April 29, 2009

Iran and Obama - the view from Riyadh

President Obama with Saudi King 'Abdullah

Despite President Obama's bow to the Saudi king during the G20 summit in London earlier this month, King 'Abdullah remains concerned about the new American president and his overtures to Iran.

Saudi Arabia faces several threats in the Persian Gulf region. These threats include terrorist attacks from al-Qa'idah and other fundamentalist Islamist groups and attacks on the oil infrastructure from Shi'a separatists in the Eastern Province, but the most serious threat by far is the ascendancy of Iran as a major power broker in the region.

The Persian Gulf is not a large body of water. It is all that separates the two key players in the region - the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both are essentially Islamic states, one an adherent to the strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, and one following the strict tenets of Twelver Shi'a Islam. Both sit on enormous oil reserves. One - Iran - is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them throughout the region.

The other - Saudi Arabia - had been relying on its relationship with the United States for its national security. That calculus changed shortly after the new American president took office and made it clear that he wants to change U.S.-Iranian relations. That change will likely be at the expense of the Gulf Arab states, long-time American allies in the region.

Although Obama said during his campaign that an Iran with nuclear weapons was "unacceptable" and the world should take steps to prevent that from happening, the Saudis have concluded that the talk will not translate into effective action. While the West talks to Iran, Iranian centrifuges continue to enrich uranium in defiance of the world - that very world that the president hopes will prevent the development of a bomb. Did we learn nothing from North Korea?

What are the Saudis to do? Given their enormous wealth, they might try to buy a nuclear capability, much like they purchased virtually every other military capability they have. They might enter into a strategic alliance with the United States, hoping to fit under the American nuclear umbrella. Or, they might just accept the fact that Iran will be the major power broker in the region and figure out how to deal with the mullans in Tehran.

Whatever the Saudis decide to do, they realize full well that the American administration is not going to do anything other than draft speeches calling on the international community to do something about Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the absence of American leadership, nothing is going to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The distance between Riyadh and Washington just got a bit greater.

Quoted in Turkish Newspaper

Today's ZamanI was recently contact by a Turkish journalist, Abdullah Bozkurt, of Turkey's largest Engligh-language daily, Today's Zaman, about the possibility of Israel using Turkish airspace to attack targets in Iran. Here is the article based in part on that interview. I have highlighted portions that include my comments.

Ankara won’t allow Israel to use Turkish airspace in attacking Iran

The prospect of a surprise Israeli air strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites using Turkish airspace would have alarming implications in the region and would certainly invite the wrath of Turkey upon Israel, a senior analyst in Ankara has said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, he said Turkey would never signal its willingness to accept such an air strike by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would immediately shoot down any aircraft violating its own space en route to Iran, which he described as a neighbor and important trading partner. “Even tacit approval of such an operation would go against everything Turkey stands for and would throw the balance of power in the region into chaos,” he stressed.

With the new administration in the US led by President Barack Obama, who openly advocates engagement and dialogue with Iran, the likelihood of such an air strike and the chance of getting US approval are slim to none. Former President George W. Bush also refused to let Israel take such an aggressive action. In his speech delivered in the Turkish capital last month, Obama attempted to pitch his policy of moderation in Iran and said Washington “seeks engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Although the US and Turkish opposition deem the strike an almost certain impossibility, even the remote chance of such an adventure is enough to raise concerns in Ankara as well as in numerous capitals in the Middle East. “Such an action would pit one Muslim state [Turkey] against another [Iran],” says Yılmaz Ateş, a deputy from Ankara and the deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party. Ateş told Today’s Zaman that an Israeli air strike violating Turkish airspace would have disastrous consequences.

“I do not envision Israeli aircraft in Turkish airspace without permission,” stressed Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who is a retired US Air Force intelligence officer that had worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA. Speaking to Today’s Zaman, military analyst Francona said, “I don’t think the Turks will allow it, especially since the December 2008-January 2009 Israeli attacks in Gaza.” “That operation has put a real strain on Turkey’s relations with Israel,” he noted.

Israel mulls Turkish route to attack Iran

Possible Israeli attack routes
Israel has three routes to consider if -- a big “if” many argue -- it is willing to undertake an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear sites. The northern route entails flying from Israel to the north toward the corner of the Syrian-Turkish border, then turning east and hugging the Syrian border. The central route goes over Jordan and Iraq, while the southern route takes an attack squadron through Saudi Arabia and then to Iran via Iraq or even Kuwait.

