August 31, 2010

Iraqi Propadanda Day

US officials were out in full force softening the ground before what turned out to be a non-speech by President Barack Obama.

“Notwithstanding what the national press says about increased violence, the truth is things are still very much different. Things are much safer.”

- US Vice President Joe Biden, alleging that the media exaggerates Iraq's level of violence, while softening the ground before

“Three and a half years ago very few believed the surge could take us to where we are today in Iraq, and there were plenty of reasons for doubts. Back then, this country’s civilian and military leadership chose the path we believed had the best chance of achieving our national security objectives, as we are doing in Afghanistan today... Success there is not inevitable. But with the right strategy and the willingness to see it through, it is possible. And it is certainly worth the fight.”

- Defense Secretary Robert Gates, claiming that Iraq's "success" makes victory in Afghanistan possible

US Enemy #1 in Iraq: Muqtada al-Sadr

It’s difficult to imagine US Vice President Joe Biden’s words of confidence, one of the lamest declarations of progress thus far, soothing many Iraqis. Biden recently argued that now is too soon to judge Afghanistan as a failure, only to be opposed by President Hamid Karzai’s call for an immediate review of US strategy. Now in Baghdad, Biden flashed an uninspiring sound-bite during a brief photo-op at the US embassy.

"We're going to be just fine. They're going to be just fine."

A variety of sources tell us everything is not fine: the US counter-media and international media, US commanders, and just about everyone on an Iraqi street-corner. August recorded casualties of 87 security forces and 270 civilians, one of the deadliest months since 2008, with hundreds more wounded. The climate of fear is said to be palpable. US and Iraqi officials have largely blamed the six-month political vacuum following March’s parliamentary election, but the insurgency’s remnants made a conscious decision to go underground and surface in the summer of 2010, when US combat forces were due to withdrawal.

The political vacuum simply confirmed their expectations and magnified their operations. The insurgency’s oxygen would have depleted had Iraq’s parties came together earlier, isolating al-Qaeda and its allies as the only obstacle to democracy. Political stalemate has shielded the insurgency by acting as a lightning rod for political and religious anxieties.

Ray Odierno, chief general of US forces, has kept cool while trying to prod Iraqi officials into a power-sharing agreement. But while he told The New York Times, “negotiations had picked up and would prove successful,” Odierno believes an agreement on the next prime minister is “four to six to eight weeks” away. “That’s a guess.” But, “if it goes beyond 1 October, what does that mean?” Odierno continues. “Could there be a call for another election?”

“I worry about that a little bit.”

Though he won’t admit so directly, Odierno is visibly concerned with Iraq’s level of violence and the independent ability of its security forces. After car bombs, IEDs, and ambushes in at least 13 towns and cities left over 60 Iraqis dead in one day, Odierno claimed the attacks were “not unexpected.” He may not intend to be, but such statements come off as callous during counterinsurgency. Biden, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, State and Defense officials, and President Barack Obama have propagated a feeling of insensitivity by what appears to be denial of the situation. That this level of violence, being so much lower than 2006 levels, is “expected” or “normal.”

“The trend lines have been steadily declining violence,” Obama recently told NBC news. “Even after we left the cities [US troops pulled out last year] what you've seen is lower and lower levels of violence.”

But many Iraqis are scared and dying, still without basic services, lack faith in their government as a whole, and believe the US is abandoning them. On the eve of Obama’s prime time address, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyer Zebari said he’s “embarrassed” that US forces are withdrawing without a political agreement - and that America should be too. Thus Odierno is likely speaking for Washington when he adds, “What I would tell you surprised me a little bit was that they were able to do it over the country with some coordination.” More than a little bit in general-speak.

No matter what US officials say in public, the reality is that they wish for an extension to US troop deployments past December 2011. Multiple sources inside the Pentagon have confirmed this, including Secretary Robert Gates. 160,000 private contractors, including at least 7,000 security personnel, can only do so much. A political agreement between Iraq’s major parties is the keystone to America’s strategy for its own reasons, but resolution is also necessary before editing Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). That is the real urgency in Washington.

Not surprisingly, those who oppose an extension to US forces have denounced US interference in Iraq’s political system. Moshriq Naji, a senior official in cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadr Movement, condemned Biden for trying to “impose foreign agendas,” calling his “projects” unsuccessful.

While brushing off al-Sadr might be easy, it certainly isn’t wise. With 40 parliamentary seats of his own, widespread religious authority among Shiites, Iranian support, and a fourth generation army, the young Muqtada has decades to grow his power - once US troops withdraw. al-Sadr has vowed to return only when the last US troop exits Iraq and would likely ensure his first step back is covered by international media. US officials haven’t made the mistake of underestimating al-Sadr, treating him as the primary threat to US forces in Iraq.

At a basic level al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, has threatened to attack US troops if they stay after 2011. al-Sadr’s soldiers are well-equipped, carry political legitimacy, and fight among a sympathetic population, rendering the army impossible to destroy. al-Qaeda, various national elements, and criminal organizations don’t pose nearly the threat al-Sadr’s militia is capable of. America has accepted Iraq’s current violence because al-Qaeda justifies a continual presence after 2011.

That leaves al-Sadr as the primary threat, both an obstacle to the extension and an army waiting to retaliate on January 1st, 2012.

Though the Mahdi Army has avoided conflict with US and Iraqi troops, focusing on internal security and non-military, grassroots organization, US officials have started assigning ambiguous blame of Iraq’s rising violence to al-Sadr, a trend likely to continue. US Brigadier General Ralph Baker told reporters on Monday that a spike in indirect fire towards the Green Zone is, “the work of Shiite militias backed by Iran trying to portray themselves as driving the American forces out of Iraq.” Many Shiite militias exist, al-Sadr just happens to be at the top.

Complimenting this scapegoating, US officials have exerted all available means in the political arena to lock al-Sadr out of a power-sharing agreement. To this end Moshriq Naji’s allegations are true. Biden, along with US diplomats in general, have encouraged an alliance between Nouri al-Maliki, the outgoing prime minister, and Ayad Allawi, whose al-Iraqiya List secured two more seats than al-Maliki’s State of Law. The agreement makes fundamental sense as the two parties exceed the 163 seats necessary to form a government and include the largest section of Iraq’s society.

With the Kurds under US protection either way, the arrangement also knocks out al-Sadr, who has negotiated with both al-Maliki and Allawi in their efforts to circumvent each other. It should be noted that al-Sadr is considering relocation to Lebanon, having resisted intense Iranian pressure to back al-Maliki for prime minister. As the enemy of an enemy, al-Sadr could be motivated to support Allawi and deny al-Maliki, one more reason for US officials to mount their resistance.

Along with al-Maliki and Allawi, Biden was scheduled to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. As usual, neither he nor any US official will meet with al-Sadr representatives. Training security forces and advancing Iraq’s political and economic system are part of America’s efforts to maintain stability, but the strategy boils down to excluding al-Sadr from SOFA negotiations in order to extend the deployment of US forces.

Said US ambassador James Jeffrey, “We would really have to ask whether we can have much of a future in this country given the Sadrists’ political position.”

Knowing al-Sadr - and realizing his military and political power - he’s unlikely to go quietly into the Iraqi desert. Washington is desperate to prevent another Hezbollah from maturing, this time in its own backyard, but it should learn from Lebanon’s situation. So long as al-Sadr wields legitimate political and social power, accommodating him into the system offers a more practical solution than open war. US officials should utilize their dwindling time and energy on more important issues.

al-Sadr has only threatened US forces, not the Iraqi people.

August 30, 2010

Clock Expiring on Obama's Surge

US General David Petraeus has earned a reputation within the media for keeping expectations low, one of many reasons being his persistent delay of President Barack Obama’s July 2011 “deadline” in Afghanistan. Petraeus is a practitioner of couching optimistic rhetoric with seemingly realistic assessments, and made sure to temper expectations on deadlines, Afghan forces, and President Hamid Karzai during his public relations blitz last week. But the end result wasn’t due to media hype.

The headlines that followed, exclaiming that the Taliban’s momentum had been halted, were exactly as Petraeus wanted.

His upbeat account came under immediate fire by war opponents, including the Taliban, but the ensuing days left no doubt even to Washington hawks that Afghanistan remains as murky as ever. Hopefully, then, Petraeus was feigning a smile for the audience, desperate to inject life into a campaign that Obama refuses to touch. Hopefully Petraeus is amending US strategy in private, otherwise the image projected now is a lit house with no one inside.

Though NATO reports more dead Taliban every day, a flurry of activity among US Special Forces heightens the contrast between Washington’s political message and most outside sources. Last week alone witnessed extensive fallout between Washington and Kabul. First Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, Afghanistan's deputy attorney general and leading anti-graft prosecutor, was removed from his post for unspecified reasons. US officials responded with cautious concern. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan's national security adviser, later explained that Faqirya’s post had expired after 40 years of service, but this incident isn’t over behind the curtains.

And in a general omen of Washington’s drift, The Wall Street Journal reported, “With many U.S. policy makers on vacation and Congress in recess, officials acknowledged it would take time for Washington to formulate a fuller response.” This theme applies to all of the following.

