July 30, 2009

Egypt and the Nile - trouble brewing?

When we in the West think of the Middle East, our first thought is oil - access to it and how much it costs. To the residents of the Middle East, however, there is often more concern over water - access to it and how much it costs. It is a critical natural resource in short supply in the region - it has been the cause of numerous crises in the area over the years.

The recent failure of the 10 nations that comprise the Nile valley to reach a new agreement on how the river's waters will be shared underscores the importance of water and the political difficulties involved. The most powerful of the countries, and the one most affected by any change in the flow of the Nile, is Egypt. It is Egypt who is refusing to accept changes in the existing water-sharing agreements.

Under the current protocol - which stems from a 1929 agreement between Cairo and Great Britain, speaking for its East African colonies - Egypt receives by far the largest share of the Nile's waters (55.5 billion cubic meters per year) and, probably most irritating to the now-independent nations on the river, the right to veto any water project anywhere along the river.

The other nine countries favor the establishment of a permanent organization to oversee allocation of the Nile's waters. Egypt will not ratify an agreement that reduces its quota - its demand for water is increasing. Although Egypt may be forced to compromise on the right to veto upstream projects, it will not compromise on what it believes to be its rightful share of the water.


The nahr an-nil, Arabic for the Nile River, is the longest river system in the world, stretching for over 4,000 miles from the source of the White Nile at Lake Victoria in east central Africa to the delta on the Mediterranean. The White Nile flows generally north through Uganda and into Sudan where it meets the Blue Nile (source at Lake Tana, Ethiopia) at Khartoum. From Khartoum, the river continues northwards into Egypt and on to the Mediterranean.

Since time immemorial, the Nile has been the lifeblood of Egypt. In the spring, the waters of the river flooded, bringing black soil from the south and depositing it on the banks and creating the fertile Nile delta. Without the waters of the Nile to irrigate the dry deserts, Egypt would cease to exist. Despite the construction of the Aswan Dam in the late 1950’s and early 1960s, the Nile remains the single most important facet of Egyptian geopolitics.

Although there had been dams constructed near Aswan as early as the late 19th Century, the first effective effort to control the flow of the Nile was the Aswan High Dam. The project itself underscores the politics involved in the river. To finance the massive project, Egyptian President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (Gamal Abdul Nasser) nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Construction on the dam began in 1960 with Russian (Soviet) technical and financial assistance. The lake created by the dam flooded numerous ancient archaeological sites and modern villages, many of which were relocated at great expense.

"Egyptian interests…”

First and foremost among Egypt’s vital national interests is the unimpeded flow of the Nile River. The phrase “Egyptian interests” has become synonymous with the flow of the river. Egypt has stated that it will protect the flow of the Nile even if that requires military action outside its borders. It has demonstrated that on numerous occasions. As early as the 1970s, Egyptian Air Force bombers and reconnaissance aircraft routinely patrolled Sudanese skies.

In 1983, Libyan leader Mu’amar Al-Qadhafi sponsored a coup attempt in the Sudan. Egypt responded with the deployment of fighter aircraft to Egyptian airfields capable of striking targets in Libya, and deploying additional fighters to Sudan. Cairo also requested assistance from the United States, which deployed U.S. Air Force reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft to support Egyptian operations.

In 1984, when Libyan bombers struck targets in Omdurman, Sudan, Egypt once again moved aircraft to defend Sudan against Qadhafi’s attempts to destabilize the government. Although the Libyan bombings were in response to Sudanese support for Chadian guerrillas operating against Libyan expeditionary forces in Chad, Egypt assessed any threat to Sudan as a threat to the Nile.

Relations between Egypt and Sudan have not always been good. Changes in Sudan took place in the late 1980s, and successive anti-Egyptian governments came to power. In 1995, Cairo blamed Sudan for an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, further souring relations between the two nations. Despite strained relations, Egypt and Sudan still cooperate on Nile flows based on a bilateral 1959 agreement.

In 1998, faced with construction of new dams in Ethiopia, Cairo issued subtle statements that Egypt had no objections to continued development of the Nile’s headwaters as long as they did not “impact on Egyptian interests.” Ethiopia got the message, and in 2000, Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia signed an agreement that guarantees the uninterrupted flow of the Blue Nile.

