February 28, 2012

U.S.-Egyptian Relations In Downward Holding Pattern

One day after postponing the fates of 43 employees (including 19 Americans) involved with U.S.-funded non-government organizations, the three Egyptian judges assigned to their trial have quit their posts entirely. Only 14 defendants attended Sunday’s opening session and, after taking into consideration 1,500+ pages of documents and interpreter requirements, lead Judge Mohammed Shoukry dismissed the controversial NGO trial until April 26th.

Now Shoukry and his fellow judges have removed themselves from their bench, citing “uneasiness” in handling the cases of American, European and Egyptian workers.

Although this process is considered normal by Egyptian standards, uncertainty over the high-stakes trial may beget more uncertainty and potential instability. How the Obama administration can secure the release of every employee remains to be seen, but U.S. officials continue to bet on an eventual face-saving compromise with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). During her weekend trip to Morocco, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN that the administration is engaged in “intense talks at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.”

"We've had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we're moving toward a resolution," Clinton informed the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday.

Some diplomats and analysts speculate that the additional time allows for the completion of a plea deal, one that cancels jail-time in return for fines or admissions of guilt (all defendants maintain their innocence). Another option, touted by Senator John McCain, would rewrite Hosni Mubarak’s previous laws to “provide legal basis for leniency toward the defendants.” McCain traveled to Cairo last week with fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, who told CNN after meeting SCAF and government officials, "Quite frankly, I'm very optimistic we're going to get this episode behind us. It's my hope (this will happen) sooner rather than later."

However the notion that Egypt’s NGO controversy is the product of an outdated legal system juxtaposes with the SCAF’s systematic anti-American campaign. The raids appear to have been engineered by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga in an attempt to advance her position in the next government, and she won’t back down easily. During her October testimony, Naga accused a “surprised” Washington of trying “to hijack the January 25 revolution and manipulate the situation in Egypt in accordance with its interests.”

"We can safely say that Faiza Abul Naga started this, but I think it has gotten out of control since then," Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "With her lies about our activities, she has managed to convince some of the military that we were doing nefarious things.”

The SCAF also condemns “foreign hands,” meaning America, for interfering in Egypt’s democratic transition when the SCAF itself may be the largest obstacle. Concerned U.S. Senators and Representatives responded by threatening to withhold $1.3 billion in military aid, but the SCAF has exploited the disapproval of conditional aid and turned Congress’s warning into a minor factor at best - and an advantage at worst. Willing to play the issue from all angles, interim Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri (a holdover of Mubarak’s rule) even attributed Egypt’s negative economic outlook on unfulfilled aid packages from Western and Gulf states.

Neither of these forces is positioned to backtrack from their own positions or intervene in a judicial matter, while Washington is similarly caught between advocating judicial reform and pursuing a special exemption. A Raymond Davis-style exit could inflame tensions across the social lines targeted by Egypt’s current government.

In the event that a trial does open on April 26h, the spectacle will coincide with an intense run-up to Egypt’s presidential election and the drafting of a new constitution. Whether or not the NGO crisis affects this process remains uncertain, but new friction between Washington and Cairo increases the odds of uncertainty. Naturally the Obama administration and GOP alike hope to reestablish relations in private and move on, rather than publicly confront the SCAF over the bulk of its counterrevolutionary activities. Private negotiations are necessary to salvage both parties’ images and finalize a plea deal - and avoid a stand-off between two allies.

“We want to see the travel ban lifted,” the State Department’s Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday. “We want to see our people able to leave the country. We want to see the situation with NGOs, whether they’re American, international, or Egyptian, normalized and legalized. And we want to get back to the business of a democratic transition in Egypt that we can all support.”

CBS News observed, “the U.S. cannot be seen as pushing too hard against the ruling generals, who are viewed as the best hope for a stable transition for a nation that is a regional heavyweight and has been a lynchpin of Washington's Middle East policy for three decades.”

Thus the status of NGO employees remains central to Washington's narrative in Egypt, pushing a lack of political, security and judicial reforms down the list of priorities. Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, explained the sentiments of local and foreign NGOs: "This isn't a war on American NGOs. This is a campaign against Egyptian civil society.” Unfortunately this campaign also offers the Obama administration an opportunity to reinforce ties with the SCAF and the future government that must cooperate with Tantawi’s generals.

When U.S.-Egyptian relations get back on track, they will still be headed down the wrong track.

February 27, 2012

U.S. Bleeding Out Influence In Iraq

On Saturday the U.S. Army positively identified the remains of its last missing member in Iraq: Staff Sgt. Ahmed Al-Taie, a native Iraqi. Recruited into the Army Reserve’s language ops, Al-Taie spent his deployment with a provincial reconstruction team and, according to his wife’s in-laws, frequently snuck off base to meet his wife. Militiamen would eventually kidnap him between houses.

A small-scale similarity to the concrete withdrawal of America’s combat troops, Al-Taie’s story is liable to reinforce the impression that Iraq’s war has finally reached some sort of end. The American public certainly wants the war to be over, but insurgencies aren’t known to quit on specific dates or with formal proclamations. Worse still, a lack of popular interest fused with Afghanistan’s surge and other global issues (such as Iran) to reduce the Obama administration's urgency to engage Baghdad’s political sphere. Nouri-al-Maliki belatedly entered a second term as prime minister on the arms of Washington and Tehran, and was left to his own devices until a tenuous power-sharing agreement collapsed in December 2011.

The upshot: U.S. influence continues to decline as Iraq’s violence gradually intensifies.

Around the same time that al-Maliki’s government issued a warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, charging him with funding Sunni death-squads, his Iraqiya chief broadcast an ominous message for Washington’s consumption. "There is no democracy in Iraq,” Ayad Allawi, al-Maliki’s main rival, told The Wall Street Journal in mid-December. Days before his warning, Obama had welcomed al-Maliki as the leader of a democratic state and unconsciously fueled Baghdad’s political fire. Saleh al-Mutlaq, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, scoffed at Obama’s approval while branding al-Maliki as “a dictator,” leading al-Maliki to seek a no-confidence vote from Parliament.

Allawi himself would later reject Obama’s statements, saying that Iraq is “neither stable nor democratic, frankly speaking... Al Qaeda is fully operational now in Iraq.” He also told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran “put a red-line against me,” referring to al-Maliki’s foreign support, “and unfortunately the United States went along with what Iran desired.”

Iraqiya’s chief can’t be surprised by anything he sees in 2012. After walking out of parliament following disagreements over the U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal, Allawi told CNN in November 2010, "We think the concept of power-sharing is dead now. It's finished." The latest developments and their relation to Iraq’s fundamental problems forced Iraqiya into another boycott that remains unresolved. Although some members returned in early February to convene on Iraq’s budget, al-Mutlaq and al-Hashimi’s cases are sinking deeper into Baghdad’s political abyss as Iraqiya maintains a cabinet boycott. Several members also called for al-Maliki’s replacement, hardening al-Maliki’s own line as he prepares to outlast Allawi and other challengers.

Washington’s response to the ongoing crisis has been minimal from the start of Obama’s flashpoint, including a refusal to acknowledge his direct role in the breakdown between parties. Ignoring al-Maliki’s behavior over a period of years, the administration tasked Vice President Joe Biden cool al-Maliki down and urged Iraqiya officials to keep their thoughts on the Premier to themselves. Unwilling to apply sincere pressure to al-Maliki, the situation is now running beyond Washington’s lobbying for a ubiquitous “National Dialogue” (this one lead by Kurdish President Jalal Talabani). However al-Maliki and Iraqiya have come to perceive such a venue as a tool to minimize each other’s power, and reconciliation measures are needed before a dialogue even begins.

