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Archives for New World Disorder

Worries For Iraq


I was at an impromptu dinner party here in Abu Dhabi last night and one of the guests, the mother of a former Spanish diplomat asked me what I thought would happen in Iraq. The other guests around the table grimaced; Iraq is a well-worn and tiresome topic here in the Gulf emirate and many have made up their minds already as what is going to happen.

But despite White House statements that every year is a make-or-break year for that poor country, I really do believe 2008 will be a crucial one for Iraq.

Iraq and the United States face huge challenges this year. But the gains made under the current surge strategy aren’t the only measure of what’s going on in Iraq; it remains a series of delicately balanced accords. If one worsens it can be managed, but more than that and the U.S. would again be overwhelmed. Everything has to go just right for Bush to hand a stable and relatively peaceful Iraq off to his successor.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that will confront George W. Bush in his last year in office — and what lies in store for the next president

The Surge: The surge is coming to an end this summer, like it or not. Five combat brigades — about 30,000 troops — will leave Iraq by the end of July because their deployments are up and there aren’t any more reserves ready to go. There’s just no getting around it. The big question is then: Will there be an increase in general violence once the U.S. presence is back down to around 140,000 troops, about the same number who were in-country during the worst of the 2004-2006 violence?

Some say it’s not the numbers of troops, but the mission, and the U.S. has been far more aggressive getting troops into neighborhoods and protecting Iraqi civilians. That’s led to more intelligence tips and a routing of al Qaeda in Iraq to the northern part of the country.

But the competency of the Iraqi security forces, while improving, is still in doubt. With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqis will have to pick up the slack. The White House says it intends to continue withdrawing troops after a brief pause to assess the situation. Which means there are likely to be even fewer troops if things go pear-shaped in the fall.

Sunni Awakening: The Surge was successful because of the so-called Sunni Awakening, which started in fall 2006, before the U.S. increased its presence. Sunni tribes in Anbar – the large Western part of the country – realized they would lose any civil war against the Shi’ites and signed on with the U.S.. In return, they got money and weapons if they turned on the foreign jihadists in their midst. It was a good plan and it’s a big reason for the drop in violence. But it’s starting to fray at the edges.

Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala, to the east, are growing frustrated with the Americans and the Iraqi government and have upped their demands. Diyala Awakening militias have basically gone on strike because the Americans aren’t pressuring Baghdad enough to hire all of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and police forces.

“Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans,” said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an militia commander in Baqoubah, the seat of Diyala’s government. “We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda.”


Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 10:15 AM | Permalink

Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous


With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.

These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.

Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.

“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”

In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.

Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.

But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.

CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.

The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.

The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.

In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.

Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.

While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:06 AM | Permalink

It’s Giuliani Time


Looking at the U.S. Presidential contest from afar, I can only shake my head with disbelief. Sure, all of the candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, compete to see who can be a better bootlicker to Israel, but only one makes Israel and its defense — as well as the Global War on whatever — the centerpiece of his campaign. And only this one is truly, profoundly dangerous.

Rudy Giuliani’s bellicosity and Big Man style of governance is a threat to domestic politics, yes. For those of us overseas who have covered our eyes at the cascades of screw-ups that has been the Bush presidency, there is only one frightening thought. If Giuliani wins the nomination and the Oval Office, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Because his foreign policy can be summed up in six words: “Verily, I will kick Muslim ass.”

Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition Victory 2008, he criticized Democrats (falsely) for never using the phrase “Islamic terrorist.” “I don’t know what kind of view of the world they have,” he said recently. “I understand when I say ‘Islamic terrorism,’ I’m not offending all of Islam. I’m not offending all of the Arab world. I’m offending exactly who I want to offend and making it clear to them that we stand against them.”

He chortled as he recounted kicking Yassir Arafat out of Lincoln Center, saying he was “a freeloader.” He bragged of sending back a $10 million check for 9/11 families from a Saudi prince. The prince’s crime? Urging America to “adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”

He said his posture on preventing Iran from building a bomb included a “promise” that if elected, he would use military force to keep them from building a nuke.

It’s as if Giuliani has decided that Bush’s policies in the Middle East are going great, so we need more of them. But is that – truly – worse than what the Bush White House has done?

Yes. Much worse. Rudy Giuliani makes the George W. Bush of 2001 look positively humble.

Just read the opening sentence of Giuliani’s article in Foreign Affairs describing his foreign “policy.” It’s bracingly unsubtle: “We are all members of the 9/11 generation.”

