More on Sayyid Imam…….

A loyal reader sent in this long piece from  The_NATIONAL which  takes a long look at the new book and concludes that its not going to have any signifigant effect on Al-Qaeda.  Read the article to find out why. 

Another reader sent in a tip that the latest epdisode of Al-Arabiya’s “The Death Industry” featured Imam’s new book and comes to the same conclusions or goes even further.  Interviewed were Egypt’s Montaser Al-Zayat and  Jordan’s Mohamed Abu Rumman and both agreed that the book was not going to have any effects on Al-Qaeda.  In fact, Sayyid Imam’s jail-house slander of Zawahiri may make the Al-Qaeda #2 look like the victim of some kind of government-sponsored character assassination in the eyes of jihadists around the region and actually improve his image.  

 I haven’t seen the Al-Arabiya program and the transcript is not yet posted on the site but apparently there is a rerun on Tuesday.

On the Iraq Security Treaty…

From Angry Arab.  If this is  true then……

I read the text of American eternal occupation treaty with Iraq: I compared the English and Arabic texts. The translation in Arabic is accurate but it is abundantly clear that this was written in English and then translated into Arabic, not vice versa. But the language is ambiguous and vague enough (especially in reference to those American civilians attached to the mission), to allow a whole army or elephant to pass through.

…. it raises some interesting questions.

Implications of Mumbai

A week or so ago I posted an article  on Bruce Reidel, Obama’s top adviser on Pakistan.  One of his central ideas is: 

But in doing so, Mr Riedel does not emphasise the need to restoring the right of self-determination to the people of Kashmir. Instead, he advocates finding a solution that satisfies India and ends Pakistan’s excuse for lingering the dispute.

A major part of Mr Riedel’s theory for ending conflicts in South Asia deals with persuading Pakistan to accept India’s influence in the region and stop its efforts to counter India by promoting its own interests in places like Afghanistan.

By persuading India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, Mr Riedel also hopes to refocus the Pakistani military on fighting militants within its border, a point Mr Obama also stressed in his interview to CNN last week. But this over-emphasis on the military option is already worrying experts on the Afghan conflict.

I can’t help but think that the Mumbai attack is going to have major negative implications on India-Pakistan relations and make such ideas very difficult to achieve, at least in the short-term.

Stop the Press……

Ibn Yacoub Al-Amriki is moving his headquarters from Blogspot to WordPress.  Check out his new site here.

On Vacation

Rob is on vacation.   Full blogging will resume next Monday.

Why did the Piracy Start?

One big story in the media lately is Piracy in Somalia which in the big picture is a small problem and can be solved easily- send a few powerful ships to track them down.  A more interesting question is why did it start in the first place?  Semi-Expert brings up a good point:

After US withdrawal, things pretty much reverted to the state they had been before the US came. Then a group calling itself the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) began to assert its authority. Effectively the only law in Somalia since the mid nineties, the group began as loosely affiliated local Islamic courts. The courts soon began also to provide social services (here we go again), and eventually coalesced into a government, which managed to impose peace on most of the country. For a while, a certain prosperity began to emerge as well. But the United States, having developed an allergy to anything calling itself Islamic, set up anti-terrorism special-forces bases in Djibouti (on Somalia’s norther border and home to large Somali populations), and – all very secretive mind you – began providing support to the rival (and unpopular) claimants to the government, and funding Ethiopia, which lies to the west (some of whose regions are also home to significant Somali populations), which invaded and remains in occupation.

The ICU were ousted in 2006 and their more radical factions called the shabab ‘youths’ have as a direct result gained legitimacy while the more moderate faction has been forced into retreat. Since then, lawlessness has broken out of an even more severe nature than had heretofore reigned, including piracy on the high seas. Piracy! The ICU had put an end to all kinds of banditry, on the principle that thievery of any sort is un-Islamic.

This is one of the best explanations I’ve seen for WHY this recent piracy crisis has broken out.  What’s more important in Somalia: Order or having your ideological allies in power?   For the US and, probably we could say any country that has any interests in the region, order should be the top priority.

