July 30, 2010

Spain - the cowards who want "justice"

In the latest European court attack on American troops involved in the war in Iraq, a Spanish judge announced that he will re-issue an arrest warrant for three American soldiers he claims are culpable in the death of a Spanish journalist killed at the Palestine Meridian Hotel in 2003. What we have here is Spain, a nation that caved to terrorists' demands in the aftermath of the 2004 bombing o f some trains in Madrid, trying to re-assert itself as an antiwar, anti-American state. They've been successful - I'll call this episode "The cowards who want 'justice.'"

Incident at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad
To get a better understanding of Spain's convoluted logic, it might be useful to explain the significance of the venue of the alleged crime - Firdus Square, located on the east bank of the Tigris River, across the river from and a bit north of the Republican Palace.

Click on image for larger view

The square, which is actually a circle, is the location of two of Baghdad's better hotels, the Palestine (formerly the Palestine Meredien) and the Ishtar Sheraton (no longer affiliated with Sheraton). This is also the site of the Saddam Husayn statue that was attacked and pulled down when American forces entered the city.

Click on image for larger view
The Palestine and Sheraton hotels are on the northwest and southwest of the circle, respectively, and across the circle from the Shahid (Martyr's) Mosque, one of the prettier buildings in the city.

Palestine Hotel

Palestine Hotel

Shahid (Martyr's) Mosque

I have stayed at both the Palestine and Sheraton in Baghdad when I was a liaison officer to the Iraqi directorate of military intelligence - always at Iraqi expense. Both were quite comfortable, not as nice as the Rashid, but I only got to stay at the Rashid when traveling with my boss. Senior Executive Service civilians qualified for the Rashid, Air Force captains did not. The rooms and restaurant at the Sheraton were nicer, but the Palestine had a great bar decorated like a Bedouin tent as well as a casino. I digress.

According to U.S. Army records, on April 8, 2003 during the initial American assault into Baghdad, an armor battalion approached the Palestine Hotel. One of the soldiers in one of the tanks believed there was an artillery spotter operating from one of the higher floors of the Palestine - he eliminated the threat with a round from his main gun. Before I continue, let me say that I would have done the same thing. Unfortunately, two journalists died in the attack; one was Spanish citizen José Couso.

Firdus square is in the heart of Baghdad. It would make sense for any attacking military force to find its way to the square. The two hotels on the square are the tallest buildings in Baghdad and would make ideal observation and/or sniper positions. Approaching an 18-story and 26-story building in a tank is dangerous in any case. These tanks were the vanguard of the American thrust into the city - the soldiers were no doubt concerned for their safety. Anything that appeared to be hostile would be engaged.

In May 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued their findings that the "attack on the journalists, while not deliberate, was avoidable." The report also acknowledged that American forces were aware that the Palestine Hotel was a favorite of journalists and wanted to avoid having to fire on it. This report is from a group not known to be friendly to the U.S. armed forces. A U.S Army internal investigation in August 2003 cleared the soldiers since they believed they were firing on enemy troops.

Yet, we now have a Spanish judge bringing an indictment against three of the Americans involved in the unfortunate incident. The three men are charged with homicide and committing a "crime against the international community." Spain, who did not have the courage to face a bunch of terrorist thugs, now sees fit to attempt to try American troops for actions in combat in Iraq. The Spanish judge also ordered the three men to appear in a Spanish court.

It is this type of ridiculous proceeding that demonstrates the reasons the United States Senate will have difficulty in getting a two-thirds majority to ratify American membership in the International Criminal Court. It opens our service members up to these frivolous types of legal maneuverings designed to embarrass the United States.

Please note that both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly support American membership in the ICC. Of course, neither has worn a uniform, and the closest either of them has come to hearing a shot fired in anger was Hillary's falsified claims (that's diplo-speak for lying) of landing at a Bosnian airbase under sniper fire.

The Madrid train bombings and aftermath
On March 11, 2004, ten explosive devices exploded in Madrid on four commuter trains, killing 191 people and wounding almost 2,000 others. The attack was supposedly executed by an al-Qa'idah-inspired North African Islamist group. The attacks were timed to coincide with the Spanish general elections to be held on March 14.

Based on the threats, the incumbent party of President José María Aznar - who supported the invasion of Iraq with the deployment of 1,400 Spanish troops - was defeated at the polls. One of the first actions of the new government was to announce the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, as demanded by the terrorists. A truly pathetic performance - this is the action of a NATO ally?

Now, for whatever reason, the Spanish courts want to try three American soldiers for murder and some nebulous "crime against the international community." Other Spanish journalists (and I use the term loosely) contend that the attack was a deliberate attempt to kill journalists or somehow send a warning to the reporters is ludicrous. The U.S. military has the most open access for journalists of any armed forces in the world. Reporters, including those from foreign - and not always sympathetic - press organizations like Al-Jazeera, were embedded in American military units at all levels.

The problem is that the three soldiers may be arrested if they are deployed to other ICC-signatory countries and extradited to Spain. The United States needs to demand these indictments be dropped. Sadly for our troops, if we are waiting for the Obama administration to make the case, we should be prepared to wait a long time.

Obviously, these three soldiers will be bypassing Spain on their next vacations. I suggest we all do the same.

July 29, 2010

Eric Holder in Egypt - can you spell UGLY AMERICAN?

