December 30, 2004

Iraq: Elections and Violence

Elections in Iraq are set for January 30, 2005. It appears that date is virtually set in stone. As that date approaches, the level of violence has increased. If you follow the media, you could get the impression that the country is awash in violence. That is not the case - the violence is limited primarily to the area defined in the press as the "Sunni triangle," the area between Baghdad, Mosul and western Anbar province. This are includes the trouble spots of Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra' and Ba'qubah.

Some media pundits have posited the theory that the violence is tied to the elections and that successful elections will result in a lower level of violence. I agree that the violence is tied to the elections, however, I do not believe that the magic date of January 30 had any influence on the level of violence. The perpetrators of the violence fall into two categories: Iraqis from the former regime or sympathizers, and a group of fundamentalist Muslims, some Iraqi and some foreign, under the leadership of Al-Qa'idah affiliate Abu Musa'ib Az-Zarqawi.

Neither of these groups want the elections to occur. They have increased the level of violence, primarily in the Sunni triangle, but also including attacks in the Shi'a holy city of An-Najaf. These attacks are aimed at intimidating the Sunnis from voting, and in the case of the attack in An-Najaf, to spark sectarian divisions among the diverse groups that make up Iraq to prevent a new government from being effective.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections in January - and by all accounts it appears that they will take place on schedule - the violence will not decrease. The targets of the violence may shift to those newly elected representatives, but the reasons for the insurgents to attack will remain. They do not want the establishment of a representative government in the country. For the secular Ba'this, it formalizes and institutionalizes their fall from power that began with the American invasion in March 2003. For the Al-Qa'idah sympathizers, it creates a secular state that flies in the face of their dream of a fundamentalist Sunni Islamic state.

The elections will exacerbate the violence, not lessen it. The only thing that will lessen the violence is the eradication of those perpetrating it. Appeals for inclusion of offers of amnesty are a waste of time. The insurgents have to be hunted down and killed.

December 20, 2004

Saudi Arabia – The Next Target for Al-Qa’idah?

Al-Qa’idah leader Usamah Bin Ladin released another audiotape that appeared on an Islamic fundamentalist website on December 16. Much of the threats on the tape were leveled at the Saudi royal family, as well as Americans in the kingdom and oil facilities.

Saudi Arabia does not need threats from Usamah Bin Ladin – it has plenty of problems already. There are several external organizations calling for the overthrow of the royal family and the institution of a representative government. Although the United States is calling for more representative governments in the region – such as in Afghanistan and Iraq – they back the Saudi rulers.

The situation is almost reminiscent of Iran in the mid-1970’s. Many of the same factors that resulted in the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 exist or are developing in Saudi Arabia today. If you look at the Saudi population – the Saudis, not the vast numbers of foreigners working in the kingdom – you find a host of well educated (many in the finest American and European universities) young men with limited job opportunities. The wealth of the country rests with and is controlled by the royal family.

These same youth, having been exposed to Western democracies, see that they have no input to their political system. Educated, underemployed and with no political voice, they are ripe for recruitment by organizations that call for change. Many turn to their religion for a solution. This is ready made for a fundamentalist charismatic leader to arise. Enter Usamah Bin Ladin.

If the Saudi royal family does not address these pressures, they likely will find increased internal opposition that might lead to their overthrow. In the last year, since the attack on a housing compound in Riyadh, they have begun to track down Al-Qa’idah affiliated terrorists. This represents a change in Saudi attitude – they were willing to turn a blind eye as long as there were no attacks in the kingdom. Closely linked to this crackdown is an effort to change the traditional madrasah system in which young boys are indoctrinated into a fanatical, intolerant brand of Islam. The U.S. State Department had a program where American educators were working with Saudi Ministry of Education to review the curriculum. Although the Saudi government (read: royal family) buys into it, the people don't. The program was made public and the American administrators identities published on the internet on an Al-Qa'idah website - they had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

What effect will the threats from Bin Ladin have on the Saudis? It might cause them to work closer with the United States against the Al-Qa’idah organization.

December 15, 2004

The Arabic Language – Making Things Difficult

The Arabic language is difficult – ask anyone who has tried to learn it. The United States government categorizes languages on the degree of difficulty for a native speaker of English to gain practical fluency. Category four is the most difficult; there are four of them. They are Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Al-lawghat al-‘arabiyah

Arabic is a Semitic language, as is Hebrew and Maltese. These languages are derived from the Aramaic language, believed to be the language spoken by Jesus Christ. Arabic is spoken by almost 250 million people and is the (or one) official language of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

That said, the local dialects of Arabic can be quite different from place to place, country to country. The Arabic spoken in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – the Maghrebi dialect – is heavily influenced by French and Berber. Egyptian dialect is quite distinct, but is widely understood since Cairo is home to the major Arabic film and television studios. Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese speak the Levantine dialect, which is markedly softer than the guttural sounds of the Gulf Arabic. Unless people from one end of the Arab speaking world converse in Modern Standard Arabic (the written language), they run the risk of being either misunderstood or not understood at all.

