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Thought for the Day: Egypt vs. Pakistan
February 1, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 5:58pm | 10 Comments
One of the things that has come up in several conversations today has been the professionalism of the Egyptian military. It is worth noting, too, that even though the United States is getting a lot of blame from protesters on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria for our support for the Mubarak Regime through the years, the United States will likely be able to retain a great deal of influence in Egypt even in a post-Mubarak political landscape because of the way in which the U.S. military has kept up such close relations with its Egyptian counterparts. Egyptian officers have been coming to the United States for training for three decades now, so most high-ranking Egyptian officers have close friends in the U.S. military with whom they went to the War College or CGSC. (We Americans would also like to think we have played a role in the professionalization of the Egyptian officer corps, but that may be giving us too much credit.)
What a different situation we have in Pakistan, where an entire generation of the Pakistani officer corps was "lost" to the U.S. military because of the Pressler Ammendment and the way in which it halted cooperation and exchanges between our two militaries. In that way, one thing Egypt and Pakistan have in common is the way in which each, in different ways, highlight the very real benefits of mil-mil cooperation, officer exchanges, and security force assistance.
UPDATE: President Obama just spoke on Egypt. His first words were words of praise for the Egyptian Army. That is no accident.
Two Book-length Alternatives to the Nonsense
February 1, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 11:35am | 7 Comments
The continued willingness of pundits with no previous experience in or expertise on Egypt to opine about what is taking place there continues to impress. As CNN's Ben Wedeman tweeted from Cairo, "If I had a dollar for every silly statement made by instant-Egypt experts in newspapers, TV, I could retire tomorrow."
If, however, you are an intellectually curious American looking to make sense of either Egypt or currents in Political Islam, here are two great books to get you started. The first is Max Rodenbeck's Cairo: The City Victorious
. Rodenbeck is the Economist's longtime Middle East correspondent and grew up in Egypt. His book on Cairo is really just lovely. The second -- an antidote to all the ill-informed ravings about Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood -- is Albert Hourani's Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939, probably the best single-volume introduction to the main currents of thought in the Arabic-speaking world since Napoleon routed the Mamluks at the Pyramids.
Or you could just watch Glenn Beck explain all of this, as I did while stuck in the airport in Jacksonville, NC yesterday. Beck was, needless to say, akin to the love child of Leszek Kołakowski and William Montgomery Watt in explaining how political Islam and Marxism will combine to create a Muslim caliphate in Europe. (If, you know, that love child was high as a kite on PCP.) Having successfully scared his viewers s***less, he predictably broke for a commercial for one of those gold funds he endorses. Success!
Update: Yes! Thanks to the YouTube, you can now watch Glenn Beck's lecture yesterday. This is amazing. I watched this with 20 other people, and you could see the way in which we were collectively growing dumber as this went on.
Yemen After Saleh
February 1, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 9:22am | 0 Comments
I know you are all focused on Egypt at the moment, and for good reason, but I asked Dana Stuster, another intern here at CNAS with some experience in the Middle East, to write something for the blog on alternatives to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Just trying to get ahead of the curve. Take it away, Dana:
On January 24, President Salih addressed the Yemeni people and offered the compulsively quotable wisdom that Yemen is not Tunisia (for the reasons why, see Brian O’Neill’s work over at “Always Judged Guilty,” among others). But if Yemen is not Tunisia, or Egypt for that matter, then what is it?
To begin with, Yemen is not on the cusp of a revolution. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady events in Tunisia and Egypt, but Yemen just does not have the socio-economic preconditions for the types of revolts seen in the past two weeks. Even if something were to take hold, the opposition movement in Yemen is incredibly fragmented. It’s unclear just what the mix of ideologies has been in the protests in Yemen these last few weeks, but even if the movement could depose Salih, there’s no clear outcome. If anything follows, it will begin with a motley assortment of groups jockeying for influence – a volatile cocktail of religious and political factions. In all likelihood, though, they won’t get that far.
Salih will stay in office, at least in the near term. The pressing issue in Yemeni politics remains, as it was before the constitutional amendment was proposed, who will be president after his term ends in 2013. Will Salih run in 2013, despite issuing a statement that he won’t? It wouldn’t be the first time Salih announced he would withdraw from the presidency only to run come election season. He may even try to consolidate his power and stay in office by force. In response to the protests, he has raised monthly salaries for Yemen Armed Forces soldiers, a hedge against disloyalty and an investment in the future stability of his regime.
Or maybe this time he’ll step down and allow a new president. Even if he doesn’t, Salih is now 78-years-old; it’s past time to start thinking about the looming succession crisis in Yemen. In his address on Monday, Salih called rumors that he would name his son Ahmed his successor, “rude.” The statement does not mean that Ahmed, who is commander of the Republican Guard and the subject of speculation that he is being groomed for the executive office, won’t choose to run on his own. The second most powerful man in the country and leading commander of the Yemen Armed Forces, Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, has hinted that he won’t tolerate Ahmed becoming president. Al Ahmar has waited in the wings for all of Salih’s now-32-year term. He may run, or he might just cross the Rubicon and take the government. A third possibility would be a candidate from the Islah Party, perhaps Hamid al Ahmar. Power would remain concentrated in the same cabal of northern tribesmen – al Ahmar is the leader of the Hashid Tribal Federation, to which Salih and B Gen al Ahmar also belong – but with a different slant. While Salih has been fairly secular (by the standards or Middle Eastern governments) and intent on walking a balance beam between northern and southern, Shi’a and Sunni, and various tribal divides, Islah is composed primarily of conservative converts to Wahabbi Salafism. One of the patriarchs of the party is Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, a peculiarly Yemeni institution in and of himself (aside from his hennaed beard, he is known for being a financier of al Qaeda and is accused of having a hand in the attack on the USS Cole). B Gen al Ahmar financed jihadis as well, arranging the travel for Yemenis to go to Afghanistan (first to fight the Soviets, then the Americans) and Iraq.
There are no good options in Yemen. As long as Salih retains his tenuous hold on power, the United States will be forced to deal with an autocrat, but then again, he always has been. Yemenis call their brand of politics “decorative democracy,” a façade which was only instated in an effort by Salih to regain American aid. Now, though, Yemen is an integral part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and cannot be neglected as it has been in the past. Salih knows that his place is assured – it’s the confidence that allowed him to propose the abolition of term limits in the first place. The State Department will have another couple years of the same fair-weather ally they’ve come to know, but it will only postpone an inevitable transition. None of the candidates to succeed Salih seem conciliatory to U.S. interests, and it will not be enough to hope that Yemen’s coming resource crisis will force the prospective Islah Party government or al Ahmar military regime into a dialogue. The United States needs to start making friends now, especially outside of Sanaa, with local and tribal leaders. The tribes are a constant in Yemen; the government, after a 30-some year hiatus, is about to be a lot less so.
Mubarak and Me
January 31, 2011 | Posted by Londonstani - 5:03pm | 15 Comments
I grew up in Egypt and Hosni Mubarak was my uncle. To be honest, I think he was an uncle, father or grandfather to the 66 percent of Egyptians who are under 30. In fact, even if you were older than him, you probably still saw Mubarak as a fatherly figure. I wasn't born in Egypt. I arrived as an 18-year old Arabic student and I left a jaded Middle East correspondent hitting 30. But it was difficult to avoid the effects of an extremely well-crafted state propaganda machine that relied as much on the threat of thinly veiled force as it did on subtle manipulation.
Uncle Mubarak ran a very tight ship. It wasn't that he was mean. It was more that he didn't want you to hurt yourself in your youthful exuberance. Just to make sure you knew that he cared, there were quite a few pictures of him looking like the kind yet tough teacher you wish you had in school. Mubsy, as we used to call him at work, didn't look like those other leaders who liked to see their photos all over the place. He didn't have Hafez al Asad's dead-eye menace or Vladamir Putin's unspoken snarl. No, Mubarak looked like he was there for you. The problem was that he was everywhere, he wasn't going anywhere and, in the end, it was clear he wasn't actually helping.
In the beginning, Mubarak was more than an uncle. In fact, he was more than a man. He was somewhere between the Queen and the Prophet Mohammad (imagine being British Muslim). Mubarak represented Egyptian pride. He was the former airforce hero. He was a steady hand and a cool eye. He was ibn el-balad (son of the soil). At the same time, he was blameless. If something was wrong, it couldn't be his fault. Even if he said he was ultimately responsible, you wanted to say; "No, no. How could it be you? But thank you for manning up to shoulder the burden. I would have expected nothing less." Mubarak was familiar like a family member, but, at the same time, so much better than we could ever hope to be.
