May 31, 2010

US/Palestinian Response Night & Day

"The President expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded, many of whom are being treated in Israeli hospitals. The President also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible.”

- Statement by US President Barack Obama

"Israel went beyond all that could be expected. This is a transgression against all international covenants and norms and it must be confronted by all international forums."

- Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad

Israel’s Strategy Lost At Sea

Like most naval skirmishes, the battle 40 miles off the Gaza ends somewhere back on land between Jerusalem, Washington, and Ankara. Up to 16 dead activists have sped up the confrontation's rapid evolution out of the sea and across the world. It probably can’t be asked enough - why?

Why would Israel draw such massive negative publicity to itself right before sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington?

Considering that the “Freedom Flotilla” set sail May 10th and was in planning for months, its only possible political target is raising awareness during indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Otherwise Free Gaza was just aiming for a June D-Day. They couldn’t have known about Netanyahu’s Tuesday meeting with President Barack Obama, scheduled last week.

But Obama certainly knew of the flotilla before inviting Netanyahu, who in turn knew when he accepted. They were primed to overshadow the flotilla - so why create an even bigger distraction that could ultimately force Netanyahu to cancel his trip? Hostile environment or not, Israel’s thinking is hard to process.

Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Jerusalem, "All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of confrontation.”

One Israeli minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, has even issued a short statement: "The images are certainly not pleasant. I can only voice regret at all the fatalities.” At least one woman, said to be Muslim and wearing a hijab, was seen carried off on a bloody stretcher.

“How could the Israeli military attack civilians like this?" said Greta Berlin, a flotilla spokeswoman who phoned in from the melee. "Do they think that because they can attack Palestinians indiscriminately they can attack anyone?”

Now we aren’t naive. Every indication is that the flotilla ignored warnings from Israeli warships before being stormed by IDF commandos repelling from helicopters. Some activists were bound to come armed and present a threat; the Israeli army said its troops were assaulted with axes and knives. We also realize if Israel allowed one convoy through it could expect thousands to break Gaza’s siege from the ocean.

A clash seemed inevitable.

But even more certain is that Free Gaza would come armed with media weapons. So why validate the negative impressions currently suffocating Israel at the international level? Why risk a PR disaster right now, with Netanyahu headed to Washington and indirect talks struggling to lift off the ground?

The question must at least be posed: is Israel intentionally trying to “incite” Palestinians? Because that strategy will backfire.

President Mahmoud Abbas has already declared a three-day state of mourning over Monday's deaths, while Hamas urges protests at Israeli embassies. Palestinians have options; they could spark another IDF crackdown or diplomatically protest and either way shut down indirect talks. In both cases they could easily blame Israel, but the smarter approach is staying calm and let others do their dirty work.

Israel has dug a deep enough hole by itself. Dragging Turkey into the incident by attacking one of its vessels ensures the international community becomes involved. This too is illogical given Turkey’s personal attitude towards Israel. If one would argue Turkey provoked Israel, that would be the point.

Maybe Israel wanted to sent a message, but it also swallowed the bait.

“By targeting civilians, Israel has once again shown its disregard for human life and peaceful initiatives," a Turkish foreign ministry statement said. "We strongly condemn these inhumane practices of Israel. This deplorable incident, which took place in open seas and constitutes a fragrant breach of international law, may lead to irreparable consequences in our bilateral relations."

Israel likes to brag about its military skill, but its strategy needs dire correction. On the contrary to Washington’s latest guarantees and rumors of a false settlement freeze, Israel’s political strategy also remains unsustainable. Relations with Lebanon, Syria, and now Turkey show no indication of improving; Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt aren’t thrilled with Netanyahu either. Military force remains its only option in Iran, and now the UN and Arab League are trying to shine light on Israel’s nuclear weapons, driving yet another wedge between America.

Indirect negotiations with Fatah remain contentious and sluggish.

Then there’s an illegal blockade on Gaza and no legitimate way to enforce it. Let the convoy through, crack down with Al Jazeera’s eyes everywhere, either way a lose-lose situation. Vowed Berlin, "We have two other boats. This is not going to stop us."

The final outcome highlights Israel’s standard operating procedure: tactical success, strategic failure. As usual Israel’s overly aggressive actions will spawn new attacks and new protests, entangle it in the international community, and ultimately fail to achieve its strategic objectives. Why attack the “Freedom Flotilla?

Out of desperation, out of weakness - a taste of the Gazan experience.

Israel must realize that avoiding battles advances its campaign towards peace. It may believe it won this round, but it lost before opening fire. Not for the first time either.

May 30, 2010

Quotes of the Day

"We've blasted Nawa with a phenomenal amount of money in the name of counterinsurgency without fully thinking through the second- and third-order effects."

- Ian Purves, British development expert who recently completed a year-long assignment as the NATO stabilization adviser in Nawa, Afghanistan

"Those cash-for-work men - half of them used to be Taliban. If the Americans stop paying for them to work, they'll go back to the Taliban."

- District governor Abdul Manaf, pleading for the program, due to expire on August 31th, to continue

"Nobody invited us.”

- Ali Jan, spokesman for opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, speaking about Afghanistan’s upcoming national jirga

Afghan Mission Threatened by Iran, Civilian Casualties

Is he really living in another world or just performing? There’s not much to say about General Stanley McChrystal’s statement that Iran is training a low level of Taliban.

"The training that we have seen occurs inside Iran with fighters moving inside Iran," he told a news conference in response to a question on Iran's influence. "The weapons that we have received come from Iran into Afghanistan."

That Iran would supply the Taliban isn’t surprising. Shia and Sunni cross paths frequently when engaging America militarily. While Iran doesn’t like a long-term US presence in the region, it has every motivation to keep President Barack Obama tied up until its nuclear program (and possibly a weapon) is complete.

Of course Iran will play both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The better question is why America believes it can wage a counterinsurgency around the world in a state surrounded by hostile or ambiguous states. This is considered COIN suicide.

But McChrystal, after praising Tehran’s general assistance, terms its behavior “inappropriate” and kicks off the real fun. With US Special Forces - formerly under McChyrstal’s command and still under command in Afghanistan - crawling into Iran to re-con targets, the idea that America’s behavior is appropriate and Iran’s isn’t leads to blissful hypocrisy.

McChrystal knows what’s happening though, he’s just acting. This is geopolitics at the highest level, like Iran. Someone had to clean up that “bleeding ulcer” that’s got stuck in the US media cycle for a week, but he may have created a new disaster.

After targeting Iran, McChrystal instantly affixed the bulls eye back on America. President Barack Obama will have a hard time getting this new one off.

“Because of CivCas [civilian casualties], I think we have just about eroded our credibility here in Afghanistan,” Gen. McChrystal told commanders during a recent power point briefing, according to Army Times. “The constant repeat of CivCas is now so dangerous that it threatens the mission.”

US SOF embedded in Iran and Quds agents infiltrating Taliban mountains amid ceaseless civilian casualties and a “threatened mission” - the future is full of disturbances.

Drug War Demands California Revolution

As the White House unveils “new policy” after “new policy,” a pattern develops resulting from the same small circle of authors.

The Afghanistan review was supposed to fundamentally alter the way America operates - and why - but strategically the mission remains perforated with impossible demands, unclear goals, exaggerated expectations, and artificial time-lines. The 2010 National Security Strategy dresses up world-wide militarism with sensible "whole-of-government" and sensitive multilateralism.

And the “War on Drugs,” though declared over, is anything but.

