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May 23, 2015

Memorial Day 2015


Note: I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. The situation has changed a bit, but I think the sentiment still is true today. Let us not forget that there are still American forces in harm's way.


'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Do not forget our fallen men and women

COMMENTARY
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - MSNBC


Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together in Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."

Over the years, over a million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.


© 2007 MSNBC Interactive and Rick Francona



April 30, 2015

Saudi Arabia - the resurgence of the al-Sudayri clan

The succession of the House of Sa'ud
King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (top right)
Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz (bottom right)

While the world has been focused on the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, and Americans have been following events in Baltimore, there was a subtle shakeup in the diwan (royal court) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This shakeup follows a rather bold move by the new Saudi king soon after he assumed the throne in January of this year.

To recap those events in January: Upon the death of his half-brother King 'Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud became the king with no controversy - the Saudi succession has been remarkably smooth for decades. As expected, Salman named his younger brother Muqrin (one of the few surviving sons of the kingdom's founder) as the new crown prince.

However, the new king surprised many "Saudi watchers" by removing King 'Abdullah's son Muta'ib from the recently created position of deputy crown prince and naming his full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif (age 55), the Minister of the Interior - the powerful internal security agency of the kingdom to fill the position. Muhammad bin Nayif is the son of Salman's full brother Nayif - one of the so-called "Sudayri Seven" brothers who are the sons of who many believe to be 'Abd al-'Aziz's favorite wife, Hasah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri. See my article dealing with this issue, Naming of new Saudi deputy crown prince - future crisis averted? (January 24, 2015).

The seven brothers for years were a close-knit group who wielded great power in the running of the kingdom. Two of the brothers have become kings, two others were crown princes, and the others have held key ministerial and provincial governor's posts. King Salman made other appointments in January as well, including naming his son Muhammad bin Salman (age 30) as Minister of Defense and Aviation (MODA), one of the most powerful portfolios in the kingdom. With these moves, members of the al-Sudayri clan were once again the preeminent power brokers in the country.

Fast forward to this week. In a royal decree, King Salman removed his brother Muqrin as crown prince and elevated Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif to the position of crown prince, in essence personally selecting (rather than via a family meeting) the new king from the grandsons of 'Abd al-'Aziz. If this succession occurs without incident when Salman dies (he is now 79), it will have solved the succession issue. It will also have maintained the superior position of the al-Sudayri clan.

Read on, it gets better. In addition to elevating Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, the king named the new deputy crown prince - his son Muhammad bin Salman (the powerful Minister of Defense and Aviation).

What King Salman has done effectively consolidates the major centers of power of the kingdom in the hands of the al-Sudayris:

- The King of course is the monarch.

- The king's full nephew Muhammad bin Nayif is now the crown prince as well as the powerful Minister of the Interior.

- The king's son Muhammad bin Salman is now deputy crown prince as well as the Minister of Defense and Aviation, controlling the armed forces and anything that flies, military or civilian - that same son is concurrently the secretary general of the royal court. The defense minister is quite popular in the kingdom at this time - the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is widely supported.

These three men, all al-Sudayris, in essence run the kingdom. The royal family has always run the kingdom, but now most of the power has been concentrated into one small faction of the royal family - the descendants of 'Abd al-'Aziz and his favorite wife Hasah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri.

Well played, Your Highness, well played.



April 28, 2015

Iranian seizure of the Maersk Tigris - what are they thinking?

Route track of the Maersk Tigris and location report in Bandar Abbas
Click on image for larger view

Iran's seizure of the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship in what the ship's owners claim are international waters in the Strait of Hormuz raises a series of questions about Iranian motives, political considerations and possibly a desire for revenge following what might be viewed as a loss of face over the situation in Yemen. It also may indicate the Iranian leadership's assessment of the American Administration's willingness to confront Tehran in the midst of the ongoing nuclear agreement negotiations between Iran and the group known as the P5+1.*

According to press reports, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Navy gunboats approached the Maersk Tigris, a container ship traversing the Persian Gulf through international waters or a section of Iranian territorial waters through which "innocent passage" is protected by international law. After the Iranian gunboats fired a warning shot across the ship's bow, the captain complied with demands and followed the gunboats to the Bandar Abbas Anchorage. The above images show the vessel's track as generated by the ship's navigational system and in which the ship appears to be in international waters.

