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The Terrorist Non-Event: The Arrest of Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis

By: Philippe Duhart Friday October 19, 2012 2:59 pm

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Another thwarted fake terror plot. That’s right, we’re a bit safer.

Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, a 21-year old Bangladeshi national, was arrested this week on terrorism charges. As Spencer Ackerman points out, Nafis is no Carlos the Jackal:

The Justice Department alleges that Nafis came to Queens, New York, in January from Bangladesh on a student visa — and quickly began exploring his options for pulling off a terrorist attack. Only Nafis was so inattentive to keeping his operation a secret that he practically stood on a street corner and waved his arms until the FBI and NYPD took notice.In July, Nafis crossed the radar of an anonymous FBI informant, according to the criminal complaint against him. When they initially spoke on a phone call, Nafis attempted to cover himself with a crude code: He was a fan of “O” (Osama bin Laden), a reader of “I” (Inspire, al-Qaida’s English-language webzine for DIY terrorism), and he wanted to pull off “J” (jihad). But the very next day, Nafis was so trusting that he openly discussed on Facebook “Islamic legal rulings” on the permissibility of bombing a country that granted him a student visa. Within a week, was ranting in person to the informant about killing “a high-ranking government official” and boasting of his ties to al-Qaida.

The informant did what informants in these cases do: snitch. He told Nafis that he knew a member of al-Qaida in New York. An excited Nafis attended a meeting with the al-Qaida agent in Central Park on July 24, where he allegedly gushed about wanting to pull off something “very, very very very big, that will shake the whole country, that will make America not one step ahead, change of policy… [but] that will make us one step closer to run[ning] the whole world.”

Of course, Nafis was speaking with an undercover FBI agent, less than a month after making contact with the snitch. The closest Nafis came to disbelieving the agent came in a question the following month: “The thing that I want to ask you about is that, the thing that I’m doing, is it under al-Qaeda?” The undercover FBI agent nodded, and that was enough for Nafis, who implored him to tell al-Qaida that he had come up with the plan to bomb the Fed all by himself.The agent took it from there. He hooked Nafis up with 20 50-pound bags of fake explosives, a van and a storage space for it all; and convinced Nafis not to return to Bangladesh to see his family a final time. Nafis, for his part, gave the agent a thumb drive containing an article he wanted published in Inspireexplaining his brilliant plan. Go time was set for Oct. 17, 2012, with the hope of disrupting the presidential election.

On Wednesday morning, the two assembled the bomb, hooked up a cellphone detonator, loaded it into the van, and parked outside the Federal Reserve. They rented a room at a nearby hotel so the agent could film Nafis’ video explanation. “We will not stop until we attain victory or martyrdom,” he allegedly says, before placing several calls to the detonator device — which was never actually hooked up to a live bomb. The phone, of course, was tapped. Once Nafis called the device, agents had everything they need and arrested him.

We’ve seen this time and again: the FBI thwart a terror plot of their own making and a moronic wannabe is arrested. By dint of his own volition and fantasizing, all the while prodded along by undercover feds into believing he’s on the road to waging jihad, a knucklehead is transformed into a terrorist.

This is the terrorist non-event, an occurrence that “could have been” had it not been for the good work of those charged with protecting us from evil. The fact that the non-event never had the chance of becoming an actual event, that it was designed and established to never be an event, to be only a non-event, is not important. What is important is that there are terrorist among us and they are out to kill you. These “terrorists” may not even know they are terrorists. They maybe need a little encouragement to become terrorists. That’s where the FBI come in.

The French philosopher, media critic, and all-around confusing dude Jean Baudrillard defined the American response to 9/11, particularly the Iraq war, as a “non-event.” What Baudrillard means is, unsurprisingly, not entirely clear (and I only agree with about a quarter of what I think he’s claiming). Essentially, the non-event is a prepackaged affair, an occurrence that is made to appear to be eventful – the Iraq War as a harbinger of democratic revolution in the Arab world – without actually upsetting the order of things as actual transformative events do by definition. Whereas events are bloody and chaotic affairs, the non-event is tightly managed and carefully scripted, tailor-made for our viewing pleasure – and existential discomfort. The non-event is virtual.

Counterterrorism – the purpose of which is to prevent events in the first place – has become the driving force in the production of non-events. As Baudrillard put it, following 9/11 the goal of counterterrorism is:

… eliminating the embryonic crime on the basis of an act that has not taken place…The obvious question is whether the crime really would have taken place. But no one will ever know. Therefore here we are dealing with the real repression of a virtual crime.

Baudrillard insists that producing such “non-events” is aimed at erasing history, particularly 9/11. And he may be partly right: by thwarting such “attacks” the FBI – and by extension the federal government – proves its worth, effectively erasing any responsibility for what happened back in 2001. But this supposed “erasing” never actually does away with 9/11 and the transformations supposedly wrought by the event itself. If anything, it reinforces the broader narrative of the War on Terror. Rather than negating terrorism, these thwarted plots maintain the narrative, albeit firmly under the control of the state.

The War on Terror – like all good national security thrillers – requires a perpetual threat to justify its existence. Actual “terrorist events” – i.e. violence – obviously do this. Violence, however, not only produces death and destruction, but blowback as well, undermining the institutions of state that are responsible for public safety.

Directly managing the production of terrorist plots while preventing actual terrorist violence is far more effective. And the feds have apparently cornered the market on the plotting of terrorism in the U.S. Since 9/11, al Qaeda appears unable to provide recruits with the thrill and quick return that an FBI-orchestrated plot delivers. Within weeks of meeting an undercover agent, the would-be mujahedeen is knee-deep in the intrigue and excitement of being an international terrorist. Even if they applied only minimal security measures, al Qaeda would still be vetting a recruit when the FBI is handing him a fake bomb.