A report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank, in March 2009 suggests that a military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible and that the optimum route would be the northern one along the Syrian-Turkish border, then over a small portion of Iraq into Iran, and back along the same route. The CSIS report argues that all of the other options are deemed too risky.

Even for the northern route using Turkish airspace, the report underlines that the number of aircraft required, the logistics of refueling along the way and the ability to get to the targets without being detected or intercepted would be complex and very risky, and would lack any assurances that the overall mission would have a high success rate. The most significant challenge in terms of logistics comes from the aerial refueling, as the fuel capacity of Israeli aircraft does not allow a flight to reach a target in Iran on a single tank. According to a report last year by an Austin-based private strategic forecasting company, Stratfor, Israel already possesses significant aerial refueling capabilities. “Nevertheless, the Israeli Air Force would probably be extremely stretched in terms of these assets to attempt a bombing campaign against Iran,” the agency noted.

Francona underlined that “if Israel uses Turkish airspace, the Israeli fighter-bombers will have to be refueled, either in the air or on the ground.” “Either option will require Turkish permission at the least [for aerial refueling] or Turkish cooperation [for ground refueling],” he emphasized.

That seems very unlikely as Turkey would never agree to cooperate in an operation that would lead to hostile action against Iran. Turkey was furious at Israel in 2007 when Israeli warplanes attacked a target at Deir ez-Zor in northeast Syria, and exited Syrian airspace by traveling towards the Mediterranean via Turkey. After discovering that two Israeli fuel tanks had been dropped by the warplanes in Turkish territory, one near Gaziantep and the other near Antakya, Ankara demanded an explanation from Israel.

Covering up the incident

Turkish deputy Ateş remembers that he submitted a parliamentary inquiry motion in 2007, asking Minister of Defense Vecdi Gönül to respond to allegations of airspace violation. The copy of the documents obtained by Today’s Zaman shows the Ministry of Defense dodged questions that were raised by Ateş. Gönül simply referred the case to Foreign Ministry and said “the investigation into the allegations is still going on.” “I was very frustrated to see that the government declined to respond to any question, casting a shadow over what really happened on that day,” Ateş said.

Turkish officials told Today’s Zaman that Ankara delivered a very strong protest note to Tel Aviv; then-Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert publicly apologized for the incident in late October 2007 and stressed that they had never intended to violate the sovereignty of Turkey. When the question was asked on the issue, President Abdullah Gül said, “I consider the case closed.” The speculation was, however, that IAF fighter jets came under fire from Syrian air defenses and war planes jettisoned the fuel tanks to increase speed and maneuverability.

In a more conspiratorial interpretation, one source told Today’s Zaman that Israel instigated the incident to pit Turkey against Syria and the planes had deliberately dropped the fuel tanks on Turkish territory to give the impression that Ankara gave a go ahead to the Israeli strike on Syrian targets. “Fortunately both Syrian and Turkish officials shared their intelligence and discovered the ploy and relations were not damaged,” the source noted.

Military analyst Francona points out that the Gaza offensive in January represents a turning point in Israeli relations with Turkey. “Prior to that, using Turkish airspace would have been an option, but only with Turkish permission,” he said. “With the use of Turkish airspace, the Israelis would have the option of entering Iran either via Turkish airspace or via Iraqi [American-controlled] airspace,” he said, adding, “I would opt for using Turkey to get to Iraqi airspace in order to minimize the amount of time required to be in Iranian -- hostile -- airspace.”

Still, many believe the operation is a very risky one as Israel could be required to hit more than a dozen targets, including sites like Natanz, where thousands of centrifuges produce enriched uranium; Esfahan, where 250 metric tons of gas are stored in tunnels; and Arak, where a heavy water reactor produces plutonium. According to CSIS estimates, the IAF needs at least 90 strike fighters and refueling airplanes to accomplish that.

Francona warns Israelis that Turkey’s air surveillance capabilities are far more effective than anyone Israel has ever flown against. “To attempt to reach targets in Iran via Turkey without Turkish permission is virtually impossible, and I do not think the Israelis will attempt to do so,” he said.

April 28, 2009

Air strike in Sudan hits old arms route - UPDATE

This is an update to an article that I wrote in March.