As a badly behaved 19-year old student, I and three friends decided to get our revenge on a tight-of-fist-yet-wide-of-girth landlord who had told us he was keeping our deposit while boasting of his generosity in the same breath. As we left his flat we deposited empty cans of tuna everywhere and opened the front door to the stray cats that inhabited the building. We spent three nights in a Cairo jail for our trouble but were released uncharged by a senior police officer who made sure we knew we were lucky to have been arrested in a country ruled by a man as benevolent as the great Hosni Mubarak. The officer was right in a way. Uncle Mubarak liked you if you were a wealthy foreigner with the right passport. I wouldn't have been so lucky if I had been one of the poor Egyptians beaten in front of me with rubber hoses. And, I definitely did not want to be the man in the next cell over whose blood I saw in thick pools on the concrete floor.
In reality, Mubarak didn't have it easy. He was the fourth leader of the Egypt's Free Officers' regime which came to power in a military coup against a constitutional monarchy in 1952. Egypt has a long history of being at the forefront of Middle East affairs and its people have a strong sense of pride. Political squabbling, corrupt politicians and disastrous war against the newly formed state of Israel motivated the middle class military professionals to remove their king, and British influence along with him. The coup's leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, made Egypt the focal point of Arab hopes and earned their eternal admiration. In reality, he achieved little. His successor, Anwar el-Sadat switched the regime from the pro-Soviet to the pro-Western camp during the cold war. Sadat realised post-independence Egypt's central problem; it's economic muscle didn't match its ambition.
To be the power it wanted to be, Egypt needed a stable political system based on rule by consensus. This would allow it to build a state machinery that would allow government to be effective and nimble enough to generate economic growth. With a strong body politic and economy, Egypt would have the independence and resources it needed to project its strength. Egypt's military leaders, however, didn't see it that way. Their phobia of political competition acquired by their experience of the constitutional monarchy they replaced prodded them to the conclusion that Egyptians were not ready for democracy. They were too "unruly" or "hot blooded" (often said with a hint of pride). Once the rulers had adopted a colonial view of their fellow countrymen, they replicated their mode of rule. Members of their own caste - other military men - were the only ones to be trusted with positions of power and authority.
The Free Officer regime was built on the tacit understanding that the officers would restore Egyptian pride. However, the problem with a rule-by-military-clique approach to government is that it does little for long-term development. Sadat's solution to this problem was to leverage Egypt's strategic value to the United States as a source of income.
Mubarak, when he took over after Sadat's assassination, decided to double down. He saw stability and security as paramount, with his continued rule as vital to both. But, he faced a conundrum. How could Nasser's Egypt be dependent for its survival on US aid and western tourist dollars? A more inventive leader might have found another way, but slow and steady bomber pilot Mubarak decided on bluff and relied on Egyptian pride to make it work. Under no circumstances, he seemed to have decided, would greater freedoms be risked.
The disaster for Egypt was that the relationship with the US and the collective voluntary hypnotism worked - for a while. Much needed reforms to the state were avoided through reliance on aid, grants, debt forgiveness (after the first US-Iraq war) and US inclination to look the other way. The civil service was not stream lined, nor were workers' pay increased. All the while, corruption stifled the growth of small business (the backbone of a successful economy, corroded the state's ability to educate its younger generation or even keep its citizen's safe when they used public transport
Mubarak stifled any dissent by blurring the line between loyalty to him and patriotism while creating a state that totally extricated any sense of civic participation or responsibility. There were no elected town councils, provincial assemblies or trade unions with any real power. The only public bodies there were became vehicles for patronage with shady businessmen or prominent families vying and bribing to be seen to have Mubarak's stamp of approval. All the while, politics was stage-managed and Mubarak was destined to win. The result was a Frankenstein country - a powerful and influential army and a massive internal security force. While opposition politicians had no experience or knowledge of what it would take to run the country, and the political culture didn't differentiate between party, state and country.
In my book The Long Struggle (shameless plug
) I mention an episode when I met Egyptian journalist friends at the journalist union in Cairo. One was from the opposition Nasserite party but argued vehemently that Mubarak's party should be the only one allowed to exist (he just wanted it to change its policies a little). During one election, I remember an eccentric old man who ran the right-wing Umma (Nation) Party say at a press conference that he would take off his shoe and beat anyone who didn't vote for Mubarak.
It wasn't all based on subtle subterfuge. The regime also used coercion and force. The closest I came to being shot was not in Iraq, Gaza, the West Bank or Darfur. It was on the grounds of a leafy Cairo villa that served as the HQ of the liberal Wafd Party. The leader Nomaan Goma was popularly understood to be a government stooge who spent all his time subverting any party activity aimed against the regime. He sometimes appeared on television sitting meekly near the president at the odd public occasion. One Saturday, the party had decided to oust Gomaa but he was holed up in the HQ with hired thugs and refused to leave. The thugs were lent by the government. When party members started banging on the door, the thugs fired from the other side. A bullet whizzed past me at chest height.
The system of government Mubarak inherited but then perpetuated contributed to his undoing. But the consequences of his method of rule and the acquiescence of his allies will be felt by Egyptians for some time to come. Mubarak often said he was working towards a gradual democratic transformation. But his actions did not bare out his words. Any credible secular party trying to establish itself was routinely denied permission. Parties that already existed were subverted from the inside. Secular political leaders like Ayman Nour
were harassed and jailed on trumped up charges. Islamist politicians - even moderate centrists - were subjected to military courts and jailed by the thousands. Elections were regularly rigged quite blatantly, and often pretty badly (with journalists covering them often getting arrested). Secular middle class women who demonstrated in support of independent judges and secular democratic reform were sexually assaulted
. All this generated little complaint from the United States.
Sometimes, the United States itself became an indirect target of the regime's spin. The fact that human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim had accepted foreign (including US) funds for his centre and had US citizenship was used to insinuate allegations of espionage. Every now and again, the security services would arrest gay men. The leaked details would suggest they were "imitating US lifestyles" and the state had acted to uphold Islamic values. I often heard Mubarak giving impromptu Arabic interviews to local journalists where he would allege that the Muslim Brotherhood was supported by the United States to destabilise the country.
Some of the US and UK coverage of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations happening now suggests that extremists are waiting to take over. Considering Mubarak's manipulation of feelings towards the United States and suppression of moderate Islamists and secularists, it's a surprise that the demonstrators are not all extremist Jihadis.
However, the legacy of Mubarak's rule means that there are few leaders with any of the contacts, stature and relationships that would allow government to function if Mubarak's regime was removed root and branch. Few people outside the ruling circle even have any idea of what the country's real financial situation is. Those who demand that the peace treaty with Israel be cancelled have no idea what part it plays in keeping their country solvent.
There is hope. The Egyptians who turned up to prevent the looting of the Cairo Museum, the popular committees, the Muslim-Christian cooperation show glimmers of hope that Egyptians - despite the best efforts of three decades of Mubarak - have retained the civic values that will be vital for their future.
Egypt: A Humble Request
January 30, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 9:03am | 50 Comments
Hey, I'm not trying to get all Edward Said on the readership here, but I do have one small request: can we all agree to stop using European historical analogies to describe what is taking place in Egypt? It's not Europe in 1848 or Eastern Europe in 1989 or France in 1789: it's Egypt in 2011.
What is taking place in Egypt today is the result of sui generis social, political, cultural and even geographic phenomena. When we use "western" frames of reference to make sense of what is taking place, by contrast, we a) sound really freaking narcissistic and b) fail to take those local phenomena seriously and thus miss a lot of what is going on.
Egypt has been doing this civilization thing, it occurs to me, for quite some time. Maybe even longer than Western Europe (by, oh, a few thousand years or so). So let's take Egypt and the Egyptians seriously -- on their own terms.
An Open Letter to the Egyptian People
January 29, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 3:32pm | 28 Comments
Dear Umm al-Dunya,
On behalf of the American people, I want to congratulate you all for thrilling the world these past few days with an inspired display of people power. We Americans ourselves once won our freedom from an evil dictatorship, only the people we fought had these British accents which made them seem far more evil than those clowns at the NDP.
Because our freedom-loving government has apparently been supporting the Sadat/Mubarak regime for the past 30+ years (honestly, who knew?), it is with great hesitation that I write to you on behalf of my countrymen with a little constructive criticism. But over the past few days, we Americans have been watching your street protests with much wonder and a little concern. It's not like we are the greatest baseball players on Earth -- no, that would be the Japanese -- but because of our national sport, we Americans all learn how to throw a baseball at an early age. Judging from your rock-throwing, we think you could get an extra 20-30 yards/meters on each throw if you stop throwing like a girl use some techniques we Americans have developed through the years. People of Egypt, allow me to introduce the crow hop:
We sincerely hope this comes in handy of the next few days. If any of this is confusing, call a man named Tom Emanski collect once they turn the phones back on. And in all seriousness, stay safe out there.
