Wrong lessons learned

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. It has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

Thus President Obama misdiagnosed the problem in last night’s rallying cry for a military effort to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

ISIL is certainly an organization that uses terrorist means, but it is also more than that. It now controls and even governs a swath of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq populated by millions of people. While it slaughters its enemies with ferocity, it is wrong to say it has no other vision. Its vision is the destruction of the states of the Iraqi and Levantine states (at the least Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Israel and Palestine), as well as the recreation of a caliphate governed under its peculiarly harsh notion of sharia.

This misdiagnosis is leading President Obama to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush, in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to avoid them. The United States won the wars in it fought in those two countries in 2002 and 2003 respectively. What it lost was the post-war transitions, for which it did little to prepare.

In Afghanistan, the intention was to “kill Al Qaeda and get out,” as Republican advisor Phil Merrill told me at the time. He found ludicrous the notion that we would worry about how justice is administered after we had succeeded. Twelve years later, it is clear that the Taliban took advantage of this failure to re-establish itself, especially in the eastern and southern provinces, while Al Qaeda took refuge in Pakistan.

In Iraq, General Tommy Franks, the American military commander of the invasion, refused to plan for “rear area security,” which is the military euphemism for law and order in the areas liberated from the enemy. The planning for civilian administration, one of three pillars of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), was weak to non-existent. ORHA floundered, then got displaced by Gerry Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, which managed to create the conditions for the Sunni insurgency by disbanding the Iraqi army and barring many Ba’athists from senior positions.

ISIL is a direct descendant of that insurgency. It began its notorious existence as Al Qaeda in Iraq and played a major role in the Iraq civil war of 2006/7. The American counter-insurgency campaign against it was at least partially successful with the support of Sunni tribesmen, but ISIL rose from the ashes in the last few years partly due to the war in Syria and partly due to Nouri al Maliki’s exclusion of Sunnis from real power (not from positions–there were as many Sunnis or more in his governments than in the current one Secretary Kerry has labeled “inclusive”). There is no reason to believe ISIL won’t revive again, unless there are states in Syria and Iraq that have legitimacy with their Sunni populations.

The failure of the President to take into account the requirements and costs of post-war transition once ISIL is defeated in Iraq and Syria means that he is underestimating the risks of his decision to go to war. The costs need not all be American, and they don’t necessarily require American troops. But there has to be a plan for the UN, Arab League, EU and others to support state-building once the anti-ISIL war is won.

The notion that we can kill ISIL and get out, without any attention to what follows, is the same mistake George H.W. Bush made in Somalia (with the result that we are still fighting there more than 25 years later), Bill Clinton would have liked to make in Bosnia (but fortunately was convinced that he could not withdraw US troops within a year), and George W. Bush made in Afghanistan and Iraq. It won’t happen. We’ll get stuck with bills and tasks that we might have preferred to avoid, and for which we fail to prepare.

PS: I discussed some of these issues on WSJ Live this morning:

The risk of misdiagnosis

Everyone agrees the President’s speech tonight has to make it clear to the American people that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) represents a serious national security threat and merits a strong military response, short of many more boots on the ground (there are already more than 1000 US troops in Iraq). This runs against the grain of both the Administration’s preference and public opinion, which have been focused on retrenchment from more than a decade of unhappy ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. But public opinion has already turned in a more belligerent direction, as has the President. ISIL’s beheadings of American journalists turned that tided.

What I will be listening for in the President’s speech tonight lies in a different direction:  how does the President define the challenge ISIL represents? Are the tools he intends to employ adequate to the challenge?

So far, the Administration has defined the challenge as a military one:  to degrade and destroy. This is a classic counter-terrorism goal.

But is ISIL really a terrorist organization, or is it an insurgency? It looks to me far more like insurgency:  against Bashar al Asad’s rule in Syria and Nouri al Maliki’s in Iraq. It still uses terrorist techniques–like the suicide bombing yesterday that killed the leader of a conservative but anti-ISIL Islamist group in Syria. No doubt it would gladly use such techniques also against the US or Americans abroad.

But it is also clearing, holding and trying to govern several million people. That wouldn’t be possible without the acceptance of a good part of the local Sunni population in eastern Syria and western Iraq. The beheadings of American journalists were staged as executions, not terrorist acts. The mass murder of Syrian soldiers and Yezidis aimed to cleanse and establish control over territory. ISIL is reportedly setting up extensive networks to refine and distribute oil products, in addition to its criminal enterprises like kidnapping and extortion.

The problem with misidentifying insurgency as terrorism is that it leads you to the wrong solutions. You can kill a few dozen, or even a few hundred, terrorists. But an insurgency with popular support requires more than military responses. You need to be able to clear, hold and build in the territory where the insurgency once cleared, held and built. Governance, especially administration of justice, is a vital component of counter-insurgency warfare.

