Talisman Gate

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Turnaround in Baghdad

January 25, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Turnaround in Baghdad


January 25, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/47363

There has been a flurry of press reports recently about insurgents battling American and Iraqi security forces on Haifa Street in Baghdad, and around the rural town of Buhruz in Diyala Province. These same insurgents also claimed to have shot down a Black Hawk helicopter near Buhruz. At the same time, the Americans and Iraqis are declaring a major victory as evidenced by the increased number of dead or captured militants, and the uncovering of massive weapons caches. So, what is going on?

What needs to be understood is the central role that Al Qaeda — or more accurately its successor organization, a group called the Islamic State of Iraq — is playing on these fronts and the diminishing role of all the other insurgent groups.

The wider Sunni insurgency — the groups beyond Al Qaeda — is being slowly, and surely, defeated. The average insurgent today feels demoralized, disillusioned, and hunted. Those who have not been captured yet are opting for a quieter life outside of Iraq. Al Qaeda continues to grow for the time being as it cannibalizes the other insurgent groups and absorbs their most radical and hardcore fringes into its fold. The Baathists, who had been critical in spurring the initial insurgency, are becoming less and less relevant, and are drifting without a clear purpose following the hanging of their idol, Saddam Hussein. Rounding out this changing landscape is that Al Qaeda itself is getting a serious beating as the Americans improve in intelligence gathering and partner with more reliable Iraqi forces.

In other words, battling the insurgency now essentially means battling Al Qaeda. This is a major accomplishment.

Last October, my sources began telling me about rumblings among the insurgent strategists suggesting that their murderous endeavor was about to run out of steam. This sense of fatigue began registering among mid-level insurgent commanders in late December, and it has devolved to the rank and file since then. The insurgents have begun to feel that the tide has turned against them.

In many ways, the timing of this turnaround was inadvertent, coming at the height of political and bureaucratic mismanagement in Washington and Baghdad. A number of factors contributed to this turnaround, but most important was sustained, stay-the-course counterinsurgency pressure. At the end of the day, more insurgents were ending up dead or behind bars, which generated among them a sense of despair and a feeling that the insurgency was a dead end.

The Washington-initiated "surge" will speed-up the ongoing process of defeating the insurgency. But one should not consider the surge responsible for the turnaround. The lesson to be learned is to keep killing the killers until they realize their fate.

General David Petraeus, whom President Bush has tasked to quell the insurgency, spent the last year and a half updating the U.S. Army and Marine Corps's field manual for counterinsurgency. There's plenty of fancy theory there, as well as case studies from Iraq. I don't know how much of the new manual is informed by General Petraeus' two notable failures in Iraq: building a brittle edifice of government in Mosul that collapsed at the first challenging puff, and the inadequate training and equipping of the Iraqi army due to corruption and mismanagement.

General Petraeus walked away from those failures unscathed and hence unaccountable. He re-enters the picture with major expectations. Most commentators, especially those who begrudge attributing any success to Mr. Bush, will lionize the general as he takes credit for this turnaround and speeds it up. Let's hope that he has enough sense to allow what works to keep working and to improve on it, rather than trying to put his own stamp on things and test out the theories he's developed.

The best way to use the extra troops would be to protect the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad from Shiite death squads. This will give an added incentive for Sunnis to turn against the militants operating in their midst. For most Sunnis, the insurgency has come to be about communal survival, rather than communal revival. They no longer harbor fantasies of recapturing power. They are on the run and are losing the turf war with the Shiites for Baghdad.

Sunni sectarian attacks, usually conducted by jihadists, finally provoked the Shiites to turn to their most brazen militias — the ones who would not heed Ayatollah Sistani's call for pacifism — to conduct painful reprisals against Sunnis, usually while wearing official military fatigues and carrying government issued weapons. The Sunnis came to realize that they were no longer facing ragtag fighters, but rather they were confronting a state with resources and with a monopoly on lethal force. The Sunnis realized that by harboring insurgents they were inviting retaliation that they could do little to defend against.

