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Archive for October, 2009

Israel: Condemned to conflict

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

here are a number of truths that involve the Middle East and the Arab/Israeli impasse. The first is that the best, most pragmatic solution to the problem for both sides is the two-state solution. It is the only way all those involved have a chance of getting any part of what they want. The Palestinians would get their own state and some physical connector between the West Bank and Gaza. The Israelis, having received guarantees for their peace and security, would probably get at least some of their West Bank settlements. Both sides would get some sort of hegemony over parts of Jerusalem. Everyone would get an absence of war.

Having said that, it looks extremely doubtful that we are going to see that solution reached. Under Bibi Netanyahu, Israel has said clearly that it does not want a two-state solution. In a June speech, his demands for Palestine to have no arms, no control over its airspace, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and no consideration of either the long-cherished Palestinian “right to return” or hegemony over any of Jerusalem, he managed to hit just about every button that is unacceptable to Palestinians and, by extension to Muslims in general. At the same time, his only “concession” to the Palestinians was the creation of a gutted state completely at the mercy of Israel. It would seem that his formulation was consciously designed to preclude any serious future discussion of a two-state solution.

Since the recent publishing of the Goldstone report on Israeli activities in the recent Gaza fighting and the successful push by Israel to get America and ultimately the Palestinian Authority (PA) to help quash that report, Netanyahu’s government has made it quite obvious that it wishes to diminish the moderate role of the PA and leave Israel only a hostile Hamas to deal with, thus guaranteeing there will be no peace treaty.

For their part, Hamas and Hizballah have repeatedly demonstrated that under current circumstances, they are not interested in giving Israel any sort of peace.

America’s invasion of Iraq and our subsequent regional policies have been major catalysts in the rising instability in the region: Iraq’s historical role as a counterbalance to Iranian regional aspirations was ended with the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Baathis who maintained order in Iraq, and the subsequent installation of a Shia government there. In wiping out Saddam’s Iraq, we empowered Iran and the Shia and diminishing Sunni regional power to the benefit of Iran. By leaving Afghanistan for Iraq, we have re- empowered the Taliban, creating a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most important, our actions have rekindled Iran’s centuries-old dreams of regional hegemony, which may well have been a critical component in the focus of their nuclear decisions.

If regional stability is our goal, as it certainly should be, then everything we have done has threatened our interests there. How then is this likely to play out? Frankly, if a two-state solution cannot be reached, all the alternatives are bad for everyone involved. In examining these, consider that Israel was founded and sees itself as a democratic, Jewish state.

The Arabs, Palestinians included, would probably prefer a one-state solution. This would mean the West Bank, Gaza and Israel all part of the same state. Once created and if democratic, today’s Arab minority would soon turn into a majority – the law of demographics – and Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. This would certainly be a disaster for Israel.

Israel might opt for disenfranchising all its Arab citizens, guaranteeing a future of sorts for a Jewish state, but ending its democracy. Or it might literally eject those same Palestinians with the same result – a Jewish, but non-democratic state. This course of action would be violation of who the Israeli Jews really are and a public relations and international disaster for them.

Unfortunately, there is an additional, even worse possibility. That is the indefinite maintenance of the status quo with the Jews and the Palestinians continuing today’s paramilitary/military battle forever, the Jews supported by the United States and the Palestinians supported by their Muslim brethren. This “solution”, quite apart from the misery it will cause in Israel and Palestine, will keep the rest of the Middle East and Islam in a constant state of military readiness and instability. It is not a pleasant prospect. It will create and maintain a level of instability in the region and in the world which we have not heretofore seen. This would be humanitarian disaster for all involved.

Any sane person who looks at the current realities in the Middle East has to ask how it is possible that all the parties are not clamoring for the two-state solution? Where roughly 60 percent of Palestinian and Israeli citizens would accept such a solution if it met most of the needs of their countries, the people in charge clearly are not as eager.

The fact is that there is a limited number of possibilities for the future of the region and none of them favor either side. Yet, apparently each side truly believes that it can refuse such a solution and still “win.” This means casting in stone the Israeli goal of expanding its settlements into a pure, Jewish state encompassing virtually all of the West Bank, and the Arab goal of maintaining “the right to return”, which would effectively be the end of the democratic, Jewish state of Israel.

