September 30, 2009

If You Can't Beat Hamas

While the international community shuttles from one meeting to the next, jets from one city to the next, Gazans idle their time or keep their minds distracted from the past and future. Pushing 50% unemployment, they haven’t felt the winds of change in President Obama’s push for a two-state solution, not the slightest breeze.

Though he insists Hamas is fully to blame, he’s in no position to deny that blackballing Hamas is partly Israel’s doing. Imagine if Obama reconsidered a dialogue with "terrorists" or spoke a single word about the UN’s Gaza report - every last trace of his support from Jerusalem would vanish. But evidence is mounting that Obama is on the wrong side of the inevitable.

Hamas can’t be beaten. Obviously President Obama shouldn’t join it, but he may no choice to work with it.

Heading into their eighth negotiating round with Egypt, Hamas and Fatah are expected to sign a reconciliation agreement later this month specifying elections, political prisoner exchanges, and Palestinian security forces. Skepticism surrounds the talks given how intractable each side appears, but the language from both sides has been universally positive, a rarity in the Middle East.

"We handed the Egyptians a very positive response before Id al-Fitr," Abdullah Abdullah, a Fatah legislator, said. "We are prepared to reach understandings with all the Palestinian groups over the points mentioned in the plan, and not only with Hamas."

Mohammad Dahlan, leader of Fatah in Gaza, tempered expectations but added, “Meshaal's language was flexible and positive.” In fact no one was more upbeat that Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who met with Egypt’s Intelligence Director Omar Suleiman on Monday.

“Our meeting was extremely positive,” Meshaal said. “We tackled many issues pertaining to this proposal and we think this proposal is a good basis to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. We have responded to the spirit of this document and examined all of its components and our Egyptian friends listened to our opinions.”

Elections are being penciled in for June 2010 and will eventually be held even if they stall once or twice. Ready or not, President Obama must start preparing to engage Hamas either individually or collectively. Attempting to tear it down before the election hasn’t and isn’t going to work.

Hamas may never again reach the popularity it experienced in 2006 when it captured 45% of the electoral lists to Fatah’s 41%. But despite Israel and America’s best efforts to marginalize Hamas, the latest IPI poll found that Fatah has about 45% of the parliamentary vote, with 24% going to Hamas and the rest undecided. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh holds a 32% approval, not very attractive until considering Abbas at 55%. The IPI predicts, when factoring indecision and independents, that Abbas would defeat Haniyeh head to head “with a fairly narrow majority of 52%.”

Other polls have reached similar conclusions over the last two years. The general picture of Palestinians is about 50% support Fatah, 25% support Hamas, and the remaining 25% are waiting to see which way the wind blows. Factor in those who would likely favor Hamas if it responds positively to reconciliation and it could have a third of Palestinians, enough to ensure Hamas is a permanent fixture in the Middle East.

President Obama and Israel have no chance of marginalizing Hamas through wars, blockades, diplomatic exclusion, or military and economic support for the Fatah. Their only hope is advancing the peace process and robbing Hamas of its cause to resist. Otherwise stalled negotiations play right into Hamas's hands, who is using the time to reposition itself as a necessary component of Palestinian statehood and champion the resistance in the face of Israeli obstinacy.

Attempting to capture the spirit of hope for himself, Haniyeh said reconciliation, “is what we expect and is what we hope for. It is very possible to sign, to end the division, to restore national unity and to attend to national causes.”

Then Israel, who has feasted on Palestinian division, would really be in trouble. It seems so logical for Israel to propose a settlement freeze and get the ball rolling, to progress the two-state solution before Hamas triumphantly returns, to take its foot off of Palestine’s neck and counterattack Hamas' rally cry against Israeli oppression. It seems logical that President Obama would pressure Israel into compromise, fight the Gaza blockade, and improve relations with Hamas, a party he’ll be forced to work with in the near future.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit recently said, “Eventually, we're sure that we will manage to bring the Palestinians together.”

Unfortunately logic often breaks down in the Middle East and in the strangest of worlds, opposing the Gaza blockade equates to opposing the Israeli people. In the strangest of worlds Israel blackballs Hamas from the international community, attempts to divide and conquer Palestinians, then drives them together through provocation.

Yom Kippur is the holiest Jewish holiday, but that didn’t stop Israeli security forces from storming the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to protect Israeli worshipers. Accounts vary and each side has its legitimate claims, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Muslim states pounced on Israel, from Egypt to Lebanon to Jordan to the UAE to Iran, impaling its support of the peace process, and the language of Hamas and Fatah seemed to merge afterward.

“Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction, are not the actions of someone who is committed to peace,” said lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereket.”

Mohammad Dahlan warned, “A Third Intifada may erupt in reaction to the Israeli disrespect of the feelings of Muslims and the storming by extreme Jewish groups of the al-Aqsa mosque.”

As if following the script of a play, Meshaal called on the PA, “to stop the security cooperation and give more consideration to armed resistance against the occupation.” He warned America and Europe not to, “misread the current silence in Palestine. There is fire under the ashes.”

Here lie President Obama’s choices. He can continue to let Israel act unilaterally and with impunity in the West Bank and Gaza - and risk a Third Intifada. He can continue to let Israel dominate the peace process and control who America negotiates with - and risk a Third Intifada. The path least headed towards a Third Intifada is objective handling of Israel and integrate Hamas into negotiations, ironic as that may seem to America. Hamas' positions aren't far from Fatah, it just is more willing to resort to arms when these positions are denied.

2010 could catapult Hamas back into the West Bank and the peace process, at which point exclusion will no longer be possible. President Obama can’t beat Hamas, but if he doesn't act proactively it can beat him.

September 29, 2009

The Real Death of Mullah Omar

Apparently Octopus Mountain caught a glimpse of the future. Days after hypothesizing Mullah Omar’s death and what to do with him alive, Pakistani officials verified reports that America recently demanded action on the “Quetta shura” - or else.

“It wasn’t so much a threat as an understanding that if you don’t do anything, we’ll take matters into our own hands,” said one official.

President Obama presumably has decided to pull the trigger on Mullah Omar. The London Times reported that White House officials requested permission to expand drone strikes into Quetta and the surrounding Baluchistan province, where Omar and his leadership are thought to be hiding. U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson told the Washington Post the Quetta shura was “high on Washington’s list."

Having foreseen this plan, Western intelligence officers claim the Taliban are in the process of relocating to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city with a million hiding spots. The White House is contemplating sending commandos into Quetta to capture or kill Omar and his leadership before they move.

In light of these reports we must look towards a future without Mullah Omar, but many obstacles block the view.

President Obama’s murky intentions must first be discerned. Does he intend to kill or capture? Omar has far more value alive, either as an information source, bargaining chip, or negotiating partner. Omar could also commit suicide before being captured and drones imply killing, so Obama isn’t leaning towards alive. While it appears logical to eliminate the Taliban leadership, this plan feels a little cheap, like a shortcut for Afghanistan and Obama’s problems. Killing Omar and all his generals at once could provide a more secure environment for nation-building, but what if he can’t be killed?

Omar, assuming he’s actually in Quetta, is surrounded by a complex security system. Physical defenses like fortifications, bodyguards, and disguises intertwine with cultural and political protection. America is frustrated by Pakistan’s opposition to expanded drone strikes and its alleged complicity in hiding Omar. Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, denied that Omar was in Quetta in response to the story.

“Over and again this topic has been coming up. But Quetta shura according to us does not exist in Quetta," Malik asserted. “What we are requesting to the U.S. and U.K. and all other stockholders, please give us real-time information. If you know that they are present you must be knowing their names, details... if there is any sign of Quetta shura, we will smash it.”

Though the Pakistani government’s resolve to fight terrorists is no longer doubted in American circles, Malik is hard to take seriously. American intelligence has flaws but it’s hard to believe Pakistan came to the opposition conclusion. This back-and-forth between American and Pakistani officials is a clear pattern as it mirrors the exchange over Osama bin Laden’s location. America believes the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s leadership is in Pakistan - and Pakistan has rebuffed the claim every time.

Malik may be telling the truth, but only from his perspective. Though the government appears off the hook, America still deeply distrusts Pakistan’s army and the ISI in particular, according to a new intelligence report. Supporters inside these organizations are believed to be protecting Mullah Omar behind the government’s back. Pakistani officials slammed the report, insisting the ISI has been cleaned up. Naturally no American official believes this, a bad sign for Obama.

Yet he would encounter hurdles even if the government and army were on his side. Notice how Malik reveals states “we will smash it,” not America. Thus Omar may end up in a Pakistani jail or court. While Pakistan could transfer him to America, it may also refuse. The problem is one of control. Pakistan would likely use Omar as its own bargaining chip against Obama.

