May 29, 2011

Women driving in Saudi Arabia? I give up.

A Saudi woman was recently arrested for driving without a license. Actually, no Saudi woman has a driver's license since it illegal for women to drive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The woman, 32-year-old Manal al-Sharif, posted a video (above) on YouTube and Facebook of herself driving a car in the city of al-Khubar (Khobar) in the Eastern Province of the kingdom.

In the video, Manal carries on an animated conversation with a female passenger who is obviously operating the camera. The conversation mainly revolves around how the driving restrictions affect the lives of women and their families. It is in pretty fast and idiomatic Saudi Arabic - it gives me the impression that the woman making the video is not a close friend and possibly a journalist.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive. The stated reasons range from the religious to the ridiculous. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in "the magic kingdom," as we Middle East specialists call Saudi Arabia. I have yet to get an acceptable, sensical answer from a Saudi. When an actual law was passed in 1990 to codify the ban, the reason given by the Ministry of the Interior was "Islamic tradition." The statement read, "Women's driving of cars contradicts the sound Islamic attitude of the Saudi citizen, who is jealous about his sacred ideals."

What does that mean? I have asked several Saudis to explain it to me. One of the more popular explanations is that allowing women to drive would allow them to succumb to their natural base instincts and carnal desires. A vehicle would allow them to engage in illicit sexual activity.

I challenged that assumption on several levels. First, Saudi men seem to have a low opinion of the moral character of not only Saudi women but women in general. Second, I told them that I knew for a fact that prohibiting women from driving does not stop them from having affairs.

When I was assigned to the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Saudi (and Kuwaiti) women made it clear that the driving ban was not going to get in their way. For example, I noted that even in the intense heat, many Saudis would drive in the city with their front passenger windows open. When I asked a more enlightened Saudi about this practice, he explained that the window was open for women to toss calling cards into the vehicle. The recipient, if interested, would call the number on the card and the woman would have her driver pick up the man and drive him to a rendezvous location. At times, I also saw Saudi women drop calling cards as they walked by young men - same idea. The Kuwaiti women in Saudi Arabia were less subtle - they would just hand you the card.

Because I could speak Arabic, I had the unenviable task of being a liaison between the American military and the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. One of the first issues that came up was American military women and driving. Initially, the Saudis said that the women servicemembers would not be permitted to drive in the kingdom. I explained that many U.S. Army transportation battalions had women drivers and that without the women it would be impossible to move the massive amounts of men and materiel that were being brought into the country to defend against a possible Iraqi invasion.

As I pointed out other examples of how women are totally integrated into the U.S. armed forces, the Saudis came up with uniquely Saudi solution. The Minister of Defense and Aviation issued a decree that American females when in U.S. military uniform were not women. I decided not to translate that literally, softening it to a statement that American military women could drive military vehicles while in uniform. It remained an irritant since they could not drive during those rare times of being off duty.

While working some long shifts with my Saudi counterparts, I often talked to a major who had graduated from Oregon State University. I once asked him if his wife drove a car while they lived in Corvallis. He replied that she did. I asked if she missed having that ability to drive now that they were back in Riyadh. He immediately replied that she did not. I countered by asking if he had actually asked her about it, or did he merely assume that she did not miss driving. He replied that he had not asked her. His exact words, "Why would I ask her a question when I already know the answer?" I gave up.

I gave up then and I give up now. The Saudi reaction to Manal's driving offense? The members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the mutawa'in (volunteers), have organized a campaign encouraging Saudi men to remove their 'iqal (the black rope-like cord that secures the male headdress) and use them to beat any woman who dares to drive.

What century are we in?

May 28, 2011

Obama's puzzling military strategy in Libya

During his recent European trip, U.S. President Barack Obama revealed some puzzling aspects of his military strategy in Libya. After meetings with the leaders of key allies France and the United Kingdom, the President stated that there will be "no let up" in the military operations supposedly focused on forcing Libyan dictator Mu'amar al-Qadhafi to step down.

President Obama's words:
"...Qadhafi and his regime need to understand that there will not be a let-up in the pressure that we are applying. I believe that we have built enough momentum that, as long as we sustain the course we are on, he will step down. Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime forces."

Interesting. When the President agreed with France and the United Kingdom and ordered American forces to participate in operations against Libya and to take the lead initially, he stated unequivocally that the purpose of the operation was to protect innocent civilians from Libya's armed forces, and not to remove Qadhafi from power. At that time, he appeared to directly contradict his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The Secretary had stated that it was U.S. policy that Qadhafi should be removed.

Now we are told that NATO and allied forces will continue to attack Libyan military forces and government installations until Qadhafi steps down. So it seems that Mrs. Clinton was right - we are using military force to remove Qadhafi from power.

