News You Really Need To See: “Why Iraqis Living Under the Islamic State Fear Their Liberators”

“Why Iraqis Living Under the Islamic State Fear Their Liberators”

The Washington Post, April 11, 2016

While the Iraqi military and its allies may be slowly retaking cities from the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, most Iraqi Sunnis fear and distrust the forces that are ‘liberating’ them from those militants.  But what do the majority of Iraqis want for their country’s future?  A recent study sheds light on this, painting a picture of an Iraq deeply divided by sectarianism. … Our data from February 2016 shows Sunni Arabs fear the forces meant to liberate them from the Islamic State.  In Mosul — where a campaign to liberate Iraq’s second-biggest city from Islamic State control just started — 74 percent of Sunni survey respondents say they do not want to be liberated by the Iraqi army on its own.  But this distrust for the Iraqi army is surpassed by distrust for the Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.  Of the 120 Sunni respondents in Mosul, 100 percent do not want to be liberated by Shiite militias or the Kurds.  There is a very deep distrust of forces that are meant to free Sunni Iraqis from the clutches of the Islamic State.  No, it is not because most Sunnis support the Islamic State.  In fact, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Sunnis oppose the Islamic State.  An IIACSS poll conducted in January 2016 showed that 99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunnis across Iraq oppose the Islamic State.  If so many Sunnis oppose the Islamic State, why are they so concerned about the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga working to liberating them?  The answer lies in the collective identity that Sunni Iraqis hold — and the sense that their community is and will not be treated fairly by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and its allies. … A vast majority, 91 percent, of Sunnis do not believe that Iraqis are treated equally in terms of their rights.  On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of Shiite believe that the Iraqi government applies equal protection of rights to all Iraqis.”

Quickie analysis:   Troubling evidence that the Iraqi government has done almost nothing to address the underlying discontent that led to ISIS’s advance in the first place.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part I

April 15, 2016 by Darius 

I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute (I know, outside my normal range!) on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known on-going interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  Over the next few days, I’ll share their comments.  Today’s post will be the remarks of Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed Pakistan.

The “invisible war” the US has conducted in Pakistan has stood out from the other invisible wars because it is entirely a product of US policy towards a separate country: Afghanistan.  Because its involvement in Pakistan has been overshadowed by its involvement in Afghanistan, the US has never psychologically seen itself as being at war in Pakistan.  At the same time, US counterterrorism policy in Pakistan is driven by a mistrust of the aims of the Pakistani government.  According to Yusuf, this mistrust is not just a matter of misunderstanding but instead reflects Machiavellian politics and a very real divergence of interests between the US and Pakistan.  However, American options vis-a-vis Pakistan are constrained by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: the US dares not push Pakistan too hard for fear that it collapses entirely, destabilizing its nuclear weapons.  Yusuf described the entire US-Pakistan relationship with the line, “We all know this is a bad marriage, but divorce is too expensive to try.”

Yusuf proceeded to briefly narrate US-Pakistani terror policy.  According to Yusuf, Pakistan’s prior military ruler and president, Pervez Musharraf, was very reluctant to send Pakistani troops into Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions to fight militant groups.  Although Musharraf eventually succumbed to US pressure and did so, the US and Pakistan drew very different conclusions from the fighting in the tribal regions.  The US thought Pakistan was too soft on the militant groups, whereas Pakistan concluded the entire venture was a costly mistake.

As a result of these diverging conclusions, the US decided that it could not trust Pakistan and needed to act on its own to protect US interests in Afghanistan, whether Pakistan liked it or not.  This policy manifested itself with some drone strikes and raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden.  Yusuf said there was originally an understanding between the US and Pakistan on US drones strikes within Pakistan, but that understanding fell apart at some point.

According to Yusuf, it is Pakistan, not the US, that has blocked transparency regarding the US’s “invisible war” in Pakistan.  The Pakistani government avoids transparency because the US is so unpopular in Pakistan that the Pakistani government fears a massive popular backlash if the scope of its cooperation with the US were to be revealed.  Instead, the Pakistani government opted for a policy of “public rebuke, private partnership,” at least until around 2011, when the entire relationship fell apart.  According to Yusuf, the Pakistani government’s refusal to allow greater transparency effectively killed the US’s campaign to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.  However, Yusuf believes that it is far too late for a paradigm shift in relations with Pakistan and that at this point transparency would do more harm than good.