The second problem ties into the first. Pakistan opposes a US operation against Mullah Omar because of rampant anti-Americanism. A drone strike or special ops raid in Quetta would meet with low approval from the locals even if civilians don't die. Quetta is a dense city and a ground operation is the most accurate option, but not with American flags on the shoulders. A unilateral operation so deep in Pakistan is a big gamble, the price of a prize like Omar.

Another layer is added to the general resentment of Pakistanis. Quetta is different from the FATA in that it’s Balochistan territory. Balochistan isn't the stablest region, in case American officials haven’t been reading the news. The deaths of three political leaders in April are only the latest eruption in a steep conflict. Balochs, fiercely independent, dislike the Pakistani government and are unlikely to welcome US intrusion. Does America really want to chance an uprising in Balochistan?

It’s obvious why Pakistan opposes action against Mullah Omar - it must deal with the repercussions.

Assume, though, for theoretical purposes that America does manage to kill Omar. How will the war in Afghanistan be affected? Hezbollah and Hamas have successfully transitioned through assassination, but Omar’s death cannot be underestimated. He is the vision of the Taliban, the undisputed king of jihad in Afghanistan. He has others to take his place if they stay alive, such as Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, but Omar’s presence could be irreplaceable. Of course Israel and America said the same thing of Hamas before the deaths of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004.

The possibility always exists that Mullah Omar’s death would be impossible to recover from, but this still isn’t an alternative to additional troops. In fact, Omar’s death could explicitly precipitate more troops. The hydra’s neck must be burned once the head is chopped off and that means extensive nation-building in Afghanistan. Considering that the war will deteriorate further before potentially getting better, America will need more troops to ensure Omar’s death wasn’t in vain.

Then the possibility remains that Omar’s death is survivable. Omar is a realist and as one of the world’s most wanted men, he’s undoubtedly prepared the Taliban for his death. The Pakistani Taliban had too many options behind Baitullah Mehsud, giving the appearance of infighting, and the real Taliban have even more replacements. Omar’s popularity shouldn’t be underestimated either; unpopular as the Taliban may be, Omar is something of a folk hero. Making a martyr out of him would be catastrophic.

No one really knows how Afghans would react if he was killed. We may find out sooner than later with President Obama growing increasingly desperate for solutions in Afghanistan.

September 27, 2009

COIN 101

X out one possibility in Afghanistan - America isn't withdrawing. Any debate at this point will be purely theoretical because the decision has already been made to stay. In an interview with CNN, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "The notion of timelines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States."

But Gates went far beyond his usual nonchalant disinformation by throwing the mission parameters into deep confusion. America's objective in Afghanistan is subject to morph at any time and it appears to have done so again.

President Obama insists that a broad mission will fail, which is why he's zeroed in on "disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda." There's just one problem - defeating al-Qaeda means defeating the Taliban. To defeat the Taliban, America must forge a legitimate government in Afghanistan. And to uphold a credible government, America must nation-build. But the goal is still al-Qaeda.

Now a new twist. Gates said, "the Taliban and al-Qaida, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al-Qaida recruitment, operations, fund raising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States."

While Gates has a point about energizing extremist movements, his statements are the clearest indication yet that the Taliban is America's true target, and that al-Qaeda is a tool to rally support in Afghanistan. al-Qaeda barely existed in the Soviet war, as Gates should know, and lumping it so effortlessly with the Taliban is blatant distortion. His words are proof that America won't leave until the Taliban is defeated, a war that could protract for decades, and his assessment guarantees more US troops.

Gates is no fan of the "offshore" theory and he won't allow Vice President Biden and his shadows to win. Gates just poured a vat of oil on an already slippery slope. Anyone believing America will withdraw, draw down, or leave Afghanistan in the next five years should carefully follow him. He will inadvertently lead you to the truth and just telegraphed escalation.

If defeating the Taliban is America's mission then more US troops are needed and soon. Those who cover for President Obama's "deliberation" threaten the war effort. The London Times reports, "Several Taleban leaders said that the movement was already attracting more recruits and was drafting plans fully to exploit the post-election power vacuum... The drawn-out fiasco of last month’s elections has only bolstered the Islamists."

"The political paralysis helped us a lot," said Mullah Ghulam Muhammad Akhund, a Taleban commander in Helmand. "The government will be too busy dealing with their own problems, giving us time to create plans and recruit more people and attack government facilities."

The Afghan and American governments are the in same boat.

In a semi-related development, Energy Minister Ismail Khan threatened to quit the government after narrowly avoiding a suicide attack. Khan, part of the Northern alliance, has been targeted in the past and was warned of imminent threats. "Very clearly I want to say that if the government does not form a clear strategy to bring peace and security, and the situation continues like this, I will not participate in the Cabinet anymore," he said.

That's one vote for more US troops.

September 26, 2009

Somali Limbo

Part of a guerrilla’s job is to magnify his effects by combining tactics, weapons, and information. Last week two UN trucks made their way into the African Union's headquarters in Mogadishu. By themselves, the explosives rigged in the trucks would have caused moderate property damage, a few casualties, and some wounded. By a fuel depot, the blast left 21 people dead including General Juvenal Niyonguruz of Burundi, the AU’s second in command.

Suffering is a constant in Somalia, obscuring how low the situation can deteriorate. How to stack war clouds on more war clouds, how to sound a red alert during red alert? Judging by President Obama’s intensifying minimalist strategy he seems to believe things can’t get any worse, but the lesson of Somalia is that it can always get worse.

The attack on the AU headquarters demonstrated al-Shabab’s evolving capabilities: enemy vehicles for disguise, detailed plans of the enemy base, intelligence to pinpoint the meeting where Niyonguruz was busy planning a new offensive in Mogadishu. “This was very tactical,” said one peacekeeping official. “It’s like these guys had a map of the place.” They probably did - al-Shabab’s growing sophistication and infiltration has knocked the international community on its heels.

But soon after the attack an even more disturbing revelation surfaced. General Niyonguruz had intrinsic value as a target, but he was primarily a message. Sheik Ali Mohamaud Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman, claimed the attack was retaliation for the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the former al-Qaeda commander in Somalia. This raises an unsettling reality - a Burgundian general paid the price for American unilateralism. Does President Obama really want to trigger an assassination contest with al-Shabab, and does he want to alienate African states?

Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula was one of several officials to voice concern over America’s unilateral strikes. Not only are they short-sighted from a counterinsurgency perspective, they aren’t popular with some of America’s regional allies. Wetangula said, “What I do not feel comfortable with is the fact that the U.S. would want to conduct operations in our neighborhood without information or cooperation or collaboration. That lone ranger behavior has often not succeeded in many place.”

Obama must be extra careful with Somalia’s neighbors because a regional approach is the only sustainable option. He got lucky this time. Instead of calling for withdrawal like Ethiopia, AU members are calling for reinforcements as the war boils past unnatural levels. Soon after Niyonguruz’s death Nicolas Bwakira, the AU special representative for Somalia, said a wider AU mandate is necessary. Since America has no realistic option of putting troops on the ground, AU and possibly UN troops are Obama’s last defense.

Bwakira was echoed by Burudni Vice President Yves Sahinguvu, who said at the soldiers’ funerals, “The time has come to re-examine Amisom's [African Union Mission in Somalia] mandate so that we can have the power to act when and as necessary. We call today for more equipment, more financial means, reinforcements, and a stronger mandate which gives our troops the right to pursue if necessary.”

Another powerful endorsement came from Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who called for additional troops with UN ambassador Susan Rice looking on. His words were a gift to President Obama, but are they really as sweet as they sound? An AU force of 5,000 is all that stands between al-Shabab and Somalia’s transitional government, but Museveni didn’t say how many more troops he would like, only that al-Shabaab can be defeated if more troops are deployed in Somalia.

“The population in Somalia is against the terrorists, they are just imposing themselves,” Museveni said. While al-Shabab is deeply unpopular in parts of Somalia, it cannot operate as it currently does without support from the population. Though Somalia’s government may be the strongest its had in years, al-Shabab has become one of the most organized insurgencies Somalia has ever seen. The required AU troops will exceed anything African states have in mind.

“Burundian soldiers are today in Somalia,” said Sahinguvu, “and they will not leave this country until they have completed their mission with the help of the international community, the UN and the African Union.”

What is the mission though? With an estimated force of 10,000, including its allies, the AU could need 50,000 troops just to combat al-Shabab’s fighters, and this assumes American intelligence, logistics, and possibly weapons support. But counterinsurgency isn’t about fighting. Without properly resourced nation-building, a military solution will ultimately complicate the insurgency. Peacekeepers alone are helpless. Realistically, deploying new forces into Somalia is a bad idea, but the AU will likely push ahead to save face. At ill times the dark skies make room for new blackness.

Among those who stand to lose big in the new turmoil is President Obama.

