Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

“We can’t lose focus” after Bin Laden’s death, said the former Secretary of State, the woman who helped author the most costly loss of focus in the history of America’s fight against terrorism.   Of course, Condi Rice had no earthly idea when she spouted her “mushroom cloud” warning years ago that Saddam Hussein had long given up his nuclear program, that his supposed link with Al Qaeda was a fabrication.  But facts didn’t matter as much back in 2002, when fear-mongering was a powerful tool against a fearful America.  Afghanistan was “pacified” but Bin Laden had slipped away at Tora Bora.  America needed a new target.  Preferably a nation-state that would showcase America’s superior conventional military strength.  Something that had borders and didn’t move, like those pesky, shadowy jihadists who were the ones we were really after.  And so, Iraq became the Bush administration’s Weapon of Mass Distraction from the real objectives of the “War on Terror”: killing and capturing terrorists.  A trillion dollars and 5,000 American lives later, Condi Rice goes on ABC News to warn that we can’t lose focus.

Too late.  Al Qaeda hasn’t been in Afghanistan in sufficient numbers in years.  It’s common knowledge that the organization metastasized long ago into more potent franchises in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa.  Even the top leadership of the Taliban are not in Afghanistan.  The Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar- much like Osama Bin Laden until he was taken out unilaterally- operate under the protection of their government patrons, in Pakistan.  Well then, you ask, why does the West still have 140,000 troops in Afghanistan propping up a Karzai government that is reviled by its own people at a time when corrupt strong men across the Muslim world are being toppled by popular revolutions?  Hmmmm.  Because we’ve already thrown so much blood and treasure at our Afghan investment already?  Because if we withdraw now, the world will think we are weak and unable to finish the job?  Because we don’t want Afghanistan to become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on our country again?

These questions and their very structure are more illuminating than the answers could ever be.  The subject is always “us”, the object, “Afghanistan”, when it should be the other way around if we are looking for viable solutions for, namely, Afghanistan.  Long ago, Afghanistan ceased being about Afghanistan and became more about America and our selfish insecurities as a nation.  The longest war in our nation’s history remains unfocused, unsustainable, and detrimental to our nation’s standing and security in ways that are only now becoming visible.  Only recently, American soldiers have admitted to forming kill teams that have murdered Afghan civilians, claiming body parts as take-home trophies.  It’s tough to reconcile a COIN strategy which emphasizes winning local hearts and minds with testosterone-laden kids who just wanna “get some”, taking matters into their own hands when they can’t do what they were trained to do.  Military and civilian agencies continue to coordinate poorly in an increasingly violent Afghan reconstruction environment and have entirely different plans and priorities for resources.  Mass prison breaks and friendly fire attacks on NATO personnel occur with growing frequency.  The annual cost of the Afghan security forces we are training and equipping dwarfs the entire Afghan national budget.  What part of this is about building a nation that can sustain itself?

All this at a time when the arc of fundamental change in the Muslim world is shifting decisively West, towards the Arab heartland where Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology was born.  This is where the fight against Islamic fundamentalism will be won, in the rejuvenated streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus.  Unfortunately, that struggle for the most part is not kinetic warfare but the hard slog of compromise and negotiation between civil societies and political parties.  Therefore, America isn’t interested.  What’s profitable about civic development?  What congressional district will it create jobs for?  What Pentagon weapon system will it support?  Mercy Corps doesn’t make campaign contributions.


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“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”

It’s good for a laugh.  A cheap laugh.  The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis.  No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population.  Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001?  Really?  Have we become that morally unhinged?  Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11.  Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader.  Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya?  Of course.  No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism.  France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores.  Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum.  Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price.  Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force.  So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause?  Hmmm.  It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.

There is something bigger here.  Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better.  Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state.  On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror.  They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself.  Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.

No longer.  The Arab Street has emerged.  Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”.   Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging.  Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.

Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda?  Why the strange silence  during the region’s most volatile hour in decades?  Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments.  What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure.  Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system?  What would they offer them?  Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran?  Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people.  The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.


