November 30, 2010

Returned exiles offer Somalia its last chance

Naturally our diplomatic sources aren’t built up to international quality - yet. But eye witness accounts, military science, and logic provide a serviceable substitute. From The Independent:

A bureaucrat from Buffalo, a primary school teacher from Birmingham and the Oxford-educated brother of broadcaster Rageh Omaar. These are, respectively, Somalia's new Prime Minister, Women's Minister and Foreign Minister. And collectively they represent their country's last chance for a generation of piecing together a central government in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation.

Sounding like a politician anywhere else in the world, Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed talks of his first 100 days. Then he checks himself and changes that to 80 days, because "we don't have time to waste". Speaking in the favored political clichés of his adopted country, he says the new "team" is made up of "professionals and scholars" with the "energy to bring change".

Eight months from now, the mandate for the UN-backed transitional federal government (TFG) will run out. The international community warns that it is ready to give up on the administration unless clear progress is demonstrated. Diplomats admit that it will take "a miracle in Mogadishu" to turn things around and nobody is sure what might come next.

A walk through the wreck of the old parliament in central Mogadishu offers a warning to anyone who thinks they can make politics work in this divided country. Goats wander through the rubble of its hallways, while African Union soldiers are camped under canvas among its smashed walls. On the second floor is the amphitheater where MPs once sat. The roof has been blown away and a mural featuring a woman breaking chains above a crowd of Somali faces has been blasted to a faint outline by the sun.

Parliament now meets in the basement function room where the plastic chairs – in blue and white, to reflect the Somali flag – offer the only hint of a national purpose. To date, the internationally funded peace process has delivered a succession of expensive governments in exile, a boon for the five-star hotels of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and nothing for most Somalis.

Despite the reassuringly familiar accents of many of the new ministers, politics in Mogadishu is nothing like anywhere else. Government officials live as virtual prisoners in the compound of Villa Somalia – the city's presidential palace – traveling to meetings in the back of armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns. The vehicles reverse to the door of meeting rooms to shield their VIP cargo. Five Somali cabinet ministers have been killed in attacks by Islamic extremists, al-Shabaab, in the past year.

This is the world Dr Maryan Qasim has just stepped into. For the past eight years she has been working at a primary school in Birmingham. After less than a week back in her home city after an absence of more than 20 years, the softly spoken former doctor is struggling to adjust.
She speaks of the problems facing Somali immigrants in the UK before seeming to remember where she is now. "Everything has changed," she says. "After 20 years of civil war I could imagine what I would find but there is no word to define the suffering here."

Only a fortnight ago the telephone rang in her "nice house" in Britain's second city. It was the new Prime Minister's office asking her to come home. "My family begged me not to go," she admits.

She says she is still getting used to going to sleep to the sound of heavy weapons. The university where she earned her degree in the 1970s is now in ruins, stuffed with sandbags and razor wire for its new life as headquarters for the Burundi contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia force, Amisom. Like anyone else visiting the capital, the new Women's Minister sees no evidence of international support. "Where is Unicef?" she asks. In an effort to describe things in terms that would make sense in Britain, she says that Somalia needs its own "Sure Start" programme for families.

With the impeccable manners of a bygone era, the Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar concedes that the international community has supported past governments to little effect and that Somali politics has been sunk in a mire of corruption and infighting. But he insists "clean government" has arrived. He believes that the TFG can defeat al-Shabaab in the capital within four months and this will "provide proof positive of change."

The Prime Minister has been in the country less than a month and speaks as though he were a local party hack for the US Democrats. A little over a month ago he was still a commissioner for ethnic minority rights in Buffalo, New York. He says: "We need good government and reconciliation. Without them we are wasting time." Overflowing with his can-do attitude, he says: "We have energy and fresh ideas. A lot of people are buying that."

But not everyone. The decades-long bid to restore some measure of central government to Somalia has disappointed everyone involved. "We've heard it all before," says a senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "What these people have to demonstrate is that they can change lives of the people of Mogadishu. Posturing is not enough."

In the coming weeks, the UN Security Council will sanction the expansion of the Amisom force from 8,000 to 12,000 troops at international expense. A senior diplomat from one of the main donor countries says: "There will be no extension of the TFG's mandate if they fail. It's definitely over."

For its part, the government of expats is hoping its willingness to come to this war-torn city will prompt international agencies in cosy Somalia postings in Nairobi to follow suit. The UN said in July it would be returning to Mogadishu "within six weeks". But a suicide bombing followed and that timeline was quietly abandoned. The man who oversees the closest that Mogadishu has to a "green zone" is Ugandan Major-General Nathan Mugisha, head of the Amisom mission. He says the time has come for aid agencies to leave the comfort of Kenya and risk return. "There's no reason why the biggest shots shouldn't come here," he says. He points to the weekend visit by the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the first of its kind in two decades, as evidence of improved security. "The military has done its part," General Mugisha says. "We need them to come and fill the gaps."

The "plan B" for Somalia being discussed if the new cabinet of "outsiders" doesn't work boils down to recognising that parts of the country have continued to work despite anarchy in central and southern areas. The northern breakaway, Somaliland, is not internationally recognised but it carried out arguably the most successful African election this year. The semi-autonomous province of Puntland has fared better in the war against al-Shabaab.

A Western diplomat working with the new government says that some governments were already switching focus: "The new strategy will mean directing support to the parts of the country which work and containing the parts that don't." Optimism, like everything else in Somalia, is in short supply.

State Department Silent on Egypt

The U.S. reaction to Egypt's suspect parliamentary election is even weaker than we anticipated. Full briefing:

QUESTION: (Inaudible) election real quick? I know you issued a statement. You talked about the elections Cote d’Ivoire and Moldova and so on, but you didn’t address the Egyptian election today.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we did put out a statement yesterday.

QUESTION: Yeah, you issued a statement. My question to you is: How do you address these transgressions? I mean, you expressed your concern. There were a lot of, obviously, abuse of power, whatever you want to call it. How do you address these issues with a friendly government such as the Egyptian Government? What is your next step?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would only say – first of all, what’s important here is the relationship between the Egyptian Government and its own people. The people of Egypt want to see broader participation in their political process. It is up to the Egyptian Government to meet the needs and meet the desires of the Egyptian people. We will, as part of our ongoing dialogue with Egypt, continue, where we feel appropriate, to express our concerns about these kind of developments. We have recently in the discussion between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, and we will continue to raise our concerns where appropriate.

QUESTION: Will the United States leverage any of the aid that it gives to Egypt, for instance, so it will forgo its veto over the actions of civil society – the Government of Egypt?

MR. CROWLEY: (Inaudible) you’re – we have a commitment to a partnership with Egypt. These are not either/or circumstances. Our relationship with Egypt is multifaceted. But as you saw with yesterday’s statement, we will not hesitate to tell Egypt as a friend where we think their actions have fallen short of international standards.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: But the initial result shows that almost oppositions lost all seats or hardly made any, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you worry that them not being represented in the government, that might lead them now to become underground or go to more violent path?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we had a detailed statement that described our concerns about the election. We’ll continue to raise these concerns with the Government of Egypt.

QUESTION: Why did it take so long to get that statement out, 9 o’clock last night, and you were working on it like all – I mean was there --

MR. CROWLEY: I hear you.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that Muslim Brotherhoods lost elections?

QUESTION: I just said that.

MR. CROWLEY: Try again?

QUESTION: Are you concerned that --

MR. CROWLEY: I just answered that question.

QUESTION: Sorry. I didn’t hear.

QUESTION: Can you confirm the meeting in Washington next week between Japan and South Korea?

MR. CROWLEY: Stay tuned. We’ll have more to say about that probably tomorrow.

WikiLeaks Update

November 29, 2010

In Yemen, a WikiLeaks Whiskey Controversy

The leaked rendezvous between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and U.S. General David Petraeus has made a mockery of U.S. counterinsurgency, particularly these U.S. officials. Don’t drink and drone:
The WikiLeaks revelation making the rounds in the Yemeni capital Sana'a is the one where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an apparently jovial conversation with U.S. General David Petraeus, offers to lie to his countrymen about the perpetrators of drone strikes in the Yemeni countryside. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said at the January meeting, according to a cable sent by the American ambassador at the time, Stephen Seche. The cable also reports that Saleh complained of drugs and weapons smuggling from Djibouti across the Red Sea, but stated he was content to have whiskey bootlegged in, "provided it's good whiskey."

The consensus seems to be that the President is more likely to be hurt by his flippant quote about whiskey smuggling than his discussion about covering up U.S. drone attacks against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on Yemeni soil. First, because whiskey, like all alcoholic beverages, is forbidden by Islam; and, secondly, because most Yemenis have long since assumed that the U.S. has a direct role in counter-terrorism efforts in their country than Saleh's government was letting on.

That U.S. drones are abuzz over parts of the country "is well known to al-Qaeda and to the tribes that shelter them," says Mohammed Aish, a researcher on extremist groups in Yemen.

Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the independent Yemen Times, says Saleh's critics among the country's elite — herself included — may consider using the drone-related diplomatic cable to mount some sort of legal action against the President, but she doesn't hold out much hope that it will damage him. To the majority of Yemenis, she says, "it will make no difference whatsoever."

But the notion of their President making jokes about booze will anger many more people, al-Sakkaf said. The Islamist opposition Islah party will likely use it as a political stick to beat him. And it will dent the reputation for righteousness Saleh has been trying to cultivate in recent years — by praying more publicly, making a much-publicized hajj pilgrimage, and building a giant mosque in Sana'a. Businessman Haitham al-Anmi, who is a strong backer of the President (and the son of a former Prime Minister), agrees that many Yemenis will be offended by the whiskey quote. "People don't like to think of their President associated with alcohol," he says.

Still, the fact that most Yemenis already know that the U.S. conducts drone strikes in their country doesn't mean they like it. The cable revelation simply adds to the resentment against U.S. meddling. After the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing over Detroit (the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, admitted to training in Yemen), Washington started equipping and training Yemeni counter-terrorism forces. In June, Amnesty International released photographs of what it said was the remains of a U.S.-made cruise missile used in a December strike against a suspected al-Qaeda base in Abyan, an arid province in south Yemen; the attack killed 50 civilians. "These operations widen the circle of people who hate the U.S. and anyone affected by these strikes will be prone to sympathizing with al-Qaeda, not because they like the group but due to the common enemy," says human rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi.

Sana'a has repeatedly denied direct U.S. operations fearing just such a backlash. Shoqi al-Qadha, a member of parliament from the main opposition party, Islah, says confirmed American military action in Yemen will rouse anger because it validates as fact the killing of Yemenis by the U.S. Any direct action from the U.S., he says, "draws people to violence." Indeed, AQAP is unlikely to let either drones or whiskey pass as just jokes. "Al-Qaeda will use anything they can get their hands on to get people to see Saleh as a puppet of the West," says Ahmed al Zurqa, an expert of the terrorist group established in January 2009.

As for the willingness of the government to lie, well, that is no surprise to people who follow local politicians. Qadha says he certainly wasn't shocked by the another leaked cable that had Yemen's deputy prime minister joking that he too had lied to parliament about U.S. strikes. "With regard to the deputy prime minister lying to parliament," Qadha sighs, "this is something we have gotten used to here."

Somalia: Museveni’s Version of War and Peace

For three hours on Sunday, war-ravaged Somalia felt like a new world. Less than 24 hours earlier, parliament had approved Prime Minister Mohammed Abdulahi Mohammed’s new cabinet by a healthy margin, one week after shutting down during the first ratification. The new cabinet is considered the best in recent memory and the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) existence may be riding on its abilities.

"We will focus on securing agreement on a constitution and arrangements to form a government to succeed the transitional government within three months to come, whose mandate is due to expire in August 2011," said Prime Minister Abdullahi last week.

But something even more immediate may hinge on the TFG’s palatability towards Western donors. Soon after parliament adjourned, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni found himself on the tarmac at Aden Abdulle International Airport in Mogadishu for the first time since 1992. Driven to the Ugandan command center at Halane Base Camp around 1 PM, Museveni held private meetings with his commanders, toured the camp and its hospital, rallied the ground troops - and displayed his COIN speak by ordering them to respect civilians’ and their property.

“I am very happy that the people of Somalia now have a new cabinet and are united,” Museveni added.

TFG officials responded with enthusiastic gratitude after holding closed door talks, as they should. Villa Somalia may not last long without its Ugandan muscle. Somali President Sheikh Sharid Ahmed would tell Museveni, “This is a great honor and opportunity for us. We are honored by your visit.”

Visibly on his game, Museveni has attempted to supercharge the TFG and its African Union (AU) shield during a critical phase in their war against al-Shabab. He was gone by 4:30, a whirlwind of activity designed for maximum effect. The first foreign head of state to visit Somalia in 21 years wanted to make an impression to all audiences - his troops and people, TFG officials, average Somalis, and al-Shabab.

“No body here in their wildest dreams could have imagined what has just happened,’ said UPDF contingent spokesperson, Cpt. Chris Magezi, “The President’s visit is a massive show of solidarity with the people of Somalia and the work the peacekeepers are doing in Mogadishu. It has not been easy.”

Magezi described Museveni’s surprise as a miracle.

Yet the real miracle will only occur when he actually stabilizes Somalia from its current imbalance. Museveni delivered the supreme performance for a head of state - bearing peace in one hand and war in the other. Museveni toured with eyes wide, probing for whether the TFG’s new cabinet is up to his task. Empowering peace aside, his talks with Sharif and Mohamad boil down to one final question: how many AU troops will be arriving?

No price is too high for Museveni, who has repeatedly demanded an increase from 7,000 to 20,000 since the July bombings in his capital. Having wished to boost his forces prior to the attacks, Museveni easily leveraged the UN to remove the AU’s troop cap and has tempted Western donors into funding an extensive campaign. The regional body of IGAD approved up to 20,000 troops during last week’s summit in Ethiopia. Asked how many troops he’s willing to deploy while touring Mogadishu, Museveni responded “any number if asked to do so."

“Uganda is a country of 33 million people,” Museveni explained. “If there was a war we would be able to mobilize three million people. Raising troops for Somalia would not be a problem at all.”

However this may be a problem for Somalia.

While Somalis are undoubtedly exhausted of both TFG and al-Shabab’s rule, conditions remain unprepared for a massive influx of AU troops. Additional support may all the more necessary as the TFG attempts to evolve into a new form, but will be relatively useless if the TFG cannot make efficient use of it. For now the government and its Ethiopian support (proxied through Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna) continue to battle for Somali’s central region, with each group unable to permanently expel the other.

Sufficient forces shouldn’t be deployed throughout al-Shabab’s territory; Somalia must be reclaimed piece by piece, not in one wide sweep. TFG and Ethiopian troops are gnawing away at al-Shabab’s western border in preparation for a nation-wide offensive, a sound theory that depends on the shakier question of whether the AU can push al-Shabab out of Mogadishu. The capital could absorb 15,000 troops by itself, considering the city’s urban buildup and how little territory 7,000 troops have managed to gain.

Governments often make the mistake of believing itself to be popular just because the insurgents aren’t, and Somalis who loathe al-Shabab will be just as quick to blame the government for clearing territory it can’t hold.

Although Museveni’s hawkish cries have generated a large degree of skepticism outside of the AU, there’s still truth in his position. AU officials are justifiably agitated by criticism that foreign forces should leave Somalia, as their last line of defense prevents the country from descending into a worse-case scenario. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda would be more affected by insecurity and refugees than they already are.

And too many resources remain frozen in the international community’s endless battle against pirates.

“They don’t take the Somali problem seriously,” said Museveni. “They are busy enjoying themselves in the ocean, having a nice time in the ocean. Do you know how much money they send in the ocean? The pirates who go to the ocean to steal from ships come from land. Have you heard that Somalis have become aquatic?”

But Museveni isn’t simply reaching a logical conclusion - he wants that money for his own troops. Western dollars fund by the TFG’s paychecks and the AU’s salary, and as eager as he is to fill Somalia's void with his troops, Museveni isn’t willing to pay for them. Numerous Ugandan officials have openly declared that they’re waiting for the cash and will deploy soon after. Museveni is criticizing the West through piracy, tired of Washington’s hesitation over backing the TFG and thus his own strategy.

According to diplomatic sources, the White House prefers a new government before committing to any significant offensive. This halfway policy is said to be grinding on those actors invested in escalating the war - and clearly on Museveni. Unfortunately halfway policies, however tempered by rational observation, often lead to stalemate.

America and Europe need a stable government to confidently deploy more troops, as they’re under criticism for ignoring the TFG’s ineptitude. Museveni needs more troops so that his contingent making up two-thirds of the AU force aren’t indefinitely lost in Somalia. Each policy must connect at the middle - the TFG - or else both are doomed.

Perhaps Museveni believes that war leads to peace. It might. It could also entrench Somalia’s perpetual stalemate and alienate those who still retain hope in the TFG and AU. The choice is admittedly tough, but it must be determined on reason and not self-interest. And it’s in few people’s interest to saturate the country with foreign troops until the TFG proves itself first.

Going by credit will put Somalia in a deeper hole.

Quote of the Day

“There is no concept of fake Taliban in Afghanistan. There is only one movement of the Taliban which is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Amarat-e-Islamia led by Mullah Omar.”

- Abu Muhammad Almukhlis, chief of the Taliban Paktia Shura and purported head of the Taliban intelligence wing

U.S.'s Watery Criticism of Egypt

As more video surfaces of state-enforced beatings in Egypt, U.S. concerns have gone predictably mute, especially after sensitivity generated by the latest WikiLeaks. The State Department had no prepared remark during its press briefing and later released the following statements. From Forbes:
The Obama administration on Monday raised serious questions about the fairness of Egypt's weekend parliamentary elections, saying it was disappointed by widespread reports of irregularities that cast doubt on the credibility of the polls in the strong U.S. ally.