Each thwarted plot reinforces two messages. First, terrorist still want to kill you. Second, the government is effectively preventing them from doing so. This is the theater of counterterrorism, the war on terror in the absence of terrorist violence.

I am not here arguing that the FBI’s goal is impression management per se. In fact, they are just doing their jobs as the FBI. The undercover operation is, of course, a hallmark of policing practice, one which the FBI has perfected against the mafia and other criminal organizations. It is thus no surprise that when tasked with preventing domestic terror, the feds would simply rely on tried-and-true measures. Furthermore, upon discovering someone who intends to engage in terrorist violence, the Bureau must do something. If such a would-be jihadist were to plan and execute an operation, the FBI would be held responsible. Not doing anything would be shirking their duties.


The Consequences of “Domestic Terrorism”

By: Philippe Duhart Saturday August 11, 2012 2:00 pm

Memorial service for the victims of the Sikh Temple attack. (photo: HeyGabe / flickr)

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

The Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting again reignited the one-sided debate over whether or not such incidents should be labeled as acts of terrorism. In a must-read post, Juan Cole argues that the media tends to make a distinction between “terrorists” — foreign, generally Muslim violent actors — and “extremists” — American killers similarly motivated by political grievances. The families American of political murderers are interviewed “weeping as they wonder where he went wrong,” while the families of Muslim “terrorists” are rarely spoken with; while American extremists are seen as members of the political “fringe,” Muslim “terrorists” are seen as emblematic of their own “mainstream” society and its inherent ills.

Human rights lawyer and author Arsalan Iftikhar similarly argues:

…it’s important for our greater American society to also condemn acts of terrorism when the perpetrator happens to be a white guy.

If not, we send millions of people of color around America the message that the term “terrorism” has been co-opted, that it shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters and not when they are the tragic victims.

Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americans to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that “terrorism” is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll makes a broader observation on “domestic racist terrorism”:

A pattern of terrorism that is repetitive, rising in ambition, and neglected by the public can signal a coming strategic surprise—this was true of Al Qaeda during the late nineteen-nineties, and it looks to be true of domestic racist terrorism today.

The three all make essential points. There is a widespread double standard when it comes to identifying “terrorists,” one that in the United States is not only racial, but nationalist and civilizational as well. Our society does not produce terrorists, but theirs most certainly does. There is nothing wrong with our culture, but theirs is clearly dysfunctional and degenerate — which is why they produce terrorists, whereas only marginal “losers” and “nutjobs” like Wade Michael Page become “extremists” in the United States.

Domestic political violence in America is a reality, albeit a rather marginal one. And violence from the right is perhaps currently a greater “threat” than is an attack from al Qaeda — and greater than that from the left. As Peter Bergen notes, between 2007 and 2009, there were 53 acts of violence perpetrated by members of the racist right, while a number of rightwing extremists were arrested for the planned use chemical or biological weapons.

However, labeling domestic violent actors as “terrorists” has broader implications that these authors fail note: the strengthening of the national security state; the further militarization of police forces; greater surveillance infringing on the right to privacy; increased deterioration of civil rights; and, perhaps paradoxically, it can create the condition for further and escalating violence by validating the paranoid worldview of these extremists. That is, Muslims may no longer bear the brunt of counterterrorist repression alone.

We’ve been here before and seen the consequences of such “domestic terrorists among us” paranoia. Following the Oklahoma City bombings, the Justice Department and the media were in hysterics over the threat of “homegrown terrorism,” primarily in the form of the militia movement. Despite the hype, few actual acts of violence occurred. There were, however, infiltrations of militias and extremist political organizations by security agents, allegations of entrapment by the FBI, and concerted surveillance and investigations based on little more than the ideas harbored by individuals and groups.

For the most part the militia movement was little more than a collection of individuals who shared a fascination with guns and outlandish conspiracy theories. Few of these groups posed any “threat” whatsoever to government or society. As Jesse Walker argues:

After Oklahoma City, a few figures on the fringes of the militia milieu were nabbed for planning attacks. These plots—by the most generous definition of militia, there were about a dozen of them—bolstered the anti-militia narrative, but the details of the schemes reveal a much more complicated picture. Several of the plans originated with the government’s own infiltrators. Many of the “militias” involved were tiny operations run by hotheads who’d been expelled from more established militia groups. And most important, in at least three cases the conspirators were arrested after militia members themselves got wind of the plans and alerted police.

Similar to their current strategy against supposed “Islamic extremists” — and well before the Oklahoma City bombing — the FBI used questionable methods against militia members and others in the radical right, often engaging in what may have been entrapment. Despite infiltrating a number of well-known groups, the FBI failed to uncover and disrupt Timothy McVeigh’s plot.

History seems to be repeating itself — with many of the same actors who led the charge against the extreme right in the nineties again at the forefront. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, has issued ominous warnings about the proliferation of “hate groups” and extreme rightwing organizations, often conflating the two:

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.

These factors also are feeding a powerful resurgence of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.

It is not clear from the SPLC’s description whether or not there is a distinction between Neo-Nazis like Wade Michael Page and Patriot groups. Certainly there is overlap between these two, as anyone who has been to a gun show can attest. But there are also crucial differences. Not every militia member is a racist Neo-Nazi, just as most skinheads could care less about the size of the deficit. According to Jesse Walker:

That much-cited Southern Poverty Law Center list lumps together a very varied set of organizations, blurring the boundary between people who might have sympathy for Hutaree-style plots and people who would want no part of them…Using this list to track the threat of right-wing terrorism is like tracking the threat of jihadist terrorism by counting the country’s mosques.