Bottom line

Without the waters of the Nile River, Egypt would cease to exist – quickly. From an aircraft flying over Egypt (see my photo at left), it is easy to see the stark contrast between the green narrow strip of land that borders the Nile and barren desert a mere few hundred meters away.

Any threat to the flow of the Nile is a direct threat to Egypt’s national survival. The countries of the Nile’s headwaters are in no condition to take on the Egyptian military. Sudan in particular realizes that to disrupt the Nile River would trigger swift and decisive Egyptian military action.

Egypt will not accept any agreement that diminishes the flow of its lifeblood - the Nile River.

July 24, 2009

Pentagon IG Clears Military Analyst Program-FINAL UPDATE

Final update, I hope.

On Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a legal opinion that the Department of Defense did not violate any laws or policies by providing retired military analysts (of which I was one until the New York Times story was published) with briefings and information. Let's see if this exoneration by Congress's investigative arm receives the same media attention as the sensationalized New York Times hit piece.

Here is the GAO opinion: B-316443, Department of Defense--Retired Military Officers as Media Analysts, July 21, 2009

Hopefully, this is the end of it. Congress - with one of the lowest approval ratings of any institution in America - should get back to trying to address real issues.


My earlier post:

Well, I thought it was over. Evidently the Democrats still want to go after us.

From the May 7 Washington Times (Bill Gertz, Inside the Ring):

IG report withdrawn

Under pressure from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, the Pentagon inspector general has taken the unusual step of withdrawing a report that exonerated the Pentagon of wrongdoing related to a program that used retired military officials in a public relations campaign.

Deputy Inspector General Donald M. Horstman stated in a May 5 memorandum that the report was taken down from the IG Web site because of unspecified "inaccuracies" related to data in an appendix on retired military analysts' relations with defense contractors. The memo said an internal review found that the report failed to meet "quality standards" because it used Internet searches to check on corporate affiliations of military analysts involved in the program.

Withdrawal of the IG report followed a report in this space April 23 that stated that retired military officers, many of whom appeared on television, were angered over the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the issue.

The withdrawn IG report, released in January, rebutted the major allegations of the New York Times' winning story that asserted that retired military officers had improperly used private Pentagon briefings to gain unfair competitive advantage for defense contractors they represented.

The IG pulled the report after Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Feb. 2 rejecting the IG report and asking him to have the IG office conduct a second investigation.

In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Inside the Ring, Mr. Levin asserted that using friendly retired military officers to support Pentagon policies should be illegal. He also requested that the IG carry out additional "review and analysis."

My earlier post:

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.

July 19, 2009

Iran's Foreign Policy Success

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmandinejad has become the poster boy for the pariah nation that Iran has become since the brutal repression of post-election violence during the last month. Reaction in the West ranged from outright condemnation to President Obama being "appalled and outraged."

Despite the actions of the regime, President Obama is still willing to engage the Iranian leadership. He has repeatedly reached out to them, and each time his approaches have been soundly rebuffed. Although the Iranians claim that they want to improve relations with the rest of the world, their actions just do not match the rhetoric.

Perhaps this has all been part of Ahmadinejad's policy all along - talk a good game, sound like you are willing to meet the West halfway. All the while, keep the Natanz unranium enrichment facility centrifuges spinning, keep improving Iran's ballistic missile capabilities, continue the research and development of a nuclear weapon, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, present the world with a fait accompli - simply announce that Iran is now a nuclear-armed nation.

Why would Ahmadinejad not do just that? Fear of sanctions from the West? The West has proven itself to be feckless by any measure in halting Iran's nuclear ambitions. I say "the West" because it will have to be a coalition of concerned European nations and the United States that has any potential to take effective action against Iran. The United Nations cannot, thanks to the veto power of Security Council permanent members Russia and China - there is too much money to be made in Iran for them to take a principled stand.

Thus far, the West has only threatened to increase (the already useless) sanctions against Iran. When they do, Iranian leaders mount a "charm offensive" and offer to "talk." What that really means is that they agree to talk about talking - never do these "talks" ever get to the point of discussing anything substantive.

Iran's objective: Obfuscate, downplay, waffle, appear cooperative, but above all, delay. Delay long enough to achieve the one capability they believe will make them the major power broker in the Middle East - nuclear weapons. Everyday that Iran is willing to "talk" is another day of uranium enrichment activities, another day closer to achieving their goal. There are already 5000 centrifuges in operation with another 2000 being installed.

