Rethinking Objectives in Afghanistan

The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.


The sense of unknown was pervasive during the CIA’s nightly al Qaeda threat briefings in the first years after 9/11. Was a second catastrophe in progress? Were its perpetrators deployed? Might they use chemical, biological, or nuclear material? Our knowledge of al Qaeda grew quickly in 2002 and afterward, but we knew that our window into the group was nowhere near good enough to assure policymakers, legislators, and the American people that we in the agency, where I served from as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center from 2003 to 2005, could prevent another strike. The United States entered Afghanistan to resolve this threat, to hunt those who had orchestrated the 9/11 murders, and to disrupt, then dismantle, the network that would organize future plots. The Bonn diplomatic process that resulted in the creation of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul supported this goal of uprooting and eviscerating al Qaeda. We would help Afghanistan choose legitimate, competent leaders who would not allow terrorist safe havens on Afghan soil. But there was not going to be any nation-building effort, and certainly not on the scale of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. U.S. troops weren’t fighting in the hills of Tora Bora as a result of civil unrest and Taliban atrocities: After all, we chose not to intervene in Afghanistan before the attacks, despite rampant human rights abuses and seemingly interminable chaos. We simply wanted to stop attacks at home. Now, nine years later, the link between terrorism and the war is obscure. Americans now wonder why their sons are still fighting and dying for the Karzai government, with its periodic criticism of coalition operations and reputation for corruption, including during elections this year. Yet we are still there, perhaps because we have incurred such a cost by intervening in Afghanistan that we cannot bear to consider disinvesting. Perhaps because our national reputation is at stake: Cut out now and we will be perceived as shortsighted (remember the Somalia and Lebanon withdrawals during the 1990s), not a characteristic of great powers. This is not to say we should be cautious about setting withdrawal timetables; instead, our question might be how we maintain a counterterrorism capability rather than whether we have the capability to oversee a return to some sort of Afghan normalcy. We shouldn’t delink these problems, though, for brutal but inescapable national security reasons: If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban — which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will — make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn’t if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate. Over the long term, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with limited aims, will not threaten U.S. national security interests; al Qaeda, if it resuscitates, just might. More pointedly, a deal with Taliban elements might help us pursue al Qaeda and limit our investment in Afghanistan, but it will result in human rights abuses and, possibly, a new civil war. We might remember that these problems, however disturbing from a Western perspective, were not sufficient cause for us to intervene in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We went in for national security interests, not to extend good governance. If we believe that we now owe more to the country, after nine years of intervention, we should be clear about the implications: We won’t be able to create a civil society; this expanded goal is not a part of a counterterrorism strategy; and our investment in blood and money will have to be far greater than it is today. We underinvested nine years ago; we are paying the price now. If we return to linking these two issues — al Qaeda and our intervention in Afghanistan — we would have to accept a painful reality that no force presence is likely to change. No power, from the British to the Russians to any Afghan government, has exercised control over the country’s ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition power has proved equally limited: When insurgents, in this case the Taliban, benefit from local support, even the most heavily armed and technologically adept foreign forces in history — U.S. soldiers and Marines — face an uphill battle in uprooting them. Assuming both sides are willing to cut a deal instead, there remains, then, the question of whether the Taliban would have the capability to police the country — and whether Taliban leaders, themselves Islamist ideologues, would acquiesce to the presence of foreign fighters who intend to attack the United States. Taliban leaders obviously harbored Osama bin Laden and friends in the past, but it’s not clear how deep their commitment was — they are local tribal leaders, after all, not global jihadists. To prevent an al Qaeda resurgence, the conversation, long term, might center on how we maintain an intelligence-collection capability to detect terrorist training and how we strike quickly when we find any information suggesting that training is taking place. The fight against al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Without foreign occupiers for al Qaeda and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, our job in Pakistan might become narrower, and more achievable. It is a safe bet that Pakistani authorities do not much care whether tribes along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan cross into Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces that are viewed negatively throughout Pakistan. But if we eliminate the cause for cross-border activity by bringing in Taliban elements, U.S.-Pakistan tensions will diminish — we won’t need help policing resupply routes through hostile tribal areas, for example, and we won’t need to run cross-border military operations. Conversely, Pakistan might have more motivation to help when it sees a government in Kabul that allows the Pakistani Army to believe that its long-term goal of strategic depth — a comfortable flank in Afghanistan that helps keep the focus on India — isn’t being undermined. Far from believing that we are an ally in this campaign, Pakistan now sees us as an unreliable, sometimes duplicitous, partner. Our support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council is a good strategic move, but in the short term it will help cement Pakistanis’ view that we will abandon them eventually in favor of a far more attractive strategic partnership with their rival in New Delhi. It’s an equally safe bet that Pakistani officials, including in the security apparatus, are deeply concerned about the Pakistani Taliban and its allies as they attack Pakistani civilians outside the tribal areas and threaten to expand the extremist presence into cities such as Peshawar and Karachi. If we can eliminate the allure of cross-border operations for jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal belt, we might be able to more effectively accomplish what the British — and the Pakistanis — have done in the past: pit one Pakistani tribe against another, with a focus on isolating those that harbor al Qaeda elements. Rough politics, maybe. But we’re not going to eliminate al Qaeda by Hellfire missile alone, and the Pakistani security forces have spent nine years showing us they’re not going to do it either, especially not for us. The only remaining lever is those who own the territory — the tribes — and they don’t operate by our rules. We should go into any of these policy evolutions with our eyes wide open. A return of the Taliban in Kabul might well result in a renewed civil war as the Northern Alliance that joined us to oust the Taliban grows nervous that we will allow the return of their enemy, and rearms. Let’s not sidestep the potential human rights implications either: Abuses will escalate, sharply. But we fought the Taliban because they harbored terrorists, not because they failed to provide a healthy civil society. For the future, nation-building will remain a mirage in Afghanistan, with nine years of futility as proof. But destroying al Qaeda is a reachable goal, and a far more salient one for the United States. We’ve now turned these priorities around. Philip Mudd is a senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica. He served as deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 2002 to 2005 and then the first-ever deputy director of the FBI’s National Security Branch. Mudd resigned from government service in early 2010 from his position as the bureau’s senior intelligence advisor.

