April 29, 2013
It is no secret that the government of Afghanistan is controlled by organized crime cartels. Warlords and politicians control the civil government through their ties to the drug trade and armed militia groups. Afghanistan remains a security state whose rulers are focused on retaining their power and privilege at any cost through strong military and security forces.
This is because Afghanistan, like much of the Muslim world, is dealing with a legacy that created a powerful culture of authoritarianism still entrenched in the modern Afghan government. Afghanistan’s authoritarian past is perpetuated today by rulers who inherited or seized power. Political authoritarianism, whether secular or religious, has been the norm in both the central government as well as in the outlying provinces.
Now the New York Times has reported on so-called “ghost money” which was meant to buy influence for the United State’s Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) but instead fueled corruption and empowered the drug trade and warlords, undermining the Obama Administration’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.
This article is a worthwhile read as it shows how problematic the United States built government is in Afghanistan. To build the current government, the U.S. had to bribe and coerce many of the warlords the C.I.A. had previously paid during and after the 2001 invasion.
You can read the article here:
Tensions will continue to grow in Afghanistan’s government after the withdrawal of coalition forces from the country, and this could become a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors in the region if that country starts to deteriorate.
April 26, 2013
United State’s President Barack Obama’s administration has assessed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons twice in its civil war. This has intensified calls where I work on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria. However, American lawmakers are far from agreeing on what a greater American role would look like.
The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Syria has crossed the red line set out by Mr. Obama, who has said the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a “game changer” to his policy of providing only humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the news yesterday during a trip through the Middle East. “It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi.
Several U.S. Senators have since renewed their calls for stronger U.S. intervention in Syria without United Nations involvement.
New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that he supports working with regional partners, establishing a no-fly zone with international support, and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of controlled process.
“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups, and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said in a written statement.
However, calls for intervention in the Syrian civil war are being met in the U.S. and elsewhere with trepidation.
The Syrian military’s defense mechanisms are sophisticated and located within major population centers. Removing those devices could cause mass civilian casualties. This will make instituting and maintaining a no-fly zone very difficult. Furthermore, potential ethnic divisions within the country are severe.
There is also a lot of concern within the Western intelligence communities about who some of these various groups are aligned with. Some groups have ties with al-Qaeda and other groups have ties to other jihadi organizations. Another particular concern is the role that Hezbollah may be playing in the war.
Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of financial assistance from Syria for years, and what actions it is taking during the civil war remains unclear. Hezbollah would be one actor that could stand in opposition to al-Qaeda (a Sunni organization).
Indeed, there are reports coming out of Syria that sectarian conflict, between Shi’a and Sunni groups as well as between tribes within those denominations, is erupting in the wake of conflict between rebel forces and the military.
The Syrian civil war is a very complicated contest. The breakdown along ethnic lines will be every bit as problematic as it was in Iraq – only Syria has chemical weapons.
There are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of varying actors and their motivations in the war.
Further debate on a U.S. response to Syria is expected later today after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.
The White House said that the administration will wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into the two suspected cases of chemical weapons produces “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”
April 24, 2013
Amid the unrelenting political turmoil of the Middle East, in which loyalties and alliances can shift with the winds (commonly referred to as the Arab Street), Islam is often the only common denominator. For the average citizen, life can be very very difficult; and, as a result, Islam is very attractive, because it offers some sort of hope for eternal peace. Islam also offers a unifying power for leaders, and it can be used as a justification for political or military campaigns.
Islam’s following has grown from a handful of converts to one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Many politicians and strongmen in the Middle East have found that the best and most expedient way into the hearts and minds of their people is through their souls. Emphasizing religious ties can win leaders support and help them cement their power. In this way, religion can be utilized as a means of influencing the behavior of people.
Through religion, military campaigns can be transformed from territorial plunders to a holy war fought in the name of “faith.” The idea that God will be on the side of good can also be used as a supremely powerful stabilizing force during battle.
However, just as Islam can unite populations, it can also divide them. The cultural divide that already existed in the Middle East turned religious and political when Islam split into two halves.
The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a is the most consequential in the Middle East, because it is so profound.
Shi’a Islam, whose followers constitute a mere 15 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, was relegated to second-class status in the Arab world long ago. But in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, he sought to export the ideology of his country’s Islamic revolution to Muslims everywhere, even to Sunni Muslims. This unlikely goal sought to counter centuries of blood-spattered encounters, prompted by deeply felt doctrinal differences. More importantly, this goal was designed to increase Iran’s influence outside of its borders.
