The Panjwayi Massacre: Crisis in Afghanistan Rising

The chilling massacre of 16 Afghan civilians reportedly killed by a lone U.S. Army sergeant in the Panjwayi district early on Sunday morning has the Obama administration reeling. They should be. Every imperial war and occupation has an “atrocity crisis,”which galvanizes opposition to the occupying forces in-theater, and opposition in the homeland to end the conflict. It remains to be seen if the Panjwayi Massacre will be that crisis moment; but one thing is clear, President Obama is moving with serious dispatch to contain the collateral damage on both fronts.

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The Iran-Israel Nuclear Conundrum: Obama’s Next Move

This week President Obama silenced the drums of war sounded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Republican leaders to attack Iran; but not for long.

Against the backdrop of the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, Netanyahu railed that Iran was on the brink of enriching uranium to weapons grade level and threatened to launch unilateral air strikes against Tehran. GOP presidential hopefuls endorsed the call for “Holy War,” and decried Obama’s policy toward Iran as “appeasement.” As expected, Obama told AIPAC conventioneers that he has “Israel’s back,” and implored all to give “sanctions” and “diplomacy” a chance.” We’ve seen this movie before, right? Wrong.      Continue reading

Obama’s Expanding War In Pakistan: Key to U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

President Obama took office vowing to strike al-Queda forces inside Pakistan if President Zardari’s government failed to ferret out the nations’ terrorists networks. But after ten months of foot dragging by Pakistan’s military, President Obama’s initial threat to respond to “actionable intelligence” has been replaced by an aggressive U.S. counterterrorist war to change the “facts on the ground.” While international attention has focused on the success or failure of America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, the center of gravity of Obama’s AF-PAC strategy has shifted to Pakistan. The tilt to Pakistan has occurred for two reasons. First Osama bin-Ladin and al Queda’s forces in Pakistan still poses the greatest threat to America’s national security. Thus Obama’s goal of “disrupting, dismantling and destroying” al-Queda calls for sustained air and ground attacks on their base of operations in Pakistan. Second, President Obama is pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. To shorten the war he must force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; that means significantly degrading the cross border operations and resupply centers of its two major organizations nesting in Pakistan. To that end Obama has intensified Predator drone attacks and expanded America’s Special Forces operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

 The dangers inherent in President Obama’s counterterrorist strategy are far reaching. The air strikes and U.S. military forces operating inside Pakistan are inflaming anti-American sentiment, undermining President Zardari’s brittle civilian government and strengthening the recruiting power of Pakistan’s Islamic extremists groups. The September 30 U.S. helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers mistaken for insurgents is a case in point. Pakistan’s government protested the incident by closing a major border crossing that supply U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan for ten days. Militants then blew up 55 oil tankers stranded at the strategic Khyber Pass. President Obama is keenly aware of the perils of America’s escalation of counterterrorist actions in Pakistan; but his options are limited. He is also running out of time to change the dynamics of the war in Afghanistan and the cancerous spread of Islamic extremism across Pakistan.


Before officially announcing his AF-PAC policy at West Point Academy in December 2009, President Obama had set his counterterrorist campaign in Pakistan in motion on October 7. Obama ordered C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to: increase the number of Predator drones operating in Pakistan; expand the grid where drone attacks would be permitted; open new secret U.S. facilities in Pakistan and embed U.S. military advisors in operational Pakistani units. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 that have claimed over 700 lives. The failed May 1, 2010 New York Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shazad–a Pakistani-born American citizen–prompted Obama to further expand America’s secret war in Pakistan. Although Shazad’s makeshift bomb failed to detonate, the discovery that he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) unsettled the White House.

On May 19, Obama dispatched National Security Director James Jones and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan to meet with President Zardari and Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Ashfaq Kayani. The two leaders were told that President Obama would be forced to respond to any future attack on America originating from Pakistan. Although it’s doubtful the United States would implement its current Pakistan “Retribution Plan” that calls for bombing up to 150 known bases of Pakistan’s radical organizations, the message was clear. Zardari and Kayani were also warned that if Pakistan was complicit in any future attacks on India–like the Mumbai massacre–the United States would not be in a position to restrain the Indian government. Jones and Panetta backed up their tough talk with President Obama’s demand that Pakistan engage in full intelligence sharing, provide the United States with its airline passenger lists and expedite visa applications for over 150 American military and intelligence personnel. Still, Zardari and Kayani were non-committal and complained about American encroachments on their sovereignty.

Jones and Panetta left Afghanistan convinced that America needed more boots on the ground in Pakistan. Seeking to limit the exposure of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, Jones and Panetta moved the Counterterrorism Pursuit Team–a 3000-man paramilitary unit of highly skilled Afghan troops that are paid, trained and controlled by the CIA—across the border into Pakistan. American Predator drones also take off and land at secret facilities inside Pakistan. And the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now runs a not so covert forward operating base in the port city of Karachi. Recently, Pentagon officials and spokesmen from Blackwater—a private security contracting firm now called “Xe”–have confirmed that Blackwater and its subsidiary Total Intelligence Solutions (T.I.S.) employees are operating in a JSOC secret program inside Pakistan. Blackwater contractors are assisting in conducting targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and helping to gather intelligence for the Predator drone bombing campaign.

