Where have I heard this before?

Stephen Walt at ForeignPolicy.Com makes_a_point on Afghanistan I’ve been constantly repeating:

In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater politicalparticipation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. nationalsecurity nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don’t (or shouldn’t) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don’t let anti-American bad guysuse their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen. 

In fact, I would argue that a Taliban dictatorship is in US interests.  I can hear a collective “Rob, stop doing drugs” from the readership but hear me out.  There’s two reasons:

1) Having some form of centralized rule is critical to the sole US interest of preventing Afghanistan from turning into an Al-Qaeda launching pad
2) The Taliban is the Afghani group most capable of achieving some semblance of centralized rule

“But wait,”  some might say in response, “they are terrorists.”  Actually, they aren’t: The Taliban has  never employed terrorism against the US, or, for that matter,  targeted it in any way. 

 Sayyid Imam’s latest “revisions”  (read more about him here) were mostly 100 pages of worthless rambling but in his desire to embarrass Al- Qaeda, he did reveal some interesting CT titbits.    According to Imam, Bin Laden deceived Mullah Omar regarding 9/11, violating a pledge he made not to overrule Omar’s authority when it came to plotting attacks against the US (which Omar opposed).  When some members of AQ heard that Bin Laden was plotting a big attack inside US territory (9/11) they got mad and reminded him of the pledge.    Bin Laden then pulled a Jihadi Bill Clinton and said “no, no, we pledged allegiance to Mullar Omar inside Afghanistan.  We can do whatever we want outside Afghanistan.”   From Al-Masri Al-Youm newspaper, 11/21/08:

بدأ الإعداد لتفجيرات ١١/٩/٢٠٠١م قبل سنتين من وقوعها، ولما اكتملت التجهيزات أعلن ابن لادن فى ٦/٢٠٠١ أن هناك عملية كبرى ستقع ضد أمريكا بدون تحديد لمكانها أو تفاصيلها. فاعترض عليه بعض أتباعه خاصة من لجنته الشرعية بأن أميرهم الملا محمد عُمر نهاهم عن الصدام مع أمريكا وأنه لا طاقة له ولا لدولته بذلك، فاخترع ابن لادن هذه البدعة «محلية الإمارة» للرد على منتقديه من أتباعه، وقال لهم إن محمد عُمر أميرهم داخل أفغانستان ولا دخل له بما يفعلونه خارجها. والرد على ذلك من وجوه:

إن الأمر الشرعى بطاعة الأمير لم يقيد ذلك بمكان «داخل أو خارج» كقول الله تعالى: {… أطيعوا الله وأطيعوا الرسول وأولى الأمر منكم…} «النساء: ٥٩»، وكقول النبى [: «من أطاعنى فقد أطاع الله، ومن عصانى فقد عصى الله، ومن يطع الأمير فقد أطاعنى، ومن يعص الأمير فقد عصانى» متفق عليه.

وكذلك نصوص الوعيد لمن عصى أميره غير مقيدة بمكان، كقول النبى [: «من خلع يدًا من طاعة لقى الله يوم القيامة ولا حُجة له» رواه مسلم.

Imam is hardly an objective observer of Al-Qaeda but this account is consistent with what I read in the Arabic press and the people I’ve talked to. 

So what’s the moral of the story?  The Taliban did not know about 9/11 beforehand and would have opposed it if they knew.  They have never committed acts of terrorism against the US and almost certainly never will — these are a bunch of  unsophisticated, illiterate  hicks from the countryside and from a CT perspective, these guys wouldn’t ever get past Kabul airport.    All of this supports my argument that the Taliban is not a natural enemy of the US; whether they are in power is not important to the US, provided they don’t give Al-Qaeda free reign to plot attacks against the US, which they really haven’t done before.

