Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mission Improbable

When it comes to fighting terror, America’s leaders have offered nothing but wildly unrealistic strategies destined to fail. And Obama's plan to defeat the Islamic State is no different.


Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attempted to clarify the United States' military objectives against the militant organization the Islamic State (IS). He noted: "We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and our interests."
That expansive and unachievable aspiration was limited slightly last week when, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, U.S. President Barack Obama announced: "Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL." Then, on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough significantly re-raised the bar of the ultimate objective when he stated: "Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States. An ISIL that can't accumulate followers, or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iran, Iraq, or otherwise." This suggests that some degree of confusion within the administration remains.
I recently wrote about the U.S. predilection for mission creep in military interventions. The companion to, and enabling factor for, mission creep is end state confusion and delusion. The military definesan end state as: "The set of required conditions that defines achievement of the commander's objectives." This broadly expressed vision presented by the president and senior officials should be clearly defined to ensure a unity of effort among the relevant government agencies in order to promote a synchronization of efforts and to clarify the risks associated with the campaign. Without a reasonable vision for what a strategy is supposed to achieve, it is almost certain to fail.
Sadly, if one behavior characterizes America's post-9/11 counterterrorism strategies, it is political leaders presenting totally unrealistic and implausible end states. Most troubling of all, even after a president states such goals, and it is not achieved, there has been no accountability for their failures. Moreover, there is little skepticism among policymakers or the media when the subsequent unobtainable end state is announced, the latest being Obama's objective to "ultimately destroy ISIL." And speaking at CENTCOM on Wednesday, Obama emphasized that "we mean what we say" when it comes to destroying or defeating terrorism, but when it comes to threats like IS the evidence suggests the opposite is true. When confronting threats like IS, however, rather than being honest and pragmatic about countering the threat of terrorism, political leaders have been misleading and maximalist.
Let's start with the initial military enemy in the global war on terrorism -- the Taliban. On Oct. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush offered the leadership of the Afghan government a "second chance" -- a dealwhereby the U.S. military offensive in Kabul would be halted if they surrendered Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused, and although itoffered to turn bin Laden over to a third country, Bush rejected the counteroffer and the Taliban were toppled in December 2001. However, they soon reconstituted themselves around their historical strongholds in southern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Nevertheless, starting in the fall of 2002, Bush claimed repeatedly that: "The Taliban's ability to brutalize the Afghan people and to harbor and support terrorists has been virtually eliminated." By September 2005, Bush felt comfortable declaring: "As a result of the United States military, Taliban no longer is in existence. And the people of Afghanistan are now free." This assertion was demonstrably false when Bush first stated it, and is even further from the truth today. The Taliban's numbers are estimated to be between 20,000 and 60,000, comprised of members of varying commitment, and its leaders remain safely in Quetta, Pakistan. According to journalist Dexter Filkins, the Taliban has also established parallel government and judicial structures, or "shadow governments," in all 34 Afghan provinces except for Kabul.
For the past ten years, according to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, the Taliban has also been the single greatest perpetrator of terrorism. In 2013, it was responsible for the most terrorist attacks around the world (641), which killed the most people (2,340), according to State Department. (In second place was IS itself, with 401 attacks that killed 1,725 people.) The Pentagon's latest bi-annual Afghanistan progress report highlights the Taliban's unpopularity and casualty rate, and how they are "unable to turn limited tactical successes into strategic or operational gains." But minimizing the Taliban's reach within Afghanistan was never America's stated objective -- it was the outright defeat of the movement. And, in no way, has the Taliban been defeated, nor is its defeat imminent.
What about the terrorist organization directly responsible for conducting 9/11? In its national counterterrorism strategies, the Bush administration provided that its ultimate objective was "to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach"(2002), and "defeat global terrorism" (2006). 
As Bushannounced in September 2006: "We will defeat the Taliban, we will defeat al Qaeda."
As Bush announced in September 2006: "We will defeat the Taliban, we will defeat al Qaeda." The Obama administration has adhered to this comprehensive end state. In June 2011, the White House released its own National Strategy for Counterterrorism, which stated in its first paragraph a top national security priorities of "disrupting, dismantling, and eventually defeating al-Qa'ida (sic) and its affiliates and adherents." In April 2012, then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennandeclared: "We're not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas. We're determined to do that."
By the U.S. government's own data, these strategic objectives have all failed, despite lots of airstrikes and sustained support for local security forces. Of the four al Qaeda-affiliated groups for which the State Department has provided estimates of strength over the past five years, the only one to decrease in strength was al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All others are estimated to still have the same number of fighters as they did in 2009.
Strength of al-Qaeda Affiliates

