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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bounds. Faced with the insistence of the host, he even dug himself in even deeper, protesting that one mustn't reduce the debate to the membership of "an ethnicity." A Pity: these two movements are not ethnicities but branches of Islam. ... When will a test of Trivial Pursuit be necessary to qualify for the second round of presidential elections?

The whole exchange is available for you to listen to here. As usual, Sarkozy comes off as arrogant and pedantic, even when he's demonstrably wrong. He stresses that one can't "reduce al-Qaida to an ethnicity" (sic), and tries to back himself up by bringing up the GSPC and remarking that the Algerian group had recently joined al-Qaida. Of course, if Sarkozy understood the groups he's talking down to us about, he'd know that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, like the rest of al-Qaida, is virulently Sunni.

Kanan Makiya on post-invasion Iraq

The Times had a short profile of Kanan Makiya this weekend. He's writing a new book on post-invasion Iraq.

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," he said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he continued. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

..."There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said. Chief among the culprits, he added, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said.

Mr. Makiya said he preferred not to name names. But it is well known that he had a falling out with Mr. Chalabi after Mr. Chalabi began courting Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in order to win support in Iraq's first national elections. For years before the war, Mr. Makiya had toiled with Mr. Chalabi to organize the Iraqi exiles who, despite disparate ideologies, stood united in their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Then there is the small issue of American policy. "Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong," Mr. Makiya said. "The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation."

...Talk turned to the presidential race. Mr. Morse mentioned the pressure that Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing to apologize for her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to go to war.

Mr. Makiya stared into his glass of red wine. "That's so Maoist," he said. "People shouldn't feel the need to apologize. What is there to apologize for?"

Makiya's name has come up in pretty much every in-depth article or book I've read about the road to war in Iraq. His eloquent and sustained cry for something to be done about Saddam Hussein's brutal rule seems to have had a large impact on many of those who thought long and hard about how they felt about the looming war in Iraq.

After hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, it doesn't seem "Maoist" or even unreasonable to expect people like Makiya to admit that they were wrong. And considering the bloody depths to which Iraq has fallen as a direct consequence of this war, an apology would almost seem quaint.

Furthermore, if Makiya thinks that sectarianism started in Iraq with the rise of Iraqi exiles, then he's misunderstood his own country even more than he realizes.

"War on Terror" a "self inflicted wound"

I just read a recent piece about how the "War on Terror" is a "self-inflicted wound" to America, which might be serving to pave the way for a regional conflict:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

...To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was published in a magazine like The Nation and penned by someone like Chomsky, but it's not.

It ran in the Post, and was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bomb defused at AUB

It was a little disconcerting to learn that yesterday, a bomb was defused at the American University of Beirut:

Police defused a small bomb at the American University of Beirut on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest of a series of attempts to cause explosions in Lebanon, security officials said.

An explosives expert defused a bomb of 200 grams of TNT that was found in a bag near an elevator in the Issam Fares Hall, a building off the main campus, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bomb was wired to a detonator and ready to explode, the official added. It was taken to a police barracks for investigation.

Police are also looking into how the bomb got into the university, whose entrances are guarded by police officers and the university's own security guards.

Whenever I hear about these defused bombs (more than a few of which have been found lately), I can't help but think that they're not meant to go off, but rather are meant to be warnings. To whom, and by whom, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'm wrong and people are a lot more vigilant than I'm giving them credit for, but I have a hard time believing that someone really wants these bombs to go off. I feel like if someone really wanted a bomb to go off in AUB, then it'd go off -- like the bombs last month that blew up the microbuses.

In any case, whether they go off or not, any bombs in public places make me feel really uneasy.

British sailors captured by Iranians

This might be very bad news.

More here.

"In this cultural background"

This story in the Times shows what happens when an idiot judge in Germany mistakes cultural sensitivity with bigotry:

A German judge has stirred a storm of protest by citing the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband beat her.

In a ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, noted that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote in her decision, sanctions such physical abuse.

...The 26-year-old woman in this case was born in Germany to a Moroccan family and married in Morocco in 2001, according to her lawyer, Ms. Becker-Rojczyk. The couple settled in the Frankfurt area and had two children.

In May 2006, the police were summoned after a particularly violent incident. At that time, Judge Datz-Winter ordered the husband to move out and stay at least 55 yards away from the coupleis home. In the months that followed, her lawyer said, the man threatened to kill his wife.

Terrified, the woman filed for divorce in October and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation because her husband's threats and beatings constituted an "unreasonable hardship."

"We worried that he might think he had the right to kill her because she is still his wife," Ms. Becker-Rojczyk said.

In January, the judge turned down the wife's request for a speedy divorce, saying her husband's behavior did not constitute unreasonable hardship because they are both Moroccan. "In this cultural background," she wrote, "it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife."

This is the kind of ruling that gives intercultural dialogue a bad name. All it takes is for some foolish judge to think that she's engaging Islam in a respectful way to make the whole enterprise look foolish.

It seems ridiculous to me that the Qu'ran would even come up in her ruling, but even more ridiculous that she would have the gall to say what is and isn't customary in Muslim culture or Islamic law or think that her opinion would have any weight at all. This, of course, is not because she's a foreigner, but because Islam is not her field, so just like she's unfit to make judgments on quantum physics, say, or Inuit literature, she should hold her tongue on issues that are not only not germane in a German civil court but of which she most likely knows next to nothing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most

George Packer has an excellent, but long, piece on Iraqi interpreters being more or less hung out to dry by the American Government they've risked their lives to work for.

It's hard to find a single extract to quote, so I'll leave you with the advice of reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Did Chirac ask Israel to depose Assad?

According to Stratfor and the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Army Radio reported that Chirac urged Israel to expand its war against Lebanon this summer to include an attack on Syria to overthrow Assad:

Israel's Army Radio claimed March 18 that French President Jacques Chirac pledged support for an Israeli assault on Syria during the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Chirac allegedly suggested that Israel overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and viewed Syria as responsible for giving orders to Hezbollah to attack and for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of Chirac. The report claims that France backed off of its calls for aggression against Syria after the government deemed its stance might lead to Syrian attacks on French troops.

I haven't been able to find anything about this in Libération or Le Monde. So far, I've been able to come up with stuff on Naharnet and Al Jazeera Magazine (which is not affiliated and should not to be confused with Al Jazeera the television channel).

So I'm not really sure what to think about this, because I haven't heard the Army Radio segment, nor can I read the Maariv article (in Hebrew).

Hopefully, this will become a bigger issue, forcing the French press to get on the story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hitch on the war's anniversary

In the title of his latest Slate piece, Hitch rhetorically asks himself, "So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq?" And not suprisingly, he answers with a resounding "no!" He tries to come up with several shaky reasons why the war in Iraq was a good idea in his latest dialogue with himself, but this Q&A is the icing on the cake that, to my mind, should alert anyone who still listens to him that he is either too intellectually dishonest or too delusional to merit any serious attention whatsoever.

This seriously ups the ante on either idiocy or la mauvaise foi, or perhaps both:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

Khalilzad as a grad student:

Via Weiss, a "portrait of Khalilzad as a grad student in the late 70s, from Anne Norton's book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire":

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation... When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter's course on nuclear war together. He didn't seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter's party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve's Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. 'The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.' The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don't know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Talking about Israel

Kristof has a piece about talking about Israel in the Times today:

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

...For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right's aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, "Pandering Not Required." He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians."

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let's be better friends -- and stop biting our tongues.

While I disagree that the US was evenhanded for 50 years and only instituted a pro-Israel bias in 2000 (this has been going on to varying degrees since the 1970s), recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopefuls makes it obvious that there is no real space between them and Republicans when it comes to US-Israel relations.

Much like France's warnings before the war in Iraq should have been heeded as frank and friendly advice, the US should start acting like a real friend to Israel by telling the Israelis the truths they don't want to hear.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sudan found liable in USS Cole civil suit

From the AP:

A federal judge on Wednesday found Sudan liable for the attack on the now-repaired Navy destroyer, but said he would need time to study all the evidence and documentation to determine the amount of damages the families deserve.

"There is substantial evidence in this case, presented by the expert testimony, that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan," U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said at the end of a 1-day trial in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Cole is based.

...Four experts on terrorism, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, testified in person or by deposition Tuesday to support the families' contention that al-Qaida needed the African nation's help to carry out the attack.

"It would not have been as easy -- it might have been possible -- but it would not have been as easy," Woolsey said, referring to Sudan's alleged assistance in providing economic support, places to train and false documents.

The experts testified that Sudan let terrorist training camps operate within its borders and gave al-Qaida members diplomatic passports and diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons without being searched. They cited testimony from other trials, a declassified Canadian intelligence report, State Department reports and their own studies.

Interpol and Buenos Aires bombing

Al Jazeera reports on updates on the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing:

The international police agency, Interpol, plans to request for the arrest of five prominent Iranians and a Lebanese allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

But Tehran is expected to appeal against the international requests, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

The bombing killed 85 people and wounded 200.

Interpol added on Thursday that it had turned down Argentina's request for help in the arrests of three other Iranians, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.

It plans to issue "red notices" for the Iranians on March 31, unless either Iran or Argentina appeals the decision first, failing which the matter would be discussed at Interpol's general assembly in November.

Iranian Denials

Argentinian prosecutors have alleged that the attack was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and executed by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The six people on Interpol's list include Ali Fallahijan, the former Iranian intelligence chief.

Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese, is also wanted for allegedly kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, and suicide attacks on the US embassy and a US marine base in Lebanon which killed more than 260 Americans.

Iran has denied involvement in the bombing and said it would oppose any attempt to detain its citizens.

Fatah al-Islam

Following Sy Hersh's write-up including Alastair Horne's comments that Fatah al-Islam is being funded indirectly through Saad Hariri by the US, there has been more interest in the new group in the American media.

The NY Times has an interview with the group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and the LA Times has an article on accusations by the Lebanese government that Fatah al-Islam was involved in the bus bombings last month.

Neither article mentions Hersh's article or Crooke's comments, although both mention the claim that the group is sponsored by Damascus to start trouble in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a "temporary and false construct."

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

...The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no "Shia crescent" and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon -- Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians -- is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn't exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that's held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don't have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don't see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn't been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I'm not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.

Bhutto on democracy and al-Qaida in Pakistan

Madame Bhutto pens a piece from Dubai that's critical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al-Qaida and returning to democracy:

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?

The red and black Tigris

A car bomb exploded last week in Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, where booksellers once traded in ideas and words. Anthony Shadid has an excellent piece in remembrance of one of the booksellers killed in the blast.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

After reading the whole thing, I'm not surprised to learn that Shadid is probably up for a Pulitzer this year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One thousand words


(Original caption: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 15 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon.")

When this photo was chosen as best news picture of the year, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not very well framed and unless one is familiar with Lebanon, it could be very confusing as a news image. On the other hand, as someone who lives in Lebanon and experienced part of the war first hand, I was somewhat drawn to it.

In any case, the BBC has a story about the image, explaining who the people in the car are. As it turns out, four of the people in the car are residents of the area and had to flee because of the bombs:

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

...Bissan, Jad's other sister ... was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi ... is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group ... was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Stanley Fish on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel

Stanley Fish has a little piece on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel on his NYT blog entitled Is it good for the Jews. While the article starts off giving one the impression that Fish is going to do some hard thinking on the question, he disappointingly finishes by coming only a little short of saying that critics of Israel are anti-semites:

So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.

Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.

Perhaps the University of Chicago and Florida International University are hotbeds of anti-semitism, but I doubt it. It seems like Fish is just plain incapable of thinking rationally about the question. In which case, perhaps Professor Fish should follow his own advice and "think again."

Lebanese entrepreneurship

I received the following message on my Lebanese number the other day:

Do you support the Majority or the Opposition? Call now 1006 to get Logo "I love life" or "I love life in Multicolor" and other political ringtones and jokes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Minnawi's forces kill peacekeepers

Al Jazeera reports on the murder of two AU peacekeepers in Darfur:

Two African Union peacekeepers have been killed and another critically wounded after being shot by gunmen in Darfur, the AU said Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission said it was "deeply concerned" that the gunmen are believed to belong to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the rebel faction that signed the Darfur peace agreement last May.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, a Darfur force official said the dead soldiers were Nigerian.

"They were just shopping. They were unarmed and they were attacked by unidentified men," said Mahmoud Kane, the head of the Darfur Intergrated Task Force.

"This deplorable and condemnable act was perpetrated by gunmen believed to be elements belonging to Sudan Liberation Movement or Army [Minni Minnawi faction], which is in full control of [the town of] Graida," an AU statement said.

Minni Minnawi is the SLA leader who signed the peace agreement.

Doubting Generals

Vanity Fair has an in-depth (and long) piece about the US Generals who broke rank with Rumsfeld.

It's worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who gassed Halabja?

According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:

Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz - once the public face of Saddam's regime - blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.

"The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq," said Aziz.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.

In most accounts of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.

In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:

...all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.


The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:

Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:

The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. "It was different from the other bombs," according to one witness. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The raids continued unabated for several hours. "It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned.

I'll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I'm not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I'm not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn't mean that the village of Halajba didn't just get caught up in the crossfire.

Egypt's hymen fatwa

The Daily Star Egypt reports on the commotion surrounding the hymen fatwa:

Reconstructive hymen surgery for women who lost their virginity before marriage is halal (religiously permissible), said to Aly Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

...Shiekh Khaled El Gindy, an Al-Azhar scholar and member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies told The Daily Star Egypt that he agrees with the new fatwa.

"Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men," El Gindy said.

"Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife's hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin," he added.

El Gindy voiced his full support for Gomaa.

...In Upper Egypt honor crimes are still committed. If a woman loses her virginity out of wedlock, she is considered a big shame on everyone and deserves to die.

In response to such ideas, El Gindy told The Daily Star Egypt that, "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots."

A little nuance

I've been really annoyed by the media's tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. This is a point made in Olivier Roy's works on the subject, and it seems obvious that the fact that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim does not mean that that person would ever be willing to commit a violent act on behalf of those beliefs. Similarly, I know many fundamentalist Christians in America's Bible Belt, but none who have bombed abortion clinics or murdered abortion doctors.