The Seven Villages

Most of us following Middle East news or Lebanon news know a few things about Hezbollah: it emerged in the early 1980’s during the heyday of the Lebanese civil war; its external allies are Iran and Syria; it is likely the strongest and best-trained armed group in Lebanon right now, on par or surpassing the Lebanese army itself; and because of this, it claims to be Lebanon’s stalwart and necessary defender against Israeli aggressions. Many of us are also aware that Hezbollah has established several conditions in order for it to voluntarily disarm its military wing.   Briefly, until 2000, the main condition for its military existence was the occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel.   Following Israel’s redeployment outside of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emphasized the fact that it had to maintain its military character as the Shebaa Farms, a fertile parcel of land of about 22 km² (8 sq mi) remained occupied by Israel.  (For the sake of a more complete picture, I should also add that Hezbollah cites the regular violations of Lebanon’s airspace by Israeli fighter jets as  another reason for it to keep its arms). 

In the past few months, Hezbollah officials have begun citing if not an entirely new demand, then certainly a less frequently-branded one.  I’m talking about the territorial claim over “The Seven Villages”.  Heard about it? I hadn’t.  It seems that there are seven villages and twenty farms lying just within Israel’s northern border, and which Lebanon has historically claimed as Lebanese, albeit with much less fanfare than its other grievances against Israel.   Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based journalist and author of a book on the Hariri assassination that I haven’t quite finished_reading_yet , has a 17-page  study posted on the Now Lebanon website in which he explains the “Seven Villages” demand.

The study is quite an intriguing historical review of the events, negotiations, communications and most crucially, cartography, done by the British and French in the early 1920’s, along with a description of the Zionists’ involvement in these interactions. I highly recommend reading Blanford’s paper, but for those who are eager for the punch line of the story, Blanford concludes that the Seven Villages should have been included in the Lebanese state created by the French.  However, he predicts that raising this issue of re-drawing the borders of northern Israel/southern Lebanon might open the door for Israel to make demands of its own regarding territory it thinks should be part of Israel.   Although Blanford does not expressly say it, his implicit suggestion here seems to be that Lebanon should drop any claims it might have on the Seven Villages because this would complicate any peace talks with Israel.  He specifies that because Lebanon’s past behaviour suggests that it has tacitly accepted its present borders, Israel is unlikely to concede the concerned territories. 

I might be incorrect in interpreting Blanford’s last paragraphs as I have, however, I cannot help but think of two of the most elementary rules of any negotiation:  1)  if you don’t ask for something, you’re no likely to get it; and 2) always ask for more than what you think you will or can get.  In this vein, although I recognize that the idea of incorporating the Seven Villages into Lebanon is quite illusory,  I would never recommend that a party relinquish some of its demands before negotiations even begin simply because it might complicate the bargaining, or because the other party might retaliate with its own demands.  Why not keep the Seven Villages on the list of items to be negotiated with Israel, and use them as bargaining chips for obtaining something that might be more of a priority to Lebanon, like the Shebaa Farms?   For the time being though, it’s safest to say that the Seven Villages are just an added element to what Blanford aptly calls the “psychological warfare” between Hezbollah and Israel.

Do Some Things Ever Change?

Editor’s Note:  Blackstar is  an international lawyer based in London

Last Saturday, Robert F. Worth of the NY Times published a long article on Hezbollah’s boy and girl_scout_camps.  Whilst I was busy mulling over my various reactions to this piece, Semi-Expert was busy producing a thoroughly accusatory post criticizing the article.  Semi-Expert’s does a tremendous job in pointing out the weaknesses of the article.  I would only add to his post that it would be interesting to compare Worth’s piece with previous articles published by the NY Times in its series on Muslim youth in the Middle East (This series is called “Generation Faithful”…). Here is one  published about a month ago about young Arab men flocking to the dizzying lights of Dubai, also critiqued by Semi-Expert.  The series epitomizes to me the NY Times attempts’ at painting a human picture of the Middle East, but inevitably degenerating into some kind of failed pseudo-sociological analysis.  One of Slackman’s periodic “Memos from Cairo” published last_summer for example, commits many of the same mistakes committed in his article on Dubai and by Worth in his article on Hezbollah, namely deriving overgeneralizing principles from a few glimpses of one sector of society.   The result of this is to basically offer a superficial, if not distorted, view of the subject of study.  Slackman’s Memo from Cairo for example, reduces the entire Egyptian population to one personality trait:  the inability to give accurate road directions.  Imagine a serious article published by the LA Times about New Yorkers making up road directions because they want to help, despite not knowing what they’re giving directions for. 

Is the “Good War” Worth Fighting?

Former British FSO Rory Stewart has an excellent op-ed in the NY Times framing the coming challenge in Afghanistan.  He starts off by making a critical point: Do we actually have to “win” in Afghanistan?  Or why do we need to “beat” the Taliban to win?  Why can’t winning be defined as something like “not doing anything dumb” and leaving Afghanistan without making things worse?  Would US National Security be damaged if the US simply withdrew from Afghanistan? 

