April 30, 2007

Iraq: Perhaps al-Maliki is the biggest problem

Nuri al-MalikiAccording to senior U.S. military officials, the Iraqi prime minister's office is exerting undue influence over Iraqi military and security forces not to put too much pressure on Shi'a militias, despite earlier commitments to pursue all illegal militias. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a devout Shi'a Muslim and close confidant of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr is the leader of probably the most notorious Shi'a militia, the jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi), which is directly supported by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force. (See my Iranian Qods Force in Iraq: Treat them like al-Qaida.)

Of note is the fact that al-Maliki is the deputy head of the Islamic Dawa' (Call) Party. The head of the Party, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, was al-Maliki's predecessor as prime minister, and the Party's founder was the uncle of Muqtada al-Sadr. There were rumors that just prior to the current "surge" al-Maliki warned al-Sadr to leave the country and to order his militia to lay low.

Now we have reports that al-Maliki's office is directly influencing the crackdown on illegal militias by firing commanders who are being too effective in the effort. There is an office in al-Maliki's administration called the "Office of the Commander in Chief," headed by a close ally of al-Maliki. As soon as a military, security force or police commander shows results in going after Shi'a militias, especially the al-Sadr militia, they are removed or marginalized.

This is typical of the protectionist practices of al-Maliki prior to the recent surge operations. When the American command announced its intention to surge troops beginning in January, one of the key conditions was that al-Maliki had to agree that there would be no meddling when American and Iraqi forces pursued the Mahdi Army and conducted operations in the group's stronghold in the Sadr City section of Baghdad.

It would appear that al-Maliki has found a low-key, behind-the-scenes way to impede progress, this time by removing effective Iraqi commanders. Perhaps al-Sadr is not the biggest problem in Iraq - perhaps we need to remove al-Maliki along with al-Sadr.

April 29, 2007

Karbala - Magnet for Sunni Attacks

Karbala' - Shrine of Imam Husayn
Karbala' - Shrine of Imam Husayn

Over the last two weeks, there have been two deadly attacks in the Shi'a holy city of Karbala' (Al-Karbala'), located about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Karbala' and Najaf (An-Najaf), its sister city to the east, are the two holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, following of course, Mecca (Al-Makkah), Medina (Al-Madinah) and possibly Jerusalem (Al-Quds).

Why is Karbala' a repeated target of the Sunni insurgent groups and Al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI)?

Since the beginning of the the "surge" operation in Iraq, the Shi'a have all but stopped their participation in the sectarian violence that has plagued the country after the AQI attack on the Al-'Askari mosque in Samarra'. (See my earlier piece,
Iraq - Attack on Major Shi'a Shrine in Samarra'.) With declining sectarian violence, American and Iraqi forces have concentrated on operations against the Sunni groups. The Sunnis are attempting to goad the Shi'a into re-igniting the civil war, hence the vicious, horrific attacks on Shi'a market places, mosques, schools, housing areas and government officials.

So far these efforts have been unsuccessful. The Sunnis believe that if they can inflict significant damage on a shrine revered even more than the mosque in Samarra', the Shi'a will again fight. Karbala' is the location of the shrine of Imam Husayn (Hussein). Imam Husayn is revered by the Shi'a as the son of 'Ali ibn Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad.

A brief recap of the history of the Sunni-Shi'a split:

Following the death of Muhammad, many prominent Muslims of the day thought that the position of successor (khalifah, from which the word "caliph" is derived) should be drawn from the educated ('ulayma') leadership of the community. Others believed that it should be a bloodline from the prophet - these were the "partisans" (shi'a) of 'Ali. This is the source of the differences between the two sects.

There was a brief period of convergence when 'Ali was named the fourth (Sunni) caliph as well as already being the first Shi'a imam. However, 'Ali was murdered and his son Hasan named second imam. Hasan abdicated to the 'Umayyad (Sunni) leadership in Damascus, and his brother Husayn picked up the mantle of leader of the Shi'a as the third imam. Husayn was killed in battle against 'Umayyad forces at Karbala' on the tenth ('ashurah) day of the Muslim month of Muharram in 680AD, the day now celebrated by the Shi'a as their holiest day.

In 1988, Saddam Husayn named the first Iraqi modified Scud missile the "Al-Husayn," hoping to portray the war effort in an Islamic light. Most observers assumed that he had named the missile for himself, but in Arabic naming protocol, Husayn is actually his father's name. If he had named the missile for himself, it would have been the "Saddam." It was a logical assumption - when I was in Baghdad at that time, many things were named for Saddam, and his picture adorned almost every vertical surface in the city.

If the Sunnis can cause massive damage to either the shrine in Karbala' or the shrine of Imam 'Ali in An-Najaf, they just might be successful in restarting the civil war and drawing off some of the focus of the American and Iraqi forces.

April 28, 2007

Saudi Terrorism Arrests Demonstrate Capabilities

Saudi Television
Saudi internal security forces arrested 172 suspected Al-Qa'idah terrorists belonging to at least seven operational cells. The cells were believed to be plotting attacks on a variety of targets in the kingdom, including oil facilities. At least two of those arrested were pilots and may have been planning to use aircraft in the attacks.

