December 31, 2006

The Burial of Saddam Husayn

(This is the final version)

Following his execution on December 30, the remains of Saddam Husayn were turned over to the shaykh of the Albu Nasir tribe. The shaykh was moved by American military aircraft from Tikrit to Baghdad where he took custody of the body for return to Saddam's family burial plot in 'Awja, the village of his birth located about eight miles east of the city of Tikrit.

A funeral service was be held at the burial site on the morning of December 31. Following that, Saddam will be laid to rest about two miles from the graves of his two sons, 'Uday and Qusay, killed by U.S. forces in a gun battle in Mosul in July 2003. The location of the sons' graves are well-known, but are not marked. To ensure that no memorials are erected by supporters, or that the bodies are not desecrated by others, the area is patrolled regularly by American troops.

The movement of Saddam's remains to 'Awja are in direct contradiction of the wishes of Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghda (age 39). She wanted the remains moved to Yemen for temporary burial until Iraq is "liberated." After she realized that was not going to be permitted, the family, acting in accordance with Saddam's last will and testament, asked that he be buried in Ar-Ramadi, a town known for its high level of insurgent activity. According to the family, Saddam had indicated that he wanted to be buried in 'Awja or Ar-Ramadi.

Why was Saddam's tribal shaykh moved by the U.S. military, why was Saddam afforded a funeral, and why were his daughter's wishes ignored?

I suspect that prior to the signing of the execution warrant (see photo), a deal was struck between Prime Minister Al-Maliki and senior Sunni political leaders (possibly Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, regarded as a moderate) that a funeral would be permitted and the remains would be transported to 'Awja for burial. This is unlike the treatment afforded the remains of Al-Qa'idah in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi who is buried in an unmarked grave in an undisclosed location.

A deal such as this might have been an attempt to assuage the anger and humiliation of Sunni politicians, many of whom regard the entire trial, sentencing and appeal process as rigged by the Americans and rushed to execution by the Shi'a-dominated government.

On a trivia note, the flag used to cover the coffin is the Saddam era flag. The green script between the three stars are the Arabic words allahu akbar (God is great). The two words were added by Saddam following his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 after he realized that he was facing a multinational military force intent on removing his forces from Kuwait. The addition of the Islamic phrase was an attempt to wrap his regime and actions in the mantle of Islam. On the original "Saddam flag," the words appear in script said to be Saddam's handwriting. The current Iraqi flag retains the phrase, but in a different font.

December 30, 2006

After Saddam’s execution, outlook for Iraq grim

This analysis appears on, and is an update of an earlier piece I wrote (The coming month in Iraq).

After Saddam’s execution, outlook for Iraq grim
If Bush sends additional troops, their mission must be clearly spelled out

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst
Updated: 10:10 p.m. ET Dec 29, 2006

(Read the article on the site)

December 29, 2006

A personal note on the execution of Saddam Husayn

I wrote this piece for the MSNBC Hardball "Hardblogger." It was teased on the NBC Nightly News blog:

It's not usual for us to send readers to other blogs -- sisterly or not -- on such a regular basis, but this is a fantastic read from Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a regular Hardblogger contributor and former CIA operative. In this piece, Francona writes about his covert work in 1996 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Three sons of an Iraqi general Francona was working with were captured and killed, so the execution of Hussein has very personal meaning for him.

(link to article)

Saddam Hussein’s rule affected virtually everyone in Iraq. Everyone has a story.

Here’s mine:

In 1995 and 1996, I was involved in the CIA’s covert operations to overthrow Saddam Hussein, operating from several Middle East countries bordering Iraq, as well as inside the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq itself. One of these operations was to support of the Iraq National Accord (INA) under Dr. Iyad Alawi. One of Alawi’s key colleagues was a retired Iraqi military officer, General Muhammad Abdullah Al-Shahwani. Al-Shawani had relocated outside Iraq, but his three sons were serving in the Iraqi Army Republican Guard.

General Al-Shahwani was in contact with his sons and others in the Iraqi military; together they planned a coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein. By mid-1996, we believed that a coup had a chance of success. We began the infiltration of Iraqi agents we had recruited and trained to support the coup attempt.

