August 27, 2008

Former Iraqi general to speak out against Iran

The national security advisor to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani resigned his position so he can legally speak out about what he perceives as a threat to his country from Iran, specifically from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force.

Jalal Talabani with the author in Irbil, Iraq - 1996

Wafiq al-Samarra'i is uniqely qualified to make these kinds of assessments - he is a retired general and professional military intelligence officer. I first met Wafiq in early 1988 when President Ronald Reagan decided that an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq war was unacceptable and that the United States would support Iraq.

President Reagan's Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, directed the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to begin providing intelligence assistance to Iraq. I was sent to Baghdad to serve as the DIA liaison officer to the Iraqi Directorate General of Miltary Intelligence (DGMI), the istikhbarat. At that time, the director of the Istikhbarat was Major General Sabr 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Duri. Al-Duri is currently on death row for his complicity in the chemical attacks on the Kurds at Halabjah in 1988. This happened while I was in Baghdad working with the Istikhbarat.

The deputy director of the Istikhbarat at the time was Brigadier Wafiq al-Samarra'i. Wafiq became my primary point of contact in Baghdad - he and I worked intelligence support to Iraqi forces fighting against Iran. With American intelligence support, they were able to halt the Iranian onslaughts and mount a series of offensives that ended the war in August 1988.

After the end of the war, Wafiq and I parted company as our countries drew apart. Saddam adopted a militazation policy and a belligerence towards American ally Kuwait that we could not abide. By the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1991, Wafiq had been promoted to the position of director of the DGMI. My friend had now become my enemy.

In response to Iraq's invasion, occupation and annexation of Kuwait, American forces poured in to the Arabian deserts to defend Saudi Arabia and ultimately liberate Kuwait. While Wafiq served as Saddam Husayn's military intelligence chief, I served as the advisor on Iraq and personal Arabic interpreter to American forces commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf.

When the war ended in March 1991, Wafiq conitnued in his position but was becoming more and more disillusioned with what Saddam was doing to Iraq. In December 1994, he defected to the West via the Kurdish controlled area in northern Iraq. Since I was one of the very few American officers that knew him and had worked with him, I was chosen to be on the team handling his debriefing and resettlement. Eventually, we had him working in the Iraqi opposition with Dr 'Iyad Alawi and the Iraqi National Accord (the wifaq), mostly in Jordan.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Wafiq returned home to his native Samarra' where he was instrumental in the defeat of the Sunni insurgency and al-Qai'dah in Iraq. He was selected to be the national security advisor to the Iraqi president in 2005.

The fact that Iran is a threat to Iraq is obvious. The general will attempt to ensure that the Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad remains committed to resisting Iranian attempts to become the major power broker in the country. (See my articles, Muqtada al-Sadr biding his time in Iran and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iran - Who is behind it?)

Wafiq al-Samarra'i has the credentials and gravitas to make the case to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. I wish him success.

August 25, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr in Iran - Who is behind it?

In my last post (Muqtada al-Sadr biding his time in Iran), I wrote about Muqtada al-Sadr and his decision to disband his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) militia and transform it into a social welfare service organization, move to Iran and pursue a course of study to burnish his Islamic credentials, in hopes that he will gain the requisite stature to eventually become the major political power broker in Iraq.

Not a bad plan when you think of it. The big unanswered question: who came up with it? Muqtada al-Sadr is demonstrably not that smart. He has consistently led his followers into a series of disastrous military blunders, most recently suffering devastating losses in battles with American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad, al-Basrah and al-'Amarah. Yet, on his own he decides to completely change course, "get religion" and commit to a four to five year program of study?

Here is one possible explanation.

In the human intelligence business, we normally try to recruit assets with access to specific information that cannot be obtained through normal means - in other words, find a spy to steal the information. The usual targets for recruitment are diplomats, military personnel, government officials and employees - people who have routine access to sensitive or classified information. We recruit them to give that information to us, for whatever reason - ideological views, an appeal to their patriotism, revenge, greed, whatever works.

A more difficult operation is to recruit what is called an "agent of influence." This person does not necessarily have access to specific information of value, but they themselves are believed to be a future leader of a particular country, military organization, political party, etc. These agents of influence are difficult to find and more difficult to recruit since they are generally truly committed to the county or group we are trying to penetrate. However, finding and recruiting an agent of influence has huge potential. Having a well-placed asset that we can control inside a government or organization provides unique abilities to shape events to our liking.