Egypt: People Who Might Actually Know What The %$#@ They're Talking About (Updated)
January 29, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 10:25am | 18 Comments
I was home in Tennessee for a brief 24 hours and woke up yesterday morning to MSNBC's "Morning Joe," which Mama Muqawama likes to watch before work. Nothing against the people on that particular show, because it's probably just representative of U.S. cable news in general*, but I was absolutely stunned by the willingness of the show's guests to opine about Egypt without having any actual experience in or expertise on Egypt or the broader Middle East. Is it really that tough to say, "Hey, that's a great question, Joe, but I am not really the best guy to give the viewers at home a good answer?"
Instead, guest after guest -- most of whom are specialists in or pundits on U.S. domestic politics -- made these broad, ridiculously sweeping statements about the meaning and direction of the protests.
I traveled to Egypt twice in 2005 and lived there between January and August of 2006 while studying Arabic after having completed my master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. I am by no means an expert on Egypt. But I like to think I know the people who are, so as a service to the readers, I am providing you all a list of no-%$#@ experts on Egypt. This list is, happily, by no means exhaustive: unlike the lack of informed commentary on Afghanistan, the United States has thousands of people who have lived and studied in Egypt as civilian researchers and students and can thus provide some reasonably informed commentary on events there. The following list is filled with some people whose opinions matter and whose analysis might actually be informed by study and experience. This list is in no particular order except for the first two people on the list, who are both good friends as well as two of the world's best experts on Egyptian politics.
Michael Wahid Hanna, The Century Foundation, @mwhanna1
Samir Shehata, Georgetown University
Josh Stacher, Kent State University, @jstacher
Max Rodenbeck, The Economist
If you can, follow the live feed on al-Jazeera Arabic
, which has made for the most exciting television I have watched since the Red Sox came back from three games down in the 2004 ALCS. (These events are arguably more geostrategically significant.) If you can't follow that feed, try al-Jazeera English
or follow the updates on
Robert Mackey's most excellent New York Times blog The Lede
: Someone in the comments suggested Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid), and I second that. Again, my list was happily not exhaustive. There are a lot of very smart analysts out there who can thoughtfully opine on Egypt -- in large part thanks to the legions of Arabic-language students who pass through Cairo at some point in their training.
A Word About Last Night's State of the Union Address UPDATED
January 26, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 1:27pm | 52 Comments
Our troops come from every corner of this country -– they’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. (Applause.) And with that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation. (Applause.)
Okay, there is one huge problem with this. It's easy to demonize the "elite" universities for not having more ROTC programs, but the reality is that the U.S. military has been the one most responsible for divesting from ROTC programs in the northeastern United States. It's hardly the fault of Columbia University that the U.S. Army has only two ROTC programs to serve the eight million residents and 605,000 university students of New York City. And it's not the University of Chicago's fault that the entire city of Chicago has one ROTC program while the state of Alabama has ten. The U.S. military made a conscious decision to cut costs by recruiting and training officers where people were more likely to volunteer. That makes sense given an ROTC budget that has been slashed since the end of the Cold War. But it also means that the U.S. Army and its sister services are just as responsible for this divide between the so-called "elite" living within the Acela Corridor and the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was one of two Army ROTC graduates in my class at the University of Pennsylvania, but it was not the fault of Penn or the ban on gays in the military that the U.S. Army decided to shutter the ROTC program at Penn after my freshman year and move us all over to Drexel's program. (Go Dragon Battalion, by the way!) The U.S. Army made a decision based on a logical (if short-sighted) cost-benefit analysis, and if there were only two people in my class of 2000+ at Penn (with one of them being from East Tennessee, which is far from Philadelphia's Main Line) who wanted to do ROTC, why did it make sense to fund a separate battalion?
The bottom line here,
expressed far better than me by John Renehan in the Washington Post
, is that we need to stop scape-goating the elite universities for the lack of ROTC on campus. Instead, we need to ask harder questions about what kind of efforts we need to make to build an officer corps that best represents the American people.
Update: Cheryl Miller of AEI has
a response to my post up on the Weekly Standard's website
, largely agreeing with what I wrote but adding more. Cheryl is the real subject matter expert on ROTC, so be sure to read what she has to say.
When Journalism Matters
January 26, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 11:08am | 3 Comments
Perhaps unsurprising for someone who grew up working in a newspaper, I spend a lot of time analyzing journalism and often criticize journalists. So I need to highlight when journalism is frankly awesome. Do yourself a favor and listen to
this amazing audio recording of the Guardian's Jack Shenker reporting from inside an Egyptian paddywagon
after being beaten by plain-clothed state security thugs and imprisoned. Pretty freaking great.
On a related note, where the hell was al-Jazeera yesterday?
[Blog fun fact: Londonstani and I first met when we were both living and working in Cairo. He was a journalist for Reuters at the time, and though I have not spoken to him, I would bet he is wishing he was back there now given the events of the past 48 hours!]
Lebanon: Why Does It Matter?
January 26, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 8:42am | 15 Comments
As many of this blog's readers know, I am not inclined to think tiny Lebanon really matters all that much in terms of U.S. interests. As much as I personally love the country and enjoyed the years I spent there, I just do not see a lot of U.S. interests that should occupy the time of senior policy-makers or the resources of a debt-laden state. This, obviously enough, is not in my interests to say, but there it is. CNAS has a few interns, though, who have also spent some time in Lebanon, and I asked one of them, Gregory McGowen, to make the case on the blog why U.S. policy-makers should care about Lebanon against the backdrop of the Special Tribunal. Take it away, Greg...
The situation in Lebanon reflects a greater trend in the Arab world that is directly opposed to American interests, goals and values. Viewing Lebanon as a leading indicator of social and political currents in the Middle East is admittedly an imperfect approach to an entire region, but it does have its benefits. Given that Lebanon is…
A.) The Arab world’s closest model of a “true democracy” (which doesn’t say much, but does provide a rough backdrop to gauge its potential) in the midst of:
B.) One of the world’s most highly charged sectarian environments, and:
C.) A proxy arena for outside interests to play out their regional agendas and settle their scores at minimal risk to all but the Lebanese
…this tiny country of just over 4 million invites further evaluation of the interplay between Western and Arab ideals and aspirations in the greater region. The controversy surrounding the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) tell us loud and clear what we can expect when A, B & C are thrown in the ring together: Political chaos, paralysis, violence and popular uprisings begetting more violence, until either foreign governments step in to “mediate” (read: stall the conflict 6-18 months, ignore the fundamental and highly contentious issues at the root of the conflict, listen to Nasrallah declare a “divine and historic victory”, and move on) or the country erupts into full-scale violence and civil war. I won’t even venture to guess what might happen tomorrow in Lebanon. I do, however, think it’s important for observers in Washington to step back from the STL specifically and, before making any assessments, to ask why Lebanon matters. What does it tell us? How does it affect our regional goals and interests, and how can we use this situation to help inform our decisions, both in this country and (cautiously) across the region. Here’s my take:
First off, the line separating sect from nation is at once becoming more divisive and harder to distinguish. This dynamic is very damaging to democratic processes, especially because Lebanon’s governance system is based on confessional representation. The coalition, which ambitiously declared itself a “national unity government”, has been dysfunctional at best, living and dying on a “cult of consensus” which has categorically failed its people (Elias Muhanna wrote an excellent piece dissecting the coalition’s leadership failures). When Hezbollah staged an armed takeover of Beirut in May 2008, it simultaneously solidified its status as a terrorist organization (in my opinion) and gained considerable influence in the country’s government. This time, however, the militia and its allies’ toppled the government on constitutional grounds. Same goes for their appointment of new PM Najib Miqati yesterday. This is progress…sort of. Like everything in Lebanon, it depends how you look at it. Almost 100 deaths in the summer of ’08; None in January ’11. This is the positive. Contextually, however, things aren’t quite as promising. The incident seriously calls into question the vitality of democratic ideals in a society that places such heavy emphasis on sectarian identity.
