January 29, 2010

New sanctions on Iran? The Clinton spin...

Secretary of State, Hillary 'Clueless' ClintonIran continues to thumb its nose at the rest of the world over its nuclear program. They have repeatedly missed deadlines to meet international obligations, yet there have been almost no consequences for its behavior. They have consistently politically outmaneuvered the West, including the United States.

It is obvious that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is out of her league in dealing with the Iranians. The Iranian leadership has assessed - apparently correctly - that the United States, the West and the United Nations are incapable of imposing effective, coordinated sanctions on the country. It appears that only the U.S. Congress has been somewhat successful in crafting legislation that will impose limited sanctions on Iran.

Yet, we are treated to a steady barrage of Mrs. Clinton's optimistic statements that international actions against the regime in Tehran are imminent, indicating that she has cobbled together the support required to successfully pass a UN Security Council Resolution. Perhaps she is doing this in the stealth mode and the public statements of the Russians and Chinese are cover for her deft diplomacy. Somehow, I doubt it.

There seems to be no change in the Chinese position, and at best conflicting and confusing statements from the Russians. Just this week, while Mrs. Clinton was making her public pronouncements about the improved prospects for new sanctions on Iran, the Chinese foreign minister reiterated the longstanding Chinese position that the Iranian nuclear issue be resolved by "diplomatic efforts and negotiations" and proposed "resuming dialogue."

The Russian statements are particularly intriguing. The Russian foreign minister said that it was "almost time" to apply "appropriate pressure" - he seems to have a problem with the word "sanctions."

Here's why. The Russians have a long-term relationship with the Iranian armed forces - they have been the primary supplier of weapons to Iran for years now. They make a lot of money selling weapons to Tehran - they are loathe to cut off that source of revenue. In fact, the chief of one of Russia's major arms exporters clarified his government's position - none of the current sanctions protocols enacted by the United Nations preclude Russia from selling arms to Iran. Pretty effective sanctions regime, right?

The Russian statement about arms is troubling since Moscow signed a contract in 2007 to supply Iran with the S-300 (NATO: SA-20 GARGOYLE) air defense system. Although there have been no confirmed deliveries, the acquisition of the SA-20 will significantly improve Iran's air defense capabilities, and conversely complicate Israeli military planning should an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities be ordered.

Not only are the Chinese and Russians not fully on board with sanctions, neither is the International Atomic Energy Agency. While the world's economic leaders meet in Switzerland, the IAEA stated that a proposed enriched uranium exchange deal with Iran is still on the table, and that the organization and that "dialogue was continuing."

Let's recap and put Mrs. Clinton's efforts into perspective. Neither Russia nor China, both permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power, are fully committed to effective sanctions on Iran. The UN's nuclear watchdog agency thinks it is still negotiating what most believe is an already-dead proposal with Tehran.

Regardless of how she spins it, it would appear that Iran continues to diplomatically outmaneuver our Secretary of State.

January 28, 2010

US Special Forces to Yemen - the right strategy

According to recent reports, the U.S. Department of Defense has ordered the deployment of additional Army Special Forces troops to Yemen. Yemen has emerged as a key front in the war against al-Qa'idah and its affiliate organizations, in this case al-Qaidah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This augments an already fairly robust CIA presence in the country working with Yemeni intelligence and security forces. Yemeni air strikes (and at least one U.S. cruise missile strike) have relied extensively on American intelligence information.

Deployment of American special forces to Yemen is exactly the type of operations we should be mounting against al-Qa'idah and its affiliates. This is typical of a counter-terrorism strategy - train the local forces to go after the bad guys, as well as mounting your own finely-targeted operations. This requires excellent intelligence and close cooperation with the local military and intelligence services to be sure, but allows effective operations with a smaller, less-visible American presence on the ground.

