May 31, 2012

Northern Mali's Suspended Dynamics

The rapid developments sweeping across northern Mali are currently floating in a tense limbo.

Despite their public defense of Mali's territorial integrity and rejection of an Islamic state, Western and African capitals remain trapped between two impractical courses of action. Efforts to refer the situation to the United Nations Security Council have spiked in reaction to an inconclusive accord between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine, a militant group dedicated to the hardline imposition of Sharia. On Wednesday Thomas Boni Yayi, Benin's president and rotating chairman of the African Union, said the AU and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) "can take the example of Somalia, where an African force is operating with the support of the United Nations."

Yayi would toe a political line dug by Malian and ECOWAS officials, clarifying that a military solution "must come after dialogue, but this dialogue must not last too long." As a result, the AU's response has yet to progress beyond its immediate reaction to the MNLA and Ansar Dine's territorial expansion. The possibility of a diplomatic resolution sits a dead end, closed off by the MNLA's independence drive and Ansar Dine's pursuit of a strict Islamic state. "We do not want a west African Afghanistan," Yayi declared, but the AU and UN must accept the reality that neither group will compromise their ideologies. That leaves a military option to evict both networks, but the collective alliance of AU and ECOWAS lacks the independent capacity to restore lasting stability in Mali.

The blocs are enduring enough troubles as they attempt to restore Mali's government, and waiting months or even years will multiply the MNLA and Ansar Dine's resistance.

 Equally complicated is the relationship between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, which foreign powers should untangle and isolate before attacking either group. Negotiations over their final protocol continue to search for a middle ground that may not exist; MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher told the Associated Press on Wednesday, "We don't accept Shariah law. That's never what we wanted." The AP was able to contact one Ansar Dine fighter, Oumar Ould Hamaha, who explained that his group agreed "on 80 percent of the subject matter with the NMLA." However Ansar Dine is visibly unwilling to sacrifice its ultimate goal - the formation of an Islamic state - or sever its links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an incompatible position with the MNLA.

Ag Attaher said the MNLA wants Azawad's new government to ratify the United Nations' conventions, but Ansar Dine continues to resist the move. For their part, the MNLA's leadership "can never accept that a movement from outside Azawad comes and controls part of this territory." Yet the MNLA's own independence has obstructed any international drive to support the group over Ansar Dine, pushing them into an alliance of convenience.

Adding to this confusion, both Malian officials and the MNLA have dismissed a report that AQIM members recently unearthed Gao's arms depot. Malian Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara flatly rejected the information of an anonymous security official, while Colonel-Major Camara argued that the MNLA created the story in order to cover up "military aid from some of its allies." Which state or states are funding the MNLA is left unsaid. Separately, the MNLA's Mubarak Ag Mohamed told Magharebia that both groups only discovered "some light weapons" during house-to-house searches. A third party, the administrative and financial manager of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gao, said that AQIM fighters discovered a cache of government weapons following Gao's capture on March 31st.

As the city now functions as Azawad's de facto capital, the MNLA believes that the story was planted to accelerate a foreign intervention. Whatever the case, the difficulty of gauging the MNLA and Ansar Dine's force strength has only increased since their takeover of northern Mali. African and Western capitals must estimate how many weapons were looted from Libya, how many surface-to-air missiles crosses the border, how much munitions were seized from Mali's army and how many foreign fighters are trafficking arms into the country.

And they must eventually decide how long to continue a newly-established status quo in Azawad.

May 30, 2012

Iraq's Stalemate Continues To Harden

Their arrival in Erbil must have generated an uncomfortable sensation of déjà vu. Roughly two months after convening a show of force in the Kurds' autonomous capital, the political opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki once again found themselves deep in their end game theories. President Jalal Talabani and his Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were joined by the usual crowd: al-Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani and the Sadr Movement's Muqteda Al Sadr. 

The odds of them reconvening over the same terms also increased when Talabani dismissed the possibility of submitting a no-confidence vote to parliament. 

Although the concept of a national dialogue is calculated to avoid the possibility of civil war or another messy election, Talabani's decision will surely embolden al-Maliki's attempt to remain in power without sacrificing any authority to Sunni, Kurdish or various Shiite parties. Each believes that al-Maliki is steering the country towards a new dictatorship - and each has been personally wronged by the "dictator" - but their failure to reach an actionable consensus is playing into al-Maliki's short-term advantage. Of the three oppositional parties, the Sunni-affiliated Iraqiya actively supports the election of a new premier (either selected by a national conference or election) in response to its first place finish in 2010's parliamentary. Iraqiya spent the first quarter of 2011 organizing a partial boycott against al-Maliki's cabinet before falling back to regroup. 

Allawi himself realizes the danger of another election but essentially demands a do-over if al-Maliki cannot be persuaded to implement the Erbil Agreement, which has yet to resolve their parties' power-sharing disputes. 

Talabani has yet to reach this point despite al-Maliki's own friction with the Kurds (Barzani includes himself amongst those Iraqis that view the Prime Minister as a dictator). He would prefer to contain the political crisis and exert a measure of control over its eventual outcome, a sensible policy considering the alternative of a hostile power struggle with al-Maliki. A recent statement on Talabani's website announced that he's, "firmly convinced of the seriousness of the current circumstances which entail that we speed up efforts to sit on the table of brotherly and constructive dialogue." 

However Tehran is supposedly playing a factor in his decision-making, further complicating efforts to genuinely bridge Iraq's political divisions. General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran's Al-Quds Force, is also suspected of urging Tehran's Shiite contacts to enter a dialogue with the premier. 

Whether this influence has reached al-Sadr remains open to debate (his independence is generally underestimated by Western media), but the prominent cleric also continues to sit on Baghdad's fence. Multiple deadlines to accept the Erbil Agreement have passed without a concrete response, adding to the evidence that al-Maliki's opponents don't want to chance another election or assume the blame for new violence. One Sadrist lawmaker added that the cleric is facing internal Shiite pressure to keep al-Maliki: "There is a problem because the downfall of al-Maliki would create rifts among Shiites." The Sadrist politician was referring to a recent letter from Grand Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, who has lived in Iran and offered religious guidance to al-Sadr. 

Ideally, al-Sadr seeks to leverage his parliamentary bloc as a means of control over al-Maliki and avoid confrontation with his own base. How long he can hold onto this strategy, though, is a separate issue; in a semi-related development, al-Sadr's old stomping grounds of Basra continues to follow Iraq's other drives toward regional autonomy. Sabah Albazzouni, the head of the Basra Provincial Council, recently told Al-Hayat that his governorate "wants to create a southern province due to the severe political crisis that the country has been facing since the end of last year." 

The combined positions of Iraq's leaders indicate the obvious: the prospect of an amicable resolution lurks far in the distance. With the opposition still uncommitted to the nuclear option of a no-confidence vote, al-Maliki is motivated to stall a national dialogue for long as possible and accept this condition as a last resort to save his authority. This political stalemate is then compounded by the interference of Iran and America, who perversely aligned behind al-Maliki after the U.S. withdrawal in order to safeguard their private interests. Washington not only continues to unconditionally support al-Maliki over Iraqiya and the Kurds, but also remains publicly disconnected from Iraq's political environment. Obama personally offended Allawi and al-Mutlaq when he hosted al-Maliki in December 2011. Later in April, Barzani criticized the stagnant state of U.S. policy before boarding a plane to Washington. 