This idea comes up in a Slate review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book, My Year Inside Radical Islam:

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents' home, where he was living during his internship. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a "radicalized Muslim" as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely "radical" religious action: Midway through his internship, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat -- he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who's been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn't John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we're supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he's being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear.

To be fair, I haven't read his book, but it certainly sounds like Gartenstein-Ross fell in with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, then decided that their belief system wasn't for him. This is not to say that it's not an interesting subject, the experience of a convert, and his decision to go back on his conversion (a process that took two years from beginning to end). But what it is not, is a look at Islamic terrorism, which is really where the book market seems to be these days.

So while it might be interesting to read an account of someone who was "born again" into one of the churches that we see in Jesus Camp, it wouldn't necessarily help us to understand what makes a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist move from more or less extreme religious beliefs to religious violence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What Afghans want

I've been running around town today, so I haven't had time to post, and I've got a lot of work tonight, so I probably won't do much posting this evening either. But here's an important op-ed by Rory Stewart on Afghanistan:

The international community's policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, "Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own."

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying "we're all in this together" and placing them in "the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion."

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like "human rights," "democracy" and "development" is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. "Warlords" retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

...The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Freedom in the desert?

It is ironic that Frederick Vreeland's op-ed piece on the Western Sahara should have the word "freedom" in the title, since at no point does he mention the Sahrawi people's right to full self-determination.

He repeats Moroccan talking points that hold that the Polisario Front is but an arm of Algerian foreign policy, despite the fact that the Front was engaged in fighting for Sahrawi independence against the Spanish well before Algerian involvement.

But he mentions neither Morocco's 1200-mile militarized separation wall built in the Sahara nor its historical expansionist plans, which at one point included not only the Western Sahara, but also parts of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania. Nor does he mention the 1975 ruling by the UN International Court of Justice, which found no reason to disregard the "decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular ... the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

Rabat has constantly blocked the free expression of the will of the Sahrawi people to decide whether they would prefer integration into the Kingdom of Morocco or to become citizens of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While Vreeland repeats many reasons why he thinks the Western Sahara should remain a part of Morocco, the will of the Sahrawi people is not one of them.

For more reading, check out this and this.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Deportation...

Here's a story that's making the rounds at at least one UN organization, from a UN director who was refused entry to the US upon arrival in Washington for an official UN visit.

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq."

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a "solution" is this: "I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all."

But that, I'm afraid, is no solution at all.

Diplomacy in Damascus?

Al Jazeera reports on the upcoming first high-level visit by a US official to Damascus since 2005:

The United States is to send a high-ranking official to Syria for the first time in two years.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state, will travel to Damascus "in coming weeks" as part of a regional tour dealing with "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees," Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman, has said.

Sauerbrey will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria since early 2005, when Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state, travelled to Damascus.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unintentional satire

This is really too much.

War with Iran?

Harper's has a three-part segment on the possibility of war with Iran on its Washington Bablyon. Ken Silverman creates an online forum of different characters: Part 1 features independent analysts; Part 2, CIA officials; and Part 3, members of think tanks.

The verdict does not look good. There are a lot of quotable tidbits in the different segments, so I'm not going to bother, except to focus on one argument I found interesting from Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989:

I am seeing constant trumpeting by the administration of "evidence" of Iranian weapons, equipment, or technology, linked with American casualties in Iraq. I don't know why anyone would be surprised by Iranian gambling in our Iraqi casino -- especially as there are time-honored rules, at least a half-century old, for proxy wars. The Soviets and Chinese armed our adversaries in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where we suffered about 100,000 killed in action. Nevertheless, successive American administrations never gave serious thought to attacking either China or the U.S.S.R. in response to their arming of our enemies. And I personally funneled much of the ordnance to the Afghan resistance fighters that killed 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Here again, the U.S.S.R. never seriously considered striking at the source of their torment in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie on Darfur

I never thought I'd be able to ask this question, but have you read Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The Washington Post today? The truth be told, it's not any better or any worse than most other pieces I've read in the mainstream press. And to her credit, she (unlike most people who have an opinion about Darfur, myself included) has actually been there.

Like most other proponents of intervention, she doesn't say exactly what she thinks that would entail, but she does come out as a strong supporter of the ICC accusations.

I think it was Bono who once said (more or less), "Celebrity is a currency, and I want to spend mine well." I have to say that I couldn't agree more, and if Angelina Jolie wants to spend hers on Darfur, then I say more power to her.

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper's website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, "an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf ... warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda."

...[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country's core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

...A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan's survival, so it's hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, "Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to 'commit suicide' solely for American national interests." But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it's roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that's not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that's not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington's interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn't often take other countries' interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they're making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée's reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.

Jose Padilla and indefinite detention

The Times has an editorial today about upcoming Jose Padilla trial:

There were so many reasons to be appalled by President Bush's decision to detain people illegally and subject them to mental and physical abuse. The unfolding case of Jose Padilla reminds us of one of the most important: mistreating a prisoner makes it hard, if not impossible, for a real court to judge whether he has committed real crimes.

The Padilla case, like the Hamdi one, brings up a lot of questions about the execution of this administration's "war on terror." These are questions that I've previously addressed in more detail, but one of those issues is the question of indefinite incarceration without recourse to a court of law.

Of course, when the White House was about to have to argue their case for holding US citizens indefinitely, there was a sudden change of heart that led to Padilla being released into the criminal law system on the same day legal briefs were due to the Supreme Court.

For a more in-depth look at the question of "enemy combatants" and indefinite detention, take a look at Joseph Lelyveld's piece, No Exit, in the New York Review of Books.

About those EFPs...

Via Juan Cole, a report that the US has been exaggerating the number of coalition deaths in Shi'a areas of Iraq:

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.

Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.

While it's difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.

...Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.

"Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians," Thompson said. "They are fairly common around the world."

Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.

John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.

"These are not factory-produced munitions," he said.

Asked who'd have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited "people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry." In Iraq, he said, "there would be a fair number of those."

...American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bounds. Faced with the insistence of the host, he even dug himself in even deeper, protesting that one mustn't reduce the debate to the membership of "an ethnicity." A Pity: these two movements are not ethnicities but branches of Islam. ... When will a test of Trivial Pursuit be necessary to qualify for the second round of presidential elections?

The whole exchange is available for you to listen to here. As usual, Sarkozy comes off as arrogant and pedantic, even when he's demonstrably wrong. He stresses that one can't "reduce al-Qaida to an ethnicity" (sic), and tries to back himself up by bringing up the GSPC and remarking that the Algerian group had recently joined al-Qaida. Of course, if Sarkozy understood the groups he's talking down to us about, he'd know that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, like the rest of al-Qaida, is virulently Sunni.

Kanan Makiya on post-invasion Iraq

The Times had a short profile of Kanan Makiya this weekend. He's writing a new book on post-invasion Iraq.

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," he said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he continued. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

..."There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said. Chief among the culprits, he added, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said.

Mr. Makiya said he preferred not to name names. But it is well known that he had a falling out with Mr. Chalabi after Mr. Chalabi began courting Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in order to win support in Iraq's first national elections. For years before the war, Mr. Makiya had toiled with Mr. Chalabi to organize the Iraqi exiles who, despite disparate ideologies, stood united in their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Then there is the small issue of American policy. "Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong," Mr. Makiya said. "The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation."

...Talk turned to the presidential race. Mr. Morse mentioned the pressure that Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing to apologize for her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to go to war.

Mr. Makiya stared into his glass of red wine. "That's so Maoist," he said. "People shouldn't feel the need to apologize. What is there to apologize for?"

Makiya's name has come up in pretty much every in-depth article or book I've read about the road to war in Iraq. His eloquent and sustained cry for something to be done about Saddam Hussein's brutal rule seems to have had a large impact on many of those who thought long and hard about how they felt about the looming war in Iraq.

After hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, it doesn't seem "Maoist" or even unreasonable to expect people like Makiya to admit that they were wrong. And considering the bloody depths to which Iraq has fallen as a direct consequence of this war, an apology would almost seem quaint.

Furthermore, if Makiya thinks that sectarianism started in Iraq with the rise of Iraqi exiles, then he's misunderstood his own country even more than he realizes.

"War on Terror" a "self inflicted wound"

I just read a recent piece about how the "War on Terror" is a "self-inflicted wound" to America, which might be serving to pave the way for a regional conflict:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

...To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was published in a magazine like The Nation and penned by someone like Chomsky, but it's not.

It ran in the Post, and was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bomb defused at AUB

It was a little disconcerting to learn that yesterday, a bomb was defused at the American University of Beirut:

Police defused a small bomb at the American University of Beirut on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest of a series of attempts to cause explosions in Lebanon, security officials said.

An explosives expert defused a bomb of 200 grams of TNT that was found in a bag near an elevator in the Issam Fares Hall, a building off the main campus, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bomb was wired to a detonator and ready to explode, the official added. It was taken to a police barracks for investigation.

Police are also looking into how the bomb got into the university, whose entrances are guarded by police officers and the university's own security guards.

Whenever I hear about these defused bombs (more than a few of which have been found lately), I can't help but think that they're not meant to go off, but rather are meant to be warnings. To whom, and by whom, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'm wrong and people are a lot more vigilant than I'm giving them credit for, but I have a hard time believing that someone really wants these bombs to go off. I feel like if someone really wanted a bomb to go off in AUB, then it'd go off -- like the bombs last month that blew up the microbuses.

In any case, whether they go off or not, any bombs in public places make me feel really uneasy.

British sailors captured by Iranians

This might be very bad news.

More here.

"In this cultural background"

This story in the Times shows what happens when an idiot judge in Germany mistakes cultural sensitivity with bigotry:

A German judge has stirred a storm of protest by citing the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband beat her.

In a ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, noted that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote in her decision, sanctions such physical abuse.

...The 26-year-old woman in this case was born in Germany to a Moroccan family and married in Morocco in 2001, according to her lawyer, Ms. Becker-Rojczyk. The couple settled in the Frankfurt area and had two children.

In May 2006, the police were summoned after a particularly violent incident. At that time, Judge Datz-Winter ordered the husband to move out and stay at least 55 yards away from the coupleis home. In the months that followed, her lawyer said, the man threatened to kill his wife.

Terrified, the woman filed for divorce in October and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation because her husband's threats and beatings constituted an "unreasonable hardship."

"We worried that he might think he had the right to kill her because she is still his wife," Ms. Becker-Rojczyk said.

In January, the judge turned down the wife's request for a speedy divorce, saying her husband's behavior did not constitute unreasonable hardship because they are both Moroccan. "In this cultural background," she wrote, "it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife."

This is the kind of ruling that gives intercultural dialogue a bad name. All it takes is for some foolish judge to think that she's engaging Islam in a respectful way to make the whole enterprise look foolish.

It seems ridiculous to me that the Qu'ran would even come up in her ruling, but even more ridiculous that she would have the gall to say what is and isn't customary in Muslim culture or Islamic law or think that her opinion would have any weight at all. This, of course, is not because she's a foreigner, but because Islam is not her field, so just like she's unfit to make judgments on quantum physics, say, or Inuit literature, she should hold her tongue on issues that are not only not germane in a German civil court but of which she most likely knows next to nothing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most

George Packer has an excellent, but long, piece on Iraqi interpreters being more or less hung out to dry by the American Government they've risked their lives to work for.

It's hard to find a single extract to quote, so I'll leave you with the advice of reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Did Chirac ask Israel to depose Assad?

According to Stratfor and the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Army Radio reported that Chirac urged Israel to expand its war against Lebanon this summer to include an attack on Syria to overthrow Assad:

Israel's Army Radio claimed March 18 that French President Jacques Chirac pledged support for an Israeli assault on Syria during the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Chirac allegedly suggested that Israel overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and viewed Syria as responsible for giving orders to Hezbollah to attack and for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of Chirac. The report claims that France backed off of its calls for aggression against Syria after the government deemed its stance might lead to Syrian attacks on French troops.

I haven't been able to find anything about this in Libération or Le Monde. So far, I've been able to come up with stuff on Naharnet and Al Jazeera Magazine (which is not affiliated and should not to be confused with Al Jazeera the television channel).

So I'm not really sure what to think about this, because I haven't heard the Army Radio segment, nor can I read the Maariv article (in Hebrew).

Hopefully, this will become a bigger issue, forcing the French press to get on the story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hitch on the war's anniversary

In the title of his latest Slate piece, Hitch rhetorically asks himself, "So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq?" And not suprisingly, he answers with a resounding "no!" He tries to come up with several shaky reasons why the war in Iraq was a good idea in his latest dialogue with himself, but this Q&A is the icing on the cake that, to my mind, should alert anyone who still listens to him that he is either too intellectually dishonest or too delusional to merit any serious attention whatsoever.

This seriously ups the ante on either idiocy or la mauvaise foi, or perhaps both:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

Khalilzad as a grad student:

Via Weiss, a "portrait of Khalilzad as a grad student in the late 70s, from Anne Norton's book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire":

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation... When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter's course on nuclear war together. He didn't seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter's party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve's Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. 'The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.' The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don't know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Talking about Israel

Kristof has a piece about talking about Israel in the Times today:

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

...For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right's aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, "Pandering Not Required." He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians."

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let's be better friends -- and stop biting our tongues.

While I disagree that the US was evenhanded for 50 years and only instituted a pro-Israel bias in 2000 (this has been going on to varying degrees since the 1970s), recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopefuls makes it obvious that there is no real space between them and Republicans when it comes to US-Israel relations.

Much like France's warnings before the war in Iraq should have been heeded as frank and friendly advice, the US should start acting like a real friend to Israel by telling the Israelis the truths they don't want to hear.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sudan found liable in USS Cole civil suit

From the AP:

A federal judge on Wednesday found Sudan liable for the attack on the now-repaired Navy destroyer, but said he would need time to study all the evidence and documentation to determine the amount of damages the families deserve.

"There is substantial evidence in this case, presented by the expert testimony, that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan," U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said at the end of a 1-day trial in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Cole is based.

...Four experts on terrorism, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, testified in person or by deposition Tuesday to support the families' contention that al-Qaida needed the African nation's help to carry out the attack.