No sooner had Faqirya’s case momentarily died down that US media sources reported a CIA ring inside Karzai’s administration, a legitimate intelligence operation but clearly spy-craft as well. Afghan officials reacted vigorously. Mohammad Umer Daudzai, chief of Karzai’s staff and normally reclusive to the media, felt the need to speak out because constant reports of poor relations with Washington are "taking up a lot of our time."

"I know nobody is paid here by the CIA," he said. "Of course, people are paid by the United States. The whole government is paid, one way or the other, by the United States. That's different. I'm saying none of the 500 are paid by CIA. None."

Of course the CIA is likely operating inside Karzai’s power circle, and Daudzai warned the Taliban have already begun disseminating the message: "This is what Taliban is preaching, in villages, to Afghan youth. They say, 'Who is President Karzai? He is a puppet of the United States, and everybody around him is paid by the CIA. So there is no government; it's an occupied country, and let's go and fight them.'”

So far no warning from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the leak.

As these events passed in rapid succession, it was only a matter of time before Karzai struck back. US Vice President Joe Biden recently declared that August was too soon to judge Obama’s surge as a failure, but Karzai has made up his mind now, reflecting the West’s own propaganda with a one-two punch. Daudzai told reporters on Saturday, “He's putting those conditions there, that if we do not review, then we will be on the path toward losing. We need to review our strategy, our code of conduct, so that Afghans believe that this is a sovereign state and President Karzai is the ultimate decision maker in this country... We are in the last stage, the last chance of winning this war.”

Following another week of reports that the Obama administration continues to lose confidence in his ability to “show progress,” Karzai told reporters on Sunday that he too has lost confidence in the US strategy. “There should be a review of the strategy in the fight against terrorism,” he said, “because the experience of the last eight years showed that the fight in the villages of Afghanistan has been ineffective apart from causing civilian casualties.”

Petraeus’s transition has come apart at the seams. After wobbling for months, Obama’s surge finally veered completely off course.

Predicting Afghanistan’s future is up for grabs, which is the appeal to political scientists. But some image of the future can be gleaned despite rampant uncertainty. This small collection of events, potent in itself, will be followed by new events of a similar nature, all driving US and Afghan support further downward. The parliamentary election in September appears headed for an iceberg and is thus unlikely to result in accurate representation. Meanwhile the Taliban has predictably taken advantage of US concentration in the south to shift north again, and Pakistan has been taken out of the game by historic flooding.

Marjah and Kandahar’s protracted time-lines by themselves make a review mandatory, as these events no longer fit with Obama’s general deadline in July 2011.

60% of Americans already disapprove of the war and the next few months, if they continue their projection, should increase that number. Obama will come under greater pressure than he already is to do as Karzai says - hold his December review now. Failing to do so will create a strong image of inaction and indecision, reinforcing the last indecisive review. The Washington Post reports, “some Karzai aides have said privately that the president and his administration have begun to lose hope in NATO's ability to win the war and that Karzai thinks a drastic change in policy is necessary to regain momentum.”

As such, drastic changes must be considered. Petraeus is requesting a change in the deadline to give his strategy time to grow - Afghan forces, local militias, and social programs - but without Karzai’s full cooperation he'll spend the rest of his life at war. Afghanistan doesn’t simply need more time. Try as Petraeus does to push back Obama’s deadline, his clock is expiring.

The fact is that Obama never deployed enough troops to accomplish America’s goals and lacked a political strategy from the start, and he's going to lose NATO allies as the war drags on. Certainly Obama envisioned another position back in January or December 2009. Unable to withdraw his surge as soon as the final US troops land, Obama and Petraeus will come home empty-handed, whether in 2011 or beyond, if they continue
without making significant alterations. Obama must concentrate on not losing and that requires hard choices with Petraeus, along with the rest of the US military establishment. Few paths leads towards victory and many towards defeat.

It’s hard to find many “drastic” changes in policy besides four-way negotiations with the Taliban, Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington. After all Karzai is likely inferring to this possibility, but the option also leaves Washington in the teeth of the guerrilla’s paradox. Real negotiations with the Taliban require some sort of withdrawal, and as much as US officials speak of holding to July 2011, leaving now isn’t realistic. Still, the most practical move appears to be a phased withdrawal under the guise of Taliban negotiations. Saving face won’t be easy no matter how America exits Afghanistan.

Though US officials frequently set modest goals in public, their actions still shoot for the stars. Something has to give - soon.

August 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

“Israel will be responsible for the failure or collapse of the talks if it continues expanding settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967."

- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pushing back against internal criticism of entering direct talks with Israel without preconditions

August 28, 2010

Flipping US Counter-terrorism in Yemen

Is America actually winning its fourth-generation war against al-Qaeda? US officials frequently state that the organization is “on the run,” but al-Qaeda never planned to hold ground as a fighting force. It “runs” to strategic locations in order to survive long enough to disseminate its version of global Islamic revolution. To spread al-Qaeda be killed, and America and its allies are happy to oblige.

al-Qaeda’s pool of recruits, financial network, and freedom of movement have eroded since its heyday in the late 1990’s. Yet its strategy entailed a severe military response, and successful infection of multiple states and continents creates the impression of a dividing amoeba.

US General David Petraeus claims to have halted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, except few believe him and many question where al-Qaeda went. While its leadership in Pakistan has suffered extensive damage, the network remains operational regionally and internationally. Somalia, where Washington relies on drones and an insufficient AU proxy force, has overtaken Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda sanctuary. North Africa’s infant militarization is evolving.

And Yemen, al-Qaeda’s most potent sanctuary according to some US officials, displays a woeful counterinsurgency.

Inadvertently highlighting al-Qaeda’s grand strategy during a recent series of leaks to The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, a senior U.S. official familiar with the CIA’s activity explained, "We see al-Qaeda as having suffered major losses, unable to replenish ranks and recover at a pace that would keep them on offense.” But the official added that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM) is, "on the upswing. The relative concern ratios are changing. We're more concerned now about AQAP than we were before."

This argument, used to justify the US military’s expanding role in Yemen, can be flipped as an example of why America’s war against al-Qaeda is failing. US military supremacy will always ensure that al-Qaeda’s ranks - leaders, commanders, and foot soldiers - suffer countless losses. But as long as its ideology spreads, not necessarily among the majority of Arabs and Muslims so much as vulnerable states, al-Qaeda isn’t “running.” And chasing it through every conflict zone isn’t the means of defeating it.

Yet a second Obama official told The Washington Post that "a ramp-up over a period of months” is headed for Yemen. "We are looking to draw on all of the capabilities at our disposal," the official said, attributing the new campaign to “improving US intelligence in Yemen” and “new options for carrying out strikes.”

The reports by themselves emphasize media and propaganda gaps in US counterinsurgency. A unified message is pivotal to both the insurgent and counterinsurgent’s success, but America and Yemen's messages remain out of sync. One is trying to bring war while the other denies it. A Yemeni Foreign Ministry spokesman had already criticized an earlier New York Times report detailing several botched US raids, along with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s displeasure.

“The Yemeni government has been exerting continuous efforts to deny any military involvement by the U.S in all secret operations against al-Qaeda group in Yemen,” the spokesman said. “Now we can say that the U.S. must hold responsibility for what has been reported by The New York Times.

Realizing how damaging the latest reports were in the streets and on the Internet, Yemeni officials wasted another two days denying The Washington Post’s reporting. One senior official rejected the idea of drones being deployed to the country despite evidence to the contrary, adding, “The situation in Yemen is different than in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is still under control."

But US General James Mattis, the man who replaced General David Petraeus at Central Command (CENTCOM) - and now oversees Yemen - testified otherwise last month. Saying that Saleh has been pushed “to the breaking point” by an array of crises, Mattis warned that Yemen’s president, “has managed these crises through negotiation and by co-opting his opponents, but there are signs his ability to exert control is waning.”

Mattis’s thinking partially explains why US activity is rising, but also puts Washington in sharp conflict with Sana'a going forward. One Yemeni official responded, “the press leaks published in US and Western media exaggerate the size of Al-Qaeda and the danger that it poses to Yemen's stability and security.” Saleh visibly fears a public backlash towards US operations that would threaten relations between Yemenis and with Washington. Why have US officials chosen such a tactless message to deliver - and why haven’t US leaders condemned these leaks? Does the individual harm of a US soldier supersede damage to US strategy in an entire country?

America’s only message is that it comes for al-Qaeda, driving home cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s own message that Yemen is the next Afghanistan. Even those Yemenis who reject al-Qaeda’s ideology oppose a wider war. Washington's message is interfering with Yemen’s and must be aligned.

While counter-terrorism is fairly easy to disguise as counterinsurgency through inter-agencies, “long-term” security partnerships, and humanitarian aid, Yemen’s ground conditions reveal why few Yemenis would believe the unpopular Saleh government. US officials invariably gravitate towards the security aspect of Yemen, while US training and equipping of Yemeni forces is common knowledge. The New York Times didn’t break any story because the information went public the day after each US operation. Four strikes conducted since December 2009 have yielded scores of civilian casualties, tribal tensions, and escalating violence.