The State Department said it had closely followed the campaign and Sunday's polling and was concerned by arrests and intimidation of opposition supporters, denial of media access to opposition candidates and Egypt's refusal to allow international monitors to observe the vote.

"These irregularities call into question the fairness and transparency of the process," spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.

Earlier Monday, protesters set fire to cars, tires and two polling stations and clashed with police firing tear gas in riots over allegations that Egypt's ruling party committed widespread fraud to sweep the elections. Though official results are not due until Tuesday, opposition supporters around the country took to the streets in anger after hearing word their favorites lost amid allegations of massive vote-rigging.

Egypt is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and receives billions of dollars a year in U.S. assistance. It is also a major player in now-stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, an important foreign policy initiative for President Barack Obama who delivered a major speech on U.S. relations with the Muslim world in Cairo last year.

Crowley said that despite its concerns, the United States wanted to work with the Egyptian government and civic groups "to help them achieve their political, social and economic aspirations."

Early indications are that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's main opposition, has been shut out of parliament, reduced to zero seats from the 88 seats won in 2005. 27 candidates face a runoff.

In a positive sign of things to come, the rest of Egypt's opposition has criticized the election's results and could drive their cause into the international spotlight, where America would be forced to speak.

November 28, 2010

Cairo Needs U.S. Reality Check

As observed last Monday, the Egyptian opposition shouldn’t be waiting for a response from Washington. The U.S. government employs selective democracy to further its foreign interests and too many policies hinge on an accommodating Cairo, namely containment of Iran and perpetuating the status quo in the Palestinian territories.

Thanksgiving week passed quietly in the State Department.

But Egyptians opposed to the Mubarak regime aren’t helping their cause either. The lackadaisical response to pre-election violence and fraud suggests that Egypt’s opposition might not rise up in mold of Iran’s “Green Movement.” There will be no tidal-wave of Twittering, although the opposition may yet protest the results or attempt to shut down parts of the country.

Many Egyptians haven’t exploited the opportunity to pressure the White House into an Iranian-type response, and voter turnout is thought to be lower than the 25% in 2005. Of course this is hardly their fault. At the macro level, political and religious dissenters are dealt with swiftly through overwhelming force. Political marginalization and apathy after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak runs high.

And on the streets, a heavy security presence around polling stations was reportedly amplified by groups of young men scaring opposition voters away.

As is often the case in suspect elections, the government has staked out a version of reality in direct conflict with the rest of the field. Multiple news organizations and human fights groups reported that independent monitors and candidate representatives were barred entry from polling stations, often leaving government officials in control. News sources and NGOs were further restricted in their own access.

The Associated Press claims that “violations appeared to take place openly,” including ballot stuffing and vote buying (current price: $9).

And the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has been shut down to the best of the government’s ability. In addition to the 1,400+ members and dozens of officials arrested prior to the election, the group alleged that many supporters were denied their vote and that government forces shut down friendly polling stations. Some of their “independent” candidates were beaten and denied medical treatment - or locked inside a hospital.

Scattered fights were reported in many districts.

“They’re not letting our people in to vote,” Mohsen Rady, a Brotherhood lawmaker, said outside a polling station in Banha, an hour outside the capital. “They only get in when I’m here, and the second I leave they start shutting people out again.”

Going in for the kill, the Brotherhood’s websites went offline at 8 a.m. on Sunday and remained down all day. “This is an enormous farce,” said Ahmed Abu Baraka, a spokesman for the Brotherhood. “The previous election at least had the appearance of an election. This election doesn’t even look like an election.”

Washington would be all over this mess in Iran.

There’s no doubting an unavoidable response from the State Department on Monday. If Egyptians are lucky President Barack Obama will address their situation. But that could be all they’ll get. At a press conference after polls closed, Egyptian election commission spokesman Sameh el-Kashef described the roll-call of allegations as "not worthy of comment."

Fraud and violence may not reach the level cataloged by its opposition, but the overt denial of this statement demonstrates the Egyptian government’s need for a wake up call. Cairo pushed back hard when U.S. officials initially requested an international monitoring system, and a weak request at that. Getting a future message through will take far more muscle, but Mubarak needs some tough love right now.

Too bad Washington has no reason to act. Democracy isn’t enough.

Quote of the Day

"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."

- Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during a January meeting with U.S. General David Petraeus

Syed Geelani Interview: No Killing Azadi

He is described as Pakistan's biggest asset in Kashmir. Not all Kashmiris agree with the role that Syed Ali Shah Geelani has played in Kashmir's turmoil, but they are united in saying that unlike other political leaders of the Valley, he is not a “sell-out” to India. He also came out against Pakistan for “diluting” its stand on Kashmir under General Pervez Musharraf. The hawkish views of the separatist 84-year-old, who heads his own Hurriyat Conference faction, had once marginalised him in Kashmir. But he is back in the limelight after assuming the leadership of the latest agitation in the Valley. Excerpts of an interview, by Nirupama Subramanian, with him at his Srinagar home, where he is presently under house arrest.

Hasn't the steam gone out of your ‘tehreek' (movement) of the last five months. Many Kashmiris are asking what was the point of it — more than a 100 people dead, the economy disrupted, schools closed. What did they get out of it?

It is your ignorance that makes you say it was a five-month movement. This movement has been going on since 1947. It has phases, its ups and downs, it changes faces, but it has been going on since India seized this place by force, without any moral justification or legal sanctity, and the majority of the people of Jammu & Kashmir are against that.

But your strike calls are eliciting hardly any response and people are now criticising you, saying they cannot sustain these protests …

First correct your impression that this is a five-month movement [recounts the history from 1947 up to the 2009 protests]. Now you are seeing for the last five months that people are saying ‘Go India, Go Back.' The movement was peaceful. It was an indigenous movement.

Among the 112 people who were killed mercilessly, most were teenagers. More than 3,000 people were injured, many lost their eyes, several had broken arms and legs, and then the jails were filled. Those who were organising the movement, from the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, and particularly our party, Tehreek Hurriyat Freedom Movement, were jailed. Even the Bar Association president and the general secretary are behind bars.

So is it because of these arrests, especially the arrest of Masarat Alam [leader of the Muslim League, a constituent of the Hurriyat (Geelani faction)] that the protests have weakened?

No, the arrests have not made any difference. The difference is that the killings have stopped. People's sentiments boil over when there are killings and they come out on the streets. And the government used all its resources to harm this movement. In our view, this movement is still on. India can never kill the sentiment that has always prevailed among the people …

And this sentiment is for azadi, right?

The sentiment is for freedom from India's forcible occupation.

Azadi is commonly taken to mean independence from both India and Pakistan. You have assumed the leadership of this movement, but your position has always been that of accession to Pakistan. Has this changed by any chance?

Look, at this stage, our common point is freedom from India's forcible occupation. We will decide after that what we have to do. Our demand is implementation of the [U.N.] resolutions. Our other demand is consensus — that India, Pakistan and the representatives of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who are representing the sentiment of freedom, that these parties sit around the table. The solution that will come through consensus, that should prevail.

How long are you going to be putting out these protest calendars? When will you stop? When will the protests end?

These calendars are issued after consultations at a meeting of the executive committee of the Hurriyat (G). We take into account the realities on the ground and the feedback from the people. We cannot say at this time when we will stop issuing the protest calendars. It all depends on the ground situation. We will review the calendar when the government of India accepts our five-point programme.

About your demand that the government must accept that Kashmir is a disputed territory, do you really expect a government to amend the Constitution in order to begin talks with you? Don't you see that the willingness of the government to talk to you is by itself a tacit acceptance that there is a dispute, without saying so in as many words?

(Laughs) Do you know how many times there have been talks until date? From March 23, 1952, there have been 150 rounds of talks — between India and Pakistan, New Delhi and Srinagar [reels off the titles of each round]. But you too cannot say that from these talks, there has been any progress on the Kashmir issue.

The reason is India says on the one hand we will have a dialogue, and on the other, it says J&K is an integral part of India. No solution has come out of that position until now, nor will it in the future.

It is said that you remain the biggest obstacle to a resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Either this is your personal view (laughs) or you have been told this by people who do not wish for a resolution of the dispute. Let me tell you, I am a person who is wholeheartedly wishing and hoping that the J&K dispute is resolved — according to its historical background and the sacrifices that the people have given for the cause, by peaceful and democratic means, according to the wishes of the majority of the people of J&K.

I have spent 15 years in Indian jails. I've been attacked more than a dozen times by Indian forces to eliminate me physically. I am not given even the passport facility. I have suffered much because of the J&K issue. How is possible that I am not interested in its resolution?

India is suffering from arrogance of power and is using an imperialistic attitude in J&K disputed territory. These are the bottlenecks in the way of a permanent resolution, not Geelani.

Even in the Hurriyat Conference, there are leaders who believe that India deliberately seems to do things that strengthen your hands in order to defame the movement — to declare that this Geelani, who wants Kashmir to join Pakistan, is the face of this movement.