Recent factors alone are insufficient to revive al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups, but their sleeper strategy is playing out to perfection as Baghdad feuds with itself. Quick to alter its narrative according to the situation, al-Qaeda released a statement attributing its latest chain-bombing to “revenge for the elimination and torture campaigns that Sunni men and women face in the prisons of Baghdad and other cities.” Several days earlier, al-Hashimi accused al-Maliki of torturing his bodyguards and other Sunnis in secret

Working in the unintentional unison that independent networks are susceptible to during netwar, Iraqiya used the bombings to call for al-Maliki’s resignation in the event that he cannot deliver security to the country. "Reasons behind today's explosions are due to the absence of an efficient security system," the party said in a statement on Saturday. In a more coordinated effort, Iraqiya MP Ahmed al-Masari told Aswat al-Iraq that his party had established common ground with the National Alliance. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr happens to control a significant share of the bloc’s seats through his Sadrist Movement, and he’s equally impatient with Iraq’s security environment.

"The dictator of the government is trying to make all the accomplishments as though they were his accomplishments,” Sadr said in a statement released on Friday, "and if he cannot he will try to hinder these accomplishments and erase them.”

Invading Iraq on false pretenses, with limited knowledge of the insurgency that was about to unfold, created a strategic error that cannot be reversed. The military and political factors of George Bush’s surge managed to deescalate the country from open civil war, but most non-military problems were left unresolved for al-Maliki’s future government. The Obama administration then compounded these errors by reducing its political attention and backing an authoritarian personality to lead Iraq’s democratic transition. Now Tehran might possess more control of al-Maliki than Washington, and America isn’t winning back any popularity with his performance.

“The end” of Iraq’s war is fading deeper into obscurity.

These developments are unacceptable from a COIN standpoint and demonstrate the vast limitations of counter-terrorism. If former U.S. diplomats are correct in their assessment that Washington now wields negligible influence in Iraq, al-Maliki’s government won’t be able to halt the country’s destabilization without extensive political and security reforms. Expiring influence with Iraqiya poses dilemma, but the urgent problem is backing al-Maliki into a genuine power-sharing agreement. Even then, his authoritarian tendencies must be curtailed before Baghdad can grow a democracy, build an economy and focus on internal enemies. Promises of U.S. aid or military hardware stand a low chance of affecting al-Maliki’s behavior and a high chance of insulting Iraqis. Leaving U.S. troops behind wouldn’t solve these problems either.

What’s needed is blunt political pressure on al-Maliki - a real threat to cooperate or stand down - before the situation reaches an irreversible breaking point.

February 26, 2012

Kenya, Ethiopia Grind Deeper Into Somalia

Over three months have elapsed since Nairobi made the executive decision to launch Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for Protect the Nation). Depending on the individual - a Kenyan commander, Somali official or civilian, al-Shabaab gunman or Western observer - Kenya’s military campaign is trending towards victory or quagmire. Reality likely falls in between two extremes, but foreign capitals are entering a slippery phase of their politico-military campaign.

Last month Colonel Cyrus Oguna asserted that “Al Shabaab is halfway in the pit.” Whether Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union (AU) troops can complete their mission may be determined over the next three months.

Nairobi’s confidence in reaching Somalia’s main southern port begat heightened expectations at the start of Linda Nchi, and the combination of Kenya’s swift incursion and al-Shabaab’s tactical withdrawal gave rise to the possibility of reaching Kismayo in the near future. However the majority of Kenyan troops haven’t advanced more than 50 miles during a month-long rainy reason, remaining at their mud-locked positions around Bur Gaavo and Afmadow. Bur Gaavo’s delta lies on Somalia’s coast, roughly 40 miles from Kenya’s border and 60 miles south of Kismayo, while Kenyan commanders predicted they would take Afmadow last month.

The bulk of Kenya’s ground forces remain tens of miles away from Kismayo, one of al-Shabaab’s main strongholds and a key military-economic gateway. They have yet to create the buffer zone envisioned by Nairobi; grenade, mine and IED attacks continue to disrupt life across Kenya’s border. Villages behind Afmadow, such as Tabda and Badhaadhe, are still being fortified as assault preparations are made on the strategic town. Even Defense Minister Yusuf Haji added to Somalia’s confusion in early December, telling reporters, "I don't know where this objective came from. We have never stated at any time that Kenya was going to Kismayo.”

"All we said is that we were pushing Shebab away from our boundary and securing our border, and we will go as far as we will go.”

Kenyan commanders have since clarified that their units are, in fact, still headed for Kismayo. They insist that Haji simply meant that their troops won’t occupy the port, only secure and transfer authority to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Major Rashid Seif explained from Bur Gaavo, "Our conduct of operation here is basically in conformity with the other troops that are in other sectors, the northern sector and the central sector. So basically the ultimate objective is the capture of Kismayo, so it is building up to that.”

Although Nairobi’s timeline isn’t publicly available, a sensible prediction would circle August 2012 as Kenya’s target date to exit southern Somalia. The TFG’s UN mandate is finally set to expire after several delays, and involved foreign powers are demanding presidential and parliamentary elections before the UN’s mandate dissolves. As a result, involved members of the African Union (AU) have lobbied to increase AMISOM’s force ceiling from 12,000 to 15,000-20,000). Nairobi presumably feels the same rush and attempted to synchronize its military campaign with 2012’s political roadmap.

Kenya’s operation functions as one part of the TFG, African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) national strategy, with AU reinforcements envisioned in Mogadishu and Kismayo. As Kenya clears al-Shabaab from the south and the TFG expands its presence out of the capital, Ethiopia would exert its influence along al-Shabaab’s western flank. This strategy theoretically covers Somalia proper without stretching any single force over the country - and potentially breaking it. Ethiopian troops cross the border on a regular basis in their pursuit of al-Shabaab and other armed elements, but upwards of 1,000 troops are now operating inside Somalia.

Ethiopian forces recently took control of Beledweyne, a strategic city located over 400 miles from Kismayo, and are moving into al-Shabaab’s Bay stronghold.

Yet the strategic obstacle for Kenya, Ethiopia and the TFG remains as is: opening up a wide front. Even a piece of Somalia is hard to clear, hold and restore TFG authority to. Ethiopian troops recently cleared
Baidoa, one of al-Shabaab’s main strongholds in Somalia’s central Bay district, and could move on Garbahaarey and Baardheere (Gedo’s largest cities) as well. While striking into Baidoa and Baardheere could send al-Shabaab scrambling across its territory, the long-term battle for Bay, Hiiraan and Gedo will entail harder fighting than Kenya’s intervention into Lower Juba.

Restoring TFG authority is also the primary goal of any national offensive, and seizing more territory than the TFG’s reach can handle will create extensive friction on the ground. Ethiopia has “dismantled” al-Shabaab before, only for the group to re-inflate itself and fill the ensuing security vacuum.

Ethiopia’s wild-card image poses a secondary concern in a mission that depends on positive perceptions. According to various sources (including American), Ethiopian troops have been thrown into the battlefield because African leaders consider to be more proficient than their Kenyan counterparts. The good news is that local Ethiopian approval is being reported at higher levels than in the past. In accordance with practical sentiments towards America and Kenya, some Somalis are willing to stomach any foreign intervention in order to escape al-Shabaab’s rule. However many accounts note the long-standing animosity between neighbors, and Ethiopian support could flip overnight in the event of mass collateral damage.

While al-Shabaab is suffering casualties and facing enemies on all sides, the insurgency doesn’t appear to be panicking at the level described by African officials. Its commanders rejected local reports of a name-change - to Imaarah Islamiya (Islamic Authority) - and avoided the initial blitzkrieg that could have knocked al-Shabaab on the permanent defensive. Nor is the war “almost half lost,” in the words of Colonel Oguna. Kenya’s army spokesman argues that al-Shabaab is “now facing serious challenges as far as command and control is concerned and logistical support,” but these terms are more applicable in conventional warfare.

Ultimately, the roots of Somalia’s political friction must be destroyed in order to permanently defeat al-Shabaab. Military victory could recede into a political collapse, facilitating al-Shabaab’s restructuring.

In a related development, Western and African capitals maintain extensive concerns over the TFG’s ability to implement the UN’s roadmap. Modified in June under heavy pressure from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the Kampala Accord extended the TFG’s mandate for one final year by sacrificing Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed. This outcome allowed President Sharif Ahmed and Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Aden to shelve their rivalry (each has tried to force the other out of power) until November, when Somalia’s parliament was ordered to reach a vote on Kampala’s revisions.

