April 30, 2009

The Taliban and Pashtun Nationalism

Pakistan is looking more dangerous and precarious by the week. The only Muslim country in the world with an arsenal of nuclear weapons is now threatened by a ferocious and rapidly expanding Taliban insurgency. The most retrograde Islamist army on earth has conquered territory just a few hours’ drive from the capital. Though this discouraging outcome wasn’t inevitable, it was at least likely. As Robert Kaplan pointed out in an insightful essay in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “the Taliban constitute merely the latest incarnation of Pashtun nationalism.” And ethnic Pashtuns live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Indeed,” Kaplan adds, “much of the fighting in Afghanistan today occurs in Pashtunistan: southern and eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Take a look at two maps. The first shows the geographic breakdown of Pakistan’s patchwork of ethnicities. You’ll notice that ethnic Pashtuns live in the notoriously backward and violent northwestern frontier provinces. Their region extends deep into Afghanistan and covers the southeastern part of that country. These two regions – which are actually a single region with a somewhat arbitrary national border between them – are where most Taliban activity has been concentrated since the United States destroyed their regime in Afghanistan. A second map shows the breakdown of areas in Pakistan currently under Taliban control. You’ll see, when you compare the maps carefully, that almost all areas that are either Taliban-controlled or Taliban-influenced, are Pashtun.

The Taliban are more than an expression of Pashtun nationalism, of course. They represent a reactionary movement that idealizes the simplicity and extreme conservatism of 7th century Islam. By burnishing this ideology, the Taliban is able, absurdly, to attract support beyond its Pashtun base.

The ethnic component, though, is a formidable one. It all but guaranteed a certain degree of success by the Taliban in all of “Pashtunistan,” in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Yet all the while, the ethnic map imposes constraints, if not limits, on how far the Taliban can expand.

They were able to seize power in most of Afghanistan before 2001, although the “Northern Alliance” — made up primarily of ethnic Tajiks – managed to hold out until Americans arrived and smashed the regime in Kabul. Since then, the Taliban have had a harder time operating outside “Pashtunistan.” “The north of Afghanistan,” Kaplan writes, “beyond the Hindu Kush, has seen less fighting and is in the midst of reconstruction and the forging of closer links to the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, inhabited by the same ethnic groups that populate northern Afghanistan.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:12 PM | Comments (182)

April 28, 2009

More Dispatches Coming

I spent the last ten days writing a long essay about Beirut and Baghdad for City Journal and consequently didn’t have much time to work on my next dispatch from Iraq. The bad news is you will have to wait until the summer issue is published before you can read it. The good news is you can read it for free. The magazine will pay me, so I won’t even ask for donations when it’s published.

My schedule is freed up again, so I’ll have my next piece from Baghdad published here as soon as it’s ready. It will be the first of a four-part series about where Iraq is heading next. I still have no idea if Iraq will be “okay” or if it won’t be. The opinions and analysis I heard from both Americans and Iraqis were mixed, and each camp made a persuasive case. I’ll give you the good news first, but be aware that bad news is coming right on its heels. Stay tuned.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:17 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2009

Eurasia's Shatter Zones

Robert Kaplan has a fascinating piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs about geography and its impact on culture, politics, and history. Most of us instinctively understand geography's connection to these three phenomena, at least on a basic level. Citizens who live in a temperate climate near the sea, in port cities open to the world, tend to be broadly liberal. Those who live in a harsh climate, deep within a continent, and cut off from outsiders, tend to be provincial and reactionary.

This simple observation won't be news to many people, but Kaplan takes it many steps further and notes that some parts of the world – especially in Eurasia – are more prone than others to conflict in part thanks to the fate of geography. Kaplan calls these regions “shatter zones,” and I spend almost all my time abroad in one of these shatter zones or another.

Many Lebanese have described their predicament to me in exactly these terms. If only their country were an island, they say, with no land border with Syria or Israel. And while I can't vouch for Kaplan accurately describing each of the shatter zones in his piece, I can say he describes those I know well with precision.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here is an excerpt to give you a taste.

The Fertile Crescent, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau, constitutes another shatter zone. The countries of this region—Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—are vague geographic expressions that had little meaning before the 20th century. When the official lines on the map are removed, we find a crude finger-painting of Sunni and Shiite clusters that contradict national borders. Inside these borders, the governing authorities of Lebanon and Iraq barely exist. The one in Syria is tyrannical and fundamentally unstable; the one in Jordan is rational but under quiet siege. (Jordan’s main reason for being at all is to act as a buffer for other Arab regimes that fear having a land border with Israel.) Indeed, the Levant is characterized by tired authoritarian regimes and ineffective democracies.

Of all the geographically illogical states in the Fertile Crescent, none is more so than Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, by far the worst in the Arab world, was itself geographically determined: Every Iraqi dictator going back to the first military coup in 1958 had to be more repressive than the previous one just to hold together a country with no natural borders that seethes with ethnic and sectarian consciousness. The mountains that separate Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, and the division of the Mesopotamian plain between Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south, may prove more pivotal to Iraq’s stability than the yearning after the ideal of democracy. If democracy doesn’t in fairly short order establish sturdy institutional roots, Iraq’s geography will likely lead it back to tyranny or anarchy again.

But for all the recent focus on Iraq, geography and history tell us that Syria might be at the real heart of future turbulence in the Arab world. Aleppo in northern Syria is a bazaar city with greater historical links to Mosul, Baghdad, and Anatolia than to Damascus. Whenever Damascus’s fortunes declined with the rise of Baghdad to the east, Aleppo recovered its greatness. Wandering through the souks of Aleppo, it is striking how distant and irrelevant Damascus seems: The bazaars are dominated by Kurds, Turks, Circassians, Arab Christians, Armenians, and others, unlike the Damascus souk, which is more a world of Sunni Arabs. As in Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia, each sect and religion in Syria has a specific location. Between Aleppo and Damascus is the increasingly Islamist Sunni heartland. Between Damascus and the Jordanian border are the Druse, and in the mountain stronghold contiguous with Lebanon are the Alawites—both remnants of a wave of Shiism from Persia and Mesopotamia that swept over Syria a thousand years ago.

Elections in Syria in 1947, 1949, and 1954 exacerbated these divisions by polarizing the vote along sectarian lines. The late Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 after 21 changes of government in 24 years. For three decades, he was the Leonid Brezhnev of the Arab world, staving off the future by failing to build a civil society at home. His son Bashar will have to open the political system eventually, if only to keep pace with a dynamically changing society armed with satellite dishes and the Internet. But no one knows how stable a post-authoritarian Syria would be. Policymakers must fear the worst. Yet a post-Assad Syria may well do better than post-Saddam Iraq, precisely because its tyranny has been much less severe. Indeed, traveling from Saddam’s Iraq to Assad’s Syria was like coming up for air.

In addition to its inability to solve the problem of political legitimacy, the Arab world is unable to secure its own environment. The plateau peoples of Turkey will dominate the Arabs in the 21st century because the Turks have water and the Arabs don’t. Indeed, to develop its own desperately poor southeast and thereby suppress Kurdish separatism, Turkey will need to divert increasingly large amounts of the Euphrates River from Syria and Iraq. As the Middle East becomes a realm of parched urban areas, water will grow in value relative to oil. The countries with it will retain the ability—and thus the power—to blackmail those without it. Water will be like nuclear energy, thereby making desalinization and dual-use power facilities primary targets of missile strikes in future wars. Not just in the West Bank, but everywhere there is less room to maneuver.

A final shatter zone is the Persian core, stretching from the Caspian Sea to Iran’s north to the Persian Gulf to its south. Virtually all of the greater Middle East’s oil and natural gas lies in this region. Just as shipping lanes radiate from the Persian Gulf, pipelines are increasingly radiating from the Caspian region to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, China, and the Indian Ocean. The only country that straddles both energy-producing areas is Iran, as Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy note in Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East. The Persian Gulf possesses 55 percent of the world’s crude-oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz in the southeast—a coastline of 1,317 nautical miles, thanks to its many bays, inlets, coves, and islands that offer plenty of excellent places for hiding tanker-ramming speedboats.

It is not an accident that Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower. There was a certain geographic logic to it. Iran is the greater Middle East’s universal joint, tightly fused to all of the outer cores. Its border roughly traces and conforms to the natural contours of the landscape—plateaus to the west, mountains and seas to the north and south, and desert expanse in the east toward Afghanistan. For this reason, Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike the geographically illogical countries of that adjacent region, there is nothing artificial about Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran is now being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century.

Of all the shatter zones in the greater Middle East, the Iranian core is unique: The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent Iranian nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:37 PM | Comments (239)

April 25, 2009

Moment of Truth in Iraq

Last week I plugged Michael Yon's excellent book Moment of Truth in Iraq.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

If you haven’t read it yet, buy it today. And if you’re one of the small number of people who might be interested in acquiring 30,000 copies all at once, Yon is auctioning off the whole lot of them.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:38 PM | Comments (3)

April 24, 2009

The UN’s Epic Fail in Geneva

The biggest loser at the United Nations Durban Review Conference on “racism” this week in Geneva was the United Nations itself. The United States unfairly got a lot of bad press and bad marks for walking out of the first UN “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, even though that conference was little more than an anti-Semitic and anti-American hate festival. The media did a much better job this time around, though, as did the genuine anti-racist activists who showed up to protest. Those vilified by “Durban I” turned out to be the heroes of “Durban II.

