March 31, 2009

Aid to Pakistan - Senator Levin gets it right

Senator Carl Levin, D-MI)When it comes to Pakistan's role in the global war on terror, President Obama may not get it, but Senator Levin does.

Pardon me for calling it the "war on terror" and not the administration's politically correct term of "overseas contingency operation." I suppose the war on drugs is now the "domestic contingency operation."

If the senator has his way, American aid to Pakistan will be dependent on Islamabad's demonstration that it is willing and able to confront the militant Islamist groups inside the country. The two groups that the United States are most concerned about are al-Qa'idah and the Taliban. Senator Levin may be placing himself at odds with President Obama.

Obama wants to provide $1.5 billion in aid to Pakistan to help in the battle against the insurgents who are using the lawless Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan as a safe haven and as a staging area for attacks against American, Afghan and NATO forces. The President is absolutely correct in his assessment that going after the Taliban and al-Qa'idah in Pakistan is crucial to a victory in Afghanistan. Granted, the President has never uttered the words "victory" or "win" when talking about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan - I added that.

I was encouraged, however, when I heard the President at least say that we would "defeat" the insurgents - that's a start. As I told Mr. Obama a few weeks ago, start talking like the commander in chief of the strongest armed forces in the world and soon you might start acting like it. That might just be happening.

However, Senator Levin is right to be concerned about providing over a billion dollars to one of the most corrupt countries on the planet without some demonstration that we will get a return on the investment. There needs to be strict control and accountability of the funds, a difficult task when dealing with a fungible commodity like money. It is even more difficult in the bazaar-like atmosphere of South Asia.

The paramount concern - siphoning off of American aid that will end up in the hands of the very people it is meant to combat - is real. Specifically, it is critical that any funds provided to the Pakistan's intelligence servce, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), be tightly managed. The ISI is riddled with officers who are more sympathetic to the Taliban - the ISI was instrumental in creating the Taliban - and to al-Qa'idah, than loyal to the central government in Islamabad. These guys bear watching at the minimum, and weeding out at best.

This comes at a time when the top Taliban commander in Pakistan, Bayt-allah Mehsud, declared that his organization will conduct a spectacular attack on Washington, DC. Mehsud also claimed responsibility for the recent attack on a police academy in Lahore.

We need to make sure that Pakistan in is the fight - on our side. If it takes American funds to make that happen, fine, but as Senator Levin contends, we need to see some real commitment on the part of the Pakistanis.

I rarely agree with Senator Levin's "progressive" policies, but this time, he's right on the money - figuratively and literally.

March 29, 2009

Air strike in Sudan hits old arms route

In January and again in February, unidentified foreign aircraft struck an arms convoy in Sudan near the Egyptian border. The conventional wisdom is that the strike was conducted by Israeli Air Force aircraft and that their target was a convoy headed for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Given the timing of the attacks - the last week of January and the early part of February - it must have been the Israelis. It is inconceivable that the Obama administration would have ordered this type of proactive decisive operation by the U.S. Air Force. The new American president is still laboring under the impression that his words will move Hamas to change its ways. The Israelis have concluded that only force of arms will move Hamas.

The attack on this arms transhipment route highlights an ages-old smuggling route, one used for at least two decades by the Iranians to support their clients in the Middle East and North Africa.

The red line on the map shows the route used by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force to move weapons from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. First, the arms are moved by air or sea to the Sudan. Generally speaking, arms and ammunition are heavy, so they are most likely moved by ship from Iranian ports to Port Sudan. From the port, the materiel is moved by trucks up the coastal road along the Red Sea into Egypt, continuing up along the Gulf of Suez.

There are a few spots to cross the Suez Canal, but the most likely is the well-established commercial ferry service at Qantarah (photo). I have crossed the canal here several times - it is a beehive of transhipping activity. These ferries are easily capable of moving heavy loads across the canal.

Once the materiel is on the Sinai side of the canal, it is moved to the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. At this point, it is broken down into much smaller parcels and smuggled through the scores of tunnels under the border into the Gaza Strip, where they are stored and used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While this might seem like an inefficient method of moving arms from Iran into Gaza, it has been surprisingly effective. It is effective because it is relatively easy to bribe Egyptian customs and border officials to look the other way.

