Talisman Gate

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Foreign Policy Judo

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

January 27, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1524 words

HEADLINE: Foreign Policy Judo

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


We all know that Osama bin Laden is a bad guy. And most of us are coming around to the notion that Vladimir Putin of Russia is turning out to be quite the rotten apple. With so many global challenges stretching out America's efforts in the war on terror and tyranny (the latter has been added since January 20, 2005), can two vultures be knocked off with one stone?

Here's a thought: support passive Sufi resistance to Russian chauvinism in the Free Republic of Nokhchi-Chu.

Okay, there's a lot to explain. Nokhchi-Chu is actually Chechnya. That nation's people, inhabiting a small piece of turf that is evenly divided between a thin stretch of the Caucasus Mountains, the foothills south of the Sunzha River, and the plains north of the Terek River, call themselves the Nokhchi, but the Russian chauvinist tag of Chechens has stuck. The Russians, as they were expanding their empire, first encountered the Nokhchi during a skirmish at a village the invaders later called Bolshoi Chechen, situated south of modern-day Grozny, in the early 17th century. Since then, both Russians and the newly named Muslim "Chechens" have been mauling each other much as one would expect their respective national mascots, the bear and the wolf, to go about such an encounter.

For three centuries the Chechen wolf has been howling its laments and the Russians have been dismissing that anguished cry as the Chechens crying wolf. Against all odds, the Chechens have survived these last three centuries, including an attempt by Stalin at eradicating them through 13 years of cruel mass exile in the wastelands of faraway Kazakhstan. Here's the long and short of it: the Russians behaved very badly and the Chechens are the victims in all of this. By 1990, there were 1 million of them that had survived, and they decided enough is enough. They opted out of the Russian bear's embrace to declare independence, which at times was de facto and at other times won through protracted struggle. Since that date, Russia has fought two major wars in the region to hold onto Chechnya and succeeded, through the terrorist actions of a few Chechen bad apples, in turning the Chechens' legitimate pursuit of independence into an internationally taboo topic amid Russia's internal war on so-called terrorism.

Nice Russians, running the gamut from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, understood the moral rot within the Russian soul engendered by bullying small nations like Chechnya and how Russian imperialism was wedded to Russian autocracy. Not-so-nice Russians, ranging from the notorious 18th-century tsarist General Yermolov to the current leadership of the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB - the latter-day incarnation of the KGB in all its banal evil and dark purpose - found that oppressing non-Russians through imperialist expansion and subjugation served as a useful mechanism for desensitizing politically-motivated violence as the accepted reality of an autocratic state.

Enter Messrs. bin Laden and Putin into this picture. Al Qaeda likes places like Chechnya, Bosnia, and Kashmir. These are all places at the frontiers of what was once a grand Islamic empire. These are picturesque locales with lush forests and handsome nations. It makes for good photo-ops; long-suffering Muslims reclaiming their ancient glory and repelling the once-subdued powers of heathen Christians and Hindus. These are places where legends are born: a Saudi national, Salim bin Salih Al-Suweilim, known by his nom de guerre Khattab, was a terrorist with clear Al Qaeda links who was marketed as a romantic, long-haired hero fighting for the downtrodden. His daring raids, like the 1995 attack on a Russian military convoy near Yaryshmardy, were captured on film and distributed around the Middle East as evidence that the Salafist-Wahhabis are the vanguard of Islamic revival and power. His death by "treacherous" poisoning almost three years ago, was a noble act of martyrdom that should be emulated by Muslim youths, according to the jihadist hype.

Mr. Putin, the Frankenstein-like monster cobbled together by the FSB with marketable charm (for the West) and strong-armed, power-grabbing tactics (for Russia), also likes a place like Chechnya. It is a place where the specter of Chechen bandits, Mafiosi, and terrorists can be conjured up as a threat to Mother Russia. It is the first domino in the disintegration of Russia proper, following the painful loss of Russian prestige as the cornerstone of the once-mighty USSR. Mr. Putin and his United Russia Party were swept to power on the issue of Chechnya in 2000. Oddly enough, every attempt during the last decade at a peaceful reconciliation of the Chechen conflict was pre-empted by an opportunity-closing bloodbath, and the bloodied boot prints almost invariably led back into the labyrinths of the Kremlin. Moreover, the human rights abuses they have been up to in Chechnya are just absolutely horrendous; the Russian word zachistka, or 'mop-up operations' with ethnic-cleansing undertones, should be added to the lexicon of tyranny like those other Russian words, gulag and pogrom.