Thus far Obama’s secret wars have concentrated on al-Queda operatives and the Pakistan Taliban TTP (Tehrik e-Taliban). American drone attacks have killed high value al-Queda leaders and Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the TTP. The recent buildup of U.S. clandestine forces in Pakistan aims to increasingly target the two major Afghan Taliban groups (Haqqani forces in North Waziristan and Mulla Omar’s Quetta Shura in Balochistan) while for the moment ignoring Gulbuddin Hetmayar’s Hizb–i-Islami group based outside of Peshawar. The U.S. wants to disrupt the cross-border movement of Taliban forces, supplies and narcotics smuggling operations that have financially sustained their strongholds in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces. At the same time, by July 2011 President Obama hopes that U.S.-NATO forces will have gained control of larger swaths of Kandahar and Helmand provinces where most of the fighting is occurring in Afghanistan. Obama’s goal is not to destroy the Haqqani and Quetta Shura safe havens or kill their leaders. Instead he wants to significantly degrade their organizations enough to force them to stay at the negotiating table with President Karzai. Over the past month President Karzai has been holding talks with representatives of the Haqanni network and the Quetta Shura. Indeed, their safe passage to travel to Kabul from Pakistan has been guaranteed by the U.S. military.

Finally, two things can be said about President Obama’s escalation of the counterterrorist war in Pakistan. The attacks against al-Queda and Pakistan’s indigenous Islamic extremists groups are strategic and will continue as long as Islamabad’s government and military permits them to occur. However, the buildup of U.S. Special Forces and covert operations to disrupt the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan is more tactical in nature. It is a key element in President Obama’s strategy to accelerate the process of reaching a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw American troops. Nevertheless the risks to Pakistan and the region are enormous. The possibility that America’s secret war in Pakistan could trigger a chain of events that lead to the fall of President Zardari’s weak government, the outbreak of civil war, renewed conflict with India or most likely a military coup cannot be dismissed. One thing is certain; the contingency plans developed by the U.S. military to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of Islamic radicals won’t be far from President Obama’s desk.

Syria’s Four Seas Policy and the New Middle East Quartet


by Webster Brooks 


In 2009 President Bashar al-Assad unveiled Syria’s new “Four Seas” strategy to reposition Damascus as the vital center of Middle East investment, trade and energy transiting. Assad’s vision of Damascus emerging as the “nexus of economic integration” between Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Iran is arguably grandiose and out of scale with Syria’s role in the region.  Syria’s forced  withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and its diminished role as a power broker in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has eroded Assad’s standing in the region. It is Iran and Turkey that have filled the vacuum created by America’s declining power in the Middle East and relegated Syria to the backwaters of a second-tier player. Thus it is not surprising that Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine seeks to recast Syria’s image as a modernizing power and leader of a new “Islamic economic bloc” in the Middle East. But it is Syria’s troubled economy marked by stagnating growth rates, high inflation and unemployment rates that most threatens President Assad’s  presidency. Compelled by necessity to jump start Syria’s beleaguered economy, Assad’s economic revolution must deliver enough expansion, growth and jobs to pacify a nation whose patience with a collapsing economy and the existing order is growing thin. 

It was not an accident that Assad first presented his “Four Seas” strategy at a joint conference in Ankara with Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul last year. Assad stated that “Once the economic space between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran becomes integrated, we would link the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf to become the compulsory intersection for the whole world, in investment, transport and more.” Since articulating his vision Assad has been aggressively building the architecture of Syria’s new economic initiative. At the center of Assad’s strategy is Syria’s economic relationship with Turkey and connecting the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure to the region’s expanding energy pipeline networks.  

Since 2005 Syria’s economy has flat-lined at a two percent growth rate; its unemployment rate has hovered above ten percent and its inflation rate is a crippling 14.5 percent. In addition, Syria’s four-year drought has raised profound questions of food security as three million people have been pushed to the brink of “extreme poverty.” Confronted with an economy that is not sustainable Syria’s economic opening with neighboring Turkey has taken on a critical dimension. Since signing a free trade agreement with Ankara in 2007 Syrian-Turkish trade is set to climb to $5 billion by 2012. Recently, Turkey’s Minister for Foreign Trade Zafer Ça?layan told reporters that 250 Turkish businesspeople have invested over $700 million in Syria. Forty agreements in the fields of health, education and transportation between the two countries are also slated to be signed. In addition, Syria and Turkey concluded a “no-visa” open borders initiative to increase trade and tourism exchanges across their 870 kilometer border.