Attacking an insurgency as if it is terrorism is likely to cause a good deal of collateral damage and strengthen the insurgency rather than defeat it. This is especially true once the fighting moves from remote desert areas and major infrastructure like the Mosul and Haditha dams  to big cities like Mosul or Tikrit. Without the political efforts to establish something like governing authority in Sanaa and Mogadishu, the drone wars in Yemen and Somalia would have produced a lot of dead bodies but little security for Americans. Even now, many argue that the military effort in those two countries is far too great compared to the limited civilian role in providing humanitarian relief, establishing rule of law and developing the local economies.

In Iraq, the governance issue is fairly straightforward. “Inclusion” of Sunnis and Kurds is the password of the day. But it is a bit misleading.  The new prime minister, Haider al Abadi, has included no more Kurds or Sunnis in his cabinet than did Nouri al Maliki. The key is not inclusion in that sense, but inclusion in another sense: in the distribution of power. That’s why the Iraqi parliament approval of a new, provincially-based National Guard to provide local security is important. Empowerment in ways that enable people to govern themselves without dismantling the country is an important key to success in Iraq. So too is oil, which is the glue that will convince many Sunnis, if not Kurds, that they are better off staying than going.

Inclusion and empowerment is going to be far more difficult in Syria than in Iraq. While claiming military success, Bashar al Asad has destroyed much of his country and undermined the legitimacy of the Syrian state. We may well end up with a Syria divided into cantons subject to separate local authorities. There is little oil to glue the pieces together. But somehow the UN, Arab League, EU and others will have to come up with a way of reestablishing some sort of legitimate authority. Otherwise we’ll end up with a Syria that looks even worse than today’s Libya, where militias are tearing the country to shreds.

War, politics and law

The seven week conflict between Hamas and Israel, dubbed Operation Protective Edge by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), began in early July and reached a ceasefire in late August. It left over 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead. While the media fervently covered the battle, the international community stood relatively silently on the sidelines. Hamas and Israel remain distrustful of each other. The bill for reconstruction will amount to $8 billion. The implications of the conflict have had far reaching consequences for Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics as well as their human rights records.

At Friday’s Middle East Institute panel on the way forward, Mathew Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace moderated the discussion with Khalid Elgindy, a Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Michael Koplow, Program Director at the Israel Institute, and Joe Stork, the Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa Division.

Discussing the impact of the conflict on Palestinian domestic politics, Elgindy said that Hamas’ popularity was dwindling before the conflict. The group gained “new-found popularity” with Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank during the conflict. Hamas’ popularity came largely at the expense of support and confidence in the Palestinian Authority, whose President Abbas was already perceived as ineffective in peace negotiations with Israel and over-reliant on US-led peace negotiations. The Palestinian national movement is in “crisis” with “chronic dysfunction” in Palestinian political parties, Elgindy said. The priority needs to be cooperation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Koplow described the political atmosphere in the Israeli government pre- and post-conflict. Before the incursion into Gaza, the political dynamic was “relatively stable,” with Prime Minister Netanyahu “firmly in control” and the left largely disorganized. Netanyahu commanded almost unconditional support from the public, which was then challenged by the kidnapping and killing of 3 Israeli teens in June 2014. During the war, support for “staying the course” dwindled from over 80% to 30%. Following the ceasefire, the far right has garnered support as the Prime Minister faced pressure from his own party to reoccupy Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu announced plans to expand settlements in the West Bank in order to appease not only those in his own party but also those farther right.

Although Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm its impressions due to Israel and Egypt blocking access, Stork sketched Israel’s and Hamas’ compliance, or lack thereof, with the laws of war. The 2014 operation in Gaza showed patterns of indiscriminate hostilities that date back to 2009. One of the most pressing issues is whether or not the parties distinguished between combatants and civilians. What constitutes a legitimate target has become subjective. Human Rights Watch does not define “terrorist operatives” as those who belong to a particular political party while Israeli law does. The IDF has also been cited in a number of cases for using force in areas where there were no military combatants. Rockets fired from the Palestinian side are categorized as war crimes because the targets are indiscriminate, failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

In the end, Duss posed a difficult but crucial question, “how can we avoid getting here again?” As both sides continue to dig in their heels, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach a compromise on the critical issues that must be reconciled before there is lasting peace.

PS: Here is the C-span video of the event.

Deck chairs on the Titanic, or…

Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al Abadi got most of his cabinet through parliament yesterday. The Americans are celebrating. Abadi’s government has enough Kurds and Sunnis in it to be pronounced “inclusive” and worthy of support in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL):

But the clouds on the horizon are all too apparent. The Kurds are in, but only if they are paid the billions they say they are owed within a week. That may be more likely than it sounds, as a Kurd is the new finance minister (Rowsch Shaways). No new Interior or Defense minister was named, so Abadi will keep those portfolios for the moment. Sound familiar? That’s what outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki did for the better part of his most recent, 4-year mandate. It was a source of major complaints about his concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister.

