Last week, I wrote a little post about the mysterious assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the man responsible for smuggling Iranian-made weapons into the Gaza Strip. In case you missed it (which you probably haven’t), the killing occurred in a Dubai hotel room on January 19, presumably by a group of 11 Europeans. Minus the electrocution and suffocation of the victim, the operation was caught by Dubai security cameras from all sides, adding a quality reminiscent of an action flick to the entire thing (by the way, if you want to look at the video, just do a quick Google search).
Well that was then. A couple of things have happened over the past few days which are of dramatic importance in this case. First off, more suspects have been named in the operation. UAE authorities have released the names of another 15 people involved in the assassination. Eight more people turned up in Israel on Thursday, claiming that their identities were stolen and used to travel to the United Arab Emirates. And if the claims are indeed confirmed, this brings the total to an astounding 34 people, with the vast majority of them using passports of Israeli origin.
International uproar is at its highest point in the entire affair. Great Britain, France, and Ireland are extremely upset that Israel may have used European passports in the hit without permission, so much so that the British Government summoned the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K. for a brief sit-down. And of course, this does not even mention Arab attitudes about the assassination, which typically hasn’t been all that positive in the first place.
Israel hasn’t officially commented to the media, and is not expected to; the Jewish state is known to keep quite on national-security matters, neither confirming nor denying an operation took place. But others are keenly waiting, and some are starting to ask whether Israel’s spy service (the Mossad) is actually keeping Israel safer. The Economist devotes an entire article to this question, and people from all over the political spectrum are chiming into the debate.
Naturally, I couldn’t sit on the sidelines without spewing my own assessment of the situation.
While it’s hard to pinpoint with complete accuracy, there is evidence confirming that Mossad has kept Israel relatively safe from potential attacks. The agency is small, yet highly effective in what they do. Intelligence agencies and clandestine network throughout the world view the Israeli spy service as the most proficient in sophisticated operations. The fact that Mossad officials have infiltrated hostile territory with ease in the past demonstrates how meticulous the organization is. Hezbollah and Hamas- the Islamic militants responsible for most of Israel’s troubles over the past few years- know this full well. In fact, the assassination of a top Hamas commander in Dubai only verifies this belief in their minds.
Yet while Mossad may be a highly successful organization when it comes to counterterrorism, you have to wonder why they picked the United Arab Emirates as the location for the killing. Did they assume that Dubai authorities would give Israel a pass in the name of national-security? If so, it would appear that the Israelis forgot that there is a little thing called state sovereignty.
Questions about the assassination continue to circulate, there is still tons of speculation out there, and I suspect we will probably hear more news from Dubai authorities in the coming weeks. But what is clear is that Mossad made a tactical error; they embarrassed a moderate Arab country in front of the entire international community. Israel needs all the help it can get in terms of aid and recognition. Enemies of Israel are prevalent throughout the Middle East, and even traditional allies are becoming less sympathetic to Israel’s aims. Yet despite these circumstances, they chose to alienate an Arab state that is both pro-western and ideologically moderate.
It’s too early to tell, but this incident could severely degrade relations between Israel and the UAE. The last thing the Israeli Government wants is another angry Muslim country, especially when that country is labeled as pragmatic and somewhat tolerant.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
In the very beginning of his presidency, President Barack Obama traveled to Europe in the hopes of gaining support for his nuclear weapons policy. And with his dramatic vow to rid the world of nuclear weapons, his goal gained universal support from virtually everyone watching. Yet despite an almost absolute consensus on nuclear nonproliferation, the United States is stuck in the mud, unable to achieve what it set forth a year ago.
The Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. Government’s official document that spells out the country’s nuclear weapons policy, has once again been delayed. The NPR was supposed to be released on February 1, which would have demonstrated the President’s resolve and dedication to Congress. But that deadline has long passed, and the country’s nuclear policy continues to take on the role of the 800 pound gorilla.
This delay could be good news. Rather than settling for a quick review, the administration may be taking a little more time to weight its options. But guess what…the longer the President draws out the process, the longer it will take to finally disarm the world’s nuclear weapons (Afghanistan Strategy Review anyone?). And the longer it will take to disarm the world, the more difficult it will to convince Iran to forgo nuclear weapons development.