An obvious success for the Ministry of the Interior, the arrests highlight the capabilities of the Saudi internal security apparatus and intelligence services. I have worked with the Saudi military and civilian intelligence services in the past. Their focus has never been on producing what we consider "foreign intelligence," but rather developing information on threats to the royal family and that entity which supports the monarchy - the oil infrastructure.

In my dealings with the Saudis, I was not impressed with their methodology when conducting intelligence operations - running collection operations, analyzing raw information and producing finished intelligence. This was frustrating during the Gulf War when we were trying to develop all the intelligence we could on Iraqi military capabilities and intentions, the Saudis were worried about non-existent threats to the royal palaces in Jiddah and Riyadh.

On the other hand, the Saudis were always excellent at providing internal security. Of course, this is a kingdom - a real kingdom - not like the constitutional monarchies of Europe. Here the king (actually, his title in Arabic translates to "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques") is the absolute ruler. There are heavily-armed police and security officers everywhere, and justice is swift, often to our chagrin. After the Saudis arrested those they believed responsible for the 1996 bombing of the American housing area at Khobar Towers, the suspects were interrogated, tried and executed before American intelligence and security officers could have access to them.

The number of suspects arrested in this operation is high, and shows increased sophistication in the Saudis methodology. The Saudi officers followed and monitored the suspects for up to six months, rather than arresting suspects immediately.

So what prompted the arrests? The Saudis may have believed that they had identified all the members of the cells, or may have had an indication that their efforts against the group was (or about to be) discovered and were forced to move before the suspects fled. In any case, rolling up 172 suspected Al-Qa'idah terrorists is a major accomplishment. Hopefully, the interrogations will yield a wealth of information on who, what , where, when - all the things we want to know. Obviously, we are going to want to work with the Saudis to determine if any of these suspects have information about cells in the United States, or other information about Al-Qa'idah training facilities in the region.

According to the Saudis, the two pilots were not trained in Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to hear where all of the suspects were trained - I suspect we are going to hear about Pakistan.

The pilot angle is a bit puzzling. Although the Saudis claim there were plans to crash aircraft into oil facilities, the preferred method of attack in Saudi Arabia has been the vehicle-borne improved explosive device (VBIED). Use of an aircraft would be a new tactic here. The problem is the very tight security at all civil aviation facilities and the lack of a robust general aviation sector.

Mabruk, ya asdiqa'i.

April 26, 2007

Breaking faith with the troops

This article appeared on MSNBC.com

On April 25, the House passed a bill that calls for American forces to begin withdrawing from Iraq by October 1, 2007, with a non-binding goal of all combat troops out by April 1, 2008. This vote is reminiscent of the earlier non-binding resolution condemning the ongoing troop surge – basically a free vote for both sides of the aisle. Since the President has already vowed to veto a bill with a withdrawal timeline, there are no consequences either way. This does not even serve as putting representatives on record; it’s merely a show for their constituents.

Are our elected representatives acting in the best interests of the country with what amounts to nothing more than political theater? There are American forces involved in ongoing combat operations as our “leaders” put on this show – the troops deserve better than this from Washington.

As I have said previously, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the other insurgents know that their war will not and cannot be won on the battlefields of Iraq – it can only be won in the halls of Congress. They know full well that public opinion in the United States is divided and there is declining support for the war. The election results in November told them that. Read any of the analyses in the Arabic language media – American public opinion is turning against the war and a victory for the insurgents is at hand. In their view, passage of this bill in the House just validates that assessment.

There is no question that this kabuki dance in the House is disappointing to the troops who are worried not only about having adequate resources to do their jobs, but to do them safely. The notion that passing a bill that is doomed to failure is somehow supporting the troops is ludicrous, and the troops know it.

The better question is, “How does this affect the insurgents?”

The insurgents understand us better than we understand them. They view the establishment of a withdrawal timetable as the path to victory. If they know when the United States will do as Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee suggests, simply declare victory and go home (“We need to claim victory for our soldiers…."), it reinforces their will to simply outlast the Americans. It says to them, “Keep up the attacks and the Americans will call it quits and leave.” In fact, they will likely make the attacks even more gruesome and spectacular – it will hasten the collapse of any remaining public support for the war. Of course, when the Senate majority leader declares that the war is lost, it only strengthens the insurgents’ resolve.

The war in Vietnam was not lost on the battlefield – we won all the engagements. It was lost on the home front. The public broke faith with its soldiers and treated them shabbily – I can attest to that personally. For all of its talk of “supporting the troops,” it now appears that this Congress is well on its way to doing the same to its soldiers.

April 20, 2007

Wrong message, wrong time...

This analysis appeared on MSNBC.com

Salhiyah Police Checkpoint
“Two Iraqi Policemen, from the Juaifer Police Station, staff a checkpoint in the Salhiya neighborhood of Baghdad recently” -- the caption accompanying this picture from the April 14 issue of The Advisor, a weekly English-language publication of the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, unwittingly highlights the biggest problem facing Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition forces – sectarian violence.