"During the most recent political standoff, the United States remained the indispensable honest broker and the only one trusted by, and in regular communication with, all of the leading blocs," Tony Blinken, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, said after Barzani visited his office. "Much of this engagement takes place quietly, unadvertised. But just because you don't see it and we don' say it, doesn't mean it's not happening." 

Given that no part of the situation has changed, the White House's transparent propaganda bodes ill for the future of Iraq. Much like al-Maliki, the Obama administration continues to base U.S. policy on the perpetuation of Iraq's status quo. The upshot is that al-Maliki's opponents cannot expect a third party to objectively mediate Iraq's crisis, leaving them to ultimately move against al-Maliki in one formation or another.

May 29, 2012

More Updates From Northern Mali's 4GW

As stated in the previous post, the fluctuating situation in northern Mali and its outflow of information is moving at a rapid pace, often by the day or hour. 

Sometime between Saturday night's celebration in Gao and Monday night, the uncertainty of northern Mali's future took another hit when the National Liberation Front of Azawad (MNLA) balked on Ansar Dine's final protocol. This agreement contained the provisions for a strict version of an Islamic state, in opposition to the more tolerate and secular model that the MNLA envisions. MNLA officials have defended their governing style in order to soothe the international community, a futile tactic with a high probability of agitating Ansar Dine's membership, but the Tuareg movement appears to have intercepted a looming disagreement. 

“We have refused to approve the final statement because it is different from the protocol agreement which we have signed,” MNLA member Ibrahim Ag Assaleh told Reuters. 

According to MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, the two groups' preliminary agreement has yet to break down to the level described by the international media. He claims that negotiations over the "details" are ongoing, meaning their "big picture goals remain the same," except the MNLA and Ansar Dine hold mutually exclusive objectives at the strategic level. Both must cooperate in the short-term to expand their individual resources and authority - an alliance that is akin to a survival pact made on a deserted island. Ag Assarid argues that Ansar Dine's members are not fanatics, contrary to the MNLA's anxiety towards Islamic hardliners and fears of an external takeover. Amid the political and media battle over Sharia, the two quoted MNLA members rejected Ansar Dine's strict laws and harsh punishments before reinforcing their own movement. 

“It is as if they want us to dissolve into Ansar Dine,” Ag Assaleh warned. “That is unacceptable.” 

Speaking on behalf of leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, Moussa Ag Asherif tipped off their confident ambitions by describing Ansar Dine's political offer as a "take it or leave it" basis. The group seems convinced that it can ultimately co-opt the MNLA's independence movement into a full-blown Islamic state. If a multitude of reports are half credible, al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQIM) has already begun directing foreign recruits towards northern Mali to bulk up Ansar Dine's numbers. The MNLA responded by pressing for the formation of a national army which, like Azawad's political council, will not tolerate foreign elements. Ag Assarid says the MNLA agreed to an Islamic state "developed by their own imams and suited to local religious practices, not those from the outside." 

He added that the MNLA "is looking to Mauritania as a model." Coincidentally, parts of Mauritania are targeted for Ansar Dine and AQIM's regional Islamic state. 

The ongoing schism between the MNLA and Ansar Dine is dumping a large amount of friction into a murky environment. Developing a coherent response would be hectic enough with the benefit of a clear opponent, but the international community must now confront two different problems within the same space. Washington's response remains muted in the run-up to summer's presidential campaign, with no statements released by the Obama administration as of Tuesday night. Perhaps the West's public drive will be left to Europe, where French President Francois Hollande told the African Union and ECOWAS to, "go to the UN Security Council so that it finds a framework that allows stability to be restored in Mali and the wider Sahel." 

Paris is Washington's optimum partner due to its regional military capacities and vested interests, including French nationals kidnapped by AQIM. Conversely, any joint African-Western operation must include full-spectrum U.S. support in order to succeed, otherwise the mission is likely to protract beyond the AU and ECOWAS's own resources. The end result: observing the international community's thought process is no easier than interpreting the MNLA and Ansar Dine's competing strategies.

May 28, 2012

Updates From Northern Mali's 4GW

After concluding weeks of tense political negotiations - at times conducted through the assertion of military and religious power - with an informal declaration of the Islamic State of Azawad, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine finalized their "protocol agreement" during Saturday's a high-profile ceremony in Gao.

In an emailed statement to the AFP, the two groups announced to the world that they "have created the transitional council of the Islamic state of Azawad." Nearly the entire international community rejects both group's claims to northern Mali, but they have so far avoided direct and potentially suicidal confrontation with each other. The MNLA had previously contested the formation of a strict Islamic state, while Ansar Dine's proxy alliance with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was preparing to oppose a secular Azawad before choosing a more patient strategy. The MNLA continues to soften its actions by clarifying, "The Koran will be a source of the laws of the state," a non-absolute stance that could prove intolerable to Ansar Dine's interpretation of Sharia. For now, though, the two groups insist, "We are all in favor of the independence of Azawad... we all accept Islam as the religion."

This loose alliance should stay relatively intact as long as the international community remains united against both networks.

Gao might have hosted another event of significance when Ansar Dine members allegedly unearthed the government's emergency arms stockpile. According to a Mali security official, the "impressive" cache will "really boost AQIM's striking power" and equip the network beyond "the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso." Such information is conducive to conspiracy theory; AQIM has been questioned by locals and regional observers, who attribute its control to Algeria's security apparatus, and the Mali official speaks as though Ansar Dine is AQIM. The existence of a massive arms cache thus begins to sound like justification for a foreign military operation, but this possibility cannot be readily dismissed when so many accounts of AQIM are surfacing.

Alarmed Timbuktu mayor Hallé Ousman told Maghrebia, "Al-Qaeda's elements can enter and exit anytime. This has become a usual thing for us. They can pass in front of me without being observed."

How the international community plans to react in northern Mali remains hidden from view. Mali's transitional information minister, Hamadoun Toure, "categorically" rejected the declaration of Azawad in comments to AFP (apparently handling most of the conflict's information flow), while ECOWAS's Abdel Fatau Musah stated the established line between African and Western capitals: "The territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable." Problematically, neither Mali's incomplete government nor ECOWAS is military capable of retaking and holding the vast northern territory from a coherent insurgency, as Musah threatens. This mission can only be accomplished once Mali's government has been permanently stabilized and a unified strategy is developed at the international level.

Further complicating this process is the ambiguous merger between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, which is almost certain to obstruct an international dialogue with the MNLA. Musah claims that ECOWAS "is not going to entertain any negotiations with groups that we consider terrorist groups," but ECOWAS officials are stalling for time that they don't have. The passage of time has already driven the MNLA and Ansar Dine into a temporary alliance and time will allow the groups to prepare for a foreign intervention. Given the urgency in northern Mali, the Western response (for once) is either underestimating or muting the unfolding situation - a situation that is reminiscent of Somalia circa 2006. The possibility remains that AQIM intends to use Ansar Dine's foothold as a training ground for global jihadists, rather than a staging ground for attacks on the West, but the two tracks are likely to blur in the futute. Move Mali's events to Yemen and the U.S. media would hyperventilate over America's nightmare scenario, Pentagon statements drones and Special Forces ("training" in Mali as of late 2011).

The U.S. response, or lack thereof, is a crucial piece of the strategic puzzle being scrambled by the day in Azawad.

