February 26, 2008

Yemen - State sponsor of terrorism?

Last week, Jabr al-Banah waltzed into a courtroom in Sana', Yemen, made a brief appearance and departed. This is outrageous - al-Banah is American citizen wanted by American authorities for terrorist activities - he is one of the so-called "Lackawanna Six." Jabr al-Banah is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list - there is a $5 million reward for information leading to al-Banah's capture. The total lack of Yemeni government cooperation in American efforts to hold al-Banah accountable calls into question whether or not Yemen is actually a state sponsor of terrorism.

For years, many Middle East specialists - me included - have been critical and skeptical of Yemen's stated support for America's "global war on terror." For whatever reason, U.S. military officers and diplomats believe that Yemen is a friend of the United States, a belief that goes back over two decades.

In the late 1980's, the U.S. Central Command, the organization responsible for military operations in the Middle East, wanted to establish a headquarters on the ground in the region. Because no Arab countries wanted an American military presence in their countries, CENTCOM was (and is) headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Their hopes to set up a headquarters in Yemen were brought to a screeching halt by Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih's support for Saddam Husayn following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

Yemen had been a favorite of CENTCOM as far back as the early 1980s. At that time, there were two Yemens - the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) friendly to the United States, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), a virtual Soviet client state. South Yemen hosted a large Soviet advisory contingent and allowed the Soviet Navy to use the excellent port facility at Aden. The two Yemens united in May of 1990 - Salih stayed on as the leader of the newly united Republic of Yemen.

After the Gulf War, there was a renewal of friendly relations between Yemen and the United States. American senior military officers, including every CENTCOM commander, renewed their repeated visits to the country. Small numbers of U.S. troops were sent to Yemen to train Yemeni forces in land mine removal, and assist the Yemeni navy to establish a coast guard. According to the Yemeni media, senior American officers routinely requested President Salih's permission to establish a military base in Yemen, probably on the island of Socotra. The United States denied this, but conceded that there are plans to increase military cooperation between the two countries.

Increased U.S.-Yemen military relationship has been hotly debated between CENTCOM and Middle East specialists in Washington, primarily at the Defense Department. Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, an experienced Middle East specialist, supported these specialists' view. As early as March of 2000, she recommended that the Navy not authorize ship visits to Aden. In fact, the State Department’s 2000 report on terrorism states that “lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures and the government's inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continued to make the country a safehaven for terrorist groups.”

Much of this concern was borne later that year with the October 12 attack on the USS Cole while refueling in the port of Aden. Given what we knew and the ambassador's analysis, why was the ship in Yemen at all?

After the attack, former CENTCOM commander, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, testified before Congressional committees that he had made the decision a few years earlier to use the Yemeni port for refueling U.S. Navy ships. Zinni stated that he was presented only with poor choices of refueling locations. This statement flies in the face of conventional wisdom - there are numerous safer refueling locations in the region - Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali, Dubai, Fujayrah, and Muscat come to mind. When you add the fact that this particular ship had a range in excess of 4000 miles, the claim of the requirement to refuel in Aden loses credibility.

Although there is no doubt about the need to use more foreign ports due to cutbacks in military spending and the resultant loss of refueling ships to support underway replenishments, the USS Cole issue has more to do with politics than with logistics. The ship visits – including that of the USS Cole – to Aden were more of a misguided CENTCOM effort to show the flag and build the bilateral U.S.-Yemeni relationship than a valid logistical requirement. Of course, political expediency and military prudence do not always go hand in hand. It was a bad decision, one for which Zinni has never taken responsibility.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Yemen claimed to support America's global war on terror. Although the Yemenis did arrest some al-Qa'idah members in the country, they did not seem to have their hearts in it. For example, in February 2006, 23 al-Qa'idah prisoners escaped from a maximum security prison by tunneling from the prison to the women's room of a mosque located hundreds of feet outside the prison compound. The imam at the mosque claimed that his warnings that something was going on under the mosque were ignored. In fact, the prison was unaware that the prisoners were missing until the imam notified the government that he had discovered a tunnel exit in the mosque.

Included in the 23 escapees were Jamal al-Badawi, mastermind 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and Jabr al-Banah. This "escape" raises many questionst - 23 prisoners in a maximum security compound in the capital city of Sana' were able to dig a tunnel and escape undetected until someone outside the facility told the authorities about it? Hard to believe.