Mr. Obama's employment of American military power is confusing. I understand that the President has no military experience and probably feels uncomfortable in the military environment. That said, he does have generals who know how to conduct effective air operations. I would venture to say that he is disregarding their advice. No rational U.S. Air Force officer would recommend the kind of operation that the President is pursuing. I also believe that the Europeans are going along with the President because they do not have the military capabilities to do this on their own.

This entire Libyan intervention should have been completed in weeks. Qadhafi should have been gone, either dead, in prison or in exile weeks ago. The bloodshed on both sides should have been stopped. By adopting his strategy of a "slow, steady wear down the regime," the President has certainly prolonged the fighting and likely increased the number of deaths.

Had I been advising the President, I would have recommended a fast, massive air campaign to quickly eliminate Libyan air defenses, then introduce significant numbers of AC-130 gunships, A-10 attack aircraft and possible AH-64 attack helicopters to destroy the Libyan army. If the goal of the operation was to remove Qadhafi, concentrated attacks on his centers of gravity should have been considered.

By not using overwhelming force, we have put American, NATO and allied forces at greater risk by prolonging the period of the operation. This "slow, steady process" is exactly what led us to a commitment of over a decade in Southeast Asia.

Get in, use massive firepower to achieve the objective, then get out.

May 25, 2011

Interview on theDove TV/Radio

This video clip is from an interview I did with theDove TV/Radio. It was done via Skype, so it is not full-up video, and yes, I know I am a retired Lt Col....

May 23, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

I wrote this in 2007 while still a military analyst at NBC News. I think it still holds true today.

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 9, 2011

On enhanced interrogation of al-Qa'idah detainees

There is renewed debate about the efficacy of what the intelligence community has labeled "enhanced interrogation techniques." Some critics call these techniques torture, while others believe that even though they contravene the tactics sanctioned by the interrogator's handbook, U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 - Human Intelligence Collector Operations, they do not constitute torture.

Personally, I am in the latter camp. I have been waterboarded while in training to be on a U.S. Air Force intelligence collection aircrew. It was not a pleasant experience; it was instructive, but I do not think it rises to the level of torture. The Air Force is not in the habit of subjecting its personnel to torture.

Following the successful Navy SEAL elimination of al-Qa'idah chief Shaykh Usamah bin Ladin, proponents of harsh interrogations claimed, with some validity as far as I can tell, that waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Faraj al-Libi extracted the information that identified the courier that eventually led us to the location of Usamah bin Ladin.

As can be expected, the opponents of enhanced interrogations claim the opposite. They also add the conjecture that the information could have been obtained through normal interrogation techniques. That claim is impossible to prove, and in my opinion ludicrous.

Having done some of this for a living, I have concluded that when committed, hard-core subjects know you cannot stress them, they are almost impossible to break. I will not go into how we got around the restrictions, but suffice it to say a loaded pistol between the eyes is a powerful motivator. In theory, they know you cannot hurt them, but once you have them convinced that you are the one amirki (American) that did not get the memo, a false sense of reality sets in.

In March 2008, I was asked to debate the use of harsh interrogation techniques in New York for an organization called Intelligence Squared. Here is my initial argument at that forum. I still stand by my words.

If "enhanced interrogation techniques," or torture to some, don't work, they would not have been practiced for thousands of years.

You decide.

May 8, 2011

Will death stop terror? No, says one expert

Medford, Oregon - May 8, 2011

Will death stop terror? No, says one expert

By Paul Fattig
Mail Tribune
May 08, 2011 2:00 AM

Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, Rick Francona was mighty glad to see the last of Osama bin Laden.

But the Port Orford resident, while understanding the desire of many to express jubilation over the demise of the 9/11 mastermind responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 in that attack alone, found the high-fiving demonstrations in poor taste.

"Some of it looked like a European soccer victory celebration," he observes. "People need to remember this was a very dangerous military operation in which we had up to 40 young American lives at risk.

"This is not a circus — this is deadly serious business," he adds.

What's more, he takes exception to the Monday-morning quarterbacking following Sunday night's (our time) raid by Navy SEALS on bin Laden's walled compound in Pakistan.

"I am a little disturbed that some are now second-guessing these Navy SEALS," he says. "You want an overwhelming force because that leads to fewer casualties on both sides when you seize the objective. There are so many unanswered questions going into a dangerous mission like this."

By now you rightfully suspect that Francona knows a bit more about the subject than your average resident along Oregon's picturesque coast.

Or anywhere across the nation, for that matter.

Francona, 59, is a nationally known Middle East expert. He is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer whose focus was the Middle East. The former lieutenant colonel is fluent in Arabic and was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's personal interpreter during the Gulf War.

He is the author of Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall From Grace, a book praised by critics at The London Times and the Washington Post. He also is an expert resource called by national TV news shows in the years following 9/11 to get his perspective on the evolving situation.

A Vietnam War veteran, he has worked with the shadow agencies — the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. During one of his missions with the CIA, he slipped covertly into northern Iraq to help groups that opposed Saddam Hussein.

