Tag: Al Qaeda

The world in 2394 words

I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”

 

  1. It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
  1. That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
  1. My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.

Washington

  1. First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
  1. Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
  1. President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
  1. It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
  1. Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
  1. But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
  1. The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
  1. The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.

Middle East

  1. As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
  1. By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
  1. This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
  1. In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
  1. That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
  1. The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
  1. There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
  1. Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
  1. We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.

Iran

  1. In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
  1. That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
  1. The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
  1. Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
  1. To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.

Russia

  1. Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
  1. Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
  1. The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
  1. They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
  1. None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
  1. Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
  1. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
  1. The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
  1. I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
  1. But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
  1. We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.

China Read more

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Mahmoudiya at peace

This event yesterday commemorated a successful tribal reconciliation effort in Mahmoudiya, a qadaa south of Baghdad known in 2007 as the “Triangle of Death.” I supported and participated in this effort as a vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, conducted in cooperation with the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The video is unfortunately more than 70 minutes, but it documents that rare bird: a demonstrably successful peacebuilding effort (in an area in which Al Qaeda was an active belligerent), based on civilian and military cooperation. 

Here is the written agreement that initiated a process that has continued to limit violence in the area. I’ll add some notes here about how it was done and why it has lasted when I have a bit more time.  

With gratitude to Rusty Barber, who was USIP’s chief of party in Baghdad and did most of the heavy lifting, 

 

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A bona fide boon to lawyers

That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US  to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.

Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.

The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.

So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.

The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:

Opposition to restrictions on entry to US

In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.

Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.

It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.

We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.

PS: If you don’t like that chart, try this one:

Pew world ratings of Trump and Obama

 

 

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What is the US doing in Syria?

Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman, Friday told a Pentagon briefing by teleconference from Baghdad:

if the Syrian regime — and it looks like they are making a concerted effort to move into ISIS held areas.  And if they show that they can do that, that is not a bad sign.  We are here to fight ISIS as a coalition, but if others want to fight ISIS and defeat them, then we absolutely have no problem with that.  And as they move eastward toward Abu Kamal and to Deir Ezzour, if we — as long as we can de-conflict and make sure that we can focus on what it is we’re there to do, without having any kind of strategic mishaps with the regime or with pro-regime forces or with Russians, then that is — we’re perfectly happy with that.

The Colonel also said he was unfamiliar with the Authorization to Use Military Force (the AUMF). It’s disturbing that someone in his position should not be familiar with Congress’ 2001 authorization, under which the operations in Syria and Iraq are being taken, but I confess what he said about the Coalition focus on ISIS is consistent with it.

This is as clear an answer as we’ve had to the question “what does the Trump Administration think it is doing in Syria?” Essentially, it is doing what the Obama Administration did: trying to ignore the rebellion against the Assad regime while attacking primarily ISIS (and secondarily Al Qaeda), in coalition with whoever will serve that purpose. The attack on Assad’s air base that launched chemical weapons, and the more recent attacks on drones as well as the downing of a Syrian warplane, are intended to be one-offs, not a consistent campaign against the regime or its allies.

This disappoints those who regard Assad as one of the causes of terrorist ascendancy in Syria and a political transition as vital to ending both the regime and the appeal of ISIS and Al Qaeda to Syrians. As Faysal Itani puts it, the US faces a choice

between conducting a more ambitious but riskier Syria policy, and accepting sacrifices that could lower the risk of escalation with Iran and the Assad regime but potentially threaten long-term U.S. interests.

Those longer-term threats include a continuing role for Iran and Hizbollah in both Syria and Iraq, with implications for Israel’s security, as well as continuation of the Sunni insurgency in both countries.

The more ambitious Syria policy would, however, require that someone in the Colonel’s position be prepared to say something like this:

The US and its allies will not turn territory over to the Syrian regime or its Iranian-sponsored surrogates. We will follow up victory with a concerted effort to build inclusive governing authorities committed to continuing the fight against terrorism, and to achieve an eventual political transition in Damascus.

That is precisely what the Trump Administration, like Obama’s, does not want to do. The most it has allowed so far is a minimalist civilian deployment, one clearly unable to do much more than the rudiments of “stabilization,” which the powers that be want to distinguish from state-building.