One of Israel's demands for a long-term truce with Hamas is the cessation of this arms smuggling. To be effective, this must include a commitment on the part of the Egyptians to control their borders. Israel has conducted numerous air strikes on the tunnels, but the soil on this border is conducive to tunneling, and the Gazans are highly motivated by the profits generated from the smuggling of consumer goods into the Strip.

Arms and goods - legitimate and otherwise - have traveled this route since trade began in ancient tiems. Iran has used it in the past to move weapons to Islamist groups in Africa, and now to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. It should come as no surprise that Israel is interdicting the weapons before they arrive at the Gaza border.

March 25, 2009

IDF Chief snubbed in Washington - a message to Israel

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Washington, DC, last week to meet with senior American officials to discuss what Israel believes is the growing Iranian threat to his country. In light of President Obama's attempts to reach out to the mullahs in Tehran - the most recent a Nowruz (Persian new year) video message - the IDF chief brought new intelligence on Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Both American and Israeli intelligence establishments believe that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. The difference between the two assessments is how soon Iran will achieve that capability. The Israelis believe the Iranians are on the verge of developing a nuclear warhead for its ballistic missiles - missiles that can easily reach anywhere in Israel.

Press reports described Ashkenazi's reception in Washington as "extraordinarily cool" - he did not meet with any of the Obama Cabinet, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He also was unable to schedule a meeting with his counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Add to that list Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair.

This is almost unheard of. The United States and Israel have close military and intelligence ties. It is quite normal for the IDF chief to meet with defense and intelligence officers. Keep in mind that in Israel, the defense establishment is the senior intelligence authority, making Ashkenazi not only Admiral Mullen's counterpart, but Admiral Blair's as well. Meetings such as those that did not happen are commonplace, at least they were.

What has changed? Obviously, we have a new administration whose foreign policy is somewhat changed. The unavailability of virtually any senior official is telling. This administration appears to have determined that forging a new relationship with Iran may come at the expense of the close relationship with Israel that goes back decades.

The only meeting with a senior American official was with National Security Advisor General James Jones. However, the meeting was focused on U.S. demands that Israel lift some military restrictions on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Jones was not there to listen to anything about what Israeli leaders considers an "existential" threat to the Jewish state.

The IDF spokesman tried to soften the blow with this emailed explanation, "The schedule for the United States visit of the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, was preplanned according to requests made by American officials. Any meetings that were canceled were substituted with telephone conference calls." An IDF internet site claimed that Ashkenazi returned to Israel to participate in talks revolving around the negotiations for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Conference calls? I'm not buying it. This treatment of General Ashkenazi is a not-so-subtle message to the Israelis: the situation has changed and you may be on your own in dealing with the Iranians.

How else can the Israelis interpret it? Obama has made several overtures to the Iranians - a terrorist country (unless you ask Janet Napolitano, then it is a "state sponsor of human-caused disasters") according to the State Department - all of which have been rebuffed. Obama advisors are urging the President to talk to not only the Taliban (a terrorist organization), but also Hizballah and Hamas (also terrorist organizations). As one analyst (that would be me) puts it, "We are trying to talk to the exact people we should be trying to kill."

Rather than dissuading the Israelis from a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, the Obama Administration's refusal to talk to senior Israeli military and intelligence officials may actually hasten the action they seek to stop. If Israel cannot get some assurance of support from the United States, it will feel compelled to act unilaterally.

Mr. President, you are talking to the wrong people.

March 22, 2009

Memo to Supreme Leader on the United States


Samir Inqilabi, Principal


Date: Favardin 2, 1388

Subject: The Great Satan

To: His Excellency Ayatollah Sayid Ali Khamenei
The Office of the Supreme Leader
Islamic Republic Street - Shahid Keshvar Doust Street
Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

Your Excellency,

I read with great interest your reaction to U.S. President Obama's recent Nowruz message to the Iranian people. Supporters of the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic applaud your staunch position despite the pleas of the Great Satan's skillful orator. His repeated attempts to gain your favor only demonstrate the failures of his nation's policies toward the Iranian and Islamic peoples.