(Foreign Policy, 17 November 2010)


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“Iraq and the Middle East Order”: A Seminar by Dr. Ali Allawi

For internal circulation

20 Jan 10

By Mary E. Stonaker

SINGAPORE – “Most importantly, Iraqis must enjoy living together,” Dr. Ali Allawi stressed to his audience on Friday, January 15th. His message was clear: in order for the nation of Iraq to survive and thrive, the government and its people must forge a lasting national identity. A former Minister of Defense, Trade and Finance within the Interim and Transitional Iraqi Governments, Allawi’s first-hand experience lends his speaking and writing a true air of authenticity.


Dr. Allawi began his seminar, in the same manner as he did his highly acclaimed books, by providing the audience with a brief, relevant historical background. After receiving great acclaim for The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, Dr. Allawi’s follow-up The Crisis of Islamic Civilization landed on The Economist’s most influential books of 2009. Incorporating themes and ideas from these books, he further drew upon personal experience to outline the ‘2nd Iraqi state,’ created when the United States of America removed Saddam Hussein from power and its influence its neighbors.


Throughout his speech, Allawi continuously returned to his central theme of the components of Iraqi national identity. He outlined the historical ethnical and sectarian identities that still remain among Iraqis today. Iraq lacks the essential elements of nationhood, from lacking a shared historical monarchy or empire (centered in present-day Iraq) to lacking a binding constitution. Although Iraq is geographically positioned to serve as the ‘fulcrum of the Arab nation,’ it fails to do so because Iraq itself has a fragmented identity.


While Dr. Allawi provided a palatable history on the American military action, he openly acknowledged American involvement and further responsibilities. He equally acknowledged the importance of the removal of American forces as quickly as possible so that the Iraqis have the chance to build a cohesive government and national identity.