"It would not have been as easy -- it might have been possible -- but it would not have been as easy," Woolsey said, referring to Sudan's alleged assistance in providing economic support, places to train and false documents.

The experts testified that Sudan let terrorist training camps operate within its borders and gave al-Qaida members diplomatic passports and diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons without being searched. They cited testimony from other trials, a declassified Canadian intelligence report, State Department reports and their own studies.

Interpol and Buenos Aires bombing

Al Jazeera reports on updates on the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing:

The international police agency, Interpol, plans to request for the arrest of five prominent Iranians and a Lebanese allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

But Tehran is expected to appeal against the international requests, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

The bombing killed 85 people and wounded 200.

Interpol added on Thursday that it had turned down Argentina's request for help in the arrests of three other Iranians, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.

It plans to issue "red notices" for the Iranians on March 31, unless either Iran or Argentina appeals the decision first, failing which the matter would be discussed at Interpol's general assembly in November.

Iranian Denials

Argentinian prosecutors have alleged that the attack was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and executed by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The six people on Interpol's list include Ali Fallahijan, the former Iranian intelligence chief.

Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese, is also wanted for allegedly kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, and suicide attacks on the US embassy and a US marine base in Lebanon which killed more than 260 Americans.

Iran has denied involvement in the bombing and said it would oppose any attempt to detain its citizens.

Fatah al-Islam

Following Sy Hersh's write-up including Alastair Horne's comments that Fatah al-Islam is being funded indirectly through Saad Hariri by the US, there has been more interest in the new group in the American media.

The NY Times has an interview with the group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and the LA Times has an article on accusations by the Lebanese government that Fatah al-Islam was involved in the bus bombings last month.

Neither article mentions Hersh's article or Crooke's comments, although both mention the claim that the group is sponsored by Damascus to start trouble in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a "temporary and false construct."

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

...The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no "Shia crescent" and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon -- Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians -- is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn't exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that's held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don't have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don't see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn't been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I'm not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.

Bhutto on democracy and al-Qaida in Pakistan

Madame Bhutto pens a piece from Dubai that's critical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al-Qaida and returning to democracy:

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?

The red and black Tigris

A car bomb exploded last week in Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, where booksellers once traded in ideas and words. Anthony Shadid has an excellent piece in remembrance of one of the booksellers killed in the blast.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

After reading the whole thing, I'm not surprised to learn that Shadid is probably up for a Pulitzer this year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One thousand words


(Original caption: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 15 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon.")

When this photo was chosen as best news picture of the year, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not very well framed and unless one is familiar with Lebanon, it could be very confusing as a news image. On the other hand, as someone who lives in Lebanon and experienced part of the war first hand, I was somewhat drawn to it.

In any case, the BBC has a story about the image, explaining who the people in the car are. As it turns out, four of the people in the car are residents of the area and had to flee because of the bombs:

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

...Bissan, Jad's other sister ... was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi ... is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group ... was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Stanley Fish on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel

Stanley Fish has a little piece on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel on his NYT blog entitled Is it good for the Jews. While the article starts off giving one the impression that Fish is going to do some hard thinking on the question, he disappointingly finishes by coming only a little short of saying that critics of Israel are anti-semites:

So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.

Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.

Perhaps the University of Chicago and Florida International University are hotbeds of anti-semitism, but I doubt it. It seems like Fish is just plain incapable of thinking rationally about the question. In which case, perhaps Professor Fish should follow his own advice and "think again."

Lebanese entrepreneurship

I received the following message on my Lebanese number the other day:

Do you support the Majority or the Opposition? Call now 1006 to get Logo "I love life" or "I love life in Multicolor" and other political ringtones and jokes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Minnawi's forces kill peacekeepers

Al Jazeera reports on the murder of two AU peacekeepers in Darfur:

Two African Union peacekeepers have been killed and another critically wounded after being shot by gunmen in Darfur, the AU said Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission said it was "deeply concerned" that the gunmen are believed to belong to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the rebel faction that signed the Darfur peace agreement last May.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, a Darfur force official said the dead soldiers were Nigerian.

"They were just shopping. They were unarmed and they were attacked by unidentified men," said Mahmoud Kane, the head of the Darfur Intergrated Task Force.

"This deplorable and condemnable act was perpetrated by gunmen believed to be elements belonging to Sudan Liberation Movement or Army [Minni Minnawi faction], which is in full control of [the town of] Graida," an AU statement said.

Minni Minnawi is the SLA leader who signed the peace agreement.

Doubting Generals

Vanity Fair has an in-depth (and long) piece about the US Generals who broke rank with Rumsfeld.

It's worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who gassed Halabja?

According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:

Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz - once the public face of Saddam's regime - blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.

"The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq," said Aziz.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.

In most accounts of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.

In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:

...all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.


The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:

Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:

The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. "It was different from the other bombs," according to one witness. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The raids continued unabated for several hours. "It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned.

I'll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I'm not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I'm not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn't mean that the village of Halajba didn't just get caught up in the crossfire.

Egypt's hymen fatwa

The Daily Star Egypt reports on the commotion surrounding the hymen fatwa:

Reconstructive hymen surgery for women who lost their virginity before marriage is halal (religiously permissible), said to Aly Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

...Shiekh Khaled El Gindy, an Al-Azhar scholar and member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies told The Daily Star Egypt that he agrees with the new fatwa.

"Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men," El Gindy said.

"Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife's hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin," he added.

El Gindy voiced his full support for Gomaa.

...In Upper Egypt honor crimes are still committed. If a woman loses her virginity out of wedlock, she is considered a big shame on everyone and deserves to die.

In response to such ideas, El Gindy told The Daily Star Egypt that, "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots."

A little nuance

I've been really annoyed by the media's tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. This is a point made in Olivier Roy's works on the subject, and it seems obvious that the fact that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim does not mean that that person would ever be willing to commit a violent act on behalf of those beliefs. Similarly, I know many fundamentalist Christians in America's Bible Belt, but none who have bombed abortion clinics or murdered abortion doctors.

This idea comes up in a Slate review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book, My Year Inside Radical Islam:

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents' home, where he was living during his internship. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a "radicalized Muslim" as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely "radical" religious action: Midway through his internship, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat -- he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who's been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn't John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we're supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he's being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear.

To be fair, I haven't read his book, but it certainly sounds like Gartenstein-Ross fell in with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, then decided that their belief system wasn't for him. This is not to say that it's not an interesting subject, the experience of a convert, and his decision to go back on his conversion (a process that took two years from beginning to end). But what it is not, is a look at Islamic terrorism, which is really where the book market seems to be these days.

So while it might be interesting to read an account of someone who was "born again" into one of the churches that we see in Jesus Camp, it wouldn't necessarily help us to understand what makes a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist move from more or less extreme religious beliefs to religious violence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What Afghans want

I've been running around town today, so I haven't had time to post, and I've got a lot of work tonight, so I probably won't do much posting this evening either. But here's an important op-ed by Rory Stewart on Afghanistan:

The international community's policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, "Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own."

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying "we're all in this together" and placing them in "the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion."

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like "human rights," "democracy" and "development" is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. "Warlords" retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

...The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Freedom in the desert?

It is ironic that Frederick Vreeland's op-ed piece on the Western Sahara should have the word "freedom" in the title, since at no point does he mention the Sahrawi people's right to full self-determination.

He repeats Moroccan talking points that hold that the Polisario Front is but an arm of Algerian foreign policy, despite the fact that the Front was engaged in fighting for Sahrawi independence against the Spanish well before Algerian involvement.

But he mentions neither Morocco's 1200-mile militarized separation wall built in the Sahara nor its historical expansionist plans, which at one point included not only the Western Sahara, but also parts of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania. Nor does he mention the 1975 ruling by the UN International Court of Justice, which found no reason to disregard the "decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular ... the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

Rabat has constantly blocked the free expression of the will of the Sahrawi people to decide whether they would prefer integration into the Kingdom of Morocco or to become citizens of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While Vreeland repeats many reasons why he thinks the Western Sahara should remain a part of Morocco, the will of the Sahrawi people is not one of them.

For more reading, check out this and this.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Deportation...

Here's a story that's making the rounds at at least one UN organization, from a UN director who was refused entry to the US upon arrival in Washington for an official UN visit.

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq."

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a "solution" is this: "I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all."

But that, I'm afraid, is no solution at all.

Diplomacy in Damascus?

Al Jazeera reports on the upcoming first high-level visit by a US official to Damascus since 2005:

The United States is to send a high-ranking official to Syria for the first time in two years.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state, will travel to Damascus "in coming weeks" as part of a regional tour dealing with "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees," Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman, has said.

Sauerbrey will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria since early 2005, when Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state, travelled to Damascus.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unintentional satire

This is really too much.

War with Iran?

Harper's has a three-part segment on the possibility of war with Iran on its Washington Bablyon. Ken Silverman creates an online forum of different characters: Part 1 features independent analysts; Part 2, CIA officials; and Part 3, members of think tanks.

The verdict does not look good. There are a lot of quotable tidbits in the different segments, so I'm not going to bother, except to focus on one argument I found interesting from Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989:

I am seeing constant trumpeting by the administration of "evidence" of Iranian weapons, equipment, or technology, linked with American casualties in Iraq. I don't know why anyone would be surprised by Iranian gambling in our Iraqi casino -- especially as there are time-honored rules, at least a half-century old, for proxy wars. The Soviets and Chinese armed our adversaries in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where we suffered about 100,000 killed in action. Nevertheless, successive American administrations never gave serious thought to attacking either China or the U.S.S.R. in response to their arming of our enemies. And I personally funneled much of the ordnance to the Afghan resistance fighters that killed 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Here again, the U.S.S.R. never seriously considered striking at the source of their torment in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie on Darfur

I never thought I'd be able to ask this question, but have you read Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The Washington Post today? The truth be told, it's not any better or any worse than most other pieces I've read in the mainstream press. And to her credit, she (unlike most people who have an opinion about Darfur, myself included) has actually been there.

Like most other proponents of intervention, she doesn't say exactly what she thinks that would entail, but she does come out as a strong supporter of the ICC accusations.

I think it was Bono who once said (more or less), "Celebrity is a currency, and I want to spend mine well." I have to say that I couldn't agree more, and if Angelina Jolie wants to spend hers on Darfur, then I say more power to her.

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper's website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, "an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf ... warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda."

...[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country's core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

...A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan's survival, so it's hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, "Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to 'commit suicide' solely for American national interests." But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it's roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that's not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that's not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington's interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn't often take other countries' interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they're making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée's reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.

Jose Padilla and indefinite detention

The Times has an editorial today about upcoming Jose Padilla trial:

There were so many reasons to be appalled by President Bush's decision to detain people illegally and subject them to mental and physical abuse. The unfolding case of Jose Padilla reminds us of one of the most important: mistreating a prisoner makes it hard, if not impossible, for a real court to judge whether he has committed real crimes.

The Padilla case, like the Hamdi one, brings up a lot of questions about the execution of this administration's "war on terror." These are questions that I've previously addressed in more detail, but one of those issues is the question of indefinite incarceration without recourse to a court of law.

Of course, when the White House was about to have to argue their case for holding US citizens indefinitely, there was a sudden change of heart that led to Padilla being released into the criminal law system on the same day legal briefs were due to the Supreme Court.

For a more in-depth look at the question of "enemy combatants" and indefinite detention, take a look at Joseph Lelyveld's piece, No Exit, in the New York Review of Books.

About those EFPs...

Via Juan Cole, a report that the US has been exaggerating the number of coalition deaths in Shi'a areas of Iraq:

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.

Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.

While it's difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.

...Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.

"Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians," Thompson said. "They are fairly common around the world."

Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.

John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.

"These are not factory-produced munitions," he said.

Asked who'd have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited "people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry." In Iraq, he said, "there would be a fair number of those."

...American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bounds. Faced with the insistence of the host, he even dug himself in even deeper, protesting that one mustn't reduce the debate to the membership of "an ethnicity." A Pity: these two movements are not ethnicities but branches of Islam. ... When will a test of Trivial Pursuit be necessary to qualify for the second round of presidential elections?

The whole exchange is available for you to listen to here. As usual, Sarkozy comes off as arrogant and pedantic, even when he's demonstrably wrong. He stresses that one can't "reduce al-Qaida to an ethnicity" (sic), and tries to back himself up by bringing up the GSPC and remarking that the Algerian group had recently joined al-Qaida. Of course, if Sarkozy understood the groups he's talking down to us about, he'd know that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, like the rest of al-Qaida, is virulently Sunni.

Kanan Makiya on post-invasion Iraq

The Times had a short profile of Kanan Makiya this weekend. He's writing a new book on post-invasion Iraq.

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," he said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he continued. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

..."There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said. Chief among the culprits, he added, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said.

Mr. Makiya said he preferred not to name names. But it is well known that he had a falling out with Mr. Chalabi after Mr. Chalabi began courting Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in order to win support in Iraq's first national elections. For years before the war, Mr. Makiya had toiled with Mr. Chalabi to organize the Iraqi exiles who, despite disparate ideologies, stood united in their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Then there is the small issue of American policy. "Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong," Mr. Makiya said. "The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation."

...Talk turned to the presidential race. Mr. Morse mentioned the pressure that Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing to apologize for her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to go to war.

Mr. Makiya stared into his glass of red wine. "That's so Maoist," he said. "People shouldn't feel the need to apologize. What is there to apologize for?"

Makiya's name has come up in pretty much every in-depth article or book I've read about the road to war in Iraq. His eloquent and sustained cry for something to be done about Saddam Hussein's brutal rule seems to have had a large impact on many of those who thought long and hard about how they felt about the looming war in Iraq.

After hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, it doesn't seem "Maoist" or even unreasonable to expect people like Makiya to admit that they were wrong. And considering the bloody depths to which Iraq has fallen as a direct consequence of this war, an apology would almost seem quaint.

Furthermore, if Makiya thinks that sectarianism started in Iraq with the rise of Iraqi exiles, then he's misunderstood his own country even more than he realizes.

