August 31, 2012

Australia's "Green-on-Blue" Collateral Rattles NATO Future

Australians awoke to a prototypical counterinsurgency line on Thursday: 1, 5, 10 and 38. Adding to 2012‘s single casualty in Afghanistan, two Australians were killed yesterday when their helicopter rolled over during landing in Helmand province. Hours before, a supposed member of the Afghan National Army (ANA) opened fire on a group of soldiers in Uruzgan province, killing another three men and wounding two. The deadliest 24 hours in Australia's 11-year commitment pushed its total casualties to 38, triggering memories of the country's involvement in Vietnam and the Battle of Long Tan in the aftermath.

Long wars everywhere.

"In a war of so many losses, this is our single worst day in Afghanistan," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said after cutting her Pacific tour short to return home. "Indeed, I believe this is the most losses in combat since the days of the Vietnam War and the Battle of Long Tan. This is news so truly shocking that it's going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow."

No 4GW incident of any magnitude is complete without a disproportionate reaction on the home-front. Speaking as though she had memorized the Pentagon's talking points, Gillard arrived at the podium with an arsenal of rhetorical devices to ward off public criticism. "Our strategy is well defined, our strategy is constant," she argued, and Australian troops are "there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through." What this purpose actually entails is given a cursory glance though: "to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for the terrorists who would come and kill Australians and kill so many innocent others.” This NATO argument is streamlined to glide over all public resistance, wherever it surfaces, and push ahead into an unknown future.

"We are making progress, I can tell you that," she told reporters before flying back to Canberra. "I've seen it with my own eyes when I have visited Afghanistan."

However Gillard spoke truthfully when ruling out an acceleration of the country's withdrawal schedule. After all, she has already advanced the deadline by a year, from December 2014 to 2013, citing "security improvements" and the war's unpopularity at home. She clearly wants out as soon as possible, but Australia's commitment to NATO is too deep to leave any earlier, and the populace isn't mobilized to apply pressure beyond negative polling. Nevertheless, the Taliban's latest infiltration continues to expose the same cracks in NATO's alliance and there's no telling when a member will break.

NATO officials have developed three main arguments to minimize the PR disaster of "Green-on-Blue" attacks. The first disregards Taliban claims of responsibility by attributing the majority - upwards of 75% - to personal grievances rather than foreign occupation. NATO's second argument establishes a strawman by concentrating attention on the trust gap between Western soldiers and their ANA counterparts; Air Marshal Mark Binskin, acting chief of the Australian Defence Force, told reporters that  "morale at the moment has taken a hit over this understandably." The resulting conclusion argues that "Green-on-Blue" attacks discolored an otherwise successful summer in Afghanistan.

NATO populaces, in turn, have responded with renewed skepticism to the war's objectives and strategy. They generally discount NATO's claim that the Taliban represent a low number of infiltrators, and with good reason. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the percentage of "Green on Blue" shootings in relation to total casualties has risen from less than 1% in 2008 to 14% in 2012 (2% in 2009, 3% in 2010 and 6% in 2011). Worst still, the idea of copy-cat shooters operating independently of the Taliban - and out of "rage" or spite against an occupying force - generates no additional confidence in NATO's long-term strategy. Many Afghan officials believe that American forces and their allies have simply patrolled the country for too long, made too many enemies and drained their credibility as liberators. Afghans only want them to stay as long as necessary, a feeling that lends itself to ambiguous warfare.

The single-minded focus on NATO's relationship with the ANA is equally deceptive, being true to an undefined extent. Although U.S. officials initially attempted to downplay this growing threat, they have now pushed "Guardian Angels" and loaded magazines to the media forefront in order to demonstrate their proactivity. More disturbingly, Afghan officials claim that American troops have become more distanced in recent months, a reaction noticed by ANA soldiers and commanders. Yet the trust issues between NATO and the ANA remain byproducts of the Taliban's ultimate objective: widening the gap between NATO and its populaces. "Green on Blue" assaults these relationships with full force by targeting both the Afghan government and foreign promises of success.

The three Australians who lost their lives in Uruzgen didn't fall in battle, but at the hands of an ANA soldier as they relaxed in a "secure" base. Thursday's incident marked the fourth internal attack on Australian forces since May 2011, accounting for half of this period's casualties.

The general idea of "Green on Blue" is both old and new: turn NATO governments on their own people and force them to engage in political warfare. Western leaders are no less busy attacking voters than militants. Trust levels on all sides sink further into the morass of guerrilla warfare, and a constantly shrinking margin of error retrains the whole alliance's behavior. Gnawing away at the lynchpin of NATO's strategy - "Afghanization" of the country's security forces - and undermining the possibility of a stable end to the war, the Taliban has effectively countered NATO's surge and will soon engage a lower number of U.S. forces in relative isolation. Canada has already dropped out, France and Australia (and Denmark) will be history by January 2014, and every remaining U.S. ally suffers from chronic unpopularity and internal socio-economic issues. 

The Taliban is aiming for American and European minds through their soldiers - a particularly horrific could expel one of their countries at any moment. And the war in Afghanistan, contrary to Gillard's self-interested notion of an "end," will continue long after Australian forces withdraw.

August 30, 2012

Info-War Preempts North Waziristan Operation

Perhaps Operation Tight Screw is unfolding before our eyes.

The conventional reaction to Zahir-ul-Islam and David Petraeus's high-profile meeting followed one of two narratives in the Pakistani media: knee jerking against a "joint" U.S.-Pakistani campaign or welcoming enhanced coordination against the country's resident militants. As a whole, the Pakistani populace has reversed course from the Bush era and now supports the elimination of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network. However a sizable minority still throws their weight behind the region's diverse network of insurgents and terrorists, whether out of genuine support or the secular belief that America instigates even more problems in their country. Other supporters approve on the grounds that Washington will eventually cross their border in larger numbers, leading the majority and minority to agree that Islamabad should solve "the Taliban" dilemma on its terms.

According to the latest Pew survey, support for comprehensive military action has also dropped 20 points since its high mark in 2009. This popular position, coupled with Islamabad's ongoing relations with various militant personalities and the unrealistic demands of a widespread campaign in the tribal areas, has stopped many alleged operations before they began.

In the weeks since the new ISI director met his CIA counterpart in Washington, the Pakistani and U.S. media has sloshed back and forth over Operation Tight Screw within a thick fog of war. Numerous Pakistani officials, including Chief of Staff Pervez Kayani and members of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's regional government, have downplayed the possibility of an operation into North Waziristan. Their motives combine the challenge of maintaining calm in the area and secrecy between the militants, and the need to blunt anti-American sentiment that casts Pakistan as a feeble servant. At this moment political forces within North Waziristan and Islamabad are mobilizing against a potential operation - with America serving as the natural lightning rod.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, a vocal opponent of U.S. policy, claims that his discussions with representatives of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) produced a consensus: "If you want to win the war against the militants, first disengage yourself from the American war and afterwards hold talks with the tribal people." His rhetoric was validated by Miam Iftikhar Hussain, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa's Information Minister, following a provincial cabinet meeting in Peshawar. Keeping the influential Awami National Party (ANP) in mind, Hussain said that dialogue remains preferable to military action. In the likely event that "talks fail, then targeted action should be taken against militants, rather than launching a full-scale operation."

