July 30, 2009

Slow Writing This Week

My hometown of Portland, Oregon, temporarily has the climate of Baghdad because cool marine air stopped blowing in from over the ocean. It has been well over 100 degrees all week, and it's almost 90 degrees in my house. My kitchen was 95 degrees at midnight last night. Most of us who live in the Pacific Northwest have feeble air conditioning because it's rarely this hot for so long. I'm exhausted, and it's hard to concentrate and write. Please bear with me while our weather slowly becomes a bit more civilized.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:55 AM | Comments (20)

July 28, 2009

Culture War Replaces Missile War

In early 2006, shortly before the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, an Israeli intelligence officer predicted the future. “Missile war will replace terrorist war,” he told me when I spoke with him at the Ministry of Defense.

He was right. Just a few months later, Hizballah launched thousands of Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee south toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. South Lebanon was punished much more thoroughly than Northern Israel, but the Palestinians in Gaza nevertheless took Hizballah’s Baghdad Bob–style boasts of “divine victory” seriously. Hamas ramped up its own rocket war until fed-up Israelis gave Gaza the South Lebanon treatment this past December and January.

Hamas is a bit slower to learn than was Hizballah, but seven long months after the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, the rockets out of Gaza have finally stopped. Israelis will no longer put up with indiscriminate attacks on their houses and schools. Many Palestinians in Gaza have likewise had their fill of Hamas’s self-destructive campaign of “resistance.”

The New York Times reports that Hamas has decided to wage a “culture war” instead of a rocket war because, as one leader put it, “the fighters needed a break and the people needed a break.”

Movies, plays, art exhibitions, and poems are Hamas’s new weapons. Hamas supporters, though, aren’t the only Palestinians in Gaza using art as a weapon. Said al-Bettar skewers Hamas every night at Gaza City’s Shawa cultural center in his popular play The Women of Gaza and the Patience of Job. “We were the victims of a big lie,” he says about the doctrine of armed “resistance.”

The Israeli intelligence official I spoke to deserves some credit for predicting the replacement of terrorist war with missile war. Hamas and Islamic Jihad had already fired rockets at Israel, but they hadn’t fired many, and neither the recent Gaza war nor the Second Lebanon War had yet started.

Since then a pattern has emerged that should be obvious to anybody with eyes to see, whether they’re an intelligence official or not. After Israeli soldiers withdraw from occupied territory, Israeli civilians are shot at with rockets from inside that territory. Another pattern has just been made clear. After Israelis shoot back, the rockets stop flying.

It has been years since Hizballah has dared to fire rockets at Israel or start anything else on the border. Hamas no longer dares to fire rockets at Israel either.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:05 AM | Comments (17)

July 23, 2009

The Future of Iraq, Part IV

The Future of Iraq Part IV.jpg

Getting an accurate reading of Iraqi public opinion is hard. It might be impossible. I've seen Iraqis cheer American soldiers, and I've seen some Iraqis hug American soldiers in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. A few weeks ago, though, hundreds of thousands celebrated when Americans evacuated Iraqi cities as stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement.

It's theoretically possible that what we've seen is not contradictory. Some Iraqis are pro-American. Others are not. Those who celebrated when Americans left may very well be, at least for the most part, different Iraqis than those I've seen who greeted Americans warmly.

Iraqi public opinion, though, is famously contradictory. And Iraqi public opinion as stated by Iraqis themselves is notoriously unreliable.

Most Iraqis, like most Arabs everywhere, are extremely polite and hospitable. It's a guidebook cliché, but it's a guidebook cliché for a reason. Their culture requires them to welcome foreigners, and they take that requirement seriously. Most will conceal any negative opinions they may have against a visitor personally or even the visitor's country – and this is true even for visitors from enemy countries. They don't mean to be deceptive. They're just being nice.

Three Iraqis Box 10.jpg

There's another problem with picking up the mood of the street – politics. For decades Iraqis have lived either in fear of the state or in fear of militias. They had to learn to keep their opinions to themselves if they wanted to live.

I don't think many Iraqis today are afraid of the state. But everybody was terrified of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian government. Speaking their minds could get them imprisoned or killed. It could get an entire family dragged off to prison, tortured, and painfully executed. Before the Baath Party regime was demolished, it was extremely difficult for journalists who showed up in Baghdad to read the mood of the street. Everybody appeared to be fanatical supporters of Saddam Hussein even though few Iraqis actually were.

That’s not true anymore. But habits of mind go down hard. Concealing opinions from the authorities became a survival mechanism, whether the authorities were Saddam Hussein's mukhabarat, militiamen in the neighborhood, or American soldiers.

Walls and Soldiers.jpg

Before the Status of Forces agreement kicked in, I asked U.S. Army Colonel John Hort if and how he and his men took all this into account. Effective counter-insurgency isn't possible when counter-insurgents have no idea what the general population is thinking.

"How do you measure public opinion?" I said to him. "How do you know what people really think? We all know about this tendency in Iraq where people tell you what they think you want to hear – or what they want you to hear, which isn't necessarily the same thing. If you ask what Iraqis think of the American military while you're standing there with guns in your hands, they might say oh, we love you guys. Then someone from the Guardian newspaper comes along and asks what they think of the imperial occupation forces, and the same people might say we hate them. So what's their real opinion? Do you take this sort of thing into account? Do you have Iraqis feeling out the opinions of people for you?"

"We do," he said.

"And they report back to you?" I said.

"Right," he said. "We have the Iraqi Advisor Task Force. They aren't spies. That's illegal. But they're hired to measure atmospherics. They monitor the mosques. They hit the restaurants, places like that. And we get these reports almost every other day. Over time we've seen the atmospherics and compared them to what you were talking about, the guy on the street talking to the U.S. soldier. Do they match up? And if they don't match up, we have to figure out what we need to change about the way we're presenting ourselves."

Colonel Hort worked at Forward Operating Base (FOB) War Eagle, a medium-sized base in Northern Baghdad. After I left the FOB and moved to a small combat outpost deep in the city, I asked Sergeant Nick Franklin if he could help me arrange an interview with one of the Iraqis the Army trusts to provide real information. I was tired of trying to learn about Iraq through the lens of the United States military, and tired of asking Iraqis what they thought while they were in the presence of American soldiers.

What were Iraqis saying when Americans weren't in the room? That's what I wanted to know. Even if I had disembedded myself from the Army and wandered around Iraq by myself, I still wouldn't be able to figure that out because I'm an American, too.

"You're right," Sergeant Franklin said. "You practically have to beat a straight answer out of people. I'll take you to meet this guy Sayid who works for us and tells it just like it is."

"How did you meet him?" I said.

"He's been around for a while," he said. "He's been a source for the Army for years. Each unit that rotates out hands him over to the next unit as a known good guy who tells it to you straight and really knows what's going on."

So Franklin took me outside the wire to Sayid's house. Sayid wasn't really his name. That's just what I'm calling him here because I need to conceal his identity.

We were in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. It was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein's government, and a stronghold of support for Al Qaeda more recently. Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who make up around 15-20 percent of the country's population, are by the far the most anti-American. Yet Adhamiyah appeared, on the surface at least, to be no more hostile to Americans than Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kids with Tiny Iraqi Flag Bahgdad.jpg

I needed help from reliable straight-shooting Iraqis to see the truth behind the façade. I can't know if everything Sayid told me was true, but what he told me was a lot more interesting and substantial than the "America good" boilerplate I often heard from random civilians.

What I wanted from Sayid was a glimpse into the Iraqi psyche, which he delivered. He also shared with me his vision of Iraq's future. And I should warn you that his vision is not pretty. (For optimistic assessments, see The Future of Iraq Part I and The Future of Iraq Part II.)

Four of us sat on couches in his living room – me, Sergeant Franklin, Lieutenant Eric Kuylman, and our Iraqi interpreter "Tom." We didn't need to bring Tom with us, though. Sayid spoke near-perfect English.

I'm going to skip the exposition and switch to interview mode. Our conversation speaks for itself.

-

MJT: They say you're a good guy to talk to because you give straight answers. It's hard to get straight answers in Iraq.

Sayid: Yeah.

MJT: Can you explain to me why that is? I mean, I have an idea why, but I'm sure you understand it better than I do.

Sayid: It's the formula of our community. There are many kinds of people. I will give you a straight answer, but it's Iraqi like me.

Just 20 percent of our people are good. 80 percent are bad. You should know that.

MJT: I've heard that. You're not the first Iraqi who has said this to me.

Sayid: The bad people won't give you a straight answer if you ask them about anything. For example, if you ask them about electricity. Is it good or bad? If they have 12 hours of electricity a day, they will say they have just one hour.

Baghdad Electrical Wires Sayid.jpg
Baghdad's electrical wires

MJT: So they say it's worse than it is.

Sayid: Yes. They don't tell the truth about this stuff. And that's just an example. And if you ask a deeper question, you can imagine the kinds of things they will say.

MJT: Why is that? Why is it hard to get a straight answer out of people? Is it cultural, or is it political?

Sayid: The main reason is because our community is too selfish. They love themselves very much. All they think about is their stomach. They want to enjoy themselves, and everyone else can go to hell. You should know that.

Billboards Sadr City.jpg
Billboard in Sadr City, Baghdad

MJT: What percentage of the people do you think are bad in a way that causes security problems?

Sayid: I will answer you honestly.

MJT: Please.

Sayid: I'm shocked at the number of people who supported the Al Qaeda organization. It was about 60 percent.

MJT: In the past, you mean.

Sayid: Yes, in the past. Not now.

MJT: Why so many?

Sayid: I don't know. A lieutenant came yesterday and showed me a picture of a terrorist he was looking for. I know this man. He is a good person. I am shocked. I asked the lieutenant what this guy did, and he told me all kinds of bad things. They are normal humans, you know. They look like me and you.

MJT: Of course.

Sayid: It was 60 to 70 percent. That's a huge number.

MJT: But it's less now.

Sayid: Of course.

MJT: Why is it less?

Sayid: Because they have money. They have a job. The coalition helped them.

Two Iraqis White Shirts Mustansiriya.jpg

MJT: So they supported Al Qaeda for money. Not for politics. What do people here actually think about the American forces? I hear contradictory things. They seem friendly on the surface, and there is a lot less violence now. So anti-Americanism must be somewhat reduced. And yet I hear from some Iraqis that 80 percent of the people in this area don't like the American forces and want them to leave. So I'm not sure how to sort all this out.

Sayid: The American forces help people in this area, you know. There was a time when the militias ruled this area. They were shooting people. When the Americans came, they could no longer do that. The Americans secured the area. And of course anyone who gives security is loved. He is a friend.

But in the depths of their minds, no. They don't have any love for American forces. They always say Americans are bad people. They know the truth, but still they say this. They know Saddam Hussein caused a big mess in the region, but they ignore that. They ignore the truth. They hang all the responsibility on the American forces. But American forces secure them, give them help, give them money, give them a job. All the people in Adhamiyah working for the municipality, the Iraqi Army, and the Iraqi Police is because of the American forces. And they know that. But when you sit with them and talk with them, face to face, Iraqi to Iraqi, they don't say that. They say all bad things come from America. They ignore the truth.

If you give them money and jobs, they're good. If you cut the money, you will see another face. You will see the guns and the roadside bombs again.

You Will See Another Face Baghdad.jpg

MJT: Where does the anti-Americanism come from? Is it because Americans invaded Iraq, or is it older than that?

Sayid: In Adhamiyah they loved Saddam Hussein too much. I'm not from here. I moved here about four years ago.

MJT: Are you Sunni also? I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't ask you that.

Sayid: I don't believe in that.

MJT: That's a good answer.

Sayid: I believe in God, but it's just that.

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Lieutenant Eric Kuylman

Lieutenant Kuylman: Adhamiyah is about 95 percent Sunni. Compared to other parts of Baghdad, Adhamiyah is spoiled. The first thing we heard when we came here is "we work so hard." They're used to having electricity. They're used to having water. Saddam took good care of them, and they didn't pay anything. He even fled here for a time. A lot of people are still very sympathetic to him, and that feeds into the politics.

Sayid, I don't mean to speak for you. This is just what I've gathered from people. A lot of people here are very distrustful of the government, not only because of what happened with the elections last time, but also because they view the Sunni stake in government as a sham. We may view our government having our back on a bailout or something like that, but they don't view their government as on their side. But if you ask people in some Shia-dominated areas, they'll say they back the government more.

As far as the current sentiment toward us right now, I think we're seeing a hangover. It's like the morning after. We've been here for five or six years, and now that violence isn't an issue, militias aren't patrolling the streets, and people aren't tearing each other apart, it's all about money. It's all business. Gimme gimme. "If you're here and occupying the country and cutting me off on my roads, what are you going to give me now for it?" They've seen how much money we have, and now they just expect it. So if we're not going to do anything good, we're just going to piss them off more the longer we stay.

MJT: [To Lieutenant Kuylman.] That makes sense. [To Sayid.] Does that sound about right to you?

Sayid: [Nods.]

Lieutenant Kuylman: Everyone was glad that the Americans were here, that Sahawa was here, as long as there was a bad guy out there to fight. Fast-forward a year later to when the violence is down, and you have Sahawa on the street corners acting like gangs and militias.

Sayid: They are gangs.

Lieutenant Kuylman: Sometimes they treat people badly, depending on which area you're in.

MJT: You're talking about the Sons of Iraq?

Lieutenant Kuylman: The Sons of Iraq, yeah. Depending on which area you go to, people have a different view of them. And now with us, we pumped all that money in shops and into Sahawa, so they know we have money. But if they don't see constant improvement, then they wonder why we're still here. They look at us and say "what have you done for us lately?"

Sayid: [To Lieutenant Kuylman.] I have a question for you. You pumped a huge amount of money. What do you think has changed? If you pay a lot of money, you should expect something from it.

Soldier on Long Street Sadr City.jpg

Lieutenant Kuylman: The logic is that once you secure an area, if people have something to live for, if they have something they want to protect, if they have something to lose, they'll have a stake in their community. They'll have ownership. If they have a nice business now, they won't want to lose their business. You know what I mean? So we gave people that. We injected money into the economy and people spent it. They spent it on other goods. If I give a guy 2,000 dollars for his shop, he stands to lose something. Before he had nothing. Now he has employees, he feeds his family. The logic is that if we do that across the board, people won't let everything all go to shit.

Sayid: Yeah.

Lieutenant Kuylman: Because they don't want to lose what they have. That's what we put all our money on. That's what we bet on. That they'll fight to keep it. But the flip side is that we now have people who expect us to do things for them with money, and the money supply is not endless.

Sayid: Yes, that's good, wise, and logical. But I'll tell you something. That was the logic of the Saddam regime, too. He's dead, but some people still believe in him even though they don't get anything from him now. If you see the old houses by the Hanifa Mosque, it's misery. They're sinking in black water. I don't know why they love Saddam, those people.

Lieutenant Kuylman: I don't know if those people love Saddam, but if you cross Omar Street, those people have good houses. Those people are sitting good.

Sayid: And, of course, educated people think about logic. If someone didn't pass primary school, you can't expect much from him.

Boy and Donkey Baghdad.jpg

Lieutenant Kuylman: And that gets to another thing in Adhamiyah. Where you are right now is the lower – don't take this the wrong way, Sayid – but it's the lower class, with less education and less money. The further you go toward the east, the more people you'll find who used to have government administration jobs. They've got former colonels in the Iraqi Army, college-educated kids, English-speaking families.

Sayid: Of course, money makes life fun.

MJT: What do people here think of Al Qaeda now?

Sayid: They don't love them.

MJT: In the past, though...