Most of the press coverage this week was appropriately critical. And few have done as outstanding a job covering the affair as Zvika Krieger in the New Republic. Every one of his dispatches from Geneva deserves a wide audience.

First he reminds us just how viciously bigoted the 2001 Durban conference was. “Jewish activists were harassed, abused, physically intimidated, taunted, and followed throughout the week,” he wrote. “Anyone who tried to object to the Israel hate-fest was booed off the stage with shouts of ‘Jew, Jew, Jew.’ The conference hall was overflowing with copies of ‘The Protocols of The Elders of Zion’ and pamphlets featuring pictures of Jews with long hooked noses and evil smiles, their serpent fangs soaked in blood and their military uniforms decorated with swastikas.”

Those singled out for the two-minute hate were vastly outnumbered by the hysterical bigots who set the tone in South Africa. This time, though, in Geneva, the bullies were on the defensive. “Unlike the scenes at Durban I,” he reported, “of Jewish students being swallowed by hordes of Israel haters, outnumbered 50-to-1, here in Geneva, I’ve witnessed dozens of debates between handfuls of pro-Israel activists evenly matched with their foes.”

Americans weren’t happy about the anti-American obscenities at “Durban I,” but at least “American” isn’t a race. Jews had even more reasons to be appalled at what happened. When the organizers of an “anti-racist” conference spend most of their energy denouncing and menacing Jews and Israelis, something has gone terribly wrong. Anti-Durban activists had years to prepare for this week’s sequel in Geneva, though, and it showed.

“It is hard to exaggerate how palpable the Jewish presence is here,” Krieger wrote. “The Jewish community of Geneva staged a massive Holocaust memorial (featuring Elie Wiesel) last night on the steps of the UN headquarters right outside the conference, and Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center are organizing panels on anti-Semitism inside the conference building under auspices of the UN. Roaming the halls of the UN building, I’ve heard way more Hebrew than Arabic. When the Jewish community’s security force prevented the Jewish students from leaving the ‘Jewish Welcome Center’ because of a minor pro-Palestinian rally outside, the students balked at the ridiculousness of any security threat against them here — a stark contrast to the physical violence encountered by Jewish students in 2001.”

The first Durban conference was an anti-Semitic zoo. Take a look at the photo of a poster, reading that it would have been a “good thing” if Adolf Hitler had won World War II because there would be “no Israel.” Switzerland may be geopolitically neutral in many ways, but Geneva was in no mood this week to tolerate that kind of garbage at a conference it hosted. Krieger says a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitic propaganda appeared to be in place, and the small number of anti-Semitic demonstrators he did see were kicked out by security guards."

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:31 AM | Comments (38)

April 22, 2009

Ahmadinejad Stinks Up Geneva

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a blistering tirade against Israel on Monday at the supposedly “anti-racist” Durban II conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and dozens of national delegates from Europe walked out in disgust. The sheer number of people who refused to sit there and listen to him must be seen to be believed. His bad reception didn’t end there. Hundreds of protesters followed him as he delivered a press conference and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as they held up signs reminding all who could see them that Iran funds Hamas and Hezbollah.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Ahmadinejad’s remarks were appalling. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a man hardly known as a defender of Israel, said “I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite.” Delegates from the Czech Republic didn’t only storm out. They refused to come back and listen to any other tyrant who came to Europe to lecture his betters.

Everyone who walked out on camera was right to do so. Most, if not all, were from Europe. It’s strange, then, that a European country is hosting this hate-fest in the first place. They had no reason to expect anything different. This second “Durban” conference held in Geneva is just a rerun of the first one held in Durban, South Africa, which also was little more than a bigoted group-scream against Israel and the United States. It was obvious years ago when the conference was planned what would be on the agenda. A representative from Libya, one of the most brutally oppressive countries on earth, was chairman of the preparatory committee. Its vice chairman included representatives from Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. None of these countries can teach Western democracies about racism or human rights. The Obama administration was right to boycott this fiasco before it even began.

Surely European countries that sent delegates knew well in advance what they were getting themselves into. Perhaps they even planned to walk out in advance. Even so, allowing a belligerent bigot to deliver a speech at an anti-racist conference is offensive to decent human beings everywhere. Among other things, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust even happened – a crime in Germany. Would Europe send delegates to an “anti-racism” conference if the head of the Aryan Nations was giving a speech? And what if Slobodan Milosevic was still alive and ruler of Serbia? Would they agree to show up and listen to even the first two minutes of what he’d have to say?

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:15 AM | Comments (72)

April 21, 2009

“Durban II” Walkout

Iranian tyrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invective against the “Zionist Entity” didn’t go over too well in Geneva. A huge number of European diplomats walked out in disgust. The scene must be seen to be fully appreciated.

President Barack Obama was right to boycott this hate-fest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:45 PM | Comments (6)

April 15, 2009

The Dissidents' War

I read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks because an American Marine officer in Fallujah told me to. “Especially make sure you read the chapter called How to Create an Insurgency,” he said. “Ricks gets it exactly right in that chapter. But you can’t quote me by name saying that because it’s another way of saying the insurgency is Paul Bremer’s fault. And Bremer outranks me.”

Fiasco is a devastating critique of the botched war in Iraq before General David Petraeus took over command. It isn't what I'd call a fun read, but I don't think you can fully appreciate what Petraeus accomplished without studying in depth the mess he inherited.

I met Thomas Ricks last week at a basement bar in Oregon near Powell's Books while he toured the country promoting his new book about the surge, The Gamble. I drank a glass of red wine, a locally-made Pinot Noir. He drank a pitcher of root beer.

MJT: Tell us about your new book

Ricks: It’s about the Iraq war from 2006 to 2008. It’s very different from Fiasco. Fiasco was an indictment. It was an angry book. The Gamble is a narrative. It was a much more enjoyable book to write. It’s an account of the war being turned over to the dissidents. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker reveals in the book that he was opposed to the original invasion of Iraq. [General David] Petraeus took command just after finishing his counterinsurgency manual, which was a scathing critique of the conduct of the occupation. There was entirely new attitude among Americans, a new humility. A willingness to listen. I saw this reflected in the people they brought in to advise them. Emma Sky, a tiny little British woman who’s an expert on the Middle East and an anti-American anti-military pacifist. She became [General Ray] Odierno’s political advisor. Petraeus once said to Odierno, “she’s not your political advisor, she’s your insurgent.”

Fiasco Cover.jpg

Sadi Othman, who was Petraeus’s advisor to the Iraqi government. He’s a Palestinian-American, born in Brazil, raised in Jordan, six foot seven, the first man to ever dunk a basketball in Jordanian university competition. He was raised and educated by Mennonites and pacifists.

This was a very different group of people with a very different attitude. My thought was that, essentially, the transition to Obama began in Iraq two years before it began here. Because in January they basically said, “okay, if you guys are so smart, you do it.” And they turned the war over to the internal critics of the war.

The surge was not supported by the U.S. military. The only person in the chain of command who really pushed for it was Odierno. His boss [General George] Casey was against it. Their boss [General John] Abizaid was against it. And their boss, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was against it. It really was an insurgency within the U.S. military that set out to fight a very different war with a very different attitude and with a different set of priorities.

The Gamble Cover.JPG

The biggest shift in priorities came when they dropped the swift transition to Iraqi authority which had been an official mission statement – it was number one on the mission statement list. In the back of the book I have an appendix which shows the orders Odierno got when he arrived in Iraq. He was told in 2006 to move his troops out of the cities, seal the borders, secure the lines of communication, and basically let these people have the civil war they seem to want to have. When he rewrote his orders – the orders he gave to himself and Petraeus – they were to move troops off the big bases and into the cities, and drop transition to Iraqi authority as the top priority. Instead our top priority became the protection of the Iraqi people – a huge change in the prosecution of the war.

MJT: Do you think they basically got it right?

Ricks: Look. You have to back up. I think everything in Iraq is the fruit of a poisoned tree – invading a country pre-emptively on false premises. So the question isn’t whether they’re getting it right, it’s whether they’re getting it less wrong. I think it was the best of a lot of bad options. It worked tactically. It improved security. But it failed to achieve its goal. The surge is now over, and the purpose of the surge, as stated by the president and the secretary of defense, was to improve security to create breathing space where a political breakthrough could occur. Odierno says in the book that we did create a breathing space, but some Iraqi leaders – I think he meant [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki – used it to move backwards.

MJT: How did Maliki move backwards?

Ricks: He became more sectarian and anti-reconciliation.

MJT: At what point did he become more sectarian?

Ricks: This is Odierno’s argument, not mine.

MJT: Okay.

Ricks: And he didn’t say. But, for example, Maliki didn’t really sign up for reconciliation. He persisted with a zero-sum view of Iraqi politics where winner takes all. You guys lose, we win.

MJT: That’s true as far as Maliki’s relationship with the Sunnis, but he’s also gone after the Shia militias with much more force and determination than I expected in Basra and Sadr City.

Ricks: That’s true. He did. But I was talking to an officer who wondered why we didn’t back Moqtada al Sadr. He thinks we should have backed Sadr from the get-go.

MJT: Why?