It also allows the United States to tailor and somewhat limit how much aid goes to the corrupt government of 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih. We can provide the training and equipment necessary to achieve the goal of hunting down and killing al-Qa'idah members without creating a huge American footprint in the country.

Contrast this deployment to what the Obama Administration is doing in Afghanistan. Large deployments of mostly conventional U.S. Army and U.S. Marine ground forces is exactly the opposite of the counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen. This counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan may not be successful - the increased numbers of American and foreign forces in Afghanistan play right into the hands of the Taliban. It is an insurgent recruiter's dream.

The sad part about the choice of this strategy is the fact that the real enemy - al-Qa'idah - has no meaningful and certainly no threatening presence in Afghanistan. They have all moved to Pakistan (where they face CIA drone-launched missile strikes), Iraq (where they have all but been eliminated), Saudi Arabia (where they have all but been eliminated as well), Yemen and Somalia. Yet in his State of the Union address, the President still wants us to believe we are in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qa'idah.

Obama's words: "And in Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011 and our troops can begin to come home... As we take the fight to Al Qaeda...."

We are not taking the fight to al-Qa'idah in Afghanistan. It is amazing that the same administration that seems to get the point about Yemen has completely missed it in Afghanistan. Mr. President, your Yemen strategy is good - do more of that. Your Afghanistan strategy, however, is way off base. Start taking the fight to al-Qa'idah where they are, not where they were.

Yemen is a good start.

January 26, 2010

"Strip joints" in Damascus - who knew?

Well, actually, me.

During remarks last week, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton commented on an interview of a son of Usamah bin Ladin by an Arab media outlet. The interview allegedly took place in a "strip club" in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Bolton made an offhand comment, "Strip clubs in Damascus - who knew there were such things?"

Damascus at night

I served as the air attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's. Part of my job was to try and meet Syrian officials - military and civilian - to determine the capabilities and status of the Syrian armed forces. This is what military attachés have done since there have been military attachés - observe and report. American military attachés have been doing this around the world for over a hundred years.

To meet Syrian officials in an atmosphere of informality where they might actually say something of interest beyond the statements vetted and approved by the Ba'th Party regime of Hafiz al-Asad, and now his son Bashar al-Asad, Damascus offers a vibrant nightclub scene. Many people are surprised that you find nightclubs and after-hours clubs in the capital city of an Arab country, assuming that the strict rules of Islam preclude the existence of such establishments.

There is a difference between Muslim countries and Islamic countries. Muslim countries are those in which Islam is the most common and oft times official religion. However, in these countries, the government does not follow the strict tenets of Islamic jurisprudence, as in Islamic countries.

Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the Emirates are examples of Muslim countries with non-Islamic governments. Of course, there is great Islamic influence in all facets of these governments, but the strict interpretation of the religion is not the law. Therefore, alcohol is available and nightclubs are permitted. The UAE has tried to limit alcoholic consumption to non-Muslims, but to me it appeared to have no effect.

Iraq's capital of Baghdad had an active nightlife when I was assigned to the embassy there in the late 1980's. Much of the nightlife has disappeared as the Shi'a-dominated government has cracked down on alcohol. In Syria, the nightlife continues.

It is not just Syrians who frequent the Damascus clubs. Throughout the year, but especially in the summer when Damascus is much cooler than the desert cities in the Gulf states, you will find Saudis, Kuwaitis and even Iranians enjoying the night life.

Many Syrians complain that the patrons from the oil-rich countries do nothing but drive prices up and encourage young Syrian girls into prostitution. At one point, there was a serious outbreak of HIV in the city, most likely from Saudis who also frequented sex clubs in Bangkok, Thailand.

Night clubs are one thing, but the reference was to "strip clubs." Do they really have strip clubs in Damascus? Yes. Trust me.

January 22, 2010

Israel's Military Option for Iran - "When" not "If"

I was asked for a few thoughts on Israel's options for the dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Here is a link to the article. The text is reprinted below.