Arabic is also the language of Islam. The Islamic holy book, the Quran, is written in Arabic and is believed to be only fully understood in that language. As such, the Quran is usually not translated into other languages – explanations in other languages are common, but the text is always rendered in Arabic. For that reason, classical Arabic is widely understood by many of the world’s almost one billion Muslims.

The Arabic alphabet – another problem

In addition to being a difficult language, the Arabic alphabet creates its own set of problems. The writing system consists of 28 consonants; the three vowels are not normally written. As with Hebrew and the other languages that use the basic Arabic alphabet (Persian, Urdu, Malay, etc.), the script is written from right to left.

The problem is how to properly transliterate the Arabic script. Although there is only one correct spelling in Arabic, converting it to something readable in Latin letters can be confusing. For example, is it Saddam Hussein or Saddam Husayn? Technically, neither can be incorrect since the actual spelling is the Arabic letters Hah Sin Yah Nun. Most media are using the transliteration Hussein, although Husayn is closer to the Arabic script.

The United States intelligence community is required to use a standardized system, especially in the era of computerized databases that require specific letters. That system is the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) transliteration system developed jointly with the government of the United Kingdom.

An example of the consequences of not adhering to the system is the U.S. Army destruction of an Iraq munitions storage depot in the days immediately following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Operating under orders to destroy all Iraqi military facilities in the area under coalition control, Army officers checked the databases to determine if the Al-Khamisiyah depot was used to store chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the records indicating that artillery shells filled with the nerve agent Sarin were stored at Al-Khamisiyah were filed under a different – and non-BGN – transliteration. When the facility was blown up, American forces were exposed to low levels of the nerve agent.

Arabic language expertise will continue to be a problem. It is not widely taught in the United States, but there is an increasing need. Immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued an urgent appeal for American citizens with Arabic language ability.

It will continue to be a major problem in the war on terrorism since the majority of the terrorists speak Arabic.

December 13, 2004

Iraq - Thoughts on the Insurgency

I would like to see the mission in Iraq better defined. The administration has always claimed Operation Iraqi Freedom to be part of the global war on terrorism. I am in the camp that they were two separate things. I had no problem with the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Husayn (I have a personal interest in that) - he was a menace and a potential threat, not necessarily to the United States proper, but a threat to American interests in the region. I would have like to have waited a bit longer before committing troops, but that option was fast fading as the United Nations would have lifted sanctions on Iraq in the near future. Iraq without sanctions, Saddam with $23 billion in illegal oil revenue from one UN program in addition to what the Iraqis were making elsewhere, dormant but revivable weapons programs - I maintain he was a threat, about to be let out of his box.

As long as we are dependent on fossil fuels and the Middle East is the major producer of this fungible commodity (where we buy our oil day to day is meaningless), anyone with the ability to threaten Saudi Arabia is a threat to American interests. Jimmy Carter, in his 1980 State of the Union address said, "Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America. And such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." So, the bottom line is that I am in the camp that believes our interest in Iraq ultimately is oil - the Carter Doctrine. I believe that when Carter said "Persian Gulf region" he really meant Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s when I worked for the DIO for the Middle East, all of the planning was about Saudi Arabia. Imagine our surprise in 1990 when President Bush said we were going to liberate Kuwait....

So what was the mission? Bring democracy to Iraq? We should have stuck with the original plan that had been government policy since 1995 covertly and since 1998 overtly - remove Saddam and turn the country over to someone we could deal with. Was that person a Jeffersonian democrat? Just like those we support in other Arab states - let's just use Saudi Arabia for one, and the 'Amir of Kuwait that we reinstalled in the palace there for another.