Yet real progress may find its way to the Drug War faster than Afghanistan or al-Qaeda’s many lairs. Unlikely a coincidence, the difference stems from where the American people exert the most power. Foreign policy is out of our hands except for public opinion polls, and even they only slow Washington’s march into foreign states.

But Californians can choose its own destiny and potentially effect all those caught up in a hemispherical drug war. Were they to pass the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 and decriminalize marijuana, the federal showdown would offer the first concrete indication of whether President Barack Obama is turning the “War on Drugs” into a public-health issue as promised.

Or reveal the contradiction of shifting minor funds into Mexico’s legal system while continuing to pump it with arms.

Many present and past US officials, including John Negroponte, and several experts went before Congress last Thursday to push the conversation from military aid towards government reform. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen told a Congressional hearing, "We are moving away from big ticket equipment" and towards “Mexican capacity to sustain adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

Their testimony followed an interview with Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who declared the “War on Drugs” over in May 2009.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” he told the Associated Press almost exactly a year later.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

But like how US Special Forces infiltrate hot spots around the world even as the “War on Terror” no longer exists, the “War on Drugs” keeps ticking in Washington and the US media’s actions. Ironic given that the media aims to sell Obama’s new policy. A Christian Science Monitor editorial, like many in the press, praises Mexico and particularly Jamaica for courageously standing up to drug lords at the behest of US extradition.

Interchanging America’s “War on Drugs” with Mexico’s very real drug, one linked to a wider regional war, CSM reveals how deceptively interchangeable these terms are. Though it would claim otherwise, the White House’s strategy remains fixated on law enforcement. Jamaica’s drug lords, like Mexico’s cartels, are ingrained in the political system.

Going after the biggest fish possible bears resembles to steroids - and their aftereffects - an ancient paradox between counter-terrorism (military operations) and counterinsurgency (non-military operations).

To be clear all efforts to bolster Mexico’s political and legal system must be made, otherwise unlimited military aid won’t create a lasting impact. And Obama’s public rhetoric, to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes,” is a step above the total oppression US drug users have been living under. The”War on Drugs” is manufactured repression against the American people, born by Richard Nixon’s need to distract from Vietnam and counter the countermovement.

Every president who followed him took up the torch. One mistake to cover another, all the burden fell on the American people. No wonder the “War on Drugs” failed so spectacularly.

Of the estimated $1 trillion spent in the last 40 years, according to the AP’s count, $20 billion went to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. $33 billion went to marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs (the AP notes, “High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970”).

Meanwhile $49 billion went to law enforcement along America's borders, $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, “about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana.” The estimate to incarcerate all offenders in federal prisons alone: $450 billion.

A battle itself is being waged over whether the “War on Drugs” is over. The White House has changed the language, as usual, but the numbers produce a clearer image. Counter-terrorism still triumphs over counterinsurgency.

Obama is looking to blow by the 50% mark, his rhetoric ultimately fatal if the plan is more law enforcement seasoned with token non-military aid. The AP reported, “most of the $310 million that the Obama administration seeks for Mexico in its 2011 budget request is aimed at judicial reforms and good governance programs.”

“Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.”

Reality drifts closer to false than true change. It would seem the White House, having loaded up on law enforcement, is now covering its tracks with supplementary aid to Mexico’s government. The AP reports are full of various NOG officials hailing Obama’s change in tone - and fretting over his paper trail.

But he may soon face a real test.

Unfortunately preliminary indications from Washington lean towards yet another battle, this time with Californians. Surely Obama is praying they vote down the decriminalization of marijuana; both he and his officials hate getting near the issue. The Congressional hearings have been dubbed "Beyond Merida,” which would seem perfect for November 4th, 2010, but not even in Kerlikowske’s world is this the case.

When chosen the Seattle Police Chief was hailed by The Seattle Times as scientific and apolitical.

“When Seattle voters were considering a ballot measure in 2003 to make marijuana possession a low law-enforcement priority, President George W. Bush's drug czar flew across the country to condemn the proposal. Don't expect a similar ‘war on drugs’ approach if Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske takes over the job after being nominated Wednesday by President Obama.”

Think again. He may not fly to San Francisco on the 4th, but Kerlikowske’s no fan of decriminalizing, taxing, or regulating marijuana either. The Obama administration is “very much opposed” to taxing and regulating marijuana he told The Washington Post, a stance he’s repeated since taking office.

Hillary Clinton has been known to strike down reporters’ questions of decriminalization with a flat “no.”

America's federal system will shine though if California votes yes. The pivotal moment could set off a chain reaction to Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, where lax marijuana laws already trend towards decriminalization. Other states are likely to take a serious look if California can generate a sizable tax revenue and contribute to reviving its depressed economy.

Reducing crime would be the second trend to monitor. Benefits theoretically reach into California’s judicial and penal system. Total influence on middle schools, high schools, and colleges remain unknown, but marijuana is already freely accessible. New laws can be enforced just like public intoxication.

Such a reaction ultimately creates the overriding benefit of reconfiguring how America debates, legislates, and regulates drug use and abuse. California would become the default experiment to see whether it could work.

As for Mexico’s drug war, decriminalizing marijuana is by no means a panacea, but rather one step in the right direction. Only one source of the cartels’ revenue would dry up. Decriminalizing methamphetamines, opiates, and cocaine is infeasible in a country as large as America; the environment will be far less controlled than Portugal. These drugs supersede marijuana and demand their own solutions.

The horizon would be wider though.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton have taken a baby step in admitting the obvious - America’s demand for drugs is the root of Mexico’s drug war. Yet they offer, and likely possess, no practical solution to actually lower this thirst. If America can't control demand, the next best option appears to be controlling supply. The conflict demands a statesman’s leap.

Californians should pass the Tax Cannabis of 2010 Act and discover how serious Obama is in ending the “War on Drugs.” And how much power the people can take back.

May 29, 2010

"Top Kill" Fails Obama's Hopes

It may have been one of his most trying moments as president. Barack Obama traveled the Gulf coast on Friday to survey the damage of BP’s oil slick, reminding its human and animal inhabitants, “I am the president. The buck stops with me.”

Forced onto the defensive from the moment of the explosion, the spill has been dubbed Obama’s 9/11 and Katrina. This - not Afghanistan, Palestine, or North Korea - is all of a sudden Obama’s big political test, his pivotal crisis. One that has allowed no rest.

Obama claims he's getting less sleep because of the spill, swamped as he is with updates.

But of every exhausting day and hour, few are likely to top the agonizing suspense from last night to this afternoon. He can travel the entire Gulf, order thousands to clean up areas, deploy military equipment, and levy federal punishment against BP. Yet Obama could only stand helplessly on the shore and hope the “top kill” would put his nightmare out of misery.

It did not.

“After three full days, we have been unable to stop the flow from the well, so we now believe it is time to move on to another option,” said BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles late Saturday, cautioning that a new effort will be “a very complex operation.”

“This scares everybody — the fact that we cannot make this well stop flowing,” Suttles acknowledged at a joint news conference with government officials in Robert, La.

Stick Obama at the top of the list: "They had hoped that the top kill approach attempted this week would halt the flow of oil and gas currently escaping from the seafloor. But while we initially received optimistic reports about the procedure, it is now clear that it has not worked."

What’s scary though isn’t that BP cannot stop the oil flow, but that it lacked proven emergency measures and drilled anyway. The entire operation was left to chance; even if most wells function properly, one explosion is obviously all it takes to wreck an ecosystem.

Over 29 million gallons have spilled into the gulf since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, compared with 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. With the end of the leak nowhere in sight (BP says August), total gallons in the Gulf could eclipse 50 million.