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A central objective of U.S. strategy in fragile states like Iraq and Afghanistan is to create an environment conducive to internal groups playing nice, settling their differences through political dialogue and compromise rather than violence and insurgency. Therefore, it was with more than a tinge of irony that the world watched one of America’s arch villains, the firebrand cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, return triumphantly thru politics, not violence, to Iraq from exile in Iran last week. America and its Shi’ite ally Prime Minister Maliki had temporarily silenced Sadr through tactical military force and intimidation by routing his Mahdi army on the streets of Basra and Baghdad years ago, only to now see him return through the ballot box as coalition king maker after the recent parliamentary elections. It seems the mullahs have a thing or two to teach us about playing nice and winning thru party politics.

Our goals in the broader war on extremism are laudable- to work with our local partners and create stable, tolerant societies that aren’t breeding grounds for jihadists. Unfortunately, these goals are also flawed and have rarely been questioned seriously by our leadership after nearly a decade of war and thousands of American body bags. Afghanistan is arguably worse off than it was in 2001 shortly after the invasion, with large percentages of the population having little faith in the Karzai government’s ability to improve their lives. Iraq hovers in a still fragile bubble reminiscent of Lebanon in the years before civil war, with different factions jockeying for leverage all under the watchful eye of a shadowy Iran with increasing influence in the country.

American taxpayers have funded billions in state-of-the-art infrastructure in both countries- schools, hospitals, drainage systems, power plants, even water parks. It’s great to have tangible brick and mortar facilities that enrich the bottom-line of government contractors in corporate America and allow visiting congressmen and aid executives to crow about progress. But if local governments don’t have the capacity, personnel, training, or funds to run these facilities, they mean little for the welfare of a country.


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Hussein was not a dirty word for most American Muslims who watched the first black man inaugurated president two years ago.  The president’s middle name represented a certain hope, not that our new head of state was a closet Muslim, for we all knew better, and, given many of our experiences, we were not advocates for that anyway.  Most of us had to admit that the worst leaders in the Muslim world, both past and present, were and are themselves Muslims.  No, the quiet hope was that this president would understand the complexity and nuance of our particular civilization and history better because he had spent time there, not as an ambassador or a dignitary in a bubble, but as an ordinary young man interacting with the common people.

The beginning was auspicious.   A moving speech in Cairo that lauded Muslim civilization’s past accomplishments but was firm about its deficiencies in the modern era.  A pledge to close a Guatanamo facility that filled the recruiting rolls of Al Qaeda.  Careful deliberations on Iraq and Afghanistan that solidified the long-term goal of ending inconclusive conventional operations in favor of a more nuanced strategy of counter-terror, capacity building and engagement.  The Iranian people were reminded of their great history and that a place was still available for them within the international community, despite the naked duplicity of their leadership.  Israel was forcefully prodded to stop building homes on land the whole world had considered illegally occupied now for over 40 years, an occupation that America’s own military leadership had admitted was a severe liability in the fight against extremism.  Renewed financial support was extended to regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not without conditions, not if they were to continue their corrupt, opaque ways.

Sadly, all of these good beginnings appear to be unraveling today, and Obama I is starting to look more and more like Bush I & II, as powerful, vested interests reassert themselves.  An extended hand across civilizations- in Cairo, towards Tehran- has given way to embarrassing bigotry over mosques and flaming Korans at home.  Meanwhile, Israeli home building begins in ernest once again in occupied Palestine, along with an added snub- an obligatory loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state for Israeli’s Arab citizens, courtesy of the racist wing of the Netanyahu government.  The underlying message to the Muslim masses- whipped up by state sponsored and extremist propaganda machines from Cairo to Qatar: we will lecture you about modernity and secularism at our leisure, but at home and with our allies, anything goes.  This hurts us.


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The dust has yet to settle surrounding the twin revelations of the last several weeks: the Washington Post’s revealing expose on America’s mammoth national security apparatus with its ties to big business and the Wikileaks data dump of classified reporting from the front lines of the spiraling Afghan war.  Taken together, the two episodes cannot but make ordinary Americans wonder what their government is doing behind the scenes, if anyone is in complete control, and how many special interests and adversaries have taken advantage of what seems to be a bureaucracy run amuck.