Thus, terror and tyranny feed off each other in Chechnya. Al Qaeda terrorism and Russian autocracy can both point to what is happening there as their own justifications. Chechnya is a rallying cry and a strong point for these two evident global challenges. So how does supporting Sufi resistance in Chechnya strike a blow to both bin Laden and Mr. Putin?

The Chechens, according to available evidence, only converted from their animist beliefs to Islam in large numbers some four centuries ago. The process was facilitated by Sufism, the Sunni Muslim form of mysticism. The Salafi-Wahhabi Al Qaeda types loathe, and I mean really loathe, the Sufis. Whereas Wahhabism is hateful, xenophobic, and austere, Sufism is structured around love of God that devolves into an affection for all his creatures. Sufis are inclusive and colorful, and they had hit it off with the colorful and life-loving Chechen mountaineers and peasants who had their own millennia old codes of native conduct. Throughout the three centuries of conflict with Russia, the two forms of Sufism that were dominant in Chechnya led the resistance and supplied it with its imagery and heroes, like the fabled Imam Shamil of the 19th century.

In the last 100 years of materialistic modernity and urbanization that enveloped most of the Islamic world, Sufism has been on the decline. But this moderate Sunni form of spirituality can be resurrected as a counterforce to Wahhabism, and one way of doing that is by giving it a pan-Islamic rallying cry: passive resistance in Chechnya.

Once upon a time, America and its intelligence services were creative in fighting freedom's enemies. There was even an attempt to bolster Sufi consciousness in Islamic Central Asia as one of many ways to undermine the Soviet Union. Nowadays, opportunities for such creative mischief are being sheepishly overlooked. The Jordanian intelligence service, essentially a subdivision of the CIA, is disproportionately officered by Jordanian citizens of Chechen or Circassian origin. Their ancestors were driven off from the Caucasus Mountains by Russian invaders some 150 years ago, and they are still bitter about it. Furthermore, there are whole Sufi orders in Iraq that are in the pay of the agency. Shouldn't someone, somewhere, start putting two and two together?

Imagine Sufi mystics flocking to Chechnya, holding up bouquets of flowers and trying to impede the movement of Russian tanks Tiananmen-style. It can all be captured on tape and the label of "suicide pacifist" can be coined. Doesn't this also send a powerful and romantic image to the youth of the Middle East? And how would half-starved and war-wary Russian conscripts react? It is said that, according to certain stereotypes, Russian character is prone to sentimentalism. Such tactics would steal a march on both Al Qaeda and the United Russia Party.

A closer look needs to be taken at the Chechens themselves: Shamil Basayev and his Riyadus-Salikhin movement have gone over to the Wahhabi dark side, but moderates like Aslan Maskhadov, the current president of Free Chechnya, have been consistent in denouncing both terrorism and imperialism. The Kremlin had convinced the White House that all Chechen-Nokhchis are equally noxious. One such Chechen, described by the Russian propaganda machine and its acolytes as the head of the "Chechen Mafia," is Khokh-Ahmed Noukhayev. Someone in Washington should call him up in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and ask him to make the necessary introductions to the Chechen Sufi underground.

Judo is a martial-art form that Mr. Putin is quite familiar with. It involves seizing upon the adversary's strengths and turning them into weaknesses. Chechnya is at once both a strength and a weakness for Al Qaeda and the emerging threat of Russian autocracy. Turning the Chechen cause into a victory for moderate Sunni Islam and Russian democracy is both cost-effective and morally effective. It may be useful for President Bush's new foreign policy and intelligence team to sign up for judo classes. The sooner, the better.

Friday, January 14, 2005

My Pal George Bush

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

January 14, 2005 Friday


LENGTH: 1212 words

HEADLINE: My Pal George Bush

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Let me tell you a thing or two about my good friend George. I like this George fellow. He's been kicking ass recently, and hardly anyone but the bad guys has noticed. He himself is probably unaware of this turnabout since the diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracies that are tasked with briefing him are themselves more or less clueless.

The greatest victory so far in the war on terror occurred last week: The evil-doers have ceded the press and broadcast industry battleground and are now scrambling for legitimacy in fending off democracy. Their rhetoric is no longer riddled with loaded catch-phrases like "Zionism" and "colonial occupation" or even the "new crusades." No, today's talking points for the jihadists go something like this: Democracy is a Greek word that means power through the people and not God, which is a heresy that must be eradicated.