Obama video
That said, Excellency, perhaps a change in your rhetoric might be more beneficial to the Revolution and further our cause. I humbly propose that you be more receptive - or appear to be - to Mr. Obama's approaches. This will force him to either make even more positive overtures toward the Islamic Republic, or reveal himself for what he most likely is - a clever speaker. When pressed to produce results, do we really expect him to stop his country's dangerous support for Israel, to lift sanctions on the Islamic Republic, or to apologize for the abysmal treatment of Iran over the last six decades?

Will the American people stand for a president that almost immediately upon taking office tries to appease almost all of their enemies? After all, Obama has already said he wants to talk to "moderate" elements of the Taliban. Yes, Excellency, I am aware how laughable that is - almost as laughable as earlier American administrations trying to appeal to "moderate" elements of the Iranian revolution. In January the Obama transition team indicated that the new president was even considering opening a channel to Hamas, to stop ostracizing our brothers in the Islamic Resistance. Even before that, he acknowledged that our most successful group - Hizballah - has "legitimate claims."

It remains to be seen, but this is your opportunity to put him on the spot. You have already, as the American's say, put the ball into his court. Now is the chance to make him perform. He has already demonstrated his weakness through multiple pathetic pleas for your approval. Paraphrasing candidate Obama, "Now is our time." Many of our Arabic-speaking brethren always fondly say these things will happen fil mish-mish ("in the time of the apricots," meaning never). Excellency, the trees are blooming.

Here are some suggested issues you may use to challenge Mr. Obama. Ask him to officially take the military option off the table in regards to our peaceful nuclear program. Ideally, he will then declare publicly that we have the right to enrich uranium - after all, it is for our electrical power needs of the future. It helps, Excellency, if you are able to stifle a smile when you repeat this fabrication.

I realize that this may be too much for Mr. Obama's first step in changing America's policy from one of leadership to one of acquiescence. Perhaps you should start with something less controversial - demand the unfreezing of Iranian assets in the United States and moving towards an end to the criminal sanctions on the Islamic Republic as expressions of his good intentions. Obama can enlist his friends in Europe and the United Nations to help on this effort.

I would have advised not to push on the Israeli issue as the Zionist lobby in the United States is very powerful, but things may be changing. The Israeli military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, was given what was described in the press as an "extraordinarily cool" reception in Washington by the Obama administration last week - he was there to talk about our alleged nuclear weapons program. I take this as a sign that the new administration regards Iran as much more important than past presidencies did. Perhaps now might be the time to ask Obama for a real gesture at the expense of America's relationship with Israel.

Excellency, the naive American president has painted himself into a corner. If he wants to improve relations with the Islamic Republic, he now has to make a concession to us. Seize the moment.

You have my number, Excellency - call.

March 21, 2009

Memo to President on Iran

Rick Francona, Principal


Date: 21 March 2009

Subject: Iran

To: President Barack Obama

I am sure that you have appointed capable and experienced advisors on a wide range of issues facing our country. I believe Dennis Ross, a respected diplomat and scholar on Middle East affairs, is part of your team. I urge you to listen to them. Of course, if your recent videotape to the Iranians was his idea, fire him.

Why do I say that? Because your recent attempts have fallen on deaf ears, specifically, these deaf ears.

This is not the first time you have demonstrated the same naivete about Iranian and Middle East issues. Almost immediately after assuming office, you granted your first television interview to the UAE-based Arabic language network al-Arabiyah. Your comments were immediately ridiculed by numerous Iranian officials, including their current president, past president, a vice president, the foreign minister and several government spokesmen.

When I critiqued your performance during the al-Arabiyah interview, I ended with this statement: "All President Obama can do now is make concessions, the exact wrong thing to do. While I am sure he views his actions as bold and strong, in the region this makes him look weak...."

This time is no different. Although you cleverly aimed your comments at the Iranian people, it was taken by the Iranian government as yet another clumsy outreach attempt on your part. The reaction from Tehran, as last time, was swift and predictable. The words were almost identical.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - the real power in Iran - characterized your outreach as "hollow words." He wants to see you make some fundamental changes in our policy before he is willing to consider a change in his stance. Those changes specifically include an agreement that Iran's nuclear program is not a topic for compromise.

Oh, by the way, Mr. President, he also wants you to stop American "unconditional support" for Israel, quit claiming Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, release frozen Iranian assets and lift sanctions.