Yusuf said that American and Pakistani divergence of interests does not stem from Afghanistan or the Taliban.  Instead, it comes from Pakistan’s obsession with India: Pakistan is disrupting the US in Afghanistan in an attempt to punish the US for getting closer to India.  Yusuf said there is no way the US can reconcile with Pakistan while keeping its relations with India; yet because of India’s sheer size and economy, US officials have decided (rightly so, in Yusuf’s mind) that India is much more important.  Yusuf felt that the US will not be able to achieve a solution in Afghanistan without solving the wider India-Pakistan problem.  (Good luck with that.)

Yusuf said that the insurgency in Pakistan against the Pakistani government was the result of years of bad policies by the Pakistani government but that the trigger for the insurgency was external—in this case, the 9/11 attacks.  Because 9/11 was so sudden, though, both the US and Pakistan were caught without a strategy in place.  They acted anyway.

According to Yusuf, all of the US’s counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan, including drones, was no more than a Band-Aid.  Instead, the US’s real attempt at a solution was to throw money at the problem, in the form of vast amounts of aid to the Pakistani government, much of which went straight to the military.  Unfortunately, as Yusuf noted, kinetic force and throwing money at the problem are completely ineffective in South Asia.

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News You Really Need To See: “Nigeria: 347 Shiites Buried in Mass Grave, Inquiry Told”

“Nigeria: 347 Shiites Buried in Mass Grave, Inquiry Told”

Newsweek, April 12, 2016

Hundreds of Nigerian Shiites were buried in a single mass grave following clashes with the military, an inquiry heard on Monday, as lawyers for the detained Shiite leader demand his release.  Members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN)— led by Iranian-backed Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky —clashed with the Nigerian army in the northern city of Zaria, Kaduna state, between December 12-14, 2015.  A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) published in December estimated that at least 300 IMN members had been killed in the clashes, which the army claimed started after members of the sect tried to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai.  The IMN maintains that the clashes were unprovoked. … The Secretary to the State Government, Balarabe Lawal, told the inquiry on Monday that at least 347 Shiites were killed and buried in mass graves in the aftermath of the clashes. … The IMN’s spokesperson Ibrahim Musa told Newsweek that the burial took place ‘in the middle of the night’ and was not done according to Islamic burial rites.  ‘None of their families have seen them, none was contacted and told they are going to be buried,’ says Musa, who adds that more than 700 members of the movement remain missing after the clashes.”

Quickie analysis:   No wonder the Nigerian military barely edges out Boko Haram on the “likability index” in much of the country.  It’s astonishing that nearly 350 people could be killed and dumped in mass graves without so much as a peep from the media until now.  (Also, there are Shia in Nigeria?)

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Thinking Aloud: Yemen’s Miserable Year

March 20, 2016 by Darius 

In a few days, we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states intervened to prevent a complete takeover of the country by the Houthis, Zaydi Shia tribal rebels backed, ideologically at least, by Iran.  Here’s a roundup of what the intervention has accomplished so far.