Unfortunately, one of the agents was detected inside Iraq. Under severe interrogation, he revealed what information he knew and the whole operation was compromised. Iraqi security officials arrested virtually everyone involved in the coup attempt; most were executed.

As part of the team working directly with Al-Shahwani, I spent a lot of time at his home. I was with the general and his wife when word came that their three sons had been arrested. I was with them when one of their sons was allowed to make a phone call to his mother just prior to his execution.

I told Mrs. Al-Shahwani that someday Saddam would pay for his crimes. Finally, that day is here.

December 28, 2006

The coming month in Iraq

AP PhotoThe caption that accompanies the AP photo to the left reads, "Iraqi children pass by a vandalized mural of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn in Tikrit."

The word "vandalized" would indicate that the graffiti would be negative. However, the spray-painted Arabic actually reads, "Long live Saddam and the Ba'th (party)."

The graffiti underscores the divisions in the country - the upcoming execution of Saddam Husayn will only exacerbate the sectarian and ethnic violence taking place mostly in Baghdad. It also has the potential to unleash a wave of Sunni violence in the Sunni Triangle, in those cities now well known as hotbeds of insurgency - Ba'qubah, Ar-Ramadi, Al-Fallujah, Samarra', Tikrit, etc.

As Saddam faces execution - his death by hanging is mandated to take place within 30 days of the denial of his appeal, or no later than January 25, 2007 - many analysts (this one included) are concerned about the convergence of events that will occur next month.

In addition to the upcoming execution of Saddam Husayn, there is the ongoing deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade from Fort Bragg to Kuwait to become the theater reserve for U.S. forces in Iraq. The previous theater reserve, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was deployed to the Al-Anbar province in November. The 2nd Brigade is the 82nd's "ready brigade," the brigade currently on standby duty for rapid deployment as needed. The initial battalion should be in place in 24 hours from deployment order. The fact that the ready brigade is being deployed indicates just how stretched the Army and Marines have become.

The deployment of the 2nd Brigade, totally about 3,500 troops, is probably the first of the expected increase in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. In January, President Bush will unveil his plan for the "change of course" in Iraq. I believe that the decision has already been made that there will be an increase the number of troops, although the exact numbers may not be as high as five brigades (about 20,000 troops). It is interesting that the same generals who in the past claimed they did not need more troops, now do. I say that because the situation - the sectarian violence or civil war, depending on your perspective - has not significantly changed since the
February 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari/'Abd Al-Hadi mosque in Samarra' that caused the escalation.

If there is going to be an increase in the number of troops, it is important that the President spell out exactly what their mission will be. Will they be dispatched to Al-Anbar or the Sunni Triangle to quell the Sunni insurgency (Ba'this and Al-Qaidah in Iraq, among others), or will they be sent to neutralize the Shi'a militia (especially the jaysh al-mahdi of Muqtada Al-Sadr), or will they provide a security cordon around Baghdad in support of Iraqi security forces who will try to stop the sectarian violence in the city, or perhaps they will be used to bolster Iraqi forces attempting to seal the porous borders with Iran and Syria, the infiltration routes for explosives and fighters?

Dispatching additional troops to the Sunni areas does not appear to be necessary. American special operations forces are having great success against the insurgents in Al-Anbar province, as are regular Iraqi and American forces throughout the Sunni areas. Every day, these units conduct "cordon and search" operations against suspected insurgents, terrorists, and general lawbreakers - and are usually successful in apprehending either the primary or secondary targets. Suspects are usually turned over to the Iraqi police, however the vagaries of the Iraqi justice system results in many detainees being released by Iraqi judges for unknown reasons, although it is suspected that ethnicity and religious affiliation come into play. This is aggravating when American troops are killed or wounded in action daily in these operations.

Recent assessments by senior U.S. officers indicate that the civil war between the Sunni and Shi'a is the major problem, and that problem is centered in Baghdad. Baghdad is the key - if the security situation in Baghdad cannot be resolved, progress in the remainder of the country is moot. Ultimately, this needs to be an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem, but that cannot happen until the security situation is addressed.

The Iraqi government, and by this I mean Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, has to eliminate the Shi'a militias, especially Al-Sadr's. This will be difficult because of the close - perhaps too close - relationship between Al-Maliki and Al-Sadr. If Al-Maliki is unwilling to, or incapable of, ordering his forces to disband Al-Sadr's militia - and possibly arrest Al-Sadr for complicity in the 2003 murder of Imam 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Khu'i - then the Iraqis need to seriously consider a change of leadership.