In his mind, he has now squarely placed the ball in your court. Unfortunately, since you failed to heed my earlier advice, he is right to think that. The rest of the world is now watching for your next move. You have painted yourself into a corner. Your choice is either to appear to maintain the hard line or to make concessions.

That's actually no choice. You cannot make concessions to this regime. You should have put the ball in their court, rather than setting yourself up for a policy failure.

As I told you before, I realize that you think you are showing strength by reaching out to the Iranian leadership. However, they regard it as a sign of weakness and as willingness to compromise on your part. Doing so twice only confirms it.

You have my number - call.

March 19, 2009

Israel getting tough with Hamas - how unfair!!

Gilad ShalitCaptured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit

Following the collapse of Egyptian-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Israeli troops detained 10 Hamas politicians on the West Bank.

Gilad Shalit was captured by Gaza-based Hamas fighters in a cross border raid in 2006. He has been in Hamas custody since that time, despite repeated attempts by the Israeli government to secure his release.

As usual, Hamas's demands for an exchange of prisoners have been over the top. The latest demands include amnesty and release of dozens of senior Palestinians militants, all with Israeli blood on their hands.

After the politicians were detained by the Israelis, Hamas complained that the arrests were a reaction to the failed talks in Cairo. This comes as a surprise?

Of course the arrests are an attempt to put pressure on Hamas to exercise some lucidity in the negotiations. Israeli officials have also hinted that the 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons might face tougher conditions unless there is progress on the Shalit negotiations. Initially, it is thought that the prisoners will be denied visits by their families. Perhaps when Shalit's family is permitted to visit him, then the Palestinian families can visit their incarcerated relatives.

Additionally, Israel is likely to tighten the already economically crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip. Virtually all non-humanitarian goods and services must be smuggled into the Palestinian enclave via the 20-mile stretch of its border with Egypt, mostly via a series of tunnels that are often bombed by Israeli fighter aircraft. Israel could easily slow down humanitarian aid to the bare minimums.

While many believe these attempts to intimidate the Palestinians merely strengthen their resolve, at some point, hardship demands a change in policy. Is holding one Israeli soldier worth the collapse of the economy?

The Hamas spokesman's words are classic and reveal a lot. "Israel's arrests of Hamas leaders and lawmakers in the West Bank is an attempt to blackmail the resistance and achieve gains in the prisoner case. It shows the bankruptcy of the enemy. We call on the resistance factions to stick to their conditions in any prisoner exchange that will be discussed."

Words like "resistance" and "enemy" underscore its stance on the Jewish state. Its charter, and recent rhetoric, calls for the elimination of Israel. The recent Gaza conflict in December and January between Israeli troops and Hamas did nothing to change the status quo - it merely removed about 1000 Hamas members from the scene.

What options do the Israelis have? They believe they have no other recourse but to continue the pressure on the Gaza Strip - and thus on Hamas - until either the population rises up against the group or another war ensues.

Continued intransigence by Hamas merely guarantees the formation of a hard-line Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu. Hamas will not like Netanyahu's solutions to the Hamas issue....

March 15, 2009

Iranian ascendancy - an opportunity for U.S. policy

Click for larger view

Iran's rising influence in the Middle East is causing concern in the Gulf Arab states, long rivals of the Persian country across the water. That presents some opportunities for U.S. foreign policy in the area.

Every time Iran announces another missile test launch, introduction of a new weapon system, a large scale military exercise or advancements in its nuclear research program, the level of anxiety climbs in the countries that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

These Arab countries rightfully concerned. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed Saddam Husayn, Iran has tried to assert itself as the major power broker in the region. The Iranian leadership believes that the removal of Saddam cleared the way for them to increase their influence in one of the countries that has traditionally been a rival at best and a deadly foe at worst.

Iran continues its meddling in Iraqi affairs, especially in the Shi'a-dominated southern part of the country. For years Iran has provided weapons and training to various Shi'a militias, militias that have killed hundreds of American troops. One of Iran's primary clients in Iraq is the jaysh al-mahdi of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On the Iraqi political front, Iran has tried to develop and maintain close relations with the majority Shi'a political parties, including that of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. When American troops depart Iraq, there will be a struggle over who will emerge as the key power broker in the Gulf region. Will it be Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States?