Here is where this incident gets interesting. The Maersk Tigris is flagged in the Marshall Islands. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a U.S. protectorate - its security and defense are the responsibility of the United States based on a Compact of Free Association agreement. If actions are to be taken in defense of the RMI or its interests - such as one of its flagged vessels - it will be the armed forces of the United States, in this case the United States Navy, that will take those actions. That said, the Marshall Islands are a common "flag of convenience" country and have no real relationship to the vessel.

One has to wonder if the IRGC Navy - a smaller and more aggressive military force than the regular Iranian Navy - chose this particular ship because of the rather obscure defense and security arrangements between the Marshal Islands and the United States, or because they honestly believed the ship had strayed into Iranian waters.

On first blush, I would go with the latter - I don't normally associate the IRGC Navy as being politically astute enough for the former, but they may have been following directions from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, who are astute enough. Given the location of the vessel as indicated by the ship's automated tracker, it would appear that the ship was specifically targeted for who it is, not where it was.

I do not believe the timing of this action to be mere coincidence. The Iranians suffered a loss of face last week as they were forced to back down and recall a convoy of cargo ships suspected of carrying additional or advanced weapons to the Iranian-back Houthi group in Yemen. The United States had moved the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (nicknamed "the big stick") and supporting vessels into the Gulf of Aden to prevent the Iranian ships from entering Yemeni territorial waters.

I think there was surprise on the part of the Iranian leadership that the United States was serious about preventing the ships from delivering their cargo. To them, the Americans were being uncharacteristically stalwart after caving in on virtually every Iranian demand to date in the nuclear negotiations.

Assuming that the Iranians have seized a commercial ship flying the flag of a country whose defense and security are the responsibility of the United States in flagrant violation of the concept of "freedom of navigation" so valued by the United States, President Obama must decide what actions are appropriate.

Once again, the Iranians have maneuvered him into a position in which he must act as he did in the case of the Iranian cargo ships, or do nothing and appear as weak as he has in his other dealings with Iran - the repeated concessions on the nuclear talks are a prime example. There is also the Administration's unwillingness to engage the Iranians on a number of Americans literally being held hostage in the Islamic Republic, including a former U.S. Marine and a Washington Post journalist.

Again, the timing is not a coincidence. President Obama is scheduled to meet shortly with America's key Gulf allies and attempt to convince them that the United States remains concerned about - and more importantly, committed to - their security. The numerous concessions on the Iranian nuclear program have seriously undermined America's credibility on this subject.

It will be interesting to watch the Administration try to spin away this dangerous action in the Strait of Hormuz. It is a test of just how much the President wants a nuclear deal with the Iranians, how much he values the alliance with the Gulf Arabs and how much he respects our international agreement with the Marshall Islands.

Your move, Mr. President.

___________

* The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) plus Germany.




April 16, 2015

The ISIS attack on the Bayji oil refinery - where is the airpower?


The so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), released a video that claims to chronicle its successful attack on the Bayji oil refinery in Iraq's Salah al-Din Governorate. Bayji is located on the Tigris River about 125 miles north of Baghdad, just north of the city Tikrit - it is the country's largest refinery.

The attack on the refinery comes immediately after Iraqi forces - with initial assistance from Iranian supported militias and finally from U.S.-led coalition airpower - were able to retake Tikrit from ISIS. The battle, which was touted to last just a few days, took over a month as the Iraqis and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias found themselves in a stalemate because ISIS had effectively prepared the city for the expected offensive.

It should be noted that ISIS is simultaneously conducting an attack on al-Ramadi, the capital city of al-Anbar Governorate. Al-Ramadi is located about 65 miles west of Baghdad. (See my article from earlier this week, ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign.) Despite U.S. Department of Defense claims that coalition airpower is stopping and even rolling back ISIS's advances, the group continues to mount multiple offensive operations.

This video may partially explain how that can be. It is in Arabic, but much is self-explanatory - I will provide translations of key portions. This should be watched in conjunction with a review of my earlier article, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS? (March 8, 2015).