These agreements paved the way for Ankara and Damascus to launch a joint energy project to integrate their gas grids and connect them with the Arab Gas Pipeline that originates in Egypt and serves Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Assad also visited Armenia and Azerbaijan where he signed 19 cooperation agreements including a deal under which Azerbaijan will export a billion cubic meters of gas annually to Syria via Turkey. Further, to support Syria’s role as a strategic transiting hub, Assad has revived talks with Iraq to open two oil pipelines between Kirkuk, Iraq and Syria’s port city of Banias that would transit 1.4 million barrels per day. Assad’s enlarged vision of Syria’s energy transiting role is to link the nation’s oil and gas pipeline network to the Nabucco pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey and on to Europe. With the Syrian government committed to spend $50 billion in infrastructure development by 2015, Assad’s aim is for Syria to be a net oil exporter in the near future. The obvious crack, if not deception in Assad’s big vision is that the success of his “Four Seas” energy strategy hinges on Turkey serving as the critical regional energy hub, not Damascus.  

Similarly, in July 2010 Turkey’s state-backed company Turk Telekom announced an unprecedented deal to install a 2,500-kilometer, state-of the-art fiber-optic network in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia linking the countries through Turkey to European networks. Once at odds with the House of Saud over his ties to Iran and Syria’s alleged links to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Assad has been scrambling to mend fences with Riyadh. Europe’s role in Assad’s “economic breakout” was underscored in his May visit to Vienna. Insisting that Syria can serve as a critical access point for EU countries to Arab markets Assad urged “joint European-Syrian” investments in energy, manufacturing, mining, agriculture, information technology, telecommunications, banking and financing.” Although Syria never joined the TWO, Assad has now initiated the process to conclude an Association Agreement with the European Union.

President Assad’s “Four Seas” initiatives clearly demonstrate his intention to modernize and diversify Syria’s economy that is overly dependent on agricultural and oil exports. In particular Syria wants to expand investments in tourism, natural gas and its service sector. But the “Damascus Road” to economic recovery will be long and difficult. Assad has rejected privatization of government enterprises and has no intention of dramatically expanding opportunities for Syria’s private sector. In Assad’s view an open market economy, a strong private sector and an entrepreneurial middle class pose a threat as a competing power center to his rule. Unlike Turkey’s “Anatolian Tigers” who cracked the mold of inefficient and corrupt state-dominated capitalism, Assad’s “Four Seas” projects will channel the lion’s share of domestic and foreign investments into government run transportation, communication, infrastructure and energy projects. Creating a raft of government jobs, contracts and state funding programs that he can use to prop up his minority Alawite base and bribe high profile Sunni personalities is critical to Assad shoring up his regime. At the same time Assad’s attempt to revitalize Syria’s economy will fail if it doesn’t raise the standard of living of the working class and low-income strata of society. 

Indeed, even if Assad’s economic stimulus measures result in rising incomes, increased access to consumer goods and opportunities for modest private sector growth it may not be enough to pacify the Syrian people’s demand for more political power. Since the September 2008 car bombing that killed 17 people in Damascus the government has cracked down on Sunni Islamists.  After blaming the attack on Fatah al-Islam the government required imams to record their Friday sermons. Restrictions on influential Muslim women’s groups teaching Islamic studies were instituted and the Qubaisiate underground women’s prayer group was barred from meeting at mosques. After the Muslim Brotherhood left the National Salvation Front [an alliance of Islamists, Kurds, Christians and secular dissidents] in January 2009 Damascus briefly opened back-channel negotiations with the MB at Iran’s request. When Assad refused to repeal Law 49 that makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a crime, the talks broke down. Assad has all but ignored the MB since then. Whether an expanding economy and higher standard of living can serve as a buffer against Syria’s radical Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish dissenters remains to be seen? It’s a high wire act that requires Assad to move faster across the beam to avoid tumbling into the chasm.

With Assad’s regime approaching a critical juncture, President Obama’s focus on getting Syria to break with Iran, cut its ties to HAMAS and Hezbollah and recognize Israel lacks relevancy and imagination. Iran provides Syria with military assets, security agreements and diplomatic leverage with the West and other Arab countries. Assad’s orientation is not going to change in the short run. Notwithstanding Syrian Accountability Act sanctions that limited U.S.-Syrian trade in 2010 to $88 million, the Obama administration has not leveraged  opportunities to expand trade or other initiatives to promote further dialog. Washington’s diplomacy with Syria seeks acquiescence to the imperatives of Pax Americana, not meaningful engagement.

While Assad’s “Four Seas” doctrine shamelessly inflates Syria’s role as the center of Middle Eastern economic growth, the integration of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria’s economies is a significant development. Iran is Turkey’s major energy supplier and both countries have substantial security and economic investments in Iraq. Iran is the guarantor of Syria’s security and Turkey is emerging as Syria’s most significant investor and trade partner. Should Iraq’s political leadership stabilize, the nation’s formidable energy resources will greatly enhance the economic and political clout of the new Middle Eastern Quartet. Increasingly this constellation of Arab, Persian and Turkic Middle Eastern nations are evolving into a formidable economic bloc; not just a “rejectionist front” opposed to America’s imperial ambition in the region. The Obama administration should open its eyes and take note of the rising tide between the four seas.