The going will certainly not be easy for Iraqis, as Allawi elaborated, corruption is status quo in the government and remnants from the ‘1st Iraqi state’ (pre-2003) have yet to accept the permanence of the changes. Generally speaking, Shi’a Arabs must be able to develop a ‘power-sharing’ government while Sunni Arabs must accept a shift in power. Furthermore, he proposed that the Kurds must be equally integrated in the political and social fabric of Iraq to prevent a full independence movement from shattering the current state of affairs in the emerging ‘2nd Iraqi state.’ However, Turkey’s domestic concerns over its Kurdish population (about 20%-30% of Turkey) suggest to Allawi that Turkey would step in to prevent an independent Kurdish nation, separate from Iraq.


Continuing to emphasize integration, Allawi stated that all ethnicities and sects must be able to feel the possibility of rising to the highest office in government and private sectors, without prejudice.


The current Iraqi government must also decide into which type of government it will develop; since the interim government, it has toyed with federal, centralized and bi-national structures. Currently, Kurdistan is operating as an autonomous state within Iraq but oil exports and further economic concerns may lead to conflict if these critical issues are not addressed now. Internally, Iraq must find ways to give insurgents, Al Qaeda and civil populations democratic means to negotiate as these fault lines lead to the 2006-2007/early 2008 civil war. At present, these issues still boil beneath the surface of Iraqi politics. Random violence and targeted assassinations are being conducted simply to undermine the Iraqi government’s stability and credibility to the public, to ‘influence the distribution of power within the parliament.’


Economically, Iraq must lessen its dependence on oil revenue. Allawi cites oil revenue to be 90% of the state budget and 75% of GDP. Reconstruction efforts have lessened unemployment but the economy will be seriously threatened if oil prices drop below, in Allawi’s opinion, US$50 per barrel. Allawi’s positive outlook on the future of Iraq’s current one-dimensional economy relies on the government’s future abilities to maintain oil prices while diversifying its holdings within other sectors of its economy friendly.


Regionally, Iraq needs to decide its role in a wide range of activities. The shift in power within Iraq has already lead to a host of positive and negative effects to its neighbors in the Middle East. The empowerment of the Kurdish population naturally concerns Turkey. Although, due to this same shift, Turkey has gained unprecedented access to ‘power corridors’ within the Middle East.


Saudi Arabia is threatened as the events will have ‘untold effects’ on Shi’a Arabs, challenging the prevailing Islamic rhetoric. Jordan and Syria may also feel threatened in the new Middle East order as nations who shared positive ties with the Iraq of Saddam


The regional winner in this monumental shift in the balance of power within Iraq, according to Dr. Allawi, is Iran. Iraq’s neighbor had been at odds with Iraq’s leadership prior to 2003, stretching back decades. However, within the ‘2nd Iraqi state,’ the balance of power has shifted back to the Shi’a population and the new Iraqi leadership has opened to the possibility of discourse with Iran.


Many questions remain. Will Iran and Iraq hostilities ease now that Hussein is out of power? What involvement will Iraq continue to have in the Arab-Israeli crisis and other nations with which Hussein’s Iraq was strategically aligned? Will Iraq ultimately be able to form a cohesive, happy nation?


In Dr. Ali Allawi’s words, “the jury is still out.”


Mary E. Stonaker, a teacher with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, volunteers for the Middle East Institute, Singapore. She currently resides in Katong, Singapore with her husband.

Middle East Roundtable – The Next War

For internal circulation

18 Dec 09

No military solution to conflicts
By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam


The nature of the current wars in the wider western Asian area reveals a disturbing trend: next to sources of conflict between states there are an increasing number of conflicts within them. In Yemen, the civil war has had a ripple effect throughout the Persian Gulf region provoking the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and a humanitarian crisis that has remained largely unreported. In Iraq, the aftermath of the devastating US/UK invasion in 2003 continues to cast a shadow on the timid post-war reconstruction efforts of the al-Maliki administration.
Indeed, seven years after the “shock and awe” campaign of the US military and six years after the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the plight of the Iraqi people has largely been forgotten. The news about the recent car bombs that killed over 120 people in Baghdad did not make it to the front page of major newspapers in Europe and the United States. The western consciousness has been coded to move on to a new strategic theater, “AfPak”. The drones of the US military are now bombing the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilians are routinely killed. Iraq is old news.
And so is Palestine. One year ago almost to the day, Palestinians were picking up their dead and injured in the streets and alleys of Gaza. Of the 1,453 people estimated killed in the conflict, as the UN report by Richard Goldstone later established, 1,440 were Palestinian, including 431 children and 114 women. The same report established that Israel’s offensive against Gaza was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population” for which the Israelis responsible should face “individual criminal responsibility”. The report was dismissed as “biased” by the Israeli state.
The policy of collective punishment continues. According to the World Health Organization, the blockade of Gaza has led to “worsening infant and child mortality, and childhood stunting”. It also has had adverse effects on the mental health of the population, “for instance some 30 percent of school children show significant mental health consequences … with potentially serious future implications in terms of loss of commitment, alienation, and destructive and violent behavior.”
In the meantime the Israeli air force is repeatedly overflying towns in southern Lebanon in a deliberate challenge to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended hostilities in 2006. The IDF has also been busy launching extensive war games simulating an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli state continues to ignore repeated calls for scrutiny of its nuclear weapons arsenal by the United Nations and the IAEA. All the Netanyahu administration conceded to US President Barack Obama, who had tentatively requested a freeze to the expansion of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory, is a limited 10-month building ban. Not many people in the region would doubt that the Israeli military has the capability and audacity to launch or instigate another war in the region.
Here lies the difference with the Iranian case. Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad has painstakingly built up a reputation as a loud and bellicose leader, even gone out of his way to earn this notoriety. Yet the current consensus among the shrinking “international community” that Iran is the major threat to regional security in western Asia is a figment of the imagination. There is a clear difference between shouting abuse and wanting to–and being capable of–hitting someone. By all statistical indicators available, Iran has one of the lowest military expenditures in the region. At the same time it has one of the largest budgets for satellite television stations that broadcast in Arabic, English, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Kurdish and other major regional languages and dialects. Iran is banking on soft power.
The turmoil surrounding the country’s nuclear file has not so much to do with Iranian capabilities or intentions, but with setting a new benchmark for developing states. Until here and no further seems to be the message. But the world has changed. The reason why Lula of Brazil, Chavez of Venezuela and Erdogan of Turkey, among others, support Iran’s quest for nuclear technology has a lot to do with their own efforts to develop a viable nuclear infrastructure for their countries and in view of their increasingly bold opposition to US foreign policies.
And what about the “war on terror”? It has been rhetorically repackaged, yet it is ongoing and has failed to bring about stability. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will last a decade, and in the case of the former, the fight against the Taliban has been extended into Pakistan. The war on terror has been widened rather than confined and the quasi-states in Pakistan and Afghanistan seek their fledgling security in ad-hoc “alliances” with the United States.
But while subservience to external demands may promise short-term stability, it depletes political legitimacy in the long term. No developed society can accept the bombing of its country by a foreign entity. And no society can rally behind a state that is perceived to be unwilling or helpless to contain the killing of its own population. In this sense the “war on terror” has been self-defeating: it has contributed to turning the people of the target countries against their governments and against the very presence of US military and NATO forces. The lesson is rather simple: There is no military solution to any of the current conflicts in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.


Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches comparative politics at SOAS and is the author, most recently, of “Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic Republic”, which is based on extensive field research in Iran and interviews with Iranian decision-makers.