Another example of Yemen's lack of commitment came in July 2006. A Yemeni court acquitted 19 suspected al-Qa'idah members, some of whom had confessed to fighting American troops in Iraq. According to the judge, going to Iraq and joining the al-Qa'idah in Iraq organization and killing Americans does not violate Yemeni law. He went on to state that "Islamic shari'a law permits jihad against occupiers." These are our allies?

Back to American citizen Jabr al-Banah's court appearance last week. He is charged not only with the jailbreak in 2006, but a series of attacks on oil facilities in Yemen. He was not in custody, apparently allowed to roam free around the country. He showed up with a personal security detail, spoke to the judge and was allowed to depart. Yemeni police arrested him in 2004, but refused to extradite him to the United States. I would have liked to hear the conversation between the al-Banah and the judge, an official of one of the most corrupt governments on the planet.

Given Yemen's obvious decision to support al-Qa'idah and refuse to assist the United States in the war on terror, why are American troops training the Yemeni armed forces? I propose we add them to the list of state sponsors of terrorism until Jabr al-Banah is in a set of FBI handcuffs. Since he's an American citizen, we can't send him to Guantanamo....

February 22, 2008

Al-Sadr extends his ceasefire – good choice, Muqtada

Radical Shi’a cleric as-Sayid* Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly has extended his Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army, or JAM) ceasefire for another six months. Not only is this good for prospects in Iraq, it is a good decision on his part as well. I submit that his decision was guided by a realization that renewing hostilities against the American and improved Iraqi forces does not hold much promise.

When American “surge” forces began to arrive in Baghdad and al-Anbar governorate a little over a year ago, al-Sadr instructed his JAM to lie low and not engage the Americans, lie low and wait for the day when they emerge as a political force. In August 2007, he decreed a formal ceasefire. It was a smart move then, and it’s a smart move now.

Al-Sadr, never thought of a being particularly astute politically, finally got it right. He not only lowered the level of sectarian violence – before the increased number of American troops did it for him – he sought to make himself more acceptable to the Shi’a population by continuing his Islamic education. Al-Sadr currently is a hawjat al-islam, a level below ayatollah. For him to be taken seriously in the Shi’a hierarchy, he needs to be an ayatollah, like his famous father (actually he was a "grand ayatollah") and father-in-law, both of whom were murdered on the orders of Saddam Husayn. He also is related to many others with impeccable religious credentials.

Al-Sadr is positioning himself to be a leader in the Shi’a community for the future. At some point, the Americans will leave the country and the Iraqis will have to stand alone. Given the number of Shi’a in the population – over 60 percent - it is ineveitable that they will wield most of the power. Al-Sadr wants to be part of the power bloc that runs the country. Acquiring better religious credentials is a positive step toward that goal.

Abrogating the self-declared ceasefire and taking on the Americans while they are in surge mode is not a good idea. Since the “Anbar Awakening,” al-Qa’idah in Iraq has been dealt a severe blow and is on the run. Iraqi military and security forces are much improved. If al-Sadr were to change tactics and renew attacks on American or Iraqi forces, he would find himself on the losing end. People in Iraq like the newfound security, or at least the significantly lower levels of violence in the country. Should al-Sadr foment a return to sectarian violence, he risks losing whatever popular support he may now enjoy.

Muqtada, you are playing it surprisingly smart thus far. I am one of those who supported the earlier thought that you were part of the problem and should have been eliminated. I take it you have seen the light. Continue this way and you just might get out of this alive.

* As-Sayyid literally mean “mister” in Arabic, but in Shi’a Islam is a title indicating a direct male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. It entitles him to wear the black turban.

February 21, 2008

A subtle message to the bad guys....

SM-3 Launch (click for larger image)The U.S. Navy’s successful intercept of an unresponsive satellite in an erratic orbit almost 150 miles above the earth’s surface should not be lost on countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Although the United States demonstrated an anti-satellite capability as early as 1985, the Pentagon insists this recent operation was neither a test nor a demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon. Note that China launched a missile to destroy a weather satellite a year ago, spreading debris all over the satellite belt that will last for decades.

To successfully intercept the satellite, an SM-3 Standard missile was modified to track a low infrared signature target. The Navy modified three missiles at a cost of about $3 million a copy – the remaining two will be reconfigured to its normal anti-missile capabilities.