Political violence from the right does indeed exist, but the extent to which it represents an actual “threat” seems to be, once again, overhyped. Between June 2008 and March 2011, there have been at least 24 plots targeting “liberals” and the “government.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 97 actual or planned attacks by the extreme right since 1995.  These numbers pale in comparison to non-political murders in the United States: in 2010 alone there were 12,996 murders. Indeed, you are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist — foreign or domestic. Furthermore, as Steve Coll points out, the death rate from non-ideological mass shootings — which are fairly rare events — is about a hundred per year, 30 times higher than the rate of murders committed by perpetrators motivated by politics.

“Terrorism,” more than most political terms, quickly escapes the field of pure semantics and imposes real world consequences, the most obvious of which is the institutionalization of more repressive security measures. Since the initial militia hysteria, things have changed considerably. Expanded state power and the deterioration of civil liberties after 9/11 are far more entrenched and popularly accepted now than they have ever been. A new emphasis on “domestic terrorism” will lead inexorably to the further entrenchment of these processes. Since actual violence is rare, ideas have increasingly become the cause for and target of state repression, as the ACLU’s Michael German argues, against the left as well as the right.

The left in particular should be wary of encouraging further repression through labeling our political opponents as terrorists. Sure it’s satisfying, and as a means of maintaining internal solidarity it is incredibly effective. But the left has been the target of repression via the “terrorism” label since the late nineteenth century, when sporadic incidents of anarchist violence justified an overwhelming state onslaught against the workers movement. During the 1920s and 1950s, ideology — as a potential source of violence — was sufficient cause for repressing the old left, creating the conditions for the rightward imbalance of the American political scene that has held since. Today, the heavy-handed repression and surveillance of the Occupy Movement is often justified by the supposed presence of “anarchists” (read: “terrorists”) within its ranks.

Labeling the extreme right as “terrorists” may lead paradoxically to further repression against the American left, as the state seeks to be “fair and balanced” in battling domestic terrorism. For every “threat” uncovered on the right, the Justice Department may be face pressure from the establishment conservative media, the GOP, and respectable centrist pundits to uncover anarchist cells or nascent plots by “eco-terrorists.” Militias and antigovernment organizations will not be the only groups subject to infiltration. Occupy organizations, immigrants’ rights groups, environmental and antiwar activists: such groups may be further targeted in order to provide “balance” and assuage the powerful rightwing establishment and the “paranoid center.”

Perhaps more importantly, we on the left should stand for civil liberties and freedom from state persecution — for radical Muslims as well as for rightwing extremists, both of whose views I personally find distasteful. This is America. Being a racist asshole with paranoid delusions is a right. So long as they don’t kill anyone.


Thinking twice about arming Syrian rebels

By: Philippe Duhart Wednesday August 8, 2012 1:08 pm

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

CIA providing guns to Syrian rebels. What could possibly go wrong?

According to the Los Angeles Times some “critics” believe that the lack of a CIA presence in Syria is fueling the growing influence of jihadis in the uprising:

U.S. officials have worried that some of those groups may be linked to, or sympathetic with, Al Qaeda affiliates. By one U.S. estimate, as many as a quarter of the 300 rebel groups may be inspired by Al Qaeda, says Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

A major impediment to determining who is who is that CIA officers largely have avoided entering Syria or traveling to the battle zones since February, when the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was shuttered for security reasons after threats by groups allied with the Assad government. Closing the embassy left the agency without a secure base from which to operate, and CIA personnel left the country, the officials said.

Critics say the CIA’s absence from Syria is a missed opportunity to influence the fractured rebel movement.

“We should be on the ground with bucket loads of money renting the opposition groups that we need to steer this in the direction that benefits the United States,” said a former CIA officer who spent years in the Middle East. “We’re not, and good officers are extremely frustrated.”

There’s much to be criticized here, according to Micah Zenko:

Consider some recent history. The United States provided battlefield intelligence, money, and weapons and ammunition (up to 65,000 tons a year by 1987) to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, some of whom later became members the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Not surprisingly, once the Taliban came to power it was not willingly directed by the United States, refusing repeated requests by the Clinton administration to kick out Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership. In Rwanda, the United States didn’t provide arms or intervene militarily during the genocide in 1994, yet somehow Paul Kagame’s government finds itself able to accept $200M in U.S. foreign assistance every year. Likewise, the future leaders of Syria will act in their own national interests with whoever it needs to, regardless of who is arming or funding the revolution today.

Zenko also makes the crucial point that these sorts of arguments assume that the people we arm will not only take power after Assad falls, but that they’ll inevitably share our policy preferences and rule accordingly, regardless of what the Syrian people actually want.

Such arguments tend to also overlook a crucial problem: while it’s relatively cheap and easy to arm “our” insurgents, it’s much more difficult to control where these guns actually end up. American guns given to Iraqis have ended up in the hands of PKK militants fighting the Turkish state, while NATO arms have been passed from Afghan security forces to the Pakistani Taliban. What mechanisms will be put into place to ensure that the arms provided to the “secular” Free Syria Army will not end up in the hands of jihadist organizations? It’s not as if the US government has a great track record on keeping tabs on guns.

Obviously introducing arms into an already unstable region is recipe for further disaster. Following Gaddafi’s fall, Libyan guns fueled another Taureg rebellion in northern Mali — and the supposed rebirth of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — while Rwanda’s provisioning of weapons to their preferred ethnic militias has fueled more violence in the Congo.