  • By the end of last year, according to the United Nations, nearly 2,800 Yemeni civilians had been killed and another 5,000 wounded, by a combination of Saudi airstrikes and rebel shelling. Despite several attempts at a ceasefire, civilian casualties have continued to mount, largely thanks to policies such as the Saudi decision to declare the entire province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold in Yemen’s north along the Saudi border, to be a free-fire zone.
  • Yemen is in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis, with a majority of the population facing insecurity and shortages of food, water, and medicine. The crisis was brought on by the Saudi-led coalition’s decision to impose a total blockade on Yemen, supposedly to intercept Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis.  After major international outcry, the blockade has been partially lifted, but the situation for millions of Yemenis remains dire.
  • Fighting continues between myriad groups, including the internationally recognized Yemeni government, backed by the Saudis, southern tribes aligned with the Yemeni government, the Houthi government in the capital, Sanaa, militias aligned with the Houthis, former members of the Yemeni military loyal to the former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is plotting a return for himself or his sons, various local defense groups, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The sheer number of armed groups involved makes the prospect of a negotiated settlement difficult, though an agreement between the Houthis and the government would likely end most of the fighting.
  • Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has dramatically expanded amidst the chaos, taking the port of al-Mukalla, Yemen’s fourth-largest city, several months ago. AQAP has particularly expanded in Yemen’s poor, sparsely populated southeast.  No matter who prevails in the conflict between the government and the Houthis, AQAP has been reinvigorated and will remain a powerful and deadly force in Yemen.
  • Yemen’s cities and cultural heritage, including UNESCO World Heritage sites, have been devastated by the fighting.  Saudi airstrikes have leveled much of the capital, Sanaa, and Saada, the largest city in the far north, while heavy fighting has destroyed much of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, and Aden, the de facto capital of the south and seat of Yemen’s official government.  Even if the fighting stops now, most of Yemen will need to be rebuilt.
  • The US has spent $86 million (!) in helping the Saudis acquire targeting intelligence for their airstrikes and in refueling Saudi planes.
  • ISIS has appeared in Yemen, carrying out several major suicide attacks in Aden.

Yemen and its people are worse off in every way than they were a year ago, and the region is less stable, not more stable.  To paraphrase Dave Barry, at the cost of several thousand dead civilians, Saudi Arabia has transformed Yemen from a poor, unstable country whose inhabitants hate each other into a poor, unstable country whose inhabitants really hate each other.  Good job.

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News You Really Need To See: “As Iraqi Civilian Rule Weakens, Shi’ite Clerics Call the Shots”

“As Iraqi Civilian Rule Weakens, Shi’ite Clerics Call the Shots”

Reuters, March 20, 2016

With Iraq’s politicians tainted by corruption and the army’s standing hurt by battlefield defeats, two Shi’ite clerics have re-emerged as leaders in matters of state.  In their different ways, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s two most influential Shi’ite leaders, are pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to tackle graft at the heart of Iraq’s government.  The timing of their intervention is delicate.  If Abadi fails to satisfy Sistani and Sadr by delivering long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to fight for the largest city under Islamic State control – Mosul.  In recent weeks both clerics have increased pressure on Abadi. Sistani signaled his displeasure in January by saying his voice had ‘become sore’ with repeating his calls for reforms.  On Feb. 5, he said he would no longer deliver weekly sermons about political affairs, and he has been only addressing religious matters since.  Sadr followed up by escalating street protests. … It is not the first time that Sistani has influenced the political agenda since the army’s collapse before Islamic State militants two years ago.  He forced out prime minister Nuri al-Maliki after an eight-year premiership which alienated Sunni Muslims and saw corruption set in among senior army officers.  All it took for the Grand Ayatollah to oust Maliki was to say, in a Friday sermon delivered by one of his representatives, that politicians ‘should not cling to positions.’ … On March 10, Sadr formally announced his mission as guardian of good governance when he called on his supporters to rally in Baghdad in a statement that ended with a new title:  The people’s servant and the fighter of corruption.”

Quickie analysis:  The dynamic duo of clerics continue to be the only force in Iraq capable of getting the government to even try to tackle corruption.

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Thinking Aloud: The Palestine Delusion on College Campuses

March 14, 2016 by Darius 

“From the river to the sea, our country will be free!” That’s heard constantly at pro-Palestine protests and posted on social media. As a slogan, it’s pithy, quotable, and even catchy—and also something that should never, ever be said. During the last few months, I’ve had a chance to get a closer look at the pro-Palestine movement on a college campus in the US. The slogan is an example of a larger phenomenon: the Palestinian rights movement suffers from a severe and probably crippling branding problem.

Why is “from the river to the sea” a terrible slogan? Because it comes across as calling for Israel’s destruction. The “river” obviously refers to the Jordan River, while the “sea” is the Mediterranean. With the possible semantic exception of Gaza’s coastline, no Palestinian state is envisaged to be anywhere near the sea, much less stretching from the river to the sea. While Palestinian rights advocates who use the slogan might claim they are referring to Israeli Arabs, it is easy to see how an observer might interpret it differently. In short, the pro-Zionist replies to such slogans write themselves.