Obama’s “Ghost Wars” in the Middle East and Central Asia

by Webster Brooks

Those who think President Obama’s combat troop withdrawal in Iraq and the 2011 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan signal America’s retreat from the region should think again. Quite the opposite President Obama’s escalation of secret Special Operations in the Middle East and Central Asia mark a shift in America’s military doctrine to pacify the region; it is an aggressive and long-term strategy. The emerging “Ghost Wars” foreshadow the transformation of America’s military from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered leviathan. Since taking office President Obama has approved an unprecedented number of assassinations of al-Queda and jihadist leaders. Special Operations missions across the region have been scaled up and the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” allowing U.S. military commanders to launch intelligence gathering operations are well underway. As the vector of a new counterinsurgency strategy President Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are being buttressed by more U.S. military bases in Central Asia, advanced weapons sales to U.S. allies and NATO enlargement in Southern Eurasia. In short, President Obama is reconfiguring American hard power to prevail in the “Long War” in the Middle East and Central Asia’s epic “Great Game.”  

Under the veil of waging a war to disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Queda President Obama’s secret wars constitute a far reaching project. Its three central objectives are: the pacification of anti-American Islamists and militant forces; containing Iran, China and Russia’s regional influence and securing a share of the area’s abundant energy resources. As evidenced by recent events in Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Yemen the region and its authoritarian regimes are increasingly vulnerable to popular upsurges, succession movements, non-state militia challenges, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts and proxy armies sponsored by foreign governments. These flashpoints of instability call for a new American military response–one that is ubiquitous, mobile, stealth and capable of striking quickly with deadly force. Thus President Obama has already approved Special Operations in Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Yemen. Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are forward-leaning and preemptive as America attempts to shape the outcome of events rather than continuing to react to them.    

How to move forward with the “Shadow Wars” has become an intense point of debate with the Obama administration. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 and claiming over 700 lives. Faulty intelligence rather than inaccurate laser-guided strikes inevitably have resulted in the death of innocent civilians and created sympathy for the very jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan that America seeks to kill and isolate.

Yemen is another case in point where four drone attacks have been launched against al-Queda targets since the failed Christmas day bomber’s attempt to detonate a explosive on a flight from London to Detroit. In May, U.S. drone attacks in Marib Province killed the provincial deputy governor–a personal friend of President Saleh—who was negotiating with AQP members to put down their weapons. The Yemen strikes were conducted under the U.S. military’s Special Access Program, which unlike C.I.A. operations required no presidential authorization or notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. White House officials are now debating whether the Yemen campaign should be taken over by the C.I.A. as a “covert operation” which would allow secret operations to be conducted without the central government of Yemen’s approval. In Somalia, after months of official U.S. denials, it was also confirmed that drone attacks against al-Queda and al Shaabab forces have been launched from neighboring Kenya; expanding Obama’s Ghost Wars to continental Africa and the birthplace of his Muslim father.     

The success of Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy will be heavily dependent on America retooling its intelligence operations. The CIA’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s comeback, the explosive Shi’a-Sunni divide in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and al-Queda’s rapid expansion in Yemen are just a few examples of the agency’s inability to grasp the region’s changing dynamics; they underscore the level of ignorance informing America’s foreign policy blunders in Southern Eurasia’s “Islamic Ark of Instability.” Under the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” signed in September 2009 by General David Petraeus (then CENTCOM Commander) intelligence Special Operations are now being conducted by the U.S. military, private contractors, foreign businesspeople, academics and other “non-traditional” assets. These Execute Orders for reconnaissance missions, the identification of militants, creating “situational awareness” reports and intelligence gathering on strategic targets reflect the military’s desire to lessen its dependency on the C.I.A. General Petraeus’s message to Washington’s was clear; America can no longer prosecute wars like Iraq and Afghanistan or quell insurgencies in nations whose history, culture religions, movements and leaders we know nothing about.

Indeed President Obama’s adoption of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has been largely influenced by General Petraeus, now serving as Commander in Afghanistan. Lionized as the “American Caesar,” Petraeus authored the new U.S. Army/Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Manuel in 2007 and spearheaded the 2008 troop surge in Iraq. He is the chief architect of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in the region. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it was Petraeus who led his own rear-guard insurgency of Army generals against President Bush and President Obama to transform CENTCOM from a conventional to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered force. Former Afghanistan Commander Stanley McChrystal, Former Iraq Commander Ray Ordierno, Iraq’s new Commander Lloyd Austin and Australian military specialist David Kilcullen whose book “The Accidental Guerrilla” articulated counterinsurgency warfare principles are all apostles of Petraeus’s (COIN) school. His disciples held press conferences, published books, engaged in media leaks and went behind the backs of their superiors in Iraq to implement their counterinsurgency strategies. McChrystal’s interview in Rolling Stone magazine which blasted President Obama and the State Department reflected the frustration driving the “General’s Revolt” and their push to re-order military priorities to pursue their counterinsurgency doctrine. Despite McChrystal’s firing for his insubordinate remarks the general’s public relations campaign succeeded in pressuring President Obama to surge an additional 50,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. 