"I don’t think as a guest in your country, as a diplomat, I should be giving Pakistan advice about what to do about their own Taliban," U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland countered during a recent defense of U.S. policy in Pakistan. "I think Pakistan is very, very much aware of the danger that that poses. And, as I said, there are many this patriotic leaders in this country, both military and civilian, who know when it’s the proper time to take action."

Seen within this context, Operation Tight Screw could already be rolling out. On Washington's side, a flurry of drone strikes on high level targets has targeted the center of North Waziristan in preparation for a ground assault. Pakistan's army is also conducting operations against militant positions, although nothing on the scale demanded by Washington. At the info-warfare level, a media battle has broken out directly over the territory as each side attempts to manipulate the information sphere. The entirety of U.S.-sourced reporting is designed to increase popular pressure on Islamabad, a strategy that has yielded tangible results and thus triggered a counterreaction from Pakistani sources. After the AFP published a report on fleeing tribesmen and their families, Pakistani officials and tribal elders accused Western media of fabricating quotes and misrepresenting North Waziristan's situation.

“The media, particularly the western one, has been exaggerating things in Waziristan and portraying the people as terrorists," said Malik Shireen, one tribal leader involved preventing a large-scale operation. "It is the western media that has been prompting the government and armed forces to launch military operation in Waziristan."

Part of this murk may be attributed to TPP spokesman Ehnsanillah Ehsan, who announced that the group's "exclusive intelligence report” predicted an "imminent offensive" by August 26th. Government and military officials quickly responded via radio, promising that the government "has no plan to launch any military operation here." The TPP is presumably driving up fear as a means of increasing the resistance against an operation, yet how did so many "Pakistani officials"  become entangled in the story? Are they denying an operation in public while speaking privately on record, or is a third party fanning military flames into North Waziristan? Media manipulation is common in the region, but the possibility of Pakistani officials legitimately denying their quotes is statistically significant.

Meanwhile the only tangible sign of military action is taking place in Bajaur, a territory recently brought to U.S. attention after an airstrike killed its local TTP commander, Mullah Abdullah. These movements could indicate that Operation Tight Screw is already underway or, conversely, that Islamabad and Washington are both staging another show with smoke and mirrors.

August 28, 2012

AMISOM Gradually Encroaches On Kismayo

An early dawn operation conducted by the African Union's Mission In Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali auxiliary forces has finally liberated one of al-Shabaab's ports. "Captured" with limited resistance from the insurgency, Merca has now been placed under nominal government authority for the first time since 2008. The town is equally vital to policing Mogadishu's sphere of influence, as al-Shabaab's commanders would take refuge in the port, and to the AU's grander plans of clearing the entire Somali coast.

The fight for Kismayo could be just as light, given al-Shabaab's realization that it cannot wage conventional war against the African Union (AU). However the group's leadership may feel the urge to resist in the face of other defeats, and defend its main port with an intensity that has yet to be seen in its nation-wide withdrawal.

Weeks or even months might pass before anyone witnesses a tangible answer. Contrary to reports that Kenyan and other AU troops would begin assaulting Kismayo before the end of August, its residents must continue their anxious wait under a thickening fog of war. A battle was supposed to erupt at any point of the month, according to Kenyan officials, but Nairobi has been unable to synchronize actions with rhetoric since Operation Linda Nchi began in October 2011. At least one scheduled attempt to clear the port was aborted and AU reinforcements have been summoned for extra weight. The loss of three Ugandan helicopters tasked to support AU forces pushed the mission's nose further into the dirt, chewing up more time.

From Linda Nchi's beginning, The Trench observed that Kenyan forces entered as part of AMISOM's grand strategy to evict al-Shabaab from Somalia's urban centers. Unable to stretch its forces over the whole country before August's transitional process, Ethiopian and Kenyan units deployed in the west and south in a patch-work formation with AMISOM (Kenya has since joined while Ethiopia chooses to maintain operational independence). This positioning had the effect of reversing Kismayo's priority from first to last; instead of heading directly to the port, AU forces planned to capture all of al-Shabaab's urban territory before converging on one of Somalia's largest cities.

AU forces still have a ways to go before reaching Kismayo. With Merca now behind them, they must advance another 100 miles south to al-Shabaab's other secondary port of Barawe, where resistance could be heavier. Locals claim to have spotted the group's leadership in the area, namely Sheikh Mukhtar "Abu Mansur" Robow Ali, Sheikh Fuad "Shangole" Mohamed Qalaf, Mukhtar Abu al-Zubeyr "Godane" and his in-house rival, former Hizbul Islam commander Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. As the commander of al-Shabaab's transnationlist faction, Al-Zubeyr has reportedly established roadblocks and stocked desert training camps with local recruits, along with those foreign fighters that haven't fled to Yemen, Mali or other safer areas.

Another 100+ miles separates Barawe from Kismayo. Barring a surprise attack, a clearing operation must wait until September at the earliest and possible the one-year mark of Kenya's entry into Somalia.

Silver lining can be found in this delay though. Taking Kismayo before a new government can establish itself poses a greater risk to Somali civilians and AMISOM's strategy, and AU forces might not reach their positions until Mogadishu sorts out its political process. The capital is experiencing predictable growing pains as Somali politicians, clan elders, businessmen and warlords attempt to influence the selection of a new president and parliamentary speaker. However, now that August 20th has already passed, AMISOM can forgo its schedule and delay an operation until Somali's new government begins to officially coalesce. Removing the imposed deadline can free up the operation's unrealistic pace, allowing AMISOM to gather an appropriate level of force and minimize the risk of prematurely governing Kismayo.

Otherwise the area, which will remain saturated with al-Shabaab, could fall victim to local factionalism or political ambitions stemming from the pursuit of an autonomous Jubaland (also known as Azania).

"The capturing of Kismayo and, more importantly, returning it to proper Somali authority other than al-Shabaab is an important objective," David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, recently explained. "I am not in a position to judge the likelihood of this happening in the coming months. It was an early Kenyan objective last year but did not happen. I doubt that Kismayo will be taken easily; it is equally important to identify appropriate Somali forces who can then keep al-Shabaab from retaking it. Long-term occupation of Kismayo by foreign forces is a bad idea."

August 26, 2012

London Cakewalk For Bahraini King

Human rights activists from inside and outside the British government had dogged Bahrain's Olympic delegation for months, all attempting to interfere with London and Manama's public response to the Games. Problematically, their situation bore no difference to those trying to improve the humanitarianism of British-Bahraini relations. While King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa never made it to his seat, his eldest sons Salman and Nasser would find an unobstructed path to the global party at London's Olympic village. Bahrain International Circuit managing director Zayed Al Zayani, a man who knows a few things about downplaying controversy at sporting events, also joined in the festivities.

Considering the fact that Hamad's sons attended the Games without incident, the British government is unlikely to have formally requested that he stay home. Both would have mutually agreed on the inappropriate timing and clearly decided to postpone his trip until afterward, when Prime Minister David Cameron can devote more energy to concealing the King's presence. The two finally met on Thursday, their third meeting since Bahrain's democratic uprising began in February 2011, with predictably counterrevolutionary results.