The Army of the Ansar Al-Sunnah and the Islamic Army, respectively numbers 2 and 3 on the Top 20 terrorist charts, issued a communique last week saying that they intend to treat polling booths in the upcoming Iraqi elections on January 31 as military targets, since they consecrate the power of the people and not divine sanction. It is as if Christian Scientists took their prayer-inspired natural therapy to the extreme and began blowing up hospitals and assassinating medical practitioners and patients alike. This is bigger than the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the September 11 mastermind, or the overthrow of the Taliban. With Osama bin Laden reinventing himself as a policy wonk, as some have aptly described him, and interminably chiming in on the same theme to instruct Iraqis not to vote, this recent terrorist press blitz is an indication that they are quickly losing the battle of ideas and visions for the future of the Arab and Islamic world.

And to my friend George, the whole thing can be summed up in one word: freedom.

George is sometimes unfairly described as the Latter-Day Cowboy, or the "Bring It On" Gangsta. His detractors sought to tag him with these and all sorts of other epithets in an effort to deride his policies. However, George's political enemies are doing a fine job and their sniping is crucial to winning the war on terror: The stubborn gung-ho image they created for the 43rd president is exactly what terrorizes the terrorists. The message emanating to the rest of the world is that George is serious about kicking the bad-asses in the ass. Al Qaeda got a crash course in Americana-infused wisdom: Don't go messin' with a Texan. Especial ly one armed with cruise missiles.

My friend George also has an instinctive understanding of the forces of history. The Central Intelligence Agency, the New York Times editorial board, the Arab governments, the current unpopular Iraqi government, and most of Europe and America's loony left have launched a press blitz of their own that basically runs in parallel to Al Qaeda's: Delay the Iraqi elections since Arab Sunni nonparticipation would delegitimize the results. George to all the aforementioned: "No!"

See, George is a visionary, and to him, the future instructs current policy rather than the "realist" credo of crises management. In 1864,America had an election during its Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln won a second term through a landslide while most of the secessionist South, understandably, did not participate. Is anyone today going to make the argument that these results were illegitimate? The causes for America's fratricide were many and complex, but what elementary school children across America are learning is that there was no moral equivalency between slave owners and the unionists. In 20 years time, Iraqi children will also be taught that, during the height of an undeclared civil war that is currently ravishing the country, there was no moral equivalency between the democrats and the beheaders.

Yet again, according to my friend George, the whole thing can be summed up in one word: freedom.

George understands that the Iraqis need to get on with their future without delay, and that those who have been liberated by the concept of freedom are going to come up with their own means of securing the new post-Saddam era. These matters will no longer be decided by the Baghdad CIA station operating within the embassy compound. It will be decided by Iraq's newly elected leaders through a succession of corrective steps in what has been tried and failed. On security matters, they will opt for a complete reversal of such poorly thought-out experiments like the Fallujah Brigade formed last April, where ex-Baathists still donning their Republican Guard uniforms were expected to battle the insurgency that stands for bringing the Baath Party and the Arab Sunni minority sect back into absolute power.

I have a hunch that a new government will implement De-Baathification Plus, i.e., the complete top-to-bottom cleansing of the ex-regime elements that had been invited back into the government through a failed policy of appeasement. There is no appeasing the bad guys; they will not suddenly undergo a mystical epiphany and swear off driving planes into buildings or decapitating aid workers. They must be destroyed. Being a terrorist must become a job-related hazard even before self-detonation at a chosen target.

The new era in Iraq will not flower with the begrudged participation of Saddam's orphans, or those who had a stake in their past murderous glory. The future of Iraq lies with those who were orphaned by Saddam and whose parents ended up in mass graves. The talent and willpower of these victims and their reflexive loyalty to a new Iraq is the key. And believe me, there are plenty of them since, in case someone out there has forgotten this fact, Saddam and his henchmen killed a lot of people.

I've never met George, and he would have no clue who I am. But across the politically desolate landscape of the Middle East, young men and women are being emboldened to speak up and demand a better life through the heretical notion of democracy because they feel that they've got a friend in the White House.

George W. Bush has got the evil-doers and the despots on the run, both physically and ideologically. His hymn for democracy in the Middle East resounds like a death knell for Al Qaeda and the hated dictatorships and accurately projects through a values-oriented foreign policy what America is all about.And with friends like these, pretty soon, there will be fewer enemies.


