February 27, 2012

Mr. President, tell me again why we're in Afghanistan?

The continuing - and deadly - protests against American troops and facilities in Afghanistan in response to the destruction of Qurans that had been used to pass messages between detainees at Bagram air base again raise the still unanswered question - why are we still in Afghanistan? Instead of rushing for the exits prematurely in Iraq, perhaps President Obama and his advisors should be reassessing our continued presence in a country that as far as most analysts believe has no strategic American national interest.

Like most Americans, I understood and supported the initial military operations in Afghanistan in the wake of the al-Qa'idah attacks of September 11, 2001. Those operations came after the Taliban government of Afghanistan refused to turn over Usamah bin Ladin to the United States. U.S. forces, working with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, soon took the capital city of Kabul and removed the Taliban from power. The troops then focused on eliminating al-Qa'idah.

Al-Qa'idah fighters ran for the relative safety of the mountains along the ill-defined and porous border with Pakistan. Many of the fighters were killed, some were captured, and some - including bin Ladin - were able to escape to Pakistan where they were sheltered by the Pushtun tribes and possibly the Pakistani intelligence service.

Follow-on military operations effectively removed al-Qa'idah from Afghanistan. As I recall, the mission of the American invasion of Afghanistan was to kill or capture as many al-Qa'idah fighters as possible and deny then a future operations base in the country. That mission was accomplished early on. Al-Qa'idah abandoned Afghanistan for Pakistan, and later moved on to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia.

If the actual enemy of the United States was/is al-Qa'idah, we should have been attacking them wherever they were/are. Instead, we - and I hold the Bush Administration accountable for this - embarked on a massive nation building effort to establish a Western-style democracy in a country that barely has any paved roads. Why? What national interest does that possibly serve? That's not a rhetorical question - I would really like an answer.

Now we have almost 100,000 American and NATO troops in Afghanistan battling the Taliban. As far as I can tell, the Taliban is not a threat to the security of the United States. True, they are attacking our troops, and thus we should be killing as many as possible. That said, I have to ask, is the Taliban really interested in anything more than having us leave? I doubt if they are going to follow us back home.

Here's my take on this.

After watching the Afghan people in the street protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy shouting "death to America," after reading that an Afghan intelligence officer killed two American troops over this issue, I believe it is time to leave these ingrates to their own fate. As with many of the people in this part of the world (and I'm going to get hate mail accusing me of being anti-Muslim...), they appear incapable of rational thought when it comes to these perceived religious slights.

I think we should announce that we've had it and we're leaving. However, on the way out, we should bring down on the remaining Taliban areas massive bombardment the likes of which they have never seen. That will serve as a warning of the fate that awaits them if they allow al-Qa'idah or any other transnational terrorist group to set up bases in the country in the future. We used to have the political will to inflict real damage on our enemies.

I would also retract the multiple apologies for the burning of the Qurans. It was not our troops who desecrated the holy books, it was the detainees at Bagram air base who used them to pass messages among themselves.

Good bye, good riddance, good luck.

February 21, 2012

Iran and Syrian issues conflate

Islamic Republic of Iran Navy frigate Alvand (71) in the Suez Canal

As the internal security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and the nuclear standoff with Iran becomes more bellicose, there has occurred a conflation of the two crises into one overarching problem in the region. It is virtually impossible to address one of the two issues now without either addressing the other or at least considering the larger regional consequences.

Last week, that conflation took the form of a visit by two Iranian warships to the Syrian port of Tartus, coincidentally the same port used by Russian warships when they visit the Mediterranean. This is the second visit of Iranian warships to Syria in the last two years - two Iranian warships conducted an identical visit exactly one year ago in February 2011. See my article on that earlier visit, Iranian warships in the Mediterranean - deal with it. The last visits by Iranian warships prior to these recent visits were over 30 years ago.

Iran is "showing the flag" in what it considers its sphere of influence in Middle East, and demonstrating its continuing support for its closest ally - the Ba'th Party regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Unlike Libya's Mua'mar al-Qadhafi, who had no allies to support him against the Libyan popular uprising, al-Asad has a close ally in the Iranians, as well as enjoying differing levels of support from Russia and China.