Attorney General Eric Holder's comments while in Egypt raise several questions, not the least of which is: when you went to college, did you not read the novel The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer? If not, please have some minion on your staff get you a copy of the book, or at least the Cliff notes. Failing that, watch the movie.

I realize that you have very little international experience in general, and absolutely none in the Middle East. You really need a quick course on what not to say that might come back to bite you in the backside. Of course, that also begs the second question - why are you in Egypt at all? We'll get to that later.

Back to your comments about Egyptian elections. "One of the things we are concerned (about is) that elections will be held here in a free and open way ... there is certainly a capacity here to do that. We are hopeful that elections will be held in a free and open manner."

You are of course referring to statements made by various human rights groups about alleged abuses in past elections including security forces and ruling party backers blocking opposition supporters from casting ballots and inflating results for government candidates.

Whoa! I think I just read something eerily similar to that about the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. In case you have forgotten what many believe is either racially motivated dereliction of duty or just outright corruption, what action have you taken against three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense involved in voter intimidation in Philadelphia? Anyone who has seen the videotapes of the incident knows what happened. They also know that you refused to take any action against two of the perpetrators and basically let the third one go with a reprimand. I submit that if I had tried that at a polling place, I would be in jail.

With all that baggage, are you sure you want to lecture the Egyptians on "free and open" elections? Doing so merely highlights your arrogance, your lack of understanding of just how Americans are viewed in the Middle East, and frankly, how badly you are thought of at home.

So back to the other question - why are you even in Egypt? Is there some burning international justice issue that required your attention? You were stopping off for a little sightseeing on your way home from Uganda, and thought while in Cairo you might take some time to insult our Egyptian allies? I thought insulting our allies was the purview of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Okay, another question - they just keep on coming, and the answers just get better and better. Why were you in Uganda? It seems that you were chosen to represent the United States at the recent African Union summit in Uganda, the theme of which was "Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development." Again, where is Hillary? Why is the U.S. Department of Justice involved? Perhaps this was a mission more properly assigned to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)? Please tell me it had nothing to do with race.

It would seem to me that you have enough to do as our chief law enforcement officer in this country without worrying about maternal, infant and child health and development in Africa. Call me crazy, but maybe you should be focusing on issues such as illegal immigration - or suing states that are trying to do something about it because of your refusal to enforce federal immigration laws. I guess that has as much stature as federal voting laws in your world.

Then, if that's not enough to keep you busy at home, there is the leak of 91,000 classified documents to an anti-war website - let's see if you prosecute that. Yes, Mr Attorney General, there are real issues to address, instead of jaunting off to Uganda. Of course, if you're doing that, that means you have less time to devote to such ludicrous (and money-wasting) proposals like trying 9-11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in federal court in New York City, or moving the Guantanamo terrorists to Illinois.

The next time you get the urge to travel to the Middle East, please lay down until the urge goes away. Maybe the question to you should not be, "Can you spell UGLY AMERICAN," but simply, "Can you spell AMERICAN?"

July 26, 2010

Some leaked documents a breath of fresh air

Admiral Mike Mullen with Pakistani ISI Officers

In all the furor of the leaked documents posted on the leftist anti-war website Wikileaks, there is some information now in the public domain that actually might do some good. Finally, we are able to see documentary evidence that the United States actually knows, or at least believes, that the Pakistanis may not be part of the solution in Afghanistan, but are in reality a major part of the problem, and that the Iranians are supporting the Taliban in their operations against American forces. While many of us have suspected this all along, it is good to see it in real government documents.

America's relationship with Pakistan has had its ups and downs over the years, much of influenced by how much they could do for us in furthering our national interests. That is, after all, what foreign policy is all about. During the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan's intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) was the conduit for virtually all American weapons and money to the Aghfan

Any one who knows Pakistan or the Pakistanis realizes that not all of the money nor weapons reached their intended recipients. The CIA officers responsible for the operation knew that there was going to be a certain amount of corruption, but that it was the price of doing business - there was no viable alternative to dealing with the ISI. The more important mission was getting weapons to the fighters in Afghanistan.

The weapons provided to the mujahidin included, as glamorized in the movie Charlie Wilson's War (see
my comments on Charlie and "his" war), the FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-launched heat-seeking air defense missile system, to this day arguably the finest shoulder-fired system in existence.

As feared by many officers at the Pentagon when Representative Wilson basically forced the U.S. Army to provide Stingers to the ISI for the mujahidin, some of the missiles ended up in the hands of people we did not want to have them. In September 1987, while the CIA was still sending Stingers to the ISI, the U.S. Navy found Stingers on board the Iranian mine-laying ship Iran Ajr in the Persian Gulf. The serial numbers indicated that they had been shipped to the ISI for delivery to the mujahidin. A gift to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from our "allies."

After the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan in 1988, our assistance to the mujahidin stopped almost overnight. The mujahidin were disappointed that we did not continue our support, but our operation in Afghanistan were not about them, it was about the Soviets. Once the Soviets left, our foreign policy objective was achieved and we turned to other matters.

No longer needing the cooperation of the Pakistanis, the U.S. Congress began scrutinizing Pakistan's nascent nuclear weapons and missile programs. In 1990, once it was assessed that Pakistan was in fact developing a nuclear weapon, the United States halted delivery of additional F-16 fighter aircraft (that had already been paid for) under the terms of the Pressler Amendment. Relations between Islamabad and Washington chilled.