Britain, Afghanistan, and the ‘special relationship’

Editor’s  Note:  Joining MediaShack is my good friend Monty, a Tommy  who has spent lots of time in Egypt and Syria and has good Arabic skills.   Monty is one of those wicked cool Europeans that like both American and European football.   His only problem is, for some reason, he chose a crap team to root for- the Oakland Raiders.  Dude, you have no geographic obligations.  You can pick any team you want and noone in America can say anything!! A Brit choosing to root for the Raiders is like an American choosing to become a fan of Manchester City FC!  Anyway, Monty will be blogging about Middle East security issues from a British perspective. 

 British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was in Washington yesterday after grabbing the much-coveted first slot for a foreign minister to appear side-by-side with the Obama administration.  For all of you in the US, this appointment may not sound like a big deal, but in Britain the press has been reporting widespread panic overtaking Whitehall.  Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday that there had been a   “slight_change…but_continuity”  of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, describing it as “certainly special in my eyes.”   Whitehall will have been watching intently.

The UK Government usually takes time to ease alongside new US Presidents, but this transition may be more painful than most.  

Many Brit’s are beginning to see themselves as adrift in Afghanistan and on their way out of Iraq.  The British edition of  The Economist this week summarised the position of the British military perfectly as “overstretched, overwhelmed and over there.” The article quoted a senior official in the Bush administration as saying that there is “a lot of concern on the US side about whether we are going to have an ally with the capability and willingness to be in the fight with us.”  Indeed, with even Britain’s own generals openly questioning the role of their armed forces in Afghanistan, the UK is likely to resist an expected Obama “surge” in the mould of that which was unleashed in Baghdad.  This request was alluded to by Clinton yesterday when she said that she looked forward to the UK and Europe helping to “enhance our support for the people of Afghanistan.”

There is also great weight of expectation on Obama.  Philip Stephens, a commentator writing for The Financial Times – and always worth reading – argued that Britain expects two things from Obama; first, that the US steps in and resolves the world’s myriad problems, and second that it stops throwing its weight around and asks less from the UK for its support.  The public popularity of the war in Afghanistan is very low.  With British forces pulling out of Iraq, the British public would most likely support a similar move in Afghanistan which is at risk at being viewed as an intractable conflict. The current economic climate provides little prospect of an increase in funding for a stretched military, which is badly needed if Britain is to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

And finally, for all Obama has said, he has said little on Britain. Obama makes little or no reference to Britain in his ‘Audacity on Hope’ political tract.  Apart from the affirmation that no war should be embarked upon by the US without a UN mandate, that is.  The 44th US President has also paid more initial attention to France than his predecessors – although the French are too likely to baulk at demands upon their military.

While there is no doubt that the US and UK will continue to have a strong relationship, the degree to which it is special is likely to be tested in Afghanistan.

Non monsieur le President, Je suis desole….

Under President Obama, the US is  going to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the argument being that we need to “finish what we started.”    One of the key aspects of this new strategy is to convince the NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.   Convincing them to do so, however, is going to be very, very difficult.  Lost in the inauguration hoopla, the French Defense Minister seemed to give a pretty strong signal of his country’s intentions: 

France’s defence minister on Wednesday appeared to rule out any immediate reinforcementof French troops in Afghanistan if requested by Barack Obama, the new US president.  Hervé Morin said deploying additional French forces to the war-torn country was “not a question for now”.  France had, he said, already made the “necessary efforts” when it sent 700 extra troops to Afghanistan six months ago, taking the total to 2,900.

These comments  prompted a couple negative posts from Daniel Drezner  ( here and here) who blames the decision on public opinion saying that  “less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama.”   Here are a couple of points worth noting:  

1)   Public opinion is very important.  True, and here’s a great comment from the Drezner posts:

 I assume the French know their public better than the rest of us do. If they already know that their public will not support additional deployments of troops to Afghanistan, then the French did Obama a favor by clarifying this point now. The alternative would be to allow Obama to invest prestige in in a policy ambition that could not be achieved, and then face embarrassment and a loss mojo when he fails to achieve his aim. Better to make a clean and neat statement now

2)  But its more than just public opinion.   I recommend reading this post by Judah (who follows French politics closely)  at World Politics Review. 