The politics of the “General’s Revolt” also has profound implications for the future. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars demonstrated that effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy require significant military involvement in political assessments, negotiations with insurgent forces, reconstruction projects and other nation building components. Thus far the extension of the military’s power into the President and the State Department’s political domain has created confusion, infighting and the lack of a coherency in both wars. Whether General Petreaus can craft a couunterinsurgency strategy that degrades the Taliban’s forces enough to negotiate a political settlement in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Irrespective of the outcome in Afghanistan the strategic shift to a long-term regional counterinsurgency strategy is moving forward.   

In many ways Pax Americana is confronting its “British Moment.” As England learned after World War I the burden of maintaining empire is a costly and bloody enterprise. Great Britain took control of most of the Middle East following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Wracked by economic crisis and public weariness with Great Britain’s  overseas ventures Winston Churchill withdrew most of England’s troops from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1922; cutting the cost of maintaining England’s overseas deployed forces by 75 percent. Instead, Churchill  expanded England’s intelligence operations, destabilized countries, assassinated Arab leaders, organized coups in Iran and Iraq, installed pliant regimes, sponsored proxy forces and conjured up oil pipeline routes.  President Obama’s Ghost Wars bear all the markings of Britain’s failed global project that ended after World War II. Ironically, the same Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations that Britain literally created by drawing lines on maps to dismember the Ottoman Empire irrespective of ethnicity, culture, language and religion are erupting anew. Fully cognizant of England’s failed fifty year struggle to subdue Afghanistan in order to secure its imperial writ in India, Obama is maneuvering to avoid meeting his Waterloo in Kabul on the Central Asian steppes. With the unleashing of President Obama’s Ghost Wars the U.S. is now fully immersed in the three-dimensional geo-political chess match known as the “Great Game.” However, if history serves as a guide, the next decisive moves may not come from Iran, Russia, China or the United States but the people of Central Asia and the Middle East whose stake in the game makes them far more than sacrificial pawns.  

Iraq’s Shi’a Leadership Crisis & the Iranian End Game


Iraq’s “Shi’a House” (Al-Bayt Al-Shi’i) is in a state of political turmoil. After enduring 1300 years of subjugation before their ascent to power in 2005, Iraq’s Shi’a are on the brink of losing their governing majority. In March’s parliamentary elections the Shi’a split their 60 percent voting majority between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) list and the “Islamists” Iraq National Alliance (INA), allowing Ayad Allawi’s “Iraqqiya’ slate of Sunni parties and secular Shi’a to score a narrow victory. Since the elections the Shi’a have compounded their leadership crisis by failing to convert the 159 seats its two factions won into a governing majority of the 325 seat parliament. The Iraq National Alliance’s refusal to form a majority bloc with State of Law unless al-Maliki resigns as Prime Minister has fractured the Shi’a governing coalition. With the specter of political stalemate looming over Baghdad discontent with al-Maliki’s government is growing. Mounting tension between Kurds and Arabs over the status of Kirkuk, June’s “Electricity Riots” and a spate of terrorist attacks by Salafists forces is destabilizing the country. Coming on the eve of America’s drawdown to 50,000 “support troops” in August the Iraqi government’s leadership crisis is creating a perilous situation on the ground. Against this backdrop Iran has dramatically stepped up its intervention in Iraq to fill the power vacuum it helped to create. Tehran is now transitioning to a post-U.S. occupation end game strategy—the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian proxy state.  

Since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iran’s strategy called for waging a proxy war using Shiite and Sunni military and political assets to prevent the consolidation of a hostile pro-American government in Baghdad. American troops in Iraq posed an existential threat to the survival of Iran’s clerical elite and its principal client state–Syria. In league with Damascus and working through various surrogate forces Iran sought to bleed U.S. armed forces on the battlefield; inflicting sustained casualties over time to frustrate America’s goal of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence on its border. But it was Abu Musab Zarqawi’s transformation of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. into a civil war against the Shi’a that ultimately lanced America’s Iraq project. With the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iran has all but won the proxy war. However, as the current political deadlock over forming a new government suggests, establishing a pro-Iranian proxy state in Iraq will be a difficult and complex enterprise.  