According to the Egyptian newspaper al-Usbu' (The Week), quoting Sudanese sources, an unidentified naval vessel fired on and sank an Iranian ship allegedly transporting weapons bound for the Gaza Strip. The intended recipient of the arms was the Islamic group Hamas.

If past practice was to be followed, the Iranian ship would have docked in Sudan, the weapons offloaded for overland transport to the Sinai peninsula, then smuggled into the Gaza Strip via a series of tunnels under the Egyptian border.

Given Israel's demonstrated willingness to use its air force to attack these Iranian illicit arms deliveries - it did so in March - there is no reason to believe it would not employ its small but capable navy. Israel's missile patrol boats - like this Sa'ar 5 - are easily capable of operating in the Red Sea off the Sudanese coast.

In January and again in February, unidentified foreign aircraft struck an arms convoy in Sudan near the Egyptian border. The conventional wisdom is that the strike was conducted by Israeli Air Force aircraft and that their target was a convoy headed for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (read entiremore

Given the timing of the attacks - the last week of January and the early part of February - it must have been the Israelis. It is inconceivable that the Obama administration would have ordered this type of proactive decisive operation by the U.S. Air Force. The new American president is still laboring under the impression that his words will move Hamas to change its ways. The Israelis have concluded that only force of arms will move Hamas.

The attack on this arms transhipment route highlights an ages-old smuggling route, one used for at least two decades by the Iranians to support their clients in the Middle East and North Africa.

The red line on the map shows the route used by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force to move weapons from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. First, the arms are moved by air or sea to the Sudan. Generally speaking, arms and ammunition are heavy, so they are most likely moved by ship from Iranian ports to Port Sudan. From the port, the materiel is moved by trucks up the coastal road along the Red Sea into Egypt, continuing up along the Gulf of Suez.

There are a few spots to cross the Suez Canal, but the most likely is the well-established commercial ferry service at Qantarah (photo). I have crossed the canal here several times - it is a beehive of transhipping activity. These ferries are easily capable of moving heavy loads across the canal.

Once the materiel is on the Sinai side of the canal, it is moved to the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. At this point, it is broken down into much smaller parcels and smuggled through the scores of tunnels under the border into the Gaza Strip, where they are stored and used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While this might seem like an inefficient method of moving arms from Iran into Gaza, it has been surprisingly effective. It is effective because it is relatively easy to bribe Egyptian customs and border officials to look the other way.

One of Israel's demands for a long-term truce with Hamas is the cessation of this arms smuggling. To be effective, this must include a commitment on the part of the Egyptians to control their borders. Israel has conducted numerous air strikes on the tunnels, but the soil on this border is conducive to tunneling, and the Gazans are highly motivated by the profits generated from the smuggling of consumer goods into the Strip.

Arms and goods - legitimate and otherwise - have traveled this route since trade began in ancient tiems. Iran has used it in the past to move weapons to Islamist groups in Africa, and now to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. It should come as no surprise that Israel is interdicting the weapons before they arrive at the Gaza border.

Pentagon IG Clears Military Analyst Program

In April of 2008, The New York Times published a front page article by David Barstow, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand," accusing the Department of Defense of mounting a propaganda effort using retired military officers working as on-air analysts from various broadcast media organizations. I was named as one of the analysts involved. The story is inaccurate - my responses when the article was published: "Response to New York Times Article on Military Analysts," and "Response to Rumsfeld Luncheon Reports."

The article set off at least two investigations, one by the Defense Department's Inspector General, and the other by the Federal Communications Commission in response to a letter from Representatives John Dingell (D-MI) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

I regard the latter as politically motivated. I responded to the insulting accusations put forth in the Dingell-DeLauro letter that questioned my integrity and besmirched my 28 years of military service. I have not heard anything of this inquiry since - I think I know why. Soon after President Obama took office, he asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to remain in his position, and Dingell was replaced as head of the committee that oversees the FCC. It would be difficult for the administration to now go after the Secretary of Defense after he was asked to stay on by the new president.

In January 2009, the DOD IG concluded that Retired Military Analyst Program did not "violate the prohibition on publicity and propaganda," and the program was "conducted in accordance with DoD policies and regulations." The IG report further stated, "We found no indication that partisanship was operative during the interchanges with [retired military analysts] and found no evidence that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs personnel sought to somehow avoid portraying DOD as a source for the information provided. Rather, the briefings were open and transparent."