It was both Russia and China who vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime for the violence against its own citizenry. Although China's steadfast support for the dictator may be waning somewhat, Russia continues to stand by al-Asad and sternly warn against any type of intervention in Syria.

The Syrian-Iranian axis goes back decades and is rooted in the Iran-Iraq War that raged for almost eight years from September 1980 to August 1988. Virtually every Arab nation except Syria stood with their fellow Arabs in Iraq against "the Persians" - the Iranians. Animosity between the Persians and Arabs goes back thousands of years. Syria, however, chose to ally with Iran. There were several reasons that drove the leaders in Damascus and Tehran into each others' arms.

At the time of the outbreak of the war, the Syrian and Iraqi governments were both under the control of the Ba'th Party, however, the two wings of the party had taken different paths on the road to Arab Socialism and had developed an emnity that occasionally resulted in bloodshed. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, then-President Hafiz al-Asad (father of the current Syrian dictator) allied with the enemy of Baghdad. This is in keeping with the Middle East adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The initial relationship expanded into an economic and military alliance. In return for access to Syrian air bases allowing Iranian fighters to operate from Iranian bases east of Iraq and recover to Iraq's west in Syria, Iran provided Syria with millions of barrels of oil that could be resold on the world market to prop up the weak Syrian economy. The two became closer as the war raged.

In 1982, Iran saw an opportunity to expand its sphere of influence into Lebanon, home of a sizable - and growing - Shi'a Muslim population. It did this by deploying members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Syria and Lebanon. That organization, the IRGC Syria and Lebanon contingent (IRGC/SL) was the nucleus for the creation of the now notorious IRGC Qods Force, an elite covert/special operations unit.

The IRGC/SL group, based in a suburb of Damascus, moved into Lebanon's al-Biqa' Valley and created the Party of God, more commonly known by its Arabic name - Hizballah - to combat the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon launched to rid Israel's northern border of the threat of attack from Lebanon-based Palestinian guerrillas.

As it turned out, Israel merely traded one threat for another, the Palestinians for Hizballah. Hizballah was much more lethal, as history has shown - the 2006 war between Hizballah and Israel is a prime example. After that war, Iran and Syria completely replaced all of Hizballah weapons, this time with even more capable rocket and missile systems.

Training, funding and resupply of Hizballah was routed through Syria, mostly via the international airport in Damascus - that support continues to this day. The ability to use Hizballah as a proxy force against Israel, by either Damascus or Tehran, is an integral part of the foreign policy of both Syria and Iran and is key part of their relationship. Should the al-Asad regime fall, Iran would be hard-pressed to control or maintain Hizballah, and its influence in Lebanon would be compromised. Iran is not about to let a major component of its foreign policy disappear without a fight.

Although the Syrians and Iranians have had economic and military cooperation agreements in the past, since 2005 they have had a formal mutual defense treaty, pledging to come to each other's defense it the other is attacked. An Israeli attack on Iran will theoretically trigger a Syrian response against Israel. That response will also likely include Hizballah attacks from southern Lebanon.

The Syrian military at this time, however, is focused on maintaining order in the country and repressing a popular uprising. Would they have the capability to launch attacks on Israel as well? Would the Syrian opposition abandon their protests against the regime and temporarily unite against a common enemy? Or would they take advantage of the situation and continue to press for the overthrow of Bashar al-Asad?

On another front, if there is Western or Arab League intervention in Syria, would Iran attempt to oppose it militarily? If Arab League forces attempt to move against the Syrian regime, will Iranian forces mount attacks on those countries in support of its Syrian ally? If American forces are involved, will Iran strike American interests in the Persian Gulf?

Again, I'm pretty good at posing the questions, but don't have the answers.

It is important for anyone trying to assess available options to address either the Syrian repression of its own population and the Iranian nuclear weapons program that these are no longer isolated issues. Addressing one will also require addressing the other, or at least taking into consideration the consequences of one action on the other crisis. Specifically, attacking Iran will require consideration of the reactions of Syria and Hizballah. Likewise, intervention in Syria will have to take into consideration what Iran will do.

Let me guess - the Iranians will agree to talks, while their centrifuges spin and their allies in Damascus continue to kill their own people.