If the Syrian rebellion were to fail, how is the CIA to make sure these guns don’t end up in the arsenals of Iraqi insurgents, Hezbollah or the PKK? And if the rebels succeed and gain control over the Syrian state’s considerable weapons stockpile, what’s to stop individuals from selling American weapons on the black market to terrorists and criminals alike? Or will all the guns be returned to the CIA, regardless of the outcome of the rebellion? There’s no honor system in the world of rebels and spooks.

As I have argued before, the idea of arming insurgents is often seen by American militarists as a way to defend American interests on the cheap. Unfortunately, the consequences of such a policy can be quite expensive.

Ironic Collaboration between al Qaeda and Western Counterterrorists

By: Philippe Duhart Thursday August 2, 2012 12:31 am

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

I have been referring quite a bit lately to al Qaedaization as a rhetorical devise among Western counterterrorists. However, Salafist and Islamist militants and ideologues are also in on the game. Ironically, the two sides collaborate in creating a “reality” of global jihad that exists to a large degree in discourse.

Mohamed al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian militant and brother of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, provides an example of how al Qaeda seeks to inflate its image, in an interview withCNN’s Security Clearance blog:

If you read American literature, now they have understood that the strength of Al Qaeda is not in its leaders but in its ideology. Any person obtains power when his work matches his principles. Those who reached martyrdom have won life on earth and Allah’s heaven. Those who were killed by the US have shown us the light and proven that they have committed to their cause and spread the ideology.

Though I often treat such claims as utter bullshit, there is some deal of truth contained within al-Zawahiri’s statement. It reflects an development that Marc Sageman has identified as “leaderless jihad“:

In the post-September 11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. Rather, it serves as an inspiration for individuals and other groups who have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name.

According to this theory, individuals, rather than organizations such as al Qaeda, drive global jihad. To commit an act of violence one doesn’t need a great deal of resources and know-how. An aspiring martyr no longer needs to travel to Pakistan for training. An internet connection, access to cheap explosives, and the willingness to kill is often sufficient to engage in jihad, as the Madrid M-11 attackers demonstrated.

While I do believe this theory has a good deal of purchase and can explain many individual acts of political violence, I also think it has been a bit overblown and far too widely applied. For the most part, political violence remains the work of organizations, more or less as decentralized and as “networked” as insurgent groups have always been. Additionally, there have been far fewer “lone wolf” attacks than the proponents of this theory predicted would occur. And, despite a few high-profile terrorist incidents, most forms of Islamist/Salafist political violence take place within the context of local conflicts by (relatively) organized insurgent groups.

The “leaderless/network/ideology/movement” theory of global jihad may, furthermore, have been a product of a specific historical moment, i.e. the period immediately following 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. My own sense is that things have changed and that Islamist insurgents, perhaps inspired by the Arab Spring, are increasingly focusing on the “near enemy” — Muslim and Arab regimes — rather than the American/Western “far enemy.” This does not mean that we will not see individual attacks by disaffected immigrants or radicalized citizens within Western countries. But, the vast majority of political violence remains local, as Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca and Luis de la Calle argue.

Of course, the “leaderless jihad” theory is just too damn good to be cast aside. It justifies increased expenditures for security agencies and the continued expansion of executive power, not to mention serving as a cover for other, more base strategic Western interests. For al Qaeda itself, it provides them with a measure of relevance and a way to keep their names in the paper despite their organizational decline and plummeting popularity. Such discursive collaboration between enemies is one of the most ironic outcomes of the War on Terror.

Is the Taliban moderating?

By: Philippe Duhart Thursday July 19, 2012 12:53 pm

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

In this month’s issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan scholar Michael Semple interviews a senior Taliban commander — referred to as Mawlvi — providing insight into the thinking of at least some segments of the Taliban. Much of the comments made by the commander bear on the possibilities for a peace settlement in Afghanistan. (For background on the story, see this report from The Guardian.)

Mawlvi touches indirectly on the three primary outcomes Americans either set as a precondition for beginning peace talks or as the outcome of them, i.e. cutting ties with al Qaeda, renouncing the use violence, and recognizing the current Afghan constitution.

With regard to al Qaeda Mawlvi is rather blunt:

At least 70 per cent of the Taliban are angry at al-Qaeda. Our people consider al-Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens. Some even concluded that al-Qaeda are actually the spies of America. Originally, the Taliban were naive and ignorant of politics and welcomed al-Qaeda into their homes. But al-Qaeda abused our hospitality. It was in Guantanamo that I realised how disloyal the al-Qaeda people were… To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country.

There have been conflicting reports concerning the Taliban’s continued relationship with al Qaeda. Mawlvi’s statements suggest a considerable rift between the Taliban and al Qaeda, which itself is not a new development. But, some American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, claim that documents retrieved after the bin Laden raid demonstrate that al Qaeda and Taliban leaders maintained a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence” and even “discussed” joint operations against NATO forces up until the al Qaeda leader’s death. Semple himself takes a nuanced view of the relationship, arguing there is a variety of opinions within the Taliban regarding the al Qaeda. It may also be that there’s a difference of view between Taliban leaders — who have longstanding personal ties with al Qaeda leaders — and rank-and-file insurgents who are motivated by local, rather than global, concerns.

Regarding Taliban military strategy and the possibility for a future insurgent victory, Mawlvi again doesn’t mince words:

It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory. But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war. The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect. Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth – that they cannot prevail over the power they confront.