Doesn't this only show that India is the basic bottleneck in the permanent resolution of the Kashmir issue?

We demand the right to self-determination. India took the case to the United Nations Security Council. In total, 18 resolutions have been passed. All those resolutions have been signed and admitted by the Indian government. [India promised] to fulfil those commitments.

“I am not in favour of forced unity, I am not in favour of forced marriages.” Jawaharlal Nehru's words. If Geelani is saying that those commitments and pledges should be fulfilled, and India should co-operate for the implementation of the resolutions, then what is wrong?

On these resolutions, a plebiscite would give people only two options: India or Pakistan. From what I have heard here, Pakistan holds no attraction at all for anyone any more. So aren't you a bit behind the times on this?

Have you heard anyone saying we are not for Pakistan but we are for India? If you rule out Pakistan, and India agrees to give azadi to J&K, I will be the first person to sign that agreement, to accept. Let India come forward. This is all [said] to create confusion, that Geelani is only for Pakistan.

The interlocutors [appointed by the Centre to restart the dialogue process in Kashmir] have said azadi can be interpreted in different ways, maybe some people may not mean it as total freedom, but may interpret it as greater autonomy, more powers …

We will not accept that, the majority of the people will not accept that.

Why did you reject Musharraf's four-point formula? Is it not true that the India-Pakistan dialogue of those years yielded several benefits for Kashmiri people?

That was all about preserving the status quo. Starting a bus service, or trade between the two sides of Kashmir does not matter to a people who [are] caught in a huge quagmire. For them, the first priority is that they should be free.

At that time you said Kashmiris must help themselves as Pakistan had betrayed their cause by diluting its stand on Kashmir. Has your view changed now?

You are ignoring the background. Musharraf said that we are trying to find a solution outside of the [U.N.] resolutions. That was taking us only towards the status quo, there was nothing new in it for us. On this basis, we opposed that. Today Pakistan is saying we support the people of Kashmir politically, diplomatically and morally. Don't you see the difference between Musharraf's attitude and what [the present] government is saying?

There are concerns that you and some of your colleagues in the Hurriyat, such as Masarat Alam, are contributing to the radicalisation of the Kashmiris, giving the movement an Islamist colour, that Islamist elements are gaining dominance, which does not augur well for Kashmir in the future …

This is also a baseless allegation and assessment. We are Muslims, and will never bypass our faith as far as Islam is concerned. We are facing the worst kind of state terrorism, but we are not radical, we are peaceful people, we have no guns in our hands, no bombs, no teargas shells … These people who are using the state terrorism, they want to hide their heinous tactics, so they blame that there are radical elements.

What was the justification for America to attack Afghanistan on October 6, 2001?

What was the justification for America and Britain to attack Iraq on March 23, 2003? You people are not calling them terrorists or radicals.

Don't you contradict yourself on America? On the one hand you are against all American interventions anywhere in the world, but when President Obama comes to India and you are appealing to him to save Kashmir from India.

No, we don't want [American intervention] here. What we want is that any world leader who comes should support our cause. It does not mean that we support American actions or policies from A to Z. I have myself told American diplomats in Delhi that [they are perpetrating] the worst kind of state terrorism in Afghanistan, that there was no justification to attack Afghanistan. If the person who attacks Afghanistan says that J&K is a long standing dispute, then he is speaking our language, right? On that basis, how can we say to him no, that we will reject this too.

That sounds opportunistic …

No, it's not opportunistic. This is for our cause.

You call India a repressive state, on the other you go to Delhi, hold seminars and conferences, meet people freely, including at the Pakistan High Commission. Don't you at least appreciate that in the same India you can do all this?

(Laughs) We are also attacked, beaten. We are all the time under surveillance. Yes, I go to Delhi, but India also has the power to lock me up anytime they wish. I have been almost 73 days under house arrest.

I was not allowed to read either the Eid namaz or the Friday namaz. So you want me to praise this democracy?

Taliban Impostor Perfect for Pentagon’s Shadow Game

As the finger pointing spreads between Afghan and NATO circles, opposing conclusions have been drawn from the debacle over an alleged Taliban official now revealed as a fraud.

Believing negotiations with the Taliban to be a waste of time, those in favor of pursuing the war think U.S. forces should hit the Taliban harder than ever - and slacken rules of engagement designed to minimize civilian casualties. Those opposed to the war see the Taliban impostor as one more black mark on the Obama administration’s strategy, which has degenerated into military predominance to nullify July 2011 as a significant withdrawal date. The second line of thinking has ridiculed the White House and Pentagon for being duped.

But despite the murky waters, evidence suggests that Washington knew what it was doing all along. It’s more likely that those publics caught in the propaganda of their governments are the real losers of this game.

What exactly occurred within these “negotiations” remains unknown, and thus difficult to piece together, but a general picture has emerged since the news broke on Tuesday. A large piece was revealed by Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), in an interview with The Observer. According to Saleh, a man named Muhammad Aminullah contacted the NDS in 2008 bearing a letter from Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a Taliban official within Mullah Omar’s inner circle.

Saleh says his department grew "very suspicious” after Aminullah, a purported Taliban commander in Kandahar, failed a series of information tests, and eventually “lost track of him.”

Aminullah later approached Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar in 2009 and was “enthusiastically embraced” by Kabul, which had its own reasons to foster an image of successful negotiations. Still presiding over the war at the time, General Stanley McChrystal supposedly signed off on London’s plan to negotiate, as U.S. officials are theoretically barred from speaking with "terrorists." Afghan and UK officials disagree over the sequence of events, with each saying the other introduced the agent.

"I tried time and again to convince my colleagues in the ministry and subsequently at the palace that he is not a genuine representative of anybody," said Saleh, who was terminated after controversy over a security lapse at August’s peace conference in Kabul. "I am not criticizing anyone personally, I enormously respect Minister Atmar, but there has to be proper system of government. They should have respected the views of the intelligence community."

At this point everyone involved appeared to realize that something was wrong, and the subsequent cover up indicates that security lapses indeed occurred. Once Aminullah linked up “Mansour” with the NDS, officials immediately grew suspicious during a meeting on the Afghan-Pakistani border. "Mansour" was supposedly refused entry. Now a battle has broken out over whether he ever made it to Kabul, and how far he got inside the government.

In an interview with The Washington Post, President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, said the British flew in “Mansour” to meet with Karzai in July or August. Daudzai also explained that one official at the meeting revealed the man as an impostor. Salah confirmed this account, saying, "I have to say taking him to the president was the biggest mistake. That shows lack of insulation around the top leadership of this country."

Possibly in damage control, the NDS released a statement on Saturday claiming that “Mansour” never visited the presidential palace. Believing such a claim is difficult enough after Saleh’s inside account, which garnered more reservations after U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen joined in on the denial. Mullen told CNN’s Fareed Zarakia that “Mansour” never reached Kabul - “as far as I know.”

"There were very early initial suspicions,” Mullen insisted. “And it took a little while to verify who he was or who he wasn't. And, in fact, it turns out that he wasn't the guy that he was claiming he should be.”

The ultimate question, then, is why these talks proceeded at all. Saleh’s initial outreach makes sense; his job as director of the NDS is to acquire intelligence on the enemy. “Mansour” offered the prospect of feeling out the Taliban leadership without a high degree of risk, as Aminullah was quickly discarded. But alarms should have gone off at every subsequent stage of the process, from the Interior Ministry’s immediate contact to vetting with NATO officials, all the way up to Karzai’s inner circle.

Or maybe everyone was alert to the scam.

One U.S. official told The Washington Post, "The agency expressed skepticism early on that this was Mullah Mansour. There was very healthy skepticism." If so, the question narrows to why high-level negotiations that never existed continued to be trumpeted by Afghan and NATO officials. The answer seems crystal clear despite the shadows obscuring it.

As Saleh explains of Karzai’s push for Taliban reconciliation, Kabul needed to create an image of progress to sell its Afghanistan Peace Council. Saleh believes, "This became so exciting that even certain figures were thinking of either an Afghan Dayton agreement or Good Friday agreement for Afghanistan. It shows the desperation of the leadership in Kabul, detachment from the reality and lack of sophistication on the most sensitive issues."

But with the Pentagon and NATO’s main strategy centered on “shock and awe” tactics to coerce the Taliban into negotiating, they too needed someone to give the appearance of reconciliation. “Mansour” would be perfect because he demanded nothing (no withdrawal of foreign forces), wasn’t truly connected to the Taliban, and hence posed no threat to negotiate with. $500,000 isn’t a steal on Mansour’s part (or whoever he was working for).

It’s a bargain to the Pentagon and NATO, desperate as they are for proof that their military surge is driving the Taliban to surrender. Or at least panic.

The Pentagon has already exploited its "successful" military operations to reduce July 2011 to a minor date along the way to 2014. Gareth Porter, a notable investigative journalist, highlighted General David Petraeus’s media campaign in his latest analysis to IPS. Listing samples from August, September, and October, Porter documents Petraeus’s cautious optimism that he's beginning to peel off factions of the Taliban army with massive firepower.