Except the vote never occurred and Hassan now finds himself mired in a no-confidence vote. He suspects that President Ahmed is pulling the political strings.

Given that any AU mission cannot succeed in the long-term without a stable Somali government, Ahmed and Aden’s unresolved feud is pulsing throughout Somalia’s neighbors and international financiers. Nairobi’s strategy explicitly outlined the following sequence: “enter southern Somalia, drive away Al-Shabaab, create a buffer zone to allow the fledgling Transitional Federal Government to take control and increase its capacity to retain it.” Although military gains can be secured independently from Somalia’s political factors, combining the two spheres represents the primary objective of counterinsurgency.

Lindsay Kiptiness, Kenya's Foreign Affairs spokesman, cautioned, “A new round of political conflict would affect the transitional process eight months away.”

Fundamental divisions within the TFG’s structure pose a grave threat to the AU’s mission. Destabilization inside Mogadishu’s political core affects the country as a whole, thus impacting Kenya and Ethiopia’s semi-independent operations. Operation Linda Nchi may have been conceived two+ years ago, but Nairobi launched its military campaign within AMISOM’s national campaign. This strategy builds on AMISOM’s gains in Mogadishu by allocating Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to Somalia’s south and west, creating a patchwork grid across the entire country. Additional AU and TFG troops will then deploy to Kismayo and central Somalia.

"As more territory is liberated,” predicts UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “the federal government must strengthen its outreach to the local population and form new regional entities in line with the Transitional Federal Charter. On the military front, we must not exclude the incorporation of new forces and the expansion of Amisom.”

These troops have no chance of landing until the TFG’s political crisis is untangled and permanently settled. A lack of confidence in the TFG impacts donations to the UN and AU, in turn delaying deployment of AU forces and over-stressing Somalia’s nascent security forces. In January the UN and AU urged “the leadership of the Transitional Federal Institutions, parliamentarians and to all stakeholders [to]… avoid any statement or action that could exacerbate the already tense situation and further aggravate the crisis.” A fist-fight later broke out over Hassan’s unresolved status.

al-Shabaab can only stall Operation Linda Nchi and the AU’s coordinated assault, but the TFG can stop Kenyan and Ethiopian armor in its tracks.

February 25, 2012

Danger: Exploding COIN Rounds

By the time May sunshine brightens up the Windy City, President Barack Obama’s fortunes in Afghanistan could bounce back on the announcement of new troop withdrawals.

The majority of Americans won’t be fully satisfied with what they hear - the latest Rasmussen poll estimates that 67% favor an end to combat operations by 2013 - but Obama must deliver a substantial cut to keep his base satisfied. He must also keep pace with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who launched NATO’s accelerated-transition, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s ambiguous “hope” to “transition from a combat role to a training advise-and-assist role.” With these factors weighing on a depleted tolerance for Afghanistan, Obama needs to speed up his withdrawals after pulling their exit into another summer. Chicago should provide the venue to reset NATO’s mission and pour another layer of varnish onto the coalition’s war strategy.

Until then, though, the Obama administration is veering away from the surge’s “progress” and wandering down a bumpy, mine-ridden road.

“You look at this as clearly and objectively as you can, what you see is that we’re in a weaker position than we were maybe two or three or four weeks ago,” one anonymous official told The New York Times. “I’m not sure anyone knows the clear way forward. It’s gotten more and more complicated. It’s fraught.”

Five day of demonstrations against the instantly-infamous Quran burning at Bagram Air Field have provided a litmus test for current attitudes in Afghanistan and America. At least 27 people lay dead from the outbreak, some of them shot by Afghan soldiers and UN guards. Chants of “Death of America” can be heard in provinces ranging from Kandahar to Logar to Kunduz. Kabul and the U.S. Embassy are only quiet due to widespread police and military deployments. A deterministic reaction to Afghanistan's unstable and unresolved political fundamentals, these protests/riots backlight the social gaps between Washington’s military-centric surge.

In contrast to the political components of Iraq’s surge (some more intentional than others), Afghanistan’s surge has lacked political guidance from the beginning. Taliban reintegration programs failed to generate significant results, Kabul’s reconciliation process is dragging along under private U.S.-Taliban negotiations (leaving out Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups) and the most high-profile, non-military thrust remains semi-military: training Afghanistan's police and military. Even this task has been complicated by the over-recruitment of Tajiks into Pashtun territory. Meanwhile U.S.-Pakistani relations have only drifted further apart since Obama assumed the presidency, taking both countries’ popular sentiments with them.

U.S. officials continue to emphasis body counts and rate of attack in Afghanistan - metrics that failed to tell the whole picture in Vietnam or Iraq.

The latest Quran episode appears particularly destabilizing even when compared to past “mistakes.” Although U.S. and Afghan officials have downplayed any ramifications over the transition process, various reports indicate that NATO officials are assuaging their Afghan counterparts with plans to accelerate the security transition. Conversely, Washington’s response is already beginning to veer from overly apologetic to agitated. Another anonymous official told The National Journal, “Frankly our position is this was a careless act, but we’ve already apologized for it and we want to move on.”

Neither President Hamid Karzai nor Afghans want to forgive and forget last Monday night at Bagram, and telling them to do so equates to counterproductive propaganda. For starters, Karzai would repeat an unpopular request to U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter: “The sooner you do the transfer of the prison, the less you will have problems and unfortunate incidents.”

U.S. officials have tried to push the correct rhetoric down the chain of command, from Obama to Panetta to Allen, but their apologies lost their meaning many “careless acts” ago. Apologies also become offensive when viewed as insincere, adding insult to injury. Equally disturbing, U.S. statements are beginning to fray after four days of damage control. Allen initially appealed for calm within his own ranks after an Afghan soldier lethally turned his weapon on two U.S. soldiers, saying “now is how we show the Afghan people that as bad as that act was in Bagram, it was unintentional and American and ISAF soldiers do not stand for this.”

After a second incident at Kabul’s fortified Interior Ministry left two U.S. officers dead, Allen condemned the attack and called the perpetrator a “coward.” Panetta would also label the attack as “unacceptable,” as if the Afghan government was somehow involved. The Taliban claimed responsibility for infiltrating a floor “that only people who know a numerical combination can get into,” citing an accomplice within the government. The administration is already positioned to lose this propaganda battle and downplaying another infiltration as “cowardly” could stick onto night-raiding, Quran-burning U.S. troops instead.

An ominous report from The Washington Post also managed to find numerous Afghan police who sympathized with protesters and expressed anti-American sentiments on record.

However no explosion is complete without a corresponding political reaction inside the occupying power. Last week’s events are adding new weight to America and Europe’s anti-war opinion, driving up the demand for Sarkozy’s accelerated transition. This possibility, in turn, will create new fodder for GOP presidential candidates and representatives, who generally oppose a rapid withdrawal and strictly reject French leadership in the war. Obama’s apology came under immediate attack from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, sparking a divergent controversy and hindering a response to the crisis. A scripted apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers was also delayed at Islamabad's request, but one U.S. official admitted that the administration didn’t want to “hand fresh ammunition to Republican presidential candidates.”

Given that a coverup spells disaster, the Obama administration chose wisely by facing up to Bagram’s incident. The right tone of apology might have neutralized some of the street’s anger as well, except too many apologies and investigations create the opposite effect - America is spinning to its way out of another abuse. Ultimately the administration never possessed control of its message, which is progressively destabilizing amid a secondary reaction to the Taliban’s infiltration tactics. Consumed by U.S. economics only to be shocked into South Asia, Obama himself is drifting far outside his comfort zone while the White House allows November to obscure February. GOP candidates are equally guilty of sacrificing the war’s strategy for political gains, thus gift-wrapping Washington’s logjam for the Taliban and culminating Afghanistan’s COIN breakdown.

The White House and Pentagon’s urgent problem is that apologies don’t go far enough. They must treat Bagram’s latest incident as a sign of wider discontent, rather than emphasize its isolated nature, and craft their response to Afghanistan’s major grievances. An innovative policy would address and reduce the number of unpopular night-raids, but this decision would come under attack by GOP and Pentagon officials alike (who intend to keep Special Forces in the country past 2014). Now the administration must risk waiting until May to formally accelerate NATO’s withdrawal, or move now and endure new GOP fire.

