Global War On Terror
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
WPR Feature: The Al-Qaida We Don't Know
One of the reasons posting has been increasingly light here at HJ is that I've been picking up more reponsibilities over at World Politics Review. Among other things, I've been helping put together our new biweekly theme issues. The latest one just went up yesterday, and it's worth a glance:
Ten years after al-Qaida declared war against the U.S., and seven years after the U.S. followed suit, much of what we know about the group is filtered through the lens of the Global War on Terror, a rubric that hides and distorts as much as it reveals. But in reducing al-Qaida to a terrorist organization, we have ignored the broader socio-cultural movement it represents. The result has been to overlook the range of its activities on the one hand, while exaggerating its strategic outlook on the other.
To formulate a sound strategic response to al-Qaida, we must first have a clear understanding of just what kind of enemy it is. To provide a fuller picture of the group's origins and goals, its future prospects, as well as the conventional component of its activities, WPR examines The Al-Qaida We Don't Know.
In "The 055 Brigade," Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an expert witness in the military commission hearing of Salim Hamdan, discusses the little-known history of al-Qaida's conventional fighting force.
In "AQIM, the North African Franchise," Joseph Kirschke examines the potential threat posed by local al-Qaida franchises, as well as the challenges they face.
In "The Limits of the Counterterrorism Approach," Nathan Field examines the historical origins and socio-economic context of al-Qaida to determine its strategic outlook.
Let me know what you think here.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
September 11th, 2008
In as quiet and unassuming a way as possible, I'd simply like to acknowledge the significance of today's date, even if seven years later its meaning still escapes me. More than anything, my thoughts are drawn to the acts of courage, bravery and heroism, great and small, and the outpouring of solidarity, individual and collective, that followed the attacks. I've found in my own life that the pain of loss grows less sharp with time, while the memory of the gestures of love and humanity that have always followed it grow more pronounced. I hope this is the case for 9/11, and that in time it will become an anniversary of hope, and the power of peace to rise from the ashes of hate.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
The new Sy Hersh piece is up at the New Yorker and -- with the caveat that it might be time to coin a term along the lines of a "Friedman Unit" to describe Hersh's Iran reporting -- to the extent that his account of the Bush administration's covert operations against Iran is accurate, the operations are misguided for all the obvious reasons. Hersh identifies most of them, but leaves unmentioned the fact that encouraging ethno-sectarian faultlines as a means of undermining the Iranian regime is logically inconsistent with the Western strategic consensus that identifies the effects of ethno-sectarian conflict as one of the principle threats to regional and global stability, and repairing them as the emerging justification and goal of military intervention. It's reassuring to note that Vali Nasr, in the piece, dismisses the effectiveness of applying such a tactic to Iran due to the country's well-established national identity, but I remember hearing the same logic used to explain why Iraq's Shiite community would be resistant to Iranian influence in Iraqi internal politics.
Another point that Hersh treats obliquely is that the groups we're supporting covertly, in particular PJAK but to a lesser degree Jundullah, represent threats to our friends as well as to Iran. Hersh mentions the tension this might cause us with Turkey and Afghanistan respectively, but it's worth noting that, as Turkey's security cooperation with Iran regarding Kurdish guerillas in northern Iraq illustrates, our covert Iran policy is also working at cross purposes with our overt Iran policy, namely to isolate Tehran from its neighbors.
But to my mind, the greatest risk of these covert operations is not so much the threat they pose to our Middle East policy, so much as the threat they pose to the health and integrity of our domestic political institutions. The degree of secrecy in which the current administration's covert operations are shrouded is all the more worrying given the Bush administration's willingness, according to Hersh, to keep not only Congress but to a large degree the uniformed military chain of command in the dark about covert operations as well.
That takes on added significance in the context of the upcoming presidential transition. Most of the discusion of that transition has focused on the conduct of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need for institutional and operational continuity. But with so much of the Bush administration's counterterror and now Middle East policy taking place off the books and being arguably illegal, there's reason to worry about whether or not we'll ever really track all of it down. And that raises the very real risk of these operations becoming rogue operations directed by a private chain of command, if they're directed at all.
A lot of this has to do with executive overreach, and both Barack Obama and John McCain have discussed ways in which they would return the executive branch to the Constitutional framework largely ignored by President Bush. But the guiding logic of all of the operations discussed by Hersh is the War on Terror, which the Bush administration has used to justify the Commander-in-Chief override of the oversight process. The next president should declare the War on Terror over in a legal sense, even while pursuing it operationally. It would send the right message to Americans, to American agents and to the region that we're ready to shine some light into the shadows, instead of operating in them.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
It's not easy, but with a little imagination you could probably come up with some sort of category that groups together America, Saudi Arabia and China. Consolation pool for the soccer World Cup, for instance, or a snarky "Friends of the Ozone Layer" award. But toss Sweden in there, and the exercise becomes a bit more challenging. Until you consider that yesterday, Sweden's parliament passed an aggressive surveillance bill that allows its national intelligence agency to scan all telephone and electronic communications that cross the country's borders for key words without a court order:
"By introducing these new measures, the Swedish government is following the examples set by governments ranging from China and Saudi Arabia to the U.S. government's widely criticized eavesdropping program," Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer said.
Proponents justify the measure, which passed by a very close margin, by the terrorist threat. Which brought to mind a remark made by Yves Boyer (one of the analysts I interviewed for last week's Livre Blanc series) on a TV program the other night. He referred to other European countries that have become too lazy to think for themselves strategically, instead adopting the American posture by default. He suggested that might be the case with regards to France's Livre Blanc, and it would be easy to say that's what's going on here with Sweden.
I agree to a certain extent, but I'd also argue that American doctrine is moving towards the French-European position as well, both in terms of military interventions and for domestic counter-terrorism police work. French counter-terrorism measures, for instance, are more muscular than America's, as are England's. (I'm talking about domestic measures, not those carried out in offshore black sites to our great national shame.) So it's possible to argue that Sweden is following that trend as much as our own example.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
The Big Picture on the Long War
Amidst the signs of progress in Iraq, two cautionary notes: despite the Maliki government's solidification of its hold on power by military means, very few of the major political challenges to national reconciliation have been addressed, let alone solved; and the security gains of the past year have now exerted a "push me-pull you" pressure on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, which have either been appropriated or walled off behind sectarian lines. In other words, having returned the security situation to what resembles a frozen civil war (or a tenuous and sporadically violated ceasefire), we're now confronted with the difficult, costly and lengthy challenges of nation-building.
Which brings us to Andrew Bacevich's LA Times op-ed (via AM's Dr. iRack), which calls into question the broader context of the "Long War." In essence, Bacevich argues that in setting out to change the world, we've weakened ourselves from within. Now, if we don't rein in our own profligacy and hubris, we'll no longer have the luxury to engage in nation-building abroad. It's a convincing argument, if only for the fact that we're better at national renewal than we are at international transformation. And it's one worth considering, given that somehow the Iraq War seems to have had little impact on the instinctive reflex in some circles to reach for American military power when faced with a thorny problem, whether it be Iran's nuclear program or humanitarian crises in Burma and Darfur. Add to that the fact that the U.S. Army is retooling in the image of a counterinsurgency force adapted to stabilization and reconstruction operations, and the implications of Bacevich's assessment become pretty dire.
In the aftermath of 9/11, America understandably confused a security threat with a national security threat; a threat to Americans was mistaken for a threat to America. But it also confused the calculus of the terrorist threat for a zero sum game. The impact of the Iraq War (which having been wrongly folded into the "Long War" narrative must now be included in its assessment) has demonstrated that America can both weaken al-Qaida and itself at the same time. That is, in the War on Terrorism, both we and the terrorists can lose.
That Iraq also demonstrates the limits of America's ability to mold societies in our own image is even more reason for a sober reassessment of the interventionist urge. The way things are shaping up around the world, there will be plenty of situations where we'll be tempted (perhaps even required) to apply the military lessons we've learned in Iraq in other countries, under other circumstances. But unless we integrate the political lessons we've learned in Iraq first, we're likely to meet with the same frustrating results.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The Failure of the Al-Qaida Model
Funny how for months we've been picking apart the Anbar Awakening from a tactical point of view, all the while failing to take into account its single most significant strategic implication. Namely, that al-Qaida's blueprint for Islamic revolution does not work.
The Military Review article I wrote up in an earlier post offered more evidence of what's become the consensus explanation for the turning of the Sunni tribes: their disgust with al-Qaida Iraq's murderous tactics and their resentment at the AQI "foreigners" trying to impose an internationalist jihadi ideology on what was essentially a nationalist insurgency. But al-Qaida, as a globalized, multi-national suicide bombing outfit, has no other operational doctrine and no native land to call its own. Which means its experience in Iraq is almost certain to be reproduced everywhere it goes.
Think about that for a second. At a time when eighty percent of the Arab world views America unfavorably, and in a war that a majority of Americans (let alone Iraqis) disapprove of, al-Qaida failed to establish a sustainable bridgehead. That's not the mark of an organization that represents a strategic, existential threat to the United States.
By their nature, Al-Qaida in particular and terrorism in general pose very real threats to the lives and safety of American civilians, threats that need to be addressed firmly, resolutely and effectively. But anyone claiming they are anything more than that has not been paying close enough attention to the evidence of the Iraq War, of which they are usually the most vocal supporters.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Monday, March 17, 2008
I have to admit, I never really understood why so many liberal bloggers bother to go after William Kristol. It always seemed like wasted effort, since the people who are going to fall for his nonsense are not susceptible to liberal arguments in the first place. But in glancing through his new Weekly Standard column that explains why the Pentagon review that found no direct links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda actually found direct links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, I finally got it: Taking Kristol apart is actually fun.
Take this tortured passage about documents linking Saddam Hussein to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad:
...Apparently whoever wrote the executive summary didn't consider the link between Saddam and al Zawahiri a "direct connection" because Egyptian Islamic Jihad had not yet, in the early 1990s, fully been incorporated into al Qaeda. Of course, by that standard, evidence of support provided to Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s might not be deemed a "direct connection" because al Qaeda as we know it today did not yet exist.
Apparently it never occurred to Mr. Kristol that by the standard he's proposing as an alternative, evidence of support provided to Osama bin Laden in the 1980s (say by, I don't know... CIA proxies?) would be deemed a "direct connection" to al Qaeda as well.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The Surge as Pyrrhic Victory
On the heels of the release of the Pentagon's definitive study demonstrating that there was no pre-Iraq War link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, comes this WPR feature from Bernard Finel arguing that recent progress in Iraq should not be confused with progress against the global terrorist threat:
We are slowly digging ourselves out of the hole of the Iraq war. Al-Qaida has increasingly been marginalized in Iraq, and the success of American counterinsurgency efforts has diminished the perception that we can be defeated quickly or easily. And yet, Iraq remains a net negative in the overall struggle. . . Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, but continues to use the war as a potent and effective recruiting tool throughout the Muslim world.
Worse, six and half years after Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida is stronger than ever. It has a safe haven in Pakistan. It has replaced revenue lost through better financial monitoring with increased ties to the drug trade. It has tightened its institutional links to jihadist organizations around the world, making deep inroads in Southeast Asia and North Africa, as well as maintaining its core of support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Finel is the author of the American Security Project's report Are We Winning?, which last September measured progress in the fight against extremist violence based on a variety of metrics. The ASP just issued a six-month update to the report today, and the results are discouraging.
To be sure, the threat of Iraq becoming a vector for the spread of radicalized and trained al-Qaida operatives can't be dismissed. Matthew Levitt, for instance, points to the similarities between a recently de-classified State Dept. assessment from 1993 of the threat posed by radicalized Afghan mujahidin and today's Iraq to make that case. And that's probably the most compelling argument as far as American public opinion goes against a precipitous withdrawal from (or a continued presence in) Iraq. (Strategically, the collapse of Iraq is probably more of a threat to our regional interests.)
Still, I can't help but wonder whether, with al-Qaida Iraq's recent reversals of fortune, the most seasoned and hardcore operatives haven't already left the burning ship to sink and begun to fan out into the other theaters of operation that have already been identified. (Western Europe and the Maghreb, for instance.) In many ways, the idea that AQI ever harbored a serious ambition to somehow conquer and govern Iraq is farfetched. More than a territory to be conquered, Iraq represented a convenient host for the extremist virus to nourish itself and spread. In that sense, it has long since served its purpose, which means that AQI can now shed the "I" with little impact on its broader strategic goals.
Which in turn means that our "victory" over the AQI threat might end up being a pyrrhic one. Metrics such as body counts are tricky when it comes to an enemy that uses suicide as a tactic. And going by the ones the ASP has come up with, the broader war is far from over.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Friday, January 18, 2008
The New Black
Last week I mentioned that Baitullah Mahsud is one Taliban worth watching. Over the past year, he's increasingly shown up on the South Waziristan scouting report radar, but a steady proliferation of recent articles about him seemed to strongly suggest that he was about to have something of a breakout season. That suspicion is only reinforced by the news that the CIA has now concurred with the Pakistani government and identified Mahsud as the prime suspect in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
In addition to his stellar rise through the Taliban ranks and his reported links to people reportedly linked to Al Qaeda, Mahsud has something else to recommend him to take over the role of chief terrorist bogeyman and principle fallguy for all things nefarious. Namely that he shuns publicity and has almost never been seen in public. This guy is like the Clear of badguys: He only shows up in the statistics.
With Osama Bin Laden's marquee value largely tarnished by six years of spotty video production values and his ability to strike fear into the hearts of the nation on the wane, I think Mahsud's time has come.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
One of the puzzling contradictions of suicide bombings is that, despite the common wisdom linking it to poverty and economic development, the actual bombers themselves are disproportionately middle class. In a fascinating essay about the dynamics of face-to-face violence over at Foreign Policy, sociologist Randall Collins explains why that is:
Clandestine, confrontation-avoiding violence such as suicide bombing is a fourth pathway around confrontational tension. It succeeds only because the attacker is good at pretending that he or she is not threatening at all. People accustomed to the typical macho forms of violence are not good at this; gang members would make lousy suicide bombers. But mild-mannered middle-class people are ideal for it. Since they are not confrontational by nature, they do not have to control a blustering or threatening demeanor that would warn their victims. Self-directed introverts, they do not need to hear cheering as they stalk their prey. Middle-class culture is especially accommodative, adept at maintaining a smooth surface of conventionality. Whatever our private feelings, we learn not to express them on the job, in social situations, or in public. This is good training for carrying a bomb under one’s clothing until the target is so close that massive damage is certain.
Richard Posner adds, in a rebuttal to a Gary Becker premise that terrorism is susceptible to economic development, that terrorism is grievance-driven, and that the grievances are predominantly political rather than economic. Which makes it the domain of the intelligentsia, who according to Posner, "...have the leisure and the education to think big thoughts, like overthrowing a government, which rarely brings material improvements." He also notes that terrorist operations demand a very small number of highly reliable and semi-skilled operatives, as opposed to the cannon fodder of conventional militaries, which leads to targeted recruiting.
Combine that with the historic alienation of the middle class (especially in the third world), throw in a pinch of nostalgia for a lost golden age of moral clarity and purity, and you've got a pretty lethal cocktail.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
In reading through Steve Benen's guest post over at Washington Monthly about why the CIA recorded the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and then erased the tapes, it suddenly occurred to me that there's got to be a copy of those tapes somewhere. An unauthorized copy, an edited copy, a low resolution copy, whatever. In the age of digital files, it just doesn't seem plausible to me that they managed to erase every last byte. Hell, it wouldn't even surprise me if some of it's been uploaded to YouTube. But somewhere a copy of that footage exists.
Friday, December 28, 2007
I'd been adding a grain or two of salt to media coverage of Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan, given the darling status she enjoys in the Western press and her corruption-tarnished past. Needless to say, the news of her assassination put all that in perspective. Whatever her flaws, she was a courageous woman who refused to let cowards intimidate her into silence. And in so doing, she denied her murderers any possible claim to victory in the battle of images that goes hand in hand with terrorist violence.
Ultimately, it's up to the Pakistani people now to decide just how much and what kind of an impact her murder has on the future of their country. I've read some dire forecasts of chaos and violence. Hopefully it becomes a catalyst for unity and cohesion. But whatever meaning Pakistan ultimately takes from Bhutto's life and death, the rest of us would do well to remember her for her fearlessness in this metaphorical age of terror.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The Shifting Burden
Le Figaro is reporting what a French intelligence source called one of the "most important operations of 2007": the arrest of at least eight men suspected of furnishing logistical and material support to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. From the report, it seems the network operated as an IT support cell, providing computer and telecommunications equipment. Seven of the suspects are Algerian, one French.