In the early 1990's, the ISI was involved in the creation of the fundamentalist Taliban - its charter members were drawn from the millions of Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan. When the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, they were supported by the ISI, and diplomatically recognized by Pakistan. There is more to the relationship between the ISI and Taliban than than Pakistani national interest.

As with many countries in the Middle East and South Asia, ethnic and tribal loyalties trump almost everything else. Many of the ISI are ethnic Pushtuns, as are most of the Taliban. It is the Pushtun tribesmen in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (especially in North and South Waziristan, the semi-autonomous regions along the Afghanistan border) that have extended protection to al-Qa'idah leaders Usmah bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. There is also a large Pushtun contingent in the Pakistani armed forces.

The thought that the ISI and many in the Pakistani army are going to be fully supportive of the Pakistani government's efforts to move against their fellow tribesman in the Waziristans is wishful thinking. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case - the ISI, or at least some officers in the ISI, along with some Pakistani army officers are actively supporting the Taliban in their operations against American and coalition forces.

Regardless of what Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs would have you believe - and the documents tend to make him out as less than truthful - the Pakistanis are not serious about helping us eradicate an organization that they created. To think otherwise defies logic.

The Iranians likewise are much more involved in supporting the Taliban in its operations against American and coalition forces than the administration would have us believe. The Iranians, as they did with the Iraqi Shi'a militias such as the jaysh al-mahdi (JAM) of Muqtada al-Sadr, have been providing weapons and other support to the Taliban. Although the Taliban and the Iranians have many ideological differences, their mutual hatred of the United States supersedes any reluctance to cooperate with each other.

There are also the much-touted Obama outreach efforts to Iran - all of which have been rebuffed by the Iranians and have been a dismal failure. Could a desire to not offend the Ahmadinejad regime have played into the downplaying of Iran's support for the Taliban? I have my suspicions.

Last words
Julian Assange, the self-righteous arrogant co-founder of Wikileaks is joined by Amnesty International in its condemnation of American involvement in Afghanistan and what they believe is a high level of civilian casualties. Why don't they spend as much time condemning the Taliban and its murderous activities? They act like the Taliban is a legitimate entity rather than a bunch of murdering jihadist fanatics.

Finally, if U.S. Army intelligence analyst Specialist Bradley Manning turns out to be the source of the leaked documents, I urge the Secretary of Defense to pursue treason charges and seek the death penalty. Release of these classified documents when American troops are involved in combat operations rises to that level - if he did it, he deserves to die.

Quoted about the Iranian scientist defector issue

Click to read the articleGareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. He has been writing about the Shahram Amiri case since the beginning and appears to have good sources. I spoke with him on several occasions.

Here is the article in which he quotes me. It's pretty close to what I said. As far as identifying me, I was a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer assigned to CIA, but for most people, the difference is meaningless.

I still am unsure as to whether Amiri was a true defector or an Iranian "dangle." We may never know. Here is my earlier piece on this, The "defective" Iranian scientist - curiouser and curiouser.

July 22, 2010

Iranian official hails Afghanistan as America's "new Vietnam" - he has a point

MSNBC screen capture
Iranian foreign minister Ali Larijani cited recent American actions in Afghanistan as similar to mistakes that the United States made in Vietnam decades earlier. Larijani also noted the former Soviet Union's failure to achieve its goals in Afghanistan in the 1980's as well as evidence that foreigners cannot win wars in Afghanistan.

You would expect nothing less from a senior Iranian official, but he has a point, one that many observers and analysts have been trying to make since President Barack Obama changed American policy and strategy in Afghanistan to one that has almost no chance of success. The combination of an ill-defined mission and the wrong strategy to achieve it, combined with the refusal to adequately resource the deployed forces is a recipe for disaster. What the President is doing in South Asia could be the template for a Foreign Policy Failures for Dummies book.

First, let's dispel ourselves of the Obama-perpetuated myth that the mission in Afghanistan is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qa'idah. Even Obama's CIA director Leon Panetta has publicly stated that there are likely no more than 100 al-Qa'idah combatants in Afghanistan. So please stop insulting our intelligence by clinging to that outright falsehood. Al-Qa'idah is gone from Afghanistan. They are still a lethal organization that needs to be eliminated, yes, but THEY ARE NOT IN AFGHANISTAN. Someone explained to me using all upper case letters was the same as shouting. Yes, I am shouting.

So where are al-Qa'idah's fighters? As American forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001, al-Qa'idah was forced to flee to Pakistan - Usama bin Ladin slipped through our fingers during the fighting at Tora Bora. After their arrival in Pakistan, they regrouped in time to transfer many of the organization's fighters to Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. Once in Iraq, they entered into an alliance with Sunni groups involved in the insurgency and created "al-Qa'idah in Mesoptamia."

After the American troop surge in 2007 and the associated "Anbar Awakening" that saw many of the Sunni leaders turn on al-Qa'idah, the group was decimated and forced to move south to Yemen. Moving to Saudi Arabia was no longer possible after the group foolishly attacked Saudi installations soon after the insurgency began in Iraq. The Saudis, who had up until then turned a blind eye to the group being in the kingdom, turned on the group and hunted them down - very effectively. The remnants of the group fled to Yemen as well.