The underlying fault lines of the region
By Lamis Andoni


In 1989, the prominent Orientalist Bernard Lewis argued that the Arab world was disintegrating into fragmented ethnic and sectarian enclaves, dissipating any sense of collective solidarity and identity. Looking at the Arab world today, from the ugly spat between Egypt and Algeria, countries once identified with pan-Arabism, to the openly sectarian and ethnic power struggle in US occupied-Iraq, Lewis’ ominous “prediction” is gradually becoming a reality.
The imperial theorist, however, was not making predictions but advocating policies to be implemented through American and Israeli wars. Lewis was never simply an academician, but a main pillar of neoconservative thought and a direct participant in decisions leading up to the Afghan and Iraqi wars. The guiding idea was that post-colonial Arab nation-states did not have solid foundations as modern states and would eventually crumble.
I am not talking here about a grand conspiracy theory nor am I blaming Lewis or the West for the deep divisions that are tearing through the Arab world. The American empire, which succeeded Britain, is mainly bent on consolidating its domination over the region’s resources and securing Israel, the front line against pan-Arab nationalism. Certainly, US wars of destruction and Israeli aggression are major culprits in the prevailing regional sense of defeat and demoralization that is largely responsible for the spreading entrenchment behind ethnic and sectarian tribalism. But Lewis was merely dutifully serving the empire by justifying and instigating policies that aim at inflicting consecutive defeats not only on Arab armies but also the Arab spirit. Consecutive defeats would see a strong sense of collective Arab belonging be replaced by a collective sense of defeat–triggering ethnic and sectarian struggles and competition among the ruling elites.
It is our part in this shameful saga of petty destructive rivalries and unabashed power struggle in the name of sects and religion that we should start seriously scrutinizing. True, it was the 1967 military defeat of mainly pan-Arab regimes that proved the strongest blow to what then appeared a powerful and progressive wave of pro-independence pan-Arabism. But it was the dictatorships and erosion of political freedoms that not only contributed to the military defeats but deepened an individual as well as collective sense of humiliation and powerlessness.
The Arab states’ failure to pursue development policies, reliance on western support in place of domestic legitimacy and continued suppression of political freedoms have prevented any genuine resurgence of an Arab movement or parties that could effectively ensure citizens’ rights and participation. The ongoing crack down on social and political movements allows political leaders to manipulate poverty and a sense of loss into sectarian divisions. It pushes a desperate Arab citizen, deprived of any real sense of citizenship, to focus on false victories, the football game between Egypt and Algeria being a case in point where a sporting event becomes an occasion for defeating an imaginary “other”.
In Jordan, fear of Israeli expansion that would turn the kingdom into a substitute homeland is being used by the power elites to foment and widen a Palestinian-Jordanian divide. The failure of Palestinian reconciliation is producing a geographic divide that enables Israel to complete the fragmentation of any Palestinian homeland. Our utter failure to solve, and the disgraceful mishandling, of minority and ethnic grievances and problems, from the Kurds in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Darfur in Sudan to the Sahara in Morocco, have invited foreign intervention and threaten to break up Iraq and Sudan.
The regimes’ sense of impotence is trickling down, becoming a collective sense of helplessness as a function of repression and increasing poverty. The international criminalization of resistance, including peaceful forms of resistance, through blockades and the exercise of American power also function to deepen social, class, sectarian and ethnic fault lines. The alarming cooptation of Arab intellectuals by Arab and particularly Gulf states reduce their rhetoric on pan-Arabism to vacuous slogans that deceive people into believing in hollow acts of resistance fought on satellite TV and talk shows. New fault lines will appear as the region’s social and political conflicts, especially the Arab-Israel one, are gradually presented as religious conflicts, threatening to distort what in the latter case is essentially a struggle for liberation and justice.
But there are glimmers of hope in this gloomy picture. The movement against an “inherited” presidency in Egypt, the spread of human rights watchdogs and initiatives to deal with serious social problems in the Arab world are all promising acts of resistance to bigoted ideas and hatred. The continued Palestinian resistance, from Bili’in to Gaza, is also a sign of a rejection of submission to despondency that could turn into civil war.
But without a serious movement in the Arab world, and inside Palestine, to put a halt to violations of human rights by all sides, the Palestinian struggle and all social movements will suffer even more. One of the most dangerous signs of increasing divisions in the Arab world is the ideological entrenchment that justifies human rights violations by political parties as if all is fair in support of a political agenda. As it is between Fateh and Hamas, so it is in most Arab states: human rights are merely used as tools to serve political elites rather than as a means to bring about the kind of accountability that is our only guarantee against descending into an abyss.


Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist and commentator on Middle East affairs.



No peace, no war, but perhaps a revolution
By Shlomo Avineri


The saying goes that it is difficult to prophesy, especially about the future. But let us try. There is no doubt: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is stalled, and all of US President Barack Obama’s charisma–and US power–have until now failed to revive it. Stalemates usually encourage doomsayers who predict dour alternatives: war, violence, another intifada, perhaps a nuclear holocaust.

None of this seems likely.