Westerners are insensitive to the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shi’a, viewing them as minor details rather than matters of cosmological importance.
The Sunni-Shi’a split dates back to the seventh-century dispute over who was meant to be the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor. Today’s Shi’a are descended from those who believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his heir. This was a minority view in the days following the prophet’s death, and one of his lieutenants, Abu-Bakr, was made caliph and successor to Muhammad instead. The schism became permanent after the Battle of Karbala in 680, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the caliph’s soldiers.
Institutionalizing this divide left the Shi’a at a grave disadvantage, because the Shi’a did not have the same resources as the Sunnis.
Religion can provide individuals and organizations with agency. It is regularly argued that God’s justice is something that comes down to earth, if one knows how to read it. Those who purport to have this knowledge often gain incredible influence as they can become a center of authority.
With Islam being the dominant cultural force in the Middle East, it is a tool that is often used by revolutionaries who seek to challenge the status quo.
Osama Bin Laden, the architect behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was probably born in 1957, and he was number 17 of 57 children to a father who made a fortune in the Saudi Arabia construction industry. A young bin Laden got his penchant for radical Islamist ideology at his university, King Abdul-Aziz University, in Jeddah.
Bin Laden was influenced by the Sunni reformist movements of Deobandi and Salafi. The followers he gathered were bolstered by a genuine belief that he was reformulating the global order. In 1989, these followers became known as al Qaeda (translated as “The Base”) a multinational and stateless army who believe that the killing of civilians is religiously sanctioned, because of their goal to remake the world in their image.
Bin Laden’s religious rhetoric was designed to persuade Muslim contemporaries that he was a figure who ought to be thought of in biblical terms. He championed a complete break from all foreign influences inside Muslim countries as well as the creation of a new world-wide Islamic caliphate. To achieve these goals, bin Laden funneled money, arms and fighters from around the Arab world into regions where conflict and an increasing lawlessness enabled his growing organization to expand its control over territory.
With each terrorist act, bin Laden became more influential. This is a man who already had money, but craved the ability to coerce whole populations into subjugation.
With bin Laden now dead, the al Qaeda network has thus far failed in its attempts to overthrow the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. Perhaps most importantly, it has seen the majority of its monetary assets frozen. Al Qaeda routinely makes public appeals for money. This tells analysts that al Qaeda’s ability to dominate the direction of insurgencies within Asia and the Middle East is waning. But does this mean the network is currently weak? In a word, no. The al Qaeda network is perhaps more dangerous than it has ever been.
Because the appeal of its religiosity remains strong, new fighters are still joining al Qaeda’s ranks. But more significantly, al Qaeda’s financial and logistical problems have forced the network to strengthen its alliances with other groups such as the various Taliban franchises in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban, Balochi and Punjabi extremists, Saudi dissidents, Iraqi and Syrian insurgents, and unaffiliated groups who profit from drug smuggling. This dependence on alliances has caused the network to become as close operationally with outside groups as it has ever been. With these new ties, al Qaeda has also been able to bond ideologically and religiously with other groups like never before. This adds a whole new dimension to the insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria.
Al Qaeda has used the unifying force of religion to its advantage.
Groups unaffiliated with bin Laden, but touting the al Qaeda name, spring up daily. Like the name Taliban before it, al Qaeda is in danger of becoming a generic term for insurgents groups, and this could make al Qaeda more dangerous than it is now. As it currently stands, al Qaeda is focused on keeping the United States bogged down in conflicts with Muslim fighters. However, if al Qaeda as we know it today looses control of its ideological brand, any new al Qaeda that emerges could use its religious totems to become a more dangerous force. This is because, as Economic theory of Competition explains, competitors encourage efficiency. Competition for the socio-religious clout that comes from being associated with al Qaeda could encourage more ruthless, shocking, and devastating destruction. On the other hand, al Qaeda’s strengthening alliances with other groups could cause the network to loose its strict focus on U.S. interests. If this were to happen, al Qaeda’s still considerable resources could be unleashed on populations in new and unexpected ways – all in the name of religion.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11 caused millions of internet users to search online for their concerns and issues involving religion. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), 23% of users used internet sources to get information about Islam. No doubt, these people wanted to educate themselves on what they were hearing in the media. And since that tragic time in American history, people have continued to use the web as an enormous sacrosanct library. Not only searching for Islam, but a myriad of religions. In doing so, they travel from site to site like virtual pilgrims, they read articles which claim intellectual authority, and they interact with strangers as they swap guidance. In this way, the internet has become a medium for religious communication. However, there is a danger of obtaining inaccurate information on the web. In a world where anyone can post, credentials have become increasingly important.