Mr. President, if you really want to - in your own words - "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qa'idah, you have to go where they are. That is Pakistan and Yemen. I acknowledge that you are doing the right thing in these two countries - the drone-launched missile attacks in Pakistan and providing support to Yemeni forces are excellent tactics. That said, you must also acknowledge that al-Qa'idah is not in Afghanistan to the level that warrants the deployment of over 100,000 American troops.

However, if the United States is going to continue to fight in Afghanistan and wants to be successful, it must change how it conducts the war. The single most important thing President Obama can do is to publicly repeal his politically-motivated, ill-advised artificial withdrawal date of July 2011. Virtually every military officer, except maybe those beholden to the Obama administration, knows defining withdrawal dates is a bad idea.

More importantly, the Karzai government and the Taliban also know it is a bad idea - in July 2011, both know that the Taliban will still be there. All they have to do is survive until then. Karzai must be concerned that he will have no protection and may seek an accommodation with the Taliban as we draw closer to the day the Americans have decided to end their war, to in essence "declare victory and go home."

Second, the rules of engagement have to be altered to take advantage of American strengths and Taliban weaknesses. The reluctance to use overwhelming air power is a mistake - we have ample evidence that both al-Qa'idah and the Taliban fear air attacks, as well they should. However, the current restrictions on the effective use of this asset puts American and coalition troops at greater risk. I understand the sensitivity to "collateral damage" - military-speak for civilian deaths - but at some point you owe it to your troops to err on their side.

While we think that these restrictions, the restraint so much called for by the administration, are a sign of strength, the Taliban sees them as a sign of weakness. They have adapted their tactics to the rules of engagement - they know them and use them against us. The way to defeat the Taliban is to hunt them down relentlessly and kill them - kill many of them. That they understand - that they regard as strength. You cannot reason with them, for they are the "true believers" in their cause - they have to be defeated, and defeat among true believers comes only with death. One only need look a the numbers of former Guantanamo inmates that we find on the battlefield again to realize that.

The American military is a powerful, fearsome force - if allowed to be. What we are doing is hamstringing our troops and their leaders. Larijani is right - we are making the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. Hopefully, with General Petraeus now in charge in Afghanistan, he can convince the President that he should seek victory, not withdrawal.

July 20, 2010

Syria bans face veil at universities

The niqab and hijab

The Syrian government has announced that women wearing the full face veil (in Arabic al-niqab) will not be permitted to either teach or study in Syrian universities. The ruling applies to both public and private schools.

This reflects governmental concern over a perceived shift among the population toward a more conservative brand of Islam. The increasing conservatism is not limited to Syria or the Middle East. This same trend is seen in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as Arab enclaves in European cities.

Syria is a secular country - the ruling Ba'th Party is dedicated to its three core Pan-Arab principles of wahdah, huriyah wa ishtirakiyah (unity, freedom and socialism). While it is a Muslim country, it is not an Islamic country - one where Islam is not only the religion, but the government and law as well. Examples of Islamic countries include Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian government reaction to increased wear of the niqab is likely typical of other governments' reactions, but let's take a closer look at Syria in particular. Wear of the niqab, literally "mask," is not that common in Syria. When I lived in Syria, it was seen only in the more rural and Bedouin areas, and occasionally in the cities. It was considered more of a "country bumpkin" style of dress among the uneducated.

What I have noticed over the years, however, is an increase in the wear of the hijab, the headscarf that covers the hair. The hijab is very popular in Syria, the Arab world and most Muslim countries. It is common to see Muslim women in the West wear the hijab as well. When I first visited Syria in the 1970's, I would estimate - anectdotally - that less than 30 percent of women under 50 were muhajibiyah - those who wear the scarf. By the late 1980's that number had not changed much.

In the 1990's, however, there was a subtle shift in attitudes about secularization in much of the Middle East. In 1990, Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait, prompting the deployment - at the request of the Saudis - of hundreds of thousands of American and coalition forces to the region. It seemed to those who had spent time in the area prior to the liberation of Kuwait that there was almost a backlash against the concessions made while foreign forces were deployed. To me, it appeared that more college-aged women in Damascus had begun to wear the hijab.

I asked a Syrian friend - who does not wear the scarf, we'll call her Layla - about what I perceived to be a trend of increased wear of the headscarf. She laughed and explained that several factors were converging that might explain my observation. There were the reasons that I had observed, such as the backlash to the increased American presence in the area, to be sure, but other strictly Syrian things were in play.

Much of what Layla explained had to do with the Hafiz al-Asad regime. I suspect those factors are the same reasons that the Bashar al-Asad regime is concerned now about increased wear of the niqab. Syria has never been an Islamic country, and the secular Ba'this have been in power since the early 1960's.

There is widespread low-level opposition among much of the population against the dictatorial regime. Many young Syrian women began wearing the hijab as a subtle form of opposition to the government. The recent ruling against the wear of the more conservative niqab is a reaction to what is perceived as a protest against the government.

When I expressed surprise that this was all opposition to the government, Layla reminded me that in spite of the politics, we were still talking about college-aged women. Many of the young ladies wearing the hijab were not making a statement against the al-Asad regime. Instead, they were attempting to appear more chaste than perhaps they had acted in their first years at college and were now seeking husbands. In a country where families still wield influence on who their daughters marry, wearing the hijab takes on new meaning.