January will certainly be an interesting month.

December 27, 2006

Israeli Intelligence Agencies - Two Views of Syria

Israel, like most countries, has more than one foreign intelligence service - the United States has five "pure" intelligence agencies as well as 10 services that are parts of larger organizations. In Israel, there is Aman (military intelligence) and Mossad (the civilian service, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations). Aman would equate to a combination of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, plus elements of the nascent Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Mossad is more closely analogous to the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Operations.

Given the makeup of the Israeli intelligence community, the senior service, unlike most Western countries, is the military intelligence service, as opposed to the civilian intelligence service. It is Aman's Research Department that is responsible for preparing Israel's national intelligence assessments (similar to a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate).

Aman Signals Intelligence Site
Har Avital, Golan Heights
In recent weeks, the two Israeli services have produced conflicting assessments of current events in Syria. The chief of the Aman Research Department, the senior analytical officer in the intelligence community, assessed that Syria's Bashar Al-Asad was serious about resuming negotiations with Israel. Of course, the price for any agreement with Israeli will include the return of the occupied Golan Heights, seized by Israeli forces in 1967 and administratively annexed by Israel in 1981.

Although most Israeli politicians realize that if they ever want peace with Syria, they are going to have to return the land to Syria. Popular opinion in Israel, however, is overwhelmingly in favor of not returning the territory. I recently traveled through the Golan - Israel has built so much infrastructure that it will be difficult to return the area.

At the same time Aman's report was being briefed to the Knesset, the director of Mossad said almost the exact opposite - despite Al-Asad's public statements, the Syrian leader was not serious about returning to the negotiating table. Mossad's director believes the statements are merely for public consumption to deflect increasing world attention to Syrian designs on Lebanon and its close ties with Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that renewed talks with Syria would first require that Damascus stop allowing Iran to rearm and resupply Hizballah via Syrian territory, and stop support for Hamas, whose political leadership is headquartered in Damascus.

So, who does Olmert listen to?

December 26, 2006

Iran and Declining Oil Revenues

Despite some misconceptions in today's news reports, Iran is not running out of oil - they have between 131 and 138 billion barrels of proved oil reserves, depending on what source you use. However, their revenues from oil exports are in decline, by as much as 10 percent per year.

There are several reasons for this decline, mostly of the government's own making. Over the last few years, they have been pouring immense amounts of money into weapons programs, both conventional and nuclear. These programs include longer range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, high-speed torpedoes, naval combatants, etc., in addition to the now famous nuclear weapons program. All these research and development programs are expensive. Money needed for improvements in the oil sector are being diverted to these programs. Iran responds that U.S. sanctions that punish companies that deal with Iran hurt their ability to spend money on the oil sector.

Other factors impacting Iran's oils exports are domestic demand and lack of refining capability. Domestic demand is skyrocketing, cutting into the amount of oil that can be exported. Iran does not refine enough gasoline and diesel to satisfy domestic requirements - about 40 percent of it must be imported.

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737 may not be strong, but if Iran does not comply by suspending uranium enrichment, more stringent sanctions are likely to follow. This will only exacerbate the declining oil revenue situation.

Many analysts believe that the declining revenues, sanctions, internal political unrest and rampant poverty in a country with the second largest oil reserves in the world will bring about internal regime change if left alone. The problem is the time line. It may take five years for these issues to come to a head. Iran may have a deliverable nuclear weapon in less that three years. Is the world willing to wait?

Saddam Husayn - The End is Near

Saddam Husayn has exhausted the appeals of his death sentence. An Iraqi appeals court upheld the death sentences for Saddam, former head of the dreaded Iraqi Intelligence Service (al-mukhabarat) Barzan Al-Tikriti (Saddam's half brother) and former revolutionary court judge 'Awad Ahmad Al-Bandar.

According to Iraqi law, the judicial process for this case is complete. The three, along with three other defendants, were found guilty of crimes against humanity. The specific crimes were the deaths of almost 150 Shi'a Iraqis in the village of Al-Dujayl after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam. Since crimes against humanity are international crimes, the verdict is not subject to presidential pardon.