"Many of the things we're trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000 feet,” admits Suttles.

So what are you doing down there?

Most of the spill isn’t Obama’s fault. Where he could have done better, as he admits, is regulation, and the contradiction between swift emergency and lax reform remains unresolved . At the minimum, high-risk drilling needed to be frozen until the proper safety precautions were in place. But Obama's political position doomed his response. Now he’s paying the price.

The parallels between the Gulf and Afghanistan are overpowering.

Ultimately though this crisis mixes nature’s fury with human stupidity. The deep ocean is an environment completely alien to humans, potentially the foundation of the food chain, and yet we disturb it in the dark without the necessary countermeasures.

Another short-term gain sacrifices the long-term health of the planet.

Shadows & Tremors Beneath US-Pakistani Relations

In the aftermath of failed Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were deployed in tandem to bring Pakistan under control. Clinton unwisely threatened “severe consequences” if another attack traces back to Pakistan. Gates took the sensible route, praising Islamabad for all its work and insisting no pressure on North Waziristan.

Since when does he tell the truth though? The “good” cop has been outed.

The Washington Post reports, “The U.S. military is reviewing options for a unilateral strike in Pakistan in the event that a successful attack on American soil is traced to the country's tribal areas, according to senior military officials. Ties between the alleged Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and elements of the Pakistani Taliban have sharpened the Obama administration's need for retaliatory options, the officials said. They stressed that a U.S. reprisal would be contemplated only under extreme circumstances, such as a catastrophic attack that leaves President Obama convinced that the ongoing campaign of CIA drone strikes is insufficient.”

"Planning has been reinvigorated in the wake of Times Square," one US official said, while The Washington Post claims Pakistan has a matter of weeks to “show progress.”

However extreme, the option of a unilateral ground strike isn’t a surprise after fanning anti-American flames for years. “Do more” is nothing new either. More informative is the joint US-Pakistani intelligence center, or “fusion center,” recently established on the outskirts of Peshawar and, most importantly, plans for one near Quetta.

But while disturbingly fraught with risk, the plan all along called to insert CIA, US Special Forces, and Blackwater inside Pakistani cities.

Least surprising though is the persistent gap between the US and Pakistani governments and militaries, and the lengths taken to disguise it. Relations may be incrementally improving but not to the degree advertised; Shahzad is merely the cherry on top.

One official claims “there is a broad consensus in the U.S. military” that while airstrikes and Special Forces raids could degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities, it would also “risk an irreparable rupture in the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.”

The reality is that both sides still don’t trust each other fully, and possibly never will.

Secretary Gates moved quickly to squash the notion that America is dictating again, telling a briefing in the Pentagon after returning from Islamabad, “My impression has been that there has been close cooperation since the (Times Square) bomber was arrested. So I think it’s more about that than any qualitative change.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen drew backup duty on North Waziristan. Referring to Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, “Very specifically, the timeline’s really up to him. And it goes back to what I understand and believe, that he’s stretched. He’s got two fronts. He’s got a military that’s lost a lot of soldiers, sacrificed a great deal, and so that it makes a lot of sense to me that he does get to pick this timeline.”

Gates claimed that the army already has seven divisions – about 140,000 troops – in the region and “it’s a huge effort that Pakistan is making.”

We assumed then and now know for certain that Gates was playing the good cop; his personality derives pleasure from downplaying or denying military actions currently in planning. To praise cooperation with Islamabad and the Pakistani army, then cite said cooperation as “invigoration” for unilateralism in North Waziristan, is vintage Gates’ Pentagon.

Of course it’s easy to see why Washington is jittery. Told a year ago that a North Waziristan operation was eventually coming, Pakistani recently downplayed the chances of a “steamroller” operation this year. With Afghanistan setting up to knock him out, desperation is surely rife inside the White House and Pentagon to get Pakistan moving.

But the rumors of unilateral military action will fuel more people like Shahzad and his handlers. Obama and his officials have failed to charm the average Pakistani or the Pakistani press; he hasn’t even traveled there and he’s asking them to fight his war. The Washington Post takes Obama’s Afghan strategy down another notch too. Diplomacy is again giving way to militarism.

This New York Times editorial, consistent with the American line, captures everything wrong with US-Pakistani relations.

“Pakistan’s Army has mounted big offensives against Pakistani Taliban factions in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. It has hesitated in North Waziristan where Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the failed Times Square bombing, reportedly received support and training. Intelligence-sharing has improved, but there is a lot more to be done as the Shahzad case showed.”

“So why isn’t Pakistan doing all it needs to?” the NYT wonders.

Its theory: “Part of that is the strategic game. Islamabad has long used extremist groups in its never-ending competition with India. Part is a lack of military capability and part political cowardice. While some of Pakistan’s top leaders may ‘get it,’ the public definitely does not. The United States still does not have a good enough strategy for winning over Pakistan’s people, who are fed a relentless diet of anti-American propaganda.”

Translation: nothing is America’s fault except poor explanation of its policy.

“The United States is often blamed for everything from water shortages to trying to destroy the Pakistani state. The Obama administration came in determined to change that narrative. When he was in the Senate, Joseph Biden, now the vice president, worked with Richard Lugar on a $7.5 billion, five-year aid package that would prove American concern for the Pakistani people (not just the military) by investing in schools, hospitals and power projects.

Congress approved the first $1.5 billion for 2010, but the State Department is still figuring out how to spend it. The projects need to move as quickly as possible. And Pakistani leaders who demand more help, but then cynically disparage the aid, need to change their narrative.”

Such a statement contains a high degree of insincerity or else the NYT is that insensitive. Pakistan believes it’s owed billions in reparative military aid, let alone the price of its spilt blood. The Kerry-Lugar bill, dubbed the “kill bill,” was seen through as the small carrot it was. Most Pakistanis believe it is owed money, not a gift.

As for the NYT’s assertion that America is unfairly blamed for conspiracies, it fails to mention the fate of Aafia Siddiqui, whose final sentencing continues to be delayed while she “languishes in a US jail.” For being highlighted by Hakimullah as motivation for the attack on Times Square, causality - not coincidence or conspiracy - has silenced her name in the US media.

The NYT seems to have taken to blaming everything on Pakistanis, a sentiment visible in the general American public and media.

Its solution to change Pakistani minds: “The State Department needs to move faster to implement its public diplomacy plan for Pakistan. Officials need to think hard about how to make sure Pakistanis know that aid is coming from the United States - like the $51 million for upgrading three thermal power plants announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in October. It is a delicate issue, but the ‘made in America’ label has to be affixed.”

Yes, send Clinton to handle a “delicate issue” in Pakistan. She already tried to implement a public diplomacy plan and it didn’t go so well. What Pakistanis hate more than America is US doublespeak, which Clinton and Gates excel at. Public relations miss the point - America must change its actions, not its rhetoric.

This arrogance is exactly why Obama continues to face the same image problems as George Bush.

Pakistan doesn’t need more Hillary Clinton, but an organized withdrawal from Afghanistan and help in Kashmir, which US officials are afraid to utter. Pakistanis don’t want to dwell on the pass, but they don’t want America to ignore it either. Especially not with Pervez Musharraf promising a return to politics.

We’ve seen countless comments on US news sites that Pakistan isn’t a true ally, but without its help many young American males may have been drafted by now. Pakistanis are committed against al-Qaeda and the TTP, but that doesn’t automatically turn America into a friend.

Trust must be earned by action after 30 years of duplicity.

We advocate pressure for civil operations into South Waziristan and other held territory - that would demonstrate change. But The New York Times would rather beat into Pakistanis’ heads that America is good for them, and it looks like the White House has ordered the Pentagon to prepare the same tactic.