The arrest contrasts with American counter-terrorism arrests of the past few years, or at least the ones we've heard about. No outlandish plots, no comic twists, no high-profile grandstanding, and above all, no fear-mongering. The intelligence sources all emphasized that they'd intervened for operational reasons, downplaying the threat of any imminent attack. Still, as one of the article's sources put it in a typically French way, "We got into the hard wood."
The arrest, as well as others like it in Denmark and Germany earlier this year, also serves to demonstrate the real impact of America's hysterical response to the attacks of 9/11: to shift the burden of the terrorist threat to Europe.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Open Source Chaos
In addition to a wave of Stateside optimism, the Anbar Awakening in Iraq has also given rise to a gathering new meme about how to address counterinsurgency, the War on Terror, and the challenges facing failed states in a globalized world. According to this new line of thinking, exemplified by this John Robb post and this Robert Kaplan essay, nation-building -- characterized by establishing democratic institutions and top-down political reconciliation -- doesn't work, especially in quasi-autonomous tribal societies like Anbar province in Iraq and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.
According to Robb, "Politics and populations in our new global environment fragment faster than they can be assembled into cohesive entities." Robb's answer to "temporary autonomous zones and open-source insurgency"? What he calls "open source militias": Spontaneous, local militia movements that arise in reaction to the inevitable excesses of the initial insurgencies. These militias we do little to shape, supporting them only once they've taken form.
Kaplan limits his argument to the Iraq and Pakistan theatres, but it's easy to see how easily it might be generalized to apply to any location where kinship bonds trump national identity and local tribal loyalties take precedence over allegiance to a distant central government. In such areas, pragmatic opportunism dictates that we align counterinsurgency efforts with local tribal power structures, regardless of the implications for a broader democratizing agenda. For Kaplan, "Progress...means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups."
Now I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong here, although it's ironic that Kaplan uses a principle of progressive social science (cultural relativism) to justify a principle of reactionary colonial rule (divide and conquer). But what's significant about their approach, which is sure to gain traction, is that it represents a sort of glum, post-9/11 pessimistic version of the euphoric, post-Cold War optimism that heralded the end of the nation-state and the coming of a harmonic global order. In Robb and Kaplan's vision, instead of being surpassed through supra-national agglomeration or reconfigured on the molecular level through direct NGO action, the state has been effectively put out of reach through a process of controlled atomization. Here's Robb:
The use of a plethora of militias to fight a global open source insurgency from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq to Pakistan is effective within a grand strategy of delay (it holds disorder at bay while allowing globalization to work). Most beneficially, it eliminates the need for nation-building, massive conventional troop deployments, and other forms of excess.
That's about it in a nutshell: a grand strategy of delay. Needless to say, Robb's oblique reference to "allowing globalization to work" is the key to understanding the argument.
As I said, I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong. To begin with, there are areas in the world where the writ of the national government is a legal fiction. Beyond that, their vision corresponds to the practical necessities of American foreign policy in its current interventionist formulation. But it's important to remember that the two counterinsurgency wars we're currently fighting, in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, are wars that we created. In Iraq, as a direct consequence of removing a non-democratic but functioning state, and in Afghanistan/Pakistan as an indirect consequence of our Soviet-era Afghanistan policy, which instigated the very sort of contained chaos that gave rise to Al Qaeda and which both Robb and Kaplan now suggest we try to manage. (To his credit, Robb does raise the caveat of whether we'll be able to manage "something this complex or this messy".)
As importantly, local populations delivered up to globalization are very often exploited like just another raw commodity. In the absence of nation states to defend their interests, that's how globalization "works". Which is why I'd argue for a middle ground between euphoric post-nation state utopianism and Machiavellian failed nation state pragmatism, one that defends the centrality of the nation state, reinforces its effectiveness, equips it to provide the basic needs and services for its constituents, and encourages it (as much as is reasonably possible) to respond to their grievances and reflect their aspirations.
All of these interventions take enormous effort, strong and effective mult-lateral institutions, and time -- in short, the "forms of excess" that Robb seeks to avoid. But in the long run, they offer a better chance for building a sustainable international order, capable of dealing with the existential, strategic and ethical challenges we have no choice but to overcome if we as a species are to survive.
Friday, November 16, 2007
I was belatedly going through Hillary Clinton's Foreign Affairs essay, and scattered amid the pretty decent boilerplate about correcting the Bush administration's mess I found this:
In the cities of Europe and Asia -- such as Hamburg and Kuala Lumpur, which were the springboards for 9/11 -- terrorist cells are preparing for future attacks. We must understand not only their methods but their motives: a rejection of modernity, women's rights, and democracy, as well as a dangerous nostalgia for a mythical past. We must develop a comprehensive strategy focusing on education, intelligence, and law enforcement to counter not only the terrorists themselves but also the larger forces fueling support for their extremism. (Emphasis mine.)
That pretty much echoes what I was arguing here. (Or I suppose I echo Clinton, seeing as how her (staff's) essay has been online for weeks, even if I just got around to it.) I haven't seen it formulated in this way very often, but it's an approach that should get more attention.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
When Anthropologists Attack
I guess it's not surprising that an anthropologist that's accepted an Army invitation to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine will end up having a positive view of the Army's inviting anthropologists to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine. But I have to admit, I find this surprising:
Since the military's mission is to execute the policies of our democratically elected officials, can...anthropologists really deny commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan the cultural knowledge they need to wage a war they were charged by their political leaders with fighting? Is it ethically more correct for them to retreat from the world and leave others to do the fighting? Is the moral response to cynicism about politics and military power to do nothing, or...to censure those who choose to do something? (p. 17)
Those are the questions that Sheila Miyoshi Jager feels are begged by her colleagues' criticism of the cooptation of anthropology for military use. The idea that war, once declared, gives the military a moral claim on academic knowledge seems like a stretch even within the logic of the Bush administration's wartime imperial presidency. But Jager's an eager participant, as is obvious from her rapturous descriptions of Gen. David Petraeus' overhaul of the Army's counterinsurgency manual, the celebrated FM 3-24:
FM 3-24 has been described as "radical" and "revolutionary" by Time Magazine, and it has received rave reviews in the New York Times. Understanding the cause for FM 3-24's enthusiastic reception is itself noteworthy, notes Sarah Sewell, "because it seems to point to the overwhelming feeling of a majority of Americans that the United States is adrift in the world with no foreign policy to guide it in Iraq and elsewhere." Americans are "simply confused about the nation’s strategic purpose in wake of September 11, 2001..." Once again, Americans are wrestling with a "disillusionment about politics and military power, and the debacle in Iraq has reinforced a familiar cynicism that risks disengaging Americans from their government and America from the rest of the world." In an attempt to understand America's new role in the world and also to stem the growing disillusionment about politics at home, they have looked to FM 3-24 for answers: "The doctrine's most important insight is that even -- perhaps especially -- in counterinsurgency, America must align its ethical principles with the nation's strategic requirements." (pp. 13-14)
You got that right, folks. Adrift, confused, disillusioned and disengaged, America is looking to the FM 3-24 for answers. I guess if nothing else pans out, Gen. Petraeus has a promising future on the self-help circuit.
And perhaps I'm misreading that last sentence, but it seems to me that it's gotten the equation frighteningly backwards: It's our strategic requirements that we must measure against our principles. To do the reverse reduces our principles to the level of mere window dressing. It is, nevertheless, ironic to see that the War On Terror, if it accomplished nothing else, did manage to make moral relativism more palatable to the right.
Jager seems to have fallen prey to the anthropologist's worst enemy, namely losing one's academic objectivity and identifying with the host culture. Here's her admiring citation of Petraeus' warm and fuzzy appeal for more culturally sensitive... Wait a minute, what's that word I'm looking for? Oh, yeah. I know. Propaganda:
In chapter 5, "Executing Counterinsurgency Operations," the manual encourages the development of counternarratives "which provide a more compelling alternative to the insurgent ideology and narrative. Intimate cultural familiarity and knowledge of insurgent myths, narratives and culture are a prerequisite to accomplishing this." (p.13)
Jager's monograph also contains some eye-openers of the purely absurd variety. The following passage would be sidesplittingly funny for its deadpan lack of self-awareness if it didn't reveal that such a major shortcoming in the American military's strategic thinking was addressed only last year:
As part of the "cultural turn" within the DoD, new lessons on National Cultures in the standard Strategic Thinking course and a new series of Regional Studies courses were introduced into the curriculum in 2006-07. The aim of these courses is to teach students about the importance of cultural awareness and understanding of "how other regions, nations, and societies view themselves and others" and the effect of this awareness on policy and strategy formulations and outcome. This is a significant shift away from the traditional focus on American interest and policy in foreign areas... (p. 6)
Every dimension of the framework must be appreciated as both a cumulative and revisionist process of not only the actual historical experience, but also memory of that history for memory often distorts history for contemporary purposes. (pp. 6-7; Emphasis definitely all mine.)
It's a shame, because Jager's principle policy proposal is insightful. Instead of lumping all of our enemies together in an "Us against them" approach that serves to magnify their power, we should be using our cultural understanding of our various adversaries to emphasize the differences among them. The anthropologist's version of divide and conquer. But it's lost amid the unquestioning cheerleading that surrounds it.
Finally, there was a point just after the invasion of Iraq that President Bush was fond of evoking occupied post-War Japan. So this passage about how we used an understanding of Japanese culture to advance the implantation of democracy there got me thinking:
Hirohito was miraculously transformed from Japan's preeminent military leader who oversaw a brutal 15-year war against Asia and the United States to an innocent Japanese victim and political symbol duped by evil Japanese militarists. The surprising and rapid transition from Japanese militarism to Japanese democracy was made not through the imposition of American democratic values and norms, but by a not-so-subtle manipulation of Japanese cultural symbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. (p. 8)
If only we'd framed the invasion of Iraq as an effort not to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, but to liberate Saddam Hussein from the inner circle of evil Baathists who had used him as a puppet for the past thirty years. It would have been a not-so-subtle manipulation of Iraqi cultural sympbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. But it might have worked.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Lunch Money And A Ticket Home
To give you an idea of just what kind of insurgency is taking place in Pakistan's Swat region, militants captured a "Frontier Constabulary fort" on Thursday, capturing 60 members of a paramilitary government militia who surrendered when their supplies ran out. Pakistan daily Dawn picks up the story from there:
About 60 paramilitary soldiers taken hostage by militants on Thursday were released...
The militiamen captured in Daroshkhela area were also given Rs1,000 each by the militants so that they could reach their areas...
"We had given our word to the militiamen that they would remain unharmed in our custody and be released. We have kept our promise," said Mohammad Alam, a militant commander.
Mr Alam told journalists that the militants would not leave Madyan town which they had taken over.
The militants had earlier left Bahrain and Kalam towns on the request of local elders.
The militant commander said the elders in the two areas were united and they could look after the law and order situation themselves.
"We believe that the people of Madyan are not in a position to control law and order, therefore, we will stay in the town," he said.
Local people said the militants had set up their office in the police centre in Madyan and hoisted their white and black flags in the area. (Weird single-sentence paragraphs in original.)
Things aren't always so rosy over there, of course. The same story mentioned two killed and fourteen wounded in a roadside bombing incident Friday. But the Pakistani militants seem to have grasped at least two things that the Bush administration would do well to take to heart. Namely, when you treat the enemies you capture on the battlefield humanely, they're more liable to think twice before they decide to fight you to the death. And when folks don't want you to stick around, you're better off leaving.
Oh, and by the way, I'm liking the white and black flags.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
The Mystic Martyr
I've been developing an argument over the past week or so that militant jihadism and the cult of the suicide martyr represent a rearguard pre-modern resistance to the incomplete attempts to introduce modernism in the Islamic world. The obvious counterargument, what I'll call the Mohamed Atta exception, occurred to me today. Namely, that while the Taliban and the tribal militants in the Pakistani badlands are certainly the products of a pre-modern (or hybrid "post-pre-modern") culture, the men who actually represent the greatest terrorist threat to the West largely come from urban, educated and modern backgrounds.
But the distinction between the two, while significant, actually strengthens my argument. Western attempts to understand what motivates guys like Mohamed Atta have focused on political aspirations and Arab nationalism as the source of their extremism. According to this line of thought, repressive regimes propped up by American support drive young, alienated, urban Muslims to the only movement they feel is taking concrete steps to resist, or avenge, America's presence in the Arab world: Al Qaeda. All of that might be true, but it's only part of what drives them.
Because if this modern rejection of the West's policies marks the first steps of the trajectory that eventually produces the Mohamed Atta brand of terrorist, its later stages is dominated by a nostalgia for a simpler, more authentic, more "whole" pre-modern existence that is common to urban modernites of all backgrounds. One need only consider the journey of young, urban, "Westernized" Muslim men from the streets of the European and Arab capitals, where they studied and grew up, to the Al Qaeda training camps in the hills of Afghanistan, where they put the finishing touches on their indoctrination, to get a sense of it. Once in place, that nostalgia is welded to a mystical ascetism that uses a reading of religious texts to encourage a spiritual cleansing, of both self and the world, through the sacrifice of the flesh.
The same nostalgia has driven the New Age, "back to the land" awakening in the West that over the course of two generations has popularized Yoga, Eastern and Native American philosophies, wholistic approaches to health and healing, and Paganism, including some of the more ascetic aspects of those disciplines. Where the cult of the suicide martyr differs is not in its refusal to spare judgment of the "less enlightened" for the evils of modernism, a practice shared by many New Age schools of thought. It differs in its refusal to spare them the sentence -- a sacrificial death -- embraced by the ascetic mystic.
That a large part of this nostalgia is driven by the attractive reassurance of traditional gender roles, and in particular male privilege, is obvious when one considers women's place in fundamentalist Islamic society. But in this, as well, it's the expression rather than the fundamental motivation of the urge that differentiates it from Western versions. The hippie ideal of the Earth mother, for instance, under the guise of softening gender roles only serves to reinforce them. That the Pagan influence of Western pre-modernism has allowed for an acceptance of the "wild woman" and her sexuality does nothing to undermine the argument. What is celebrated under the light of the full moon in Santa Cruz is hidden under the burka in Afghanistan. The difference is enormous, but both responses spring from a common source, namely traditional pre-modern interpretations of gender.
By no means am I minimizing the differences between Western expressions of nostalgia for pre-modern ways of life and the jihadi suicide cult's version. I'm simply suggesting that we can use one to better understand the underlying psycho-socio-cultural dynamics of the other. In particular, it bears mentioning that these critiques of modernism draw many valid conclusions about the alienation and atomised social structures of modern life. More centrally, they point to a fundamental flaw of modernism, namely its failure to adequately address humankind's (innate?) need for a core metaphysics of meaning.
The jihadi terrorist has mistakenly been accused of nihilism. But he is no more nihilist than the medieval Christian mystic mortifying the flesh to repent for the sins of humankind or, for that matter, the well-meaning BoBo who covers the carbon tracks of his 4x4 by subsidizing the planting of forests. His ascetic mysticism has simply been perverted into a murderous purging of modernism. We haven't paid enough attention to this aspect of his revolt. It's time we did.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
The Logic Of National Security
Josh Marshall muses about the odd hybrid form of government that is Pakistan's constitutional military dictatorship. All proportions guarded, it's interesting to note the similarities between the logic that drove Musharraf to place the Pakistani constitution "in abeyance" and the logic used by the Bush administration to justify its vision of broadened executive powers (specifically the use of extra-Constitutional measures) in time of war. Namely, that the exigencies of national security trump the Constitutional restraints of separation of powers, in particular as regards judicial oversight. Here are the relevant passages from Musharraf's declaration of a State of Emergency:
Whereas some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism, thereby weakening the government and the nation's resolve and diluting the efficacy of its actions to control this menace;...