This position corresponds to an extent to that of the American intelligence community, which surmised in January that the war in Afghanistan had reached the point of stalemate – in contrast to the rosy assessments offered by American and NATO military commanders.Stalemate is considered by many to be a key condition for the initiation of peace talks. So long as neither side can win through fighting — and to continue the fight hurts them as much as it does their enemies — striking a deal becomes a rational move. This doesn’t mean that a settlement will ultimately be reached, and it does not mean that individuals and groups will continue to place obstacles in the way of peace.
Malwvi also touched on the political goals of the Taliban. From his perspective, imposing sharia law is at best a secondary concern:

The Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariat… If they fall short of achieving national power they have to settle for functioning as an organised party within the country. We also know that there are other political forces in Afghanistan – for example, [the warlords] Dostum and Sayyaf. They all have their own political programme. Even when the Taliban were in power there was a difference in the way shariat was practised. There was shariat in Kandahar and Kabul, but far less in Herat and almost none in the north. If the Taliban were ever to return to power they would face enormous problems. But they are a long way from having to grapple with the challenges of power, and for the moment, as long as Mullah Omar is alive, the Taliban will be prepared to follow him in this fight…

In their time, the Taliban gained notoriety over three points – their treatment of women, their harsh enforcement of petty rules on things like beards and prayers, and their international relations. The priority now should be restoration of security. But on the other issues I anticipate that they would soften their tough policies.

Unike many pronouncements made by American commentators, the Taliban may have given up the idea of recreating the Salafist regime of the 1990s and providing a “safe haven” to al Qaeda. The moderation of Taliban political ambitions is again not altogether revealing. The Wall Street Journal reported back in January that the Taliban had seemingly reversed its position on minority and human rights, especially the education of Afghan girls. This moderation, however, rings somewhat hallow when measured against the alleged poisoning of schoolgirls by insurgents — though the claims of Taliban culpability, and the incidents of poisoning themselves, may be unfounded.
The moderation expressed by this single Taliban commander may be a positive sign, though, if the commanders’ statements are anything to go by, they still have not warmed to making deals with the Karzai government: ”There is little point in talking to Kabul. Real authority rests with the Americans…The only other serious political force in Afghanistan is that of the Northern Alliance.” This refusal to talk with the Afghan government may turn out to be a significant stumbling block. Despite this, Mawlvi’s statements may indicate that at least some among the Taliban leadership are becoming realistic about their own political future and are perhaps moderating their views accordingly.
The opponents of the Taliban may also be moving in a positive direction. Hamid Karzairecently stated that Mullah Omar “can become a candidate himself for the [presidential] elections…[and] he can take the leadership in his hand” if he wins. American Ambassador Ryan Crocker — who has in the past argued for continued war lest the country descend into chaos — now believes that a civil war following the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan is unlikely, due in part to the number of “moderate” and pragmatic Taliban. According to the ambassador, “Politics is breaking out all over…You don’t see many signs of the people saying `Well, it’s time to start digging the trenches again.’” He also pointed to the attendance of  a Taliban official at a recent Kyoto peace conference — which had previously been downplayed by Administration officials – as a positive indication that some of the Taliban’s leaders were rethinking their strategy and their future.
Of course, any claim that the Taliban is moderating its views must be balanced against the fractured nature of the movement. In addition to there being three groups commonly lumped together as “the Taliban” (the Haqqani Network, Hezb-i-Islami, and the Taliban proper), the insurgency on the ground is anything but monolithic, with local commanders and groupings often operating autonomously. But, if Malwvi’s statements represent wider sentiments within the insurgency, then peace in Afghanistan — however partial — may become a reality. But it will take a long time.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran on the “missed opportunity” for Afghan peace

By: Philippe Duhart Sunday July 8, 2012 7:04 am

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

As a sociologist, I often find it difficult to account for the role of personalities in historical processes. But as a human being, I cannot deny the fact that people make history — though perhaps not under conditions of their own choosing, to paraphrase Marx.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan, takes a look at the Obama Administration’s handling of the Afghan war. Judging by extracts published by the Washington Post, much of the book apparently consists of government and military officials trying to shift the blame for the American failure in Afghanistan. (Slow down, guys. There’s plenty to go around. And Team Bush, none of you are off the hook.) An important theme that emerges from these excerpts is the significant role that personality clashes and petty animosities have played in shaping the Administration’s management of the war.

One particular excerpt piqued my interest: the story behind early efforts to engage the Taliban in negotiations. (Another excerpt is available here.)

Richard Holbrooke, who was initially tasked with discovering whether or not negotiations with the Taliban was a viable path out of Afghanistan, was apparently not a well-liked individual within the White House. His personality and temperament had alienated him from many Administration insiders, which had a considerable impact on early efforts to establish peace talks:

Instead of capitalizing on Holbrooke’s experience and supporting his push for reconciliation with the Taliban, White House officials dwelled on his shortcomings — his disorganization, his manic intensity, his thirst for the spotlight, his dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his tendency to badger fellow senior officials. At every turn, they sought to marginalize him and diminish his influence.

The infighting exacted a staggering cost: The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield.
Even after Obama decided not to fire Holbrooke, [national security adviser James L.] Jones and his top deputy for Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, kept adding items to a dossier of Holbrooke’s supposed misdeeds that Lute was compiling. They even drafted a cover letter that called him ineffective because he had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government. Lute told NSC staffers that he and Jones planned to use the information to persuade the president to override Clinton’s objection.