Surprisingly, the author received a Pulitzer Prize for the article. I will have to re-evaluate my opinion of the Pulitzer Prize committee.

James Davis, a former DOD public affairs officer involved in the program, penned an excellent response to this misguided award. The article, "Behind Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times' Hidden Agenda" appeared in today's on-line version of the conservative magazine Human Events.

An excerpt:

These analysts are career military officers who rose through the non-partisan ranks of the military through a combination of hard work and ability to lead. It is awfully presumptive to state that they would stake their reputations for politics. The Pentagon seeks to inform military analysts so they are better prepared to report on DOD policies whenever a reporter calls, whether they are from CNN, The New York Times, or FOX News.

The conclusions drawn in Mr. Barstow’s New York Times article aren’t surprising. The New York Times had an agenda from the beginning. They filed the FOIA request from the DOD in hopes they would make news, and they did. Instead of erupting into applause when the Pulitzer Committee’s results were announced, The New York Times should have issued an apology to the retired military officers.

More importantly, have the standards of the Pulitzer Prize committee dropped this low? Is this standard of journalism really worthy of any award?

James, I couldn't have said it better.

April 26, 2009

Al-Qa'idah in Iraq - "We're still here..."

Click for larger viewBaghdad

Click for larger viewKazimiyah section

The attack Friday by Al-Qa'dah in Iraq (AQI) on the al-Kazimiyah shrine in the north section of Baghdad is a reminder that the security situation in Iraq, although improved since the extreme violence of only two years ago, remains an issue. It is also a reminder that AQI is still a threat that must be addressed if the country is going to return to some sense of normalcy - not that life under Saddam Husayn could be considered normal. Ironically, the Kazimiyah section of the city was the venue of Saddam Husayn's execution - it took place at the former compound of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. During my time in Baghdad in 1988 as a liaison officer, I worked at this compound.

AQI has suffered since "the surge" began in late 2007. It has been pretty much defeated and pushed into the Mosul area in the north. Its attacks have been focused in that area as well as areas of Baghdad.

Golden Mosque - Samarra'مرقد الامامين علي الهادي والحسن العسكري
Shrine of 10th and 11th Imams - Samarra'

Friday's attack reveals AQI's latest tactic - try to re-ignite the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 that occurred after the militant Sunni AQI (then under the direction of Abu Musa'ib al-Zarqawi) destroyed the Shi'a holy site in Samarra' - the Golden Mosque that houses the shrines of 'Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-'Askari. These two are the 10th and 11th imams respectively, grandfather and father of the 12th imam, the last imam who went into occultation as a child and will return as the Mahdi. This attack was too much for the Shi'a to take without a response. Prior to this assault, the Shi'a had observed the wishes of Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Saystani not to be provoked into a civil war.

kazimiyah Shrine - Baghdadالحضرة الكاظمية
Kazimiyah Shrine (tombs of 7th and 9th Imams)

The Kazimiyah shrine is another holy site for Shi'a Muslims. After the three holy cities common to all Muslims (Mecca, Madinah and Jerusalem), the Shi'a revere the shrines in the Iraqi cities of Najaf, Karabala' and the Kazimiyah section of Baghdad. The Kazimiyah shrine houses the tombs of the Shi'a 7th Imam (Musa al-Kazim - hence the name Kazimiyah) and the 9th Imam (Muhammad al-Taqi), as well as other noted Shi'a scholars. An attack on this shrine by Sunni militants is another direct attack on the Shi'a sect of Islam.

Igniting sectarian violence was a measure of desperation for AQI in 2006, and is again in 2009. AQI believes that a successful attack on Kazimiyah has the potential to restart the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shi'as. Of course, the Shi'a-dominated government and security forces understand the significance of this mosque and have placed it under heavy guard.

AQI knows the Americans are leaving. Their only hope to achieve their aims of turning Iraq into an Islamic state is to cause a civil war they think they can win. The Iraqi government must continue the efforts started by the Americans to work with the Sunni tribes and jointly hunt down and kill the remnants of AQI.

April 23, 2009

Iran - Can cutting off gasoline imports work?