It is almost as if Iran has been preparing for that day. Since 2003, Iran has continued an ambitious militarization program across the spectrum, including the development of long-range ballistic missiles. The country has large, fairly well-trained and experienced armed forces, as well as a good special operations capability.

Although on paper the GCC appears to also have capable military forces, it is difficult to imagine them taking on Iran militarily. Add nuclear weapons to Iran's current capabilities - there is little doubt that Iran is intent on acquiring them - and it makes for an intimidating neighbor.

The recent overtures by Saudi Arabia to the Syrian government are a reaction to what is happening in Iran, not in Syria. Syria is the only Arab state aligned with Iran. Other factions in the Arab world, particularly Lebanese Hizballah (created by the Iranians in 1982) and Palestinian Hamas, also are aligned with the regime in Tehran. It is this Syrian-Iranian alliance that provides Tehran its gateway to Lebanon - the international airport in Damascus is the conduit for Iranian money and weapons to Hizballah, as well as other terrorist groups.

The Obama administration has also made overtures to Syria for the same reason - Iran. U.S-Syrian relations have been strained since Syria was allegedly complicit in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. If - and this is a big "if" - either the United States or Saudi Arabia is successful in breaking Syria away Iran, it would be extremely helpful to American diplomacy in the region. Not only would it virtually strangle Hizballah, it would set the stage for meaningful talks between Syria and Israel. As long as Syria allows Iran to support Hizballah via its territory, Israel will not return the occupied Golan Heights. Those are the two main points for peace between Syria and Israel.

The Obama administration should be actively engaging our Gulf Arab allies - we need to maintain our relationships in the region, including access to a series of military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. As long as these countries perceive Iran as as threat, we have a unique opportunity to increase our influence in the region by being thought of as the guarantor of their security. Threatening to use nuclear weapons against the Gulf Arabs, or even against Israel, is one thing. Threatening to use them against the world's superpower is not credible. Our diplomats should try to convince the Gulf Arabs that the key to answering the Iranian challenge is close relationship with the United States.

As long as the United States imports two-thirds of its oil from abroad, it is essential that we have the ability to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Good relationships with the Gulf Arabs will not only provide security for them, it will allow the United States to maintain its role as a key power in the region.

March 11, 2009

"9/11 Shura Council" - should we get the needles ready?

Guantanamo Bay (Camp Delta) detention facility

There has been a lot of debate over what rights should be afforded to the terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay. The arguments between the Bush administration and human rights groups was taken all the way to the Supreme Court. After a few cases and changes in the law, it was determined that the detainees had the right to due process in the American federal justice system.

The focus of this commentary is not whether the detainees have rights. I maintain that they are illegal combatants and have none. If I was in charge, it would be a moot point since most of the current detainees would have been left dead on battlefields in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the five detainees who have been charged with planning the attacks of September 11, 2001 filed a document basically pleading guilty to plotting and assisting the operation that killed over 3,000 people. Although this might disappoint the defense lawyers lined up to defend the accused, it will be hard to find additional ways to hinder a successful prosecution of these terrorists.

The five include self-claimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammud and so-called "20th hijacker" Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Now they have confessed to the crime, these are two men who deserve to be put to death more than anyone.

Ordinarily, this would be good news for the government and the executioner could get the needles ready. Unfortunately, neither the Supreme Court nor the administration can figure out how to do it. President Obama has ordered a freeze on the war crimes tribunals at Guantanamo, but has made no provisions to try the accused in other venues. Hopefully he will not drop the charges as he did in the case of the suspected bomber of the USS Cole in Aden in 2000. These murderers need to be brought to justice.

If the five are allowed access to U.S. federal courts and the same appeals process as American prison inmates, they'll die of old age.

March 10, 2009

New York Times columnist wants a "reality check?"

Roger Cohen (left), a well-respected columnist for the New York Times and its subsidiary the International Herald Tribune, penned a column titled "Middle East Reality Check." Interesting reading. Had it been written by anyone without Mr. Cohen's experience, I would have asked, "Who is this clown?"

Mr. Cohen appears to have at least set foot in the Middle East a few times, unlike many of the current "experts" advising the Administration - and we know how well that is working so far. I think Mr. Cohen is being surprisingly naive at best, and dangerously obtuse at worst. Rather than simply dismissing his arguments and calling him names, let me address some of his points.