"War on Terror" a "self inflicted wound"

I just read a recent piece about how the "War on Terror" is a "self-inflicted wound" to America, which might be serving to pave the way for a regional conflict:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

...To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was published in a magazine like The Nation and penned by someone like Chomsky, but it's not.

It ran in the Post, and was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bomb defused at AUB

It was a little disconcerting to learn that yesterday, a bomb was defused at the American University of Beirut:

Police defused a small bomb at the American University of Beirut on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest of a series of attempts to cause explosions in Lebanon, security officials said.

An explosives expert defused a bomb of 200 grams of TNT that was found in a bag near an elevator in the Issam Fares Hall, a building off the main campus, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bomb was wired to a detonator and ready to explode, the official added. It was taken to a police barracks for investigation.

Police are also looking into how the bomb got into the university, whose entrances are guarded by police officers and the university's own security guards.

Whenever I hear about these defused bombs (more than a few of which have been found lately), I can't help but think that they're not meant to go off, but rather are meant to be warnings. To whom, and by whom, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'm wrong and people are a lot more vigilant than I'm giving them credit for, but I have a hard time believing that someone really wants these bombs to go off. I feel like if someone really wanted a bomb to go off in AUB, then it'd go off -- like the bombs last month that blew up the microbuses.

In any case, whether they go off or not, any bombs in public places make me feel really uneasy.

British sailors captured by Iranians

This might be very bad news.

More here.

"In this cultural background"

This story in the Times shows what happens when an idiot judge in Germany mistakes cultural sensitivity with bigotry:

A German judge has stirred a storm of protest by citing the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband beat her.

In a ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, noted that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote in her decision, sanctions such physical abuse.

...The 26-year-old woman in this case was born in Germany to a Moroccan family and married in Morocco in 2001, according to her lawyer, Ms. Becker-Rojczyk. The couple settled in the Frankfurt area and had two children.

In May 2006, the police were summoned after a particularly violent incident. At that time, Judge Datz-Winter ordered the husband to move out and stay at least 55 yards away from the coupleis home. In the months that followed, her lawyer said, the man threatened to kill his wife.

Terrified, the woman filed for divorce in October and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation because her husband's threats and beatings constituted an "unreasonable hardship."

"We worried that he might think he had the right to kill her because she is still his wife," Ms. Becker-Rojczyk said.

In January, the judge turned down the wife's request for a speedy divorce, saying her husband's behavior did not constitute unreasonable hardship because they are both Moroccan. "In this cultural background," she wrote, "it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife."

This is the kind of ruling that gives intercultural dialogue a bad name. All it takes is for some foolish judge to think that she's engaging Islam in a respectful way to make the whole enterprise look foolish.

It seems ridiculous to me that the Qu'ran would even come up in her ruling, but even more ridiculous that she would have the gall to say what is and isn't customary in Muslim culture or Islamic law or think that her opinion would have any weight at all. This, of course, is not because she's a foreigner, but because Islam is not her field, so just like she's unfit to make judgments on quantum physics, say, or Inuit literature, she should hold her tongue on issues that are not only not germane in a German civil court but of which she most likely knows next to nothing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most

George Packer has an excellent, but long, piece on Iraqi interpreters being more or less hung out to dry by the American Government they've risked their lives to work for.

It's hard to find a single extract to quote, so I'll leave you with the advice of reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Did Chirac ask Israel to depose Assad?

According to Stratfor and the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Army Radio reported that Chirac urged Israel to expand its war against Lebanon this summer to include an attack on Syria to overthrow Assad:

Israel's Army Radio claimed March 18 that French President Jacques Chirac pledged support for an Israeli assault on Syria during the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Chirac allegedly suggested that Israel overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and viewed Syria as responsible for giving orders to Hezbollah to attack and for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of Chirac. The report claims that France backed off of its calls for aggression against Syria after the government deemed its stance might lead to Syrian attacks on French troops.

I haven't been able to find anything about this in Libération or Le Monde. So far, I've been able to come up with stuff on Naharnet and Al Jazeera Magazine (which is not affiliated and should not to be confused with Al Jazeera the television channel).

So I'm not really sure what to think about this, because I haven't heard the Army Radio segment, nor can I read the Maariv article (in Hebrew).

Hopefully, this will become a bigger issue, forcing the French press to get on the story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hitch on the war's anniversary

In the title of his latest Slate piece, Hitch rhetorically asks himself, "So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq?" And not suprisingly, he answers with a resounding "no!" He tries to come up with several shaky reasons why the war in Iraq was a good idea in his latest dialogue with himself, but this Q&A is the icing on the cake that, to my mind, should alert anyone who still listens to him that he is either too intellectually dishonest or too delusional to merit any serious attention whatsoever.

This seriously ups the ante on either idiocy or la mauvaise foi, or perhaps both:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

Khalilzad as a grad student:

Via Weiss, a "portrait of Khalilzad as a grad student in the late 70s, from Anne Norton's book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire":

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation... When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter's course on nuclear war together. He didn't seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter's party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve's Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. 'The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.' The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don't know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Talking about Israel

Kristof has a piece about talking about Israel in the Times today:

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

...For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right's aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, "Pandering Not Required." He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians."

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let's be better friends -- and stop biting our tongues.

While I disagree that the US was evenhanded for 50 years and only instituted a pro-Israel bias in 2000 (this has been going on to varying degrees since the 1970s), recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopefuls makes it obvious that there is no real space between them and Republicans when it comes to US-Israel relations.

Much like France's warnings before the war in Iraq should have been heeded as frank and friendly advice, the US should start acting like a real friend to Israel by telling the Israelis the truths they don't want to hear.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sudan found liable in USS Cole civil suit

From the AP:

A federal judge on Wednesday found Sudan liable for the attack on the now-repaired Navy destroyer, but said he would need time to study all the evidence and documentation to determine the amount of damages the families deserve.

"There is substantial evidence in this case, presented by the expert testimony, that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan," U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said at the end of a 1-day trial in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Cole is based.

...Four experts on terrorism, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, testified in person or by deposition Tuesday to support the families' contention that al-Qaida needed the African nation's help to carry out the attack.

"It would not have been as easy -- it might have been possible -- but it would not have been as easy," Woolsey said, referring to Sudan's alleged assistance in providing economic support, places to train and false documents.

The experts testified that Sudan let terrorist training camps operate within its borders and gave al-Qaida members diplomatic passports and diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons without being searched. They cited testimony from other trials, a declassified Canadian intelligence report, State Department reports and their own studies.

Interpol and Buenos Aires bombing

Al Jazeera reports on updates on the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing:

The international police agency, Interpol, plans to request for the arrest of five prominent Iranians and a Lebanese allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

But Tehran is expected to appeal against the international requests, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

The bombing killed 85 people and wounded 200.

Interpol added on Thursday that it had turned down Argentina's request for help in the arrests of three other Iranians, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.

It plans to issue "red notices" for the Iranians on March 31, unless either Iran or Argentina appeals the decision first, failing which the matter would be discussed at Interpol's general assembly in November.

Iranian Denials

Argentinian prosecutors have alleged that the attack was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and executed by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The six people on Interpol's list include Ali Fallahijan, the former Iranian intelligence chief.

Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese, is also wanted for allegedly kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, and suicide attacks on the US embassy and a US marine base in Lebanon which killed more than 260 Americans.

Iran has denied involvement in the bombing and said it would oppose any attempt to detain its citizens.

Fatah al-Islam

Following Sy Hersh's write-up including Alastair Horne's comments that Fatah al-Islam is being funded indirectly through Saad Hariri by the US, there has been more interest in the new group in the American media.

The NY Times has an interview with the group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and the LA Times has an article on accusations by the Lebanese government that Fatah al-Islam was involved in the bus bombings last month.

Neither article mentions Hersh's article or Crooke's comments, although both mention the claim that the group is sponsored by Damascus to start trouble in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a "temporary and false construct."

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

...The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no "Shia crescent" and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon -- Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians -- is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn't exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that's held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don't have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don't see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn't been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I'm not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.

Bhutto on democracy and al-Qaida in Pakistan

Madame Bhutto pens a piece from Dubai that's critical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al-Qaida and returning to democracy:

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?

The red and black Tigris

A car bomb exploded last week in Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, where booksellers once traded in ideas and words. Anthony Shadid has an excellent piece in remembrance of one of the booksellers killed in the blast.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

After reading the whole thing, I'm not surprised to learn that Shadid is probably up for a Pulitzer this year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One thousand words


(Original caption: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 15 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon.")

When this photo was chosen as best news picture of the year, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not very well framed and unless one is familiar with Lebanon, it could be very confusing as a news image. On the other hand, as someone who lives in Lebanon and experienced part of the war first hand, I was somewhat drawn to it.

In any case, the BBC has a story about the image, explaining who the people in the car are. As it turns out, four of the people in the car are residents of the area and had to flee because of the bombs:

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

...Bissan, Jad's other sister ... was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi ... is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group ... was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Stanley Fish on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel

Stanley Fish has a little piece on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel on his NYT blog entitled Is it good for the Jews. While the article starts off giving one the impression that Fish is going to do some hard thinking on the question, he disappointingly finishes by coming only a little short of saying that critics of Israel are anti-semites:

So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.

Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.

Perhaps the University of Chicago and Florida International University are hotbeds of anti-semitism, but I doubt it. It seems like Fish is just plain incapable of thinking rationally about the question. In which case, perhaps Professor Fish should follow his own advice and "think again."

Lebanese entrepreneurship

I received the following message on my Lebanese number the other day:

Do you support the Majority or the Opposition? Call now 1006 to get Logo "I love life" or "I love life in Multicolor" and other political ringtones and jokes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Minnawi's forces kill peacekeepers

Al Jazeera reports on the murder of two AU peacekeepers in Darfur:

Two African Union peacekeepers have been killed and another critically wounded after being shot by gunmen in Darfur, the AU said Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission said it was "deeply concerned" that the gunmen are believed to belong to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the rebel faction that signed the Darfur peace agreement last May.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, a Darfur force official said the dead soldiers were Nigerian.

"They were just shopping. They were unarmed and they were attacked by unidentified men," said Mahmoud Kane, the head of the Darfur Intergrated Task Force.

"This deplorable and condemnable act was perpetrated by gunmen believed to be elements belonging to Sudan Liberation Movement or Army [Minni Minnawi faction], which is in full control of [the town of] Graida," an AU statement said.

Minni Minnawi is the SLA leader who signed the peace agreement.

Doubting Generals

Vanity Fair has an in-depth (and long) piece about the US Generals who broke rank with Rumsfeld.

It's worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who gassed Halabja?

According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:

Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz - once the public face of Saddam's regime - blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.

"The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq," said Aziz.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.

In most accounts of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.

In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:

...all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.


The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:

Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:

The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. "It was different from the other bombs," according to one witness. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The raids continued unabated for several hours. "It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned.

I'll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I'm not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I'm not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn't mean that the village of Halajba didn't just get caught up in the crossfire.

Egypt's hymen fatwa

The Daily Star Egypt reports on the commotion surrounding the hymen fatwa:

Reconstructive hymen surgery for women who lost their virginity before marriage is halal (religiously permissible), said to Aly Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

...Shiekh Khaled El Gindy, an Al-Azhar scholar and member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies told The Daily Star Egypt that he agrees with the new fatwa.

"Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men," El Gindy said.

"Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife's hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin," he added.

El Gindy voiced his full support for Gomaa.

...In Upper Egypt honor crimes are still committed. If a woman loses her virginity out of wedlock, she is considered a big shame on everyone and deserves to die.

In response to such ideas, El Gindy told The Daily Star Egypt that, "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots."

A little nuance

I've been really annoyed by the media's tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. This is a point made in Olivier Roy's works on the subject, and it seems obvious that the fact that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim does not mean that that person would ever be willing to commit a violent act on behalf of those beliefs. Similarly, I know many fundamentalist Christians in America's Bible Belt, but none who have bombed abortion clinics or murdered abortion doctors.

This idea comes up in a Slate review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book, My Year Inside Radical Islam:

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents' home, where he was living during his internship. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a "radicalized Muslim" as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely "radical" religious action: Midway through his internship, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat -- he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who's been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn't John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we're supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he's being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear.

To be fair, I haven't read his book, but it certainly sounds like Gartenstein-Ross fell in with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, then decided that their belief system wasn't for him. This is not to say that it's not an interesting subject, the experience of a convert, and his decision to go back on his conversion (a process that took two years from beginning to end). But what it is not, is a look at Islamic terrorism, which is really where the book market seems to be these days.

So while it might be interesting to read an account of someone who was "born again" into one of the churches that we see in Jesus Camp, it wouldn't necessarily help us to understand what makes a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist move from more or less extreme religious beliefs to religious violence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What Afghans want

I've been running around town today, so I haven't had time to post, and I've got a lot of work tonight, so I probably won't do much posting this evening either. But here's an important op-ed by Rory Stewart on Afghanistan:

The international community's policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, "Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own."

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying "we're all in this together" and placing them in "the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion."

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like "human rights," "democracy" and "development" is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. "Warlords" retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

...The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Freedom in the desert?

It is ironic that Frederick Vreeland's op-ed piece on the Western Sahara should have the word "freedom" in the title, since at no point does he mention the Sahrawi people's right to full self-determination.

He repeats Moroccan talking points that hold that the Polisario Front is but an arm of Algerian foreign policy, despite the fact that the Front was engaged in fighting for Sahrawi independence against the Spanish well before Algerian involvement.

But he mentions neither Morocco's 1200-mile militarized separation wall built in the Sahara nor its historical expansionist plans, which at one point included not only the Western Sahara, but also parts of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania. Nor does he mention the 1975 ruling by the UN International Court of Justice, which found no reason to disregard the "decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular ... the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

Rabat has constantly blocked the free expression of the will of the Sahrawi people to decide whether they would prefer integration into the Kingdom of Morocco or to become citizens of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While Vreeland repeats many reasons why he thinks the Western Sahara should remain a part of Morocco, the will of the Sahrawi people is not one of them.

For more reading, check out this and this.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Deportation...

Here's a story that's making the rounds at at least one UN organization, from a UN director who was refused entry to the US upon arrival in Washington for an official UN visit.

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq."

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a "solution" is this: "I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all."