"Our visit to Britain," Hamad announced, "is to personally extended congratulations to the British Prime Minister on the success of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games and to personally congratulate the British people on the outstanding achievements of the British athletes during the Olympic games.”

The King's visit, of course, has nothing to do with his country's or Britain's performance beyond the political interests that serve him. Hamad came to reinforce the same image of normality that his monarchy is trying to project on the island, to "affirm his thanks and appreciation for Britain's support that reflects the depth of the historic bilateral relations between the two countries." Oriented around the abuse of British support, Hamad's meeting with David Cameron was designed to show his loyalists and Bahrain's opposition that Western governments will never abandon his side. The King also attempted to divert attention towards Syria, where “there is common concern about the bloodshed [in Syria] and its repercussions for security in the region."

A valid concern in itself, but a hollow ploy to remove Bahrain from the domino line.

The same scheme employed by Cameron and Hamad can be expected of any visit to Washington, although this trip is unlikely to be scheduled in the foreseeable future. Some variance can be anticipated; unlike Thursday's low-profile meeting, a meeting at the White House cannot be minimized so easily. However the blueprint of Washington's "red-carpet treatment" will parallel the events at 10 Downing Street, along with Prince Salman's May tour of the U.S. capital. According to British news sources, Cameron "raised human rights when he pressed the king to implement in full the recommendations of a commission of inquiry that was set up after the violence in Bahrain in 2011."

The King's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) has functioned as a useful tool for the monarchy and its foreign allies alike. Opened at the prodding of Washington and London, the BICI concluded that police and security forces have committed a limited number of human rights abuses, none of them under the orders of Hamad's royal circle. The BICI further recommended a series of police and judicial reforms that circumvented the political fundamentals driving Bahrain's uprising. Manama and its allies now use the BICI to promote the monarchy's commitment to democracy, exploiting the probe as a shield against criticisms directed at them.

Accordingly, "Downing Street said the prime minister made clear Britain expects Bahrain to implement in full the inquiry report, which concluded that police had used excessive force. The Bahraini government said it would implement the recommendations in full."

This back-and-forth exemplifies the Western response to Bahrain's situation. King Hamad has little to fear with Iran lurking in the background, and so greets his Western benefactors as though he has done no wrong. He's visibly confident that they will stick to the agreed script, and fears no repercussions when traveling to Paris or London. Meanwhile Bahraini security forces are busy suffocating a widespread reaction to Nabeel Rajab's unjust imprisonment.

Mohammed al-Tajir, president of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation, captured the situation perfectly: "Britain is a strong ally of Bahrain and these kind of visits are normal. What is abnormal is to continue these kind of visits without a change in the promises given by the king himself and the Bahraini government to change the miserable situation in Bahrain."

August 25, 2012

Drone Update From The Durand Line: Medium and Small Fish

Heaping more momentum on the recent flurry of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal territory, Washington has cashed in and brought its catch to the international market. On Saturday NATO announced that a late Friday air-strike (likely carried about by U.S. assets) eliminated Mullah Dadullah, commander of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP) Bajaur branch, along with 12 other militants. The air-strike targeted the Shigal Sheltan district of Kunar province, near the border with Bajaur, dovetailing into Islamabad's demand that Washington "do more" on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

Asad Munir, a retired Pakistan military brigadier and former intelligence chief in Peshawar, told The New York Times that Dadullah, “is a very calculated move that is likely to be appreciated by our army. Their complaint has been that American and Afghan forces are not targeting the Pakistani Taliban. This is a good sign.”

Of greater consequence, Badruddin Haqqani has surfaced as a casualty of the drone barrage in Shawal Valley, or possibly one of the air-strikes near North Waziristan’s administrative headquarters, Miran Shah. As the son of old-guard jihadist Jalaluddin and younger brother of Sirajuddon, Badruddin was responsible for the network's day-to-day operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However this information remains unconfirmed, and of the two  Badruddin appears more likely to have survived. U.S. and Pakistani sources suspect that he was killed in "one of five volleys" that included at least 12 drones, according to tribal sources.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials say that their field agents are "90%” certain that he was killed in a Tuesday air-strike, "but acknowledged they haven’t spoken to anyone who has seen the body."

One "senior Taliban commander" also claimed that Badruddin had been killed, while "Pakistani Taliban and tribal sources" said they "believed" he was killed in the drone attack. A purported relative told Reuters that "such claims are baseless," and that Badruddin is currently "busy with his jihad activities."

While Washington is aglow with its potential score, the tactical situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan aren't so different from last week. Dadullah, for starters, is no "key" TTP commander but a substitute for Faqir Mohammed; having been immediately replaced, his absence will have a minimal impact in and around Bajaur. The twisted nature of mass media is something to behold - how quickly a second-string TTP commander in an obscure province morphs into "Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah"!

Perhaps most interestingly, another "senior Pakistani Taliban leader" in Bajaur alleges, "Someone planted a chip, which was used for spying purposes, on Mujahideen near his compound that helped the drone trace his whereabouts. Mulla Dadullah and his 12 other bodyguards were killed in the missile attack."

Badruddin's death would be more significant due to his unique position in the Haqqani family tree. Jalaluddin and Sirajuddon must now promote someone who is equally trustworthy and capable, and the latter could also become exposed to drone fire in the military shakeup. Tribal sources told The Dawn's Zahir Shah Sherazi that three fresh graves now mark the Haqqanis' "family graveyard," the family being "reluctant to arrange any death ceremonies amid persistent US drone flights in the area." Yet the very position of "day-to-day" commander is expendable by nature and Haqqanis have likely groomed a backup for Badruddin's position. The TTP's leadership bench also remains deep, blunting the impact of individual losses. All heads would have to be decapitated at once for U.S. drones to sever the network's head, but the most important figures are liable to disappear after this week's assault.

Badruddin's death, if true, will also produce blowback in Afghanistan.

The final question revolves around the strategic implications of Badruddin and Dadullah. U.S. spokesman Maj. Martyn Crighton stated that the strikes were coordinated independently of Pakistan, a position affirmed by the government's negative reaction. However the elimination of three mid-level targets (including the ETIM's Emeti Yakuf) suggests that Islamabad is trading intel with Washington, in order to placate its anger and possibly shield more valuable assets from attack. At a time when Pakistani figures are talking "divorce," enhanced cooperation between the two capitals would far outpace any progress on the military battlefield - if these strikes aren't still part of their decades-long game of chicken.

August 24, 2012

Drone Spike In North Waziristan: Real Smoke or Smokescreen?

Another six Hellfire missiles have fallen on the Pakistani tribal territory of North Waziristan, marking the fifth drone strike since last Saturday. Prior bombardments have focused around the local capital of Miran Shah, which serves a number of militant commanders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the nearby Shawal Valley. Friday's attack targeted three separate locations in the valley, injecting new urgency into the speculation over a Pakistani military operation.

This conclusion is less certain than it appears though. Similar to past drone strikes in Shawel, the valley's networked structure adds to the difficulty in gauging U.S. targets and the motivation behind their selection. The area is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose militia controls the whole of North Waziristan and provides safe passage or refuge to various militant groups: pure al-Qaeda loyalists, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani network and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Bahadur maintains a years-long truce with Islamabad despite both sides' repeated threats to attack, leaving his territory relatively hospitable to his guests, and they all in turn direct their focus on Afghanistan.