Although the Defense Department denies any special significance to this operation other than destroying the satellite, there are subtle messages to those who either target or are planning to target the United States with ballistic missiles. In essence, the Navy successfully intercepted a maneuvering object re-entering the atmosphere – to the untrained eye, that satellite resembles a ballistic missile.

That said, ballistic missiles have a much more defined trajectory – this was a much more difficult target to hit. That fact should be read with great interest in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran. The United States, downing one of its errant satellites, demonstrated the capability to track and intercept an object moving in excess of 17,000 miles per hour. That intercept was with a missile launched from a mobile platform – in this case a U.S. Navy destroyer, easily deployable around the world.

The interceptor missile was launched from the USS Lake Erie, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer. The ship was modified as an Aegis ballistic missile defense system platform in the late 1990’s - an anti-ballistic missile platform pressed into service to intercept a dead satellite.

Recent media reports have indicated that the Navy “shot down” the satellite. That was not the mission, and ideally not the result. The SM-3 was intended to hit the satellite and cause it to break up into smaller pieces which would burn up as they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, including the breakup of the fuel tank with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a toxic rocket fuel. This is markedly different from China’s rather sloppy destruction of a satellite in outer space.

If the Iranians were watching television these last few days, they would have seen a credible display of American technology – the return of yet another in the series of over 100 space shuttle missions, and the successful missile intercept of USA 193. As the Iranian regime continues its aggressive program of ballistic missile research and development, combined with its suspect nuclear enrichment efforts, it should take note of the existing and demonstrated defensive capabilities of the U.S armed forces.

The United States arguably was merely eliminating a danger by destroying the dead satellite. At the same time, it demonstrated the ability to move platform into position and intercept an object re-entering the atmosphere over a hundred miles above the earth.

That sure looks like an anti-ballistic missile and an anti-satellite capability. The Pentagon can try to downplay it if it wants, but it is what it is.

Heads up, Mr. Ahmadinejad.

February 20, 2008

Ban tough interrogations? The stakes are too high

The debate over the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of “aggressive” or “enhanced” interrogation techniques – specifically waterboarding – often fails to address the key issue: the risk to American lives if we were not able to extract potential threat information from terrorists. How far should an intelligence officer be allowed to go when interrogating a terrorist believed to have information about future attacks that could place thousands of American lives at risk?

We would all prefer to live in a society where this debate is not necessary. No professional intelligence or military officer relishes the idea of using aggressive, stressful interrogation techniques. Unfortunately, that is often what it takes to extract vital intelligence information from an uncooperative detainee.

The words aggressive, stressful, tough or enhanced are normally used to describe techniques that exceed the restrictions placed on interrogators in the recently revised U.S. Army field manual (Human Intelligence Collector Operations). Whether or not these techniques amount to torture is another debate.

According to the Army field manual, accepted interrogation “approaches” are all psychological, aimed at developing rapport and convincing a detainee to willingly cooperate with the interrogator. The manual applies to all detainees, be they enemy prisoners of war (EPW) or unlawful combatants. Captured Taliban and al-Qaeda members are for the most part considered “illegal enemy combatants” and are not entitled to protections afforded EPWs under the Geneva Convention.

The manual is very specific about what an interrogator cannot do and details all the applicable regulations regarding humane treatment of detainees. For example, proscribed practices include: forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts or be forced to pose in a sexual manner; placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee; using duct tape over the eyes; beatings, electric shock, burns, or other forms of physical pain; “waterboarding”; using military working dogs; inducing hypothermia or heat injury; mock executions; and depriving the detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

Interestingly, the use of isolation is permitted, but only by exception and with the permission of a general officer in each and every instance. If done properly, isolation can be an effective technique – humans are social creatures and generally need human contact. I have observed one Middle Eastern intelligence service use this technique almost exclusively, with excellent results.

From the list of proscribed actions in the manual, it is easy to draw the conclusion that it is a direct response to the abuses conducted by a handful of undisciplined soldiers at Abu Ghraib and their unauthorized use of dogs, forcing prisoners to engage in sexual acts, using hoods and beating prisoners. We may have gone too far in trying to prevent another abuse scandal – now the interrogators are more limited than ever in the techniques they can employ. Soldiers preparing to become interrogators at the Army intelligence school at Fort Huachuca are trained that even verbal threats to a detainee are now out of bounds.

The Army rules now apply to all members of the Department of Defense – military and civilians from all service branches and agencies. There is an effort in Congress to extend the restrictions imposed by the field manual to all government personnel and organizations, including the CIA.