Whereas constant interference in executive function, including but not limited to the control of terrorist activity... has weakened the writ of the government; the police force has been completely demoralized and is fast losing its efficacy to fight terrorism and Intelligence Agencies have been thwarted in their activities and prevented from pursuing terrorists;
Whereas some hard core militants, extremists, terrorists and suicide bombers, who were arrested and being investigated were ordered to be released. The persons so released have subsequently been involved in heinous terrorist activities, resulting in loss of human life an property. Militants across the country have, thus, been encouraged while law enforcement agencies subdued;
Whereas some judges by overstepping the limits of judicial authority have taken over the executive and legislative functions;
Whereas the law and order situation in the country as well as the economy have been adversely affected and trichotomy of powers eroded;
Whereas a situation has thus arisen where the government of the country cannot be carried on in accordance with the constitution and as the constitution provides no solution for this situation, there is no way out except through emergent and extraordinary measures;
If there's a difference between the two, it's that Musharraf admits that the Pakistani constitution offers no method to arbitrate the conflict, leaving him no choice but to abrogate it temporarily, whereas the Bush administration bases its claims of extra-Constitutional power in its peculiar and self-serving reading of the Constitution itself.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm no apologist for the Pakistani regime. But consider how the Bush administration responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Now imagine those attacks multiplied throughout the country on an ongoing basis, with Al Gore still in the process of challenging the 2000 presidential election, and you've got an idea of what's going on in Pakistan right now. Under those circumstances, I'm not sure we'd have made out any better than the Pakistanis.
Friday, November 2, 2007
Two Generations On Alert
You might have seen that retired Gen. John Abizaid, the former Centcom commander who oversaw Iraq operations, predicted that American troops would be deployed in the Middle East for the next 25 to 50 years. Here's the direct quote:
Over time, we will have to shift the burden of the military fight from our forces directly to regional forces, and we will have to play an indirect role, but we shouldn’t assume for even a minute that in the next 25 to 50 years, the American military might be able to come home, relax and take it easy, because the strategic situation in the region doesn’t seem to show that as being possible.
Which got me to thinking about how things used to look in the Middle East -- before 9/11, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in short, before it became a foregone conclusion that American forces belonged there. That thought, after a few google searches, led me to this Heritage Foundation report on year-by-year American troop deployments by country. The actual data, fom 1950-2005, is here, in an Excel file.
There are some surprises. For instance, I was unaware that through the 1970's, the primary American deployment in the Middle East was in Morocco, with a peak of 15,000 troops in 1954, followed by a sharp drop which steadily tapers off before all but disappearing in the Eighties. But after that, with the exception of the brief spike of the First Gulf War, we basically had no deployment to speak of for most of the Nineties.
That starts to change towards the end of the Clinton years. By 2000, we had roughly 11,000 troops deployed between Saudi Arabia (7k) and Kuwait (4k). A number that actually decreases in 2001, before eventually going off the charts in 2002 and 2003.
In other words, we managed to navigate the height of the Cold War, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the aftermath of the First Gulf War with basically no significant force deployment in the Middle East. Now as a result of one successful terrorist attack and a failed war, we're being told that two generations of American soldiers will be deployed on high alert in the region. And anyone who challenges that orthodoxy is accused of being soft on national security.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Slow Motion Suffocation
Malcolm Nance is a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) master instructor who has worked in counter-terrorism for 20 years. Here's his bio over at Small Wars Journal, which gives you an idea of his commitment to national security. And here's his long and forceful denunciation of "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques". His conclusion is in the title: Waterboarding is torture... Period.
Nance is no softie. Unlike the guys talking tough from the comfort of Washington offices, television studios and campaign podiums, he's personally experienced every technique under discussion, interviewed survivors of torture, and studied all the taped and written debriefings available. And here's what he has to say about what he's witnessed:
Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.
If you can, read the whole thing. If not, keep this in mind the next time someone dismisses waterboarding as a little bit of water in the detainee's face:
Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again. (Emphasis in original.)
And here's a question for the GOP 'roid ragers. Would any one of them agree to be waterboarded? Not as part of a hypothetical scenario to prevent a terrorist attack. Just to know what they're talking about? If it's as benign as they say it is, their hands should go up as quickly as when they're asked if they'd authorize it.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Casting Light Into The Shadows
When Gitanjali Gutierrez met with Majid Khan on Monday, it marked the first time a lawyer was able to visit one of the "high value detainees" transferred from the CIA "black sites" to Gitmo last September. Gutierrez is an attorney for The Center for Constitutional Rights who is representing Khan on a pro bono basis. I have no way of knowing whether Khan is innocent or guilty (he's been charged with researching attacks within the US on water supplies and gas stations). I do know that he deserves legal representation and the chance to defend himself against those charges. That's why I've put the CCR's banner at the top of the right sidebar. Click through and find out a bit more about them. And if you can, support what they're doing. Equal justice under the law applies to everyone, without exception. Otherwise it applies to no one.
Friday, October 12, 2007
The Court Of Public Opinion
The latest military commission proceedings get to the heart of just how flawed the cost-to-benefit analysis that went into building Gitmo really was:
The U.S. military has filed an attempted murder charge against a Guantanamo Bay detainee who allegedly threw a hand grenade into a vehicle carrying two American soldiers and an interpreter in Afghanistan, according to documents released Thursday...
At a hearing last year at Guantanamo, Jawad said he falsely confessed to local Afghan police who had arrested him because they tortured him.
The fundamental question being, Who really wins this one in the global court of public opinion? Let's even assume for the sake of argument that the charges are true. What we've got is a guy who tossed a grenade at a couple of soldiers in a war zone. Was he an enemy? Yes. An unlawful combatant? Sure, why not. Was he a dangerous terrorist? Seems like a stretch. But most importantly, was he worth giving the entire world the impression that we're rounding up innocent goatherds and torturing them in a gulag under the Cuban sun? Decidedly not.
I don't see how a good old-fashioned POW camp wouldn't have done the trick here. Unless it has something to do with this.
Friday, October 12, 2007
You're Either With Us Or Against Us
It always pays to be skeptical of accusations made by someone trying to avoid the inside of a jail cell. But according to redacted court documents just unsealed from former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio's insider trading trial, the NSA pulled the plug on a $100 million deal for Qwest to build them a "private" fibre optics network in retaliation for the company's refusal to go along with what is clearly a reference to the NSA telecom surveillance program:
Nacchio planned to demonstrate at trial that he had a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., to discuss a $100 million project. According to the documents, another topic also was discussed at that meeting, one with which Nacchio refused to comply.
The topic itself is redacted each time it appears in the hundreds of pages of documents, but there is mention of Nacchio believing the request was both inappropriate and illegal, and repeatedly refusing to go along with it.
The NSA contract was awarded in July 2001 to companies other than Qwest.
Nacchio was prevented by the first trial judge from presenting the evidence due to its classified nature. He's currently free pending appeal.
Friday, October 5, 2007
The Radical Transformation Of Self
I just got back from a brilliant lecture at the Université Paris Descartes titled "Islamism Today". The speaker was Hamit Bozarslan, who gave a brief history of the Islamist movement from the Muslim Brotherhood through Osama Bin Laden. He avoided stereotypes and clichés, instead focusing on the historic continuities -- and discontinuities -- in the evolution of this movement. In the process, he completely changed the way I understand the current expression of radical Islam and its violent confrontation with the West.
According to Bozarslan, the initial phase of radical Islamism (which arose in the late-Seventies in response to the failure of leftist/nationalist Arab liberation movements) had run out of steam and was largely in decline by the year 2000. Unable to re-generate itself, and finding its violent methods rejected by mainstream Muslim opinion, Islamism was in retreat before authoritarian states that represented order and stability for an increasingly cosmopolitan Arab world.
But at roughly the same time that Islamic scholars were anticipating the disappearance of jihad, a new form of Islamism appeared that, in Bozarslan's words, introduced a new "subjectivity": That is, a new way of understanding the self in the world. This new subjectivity centers around the body and its singular role as locus of both corruption and salvation: Corruption through its participation in an imperfect world; salvation through its sacrifice in jihad.
To illustrate this dramatic shift, Bozarslan compared Yasser Arafat's body with that of Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The one, portly, corporal, pugnacious. The other, feeble, paralysed, almost blind. When the goal is national autonomy, the physical body is an end in itself. When the goal is spiritual salvation through martyrdom, the body is a only a means to an end.
The new wave of Islamism advocated by Yassin and Osama Bin Laden represents a rupture: with worldly society, with classical Islamism, with the Western tradition. Its struggle is an eschatological battle between good and evil, with little attachment to the physical body or the material world. The individual becomes responsible for both the decline of Islam and the deliverance of the world, and self-martyrdom becomes the central if not determinant act of devotion.
I've had an intuition for a while now that suicide bombings, if not radical Islam itself, will eventually just peter out on their own, if only we just do our best to prevent them from happening and carry on with our lives as normally as possible. And Bozarslan's lecture just convinces me that there's something to that intuition. Because the metaphysical subjectivity he describes is just not that appealing. Especially in the long run. But it's one that is reinforced by frontal engagement with its bi-polar imagination: The more its enemy attacks it as evil, the more convinced it becomes of its saintliness.
It's often been said that Levi's and rock 'n roll played as big a role in the fall of the Soviet Union as any military or political measures taken during the Cold War. Because the West, with all of its shortcomings and contradictions, was able to combine the elements that led to the emergence of a new subjectivity (modern, liberated, expressive) that ultimately proved more appealing than that proposed by Communist society.
The same goes for the current struggle with radical Islam. Our most potent weapon isn't a better bomb. It's a better alternative.
Monday, October 1, 2007
Dreams And Nightmares
I admit that for a while now, I've taken Hugo Chavez seriously. Ever since the price of oil started skyrocketing, to be exact, and neo-Bolivarian candidates won elections in Ecuador and Bolivia, to be even more exact. I also admit that for a while now, I've felt like something of an idiot for taking Hugo Chavez seriously. Because, for me, Hugo Chavez represents everything that, in an ideal world, ought not be taken seriously.
So I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, or both, to learn that Max Manwaring, in a National War College monograph, takes Hugo Chavez very seriously:
President Chavez is pursuing a Super Insurgency with a confrontational, defensive, populist, and nationalistic agenda that is intended eventually to liberate Latin America from U.S. economic dependency and political domination. That is a Herculean task, but he appears to be prepared to take his time, let his enemies become accustomed to a given purposeful action, and then slowly move toward new stages of the revolution in a deliberate, slow, and phased manner. Thus, by staying under his opponents’ “threshold of concern,” Chavez says that he expects to “put his enemies to sleep—to later wake up dead.”
This is not the rhetoric of a “nut case.” It is, importantly, the rhetoric of an individual who is performing the traditional and universal Leninist Maoist function of providing a strategic vision and the operational plan for gaining revolutionary power. (pp. 32-33)
Not good. Fortunately, Manwaring (as I) believes that Chavez is unlikely to succeed in his effort to unify all of Latin America into a grand counterweight to the United States. But that's not the point. The point is that Chavez is willing to de-stabilize targeted governments in order to do so. In fact, it's part of his grand strategy. And failed states, as breeding grounds of violence, crime and non-state bad actors, might be even worse than a grand Latin American counterweight to the United States:
However, if misguided political dreams were to come true, Osama bin Laden would see the artificial boundaries of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa turn into caliphates reminiscent of the glory days of the 12th and 13th centuries. And Hugo Chavez would witness the metamorphosis of 15 or 20 Latin American republics into one great American nation. Experience demonstrates, however, that most of these political dreams never come true. Ultimately, the international community must pay the indirect social, economic, and political costs of state failure. Accordingly, the current threat environment in the Western Hemisphere is not a traditional security problem, but it is no less dangerous. (p. 8)
The comparison between Chavez and Bin Laden is no coincidence, because Manwaring sees them as two sides of the same asymmetrical warfare coin: Osama goes in for the high-profile attack; Hugo's more of a stealth provocateur. But they've both got pan-nationalistic goals, they've both identified the limitations of conventional conceptions of power, and they've both developed their strategic visions accordingly.
That's more than Manwaring can say for America, which is still locked into obsolete concepts and stultified organizational structures that hinder our ability to respond to tactical challenges to the full extent of our abilities.
Take deterrence, for instance. With the advent of 4th generation warfare (4GW), the battlefield is no longer (exclusively) a physical space where armies meet. War now takes place anywhere and everywhere that the conflict's center of gravity -- public opinion and leadership -- can be influenced: In the media, in the marketplace, and in the halls of the UN, to name but a few. Freed from the restrictive role of threatening a largely obsolete use of force, deterrence could be re-invented more broadly as prevention:
Deterrence is not necessarily military—although that is important. It is not necessarily negative or directly coercive, although that, too, is important. Deterrence is much broader than any of these elements. Deterrence can be direct and/or indirect, political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and/or militarily coercive. In its various forms and combinations of forms, it is an attempt to influence how and what an enemy or potential enemy thinks and does. That is, deterrence is the creation of a state of mind that either discourages one thing or encourages something else. Motive and culture, thus, become crucial. In this context, political-military communication and preventive diplomacy become a vital part of the deterrence equation. (pp.42-43)
But as our missile-rattling handling of the Iranian crisis shows, this multi-hued approach to deterrence has yet to emerge from its cocoon.
Manwaring's analysis does more than just rehabilitate Chavez from a certified loony to a legitimate psychopath, though. It calls into question the very nature of the security challenges America faces in the 21st century. In mobilizing America for an unnecessary war against Iraq, President Bush reduced the threat we face to a "War Against Terrorism", later re-labelled as a "War Against Islamo-Fascism".
But the real threat to American global interests is much broader than that. It lies in the limitations of conventional power in the face of asymmetric conflict, and the resulting vulnerability of already-fragile nation-states to non-conventional methods of de-stabilization. Neither of which are to be found exclusively in the Islamo-Fascist hinterlands of the Middle East.
It should come as no surprise that a world confronted with a solitary super-power should attempt to re-configure itself in ways that might counterbalance such immense unilateral power. Osama Bin Laden's dream of a Caliphate and Chavez's dream of a unified Latin American state are not very different from China's dream of a peaceful rise, or Russia's dream of a return to form, even if the methods differ.
By squandering our military strength and international influence where the enemy wasn't, instead of articulating a broad strategy that can help us outsmart them where they increasingly are, President Bush has brought all of those dreams one step closer to coming true.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Deja Vu All Over Again
The question, it seems to me, is, How many more times do we need to read this headline before we win? Or alternatively, How many more second-in-commands does Al Qaeda Iraq have?
Monday, September 24, 2007
Canary In The Mine
This post isn't really inspired by any single major news item as much as by a whole slew of smaller ones. The thought was triggered by a blurb about Turkey opening its yearly fall offensive against the PKK a month earlier than normal this year, gathered steam with the news that Blackwater (or two of its employees) are the subject of an FBI investigation for illegally smuggling weapons to the PKK in Iraq, and culminated in an article about the US urging Turkey to find alternatives sources of natural gas instead of developing Iranian reserves as planned.
And the thought is that somehow, in pursuing a generation-defining war against Islamic extremism, we've managed to push the one democratic, secular, dependable Islamic ally we have in the region into the arms of our worst enemies.
Iran is a sexy story right now, and rightfully so. But when the dust of history settles on the Iraq War, I'm not sure that the unleashing of Iran will rate as its most significant adverse outcome. That honor might very well go to the deterioration of the American-Turkish strategic alliance. Because unlike Iraq or Iran, which we never really stood a chance of winning over, Turkey was already on our side. And we're in the process of losing it, at the very moment when religious Muslims have begun to dominate the Turkish political scene.
For the time being, the Turkish military and cultural elites serve as guarantors of secularism. But if Turkey ever does wind up sliding into theocracy, it will be a major strategic setback for American regional interests. And it will be in many ways traceable to bi-lateral tensions caused by our intervention in Iraq.
Iran is important. But the future of Turkey, it seems to me, will determine the future of the region.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Be Ready. Be Very Ready.
Let me preface this post by saying that I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility that I'm way off base on this. But it strikes me that the Dept. of Homeland Security's disaster preparedness camp for ten year-olds represents all the worst aspects of our country's reaction to the traumas of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina:
...The Be Ready Camp curriculum includes an introduction to survival and first aid, disaster psychology and terrorism awareness, as well as instruction on creating a family emergency plan and an emergency supply kit.
Be Ready Camp culminates in a disaster exercise, with kids stepping into the shoes of public safety professionals, such as police officers, firefighters, dive teams, doctors, soldiers and first responder volunteers.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't think kids shouldn't be prepared to respond to individual emergency situations, both emotionally and also (to whatever degree they're capable of) technically. It just seems inappropriate to not only inculcate them with a mass disaster mentality at such a young age, but also with a sense of responsibility to respond to one.
After all, the emergency response failures to both 9/11 and Katrina weren't due to kids not knowing how to respond. They were due to grown ups not knowing how to respond. And if a disaster ever results in there being no adults available to respond, then I don't think this kind of camp is going to make much of a difference for the kids that are left.
