November 15, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr - Address the Threat

Once again, radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has threatened to restart his armed resistance to the presence of American forces in Iraq. For the last year, his band of thugs has observed what he calls a "truce," which has partially been responsible for lower levels of violence in the country. In reality, he had little choice but to order his loyalists to stand down or face the newly deployed combat troops that made up the American "surge." Each time the Sadrists take on the Americans, they suffer badly.

This time the threat is an attempt to stop the Iraqi government from signing an agreement with the United States that provides a legal framework for American forces to remain in Iraq beyond December 31, 2008. That agreement has been completed and will soon be submitted to the Iraqi national assembly for approval.

Al-Sadr now threatens to order his followers to attack American forces if there is any agreement that provides for the continued presence of the troops in Iraq, or allows them to retain any bases in the country. Note that al-Sadr makes these threats from the safety of Iran, where he claims to be furthering his Islamic education. Maybe he is, of maybe he is just hiding.

Muqtada al-Sadr poses a clear and immediate threat to American forces. That threat should be addressed - this radical ne'er-do-well has been a problem since he was involved in the murder of Shi'a cleric 'Abd al-Majid al-Khu'i in April 2003. Although a warrant was issued for his arrest, he has never been charged for complicity in the crime. His followers - and thus him - have American blood on their hands.

American forces should neutralize this threat. That's a polite way of sending a special forces team to kill him. I have said this before - it is long overdue.

November 12, 2008

Syrian Uranium Mythology

Earlier this month, diplomats with access to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna week revealed that samples taken from a site in northeastern Syria indicated the presence of processed uranium.

This finding lends credence to the Israeli claims that the site housed a nuclear reactor and some vindication for its attack on the facility in September 2007.

Syrian reactor site near al-Kibar

This revelation should come as no surprise - the evidence of Syrian-North Korean cooperation to build the reactor at al-Kibar is in my opinion irrefutable. Ground photography of the site shows a facility closely resembling the reactor at Yongbyon, North Korea. Photogrammetry of satellite imagery indicates that the two buildings are almost identical in size. The only exception is the clever Syrian attempts to mask the true purpose of the site. There is no obvious power source, cooling system, or air defense. While the site is easily visible from above as shown on the image above, the facility is actually placed in a wadi and not visible from the roads in the area or the Euphrates River.

This is typical for the Syrians - I was a military attaché assigned to the American Embassy in Syria and spent a lot of time trying to find these hidden facilities.

Similarities in Syrian and North Korean reactors

In what has to be a classic attempt at Syrian mythology, the explanation of how processed uranium found its way to al-Kibar. This map will be useful.

Syria has a declared nuclear program for research and the production of isotopes for medical and agricultural purposes. The program uses a small reactor located in a facility near the Damascus International Airport near Dayr al-Hajar. The facility is easily visible from the road - there are no attempts to disguise its function.

The possible explanation: Perhaps some of the uranium found in the remains of the site at al-Kibar originated at Dayr al-Hajar and was inadvertently moved to al-Kibar.

Talk about the suspension of disbelief. It is over 250 miles of bad roads from Dayr al-Hajr to al-Kibar. Trust me - I've driven it. There is no easy way to get there, and no plausible explanation as to why anyone involved in the reactor program at Dayr al-Hajar should be at al-Kibar, unless al-Kibar was in fact a nuclear facility.

I think the Syrians still have some explaining to do.

November 10, 2008

Iraq-U.S. Troop Withdrawal Agreement - A Bad Deal

The current iteration of the agreement between the governments of Iraq and the United States is a bad deal for both countries. The Iraqis are being typically xenophobic and short-sighted, and the United States is giving up too much in the rush to sign an agreement before the end of the year when the current United Nations mandate expires. Or, could it be that the United States is rushing to complete an agreement before the current administration leaves office in January?