May 26, 2012

Egypt's Revolution Enters New Phase

The ascension of Ahmed Shafiq to Egypt's presidential runoff has triggered an uproar in revolutionary circles. Allowed to run after being previously disqualified for his service to Hosni Mubarak's, the state-supported Shafiq grabbed 24.9% of the vote to pull within points of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's backup candidate. Tarek Khouli, head of the April 6 democratic movement, spoke for many revolutionaries when she called the results "depressing." Another member of the popular opposition, the Free Egyptians Party's Ahmed Khairy, described the upcoming runoff as the "worst-case scenario" for a new Egypt. Mohamed ElBaradej, the former IAEA chief and moderate, predicted chaos two days before Egyptians went to the polls, Tweeting that the revolutionaries are stuck "between a rock & a hard place." 

"The revolution has ended," Ahmed Sarhan, Shafiq's spokesman triumphantly announced on Thursday night. 

As dispirited and out-organized as they are in comparison to established power sources, Egypt's revolutionaries still understand that their struggle doesn't end at a particular point in time. They will certainly never quit just because Shafiq, a former air marshall and Mubarak's final prime minister, says so. Only after its goals are fulfilled or its members are crushed does a revolution begin to recede back underground, and liberation movements often resurface if their causes are left unresolved. Revolution pits a given populace within a tug of war that doesn't end until one side gives up completely, possibly long after it has been dragged over the battle line. Egypt's revolution is neither over or beginning anew - it is simply continuing. 

In the immediate future, the revolutionaries must confront and survive the ugly reality standing before them. An iceberg of counterrevolutionary pressure is obstructing their movement towards a democratic Egypt, but some blame can be traced back to their inability to field their own candidate or rally behind a placeholder. Looking over the exit results, Khairy found solace in the 50% of voters who shunned Morsi and Shafiq for more moderate candidates, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. He also believes that some votes for Shafiq were cast out of spite for the Brotherhood. Many oppositional actors took a similar reading; Sabbahi spokesman Hossam Mounis said "the results reflect that people are searching for a third alternative, those who fear a religious state and those who don't want Mubarak's regime to come back." 

However Sabbahi and Abolfotoh's split (an estimated 39% of the vote) has cost the entire revolutionary opposition to short-term. 

"It is not the peoples' problem that candidates not associated with the old regime split their votes," says Wael Ghoneim, a Google executive that rose to prominence during the revolution's initial explosion. "We should blame Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh because both of them failed to correctly assess and estimate the current political situation. Each one of them opted to continue the presidential race alone." 

Making matters slightly more confusing - the revolutionaries can be easily overpowered but not fooled - Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood are both gunning for their hearts and minds. Widely untrusted by Egypt's progressive and secular forces because of its independent actions and cooperation with the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the Brotherhood nevertheless possesses an argument that could win in the moment. Essam el-Erian, vice president of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), positioned his organization as a revolutionary vanguard and urged Egyptians to "bring the country into unity in order to save the revolution and the blood that has been sacrificed." The Brotherhood is expected to reach out to Sabbahi and Abolfotoh's supporters in an attempt to outflank Shariq and the SCAF. 

"There are relentless efforts to restore the Mubarak regime, but the people and the revolutionaries will not allow them to do so," the Brotherhood said on its Twitter account. "Our goal is to create a united national front representing all stakeholders to stop Shafiq." 

Meanwhile Shafiq declared the revolution "stolen" by the Brotherhood before ending it himself. He claims that his platform "is about the future" while the Brotherhood seeks to establish "an Islamic empire," which "is not what (the youth groups) called for." Of course they haven't asked for him either, preferring to use him as a shoe target instead. Throughout his campaign, Shafiq has vilified the Brotherhood and revolutionaries alike for destabilizing the country and hijacking power, vowing to restore order in the process. His public promises and information manipulation indicate that he will lie, steal, corrupt and force his rule on what was supposed to be a new, democratic Egypt. Adhering to the nature of modern democracy, this dilemma has already coerced some members of Egypt's liberal movement to throw their support behind the lesser of two evils. 

The revolutionaries must now evolve their strategy and stick together heading into the runoff. Division is the lifeblood of counterrevolutionary forces. Amer El-Wakil, senior coordinator of the Egyptian Revolutionary Alliance, succinctly described their minimal options and the inherent risks of revolutionary action: "If we take to the streets they will accuse us of rebelling against democracy." Khouli said that "many revolutionaries are thinking of boycotting the runoff," but this decision must be accompanied by a comprehensive political message aimed at the average Egyptian and international community. They cannot be outmaneuvered and divided twice in a matter of weeks. If those Egyptians that voted for Sabbahi or Abolfotoh concede their immediate disadvantage and pursue a more realistic option of blocking Shafiq with Mosri, perhaps they can sign a public accord with the Brotherhood to generate leverage and establish the preconditions for future protests. 

Forming genuine political parties is imperative to their long-term survival.

Egypt's revolutionary situation, though presently dire, has yet to reach a doomed end. This conclusion will only be true if Egyptians surrender, which they have not. One or more decades may be necessary to flush out the old regime, establish a working relationship with Islamist parties, and contain the SCAF's political and economic ambitions. The immediate hardship and suffering that has followed Mubarak's collapse has created a legitimate urgency to "finish" Egypt's revolution, but its leaders and participants must accept the long-term nature of asymmetric struggle. 

Their response to the country's looming runoff will have a greater effect on the revolution's outcome than Friday's results.

May 25, 2012

Northern Mali's Mushrooming Uncertainty

Despite NATO's fear that Libya's civil war could trigger new unrest in its neighbors, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine's rapid seizure of northern Mali appeared to catch all involved parties off guard. Having disposed of Mali's president after accusing his government of negligence and corruption, a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo soon watched Timbukfu fall to Tuareg insurgents and Islamist ideologists. Ensuing attempts to configure a new government are marred in political and popular strife. Outside Mali, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has vacillated between negotiating a new government and entering the country to confront both dilemmas. 

Western countries are similarly wary of intervening in an internal political dispute and a regional insurgency.

Although the situation in northern Mali is ripe for an al-Qaeda induced overreaction, there is something equally disturbing about the West's relative silence. With Yemen now receiving the majority of America's terror-related attention, northern Mali remains a low public priority for the Obama administration and creeps below the U.S. media's radar as a result. The administration is presumably constructing a new contingency for an event that semi-officially began in October 2011, and the lack of media attention has helped contain the demand for an overt counterterrorism response. Northern Mali's socio-religious environment is incredibly complex, to locals and foreigners alike, and outside forces cannot kill the MNLA or Ansar Dine into submission. 

Highlighting its nationalist roots, the MNLA has rejected speculation that most fighters and commanders fled from Libya. Problematically, the West's resistance to most African independence movements (including the Tuaregs) is driving the MNLA into a partnership with Ansar Dine, a group with established links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

After announcing that the MNLA does not tolerate terrorism and calling for international support, the group has modified its narrative in recent days. Speaking to Magharebia following a tentative political agreement with Ansar Dine (along with the Arab Front for the Defense of Identity and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), MNLA member Nina Welet Ntalo said the factions have "agreed to choose Belal Ag Sharif, head of the MNLA political bureau, to lead the interim government." This agreement has yet to be finalized, but the emerging double-edged sword has the potential to minimize or agitate Mali's situation. Regional analysts observe a weakening in the MNLA's secular authority, increasing the need to broaden its Islamic outreach. 