Sayid: In the past they helped them and even opened their hearts to them. Al Qaeda are really bad people. They even rape women, and you can't do anything. They kill people right in front of your eyes, and you can't do anything.

Young Woman and Boyfriend Baghdad.jpg

MJT: What were people here expecting from those guys? They must have known Al Qaeda was doing this sort of thing in other places, in Afghanistan, in New York City. Maybe they liked Al Qaeda for what they did in New York City.

Sayid: It's a religious thing. They think if they kill someone like me, someone like you, they will go to heaven. If they have a big bomb and they kill us all, they'll go to heaven. They fill people's minds with this crap, that there are beautiful chicks in heaven.

MJT: Were people here expecting Al Qaeda to kill only Americans?

Sayid: No, no, no.

MJT: I'm trying to figure out what kind of mental shift went on here.

Sayid: They love to kill people like me.

MJT: I know it. But why did people here support them before and now they don't? What changed their minds?

Sayid: They didn't see the bad face of Al Qaeda before. If Al Qaeda didn't rape wives and all the other bad things, Al Qaeda would have support even now. There is still a sleeping cell in Adhamiyah.

MJT: How do you know that?

Sayid: I know it. It's my job to know.

MJT: Do you know who they are?

Sayid: Yesterday I showed a lieutenant a house of Al Qaeda leaders in Adhamiyah. He didn't know where they lived. I have many relationships, and from those relationships I can collect information about them. So I showed the lieutenant two houses. One of these guys killed his sister's husband.

Lieutenant Kuylman: Why did he kill his sister's husband?

Sayid: Because his sister's husband was Shia.

Lieutenant Kuylman: It's not so much that people here have turned against Al Qaeda. If people in Adhamiyah are against anything, it's the Jaysh al Mahdi militia and the "Special Groups." They will vehemently blame everything on Jaysh al Mahdi and Iran because they're Sunni. So you don't see too many explicit denunciations of Al Qaeda. They think of it more as a business issue.

Sergeant Franklin: Look at the Abu Hanifa Mosque. I wouldn't say it's a breeding ground, but it's a haven. It's a nice place to hide. We can't go in there.

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Sergeant Nick Franklin

MJT: The imam is radical?

Lieutenant Kuylman: Well, he was detained. He doesn't like us very much. I wouldn't say he's a radical, but he's not cool.

MJT: What do people here think of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police?

Sayid: They don't trust them. All of them come from the Shia militias. From Jaysh al Mahdi.

MJT: They're mostly Shias in the police and the army here?

Sayid: Yes.

MJT: Isn't that kind of stupid? Who makes these decisions?

Lieutenant Kuylman: The Iraqi Police came from Sadr City. The logic was that the Iraqi Police in Sadr City were so corrupt, yet they couldn't really afford to fire them all. So they just swapped them.

IP with Jacketx.jpg

Sayid: [Laughs.]

MJT: So they have Sunnis as police in Sadr City?

Lieutenant Kuylman: I think they do. All the police here are Shias. And they're completely ineffective. They patrol on their own, and no one will go to the police.

MJT: So people around here don't like American soldiers very much, but they trust Americans more than they trust their own police?

Sayid: Yes. That's right. The only people anyone trusts are the American forces.

MJT: So they don't like Americans, but they trust Americans.

Sayid: Yes. I told you, it's complicated and strange.

MJT: It is. I knew it was complicated before I walked in your door.

Loitering Men Baghdad.jpg

Sergeant Franklin: They know that if they get detained by us, it's a nice thing. If they get detained by the Iraqi Army or Iraqi Police, they might not come out alive. Or they might be missing a finger. If they get detained by us, they don't really care. They know they'll get out soon and they're not going to get beaten.

Lieutenant Kuylman: They think we're the lesser of evils.

Sergeant Franklin: And they know how to play the game, too. If they cry abuse, it might get us in trouble. They watch TV.

Lieutenant Kuylman: They know there's a system we all abide by. We treat everybody the same.

MJT: You were saying the Sons of Iraq was like a gang. What did you mean, exactly? There are different kinds of gangs.

Sayid: I'll tell you something. Maybe this isn't the answer you're looking for, but I know why you're asking. And I'll tell you something. If the American forces leave this area before two or three years, the people will start fighting each other. You should know that.

Desolate Street Sadr City.jpg

MJT: That's the big question right now.

Sayid: I see that. I know it will happen. I live here. I've been shot at, even with a tank.

MJT: By whom?

Sayid: The Iraqi Army. Eh, not a tank. A soldier carrier. I was walking.

Lieutenant Kuylman: A lot of people say things will implode after we leave. They'll blame it on politics and religion, but it's not going to be any of that shit. It's going to be about straight power. It's going to be guys trying to one-up each other. It's going to be key people in cities just like this who will want to seize the power gaps. It's going to break down along tribal lines and these militias that we've put in place. When we pull out, there will be power vacuums. There will be pockets of people that we've put in power. I mean, everybody already has shaky alliances as it is. So what you're going to see is the straight seizing of power. People are going to try to put their own tags on it, but it's just about the seizure of power. It's not going to be Sunni or Shia, nothing like it. It will be all about men who want control.

MJT: Does everybody here think this is what's going to happen?

Sayid: No.

MJT: Is it a majority opinion, or a minority opinion?

Sayid: Minority.

MJT: Most people think it will be okay?

Sayid: Simple people. Uneducated people. The same 80 percent of people I was talking about before. They don't see beyond their own nose.

Iraqi Man on Fast Looking Moped.jpg

MJT: Is there any way to avoid this? Assuming you're right. I mean, nobody really knows what will happen until it happens.

Sayid: It's complicated. I'll tell you something. We're Arabs. But first we are selfish and greedy. If you visit a house, a neighbor, you will see that if someone's neighbor is driving a nice car, he doesn't feel good. He feels bad because the neighbor has a nice car. So, of course, he is envious of him. He will do anything to hurt him. When the civilian war happened, neighbors threw away their own neighbors. They said "if you don't leave your house right now, we will kill you and your family." They said this to people who were their neighbors for thirty or forty years. You can't imagine.

We don't have honest politicians. Not even in the United States. Politicians are bad. They just give the ignition to start it. The community does the rest. A small child could tell you that.

MJT: [To Iraqi interpreter Tom] Do you think that's true?

Iraqi interpreter Tom: Yeah. I do.

MJT: If you could give advice to the American government, if you could talk to 500 foreign policy professionals, what would you say to them?

Sayid: They should finish what they started. George W. Bush did a good job. I hope President Obama will be honest with the Iraqi people and continue the work. I know the economy is tired from the heavy cost of this war. I know it. I know the American people have suffered, that many American people have lost their jobs. I see it on the TV. I know. I'm watching. But nothing is free. I hope President Obama will continue.

MJT: How long do you think it will take?

Sayid: In my opinion, you're about a quarter of the way finished. Maybe a third. They say the hardest step in the race is the first. Continuing the race is okay. That's my advice to President Obama. If he quits, many bad things will happen.

Trash and Houses Baghdad 3.jpg

MJT: It looks like the Iraqi government is going to throw us out, though.

Sayid: Believe me, Maliki is a dictator in Iraq. If the American government doesn't watch him, he will become a dictator in no time. In four or five years, he will look like Saddam Hussein. Keep on him. He wants to rule. He wants to have the power. Everyone who works in his office are his relatives. He will bring all his tribe.

MJT: That's how it is everywhere.

Sayid: No, no. In the States?

MJT: I mean, in this region. It's like that everywhere in this region.

Junk Dealing in Iraq.jpg

Sayid: In this area? Yeah. It is. Except Israel and Lebanon. They have democracy. But the rest of them? Syria? Damn. [Laughs.] Iran, too.

If they evacuate the forces from this block, I will be the first one killed. The first one.

MJT: Do people here know you give information to Americans?

Sayid: No.

MJT: I won't quote your real name. I'll give you a fake name.

Sayid: But they know I'm a friend of Americans. The Americans are my family. They saved my life. The Iraqi Army arrested me and hit me until I was unconscious. They kidnapped me from my house. They were dressed as Iraqi Army. Well, they are Iraqi Army. But they also belonged to the militia. They wanted to kill me. But an American, the bravest man I know, saved my life.

MJT: What did he do?

Sayid: He is a captain. He got me out. He knew me from before because he visited me. And we had a kind of bond. And since then I feel that the American people are my family. Not the Iraqi people. People here want to kill me. They kidnapped me to kill me. And Americans saved my life.

I want to leave this country. I have suffered a lot. When my dad died, it was hard when I buried him. I couldn't go to the cemetery because of the shooting. If I took him to the cemetery, they would shoot me. But I went anyway and hoped no one would try it. The cemetery is across the river. There was a sniper shooting at us. We've seen hell. We've seen hell. And that hell, if the American forces evacuate, will repeat. I hope it won't repeat for me.

Dusty Street Baghdad.jpg

MJT: I'm worried that you might be right, but nobody can know for sure until it happens. This is what a lot of people are worried about, though. Not just here, but in the U.S. also.

Sayid: Because they're smart. They think well. They know what's going on. Right now it's okay, but think about the day after. Then bad things will happen. I believe President Obama does not want to do bad things to the Iraqi people.

MJT: Of course he doesn't. He has wanted to leave Iraq all along, but now it's his problem. It wasn't his problem before, but now it is.

Small Junkyard Baghdad 2.jpg

Sayid: Because now he's president.

MJT: Right.

Sayid: He's facing huge pressure. I know that. I'm wondering what I can do with my house and my family. I don't know. If Obama forces an evacuation from Iraq soon, everything will turn against him in this land.

Lieutenant Kuylman: Yeah. Sit on that, Mike.

Sergeant Franklin: Sayid might become an interpreter for us. And if so, he'll be able to go to the States. He, and most of the rest of them, will be happy to turn their backs on Iraq and just go.

-

As we drove back to COP Apache in Humvees, I asked Sergeant Franklin what he thought of Sayid's analysis now that we could talk privately.

"Do you think Sayid was basically right?" I said.

"I do," he said. "There will be a power vacuum here after we leave. They're going to jockey for power. Someone will take over and be dictatorish or an outright dictator, and Iraq will either flourish or it won't."

"I think he's right, too," said our Iraqi interpreter Tom.

Dark Streets at Night Baghdad x1.jpg

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fought with Americans against Iranian-backed Shia militias and won. What I didn't know then, and still don't know now, is whether or not Iran can ramp that violence back up again, or if Tehran's proxy militias have been truly defeated. I asked a number of American military officers what they think about this, and their answers were all over the place. Maybe nobody knows.

Sergeant Franklin was not optimistic.

"I think Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out," he said. "They're still killing our guys, though, and we know it. You know it. But we pretend they aren't so we don't have to open up another front. When we pull out, though, and they know we're almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq."

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:51 AM | Comments (23)

July 21, 2009

What the West Bank Actually Looks Like

Last week, the New York Times published an article about “signs of hope” in the West Bank (and in the city of Nablus in particular) that refreshingly breaks with the standard narrative of Palestinian desperation and misery. The Israeli military recently closed down its checkpoint into the city, along with other checkpoints elsewhere in the territories. The economy is growing instead of contracting. Downtown is full of shoppers. Islamist scolds have backed off. Police make sure passengers have fastened their seat belts.

It sounds like Nablus has more or less become a normal Middle East city.

Earlier this year in Jerusalem, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told me how much the West Bank surprises visitors now. “The other day,” he said, “someone came for the first time ever to this part of the world, and he called me and asked me to take him to Ramallah. So I drove him to downtown Ramallah, and we stopped there. The man was shocked. He said, ‘Where are the refugee camps? Where are the mud houses? Where’s the poverty?’ I said, ‘Why are you asking me these questions?’ He said, ‘I’m shocked. Look how nice it is.’ ”

I laughed out loud because I had a similar experience myself three years ago before the recent improvements. I didn’t expect to see “mud houses.” As far as I know, no one has ever reported the existence of “mud houses” in Ramallah. The usual Palestinian narrative, though, seems to encourage some people’s vivid imaginations.

But I was still startled by what Ramallah actually looked like. I expected to see, and to write about, squalid living conditions. I had already seen the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and the awfulness of those places is hard to describe.

I figured Ramallah wouldn’t be that bad, but I didn’t expect it to look so much better than lots of cities, and not just refugee camps, that I’ve seen in the region.

It was in early 2006, shortly after Hamas won the election, when I took a taxi from the Qalandia checkpoint outside Jerusalem to Ramallah with a Palestinian man named Sufian. Here, in part, is what I wrote at the time:

I stepped out into a surprisingly pleasant urban environment.

“No offense, Sufian, but this city is a lot nicer than I expected,” I said.

“Ramallah is beautiful,” he said with pride.

I didn’t think it was beautiful, exactly, but it did not look even remotely like the Third World war zone it’s reputed to be. I noticed no visible poverty once we left the squalor around the checkpoint. I was, however, warned by Israelis that Ramallah and Bethlehem are much nicer than the rest of the West Bank and need to be judged accordingly.

[…]

Ramallah is also in much better physical condition than the parts of Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah, even though Ramallah has experienced war a lot more recently. In fact, Ramallah is in better condition than any Shia region of Lebanon whether it’s ruled by Hezbollah or not. The only Sunni part of Lebanon that looks nicer than Ramallah is West Beirut.

Ramallah didn’t have the glitz of Beirut or the French-Arab Mediterranean charm of a city like Tunis. But it beat the pants off Cairo, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the whole Arab world. It looked a lot like Amman — an Arab city with a pretty good reputation. It was so much nicer than Baghdad, it’s pointless to even make the comparison.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:25 AM | Comments (20)

July 20, 2009

The Gulag of Our Time

I'm about a third of the way through Bradley K. Martin's epic tome Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Under the Loving Care.jpg

Just about everything you ever wanted to know – and a whole lot more – about the most oppressive country on the face of the earth can be found in that book. Sometimes it's hard to believe a country so thoroughly totalitarian still exists in this world.

Not much journalism comes out of the so-called "hermit kingdom." The Washington Post, though, just published a gruesome expose on its forced labor camps.

A distillation of testimony from survivors and former guards, newly published by the Korean Bar Association, details the daily lives of 200,000 political prisoners estimated to be in the camps: Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist. Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins.

The camps have never been visited by outsiders, so these accounts cannot be independently verified. But high-resolution satellite photographs, now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, reveal vast labor camps in the mountains of North Korea. The photographs corroborate survivors' stories, showing entrances to mines where former prisoners said they worked as slaves, in-camp detention centers where former guards said uncooperative prisoners were tortured to death and parade grounds where former prisoners said they were forced to watch executions. Guard towers and electrified fences surround the camps, photographs show.

"We have this system of slavery right under our nose," said An Myeong Chul, a camp guard who defected to South Korea. "Human rights groups can't stop it. South Korea can't stop it. The United States will have to take up this issue at the negotiating table."

But the camps have not been discussed in meetings between U.S. diplomats and North Korean officials. By exploding nuclear bombs, launching missiles and cultivating a reputation for hair-trigger belligerence, the government of Kim Jong Il has created a permanent security flash point on the Korean Peninsula -- and effectively shoved the issue of human rights off the negotiating table.

"Talking to them about the camps is something that has not been possible," said David Straub, a senior official in the State Department's office of Korean affairs during the Bush and Clinton years. There have been no such meetings since President Obama took office.

"They go nuts when you talk about it," said Straub, who is now associate director of Korean studies at Stanford University.

Nor have the camps become much of an issue for the American public, even though annotated images of them can be quickly called up on Google Earth and even though they have existed for half a century, 12 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulag. Although precise numbers are impossible to obtain, Western governments and human groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the North Korean camps.