al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
several thousand
several thousand
few thousand
al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
less than 1,000
al Qaeda in Iraq
several thousand
several thousand
several thousand
several thousand
Source: U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2009-2013.
Given that two administrations have failed to achieve their end states of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, we should be extremely doubtful of the Obama administration's strategic objective of destroying IS or its ability to threaten the United States or any of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain what the Obama administration has learned from the total failure to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda and all affiliates. Based upon White House statements, it appears that its sole lesson from the post-9/11 era is to avoid massive ground invasions, and to emulate the policies from Yemen and Somalia, which again, according to U.S. government data, have not worked.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby was asked how IS would be destroyed, beyond airstrikes and supporting partners on the ground. He replied: "It also is going to take the ultimate destruction of their ideology." If this is truly the ultimate pathway for IS's destruction, then it was strange that it did not appear anywhere in President Obama's strategy speech. Furthermore, altering the interpretation that others hold of a religious ideology is something that governments are really bad at. Indeed, this has to be the least successful U.S. counterterrorism line of effort over the past 13 years. In nearly every major policy speech or oversight hearing, Bush and Obama officials have repeatedly emphasized their belief of what Islam really is (peaceful and compassionate), and what it is not (violent and oppressive).
It is unclear who their attempts to discredit extremist Islam are intended to reach, but they have not succeeded in minimizing the appeal that the ideology holds for domestic and foreign jihadist fighters. Within the Muslim world, the views of al Qaeda are extremelyunfavorable, and concerns about Islamic extremism have grown over the past ten years. Yet, the number of individuals willing to fight and die on behalf of that ideology has not subsequently diminished. Seth Jones at the RAND Corporation recently found that over the past four years there was a 60 percent increase in the number of radical Islamic groups while the number of extremist fighters more than doubled. This suggests that if ideology is the "center of gravity" as the Pentagon spokesperson contended, then the United States will never be able to destroy it, nor IS itself.
In my totally idiosyncratic (and informal) survey of U.S. government employees and military officers over the past two weeks, I have not communicated with one person who thinks that IS will be "destroyed," using the military definition: "A condition of a target so damaged that it can neither function as intended nor be restored to a usable condition." The overwhelming response has been one of eye rolling, followed by a sympathetic "well, he had to say that." Moreover, most Americans feel the same way. According to a recent Wall Street Journalsurvey, 68 percent of the American people do not have confidence that the United States will achieve the goals outlined in Obama's speech, even while 71 percent support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent support them in Syria. Therefore, the United States is eagerly and collectively marching towards a destination that it knows it will never reach.
Why did Obama claim that the United States can destroy a militant army of 10,000 to 30,000 members, when few people in or out of government believe that this aspirational end state can be achieved? Obviously, it is a simpler message that sounds super tough. Like his predecessor, Obama chose to articulate a wildly unachievable end state, rather than show the political courage to say the truth: the United States will attempt to diminish the threat that IS poses to U.S. personnel in the region to the greatest extent possible based upon the political will and resources that the United States and countries in the region are willing to commit. The only thing to be certain of when IS is not destroyed is that nobody will be held accountable, and another terrorist enemy will be put on the destruction list.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far