The video is titled "Attack of the Defiant - on the Apostates in the [Bayji] Refinery." Keep in mind that this is a production of the skilled propagandists in the Information Office of the Islamic State's Salah al-Din Governorate. It is well-produced and graphic. In addition to the message of a successful attack on what is critical infrastructure to Iraq, it also shows a level of brutality that is meant to terrify potential adversaries. It is effective.

NOTE: YouTube has deleted the video.

Some of the key points in the video:

---
Initially, there are preparatory fires from 122mm, 130mm and possibly 152mm artillery, as well as Katyusha rockets. The Katyusha rocket launcher is concealed in a dump truck (time 0:21/0:24/1:50). We have also seen these in the hands of Palestinians, and was probably supplied by the Iranians.

Between 0:30 and 0:50, we see ISIS drone footage of the refinery, followed by scenes from the "Islamic State Army Operations Room" - you can hear fire control orders being given.

At 2:03, there is the initial sighting of a U.S. Air Force Predator drone. At this time, there are numerous ISIS targets, primarily towed artillery pieces in static positions. The drone is seen again at 2:43.

At 4:00, the infantry assault begins. At 5:30, during this phase, a U.S. Air Force A-10 "Warthog" close air support aircraft is seen over the battlefield. By 6:30, the attack is over and numerous dead Iraqi soldiers are seen.

At 7:20, there is footage of ISIS fighters in the center of the refinery with destroyed Iraqi army equipment. At 8:05, the A-10 is again seen over the area. Later there is a burning M-1 Abrams tank, followed by Shi'a militia equipment and flag, and boxes of U.S.-manufactured ammunition. At 9:10, there is an abandoned Iraqi army T-72 tank.

At 9:20, an ISIS fighter being interviewed commented that there was no coalition airpower employed against them during the operation.

At 9:40, there is coverage of a suicide attack on retreating Iraqi troops. The suicide bomber recites his last statement, then from 10:15 to 10:35, drives the explosive laden Humvee into his target.

At 10:50, there is an abandoned, intact M-1 Abrams tank being taken over by ISIS fighters.

At 11:50, the celebrations begin - "they fled, we're here."
---

Multiple sightings of at least one Predator drone and an A-10 attack aircraft - both of which are ideal platforms for attacking ISIS targets - indicate that the coalition was flying over the oil refinery, yet there are no indications of attacks. The remarks by the ISIS fighter at 9:20 say it all.

What are we doing? Either let the pilots and drone operators do their jobs, or bring them home.



April 15, 2015

ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign

The ISIS assault on the city of al-Ramadi

The fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are attempting to surround and seize the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate in western Iraq.

Despite the U.S.-led air campaign that began in August of last year - and Pentagon claims that the organization is in retreat - the Islamist group is still able to mount effective ground operations against Iraqi security forces and the disparate groups that are fighting the multi-faceted war in Syria.

Statistically, of course, the U.S. Department of Defense is correct - the air campaign has limited ISIS's ability to mass forces and has contributed to the Iraqi retaking of the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad. However, ISIS continues to launch new attacks on multiple fronts. The current fighting in Iraq is focused on al-Ramadi and the oil center of Bayji, located between Tikrit and Mosul. In Syria, ISIS has been able to attack the southern suburbs of Damascus.

The success of the recent attacks on al-Ramadi came as a surprise to the Iraqis - and the Americans advising them. As the Iraqis were finishing the long operation to retake Tikrit, ISIS moved forces to the south - despite the air attacks - and began an attempt to encircle the city. In just a few weeks, they were able to effectively seize areas to the north, east and south of the main part of al-Ramadi.

There are conflicting reports of ISIS breakthroughs into the main part of the city itself. According to media accounts, the defenders in the city are short of necessary supplies - food, water, weapons and ammunition. The only lines of communication open are to the west, but it is a long way to supporting Iraqi military units. Coalition aerial resupply will be critical.

These operations come at a time when Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is visiting the United States, where he met with President Obama as well as Congressional leaders. The United States is in a dilemma. As long as ISIS remains a threat, the Obama Administration must continue to support the Iraqi military. That entails providing intelligence, logistics, training, advice and most importantly, air support to an Iraqi military that continues to perform abysmally.