What’s also apparent is the Arab world’s deepening mistrust towards the United States and international bodies like the U.N. and E.U., which many see as puppets in the Western-Zionist design to dominate the region. This is no surprise, but it’s certainly disappointing. With relation to the STL, there is a clear disconnect between our stated goals: “to end the era of impunity for murder in Lebanon and achieve justice for the Lebanese people” and the will of those on the ground (in this case, the overwhelming majority of Lebanese) who simply want the U.S. to stop meddling in their affairs. Most troubling is that anti-American sentiment continues to gain steam at the popular level, on the streets and not just in government offices. It reinforces a deepening sense of alienation for which many Arabs feel the U.S. is to blame. Nasrallah said it best in yesterday’s speech: “Leave us alone, don’t kill us, don’t stab us in the back, don’t conspire against us…We are people who are going to die and who want to die. Let us get killed by bullets fired in our chest and not in our backs.”
Such hostility and divisiveness threatens U.S. regional goals and interests and poses a very precarious situation throughout the Middle East. Arabs, on the other hand, are expressing their political will in sectarian terms, in part to counter the threat they perceive from Israel and the West. The seemingly unstoppable power of the Resistance ideal at Hezbollah’s core is anything but unique to Lebanese politics; Muqtada al-Sadr’s influential return to Iraq is another very recent example.
I would suggest that at the core of the STL drama lies a fundamental disconnect between Western and Arab perceptions of key ideals, especially justice. This is not to say that the Arabs and Hezbollah supporters don’t value justice; I believe they do, and it’s not my place to judge anyways. But I will admit that I’m having trouble grasping the way it has been playing out in Lebanon. Saad Hariri has been cast as a pariah for holding on to his values and refusing to back down in the face of Hezbollah’s intimidation and conspiracies against him. I admire the caretaker PM, and until evidence comes out to suggest otherwise, I think it’s very disturbing how much of a beating he’s been under for taking the moral high ground. For one, he’s all but committed political suicide. The events in Lebanon should remind the U.S. of the dangers of trying to impose its will in affairs beyond our borders.
The political agendas of all parties involved have turned a righteous prosecution for political assassination into a morally ambiguous drama, at best. Unintended consequences have sprung up on all fronts. This should not come as a surprise in the Middle East, where politics and religion are deeply intertwined. Things have a tendency to take on a life of their own, and we soon find them outside our control. Our actions have very real and often unpredictable consequences. This is the blessing and the curse of being the world’s greatest superpower. I sincerely hope the Lebanese find a way to reconcile, and I believe they will. Moving forward, Washington would be well-served to view the STL as an exercise in restraint. There is a pressing need for us to rebalance our efforts in the Middle East; to reevaluate our priorities in the region and exercise our influence with greater concern for its effect on those on the ground.
For Israel, Hizballah is Lebanon, Lebanon is Hizballah (UPDATED)
January 25, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 6:06am | 44 Comments
Anthony Shadid is reporting from Lebanon for the New York Times
and observes that Hizballah is now the most powerful force not just in Lebanon but in the Lebanese government:
A prime minister chosen by Hezbollah and its allies won enough support on Monday to form Lebanon’s government, unleashing angry protests, realigning politics and culminating the generation-long ascent of the Shiite Muslim movement from shadowy militant group to the country’s pre-eminent political and military force.
To a degree, this is all democracy in action. Hizballah and its allies control the most seats in the Lebanese parliament, so they have the constitutional right to nominate whoever the hell they like to be the prime minister.* In that way, Najib Miqati is as or more legitimate a choice to be the prime minister as/than any of the prime ministers during the 30-year Syrian occupation. And after spending Lebanon's first 50 or so years as its most underrepresented and ignored major sect, the fact that the Shia are now exercising political power in line with their demographic strength is not in and of itself a bad thing.
But that's it for what passes for the good news.
Moving on, I do not think I need to highlight the number of ways this could go wrong, starting with the fact that the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and Miqati is not by any means the consensus choice of that community. Hence the protests in Tripoli and elsewhere.
I want, though, to focus on how this plays into the way another war between Hizballah and Israel might look. Israel, since the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, has always held the government of Lebanon responsible for the actions of Hizballah. In the 1993's 'Operation Accountability," for example, Israel said it was bombing southern Lebanon in part to coerce the governments of Syria and Lebanon to rein in Hizballah. (Why the Israelis thought Hafez al-Asad cared about people dying in southern Lebanon, Dear Reader, is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.) In 1996's "Operation Grapes of Wrath," meanwhile, Israel actually gave us a foretaste of the 2006 war by targeting Beirut and Lebanese infrastructure (such as power stations), again in an effort to get the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah.
Obviously, this whole "getting the government of Lebanon to crack down on Hizballah" strategy was a bit crazy and did not work since Hizballah was so strong and the government of Lebanon so weak. But it was politically more viable than attacking the people that actually might have stood a chance at cracking down on Hizballah -- namely, Syria and Iran.
But Israel's habit of hitting Beirut gets a little less crazy each year. In 1993 and 1996, it made no sense to target the government of Lebanon. By 2006, though, Hizballah was in the government of Lebanon -- or was at least holding seats in parliament. And now, Hizballah has formed its first government in Lebanon, which -- and Paul Salem is right here -- probably makes the organization a little nervous. There are huge risks associated with this. In another war, for example, Israel will be able to claim -- for the first time, really -- that Hizballah is Lebanon, and Lebanon is Hizballah. Since Hizballah controls the government, any attack on the institutions of the state -- to include the US-equipped Lebanese Armed Forces -- will be legitimate. And even people like me, who genuinely love Lebanon and its people and do not like to see either bombed, will not have much of an argument for why Israel should not. (Other than my constant refrain that another war would not serve the interests of the people of either Lebanon or Israel and would only bring more unneeded suffering on each.)
The same applies to those aforementioned Lebanese Armed Forces. The one constant in U.S. governmental policy toward Lebanon has been -- and this dates back to the Civil War years -- our train-and-equip mission for the Lebanese Armed Forces. We have provided $720 million in aid to Lebanon's security services since 2006 alone. But if a member of the U.S. Congress asks me why we should continue to give money to the security forces of Lebanon when the institutions of the state are now controlled by a coaltion led by Hizballah ... well, I honestly have no good answer. I mean, U.S. aid to Lebanon and strengthening the institutions of the state makes sense in the abstract, but providing millions of dollars in aid and development money to a government controlled by a party our own government labels a terrorist organization? No. (On the bright side, hey U.S. tax-payers, you just saved $100 million annually!**)
This is the new era into which Lebanon has entered. The big winner in all of this, of course, is the government of Israel, which has long claimed that Lebanon is Hizballah (and visa versa) and can now credibly make that claim on the international stage in the event of another war.
The big loser in all of this? Everyone north of the Blue Line.
*As my buddy Sean pointed out, though, you don't have to work hard to imagine what Hizballah would have done if the March 14th coalition, employing the same logic as Hizballah and its allies now, had decided to choose someone other than Nabih Berri to serve as the speaker of parliament. It's kind of charming, in a perverse way, that Hizballah is behaving like any other participant in a democratic system, demanding rights when in opposition that it seeks to deny others when in the majority. It's less charming, of course, when you realize that Hizballah has a massive arsenal with which it can back up its own grievances.
**I would like to think our wise government will take this $100 million and use it to pay down the interest on our debt, but our Congress will probably blow it all on booze and Cheetos for its Super Bowl party.
: Some smart comments from the readership. I will try to respond to them as the day goes on. I have responded to three such comments thus far but have just turned off al-Jazeera
and am closing up the laptop so I can get ready for work. Sadly, I am speaking at the Middle East Institute today ... on Afghanistan. But I may call an audible at the line of scrimmage and open the discussion up to the events in Lebanon after we exhaust Afghanistan as a topic of conversation, so if you are around and want to harass me in person for anything I have written here, drop by.
: Man, the comments thread is smoking. Some great stuff. Let me point you all, though, toward some really good political analysis by Elias
and Sean. Unlike me, Sean is in Beirut. And Elias is one of the smartest political analysts I know when it comes to Lebanon. Both dudes are great. One thing I want to stress is that I think war would be tragic for both the peoples of Lebanon and Israel. I think it would be a really, really bad idea and would not advance anyone's interests. Okay? That having been said, in previous engagements, the United States and others have asked the Israelis to distinguish between Hizballah and the government of Lebanon, while Israel has insisted the two were best considered one and the same. I realize that Hizballah has allies in its coalition, but there can be little debate about who the senior partner in the coalition is, right? In addition, you guys can all see how it will be tougher to claim the government of Lebanon and Hizballah are not one and the same when Israel starts bombing infrastructure in the next war, right? That's all I am trying to say. I am not saying bombing Lebanese infrastructure in the event of another war makes strategic or even tactical sense because I do not think that war itself makes much sense.