In June Tehran replaced its political point man Qod’s Force Commander Qassim Suleimani with the powerful Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and sacked Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in favor of former Qod’s Force foreign operations commander Hassan Danafor. Iran’s diplomatic offensive has three central goals in brokering a new Iraqi power sharing arrangement: First to prevent Ayad Allawi (Iraqiyya) and Nouri al-Maliki (SOL) from forming a new coalition government; second to reposition Shi’a political assets to control critical areas of Iraq’s new government and third to prevent the outbreak of a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war. The key to Iran’s short-term success is removing Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister and co-opting Ayad Allawi in a leadership role that minimizes his ability to threaten Iran’s strategic interests. For all these reasons Iran is leaning toward supporting a new coalition government between Iraqiyya and the INA led by its two main Islamists parties—Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi forces and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).  

With Iraq’s governing crisis entering its fifth month the emergence of an Allawi-Maliki governing coalition is increasingly unlikely but not impossible. While an Iraqiyya-SOL government would not be fatal to Iran’s design to become Iraq’s default power it would constitute a real setback. Allawi and Maliki would control parliament with a majority of 180 seats and have maximum political leverage to name the Prime Minister, President, Speaker of Parliament and heads of the powerful “sovereign ministries.” But talks between Allawi and al-Maliki have failed to make progress. Allawi insists that as the winner of the parliamentary elections Iraqiyya has the right to form the new government. Nouri al-Maliki has argued that Allawi cannot form a majority coalition  thus he should be allowed to form a new government  with the INA—a cynical argument given that the INA’s Moqtada al-Sada has adamantly refused to support him as Prime Minister. Moreover al-Maliki’s failed power play to steal the election has poisoned the well of reconciliation between Iraqiyya and the State of Law list.  Al-Maliki’s demand for an election recount to nullify Iraqiyya list candidates failed to change the election results. Similarly, his directive to Ahmed Chalabi’s Commission for Justice and Accountability to purge 500 Iraqiyya candidates under de-Baathification laws was overturned by Iraqi courts. Not only is al-Maliki looked upon with distain and suspicion by Allawi and his Sunni partners, he is equally despised by his Shi’a and Kurdish brethren.    

Since being named as a compromise Prime Minister to replace Ibrahim al-Jafarri in 2006 al Maliki has emerged as a self-serving strongman with an appetite for tyranny. His decision to take the Dawa Party out of the Shi’a governing alliance in the 2009 provincial elections and form the State of Law list created a major crack in the foundation of the Shi’a House. Determined to consolidate his own power, he sought to wrest control over Iraq’s military from Shi’a militias, opposed ISCI proposals to create a Shi’a autonomous region and opportunistically embraced secularism as the fount of Iraqi nationalism. At the insistence of the U.S. and to diminish his Shi’a rivals he directed a series of Iraqi army’s attacks against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and ISCI Badr militia in Basra and across southern Iraq. Resentful of Kurdish regional autonomy and consonant with his mission to preside over a ‘unitary Iraqi state” in 2008 al Maliki dispatched 3000 Iraqi soldiers to drive Kurdish pesh merga forces out of Mosul and the predominantly Kurdish border town of Khanaqin. As a result of the confrontations Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Massoud Barzanni and al-Maliki did not speak for over a year. It is al-Maliki’s selfish quest for power that could lead him to cut a deal that substantially diminishes both Shi’a and Iran’s influence. Therefore it is not surprising that Tehran is edging toward supporting an INA-Iraqiyya governing coalition.          

Iran’s opening to Iraqiyya began in April when Iraqiyya sent messages to Iran stating “Iraq’s territory will not be used by the Americans to attack Iran.” Iran then agreed to receive a delegation from Iraqiyya and in July the resurrected Moqtada al-Sadr convened a meeting with Ayad Allawi in Damascus hosted by Syrian President Assad. After the meeting al-Sadr said Iraqiyya was “ready to make concessions to put an end to Iraq’s political crisis. Given Iraqiyya’s strong election showing Iran and its INA supporters have conceded that attempting to cut Allawi and his Sunni list out of power could renew sectarian war. Iran’s problem is how to maneuver Allawi out of the Prime Minister’s post or to strip the premier’s portfolio of some of its powers.  

As Prime Minister Allawi would be Commander-in-Chief of Iraq’s armed forces and appoint the Minister of Interior and Defense which also control the intelligence services. It is the concentration of the coercive instruments of state power in the hands of Ayad Allawi that the Shi’a and Iran fear most. Since Allawi first formed the Iraqi National Accord in exile in 1990 he was the consensus choice of the CIA and Britain’s M-16 intelligence community to replace Saddam Hussien. An ex-Baathist officer with extensive ties to key military and intelligence figures Allawi argued that organizing a coup to topple Hussien would allow the Baathist bureaucracy to maintain control in Iraq and eliminate Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamists from seizing the portals of state power—which is precisely what happened. As Iraq’s interim government Prime Minister in 2004-05 Allawi maintained former Baathists military and intelligence officers in high level defense and security positions until he was swept out of office in Iraq’s 2005 elections. Allawi’s ability to unite the Sunni’s major political parties and former Baathists under Iraqiyya’s banner remains the source of his political power.  