But the reality of European resistance to an escalation in Afghanistan is much more complex than American caricatures which focus on public opinion (which certainly is lacking) or the willingness and courage to fight (which certainly is not). So before President Obama decides to go to that well, he might want to make sure there’s some water left in it.

Looking at this from the French perspective, its hard for me to see why its in French interests to send troops to Afghanistan.   If the US ship is sinking in Afghanistan, as many are saying, why should France jump on board,  given their long-term interest in maintaining a global foreign policy independent of the United States?  Furthermore, US-Europe relations during Bush term II   (and especially with France since Sarkozy took over)  weren’t  nearly as bad as the media sometimes portrays,  so its  not as if France feels any urgent incentive to make some gesture to the US on Afghanistan. Or even to “repair relations.”

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.

Does Christopher Hitchens Read Media Shack?

Two days ago I posted  that the US should buy and burn all the Opium in Afghanistan because trying to stop Afghan farmers from growing their only crop drives them straight into the insurgency.  Yesterday, Christopher Hitchens said the same thing:

This is why it is peculiar of us, if not bizarre and quasi-suicidal, to insist that its main economic lifeblood continues to be wholly controlled by our enemies…And, unsurprisingly, UNODC also reports that the vast bulk of the revenue from this astonishing harvest goes directly to the Taliban or to local warlords and mullahs. Meanwhile, in the guise of liberators NATO forces appear and tell the Afghan villagers that they intend to burn their only crop. And the American embassy is only restrained by the Afghan government from pursuing a policy of actually spraying this same crop from the air! In other words, the discredited fantasy of Richard Nixon’s so-called “War on Drugs” is the dogma on which we are prepared to gamble and lose the country that gave birth to the Taliban and hospitality to al-Qaida.


While in the short term, hard-pressed Afghan farmers should be allowed to sell their opium to the government rather than only to the many criminal elements that continue to infest it or to the Taliban. We don’t have to smoke the stuff once we have purchased it: It can be burned or thrown away or perhaps more profitably used to manufacture the painkillers of which the United States currently suffers a shortage. (As it is, we allow Turkey to cultivate opium poppy fields for precisely this purpose.) Why not give Afghanistan the contract instead? At one stroke, we help fill its coffers and empty the main war chest of our foes while altering the “hearts-and-minds” balance that has been tipping away from us.


I happen to know that this option has been discussed at quite high levels in Afghanistan itself, and I leave you to guess at the sort of political constraints that prevent it from being discussed intelligently in public in the United States. But if we ever have to have the melancholy inquest on how we “lost” a country we had once liberated, this will be one of the places where the conversation will have to start.

 I couldn’t agree more.  Hitchens is  right on the last point but I don’t see why this couldn’t be carried out covertly.  And just to be clear I had no idea that Hitchens would be writing this on October 6 when I posted the same thing on October 5th.   In fact,  I have long argued (and have a paper trail to prove it) that the drug trade everywhere could  easily be disrupted and destroyed by the US government if it wanted to disrupt the economic supply and demand chain.   Major High-Five to Friday_in-Cairo for passing this along.

If the US is doomed in Afghanistan…..

then why not talk to the Taliban and try and work out some kind of accommodation?  As I have said previously, they are not natural enemies of the US and there was no reason the Taliban had to be made enemies of the US in the first place- and Abdel Bari Atwan agrees with me.  

Today, Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s lead op-ed says that the US, regardless of who wins the elections,  is doomed and has no options other to think seriously about withdrawal and open a dialogue with the Taliban in order to minimize its losses.

ليس امام الادارة الامريكية الحالية، او أي ادارة أخرى تحل محلها في مطلع العام المقبل غير التفكير جدياً بالانسحاب، وفتح حوار مع ‘طالبان’ من اجل تأمينه بشكل مشرف تقليصاً للخسائر.