But that, I'm afraid, is no solution at all.

Diplomacy in Damascus?

Al Jazeera reports on the upcoming first high-level visit by a US official to Damascus since 2005:

The United States is to send a high-ranking official to Syria for the first time in two years.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state, will travel to Damascus "in coming weeks" as part of a regional tour dealing with "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees," Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman, has said.

Sauerbrey will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria since early 2005, when Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state, travelled to Damascus.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unintentional satire

This is really too much.

War with Iran?

Harper's has a three-part segment on the possibility of war with Iran on its Washington Bablyon. Ken Silverman creates an online forum of different characters: Part 1 features independent analysts; Part 2, CIA officials; and Part 3, members of think tanks.

The verdict does not look good. There are a lot of quotable tidbits in the different segments, so I'm not going to bother, except to focus on one argument I found interesting from Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989:

I am seeing constant trumpeting by the administration of "evidence" of Iranian weapons, equipment, or technology, linked with American casualties in Iraq. I don't know why anyone would be surprised by Iranian gambling in our Iraqi casino -- especially as there are time-honored rules, at least a half-century old, for proxy wars. The Soviets and Chinese armed our adversaries in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where we suffered about 100,000 killed in action. Nevertheless, successive American administrations never gave serious thought to attacking either China or the U.S.S.R. in response to their arming of our enemies. And I personally funneled much of the ordnance to the Afghan resistance fighters that killed 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Here again, the U.S.S.R. never seriously considered striking at the source of their torment in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie on Darfur

I never thought I'd be able to ask this question, but have you read Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The Washington Post today? The truth be told, it's not any better or any worse than most other pieces I've read in the mainstream press. And to her credit, she (unlike most people who have an opinion about Darfur, myself included) has actually been there.

Like most other proponents of intervention, she doesn't say exactly what she thinks that would entail, but she does come out as a strong supporter of the ICC accusations.

I think it was Bono who once said (more or less), "Celebrity is a currency, and I want to spend mine well." I have to say that I couldn't agree more, and if Angelina Jolie wants to spend hers on Darfur, then I say more power to her.

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper's website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, "an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf ... warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda."

...[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country's core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

...A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan's survival, so it's hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, "Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to 'commit suicide' solely for American national interests." But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it's roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that's not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that's not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington's interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn't often take other countries' interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they're making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée's reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.

Jose Padilla and indefinite detention

The Times has an editorial today about upcoming Jose Padilla trial:

There were so many reasons to be appalled by President Bush's decision to detain people illegally and subject them to mental and physical abuse. The unfolding case of Jose Padilla reminds us of one of the most important: mistreating a prisoner makes it hard, if not impossible, for a real court to judge whether he has committed real crimes.

The Padilla case, like the Hamdi one, brings up a lot of questions about the execution of this administration's "war on terror." These are questions that I've previously addressed in more detail, but one of those issues is the question of indefinite incarceration without recourse to a court of law.

Of course, when the White House was about to have to argue their case for holding US citizens indefinitely, there was a sudden change of heart that led to Padilla being released into the criminal law system on the same day legal briefs were due to the Supreme Court.

For a more in-depth look at the question of "enemy combatants" and indefinite detention, take a look at Joseph Lelyveld's piece, No Exit, in the New York Review of Books.

About those EFPs...

Via Juan Cole, a report that the US has been exaggerating the number of coalition deaths in Shi'a areas of Iraq:

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.

Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.

While it's difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.

...Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.

"Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians," Thompson said. "They are fairly common around the world."

Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.

John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.

"These are not factory-produced munitions," he said.

Asked who'd have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited "people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry." In Iraq, he said, "there would be a fair number of those."

...American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bounds. Faced with the insistence of the host, he even dug himself in even deeper, protesting that one mustn't reduce the debate to the membership of "an ethnicity." A Pity: these two movements are not ethnicities but branches of Islam. ... When will a test of Trivial Pursuit be necessary to qualify for the second round of presidential elections?

The whole exchange is available for you to listen to here. As usual, Sarkozy comes off as arrogant and pedantic, even when he's demonstrably wrong. He stresses that one can't "reduce al-Qaida to an ethnicity" (sic), and tries to back himself up by bringing up the GSPC and remarking that the Algerian group had recently joined al-Qaida. Of course, if Sarkozy understood the groups he's talking down to us about, he'd know that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, like the rest of al-Qaida, is virulently Sunni.

Kanan Makiya on post-invasion Iraq

The Times had a short profile of Kanan Makiya this weekend. He's writing a new book on post-invasion Iraq.

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," he said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he continued. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

..."There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said. Chief among the culprits, he added, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said.

Mr. Makiya said he preferred not to name names. But it is well known that he had a falling out with Mr. Chalabi after Mr. Chalabi began courting Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in order to win support in Iraq's first national elections. For years before the war, Mr. Makiya had toiled with Mr. Chalabi to organize the Iraqi exiles who, despite disparate ideologies, stood united in their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Then there is the small issue of American policy. "Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong," Mr. Makiya said. "The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation."

...Talk turned to the presidential race. Mr. Morse mentioned the pressure that Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing to apologize for her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to go to war.

Mr. Makiya stared into his glass of red wine. "That's so Maoist," he said. "People shouldn't feel the need to apologize. What is there to apologize for?"

Makiya's name has come up in pretty much every in-depth article or book I've read about the road to war in Iraq. His eloquent and sustained cry for something to be done about Saddam Hussein's brutal rule seems to have had a large impact on many of those who thought long and hard about how they felt about the looming war in Iraq.

After hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, it doesn't seem "Maoist" or even unreasonable to expect people like Makiya to admit that they were wrong. And considering the bloody depths to which Iraq has fallen as a direct consequence of this war, an apology would almost seem quaint.

Furthermore, if Makiya thinks that sectarianism started in Iraq with the rise of Iraqi exiles, then he's misunderstood his own country even more than he realizes.

"War on Terror" a "self inflicted wound"

I just read a recent piece about how the "War on Terror" is a "self-inflicted wound" to America, which might be serving to pave the way for a regional conflict:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

...To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was published in a magazine like The Nation and penned by someone like Chomsky, but it's not.

It ran in the Post, and was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bomb defused at AUB

It was a little disconcerting to learn that yesterday, a bomb was defused at the American University of Beirut:

Police defused a small bomb at the American University of Beirut on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest of a series of attempts to cause explosions in Lebanon, security officials said.

An explosives expert defused a bomb of 200 grams of TNT that was found in a bag near an elevator in the Issam Fares Hall, a building off the main campus, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bomb was wired to a detonator and ready to explode, the official added. It was taken to a police barracks for investigation.

Police are also looking into how the bomb got into the university, whose entrances are guarded by police officers and the university's own security guards.

Whenever I hear about these defused bombs (more than a few of which have been found lately), I can't help but think that they're not meant to go off, but rather are meant to be warnings. To whom, and by whom, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'm wrong and people are a lot more vigilant than I'm giving them credit for, but I have a hard time believing that someone really wants these bombs to go off. I feel like if someone really wanted a bomb to go off in AUB, then it'd go off -- like the bombs last month that blew up the microbuses.

In any case, whether they go off or not, any bombs in public places make me feel really uneasy.

British sailors captured by Iranians

This might be very bad news.

More here.

"In this cultural background"

This story in the Times shows what happens when an idiot judge in Germany mistakes cultural sensitivity with bigotry:

A German judge has stirred a storm of protest by citing the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband beat her.

In a ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, noted that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote in her decision, sanctions such physical abuse.

...The 26-year-old woman in this case was born in Germany to a Moroccan family and married in Morocco in 2001, according to her lawyer, Ms. Becker-Rojczyk. The couple settled in the Frankfurt area and had two children.

In May 2006, the police were summoned after a particularly violent incident. At that time, Judge Datz-Winter ordered the husband to move out and stay at least 55 yards away from the coupleis home. In the months that followed, her lawyer said, the man threatened to kill his wife.

Terrified, the woman filed for divorce in October and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation because her husband's threats and beatings constituted an "unreasonable hardship."

"We worried that he might think he had the right to kill her because she is still his wife," Ms. Becker-Rojczyk said.

In January, the judge turned down the wife's request for a speedy divorce, saying her husband's behavior did not constitute unreasonable hardship because they are both Moroccan. "In this cultural background," she wrote, "it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife."

This is the kind of ruling that gives intercultural dialogue a bad name. All it takes is for some foolish judge to think that she's engaging Islam in a respectful way to make the whole enterprise look foolish.

It seems ridiculous to me that the Qu'ran would even come up in her ruling, but even more ridiculous that she would have the gall to say what is and isn't customary in Muslim culture or Islamic law or think that her opinion would have any weight at all. This, of course, is not because she's a foreigner, but because Islam is not her field, so just like she's unfit to make judgments on quantum physics, say, or Inuit literature, she should hold her tongue on issues that are not only not germane in a German civil court but of which she most likely knows next to nothing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most

George Packer has an excellent, but long, piece on Iraqi interpreters being more or less hung out to dry by the American Government they've risked their lives to work for.

It's hard to find a single extract to quote, so I'll leave you with the advice of reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Did Chirac ask Israel to depose Assad?

According to Stratfor and the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Army Radio reported that Chirac urged Israel to expand its war against Lebanon this summer to include an attack on Syria to overthrow Assad:

Israel's Army Radio claimed March 18 that French President Jacques Chirac pledged support for an Israeli assault on Syria during the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Chirac allegedly suggested that Israel overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and viewed Syria as responsible for giving orders to Hezbollah to attack and for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of Chirac. The report claims that France backed off of its calls for aggression against Syria after the government deemed its stance might lead to Syrian attacks on French troops.

I haven't been able to find anything about this in Libération or Le Monde. So far, I've been able to come up with stuff on Naharnet and Al Jazeera Magazine (which is not affiliated and should not to be confused with Al Jazeera the television channel).

So I'm not really sure what to think about this, because I haven't heard the Army Radio segment, nor can I read the Maariv article (in Hebrew).

Hopefully, this will become a bigger issue, forcing the French press to get on the story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hitch on the war's anniversary

In the title of his latest Slate piece, Hitch rhetorically asks himself, "So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq?" And not suprisingly, he answers with a resounding "no!" He tries to come up with several shaky reasons why the war in Iraq was a good idea in his latest dialogue with himself, but this Q&A is the icing on the cake that, to my mind, should alert anyone who still listens to him that he is either too intellectually dishonest or too delusional to merit any serious attention whatsoever.

This seriously ups the ante on either idiocy or la mauvaise foi, or perhaps both:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

Khalilzad as a grad student:

Via Weiss, a "portrait of Khalilzad as a grad student in the late 70s, from Anne Norton's book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire":

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation... When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter's course on nuclear war together. He didn't seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter's party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve's Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. 'The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.' The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don't know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Talking about Israel

Kristof has a piece about talking about Israel in the Times today:

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

...For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right's aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, "Pandering Not Required." He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians."

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let's be better friends -- and stop biting our tongues.

While I disagree that the US was evenhanded for 50 years and only instituted a pro-Israel bias in 2000 (this has been going on to varying degrees since the 1970s), recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopefuls makes it obvious that there is no real space between them and Republicans when it comes to US-Israel relations.

Much like France's warnings before the war in Iraq should have been heeded as frank and friendly advice, the US should start acting like a real friend to Israel by telling the Israelis the truths they don't want to hear.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sudan found liable in USS Cole civil suit

From the AP:

A federal judge on Wednesday found Sudan liable for the attack on the now-repaired Navy destroyer, but said he would need time to study all the evidence and documentation to determine the amount of damages the families deserve.

"There is substantial evidence in this case, presented by the expert testimony, that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan," U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said at the end of a 1-day trial in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Cole is based.

...Four experts on terrorism, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, testified in person or by deposition Tuesday to support the families' contention that al-Qaida needed the African nation's help to carry out the attack.

"It would not have been as easy -- it might have been possible -- but it would not have been as easy," Woolsey said, referring to Sudan's alleged assistance in providing economic support, places to train and false documents.

The experts testified that Sudan let terrorist training camps operate within its borders and gave al-Qaida members diplomatic passports and diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons without being searched. They cited testimony from other trials, a declassified Canadian intelligence report, State Department reports and their own studies.

Interpol and Buenos Aires bombing

Al Jazeera reports on updates on the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing:

The international police agency, Interpol, plans to request for the arrest of five prominent Iranians and a Lebanese allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

But Tehran is expected to appeal against the international requests, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

The bombing killed 85 people and wounded 200.

Interpol added on Thursday that it had turned down Argentina's request for help in the arrests of three other Iranians, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.

It plans to issue "red notices" for the Iranians on March 31, unless either Iran or Argentina appeals the decision first, failing which the matter would be discussed at Interpol's general assembly in November.

Iranian Denials

Argentinian prosecutors have alleged that the attack was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and executed by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The six people on Interpol's list include Ali Fallahijan, the former Iranian intelligence chief.

Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese, is also wanted for allegedly kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, and suicide attacks on the US embassy and a US marine base in Lebanon which killed more than 260 Americans.

Iran has denied involvement in the bombing and said it would oppose any attempt to detain its citizens.

Fatah al-Islam

Following Sy Hersh's write-up including Alastair Horne's comments that Fatah al-Islam is being funded indirectly through Saad Hariri by the US, there has been more interest in the new group in the American media.

The NY Times has an interview with the group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and the LA Times has an article on accusations by the Lebanese government that Fatah al-Islam was involved in the bus bombings last month.

Neither article mentions Hersh's article or Crooke's comments, although both mention the claim that the group is sponsored by Damascus to start trouble in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a "temporary and false construct."

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

...The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no "Shia crescent" and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon -- Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians -- is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn't exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that's held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don't have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don't see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn't been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I'm not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.

Bhutto on democracy and al-Qaida in Pakistan

Madame Bhutto pens a piece from Dubai that's critical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al-Qaida and returning to democracy:

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?

The red and black Tigris

A car bomb exploded last week in Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, where booksellers once traded in ideas and words. Anthony Shadid has an excellent piece in remembrance of one of the booksellers killed in the blast.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

After reading the whole thing, I'm not surprised to learn that Shadid is probably up for a Pulitzer this year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One thousand words


(Original caption: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 15 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon.")