Bahadur's arrangement forms a primary wedge in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Although the Pentagon and CIA promote their drone campaign in North and South Waziristan as wildly successful, neither has ceased lobbying for a full-scale military campaign to clear the area. Nor are they incorrect in believing that drone strikes can only loosen Pakistan's militant network, not destroy it entirely. The main dilemma is that Washington and Islamabad cannot afford the resources (military and non-military) or time that the mission requires, leaving drones as the only "realistic option" to apply military pressure. As a result, a barrage of drone strikes more often serves as an indicator that a Pakistani operation isn't moving forward. Washington is simply hunting for big game and killing as many of Bahadur and the Haqqanis' men as possible before 2015.

Last Saturday's attack allegedly targeted Bahadur's militia directly, but reporting on subsequent attacks has been more ambiguous. Friday's attack brought a new variable into the equation: ETIM'S Emeti Yakuf. Reportedly killed in the Tandar area of Shawal, Yakuf was one of eight figures identified by the Chinese as ETIM's original "core." Of more relevance, Beijing places him at the head of ETIM's "recruitment, organizing terrorism training and spreading extremism and terrorism." U.S. drones have eliminated several of ETIM's heads as part of a quid pro quo with the Chinese, giving rise to a scenario independent of Operation Tight Screw.

Two TTP commanders were also reportedly killed but they remain unidentified.

National reporting inside Pakistan adds more dimension to North Waziristan's fog of war. Local residents are cited as witnessing an organized retreat by Arab and "Central Asian" fighters, presumably ETIM's collection of Uzbeks, Turkmenis, Tajiks and Chechnyans. However anonymous Pakistani sources claim that the targeted individuals were conducting firing drills at their camps. Other locals report that the TTP is patrolling the area, adding that nearby tribesman "did not seem overly concerned about reports of an upcoming military operation." Given these factors and many others, is the latest string of drone strikes softening the ground for Pakistan's side of "Operation Tight Screw?" Is Washington responding to Islamabad's pushback, as if to lead its military in the direction of its drones?

Or are these strikes no more than military favors and normal occurrences in the Reaper's ebb and flow?

August 23, 2012

Ongoing Info-Battle Over "Green on Blue"

Step one of a rebranding campaign starts with redefinition. Step two continues with "admission" and "fact-correcting."

Following previous NATO and ISAF statements that Taliban infiltration accounts for 11% of an estimated 40 "Green on Blue" attacks in 2012, commanding General John Allen has decided to "set the record straight." The Pentagon is tracking each shooting with a set of factors to determine the scope of the Taliban's designs - "pure infiltration," impersonation, coerced the family members - and each carries a value that lowers the total number of direct infiltrations. Previously, NATO concluded that 90% of attacks stemmed from "personal disputes, stress or cultural clashes." Americans and Europeans were evidently wise to doubt such a limited Taliban influence, because Allen admitted that the total is "about 25 percent."

"The number 10 or 25 is a number we're going to continue to hone to get a feel for this, so we really do have a sense of the size and the magnitude of the enemy threat in the ranks of the Afghan national security forces."

Pentagon and EU capitals are clearly growing more concerned with each ambush on U.S. and NATO forces. Beyond the intrinsic loss of life, trust gaps between Afghan and Western forces could imperil NATO's "Afghanization" if the problem isn't remedied before 2014. Yet Allen and his superiors are no less concerned about the public reaction to "Green on Blue," which viscerally projects Afghanistan's dilemmas in a collective explosion, and the premature loss of NATO contributors. Digging to the bottom of the Taliban's infiltration thus shields coalition troops from danger and foreign audiences from Afghanistan's ongoing stalemate. One White House official recently told The New York Times, "The public reactions you’re seeing from us and the palace are indicative of just how concerning this is to all of us."

For its part, NATO later clarified that "Allen's data and the 11 percent figure did not contradict each other." The imminent question: what's to stop the real number from being even higher?

Kabul, on the other hand, appears to have reached a different conclusion. Speaking after a "special meeting" of President Hamid Karzai's security advisers, spokesman Aimal Faizi told reporters that the "main culprits in the killings had been put in place by intelligence services from neighboring countries." Faizi abstained from naming Pakistan and Iran as the culprits, but he cited interrogations and cell phone records as evidence of foreign collision.

“The investigation done so far shows there is infiltration by foreign spy agencies,” Mr. Faizi said. “There is no doubt there is infiltration.”

One can understand why Karzai's government decided to issue these accusations. Blaming foreign actors pushes the responsibility of "Green on Blue" away from Kabul at a time when the American people, politicians and generals are all demanding that the government "do more." Simply turn to Pakistan, where "do more" is a registered U.S. trademark, and repeat after Washington. By raising the caliber of infiltration from insurgent to state-sponsored, his officials can both diminish the Taliban's image and argue that Kabul is facing a more complicated threat than previously anticipated. Of course, the government must admit that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has infiltrated in place of Mullah Omar's men.

Interestingly, the NYT reports that ”Western officials here [Kabul], and American officials at the Pentagon, were surprised by the government’s assertions.” The spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Gen. Martin E. Dempsey would speak briefly about Tuesday's conference call for Karzai, saying, “We certainly don’t see this as the one [reason].” More disturbingly, Colonel David A. Lapan said that NATO doesn't “know what’s causing them, and we’re looking at everything.” How, then, does the Pentagon know that the Taliban aren't responsible for the majority of attacks?

Either Washington and Kabul are coordinating deceptive propaganda, or else the capitals are experiencing substantial disarray within their PR response to "Green on Blue."

August 21, 2012

Deafening Toll Of Nabeel Rajab's Injustice

Three weeks ago Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, paid a visit to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission with a deceptive blueprint under his arm. In addition to his normal duties, Posner has served as Bahrain's de facto ambassador throughout the island's 18-month democratic uprising. The Secretary would employ a number of arguments to shield King Hamad Bin isa Al-Khalifa's monarchy from Congressional scrutiny, weaving criticisms of the government's repression between an overarching defense of its actions. His general conclusion: Bahrain may share some similarities with Syria, Libya or Tunisia, but each country's "unique history" must "shape U.S. policy accordingly."

As if local history is the only force dictating U.S. policy on and around the island.

King Hamad has certainly played some parts of his counterrevolutionary hand with skill. While his modest security forces are not equipped to cause the same destruction as Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad's armies, Hamad and his royal circle could employ a variety of lethal tactics to break the opposition's will to resist. Instead they have chosen pellet guns and U.S.-made tear gas canisters over automatic weapons as their primary instruments. Beatings, night arrests and other non-lethal tactics also keep the island's casualties, international pressure and media exposure to a minimum. Applying lessons from Western crowd control tactics - including the so-called Free Speech Zones abused by the Bush administration - Hamad's government even contracted Western police figures John Timoney and John Yates to add to his performance's realism.