There's a certain comic aspect to this, sort of like the "Duck & Cover" drills of the 1950's. But those drills, as silly as they were, managed to psychologically mark a generation with a foreboding of impending doom. Which isn't such a laughing matter.
Also, I'm a bit curious as to what the "Terrorism Awareness" component of the curriculum consists of. Are the little tikes learning how to racially profile potential terrorists? Or spy on their parents? Just how ready is ready, anyway?
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Reverse Stockholm Syndrome?
In what may prove to be the next front in the War on Terror, Gitmo officials are investigating how two detainees managed to obtain contraband... underwears. That's right. Two detainees were found with non-regulation skivvies and one of them was also in possession of a pair of Speedos. The Pentagon suspects the men's lawyers had something to do with it, since they're both represented by the same English advocacy group, Reprieve. A lawyer for Reprieve rejected the charge, calling it unlikely that anything could be smuggled in to Gitmo, and pointing out that the brand of underwear in question, Under Armour, is popular among the US military.
Friday, September 7, 2007
In a monograph for the Army War College titled "Deprogramming an Ideology", Lt. Col. Johnathon French draws a parallel between jihadist terrorist organizations and religious cults. This seems about right to me, and underscores a major drawback of our approach to counter-terrorism. Namely that in reducing the options to military vs. police tactics (which is in and of itself silly, since both are necessary), we've excluded any consideration of the psychological component of the struggle. (By some odd coincidence, I just deleted a whole folder of articles on this subject while cleaning up my Bookmarks last night.)
Admittedly, there is no accepted psychological profile for identifying the potential terrorist, although my review of the literature suggested some convergences. But it's always struck me that terrorist organizations operate along the same lines (and depend upon the same qualities in their recruits) as religious cults. Indoctrination in moral absolutism, isolation from the pre-existing social context, and substitution of the group's ideology for the individual's moral compass are all time-tested ways to "convert" vulnerable subjects. (They also resemble the psychological principles behind the "enhanced interrogation techniques" designed to break detainees.)
Lt. Col. French calls it Thought Control, and he advocates a global effort to "deprogram" the terrorists and their pool of recruits, similar to interventions designed to emancipate cult members from the influence of the brainwashing they've experienced. Here's a chart of some concrete proposals (click on it for a larger readable version):
Some seem more practical and potentially effective than others. (For instance, I'm not sure how exactly Lt. Col. French intends to "De-nuclearize Israel", which you'll find under "Decisive Points" in the footnote box.) But at least it's a step towards the kind of creative thinking we'll need if we're actually going to defuse terrorism as a global threat.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Know Your Enemy
Greg Djerejian of The Belgravia Dispacth has a long post identifying the source of the real threat we face with regard to terrorism. In a nutshell, he poses the following the question:
...Put differently, how did the attack on downtown Manhattan lead us to become involved in ostensibly decades long nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps to come, a bombing campaign that would likely lead to a full-blown conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran?
In my view, the greatest threat we face in the post 9/11 era are radicalized Islamists of mostly lower to middle class background who have grown up or emigrated to cities like Madrid, London, Paris, Hamburg, Milan... The radical Islamists who threaten us the most are those who have become technologically sophisticated, who perhaps speak our language, who can more easily appear ‘Westernized’, and meantime have become highly alienated by the West, basically the Mohammed Atta type. Which is to say, not rural peasants in the environs of Kandahar or impoverished Shi'a slum-dwellers south of Baghdad...
Greg's point is on the money, but for one thing: Looks like we'll have to add Copenhagen to the list. Because the Danish police have just arrested a cell of eight suspected bomb plotters who all match Greg's description to a tee. And initial reports suggest that at least several of them have direct links to al-Qaeda's top leadership.
Americans have a tendency to minimize the target value of "minor" countries like Denmark, while getting unnerved by every Moe, Curly and Larry nabbed by the FBI and DHS stateside. But these arrests confirm the pattern of the London and Madrid bombings, as well as recent intelligence reports that suggest that Islamic terrorists are increasingly turning their sights on Western Europe as a second "front".
But while it's important to take these threats seriously, it's also important not to lose sight of the kinds of distinctions that Greg makes. This kind of analysis seems like an opportunity for Democrats to turn their perceived weakness on National Security into a strength. Because there's really no way we can defeat our enemy if we can't even identify him.
Monday, August 20, 2007
The American Psychological Association has scrapped a blanket ban on psychologists taking part in military interrogations "...in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights..." in favor of one that prohibits them from participating in interrogations that use any of more than a dozen specified practices. The reasoning was that psychologists served as a moderating influence on the interrogators' conduct:
"If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," said Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay.
Which strikes me as pretty strong confirmation that whatever's going on in those interrogations is illegal. As one psychologist quoted in the article put it:
"If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave."
And alert the media, the judiciary, or both.
Friday, August 17, 2007
The Insecurity Council
According to Le Monde, Dick Marty, the investigator for the Council of Europe who issued a report on the CIA's European black hole prisons this past June, is set to issue another one this autumn which is sure to grab some attention. This time he's shining the spotlight on the UN Security Council's anti-terrorism "blacklist", specifically:
...the "Kafka-esque" practices and "flagrant injustice" of a committee of the UN Security Council which manages a list of 362 people and 125 organizations, sanctioned for their alleged connections with al-Qaeda or the Taliban...
For someone to be added to the list, all it takes is just one of the fifteen members of the Council to request it and provide a summary of the acts in question, often based on classified intelligence. If none of the other members objects in the next five days, the name is added and published on the UN website.
The activities subject to sanction, such as "facilitating" activities related to al-Qaeda or "the support, in any other way" of the jihadist movement, remain vague. And when people are sanctioned, it's often based "on vague, even very vague, suspicions", according to Mr. Marty, without being informed of them, nor having access to incriminating evidence. (Translated from the French.)
Sanctions handed down by the committee have included everything from freezing of assets to house arrest, so the fact that there's really no judicial process involved is pretty significant. Changes have already been made in the list's administration, allowing those sanctioned to request their removal from it. But their request still needs unanimous consent from the Council (ie. the agreement of whichever country put them on it in the first place) to be approved. More recently, revisions proposed in 2006 included:
...the adoption of more precise definitions, re-examination every six months so that the sanctions remain temporary and preventative, as well as the introduction of judicial oversight and a right to appeal.
Something tells me the publicity surrounding Mr. Marty's report might turn the heat up enough to get them pushed through.
Friday, August 17, 2007
The Memory Hole
The Dept. of Defense has re-designed its website and one of the casualties is the handy "Detainee Affairs" link that used to be on the leftside navbar. The link was a payload of information, with everything from program descriptions to CSRT transcripts. After digging around a bit, I finally found it on the Press Resources page.
But I think this reflects the Bush administration's desire to downplay this aspect of the GWOT. Gitmo is a disaster, and after six years they finally realize that. Not because they think there's anything wrong with it. It's just that now they realize they can get away with doing the mass detentions under the radar in the "black hole" network. No more links. No more transcripts.
Every now and then, when it suits their purpose, they'll transfer a high value detainee or two to Gitmo. But Gitmo as we understand it (ie. a largescale detention center) is on its way out.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Hard Place, Tough Talk
I'm thinking this kind of analysis might not make it into the GOP's YouTube debate. Or the Democrats', for that matter. From "Beyond Iraq: Lessons Of A Hard Place", by Anton K. Smith:
Muslim extremist terrorism is not wanton. It has political purpose, is based on warped but attractive religious precepts, and is built around the cause of confronting Western oppression and restoring Islamic dignity. It constitutes an insurgency against the global order. To employ the tools we have by attacking states is counterproductive, since an implicit target of the Muslim insurgency is the system of states itself, at least insofar as it can be forcibly altered to permit reestablishment of the caliphate... (p. 3)
Good thing the monograph is published by the Army War College, otherwise Smith might be accused of rooting for the enemy. Actually, he'll probably be accused of that anyway, seeing as how he works for the State Department. But what, in fact, he's arguing for is a reshoring of the nation-state system, namely through the United States re-assuming its traditional role of guarantor of the global stability:
Our response to 9/11 may have done more to further the interests of our jihadist opponents than our own, in that we have weakened an international system they view as illegitimate and destabilized the Middle East in a manner they now seek to exploit... Perception of the inability of the United States to deliver global security (and unwilling to be constrained by international opinion and cooperative arrangements) will erode global confidence, contribute to economic and political instability, and encourage non-state insurgents. Within the Middle East region, our natural allies in this fight are strong, moderate states, even if some of those states espouse views that run counter to our own. To restore vitality to the system we must begin to reconcile with proto-democratic Iran and secular Syria... (p. 6)
...Promoting the primacy of economic over political development is as crucial to stability in the Middle East today as it was in our own history. In the end, encouraging the growth of strong, vibrant and moderate states in the Middle East is our best hedge against the global jihadist threat. (p.7)
Note the primacy of economic over political development, because that's the thrust of Smith's argument. The problem he has with the Bush doctrine was its emphasis on free elections instead of free markets:
...Strong and economically vibrant middle classes will do more to support our goals than all the military power we can muster. (p. 7)
And while the establishment of socially dispersed economic freedom depends upon security and order, we also need to be realistic:
Our own history tells us states are most often forged in the crucible of violence. If we wish to see mature states in the Middle East, we must make way for violence there, reserving the exercise of force and subversion to those instances when vital U.S. interests are truly at stake... This clash of Islam is internal, reflecting a division within a religion. We have seen something like this in our own history. The bloody battle is on, but it is not ours. Our best hope is to contain and shape the conflict in ways that support the modern states system. Despite the fact states maturing in the Middle East diverge from our conceptual framework, we should avoid undermining upstart republics as the system develops. We have accepted a nuclear-armed religious state wrapped around democratic principles in Israel. We may have to accommodate one in Iran... (p. 7)
It's a sharp analysis, although the Milton Friedman worship makes me a bit uncomfortable. But I'm willing to forgive that to anyone who manages to cite Clausewitz and Kurt Vonnegut in the same article.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
I didn't see much coverage of this while I was on vacation, although I wasn't looking too hard either. But apparently the Dept. of Defense has officially concluded the Combatant Status Review Tribunals for the 14 high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, whose transfer to Gitmo last fall officially confirmed the CIA's black-hole interrogation network. Surprise, surprise, they've all been determined to be enemy combatants. A finding that is still clouded in some legal confusion, since the Military Commissions Act requires they be found "unlawful" enemy combatants. The change in status will give them the right to civilian counsel, though, as well as to challenge the findings in court.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
A new report from the UK's security and intelligence committee indicates that the CIA was so gung ho about its extraordinary rendition program that it disregarded 20 years of precedent by ignoring British "caveats" placed on shared intelligence:
Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna were flown by the CIA first to Afghanistan and then Guantanamo Bay, where el-Banna is still being held.
The committee said the UK services "used caveats specifically prohibiting any action being taken" when they handed over the intelligence on the men.
It says the UK security services did not foresee that the US authorities would disregard the caveats, given that they had honoured the caveat system for the past 20 years.
Then there's this, which is so dryly British that it's hard to keep a straight face when reading it:
"Although the US may take note of UK protests and concerns, it does not appear materially to affect their strategy..." the report warned.
Less amusing are the report's conclusions, which recommend overseeing intelligence cooperation at the ministerial level as long as there is even the suspicion that it might result in rendition. Yet another way in which Bush's conduct of the War on Terror has damaged America's interests.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Regardless of what Frances Townsend might have to say about the matter, Pakistan remains resolutely opposed to an American attack against al-Qaeda on Pakistani territority.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Black Hole Rules
As required by the Military Commissions Act, President Bush has just signed an Executive Order interpreting the Geneva Conventions prohibition of torture. A quick reading of the Order leaves me guardedly optimistic that the CIA interrogation program has now been officially prohibited from using torture as most sane people understand that term.
To begin with, it clearly locates the definition of torture in the context of the US Constitution, with all the rights and protections it guarantees:
"Cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" means the cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.
Later, it prohibits torture as defined by the US Code, as well as a long list of other practices, including anything "...so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency..."
There remain, however, a number of troubling aspects. While use of the detainee program is limited to members of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associates who are likely to have information about terrorist attacks or the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, the Order leaves it up to the Director of the CIA to identify just who that refers to. Also, nowhere does the Order extend habeas corpus rights to detainees.
And since it always pays to be somewhat skeptical of the Bush administration's sincerity, the actual Constitutional amendments it cites could conceivably provide some loophole wiggle room. The 8th Amendment very clearly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".
But the 5th Amendment, which guarantees due process, makes an exception for "... cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger..." And the 14th Amendment refers to equal protection under the law across State jurisdictions, which I can't imagine will apply to non-nationals held in a Soviet-era Polish dungeon.
On the whole, good news. But the Devil will be in the details of the codified instructions delivered to actual CIA interrogators in the field.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
It's widely known that the enhanced interrogation techniques used at Gitmo and in the CIA's black site prisons were reverse-engineered from the military's Cold War-era training programs for resisting torture at the hands of Communist interrogators. Now in a must-read article in Vanity Fair, Katherine Eban reveals that two CIA-contracted psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, have been central to the development of the techniques, which are likened to a "psychic demolition" designed to get a detainee "... to reveal everything by severing his sense of personality and scaring him almost to death":
According to a person familiar with the methods, the basic approach was to "break down [the detainees] through isolation, white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, create dependence on interrogators."
But the Communist interrogation tactics on which the new methods are based were designed to generate useful propaganda (ie. false confessions and anti-American declarations), not useful intelligence. Why, then, were the new methods adopted so wholeheartedly? Eban traces the explanation to the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda lieutenant who under interrogation revealed the identities of Sheikh Khalid Mohammed and José Padilla, among others:
While it was the F.B.I.'s rapport-building that had prompted Zubaydah to talk, the C.I.A. would go on to claim credit for breaking Zubaydah, and celebrate Mitchell as a psychological wizard who held the key to getting hardened terrorists to talk. Word soon spread that Mitchell and Jessen had been awarded a medal by the C.I.A. for their advanced interrogation techniques. While the claim is impossible to confirm, what matters is that others believed it. The reputed success of the tactics was "absolutely in the ether," says one Pentagon civilian who worked on detainee policy.
Since then, Mitchell and Jessen have set up a series of private consultant companies that provide training for interrogators. And according to Eban, business ain't bad:
The principals of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates are raking in money. According to people familiar with their compensation, they get paid more than $1,000 per day plus expenses, tax free, for their overseas work. It beats military pay. Mitchell has built his dream house in Florida. He also purchased a BMW through one of his companies. "Taxpayers are paying at least half a million dollars a year for these two knuckleheads to do voodoo," says one of the people familiar with their pay arrangements.
The fact that psychologists are getting rich off of a method designed to demolish psyches is chilling. The fact that it's the United States government writing the checks is glacial.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Heads They Win, Tails We Lose
What exactly does this prove? According to the Dept. of Defense, at least 30 former Gitmo detainees have "returned to the fight" after their release:
These former detainees successfully lied to US officials, sometimes for over three years. Many detainees later identified as having returned to fight against the U.S. with terrorists falsely claimed to be farmers, truck drivers, cooks, small-scale merchants, or low-level combatants.
Other common cover stories include going to Afghanistan to buy medicines, to teach the Koran, or to find a wife. Many of these stories appear so often, and are subsequently proven false that we can only conclude they are part of their terrorist training.
Now it could be as the DoD says, and the former detainees did, in fact, lie their way out of Gitmo. Of course, another possible explanation is that the detainees were telling the truth in Gitmo, and their experiences there so embittered them that upon their release they went and joined the folks gunning for American GI's.
Either way, the implication is that the coercive interrogation techniques employed there don't actually work. And that it's a safe bet, given what we know about who's actually joining Al Qaeda in Iraq, that at least some of the sixteen Gitmo detainees transferred to Saudi Arabia today will soon be setting off IED's in Baghdad.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
The Terrorist Pro-Am Circuit
In the aftermath of the London-Glasgow failed attacks, a lot of counter-terrorism experts have been ridiculing the wannabe terrorists' incompetence, leading Noah Shachtman over at Danger Room to pose the question, "Were these bombers Beavises? Or was this a legitimate threat?" Intuitively, the answer seems to be clearly, "Yes, and yes." And this article in Le Figaro explains why.