Iraqi law is very specific on carrying out the sentence. The three must be executed by hanging within 30 days, after the sentence is ratified by the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. Talabani is personally opposed to the death penalty, so will have one of the vice-presidents ratify the sentence. The sentence is to be carried out regardless of other ongoing judicial proceedings - the current trial for crimes against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign should not interfere with the executions. Iraqi officials have stated in the past that they want to continue the series of trials against Saddam in order to make sure all of his misdeeds are made public.

Saddam has asked that he be executed by firing squad, but Iraqi law again is specific - executions are by hanging. Although there were calls for it to be done in public, security concerns will likely force it to be a private procedure on an American compound. No doubt the execution will further inflame the Sunnis and may lead to increased violence directed at American and Iraqi forces, as well as the general Shi'a population. That said, it needs to be done.

Several human rights, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticized the judicial process of the trial, as well as the death sentence. Where were they when Saddam was killing 400,000 Iraqis?

December 25, 2006

Iran - still part of the problem

One of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group (See my Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem) is to engage both Iran and Syria to develop a new strategy for Iraq. It is no secret that I have always viewed Iran and Syria as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The New York Times reported today that at least six Iranians have been detained in Iraq as the result of raids by American forces (read story). Two of those initially detained turned out to be Iranian diplomats in Baghdad at the invitation of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. Talabani, a Kurd, has longstanding ties to Tehran. The two diplomats were released, but at least four other Iranians, described by American authorities as senior military officers, remain in U.S. custody. Iraqi and Iranian officials are pressing the Americans to release the four.

Talabani was understandably unhappy with the detention of the two diplomats, but that issue seems to have been resolved. Other Iraqi officials are upset because at least one of the raids occurred on the compound of 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim, leader of the Shi'a Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its associated militia, the Badr Corps. Al-Hakim was recently in the United States for a meeting with President Bush.

The raids highlight several issues. First, there is the issue of Iranian involvement. While relations between Iran and Iraq are inevitable - they share a long border and a history of conflict. They also share majority Shi'a populations. With a majority Shi'a government in Baghdad, those relations will naturally improve, but the United States must ensure that the relationship does not jeopardize American interests in the region.

Secondly, the government of Nuri Al-Maliki must address the issue of the Shi'a militias, both the jaysh al-mahdi (the Mahdi Army) of Muqtada Al-Sadr and SCIRI Badr Corps. If he is unwilling or incapable of doing this, he has to go. Thus far, he has not shown either. As long as the militias continue to operate with tacit government permission, the civil war between Shi'a and Sunni will continue unabated - with American forces often caught between the opposing sides.

Thirdly, the Iraqi government needs to get over this indignation when American forces conduct raids in Shi'a areas. Whose side are they on?

Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs is nothing new. It was the Iranians who sparked the 1991 Shi'a rebellion in southern Iraq against the Saddam Husayn regime in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Immediately after the withdrawal of American forces from southern Iraq, Iraqi soldiers detected the infiltration of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force members. It was these Iranians who convinced their fellow Shi'a to rise up against Saddam, with disastrous results.

Over the last two years, senior American leaders in Iraq have accused Iran (specifically the Qods Force) from providing arms to both the Sunni insurgents and the Shi'a militias in Iraq. They may now have gathered evidence to back up those accusations.

Iran continues to be part of the problem. It is hard to imagine them as part of the solution.

December 24, 2006

Iran and Sanctions - UNSCR 1737

On December 23, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 1737, imposing sanctions on Iran for its continued refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment activities as required by UNSC Resolution 1696 (July 31, 2006). The resolution states that if Iran does not comply within 60 days, additional sanctions may be applied.

The resolution was not as strong as the United States would have liked, but to gain Russian acceptance, it agreed to less stringent sanctions. The final draft was also acceptable to Qatar, who was the lone vote against Resolution 1696 in July. Now that there is a sanctions regime, albeit weak, in place, it will be difficult for the Russians to object to stronger sanctions if Iran does not comply with the requirements of the resolution.