Yet the King's circle is prone to lapses in strategic thinking, particularly the entry of Saudi Arabian forces (along with Jordanians and Pakistanis) and the destruction of Pearl Monument. The monarchy believes in firmly prosecuting opposition activists to make examples of them, a tactic that simply contributes to their political influence and the country's instability. Conversely, King Hamad's government has thrown away every opportunity to establish a genuine dialogue with the opposition's diverse network, holding all dissident parties responsible for the island's political breakdown. State media's interpretation of Posner's speech illustrated the reckless mindset of both governments: "Bahrain is more stable than a year ago."

Posner would claim that Bahrain's violence has "reduced significantly" in recent months, but nothing could be further from the truth. That Bahrain's violence sits at the opposite end of Syria's spectrum is true, except relativity doesn't negate the repressive environment that its opposition labors under. 2012's casualties and injuries have maintained a similar pace as 2011, pushing the death count closer to 100, and police abuse remains a frequent occurrence. The island is only becoming more divided over time. Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, his daughter Zainab and other peaceful figures of the opposition remain incarcerated for political reasons, antagonizing Bahrain's democratic movement and foreign supporters. Meanwhile a U.S.-backed dialogue with Al Wefaq and its allies drifts lifeless down a river of mistrust, and this collective marginalization is venting into the streets.

Now the harsh sentencing of Rajab threatens to top all of the King's blunders and add more drag on U.S. policy.

Rajab and his family counted themselves among the few who weren't surprised by last Thursday's verdict, because even hardened observers of Bahrain's uprising shook their heads in disbelief. Ego and fear offer a plausible explanation for the monarchy's counterproductive behavior. Leaving aside the injustice of his three-year sentence, one each for three different charges of instigating protests and violence, imprisoning Rajab will not accomplish the government's objective of restoring order. Hero-making makes for flawed counterrevolution and is thus perplexing at the strategic level: three years in prison equates to at least three more years of protests. Jail walls won't stop his Twitter account or his followers from marching in his place.

Furthermore, Rajab's harsh treatment at Jaww prison suggests that his appeal process is as fake as King Hamad's commitment to democracy.

Rajab's unjust imprisonment has also pushed U.S. hypocrisy to new heights, triggering a scripted response that the mainstream media has been happy to ignore. Confronted with an outrageous act by a "long-time partner," the Obama administration chose to blend into the crowd and act as though Washington advocated Rajab's release from the beginning, a claim that he would surely reject as absurd. The State Department's Victoria Nuland was the first to respond, telling several incredulous reporters in the press corps, "We’ve said from the beginning that we thought that this case shouldn’t have gone forward." She preceded her statement by announcing the administration's decision not to get involved "now that the sentence has come down." UN Ambassador Susan Rice would Tweet a similar line in Rajab's defense, except a search of the State Department's database will find no such incident. In fact the opposite scenario took place on July 12th, three days after Rajab's arrest, during the Obama administration's first and only public comment until his August 16th verdict.

After expressing the administration's obligatory "concern," spokesman Patrick Ventrell was asked if the U.S. wants to see Rajab released immediately. His response: "I'm not going any further than I already have."

U.S. media has predictably given the administration another free pass, but as Posner's testimony and the bulk of U.S. policy demonstrates, neither public nor private concern delivered salvation to Rajab. Given his exasperation with U.S. policy and the international community in general, he's more likely to get a few laughs out of Western hypocrisy. At one point Rajab expected America's 5th Fleet to bring real pressure down on the monarchy, if for no other reason than survival, but he has since lost hope in the Obama administration's flowery rhetoric. Even words of support are a rarity and Rajab uses most interviews to point out the unjust silence of U.S. policy.

While the State Department busied itself preparing to lie to him, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) released the following statement on his last two arrests: "When Nabeel Rajab was arrested and imprisoned in May 2012, there was no response from the US administration. As the attacks against Nabeel Rajab escalated, the silent reaction from the US administration continued. At the congressional hearing, US assistant secretary of state Michael Posner stated when asked about demanding Nabeel Rajab’s release: 'Rajab’s case is complicated.'"

Imagine if he had just been imprisoned in Syria.

When paired with Rajab's disturbing sentencing, King Hamad's latest address to a divided audience conjures a foreboding image of Bahrain's future. Crafted with more input from his hawkish uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, than his supposedly dovish son, Crown Prince Salman, Hamad's speech would exploit the unifying time of Eid-ul-Fitr to slander the opposition in typical counterrevolutionary fashion. Devoid of personal responsibility, the King directed scathing rhetoric towards Bahrain's protesters and branded them as "scammers and strife mongers." He then raised the Iranian specter to do his dirty work in America before jetting off to the Saudi King's "Extraordinary Islamic Solidarity Conference."

This tactic alone may be enough to keep him afloat - Posner opened his Congressional briefing by announcing, "the U.S.-Bahraini relationship is particularly important in the face of rising Iranian threats." Considering that Washington is already battling Iran on Syria's front-lines, no U.S. administration is likely to "give up" Bahrain's lily pad regardless of the monarchy's authoritarian behavior. However Rajab has expressed solace in isolation. He knows beyond doubt that only Bahrainis can bring democratic change to their island.

“I believe strongly in peaceful means of struggle," Rajab told Witness Bahrain days before his arrest. "It could take a longer time, but has better results. I will continue all my life struggling for democracy and human rights."

August 20, 2012

Pentagon Launches PSYOPS Blitz On Taliban, NATO Populaces

Someone is clearly pounding a PR hammer on the Pentagon's head.

For years U.S. and NATO officials have swatted away the prick of Taliban infiltration with a concrete script, one that emphasizes their infrequency and insignificance. While NATO's rhetoric remains unchanged despite an acceleration in "Green-on-Blue" attacks, the Pentagon's ubiquitous use of the term "insider" demonstrates that another rebranding campaign is underway. Unlike an "infiltrator," which necessarily implies an enemy agent, an "insider" could be anyone serving within Afghanistan's army or police force.

“I know that the insider attack threat is on the public radar screen, and I understand why,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Monday. “That being said, these incidents don’t tell the entire story of what’s going on in Afghanistan.”

The "entire story" goes something like this Pentagon lead: “focus on insider attacks belies the fact that the Taliban are under severe pressure." Speaking after seven attacks claimed the lives of nine American soldiers in 10 days, Little (like his boss, Leon Panetta) argues that the Taliban's initiation symbolizes weakness rather than strength. The "pressure that we’re bringing to bear on the Taliban is forcing them to look to new tactics,” he says of Afghanistan's "full story," adding that the "vast majority of insider attacks" are committed by "disgruntled individuals." Last week Gen. Gunter Katz, a spokesman for ISAF, estimated that "some 10% we know are related to the insurgency."

Yet Little also claims that he can't, "say that these [insider attack] incidents originate with the Taliban. Some of them may, some of them may not.” In regards to NATO's eight-step vetting program, “it’s not always possible to read the minds of other people."

How, then, does Washington know that most "insiders" haven't sworn an oath to the Taliban?

The Pentagon must hope that its Guardian Angel program gains traction because its PSYOPS program is circling the drain. Only pieces of disinformation are capable of holding truth, such as the amount of military pressure brought to bear on the Taliban, and a row of counterpoints stand ready to cancel them out. Strategically speaking, the insurgency's health would be more dire if its ground forces attempted to do what Panetta says that they can't: retake territory lost during the opening phase of President Barack Obama's surge. This strategy would be suicidal from a guerrilla's point of view.