Most readers (and the editors) probably assumed that the red letters stenciled on the side of the checkpoint say “police” or give the name of the station, or something along those lines. However, to those who can read Arabic, the words – and the subtle warning therein – are ominous. The letters spell out the words, “Ya Hussein.”

To Iraqis, there is no mistaking the meaning of that phrase. It is an invocation of the name of the third Shia imam. Hussein was the grandson of Muhammad, revered by Shia, but not by Sunnis. In fact, the Shia reverence of Hussein (and his father Ali) is one of the major points of contention between the two Muslim sects. The major holiday of the Shia calendar – Ashura – commemorates Hussein’s death at Karbala in the 7th century; the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. The religious poster next to the name of the imam appears to include a picture of the shrine.

That shrine in Karbala was attacked on April 14, resulting in the death of almost 50 people. This is undoubtedly part of the continuing wave of violence by Sunni insurgents attempting to goad the Shia into re-igniting the civil war that has plagued Iraq since February 2006. The beginning of the civil war is generally believed to have been triggered by the attack on another Shia shrine – the al-Askari mosque in Samarra - by members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Shia have been relatively quiet since the American-led surge began in January, content to have the American forces focus on the Sunnis while they lay low. Sunni provocations continued on April15 when four more bombs were detonated in Shia areas of Baghdad.

The police checkpoint shown in the picture is located in the Salhiya section of the al-Karkh district of Baghdad, described as a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood that includes the violent Haifa Street area. This area is north of the Green Zone on the west bank of the Tigris River.

When Iraqi police stations are adorned with Shia religious invocations, what are the Sunnis to think? Is this supposed to give the appearance of a fair and impartial “Iraqi” police force, or is this a not-too-subtle reminder that the army and security forces are overwhelmingly Shia?

If you were a Sunni, would this fill you with confidence? To the Sunnis in Baghdad, the “surge” might appear to be nothing more that the introduction of Shia security forces into their neighborhoods, hardly a comforting thought.

This picture, supposedly a sign of progress toward a solution, in reality underscores the magnitude of the problem. Don’t we have people at CENTCOM that can read Arabic and see what is going on?

April 19, 2007

"In the name of God..."

bism allah al-rahman al-rahim (in the name of God the merciful, the compassionate

"In the name of God..." It is a phrase that is uttered millions of times every day throughout the Muslim world. It adorns every piece of official stationery of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and of religious institutions throughout Islam, and is the opening statement of most politicians across the Arab world. Of course, to Americans who cherish the ideal of the separation of church and state, it is not only anathema to our thought process, it is a foreign concept that we cannot grasp.

I happened to be watching Fox News Channel - yes, although I am a military analyst for NBC News, I do watch Fox, CNN, PBS, C-SPAN, etc. - and saw a segment by Bill O'Reilly about the situation in Iraq. During the segment, he interviewed a friend and colleague of mine, Lt Col Bill Cowan, USMC (Ret). Bill has extensive experience fighting Muslim extremists and still consults with various military organizations.

O'Reilly asked Colonel Cowan about an incident in Iraq in which a group of Iraqi policemen were seized by a group called jaysh ansar al-sunnah, loosely translated as "army of the Sunni followers." The police officers were all killed - shot execution style or beheaded - by the insurgents. O'Reilly was concerned about the political aspects of such acts.

Although I have been reticent about attributing much of the violence in the world to religion, in Iraq that is exactly the case. In Iraq today, the government is dominated by members of the Shi'a sect. We'll exempt the Kurds (Sunnis) from this discussion as they are not really involved in the sectarian violence. The violence in Iraq involves the Sunni insurgents and al-Qa'idah in Iraq on one side, against government forces and the Shi'a militias (at times the same thing) on the other.

Both sides of this conflict use the phrase bism allah... (in the name of God...) liberally. They all believe God is on their side. When someone truly believes that, there is no dealing with them. They will gladly fight and die for their cause. Appealing to them on the political level will not work. Opponents like al-Qa'idah in Iraq, the Ansar al-Sunnah, the Islamic State of Iraq, etc., are true believers. They do not understand surrender or political compromise, they only understand victory or defeat.

Both sides have demonstrated the willingness to attack mosques, markets and schools to kill members of the other sect. As long as the fighting is based on religion, there will be no solution.

April 18, 2007

Attacks a direct challenge to the “surge”

When the number of American and Iraqi troops on the ground in Baghdad increased as the “surge” began in January, there was a corresponding decrease in the level of sectarian violence. In addition to the increased troop presence, the decreased violence was also attributed to the decision of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s orders to his jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) to lay low.

This turned out to be a fairly sound strategy. Although there were some raids by Iraqi and American military forces into the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, there were relatively few arrests or detentions of the groups leadership. In the absence of resistance, the American and Iraqis were free to concentrate their efforts on the Sunni insurgents and al-Qa’idah in Iraq forces.

This concentration on the Sunnis must be having an effect. There is a real conflict ongoing inside the various factions that comprise the Sunnis that have taken up arms against the Iraqi government or American forces. The tribal shaykhs in the Sunni triangle, including the city of al-Ramadi, have turned on the al-Qa’idah in Iraq fighters. While they are not exactly allied with the Iraqi or American forces, they are no longer tacitly supporting the foreigners in their midst.