Another fissure in US counterinsurgency has also surfaced with a nasty headline: Yemen ignores rights in fighting insurgents. Amnesty International released a report claiming the US military's quest for al-Qaeda is stifling freedoms, which, given the circumstances, Yemenis are inclined to believe.

"There are many people who have been arrested and jailed as a result of American demands," says Khaled al-Anisi, the executive director of the Yemen-based National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms. "Because this security cooperation is beneficial to the Americans, they ignore the human rights situation in the country."

All of these events are developing in front of a backdrop of political uncertainty, with the Houthis’ status in the north and southern secessionists remaining unresolved. Both the government, through friendly tribes, and the Houthis and have mutually violated their agreement for months, fighting even as they negotiate in Qatar. Although the two sides may stick to their agreements this time, Saleh faces difficult demands in releasing rebel prisoners and fulfilling humanitarian promises.

Meanwhile secessionists have no intention of giving up on self-determination, rejecting extremist ideology while accusing the government of manipulating al-Qaeda to justify military operations. Ali Salem al Baid, a prominent Germany-based southern Yemeni leader and former vice president, alleged of recent battles around Lawdar, “The military campaign in Lawdar is aimed against our people’s resistance in the south.” He called the government’s war against al-Qaeda, “an attempt to cover up the massacres committed against our people,” and was joined by other exiled leaders who accused the government of sending al-Qaeda militants to conceal its suppression of the “peaceful movement of the southern people.”

Though their testimony is jaded by political beliefs, they fall in line with Amnesty International’s study - and hold Washington every bit as responsible as Yemen.

US officials appear proud of their expanding war, but the evidence suggests that they should reconsider their definition of progress. Does America want to eliminate the cause of al-Qaeda or keep it running? Pressing harder while Yemen’s multitude of issues remain outstanding could generate more al-Qaeda recruits than can be eliminated. Yemen poses an advanced form of counterinsurgency and yet US strategy is stuck in basic counter-terrorism, masked with trace elements of COIN.

Thus US strategy must flip from counter-terrorism into counterinsurgency. Officials should speak frequently of non-military affairs and rarely on military issues. al-Qaeda isn’t scared of threats, only average Yemenis. President Barack Obama mentions Yemen sparingly, usually to reaffirm his commitment to defeating al-Qaeda. The script must be flipped so that US officials, mainly State officials, and Yemeni authorities regularly highlight the benefits of US humanitarian aid.

This requires sufficient aid to combat Yemen’s estimated 40% unemployment.

It’s true that development assistance has increased under Obama, from $5 million in 2008 to $11 million in 2009 to $35 million in 2010. But military spending also exploded from $67 million to over $155 million: upgraded Hueys, Russian MI-17 helicopters, hummers, combat radio systems, and night-vision goggles. The US government should experiment with allocating equal funds to non-military operations. Splitting $200 million down the middle could transform Yemen’s strategy by creating a change in impressions and mentality.

America should promote a theme of demilitarization at all times. Given that Obama officials confirmed al-Awlaki is being “actively hunted down,” they seem to believe eliminating him would achieve a great victory. Al-Awlaki is considered AQAP’s motor, but killing him would validate his message and turn him into a martyr. Surely US officials would rather take al-Awlaki alive, but they must resist the urge to kill when he doesn't come quietly. And Yemeni forces must lead any operation into his tribe’s territory.

al-Awlaki's endgame should be a courtroom, not a grave. His father, a prominent Yemeni politician, has repeatedly warned against the collateral of killing his son and advocates legal means instead.

Most importantly, if Washington’s “ramp up” isn’t deterred by the current media backlash, its military focus must be exceeded by promoting a dialogue between Saleh, the Houthis, and southern secessionists. al-Qaeda is exploiting both conflicts to spawn its own; these disputes must be tempered in order to neutralize al-Qaeda’s strategy. Negotiations between dissident groups must assume the core of US policy, to be flipped in front of military operations.

Yemen’s overall trend fits into Obama’s failure to win over the Muslim world. His decisions toward Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and Yemen, in addition to the thoughts of his officials, have resonated militarily rather than diplomatically. Even if al-Qaeda sustains damage under heavier military pressure, failure to address Yemen’s diverse roots of conflict will produce a strategic victory in al-Qaeda’s grand scheme.

Demilitarization, not militarization, is the remedy.

August 27, 2010

Rolling the Dice in Somalia

One decision to escalate Somalia’s war is somewhat understandable given the heat of the moment, and not just because of the politicking and military expansionism involved. Somalia’s rising temperature has produced a flammable conflict with unpredictable effects on the region, and the African Union’s (AU) hold on Mogadishu’s vital points was unsustainable when the bombs went off in a Kampala restaurant and rugby club. 6,000 AU troops stood no chance of defeating roughly 5,000 well-armed al-Shabab fighters and 600 al-Qaeda operatives in the capital, let alone the country.

They needed to be withdrawn or reinforced.

al-Shabab and al-Qaeda temporarily rescued Uganda and Burundi, AMISOM’s main contributors, by offering the AU justification to deploy 4,000 additional troops. But insurgent bait is normally poisonous. Drawn into a fire still beyond control, the AU force will ultimately stalemate and sink without additional troop deployments. Both al-Shabab and, ironically, America seek this reaction, leading to the point of Tuesday’s attack on the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu. An emotional, manipulated decision at the AU’s July summit in Uganda can be viewed as an emergency response to the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) collapse.

But while action needed to be taken, beating the war drums provokes events like Muna’s six dead parliament members. The West and the AU’s second reaction cannot mimic their first.

Unfortunately Somalia’s cycle is locked in escalation and hypocrisy. Washington incites al-Shabab and al-Qaeda to legitimatize its own military actions, such as US Special Forces and naval control of the Gulf of Aden, while providing fodder for the Western media. Stability won’t be delivered under this plan. US President Barack Obama, having condemned al-Shabab as racist after the Kampala bombings, deployed Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan after Muna to stress the evil of Ramadan violence. Yet Obama himself attracted criticism during last year’s Ramadan after a series of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Given Somalia’s continual downtrend, the Western-funded strategy pursued through the TFG and AMISOM warrants thorough examination before deploying 15,000 troops, the 20,000 demanded by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, or the 40,000 estimated by Ugandan General Nathan Mugisha, AMISOM’s lead commander. Kampala generated a key reaction that Muna has yet to. Opponents within the TFG government, doubting its capacity, objected to more troops during the AU summit, but most officials portrayed a unified front.

Muna’s aftermath is yielding the reverse, a flood of leaks by named and anonymous officials lamenting the TFG’s dire conditions, how none of Mogadishu is secure, that half of parliament has fled the country fearing an al-Shabab offensive.

Governance is impossible under such conditions, and military progress will be negated so long as the TFG remains inefficient. In addition to gaining its own people’s confidence, a trustworthy political mechanism to receive and distribute international funds is mandatory for the AU’s military expansion. Various reports list different figures, but roughly $200 million in Western aid has been earmarked for the TFG and AMISOM - and less than a third delivered. 2010 aid hovers in single digits. Without faith in the TFG, financial support for AMISOM won’t meet the demand.

And new confusion emanates from the TFG’s relationship with Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna. The two groups recently met with UN officials in Nairobi to resolve their power-sharing dispute and focus their energy towards al-Shabab, but Ahlu Sunna officials inside Somalia later denied the legitimacy of those in Kenya. Then, after the Muna attack, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunna in Nairobi stated, “We know that 50 percent of the government are Wahabbists. So we refuse to mix our forces with their forces because we can’t compromise our people.”

“These Wahabbists are the same people who are providing security for the members of parliament,” Mahamud Abdi Elmi explained, “so that is the reason for these attacks. We support the government, because we don’t want anarchy. But this is why we can’t mix our people with theirs. We know who they are.”

Escalating a counterinsurgency without a viable political solution frequently makes a bad situation worse. By increasing AU forces and expanding military operations without political direction, more suffering will isolate the AU from the local support necessary to operate. al-Qaeda will proliferate. And if Somalia’s standard of living fails to improve or deteriorates further, the latest rage in the US intelligence community will persist: US-Somali citizens donating, consciously or not, to al-Shabab. Brennan told reporters after Muna, “we're partnering with the countries in the area to ensure that al-Shabab is not able to carry out attacks in the region.”

"Partnering with countries in the area” to combat al-Shabab has fanned the war; counter-terrorism by itself is counterproductive. Only when a workable political framework has been laid on the ground should more forces deploy to complete the counterinsurgency, with the secondary objective of bringing resolution to Somalia’s internally displaced (IDP) and diaspora. Until the many kinks in the TFG, Ahlu Sunna, and the future status of Somaliland and Puntland are ironed out to a manageable degree, an AU military buildup will generate more chaos than stability.