Whatever the administration decides, playing politics at home is the time-tested recipe for unsuccessful COIN.

February 24, 2012

Act of Valor’s Propaganda Warriors

Branded a hulking wooden steroid, the “realist” Hollywood blockbuster to date isn’t necessarily concerned with formal reviews. Real Navy SEALs didn’t sign up to act but eliminate their fictitious targets with technologically-precise choreography. “Navy SEALs are Olympic athletes that kill people for a living,” according to the opening of Tom Clancey’s opens his novelization for “Act of Valor.”

The worst acting of all manifested itself in an AP headline previewed days before Act of Valor’s premiere: “Navy SEALs cringe over media spotlight, but hope movie ‘Act of Valor’ draws new recruits.”

Obviously the most prominent force within America’s elite military units doesn’t limit itself to field operations. Some complaints within the Special Forces community do ring true; officers and staff involved in the film are reportedly “embarrassed by the massive media blitz and public interest, and - most of all - they are tired of getting grief from their special operations colleagues, whose daring exploits haven’t made it into the headlines.” Another segment of critics focuses directly on the unintentional revealing of state secrets, criticizing the Navy for “courting too much media attention.”

Maybe the SEALs “never expected” the movie “to be this big,” thinking “Act of Valor” would “open in a couple of theaters in military towns, then quietly move to cable television.” Yet it’s easy to dismiss the propaganda that Washington didn’t want its propaganda to blow up.

With the recruiting aiming for #1 at the box office, Act of Valor is sure to accomplish its mission by herding a new generation of Americans towards the Special Forces. U.S. officials don’t shy away from the movie’s origins, explaining how a strategic review prompted an increased demand for Navy SEALs. Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan, of the Navy Office of Information in Washington, told The New York Times, “For the Navy and the SEAL community it was, ‘Hey, you need 500 more SEALs’ and that launched a series of initiatives to try to attract more people. This film was one of those initiatives.”

Scott Waugh, one of the film’s co-directors, said he received a “request for proposal” from the Navy in early 2008, asking for “a studio to come in and tell their story in a theatrical narrative. They knew that we would authentically ‘get’ their brand and give it the accuracy that they wanted.” What began as a stylized recruitment video eventually evolved into a full-length film.

William McRaven, the current commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), has also defended the movie from its detractors inside the Pentagon, even revealing that he signed up for special forces after watching John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.” Wayne’s 1968 film was perceived as overt propaganda in favor of unpopular war. McRaven added that Washington’s latest promotion established an 8-man multicultural platoon of white, black and Latino troops.

“It was initially started as a recruiting film so we could help recruit minorities into the teams.”

“Act of Valor” has criss-crossed media - movies and video games - for maximum exposure along the 18-28 male demographic. To those Americans ready to join or sitting on the fence, high-octane action sequences and manly bonds (and Osama bin Laden’s killing) will trump mediocre acting. “Act of Valor’s” timing couldn’t be better either, as the importance of recruitment campaigns has skyrocketed after the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The Obama administration now requires more SEALs than the Navy previously envisioned to spearhead a world-wide escalation in Special Forces, estimated at 66,000 and growing (double the number of personnel before 9/11).

McRaven is reportedly pushing for more independence as Special Forces “expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

However “Act of Valor’s” effectiveness is less certain outside of America, and the glamorized portrayal of violence and U.S. military might may create counterpropaganda on an international scale. As The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman recently observed, “The Rambo approach doesn’t always sit well with diplomats” or countries that America is technically at peace with. The same opinion should circulate through anti-American populaces overseas, generating a dangerous trend where U.S. Special Forces increase their popularity at home and unpopularity abroad.

Lieutenant General James Vaught, a former Army Delta Force commander, has voiced separate concerns over Hollywood’s exposure, predicting that “if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy’s going to be there ready for you.”

“Now, watch it happen. Mark my words – get the hell out of the media.”

Equally important, Americans as a whole have grown increasingly supportive of Special Forces as a blanket response to the military demands of U.S. foreign policy; cheaper, faster counterterrorism (CT) is now placed high above the more costly, complex and time-consuming nature of counterinsurgency (COIN). Problematically, Special Forces cannot advance the overall strategy of COIN merely by avoiding civilian casualties and thus “protecting the population.” Too often Special Forces are perceived as the perfect counterattack to guerrilla warfare, an error pointed out by most U.S. military officials involved in the study of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). Targeted killings only accomplish limited objectives in COIN, which is non-military in nature, and frequent contact with the populace often trumps invisibility.

The outcome of Special Forces missions can also wreck havoc in a local government’s political sphere (Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen); too often host governments are left to struggle with Washington’s political or military blowback. The Obama administration intends to rely on local governments as they boost their own nation-building capacity, except this system is easily corrupted or distracted from its objective.

“Act of Valor” shows the SEALs “moving from place to place—Costa Rica, the high seas, Somalia, Mexico—treating the world as their war zone,” writes Klaidman. That may be the Pentagon’s message to young American males, but it’s unsuitable for the audiences that they plan to clandestinely infiltrate.

February 23, 2012

Arming Syria’s Opposition: More Reward than Risk

No one can count the dead with accuracy.

20 brutal days have elapsed since Russia and China exercised their vetoed in the United Nations Security Council, nixing a power-sharing agreement with Bashar al-Assad and triggering a ferocious onslaught of opposition territory. Under pressure to crush Syria’s opposition before any future political developments, al-Assad and his security forces would succeed where Muammar Gaddafi failed. In contrast to Gaddafi’s mad dash to Benghazi, which NATO warheads prematurely ended at the last moment, Syria’s military has reduced Homs to a graveyard. At least 300 people were reported dead in the first five day of shelling, suggesting an enormous death toll over the last three weeks, and NATO warplanes are nowhere to be found.

The overriding question: when and how will foreign powers come to the rescue?

Unfortunately for the entire Syrian populace, Homs’s chaotic front is mirrored by entrenched divisions at the geopolitical level. Discontent with the Obama administration’s response is growing inside Washington, applying two contradicting sources of pressure. On one side, more conservative elements are beginning to chafe at the administration's abandonment of Syria’s opposition, citing a “win” for Russia and Iran. On the other side, those fearing another Libyan mission employ a variety of objections against intervention, leading observers to draw links between Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. The nebulous introduction of al-Qaeda in Iraq (still unconfirmed) further spooked the Pentagon from arming the opposition, a warning that ultimately feeds into al-Assad’s narrative. Syria’s opposition is too divided, too unknown and thus too unpredictable for Washington’s tastes, especially since U.S. obedience is far from guaranteed.

Though valid, these precautions are leading many observers to predict that the Obama administration will not repeat Libya’s campaign. European officials such as British Foreign Minister William Hague also argue that Syria’s death toll (estimated between 6,000 and 8,000) is excessively high, but still not high enough to justify military intervention. When combined with military assurances from Russia and Iran, al-Assad is feeling too confident for someone in his position as he escalates a nation-wide crackdown.

U.S. officials have promised imminent action in response to Syria’s rising bloodshed, Russian-Chinese resistance and internal political pressure. The “Friends of Syria” will convene on Friday in Tunisia to discuss future options and punitive punishments for al-Assad’s regime, starting with a demand for periodic ceasefires. The Syrian National Council will also be recognized “as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” leaving space to absorb other oppositional groups. However these measures will yield no tangible effects on the ground without a comprehensive politico-military strategy to back them up.

For now Washington and Europe continue to rely on the Arab League’s faulty power-sharing agreement, a deal that Moscow supports in theory but opposes in reality.