It is necessary to understand that all religions change over time. They are never static. Religions evolve through reform, revival, and novel developments. Religious understandings change and new beliefs emerge. They both influence and are influenced by the teachings of other cultures. In the end, religion is a cultural product. How it is understood and how it evolves is dependent upon cultural attitudes and cultural arguments. Is Islam a violent religion? Emphatically, no. But, individuals, groups, and networks are attempting to use Islam to justify attacks and murders against those that disagree with them. These men and women have aligned themselves with a violent interpretation of Islam in order to draw media attention, encourage recruitment, and coerce populations.
Amid the political turmoil of the Middle East, Islam is often the only common denominator able to unite populations.
April 22, 2013
As I explained last week, al Qaeda in Iraq has announced an official merger with the Syrian based jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra.
This marriage has already begun to affect that state of opposition within Syria and the involvement of outside powers.
Jabhat al Nusra is increasingly following a foreign agenda within Syria. In the areas of Syria where Jabhat al Nusra has gained control, the group has instituted Sharia courts, created a morality police, banned alcohol, imprisoned women in their homes, forced women to wear the full veil, and flown the black flag of al Qaeda. Understandably, tensions between the jihadist group and other rebel groups have flared – especially around access to resources and for control of governance in rebel-held areas. These issues of power are paramount, because they highlight Syrians grappling with both imported ideologies and with understandings of Islam that are new to them.
Some members of Jabhat al Nusra are showing signs that they are worried about a Syrian backlash. Abu Mohammad al Golani, a Jabhat al Nusra leader, denied knowledge of al Qaeda in Iraq announcing the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat al Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. In a video statement, al Golani pledged allegiance to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat al Nusra was merely an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Issues of governance have eroded Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in opposition circles. Following its formation, the group was originally praised for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat al Nusra was so high that, following the United States designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, protests broke out across Syria on their behalf. People shouted the slogan, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra.”
Rebel commanders recognize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in the areas that they control. Jabhat al Nusra has gotten a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and for more properly distributing aid. This has given the group an established degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups have become reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat al Nusra and these groups now use humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.
Clashes for power and authority between Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread, and Jabhat al Nusra recently fought the Farouq Brigade for control of portions of Syria’s Raqqa province.
Jabhat al Nusra, being seen as an al Qaeda affiliate instead of an indigenous Syrian opposition group, will continue to erode the organization’s authority and influence in that country. Jabhat al Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other rebel factions are willing to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition.
Despite al Golani’s attempts to reaffirm Jabhat al Nusra’s Syrian identity, the merger announcement will likely continue to enhance existing fractures between the organization and other opposition groups. This does not bode well for Jabhat al Nusra’s continued popularity.
Other non-jihadist opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat al Nusra. This is one of the reasons behind the United States’ announcement two days ago that the U.S. will double its aid to Syria. The Obama Administration hopes that, by giving other rebel groups aid, it will further weaken Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in the country as well as disrupt al Qaeda’s attempt at creating a refuge in Syria.
April 15, 2013
Last week, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi announced the official merger of his affiliate and the Syrian based Jabhat al Nusra into a single organization.
This is a very important move for al Qaeda which has been degraded over the last few years after suffering defeat after defeat.
Al Qaeda would love nothing more than to find refuge in Syria as it once did in Afghanistan. The continuing internecine strife between various Syrian rebel factions along with an increasing lawlessness (following the degradation of the Syrian state) has enabled the growing and well-disciplined Jabhat al Nusra to expand their control over territory in Syria.
United States General James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, stated in testimony on Capitol Hill last week that if and when Assad falls there will be as much as a year-and-a-half of continued civil unrest in Syria. This is because it will take that long for a new government to be consolidated due to infighting between former allies and various mujahideen groups within the opposition.
There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups inside Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the leader of the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.