Ricks: Because within the Shia community he is the one least influenced by Iran and the most nationalistic. His is the only group that, when it demonstrates, carries Iraqi flags. None of the other Shia parties carry Iraqi flags at their demonstrations.

MJT: Let’s back up a couple of years. Who made the decision for the U.S. to not work with Moqtada al Sadr? Wasn’t it Sadr himself who basically said eff-you to the United States? He made the call. Not us. And once that happened, how were we supposed to work with the guy? If he’s ideologically opposed to us, then that’s it. It takes two.

Ricks: We had a discussion inside the U.S. government in 2003 and 2004 over whether to engage him or attack him. Eventually, an order was issued to arrest him. And he took that as a declaration of war. But look. You know Iraq. In Iraq, today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally.

MJT: Yes.

Ricks: If we applied that standard, that he’s a declared enemy, we never would have put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll. That was one of Petraeus’ great breakthroughs. And, by the way, in one of my favorite moments during my interviews with Petraeus I asked him how he sold the president on that notion, and he said he didn’t. I said, “wait a minute, you have a secured teleconference with him every Monday and you didn’t bring it up?” He said no, it was within his existing authorities. It was a really ballsy move. It was audacious. You want audacity in your leaders. If it had failed, the egg would have been on his face. We went to these allies of Al Qaeda and said “what’s it going to take?” It turned out that it took 30 million dollars a month.

MJT: They weren’t real allies of Al Qaeda, though. You know how it is over there. They were being paid by Al Qaeda, so we just paid them a little bit more.

Ricks: Yes. I think it was a good idea.

MJT: I do, too. But saying we put the Sunni insurgency on the payroll makes it sound more cynical than it was. It’s not like we put [Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al] Zarqawi on the payroll. We put the moderate, more flexible ones on the payroll.

Ricks: Oh, bullshit. We had guys on the payroll who cut off heads, who had killed American soldiers.

MJT: We killed Zarqawi. We flipped and paid the flexible insurgents, the ones who were not particularly ideological.

Ricks: The ones who were venial.

MJT: Before they flipped I wondered why on earth we were even fighting them in the first place.

Ricks: That’s what [Petraeus advisor David] Kilcullen said. 90 percent of the people are fighting you because you’re in their neighborhood.

MJT: Yeah.

Ricks: And if you get out of their neighborhood or cut some deals with them…

MJT: Yes. And we were never going to flip Zarqawi and his guys.

Ricks: Right.

MJT: We could never pay them enough money. They’re real enemies of the United States. But with the others we could say, ‘listen, this is stupid, we should stop this.’

Ricks: Yeah. And Sadr’s people entered into secret negotiations with the United States in, I think, 2007, about whether or not to have negotiations. They said “before we begin any talks, we have to have a date certain when you will withdraw from Iraq.” The American policy said “we can’t do that.” So the Sadrists said “well, then we can’t have talks.” Then the Americans said, “well, just out of curiosity, what was the date you had in mind?” The Sadrists said 2013. Which put them on the right-wing of the U.S. Congress.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: It’s funny. I was talking to Kilcullen about this the other day. You know who Kilcullen is, right?

MJT: Of course. Brilliant guy. [He’s an Australian counterinsurgency expert and advisor to General Petraeus.]

Ricks: He is so smart. Kilcullen was meeting in a safe house with some Sadrists in Baghdad. They had been working with Sadr, but also talking to Americans on and off for years. Kilcullen realized he was talking to a former military officer, a civil engineer, and an accountant. These are the three elements of reconstruction: military security, civilian reconstruction, and finance. And a light bulb went on in Kilcullen’s head. He said “if you guys were going to secure Sadr City, how would you do it?” They began huddling and talking urgently. Kilcullen said “sorry, fellas, I didn’t mean to insult you.” They said “no, no, you didn’t insult us, it’s just that in the four years of talking to Americans, nobody ever asked us that.” This was the change in Iraq.

One of the points in the book is that the surge fighting was tough, the toughest six months of the war, even tougher than the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a sustained six month battle.

MJT: The first half of 2007. In Bacouba, Mosul…

Ricks: …and Baghdad. I capture it in the siege of Tarmiyah. There were 38 guys in Tarmiyah, the northernmost surge outpost in the Baghdad area. They got car-bombed, mortared, RPGed, and machine-gunned. They held the post, but at the end of the day they had two dead and 29 wounded. The car bomb was heard seven miles away.

But my favorite part of the book isn’t about fighting. It’s called “The Insurgent Who Loved Titanic.” It’s about Captain Sam Cook. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him. In the little town he’s in, he hears about an insurgent boasting that he set off 200 bombs against Americans. Cook is a really smart guy. He’s been around a while. He was on his second or third tour in Iraq. He sent an invitation to the guy for a cup of tea. That said two things. It said “I know where you are.” And it said “I know who you are.”

The guy comes and says “if you know who I am and where I am, why didn’t you arrest me?” Cook said “because I’ve invited you for tea and won’t abuse the rules of hospitality.”

What Cook wants to do – and I think you understand – is bring in the network. He wants to understand the guy and his network, not just kill or capture one guy. And they began talking. Cooks says, “look, if I see you in the street tomorrow, I might shoot you. But let’s talk. You’re here. Let’s have tea.”

MJT: That’s very Arab. They like to have tea when they aren’t shooting each other.

Ricks: Yeah. And it goes on for a couple of weeks. And one day, the guy says “you need to understand something. I hate everything about America. America is the Devil. Nothing good comes from America.”

But Cook knows the most popular theme for cell phones in Iraq is the theme from Titanic. And he says to the insurgent, “well, you saw the movie Titanic, didn’t you?”

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: And the insurgent says “seven times. I cry at the end every time.”

Titanic Poster.jpg

MJT: [Laughs] The Arab world is so much fun.

Ricks: There’s an emotional connection there. The guy never comes over to the American side. He never becomes persuaded to support American goals. But after months of these talks he says, “Look, I can’t surrender to you. It’s a matter of self-respect. But if you will arrange my surrender to the Iraqis and then put me on the payroll, I’ll tell you a few things. And me and the boys will help you out.” Cook says, “Done deal.” And they do it.

The insurgent sits down and says, “Okay. The first thing you need to know is that the reason you never captured me is because every time you came to my house, the Iraqi Army soldiers at the checkpoint called me on my cell phone. You might want to take away their cell phones. Second, we have a deal with the police chief. Our war is with you, not with him. The Iraqi Police are sitting it out. The third thing you might want to know is that my sniper rifle was a gift to me from the Iraqi major you work with.”

Cook said it was like the lights were being turned on. Suddenly he could see it.

This was happening all over Iraq in 2007 and 2008. The Americans were sitting down, talking, listening, and cutting deals. In some ways, it was the Arabization of the American war.

MJT: That's a good way to put it.

Ricks: And it was combined with a real reduction in American goals. Petraeus's people never really articulated this, but in their internal discussions they lowered the American goals. They threw out the notion that we're going to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy. They said they'll settle for a more or less stable Iraq that is somewhat democratic and somewhat respectful of human rights. This was never put into any policy statement that I saw approved by the White House. They basically threw out the gold-plated Lexus that was the original plan and settled for a Volkswagen Bug.

MJT: They didn't have much choice. That's just reality.

Ricks: Except the Americans, for years, had ignored that reality. And even that minimal goal is tough.

MJT: I got back from Iraq not too long ago, and one of the things I tried to figure out – as much as a person can figure out something like this – is whether or not Iraq will be more or less okay after the U.S. either leaves or draws down significantly. About half the Americans and half the Iraqis I talked to said they're optimistic, and the other half said they're pessimistic.

Ricks: In both the Iraqi and American conversations?

MJT: Yes. Half the Iraqis were optimistic, and half the Americans were optimistic. Half the Iraqis were pessimistic, and half the Americans were pessimistic. Whoever I was listening to at the time persuaded me, and I left not knowing what to make of it all.

Ricks: Crocker's prediction is that the future of Iraq is Lebanon.

MJT: Iraqis will be lucky to get to where Lebanon is. I've worked in both countries, and Lebanon is like the Star Trek universe compared with Iraq.

Ricks: [Laughs]

MJT: Where do you fall in this spectrum of opinion? Do you think Iraq will be at least sort of “okay,” or do you think it's a doomed country?

Ricks: Iraq will not be okay. Americans are not going to be happy with the ultimate product. The best case scenario, I think, is an Iraq that is not democratic, not really stable, still has some violence, and is probably a closer ally of Iran than the United States. This is why the invasion of Iraq was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy.

MJT: Bigger than Vietnam?

Ricks: Oh, absolutely.

MJT: In Vietnam we lost 50,000 people and killed two million of theirs.

Ricks: Vietnam was at the periphery of U.S. interests. The Cambodians suffered a holocaust...

MJT: ...Twenty five percent of them were killed...

Ricks: ...and America's allies in Vietnam spent 15 years in “re-education” camps. But six years later we were saying it's morning in America. It ain't going to be morning in Baghdad any time soon.

MJT: Sure, but it was morning in America, not morning in Saigon.

Ricks: Yeah, but when you walk out of Baghdad...This is why I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but leaving Iraq is even more immoral. There are no good solutions. The least bad solution is staying in smaller numbers for many years to come. If you walk out of Iraq tomorrow, that's the Jerry Rubin solution. Remember Jerry Rubin? He was asked what he's going to do after the revolution, and he said he was going to groove on the rubble.