Gasoline lines in Tehran - 2007

There is a bipartisan effort brewing in Congress to increase the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran. Thus far, the successive sanctions applied by the United Nations has not had the desired effect - to force Iran to comply with Security Council resolutions demanding the Islamic Republic halt its uranium enrichment program. This new effort will target one of Iran's weaknesses - the shortage of oil refining capacity.

Iran is the world's fourth, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' second, leading exporter of crude oil. It exports almost 2.5 billion barrels per day to its major customers - Japan, China, India and South Korea. It also sits on the world's third largest proven oil reserves (behind Saudi Arabia and Canada).

Despite having all this oil, Iran cannot meet the domestic demand for refined oil products - the country must import about 40 percent of its gasoline. It is a major concern for the government and an extremely contentious issue with the population. When the government imposed gasoline rationing in 2007, there were riots in major cities across the country. Gasoline lines were reminiscent of those in the United States during the 1973-1874 Arab oil embargo.

Iran imports its gasoline from only a few suppliers. These suppliers are mainly European companies, and one Indian company. They are susceptible to pressure from the United States and European governments since all of them do business in the United States and Europe. The effort in the U.S. Congress is aimed at applying that pressure.

Can it work? It can in the short term, but the window of opportunity is closing. The Iranians are not stupid - they realize their reliance on imported gasoline provides leverage to external powers. Iran is expanding its refining capacity - by 2011 they may be self-sufficient in refined petroleum products. I wish the United States would recognize this same issue - reliance on foreign suppliers of energy puts national security at risk.

If this is to work, and it can, it must be done sooner rather than later. That may mean focusing on a potential solution at the expense of only a possible thaw in American-Iranian relations that may or may not yield results. Any delay in causing changes in the Iranian regime's behavior plays right into their plan - delay and continue to enrich uranium

Do it, and do it now.

April 20, 2009

Iran vs Saberi - A pawn in a bigger game

Former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami and Roxanna Saberi

The recent espionage conviction of American citizen Roxanna Saberi by an Iranian court has little to do with her - she is merely a pawn in the politics of the Islamic Republic.

Ms. Saberi was in Iran initially to do some reporting - she had valid press credentials issued by the Iranian government - and stayed on to do some research. She was arrested for purchasing alcohol, which is prohibited by Iran's Islamic law. The charges were then changed to reporting without proper accreditation, then finally to espionage. Not surprisingly, she was convicted in a one-day (her father claims it was about 15 minutes) closed trial.

This is the first time that an American journalist has been convicted of espionage by the Islamic Republic. Ms. Saberi is not a spy. The Iranians know that and we know that. How do we now that? Simple - the United States does not use American journalists (or journalists working for American news organizations) in the conduct of its intelligence operations. Period. It is specifically and absolutely prohibited by U.S. law.

The prohibition on using American journalists is one of the first things you learn in both the CIA and Defense Department intelligence operations (also known as "tradecraft") courses. Up until 2001, the prohibition on using journalists could be waived by the Director of Central Intelligence, but in 2001 the prohibition was made absolute via Section 306 of the Intelligence Authorization Act, more commonly known as the Richardson Amendment.

There are other categories of people that cannot be used - they include members of the Peace Corps, clerics and certain types of U.S.-government sponsored scholars. These rules are made public to protect these groups of people when they are working in places unfriendly to the United States.

So why did the Iranians charge and convict Ms Saberi of espionage? A look at the Iranian political landscape might provide a clue. There are elections coming in June - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is running for re-election. He has made noises that he is open to improved relations with the United States and the new American president. Not all of those in the Iranian leadership are supportive of this idea. The ultra-conservative judiciary - the ones who convicted Ms. Saberi - is mostly against improved relations with the West in general and with the United States in particular.

The conviction of an American journalist will undoubtedly complicate Ahmadinejad's efforts to open a dialogue with President Obama. He knows that - he sent a letter to the chief prosecutor in Tehran urging him to ensure that Ms. Saberi is allowed to present a complete defense during her appeal. The Iranian president understands full well that no American president will be able to improve relations with a country that has just convicted an American citizen on obviously trumped up charges.

Ahmadinejad's letter coincides with President Obama's remarks that Iran will gain American goodwill if it "responded positively in this case." That's "diplo-speak" for "fix this if you want your efforts to improve relations to go anywhere."

It will be interesting to watch the power struggle in Iran. The result of that directly impacts on President Obama's ability to make any more overtures to the Islamic Republic. I suspect (and hope) that Ms. Saberi will be acquitted on appeal.