New faces? Not so much. Maliki, his archrival Ayad Allawi and former Parliament Speaker Osama al Nujaifi get vice-presidential positions, which are well-paid sinecures that don’t happen to exist in the constitution any longer.  Former Prime Minister (that’s almost ancient history–it was 2005/6) Ibrahim al Jaafari replaces Foreign Minister Zebari, who becomes a deputy prime minister, along with Saleh Mutlaq, who was also a deputy PM to Maliki and Sadrist member of parliament Baha al Arajji. Adel Abdul Mehdi, formerly a vice president, becomes oil minister.

There may be some newer faces farther down the list, which I haven’t seen yet–but it is clear that this is no great leap in the inclusive direction. All these leading lights are part of the group that has been governing Iraq for the last decade. None have emerged recently. It is tempting to suggest that Captain Abadi has rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic, without replacing the first mates.

It could also be wrong. Iraqis voted for these people, including Maliki. There was no way to displace them entirely. Giving a sinecure and a security detail to a former prime minister is not the dumbest thing that has been done in Iraq. It may even help to restrain Maliki from stirring the kind of trouble former prime ministers are inclined to stir. Ditto the others:  they might have caused more trouble out than in.

The big question is whether this new government will be able to confront ISIL more effectively than its predecessor. That depends on two things:

  1. The effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces, which is unlikely to improve quickly.
  2. The attitude of Sunnis in ISIL-controlled areas.

It would have been nice to see a few new faces from Anbar, Ninewa and Salah al-Din provinces, which are the ones that rose against Maliki. That might have suggested a real deal to share power in the making. And it really is important that Iraq get effective Defense and Interior ministers, whose behavior will be key to both 1. and 2.

Still, it is better that Iraq get a new government in a timely way  than for the process to drag on much longer. And carping about the lack of new faces won’t do much good. The question now is whether there is a real deal here to share power and mobilize Sunnis as well as Shia and Kurds against ISIL.  If Iraqis join the fight in a serious way, ISIL will be sent packing back to Syria in short order. There will still be a problem, but it won’t then be Abadi’s ship at risk. It will be Bashar al Asad’s.

Scotland and Ukraine

While the OSCE has not yet posted an English version of Friday’s agreement involving Russia and Ukraine, there is one available on www.slavyangrad.org that reads well (I can’t judge whether it is accurate).

The text isn’t as bad as Ukraine’s parlous military situation suggests it might have been.

A good deal of it is unobjectionable:  the ceasefire, OSCE monitoring and verification not only of the ceasefire but also of the border on a “permanent” basis, removal of unlawful military forces, release of detainees, national dialogue, humanitarian relief, and economic recovery. Details are lacking, but these are all things that the international community, the Ukrainians and the Russians know how to do if there is political will to do them.

The tougher things are point 3

Implement decentralization of power, including by means of enacting the Law of Ukraine “With respect to the temporary status of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions” (Law on Special Status)

and point 6

Enact a law prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that took place in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions of Ukraine.

There is also (point 9) provision for early local elections in Donbas.

Moscow is headlining the decentralization associated with the Law on Special Status, which is to be passed in the future. The Russians will seek maximum powers of self-governance for Luhansk and Donetsk. It will also seek some means by which its proxies there can block European Union and NATO membership for Ukraine as a whole. But the fact that the self-governance will be established by a law passed in the Ukrainian parliament gives Kiev an upper hand, especially on the question of any veto powers over Ukraine’s affiliation with Euro-Atlantic institutions.

The question of amnesty (point 6) is also fraught. It is difficult to picture an amnesty that would cover the downing of Malaysia Air 17, or some of the other atrocities perpetrated in the Donbas region in recent months. But that appears to be what has been promised. We’ll just have to wait and see what that provision means. Amnesty, like the new special law on status, will need to pass in the Ukrainian parliament.

Nothing in the current agreement appears to offer or promise to the rebels in Donbas or to Moscow anything like a veto over EU or NATO membership. No doubt the Russians would like an arrangement like the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Serb entity has a veto over just about anything it wants to block. I find it hard to believe that something like that isn’t lurking, likely in the national dialogue. But its outcome is far from certain, and implementation of its results could be long in the making.

Much as Ukraine may have suffered in recent days on the battlefield, Corey Flintoff’s interesting report this morning on Russia’s handling of its combat deaths suggests that President Poroshenko isn’t the only one anxious to stop the fighting. Russians are starting to feel the pain. Vladimir Putin no doubt also hopes to forestall European expansion of sanctions, which has been imminent for a week. Russia is no democracy these days, and Putin is riding high, but maybe his nervousness about whether he can make it last is showing.