The cannon will backfire though. The first causality of a unilateral strike would be Obama’s new “diplomatic” NSS, not al-Qaeda or TTP commanders.

May 28, 2010

Somalia Peers Over Tipping Point

Like a dying patient Somalia may collapse at any moment without notice. Having captured the areas north of the presidential palace, al Shabaab declared their next target is to seize the palace itself.

"We have ousted the government from the north of Mogadishu... and now our next step is to capture the palace," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab's spokesman, told reporters. “There is no one between us and the Christians (African Union peacekeepers - AMISOM), the so-called police who used to defend the AMISOM are now nowhere to be seen."

Though easy to cast aside al-Shabab’s bluster, it is very real. Somalia’s offensive was a dud and its government is mired its own crisis. Now al-Shabab is firing mortars on the palace. But the most ominous sign came from a spokesman for the peacekeeping force who laughed off Rage’s statement.

"We wish them success for their dreams," Barigye Ba-Hoku told Reuters, in what seemed at first to be confidence. Until Ba-Hoku tells al-Shabab, “Their actions are illegal and they amount to a coup.”

As if al-Shabab doesn’t realize it’s toppling the government - as if law exists in Somalia. Ba-Hoku’s choice of language makes him sound like al-Shabab has already toppled Mogadishu. It appears inevitable that the palace will actually fall some day in the not-so-distant future.

The situation is so bad that reinforcements from Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea, a government-aligned militia, have been flown in.

The events in Somalia are one more example of the danger in General Petraeus’s directive. No team of US Special Forces can help the situation, pinpointing targets has no value. The only good they can do is re-con landing points for a brigade-size rapid task force.

We’ve been wondering for months when Mogadishu will fall to al-Shabab. Somalis trained in foreign states by the EU will bring no salvation, meaning it’s time to legitimately speculate whether America enters the fray to protect the palace. No other option remains except the military so close to the tipping point, and yet it may be too late anyway.

This is the strategy highlighted by Clinton and Brennan.

May 27, 2010

Obama's Square Circle

"This notion somehow that the federal government is sitting on the sidelines and for the last three or four or five weeks we've just been letting BP make the decisions is not true. Those who think we are either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts."

- President Barack Obama, defending the White House’s handling of the BP oil spill, though he seems to know the facts are as murky as oily water. The New York Times reports:

“He was wrong, he said, to assume that oil companies were prepared for the worst as he tried to expand offshore drilling. His team did not move with ‘sufficient urgency’ to reform regulation of the industry. In dealing with BP, his administration ‘should have pushed them sooner’ to provide images of the leak, and ‘it took too long for us’ to measure the size of the spill.”

He admitted, “In case you’re wondering who’s responsible, I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen right away or the way I’d like it to happen. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to make mistakes.”

Yet he added, “But there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged, and I’m fully engaged. The American people should know that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort.”

Conversely, “There wasn’t sufficient urgency in terms of the pace of how those changes needed to take place. Obviously they weren’t happening fast enough. If they were happening fast enough, this might have been caught.”

Not sure how this all fits together. Even an urgent response to the spill itself, which has experienced problems in most accounts other than Obama’s, would be negated by a lack of urgency towards regulations. Obama admits had he acted faster “this might have been caught,” and yet praises his response nonetheless.

"I'm confident that people are going to look back and say that this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis.”

With George Bush and Hurricane Katrina on his mind since the beginning and visible in his actions, Obama’s sincerity comes further into question when he claims, "I'll leave it to you guys to make those comparisons and make - and make - and make judgments on it, because — because what I'm spending my time thinking about is how do we solve the problem?”

Whatever the case, Obama can't afford to wait any longer for regulatory reform now that he's called himself out. This will prove another test - after the not-so-successful financial reform - of his campaign promise to clean up Washington's connection with corporations.

Of course we can’t help ourselves when he says, "My job right now is just to make sure everybody in the Gulf understands: This is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night thinking about. The spill."

Might help explain his personal non-engagement of US foreign policy, though that started before the spill.

US National Security: New Talk, Same Walk

President Barack Obama’s national security strategy has been under construction since before he took office. Finally it’s near public release. The process hasn’t been smooth though, what with several near-misses on US cities and the firing of Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence.

Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser General James Jones will unfurl a new “strategy” and discuss how it “advances our interests around the world.” Judging by John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor, this ride is about to get even bumpier.

Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan declares, “The president’s strategy is clear and precise. Our enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates. For it was al-Qaeda who attacked us so viciously on 9/11 and whose desire to attack the United States, our allies and our partners remains undiminished. And it is its affiliates who have take up al-Qaeda’s call to arms against the United States and other parts of the world.”

Brennan makes the point of paving the way to indefinite war with the Taliban.

He states again, “We have a clear mission. We will not simply degrade al-Qaeda’s capabilities or simply prevent terrorist attacks against our country or citizens. We will not merely respond after the fact, after an attack that has been attempted. Instead, the United States will disrupt, dismantle and ensure a lasting defeat of al-Qaeda and violent extremist affiliates.”

But with Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan looking less clear by the day, Iraq in doubt, and Brennan’s own testimony riddled with holes, we wonder how clear America’s national security strategy could actually be.

The following contradictions stood out in Brennan’s 20 page, al-Qaeda-centric speech:

“Even more than the attacks al-Qaeda and its violent affiliates unleash and the blood they spill, they seek to strike at the very essence of who we are as Americans by replacing our hard-won confidence with fear and replacing our tolerance with suspicion; by turning our great diversity from a source of strength into a source of division; by causing us to undermine the laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world; by turning a nation whose global leadership has meant greater security and prosperity for people in every corner of the globe into a nation that retreats from the world stage and abandons allies and partners. That is what al-Qaeda and its allies want – to achieve their goals by turning us into something we are not.”

Blood and fear are secondary objectives. al-Qaeda’s primary goal is for America to invade or provoke as many Muslim countries as possible. Its attacks don’t aim for “who we are as Americans,” but serve as lures into hostile, resource-consuming environments. Making Americans think they only care about death and destruction may even rank above the actual carnage. Brennan swallows the bait - while admitting it.

“Moreover, we know that al-Qaeda seeks to overextend the United States and drain us militarily, financially and psychologically. I have seen this through my own experience covering al-Qaeda and terrorism over the past two decades. But we will not let that happen. We will always carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.”

A trillion dollars and counting into Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama prepares to ask Congress for another $33 billion - on top of $130 billion - as his surge stumbles downhill. The overall price tag for the “War on Terror” may be unknowable, yet Brennan categorically disregards the notion that al-Qaeda is bleeding America dry. It’s hard to treat him seriously and honestly after making such a false statement.

“We are not only delivering severe blows against the leadership of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, we are helping those governments build their capacity to provide for their own security, to help them root out the al-Qaeda cancer that has manifested itself within their borders and to help them prevent it from returning.”

Al-Qaeda isn’t the cancer in Somalia, Yemen, or even Afghanistan, but a symptom of social instability. Rarely is al-Qaeda the root cause of conflict. This is accepted by many counterinsurgency analysts working in the Pentagon including David Kilcullin, whose voice we can’t hear in US strategy. In Somalia, for instance, America is as much to blame as any dozen factors.

"In all our efforts, we will exercise force prudently, recognizing that we often need to use a scalpel and not a hammer. When we know of terrorists who are plotting against us, we have a responsibility to take action to defend ourselves and we will do so. At the same time, an action that eliminates a single terrorist but causes civilian casualties can, in fact, inflame local populations and create far more problems – a tactical success but a strategic failure."