There are reasons why the CIA is exempt from these rules: committed terrorists with knowledge of the inner workings of al-Qaeda, identities of the group’s operatives, venues of training camps, even planned – possibly imminent – operations, are unlikely to provide that information when subjected to the psychological techniques authorized by in the Army manual.

The Army’s techniques often work well against captured military personnel, many of whom have had no interrogation resistance training. During Desert Storm we learned that this was the case with Iraqi prisoners of war – most were willing to cooperate with little psychological manipulation. Frequently my direct questioning met with little hesitation and yielded surprisingly direct answers. In most cases, the humane treatment we afforded them was the key to success. Those who did resist, mostly mid-grade and senior officers, eventually responded to our interrogation methods as well.

In very few instances, mostly in a tactical setting, was violence ever threatened. In one reported incident, the Army allowed a lieutenant colonel to retire in lieu of a court martial for threatening to shoot an Iraqi prisoner in the head if he did not provide information the officer deemed necessary to protect his troops. This type of threat, though not to the point of actually firing a weapon, happened more than has been reported.

Interrogating prisoners of war and interrogating terrorists are two very different things. Military interrogators in Afghanistan learned that inducing stress through isolation and sleep deprivation did achieve some results from lower level detainees. Most of the detainees were committed religious fanatics, true believers in their cause. Although many thought they were willing to die for that cause – it was not until some thought they might actually get that opportunity that they broke and cooperated with their interrogators.

As far as we know, only three individuals have been subjected to the “enhanced interrogation” technique known as waterboarding. The timing of these interrogations was critical. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, there was real concern in the intelligence and law enforcement communities that we did not have sufficient intelligence to prevent another attack.

Once the United States had access to captured senior al-Qaeda planners Khalid Sheik Mohammed (known as KSM) and Abu Zubaydah, the quandary then became: how far do we go to extract information that might prevent another 9/11? At the time, it was decided to subject them to more aggressive forms of interrogation, including waterboarding. This was done over the objections of those who claim that such methods are not effective.

Presidential candidate Senator John McCain, himself tortured by the North Vietnamese, is in this camp. The argument is that a subject will tell you whatever he thinks will stop the interrogation, telling the interrogator what he wants to hear rather than reliable information. In the North Vietnamese context, this was true enough. They were adept at causing pain, but ineffective in obtaining accurate information.

When done by professionals, these techniques can be effective. According to senior CIA officials, including former CIA Director George Tenet and CIA’s Usama bin Laden unit chief Mike Scheuer, waterboarding was effective in gaining valuable intelligence from the pair, especially KSM. Scheuer goes so far as to claim the intelligence obtained from the aggressive interrogations saved American lives.

It is imperative that we remember who the enemy is and adapt our interrogation protocols accordingly. While the Army’s rules might be sufficient in an armed conflict with a conventional military enemy, the genesis of organized, capable terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda requires a reassessment of that policy. It should be flexible enough to deal with the situation and also be clear enough to convey to the rest of the world that future detainees have reason to be intimidated by American interrogators, rather than being able to rely on the jihadi equivalent of “lawyering up.” Once they know we can’t do anything to them, they won’t cooperate. Fear of mistreatment is often more effective in obtaining cooperation than the mistreatment itself.

Knowing your adversary is key: while in our society restraint is regarded as a strength, in terrorist circles it is viewed as a weakness. Detainees at Guantanamo have laughed at their military interrogators, knowing the Americans’ ability to be tough on them is limited by legal constraints.

Then there is the argument that the permitted use of aggressive techniques by CIA interrogators will lead to mistreatment of Americans – military or civilian – detained by other countries or groups. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny. American prisoners of war have never been treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions – the only countries that adhere to the protocols seem to be the United States and its allies. In virtually every conflict, our captured personnel have been brutally treated and abused – just ask Senator McCain.

The senator has been very clear on his stance on waterboarding. He believes it is torture and should not be used. At the same time, he says that as President he will not restrict CIA interrogators to the approaches in the U.S. Army field manual. While that might appear to be a mixed message, it’s the right one.

The people calling the loudest for the prohibition of aggressive interrogations are not the ones who will be held responsible for keeping the country safe. It is easy to stand in the wells of Congress and call for the administration to treat everyone like a prisoner of war, extend Geneva Convention protections to all, and even allow the detainees at Guantanamo to have access to the U.S. civilian justice system. It’s different when the safety of the American people rests with you.