A Jabhat al Nusra-controlled Syria—with previously established connections between al Qaeda and other Jihadi affiliated groups, administered with a shared militancy, and isolated from Western political influence and military power—would provide a perfect location for al Qaeda to relocate its headquarters. Furthermore, Syria would be better positioned to rebuff Western intervention than Afghanistan was with its enormous stockpile of chemical weapons.
In July of last year, al Baghdadi released an audiotape where he warned the Syrian rebels “not to accept any rule or constitution but God’s rule and Shariah (Islamic law). Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution.”
The formal pact between al Qaeda’s Iraqi faction and Jabhat al Nusra could be the nail in the coffin for possible U.S. intervention in Syria. The announcement gives U.S. politicians (including President Barack Obama) the political cover needed to deny military action in Syria and to continue a strategy of diplomacy to oust the Syrian regime. However, a lack of U.S. support may drive the Syrian opposition to strengthen ties with al Qaeda.
As long as the rebels lack sufficient weapons, they will be forced to turn to those groups that are willing to provide them with arms. And right now those groups are the Jihadi affiliated groups such as al Qaeda. Arming the Syrian opposition could provide them with the opportunity to be independent of al Qaeda; however, there is the real danger that arming the opposition will funnel weapons into terrorist hands.
The ongoing threat of terrorism by al Qaeda presents a different pattern from what has been seen in the past. Leadership of the network has evolved from a centralized body to a loose aggregation of groups. Plots are now emanating from African countries such as Yemen whereas before they exclusively emerged out of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq. One reason for this new development is that al Qaeda relies heavily on geographical safe havens. These are areas of the world where al Qaeda has the ability to set up training camps and meeting places without fear of interference or interruption. A safe haven like the one they are attempting to create within Syria.
Al Baghdadi became the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq after Abu Omar al Baghdadi, who was not related, and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed on April 18, 2010 by a joint team of U.S. and Iraqi troops.
April 5, 2013
A Syrian activist group claims that 6,000 people were killed in Syria during the month of March. If true, this would make March the most deadly month yet in the two year-old civil war.
This number comes from the British-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory gave figures of 1,486 rebels and army defectors and 1,464 Syrian army soldiers killed, along with 2,080 civilians, 298 of them children and 291 women. In addition, the group listed 387 unidentified civilians and 588 unidentified fighters.
An increase in regime artillery could be to blame for the increased death toll: for example, airstrikes from the Syrian air force have had an uptick.
The United States has stepped up its training of the Syrian opposition. The U.S. has also increased providing non-lethal aide to the Syrian rebels including body armor, communications equipment, and food rations.
The Jordanian army has grown its role in training Syrian rebels as well. Jordan would like to set up a humanitarian zone in the southern part of Syria where the two countries share a border. Jordan hopes to employ former Syrian police and army defectors as peacekeepers for the zone.
Plans for a humanitarian zone come as rebels have gained significant amounts of land along Syria’s border crossing with Jordan. The Jordanian government is apprehensive over which factions of the rebellion will ultimately control Syria’s border, however.
An Islamist leaning faction wielding power along the border could complicate Jordan’s plans for the area. A humanitarian zone could be installed in a matter of weeks, and such a place could slow the thousands of people flowing across the border into Jordan. But, this would only occur if Syrians felt the area was safe to stay in. If Islamists ran the zone, there are fears that Syrian refugees will refuse stay there, and Jordan’s government is desperate to relieve the refugee flow into their country.
The Islamist element of the Syrian opposition is complicating more than just plans for a humanitarian zone. There are concerns across the Middle East and here in America that Islamist portions of the opposition could get their hands on some of the heavy arms being given to the rebellion. This gives the Syrian conflict the capability of spilling over Syria’s borders and destabilizing the entire Middle East region along the Sunni/Shi’a divide.
Many of the Islamists in Syria come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main grievances with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam.
The civil war began in mid-March 2011 with mass protests in Deraa as part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’.
Estimates for the number of killed vary depending on the source, and the United Nations has stopped providing regular numbers due to lack of reliable information.
March 28, 2013
Iranian elections are scheduled to take place this spring, and elections inside Iran have the ability to trigger political instability and upheaval. These elections could change the political calculus and the national conversation around Iran’s nuclear issue. Possibly sensing this, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, announced in a speech last week that he may be interested in reopening political channels with Israel and the United States to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program.
The upcoming Iranian elections (and any instability that results) could complicate the strategic political decision the Iranian regime makes whether to actually build a weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in their latest report that the Iranian effort to develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons persists. The enrichment process continues in an effort to reach bomb grade levels at 20 percent, the number of centrifuges at the Fordow facility, which is the Iranian facility that intelligence agencies are worried about.