He would be foolish not to learn a lesson from Saleh Nabhan’s death. A terrorist is dead, but Nahbhan groomed others to take his place. Obama has provoked the ire of al-Shabab, who leans more and more towards global jihadism with each drone strike, commando raid, and American arms shipment to the Somalia government. He’s sparked a political blood feud that will pass the bullets and bombs to African forces, who in turn vow revenge over counterinsurgency. Nabhan’s death touched off a reaction that will both increase the number of foreign troops and the frequency of al-Shabab attacks on foreign forces, an explosive combination and downward spiral.

The risk against the transitional government will rise at a most terrible time. Somalia wouldn’t be Somalia without one final punch to the gut. If al-Shabab returns to power even in a limited capacity then President Obama has a massive new headache.

In a recent video noted for its high production value, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Adbi Godane, codename
Ali Zubeyr, shows himself shaking hands with a blurred out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who he mocks for aiding his ascent. He prays to holy warriors in Palestine, the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan over scenes of Mogadishu battles, demonstrating his deep commitment to global jihad. And just to be sure, he tells Osama bin Laden, “Receive glad tidings and rejoice, and we are awaiting your guidance in this advance stage of jihad.

Nabhan’s death and Abu Zubayr’s declaration are corollary. President Obama is making monsters in Somalia. His short-term minimalism compromises long-term stability - he can’t really help but he can hurt. He must halt his impulsive tactics before he prematurely creates another Afghanistan. One is obviously hard enough to manage.

September 25, 2009

The Death of Mullah Omar

They had watched him for months, a fraction of the years it took to locate him. A fleet of Reapers manned the skies for 24 hour surveillance while a special ops team monitored him from just across the border, prepared to pounce on the slightest irregularity. They were hoping to pinpoint other leaders as well, but they got wind that he had been tipped off and planned to vanish tonight.

The green light went on. Bombs fell. Under the demolished ruins of his safe house lie the body of Mullah Omar, Taliban leader and commander of the faithful. At least that's the plan, but would the war really end with his last breathe?

A great deal of talk is circling around who America’s enemy is in Afghanistan. Some say al-Qaeda, some say the Taliban, many say both. How to truly eliminate these groups though? Rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death have abounded for years and al-Qaeda continues to function with minimal direction. Though he's the undisputed jihadist king, Mullah Omar's death probably wouldn't unravel the Taliban’s ad hoc nature either. But since he was lumped together with al-Qaeda by President Obama himself, who said the Taliban’s “hard core” is non-reconcilable, we must assume Obama would approve a strike on both bin Laden and Omar if he could.

Killing Omar, essentially martyrdom, would merely embolden his followers, but if Obama isn’t willing to negotiate then he better be willing to kill. Omar wouldn’t give up information if he was caught and would probably commit suicide before that ever happens. He’s more useful to Obama alive since he presents one of the few exits from Afghanistan, thus he must be preserved.

Meeting with Omar would be highly controversial, but it’s commonly thought that America is trying to reverse the Taliban’s advances just to create leverage in negotiations. Omar’s one demand is the withdrawal of foreign forces; military officials hope to bring him to the point of ruin before engaging him in a position of weakness. There’s just one problem - America has shown no ability to halt the Taliban’s progress. This day of weakness is unlikely to ever arrive.

“We would like to point out that we fought against the British invaders for 80 years from 1839 to 1919 and ultimately got independence by defeating Britain,” Omar said in a message celebrating Eid al-Fitr, which ends the fasting of Ramadan. “Today we have strong determination, military training and effective weapons. Still more, we have preparedness for a long war and the regional situation is in our favor. Therefore, we will continue to wage jihad until we gain independence and force the invaders to pull out.”

Mullah Omar will never negotiate from weakness, he can only be approached in a position of power. He will never give in even if the Taliban returns to a low point. He understands guerrilla warfare is cyclical, but that the host holds the long-term advantage. Since Omar cannot be weakened without killing him, he should be contacted as soon as possible. There’s no point in waiting.

At least one person seems to agree. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who probably will survive an ethnically divided run-off, has advocated negotiating with Omar for years. Last July, less than a month before the election, Karzai reiterated, “If Mullah Omar wants to come and talk, he’s welcome - it’s a desire we have and we should try for it. Without a sincere peace process on all sides, matters will only get worse.”

Whether President Obama agrees or not, Karzai is likely his man in Afghanistan for the rest of his term. It will be difficult to escape Karzai’s position without further damaging relations, though Karzai is as unpopular with the Taliban as with America. Omar nixed negotiations the American stooge and blasted Karzai for, “rampant corruption in the surrogate Kabul administration, the embezzlement, drug trafficking, the existence of mafia networks, the tyranny and high-handedness of the warlords.”

Nevertheless, Karzai is likely to stick to his position and cannot be ignored completely given his apparent entrenchment in power.

One ambiguous theory from Washington advocates reconciliation with “moderate Taliban” and arming local tribes. President Obama claims that turning “non-ideological” fighters is essential to success, but buying off Taliban mercenaries and tribes will only last while the money does. They also might stay enemies with America the whole time, and the Taliban will keep fighting even if it loses its hired muscle. Fake reconciliation fails to comprehend the truth of the Taliban’s structure, and underestimates a potential response from Omar.

The infamous “Colonel Imam,” an ISI brigadier who claims to have trained Mullah Omar, warned in a deep interview this past June, “When are you people going to understand there are no number two Taliban... In Afghanistan the only man who can make a decision and people listen to is Mullah Omar. He’s a very reasonable man. He would listen and work for the interests of his country.”

Though Imam has reason to exaggerate, Omar seems to be level headed. Back in February he saw, and dreaded, the Swat storm that was brewing and its subsequent backlash. He made several attempts to divert the Pakistani Taliban’s attention back to Afghanistan, reportedly telling a close source, “If anybody really wants to wage Jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan. Attacks on the Pakistani security forces and killing of fellow Muslims by the militants in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan is bringing a bad name to Mujahideen and harming the war against the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.”

Omar’s feelings, if true, are a clearer insight into his mind than the monstrous propaganda surrounding him. Too bad most people won’t consider looking at him from different angles. Judging by its editorials and writing staff, the New York Times has subtly but surely joined the war drums of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. In his latest piece David Brooks claims the Taliban, “is part of a complex insurgency trying to topple the Pakistani regime.”

Pakistan is unlikely to fall even if America were to withdrawal completely and the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. This assumption is a government throwaway line. While Omar can’t be taken at face value, he convincingly states, “Our aim is to liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces and death and destruction inside neighboring Pakistan has never been our goal.” There is such a propensity to demonize Omar that we may look back and realize his warnings were sincere.

During his message Omar warned Americans against their leader's logic, which hasn't been stellar in Afghanistan: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on the public of the West not to be deceived by the assertions of Obama, who says the war in Afghanistan, is a war of necessity. The West does not have to wage this war. The public of the West should also not be deceived by the assertions of the General Secretary of NATO and British prime minister who claim the war in Afghanistan is for the defense of the West. Such deceiving and baseless utterances must not confuse you."

If no one talks to Mullah Omar we will never know if he’s willing to make peace with America on the condition of withdrawal or possibly a position in the Afghan government. Idealism perhaps, but he’s signaled that he intends to leave Americans alone if the war ends. American officials don’t seem to perceive him as a direct threat either, only indirectly through Osama bin Laden. This is why negotiating with Mullah Omar could be inevitable - he’s the only one with any control over al-Qaeda. A chance is all it may be, but how else does America plan to uproot its true "enemy"?

Negotiation appears necessarily if America plans to stay in Afghanistan, but mandatory in the event of a full withdrawal. Leaving Afghanistan may be a good idea but not without coming to an agreement with Mullah Omar. America can’t wage war with him for eight years, on top of all the other history, then leave without saying a word. The man appears to live by honor - he might respond to it.

President Obama should pull the trigger if the drones spot Mullah Omar, but if not he must pull up a chair.

September 24, 2009

Offshore Drilling

During the 2008 election an unexpected surge in oil futures and gas prices added spice to a bubbling stew of economic turmoil. Candidates were forced to defend a problem outside their control, causing them to lunge at tax holidays and offshore drilling as short term solutions to long range problems. The argument of eliminating al-Qaeda in Pakistan from “offshore” is a similar gimmick - intentionally ambiguous, overtly political, and ultimately unrealistic.

We may never know who actually supports this strategy. Vice President Joe Biden is the face but he may not be the brains. In any event he stands for an alternative to escalation in Afghanistan, but his backers should keep searching because chasing al-Qaeda in Pakistan is fatally flawed.

First Biden’s true intentions must be revealed. His words are deliberately double-sided to appear tough and mitigating at the same time, and drenched in fear of political repercussions. Not long ago Biden warned of more sacrifice and making general statements like the Afghan-Pakistan border is a place that, “if it doesn’t get straightened out, will continue to wreak havoc on Europe and the United States.” All of a sudden he wants to scale back the mission, believing it out of reach.