America currently embodies a policy of tactical success and strategic failure. Two days ago an airstrike in Yemen took out the provincial governor and caused riots. Brennan vows to keep up the pressure on Anwar al-Awlaki - does he mean killing more government officials? Is that what US forces will bring to other countries?

Brennan declares towards the end of his Q & A section, “We’re not an imperialist power. We’re not trying to militarize our relationships with these countries.”

But only after targeting Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond for militarization. He tries to correct this impression several times.

"Through new partnerships to promote development in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, we are working to foster good governance, reduce corruption and improve education, health and basic services, all of which helps undermine the forces that can put the disillusioned and disposed on the path to militancy.”

A glance into Yemen and Somalia suffices to demonstrate the opposite hits closer to the truth. With obligatory millions devoted to humanitarian needs, hundreds of millions continue to flow into military channels. Somalia in particular perches on the verge of collapse, its US-backed government in disarray. Non-military operations are nil, even as weapons and ammo proved useless.

America will still likely resort to air-strikes when/if Mogadishu falls to al-Shabab, revealing the ultimate contradiction: military remains the only means. All the rhetoric is changed, but America’s first priority is striking Yemen, Somalia, and beyond - not healing them. This unsustainable cycle leads to one of Brennan’s central points: preventing home-grown terrorists.

"We've seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist activities or causes."

How does he propose to do so? New security measures, careful use of the word “terrorist,” and preventative action in foreign states. For all the tactical changes, little strategic adaption is evident. The White House is taking take additional measures to disguise and continue wielding the Pentagon’s hammer.

Such a policy is prone to create more militants inside and outside America, not less. Brennan admits “an increasing number of individuals” are becoming alienated by US foreign policy, and yet claims to understand this paradox.

If only Washington acted like it.

May 26, 2010

Marjah, Kandahar Shrouded in Fog of War

We’re used to US commanders blowing smoke over Afghanistan so a Brit provides some needed diversity. Today Major General Nick Carter called the 3-month-old Operation Moshtarak in Marjah a military success. How he made such a claim, especially when the war is even less popular in the UK than America’s 41%, could be attributed to mad desperation.

Why else step in front of General Stanley McChrystal’s “bleeding ulcer?” Possibly to deploy more propaganda. McClatchy is now under fire from the Pentagon for its quote - and for intellectual dishonesty no less! We’re witnessing a counter-attack (and Hillary Clinton's deafening threats against North Korea provide additional diversion).

But it’s not just the separation between US and Afghan perceptions that blankets the village in darkness. Vicious cover-ups are being unleashed to dispel the negative swirl around Marjah, part of an increasingly disturbing cross-country trend. It began slowly as US commanders backtracked on the “clearing” phase from two weeks to a month to three.

Carter believes building a government could take another three or four months, more likely an estimate for the clearing phase.

The strategy of announcing the operation is also being used in some quarters as a crutch for “alerting the Taliban,” except they were ready when US forces swooped down on Kandahar last weekend. They likely would have gotten wind in Marjah too, and even if caught completely unaware the battle would likely equalize over time.

The reality is US and UK commanders oversold Marjah’s time-line from the beginning.

Covering up this dilemma requires significant propaganda, forcing US officials to contract local Afghan officials. A controversy has broken out whether Marjah families are still fleeing insecurity or leaving after the poppy harvest; the families say the former, Afghan officials the latter. Especially striking is the explanation of district governor Haji Mohammad Zaher, who “denied the existence of any such problem.”

“These families are mainly those who have committed major crimes in the past,” he said earlier in May, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). “Now, when the area is under government control, they do not feel safe and flee the district.”

Perhaps he’s being truthful, but in a town where police are public enemy number one, Colonel Ghulam Sakhi doesn't help the build a convincing case The head of the public order department, “also claimed the situation in Marjah was satisfactory.”

“I can show you the list of 16 families who had migrated from Uruzgan during Taleban rule and were active in the poppy trade,” he said. “Now they have harvested their poppy and left Marjah. This has nothing to do with the security situation in Marjah.”

US and UK commanders are only other people saying Marjah is secure, except for (maybe) General McChrystal.

Not all Afghan officials walk the US line though. A source close to the Marjah district governor, said, “The Taliban are changing their tactics day by day; they keep planting mines and are also conducting small arms attacks, but they mainly put pressure on those who have connections with the government.”

The head of the Helmand rural rehabilitation and development department, Mohammad Omer Qani, confirmed, “Those leaving Marja are not government officials or Taleban fighters who should be afraid of their criminal deeds. The truth is that they are faced with challenges and everybody is making trouble for them.”

Currency is one interesting and revealing seed of conflict. Afghans accept US dollars and Pakistani rupees, putting them in danger of both sides to the point where each has been accused of severe intimidation. The particular case of Mohammad Omer displays the schism occurring in Marjah. Owner of a fertilizer shop, said he had left the village in fear of the Afghan police and the Taleban.

“I was selling in rupees, dollars and afghanis, and sometimes I had to stay the whole night in the shop, because I could not leave for fear of harassment by the police and by the Taliban.”

Now Omer’s identity can be hard to read. A Taliban fertilizer shop could pose as a legitimate business while supplying IED material to local soldiers, but it could also be one countless fertilizer shop in agrarian Afghanistan. America has big problems if Omer was simply hounded out of Marjah by local police, the singular pillar of Washington’s security hopes, crippling its economic and political strategy in the process.

General Carter deftly moved past Marjah’s insecurity by highlighting eight open schools and a thriving bazaar, the same propaganda exposed in nearby Sangin and used in Kandahar. But what if Afghan police are driving away local businessmen and Afghan officials are covering their actions up with tacit US approval?

It’s getting that dirty in Marjah, and it will only get worse.

Despite commonly-known delays General Carter said the major offensive in Kandahar is on schedule. For starters some operations have been delayed until fall in response to Marjah’s slow progress and the less than receptive welcome in Kandahar. It’s also worth extrapolating Carter’s time-line from the village to the city just to see what happens.

The clearing phase in Marjah was originally expected to take around two weeks, which became a month, then three and now an estimated six. Kandahar is estimated to take seven months, which equals 14 months, then three and half years, then seven.

Considering Kandahar is over 10 times the size and population of Marjah, and immeasurably more important to the Taliban, this could be a rough equivalent. Marjah was estimated to house 100-200 Taliban; estimates range between 1,000 to 2,000 hardcore fighters in Kandahar. the real possibility exists that Kandahar won’t be clear of Taliban and on the road to development for at least five years, about the time Obama expects to be out of the whole country.

Earlier in May, as Afghans continued to flee Marjah and rejected a large-scale military campaign in Kandahar, Michele Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, "The evidence suggests that our shift in approach is beginning to produce results. The insurgency is losing momentum. And though real challenges and risks remain, we see a number of positive trends."

Like the villages and cities, US strategy in Afghanistan still isn’t making much sense.

Night Raids Threaten Kandahar Operation

They weren’t lying when they said D-Day would come and go in Kandahar. US and Afghan troops “swarmed” Kokaran, a neighborhood on the provincial capital's western outskirts, with little fanfare last Saturday. But like Marjah, US officials were determined to impress upon their audience the coordination between US and Afghan troops, along with the benefits they bring.

“No American soldiers entered homes,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “Afghan female police officers, their faces covered by scarves, searched compounds. Male police questioned residents, confiscating guns from several men who failed to produce permits.”

The Taliban, like in Marjah, also mounted stiff but infrequent resistance as they to melted away.