This isn’t to say AMISOM lacks all non-military elements of a counterinsurgency; 2010 has seen a relative uptick in UN, AU, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) coordination. New conferences are scheduled later in the year. But as past efforts were so underwhelming to begin with, these organizations still face mammoth leaps before committing the military forces necessary to achieve a decisive outcome in Somalia.

Some believe the AU should force Somali politicians to step up their performance by threatening withdrawal. This theory is consistent with general military strategy and strains of US military doctrine, specifically the Marines, and is currently debated in Afghanistan. E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group, argues that with the AU propping up the TFG, “The reality is that the TFG is not faced with an existential threat, and that is the dilemma. There is no incentive for the TFG to change.”

But while hand-outs do condition a local population to seek help from others rather than themselves, and should thus be avoided if possible, Somalia’s health is too fragile to issue an ultimatum. The threat would either go unfulfilled, weakening the West and the AU’s credibility, or potentially result in the TFG’s collapse.

Another strategy favors total disengagement, speculating that al-Shabab would cannibalize Hizbul Islam and ultimately fracture, but ceding the country to al-Shabab presents an extreme risk. A power struggle between the nationally-minded group and al-Qaeda's transnational ideology, while possible, isn’t certain. Enough sub-clans could split, rather than band together, to keep al-Shabab in a position of power. Ahlu Sunna could also resort to overt Ethiopian assistance, opening a new channel of foreign interference as another closes.

The most practical strategy isn’t to withdraw completely, but attempt to gain sovereignty of Mogadishu and drive al-Shabab into the countryside. This option necessitates the TFG’s evolution into a new political body, including the potential drafting of a new constitution. Elections are impossible given the current security environment so a national initiative and dialogue should be arranged in its place. Those with aptitude and integrity must be discovered and promoted. If the TFG can be reassembled into a stronger formation, energy should then transfer to securing Mogadishu’s perimeter and expanding UN operations.

In a rare piece of good news, South Africa continues to hammer home its point that Somalia requires full-spectrum counterinsurgency. Though its cabinet postponed a debate on whether to send troops, Deputy President Kgkalema Motlanthe recently stated that no final decision has been made: "One of the most important aspects as acknowledged by the African leaders at the (recent AU) Kampala Summit is that a military intervention alone would not resolve the Somalia conflict."

But Motlanthe added that the strategy to implement this realization has yet to be forged and, “thus it is crucial that a search for a comprehensive all-inclusive solution be stepped up.”

Perhaps South Africa should assume a public leadership role given its rationality, not just operate as a power behind the scenes. The AU needs South Africa’s reinforcement as 10,000 soldiers are likely insufficient to seize control of Mogadishu. 15,000 offer a realistic shot but only after a political framework is established, otherwise the mission may be doomed before it starts. Counterinsurgency truly launches once the AU expands out of Mogadishu and into the people, into al-Shabab’s territory - and al-Qaeda’s IED maze.

Conversely, while ultimatums should be avoided, failure to establish security and governance in Mogadishu deems a nation-wide campaign impossible. America must reconsider its escalating militarism as the remedy to al-Qaeda’s spread on multiple continents, and the AU should withdraw rather than stay mired in quagmire.

AMISOM would be over by default.

August 25, 2010

Rewriting Pakistan's Failed Message

A wider disaster has been averted in Pakistan, for now. With humanitarian aid to over 17 million flood victims trickling rather than pouring in from the international community, Pakistani leaders issued a joint appeal with US, EU, and UN officials to save their country. Donations spiked from 230$ million to 350$, past the requested $460 million and beyond a reported $800 million.

But it’s still not going to be enough.

For $460 million, about eight million flood victims would receive food and shelter over the next four months; the billions in physical damage will be dwarfed by long-term economics of 17 million people’s disrupted lives. Pakistan’s floods were a huge shock for a state to absorb, one that won’t threaten nuclear weapons or an Islamic coup, but could distract Pakistan enough to let America sink in Afghanistan. That the TTP is exploiting the flood through charity or the military’s distraction, a secondary concern, feeds into this endgame.

The initial lack of donors spawned a controversy whose underlying tone questioned why America and the West would let Pakistan wash away. A slowly rising death toll, around 1,500, and donor fatigue wasn’t so much the explanation as cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. Western donors and populaces conditioned to Islamabad’s image of corruption and extremism locked up before the press jump-started the machine again.

US officials already understand that Pakistan as a whole functions as a dam to the war in Afghanistan, and that all would be lost if it broke. But with the US and NATO publics opposing the war in increasing numbers and repeatedly warned of Pakistan’s untrustworthiness, Western officials inevitably fell victim to their own propaganda. While US officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempt to uplift Pakistani opinions, the message to the US people remains pessimistic and sometimes overtly hostile towards America’s fragile but pivotal ally.

Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, called the international response "absolutely pitiful” - after Prime Minister David Cameron started a row with Pakistan while in India. Some suspect Cameron had been speaking for Obama, who rarely comments on Pakistani policy.

Thus public support initially didn’t exist to deliver US promises, at a time when Pakistan requires more than the minimum assistance too. US envoy Richard Holbrooke warned that billions will be needed to restore peoples’ lives and billions more to rebuild their society. But this level of assistance can’t simply be fulfilled. Overwhelming, not ordinary, responses turn the tide during momentous events. America needed to immediately change the narrative, mobilize the world, and produce an excess of donations to stabilize Pakistan. Not just enough to get by.

The opportunity is not yet lost with another two weeks of rain predicted, but helping Pakistan through its natural disaster so that it can assist in America’s man-made disaster requires long-term policy changes. The first is to balance Washington’s message towards the US people. US officials and the media believe that they can speak with two tongues, one to assure Pakistanis of US support and another to assure Americans that Pakistan is being closely monitored.

This policy has depressed the image of Pakistanis in the US public.

Clinton and other officials did begin to alter the US message in the moments before the flood and during the disaster. She promised in one of her many videos, "I want the people of Pakistan to know: The United States will be with you through this crisis. We will be with you as you replant your fields and repair your roads. And we will be with you as you meet the long-term challenge to build a stronger nation and a better future for your families."

But by then it was too late. Major media like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, having slanted against Pakistan for years, had to flip an immediate switch, generating a lesser reaction. Going forward the US media needs to eliminate the artificial furor of nuclear weapons and strike fear into Americans in order to eliminate their distrust of Pakistanis. Just because a growing number of Americans wish to pull the plug on Afghanistan, they still don’t want to see what work has been done go to waste.

America would be swept into the trenches of military history if not for Islamabad, who only funded the Taliban after America’s decision to encourage Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

With a softer message to the US people, US officials must launch a new campaign at the national and international level to sustain Pakistan’s long-term recovery. This won’t be easy given that many countries will question why they must now save America’s strategic interests from what many consider to be poor planning.

The ISI’s allegiance is a real concern, but leads to the pivotal reform desperately needed in US foreign policy. Humanitarian aid has its limits and US officials will find they cannot equalize misdeeds completely, even when spearheading disaster relief efforts. Much of the US’s media focus has centered on how to lead the ground reaction, aware that the US military best coordinates this level of disaster relief, with the bonus of positively exposing locals directly to US troops. Pakistani approval did rise after US assistance during the 2005 earthquake.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke recently told PBS’s Charlie Rose that the strategy is to help them over and over, to reinforce the idea that America means well.

Yet military, economic, and disaster aid doesn’t achieve maximum results when used to continue unpopular policy. Pakistan’s press laments that David Petraeus is bent on delaying America’s exit from the region, while America continues to act as if Kashmir doesn’t exist. Humanitarian aid must be accompanied by policy reform, not used as a disguise for nefarious acts. Pakistanis, far too old in the game to be fooled, advocate US disengagement from the region, viewing it as the source of inflammation.

Unrealistic as it sounds, the only means of permanently improving Pakistani relations is to pursue disengagement from Afghanistan. US messages would resonate if Pakistanis actually believed America was looking for a stable exit and not seeking to militarily force the Taliban into submission, which many doubt is possible. Thus they doubt Obama intends to leave any time soon. Settling the Kashmir dispute also needs to be done sooner than later, as the conflict is unsustainable.

Reforming policy removes the carrot and stick policy Washington uses to guide Islamabad - “we help you, now help with militants” - and turns the relationship into a genuine partnership. Helping Pakistanis during times of hardship must fit into a grander strategy of limiting US meddling in Pakistani affairs, then Pakistani minds would turn for real.

And Americans with them.

August 24, 2010

Obama Exploits US Strength, Abbas’s Weakness

You may be surprised to know that direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have commenced. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was. Multiple sources told reporters Monday that Abbas became “enraged” after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced an invitation for direct talks without informing him beforehand. Abbas received four calls from the State Department after rumor spread that he would decline, ultimately talking him into agreement.

The incident perfectly captured the last four months of indirect negotiations - progress by force. While the Palestinians believe no progress has been made to warrant direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, America and Israel see victory in establishing direct talks without preconditions. Some Israeli officials have taken to boasting. And with Netanyahu’s own base threatened by radical settlers, Abbas has the look of a man being hauled up a volcano for sacrifice.