Last September Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at the United Nations where he held up an image of a cartoon time bomb and said that Israel could no longer tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment after this summer, because that would be the time when Iran would reach a point of no return. Mr. Netanyahu warned that Israel would have to forcefully intercede before this happens. Israel sees a strike on Iran as a war of necessity, because Israel believes a nuclear Iran is a threat to its security.
Consequently, Iran is facing both national elections and an Israeli deadline for war.
Were Israel to bomb Iran, there is the very real possibility that it might set off a regional war. I say this because both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would come to Iran’s defense.
The Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. Iran is seen as the de facto leader of the alliance between Shi’ite Muslim states, because the biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo.
Syria has long been an important mechanism for arming pro-Palestinian militant groups to fight Israel inside Gaza. With the civil war in Syria refusing to abate, Hamas currently lacks the ability to re-arm itself like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power.
Furthermore, the United States is in the process of drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. The Iranians will do everything possible to turn up the heat on American forces in Afghanistan if Israel attacks Iran.
Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to other groups within Afghanistan cannot be trivialized. Insurgents have long moved freely across the border Iran shares with Afghanistan, and Iran has been a safe haven for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others hiding from Western intelligence.
Sunni governments in the Middle East are also afraid of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments. An empowered and emboldened Iran would complicate the fragility of the region.
The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000).
Shi’ites currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.
Back to Iran, the south eastern region of country is volatile due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working there.
Jundullah (Army of God) is a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shi’a led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003, and it is believed that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda: the group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s regional influence has spread, and Jundullah has used suicide bombers, a hallmark of the al-Qaeda playbook, in it’s attacks against Iran. This indicates that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al-Qaeda (possibly within Pakistan’s borders), and one can only speculate how al-Qaeda would seek to take advantage of Iran turning into a war zone.
We’ve already seen al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq to promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population. Al-Qaeda wants to change that, and it would love nothing better than to also install a Sunni government inside Iran.
As I said in my previous post, much of the Middle East remains politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. Cobbled-together states (a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population or vice versa) highlight the artificiality and fragility of the Middle East and Muslim politics.
Iran is populated primarily by Shi’ites, and it remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization, and is a prime example of what I was speaking of in my previous post when I said “a trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split.”
Iran’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to remember when we consider Iran’s communications (or lack thereof) with other countries in the Middle East. A lack of clear communication could complicate and escalate any conflict brewing in the region.
Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, and at the time the United States supported this position. Iran only ever built one, but it has plans, it says, for others, but it’s taken a very long time to get to the point where it can build them. The question is, is Iran’s current regime also moving toward a weapon. Iran is supposed to declare everything that it’s doing on the nuclear front with the IAEA, but it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists or in providing information on what it has been doing. Iran has blocked the IAEA at every turn, and it is currently in violation of the international agreements it has signed.
March 27, 2013
The Crusades and European colonialism have had a widespread and lasting impact on the Muslim imagination.
For many in the West, the Crusades for the liberation of Jerusalem were a laudable moment of religious enthusiasm over the defense of Christianity. Images of the Crusades have long been used by Western media and marketing to project symbols of bravery, honor, and power. But for Muslims, the Crusades were a symbol of Western aggression where Christians sought to conquer or eradicate the Muslim world.
In that vein, many Muslims see colonialism and postcolonialism as another crusade. The legacy of European colonialism (foreign dominance of and Muslim subordination to European powers) is that it reversed a pattern of Muslim rule and expansion. This legacy has been long lasting, and its trend continues to threaten Muslim identity and autonomy. Why have Muslims fallen behind the West? Have Muslims failed Islam or has Islam failed Muslims? How should Muslims react? These questions remain a significant point of contention for many in the Muslim world.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 further complicated these questions. Muslim leaders considered Israel to be the ultimate symbol of European imperialism. Populated by Europeans brought in with European and American encouragement (at a time when Muslim countries were struggling to gain complete independence from European dominance), Israel’s borders were drawn arbitrarily and frequently cut off Arab villagers from their lands. In general, Israel found itself in an almost totally hostile environment. However, from the Israeli perspective, these Muslim attitudes were unwarranted. Israel’s view was that Muslim governments should recognize Israel and absorb the Palestinians into their own countries.