Not surprisingly, Iran has rejected the resolution. In their own words:

President Ahmadinejad:
"I am sorry for you who lost the opportunity for friendship with the nation of Iran. You yourself know that you cannot damage the nation of Iran an iota. You have to accept that Iran has the technology of producing nuclear fuel. This will not damage the nation of Iran, but its issuers will soon regret this superficial and nil act."
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman:
"We are not obliged and it is not expected that cooperation with the IAEA continues at the same former level."
Iranian parliament:
"The government should seriously and strongly continue the important issue of peaceful nuclear technology with prudence and foresight. It should never accept such illogical pressures. Death to America."
Iran's nuclear negotiator Larijani:
"We are now more decisive in realizing our nuclear aims. From Sunday morning, we will begin activities at Natanz — site of 3,000-centrifuge machines — and we will drive it with full speed. It will be our mmediate response to the resolution."
Iran's representative to the United Nations Zarif:
"The same Governments, which have pushed this Council to take groundless punitive measures against Iran's peaceful nuclear program, have systematically prevented it from taking any action to nudge the Israeli regime towards submitting itself to the rules governing the nuclear non-proliferation regime."
Will sanctions be effective? Iran's defiance would tend to indicate that they will not. They believe that their huge oil reserves and the world's seemingly insatiable thirst for oil will insulate them from the effects of sanctions - they may be right. If sanction prove to be ineffective, is military action inevitable? Several Israeli leaders believe that may be the only option.
See my earlier:
Additionally, the chances of constructive dialog with the government in Tehran, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group, have been dealt a severe blow. No surprise - I still maintain that Iran is part of the problem, not part of the solution. See my earlier piece for MSNBC's Hardball, Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem.

December 23, 2006

Al-Qa'idah's "English Brothers" Operation

According to a Newsweek article in the December 25 edition, The Regathering Storm, Al-Qa'idah is training a team of westerners in Pakistan. The group is called by the nickname "the English brothers" because of the language used in training by the group of nine Britons, two Norwegians and an Australian.

Training by Al-Qa'idah in Pakistan? News? Hardly. The remnants of Al-Qa'idah and the Taliban have moved over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan's Waziristan province, an tribally administered area over which the government in Islamabad exercises little control.

What is news is the training itself. In the past, Al-Qa'idah trained operatives who were to return to their home countries and conduct operations, including suicide operations. This training, what I call "the special forces" model, is aimed at training operatives who will return to their home countries, not primarily to conduct operations, but to recruit other members, establish cells and train them to plan and conduct operations. This is a much more efficient use of the newly-trained cadre - it leverages a few operatives into numerous operational cells.

The nine Britons are said to be of Pakistani descent, but are native-born British subjects. This allows them to operate easily in the United Kingdom - it's their home. Over two years ago, U.S. intelligence intercepted Al-Qa'idah instructions to try to recruit Westerners and native-born Muslims to operate in their home countries. Unless they have done something to come to the attention of the authorities, they are virtually undetectable. The British cannot keep tabs on the over 400,000 Britons (mostly of Pakistani origin) who travel to Pakistan each year.

American homeland security officials are concerned about the training of native Britons because travelers holding United Kingdom passports are not required to obtain advance visas to enter the United States.

According to the article, some of the information was provided by a former detainee at Guantanamo. That raises the question of the effectiveness of the screening program for release of those captured in Afghanistan.

Al-Qa'idah has been bloodied, but not eliminated.

Al-Qa’idah - an “unintended consequence” of American operations?

During a segment on MSNBC’s Hardball, legendary former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Milt Bearden had an exchange with host Chris Matthews about possible unintended consequences of American covert support to the Afghan mujahidin fighting against the Soviet occupation in the late 1980’s.

Chris asked if our support of Arab fighters who went to Afghanistan, who were trained and equipped by the CIA, including Usamah Bin Ladin (photo), ultimately led to the creation of Al-Qa’idah. Bearden, who was the CIA Chief of Station in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989 and was a key figure in the support to the effort in Afghanistan, clarified American support to the mujahidin.

I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency during the last two years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Our office was indirectly involved in the Department of Defense (DOD) support to the CIA Afghan Task Force (ATF). The ATF was responsible for providing the three things required for any successful insurgency – money, weapons and training.

The key point Bearden made concerned just to whom the ATF provided the money, weapons and training. The recipients were the Afghan mujahidin, not the Arabs who came from across the Arab world to join the fight. Yes, Usamah Bin Ladin was there, as were hundreds of other Arabs, but they were not funded, equipped nor trained by the CIA. They were funded mostly by Saudi Arabia.