Iraq would rubble-ize.

MJT: I think so, too.

Ricks: There would be a civil war. And it could spread and become a regional war in the middle of the world's oil patch. This is why Iraq is a bigger strategic problem than Vietnam. You could walk away from Vietnam. You can't walk away from Iraq.

That's not just my opinion. I had dinner with Henry Kissinger, and I asked him which is the bigger problem strategically, Vietnam or Iraq? And he said Iraq.

The argument from the Bush Administration is, well, at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But I'm not sure we did. There are a lot of little Saddams in Iraq. And some day, one of them is going to grow up and be a big Saddam, and he'll probably be a smarter, younger, tougher, meaner version.

MJT: Meaner would take some effort.

Ricks: We took out a guy who was dumb as a box of rocks. He was the only world leader who thought he could take on the U.S. military with conventional means.

MJT: [Laughs]

Ricks: He was in some ways our ideal enemy. The guy who emerges will have studied how to take on the Americans for 25 years. And any strongman who emerges will almost certainly be anti-American because if you can unify Iraq, it will probably be on the basis of anti-Americanism.

MJT: I don't know if unification on anti-Americanism will really be possible. The Sunnis are anti-American, no question about it. The Shias are mixed, around 50-50, and the Kurds are, well, forget it. You can't possibly unify the Kurds around anti-Americanism.

Ricks: That's true.

MJT: They're more pro-American than Poland.

Ricks: Well, we sell out the Kurds every twenty years.

MJT: Yes, we do. Actually it's more like every fifteen. According to them, eight times since World War I.

I'm curious what you think of Michael Yon's work, and I'll tell you why I'm asking this question. When friends ask me what they should read about Iraq, I say “read Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon.” They're very different books, about different time periods in the Iraq war, from different perspectives, but combined I think they fit well together. I don't think your book and Yon's book are contradictory, although some people might think so.

Moment of Truth in Iraq Cover.jpg

Ricks: I'm a big fan of Michael Yon's work. Sometimes I worry if there's some blogging feud that's going on.

MJT: Not that I'm aware of. But some readers might think they'd like one and not the other. I actually liked both.

Ricks: I like Yon's work quite a lot. I've followed him closely in Afghanistan lately, and I'm very impressed by him. He's done some really interesting work in dangerous areas. I think he's a bit over-optimistic about Iraq, though. He thinks the war is over. And my response is that the war changes. It morphs. It began as a blitzkrieg invasion, it became a botched occupation that led to a slowly rising but durable insurgency. It then led to a small civil war. It then became an effective American counter-offensive. It's now in an odd lull period where people try to sort out what a post-Bush and maybe post-American Obama-run war will look like. It morphs, but it doesn't end. I think American troops will be fighting and dying in Iraq for another ten or fifteen years.

MJT: Really? You think that long?

Ricks: Yeah.

MJT: You're definitely gloomier about it than I am.

Ricks: It will be in smaller numbers. Odierno says in the book that he would like to see 35,000 troops there in 2015. I don't think any American troops were killed by violence in Germany after the war. A lot of them died in car accidents.

MJT: I think you're right. I think there were none.

Ricks: The war will be over when American troops stop dying. Then our war will be over. When Iraqis stop dying, their war will be over.

MJT: Yon looks at it from a military point of view. He's a former soldier, so that's his filter. I'm a bit gloomier about Iraq than he is, but I'm not a military guy. The other factors, the politics and culture of Iraq, aren't encouraging.

Ricks: You do have to look at it politically. It's never going to be a strictly military question. The military is only a means to get to a political end. The Middle East is profoundly Clausewitzian. It's either armed politics or political warfare. You have these guys on a continuum. You have militias with political wings, and you have political parties with armed wings.

MJT: A lot of the Middle East is like this. Not Kuwait, but certainly Lebanon.

Ricks: I think it's a great story, the last couple of years. I'm just fascinated by it.

MJT: It is interesting, isn't it?

Ricks: Another difference between Fiasco and The Gamble is that in Fiasco I knew what the events were that I had to write about. I just had to provide context, meaning, and depth. I knew I'd have to write about the invasion, blowing up the UN headquarters, the first battle of Fallujah, the second battle of Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib. In The Gamble, it wasn't clear to me what the major events were, partly because there was so much less media coverage. The media was less equipped to cover a counterinsurgency. The battle in Basra in the spring of 2008 was a real eye-opener for me. It was a hugely important turn of events. And there was almost no coverage of it. And the coverage it did get was wrong.

MJT: Yep.

Ricks: The press said it was a huge setback for Maliki.

MJT: And it wasn't. Although it did look that way at the beginning.

Ricks: Yeah. Americans were freaked. There was a conversation on a Friday night. An Iraqi leans over and says to Petraeus, “the prime minister wants to talk to you about doing Basra.” And Petraeus said, “you mean Mosul?” Mosul was first in their plan. And the Iraqi said, “no, Basra.” Petraeus says, “oh?”

So Petraeus goes over to see Maliki the next day, and Maliki says, “yeah, we're doing Basra.” The plan laid out for me was that we were going to finish Baghdad, then do Mosul, and then do Basra. And Maliki just threw it all up in the air. He rolled the dice. And that's one of the themes of the book. Americans taught Maliki how to gamble.

-

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:44 PM | Comments (54)

April 14, 2009

The UN’s Disintegration in Lebanon

Poland is withdrawing its troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the U.S. is pressuring other European contributors to the mission to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan, and Israeli defense officials are worried the multinational force north of the border might collapse entirely. Israelis, however, aren’t the ones who should worry. South Lebanon’s Christians stand to lose the most if that happens.

“If UNIFIL leaves, we’re going with them,” a young Lebanese man told me in the village of Rmeich in February this year. “Everyone is frightened about what might happen.” Rmeich is a Maronite Christian enclave near the Israeli border. Along with the adjacent Maronite village of Ein Ebel, it is surrounded by Shia cities, towns, and villages where support for Hezbollah runs deep. “There are many Hezbollah people near here,” the man continued. “They wear civilian clothes. They used to come into our town with guns and harass us before the [July 2006] war, but not anymore thanks to UNIFIL.

UNFIL was created in 1978 to help the Lebanese government restore its sovereignty over the area after it was taken over by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization and used as a base for guerrilla and terrorist attacks against Israel. The force was bolstered by thousands of mostly European soldiers after the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and given a similar mandate. Hezbollah controlled the border area after Israeli soldiers withdrew from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000. War was all but inevitable under those circumstances. So in addition to bringing the Lebanese Army and government back to the border where they might prevent another war outbreak, UNIFIL was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from replenishing its partially depleted stock of rockets and missiles through smuggling roads over the land border with Syria. In this, UNIFIL failed. Almost all analysts say Hezbollah has a larger arsenal now than it did before the 2006 war even started.

UNIFIL gets little credit for helping South Lebanon’s Christians, and that’s too bad. But the force gets far more credit than it deserves for keeping Hezbollah in check. UNIFIL’s presence is something of a problem because it appears the “international community” is doing something constructive to prevent the next war when it actually isn’t. Neither are the Israel Defense Forces, the Lebanese Army, or anyone else.

Some Lebanese officers are still loyal to Damascus. They were never purged from the armed forces after occupying Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were forced to withdraw in the wake of the massive demonstration in downtown Beirut on March 14, 2005. “Sometimes we see things we don’t understand,” another resident of Rmeich told me recently. “Huge covered-up trucks get through the army checkpoints, and they’re not even stopped. When I go through in my open car, I have to pull over.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:50 AM | Comments (10)

April 13, 2009

Hezbollah's Mushroom Cloud

Christopher Hitchens recently went to a rally in the suburbs south of Beirut and found Hezbollah ratcheting up its belligerence. “A huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud surmounts the scene,” he wrote in the May issue of Vanity Fair, “with the inscription OH ZIONISTS, IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!” Last week James Kirchick reported seeing the same thing at the same rally in City Journal. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Hezbollah has threatened nuclear war.

Hezbollah isn’t broadcasting this to the world. If Hitchens and Kirchick hadn’t written about it, few would know the mushroom-cloud banner even exists. It’s not so much a threat as it is a revelation of Hezbollah’s dark psyche. But perhaps Hezbollah’s not shouting “nuclear war” for all to hear means its threats are more dangerous than public taunts from the Iranian government. Empty threats and hyperbole are rife in the Middle East. Death threats are rarely carried out anywhere. Most assassins don’t announce their intentions. They kill their victims without warning. Whatever Hezbollah’s mushroom-cloud banner means, we know this much: intimations of nuclear war with Israel are now coming from Lebanon as well as Iran. The worst case scenario — a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv — might be slightly more likely than some of us thought.

Every foreign policy-maker and analyst must be wondering whether Israel will bomb Iranian nuclear facilities this year or next. Most don’t know the answer. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself might not know the answer. It’s risky. Hezbollah didn’t open a second front against Israel during the Gaza war a few months ago, but it’s unlikely they’ll sit still in South Lebanon if their patron and armorer in Tehran is attacked. Iran’s Al Quds Force may retaliate against the United States in Iraq. A military strike against Iran could easily trigger a regional conflagration.