President Obama was remarkably disciplined in this respect: he avoided any commitment even to minimal stabilization in Syria, though he provided sporadic support to the Syrian opposition in the fight against Assad. We’ll see soon whether President Trump matches that performance, or even goes further in collaboration with the regime, or instead decides to expand the mission to blocking Iran from achieving its regional goals.

I wouldn’t bet on continuing discipline. But I doubt a disciplined effort to counter Iran as well. The Colonel has been eminently clear, but this Administration seems determined to send confusing signals about key issues. We might even get a contradictory tweet from @realDonaldTrump tomorrow. Just ask the Qataris.

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Jihadism in Libya

On Tuesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum featuring experts Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran to mark the release of their collaborative report, “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and Associate Director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center, joined the three authors. The report—which seeks to understand the trajectory of jihadist organizations in Libya through a study of the Islamic State—emphasized the crisis of a weak and divided central authority, the allure of Islamist opposition, and the adaptability of jihadist groups in Libya.

In the wake of longtime Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition and demise in 2011, the state collapsed into a series of territorial struggles. Libyan jihadism emerged out of this turbulent climate. Pack, Smith, and Mezran report produces three key findings:

  1.  A divided political climate and weak state control enabled the growth of ISIS in Libya.
  2.  The majority of Libyans oppose ISIS, expressing distaste for the organization’s brutal policies and techniques.
  3. Libyan jihadism is driven by Libyan concerns, despite the dressing of Salafist religious rhetoric.

The crisis of governance in Libya “opened the door for local jihadist groups,” noted Chivvis. In particular, ISIS strategy targeted “under-governed” cities with historical links to global jihadist networks, such as Derna in the east. As jihadist militias proliferated and tensions between Islamists and anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar’s forces escalated, increasing numbers of jihadist commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS. Ultimately, ISIS seized Derna in October 2014.

Rival jihadist group Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) expelled ISIS from Derna in May 2016 . However, notes the report, “jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them.” Jihadist groups will continue to take advantage of weak governmental authority and local instability.

For this reason, a purely counterterror approach is insufficient. Smith and Pack noted that any successful foreign effort to combat ISIS in Libya must involve targeted capacity building to fill vacuums in Libyan industry and government. The upcoming 2018 national elections could help fill this void, provided that sufficient centralized authority exists at that time to carry them out.

“ISIS is the symptom,” reiterated Pack, “not the cause. The underlying disease is statelessness.”

The lack of a strong national government and consequent decentralization of authority in Libya also means that loyalties—whether to militia leaders or ISIS commanders—are predominantly local. For this reason, Pack explained, it is vitally important that concerned foreign actors focus their efforts on empowering local councils and institutions. Yet since 2011, both the Obama and Trump administrations have limited themselves to assassinations and air strikes in the region. While reluctance to deploy troops is understandable, deferring the problem could lead to perpetual instability, Chivvis cautioned.

Feelings of abandonment are another force driving jihadism in the country. Sirte is a prime example. One of the last Qaddafi holdouts, the city fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) rebel forces in 2011. After NTC control waned, ISIS seized control of the city only to be expelled by Misratan forces allied with the new national authority (the Government of National Accord). Disaffected citizens embraced Islamist opposition in the form of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar ash-Sharia. Now that Ansar ash-Sharia has also been expelled, Tuesday’s panelists fear the power vacuum left in its wake. Pack cautioned that the cycle of government control followed by superseding jihadist or Islamist opposition may persist.

The great danger and advantage of jihadist groups is adaptability. Although ISIS has lost territory, warned Smith, it now possesses the freedom to mutate—especially if conflict breaks out once again in Sirte.

Networks between Libyan cities and the Levant remain active. In Pack’s estimation, the country functions as a kind of “postgrad for jihadists”: prospective agents are trained in Syria, but learn how to survive and innovate in outposts like Libya. According to Chivvis, ISIS actively sought to build a new front in the country.

Despite the dire situation in Libya, there remains staunch resistance to jihadism. Smith suggests that the Libyan people possess a deep-seated mistrust of foreign interference that ultimately places them in opposition to foreign-based groups like ISIS. This may extend to regional jihadist groups as well.