Likewise, there is disunity inside the umbrella insurgent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq. There are reports of conflicts between the eight member groups, possibly ignited by accusations that some of the groups have been involved in political talks with the Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Between the increased attacks by American and Iraqi forces, and the internal disputes among the various insurgent groups, the Sunnis are suffering under the surge. They need to do two things if they are going to survive: re-ignite the civil war (or as some call it, sectarian violence) between themselves and the Shi’a, and they need to arrange a truce among themselves. They know this and are attempting both.

The leader of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, has called for unity among the insurgent groups and al-Qa’idah in Iraq, at one point threatening to punish any of his group’s fighters involved in internal disputes. (See my earlier articles:
Declaration of "Islamic Iraq" - precursor to civil war? and Declaration of "Islamic Iraq" - ADDENDUM.)

In a more ominous development, the Sunnis have launched a terrorism offensive on the Shi’a, hoping to restart the civil war. If they can get the Shi’a to re-engage, the American and Iraqi forces will have to deal with them also. There are coincidental benefits as well. As I have said before, victory for the insurgents will not come on the battlefields of Iraq – it will come from public opinion in the United States. Increased sectarian violence, much of it appearing to be horrific and senseless – attacks on markets, schools, mosques, etc. – plays an important part of that tactic.

Thus far the Shi’a have not taken the bait. Hopefully they won’t.

April 16, 2007

Muqtada al-Sadr – Isn’t it about time we deal with this guy?

Radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered the six ministers of the Iraqi cabinet who are members of his Sadrist party to resign their positions, as well as other members that sit in the Iraq assembly. The Sadrists comprise about one-fourth of the Shia Alliance that in concert with the Kurdish bloc forms the government.

The current issue: the withdrawal of American troops. Al-Sadr is demanding that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki secure a timetable from the U.S. government for the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq. No wonder al-Sadr would like to have a date certain for the removal of American troops. Despite al-Sadr’s admonition to members of his militia - jaysh al-mahdi (the Mahdi Army) - the group has been marginalized by the recent troop surge. American and Iraqi forces entered the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City and routed out weapons caches and suspected militia leaders, a move that was a condition for Americans to continue to support al-Maliki. Combined with a recent cabinet reshuffle in which al-Sadr’s influence has been reduced, the radical cleric fears he may be coming irrelevant.

Muqtada al-Sadr plans to be the major power broker in Iraq. He cannot do that as long as the al-Maliki government is propped up by the presence of almost 150,000 American troops. He thinks it is time for them to go, allowing him a clear shot at running the country.

I have a better idea. It is time for al-Sadr to go. Let me be clear. This man is an enemy of the United States. As I have said many times over for more than three years, we need to find him, and get rid of him – arrest him, exile him or kill him.

Kill him? Isn’t that a bit extreme?

As far as I am concerned, Al-Sadr has the blood of American soldiers on his hands. It is his militia that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force supplied with advanced munitions that have killed our troops. Last week he exhorted his followers to attack “your archenemy- the Americans.” He also called on the Iraqi army and police to join him in “defeating the Americans.” That, in my mind, makes him an enemy - he should be dealt with accordingly. (See my earlier article, Muqtada al-Sadr – a problem not solved)

Al-Sadr’s demands present a dilemma for American senators and representatives who favor putting a withdrawal date in the supplemental defense budget bill current under discussion. Now joining Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is His Eminence Sayyid Hujjat al-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr. I can see the posters now:
This may also present an opportunity for the “withdrawal date” crowd to change their positions, citing al-Sadr’s demand for the withdrawal as the reason they have changed their minds. Otherwise, they are playing right into the hands of the enemy.

April 12, 2007

On the Pelosi-Lantos visit to Syria

I have been assigned to several American embassies in the Middle East, including a tour as the air attaché in Syria. I became intimately involved in all official visits – the “AIRA” is responsible for arrangements (clearances, fuel, ramp space, security, etc.) for the U.S. Air Force aircraft that transport the delegations. I was (un)fortunate enough to be the AIRA for President Clinton’s visit to Damascus in 1994. (See The Arrogance of Power - A Presidential Visit.)

I supported scores of Congressional and State Department trips during my tenure in Damascus. The State Department trips were mostly “shuttle diplomacy” visits by the Secretary of State – tough meetings with the late Syrian strongman Hafiz Al-Asad and equally hard-line Israeli politicians. That’s what diplomacy is, that’s why the embassy is there, that was my job.

However, the impression among most of the embassy officers in Damascus – home to one of the world’s greatest bazaars – was that the trips by members of Congress were usually thinly-disguised shopping junkets. The offenders were of both parties. I remember multiple trips by Senator Arlen Spector and Representative Tom Lantos. Spector even insisted on one trip that the aircraft fly him first into Aleppo – Syria’s second largest city located six hours drive north of Damascus – rather than into the capital city. The reason: he liked the Aleppo bazaar better than the one in Damascus. Of course, we all had to be in Aleppo to support the visit there. At least I got to ride on the jet back to Damascus….

