December 30, 2010

Obsessed with Iran? Me?

A reader recently complimented me on one of my articles, but added that I appear to be obsessed with Iran. I looked back at some of my recent articles and understand how someone might make that assessment. However, in my defense, there is reason to be concerned about Iran, especially in light of the Obama Administration's seeming willingness to downplay or even overlook the issues.

Iran is involved, either directly or indirectly, with almost every foreign policy issue facing the United States today. Let's first point out the fact that the current Iranian regime has American blood on its hands. It goes back as far as the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and continues today. The venues for these attacks on Americans not only includes the obvious battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, but extends to Lebanon and Scotland as well.

Let's review some American foreign policy issues that involve Iran.

Nuclear weapons
The most pressing issue is Iran's nuclear program. I do not think anyone seriously believes that Iran's program is aimed at generating electric power for a country with an almost unlimited supply of oil and natural gas. From a political standpoint, the Iranians have skillfully outmaneuvered the United States on this issue.

The Iranians continually agree to an endless series of talks that have yet to produce any positive results. At each meeting, they agree only to have another meeting, all the while continuing to enrich uranium far beyond the levels required for the mythical energy program. At some point, they will announce that they have nuclear weapons. I suppose they will even then continue to agree to talk, but at that point about how the weapons are a stabilizing factor in the region.

The Iranians continue to work against American interests in Iraq, as they have since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Hundreds of American troops have been killed by weapons made in, or supplied by, Iran to militants trained in and funded by Iran. They are the principal supporters of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi, or JAM). The JAM was active against American forces until the 2007 surge, after which al-Sadr determined that he would suffer unacceptable losses to the additional American combat troops.

Iran continues to support al-Sadr's ambitions to become the key political power broker in Iraq, recently encouraging him to join with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a broad Shi'a coalition (allied with the Kurds) to form a new Iraqi government, despite the fact that al-Malii's party did not win the most seats in the elections.

The Iranians have key allies in the new Iraqi government. Al-Maliki is often referred to by his detractors as nuri al-irani (Nuri the Iranian), and his office as al-sajad al-irani (the Persian carpet). Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has been close to the Iranians for years.

The recent statement by al-Maliki that all American troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was no doubt encouraged by the Iranians. He said, "The last American soldier will leave Iraq...this agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed."

The Iranians do not want any American military presence in the Gulf, especially on the ground in Iraq. American troops in Iraq sit between Iran and its principal ally Syria, and contribute to the impression in Tehran that the country is almost surrounded by pro-American governments. As long as western economies rely on the continual flow of Middle East/Persian Gulf oil, it is imperative that the United States maintain a military presence in the region. Iraq is the ideal location for that presence.

Iran's closest ally in the region may one day be Iraq, but currently it is Syria. The two countries have been allied since Syria supported Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; it was the only Arab country to side with Iran. Since then, the two have signed a mutual defense pact and cooperate in a variety of fields, including military and industrial efforts.

Syria allows Iran to use its airspace and territory to resupply Hizballah in Lebanon. Hizballah was created in 1982 through the encouragement, training and funding of an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unit that would later become the Qods Force. Iran continues to provide money, weapons and training to Hizballah. Since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, Iran has replenished Hizballah's rocket inventory, and provided more-capable rockets and missiles.

Much as it supports Hizballah in Lebanon, Iran also provides money, weapons and training to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In the past, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched crude, inaccurate homemade short range rockets into border towns in southern Israel. Today they have Iranian-made Katyusha and Grad rockets capable of reaching cities just south of Tel Aviv.

According to U.S. military officials, Iran is providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the creation of the Taliban, there has been a rivalry between the Shi'a Iranians and the fundamentalist Sunni Afghan Taliban. At times that rivalry almost erupted into violence. Following the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the Iranians have decided to support the Taliban against the Americans. The Iranian regime's hatred of the United States supersedes its dislike and distrust of the Taliban. As in Iraq, Iran has the blood of American troops on its hands.

Turkey is an American ally and a member of NATO. Until the recent Gaza flotilla incident in which several Turks were killed attempting to breach the Israeli blockade, it was a close military ally of Israel. The Iranians have made diplomatic inroads with the Turks, playing on the common religion and Middle East affiliation. The Turks (along with Brazil) have responded by allegedly brokering an agreement in which the Iranians export some of their enriched uranium to Turkey.

Turkey has also proposed it join with Iran and many of the newly independent Central Asian states, many of them Turkic, in a Caspian partnership. With Iran's coaching, Turkey appears to be looking more to the east instead of to the west.

South America
Iran is developing better relations with Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is permitting the Iranians to deploy medium range ballistic missiles to his country. (See my recent article, Nose under the tent - Iranian missiles in Venezuela)

Several South American countries have recently recognized a Palestinian state. As of this writing, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador have already made the announcement. Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Peru are expected to do so in early 2011. I am sure these recognitions are encouraged by the leaders in Tehran. Why? Bad for Israel, and by extension the United States, is good for Iran.

Russia and China
Our relations with Russia and China are often colored by our relations with Tehran. It took months of backroom deals to get the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to agree to sanctions on Iran. Both countries have spotty records on adhering to the sanctions; China is actually quite blatant about ignoring them.

Human rights
Iran's record on human rights is abysmal. It runs the gamut: religious persecution, stoning and flogging of adulterers, amputations as punishment for theft, hanging homosexuals, shooting demonstrators in the wake of a corrupt election, sponsoring some of the world's most notorious terrorists, and on and on. Let's not forget the three American hikers (two still in custody for over a year) to go on trial for espionage.

Obsessed with Iran? You bet I am. I just wish President Obama would be obsessed with what the Iranians are doing rather than overlooking it all in a failed attempt to "engage." I am all for talking, but at some point, you have to assess that it is falling on deaf ears. We're well beyond that point.

Obsess, Obama, obsess.

December 26, 2010

Nose under the tent - Iranian missiles in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has agreed to permit Iran to deploy medium range ballistic missiles to his country. According to press reports, the Iranians will construct a missile base in Venezuela housing several versions of North Korean-made Scud short range missiles and the Iranian-produced Shahab 3 medium tange ballistic missile. The Shahab 3 has a range of about 900 miles, not enough to reach the United States mainland.

The fact that the missiles cited in the press reports cannot reach the United States is not the issue. What is important is the fact that the Iranians are deploying missiles to the Western Hemisphere at all. Since the missiles do not appear to pose an immediate threat, Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hope that the Obama Administration will not attempt to block the missile deployment in an effort reminiscent of what President John Kennedy did during what many are calling a similar crisis, the attempted Soviet delivery of ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962.

While Iran is not Russia, and Venezuela is not Cuba, this initial deployment of Iranian missiles and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) crews is merely the first step, or as we say in the Middle East, the "nose under the tent."

I should also have added that Barack Obama is not John Kennedy. The Iranians have assessed that the Obama Administration, correctly, in my opinion, is weak and naive on foreign policy. The Obama diplomatic "engagement" strategy toward Iran and Syria has yielded no positive results for the United States. I suspect that Ahmadinejad believes that the American administration has no stomach for confrontation and will do nothing more than demand additional sanctions as Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapons capability. In other words, Ahmadinejad sees a window of opportunity, specifically a period in which a weak American administration focused on controversial domestic issues is unwilling to take a tough stance on Iran's grand ambitions.

Once the initial deployment of Iranian missiles, which will be portrayed as not posing a threat to the United States, is a fait accompli, it only requires minimum effort on the part of the Venezuelan and Iranian governments to introduce longer range missiles currently in the Iranian inventory. These missiles do pose a threat to the southeastern United States, including Washington, DC.