According to the counter-terrorism experts cited in the article, the London attacks demonstrate not that highly-trained al-Qaeda operatives have been replaced by bumbling amateurs, but that they've been supplemented by them. In addition, contrary to previous waves of militants, who were recruited, these next-generation, "homegrown" threats tend to be self-motivated. They find their way to terrorism by themselves, with no need for extended conditioning to prepare them to cross the line into violence, and make contact with established networks only for reasons of legitimacy and technical support.
In other words, established global jihadist networks can throw the amateurs into the front lines at little to no cost or investment. The downside risk if they fail is minimal, and the upside benefits if they succeed enormous. In the meantime, the A-Team bides its time, planning major strikes with its elite operatives.
So maybe the London guys were Beavises, but that doesn't necessarily make their buddies Buttheads.
Friday, June 29, 2007
London police have just discovered a second car loaded with similar materials to the one found earlier today. This one had been towed away from a nearby street. For the time being, London has really dodged a bullet. Which means that all of us have dodged a bullet.
I remember in the days following 9/11, how everyone here who knew I was American -- and anyone who didn't but who heard my accent -- made a point to tell me they were with us, and asked me to pass on to everyone at home that we weren't alone. So if there's anyone in London reading this, pass the word: You're not alone. We're with you.
Friday, June 29, 2007
The Ballad Of The Green Berets
I got to this article kind of late last night, so I linked to it without posting, but it really warrants some closer attention. It ostensibly focuses on how the military leadership of the Special Operations command will soon be rotated out, resulting in the appointment of senior officers who are committed to returning to traditional 'indirect' special operations tactics. But it's actually a pretty severe indictment of the ways in which the Bush administration has misused Special Forces in particular, and the military in general, in response to the attacks of 9/11.
Despite their image, Special Forces have always placed a heavy emphasis on non-combat oriented interventions, especially with regard to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism:
Through the indirect route, support can be overt or covert. But it always is aimed at eliminating safe havens for terrorists. This is done by training foreign militaries, supporting surrogate forces or providing humanitarian, financial and civic backing to areas viewed as possible breeding grounds for terrorists.
But after 9/11, the Rumsfeld Dept. of Defense began to increasingly use Special Forces in combat operations, first in Afghanistan and then even more so in Iraq. In direct contradiction of the command's strategic doctrine, Bush and Rumsfeld have tried to "kill our way to victory".
There's a trend right now to trace our failure in Iraq to an Army culture that never learned the counterinsurgency lessons of Vietnam. But some blame must also go to a civilian leadership that ignored the tools we did have in the toolkit, or tried to apply them to tasks they aren't appropriate for.
The Bush administration's riposte to the attacks on 9/11 was driven more by political considerations than by strategic calculation. But while "Bring 'em on" and "Mission Accomplished" might have made for more virile, macho soundbites, the meticulous counterterrorism operations Bush and Rumsfeld mocked would have made for better policy. The proof lies in the comparison between the Philippines, where they were applied, and Iraq, where they weren't.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Given what we know about how Special Operations units have been used abroad in the War on Terror, the fact that they're being incorporated into domestic anti-terrorism planning is more than a little troubling. I said yesterday that the logic behind their extra-legal methods is expansive. Unless there's more transparency as to what these units are authorized to do, this is a very dangerous precedent.
Via Danger Room.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
President Bush's Revolutionary Guard
Most of the jaw-dropping revelations from Seymour Hersh's latest article detailing Maj. General Antonio Taguba's investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal have already been circulated widely. Certainly, the fallout the investigation had on Taguba's career is a tremendous injustice, and the possibility that Rumsfeld and the White House knowingly lied about when they first learned of the abuse ought to be investigated by Congress.
But what I found as shocking and perhaps more significant is the extent to which, according to Hersh's sources, the Bush administration has resorted to the use of rogue intelligence units that respond not to a chain of command subject to oversight and regulation, but to the verbal -- hence deniable -- command of the Sec. of Defense and the President. Here's Hersh:
...Shortly after September 11th, Rumsfeld, with the support of President Bush, had set up military task forces whose main target was the senior leadership of Al Qaeda. Their essential tactic was seizing and interrogating terrorists and suspected terrorists; they also had authority from the President to kill certain high-value targets on sight. The most secret task-force operations were categorized as Special Access Programs, or S.A.P.s.
The military task forces were under the control of the Joint Special Operations Command, the branch of the Special Operations Command that is responsible for counterterrorism... In special cases, the task forces could bypass the chain of command and deal directly with Rumsfeld’s office. A former senior intelligence official told me that the White House was also briefed on task-force operations...
J.S.O.C.’s special status undermined military discipline. Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State, told me that, on his visits to Iraq, he increasingly found that “the commanders would say one thing and the guys in the field would say, ‘I don’t care what he says. I’m going to do what I want.’ We’ve sacrificed the chain of command to the notion of Special Operations and GWOT”—the global war on terrorism.
Of course, we already know about this administration's secretiveness, as well as it's willingness to engage in illegal activity. And the use of deniable and even unseemly backchannels for "les raisons d'état" is nothing new.
But what Hersh is describing amounts to more than just a formal kidnapping and torture operation that serves "at the pleasure of the President". It suggests the creation of a parallel apparatus that operates so far off the radar that it exists outside the limits of institutional loyalty or control. This is tantamount to a personal secret police for use as the President sees fit.
For the time being, as far as we know, it only operates abroad. But there's a reason why this sort of rogue force is so repugnant to democratic principles. That's because the logic behind it, that of the primacy of national security over the rule of law, is an expansive one. And the limits on it tend to grow weaker with time.
It also raises a frightening question. What happens to Bush's secret police once he leaves office?
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Balkanizing The Middle East
Usually, when I skim The Weekly Standard, the urge I feel to respond to their most flagrant diatribes dies down into a half-hearted, "What's the use?" before I even get done reading the thing. The more outrageous the assertions, the more quickly the urge to respond evaporates.
Oddly enough, though, an article that presents some unconvincing arguments against a policy proposal that I myself have trouble with, like Stephen Schwartz' critique of the Biden plan to partition Iraq, seems to do the trick.
Schwartz' main problems with the plan are that it's based on a rosy assessment of the partition of the former Yugoslavia, and that it rewards Sunni bad behavior by creating a moral equivalency between aggressor and victim.
I don't find his reasoning very compelling. My own problem with the plan has always been that its success depends on something that has never existed: A stable power-sharing arrangement among the three Iraqi constituencies. Whether across "soft" borders or within hard ones, if the willingness to set aside violence as a means of settling disputes isn't there, the plan won't work. And imposing a ceasefire from above will not only be near-impossible. It will further exacerbate Iraqi resentment of the occupying powers.
That said, the entire region from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa seems to be reaching a critical mass of violent instability right now, due in large part to the Bush administration's policies. If spreading the chaos was part of the neocon plan to provoke a final region-wide confrontation, they overlooked one important detail: the continued instability works more to our enemies' advantage than to our own. The porous borders and perpetual battlefields are being exploited by global jihadists to recruit and train the next generation of terrorists to broaden the conflict to North Africa and Western Europe.
Now, like it or not, the writing's on the wall: The era of inclusive solutions has come to a close. If you want a taste of things to come, just take a look at the world's response to the Palestinian civil war. And, as several people have already pointed out, there's an inherent contradiction in advocating for the partitioning of Gaza from the West Bank, while rejecting such a plan for Iraq. Or Lebanon, or Waziristan, or Somalia, et cetera ad infinitum.
None of which makes the Biden plan any more likely to succeed. Just more likely to be implemented.
Friday, June 15, 2007
The Gitmo Delusion
Jonathan Hafetz calls attention to a confusion of categories resulting from the nature of the war on terror, which calls into question the way in which we determine and deal with enemy combatants. Basically, it boils down to the difference between enemies and suspects:
...In World War II, for example, there was little question that captured German or Japanese soldiers were, in fact, enemies. At the same time, their detention was limited to the duration of a war that had a clear and definite end, and they were afforded the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
But neat divisions between detention and trial break down when applied to the administration's "war on terror," which has no identifiable enemy or battlefield. As a result, it is easy to mistakenly detain people based upon suspicion, innuendo, or mere association. At the same time, detention as an "enemy combatant" amounts to a potential life sentence, since the "war on terror," the administration says, may last generations...
Terrorism by definition presents an epistemological challenge that conventional warfare doesn't. The first hurdle is being sure we know who the enemy is. Not in the abstract, on the level of terrorist organizations that we can identify as threats. But in the concrete expression, on the level of individual operatives where, besides the most visible few, there remains a doubt.
A correlary effect of terrorism, therefore, is a form of justified paranoia. Doubt about who the actual enemy is leads to the perception of everyone as a potential threat. In aggravated cases of paranoia, of course, doubt gives way to a compensatory certainty, and everyone is perceived as an actual threat.
Now consider that the mere suspicion of being an enemy combatant routinely leads to secret detention and torture, and that any evidence obtained through that torture is permissible in the CSRT (the hearings that determine whether someone is an enemy combatant). Knowing what we know about the unreliability of tortured-induced self-incrimination, this means that the mere suspicion of being an enemy combatant will most likely result in actually being classified one.
It's a neat way to solve the problem of filling up our detention centers with people we call our enemies. It might even serve the useful function of providing enough "confirmed" terrorists to prevent a collective slide into full-scale, psychotic paranoia. But it does nothing to solve the problem actually presented by terrorism, that is, knowing for sure who our enemies are.
The problem with militarizing the response to terrorism is that war is not an effective tool for determining competing truth claims. The American legal system, on the other hand, whether criminal or military, is. Until the enemy combatant review procedures are brought into line with traditional American jurisprudence, they will continue to function as a placebo, when what's needed is real justice.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Today President Bush gave an address at the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington D.C. Not surprisingly, after running through a list of communist atrocities, he made sure to mention this century's equivalent, terrorists:
Like the Communists, our new enemies are dismissive of free peoples, claiming that those of us who live in liberty are weak and lack the resolve to defend our free way of life...
Now it seems pretty clear to me that this is a reference to, among other things, "enhanced interrogation techniques". Maybe not explicitly, but in the sense that people who support their use would probably include them in any list of things that reflect our strength and resolve in the fight against terror. Maybe they formulate it like Bush's terrorists, that opponents of torture are weak and lack resolve, but the meaning is the same.
Either way, what's important to remember is that in order to put these techniques into practice, that is, in order to show the terrorist suspects we'd captured that we had the necessary resolve to torture them, we used the same Soviet-era prisons in Poland and Romania that created the victims Bush was memorializing today. Go figure.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The US program of extraordinary renditions and coercive interrogations continues, this time in Ethiopia. According to Der Spiegel, "terror suspects" fleeing the chaos of Somalia were captured by American, Somali and Kenyan forces and later transferred to detention centers in Addis Abbaba. While the US government confirmed that some suspects were interrogated in Ethiopia, the centers are allegedly being run by Ethiopians in order to conceal American involvement.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Here's a description of the CIA's High Value Detainee (HVD) interrogation program from the Pentagon's website:
...Over the ensuing months, the CIA designed a new interrogation program that would be safe, effective, and legal.
- The CIA sought and obtained legal guidance from the Department of Justice that none of the new procedures violated the US statues prohibiting torture. Policymakers were also briefed and approved of the use of the procedures.
- The procedures proved highly effective...
CIA's interrogation program is designed to ensure that intelligence is collected in a manner that does not violate the US Constitution, any US statute, or US treaty obligations...
- The Department of Justice has reviewed procedures proposed by the CIA on more than one occasion and determined them to be lawful...
Multiple safeguards have been built into the program to assure its professionalism. All those involved in the questioning of detainees are carefully chosen and screened for demonstrated professional judgment and maturity...
- Specific senior CIA officers, and currently only the Director of the CIA, must approve -- prior to use -- each and every one of the mawful interrogation procedures to be used. No deviation from the approved procedures and methods is permitted.
Here's how the Council of Europe's Dick Marty described the program in a report based on interviews with former interrogators and detainees (pp. 52-53):
247. Detainees went through months of solitary confinement and extreme sensory deprivation in cramped cells, shackled and handcuffed at all times...
252. A common feature for many detainees was the four-month isolation regime. During this period of over 120 days, absolutely no human contact was granted with anyone but masked, silent guards...
254. The air in many cells emanated from a ventilation hole in the ceiling, which was often controlled to produce extremes of temperature: sometimes so hot one would gasp for breath, sometimes freezing cold...
257. Detainees never experienced natural light or natural darkness, although most were
blindfolded many times so they could see nothing...
266. There was a shackling ring in the wall of the cell, about half a metre up off the floor.
Detainees’ hands and feet were clamped in handcuffs and leg irons. Bodies were regularly forced into contorted shapes and chained to this ring for long, painful periods...
269. Detainees were subjected to relentless noise and disturbance were deprived of the chance to sleep (sic)...
271. The gradual escalation of applied physical and psychological exertion, combined in some cases with more concentrated pressure periods for the purposes of interrogation, is said to have caused many of those held by the CIA to develop enduring psychiatric and mental problems.
As Andrew Sullivan pointed out in a post detailing the origin of the term "enhanced interrogation techniques", even the Gestapo took care to codify, that is to legalize, torture. Are we the moral equivalent of the Gestapo? Of course not. Did we legalize and apply torture? Yes.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
When the CIA decided to "enhance" their interrogation techniques, they turned to the Soviet-era KGB for inspiration. When they needed locations for the secret detention centers where the techniques would be put to use, they turned to Soviet-era prisons in Poland and Romania. Coincidence?
Well, then, consider how Abu Ghraib has become a symbol of both Saddam Hussein's cruelty and America's. Or how Guantanamo has become an American miniature of Fidel Castro's island prison.
There's no better proof that what goes on in these places is un-American than the fact that under no circumstances could they be located in America. Not because a free society can't produce men and women willing to torture. But because a free society serves as a constant reminder that torture and liberty are incompatible.
It's no coincidence that our American torturers work out of lingering monuments to totalitarian cruelty. It's the only way to keep them isolated from anything that might jog their memories and their consciences.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
The Threat Of Protracted Conflict
It's a bit long, but if you have the time and inclination, give Steven Metz's monograph, "Rethinking Insurgencies", a read. It's a brilliant analysis of how 21st century insurgencies differ from 20th century ones, how America's post-9/11 counterinsurgency models are all based on the latter rather than the former, and what an effective response to today's insurgencies would look like.
Metz claims that various historical pressures, including globalization and communication advances, have weakened states' ability to provide security and a cohesive identity to their citizens, as well as meet rising economic expectations. This has in turn created a proliferation of power vacuums. So whereas "old" insurgencies sought to seize areas controlled by the state, "new" insurgencies compete for uncontrolled spaces that the state has been forced to vacate.
Another distinction: old insurgencies were usually binary (the rebels vs. the state) with support from outside sponsors, whereas new insurgencies exist in complex, multi-party environments (militias, criminal organizations, multi-national corporations, ngo's and international media) that Metz compares to violent markets. It's not surprising then that the goal of total victory represented by marching through the capitol city and seizing the reins of state power has now been replaced by that of simply dominating the competition (ie. market share).
Because insurgencies often do mutate into economic enterprises, in particular organized crime syndicates (see Colombia), there are often incentives for maintaining them as a perpetual status quo (see Colombia). But Metz argues that the prolonged violence and breakdown in order they provoke poses a much greater threat to American interests than integrating insurgents into a sustainable power-sharing arrangement:
Given this, the U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible, particularly when the partner regime is only half-heartedly committed to it), but the rapid resolution of the conflict. In other words, a quick and sustainable outcome which integrates most of the insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat.
Metz goes on to identify economic development, job creation and women's empowerment as key aspects of an effective counterinsurgency campaign. But he acknowledges that what he's proposing resembles social re-engineering more closely than war. Which is why he warns that "...the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances."
This kind of analysis would have come in handy four years ago, before the start of our misguided Iraq debacle. But it's still pretty timely in light of this Robert Dreyfuss article in The American Prospect describing a broad "Iraqi nationalist coalition" that's in the formative stages right now. If Metz is correct, it might well be our best chance to limit the damage we've done there.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Abbott & Costello
Upon closer examination, there's a common thread that connects the last three foiled domestic terrorist plots, and I'm not just talking about the sheer buffoonery aspect to all of them. Don't get me wrong, it's possible that the Miami Seven, the Fort Lee gang, and the JFK pipeline crew intended to kill people, and in that regard there's nothing comical about them. Or rather, there wouldn't be anything comical about them if they weren't inept clowns.