That’s bad enough, but at least these boondoggles were harmless - a few low-level meetings with some Syrian officials to justify the use of a U.S. Air Force jet, then multiple “shop ‘til you drop” sorties through the Al-Hamidiyah suq and the shops along A Street Called Straight.

Enter Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not content to conduct some oversight of the embassy and meet with Syrian counterparts, she decided to conduct some diplomacy with a state we are trying to isolate and marginalize. The U.S. ambassador was recalled to Washington in the wake of Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri in February 2005.

Any visit by an American official only legitimizes the Bashar Al-Asad regime. A visit by the Speaker of the House was a huge propaganda coup for the Syrians. The Syrian press lauded her efforts and cited the opening of a “dialogue” between Washington and Damascus. The Speaker even botched delivering a message from the Israelis. Next time, Nancy, skip the palace and buy a carpet – I can refer you to a good merchant. I don’t question your right to visit Syria, I just question how badly you did it.

To make matters worse, Speaker Pelosi and colleague Tom Lantos, who accompanied her to Syria, are talking about a trip to Iran. Lantos said he is ready to go to Iran and open a dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Great – an official visit to Iran. Iran – the country that is providing deadly munitions that are killing American soldiers in Iraq. A country that is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, a country whose president wants to eliminate the State of Israel, and a country with which we do not have diplomatic relations. At least there is an embassy in Syria. Oh, I forgot – there is an American embassy in Tehran, but it was taken over by the Iranian “students” in 1979. Tom, Nancy – you do remember that, right? Coming as no surprise, the vice-speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) welcomes such a visit.

Here’s a thought – stay at home and work on legislation that provides funding for American troops in combat.

Tour length isn't the problem

This appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

Adjusting combat tour length doesn’t solve the problem

Secretary of Defense of Gates announced Wednesday that he is extending the combat tour length for active duty U.S. Army soldiers from the standard 12 months to 15 months, with the commitment that the period between combat rotations will be 12 months. This announcement does not affect the reserve components of the Army – the Reserves and National Guard – nor does it affect the length of deployment for the U.S. Marines, currently seven months.

While that sounds like it will provide more troops for the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reality many of the troops are extended for that extra three months anyway. In the past, that was the most effective way to plus up the number of troops: maintain the inbound schedule but retain units about to rotate home an extra three months. In effect, this formalizes the longer tour length that has been imposed on many of the soldiers who have served and are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The objective is to provide soldiers at least 12 months between combat tours, and at the same time provide higher levels of troops in the region. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. It will work in the short term, but at some point, you run out of soldiers.

The problem is not the tour length; it’s the fact that we do not have a sufficient number of soldiers – or Marines for that matter – to maintain the scale and pace of operations, the “ops tempo,” currently assigned to the armed forces.

Let’s be clear about our armed forces. Plain and simple, the all-volunteer force works. We have fielded the best-trained and best-equipped military in our history. At the end of the Cold War, we drew our forces down to what are now unacceptable levels. The problem is that there are not enough of them.

There are proposals to increase the size of the land component, the Army and Marines, by as much as 100,000 troops to supplement the existing 500,000 plus troops. That’s the minimum that is required if we are going to maintain presence in the world’s hot spots – right now that is Iraq and Afghanistan – and be prepared to defend our interests around the world wherever challenged. That challenge might come elsewhere in the Middle East – Iran comes to mind – or in Korea, Taiwan, or the Horn of Africa. We must be ready to act when needed, not worry about raising the required numbers after the crisis presents itself. When we decide that a deployment of U.S. forces is required, we need to send them in numbers that indicate we mean business.

We can’t do that now. On at least one occasion in the last year, the Pentagon was forced to deploy the 82nd Airborne Division’s “ready brigade” to Iraq. This is the unit that is supposed to be on call to respond to a crisis anywhere on a moment’s notice. It’s hard to do that when deployed to Iraq.

The interests of a nation of 300 million people can hardly be defended by one half of one percent of the population. We spend about four percent of GDP on defense. In today’s world, that’s not enough.

April 9, 2007

Afghanistan's hostgage slippery slope

The Taliban has just beheaded an Afghan national who had been working as an interpreter for Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo - the two had been kidnapped a month ago. The journalist was released after the government of Hamid Karzai agreed to release five senior Taliban prisoners in Afghan custody. There are rumors that in addition to the release of the Taliban by Karzai, Italy paid a large ransom as well.

Bad idea. Italy has gained the reputation of dealing with kidnappers, not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq as well. In 2004, they paid a ransom to Iraqi kidnappers for the release of Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, two aid workers. In 2005, they also are suspected of paying for the release of journalist Giuliana Sgrena, whose case became famous as her car came under fire as her Italian military intelligence escorts tried to run an American roadblock in Baghdad. Italy is now trying in absentia the American soldier who fired the shots - way to act like an ally, Italy. The Italian intelligence service - not known for its capabilities - blew it. (Read my earlier post Italy and Iraq – Bad Precedent/Bad Policy.)

This has come home to roost. In late 2006, Italy paid two million dollars for the release of journalist Gabriele Torsello in Afghanistan. Italians overseas are now targets for kidnappers - they know the Italian government will pay ransom.