There’s a theory floating around the Middle East that I’ve heard from Israelis and Arabs alike, and some find it slightly reassuring: Iran doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons against Israel. Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can transform itself into a true regional superpower. Arab regimes fear this, which is why Saudi Arabia and Egypt have threatened to develop or purchase their own nuclear arsenals to counter the “Persian bomb.” No Arab state got into an arms race with Israel to counter the “Zionist bomb,” but they’re obviously worried about what might happen to them if Tehran weaponizes uranium. The Iranians don’t want to be neutralized by an arms race, so they’re threatening the Israelis and hoping the Arabs will relax or acquiesce. I don’t know if the theory is true, but Hezbollah’s recent mushroom-cloud banner doesn’t quite fit. Hezbollah didn’t put that on stage to calm nerves in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They used it to thrill a crowd of furious Shia Arabs in Lebanon.

An Iranian bomb would be a problem for Israelis, Arabs, and the rest of us even if Tehran has no intention of using it. The last thing an energy-dependent planet needs is extremist regimes with vast oil reserves threatening to obliterate each other as India and Pakistan sometimes do. And the second-to-last thing Israel needs is a nuclear umbrella protecting Hamas and Hezbollah. President Barack Obama said a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer” last year. He’s right.

The worst case scenario — the incineration of Tel Aviv and a nuclear retaliation against Tehran — isn’t likely. I don’t expect it will ever actually happen. I’m sure enough — at least 90 percent sure — that I feel safe making the prediction in public. I’m a writer, though, not a policy maker. And I don’t live in Israel. I’m safe and can afford to be wrong. I won’t be killed, nor will I be blamed for getting anyone else killed. The Israeli government won’t make the same risk calculations I make. If I’m wrong, they’re dead, and so is their country.

I can’t tell whether or not Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike. But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it’s 90 percent likely Iran’s threats of annihilation are just bluster. And let me ask this: How would you feel if your doctor diagnosed you with an illness and said there’s a ten percent chance it will kill you? Would you find 90 percent odds of survival acceptable? Would you sleep peacefully and do nothing and hope for the best? I travel to dangerous places. It’s part of my job. But those odds, for me, are prohibitive. Those odds are almost as bad as the odds in Russian Roulette, and you couldn’t pay me enough to play that game even once.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:29 AM | Comments (12)

April 11, 2009

American Humor

When Saddam Hussein was still alive and in prison, the Marines on duty forced him to watch the movie South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut, where he was portrayed as Satan's gay lover, over and over and over again.

Saddam and Satan.jpg

He then sent South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone a signed photograph. That, I presume, he did voluntarily.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:06 AM | Comments (3)

April 8, 2009

Sadr City After the Fall

Sadr City After the Fall.jpg

One year ago, Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Mahdi Army militia strongholds in Basra and Sadr City were two of the biggest threats remaining to the Iraqi republic. Al Qaeda in Iraq had been reduced to a remnant, but the country still was a violent mirror of Lebanon. Hezbollah threatens the Lebanese capital and can start unilateral wars on a whim, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had to ask himself if that was the kind of country he hoped to be left with as Americans talked of a combat force draw down. Lebanon has neither a capable national army nor tens of thousands of foreign troops on her soil as backup. The Iraqis did, though. Their army, with help from the American military, was ordered into the southern city of Basra to purge the streets of the Shia militiamen. After nail-biting fits and starts, the Iraqis prevailed. Then they stormed Sadr City and took back the last bastion of resistance in the capital.

I visited Sadr City on my recent trip to Iraq, and I expected to be horrified when I got there. It was safer than it had been, of course, but it was still known as the great slum of Baghdad – like Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut, only bigger and meaner. Almost as many people live in Sadr City as in all of Lebanon. Much of Iraq looks like a slum as it is, so an actual slum in Iraq must look like…what?

Most Iraqi cities look more or less like every other Iraqi city, but there are exceptions. The worst I had seen so far was Kirkuk in the north.

Kirkuk Slum 1.jpg
Kirkuk, Iraq

Kirkuk Slum 2.jpg
Kirkuk, Iraq

Nowhere I'd seen in Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, or anywhere else was as run-down or gruesome as Kirkuk. Yet I had never heard Kirkuk described as the worst place in Iraq. The vast slum of Baghdad must be even worse. I was sure of it. Going to Sadr City seemed slightly crazy.

“Adhamiyah and Sadr City are the most important sectors in all of Iraq,” Major Mike Humphreys said to me at Forward Operating Base (FOB) War Eagle in Northern Baghdad. It was the first stop for embedded reporters on their way to Sadr City with the American military. “Sadr City is, of course, the most volatile place in the country, and it's named after Moqtada al Sadr's father. It was the big question about the future of Iraq.”

That, of course, was why I wished to see it. If Sadr City was okay, the rest of Iraq might be okay. But if Sadr City was still like a vast Hezbollah dahiyeh in Baghdad, it could easily bring down the rest of the country.

The way into Sadr City itself was from Combat Outpost (COP) Ford, a one-company base wedged between Sadr City and the adjacent Beida neighborhood. Captains Todd Looney and A.J. Boyes ran the company, and they were two of the friendliest and most hospitable American military officers I had yet met. I stayed up for hours talking to these two in their quarters and never once felt like I was imposing. Their outpost developed an excellent reputation among journalists as a place to be based, and I wished I could have stayed longer.

Looney and Boyes' company did most of the fighting in Sadr City last year when the Jamilla Market area was purged of militiamen and a three-mile long wall of concrete barriers was erected to keep them from coming back in.

Tanks COP Ford.jpg
Tanks at Combat Outpost Ford used during heavy fighting last year in Sadr City

“On our worst day,” Captain Looney said, “we only got eight barriers up. But once we figured out how to do it, we didn't lose any more people.” Three of his men were killed before they taught themselves how to build a wall under fire without getting blown up or shot. Framed photographs of the dead hung on the wall.

Todd Looney Mustansiriya.jpg
Captain Todd Looney (left)

“The Iraqi Army did pretty good, too,” I said. “They did better in both Sadr City and Basra than most people expected,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Captain Boyes said.

Most analysts at the time thought the Mahdi Army would hand the Iraqi Army its ass on a plate. I wasn't terribly optimistic myself. Purging urban neighborhoods of guerrillas is tough work. First World professional armies often fail. The Iraqis, though, stunned the world.

“People didn't think the resolve of the national government would be there,” Captain Boyes said. “They didn't think the prime minster was going to carry out what he promised.”

Captain AJ Boyes.jpg
Captain A.J. Boyes

“You guys had their backs, though,” I said, “which certainly helped.”

“I don't think it was as much as people think,” he said.

“No?” I said. “Really? Well, you guys were here. You would know.”

“We have friends who were down south in training teams,” he said, “but most of the Americans in Basra weren't doing the fighting themselves. It was very much an advisor role.”

“Wasn't there air support, too?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “there was an air asset. But I don't think it was all that significant. And the Iraqis operate completely independently now in 75 percent of Sadr City. Only in the southern sectors of Jamilla and Tharwa is there an American presence. Once you get north of the wall, the Iraqi Army operates without any support.”

Sadr-City MNFI 2x.JPG
Map of U.S. and Iraqi forces in and near Sadr City in May, 2008

“The purpose of the Gold Wall,” Major Mike Humphreys told me earlier, “is to prevent Mahdi Army Special Groups criminals from having access to south Sadr City. On March 25, 2008, 107mm rockets started being launched against the Green Zone in response to the violence that was going on in Basra. There were twelve to fifteen attacks per day on the Green Zone, and these rockets packed a powerful punch. They had big warheads on these things, and were nothing to smirk about. They were being launched from south Sadr City because it's the limit of the 107mm reach. The rockets were purchased from Iran. We found some stamped with 'born on' dates after the fighting began. So we know that these guys were supported by Iran. We know for a fact they were dealing with Iran. The same thing with their EFPs, their explosively-formed penetrators. They're getting those directly from Iran.”

EFPs are the most terrifying IEDs ever designed. They fire molten copper plates faster than bullets at passing vehicles which cut through Humvees and tanks as though they were Jell-O.

“Do you know who they're buying them from in Iran?” I said. “Are they buying them from the government?”

“Who knows?” he said. “Maybe if we did know we could do something about it.”

My Spanish colleague Ramon Lobo from El País in Madrid co-interviewed Major Humphreys with me.

“I think they get them from the Revolutionary Guards,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Which is, of course, part of the government.”

“According to Iraqi media,” Major Humphreys said, “they're getting support from the al Quds Force.”

The Quds Force is basically the special forces branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Its commanders report to “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei. Their mission is the arming and training of guerrilla and terrorist organizations around the Middle East – especially in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories.

“One thing you'll notice on the map,” Major Humphreys said, “is that all roads point toward the Green Zone.”

Sadr City and Green Zone Map.jpg

“The roads were perfect launching positions,” he said. “These guys built their launching pads, they had engineers who knew what they were doing, they knew the right angles, and they knew where they were going to launch from. They were very well-trained. Al Qaeda is mostly a bunch of thugs who are paid by people outside Iraq just to wreck havoc by dropping poorly made IEDs. They're not very well organized. But the Shia militias are used to working in a military manner with senior commanders, and with training sponsored by international forces in Iran. They have a sense of leadership. These guys knew what they were doing. They were launching these rockets from roads that are perfectly lined up to the Green Zone every day.”