The fact that there are approximately 23,000 nukes in the world today is a reason why so many states in the developing world are interested in nuclear technology. Just take Iran as an example.
While nationalism is certainly behind Tehran’s quest for a nuclear capability, the old-fashioned principle of deterrence is probably part of the formula. With the world’s remaining superpower scattered across the entire region- and with American troops residing on both sides of its border- don’t be surprised if the Iranian Government sees its nuclear program as a potential saving-grace from a military attack.
A similar logic can be used to explain Syria’s interest in plutonium enrichment, which only increased after Israel breached Syrian territory and bombed a suspected nuclear installation in 2007. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is also reportedly interested in building nuclear sites, which would give him a competitive advantage over other countries in South America. And of course, we cannot forget about Israel’s nuclear-weapons stockpile, which only gives Iran more incentive to develop its own program in response.
The point is that the U.S. and Russian arsenals could be responsible for nuclear proliferation in the 21st century. It’s really hard to achieve “a world without nuclear weapons” when the United States retains over 2,000 warheads on hair-trigger alert (not to mention Russia’s overwhelming force, which more than doubles the U.S. stockpile). We expect countries to take concrete steps in eliminating nuclear weapons, yet the U.S. and Russia continue to stall in their own attempts.
So when President Obama gears up for THE nuclear summit in April, he should explain how easier nonproliferation would be if the world’s nuclear powers practiced what they preached. A nuclear-free U.S and a nuclear-free Russia could potentially persuade other states- like Iran, Syria, and Venezuela- from trying to construct programs of their own.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of David E. Hoffman. His article, “Obama’s Nuclear Moment,” just appeared on FP.com
With Iraqi elections fast approaching, there has been a flurry of articles trying to predict what will happen. Some, like Tom Ricks at the Center for a New American Security, believe that Iraqis will once again fall victim to the types of sectarian violence that plagued their lives for close to two years (check out Peter Feaver’s post for another perspective). Others, like Marc Lynch of George Washington University, still have a small sense of hope that everything will be ok; Iraqis have gotten themselves into this mess, and they will get themselves out of it.
I don’t happen to be that optimistic. For all of the surge’s successes in 2007 and 2008 (improved security, more Iraqi trust, building of Iraqi institutions etc), it failed in its main purpose: providing political breathing space for Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds to reconcile over contentious issues. Getting all three main sects back to the table was the stated mission, yet all three remain highly skeptical of each other’s motives. The Arab-Kurdish oil dispute is still on the front-burner, which could potentially destabilize a region (Kurdistan) that has normally been immune from bombings and assassinations. Sunnis continue to remain on the sidelines of Iraqi politics, as Shia politicians cement their firm control over the election process by banning hundreds upon hundreds of candidates from participating.
And yet, President Barack Obama is still steadfast in his determination to withdraw all American troops by 2011, when Iraqi soldiers are legally required to regain full control over their country. Perhaps the United States should reconsider its options in Iraq, as General Ray Odierno is currently doing on the battlefield. Perhaps the President should jump on board and seriously consider a much more credible Plan B…staying in Iraq until some of these tensions are reduced to tolerable levels.
If the main goal is a stable and long-term U.S.-Iraqi relationship, shouldn’t the United States do everything in its power (both militarily and diplomatically) to make sure that Baghdad does not spiral into chaos once again? This would make sense, considering the fact that an Iraq with a fragmented ethnic environment runs contrary to what the United States is desperately trying to accomplish.
A secure state is the only way that a constructive partnership can occur. If the March election produces even more conflict between Sunnis, Shia’s and Kurds, the U.S. (and the west generally) runs the risk of wasting seven years and thousands of lives for absolutely nothing.
There is no doubt that Iraqis want Americans out of their country, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t blame them. No one wants to live in a society that seems under siege or under occupation. But the United States has to be realistic here. Next month’s election is the pivotal moment for Iraq’s success. It is the make-or-break event that will either result in a somewhat stable Arab state or another Mideast cesspool for conflict and terrorism.