This is not Joe Barstool  speaking  (I guess Ahmed Cafe Chair would be more culturally appropriate).  It’s Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which in my opinion is one of the best Arabic newspaper and the most intellectually honest.  See more on the paper  at the MediaShack Media_Guide.   The level of contacts and people who they are talking to to get their information  on Afghanistan and Pakistan is significantly better than what the White COIN people who don’t speak a word of the local languages are getting.  Sorry for the bluntness but its that simple.  And Al-Quds has been sounding this line pretty consistently, although it should also be said that to some extent they are rooting for the US to lose.   But if the US is headed towards a Vietnam in Afghanistan, might it not be time to cut losses while we can?  Yeah, it will suck now- but if the situation will be 5x worse, 5 years from now….

Qaradawi and Zawahiri United Against the Shia

Jordanian journalist Mohamed Abu Rumman has a very interesting op-ed analyzing the latest Al-Qaeda tape in the September 21st edition of Al-Ghad newspaper.  Abu Ramen always has good analysis so I have translated the key points.

Key Analysis Points (The Bolded words are added by me)

  NEW EMPHASIS ON IRAN AND ITS ALLIES: The tape’s heavy focus on Iran and its allies (Hezbollah) represents a new pattern in Al-Qaeda rhetoric.  In the years following 9/11, AQ took great care to avoid conflict with Iran, for many reasons, but the most prominent being a sense that there were common interests that could be built upon, such as confrontation with the US and Israel.  In addition, Iran formed a critical crossing point for AQ leaders fleeing the Afghan war to different locations, although Iran did extradite several AQ figures back to their home countries and key figures, such as Sayf al-Adel and Bin Laden’s son are still imprisoned there.

Then as the Iraq war started, there was a dispute between  the pragmatic rhetoric of the AQ central leadership (especially Zawahiri)  and AQ in Iraq (especially Zarqawi and Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi).  Initially, AQC wanted to avoid confrontation with Iran,  whereas the AQ in Iraq were fighting an open war with Iran.  But now the AQC position vis a vis Iran has changed dramatically and this is most evident in Zawahiri’s response to close to 90 questions posed to him a few months ago.  

THE HEZBOLLAH PROBLEM:  And now Zawahiri is focused on Iran, but the basis of his criticism is political and not religious or sectarian.  His big issue with Iran is their inconsistent positions towards  Arab and Islamic causes.  On one hand, Iran basically legitimizes the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, even calling Resistance there Harem (religously illegitimate)  or terrorism.  At the same time it turns around and supports the Resistance in Palestine and Lebanon.  Zawahiri points to Iran’s political opportunism as one reason that it can’t be considered a reliable partner against the US.  But there is another reason that explains AQ’s strategic change and this is the rise of Hezbollah since 2006, whose performance against Israel has given it widespread popularity in the media and on the Arab street- something very worrying to AQ.   AQ sees the rise of sectarian tensions in the region as something the Salafi Jihadist movement can exploit to tap recruits.  But this is all complicated by Hezbollah’s widespread popularity.

 WHO’S WHO ON THE TAPE: Abu Ramen’s  second point is related to the appearance of several leaders of AQC, especially AZ who truly is the AQ “main man.”
But the big surprise is the presence of two big name characters: Atih Allah who has gained popularity amongst the followers of AQ and plays a big role on the internet, especially as relates to the Iraqi file.  The second person is Abu Yaha Al-Libie, who is most prominently in charge of issuing fatwas.  As for the appearance of Abu Yazid al-Masri, Amir of AQ in Afghanistan, the big value here is to dispel rumors that he died.   Noticeably absent is Abu Hamza Al-Muhajer, Abu Amr Al-Baghdadi (leader of AQ in Iraq), and Mohamed Khalil Al-Hakemiya  which most prominently reflects AQ’s retreat in Iraq as compared to previous years and their inability to undertake operations in Egypt, despite their announced presence there, which confirms the significance/strength of the Revisions process which reached its climax with the announcement of Dr. Fadl’s anti-violence initiative.

OPEN SEASON IN AFGHANISTAN:  On the other hand, the presence of the three key personalities of AQC on the tape, which comes after another tape which announced AQ’s responsibility for the explosion of the Danish embassy in Pakistan, reflects their free conditions in Afg/Pak, as a result of the alliance with the Taliban and the local Islamic groups.  If only temporarily, for a number of reasons….