Together the two groups can provide more effective oversight for ethnic and religious issues.

Realizing that Ansar Dine and its Taureg leader, former MLNA personality Iyad Ag Ghaly, cannot be evicted without major damage to its own network, the MNLA appears to be keeping its competition within sight. "Join them if you can't beat them" goes the cliche, and the MNLA intends to neutralize Ag Ghaly by giving him a piece of northern Mali's political pie. Amid ongoing accounts of the imposition of Sharia in Timbuktu, a senior MLNA commander (who refused to be identified) told Magharebia that his group "agreed with Iyad Ag Ghaly Sunday evening on the principle of Azawad state independence." He also claimed that the two groups agreed to remove Ansar Dine's black flag from Timbuktu and "install MNLA flags instead." 

"As to work under Islamic Sharia, we agreed that the choice will be for the Azawad people through a popular referendum about accepting the Islamic Sharia or secular system." 

In exchange the MNLA hopes to separate Ansar Dine from AQIM, whose foreign members have been spotted in Timbuktu, and resolve international suspicions over their movement. Thus the MNLA can remain opposed to terrorism while entering into an alliance with Ansar Dine. The anonymous MNLA commander confirmed that his group is urging Ag Ghaly to "abandon" his alliance with AQIM, but the charismatic commander has refused to do and may never make this decision. However AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud (known as Abdelmalek Droukdel) reciprocated after the MNLA and Ansar Dine signed their initial agreement, ordering the latter to respect the MNLA and gradually impose Sharia law.

 "Avoid as much as you can problems with the (MNLA), and stay away from provoking them as much as you can," he advises Ag Ghaly. "Invite them to cooperate to establish the common ground and reject the conflicts." 

In doing so, Droukdel intends to mask AQIM activity under the accepted presence of Ag Ghaly's faction: "practice all their field activities concerning the sharia-implementation project in the Azawad region under the cover of (Ansar Dine) and keep the cover of (AQIM) limited to our activities in the global jihad." Taking these evolving factors into consideration, how long is the international community - both African and Western powers - willing to let Ansar Dine fester? Military force appears to be a non-starter in northern Mali, an undeveloped space covering more territory than southern Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen. While the MNLA and Ansar Dine's combined strength is estimated at a modest 4,000 fighters (more heavily armed than before), Mali's terrain and non-military dimensions are likely to overpower any military response by ECOWAS, the AU or UN. That leaves a political response as the only realistic strategy to a political conflict. 

Unfortunately African and Western powers still appear to be searching for direction in the hazy Sahel.

May 24, 2012

Ethiopia Feigns Withdrawal Before Assault On Kismayo

The explanation didn't sound right in the first place and, in the end, may not have existed at all.

Two months ago Ramtane Lamamra, the African Union's (AU) Commissioner for Peace and Security, announced that several Ethiopian battalions would redeploy out of Somalia by the end of April. The announcement left many questions unanswered and defied Ethiopia's recent gains against al-Shabaab, including February's capture of Beledweyne and Baidoa. Having opened an enormous front involving hundreds of trucks, armored personnel carriers and tanks, Addis Ababa would risk its advantages by transferring near-term control to green AU reinforcements and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Its pincer assault was so immediately successful that many Somalis welcomed the arrival of their historic enemy, and some demand that they stay for the foreseeable future.

Lamamra, himself an Algerian diplomat, did qualify his statements by predicting that Ethiopian troops will remain in central Somalia if they can be "re-hatted" like Kenya's, making them eligible for AU funding. This clue tipped off the probable reality that Addis Ababa never intended to withdraw, only secure international funding and deceive al-Shabaab's leadership, and its troops are headed for the same destination as Kenyan troops. On Saturday an Ethiopian Major General involved in the Somali campaign announced, "Truthfully Ethiopia has fulfilled its mission in Somalia, and it is not a problem for our military to liberate the port city of Kismayo." Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly ruled out a withdrawal soon afterward, congratulating Ethiopian troops and promising to "take over more key strongholds."

Determining the exact cause behind Ethiopia's actions from the outside is impossible, but its motivation combines a number of factors. If the government wasn't employing deception from the start, military officials on the receiving end of positive local feedback may have convinced their political superiors to keep advancing into Somalia. Both parties would have experienced second thoughts about leaving a vacuum along Ethiopia's border and straining the TFG's capacity.

Another distinct factor is the slow pace of Kenya's Operation Linda Nchi, which has yet to reach Kismayo since its launch in October 2011. The TFG and AU's ideal strategy planned to secure all major population centers before August's presidential election, an event that will theoretically end the UN's current roadmap and established a more representative government. Kenyan forces were supposed to besiege Kismayo by February, according to Ethiopia's Major General John, but they remain locked in peacekeeping operations between the port and their border. Some observers attribute Kenya's pace to poor military planning, inexperience or a cautious approach, in contrast to Ethiopia's blitzkrieg movements. Garowe Online tackled this issue directly, reporting that Kenya ”has made little progress against Al Shabaab compared to Ethiopian troops.”

The likeliest explanation fuses all factors together.

As is the case with general war strategy, summoning Ethiopian troops to finish the job generates a matrix of risk and reward. The TFG-AU conceived a three-prong battle plan to restore an image of national stability to Somalia, deploying an influx of AU reinforcements to Mogadishu as Ethiopian and Kenyan troops advance from the west and south. The three forces would expand their area of operations until they overlap, then gradually turn local authority over to the TFG, but the plan appears to be taking longer than anticipated. Armored and ready for new battles, Ethiopian troops could be the only force capable of dislodging al-Shabaab from Kismayo before August and speeding up the AU's designs. By seizing all of the insurgency's strongholds (Beledweyne, Baidoa, Bardahaarrey, Baardehere, Kismayo, Afgoye), the AU hopes to flush al-Shabaab out of its remaining water, sever its economic network and dismantle the group into smashable pieces.

Clearing space for August's election is also vital to Somalia's stability; al-Shabaab has already interfered with clan leaders headed for Mogadishu and is expected to disrupt the election on the politico-security front. [Update: due to security concerns, the UN has decided to elect Somalia's next president through a centralized parliamentary vote in Mogadishu.]

However racing to Kismayo may not be possible before July. Deep as Ethiopia has treaded into Somalia, a 200-mile journey and multiple river crossings separates Baidoa from al-Shabaab's southern port. This distance will stretch Ethiopia's supply lines far from its border, making them more susceptible to ambushes and IEDs, and remove Ethiopian troops from an established comfort zone. The army did travel towards Kismayo in 2007, forcing tribal elders to evict the Islamic Courts Union (al-Shabaab's predecessor), but a formal incursion is likely to trigger more resistance. 2007’s eventual outcome must also be avoided: Somali militants have been forced out of Mogadishu and regional centers numerous times, only to re-infiltrate them when no government entity stood up on two legs. Although Ethiopia presumably has a plan to clear Kismayo, its plan to govern is likely no more advanced than Kenya's.

Capturing individual cities, even a string of them, represents a specific type of mission. Holding all of Somalia's south-central territory presents its own challenge, one that time may force the AU and TFG to break up into pieces.