When this photo was chosen as best news picture of the year, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not very well framed and unless one is familiar with Lebanon, it could be very confusing as a news image. On the other hand, as someone who lives in Lebanon and experienced part of the war first hand, I was somewhat drawn to it.

In any case, the BBC has a story about the image, explaining who the people in the car are. As it turns out, four of the people in the car are residents of the area and had to flee because of the bombs:

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

...Bissan, Jad's other sister ... was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi ... is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group ... was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Stanley Fish on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel

Stanley Fish has a little piece on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel on his NYT blog entitled Is it good for the Jews. While the article starts off giving one the impression that Fish is going to do some hard thinking on the question, he disappointingly finishes by coming only a little short of saying that critics of Israel are anti-semites:

So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.

Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.

Perhaps the University of Chicago and Florida International University are hotbeds of anti-semitism, but I doubt it. It seems like Fish is just plain incapable of thinking rationally about the question. In which case, perhaps Professor Fish should follow his own advice and "think again."

Lebanese entrepreneurship

I received the following message on my Lebanese number the other day:

Do you support the Majority or the Opposition? Call now 1006 to get Logo "I love life" or "I love life in Multicolor" and other political ringtones and jokes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Minnawi's forces kill peacekeepers

Al Jazeera reports on the murder of two AU peacekeepers in Darfur:

Two African Union peacekeepers have been killed and another critically wounded after being shot by gunmen in Darfur, the AU said Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission said it was "deeply concerned" that the gunmen are believed to belong to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the rebel faction that signed the Darfur peace agreement last May.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, a Darfur force official said the dead soldiers were Nigerian.

"They were just shopping. They were unarmed and they were attacked by unidentified men," said Mahmoud Kane, the head of the Darfur Intergrated Task Force.

"This deplorable and condemnable act was perpetrated by gunmen believed to be elements belonging to Sudan Liberation Movement or Army [Minni Minnawi faction], which is in full control of [the town of] Graida," an AU statement said.

Minni Minnawi is the SLA leader who signed the peace agreement.

Doubting Generals

Vanity Fair has an in-depth (and long) piece about the US Generals who broke rank with Rumsfeld.

It's worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who gassed Halabja?

According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:

Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz - once the public face of Saddam's regime - blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.

"The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq," said Aziz.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.

In most accounts of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.

In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:

...all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.


The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:

Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:

The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. "It was different from the other bombs," according to one witness. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The raids continued unabated for several hours. "It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned.

I'll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I'm not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I'm not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn't mean that the village of Halajba didn't just get caught up in the crossfire.

Egypt's hymen fatwa

The Daily Star Egypt reports on the commotion surrounding the hymen fatwa:

Reconstructive hymen surgery for women who lost their virginity before marriage is halal (religiously permissible), said to Aly Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

...Shiekh Khaled El Gindy, an Al-Azhar scholar and member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies told The Daily Star Egypt that he agrees with the new fatwa.

"Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men," El Gindy said.

"Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife's hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin," he added.

El Gindy voiced his full support for Gomaa.

...In Upper Egypt honor crimes are still committed. If a woman loses her virginity out of wedlock, she is considered a big shame on everyone and deserves to die.

In response to such ideas, El Gindy told The Daily Star Egypt that, "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots."

A little nuance

I've been really annoyed by the media's tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. This is a point made in Olivier Roy's works on the subject, and it seems obvious that the fact that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim does not mean that that person would ever be willing to commit a violent act on behalf of those beliefs. Similarly, I know many fundamentalist Christians in America's Bible Belt, but none who have bombed abortion clinics or murdered abortion doctors.

This idea comes up in a Slate review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book, My Year Inside Radical Islam:

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents' home, where he was living during his internship. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a "radicalized Muslim" as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely "radical" religious action: Midway through his internship, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat -- he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who's been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn't John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we're supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he's being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear.

To be fair, I haven't read his book, but it certainly sounds like Gartenstein-Ross fell in with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, then decided that their belief system wasn't for him. This is not to say that it's not an interesting subject, the experience of a convert, and his decision to go back on his conversion (a process that took two years from beginning to end). But what it is not, is a look at Islamic terrorism, which is really where the book market seems to be these days.

So while it might be interesting to read an account of someone who was "born again" into one of the churches that we see in Jesus Camp, it wouldn't necessarily help us to understand what makes a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist move from more or less extreme religious beliefs to religious violence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What Afghans want

I've been running around town today, so I haven't had time to post, and I've got a lot of work tonight, so I probably won't do much posting this evening either. But here's an important op-ed by Rory Stewart on Afghanistan:

The international community's policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, "Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own."

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying "we're all in this together" and placing them in "the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion."

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like "human rights," "democracy" and "development" is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. "Warlords" retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

...The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Freedom in the desert?

It is ironic that Frederick Vreeland's op-ed piece on the Western Sahara should have the word "freedom" in the title, since at no point does he mention the Sahrawi people's right to full self-determination.

He repeats Moroccan talking points that hold that the Polisario Front is but an arm of Algerian foreign policy, despite the fact that the Front was engaged in fighting for Sahrawi independence against the Spanish well before Algerian involvement.

But he mentions neither Morocco's 1200-mile militarized separation wall built in the Sahara nor its historical expansionist plans, which at one point included not only the Western Sahara, but also parts of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania. Nor does he mention the 1975 ruling by the UN International Court of Justice, which found no reason to disregard the "decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular ... the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

Rabat has constantly blocked the free expression of the will of the Sahrawi people to decide whether they would prefer integration into the Kingdom of Morocco or to become citizens of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While Vreeland repeats many reasons why he thinks the Western Sahara should remain a part of Morocco, the will of the Sahrawi people is not one of them.

For more reading, check out this and this.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Deportation...

Here's a story that's making the rounds at at least one UN organization, from a UN director who was refused entry to the US upon arrival in Washington for an official UN visit.

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq."

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a "solution" is this: "I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all."

But that, I'm afraid, is no solution at all.

Diplomacy in Damascus?

Al Jazeera reports on the upcoming first high-level visit by a US official to Damascus since 2005:

The United States is to send a high-ranking official to Syria for the first time in two years.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state, will travel to Damascus "in coming weeks" as part of a regional tour dealing with "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees," Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman, has said.

Sauerbrey will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria since early 2005, when Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state, travelled to Damascus.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unintentional satire

This is really too much.

War with Iran?

Harper's has a three-part segment on the possibility of war with Iran on its Washington Bablyon. Ken Silverman creates an online forum of different characters: Part 1 features independent analysts; Part 2, CIA officials; and Part 3, members of think tanks.

The verdict does not look good. There are a lot of quotable tidbits in the different segments, so I'm not going to bother, except to focus on one argument I found interesting from Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989:

I am seeing constant trumpeting by the administration of "evidence" of Iranian weapons, equipment, or technology, linked with American casualties in Iraq. I don't know why anyone would be surprised by Iranian gambling in our Iraqi casino -- especially as there are time-honored rules, at least a half-century old, for proxy wars. The Soviets and Chinese armed our adversaries in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where we suffered about 100,000 killed in action. Nevertheless, successive American administrations never gave serious thought to attacking either China or the U.S.S.R. in response to their arming of our enemies. And I personally funneled much of the ordnance to the Afghan resistance fighters that killed 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Here again, the U.S.S.R. never seriously considered striking at the source of their torment in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie on Darfur

I never thought I'd be able to ask this question, but have you read Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The Washington Post today? The truth be told, it's not any better or any worse than most other pieces I've read in the mainstream press. And to her credit, she (unlike most people who have an opinion about Darfur, myself included) has actually been there.

Like most other proponents of intervention, she doesn't say exactly what she thinks that would entail, but she does come out as a strong supporter of the ICC accusations.

I think it was Bono who once said (more or less), "Celebrity is a currency, and I want to spend mine well." I have to say that I couldn't agree more, and if Angelina Jolie wants to spend hers on Darfur, then I say more power to her.

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper's website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, "an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf ... warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda."

...[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country's core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

...A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan's survival, so it's hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, "Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to 'commit suicide' solely for American national interests." But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it's roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that's not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that's not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington's interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn't often take other countries' interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they're making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée's reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.

Jose Padilla and indefinite detention

The Times has an editorial today about upcoming Jose Padilla trial:

There were so many reasons to be appalled by President Bush's decision to detain people illegally and subject them to mental and physical abuse. The unfolding case of Jose Padilla reminds us of one of the most important: mistreating a prisoner makes it hard, if not impossible, for a real court to judge whether he has committed real crimes.

The Padilla case, like the Hamdi one, brings up a lot of questions about the execution of this administration's "war on terror." These are questions that I've previously addressed in more detail, but one of those issues is the question of indefinite incarceration without recourse to a court of law.

Of course, when the White House was about to have to argue their case for holding US citizens indefinitely, there was a sudden change of heart that led to Padilla being released into the criminal law system on the same day legal briefs were due to the Supreme Court.

For a more in-depth look at the question of "enemy combatants" and indefinite detention, take a look at Joseph Lelyveld's piece, No Exit, in the New York Review of Books.

About those EFPs...

Via Juan Cole, a report that the US has been exaggerating the number of coalition deaths in Shi'a areas of Iraq:

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.

Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.

While it's difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.

...Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.

"Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians," Thompson said. "They are fairly common around the world."

Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.

John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.

"These are not factory-produced munitions," he said.

Asked who'd have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited "people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry." In Iraq, he said, "there would be a fair number of those."

...American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bounds. Faced with the insistence of the host, he even dug himself in even deeper, protesting that one mustn't reduce the debate to the membership of "an ethnicity." A Pity: these two movements are not ethnicities but branches of Islam. ... When will a test of Trivial Pursuit be necessary to qualify for the second round of presidential elections?

The whole exchange is available for you to listen to here. As usual, Sarkozy comes off as arrogant and pedantic, even when he's demonstrably wrong. He stresses that one can't "reduce al-Qaida to an ethnicity" (sic), and tries to back himself up by bringing up the GSPC and remarking that the Algerian group had recently joined al-Qaida. Of course, if Sarkozy understood the groups he's talking down to us about, he'd know that the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, like the rest of al-Qaida, is virulently Sunni.

Kanan Makiya on post-invasion Iraq

The Times had a short profile of Kanan Makiya this weekend. He's writing a new book on post-invasion Iraq.

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," he said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he continued. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

..."There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said. Chief among the culprits, he added, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said.

Mr. Makiya said he preferred not to name names. But it is well known that he had a falling out with Mr. Chalabi after Mr. Chalabi began courting Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, in order to win support in Iraq's first national elections. For years before the war, Mr. Makiya had toiled with Mr. Chalabi to organize the Iraqi exiles who, despite disparate ideologies, stood united in their hatred of Mr. Hussein.

Then there is the small issue of American policy. "Everything they could do wrong, they did wrong," Mr. Makiya said. "The first and the biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation."

...Talk turned to the presidential race. Mr. Morse mentioned the pressure that Hillary Rodham Clinton was facing to apologize for her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to go to war.

Mr. Makiya stared into his glass of red wine. "That's so Maoist," he said. "People shouldn't feel the need to apologize. What is there to apologize for?"

Makiya's name has come up in pretty much every in-depth article or book I've read about the road to war in Iraq. His eloquent and sustained cry for something to be done about Saddam Hussein's brutal rule seems to have had a large impact on many of those who thought long and hard about how they felt about the looming war in Iraq.

After hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, it doesn't seem "Maoist" or even unreasonable to expect people like Makiya to admit that they were wrong. And considering the bloody depths to which Iraq has fallen as a direct consequence of this war, an apology would almost seem quaint.

Furthermore, if Makiya thinks that sectarianism started in Iraq with the rise of Iraqi exiles, then he's misunderstood his own country even more than he realizes.

"War on Terror" a "self inflicted wound"

I just read a recent piece about how the "War on Terror" is a "self-inflicted wound" to America, which might be serving to pave the way for a regional conflict:

The "war on terror" has created a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us.

The damage these three words have done -- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

...To justify the "war on terror," the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and perhaps also Pakistan.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this was published in a magazine like The Nation and penned by someone like Chomsky, but it's not.

It ran in the Post, and was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Bomb defused at AUB

It was a little disconcerting to learn that yesterday, a bomb was defused at the American University of Beirut:

Police defused a small bomb at the American University of Beirut on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest of a series of attempts to cause explosions in Lebanon, security officials said.

An explosives expert defused a bomb of 200 grams of TNT that was found in a bag near an elevator in the Issam Fares Hall, a building off the main campus, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The bomb was wired to a detonator and ready to explode, the official added. It was taken to a police barracks for investigation.

Police are also looking into how the bomb got into the university, whose entrances are guarded by police officers and the university's own security guards.

Whenever I hear about these defused bombs (more than a few of which have been found lately), I can't help but think that they're not meant to go off, but rather are meant to be warnings. To whom, and by whom, I'm not sure.

Maybe I'm wrong and people are a lot more vigilant than I'm giving them credit for, but I have a hard time believing that someone really wants these bombs to go off. I feel like if someone really wanted a bomb to go off in AUB, then it'd go off -- like the bombs last month that blew up the microbuses.

In any case, whether they go off or not, any bombs in public places make me feel really uneasy.

British sailors captured by Iranians

This might be very bad news.

More here.

"In this cultural background"

This story in the Times shows what happens when an idiot judge in Germany mistakes cultural sensitivity with bigotry:

A German judge has stirred a storm of protest by citing the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband beat her.

In a ruling that underlines the tension between Muslim customs and European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, noted that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives. The Koran, she wrote in her decision, sanctions such physical abuse.

...The 26-year-old woman in this case was born in Germany to a Moroccan family and married in Morocco in 2001, according to her lawyer, Ms. Becker-Rojczyk. The couple settled in the Frankfurt area and had two children.

In May 2006, the police were summoned after a particularly violent incident. At that time, Judge Datz-Winter ordered the husband to move out and stay at least 55 yards away from the coupleis home. In the months that followed, her lawyer said, the man threatened to kill his wife.

Terrified, the woman filed for divorce in October and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation because her husband's threats and beatings constituted an "unreasonable hardship."