In the battle to retake the city of Tikrit, the Iraqi armed forces relied primarily on Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, usually referred to as Popular Mobilization Units. The verbiage belies the reality that these militias are trained, equipped, advised - and led - by members of the generally capable Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force. The Qods Force commander, Major General Qassem Solimani, has been seen in various locations in Iraq advising/leading the Shi'a militias. Iranian media has reported the loss of dozens of IRGC officers in the fighting in Iraq, as well as in Syria.

All told, the performance of the Iraqi military is still disappointing. Even with the support of the Shi'a militias, they were unable to effectively force ISIS out of Tikrit. The Iraqis were forced to walk back the bravado of the Shi'a militias who claimed they did not need or want American help to retake the city. After weeks of being stalemated by a much smaller force in the city center, they had to ask for coalition (read: American) air support to rout out the last defenders.

As the U.S. Department of Defense reviewed the performance of the Iraqi forces - army, police and militias - it became apparent that the current capabilities are only marginally better than when American advisers were re-introduced into Iraq last year. It is no wonder that Prime Minister al-'Abadi was reluctant to request additional weapons from President Obama. Although the Iraqis need the weaponry, the United States rightfully is reticent to provide sophisticated, capable weapons to forces that abandoned much of the previously supplied materiel in the face of attacking ISIS forces last summer.

Tikrit was supposed to be the test of the revamped Iraqi military - it failed the test. There were claims by Iraqi officers that Tikrit was to be a short battle and a stepping stone on the way to the liberation of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. Mosul is ten times the size of Tikrit and presents a much more difficult military challenge. The original timetable of an attack in the spring and a battle lasting a few weeks is now just a distant memory. I doubt the Iraqi military will be capable of mounting a campaign to retake Mosul in the next six months. They are still fighting over the oil refinery in Bayji, and have yet to secure al-Ramadi.

If I were the Iraqis - and hopefully the American advisers are on the same sheet of music here - I would be focusing my efforts on al-Ramadi and securing al-Anbar province. That large western province is the location of the critical Euphrates Valley - home to many powerful Sunni tribes that must be won over to support the al-'Abadi government in Baghdad. Their support will be critical to ousting ISIS from the western part of Iraq and thus freeing the Iraqi military to shift its focus to retaking Mosul and finally ejecting ISIS from the country.

If that is possible, that will solve a good portion of the ISIS threat, but not all. We still have to deal with the situation in Syria, and the other locations into which ISIS has metastasized - Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, etc. Ignoring the problem does not solve the problem, just like leaving the battlefield in 2011 did not end the war.

Step one: go take back al-Ramadi. If the Iraqis cannot do that, we face a much bigger problem, one that will likely see Chaiman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey advise the President that the time has now come for the introduction of American combat forces on the ground in Iraq. At that point, this will not be about Iraq, it will be about a threat to the United States.




April 9, 2015

Iran continues to demonstrate its negotiating skills - Kerry beware....


One of the daily emails I receive is the AIPAC Daily News Digest. Granted, it is from a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, but it does provide a quick wrap-up of Middle East news items in one place. In today's issue, it is easy to see Iran's continuing attempts to shape the ongoing negotiations over the final form of an agreement on the scope of their nuclear program.

The Iranians are trying to force the P5+1 (read: the perceived malleable Secretary of State John Kerry) to continue to make concessions. The Iranians have assessed - correctly in my opinion - that the administration of President Barack Obama is so desperate to reach a deal with Iran that the Americans will grant even more concessions than they have done already.

Three of the first four articles in today's digest illustrate how the Iranians are laying out their additional conditions to the West, a week after both sides have come to a tentative agreement. The Iranians are telling John Kerry that if he does not agree to further concessions, he will lose the deal that has now become identified with his success or failure as the Secretary of State.

Iran senses - again correctly in my opinion - that they are bargaining from a position of strength. The people who arguably invented haggling are now taking full advantage of what they believe is weakness on the part of the American president and seemingly blind ambition on the part of John Kerry.