But while he concludes, along with many anti-war figures, that “an overeager Petraeus ignored the danger signs,” the astute Porter is more likely playing coy. Petraeus harbors no actual belief that the Taliban leadership intends to negotiate, content with the image of pseudo-negotiations. And not a very good one at that.

"Again, I don't there's an expectation that [Taliban spiritual leader] Mullah Omar is going to charter a plane any time soon to sit down and discuss the Taliban laying down weapons en masse. However, there are certainly leaders out there who we believe are willing to do that."

Petraeus even claims he wasn’t surprised by “Mansour’s” duplicity, saying, "It may well be that that skepticism was well-founded.” This sounds like his plan all along.

Yet the illusion isn’t confined to the US, NATO, and Afghan publics. As with many misunderstood devices, the total effect of faux negotiations cannot be controlled or accounted for, and Washington and Kabul’s shadow games are creeping up behind them. The exposure of “Mansour” does fall into the anti-war victory column. Another reason to leave sooner than later - proof that the Taliban won’t negotiate until they’re out of cards to play.

Only this reality has been admitted to by none other than the Pentagon.

In between positive assessments of Taliban negotiations, Petraeus has contradicted his former message - “we cannot kill our way to victory” - by planning to do just that. And according to Mullen, "We need to do that (push for reconciliation) from a strong position and we're just not there right now. And the Taliban don't think they're losing and the likelihood that they're going to take any significant steps with respect to reconciliation, I think, is low."

What happened to the Taliban's momentum being broken? America isn’t winning now?

Reading between their lines, Petraeus and Mullen have accurately gauged Taliban’s current position. It’s impossible for NATO’s uninterrupted barrage to cause no damage whatsoever, and indications of the Taliban’s exhaustion recently surfaced when a group of 17 commanders returned to Pakistan seeking temporary relief. Meeting with Abdul Qayum Zakir, a senior military commander, in Quetta, four Taliban officials briefed Newsweek about the ensuing conversation.

“We have lost many friends and commanders,” one commander told Zakir, says Mullah Salam Khan, a mid-level commander in Helmand province who was briefed on the meeting. “We are tired and want to take a rest.”

According to Khan, Zakir sympathized with their plight but said he needed them to maintain a harassing presence in their areas, to keep up appearances. Though weary, the commanders “promised to do what they could.” One official admitted that many skilled commanders have been lost, creating some fear among the lower ranks, but claimed that experienced soldiers are filling the gaps.

“The commanders told Zakir they were angry about all these rumors they hear about peace talks," he said. "They made it clear they just want a rest, not peace. They are still committed to the fight.”

By blurring July 2011 into the end of 2014, likely longer given the asterisk attached to “transferring authority,” Washington and its NATO allies commenced a policy of “shock and awe” on both the Taliban and international community. But with “Mansour’s” outing and the Pentagon’s lack of concern, U.S. strategy degrades into waiting out the Taliban in their own land.

And if the US and NATO publics continue to tolerate such a strategy, Afghanistan will make dupes of us all.

November 26, 2010

Marines Step Up Attack in Sangin, Deny Civilian Casualties

Account of the next "last Taliban stronghold" in Helmand province. From The Associated Press:

SANGIN, Afghanistan (AP) — Locals in this southern Afghan valley have accused U.S. Marines of regularly killing civilians since they launched an aggressive campaign against the Taliban here over a month ago — claims the Marines say are untrue and fueled by insurgent propaganda.

But the Marines acknowledge that unless they can change people's minds, they stand little chance of winning the local support necessary to tame a key area of Afghanistan that has been the deadliest place for coalition troops this year.

The dilemma highlights the difficulty of waging war in Afghanistan. If troops use too little force, they may be ineffective in fighting the Taliban. If they use too much, they increase the risk of causing civilian casualties — or being blamed for them by villagers already wary of the foreigners in their midst.

The Marines in Helmand province's Sangin district are taking the fight to enemy, using a strategy that relies heavily on airstrikes, mortars and intense gunbattles. They are trying to dislodge well-entrenched insurgents who survived four years of fighting with British troops who recently left.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians have been killed in Sangin over the years in fighting between the Taliban and coalition forces, leaving the Marines needing to show their operations are not doing the same. But carrying out damage assessments in such a dangerous environment can be very difficult, meaning the truth is hard to come by.

While villagers frequently claim innocent civilians have been killed, the U.S. considered just one of the allegations credible enough to warrant an official investigation, said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment that arrived in Sangin in October.

The inquiry was conducted with government representatives and determined the Marines were not at fault, he said.

"Since we have been here, there have been civilians wounded in the crossfire, but as far as I know, every single instance has been caused by Taliban firing," said Morris. "The number one tool the Taliban have to politically and strategically hamper our operations is to accuse us of civilian casualties."

The Taliban were responsible for more than 70 percent of civilian deaths from conflict throughout Afghanistan during the first six months of 2010, a total of more than 900 people, according to the United Nations. Foreign and Afghan government forces were responsible for 18 percent, or 223 deaths — down slightly from 2009.

The former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued strict guidelines last year limiting the use of force in an effort to reduce civilian casualties. Afghan President Hamid Karzai also has called on coalition forces to do more to protect civilians.

The Marines must positively identify someone engaged in a "hostile act" or showing "hostile intent" and assess potential collateral damage before firing, said Morris. The assessment can be more complicated when insurgents fire from compounds that may contain civilians — a common occurrence in Sangin. Morris said the guidelines for returning fire or carrying out an airstrike in that case are classified because the Taliban could use the information to avoid retaliatory coalition attacks.

Airstrikes were the single largest cause of civilian deaths by foreign and Afghan government forces during the first half of 2010, accounting for 31 percent, said the U.N.

The Marines in Sangin have tried to counter civilian casualty allegations by broadcasting over local radio details of who they and the Taliban have killed or wounded, said Morris. But the Marines ability to influence public opinion pales in comparison to the Taliban.

"They will send people down to the bazaar to say, 'Have you heard what's going on in X,Y,Z places? It's terrible,'" said Phil Weatherill, a British government adviser who has worked in Sangin since 2009. "It just needs one flicker and it will spread like wildfire."

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has also urged his fighters to try to avoid killing innocent civilians. Many of the crude roadside bombs the insurgents rely on to target NATO or Afghan forces kill ordinary citizens instead.

"Pay attention to the life and property of civilians so that ... your jihad activities will not become a cause for destruction of property and loss of life of people," Omar said in a message e-mailed to the media last week.

The Marines have tried to sway public opinion by increasing the number of development projects in Sangin. But they have discovered that better roads and new flood walls may do little good if locals believe the Marines are killing civilians.

"The people say we don't need any help, just stop injuring and killing our civilians," Mira Jan Aka, a village elder from central Sangin, said during a recent meeting with the Marines.

Aka was one of several elders who spent most of the weekly session complaining about Marines killing civilians.

"It's clear the Marines can kill Taliban, so why are they making mistakes and killing civilians by dropping bombs on their compounds?" said Haji Gul Mohammad, an elder from northern Sangin.

The Marines dismissed the cries of the elders, many of whom they believe are sent by the Taliban to deliver a message the insurgents hope will hinder military operations. As proof, they point out that none of the elders have been targeted by the Taliban for meeting with the Marines even though the insurgents threaten locals with death if they go near the base.

But locals who don't show up at the base have also complained about Marines killing civilians.

Tuma Khan, a landowner from central Sangin, complained to Marines during a recent patrol that they shot and killed one of his farmers who was working in the field. The Marines said the man was planting a homemade bomb in the ground.

Mullah Abdul Wali, another landowner from Sangin who recently fled with his family to Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, complained that aggressive attacks by the Marines have killed dozens of civilians.

"The foreign troops should leave Sangin," said Wali. "They are bringing disaster to the area."

Around 40 people burned tires in Sangin's main bazaar to protest civilian casualties several weeks ago, but the Marines and the district governor, Mohammad Sharif, said they suspect the Taliban had engineered the demonstration.

The district governor may face the biggest challenge in dealing with accusations of civilian casualties. Even though he believes many of the allegations are manufactured by the Taliban, he risks looking like a U.S. puppet when he pushes back.

"I have told Lt. Col. Morris that he should talk to his Marines because sometimes they don't have good behavior with the people," Sharif told the elders who were complaining about civilian casualties. "They should protect civilians and destroy the enemy."

Morris insisted the Marines are — and said it is up to locals to prove otherwise.

"We tell everyone that if there are civilian casualties or damage to property, come to the nearest patrol base," said Morris. "But I have not seen one elder bring any bodies or offer to bring us to any compound where there have been civilian casualties."

Sangin, an ancient Taliban stomping ground, is likely to take even longer to clear and hold than Marjah.