Despite vouching for a crumbling regime, al-Assad’s allies are minimizing their strategic disadvantage by sticking close together and refusing to budge. Many figures in the international media have accurately compared the West and Gulf’s hesitation with Russia and China’s decisive support for al-Assad. The end result is a vicious fourth-generation conflict: high-intensity asymmetric warfare in Syria’s streets and gridlock in the political arena. Walking sideways rather than backward, Moscow announced that it would skip Tunisia’s summit as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated his demand for “dialogue” on Thursday. Lavrov vocally supported a replication of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power-sharing initiative in Yemen, a deal that recently transferred executive power from Ali Abdullah Saleh to vice president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi.

Now Moscow and Beijing seek “a speedy end to any violence in Syria and the launch of inclusive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition without preconditions for a settlement, and that excluded foreign intervention in Syrian affairs.”

Interestingly, this prospect was ruled out on Wednesday by King Abdullah Al Saud himself during a teleconference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, setting up a conflict of interests with Western and Gulf capitals. Angered by Moscow’s failure to “coordinate with the Arabs” before vetoing the UNSC’s resolution, Abdullah was quoted by the Saudi Press Agency as saying, “Now any dialogue about what happened is pointless.” Given the King’s pattern of supporting cooperative satellites and opposing Iran’s ally, Saudi troops could represent the most militarily and politically feasible option at the moment.

The question then becomes: is Abdullah as willing to send the GCC’s Peninsula Shield into a hot war-zone?

For their part most oppositional elements aren’t requesting a Libyan-style air raid, only enough military and humanitarian support to finish the job themselves. This process will take longer than Libya’s insurgency - an indefinite period of years with no guarantee of success - but its progressive nature could generate the most stable path towards a democratic transition. Speaking in London, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned al-Assad of “increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.” This rhetoric suggests that Western and Gulf forces will increase the flow of arms into oppositional hands (a process suspected to be in its early stages), but only when Syria’s opposition has coalesced and openly identified itself.

“We will do everything we can to avoid a Libya-style intervention," Syrian National Council executive member Bassma Kodmani told TIME on Tuesday. "We aren't talking about regime change. We're talking about Syrians themselves achieving the removal of the regime."

Syria’s pro-democracy movement possess the resiliency to weather al-Assad’s offensive and eventually counterattack his regime, even if this struggle exceeds a decade. Waiting too long to intervene, though, could lead directly to the regional chaos that foreign powers currently fear.

February 22, 2012

Quran Sparks: From Butterflies to Chaos

Social instability is aptly compared to wildfire due to their chaotic similarities and a binding reaction to order. While the embers of social unrest are known to spread beyond established predictions, outpacing the government’s response, chaos theory relies on predetermined conditions to predict undetermined outcomes.

Political and social unrest naturally manifests from a dry environment - and Afghanistan is scorching.

On Monday night several U.S. soldiers at Bagram Airbase transported a load of garbage for incineration, a package that included 60-70 books used by detainees at the adjacent Parwan Detention Facility. At some point five Afghan workers assisting in the task noticed between 4 and 15 Qurans in the burning pile, retrieved them and went to visit provincial chief Ahmad Zaki Zahed. U.S. officials reacted with immediacy, issuing numerous apologies on Tuesday and pledging to educate all coalition forces on the proper handling of religious texts.

They were already too late. Detailed information spread through local mosques by Tuesday morning, and the fire from Bagram’s pits is now jumping down Afghanistan's dusty streets. Two days of multi-provincial protests have left at least seven people dead and dozens more injured, most at the hands of Afghan security forces (four in Parwan province and one each in Kabul, Jalalabad and Logar). The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is also lock-downed until further notice, citing past instances of anti-American violence.

U.S. officials are playing every card in their rhetorical deck to minimize Afghanistan’s latest outbreak of political unrest. Both the White House and NATO have apologized profusely in comparison to the scripted, conditional regret that often accompanies civilian casualties. U.S. General John Allen, commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, thanked the local Afghans "who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action. We are thoroughly investigating the incident and are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again.”

After meeting with President Hamid Karzai in a display of remorse, the U.S. Embassy quoted Allen as saying,"We've been dying alongside the Afghans for a long time because we believe in them, and we want to give them a bright future."

Unfortunately for General Allen, the rarity of these incidents generates a limited impact on the political reaction to them. The U.S. response to Monday’s bonfire is crystalized around a lapse in judgement - "This is not who we are. These are very, very isolated incidents.” - but clarity offers negligible solace during a visceral event. Many Afghans don’t know anything about Americans beyond their contact with U.S. soldiers (just as the majority of Americans poses minimal knowledge of Afghan culture), and promises to correct future errors “in the fastest and most appropriate manner possible” are falling on deaf ears.

"It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen told NATO TV. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."

Protesters are barely listening to the advice of Afghan commanders, some of which publicly sided with the streets, so Allen’s explanation is ferrying little water to Afghanistan’s dry political fields. Rather than express U.S. accountability, the incident has reinforced a general carelessness that pervades the image of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Burning Qurans are immediately associated with other U.S. “errors,” such as civilian casualties and the recent urinating minefield, defying Allen’s attempt to fit Monday inside a vacuum. This chain reaction then transfers to America’s overall strategy in Afghanistan. Apologies also lose their sincerity (and thus their value) over time, and negligence drains the trust reservoir to its limit. Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi later informed lawmakers of the Kapisa bombing, "We were not involved in that incident, NATO did not coordinate that attack with our police.”

“This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, who participated in a demonstration outside of Kabul. “They always admit their mistakes. They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”

The governor's office in Kandahar province would call the incident a "shameful move by some stupid individuals."

Nor does it help to put “Quran” in the same sentence as “Bagram,” a symbol of oppression to civilians and militants alike. The Taliban seized on this association to urge "our brave people” to “target the military bases of invader forces... kill them, beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again."

Although the burden of accountability is unrealistically high, the responsibility of governance is unavoidable during counterinsurgency. A state assumes authority of the political and military theaters, whether directly or through a cooperative government, and thus cannot excuse itself from negative events. Looking to amplify their grassroots effects, Parwan’s protest group is sending 20 representatives to Kabul on Thursday for consultations with Afghan parliamentarians (a small minority joined the street demonstrations). They also demand a meeting with Karzai, who has condemned the incident and promised to open an immediate investigation.

The President is scheduled to address both houses of Parliament on Thursday morning, and will presumably leverage these outstanding issues during his transactions with Washington.

Bagram’s developments carry a strategic undercurrent that U.S. officials are sure to ignore in public and fret over in private. Unable to near the beginnings of an agreement over night raids and control over detainees, Washington and Kabul are reportedly moving to split negotiations into separate processes. This decision feeds into the Obama administration’s dual urge to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, while also increasing the number of Special Forces post-2014. The dilemma is somewhat similar for Afghans: the majority don’t want U.S. troops to leave immediately, but don’t want them to stay after 2014 either.

Afghans currently quoted in the media are speaking from one script: foreign forces should leave now if they can’t bring peace to Afghanistan.

February 21, 2012

New Chaos Looms Before Somalia’s Potential Peace

For the first time in over a decade, international confidence is steadily building in the world’s archetypical war-torn state. The change in temperature marks a dramatic turnaround from 2010, when al-Shabaab had increased its presence across Somalia proper and launched a consistent mortar assault on Mogadishu's presidential palace. The militancy’s failed Ramadan offensive (al-Shabaab erroneously predicted the fall of Villa Somalia) would initiate a gradual decline that continues to the present, and post-Kampala reinforcements from the African Union (AU) culminated in the relative clearing of Mogadishu.

A historic famine and the introduction of Kenyan forces into southern Somalia has further diminished the militancy’s sustainability, with the latter signaling an entry for Ethiopian forces to the west.

Now, after a year of intense lobbying, the United Nations Security Council is fulfilling Yoweri Museveni’s wish by raising AMISOM’s cap from 12,000 to 17,731. Some 10,000 troops currently operate inside Mogadishu and are beginning to expand outside the capital’s perimeter, but Uganda’s President has requested a force in excess of 20,000 to retake the country. The additional 5,000 soldiers are sure to face delays, given the track record of previous deployments and uncertainty of international donors, so their immediate effect is primarily felt in spirit as AU commanders become increasingly emboldened. Nevertheless, the 3-front campaign between Mogadishu, Kismayo and Beledweyne presents al-Shabaab with a deadlier threat than Ethiopia’s U.S.-approved occupation.