The Palestine Papers
January 24, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 7:20am | 12 Comments
As many of you know, I really try to avoid working on issues related to the Israelis and Palestinians. The whole mess reminds me of the Western Front, with both sides entrenched in their fighting positions and lobbing round after round of heavy artillery at the other side. I mean, on the one hand, I have spent a lot of time in the Arabic-speaking world, have traveled widely through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, speak one of the relevant languages, and genuinely like visiting Israel and its neighbors (where I have many friends). So I really should take an active interest in the issues. On the other hand, though, I have instead chosen to spend my days trying to think of ways to win a counterinsurgency campaign in a landlocked mountainous state in Central Asia in part because it's a lot more "do-able" than brokering peace in the Levant, and no one is going to call me ugly names if I suggest, to pick one example, talking with our violent Islamist adversaries.
That having been said, I know enough about the issues to know that the release of the so-called "Palestine Papers" is kind of a big deal. So if you have any interest whatsoever in the Middle East "Peace Process" and are not otherwise busy breaking down Green Bay's blitz packages or pondering what President Obama will say in tomorrow's State of the Union Address, you'll want to follow their release, which you can do here
, as well as the commentary, which you can do here
Have fun with that. Let me know how everything turns out.
What Some Conservatives Don't Yet Get
January 21, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 8:24am | 45 Comments
Yesterday, 165 House Republicans voted to completely de-fund USAID
as part of austerity measures designed to address the U.S. budget crisis. They suggested a lot of other cuts, but you can guess what they did not
suggest cutting: the budget of the Department of Defense. They suggested we zero out
the budget for USAID but not make any changes to the amount we are currently spending within the Department of Defense.
The FY2011 Department of Defense budget request
was $548.9 billion dollars for the base
budget, which does not
include the $159.3 billion dollars set aside for "overseas contingency operations" such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just to give you a little perspective, the International Affairs budget we set aside for foreign and security assistance programs totaled, according to Gordon Adams and Cindy Williams
, $500 billion in the three decades
between FY1977 and FY2007 -- $50 billion less than the base budget
for the Department of Defense for one year
But that incredible disparity is not what folks need to know about USAID. The question that last factoid should prompt in the heads of at least 165 people in Washington, DC is, "Wait a minute, why is discussion of the USAID budget
included in the authoritative book
on the national security
The answer is that Adams and Williams understand what every U.S. military officer and defense official from the youngest second lieutenant at Fort Benning to Bob Gates understands: the money we spend through USAID is part of our national security budget
. Some money, such as the money we spent through both the defense and aid budgets in Haiti last year, we spend for mostly altruistic purposes. But the two biggest recipients of U.S. international aid through USAID are Afghanistan and Pakistan
. We can have a separate debate about whether or not this money is being well spent, but we cannot have a debate as to why
it is being spent: it is quite obviously being spent to advance what are seen to be the national security interests
of the United States.
USAID, as an organization, no doubt wastes a lot of money. But so too, to put it mildly, does the Department of Defense. I have no doubt, in fact, that the amount of money USAID wastes in any given year amounts to a small fraction of the amount of money the Department of Defense loses through cost overruns for the F-35
The bottom line here is that the biggest defender of the USAID budget will be Bob Gates -- and any U.S. military officer who has ever served with someone from the Office of Transition Initiatives
in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Sec. Gates will argue, supported by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, that while USAID has problems, the money we spend through it is just as related to U.S. national security interests as the money we wasted on the Crusader or the money we spend to put an 18-year old through basic training. To not understand that is embarassing because it means you're an elected policy-maker and still uneducated about the wars we've been fighting for almost 10 years now.
You want to spend less money on aid and development in Afghanistan? Fine, I agree with you
. But get of USAID? Now you're just being ignorant.
If you only read one thing today ...
January 20, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 12:57pm | 23 Comments
... read this guest post by David Flynn on Tom's blog
. Josh Foust is one of the best and most provocative Afghanistan analysts I know, but Flynn affirms, in his post, why I beg off from passing judgment on operations
taking place in Afghanistan from Washington, DC: absent context as well as the ability to ask questions of the actors involved, you're vulnerable to being contradicted by the man in the arena. For all I know, Foust may well be correct in his analysis and criticism. But Flynn's credibility derives from his 20 months spent in the Arghandab over two seperate deployments, and between his testimony and Josh's criticisms, whose are you going to trust?
Bloggers and other researchers based in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere should most definitely be criticizing strategy and asking hard questions about operations, tactics and the assumptions that inform both. But there is a darn good reason why to abstain from judging operations from afar without the requisite amount of documentary evidence or ability to observe operations yourself.
I look forward, though, to what I am sure will be a fun response from Josh.
Update: One question for the readers, though: Did Flynn actually address the central questions posed by Josh's critique? I don't think he did. He's not required to do so, of course, but if he is going to take the time to pen a response for Tom's blog, it would have been interesting to read a response exploring his tactical decision, how he dealt with the trade-offs involved, etc. A serving battalion commander dealing honestly with the hard moral and tactical choices of combat would have been enlightening. Instead, it falls to Kabul-based human rights researcher (and alumna of the St. Tammany Parish schools system) Erica Gaston
to do just that:
On the one hand, it’s horrifying to see this level of property destruction, but on the other hand, from a civilian protection standpoint, it’s not great to leave these booby-trapped towns in the state that the Taliban left them. Given the way in which the IEDs and other explosives have been planted (often wired into the walls of houses), defusing them by other means would likely be incredibly risky and not feasible for a very long time. There’s no easy answer.”
Exum and Foust on Tactics in Afghanistan
January 18, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 4:24pm | 21 Comments Josh Foust and I, as we often do, were engaged in a lengthy Twitter conversation on how to properly evaluate counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan. Writing in 140-character increments was going to drive me crazy sooner rather than later, so I suggested we do a joint blog post on the subject
. What follows is the question and answer session we had this afternoon. This is cross-posted on Josh's blog
Recently, Paula Broadwell recounted
on Tom Ricks' blog some operations in the Arghandab Valley, in Kandahar province. I found some of the events she described, like razing entire villages to the ground, appalling
. At least in terms of tone, you seemed to agree: on Twitter, you referred to some passages as "cringe-inducing." I saw that as an example of questionable tactics in service of a non-existent strategy. But it also made me think back to a report you filed when you returned from a tour of the Arghandab. "Counterinsurgency," you wrote, "as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced." Clearly, I'm missing something between the two accounts of this valley. So, what are the indicators you use to evaluate tactical counterinsurgency as the best you've ever seen?
AE. Yeah, the main problem I had with Paula's post concerned the inability to see how ISAF actions might -- while making perfect sense to ISAF military officers (and a West Point graduate like Paula predisposed to see things from the perspective of a military officer) -- be perceived from the Afghan perspective. One of the things you often hear older military officers tell younger military officers is to "turn the map around": how might the battlefield look to the enemy? I think that in counterinsurgency operations, where the population might matter more than in conventional, maneuver warfare, we have an obligation to turn the map around and see how our actions might be perceived by the local population.
Like Paula, though, I was impressed with a U.S. unit I visited in the northern Arghandab River Valley (ARV) last month. I have not had the chance to visit or observe the ARV over a long period of time and cannot say whether or not improved tactics will have a strategic effect, but I have observed U.S. military units struggle with the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001. I myself served there as a young platoon leader in 2002 and again as a Ranger platoon leader in 2004. I only mention that because I often compare and contrast units and small-unit leaders today with myself and the units I led in 2002 and 2004. I returned again in 2009 after several years spent wandering around the Arabic-speaking world.
The way one evaluates the tactical performance of a unit in combat depends a lot on how one perceives the conflict and what is important for victory. When it comes to maneuver warfare, the U.S. military has reached something approaching consensus on how we evaluate the tactical performance of leaders. U.S. Army Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad, for example, is a commonly accepted reference used to teach small unit leaders how to fight maneuver warfare at the tactical level in an infantry unit. It is based on both recent historical experiences as well as practical lessons learned. It contains loads of assumptions, most of which have been pretty rigorously tested. (With often painful results for those testing them!)
U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, and U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency offer similar standards for how we can teach and then evaluate units in combat in counterinsurgency operations. I should add, though, that I do not think the U.S. military and the scholarly community has reached anything approaching consensus with respect to counterinsurgency. I also do not think we have as rigorously tested the assumptions in these manuals as we should. (To give but one example, I question the degree to which our provision of social services really matters for success.) That having been said, when it comes down to it, I feel both of our counterinsurgency field manuals get a lot right. The emphasis in 3-24.2 on leveraging and supporting host national security forces, for example, is spot on. So too is the appendix on intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB): you can't just know who you are fighting; you also have to know about the environment in which you are fighting. And I agree with the considerations for both offensive and defensive operations. [Note: I welcome any scholars who would criticize the manuals. My own thoughts on the things I think each manual gets right have been influenced by a) historical studies, b) what I myself have been able to learn by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and c) spending a lot of time studying the conflicts in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan as a civilian scholar and researcher.]