Basically, Mr. Cohen is urging the Obama Administration to deal directly with the terrorist groups - my definition, not his - Hizballah and Hamas, following the British determination that Hizballah is a "political phenomenon." Here's an analogy - given the events of the last few days, I wonder how many Britons still think the Irish Republican Army is just a "political phenomenon?"

Last week, the United Kingdom announced that it has reconsidered is position on Hizballah and was now prepared to have direct contacts with the Lebanese group. Mr. Cohen's reaction to this news? "Hallelujah," he says, claiming that Hizballah is "part of the national fabric" of Lebanon. Realistically then, in his view, we must deal with them. He feels the same about Hamas - the people who are firing rockets daily into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip (photo below).

There is no question that Hizballah and Hamas are each a part of the "national fabric" of their respective countries - both are political parties and provide social services. There is, however, the pesky little detail that both have armed extralegal militias that are not under the control of government authorities. Being "part of the national fabric" does not bestow legitimacy.

Mr. Cohen notes that both Hizballah and Hamas have long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. True, Hizballah and Hamas have been named as terrorist organizations by successive administrations. There is a reason for this - they are terrorist organizations. Hizballah has American blood on its hands.

If we take Mr. Cohen's reasoning a step further, there are other groups that are part of the national fabric of their countries - perhaps we should look at direct engagement with them. There is Al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia, arguably part of the national fabric in Iraq. Perhaps we should reach out to them - thugs who torture, rape and behead people as a means to their ends?

Then there is the Taliban in Afghanistan, certainly part of the national fabric. Wait, perhaps Mr. Cohen has spoken to President Obama - the President is willing to talk to the Taliban. See my article, Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists.

In a moment of clarity, Mr. Cohen does address American requirements for dealing with Hamas, reiterated recently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her as yet unproductive trip to the region. According to the Secretary, Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous Palestinian commitments.

Then - surprisingly - he adds:

The 1988 Hamas Charter is vile, but I think it’s wrong to get hung up on the prior recognition of Israel issue. Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Wrong to get "hung up on the prior recognition of Israel?" We (and/or the Israelis) should sit at the table with a group that remains committed to the destruction of Israel? Using the justification that Israel may not want a two-state solution is an easy way out of calling Hamas what it is - a terrorist organization.

Perhaps Mr. Cohen should tell his Hamas friends that a good first step to opening a dialogue with either the United States or Israel would be to stop firing rockets into Israel.

More of Mr. Cohen's eloquence:

Speaking of violence, it’s worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; and destroyed thousands of Gaza homes. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel achieved almost nothing beyond damage to its image throughout the world. Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.

In response to "sporadic Hamas rockets?" Hamas has fired 8000 rockets into Sderot since Israeli forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. I guess if you live in New York, 8000 rockets being fired into Sderot could be called sporadic.

The Israelis will be relieved to know that you believe they have the right to strike back when attacked. Of course, you want their response to be "proportional." How do you define that? One rocket into Israel, one missile into Gaza? That's not how it works.

I read your biography - the lack of military experience (writing a book about General Schwarzkopf does not count) explains a lot. When you order troops into harm's way, you are not looking for a fair fight - you use overwhelming force to achieve your objectives. There is something about being the target of shots fired in anger that really helps you reach this opinion. One of Israel's objectives in Gaza was to kill as many Hamas fighters as they could. Even according to Hamas's numbers, most of the dead were in fact associated with the group.

You were shamed by Israel's actions. How about Hamas's?

March 8, 2009

Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists

Click image to read article

In an interview with the New York Times, President Obama said that he was considering reaching out to "moderate" elements of the Taliban.

While I support the President's efforts to examine all possible strategies and tactics to win the war in Afghanistan, he really needs to hire some better advisors on how to accomplish things in this part of the world. These remarks are reminiscent of his initial public comments about overtures to Iran - highlighting his naïveté in things beyond Chicago politics. (See my earlier article, Obama and Iran - naïveté and the real world.)

First and foremost, he needs to commit to "winning" the war, not "ending" the war. As in Iraq, the President seems to have trouble mouthing the word "win" when it comes to America's battles. The kumbaya theory of politics is that we can all get along and diplomacy can solve everything, but at some point nations must deploy their armed forces into harm's way to defend their interests.