“The lesser evil of 2011 was, ‘Let’s work with Islamists.’ The lesser evil of 2016 is, ‘Let’s work with French and British and American forces to rid our country of jihadists,’” observed Pack.

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Or else what?

Hassan Hassan ( ) offers this Twitter-published translation of what purports to be the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian demands of Qatar (I’ve made a few minor editorial adjustments to ease readability):

1. Qatar must reduce diplomatic representation with Iran, shut down attaches, expel IRGC elements, limit commercial ties to UNSC-compliant.

2. Qatar must immoderately [quickly?] shut down the Turkish military base that is being established, and halt any military cooperation with Turkey in Qatar.

3. Qatar must announce severance of ties with terrorist, ideological & sectarian orgs: MB, ISIS, AQ, HTS, Hizbollah; designate as terrorists

4. Qatar must cease any funding activities to extremist and terrorist individuals, entities & orgs, including US/international designation lists.

5. Qatar must hand over all designated terrorists, wanted by the four countries; freeze their assets; stop hosting others in the future.

6. Qatar must shut down Al Jazeera and all affiliated channels

7. Qatar must stop interference in these countries’ domestic+foreign affairs; stop naturalization of their citizens; extradite such citizens

8. Qatar must provide reparations to these countries for any opportunity costs incurred over the past few years because of Qatari policies.

9. Qatar must become in sync with its Gulf & Arab neighborhood on all levels, and to activate Riyadh Agreement 2013 + 2014

10. Qatar must provide all databases related to oppositionists that it provided support to & clarify what help was provided.

11. Qatar must [close?] all media outlets backed by it directly or indirectly, like Arabi21, Rasd, New Arab, Middle East Eye, Mkamlin, Sharq etc

12. These demands must be agreed within 10 days, otherwise they would be invalidated.

13. Agreement will involve clear goals and mechanism, monthly reports in the first year, every three months the next & annually for 10 years

Here is the Arabic, for those who want to check the translation:

While I suppose this is subject to negotiation, both its tone and contents suggest that the gang of four is not looking for an agreement.

So what is this about?

First it is about asserting preeminence. The Saudis in particular want to make it clear that they lead the Gulf (and more: the Sunni Arab countries). Qatar’s relationship with Turkey, in particular the recently reinforced Turkish base in Qatar, challenges the Kingdom’s preeminence and limits what Riyadh can do, hence its position as number 2 demand.

Second, it is about Iran, which the Emirates and the Kingdom view as a mortal enemy. Qatar has to maintain good relations with Iran, with which it shares a natural gas field. But the diplomatic and security relationship is something its Gulf partners want reduced.

Third, it is about reducing internal threats, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups as well as non-compliant media and other “oppositionists,” a term that could cover a lot of ground. The demands to stop naturalization and to extradite non-citizens should be read in this context.

Fourth, but only fourth, it is about cutting off support to terrorists, defined to include the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and Hizbollah. The Saudis don’t come to this last demand with clean hands, as their Wahhabi clerics have certainly inspired some of the terrorists, and many think private funds have flowed from Saudis to terrorist groups.

Qatar will be tempted to reject this list of demands in its entirety. That I think would not be so wise. There is a whiff of regime change surrounding this document, especially the 10-day ultimatum. It seems to be saying “do these things or else.” What? The cut-off of transport and trade is already painful, but things could get worse. The bloodless coups of 1972 and 1995 in Qatar are certainly not forgotten.

Better would be to sit with the antagonists and review each point, agreeing where possible and making clear why Doha cannot agree to other points. The more Qatar can indicate cooperation on terrorism, the more backing it can expect from the United States (or at least from Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis–the President is erratic and seems to be conducting a distinctly different foreign policy). The US is unlikely to care much about Turkey’s small military presence in Qatar or to want media shut down without good cause. But the Americans will want Qatar to make all commerce compliant with UN Security Council requirements as well as renounce ties with, and end funding of, designated terrorists.

There seems to be a growing Trumpization infecting negotiating styles worldwide. Making your position clear is desirable. Ignoring the fact that your adversary has alternatives to a negotiated agreement is not. Iran stepped in quickly to help Doha, as did Turkey. The net result of these overblown demands could be to drive Qatar further in their direction. That would be counter-productive. A coup is likewise a risky idea. Better to reach some sort of negotiated outcome.

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