Based on the doctrine, what I observed in the ARV was encouraging. I saw a unit conducting aggressive offensive operations, fully integrating special operations forces into their plans and operations, and taking local security forces really seriously. I also saw a very sophisticated IPB -- the best I had myself ever seen at the company-grade level. The unit I spent an afternoon with, for example, really knew their neighborhood. They knew everyone who lived there and all the buildings in their area of operations. When something changed, I got the sense this unit would notice. And that's really important. I use The Wire a lot to explain everything from Lebanese politics to counterinsurgency, and I would liken the U.S. Army to the character Ellis Carver: when we meet him in Season One, all he wants to do is kick ass and take names. By Season Five, though, he's become a much smarter police officer. He's taken the time to get to know the people he's trying to protect and can thus better separate the bad guys from all the people just trying to get on with their lives.
Anyway, all of that led me to observe that U.S. counterinsurgency operations at the tactical level were some of the best I had ever seen. Caveat lector, I do not know whether or not these improved tactics will yield a strategic effect. There are too many phenomena -- many of them exogenous, as @ndubaz pointed out on Twitter -- that we cannot even observe much less measure. And we still have a lot of known pains in our asses (like Afghan governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan) that could render tactical gains ephemeral.
As one final caveat lector, my observations were based on a limited sample, and unit and leader performance should be assumed to be uneven across the country. Still, I was encouraged.
JF. Okay, so I can summarize: the operations you saw last year in the Arghandab matched with your interpretation of how one would enact both tactical and counterinsurgency doctrine, yes? Aggressive operations, integrating SF, and taking local security forces seriously, all of which add up to good tactics? Is there any way to be more specific?
For example, in this Broadwell episode, the local unit was most certainly using aggressive operations, and they integrated SF, and they even worked through the ABP to develop local knowledge. The thing is, the aggression resulted in the destruction of an entire village (something General McChrystal strongly urged against in the 2009 COIN guidance for which you were a consultant), and the SF's use of the ABP -- Col. Raziq is not from the Arghandab (the ABP has no jurisdiction in the district) and his tribe has been in conflict with many communities in this part of the Arghandab -- is, let us say, a bit questionable. How can we tell the difference between an appropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity, and inappropriate use of these three aspects of good tactical activity? For example, what makes aggression proper now, versus the restraint previous COIN strategies required?
AE. Those are great questions, some of which I am hesitant to answer. I am reticent to pass judgment on operations I have not personally observed. I am especially reticent to comment from Washington, DC on operations in Afghanistan. My perch at 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue is a great place to think about strategy or policy, sure, but not so much operations and tactics. The best (only?) place to observe the latter is in Afghanistan itself. So instead of passing judgment on the aforementioned operations, let me ask some questions instead -- questions that may be useful for both commanders on the ground as well as for analysts like Paula who have had the chance to directly observe the operations themselves:
1. What are we trying to do here?
2. What effect will these operations have on the enemy?
3. How will these operations affect or be perceived by the local population?
4. What are the trade-offs for using a character like Col. Raziq? (On the one hand, he is seen as being effective, but on the other hand ... well, anyone who has not yet read the 2009 Matthieu Aikins profile of Raziq for Harper's
5. What are the likely second- and third-order effects of our operations?
The thing is, you can be, to quote one Stan McChrystal, "tactically brilliant but strategically stupid." Are the operations that Paula describes tactically sound? Maybe -- I don't know. But I would hope that officers on the ground -- as well as Paula herself -- are thinking through whether or not these operations will have the strategic effect we hope they will have. Maybe they will. But I would hope we're thinking through those five questions I listed above, which have more to do with strategy than tactics.As far as tactics are concerned, I would again refer readers to FM 3-24.2 for what the U.S. Army considers to be good counterinsurgency tactics. I cannot myself reduce "good tactics" down to three or four things: I just picked out three or four things that I believed helped to illustrate why I left the ANV last month impressed.
JF. Okay, so you don't like to condemn events you didn't personally witness. That's... fine, I guess. I wonder why, though, an afternoon of briefings is sufficient to declare tactics good in one case but a few thousand words describing tactics is insufficient to question tactical decisions elsewhere. It's kind of the crux of what started this whole discussion: at what point can we reasonably ask probing questions about conduct? The outlines of this village razing incident in the Arghandab, in my view, warrants probing questions precisely because it is such a drastic measure.
So, at best I can tell this leaves me with two remaining questions.
1) If tactics are good and adhere to theory, but either undermine or don't advance our overall strategy, what's the point of praising tactics? Isn't that just wasted time, effort, money, and, most importantly, lives?
2) I can accept your view that it's difficult to question too much from the U.S. But if no one sitting in Washington, DC, can really question the tactics we read about, in what way can we, in good faith, question and strive to understand the war? This, too, is at the heart of why I'm asking these questions. It's not as if everyone who is interested in understanding the war can go embed with the troops (and there is, unfortunately, greater difficulty for war skeptics to get precious embed space, compared to non-skeptics). If personal accounts, even (as I called Broadwell's latest) hagiographies, are not enough to prompt serious questions about our conduct, how can we reasonably evaluate what's happening?
. Okay, I'll address your points one at a time, but before I do, let me just say that I have really enjoyed this. Compared with trying to explain this over Twitter, conventional prose is a joy. And your questions are good ones. 1. Oh, there is a lot of good in praising good tactics. Let me name two. First, improved tactics demonstrate a military organization that has learned -- which big bureaucracies often have trouble doing! That's very positive. Second, it is too early to tell whether or not the near-term security outlook for the ANV has changed for the better. But if it does, we will want to note the correlation between improved tactics and improved security for rather obvious reasons.2. This is a great and legitimate question. I should be more careful and allow that we can, in fact, judge operations from afar when the documentary evidence is solid. I'm not trying to say I can't second-guess or judge William Calley, for example, because I wasn't personally at My Lai! But I would want a lot more documentation than Paula's single blog post before weighing in on this particular example.
I think you are somewhat incorrect to say that skeptics do not get to visit Afghanistan. You write this because you're thinking of people like me who travel there as part of our jobs as civilian researchers and have been outspoken in support (to varying degrees) of the current strategy. But plenty of other civilian researchers and journalists I know visit Afghanistan as guests of the command and return to write critical reports -- and then visit again (see Hastings, Michael). Other journalists and civilian researchers write highly skeptical accounts without ever embedding (see Dorronsoro, Gilles). I mentioned earlier the journalist Matthieu Aikins, whose reporting I love. It's worth pointing out that he has, in addition to observing the war as both an embedded and unembedded journalist, also been an outspoken skeptic of the current strategy and, together with fellow activist-journalists Nir Rosen, Gareth Porter and Ahmed Rashid, offered his own policy recommendations. (Along with some guy named Foust and a bunch of other non-journalists.) So if all we had to go on was a blog post from my friend Paula, I would agree with your point. But I linked to that great Aikins piece on Raziq from Harper's that is required reading for many government analysts working on Afghanistan. There is a lot more of that kind of critical reporting and analysis out there -- you and I link to it every day. I'm just hesitant to judge something after reading any one thing -- and I think you would agree with me there.
On Tunisia, Part II
January 18, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 9:18am | 3 Comments As has already been discussed, I have little of use to add to the conversation on Tunisia. But Shadi Hamid has a lot of smart things to say about democratization in the Arabic-speaking world, and my old friend Issandr el-Amrani is one of the very first people to whom I would turn for thoughts on the politics of North Africa. (I would probably solicit the thoughts of our mutual pal Elijah Zarwan
first, actually, since he did some very good work on internet freedom in Tunisia for Human Rights Watch a few years back.) Issandr and Shadi discuss Tunisia here:
Can I just say, though, that Issandr's argument that the United States should try to "not be evil" more or less takes all the fun out of foreign policy?
January 14, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 2:27pm | 14 Comments
Like many of this blog's readers, I was unable to stop watching al-Jazeera
today. The scenes from Tunis have been incredible. Alas, despite a little time spent in Morocco and Egypt, I know very little about North Africa and nothing at all about Tunisia. So you'll have to go elsewhere for analysis. For those who can read or otherwise understand French or Arabic, your options are better than the options for those who do not. Al-Jazeera
, al-Jazeera English
, and Le Monde
may be worth checking out.