According to Rudy, America will have to go into more troubled parts of the world. (” Faced with a choice between leaving a troubled zone to anarchy or helping build functioning civil societies with accountable governments that can serve as bulwarks against barbarism, the American people will choose the latter.”) He wants to build a “hybrid military-civilian organization” to embark on ambitious nation building of places we invade. And he writes that cleaning up parts of New York City prepare him for cleaning up parts of the world. (“Disorder in the world’s bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior.”)

He wants to expand the military by at least 10 brigades, build a missile defense system, adopt a take-it-or-leave-it style of “diplomacy” and not talk at all with certain regimes. (Iran, in particular.) He disdains the U.N. (must have been all those unpaid parking tickets when he was mayor) and holds anything that restrains the U.S. in contempt.

He also wants to invite Israel into NATO, a particularly horrible idea. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, an attack on a member nation is an attack on all members, and must be met with a united front which is how German and Dutch troops come to be in Afghanistan. If Israel is a NATO member, what happens when a Palestinian suicide bomber blows himself up in Tel Aviv? Is America at war with the Palestinians then? Is that what Rudy wants?

Apparently, yes., Look at his team of foreign policy advisors led by founder of the neo-Conservative movement Norman Podhoretz, who wants to bomb Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.” Next up is Daniel Pipes, who advocates profiling Muslims at airports and taking a hard look at their membership in law enforcement, the military and the diplomatic corps. He also thinks the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is some kind of trick. Lastly, we have Michael Rubin, who wants to scrap the U.S. ban on assassinations.

These are the guys who were too crazy even for the first Bush foreign policy team.

Rudy also won’t disavow torture. “It depends on how it’s done,” he said, adding he doubted the descriptions of the procedure by the “liberal media” were accurate. “It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.”

It depends on who does it. So when Saddam does it, it’s bad. When we do it, it’s OK! That a major presidential candidate is getting away with this kind of rhetoric makes me weep for the Republic.

Giuliani is the most dangerous of men: one who don’t know how much he doesn’t know. But he knows that America’s right, dammit, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. His penchant for authoritarianism, his my-way-or-the-highway mode of governance and his notoriously thin skin make him far, far more dangerous than Bush could ever be.

Indeed, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:24 AM | Permalink

Lebanon’s war: One Year Later


Today, a year ago, I was witness to what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would come to call “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

I was in Jerusalem, covering the abduction of the Israeli solider, Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for Time Magazine. Word soon came filtering down from the north on July 12, 2006. Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group, had captured two soldiers and killed three others. Three other reporters and I rushed up to Israel’s Northern Command. On the first day, Israel had launched a fierce series of airstrikes against Hezbollah positions and infrastructure, bombing three to five bridges “and more,” said Col. Boaz Cohen, chief of operations for Israel’s Northern Command. I remember asking Cohen if the list of targets would grow, to include targets in Beirut.

“Wait and see,” he said.

The next morning, I woke up to Katuysha rocket strikes just a few hundred meters from the bed and breakfast where we’d found rooms and the news that Beirut’s airport had been bombed.

My emotional reaction was complex. I had just moved to Lebanon from Iraq a few months before and had started dating a Lebanese woman. But I was in New York on 9/11, too. I heard the first plane snarl over my apartment before hitting the tower. Now, seeing the destruction at Beirut’s international airport on TV, my reaction was the same, instinctual: My home was being attacked – I had to get back.

I wrote on my blog Back-to-Iraq later that day later that day:

The Lebanese will take this in stride, having endured worse at the hands of numerous enemies, but this is only the first day of what looks to be a prolonged attack. The shutting down of Hariri International Airport will hit hard on the economy. This is the high tourist season and many Gulf tourists with their Gulf money will either be unable to get in or flee through Damascus – although the road to Damascus has been bombed. The IDF has said a naval blockade is in effect and all ships entering and leaving Lebanon’s ports will be stopped. Israel is trying to box Lebanon – and Hezbollah – in.

This will have serious repercussions in Lebanese politics. It could start another civil war. The Shi’a overwhelmingly support Hezbollah and the other political parties of the March 14 alliance are in a bad spot. Who will reign in Hezbollah? Will Lebanon’s already fragile political arrangement collapse into a Shi’ites vs. everyone else arrangement, with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and Christians, Druze and Sunnis on the other backed up by … Israel? And/or the United States and France? I’m just not sure how many Christians will turn on Hezbollah, even though they blame them for bringing the wrath of Israel down on the country.