But a clown is nothing without a straight man, and that's the common thread I'm talking about. None of these guys would have been capable of doing the slightest bit of damage without the help of the undercover FBI agents that were in the process of entrapping them. So as far as actual terrorist threats go, the good guys were light years ahead of the bad guys.
And that's really the difference between the real bad guys and the convenient bad guys. The real bad guys have been trained in paramilitary operations, and already have a network of other bad guys to help carry them out. So they're less likely to get tripped up by FBI agents posing as terrorist handlers.
What's also interesting is that the real bad guys seem to have a keener understanding of the symbolic significance of their targets than our own homegrown domestic terrorists do. I could think of at least a dozen targets that would resonate more deeply than the Sears Tower or JFK Airport before my first cup of coffee in the morning.
The problem is, so can the bad guys. The real ones, that is.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Not So Petty Crime
The Bush administration has always ridiculed the idea of fighting terrorism through police work. Too bad, because according to a study issued by the Congressional Research Service, terrorists have increasingly turned to criminal activities to finance their operations:
State-sponsorship is declining and terrorists groups are increasingly decentralized and more amateur, CRS finds, which leads the cells to crime.
Why does it seem like the Bushies are always the last to know?
Monday, May 21, 2007
The DoD has just released a redacted audio recording of the Gitmo CSRT hearing for Abu Faraj al-Libi. The hearing was the first one held, back in March, and significantly, al-Libi elected not to participate. In the words of his "Personal Representative" (not to be confused with a lawyer):
Faraj al-Libi has decided that his freedom is far too important to be decided by an administrative process and is waiting for legal proceedings.
It will be interesting to see whether the more prominent hearings, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be releasedin audio as well.
Monday, May 21, 2007
The Threat Of Being Disappeared
For anyone interested in the trial of Jose Padilla, I highly recommend keeping tabs on Warren Richey's reporting for the Christian Science Monitor. Everything I've read of his so far has gone beyond just the play-by-play of the legal procedure (although that's there too), to include some of the tensions the trial presents in terms of judicial handling of terrorism cases.
Today, he describes how the limitations placed on the permissible lines of questioning of a prosecution witness, one of the "Lackawanna Six" named Yahya Goba, has led to testimony more likely to further Padilla's defense than damage it. What I found more significant, though, was this background on Goba's testimony:
He is appearing at the trial under a plea agreement and is seeking to have the government reduce his 10-year prison sentence. Goba, who is married with a 4-year-old daughter, has a strong additional incentive to cooperate in every way with the government. He wants to avoid being designated an enemy combatant and diverted out of the criminal justice system into indefinite military detention.
Now, to clarify, everything I've been able to find on Goba's plea deal suggests that he and his co-defendants indeed pleaded guilty in return for the government taking the threat of being declared an enemy combatant off the table. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with subsequent government investigations of terrorist cases, which explains his presence at the Padillo trial. But I'm not sure if he can still be "diverted out of the criminal justice system", as Richey claims.
Still, the way in which enemy combatant status and the subsequent military tribunals have tainted even the limited number of criminal prosecutions of accused terrorists is clear. It establishes a dual track "justice" system that the government can arbitrarily manipulate, depending on the strength of its case and its public relations needs.
Another reason why American principles of justice demand that enemy combatant status be severely limited, clearly defined, and subject to the same legal guarantees the American legal system affords to criminal defendants.
Friday, May 18, 2007
Not So Open Trial
The flaws with the military tribunals used to determine Gitmo detainees' guilt are pretty widely commented upon. But the alternative to Bush's Star Chamber courts, ie. trying the detainees in American courts, also poses some legal challenges.
Take the trial of Jose Padilla, now under way in Miami. According to the CSM's Warren Richey, a CIA agent was allowed to testify today using a pseudonym. In and of itself, that's neither unprecedented, nor unreasonable. More unusual though still not unprecedented, however, is that the jury wasn't informed at all about the pseudonym, and the defense attorneys were not told the agent's true name.
"Allowing [the CIA agent] to use a pseudonym is pretty uncontroversial, especially if it is someone who is an undercover agent," says Robert Chesney, a national-security law specialist and professor at Wake Forest School of Law. "The harder question is why is it OK for the defendants to be limited in their ability to impeach [the CIA agent's] credibility because they don't really know who the guy is."
Besides cases involving national security, mafia trials also sometimes feature pseudonymous witnesses whose identities are not revealed to the defendant. The reasons are obvious, if not necessarily unimpeachable.
As things stand, the Classified Information Procedures Act leaves a great deal of leeway to the trial judge to determine how to balance the defendant's right to a fair trial with the needs of national security, on a case by case basis. Which strikes me as somewhat arbitrary. One way to standardize the process would be to appoint a judiciary panel with the jurisdiction to review procedural issues surrounding classified information as they arise, similar to the FISA court used to authorize emergency wiretaps.
But while making the process more consistent is inherently desirable, even that won't make the issue go away. The tension between the right to an open trial and national security is an inherent one in terrorism cases. And if critics who call for the abolition of the military tribunals get their way, it will only become more prominent as trying accused terrorists in American courts becomes more prevalent.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Off On The Wrong Foot
Warren Richey's got a quiet piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the unusual press restrictions being imposed for the trial of Jose Padilla, which is set to open tomorrow:
In effect, newspaper, radio, and television reporters are being granted observer status – they may sit quietly, watch the trial, and take notes. But if during a court recess they approach a defense lawyer or prosecutor in the courtroom with a question, they risk being whisked away by security officials.
The ban on media questions also extends to the lobby outside US District Judge Marcia Cooke's courtroom and chambers.
If reporters need to ask questions for clarification or routine housekeeping matters during the trial, they must ask their questions somewhere else.
Judge Marcia Cooke's staff explained that it's a precaution against unintentionally tainting the jury with an overheard remark. Which seems like a valid enough concern to ensure that the rule falls far short of the "unreasonable restriction" litmus test needed to claim it hampers press freedom. What's odd, then, is that instead of actually issuing the rule, Judge Cooke is simply allowing the courtroom security officer to enforce an "unwritten rule" to that effect.
As Richey says, it's difficult for the press to fulfill its watchdog function in a case where so much of the evidence is classified and so much of the pre-trial litigation was off-limits to reporters. Throwing some "unwritten rules" into the equation wouldn't seem to help.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Theater Of The Absurd
If you're a regular reader, you know that I make it a point to read through the transcripts of the Gitmo CSRT hearings. And as a whole I find them oddly evocative portraits of what will certainly be looked back upon as the defining conflict of our times.
On the one hand, representing the foremost power of the modern world, you've got a military commission which, if imperfectly and even unjustly constituted, is made up of individual men and women who lack any apparent brutality, and seem committed to conducting the proceedings with whatever honor and justice is possible under the circumstances.
On the other, representing a ragtag militia movement that has dedicated itself to combatting not only America but modernity itself, you've got men of varying backgrounds, levels of sophistication, and scruples, expressing in broken English their dedication to a cause they consider just.
And lurking in the shadows, often conjured but appearing only in redacted glimpses, are al-Qaeda and its mimetic twin, the CIA black hole detention system, each with its own methodology of terror and brutality.
Probably none of the transcripts captures the unlikely protagonists more poignantly than that of Zayn Al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Palestinian who served as a conduit helping to funnel jihadi recruits from a safehouse in Pakistan to an independent training camp in Afghanistan...
Read the full post>>
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Who Do You Believe?
Amnesty International on Gitmo's new facility:
Built to accommodate around 178 detainees, the compound known as Camp 6 is surrounded by high concrete walls with no windows visible on the façade. Inside, detainees are confined for a minimum of 22 hours a day in individual steel cells with no windows to the outside. The only view from each cell is through strips of glass only a few inches wide in and adjacent to the cell door which looks onto an interior corridor patrolled by military police. There are no opening windows and detainees are completely cut-off from human contact while inside their cells...
Contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit by fluorescent lighting which is on 24 hours a day and controlled by guards. The lighting is reportedly dimmed at night, although it is unclear by how much. The only source of air in the cells is from air-conditioning controlled by guards. Lawyers who visited detainees in January 2007 reported that they consistently complained of being too cold in the steel cells, with the air-conditioning turned up too high.
The Defense Department on Gitmo's new facility:
Camp 6, which became operational in December and cost $38 million to build, now houses roughly 160 of the 395 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, said in an interview here today.
The air-conditioned facility, modeled on the most modern and efficient prisons in the United States, is more comfortable for detainees. It allows them to have more room and privacy than earlier facilities used at Guantanamo and is similar to Camp 5, another modern facility built in 2004. “It’s much better across the board than the facilities from which they came,” Harris said of Camp 6.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Mergers & Aquisitions
Last September on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's right hand man, announced that the GSPC (the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) had officially joined al-Qaeda. The group, which had already announced its support for Bin Laden's jihad against the United States four years earlier, would later change its name to better reflect the brand image, becoming the Organisation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
At the time of Zawahiri's announcement, the most significant outcome of the alliance seemed to be the targeting for jihad of France, Algeria's former colonial ruler, which until then had been spared much attention because of its opposition to the Iraq War. But as Michael Sheuer points out in this article in Terrorism Focus, the deal actually points to much wider implications. The three he identifies are:
- The success of Bin Laden's effort to get local, nationalist-oriented Islamic resistance groups to shift their emphasis towards targeting the "far enemy" (ie. America and the West), which is his principal strategic contribution to jihad, as discussed here.
- The combination of al-Qaeda "franchises" with the resurgence of al-Qaeda's central operational and leadership capacities, which means the West now faces a two-tiered threat.
- The use of Iraq as "contiguous territory" from which to gain access to Mediterranean and North African Islamic states, and from there, targets in Israel and Western Europe.
This last is worth emphasizing, because it means that far from keeping the terrorists occupied so they can't strike us here, as President Bush likes to claim, the Iraqi battlefield has offered al-Qaeda operatives valuable training experience while also serving as a point of departure for expanding into previously out of reach markets. As Scheuer puts it:
Although more research needs to be completed on the idea of Iraq being an al-Qaeda base for projecting itself into adjacent countries, it seems that not all of al-Qaeda's time has been spent fighting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.
CEO President? Meet the CEO terrorist.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
Know Your Enemy
Despite the fact that President Bush's two-term presidency will be almost exclusively defined by his response to the attacks of 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, his characterizations of that struggle have never amounted to much more than hollow rhetoric and feeble catchphrases, often recycled from past conflicts, such as WWII and the Cold War, that have limited contemporary applications.
Which is why it's refreshing to find, in the spring issue of Parameters, a decent, informative treatment of the guiding ideology of our enemy in this struggle, as well as an analysis of the strategic calculations that have led them to target us for attack. Although it's titled "Qutbism: An Ideology of Islamic-Fascism", the author, Col. Dale Eikmeier, quickly acknowledges the limitations of the term:
While Islamic-Fascism immediately conjures up images of an evil to be resisted and is therefore useful as a public relations term, intellectually it does little for the serious students of Islam or the strategic planners charged with its defeat.
He then goes on to discuss the early 20th century roots of Qutbism, a form of militant, universalist, fundamentalist Islam that eschews formal clerical channels and historical interpretation in favor of the "pure" Islam practiced in the time of Mohamed.
He also explains that Al Qaeda represents a turning point in jihadist strategy, based on Osama Bin Laden's substitution of the "far enemy first" approach for what had until then been a focus on the "near enemy".
This shift was the result of careful strategic decisionmaking by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. It is only natural to assume that the two compared the failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, Egyptian Jihad, and other organizations to prevail over the “near enemy,” to the successes of the Afghan mujahideen in their victory over the Soviets. They reasonably concluded that the “far enemy” strategy was the wiser course of action.40
Advantages of Jihad against the infidel “far enemy.”
- Unifies and rallies international Muslim support.
- Allows greater sanctuary in supportive states.
- Is easier to portray as the defense of Islam and a religious obligation.
- Attacks the source of power behind “apostate regimes.”
- Is easier because infidel countermeasures are limited and less effective
Disadvantages of Jihad against the “near enemy.”
- Splits Muslims and localizes support.
- Subjects the organization to more effective state security organs.
- Geography and political factors limit internal sanctuary.
- Local politics versus religious issues confuse the members and the people, weakening their resolve.
- Western support to apostate regimes not affected.
For these reasons al Qaeda in the 1990s focused its efforts on the “far enemy” and the United States in particular. Zawahiri and bin Laden pushed a shift from small isolated extremists attacking local apostate regimes to clear-cut and unified jihad against infidels. The intent was not so much as to destroy the West, but rather to unify Muslim masses behind al Qaeda’s goals.
Surprisingly, among Eikmeier's strategic recommendations for combatting the Qutbist ideology, not one suggests a military approach, let alone solution, to the conflict. They basically amount to a campaign of outreach and persuasion, backed up by some coercive measures, all of which he argues must be carried out by the moderate Muslim societies of the region in order to have any credibility.
What's lacking is any real suggestion of what America can do, beyond a de rigeur championing of universal modern values, to counteract our enemies' well-conceived approach. Which means that six years post-9/11, we still don't have an effective strategy for winning the struggle we're in.
But at least we know who we're fighting. And that's a start.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
David Kurtz did a real good rundown on some of the backchannel politicking that apparently went into making David Hicks' Gitmo plea deal go down. Among the striking coincidences? The length of the gag order imposed, which just happens to take Australian PM John Howard past his re-election bid later this year.
Here's the full transcript of the agreement. Among all the glaring assaults on veracity, this one stands out:
No person or persons have made any attempt to force or coerce me into making this offer or to plead guilty. This is a free and voluntary decision on my part made with full knowledge of its meaning and effect.
But what really adds insult to injury is this clause, which basically amounts to a lifetime sentence of watching your back:
I agree that for the remainder of my natural life, should the Government of the United States determine that I have engaged in conduct proscribed by Sections 950q through w. of Chapter 47A of title 10, United States Code, after the date of the signing of this Pretrial Agreement, the Government of the United States may immediately invoke any right it has at that time to capture and detain me, outside the nation of Australia and its territories, as an unlawful enemy combatant. (Emphasis added.)
The message is clear: Keep your mouth shut, don't cause us any trouble, and we'll leave you alone. But just in case you get any ideas, remember: We'll be keeping your orange jumpsuit ready.
Saturday, March 31, 2007
When people call for closing Gitmo, what they're talking about isn't the physical location of the detention facility. They're referring to the "legal" underpinning of the entire terrorist detention system established by the Bush administration. Namely, that by keeping detainees out of American jurisdiction, we can a) submit them to interrogation practices and detention conditions that would be actionable otherwise, and b) deny them the recourse to independent judicial oversight that is the cornerstone of the American legal tradition.
No one's suggesting we shouldn't be detaining dangerous terrorists, or freeing the ones we've already captured. But without legitimate habeas corpus rights for all detainees, those who have been wrongfully detained have no legal safety mechanism to get their stories heard, and become dependent for reprieve on the very institution that detained them in the first place.
The problem isn't the prison. It's the process. Watch this video and you'll understand why.
Friday, March 30, 2007
10 Million Enemy Combatants
The latest transcript from the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings was just released today, and it's a bombshell. Here's the opening to the prepared statement that Abd Al Rahim Hussein Mohammed Al Nashiri presented to the tribunal:
The Detainee states that he was tortured into confession and once he made a confession his captors were happy and they stopped torturing him. Also, the Detainee states that he made up stories during the torture in order to get it to stop. The Detainee confessed under torture to the following events:
- The French Merchant Vessel Limburg incident.
- The USS Cole Bombing.
- The rockets in Saudi Arabia.
- The plan to bomb American ships in the Gulf.
- Relationship with people committing bombings in Saudi Arabia.
- Usama Bin Laden having a nclear bomb.
- A plan to hijack a plane and crash it into a ship.
He goes on to describe specific acts of torture under questioning, all of which were redacted out. Also under questioning, he specified that his torturers were American, and that the torture began at the time of his capture in 2002 and continued until his transfer last year to Gitmo.
But while the torture allegation will certainly get most of the attention, Al Nashiri said a couple other things under questioning that are worth a mention. Talking about his reasons for leaving Yemen in August 2000, he offered the following insight:
In Saudi Arabia and Yemen are not really a whole lot different from Saddam Hussein. If they catch you, they put into a prison you never leave again or they kill you... So best thing is for somebody to leave. (sic)
Then there was this:
Member: Just one more question. Do you consider yourself an enemy comatant against the United States or our coalition partners?
Translator: (Translation of above).