May 23, 2012

NATO Dresses Stalemate As "Responsible End" In Afghanistan

NATO's war pageant in Chicago has run its course with few surprises. President Asif Zardari arrived in time for the ceremony, as if he would allow Pakistan to be defenselessly singled out from a high-profile event on American soil. President Francois Hollande's decision to withdraw French combat troops by the end of 2012 was neutralized by choreographed meetings with U.S. President Barak Obama.

"There will be no rush for the exits," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. "Our goal, our strategy, our timetable remain unchanged."

After dispensing with the established narrative that NATO forces have routed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and reversed the Taliban's momentum, Western leaders got down to the real business at hand: getting out of the country. The Obama administration has labored to sell both sides of its exit strategy to an unconvinced American public, seeking a perceptive balance between near-term withdrawal and a long-term security commitment. According to an insider account from The New York Times' David Sanger, Secretaries Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton first advised Obama to bring his surge of 33,000 troops home in September 2012 to exploit America's election cycle. This move would allow him to sell a 2014 withdrawal time-line, frequently criticized by the GOP, while leaving 60,000+ troops to fight through two more summers.

Obama veiled the future of U.S. policy during his brief visit to Bagram Air Base, saying that American troops won't fight past 2014 and that no "permanent bases" will be constructed. Left for another day were a substantial number of Special Forces and temporary bases, to be transferred to the Afghan government at a later date. Chicago has since filled in some gaps; with the percentage of Afghans living under government authority scheduled to rise from the mid-60s to 100%, all combat operations led by American forces will cease in the summer of 2013 and NATO-ISAF's combat mission will end on December 31st, 2014. NATO also got a head start on shaping the perceptions of Afghanistan's next election, which officials promise to be fairer than Karzai's previous (NATO-backed) victory.

The two presidents said they reached a "vision post-2014 in which we have ended our combat role, the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues."

Ultimately, though, Obama would only say of his Iraqi mulligan, "We also agreed on what NATO’s relationship with Afghanistan will look like after 2014. NATO will continue to train, advise and assist, and support Afghan forces as they grow stronger." Various media estimates of Special Forces, which possess the abilities to train and fight ("assist and support"), range between 3,000 and 10,000 personnel. The White House will presumably release the real figure at a later date, but Obama is visibly selling half-truths to minimize the war during election season and beyond. By using temporary bases to support a robust network of Special Forces and U.S. air power, Americans can move onto the next war (and their economy, Obama frequently reminds them) as Afghanistan's continues.

The idea of U.S. forces disengaging completely from the Taliban after 2014 seems impossible. Attempting at least some level of spin control, Obama ended his NATO address by cautioning, "the Taliban is still a robust enemy... and the gains are still fragile." Thus the White House and Pentagon have flipped this point its head, explicitly alerting their multinational audience that, "there is a narrative out there that combat operations for the U.S. stops at Milestone 2013. That is not in fact correct."

"I don't want to, again, understate the challenge that we have ahead of us," commanding General John Allen said during a pre-summit briefing. "The Taliban is still a resilient and capable opponent in the battle space. There's no end of combat before the end of 2014. And in fact the Taliban will oppose the ANSF after 2014."

Instead, combat involving U.S. troops and Taliban guerrillas will stop at an unknown point after 2014. On the battlefield, Taliban commanders await the exit of NATO troops before making serious attempts to retake lost territory in the south. Allen acknowledged this reality by explaining, "the Taliban have been unambiguous in that they intend to take advantage of the removal of the surge forces, and so we have planned for that." He even went so far as to tell reporters that Washington has set aside "available forces" in case the Taliban does surge its presence into NATO's vacuum, a scenario that could kick in at any time.

Pakistan's border havens also remain operational, a major point of contention within the Pentagon and between Islamabad.

Meanwhile the outlook of a political resolution remains dim, with neither side prepared to compromise its core goals. The Obama administration has been particularly disingenuous about this dilemma, arguing that "political reconciliation is essential to the country's future security." However negotiations with the Taliban's leadership have yet to materialize into a sincere option. Reading from a script that is designed to absolve responsibility, U.S. and NATO officials would only tell reporters that the Taliban chose to suspend preliminary talks in March. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid countered by accusing Washington of "utilizing a one step forward, two steps backwards tactic" to "prolong the occupation of Afghanistan."

Whether he can be trusted is unknown, but Mujahid addressed one critical point when he "declared that it [the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] holds no agenda of harming anyone nor will it let anyone harm other countries from the soil of Afghanistan." More concrete is the Taliban's rejection of foreign soldiers and military bases, which the insurgency cannot be seen accepting now or after 2014. Although the Taliban's leadership appears to concede the necessity of reconciliation, if only to expel foreign troops, political and military commanders believe that Washington's limited outreach is intended to splinter their movement. The Obama administration is essentially demanding an unconditional surrender and preparing to continue fighting past 2014 if the Taliban doesn't comply.

Rasmussen similarly told reporters, “If these conditions are fulfilled, why not give it a try. But my point is the best way to facilitate a political process is to keep up the military pressure so that Taliban realizes that they have no chance whatsoever to win militarily.”

This Pentagon-authored talking point sidesteps the fundamental problem that NATO is equally unable to produce a strategic military victory. The 350,000-strong Afghan army will be able to secure most of their country, but the insurgency can adapt to and potentially thrive in this environment. The Taliban will certainly escalate its operations to infiltrate the ANA and, with its other hand, attack weaker government units. Civil strife between Tajiks, who compose the majority of Afghanistan's security forces (including those in the south), and Pashtuns presents a separate dilemma. Many political and economic issues that affect the lives of millions of Afghans remain outstanding while their neighbors wrestle over the conflict's end game.

The American, NATO, Afghan and Pakistani peoples must realize that the war will drag on longer than any number thrown at them by their leaders. NATO's collective force wants out as soon as militarily possible, but the alliance - largely American and British beyond 2014 - will be forced to fight beyond its scheduled time-lines in order to capsize the insurgency.

May 21, 2012

Pressuring Rajab Raises Heat On Bahraini Monarchy

Excluding the magnanimous and humble anomaly, kings inherently reject challenges to their throne and land. Many of them also enjoy sports, particularly those designed around combat, and have gone through extraordinary lengths to satisfy their passions. Absurd as the idea may sound, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's actions suggest that he's enjoying the sport of counter-revolution - that he enjoys wielding his authority against "dissenters" and "terrorists." 

Why else arrest and potentially jail Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain's leading human rights activists, if the King doesn't want the uprising to intensify? 

Rajab's immediate battle with the monarchy has already last several months. Following one of many interrogations since February 14th, 2011, lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi first predicted that Rajab could face a trial in April 2012. Between this time and his May 6th arrest at Manama International Airport, the head of Bahrain's Center for Human Rights participated in numerous anti-government protests and led the opposition's outcry against the Formula 1 Grand Prix. He was finally brought in ahead of his May 22nd court date and charged with two counts: "insulting an official authority" and "inciting illegal rallies and marches online by using social networking websites." 

According to Bahrain's Interior Ministry, "A police investigation revealed that the defendant's cyber incitement proved detrimental to public security as it fueled rioting, road-blocking, arson, acts of sabotage targeting public and private properties, and the use of petrol bombs and incendiary devices." 

