Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ category

Torture as American Policy

June 22, 2007

Seymour Hersh has long been the conscience of America’s foreign and military policy. It has not earned him much credit with our military. Nor is his reporting always above reproach. But he has played a necessary, perhaps ever more necessary role.

In the June 25 New Yorker, Hersh zeroes in on the efforts of General Taguba to look into and report fairly on the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and, by extension, at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Taguba had been asked by the Pentagon to investigate what went on in Abu Ghraib, and who knew what when.

Taguba’s conclusions were that events at Abu Ghraib were well known all along. In fact, they had brought an expert from Guantanamo to introduce some of the measures used at Abu Ghraib. There were copious photos available for people at many levels to see and they had been ignored or dismissed. His conclusion was that what went on at Abu Ghraib was part of a pattern and not an isolated aberration by underlings.

However, on repeated occasions, before committees of Congress and elsewhere, Taguba was contradicted, put down, and dismissed. The brass above him simply lied about what they knew and what had come up to their level months before it all became public. In spite of the fact Taguba had done exactly the job he was asked to do, he was sidelined for the next two years and asked to resign early. They do shoot the messenger.

But it is more than that. Top persons in the government, presumably including the President and the Vice-President, although Taguba’s research did not actually go to these levels, appear to have concluded early on that “do whatever you have to do” was to be the guiding principal behind interrogations. What we saw in the pictures was, at least in part, the result of an deliberate policy of getting the military police and jail keepers to “soften up” prisoners so that information could be more readily extracted from them. There was, incidentally, little or no attempt to investigate whether the individual prisoners softened up were at all likely to have the information that was to be extracted from them.

Our campaign against al-Qaeda and the Islamists has been seriously compromised by our treatment of prisoners in the eyes of much of the world. This is not to say, that extreme situations do not require extreme solutions. It is to say that we must take much more seriously than we have the establishment and adherence to acceptable limits on the way in which we treat those who comes into our control.


Counterinsurgency and Airplanes

June 22, 2007

We hear once again of a “mistake” in Afghanistan. In the midst of a battle against the Taliban in an Afghan village, planes were called in. They destroyed the target. Unfortunately, there were children in the target. This has happened again and again in Afghanistan. It happens frequently in Iraq. The American or NATO troops are few in relation to the size of the country and the dimensions of the insurgencies. Air power is one way in which our side is clearly superior. When our forces are pinned down, there is an irresistible impulse to follow conventional battlefield doctrine and bring in the planes for close ground support. Battles are won.

Yet the local people have long memories, and even those who were not against us before, may now take up arms to avenge their new enemies who come by air.

My advice would be to simply exclude the use of air power to support troops in populated areas. I realize that in the short run, this would be counterproductive. It would be like tying the hands of the troops behind their backs. Yet in the long run, in winning the support of the people without which there is no victory in these contests, it might pay off. At least it should be looked into.

I realize that there would still be unwanted civilian casualties. But I believe they would be greatly reduced. The soldiers on the ground would be much more able to react to signs that the targets were not what they thought they were.

It is argued that al-Qaeda and Taliban deliberately mix civilians in with their militias, sometimes using compulsion. We cannot avoid this. But we can strive harder to avoid falling into the moral traps they set.

Blood in the Sand

June 5, 2007

The more we learn about Iraq, the less we seem to know. Americans try to get between the killers and their prey while many Iraqis want to kill Americans so that they can go back to killing one another. Of course, all Iraqis are not like this. But many of those who are not are long gone from the country, leaving behind an ever more warped populace.

In Sunday’s NYT “Week in Review” section, the reporter Edward Wong tells us that Iraqis have long been famous in the region for desiring a particular outcome in their conflicts, an outcome that is described by the word “sahel”. Sahel means the absolute destruction of opponents, followed by the complete destruction and humiliation of their bodies. The hanging of Americans in Falluja was by no means a fluke. It was SOP.