Say what you will about Iran's quirky leadership - from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the newly appointed national Atomic Energy Organization chief Ali Akbar Salehi - they have spoken with one voice and have not taken their eye off the prize.

In typical Iranian rhetorical fashion, Salehi, an American-educated nuclear physicist, stated, "Legal and technical discussions about Iran's nuclear case have finished - there is no room left to keep this case open. We hope that more efforts will be made (by the West) in order to obtain mutual confidence instead of the past six year's hostile era and this case...will be closed as soon as possible." Simply declare something not to be a problem any longer, and proceed like it is not.

The Iranians have been enriching uranium since at least 2002. Despite repeated United Nations (and its International Atomic Energy Agency) and Western demands and limited (and ineffective) sanctions, Iran is aggressively pursuing its goals without interruption, assessing - accurately - that the West is either unwilling or incapable of stopping it.

That is a successful foreign policy. We should take a lesson.

July 13, 2009

Israel and the Golan Heights - missing the big picture?

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s chief of the National Security Council Dr. Uzi Arad recently reiterated the Likud Party's hard line position on the status of the Golan Heights. Arad was unambiguous in his choice of words – Israel will not return the entire plateau to Syria, even in return for a peace agreement.

This stance effectively eliminates the possibility of progress on the Israel-Syria track of the Middle East peace process. Syria will accept nothing less than the return of the entire Golan – it is after all Syrian territory. Israel’s refusal to consider that demand leaves no room for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to maneuver. Should he countenance a deal with Tel Aviv without a guarantee of regaining the lost territory, it is doubtful he would remain in power for long.

The effects of the Israeli coalition’s intransigence go beyond Syria and Israel – it also severely impacts American policy in the region. The Obama administration is attempting to improve American relations with Syria, including returning an ambassador to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. No doubt the President hopes that better relations between Washington and Damascus will provide the opportunity to restart the stagnant Israel-Syria track. Given Arad’s recent statements, progress will be next to impossible.

The Israelis are not looking at the big picture.

Making peace with Syria has little downside while offering tremendous upside potential. Granted, the peace with Syria means eventual withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Israel has spent millions of dollars on agricultural infrastructure – produce and wine from the area is highly regarded in Israel.

Many Israelis have relocated to the Golan – they will have to be compensated for the loss of their property and livelihood. Less likely is a deal whereby they could retain their property in some sort of special zone after the return of the area to Syria.

Also, unless Israel can reach some sort of “special zone” agreement with Syria, they will lose their huge intelligence collection facility (photo) on Har Avital (or Tal Abu Nada, as the Syrians call it). This is a key facility and is the primary early warning system against a Syrian attack on the Golan.

Most importantly, if and when Israel returns the Golan to Syria, it will lose control of the headwaters of the Jordan River, a key source of water for Israeli agriculture in the Jordan Valley. Syria would have to agree not to divert the waters away from its current course.

To be sure, all these factors mitigate against returning the Golan to its rightful owners. However, there is tremendous potential if the Israelis agree to do just that. The return does not have to be immediate – it can be structured like the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. International observers could monitor the process – the modalities are not as important as the commitment to do it.

What could Israel hope to gain by such a commitment? Obviously, the Israelis are not going to relinquish control of the headwaters of a primary water source, blind their early warning system, and remove valuable agricultural infrastructure without something significant in return.

Israel will demand that Syria cease its support for Hizballah. It will also demand that Syria stop allowing Iran to use Syrian airspace and territory for Iranian support of its Lebanese surrogates. This would be a major policy success – virtually all of Hizballah’s weapons, funding and training are provided by Iran and Syria. Cutting off this support would cripple one of Israel’s fiercest enemies.

Iran is the key player here. Israel must marginalize Iranian aspirations to be the dominant power broker in the region. Reaching an agreement with Syria would impact Tehran’s ability to influence events in the Levant and possibly lessen their support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups. That is a laudable strategic goal.

As long as the Likud Party insists that Israel will not return the Golan Heights to Syria, there will be no peace in the Middle East.

It’s that simple.

July 11, 2009

A sound Obama policy - missile strikes in Pakistan

In what has to be one of the worst-kept secrets of the ongoing war against al-Qa'idah militants holed up in Pakistan, U.S Central Intelligence Agency unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) continue to conduct missile strikes despite the change in administration in Washington.