++

1. Ayatollah Khamenei calls nuclear framework agreement non-binding
HA'ARETZ • BARAK RAVID, REUTERS AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
In his first official remarks about the framework agreement between Iran and Western powers, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Thursday that nothing is finalized, and therefore the understandings remain non-binding.

2. Iran rules out inspection for military sites
THE TIMES OF ISRAEL • TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF
The Iranian defense minister made clear Wednesday that international inspectors would not be granted access to the state’s military sites under the framework agreement with the world powers on the country’s nuclear program.

4. Iran will only sign nuclear deal if sanctions lifted 'same day': Rouhani
REUTERS • PARISA HAFEZI
Iran will only sign a final nuclear accord with six world powers if all sanctions imposed over its disputed atomic work are lifted on the same day, President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech on Thursday.

++

I will address the following remarks to Secretary Kerry (I am sure he is devout reader). Mr Kerry, the Iranians are playing you. They have assessed that you have staked your reputation and the legacy of your tenure as Secretary of State on the success of this deal, and that you are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve an agreement, almost any agreement, with them.

I urge you to focus on the long-term effects of the terms of this agreement. As it stands, it does very little to halt Iran's quest for nuclear weapons, it legitimizes their now-illegal enrichment of uranium, it will start an arms race in the region, and it will threaten the existence of a key American ally, Israel.

Read the three articles above. Do the Iranians sound like people we can trust to adhere to an agreement that is almost impossible to verify? Without unfettered and unannounced (neither of which you have secured; in fact both were part of your concessions) access to all Iran's nuclear facilities - regardless of whether or not they are located on military installations - there is no verification.

Further, the proposed deal does not address other facets of Iran's policies - support of terrorism and meddling in regional affairs (Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen come to mind). These are the people who are shouting "death to America" in one meeting and who you believe are negotiating in good faith with that same America in another. Does this make sense to you?

Stop making concessions and be willing to walk away. The Iranians need this deal; we don't - perhaps you should remind your Iranian counterpart of that.




April 7, 2015

Yemen - do the Houthis want to talk?

A Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S of 92 Squadron takes off for a sortie in Yemen

For the last two weeks, a Saudi-led coalition of the air forces of ten nations has pummeled targets of the Houthi group in Yemen, hoping to force the group to accept the return of elected - and deposed - President 'Abd Rabuh Mansur al-Hadi to power, or to at least establish some form of a power-sharing government. The Saudis have repeatedly asked/demanded that the Houthis enter a dialogue with the president about the future of the governance of Yemen.

The Saudis view events in Yemen as in their direct sphere of influence. As the largest, wealthiest and most powerful country on the Arabian Peninsula, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regards events anywhere on the peninsula as affecting its national interests. That view is especially critical with Yemen, which over the decades of the existence of the Kingdom, has often been a source of conflict. The 1960's civil war in Yemen drew in military forces from Egypt and Jordan, as well as those of Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis make up between 30 to 40 percent of the Yemeni population - accurate figures are hard to obtain. After they seized power - surprisingly easily - earlier this year, the Saudis' concern for the stability of Yemen caused them to approach the Houthis and offer to negotiate or mediate the future of the country. There was some initial hope that a diplomatic arrangement could be reached since the Houthis indicated they did not seek to govern. That hope ended when the Houthis reversed that stance and began governance of the country.

After the Houthis installed themselves as the de facto government, they refused all offers of dialogue, mediation, negotiation, etc. After the president escaped from house arrest and fled to the southern port city of Aden, the Saudis became concerned that the country was entering a new civil war, this time between the Houthis and their ally former President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih on one side, and the forces loyal to current President al-Hadi on the other.

The Houthis were very effective in routing the loyalists and forcing them to withdraw to the south. It appeared that the loyalists were on the verge of collapse, and rumors began to circulate that President al-Hadi had fled the country under cover of darkness. As to be expected, the Saudis' apprehension of instability on their southern border grew.

In the early hours of March 26, aircraft from several Arab air forces, led by the Royal Saudi Air Force, began airstrikes on Houthi targets across Yemen. The initial targets were well chosen - military installations in and around Sana', as well as high-value installations in Ta'izz and the al-'Anad air base. The al-'Anad air base was the location used by American special operations forces to conduct drone strikes against the leadership of the Yemen-based group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), before the Americans were evacuated along with the U.S. embassy staff.