"The key to making it stick is the governance portion, showing the locals that what they saw today is here to stay," said Army Capt. Michael Thurman, commander of the 293rd Military Police Company, who led the ground operation along with an Afghan police chief. "It's a long process, and today was only the start."

Or perhaps the key is realizing Afghans in Kandahar don’t want “today” to be like the rest of summer and throughout 2011.

To “show the locals” a shura was scheduled on Monday to set the table for future operations and development projects. One Canadian civil affairs officer said a “development team” would ask village elders of their needs "so that we don't dictate to them what they get.”

Come Monday The Los Angeles Times reported, “It was supposed to be a meeting about governance and development - two of the three pillars of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Kandahar province this summer. Instead, the shura, or assembly of local leaders, at a police station Monday turned into a gripe session about the third pillar: security. The elders complained bitterly about a U.S. military raid in their neighborhood, Kokaran, the night before, and the Saturday sweep.”

"It's not good, these big operations. They worry the people," Haji Fadi Mohammed told US officials “as other elders murmured in agreement.”

US officials responded by defending the sweep and night raid, saying protocol is always followed and shots are rarely fired. True or not, they completely miss - or ignore - the reality that those few times chaos prevails outweigh many successful missions. In a public relations battle America cannot afford a single story like the following.

And yet there are too many nights like May 14th, 2010.

Early morning had fallen on Surkhrod, a small village in the eastern Nangarhar province, and as well as a storm. US Special Forces and an Afghan detachment swarmed on a complex, blaring through bullhorns to exit the building with their hands up - “a practice they say is always adhered to.”

"It's literally a script," said one US official who claims they were met with a “hail of gunfire” from inside the compound.

A search, according to the US version, yielded light arms typically found in a rural household, but also, “radios of a type used by insurgents, ammunition vests, a military uniform and - most damning of all, in their eyes - a mortar sight, a sophisticated aiming device used only for military purposes.”

Eight Taliban lay dead when the fog of battle lifted, including a commander that US Special Forces said they tracked for three days. NATO issued a press release within hours claiming eight “terrorists” had been killed; the Afghan Defense Ministry followed suite. Is Afghanistan ever so neat though?

"There were no Talibs here - none," Rafiuddin Kushkaki, the owner of the sun-yellowed wheat fields ringing the rural compound, said as he held back tears. "Someone tricked the Americans. They made a mistake."

Perhaps it was the Taliban, or a rival tribe. Maybe an honest mistake - or carelessness. No matter what America takes the blame, that is the price of counterinsurgency. But the visceral nature of these cases is something in itself. Accounts by villagers, including Kushkaki and members of his family, claim gunfire erupted without warning around 1 AM. Most people were asleep inside the courtyard.

"My brother ran out to see what was happening; he was killed right away," explains Kushkaki. "My son ran out too and was shot as well. I carried him inside in my arms, but he bled to death, here on this carpet."

Not exactly eight dead Taliban.

It’s possible that US troops did call out first. Those villagers awake said they couldn’t hear anything besides the storm, a factor that would hinder waking the sleeping. US forces may have entered from the back or top only to be greeted by several armed young males. The “hail of of gunfire” could have been confused first shots inside the courtyard, although this scenario doesn’t soothe the mind.

At worst the night raid unraveled into a catastrophe. Mistaken identity murders are more the work of Mexican cartels, not US soldiers. Simply storming the wrong house and acting so reckless descends into the unjustifiable. Hesamuddin Kushkak, an uncle to one of the boys, missed the funerals when he was detained for interrogation by coalition forces.

He said the fact that he was released three days later is proof US forces made a mistake.

"They asked me over and over again, 'Where did you hide the rockets? I told them: 'Go ahead, search the compound.' The military said the rocket cache the commander was suspected of procuring was never found. I told them everything I knew, and now I want to know something from them. I want to know who gave misinformation to the Americans. I want to know why my nephew is dead. We want to know why this happened to us."

What of the most incriminating evidence, the mortar sight? Family members claim it was planted by US troops after realizing their mistake. Ruling this option out would be naive given how quickly NATO released its statement. The cover-up appears to have begun immediately.

And US commanders wonder why Kandaharis obsessively fear night-raids.

The Los Angeles Times manages to grab two senior US special-ops officials who claim 1,000 night raids were carried out over last year, even as McChrystal publicly ordered to limit them. They defended the raids, like NATO commanders at the Kokaran shura, for saving hundreds of lives, claiming 80% of the raids end without shots fired and less than 2% result in civilian casualties.

But that 20% and 2% might as well count for 100% in Kandahar, and the real percentages are certainly higher to begin with. U.S. officials acknowledged the 29 civilian deaths over the last year are “by their count.” Rafiuddin Kushkaki’s eight family members won’t. The White House and Pentagon have taken to praising the Afghan people’s intelligence - they can’t be stupid all of a sudden.

The Pentagon said it would limit the raids but over 1,000 say otherwise. NATO claims they don’t kill when they do and cover-up when they can. A pattern has developed. As President Barack Obama’s surge already begins to sour, an individual raid becomes a microcosm of the general US strategy: kind words, more force, errors, cover-up, repeat.

The challenge in Afghanistan remains Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his half-brother Wali, who US commanders helplessly left in power, more than the Taliban. Somehow, someway America must discover a remedy to the roots of discord. Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah recently said Kandahar has a chance of stabilizing under government control, but did a poor job explaining why.

"They rank corruption and bad government as the problem No. 1, even before Taliban and al-Qaeda," he told NPR while in Washington D.C, his own doubts of Karzai aside. "That's in the eyes of the people in Kandahar. So, the government of Afghanistan is not looking at it from that angle. That makes it problematic."

The Los Angeles Times’ headline labeled US officials “satisfied,” Afghans “outraged” by the raid in Surkhrod. Not a recipe for stability in Kandahar or Afghanistan.

May 25, 2010

Glimpse of U.S. Future in Yemen

Proof of why America should let Yemen handle the air-strikes and commando raids, if they’re resorted to at all. Al Jazeera reports:
"A botched air raid has killed a provincial official in Yemen, and tribesmen have blown up an oil pipeline in retaliation, according to local press reports and the Reuters news agency. Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Maarib, was killed in the attack early on Tuesday morning, along with three of his bodyguards.

Al-Shabwani was reportedly traveling to meet an alleged member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen. Local sources said the missile attack also killed the al-Qaeda offshoot member, Bin Jamil, whom al-Shabwani had reportedly gone to meet.

Members of Jaber al-Shabwani tribe responded to his killing by attacking the pipeline that carries oil from Maarib to Ras Isa, a terminal on the Red Sea coast. Tribesmen also tried to occupy the presidential palace in Maarib, but they were repulsed by Yemeni soldiers and army tanks. Local government offices have been shut down throughout the province.

Yemen's supreme security committee issued a statement apologizing for the botched raid. Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, said he would form a panel to investigate the incident in Maarib."
The death of Bin Jamil is easily outweighed by the immediate and lasting collateral damage of killing al-Shabwani. Now imagine Maarib as Anwar al-Awlaki's tribal heartland - and multiply.

[Update: America surely had its hands in yesterday's botched air-strike. The question is one or two. Dovetailing the leak of General Petraeus's world surge, Al Arabiya quotes a US intelligence official as saying, "There is a tremendous amount of focus on that country."

Al Arabiya reports of yesterday's strike, "Washington continues to play a supporting role by helping Yemeni forces track and pinpoint targets - suggesting Tuesday's strike was not carried out by a U.S.-controlled drone.