What happens next in Iraq will likely be a replay of the four-month power struggle after the 2005 elections that culminated in Ibrahim Jaafari narrowly winning the Prime Minister’s post. However, sectarian bloodshed, Iraq’s faltering economy and charges that Jaafari was bent on consolidating Shi’a control at the expense of the Sunni and Kurds eventually created a political firestorm that made his selection as Prime Minister untenable. Today’s prolonged post-election power struggle, widespread dissatisfaction with Nouri al-Maliki’s government and his own dictatorial actions are fueling a similar consensus among the Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds that he step down as Prime Minister. Thus far Iran has been content to let the leadership crisis fester in the hope that an “Iraqi consensus” emerges to dump al-Maliki. An inter-Shi’a war to remove al-Maliki would further divide “The Shi’a House” and make it much more difficult to bring wavering members of the Dawa Party back into the Shi’a fold.  

While there are many contentious issues involving an alliance between the INA and Irraqiyya, Iran’s primary concern is who will control the military, internal security and intelligence forces. It’s worth noting that in 2005 the most pro-Iranian party–the Islam Supreme Council of Iraq– had the votes to place Abdel al Mahdi in the Prime Minister’s post. Instead they dumped Jafaari and agreed to seat al-Maliki to placate Moqtada al-Sadr and gain control of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence services. These “sovereign ministries” were critical to the Shi’a victory in the sectarian war with the Sunni and provided Iran with strategic depth inside Iraq’s military and security establishment.  

It remains to seen whether Iran can maneuver al-Maliki out of the Prime Minister’s post and strike a deal with Ayad Allawi that leaves Iraq’s armed forces, security and intelligence arms under Shi’a control. What is clear is that Iran’s ability to shape the outcome of the power struggle is substantial. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has greatly diminished Washington’s clout on the ground in Iraq as was evidenced by cool reception Vice-President Biden received in July from all the contending factions. Iran has also been helped by the Kurd’s decision at this juncture not to further complicate matters by using its 43 parliamentary seats to play kingmaker. The Kurds will present thier list of demands once a potential governing coalition emerges. That said, Iran has multiple players and options to orchestrate its post-U.S. occupation strategy.  

To be sure Iraq’s “Shi’a House” is not a monolithic group, nor do they march in lockstep with Iran. But Tehran’s supple strategy of providing aid and support to all the Shi’a factions without isolating or relying on any one faction gives Iran great flexibility on the ground. Iran was well served by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army directly confronting U.S. forces in Southern Iraq and providing the muscle for the Shi’a’s deadly sectarian battles with the Sunni. Despite their differences with Tehran, both Shi’a Prime Ministers—Jafaari and al-Maliki of the Dawa Party were also heavily dependent on Iranian largesse. And the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has been instrumental in extending Iran’s influence over Iraq’s clerical establishment and its pious Shi’a Muslim community. Qom slowly but surely seeks to displace Najaf as the global center of Shi’a scholarship and jurisprudence while containing Ayatollah Sistani’s political clout within Iraq. 

Finally, the $4 billion of trade that Tehran now conducts with Baghdad has added a new dimension to Iranian soft-power that will be critical to its long-term enterprise of establishing a proxy state in Iraq. Iraq will be the first real test case of Iran’s capacity to become a legitimate regional hegemon. Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Syria have largely hinged on providing financial aid, political support, weapons transfers and training of security and military personnel as part of building the anti-American rejectionists front. However, Iran’s capacity to become a serious regional power iwill ultimately turn on developing the requisite economic muscle to sustain its influence over time. Having emerged as an economic force in Baghdad capitalized by diverse hard and soft power assets, Iran appears ready to move from condominium with the United States over Iraq to consolidating Iraq as a strategic proxy state. Bridging the divide in Iraq’s “Shi’a House” and shaping the next governing coalition is the locus of Iran’s transition to its end game strategy.      



President Obama’s “Islamists Opening” in the Middle East


July 24, 2010

                                              TARIQ RAMADAN – AUTHOR AND ISLAMIST LEADER

Since taking the Oval Office President Obama has slowly moved to open a new path of engagement with the Arab world’s “Islamist” movement. The grand strategy behind Obama’s “Islamic Opening” has been twofold; erecting a Sunni Muslim firewall to contain Iran’s Shiite inspired expansion in the Middle East while building up an alternative political force to wring political concessions out of authoritarian Sunni dictators or to displace them if threatened with a collapse of state power. Obama’s gamble to renovate Washington’s stagnant Middle East project envisions a gradual shift from American overreliance on diplomacy with authoritarian Arab sheiks and kings to a broader field of engagement with the mainstream of Arab society. In the New Middle East pragmatic Muslims seeking to reconcile Islamic values and Sharia law with participation in electoral politics, democratic institution building and increased integration with non-Muslim communities now occupy the center of the Arab mainstream.