But his intelligence experience wasn't restricted to the Middle East: He worked closely with SEALs in Bosnia when they were deployed to arrest five war criminals.

His wife, Emily, also is a former intelligence officer in the Air Force, having retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Although you won't see Francona much on national programs now that the wars have become old news, he still is called upon for public speaking engagements and writes a blog — — about the Middle East.

The death of bin Laden doesn't mean the end of terrorism as we know it, he concludes. In fact, al-Qaida on Friday acknowledged bin Laden's death and has vowed revenge.

"No, I don't think his death will change much the threat from al-Qaida," he says. "It has metastasized into various areas in the Middle East."

And the hottest spot now appears to be Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, where American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is leading al-Qaida's faction in that country, he says.

"That seems to be the new power base for al-Qaida, especially with the weak government in Yemen," he says. "Yemen could be the new Afghanistan.

"Once the president of Yemen steps down, and we know it is going to happen, we don't know who will replace him," he adds. "We don't know if the replacement will be friendly to the U.S."

What experts do know is that the killing of bin Laden was a necessary step in the fight against terrorism, he says.

"It was a good step which had to be done, but I don't think it will lessen the terrorist threat," he reiterates. "His death has a greater impact on our capabilities, giving our military and intelligence people a shot in the arm."

Meanwhile, what many are calling the Arab Spring uprisings, as people throughout the Middle East revolt against dictatorships, merits close watching, he stresses, noting the political upheavals could provide openings for terrorist groups.

"There are some real opportunities there for chaos and mayhem," he says. "I think we are on the verge of some dangerous times."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

May 1, 2011

Usamah Bin Ladin (1957 – 2011)

In 2001, President George W. Bush said, "No matter how long it takes, whether we bring you to justice, or we bring justice to you, justice will be done."

After almost ten years, American forces brought justice to Usamah bin Ladin, leader of the terrorist group tanzim al-qa'idah (the base organization). Media reports are claiming that U.S. Navy SEALs operating half way around the world in the dark of night have finally avenged the murder of 3,000 of their countrymen on September 11, 2001. Personally, I hope the last image that connected in the synapses of bin Ladin's brain was the weapon of a young American serviceman about to deliver American justice. I hope he could read the "US NAVY" on the uniform. I worked with the SEALs in Bosnia; they were the muscle of our operations to arrest five war criminals. They are impressive young men.

Kudos to the Obama Administration for making the decision to mount such an operation. The was not without risk. Pakistan is a theoretical ally of the United States in the war on terrorism, but there are elements inside the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate who are not. Virtually anything that is told to the Pakistanis finds it way to if not al-Qa'idah and the Taliban at least to their sympathizers. Maintaining operational security in this environment is challenging to say the least. I suspect the Pakistanis were kept in the dark until the last possible moment. Had we told them the operational details, there is almost no doubt that someone in the Pakistani service would have tipped Bin Ladin.

As more information about the operation comes to light, it raises many questions. Probably the most important is how does someone of the profile of Usmah bin Ladin live in a guarded, secured and protected compound just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad? From media reports, which may or may not be accurate, the compound stood out in the neighborhood with its seven-feet high walls and concertina wire barriers. Any intelligence or security service worth its name would have investigated such an anomalous residence. The thought that no one in the Pakistani military or ISI did not know bin Ladin was there is ludicrous.

The drivel spouted by President Obama about the Pakistanis is just that - drivel. Of course, he had to say it to give the Pakistanis plausible cover that they are not the two-faced slime most of us believe them to be, but that is a two-edged sword. The tenor of the Pakistani media reporting on the event is accusatory against the government for helping the Americans kill a fellow Muslim, someone revered among many in Pakistan. Helping the United States is not a popular thing. There is a lot of resentment among the population against the government in Islamabad for allowing the CIA to conduct drone-launched missile strikes in the country. The Pakistani government may have to deal with popular discontent for allowing this operation.

That said, this operation is exactly the way to deal with these people - no lengthy, expensive trials in federal court that would turn into a platform for terrorist rantings; no long prison sentences to either Guantanamo or another detention facility at great expense affording these vermin treatment not given to our troops; or no sham rehabilitation programs in Saudi Arabia or Yemen that see at least 25 percent return to the fight. You cannot reason with these people, for they are the true believers. It goes against our sense of justice, but the only way to deal with these people is to hunt them down and kill them.

Thankfully, they killed bin Ladin. Bin Ladin as a prisoner would be a nightmare; Attorney General Eric Holder would want to try him in federal court. Given Holder's track record with terrorist suspects, a conviction would not be a sure thing.

A chapter in the war against al-Qa'idah is over, but the war will go on. Hopefully this operation will send the message that America's memory is long and its reach unlimited. I want every al-Qa'idah commander tonight to be sleepless with the fear that some young American special forces operator is coming for him.