What about the “Afghan Arabs’,” as they came to be known, weapons and training?

Here is where the story gets a bit messy. In order to provide support to “the muj” in Afghanistan, the CIA needed access to the country. That access came via the Pakistan, specifically the
Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Virtually all American support to the insurgent effort in Afghanistan was funneled through the ISI. Despite CIA attempts to maintain strict control over the money and weapons, it was inevitable that some of it was channeled elsewhere – some to Pakistani pockets and some to support the Afghan Arabs. Some of it may have even ended up in the hands of the Pakistani backed militants in Kashmir. It is Pakistan, after all.

A definite unintended consequence of the effort involved the provision of the extremely effective American Stinger shoulder-launched surface to air missile system. Despite warnings from DOD about the danger of the Stinger falling into the wrong hands, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson was able to force its provision to the mujahidin. DOD’s fears were validated in 1987 when Stinger parts traceable to the ATF effort were discovered on Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels in the Persian Gulf.

The bottom line, according to Bearden, was that the United States never provided money, weapons or training to the Arab fighters who ultimately created Tanzim Al-Qa’idah (“the base organization”).

That said, Chris has a point. Was the creation of Al-Qa’idah by Arab fighters an unintended consequence of American support to the Afghan mujahidin?

Perhaps. That does not mean we should not have done it.

December 13, 2006

Israel's Nuclear Weapons

There was a collective gasp and gulp in Tel Aviv earlier this week when Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert seemed to confirm what everyone already knows - that Israel has nuclear weapons. Here are the exact words, spoken in English (granted, not Olmert's native language): "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

According to the prime minister's spokesman Miri Eisen, Olmert was not listing nuclear powers, but rather was referring to "responsible nations." I know Miri, and recently spoke with her at length in Tel Aviv. She is smooth and polished, so I'll give her a "nice try" but I am not buying it.

Olmert has been under tremendous pressure since his disastrous failure of leadership during the Israeli war with Hizballah last summer. Some claim he has been out of his league since he was propelled into his current position when Arik Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006. It is no wonder he likely slipped when talking about what has become the most emotional subject in Israel - the Iranian nuclear weapons program, what most Israelis believe is an "existential threat" to the state of Israel. (See my earlier piece, Iran - "Existential Threat" to the State of Israel.)

In discussions with senior Israeli officials during my recent trip, the subject of Israel's nuclear weapons capability arose often. The Israeli policy of "nuclear ambiguity" - neither confirm or deny the existence of a nuclear arsenal - remains unchanged. The leaders believe this adequately serves their needs - it creates a belief in the minds of potential adversaries that Israel in fact possesses the weapons, while at the same time allows the United States government the fig leaf that Israel is not a nuclear power, thus avoiding legal sanctions.

There are proposals circulating in American and Israeli think tanks that Israel should adopt a different policy. One proposal, Project Daniel, calls for disclosure of Israel's weapons capability with the concurrent declaration that a nuclear attack on Israel will result in immediate nuclear retaliation against a set list of cities - including most of the Arab capitals and Tehran - regardless of who was the responsible party.

In the end, the Israelis will continue the policy of ambiguity and the United States will pretend that Israel is not a nuclear power.

Senator Nelson in Damascus - what are you thinking?

On December 13, Florida senator Bill Nelson met with Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad in Damascus. This comes at a critical time for U.S. policy in the region, and Nelson's meddling is not helpful.

Nelson sits on both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, but this does not make him the Secretary of State. So here we have a powerful and influential Democrat meeting with the leader of a country that not only openly supports Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, but is one of the leading supporters of the insurgency in Iraq and a close ally of the world's major state supporter of terrorism, Iran.

Instead of allowing the U.S. government to speak with one voice - via the executive branch, which is charged with conducting foreign policy - we have "Wild Bill" off mucking up the waters with one of the countries that is part of the problem, not the solution.

After the meeting, Nelson held a press conference. This is standard procedure for these visits. I served at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the 1990's and assisted in many of these Congressional shopping trips - wonder why they always come at Christmas time? The press conference is a tremendous legitimizing event for the Syrian regime. It allows the Syrians to portray themselves to the world that they are a regional player and that American officials seek their counsel.