That said, the secular governments in the region are concerned about the rise of more traditional Islam, and the increased wear of both the hijab and niqab are examples of that. In Syria, banning the hijab would cause a major uproar. Focusing initially on the more conservative niqab and its less influential constituency makes sense. It sends a message but does not create a huge backlash.

July 19, 2010

Al-Sadr in Damascus - another step in his journey to rule Iraq?

Muqtada al-Sadr with Bashar al-Asad and with Iyad 'Alawi in Damascus

The quest for relevance and legitimacy
In his latest bid to regain relevance in internal Iraqi politics, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visited Damascus, Syria, to meet (separately) with Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and fellow Iraqi politician Iyad 'Alawi. The meeting between al-Sadr and al-Asad appeared to be a meeting of two lesser leaders who both hope to be relevant again in the politics of the region. Unfortunately, the presence of the respected Dr. 'Alawi tends to legitimize both al-Sadr and al-Asad.

Muqtada al-Sadr has lapsed into relative obscurity since he fled to Iran in the face of the American troop surge of 2007. Al-Sadr, leader of the Shi'a militia known as the jaysh al-mahdi (Army of the Mahdi, or JAM), wisely ordered his followers to not confront the reinforced American combat units knowing that it would only mean heavy casualties among his followers. Al-Sadr himself sought refuge in Iran as he believed that he was a target for the coalition forces.

I think al-Sadr's fears of being captured or killed by American forces was a fair assessment on his part. Al-Sadr had been implicated in several high-level murders and his militia had killed scores of American troops. Current prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has been reluctant to do anything against al-Sadr because al-Sadr is a favorite of al-Maliki's Iranian supporters.

Once safe in Iran, Al-Sadr began a course of Koranic study at the hawza (religious school) in Qom to attain the title of ayatollah to buttress his religious credentials - he is currently a hawjat al-islam, much too junior for the level of leadership to which he aspires. At some point, he hopes to cash in on his family name - the al-Sadr family is revered among Iraqi Shi'a and suffered greatly at the hands of Saddam Husayn - and rise to be the major power broker in the country, if not its prime minister.

Al-Sadr's decision to travel to Damascus for a face-to-face meeting with the Syrian president is interesting. There is no doubt that Iran played a role in this choice - Iran and Syria have been close allies since the early days of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. It gives al-Asad the appearance of being a power broker in his own right and a player in what happens in neighboring Iraq in the future.

Ordinarily, I would have dismissed the meeting as merely an attempt for al-Sadr to demonstrate that he still has influence in Iraq despite his residency in Iran, and the choice of venue merely a convenience since Damascus is friendly territory for Iran and clients of Iran. There should be no doubt that both al-Asad and al-Sadr are exactly that.

Enter Iyad 'Alawi
I was disappointed and dismayed to see the presence of my friend and former co-conspirator Doctor Iyad 'Alawi in Damascus. His presence lends credence and legitimacy to the meeting between Bashar al-Asad and Muqtada al-Sadr. During an assignment with the CIA in the mid-1990's, I worked closely with Iyad and his Iraqi National Accord (al-wifaq) in an attempt to foment a coup d'etat against Saddam Husayn. (See my earlier piece for NBC News, A personal note on the execution of Saddam Husayn, December 2006.)

'Alawi met with the Syrian president and al-Sadr in separate discussions over the future of Iraq - a timely subject given the delay in forming a new government in the wake of the March 2010 elections. In those elections for the 325-seat National Assembly, Iyad's al-Iraqiyah Party won 91 seats, al-Maliki's al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah Party won 89, and al-Sadr's bloc won 39. Of note, all three are Shi'a Muslims.

In my opinion, Iyad 'Alawi is the greatest hope for a unified and accepted government in Iraq. (See my earlier piece, Iyad 'Alawi - the right choice for Iraq, March 2010.) As a Shi'a, he has standing in that community, although he remains secular in his outlook. That also allows him to gain buy-in from the Sunni community.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Nuri al-Maliki will not depart gracefully. Al-Maliki wants to maintain his power at all costs, probably on orders from what many believe are his Iranian masters. Al-Maliki' detractors have nicknamed him Nuri al-Irani (Nuri the Iranian) and derisively call his office al-sajad al-irani (the Iranian carpet).

If al-Sadr throws his seats behind al-Maliki, that makes forming a coalition more difficult for 'Alawi. 'Alawi's trip to Damascus was likely aimed at heading off that potentiality. For Iraq's sake, I hope he was successful. We do not need either al-Sadr or al-Maliki in positions of power and influence in Iraq - they both are too close to the mullahs in Tehran.

The Turkish sideshow
Not to be left out, Turkey dispatched its foreign minister to Damascus to meet with President al-Asad about the situation in Iraq. This move fits in with Turkey's recent efforts to insert itself more into the politics of the region, filling what is perceived in many Arab and Middle Eastern capitals as a power vacuum created by the apparent failure of American leadership in the region.

The Obama Administration's outreach efforts to both Syria and Iran have failed, Turkey is drifting away from its close alliances with Washington and Tel Aviv, and American relations with Israel are at a low point. In May of this year, Turkey and Brazil attempted to negotiate a deal with Iran over its nuclear program - again as a result of the lack of American leadership on this issue. Ankara has also proposed a Turkish-Iranian-Syrian trilateral alliance, a move hard to imagine a few years ago.