The chance to deploy IRGC troops into America's "back yard" is possibly too great a temptation for Ahmadinejad to pass up. He opposes the presence of American forces in the Middle East and is attempting to turn the tables on the United States. If you ascribe grand strategic thinking to the Iranian president, you could make the case that he is beginning this deployment in a attempt to catalyze an agreement with Obama much like Kennedy did with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. In 1962, the United States removed some missiles from Turkey and the Soviets halted the deployment of missiles to Cuba.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad thinks that he can "engage" with Obama for the withdrawal of American forces from the Persian Gulf if he halts Iran's missile deployment to the Caribbean. Why would he not think that? He has successfully outmaneuvered the Obama Administration at virtually every turn. There has been no slowdown in Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon because of anything done by the American government. The most serious impediment to Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is a computer virus at some Iranian uranium enrichment facilities and the assassination of two of its top nuclear scientists. Most Middle East analysts, myself included, attribute those incidents to the Israelis.

There are additional troubling aspects of the Iranian-Venezuelan agreement. The missiles will be manned by Iranian military and IRGC officers, in conjunction with Venezuelan military officers. The Venezuelans will receive intensive training in missile technology. The Iranian missiles can be used by the Venezuelans for what is called "national needs." Although that has not been defined, Iranian SRBM's and IRBM's in Venezuela pose a serious threat to American allies in the region, such as Columbia, as well as some American territories (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

Again, if you ascribe grand strategic thinking to Ahmadinejad, you might believe that increased cooperation with Venezuela has other benefits for Iran as well. A few months ago, the Russians backed out of a deal to sell the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran, citing United Nations sanctions. The Russians are, however, marketing that same weapon system to the Venezuelan armed forces. Perhaps these air defense systems might find their way from Venezuela to Iran? Never underestimate the Iranians; this is exactly the type of Byzantine maneuvering that is common in the bazaars of the region.

Where is the concern?

For those of us who vaguely remember the Cuban missile crisis (I was 11 years old) and our quick lessons in the Monroe Doctrine, the mere thought of offensive missiles in the Western hemisphere is troubling. It is especially troubling when the culprit is the volatile and fairly unpredictable regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leaders believe that the American administration is naive and weak - they may be right. Thus far there has been almost no reaction to the impending deployment of strategic missiles into South America, the deployment of missiles to a country that has demonstrated open hostility to the United States. No reaction is tacit acceptance. Just like the Iranians believe the United States has tacitly accepted their eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons, they believe there is no real action on the horizon to prevent them from stationing offensive weapons only 1000 miles from the United States.

This is another direct challenge to the United States, and yet another test of President Obama's leadership. Where is the concern from Washinton?

December 19, 2010

Increased attacks on Yemen-based al-Qa'idah targets

Site of a December 17, 2009 U.S. air strike against al-Qa'idah training camp
(referenced in released cable below)

Click for larger image BLU-97 submunition found at the site. The 6-inch long explosive device
with a shaped charge can be carried by air and sea delivered missiles.

The United States appears to have increased its attacks on al-Qa'idah targets in Pakistan and Yemen. I am often critical of President Barack Obama for his policies in Afghanistan. While I agree that we must, as the President says, "dismantle, disrupt and defeat" al-Qa'idah, I do not believe that Afghanistan is the best venue to accomplish that objective. Al-Qa'idah has all but quit Afghanistan and moved to Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia. They are in the process of being defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, while still posing a threat in, and from, Yemen and Somalia.

The President has yet to explain how taking on the Afghan Taliban fits into a "dismantle, disrupt and defeat al-Qa'idah" strategy. I do not accept assertions that if the Taliban are successful in re-establishing themselves as the government, it will result in the return of al-Qa'idah to the country. That remote possibility can be deterred with the simple threat that if the Taliban allows al-Qa'idah to return, so will overwhelming, crippling, devastating, terrifying - you pick the adjective - American air strikes.

That said, I applaud the President for his continued use of drone-launched missile strikes against al-Qa'idah and other militant groups in Pakistan. The number of strikes since Obama took office in January 2009 has increased substantially; there have been over 100 strikes this year alone. On December 17, three American missile attacks reportedly killed 54 militants. This is effective use of American technology with minimal risk to American lives.

And in Yemen...

Earlier this month, President Obama stated, "Where al-Qa'idah and its allies attempt to establish a foothold, whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere, they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships." This effort has been ongoing for at least a year. Owing to the recent unauthorized release of classified U.S. State Department cables, the scope of the "pressure and partnerships" is clear. American military forces are launching missile strikes into Yemen against the al-Qa'idah-affiliated group known as al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Initial American strikes were conducted using sea-launched cruise missiles, accurate, but not accurate as air-delivered precision guided munitions (PGM). Apparently (accordind to the released cables), later attacks have employed the more accurate PGM's.

The latest attacks in Yemen were on December 16 against two al-Qa'idah targets: a suspected training camp north of Sana' and a location where "an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned." Although local media in Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force, they were in fact launched by American forces.

More illuminating information on the effort in Yemen can be found in the Wikileaks archives, Here are some excerpts.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 001669), September 15, 2009:

2. (S/NF) In a September 6 meeting with Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, President Saleh insisted that Yemen's national territory is available for unilateral counter terrorism (CT) operations by the U.S. ... Saleh repeatedly requested more funds and equipment to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while at the same time placing responsibility for any future AQAP attacks on the shoulders of the USG now that it enjoys unfettered access to Yemeni airspace, coastal waters and land. ...

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 002251), December 21, 2009:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. The ROYG views the December 17 CT operations as a success and a benefit to Yemeni national interests, and appears not overly concerned about unauthorized leaks regarding the U.S. role and negative media attention to civilian deaths. ROYG officials continue to publicly maintain that the operation was conducted entirely by its forces, acknowledging U.S. support strictly in terms of intelligence sharing. Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi told the Ambassador on December 20 that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as fragments of U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. While the ROYG has touted the operation as a victory in terms of the number of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members killed or captured, it hasn’t yet decided how, or even if, it should begin to modify its public messaging to address criticism over collateral damage, or the likelihood that the extent of U.S. involvement may become impossible to deny. END SUMMARY.

2. (S/NF) In a December 20 meeting with the Ambassador, Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Defense Rashad al-Alimi said that the ROYG, including President Saleh himself, views the December 17 CT operations in Abyan and Arhab as a success, despite negative press reports (septel) and leaks to the U.S. press regarding a U.S. role in the operation. Alimi said he was joined by other ROYG officials in their positive view of the operation against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a desire for continued collaboration on CT operations. Referring to an internal ROYG meeting chaired by President Saleh on December 19, Alimi assured the Ambassador that Saleh wants these operations against AQAP to continue “non-stop until we eradicate this disease.”

3. (S/NF) Alimi told the Ambassador that Saleh was undisturbed by press reports citing U.S. officials asserting American involvement in the operations, saying that the ROYG “must maintain the status quo” with regard to the official denial of U.S. involvement in order to ensure additional “positive operations” against AQAP. Alimi seemed more concerned with the political opposition and Southern Movement’s use of the Abyan operation as an example of the government’s heavy-handed response to groups the ROYG deems a threat. The Ambassador cautioned Alimi that the ROYG may need to nuance its position regarding U.S. involvement in the event more evidence surfaces, complicating its ability to adhere to the official line that ROYG forces conducted the operations independently. Alimi appeared confident that any evidence of greater U.S. involvement, such as U.S. munitions found at the sites - could be explained away as equipment purchased from the U.S. However, Alimi informed the Ambassador that senior ROYG officials continue to the discuss media strategy and the public posture of the ROYG.