I am sure the merchants in the Al-Hamidiyah bazaar (one of the best in the world) appreciate Nelson's efforts. But wait - there's more. Even more senators are going to Damascus shortly - John Kerry, Christopher Dodd and Arlen Specter. More photo opportunities for the Syrian regime, more money for the Syrian merchants.

So, what was the result of Nelson's ill-advised visit? According to the senator, Al-Asad indicated "a willingness to cooperate" in better controlling the Syrian-Iraqi border. Nelson passed that startling revelation on to embassy officials, who you can bet were thrilled that he was able to take time from his busy schedule so close to the holidays to help out with our foreign policy. Where do we find such men? Of course Al-Asad said whatever the senator wanted to hear - is anyone surprised by this?

Nelson's boondoggle comes at an inopportune time, following the release of the Iraq Study Group's inane recommendation that we engage Iran and yes, Syria, in a "diplomatic offensive" to help us with the war in Iraq. (Read my earlier article, Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem.) Visits such as these only confuse the issue at a time when the United States needs to be speaking with one voice.

Next time, Bill, shop at home.

December 6, 2006

Iraq Study Group - Iran and Syria part of the problem

This originally appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Blog

Iran and Syria are part of the problem, not the solution.

The Iraq Study Group released its report today after nine months of meetings, interviews and travels. The bottom line is a recommendation that the United States transition its force structure in Iraq from one of primarily combat forces to one of a military training mission, while at the same time diplomatically engaging Iran and Syria. The report also concludes that a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem is essential to achieving American goals in the region.

There does not appear to be anything new here, nor has anything especially prescient – this is what been leaked over the past few weeks. Much of what the study group recommends is already in progress. Senior military officers have advocated increased training of Iraqi security forces – police, army, border forces, etc - for the last two years. In fact, the primary focus of the last year has been a new emphasis on training the Iraqis. This has always been part of the plan: as Iraq forces become more capable, American combat forces can withdraw – and only then.

Probably the most contentious of the recommendations is the call for a “diplomatic and political offensive” engaging regional players, including Iran and Syria.

Iran and Syria are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Expecting these regimes to stop actively working against the American presence in Iraq and now assist the United States government to achieve its goals in Iraq is pretty far-fetched. Will the Iranian and Syrian governments agree to talk about Iraq? Certainly – this legitimizes and rewards their unhelpful past behavior and partially achieves their objectives. Talks with them will be on their terms - they will be happy to take whatever action hastens the withdrawal of American forces in defeat.

The recommendation to talk to the Iranian government is sure to set off alarm bells in Tel Aviv. Israeli leaders on all sides of the political spectrum remain convinced that Iran poses an “existential threat” to the state of Israel. They fear American negotiations with Tehran over the situation in Iraq may weaken American resolve on Iran’s suspect nuclear weapons program.

I don’t think anyone believes that the current strategy in Iraq is working. The study report will hopefully convince the President that his current strategy in Iraq has failed. Changes – major shifts in strategy - are necessary and coming. That said, negotiating American foreign policy with Iran and Syria is not a good course of action.

December 2, 2006

Quoted in the St Louis Dispatch

I was recently interviewed by Philip Dine of the St Louis Dispatch about the upcoming Baker study group report.

The text:
White House scrambles for exit strategy
By Philip Dine
Sunday, Nov. 19 2006

WASHINGTON — A "stay-the-course" U.S. policy in Iraq has suddenly veered toward a "change-the-course" posture, but with little certainty about what it will be changed to.

After three years of repeated insistences by President George W. Bush that he would accept nothing short of victory in Iraq and that the proper policy was in place to achieve that end, everything appears up in the air amid an intense flurry of new studies and proposals about the war.

Which of the recommendations the White House will adopt is unclear, but rising public anger over the war reflected in the congressional elections has most observers believing the administration has little choice but to shift gears.

"They're looking for a way out," Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said of the administration.

The most widely anticipated recommendations are those of the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, expected early next month.

"The Baker-Hamilton commission may come up with something," said Skelton, who will be the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "My guess is (the White House) will embrace all or part of it and head for the door. They lost the election on this issue, and it's resonating in the administration."