Not only did the Shia militias buy their rockets from Iran, they paid with cash extorted from businesses in the Jamilla market. So the Iraqi government had yet another reason to want them out of Jamilla.

“It's hard to block this whole area off,” Major Humphreys said, “because there are so many nooks and crannies that people can get in and out of. So we started building the wall. And it took us about two months. It's a three-mile wall on what we call Route Gold. And it worked. As soon as the last barrier went in, the violence in south Sadr City almost completely stopped.”

Mahdi Army senior leaders fled as soon as they lost their funding, resources, and territory in and around the market. Some went to Iran. Others went into hiding somewhere else in Iraq. They wanted to get back in, but they couldn't. So they made a face-saving deal with the government. They “agreed” to stay out of Sadr City entirely as long as American soldiers stayed on the south side of the Gold Wall.

“So Prime Minister Maliki sent his Iraqi Army north of the wall,” Major Humphreys said. “We breached the wall in several different places and the Iraqi Army moved forward in this massive passage of lines.”

Iraqi Army Gold Wall Sadr City Copyright Getty.jpg
The Iraqi Army breaches the Gold Wall and heads into north Sadr City (photo from Getty Images)

“The Iraqi Army literally moved right through our lines,” he said, “and set up their operations in north Sadr City. And now the Iraqi Army rules north Sadr City independently.”

Iraqi Army soldiers found massive caches of rockets and EFPs. They even found an EFP factory up there.

EFP Factory Sadr City.JPG
An EFP factory discovered by the Iraqi Army in Sadr City

The only reason they were able to find all this stuff was because the residents of Sadr City were fed up with the Mahdi Army's violence, corruption, and shakedowns.

They also found IRAMs, Improvised Rocket-Assisted Munitions, or “flying IEDs.”

An IRAM, basically, is a lob bomb. It's a 107mm rocket with a gigantic bomb strapped to the side. They're too heavy to fly far, but they fly far enough.

“I was right there at JSS Sadr City when they launched an IRAM,” Major Humphreys said, “and I thought I was a goner. Seven IRAMs were launched off a truck that was parked right behind the station. They launched the rockets about a hundred meters, and they knew exactly what angle and depth to put them at. A 107mm rocket can hit the Green Zone from there. But these don’t. They go a hundred meters. They have these big chunks of explosives tied to them, and they just lobbed ‘em over the wall. The guys that saw them said they looked like giant flying car mufflers.” He laughed. “Seriously, they just flip-flopped until they came down on the building. Incredible explosions. Just incredible. Seven of 'em. One right after the next.”

*

Millions of people live in Sadr City, and it's just one part of Baghdad. It's often described as the poorest, most over-crowded, and most politically deranged place in the capital, if not the whole country.

I'm not sure I believe all that anymore. And my assumptions began to buckle before I even saw it.

“The Jamilla Market is flourishing now,” Major Humphreys said. ”It was a sewage swamp.”

“Like the Bakara Market in Somalia,” said Ramon Lobo, my colleague from Spain.

“Do they even have a sewer system in Sadr City?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” Major Humphreys said. “Let me tell you about Sadr City. Sadr City has the most up-to-date infrastructure in all of Baghdad. It was built in the 1960s as a place to house miscreants, for the most part. It was built to modern building codes with modern infrastructure. It had a very modern sewer system, electrical power grid, modern buildings, everything.”

That didn't sound right at all.

“Now, that surprises me,” I said. “A lot. It's a slum. It's the worst place in the city economically.”

“Well, that's what they say,” he said. “But you've got to realize, too, that it was built to hold a million people, and some estimates say there are as many as 3.2 million there. So it's overpopulated, for sure. But if you fly over Sadr City at night, you don't see blackness. You see light. You see electricity. It's not what it's made out to be. It has modern infrastructure, it's just not maintained.

“The problem with the sewer system in Sadr City was that it was clogged, it was backed up, nobody was maintaining it. We went in there and thought the sewer was completely destroyed in Jamilla Market. It was a swamp. It was a swamp of sewage. But once this fighting was over, we sent the sucker trucks in there. The workers got down into the system. They sucked everything out. They blew pressure through the lines. They cleared out all the empty water bottles and trash. They cleaned it up, and it works. There is great potential in Sadr City. It just needs maintenance and workers.

“We have this area called Ur. You want to talk about a slum? That is a slum.”

Beida Ur Sadr City Map.jpg
Northern Baghdad

“It's a shantytown,” he said. “People who live there for the most part are squatters who’ve come in and set up their little tents and buildings. If you looked at a photograph from space at night, Sadr City is lit and Ur is pitch black. It's an area we want to fix up, partly for the people who are living there, and also because it's an entry point into Sadr City. If we can win over the population there, we can isolate Sadr City from the bad guys.”

*

I never saw Ur, but I did see Sadr City, and it wasn’t even remotely what I expected before I heard Major Humphreys' description at War Eagle.

It didn’t look pretty. Few urban areas in Iraq can be described as pretty right now. But it wasn’t a shantytown, and it wasn’t much worse than what I saw anywhere else. It was a lot nicer than what I saw in Kirkuk, though I only saw the southwestern quarter where the American military was allowed to operate.

“This is the checkpoint where the fighting started back in March,” Captain Boyes told me when he took me on a tour of the place.

Walls Sadr City.jpg
Walls, Sadr City

“The building that’s all shot up over there was hit with a fucking bazooka.”

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This building was hit with a bazooka when major fighting in Sadr City broke out last year

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Damaged apartment buildings in Sadr City

A tower was erected at the checkpoint.

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“An Iraqi Army guy was up there when it was hit with an RPG,” Sergeant Kincaid said as he chewed his cigar.

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Sergeant Kincaid, Sadr City

“He was smoking cigarettes like crazy afterward, but he was alright.”

Captain Boyes and his men briefly inspected Iraqi Police checkpoints that morning, so I saw most of the area when I tagged along.

“This checkpoint,” he said when we arrived at the next one, “is the gateway to Sadr City. All vehicle traffic has to go through it. It looked like shit when we first got here, but we put in barriers and nets for the Iraqis to make their shifts a little more safe and more comfortable.”

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American Humvees at the gateway to Sadr City

“This is the nicest part of Jamilla,” he said. “And Jamilla is the nicest part of Sadr City. It's really overcrowded here.”

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Jamilla, Sadr City

So I was looking at the nicest part of Sadr City. I would see worse areas in a few minutes, but even those areas defied my expectations. I believed Captain Boyes when he said the area was overcrowded, but it didn’t look overcrowded. Houses and apartments were crammed with people, but the city itself wasn't all that tightly packed with apartments and houses.

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Sadr City

Beirut, Lebanon, is a immensely pleasing city. It’s many times more dense with buildings than Sadr City, and it doesn’t feel all that crowded most of the time.

Corleone and Gemmayze Cafe.jpg
Beirut, Lebanon

The difference, though, I suppose, is that individual homes in Beirut aren’t as jammed with so many people.

A Communist Party office was set up near the gateway to Sadr City.

“We keep trying to meet the communists,” Captain Boyes said, “but haven't been able to do it yet.”

“Fucking communists,” one of the soldiers said when he overheard.

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The Iraqi Communist Party headquarters in Sadr City

I thought about defending the communists, but didn't feel like arguing. I met some of them in Erbil, and thought they had a respectable role to play in the country. Most aren’t pining away for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Iraqis attracted to Marxism are mostly there for the anti-racist and anti-sectarian secular nationalism. Iraqi Communists have half-baked economic ideas (at best), but they’re on the right side of three of the biggest problems vexing Iraq -- racism between Arabs and Kurds, sectarianism between Sunnis and Shias, and Islamist fanaticism. They’re also reasonably pro-American.

I was slightly surprised to find that Major Humphreys was right about Sadr City’s infrastructure. It’s not that I didn’t believe him. I was just so accustomed to seeing shoddy infrastructure everywhere else, even in Kurdistan, that I was startled to see anything that didn't look broken.

The most debilitating infrastructure problem in Iraq is the fraying electrical grid. It’s in slightly better shape now than it was, but the power is still off around half the time in everyone’s house. The grid is an outdated Third World catastrophe, and the problem feeds on itself. When a transformer blows out, residents plug their wires into another transformer which then promptly blows out from the overload. And so on like falling dominoes.

Adhamiyah is supposedly one of the nicer parts of Baghdad, yet the rat’s nest of wires I saw there was frightful.

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A rat's nest of wires in the “better” neighborhood Adhamiyah

The wires and poles in Sadr City, by contrast – at least in the parts of Sadr City I saw – looked almost like those in the United States.

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Electrical wires, Sadr City

It’s difficult to measure Iraqi public opinion from walking the streets – unless public opinion is unrelenting hostile, which it has been in some places. The first time I visited Baghdad I wrote off Sadr City as a no-go zone. Some American soldiers told me even kids threw rocks at them every time they went in there.

This winter, though, I saw smiling kids giving high-fives to Americans. Something clearly had changed.

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Iraqi childen sit on the steps of an American MRAP Humvee in Sadr City

Even if anti-Americanism was still prevalent in Sadr City (and it probably was), it was, for the most part, the civilized kind found in Jordan. It was invisible, in other words, and not ferocious or violent.