5. (S/NF) Given that local and international media will continue to look for evidence of a U.S. role in the December 17 strikes against AQAP, the ROYG must think seriously about its public posture and whether its strict adherence to assertions that the strikes were unilateral will undermine public support for legitimate and urgently needed CT operations, should evidence to the contrary surface. Thus far, the ROYG has deployed influential local leaders to the affected area in Abyan to explain the need for the strikes in an effort to quell potential unrest; however, it has not attempted to provide any context for the civilian casualties, which might help to counter overblown claims of ROYG disregard for the local population ) in this particular case, southerners.

- From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals Embassy Sanaa cable (SANAA 000004), January 4, 2010:

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: Commander of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus congratulated President Saleh on recent successful operations against AQAP, and informed him that U.S. security assistance to the ROYG would increase to USD 150 million in 2010, including USD 45 million to equip and train a CT-focused aviation regiment under the Yemeni Special Operations Forces. Saleh requested that the U.S. provide 12 armed helicopters and train and equip three new Republican Guard brigades. Saleh rejected the General's proposal to have USG personnel armed with direct-feed intelligence present inside the area of CT operations, but agreed to have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage AQAP targets should actionable intelligence become available. END SUMMARY.

5. (S/NF) President Obama has approved providing U.S. intelligence in support of ROYG ground operations against AQAP targets, General Petraeus informed Saleh. Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General's proposal to place USG personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR platforms overhead. "You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center," Saleh responded. Any U.S. casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus' proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, "out of sight," and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG.

Bottom line

I applaud the President's decision to use American military power in this manner. This is how we need to deal with al-Qa'idah in general and AQAP in particular, including radical American-born cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi. AQAP has been complicit in the Fort Hood shootings, the attempt to bring down an airliner bound for Detroit last Christmas, and the recent attempt to down two airliners with explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges.

I will repeat my earlier advice to the President: You cannot reason with these people, you can not negotiate with them. You have to hunt them down and kill them. What you are doing in Yemen is an excellent start.

December 18, 2010

Israeli espionage devices in Lebanon - I'm shocked!

Israeli communications monitoring device discovered in Lebanon

Lebanese security officials have discovered more Israeli clandestine monitoring and "espionage devices" in the country, and have complained to the United Nations. This is comical on several levels. First, the fact that Israel is conducting intelligence collection operations in Lebanon should come as no surprise to anyone. Lebanon is home to one of Israel's most serious threat organizations, Hizballah, so of course the Israelis are collecting information on it.

Second, complaining to the United Nations about another country's intelligence operations is laughable. One only need look at the other United Nations' efforts in Lebanon, such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL has been "interim" since 1978; thirty two years has a sense of permanence. It would be one thing if the force was actually effective, but its presence has not prevented repeated wars between Israel and various groups in Lebanon.

Israeli monitoring devices are not a new phenomenon. Israeli military intelligence has been placing them in Lebanon, as well as Syria, for decades. When I served as the air attaché at the American embassy in Damascus, it was not uncommon for us to hear of Israeli monitoring devices being discovered. Normally, when the devices are discovered or are tampered with, they detonate, either by a triggering mechanism on the device, or are detonated remotely via an electronic signal.

Over the last month, the Lebanese have revealed the discovery (some by Hizballah) of at least four devices, two near the southern city of Tyre (Sur), and one on Mount Sanin and one on Mount Baruq. The location of these monitoring and observation makes sense to any intelligence officer.

Tyre is a major city in the heart of the area controlled by Hizballah (and theoretically under UNIFIL supervision) and only 10 miles north of the border with Israel. The Israelis consider this to be Hizballah's primary area of operations. Most of the rocket attacks on northern Israel in the 2006 war were launched from this area. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq are among the highest points in the mountains that run north and south on the western edge of the Biqa' Valley, another Hizballah stronghold.

Most of the tactical communications systems used by Hizballah employ line-of-sight radio waves. To intercept these communications and exploit them for intelligence requires either airborne platforms or devices placed on high terrain. Mount Sanin and Mount Baruq would serve nicely, especially when combined with permanent monitoring stations located in Israel along the Lebanese border.

There is another likely purpose for these devices. Israeli military intelligence and Mossad both operate human intelligence networks in Lebanon; these assets have access to essential information. The problem is getting the information from the assets to the case officers in Israel. These devices may also provide clandestine communications capabilities for these assets.

The Israelis will continue to use these devices, planting them when and where they can. Until the threat from Hizballah is neutralized, they really have no choice.

December 14, 2010

Syria: American foreign policy failure

Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad

It was just five years ago that the so-called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon* forced Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to withdraw his forces from the smaller country, handing the Syrian leader a major foreign policy defeat. In the aftermath of the February 14, 2005 assassination of former, and well-respected, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese body politic unified in a manner rarely seen in the multi-confessional and multi-factional country. Thousands marched in the streets to demand the removal of the Syrian military forces that had been in the country since 1976 when they intervened in the Lebanese civil war.

The perpetrators of the assassination are thought to be the Hizballah terrorist organization with Syrian military intelligence support and complicity. It's not hard to believe that these two groups were responsible. It was no secret that there was no love lost between al-Hariri and al-Asad. Al-Hariri had resigned his office a few month earlier in protest to Syrian hegemony over the country.

At the time of the murder, nothing of significance happened in the country without Syrian knowledge or approval. Syrian military intelligence maintained an extensive network throughout the country to ensure Damascus was involved in all facets of Lebanese life. Hizballah merely executed the al-Hariri assassination on Syrian orders; the group has a lot of experience with truck bombs, after all. Evidently there is reason to place credence in the belief that Hizballah was involved. The United Nations tribunal on Lebanon is believed to be on the verge of handing down indictments against senior Hizballah officials for the murder. Of course, Hizballah denies it, and Syria claims the evidence was fabricated.

The removal of Syrian troops was surprising to many Syria-watchers, myself included. I remember clearly the day that Syrian troops entered Beirut in 1976. The spring of 2005 was the first time in almost 30 years that Lebanon was free of a huge Syrian military presence.

This should have been a golden opportunity for American foreign policy. For the first time in decades, there was a serious crack in Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Many Lebanese factions had united against a common enemy. The alliance included former friends and foes alike: virtually every group and party in the country except Hizballah and resident Syrians joined to protest the continuing Syrian presence. The overwhelming belief was that the real culprits in the al-Hariri assassination reside in Damascus.

In the intervening years, the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration adopted different strategies to deal with Syria; both have failed. Immediately after the al-Hariri assassination, the United States recalled its ambassador, believing (correctly in my opinion) that Damascus was complicit in the murder. The Bush Administration continued to try to isolate the Syrians until the end of its term.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, he instituted a policy of engagement toward Syria, hoping that a more positive tone might yield better results. The goal of Obama's Syria policy was, and is, to restart the moribund Israel-Syria track of the Middle East peace process. That sounds easy, but is not. In order for progress to be made toward peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus, several difficult objectives must be met. For Syria, nothing will happen without a commitment by the Israelis to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian control.

Israel will extract a price for the return of the Golan which it has occupied since seizing the area in 1967. In addition to spending millions of dollars on agricultural infrastructure, it has built a huge intelligence gathering station at Har Avital (Tal Abu Nada to the Syrians). It will not easily give up its ability to monitor events in southern Syria, nor will it want to give up its control of the headwaters of the Jordan River.

For the Israelis, any agreement will require that Syria stop providing weapons to Hizballah, and stop permitting Iran to use its airspace and territory to provide the terrorist group the money, weapons and training it needs to survive. The Syrians and Iranians have resupplied Hizballah since the 2006 Israel-Hizballah conflict with more and better weapons than before.

In the years after the 2006 war, not only has Hizballah emerged as the main political power in Lebanon, Syrian influence is on the rise. Many of the former leaders of the Cedar Revolution that opposed Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs have "converted" and now toe the Syrian line. Most notable among the pro-Syrian leaders is none other than current Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri, son of the slain Rafiq al-Hariri.