You can read the whole thing here. Even better, you can buy Martin's exhaustive book here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:21 PM | Comments (6)

July 19, 2009

"Marg Bar Fascism"

Iran's 1979 revolution devoured its children, as revolutions so often do.

At Open Democracy, Fred Halliday suggests the current upheaval in Iran is, in some ways, an attempt to do it all over again -- and perhaps even get it right this time.

Many who know the modern history of Iran - be they Iranian or someone like myself who followed (and in part witnessed) the events of 1978-79 when the Islamic Republic came into being - will be struck by the many parallels, insights, warnings and differences offered by that earlier moment and the post-election upsurge of 2009. The apparel, slogans and precise demands may seem far apart, but at heart the opposed forces are similar.

The urge to repress, and above all the contempt for the peacefully and democratically expressed views of others, were evident in the first months of the Islamic Republic; they reached a critical point in the mobilisations of summer 1979, when left and liberal forces - seeking to defend press freedom, the rights of women and of ethnic minorities - were confronted by gangs of hizbullahi thugs, mass pro-Khomeini demonstrations, and the newly established pasdaran forces, all determined to subdue the yearnings for such freedom and rights.

I recall, in particular, an educative encounter in August 1979 with a Revolutionary Guard who had come with his colleagues to close down the offices of the independent newspaper Ayandegan. When I asked this pasdar what he was doing, he replied: "We are defending the revolution!". "Why are you therefore closing the paper?", I asked. "This newspaper is shit", he declared. When I suggested that 2 million people read the paper, he replied, without reservation: "All right, then these 2 million people are shit too!" Thus was my induction into the political culture of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

[…]

In the same way that Lenin and the Bolsheviks pushed aside not only their Czarist opponents, but also Russian liberals, social-revolutionaries and Mensheviks, so Khomeini and his associates set out to monopolise the post-revolutionary state and extinguish both their political rivals and the very memory of their contribution to a history that belongs to all Iranians. It is the great contribution of the brave citizens of Iran who took to the streets in June 2009, and affirmed their rights in peaceful and dignified fashion, to have reclaimed this truth.

Their demonstrations thus have opened a door to Iran's past as well as the future. Another slogan of the epic popular tide of 1978-79 - marg bar fascism, marg bar irtija (death to fascism, death to reaction) - may yet combine with the marg bar dictator of the marches of 2009 in a way that heralds the end of the demagogic clique that now rules Iran. The people of Iran, and their friends and admirers the world over, can only hope that this day comes sooner rather than later.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:43 AM | Comments (34)

Time for a Re-Think

This is really extraordinary:

Throughout the political campaign Barack Obama argued that he was a staunch friend of Israel. In Cairo, in his ground-breaking speech to the Islamic world, he asserted America was committed to the security of Israel. Wherever he goes he says he is committed to upholding America's long history of supporting the Jewish state.

So how come a Jerusalem Post poll conducted late last month says only six percent of Israelis think the Obama administration is pro-Israel, down from almost five times that in the early weeks of the administration? This is such a low number that it clearly cuts across all parties, demographic and social groups within Israel. It effectively says that something that Obama has done in his first six months in office has convinced virtually all the Israeli people (at least to the extent the poll is truly representative of the people of Israel) that he's not what he said he was.

I was in Israel when President Obama was inaugurated. I watched the inauguration on television in Jerusalem at the American Jewish Committee office. Most Israelis in the room seemed deeply moved, much more so than I was. Some were nearly in tears. I wonder how they feel now.

Precious little, if any, good is likely to come from this. Michael Doran lays it all out at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard Web site. I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, but here's the bottom line:

The White House has sacrificed some credibility on the Israeli side, but it surely must have recouped its losses by garnering Arab goodwill. Think again.

[…]

The American engine is revving loudly, but the administration cannot put the car in gear, because significant obstacles block the way. President Obama will soon realize, if he hasn’t already, that the map that his advisers handed him does not match the terrain of the region. He can take some consolation in the fact that every president before him has reached a similar point in the road. Some of them, like Eisenhower, developed new maps as they went along. Others, like Carter, never did. Their place in history has, in part, been determined by their ability to chart a new course.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:10 AM | Comments (61)

July 17, 2009

A Microcosm of World Politics

Iranians like to shout "death" at countries and governments they oppose. "Death to America" and "death to Israel" have been staples of the bombast belted out by hard-line ruling authorities for three decades. "Death to the dictator" is a recent addition to Iran's political discourse.

Even more recently, enemies and opponents of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Ali Khamenei began chanting "death to Russia" and "death to China" to counter the regime's incessant bleatings of "death to America," and to highlight the Islamic Republic's alliance with Beijing and Moscow.

Iran's internal divisions look more like a microcosm of world politics than they have for some time. Each side is declared a proxy of powerful foreigners. Natrually, each side's "patrons" oppose each other geopolitically. Whether the White House likes it or not, and whether it's a good thing or not, the reformist and revolutionary side in that fight will continue to be associated with the United States and the West.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:39 PM | Comments (5)

Don't Forget Iran

Iran is in turmoil again. I'm busy with something else at the moment, but Nico Pitney is on it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:43 PM | Comments (3)

July 16, 2009

Arguing for Uncertainty

Andrew Bostom – pal of Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller – bizarrely accuses me of being an uninformed dogmatist for publishing a "roseate view" of Iraq, even though my article in question was dedicated to quoting Iraqis and American soldiers with a gloomy view of Iraq. The Future of Iraq Part III just wasn't dogmatically down-beat enough for old Andy Bostom, I guess.

The Future of Iraq Part IV will be published here shortly. Everyone I'll quote in that piece is also pessimistic about what's likely to happen in Iraq now that American troops are withdrawing from urban areas. For more optimistic assessments, see The Future of Iraq Part I and The Future of Iraq Part II.

The reason I'm publishing competing narratives about the future of Iraq is because anything's possible and I'm no longer arrogant enough to think I have it all figured out.

James Fallows politely argues with his colleague Robert Kaplan, whom I recently interviewed here, in The Atlantic. "Arguing for uncertainty," he wrote, "or for many possible futures that will in fact be shaped by real choices by real human beings, may seem weak and unsatisfying. On the other hand: it conforms to the facts...."

Jeffrey Goldberg, also at The Atlantic, agrees. I interviewed him here recently, too. "Anyone who acts like they’ve figured out the entire Middle East doesn’t know anything," he said. "People who tell you they understand and know the answer? Demagogues. They’re either idiots or demagogues."

*I removed a gratuitous insult from this post.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:38 PM | Comments (91)

July 15, 2009

Blumenthal Feels the Hate

Max Blumenthal, son of former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, made quite a splash on the Internet recently when he posted a video portraying drunken Americans in Israel hurling racist epithets against President Barack Obama. One of his subjects even shouted “white power!” Blumenthal titled his video “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem,” as if inebriated ugly Americans abroad reflect in any way on the opinions of people who live in Jerusalem. You can’t watch the video because YouTube removed it due to a “terms of service violation.”

Blumenthal is back with a sequel, however. This one is called Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv. The Huffington Post pulled the plug, but it’s still available on YouTube at the time of this writing.

This time around, he features Israelis, not foreigners, who might even live in Tel Aviv. But just like in the first installment of his juvenile series, he goes out of his way to showcase Israelis with offensive opinions. While attending the White Night music festival, for instance, he managed to find two individuals who don’t like Iranians. “I hate them,” said one. “I hate them all,” said another. If he asked anyone else what they thought of Iranians, their response did not make the cut.

It might have been interesting if Blumenthal had aired the opinions of a large number Israelis about their feelings for Iranians when Israel and Iran are in a state of cold war — especially now that millions have risked beatings and worse while taking to the Iranian streets and screaming “death to the dictator.” (It would also be worthwhile for a reporter to canvass Iranian public opinion among those attending anti-regime rallies and ask what they think about the people of Israel.) The “Green Revolution” broke out in Iran after Blumenthal shot his footage. But he apparently doesn’t care whether he makes Israelis look like anti-Iranian bigots at a time when most of the world has just learned that Iranians detest the deranged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as much as everyone else.

After editing out or ignoring the opinions of thousands of reasonable Israelis at the White Night festival, he proceeded toward Tel Aviv University, where he edited out or ignored the opinions of reasonable people on campus.

“Do you think they [Israeli Arabs] are traitors?” he asked a student. “Yeah,” said the student. Another said he wants to see Israelis of Arab descent at the university deported to Gaza. “If you want to keep democracy,” said yet another, “you can’t let people protest against the country.” And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with quoting extremists. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing exclusively on extremists if they’re the subject. I’ve done it. Lots of journalists do it. Responsible journalists, though, make it clear to their audience that extremists are, well, extremists.

Here’s the problem with Blumenthal’s series: I’ve met exactly one person in Israel who talked like the people he featured in his videos. And I’ve been there twice when tempers were flaring, when Israel was under mortar, rocket, and missile attack. It’s certainly possible that I’ve met more than one person like Blumenthal’s crowd without knowing it. Perhaps a few of my interview subjects had the good sense to keep their bigoted thoughts to themselves. I don’t wander around Israel, or any other country, trying to bait people like Borat. In any case, since Blumenthal can’t be bothered to acknowledge that he went quote shopping, those of us familiar with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ought to point out to everyone else that his videos don’t remotely represent average people who live there.

Author, historian, and Jerusalem resident Yaacov Lozowick didn’t take kindly to the first episode Blumenthal shot in his home town. “Say you’re interviewing the locals at Time Square about some matter,” he wrote, “so as to figure out what Americans think. Inevitably, you’ll come across a lot of tourists, it being Time Square, but what are the chances you’ll find not a single card-carrying American? And if that happens, and you then post your video to Youtube to castigate America, what does that tell us about you?”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:09 AM | Comments (19)

July 14, 2009

A Smoldering Disaffection with the President's Policy

Marty Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, voted for President Barack Obama as you'd expect from the boss at a left-leaning magazine. But he has some complaints about the president's foreign policy, as do I. (I more or less approve so far of Obama's handling of Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.)

Frankly, I am sick and tired of President Obama's eldering--more accurately, hectoring--Israel's leaders. It is, after all, they whose country is the target of an armed and ideological cyclone that Obama has done precious little to ease. He brought nothing back from Riyadh and Cairo, absolutely nothing except the conviction of the Arab leaders that they need do nothing but sit and wait until the president squeezes one concession after another out of Jerusalem. Oops, I apologize. Maybe I should still say Tel Aviv. In any case, waiting is exactly what they are doing. Palestinian President Abbas has prided himself in doing just that. He had said so, as I pointed out in this space a few weeks ago.

Maybe you weren't offended by Obama's advice to Israel, via some 15 American Jewish leaders, that it had to "engage in serious self-reflection," as if it took its perils frivolously. But I know many Democrats who are; they're just a bit intimidated to say so.

I also know Democrats who voted for Barack Obama who think his Israel policy is obnoxious and are afraid to say so out loud. We'll see how much longer that lasts.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:35 PM | Comments (49)

Problem with the Comments Section

All comments, including my own, that include links are instantly deleted by my publishing software. Anyone who writes something in the comments section with even a single embedded link will see a message claiming the comment will be published after I approve it. But that isn't actually happening. These comments are being deleted straight away before I even have the chance to look at them, let alone approve them. I'm not sure what the problem is. This is not a feature. It's a bug. Any ideas?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:59 PM | Comments (5)

July 13, 2009

We Are Not at War with Nouri al-Maliki

Robert Spencer, founder and lead writer for Jihad Watch, has a bit of trouble telling the difference between friend and foe in Iraq and still thinks, despite everything, that the United States is losing the war.

Instead of referring to me by name, he sarcastically dismisses me as a “learned analyst,” as he does with President Barack Obama and his advisors, while scoffing at a long dispatch I published last week. “No insurgent or terrorist group can declare victory or claim Americans are evacuating Iraq’s cities because they were beaten,” I wrote. Spencer acknowledges that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isn’t the leader of an insurgent or terrorist group. But he maintains that my statement is “breathtaking in its disconnect from reality” because Maliki declared the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq’s cities “a great victory.”

We are not, and never have been, at war with Prime Minister Maliki. Everyone with even a pedestrian familiarity with events in Iraq during the last couple of years knows that American soldiers and Marines have fought alongside Maliki’s Iraqi soldiers and police against common enemies – Al Qaeda in Iraq and the various offshoots and branches of Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

Not even in an alternate universe have Maliki’s men fought Americans and forced them to withdraw. They fought, bled, and died alongside Americans. The United States military recently withdrew from most of Iraq’s urban areas as stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration, but they’re still training and working closely with Iraqi security forces.

Maliki’s “great victory” statement was an attempt to suck up to the anti-Americans in his electoral constituency who are unhappy with his close relationship with the United States. Iraq’s most sectarian Sunni Arabs regularly accuse Maliki of being an Iranian puppet prime minister when they aren’t contradicting themselves by joining radical Shias and saying he’s an American puppet prime minister. Maliki is closer to Iran than Americans and Iraq’s Sunnis would like, but he’s much closer to the United States where it counts most. He has never sent his men into battle against Americans. But he did order his soldiers into battle alongside Americans last year against Iranian-backed Shia militias in Sadr City and Basra. He also put the Sons of Iraq – whom he used to decry as an anti-Shia Sunni militia – on his government’s payroll.

I don’t know if throwing a rhetorical bone to Iraq’s most strident anti-Americans to shore up his nationalist bona fides is a good idea or if it isn’t. Either way, it’s not hard to see that’s what he’s doing. And it’s frankly ridiculous for Spencer to write as though I have no idea what’s going on in Iraq when he thinks a political speech for domestic consumption overrides the fact that for years Maliki has been at war not against us but with us against our mutual enemies.

Does Spencer believe that, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, Maliki sympathizes with the terrorists and insurgents he recently crushed?

“In any case,” Spencer writes, “any ‘victory’ the Americans won in Iraq was sure to be undone as soon as the troops were gone, and we are already seeing that. Sunni will go after Shi’ite and vice versa, the Iranians will press forward to create a Shi’ite client state, the non-Muslims will be victimized more than ever…”

Iraq has made a fool of just about everyone, including me, who has claimed to know in advance what the future would look like. The entire Middle East makes fools of its prophets. Most of us who work there eventually learn this the hard way. Nobody can know what’s going to happen in Iraq now that the U.S. is pulling back.

Spencer’s view might by chance be correct. Around half the Iraqis and half the Americans I’ve spoken to in Iraq think the country is more likely than not to disintegrate. The other half don’t. And the optimists who live and work over there, just like the pessimists, know more about Iraq than Robert Spencer and I do combined.

UPDATE: Maliki was interviewed a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ: What message do you want to convey during your visit to America, especially since it comes after the June 30th withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraqi cities?

Mr. Maliki: The message will be to ensure the basis of our relations and our friendship, which is a long-term strategic relationship. There are many parts to that, like trade and investment. I will convey the wish of Iraq for friendship with the U.S. We have a combined victory against terrorism, and there have been sacrifices from both sides that brought fruitful results and democracy to Iraq. Also, we will emphasize the two agreements, the strategic framework agreement and the withdrawal [security] agreement. Also, I've met a lot of officials from the U.S. but I still need to meet many of them because friendships must be clear. If we increase the number of meetings and we have questions in our minds, we can ask them and answer them in person so that our friendship is clear.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:26 PM | Comments (21)

Abbas Goes to Eleven

David Hazony has a must-read piece in Commentary about the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the clearest indicators as to whether you are negotiating with someone who actually wants to reach a deal, or alternatively has no intention of closing but is negotiating for other reasons, is how your partner responds to concessions on your part. Let’s say you’re trying to buy a baseball card for five dollars, and the seller wants ten. If you up your offer to seven, and he really wants to cut a deal, then he might lower it to nine. If he insists on sticking to ten, it probably means that either he’s a tough negotiator, or he thinks he can get ten from someone else.