Detainee (through translator): ... I don't know. The term enemy combatant is wide... If you think that anybody who wants the Americans to get out of the Gulf as your enemy, then you will catch about 10 million peoples in Saudi Arabia, that have same opinion (sic). That will mean, that I am one of those people... We need to get rid of people who are like Saddam in the Gulf. And let the people live their lives. Your policy is wrong. You come and support these governments. So the people are very angry at you. I have no idea how you classify us as enemy combatants. I don't understand that. I do not think of myself as an enemy to anybody.
It's not really the kind of statement you'd expect from a jihadist sworn to the destruction of not only America, but the values of freedom and democracy. Which is why our treatment of detainees, combined with the rhetoric used by the Bush administration, is so counter-productive.
Here's a guy who by his own admission travelled to Chechnya, Pakistan and other places "...to go to the battle fields. And witness how the fights were taking place." A guy who bought the boat used to blow up the USS Cole with money he personally borrowed from Osama Bin Laden. (He claims it was for a fishing venture and that he severed ties with Bin Laden when the latter suggested using the boat for an attack.) A guy who, despite denying any involvement in terrorist activities, had close contacts with just about everyone who's blown up a bomb in the vicinity of an American target in the past 10 years.
Seems like the kind of solid case that's a pretty safe bet in a legitimate legal proceeding. Indeed, it's the kind of solid case that has already landed convictions for other terrorists, including one who's cited in the charges against Al Nashiri.
But put him in a closed-door military tribunal, without a lawyer or any non-military personnel present, after five years of coercive interrogation that most everyone in the world besides the Bush administration considers torture, and he comes off sounding pretty reasonable, even a little sympathetic.
It's all downside, with no upside. And what's worse, any future attempts to re-route these cases through the legal system will now be permanently tainted by the allegations of torture and the lack of due process.
That's the real legacy behind the tough-talking rhetoric of the Bush administration: An ill-conceived, counter-productive, inflammatory approach to terrorism that's done as much for the enemy as the combatants it's supposed to confront.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Al Qaeda's Company Man
Another transcript of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings was released today, this time for Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi. The charges against him, listed separately here, really demonstrate what I was talking about in this post when I said that the most valuable information for a counterterrorism operation is network data that brings the structure of the enemy organisation and the identities of the people who comprise it into focus.
If the charges against him are true, Al Hawsawi was basically a financial hub for the terrorist network, routing money to and from operatives in the field, as well as keeping records of expense accounts and expenditures. Not quite the image of the menacing terrorist we're used to seeing in "24". In mob terms, he was a bean counter, not a capo. But as such, far more valuable to the effort to crack the Al Qaeda organigram.
Another point with regards to the "ticking bomb" scenario. A good deal of the incriminating evidence against him consists of wire transfers he received from the 9/11 terrorists in the days preceding the attack (presumably they were repatriating excess expense account funds). But as this exchange demonstrates, although the 9/11 cell was among those he was responsible for, operational details were highly compartmentalized (in the transcripts, "Member" refers to a member of the military tribunal):
Member: You found out on the 10th of Septmeber there would be an operation.
Translator: (Translation of above).
Member: On the 11th of September you flew back and heard of the attacks in New York City and Pentagon (sic).
Translator: (Translation of above).
Member: What was your reaction when you realized that you were part of that operation?
Translator: (Translation of above).
Detainee (through translator): In the beginning I was surprised by the size of the operation. It was mostly a surprise to me.
Member: No more questions sir (sic).
In other words, the bad guys have heard about the "ticking bomb" scenario, too. And they've taken measures to lessen their vulnerability to it.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire
Meanwhile, as this BBC article shows, sometimes releasing detainees from Gitmo is not the humane thing to do:
Seven Russians detained at Guantanamo Bay suffered torture or other abuse after they were repatriated by the US, human rights campaigners say...
The seven were repatriated with a guarantee that they would be treated humanely, the group said...
According to the report, all seven men had repeatedly asked the US authorities not to return them to Russia because they expected to be treated worse there...
"The Russian experience shows why 'diplomatic assurances' simply don't work," said the report's author, Carroll Bogert...
Human Rights Watch says it wants Guantanamo detainees to have the opportunity to challenge their transfer before an impartial body.
As much as it offends the American conscience, compared to many parts of the world Gitmo is a model prison. That doesn't by any means justify the abuses that go on there. But amidst our outrage, we should remember to be proud of just how high our standards in this country are.
Update: Here's another article on the Human Rights Watch report, from The Independent, which kind of knocks the wind out of that sense of pride I was talking about:
The Kremlin and the United States have been accused of flouting international law in a report which tells the little-known story of seven Russian men freed from Guantanamo Bay...
The New York-based rights organisation said Washington knew that the men would face torture at the hands of the Russian authorities but accepted the flimsy diplomatic assurances offered by Moscow.
"The US government knew that these men would likely be tortured, and sent them back to Russia anyway," the report said.
There's also this from the BBC, about a British resident/Iraqi national soon to be released from Gitmo. He's been there five years, and in isolation for the past year. None of which prevented British MP Edward Davey from stating categorically that,
...Everything he had learned from Mr al-Rawi's family, lawyers and government officials showed he was not and never had been a "threat to national or international security".
Oh, well. One out of three... ain't so good.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Making Torture Hurt... The Torturers
A US District Judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by nine former prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan to hold Donald Rumsfeld and several military officers accountable for torture, abuse, and illegal interrogation practices they suffered while in American custody. According to this WaPo article, the judge maintained that "...Rumsfeld cannot be held personally responsible for actions taken in connection with his government job":
No matter how appealing it might seem to use the courts to correct allegations of severe abuses of power, Hogan wrote, government officials are immune from such lawsuits.
Now I understand the logic of not holding a government official accountable for actions taken by his staff that he was unaware of. After all, that would certainly have a chilling effect on people's willingness to serve in government. But this particular lawsuit makes the claim that, a) Rumsfeld was aware of the abuse, and ignored the warnings, and b) that he authorized illegal interrogation practices that violated the prisoners constitutional & human rights. I'm not a lawyer, but that strikes me as just the sort of thing that government officials are in fact held accountable for.
The lawsuit brings a factual claim that seems to my layperson's eye to meet the standard for government malfeasance. If Rumsfeld can rebut it, by all means, let him. But the lawsuit should proceed.
In a bitter irony, on the same day the suit was dismissed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak presented his annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva:
Mr Nowak said torture victims required long and costly treatment, and usually rich nations footed the bill rather than the offending states...
"Countries where torture is widespread or even systematic should be held accountable to pay," the UN rapporteur said.
Mr Nowak suggested that such states could then even pass the bill on to the individual torturers.
"If individual torturers would have to pay all the long-term costs, this would have a much stronger deterrent effect on torture than some kind of disciplinary or lenient criminal punishment..."
He also called for the application of a provision for universal jurisdiction within the UN convention against torture, which obliges countries to arrest alleged torturers who arrive on their territory.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
When the Military Commisions Act was passed last October, it mandated a Presidential Executive Order to provide the legal framework for acceptable interrogation practices by the CIA in their network of black hole detention centers for terrorist detainees. According to the Times, that framework has still not yet been elaborated. One of the reasons for the delay are the new players at Defense, the CIA, and in the White House Counsel's office. But while there's reason to hope that the outcome will be more restrictive guidelines, there's also a good deal of skepticism that they will ultimately prohibit torture.
Reading through the detainee transcripts coming out of Gitmo these past few weeks has already triggered a lot of reflection about torture for me. This audio slide show from Slate about Gitmo, along with the Times article cited above, makes me want to share some of them, even if they're by no means fully developed. The fairly mechanical arguments stem from the fact that there are obviously persuasive limits to moral outrage, otherwise there would be no need to have this debate.
People who try to justify the use of torture generally focus on the "ticking bomb" scenario. But in reality this type of situation is so rare as to be meaningless as an argument. The most valuable data for a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operation, and the goal of all interrogations, whether coercive or not, is network data: information that gives a clearer picture of the structure of the enemy organisation, and the identities of the people who comprise it. Confessions are only useful insomuch as they reveal operational mechanisms that were previously unknown.
But the "ticking bomb" argument does reveal at least one assumption in all apologias for torture: the idea that somehow we can be certain beyond any doubt that the detainee is guilty. No one, so far as I've read, advocates the use of torture to go fishing for information. Unfortunately, we already know of at least one case where an individual was unlawfully kidnapped, secreted off to a black hole detention center, tortured, and then released when it became obvious he was the victim of mistaken identity: Khaled el Masri.
The problem is that when you start with an absolute certainty that someone is guilty, as indeed you must in order to justify the use of torture, it makes it all but impossible to admit the possibility that they are telling the truth when they claim they're innocent. Now let's imagine that Khaled el Masri had not been able to maintain his innocence throughout his interrogation. When he finally cracked, offering up whatever name he could think of to simply bring his suffering to an end, what do you think would have happened next? Another detainee would have been kidnapped and secreted to a black hole detention center, guilty beyond any doubt and therefore eligible for torture. Except that like el Masri, they would just happen to be innocent.
It's not true that torture never produces actionable intelligence. There are circumstances under which a certain technique, used at a certain time, on a certain suspect, will cause a guilty detainee to divulge a piece of useful information. And there are others when an innocent detainee will resist until the error is recognized. But torture never produces reliable intelligence, because it's impossible to know when those circumstances arise. Guilty detainees might resist. And innocent detainees might not.
It's been pointed out that apart from the young men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, the American people have been asked to sacrifice nothing for these wars. I propose that we start by sacrificing certainty: the certainty of guilt that permits torture to even be considered. And the certainty of security in whose name we've abandoned our most lofty principles. The statement we would make by fearlessly embracing our principles even though it might make us more vulnerable to attack would be more valuable in the fight against terror than anything we might learn from the use of torture against our enemies.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Failed States & The War On Terror
In his Enemy Combatant Status review hearing, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is accused of being a member of the terrorist cell that carried out the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, admitted to having spent three months at an al-Qaeda training camp. When asked why he had gone to the camp, which he described as having an open-door policy, here's what he said:
Because I am from Africa, and ah- my country it was our neighbors countries, most of them have problems. And those who get most problems, who don't have military training. So I wanted this for self-defense. Because in Tanzania, we didn't have any problem but our neighbors, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and other countries. They have problems.
The causal relationship between poverty and terrorism is overblown. But the one between failed states and terrorism isn't. Unfortunately, we're too busy creating more failed states to seriously address the ones that already exist as a critical component of a global anti-terrorism strategy.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Playdate For Cheney
Looks like Dick Cheney's got someone to play with in the padded rec room after all. In a WSJ Opinion piece, Edward Jay Epstein claims that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession raises new questions about the link between... You guessed it: Saddam and al-Qaeda. Here's Epstein playing Columbo:
In his confession, however, KSM says that he was responsible for the  WTC bombing. If so, both it and 9/11 are the work of the same mastermind--and the planning, financing and support network that KSM used in the 1993 attack may be relevant to the 9/11 attack. Of especial interest are the escape routes used by Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ramzi Yousef, both of whom helped prepare the bomb and then fled America.
Yasin... came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1992, at about the same time as Yousef, and then returned to Iraq via Jordan. Despite being indicted for the World Trade Center bombing, and put on the FBI's list of the most-wanted terrorist fugitives with a $5 million price on his head (increased to $25 million after 9/11), Iraqi authorities allowed Yasin to remain in Baghdad for 10 years. (In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, he disappeared.)
Epstein goes on to describe how the other bomb-maker for the 1993 attack, Ramzi Yousef, fled to Pakistan, where he was later caught after taking part in yet another bombing plot. Obviously, no mention is made of Pakistan's possible link to al-Qaeda.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Anne Applebaum, from a WaPo op-ed about the damage done to American credibility by its treatment of GWOT detainees:
This is concrete proof, as if more were needed, that it is not merely immoral to operate outside the rule of law; it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive: There is no proof that it produces better information but plenty of evidence that it has discredited the United States. Indeed, there could be no more eloquent condemnation of the Bush administration's torture and detention policies than the deafening silence that followed [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed's confession: Who could have imagined, in September of 2001, that one of the deadliest terrorists in history would admit to the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and that the world would shrug its shoulders?
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Somehow I missed this, but US Senators Carl Levin and Lindsay Graham watched Khalid Sheikh Muhhamad's Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing last weekend on closed-circuit television in an adjoining room. It doesn't quite raise the hearings to the level of a legal proceeding (the accused was not allowed a lawyer, and the press was not permitted). But the fact that that there were witnesses who were neither uniformed military officers nor members of the Bush administration is the most reassuring thing I've read about them to date.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
That Was Quick
After Khalid Sheikh Muhhamad confessed last weekend to being responsible for a long list of crimes, ranging from the 9/11 attacks to the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl, some people speculated that he might be adding ballast to his own already sinking ship in order to cover for other guilty parties. Today the AP reported that the lawyer for Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born extremist convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 by Pakistan for Pearl's murder, will be seeking an appeal based on Muhhamad's confession.
Friday, March 16, 2007
Something's Got To Give
The NY Times ran an article on the problematic legal implications of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's wide-ranging confession in particular, and the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings in general. Here's John Yoo, formerly the Bush administration's legal guru on torture and the Geneva Conventions, defending them both:
“K.S.M.’s statements show that he in fact was and is a treasure trove of intelligence information on Al Qaeda,” Professor Yoo said, referring to Mr. Mohammed by his initials. “He knew not just of past plots to attack the United States, but threats that were in motion at the time of his capture, threats that had to be stopped.
"The criminal justice system cannot handle the demand both for an open trial with the right to remain silent and the need to collect that intelligence and act on it swiftly and secretly."
In other words, we can't realistically hold a fair trial and deprive the suspects of their right to remain silent. So obviously, it's the fair trial that goes. Which in turn raises the question of just how you deprive someone of their right to remain silent without resorting to torture.
Friday, March 16, 2007
I read through the redacted transcript of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing pretty closely when it was released two days ago, to write up this post, as well as this one. So I was surprised to read on ABC's The Blotter yesterday that he had confessed to beheading reporter Daniel Pearl:
"I decapitated with blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," Mohammed said in a written declaration submitted to a military tribunal at Guantanamo last weekend.
Because in the version I'd read, while he'd mentioned Pearl in his rambling closing remarks, he had by no means taken responsibility for his murder. For a moment I wondered whether my memory was serving correctly, or if I could have possibly read past a quote like that. Until I found this in the NY Times article on his hearing:
Though Mr. Mohammed referred to Mr. Pearl in passing in the transcript, he did not confess to the killing.
The mystery was cleared up when I went to double check the transcript and found this notation next to the link: New - Transcript of CSRT (KSM) Hearing (Revised as of 3/15/2007). And sure enough, when I clicked through, the written statement Muhammad filed with the tribunal now read as quoted in The Blotter above.
Noah Shachtman's got a lengthy rundown of some of the debate surrounding the credibility of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession over on his Danger Room blog. After all, it's to be expected that an international terrorist might engage in misinformation, both to cover the tracks of the guilty parties, but also to inflate the impact of his image.
But when a heavily redacted transcript of a quasi-legal proceeding is later revised, it raises the question of potential abuse of the proceedings for purposes of misinformation by the US government. Which is the very reason that most critics of the tribunals have argued for more transparent proceedings based on the legal principles of the American judicial tradition.
I emphasize that I am not advancing a moral equivalency argument. There's no comparison between Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and the US government. It's apples and oranges.
But this is Public Relations 101. To try these guys in a Court of Star Chamber only provides propaganda fodder for our enemies by creating martyred heroes, and emboldens them as much if not more than domestic opposition to the Iraq War might. That we're repeating the same mistake mere months after the Saddam Hussein execution debacle is inexcusable.
Update: According to the NY Times, the military blamed the original redaction of the Pearl confession on the need to notify the family. I'm skeptical, if only for the fact that the hearing took place on Saturday, March 10th while the the original transcript wasn't released until Wednesday, March 14th.
Friday, March 16, 2007
If You Can't Walk The Walk
As you might have gathered, I've discovered an entertaining new hobby: Scouring government reports for egregious examples of idiocy and/or hypocrisy. Happily, there's no shortage of either.
To be fair, though, there are also plenty of examples of sound reasoning and insightful analysis. Take the most recent (although obviously dated) National Security Strategy issued by the Bush administration in February 2006. There's a pretty solid rundown of some of the myths and realities surrounding the causes of terrorism:
To wage this battle of ideas effectively, we must be clear-eyed about what does and does not give rise to terrorism:
- Terrorism is not the inevitable by-product of poverty...