As for the Pentagon's argument that most "insiders" are "disgruntled," either the Taliban or average Afghans are insulted by a lack of respect for their grievances against foreign occupation. No U.S. official takes the time to explain why one scenario is better than the other. Furthermore, NATO's overwhelming level of force serves to highlight the Taliban's internal reliance and its ability to unconventionally maneuver around conventional forces. With 2014 steadily approaching, the Taliban's regional network continues to organize a potent army estimated between 17,000 and 22,000 fighters, and still enjoys many sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO forces have only generated a stalemate, not a "broken" back, and this scenario will dramatically alter Washington's post-2014 endgame. Undaunted by these concerns, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Kabul on Sunday to push his team forward at full speed.

"Our session today was an excellent dialogue about how to maintain momentum against the insurgents and ISAF's continuing support to building Afghan capacity," U.S. General John Allen, NATO's senior commander in Afghanistan, reciprocated in a statement released after his meeting with Dempsey. "The campaign remains on track."

U.S. officials appear to be speaking to themselves more than anyone else, whether Afghan or foreigner. The majority of Americans and Europeans don't want to travel down the Pentagon's road.

On top of exaggerating their own side of the war, the Pentagon has also cast the Taliban as defeated by misidentifying their near-term objectives. In a shameless press release titled "Taliban Suffer Reversals," one nameless NATO official assures his audience that the insurgency "did not achieve any of their goals this year": regain territory in the south, undermine the Afghan government and disrupt the growth of Afghan security forces. These semi-conventional objectives don't represent the Taliban's goals, although the national government has been successfully undermined to Afghans and Americans alike. Pentagon officials are arguing both sides of the COIN, except the Taliban cannot be primarily concerned with territory if they are employing unconventional tactics that avoid territorial conquest. The NATO official also argues that, due to a long-term agreement with Kabul, the Taliban cannot wait for coalition forces to withdraw ahead of 2014 - but that is exactly the plan.

Nor is the Taliban's leadership expecting to stunt the growth of Afghanistan's army and police. Corrupting them or waiting for the government to marginalize them offers a more efficient strategy for guerrillas.

The "full story" of “Green-on-Blue" is causing an enormous amount of political and propaganda damage to NATO's strategy.

Donning his "responder" cap before meeting with the White House press corps, Obama himself was forced to enter the fray and slow the Taliban's snowball: "I'll be reaching out to President (Hamid) Karzai. We've got to make sure that we're on top of this." Interestingly, he never mentions the Taliban by name, skipping over the group as effortlessly as he ignores Afghanistan in his campaign speeches. All around him, his officials are consumed by responding to the Taliban's tactics as they try to reposition themselves off of their heels. New counterintelligence measures are being developed to minimize the effects on U.S.-Afghan relations, but Dempsey actually acknowledged that NATO has yet to stop the Taliban's escalation: "We have an eight-step vetting process that's been in place in earnest for about a year, but we haven't turned the corner on the trend."

And the insurgency is likely preparing other attention-grabbing tactics to employ once infiltration becomes cost-ineffective.

The Obama administration is chancing a dangerous pass over the Taliban's epicenter of damage: the American home front. Here the destruction is readily visible in the form of popular discontent and Congressional outrage. Both layers of American society are adopting an unreasonable response to "Green-on-Blue" by blaming Karzai's government, acting just as the Taliban hopes and ultimately impairing Washington's freedom of movement in Afghanistan. The administration can still afford to steamroll over popular opinion, as it has throughout Obama's first term, but this engine may break when they least expect.

Downplaying an insurgency's capabilities and the domestic support for counterinsurgency is a recipe for stalemate on the asymmetric battlefield.

August 19, 2012

War Fog Hangs Over North Waziristan

Following Washington's meet-and-greet with Lieutenant-General Zaheerul ul-Islam, Pakistan's new chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pentagon and CIA appeared to finally get their wish in the country's tribal areas. By the time ul-Islam completed his rounds earlier in August, including a summit with CIA Director David Petraeus, U.S. news sources were already reporting that "Operation Tight Screw" was headed to North Waziristan.

“They’ve talked about it for a long time," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters a week after the initial rumors surfaced. "Frankly, I’d lost hope that they were going to do anything about it. But it does appear that they in fact are going to take that step."

However nothing is as it seems between these frienemies, and their plan hit immediate turbulence upon entry into the information sphere. Billed as a joint-campaign rather than a coordinated operation along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which better describes Washington and Islamabad's intentions, Operation Tight Screw is already following its predecessors into the murk of U.S.-Pakistani relations. Panetta claimed that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the country's chief of armed forces, "did indicate that they had developed plans to go into Waziristan," but he "can't tell you when." His best indication is ”soon," opening a window that stretches from the end of Ramadan through America's election.

The reality is that Operation Tight Screw, if it actually exists, is oozing with friction and predetermined to miss its ultimate objective. Multiple news agencies cite tribal sources and local officials who claim to see no evidence of a large-scale ground campaign. Now General Kayani has since released a statement clarifying that he discussed military cooperation with CENTCOM's General James Mattis: “we might, if necessary, undertake operations in North Waziristan Agency, in the timeframe of our choosing and determined only by our political and military requirements.”

His final message to Pakistanis: any operation “will never be a result of any outside pressure."

By this time anonymous Pakistani officials had dismissed speculations about a joint operation as "baseless’ and ‘absurd." While the majority of Pakistanis now support operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the population remains acutely sensitive and highly intolerable of American breaches into Pakistan's national sovereignty. Some accept the need to take billions in U.S. aid, but most Pakistanis appear to believe that two sources of interference won't cancel each other out. Instead they question the motives of both Washington and Islamabad, driving up the suspicions hanging over their plans.

The Dawn wonders of Pakistan's leadership, "Is the drip-drip of leaks meant to prepare the country for a U-turn in policy on North Waziristan or is this just another game of cat and mouse with the U.S.?"

The News International's Mehreen Zahra-Malik attempts to explain "the North Waziristan U-Turn" by providing more answers than U.S. or Pakistani official are cleared to. One scenario posits an exchange of Coalition Support Funds (CSF), back payments that the U.S. dangles as one of many carrots to move Islamabad. The more ubiquitous theory expects U.S. military operations, both air and ground, to cross Pakistan's border with greater frequency as 2014 approaches - if Pakistan's military doesn't act first. Operation Tight Screw is a combination of both factors and many others, the common denominator being Washington and Islamabad's image to their own populaces.

Security cannot be the first priority when a large-scale operation into North Waziristan ignores the Haqqanis themselves. Their network has never existed in North Waziristan as described by U.S. officials. It's general knowledge that Khyber, Orakzai and Kurram serve as their base in Pakistan, although North Waziristan is still key territory, and that the father-son duo has their recent years diversifying along the border region. Move into any one Pakistani or Afghan sanctuary and they will shift to another. Accordingly, this nebulous reaction demands a wider campaign that neither Washington or Islamabad is positioned to sustain, politically or financially. Numerous operations to move east, including one planned by Petraeus, have already been torpedoed by Obama's troop cap, and the gradual withdrawal of NATO's coalition is further reducing the odds of an adequate operation. The Taliban's core is also likely to react in the south to any eastern concentration of U.S. forces.