But what if he responds by raising the price? What if he, to quote a great movie, “goes to eleven”?

Crazy as it sounds, this is what often happens in negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. According to widely held rumors, the main reason Netanyahu did not succeed in cutting a deal with Syria on the Golan during his previous term of office was that each time the Israelis raised their offer, the Syrians raised their demands, with the definition of the “Golan” moving increasingly West until it hit the Sea of Galilee. With Jordan and Egypt, however, it was the opposite: An agreement could be reached because both sides wanted it.

So, what about the Palestinians? All too often it seems as though the more Israel gives, the greater the demands. Everyone seems to think that the final outcome of the deal will be somewhere between what Netanyahu is saying and what Obama is saying: A sovereign Palestinian state taking up between 97 and 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, maybe some part of Jerusalem, and some kind of formula invented to deal with the “right of return,” the unity of Jerusalem, and so on.

Now that Netanyahu has conceded the biggest part of this — the idea of statehood itself — we might have expected Abbas to show a little give on his position. Instead, the demands have suddenly increased. The Palestinian leader is now insisting on “territorial continuity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Okay, now look at a map. Once Israelis toyed with the idea of bridges and tunnels, some way of moving safely between the two parts of Palestine. But something about the phrase “territorial continuity” suggests more than this. It means actual land. In other words: Slicing Israel in half.

Read the rest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 AM | Comments (21)

July 12, 2009

"It's the Militia or Me"

I've never believed politics should get in the way of romantic relationships. My parents are political opposites, and so are my in-laws. My wife and I have our disagreements as well as our similarities.

But sometimes, in certain contexts, politics should be an issue. Iran in 2009 is one of those places and times. I almost feel sorry for this guy in the head-cracking Basij militia, but I don't really:

For Mr. Moradani, the biggest shock during the election turmoil came in his personal life. He had recently gotten engaged to a young woman from a devout, conservative family. A week into the protests, he says, his fiancée called him with an ultimatum. If he didn't leave the Basij and stop supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad, he recalls her saying, she wouldn't marry him.

He told her that was impossible. "I suffered a real emotional blow," he says. "She said to me, 'Go beat other people's children then,' and 'I don't want to have anything to do with you,' and hung up on me."

(Hat tip: Gene at Harry's Place.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:24 PM | Comments (21)

July 8, 2009

The Future of Iraq, Part III

Future of Iraq Part III.jpg

On my last trip to Iraq, I asked a number of Americans and Iraqis what they think about the future in that country. Around half were optimistic and half were pessimistic. This is the third installment in a four-part series. Optimists were quoted at length in parts one and two. I'm giving equal time here to the pessimists.

The United States has basically won the war in Iraq. No insurgent or terrorist group can declare victory or claim Americans are evacuating Iraq’s cities because they were beaten. America's most modest foreign policy objectives there have been largely secured. Saddam Hussein's toxic regime has been replaced with a more or less consensual government. I doubt very much that Iraq will seriously threaten the United States or its neighbors any time soon. It isn't likely to be ruled by terrorists as it probably would have been if the United States left between 2004 and 2007. It’s a relief. A few years ago, I was all but certain the U.S. would withdraw under fire and leave Iraq in the hands of militias. Even so, many have a hard time feeling optimistic about the future. Iraq remains, in some ways, a threat to itself.

The reduction in violence and the winding down of the conflict allowed me to see the country a little more clearly than I could when I first visited Baghdad. I’m sorry to report that the city is still as run-down and dysfunctional as it was when what passed for daily life was punctuated by gunfire and car bombs. Iraq is backward and messy not only by Western standards, but by Arabic standards.

Trash and Houses Sadr City.jpg

“A lot of people want us to stay or they will leave,” U.S. Army Sergeant Nick Franklin told me. “They don't care where they go. They want to go to America, to Europe, or even to Jordan or some other Arab country. They don't care. They just want out.”

You might want out, too, if you lived there. Violence has been drastically reduced, but sectarian tension remains just as bad, if not worse, as it is in Lebanon – and the possibility of renewed civil strife hangs over Lebanon like the Sword of Damocles. Iraq is still violent compared with most countries, and the entire government and security forces are shot through with corruption. Electricity still doesn’t work half the time. Sewage still runs in the streets. Neighborhoods are still clotted with an appalling amount of garbage. Police officers steal from citizens and often beat suspects up not during but before interrogations.

I asked several American soldiers if it was safe enough for me to walk the streets on my own without armed protection. Few thought that would be wise.

“I wouldn't try it,” Sergeant Manuel Juarez said. “I wouldn't even think of it. Who is to say that these Sons of Iraq guys don't still have some ties to Al Qaeda? Once in a while we get reports about one of them being shady.”

Sergeant Juarez Adhamiyah.jpg
Sergeant Manuel Juarez

The Sons of Iraq work for the Iraqi government as low level security officers, basically as neighborhood watchmen.

“Sons of Iraq is shady as hell,” said another soldier who overheard our conversation and preferred not to be named. “I know as a fact that they're shady as hell.”

“What do you know?” I said.

“I don't know anything,” he said and looked away. That was all he would tell me.

Plainclothes IP Adhamiyah.jpg
An armed Sons of Iraq member, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

We were in Adhamiyah, a mostly Sunni area north of the city center and east of the Tigris. It was a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein’s regime, and a stronghold of support for Al Qaeda more recently. American infantry soldiers at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Apache, next to the famous Gunner Palace, hosted me during my stay.

Staff Sergeant Christianson said he didn’t think I would be much safer when I later moved into the Shia parts of the city even though the Shias, overall, are friendlier toward Americans.

“Hezbollah kills civilians as well as Americans with total disregard for Iraqis,” he said.

He was referring, of course, to Hezbollah in Iraq, not to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, though, is a patron and armorer of both. A crucial difference between the two is that the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah, unlike the Lebanese branch, doesn’t have anything that looks even vaguely like a “political wing.” Its members don’t build hospitals, schools, or anything else. They just kill people.

Hezbollah in Iraq Logo.JPG
Hezbollah in Iraq logo

Hezbollah in Lebanon Flag.JPG
Hezbollah in Lebanon flag

“Jaysh al Mahdi is much more careful and only tries to kill us,” Staff Sergeant Christianson continued. “I don't know why Hezbollah is so much more ruthless, but they are. When we pull out of this country, this place is going to burn.”

No one can know if it really will burn. Many think it will, but not everyone does. Certainly nobody I spoke to hopes that it does. Even the relative optimists, though, are concerned that it might.

“I sure hope this holds,” Sergeant Pennartz said, “because we're going to pull out soon. I think it's a mistake. This country is going to need help for years. But at the same time I really really really don't want to come back here. That's how a lot of us feel. We don't want to pull out, but we also don't want to be here. I just hope the peace holds so we don't have to come back and fight for the ground we already won and abandoned. Again.”

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An American Humvee, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

American soldiers have since withdrawn from most of Iraq’s urban areas. We’ll have a better idea soon enough whether the optimists or the pessimists turn out to be right.

“On the surface everyone will tell you Sunnis, Shias, we don't care, we're all Iraqis,” Sergeant Pennartz continued. “But talk to them for a while and they'll tell you what they really think. Do you know what those Shias did? Et cetera. Some Sunnis say Shias were never in Iraq until the Iran-Iraq war. Some are totally ignorant and say they’ll never live next to Shias. It's worse among the older generations, like back in the States.”

I joined Lieutenant Eric Kuylman and his men on a foot patrol in Adhamiyah. Our convoy of Humvees parked near a traffic circle and we stepped out to talk to people who lived in the neighborhood.

LT Kuylman.jpg
Lieutenant Eric Kuylman

The lieutenant approached a group of young men and asked if they lived in the area.

“I'm from Fallujah,” said the first in good English. “I go to college here and commute three hours each day.”

“It takes three hours to get here from Fallujah?” I said. If Iraq were a normal country, it would only take an hour or so to drive in from there.

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Lieutenant Eric Kuylman (left) speaks to Iraqi college students

“The security checkpoints slow us down,” he said.

“Okay,” Lieutenant Kuylman said. “You guys aren’t from around here. I’m curious, then, what you think of the area.”

“The security is good,” the man said. “I had to quit college in 2006 because it was too dangerous. But I was able to come back this year because it’s safer. I'd like to see American forces here as guests, not carrying weapons or wearing armor.”

“Me, too,” Lieutenant Kuylman said and laughed. He wasn’t indulging the man. He was serious.

“I hope you can leave Iraq soon,” the man said.

“Me, too,” said the lieutenant.

We moved on and I asked our interpreter Tom what the Iraqis in Adhamiyah really think of the American military. He’s an Iraqi who grew up in Baghdad. "Tom" is the nickname he uses to conceal his identity.

“Eighty percent in this area don't like Americans,” he said. “Some want American forces to stay, but most want them to leave.”

“How would you characterize their negative feelings?” I said. “Irritation? Hatred?”

“Both,” he said. “It depends. You have to understand that this was a favored area when Saddam Hussein was the president. It was a Baath Party stronghold.”

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Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“Do they credit Americans with improving security?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “But they still want American forces to leave. You heard what that guy just said.”

The Sunnis of Adhamiyah have rational reasons to dislike Americans. Sunni Arabs make up only 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population, but they were favored under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq’s democratic elections have empowered the country’s Shia majority – an ancient foe of the Sunnis – for the first time.

Rational anti-Americanism, however, is compounded by the conspiratorial and phantasmagoric anti-Americanism that persists in much of the Arab world. One of Iraq’s various insurgent groups recently tried to fire an improvised IRAM rocket at a joint American-Iraqi security station, but the trigger man botched the job and blew up the rocket on the launch pad. He killed himself and destroyed nearby houses. Most residents of the neighborhood think American soldiers dropped a bomb from a helicopter.

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Blackhawk over Adhamiyah, Baghdad

An Iraqi man walked up to Lieutenant Kuylman and me. His friends followed.

“I want to say something,” he said in English. “Please don't hand us over to the Iraqi Army. We've been working with you for over a year.”

He belonged to the Sons of Iraq program and was worried about what might happen to him if he had to rely on the Iraqi Army for protection from terrorists instead of the United States Army.

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Lieutenant Kuylman and Sons of Iraq member

“Look,” Lieutenant Kuylman said. “We're not running away. We aren't just going to abandon you.”

It’s true that the Americans aren’t running out of Iraq. But they did recently withdraw from the cities and will no longer be available to provide security as they did during and after the surge. Everyone in Iraq knew this was going to happen when I was there and recorded this exchange.

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Lieutenant Eric Kuylman speaks to members of Sons of Iraq

From the look on the Iraqi man’s face, he was not at all convinced by what Lieutenant Kuylman said. He probably doesn’t know what happened to the anti-Hezbollah South Lebanon Army in 2000 when Israel withdrew its armed forces from Lebanon, but he was clearly worried he and his men might suffer a similar fate. Many South Lebanon Army soldiers ended up in Israel as refugees when Hezbollah took over the area.

*

Sergeant Nick Franklin took me with him when he visited the home of an Iraqi woman named Malath who is in charge of a Sons of Iraq search unit. She invited us to sit on couches in her living room. Incense wafted in from the kitchen. It smelled lovely, unlike Baghdad outside which often smells of rotting vegetables, diesel fuel, and piss.

“This is your house,” Malath said.

“If this is my house,” Sergeant Franklin said, “where’s my room?”

Everyone laughed.

Her house was much nicer inside than FOB Apache, where Franklin lived and where I was sleeping. Her living room was cozy. Peach-colored lights cast a soft glow on the wall. Arabic music videos from Egypt and Lebanon played on the television.

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Malath's living room

“You could even put me on the roof,” Sergeant Franklin said.

The roof would be more comfortable than the cramped conditions back at the FOB. Living conditions for American soldiers in Iraq are terrible. Unlike Iraqis, they get 24 hours of electricity every day, which means they have air conditioning. But every Iraqi house I have ever been in is vastly more comfortable over all.

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Malath and Sermad

Malath's colleague Sermad Mahmoud sat next to her on the couch. Sergeant Franklin sat next to me on the other side of the room.

“Malath’s family is liberated,” he said, which meant no male family members imposed a strict code of behavior on her. “She’s not married, but she helps take care of her family’s kids. Her brother was recently killed. Somebody poisoned him.”

“How's things in Adhamiyah lately?” he said to Malath.

“Quiet,” she said.

And it was. The only gunshots I heard were fired by Iraqi Police officers into the air.

A young boy, presumably Malath’s nephew, brought us glasses of tea, fruit juice, and cigarettes.

Tea, Fruit Juice, and Cigarattes at Malaths House.jpg

Franklin and Malath engaged in idle chitchat for a while. Socializing often makes up the bulk of meeting time when Americans and Iraqis get together to talk business. Iraqis prefer it that way, and Americans yield to their expectations and culture.

I was given a bit of time to talk to Malath myself.

“How have things changed in the past year?” I asked her.

“Al Qaeda controlled this entire area in 2007,” she said. “The market had to close at 4:00 pm. They came in from other provinces in Iraq. The strangers came from places like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. When Americans created Sons of Iraq, we cooperated because we know the locals. We know who is supposed to be here and who is from outside. We helped them raid the bad houses. It started to get better here in November of 2007 when Sons of Iraq started. We used to find dead bodies in the streets every day in this neighborhood, but not anymore. They used to kidnap people right in front of everyone. Ninety percent of security is good now. Citizens notify us about bad people in the area.”

“Is Baghdad ready to stand on its own?” I said.

“No,” she said, “of course not,” as if my question was frankly absurd. None of the American soldiers in the room argued with her assessment, neither in front of her nor later after we left.

“We won't be ready until young people replace the older generation in the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police,” she continued. “They need to replace the old Baath Party members who are still inside.”

Paul Bremer dissolved what remained of the Iraqi Army after he was made the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority by the Bush Administration in 2003. He wanted to purge Iraq of its Baathists and old regime loyalists. A large number of Baathists, though, were Baathists in name only. They weren’t necessarily ideological. Party membership was required of government employees, and a huge number of Iraqis worked for the government. Bremer’s dismissal and blacklisting of these people radicalized many. Some joined the insurgency. It was a bad call on Bremer’s part, and he did it despite warnings from his advisors about what might happen if he went through with it.

He faced a formidable problem, even so. What is to be done about Iraq’s leaders and functionaries who cut their teeth in a totalitarian political system? Malath, like many others, thinks Iraqis will have to wait for them to retire or die.

“There is also way too much fighting between Iraqi political parties,” she said. “And there are too many parties.”

“How many parties are there?” I said.

“There are more than 100,” Sermad Mahmoud said.

Sergeant Franklin cut in. “There are not more than 100,” he said. “That's a total exaggeration. I'm not exactly sure how many there are, but it's nowhere near that many.”

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Sergeant Nick Franklin

“What should the American people know about Iraq that they don't currently know?” I said, addressing my question to both Sermad and Malath.

“Iraqi people are friendly and follow the old Iraqi traditions,” Malath said.

I can vouch for this. There should be no question that this is true.

“And the government is so corrupt,” she said. “We don't like them at all.”