A political game is in play but we must focused. Two options are possible, assuming no more troops are added: current troop levels will be maintained to buy time while special forces dig deeper into Pakistan, or troop levels will be reduced as the mission shifts from nation-building to counter-terrorism. Both scenarios give America a low chance of “winning,” “succeeding,” or even saving face.

It would be foolish to sustain a constant troop level considering why President Obama and Biden are rethinking their strategy. Obama deployed 17,000 troops to guard the election in hopes of securing a legitimate government. High-turn out and low corruption were supposed to pave the way for more US troops, but Obama is suffering doubts now that the opposite occurred. Logically he should remove the troops he stationed for the election if he doesn’t feel the outcome justifies another deployment.

“A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That’s in doubt now,” said Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama’s review of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Part of the reason you are seeing a hesitancy to jump deeper into the pool is that they are looking to see if they can make lemonade out of the lemons we got from the Afghan election.”

A discouraging outlook, lemons aside, because America cannot withstand the Taliban without reinforcements. Current and drawn down forces alike will find themselves waist deep in stalemate and the war will drag on with limited progress to show the American people. This is the first flaw of Biden’s strategy: war with the Taliban doesn’t end no matter where he “shifts his focus” unless America withdraws completely. Since Biden gave no indication that America is leaving for good, does he expect the Taliban to lay down its arms or are American soldiers going to leave the Taliban alone? In fact, the majority of Biden’s argument is illogical.

Does he intend to leave the Taliban intact? Then what? Even if al-Qaeda's body is destroyed in Pakistan it still dwells in other conflict zones. The chances are high that a decentralized, ideological movement like al-Qaeda will revive itself as many times as necessary. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opposes Biden’s plan, took shots at him during an interview with PBS on Monday. “If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast Al Qaeda would be back in Afghanistan,” she said.

She’s probably right so Biden’s theory doesn’t make sense here, nor does the assumption that al-Qaeda won't evolve around drone strikes. He then collides with his own logic.

Biden and his supporters argue that a heavier footprint is an unsustainable long-term strategy, and he’s correct. Why then does he think Pakistan will be any different from Afghanistan. Afghans are leery of Americans, but the Pakistani public is among the most anti-American in the world. Shifting the war in their direction is even less sustainable than Afghanistan. Establishing the proper intelligence network demands more American soldiers than Pakistan is willing to allow: zero.

The potential for aggravation between Obama, Biden and the Pentagon was on display when Pakistani military officials told their American counterparts not to connect Pakistan with Afghanistan. American officials may believe Pakistan is the real problem, and it may be, but Obama has no benefit of perception. The Pakistani army warned that shifting the emphasis to Pakistan not only threatens the war, but American-Pakistani relations as well.

Imagine being told this then coming home and hearing America’s civilian leaders advocate the exact strategy they were warned against. It’s not so far fetched to assume military officials are skeptical of whether their civilian overseers know their stuff. America is going to need Pakistan even more to launch operations into Waziristan and the rest of the FATA, but the very act of doing so imperils the war - another contradiction.

Vice President Biden should learn from President Obama’s recent mistake and stop playing political games with Afghanistan. Offshore drilling is a pipe dream. Octopus Mountain is still developing a successful withdrawal or drawn down, but the Pakistan option was ruled out long ago.

September 23, 2009

Defining Naivity

President Obama, his supporters claim, is a gifted orator capable of translating his words to deeds. George Bush's linguistic inadequacy obscures the true skills of Obama, as a good number of people could best Bush in eloquence. Obama's flowery prose has won praise from American detractors in Europe and the Middle East, but he also relies on it too heavily, especially when reality stands opposite of his words.

No need to mince words in The Trench - Obama stabbed himself and the Palestinians in his UN speech.

The Washington Post, in an editorial, falsely observed: “The administration's inflexible stance, unwisely spelled out in public by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, led to an unwinnable confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu, turned Israeli public opinion against Mr. Obama, and prompted Palestinians to harden their own position.”

Palestinians haven’t hardened their position any more with Obama than Bush, though they are likely about to do so now. It also turns out Obama won his confrontation with Israel and his inflexible stance is more gummy than steel. His UN speech called for, "a re-launch of negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem.” Beyond how unacceptable this position is to Palestinians, Obama backtracked from a settlement freeze to a “refrain.” He then affirmed a “Jewish state of Israel," a precondition itself!

With one paragraph Obama handed a silver platter to Israel and threw the Palestinians to the wolves. Obama would bristle at this analysis, but the evidence is stacked against him and none greater than the glee from Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he welcomed what he called Obama's “unequivocal support for Israel as the nation of the Jewish people” - that will cost him support in the Middle East.

“I found many things that were very good for us,” Netanyahu told reporters. “First of all, he said, 'Let's return to peace talks without preconditions,’ and that's what I've been saying for the last six months. I was happy that just like yesterday [in the tripartite meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], that was the central message.”

And the exact opposite message preached by Palestinians. But Netanyahu was euphoric with Obama’s recognition of a Jewish state of Israel, who said, "I think that's the core of the conflict, or more precisely, the core of the solution to the conflict. I was happy to hear this in front of the world, the Arab world and the Palestinian people.”

Unfortunately, he won't find a single Muslim who believes the solution to the conflict is the recognition of a Jewish state. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman later told the Haaretz, "Obama is always trying to maintain a balance. For us, the positive aspect is that he said that Israel is a Jewish state."

But how balanced could he his only cheerleaders are Netanyahu and Lieberman, Israel's premier hawks and extremely unpopular men in Palestine?

President Obama has committed crucial errors, first by altering the conditions of final-status issues while preaching no pre-conditions. This is nonsensical and offensive to Palestinians. He also tilted way too far towards Israel. Octopus Mountain recommended a balanced stance to soothe Israelis, but he tried to revive his popularity in one speech. Obama probably bought himself a ratings boost given how happy Netanyahu is, but he sucker punched Palestinians to get it.

Fatah, who held a national convention just to consolidate its waning power, has been undercut and must now deftly straddle diplomacy and aggression to please its wide-ranging power base. Mohammed Dahlan, a senior spokesman and former security chief for Abbas's Fatah party told Reuters, “The U.S. administration has retreated from its position at the expense of peace.”

Obama hasn't just retreated though, he threw red meat at Israel. Now that Obama softened on settlements, backed a Jewish state, and insists on no pre-conditions, Israel believes it can walk over him and the Palestinians. Here is the true the spirit Obama created - Netanyahu taunting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Abbas had said he wouldn't even come unless this and that condition was met, but he came,” relished Netanyahu.

Lieberman similarly boasted, “The three-way meeting [between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Obama on Tuesday] had a very positive effect because the main thing is that we showed that we do not intend to compromise on our positions and that we will need to conduct a dialogue without preconditions.”

A Palestinian's worst nightmare. Why would Obama want that, and what doesn't he understand about the consequences of his speech? Soon after Obama ended his speech, Netanyahu claimed he only loosely endorsed the Road Map which, “did not intend to pull back to the 1967 lines. All the more so, I don't intend to do so.”

Add up the mayhem. Israel will insist on no pre-conditions now that Obama provided cover, yet Israel is already a Jewish state, refugees aren’t allowed to return, and Jerusalem will stay undivided in Israel’s possession. Netanyahu doesn’t intend to return to pre-1967 borders as advocated by every Arab state. Even if Abbas caved and agreed to no pre-conditions on final status issues, he was in the middle of switching his condition to pre-1967 borders. Obama just broke his last leg to stand on.

“I am not naive,” Obama told the UN, but his words say otherwise as do the potential effects of them.

The definition of a third Intifada is subject to debate. Some believe the Gaza war marked its beginning, though many people agree that an Intifada may be looming but hasn’t broke. Octopus Mountain doesn't think a proper third Intifada has begun, but we’re growing nervous after Obama’s speech. Excluding Hamas is dangerous in itself, but supporting Israel’s demands over the Palestinians at such a high venue as the UN probably has Hamas loading its guns.

The first and second Intifadas occurred after hopelessness besieged the Palestinians and Obama is creating a similar type of futile atmosphere. He collapsed under Israeli pressure, mushroomed Palestinian skepticism, and may actually have jammed negotiations even more by giving up on pre-conditions, which served as one of the Palestinian’s few defenses. His hands completely tied by Israel, he gave a UN speech that ignored the Gaza war and the blockade, further cementing force as Hamas’s only option.

Naive is the only word to describe President Obama’s day at the UN.

The Leak

The leak of General McChrystal's Afghanistan review is becoming bigger news than the review. The leaker's identity is important but not nearly as important as the leak itself. One can only imagine the rage of perfectionist micro-managers Rahm Emanual and David Axelrod as they awoke to the headlines. While the effects of this event can't be overestimated, whoever challenged Obama stabbed him in a critical way.