Some Sunni and Shi'a leaders have suggested that they should wait until Barack Obama takes office before concluding an agreement, hoping to accelerate the withdrawal of American forces from the proposed three-year timetable to the 16 month pullout promised by Senator Obama during his presidential campaign. That sounds good to the Iraqis, although if there is no agreement in force on December 31, American forces technically will be required to cease operations. In theory, American forces will be sidelined until there is a legal framework in place to allow them to operate. In reality, any American officer who places his forces in jeopardy because of this political manuevering is not being true to his troops.

That said, if American troops cease operations, it just may demonstrate to the Iraqi leadership just how fragile their current relative calm is. Iraqi military and security forces have come a long way in the past few years, and may be able to handle much of the direct on-scene operational duties required to maintain some semblance of calm, but they are not in a position to provide the requisite logistics, transportation, medical, intelligence, etc. - all those combat support functions that are not yet fully operational in the fledgling Iraqi units.

The Iraqi politicians are acting as if they are in the driver's seat. Lest they forget who gave them this opportunity to practice democracy, we should at all times remind them that it was American forces - U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen - that fought and died ro remove Saddam Husayn and the Ba'thi regime. There are almost 4,200 American families that gave their most precious commodity - their sons and daughters - to give them this this chance. We should demand a say in what goes on for the immediate future.

The Middle East is a dangerous, yet critical, part of the world, and it will remain so as long as we Americans are dependent on fossil fuels as a cornerstone of our energy resources. In the absence of any semblance of leadership or even mere cooperation from our European "allies," the United States needs to stand firm and demand an agreement that meets our security needs, rather than accept what is not in our national interest. The presence of 152,000 American troops should count for something.

So what do the Iraqis want, and what can we not live with? Let's take a look at some of the points that this administration has caved on.

Let's eliminate the jurisdiction issue. The language of the agreement in all iterations is similar to agreements we have made all over the world - hardly a show stopper. More to the point, however - the initial draft provided for an American troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011, open to negotiation at that time. If press reports are correct, the latest draft removes language authorizing Iraq to ask U.S. forces to remain in any capacity beyond the end of 2011 - the new text is, "United States forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011."

Unacceptable. No one can predict the situation in Iraq in 2011, let alone the situation in Iran at that time. We did not sacrifice over 4,000 Americans to establish an Iranian surrogate. Both Iraq and the United States need the flexibility to determine American force presence at that time based on the situation. We should demand no less.

The Bush Administration should rethink these concessions, and the incoming Obama Administration should reject them.

November 9, 2008

Obama's Election - Mixed Reviews in the Region

The election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States has sparked some interesting reactions in the Middle East - mostly predictable, but with some surprises.

The leaders of Iran and Syria - both state sponsors of terrorism - sent congratulatory messages to the president-elect, assuming that he will be more amenable to direct discussions with their regimes. Iranian leaders are especially encouraged by Obama's repeated campaign promise to meet with them without preconditions.

In a earlier interview with the New York Times, Obama made clear that “changes in [Iranian] behavior” would be rewarded with economic benefits and security guarantees. “We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith,” he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hell-bent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior.”

With these words on the record, Obama's victory was welcomed in Tehran, as well as Damascus - no surprise since Syria has become nothing more than a client state of Iran. Iranian President Ahmadinejad would prefer to deal with someone who has committed to talk to him without the Iranian leader making any concessions whatsoever. I suspect that Ahmadinejad's national security advisors have provided him with an analysis that the new American president will be somewhat naive and easier to manipulate that either the Bush administration or John McCain. To Ahmadinejad, an Obama win presents him with the opportunity to reset the nuclear enrichment issue - no doubt he will want to start at square one and thus gain more time for his scientists to move closer to their likely goal of producing fissile material - the precursor to a nuclear weapon.

Syria likewise is happy with an Obama victory. Despite his rhetoric at selected American Jewish gatherings, Obama appears much more disposed to the Palestinian and Arab positions in the Middle East peace process than either George Bush or John McCain. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad hopes that a softer line from Washington will allow him to drive a harder bargain in his dealings with the Israelis. He may even believe he will able to regain the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights without having to close the Syrian gate for Iranian support of Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Virtually all Iranian support for these terrorist groups is funneled through Syria's airspace and border crossings into Lebanon.