The Obama Administration named a new ambassador to Syria in its attempt to engage the Syrians. Robert Ford was nominated by the President in February 2010, but the Senate has yet to consider the nomination. I doubt it will make much difference. The opportunity has passed, and Syria has outmaneuvered the United States again. It remains firmly in the Iranian camp, and casts a large shadow over Beirut, despite al-Asad's claims, "We (Syrians) don't want to intervene, we don't want to interfere in an internal Lebanese situation."

* The term "Cedar Revolution" is a western press invention. The Lebanese refer to it as the "Independence Intifadah."

December 8, 2010

Doing what Iran does best - agreeing to talk

Iran's Saeed Jalili and EU's Catherine Ashton

Two days of talks in Geneva. The stunning result: an agreement to talk.

In what has become the normal tactic of the Iranian regime, Iran agreed to, yes, you guessed it, to meet again next month to talk. The representatives of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) will meet Iranian envoys in Istanbul in January. If that meeting is anything like the last two days in Geneva, the result will be the same. There will be no progress in halting Iran's continuing uranium enrichment program and thus no progress in halting its development of nuclear weapons.

This has been going on for years. Iran agrees to an endless series of meetings that have no positive results, all the while buying time to continue to enrich uranium. At some point, the Iranians will have amassed enough fissile material to produce a weapon and no longer need to have these meetings. They will present the world with a fait accompli with the announcement that they possess nuclear weapons.

Let's look at the meetings in Geneva. The participants, people who were principals at the table in the meetings, cannot even agree on what happened at the meetings. These are the people we believe are going to be successful in convincing Iran to stop its nuclear activities?

According to the European Union's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the meetings were "detailed and substantive," and that the discussions in January will address "practical ideas and ways of cooperating toward a resolution of our core concerns about the nuclear issue."

Really? Not according to Saeed Jalili, Iran's envoy to the talks.

Jalili told reporters that the two sides had not agreed on the topics to be addressed at the Istanbul meeting. While Iran's focus is the nuclear weapons of the other countries at the table as well as Israel's suspected nuclear stockpile, he said, "I am telling you clearly and openly that halting uranium enrichment will not be discussed at the Istanbul meeting."

Then why bother? Isn't that the purpose of the talks?

Further, do we really believe that the P5+1 negotiators, specifically Catherine Ashton, will make so powerful an argument that the Iranians are likely to give up what has become one of the key elements of its national strategy? Hardly. The Istanbul talks, just like the Geneva talks, are meaningless, nothing more than political theater to make it appear that the participants are relevant in the region.

A solution? It depends on whether the United States, not the P5+1, has resigned itself to the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran. Given the feckless manner in which the United States is facing the issue, it certainly appears that it has. If not, it is time that President Obama come out and say so. It doesn't have to be complicated, it won't even require a teleprompter. Pick some simple words like, "We will not permit the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon. I have ordered the State and Defense Departments to make sure that they do not." How hard can it be?

Failing that, the Iranians will continue to outmaneuver the United States and the P5+1 at every turn. Although sanctions may be beginning to work, by the time they might be effective enough to change Iran's behavior, Iran will already have a nuclear weapon.

For now, we continue to accept Iran's agreement to talk, and Iran continues to enrich uranium. Why does this not fill me with confidence?

December 3, 2010

Iran: Why containment is bad strategy

Heavy water reactor at Arak, Iran

Many analysts believe that the Obama Administration has resigned itself to the inevitability of a nuclear armed Iran. You can understand that argument if you look at the Administration's continuing attempts to "engage" the Iranians when the regime in Tehran has made it abundantly clear by its actions that it has no interest in meaningful and sincere dialogue with the West over its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hailed as "encouraging" the fact that after months of stalling, the Iranians have agreed to resume talks. Why she thinks this is encouraging is beyond me. The Iranians have consistently outmaneuvered Clinton on foreign policy since she has been Secretary of State. While she has been focused on these fruitless talks, the Iranians have been focused on buying time for the continued enrichment of uranium. The Iranians have used the Secretary's misguided belief that she could convince the regime in Tehran into working with the West as a virtual time machine allowing its scientists more time to not only acquire weapons grade fissile material but to refine weapons designs.

What exactly has Iran agreed to that Mrs. Clinton finds encouraging? It took over a month just to reach an agreement on a date and a venue. There still is no agenda. The Iranians have stated that they will not discuss their nuclear program, which is the only reason to have the talks in the first place.

The talks are pure theater. No one expects any results other than providing the Iranians the fig leaf that they are cooperating with the West. The West gets to advance the fiction that it is addressing a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Meanwhile, Iran continues on its path to becoming a nuclear armed nation. President Obama and Secretary Clinton seem okay with that, figuring that the United States was able to live with a nuclear Soviet Union for decades, therefore, we should be able to contain an Iran that possesses nuclear weapons.

Containment is not a viable option. Here's why.

There is much more at stake than the bilateral relationship between the United States and Iran. Everyone is aware that the Israelis view a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. They have been planning a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities for years, even acquiring American-made GBU-28 "bunker buster" munitions required to destroy the hardened Iranian targets. If the Iranians get close to the possession of nuclear weapons, Israel will feel compelled to mount a military operation to destroy the production facilities. It simply cannot risk an attack that might virtually eradicate Israel.

An Israeli strike on Iran might ignite a conflagration that will draw in all countries in the region. Iran and Syria have a mutual defense treaty; Damascus possesses missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel, and is known to possess chemical warheads for those missiles.

Both Iran and Syria have influence over the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizballah, which can strike targets in northern Israel as far south as Tel Aviv. Iran also wields considerable influence over the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Hamas could open up a southern front against Israel.

In addition to the danger of an armed confrontation in the region, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons will catalyze an arms race in the region. Thanks to leaked State Department cables, we have this on good authority.

From a Secret Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals cable sent by the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh 000178, February 2010):
9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

From a Confidential cable sent by the American Embassy in Eygpt (Cairo 001067, May 2008):
3. (C) Asked about Egypt's reaction if Iran developed nuclear weapons capability, Mubarak said that none will accept a nuclear Iran, "we are all terrified." Mubarak said that when he spoke with former Iranian President Khatami he told him to
tell current President Ahmedinejad "not to provoke the Americans" on the nuclear issue so that the U.S. is not forced to strike. Mubarak said that Egypt might be forced to begin its own nuclear weapons program if Iran succeeds in those efforts.

The best course of action is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus far, nothing has been successful at convincing the Iranians to abandon that effort. Sanctions have not worked in the past and likely won't in the future. Time is running out. At some point in the near future, difficult decisions are going to have to be made.

While Mrs. Clinton might find the current situation encouraging, I do not.

November 30, 2010

Wikileaks documents show Iran a major concern

Secret State Department cable released by Wikileaks

I am appalled by the release of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables by the Wikileaks organization. While Julian Assange's organization may not technically be breaking the law, it does major damage to our ability to prosecute two wars and conduct foreign policy around the world.

The real culprit appears to be Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, a 22-year old intelligence analyst who has no clue what harm he has done. He, of course, has violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and will be court-martialed.

Manning is currently in custody in Quantico, Virginia, where he is being held in solitary confinement, probably for his own safety. He has initially been charged with "transferring classified data onto his personal computer and adding unauthorized software to a classified computer system" and "communicating, transmitting and delivering national defense information to an unauthorized source." The maximum sentence for those two offenses is 52 years.

I suspect that if the leaks can be tied to the arrest, imprisonment, mistreatment or death of an American information source, Manning will be tried for additional, more serious violations. Personally, I hope he is found guilty of treason in a time of war, a capital offense. At the very least, he should spend the rest of his days bolted into a concrete box. Thankfully, given Attorney General Eric Holder's track record on prosecutions, this will be tried in a military court where the chances of a conviction are good.