November 25, 2010

Seeing COIN in Yemen Before Believing

According to an anonymous tribal leader, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was indeed behind Wednesday's suicide bombing on a Houthi religious ceremony. al-Qaeda has in the past attempted to trigger sectarian conflict with spectacular bombings, and the ambush in the al-Metoon area of al-Jawf governorate resembled its work.

Though the Saleh government is believed to manipulate AQAP’s name to crack down on the Houthis and southern secessionists (one leader was arrested this month), the unnamed tribal chief laid out a sound case for AQAP’s guilt.

Earlier this year five members were captured by Houthi fighters at a check point in their territory. Rather than negotiate with AQAP leadership, the Houthis passed the unit through a regional leader in al-Jawf to Yemeni authorities, perhaps in a bid to gain confidence with the government. Several weeks before the bombing, AQAP allegedly distributed a statement in the al-Jawf area warning people of cooperating with the Houthi tribe. The Eid al-Ghadeer ceremony, a Shiite religious holiday, was branded “non-Muslim.”

AQAP then labeled the Houthis as “agents of Iran.” Rumors that Tehran funds the proxy group in defiance of Saudi Arabia and America have circulated since the Houthi’s rebellion began in 2004.

At first Houthi rebels ferreting out AQAP cells sounds like ideal counterinsurgency; relying on local tribesmen who know the terrain and population over unpopular government forces. America hopes for such a reaction wherever it goes. And ceasing support of the Houthis must have been viewed as unreasonable, necessitating the terror of a suicide bomber. But there’s a hole in this account.

Mohammed Abdul Salam, spokesman for the Houthis, accused U.S. and Israeli intelligence of plotting the attack.

AQAP’s leaflets had denounced the Houthis for being enemies of Islam and “not enemies of America and Israel as they claim to be in their slogans.” It’s possible, then, that AQAP ordered the bombing and that the Houthis are protecting their image as anti-government and anti-Western. Before the attack Salam approved of security forces as helpful.

“The attack bore the hallmarks of the U.S., and its main purpose was to bring about more sectarian conflicts in the country, disturb the people's security and eliminate lives,” Salam said in a statement afterward. “Only U.S. can take advantage of such an incident."

The group remains in combat with the government despite numerous attempts to negotiate a ceasefire. Washington expects to ramp up its military operations in this environment.

If only U.S. officials began their counterinsurgency campaign where they claim to be now, instead of filling the last year with air-strikes and military threats - drones, CIA, Special Forces, bases. The State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, Daniel Benjamin, finally told reporters that U.S. policy depends on two factors: developing civil institutions and addressing politico-economic problems.

He added, “We also have a good training and equipment program for the Yemeni forces that will be implemented in four years. The outcomes of this program have started to come out... We have a large counter-terrorism base in Yemen that we called Mission 10."

All the U.S. and Yemeni people have heard in 2010 is Mission 10.

While potentially well-intentioned, Benjamin’s lofty goals in State still ride in the Pentagon’s back seat. Military and security operations continue to dominate public focus and funding. Some Yemeni officials and independent observers believe that Washington subverts Yemen’s political institutions and ignores its economic plight - or even hypes AQAP's threat - in order escalate U.S. military activity. And Benjamin’s COIN speak should be coming out of higher authorities to shape the administration's overall policy.

Now may not be too late, but the belated development of an ideological message has reduced the chances of countering AQAP’s own propaganda. Moderate Egyptian cleric Amr Khaled recently designed a media campaign to amplify the government’s Islamic message, a necessary component of fourth-generation warfare. The problem is that Saleh - the source of the messenger - lacks credibility with rural Yemenis, the marginalized section of society that Khaled’s program aims to target. They have to work for it.

AQAP’s propaganda often creates a direct effect by handing out cash, digging wells, and providing security - in exchange for allegiance, of course. Running against the government is easier than running a government.

Most importantly, Washington's treatment of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains undecided, with the White House supposedly pushing back against the gung-ho Pentagon and its GOP allies in Congress. Public concern over Saleh’s actions - entrenching his family and allies in power, siphoning off funds, using U.S. training and equipment to combat the political opposition - may simply act as cover for a wider military campaign. The consensus appears to be that Saleh, for better and worse, remains the surest option to run U.S. operations through, as he’s weak enough to concede foreign assistance.

But sooner than later the White House’s hesitation will be tested for real. US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein deployed with Benjamin to push the State’s COIN blitz, defending Yemen as a functional state while looking ahead to parliamentary elections in April. Feierstein says the White House expects a free, fair, and open election that allows full participation, but its spotlight will have to burn Saleh to get one.

60% of Yemenis supposedly expect one

Yemen’s election could receive the special treatment like Afghanistan and Egypt, given that Washington benefits from preserving the status quo. Unfortunately most Yemenis won’t. U.S. officials still have time to review their policy of shielding Saleh in exchange for cooperation against AQAP, and whether military escalation will actually neutralize the group. Careful thought must be given to those so obviously baiting Washington with their "Operation Hemorrhage."

Without resolution in the north and south, U.S. strategy is likely to spin in circles. Changing directions will be even harder after April.

[Note: Another suicide bomber struck a Houthi funeral procession on Friday, killing a purported 40 people and 15 Houthi leaders. An official at Yemen's Interior Ministry told Xinhua, "We have reports that al-Qaida has expanded its operations towards northern areas located in the Yemeni-Saudi joint border long ago and what happened today was not the first operation of al- Qaida."

Yemeni officials quickly blamed AQAP for the first bombing, before Houthi officials accused U.S and Israeli intelligence. The region is awash with propaganda.]

One Step Forward, Two Back in Somalia

When Somalia’s latest Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, released a streamlined, 18-member cabinet earlier this month, his list was widely praised by independent analysts and Western officials alike. The two groups rarely agree, and Mohamed’s new cabinet appeared to be bright silver lining within the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) constant strife.

Unfortunately the new cabinet faces the same challenges threatening the old one: corruption, clan loyalty and divisions, political and economic opportunists, and a skeptical audience. The cabinet’s approval finally boiled over in parliament after protests interrupted the ratification process, with several lawmakers coming to blows. Voice of America, the U.S. government’s foreign propaganda outlet, watched its headline degrade from “New Somali cabinet brings hope of progress,” to “Future of Somali government in doubt.”

Backtracking is a common theme in Somalia.

African Union (AU) officials stuck to this script a day after AU troops gunned down two civilians in Mogadishu. Two buses had collided and spilled a group of people into the street, which AU troops supposedly mistook for an al-Shabab roadblock. A day later the AU did right by counterinsurgency in apologizing for the high-profile incident, rather than try to cover it up.

“We are not certain whether the soldiers were responding to a perceived threat,” AU force commander Maj. Gen. Nathan Mugisha said in a statement. “However, all the soldiers involved have been arrested and taken into a military custody while a full inquiry is launched into the precise circumstances that took place. We understand people may be angry. But it is an isolated incident.”

Before the recent spotlight generated by the Kampala bombings, the AU's detachment was widely accused of the same neglect al-Shabab treats civilians with. During Kampala's immediate aftermath the Associated Press released a report documenting such acts, provoking AU officials to criticize those who've never been to Somalia. But despite their public posturing, commanders rightly view civilian deaths as harmful to the force and have attempted to minimize the collateral damage through PR maneuvers. It remains to be seen whether those AU troops in question are held accountable.

The New York Times adds
, “Residents of Mogadishu said that Ugandan soldiers, who make up the bulk of the 7,000-member peacekeeping force, routinely fired their weapons into the air to disperse crowds.”

Just one dichotomy in a long line of them.

No matter where one looks in Somalia it’s impossible to separate the good from the bad, causing mutually-exclusive errors: overreacting to and blocking out good news. Both routes lead to flawed estimates of the situation, making it essential to fuse the positives and negatives to yield an accurate image. Unfortunately bad news always seems to outweigh the good in Somalia.

The TFG just lost Hizbul Islam’s main detractor in Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, who received a cabinet position from Mohamed. Hizbul Islam as a whole tentatively allied itself with the TFG in 2009 after al-Shabab overran its territory, only for half of its factions to rejoin al-Shabab in 2010 - persuaded by better organization and the threat of AU troops. And after reportedly holing up in Mogadishu under AU protection, Hizbul Islam chief Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys has since resumed operations against the TFG.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Siad announced that the TFG violated their power-sharing agreement and declared his group “independent.” He did, however, call for the international community to support his own efforts against al-Shabab.

Siad also mentioned new clashes in the central region, where al-Shabab continues to battle with Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a. For months al-Shabab, the TFG, Ahlu Sunna, and its Ethiopian support troops have vied for Somalia’s central region, the decisive staging ground whether al-Shabab moves north or the TFG pushes south. No side possesses the force capable of permanently securing of Gedo, Hiiraan, Bakool, and Galguduud, and the TFG has relied heavily on Ahlu Sunna and Ethiopia to lead its underpaid soldiers.

al-Shabab and Ahlu Sunna recently clashed in Galguduud, which Ahlu Sunna controls but al-Shabab has been challenging for. Both sides claimed victory, as usual, yet al-Shabab’s active presence in the north indicates that the group remains on the initiative, from Beled Hawo to Mogadishu to Dhuusamarreeb.

al-Shabab recently distributed a foreign recruitment video to boost its offensive.