Consider this scenario: An Iranian intelligence officer, whether from the Ministry of Intelligence and Securitry (MOIS), or the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or a Qods force officer working with the Mahdi Army, approaches Muqtada al-Sadr.

The approach would have been along the lines of, "Here's your opportunity to get what you have alwasy wanted - to be the most powerful man in Iraq. To do that, you are going to have to have solid religious credentials, you need to be a marja' al-taqlid (source of emulation), at the very least an ayatollah. We - you friends and brothers in Iran - can make this happen. We'll get you into the presitigious religious academy in Qom, we'll make sure you get the credentials you need. We'll help you create a social services organization based on the Mahdi Army - remember, we have done similar things with Hizballah in Lebanon. When you return to Iraq, we'll continue to help. All we ask is that you continue to be our ally and friend."

Sounds pretty plausible, doesn't it? I wonder.

August 24, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr biding his time in Iran

Muqtada al-SadrRecent reports claim that Iraqi Shi'a militant leader Muqtada al-Sadr will be taking up residence in the Iranian religious center of Qom for the next four to five years - he's already spent most of the last year in Iran. While on the surface this appears to be good news for Iraq and its American allies, this may portend real problems down the road.

Al-Sadr is not merely hiding in Iran, he is pursuing his religious studies - he hopes to eventually rise to the status of a marja' al-taqlid (literally, "source of emulation"), and a grand ayatollah. These leaders are the highest authorities in Twelver Shi'a Islam. For al-Sadr to achieve his goal of being the most important man in Iraq, he needs these religious credentials to become the leader of the largest segment of the Iraqi population.

Currently, the mantle of Shi'a religious leadership in Iraq falls on Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Sistani and Sayid 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, both rivals of al-Sadr. Ayatollah al-Sistani is by far the most respected Shi'a cleric in Iraq, but is 78 years old and in poor health. Al-Hakim would make a logical and widely accepted successor to al-Sistani, but the 58 year old leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) lacks the religious credentials to assume the role. Al=Hakim is in the same situation as Muqtada al-Sadr - both come from distinguished Shi'a religious families, both have lost numerous family members to Saddam Husayn and setarian violence, but neither have the titles to move up in the heirarchy.

The difference between the two is that Muqtada al-Sadr is willing to spend the requisite time pursuing his religious studies in Iran. Al-Sadr currently holds the title of hawjat al-islam (literally, "proof of God"), a rank below ayatollah. Four or five years of study in Qom will almost certainly see him elevated to the rank of ayatollah, possibly even grand ayatollah. The title/rank of ayatollah is conferred through peer recognition of religious scholarship - being from a presigious Shi'a family does not hurt either. The first step in his plan to be the most influential figure in Iraq was the alleged transformation of the jaysh al-mahdi (Al-Mahdi Army) from a militia to a social welfare service. Of course, that epiphany came after his militia sustained devastating losses in battles with American and Iraqi troops.

Encouraging the religious establishment in Qom to desginate Muqtada al-Sadr as a marja'/grand ayatollah will be a smart move for the Iranian leadership. Since he is from a famous and respected Iraqi family and he has a large following in the country, he may emerge as arguably the most important man in Iraq. Not a bad person to have in your pocket.

August 21, 2008

Uncertainty rises after Musharraf’s departure

This article appeared on

Uncertainty rises after Musharraf’s departure
America's global war on terror has now gotten more difficult


Now that Pervez Musharraf has resigned as the president of Pakistan, America’s global war on terror has gotten a bit more difficult. Musharraf was unpopular in his own country, but he was perceived here as a strong ally of the United States in its fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was Musharraf that switched his country’s policy towards both groups almost immediately after the al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. in September 2001, a dangerous move on his part.