That said, the recent tranche of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks shows the depth of concern among many of our regional allies over Iran. Iran is now regarded as the world's major state sponsor of terrorism and the biggest threat to regional stability in the volatile Persian Gulf.

I'll forgo Israeli concerns over Iran. These concerns have been well-documented already since Israel has made no secret that it regards a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Many of the Tel Aviv cables in the released documents again point this out, including requests for GBU-28 5000-pound "bunker buster" bombs. These munitions will be required if Israel plans to attack Iran's hardened nuclear facilities.

Second to Israel, the country that most regards Iran as a major threat is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Many of the released cables deal with Saudi Arabia's concerns over Iran's nuclear program as well as its influence in neighboring Iraq. A cable written in February of this year setting the scene for a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is telling. Some excerpts:

- "King 'Abdullah believes we are not always reliable, consistent, or willing to heed his advice on important issues such as Iraq. Sa'ud Al-Faisal and others have openly been critical of U.S. policies they describe as having shifted the regional balance of power in favor of arch-rival Iran."

- "Saudi Arabia is thinking through how best to take a leaf from the Chinese playbook and use these expanded trade ties to achieve important political goals. In this regard, Saudi Arabia has told the Chinese that it is willing to effectively trade a guaranteed oil supply in return for Chinese pressure on Iran not to develop nuclear weapons."

- "We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding
Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help.

- "The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia."

- "The King is convinced that current U.S. engagement efforts with Tehran will not succeed; he is likely to feel grimly vindicated in his view by Ahmadinejad's February 11 boast that having successfully enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent, Iran 'is now a nuclear nation.' The King told General Jones that Iranian internal turmoil presented an opportunity to weaken the regime -- which he encouraged -- but he also urged that this be done covertly and stressed that public statements in support of the reformers were counterproductive. The King assesses that sanctions could help weaken the government, but only if they are strong and sustained. The King will want you to elaborate on the President's statement that the time for sanctions has come. He will also want to hear our plans for bolstering Gulf defenses vis a vis Iran."

(Click here to read the entire cable.)

Another secret cable from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh quotes the Saudi ambassador to the United States 'Adil al-Jubayr citing the Saudi king's "frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program. He told you to cut off the head of the snake.'"

After the cables were made public, Mrs. Clinton remarked, "I think that it should not be a surprise that Iran is a source of great concern, not only in the U.S. The comments reported in the cables prove that Iran poses a serious threat in the eyes of its neighbors, and beyond the region." She missed the point that most of the comments are not supportive of President Obama's lenient engagement policy toward Iran.

In a somewhat surprising and no doubt embarrassing revelation, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri was quoted in a cable that he supported military strikes on Iran's nuclear program. Of course, things have changed and he denies ever saying it. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak also was quoted disparaging Iran.

President Obama is allegedly a big proponent of "transparency." One of his first executive orders when he took office in 2009 dealt with the classification system and his desire that only things absolutely requiring secrecy be restricted from the public. I wonder what he thinks now that less than one-tenth of one percent of the over 250,000 documents to be released have come to light.

More importantly, these documents clearly show that most of our allies in the region are wary of Iran and are skeptical of the President's attempts (which all have failed) to engage the Iranians diplomatically. As the Saudis point out, he doesn't listen.

November 22, 2010

Israeli security and American illusions

The face of the TSA - why doesn't this make me feel safe?

Much attention is being paid to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's airport security organization, the Transportation Security Administration. It needs to be under tough scrutiny. It is another bloated, ineffective federal bureaucracy inside a larger bloated, ineffective and unnecessary federal department.

No one can point to any successful TSA operations to secure civil aviation in the United States. This is because the agency is hampered by its own self-imposed politically correct restrictions, its refusal to adopt proven screening techniques and probably most important, it's ability to attract only the most inept and incompetent employees. As I have said in the past, "it's the same morons but now with federal benefits." Now they are led by what appears to be an incompetent John Pistole, but an arrogant incompetent John Pistole.

Contrast this farcical theater with the screening conducted by the Israelis for all El Al flights worldwide, and for other airlines' flights departing from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. I have gone through Israeli security many times over the last three decades. It appears to work. You get the sense that the security personnel are actually trying to provide effective screening, as opposed to the feeling that the TSA merely provides the illusion that they are preventing attacks on aviation. Granted, El Al only has a fleet of about 30 aircraft and does not have to deal with the volume of passengers that TSA faces, but TSA has ballooned to over 60,000 federal employees.

Israeli security is multi-layered, thorough and professional. As you approach Ben Gurion, there is a checkpoint before passengers even enter the airport. A police officer looks in the vehicle and determines whether or not the occupants have business at the airport. This usually involves producing a passport and/or ticket, and may involve a cursory check of the trunk for luggage.

As the vehicle approaches the terminal, there are both uniformed and plain-clothes security officers observing as passengers move toward the entrance, watching for suspicious behavior. If any questionable behavior is suspected, the passenger is stopped and questioned before he/she even gets to the door of the terminal.

Once inside the terminal, every passenger is interviewed by a security officer. This initial screening involves a document check and a rudimentary threat assessment. For most travelers, this is done quickly. For those with certain indicators in their documents, there is additional screening. I have experience with both outcomes.

Years ago, while my duties with the government took me to countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc., my passport was replete with visas and entry/exit stamps from these countries. An example from my passport:

Once the officer saw these stamps, she called another officer to ask more questions. Why had I traveled to these countries, who did I meet in these countries, what was my reason for being in Israel, who had I met with in Israel, what hotel did I use, etc. Generally I could point to the passport which was clearly marked as an official passport and explain all travels indicated by the visas and stamps were on behalf of the United States government.

On later occasions when I was traveling with a new passport without all the stamps and carrying a letter from whatever American Jewish groups that had sponsored my visit to Israel, I was given only a cursory review.

All baggage is then checked before passengers are allowed to go to the ticket counter. Once there, the agent checks travel documents against the electronic records and issues a boarding pass. Then passengers proceed to immigration where the passports are run through a data base. Only then are the passengers allowed to move to the gate area. Throughout this entire process, observation by trained security officers continues.

The Israelis get it: profile and be safe. The TSA does not: put on a show and create the illusion of security.

For an excellent article on this, read my friend Michael Totten's
Forget the 'porn machines' - How Israelis secure airports

November 20, 2010

Saudi succession issue looming

Staff Field Marshal Mith'ab bin 'Abdullah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud

In one of those "under the radar" news reports that most people ignore, there was a reminder of an issue that will confront Saudi Arabia in the near future - the succession to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom. Given the close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is in America's national interest that there continues to be smooth transitions of power in Riyadh.

When the kingdom was founded in 1932 by 'Abd al-'Aziz bin 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud (more commonly called "ibn Sa'ud"), the succession was established as the sons of ibn Sa'ud. Normally the oldest surviving son was the first choice. When a king dies, the surviving sons of ibn Sa'ud gather and select the new king by consensus.

That system has been in place since the death of ibn Sa'ud in 1953. With 37 sons, there did not seem to be any urgency to provide for further succession. However, the youngest of ibn Sa'ud's sons (Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz*) is now 65 years old. At some point, the family will need to address how they select a monarch from the next generation. Given the number of sons and the resulting number of grandsons of ibn Sa'ud, it may cause divisions in the family. There are already rivalries among the various groups based on their different mothers.

The frailty of the current king is apparent. Last week, King 'Abdullah turned over command of the Saudi Arabian National Guard to his son. The 86-year old monarch had been the commander of the SANG since 1962 and was responsible for turning it into an effective fighting force. The 2nd SANG Brigade did well in the Battle of al-Khafji against Iraqi forces in 1991.