Given the target selection and the seemingly accurate strikes, it has been my assessment that much of that targeting data was provided by the United States. None of the air forces comprising the Saudi-led coalition has the intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to develop that comprehensive of a target list. I am not saying that the United States provided the exact target list for this particular series of attacks, but at some point in the past, as part of our military and intelligence cooperation with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies, had shared that information.

Although the Arab coalition was fairly accurate in its strikes, there were a large number of civilian casualties - for several reasons. First, many of the targets were located in fairly built-up urban areas. Striking these targets with large weapons resulted in a lot of collateral damage - including civilian casualties. The Arab air forces do not possess the smaller bombs used by the U.S. Air Force developed for just these types of attacks, and there may be less concern in these air forces about collateral damage. Secondly, as the airstrikes continued, the Houthi leadership moved more and more of its command and control operations into civilian residential areas, hoping to force the Arab air forces to reconsider hitting targets in these areas.

The airstrikes continued, and civilian casualties mounted. At one point, Sunni Yemenis began to complain about the casualties, accusing the attackers of killing the very citizens they were supposedly defending. The coalition scaled back its attacks, allowing the Houthis to begin a relentless and effective ground campaign, moving south in a series of assaults that has taken them all the way to the port area of Aden.

The Houthis and their allies now control most of the western area of the country - the east is still largely controlled by AQAP. In fact, AQAP, probably the major benefactor of the chaos in Yemen, is virtually unchecked in its operations. As an example, they attacked a poorly defended prison and freed hundreds of imprisoned AQAP fighters.

Despite media reporting and analysis to the contrary, there are reports that the Houthis are in fact suffering from the Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes. The objective of the "ineffective" (as described by the media) air campaign is to force the Houthis to the negotiating table where a political arrangement can be worked out that addresses Saudi Arabia's legitimate security concerns, and if possible, restore the government of President al-Hadi to some form of power-sharing or caretaker government. Note that I said "if possible" - if forced to make a choice, the Saudis will go for an agreement that addresses their national interests.

Perhaps the air campaign actually has had its intended effect and the Houthis are willing to talk about the future governance of Yemen if the Saudis halt the bombing. That said, keep in mind that the Houthi official that indicated that his group is amenable to talks is Salih 'Ali al-Samad - the same official who said months ago the Houthis had no desire to run the country.

There are also reports that the Saudis - possibly with Egyptian and Pakistani assistance - are preparing for a ground incursion into Yemen. Tanks and other military equipment are being moved to the Saudi-Yemeni border and all units are on heightened alert. I believe this to be posturing on the part of the Saudis. They have tried ground incursions into Yemen before - it has always met with only limited success.

I believe the air campaign will continue and probably intensify until the Houthis are serious about sitting down at the negotiating table. The Saudis and their coalition allies can maintain the pace of the airstrikes almost indefinitely.




April 5, 2015

The nuclear deal with Iran - the view from Riyadh

King Salman bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

It appears almost inevitable that the Obama Administration is going to push through the completion of what many to consider to be a mediocre-at-best agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. Regardless of the hard sales pitches by both the President and Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iranians remain focused on the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. I believe they will ultimately be successful.

I am not the only one that believes that the Iranians will eventually have nuclear weapons - it already has the ballistic missiles to deliver them. One need only look to the west across the Persian Gulf to find the country (with the understandable exception of Israel) most concerned with the Iranian nuclear arms program - the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been wary of Iran since the 1979 revolution and Tehran's desire to export that revolution throughout the region. Since 1982 when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Syria and Lebanon contingent (forerunner of today's Qods Force) began operations in Lebanon and created Hizballah, the Iranians have been a major force in the politics of both countries.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent civil war, Iran has meddled incessantly in Iraqi politics - after the premature removal of American forces in 2011, Iran became the major power broker in the country. Some say it remains that to this day.

The recent and ongoing crisis in Yemen has Tehran's handwriting all over it. The Shi'a Houthi group is sponsored, equipped and funded by the Iranians. If you are sitting in Riyadh, you see Iran wielding significant influence in four Arab capitals - Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and now Sana'. Iran is constantly displaying new, indigenous weapons, including more capable and longer range ballistic missiles.