February 12, 2012

Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate - ADDENDUM TWO

Military funeral for fallen Syrian soldiers
(This adds additional information to my earlier articles, Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and Situation in Syria continues to deteriorate - ADDENDUM.)

The news reports of the assassination of a Syrian military doctor, an army brigadier, on Saturday in the Rukn al-Din section of Damascus underscores the deteriorating situation in the country. Up until the last few weeks, most of the violence has occurred outside the capital. Saturday's killing of an army officer in Damascus threatens to bring the violence to the streets of the capital.

The daylight attack on a member of the Syrian armed forces in an upscale section of Damascus has shaken local residents. Even those who have stood steadfastly behind President Bashar al-Asad and his Ba'th Party regime are now wondering if it is time to re-assess their positions.

The news of the attack on the army doctor comes at the same time that Syrian military forces unleashed a new wave of armor and artillery assaults on the city of Homs, killing scores in the city. The Asad regime has displayed no remorse in its brutal suppression of demonstrators and protesters throughout the country. That is understandable, since Damascus has received political cover and tacit support from its two allies on the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China - both permanent members with veto power. Both have already used that veto power to stop a resolution condemning the Syrian government's actions against its own people.

The Russians have gone a step farther and contracted to provide 36 Yak-130 jet trainer/light attack aircraft to Syria. Arming a country that is using its military might against its own population - yes, that's the right move for one of our so-called "partners for peace" (a NATO program to cooperate with Russia)....

It is expected that the Arab League will ask the UN Security Council to create a peacekeeping force for operations in Syria. This is dead on arrival for three reasons. First, the Russians and Chinese will veto it; second, the United Nations has an aversion to sending peacekeeping forces into an area until there is some peace to keep; and third and most importantly, the Syrians will not accept it. It is inconceivable that the United Nations will authorize what would in reality be an invasion of Syria.

There is at least one precedent, however, for Arab League peacekeeping operations. In 1976, during the civil war in Lebanon, the Arab League created what was called the Arab Deterrent Force (قوات الردع العربية - quwat al-rada' al-'arabiyah) to try to stop the violence in that country. Although the 30,000-man force was nominally composed of troops from six Arab countries, ironically, it was the Syrians who commanded and dominated the force. I was in Lebanon when this happened - it was merely the vehicle for a Syrian intervention that lasted almost 30 years.

In a bit if good news, the Sudanese general in charge of the defunct Arab League observor mission to Syria resigned today - he had a terrible human rights record, and his observor group failed to condemn the Syrian government. Corruption in the Middle East? Say it isn't so. Additionally, the Arab League will possibly move to expel Syrian ambassadors from the capitals of member states.

Here's a bizarre twist, but symptomatic of things Middle Eastern. The leader of al-Qa'idah, Ayman al-Zawahiri endorsed the efforts of the Syrian National Council to remove the regime of Bashar al-Asad. While this should really not come as a surprise - after all, the Syrian Ba'th party is secular and anti-Islamist, it is an interesting juxtaposition of interests that places our policy in line with that of al-Qa'idah. Of course, the desired end-game would be much different. The United States would prefer to see a democracy emerge in Syria, while al-Zawahiri would like to see the creation of an Islamic republic.

The al-Qa'idah connection may go further than just political support. It is beginning to appear that the group known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) may be directly involved in some of the recent bombings in Aleppo and earlier in Damascus. These attacks were aimed at government intelligence and security facilities, and are well within the capabilities of AQI.

The questions that remain: How long can the Syrian government resist the will of the international community and continue to oppress its own citizens? How far are Russia and China willing to go to prop up Bashar al-Asad? Is there a point when the Syrian army still loyal to the Asad regime will no longer kill their fellow Syrians and instead turn on the government? Is the West willing to intervene militarily in Syria?

In my usual insightful way, I have adroitly discovered the questions. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers.

I watch these events with great sadness - I lived in Damascus for several years when I was assigned as the air attache to the American embassy there. I have friends on both sides of the struggle, and I wish them all well.

February 7, 2012

Afghanistan - hasn't the Administration learned anything?

Taliban fighter smiling because he now knows how long to wait for victory

I was tempted to title this article "Obama runs for the exits in Afghanistan," but thought better of it. Not that it isn't true - it is - but I too believe that we are wasting valuable resources, including the blood of our troops, in a war that now has nothing to do with our national interests.