“Personally, I am against the use of the Molotov, and so are the political assemblies," Rajab clarified in late March. "However, some could resort to its use due to the worsening situation."
Considering the factors of Rajab's case, the odds of his release or a plea deal appear low. The monarchy wouldn't go through so much trouble just to temporarily interrogate him again. They want to silence one of Bahrain's most articulate opposition figures and cut off one of the hydra's smartest heads. Nor is Rajab willing to compromise his political and humanitarian beliefs to secure a false freedom from a government cell. The activist speaks as though he would suffer with his people before caving to the King's demands, telling his latest court hearing, "I only practiced my right to free expression. I did not commit a crime. The decision to arrest me and put me on trial was a political decision." 

Rajab's detention and the accompanying oppositional agitation falls in line with King Hamad's counterproductive strategy to quell Bahrain's democratic uprising. In addition to producing minimal changes on the ground, his security and political reforms have inflated the trust gap with the island's formal opposition. This distrust has further trickled down into the streets, where Al Wefaq has lost control of those protesters demanding regime change. The resulting political stalemate translates into violence against Bahraini security forces, which simultaneously mask themselves from and expose themselves to international attention through the use of crowd control measures. The Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) Peninsula Shield would suffocate Bahrain's initial flames, only to create a backdraft and escalate the crisis.

Now the monarchy is repeating its errors by detaining and threatening to jail Rajab. This move has yielded predictably low criticism from the international community, a reaction that he expects after blasting the silence of Western capitals. On cue, the U.S. mission in Geneva released a statement on Monday that reserved its only condemnation for Molotov-throwing youths, instead opting to be ”greatly concerned by the excessive use of force by the police." The statement also drew "particular attention" to those "who participated in peaceful anti-government protests" without mentioning Rajab. Separately, Bahrain's hawkish Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa met with Vice Admiral Mark Fox, the outgoing 5th fleet commander, and his successor Vice-Admiral John W. Miller.

The three men "took pride in the outstanding Bahraini-US ties, wishing Bahrain a brighter future under its wise leadership." 

However jailing Rajab for two years, a potential sentence released by his lawyer, would guarantee at least two more years of uprising. Adhering to the electronic nature of 4th generation warfare and netwar, the activist cannot be beheaded through isolation. His son has already organized protests, his Twitter account is being used by supporters and mass demonstrations are planned in his honor. Throughout Bahrain's uprising, King Hamad has sought to paint Bahrain's opposition as disorganized mob in order to justify a crackdown - a strategy that perversely relies on agitating the streets. 

Taking Rajab off the streets is guaranteed to attract more protesters to them.

May 20, 2012

“al-Qaeda 2.0” Watching

Many question marks but one certainty: the battle between America and al-Qaeda, in any of its forms, is far from over. 

Is Al-Qaeda Beefing Up Its Presence in Mali? 
Ali Cissé, 30, a shopkeeper, couldn't contain his curiosity when a new wave of gunmen rolled into town. Outside the governor's compound in downtown Gao — a dusty administrative center of adobe architecture and open skies — he saw a fleet of armored vehicles with foreign fighters standing guard. "I saw [militants] from Niger, Pakistan, Algeria, Mauritania [and] Tunisia," Cissé tells TIME by phone from northern Mali. "I identified them by their accents because they like approaching people... to try to win their [sympathy]." Whatever their provenance, the fighters had one thing in common: they rode with Ansar Eddine, a group at times almost indistinguishable from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional terror franchise. 

Ever since a motley combination of Tuareg separatists and Islamic supremacists swept through northern Mali in a blaze of gunfire, an echo-chamber of rumor, gossip and misinformation has supplanted hard facts, and it's worth treating all information — however credible the source — with caution. But it isn't just Cissé claiming that foreign Islamic militants are flocking to this latest of troublespots. In the fabled waystation of Timbuktu, 300 miles upriver from Gao, a tour guide called Buba tells TIME that "Algerian nationals" are prevalent among the armed groups controlling the city. Taken with other reported sighting of foreign Islamist supremacists arriving in northern Mali, it's one of a number of signs that will have al-Qaeda watchers wondering whether northern Mali is becoming a new jihadist playground — even as the U.S. and its allies move against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a relentless drone campaign batters the badlands of Pakistan's Northwest frontier. 
Could Al Qaeda be infiltrating the Syrian uprising? 
Suicide bombings and sophisticated attacks on key Syrian government sites have stirred fear among some Middle East analysts that Islamic extremist groups are trying to infiltrate the 14-month-old rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad has blamed foreign militants for the uprising against him since it began in March 2011, trying to cast his bloody crackdown as part of the broader fight against Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda. 

Although no direct evidence of Al Qaeda involvement has emerged, some Obama administration officials and Middle East analysts say they have detected the group's hand in recent attacks. They point to the scale and tactics of recent suicide car bombings in Damascus and to calls by Al Qaeda leaders for Muslim holy warriors to join the fight against Assad. 

“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an Al Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week in Washington. 

In February, Ayman Zawahiri, the elusive Al Qaeda strategist who took the reins of the terrorist network after Osama bin Laden was killed last year, called on Muslims from neighboring countries to flock to Syria to help their embattled brethren topple the Syrian regime. 

A little-known militant group calling itself Al Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for bombing Syrian government sites, including the coordinated suicide attacks in Damascus on May 10 that killed 55 people. Al Nusra Front has said its attacks are carried out by fighters returning from battles elsewhere, triggering suspicion of links to Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq. 

Rebel leaders in the Free Syrian Army have insisted that they want nothing to do with the terrorist  network. But some security analysts contend that Al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take advantage of Syria's chaos and violence to resume operations in the region.
NPR interview with The Nation's Jeremy Scahill: Why The U.S. Is Aggressively Targeting Yemen 
 SCAHILL: Well, in the past week, Terry, the United States military announced, quietly, but announced that it was sending U.S. trainers back into Yemen. Somewhere between 50 and 100 U.S. soldiers are going to be on the ground in Yemen operating alongside of Yemen's military and security forces. 

The U.S. basically created a counterterrorism unit in Yemen made up of Yemeni soldiers, and U.S. Special Forces troops for years have been in Yemen building up these units, and the idea behind it was that the U.S. didn't want to send troops into Yemen but believed that there was a substantial threat posed by al-Qaida figures in groups in Yemen, and so they wanted to encourage the Yemeni government to start taking a more active role in actually hunting down and killing these people. 

But what happened, Terry, is that these forces that the U.S. built up, and it began in the mid-2000s, ended up not fighting terrorism but actually defending the failing regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. So they were never operating in the territories where al-Qaida figures were believed to be but rather being used to defend the U.S.-backed regime of Saleh as it was crumbing to pieces. 

And so there was a lot of resentment from Yemenis. They call them the Saleh family military, the U.S.-backed units. They call them the Saleh family military, not the national military. Anyway, so the U.S. builds up that, they have trainers on the ground, and then you have a network of Saudi informants that are inside of Yemen. 

And then you have U.S. airpower in the form of drones, as we've mentioned, but also cruise missiles that are being launched off the coast of Yemen from vessels or submarines that are there ostensibly to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and there have been a number of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes. In fact, the most deadly strike that we know of in Yemen to date, authorized by the Obama administration, was his first strike in Yemen, and that was on December 17, 2009, and it was not the CIA, and it was not a drone. It was cruise missiles launched from the sea, and it slammed into this village called Al-Majalah, which is in south Yemen, and the U.S. had intelligence that was given to it by the Yemeni government that there was an al-Qaida training camp there and storage facilities for weapons. 