Many in the Muslim world have feared that the United States ‘war on terror’ would reproduce the dangers they faced from European colonialism in that Americans would attempt to infiltrate, dominate, and ultimately redraw the map of the Middle East once again. U.S. President George W. Bush’s use of the word crusade in a speech about the war on terrorism highlighted and propagated those fears.
Muslim responses to colonialism still form the foundations for actions that occur in the Middle East today: noncooperation, resistance, conflict, and withdrawal. Therefore, the West’s threat to Muslim identity and autonomy continues to encourage clashes and incidents within the Muslim world.
A trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split. Modern secular schools matriculating alongside traditional religious madrasas produce two classes of Muslims living side by side but acquiring different worldviews and different prospects for their future. These two classes of people battle over models of political, social, and legal change. The liberal secular elites advocate emulating the West; however, resisters to Westernization often seek to follow the example of the Prophet: resistance in territory no longer under Muslim control, and fighting to defend the faith and lands of Islam (jihad). Some have tried to bridge the growing gap with a response called Islamic modernism. This answer has reawakened a sense of past power and glory while offering an Islamic alternative to completely assimilating or completely rejecting the West, but it has been both a success and failure at bringing Muslim societies together.
Much of the Middle East remains underdeveloped and politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. For example, the creation of Pakistan and India resulted in communal warfare that left millions dead. The boundaries around Lebanon (drawn by the French) led to the Lebanese Civil War that pitted Christian and Muslim militias against each other. The country Jordan was a completely new British creation. And when the British created Iraq, the cobbled-together state (led by a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population) highlighted the artificiality and fragility of the Muslim world.
Many violent radicals justify the horrors they commit by reciting a series of Muslim grievances against the West.
Historic memories of the Crusades and European colonialism get superimposed on current events. These societal memories feed resentment, anger, and deepen anti-Americanism in the broader Muslim world. Animosity towards the West is reflected in the common use of words like Zionist and infidels.
The globalization of jihad is a direct consequence of these memories. Groups that have declared war against America, like al-Qaeda, bring together many elements from Muslim history: condemnation of Western values, fears of foreign domination, militant jihad, a desire for Muslim expansion, and condemnation of any Muslim leader who forms an alliance with the West. Such groups harness these historic memories along with religion and modern technology to strike anywhere, anyplace, and at anytime.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with what I have written? Requests for future posts? I would love to hear from some of you.
March 25, 2013
The United States has stated that American intervention in Syria is precipitated upon Syria’s use of chemical weapons. This is the ‘red line’ that U.S. President Barack Obama has drawn around the Syrian civil war.
Now there are rumors that last week the Syrian government used chemical weapons on a small scale against some rebel groups. If true, this could be a way for Syria to test this ‘red line’ position. However, I’ve heard from several sources that this alleged use of chemical weapons could be a case of definition mischaracterization.
Most now believe that the Syrian government used tear gas to control a small pocket of insurgents. I find this to be a credible explanation, because no one is alleging that sarin, sulfur mustard, or any other kind of device considered a chemical weapon among Western governments was used. Regardless, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is escalating attacks against his own people, and Assad has shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.
Hezbollah has been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception, and Syria has used Hezbollah as its primary device to attack Israel. The United States is using Israel’s security as a high watermark for further American intervention in the region.
The United States would prefer to put the Middle East behind it. The U.S. has shifted its focus to Asia. China’s growing influence and the increasing regional instability from a nuclear armed North Korea have sapped resources away from the Middle East and North Africa.
Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The prospect of radical Islamist groups getting their hands on some of these weapons is the gravest fear that the U.S. intelligence community has for Mid-East terrorists. But, the shadow of the Iraq war hangs over America’s actions in Syria. The Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria has been colored by the strategic mistakes of the early Iraq War and the cost the war had to American blood and treasure. The way the Iraq War was launched and the sectarian violence that followed has informed how President Obama approaches the situation in Syria. Mr. Obama really doesn’t want to get involved in the Syrian conflict. But the situation in Syria is not comparable to Iraq before the Iraq War.You can make a much more credible case for intervention now in Syria than you could before in the case of Iraq.