The National Guard is composed of 260,000 men, mostly drawn from desert tribes, while the regular Saudi army is made up of men primarily from the urban areas. The SANG was developed as a personal protection force for the king and royal family, and has developed into a credible counterbalance against any internal threats emanating from the Saudi military.

The Al Sa'ud have always been concerned with regime (read: family) protection. When I was in Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, we spent an inordinate amount of time answering intelligence requests from the Saudis about numerous improbable threats to the king and other members of the royal family.

How the family handles the succession issue may well decide what threats appear to the continued reign of the Al Sa'ud.

* Prince Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz is the third youngest son and the youngest surviving son of ibn Sa'ud. He is currently the Director General of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate. See my earlier article, Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?

November 14, 2010

The absurdity of arbitrary withdrawal dates

American soldier in Iraq

In what might be the initial acknowledgment that the scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Iraq might be premature, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that he was open to keeping troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline. If that were to happen, the Iraqi government would have to request it in accordance with an agreement between the United States and Iraq.

Given the recent agreement (after eight months of stalemate) between Iraq's major political parties on the composition of the new government, that request may not be forthcoming. The new government will be under significant influence from Iran, given the fact that incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will retain his office with support from radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both al-Maliki and al-Sadr are favorites of Tehran. The last thing Iran wants is the extended presence of American troops in Iraq, or anywhere in the Middle East for that matter. (See my earlier piece,
Iraqi parties agree to new government - finally.)

Part of the 2008 status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States calls for the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. The United States, in response to a political decision by the Obama Administration, allegedly withdrew all of combat units from Iraq in August of this year. I'll forgo the redesignation of combat brigades to "advisor brigades" as part of this charade, but much of the U.S. Army's combat power was removed from the country.

Almost immediately after the last Stryker brigade left the country, internecine violence escalated in the country. The violence was especially concentrated against Shi'a religious targets, an obvious attempt by the remaining al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI, also known as al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia) elements to re-ignite the sectarian violence that served them well prior to the U.S. surge of late 2007 and early 2008.

Events in Iraq only serve to highlight the folly of specific timetables for withdrawal of combat forces. While such timetables and deadlines make for excellent political soundbites, they do not take into consideration the reality on the ground. When you announce a timetable in military operations, you have basically handed your enemy the information he needs to continue the fight. In counterinsurgency operations, this is deadly.

In Afghanistan, the situation is similar. The much-publicized June 2011 date has emboldened the Taliban and intimidated the government of President Hamid Karzai into talks with the jihadist organization. More importantly, the withdrawal date has put American troops at greater risk as villages in the disputed areas are reluctant to cooperate with American, NATO and Afghan forces. They believe, possibly legitimately, that the troops will not be there in the future; they know full well that the Taliban surely will be. Many have assessed that the United States and NATO do not have the necessary political will to stay the course.

As long as we as a country continue to establish these politically-expedient, militarily-senseless arbitrary timetables, we not only jeopardize the success of our foreign policy objectives, we put American troops at risk.

November 13, 2010

Iraqi parties agree to new government - finally

Eight months after the parliamentary elections in Iraq, the three major parties have agreed to form a new government based on a power sharing arrangement that maintains both the incumbent prime minister and president in their positions. Usamah al-Nujayfi, a member of the party that actually won the most seats in the elections, the al-Iraqiya alliance, is relegated to fill the position of speaker of the national assembly.

The "kingmakers" in this convoluted arrangement are the Kurds. The Kurds, at the behest of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, allied with the party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to put together a coalition with enough seats to form a new government. Although Iyad 'Alawi's al-Iraqiya party won two more seats than the al-Maliki's State of Law party, 'Alawi was not able to convince the Kurds to join him in forming a government.

The Kurds feel that their interests will be better served through an alliance with the Shi'a-dominated coalition of al-Maliki, and unfortunately, rabid anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Kurds, who suffered under the Sunni-dominated Ba'th Party rule of Saddam Husayn, are wary of trusting the Sunnis again. The Sunnis were a major part of the al-Iraqiya alliance, although 'Alawi himself is a moderate Shi'a.

The future status of the city of Kirkuk is also an issue - the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmans are all claiming it as rightfully theirs. The Kurds may have secured support from al-Maliki's party for the Kurdish desire to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdish autonomous region. This will be a divisive issue in the country.

While it is obvious that Nuri al-Maliki is a winner under this arrangement, after all he retains the post of prime minister, there are others that gain as well. Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr further legitimizes himself as a key political power in the country and possible successor to al-Maliki. However, the biggest winners in this power-sharing agreement are the Iranians. Both al-Maliki and al-Sadr are heavily influenced by Iran. (See my earlier piece,
Iraq - the consequences of another term for al-Maliki.

As a sort of consolation prize for Iyad 'Alawi, a new government body was created, the National Council for Strategic Policies, which will oversee security in the country. It is expected that 'Alawi himself will head up that organization.

All in all, as President Talabani designates Nuri al-Maliki to form a new government, the biggest celebrations are likely to be in Tehran, not Baghdad.

November 4, 2010

More Obama appeasement of Iran?

The sign in this AP photo is not translated accurately. Both the Farsi above the English "Down with America" and the Arabic below it are more correctly translated as "Death to America," which has a slightly different connotation.

In another step in the Obama Administration's policy to "engage" Iran, the U.S. State Department designated the Jundallah ("soldiers of God") group as a terrorist organization. This may or may not be the case - as political scientists are wont to say, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." During the Clinton Administration's attempts to overthrow the regime of Saddam Husayn (an effort in which I was a participant), the United States worked with groups whose tactics were similar to those of the Jundallah. It was acceptable then, but not now?

The Iranian government has demanded that the United States name Jundallah as a terrorist organization. It appears that the American government acquiesced to the Iranian demand, despite the fact that Iran refuses to abide by numerous United Nations resolutions over its nuclear program, despite the fact that Iran is has been holding young American hikers for over a year and intends to try them as spies, despite the fact that Iran continues to threaten American ally Israel with destruction - the list goes on and on.

Just what behavior is the Obama Administration seeking to reward? Perhaps it is Iran's blatant attempts to appear cooperative by suggesting the resumption of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear issue. This is merely another iteration of the tactic of delaying the West from taking any real action while Iran continues to enrich uranium. At some point, Iran will no longer have to delay, they will announce that they are in possession of a nuclear weapon. I wonder how State Department spokesman P.J. "Spinner" Crowley will then characterize yet another foreign policy failure.

Crowley's statement over the Jundallah was interesting. "This move was not made to curry favor with the Iranian government.... This group is engaged in terrorism and it's trying to destabilize a sensitive region of the world."

This "sensitive region of the world" - most of us call it Iran - is the problem. Perhaps we should be supporting these groups to force regime change to Iran, rather than legitimizing an autocratic dictatorship by sitting at a negotiating table with them.

How did the Iranians react to this spineless gesture on the part of the American administration? Thousands of Iranians mounted a mass demonstration with chants of "Death to America" marking the 31st anniversary of the capture of the American embassy in 1979.

So I ask the Administration again, "How's that engagement policy working out?" Please point to one, just one, any, positive outcome that your Iran policies have caused. I know the answer, but do you?

October 29, 2010

Initial thoughts on Yemen and the terror threat

CAVEAT: More and clarifying information will come out - this is my assessment on what was available today.

Yet another security threat is traced to Yemen. Two air cargo packages were intercepted overseas, reportedly based on information provided by the Saudi intelligence service. The two packages did contain explosive devices and were bound for Jewish facilities in the Chicago area. The packages were discovered on aircraft in the United Kingdom and Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and both originated in Yemen.

Yemen is home to al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP and one of its leaders, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi have been very active over the last few years. This makes at least the fourth attempt on the United States since President Obama took office. Before today:

- November 5, 2009: U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 30 others in an attack inspired by al-'Awlaqi.