April 16, 2009

DHS Targets Our Middle East Veterans

In an insult to American military personnel, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a report to local law enforcement agencies warning of "rightwing extremism." The report, entitled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment should be read by everyone - it is a clear indication of how this administration views its citizens in general and its veterans in particular. I was also not aware that "rightwing" is a word.

There are two sections in the report that address the threat from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. For those without an intelligence background, the paragraph markings in the document indicate U for Unclassified, FOUO means For Official Use Only, and LES indicates Law Enforcement Sensitive.

Here is the first reference:

The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.

This makes it sound like thousands of returning veterans are mentally troubled powder kegs waiting to explode or looking for extremist militias to join. Note the lack of any specific information or studies that back up this "assessment." Is this typical of the quality of work that costs us over $50 billion a year for DHS?

This is the second reference. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano characterizes this as a "footnote." I've written quite a few intelligence assessments in my time - this is not a footnote, but a major section of the document.

(U) Disgruntled Military Veterans

(U//FOUO) DHS/I&A assesses that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat. These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence. The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.

— (U) After Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, some returning military veterans—including Timothy McVeigh—joined or associated with rightwing extremist groups.

— (U) A prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that “large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.”

— (U//LES) The FBI noted in a 2008 report on the white supremacist movement that some returning military veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have joined extremist groups.

So, "some" returning veterans have joined extremist groups. Given the numbers of people that serve in the armed forces, it only stands to reason that "some" might join these organizations. Further, DHS is relying on reports from "a prominent civil rights organization?" Is this how you collect and analyze threat information? If so, we really need to reassess that $50 billion dollar price tag.

These accusations are reminiscent of earlier insults by two elected officials. Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) called a group of Marines in Iraq "cold-blooded killers." All were subsequently tried and acquitted - I must have missed Murtha's apology. Then we had Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) comparing the alleged abuse of prisoners by American troops to techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge.

Durbin's remarks are typical of those who have never worn the uniform of their country; Murtha has no such excuse. He served, but obviously has forgotten to honor his comrades in arms.

Secretary Napolitano's remarks are equally insulting:

“There is one thing I regret about that report and that it is being read by some to suggest that all veterans of our military services are somehow at risk of become extremists and committing violent acts in the homeland. My department is filled with veterans. There is no department that believes in our veterans more strongly than the United States Department of Homeland Security.

Really? Perhaps the Defense Department or Veterans Administration might take issue with that statement. I certainly do. If this report is your assessment of returning military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, you need to resign.

April 15, 2009

Weapons in a mosque in Qalqiliyah - surprise?

There was a little-reported story in the news today, and in the big scheme of things, understandably so. However, for those who live in the area where this happened, or those who are familiar with the geography of the area, it strikes a chord.

The headline for the story was, "Palestinian police say they've uncovered explosives lab in West Bank mosque." Interesting, but not alarming - until I read the location of the mosque. The mosque (yes, a holy place of Islam, a religion of peace) is in a small city named Qalqiliyah (image below).

Qalqiliyah is located at the narrowest point of the state of Israel (see map below) - it is less than nine miles from this West Bank city to the Mediterranean Sea. The area near Qalqiliyah has been the venue of numerous Palestinian terrorist attacks over the years because of its location. If you were going to cut Israel in half, Qalqiliyah would be the perfect place to launch an attack. It would separate two of Israel's major cities - Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Why do I care? In January, I spent some time in Israel, mostly focused on the war in Gaza. During that trip, I also visited some friends in Ra'anana, Israel. Ra'anana is located only a few kilometers from Qalqiliyah.

A factor to consider when reading today's obscure news article is the anger, the rage of Palestinians over the anti-terrorist barrier erected between Israel and the West Bank - although the barrier also encompasses areas of the West Bank where Israelis have built settlements. (See my earlier Israel's Anti-Terrorist Fence - Long Term Solution?)

The barrier to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis creates jaza'ir sahyuniyah (Zionist peninsulas) jutting into the West Bank. In the above image, the red line indicates the path of the anti-terrorist barrier - note the erratic nature of the fence. The barrier effectively eliminates any contact or trade between the two sides.

