September 27, 2004

Israeli Assassination of Hamas Leader in Syria

The Israeli killing of 'Iz Al-Din Subhi Shaykh Khalil in Damascus is noteworthy and is not getting the attention in the media I would have given it. Israel has in the past only very infrequently conducted anti-Palestinian operations inside Syria's borders.

In October 2003, the Israelis conducted an airstrike against a Palestinian camp northwest of Damascus, called 'Ayn Sahab. When I was stationed at the American embassy in Syria, 'Ayn Sahab was thought to be a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC, led by Ahmad Jibril) facility. We were told to avoid it as they had detained the Defense attache a few years earlier. After about twelve tense hours, the Syrians ordered his release.

The Israelis claimed that the camp was used by the PIJ, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That attack was in response to a female suicide bomber operation at a restaurant in Haifa. Over the years, we have seen aggressive anti-Palestinian operations (assassinations) in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon and even in Jordan, but Syria has generally been off limits. Following the double suicide bombings in Beersheba a few weeks ago claimed by Hamas, the Israelis said they might retaliate against Syria for allowing Hamas to maintain offices in Damascus. This caused many of the Hamas leaders resident in Damascus to take trips to other countries, fearing another airstrike. The Israelis bobby-trapped Khalil's car outside his residence in the Musakin Al-Zahra' section of Damascus. I used to drive through this area all the time - it is on the way to the airport, and immediately adjacent to the sprawling Al-Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp - "camp" is merely a word here - it is really now a built-up city. The ability of the Israelis to mount an operation in this rather up-scale Palestinian leadership enclave is impressive. Not only did they have the intelligence - although Khalil was not exactly hiding where he lived, they were able to either move people in or recruit someone in country to rig the car.

Not bad. That said, what will the Syrians do? Probably nothing - they would like the Palestinian issue to go away. What they really want is the Golan Heights back and the ability to influence events in Lebanon. What will Hamas do? More violence. They have threatened to retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world, but they really have limited capabilities outside the territories and possibly inside Israel.

September 4, 2004

Afghanistan - Define the U.S. National Interest

As we approach the election in Afghanistan, it is instructive to remember some history. Afghanistan is a tribal society traditionally ruled by local warlords, each with his own militia. The British attempted to expand their empire into this region in the 19th century - they never really were able to subdue the Afghans. The edge of the empire never really extended past the Khyber Pass on the present border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Soviets attempted to quell the country between 1979 and 1989. Although they were able to impose a government, politics of the Cold War prevailed and American support for the mujahidin led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country. Once again the country returned to its traditional tribal/warloard structure.

The Taliban takeover of the country was an anomaly. Created by the Pakistani Interservice Intelligence Directorate (ISID) from Afghan refugees in Pakistan initially to protect Pakistani commercial convoys through Afghanistan, they became popular in Afghanistan as a counterbalance to the perceived corruption of the warlords. Eventually, the Taliban grew and were able to seize power. The Taliban's support of Usamah bin Ladin and his Al-Qa'idah organization - originally a group of Arabs who had fought alongside the Afghan mujahidin against the Soviets (sometimes referred to as the "Afghan Arabs") - eventually led to its demise. Afghanistan had become the main training and staging area for Al-Qa'idah operations, including the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Faced with American demands to hand over Usamah bin Ladin, the Taliban refused. The subsequent American and Northern Alliance (a group of anti-Taliban Afghans - many say merely displaced warlord militias) removed the Taliban and destroyed much of Al-Qa'idah's leadership in the country

My position on Afghanistan: Go in (done), remove the Taliban from power (done), destroy Al-Qa'idah (in progress), warn whoever picked up the pieces that we won't tolerate resurgence of Al-Qa'idah, and get out.

Anyone who reads the British experience in the 19th century and the Soviet experience in the 1980s should conclude, as I have, that it is truly the no-win capital of the world. I mean, anyplace whose national sport is fighting over a calf or goat carcass. Here is a passage on buzkashi:

Traditionally, a calf is beheaded, the legs are cut off at the knee and its entrails are removed. The carcass of the calf is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough to withstand the tugging that takes place. When there is no calf available, a goat is used instead. Winners are awarded prizes of turbans, cash or rifles. According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass to his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf. Likewise, tripping an opponent by using the rope is forbidden. Buzkashi continues until a team is announced the winner.

Back to the point:

If there is no Al-Qa'idah in Afghanistan - even if there is the Taliban but no Al-Qa'idah - please define the U.S. national interest in involvement there. I can't.