CAIRO — Standing at the front of a conference hall in Doha, the visiting sheikh told his audience of wealthy Qataris that to help the battered residents of Syria, they should not bother with donations to humanitarian programs or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
“Give your money to the ones who will spend it on jihad, not aid,” implored the sheikh, Hajaj al-Ajmi, recently identified by the United States government as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Qatar is a tiny, petroleum-rich Persian Gulf monarchy where the United States has its largest military base in the Middle East. But for years it has tacitly consented to open fund-raising by Sheikh Ajmi and others like him. After his pitch, which he recorded in 2012 and which still circulates on the Internet, a sportscaster from the government-owned network, Al Jazeera, lauded him. “Sheikh Ajmi knows best” about helping Syrians, the sportscaster, Mohamed Sadoun El-Kawary, declared from the same stage.
Sheikh Ajmi’s career as fund-raiser is one example of how Qatar has for many years helped support a spectrum of Islamist groups around the region by providing safe haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons.

Sheikh Ajmi and at least a half-dozen others identified by the United States as private fund-raisers for Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise operate freely in Doha, often speaking at state-owned mosques and even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera. The state itself has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Now, however, Qatar is finding itself under withering attack by an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, which have all sought to portray it as a godfather to terrorists everywhere. Some in Washington have accused it of directly supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — an extremist group so bloodthirsty that Al Qaeda has condemned it — a charge that Western officials, independent analysts and Arab diplomats critical of Qatar all call implausible and unsubstantiated.
“That is just disinformation,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha for the Royal United Services Institute, a British research center. “I am not going to excuse what Qatar has done: It has been grossly irresponsible when it comes to the Syrian conflict, like many other countries,” he said. “But to say that Qatar is behind ISIS is just rhetoric; it is politics getting in the way of things, and it blinds people to real solutions.”
Propelling the barrage of accusations against Qatar is a regional contest for power in which competing Persian Gulf monarchies have backed opposing proxies in contested places like Gaza, Libya and especially Egypt. In Egypt, Qatar and its Al Jazeera network backed the former government led by politicians of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other gulf monarchies long despised the Brotherhood because they saw it as a well-organized force that could threaten their power at home, and they backed the military takeover that removed the Islamist president.
Qatar is hardly the only gulf monarchy to allow open fund-raising by sheikhs that the United States government has linked to Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front: Sheikh Ajmi and most of the others are based in Kuwait and readily tap donors in Saudi Arabia, sometimes even making their pitches on Saudi- and Kuwaiti-owned television networks. United States Treasury officials have singled out both Qatar and Kuwait as “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist fund-raising.
In many cases, several analysts said, Qatar has sought to balance a wager on the future of political Islam as a force in the region with a simultaneous desire not to alienate the West. It has turned a blind eye to private fund-raising for Qaeda-linked groups to buy weapons in Syria, for example, but it has not provided direct government funding or weapons. At times, Mr. Stephens and other analysts said, Western pressure has moved Qatar to at least partly suppress some of the overt fund-raising.
Qatar openly provides a base for leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas — deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel — as well as money to help prop up its government in Gaza. But American and Israeli officials say Qatar has stopped short of providing the group with weapons, as Iran does.
Qatar has allowed members of the Taliban to open an office and make their homes in Doha, but as part of deals approved by Washington.
In Libya, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are now backing rival sides in Libya’s escalating domestic unrest, each with unsavory ties: The U.A.E. is backing former fighters for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and members of his ruling elite, while Qatar is backing a coalition that includes militant Islamist groups.
During the 2011 uprising in Libya, Qatar supported an Islamist militia in Benghazi known as Rafallah al-Sehati that had relatively Western-friendly leaders but extremists in its ranks. The extremists later broke away to form Ansar al-Shariah, the militant group that played a role in the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.
Now Qatar is still backing militias at least loosely allied with the group in their fight against an anti-Islamist faction backed by the United Arab Emirates.
But Qatar has also tried to draw lines, according to Western diplomats and Islamists who have worked with Doha. Since the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt, for example, Islamists in exile say that Qatar has given them sanctuary but has pointedly refused to provide money to the Brotherhood for fear of further alienating its gulf neighbors who backed the takeover.
Continue reading the main story