Prior to the al-aqsa intifadhah, there was a robust commercial relationship between Qalqiliyah and the Israeli towns on its periphery. After the terrorist attacks from the West Bank and the resultant construction of the barrier, there is now virtually no contact between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis I talked to express regret that they cannot patronize businesses and restaurants in Qalqiliyah - I suspect that the Palestinians have suffered more economically from being cut off from Israel proper.

The barrier is real. Above is a wall portion of the barrier. It was made a wall rather than the normal fence because of sniper attacks from taller buildings (like mosques) in Qalqiliyah.

This is the gate (from the West Bank side) that controls access to the Qalqiliyah area. I was able to cross into the area on the West Bank; Israelis cannot cross here without special authorization.

So who would hide weapons in a mosque? According to the police on the West Bank - loyal to Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas - it is most likely the Islamic militant group Hamas.

I tend to agree. Qalqiliyah is a hotbed of Islamic militancy, and about as close to the heartland of Israel as you can get. Hamas has never shown any reticence about using holy places to store weapons.

April 14, 2009

Obama's predictable policy shift on Iran

Since his inauguration, President Barack Obama has rapidly moved to carry out, and possibly go beyond, a campaign promise - to open negotiations with Iran “without preconditions." Today's New York Times reports that the "U.S. May Drop Key Conditions for Iran Talks."

This is a concession to the Iranians - one that was to be expected. Soon after the new President took office, he made several overtures to the Iranians. These were clumsy and amateurish - and not surprisingly, rejected by the Iranian leadership.

During those first attempts to use his rhetorical skills and charm, the President unfortunately staked out a position from which he cannot do anything but make concessions. See my earlier assessment of these overtures: Memo to President on Iran and Obama and Iran - naïveté and the real world.

Obama has already made several concessions to the mullahs in Tehran. He has in essence recognized the Islamic Republic of Iran and rejected the idea of supporting regime change in Iran. That, though, was not enough for either President Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ayatolllah Khamenei. They demanded that Obama apologize for past American actions toward Iran and that he take actions to back up his words.

Not to disappoint, the President is pretty much doing what they asked. While at the G20 summit in London recently, Obama criticized his own country while on foreign soil, invited Iran to sit at the table to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and agreed to participate in European-sponsored negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Although the criticism of past American policy was fodder for the European audience, it indicated his desire to change directions in the world.

Now we read that the Obama administration may drop the demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program and agree to more inspections and timeline to reduce its nuclear activities. Of course, Iran will welcome this approach, claiming that dialogue has always been the preferred option.

How is this potential shift in American policy being received elsewhere? The Israelis, already leery over Obama's seeming shift away from traditional American support for the Jewish state, have labeled the new policy as acquiescence. Even U.S. congressmen from the President's own party expressed concern that Iran might use the diplomatic talks as a mechanism to gain time.

That concern is valid since this is exactly how it will be viewed in Tehran: yet another concession from a naive American president that will allow us to appear reasonable and open to discussion. While the diplomats are talking, or talking about talking, the centrifuges at Natanz continue to spin.

Here's my prediction. Just about the time the diplomats will have arrived at a "framework" for a compromise on the Iranian nuclear issue - this may take years - Iran will reveal that it has a nuclear weapon.

April 9, 2009

On Saudi customs - bowing, kissing and holding hands....

There has been a lot of commentary from the usual right-wing and left-wing pundits over the significance of President Obama's bow/non-bow (depending on your position) to Saudi King 'Abdullah at the recent G20 summit in London.

Look at this image taken from another perspective. Despite claims by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to the contrary, it was a bow. I believe it is inappropriate for an American president to bow to a foreign ruler.

Obama bows to Saudi king

Of course, the left-wingers cite Bush's treatment of the Saudi king - here the President is seen walking hand-in-hand with King 'Abdullah in Texas during a 2008 visit. When the king arrived, he and the President exchanged two kisses on the cheeks.

Bush with Saudi king

Perhaps an explanation of some Middle East and Saudi customs and protocols would be helpful.

I speak from experience. During Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, one of my responsibilities was to serve as General Norman Schwarzkopf's Arabic interpreter. As part of my duties, I routinely briefed senior Saudi and other Arab military staffs on the current situation. Although they attended the English language coalition briefings, they preferred to have it repeated for them in Arabic.