"We worried that he might think he had the right to kill her because she is still his wife," Ms. Becker-Rojczyk said.

In January, the judge turned down the wife's request for a speedy divorce, saying her husband's behavior did not constitute unreasonable hardship because they are both Moroccan. "In this cultural background," she wrote, "it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife."

This is the kind of ruling that gives intercultural dialogue a bad name. All it takes is for some foolish judge to think that she's engaging Islam in a respectful way to make the whole enterprise look foolish.

It seems ridiculous to me that the Qu'ran would even come up in her ruling, but even more ridiculous that she would have the gall to say what is and isn't customary in Muslim culture or Islamic law or think that her opinion would have any weight at all. This, of course, is not because she's a foreigner, but because Islam is not her field, so just like she's unfit to make judgments on quantum physics, say, or Inuit literature, she should hold her tongue on issues that are not only not germane in a German civil court but of which she most likely knows next to nothing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most

George Packer has an excellent, but long, piece on Iraqi interpreters being more or less hung out to dry by the American Government they've risked their lives to work for.

It's hard to find a single extract to quote, so I'll leave you with the advice of reading the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Did Chirac ask Israel to depose Assad?

According to Stratfor and the Jerusalem Post, Israel's Army Radio reported that Chirac urged Israel to expand its war against Lebanon this summer to include an attack on Syria to overthrow Assad:

Israel's Army Radio claimed March 18 that French President Jacques Chirac pledged support for an Israeli assault on Syria during the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006. Chirac allegedly suggested that Israel overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and viewed Syria as responsible for giving orders to Hezbollah to attack and for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of Chirac. The report claims that France backed off of its calls for aggression against Syria after the government deemed its stance might lead to Syrian attacks on French troops.

I haven't been able to find anything about this in Libération or Le Monde. So far, I've been able to come up with stuff on Naharnet and Al Jazeera Magazine (which is not affiliated and should not to be confused with Al Jazeera the television channel).

So I'm not really sure what to think about this, because I haven't heard the Army Radio segment, nor can I read the Maariv article (in Hebrew).

Hopefully, this will become a bigger issue, forcing the French press to get on the story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hitch on the war's anniversary

In the title of his latest Slate piece, Hitch rhetorically asks himself, "So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq?" And not suprisingly, he answers with a resounding "no!" He tries to come up with several shaky reasons why the war in Iraq was a good idea in his latest dialogue with himself, but this Q&A is the icing on the cake that, to my mind, should alert anyone who still listens to him that he is either too intellectually dishonest or too delusional to merit any serious attention whatsoever.

This seriously ups the ante on either idiocy or la mauvaise foi, or perhaps both:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

Khalilzad as a grad student:

Via Weiss, a "portrait of Khalilzad as a grad student in the late 70s, from Anne Norton's book, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire":

He is a protege of Wolfowitz, who worked with him on the war with Iraq and the occupation... When I knew him, he was an Afghani graduate student and a radical. He boasted of the demonstrations he had organized in Beirut, of the fedayin he knew and had worked with, and of his friends who regularly visited Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi. He went to pro-Palestinian meetings. His room had a poster of Nasser in tears. He and I had taken [proto-neocon Albert] Wohlstetter's course on nuclear war together. He didn't seem, at the time, particularly interested in the course. He was, however, enthralled by Wohlstetter's party [for grad students]. In the elevator, in the apartment, he kept saying how much it all cost, how expensive it was, how much money Wohlstetter must have. Later, he borrowed my copy of Kojeve's Lectures on Hegel. When he returned it, one sentence was underlined. 'The bourgeois intellectual neither fights nor works.' The next summer, Wohlstetter got Khalilzad a job at Rand. I don't know what happened to the poster of Nasser.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Talking about Israel

Kristof has a piece about talking about Israel in the Times today:

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.

...For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.

Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right's aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.

The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, "Pandering Not Required." He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: "If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians."

Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let's be better friends -- and stop biting our tongues.

While I disagree that the US was evenhanded for 50 years and only instituted a pro-Israel bias in 2000 (this has been going on to varying degrees since the 1970s), recent remarks by Democratic presidential hopefuls makes it obvious that there is no real space between them and Republicans when it comes to US-Israel relations.

Much like France's warnings before the war in Iraq should have been heeded as frank and friendly advice, the US should start acting like a real friend to Israel by telling the Israelis the truths they don't want to hear.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sudan found liable in USS Cole civil suit

From the AP:

A federal judge on Wednesday found Sudan liable for the attack on the now-repaired Navy destroyer, but said he would need time to study all the evidence and documentation to determine the amount of damages the families deserve.

"There is substantial evidence in this case, presented by the expert testimony, that the government of Sudan induced the particular bombing of the Cole by virtue of prior actions of the government of Sudan," U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said at the end of a 1-day trial in Norfolk, where the now-repaired Cole is based.

...Four experts on terrorism, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, testified in person or by deposition Tuesday to support the families' contention that al-Qaida needed the African nation's help to carry out the attack.

"It would not have been as easy -- it might have been possible -- but it would not have been as easy," Woolsey said, referring to Sudan's alleged assistance in providing economic support, places to train and false documents.

The experts testified that Sudan let terrorist training camps operate within its borders and gave al-Qaida members diplomatic passports and diplomatic pouches to ship explosives and weapons without being searched. They cited testimony from other trials, a declassified Canadian intelligence report, State Department reports and their own studies.

Interpol and Buenos Aires bombing

Al Jazeera reports on updates on the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing:

The international police agency, Interpol, plans to request for the arrest of five prominent Iranians and a Lebanese allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

But Tehran is expected to appeal against the international requests, an Iranian official said on Thursday.

The bombing killed 85 people and wounded 200.

Interpol added on Thursday that it had turned down Argentina's request for help in the arrests of three other Iranians, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president.

It plans to issue "red notices" for the Iranians on March 31, unless either Iran or Argentina appeals the decision first, failing which the matter would be discussed at Interpol's general assembly in November.

Iranian Denials

Argentinian prosecutors have alleged that the attack was orchestrated by leaders of the Iranian government and executed by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

The six people on Interpol's list include Ali Fallahijan, the former Iranian intelligence chief.

Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese, is also wanted for allegedly kidnapping Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s, and suicide attacks on the US embassy and a US marine base in Lebanon which killed more than 260 Americans.

Iran has denied involvement in the bombing and said it would oppose any attempt to detain its citizens.

Fatah al-Islam

Following Sy Hersh's write-up including Alastair Horne's comments that Fatah al-Islam is being funded indirectly through Saad Hariri by the US, there has been more interest in the new group in the American media.

The NY Times has an interview with the group's leader, Shakir al-Abssi, and the LA Times has an article on accusations by the Lebanese government that Fatah al-Islam was involved in the bus bombings last month.

Neither article mentions Hersh's article or Crooke's comments, although both mention the claim that the group is sponsored by Damascus to start trouble in Lebanon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a "temporary and false construct."

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia "cannot be lumped together in one basket". Nasrallah's assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

...The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no "Shia crescent" and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon -- Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians -- is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn't exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that's held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don't have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don't see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn't been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I'm not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.

Bhutto on democracy and al-Qaida in Pakistan

Madame Bhutto pens a piece from Dubai that's critical of Pakistan's commitment to fighting al-Qaida and returning to democracy:

The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.

Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?

The red and black Tigris

A car bomb exploded last week in Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, where booksellers once traded in ideas and words. Anthony Shadid has an excellent piece in remembrance of one of the booksellers killed in the blast.

When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was said that the Tigris River ran red one day, black another. The red came from the blood of nameless victims, massacred by ferocious horsemen. The black came from the ink of countless books from libraries and universities. Last Monday, the bomb on Mutanabi Street detonated at 11:40 a.m. The pavement was smeared with blood. Fires that ensued sent up columns of dark smoke, fed by the plethora of paper.

A colleague told me that near Hayawi's shop, a little ways from the now-gutted Shahbandar Cafe, a black banner hangs today. In the graceful slope of yellow Arabic script, it mourns the loss of Hayawi and his nephew, "who were assassinated by the cowardly bombing."

After reading the whole thing, I'm not surprised to learn that Shadid is probably up for a Pulitzer this year.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One thousand words


(Original caption: "Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at a destroyed neighbourhood 15 August 15 2006 in southern Beirut, Lebanon.")

When this photo was chosen as best news picture of the year, I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not very well framed and unless one is familiar with Lebanon, it could be very confusing as a news image. On the other hand, as someone who lives in Lebanon and experienced part of the war first hand, I was somewhat drawn to it.

In any case, the BBC has a story about the image, explaining who the people in the car are. As it turns out, four of the people in the car are residents of the area and had to flee because of the bombs:

This was the first time they returned to the suburbs and they were eager to check on their apartment and their belongings.

The driver was Jad Maroun, his sister Tamara, is the blond girl sitting in the front, in the winning picture.

...Bissan, Jad's other sister ... was sitting in the back of the car in the winning picture, taking pictures with her mobile phone.

She recorded a short video of their drive. On it you can hear people commenting on their appearance and the girls screaming back: "We live here!"

Although Christians, the Marouns actually live in the dominantly Shia southern suburbs and their apartment block is now surrounded by flattened buildings.

Liliane Nacouzi ... is a friend. A Christian, she's the only one who had never been the area before.

She held a tissue to her face in the winning picture because of the fumes from the fires still burning in the rubble.

Nour Nasser, the only Shia in the group ... was hidden behind Liliane in the car. She also lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Stanley Fish on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel

Stanley Fish has a little piece on anti-semitism and criticizing Israel on his NYT blog entitled Is it good for the Jews. While the article starts off giving one the impression that Fish is going to do some hard thinking on the question, he disappointingly finishes by coming only a little short of saying that critics of Israel are anti-semites:

So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.

Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.

Perhaps the University of Chicago and Florida International University are hotbeds of anti-semitism, but I doubt it. It seems like Fish is just plain incapable of thinking rationally about the question. In which case, perhaps Professor Fish should follow his own advice and "think again."

Lebanese entrepreneurship

I received the following message on my Lebanese number the other day:

Do you support the Majority or the Opposition? Call now 1006 to get Logo "I love life" or "I love life in Multicolor" and other political ringtones and jokes

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Minnawi's forces kill peacekeepers

Al Jazeera reports on the murder of two AU peacekeepers in Darfur:

Two African Union peacekeepers have been killed and another critically wounded after being shot by gunmen in Darfur, the AU said Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission said it was "deeply concerned" that the gunmen are believed to belong to the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the rebel faction that signed the Darfur peace agreement last May.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, a Darfur force official said the dead soldiers were Nigerian.

"They were just shopping. They were unarmed and they were attacked by unidentified men," said Mahmoud Kane, the head of the Darfur Intergrated Task Force.

"This deplorable and condemnable act was perpetrated by gunmen believed to be elements belonging to Sudan Liberation Movement or Army [Minni Minnawi faction], which is in full control of [the town of] Graida," an AU statement said.

Minni Minnawi is the SLA leader who signed the peace agreement.

Doubting Generals

Vanity Fair has an in-depth (and long) piece about the US Generals who broke rank with Rumsfeld.

It's worth reading in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who gassed Halabja?

According to Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was not responsible for the gassing of Kurds in Halabja:

Looking tired and pausing several times to drink water, Aziz - once the public face of Saddam's regime - blamed Iran for a gas attack in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed.

"The chemical weapons used at that time causing the death of thousands of people were made with cyanide gas and not mustard gas. Iran had this gas at this time, not Iraq," said Aziz.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother commenting on anything Aziz says, except that this is a question that has been bothering me for a long time.

In most accounts of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship, it is taken as an article of faith that the regime in Baghdad intentionally gassed the Kurds in the village Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000. Now the arabization al-Anfal campaign of genocide carried out against Iraqi Kurds is well documented, but there seems to be some at least some dissent on the particulars of Halabja.

In particular, I remember an op-ed piece in the Times by Stephen Pelletiere during the build up for the war in Iraq:

...all we know for certain is that Kurds were bombarded with poison gas that day at Halabja. We cannot say with any certainty that Iraqi chemical weapons killed the Kurds. This is not the only distortion in the Halabja story.

I am in a position to know because, as the Central Intelligence Agency's senior political analyst on Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and as a professor at the Army War College from 1988 to 2000, I was privy to much of the classified material that flowed through Washington having to do with the Persian Gulf. In addition, I headed a 1991 Army investigation into how the Iraqis would fight a war against the United States; the classified version of the report went into great detail on the Halabja affair.

This much about the gassing at Halabja we undoubtedly know: it came about in the course of a battle between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraq used chemical weapons to try to kill Iranians who had seized the town, which is in northern Iraq not far from the Iranian border. The Kurdish civilians who died had the misfortune to be caught up in that exchange. But they were not Iraq's main target.

And the story gets murkier: immediately after the battle the United States Defense Intelligence Agency investigated and produced a classified report, which it circulated within the intelligence community on a need-to-know basis. That study asserted that it was Iranian gas that killed the Kurds, not Iraqi gas.

The agency did find that each side used gas against the other in the battle around Halabja. The condition of the dead Kurds' bodies, however, indicated they had been killed with a blood agent -- that is, a cyanide-based gas -- which Iran was known to use. The Iraqis, who are thought to have used mustard gas in the battle, are not known to have possessed blood agents at the time.


The DIA report that Pelletiere quotes from, Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War has this to say about the matter:

Blood agents were allegedly responsible for the most infamous use of chemicals in the war—the killing of Kurds at Halabjah. Since the Iraqis have no history of using these two agents-and the Iranians do-we conclude that the Iranians
perpetrated this attack. It is also worth noting that lethal concentrations of cyanogen are difficult to obtain over an area target, thus the reports of 5,000 Kurds dead in Halabjah are suspect.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand has this to say about the incident:

The first wave of air strikes appears to have included the use of napalm or phosphorus. "It was different from the other bombs," according to one witness. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The raids continued unabated for several hours. "It was not just one raid, so you could stop and breathe before another raid started. It was just continuous planes, coming and coming. Six planes would finish and another six would come."

Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was.

The attack appeared to be concentrated in the northern sector of the city, well away from its military bases--although these, by now, had been abandoned.