When that point is reached, when America must expend her most valuable resource - the blood of her sons and daughters - the Commander in Chief should employ leadership, not rhetoric. Saying we are not winning the war demoralizes American troops. Mr. President, you're the Commander in Chief - start talking like it and pretty soon you just might find yourself acting like it. You should be telling the Taliban that we are going to destroy them, not "reach out" to them. Of course, since you have closed Guantanamo, they'll probably surrender and "lawyer up."

Public disclosures that you want to talk to the Taliban gives them a moral victory. You might think such moves make the United States - and you - look strong, but in this part of the world, it has the exact opposite effect. They perceive that they now have the upper hand and you are coming to them to seek their benevolence, their mercy. You are gaining the reputation of being an appeaser, not the leader of the free world.

Now, back to some specifics. The Taliban are not Afghan nor Pakistani - these are artificial nationalities created by outside powers - they are Pushtuns. The venue is merely an address - ethnicity trumps that. Members of the Taliban join the organization because they are committed Islamists - "moderates" do not seek to be part of the Taliban.

The situation in Afghanistan is vastly different from what we faced in Iraq - conversely, the opportunities are not the same. In Iraq, we were able to convince members of the Iraqi insurgency to turn on the al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia, or AQI, organization. Members of AQI were mostly foreigners trying to impose their will on the local population - the Taliban in Afghanistan are part of the local population.

So, President Obama, you want to reach out to the "moderates" in the Taliban. Assuming that they exist - and I do not - what are you going to offer them? A few provinces in Afghanistan where they can implement shari'a law, where girls are refused an education, where any dissent is not tolerated? Perhaps you'll offer control of the local poppy crop and opium trade?

You said in the interview that solutions in Afghanistan will be complicated. Not really.

There are bad guys
who want to impose an archaic form of Islam on a population who does not want it, a group allied with a terrorist organization who has killed over 3,000 Americans, a group of true believers who thus far will not negotiate.

Mr. President, you are the Commander in Chief of the most powerful, best-trained and best-equipped armed forces on the planet. The America people paid for this capability - use it. The Taliban are our enemy - you cannot negotiate with them, they are true believers in a bastardized concept of religion.

Order our troops to hunt them down and kill them.

March 7, 2009

Al-Qa'idah leader on September 11, 2001

Dr. Sayid Imam al-Sharif, now 59 years of age, was one of the founders - with Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri - of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The group was reponsible for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and later joined the Afghan mujahidin in the fight against Soviet occupation forces.

It was this latter association that led to the formation of al-Qa'idah with Usamah bin Ladin. Al-Sharif, known also as Dr. Fadl, wrote the guidebook for fundamentalist groups, Foundations of Preparation for Jihad (holy war).

Now we come to a CIA success story, the type of operation that I hope the Obama administration will still allow. After the attacks of September 11, the CIA found al-Sharif in Yemen. He was "rendered" to a secret CIA facility for interrogation, and later extradited to Egypt where is serving a life sentence. Good operation.

In prison, al-Sharif has re-thought his earlier writings on jihad. His analysis - granted, a bit late - of the September 11 attacks is telling. It has received minimal coverage in the American media.

"Every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq is the responsibility of bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri and their followers.

“The attacks on September 11 were both immoral and counterproductive. Ramming America has become the shortest road to fame and leadership among the Arabs and Muslims. But what good is it if you destroy one of your enemy's buildings, and he destroys one of your countries? What good is it if you kill one of his people, and he kills a thousand of yours? That, in short, is my evaluation of 9/11."

This should be the centerpiece of an information campaign aimed at the trouble spots of the Muslim world.

March 5, 2009

Hamas and Iran meetings - no surprises here

Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas co-founder Mahmud al-Zahar in Tehran

The link between Iran and Hamas has been about a closely guarded secret as the Islamic Republic's support of Hizballah in Lebanon. Virtually all of Hamas's weapons and funding in the last decade has originated in Iran. Hundreds of Hamas fighters have been trained in Iran by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Qods Force.

During the 34-day conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in December 2008 and January 2009, Hamas was badly bloodied but maintained the facade that it was in a strong enough position to sit at the Egyptian-mediated negotiations in Cairo. Those talks went nowhere - neither side was serious.