Though direct talks appear to be in motion, they may not last the “trial” month Abbas requested from the Arab League - let alone a whole year.

Contrary to general US opinion, President Barack Obama is pursuing an unrealistic, bias policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was harder to discern as he passionately outlined a Palestinian state during his campaign and first year in office, but increasing coercion towards Abbas reveals the true nature of US policy. Perhaps the situation will bounce in the White House’s favor, but success doesn’t seem possible in the current environment. The status quo favors Israel, thus direct negotiations without preconditions favor Israel.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found in July, “About 80% say the policy of the Obama Administration favors Israel while only 4% say it favors Palestinians.”

If America’s weight isn’t balanced then no agreement will be reached, especially in the tiny one-year window announced by US envoy George Mitchell. Yet Washington’s pressure has escalated despite the collateral damage against Abbas’s political base. For two weeks US officials insisted that direct talks were right around the corner, prompting skepticism from the Palestinian side. Israel appeared to successfully neutralize a Quartet statement reaffirming a settlement freeze in the West Bank.

Finally Clinton and Mitchell announced the format and date for direct talks, September 2nd, and left Abbas out of the loop until the news went public, trapping him into accepting. As usual he had been set up as the spoiler.

Meanwhile, in front of the curtains, the initial Palestinian reaction clashed with Washington’s rosy image. As the State Department website hailed direct talks as a breakthrough, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat downplayed negotiations without an extended settlement freeze due to expire September 20th. US officials continued touting direct talks as a go while Israel shot down all thoughts of preconditions. Netanyahu then took this opportunity to announce his own terms: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and a demilitarized Palestine.

After further uproar from Palestinian officials - Erekat called Netanyahu’s negotiation “dictation” - Netanyahu’s spokesman, Nir Hefez, responded he was only “emphasizing justifiably the importance of solid security arrangements and demilitarization.” But when Palestinians raise the issue of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this precondition threatens peace.

With a rapid chain of events occurring over several days, one may think Washington would cool tensions and address grievances on the Palestinian side, but that isn’t the case. After Erekat repeated the Palestinians will decline to negotiate directly if Israel fails to extend a partial freeze on new West Bank settlements, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley herded the issue straight into direct talks.

"We're very mindful of the importance of the issue,” he told reporters. “It is within the negotiation. That's why we want to get the negotiation. None of these issues can be resolved outside of this negotiation. The direct negotiation begins on September 2nd. And you can rest assured that this will be among the topics discussed early on."

This logic makes sense on the US-Israeli side, but the Palestinians doubt that settlements will be decided in one month. While the White House more or less trusts Netanyahu, Palestinian officials justifiably don't and seek an agreement beforehand to empower their populace, in addition to protecting themselves. But according to Crowley direct talks have already begun; technically Monday’s negotiations can be seen within this framework. Crowley added, "We're now into direct negotiations; we expect that both parties will do everything within their power to create an environment for those negotiations to continue constructively."

So why isn’t America? Do Palestinians know that direct talks are on, or are US officials simply claiming so? Considering the propaganda campaign against the US people, Palestinians, and Abbas himself, US and Israeli officials appear to be feeding everyone else an incomplete picture. They’ve chosen an odd method to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. It’s true that direct negotiations offer the surest path towards finality, but only if these negotiations begin equal and not tilted towards Israel.

America has yet to apply that stability as a third party.

Perhaps Netanyahu will quickly trade a settlement freeze for Abbas’s recognition of a Jewish state, but Netanyahu's resistance indicates that he's unlikely to agree on a freeze inside or outside direct talks. Israel and America hope to avoid this dilemma by tossing scraps to the Palestinians, deepening their resentment. The Associated Press reported, “Israeli officials confirmed Monday that the government is in quiet talks with the United States in search of a ‘creative’ solution that will allow at least some limited construction to take place after Israel's 10-month moratorium ends on Sept. 26.”

Little wonder that Abbas expects direct talks to stall. Beyond Hamas, much of his own party has warned against entering what is considered an Israeli trap, and he’s doing what he can to survive between two cliffs. The situation rides heavily on whether Abbas, faced with the undeniable reality that he still needs Washington, submits to US pressure and essentially bows to Israel, or refuses to give up every last ounce of dignity. Abbas may yet surprise America; Ereket said that he delivered a letter from Abbas to the Quartet threatening to withdraw from negotiations if Israel’s settlement freeze isn't extended.

The letter was perceived as an, “attempt to reassure critics that he hasn’t abandoned his conditions for negotiating directly with Israel.” Wrote Abbas: “Settlements and peace are two parallels that don’t meet. If Israel continues with the settlement construction, we will withdraw from the talks.”

At this point US and Israeli officials would likely criticize Abbas for “obstructing peace.” They wouldn't act out of justice though, but of the need to totally reduce Abbas before direct talks in order to shield Netanyahu. Why Israel would do this makes partial sense, even though the strategy is counterproductive to long-term peace. America is also following a semi-logical plan if its goal is to protect Israel. But the strategy loses its mind if Obama, Clinton, Mitchell, and company are truly interested in a fair two-state solution.

“The Americans have forced us to drop all our preconditions,” said one PA official. “This makes us look bad in the eyes of our people.”

The Palestinians must be treated as equals in the peace process. Obama’s current policy towards them is one of exploitation, and no permanent two state-solution will come of it.

August 23, 2010

AU/US Growing Pains in Somalia

The US media likes to give the impression that President Barack Obama inherited “quiet” or “limited” wars in al-Qaeda sanctuaries such as Yemen and Somalia, simply because top US officials rarely discuss them. Using Special Ops teams on the ground and Navy off the coast, drones have launched a half dozen strikes on al-Qaeda commanders in Somalia since 2008, with a SEAL raid conducted in 2009. Though these events briefly assume a high profile, America’s unregulated arms support to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and funding of the African Union’s mission (AMISOM) fail to garner the same level of attention.

But Washington’s war in Somalia is by no means limited.

The White House instantly pounced on the Kampala bombings, using tragedy to exploit Uganda’s war hungry and politicking president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. With al-Shabab threatening the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, Museveni had already committed an emergency force of 2,000 at the TFG and America's request. The new opportunity to escalate troop levels boosted the AU force from 6,000 to roughly 10,000. Museveni publicly stated his goal as 20,000 and US officials such as point-man Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, have yet to correct him.

However a group of African states and many analysts have questioned whether 20,000 troops will prove a decisive force against al-Shabab's 5,000, and answered in the negative. Stalemate perpetuates Somalia’s status quo without offering Somalis a better life or an exit for AU troops, as withdrawing from a political vacuum repeats the cycle of intervention. This analyst began a realistic force level at 40,000 in prior studies and the AU agrees.

While briefing Commander of Land Forces General Katumba Wamala and members of diplomatic missions last week, Force Commander of AMISOM Maj. General Nathan Mugisha requested 40,000 troops to complete his mission. Mugisha described Mogadishu’s breakdown as eight sections in government control, four contested sections, and four under al-Shabab control. Independent sources aren’t so kind to the AU, claiming its forces hold no more than a bubble around major institutions like Villa Somalia, the airport, and AU bases.

AMISOM spokesman Maj. Barigye Bahuko later estimated that 8,000 troops are needed to secure Mogadishu, likely an underestimate; the rest would be divided among the southern and central regions. While such a force does provide a better chance of securing Mogadishu and beyond, they would represent a government in strife. The AU's advance would sink into a matrix of rural insurgency designed by an estimated 500 al-Qaeda operatives; until now AU forces have been primarily engaged in Mogadishu’s urban warfare, where mortars and RPGs form the common arsenal of al-Shabab. AU troops have no business entering a countryside lined with IEDs without a solid political platform to fight on.

Right now they don’t, at least according to South Africa.

After several British papers quoted South African officials claiming otherwise, Africa’s premier state has temporarily retreated from the idea of deploying troops to Somalia. AU commissions chairman Jean Ping sent one of his first military requests to President Jacob Zuma, cognizant that the AU stands a low chance of sustaining its desired troop levels and political cover without his support. South Africa’s cabinet scheduled to debate the matter last week only to postpone due to labor issues. But Henri Boshoff, head of the Pretoria-based Peace Missions Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, claims that South Africa sees no developed political strategy in the AU's counterinsurgency.

"The first reaction by the South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, to the AU's request for South Africa to send troops was that Somalia is a political problem, and that deploying military forces in isolation will not be the solution,” said Boshoff.

Given South Africa’s judgment, the AU and its Western backers should deeply reconsider sending additional troops to Somalia. It may not be necessary to cancel the 4,000 ordered at July’s AU summit in Kampala, but 10,000 should remain the limit until a political framework can be constructed at the local, national, and regional levels. These 10,000 should be enough to hold Mogadishu so long as they don’t venture outside. The point isn’t to engage al-Shabab across its territory, but, using the ocean to its advantage, gain political control over a third of Somalia's population and gradually expand the security zone.

A lack of troops dispersed over a wide area forces the AU into overwhelming firepower, alienating the local people, and no system is established to heal the wounded, address grievances, or restore services. AMISOM may be possible with the right counterinsurgency and level of troops, but is impossible without both.