For at least the past four years, the senior Israeli civilian and military officials have been touting Iran as the “existential” threat to the Jewish state. Military officers at the Ministry of Defense have admitted to the existence of a variety of contingency plans to address that threat. As you would expect, they are vague about what those plans actually entail, but no doubt the cornerstone of any plan will involve the use of Israel’s key power projection capability – its air force, equipped with hundreds of state-of-the-art American-built, Israeli-modified F-15 and F-16 fighters.

Easy to say – hard to do.

The operational considerations of mounting an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities are daunting. The multiple targets that comprise critical elements of the Iranian program are dispersed, hardened and heavily defended – Iranian officers have learned the lessons of Israel’s attack on the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981. U.S. Air Force planners estimate that crippling the Iranian nuclear effort requires hitting about 550 aim points (a single target will have multiple aim points).

Iran is also much further than Iraq, in fact, the flight from air bases in Israel to the key targets outside Esfahan, Iran = over 900 miles each way - are almost twice as far as the flight route used against Iraq in 1981. Israel’s fighter aircraft would be operating at their extreme combat range, leaving little room for error or engagements along the way. The Israeli air force, as professional as it is, does not have the ability to fly that far carrying that many munitions.

The flight routes, once leaving Israel, are over hundreds of miles of hostile airspace. The Israeli air force has only a limited aerial refueling capability as well. There have been various analyses written of how the Israelis might reach the targets, but all of them involve considerable risk. There are options that use Turkish airspace, Iraqi airspace (controlled by the U.S. forces), Saudi airspace, or combinations thereof. None of the options are attractive.

Israel does possess a small but potent submarine-launched missile capability, and a respectable arsenal of medium range ballistic missiles. However, these systems cannot deliver the amount of weapons with enough precision to obviate the use of air power. If the Israelis are going to do this, it will have to include fighter aircraft in the mix.

In my discussions with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, they insist that Iran is a world problem requiring a world solution, not an Israeli solution. Many of these officials have expressed frustration – they perceive that the West is waiting for them to solve what is an international issue. Most of them believe that the current American administration will not take the stern measures necessary to bring Iran to meaningful negotiations. While it may be an international issue, it does affect Israel the most. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has singled the Jewish state out in a variety of rants.

While the rest of the world tends to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s threats, the Israelis take them very seriously. They believe that a nuclear-armed Iran not only threatens the existence of the Jewish state, but possibly also the existence of the Jewish people.

Given the lack of any progress in the negotiations between Iran and the rest of the world, the question is soon becoming not if Israel will attempt a military operation to stop or obstruct Iran’s nuclear program, but when.

January 17, 2010

Out of the box thinking - U.S. intelligence in Yemen

There has been a spotlight on the American intelligence and security agencies in the wake of the failed al-Qa'idah Christmas bombing of a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. A review of procedures and policies is obviously warranted in light of the abject failure of the agencies to prevent 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab from getting on an airliner with a bomb secreted on his body.

However, it is also right to point out some of the things the intelligence community is doing to get it right. There has been reporting over the last few months of a good program, generally overlooked by those of us that follow events in the region or the intelligence community. It has to do with Yemen and former adversaries of the United States.

Shortly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqi intelligence officers loyal to Saddam Husayn sought refuge in Yemen. Yemen's president, 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih, had been a long-time ally and supporter of the Iraqi president. Once the officers arrived, Salih took full advantage of the presence of these professional intelligence officers to improve his services' limited capabilities. In the Arab world, the Iraqis are good intelligence officers, probably second only to the Jordanians.

The Iraqi officers also took advantage of the situation. Having arrived in the country with some but not unlimited resources, the opportunity to practice their craft offered a chance to make a good living. Because of their professionalism compared to that of the Yemeni intelligence officers, they were able to assume prominent and influential positions in the country's intelligence and security services. Most of them have remained in Yemen rather than return to an Iraq where their experience - they did after all play key role in the repression that characterized the Ba'th regime - is neither valued nor desired.