Does the insurgency in Iraq have the potential to exacerbate the threat of terrorism? Excellent question, one that I do not have an answer for - and wish I did, because it comes up all the time, and I have to tap dance my way out of it. It certainly has brought more of the terrorists into proximity of US forces. There is a bounty being paid to Syrians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians, even Chechens to go to Iraq to kill Americans for as little as $50. One could argue that as long as they are going to Iraq, they are not coming here. I would tend to dismiss that argument. I think the people that will mount operations in the United States and the people that will volunteer to go to Iraq are probably from different pools. It has to be a diversion for Al-Qa'idah, but I am unsure as to the extent. I wonder most about the funding. As I always say in my presentations, successful insurgencies - yes, including the ones I tried to mount - require three things: weapons, training and MONEY. Who is funding the insurgency operations in Iraq? If it is Saddam loyalists with access to the unaccounted for Saddam money (including the $23 billion oil for food money) rather than coming from the main Al-Qa'idah coffers, then it will have little to no effect on Al-Qa'idah's ability to mount an attack in the United States. If money from Saudi patrons - and anyone who thinks that source has dried up I think is delusional or actually believes 'Adil Al-Jabir when he moves his lips - is being used in Iraq, then it is diverting resources from the larger Al-Qa'idah.

I would assess the insurgency in Iraq as moderately successful, but only in the Sunni triangle. I believe that for most Sunnis, and I go back to my Iraqi contact there who believes that 90 percent of the people favor - but that does not mean overtly support - the coalition's and interim government's efforts to establish a representative government.

I believe what is happening more often than not in the Sunni triangle is what some call acquiescence of the local population. I agree, but I might define it as the "intimidation" of the local population. The local population is afraid that overt support for the efforts of the coalition or interim government will lead to reprisals against them or their families. This is good reason to be afraid - the security situation in the triangle is tenuous at best. Most of the violence we see now is directed at Iraqis.

The insurgents have learned the hard way that you cannot engage the Americans in a fight. Guerrilla tactics are the only effective way to deal with these forces. The insurgents believe that constant low-level attacks will eventually be effective if they can continue to isolate the coalition from the population and outlast American resolve - I do not mean the resolve of the American military, but of American public opinion. Most Iraqis are not sure we are going to stick this out - they do not want to be holding the bag of we leave. I call them "fence-sitters." They are waiting to see who is going to be the apparent winner before giving their support.

Now, let's contrast the situation in the Sunni area with that in the north and south, where the insurgency has not been effective. In the south, there was the aberration of the Muqtada Al-Sadr uprising, but note that this was effectively ended by Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani's intervention. That intervention via his moral authority ended any support for the insurgency. At one point, we saw local militias engaging Muqtada Al-Sadr's Jaysh Al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army). No local population support, no successful insurgency.

In the north, there is no local support in the Kurdish areas. In fact, the security situation there has been fairly good for over 12 years. The only successful insurgent attacks in the Kurdish area occur in Mosul (Al-Mawsil), which is not really a Kurdish city - it's about half Sunni Arab; Kirkuk, which is made up of Kurds, Turkomen and Sunni Arabs (but the Kurds believe it to be their capital); and at times in Irbil/Arbil. The violence in Irbil is normally directed at the Kurdish autonomous government offices - part of the interim government. These three cities are on the dividing line between Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas and are easy venues to conduct operations. You don't see insurgents operating in Sulaymaniyah, attacking the electrical grid at Darbandikhan, or any other cities up there. I doubt that you will. The Kurds, unlike the Sunni Arabs, overtly support the efforts of the interim government - after all, that interim government has committed to their de facto autonomy. Also, Arabs stick out like sore thumbs up north. If you can't speak Kurdish, you better have a good reason to be there.

Speaking of the Kurds, I would be integrating more of the peshmerga into counterinsurgency operations. They are capable, excellent guerrilla fighters, and can tell good guys from bad guys. Of course, to them, Arabs in general are bad guys....

December 11, 2004

Iraq - January 2005 Elections Update

This is copy of an interview I gave recently:

Q. Iraq’s elections are scheduled to take place on January 30, 2005. Given the level of violence in the country, is that realistic?

A. Security is indeed the major issue at this time. There is no doubt that the security situation has deteriorated since the announcement of the elections, and the current situation appears to limit Sunni participation in the vote. Most of the violence in the country is in the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” Limited Sunni participation will result in overwhelming Shi’a majority (the Shi’a will have a majority in any case by virtue of their numbers) and a substantial Kurdish presence in the new national assembly. An election under these circumstances will probably be regarded as illegitimate, both inside and outside the country.

The reality of a potential limited Sunni voice spurred representatives of as many as 17 political parties, including the two major Kurdish parties, to meet with highly-respected Iraqi statesman 'Adnan Pachachi (Al-Bajah Ji) and sign a petition calling for a six-month postponement of the elections. Interestingly, there were at least three sitting ministers of the interim Iraqi government present, as well as members of interim prime minister Iyad ‘Alawi’s party, the Iraq National Accord.