Sadly, it took many thousands of young Sunnis getting abducted by death squads for the Sunnis to understand that in a full-fledged civil war, they would likely lose badly and be evicted from Baghdad. I believe that the Sunnis and insurgents are now war weary, and that this is a turnaround point in the campaign to stabilize Iraq.

Still, major bombings will continue for many years, for Al Qaeda will remain oblivious to all evidence of the insurgency's eventual defeat. The Baathists, and jihadist groups like Ansar al-Sunna, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, may be collapsing due to aimlessness and despair, but Al Qaeda still enjoys the clarity of zealotry and fantasy. Right now, they are arm-twisting other jihadist groups to submit to them and are also taking credit for the large-scale fighting that continues in Iraq.

Al Qaeda will continue the fight long after the Iraqi battlefield becomes inhospitable to their cause, and they will only realize the futility of their endeavor after they are defeated on the wider Middle East battlefield and elsewhere in the world.

As the wider insurgency recedes, the Iraqi state will gain some breathing space to implement the rule of law and dissolve the death squads. A society that sets about rebuilding itself can endure the type of attacks mounted by Al Qaeda, although they are painful.

Counterinsurgency strategists will argue about the precise moment when this turnabout occurred and will try to replicate the victory elsewhere. Pundits will argue about who or what policy was responsible for it, a matter eventually to be settled by historians. Victory has a way of making everyone associated with it golden, and many will claim right of place. Defeat has a way of turning everyone associated with it to ash, and many will disclaim responsibility for it.

Let me state the lesson of this turnabout clearly lest it be obscured amidst the euphoria: Never mind who takes credit, kill or capture more of the killers to ensure victory.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 25, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Aftermath of a Hanging

January 9, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Aftermath of a Hanging


January 9, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/46294

The tyrant was taunted and bullied. The condemned man heard some harsh words before he dangled. Woe to mankind.

Most commentators should have described the hurried hanging of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian chants emanating from the excited bodyguards that accompanied the execution as a regrettable set of circumstances and then moved on. But no, most chose to dwell on it and turn it into a tirade against the whole legitimacy of removing Saddam from power.

Their indignation was fake because it was disproportionate, and it exposed much of the underlying agendas that drive the discourse on Iraq.

If you wanted Saddam executed, then all you took from the spectacle was the end result: Saddam is no more. If you didn't want Saddam executed, were conceptually against the death penalty, or were still embittered over the Florida recount, then you nitpicked every detail and decried what happened.

Saddam's mortal remains were respected and returned to his clan, who promptly turned his grave into a shrine — something the Iraqi government had wanted to prevent but which some self-righteous American bureaucrat on the ground in Iraq favored.

Back in Saddam's era, should you be a lucky family to get the corpse of a loved one back after an execution, you would have received a bill from the regime for the price of the bullets used. But most were not so lucky: Some had to wait years, others decades, until the fall of the regime to find out what had happened to their relatives. Many never were able to locate a grave. Bodies were buried in numbered lots, but sheer numbers overwhelmed the system, and files and tags were often misplaced.

Documents found after Saddam was overthrown reveal that in some cases, the regime retroactively adjusted dates of death to give the impression that an individual had lived for years in prison when he actually had died much earlier after being tortured.

But that is if one was killed through the system. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of Kurds killed in the campaigns against them in the 1980s and of Shiites killed during their 1991 uprising were bulldozed into pits. Many were villagers and peasants who did not get numbers and files but whose remains had to be identified by dress, a ring, or an identity card that had not yet decomposed.

An image of Saddam as a tin pot dictator has persisted in Western minds. That is what allowed the Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles, to pen a cartoon on November 29, 2005, titled "The Saddam Trial Resumes," showing a lawyer for the prosecution leaning toward Saddam and saying, "Tell us about your death squads and secret police and torture and executions. … We need some tips on getting this country under control." Saddam was being tried for the crime against the people of Dujail, for which he was hanged. Yet Mr. Toles, who probably didn't watch a single full session of that trial, trivialized the horrors. I doubt if six decades after World War II, Mr. Toles would approach Adolf Hitler's record with such flippancy.