When al-Qa'idah realized that its ability to conduct effective operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia came to an end, it moved many of its operatives and training bases to Yemen. Yemen, a backward country with poor infrastructure, a weak and highly corrupt central government and a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, seemed a perfect place for the terrorist group. It also has a sketchy record when it comes to keeping terrorists in custody. Numerous convicted and alleged terrorists have been released or "escaped" - virtually all of the bombers of the USS Cole are at large in the country, as well as at least one member of the "Lackawanna Six" wanted in the United States.

As American intelligence began to focus on the country, it became apparent that cooperation with the local intelligence and security services was an imperative in the fight against al-Qa'idah. It only made sense to approach the Iraqis working for the Yemeni services and propose a cooperative relationship to deal with the growing al-Qa'idah problem in the country. It is useful to note that several of the Iraqi intelligence officers were familiar with the American intelligence services - they have been involved in the relationship in the 1980's between the Iraqi Intelligence Service and the Directorate of Military Intelligence on one side, and the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency on the other.

While we hurl stones at our intelligence and security agencies, we should also remember to acknowledge that they can think "out of the box" on occasion. This is a good example of a slightly unorthodox means of getting the job done.

January 7, 2010

Did the President really say Al-Qa'idah is "hunkered down?"

In his address to the nation today, President Obama attempted to explain his intelligence and security agencies' compound failures surrounding the Christmas Day failed attack on an airliner flying to the United States.

For the most part, the rhetoric was about what you would expect - order a review, hold people accountable, buck stops here, things will change - the usual words.

What struck me was his description of al-Qa'idah as being "hunkered down" because of his policies. How can he possibly use those words to describe the organization that on December 30 mounted one of the most lethal attacks in on his intelligence service in recent memory?

From "hiding in caves" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, al-Qa'idah was able to penetrate a covert CIA operation and kill seven of its officers, as well as kill a Jordanian intelligence officer working with the agency. It was a successful operation, one that should indicate that al-Qa'idah is still a capable enemy not to be discounted.

The story of the operation in Afghanistan has been covered fairly well in the media. The Jordanian intelligence services, close partners with their counterpart American services, are extremely professional organizations. The Jordanian effort to penetrate al-Qa'idah was laudable, but flawed. In my past dealings with the Jordanian services, my one (and only) complaint is their use of coercion to effect the recruitment of an asset.

That tactic appears to have happened here as well. According to the family of the Jordanian militant who was "turned" or "doubled" to work against al-Qa'idah was forced by Jordanian intelligence into that decision. At some point in the operation, the asset reverted to his fundamentalist roots and agreed to mount an operation against the Jordanian intelligence officer, and at the same time kill as many CIA officers as possible.

The media has highlighted the fact that the asset passed through security checkpoints and was able to get close to a host of CIA officers during the fatal meeting. It was described as a breach of security. In the CIA officers' defense, this is generally how these things happen. You try to bring a trusted asset into a safe area as quickly and quietly as possible to debrief him for intelligence, task the asset for further collection, and genrally manage the operation. I am a bit surprised at the number of officers present for the meeting. Most of the time, you would expose the asset to the minimum number of officers absolutely necessary for operational security reasons.

The operation against the CIA base in Khost demonstrates real operational skills. It was likely mounted in retaliation for the Obama Administration's escalated unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on targets in Pakistan. Al-Qa'idah was able to identify a target, recruit an asset that had access to that target, and then execute a lethal operation that killed eight of the enemy's key intelligence officers.

All that while "hunkered down?" That characterization is an insult to the memories of our fallen and the fallen officer of a close ally. Do not underestimate this enemy.