- December 25, 2009: Nigerian 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, trained by AQAP and inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner.

- May 1, 2010: Faysal Shahzad, a Pakistani American inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate a car laden with explosives in New York City's Times Square.

The explosive in the devices discovered in the UK and UAE today contained the same explosive materials, PETN (a favorite of al-Qa'idah) and RDX, as those used in both 'Abd al-Mutallab's underwear and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid's shoes.

The question everyone is asking now is, "How many other devices were involved in today's attempt and where are they?"

Saudi intelligence, the source for the information that led to the discovery of today's attacks, is quite capable when operating in their own backyard. Since 2004, the Saudis have been absolutely lethal to al-Qa'idah elements in the Kingdom. Of course, they are not hamstrung by the oversensitive civil liberties charlatans in the United States; they actually get results. (See my earlier piece,
Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?) In any case, I tip my hat to the Saudis. I have often been critical of them in the past, so when they perform, I feel it is incumbent on me to recognize that as well.

Of course, we all abhor al-Qa'idah tactics to kill innocents in the furtherance of their goals. That said, one must analytically appreciate the skill with which they have approached attacking the United States. Over the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qa'idah has patiently observed American security procedures and identified vulnerabilities. After determining where we had not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on defenses, they adapted their method of attack. It appears they have assessed (correctly, in my view) that cargo aircraft are not subject to the same scrutiny as passenger aircraft.

How is al-Qa'idah able to mount operations against the United States in 2010 after years of being assaulted in Afghanistan?

The United States has deployed almost 100,000 troops to south Asia to, as President Obama keeps telling us, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah." Despite that, they are able to put at least two (that we know about) explosive devices that would be delivered to Jewish facilities in Chicago?

The reaction from President Obama's terrorism advisor John Brennan that it "may have been more than a dry run." You think, John? Actual explosives in multiple packages designated to be delivered to Jewish targets in the United States? I am going out on a limb here, but I am guessing that there is a real threat here, and your "I don't know" response does not engender confidence in our counter terrorism capabilities.

Maybe we are fighting the wrong war. Even CIA director Leon Panetta concedes that there are only a few hundred al-Qa'idah fighters left in Afghanistan. Most of the "true believers" have moved to Pakistan or Yemen. In Pakistan they survive under the protection of the Pushtun tribes in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is "Paki-speak" for "we don't want to try and impose law and order there because they will kick our butts." Bottom line: the real war is not in Afghanistan.

In response to today's attacks, let's at least face reality and call them that: attacks. President Obama said the United States will continue to work to destroy al-Qa'idah. Great, Mr. President. So why have you committed much of our offensive military power to a venue where we know al-Qa'idah is not a threat? Is your mandate to rebuild Afghanistan or to defeat al-Qa'idah? I think you know the right answer but have not figured out how to explain it. Let me help. If you want to, as you claim, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah," start taking them on where they are. That is in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, not Afghanistan. Today's events provide you the perfect opportunity. Move against the threat.

Ah, but President Obama is a political animal. That is not a condemnation, but simply an observation. He cannot help but wonder why al-Qa'idah would be conducting these attacks within a week of the American elections. The conventional wisdom is that if al-Qa'idah is attempting to influence the elections, it wants to ensure that the new American political landscape favors al-Qa'idah. For most observers, that means a Democratic victory. Then again, a Republican victory means a commitment to continued American troops presence in Afghanistan, taking the pressure off where the real al-Qa'idah presence is, that being Pakistan and Yemen.

Yemen is emerging as the key locus for the fight against terrorism. As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell did in 2001 with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, we need to approach Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih and explain that the fight happens one of two ways. One is cooperation between our intelligence and security services, and the other is crippling air and missile strikes where we deem appropriate. Remember, this is the same government that stymied an American investigation in to the attack on the USS Cole, allowed (and possibly fostered) the mysterious escapes of al-Qa'idah operatives, the continues to refuse to extradite indicted felons to the United States - it goes on and on.

The real fight is not in Afghanistan, it is in Yemen.

October 25, 2010

Karzai and Iranian money - who can blame him?

DOD photoOver the last few days, there have been "revelations" in the press that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has received millions of dollars (actually paid in euros) from the Iranian government. Karzai has acknowledged these payments, claiming they were used to run the presidential palace and his office, and not paid to individuals.

The Iranian government has said that it is not involved in paying money to buy influence in Afghanistan. First, the claim is laughable; many governments do this. When the United States gives money to foreign governments, is there not some expectation that it will have more influence than if there had been no payment? Of course there is.

Second, the Iranians have a long history of providing large sums of money, as well as weapons and training to governments and groups they feel advance their interests (as do all countries). For example, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps routinely supports Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Sadrists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan in this manner. Now Iran is paying money to the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

Iran is providing money to both sides of the Iran equation, so whoever emerges as the power in Afghanistan, the Iranians will be well-positioned to exercise influence. Of course, the Taliban is going to accept the money and weapons; they need them to continue the fight against the Americans and NATO forces in the country.

That said, why is the Karzai government accepting money? The easy answer is that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is likely to remain that way, given the rampant corruption and ravages of decades of warfare. There is also a religious affiliation between the two, since both countries are Islamic republics, albeit one predominately Shi'a and the other predominantly Sunni. More importantly, though, Karzai is taking the money because there is no indication that American money or military support will continue past President Obama's arbitrary deadline of July 31, 2011 to begin the withdrawal of American forces.

Karzai is trying to make the best of what he likely considers a confusing situation. Commander of American (and NATO) forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus claims that the July 2011 deadline is the point at which the Administration will review the situation on the ground and determine if it is possible to withdraw troops.

Those words are in direct contrast to Vice President Joe Biden's: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." That does not sound like conditions-based analysis of the situation, it sounds like a political promise. What we need to hear is the President and Vice President talk about victory as a strategy. What we need is a commander in chief, not a politician, but I digress.

President Karzai is trying to do the best he can based on the conditions he faces. He does not know if he can rely on the United States after July 2011. He probably has assessed the current Administration as more interested in formulating a withdrawal strategy than a victory strategy. If the United States withdraws its troops before the situation on the ground warrants, and that is not a far-fetched idea, the Taliban will have a chance to seize power. Karzai will not be withdrawing with Petraeus, he will still be in the country and has to figure out a way to survive.

Can you blame him for maintaining good relations with his Iranian neighbors to the West? If the United States deserts him, Tehran may be willing to fill the void.

October 24, 2010

Wikileaks reveals U.S. failures over hikers

Border Crossing at Panjwin (Iraq) and Bashmaq (Iran)

A classified U.S. Army document released by the Wikileaks organization appears to support earlier claims that Iranian forces crossed the border into Iraq in the Panjwin area to kidnap three American hikers in July 2009. Two of the three hikers are about to tried for espionage in an Iranian court; the third, a woman, was released on humanitarian grounds.

The military document is dated July 31, 2009, and makes reference to the kidnapping of three tourists hiking in the Panjwin area. It also indicated that the three were warned about the dangers of approaching this area of the Iranian border. In response to the reported kidnapping, American forces launched a reconnaissance drone and two F-16 fighters.

Here is the report - my comments follow.

2/1 07:112

Initial report:

WHO: Tourists/Reporters

WHAT: Arrest, Effective, Confirmed (CF)

WHERE: –– ––––– –––––, Sulaymaniyah / Halabjah

WHEN: 311600JUL09

HOW: MND-N G2 reported a kidnapping of 3 Americans who were being taken to the Iranian border. The Americans were hiking near the Iranian border when taken. A fourth tourist did not go hiking with them and reported that a kidnapped female called him saying that they were being surrounded by armed men.

UPDATE 311630JUL09: the following grid is where the kidnapping incident occurred: 38SNE 267 395.