However, more American troops in the region would surely galvanize Islamists not already involved in the Syrian conflict, and I can envision a myriad of scenarios where you could have thousands of Jihadi terrorists flooding into Syria to fight the Americans. This could further destabilize Syria and give even more opportunities for chemical weapons to fall into the wrong hands. So there are strong arguments for why the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, if the United States is to remain credible, Mr. Obama will have to stay firm to the ‘red line’ he has drawn around Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
March 12, 2013
Six months ago yesterday, an assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya resulted in the first killing of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
Six months ago today, the U.S. government started oversight analysis on the attack. Officials from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department began trying to piece together the events of the attack. Since that time, countless people have spent hundreds of hours going through thousands of documents.
The events of that night are no longer in dispute.
There were a series of security mechanisms at the U.S. Consulate. The first barrier consisted of local police officers sitting in a vehicle outside the Consulate. The two officers had only one gun between them, which is not uncommon in Libya, and the police fled when the initial attack began.
The local Libyan guard force within the Consulate as well as the U.S. Marines stationed there fought courageously to repel the attack to the best of their abilities.
Marines stationed in Portugal were then dispatched to help fight off the attack; however, the air assets that they needed to travel to Benghazi were located in Germany. This delayed the Marine’s arrival.
All of the Americans with the exception of the Ambassador eventually evacuated to the Consulate annex. It is believed that at this point the Ambassador was already dead, and after the evacuation, the looting of the Consulate began. Three more Americans then lost their lives at the annex.
After the attack was over, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was then tasked with evidence collection and intelligence gathering. Because the FBI did not have a presence in Libya prior to the attack, there was a serious time lag between the attack and the FBI arriving to investigate the scene. During this period, looters and reporters accessed the Consulate and tainted evidence.
This attack was not a strategic intelligence failure. The U.S. government has assessed that the attack on the Consulate was an opportunistic but coordinated attack that was planned only a few hours in advance. The Consulate was a soft target, it was the anniversary of 9/11, and there may have been hope among the militants that regional fury over an internet video purporting to attack Islam could give incentive for other groups to join in once the initial militants instigated the attack.
If there was a failure, one could argue that it existed at the Executive level where there was a lack of a comprehensive national security policy for American interests within Libya. I say this because, after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Obama administration did nothing to either dismantle the Libyan militias that had popped up in Gaddafi’s absence, or to build a reliable security force that American interests could depend on. I’m not talking about anything as drastic as nation building here. I’m simply pointing out that the Obama administration took a hands off approach to security in Libya.
Those of us who work for principals in government are debating various issues going forward: How can we improve information sharing? How do we improve our national security policy? How can we improve our military posture in responding to such attacks? How can we improve our intelligence investigations?
First, I think it is fair to say that the United States has limits to its military power, because with a smaller budget, military assets that are already stretched thin will be expected to do even more with less. Second, the Obama administration has shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to Asia at the expense of security concerns in the Middle East and Africa. This reallocation of concern could allow militant organizations within those regions to rebuild their terrorist networks. Third, in order to address the gaps in the military’s threat response, the United State’s military is going to have to take a second look at their European presence. Marines stationed in Portugal should be tethered to air assets if they are expected to be first responders to terrorist activity.
The Obama administration’s insistence on using the FBI as the main mechanism for evidence collection and intelligence gathering instead of military assets had its own complications. Because the FBI had no prior presence in Libya, FBI agents had to go through official channels to make arrangements to enter that country. The FBI first had to get permission from the Libyan government, then they had to get visas, and then they had to acquire adequate security to guard them as they did their jobs. All of this took precious time.
Many Members of Congress and some in the press have taken issue with the talking points that were used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. All I will say on this issue is that the talking points were not written for her specifically, but she used them anyway and they turned out to be inaccurate. If this teaches us anything, junior intelligence analysts should not be making talking points for senior level administration officials.
In any event, the U.S. State Department is going to have to have a fundamental rethink on what it means to have a diplomatic presence in another country. There needs to be a balance between keeping State Department employees protected and their desire to take risks and properly explore a country.
The political spectrum of the Middle East and Africa are changing rapidly, and trying to understand these changes is one of the greatest challenges in contemporary foreign policy and security analysis.
Chris Stevens was a career diplomat who spoke Arabic and French and was the first U.S. envoy to the Libyan resistance, which overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. He was the ambassador to Libya for less than a year. He was 52 years-old.
Finally, I apologize for my absence over the past month, but between my work on Capitol Hill and my ongoing attempt at writing a book, I’ve had little time to update this blog properly. I promise to be more prolific in the future.