Well, it turned out that that wasn't true, and the U.S. bombed this village and killed 46 people, and we know the names of all of the people that were killed. I went there myself. I interviewed a woman who lost her entire family. An old man, 17 of those 46 people that were killed were members of his family. There were five pregnant women among the dead. 

It was a huge scandal in Yemen, and what ended up happening is that when the WikiLeaks cables came out, we discovered that General David Petraeus, who's now the director of the CIA, was in a meeting with the president of Yemen shortly after that strike where they conspired to cover up the fact that it was a U.S. bombing, and the Yemeni president famously told Petraeus, according to this U.S. cable, we'll continue to lie and say the bombs are ours and not yours. 

And that kicked off - that bombing, Terry, kicked off a sustained almost three years of bombing by the United States in Yemen in the form of drones, cruise missile strikes, and the backing of these so-called elite counterterrorism units that actually have done very little to fight terrorism and a lot to fight the pro-democracy movement in Yemen.

May 19, 2012

Rough Times Ahead For Syrian National Council

Syria's National Council (SNC) has seen better weeks. First the Arab League's conference to address outstanding political divisions fell through amid internal strife. Soon afterward, chairman Burhan Ghalioun was re-elected for another three-month post (his third in a row) and faced an immediate firing line of revolutionaries. The outrage spiked when Syria's Local Coordination Committees (LCC) posted a harsh critique on its website, threatening to quit the SNC unless more local leadership is promoted. 

"The Local Coordination Committees in Syria deplores the situation of the Syrian National Council. The situation reflects the Council and the Opposition’s furthering from the spirit and demands of the Syrian Revolution. Furthermore, it reflects their distance from directions towards a civil state, democracy, transparency and the transfer of power desired in a New Syria." 

These divisions, though concrete, are feeling even deeper as Syria's revolutionaries struggle to hold their ground against Bashar al-Assad's army. Paired with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the two groups remain politically decentralized and bogged down in battle with numerically and technologically superior forces. The loss of territory and men, along with a shortage of arms, has reverberated back up the SNC's chain of command, increasing the pressure to extract a military option from the international community. Disorder also obstructs foreign attempts to finance and arm the opposition, generating a vicious cycle of inaction. All of these factors lead to the conclusion that al-Assad maintains the upper hand in spite of - and because of - Kofi Annan's six-point proposal. 

On Friday the UN's mission chief, Norwegian General Robert Mood, called for a political dialogue as a means of ending the violence, but both sides reject this possibility. In his interview with Russiya 24, al-Assad said that Syria has "acute problem with terrorism. Terrorists don’t care about reform, they are not fighting for reform... The political course will not free us from terror." 

He is happily aware of the SNC's turbulence, suggesting that another large-scale offensive is being planned to break up its ranks. At least 800 Syrians (possibly many more) have been killed since a UN-sponsored ceasefire "took effect" on April 12th.

Given the revolutionaries' military situation and negative momentum seeping into their political mission, the SNC must correct its issues through a wide engagement of the opposition's base. Effective insurgency and civil disobedience cannot be waged without resolute and representative political leadership. As a means of saving face without sending the SNC into total chaos, Ghalioun offered to resign two days after his extension "as soon as a replacement is found through elections or consensus." George Sabra, a Christian council member (and reported communist), is one favorite to replace Ghalioun due to his alleged compatibility with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, the largest bloc within the SNC. Whatever the outcome, the council needs to restore public confidence by appointing a chairman inside or near Syria. 

This problem isn't insurmountable. In the best-case scenario, Syrians will select a candidate with wider appeal and alleviate stress on the chain of command. Divisions, SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani reminded the LCC, are inevitable during the explosion of pent-up revolutionary forces and democratic competition should make the council stronger in the long-term. Such pivotal decisions are not to be made lightly, but the process must be organized soon in order to promote better leaders and develop a sustainable insurgency that is capable of defeating an energetic tyrant.

May 18, 2012

Obama Administration Turns Yemeni Leak Into Lemonade

The exposure of a planned airline bombing and the counterterrorism mission that foiled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) plot spawned two ongoing reactions in Washington.

The first track leads to a supposedly irrefutable conclusion: U.S. operations in Yemen are progressing in their mission to contain AQAP. Having successfully dropped Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime for his more supportive and stable vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, the Obama administration has quickly ramped up its clandestine operations to semi-open levels. The White House would publicly admit to expansion of drone targets in early May, roughly one year after the America's fleet dove into southern Yemen due to the revolution and Saleh's manipulation of his forces. Around the same time that Americans learned of a non-plot against them, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also told reporters that the U.S. had begun "reintroducing" trainers into the country.

Never-mind that these operations continued throughout Yemen's revolution, or that AQAP has expanded its ranks and territory during this period of time. Why change course if the White House can sell its policy to an uninformed American populace: "It is indicative of the kind of work that our intelligence and counterterrorism services are performing regularly to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda in general, and AQAP in particular."

Saudi Arabia's Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah and Britain's MI-6 reportedly led the operation after filling AQAP's need for a Saudi holding Western passport.

With the dust kicked up from anonymous Saudi spy still whirling through the global information sphere, a second message of internal criticism eventually began to compete for media attention. A handful of public officials involved with U.S. intelligence committees were the first responders to the political scene, aiming their rhetorical attacks at the leaker (or leakers) who outed the Saudi spy. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate's Select Committee On Intelligence, told the Associated Press that she thought the leak "has to be prosecuted," an informal motion seconded by New York Representative Peter King.

"The FBI has to do a full and complete investigation," the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee told CNN, "because this really is criminal in the literal sense of the word to leak out this type of sensitive, classified information on really almost unparalleled penetration of the enemy."

On Wednesday FBI director Robert S. Mueller acquiesced to these demands, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee, "We have initiated an investigation into this leak." However this secondary message, being deceptively quiet, has left the first message as the administration's dominant narrative in Yemen. Each plot is exploited as probable cause to expand U.S. military operations in the country, motivating the White House to lead its Yemeni policy with counterterrorism achievements. Thus the FBI is unlikely to take action because many "leakers" dwell at Washington's highest levels of authority. Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, agreed with this source when he told CBS's “Face the Nation" that the White House engaged in “premature chest-thumping."

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, rejected Congressman Rogers’s accusation as “absolutely false." He argued that the White House and C.I.A. "worked together to try and prevent publication of this damaging leak." Yet the administration and various U.S. officials ran with the story for days before pulling on the reigns and going into leak-mode. Numerous anonymous officials went on record to describe the plot; the Associated Press had its choice of quotes to pick through. Speaking to NBC's "Today" show, ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "This Morning," counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan said that AQAP's latest experimental bomb was seized as a result of "very close cooperation with our international partners." After the existence of a Saudi double-agent was confirmed, the FBI released a statement describing a "device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations."

Congressmen King offered one of the first quotes on the mysterious Saudi: "We don't have to worry about him any more.”

The individual act of penetrating AQAP's external operational network undoubtably struck an embarrassing blow to the group's leadership. Everything from this point has run downhill. The need to publicize AQAP's threats has compromised future attempts to infiltrate its ranks, while Yemenis generally continue to fear an expansion of U.S. counterterrorism missions. Ironically, the underwear bomb currently being dissected by the FBI has been put to work in a similar AQAP role: psychological warfare against the American people.