Outlawing or prohibiting the use of these tough interrogation methods will be a major mistake. The Army manual is too restrictive – CIA interrogators must be able to get tough and aggressive when American lives are at stake. The American people should tolerate no less.

February 14, 2008

Mughniyah's killing offers lessons for the U.S.

This article appeared on

Mughniyah's killing offers lessons for the U.S.
Francona: Patience, perseverence can be emulated in hunt for bin Laden

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

It took over 15 years for the Israelis to finally bring justice to the infamous Hezbollah terrorist, Imad Mughniyah, who was killed Wednesday. In the early 1990s, Mughniyah was linked to two operations against Israeli and Jewish facilities in Buenos Aires that killed well over 100 people. Mughniyah, as chief of operations for Hezbollah, was also believed to be involved in the kidnapping operation that kicked off the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006.

It's commonly believed that the organization responsible for the killing of Mughniyah in Damascus was the Israeli intelligence service. Naturally, the Israeli intelligence service denies this. It has taken the Israelis decades of patiently collecting information on Mughniyah’s operations, locations, associates, communications and movements to the point that an opportunity to eliminate him arose. When that opportunity presented itself, the Israelis apparently took it.

Imad Mughniyah was not a stranger to American intelligence. In fact, you could easily make the case that we had more reason than the Israelis to hunt him down and kill him. Mughniyah had more American than Israeli blood on his hands. The list of attacks attributed to Mughniyah’s leadership is long and well-known.

In April 1983, 17 Americans were killed of 63 total fatalities in a suicide attack on the American Embassy in Beirut. Later that year, over 241 U.S. Marines were killed in an attack on the barracks at Beirut airport as well as 58 French soldiers. Mughniyah is also believed to be involved in a rash of kidnappings of American citizens in Lebanon, including two American officials: CIA station chief Bill Buckley and Marine Colonel Rich Higgins were both murdered.

Mughniyah was formally indicted for his role in the 1965 hijacking of TWA 847 and the subsequent murder of a U.S. Navy diver, and he was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list with a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture. There is no shortage of reasons for the United States to have pursued Mughniyah with as much motivation as the Israelis did

Lessons for the U.S.
The U.S. should use the same level of effort to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden as the Israelis did with Mughniyah. With the blood of almost 3,000 Americans on his hands, bin Laden is easily as important a target for us as Mughniyah was to the Israelis. While many Americans are frustrated that bin Laden has escaped capture or death for over six years, we should consider and emulate the 15 years of patient, but persistent, Israeli intelligence operations resulting in the death of Mughniyah.

Americans should also take into consideration the fact that Mughniyah was in hiding in Lebanon and was killed in Syria, two countries contiguous to Israel. Even with Israel’s excellent intelligence capabilities in these neighboring states, they were not able to mount a successful operation against him.

Bin Laden has sought refuge halfway around the world from the U.S., most likely in the fiercely independent tribal areas of Pakistan. It is difficult to track one man in this area and difficult to develop reliable intelligence sources — it will take time. Patience in this instance is truly a virtue.

I hope the successful Israeli operation against Mughniyah is not lost on bin Laden. However long it takes, he should believe that at some point in the future, an American soldier will bring justice to him. If we don’t persevere toward that goal, shame on us

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

Saudi Arabia: Just when you thought it was safe...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water....

Okay, I borrowed that from the movie Jaws. But just when we thought that the Saudis are finally rushing headlong from the 14th Century into something resembling modernity - I am referring to the recent decisions to consider allowing women to drive and to check into hotels unescorted by a male relative - this story hits the wires:

Saudis to execute a woman for witchcraft

According to Shari'ah law, as practiced in Saudi Arabia, witchcraft and sorcery can be defined as crimes punishable by death. These types of sentences are imposed by the religious courts and enforced by the religious police - the mutawa'in (literally "volunteers"). Officially known as the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, they are often a law unto themselves. Anyone who has been to Saudi Arabia knows who these fanatics are and knows that legal authorities will usually defer to them.

The impending execution of this woman is not an empty threat. In November 2007, the Saudis executed an Egyptian man for practicing witchcraft. Executions in the kingdom are usually public beheadings on Fridays after the morning sermon. In 2007, 156 beheadings were carried out in the kingdom, compared to 40 in 2006.