We got into this mess, and we should be damn well ready to fix it if things go sour.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Tom Ricks and Marc Lynch at FP.com**
As far as I can tell, the mainstream media has done a pretty good job covered the Marjah military offensive. Wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press have reporters on the front-lines as we speak. Newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Newsweek are providing the world with up-to-the-minute developments on the battle; the largest joint U.S./NATO/Afghan ground campaign since the initial invasion in November 2001. And of course, embedded journalists are jotting down notes on their twitter feeds, giving readers vivid descriptions as if they were part of the operation (speaking of which, I’m going to plug my own tweeter feed, @mideastblogger).
But there is one element that has been absent from the wires as of late (the Economist is an exemption). While reporters and military analysts are constantly reminding us that this is the most significant U.S. operation in the last eight years, many have failed to mention that the battle for Marjah is also the first true test for the Afghan National Army (again, the Economist is an exception. They had a great article last week about this entire affair). And unfortunately, when journalists ignore the contributions of the Afghan Security Forces, they also bypass a major part of the Afghan debate; what is the best way to increase the size of the Afghan National Army?
And this leads me to my point. Despite the brave participation of Afghan soldiers in the battle for Helmand Province (a main Taliban stronghold and opium den), U.S. policy is still based on a quick-fix solution: ‘The sooner we build an Afghan army, the sooner U.S. troops can return home.’
Now take it from me. If I understood how to build an army, I would probably be working for some sort of think tank in Washington D.C. at the moment…not sitting in a college library blogging about “what ifs.” But like every political science student in the country, I do have some thoughts.
I have heard rumors that some U.S. policymakers are considering conscription as a way to boost the size of the Afghan National Army, the reason being that the U.S. only has a little over a year to train Afghans before they withdraw entirely. And to be honest, enacting an Afghan draft makes sense, especially if the main goal of the U.S. right now is centered on building a formidable Afghan Army.
But if the United States truly wants to leave behind some semblance of a professional security force prior to withdrawal, forced integration seems counterproductive. With skill and morale already extremely low, conscription is a strange way to accomplish the goal of an Afghanistan that can defend itself from foreign enemies and domestic rivals.
Yes, the rank-and-file of the Afghan Security Service is still well-below what it needs to be. And yes, many Afghan soldiers and policemen are deserting, hooked on drugs, or abusing their power on the civilian population. But forcing more Afghans to participate in the armed-services will simply replace deserters with more corrupt security personnel.
The United States and the Karzai Government are focusing way too much on the quantity of the ASF rather than the quality. Increasing membership to 171,000 by 2011 is all well and good…that is if Afghans really wanted to fight for their country. But it should be quite clear that Afghanistan is not a typical nation-state. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are much more important to Afghans than a strong central government. Afghanistan has never had a functioning central authority that its civilians respect and admire. And pretending like the United States is the one actor that can change this historical precedent is naïve.
With this in mind, introducing more Afghan soldiers into the fray will not automatically translate into more victories on the battlefield. One of the main reasons why the Taliban insurgency is continuing to draw recruits is due to the ineffectiveness and downright brutal corruption of the Afghan Police force. In some areas- such as Helmand and Kandahar Province- the locals trust the Taliban more than they trust their own government. I am not convinced that a western-imposed draft system will solve this problem.
To the contrary; introducing more dispassionate young men into the army will only revamp corruption when the United States is trying desperately to diminish it. And with more corruption, physical abuse will run rampant and draw ever-more civilians into the arms of the enemy.
There’s something to the old adage “quality over quantity.”
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
After months on the job, the IAEA has finally concluded their official report for the United Nations on Iran’s nuclear program. And for the most part, the findings are not all that shocking….1) Iran continues to enrich uranium despite the world’s concern and 2) Iranian scientists MAY be starting to study plans for a nuclear warhead. Notice how I emphasized the word “may,” because in the end, the IAEA only knows so much (if Iran has been good at anything over this entire controversy, it is their skill in concealing and hiding).