Unfortunately, with AU troops on alert for al-Shabab's next offensive, signs of escalation can be found across the country. Somalia’s events may pressure the AU to feel that more US-funded and equipped troops are necessary, summoning a massive puppet army to dodge Somalia’s anti-Americanism and al-Shabab’s attempt to exploit it. General Mugisha has already reacted in this manner.

And al-Shabab is likely to shift its entire offensive back towards Mogadishu if the AU does land more forces. As the TFG’s hold on the capital began to slip in 2010, al-Shabab appeared to be forming into a pincer movement with its horns at Beledweyne and Mogadishu. With Villa Somalia taking direct shots from al-Shabab mortars, the group began launching incursions into the northern territory of Ahlu Sunna Walijama’a, Somalia’s main Sunni militia and former TFG ally, with its eyes on Dhuusamareeb.

New AU forces would refocus the war’s front on Mogadishu, causing al-Shabab to entrench itself in its own territory rather than gradually move north. This would translate into ferocious fighting in Mogadishu and stiff resistance in al-Shabab’s strongholds.

The AU won’t see many IEDs so long as the battle remains centered on Mogadishu. Instead, considering a recent self-induced explosion on al-Qaeda’s part, al-Shabab may increase its use of explosive-laden vehicles better suited for attacking static AU targets. The AU and al-Shabab are both waiting to see whether reinforcements and Western funds show up in the coming months, giving al-Shabab time to prepare a variety of projectile explosives for larger AU units.

al-Shabab also continues to reintegrate Hizbul Islam on its own terms. The two groups spent last year divided and numerous reports cite obstacles in their current negotiations, such as military skirmishes, but both groups have denied fighting. al-Shabab’s position can operate either way; the group doesn’t need to combine. If left independent, Hizbul Islam is still more likely to attack TFG and AU forces while maintaining a tentative peace with al-Shabab, who in turn uses Hizbul Islam as a placeholder for less important towns.

The basic fact remains that foreign intervention attracts these two groups, whereas they might split and cannibalize if left alone. As for Ahlu Sunna, the TFG has yet to formally announce a resolution to their two month power-sharing dispute.

And looking farther out on the horizon, the conflict could enter a death spiral were Ethiopia to intervene again. A growing possibility if South Africa won’t contribute troops, perpetual destabilization repeatedly taunts Addis Ababa into the country. Border clashes are common and days ago unspecified militants killed three Ethiopian soldiers, prompting a raid on a border village that left over 10 people dead. With “counterinsurgency” like this, no wonder al-Shabab wants to lure the unpopular country back into the warzone.

Perhaps al-Shabab’s next bombs will even detonate in Addis Ababa - at the US embassy like al-Qaeda ordered - and accomplish two objectives at once.

Destruction may not be the AU’s only obstacle either. School enrollment reportedly doubled in Beledweyne after al-Shabab took control from Hizbul Islam two month ago (along with subsuming its troops). A university will open soon, perhaps the beginning of a campaign to soften al-Shabab’s image among Somalis. Life is unquestionably hard under al-Shabab’s rule, but the AU must improve on whatever stability the militants do bring.

Fighting for territory that cannot be held offers no improvement.

The AU and Washington need South Africa if they truly expect to achieve progress and sustain their war against al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. Counterinsurgencies last well over ten years on average and Somalia is steaming towards 2020. The West and AU need a political strategy that addresses the weak TFG government, Somalia’s clans and business leaders, al-Shabab, Hizbul Islam, and Ahlu Sunna, and regional entities Somaliland and Puntland. Minus this, 20,000 to 40,000 troops will only create a bigger ball of chaos.

South Africa appears to know this. America should too.

August 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In Washington, I told them, 'It would be embarrassing if you left and there's no government in place.' The U.S. will still have a substantial force here, but it needs to use it to produce results... The Iraqi leaders are at an impasse, and we need help from our American friends."

- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari

Shadows Behind Assange's Conspiracy

The question is unavoidable: who holds the end of the string for rape accusations and a 12 hour arrest warrant on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange?

Two Swedish newspapers reported that the allegations were made by two women who had worked with WikiLeaks in Sweden. That Assange knew both women seems to be established, and the two women independently verified stories before going to the police last Friday. Their story becomes stranger when Swedish police said they had been afraid to go public, while the women specifically denied these reports: "He is not violent and I do not feel threatened by him.”

These women, if in fact honest, admittedly enjoy little benefit of the doubt given the international battle between the Pentagon and Assange. What else can they say if they're being truthful? But one of the women released a suspiciously scripted remark: "The charges against Assange is of course not orchestrated by either the Pentagon or anyone else. The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl is held by a man with a skew perception of women who do not take no for an answer.”

So they were aware of the Pentagon's witchhunt and just decided to help out? How generous and coincidental.

No suspect outside the women fits the criteria more than the US government. An American or Afghan entity in favor of the war has more cause to discredit Assange than individual women. Furthermore, few US citizens have the power to manipulate the Swedish police, judiciary, and media. A larger organization appears at work. And the timing was perfect - Assange was visiting Sweden to discuss his actions. To call these events a conspiracy does injustice to reality.

The Swedish reveal traces of a cover up on their part. Although Eva Finne, the country’s chief prosecutor, dropped the rape allegations due to lack of evidence, an investigation into the second charge of molestation against Assange continues. This could be false justification for the rape allegations though, to be dropped as well. The Associated Press reported, “The prosecutor’s office provided few details about the case against Mr. Assange, who denied the allegations. Nor did it say why it backtracked so quickly.”

That’s a shady situation.

Timing may hold the answer to Assange’s enemy. His response on Twitter, that Washington had prepared to use “dirty tricks” and that the charges’ timing was “deeply disturbing,” makes perfect sense from the US government’s perspective. The Pentagon, having denounced Assange from the highest level, has threatened to bring him down and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered prosecution “should go wherever it needs to go.”

But a US courtroom and prison isn’t the best place to go. “Silencing” him isn’t an option either with such a high profile. Practically speaking, discrediting Assange in the media is the Pentagon’s most viable option to harm him. As a non-US citizen, the Pentagon would create an uproar if it extradited Assange into a federal court to debate a war that 60% of Americans oppose, with few believing Afghanistan is improving. President Barack Obama can’t afford Assange’s trial or punishment to dominate the next year, especially when many Americans felt Wikileaks needed to be released in some form.

The war’s disapproval and timing render legal means ineffective. That leaves propaganda warfare by default. The rape allegations coincided with Assange’s speaking events in Sweden, a diversionary measure and initial warning to what Wikileaks believes will be a long campaign against them.

Said Gavin MacFadyen, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and a friend of Assange, "A lot of us who had any notion of what he was doing expected this sort of thing to happen at least a week ago. I'm amazed it has taken them this long to get it together. This is how smears work. The charges are made and then withdrawn and the damage is done."

He's technically accurate since the women went to the authorities last week.

Gates himself said Assange’s case should go “wherever it needs to go.” Assuming that his CIA contacts are still good, and given that the Pentagon has battled Assange longer than the latest leaks, it’s entirely within possibility to plant women around Assange’s circle and bring them to bloom at the right moment. The US government cannot hide its power all of a sudden, and underestimating the CIA would be wishfully ignorant.

The venom directed at Assange appears to exceed concern for Afghanistan’s trends, which Pentagon officials publicly believe are improving. They're trying to pin Afghanistan’s negativity on Assange even while admitting most of the information is “already known,” which essentially admits to wrongdoing. But instead of addressing the problems described in Wikileaks, the Pentagon is mainly concerned with punishing Assange. This spells trouble for all those in opposition to the war as the December review and July 2011 approaches.

The Pentagon is doing everything it can to limit bad news, as evidenced by General David Petraeus.

A potential rape allegation goes beyond Afghanistan too. Perhaps President Barack Obama would be left out of the loop for plausible deniability, but the order would need to come from the highest level. Gates seems a real possibility, though he’s likely to feign ignorance too. In any event the tactic of rape smearing doesn’t exemplify hope and change, and Assange’s circumstances may prove ominous for future whistle-blowers of any issue - American or not.

Israel Blurring Hezbollah with Lebanese Army

What exactly happened on the Blue Line near Adaisseh is still anyone’s guess, but the skirmish between Israeli and Lebanese troops has tilted heavily towards Beirut’s favor. Israel seized the initiative with a diplomatic and media blitz that painted Lebanon as the aggressor, thereby justifying its probing encroachment on Hezbollah and blocking US military aid in Congress.

And with direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians blanketing the front pages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surviving off the fumes of US sympathy.

But like direct negotiations, which may prematurely implode, Israel has lost the strategic advantage after its tactical flurry. Iran quickly offered to replace America’s military aid and Lebanon opened a special account to collect donations from abroad. Beirut convincingly portrayed Israel as an instigator for deliberately axing a disputed tree and failing to grant Lebanese forces an extension to prepare.