I'll refrain from a judgment, mostly because I'm not really sure what to believe. HRW notes that the villagers symptoms were consistent with mustard and nerve agents, but I'm not sure if that means a mixture of the two or one or the other. In any case, though, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would have intentionally gassed their Iraqi Kurdish allies, but that doesn't mean that the village of Halajba didn't just get caught up in the crossfire.

Egypt's hymen fatwa

The Daily Star Egypt reports on the commotion surrounding the hymen fatwa:

Reconstructive hymen surgery for women who lost their virginity before marriage is halal (religiously permissible), said to Aly Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

...Shiekh Khaled El Gindy, an Al-Azhar scholar and member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies told The Daily Star Egypt that he agrees with the new fatwa.

"Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men," El Gindy said.

"Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife's hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin," he added.

El Gindy voiced his full support for Gomaa.

...In Upper Egypt honor crimes are still committed. If a woman loses her virginity out of wedlock, she is considered a big shame on everyone and deserves to die.

In response to such ideas, El Gindy told The Daily Star Egypt that, "Islam does not care for the feelings of ignorant people, just as the law does not protect the idiots."

A little nuance

I've been really annoyed by the media's tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. This is a point made in Olivier Roy's works on the subject, and it seems obvious that the fact that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim does not mean that that person would ever be willing to commit a violent act on behalf of those beliefs. Similarly, I know many fundamentalist Christians in America's Bible Belt, but none who have bombed abortion clinics or murdered abortion doctors.

This idea comes up in a Slate review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross' book, My Year Inside Radical Islam:

While working at the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Gartenstein-Ross adopts some conservative Muslim practices, including a few advocated by the puritanical Salafi school of thought. He grows a beard; wears a kufi, or skullcap; refrains from praying together with or shaking the hands of women; avoids contact with dogs; rolls his pants above his ankles when he prays; and throws away his music collection. But he also dates a Christian woman, to whom he proposes without asking her to convert. And I never caught mention of him requesting halal food in his parents' home, where he was living during his internship. His new religious behaviors were surely meaningful and important to him, but they hardly meet the prevailing American definition of a "radicalized Muslim" as someone who retreats from secular society, advocates a nation governed by Muslim law, and resorts to violence against those who would thwart such plans. And if that definition truly is wildly off-base, Gartenstein-Ross does nothing in the book to challenge it with an alternative.

He does undertake one genuinely "radical" religious action: Midway through his internship, he begins to pray daily for the mujahideen in Chechnya. Outside of his conscience, though, the closest he comes to doing anything radical, illegal, or related to terrorism is when he nearly meets at the airport a man he later learns was trying to procure money for al-Qaida. To repeat -- he almost met someone who he had no idea was in the country to do evil. If this is the experience of a young Westerner who's been drawn into the world of radical Islam, then perhaps we have less to worry about than we thought.

But Gartenstein-Ross isn't John Walker Lindh, interrupted. His is merely the tale of a confused, suggestible kid with what comes off as an unquenchable need for acceptance within whatever community he happens to find himself. For conservative commentators to suggest that this is a cautionary, inspirational tale is off the mark. Time and again, Gartenstein-Ross reports examples that we're supposed to react to with the horrified feeling that he's being brainwashed. Instead, though, they come across as confusing behavior by someone undergoing a spiritual crisis and who seems almost eager to back down from beliefs he once held dear.

To be fair, I haven't read his book, but it certainly sounds like Gartenstein-Ross fell in with a group of fundamentalist Muslims, then decided that their belief system wasn't for him. This is not to say that it's not an interesting subject, the experience of a convert, and his decision to go back on his conversion (a process that took two years from beginning to end). But what it is not, is a look at Islamic terrorism, which is really where the book market seems to be these days.

So while it might be interesting to read an account of someone who was "born again" into one of the churches that we see in Jesus Camp, it wouldn't necessarily help us to understand what makes a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist move from more or less extreme religious beliefs to religious violence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What Afghans want

I've been running around town today, so I haven't had time to post, and I've got a lot of work tonight, so I probably won't do much posting this evening either. But here's an important op-ed by Rory Stewart on Afghanistan:

The international community's policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, "Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own."

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying "we're all in this together" and placing them in "the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion."

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like "human rights," "democracy" and "development" is unhelpful.

For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. "Warlords" retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

...The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Freedom in the desert?

It is ironic that Frederick Vreeland's op-ed piece on the Western Sahara should have the word "freedom" in the title, since at no point does he mention the Sahrawi people's right to full self-determination.

He repeats Moroccan talking points that hold that the Polisario Front is but an arm of Algerian foreign policy, despite the fact that the Front was engaged in fighting for Sahrawi independence against the Spanish well before Algerian involvement.

But he mentions neither Morocco's 1200-mile militarized separation wall built in the Sahara nor its historical expansionist plans, which at one point included not only the Western Sahara, but also parts of Algeria and the whole of Mauritania. Nor does he mention the 1975 ruling by the UN International Court of Justice, which found no reason to disregard the "decolonization of Western Sahara and, in particular ... the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the Territory."

Rabat has constantly blocked the free expression of the will of the Sahrawi people to decide whether they would prefer integration into the Kingdom of Morocco or to become citizens of the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While Vreeland repeats many reasons why he thinks the Western Sahara should remain a part of Morocco, the will of the Sahrawi people is not one of them.

For more reading, check out this and this.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Deportation...

Here's a story that's making the rounds at at least one UN organization, from a UN director who was refused entry to the US upon arrival in Washington for an official UN visit.

On the Iraqi insurgency

Salon has an interview with Evan Kohlmann of Global Terror Alert, who has compiled "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq."

Describe the insurgency.

You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front. They are far from angels. They recently released a video of supposedly a chemical rocket attack on a U.S. base in Samarra. But they were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front was furious. They issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys, so don't issue these kinds of accusations." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.

Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them.

The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." They have a point. Dozens of bodies turn up every day in Baghdad but nobody is paying heed to them. So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S., "If you guys are not going to prosecute the people responsible for this, then we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people." It's an arms race. It just builds up and up.

While Kohlmann provides some good information about the makeup of the insurgency and the relationship between al-Qaida and the nationalist insurgents, he falls short on advice for future action.

While on the one hand, he cautions that the withdrawal of US forces could cause the violence to escalate, his only advice for a "solution" is this: "I know it's easy to say, but the best solution is not to have invaded at all."

But that, I'm afraid, is no solution at all.

Diplomacy in Damascus?

Al Jazeera reports on the upcoming first high-level visit by a US official to Damascus since 2005:

The United States is to send a high-ranking official to Syria for the first time in two years.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state, will travel to Damascus "in coming weeks" as part of a regional tour dealing with "humanitarian issues related to Iraqi refugees," Sean McCormack, US state department spokesman, has said.

Sauerbrey will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Syria since early 2005, when Richard Armitage, then-deputy secretary of state, travelled to Damascus.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unintentional satire

This is really too much.

War with Iran?

Harper's has a three-part segment on the possibility of war with Iran on its Washington Bablyon. Ken Silverman creates an online forum of different characters: Part 1 features independent analysts; Part 2, CIA officials; and Part 3, members of think tanks.

The verdict does not look good. There are a lot of quotable tidbits in the different segments, so I'm not going to bother, except to focus on one argument I found interesting from Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989:

I am seeing constant trumpeting by the administration of "evidence" of Iranian weapons, equipment, or technology, linked with American casualties in Iraq. I don't know why anyone would be surprised by Iranian gambling in our Iraqi casino -- especially as there are time-honored rules, at least a half-century old, for proxy wars. The Soviets and Chinese armed our adversaries in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where we suffered about 100,000 killed in action. Nevertheless, successive American administrations never gave serious thought to attacking either China or the U.S.S.R. in response to their arming of our enemies. And I personally funneled much of the ordnance to the Afghan resistance fighters that killed 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Here again, the U.S.S.R. never seriously considered striking at the source of their torment in Afghanistan.

Angelina Jolie on Darfur

I never thought I'd be able to ask this question, but have you read Angelina Jolie's op-ed in The Washington Post today? The truth be told, it's not any better or any worse than most other pieces I've read in the mainstream press. And to her credit, she (unlike most people who have an opinion about Darfur, myself included) has actually been there.

Like most other proponents of intervention, she doesn't say exactly what she thinks that would entail, but she does come out as a strong supporter of the ICC accusations.

I think it was Bono who once said (more or less), "Celebrity is a currency, and I want to spend mine well." I have to say that I couldn't agree more, and if Angelina Jolie wants to spend hers on Darfur, then I say more power to her.

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper's website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, "an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf ... warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda."

...[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country's core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

...A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan's survival, so it's hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, "Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to 'commit suicide' solely for American national interests." But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it's roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that's not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that's not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington's interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll's book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn't often take other countries' interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they're making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée's reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.

Jose Padilla and indefinite detention

The Times has an editorial today about upcoming Jose Padilla trial:

There were so many reasons to be appalled by President Bush's decision to detain people illegally and subject them to mental and physical abuse. The unfolding case of Jose Padilla reminds us of one of the most important: mistreating a prisoner makes it hard, if not impossible, for a real court to judge whether he has committed real crimes.

The Padilla case, like the Hamdi one, brings up a lot of questions about the execution of this administration's "war on terror." These are questions that I've previously addressed in more detail, but one of those issues is the question of indefinite incarceration without recourse to a court of law.

Of course, when the White House was about to have to argue their case for holding US citizens indefinitely, there was a sudden change of heart that led to Padilla being released into the criminal law system on the same day legal briefs were due to the Supreme Court.

For a more in-depth look at the question of "enemy combatants" and indefinite detention, take a look at Joseph Lelyveld's piece, No Exit, in the New York Review of Books.

About those EFPs...

Via Juan Cole, a report that the US has been exaggerating the number of coalition deaths in Shi'a areas of Iraq:

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant.

Those reports show that fewer than half the bomb attacks on heavily armored U.S. vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles were in areas where Shiite militias dominate.

While it's difficult to know which armed group planted a bomb, analysts say the casualty numbers show that U.S. officials are exaggerating the importance of EFPs, which military officials say have been used only by Shiites.

...Analysts say the evidence is far from clear that Iran could be the only source for the bomb components.

"Explosively formed penetrators are not some exclusive franchise for the Iranians," Thompson said. "They are fairly common around the world."

Explosively formed penetrators are also known as shaped charges. The warheads were developed after World War I to penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles are conventional examples. Shaped charges also are used in the oil and gas industry.

John Pike, the executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for military, intelligence and homeland-security information, said that while designing a shaped charge would require expertise, fabricating the devices was simpler, requiring only skill in using metal-machining tools.

"These are not factory-produced munitions," he said.

Asked who'd have the expertise to manufacture a shaped charge, Pike cited "people who had worked with explosives in the petroleum industry." In Iraq, he said, "there would be a fair number of those."

...American casualty reports show that the deadliest roadside-bomb attacks of the war have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas or areas with mixed ethnic and religious populations.

Of the 81 roadside bomb attacks that killed two or more soldiers from December 2005 through January 2007, one-quarter occurred in western Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni, and nearly two-thirds took place in Baghdad and other ethnically and religiously mixed areas, the reports show. Fewer than 10 percent were in predominantly Shiite areas.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I've been wanting to respond to Mamdani's piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it's contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani's ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on 'The Politics of Naming' (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between 'state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur'. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the 'counter-insurgency' is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a 'plan'. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community's lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of 'the two sides', apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the 'Hema and Lendu militias' as 'trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda', but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as 'US proxies' is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of 'Arabisation' in Sudan and 'Amharisation' in Ethiopia or 'Swahilisation' in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas 'Arabisation' in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader 'database' of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as 'niggers' (the Arabic word used is abd, 'slave') by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of 'Arab' in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called 'differential Arabism') and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that 'the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.' I suspect that he does not know the word rottana ('gibberish') which the 'true' Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That's the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn't represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani's underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame's murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan 'out of Iraq and into Darfur' is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America's foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

British government calls Lancet Iraqi death survey "robust"

Last year, a study in the Lancet estimated that there had been 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion. The study was carried out by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and was poorly covered by the press. (This American Life had an informative piece on the study and how it was received in the media.)

The numbers found in this study were portrayed in the media as being very controversial, because they were so much higher than most people had estimated. But according to George Mason University's stats page, the methodology is not at all controversial:

While the Lancet numbers are shocking, the study's methodology is not. The scientific community is in agreement over the statistical methods used to collect the data and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. When the prequel to this study appeared two years ago by the same authors (at that time, 100,000 excess deaths were reported), the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long article explaining the support within the scientific community for the methods used.

As it turns out, the support for this method was not only to be found in academia. The BBC reports that it also existed within the British Government:

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

One main problem that some people seem to have with the study's results is that they are so different from the stats being given by Iraqi hospitals and morgues and collected in press accounts. But this doesn't seem surprising to me at all.

An Iraqi friend of mine recently got the horrible news that three members of his had been murdered in Baghdad because they has they were Shia living in a Sunni neighborhood. Their names never appeared in any newspaper, their bodies never went to the hospital or the morgue. This is common.

Not only is this common for war zones, but it's common in Islamic societies. Generally speaking, in Islam, when someone dies, the body is supposed to be ritually cleaned, shrouded and buried as soon as possible, avoiding all delay. For example, let's say a man dies of a heart attack at 3 a.m., it is a very common tradition in the Muslim world for his funeral to be the next afternoon. There is no embalming, no fridge and no coffin. This could help explain why so many deaths are not recorded by morgues or hospitals.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The things Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't know

I've recently remarked that ignorance about the Middle East and Islam is a bipartisan affair in the US. But it this ignorance isn't, of course, limited to Americans.

Marianne brings it to our attention that Nicolas Sarkozy, possibly the next president of France and the current Minister of the Interior, doesn't know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Nor can he tell us which sect al-Qaida belongs to:

"Al-Qaida, are they Shia or Sunni?" This is the question with which Jean-Jacques Bourdin amused himself by trapping his guest this morning on RMC, none other than Nicolas Sarkozy. "We cannot qualify al-Qaida like that!" the Minister of the Interior defended himself before kicking the ball out of bound