I should point out here, again, that I was in the Adhamiyah sector of Baghdad, which is mostly made up of Sunnis. Iraq’s government is mostly run by Shias. Iraqi Shias are much happier with the government than Iraq’s Sunnis, and Malath is a Sunni. Still, she is right about corruption in the government. Most Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish politicians are corrupt.

“What is the local opinion of the Iraqi Police?” I said.

Sergeant Franklin had told me earlier that most Iraqis in his area don’t like or trust the police.

“People here don't feel comfortable talking to them,” she said. “They are Shias from Sadr City, and they are corrupt.”

She’s right about that. Shia officers were brought in from Sadr City to police Sunnis. In Fallujah and Ramadi, the Iraqi Police were much more effective and more trusted because they worked in the same community they lived and grew up in.

“How, exactly, are the Iraqi Police here corrupt?” I said.

“If we ask them about detainees,” Sermad said, “they don't answer unless we pay them to answer. A guy was recently released from jail because he bought his way out.”

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Iraqi Police officer

“When did Al Qaeda move in?” I said.

Adhamiyah was a stronghold of support for Al Qaeda in Iraq until somewhat recently.

“They came in November of 2005,” Malath said. “They used young people and jobless people, and they lured them in with money. There were no jobs. It's better now because the government opened a center for jobless people.”

“We helped the government do that,” Sergeant Franklin said. “We started weekend training classes where people can learn a trade like carpentry or secretary work.”

“What was it like here in 2004 and 2005,” I said, “before Al Qaeda moved in?”

“There was a militia here called Al Jihad,” Sermad said. “They came from Syria and Saudi Arabia. Then Al Qaeda moved in. They originally called themselves the Islamic State in Iraq.”

“Has public opinion here changed about American soldiers since Al Jihad and Al Qaeda came in?” I said.

“Yes, definitely,” Malath said. “Many people here like American soldiers now.”

“Can you describe the old opinion of American soldiers?” I said. “And what caused the change?”

“Al Qaeda used to control people's minds,” she said. “They said Americans just wanted to control Iraq, and we believed them. We know now that it isn't true. Americans have been helping a lot.”

“So public opinion changed about Al Qaeda, as well?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I mean, we didn't like them before, but we agreed with them about some things. And anyway we couldn't talk about them before, not until Sons of Iraq was created.”

Her nephew brought all of us more glasses of tea.

“Iraqi elections have all been corrupt,” she said.

“How so?” I said.

“Terrorist groups and outside organizations threatened people and assassinated their political enemies,” she said.

“Speaking of outside organizations," I said, "what do people here think about Iran?”

“Iran has lots of influence,” Sermad said. “They support the militias, Jaysh al Mahdi, and the Badr Corps. They support some of the Iraqi parliament members. Iran is going to invade Iraq as soon as American soldiers withdraw.”

“He's talking about a sort of generalized fear,” Sergeant Franklin said. “They don't necessarily believe that is going to happen, it's just something they are afraid of.”

“The Iraqi parliament members will invite the Iranian Army,” Malath said.

Malath and Sermad were being slightly hysterical. Like many Iraqis, they inflated threats all out of proportion to their actual size. Iraqis did the same thing when American soldiers first came. The U.S. invasion was compared, in the minds of many Iraqis, to the vicious Mongol invasion in the 13th Century.

“Do you think Prime Minister Maliki is an ally of Iran?” I said.

“He didn't used to do the best thing for Iraq,” Malath said. “He is better now, but only because Americans forced him to conduct the operations against Shia militias. He used to say the Sons of Iraq was a Sunni militia.”

Maliki can’t credibly say any longer that Sons of Iraq is a Sunni militia, although some Western journalists still haven’t figured that out. Sons of Iraq is on the payroll of Maliki’s government. According to Major Mike Humphreys, 60 percent of its members in Baghdad are Shias.

“I have one more question about a completely different topic,” I said.

“Okay,” Malath said.

“Is there any chance that Iraq will have normal relations with Israel in the future?” I said.

Sergeant Franklin leaned over and whispered to me. “Most Iraqis don't think that far outside the box,” he said.

I knew that already, but he was right to remind me. Israel is about as removed from Iraq’s problems as Sri Lanka.

“Iraq has no issues with Israel,” she said, “but it depends on the next Iraqi president.” Then she paused and gave me a more honest answer. “Personally, I don't want normal relations with Israel.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Do you know about the situation with the Palestinians?” she said.

“Of course,” I said. “Everyone does.”

“I disagree,” Sermad said. “We should have normal relations with Israel. There is no reason we shouldn't.”

Because of Israel’s remoteness to Iraq’s problems, the topic isn’t nearly as much of a red line there as it is elsewhere in the Middle East. Every Iraqi Kurd I have ever spoken to about Israel wants peace, normal relations, or even a strategic alliance. Arab opinion is mixed, but Arab Iraqis don’t seem to be afraid of arguing about it with each other. Some Lebanese want normal relations with Israel, but they don't feel comfortable saying so because anti-Israel opinion in some quarters there is ferocious.

The electricity went out all of a sudden. The room went dark. This was Iraq, and Iraqis still don’t get anywhere near 24 hours of electricity.

There was a huge demonstration just south of Malath's house shortly after we left. Thousands of radical Shias streamed out of Sadr City and surged up the main road into Sunni Adhamiyah. They screamed slogans in support of Moqtada al Sadr and what’s left of his Mahdi Army militia.

*

American soldiers can't do much more in Iraq at this point. General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency program is finished. He achieved a major breakthrough when he embedded infantry soldiers inside Iraqi neighborhoods and ordered them to place the security of the residents above their own. Recently, according to the requirements of the negotiated Status of Forces Agreement, American soldiers have been ordered out of Iraqi cities and back onto the large bases outside. Iraq's urban areas – where most Iraqis live – will now have to stand or fall on their own.

Before the withdrawal, Lieutenant Eric Kuylman invited me to join him and his men again while they conducted a foot patrol in one of the older districts of Adhamiyah. This was one of the last patrols I joined up with in that country.

We came across a rubble-strewn site where it appeared a building might have once stood. Two soldiers swept for IEDs with a wand that whined like a metal detector in the airport.

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Searching for IEDs in rubble, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

An elderly Iraqi man nervously sidled up to Lieutenant Kuylman. “Is there a bomb in there?” he said.

“Nah,” the lieutenant said. “We just check empty lots like this just in case. Don’t worry about it. There’s no more reason to think there’s a bomb in there now than there was five minutes ago.”

The man watched as the soldiers continued sweeping the pile of rubble.

“Hey,” Lieutenant Kuylman said to the Iraqi. “I’m trying to learn a few things about the neighborhood here. Can you tell me who has been living in the area the longest?”

"I have been living in this house," he said and gestured toward the dwelling behind him, "for forty years."

"Can we speak to you in private?" the lieutenant said.

"Of course," the man said. "You are welcome."

He opened the door and beckoned us in.

"Thank you," I said. He shook my hand warmly with both of his hands.

“Please,” he said and gestured for us to sit on his couch.

His wife smiled and brought us tea. I didn’t see any children or younger adults in the house.

The couple seemed genuinely friendly. All Iraqis I’ve met are at least superficially friendly, but these two seemed especially so.

“I like to find the people who have lived in the neighborhood the longest,” Lieutenant Kuylman said. “If there are any people you don't feel comfortable with around here, I will go talk to them. And I want you to feel comfortable telling me.”

“It's quiet here,” the man said. “And if there are any problem, we will solve them amongst ourselves.”

“Really?” Lieutenant Kuylman said. “Who's the mediator?”

“We have a guy who is like a sheikh,” the man said. “He settles these problems between people. Sheikh Zawi.”

“Ah,” the lieutenant said. “I know him. He's a good guy.”

The elderly couple had a huge hand-made Persian carpet in the living room. It would fetch around $6,000 dollars in the United States.

“When Americans come into our houses,” the man said, “people outside want to know what's going on.”

“What do people think is going on?” I said.

Woman in Abaya with Son.jpg

“That Americans are investigating or exchanging information,” he said. “Our traditions require us to welcome Americans into our homes.”

“Does it cause a problem for you if we come into your house?” I said.

“No, no,” the man said. “Everyone here knows me and knows my personality.”

An enigmatic response. Adhamiyah is a predominantly anti-American neighborhood. Was the man saying his anti-American credentials were solid, that no one would be concerned he was cooperating with the enemy? Or was I reading too much into it? Adhamiyah may be anti-American, but the people there are much more opposed to Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups than they are to the United States. And the man did approach us in the street. He introduce himself voluntarily and was concerned about bombs.

“There are going to be a lot of changes all across Baghdad,” Lieutenant Kuylman said. “We're trying to push the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police and get your system to work. We're here to help, but we try to make sure the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police have first done everything they can before we step in.”

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Searching a car for weapons, Adhamiyah, Baghdad

“I want to relay a message to you,” the man said. “Hopefully the Iraqi forces will join us together. No Sunnis. No Shias. When I go outside Adhamiyah, I don't trust the Iraqi forces.”

“Why not?” I said.

“You have to check the backgrounds of men in the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police,” the woman said. “There are a lot of bad people trying to work for them.”

“Do you have any names for me?” Lieutenant Kuylman said.

She didn't have any names. Neither did her husband. All they had was a sense of dread and foreboding.

“When I hear about the schedule for American forces leaving Iraq,” the man said, “I get scared. I hope we get a nice life here in Iraq and that you can make it home safe.”

Lieutenant Kuylman winced. “There might be some growing pains.”

The woman flung her hands up toward the ceiling.

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.

You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:55 PM | Comments (8)

The Least Free Places on Earth

Foreign Policy magazine rates the least free places on Earth. North Korea "tops" them all, naturally. Libya, the most thoroughly totalitarian place I've ever visited, makes the grade. Some of the pet countries of fools, such as Cuba and "liberated" South Ossetia (in Georgia), are listed, too.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:28 PM | Comments (0)

Child Abuse

During the Iran-Iraq war, the Khomeinist regime in Tehran used human waves of children to clear Iraqi landmines by forcing them to run into minefields and explode themselves. Now the Taliban, according to CNN, is buying child slaves and turning them into suicide-bombers.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:09 PM | Comments (2)

This is What Imperialism Looks Like

The uprising in Iran has been tamped down, at least for now, by the Islamic Republic's instruments of repression. The regime will one day fall, even so, if it does not reform itself out of all recognition – which seems unlikely to me.

A smaller and more deadly uprising has broken out in China. The Chinese Communist Party government will also one day fall or reform itself, yet again, out of all recognition. The deepest grievances of the Turkic Uighurs (pronounced WEE-goors) in the Xinjiang region, however, might never be fully addressed even in the event of regime-change.

Gordon Chang reports in Forbes:

This week, rioting left scores dead in Urumqi, the capital of China's troubled Xinjiang region. The latest official death toll is 156, but that number undoubtedly understates the count of those killed. The disturbances are accurately portrayed as ethnic conflict--Turkic Uighurs against the dominant Hans--but they also say much about the general stability of the modern Chinese state.

That state says the Uighurs are "Chinese," but that's not true in any meaningful sense of the term. The Uighurs are, in fact, from different racial stock than the Han; they speak a different language, and they practice a religion few others in China follow. Of the 55 officially recognized minority groups in China, they stand out the most.

The Uighurs are a conquered people. In the 1940s, they had their own state, the East Turkestan Republic, for about half a decade. Mao Zedong, however, forcibly incorporated the short-lived nation into the People's Republic by sending the People's Liberation Army into Xinjiang.

As much as the Uighurs deserve to govern themselves again--and they most certainly do--almost no one thinks they will be able to resurrect the East Turkestan state. They have even lost their own homeland, as Beijing's policies encouraged the Han to populate Xinjiang. In the 1940s, Hans constituted about 5% of Xinjiang's population. Today, that number has increased to about 40%. In the capital of Urumqi, more than 70% of the residents are Hans. In short, the Uighurs are no match for the seemingly invincible Han-dominated state.

Read the rest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:22 PM | Comments (1)

July 7, 2009

The Real Quagmire in the Middle East

The Middle East is a hard place for idealists, especially for the Western liberal variety. My feelings of optimism for the region have been ground down over time like rocks under slow-moving glacial ice.

Last time I visited Israel, at the end of the Gaza war this past January, I met Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. He sounded no less despondent than the Israelis I spoke to. “Listen,” he said. “We must stop dreaming about the New Middle East and coexistence and harmony and turning this area into Hong Kong and Singapore...I don't see a real peace emerging over here. We should stop talking about it.”

That’s what I hear from almost everyone I speak to over there now, whether they’re Muslims, Christians, Jews, or whatever. Arabs, Israelis, Kurds – most seem to have a dim view of the future. Optimists, for the most part, parachute in for a brief time and leave. I hate it. It depresses me. But that’s how it is.

Some writers and analysts are slightly less gloomy, and I frequently ask them to cheer me up and hope their relative optimism isn’t fantasy. Jeffrey Goldberg’s work at The Atlantic occasionally qualifies as less pessimistic than mine. His outstanding book Prisoners strikes just the right balance between world-weary pessimism and hope. He’s an American Jew weaned on Socialist Zionism who became an idealistic Israeli as a young adult. He sought out friendships with individual Palestinians with whom he could forge his own separate peace, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that peace was possible. It was much harder than he expected. But he managed, with some difficultly, when he worked as an IDF prison guard at Ketziot during the first intifada to kindle a rocky but enduring friendship with his prisoner Rafiq Hijazi.

I spoke with him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C.

Jeffrey Goldberg.jpg
Jeffrey Goldberg

MJT: You don’t seem particularly optimistic that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved any time soon, but I notice from reading your work that you seem slightly less pessimistic than me.

Goldberg: (Laughs.)

MJT: My view is pretty bleak and yours is slightly less so. And I’m wondering if you can map a way out that’s realistic.

Goldberg: I think there’s a great opportunity right now for a Sunni-Jewish convergence. The Sunni Arab states and Israel have, for the first time, a common adversary. There’s some promise in that. If the Israelis are smart, they’ll exploit Arab fears of Iran. And if the Arabs are smart, they’ll exploit Israeli fears of Iran. The common fear of Iran might produce some more flexibility on both sides, even flexibility on the part of Saudi Arabia.

MJT: That’s true at the state level, but not at the street level.

Goldberg: That’s true at the state level, yes. The people of the Middle East aren’t the ones who make the decisions. But you need the people ultimately, right?

This is the central question. The settlements aren’t the central question. They’re a tragedy in part because they obscure the central question of this conflict. The only question is: can the world of Arab Islam accept the idea of Jewish national equality? That’s the question, and I don’t know the answer to that.

Naturally, I shade toward pessimism on that question. I’m recalling, among other things, that the Six Day War wasn’t started because of the settlements. If you study the history of the last one hundred years, you’ll see that this is the central animating cause of the conflict. And I don’t see much evidence that Arab Islam can assimilate this idea right now.

On the other hand, actions can create new realities. So I’m not totally immune to the idea that Israeli concessions on certain points can create a positive cycle rather than a negative cycle.

The question of Israel is the question of what happens to all minorities in the Middle East. The Arab Muslim Middle East has 300 million people. It has a very hard time treating Coptic Christians with equality, treating Maronites in Lebanon with equality, treating Southern Sudanese in an equal way, treating Kurds in an equal way, and dealing with Jews – not only in their national expression, but even as minorities within their own countries. There was never a golden era for Jews who lived in Arab countries. It wasn’t as bad as living in Poland, but that’s no great shakes.

MJT: You have talked to Hamas people. Should the Israelis or Americans talk to them?

Goldberg: I don’t know what they’d get out of it.

MJT: What did you get out of it when you did it?