Critics of the leak are easy to find. Obama's staff and Democratic allies are naturally upset but so are Republicans who favor the war - the odds of escalation just dipped. Americans may be upset as well, but they should be grateful of receiving any information because Obama was going to take months to make a decision he should've already decided. Critics claim the leak infringed upon Obama's right to secrecy, but this threat is eclipsed by a far deadlier risk: military paralysis.

Conspiracy theories grow plentifully around leaks, but assume for now a straight-forward story. Someone in the Pentagon who favors escalation, could be good friends with McChrystal, honestly believes the mission is failing, and might not like Obama saw enough stonewalling to crack and vent. Once Obama voiced skepticism for McChrystal's review it was time for duty, or some similar justification.

Obama could know the leaker's identity, in which case the question of punishment arises. It seems hazardous to root out and reprimand the leaker because, if the military is already growing skeptical of Obama, he could make even more enemies.

Obama's true problem is that the leak was made possible by a climate already suited for it. Enough division must already be setting in that lines are starting to form. If the military believes in General McChrystal's review and developed the review assuming Obama would follow through, it won't be happy that Joe Biden is gumming up the gears.The military especially will despise Obama if it believes he's beholden to political opinion. His intelligent but green perception becomes a liability. Obama actually played down military credentials in the campaign because Iraq was his only foothold to hang onto.

If Biden, whose only foreign policy expertise is a few stints on the Foreign Relations Committee, manages to sway him from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan to counter-terrorism in Pakistan, the military could lose faith in Obama's ability to command.

For all the problems of a united, runaway military as under George Bush, a divided military is just as dangerous. Afghanistan isn't a land of compromise; America has serious problems if the Pentagon and White House genuinely differ on a course of action. The war will be hard enough waged with absolute unity and determination. America cannot fight this war successfully while suffering from internal military schisms. Congress and the American people are already foaming for decision. Stalling and hesitating is jeopardizing President Obama's relationship with the Pentagon and will create more enemies than he can handle.

Octopus Mountain tried to warn him.

September 22, 2009

30,000 +

President Obama finally paid the price for stalling on Afghanistan. Military officials reportedly told McClatchy last week that the Pentagon is growing frustrated with what they considered “dithering.” After President Obama went out and once again downplayed troop requests, someone, most likely from the Pentagon, handed General Stanley McChrystal’s review to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

The leak of his review, which McChrystal submitted to President Obama in August, has the White House scrambling to quell the bubbling uproar. McChrystal warns in his strategic review that failure to deploy additional US forces will likely result in defeat, yet Obama and his officials insist on delaying a decision until the full 17,000 troops are deployed and the Afghan election settled. They still want to push not just a decision but a debate into 2010.

Thus we must take the situation into our own hands. Will a static troop level result in defeat and if so, how many troops does Obama need to deploy?

Straight to the point, there are no signs that the present troop level will hold against a gathering Taliban. Arguing to wait until the newest deployment arrives in full is flimsy since only 3,000-4,000 troops remain to be stationed, not enough to cover America’s needs. Stranger still, Obama’s deployment was supposed to prevent the insecure election now delaying his decision. With a corrupt election or explosive runoff as the only outcomes, it stands to reason that America needs more troops to support whatever shaky government emerges, if Obama wants to support it.

The White House’s newest argument to quell troop rumors centers around the mission objective. Going from the top down, a nation-building mission demands more US troops and so would a partial reconstruction effort. But even a strict military effort, contrary to counterinsurgency as it is, would need more troops. Though Obama seemed so sure that “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda” is the mission, now he’s questioning himself. Apparently he isn’t stalling for time, but analyzing whether al-Qaeda can be defeated without another deployment by using special forces and drones - the “offshore method.”

The AP reports, “The review could lead to decisions to scale back broad efforts at political reform and economic development and to focus missions on hunting down Al Qaeda by using small special operations teams and armed Predator aircraft. A narrower American effort also could avert the need for additional troops, officials and experts said.”

There’s no excuse to succumb to political spin when the truth is plain. America has spent the bulk of the war fighting the Taliban, not al-Qaeda, and this configuration is unlikely to change.

The argument of who the enemy is - the Taliban or al-Qaeda - is moot because the answer is both. Defeating the Taliban is necessary to ensure al-Qaeda doesn’t return en masse, while defeating al-Qaeda will leave the Taliban relatively intact, lethal, and ready to host a reconstituted al-Qaeda. The Taliban will continue fighting coalition forces even if America shifts to eliminating al-Qaeda leadership. Finally, taking out al-Qaeda in Pakistan ignores the threat of the Pakistani Taliban itself, which America has no answer for beyond the Pakistan army.

If America withdrew completely and focused purely on al-Qaeda then this arrangement could change, but the Taliban is America’s primary enemy as long as it occupies Afghanistan, light or heavy presence. And America will need many more troops to fight the Taliban. Not only is the Taliban growing more cohesive as a unit while maintaining its decentralized nature, Taliban tactics and weapons have evolved into the higher stages of insurgency. IEDs have dramatically risen, but so have complex ambushes. Its information network is also superior to America's.

But no sign is so empirical as the Taliban’s swelling ranks. While the Taliban has often been estimated at under 10,000 hardcore fighters, a recent Pentagon report claims the Taliban ranks now number between 15,000 and 20,000. An official involved in the report complained, “They seem never to have a shortage of manpower. And there doesn't appear to be any shortage of funding.” Furthermore, “The Taliban have already gained a foothold in almost every region home to a significant population of Pashtun tribes,” and are increasing operations in the north and west.

America can’t freeze its troop levels and expect to keep up with the Taliban’s recruiting, and the more momentum it gains the more soldiers it will field.

The question then becomes how many more troops does Obama need? Octopus Mountain has calculated a vacuum of 50,000-60,000 based on a soldier-to-civilian ratio of 20 per 1,000. Speculation of General McChrystal’s review has pushed the number as high as 45,000, meaning our calculations are similar after factoring in the political pressure to reduce McChrystal's estimate. The latest rumor from Washington, credible now that the Pentagon has decided to leak information, pegs McChrystal’s request at 30,000 new troops. Will this be enough?

At face value the answer is no since America would still be below the minimum 20/1,000 ratio. If America can train enough Afghans then they should be able to counteract the Taliban and reduce the number of American troops, but this process contains two critical flaws. First, training the Afghan army will take longer than the 12-18 month window so frequently tossed around. Judging by Iraqi security forces, the Afghan army needs at least five years to become field ready. As the army now stands, General McChrystal admitted that possibly half the force is poorly equipped and under-trained. Any argument that claims Afghan forces can fill the security vacuum is erroneous.

The White House and Congress’ plan to rapidly increase their training could end up compounding the insurgency instead. Octopus Mountain is very concerned with speeding up training of Afghan security forces since America has already been hurrying its task with lackluster results. Speeding up the training program even more opens the door for Taliban infiltration. The Taliban is a secret victor in America’s haste to expand the Afghan army and will make a vigorous attempt to penetrate its ranks.

Since Afghan forces aren’t the short-term solution, the only remaining alternative to increase overall troop levels is outreach to local warlords and tribal leaders, like Iraq. This strategy is growing in popularity as Western analysts swoon over its untapped potential. Octopus Mountain opposes such a strategy. Resourcing tribes to fight America’s battles may work in isolated pockets where the tribes are truly American, but simply buying off tribes is short-sighted and reeks of desperation. These same people highlight how fickle the Taliban’s support can be, then advocate that America use this fickle support! America doesn’t know enough to navigate Afghanistan’s tribal system.

Barring a withdrawal, America needs more troops to halt the Taliban’s momentum, beat back its advances, hold its territory, and eventually clear its fighters from society. 30,000 troops, with possibly 10,000 trainers, may be enough to stop the Taliban’s progress, but a stalemate is as good as defeat in counterinsurgency. President Obama will likely need more to tip the balance, after which he may be able to withdraw some troops as Afghan forces allow. Of course every other part of his strategy must succeed to make this possible.

Octopus Mountain doesn’t necessarily advocate escalation, but this is the reality facing President Obama and he will likely choose to surge. Next time we will theorize a successful withdrawal.

COIN 101

Either UK Prime Minister is doing President Obama a favor or is showing him up. The London Times reports that 1,000 British troops are being prepared as requested General McChrystal's troop review. They would be part of a boost in overall NATO numbers though as the Times states, "Most of the reinforcements would come from the US." Obama must act quickly to avoid damage from this news. Brown's decision is easier, but it still makes him look like he can pull the trigger when Obama can't. He doesn't need conservatives cackling he's weaker than Europe.

September 21, 2009

Rush Hour

General Stanley McChrystal’s dreaded troop request is finally ready, eliminating one reason for the White House’s silence on Afghanistan. Thus a new reason is necessary. It may go something like...

“You have to get the strategy right and then make the determinations about resources. I am going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions.”