Soon after the beginning of the war in January 1991, General Schwarzkopf was asked to provide a situation briefing to King Fahd (King 'Abdullah's predecessor and older brother). The general asked me to prepare the briefing in Arabic for the king.

As we went over the briefing, the issue of protocol arose. How would I address the king in Arabic? Your Royal Highness, Your Majesty? The Arabic is pretty specific as to titles for all levels of royalty, but since we do not have nor recognize royalty, it seemed inappropriate for me to use the Arabic terms that signify such.

There is the additional complication that although we refer to the Saudi monarch as the "king," his actual title (since 1986) is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (referring to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina).

In English, which General Schwarzkopf would be speaking, we normally used the word "sir' as the form of address for members of the royal family. However, in Arabic, the term "sir" (sidi) is not considered appropriate in Saudi Arabia. We agreed that I would use the term t'al 'umruk - Saudi for "extend your life" and normally used when addressing senior military officers.

When the king entered the room, he shook hands with General Schwarzkopf and took his seat. The Saudi palace protocol officer then introduced us, General Schwarzkopf nodded to me to begin. I started with the Arabic greeting and proceeded to deliver the briefing. The king smiled when I started in Arabic and mentioned to the general that my Arabic was good - most Saudis do not believe Americans can learn their language.

In other situations in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, greetings between men are often accompanied by kisses and hand-holding. At first it is uncomfortable for Americans, but it is the local custom. Adapting to these customs goes a long way to building trust and rapport.

In all my dealings in the region, I was never pressured to pay any particular homage other than the normal respects and courtesies shown for our own senior leadership. The Saudi king did not expect a bow from the American president, and in my opinion, he should not have received it.

I assume Mr. Obama was attempting to show respect, as he should, but he needs to hire some better advisors on things Middle Eastern.

April 7, 2009

Mr Axelrod - were you at the same meeting as Obama?

David AxelrodWhite House senior adviser David Axelrod - as well as a host of other White House advisors - has declared President Obama's recent trip to Europe a major foreign policy success. Success, I guess is in the eye of the beholder.

Let's talk about President Obama's efforts to garner more support for the war in Afghanistan. One of his primary efforts was to gain increased European contributions - troops and money - to NATO operations in the south Asian country. The European response to the President was laughable.

However, if you listen to the spin from Mr Axelrod:

"And then at NATO, his plan was unanimously embraced, and nations stepped forward with expressions and offers, tangible offers, of support -- thousands of military personnel to help secure the election on August 20th, which is the next big hurdle we have to clear in Afghanistan, thousands more personnel to train police and the Afghan army.

"And so there's cash, as well, to help pay for the development of the Afghan army, and half a billion (dollars) to help rebuild the Afghan economy.

"So there was enormously positive reaction to the president's plan there, and now we have a unified front. Every NATO nation acknowledged the fact that we have a joint concern and a joint interest in repelling Al Qaeda and in making this mission work."

A bit overstated. Our NATO allies have pledged to send (let's see if they actually show up) 3,000 troops to Afghanistan to secure the August elections - not fight the war - as well as 300 new police trainers and 70 embedded training teams for the Afghan army. That's about 4,000 troops total.

The European troops will not be there in a combat role taking on the Taliban and al-Qa'idah - you know, the enemy. The soldiers will arrive in country with a host of restrictive rules of engagement that make them little more than window dressing. See my earlier comments on Germany's contributions to the effort: German soldiers in Afghanistan - don't shoot the bad guys! By way of contrast, the United States has recently committed over 20,000 additional troops to the fight in Afghanistan.

When asked the direct question why didn't our European allies commit to send more troops to Afghanistan, Mr. Axelrod responded with the non-answer:

"First of all, our NATO allies do have troops in Afghanistan. There was a tremendous response to the president's new strategy in Afghanistan. One of the problems we've had in Afghanistan is we haven't had a focused strategy, and therefore it was hard to sell that strategy.

Obviously you haven't sold it yet.

The European leaders, unlike their flocks of adoring Obama fans, have ceased to be enamored with the rhetoric from the American president. The promise of $500 million dollars and only 4,000 non-combat troops was a gesture to prevent Mr. Obama from being even more embarrassed at his failure to rally the allies to make a real commitment to the war. This after Mr. Obama called his own country "arrogant," a statement that did not seem to move the Europeans.

Mr. Axelrod, you're a smart political operative, but even you can't spin this into success.