May 22, 2009

Memorial Day - 2009

I was asked to write a few remarks for Memorial Day, then decided that what I said two years still holds true today.

From May 29, 2007:

This article appeared on

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

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

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the “summer driving season.” The constant news coverage of record high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It’s not about driving or shopping – it’s about remembering the men and women who died while in military service. It is important that we not forget the reason for this holiday – we are at war and lose some our finest young men and women every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

May 18, 2009

Netanyahu and Obama - let the tap-dance begin

The long-awaited meeting in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touched on a variety of sensitive issues between the two countries - including Iran, Israeli settlements on the West Bank, talks with Syria, a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, and Hamas. I doubt anyone can claim that substantial progress has been made, nor that any is likely to be made in the near future.

The talks are not without some movement, however. Just prior to the meeting, President Obama stated that he now understands why Israel considers Iran's nuclear weapons program to be an existential threat. That said, I am not sure which American intelligence officers or Israeli officials the President has been talking to, but this has been the primary Israeli mantra since at least 2006 - it has been inescapable.

I was in Israel in 2006 after the conflict with Hizballah, and again this year during and after the conflict in Gaza - if you have had any contact at all with any Israeli official, you cannot escape the conclusion that Israel regards Iran as its primary threat, probably the most serious threat since the nation was created in 1948. Obama's epiphany sounds like a "this just came to my attention, and I have my best people working on it" ploy - a tactic to restart the clock on addressing Israeli concerns.

In that same vein, Obama advised Netanyahu that an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a mistake. Of course, the White House is not (yet) in range of Iranian ballistic missiles, missiles that within a year or so may be equipped with nuclear warheads. That's not my opinion - that is the assessment of the Israeli intelligence services (Aman and Mossad), first told to me in 2006 by Aman (military intelligence) and reiterated in 2009 by Mossad.

It is also the assessment of most rational thinkers in the U.S intelligence community, the last National Intelligence Estimate notwithstanding. Candidates John McCan and Barack Obama both repudiated that ridiculous non-assessment by declaring their belief that Iran's nuclear program was aimed at developing weapons, not electrical power plants.

Now that the President understands that Israel regards Iran as an existential threat, he probably also understands that his earlier overtures to Iran are not well-received in Israel. A poll taken in just a few days prior to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting revealed that two thirds of Israelis believe that the President is not pro-Israel. Most believe that his foreign policy is focused on improved relations with Iran - at their expense.

At least the President committed to a review of how successful sanctions and diplomacy will have worked at the end of this year. Given the track record of the sanctions efforts led by the United Nations and the Europeans, there is little reason to believe another few months of the same are going to be any more effective. And all the while, the centrifuges at Natanz continue to enrich uranium....

While the two leaders met in Washington, Hamas chief Khalid Mish'al weighed in from the Syrian capital of Damascus, obviously hoping to influence Obama that his organization has a positive role to play in resolving some of these issues.

Mish'al's effort follows the British government's decision to talk to Hamas's political wing. There are some advisors in the United States who have used the British government's willingness to talk to Hamas as a justification for the Obama administration to engage Hamas as well.

This mindset is fraught with danger - remember that President Obama was rebuffed by the Taliban when he wanted to reach out to that group's "moderate elements." Both the Taliban and I reminded him that there are no moderate elements of the Taliban - they are all committed to the cause, that's why they are the Taliban. Likewise, there are no moderate elements in Hamas.

Little will come of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. There will be a warm photo-op and reports of "frank and fruitful discussions," but in the end, there will be no resolution of the differences between the two new administrations. Israelis will worry about the new American president's commitment to their security, and Israel's new prime minister will continue to worry about Iranian weapons.

By the end of this year, the special relationship between the United States and Israel will have its biggest test since 1967. That test will be about Iran.

May 13, 2009

Hey Israel, give Ghajar back to Lebanon

Most people have never heard of the village of Ghajar (غجر) - no real reason why they should. It has a population of about 2000 Arabs, mostly of the 'Alawi sect of Islam, the same small sect of the current and past presidents of Syria.