AFGHANISTAN does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks.   Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.

Yes, Afganistan deserves more attention,  but “attention” doesn’t have to be military.  I agree with the author that sending more troops would probably lead to disaster and only make things more difficult. 

President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.

More troops have brought military victories but they have not been able to eliminate the Taliban. They have also had a negative political impact in the conservative and nationalistic communities of the Pashtun south and allowed Taliban propaganda to portray us as a foreign military occupation. In Helmand Province, troop numbers have increased to nearly 10,000 today from just 2,000 in 2004. But no inhabitant of Helmand would say things have improved in the last four years. Mr. Obama believes that sending even more troops and money will now bring “victory” in Afghanistan. Some of this may be politically driven: a pretense of future benefits appears better than admitting a loss; and because lives are involved, no one wants to write off sunk costs. Nevertheless, these increases are not just wasteful, they are counterproductive.

The only way that sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good idea is if it is some kind of way to threaten the Taliban into making more concessions.  The Taliban may be “winning” but they also can not hold out forever.  The key to getting out of Afghanistan with any kind of desirable result is pushing the Taliban to seperate from Al-Qaeda and enter the Afghani political arena.  Yes, as many people have mentioned, this would not be easy as the Taliban is not a unified movement.  Still, there really is no other possible option.

Mullah Omar to get Political Asylum in Saudi Arabia?

According to this  Al-Quds Al-Arabi story, Saudi Arabia is offering Taliban leader Mullah Omar political asylum in Saudi Arabia as part of comprehensive peace deal in Afghanistan.  Official sources deny it but other sources says its true.  Offering Mullah Omar asylum is consistent with what Saudi Arabia is trying to do in Afghanistan.  If thats what it takes for the US to come out on top in Afghanistan, then this isn’t such a bad idea. 

UPDATE:  Read the story in English here.

Posts of Note

Two posts I want to flag:

1)  Who’s more powerful: the State Department or Pentagon?  A non-American friend asked me this question yesterday, wanting to understand the implications of Hillary Clinton becoming appointed SoS.  The Pentagon, I replied, although it would still be a tremendous coup for Hillary if she was appointed to head Foggy Bottom.  Shortly after,  by chance, I came across a great  post by Remarkz analyzing the comparative positions and their ability to influence US foreign policy (or perhaps for one of them its an inability)

2) Egypt’s policy of selling gas to Israel is a major domestic political issue and its hard to go a week without reading an Op-Ed in a newspaper attacking the arrangement.  But now it could be in jeopardy.   Semi-Expert reports  that:  “On 18 November an Egyptian court overturned an agreement between the Egyptian government and Israel for Egypt to supply natural gas to Israel, which has been in the offing since at least 2005 and perhaps since 1999. ”  I recommend reading the whole post because it frames the issue in its strategic-political context and provides lots of background.

France Trying to Get “Back in the Game”

Editor’s Note:  Taking over the Lebanon desk at MediaShack will be Blackstar, an international lawyer based in London. 

French Prime Minister François Fillon is presently in Lebanon for a two-day visit with a full program of diplomatic activities. While his own office has described_the_trip as one aimed at helping the re-launching of economic life of Lebanon (Fillon is accompanied by fifty French business leaders and will meet with local businessmen), it appears more logical to view it as part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda of re-launching France as a power-broker in the region. Economics aside, Fillon’s visit is important for two things:

I.  He will be signing, on France’s behalf, a military cooperation agreement in virtue of which France will provide training to Lebanon’s army.

This first item is attached to the (attempted) consolidation of France’s political role within Lebanon.  If anything, there seems to be a sense that France should supplant the US as the go-to foreign power when tensions arise locally and an outside arbitrator is sought.   Couple this with Sarkozy’s pro-Mediterranean foreign policy, and France’s historic and cultural links with Lebanon, the political capital invested might actually convert into a much greater influence in Lebanon’s internal matters, and perhaps one less polarizing than that of the US.

Another thing to wonder about regarding this Franco-Lebanese military cooperation agreement is how it will be viewed by the US and, by extension, Israel.   As has been discussed  previously on Media Shack,  the US has provided and has promised to continue providing the Lebanese army with tactical support and equipment.  This support has largely been seen as insufficient to prop up the army enough to drive Hezbollah’s military arm out of business.  The question to ask, therefore, is whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army.   The information available so far is that France is providing “training”.  Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.