More importantly, “from the river to the sea” plays into a trap those who advocate for a Palestinian state or greater rights for Palestinians must avoid at all costs: the fallacy that either Israel or Palestine can exist, but not both. Pro-Israel and pro-Zionist groups on and off campus love to turn the issue into an either or, and for good reason: according to basically any metric, Israel contributes more to the world than a Palestinian replacement state would. For all its faults, Israel is a democracy, with greater respect for human rights than its neighbors, with a booming economy that supplies much of the world’s cutting-edge technology, and with a vibrant liberal cultural scene that could not exist anywhere else in the Middle East. Neither keffiyehs nor falafel (both of which have been partially appropriated by Israel) can possibly hope to compete with Israel’s achievements on equal terms. The corrupt dinosaurs who run the Palestinian Authority have even less chance of beating Israel in the arena of US public opinion.

The more Palestinian rights advocates on campus shout about implementing UN resolutions and the right of return for refugees, the more they play into pro-Zionist hands in terms of framing the debate. Seeking to punish Israel only entrenches the status quo. Speaking of the status quo, that’s another thing pro-Palestine groups cannot seem to grasp: they’re losing. Despite token victories like Sodastream accelerating its plans to pull out of the West Bank because of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, more of Palestine is being eaten up with every passing week with no serious consequences for Israel. Clearly, the current paradigm of advocacy is not working. Instead, though, I heard a lot about the inevitability of the triumph of the Palestinian cause, leading me to conclude that these activists must be inhabiting a different reality.

Anyone who has bothered reading my previous posts on the issue knows that I generally support greater protections for Palestinian human and civil rights and self-government for the Palestinian people. But, disappointingly, the current pro-Palestine campus movement is not going to move the needle on these issues, and its naïve, insular rhetoric may well do more harm than good.

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News You Really Need To See: “Soldiers v Politicians: Israel’s Generals and Their Troubled Relationship with the Elected Cabinet”

“Soldiers v Politicians: Israel’s Generals and Their Troubled Relationship with the Elected Cabinet”

The Economist, March 14, 2016

All is not well between Israel’s cabinet and the generals who supposedly report to them. Major-General Herzl Halevi arrived at the Knesset on February 23rd for what was planned as a routine briefing for members of the defence committee of Israel’s parliament.  Instead, the chief of military intelligence delivered a stark warning.  Despite efforts by the Palestinian militant movement Hamas to maintain the ceasefire around the Gaza Strip, he said, the lack of economic development in the coastal enclave, currently under joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade, would inevitably lead to humanitarian catastrophe and another round of violence between Israel and Gaza.  What General Halevi left unsaid is that there has long been disagreement on Gaza’s future between Israel’s government and its men and women in uniform.  Going back as far as the bloody coup in 2007, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza (from which Israel withdrew in 2005), the generals and members of the National Security Council have advised the politicians to find ways to help Gaza’s economy, opening up the blockade and building infrastructure, including a seaport there.  The rationale is that better economic prospects would deter the Palestinians from firing missiles on Israeli towns.  But successive Israeli governments, bolstered behind the scenes by neighbouring Egypt’s enmity towards Hamas, have not been enthused by these proposals. … The tension between the government and the security establishment is largely due to the generals’ belief that economic incentives and dialogue will prove more efficient in curbing Palestinian attacks than further crackdowns.  Last year, the main cause of disagreement was the generals’ reluctance to echo Mr Netanyahu’s warnings of the dire consequences of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the international community. In briefings they have even spoken of the ‘opportunities’ the deal could afford Israel’s security. … Despite the IDF’s central role in Israeli society—where most of the Jewish majority take part in compulsory military service, and the army uniformly ranks in surveys as the most popular of national institutions—the generals are usually careful to not overstep the line in public.  Ultimately they have deferred to their political masters.”

Quickie analysis:  Israel’s active generals seem to be trying to protect the state, not grandstand for the next election.  Too bad their advice is not being heeded.

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