The village sits astride the border between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied territory. Whether the Israeli-occupied territory is part of Lebanon or Syria is a point of contention between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. In this regard, Ghajar is similar to another series of villages in this same area, these being the Shaba' Farms.

As shown on the above map, the village is divided in two by the international border. The northern portion of the village is in Lebanon and the southern portion is in Syria, but occupied by Israeli troops since the Six Day War in 1967. During Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982, Israeli forces occupied the northern portion of Ghajar as well.

When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the United Nations delineated the border, again dividing the town between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria. Lebanese forces nominally took control, but in reality, the Lebanese portion became an important base of operations for Hizballah.

According to the Ta'if Accords of 1989 and UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004, all Lebanese militias were supposed to disarm. Israel had withdrawn and there theoretically was no need for Hizballah (or any party) to have an armed resistance wing. Hizballah claimed that Israel had not fully withdrawn from Lebanon, claiming that the Shaba' Farms were actually Lebanese territory, not Syrian. The UN backs Israel on its claim that the Farms are part of Syria. Until Israel withdraws from all of Lebanon - which Hizballah insists includes the Shaba' Farms, Hizballah will maintain the "resistance." This fiction is what I call "Hizballah's Fig Leaf." (See The Shaba' Farms - Hizballah's Fig Leaf.)

During the fighting between Hizballah and Israel in 2006, Israeli troops moved back into the northern section of Ghajar, where they remain today. Israel has committed to withdrawing from the Lebanese side of the border once the security situation warrants it. The new Israeli government said it will wait until after the June 7 elections in Lebanon before determining whether a withdrawal is warranted.

Israel fears that Hizballah will gain more power in the elections. They believe that turning over north Ghajar to the Lebanese is in effect turning it over to Hizballah. Incidentally, the villagers in the northern section prefer to remain under Israeli occupation rather than having to deal with a Hizballah presence again. Economically, they are better off.

Clearly, Israel is occupying a portion of Lebanon. This gives credence to Hizballah's argument that Israel is still in Lebanon, and justification for their continued maintenance of an armed militia. While the Shaba' Farms will still be an issue, an Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar removes one claim Hizballah can make.

Give the northern part back to Lebanon. Force Hizballah to defend maintaining a militia.

May 11, 2009

An analyst to consider

I do not parrot other news articles or blogs. I have always prided myself on original thought - my own. Sometimes right, and yes, sometimes, wrong, but in the end - it is my writing and my thinking based on my experiences in the region.

In that same vein, I do not often recommend other analysts or blogs. I am making an exception in this instance. Charles Cresap, known to his friends and colleagues as "Soppy," has great expericence in the Middle East. He, like me, speaks Arabic and served as a U.S. Air Force linguist for years - more than we like to admit. Years ago, he and I were involved in some rather dicey operations in the region - Lebanon comes to mind. His recent experiences in Iraq are also illustrative.

Click image to go to the blog!!
Soppy, at my urging, has started a blog - Thoughts on the Forever War. Give it a look. Although we do not always agree, I respect his analysis - I think you will as well. You can leave a comment on his blog, if you like.

May 8, 2009

Can Pakistan's forces take on the Taliban?

Can Pakistan's forces take on the Taliban? Actually, the better question might be, Will Pakistan's forces take on the Taliban?

Pakistan Armed Forces
Pakistan has always had a large and capable military force, much like other parts of the world that had been part of the British Empire. Look also at India and Jordan - the British influence on their military forces is readily apparent - excellent, disciplined troops. The Pakistanis are well-trained, well-led and well-equipped. With the resources of the state, they should be able to deal with the internal threat posed by the Taliban in the northwest part of the country.

There are complicating factors, to be sure. There are about four million Afghan refugees in that area of Pakistan, and many of these refugees support the Taliban and the remaining remnants of al-Qa'idah. It is obvious from the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Swat Valley - some say as many as 500,000 Pakistanis have fled - that not all of the local population wants the Taliban in charge, nor do they support the Taliban interpretation of Islamic shari'a law.