II.  What intrigues me more about Fillon’s visit, however, is a snipet  from Naharnet  which basically states that France supports Lebanon holding talks with Israel about the “normalization” of Hezbollah.

My scouring of Middle Eastern and French media headlines could not provide me with any more details on this point.   For one, it seems strange that France tells Lebanon to talk to Israel when the subjects of any negotiations between the two so intimately and directly concern Syria and cannot be settled without Syria’s involvement.  Also, what is meant exactly by  “normalization”? Both in theory and in practice, Hezbollah is “normalized” in Lebanon.  But how can a party within a state be normalized vis-à-vis another state? And what exactly can or should France to do to assist in this?  I think regardless of the angle from which you look at the word, the obvious definition in this context would be the demilitarization of Hezbollah, and perhaps we can accuse the editors at Naharnet of dodgy semantics. There might be more reporting on this tomorrow as Fillon’s trip unfolds. If any readers have found anything else on this subject, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

Iraqi Security Pact

The Iraqi Security Pact has been received with mixed reactions on the “Arab Street”.   The Tuesday episode of Al-Jazeera’s Al-Itijah Al-Muakis debated the pact, pitting the Iraqi Minister of Culture versus a former Lebanese MP.  The Lebanese MP considered it  100% illegitimate, along with the whole US campaign in Iraq and argued that it was going to strengthen the Resistance, citing the Lebanese experience in the 1980s.   During that period Israel may have signed a similar security pact with the Lebanese government, but what happened, asked the MP?  The Resistance was emboldened and came back twice as hard.

Britian and Syria Now Sharing Intel

Britain, unlike the US, has just  reestablished high-level Intelligence sharing with Syria.  Syria Comment has an excellent  post on a potentially important development in US-Syria relations:

At any rate, the Syrians clearly offered the British the same offer they made to the Americans well over a year ago. The difference is that the British have been smart enough to take the offer, sending their foreign minister to Damascus as a gesture of good will and cooperation. So the British will now supply the US with Syrian intelligence. This will be awkward for the Americans; they will be dependent on the British for intelligence. Of course, if the Americans like the bits of intelligence they get from the Syrians, they will have to ask for more and will have to ask the Syrians to act on the intelligence or to deliver certain fighters. In this way, one can only presume that the Americans will start to negotiate with the Syrians indirectly.

Great post.  Lots of good strategic analysis.

Forgetting History

Parmendies Fallacy has a good post talking about Algerian President Abdel Azziz Bouteflika’s recent adjustment of the Constitution to allow him a third term.  The post  also  wonders what impact this will have on the Amnesty programs.  In 2000 and 2005, about 12,000 former members of militias were released from jail, essentially with no questions asked:

Essentially the Algerian amnesty flies in the face of most conventional thinking about transitional justice.  Under Bouteflika’s careful maneuvering the amnesty has basically thrown out every single suggestion regarding transitional justice that would be promoted by most academics or professionals in the field in order to get the major rebel groups to lay down their arms.  These are some bad guys: the GIA and GSPC committed horrible massacres, murders, bombings, rapes and essentially terrorized the country for 10 years. (For an interesting paper exploring the strategic “logic” behind the campaign of massacres checkout a paper by Kalyvas here) Not surprisingly the government has also provided almost de facto immunity for government troops and government sponsored local militias who were responsible for their fair share of egregious violence including torture, disappearances and murder……..

In short the Algerian amnesty doesn’t do much in terms of reconciliation, or justice.  All of these mechanisms have been sidelined in an attempt to maintain the peace.  Even when there has been a concession, for example the promises of compensation for the families of victims who were “disappeared” this process has been hopelessly muddled by the government, which has had to my knowledge, no clear consistent position, on the disappeared  even though President Bouteflika has acknowledged officially that there were individuals who were “disappeared” during the civil war….

The must-read post then goes on to offer more criticism and analysis of the program…. 

My feeling is that the current amnesty program is about as good as can be expected.    Will Algeria really benefit in the future from knowing the Truth?  Or will knowing the Truth open up old wounds and make it more difficult for the society to move on?   South Africa had a Truth Commision and that worked for them but I’m not sure how much Algeria would get out of a similar aggressive attempt to examine the past.  Then again, I don’t know much about Algeria, and maybe those who do are saying otherwise.

Not NSA but….

Bruce Reidel has been appointed to a high-level advisor position on Afghanistan-Pakistan:

One of the first priorities of the Obama administration will be to reassess US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his aides say.