Interactive Graphic: A Rogue State Along Two Rivers

“They try to calibrate,” said one Brotherhood leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Qataris.
Many analysts say it is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood that has drawn accusations from other gulf states that have charged that Qatar is funding terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.
“The big falling-out is over Egypt, not Syria,” said Paul Salem, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Now, he said, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other gulf states “are putting the squeeze on Qatar.”
Since the military takeover in Cairo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. And Israel, which once praised Qatar as the only gulf state to open bilateral relations, appears to be capitalizing on the split to pressure Qatar over its support for Hamas. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, recently called Doha “Club Med for terrorists” in an opinion article in The New York Times.
The United Arab Emirates have retained an American consulting firm, Camstoll Group, staffed by several former United States Treasury Department officials. Its public disclosure forms, filed as a registered foreign agent, showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising.
“All the gulf intelligence agencies are competing in Syria and everyone is trying to get the lion’s share of the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh Shafi al-Ajmi, also recently identified by the United States as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, said in an interview on the Saudi-owned Rotana television network last summer.
He openly acknowledged his role buying weapons from the Western-backed military councils, who sometimes received arms from Qatar. “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me,” he said.
He defended the Nusra Front despite its ties to Al Qaeda. “We should not stop supplying them with weapons, because they are still fighting Assad,” he said. And he shared a joke with the host about Kuwait’s well-known role as the hub for Syrian rebel fund-raising. (Both Shafi al-Ajmi and Hajaj al-Ajmi are Kuwaitis; lawyers for both have said they raise money only for legitimate Syrian causes.)
Qatar says it opposes all “extremist groups,” including ISIS. “We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions,” Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, said in a recent statement about the allegations.
In early 2013, when the West stepped up pressure on Persian Gulf states to crack down on Qaeda-linked fund-raisers, some complained that Qatar was turning against them. Other sheikhs “were welcomed as heroes at a conference in Doha and given lots of gifts, all to cut the support for the Nusra Front and to support the military councils, the pagan coalition,” Hamid Hamad Hamid Al-Ali, another Kuwaiti-born preacher designated last month as a terrorist fund-raiser, protested in an Internet posting in March 2013.
But social media posts and television appearances show that at least a half-dozen United States-designated terrorist fund-raisers, some designated years earlier, continued to frequent Doha.
In 2010, an arm of the Qatari government made a donation to help build a $1.2 million mosque in Yemen for a sheikh, Abdel Wahab al-Humayqani, designated as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Qatari Embassy officials and Yemeni government officials both attended the opening.)
In 2011, Harith al-Dari, an Iraqi sheikh and tribal leader designated as a terrorist fund-raiser in 2008, appeared on Al Jazeera praying at the opening of a state-owned mosque in Doha just steps from the crown prince of Qatar.
“Arab countries won’t let us in to discuss things with them and complain to them — except one or two,” Sheikh Dari said in a television interview in January. He spoke on Al Jazeera from Qatar, which was evidently among the “one or two.”