The bottom line
Muqtada al-Sadr should have been neutralized long ago. American troops had him in their sights as early as the fall of 2003 and were called off by then Coalition Provisional Authority leader Jerry Bremer. Bremer, among other things, was responsible for the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the growth of the insurgency. He probably did more than any one person to damage American efforts in the country. His refusal to allow the U.S. Army to "deal with" al-Sadr was just another of his blunders.

Perhaps I am being too subtle here. To put it bluntly, we should have killed al-Sadr when we had the chance. Now we have to live with his likely ascendancy on the political scene in Iraq. Long ago I warned that left unchecked, he could emerge as a -if not "the" - key power broker in Iraq. His trip to Syria was just another step in that journey.

July 13, 2010

The "defective" Iranian scientist - curiouser and curiouser

The case of the the Iranian nuclear scientist who allegedly defected to the United States and now wants to return home is an intelligence officer's nightmare - trust me.

Shahram Amiri went to the Iranian interests section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington today, seeking repatriation to Iran. This raises a whole series of questions, none of which I have the answers to, but it might be illustrative to speculate.

Defectors wanting to return home is not new - it happens. It happens to "us" (the good guys), and it happens to "them" (the bad guys). Many intelligence officers of my generation will remember Soviet defector - well, we thought he was a defector - Vitaly Yurchenko. Yurchenko, a KGB officer with twenty-five years of service, defected to the United States in 1985 while assigned to the Soviet embassy in Rome. Soon afterwards, he identified two American intelligence officers working for Soviet intelligence. One was convicted and the other fled.

Later that same year, Yurchenko left a dinner at the popular Au Pied de Cochon eatery in Georgetown and returned to the Soviet Union. For the intelligence trivia buffs, the chair in which he was sitting is marked with a plaque, and the drink he was having has been named the "Yurchenko shooter" (half vodka, half Grand Marnier).

Yurchenko's repatriation caused tremors throughout the intelligence community. Had he been the real thing? Was his information real or fabricated? It was made more difficult because he had accurately named two American traitors, both valuable Soviet intelligence assets. If he was on a deception mission, a "dangle" in the vernacular, why were the Soviets willing to compromise two well-placed spies? Ronald Pelton worked at the National Security Agency, and Edward Lee Howard was a CIA case officer. Pelton is in prison until at least 2015; Howard died in Russia under mysterious circumstances (that's spy-speak for "he was murdered by the KGB").

In hindsight, it is believed that Yurchenko was in fact a dangle. His mission was to give the CIA enough to make it seem he was the real thing - Pelton and Howard had pretty much given all they had to tell - in order to protect their prize penetration of the American intelligence community, CIA case officer Aldrich Ames.

Back to Shahram Amiri. Amiri, a nuclear physicist in his early 30s, was a researcher at a university tied to the Iranian military's missile programs. The school's rector has been named by the United Nations as involved in Iran's nuclear program. Given those affiliations and Amiri's expertise, as an intelligence officer, he would have appeared to be of interest to me.

In June 2009, Amiri traveled to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina as part of the hajj, the pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims. The Iranians claim he was kidnapped by American officers while in Saudi Arabia. Would we kidnap an Iranian while on a religious trip to Saudi Arabia? Doubtful. Would we engineer a chance to talk to him? Of course we would - that's what intelligence officers do. It would appear that we did. It also appears he wanted to talk to us.

Of course, the intelligence officer in me also would ask - if Amiri was so valuable or knowledgeable about the Iranian nuclear program, why was he allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia? The quick answer and perhaps the key to the whole repatriation decision - he had to travel without his family. This is common while on the hajj, but it also leaves an "anchor" back in Iran. Hold that thought.

Now it gets strange. In June 2010, a video appeared on a social networking site in which a man claiming to be Amiri says he had escaped from American intelligence agents in Virginia. Again, having done this for a living, it is inconceivable to me that a defected asset in CIA or DOD custody would have the opportunity to "escape," and make and post a video on the internet. Unless things have really changed at Langley or Arlington, it just could not happen that way.

It gets better. Now he wants to go home. Here is where the intelligence community has a dilemma. There are now the same questions as in the Yurchenko case - had he been the real thing; was his information real or fabricated? There are some similarities, but differences as well. Yurchenko was a "walk in" - he came to us. "Walk ins" want something, and in many cases are willing to tell you what you want to hear in return for asylum, money or other considerations. That does not mean they do not have valuable intelligence information, but it is important that the infomation is properly vetted. Yurchenko came prepared with two names of Americans who were working for Soviet intelligence - that's pretty good bona fides.

I do not know the exact circumstances of Amiri's relationship with the CIA. From reading the press accounts, there are multiple scenarios - none good, especially for Shahram Amiri. Returning to Iran if he was not sent - and there is no indication that he was, given Iran's constant demands for his return - is reminiscent of the Husayn Kamil case in Iraq.

Husayn Kamil was the chief of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and Saddam Husayn's son in law. In 1995, Kamil defected to Jordan with his wife, brother and his brother's wife (another daughter of Saddam Husayn). In 1996, the group returned to Iraq after Saddam threatened to kill their extended families. The two brothers were killed three days later.

One has to wonder if the Iranian intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) got word to Amiri that his family back in Iran was in jeopardy if he did not return. Would Iranian intelligence make that threat? My experience with them tells me that they would and probably did.