Underlying the reluctance to equate Saddam with the other totalitarian nightmares of the 20th century such as Stalin's Russia, Nazi Germany, or Franco's Spain, is the notion that such magnitude of oppression requires sophistication and talent, and that Iraq had neither.

That is a racist view. While in Europe Jews were being persecuted, in Baghdad a school for blind Jewish girls was established in 1931. Iraq had promise, talent, and wealth, which Saddam subsumed to erect a "Republic of Fear," as the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya demonstrates in a book of the same title.

Mr. Makiya shows how the nascent Baath regime that assumed power in a coup numbed down society's tolerance for violence. To do that, the regime invented a Zionist conspiracy and started hanging a mostly Jewish batch of alleged spies in 1969, convicted in show trials. But with every fresh batch, the Jewish ratio dwindled, and more Muslim and Christian targets were strung up. Hundreds of thousands were herded to Baghdad's main square to witness the spectacle: Children were taken out of schools, and adults were bused in. They cheered, threw filth, and even — gasp — taunted.

And yet, the commentators were taken aback by Saddam's "composed" and "dignified" manner at the gallows. Saddam wouldn't have broken down, for he believed himself to be one of the great men of history, bending reality to his will. Those whose lives were overturned throughout his rule knew this about him. But most of those who comment about Saddam in America have chosen to remain blissfully ignorant, or cynically disdainful.

Similarly, the Arab media deplored the execution for falling on the first day of the Sunni Muslim religious holiday of 'Eid, with vehement denunciations coming from the Saudis and the press outlets they own. They forgot that the chief Wahhabi cleric of Saudi Arabia had declared Saddam an infidel during the first Gulf war.

Those regrettable circumstances — the timing and the taunting — also gave a chance for a few of the early backers of the war to redeem themselves by expressing angst over the manner of the hanging. They had become pariahs at East Coast cocktail parties, where moral fuzziness goes for trendy — just ask Mr. Toles. Now, their rhetorical self-flagellation can gain them entry back into the intellectual elite, which has used the Iraq war for partisan sniping and for expressing rage over issues that have nothing to do with Iraq.

Saddam met his just end. The trial was more than fair if judged fairly. Everything took place according to Iraqi law. All else is chaff. Those who begrudge the victims their moment of solace should have the decency to see the larger picture, instead of dwelling on what in the end is merely theater.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 9, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Grand Distraction

January 3, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >

The Grand Distraction


January 3, 2007
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/46045

An embarrassing internal feud among Saudi royals has been on public display for over two weeks. It first came to light on December 11, 2006, when Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, summoned his staff and told them that he's calling it quits. The Saudi government was so red-faced about what happened, they instructed their press not to report anything about Prince Turki's resignation for a week.

Ostensibly, the ambassador's tantrum came about when his side lost a policy dispute over how to deal with Iran — Prince Turki favored talking to the Iranians, while another royal faction, led by the national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, advocated a military showdown with the Saudis playing second fiddle to America if there is an invasion.

I don't believe that Iran is at issue here: The Saudi royal family wants to stay in power, and it does not view Iran as a strategic threat to its rule. The chief threat arises from the jihadists — home-grown or otherwise — whom the royals correctly perceive as a pan-Middle Eastern phenomenon that is likely to grow much larger before beginning to recede. The supposed dual threats posed by Iran to America and Israel and by Shiism to the Sunni Arab order are smokescreens to confuse Western democrats and radical fundamentalists alike. Prince Bandar, who now has King Abdullah's ear, is planning to play all of the regime's threats against each other to ensure regime survival, even though it may end up hurting American interests in Iraq and careening a country like Lebanon into the abyss.

Under Prince Bandar's plan, America will attack Iran with all diplomatic, military, and intelligence means possible, and thereby become embroiled in yet another difficult project in the Middle East. Iran would have to set aside its Persian imperialist instincts while taking this blow. The jihadists, who in the post-Abu Musab al-Zarqawi era have made anti-Shiism a central tenet of their struggle, will be unleashed against the Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, thereby diverting the jihadists from pursuing their goal of overthrowing the Saudi regime.