Goldberg: A first-hand understanding of how they think. People in the United States find it hard to understand how people in Hamas and Hezbollah think. It’s alien. It’s alien to us. The feverish racism and conspiracy mongering, the obscurantism, the apocalyptic thinking – we can’t relate to that. Every so often, there’s an eruption of that in a place like Waco, Texas, but we’re not talking about 90 people in a compound. We’re talking about whole societies that are captive to this kind of absurdity.

So it’s very important – and you know this better than almost anyone – to go over there yourself and tape it, get it down on paper, and say “this is what they actually say.”

God Bless Hitler.jpg

MJT: It’s shocking to hear.

Goldberg: Of course it’s shocking to hear.

MJT: Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if they really even believe it or if they’re just saying it.

Goldberg: I was in Afghanistan in 1998, a week after the first fatwa to “kill all the Jews and Crusaders” came out. I was with a bunch of Americans. They were making light of it because it seemed so ridiculous. They were making light of it, I suppose, partly as a psychological mechanism to allow us to continue staying in Afghanistan.

MJT: (Laughs.) Yeah.

Goldberg: People also made fun of it because it seemed so ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous. Just because a belief sounds ridiculous to you doesn’t mean it’s not sincerely held.

MJT: Yeah. I know it.

Goldberg: So I think it’s best to err on the side of taking people at their word. That doesn’t mean you can’t analyze it and break it down on the politics, break it down on the psychology, and break it down on the religion. But take them at their word. I believe Hamas when it says it wants to eradicate Israel. Why shouldn’t I believe them?

MJT: They act as though they’re serious.

Goldberg: Yeah. I understand their world view. I obviously don’t accept it, but I understand it. In their world view, this makes perfect sense. So, why not?

Palestinians, over the years, have proven that they’re willing to sacrifice generations of people to achieve their goal of a Jewish-free Palestine.

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Children in Gaza

I understand that. I don’t agree with the goal. It’s extremist and self-defeating and racist and everything else, but I try to put myself in their shoes, and I can understand their arguments.

There’s two stages. One, collect the documentary evidence. That’s why I hung out at Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV station for a couple of days and just listened. There’s nothing insincere about their goals and their desires. I don’t think they’re motivated by poverty. If poverty were the motivation, Zambia would be the world headquarters of terrorism. So why not believe them?

It doesn’t mean that nothing changes. I think it’s true that a moderated Hamas would no longer be Hamas. If you’re a Muslim Brotherhood organization, or if you’re Hezbollah, if you’re an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and you begin to accept the idea of the presence of Israel in the Middle East, you’re no longer a part of that movement. So I don’t think the organizations are capable of changing, but individuals are capable of changing.

MJT: What percentage of the Palestinian population do you suppose might be flexible enough to change in the way you just described?

Goldberg: I assume it’s fluid like everything else. That’s what I meant when I said that new realities on the ground can shape public opinion.

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Graffiti in Tel Aviv, April, 2006

MJT: We have seen some who have changed their views, and there will always be hardliners who won’t until they die.

Goldberg: Look. Another thing people here don’t understand is that it’s a hot region. It’s an emotionally hot region. Israel, too. The amount of yelling in Israel over things that don’t have to be yelled about is extraordinary. Blood runs hot. Maybe it’s the desert. I don’t know. People are governed by their emotions.

In my book, I trace this relationship I had with one particular Palestinian. When things were going relatively well during the peace process, he was against suicide bombing. When things weren’t going well, he was for suicide bombing. This is the reality.

Prisoners Cover.JPG

That’s why I think there was a missed opportunity around the time of the Gaza withdrawal. To buttress the Palestinian moderates – moderates being a relative term – maybe Israel should have given them something so they’d have greater sway among the population. My point is that I don’t think we’re dealing with entirely immutable forces.

MJT: I don’t either, but it often looks that way with Hamas.

Goldberg: Yeah. (Sighs.) Do all Palestinians wish for the disappearance of Israel? Probably. But it doesn’t matter what you wish. It matters what you do.

MJT: There is a difference between wishing Israel would just go away and actively working to destroy it.

Goldberg: I have a lot of wishes, too, that I don’t act on.

MJT: A lot of Israelis wish the Palestinians would just go away.

Goldberg: Of course. Why would you want people who hate you around you? That’s fine. It’s all about what you do. And it’s about creating conditions so that people who have negative and violent impulses will be reined in.

MJT: Here, I think, is the big question: what should be done about Iran’s nuclear weapons? Would it be better to use military action – whether it’s American, Israeli, or both – or learn to live with the Iranian bomb?

Goldberg: I suspect we are going to be learning to live with the Iranian bomb.

MJT: Is that a good idea?

Goldberg: No. It’s terrible. But also striking Iran would be terrible.

This is an interesting question right now, at this moment in history. This might be a place where American interests and Israeli interests diverge somewhat. I think the Iranian nuclear weapons program does pose an existential threat to Israel. It doesn’t pose an existential threat to America. It poses a unique set of terrible challenges for America, but it doesn’t mean our existence here is in peril. So it might not be in America’s best interests right now to strike militarily – for any number of reasons, including the fact that it might not work. And if it does work, it would almost seem to justify, in a way, Iran seeking nuclear weapons. And the program might continue.

The thing we hope for is that Iran moderates itself, that the people of Iran who are more moderate than its leaders figure out a way to moderate this. The problem isn’t whether or not Iran has the bomb, it’s whether or not the mullahs have the bomb.

MJT: Sure.

Goldberg: As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks ago, there are two Israeli strategic doctrines in confrontation right now. The first is: never do anything that harms the strategic relationship with the United States of America. The second is: prevent, at all costs, the possibility of a Second Holocaust. What if these two things come into conflict?

I tend to think that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu understands better than almost anyone else the imperative of maintaining a strong strategic relationship with the United States of America. But I also think he’s governed by his understanding of Jewish history.

If you are the de-facto leader of the Jews in a post-Holocaust world, what is the absolute worst thing you could do? Allow the formation of an existential threat to half the world’s remaining Jews. It’s a hard job.

MJT: It is. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an agreement that we’ll never hear about between the U.S. and Israel, that Israel can go ahead and take out Iran’s nuclear weapons and we’ll pretend to be upset about it. Because look: Iran can retaliate against the United States inside Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goldberg: That’s the problem.

MJT: And it’s not in our national interests to provoke that. We have over 100,000 guys in Iraq and Afghanistan who can be retaliated against.

Goldberg: And here’s the thing. Netanyahu doesn’t want to endanger the lives of American soldiers. Not because he’s so great or moral or whatever, but because he knows that’s disastrous.

MJT: It could threaten the entire American project in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goldberg: Yes. Exactly.

I imagine that if this situation gets more dire, America will say to the Iranians, secretly, in no uncertain terms, that “if you do anything to Israel, we will destroy you.” That just seems prudent to do. “Go ahead and have your dreams and desires, but don’t even think about transferring your nuclear technology to attack Israel in some way, because we will wipe you out.”

MJT: Do you think the U.S. would actually do that?

Goldberg: It depends on the president.

MJT: I can’t see Barack Obama nuking Tehran.

Goldberg: I didn’t say he has to nuke it, I said he has to threaten to nuke it.

MJT: Sure, but the threat has to be credible.

Goldberg: Right. So you make it credible.

MJT: Bush could have done that.

Goldberg: Bring the Iranian ambassador to the Strategic Air Command and show him all the missiles that are pointing at Iran. “This one is going to go here, and this one is going to go there. You’re wiped out. You’re finished. You’re done. You are exterminated.”

Obama doesn’t have to actually do it.

We’re getting into the realm of insanity here, but if Israel is ever attacked with nuclear weapons, I think there would be quite a demand from Americans as a whole to retaliate for it.

MJT: Probably.

Goldberg: It wouldn’t really matter, though, because the Israelis would already be dead.

MJT: They can retaliate themselves anyway. They have nuclear weapons in submarines out in the Mediterranean.

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Israeli submarine

Goldberg: And in the Persian Gulf. They’re German subs. History is great that way, isn’t it?

MJT: (Laughs.)

Goldberg: Jews are floating around in the Persian Gulf with nuclear weapons in German subs that are aimed at the new Hitler. If you step away from your personal feelings about it, it’s just fascinating.

MJT: Can you imagine the Israeli relationship with Palestinians evolving that much over the next 50 or 60 years?

Goldberg: If I were a Palestinian right now, I’d just wait. I’d keep the pressure up and not agree to a rump state. I’d just keep up the pressure for another few generations. They might eventually achieve it that way.

MJT: But look at how much things can change in a few generations.

Goldberg: All the leaders are ego maniacs by definition. All of them are soaked in history. Yasser Arafat wanted to be Salah ad-Din. Bibi Netanyahu wants to be Judah Maccabee. There is so much history there to exploit. These people are all measuring themselves against historical role models. And when you’re measuring yourself against a historical role model like Salah ad-Din, you wait, and you keep trying to devise new strategies to make the Jews leave, or to kill enough of them that the survivors leave.

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Khaled Meshaal, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

MJT: Waiting is tricky, though. Imagine if Hitler had decided to wait a few generations to go after the Jews. Europe has changed. Hitlerism won’t fly in the Europe of 2009.

Goldberg: Now we’re really getting into the realm of hyper-speculation.

MJT: I wonder, though, if Palestinian society is really capable of evolving the way European society has in the last 60 years.

Goldberg: I don’t know. The argument is that Arab society is somewhat stagnant.

MJT: It is stagnant compared with Europe.

Coexist sticker.jpg

Goldberg: It’s more static. It’s a region of the world that lags on a lot of the usual indicators for success and progress. But hell if I know. The whole idea is just so improbable. But so was the idea that the Jews, after 2,000 years, could reclaim their ancient homeland. There was nothing in history that suggested that would be possible.

And going back to the destruction of Israel – Arabs are misreading history if they believe Israel is a temporary phenomenon. Nothing like this has ever happened in history. A dead tribe came back and seized the land it had, and did so after a devastating tragedy. Jews are also good at waiting, apparently. They’re a small group, but there’s a survival impulse that’s embedded in many Jews, and certainly in the Jews of Israel today. It says: “You want to wait? We’ll wait, too.” Jews were an ancient people already when Mohammad appeared on the Arabian peninsula.

I wonder all the time if two people just like us will be having the same conversation a hundred years from now. “Well, what do you think? Will Israel make it?”

MJT: It’s possible.

Goldberg: Anything’s possible. Anyone who acts like they’ve figured out the entire Middle East doesn’t know anything.

MJT: Yeah. It’s a humbling place.

Goldberg: People who tell you they understand and know the answer? Demagogues. They’re either idiots or demagogues. Nobody can understand this. You can’t apply rationality to it either.

This is why I’m negative about the intentions of Palestinians. If their goal were statehood, they could have had statehood. Therefore, you have to give serious credence to the idea that their goal is not statehood, that it’s more important to rid the Arab world of Jewish nationalism than it is to have a Palestinian state that would improve the lives of individual Palestinians now.

MJT: Lots of them say that explicitly. They aren’t demanding a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They want to liberate all of Palestine, so to speak, “from the river to the sea.”

Goldberg: But just because they want that doesn’t mean it can happen.

MJT: Right. But it’s clear that some of them want the whole thing and won’t accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. From their point of view, it’s like Israel being offered Tel Aviv and the beach. It isn’t enough.

Goldberg: Ben-Gurion was smart. He took what they offered him and hoped for better. He hoped for Arab mistakes that would allow him to get more territory. The Arabs provided the mistakes, and he took the territory.

Don’t you find this debilitating after a while?

MJT: Yeah.

Goldberg: The reality in Israel is that it’s a fun place, a great place. It’s a vibrant society.

MJT: I like being there.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Goldberg: It’s not all as dreary as this. Maybe this is a story about individualism. The demand of the collective on the Palestinian side is such that it ruins the lives of millions spread over several generations.

MJT: You wrote during the Gaza war that Operation Cast Lead would probably work, but that nothing in the Middle East seems to work for very long. Why do you suppose that is? It seems to be true, but I’m not exactly sure why.

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Gaza City several years ago

Goldberg: I don’t know.

MJT: We’ll see progress for a while, but then the progress gets erased.

Goldberg: That’s progress by our definition of progress, by people who understand the world differently.

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Gaza City from Sderot, Israel, at the end of Operation Cast Lead

I think there’s a long strategy. And the long strategy of some Arabs is impervious to short term interventions. Short of packing up Palestinians and bussing them to Egypt, the impulse to defeat the Jews will remain there.

The reason American minds can’t really grasp the Middle East is because our minds are trained for concepts that are at variance with the mindset of Middle Eastern fundamentalists – and by that I mean both Muslims and Jews. The importance of today, the importance of pleasure, the importance of compromise, the importance of pragmatism, the relative unimportance of land. We have a house, we sell it, and then we move to another house. We don’t build our houses on top of our fathers’ houses.

As a sort of aside, you see how settlers talk about settlement freezes. There’s a kind of Middle Easterness to it. Part of it is manipulation. “If we aren’t allowed to add to our house, our children will have to move to Tel Aviv.” They’re telling me that it’s a punishment to have to move to Israel? It’s a tiny place. Their kids will be an hour away. Or a half hour.

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Maale Adumim settlement, West Bank

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Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, an area considered a "settlement" by the United States government

But there’s also a sincere Middle Easterness to it. According to them, it really is a sin to force their children move a half hour away when they could live right next door or in the same house. It’s as if they have imbibed the Arab love for the place of their father and their father’s father. There are so many concepts we just can’t relate to because we’re Americans. It’s a barrier to understanding.

MJT: It is. Americans also believe there is a solution to every problem.

Goldberg: Yeah. Solutionism is an American religion. That’s the most dangerous one. The other aspects of this are the misunderstandings. We can’t understand why a Palestinian would want his son to become a suicide bomber.

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Hamas

It’s because his son is not an individual in the same way Americans are. He’s a valuable instrument in the deliverance of salvation for his people. His desires, dreams, and goals are all selfishness. That’s just Western selfishness. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to work these things through for years.

There’s something admirable about Palestinian steadfastness.

MJT: We don’t have that sort of steadfastness.

Goldberg: No, we don’t.

MJT: But our society is better off without it.

Goldberg: Of course, it is! (Laughs.) What are they getting out of it? But our categories of success and failure are not their categories of success and failure.

It leads to the immorality of narcissism, that their collective need is so important that they can kill children with moral impunity. That’s one place it leads. The importance of remaining steadfast to the cause gives them license to do anything. Man, but when you’re licensed to do anything, it gives you power.

When I talk this way, when we think about it this way, I have a hard time seeing a Western-style state flourishing there over the long term in that climate.

Allah Will Destroy Sign.jpg

MJT: There’s only one that exists. Israel is the only one. None of the Arab states are. We’re over there in Iraq trying to help them build one, but I have my doubts that it’s going to happen. Lebanon is a hybrid. It’s only partly a Western-style state.

What do you think about Lebanon? The 2006 war was a disaster for everybody involved. But what if Hezbollah starts firing rockets again? What should the Israelis do? What would you do if you were prime minister?

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Hezbollah fires Katyusha rockets at Israel, July, 2006

Goldberg: If you’re the Israeli prime minister, or the leader of any country, you can’t accept conditions in which your enemy forces the depopulation of a third of your country. It’s not acceptable. It’s national suicide. And while there’s a record of national suicide in Jewish history, I don’t think the current Israeli leadership is going to acquiesce to that. So you do what you have to do.

Is that helpful? No. It will cause a lot of people in London to go demonstrate on behalf of Hezbollah. It will anger the United Nations. But what’s the choice? You’re not a serious country if you allow an enemy to fire rockets at your civilians and cause the depopulation of your territory. If you allow that to happen, you’re ceding sovereignty over whole chunks of your country.