The degree that Somalis suffer under foreign occupation has shrunk from past invasions; both Kenyan and Ethiopian forces have been warmly received despite the inevitable incidents of abuse that accompany a military campaign. Unfortunately the price of peace often includes warfare, and another vicious cycle will preclude any attempt to destroy Somalia’s insurgency. With Mogadishu relatively secured by AU and TFG units (sporadic gunfights and suicide bombings still disrupt the city’s rebuilding process), the AU plans to move on al-Shabaab positions in Afgoye, Merka and Baraawe. However the force ratios and logistical requirements behind this expansion demand a waiting period until AU reinforcements arrive.

A preemptive assault could lead to unnecessary casualties and civilian deaths.

Kenyan soldiers are experiencing their own battle with protracted time-lines and stretched logistics as they fight their way to Kismayo, located roughly 90 miles from their border, and clearing the port will require months of urban fighting. No one outside of Kenyan and Somali policy circles is privy to Nairobi’s strategic vision, but Kenyan officials reportedly aim to push al-Shabaab across the Jubba River. Nairobi has yet to commit the resources for this expanse of semi-lawless territory.

In conjunction with Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi, Ethiopian troops entered the country in late December and are building up a significant force on al-Shabaab’s western flank. Addis Abba has stretched its front from above Beledweyne to Mandera, a Kenyan border-city, with the intent of seizing al-Shabaab’s central garrisons: Garbahaareey, Beled Hawo and the strategically vital Baidoa. Battle tanks are reportedly advancing on Baidoa, Somalia’s largest internal city, and al-Shabaab should greet Ethiopia’s armored convoy with fiercer resistance than Kenya’s troops currently experience.

As Somali and African officials prepare to lock down international support at London’s summit, Western officials are debating the feasibility of expanding their air cover over Kenyan and Ethiopian forces. U.S., British and French military assets already operate along the Horn’s coast, but a coalition of American, British, Dutch, French units could intensify their air raids as AU forces expand across the country. One British source explained, "There was no political will on this to begin with, but that has been changing. We know where the camps are, where they set up and where they launch from."

Although a simple military operation into Somalia doesn’t exist, the coordinated nature of Somalia’s foreign campaign represents a vast improvement over previous attempts to stabilize the country. This strategy could yield lasting fruit if paired with a sustainable political construct at the local and national levels; the UNSC’s resolution orders TFG and AU forces to enter central Somalia “on the basis of clear military objectives integrated into a political strategy.” James Swan, the U.S. special ambassador to Somalia, also emphasized this point on Tuesday during a conference call to reporters.

"United States believes a key priority that straddles security, politics and recovery is how to govern and assist in areas recaptured from Al-Shebab," Swan told reporters in a conference call. "It is urgent to avoid security and governance vacuum in these locations and to provide a rapid recovery where Al-Shebab has left.”
Problematically, increased coordinated between the TFG and its neighbors has yet to transfer to Mogadishu’s political arena, where President Sharif Ahmed maintains a deadlock with Parliamentary Speaker Hassan Aden.

A separate report on Somalia’s current environment will be posted shortly.

February 20, 2012

Illusions of “the Yemeni Model”

They couldn’t believe their ears.

After months of backroom negotiations and a week of intense lobbying reduced the United Nations to Moscow’s “consensus,” nyet still reverberated throughout the Security Council’s chamber. Russia and China’s veto of a potential resolution in Syria triggered immediate outrage and disgust, exploding throughout Western capitals, oppositional Arab states and global social media. Unable to contact her counterpart during the resolution’s internal debate, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ascended the UN’s stage to ask Moscow, "Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League?"

She would drop the rhetorical questions after Saturday’s double-veto with China, declaring, “The Syrian people have asked the Security Council to act. The Arab League has asked the Security Council to act.”

Whose side, though, is the Obama administration on? Despite lacking the moral high ground in Syria’s revolution, Moscow’s counter-propaganda against the Western-Gulf winds of regime change is floating on indirect truths. Russian officials persistently argue that foreign powers are invested in their own interests, and that regime change was approved as soon as Syria’s uprising accelerated in March 2011. Most of Moscow’s rhetoric is applicable to itself, but Western and Gulf leaders have condemned Russia and China for vetoing a resolution that Syria’s opposition doesn’t fully support. Instead, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has opted to copy the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) unpopular power-sharing initiative in Yemen.

Cross-pollination of Yemen and Syria’s “transitions” could have preceded last October, when the UNSC unanimously passed the GCC initiative with minimal Western coverage (Yemen has received the least U.S. attention of any major uprising). The GCC’s power-sharing agreement between Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) slowed the pace of regime change to a crawl, freezing the organic pro-democracy movement and various actors out of the political process. Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, will be formally promoted to the presidency on February 21st, courtesy of a UN-authorized referendum that is being wrongfully billed as an election.

President Barack Obama broke his silence over the weekend by christening a redundant exercise, telling Hadi that he’s “optimistic that Yemen can emerge as a model for how peaceful transition in the Middle East can occur when people resist violence and unite under a common cause.”

Conceived by U.S. and Saudi minds in April as a post-Mubarak model, the GCC initiative combined elements of Egypt’s contingency to quell Yemen’s revolutionary forces. Most of Saleh’s relatives - those that haven’t defected or succumbed to oppositional pressure - remain in their military positions, including his son and nephew. Ahmed and Yayha still coordinate with U.S. officials as the heads of Saleh’s Republican Guard and Central Security Organization, the leading perpetrators of violence against anti-regime protesters. His half-brother also commands the Air Force, which has bombed anti-government tribesmen as frequently as al-Qaeda positions.

Although direct military support is reportedly on hold, the White House’s counter-terrorism chief recently announced an increase in equipment and training as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to assert its reach. John Brennan and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein have also shunned Yemen’s pro-democracy movement in favor of Saleh’s regime, and Hadi’s new ranking of “Field Marshall” completes the parallel. One Yemeni minister even told Reuters that “the American administration... will strongly confront any attempts to keep Hadi from being elected as the country's president.”

Western and Gulf powers view the GCC’s agreement as a model of counter-revolution; the diplomatically-immune Saleh has been “removed,” a controllable figure from his regime sits in his place, counter-terrorism operations are unaffected, Yemen’s opposition is cornered by the ruling party and foreign powers, and the revolutionaries are now forced to choose between a single-candidate “election” and further political isolation. The GCC’s power-sharing was constructed from the ground up to prevent regime change, a reality that will become more apparent during the volatile two-year “transitional” period to Yemen’s next election cycle.

Moscow eventually realized that a similar process could be replicated and internationally approved in Syria, contributing to a stalemate that now haunts the region. Choosing Abu Dhabi’s first Russian-GCC ministerial as his strategic setting, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov launched his campaign less than two weeks after the UNSC passed Yemen’s Resolution 2014. Lavrov told reporters that Moscow is “convinced that this approach to Yemen’s developments, presupposing a dialogue between authorities and opposition forces, must be applied to the situation in Syria as well.” The Minister's positive description of Yemen’s power-sharing agreement demonstrates just how counter-revolutionary it is.

“The GCC’s initiative was launched, and everyone – the Cooperation Council itself, Arab League, EU, US, Russia and China – have acted very responsibly, not dictating artificial deadlines but providing sufficient time – months – for the stated purpose to be achieved.”

Seemingly expecting a quid pro quo in Syria, consultations between U.S. and Russian officials started before Lavrov went public. Reports of private negotiations surfaced through January, many of them alleging that the Obama administration left Moscow to compose a soon-to-be-released "Russian initiative.” This plan would be rejected by Syria’s opposition and Western capitals alike, but the conditions of “dialogue” and “a cabinet of national unity” remain identical to Yemen’s. The crossover was solidified after Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, Qatar’s Prime Minister, unveiled the Arab League’s Syrian initiative with the following line: “This plan is similar to the plan for Yemen, where there was certain progress.”

Al-Thani called on Bashar al-Assad to "delegate powers to the vice president to liaise with a government of national unity,” to which Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem replied, “We do not imitate Yemen.”