However, it is the way which this Administration is going about the withdrawal that bothers me. It appears that there is absolutely no military sense being applied to the issue. It is hard for me to believe that the generals at the Defense Department are not objecting to this dangerous practice of telegraphing every move to the enemy. Yes, I used the word "enemy" despite Vice President Biden's assertions to the contrary. If a group of fanatical Islamist jihadists are shooting at our troops, they're the enemy.

Biden's words: "Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That's critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy, because it threatens U.S. interests. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us."

Mr. Vice President, if the Taliban is not our enemy, why are we expending huge amounts of resources and maintaining almost 100,000 troops in Afghanistan trying to kill as many of this non-enemy as we can? If the Taliban is not the enemy, just what are they? If, as you and the President claim, this jihadist group is not a threat to U.S. interests, why are we even in Afghanistan? There may be, just maybe, some reason to the vice president's idiotic statements.

Considering his many years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he shows an astounding lack of understanding of the region. If I thought he was capable of formulating the foreign policy concepts involved here - it has to be a coincidence - I'd say Biden was setting the stage for the Obama Administration's rush for the exit from Afghanistan. There are a number of things happening that pretty much foretell the obvious:

First, there were rumors - later confirmed by the Defense Department and the State Department - that the United States is setting up back-channel talks with representatives of the Taliban at a location outside of Afghanistan. The venue turns out to be Qatar, a country known for walking the line between American ally and seeming co-conspirator with countries and causes at odds with our national interests. When the fact that talks were on the agenda became public knowledge, it came as a surprise to the U.S.-recognized (although to call it democratically elected would be a stretch) government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If the Administration is going to strike a deal with the Taliban and exclude the Karzai government from the process, the chances that the current "democracy" in Afghanistan will survive are low.

As we heard about the talks in Qatar, there were rumors - again later confirmed by the Defense Department and the State Department - that the United States was considering the release of five top Taliban officials currently in American custody at Guantanamo as a "confidence-building" gesture to the Taliban. Building confidence in what - the Administration's naiveté and gullibility? When have the Taliban lived up to any agreement?

Not to worry - spokesmen for the Administration declared that any release of Guantanamo detainees would be in compliance with the recent defense authorization act that requires that the Administration certify that any detainees released would no longer pose a threat to the United States. It is hard to imagine how these five can be declared to not be a threat. The government's record on recidivism in regard to previously released Guantanamo detainees is abysmal.

Regardless of the logic against it, the government is making preparations to move the five to an undisclosed country in the Gulf region - you can assume it will be Qatar. It's the first step in their release, blatantly disregarding Congressional mandates, clear threats to national security, and basic common sense. I thought this Administration had already defined new limits of American naiveté, but this goes beyond even that.

Here's a thought that may not have crossed Mr. Biden's mind. There is an American soldier who has been held by the Haqqani network of the Taliban for almost three years. Is the fate of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl part of the "confidence building" measures between the United States and the Taliban? If not, why not? Surely we are going to demand something from the Taliban other then oft-made and never-kept commitments? If you are going to be foolish enough to enter into talks with the Taliban, shouldn't you at least get something out before you hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban?

Then we come to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's description of our strategy in Afghanistan, a description that includes a schedule of when we are going to cease combat operations, the number of troops we plan to withdraw and when we remove all of our troops from Afghanistan. This is exactly the same thing committed to by the Bush Administration in Iraq and foolishly executed by the Obama Administration. Is there no adult leadership left at the Pentagon?

Panetta said that American and other international forces in Afghanistan plan to end their combat operations in the country next year, transitioning to a "training, advise and assist" role with Afghan forces until the end of 2014. Curious that both the announcement and timeline coincide with the upcoming presidential election, allowing President Obama to campaign on ending yet another war. If I was him, I would be careful trying to tout his premature withdrawal from Iraq as a success story - every day there is an increase in the violence in the country. Could politics be driving Panetta's announcement?

The bottom line here is that what the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense are doing is to cause the very thing they claim "becomes a problem for us." Biden's words again: "If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us." This current course of action will lead to exactly that - the Taliban will take over Afghanistan in 2014 as soon as the last American troops leave.

Have we learned nothing from Iraq?