In August 2007, four Indonesian female domestic workers were beaten by their employers after being accused of practicing witchcraft - two died of their injuries. The two survivors were arrested while in intensive care at a Riyadh hospital. This is reminiscent of an earlier outrage in which a rape victim was sentenced to public whipping - for being alone with a man who was not her relative. King 'Abdullah cancelled her sentence in the face of worldwide indignation. How many times will the king have to rein in the religious police before he abolishes them?

We are quick to demand progress in human rights and democratization in countries like Pakistan, and we are always ready to condemn human rights abuses in places like Iran. Perhaps we should also take a critical look at one of our closest and oldest allies in the Middle East. It is long past time for the Saudis to set their clocks ahead 700 years or so.

February 6, 2008

Gaza and Israel: This round goes to Hamas

This article appeared on

Gaza and Israel: This round goes to Hamas
Francona: Israel's pressure on Hamas created more problems than it solved

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Hamas’s breakthrough of the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Egypt now presents Israel with a much more complicated situation on its southern border. The tough Israeli measures, which were meant to put pressure on the Hamas-led government, backfired.

The Israelis had hoped that the shortages of electricity, fuel and food would force Hamas to take action against the militants responsible for firing dozens of rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot. The rockets, homemade al-Qassam, are the main weapon used by Islamic Jihad. Rather than moving against Islamic Jihad, Hamas chose to alleviate the pressure by demolishing a section of the border with Egypt.

Hundreds of thousands of Gazans poured into Egypt to buy virtually everything in the border area. The Egyptian security forces were overwhelmed, but were not inclined to take action in any case. The movement of all these Palestinians into Egypt was not a problem for Israel but it was a problem for Egypt. It was the uncontrolled return of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Gaza that presented a problem for Israel. There is no way for Israeli security to know who entered Gaza and what they may have brought with them.

Israel’s concerns are not without merit. Since at least the early 1990s, Iran has been the primary source of money, weapons and training for not only Hezbollah in Lebanon, but also Hamas, primarily in Gaza, and Islamic Jihad, primarily in the West Bank. Originally, that support was routed via Damascus and smuggled via Lebanon or Jordan.

Border buoyed between sides
In 2005, Israel gave up control of the Gaza-Egypt border to the Palestinian Authority. A year later, Hamas took control the Strip, first by ballot and then by force. Since then, the flow of Iranian supplied weapons into Gaza from Egypt has increased dramatically. According to Israeli intelligence, Hamas and Islamic Jihad received anti-tank missiles, shoulder-fired air defense weapons, which provide a much more lethal capability over the homemade al-Qassam rockets normally fired into Sderot.

Ultimately, it was the Israeli pressure on Hamas that led to the current problem. Now the Israelis must find another solution, another way to stop the firing of rockets into southern Israel. After the difficulty the Israeli military faced in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006, they may be reluctant to launch a military incursion into the densely populated Gaza Strip. The just-released Winograd Commission report criticized the Israeli political and military leadership for failing to stop Hezbollah from firing four thousand rockets into northern Israel over a 32-day period.

Thus far, the Israelis have been unable to stop Islamic Jihad from firing rockets into the south. While Gaza is not Lebanon, and neither Islamic Jihad nor Hamas are Hezbollah, the Palestinians now believe they can successfully defend themselves against an Israeli military incursion.

The Israeli pressure on Gaza had the unintended consequences of creating a larger problem. This round goes to Hamas, but Israel may believe that the military option is the only option and now faced with the uncertainty of what new weaponry or fighters may have entered Gaza during the period of the uncontrolled border. Given the stinging Winograd findings, if the Israelis decide to use force, they will not repeat the mistakes of southern Lebanon in 2006.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

February 5, 2008

Iran's space program - deja vu

On February 4, Iranian television broadcast what was described as the launch of a space vehicle. It also reported on the opening of a space center to oversee the country's domestic program to place satellites in orbit. Iran already has a communications satellite in orbit, placed there for them by the Russians.

When I read this news item, I had a deja vu moment. What we saw Monday was almost identical to what happened in Iraq in December 1989, when Iraqi television broadcast the launch of what Baghdad claimed was a space launch vehicle. We believed this was a cover for the development of a medium range ballistic missile, a three stage system (the second and third stages were inert for this test launch) designed to carry large payloads, possibly nuclear, to targets at least as far as Israel.