Buner and Swat
It is a given that in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the government has limited sovereignty the population is not in favor of the presence of the Pakistan Army. However, we are now talking about the North-West Frontier Province's Swat Valley and Buner District. Buner is only 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. This is not the rabidly Pushtun area along the Afghan border - this is close to the heartland of the country.

The government made a deal with the Taliban in February allowing the fundamentalist Islamic militia group to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley, 100 miles from the capital. In return, the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire with the Pakistan military. That agreement was short-lived as the Taliban then moved into the Buner District. Making agreements with the Taliban is always a mistake - I hope President Obama is paying attention. See Pakistan caves to the militants and Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists.

With the Taliban on the move ever closer to the capital, the Pakistani leadership had no choice but to commit the armed forces to the fight. Now comes the real test - will the Pakistanis serving in the armed forces take up arms against the Taliban? On the surface, it appears that they have, but only time will tell.

Pakistan is a country made up of different ethnic and tribal groups. The Pakistan armed forces are mostly Punjabi, but almost one-quarter of the military are Pushtuns. There has been, and still is, a question of whether or not they would side with the government or with their brother Pushtuns - the predominant ethnic group in the Taliban. Complicating this is the large numbers of Pushtuns in Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. The ISI had a leading role in the creation of the Taliban and worked closely with al-Qa'idah in the past. These loyalties present a challenge for the government in Islamabad.

A major concern for the rest of the world is not who is in charge of Buner or Swat, it is who controls the country's nuclear weapons and delivery systems (F-16 fighters and ballistic missiles). The head of Pakistan's armed forces declared that his troops are capable of securing the weapons. The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated that he believed the weapons were safe.

President Obama, during a news conference, almost dismissively in tone, stated that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were secure and quickly moved on to another subject. I suspect there is more to this than he wants to talk about. No one wants Pakistan's nuclear weapons in the hands of the Taliban or al-Qa'idah. The ramifications are almost too cataclysmic to contemplate. Undoubtedly there are contingency plans for American special operations forces (possibly jointly with Indian commandos) to secure or remove the Pakistani nukes. I hope so.

For now, though, let's hope that the Pakistani military can overlook ethnic loyalties and defeat the Taliban.

Ayatollah Muqtada al-Sadr?

سيد مقتدى الصدر

According to the reports attributed to the Arabic-language newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat (Arabic for "The Middle East"), radical Iraqi Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been elevated to the religious rank of Grand Ayatollah. That is the highest level in Shi'a Islam. I might believe that he has been designated as a mujtahid (religious scholar who can issue his own edicts, or fatwa) or an even an ayatollah, but there are only about 20 grand ayatollahs in the world, and I doubt he is one of them.

Other reports from the Middle East Media Research Institute, also citing al-Sharq al-Awsat, claim that al-Sadr will continue his studies in Iran for another year, after which he will return to Iraq. That makes much more sense.

Al-Sadr has been studying in Qom, Iran, for the last two years. His goal is to become an ayatollah, which he (rightfully) believes is a requirement to become an even more influential power broker in Iraq. Al-Sadr already has considerable cache in the country - he comes from one of the most prominent families not only in Iraq, but the the world of Shi'a Islam.

Muqtada is the fourth son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. He is married to the daughter of another member of the al-Sadr family, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr. These two are revered by Iraqi Shi'a as martyrs - one was murdered by Saddam Husayn's operatives and one was executed via Saddam Husayn's courts. The family is originally from Lebanon, where it is also highly regarded. Muqtada's cousin Imam Musa al-Sadr, founder of the Amal Movement in Lebanon, disappeared while on a visit to Libya in 1978 and has achieved almost mythical status.