The facts are incontrovertible: despite the exponential growth of a budget estimated at $75 billion annually since the 9/11 attacks, a comprehensive re-org under a new national security chief executive (with no real authority), and a legion of “more efficient” contractor foot soldiers with top secret clearances, amateurs like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab continue to get into our country with exploding underwear and massive leaks of classified information gush into the public domain.  Is this supposed to make us feel safe?

I’m sorry to say our leaders, from President Obama on down, have their heads in the sand on this one.  The Wikileaks information is portrayed as “nothing new”.  That’s true.  Everyone suspected that the war was going badly, that we couldn’t rely on or trust our Afghan and Pakistani partners, that our under-resourced soldiers were facing a determined enemy.  But to have this message broadcast all over the Internet, to friends and enemies alike, in the words of our own intelligence community?  There is such a thing as the war of ideas, although it does not receive as much attention in Congress or in our budgeting as a shiny new fighter or battleship.  And in the war of ideas, the Wikileaks data dump is a clear victory for our enemies.  Jihadist sympathizers from Yemen to Somalia to Iraq will point to these classified dispatches as proof that the holy war is slowly sapping the strength and resolve of the Americans, just as it was with the Soviets three decades ago.

Meanwhile, the new Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, claims there is nothing wrong with our intelligence community.  It’s not bloated or unwieldy.   Yes, there are redundancies, but those redundancies are somehow necessary.  They give us a strange sort of competitive advantage.  I’m not sure how.  When the ticking bomb is ticking, the last thing we need is a bunch of territorial and secretive bureaucracies, hoarding information, fighting with each other and failing time and time again to connect the dots.  Unfortunately, now that the big boys like  Lockheed and General Dynamics are moving more and more into the “business” of national security, a “less is more” posture is less and less possible.  Who needs to be nimble and lean when billable hours and profits are at stake.

Much has been written and debated in our media about these twin issues, with many of the hard questions posed.  One thing I haven’t seen is any speculation on how the Al Qaeda leadership, hiding in their caves or safe houses, may have reacted to the news.  They must be chuckling to themselves.  Not only because of the short-term media war gains mentioned above.  Perhaps even more important  from their perspective is how the “War on Terror” has changed American society, how our strengths and weaknesses as a civilization have been turned on their heads.  Once upon a time, our openness, diversity, and tolerance were hailed as the reason for our success.  Now, we erect border walls, we create vast government shadow worlds, we justify torture, and we “refudiate” mosques in our neighborhoods.  How much more similar have we become to the societies that gave birth to people like Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, insecure nations prone to smothering their peoples, discouraging transparency, rejecting diversity.  This, unfortunately, is Al Qaeda’s greatest victory.  They have changed us, and while that may have not been one of their overt strategic objectives, it honestly does not matter.

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Hats off to Bob Gates for being a true patriot.  For realizing that the real threat to our national security isn’t a group of angry beards in a Pakistani cave or a gaggle of rogue nations whose combined defense spending doesn’t approach one-tenth of ours, but rather the waste and cozy corruption within our own country.  Most cabinet secretaries jealously guard their resources and territory, resisting any attempts to trim budgets and curtail authority, to reign in the largesse they hand out to private contractors and corporate interests.  Instead, Gates has made it his personal crusade to cut the fat at the Defense Department and give resources back to Congress.  And Congress has refused him.

Congress has refused him?   Trillion dollar deficits, a national debt approaching levels not seen since World War II, an aging population unable to sustain its dependents, and Congress is refusing savings?  Well, if it’s related to defense dollars, and the jobs and political contributions tied to them, then, yes.  A case in point is the “back-up” engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter- a cool half a billion dollar price tag just in case the primary engine for the plane doesn’t measure up.  Doesn’t measure up?  When the government asks you to build something and it doesn’t measure up, then you either fix it or pay the money back, with interest.  But General Electric and Rolls Royce, the corporations who would like to build the back-up engine, don’t see it that way.  They (and their well paid lobbyists in Washington) think the government should hedge its bets and create some “competition” by giving them a piece of the action.  Gates rightly points out that if they wanted a piece of the action, they should have been more competitive in the original tender for the fighter, which was won by Lockheed Martin and its engine partner, Pratt & Whitney.