In a likely related event, the Taliban has now seized two French nationals working for a children's relief organization, along with three Afghan nationals on their staff. After seeing the Karzai government accede to similar demands earlier, the kidnappers have demanded that Karzai now release five senior Taliban prisoners. In other areas, there have been kidnappings of Afghan government workers with the expectation that Karzai will exchange more Taliban prisoners for them.

Afghanistan and Italy are already sliding down the slippery slope of giving in to terrorists and kidnappers. One Afghan paper proposed a solution I can live with - kill all the Taliban prisoners.

April 6, 2007

The British detainees – some answers, some questions

The two officers among the 15 British sailors and marines detained for almost two weeks by the Iranians spoke out today about the incident. Their answers, while illustrative and do put to bed some of the speculation about their treatment at the hands of the Iranians, raise more questions.

The young officers, one a Royal Navy lieutenant and the other a Royal Marine captain, gave a rather eloquent account of the incident from their perspectives. One commanded the boarding party and the other the navy boats that transported them from the frigate HMS Cornwall to the ship to be inspected. Several things jumped out at me that are at odds with how American forces do things. For example, a Royal Navy helicopter supporting the two-boat boarding party departed while the party was still on the vessel being searched, leaving the British without any covering fire support.

The navy officer also explained that the HMS Cornwall was not in a position to provide cover for the operation. This pretty much left them out there alone without the capability to defend themselves against the more heavily armed Iranian gunboats – which were allowed to approach the British boarding party almost two miles inside Iraqi waters. What was the commander of the Cornwall thinking? The Royal Navy will need to review these procedures.

After seizing the Britons, the Iranians blindfolded, bound, stripped and isolated them – the exact type of treatment of Al-Qa’idah terrorists and Iraqi insurgents for which the United States military has been severely criticized. The 15 were held for almost two weeks, denied access to British consular officials, threatened with trial and imprisonment, coerced to make “confessions,” and coerced to express gratitude to their captors. They have been criticized by some for being too cooperative with the Iranians. The Royal Navy will have to address that, but it bears much of the responsibility for them being in the predicament in the first place. It is almost impossible to imagine the U.S. Navy allowing their personnel to be placed in a position where they were not supported, and then seized without a fight.

Back to the point - let me get this straight. We have the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps send its gunboats over a mile and half into Iraqi waters, detain a Royal Navy boarding party at gunpoint, take them into custody, subject them to psychological abuse, put them on display in a media circus and twisted their release into a show of Iranian magnanimity.

Hopefully the world sees this for what it is – an engineered Iranian propaganda stunt. More importantly, where is world outrage at how these young men and woman were treated while being detained by the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism?

You know – Iran, the people who brought you Hizballah.

April 5, 2007

CNBC - Kudlow & Company

On April 4, I appeared with Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks on the CNBC show Kudlow & Company. The transcript:

Rick Francona, CNBC Middle East military analyst, and Tom Ricks of The Washington Post discuss Iran, Iraq and al-Qaeda

Mr. TONY BLAIR: To the Iranian people, I would simply say this. We bear you no ill will. On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilization, as a nation with a proud and dignified history, and the disagreements that we have with your government, we wish to resolve peacefully through dialogue.

All right. Gentlemen, we have Tom Ricks, The Washington Post. We have Rick Francona, former Army colonel who's been fighting all over the world.

Lieutenant Colonel RICK FRANCONA, Retired (US Air Force, CNBC Middle East Military Analyst: Air Force.

KUDLOW: Let me ask you, gentlemen, in one word for the tease, one word for the tease. In this hostage standoff did Iran win? Rick Francona, yes or no?

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: No. No.


Tom Ricks, yes or no?

Mr. THOMAS RICKS ("Fiasco" Author, Washington Post Military Correspondent): I think so, yeah.

KUDLOW: All right. A good split. I was hoping for that. We are going to come right back for an extended discussion. I would reckon the hostages were the big winner now that they're free.

KUDLOW & COMPANY coming right back with our military experts, Colonel Rick Francona and The Washington Post columnist Tom Ricks.

Be sure to tune in tonight, by the way, at 7 PM Eastern for behind the scenes with the "Mad Money" man himself, Jim Cramer. It's Jim like you've never seen him before. All-access all the time. Behind the scenes, Jim Cramer tonight at 7, only on CNBC.

KUDLOW & COMPANY coming right back.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: A narrow majority in the Congress passed legislation they knew all along I would not accept. Their bills impose an artificial deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. Their bills substitute the judgment of Washington politicians for the judgment of our military commanders. Their bills add billions of dollars in pork-barrel spending.

KUDLOW: All right. There you have it. President Bush back on the warpath.

Joining us now is Rick Francona, retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel, CNBC military analyst. By the way, he served in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We also have Thomas Ricks, columnist for The Washington Post and author of the remarkable book, "Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

Rick Francona, I made a little list because I want to challenge you just on the Iranian thing. OK? So here is the Iranian story. They seized hostages, they went into Iraqi waters, they violated the Geneva Conventions, they coerced the hostages into phony confessions. Now they're being portrayed as magnanimous. And on top of all that, they made a ton of money on the higher oil prices. You going to tell me Iran lost?