Neither side will allow the other to “win” and unless a reasonable two-state solution can be reached, it looks as if the region is about to be condemned to perpetual conflict with all the instability that will bring to America and the rest of the world.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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Obama’s pickle over Afghanistan

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

President Obama is in a real pickle around Afghanistan.  It is, partly of George W. Bush’s making, partly of his own.

George W. Bush went to war in Afghanistan for compelling reasons that centered on the horrors of 9/11.  The main reason was to bring to justice those who had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks against America.  We were focused entirely on a terrorist organization called Al Qaida. The battle came to a speedy conclusion.  We destroyed Al Qaida’s bases in Afghanistan and defeated the Taliban whose crime had been to give sanctuary to Al Qaida.

That changed rapidly as the Bush focus switched to Iraq.  US claims of lraqi misdeeds – WMD and connections to Al Qaida – proved false.  At the same time, there was much talk from the White House about the “long war” against terrorism.

In retrospect, pinning down the true motivation of the Bush White House for its Middle East policies remains illusive.  So far there have been no “kiss and tell” stories from former insiders, so we have no real fix on the truth.

However, if you look dispassionately at what actually happened between 9/11/2001 and the 2008 Presidential election, some reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

First, we were given the “War on Terror”.  Even though the name made no sense at all, it got across the fact that our American government was getting ready for what it began to label the “long war”.  It was coupled with the color-coded terrorist threat system which fluctuated up and down like a yoyo. Then we began to see incursions into our civil rights in the form of some activities authorized under the Patriot Act and some with no constitutional basis at all.

The White House was in a dither.  Karl Rove sponsored endless talk of the ”long war” and Vice President Cheney spoke ominously of going to the “Dark Side”, which, unfortunately, we ultimately did.  It almost looked as if the White House was consciously trying to keep the American public on edge, insecure, submissive and prepared to accept any activity as long as in enhanced their security.  The goal?  To maintain their power.

The most telling point, however. was when the White House began to refer to literally any activity it did not like as “Terrorism”. There was clearly a conscious move to confuse terrorism and insurgency in the minds of the American public. Thus, an organization like Hamas, which clearly commits terrorist acts, was labeled “terrorist”, even though it runs the entire civil side of life in the Gaza and in much of Lebanon as well. It’s sort of like saying that the American Revolutionaries were terrorists, where they were clearly an insurgency, simply because they used terrorist tactics.

What was the purpose of conflating terrorism with insurgency?  It enabled the Bush administration to explain the invasion of Iraq as, inter alia, a battle in the long war on terror, which it clearly was not.  It then enabled them to label the Taliban as part of the war on terror and justify a move back to Afghanistan and a brand new “surge” as the “most important site in the War on Terror”, even though the Taliban are an insurgency, pure and simple.

Terrorist organizations over the last half-century have tended to last no more than 10 years because they have little local support.  In contrast, insurgencies have seldom been defeated because their fellow citizens usually share their views.

So, even under President Obama, we are now considering a military campaign designed to “defeat the Taliban”, whatever that may mean and however unlikely it is to be successful, a struggle that will likely take decades, when the Taliban and Afghanistan have nothing to do with terrorism!

How is it possible that anyone as intelligent and as quick a study as President Obama could get caught in this Bush trap?  It’s really pretty simple.  During the campaign, while criticizing our presence in Iraq, Obama said that Afghanistan was the most important country in our fight against terrorism.  At least he didn’t say “war on terror”.  So here he is, with things going (predictably) badly in Afghanistan, saying not only how important ”success” is there, but that he will take into account the recommendations of his field commanders – a group which is generically incapable of saying any given military fight cannot be won. Yet, Obama is in the crosshairs of our military establishment, of all Americans who support military solutions to just about all our problems and likeminded, mostly Republican congressmen.  Obama further suffers from the fact that he has virtually no military credentials.  Thus, for him, any decision is a political no-win.