But overall, there is not much in the name of substance here. Iran is doing the same thing they have been doing over the past two years; failing to answer all of the IAEA’s questions and continuing with their nuclear work. The good news is that Iranian scientists are facing a whole host of technical difficulties, which at least shows that they have yet to master nuclear technology. The bad news is the possibility that the Iranians are now starting research on nuclear weaponization, which would deal a severe blow to the moral and confidence of U.S. intel (the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate originally stated that Iran stopped work for a nuclear warhead years earlier).
What is of significance is not even in the document. ElBaradei is no longer the nuclear chief. That position is now filled by someone who appears to be much more direct, assertive, and straightforward in both his language and his actions. Instead of relying on the soft-spoken nature of the former director, Iran is now getting an earful from the IAEA. This pressure- from an international body- could not have come at a better time. Who knows, maybe the new IAEA report will convince China and Russia to back a fourth-round of sanctions on Iran’s economy (although I’m still skeptical that sanctions will work).
What is more, perhaps the new report will pick-up support from nation’s that were previously supportive of Iran’s nuclear program (like Brazil). One can only hope.
-Daniel R. DePetris
As the battle for Marjah rages on- and as U.S. forces continue to push deeper into the Taliban bastion- I’m starting to hear signs of optimism from my friends that the war in Afghanistan is finally starting to wind down. And I can’t really blame them for using this line of thinking. After eight years, the Taliban insurgency is feeling the heat of the American war machine with the utmost fury. And going by current casualty rates in the battle for Marjah, the good guys (the U.S. and NATO) are clearly on top; around 140 insurgents have been killed, compared to the coalition’s six deaths.
Apart from the capture of the Taliban’s No. 2 in Pakistan (which is a remarkable achievement for U.S. and Pakistani forces), the United States really hasn’t accomplished anything in Afghanistan yet.
The fact that U.S. and NATO forces (and Afghan soldiers) are taking back the Taliban strong-hold of Marjah is not necessarily a surprising thing. This was never an issue. In every battle the United States has waged in Afghanistan, the Taliban have either fled back into the mountains and poppy-fields or have retreated to other friendly towns. This is what a typical insurgency does…they withdraw and reorganize to fight another day.
Real success will come when the U.S. and NATO actually make good on their promises of peace and stability to the Afghan people, especially in a province as crucial as Helmand. Clearing is never a problem for the United States. In some cases, holding a city is not really an issue either. The real test comes in the building aspect of the strategy, and whether some semblance of local governance can be created. Step 1 is almost complete. Now we wait for steps 2 and 3.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Dr. Stephen Walt**
UPDATE: The British Government has asked the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K. for a meeting in order to discuss the assassination case further.
Close to a month ago, a group of hit-men in Dubai killed a senior Hamas commander in his hotel room. Apart from the obvious question of why UAE authorities had absolutely no idea that their country was hosting an assassination plot, one has to wonder who actually conducted the attack. Was this assassination ordered by a government, or a non-state organization? Was the killing payback for something we don’t yet know about, or is there something deeper to the entire affair?
There are a couple of possibilities here. The first and obvious party that could have sponsored and ordered the assassination is Israel’s Mossad. Over the last decade- indeed over the last few years- Israel has been responsible for a number of targeted killings, both against Hamas militants and against Hezbollah commanders. The assassination of a top Hezbollah figure in Damascus in 2007 is the most recent example of Israeli fortitude. If Mossad can infiltrate into a hostile Arab country and successfully carry out a national-security mission, there is no challenge that the Mossad can’t meet. The fact that 7 out of 11 passports used by the hit-men were traced back to Israel only adds some more skepticism to the equation. Evidence seems to have the markings of a typical Israeli operation; use fake passports, assemble an effective team and execute the killing on foreign soil, away from Israeli territory.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization or perhaps Fatah could also be a possibility (either with or without Mahmoud Abbas’ blessing). Fatah is already carrying out an extensive campaign of sabotage against Hamas, particularly in the West Bank where secular Palestinians desperately want to exert control. Islamic preachers sympathetic to the Hamas movement are being arrested by the dozens, and mosques that are considered headquarters for militants in the West Bank are being shut down. And of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is an extreme rivalry between Hamas and Fatah in Palestinian politics. Each side is trying to one-up the other, and perhaps killing a top Hamas military commander is part of the game. It’s cynical, but again…within the realm of possibility.