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: I think they lost politically. They may have made some money on this, but I think the world sees this for what it is. Larry, they engineered this whole thing. I think the IRGC was overaggressive. They went into Iraqi waters, they took these guys, they held them hostage. And these--all these confessions. The only people that would have believed that that was true were maybe some people in Iran. I think that this is a net political loss. And Ahmadinejad used the occasion of the prophet's birthday today to give them the only face-saving way out of this. I think they're lucky they're out of it as they are, but I think, all in all, they lose.

KUDLOW: All right. I'd like to know that Rick is right, Tom Ricks, but I'm not sure because after all, here's Iran. Now they're busting the UN resolutions. They're still weaponizing their nuclear. They're testing and so forth. Then they're still helping Hezbollah and Hamas. They're still putting plenty of their secret guards, their provisional guards into Iraq, killing American soldiers and fomenting mischief. I just don't see Iran paying any penalty or cost right now or in the weeks leading up to this episode.

Mr. RICKS: I like the list you put to Colonel Francona. I would add one more thing to it. They have sent a message, and a very strategic message it is, that people who make trouble for them in Iraq can expect that they will make trouble for these people elsewhere. So if they don't like what the British and Americans are doing to their people inside Iraq, they have shown that they have a means of responding.

Iran's president will free 15 Britons as a "gift" to Britain
Global oil prices plummet on Iran headlines

KUDLOW: Rick Francona, your response to that, because again I--my problem with this, I'm not here to boost Iran. I can't stand Iran. They're a rogue state for heaven's sakes. But what I don't see is them paying any cost, consequences or penalties for all of the things they're doing. The Iraqi mischief, the Hezbollah mischief, now the hostage mischief, now the centrifuge testing, nuclear development mischief. That's my problem with this, Rick.

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: Well, that's what I see here. If you take this one incident, they have to be made to pay a price. Unfortunately, I think you're right they will not be made to pay a price. And I--that is probably one of the things that the British agreed to to get these detainees released. And that was `After this is over, we don't want to have to go to the UN or explain this. It's just going to go away.' But I think someone needs to hold Iran accountable. And the United Nations was trying to do that. But these sanctions just aren't doing it. This incident may galvanize maybe some Russian or Chinese support in the UN. Maybe I'm being too optimistic, Larry.

Iran's Ahmadinejad says he has pardoned UK naval personnel
UK sailors were seized by armed Iranian forces 13 days ago
British captives will be taken to airport after Ahmadinejad presser
Ahmadinejad says major powers cannot deprive Iran of right to nuclear tech
Ahmadinejad threatens to "retaliate" to sanctions over Iranian banks

KUDLOW: Just a quickie, Rick, before I come back to Tom Ricks, as a military analyst and as a former strategist, what price would you like to see Iran pay?

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: Well, I'd like to see the Security Council take some real action, put some teeth into these sanctions and say, `OK, obviously these sanctions are not working.' And I think now after we've seen what they've done, they revert to the same thing they've always done. The did it in Lebanon. They did it against the Americans. They take hostages. If we can get the UN to do some stronger sanctions, they might pay a price.

UK PM Tony Blair: "Welcomes" the news of naval personnel release
Iran official - British naval personnel will be handed over to British Embassy

KUDLOW: All right. Tom Ricks, a quick one on that and then I want to go to Iraq.

Mr. RICKS: Sure. I think that--I was thinking about what a British analyst said to me that the only outfit he's seen that was worse calculating and more miscalculating than the Bush administration on Iraq was the Iranian foreign ministry. So I think the price they may pay eventually is they are pulling tigers by the tail and they may overplay their hand.

KUDLOW: Gentlemen, we've just got two minutes. I want to ask you, Tom Ricks. General Barry McCaffrey just came back from a mission in Iraq. He says--he says that `The General Petraeus strategy is sound and the situation is not hopeless.' Do you agree with that assessment?

Mr. RICKS: Well, I read General McCaffrey's assessment. It was kind of a schizophrenic assessment. Very pessimistic on the one hand, very optimistic in its conclusions. I asked him about that. And he said, yeah, he wrote the first part with his head. He wrote the second part with his heart.

KUDLOW: And would you agree with him it's not hopeless?

Mr. RICKS: It's not hopeless, but anybody who tells you the surge is working must know something that General Petraeus doesn't know because General Petraeus today said it's too early to tell.

KUDLOW: Mmm, interesting. All right. Rick Francona, a quick response on the McCaffrey, and then I want to talk about al-Qaeda's new threat. First, is it hopeless over there in Iraq, Rick?

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: No, it's not hopeless, but I think Tom was exactly right. Following General Petraeus' reasoning, it's too early to tell. I mean, if you put two brigades, two American brigades, three Iraqi brigades on the ground, of course, you're going to see some improvement. But I think, we don't know if this is a permanent improvement if we're successfully buying enough time to get Iraqi forces in there. Otherwise, we're just pushing this problem out into the future.

KUDLOW: Last minute, New York Times lead story a couple days ago. We've been following this story on this program. The resurgence of the al-Qaeda's leadership and operations in the Pakistani badlands and Afghanistan. Rick, do you agree or disagree with The New York Times?