- Terrorism is not simply a result of hostility to U.S. policy in Iraq...
- Terrorism is not simply a result of Israeli-Palestinian issues...
- Terrorism is not simply a response to our efforts to prevent terror attacks... Indeed, the terrorists are emboldened more by perceptions of weakness than by demonstrations of resolve...
The terrorism we confront today springs from:
- Political alienation...
- Grievances that can be blamed on others. The failures the terrorists feel and see are blamed on others, and on perceived injustices from the recent or sometimes distant past...
- Sub-cultures of conspiracy and misinformation. Terrorists recruit more effectively from populations whose information about the world is contaminated by falsehoods and corrupted by conspiracy theories...
- An ideology that justifies murder. Terrorism ultimately depends upon the appeal of an ideology that excuses or even glorifies the deliberate killing of innocents...
I'd quibble a bit with bit about terrorists being "...emboldened more by perceptions of weakness than by demonstrations of resolve...": The Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism over the past forty years proves conclusively that the target's posture has little to no bearing on the terrorist's boldness. But I can live with the rest. The problem arises in the paragraph that follows:
Defeating terrorism in the long run requires that each of these factors be addressed. The genius of democracy is that it provides a counter to each.
- In place of alienation, democracy offers an ownership stake in society, a chance to shape one’s own future.
- In place of festering grievances, democracy offers the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the habits of advancing interests through compromise.
- In place of a culture of conspiracy and misinformation, democracy offers freedom of speech, independent media, and the marketplace of ideas, which can expose and discredit falsehoods, prejudices, and dishonest propaganda.
- In place of an ideology that justifies murder, democracy offers a respect for human dignity that abhors the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians. (Emphasis added.)
Don't get me wrong, I am not advancing a moral equivalency argument, or claiming that America is anywhere near becoming a police state. But the hypocrisy needle obviously hits the red when you've got the Bush administration vaunting the benefits of:
- The rule of law;
- The peaceful resolution of disputes;
- And information transparency to counter conspiracy and misinformation.
I understand that these kinds of documents function largely as propaganda devices. But propaganda is very rarely persuasive in the face of evidence to the contrary. Especially when directed at popular opinion that is overtly skeptical, if not hostile, to the propaganists, both of which are now the case among the Islamic world, both Arab and Asian. If the War on Terrorism is really a war of ideas, as the Bush administration (rightly) claims, then consistency matters.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
What's In A Name
George M. Cohan (1878-1942):
I don't care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.
Whodini, Big Mouth (1984):
Well you can say whatcha want but spell my name right.
Sheikh Khalid Muhammad, Gitmo CSRT transcript (2007):
Lastly, my name is misspelled in the Summary of Evidence. It should be S-h-a-i-k-h or S-h-e-i-k-h, but not S-h-a-y-k-h, as it is in the subject line.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
The Language Of War
The Pentagon just released the redacted, unclassified transcript of Khalid Sheik Muhammad's Enemy Combatant Status Review. It makes for some pretty fascinating reading, if only for how banal the whole thing comes across on paper. All the emotion of 9/11 and its aftermath, including two wars and the resulting national upheaval, reduced to the dry back and forth of a legal proceeding. (With the exception being that in most court transcripts, the names of the judge and officers aren't redacted.)
I could talk about the summary way in which the presiding JAG denied Muhammad's witnesses. Or the Kafka-esque effect of seeing the following in an American legal proceeding:
I certify the material contained in this transcript is a true and accurate verbatim rendering of the testimony and English language translation of Detainee's words given during the open session of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal of ISN 10024.
CAPT JAGC USN
But the upshot is that Muhammad confessed to being responsible for planning and organizing the 9/11 attacks, as well as a long list of other terrorist attacks and assassination attempts (Bill Clinton, Pakistani President Musharraf & Pope John Paul II). He called death "the language of war", and regretted killing innocents, but claimed it was no different from America targetting the homes of terrorist leaders while their families were present. He also claimed, in a written statement that was filed but only briefly mentioned, that he'd been tortured.
Muhammad was responsible for both military planning and media operations, and it's striking how capable he was in both regards. One of the targets he admitted to planning for was the Panama Canal, which is about as well-chosen a target as I can think of in terms of its combination of low profile and high impact.
And in his defense he pointed out that were George Washington to have been captured by the British, they would have labelled him an enemy combatant. Which doesn't stop us from calling him a hero.
We sometimes fall prey, I think, to picturing our enemies as a bunch of backwards guys in caves reciting verses from the Koran. But if we can learn anything from Khalid Sheik Muhammad, it's that these guys are pretty competent at what they do. More so, from the looks of things, than some of the guys who've been running gonzo operations out of the Pentagon and OVP for the past six years.
And like it or not, there are a lot of people throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and Southeast Asia who think of them as heros. We'd do well to start integrating that into our conception of how to defeat them, so that two hundred years from now no one's calling Khalid Sheik Muhammad a Muslim George Washington.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
That's A Dis
Last Thursday, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights, detailing the human rights practices of 196 countries around the world. In response, the Chinese Information Office of the State Council published its own report, titled The Human Rights Record of the US in 2006, which focuses on the human rights practices of, predictably enough, the United States.
Crime, poverty, racial discrimination, political corruption, judicial misconduct and malfeasance, prison conditions, and police brutality all figure prominently. But the coup de grace is undoubtedly the section that focuses on the human rights abuses involved with the Global War on Terror. The Chinese report concludes:
The United States has lorded it over other countries by condemning other countries' human rights practices while ignoring its own problems, which exposes its double standard and hegemonism on the human rights issue. We urge the U.S. government to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.
Remember when it was easy to write a reply like that off as wooden propaganda?
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number
There's something chillingly Kafka-esque about this from McClatchy:
The Defense Department said Tuesday that hearings for 14 "high-value detainees," including the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, will start Friday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that reporters would be barred from the procedures.
The 14 were held in secret CIA prisons for up to four years, and none is known to have appeared before a hearing of any sort before the group was transferred to Guantanamo in September. Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the 14 were tortured while in CIA detention.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at a news briefing that the hearings will be closed "based on national security concerns." He promised to release censored transcripts "as expeditiously as we can," but said officials had decided not to provide the names of the suspects, even after the transcripts have been released...
The hearings, which also exclude attorneys, are likely to be the prelude to a decision by President Bush to try the 14 men before military commissions that Congress established last year.
No reporters. No lawyers. No names. And, of course, no doubt as to the outcome. Really, if this is what it's finally come to, what's the point? Other than to intimidate and, yes, to terrorize, I mean. What purpose does this entire excercise serve anymore?
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Robin Hood? Or Scarface?
From The Army Times comes the story of Spc. Luke Sommer, an Army Ranger who used his $20,000 re-enlistment bonus to finance a bank heist that he and four buddies, two of them fellow Rangers, pulled off with "military-style precision." That is, unless you ignore the part about a witness jotting down the getaway car's license plate number, allowing the FBI to track down the car the following morning parked inside the gated compound of Fort Lewis, WA. They quickly bagged evidence of the crime and four of the five suspects.
Sommer, a dual American-Canadian citizen who's fighting extradiction from Canada, claims the robbery was intended as a publicity stunt to call attention to war crimes he witnessed while on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Asst. US Attorney handling the case claims that e-mails and IMs found on Sommers seized computer reveal a plan to use the proceeds from the robbery to finance a criminal organization in Canada.
The case is interesting for more than just the intrigue of Somers' claims, which in all likelihood won't keep him from doing time. It raises the question of what impact the Iraq War will have on the generation that's fighting it.
For a while I've thought that the practical (as opposed to the ethical and moral) problem with torture once it's practiced by American agents abroad is that, sooner or later, the torturers come home. Same goes for occupying a foreign country. Eventually the occupiers come home, too. And at least some of them will return with the sense of omnipotence that being young, armed and all-powerful can instill.
That's why traditionally democracies make lousy occupying powers (the obvious exceptions being the post-War occupation of Germany and Japan), and why occupations so often corrupt democracies.
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Tomorrow's Al-Qaeda Today
For a clearer look at how the new American regional strategy for the Middle East described in the Seymour Hersh piece will play out, check out this report from Iraq Slogger. The Mujahiden e-Khalq is an armed Iranian opposition group that operated out of Iraq with the full support of Saddam Hussein. Designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US, they were disarmed and their bases dismantled after the 2003 invasion as a gesture of evenhandedness towards Iran, to say nothing of consistency with our own stated terrorism policies. But all that seems to have changed now:
The Sadrist Nahrain Net website reports increased contacts between Jordanian and Saudi authorities and the Iranian Mujahiden e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group in the Jordanian capital, according to sources in the Iraqi Accord Front. Immigration officials at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman received instructions from the Jordanian Interior Minister last month to facilitate the entry and movement of MEK members carrying Iraqi and foreign passports, the website said, adding that the MEK has opened an official branch in Amman following a recommendation from the CIA to Jordanian authorities. The website also quotes unnamed Arab diplomats in Amman, who said that Saudi Arabia has also made a decision to embrace and fund Iranian opposition groups, such as the MEK, the Balochistani Jund Allah Movement and Ahwazi Arab groups, in an attempt to face the rising Iranian influence in the region. Encouraged by U.S. officials, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan had met with an MEK delegation and promised them full support, the diplomats said.
Remember, the US is currently isolating Syria for, among other things, harboring headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, which can both arguably claim to have political wings in addition to their armed terrorist sections. Now we're involved in the same tactics. Shortsighted at best. Shameful at worst.
Friday, March 2, 2007
Let's You And Him Fight?
I'm not sure where this fits in, but it does seem to resonate with the Seymour Hersh story I mentioned the other day. Apparently Israeli and Western intelligence agencies are worried about a growing concentration of Sunni global jihadists in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre. The main concern, obviously, is the potential for attacks against Israel, Jordan, and the UN peacekeeping forces stationed in southern Lebanon.
But the article goes on to mention some tensions between the groups and Hezbollah, resulting from their sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) differences, and also from Hezbollah's insistance on veto-power over all locally-staged operations. Hersh suggested that the new American strategy in the region was to encourage the latter (internecine turf wars), and trust the Saudis to contain the former (any collateral damage to ourselves and our allies).
Looks like we'll see how that little gamble turns out soon enough.
Friday, March 2, 2007
Now That Wasn't So Hard, Was It?
A "Senior Administration Official" flies out to Pakistan to warn Gen. Musharraf that unless he gets serious about cracking down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda camps on the Afghan frontier, he can expect some serious consequences from the newly-Democratic Congress. Three days later, Pakistan announces the capture of the highest-level Taliban to date, the former Defense Minister and a senior leader in the Afghan insurgency, Mullah Obaidullah.
Good thing the GOP is the party of national security.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
More War Powers
Reading through the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act again, there's also this: A requirement for a Presidential determination that,
...acting pursuant to this resolution is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorists attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.
I'm not a constitutional scholar, or a legislative specialist, so I don't know whether this is further grounds to repeal the act. But it seems like a pretty strong argument could be made that this has not been the case.
Saturday, February 24, 2007
I noticed the headlines last week about the Friendship Express rail bombing in northern India, and I vaguely registered the Indian and Pakistani governments' reaction to it. But it wasn't until this morning that it occured to me what a remarkable story this really is.
Both India and Pakistan recognized that the bombing targeted the peace process between the two nations as much as the civilian victims of the attack. They responded by not only jointly condemning the violence, but by announcing an agreement that limits the risk of accidental nuclear war between them. They also called for renewed cooperation in rooting out the extremist gorups responsible for the violence.
It's important to hold governments accountable for their efforts, or lack thereof, to control terrorists operating from within their borders. And India didn't shy away from complaining, albeit delicately, about Pakistan's lackluster performance. But when negotiations are conditioned on the total eradication of terrorist attacks, it allows extremists of all stripes to exert a disproportionate influence on the peace process.
India and Pakistan didn't allow that to happen. Hopefully other countries whose efforts towards peace have been derailed by the violence of a relative few will take notice.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Lock And Load (And Cross Your Fingers)
I remember reading in James Gibson's "The Perfect War: Technowar In Vietnam" that as far back as that conflict, the M16 was notorious for being a lightweight and accurate rifle that jammed and failed often. Apparently, the same is true for the M4 rifle which was introduced in the early Nineties.
Which is why starting in 2002, members of an elite Special Forces unit teamed up with a German light arms manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, to design and field test a combat assault rifle, the H&K 416, that has proven to be significantly more reliable than either the M4 or the M16 while remaining cost competitive. It's been production-ready since 2004, and the Delta Force members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are already outfitted with them.
But the Army has ruled out issuing them to the general infantry, citing the cost -- $1 billion -- of replacing the entire fleet of M16's and M4's as prohibitive. And they've ordered 100,000 more M4's for 2008, even though a 2001 Special Operations Command study found that it suffered from an "obsolete operating system," and a 2006 Army reliability test found that brand new, off the shelf M4's & M16's misfired every 5,000 rounds in laboratory conditions, compared to every 15,000 rounds for the H&K 416.
So the next time the GOP talks about supporting our troops, someone might mention that a good place to start would be with rifles that actually fire when you pull the trigger.
Monday, February 19, 2007
The New York Times:
As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of Al Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization’s hierarchy as intact and strengthening.
“The chain of command has been re-established,” said one American government official, who said that the Qaeda “leadership command and control is robust.”
Both al-Qaeda and the United States have diminished strategic capabilities compared to six years ago. The difference being that they've turned the corner and are now getting stronger. And the damage they sustained wasn't self-inflicted.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Absolute Power Zones
The Times has got this article describing the two years an Iraqi Sunni spent in an American detention facility. Needless to say, it ain't pretty: stun guns, exposure to cold and heat, 24 days in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell.
Now, this is the kind of story that, sadly, I think we've all grown somewhat accustomed to hearing about. Often it's used to condemn America's slow slide into a torture-sponsoring state, and rightly so. But I'd like to put it into a slightly different context.
Because as much as this kind of abuse has to do with official American policy, it also has to with the fundamental danger of creating environments where one or several individuals have absolute, unchecked power over the physical person of another. What I call in the title of this post, Absolute Power Zones.
Whether it's American soldiers abusing detainees in the GWOT, or Russian soldiers forcing younger recruits into male prostitution, or American prisoners raping other prisoners, the common thread is the existence of physical perimeters within which there is no oversight. Where society is either unable or unwilling to restrain the strong and protect the weak. With the result that there is nothing to limit the victimization of the latter by the former.
The abuses that take place within them might originate in the darker regions of human nature. But they are exacerbated by institutions that manipulate, encourage, or overlook them.
State-sponsored torture is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. A particularly egregious example, because of the state's singular responsibilities as holder of the "monopoly of legitimate violence". But as long as we countenance legal black holes of any kind, disavowing state-sanctioned torture won't be enough.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Not Guilty By Reason Of Inhumanity
By all accounts, Jose Padilla was a man who excercised poor judgment in the company he kept. But was he in fact a dangerous terrorist when he was arrested in May 2002, as the Bush administration claims? A lot is riding on the answer to that question, not least of which is Padilla's liberty.
Unfortunately, we may never know, because according to his lawyers, three years and eight months in the Navy brig at Charleston, SC, have rendered him mentally incompetent to stand trial:
The prisoner lived in isolation in a cell with only a steel slab for a bed. At times chained to the floor, he was deprived of light, sleep, a clock and heat. His interrogators injected him with "truth serum" drugs to try to loosen his tongue and threatened him with execution.
The Bush administration's lawyers (normally I'd say "the government", but in this case I refuse to) disputes the claims, both of mistreatment and of Padilla's incompetence to stand trial. And given the very low bar set for mental incompetence in criminal law, the court's ruling may very well go their way. But it says alot about the steady erosion of their credibility, both in this case and others like it, that Padilla's claims could even be entertained as possible, or worse, likely.
This is not an episode of 24. This is the United States of America. At least it was. I'm not so sure, anymore.
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Bush Knows Money Laundering
That's funny. Foreign Policy just conducted a survey of 100 experts on the GWOT, something they call the Terrorism Index. And the area where the experts gave the Bush administration its highest marks was in the effort to track down and freeze the terrorists' money trail through the international banking system:
"It’s worth remembering that this was the one area where the 9/11 Commission gave an A-level grade to the Bush administration. They were savvy to leverage earlier initiatives to combat financial abuse, apply them to terrorist financing, and secure broad international support," says index participant Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Apparently they know a thing or two about how to shuttle money back and forth without setting off any regulatory alarms. I guess corruption in Washington isn't all bad.