In the interim, Jones and Lute sought to put Holbrooke into a box. Officials at the National Security Council would schedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town. When they didn’t want him to travel to the region, they refused to allow him to use a military airplane. They even sought to limit the number of aides Holbrooke could take on his trips.
Lute and other NSC staffers cooked up their most audacious plan to undercut Holbrooke shortly before Karzai’s visit to Washington in April 2010. They arranged for him to be excluded from Obama’s Oval Office meeting with the Afghan leader, and then they planned to give Obama talking points for the session that would slight Holbrooke. Among the lines they wanted the president to deliver to Karzai: Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust. The implication would be that Holbrooke, who would not be present, was not Obama’s man. The scheme was foiled when Clinton insisted that Holbrooke attend the session.

With Clinton protecting him, Holbrooke spent far less time worrying about how to save his job than Lute spent trying to fire him. “Doug is out of his depth fighting with me,” Holbrooke told one of his aides. “The White House can’t afford to get rid of me.”
Obama could have ordered a stop to the infighting; after all, he favored a negotiated end to the war. But his sympathies lay with his NSC staffers — Holbrooke’s frenetic behavior was the antithesis of Obama’s “no-drama” rule. The president never granted Holbrooke a one-on-one session in the Oval Office, and when he traveled to Afghanistan in March 2010, he took more than a dozen staffers, but not Holbrooke, who was not even informed of the trip in advance. During the Situation Room sessions to discuss Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for more forces in late 2009, Obama kept his views about surging to himself, but he was far less reticent about Holbrooke. At the start of one meeting, Holbrooke gravely compared the “momentous decision” Obama faced to what Lyndon B. Johnson had grappled with during the Vietnam War. “Richard,” Obama said, “do people really talk like that?”

The president’s lack of support devastated Holbrooke’s loyal staff members, who were just as skeptical of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy as Lute and others in the White House were.

“The tragedy of it all is that Richard’s views about all of this stuff — about the surge, about Pakistan and about reconciliation — were probably closer to the president’s than anyone else in the administration,” said former Holbrooke senior adviser Vali Nasr, now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If the president had wanted to, he could have found a kindred spirit in Richard.”

Holbrooke died in 2010, leaving unfinished his work of establishing peace talks. But there’s no certainty that his efforts would have ultimately proven successful: there are simply too many barriers — both in Afghanistan and stateside — for one individual to overcome by force of personality, even someone with the considerable experience like Holbrooke. The opposition to talks from the military and intelligence communities, the intransigence and opportunism of Congressional Republicans, and the actions of American grunts in Afghanistan — not to mention the haplessness of Karzai’s government and the Taliban’s triumphalism — are, and remain, formidable obstacles to negotiating an orderly and honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Chandrasekaran details some of these considerable barriers:

Obama told his aides that he was interested in a peace deal, and less than two months after he took office, the president said publicly that he was open to seeking reconciliation with the Taliban, comparing such an effort to a U.S. initiative to work with former Sunni militants in Iraq who were willing to break with al-Qaeda.

His comments alarmed top military and intelligence officials. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command, thought it was too soon even to talk about talking. They wanted to commit more troops first and then talk, but only to Taliban leaders who agreed to surrender. CIA officials argued that the United States could not negotiate with the Taliban until its leadership denounced al-Qaeda.

There was no clear path for Holbrooke to achieve peace talks. The Taliban had no office, mailing address, or formal structure. It was not clear that its leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk — in 2009, the Taliban appeared to be winning — or whether he and his fellow mullahs would accept the United States’ conditions for negotiations: that they renounce violence, break with al-Qaeda and embrace the Afghan constitution.

Even if they did, would the terms be acceptable to the Karzai government? What about Pakistan and other neighboring powers? If Holbrooke was going to have any chance of success, he needed the backing of others in the administration, starting with the president.

Like the White House, the military appears to have been divided over the prospect of negotiations:

As Washington officials quarreled, a quiet shift was occurring at the NATO headquarters in Kabul. While other military leaders opposed reconciliation, McChrystal began softening to the idea. His thinking was shaped by Christopher Kolenda, an astute Army colonel who had been working on a program to provide resettlement and job-training to low-level insurgents who wanted to stop fighting. In December 2009, Kolenda explained to McChrystal how Mullah Omar’s annual messages at the Eid-al-Fitr holiday had become more sophisticated and moderate. The Taliban, he told the general, “is opening the aperture for a different outcome.”

As spring turned to summer, McChrystal became a believer. He realized that the United States would not be able to get an outright military victory, and the Afghan government would not be able to get an outright political victory, so a peace deal was the only solution. McChrystal didn’t want to let up on the Taliban just yet, but he said he was ready to “clearly show them there’s daylight if you go to it.” In early June, he directed Kolenda to prepare a briefing for Karzai on reconciliation.

Later that month McChrystal was fired over comments he and some top aides made disparaging American civilian officials. Obama tapped Petraeus, who led the effort to beat back insurgents in Iraq, to replace McChrystal and energize the war effort. When Petraeus arrived in Kabul, he ordered a halt to the military’s reconciliation activities. He told his subordinates that if the Americans applied enough military pressure, the insurgents would switch sides in droves. To some in the headquarters, it sounded as if he wanted to duplicate what had occurred in Iraq’s Anbar province, when Sunni tribesmen had eventually decided to forsake al-Qaeda and side with the United States. Although Obama had mentioned the Sunni Awakening as a possible model in his first public comments on reconciliation, his views had evolved by the summer of 2010. He told his war cabinet that he was open to pursuing negotiations with the enemy, the likes of which never occurred in Iraq. Petraeus’s approach was more akin to accepting a surrender from a rival under siege.