Complicating the issue are State Department statements. Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Amiri had "been here for some time, I'm not going to specify for how long...." I know P.J., and he means well, but it would be better if he avoided making oblique comments on intelligence matters - leave that to the professionals. Then we have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gratuitous remarks about the three American hikers detained in Iran. If they were part of the equation, which is entirely possible, she has just gained them a longer stay in Evin prison.

There is also the possibility that, like many defectors, Amiri fabricated much of the information he provided and the CIA basically cut him loose. In that case, all of the information he may have provided is suspect and a burn notice would be issued - yes, we actually call it that.

As I said, I am only speculating, but I have worked with defectors, embassy walk-ins and regular recruited assets before. I suspect that Amiri had useful intelligence information, but probably not the "keys to the kingdom." He defected and for whatever reason, his family remained behind. Perhaps the CIA was unable to engineer their departure, or for whatever reason they did not want to leave - it happens.

At some point, Amiri - against all orders from his resettlement officers - contacted someone in Iran. That contact, not surprisingly, came to the attention of VEVAK. VEVAK returned the contact with the threat against his family.

Watch for Amiri's "confession" or some story about his abduction. Either will be fiction. The truth? We may never know.

July 7, 2010

Mr President - take a lesson from the ambassador

President Obama, you constantly use the phrase, "Let me be clear."

Take a lesson in clarity from Yusif 'Utaybah, the distinguished ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States. Call him - he's at (202) 243-2400; I am sure he'll take your call.

You can't be much more clear than this. Ambassador 'Utaybah was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the Iranian nuclear program. The ambassador stated that if sanctions fail to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the UAE supports an American military strike to halt the program. He went on to explain that the consequences of such an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities - and there certainly will be consequences - are far less damaging in the long term than Iran in possession of nuclear weapons.

In his words: "I think it's a cost-benefit analysis - I think despite the large amount of trade we [UAE] do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what."

Here is where he gets even clearer: "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. The United States may be able to live with it; we can't."

The UAE is not the only Gulf Arab country to have these views. I would estimate that neither Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar nor Oman want to be neighbors with a nuclear-armed Iran. However, as the ambassador points out, if the United States will not fulfill its traditional leadership role in the region - which includes protection for the Gulf Arab states - these states will be forced to either make an accommodation with Iran, or in the case of larger countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, acquire their own nuclear arsenal.

Failure to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, in the eyes of these countries, will be an abdication of America's role in the Gulf - it will be the end of our status as the key power in the region. On top of that, we do not need a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf.

Most of us who speak with people in the Middle East have heard comments similar to those of Ambassador 'Utaybah. I was a bit taken aback by a remark by Representative Jane Harmon (D-CA) that she had never heard an Arab government official say this before. Either she meant that she never heard them say it publicly, or she's not listening. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.

I served as the defense attaché at the American embassy in Abu Dhabi - it was a privilege to work with the defense officials and military officers of the UAE. Reading the ambassador's words reaffirms my high regard for the Emiris - they get it.

How about some clarity on Iran, Mr. President - a clear, simple statement that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Take a lesson from the ambassador.

July 6, 2010

NASA to reach out to Muslim world

You can't make this stuff up.

By now, we've all seen the news reports that President Barack Obama has instructed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that his "foremost" mission is "to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering." Bolden went on to say that this effort would ultimately advance space travel.

This is far removed from NASA's charter - according to NASA's own documents, its mission is to "pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research." Improving relations with part of this planet and making people "feel good" would seem to fall under the State Department, but certainly not NASA. As to the remark that this feel-good outreach will advance space travel, this is just Obama Administration political rhetoric - Bolden, a retired Marine Corps test pilot and NASA astronaut, surely doesn't buy into this drivel. If he does, he should be looking for work.

That said, this lame effort should not take away from the many science, math and engineering contributions of the Muslim world. It might be illustrative to point out just a few of the many.

We all remember, maybe not fondly, algebra. Algebra is derived from the Arabic description of the mathematical concept - hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala (calculation by completion and substitition) - al-jabr became algebra. The father of algebra was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer named Abu ʿAbdallah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi, resident at a research institution in Baghdad in the early 9th century.

Al-Khwarizmi also pioneered the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations, introduced the use of the zero and the decimal (what we now call "Arabic numerals" in which the position of the digit has value), square roots, complex fractions and discovered the principle of the magnifying lens. The word algorithm is derived from his name.

In the field of astronomy, Arab and Persian astronomers were able to determine measurements of the degrees of meridian, equinoxes, eclipses, and the apparitions of the comets. The size of the earth was calculated on the shores of the Red Sea when Europeans still insisted that the earth was flat. The Arabs built a series of observatories throughout the region for further study - of course, all this was aided by the invention of the telescope by Abul Hasan.

Muslims also claim the invention of the mariner's compass, the pendulum and the watch. They were also pioneers in the field of medicine. The list goes on and on.

The Muslim World has made countless contributions, and I am sure they "feel good" about it - the Arabs, in any case, never felt shy about reminding me of them. I am not sure if we need to waste the time of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief making sure they do as his "foremost" responsibility.

It almost begs the pun - what planet are these people on?

July 3, 2010

Iranian radars to Syria - some context

According to press reports, confirmed by an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official, Iran has provided "sophisticated" radar systems to Syria. The press has taken this report and extrapolated it into a huge technological advance in Syrian military capabilities, even speculating that it might also be beneficial to Iranian-Syrian proxy Hizballah in Lebanon.