UPDATE 311631JUL09: DIV reported an updated grid of the kidnappers: 38SNE 969 068.

UPDATE 311632JUL09: JPRC (Corps Personnel Recovery) is reporting that the victims were tourists who came to Iraq to go rock climbing.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: Kirkuk PJCC made contact with Suly JCC. Suly JCC will establish checkpoints throughout Suly.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: CF/CF en route to ––––– –– to make link up with " Meckfessel", ––––– –––––– ––––– –––– –– ––– –––– –– –– – –––– –––– –– –––– ––––– –– –– –––––.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: JPRC reports: victims were hiking the "Ahmad al Waha (variant Waaha, Waah, etc.) Rock face outside of Sulaymaniyah. (––––– ––––– –––––)

UPDATE 311645JUL09: AWT and Pathfinder team are en route to Warrior for refuel. Once complete they will remain on standby at FOB Warrior.

UPDATE 311715JUL09: last known location of vehicle new grid ND898 931.

UPDATE 311718 JUL09: Colonel Latif of the 10th Pesh Murga brigade reports Iranians detained 3x AMCIT for being too close to the border

UPDATE 311724 JUL09: CJ3 reports that President Barzani has been notified and has offered support

UPDATE 311728JUL09: Pathfinder landed, AWT are 5 min out

UPDATE 311733JUL09: F16s on station

–––– ––––: ––––– –––––

-–– –– –– ––––– (–––––– –– –/– –––)

-–– ––––– –––––: –– ––––– (–––––– –– –––-–)

-–– –––– – –––– –– – –––– –– –– –––––

-–– –– ––––– –– ––––– –– –– –––– –– –––– ––––––.

-–– –– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

-–– –––––– –––– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

UPDATE 311744JUL09: OSINT: Iranians report picking up three civilians

UPDATE 311750JUL09: link up with Meckfessel confirmed

UPDATE 311804JUL09: MND-N has confirmed that they will C2 the recovery operations.

–––– –––––––: –– –– –– ––––– ––--–––– –––– –– –––– ––––––, – – –– ––––– –– ––––, –– –––– –––– –––––– –– – –––– ––––, –– –––– –––– – ––––– –––– –––– –– –– ––––––

UPDATE 311826JUL09: CJSOTF will pick up Meckfessel and take him to PB Andrea. Pathfinders will return him to Warrior where a C12 will transport him to Baghdad.

UPDATE 311920JUL09: CPT ––––– and SFC ––––– will escort Meckfessel to Baghdad.

–––– –––––––: ––-––– –– –––– –––– –– –– –––– –– –– ––––, –-–– ––––– –––––––

–––– –––– –––––: ––-––– –– –––– –– –– –– –––– –– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

–––– –––––––: ––––– –––– –––– –––– –– –––– –– –– –––––

–––– –––––––: ––-––– –– –– ––––– ––––– –––– –– –– –––––

UPDATE 312014JUL09: C-12 will arrive at 2040

UPDATE 312036 JUL09: C-12 has landed

UPDATE 312040 JUL09: C-12 departed warrior en route to Baghdad

UPDATE 312145 JUL09: Escorts report landing at BIAP.

UPDATE 312330JUL09: Escorts transfer Meckfessel to Embassy personnel.

UPDATE 010015AUG09: Escorts will fly fixed wing at 1100 hrs on 1 AUG09 to FOB Warrior

BDA: 3x AMCIT Detained by Iranians

PAO ASSESSMENT: All queries referred to the US embassy in Baghdad.

IO ASSESSMENT: IQATF will monitor for atmospherics on this SIGACT.

S2 ASSESSMENT: The lack of coordination on the part of these hikers, particularly after being forewarned, indicates an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran. The leadership in Iran benefits as it focuses the Iranian population on a perceived external threat rather than internal dissension. Kurdish leaders remain concerned about international perceptions regarding security as they seek to increase investment in the KRG. Expect KRG leadership to intervene to return the 3 individuals and the Iranian government to accuse them of being spies. Additionally, KRG leadership may impose additional restrictions on private activities near the Iranian border.




The assessment by the S2, the intelligence section, is prescient. It is exactly how the Iranians reacted.

In the intervening year, the American government has absolutely no foreign policy successes with the Iranians, despite a two-pronged strategy of engagement and economic sanctions. Neither have ameliorated Iran's behavior, either in its nuclear weapons program or its conduct in the community of nations.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her spokesman P.J. "Spinner" Crowley offer platitudes and feckless rhetoric, two young Americans remain in the notorious Evin prison, Iran continues to enrich uranium to higher levels than required for reactor fuel, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to supply arms to Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Sadrist militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. See my earlier article, The three hikers in Iran - how's that "engagement" working?

It will be interesting to find out why the hikers were in this part of Iraq. If the intelligence assessment is correct, that they were intending "to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran," I'd like to hear their opinions of Iran now. I tend to not assign that motive to the three.

The three say they were on a trip to see the Ahmad Awa cave; it is well worth a visit. However, it is very close to the Iranian border in an area where Iraq juts far into Iran. I've been to this area. The Iranian border is clearly marked and in most places well-fortified, at some places with deep tank traps. Remember that these two countries fought a bloody eight-year war. Claims that they may have inadvertently strayed across the Iranian border are ludicrous.

The second part of the S2 (intelligence officer) assessment turned out to be exactly right, "...the Iranian government to accuse them of being spies."

Thus far, the Administration has been unable to get two obviously innocent hikers released. Is this the team we want dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran?

Here is a compilation report from on the media coverage of the Wikileaks story:

October 22, 2010

Syria - the rise of Asif Shawkat

Asif Shawkatآصف شوكت

Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad realigned his security and intelligence agency chiefs as he positions his government to assume a greater role for Syria in the Middle East. The major agencies in the pervasive and myriad Syrian security and intelligence services are Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and State Security.

The leadership of all three agencies was changed in September. Officers move between the agencies at the pleasure of the president.

The head of Military Intelligence, Major General Asif Shawkat was promoted to lieutenant general and is likely to be named the new minister of defense. Shawkat is married to President al-Asad's older sister Bushra.

Replacing Shawkat at Military Intelligence is Major General 'Abd al-Latif Qudsiyah, who vacates his post as chief of Air Force Intelligence.

The chief of Air Force Intelligence was replaced by Major General Jamil Hasan, was had been the deputy head of State Security.

At State Security, Major General 'Ali Mamluk retired upon reaching mandatory retirement age, and will become a special advisor to the president. Major General Zuhayr Hamad, a counter-terrorism specialist, was promoted from within State Security to be its chief.

The most interesting move here is the promotion of Asif Shawkat to lieutenant general and the news that he may be the next minister of defense. Shawkat owes virtually all of his good fortune to the fact that he is married to Bushra Hafiz al-Asad. If he becomes the minister of defense, al-Asad will have an absolutely loyal and trustworthy ally in that key position. While almost all of the senior officers in key positions are from the 'Alawite minority of the Latakia region, Shawkat is one better, he's family.

Shawkat, now 60 years old, has been the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence since early 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Most Middle East observers (including me) believe there was a Syrian hand in the murder. We also believe Shawkat was involved in the planning, if not the execution.

After Lebanese public demands and demonstrations forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, it appeared that al-Asad's control over the smaller country was disappearing. Through patience and back-channel maneuvering, Syria has again emerged as a major power broker in the country. One only needs to read this week's news to see how the situation has changed. See my piece from earlier this week,
Syria flexes it muscles in "the province" of Lebanon.

The maneuvering that regained Syrian influence was most likely the province of Syrian Military Intelligence, which has a long history of basically controlling Lebanon. Shawkat delivered Lebanon back to Bashar al-Asad. In return, he gets to be the Minister of Defense. Shawkat is now one of the most powerful men in Syria, possibly second only to the president.