Panetta himself says that he understands the target to be the TTP, not the Haqqanis

If true, competing personalities Hafiz Gul Bahadur (controller of North Waziristan) and Hakimullah Mehsud (the TTP's disputed head took refuge when Pakistani forces invaded South Waziristan in 2009) represent the primarily targets of a looming operation. Bahadur's primary focus on Afghanistan makes him a prime U.S. target, and a valuable Pakistani asset as a result; he no longer considers himself part of the TTP, but has threatened to order attacks inside the country in the event of an invasion. Hakimullah, on the other hand, has immersed himself within al-Qaeda's ideology and organized the double-agent suicide bombing at FOB Chapman. The Obama administration needs any trophy to show the American people as U.S. troops continue to fall in battle, but these targets aren't much more realistic than "dismantling" the Haqqani network.

Panetta could also be lying about the target list, or Islamabad has decided to sacrifice one asset to protect the other. Both assets could be protected by circumventing their main forces. Pakistan would still prefer to negotiate a political settlement that includes the Haqqanis as a co-signer, while Washington wants to kick the group out. This stalemate generates an excess of possibilities - perhaps Operation Tight Screw doesn't exist concretely, only as a media placeholder and bargaining chip.

All roads in North Waziristan lead back to Washington and Islamabad's self-interests, each focused on getting the other to do its work or else take the blame.

August 17, 2012

More "Isolated Incidents" In Afghanistan

When any member of the U.S. Special Forces is killed in action, those above them do everything possible to swipe them into public oblivion. The same goes for the helicopters that transport them into battle, one of many reasons why militants desire to throw their burning wreckage back into the public's face. This tug of war plays out simultaneously on the asymmetry of Afghanistan's military and information battlefields. Each crash is claimed and exaggerated by the Taliban, to which NATO universally replies, "The cause of the crash is under investigation, but the coalition said there were no reports of enemy activity in the area at the time."

Although malfunctions enjoy a statistical advantage over Taliban RPGs, some crashes cannot be covered up no matter how hard Western officials scrub.

On Thursday a UH-60 Blackhawk went down in the Chinarto area of Shah Wali Kut district in Kandahar province - established Taliban territory. Spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi quickly took credit for the attack, if nothing else demonstrating how rapidly the Taliban fills the information vacuum, and several Afghan sources have confirmed the presence of enemy fire. Conversely, NATO spokeswoman Martyn Crighton said she doesn't "have any report that indicates any enemy activity in the area, but it is too earlier to say what caused the crash." Her phrasing attempts to say that the Taliban weren't involved.

Whatever happened in Shah Wali Kut, this incident (like many others) is more significant than the Obama administration is willing to concede. White House spokesman Jay Carney argued as much, saying that helicopter crashes are rarely due to enemy fire and must be "put into perspective." However the valid perspective afforded by thousands of patrols and missions removes them from the perspective of guerrilla warfare's disproportionate effects, specifically its psychological and propaganda damage. Helicopters are the Taliban's primary target for legitimate reasons: Special Forces symbolize unpopular night raids to Afghans, downing a helicopter invigorates their own ranks, and the visceral crash plays beautifully in the American media. These factors cannot be denied on the ground by any NATO statement.

Five crashes have been reported in 2012 alone, while NATO has admitted to hostilities in two. If the latest resulted from insurgent fire, a 60% rate would be less "isolated" than U.S. officials claim.

Nor is the scheme any different for either side of Afghanistan's "Green On Blue" divide. Each act of infiltration is amplified and minimized in an endless cycle of propaganda, and here too the Taliban enjoy momentum as they widen their efforts. NATO, of course, argues otherwise. Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, a spokesman for the coalition, admits (in the past tense) that "there was infiltration; that is correct, we can acknowledge that." However he refuses to attribute the bulk of attacks to the Taliban: "The main reasons for those green on blue incidents are personal grievances, stress situations and what we call battle fatigue."

Advancing the Pentagon's argument to the strategic level, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington, “The reality is, the Taliban has not been able to regain any territory lost, so they’re resorting to these kinds of attacks to create havoc."

The reality is that the Taliban don't need to retake lost territory in the immediate future. Panetta is simply trying bait the insurgency into a disadvantageous battle with superior armed forces, one conducted in the open and under NATO air support. While guerrillas have a harder time swimming in low water, Taliban continue to operate in many parts of the country as the group awaits Washington's withdrawal from the southern provinces. In order to drive down American and European support during NATO's surge, the Taliban's leadership then launched a "spectacular" strategy that has successfully contributed to the war's downward trend in Western polls.

Thus U.S. officials unanimously ignore the fact that Americans and Europeans represent the Taliban's main targets.

Taliban infiltration and the hunt for coalition helicopters are real trends producing real reactions, and they will continue to rise as the Taliban increases its operations in accordance with its successes. Two more attacks on Friday increased the last two week's total to seven shootings, once again undermining the Obama administration's "isolated" theory. Before Mullah Omar boasted about the Taliban's ability to "easily carry out decisive and coordinated attacks on Thursday," General John Allen had already ordered U.S. personnel at NATO headquarters and other bases to carry loaded weapons at all times.

He then launched his own propaganda assault directly at Omar: "The pride of the Afghan people has been smeared by killers who pose as soldiers and police, yet they represent the worst of humanity. He professes love for his fighters, yet he sends them to their deaths by the hundreds. Where is the vision that Omar speaks of? Where is the love he professes for the Afghan people?"

Allen has a point but fails to articulate it effectively - the same questions can be directed back onto Washington. If Obama was as confident of his administration's "vision" as his officials claim, he would be using Afghanistan's war to sell his foreign policy credentials instead of hiding it behind "nation-building" at home.

August 16, 2012

Nabeel Rajab Destined For Revolutionary Greatness

Apparently Bahrain's monarchy wants to keep the island's democratic uprising burning for at least five years.

In one the most foolish moves of his counterrevolution, a court of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has sentenced preeminent activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison (one year for three different protests). His charges cited non-violent participation in pro-democracy marches as provocation of "fueled rioting, road blocking, arson, acts of sabotage targeting public and private properties, the use of petrol bombs and IEDs, amongst others." Demonstrating that the court's decision rests in the hands of King Hamad's royal circle, a statement from the president's collectively punished Rajab for "acts have caused injuries to over 700 security force members."

Nabeel has consistently rejected the use of violence, advocating peaceful protest in words and actions. Now the monarchy has provoked a new cycle of violence in the streets, which will likely be held against the opposition as usual.

The cumulative maliciousness of Tuesday and Thursday's decisions may not "mark the end of Bahrain's democratic facade," as some news sources are describing it, but Rajab's unjust sentencing is capable of triggering its downfall. On top of contradicting all previous statements from itself and allied Western capitals, imprisoning Rajab won't come close to breaking his spirit or Bahrain's opposition. The only option for both sides remains escalation.

"You can jail me for three years or 30 years, but I will not back down or retreat," his son, Adam, quoted him as saying after the verdict.