Surprisingly, many senior officials of the Iraqi government are pleased that Obama won the election. The Shi'a leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are sympathetic (to put it mildly) with Iran and agree that their long term interests are best served with a quick and complete American troop withdrawal from Iraq - as Obama has committed to do. Other leaders are not as happy. The Sunnis believe that a quick withdrawal of American forces leaves them vulnerable to a resurgence of sectarian violence, and do not trust the Shi'a leaders close relationship with Iran. The Kurds are not so pleased with the Obama victory - they have stated that if American forces are not permitted to remain past a date certain specified in a status of forces agreement, they will offer bases in the Kurdish autonomous area. Of course, Prime Minister al-Maliki has just proposed to further limit what the autonomous regions can do, specifically aimed at just such an offer.

As far as the other Arab states, they are wary of the rise in Iranian power, Iran's apparent disregard for concerns of the international community over its nuclear program and what they believe is a new American willingness to give concessions to the regime in Tehran. If they believe a President Obama allows Iran to continue its uranium enrichment efforts unchecked, they too will find it necessary to develop their own similar capabilities. The failure of American foreign policy on this issue could ignite an arms race in the region, particularly the Persian Gulf. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly Turkey will be hard pressed not to follow suit.

The need to contain Iran will be Obama's first national security challenge. A precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, failure to provide strong leadership on the nuclear issue and the perception that we will no longer stand firm with out Gulf Arab allies may just be that test future vice president Joe Biden meant in his recent warning.

November 7, 2008

Memo to President Admadihejad: "Nuclear weapons are militarily useless"

Dear Mahmoud,

Your nuclear weapons program turns out to be unnecessary!

That's right - I attended a seminar yesterday at the ultra-liberal James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The new deputy director of the institute, Dr Patricia Lewis, is on record that "nuclear weapons are militarily useless."

There you have it. Now you can dismantle all the centrifuges, heavy water plants and atomic vapor laser isotope separation equipment at Natanz, Arak and Lashkar Abad.

Wait - I forgot. All those facilities are for peaceful purposes. Disregard.

Dr Patricia LewisOkay, I am being facetious here. That said, Dr Lewis's remarks merit some comment. Of course, you'd expect some hair-splitting statement from someone whose background is solely with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research and the Verification Research and Training Centre in London. Look at their success record, in say, North Korea, Pakistan, India or more currently, Iran.

According to Dr Lewis, the United Nations would like to persuade Iran to refrain from stepping over the nuclear weapons threshold, and encourage countries to rely on their own conventional military forces for security.

Here's the real answer. Nuclear weapons in the hands of responsible nations provide deterrence. Call it what you will, but the former Soviet Union was deterred by America's nuclear arsenal, and was able to deter attacks on itseff. It is this Cold War model that drove India and Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons, and it seems to have worked. During the last decade and a half when tensions flared in South Asia, the nuclear option caused saner heads to prevail. Without that balance, we would have seen at least two major confrontations between India's and Pakistan's considerable conventional forces.

Unfortunately, it is this same model that now drives irresponsible governments in the Middle East to acquire such weaponry - and I speak here specifically of Iran and Syria. They believe that a nuclear weapons capability will deter Israeli attacks and gives them more leverage in Middle East diplomacy.

Why do I call the goverments of Syria and Iran irresponsible? They are both state sponsors of terrorism - who can say if in a major miscalculation that either one or the other would provide a nuclear weapon to Hizballah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad. At that point, the weapons become instantly useful.

In fairness to Dr Lewis, I suspect that she is trying to draw a distinction between nuclear weapons as a military tool and a political tool. It makes no difference - they are one and the same. Having the weapons gives your diplomacy credibility. Without the weapons, other countries are apt not to pay too much attention.