On July 14, I raced back through Jordan and Syria via cheap taxi. Now, a year later, I see that my writings on the second day or the war were prescient. After 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israeli deaths, 1 million displaced and 34-days of conflict, Lebanon emerged battered and bloody. Its infrastructure in the south totally was wrecked and heavily damaged in much of the rest of the country. Its economy was shot; the summer tourist season lost. It was a prelude of what was to come.

On the heels of its “divine victory,” Hezbollah began demanding more power in the cabinet, tossing aside election results of the previous year. Finally, in November, six pro-Syrian ministers walked out of the cabinet, plunging Lebanon into a political crisis that has dragged on ever since. Hezbollah and its allies claim that because they walked out of the government, it is no longer legitimate and they must form a “national unity government” that gives them veto power over decisions.

That hasn’t happened after eight months of standoffs and street demonstrations, and Lebanon today is split in two, divided between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the American-backed government coalition of Druze, Sunni and about half the Christians. Despite the destruction, the war in some ways cleared the air. Now you know what side various factions had chosen. West or East. Iran or America.

And today, also, Lebanon is once again the sandbox for all the conflicts in the Middle East. In the south, Hezbollah still growls menacingly at Israel, which snarls back like a baited bear. Jihadis traverse the Lebanese-Syrian border back and forth between Palestinian camps and Iraq. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, pushes back against an America that is trying to contain creeping Iranian influence. And in the north, just today, the Lebanese Army is engaged in what some say is the final push to destroy a group of al Qaeda-inspired militants. Hm. Did I miss anyone?

As I mentioned in a previous column, the Lebanese bear some responsibility for their plight: “Make no mistake: if there is a war here it will be because the Lebanese lack of trust in each other allows outside powers to manipulate them.” The Lebanese are famous for running to outside powers to settle problems between the continually bickering sects here. And Lebanon is a convenient arena for Great Powers to lock horns without bringing the conflict to their own territories. If the U.S. is willing to fight terrorism in Iraq so it doesn’t have it fight it at home, as Bush so often declares, then Iran is perfectly willing to combat American imperialism in Lebanon rather than in the suburbs of Tehran.

That’s not to say the news is all bad in the year since the war. Billions of dollars in reconstruction aid have poured into this tiny country. New asphalt mark the places where Israel bombs shredded the earth 12 months ago. More than half of the 96 bridges that were hit have been repaired or rebuilt. Electricity is close to pre-war levels and Beirut Airport is functioning well… if it’s a little on the quiet side. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is up to its full strength of 13,500 soldiers and appears to be doing a decent job keeping most of Hezbollah’s fighters back from poking the Israeli bear. (They have paid for it in blood, though. Six soldiers with the Spanish contingent died two weeks ago when their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber.)

Still, predictions of another war are rampant in the capital, but in a typically Lebanese debate, no one seems to know just who will fight it or when any attack might start. Rumors of a July 15 kickoff have raced through local media thanks a series of badly-timed U.N. reports on the nature of arms smuggling into Lebanon and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who “everybody knows” was killed by Syria. (The “everybody knows” argument is one that’s hard to counter. Once a meme gets rooted in here, it’s accepted as gospel.) Syria has reportedly told its citizens to leave Lebanon by July 15, although Syria has also denied this. Who knows?

People are scared. And they’re angry. Just today, en route to my gym, my taxi driver, from the southern town of Tibnine, in Hezbollahistan in the south, went into, well, a tirade about how he doesn’t like America because it sold the bombs to Israel. I got out of the cab before my stop. Another story: A family rented a villa up the coast and had some problems with their neighbor’s plumbing that was pooling water in the family’s back yard. The father went to the neighbor as a courtesy and said the management was going to fix the guy’s plumbing so it wasn’t causing a problem. No fault intended, just an FYI. The neighbor got his back up and accused the father of deliberately leaving an orange towel out to provoke the neighbor. What’s provocative? Orange is the color of Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied with Hezbollah. The neighbor is Druze and connected to the Progressive Socialist Party, which is allied with the government. The father was gobsmacked that politics had entered even this minor dispute.

Perhaps most telling, there’s even disagreement here over the length of the war. Hezbollah supporters will often say it’s a 33-day war, while others — myself included — call it a 34-day war. It’s a significant distinction, indicating whether the war started on July 12, when Hezbollah captured the two Israeli soldiers, or on July 13, when Israel struck Beirut’s airport. One view holds Hezbollah responsible for starting it, another blames Israel. Who is right?

If the Lebanese can’t even agree on the same date for the start of the last war – if they can’t have a common history, in other words – how can they have a common country?

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:56 AM | Permalink

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