In other good news in the war on terror and terror inciters, score one down for the much-maligned Al-Hurra TV, the activist American public diplomacy broadcast effort targeting the Arab speaking world. Last week, Al-Hurra put together a report with footage captured from Saddam's archives in which Al-Jazeera's former top boss, Jassim Al-Ali, kisses up and thanks Saddam's psycho son 'Uday, for all the crucial help he was providing over the years to the venom-spewing satellite station, and asking for more instructions. Mr. Al-Ali was fired shortly after the liberation of Iraq following embarrassing documents highlighting his collusion with 'Uday had surfaced. Also last week, after the new report and footage were aired, Al-Jazeera issued a press release defending its "journalistic integrity." Yeah, right.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Syrian Blink

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

January 6, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1616 words

HEADLINE: The Syrian Blink

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The Syrian regime is playing a cynical game of chicken with the Bush administration, but it is already a forgone conclusion that their Soviet-era tractor will end up in the ditch.

The deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was in the Syrian capital just a few days ago. He was supposed to give the leadership in Damascus a dressing-down on their tacit role in helping the murderous terrorists waging a jihadist insurgency in next-door Iraq. But Mr. Armitage is suffering from end-of-term senioritis and didn't flex all his body-built muscles. The Syrians are still shrugging all these criticisms aside, and negotiating. They are waiting for the opening bid that really matters: implicit American support for their autocratic Baathist form of rule.

At best, the Syrians are only turning a blind eye to the financing and orientation of the Iraqi insurgency being operated from their turf. However, they are more likely providing technical and logistical support to the suicide bombers crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border while the exiled Baathist functionaries who escaped the collapse of Saddam's reign are enjoying a well-endowed retirement in the plush neighborhoods of Damascus. These new Iraqi transplants living up the high life are flush with cash, and they are remitting some funds to the insurgents.

To the Syrian authorities watching all this unfold under their very angular noses, this is all a ploy for buying time. The strategic goal for the Syrian Baath Party, which is simply a facade for the minority Alawi power structure, is to stay in power and weather the democratic storm gathering force in the Middle East. There is no mythical polarization between a coterie of reformers huddled around the young President Bashar Al-Assad and his deceased father's old guard; they stand united in trying to survive the next four years of George W. Bush. They hope that all this talk of democracy is a blast of hot air, and that America will compromise when the Syrians make an offer that a beleaguered Bush administration supposedly cannot refuse: Syria as a partner in the war against terror.

Thus, the Alawi-Baathists terror-masters are re-inventing themselves as the anti-terror masters. Although they are involved with Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, they can claim to have experience on their resume in warding off Islamic fundamentalist insurgency during the late 1970s and early 1980s.They can even give pointers on how to level cities like Fallujah, since they performed the same task 22 years earlier in Hama. The Americans are bound to come to the table, the Syrians are reasoning, since the harder the insurgency in Iraq becomes, the more focused the Americans will get on counterinsurgency measures as a goal in itself rather than democratic reform. And the Syrians will be waiting to roll-up all the human smuggling rings that provide gate-to-car bomb service for young Saudis and other assorted jihadists from the moment of arrival at Damascus airport to fastening the seat-belt on the young man as he drives off in an explosive laden car to kill "infidels" in Baghdad.

T.E. Lawrence of Arabia by way of Britain, did not like the Syrian officers serving alongside him in the Arab Revolt. He once remarked that they were shallow, greedy, and lacked deep thought. He would probably form the same opinion of this Syrian scheme: it is bound to fail because the Alawi-Baathists are playing with fire. The simple underlying fault in their strategy is that what goes boom in Mosul will resound in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.

The Syrian-Iraqi border, where Washington bureaucrats and military planners are focusing their attention these days, is a figment of some earlier bureaucrat's imagination. The line that takes a 45-degree angle after it skirts the Hawran range and cuts through the Euphrates river at Abu Kamal on the Syrian side and Al-Qa'im on the Iraqi side and then winds around the Sinjar heights has no historical, sociological, or geographical justification. Its only validation was that it all looked very neat on maps as the British and French divided up the Middle Eastern spoils of the Ottoman defeat in World War I. Iraq only really becomes distinctly Mesopotamian when the steppe and desert plateau ends around the Tharthar Valley and follows the course of the Tigris northwards. And Syria only becomes the Levant proper across the straight south-to-north line that connects Damascus to Aleppo through the towns of Hims and Hama. Everything in between, including Iraq's Sunni Triangle and the Sunni heartland of Syria, is connected through millennia of trade, intermarriage, and tribes and clans spanning the current imaginary border.