The al-Sadr family also enjoys the distinction of being directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad (through his daughter Fatima's marriage with 'Ali). The men are entitled to be called sayyid and wear the black turban. The al-Sadr link to Muhammad and 'Ali is through Imam Ja'afar al-Sadiq and his son Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the sixth and seventh of the 12 Shi'a imams. Their shrine is located in Baghdad and is regarded as the third holiest site in the country after al-Najaf and Karbala'.

When Muqtada does acquire the credentials of a mujtahid and ayatollah, he will be in a position to exert even greater influence in Iraq. It is not a positive thing for anyone but his followers.

It is a shame that U.S. forces did not "address the issue" (yes, that means kill him) immediately after the invasion when al-Sadr was suspected of complicity in the murder of a cleric in al-Najaf.

May 7, 2009

Syria's alliance with Iran - a force for stability?

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

After a May 5 meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad declared that the strategic relationship between the two countries was a stabilizing force in the region. I am sure he views it that way, but the reality is quite the opposite.

The relationship between Arab Syria and Persian Iran goes back decades - during the 1980 war between Iraq and Iran, Syria was the only Arab country not to stand with the Iraqis. Instead, Syria openly supported the Iranians, even to the point of allowing Iran to use Syrian airfields to strike targets in Iraq.

That close relationship was responsible for the creation of one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups - Hizballah. In 1982, responding to the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps created the IRGC Syria and Lebanon contingent. The contingent deployed to the Biqa' Valley and created the Lebanese Resistance under the banner of hizb allah (The Party of God).

The Israeli incursion turned into an occupation that lasted for 18 years. The IRGC's Syria and Lebanon contingent was one of the organizations that became the Qods Force, the special operations agency of the Iranian government.

The Iran-Hizballah relationship continues to this day - see the graphic above. It is augmented by expanding Iranian support for other terrorist groups in the region, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Virtually all of Hizballah's money, weapons and training are funneled through the international airport in Damascus. Earlier support for Hamas that was routed via Damascus is now sent via Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula, although recent Israeli air and naval attacks on that supply line may cause Tehran to reassess that option.

Iran and Syria continue to be part of the problem in the region, not part of the solution. I disagreed with President Bush's characterization of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil." I have always maintained that the real axis of evil was, and remains, Syria, Iran and North Korea. (See my earlier The real axis of evil.) The Iraqis had no dealings with North Korea - North Korea was one of Iran's key suppliers in the Iran-Iraq War.

Syria, on the other hand, has had close dealings with North Korea for decades. One could make the case that the three countries have been involved in nuclear programs in all of their countries - North Korea may have nuclear weapons, Iran is trying to develop them, and Syria was caught building an undeclared reactor in a remote area of the country. Both Iran and Syria have either used North Korean technology in their indigenous ballistic missile programs, or have purchased outright complete missile systems from Pyongyang. (See my earlier North Korea names ambassador to Syria - nothing new.)

When you look up "stability in the Middle East" in any dictionary, encyclopedia or lexicon, neither "Syria" nor "Iran" pop up. Being the primary supporters of Hizballah and Hamas does not contribute to stability in the region. When there are problems in the Levant (the area comprising Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian areas), one need only look to Damascus. (See my earlier Hamas - The Iranian Connection and Damascus - Nexus of Terrorism.

One of the goals of the Obama administration is to break the ties between Iran and Syria. That is a laudable aim, and is the essential factor in any progress on the Syria-Israel track of the moribund Middle East peace process. That said, it will not be easy. Iran and Syria have a formal mutual defense pact and are involved in joint intelligence operations. (See my earlier Syria and Iran Increase Signals Intelligence Cooperation for an example.)

As long as Hamas overall leader Khalid Mish'al lives in Damascus, as long as weapons are moved via Damascus into Lebanon for Hizballah, as long as Iran threatens to destroy Israel and continues to enrich uranium as part of a nuclear weapons program, the strategic relationship between these two countries will never be a "stabilizing force in the region."