This disorganization and disinformation is reflected in the narrow-minded counterterrorism sweeping across Yemen's southlands.

May 17, 2012

Translating Obama's Executive Order In Yemen

The White House's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, meets with President Abd Mansur Hadi during his latest visit to Yemen

On Wednesday the White House released an Executive Order in response to ongoing developments in Yemen. Declaring a national emergency to deal with Yemen's "unusual and extraordinary threat" to America's national security, President Barack Obama has threatened to initiate financial sanctions against any party that "obstructs the implementation" of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) power-sharing agreement. Except the administration's decision rests not on the foundation of democracy, but on the unstable base of hypocrisy and neo-imperialism.

Critics of U.S. policy in Yemen will be unable to disprove that Obama's latest order represents a guarantor of the GCC deal. Constructed to expand American hegemony in the country, the executive order mimics previous U.S. statements that refuse to call out former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by name. Instead, "the actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Yemen" are left for the audience to piece together. The administration would subsequently deploy Bruce Riedel to CNN to describe its message as "pretty effective hardball."

Riedel is correct in assessing the White House's order as hardball - but a wider list of targets exists outside of Saleh's circle. Meanwhile the financial threat against him and his family remains relatively soft. For starters, the Obama administration still cannot bring itself to speak Saleh's name, demonstrating that its kid gloves have yet to fall off. Contrary to a safety issue, the policy of gradually (and silently) nudging Saleh out of power is linked to hegemonic ambitions. U.S. and EU officials also have floated the possibility of sanctions on various occasions without acting, even though Saleh has persistently obstructed the GCC deal since its release in April 2011. 

More perversely, the threat of financial sanctions now guards the immunity afforded to Saleh's family by the GCC and UN. The White House hopes to scrub away at least some of this mess before May 22nd's "Friends of Yemen" conference in Riyadh, where Saleh signed the GCC's deal in October 2011, yet Obama inadvertently exposes his administration's hypocrisy by indirectly targeting Saleh as a "national security threat." With full knowledge of his duplicitous personality, the White House and Pentagon accelerated its support for Saleh's regime prior to Yemen's revolution and has yet to let go completely. 

Washington's latest message to him is severely blunted: "If you obey us, we will not punish you for crimes committed against the Yemeni people."

The White House's order builds on the accumulating momentum to expand U.S. hegemony across Yemen's sphere of influence. Playing with the ambiguity of a nameless list of threats, the order reads like a declaration of political war on all opponents of the GCC deal. Some figures, such as rogue general Ali Mohsen and the al-Ahmar brothers (tribal heavyweights Sadiq and Hamad), accept the GCC's terms but could be targeted if they reverse positions in the future. The northern Houthis sect and Southern Movement, both of which oppose the GCC deal's principles, also represent theoretical targets for U.S. pressure. Although these groups lack assets to freeze, the White House's current behavior implies that full-spectrum marginalization lies in store for any opponents of U.S./GCC actions. That includes Yemeni revolutionaries, whose input is found only at the anticlimactic presidential referendum of Saleh's former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi.

The Obama administration has warned Yemenis not to oppose a national power-sharing agreement negotiated by Saleh and foreign powers. The core message of his Executive Order: accept a political resolution crafted in their intentional absence, and accept the U.S. counterterrorism operations that come with it.

May 16, 2012

Half-Steps Walk Bahrain Into Total Disorder

According to Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the central debate of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 14th Consultative Summit ended in non-decision. Staring down a hot media glare with indifference, the Prince would cool international headlines of a union between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the other GCC members during a post-summit news conference. Telling reporters that GCC leadership "approved the call for a commission to continue studying in order to present final results (to a coming summit),” al-Faisal expects the issue to "take time... The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three.”

He then shifted back into high gear: “I am hoping that the six countries will unite in the next meeting."

All qualifications are inevitably lost on Bahrain's opposition, which reacted to Riyadh's developments by pulling every alarm within reach. Al Wefaq's chairman, Sheikh Ali Salman, responded immediately with a calculated statement, insisting that "we are with all honest intentions towards union." He also condemned a "forcefully imposed" union that "looks down to their people," telling his audience at al-Mugsha's ad hoc Freedom Square, "any decision taken to implement this (annexation) plan is void and illegal."

"The Bahraini regime is pushing the nation into the circle of violence through its incorrect treatment of the popular movement."

Opponents of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa don't need the GCC's full picture to see it. They see a desperate monarchy rushing to its Saudi sanctuary and no attempt to hide its urgency. Many protesters believe that Riyadh's full-spectrum dominance is the only force keeping King Hamad in power; completing their uprising would be even more arduous with Bahrain militarily and economically synced to Saudi Arabia. While Prince al-Faisal chose a more diplomatic word pallet, King Hamad's media advisor later announced an extraordinary GCC summit to be held in the coming months

"The GCC Union is so close and will materialize soon," Nabeel Al-Hamer said from his Twitter account.

Despite a coordinated backlash, the prospect of deeper Saudi-Bahraini relations isn't a zero-sum loss for Bahrain's opposition. The potential inevitability of this event allows the political and street movements to see what's coming and prepare accordingly, much like a disaster scenario. An illegal union provides a dominate rallying point and, if it does "materialize soon," the reaction is likely to magnify March 2011’s introduction of GCC security forces. Although the Peninsula Shield initially crushed Bahrain's street movement, the opposition's struggle would have lagged without this link in the chain reaction of revolution. Given that political and popular grievances are intertwined with Riyadh, Saudi influence is integral to the natural combustion of Bahrain's uprising.

U.S. half-measures have generated similar effects, yielding multiple narratives for the opposition to rally around. Political figures admit that America's 5th Fleet is both curse and blessing, a source of international attention that the monarchy cannot hide. Ultimately the provocation of U.S. arms - whether teargas canisters or missile packages - helps the opposition more than staying quiet in the back row. Many activists have already taken their criticisms public and, in a bid for fresh international hits, the entire next week has been earmarked for anti-American demonstrations. Since Washington isn't going to assist Bahrain's protesters directly, turning certain disadvantages into advantages creates a path of indirect support. Conflict resolution this isn't though.

“It's a direct message [from the US] that we support the authorities and we don't support democracy in Bahrain, we don't support protesters in Bahrain,” Mohammed Al Maskati, a Bahraini rights activist, told the Christian Science Monitor's Kristen Chick.

One of Al Wefaq's high-profile members, Matar Matar, informed the Obama administration that, "Bahrainis are disappointed by this decision. The situation is moving from bad to worse." Sensing Washington's hostility and insincerity, few have been fooled by a "partial" resumption in U.S. military aid and the ensuing predictions of Iranian interference. The youth-inspired February 14th coalition made no distinction between a total presumption of aid, warning the White House that "recent weapons" are perceived as a "full partnership with al-Khalifa's crimes." Coupled with the extended detention of Nabeel Rajab, the island's leading human rights activist, and Bahrain's opposition possesses an excess of fuel to power its pro-democracy movement.

"Do you think people will do home when you arrest a figure like Nabeel?" Al Wefaq rhetorically asked King Hamad on the Twitter battleground. By the same reasoning, protesters won't stay inside and forfeit their streets to the divisive threat of U.S. arms and Saudi "unity."