UK could launch strikes against Isis in Syria without Assad's support, says PM

  • theguardian.com

David Cameron has for the first time opened a legal path to strike Islamic State (Isis) inside Syria by saying Bashar al-Assad's government is illegitimate.
He suggested the west would not need an invitation from Assad under international law to strike at Isis within Syrian borders.
Speaking at the start of the Nato summit in Wales, Cameron ramped up the case for UK involvement in air strikes in Iraq, saying that Isis represented a direct threat to the UK – and that decisions on strikes would be taken if they were in the national interest.
The prime minister, speaking in a round of broadcast interviews ahead of a meeting with the US president, Barack Obama, also disclosed he wanted to do more to arm Kurds, as well as potentially even train some of their battalions so they can defend their minorities and people.
Cameron is still treading cautiously – aware of the need to bring public and political opinion with him, as well as to ensure a regional coalition is in place determined to defeat Isis with the support of largely western-led air power.
America has launched as many as 140 air strikes but British air power has so far only been involved in humanitarian aid and some reconnaissance. But Cameron's remarks suggest a case for British involvement is being assembled.
In his interviews on Thursday morning, he repeatedly said it was necessary to learn the lessons of the past, adding he was not seeking to impose a solution over the heads of the countries in the regions, but instead to build an international coalition. He added there was "a crying need for the Iraqi government" to be reformed so that it was broadly based and non-sectarian.
Asked if he now supported air strikes he said: "I certainly don't rule anything out and I absolutely do think that Islamic State is a direct threat to the United Kingdom."
He pointed to Isis-inspired plots in Europe, including the murder of innocent people killed in a Jewish museum in Brussels. "We face a direct threat from this organisation and we must work with partners to put a fatal squeeze on the organisation, but it must start with helping those on the ground that are fighting this organisation."
He added: "We are looking at directly supplying arms to the Kurds and indeed helping to train some of their battalions so we make sure they can defend the minorities and their people."
Asked if he thought the west should cooperate with Assad in Syria so as to attack the headquarters of Isis inside Syria's borders, Cameron argued: "President Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution."
He said: "Assad's brutality gave credence to IS [Islamic State]." In Iraq, he said, the same thing had happened "because there was an Iraqi government that was standing up for the Shias and not the Sunnis and the Kurds that again left a space for this poisonous organisation to fill".
Asked if he needed to make a pragmatic deal with Assad in the face of the greater Isis threat, he said: "In the past just simply saying 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' has led to all sorts of moral quagmires and difficulties. Assad has been part of the creation of Islamic State rather than being part of its answer."
In terms of the legalities of air strikes and the need to be invited by a sovereign country to make such strikes he said "the Iraqi government was legitimate", but in Syria: "President Assad has committed war crimes on his own people and is therefore illegitimate. We would not do anything without moral or legal justification."
He added he was personally supervising the efforts to rescue the British hostage seized by Isis and now under threat of execution, saying his heart went out to their family, "We do everything we can in every circumstance and ask what more can we do," he said.
"There was an attempt at hostage rescue some weeks ago that was sadly not successful, but it is right we should not pay ransoms to terrorists in these circumstances.
"I am convinced that when these ransoms have been paid and tragically they have been paid in some circumstances the money goes directly to kidnapping more people getting arms and weapons and plotting more terrorist outrages including here in the UK."
He hinted there were efforts being made to communicate with the hostage-takers presumably through intermediaries, but said "there was a world of difference between a communication and paying some ransom".
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme that he would look at the case for air strikes on its merits "People across our country have been shocked at the brutality of Isis, not just against British citizens, but against people from right across every community," he said.
"It's a threat which can't be ignored; I think its very, very important that we don't just turn away from it and say 'it's too big a problem'.
"It also means we've got to learn the lessons of the past. I think that means first of all we've got to build an alliance within the region – it's not just about Britain and the United States, its about countries within the region, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar."
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, sounded a very cautious note on the possibility of Britain joining air strikes on Isis, saying it would be a "total disaster if this comes to be perceived as the west against the rest".
"We want to keep ourselves safe, but we are acting through the humanitarian aid that we have provided, the air strikes that the US are conducting, in support of the legitimate government of Baghdad, the legitimate authorities in the Kurdish region against a terrorist organisation, which is literally creating, carving out a new country across two other nations," he told LBC 97.3.
"Let's absolutely get away from this idea that we can fix this from Washington or we can fix this from the Ministry of Defence.
"This is part of a much wider movement which has to be led first and foremost by the countries and legitimate authorities in the region. The moment this collapses or any one allows this wittingly or otherwise to collapse into a perceived west versus the Islamic world – I think we would then be drawn into a terrible downward spiral of violence, from which it would be very difficult to escape."