Having Hezbollah in the Lebanese politcal process has some kind of utility in this regard. It knows full well that if it does launch some new adventure against Israel that Israel will retaliate against Lebanon as a whole. That won’t help Hezbollah’s position in Lebanese society.

But I’m not a military strategist. I don’t know how to stop the rockets.

MJT: There has been talk of shooting back at Syria instead of Lebanon. Syria has a return address. It’s a state and is therefore accountable.

Goldberg: This brings up an interesting strategic shift that might be coming in Israeli thinking, which is: forget the proxies. What is Hamas without its weapons suppliers?

MJT: Not much. And the same goes for Hezbollah.

Goldberg: So Israel says to the two states that supply Hamas and Hezbollah: “If you support these proxies, and if Hezbollah fires rockets at Haifa, we’re not going to attack Hezbollah. We’re going to attack Damascus.”

MJT: That’s what I thought they should have done back in 2006.

Goldberg: They can say “You’re the sponsors. So you either stop this or we’re going to destroy your military infrastructure.” Why have a proxy war? What do proxy wars get you other than bad publicity?

MJT: A bunch of dead people.

Goldberg: Were you there during the 2006 war?

MJT: Yeah.

Goldberg: There were a lot of dead bodies from Israeli air strikes, right?

MJT: I didn’t see any dead bodies. I was on the Israeli side of the border.

Goldberg: Right. I’m surprised we didn’t meet. I was there, too, traveling with Noah Pollak.

MJT: I was there with Noah Pollak, too, just on different days.

Goldberg: I was also there with Michael Oren.

MJT: Yep, so was I. On different days. We must have just barely missed each other.

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Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, author, historian, and former Israel Defense Forces Spokesman

Goldberg: Hezbollah is a proxy army of Syria and Iran. So why aren’t Israelis fighting back against Syria and Iran?

MJT: That’s what Michael Oren thought, too, after he was no longer working as a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. I talked to him about this during his book tour when he could say what he really believed.

You can’t defeat a guerilla army in six weeks with an air force. It’s absurd.

Goldberg: You can destroy its ability to fight.

MJT: Except the Israelis didn’t.

Goldberg: I mean, you can destroy its ability to fight by denying its weapons supplies.

MJT: Right.

Goldberg: Hezbollah can’t fight Israel without its rockets, right?

MJT: Right. I mean, they could fashion together home-made pieces of crap like Hamas used to. Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets are much more formidable.

Goldberg: I think this is getting better now that Egypt understands the threat of Shia radicalism. And Israel can say “stop this smuggling completely, or we’ll have to do it ourselves on your territory. We won’t attack you, but you’re allowing your territory to be used as a launching pad for people who want to kill our citizens.”

I think the doctrine needs to be rewritten. Every time a rocket comes into Israel from Hamas, Israel should figure out who’s helping Hamas and deal with them.

MJT: But if Iran gets the bomb…

Goldberg: …everything changes.

-

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:47 AM | Comments (137)

July 5, 2009

A Sunni-Israeli Alliance?

In the current issue of The Atlantic, the indispensible Jeffrey Goldberg wonders if a tacit alliance of sorts might develop between Israelis and Sunni Arabs against the Persian Islamic Republic regime in Iran.

If Tehran’s government is overthrown, of course, a very different relationship would likely develop between Israel and Iran. In the meantime, though, Goldberg may be correct. According to the Times of London, Saudi Arabia has quietly given Israel permission to use its airspace on the way to Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

UPDATE: The Saudi government officially denies the Times story, which was expected. The Israeli government also denies it, however.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:33 PM | Comments (7)

July 3, 2009

Comments are Fixed

The comments section was broken during the last couple of days, but it seems to be fixed now.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:52 AM | Comments (3)

July 2, 2009

A Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan.jpg

There are few places in the world Robert D. Kaplan has not visited and written about in his books and magazine articles. He travels to countries hardly anyone else even considers – to Turkmenistan, for instance, during the time of the lunatic "Turkmenbashi" who transformed his post-Soviet republic into the North Korea of Central Asia. He has an uncanny ability to see conflicts looming on the horizon well in advance and – reversing the standard relationship between journalists and officials – U.S. defense policy professionals often ask him for briefings about what he has seen.

His regular dispatches in the Atlantic ought to be required reading for anyone interested in foreign affairs, as should his numerous books.

I met him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. while he was briefly in town after returning from a month-long trip to post-war Sri Lanka. We discussed Colombo’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign there against the Tamil Tigers, what China has been up to while no one was looking, Russia’s revived imperial project in its "near abroad," the geopolitcal ramifications of a more liberal Iran, Israel’s difficulty in fighting effective counterinsurgency warfare, and our new man-hunting General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.

MJT: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut all military aid. We cut them off just as they were starting to win. The Chinese filled the gaps and kept them flush with weapons and, more importantly, with ammunition, with fire-fighting radar, all kinds of equipment. The assault rifles that Sri Lankan soldiers carry at road blocks throughout Colombo are T-56 Chinese knockoffs of AK-47s. They look like AK-47s, but they’re not.

What are the Chinese getting out of this? They’re building a deep water port and bunkering facility for their warships and merchant fleet in Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka. And they’re doing all sorts of other building on the island.

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Hambantota port design

Now, why did the Chinese want Sri Lanka? Because Sri Lanka is strategically located. The main sea lines of communication between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls – ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka defeated, more or less completely, a 26 year-long insurgency. They killed the leader and the leader’s son. But there are no takeaway lessons for the West here. The Sri Lankan government did it by silencing the media, which meant capturing the most prominent media critic of the government and killing him painfully. And they made sure all the other journalists knew about it.

MJT: Wow.

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government. So that’s one thing they did.

The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say "you have to kill all the people to get to us." So the government obliged them. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months.

MJT: I didn’t know it was that brutal. I’ve read accusations that there were human rights violations, but we’re so used to hearing that no matter what happens.

Kaplan: The West thinks of Sri Lanka as unimportant, whereas for the Chinese and the Indians it’s very important. And I consider Sri Lanka part of the new geography. It’s part of the new maritime geography, and that makes it very important.

MJT: Until China started helping Sri Lanka, where was Sri Lanka geopolitically?

Kaplan: It’s a place that registers the geopolitical reality between China, India, and the Indian Ocean. The Indians have a very checkered record in Sri Lanka. They sent in a peacekeeping force in 1987 and got their asses kicked by the Tamil Tigers. They came in to help the Tamils, but the Tigers wanted no part of any force there. They came in to help the Tamils, and they wound up fighting the Tamil Tigers.

MJT: Sri Lanka’s government naturally isn’t aligned with India, though.

Kaplan: Right. But it has reasonably good relations with India. It’s now at a point where it’s balancing between India and China.

MJT: Sri Lanka has been fighting this counterinsurgency for decades. Have they slowly made progress all this time and have now finally finished it off, or was there a tipping point recently where a seemingly endless conflict just ended almost suddenly?

Kaplan: The Sri Lankan government was elected in 2005 to win the war. And it has done that. Extremely brutally. It’s a government that’s very nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist. These are not the Richard Gere’s "peace and love" Buddhists. These are the real blood and soil Buddhists, where Buddhism is like any other religion when it’s threatened and it’s defending a piece of territory. It can be very brutal.

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Buddhas, Colombo, Sri Lanka

It was elected to win the war, which it interpreted from the voters as a right to silence the media and to fight without any restrictions.

MJT: It does work, though, doesn’t it?

Kaplan: It does work, yeah.

MJT: Not that we should do it, of course.

How popular were the Tamil Tigers among the Tamil population?

Kaplan: Not particularly popular. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.

MJT: They had an air force?

Kaplan: Yeah. They had a few planes that they used for bombing missions over Colombo. It was the only insurgent terrorist outfit that had a navy and air force.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

MJT: That’s fascinating.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: Not even Hezbollah has either of those, and Hezbollah is the most sophisticated Islamist terrorist group in the world.

The Tamil Tigers didn’t care much for the Arab and Islamist terrorist groups, did they?

Kaplan: No, they didn’t.

MJT: I read a quote from one of the Tamil Tiger leaders who said he refused to train Islamist terrorists because he didn’t want to help anyone kill Americans.

Kaplan: They didn’t want to create a situation where the West would aid this Sinhalese government under the guise of fighting international terrorism.

MJT: It makes sense. They were off our radar almost entirely.

Kaplan: In Sri Lanka you have a majority Sinhalese Buddhist population that thinks like a minority. They have a minority sense of oppression. Although they have 75 percent of the population while the Tamils have only about 18 percent, there are 60 million more Tamils nearby in southern India. So they’re kind of like the Iraqi Shias and the Serbs, other majorities who feel like minorities, and can be twice as brutal because of it.

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Sri Lanka ethnic map

MJT: So there are no lessons at all? Nothing for the U.S., Israel, or Pakistan?

Kaplan: No.

MJT: Only moral lessons, perhaps. Yes, this works, but it would take an awful lot to get us to fight that way again.

Kaplan: The only lesson is that while we’re obsessed with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese have a fully developed world view. They’re thinking about many countries all at once.

MJT: What’s China’s ultimate objective?

Kaplan: They’re putting a lot of money into their navy, more than their army. Their ultimate objective is to project sea power, and not just in the western Pacific which makes them a great regional power, but also in the Indian Ocean which makes them a great power in total.

MJT: Do you get the sense that China is becoming more ambitious as it gets more powerful?

Kaplan: I think as their economy develops, and as they have more and more economic interests around the world, they suddenly have more national interests. As they trade more, they have more things to protect. So they develop a world view and their military expands accordingly. It’s very similar to the U.S. military expansion in the late 19th century and the early 20th century before World War I.

MJT: That’s what I thought.

Kaplan: Between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, our economic expansion made us a great power. We suddenly were dealing with Latin America, with the Pacific, and with Europe in ways we hadn’t before the Civil War. And that led to a corresponding military expansion. We very quietly and unobtrusively became a great power.

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MJT: I don’t think the U.S. ever consciously intended to become the most powerful country in the world.

Kaplan: No.

MJT: We just slowly, step by step, ended up there.

Kaplan: Right. It just happened. And that’s how I look at China.

MJT: Russia was more deliberate about it. Soviet Russia, I should say.

Kaplan: Russia is a land power. And land powers are much more insecure than sea powers.

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Tanks in Moscow

MJT: They can be conquered much more easily.

Kaplan: Russia’s only coast to speak of is in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. It’s a polar ice cap. It’s useless.

When you’re threatened on land, you’re much more insecure than if you’re threatened an ocean away. We’re virtually an island nation.

MJT: Russians seem to feel genuinely threatened by NATO expansion.

Kaplan: Yeah, they do.

MJT: Way more than they should.

Kaplan: They’ve been invaded by the French under Napoleon. They’ve been invaded by the Germans. They’re insecure about their Western frontier. That was the whole purpose behind the satellite states of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It provided a buffer region for the Russians, a buffer region that was under their total control. So what the Russians want to do is somehow, some way, create another buffer on their Western border. So there’s a lot of pressure on the Baltic states, on Poland.

MJT: It looks like Ukraine is in danger.

Kaplan: It’s endangered perpetually. Russia as a land power can’t tolerate an independent Ukraine.

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Vladimir Putin

MJT: It doesn’t look good for them after what happened in Georgia. I’ll be surprised if nothing much happens there over the next couple of years.

Kaplan: Russia has to be able to control Ukrainian politics behind the scenes.

MJT: They were doing it before the Georgian incident when they poisoned the current president, Viktor Yukoshenko.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I can see it from their point of view to an extent. It’s as if the U.S. suddenly lost Florida. That’s how the Russians look at Ukraine. They lost a nice place with a warm climate and a beach on the Black Sea. Almost everywhere else is winter for eight months of the year. Almost half of Ukraine is ethnically Russian.

Kaplan: And they lost the Caucasus. The Caucasus figures large in Russian literature, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing and in others’. They write about the beauty of the Caucasus. It was Russia’s Wild West, its romantic Wild West, except it was to the south. And it’s deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. So the loss of the Caucasus, especially Georgia, really hurt.

MJT: Have you been there lately?

Kaplan: No.

MJT: It’s interesting.

Kaplan: And who knows? They may get it back.

MJT: They got pieces of it.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I doubt they’ll get Tbilisi back.

Kaplan: There’s a good chance they’ll get a government there that’s, quote unquote, "friendly."

MJT: It’s looking that way.

Kaplan: A "friendly" regime.

MJT: Saakashvili isn’t too popular these days.

Kaplan: No. He miscalculated.

MJT: Yeah. But he’s not a bad guy. He’s certainly better than Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia.

Kaplan: Yeah. The problem, though, with Georgia, was the Bush Administration. It spoke loudly and carried a small stick rather than the reverse. They promised Saakashvili all this aid and support. The two presidents had a hug fest and all that. But there was little we could do if the Russians called the bluff.

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George W. Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili

MJT: And what could we do? We aren’t going to war with Russia over, well, anything, let alone Georgia.

Kaplan: Right.

MJT: If they tried to conquer Western Europe that would be a different story, but of course they won’t.

Kaplan: I thought the body language between Bush and Saakashvili was bad. It was the kind of public friendship that indicated we would back him up. It sent the wrong message.

MJT: To Saakashvili, you mean?

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: There wasn’t much we could do. Likewise, if the U.S. moved into South Ossetia – which of course wouldn’t happen even in an alternate universe – Russia couldn’t have done anything. With Russia and the U.S. right now, the winner is whoever moves first.

Kaplan: Yes. And keep another thing in mind. The Obama Administration is trying to find a way to get Russia’s help with Iran. And what is Russia’s price for that? My guess is they want control of Georgia.

MJT: Do you think that would be enough?

Kaplan: It might be. And keep something else in mind. Since the days of Gorbachev, the Iranians and the Russians have had an unspoken agreement about stability in the southern tier of the former Soviet Union. The Iranians are not mucking about in Georgia and Armenia and other places right on their border the way they’re mucking about in Iraq.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: And that is something Russia really appreciates. So Russia’s friendship with Iran, and it’s willingness to have Iran’s back at the United Nations, is born of geopolitical and geographical realities.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin

MJT: They aren’t messing with Azerbaijan all that much either, even though Azerbaijan used to be part of the Persian Empire. There was a Hezbollah terrorist attack foiled there recently against the Israeli embassy, but that only took place in Azerbaijan. It didn’t have much to do with Azerbaijan itself.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I was there last August.

Kaplan: How’s the government under Aliyev?

MJT: Not great.

Kaplan: Yeah. That’s what I would expect.

MJT: They have the right idea about where the country should go, but the government is autocratic.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I have to say, though, that I was impressed with the physical condition of the country. At least the capital Baku. Outside Baku it started to look a bit like Iraq.

Kaplan: Yeah. That’s always been the truth. There is a syndrome in a lot of these countries where the capitals are really city-states. All the money flows into the capital and there’s nothing outside. This is true in Bulgaria, in some other places. It’s going to take a long time for the money to flow to the countryside.

MJT: It will. It’s true in Georgia, too, to a lesser extent. It isn’t doing as well as Eastern Europe. Baku, though, in Azerbaijan, is very pleasant.

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Baku, Azerbaijan

Kaplan: It has a beautiful old section by the waterfront. You should have seen it in 1993. It was a trash heap.

MJT: I’ll bet.

Kaplan: It was hideous. And then I went back in 1999, and it was a different world. I can’t even imagine it now.