President Obama finally waded into the fray this past week in interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, and a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose own troops are slated for withdrawal in 2011. But Obama’s message left much to be desired, as he repeatedly emphasized taking his time to formulate a strategy before considering additional troops. After rushing to accomplish many of his lofty goals, now he’s going to slow down his more urgent foreign policy decision? No one wants to see Obama choose wrongly, but his logic has holes.

Obama’s hastiness is manifest at home in his quest for universal health care. Taken with a grain of salt, Republican concerns that Obama is moving too fast are shared by independents and contain some validity. Obama is racing his depreciating popularity, believing that his first year could be the only year to pass reform; historically this has been the case. For those who say the health care debate started decades ago, like Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, the same can be said for Afghanistan. Obama’s urgency is legitimate, but many believe health care is the reason why Obama is stalling on Afghanistan.

The same situation will occur on Tuesday when Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israelis are convinced that he’s exploiting the conflict to win Muslim popularity. Now Obama is taking the reigns himself to pressure the two sides into compromise, his envoy George Mitchell having been repeatedly rebuffed. Again his urgency is valid, but Obama is insisting on an irrational two-year deadline once negotiations begin. Beyond the other final status issues, Jerusalem itself has very, very low odds of being resolved in two years.

Obama is right to restart negotiations as soon as possible, but a 10 year deadline is more realistic.

Obama’s political agenda is as rushed as several of his counterinsurgency strategies. While cheers ring out from the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, al-Qaeda’s commander in Somalia, Obama’s overall strategy doesn’t appear cohesive. Eliminating al-Qaeda targets is part of his Afghanistan strategy, but Somalia itself is receiving nothing more than minor increases in arms to government and humanitarian aid. Without a nation-building mission similar to Afghanistan and Iraq, targeted assassinations are band-aids on lost limbs. al-Qaeda has survived the death of multiple commanders in Somalia and it will survive Nabhan’s.

And now al-Shabab wants to kill Americans more than ever. What happens if the weak transitional government falls? Obama is contributing to the conditions of a future al-Qaeda haven.

Perhaps the most vivid contradiction to Obama’s “deliberation” over Afghanistan is how often his officials urged Pakistan to launch offensives against the Taliban. The battle for Swat posed significant risks to the government, but the Taliban never threatened to collapse the state or seize nuclear weapons. An operation in Swat was necessary, but it hadn’t even ended when the hated phrase “do more” resurfaced. Rumors quickly followed special envoy Richard Holbrooke as he toured Swat refugee camps. Money was coming he promised, and by the way, when are you starting Waziristan?

Pakistan has balked at American pressure for months, claiming it isn’t ready to handle the political or military scale of the operation.

Judging by these examples President Obama’s cause for delay seems more like an excuse. Afghanistan is just as important, urgent, and complicated, and demands the same quick decision-making. Instead of stalling for time, which becomes increasingly obvious, Obama needs to stand tall and at the minimum deliver these four steps under pressure.

Since forwarding General McChrystal’s troop review to the American public is impractical for security reasons, it must be shipped immediately to a Congress that’s complaining about a lack of information. No stalling, delays, or loopholes. Lieutenant-Colonel Tadd Sholtis said, "We're working with Washington as well as the other NATO participants about how it's best to submit this.” Take it and slam it on the desk of every senator and representative. Uncensored. The American people should also be given a sanitized version, though after reading the leaked copy, this author found it redundant and uninformative.

President Obama must accompany the review’s release with speeches, town-halls, Internet chats - everything he’s done to promote health care. This will be difficult because Obama doesn’t want to promote an unpopular war and Congress isn’t the proper forum to defend himself; he wouldn’t want Republicans as his only cheerleaders. But prime-time speeches to explain McChrystal’s review are mandatory and input from average Americans would pay dividends. Obama is growing too comfortable behind the ivory walls, and people are noticing.

A major part of Obama’s explanation must confront troop levels. Playing down General McChrystal’s request is its own grave because every indication in Afghanistan points to more resources. McChrystal’s request by definition will call for more troops, anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000. Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen also admitted the need for more troops and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reportedly warming to a new deployment. Furthermore Obama deployed 17,000 troops without review on the grounds of protecting Afghanistan’s election, which then suffered from insecurity.

Just say it. America needs more troops in Afghanistan to accomplish any mission, whether nation-building or counterinsurgency against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Failing to do so will exacerbate Obama’s spiraling perception of indecision. Both sides of Congress and the American public were skeptical of his Afghan campaign promises and his performance has failed to alleviate concerns. Statements like, “Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy,” or, “the question is - are we pursuing the right strategy?” are shocking. On top of negating troop requests and feigning deliberation, is Obama going to question his own mission to stall for time? Didn’t he decide to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda” long ago?

"The time for this discussion was back in November 2008," said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Here is where President Obama takes the most damage. Delays alienate the American people, Congress, Europe, and Afghans, but waffling on his strategy could spell doom in the field. The Taliban is feverishly preparing for protracted war while Obama is still calculating his options. America is facing an enemy with absolute resolve, aware of its exact strategy, and prepared to fight for 80 years in the words of Mullah Omar. While the White House deliberates, the Taliban is energized, fortifying, multiplying, and expanding.

President Obama’s primary goal must be matching this intensity otherwise no strategy, however thought out and rational, will assure victory.

Tripartite Threat

With expectations building to unrealistic proportions, American, Israeli, and Palestinians officials have started downplaying the looming tripartite summit on the UN sidelines. All sides insist the meeting isn’t a resumption of negotiations, though America seems eager to press the possibility.

While one official said, “These three leaders are going to sit down in the same room and continue to narrow the gaps,” the Israeli press questioned President Obama’s motives and called the assembly a “tea or coffee" meeting.

Though Israelis and Palestinians will likely stay locked in brinkmanship, a propensity for disinformation and diplomatic posturing makes for a dangerous gauntlet. Obama must stay level headed and understand the limitations of his presence, unless he has some trick up his sleeve. Since a settlement freeze is unlikely from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have the breathing room to cave, the three men will likely exit the room as they went in.

The situation is frozen, in part, by a trio of threats Obama is unlikely to mention but must ultimately confront if he wants to sign a two-state solution.

Netanyahu, to his credit, is an open book. His personal opposition to a settlement freeze, refugee return, and division of Jerusalem is well chronicled. One of his officials told Ynet News, “The prime minister is ready to launch negotiations without preconditions, in order to promote peace with the Palestinians. He doesn't want the Palestinians to be citizens of Israel or under its rule.” But Netanyahu and his political base aren’t the only opposition to concessions - Israel may have the most anti-Obama public in the world.

A string of Jerusalem Post polls showing a 4% approval rating probably isn’t an accurate portrait, but they deliver the point. Only 12% of Israelis believe Obama is supportive of Israel, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and only 35% believe Israel would benefit from American intervention. 54% oppose the Arab Peace Initiative, the basis of Obama’s plan, and 52% oppose making concessions to implement it. Aside from real disagreement with his policies, the Israeli public believes that Obama is exploiting them to gain popularity with Muslims.

As such, Obama must be every bit as aware and sympathetic to Israelis as Palestinians and not tilt the pressure to either side. Obama’s challenge isn’t envious. He must convince Israelis and Palestinians to compromise without looking like he’s favoring one side. A trip to Jerusalem and a speech to all faiths could prove beneficial. The need for Palestinian support goes without saying, but he needs to befriend the Israeli people if he wants to soften their leaders' positions.

Unfortunately another threat will win him few friends in Israel. Hamas, a glaring hole in Obama’s meeting, cracks a little more each time Obama rejects its diplomatic outreach. The rockets have relatively stopped and though captured soldier Gilad Shalit has yet to see daylight, Hamas hasn’t quit on negotiations. Ignoring Hamas leadership seems especially dangerous given how entrenched the movement is. Obama can’t expect such nice words to last long.

Hamas Prime Minister Ishmail Haniyeh instantly condemned America’s blackballing as “no different that other administrations.” He warned, “No one has the right to give up on Jerusalem or the (Palestinian) refugees. Not the PLO and no any other factor can sign an agreement hurting the Palestinian people's principles and rights. Any agreement reached will not be respected by our people.”

But while Haniyeh means what he says, the door will likely remain open until Obama fully shuts it. Khaled Meshaal is seeking a dialogue, insisting, “We're not courting anyone, but we are dealing with matters with openness and realism... As long as there's a new language, we welcome it. But we want to see not only a change of language, but also a change of policies on the ground. We have said that we are prepared to cooperate with the US or any other international party that would enable the Palestinians to get rid of occupation.”

Obama can’t hope for any more of an opportunity. Hamas isn’t going to lay down its arms until the process starts moving, but rejecting Hamas outright will sabotage a two-state solution. First, simply holding control of Gaza will stall a Palestinian state and any violence will cripple negotiations. Second, Hamas and Fatah have tentatively agreed to elections in 2010. While Hamas is losing popularity, its support is enough to retain political power. In its most recent survey, the PCPSR found that Abbas leads Haniyeh 52% to 38%, not nearly enough marginalize Hamas.