That's not how reading between the lines works though. Said one US military official, "We continue to support the Yemenis as they go after this threat inside their border." Another acknowledged there was an increasingly "fine line" between playing a supportive role and taking the lead. Sounds like two hands, one to lace the target another to fire.

For all we know a Predator killed
Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Maarib governorate.]

Petraeus and Obama’s World Surge

Looks like President Barack Obama’s real military strategy - the Pentagon’s - has finally hit the fan. The New York Times reports:
“The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents. The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.

While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said. Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” al-Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. The order, however, does not appear to authorize offensive strikes in any specific countries.

In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.

General Petraeus’s order is meant for use of small teams of American troops to fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond, especially emerging groups plotting attacks against the United States...”
Too many places to start. We noticed many commentators took offense to the NYT leaking the report, but we should be thankful. The directive itself, not its leak, is a detriment to US foreign policy, and the NYT may even be doing the Pentagon’s bidding.

Revealing many details considering its secrecy, the NYT observes, “Special Operations troops have already been sent into a small number of countries to carry out limited surveillance and reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips, bridges and beaches that might be needed for an offensive.

Meaning we can expect US military activity and potentially new hot spots to flare in places we may not expect. The remaining years of Obama’s first term will lay the foundation and experiment while his second term, if he’s lucky enough, would see the policy carried out to the extreme.

The seven-page directive also authorizes specific operations in Iran, “most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.”

At a time when Iran is crying foul of US spies, this report will only increase the fervor of Iran’s hunt. Washington will surely claim otherwise, but a military outcome appears to have taken center stage.

Widening the circle, “Officials said that many top commanders, General Petraeus among them, have advocated an expansive interpretation of the military’s role around the world, arguing that troops need to operate beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to better fight militant groups.”

While the order is focused on intelligence gathering - by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others - to identify militants and provide “persistent situational awareness,” it also provides the protective shell of the real objective.

“There’s more than enough work to go around,” said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. “The real key is coordination. That typically works well, and if problems arise, they get settled.”

The plan calls for Special Forces to locate targets and the CIA to pull the trigger, while also attempting to capture important figures. Mixed with the remnants of George Bush, the new policy is partly a reaction to criticism that Obama is killing too many targets. Fed up, he must have eagerly jumped aboard Petraeus’ world tour.

Though marketed as preventative, Special Forces are ultimately expected to prepare the battleground for future wars. It would seem Petraeus, the self-proclaimed COIN master, has finally cracked; mere counter-terrorism is no substitute proactive counterinsurgency. Without changing the living conditions in every country US Special Forces are sent to, the root problems will remain unresolved and generate new actors and conflict.

The order, drafted in close coordination with Special Forces commander Adm. Eric T. Olson, calls for clandestine activities that “cannot or will not be accomplished” by conventional military operations or “interagency activities,” referring to US spy agencies.

Or political and economic means for that matter.

The Pentagon may think it’s hit on counterinsurgency, but militarism is eating further into politics and diplomacy. Secret talks will occur behind the scenes, but will the political situations in these counties improve? Will their economies blossom?

The NYT gives no indication that the directive focuses on these problems

But Washington should not expect the body to heal if it cuts out a tumor because al-Qaeda infects deteriorating patients. al-Qaeda doesn’t create the conditions of an insurgency, it leeches onto them. If America cannot improve the environments its entering and soften anti-American sentiment, Petraeus’s strategy may amount to no more than a world-wide counter-terrorism offensive.

If the strategy barely works in Pakistan, little chances does it have in even deeper conflicts. Another Blackhawk Down event could be a matter of time - uncertainties cast doubt over the entire operation.

The NYT reports,
“Some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks. The authorized activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria. Many in the military are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees.

Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, The precise operations that the directive authorizes are unclear, and what the military has done to follow through on the order is uncertain. The document, a copy of which was viewed by The New York Times, provides few details about continuing missions or intelligence-gathering operations.”
With so many shadows lurking, much like Blackwater and private military contractors, the conditions are ripe for unaccountability in Washington and the field. Also unsaid is the degree US forces will coordinate with Congress: how much will they be told? They weren’t exactly informed of the drone program, and this directive is far darker.

The same goes for foreign governments. Certainly joint operations will be undertaken, but it’s hard to believe America will tell anyone - friend or foe - everything.

Obama must be trying to conjure the specter of empire because this does the job. Petraeus’s new order mirrors US strategy in Afghanistan: when faced with an unstable situation, throw more fuel on the fire. Rather than adjust to entirely new thinking, double down on a losing bet.

Most concerning, “The directive, the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, signed Sept. 30, may also have helped lay a foundation for the surge of American military activity in Yemen that began three months later.”

The outcome: civilian casualties, falsely reported hits on al-Qaeda leadership, a scramble to downplay US “boots on the ground” (which in fact are on the ground). An al-Qaeda cleric raising havoc as a weak and unpopular government defends itself, fear split between Yemenis and Washington.

Now expand to a dozen states, add a new insurgency, and drop a few bombs on Iran - while still bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Welcome to Obama’s “War on Terror.”

May 24, 2010

Quote of the Day

"There was no security. By day there is government. By night it's the Taliban."

- Haji Mohammed Hassan, Marjah tribal elder who fled the village two weeks ago

McChrystal: Marjah a "Bleeding Ulcer"

We wanted the truth on Marjah and we finally got it.

McClatchy reports an account of General McChrystal, who toured the village last week and held a review with US and NATO commanders. McChrystal “sat gazing at maps of Marjah as Marine battalion commander Lt. Col. Brian Christmas asked him for more time to clear the area of Taliban.

"You've got to be patient," he said. “We've only been here 90 days."

McChrystal, who promised the clearing phase would be over within weeks, a month tops, responded, "How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?"

“A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent.”

"I can't tell you, sir," Christmas answered after a pause, to which McChrystal, "I'm telling you. We don't have as many days as we'd like. This is a bleeding ulcer right now. You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."

He also reportedly said in another meeting, "What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible. We said: 'We're taking it back.' We came in to take it back. And we haven't been completely convincing."

Not a big deal, few were convinced from the beginning.

Of course this is a big deal and the time has come to wonder not just if President Obama’s surge has stalemated, but whether it’s nose diving. With Marjah down and Kandahar soon to join, Obama will be unable to keep to his July 2011 deadline to withdraw US forces and transfer control the Afghan National Army.

From there he’ll either authorize more forces to prop up a failed strategy, or withdraw and face widespread criticism as Afghanistan descends into anarchy.

The White House response to McChrystal’s latest comments are sure to be explosive as well. McChrystal has just crippled Obama’s surge and will undoubtedly spark anger in Americans, Afghans, and all those tied into the war. We were sold on Marjah as the model for Kandahar and the wider Afghanistan. No Marjah, no Kandahar, no Afghanistan.

McChrystal boxed himself in with his “government in a box,” but Obama had already stuck the White House and Pentagon in a bigger box. And now the walls are closing in on them all.

Ominously, Marine Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills told reporters, "I think if we want to shorten the timelines, then we are going to have to assume more risk in certain areas.”

With McChrystal under pressure from Washington to “start showing progress,” the temptation is now creeping in to “assume more risk.” Who though is Mills referring to when the Marines go blasting in? Afghan civilians. Mills, a front row cheerleader in Helmand, is now ditching “hearts and minds” for good old fashion firepower.

But more civilian deaths, counterproductive as they are, will create even greater pressure on US forces, trapping Obama in a self-defeating cycle. He's bleeding in Afghanistan, and if he doesn’t immediately review his surge he may bleed himself out of a second term.