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute who has close ties to many Pentagon officials, agrees that the White House understands it needs help. He said Bush would love to get a realistic plan for victory but would accept a graceful way out of Iraq.

"The Bush administration would very much like some sort of silver-bullet solution to the Iraq dilemma," Thompson said. "However, it will settle for any reasonable pretext that allows a reduction in the American presence."

Skelton came closer than he ever has to saying the United States already has lost the war.

"The biggest disappointment to me is we have not won the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," he said in an interview. "That's the bottom line. And the situation keeps getting worse. You say to yourself, 'How can it get worse?', and it is."

Analysts say the Baker panel's proposals are likely to include redeploying American troops to safer spots in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, setting benchmarks for Iraqi progress in working toward stability, and bringing Iran
and Syria into a regional conference to discuss Iraq's future.

"Tough position"

Meanwhile, more ideas — and pressure — will be coming from other quarters in the next few weeks.

— The new Democratic leaders of Congress are pushing for a redeployment of troops in four to six months or sooner.

— Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is doing his own study of Iraq policy.

— Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed a trip to Asia to brainstorm on Iraq.

— British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a key Bush ally, now is calling for a shift in Western policy on the Middle East, including trying to bring in Iran as a partner.

— Confirmation hearings next month for Robert Gates as the new defense secretary will spark more proposals on Iraq, and the White House is conducting an internal review of Iraq policy.

What gives these initiatives significance is that a White House that once criticized anyone who questioned U.S. policy in Iraq as aiding the terrorists is now on the defensive.

After Bush and his top aides met last week with Baker's panel, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that Bush wanted to "outsource Iraq to the Baker group," but he acknowledged that because the United States was in a "tough position" in the war, ideas were welcome — and needed.

The key questions are whether the administration is open to a major shift in policy, and whether the United States has any room to maneuver at this point. Some analysts suggest that the White House's doing its own review of policy is aimed not at countering the Baker panel but rather at allowing the administration to say that if it makes changes it isn't merely following the recommendations of others.

Skelton said he intended to push for two immediate alterations in policy. The first will be redeployment of some troops out of Iraq within a month. "We have to let the Iraqis know, and let the American people know, that the Iraqis are going to have to protect themselves, and that's the only way they can save their country," he said.

Secondly, the mix of U.S. forces training Iraqis has to change, Skelton said. "You need Special Forces to do that, because that's what they do in life — they train other cultures."

"Reducing our losses"

While insisting that Bush would not change his definition of victory, Snow acknowledged that the current strategy was not working "fast enough." As a result, Snow said, "If there's a proposal to help the Iraqis defend themselves, he's open to it."

But that may be tough to find, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of policy planning for the State Department in Bush's first term.

"I'm not sure there are any good options," Haass said, adding that rather than "succeeding in Iraq," more realistic talk now is about "reducing our losses there."

What boxes the administration in, he said, is that the public wants neither "more of the same" nor a hasty retreat.

Whereas U.S. officials have long touted the goal of training more Iraqi troops to stabilize the country, that's becoming problematic as sectarian strife grows. In a sense, Haass said, training Iraqi forces builds armed groups that are "more loyal to a regional leader or religious sect than to Iraq as a country."

What might end up happening, he said, is that U.S. forces will be shifted to advisory roles and away from fighting. On the diplomatic front, it might be necessary to pull together "a forum involving all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria," Haass said; but dealing directly with Iran and Syria is an idea Bush has steadfastly rebuffed.

Retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who conducted Middle East operations for the CIA and other agencies, said Bush's hope to find "a way to win" from the Baker commission was a long shot.

Francona said he had heard that the panel was likely to recommend that Iran and Syria be brought in. He said this would prove "very hard for the president to do," because whenever Iran was mentioned in any context, Bush's immediate reaction was that it must stop its nuclear program.

Even if Bush relented on that demand, Francona said, Israel strongly opposes any overture to Iran, citing Iran's threats about destroying the Jewish state.

At congressional sessions last week, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that progress was being made and that pulling out now would lead to worse violence. But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who will be
chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, strongly disagreed. He called for "a phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months."

House Democrats' defeat Thursday of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as their majority whip, may blunt the Democratic push to get out of Iraq quickly; he is the congressional Democrats' sharpest anti-war critic. | 202-298-6880