Wong’s conversations with Iraqis suggest that many feel this way about their enemies. They do not intend to rest until they have completely destroyed them. Even if they belong to a minority like the Sunnis, they feel that their honor demands that they strive persistently and unwaveringly toward destroying their foes. The Sunnis are convinced that they are meant to rule, and the Shi’a are trash from which the country must be cleansed. The Shi’as see themselves as humiliated and violated for centuries. It is past time for them to wreak their vengeance. Both groups see Kurds as unimportant people meant to be ruled. The Kurds, on the other hand, have their own grievances and unsatisfiable aspirations.

In this context, the American hope that the factions will tire of the conflict seems unlikely to be realized. All sides see death as strengthening their cause, either the death of their own or of the enemy. And the more horrible the deaths on either side, the more they fire the desires, self-righteousness and hatred of those still alive.

We should add to this the general Iraqi view that Americans are weak and unreliable. They are unreliable because they do not have the depth of feeling of the Iraqis. Whatever schedule we might have for leaving, we will leave, so many Iraqis feel they can just wait us out. But the last few days suggest that they are not willing to wait bloodlessly. They want to kill us to encourage our departure, but also because they just like to kill whomever they have defined as the enemy. And they want to kill one another to position themselves for the real struggle that will follow.

One should add that the Shi’a mistrust the coalition because outsiders have always abandoned them, and they see our real allegiance to be to the Sunni countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Sunnis mistrust us because our supposed dedication to “democracy” produces a system that favors the Shi’a. Neither side has any concept of sharing or compromise. The Kurds mistrust us because we have repeatedly abandoned them after encouraging their efforts, and because they feel our stronger tie is to the Turks in NATO who want nothing to do with an independent Kurdistan.

(In making this summary of Wong, I am leaving aside the much more complex texture of the society in which hatreds and killings often reflect, and reflect intensely, animosities that exist within each of the broad groupings with which we must deal.)

Wong’s analysis does not provide the analytical basis with which analysts generally like to approach conflict. But the continued inability of American forces to reduce the killing of either Iraqis or Americans in the current “surge” must be confounding to the generals. This inability cries out for an analysis that admits we are lost in the bloody sand and don’t know what to do next. Ultimately, the key failure in Iraq has more to do with being there at all and less with failures of strategy, tactics, equipment, or an inadequate number of boots on the ground.

Afghanistan: Less is More

March 21, 2007

Rory Stewart, who works out of Kabul, is presently a guest Op-Ed writer for the New York Times. He has been making a concerted effort to tell us, and the West, to “back off”in Afghanistan. This is very counter-intuitive for me. I was one of those who counseled when we went to Afghanistan after 9/11 to be sure and “do it right” This meant to follow the post-World War II example of what we did in Germany and Japan: massive assistance, total occupation; reeducation on many levels etc. According to this analysis, we sent far too few troops to Afghanistan and spent far too little. We still might have been right, but Stewart makes one wonder. In the present environment of limited resources and reluctant publics in both Europe and America, he is certainly worth listening to.

His basic idea is that the Afghanis simply do not understand the priorities we place on our assistance. They increasingly feel that we have spent a lot of money and accomplished very little. Some are even nostalgic for the return of the Russians. “At least, they built bridges, roads and airports”. Instead of talking in general terms about building democracy or reforming the economy, we should talk to the Afghans more, find out what they really want and need, and help them with that. He finds the Afghans have responded favorably to, “excellent models, from U.N. Habitat to the Aga Khan network, which has restored historic buildings, run rural health projects, and established a five-star hotel and Afghanistan’s mobile telephone network.”. And he speaks of a functioning soap manufacturing business that an American woman has promoted.

In many areas we seem to be fighting the people instead of the terrorists. He finds that in many areas our opponents have no fixed political agenda; they are certainly uninterested in attacking Europe or the United States. He reports a Dutch experience in one area where they found that if left alone, the Taliban defeated themselves with their ideological preaching. He contrasts Dutch inaction to the British offensives in the South which accomplished little besides the alienation of large areas. He asserts that “Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms”.