The Obama administration and Europe’s full support for the Arab League’s "remarkable" proposal has generated one more obstacle for Syria’s revolutionaries. Admittedly divided on their leadership and international demands, oppositional groups find themselves caught in the jet wash of competing foreign powers. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed, "What happened yesterday at the United Nations was a travesty,” she failed to mention that the UN’s text was significantly diluted for Russian approval. UN Ambassador Susan Rice singled out Moscow and Beijing’s “empty arguments and individual interests” despite Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s confidence that “we have a much better understanding of what we need to do to reach consensus."

Russia has dutifully obeyed in Yemen and is even been charged with overseeing a national dialogue, giving new meaning to Rice’s assertion that Syria’s opposition “is faced with a neutered Security Council.” What she means is that Washington easily acquired Moscow’s vote in Yemen and insists on the same obedience in Syria. Looking at the region through their eyes, Russian officials have lost Libya and are jealously monitoring the Obama administration's counter-revolutions in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. They must fume over the
double standard of Ali Saleh, who escaped Western sanctions and is currently resting in Central Park’s Ritz Carlton before he returns to Sana'a.

Now Washington has the audacity to control Syria’s transition as well.

Considering that Moscow got its terms in Syria, Russia’s veto jars with Lavrov’s vocal support for copying Yemen’s deal. Russian officials may have felt uncomfortably rushed, as Churkin later told PBS’s Charlie Rose, but Moscow also feels that it cannot lose Syria at any cost - a dangerous zero-sum game. The Arab League’s transition will be pocketed as a last resort, and for now al-Assad’s “unconditional” dialogue remains the centerpiece of any political resolution. Lavrov would later announce after an emergency visit to Damascus, “Today we received confirmation from the president of Syria that he is prepared to cooperate in this effort.”

Beijing also sent Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to play up al-Assad’s constitutional referendum, which has been dismissed by Western capitals and oppositional networks.

An inherently unstable deal that avoids the country’s fundamental divisions, Syria's GCC clone has been greeted with predictable hostility from al-Assad’s regime. The situation is far past the point of “dialogue” and cannot be reversed through superficial reforms. Exile and immunity may offer a last hope at averting a large-scale civil war, but an emulation of Yemen’s breakdown will likely follow a U.S.-Russian compromise. Western and Gulf officials continue to disseminate the false notion that Yemen’s deal is “working,” having forced Saleh out of the presidency and temporarily halted wide-scale bloodshed. Clinton briefly alluded to this scenario when addressing Syria’s prospects, saying, “it took a long time, it was a lot of false starts, but we just kept at it day after day. And they’re going to have an election; they’re going to have the chance to at least try to move forward.”

Clinton naturally leaves out the resistance from Yemen’s revolutionaries, Houthi Sect and Southern Movement, who were blackballed due to their refusal to accept the GCC’s terms. Now the majority of Yemen’s violence has redirected into the north and south, and no sincere outreach to either movement has been attempted. Investigations and trials into Saleh’s abuses (before and after the revolution) are unlikely to materialize since his family is protected by national and international immunity, leaving old wounds to create new friction. The GCC initiative trades democracy for security, ignoring the probability that its imbalanced conditions will result in neither.

While the consequences of regional warfare are chillingly real in Syria, the ultimate political effect reinforces a long-established double-standard: removing designated U.S. enemies while preserving friendly regimes. Those foreign powers that truly support Yemen and Syria’s people should put their interests first.

February 19, 2012

John Timoney: Bahrain’s “Super” Spokesman

If February 14th’s massive security blanket is any indication of his future policies - and it is - Bahrainis from all segments of society should prepare themselves for another prolonged uprising.

First hired by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in late December, John Timoney’s critics wasted no time predicting a clone of his policies in Miami-Dade and Philadephia counties. Bahrain’s new “supercop” was paired with John Yates, an ex-assistant commissioner from Scotland Yard, as part of U.S.-UK efforts to sell the King’s “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI), an shallow internal review that cherry-picked the lowest abuses. King Hamad would deny accountability at the highest levels, instead passing the blame to subordinates and foreign personnel. Comprehensive political reform was then minimized by promising to reform Bahrain’s security forces, which Timoney and Yates are now overseeing.

“Timoney's supporters view him as a tough, smart cop with a record for turning failing police departments around and controlling mass demonstrations,” writes The Guardian’s Ryan Devereaux. “In effect, they argue, he's the perfect candidate to improve Bahrain's security forces, which have been linked to the killing, torture and flagrant suppression of dissident protesters. The chief's critics, however, say Timoney's handling of protests and gatherings in each of the cities he's served in are wrought with examples of police abuse, illegal infiltration tactics, fear-mongering and a blatant disregard for freedom of expression.”

According to his own interviews, Timoney has established human rights training for police and is attempting to minimize the use of tear gas against Bahraini protesters. Yates recently touted this program, saying "the government has made excellent progress here.” Except a proper education flies out the window when ordered to disperse and quell protesters, as the government does on a daily basis, nor does any transparent system exist to document the behavior and crimes of foreign security contractors. After oppositional elements reported no change on the ground - February 14th’s crackdown was doused in tear gas - Timoney resorted to making his presence felt in the U.S. media.

Drawing on his (and the King’s) contacts, Bahrain’s “supercop” sounded more like an official spokesman as he conducted a high-profile bombing of Bahrain’s protesters.

“We have seen women taking active part in facilitating or assisting young men with these Molotov cocktails and those women should not be surprised if they are going to be arrested by the police,” he told the Christian Science Monitor in response to accusations of female abuse. “There is no systemic policy for dealing with women in general, that’s absolutely untrue. All that is, is a pure excuse for these young rioters to carry out their criminal behavior.”

The answer to many of Bahrain’s problems, in Timoney’s mind, is the infamous “Molotover.” These fearsome beasts attack helpless security forces and wreck havoc on society: “Police are responding to assaults they find themselves in.” In reality police and military personnel are people like everyone else, and thus possess the right to defend themselves, but disproportionate force flips the moral ground on top of them. Timoney also makes a valid point that tear gas offers an alternative to live rounds, even admitting that “tear gas unfortunately does impact on people who are not involved.” However the neutralization of international attention represents the strategic objective of King Hamad’s low-intensity crowd control.

"When you saw Occupy Wall Street, when people begin to engage in unauthorized marches that begin to cripple traffic and emergency vehicles," Timoney told Reuters earlier this week. "There's a reason why you have to go to the police department. It's not that they say, yea or nay regarding your right to speech, but can this be handled that it doesn't dramatically and drastically impact the rest of society?"

This seemingly-logical thinking is also rendered obsolete during a popular uprising that intends to impact the rest of society. Timoney has no sympathy for civil disobedience and revolution, viewing the phenomena as unwanted pests in need of crushing. The “supercop” utilizes U.S. media to criticize the violent elements of Bahrain’s youth, ignoring security forces who apply excessive force and, according to oppositional elements, continue to abuse detainees. Molotovers aren’t surfacing in vacuum but as a reaction to Bahrain’s lack of political representation and ongoing crackdown; Al Wefaq lacks control over these elements. Their direct action also sits below the government's level of force.

More than 40 officers were reportedly injured during the events surrounding February 14th, compared to over 100 on the oppositional side.

In addition to his praise of the King (and his new boss), Timoney welcomed the newly-appointed chief of public security for “understanding that reform is necessary and that in any organization people resist change.” Tariq Al Hassan separately claimed that the government is operating under a zero-tolerance policy: "We would never cover it up. We have nothing to hide." The bulk of Bahrain’s opposition views the BICI as a coverup, and tear gas as one of many physical manifestations. Radhi Mohsen al-Mosawi, deputy secretary general for political affairs of the Wa'ad party, called Timoney and Yates’ appointments a “public relations stunt.”

He was confident “that Bahraini people are not crazy to believe what they say.”