Armed Predator UAV
USAF MQ-1 Predator similar to that used by CIA

What is not a secret is my criticism of many of President Obama's policies in the Middle East and South Asia, most notably his attempts to diplomatically engage the oppressive regime in Iran, and his ill-advised outreach to the non-existent "moderate elements of the Taliban."

However, his decision to continue the "covert" program under which CIA (and/or US Air Force) operated UAV's conduct missile strikes against al-Qa'idah and Taliban targets in Pakistan was a wise one. I commend him for that.

Not only has the President allowed the program to continue, it appears to be even more robust under his command. The aircraft operating from a standoff position at altitudes over 10,000 feet to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence - they are virtually unseen and unheard. When a target presents itself (or himself), operators can fire laser-guided Hellfire missiles, as seen in this video clip. This is the only effective way to "reach out" to the Taliban.

These attacks in Pakistan, as well as U.S. air power in Afghanistan have proven to be effective in dealing with the militants. Taliban and al-Qa'idah fighters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have expressed their appreciation for the devastating effects of fixed-wing, helicopter and UAV delivered ordnance. It is probably the single most effective tool in dealing with the remnants of al-Qa'idah hiding out in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.

The missile strike program is the proper way to deal with both al-Qa'idah and the Taliban - hunt them down and kill them.

July 9, 2009

Saudis give nod to Israeli raid on Iran ? – not so far-fetched

According to press reports – denied by both sides – the Saudis have quietly assured the Israelis that no action will be taken against Israeli aircraft flying through Saudi airspace on their way to strike Iranian nuclear research and development facilities.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic theocracy, cooperating with the Jewish State of Israel against a fellow Islamic nation? It would probably make a good novel - the premise is not that far-fetched. Saudi Arabia, as well as virtually every country in the region except possibly Syria, does not want Iran to possess nuclear weapons. That capability would not only drastically alter the fragile balance of power among the two major players bordering the Persian Gulf, but would likely start a nuclear arms race among other regional powers. Iran already has missiles that can strike anywhere in the Middle East and continues to develop a longer range capability.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons to complement its missile inventory, it is hard to believe that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey would not seek to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Egypt at one time had an active nuclear research effort, Saudi Arabia in the past had sought to purchase (like they do most advanced capabilities) nuclear weapons from Pakistan, and Turkish nuclear ambitions remain a mystery.

Of course, the best outcome would be for Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. I think it is safe to say that most analysts have concluded that the purpose of the Iranian nuclear program is not for the generation of electricity. If Iran used every declared nuclear facility it has to generate power, it would still be less than the wasted energy produced from their oil and gas wells flares.

Iran is not going to abandon its program. The Iranian regime means to have a nuclear weapons capability - they believe it is the only guarantor of their own aspirations. They see themselves as the principal power broker in the region. Personal note: An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer once told me that the Persians were the smartest of God's people, and that the body of water was called the "Persian" Gulf for a reason.

Unfettered access to Saudi airspace would greatly increase the chances for a successful Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Without that access, the most likely route of attack would be through a minimum of Saudi airspace, moving as soon as possible into Iraqi airspace (controlled by American forces). That adds distance to a direct route - Israeli aircraft will be operating at the extreme limits of their combat radius. See my earlier article, "Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options Update."

Potential Attack Route

However, if the Israelis are assured of no Saudi intervention, they can remain over Saudi airspace for a longer period of time to fly a direct route to their targets in Iran (see map), crossing into Iraqi airspace a bit later. If they chose this route and extend their time in Saudi airspace, they will certainly be detected by Saudi Arabia's fairly modern ground and air-based radar systems.

If the Israelis have been able to convince the Saudis to look the other way, why not the Jordanians as well? They have no interest in Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability. The parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia that Israeli jets would overfly are sparsely populated and not the subject of intense surveillance. Both countries could claim ignorance.

I am not sure what to make of Vice President Biden's remarks, interpreted by some as giving Israel tacit approval to launch a military strike against Iran. This comes at a time when President Obama is trying to "engage" the Iranian leadership despite its ongoing trampling of human rights in the wake of the recent presidential election. Likewise, President Obama convinced the leaders at the G8 summit in Italy not to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, while at the same time his Secretary of State threatened that the United States would do just that.

There are a lot of mixed signals in the air right now. So who knows what is going on between the Israelis and Saudis? If there is an Israeli strike against Iran, all the Arab and Muslim countries will condemn Israel in public. Most will also smile in private.