While any increase in Syrian military capabilities is of concern - the United States is committed to ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative superiority over its Arab neighbors - this transfer should be viewed with some context. The claims that this radar alters the situation is much overstated.

It should come as no surprise that Iran is either selling or providing military equipment, including weapons, to Syria. Persian Iran and Arab Syria have been close allies since the early years of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Iran is the key sponsor of Hizballah - Syria is the conduit for that support. The two countries also have a mutual defense pact and an intelligence sharing agreement. Syrian air defense officers would no doubt warn Iran if the Syrians detected the movement of Israeli aircraft toward Iran.

Although the transfer reportedly took place last fall, the appearance of the information in the media prompted the U.S. State Department to demarche the Syrians over its concerns. I was a bit surprised that the State Department is reacting to media reports to determine whether to voice concerns to a foreign government rather than conducting foreign policy based on U.S. interests, but that's for another article.

Syria has a large inventory of Russian and former Warsaw Pact radars - most of its air defense system is of that origin as well. That inventory includes long range radars that cover the northern Israeli air bases. However, as Israel has repeatedly demonstrated, these radars are subject to electronic combat techniques - jamming, spoofing, etc. Perhaps the Iranians have supplied the Syrians with a radar that is less susceptible to these tactics, but it is hard to imagine that the Israelis will be unable to elude detection if they fly to Iran via the expected southern route over Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

As far as speculation that these radars might help Hizballah more effectively employ its rockets and missiles, I don't find that to be credible for several reasons. If the Syrians were to transfer a sophisticated air defense radar system to Hizballah, the Israelis would attack and destroy it. There are certain capabilities that Israel will not allow - that includes anything that challenges their air dominance over Lebanon. These radars also are not useful in targeting of the relatively inaccurate rockets and missiles in the Hizballah inventory.

All in all, it might make a nice news story and give the Obama Administration the opportunity to act like they are standing up to Iran and Syria, but the reality is that this is a minor change, if any, to the situation in the region.

July 1, 2010

Demonstrations against UN troops in Lebanon - Hizballah's next step

There were at least 20 incidents of "spontaneous" demonstrations this week against troops assigned to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL is an ineffective multinational force assigned to southern Lebanon to oversee a series of ineffective UN resolutions. The force was constituted as part of Security Council resolutions 425 and 426 in March of 1978.

You read that correctly - this "interim" force has been there for over 32 years. I submit that they have not accomplished anything. Hizballah has not only remained the key power broker in southern Lebanon, they are fast emerging as the main power broker in the entire country. Arms flow freely into the area, in direct contravention of a series of UN resolutions - 425, 426, 1559 and 1701 to name but a few. UNIFIL reports what it sees, but has never used its fairly impressive arsenal to enforce any of the myriad resolutions that are violated on virtually a daily basis.

In 2006, I was surprised that the Israelis agreed to the provisions of UNSCR 1701 that expanded the role of UNIFIL to implement the terms of the ceasefire. UNIFIL has never been neutral - or effective - so it is just inane to hand them the mission of preventing Hizballah fighters from "returning" (they really never left) to the area south of the Litani River, as well as preventing the re-introduction of weapons into the area. It has failed miserably. Hizballah has a larger and far more capable - in terms of both range and lethality - arsenal than prior to the 2006 war, more capable than at any time in its history.

After the war, the Lebanese government was pretty much co-opted by Hizballah to the point that Hizballah not only now holds a significant number of seats in the Lebanese parliament, but exercises virtual veto authority over Lebanese government actions. Its militia could probably defeat the Lebanese army - they are probably one of the finest irregular military forces in the world.

The Lebanese government has legitimized both Hizballah's political status and its well-organized, Iranian-trained and equipped militia. The militia, in accordance with numerous international agreements, was to be disbanded when "all foreign forces" departed the country. Forget the Syrians, since no one on the Lebanese side would even broach the subject of 30,000 Syrians in the country - this was about the Israelis, who occupied the the south of the country from 1982 to 2000.

After the United Nations certified that the "foreign forces" - Israeli troops - had left Lebanon, the Lebanese government declared that Israel still occupied a small piece of Lebanon called the Shaba' Farms. They re-iterated that in the aftermath of the 2006 war.

The Shaba' Farms area is not even Lebanese, it is Syrian. It is occupied by the Israelis, yes, but it's not part of Lebanon. Both Lebanon and Syria claim that the small strip of land adjacent to the Golan Heights has been transferred from Syria to Lebanon decades ago. There is no basis for that claim. It is a manufactured excuse for Hizballah to maintain its militia. See my earlier The Shaba' Farms - Hizballah's Fig Leaf.

What I think we are witnessing now is a planned campaign orchestrated by Hizballah to force the United Nations to withdraw UNIFIL from southern Lebanon. It will start with these "spontaneous" demonstrations and escalate into larger rallies and protests. The Lebanese are very good at this sort of behavior - they forced the Syrians to withdraw with this same tactic.

Hizballah means to control Lebanon - they'll continue to move politically where they can, and militarily where they need to. UNIFIL, although effective, is a foreign force in their territory. These small, low-level demonstrations may the start of the effort to remove them.

In the end, whether UNIFIL remains deployed to southern Lebanon is really immaterial. They are ineffective to be sure, but allowing Hizballah to force them out is yet another victory for Hizballah.