The Mosul-Aleppo case highlights this loose and grey kinship. The men of Mosul had been conducting a centuries-old experiment in genetic improvement by marrying the legendary beauties of Aleppo until Britain and France decided to create the national states of Iraq and Syria. But the reality is that tribes that control the smuggling of human time-bombs could reverse the flow and therefore terrorists could detonate in Aleppo just as easily as they are wreaking havoc in Mosul. The same is true across the Iraqi Sunni Triangle; it is only a matter of time until the jihadists turn their sights to the capital of the first Islamic Empire, Damascus, and liberate it from the "heathen" Alawis.

This had been tried before by some of the radicalized Muslim Brotherhood wings in Syria (later named the Islamic Front) as they set out to murder and detonate their way into power. The Alawis, who only comprise an eighth of the population, were badly shaken and had to fight out a bitter urban war until they regained balance. Their secretive beliefs are rooted in heterodox offshoots of Shia Islamic tenets meshed with pre-Islamic pagan, probably ancient Kurdish, beliefs, and had been longtime victims of Sunni Islam. They survived far off in the fastness of the mountains that hug the Mediterranean coast. By a fluke of history and an agent of peasant poverty, they dominated the local militias set up by the French to augment their colonial rule. They were even given regional autonomy, but lost it when they were incorporated into independent Syria after World War II. But not all was lost; their martial expertise carried into the newly formed Syrian army, and through successive military coups they supplanted the old urban power structures of the 50 Sunni Arab notable and wealthy families that had run things since independence. Suddenly, and with their Alawite heresy whitewashed and made mainstream through adoption of secular Baathist ideology, they found themselves in power some three decades ago. And they would like to keep it that way. So for the time being they allow things like this to happen: the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat printed a story last Monday about a Saudi family that got a phone call telling them that their son had been "martyred" in Iraq in a suicide mission. The son, Ahmed Said Ahmed Al-Ghamidi, 20, left his medical studies in the Sudan and closed out his bank account on December 16th. He apparently traveled to Syria and found his way to Mosul. In five days, he was ready, according to the report, to blow up an army mess tent and kill 19 American soldiers. The Syrians would shrug and say, "how could we have known? But we will try harder next time."

The Syrians are taking their own sweet time in combating terror in a gambit to buy time for their dictatorship's survival. They want to cut a deal with the Bush administration: Don't hurry us on democracy and freedom, and we will do you favors in the war on terror a la the Jordanian model. The Americans would then focus on keeping the officers of the Syrian intelligence service happy rather than standing up for regular Syrian citizens. Mr. Bush should stand firm with Syria, since its dictatorial leadership has more to lose as the insurgency in Iraq's Sunni Triangle flares up and sends sparks back across the border into Syria itself. Their cynical game of chicken cannot be sustained, and they are only an eye twitch away from a full-blown blink.


Evil men trampled on one of God's flowers that had been planted in His good earth. Sheikh Haithem Nayif Ahmed Al-Ansari, 33, was walking to Friday prayers from his Baghdad home on December 31, when a gray BMW slowed down and sprayed him with a machine gun. One of the assailants then disembarked and hunched over the writhing body while emptying the rest of the magazine into my friend's head.

Haithem was both kindred spirit and close friend to me. His political affiliations were contradictory, and many sides will claim him as one of their own. Good, many sides will be out to avenge him. The crime of his murder has many possible leads, and that is due to the list of enemies Haithem chose to keep: Baathists, Wahhabis, and assorted regional intelligence services. A lamb in demeanor and a lion at heart, his loss made Iraq less of a home for me to get back to. Tall, thin, his movie-star face was ignited by fiery green eyes and offset by the sweet melancholy smile of a mystic. Since we had met and began working together three years ago, our conversations invariably started with "Is it possible that you are still alive? God must have a sense of humor." Haithem was a hero, and it may still be early to recount publicly his victories against evil. He was a Shia mullah grappling with existential issues of personal faith in God, but he had no illusions about fighting evil in all its guises. What a horrible loss. Haithem, in your release from the hard circumstances of the battles you chose to fight, has your spirit made it to Paris? He had wanted to see Paris before he died.