Using "The Wire" to Explain Shia Politics in Lebanon
January 14, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 5:26am | 43 Comments
Inspired by Sean Lee's remark
that Walid Junblatt reminds him of Proposition Joe, it occured to me that I need to start using The Wire
to explain Lebanese politics more often. For starters, anyone confused by Hizballah's relations to Amal would do well to think of Hassan Nasrallah as Marlo Stanfield and Nabih Berri as Avon Barksdale. The Stanfield crew never really destroyed the Barksdale crew -- they never really needed to. They just fought a series of conflicts and gradually displaced them as time went on. They're all West Side guys, just one crew is leaner and meaner than the other, and those who never grew comfortable with the new power order -- the Bodie's of Lebanon, if you will -- were eventually dealt with.
The IDF is Officer Colicchio.
Straight Shooter My A$$
January 13, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 6:31pm | 31 Comments
Aaaand, this is why America is going down the drain. By now, everyone has noted what class acts Rush Limbaugh and the gang at KNST are for this peach of a billboard, which until Monday morning was just down the street
from where Gabby Giffords was shot and six others killed. But there's more reason to be outraged: this is what a "straight shooter" is in America these days? Look at that shot group! You've got six or seven rounds in the center, but spaced out by several feet, and I don't even want to know how hard Rush had to jerk his trigger finger to get those two rounds all the way out on the right and left, which suggest some rounds didn't even hit the target. C.J. Chivers noted that a lot depends on whether or not Rush Limbaugh had his selector switch on fully automatic, which is logical enough, I guess, but no marksman worth his salt fires his weapon on fully automatic, and honestly, between that and Rush Limbaugh being high as a kite on pain-killers, which explanation for his crappy marksmanship sounds more logical to you? Yeah, that's what I thought.
Rush Limbaugh, folks: Not only as classy ever, but also incompetent with firearms.
On Hizballah's Insecurity
January 13, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 8:49am | 12 Comments
One of the comments in the post below noted how odd it is that Hizballah even cares about this stupid tribunal given the position of strength the organization enjoys in Lebanon. I agree this makes no sense looking at Lebanon from the outside, but I do not think Hizballah itself sees itself in the same way others see it.
First off, Hizballah's constituency is still the poorest in Lebanon, and until the rise of Musa Sadr in the 1960s and 1970s, it really had no strong political representation. The government in Beirut more or less ignored the needs of the Shia community. Just to give but one example, in pre-war Lebanon, southern Lebanon held 20 percent of the population of Lebanon yet received only 0.7 percent (!) of annual expenditures. Today, thanks to both remittances and more economic opportunities within Lebanon -- not to mention the provision of social services by Hizballah primarily outside the state and by Amal from primarily within the state -- the Shia of Lebanon enjoy a higher economic standing than ever before. But that doesn't mean a Shia Lebanese older than 35 can't think back to when his or her lot in life was a lot worse.
Second, Hizballah's constituency believes -- and not without reason -- that its new-found socio-political standing and seat at the table in Beirut has been won and maintained largely on account of Hizballah's arms. Like U.S. gains in Afghanistan, Hizballah's constituency consider this new respect and representation to be both fragile and reversible. An older Shia can remember the days when the Christians and Sunni trading classes of Beirut and Tripoli dictated their lot in life.
Third, to an outsider, Hizballah looks like the big bully in Lebanon -- which it most certainly is. But from within the organization, all many can see are enemies: Saudi Arabia, Israel, March 14th, the United States, etc. Just because you're paranoid does not mean people are not out to get you, and we know that Hizballah's domestic enemies have conspired with forces outside Lebanon to weaken Hizballah's standing. (Hizballah can also see the way in which the international community, led by the United States, has worked to isolate its primary sponsor, Iran.)
None of this is meant to excuse Hizballah, whose actions since 2000 have run counter to the interests of Lebanon and have caused much suffering for the peoples of both Lebanon and Israel. (I, for one, really wish Hizballah had disarmed and "Lebanonized" -- as some scholars and analysts predicted in the late 1990s that it eventually would.) But it remains a paradox that the organization the rest of the world sees as so strong sees itself as so very weak.
Note to newer readers: this blog mostly covers Afghanistan and Pakistan these days, but it was not always so. I spent from 2004 until 2006 in Lebanon and moved back for most of 2008. I just submitted my doctoral dissertation on Hizballah, too, but have not been back to Lebanon since last fall, so, caveat lector, some of my political analysis may be dated.
An Unfortunate Thing That's Probably True
January 13, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 8:12am | 7 Comments
I spend much of my time throwing cold water on those who try to make Hizballah out to be al-Qaeda (or want to draw more lessons from 34 days in 2006 than the entire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined). But sometimes I read something about Hizballah
which, while grim, is probably also true:
"Hezbollah is ... willing to sacrifice the Lebanese state to maintain its standing in the Middle East and its perpetual war against Israel."
You can try -- and scholars have -- to say Hizballah's ambitions are more about securing the newly enriched socio-political position of the Shia within Lebanon than they are about the fight with Israel, but to say this you must first ignore the rhetoric of the organization's leaders and the organization's behavior since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.
I disagree with Thanassis, though, that Hizballah might lose popular support if members of the organization were to be indicted. I think the organization has already succeeded in convincing its followers that the Hariri Tribunal is an Israeli-American conspiracy against the Resistance.
On America in Lebanon (Updated)
January 12, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 3:18pm | 8 Comments
In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries — gathered around Mr. Hariri — have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, President Obama has not pledged the same kind of support. Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed at which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.
How, pray tell, is March 14th weaker with an Obama Administration than they were with a Bush Administration? I ask this because it is now an article of faith that March 14th was once riding high when they had the support of the Bush Administration but that they are now weaker because of tepid support from the Obama Administration. This is crazy talk. The May 2008 events, in which Hizballah and its allies crushed March 14th on the streets of Beirut, took place while George W. Bush was still the president. And our response to that unrest? To park the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Lebanon, only underlining our impotence: in a tough spot, the United States has very few things we can do short of direct military force. So the levers available to policy makers basically amount to a car with two gears: first and fifth, with nothing in between. Unless we want to intervene militarily (like we did in both 1958 and 1983), what else are we going to do? This has nothing to do with the occupant of the White House. This has to do with America's limited influence in a tiny country north of Israel that is peripheral to U.S. interests. I'm all about criticizing this president when he deserves it, but mark my words: opportunists will seize on these events to talk about how America has abandoned her allies without offering ideas for what Obama should do today (or what Bush should have done in 2008) short of intervening directly with military force. In the meantime, shame on the New York Times for reporting on articles of faith and popular perceptions rather than hard facts.
: I complain, the New York Times
listens. That's the way it happens, readers. I write a critical blog post and BOOM! This happens
. Much better, Bobby.
Assumptions Test: Group Project!
January 12, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 11:25am | 12 Comments
What do we think of the following assumption, represented in graphic form below? Let's start by assuming both China and Iran have an interest in U.S. military assets remaining in Afghanistan at great expense. Let's also assume that neither country, both with interests in Afghanistan, wants more instability. Will China and Iran take a more active interest in stabilizing Afghanistan as U.S. troop levels go down? Discuss in the comments. (Update: Zathras and @joshuafoust asked me to define some terms, which is fair enough. Take "active interest" to mean a willingness to intervene to stablize the country. And take "stablize" to mean an action whereby violence is managed or "capped" in such a waty that it allows for both a peaceful political process and economic access. And I'm not trying to precisely quantify everything, gang, which would be impossible. But for planning purposes, assume U.S. troop levels drop from 100k to 25k between now and 2014.)
Kagan Squared on Afghanistan
January 10, 2011 | Posted by Abu Muqawama - 11:40am | 15 Comments
First, despite the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, it strikes me that we see a whole lot of agreement about where we're going. Very few people think garrisoning a land-locked state in Central Asia with 150,000 NATO troops makes a lot of strategic sense in the long run, and most people in and around policy-making circles agree that the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan should transition away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy combining counter-terror activities with a train-and-equip mission. I see the differences begin to emerge in two places:
1. Presentation: For many folks -- whether it be Richard Haass
, Michael Cohen
, Bing West
or Peter Galbraith -- there is this need to talk first about how stupid the war is and how we need to "draw down" before then ... recommending a long-term security partnership with Afghanistan as well as a robust residual force to both target al-Qaeda and associated movments and to continue to train local security forces. (A lot of this strikes me as posturing, though I
do not want to insult either West or Cohen want to exempt West and Cohen from that charge. I am reading the former's book at the moment, and the latter is someone with whom I have had more substantive disagreements.) Others, though, have instead just focused on how to get from Point A to Point Z with no need to ramble on about how much they don't like the war.