January 4, 2010

Iran again outmaneuvering the West

Iran continues its relatively successful foreign policy into the new year. On the second day of the new decade, the Islamic Republic issued an ultimatum to the group of nations that are demanding Iran stop its uranium enrichment activities. The Iranian ultimatum gives the groups of nations one month to accept an Iranian counter offer to a proposal to export Iran's enriched uranium exchange for nuclear fuel rods that cannot be weaponized.

This is just more of Iran's tactic to delay any consequences for failing to meet any United Nations, European Union or American deadlines for halting their nuclear program. Every time there is the threat of some form of action - usually sanctions are mentioned - the Iranians either offer to resume talks or issue threats.

It seems to be working. The Italian foreign minister recently stated that the world should not seek to isolate - in other words, no sanctions - Iran because of its human rights abuses and continuing nuclear program. The minister cited Iran's ties to Hizballah, Hams and Syria as the reasons we should look to Tehran as a possible intermediary. Che cosa ha detto, signore? Those are exactly the reasons we should be isolating Iran....

Iran's ultimatum - that's the exact word used by Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki - and Italy's unusual statement was followed by the typical response by the United States. The headline read that the United States was going to "consider" sanctions focused on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Someone must have thought that was too harsh, because one day later Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States was still open to talks with Iran.

Once again, no one is holding the Iranians responsible. For some reason the West is afraid to take action against them. The Iranians have figured it out - no one has the stomach for harsh effective sanctions, including the Americans.

The Iranian leadership believes - rightly so, apparently - that they are winning the diplomatic battle over their nuclear program. The rest of the world sets deadlines, all of which are ignored by Tehran. There are no consequences. In fact, Iranian intransigence seems to be rewarded with concessions that the world will wait just a little longer, then sanctions will be imposed. The problem with these threats is that no one takes them seriously.

Whether you agree with the Iranians or not, you have to admire their ability to diplomatically outmaneuver virtually the entire world.

January 2, 2010

Jordan loses a soldier in Afghanistan

The Jordanian government surprisingly acknowledged today that a Jordanian military officer had been killed in Afghanistan. This is the first official confirmation that Jordan has sent members of its armed forces to Afghanistan. The soldier, Captain 'Ali bin Zayd, was killed on Wednesday. There were no other details of what the captain was doing in the country, nor of the circumstances of his death other than the official announcement that he died "as a martyr while performing the sacred duty of the Jordanian forces in Afghanistan."

Given the timing of the death - the same day that seven CIA officers were killed in an attack on the Agency base in Khowst province - it is very likely that the captain was participating in a CIA operation.

This would not be uncommon. The United States intelligence community has had long and strong ties connections with the Jordanian intelligence services, both military and civilian. The Jordanians bring to the table skills that are in short supply in our intelligence agencies - local language skills, area knowledge, ability to operate undetected in Middle East populations, etc. I have often worked with both the Jordan's Directorate of Military Intelligence and the General Intelligence Directorate. Their officers are skilled professionals and I would work them again with no hesitation whatsoever.

The cooperation of the Jordanians - and this would have to have been approved by King 'Abdullah II himself - is a testament to the unheralded alliance between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the United States. With the notable, but not overly surprising, support of Iraq by King Husayn following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the relationship between the two countries has been close for at least three decades. Assisting the Americans in Afghanistan is a continuation of the that relationship - and a welcome one.

Jordan's assistance has usually been kept very quiet, especially in Jordan. King 'Abdullah II walks a fine line in the region. There is a large population of Palestinians, many of whom are, or are the children of, refugees from the wars with Israel since Israel became a state in 1948. There has been a steady growth in Islamic fundamentalism in the kingdom as well. If a poll was taken in Jordan about the relationship between the kingdom and the United States, I suspect that the numbers in support would be low, however, among the military and professional ranks, support would be higher.

The Jordanians have supported us, often at the expense of their relationships with other countries in the region, especially among their Arab brothers. In this case, one of their officers gave his life in a fight that many might consider not his own. We should give a nod of gratitude to our allies in the Hashemite Kingdom.