The Saudis have reason to worry - they, like most rational observers of Middle East events, are convinced that Iran will at some point in the next few years, possess nuclear weapons.

The Saudi concern with a potentially nuclear-armed Iran is nothing new. I wrote an article in late 2011 - The coming nuclear arms race in the Middle East (December 5, 2011). From that article:

QUOTE
Saudi Arabia
The former director of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service stated this week that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then the Kingdom may be forced to as well. Although Prince Turki al-Faysal couched his remarks by first citing the world's failure to convince Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons, then casually adding "as well as Iran," his meaning was perfectly clear - if Iran develops them, we'll buy our own. Saudi Arabia is currently planning to build 16 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The weapons program would be an easy add-on, although the Kingdom is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Saudi interest in a nuclear weapons capability is not new. In 1987, the Saudis purchased CSS-2 missiles from China; the missiles are designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Although the Saudis did not acquire that capability, they did express interest in a joint research and development program with Pakistan. If the Saudis decide to move ahead with a nuclear weapons capability, they have the requisite infrastructure already in place.

While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. Read the entire cable here.)


9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

10. (S/NF) The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad's February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent, Iran "is now a nuclear nation." The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained. The King will want you to elaborate on the President's statement that the time for sanctions has come. He will also want to hear our plans for bolstering Gulf defenses vis-a-vis Iran. (The King has invited General Petraeus to his desert camp for discussion on this topic on Tuesday.)

END QUOTE

Although some of the situation in the Middle East has changed since I wrote that, such as the hope that Syria could be part of a counter to Iran and the fact that there is a new king in Saudi Arabia, the rest still holds true. I assess that new Saudi King Salman has already given the orders to the new Minister of Defense and Aviation (his son), to scope out what it would take to acquire at least the same capability as Iran.

Of course, by doing so the Saudis may run afoul of the Obama Administration. However, the Administration has proven that they are willing to allow other countries to enrich uranium in contravention of international agreements with little consequence.

If you are living in the Persian Gulf region, the overly optimistic assurances from President Obama and Secretary Kerry that their agreement with Iran will prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability ring hollow.

If I was King Salman, I would do the same thing.



March 28, 2015

Bergdahl - the deflective media campaign begins

Still images from a Taliban video of Bergdahl's release

It has not taken any time at all for a campaign to be mounted in support of accused U.S. Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. It ranges from sympathetic media outlets to his high-powered defense attorney and even a few misguided online support groups.

The motivations for the campaign range from typical lawyer tactics to anti-military sentiments, usually from people who do not understand military service and its unique demands.


Bergdahl at Fort Sam Houston (San Antonio, TX) in 2014

My views on Bergdahl are clear (see my earlier article, Bergdahl - the Army does the right thing). I believe he deserted his post and should be held accountable - let him have his day in court. It appears that he is one step closer to that possibility as the U.S. Army has charged him with desertion and misbehavior in front of the enemy - both serious charges.

There is an Article 32 hearing scheduled for April 22. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, this hearing is similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding. The convening officer may refer the case to a general court-martial or dismiss the charges. I hope that the U.S. Army will continue to do the right thing as a result of that hearing, which in my opinion is to convene a general court-martial.

I also hope that the Administration will not put pressure on the Army to dismiss the case in the wake of the White House's two public relations blunders - the Rose Garden ceremony with the President and Bergdahl's parents, followed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice's blatantly false claim that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction."

On CNN* this morning, I was asked my analysis of the claim made by Bergdahl that he had left his unit so he could report "a breakdown in discipline and order" to senior military officials and did not intend to desert. I wanted to ask CNN anchor Alison Kosik, "Where do I start?"



I enjoy fiction but it has to be good fiction - this does not meet that standard. I have to assume that this claim is part of the legal advice that Bergdahl is receiving from well-known civilian defense attorney Eugene Fidell.

Fidell is well-regarded in military justice circles, and he will do his best to defend his client - I hope that stops short of suborning perjury. His claims that there is a "tidal wave of hostility from the right" toward Bergdahl is just more of his part of the media campaign drumbeat....