Eastward to Tartary.jpg

MJT: So you’re working on a book about the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan: Yeah. I’m deep into it. One day we’re going to wake up from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to see a changed world. We’re going to see a world where there are still geopolitical contests, but they’ll be between China and India. We’ll see the emergence of China on the world’s seas with less U.S. dominance. We’re going to see a more maritime world. We may live in an era of globalization, but 90 percent of all goods travel by sea in containers. It’s container shipping that allows for the whole globalization, the clothes we wear, the prices we pay for them, etc. Those who control the sea lanes are going to be crucial.

Now, we’ve seen a little of this already in the news with the piracy issue. When does piracy thrive when you read about piracy historically? It thrives when trade is thriving. Pirates are parasites. The more international trade is thriving, the more hosts are available for parasites. So piracy is an indication that things are good, in a way.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: And we see how critical these sea lines of communication are if just a few hundred pirates can get ships to divert from using the Suez Canal and instead choosing to go around southern Africa. Which is what’s happening.

So I think we’re going to make up more of a maritime world where the rim line of the world is going to be between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan with the Strait of Malacca as sort of the Fulda Gap of the 21st Century. The Fulda Gap, you know, was a valley in West Germany during the Cold War where Soviet tanks would come through if there was ever a confrontation.

MJT: Right.

China Navy.jpg
Chinese Navy

Kaplan: Global warming could change things a bit, if it’s true. If the seas really are warming and the ice is freeing up, land-locked Russia will no longer be land-locked. It has this vast coast to the north that it could suddenly use for shipping across the Arctic to North America, Japan, and elsewhere. That would bring a whole new advantage to Russia.

Now, of course you could say that Russia is losing population, the health statistics are terrible, and that’s true. That’s also something we’ll have to take into account. Russia is deteriorating greatly in social and medical terms. But if the ice really is melting, that’s going to provide a great benefit for Russia in the decades to come.

We don’t even look at that geography now. But we would start looking at it in an age of ice melt in the Arctic.

MJT: A lot of Americans will listen to what you’re saying about the Indian Ocean, that India and China are going to ramp up their navies, and they’ll be in charge of policing the Indian Ocean area, and say "Great. Finally. Someone else is finally doing this work. Why do we have to do it all the time?"

Kaplan: That’s a good point.

MJT: Would they be right? I mean, neither India nor China is an ideological power.

Kaplan: Right. Excellent. Look, not only that, our differences with China are much less than our differences with the Soviet Union.

MJT: Much less.

Kaplan: And India is a democratic country that’s inferentially pro-American. So your average American would be right. This is a way for us to gracefully retreat from global domination, by leveraging other powers to take up responsibility.

Either way, this is the world that will confront us after Iraq and Afghanistan. We will still be a great power, and an indispensable power. We’re the only great sea power operating in Asia that does not have territorial ambitions in Asia. We’re half a world away.

MJT: I don’t feel threatened by China policing sea lanes to protect their commercial interests. I don’t care for its support of nasty regimes in Burma and North Korea, but I’m not sure this will have much affect on any of that.

Kaplan: China practices what I’d call a very bleak form of realism. It’s classic realism with no light at the end of the tunnel or any kind of sentimental or humanistic outlook.

MJT: It’s very bloodless, isn’t it?

Kaplan: Yeah. They will deal with a democratic power, and they’ll deal with Burma and Zimbabwe and Sudan and Sri Lanka. They’re hungry for energy, for oil. It’s a very bloodless form of realism.

MJT: I don’t like it, but it worries me less than Russia’s outlook.

Kaplan: It should. I agree with you. I’m not painting a disastrous world after Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m painting a different world.

MJT: How does Iran fit into all this? We’re all familiar with how Iran interferes with countries to its west, in the Arab world. What does Iran do on its eastern side?

Kaplan: Iran is so beneficially placed between the two oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. They border both. What’s interesting is that when you travel to Turkmenistan and through Central Asia, Iran is like a cultural lode star. All these countries are influenced by Persian language and culture.

But the current Iranian regime is very unappetizing for all these countries. If Iran loosens up, and I think it might…

MJT: I’m sure it will eventually.

Church Northern Iran.jpg
A church in Northern Iran

Kaplan: Yeah. It’s going to be an incredibly attractive power in all of Central Asia. And then we will really see a greater Iran. Iranian influence will increase with a more moderate regime for cultural reasons.

MJT: Because of its soft power.

Kaplan: Exactly. Because of the soft power of Persian culture.

MJT: Persian culture, without Khomeinism on top of it, is very appealing. Not just to Central Asians, but also to me.

Green Heart Iran.jpg
At an anti-regime demonstration in Iran

Kaplan: It’s very attractive.

MJT: Many Kurds in Iraq have told me the same thing. They admire Persian culture much more than they admire Arab culture, which they detest.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: But Iran doesn’t appeal to them much now because it’s smothered under this awful Khomeinism.

Kaplan: Yes. You’ve explained it. You don’t need me to explain it. That’s exactly it.

Tehran from Above.jpg
Tehran, Iran

MJT: But I pay much more attention to what’s going on to the west of Iran. What is Iran up to in its east, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on? Are the Iranians mucking around over there like they are in the Arab countries?

Kaplan: Western Afghanistan is now essentially an Iranian satellite.

MJT: They speak a version of Persian there.

Kaplan: The Iranian currency freely circulates in Herat. Iran is supplying electricity to Herat and much of Western Afghanistan. So while Western Afghanistan is relatively quiet and free of violence, the reason it is so is because of the influence of Iran.

MJT: I assumed it was quiet more because it’s outside Pashtunistan, so to speak. But I guess what you’re saying is the flip side of that.

Speaking of Pashtunistan, you have written before that Afghanistan and Pakistan are best thought of as a single political entity.

Pashtunistan Map.JPG
A map of "Pashtunistan," where the ethnic Pashtuns live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan

Kaplan: Yes.

MJT: And that’s much more obviously true now than it was when you first wrote it.

Kaplan: Yes.

MJT: Because now we’re seeing a Taliban insurgency in both countries. Do you think this insurgency is beatable if the U.S. can only really operate on the Afghanistan side of it?

Kaplan: I think the U.S. is able to influence both sides. The recent offensive in the Swat Valley by the Pakistani government has been pretty successful. And who do you think is behind all that? Uncle Sam. We really put pressure on them to solve their own problems. They transferred their military resources from the Indian border to the Swat Valley.

MJT: Is the Swat Valley ethnically Pashtun or Punjabi?

Kaplan: It’s more Pashtun than Punjabi, I think. It’s where they overlap.

I traveled all throughout the Swat Valley in the mid-1990s. It was beautiful, touristy, and peaceful. There was no problem. All this is very recent.

I find it interesting that after all this pressure was put on Pakistan by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the Pakistanis really started a major offensive.

Kaplan Ends of the Earth.JPG

MJT: How much of Pakistan’s response was because of U.S. pressure, and how much because the Taliban got so close to Islamabad?

Kaplan: It was both. Probably both. And they’ve really pursued this seriously. Much more seriously than they’ve pursued anything else.

MJT: It was quite striking, actually, how quickly they turned around.

Kaplan: Yeah. It is.

You know what’s interesting? The Israelis. They’ve been great at defeating structured Arab armies, but they haven’t figured out how to deal with a few thousand insurgents in South Lebanon or in Gaza. What did their wars in 2006 and 2009 in Lebanon and Gaza get them?

MJT: It got them fewer rockets for a while, but it’s temporary.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I don’t know what they should do. They can’t put a David Petraeus in Gaza or Lebanon. It won’t work.

Kaplan: No.

MJT: And they can’t fight a counterinsurgency from the air because that’s just absurd.

Bombed House South Lebanonx.JPG
Bombed house, South Lebanon, 2006

Kaplan: Yeah. They haven’t been able to solve this problem at all.

MJT: I’m glad it isn’t up to me what Israel should do. There aren’t any good options. Maybe they should hold Syria accountable. Syria is at least a state with a return address and national interests. I don’t think the Syrian government is particularly ideological. It isn’t like the Iranian government. Syria isn’t an ideology, it’s a state.

Kaplan: It wants to survive.

MJT: Maybe the Israelis should lean on Assad. They can’t lean on Hamas or Hezbollah. They can’t lean on Beirut because Beirut is too weak to do much.

Kaplan: Yeah. I mean, the idea of bombing highway overpasses near Beirut to punish Lebanon for Hezbollah is ridiculous.

MJT: There is no way they could have pulled that off in Lebanon in 2006, no matter how brilliantly they might have fought.

Kaplan: And they didn’t fight brilliantly.

MJT: Even if they did…

Kaplan: Well, as you said, they can’t do what Petraeus did.

Speaking of Petraeus, this appointment of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is really interesting.

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General Stanley McChrystal

MJT: What do you think of him?

Kaplan: Oh, he’s got it. He’s another Petraeus. He’s larger than life. I’ve interviewed General David McKiernan, the man he’s replacing. He’s a good guy, but he’s no lightning. He has no great ideas.

I think deep down the real reason the Obama Administration fired McKiernan and wants to bring in McChrystal is because McChrystal is a man hunter. He got Zarqawi in Iraq. And Obama desperately wants to kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to show that they can do this better than the Republicans.

So the White House said, "we want to get these people." And Secretary Gates said, "well, if you want to get them, McChrystal’s your man." He ran the Joint Special Operations Command for five years. It conducts all the secret operations – Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, the best Ranger battalions. It’s all very secret. And they go out on man hunting missions and kill people.

-

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:09 AM | Comments (19)

July 1, 2009

Georgia’s Hard Slog to Democracy

By Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: The following article by Michael Cecire is a necessary follow-up to my coverage of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August, and it’s written by a former resident who knows the country much better than I do. – MJT

The events swirling within Iran have been nothing short of startling, taking the world by surprise by its speed and intensity. Perhaps it’s testament to the Army of Davids globalization schema that, for weeks, the top two trending topics on the surprisingly super-relevant Twitter were about the events in Iran. While most have been vocal in their support for the protestors in Iran, other ‘pragmatic’ voices have ranged from cautious to dismissive. Among some of the comments have been some who cynically compare the rather withered, unclearly-supported opposition protests in Georgia "with the proto-revolution in Iran By extension, these analogies imply equivalence between Georgia’s temperamental president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili and the apocalyptic lunacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Suffice to say that this is gross skewing of realities that needs to be put to bed immediately.

The last time I wrote on these pages, shortly following Russia’s invasion into Georgia, I cautioned that the United States should be wary not to invest its hopes in Caucasus democracy solely in the person of Saakashvili. While the United States and much of the world rightly condemned Russia’s bald-faced militarism, the reflexive fawning over Saakashvili’s Western credentials and crisp American English was decidedly two-dimensional. Saakashvili, even before the August war, faced mounting challenges to his vertical style of rule. From property rights violations to media blackouts and straining centralization, Misha at times seemed on a path to resembling the coterie of Central Asian strongmen to which the West has become more or less resigned.

Of course, a lot has happened since last August. The same brewing chorus of opposition is now camping in the streets of Tbilisi and daily demanding Saakashvili’s immediate resignation. At the same time, Misha himself seems to have undergone a decided shift. Credit where it’s due: the twin ravages of the Russian blitz and the debilitating global recession may have revived the pluralistic tendencies that catapulted the young Columbia-educated lawyer into the highest echelon of Georgian politics in 2003’s Rose Revolution. Since the war, Saakashvili has invested considerable political capital into a bevy of reforms, much of which are at the expense of his own political power, to satisfy NATO conditions and reassure a neo-realist United States tilting leftward.

Even at the onset of a crush of opposition street protests that began on April 9th, the Georgian government has been remarkably quiescent, allowing tremendous latitude to the fiery protestors whose singular platform was Misha’s removal. Now in its third month, one cannot imagine any other country, even in the democratic West, which would tolerate such an aggressive protest regime that has erected street barriers, strangled businesses, attacked police stations and parliamentarians, and been cold to generous outreach from the government. Keen on metaphor, the opposition has erected a constellation of “cells” that sit along Tbilisi’s main roads, blocking traffic for months and starving local businesses. The steepest irony is that the prison cells sit mostly empty, sometimes outnumbering the opposition activists themselves. It’s thus no surprise that Saakashvili’s popularity has risen.

Concurrently, evidence has begun to emerge of a startling nexus between elements within the radical opposition and Moscow, which has directed expatriate Georgian oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin to fund and, in some cases, escalate the already tense situation. All of this against the backdrop of eerily reminiscent provocations from Russia and its proxies lends to the possibility that a re-ignition of conflict may be on the horizon.

To be sure, the opposition is by no means monolithic and the vast majority has no more wish to assist Russia than Misha himself. But the clashing of personalities and the extremist approach embraced by some of the opposition leaders have largely rendered Saakashvili positively moderate in comparison. At the same time, Misha has wisely expended his re-appreciating political capital by reaching out to the opposition in talks, in church, and even offering government posts. Perhaps most significantly, Georgia has embarked on a comprehensive economic development and reform agenda for the regions outside Tbilisi. While it’s tempting to write this off as calculated maneuvering by a besieged Saakashvili, the opposition strategy of protesting-at-all-costs is largely backfiring. Georgia remains intact and largely free of the large-scale violence many analysts feared before the protests began in April.

Saakashvili deserves credit for this approach. As the specter of war continues to haunt the small Caucasian republic, the maintenance of stability is as important as ever. While the effects of the August war might have even made the prioritization of sovereignty over liberty understandable, the Georgian government has struck an impressive balance between resisting persistent Russian provocations and advancing an agenda of political reforms to reinvigorate its democracy, which is easily the freest in the Caucasus and Central Asia region.

Yet as the summer marches forward and Russia replays its pre-invasion war games as the opposition becomes increasingly desperate, the threat of conflict – whether internally, externally, or in some combination – will loom larger. The real test for Saakashvili, and the opposition as well, will be during the same general time frame during which the last war erupted. Though much of the responsibility for averting renewed conflict will lie on the savvy of the Georgian government and the cooperation of the opposition, the United States and the West have a real role to play here.

As a first order, the West should reject the Kremlin-approved revisionism being bandied by the Russophiles and neo-Detentists and should not fall into the trap of “respecting Russian interests” for its own sake, as though this were a goal in itself. Meanwhile, President Obama, who is scheduled to visit Moscow on July 6th, must strongly endorse Georgia’s sovereignty to avert what may be renewed Russian preparations for invasion. At the same time, a higher level of Western engagement may be the leverage that is needed to create conditions for resolution between the more moderate blocs of the opposition and the government. Ensuring the stability and independence of Georgia, a geopolitical linchpin between Asia and Europe, has long term implications for Europe’s energy security, Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors as well as the United States, and democracy promotion overall.

Saakashvili remains a flawed man, but in an area of the world where ‘benign’ dictatorships are seen as the best of options, Misha’s Georgia is a relative oasis of civil liberties and electoral participation. Though many areas require serious reform and the West should challenge the Georgian government to live up to its democratic obligations, the last year has demonstrated that Saakashvili can still be a constructive partner in the region. If anything, the protests in Iran should stand to highlight the kid-gloves approach of Saakashvili’s government toward the mostly unelected opposition, where dialogue between contrasting viewpoints is a real option forward. If a tiny fraction of the outreach and transparency existed in Iran as in Georgia, our Twitter feeds would be churning out different messages.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an independent analyst, freelance writer, and economic development practitioner. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he is currently finishing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and regularly comments on the Black Sea region and economic development policy issues. A regular writer for Bacon's Rebellion and TCS Daily, he has also been published in the London Telegraph and the Democracy Project weblog. Cecire is also a long-suffering Mets fan.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:14 AM | Comments (1)