That said, it is one more sad fact of our current events that Scotland votes September 18 on independence from the United Kingdom. If that goes in the “yes” direction polls are now pointing, we can expect the repercussions to be felt not only in Ukraine but also in the Balkans, the Caucasus and elsewhere. Scotland has nothing to do with those other places, but demonstration effects can be powerful.

Tailored diplomacy

My wife tells me this is a funny story, so I’ve decided to tell it outside the confines of my close friends and family.



Several years ago I was headed to Ljubljana, from which I am departing today, hoping the Slovenes will forget this story by the time I get back. Ljubljana then was the first leg of a Pristina/Sarajevo jaunt. The foreign minister had asked me to come by and talk with his Balkan folks, which I was glad to do.

Slovenia had done well for itself.  It was already a NATO and European Union member. But traditionally it turned up its nose a bit at “the Balkans,” from which it had escaped. It preferred to be regarded as central European. I was happy that the Slovenes were exploring how they could be helpful to their southern neighbors.

With lots of time to prepare for departure, I closed up the small rollie that is the maximum I take anyplace, had a leisurely lunch with my wife, and headed to Dulles in good time for a flight to Frankfurt. Transiting there, I glanced down at the suitcase and wondered why it looked less chock a block full than usual. Sure enough:  I had forgotten my business suits, which were still hanging in a closet in DC, so as not to get wrinkled the night before departure.

Panic set in, but not despair. I sent a quick email to my wife asking for help (T-mobile, which functions most places on earth at minimal cost, really is the provider of choice for international travelers, despite iffy service in DC). And another quick email went to Kosovar friends living in the US, to see if they knew anyone traveling to Pristina in the next day or two. Surely my network would come up with something.

The Galerija Emporium

No answers by the time I arrived in Ljubljana, so I decided to make shopping for a suit the afternoon’s entertainment. Ljubljana is a small town but it took me a couple of hours to case the men’s shops and try on a few candidates. One I found at the Galerija Emporium was really nice.

But it cost $1200. Euroland is not cheap for Americans. So I asked the friendly salesman whether there wasn’t a cheaper source of business suits in town. Sure, he said. Try Zara.

I’d never heard of Zara, as this cheap source of (often too) stylish clothes is kept secret from anyone over 40. But I took the advice and found an excessively fitted suit for a small fraction of $1200.

But they don’t do alterations. Yes, they recommended Maria, down the street in the underpass. But I had better hurry, as it was close to closing time. I found Maria’s shop, with difficulty, but she was only open two afternoons per week. Not my afternoon, of course.

Back to the hotel. Trusty sewing kit at the ready (don’t you carry one?). I gave up on the sleeves–they were too long, but maybe that would pass for stylish. The pants needed hemming, one way or the other. I did my best. Ran out of gray thread. Leaned on the concierge for some more. The hemming wasn’t pretty, but it was better than showing up in the foreign ministry with the pants rolled up.

The meetings went well both there and at the prime ministry. No one asked why my pants looked as if I had hemmed them myself.

Afternoon comes. Time to call my wife, who no doubt has figured something out.

Not a chance. Yes, she got the email, but it was a plea for help from someone who has never asked for help previously. She figured it was a Nigerian scam and didn’t even want to click on it. And no, the Kosovars didn’t know anyone headed for Pristina.

But they had a solution:  their sister would meet me on arrival in Pristina and get me tailored right away.

Comforted, I boarded for Pristina, suited up because the Kosovars are good to me and always bring me through the VIP lounge to a ministry car, whose driver on this occasion announces that I am to go directly–do not pass Go–to the minister’s office.

No time for tailoring, I told my friends’ sister in a quick call, until after the meeting with the minister, who again seemed not to notice that my pants looked as if I’d hemmed them myself.

On my way back to the hotel, I arrange to rendez-vous with my Kosovar guardian angel. I had managed to get 45 minutes between meetings. The shop she takes me to doesn’t look like it is in Europe, but it is open and does alterations. One of the three busy people at sewing machines invites me behind a curtain that hides a back room, where I surrender my pants and jacket.

Standing in my shirtsleeves and underwear, I hear a loud rrrrrrip, as the tailor tears out my hour’s worth of hemming. Now I know the process is irreversible.

Ten minutes later I’m trying on the suit, with pants and jacket sleeves redone perfectly. I race back to the foreign ministry. No one notices that I’ve just had my suit altered.

My wife did eventually convince a colleague coming to Sarajevo to carry my suits and deliver them to me there. I never wore them. I like the Zara suit a lot.

PS: a colleague tells me he ripped open the rear seam of this pants on arrival in a foreign capital. The concierge obliged not with gray thread but with a stapler, employed with the pants still on. That makes me cringe.

PPS: one reader says I might have done worse at Zara.

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