Ignoring Anwar al-Awlaki’s Sweet Bait

Apparently the question isn’t just confined to obscurity, but also doomed to repeat in it.

The New York Times reported last week, “The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism.”

Though the debate itself stands as a monolith, close to a half dozen rounds of speculation have followed the White House’s decision last December to place US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on the CIA’s kill list. The al-Qaeda-affiliated cleric responded by flowing propaganda from his native Yemen, periodically lashing out at America and prompting an automatic deluge of media reports to analyze the constitutional legality of assassinating a US citizen without trial.

Now al-Awlaki has kicked up a new storm by letting loose his most accurate attack yet on the American people.

Declaring them legitimate targets, "The American people, in general, are taking part in this and they elected this administration and they are financing the war... Those who were to be killed in the plane are nothing compared to a million women and children in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Many Americans are uneasy about the whole episode, not out of disagreement with killing al-Awlaki but because they fear constitutional warping (for good reason). Some prefer him captured and singing to the CIA. Others complain that Obama should have acted silently to avoid tipping him off.

Such a strategy might have preempted al-Awlaki’s ensuing sideshow, but it would also bury the real debate: does killing al-Awlaki make America safer in the long-term? Will it prevent or create more extremists and attacks? Above all - a question asked not once in Washington - does killing al-Awlaki qualify as counterinsurgency?

Fortunately silence hasn’t prevailed. Those concerned with the roots of conflict have at least a few moments to prepare before the potential shock.

The White House, to no surprise, met al-Awlaki’s display of strength with one of their own. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “We are actively trying to find him and many others throughout the world that seek to do our country and to do our interests great harm.”

Gibbs’ assurance would be more comforting were he merely puffing out his chest, but the White House has indicated sincerity in its desire to assassinate al-Awlaki. Doing so would disregard the very real possibility that killing al-Awlaki will hurt US interests as much as protect them.

Targeting al-Awlaki makes enough sense when viewed through a pure security/counter-terrorism lens, but the need to prevent near-term attacks on the US homeland is sacrificing long-term progress in unstable states. If the objective is preventing new extremists and conflicts from developing, then sicking a Reaper on al-Awlaki is the antithesis of counterinsurgency, which America faces in its "War on Terror" and Yemen specifically.

Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), mocked Obama for adding al-Awlaki to the CIA list, warning it “would not benefit the security" of the American people. The White House should shed its ego and listen to al-Qaeda’s advice for once, which in this case hits the mark.

That al-Qaeda is offering legitimate advice - and America ignores it - exemplifies the twisted nature of war. Beyond threatening them, al-Awlaki actually puts the American people on notice.

Keenly aware of the US budget deficit and expenditures in relation to al-Qaeda’s, a fundamental counterinsurgency dilemma, al-Awlaki taunts, "They spent more than $40 billion, and a mujahed like Omar Farouq was able to infiltrate their security apparatus even though they claim he was under surveillance. And despite all he managed to get there and reach the American heartland, to Detroit."

In his own unique way he’s reflecting the widely-accepted opinion that America’s “War on Terror” is politically, morally, and financially unsustainable.

What’s more, all indications point to al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda actively baiting the US military into Yemen. Though he may not wish death upon himself, al-Awlaki realizes the possibility of becoming a martyr. Betting on anti-American sentiment, he expects both a strong local and transnational reaction.

Attempting to validate the White House’s decision, “terror expert” Neil Livingstone told CBS News, "Because he's so visible, it would be very important to get him because it would send a message to radical Islamists and jihadists around the world." What message though - that they’ll be killed? As if they don’t know that already. Killing al-Awlaki is likely to inspire more radical Islamists and jihadists, not less.

When Al-Awlaki jeers, "If the Americans want me, let them come and look for me and God will protect me," he's using himself as a juicy piece of bait.

America holds few advantages at Yemen’s ground level, none in al-Awlaki’s Shabwah Governorate, and al-Awlaki wants to capitalize. He boasts of his tribe, "I move freely in Yemen. There is a support among my tribesmen. Even though they know they are in danger, they welcome me and greet me because they are righteous people."

Already alienated by the Yemeni government, they’ve vowed retaliation in the event of his death.

As added protection the locally-accepted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also accompanies his travels. al-Wuhayshi said in a recent video, “Awlaki is among a crowd of Muslims who are indignant towards the oppressive US policy. Do not worry about the sheikh, he is in safe hands.”

Taking him out by drone will ignite these factors and likely fuse them with Yemen’s southern secessionist movement.

Look no further for panic than Yemen’s own government. Only a month ago Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi told reporters, "Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn't be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism.”

Now he claims Al-Awlaki is wanted after being found “involved in terrorist activity,” which could be a ruse to bring him in. Al-Qirbi told Yemen’s state new agency, al Saba, that al-Awlaki won’t be handed over to US officials if captured, saying, "The man the U.S. wants to be extradited will stand trial in Yemen under the national law.”

Though Yemen may have sincerely changed its position, the government is obviously racing towards al-Awlaki to avoid cleaning up America’s mess. Assassinating al-Awlaki will trigger a local revolt that could feed into the wider southern secessionist movement and Yemen’s general instability.

How this benefits President Saleh, and thus US interests, remains unexplained.

So why does the US government obsessively pursue al-Awlaki’s termination, and why does the US media refuse to question whether this strategy is sound? Their objective isn’t just to conceal a failed counterinsurgency in Yemen, but to drown out al-Awlaki’s political objections shared by many inside and outside of America. Washington has reacted by hyping him into a scapegoat.

It fears some Americans may relate if they can look past al-Awlaki’s execution sentence for a brief moment.

President Barack Obama has given no indication of opening an investigation into the Iraq War, and though the war isn’t over, this leads to the emerging reality that it won’t end as America envisioned. “The surge” may ultimately prove a temporary solution if Iraq fails to form a stable government or comes under Iranian hegemony, making a war tribunal all the more necessary.

Yet one gets the strong feeling, based on George Bush’s comfy return to civilian life and Obama’s insistence “not to dwell on the past,” that objective investigation and prosecution will never occur under his watch. The opportunity will vanish forever once a Republican returns to the White House.

As for Afghanistan, Gibbs referred to Obama’s pep-talk at West Point: "The president said that members of al Qaeda are small men who will be on the wrong side of history. Those cadets, many will go to Afghanistan to pursue our battles there to keep our country safe and the president will continue to take action directly at terrorists like Awlaki and keep our country safe from their murderous thugs."

Of course America lies on the wrong side of history in Afghanistan, having dwelt there since the late 1970’s and showing no inclination to budge. Notice that Gibbs speaks of “our country,” subconsciously revealing America’s self-interested motives in West Asia. Protecting the free world this is not, but Gibbs isn’t deterred from using al-Awlaki to shield Obama’s runaway surge in Afghanistan.

Even amidst the latest night-raid coverup.

By zeroing in on al-Awlaki’s terrorist connections, the White House ignores an unpopular, misguided war in Afghanistan, stagnating politics in Iraq, and continual bias towards Israel. The “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency embraced in Afghanistan is conveniently gone from Yemen too. Back to unilateral militarism - and fear.

The best and perhaps only counterinsurgency option is to allow Yemen to capture al-Awlaki, even if that means him sacrificing possession. Though he won’t be gifted to America for trial and execution, he's likely to be made available for interrogation. America can glean information, avoid a direct strike that will intensify the insurgency, and claim success with the Yemeni government.

Killing Anwar Al-Awlaki by drone would go beyond poor COIN and beg the question of whether America actually wants to make more extremists, not less.

More war, not less.