2. Substance: There is genuine disagreement about how much -- if any -- counterinsurgency you need to do before the conditions are set for that alternate, less resource-intensive strategy. There is also disagreement about how big a residual force you need, and what you should do about Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014. So there is more room for substantive, reasonable disagreement about Points B through Y. I am, as you all know, in the camp of those who agree with Kim and Fred that you have to set conditions for a new strategy in Afghanistan through NATO-led counterinsurgency operations between now and ~2013. But you can read my own opinions about what we should do in greater detail here
Second, as far as the Kagan paper is concerned, I had three big(ish) reservations, which should not detract from all the many things I found in the paper with which I agreed:
1. I am much more heistant to champion the tactical gains of 2010. The Kagans, to their credit, acknowledge that the "true test" of the successes of 2010 will be whether or not they have a lasting, strategic effect in 2011. But I would have led with that uncertainty. We simply do not know how significant the security gains in southern Afghanistan are until they have weathered a Taliban counter-offensive in 2011. (And I do not understand why Josh Foust chose to rake the Kagans over the coals
for saying it is too soon to tell whether or not tactical successes in 2010 will mature into strategic effects in 2011. Surely this is a quite reasonable thing to say?)
2. I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the ALP (Afghan Local Police) as are Kim, Fred and Gen. Petraeus -- among others. To me, the high-level enthusiasm for the ALP reminds me a lot of the high-level enthusiasm for the AP3 program and other local defense initiatives in 2009 and 2010. In both the former as well as in the case of the ALP programs, it is worth noting that the Special Forces officers actually charged with running the programs were and remain much more cautious about how well these programs will work and whether or not they can be rapidly expanded.
3. I am much more cautious about the situation in northern Afghanistan. On the one hand, I have seen ISAF make the case why many within the intelligence community and think tank community are wrong to sound the alarm over northern Afghanistan so loudly. But given the degree to which intelligent observers disagree about the situation in northern Afghanistan, surely it is wise to gather more evidence before pronouncing all to be well.
I thought the Kagans made some good observations in the report that make it worth reading, including the observation that hard fighting remains in eastern Afghanistan. I do not think the peoples of the troop-contributing nations (aside from the people of Afghanistan) really understand this. The war is being fought in phases, and assuming -- and this is a huge planning assumption -- that things hold in southern Afghanistan, the bulk of ISAF's efforts will shift northeast up the ring road in 2011 and 2012.
I left the life of a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan in 2004 to try my hand at social science and picked up a concentration in the Arabic-speaking world along the way. The social sciences gave me the epistemological questions I'm always asking myself -- "How do I know what I 'know'?" -- and the regional concentration made me more aware of what I do not know when looking at another, new region. So I am very cautious -- maybe too cautious, for all I know -- about drawing conclusions on what is taking place in Afghanistan at the moment. (And, goodness gracious, I would have never made the attempt Fred and Kim made to delve into Pashtunwali, but good on them for trying.) But Fred and Kim spent a lot of time in 2010 in Afghanistan, and anyone who dismisses their report out of hand is foolish. I said little at but really enjoyed today's discussion. I'll post a video as it becomes available below.
Pakistan's dilemma at Salmaan Taseer's murder
January 8, 2011 | Posted by Londonstani - 4:00pm | 13 Comments
Pakistanis - let alone the rest of the world - have gotten depressingly used to bombs in markets, mosques and government buildings wiping out dozens of people in one go. They, like the people who study the politics of Pakistan, thought they had it sussed: Deobandis are the school of thought of the Taliban. They want to kill all those that think any differently from them.
But the killer of Salmaan Taseer, a consummate twitter user (@salmaantaseer) and governor of Punjab, wasn't a Deobandi, he was a Baraelvi; the "good" school of thought, the ones that are also getting targeted by the Taliban.
(I've staked out the differences between Deobandis and Baraelvis before
.) The reason the killer gave for his actions was Taseer's support for a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy and his call for Pakistan's blasphemy law to be changed. (Read Mosharraf Zaidi here
to get an idea of how the blasphemy debate works). To many observers, it wasn't just the killing that was shocking, it was the reaction - the seemingly widespread idea that Taseer deserved it.
So where does this leave Pakistan? Well, it leaves many Pakistanis profoundly depressed about where their nation is heading. Those people who when I arrived a year ago said that Pakistan had a moderate majority and religious parties never got more than 15 percent of the vote sound much less self assured since the death of Taseer.
Taseer's death, like the blasphemy debate that preceded it, was about much more than religion; it was about the politics of resentment in a state that's failing. Not long before his death, Taseer posted on twitter; "It is the rich educated & privileged who have destroyed Pak not the poor illeterate & dispossessed". He had a very good point. Decades of failed governance in Pakistan has led to the emergence of very different communities living side by side in one country. I don't mean ethnicities or religious groups. I mean world views fashioned by opportunity; whether that means economic opportunity, educational opportunity or the opportunity to gain exposure to the wider world or the rest of your country beyond your village/town. That opportunity comes with a cost implication. As the decades have worn on in Pakistan, less and less people have been able to afford that opportunity. Those that have it guard it jealously. Wealthy families in Pakistan, it is often noted, send sons into politics largely to guard and expand the family fortune. Those that have gone from poor to rich have often managed it through an uncommon degree of ruthlessness. Once they succeeded, their pasts were laundered by establishment figures in need of moneyed allies. For most of its life, Pakistan has been a system that rewards bad practices and punishes good ones.
I've spent a large part of the last 10 years working in the Middle East and Africa, but I've not seen a society as economically segregated as the one in Pakistan. The rich - the ones who were able to afford the opportunity - often do not share any public space with the poor. The chai khaane (tea houses) are similar to Arab qahwas in that they both serve hot caffeinated beverages. The local area's wealthy and not-so wealthy do not sit in corner cafes reading the same newspaper. In fact, often, the wealthy and poor read newspapers in different languages; the English ones being much more balanced and sophisticated than the Urdu ones. With very few reference points in common; to the wealthy, the poor are to be mistrusted. To the poor, the wealthy (the "elites") are practically aliens. Having recently spent time in various rural parts of Pakistan, I find myself being asked to explain the rest of the country to Pakistani friends. To many Pakistanis, much of their country is a foreign place.
Like many other elements of public discourse in Pakistan, your position on the blasphemy law has become a measure of you as a person; much like the abortion debate in the US. Those "elites" who don't reflect "real" Pakistani/Muslim values are portrayed in the argument as sellouts and traitors. A much cleverer person than I (Ms Henley-on-Thames) suggested this was economic resentment manifesting itself as cultural resentment. The wealthy in Pakistan, it seems, drew up the drawbridge on the rest of the country many years ago, but in the process left themselves outnumbered and at risk of being overwhelmed.
In a country falling apart at the seams, where the ability of the government to enact its will is extremely limited (as is its ability to formulate effective policy in a timely manner), violence and death is becoming a regular feature of public discourse. If you don't believe the authorities will stop a local official acting in a corrupt manner, what do you do? Beat him up
. What happens when you think a couple of kids have been stealing and the police don't care? You beat them to death
Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that all wealthy, English-reading Pakistanis were appalled by what happened to Taseer and the poor were all convinced he got what he deserved. As a Reuters story shows, regular, working-class Pakistanis were shocked by the killing. Whereas, many wealthy Pakistanis were perhaps most alarmed by the support people of their own background gave to the killer's actions. A Facebook page in praise of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, attracted 2,000 followers in a few hours before it was deleted. In an increasingly polarised international context where the Muslim and Western worlds see themselves at odds, it has practically become an affirmation of your "Muslimness" (and your self esteem) to be as opposite to the West as you can. Whereas the West allows people to ridicule the prophet, in Pakistan, you'll get killed for it.
The problem transcends religious ideology. Why is it that the blasphemy law becomes a litmus test for people's religious credentials and not bonded labour? (Millions of peasant farmers in Pakistan are forced into slave labour by landlords who saddle them with dubious debt and then charge interest of over 200 percent a year NB. Charging interest is a sin in Islam). The blasphamy law may have become a benchmark against which to measure your identity, but that didn't happen by accident. Religious political parties and even rightwing largely secular parties and individuals have tried hard to present it as such. In recent times, their efforts have been echoed by a sensation-loving media in competition for the most attention-grabbing headline. In previous years, extremist ideology was encouraged as a recruiting tool in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which Pakistan's leaders at the time saw as a perfect opportunity to keep themselves relevant on the world stage.
If events such as the killing of Taseer are the symptoms of a failing state, would a succeeding state be the solution? In a word, yes. Pakistan's antidote, if it arrives, will come in the form of good, effective governance, social justice, accountability and transparency. At the end of the day, only Pakistanis can achieve those things for their country.
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