Most importantly, Israel’s strategic objective - Hezbollah - has emerged in a stronger position than before. By keeping out of the fighting completely, Hezbollah was free to rally the resistance without attracting scrutiny from outside its base. Israeli aggression further legitimized Hezbollah’s core platform and its necessity, pushing away the ultimate aim of demobilizing the movement.

Hezbollah’s final outcome is now set for integration.

Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces only hold 5% of Lebanese parliament, but as a member of the March 14th alliance, it’s likely that his position more or less represents the Lebanese army. Having already made the transition from militia to political party, Geagea suggested that Hezbollah come under command of the Lebanese army during a National Dialogue on future defense strategy. And rather than dissolve into the ranks, Geagea proposed that Hezbollah’s former members operate as a special unit along the border, in civilian clothing as the situation requires.

While Iran may lose its military grip as a nuclear showdown develops, Hezbollah's political wing can assume precedence and secure uninterrupted influence. Its troops are left on the border, ready as ever. Geagea refuted criticism of a "trap," saying, "Where is the trap? The plan calls for cooperation between Hezbollah and the army without the party revealing its capabilities or weapons."

This arrangement would satisfy Lebanon much more than trying to grab Hezbollah’s weapons out of its hands and evict it from its villages, though it does not fulfill Hezbollah’s independence. When several Hezbollah lawmakers objected that “the resistance” is necessary to national security, Geagea rationally argued that all military forces should come under state institutions representing the people. Yet Hezbollah is also backed by the people, and gaining their approval to subsume their movement may be more vital than Hassan Nasrallah’s consent.

Thus the outcome remains in the distance.

But Nasrallah now holds its trump card. If the UN tries to confiscate its weapons, or a UN tribunal rules against it in the case of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, or if Israeli batters Hezbollah in a future war, Hezbollah can simply fade into the Lebanese army. Never will it truly be disarmed. At some point its soldiers may transform back into yellow clad guerrillas.

Israel’s position, a result of its specific history and relationship with Lebanon, doesn’t speak for broader counterinsurgency though. Assimilating militias is a common tactic used, among many places, in Iraq and Afghanistan. America would be wise to apply the tactic to Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia rather than declare war on it. With 40 parliamentary seats of his own (12% of all seats), the Sadr Movement commands 70 seats overall with the National Iraqi Alliance, making al-Sadr a pivotal actor in Iraq’s deadlock.

At this point little difference exists between Hezbollah and the Sadr Movement’s leadership, politico-religious platform, and military capability.

As for Israel, Adaisseh proved that it will cross the Blue Line and that Hezbollah plays a legitimate role in Lebanon. Israel has always had difficulty turning tactical supremacy into strategy victory.

August 20, 2010

Quotes of the Day

“There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere.”

- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hailing the beginning of unconditional, direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority

"We believe it can be done within a year and that is our objective."

- US special envoy George Mitchell

"We hope the American administration and other Quartet members will work to make Israel refrain from settlement activities and turn the words (of the Quartet statement) into deeds... If the Israeli government decides to announce new tenders on September 26, then we won't be able to continue with the talks. We hope that the Israeli government will choose peace not settlements, will choose reconciliation and not the continuation of occupation."

- Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator

The US State Department is running "Middle East Peace Process" on its front page and Palestinians haven't even agreed to direct negotiations without preconditions, as US officials such as Hillary Clinton advertise. Propaganda does not qualify as progress. Rather than apply an even hand to the conflict, shielding Israel - specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - and pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has led many Palestinians to believe that America remains an obstacle to peace. A recent poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found, "About 80% say the policy of the Obama Administration favors Israel while only 4% say it favors Palestinians."

Petraeus’s Media Offensive Checked by Reality

US General David Petraeus’s media assault on the American and NATO peoples yielded a polarizing reaction: confidence that Petraeus is the only general capable of salvaging the war in Afghanistan, or disillusioned outrage at ghosts of Vietnam announcing progress while diluting July 2011 as “conditions-based.”

"We're making progress and progress is winning if you will,” Petraeus insisted to a half dozen media outlets last weekend.

The beauty of Petraeus’s plan lifted him off the hook. By emphasizing that President Barack Obama wants his straight military opinion - even if that means delaying transfers to the Afghan National Army and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces - no one’s anger lands on Petraeus’s shoulders. Though his skeptics might equal his admirers, the blame redirects off of him and ultimately onto Obama, leaving Petraeus free to erode July 2011.

Of course this may not be the best strategy if Petraeus wants to stay Afghanistan long enough to “win.” The more unpopular he turns Obama, the less likely Obama postpones his deadline (although he looks as though he will regardless). And a second layer of Petraeus’s strategy is malfunctioning too. Because Afghanistan could always “progress” without fully stabilizing, the true ground conditions can be spun both ways, positive and negative. Some see mounting casualties and a corrupt government, others expanding security (oil spots) and open schools. Each could be right, temporarily obstructing an argument against Petraeus’s optimism.

But judging means by their end, he chose the wrong time to launch his media assault.

Two days after Petraeus carpet-bombed a series of media heavyweights - CNN, MSNBC, CBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times - Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered all US private military contractors (PMC) out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010. US military officials immediately rejected the demand as impossible and claimed that Karzai was performing for his own audience. Though true to an extent, Karzai appears to be removing one force outside his total control after accepting another - Petraeus’s Local Police Force.

Karzai’s demand also put US officials in the awkward position of toning down the message they had previously hyped up: Afghan security forces and the improving security environment in general. Now security and security forces are nowhere near ready to withdraw the 19,000 PMCs Washington employs in Afghanistan, underscoring the reality that America still lacks sufficient troops to accomplish its declared goals. Just like that Petraeus’s message was gone.

Karzai is unlikely to successfully push through US resistance and actually expel all PMCs, leading to the possibility of a failed confrontation or compromise. But in either case the message remains focused on insufficient security. While a state should use every tool at its disposal during warfare, the idea that the US military cannot operate efficiently without PMCs subverts the occupation of Afghanistan - don’t try to hold what you can’t hold. PMCs are now being used to fill America’s military void in Iraq.

Like credit cards, PMCs allow Washington to live beyond its war means for a fee - and rising interest can negate their value.

Petraeus was hit by a second missile the very next day. Weeks of anxiety that Afghanistan’s parliamentary election in September faces heightened security concerns gave way to Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission (IEC), informing reporters that 15% polling stations will be shut down. They may not be the last and those remaining open aren’t necessarily safe.

"The main problem for these elections is security," said IEC chairman Fazel Ahmed Manawi. "The backbone of any election is security; without it there cannot [be] proper voting."

That polling stations are closing due to insecurity offers a measurable example that the US campaign in Afghanistan is behind schedule. Wasn’t the surge supposed to provide security by now? How is delay “progress”? Expectations are a highly volatile substance in counterinsurgency, to be handled with more care than US officials demonstrate. The IEC already delayed the election from May, eagerly approved by Washington since the vote might have ended in disaster, but current trends indicate a contest similar to August 2009's presidential election.

With local actors competing directly for their surroundings, September will flush out a host of power-hungry characters that could take advantage of “closed” or isolated polling stations, triggering a repeat of Karzai’s re-election.

Still more problematic closures will be narrowed to the south and east, denying the main constituency America and Karzai must win over. Though wealthy individual actors can easily seize power in Afghanistan, the basic principle remains that if those in contested areas cannot vote, they will lack any representation or stake in Afghanistan’s future. The Taliban provide the most visible political alternative. And while they will use violence to disrupt the election, including assassination, the Taliban are likely to wait for Karzai and his allies to create their own disorder with Afghans and the international community.

PMCs and September’s election pose dual threats, delivering political and military payloads into US counterinsurgency. Simply too little time exists to minimize polling closures. Now Washington must hope the election isn’t derailed by violence or corruption, and hope doesn’t qualify as strategy. Generating media fallout the entire duration, another controversial election could run through Obama’s review in December making Afghanistan harder, not easier, to let go of.

The showdown with PMCs may be even trickier. Security bubbles around dozens of Afghan and US officials would pop; drawing US forces, including Special Forces, off the front lines cuts into an already limited force. Those running training and logistics operations would need replacing. And four months is so unrealistic that US officials have already made their position known to Karzai, causing immediate friction. The White House and Pentagon should move rapidly with Congress to pass comprehensive oversight if they seek to avoid unnecessary conflict with Karzai.

These big ticket items prove that Afghanistan, while potentially stabilizing in certain areas, isn’t “improving” as Petraeus and company argue. And there will be no seamless transition. Silence from the White House only builds tension. If September becomes another casualty of time like Marjah and Kandahar, why will July 2011 be any different? Obama may cause an uproar and fail to sustain the popular approval necessary in a counterinsurgency if he suddenly backtracks, especially if he rubber stamps Petraeus’s “advice.”

Look what happens three days later.

August 19, 2010

Iraq's Not-So-Responsible Withdrawal

Last Wednesday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs spun a tall tale. Iraq’s security had improved so much that, “the level of violence observed over the past two weeks had been among the lowest in number of incidents that the coalition has seen since record-keeping on those incidences began.” Due in large part to Iraqi security forces, US training has “fully prepared” them to “be in the lead when we end our combat mission later this month.” Meanwhile Iraq’s political parties are “making progress” towards forming a new government.