There’s also no telling how long the fragile pact between Ahlu Sunna and the TFG will last. Shut out of its previous power-sharing agreement, Mohamed allocated two cabinet positions to the group and won praise from its clerics. But with clan politics and ideological differences already interfering with the new cabinet’s approval - the same obstacles that blocked Ahlu Sunna’s initial ministry positions - the group isn't assured a spot in the TFG. Or a reason to remain on its side.

The two entities are allied by al-Shabab’s threat, not a common viewpoint. Such paradoxes are routine in Somalia and constantly undermine the slightest evidence of progress.

If the TFG does get its act together long enough to approve a new cabinet, which it presumably will, an overriding dilemma still faces the government, its AU shield, and the Western donors who fund them. With less than 10 months until the TFG’s mandate expires, Washington and African states have been debating what to do at August’s end. Some consider this window a win-win situation.

Either the TFG will improve itself enough to warrant an extension, or the West will allow it to collapse and attempt to rebuild a more functional structure.

However a capable government isn’t assured simply because the TFG is gone, and waiting for its inevitable demise could ultimately haunt the West and AU. This leaves them with the strategic decision of how much interim support to offer the TFG. With Western confidence in the TFG running low and the risks of escalation increasing, Washington supposedly prefers a regional construct involving Somaliland and Puntland - and a new government in Mogadishu.

But Uganda and Ethiopia want to go in big now.

Diplomats from Western states and the UN recently converged on Addis Ababa to debate the future of AMISOM with the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Brig. Gen. James Mugira, Uganda's chief of military intelligence, revealed the summit’s objectives as studying the links between insurgent groups and their source of arms. But the main goal remains an increase in troops, which Uganda adamantly favors.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn confirmed that Burundi, one of two contributors to the force, will deploy a battalion within the week to raise the AU’s troop level to 8,000. But he added that the UN hasn’t offered enough support, citing hesitation over a no-fly zone and naval blockade. Uganda is still pressing the West to fund another 12,000 troops.

Some AU commanders believe 20,000 are necessary just to secure Mogadishu.

A middle option appears to be the most realistic strategy going forward: a gradual increase in AU troops calibrated to the TFG’s reform. The West cannot hype Somalia’s threat and then abandon the AU force propping up the TFG. Lack of action followed by an international attack would also result in overreaction, as America is prone to do.

Conversely, increasing the number of AU troops without a simultaneous expansion of the TFG’s abilities and services will bog down the force, along with Somalia’s general counterinsurgency. Don't clear what can't be held. If more AU troops are deployed without a government to fill its security bubble, new battalions will hit the same slippery slope plaguing their comrades on the ground.

There are no easy answers in Somalia. Do answers exist?

November 24, 2010

Suicide Bomber Strikes Houthi Ceremony

(Bloomberg) -- Fifteen people were killed in Yemen in a suicide car bombing that targeted a Shiite Muslim rebel group, the Houthis, in a northern province in the Arabian Peninsula country.

A car packed with explosives detonated alongside a crowd of Houthis during a religious ceremony in al-Jawf, Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the group, said in an a phone interview today. The group is investigating the attack, he said.

The Houthis, so-called because of the family name of their leaders, began fighting the government in the northern province of Saada in 2004. The authorities accuse them of seeking to re- install the rule of Zaidi Shiite religious leaders that ended in 1962.

The Houthis claim discrimination by Yemen’s majority Sunni Muslims. Several cease-fires have collapsed because of mistrust.

An ominous event regardless of the outcome. Yemeni officials have already incriminated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), although the Saleh government has exploited AQAP in its fight against the southern secessionists.

November 23, 2010

Egypt Getting the Special Treatment

During Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009, the Obama administration found itself accused by Democrats and Republicans of not doing enough to support Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s burgeoning opposition movement. Although U.S. interference would have played into senior Iranian leadership and further eroded the slim chance of compromise over their nuclear program, many believe the White House went too easy on Tehran.

More talk than action.

But without negating the fraud or state violence of Iran’s election, Washington’s democratic bias reveals itself the more it isolates those democratic entities it opposes (Hezbollah, Hamas, Muqtada al-Sadr). At least until it stops issuing free passes to vital allies. Though the two events differ significantly in their post-election conflict, Afghan President Hamid Karzai slipped his way into power through the White House’s backdoor, his second term praised as a beacon of hope.

Challenger Abdullah Abdullah, who boycotted the runoff after one fraudulent vote, nevertheless did Karzai a favor by quelling his supporters’ urge to hit the streets in protest. The Obama administration repaid Abdullah by claiming he quit “because he couldn’t win” - when he really quit on the hope of U.S. assistance.

Now, as Egypt nears its own parliamentary election, the same accusation of abandoning the opposition has stuck to the White House. But this time it sticks longer than on Iran. Washington hasn’t kept silent during the volatile run-up - that isn’t how the plan works. Instead, critical statements function as evidence of an attempt to check the government, along with the obligatory, “we continue to encourage them to do everything possible to ensure a free, fair, and impartial election.”

Last week Egypt accused Washington of meddling in its affairs after calling for international monitors.

"We are closely monitoring events that are happening in Egypt, reports of arrests and intimidation, and we have not hesitated to express our concerns directly to... Egyptian leaders," U.S. State spokesman Philip Crowley insisted on Monday.

Crowley was speaking of the estimated 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood members arrested in prior weeks, many from the Sharqia Governorate in the Nile Delta, including a minimum of eight candidates. With the group and its caliphate-inspired slogan “Islam is the solution” still outlawed, over 100 candidates have been barred from participating in the election. 130 members will field themselves as independents.

Dr. Saad El-Katatni is one of them and plans to challenge for the southern city of Minya - if he can survive the final week.

Yesterday el-Katatni’s car was swarmed by a mob wielding knives and metal pipes, who proceeded to slash his tires and injure his driver before spectators intervened. Interior Minister Habib el-Adly responded by accusing the group of provoking confrontations with the police to "implement their agenda, which violates the interests of the state." But el-Katatni accused Egyptian police of onlooking, a natural conclusion given the events at hand.

"The police smashed the Brotherhood in all constituencies all over the country," el-Katatni said.

Today he accused the Interior Ministry point-blank of orchestrating the attack: “Assaults on me by thugs were done with the approval of the Ministry of Interior, despite the strict security surrounding me since the beginning of nominations until the incident that happened yesterday.”

The circumstances surrounding Egypt’s election possess the makings of another “Green Revolution,” the color and objective extending beyond any specific movement into a general Islamic uprising. Like Iran, Egypt’s elections have been marred by fraud and political violence, and their aftermath by political persecution. So it wouldn’t be implausible if Washington privately wished for the Brotherhood to stay home.

Although the group’s participation could scrub the image of Egypt’s democracy and help justify U.S. support, the unlikely result of a “free and fair election” will create one more distraction amid ongoing negotiations between America, Israel, and the Palestinians.

El-Katatni vows there will be no boycott despite internal calls to avoid legitimizing the Mubarak government. Thus bloodshed appears likely. “I will continue to do my campaign rallies," he told reporters today, "and will not stop despite the terrorism and bullying I have suffered."

“The regime is sending a message that there will be no elections," he added... "This is a political and constitutional struggle and the street is with the Brotherhood and we will not let them down.”

The question is whether Washington will let them down. Rebuking enemies is easy. Doing so to friends often degenerates into favoritism rather than the necessary critique from an ally, and U.S. policy is headed in this direction. Crowley issued no statement Tuesday, after el-Katatni’s latest warning of state-sponsored violence.

To be fair Washington enjoys few options to create any significant impact, especially in a state that doesn’t double as a U.S. war-zone. Believing that Cairo’s strict response to low-level U.S. statements indicates weakness, human rights groups insist that a lack of effect shouldn’t deter Washington from spearheading the international observation - which is true. But public protests and world scrutiny do little to aid the Brotherhood and Egypt's wider opposition.

Egypt isn’t a mere matter of friends protecting each other, but of preserving the status quo. America treats democratic subversion far more aggressively when it favors changing the status quo, the true factor in determining U.S. responses to foreign elections. Perhaps an inevitable consequence of realism, this policy nevertheless interferes with the people’s will and tends to create long-term complications. Blackballing Hamas in 2006 adversely affects the region to this day.

It’s easy to see why America prefers a stable Egyptian regime unburdened by the Brotherhood, which has minimized acts of violence but still seeks to replace the government. The White House is reportedly split on what to do after Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Egypt remains a key piece of the West’s Iranian umbrella despite its waning influence in the region.

And Israeli policy towards the Palestinians may not be possible without Egyptian support.

It’s completely understandable why Mubarak shuns the responsibility of 1.5 million Gazans trying to escape their prison by overrunning Egypt’s border. This burden isn’t his to bear alone. Less understandable is the lack of pressure on Israel to reach a fair compromise with the PLO. Egypt and America have been instrumental in upholding Israel’s blockade on Gaza, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia refuse to let Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leave the ring of direct negotiations.

