himself, or an activist, depending on the source. It’s interesting that the AP bestowed the activist label after a 5 hour revision from his former title, separatist leader. In any case, these reports mention the death of al-Yafi’e’s wife and three children along with him.

But southern Yemen is not counter-terrorism, whether al-Yafi’e works for al-Qaeda or separatists. A pre-dawn raid is not the way to go about counterinsurgency.

If al-Yafi’e has come to work between al-Qaeda and unnamed separatists, as Yemen claims, then the government will solve nothing by killing him. If he is actually a separatist then his death is all the more futile, and his family could provide that extra push over the edge.

Southern separatists have already made up their mind that they are fighting to the death.

Only through political engagement does President Saleh have any chance of resolving the conflict, just like Houthi rebels in the north. The government is too unpopular to fight force with force. A reactionary cycle helps prop up a local insurgency umbrella for al-Qaeda to operate under.

This is what they want and Yemen is giving them by going after al-Yafi’e in the middle of separatist protests. Spreading the virus is not a solution for Yemen or America.


A copious amount of attention fell on Damascus last Friday when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah emerged from hiding to dine and strategize with Syrian president Bashar al Assad and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For the last several days we’ve analyzed the uptick in Israel’s activity on the Iran front, from sanctions to drones to China. The three leaders made clear that they, above all, expect an Israeli attack in the coming year, either on Lebanon, Gaza, or Iran.

Abdelbari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al Quds al Arabi, caused a mild stir by observing, “The three-party meeting that took place in Damascus on Friday gathering the Syrian president Bashar al Assad, the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was a war council to devise counterattack plans and assign tasks in the event of an Israeli offensive on one or all parties.”

Sensible as it is to meet, the three leaders are unlikely to have exchanged significant strategy against Israel in their short time together. Their plans and armies are already waiting to unfold. Rather, the meeting was a MIRV photo-op against Israel - a political, military, and media attack.

The Huffington Post picked up on this, commenting specifically on the reclusive Nasrallah, “That these men met with such impunity sent a very clear message to Tel Aviv: we are unintimidated and unaffected by whatever stick you are waving over us.”

But a deeper truth goes unsaid.

It’s not true that Nasrallah is unaffected by the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh - he is said to have traveled with a wig, according to Industry, Trade and Labor minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, also a former Israeli defense minister.

He labeled Nasrallah’s behavior “immediately translated” results, suggesting Israel sincerely believes Mabhouh’s death to be productive despite being slowly shunned by the international community at a time when it needs the UN. So the question is, while most eyes center on Israel attacking Iran, Lebanon, or Gaza, what about Nasrallah?

Ben-Eliezer tells us, “He understands that eyes are watching him and that is what is important.” Unlikely as the situation is, would Israel actually take a shot as Nasrallah if it had one? Both its history and its present rhetoric suggests yes.

Counterinsurgency? No.


Looking back on the month, perhaps no singular event carried more potential to shape the conflict between Israel and Iran. America’s flurry of Hellfire missiles brought in a new catch around February 15th when Abdul Haq al-Turkistani was reportedly killed in North Waziristan.

Al-Turkistani is the alleged head of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Xinjiang insurgent group classified as a terrorist organization by America and China.

"It has been confirmed now, through our local sources, that Abdul Haq al-Turkistani has been killed," claimed an intelligence official.

Pakistan, given its alliance with China, would have every reason to target al-Turkistani independent of America’s motives. Pakistani officials are very pleased, one saying, “It may have taken a U.S. missile to kill one of China’s most wanted Muslim separatists. But still, the Chinese probably see this as a good development.”

Is it though?

Before anything we must note, while we don’t doubt the connection, that others do. China is accused of embellishing ETIM after 9/11 to justify its actions in Xinjiang and provide political protection from America.

Furthermore, al-Turkistani’s may be a tactical counter-terrorism success, but the long-term terrorist threat in China is barely dented. Xinjiang is an insurgency, not terrorism, and demands counterinsurgency. Killing him is not a “significant step forward by China in overcoming the situation in Xinjiang,” let alone “victory.”

Western diplomats were quoted as saying, “the killing demonstrates the increasing vulnerability of Chinese militants to being targeted in similar U.S. attacks.”

Said one from Islamabad, “This killing probably tells the Chinese that the Xinjiang separatists are becoming more and more vulnerable.”

Actually it seems to indicate that Xinjiang separatists are organizing and spreading. Killing al-Turkistani, while necessary from a security standpoint, lacks all other dimensions of counterinsurgency. Xinjiang is about resource exploitation and cultural destruction, and plenty of al-Turkistani’s will rise from the hatred China is brewing in Ürümqi.

We don’t say this lightly: Xinjiang is Palestine-like, and could lead to a similar outcome.

Yet the real end game over al-Turkistani appears to be Iran again, not counterinsurgency but an overt quid pro quo. Kill al-Turkistani, Israeli shows up next week, America the week after.

Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.

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