Like with Hezbollah in Lebanon, America must deal with Hamas to deal with Palestine. Hamas may take on unique significance because the greatest threat of all to President Obama’s hope of a two-state solution is the blockade of Gaza. Simply put, Palestine cannot exist while the blockade exists.

But bringing it down requires aligning contradictions. Israel must feel confident of its security which means engaging Hamas to neutralize the threat. Obama must advance negotiations to bring down the blockade, but the blockade hinders negotiations from beginning. The White House condemned the UN’s investigation into the Gaza war, but this is especially foolish given that Obama advocates empowering the UN and is hosting his meeting on its sidelines. Though he must improve relations in Israel, Obama must face reality in Gaza, but prosecuting Israeli and Hamas officials will destroy his support. So goes life in the Middle East.

Israelis, Hamas, and the Gaza blockade aren’t on Tuesday's menu, but their presence weighs heavily on Obama.

September 19, 2009

Hurricane Warning

Deeper into the abyss fall the American people. Not only has our eagerness for debating Afghanistan been ignored, we seem to be an irritant as well. Though officials will likely object to this interpretation, the evidence is stacked against them. Americans have been confused by countless contradictions and have every right to demand answers, but the response from the White House and Pentagon hasn’t been encouraging.

Time to shock them back into reality.

The newest debate over Afghanistan doesn’t center around troop requests, but whether President Obama is stalling on his decision, fearful of jeopardizing his health care reform. Most signs indicate such a conclusion, a good one being Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He, along with Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen and CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, were supposed to provide continuation for Obama so that it wouldn’t take a year just to formulate a new strategy for a rapidly evolving war.

They were supposed to smooth the transition but, eight months later, are pleading for additional months of patience instead.

Faced with mounting pressure from the American people, Congress, and Afghans, transparency has succumbed to defensiveness. Secretary Gates, instrumental in playing down troop demands from the press, is bent on keeping General Stanley McChrystal’s review away from the American public. When asked why the review is classified during a Pentagon news briefing, Gates responded that President Obama has the right to “absorb the assessment himself.”

“We need to understand that the decisions that the president faces on Afghanistan are some of the most important he may face in his presidency, about how we go forward there,” Gates said.

Some of Gates’ points are well taken. Afghanistan has become the keystone of American foreign policy and nobody wants to see President Obama choose the wrong strategy. But Gates needs to understand the American people’s position if he wants us to understand the Pentagon’s. We suffer from numerous contradictions that make an already complex war even more confusing. Yet Gates is apparently chafing under the political pressure, grumbling, “I felt a sense of building momentum that's sort of demanding a decision in days, if not a week or two. And I just think that, given the importance of the decisions that the president faces, we need to take our time and get this right.”

Though the current outcry over Afghanistan is a direct result of an information vacuum fostered by the White House and the Pentagon, Gates tried to pin the blame on the American people. Too bad for him that we aren’t the only ones growing restless.

After the White House presented a list of benchmarks to Congress, Senator Carl Levin worried, "they didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know." Senator John Kerry jabbed, “No amount of money, no rise in troop levels, and no clever metrics will matter if the mission is ill-conceived.” Several senators requested additional interviews with General McChrystal, but Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says no meetings are expected to be held. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained of a lack of communication between the White House and Congress.

“We need more briefings,” Reid insisted.

And these are President Obama’s natural allies. His unnatural alliance is starting to question his decision-making abilities too. Senator John McCain said the closed-door briefing for senators was insufficient and reminded him of how the Bush administration handled Congress. No doubt with a hint of satisfaction, McCain told reporters afterwards, "We thought we were going to have a real discussion of the strategy, and we didn't. I didn't like it, but I'm not outraged. I saw this with other administrations.”

Though the Pentagon seems involved in the delays, even it is reportedly irked by Obama. Going for the knockout blow, Afghanistan's ambassador to America, Tayeb Jawad, warned that Afghans and Europe are starting to worry about the delay. “It’s time for the administration to come out and indicate a clear commitment to success and indicate the significance of the mission in Afghanistan," he said.

Frustration with President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan is legitimate and crosses age demographics, political spectrums and international borders. Obama must realize the demand is a frank dialogue, not an immediate decision. Yet our thirst for information, after such a long drought, has been perversely twisted into impatience and ignorance. Instead of the slightest insight we are told to keep quiet - an insult to the American people.

“There's been a lot of talk this week and the last two or three weeks about Afghanistan,” Gates told reporters. “And frankly, from my standpoint, everybody ought to take a deep breath.”

How long do we have to hold it? Senator Levin claims, “It could be weeks or months before we get a presidential recommendation.” Gates seems to have anticipated delays, as he personally authorized 2,000 - 3,000 “critical enablers” if the war deteriorates further, "and is prepared to send more, if needed, before the president makes his decision." Apparently President Obama’s indecision is its own mechanism to deploy new troops. Take a deep breath America... then scream as loud as you can.

Gates must be told at the highest decibel that the American people won’t back down from a debate or rescind our demand for information. This is America and we will debate troop levels every second of every hour of every day, and protest too. If we are told to be quiet, we must do the opposite. Nothing good can come from the Defense Secretary telling the American people to stop talking about, thinking about, and questioning Afghanistan.

President Obama’s current predicament isn’t the American people’s fault. Given that he knew two years in advance that he would run for president, Obama should have begun his strategy for Afghanistan long before he was elected. He’s going on three years, not eight months, yet still can’t make a decision. Yes, the war’s landscape has changed over time, but that is the nature of war. Waiting even longer will allow the ground new time to shift, jeopardizing whatever strategy is developed now. The bottom line is that President Obama should have been ready a lot sooner for the biggest foreign policy issue of his presidency.

Though getting his strategy right is paramount to Obama’s overall success as president, war allows no time to relax or to waste. There is no rest for the warring. War is a death struggle that requires 100% attention and commitment; the Washington Post reported that Obama has held one meeting with his national security team since receiving General McChrystal’s review earlier this month. Not only does Obama have no time to relax, the American people aren’t going to either.

We aren’t asking for the ultimate decision, simply a few rays of light. But snub us and our craving for information will erupt like a gathering storm.

September 18, 2009

Same Old Stories

How many organizations must sound alarm before Israel gets the message? Ignoring Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International is easy, but B’Tselem and the UN too? Is it possible that all these groups are lying about the Gaza war and that Israel’s version is the truth?

The human rights controversy has become a circle - Israel won't be able to elude the allegations without breaking them.

Why doesn’t Israel realize it has more to lose by dodging than confronting the mayhem of Gaza? Why does it overlook the benefits of ending this gruesome story? The questions never end, the doubts never end. Israel can proclaim the IDF is the world’s most moral army as America nods approvingly in the background, but doing so ignores basic principles of counterinsurgency. Nobody is listening.

Fundamentally Israel isn’t battling the UN, human rights groups, or even Hamas, but the Palestinian people and Muslims at large. Israel inflicts damage upon itself in the eyes of Palestinians when it criticizes human rights groups for their bias. In fact, Israel has cut itself numerous times in Gaza, another story stuck on repeat. The UN’s investigation is the latest example.

After three weeks of investigating, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of documents, a UN team headed by Richard Goldstone released its findings this week to little fanfare. The 574 page report devoted the majority of space to Israeli violations, immediately prompting condemnation from Israel and America, the only Western state to come to its rescue (another repetitive story.) State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called the report “one-sided,” but what else can be expected from a one-sided war?

The war crimes report is likely to be one-sided as well.

In line with most figures, the UN team concluded roughly 1,300 Palestinians died, several hundred of them civilians. Israel itself admitted that hundreds of civilians were killed along with a majority of Hamas members. But four Palestinians are enough to overcome the three Israeli civilians killed during the conflict. Israel complained that the mission’s mandate, “was clearly one-sided and ignored the thousands of Hamas missile attacks on civilians in southern Lebanon that made the Gaza operation necessary.”

Israel, in its own mind, has become a master of comparing a dozen Israeli deaths over a period of years to hundreds of dead Palestinians in a month. Such logic destroys any remaining strands of its credibility in the Middle East. Furthermore, the UN panel said Israel refused to respond to a list of questions, but that Palestinian authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank cooperated. Israel, unwilling to validate the investigation, forfeited all possible influence in the process, guaranteeing the type of report it’s now condemning.

Israel seems to be extremely naive at times for a country surrounded by insurgencies. The collective eight months of war crimes allegations isn’t an independent entity, but an extension of the Gaza war and a continuation of guerrilla warfare. One battle ends and another begins, while the war never ends. Israel takes damage each time it condemns a human rights report or preaches a proportionate response proven invalid by the raw numbers. Hamas, much to Israel’s fury, isn’t judged by the same standard, but why does Israel insist on being judged like a terrorist organization in the first place? There is no counterinsurgency in this standard either.