The Sunnis have reason to be concerned. There are two factors at work here: the boycott of the electoral process demanded by many Sunni clerics, and the deteriorating security situation in the Sunni areas of the country. The concern is that the Sunni population will either comply with the clerics’ demands for a boycott and not exercise their right to vote, or will be unable or unwilling to vote because of the precarious security situation. In either case, they will be handing the Shi’a an overwhelming majority.

To bolster security for the elections, the United States will increase its troop strength in Iraq to 150,000. How the Defense Department is going to do this raises some eyebrows. In addition to extending the rotation date of some troops already in Iraq, the Pentagon will deploy two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division’s “ready brigade” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The ready brigade is maintained on standby for immediate deployment anywhere in the world if necessary. Use of this resource indicates two things: the United States believes the security situation requires deployment of emergency forces, and that there are few if any other troops available for deployment to Iraq.

Q. Why doesn’t the Iraqi government want to postpone the elections?
A. Several reasons, not the least of which is legal. The interim Iraqi constitution and the United Nations resolution that approved that document both call for elections to be held no later than January 2005. There is no provision for postponing them beyond that date. Beyond the legal reasons, however, there is a practical reason – the Shi’a majority opposes it. This is a major consideration.

The moral leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, agreed to the elections, in fact, wanted them earlier than January. He believes – and I think rightly – that that the Shi'a will dominate the resulting government, given their over 60 percent majority of the population. The Shi’a have been aggressively registering voters – including a real effort to register women voters - in anticipation of a vote that validates their majority status and turns it into true political power. The Shi’a have always been the “poor stepchildren” in Iraqi politics. That is about to change.

Additionally, interim prime minister Iyad ‘Alawi is reluctant to postpone the elections, as he believes doing so will provide a victory of sorts to the insurgents. He is joined in that opinion by interim Iraqi president Shaykh Ghazi Al-Yawar and American president George W. Bush. For that reason, the elections will likely be held on schedule regardless of the security situation.

Q. If legally possible, should the elections be postponed?

A. In my opinion, postponing the elections sounds like a prudent course of action. It would give coalition forces more time to battle the insurgents and improve the security situation, and the government will be able to put more trained security forces on the street to insure protection of polling places. If a postponement leads to increased participation in the elections, the resulting government will be more representative and likely more accepted. Perceived legitimacy of the new government will be critical.

Combined with the participation of ‘Adnan Pachachi, the agreement of the Kurdish parties in calling for a postponement is significant. The Kurds, staunch allies of the U.S. administration, represent a bit over 20 percent of the population. They too are wary of Shi'a domination and may be entering a tactical alliance with the Sunni Arabs to create a counterbalance to the Shi’a. In possibly related incidents, two Sunni clerics that support a boycott of the elections have been murdered in the northern city of Mosul (Al-Mawsil). This may signify an increasing divide in the Sunni community. Reality may be setting in - senior Sunnis are beginning to realize that there will be elections, elections which will determine the shape of the new government. Failure to participate in the process means marginalization and virtual abdication to the Shi'a majority.
Q. The Shi’a seem to be the inevitable winners in the elections. What does that mean for the country?

A. It is estimated that as many as 14 million Iraqis will be eligible to vote on January 30. The elections will determine 275 seats in the new Iraqi assembly. These seats are not allocated by geographic region, religious affiliation, political party, etc. Iraqi buy-in for the electoral process, particularly in the Shi’a and Kurdish communities is interesting.

There are 233 political “entities” that have put forth candidates for election. These entities have put forth over 600 candidates for the 275 seats. The Kurds have put forth a unified candidate list, and the Shi’a have a proposed list of candidates from a coalition backed by Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the United Iraqi Alliance. This alliance includes candidates from the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Dawa’ (Call) Party, the Iraqi National Congress (the party of Ahmad Chalabi) and followers of cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The ascendance of Shi’a political power is not without concern on the part of the United States. Will the Shi’a strive to form a government akin to the Islamic republic in neighboring Iraq? Although Ayatollah Al-Sistani has stated he does not favor the establishment of such a religious based government, there will definitely be a Muslim character.

Q. Will the level of violence decrease after the elections?

A. The level of violence will decrease when the insurgency is defeated. It will be defeated when the majority of the Iraqi people begin to participate in their own security. Right now, they are not sure if the interim government, or the government to be elected in January, is going to survive. Once they are convinced of that – and successful elections will help, they will stop tolerating the insurgents in their midst.

Until then, the level of violence will likely remain the same.