It is interesting to note that Ahmadinejad flew to Damascus just two days before Obama's envoys are scheduled to meet with Asad. No doubt the Iranian president was there to warn Asad against any warming of relations with the United States. Stability on American terms is not in Iran's interest.

Pentagon IG Clears Military Analyst Program-UPDATE

Well, I thought it was over. Evidently the Democrats still want to go after us.

From the May 7 Washington Times (Bill Gertz, Inside the Ring):

IG report withdrawn

Under pressure from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, the Pentagon inspector general has taken the unusual step of withdrawing a report that exonerated the Pentagon of wrongdoing related to a program that used retired military officials in a public relations campaign.

Deputy Inspector General Donald M. Horstman stated in a May 5 memorandum that the report was taken down from the IG Web site because of unspecified "inaccuracies" related to data in an appendix on retired military analysts' relations with defense contractors. The memo said an internal review found that the report failed to meet "quality standards" because it used Internet searches to check on corporate affiliations of military analysts involved in the program.

Withdrawal of the IG report followed a report in this space April 23 that stated that retired military officers, many of whom appeared on television, were angered over the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the issue.

The withdrawn IG report, released in January, rebutted the major allegations of the New York Times' winning story that asserted that retired military officers had improperly used private Pentagon briefings to gain unfair competitive advantage for defense contractors they represented.

The IG pulled the report after Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Feb. 2 rejecting the IG report and asking him to have the IG office conduct a second investigation.

In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Inside the Ring, Mr. Levin asserted that using friendly retired military officers to support Pentagon policies should be illegal. He also requested that the IG carry out additional "review and analysis."

My earlier post:

In April of 2008, The New York Times published a front page article by David Barstow, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand," accusing the Department of Defense of mounting a propaganda effort using retired military officers working as on-air analysts from various broadcast media organizations. I was named as one of the analysts involved. The story is inaccurate - my responses when the article was published: "Response to New York Times Article on Military Analysts," and "Response to Rumsfeld Luncheon Reports."

The article set off at least two investigations, one by the Defense Department's Inspector General, and the other by the Federal Communications Commission in response to a letter from Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

I regard the latter as politically motivated. I responded to the insulting accusations put forth in the Dingell-DeLauro letter that questioned my integrity and besmirched my 28 years of military service. I have not heard anything of this inquiry since - I think I know why. Soon after President Obama took office, he asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to remain in his position, and Dingell was replaced as head of the committee that oversees the FCC. It would be difficult for the administration to now go after the Secretary of Defense after he was asked to stay on by the new president.

In January 2009, the DOD IG concluded that Retired Military Analyst Program did not "violate the prohibition on publicity and propaganda," and the program was "conducted in accordance with DoD policies and regulations." The IG report further stated, "We found no indication that partisanship was operative during the interchanges with [retired military analysts] and found no evidence that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs personnel sought to somehow avoid portraying DOD as a source for the information provided. Rather, the briefings were open and transparent."

Surprisingly, the author received a Pulitzer Prize for the article. I will have to re-evaluate my opinion of the Pulitzer Prize committee.

James Davis, a former DOD public affairs officer involved in the program, penned an excellent response to this misguided award. The article, "Behind Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times' Hidden Agenda" appeared in today's on-line version of the conservative magazine Human Events.

An excerpt:

These analysts are career military officers who rose through the non-partisan ranks of the military through a combination of hard work and ability to lead. It is awfully presumptive to state that they would stake their reputations for politics. The Pentagon seeks to inform military analysts so they are better prepared to report on DOD policies whenever a reporter calls, whether they are from CNN, The New York Times, or FOX News.

The conclusions drawn in Mr. Barstow’s New York Times article aren’t surprising. The New York Times had an agenda from the beginning. They filed the FOIA request from the DOD in hopes they would make news, and they did. Instead of erupting into applause when the Pulitzer Committee’s results were announced, The New York Times should have issued an apology to the retired military officers.

More importantly, have the standards of the Pulitzer Prize committee dropped this low? Is this standard of journalism really worthy of any award?

James, I couldn't have said it better.