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.

Iran vs Egypt

Yesterday, the lead op-ed in  Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s   savaged Egyptian foreign policy, in particular the recent comments of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu Al-Ghait. 

This is a big theme that (American)  people need to be aware of:  Egypt’s role as a regional power has seriously declined.  Why is this?  The vast majority of the analysts in the Arabic press blame it on its blind support of the US.  Ie its too close to the US.   This is something to keep in mind when we talk about repairing US-Arab or US-Islamic relations:   Most in the region, especially Egypt, are calling for their governments to distance themselves from the US, not necessarily to develop closer relations. 

Here’s my paraphrased summary: 

Recently, the Egyptian government has escalated its campaign against Iran.   Just yesterday, FH Abu Ghait accused the Iranians of trying to control the Middle East by trying to exploit the Palestinian cause.  According to the FM, the Iranians talk about the Palestine cause but do nothing of note to actually help it.    

Abu Ghait’s anger illustrates two points:
1) The rise of Iranian power which coincides with the decline of Egyptian
2) Iranian support for the Palestinian resistance vs Egypt’s new role as an extension of US foreign policy

…..
“Iran controls the Middle East because Egypt withdrew from it…  Under previous Egyptian governments, Egypt invested millions of dollars and sacrified its best and brightest (ie people that died in Arab-Israeli wars)  in support of the Palestinian cause and in order to strengthen its regional position.   But the current government has wasted all of these investments in its blind pursuit of US policy and a fraudulent peace which benefits the Egyptians first and foremost. 

Iran is not to blame for this situation.  Its the Arab governments, with Egypt in particular who work hand in with the Israelis and US.  And the FM is wrong when he says that Iran presents only empty propaganda to the Israelis.  The great 2006 victory vs Israeli aggression wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of Iranian rockets. 

When Egypt returns to its role as protector of Arab interestes, and distances itself from blind support of US and Israeli policy, and actually helps its Arab brothers defend against Israeli agression, then Iran will no longer control the Middle East. 

Commentary
For some context, Al-Quds Al-Arabi is virulently anti-US foreign policy, so one is unlikely to find this kind of harshness in Asharq Al-Awsat or even Al-Hayat (all three being London based regional papers) .  However, the sentiment expressed here in widely felt in Egypt.  Fahmy Huwedi,   Egypt’s most respected commentator, repeats this theme constantly in his 6 or 7 weekly columns in Cairo’s Al-Dostor newspaper.  I would add that the Egyptian street would strongly agreed with this analysis from Al-Quds.

Arming The Lebanese Army

The status and condition of the Lebanese Armed Forces seem to be a hot topic not only in Lebanon, but also in Paris and Washington these days.  Here’s something that doesn’t happen too frequently: an article in an otherwise generally decent Lebanese_newspaper , supplanted in terms of context, accuracy (if only on use of quotation marks), and informative detail, by a US governmental (Department of Defense to be precise)  press_release .

The news item relates to the provision of weaponry by the US to the Lebanese army.   While both the article and the press release discuss nothing groundbreaking or novel, they are interesting to read in that they provide specific numbers on different kinds of equipment shipped and to be shipped by the US, and also background on training programs offered.  For example, we learn that:

  • Lebanese officers are attending several US military colleges, and the International Military Education and Training fund for Lebanon has grown from $1.4 million in fiscal 2008 to $2.1 million this year;
  • Since 2006, the US has funneled more than $400 million in foreign military sales money to Lebanon;
  • The US has sent 285 Humvees to Lebanon, and another 312 will arrive by March;
  • The US has also sent 200 trucks and 41 M-198 155 mm artillery pieces;
  • The Lebanese army will get night-vision equipment and some tactical unmanned aerial vehicles;
  • 12 million rounds of ammo, spare helicopter parts, shoulder-fired rockets will be supplied; and
  • The US is committed to getting Lebanon more modern tanks, and the U.S. military is working on delivering M-60A3 tanks.

These numbers are based on quotes from DoD senior official Chris Straub, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asian affairs.  While up to this point everything seems nice and rosy, there are, as expected, very important caveats with regard to the quantity and the nature of equipment supplied to the Lebanese army. Indeed, Straub adds: “We don’t have a conversation on these matters without considering the concerns of Israel and Israel’s qualitative military edge. That’s a U.S. commitment that we take very seriously.” (my emphasis)   The DoD press release then adds that “for example, the Lebanese army M-60 tanks are no match for Israel’s Mekava 4 main battle tanks.” What is the reason for this mismatch you ask? Straub explains: “We’re not trying to build up some juggernaut that could be threatening to anyone in the region, but to make the Lebanese armed forces capable in their own country.” 

Here is what is fundamentally wrong with this policy:  if the US thinks that propping up the Lebanese army just enough for it to provide a viable counterweight to Hezbollah will cause the latter to disintegrate or disappear, it will be sending weapons for a very, very long time with nothing changing in the situation on the ground. The reason for this is that Hezbollah is not competing with the Lebanese army ; Hezbollah is competing with Israel.  So long as the Lebanese army’s weaponry is weaker than that of Israel (which the US is on record as saying will be the case), Hezbollah will still be able to argue that the army is not strong enough to defend the country against Israeli aggression, and that its effort are needed.  And, indeed, it will be a very potent and correct argument to make.  The US policy in Lebanon basically seems to center on ways of fighting Hezbollah by proxy, that is, through the Lebanese army. But if Israel’s F-16’s were not able to annihilate Hezbollah in 2006, will the Lebanese army’s 597 Humvees be able to in 2009?