Opposing a formal withdrawal despite the absence of a settlement freeze is one thing, but giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu room to run has escalated the unfair terms imposed on Abbas.

Even if the Brotherhood manages to improve its position in parliament, where its members currently hold one-fifth of the 508 seats, no increase in support for the Palestinians is guaranteed. Yet America and Israel continue to oppose the Brotherhood gaining ground in Egypt’s government, or stepping up its platform to advocate the Palestinians’ struggle, particularly its offshoot Hamas. U.S. criticism of Egypt’s upcoming election will ultimately ring hollow.

The real test begins if Cairo spills down Tehran’s path.

Propaganda Battle Over Pentagon Report

No one is ever going to agree on Afghanistan.

"Pentagon Report Cites Gains in Afghanistan"

by The New York Times:
WASHINGTON — The United States and its partners are making modest gains in some key areas of Afghanistan, but the insurgency is still strong and expanding across the country, a Pentagon report to Congress this month has concluded.

In cautious findings that mirror recent statements from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, the report said that there were signs of progress in security, governance and development in “operational priority areas.”

That was a reference to Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in southern Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers and Marines are concentrated.

The report also said that the growth and development of the Afghan security forces “are among Afghanistan’s most promising areas of progress,” and that the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police met their target numbers for expansion three months before a deadline of Oct. 31 this year.

Currently, Afghan Army personnel number 134,000 and police officers total 109,000.

On the negative side, the report cited Pakistan’s reluctance to go after insurgents operating from havens on its border with Afghanistan.

In one particularly blunt sentence, the report said that while it recognized the “tremendous effort” Pakistan was making against some insurgents inside its country, “insurgent safe havens along the border will remain the primary problem to achieving a secure and stable Afghanistan.”

In addition, the report said overall violence in Afghanistan increased 65 percent in the third quarter of 2010 compared with that period last year.

The report attributed the increase in part to the more aggressive campaign that United States and NATO forces had mounted against the Taliban.

The report, titled “Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” is the sixth in a series that the Pentagon is required to submit twice a year to Congress.

Its data will be used in a more comprehensive White House review next month assessing United States strategy in Afghanistan and any need for revision.

Administration officials say they expect the White House review to cite similar progress, but with the same caveats.

The current report is the first since the Obama administration completed a buildup in Afghanistan this fall to nearly 100,000 American troops. It is also the first since General Petraeus took over as the top NATO commander in the country. It covers the period from April 1 to Sept. 30 this year.

The previous report, which covered the period from Oct. 1, 2009, to March 31 this year, came to the conclusion that a “continuing decline in stability” in Afghanistan had leveled off, but it cited little progress against the Taliban.

A senior defense official who briefed reporters about the report at the Pentagon on Tuesday sought to put a positive interpretation on the expansion of the Taliban into other areas of Afghanistan like the north and west.

The official said that as United States, NATO and Afghan forces have put pressure on insurgents in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and Helmand, the insurgents have been forced out.

“The Taliban have clearly reacted to that by going to more peripheral areas,” the official said, “so while they have expanded to those areas, the importance of those areas is not key, is not central, to their success, or to our ability to defeat them.”

The official said he could not be identified under Pentagon ground rules, but neither he nor other Pentagon officials provided an explanation for those rules.

The anonymous official acknowledged that there were many skeptics questioning the ability of the United States to make progress in Afghanistan after nearly a decade of war.

But he said this was the first time the United States had committed so much in military strength and civilian effort to the country, and therefore the doubters were being “irresponsible” in not looking at the bigger picture.

“Of course there are skeptics, there are always skeptics,” he said.
"Pentagon report: Afghans believe Taliban victory inevitable"

by CNN:
Washington (CNN) -- A new Defense Department report on Afghanistan says dramatic increases in fighting against the Taliban have failed to convince the local population that the Afghan government and coalition forces will succeed.

"The Taliban's strength lies in the Afghan population's perception that Coalition forces will soon leave, giving credence to the belief that a Taliban victory is inevitable," the report says.

The 96-page "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan" is a required update to Congress and it covers the period from April to the end of September.

It is commonly referred to as a "12-30" report, for the section of the 2008 Defense Authorization law that requires the twice-yearly reports.

The report says that Taliban is not popular but it exploits frustration with a weak Afghanistan government.

"Despite public polling showing a lack of support for the Taliban, Afghan nationals are likely to remain non-committal until the Afghan Government and Coalition forces can convincingly provide security, government and economic opportunities," the report says. "The Taliban have sufficient organizational capability and support to pose a threat to the government's viability, particularly in the south. If the security situation erodes, regional stability will rapidly decline as well."

While the Pentagon report describes "uneven" progress with "modest gains" in security and creating stable local government, it does go on to says the current strategy is showing "some signs of progress."

At a Pentagon background briefing, a senior Defense Department official and a senior State Department official said the report did not cover progress, what he called "encouraging signs," over the past six weeks against Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan. In regard to the increase in violence, the official said that was a result of larger numbers of U.S. and coalition as well as Afghan security forces.

"This is an extraordinarily dynamic situation," he said. "Even the progress we've seen in the past seven weeks since this report came out is something that is changing the reality on the ground. But in no way, shape or form is anybody guaranteeing success, saying it's 100-percent certain."

The officials agreed to brief the media on the condition they not be identified.

The number of coalition forces on the ground has increase by 37 percent this year compared to last year. And the amount of fighting, "kinetic activity", has increased 300 percent from 2007 -- and an additional 70 percent since last year. At the end of September there were more than 96,000 U.S. forces and approximately 49,000 international forces in Afghanistan.

The report says insurgent groups continue to use Pakistan as a staging area for cross-border operations, and it raises new questions about Pakistan's willingness and ability to take on the insurgents in its territory.

"Efforts to reduce insurgency capacity, such as safe havens and logistical support originating in Pakistan and Iran have not produced measurable results," the report notes. "Pakistan's domestic extremist threat and the 2010 floods rescue the potential for a more aggressive or effective Pakistani effort in the near term."

And while praising efforts to combat corruption, the report suggests more must be done.

"Corruption continues to fuel the insurgency in various areas... The (Afghanistan President Hamid) Karzai Administration has improved its stance against corruption by prosecution of several high-profile senior officials. However, progress remains uneven and incremental."

The report makes only glancing reference to "reconciliation and reintegration," efforts to persuade low-level Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and and return to their communities.

"Although the number of insurgent who have so far reintegrated is limited, many groups have come forward to begin discussing options," the report says.

It does not touch on efforts to persuade high-ranking Taliban to give up their fight, on a day in which saw reports that a man claiming to be a Taliban leader at a meeting with Afghan and NATO officials was an impostor. The Defense Department official would not comment on that. Nor would he give any specific details of how many lower-level Taliban had re-integrated, saying it was a "dynamic situation."
"'Uneven' progress in Afghan war"

by Al Jazeera:
Progress has been "uneven" in the war in Afghanistan, with only modest gains against the Taliban despite a surge of US and NATO troops, the Pentagon has said.

All types of violent incidents in the country had increased from April through the end of September, up 300 per cent from 2007, except for the use of roadside bombs, the Pentagon said in a report issued to Congress on Tuesday.

"Progress across the country remains uneven, with modest gains in security, governance, and development in operational priority areas," it said.

The report contrasts public declarations from senior officials and military leaders, who have touted encouraging signs and said the US military has gained the initiative on the battlefield.

The Pentagon described limited progress by the NATO-led force in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, longstanding Taliban bastions that have been the focus of an influx of 30,000 American 
troops this year.

"While kinetic activity is at a historic high, we are seeing some early indications that comprehensive COIN (counter-insurgency) operations are having localized effects in portions of Helmand and Kandahar Provinces," the report said.

Despite the presence of nearly 100,000 US troops and nearly 50,000 other foreign forces, efforts to cut off Taliban safe havens and supply links to neighboring Iran and Pakistan "have not produced measurable results," according to the report, which covered April to September.

'Insurgency resilient'

While NATO and Afghan forces have "increased pressure on insurgent networks over the past several months, the insurgency has proven resilient with sustained logistics capacity and command and control," the Pentagon said.

Taliban "retains momentum in certain areas" while in others the momentum was shifting in favor of Afghan and NATO-led forces, it said.

One senior defense official, who asked not to be named, told journalists that the report focused on conditions through September and did not reflect "important progress" in recent weeks in military 
operations surrounding Kandahar city.

The report cited the training of Afghan security forces as "one of the most promising areas of progress," with the Afghan army and police reaching recruitment goals in July, ahead of an October target.

The quality of the Afghan forces and a high attrition rate remained cause for concern, however, according to the report, which was written in coordination with intelligence agencies, the state 
department and other government departments.

Barack Obama, the US president, has promised to begin withdrawing US troops by July 2011 and NATO plans to leave by the end of 2014.