Musharraf’s decision to stop support for the Taliban and ally himself with the nation dedicated to removing them from power took great personal courage. After all, it was the Pakistani military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, which played a major role in the creation of the Taliban and was a key supporter of al-Qaida since its inception in the late 1980’s. Pakistan’s support to the United States, due almost solely to Musharraf, was critical to early American successes against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Since 2001, Musharraf’s fate has been sealed, however. Various Islamist groups in the country were infuriated by his turn to the West and seeming treachery towards the Pushtuns that inhabit the Northwest Frontier Province, and North and South Waziristan. Not only was Musharraf perceived as turning against his own countrymen, but turning against his fellow Muslims as well. Pakistan is home to some of the world’s most radical Muslim clerics and most fundamentalist madrassas, Islamic religious schools. It was only a matter of time before he would become the target of the wrath and ire of the Islamists, including the Taliban and al-Qaida. Several assassination attempts underscored the level of anger directed at the president. There are numerous Islamic groups in Pakistan and few if any supported Musharraf.

Situation may get worse
There are calls now for Pakistan to embrace democracy, to adopt more transparent political processes. At some point, the power struggle to replace Musharraf will be resolved; most likely an arrangement for governance will be made between Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Benazir Bhutto widower Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party.

It is unlikely that the new government in Islamabad will provide the same level of support for American efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, recent Pakistani support, even under Musharraf, was insufficient to stop the Taliban from using Pakistan’s border areas as safe havens from which to launch attacks at American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, or to stop al-Qaida from re-establishing its base operations in the tribal areas. Without earnest Pakistani efforts to seal their border with Afghanistan, a solution to the Taliban resurgence without unilateral American cross-border operations will be next to impossible.

This situation has the potential to deteriorate even further. If Democratic processes take hold – and that is not a given and we may face the prospect of a future popular election in which the majority of Pakistanis, angry at what they perceive as Musharraf’s treachery in supporting the United States and fearful of too much democracy too fast, elect an Islamist government. Nawaz Sharif has in the past proposed the establishment of Sharia law in the country. The election of an Islamic party will be reminiscent of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, but this time with much more profound implications.

We do not need, nor is the world ready for, an Islamist state with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, either by air, missile or terrorist. Stability in Pakistan is essential to our efforts in Afghanistan; the consequences of instability are too frightening to contemplate.

August 18, 2008

North Korea names ambassador to Syria - nothing new

A headline today on the Associated Press wire, North Korea announces ambassador to Syria, starts with a misleading sentence: "North Korea has named an ambassador to Syria, the communist country's official media said Monday, following U.S. allegations the two countries engaged in nuclear cooperation."

This phrasing gives the impression that the two countries are increasing the level of their diplomatic relations. Syria and North Korea have had diplomatic relations for decades, as well as a close military and technology relationship. This announcement is nothing new - perhaps it should read, "North Korea has named a new ambassador to Syria...."

As far back as the mid-1970's, North Korean Air Force MiG-21 pilots were stationed at an air base in southern Syria, and routinely flew Syrian Air Force aircraft on operational missions.

In 1990, during a visit of the North Korean president to Syria, a deal was signed for the sale of North Korean "Scud C" (North Korean reverse-engineered Egyptian Scud B) to Damascus. The missiles were delivered by sea and air over the next few years. In 1993, for example, two huge Russian AN-124 CONDOR transports delivered missiles and transporter-erector-launchers to Damascus International Airport, in plain view for the world to see. I was there and saw it - impressive aircraft. Not only did the North Koreans sell missiles to Syria, they built two missile production and maintenance facilities in northern Syria.

The cooperation did not stop with ballistic missiles and related technology transfer. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed a suspected North Korean nuclear facility in the deserts of northeastern Syria near Dayr al-Zawr. Although both Syria and North Korea have denied any nuclear cooperation, Israel released compelling evidence, and Syria continues to refuse access to the site for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

Back to the article - the bottom line is that the naming of a new North Korean ambassador to Syria is routine.

Click image for larger viewWARNING - War Story: The North Korean embassy in Damascus also has a defense attaché office, headed up by a colonel. When I was the US air attaché to the US Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995, the North Korean defense attaché was a pretty nice guy. He did not speak English and I do not speak Korean, so we conversed in Arabic. His family was friendly, well as friendly as possible given the relations (or lack of) between the United States and North Korea. His daughter was quite an accomplished ballerina, but he was concerned about her getting decent training in North Korea.

Unfortunately, the colonel was killed in a car accident. Although we American officers were not supposed to attend the memorial service held by the Syrian attaché affairs office, we did. Big mistake - his usually friendly wife spent the first three minutes of her husband's eulogy berating the United States, looking right at us. Unfortunate, uncalled for and unnecessary.