At the time, we knew that the Iraqis had a well-funded ballistic missile research and development program called Program 144. When we watched Iraqi television coverage of the launch, written in Arabic on the launch control console were the words "Project 144/2" - which we assumed placed this project in the ballistic missile program rather than a true space program. We later learned from Iraqi documents obtained after the Gulf War that Project 144/2 was the production and modification of Scud/Al-Husayn class missile airframes and "special" warheads. Iraqis referred to chemical, biological and nuclear munitions as "special weapons."

The Iranian launch vehicle bears a strong resemblance to the Shahab-3 intermediate range ballistic missile, an Iranian-produced version of the North Korean No Dong. The Shahab-3 has several variants, some multi-stage. To put an object into space successfully - or achieve longer ranges with a ballistic missile - it must be multi-stage. We discovered that the Iraqi program was to test multi-stage technology. They had not yet developed the technology to properly launch multi-stage missiles - the United States had successfully prevented the sale of precision triggers required for the staging.

Just as many believe today that the Iranian nuclear research program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, this may be nothing but a cover for a medium to long range ballistic missile development.

Call me skeptical, but I think this Iranian "space program" needs careful monitoring.

February 1, 2008

Presidential candidates lack military experience

This edited version of one my earlier articles appeared on

Presidential candidates lack military experience
Francona: A qualified leader is needed to win the war in Iraq

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Although the economy has emerged as the key topic for the upcoming presidential elections, the war in Iraq is still an important factor to consider. There's an increasing lack of military service among our elected leaders, from state governments to the U.S. Congress and the presidency.

During the Cold War and the draft, many more leaders had experienced life in the military. Whether one serves in combat or not, service in the armed forces provides invaluable insight into the capabilities and the limitations of the military. In the past, military service was almost mandatory to be considered a viable candidate for political office. That does not appear to be the case today. Approximately one-third of the members of the House and Senate are veterans and the percentage declines after every election.

Rating the current candidates’ experience
Looking at the frontrunners for the 2008 presidency is not comforting. On the Democratic side, neither Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., have served in the armed forces; they both come from a law background. Sen. Clinton has the added stigma of attempting to prohibit military officers from wearing their uniforms in the White House while her husband was president.

On the Republican side, consider the backgrounds of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee; neither has served in the military. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was a career officer in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a captain. As a pilot, he was shot down over North Vietnam, and he was a prisoner of war for more than five years. This means out of the five people most likely to become the next president, only one has ever donned the uniform of their country, let alone heard a shot fired in anger.

When you are responsible for ordering young Americans into harm’s way, or responsible for declaring war, service in the armed forces is a desirable quality. Until you are involved in the massive logistical efforts of moving a fighting force half-way around the world and feel the tension and fear when steel starts flying and people start dying, it's only an academic exercise.

'Win,' not 'end' the war
Hearing Obama and Clinton spew rhetoric about ending the war in Iraq brings me discomfort. I hope those words are just rhetoric, and not resolve. “End the war” is not the phrase they need to use: Instead, they should say how they are going to “win the war.” Promising to “end the war on January 9, 2009” is just what the remaining insurgents and the al-Qaida terrorists in Iraq want to hear. Hold out until then, hope a Democrat wins the election, and victory for the jihad is assured.

Hopefully both Clinton and Obama really mean it when they vow to continue fighting terrorists and insurgents until a phased withdrawal is plausible. Pulling the plug prematurely is not only contrary to our national interests, but dangerous for the troops involved. We should not declare defeat and go home.

Last fall, Obama said that he would leave a residual force to fight terrorists, train the Iraqi army and protect the U.S. Embassy. But that’s what the troops are doing, so let them completely finish that job before you pull the rug out from under them. They have paid too high a price to not be allowed to win.

So, Senators, rather than trite campaign slogans, how about a commitment to an American victory? Do you want to win the war in Iraq or not?.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

Is Rick Francona anti-Semitic?

My article on Jonathan Pollard - Israelis ask for release of Jonathan Pollard - again - has generated considerable interest and feedback.

Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who I believe is affiliated with the Aleph Institute, has labeled the article as anti-Semitic.

According to their website, the Aleph Institute's Prison Program "assists Jewish inmates ... and their families in coping with challenges that arise for them in their current dilemmas."

I am sure that the rabbi and his colleagues do fine work and are a valuable resource. That said, the people they are serving have been convicted of crimes. My article registering my opposition to the release of Jonathan Pollard is not based on his religion, it is based on his crime and the damage done to our country.

I have added a poll - please vote.