And as a first step, he has appointed Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and adviser to three US presidents on South Asia and the Middle East as his adviser on Pakistan.

His aides say that Mr Obama is impressed with Mr Riedel’s views and it was on his advice that Mr Obama spoke of the need to resolve the Kashmir dispute in an interview with a US television network last weekend.

According to these aides, one of Mr Riedel’s long-time themes is that resolving the Kashmir dispute is essential for fighting terrorism.

But in doing so, Mr Riedel does not emphasise the need to restoring the right of self-determination to the people of Kashmir. Instead, he advocates finding a solution that satisfies India and ends Pakistan’s excuse for lingering the dispute.

A major part of Mr Riedel’s theory for ending conflicts in South Asia deals with persuading Pakistan to accept India’s influence in the region and stop its efforts to counter India by promoting its own interests in places like Afghanistan.

By persuading India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, Mr Riedel also hopes to refocus the Pakistani military on fighting militants within its border, a point Mr Obama also stressed in his interview to CNN last week. But this over-emphasis on the military option is already worrying experts on the Afghan conflict.

Interesting ideas and I have no doubt that having Bruce Riedel playing an influential role in the Obama administration is a  good thing.

The Voice of the “Arab Street”

just wrote a new song about the US elections- see who he endorses.  Read a great translation that captures the meaning and the flow here.

Did I miss something here?

David Ignatius makes some extremely questionable statements in a recent Washington Post article:

Before the election, the radical Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradhawi even issued a fatwa supporting John McCain: “Personally, I would prefer for the Republican candidate, McCain, to be elected. This is because I prefer the obvious enemy who does not hypocritically [conceal] his hostility toward you . . . to the enemy who wears a mask [of friendliness].”

Obama makes the jihadists nervous because he is an appealing new face whose ascension undermines the belief that Islam and the West are locked in an inescapable clash of civilizations. “The Democrats kill you slowly without you noticing it. . . . They are like a snake whose touch is not felt until its poison enters your body,” observes Qaradhawi.

I’m having great difficulty believing that Qardawi  actually said these things as it just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he talks about.  And correct me if I am wrong, if he did actually make any comment about the US elections, he would not have done so in the form of a fatwa.   Furthermore, considering Qaradawi’s influence anything he said  would have received widespread coverage in the Arabic press.  This is the first I’ve heard of this.

More on the Inter-Faith Conference

The recently completed UN Interfaith conference is  more significant than the coverage it received in the US media.  Not because of anything to do with religion, but for  its implications on the the Arab-Israeli peace process:  Never before has the King of Saudi Arabia sat in the same room with Israeli political leaders (Shimon Peres, Tipvi Livni) so this is a major adjustment for the Kingdom and a huge political achievement for Israel.  

 Fahmy Huwedi and Tariq Al-Bashri, top Egyptian commentators,  have scathing columns in today’s Al-Dostor, criticizing the King for refusing to bring up violence in Gaza while handing the Israelis a major PR victory.  Bashri goes as far to say that the King sitting in the same room as Peres is no less significant as Sadat visiting Jerusalem in 1977.   However, he then goes on to undermine the credibility of his argument by saying that the US and Israel are behind attempts to instigate Sunni-Shia conflict in order to create a new enemy  or distraction for the Arabs, so that they no longer focus on Israel.  He compares this to  how the US allegedly instigated conflict between Libya and Egypt following the Camp David treaty, creating a “new enemy” for the Egyptians other than Israel. How can the US can be blamed for instigating Sunni-Shia strife when the top Sunni scholars, such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, have been the most vocal in their anti-Shia rhetoric.

More troops in Afghanistan?

Two things of note on Afghanistan recently:
1) Michael O’Hanlon has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing for a signifigant escalation in the US presence there.
2) CIA Director Hayden made a recent statement that Bin Laden is isolated_and_worried about his personal security. 

Yesterday, a segment of Al-Jazeera’s  “What’s Behind the News” focused ostensibly on Hayden’s comments, but more on Afghanistan in general.  One of the guests was the influential journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper and author of a book on Al-Qaeda.   Atwan dismissed Hayden’s statements asking “how would he know that?  If they actually knew this wouldn’t they have caught him so far?”   Atwan, like most if not all Arab intellectuals, has been arguing for months that the Afghanistan campaign is doomed and therefore escalation and sending more troops should be the absolute last thing the US should do.   

And there are many Americans saying the same thing.  Today, Robert Dreyfuss responds  to O’Hanlon op-ed, heavily criticizing him for giving Obama “bad advice.”