But this is not how our defense industry or Congress works.  Peel back the veil of “competitive bids” and “strict contracting standards.”  Dig deep.  If you’re Congress, you need to spread the greenbacks around a bit, to the hundreds of counties, communities and states that manufacture disparate parts for weapon systems that we will largely never use.  (As myself and others have said before, don’t count on getting into any dog fights with Al Qaeda any time soon, not when they can penetrate our defenses with an impoverished teenager wearing loaded underwear).  This is the game board that Gates would like to shake up- the defense industry’s shrewd battle map of key political and economic constituencies across the nation and the federal contracts that keep the money, jobs and profits flowing to them and their representatives.  It’s not about national security at all.  On the contrary, it’s about the political insecurity of our elected men and women and their penchant to put their careers ahead of what’s right for the country.  It’s not surprising that it takes an un-elected official to challenge them.


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A pair of instances recently reminded me how both sides- the “West” (more specifically, the United States) and the Muslim World- have engaged in so little self-reflection since the events of 9/11.  It is much easier to project outward than to take a hard look at your own society.  Problems are no longer yours when you can successfully argue that they come from some outside force.  For politicians and pundits, the temptation is too great.

This kind of gamesmanship has approached the truly absurd in the Muslim world.  On Friday a Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan was ripped apart by a triple suicide bombing.  As I have written before, Sufism is the lighter side of Islam- a moderate force whose greater tolerance for things like other faiths and female emancipation has angered Muslim extremists.  It’s long standing traditions and practices across the Muslim world are the most direct, organic challenge to those who would spread the lie- that early Islam’s core strength was its angry, unforgiving unity and purity.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Islam’s original spread in the 7th and 8th centuries was indeed aided by the sword, but more important in its ascendancy was its acceptance of other cultures, faiths and its rational discourse on everything from trade to science.  The Christian world, caught in an orgy of religious violence, greed and superstition, could not compete.

How far has Muslim civilization fallen?  How completely have the two sides exchanged places, like a pair of reflections in the same mirror?  After the Lahore attack, demonstrations blaming the United States for the carnage raged across Pakistan.  Normally sane people reasoned that extremists wouldn’t have attacked the shrine if the Pakistani government wasn’t in bed with America.  In the rush to anger, the sick individuals who actually planned and executed the operation seemed to have been all but forgotten.


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One wonders what would have happened if the Times Square car bomb attempt had occurred in Phoenix instead of the teeming, diverse neighborhoods of NYC.  What if the street vendors who tipped off police with vital information that eventually led to Faisal Shahzad’s capture (by his shoe laces) were Latino instead of African-American?  Given Arizona’s new draconian anti-immigrant law, would they have hesitated to come forward?  Would Faisal Shahzad be melting into the no-man’s land of North Waziristan as I write this, reuniting with his patrons to try and kill Americans again?

Our enemies exploit the relative openness of our society to infiltrate and attack us.  They target the loop holes in our legal system to wriggle out of our grasp when they are captured.  They know that unlike their own societies, we are a nation of laws, and that there will inevitably be cracks in the system.  Should we change?  Should we become less open, less welcoming to the immigrant tapestry that has been the life blood of this country since its birth?  Should we take away the fundamental rights of certain individuals because of their ideology or intent?  Is public safety more important than the principles that echo to the world how our vision differs from the extremist one?   Finding the right balance is a tricky tightrope.

Some of those who come to these shores from somewhere else have an adverse reaction to the society we have built here.  Caught between their native culture and a new land, they begin to unravel.  It began with Sayyid Qutub, perhaps the grandfather of the modern jihadist, in 1948.  His two years here convinced him that American society clearly lacked the moral fiber of his native Egypt, and upon his return he began to preach violence.  But these people are the infinitesimal exception compared to the vast multitudes who have replenished the vibrancy of America over the centuries.  Anyone can be a crackpot and find a group or an ideology to justify their neurosis.  There are apple pie Americans in Michigan who justify bloody murder and call it justice.  Belief in Jesus (or Muhammad) does not absolve them.