Lt. Col. FRANCONA: I agree that they've reconstituted themselves up on the Pakistani side of that border, but how effective they can be up there I really don't know. They're not operating before as they were before when they owned their own country. Now they're up in the caves hiding over there. They may have reconstituted their structure, but I don't think they've reconstituted themselves as the major threat that they once were.

KUDLOW: Tom Ricks, we just got 15, 20 seconds, agree or disagree with al-Qaeda resurgence a la New York Times.

Mr. RICKS: It's a pretty good summary you just got from Colonel Francona. The worry I'm hearing here in Washington is, look, after 9/11, we killed the majority of their leaders...

KUDLOW: Right.

Mr. RICKS: ...but they've come back and regenerated, and that's a worrisome sign.

KUDLOW: All right. Colonel Rick Francona, Tom Ricks of The Washington Post, gentlemen, thank you ever so much.

Up next, my last word, I want to see these Republican candidates be sharp as a tack and very specific because we're for keeping America great. KUDLOW & COMPANY coming right back for the last word.

April 4, 2007

Questions abound after British sailors released

This article appeared on MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

The Iranians have decided to release the 15 British sailors and Marines they have held hostage for over 12 days. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he had “pardoned” the British during the celebration of the birth of the prophet, which this year almost coincides with Easter. To the world, he appears to have made a magnanimous gesture.

Good news, of course, but now comes the post mortem. There are many questions to be answered, not the least of which are what did the British give to secure the release of their service members, and will Iran pay a price for their action?

Most of the world believes the British were operating in Iraqi waters and this whole affair was engineered by the Iranians to draw attention from its nuclear program. Inside Iran, the affair may have played well - distrust of the British is an ingrained emotion. It was Britain, after all, that granted Iraq total sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab when they created the country in the aftermath of World War One. It is that same body of water that sparked decades of disputes between Iran and Iraq, including 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. It is also the venue of the current Iranian action against the British anti-smuggling team. The current border in the waterway is the thalweg, the deepest part of the channel, not always easy to define – confrontations are probably unavoidable.

So what did the British give to secure the release of their service members? The Royal Navy has always maintained that their naval units were operating inside Iraqi territorial waters, and it appears that stance has not changed. That said, several of the 15 Britons did make “confessions” on Iranian television. I suspect they will be called on to explain that decision. It’s a tough call for a detainee to make – do I go on television and perform as demanded to prevent mistreatment of my subordinates, do I appear to send a message to my government and family that I am alive and well, or refuse to comply and suffer the consequences? I am sure the Royal Navy will ask.

Probably more important in the long run, what price does Iran pay? In recent days, some commentators believe Iran will emerge from this situation as the winner. How can that be? They precipitated the crisis. The immediate reaction to the “pardon” and release is that the Iranians are the good guys in this. I hope not. Ahmadinejad found a face-saving way out of a mess he created – nothing more.

The Iranians need to be held accountable for this charade. They probably won’t. That may be in fact the British accommodation.

Who is an Arab?

(This was written for the Defense Language Institute Alumni Association)

Although this might seem like a silly question, the issue can be quite complex. In times past, there was an accepted ethnic definition of Arabs as those Semitic people whose ancestors originally inhabited what is now known as the Arabian Peninsula. With the spread of Islam beginning in the 7th Century came the spread of the Arabic language, complicating the original definition.

In 1946, the Arab League sought to define an Arab to determine which countries would qualify for membership. The definition adopted by the organization was: “An Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples." Why Somalia and Comoros, who fail in all three criteria, were accepted as member states in the Arab League remains a mystery.

Today, the general rule of thumb is that anyone who speaks Arabic as his or her native language is an Arab, making the term “Arab” an ethno-linguistic identifier. The term encompasses between 250 and 300 million people, mostly concentrated in what are defined as the 23 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. There are also significant numbers of Arabs resident in non-Arab countries in the Middle East (Iran, Turkey, Israel, etc.) and Africa, as well as North America, South America and especially Europe.

For most people now identified as Arabs, there is no specific ethnic designation but rather a mixture of ethnic and cultural identities. In North Africa, many of today’s “Arabs” are of Berber or Moor stock. Egyptians are primarily of Hamitic origin, and the Levant has persons of Turkic, Caucasian and European ancestry. What binds them all together as “Arabs” is the Arabic language and to a large extent Islam.

In some “Arab” countries, there are non-Arabs, and also unique groups of people who speak Arabic as their native language but dispute the definition of themselves as Arabs. In Lebanon, some of the native Arabic-speaking Christian groups prefer to identify themselves as Phoenicians, while in Egypt some of the Coptic Christians avoid the use of the term “Arab.”

Iraq is certainly considered an Arab country; however, Arabic is spoken natively by only 80 percent of the population, and is only one of the two official languages. Kurdish is also an official language, and the Kurds – ethnically distinguishable - definitely do not consider themselves to be Arabs. There are other ethnic groups in Iraq that are also not Arabs, such as the Assyrians, Turcomans and Chaldeans. Interestingly, many of these people do speak Arabic as their native language.

Bottom line: there is no universal definition of who is an Arab. If you speak Arabic as your native language and want to be identified as an Arab, you are an Arab.