Let us look at three areas: Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria and Iran. Beginning with Israel-Palestine, one hears Palestinian leaders saying that if there is no visible progress in negotiations with Israel, another intifada may break out. One can well understand their frustration, and threatening an intifada may be politically astute. Yet previous intifadas, while originating in spontaneous outbursts against occupation, were ultimately sustained by the support–political, moral and material–of the Palestinian Authority. This is not going to happen again: this time, a descent into violence may mean the disintegration of the PA, accompanied by a strengthening of Hamas. The PA leadership is not going to commit political suicide: it will try to cling to power.
As for Hamas, judging from its behavior since the war last winter, it is not interested in another violent confrontation with Israel. It is rightly proud of having been able to survive Israel’s onslaught a year ago, but it does not wish again to bring suffering and devastation upon the population under its control. What Hamas is interested in is to maintain, consolidate and legitimate its rule in Gaza, and the longer this de facto control lasts, the more everyone gets used to it. Similarly, Israel is interested in maintaining the tenuous status quo along the Gaza frontier.
Turning to Israel-Syria, negotiations may resume but even if they do the gaps between the two sides’ positions are too deep to be easily overcome. Yet even if the present stalemate continues, I do not see Syria resorting to a violent challenge to the present status quo, despite President Bashar Assad’s threats to the contrary. Syria is aware of its military inferiority vis-a-vis Israel, and while it will continue to support Hizballah and Hamas, Syria is interested–as in the past–in stability. It would like to see the new government in Lebanon consolidate its power, while Hizballah–Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s fiery rhetoric notwithstanding–does not look forward to another war with Israel.
Finally, Iran. Obama’s politics of engagement with Iran has failed. It is now obvious that Tehran is not going to accommodate even the most minimal demands made by the international community. This may lead to a tightening of sanctions and escalate the pressure for military action.
But in all probability, neither the US nor Israel is going to attack Iran. With the new surge in Afghanistan and the still unfinished business in Iraq, the Obama administration is not going to start a third war. Israel, on the other hand, for all the tough talk of some of its leaders, is not in a military or diplomatic position to attack Iran on its own. A lot of saber rattling may occur–but no military action.
Yet something may still happen concerning Iran–internally. The massive protests that followed the fraudulent presidential elections last June have dramatically changed the Iranian political discourse. The tens of thousands of young protesters have shown that there are deep cracks in the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad’s regime. The Islamic Republic has always claimed that it rested on two pillars, theocratic and democratic, and for all the limits it placed on a truly democratic environment, the fact that contested presidential and parliamentary elections did take place gave at least a semblance of credibility to this claim.
This has now been shattered. The massive protests against Ahmedinezhad–and implicitly against the Supreme Leader–were not necessarily led by secular, western-oriented liberals, but rather by people brought up in the belief that the Islamic Republic represents them and listens to their voice. They do not challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as such; they challenge the fraudulent and repressive way it is being ruled. Many protestors are also aware that Ahmedinezhad’s gutter language (denial of the Holocaust, threats to wipe Israel off the map) has hurt the country’s standing in the world. For them, Ahmedinezhad’s thuggishness represents not the ideals of the Islamic Revolution but its perversion. In this they are similar to 1970s communist bloc dissidents challenging their regimes not because they believed in capitalism and western-style democracy, but because they felt that the Kremlin gerontocracy represented a denial of the emancipatory ideals of Marxism.


Sanctions on Iran, even if implemented, will not change the mind of the current Iranian leadership, but may impact internal developments in the country. Iran’s vibrant civil society, now highly motivated and more mobilized than ever, may bring about internal change. This may be violent or partially negotiated, and it will not institute a western-style democracy in Tehran. But internal change in Iran could revolutionize Middle East politics. After all, what are called revolutions in the Arab world have been nothing but military coups, while Iran did go through a genuine popular revolution that brought down the Shah. It may happen again.


Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among his many books are “The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx” and “The Making of Modern Zionism”.