As a result, Gibbs insisted that President Barack Obama entertains no thoughts of altering the withdrawal time-line that US combat troops exit by August 30th and every last troop by December 2011. When asked about the possibility that the two governments could edit Iraq’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Gibbs declined to engage in hypotheticals.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates would: “If a new government is formed there and they want to talk about beyond 2011, we're obviously open to that discussion. But that initiative will have to come from the Iraqis."

Gibbs’s portrait of Iraq suffered a Saddam-like collapse. Flash-fried by Gates that same day, Iraqi chief of staff Lt. General Babaker Zebari responded 12 hours later, “If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians: the US army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020." Though US officials and analysts contextualized Zebari’s thoughts as a warning to Iraq’s political parties, Zebari’s perspective must also be viewed through resurgent attacks on Iraqi security forces.

Gibbs never got around to explaining himself. Taking the next day off, he lucked out when reporters failed to follow up the day after and hasn’t briefed the media since. Who would though with grim reality waiting in the audience? Dual bombings in Baghdad, one amidst a crowd of Iraqi police recruits, pushed August’s death toll for security forces to 57, with at least 172 civilians dead and hundreds more wounded. Already challenging for 2010’s most violent month, August would approach 2008 levels of 80+ security forces and 300+ civilians dead were it to sustain its current pace.

These figures pale to the tens of thousands of Iraqis senselessly lost in a quasi-civil war during 2005-07, but they also display the sober reality that Iraq’s war - and pain - is far from over. The Bush administrations’ confusing of fourth generation insurgency with high-tech, third generation warfare created the original root of evil and cannot be repeated now.

Yet Gibbs’s absence didn't herald a change in policy or marketing. Likely envisioned as a triumph, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division crossed into Kuwait eight days later, the last of America’s combat troops withdrawing ahead of schedule. The White House highlighted this “accomplishment” by “saluting service in Iraq” on its website, including encouraging speeches from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. And the White House’s blog left nothing to the imagination by proclaiming: Ending the War in Iraq.

This statement would be truer in conventional terms, but in the realm of counterinsurgency Iraq's militants were destined to persevere after US forces withdrew. Swift political resolution, the best option for staving off the insurgency, was never realistic given Iraq’s history and demographics. Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, but the obvious question of how “successful” America’s war will become, from 2003 to 20XX, leads to the immediate dilemma facing Iraq’s future. Though Obama has stuck to his promise of withdrawing forces, is he “responsibly ending the war in Iraq” as stated on the White House’s website?

Or just trying to end it?

Iraq isn’t about to revert to its bloody state in 2006, although the specter of civil war grows in proportion to the division between political parties. But the insurgency won't end by 2011 or for years afterward; terror networks may hold out for decades. The insurgency is entering a new phase of violence attempting to complete a series of objectives. If Iraq’s political and economic environment can be disrupted, financially marginalized Iraqis disillusioned by Baghdad’s politics will continue supplying al-Qaeda and other elements of the insurgency, undermining the US message of “victory.”

al-Qaeda’s aim extends transnationally by demonstrating that a military surge only yields a temporary solution to potentially intractable political divisions - ripening seeds of doubt within General David Petraeus's surge in Afghanistan.

Iraqi government officials have played straight into the insurgents’ hands. From 2008 al-Qaeda’s strategy calculated a return after Iraq’s parliamentary election last March, realizing that US forces would be minimized and internal political splits as prevalent as ever. The relationship between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (89 seats), Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya List (91), the Shia National Iraqi Alliance (70), and Coalition of Kurdistan Lists (52) makes an agreement possible at any time (163 seats are necessary to form a new government).

As each party vies to fill America's void, their relative equality also blocks the government's development six months after the election. State of Law and the National Iraqi Alliance’s merger left them four seats shy of the minimum and they still disagree on a new prime minister; their relationship is on hold. Iraqiya recently suspended negotiations with State of Law that would have breached the necessary threshold after al-Maliki portrayed Iraqiya as Sunni rather than inclusive. Meanwhile the National Iraqi Alliance, home of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is negotiating with both al-Maliki and Allawi. The Kurds have entrenched themselves to await the highest bidder.

With each side playing directly off the others, avoiding indefinite gridlock and the exclusion of one or two parties requires an improbable universal agreement. America possesses no magic bullet for this situation, but denial can exacerbate it.

Although US officials claim to be deeply involved with Iraqi leaders, which they surely are, the power vacuum has also become a scapegoat in Washington. Gibbs claimed that a six month negotiating phase was expected, implying that violence is acceptable and will drop once a government is formed. The assumption of a resolution by August’s end ignores how the present vacuum deflects blame from al-Qaeda. Rather than obstructing democracy, al-Qaeda is merely exploiting the same outcome that many Iraqis and US officials predicted.

Current ground conditions indicate that violence will persist through 2011, at the minimum; the insurgency may even return underground until the final 50,000 US troops withdraw. It’s also safe to conclude that Iraq's chronic instability jades US generals’ perception of Afghanistan. Petraeus doesn’t want to see his next surge slip away too, partially explaining his “conditions-based” notion of July 2011. Conversely, Obama is sticking to his Iraqi deadline as any delay threatens his credibility in Afghanistan.

But by staying true to part of the promise, Obama is unlikely to fulfill his promise as a whole. The combination of violence, political stalemate, and economic instability represents the full might of an insurgency, yet Operation New Dawn is increasingly counter-terroristic beneath its political veneer. “After August 31, 2010, the mission of United States forces in Iraq will fundamentally change,” reads the White House’s website. US forces “will have three tasks: train, equip, and advise the Iraqi Security Forces,” although a forth is subsequently listed for US Special Forces: “conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations.”

While an extension of US forces isn’t the answer and non-military operations will accompany them, Iraqi officials have repeatedly questioned whether Washington has flipped the withdrawal on autopilot as Afghanistan usurps priority. A charge US officials naturally deny, these grumblings have been muttered by all quarters including the military. Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leading National Iraqi Alliance member and prime minister candidate, recently said of Washington, “They are trying to find an outcome but maybe not in a well-prepared way. It should have been in a better studied way than it has been up to now.”

Obama sounds like he wants out when US and Iraqi military officials want in, a classic example of campaign promises battling military conditions.

This web leads to Obama’s pledge that he, “intends to keep our commitment under the Status of Forces Agreement to remove all of our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011,” a veiled admission that he would accept revision to the SOFA as Gates and Zebari indicate. A compromise, no matter what the White House says, is in the works. US-Iraqi military ties are set for the next decade and the State Department’s growing number of personnel and private contractors hint at military operations, in some form, past 2011. Looming conflict with Iran suggests that US forces have ulterior motives to extend their stay.

But while postponing the exit of US forces may solve the problem of training Iraqi forces, they would also spawn new military and political discord counterproductive to counterinsurgency.

Muqtada al-Sadr won’t be America’s only obstacle if US military forces extend their stay, but he is one of the most complex. Providing a vivid glimpse of the future to The Washington Post, Abu Mohmmed explained the Sadr militia’s strategy in the event that US forces don’t withdraw by December 2011. The caretaker of al-Sadr’s “martyr’s cemetery,” which entombs over 4,000 Iraqis, gestured to an empty, adjacent lot, saying “this will be our solution.” Sadr's militia is estimated between 30,000 and 60,000.

"If the Americans leave, which we don't think they will, we'll make it a burial site for our parents," Mohammed warned. "If their exit is delayed, we will fight and give our blood.”

US military officials wasted no time showing disregard for counterinsurgency, tagging al-Sadr’s militia as a danger to Iraq's security and U.S. troops while pledging cooperation with the Iraqi government to arrest militia members. Though al-Maliki is happy to dry up his competition, he’s also limited by the fact that the Sadrist Movement won 40 seats in the parliamentary election. He has no choice except to engage the legitimate political power of Muqtada al-Sadr, especially when Allawi is. US forces reveal no such concern.

Clearly America is worried of a Hezbollah clone in Iraq, but accepting al-Sadr and his movement into the political fold, like Sunni tribesmen, offers the most realistic chance of preventing this scenario. While al-Sadr evolves his fourth generation movement into a resilient network, the US military continues demonizing him with threats and petty tricks. Sheik Kadhim al-Saadi, a Sadrist sheik in Baghdad, explained, “The war is different now; it's intellectual, political, and we have a military wing.” Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, called al-Sadr’s cemetery - a physical location - "rhetoric" and "propaganda.”

Given Washington’s private and public opposition to al-Sadr’s legitimate power, the responsibility of Iraq’s drawdown is wide open to skepticism. These problems must be confronted head on. The last US combat troops have crossed into Kuwait, but they leave behind an uncertain political environment and a diverse insurgency with years of life in reserve. Yet the White House appears intent on denying Iraq’s conditions until no longer tenable.

Maybe honesty isn't considered part of responsibility.