So, the future of our involvement in Afghanistan (and probably also in Iraq), as so often in the past, will be decided on the basis of Obama’s political needs here at home rather than the facts on the ground in the Middle East.  That approach has seldom worked in the past and there is no reason to believe it will work in the future.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He is a former long time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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Afghanistan: Lessons to be learned

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]
Trial Balloon?  President Obama has reportedly decided to limit our involvement in Afghanistan to a counterterrorism program. If this is true, he is on the right track.

In order to sort out Afghan and Pakistan policy, Americans need to better understand both terrorism and insurgency, because those are the key issues we are facing today in those countries. Our problems with this stem from the constant Bush administration policy of conflating the two, probably for its own political reasons.

It’s helpful to look at the results of a recent Rand Corp. study that examined 648 terrorist groups that existed briefly between 1968 and 2006. The study found that, on average, terrorist groups last around 10 years, whereas insurgencies can literally go on for decades. Compare the German terrorist Bader Meinhof Gang that lasted about 10 years to the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency that lasted 33 years in Sri Lanka. Effective insurgencies normally have a broad popular support base, since they share ethnic, linguistic and religious roots and often, goals, with the population. Local populations seldom support terrorist organizations because they normally do not have close ties to or much in common with the terrorists and their goals.

Most interesting in the Rand study was the finding that 75 percent of those terrorist groups were absorbed into the population, where 18 percent were defeated by police/intelligence operations and only 7 percent by the military. In short, terrorist groups are most productively confronted by police/intelligence operations, and least effectively by military operations.

The $64 billion question in Afghanistan and Pakistan is: Where are we dealing with terrorism and where with insurgency? This really matters, because you confront the two absolutely differently. If you do not, and get them confused, you will lose. Military operations against insurgencies usually spawn more insurgents than they kill. All insurgencies have to do to “win” is avoid total defeat, which makes them extremely difficult to eliminate. However, terrorist organizations can be far more easily selectively targeted and defeated, largely because of their lack of support from the indigenous population. Al Qaida is no exception to this.

Even the U.S. military concedes that Afghanistan is a battle against the Taliban insurgency and that there are few, if any Al Qaida terrorists in that country. Afghanistan is not center stage in our struggle with terrorism.

It is claimed, particularly by those who favor military action in the region, that Al Qaida has holed up in Pakistan and that they could easily return to Afghanistan if we were to leave. That may be, but U.S. Special Operations have decimated large numbers of Al Qaida’s leadership, leaving the organization a pale image of its former, potent self. Al Qaida has become a franchise operation with spontaneous, discrete groups springing up in England, Spain, and most recently in the United States — probably under neither the command nor the control of Al Qaida Central.

Quite apart from that, Al Qaida doesn’t need Afghanistan and can operate, plan and train from an infinite number of places around the world.

Unfortunately, our stepped up military activities in the region have enhanced our growing reputation in Islam as the “new Crusaders,” which does not help us in any way.

Afghanistan is not a terrorist problem. It is an insurgency and in taking the Taliban on, we are deviating 180 degrees from our original (and stated current policy) of combating terrorism. In addition, we will be in the middle of a nation-building operation, which, when combined with military-based anti-insurgency operations is likely to keep us involved there for decades.

Pakistan is an entirely different matter. As the only regional nuclear power with sufficient internal instability to provoke major concerns, it is and probably will continue to be of major importance to the United States. In fact, with the increasing instability of that country and our need to preclude seeing its nuclear weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, it is in relative terms far more important for our security than anything that could possibly happen in Afghanistan. Pakistan is, however, a Pakistani problem of which the Pakistanis are rapidly growing aware, which we should fully support, but to which we need not contribute troops.

Unfortunately, it may not matter what the facts are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As has often been true in American history, politics will more than likely rule the day. The real question is whether or not President Obama will be able to overcome his insecurity and lack of experience in military matters and his concerns about being labeled “soft on terrorism” by his nemeses in the military and the political right if he goes ahead with any solution, however creative and promising, other than a stepped up war against the Afghan insurgency.

Whatever decision is made in the White House, it seems unlikely that the American people will support any protracted military effort in Afghanistan, not only because of memories of Viet Nam, but because it is not in our national interest to do so.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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