Yemen troubles could stir wider confrontations
By George Joffe


Just six short months ago, a sense of guarded euphoria spread through Europe and the Middle East in the wake of President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech. It seemed as if, at long last, an American president had understood the crying need for action over regional problems and the terrible damage done by years of abuse and neglect. Now, in the wake of the president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize–awarded, apparently, for what he is going to do rather than for what he has done–things look very different.
During this time, existing crises in the Middle East and North Africa–continuing violence in Iraq, tensions over Iran’s nuclear program or Jordanian King Abdullah’s “arc of Shi’ite extremism”, as well as the crisis in Palestine–have been joined by new ones that seem much more immediately threatening. Thus the domestic crisis in Iran has generated an intensified intransigence over the country’s nuclear program and corresponding American and Israeli impatience, now increasingly backed up by European states, the United Nations and even China and Russia. An attack on Iran, for instance, which seemed so remote in June is now back on the agenda. The crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan–Obama’s “war of necessity”–is ever more threatening as western confidence in victory ebbs away.
In Iraq–even if the violence of the past has been dramatically reduced with only 122 deaths throughout the country in November, the lowest number since the American invasion in 2003–the long-running sore of the future status of Kirkuk, as part of Iraq or the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is bubbling toward a climax as the security forces of both the Kurds and the federal government in Baghdad confront each other. And in North Africa, Morocco is becoming increasingly irritated by Algerian insistence on a referendum for self-determination in the Western Sahara, while Algeria and Egypt square up over the issue of football. The ritual mutual vituperation there is intense, diplomatic links have been put in the deep freeze and Egyptian investment in Algeria is threatened.
Yet, surprisingly, none of these issues, except perhaps the crisis in Gaza, has as much potential for real violence in the immediate future as the situation in Yemen. There the veteran government of Ali Abdullah Saleh faces two rebellions; a recent recrudescence of separatist sentiment in the south that is shaping up as a real threat to the regime and the long-standing al-Houthi rebellion in the north of the country. It is the al-Houthi rebellion that increasingly seems to have the potential to become a cause of regional conflagration, bringing the two regional hegemons, Saudi Arabia and Iran, into conflict.
The rebellion began in June 2004, pitting a former parliamentary deputy, Husayn Badr Ed-Din al-Houthi and a few thousand supporters from the Sa’ada area, against the government. Al-Houthi was ferociously opposed to both al-Qaeda extremism because of its treatment of Shi’ites in Afghanistan and to the pro-American policies of the Saleh regime because of his intense distrust of both the United States and Israel. He created a new political movement called the Sha’ab al-Muminin (the Young Believers), acquiring significant religious status among the Za’idis of northern Yemen because of the fusion of Za’idi doctrine into his political beliefs.
Al-Houthi himself was killed the following September but, by then, the rebellion had grown and taken on a sectarian character because of Za’idi resentment of the repressive violence of the Yemeni army, which they saw as a predominantly Shafi organization even though the president himself is a Za’idi. The growth in support had also been driven by Yemeni dislike of America’s “war on terror” in which the Yemeni government was now enmeshed. As a result, in March 2005, rebellion broke out anew under the leadership of al-Houthi’s father, a Za’idi mullah.
Since then, the rebellion has smoldered on, repeatedly erupting in periods of intense violence that government forces are increasingly unable to control. Mediation in 2007 by the head of the al-Hashid tribal confederation (Yemen’s largest), who is also head of the Islah opposition in parliament, has been unsuccessful. Two similar attempts by Qatar in 2007 and 2008 also failed, while tens of thousands of residents in the Sa’ada area have been forced from their homes. The latest explosion occurred last May and still continues, with 150,000 persons displaced and the rebels now promising to extend the struggle into the north and the south of the country. In November, al-Houthi elements are said to have infiltrated across the Saudi border, bringing intense Saudi military retaliation to force them back, although nobody knows whether this will be permanently effective.
It is this that has given the conflict inside Yemen its increasingly threatening regional character. The Yemeni government, with little evidence, has long insisted that Iran has been behind the rebellion, providing it with material support. Now Saudi Arabia is hinting that this is the case, while Iran has suddenly begun to take an interest in the plight of the Za’idis, as fellow Shi’ites. All that is needed now is for Iran to decide to provide the material support that it has been long accused of doing, something the Ahmadinezhad government might well be tempted to do, to divert domestic opinion. Saudi Arabia would be bound to respond, as part of its wider challenge to Iranian radicalism throughout the “Shi’ite arc of extremism”. The al-Houthi rebellion, in short, is now set to become a metaphor for a much wider Middle East confrontation.