King Hamad's regime will, of course, attempt to hold up their false front for as possible. Expecting waves of backlash, Rajab's verdict was issued with absolute confidence and accompanied by a highly scripted media campaign. Public Prosecution argued that the court "was keen to guarantee a fair trial, and allowed the defendant to appoint a lawyer," a laughable statement on multiple levels. Hundreds of lawyers won't make a difference when the charges themselves are cooked in an authoritarian court. As for the right to appeal, which his lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi will file next week, this option is disingenuously offered to manufacture a false image of due process.

"The sentence, although harsh and unfair, comes as no surprise to Nabeel and I," his wife, Sumayia, said afterward. "It shows how biased and corrupt the judiciary in Bahrain is. There are no human rights in Bahrain. As the defense team said, this sentence is the biggest scandal in the history of Bahrain judiciary."

Adding insult to injury, Nabeel's pending verdict on his Tweeting was also postponed to August 24th. All of these decisions were announced as King Hamad powwows at King Abdullah's Gulf Counterrevolutionary Club in Mecca.

The flagrant injustice of Rajab's sentencing was enough to force a reaction from Washington and the European Union. Speaking in unison with EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, the U.S. State Department's Victoria Nuland told reporters that the Obama administration is "deeply troubled" and believes "that all people have a fundamental freedom to participate in civil acts of peaceful disobedience." Except the West's latest rhetoric exemplifies the fluff that has enabled the regime this far, and ultimately feeds into the government's narrative instead of the opposition's. Nuland would, "call on the government... to begin a really meaningful dialogue with the political opposition," even though this plan has utterly failed to stabilize the island.

She then drops her greatest lie of all, claiming, "We’ve said from the beginning that we thought that this case shouldn’t have gone forward." While this opinion may have been expressed privately, the Obama administration has remained silent throughout Rajab's latest confinement and Bahrain's uprising in general. Clearly nothing came from Washington's private "concern," and Rajab himself laments the disastrous state of U.S. policy in Bahrain.

"Obviously, we think that this should be vacated," Nuland arrogantly concludes, propaganda that will fool only the ignorant.

Meanwhile the British Foreign Office "raised concern about the length of the term" and defended the "rights of individuals to peaceful protest," but couldn't stop itself from adding, "we expect opposition activists to ensure their words and actions do not incite violence or other illegal acts."

If Rajab's ruling is miraculously overturned in the future, the decision won't stem from external pressure - the first factor is sheer futility and counterproductively on the ground. This situation could be irrelevant though, because the raw impression of Rajab's sentence has already sent Bahrain hurtling further down the long road of asymmetric warfare. No one in the opposition can feel free or safe if the country's leading activists aren't.

“What happen today in the court room shows clearly there is no justice or independent judiciary,” said Sumayia. “My husband is not a criminal but a hostage of a government which can’t stand freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

August 15, 2012

Downed Ugandan Helicopters Postpone Kismayo Assault

In preparation for the African Union's (AU) long-awaited offensive on Kismayo, the largest Somali city still operating under al-Shabaab's authority, Kenyan naval forces have commenced a new phase of bombardment on the port. The latest shelling by an "unidentified naval ship" left three civilians dead and four injured, triggering UN warnings of an imminent battle for the contested delta.

“We have anticipated this one could be one of the larger battles and again, there's a large civilian population, there's a large IDP [Internally Displaced People] population and they are very likely to get caught up in that fighting,” said Justin Brady, head of the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA] in Somalia.

Problematically for AU powers and the transitional government that they are trying to defend, the assault on Kismayo just suffered another delay and is unlikely to commence before the target date of August 20th. The AU's plans have already bogged down in the friction of conventional and asymmetric war; Somalia's second rainy season literally sunk Kenyan armor into the mud soon after Operation Linda Nchi launched in October 2011. The ripple effect forced Nairobi to miss a planned offensive in February, timed to Ethiopia's entry on Somalia's western front, and Kenyan soldiers have also inherited the humanitarian care of Somalis now living in their rear-lines.

A lack of funds presents another obstacle to capturing and holding Kismayo (Kenyan officials have requested Western financial assistance), while plans to establish a new political authority remain incomplete.

Now an air-block threatens to further delay the AU's offensive. Last week Lt. Moses Omayo, spokesman for the Uganda Air Force, informed Reuters that combat helicopters had been deployed to provide cover-fire over Kismayo. According to African and Western news sources, the Ugandan military spent three months preparing the aircrafts and their support system for operations in southern Somalia, more evidence that Nairobi requires extensive AU assistance to secure Kismayo. Unfortunately for all involved, Ugandan and Kenyan officials have confirmed that three Russian Mi-24s crashed en route to their destination. The helicopters went down in the vicinity of Mount Kenya's numerous peaks, above the Mi-24’s 4,500 meter ceiling, and they could bring Kismayo's assault down with them. The fourth air-craft of the unit, an Mi-17 transport helicopter, landed safely in the Kenyan border town of Garissa, but "commanders organizing the operation have since been recalled to the Kenyan capital Nairobi to rework plans for the long-awaited attack."

"Government will re-examine itself and assess its capacity as to whether to continue with the deployment," General Odongo Jeje told reporters.

Al-Shabaab naturally gave credit to Allah: "They planned, and while they perceived not, Allah destroyed them and their old, reconditioned helicopters."

Given the strategic need to wrestle Kismayo from al-Shabaab, and now Uganda's urgent political need to demonstrate its military capabilities, the AU's plans remain green-lit despite repeated setbacks. Most available evidence indicates that an offensive will begin after Ramadan, sometime at the end of August or beginning of September. Months of military buildup and naval shelling will intensify in accordance with the ground assault, but one Kismayo resident told Voice of America that "there is no sense in the town that a major battle is about to happen." Separately, a spokesman for the Kenyan-allied Ras Kamboni militia argues that the AU's assault was delayed over "political reasons" rather than military shortages.

"We are avoiding a situation where we capture a town and people fight over what clan should be in charge of a specific area," said Abdinasir Serar. "We are working closely with clan elders to avoid clan clashes. You don’t want a situation whereby al Shabab is taking advantage of disorganization in an area. We have to move very carefully so that al Shabab won’t have any opportunities to exploit."

Serar's advice is fundamentally sound. For years Kismayo's clan leadership has resisted al-Shabaab, going so far as to evict the group before Ethiopian troops could arrive. Yet the inefficiency of Somalia's government has left the port at the mercy of al-Shabaab, whose commanders vacated the city under the realization that they can return with ease. Recent reports also suggest that the group's commanders moved out of the area and left the resistance to their subordinates. They will likely mount a limited counteroffensive inside the city before taking the battle into its jungle outskirts, although eyewitnesses claim that the group is ordering clan elders to donate hundreds of recruits. Other sources claim that al-Shabaab is preparing another withdrawal and a heavier shift into guerrilla warfare.

Whatever the case, clearing the city won't be as difficult as administering it; the AU must ensure that an organized local force awaits al-Shabaab's return.

The most practical near-term strategy for governing a post-Shabaab Kismayo is a local transitional council, but this arrangement will consume a great deal time and may turn out lopsided in the end. Serar's statements thus hit the COIN mark, highlighting a key factor that is infrequently discussed in the media. He can't diminish the collateral of Uganda's crashed Hinds, however his promise to begin an offensive before the end of the month sounds doable. Nairobi in particular can't afford to wait much longer.

One year in Somalia and no Kismayo won't play well on the home front.