August 16, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr - Let's address the issue

Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr surprised many Iraq-watchers with the announcement that he was converting his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi) from a militia to a services organization. It was met with skepticism.

We've seen this sort of behavior before from other insurgent/terrorist organizations - it is reminiscent of Hizballah in Lebanon. Years ago, Hizballah began a series of service programs to provide education, health care, financing, etc., in southern Lebanon. True, these efforts were needed and well-received. On the other hand, Hizballah continued to increase its military capabilites and the size of its militia, supported by the Iranians and Syrians.

Their excuse for not adhering to the Taif Accords and United Nations resolutions? As long as Israel is occupying a part of Lebanon, they have the right to maintain their militia. That is true - the accords state that the militia will be disbanded and the Israelis will withdraw from Lebanon. However, the Lebanese terrority that Hizballah claims is occupied by Israel is not (and never has been) part of Lebanon. The Shab'a Farms are part of Syria, despite the fictitious claims of both the Syrians and Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah. Even the United Nations agrees that the Shaba' Farms (currently occupied by Israel) are part of Syria.

Just as everyone thought al-Sadr's announcement was a step in the right direction for the future of Iraq, reality soon set in. Al-Sadr did not decide to become a humanitarian out of his concern for his fellow man - he realized that resistance to American forces and the emerging Iraqi security forces was futile. Every time his band of thugs challenged American troops, they suffered huge casualties. That's usually the case - when you have a bunch of undisciplined thugs and bullies with guns take on professional military forces, they lose.

Now we have the real story - Muqtada al-Sadr has called for his followers to sign - in blood no less - an oath of resistance to what he calls American occupation forces. He just will not work with the government for the betterment of the country - this guy has been a problem since 2003.

Why is al-Sadr being allowed to continue this seditious insurgency? There were plans to elimiate him in 2003, but were cancelled by Jerry Bremer - yes, the same man that disbanded the Iraqi army and forced the United States into an occupation that we had not planned for, nor were manned for.

If Muqtada al-Sadr insists on continuing down this path of obstruction, perhaps it is time to finally - and I mean finally - address the issue.

August 8, 2008

American troops in Afghanistan deserve a better command structure

While the military situation in Iraq continues to improve and is all but won, senior American officials are finally paying more attention to the situation in Afghanistan. There is increased Taliban activity in the provinces that border Pakistan’s lawless North West Frontier province and the Waziristans.

If you read the press, it sounds like the entire country is deteriorating into chaos and that Taliban forces are gaining ground. For example, a recent report from the Associated Press was headlined in the San Francisco Chronicle as “U.S. deaths surging in Afghanistan.” While there has been an uptick in violence, to say that U.S. deaths are “surging” is a bit overstated.

There are several reasons for the increased casualties, not only on the American and coalition side, but a significantly greater toll on the Taliban side. In the recent months, American, NATO and Afghan forces have been taking the fight to the enemy. The Taliban attempt to push back – when they engage, they lose the battle. However, the increased tempo of operations also means taking casualties.

There are several problems that hinder the complete eradication of the Taliban, in addition to the obvious Pakistan border issue. The coalition forces operating in the country, from NATO and non-NATO nations, operate under several different command structures. Also, many of the NATO countries – Germany is the prime example – are severely restricted by their governments to non-combat roles, and are inadequately resourced for the mission. The major combat burden is being borne by U.S, Canadian, British, Dutch and Polish troops. Most of the shortfall – intelligence, artillery support, logistics, aviation, medical, etc. - is picked up by American forces.

A good first step would be the creation of a unified command structure for all military forces in the country, including the over 60,000-strong Afghan National Army. The Afghan army takes orders from the Afghan government. The almost 53,000 NATO forces (14,000 of which are Americans) operate under a confusing array of commands that answers to NATO headquarters in Belgium. Then you have various American command structures to deal with. Some American are in NATO, some are under the command of the U.S. Central Command, and others (primarily special forces) operate under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command.

We have placed 32,000 American troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. They are fighting a determined and capable enemy. They deserve not only the best equipment and support, but also a sensible command structure that maximizes the military capabilities of all the forces. A single command structure that can symbiotically employ the diverse capabilities of all the forces in the country would go a long way to shortening the life expectancy of the Taliban.