Criticizing General Patraeus is pretty much political blasphemy these days. But his attempt to replicate in Afghanistan his success in Iraq seems to have been based on mistaken premises. The General did not apparently consider the incredible differences between the Taliban and the fractured Sunni insurgency in Anbar. The Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Hizb-i-Islami are experienced, battle-hardened, and unified guerrilla organizations — operating from a secure base and with ample support across the border in Pakistan. They bear little resemblance to the ragtag and quarrelsome collection of tribal groupings, jihadist gangs, and former Baathists that wreaked havoc in Anbar. These groups had few friends internationally from whom patronage could be secured, which allowed for many of them to be bought off by the American occupation. And, unlike in Afghanistan, a viable state was emerging in post-invasion Iraq. Sunnis in Anbar wanted to get a piece of that state power — and of the considerable oil wealth the state controls. But, Kabul is no Baghdad. Furthermore, al Qaeda is a non-issue in today’s Afghanistan. General Patreaus’ application in Afghanistan of the divide-and-conquer program developed for Iraq was thus doomed to failure. Indeed it is not the Taliban who have switched side, but rather members of the Afghan security forces, if “green on blue” violence is any indication.

A case could also be made that Patraeus misunderstood why the Anbar program was successful in the first place. As detailed in Mark Perry’s Talking to Terrorists, it was Anbari tribal leaders and Sunni businessmen who took the initiative to seek deals with the Marines stationed in Anbar. The Marine officer corps stationed there — as well as civilian leaders in the Department of Defense in Washington and Iraq — wisely took advantage of these overtures, creating the conditions for success in Anbar. Patreaus, whose experience in Iraq was limited to the Shia south of the country, was promoted to Lieutenant General and took charge of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in 2004 during the period in which these deals were being made; he was not, however, intimately involved in them prior to his promotion. His genius was to institute deal-making as part of the general strategy in Iraq. But the extent to which he understood the inner workings of these arrangements on the ground is a legitimate question — and one that may go far in explaining why he believed that the model would be applicable to Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Patraeus may have an institutional interest in replicating Iraqi deal-making, which is an integral component of the his counterinsurgency strategy. Within the military, the counterinsurgency doctrine has provoked considerable skepticism and outright opposition. Perhaps Patraeus wished to demonstrate the strength of this strategy — and thereby guarantee his own legacy — with a success in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for both American soldiers and Afghans, this has not thus has not yet come to pass.

Chandrasekaran details a final change of view within the Administration:

But it wasn’t until the following month [after Holbrooke's death], at a memorial event for Holbrooke in New York, that Clinton said what he really would have wanted to hear: “The security and governance gains produced by the military and civilian surges have created an opportunity to get serious about a responsible reconciliation process.” The United States finally had indicated a clear desire to negotiate with the Taliban.

Clinton also revealed a crucial shift in U.S. policy. The three core American requirements — that the Taliban renounce violence, abandon al-Qaeda and abide by Afghanistan’s constitution — were no longer preconditions for talks but “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.” That meant the Taliban could come as they were. It was the speech that Holbrooke had sought to deliver for a year. Ironically, the only man in the administration to negotiate an end to a war had been an impediment to ending this war.

With Holbrooke gone, Lute stopped insisting on an envoy from outside the State Department. The White House empowered Holbrooke’s successor, diplomat Marc Grossman, to pursue negotiations. And Pentagon and CIA officials ceased their opposition to the prospect of talks with the Taliban.

Although military gains across southern Afghanistan had put the United States in a slightly better negotiating position by that February, nothing had changed fundamentally since Holbrooke’s last push to persuade others in the Obama administration to embrace a peace plan. Nothing except his death.

As any scholar of conflict resolution will tell you, preconditions are rarely a recipe for successful negotiations. This is especially true if the conflict has reached the point of military stalemate, as has occurred in Afghanistan according to the CIA. The Taliban is nowhere close to surrendering and NATO is nowhere close to defeating them. The end of insurgent violence in Afghanistan will be an outcome of negotiations — not a prerequisite for them to occur. The Administration has apparently finally realized this. But, this neither indicates that negotiations will go forward nor that they will succeed. At the very least it suggests that the White House is taking a more realistic approach to ending the war in Afghanistan.

And this is pretty much where we’re at today. Except, there’s the little matter of the ongoing US presidential election. Will we see any movement on the Afghan talks front prior to November?  Will Obama be able to use the tough guy image that he’s established as a result of bin Laden’s death and the escalation of the drone war as cover to engage in serious efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan? Or will Republican accusations of “giving in to terrorists” prevent the Administration from seriously seeking peace in Afghanistan?

Obama is a politician. Therefore, I have little confidence that he’ll do the right thing. Until November, at least.

The al Qaedaization of Africa Continues

By: Philippe Duhart Friday July 6, 2012 12:41 am

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Last week, the head of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, issued a dire warning about increased cooperation between various African jidadi groups, particularly Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s al Shabaab, Mali’s Ansar Dine, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

“Each of those three organisations is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat,” Ham told an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar in Washington. “What really concerns me is the indications that the three organisations are seeking to co-ordinate and synchronise their efforts – in other words, to establish a co-operative effort amongst the three most violent organisations … And I think that’s a real problem for us and for African security in general.”…

“Most notably I would say that the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials.”

The General, predictably, did not back up these warnings with any concrete evidence, but rather spoke merely of “indications” that these groups were coordinating efforts.

What does this mean for Western countries and the United States in particular? Someexpress caution in reading too much into this supposed threat:

While the coordination among terrorist groups in Africa is a concern, there’s little evidence so far that such groups are targeting the U.S. homeland, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a counter-terrorism specialist and former Navy helicopter pilot who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Right now, these groups are not threatening the U.S. homeland in any way comparable to what al-Qaeda was doing three or four or five years ago,” before drone strikes weakened the militant group’s core, Nelson said.