We will need our immigrants more than ever now, legal and otherwise.  They are young and hard working compared to those who complain about them while at the same time jealously guarding the entitlements that have begun to bankrupt us.  Our Muslim minorities in particular are perhaps the key to victory in the long war against extremism.  The war that won’t be won with smart bombs and military tribunals.  They are the bridge between Western civilization and the Islamic world.  Those who have found a balance between their traditions and a new life and see no contradictions between embracing both.  This realization- not by leaders or generals, but by everyday people- will indeed save lives.  It cools the cauldron where extremism simmers.  It is not time to retreat behind barricades but rather to keep the gateways to our communities as wide open as ever.

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It’s too early to know all the facts in the failed Times Square car bomb, but its looks like at least one US citizen of Pakistani heritage was involved and that the plot emanated at least in part from South Asia. Coinciding with the recent conviction of the lone surviving Mumbai terrorist, also a Pakistani trained and equipped by a Pakistani terrorist group, one wonders if extremism has a more obvious global headquarters than the nuclear state where experts believe Osama Bin Laden and most of the top Al Qaeda leadership have found refuge.   If it turns out to be true that the Pakistani Taliban are indeed involved, as they claim to be, in this latest chapter of the NYC terror saga, then there will undoubtedly be renewed calls for a refocusing of our counter-terror efforts on Pakistan.

This is certainly part of what is needed as experts such as the Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid have been arguing for some time.  But the problem with our South Asia counter-terror policy is not resources, but tactics and strategy.  We spend $700 billion on war fighting a year (this does not include classified intelligence budgets).  This dwarves anything our adversaries- nations or terrorist groups- can bring to bear.  Less is often more, particularly in a long war where extremist groups feed off the sympathies of local populations that reel from a heavy-handed foreign presence.   Too often our terror policies in the past have defeated themselves by focusing only on throwing resources at the symptoms of the disease, rather than tackling the root causes.  This has to change unless we want to continue to play defense against a legion of suicide bombers.

While David Ignatius‘  assertion in today’s Washington Post is true – our counter-terror efforts have succeeded in severely degrading Al Qaeda top leadership – it is overshadowed by his ominous conclusion- jihadists are splintering, de-centralizing, and will be harder to target and liquidate.  While drone attacks and military clearing operations should not be abandoned entirely as tools, anyone who has visited northern Pakistan knows that they are not a long term strategy.  On the contrary, there is an accumulating cost to these tactics over time in the heavily tribal, retribution crazy culture of South Asia where blood revenge is a way of life.  If a brother or cousin or uncle is killed, it does not matter if he was helping bad people or doing bad things.  Honor demands a response.  This is a never-ending spiral.


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You wonder what Afghan president Hamid Karzai was thinking over the past several days as he unleashed a fusillade of vitriol against his primary benefactor, the United States.  His comments, such as “foreigners” were responsible for the presidential election fraud that declared him the outright winner, or that he was prepared to join the Taliban if he was continually pressured to reform, have caused even his fellow Afghans to reel in alarm.  Has the president become unhinged?

No, not really.  He is actually acting within the historical tradition rather than on the fringe.  Karzai’s diatribe is part of the sad litany of foreigner bashing that has been a time-honored tactic of Muslim leaders over the last several centuries, since the Western world eclipsed the Islamic in all things important.  When an embattled ruler needs to shore up his failing legitimacy, there is no subject that garners more domestic currency than pointing to the “infidel foreigners in our midst”.

The problem, in Karzai’s case, is that the foreigners are the source of his legitimacy- without their militaries, treasure, and UN imprimatur, Karzai would be another Najibullah, hanging from the rafters with his testicles in his mouth.   Perhaps just before that moment he will lament, as he has in the past, in the most self-serving of ways: “See.  The international community has abandoned us…”  Playing the blame game until the end.

This is the main difficulty with the local proxies we have cut deals with across the globe to prosecute our War on Terror in its various incarnations.  They invariable act more like mercenaries than accountable civil servants.  The Karzai government has systematically raped and pillaged its own people for the last decade- it is this that is the main source of the various local Afghan insurgencies that we group together and conveniently label the Taliban; they fight against bad governance first, infidels, second.


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