His conclusion is that we were more correct than we knew when we sent only limited forces into the country after 9/11. We may be making a mistake in trying to reverse this policy. I guess Afghanistan is not Iraq. (Or maybe it is?)

British Withdrawals

February 24, 2007

The announcement that the British intended to evacuate nearly half of their forces cast a gloomy shadow over American plans. Commentators noted that several of the other coalition partners had plans to reduce their forces or leave completely in the near future. These were mostly small symbolic forces, but symbols are important.

Juan Cole tells us in the current Salon online magazine that in leaving Basra the British will be leaving a city that they have simply been unable to control. After a brave effort to bring the militias to heel early on, in recent months they have backed off and let the militias do most of the policing. Cole tells us that the Virtue Party (a Shi’a group with which I am not familiar) and SCIRI (whose leader’s son the U.S. briefly detained on the Persian border) have both infiltrated the police to such an extent that they have divided up most of the city between their militias (in police uniforms). Both of these groups have enforced Taliban-like restrictions on dress, alcohol and so forth. The situation is complicated by the Marsh Arabs, many of whom have emerged in this area as criminal gangs. Most of Iraq’s oil passes through Basra and its environs, and the local warfare is to a large extent over who gets the bulk of the massive pilferage of oil that goes on.

Basra is said to be a completely Shi’a area. Yet at least in the environs there is a tough Sunni community that has strived to preserve its own turf against repeated Shi’a inroads.

Cole points out that nearly all the supplies for the American army in the center of the country must come through the Basra area. As the British presence is reduced, the chance that the militia-police might gradually or abruptly choke off these supply lines must worry the Pentagon. It may force the Americans to place more troops along this supply line. In any event, holding power in this chokepoint increases the bargaining power of SCIRI and other Basra militias on the national scene. SCIRI is very close to the Iranians and is the most likely group to approve of increased Iranian involvement in Iraq. Some months back a reporter in Basra was telling us that the city was essentially in the hands of the Iranians through its client organizations. I have not heard this claim lately, but in the end it may come down to this.

In conclusion, the British withdrawal will be opening the country to even more Iranians presence and pressure. As I have said elsewhere, this certainly seems reasonable from their perspective, but, again, it is not reassuring to Americans who have a rather different perspective.

“The Surge”: Another View

February 23, 2007

Congress is intent on showing up the foolishness of the administration, as exemplified by the sending of more troops to Iraq. Many of my comments have suggested the reasons why the surge is a foolish gamble.

Yet recent reports suggest that there is a chance that I may once again be wrong. There seem to be some successes on the streets of Baghdad. The most likely explanation is that the insurgents and sectarian gangs are doing what always makes sense when facing a heavily armed regular force: get out of the way, lay low, find handy places to hide arms, and wait until the more powerful enemy goes away, as he must do sooner or later.

There are, however, other explanations or at least part explanations. I have repeatedly pointed out how our efforts are undermined by the growth of a natural hatred of the foreign occupier. Yet even this hate can burn out. I think I can detect a possible weariness of the Iraqi citizenry. They are tired of the killing. They want it to all go away. And if the Americans have been part of their problem, more may come reluctantly to agree that they can also be a part of their solution.

Let us break down the situation in terms of some hypotheticals. The population can be divided into activists and passivists. In most revolutionary situations the passivists are the larger group. This is often missed since by their nature they do not want to bring attention on themselves. Their actions and answers to survey questions depend entirely on who is doing the questioning. Their real opinions are kept very much to themselves. The population can also be divided into the Shi’a and Sunni, and lesser groups of Turkomans, Kurds, Christians, and secularists. The Kurds, Christians, and secularists (aside from Baath) have tended from the beginning to support the American cause. The attitude toward the American military of members of other groups will vary as situations vary. In many places, particularly in parts of Baghdad, the Americans have come to be seen by Sunnis as a necessary evil, for they alone are able to defend the Sunnis against the Shi’a, and Shi’a-infested Iraqi police. On the other hand, in some areas, particularly rural areas to the north and south of Baghdad, Shi’as have found themselves under heavy Sunni pressure, or even heavy extremist Shi’a pressure (north of Najaf). In these cases, it is the Shi’a who have been happy to see the Americans intervene.