COP Ford’s other area of operations, the Beida neighborhood, is directly adjacent to Sadr City. It was cleaner, more prosperous, and more pleasant than Sadr City, but it still made sense to think of the place as part of a Greater Sadr City. Iraqis can’t live mere blocks from a “slum” of millions of people without experiencing a spillover effect. Now that Sadr City was stabilized, though, Beida was on the mend.

Beida’s local government headquarters, the Beladiyah, got around 20 million dollars a year from the government of Iraq, but hadn't been spending it. The neighborhood was in better shape than much of Baghdad despite the lack of spending on the local government's part. One reason was because the U.S. military had been sponsoring its own projects, but recently the Army stopped allocating money and starting working through the Beladiyah to save U.S. taxpayer dollars. Even so, the area was fairly clean and well-ordered despite, not because of, the Beladiyah's projects.

I joined Captains Looney, Boyes, Clint Rusch, and Todd Allison on a visit to the office. Captain Rusch spoke to the Beladiyah's director about installing dumpsters. There is still a ridiculous amount of trash on the streets.

“We need to make sure people actually, you know, use the dumpsters,” he said.

“These trash collection points will create an environmental problem,” the director said.

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Beladiyah director

“An environmental problem?” Captain Allison said. “Are you kidding me? That's the least of your concerns right now. Trust me.”

“Mike,” Captain Looney said quietly as he leaned toward me. “You know who Sisyphus is?”

“Of course,” I said.

Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who was forced to push a rock up a hill, watch it roll down, and start all over again for eternity.

“We're pushing the rock, baby,” he said.

Unlike in the myth, though, pushing the rock got results. Smart-looking shops lined one side of Beida's market street.

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Legal shops, Beida market

Illegal squatter shops lined the other.

“The Beladiyah chief’s cracking down,” Captain Looney said to the owner of one of the illegal shops who sold shoes. “A bulldozer’s clearing all this out tomorrow, so you need to move your merchandise and take any of these building materials you want to keep with you.”

“Am I going to get compensation?” the man said.

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Squatter shop owner, Beida

“No,” Captain Looney said. “You are not going to get compensation. Why should I pay you to obey the law? Right now you're breaking the law.”

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Squatter shop, Beida

Captain Rusch took me aside and explained. “The regular non-squatter shops are registered and vetted,” he said. “Part of the concern here is security. The government is worried the squatter shops might be owned or controlled by insurgents. Someone could easily plant a bomb inside one. Also, the squatters are on government property, and the government wants to turn that side of the street into a park.”

“I don't care if you're a part-time teacher,” Captain Looney said to the man selling shoes. “I mean, it's great that you're a teacher. But I have to enforce the law. This comes from the Beladiyah. That's how liberal democratic societies work. You have laws, and the laws get enforced.”

The man was disgruntled and still didn’t understand why he had to uproot his shop.

“I feel like I'm talking to my kid brother,” Captain Looney said to our translator Eddie.

The guys running the squatter shops actually were eligible for a kind of “compensation” if they would run their business legally. Anyone who wanted to start a business in Baghdad was eligible for a 2,500 dollar microgrant from the U.S. military – free money that would never need to be paid back.

“I don't like the run-down cheap shops,” Captain Looney said to me, “because somebody might pay 200 dollars to put an IED in one. Someone with a nice expensive shop won't let anyone put an IED anywhere near it. Another problem with squatter shops is that they're often targeted by extortionists.”

Someone left a dismantled bus in front of his house around the corner. At first glance I thought the bus had been destroyed by a bomb.

Dismantled Bus Beida.jpg

“Move it,” Captain Looney said to the owner.

The owner objected.

“Why are you arguing with me?” Captain Looney said. “You're breaking the law. We could arrest you right now. We won't, but we could. So don't argue with me. This neighborhood is not going to be a hawasim.”

Hawasim is an Arabic word for slum.

The area actually looked decent compared with much of Baghdad – especially compared with next-door Sadr City, and even more so compared with the real hawasim in Ur to the north.

Another Iraqi man had car parts, including filthy old engine blocks, splayed out on the sidewalk in front of his house.

“Do you think anyone walks by here and says, ooh, look at those car parts!” Captain Looney said to the man. “No. Nobody wants to look at that. Clean it up. We'll help you tonight. We'll bring some guys out here tonight to help you move all this stuff.”

“I know this guy,” Eddie said to me. “He's a mechanic, and he leaves all this crap in front of his house so he can eat, sleep, and fuck his wife all day without having to commute to work.”

*

“I just signed 165 small business grants,” Captain Looney told me back at the COP, “that we will use to stimulate the local economy. Not only does it help out the local economy by giving people more capital to run their businesses, it also increases security because they realize coalition and Iraqi security forces are looking out for their interests. It makes them more likely to cooperate.”

Captain Rusch told me the microgrant program is the non-kinetic equivalent of the Gold Wall.

“I understand why it's a good idea,” I said, “but why does it work better than anything else?”

“It's a well-executed and targeted display of money as power,” Captain Boyes said. “It's a weapon system. It’s great. We have to interact with the locals. Not only is the platoon leader going out to find a viable candidate for this grant, he has to spend that time analyzing the business, talking to the shop owner and seeing what the business needs. The money can be used for anything to start a business. It can be used to expand a business, to hire new employees, anything like that. They'll go in there and talk to the shop owner and ask him what are the top three needs.”

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Sadr City

“We typically don't put any dollar amount on it,” Captain Looney said. “We say what are your top three needs to improve your business? And we'll ask them how much that will cost. Most of the time they have a well thought-out plan. They'll give us exactly what they need, how much each item costs, and we'll bounce that off what we know from our own experience and how much we know it should cost. We're not going to let them say it costs 5,000 dollars for a small generator. We're not going to be raked over the coals. Most people are honest. They give us a fair estimate of the costs. As soon as we give them the money, they use the money immediately to improve their location.

“I can take you to a hookah bar and chai shop,” he continued, “where we've given them a grant and they made drastic improvements to the outside. That had a great impact because it showed what U.S. forces are willing to do for Iraqis. It's a cultural and social hub of this neighborhood. Many people see what we've done for them. We didn't just make an investment with one person, the business owner. There may be hundreds of local men in the area who go to this hookah shop every week, and we made an impact with all of them.”

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Park, Sadr City

“We see it as a business opportunity for them and a security opportunity for us,” Captain Boyes said. “We've increased the general atmospherics. People are more open to talking to us or giving us a phone call and giving us information. We have had actual tangible results where people have called up and told us where IEDs were placed. And the only reason he called us is because his brother received a microgrant.”

Unfortunately, only the southwestern quarter of Sadr City benefited from the program.

“You aren't even allowed to go on the other side of the Gold Wall, are you?” I said.

“No,” Captain Boyes said.

“How do you know what goes on in there?” I said. “Do you have sources?”

“The Iraqi Army is extremely good at sharing intelligence,” he said. “We have independent agencies, the NGOs and IGOs, that send out atmospherics reports in public. The Iraqi media is in there. There's a lot of stuff that goes on in there that gets reported. Atmospherics do come out. People do talk about what goes on inside, and the Iraqi Army operates in there every day.”

“I read an article recently,” I said, “by an American reporter who went to a Sadr City tea shop on the other side of the Gold Wall with some Iraqi friends. He told his friends he was surprised by how safe he felt there. But his friends said he was only safe because they were with him, that he might not last if he were there by himself. I don't know if it's true, but that's what they told him. Does that sound right to you? Is that how it is?”

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Iraqi women, Sadr City

“I don't know,” Captain Looney said. “I mean, there's still terrorist groups out there that need money. What better way to get money than to kidnap a Westerner? What better way to make a spectacular statement than to do something like the Nick Berg incident?”

“The radical Shia groups worry me less than the radical Sunni groups,” I said.

“Culturally, though,” Captain Boyes said, “any time I’m in an Iraqi's home I feel perfectly safe. Their culture demands they accept you and protect you.”

“Yes,” I said. “I know. I always feel safe in their houses, too.”

Most Westerners who spend time even in dangerous Muslim countries feel safe when they're off the street and in somebody's house. Muslims are culturally and religiously required to show hospitality even to enemies.

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Iraqi boy, Sadr City

“I was once with a mullah in Pakistan,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his Atlantic blog recently, “who told me that Allah would soon fulfill his promise and destroy the Jews, but who invited me to stay in his guest room rather than make a dangerous night drive back to my hotel. I took him up on his offer, and slept soundly. It wouldn't be fair of me to call this sort of hospitality superficial, because it grows from a real spirit of personal generosity.”

“I wouldn't say I feel safe to that extent,” Captain Looney said. “I don't feel as threatened, but is it really worth fully trusting somebody like that?”

“Maybe not,” I said, “but they're not going to mess with me in their house if I'm with you guys and you guys are armed. I mean, what are they going to do?”

“I'm not worried about that,” he said. “I'm worried more about someone knowing I'm there and attacking the location I'm in. The day you become complacent is the day you get attacked. Constant vigilance, brother.”

*

I joined Captain Looney and his men on a visit to Mustansiriya University. Three students had been shot there recently by Mahdi Army militiamen.

“There was a real interesting mood at this college after that happened,” one sergeant told me.

Captain Looney had a meeting scheduled with Dr. Ali J. Al Obedi, Dean of the Administration and Economics College.

“I get a kick out of the sign over the door to his building,” Captain Rusch told me as we walked across campus.

“What does it say?” I said.