George Joffe is affiliate lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.



Back to Gaza
By Bruce Riedel


The next Middle East war will probably be a reprieve of the last, a second war in Gaza, only this time even more violent and destabilizing for the entire region. The first Gaza war last January left unfinished business and a humanitarian catastrophe. The next war may be started by an al-Qaeda-inspired Gazan faction of the global Islamic jihad against the wishes of Hamas, with al-Qaeda one of the major beneficiaries.
Since Hamas staged its coup d’etat in Gaza in 2007, it has faced opposition from even more radical Islamists who oppose any ceasefire with Israel and want to engage in jihad immediately. These groups are getting stronger, feeding on the frustration of a million and a half Gazans who see their lives becoming ever more grim and have little or no hope of a better future. The jihadis promise a better life through martyrdom. They know they cannot defeat Israel yet but they prefer to fight rather than live under siege. Some have now openly associated themselves with al-Qaeda and its global Islamic jihadist message.
It is safe to assume that contacts are being developed between these jihadis in Gaza and the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan. We know some volunteers from the global jihad have gone to Gaza; at least one Saudi was killed in the first war. Al-Qaeda gloried in the first Gaza war as a propaganda triumph because it demonstrated to the Islamic world that the new American president-elect, Barack Hussein Obama, was unwilling to criticize Israel when it attacked Palestinians. For Osama bin Laden this was not change you can believe in but the same old Zionist-Crusader alliance.
Another Gaza war would be another gift to al-Qaeda. It could start this way. A jihadist cell ambushes an IDF patrol on the border of Gaza, killing several and capturing one or two. By the time the ambush takes place, let’s say on the anniversary of 9/11 in September 2010, Hamas will have already done a huge prisoner deal with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, exchanging dozens of Hamas killers for Gilad Shalit who was captured in a similar ambush in 2006.
The Israeli government will have to respond forcefully, especially given intense Israeli public criticism over the Shalit deal. Many in the IDF and the Shabak (Internal Security Service) will urge the prime minister to finish the job begun in January 2009. Air power will be accompanied by major ground incursions to cut off the Strip from Egypt, surround major population centers and break Hamas’ hold on Gazans. It may take a month or more.
Hamas will try to avoid the war by cracking down on the jihadist al-Qaeda sympathizers. But it cannot return captured Israeli soldiers for nothing, especially after the Shalit deal. Whether Hamas wants a war or not, the jihadis will have outmaneuvered it. Many in the military wing of Hamas will probably want to fight, having spent the last year and a half preparing for another round.
The imagery of war, captured by al-Jazeerah and by al-Sahab (the Qaeda media arm), will be awful. Even with the greatest care, war in an urban arena means terrible suffering for the innocent. In the first Gaza war, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri broadcast repeated messages calling Obama a Zionist warlord, ridiculing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah for doing nothing to help Hamas, and Saudi Arabia for being a closet ally of Israel. Expect more of the same. A bloody Israeli invasion of Gaza resisted by jihadi martyrs would radicalize the Islamic world and send new recruits and new funds to the global jihad.
Should Israel succeed in breaking Hamas in the second round, a big if, what will follow? Fateh and the Palestinian Authority are not ready to take over Gaza alone–certainly not when propped up by IDF bayonets. The international community, led by Obama, will have to decide if it is prepared to take on the job of governing Gaza and providing the economic aid to get it back on its feet.
This will mean troops: NATO probably, with a UN mandate; perhaps some Egyptians and Jordanians, too. With NATO’s attention focused on Afghanistan, it will be hard to find the numbers needed for a risky mission that could turn ugly, with both sides blaming the peacekeepers for any mistakes. Of course, the alternative would be Gaza 3.


Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in the Brookings Institution. He advised Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama on the Middle East and South Asia in the National Security Council of the White House. He is the author of “The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future”.


bitterlemons-international  –  17 Dec 09 is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at and, respectively.