By combining an unflinching use of force with political resistance, King Hamad continues to shrink the prospects of dialogue while blaming the opposition for Bahrain’s collapse. Abdul-Jalil Khalil, who heads Al Wefaq’s parliamentary caucus, recently confided that senior Wefaq figures met two weeks ago with Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad at the government’s request. The delegation presented “a referendum on how to move toward full parliamentary democracy,” leading the King to ask “if we are ready for dialogue, and we said ‘yes’, but a serious and constructive one.”

“We presented our views on how to get out of this mess,” Khalil explained. “He said they’ll get back to us. Now we are at the first anniversary of Feb. 14, and security action has not worked. They realize they need to have a political solution.”

Unfortunately Al Wefaq’s president, Sheikh Ali Salman, doesn’t sound optimistic despite confirming the meetings at a news conference. His rhetoric toed a hard line around February 14th, at all times doubting the government’s sincerity to reform, and Salman spelled out the island’s violent spiral in basic terms: “This is because the government didn’t listen to its people and used a lot of force. The cocktails were used just in the last month. All the 11 months before there was nothing.”

CSM or Reuters should have asked Mr. Timoney why Salman is supposed to trust the government’s “dialogue” after his own home was teargassed during February 14th’s runup.

The Dark, Twisted Future of al-Qaeda

With his freshest propaganda video, Ayman Al-Zawahiri opened the latest act of a standing debate on al-Qaeda’s status: "Today, I have glad tidings for the Muslim Ummah that will please the believers and disturb the disbelievers, which is the joining of the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement in Somalia to al-Qaeda.”

The formal “merger” of al-Shabaab into al-Qaeda’s operational core left many involved actors and observers to speculate on the timing of Al-Zawahiri’s announcement. al-Shabaab’s commanders first declared their loyalty to Osama bin Laden after Navy SEALs eliminated local AQ commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in September 2009, so the two groups could be staging a new pledge after undergoing leadership changes. However most observers believe that propaganda is outweighed by a heavier factor.

"Zawahiri's announcement just formalizes what everyone already knew: al-Shabaab is an affiliate of al Qaeda," one anonymous U.S. official told ABC News. "This doesn't change the fact that al Qaeda's core is still suffering and trying to remain relevant."

al-Qaeda’s structure has weakened according to the most visible metrics. Its first-generation leadership, from the head of Osama bin Laden to his numerous deputies and field commanders, has been decimated by U.S. drones and Special Forces raids. While the network remains vaguely operational in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the region no longer provides sanctuary to train and plot in the open. al-Qaeda’s violent ideology also began to stagnate before the Arab revolutions, impairing its financial and personnel recruiting, but the Middle East’s democratic groundswell is threatening to extinguish bin Laden’s narrative. The vast majority of the Muslim nation (Ummah) couldn’t care less about joining al-Qaeda.

Yet judging the “weakness” of an asymmetric network - the inherently weak actor in a protracted conflict - can be a misleading task. al-Qaeda’s original core wasn’t never designed to sustain a direct attack or wage a guerrilla war, only lure U.S. armies into occupation and multiply the force of local Islamic movements. Although 9/11 and the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the network’s informal demise, “al-Qaeda 2.0” is growing by Washington’s own admission and re-orienting itself for the next decade.

Africa is officially “in.”

Whether by design, opportunity or the likely combination of both factors, diversity is instrumental to countering al-Qaeda’s regional decline in South Asia. Those branches cultivated in the early 2000s are now sustaining the organization as a whole, breaking up its territory and leadership to prevent total decapitation. Washington’s group-think has dubbed al-Qaeda’s new realm, a patchwork of hotspots that spans the 4,000 miles between Mauritania and Yemen, as the “arc of instability.” These belt combines the sub-networks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al-Shabaab and Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to dissipate damage against a global network. Nor can one underestimate the ongoing activity of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch, spawned in the process of removing Saddam Hussein, as U.S. officials begin to warn of Syrian bleed-over.

Joining ranks, while a potential sign of desperation, is a natural development of asymmetric netwar. In retrospect Afghanistan and Pakistan functioned as the original hub, a training ground for many of al-Qaeda’s future international commanders.

This evolution in strategy and organization is far from impervious, and al-Qaeda can
be theoretically destroyed with the correct policies. AQIM’s heyday has reached a vicious end as Sahel states increase their military cooperation against the group; Washington and European capitals also fund a string of desert bases in North Africa. AQIM’s leaders must now adapt to tighter security conditions or face a slow degeneration, however the group’s expansive territory continues to provide a long-term strategic crux. al-Shabaab isn’t so fortunate. After coming under simultaneous attack from three powers (the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia), Somalia’s militancy is suffering a gradual decline that al-Qaeda’s formal allegiance cannot arrest. The two networks are already intertwined, limiting any tangible ideological or recruitment boost, and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) seized on Al-Zawahiri’s announcement to produce its own counter-propaganda.

Addressing a recent anti-terrorism demonstration in Mogadishu, President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed told the crowd, "This country is for Somalis and not for foreign fighters like al-Qaeda – we do not tolerate their violence any longer."

Al-Zawahiri’s video also holds the potential to further divide al-Shabaab’s national and transnational elements, who remain split on their vision of an Islamic caliphate. Lost amid the speculation of Al-Zawahiri’s timing is a corresponding oath of loyalty from Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair, al-Shabaab’s former leader and current factional warlord. Also known as Abdirahman “Godane,” the transnationally-oriented northerner from Somaliland was ejected from the group’s leadership in December 2010 (by al-Qaeda’s council, no less) and replaced by an ally of Muktar Ali Robow, al-Shabaab’s nationalist deputy. However Godane continues to guide Somalia’s foreign militants and spokesman Sheikh Ali Mahamud Rage later declared an alliance with AQAP.

“You know Harakat Shabaul Mujahidin HSM in Somalia has joined directly to Al-Qaeda brothers which means we are part of them. We will work with other brothers of AQAP in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the world and we are part of them. We are the branch of AQAP in Somalia.”

U.S. military officials also link al-Shabaab to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, another religiously-minded militancy on the upswing, as a series of high-profile bombings and shootings rocks the country. Conclusive proof of links between AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab has yet to be made public, generating suspicions over Washington’s post-bin Laden narrative: the U.S. also seeks to expand in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive though, and AFRICOM’s General Carter Ham concedes that AQIM and Boko Haram have only exchanged ideological and technical support (similar to al-Shabaab and AQAP). This relationship could increase throughout the decade or go dormant; netwar can function on either level.

"What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts," Ham said in August 2011. "I'm not so sure they're able to do that just yet, but it's clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that."

Meanwhile in Yemen, U.S.-Saudi hegemony and drones provide indefinite fodder for AQAP’s ideological narrative of corrupt Western stooges. Despite receiving the most military attention of any offshoot, AQAP “remains the node most likely to attempt transnational attacks,” according to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. The vast majority of Yemenis reject al-Qaeda’s presence in their country, and many hold former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his U.S. military partners responsible for its growth. This reality, which Yemenis and observers have cautioned against for years, was made abundantly clear by the latest investigative report from The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill.

Now the Obama administration has prepared an undemocratic “transition” with the Saudi-bankrolled Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in order to reestablish counter-terrorism operations. Their looming mock election will install Saleh’s vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, on February 21st and rubber stamp al-Qaeda’s political message in the process.

The possibility that AQAP continues to flourish remains high.

Yemen offers a vivid example of why counter-terrorism is insufficient to destroy the concept of al-Qaeda. Drones and raids can only accomplish a limited set of military tasks and do nothing for the local populations being subjected to overflights and bombardment. Key leadership is removed and potentially divided while leaving the conditions of instability intact; drones reduce America’s military footprint but give nothing back to society. This curve may accelerate in the future, but U.S.-supported governments currently lack the means to fill the non-military vacuum left by counter-terrorism. In cases such as Yemen, supporting an autocratic government impairs any comprehensive strategy against terrorism.

Many U.S. military officials do make this point before jumping into the positives of “CT”: COIN principles still apply. Unfortunately the former is pushing too far ahead in America's foreign policy to defeat al-Qaeda in the long-term. Bin Laden always intended to wage a politico-economic war, and America and its allies must fight with the same mindset.