First, there is an established chain of command that provides for soldiers to raise the issues Bergdahl claims he was attempting to report. That is best done at an installation to which Bergdahl had access periodically, not by deserting a forward outpost in the middle of the night in search of another unit.

Second, if he was truly looking for another U.S. Army outpost, he would have retained his body armor, night-vision googles and most importantly, his weapons. It is inconceivable to me that he chose to leave his post unarmed in the middle of an area known to be active with Taliban fighters on this mythical quest to report problems in his unit.

We can expect more of the deflection campaign. However, I am not buying it.

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* Disclosure: I am a paid military analyst for CNN.




March 25, 2015

Bergdahl - the Army does the right thing

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (here as a Private First Class)

It has taken too long, but finally we have criminal charges filed against U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Today Bergdahl's lawyer was provided documents charging the former Taliban captive with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. I will let the lawyers discuss the actual charges - I will limit my remarks to the fact that charges have been proffered.

The Army, no doubt following instructions that likely emanated from the White House, only today announced what it had decided months ago. The delay in making the charges public stems from the mishandling of the Bergdahl case since the Administration made the decision - ill-advised in my opinion - to exchange five senior Taliban officials being held at the detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, in return for an American soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan in June 2009.

Despite the delay, there is no chance of distancing the White House from what can only be described as gaffes. First and foremost was the spectacle of President Obama hosting Bergdahl's parents in a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the release of five of the most senior Taliban detainees in U.S. custody for the return of their son. The President's remarks seemed to paint Bergdahl as a hero rather than a soldier suspected of desertion. It is inconceivable that the President, the Commander in Chief, was unaware of the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance from his unit at a forward outpost in Afghanistan.


President Obama with Bergdahl's parents at the White House

When it became obvious the American public did not support the Administration's decision to release five dangerous terrorists for what many observers believe is a deserter, the White House sent National Security Advisor Susan Rice out on the talk show circuit to make their case.

Rice's infamous quote will no doubt be replayed juxtaposed with an Army colonel reading the charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
- Rice: "He served the United States with honor and distinction...."
- Colonel John King: "The U.S. Army Forces Command...formally charged Sergeant Bergdahl with desertion ... and misbehavior in front of the enemy...."

Perhaps the Administration should limit Ambassador Rice's public appearances - add this to her assertions that the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi was in reaction to a video, and claims that Turkey had decided to allow coalition use of their airbases for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq - both proven to be false. Combined with the almost surreal Rose Garden ceremony, it is understandable why the White House wanted to delay this announcement of the decision to charge Bergdahl with desertion.

Soon after the news broke that the Army was pressing charges against Bergdahl, Bergdahl's lawyer released a statement purportedly from Bergdahl himself detailing the conditions of his captivity at the hands of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. There is neither doubt nor argument that Bergdahl suffered terribly during his five year ordeal.

It was an ordeal of his own making, however. In June 2009, Bergdahl walked off his post after detailing in writing his intentions to leave. These writings, as well as emails with his father, will be used as strong evidence against him.

I applaud the U.S. Army decision to move forward with this case and charge Bergdahl. Despite the suffering he endured, that was after he had made the decision to desert his comrades in arms.

When Bergdahl walked off his post, he committed the worst crime in the profession of arms - leaving his fellow troops. Those same troops then had to place themselves in the dangerous situation of halting ongoing operations to begin an intense search effort. There are claims, which the Administration denies, that several soldiers were killed in an unnecessary search operation triggered by Bergdahl's decision to leave his post.

Whatever the outcome of the court-martial - if there is one - the Army owes it to all of its soldiers to hold its troops accountable for their actions. Bowe Bergdahl will have his day in court to tell his side of the story. Soldiers hold their own to high standards - they will determine if Bergdahl failed to meet those standards.

My compliments to the U.S. Army leadership for doing the right thing.
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See my previous writings on the Bergdahl case:
- The Bowe Bergdahl exchange - a mixed blessing (June 2014)
- Military chiefs support the release of the "Taliban Five" for Sergeant Bergdahl - well, sort of.... (July 2014)