Bringing up Lebanon is most foolish of all after its reaction to two rockets fired by an al-Qaeda offshoot. Israel cannot expect the UN to do anything in Lebanon when it ignores the UN in Palestine.

The truth is plain. Even if Israel successfully evades international courts until the end of time, it will forever be judged as guilty by Palestinians and Muslims. There is nowhere to run or hide, and no legal defense has any impact. Israel is so preoccupied with staying out of a formal court that it’s drowning in the court of public opinion. As in Lebanon, Israel is unlikely to ever face a real judge and a real court, nor does this really matter. Muslims have already cast their judgments.

Since Israel won’t put an end to its futile flight, the UN urged the world to act in its place. One would assume that America has incentives to pursue allegations of Israeli war crimes. Doing so would give more credibility to prosecuting Hamas members, as charging one side without the other is doomed to fail. And is it possible to sign a two-state solution with Gaza still unresolved? Perhaps, but the process would speed up without this giant pothole in the middle of the road map.

How to fill it then? Palestinians could exchange legal punishment of Israeli officials for an easing of the Gazan blockade. After all, they’ll never be tried anyway and many Palestinians believe the blockade is the true cause of the war. Walls don’t work - if anything, the blockade is the true war crime. The UN report recommended an ICC trial if the UN fails to act, but formalities are unlikely to combat insurgency as effectively as counterinsurgency. In light of Israel’s opposition to a settlement freeze, easing the blockade could be the only strategy to regain the trust of Palestinians, which Israel and America need to successfully negotiate.

Two arguments against the blockade contradict its purpose.

First, the UN’s conclusion that Israeli forces engaged in a deliberate policy of collective punishment and “an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population” is no surprise. The explicit message of Gaza’s rubble was, “don’t vote for Hamas or support Hamas in any way.” Though Israel claims to have learned from Lebanon, the plans were roughly the same. Punishing a population because of an insurgency contradicts basic counterinsurgency, where securing the population is the ultimate goal.

Second, the blockade isn’t stopping Hamas’s arms flow noticeably enough to impact its capabilities. Israeli officials recently threatened obliteration if Hamas fires its 60 km missiles, a tacit admission that Hamas is still growing stronger. And during a recent visit to Sudan, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal told President al-Bashir’s party in a pre-recorded speech, “Your brothers in Palestine, despite the blockade and the closing of border passages... despite the fleets from east and west, despite all of this, we buy arms, we manage to produce arms and we smuggle arms.”

What is the point of maintaining the blockade when it doesn’t deter Hamas from acquiring arms, doesn’t cause an uprising against Hamas, attracts international scorn, and sabotages a two-state solution? With Hamas and Fatah tentatively agreeing to a Egyptian unity-proposal with elections in 2010, the blockade has also failed to permanently isolate Gaza from the West Bank.

In fact, the blockade seemingly has only one ability - a chance to end the repulsively repetitive story that is Gazan suffering. Israel needs to forget about the legal battle and remember that it’s fighting a counterinsurgency in Gaza.

September 17, 2009

COIN 101

It's hard to imagine American and coalition forces ever matching Taliban information. The latest attack on Italian forces has prompted the familiar political knee-jerk back home. Though these concerns will be brushed aside, the attack was shockingly precise. The Italian Defense Ministry confirmed that out of 6 dead soldiers, 4 were "senior" corporal majors.

Many mocked the Taliban's new rule book while it continued killing civilians, but high-value targets have certainly been eliminated with frightening efficiency and may be paying dividends.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi arrived in Brussels for an EU meeting and promptly told reporters,"We are keen to bring our boys home as soon as possible." After assuring that Italy would abide by NATO law and would only make a decision hafter consulting other member states, Berlusconi flatly declared, "We are all convinced that we have to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible."

Not bad for one car bomb. Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reported that the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and warned, "the purpose is to show that there is nowhere safe in Afghanistan."

September 16, 2009


Disinformation flows quickly in Somalia. The death of al-Qaeda commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan is "very significant," a progression in tactics from drones to special-ops, a call to war from al-Shabab or an inconsequential killing, depending on whom you ask. After exposing certain exaggerations and re-ordering President Obama's priorities, Nabhan's death becomes just another day in Somalia - complicated, provocative, and ultimately futile.

According to the AP, CNN, NYT, and Reuters, who all reported similar analysis, the choice of special-ops over drones to terminate Nahban is, "a shift by the Obama administration to go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths." Even a cursory glance at the situation dispoves this theory. Important as civilians are, President Obama had more pressing factors on his mind, like George Bush, Israel, and Afghanistan.

The simple fact that Nabhan had been hunted "for a long, long time," according to an American official, removes much of the decision from Obama's own will. Imagine if he vetoed the operation - the right would kill him for not protecting the world or being tough on terrorists. He also risks losing support in the military, particularly those involved in Nabhan's tracking and surveillance. He may disgree in public, but Obama is competing to be as tough as Bush. This operation was both a continuation of Bush and an attempt to keep pace with him.

Adding to the pressure was Nabhan's own operational history. Beyond a tentative link to the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, his primary crime was the 2002 bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kenya. America will hunt any terrorist with equal vigor, but those targetting Israeli interests abroad may be subject to extra wrath at the urging of the Israeli government. Killing Nabhan settles a score for Israel, a bad time when Osama bin Laden's latest alleged tape blamed 9/11 on American-Israeli relations.

America just validated his claims to his receptive audience and maybe a few fence-straddlers.

Not coincidentally, the raid on Nabhan has plenty to do with Afghanistan. The AP speculated that, "the US government - haunted by the deadly US military assualt on Mohadishu in 1993 - is trying to neutralize the growing terrorist threat without sending in troops," while the NYT labeled the operation, "an indication of the Obama adminstration's willingness to use combat troops strategically against al-Qaeda's growing influence in the region."

Why exactly is President Obama trying to neutralize al-Qaeda's influence in Africa? Killing off al-Qaeda operatives is a goal in itself, but Obama's real intent is to eliminate al-Qaeda outside of Afghanistan in order to justify his surge. Currently his "war of necessity" is being undermined by the many al-Qaeda cells operationg outside Afghanistan. Somalia and Yemen debunk the theory that defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is necessary. Obama hopes to bring verity to his focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan by corralling outside threats. Then Afghanistan would truly be the last stand, one worthy of fighting.

Only underneith these plots do we find concern for civilians, but this care is also flimsy. Nabhan was targeted once before and missed by a drone in 2008. The special-ops force had more to do with confirming his death than preventing innocent deaths. And though limiting civilian casualties could temper the ensuing controversy, coming onto land - Islamic soil - is likely to be even more offensive. At least one witness and a Somali minister claimed the six attack helicopters launched from a warship flying a French flag. Not so farfetched given how toxic the stars and stripes are in Somalia.

Furthermore, though protests broke out over the last drone America has no reputation to salvage anyway. Those Somalis who don't like al-Shabab will come to hate America's minimalist approach. The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan, reporting from Mogadishu, said the raid has already upset Somalis, "who fear attacks by foreign forces may help fuel the insurgency they are designed to combat." Hassan grabbed the heart that killings are only that, not solutions to Somalia's problems, and will only enflame the insurgency.

Compare the death of al-Qaeda commander Aden Hashi Farah in 2008 with the current level of fighting; al-Shabab surged after his death. Nabhan was reportedly around 30. Though his connections may be missed in the short term he will still be replaced, and soon. "Neutralizing the growing terrorist threat without sending in troops" is fatally flawed, a cheap delusion. Killing remains America's only answer to the obvious necessity of nation-building. Why care about 20 civilians when six million are displaced or starving?

Herein lies President Obama's problem. Killing Nabhan in the chosen manner will likely draw parallels to Bush's own methods, which Obama repeatedly chastised. The Israeli connection won't go unnoticed either, and al-Qaeda will continue to infiltrate other states to counter Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan. But targeted assassination as a strategy is his downfall. The conditions that spawn terrorism and extremist ideology remain - yesteray, today, and tomorrow are all the same. A limited approach forges more enemies, not peace or stability.

al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Bare Mohamed Farah Khoje told Reuters, "We wish we could eradicate them all [Americans]. We will never forget our brothers who were targetted illegally by the United States." Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of Amal Islam and ally of al-Shabab, vented, "the United States never abides by internationalaw. We condemn America. All these raids show its war on Islam."

If al-Shabab and al-Qaeda had any distinction before, they are the same now.

President Obama is walking down the wrong path in Somalia. He could lose his legs by dipping his toes in. Though one al-Shabab official bemoaned, "We are very upset, very upset... this is a big loss for us," the mother of Israeli victims knows better. Ora Anter, who lost two boys in the Paradise Hotel bombing, stressed, "This isn't something you can feel happy over, that they have been killed and are no more. Unfortunately there will be more, they rise up like mushrooms."