Maybe the hit-men involved in the murder were just rogues taking matter into their own hands, for whatever reason. But this seems too simplistic.
A business deal gone bad? Who knows, I suck at economics.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**
In a dramatic turn of events in the Afghan War, the New York Times is reporting late this evening that the Taliban’s top military commander- Mullah Baradar- is now under U.S. and Pakistani custody. At the same time a joint U.S./NATO offensive in Southern Afghanistan is meeting stiff resistance, the Taliban’s most important political figure next to Mullah Omar is now under the control of Pakistani authorities.
Details are still sketchy at the moment. The story broke just hours ago, and to my knowledge, it took a solid two hours for mainstream media outlets to grasp onto the story (the New York Times and a blog on ForeignPolicy.com were the first to report). But from what the NYT is telling us at the moment, it appears that Mullah Baradar was captured in the Pakistani city of Karachi; a large metro area sprawling with western-styled architecture and a booming tourist business. Aided by the work of the Inter Services intelligence Agency- Pakistani’s equivalent of the CIA- American forces were able to collect and analyze enough intelligence to lead directly to the No. 2 man.
There are a few things that are worth nothing here. First off, the fact that Pakistan’s ISI took the lead in this operation may demonstrate a new and improved shift in U.S-Pakistani relations. Ever since the Taliban Movement was formed in the mid-1990’s, the ISI supported Mullah Omar’s followers with millions of dollars in cash, thousands of weapons, and logistical support that could only be obtained by a well-funded intel agency. When the Taliban captured the city of Kabul in 1996, Pakistan was only one of three countries that formerly recognized the movement as the legitimate government of Afghanistan (Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the other two).
And of course, a discussion of the ISI-Taliban connection would be mute without mentioning the former’s repeated reluctance to put a dent in the Islamic organization. Up to today’s news story, the Pakistani Army’s stated policy was to go after militants who were threatening the existence of the Pakistani state while permitting the Afghan Taliban to fight another day.
Now with the arrest of Mullah Baradar, perhaps the Pakistani Government is finally starting to change this course. The New York Times seems to think so:
“In recent weeks, American officials have said they have seen indications that the Pakistani military and spy services may finally have begun to distance themselves from the Taliban. One Obama administration official said Monday that the White House had “no reason to think that anybody was double-dealing at all” in aiding in the capture of Mullah Baradar.”
From a tactical standpoint, the detention of the Taliban’s No. 2 is a great opportunity for the United States to finally revamp their efforts to track down and capture (or kill) Mullah Omar, the man responsible for hosting, pampering, and sponsoring Osama bin-Laden and his Al’Qaeda cohorts. And while this is still an arduous task, the Baradar arrest is the best possible breakthrough the U.S. could have hoped for. Baradar is in frequent contact with Omar in the field, and his stature as the second in command provides him with a detailed and in-depth understanding of Omar’s behavior and perseverance. It is precisely this type of information that is required if a government wants to reignite a frustrating and long-winded cold-case.
A much deserving bright spot for the international counterterror campaign.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
Over the weekend, U.S. and NATO soldiers- backed by a large contingent of Afghan troops- conducted the biggest offensive operation against the Taliban since the start of the Afghan War nine-years ago. To Americans, it seems hard to believe that it took close to a decade for the United States to get its act together in Afghanistan, but you know what they say…“better late than never.”
The operation- code named “Moshtarak”- is rather conventional; rid the Taliban in the Southern Afghan town of Marjah and quickly establish a semblance of government control to woo locals from the insurgency. It’s a pretty clear-cut military campaign, a type of operation that the U.S. Military has performed many times in the past (Iraq in particular). In fact, the invasion of Marjah in Helmand Province is a perfect illustration of President Barack Obama’s new counterinsurgency doctrine for Afghanistan as a whole; clear the area, hold the town, and build local institutions that can actually function for the people.