Back in June 2005, I wrote a column titled "The Saudi Mega-Plot" that described what today is Prince Bandar's strategy. Back then, I likened this plan to what the Saudis did in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s when they supported the mujaheddin against the Soviets and managed to knock off several menacing birds with one stone: their own disgruntled home-grown Wahhabi radicals went off to die in the Hindu Kush; the "godless" communist push south was halted; the Americans were kept happy, and the Khomeini regime in Iran — seeking to lead Muslims worldwide — was upstaged.

Prince Turki, then chief of Saudi intelligence, was the architect of this Afghan Distraction. Prince Bandar was then the much-feted ambassador in Washington who oiled the American end of the deal. The plan worked out fine, and all the short-term objectives were met. One unintended long-term consequence turned out very badly for all concerned: the emergence of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Prince Bandar is still stuck in the policy world of the 1980s and 1990s, much like his close friend, the former secretary of state, James Baker, whose Iraq Study Group report was criticized in some quarters as being "old-school" and unconnected with the very changed realities of the Middle East. Whereas Prince Turki — who bore the brunt of internal and global accusations for creating the bin Laden monster — knows better from experience: One should not rush into ambitious mega-plots.

Yet Prince Bandar's plan is proceeding, and its first step is to market the Saudi regime as the defender of the Middle East's Sunnis against a Shiite and Iranian bid to take over the region. But it would be a mistake to think that the Iranians are so delusional as to believe they stand a chance of dominating the world of Islam.

Events in Lebanon and among the Palestinians have disabused the Iranian leadership, even the excitable likes of President Ahmadinejad, of the idea that they could lead the world of Islam by beating up on Israel. The Iranians are finding out, like the early Khomeinist firebrands who were hell-bent on exporting revolution, that they can be easily discredited by their Sunni rivals for who they are: heterodox Muslims. Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah, who only a few months ago was hailed by Arabs and Muslims as a second Gamal Abdel Nasser during Hezbollah's war with Israel, slammed his turban into a glass ceiling: Sunnis in Lebanon mistrusted him as a power-hungry Shiite when he tried to use his anti-Israel stature to obtain a larger slice of the Lebanese political pie.

Furthermore, Iran realized just how short-lived Arab Sunni favor really is when the Hamas prime minister of the Palestinians, Ismail Haniya, came to Iran asking for support and money and got plenty of both, while refusing to be seen praying alongside Shiites. After giving the Friday sermon in Tehran, Haniya conducted his prayers in private. Haniya could not risk being derided by his Sunni detractors back in Gaza as a sycophant of the Shiites.

Anti-Shiism is a useful tool for the Saudis since it robs the jihadists of one of their main rallying points. And in this, the Saudis can legitimately claim to be hardcore anti-Shiites, even though they've neglected other areas of Wahhabi dogma, such as waging jihad against the West and vanquishing other milder versions of Sunni Islam. Zarqawi did not invent his anti-Shiite ideology. He borrowed heavily from material produced, financed, and propagated by the official Saudi hate-speech industry.

So it was no surprise that 38 leading Saudi clerics issued a proclamation on December 7 inciting Sunnis against Shiites in Iraq, which was followed by a fatwa dated December 17 by the leading Wahhabi religious authority alive, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman bin Nassir al-Barrak, that essentially brands all Shiites, including lay persons, as legitimate targets for Sunni hostility since they are "more dangerous" to Islam "than the Jews and the Christians." The Saudi royal family is stealing a march on the jihadists while simultaneously making itself useful for the new jihadist agenda.

A chastised Iran is surely in America's best interest and the world's too, but it should not come at the cost of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and Lebanon. President Bush wants to enhance regional stability by promoting enlightenment and civil peace, whereas the Saudis want to protect their rule by propagating xenophobia.

Iran must be contained, and Iraq must be made to work. Accepting Prince Bandar's tactics may temporarily beat back the Iranians, but will fuel the sectarian fire in Iraq. America is trying to contain Sunni-Shiite tension in Iraq, while the Saudi-protected Wahhabi establishment spews an unending stream of hate and incitement. Saudi help in this matter isn't helpful. Prince Bandar's quick-fix should be dismissed.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

January 3, 2007 Edition > Section: Opinion >