The prominent political message of the tape is that the key AQ leaders are confirming that they will stick to the fight and that they are still alive, despite the passage of 7 years of these Wars of the Cross (Crusades), this being the name AQ uses in the hope of gaining sympathy on the Arab street….Perhaps AQ has failed since 9/11 in executing the same kind of spectacular attacks and has switched to attacking soft-targets, but there is consensus amongst people who study AQ that it has become more dangerous as a “political message”  accepted by groups here or there, and whose ideology might be incentive for certain Arab and Muslim youth, considering the failures/ Fowda that is ripping through most of these societies. ….AQ plays a directional role through setting the general path, whereas their followers on the ground have the responsibility of carrying out the battle.


1) Is there any doubt that Ayman Zawahiri is the top guy in AQ?  Literally, everything I read in the Arabic press suggests that he and not Bin Laden is the primary mover and shaker. 

2)  Solidity of the Egyptians revisions process:  Ramen sees the lack of any Egyptians as a sign that they are holding.  Bringing these Egyptians on the tape would probably be an embarrassment for Zawahiri as it would highlight how badly the militant groups lost in Egypt.   What’s truly remarkable is how in the homeland of radical Islam, Egypt, the  radical Islamist groups that existed between the 1970s and 1990s have essentially disappeared.   

3)  Conservative Sunnis are faced with a serious dilemma with the widespread popularity of Hezbollah.  Both Zawahiri and Yusuf Qaradawi have a HEZBOLLAH PROBLEM.    Attracting surprisingly little attention in the  Western press, last week Yusuf Al-Qaradawi went on a long anti-Shia rant in an interview  with Al-Masr Al-Youm, saying they were clearly trying to invade Sunni society with their ideas.  Asked by his Egyptian interview “which is the greater danger- Shias or Wahabis?”  Qaradawi said Wahabis don’t respect the opinions of anyone but themselves, then railed against the Shia:

   “unfortunately there are Shia in Egypt.  They tried for dozens of years unsuccessfully to recruit one Shia, from the time of Salah Ad Deen until recently….”

للأسف وجدت مؤخراً مصريين شيعة، فقد حاول الشيعة قبل ذلك عشرات السنوات أن يكسبوا مصرياً واحداً ولم ينجحوا، من عهد صلاح الدين الأيوبي حتي ٢٠ عاماً مضت ما كان يوجد شيعي واحد في مصر،

But notice his explanation for why this might be occurring: 

:  ( فنحن العلماء لم نحصن السنة ضد الغزو المذهبي الشيعي لأننا دائماً نعمل القول «ابعد عن الفتنة لنوحد المسلمين»)  He says “we the Ulema didn’t immunize (or left our society vulnerable to the penetration) because we always said avoid fitna in order to keep the Muslims united.” 

   Basically what  he is saying here by this last quote:  “we the noble Sunni clerics took the higher road and said to the rank and file, “lets stay united to avoid fitna.”  As a result our people let their gaurds down, and the sneaky Shias took advantage to recruit/ spread their ideas.”  

 Deep down inside Qaradawi has to view the post-2006 war Hezbollah love-fest in the Arabic_press and street ( see here and here)  as especially aggravating.   It would not be an exaggeration that Hassan Nasrallah has Brad Pitt status amongst many Middle Eastern women.  One thing I’ve noticed in Egypt recently is a trend amongst young veiled, lower or middle class women, audaciously wearing the colors of Hezbollah.   For average people on the street, Hezbollah’s victory is something to take pride on- they deserve mad respect for their stand against Israel.  However, for Qaradawi such displays of unity merely give those “sneaky Shias” another back-door into Sunni society to spread their ideas.  Of course, he could not say that explicity- how uncool would that make him look. 

Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda also have a Hezbollah problem.  It largely stems from the fact that Hezbollah gets all the glory.  While they get feted and treated like rock-stars for confronting Israel, Al-Qaeda is standing in the background, unable logistically to strike at Israel.