The specter of al Qaeda opening a new front in Africa has is nothing new. (I have written about the al Qaedaization of Africa before herehere, and here.) Bin Laden’s al Qaeda, of course, operated in African during the late ’90s, bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But, since 2002 al Qaeda proper has not mounted a single attack on the African continent.

Counterterrorist officials and experts have been warning of al Qaeda’s expansion since the middle part of the last decade, particularly in North Africa. In the ensuing years, however, these threats did not materialize due to a combination of police work, international cooperation, and internal group dynamics. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did not become the successor to bin Laden’s organization; rather it imploded as the result of factional conflictand ultimately has descended into pure criminality. Tunisia, once seen as an emerging hotspot of jihad, became instead the model for popular revolution in the Arab world.

Now, it seems, the counterterrorists’ attention has turned southward. This is in large part due to the emergence in recent years of jihadi groups and increased violence in sub-Saharan Africa over the last few years. However, this narrative cannot be completely separated from American strategic interests in Africa and the inexorable logic of counterterrorism.

General Ham’s warnings must be understood within this context. We should not automatically assume that he is lying or purposely overstating the threat. From the perspective of officials charged with “protecting the homeland,” being overly vigilant is an occupational necessity. To not attend to even the slightest of threats is to shirk one’s duties and, potentially, to allow attacks to come to fruition. Furthermore, lawless and weak states have historically provided fertile ground for jihadi groups with global ambitions — e.g. Afghanistan — so officials have good reason to worry about growing instability in already unstable African countries.

But, we should uncritically believe the predictions or heed the warnings of counterterrorist and military officials. The American military, despite high levels of public trust in it, has tallied up quite a number of deliberate untruths, from the story behind Pat Tilman’s death to a relatively insignificant Taliban attack last month. This does not mean that General Ham is lying. But it does suggest that skepticism is warranted.

There are some who might argue that the General probably has access to “secret information” that is too sensitive to be released, and thus we should take him at his view. Similar arguments were made during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. But, this argument was belied by the fact that the Bush Administration either publicly paraded or privately leaked every available piece of intelligence at their disposal to bolster their case for war, with little concern for protecting sources or intelligence operations.

The Obama Administration has continued this practice. They’ve leaked information about the infiltration into the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda by a Saudi intelligence agent, they’ve leaked details about kill lists and drone strikes, they’ve leaked information about cyberattacks against Iran. They’re even providing Hollywood’s favorite militarist with inside information for a film about the raid that killed Osama bin Ladin.

So, assuming that the threat of al Qaeda’s African “affiliates” is based on actual intelligence, why wouldn’t the Administration release the information? Why not show the public satellite photos, tapes of satellite phone conversations, transcripts of informants’ statements, whatever they have? Why the reliance of vague “indications”?

My suspicion is that there is no hard intelligence, only an assumption that these groups must be working together because that’s what terrorists do. From the anarchists of the nineteenth century, to the leftwing militants of the seventies and eighties — to the jihadis of today — the idea of an organized, transnational conspiracy is a favored narrative of counterterrorists and politicians. There can be no local phenomena, all violence must be linked by some nefarious invisible hand.

The Taliban and Team Obama agree: there’s no peace process

By: Philippe Duhart Monday July 2, 2012 1:39 pm

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

Two taliban insurgents.

Taliban insurgents (Photo: isafmedia / flickr)

Is the Afghan peace process starting up again? If so, why are both the Taliban and the Obama Administration downplaying recent developments?

Over the weekend, a representative from the Afghan Government’s High Peace Council met with emissaries from the Taliban Hizb-i-Islam in Kyoto, in what may signal the revitalization of the Afghan peace process. The talks followed a “brainstorming” meeting in Paris last week in which Taliban and Afghan government representatives discussed possible changes to the country’s constitution that would allow for a political settlement and an end to the current war.

Although the discussions don’t appear to have made much substantive headway, the very fact that the Taliban sent a high-level political envoy to meet with a representative of the Karzai government is itself a promising sign since the insurgent group has stated time and again that it will only negotiate with American forces — not their “puppet” government in Kabul.

Of course, the Taliban are sticking to their we-ain’t-talking-to-Karzai line. According to a statement released on its website:

The Islamic Emirate sent its representative to this conference only and only so it can clarify its stance to the world regarding the affair of Afghanistan. Some faces and media outlets have distorted the meaning of this trip of Islamic Emirate and have said that the representative of Islamic Emirate has begun formal negotiations with the peace council representatives of the stooge Kabul regime and have agreed upon creating a joint commission. Other media outlets have added that the representatives of Islamic Emirate have also made a similar trip to France and have negotiated about peace.

We must make it very clear that dispatching a representative to Japan was not for meeting with someone or talking about peace and neither have there been any discussions or agreements made about setting up a joint commission for future peace talks. On the other hand, the Islamic Emirate has never sent a delegation or a representative or a message to France and neither is the Japan matter connected to the conference in France.

The Islamic Emirate has repeatedly stated that the Afghan problem has two sides. As long as the matter with America (talks which are currently suspended) is not addressed, talking with the administration of Karzai is pointless.

Why would the insurgent organization send a delegate to a peace conference if such efforts are pointless? Given how difficult it is for Taliban members to travel internationally, wouldn’t a simple clarification email have sufficed? A text? A tweet? (I assume they have a Twitter account. Al-Shabaab does.)

The reality is that the Taliban are caught in the revolutionary’s trap: They need to negotiate to achieve political ends, but can’t sell out lest they lose their followers. At least not right away. So they negotiate while claiming they’re still hardcore.