But as is clear in counterinsurgency, saying and doing are two completely different things. The joint U.S./NATO offensive in Helmand Province- the primary opium producing province in the entire country- will test the limits America’s military and diplomatic talent. Naturally, defeating the Taliban is not the primary concern. More often than not, Taliban fighters simply retreat into the mountains or into another town in order to regroup and harass American soldiers with unconventional attacks, such as roadside bombs and sniper-fire. This is the easy part for the United States.
The hard part will come after the fight, when American, NATO, and Afghan troops will have to explain their intent to the local population. Are foreign troops here for the long-haul, or are they simply trying to eliminate a deadly insurgency for the sake of the Afghan people? Is there a hidden motive involved? These are the kinds of questions that must be answered to the fullest extent, particularly if the coalition is intent on gaining the trust of Afghan tribes and realigning them away from Taliban influence.
Of course, this is a difficult task on its own. In Helmand Province, where a majority of the population shares the same ethnicity as the Taliban Movement, the task becomes even harder. But hard is not impossible. People can be won over if promises are kept. Creating stable governance for the citizens of Marjah, promoting jobs for the working-class and introducing education for the up-and-coming generation are the ultimate keys for success. The United States and their NATO allies already understand this. But again, whether it can be fully implemented is up for debate. After all, the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany have not necessarily backed their words of hope with action in the past.
The offensive in Marjah is only the beginning of a long journey towards reestablishing Afghan Government control across the country. In a nation as diverse and fragmented as Afghanistan, stabilizing the entire area and governing from a single power-center is not entirely possible. Tribes and warlords in the south and east may always exert authority over certain towns and villages. But this is precisely why the United States must pick its fights. Starting with Marjah, a city of 125,000 in a volatile district, is a good start.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of the Economist**
As I was scrolling through the internet today, I happened to discover a fascinating article by David Kenner- associate editor of foreignpolicy.com- detailing the list of major players across the country who are advocating for regime change in Iran. Of course, the list has its fair share of Bushy’s, such as former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton and Daniel Pipes of the Hoover Institution. But to my surprise, journalists and editors were included in Kenner’s list of characters; the same journalists and editors who are supposedly hired to give the American public a fair and objective news cycle.
Naturally, bombing Iran into a submissive state and overthrowing the Islamic regime is not exactly an original idea. The Bush administration was mulling towards a preventive strike in 2006 and 2007, and many of the same people who were supportive of the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq are now carrying their message of regime-change to Iran (thankfully, we have U.S. officials and academics like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt to defend the other side). You can read Kenner’s article in its entirety right here.
But with Iran recently announcing its decision to produce higher-grade uranium for the flailing Tehran Research Reactor, the “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” crowd has started to gain an added weight to their cause. Polls even suggest that a solid portion of Americans are in favor of military action against Ahmadinejad and his Iranian cohorts.
What all of these people fail to realize is the Iranian population’s determination in building a nuclear program of their own. The uranium enrichment process is not just supported by a few elite Revolutionary Guard Commanders…nor is it solely advanced and protected by Ahmadinejad and his conservative allies in the Iranian Government. All Iranians- regardless of political affiliation or ideological intrigue- are standing up for their nuclear rights under the NPT.
Mousavi, Karroubi, and former President Khatami- the most powerful members of the Green Movement- have said so themselves. In fact, it was Mousavi that publicly opposed last fall’s nuclear plan by the United Nations; a political move that all but forced Ahmadinejad to back off his original decision to accept the deal “in principle.”
So with most people viewing the nuclear program as an inherent part of Iranian nationalism, it seems more than counterproductive to launch a preventive air-strike. Doing so would only strengthen a regime that is struggling to survive in the face of popular discontent. And even if a military strike was successful, it would only boost Iranian resolve to restart the program well into the future and hide facilities deeper into the mountains and bunkers. Adding insult to injury, Iran would probably react much the same way as any other nation whose sovereignty was violated; withdraw from the NPT and shut out the international community completely.
It appears that neoconservatives don’t understand the basics of the debate. Do your homework and maybe your ideology will gain some credibility.
I (among others) am starting to feel like a broken record.
-Daniel R. DePetris
**Comments courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com**