“You'll see,” he said and laughed. “You can't miss it.”

I saw it on the way in.

Deanery Baghdad.jpg

“The Deanery!” he said. “As if it's a dean-manufacturing factory.”

A half-dozen Iraqi Army soldiers stood around Dean Obedi's office when we arrived. He politely asked them to leave.

I sat on a couch with Captains Looney, Rusch, and Allison. A teenage boy brought us Turkish coffee and chocolates.

“Do you need any help with anything?” Captain Looney said to Dean Obedi.

“We're having problems with protesters,” the dean said in Arabic. “I'm trying to institute a uniform policy and make sure students show up on time for class. I think there might be a terrorist element among the protesters.”

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Dr. Ali J. Al Obedi, Dean of the Administration and Economics College at Mustansiriya University

Captain Allison rolled his eyes and leaned over to whisper to me. “Sometimes Iraqis escalate the threat level,” he said quietly, “to get the attention of Americans who might otherwise ignore what they think is a problem.”

“It's a sign of progress,” Captain Looney said to the dean. “There were no protests here under Saddam Hussein. I don't see any problem as long as the protests aren't violent.”

If student protesters who are late for class are the current “terrorist” threat at Mustansiriya University, the area has really calmed down. Not only had three students been shot by Mahdi Army militiamen not long before I arrived, but seventy people, including several female students, were killed nearby on a single day in 2007.

Captain Looney and Dean Obedi talked about Mustansiriya's security needs while Captain Allison and I discussed the university itself.

“Here at the business college,” he said, “they take classes like Microsoft Office and Tourism.”

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Captain Todd Allison

“It will be ten years before they get much tourism, “ I said, “and that's if they're lucky. Hardly anyone will pay money to visit Baghdad.”

“They'll get people from Syria and Jordan a lot sooner than they'll get people from the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “And, of course, they'll get tourists from Iran.”

I strolled the campus for a few minutes after the meeting and took pictures.

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Students, Mustansiriya University

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Students at a cafe, Mustansiriya University

Almost every time I raised my camera, young women turned and covered their faces as though having their picture taken was scandalous. This happens everywhere in Iraq, including in Kurdistan. It's the main reason I have so few pictures of women. I can occasionally sneak a few, though.

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Students, Mustansiriya University

“What's that about anyway?” I said to our interpreter Eddie, a native of Baghdad who has lived in San Diego for decades and speaks perfect English. Women in most other Muslim countries aren't nervous when they see my camera.

“Mostly it's just female modesty,” he said. “Some might also be afraid of the radicals.”

Shia Sign Sadr City.jpg

More than 90 percent of the women on campus wore headscarves. Baghdad contrasts sharply with Beirut where fewer than 25 percent wear headscarves, and even more so with Azerbaijan and Kosovo where fewer than one percent bother with headscarves.

“Most women here don't want to wear it,” Eddie said. “They aren't required by law like in Iran. They do it because they are afraid. Baghdad is still infested with radicals. When my sister visits Iraq, she has to wear it even though she doesn't want to. I also don't want her to wear it, but even Christian women in Baghdad are wearing it now. These women you see who refuse are risking their lives.”

Post-script: You tip waiters in restaurants, right? I can’t go all the way to Iraq and write these dispatches for free. Travel in the Middle East is expensive, and I have to pay my own way. If you haven’t donated in the past, please consider contributing now.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:31 AM | Comments (10)

April 7, 2009

So Much for Avigdor Lieberman

It seems clear to most observers inside and outside Israel that Avigdor Lieberman’s promotion to foreign minister is bad news for both Israelis and Arabs. He has only had the job for, what, a week now? But he’s already just about finished. He might even end up in jail.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:34 AM | Comments (19)

The Real Barrier to Peace

Marty Peretz in The New Republic:

A "two-state solution" is the only possible resolve for the [Arab-Israeli] conflict. And the fact is that, all of the injunctions put before before Jerusalem by the various peace professionals about this solution notwithstanding, the Israeli body politic is itself committed to such a resolve. That has been Israeli policy for at least 16 years. It is a gross lie to deny this. The Greater Israel movement is dead. So is the Peace Now movement that assumed a territorial retreat will resolve everything. This movement died the day after Israel left Gaza.

The outstanding cartographical issues are mostly symbolic and procedural.

So what is the impediment?

It is that Israel cannot assume that any territory from which it withdraws will remain peaceful. What is the evidence that it would? Do you really think that rockets and missiles will not be lobbed into Israel proper on the morning after? And that Palestine's frontier with its Arab neighbors will not become what Gaza's frontier with (relatively well-intentioned) Egypt has become. A cease-fire was made, and the cease fire has not held. What's more, the smuggling of trajectiles and other weapons through the tunnels of the strip goes on unabated. This is despite a United Nations resolution. And in southern Lebanon another cease-fire resolution providing for an end to smuggling from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah is continually violated. One lesson Israel has certainly learned is that U.N. Security Council resolutions are worth less than the paper on which they are printed.

Until this issue is addressed conscientiously and practically there will be no progress on the two-state solution under any borders. And, instead of repeating the two-state shibboleth, it is time for the well-intentioned brokers - President Obama included - to confront the real barrier to peace which is Palestinian and Arab behavior after an Israeli withdrawal. This will be the test, and nothing else.

And here's Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz:

According to Hamas, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of modern society - the French Revolution; the Communist revolution; the establishment of secret associations (Freemasons, Rotary and Lions clubs, B'nai B'rith) designed to help them gain control of the world by secret means. They control the economy, press and television; they are responsible for the outbreak of World War I, which they initiated in order to destroy the Muslim caliphates (the Ottoman empire), to get the Balfour Declaration and set up the League of Nations with the aim of establishing their state. They also initiated World War II in order to make a fortune from selling war materials; they use both capitalism and communism as their agents...

But perhaps it is nevertheless worthwhile talking to Hamas - not about its contribution to peace but rather about what is stated in its covenant. Perhaps those who espouse the view that we must talk with Hamas will first talk with it about these subjects? Who knows, perhaps it will change its principles? I do not expect this to happen exactly, but I am certainly curious to know what those who think Hamas is the key to peace in the Middle East will say about these things.

And perhaps they are actually correct, perhaps Hamas is the key. If that's the case, it's difficult to expect that peace can be established in our region.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:53 AM | Comments (7)

April 5, 2009

Welcome to America

This is excellent – an article in the New York Times by an Iraqi who worked for the U.S. military as an interpreter and then moved to America.

It is soooo quiet outside. When I ask about the reason, they say “It’s a residential area.” I quietly respond, “What’s your point?” A flashback from our residential area in Baghdad where 6 a.m. is not too early for the chaotic, loud, orchestra of people selling cooking gas tubes, petroleum, street vendors and not to mention Iraqi police convoys and their loudspeakers. But here it is so quiet you can almost hear yourself think. And, more surprisingly, you can finish that thought.

Also, everyone has a car in here. I have yet to see a single taxi. Oh, and the roads, not so good. I did not expect to find streets in bad shape here. But the traffic is amazing, and weird at the same time. They call it a traffic jam if there’s like 15 vehicles in the street. “Huh?” They obviously could use a trip to the entrance of Sadr City, where cars and vehicles stretch as far as the eye can see at all hours of the day.

It’s so weird, and weirder is that people wait for the light to go green even if there’s no one else in the street and no police officer in sight. I turn around to check if my aunt is all right. “Why is she not moving?” Ah, I’m not in Iraq any more.

Yesterday we took a long drive to get somewhere. My aunt is very cautious and alert while driving through a particular neighborhood. She turns to me and says: “Look!” I turn around and spot two empty cans of soda and, like, three empty bags of potato chips all in a polite pile. “This is a bad neighborhood,” she says. I laugh uncontrollably. I can’t help but recall the piles and piles of garbage that I used to see near schools, hospitals, churches, mosques and museums back in Baghdad.

(Thanks to Andrew Exum for the link.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:46 PM | Comments (4)

April 2, 2009

A Freelancer’s Survival Guide

Kristine Kathryn Rusch taught me how to write when I was twenty years old and didn’t know anything. This Web site – my entire career – might not even exist if it were not for her. What she writes is completely different from what I write, but writing is writing. Genre differences don’t matter much in classrooms and workshops.

She is now publishing a book in installments on her Web site called The Freelancers’s Survival Guide. If you’re making a living as a freelancer – not necessarily as a freelance writer, but as a freelancer of any kind – I strongly suggest you bookmark her site and read it, especially now that the economy is circling the drain. She has been working and living (well) as a freelancer for more than 30 years, and she knows what she’s talking about. I learned almost two decades ago to take her seriously and do what she says. My life would be very different if I had not.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:23 PM | Comments (1)

Foreman's Dispatch from Lebanon

If you haven't yet had your fill of reading about Christopher Hitchens getting smacked down on Hamra Street with me and Jonathan Foreman in Beirut, Foreman has now published his version of the story in Standpoint.

If you are tired of reading about that little incident, read his piece on Lebanon anyway. There's a lot more to it than that, including: a visit to a warlord who keeps his automatic pistol atop the New York Review of Books, a trip to a mountain fortress that looks like a modernist prison, and Muslim girls who tweak both Dad and the Party of God by wearing spray-on jeans in the Hezbollah dahiyeh.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:33 AM | Comments (3)