However, the world wants there to be a settlement, a ceasefire, to the situation in Gaza. Even now, Hamas and Islamic Jihad members launch Qassam and Katyusha (Grad) rockets into southern Israel. Israel responds with air strikes on Palestinian smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border and other targets inside the Gaza Strip. The situation has lapsed into the "no-solution solution." Neither side seems anxious for a truce.

With no progress, the level of the talks in Cairo changed. From the indirect talks between Hamas and Israel, the players changed to U.S envoy George Mitchell and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Palestinian Authority President Mahmud 'Abbas was brought in to be an acceptable interlocutor with Israel, overshadowing Hamas.

Not to be outdone or out-maneuvered, Hamas invited participation from fellow terrorist groups Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That effectively doomed the talks to failure. The Egyptians, hoping to revive the talks, convened a conference at Sharm al-Shaykh. American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended this conference - Hamas chose not to attend as they felt the deck had been stacked against them in favor of arch-rival Fatah led by 'Abbas.

Iran took advantage of the ongoing inter-Palestinian struggle by hosting a competing conference in Tehran for supporters of Hamas. The meetings not only sought financial support for Hamas, but discussed ways to improve "resistance to Israel." That's code for terrorist operations.

Iran is clearly using Hamas as a tool for its own operations against Israel and its quest to be the major power broker in the region. This is similar to its use of Hizballah in Lebanon against israeli interests in the region. Iran has no inherent interest in advancing the Palestinian cause beyond causing problems for Israel. Iran is the enemy of Israel, as Hamas is the enemy of Israel. This perfectly illustrates the Middle East adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

From the Iranian optic, support to Hamas is an easy, low-cost method to attack Israel. It fits their plans to destroy the Jewish state. Let's recognize it for what it is - this is about Israel, not the Palestinians.

March 3, 2009

Featured in a new book

Last year, I was asked to write a few thoughts about the attacks of September 11, 2001 for a series of "Best of ..." books - this one on Washington, D.C. One of the author/publishers is a personal friend, an intelligence community colleague of many years and an American hero in his own right.

I jotted down some thoughts - it is surprisingly not difficult to express my feelings about that day since I lost colleagues at the Pentagon. It was a bit humbling to see my words in print in that context. I cannot replicate that here - see
Best of Washington (nine clicks) - but here are my words:


Pages in History - Remembering 9/11

The attacks of September 11, 2001 will forever be burned into our memories. The images of the towers falling in New York, an aircraft down in Pennsylvania and the Pentagon in flames changed all of us forever. Over 3000 people, Americans and hundreds of other nationalities of every race and creed perished at the hands of 19 misguided religious extremists who hijacked not only four jet airliners, but also one of the world’s great religions.

It did not take long for American to respond to the attacks. Within weeks, the Taliban government that provided a safe haven to Usamah bin Ladin and his al-Qaeda jihadists was toppled. Millions of Afghans began the difficult road to democracy. The price paid in 2001 for their opportunity to experience freedom was borne by the same group of Americans who have provided that same opportunity for hundreds of millions over decades – the men and women of the America’s armed forces.

The most famous symbol of American’s military might is the Pentagon, the five-sided monolith on the banks of the Potomac River. More sobering, a glance to the west from the Pentagon underscores the high price of America’s freedom and that of countless others around the world – the hundreds and hundreds of rows of stark white headstones that cover the hillsides of Arlington National Cemetery.

It is here that the currency of freedom is banked. Anyone who has attended a ceremony at Arlington will never forget it – the flag on the coffin, the honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of the rifles firing volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, and the reverence of fellow warriors as another American hero is laid to rest.

Americans remain deployed around the world – many in harm’s way – in the defense of freedom; the funerals at Arlington continue. Young Americans from all walks of life from across the country continue to volunteer to join the armed forces, knowing full well the risks of stepping forward at a time of war. The risk is real – over 4000 Americans have already fallen in the global war on terror, and more will make the ultimate sacrifice as Americans refuse to bend to the will of those who would rob us of our hard-earned liberties.

Those who would rob of our liberties came to our shores on the morning of September 11, 2001 with the goal of changing American. They did – we will never be the same; the world will never be the same. With renewed purpose, Americans will stand and fight for their freedoms, and the freedom of others.

Rick Francona
Author, Media Analyst, Intelligence Officer