So the Americans have a role to play in Iraq for those Iraqis who see no other way out of their difficulties. The problem for American commanders becomes then to expand this opening by setting aside larger goals of defeating “the enemy” while confining action to the narrower goal of protecting the people. There just might be a strategy here that would work.

Meanwhile . . .

Afghanistan: Our First Responsibility

February 13, 2007

In the January/February Foreign Affairs Barnett Rubin has summarized in excellent and disheartening detail the problems we face in attempting to stabilize Afghanistan. He asserts that we have not lost yet, but the country is still ours to lose. The importance of winning goes beyond both the welfare of the Afghan people and the maintenance of America’s position in the world. He points out that NATO is now intimately involved in the effort to turn back the Taliban. If it should fail, this will not only harm the United States and NATO, but also seriously set back the effort to make NATO an accepted and viable alternative for bringing order to future situations.

While it is impossible to separate the country from its context, let us begin with the challenges that would be faced even if there were no Taliban. Rubin finds only one major effective institution — the army. Beyond that, the police and the judicial system and local government are all highly corrupt and incompetent. The lack of any believable security and justice for the average person leads to a crushing lack of confidence that makes reconstruction almost impossible. Pervasive corruption makes the distribution of security funds a losing proposition. The only cash crop many Afghans have is opium. It has become much more important than it ever was because of the impossibility of getting more bulky products to the market. This problem is exacerbated by the high price paid for opium because other countries have been much more able to reduce production. Rubin adds that the opium problem is essentially impossible to control as long as the developed world criminalizes opium. The inevitable result of criminalization is high returns for those outside the law, a sphere in which most Afghans reside and will remain for the foreseeable future. The result of the situation is the empowering of “warlords”, which we might define as persons able to act without restraint against those under them. These warlords may be the old fashioned variety or the newer Taliban leaders.

Rubin points out some basic facts that it are easy to forget. The Afghans have been living through what is now a thirty years war. He also reminds us that Afghanistan has suffered from extreme poverty for generations, and it is this poverty that makes any effort by government, before or after this war, almost doomed to failure. Governments just cannot collect the funds that would allow them to do anything outside Kabul.

Yet with all this, his interviews suggest that the people do not want the Taliban back if there is a real alternative.

The other major thrust of Rubin’s article is that no insurgency has ever been overcome when there is an outside country willing to maintain a steady supply of insurgents. No matter how many we kill, there will be more. He explains that Islamabad supports the Taliban as part of a long-term strategy that we at one time seconded of opposing India at every opportunity. Strange as it may seem, Pakistan’s leading class lives in constant fear that India will “do them in”. In this paranoid vision, India is continually trying to squeeze Pakistan in a pincher between Afghanistan and India. All this goes back to the time of partition when some leaders of the NWFP sided with India and tried to strike out on their own by creating “Pakhtoonistan”. Pakistan saw the hand of India in all this. So its intelligence services took it upon themselves to block India. In recent years this has meant supplying and training the Taliban both within the country and in Afghanistan, as well as support for similar groups in Kashmir. To Pakistan, the American invasion of Afghanistan was a disaster — Rubin reports Islamabad considered going to war with the U.S. to preserve their Taliban ally.

All of which illustrates again that we are mucking around in an area that is almost impossible to understand, with allies and friends all mixed up together in strange relationships.

Nevertheless, Rubin echoes the Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations with Pakistan, as well as the other players. As he points out, we may not like, understand, or agree with the positions of other players, but we cannot simply ignore them. For example, the only way to get the Pakistanis to change their behavior in regard to the Taliban is to give them assurances, even guarantees, that their worst fears will not be realized if they cooperate with us. Even then, we might not succeed, but this is the only shot we have.