Increasingly rising Islamists forces have rejected terrorism and salafist doctrine but supported violence by Palestinians against Israel and Sunni resistance against Shiia militias and U.S. forces in Iraq. To be sure, “Islamists” views on many issues like the role women and the relationship between religion and the state are anathema to traditional norms of western democracy. Islamists may not be liberals but they do hew toward democracy and broader forms of social inclusiveness. Moreover, secular Arabs that championed failed Baathist, Socialist and Arab nationalist projects in the past are a small sector of the region’s body politic and simply cannot garner the mass support required to challenge the salafists. Thus, Obama’s “Islamic Opening” is not the product of appeasement or liberal American foreign policy run amok, but a sober assessment of the changing political dynamic engulfing the Middle East. It seeks engagement with prominent “Islamist” academicians, activists and organizations, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  Whether President Obama remains committed to transform the “opening” to a real breakthrough is now in question.      

The Obama administration first signaled its new opening in January 2009 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported lifting the ban imposed by the Bush administration on Tariq Ramadan, the internationally renowned Islamist professor at Oxford University. In June 2009 the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling prohibiting Ramadan’s entry into the United States because he donated money to a charity that supported HAMAS. The grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and son of Said Ramadan a legendary Muslim Brotherhood figure, Tariq Ramadan’s “Islamic” pedigree is widely recognized across the Middle East. A reformer and President of the European Muslim Network, Ramadan has authored several books that among other things implore Muslims in Western Europe and America “to become responsible citizens,” immersed in the social fabric of their countries and fully aware of their “rights and responsibilities.” He has challenged Salafist interpretations of the Koran restricting women’s inheritance rights and called for a moratorium on “hudud” penalties including the stoning of women charged with adultery. Ramadan’s controversial call to reform Islam by realigning the foundational sources of Sharia law and jurisprudence and expanding the field of contributing Islamic scholars and experts to reevaluate the impact of scientific, economic and cultural changes on Islam’s capacity to renew its diverse international community are seminal works. Through the Obama administration’s efforts Ramadan was finally allowed to tour the United States in the spring of 2010.  

Like Ramadan, Yusef al Qaradawi is an Islamist academician and critical opinion leader across the Middle East. Still banned from visiting the United States, Qaradawi host a Qatar-based television talk show called “Sharia and Life” on Al Jezeera with an estimated audience of 40 million viewers. The author of eighty publications, a trustee at the Oxford University Center for Islamic Studies, Qaradawi is a passionate advocate of democratic participation and is regarded as one the top Islamic scholars in the world.  Having denounced al Queda’s violent extremism as a “mad declaration of war upon the world” Qaradawi is the proponent of “wasatiyya” or “centrism,” a doctrine that seeks a middle path between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. His IslamOnline website is also one of the most popular forums in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration has kept Qaradawi at arm’s length he represents the rising phenomenon of influential “new media” personalities in the Islamists movement who are changing the face of the Arab Middle East—a phenomenon President Obama will have to embrace to a induce a gradual political re-alignment in the region.  

            President Obama’s most significant effort to change the trajectory of engagement between the United States and the Islamists occurred in June 2009 when he delivered his much anticipated speech (A New Beginning) in Egypt to the Muslim world. As the cultural and political center of the Arab world and birthplace of the most influential transnational Sunni Muslim organization in the Middle East—the Muslim Brotherhood– Egypt was the logical choice for Obama to put his larger agenda into play. Obama administration officials successfully insisted that elected parliamentary members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s largest officially banned opposition party) receive invitations to attend his address. Obama’s demand to seat Muslim Brotherhood members was calculated to achieve three objectives. First, to signal his administration’s desire to open a channel of communication with the organization. Second, to show support for moderate Muslim Brotherhood members across the Middle East who favor participating in national elections.  And third to increase the pressure on President Mubarak to expand political access for Muslim Brotherhood members and  opposition forces like former IAEA leader Mohammed al Baradei who is considering a presidential run in 2011. One week after President Obama’s speech the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement agreeing “with the general principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue based on respect and mutual trust” articulated by President Obama. The statement also said President Obama’s “deft use of language to win Muslims’ hearts does nothing to give Muslims their rights, whether in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, where blood is shed day and night by the design of successive U.S. administrations.” Considering most Islamists and the “Arab street” generally oppose U.S. foreign policy the Muslim Brotherhood statement expressing agreement on the principles of human rights, justice and the need for dialogue suggested the MB left the door open to a new dialogue. Since the Cairo address, there are few signs that the Obama administration is attempting to expand the opening to the Muslim Brotherhood to ongoing discussions.   

            If President Obama is to build on his incremental strategy of Islamist engagement he cannot avoid entering into substantive backchannel and public dialogue with HAMAS, also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the enduring source of widespread anti-American sentiment on the Arab street and Obama’s most significant impediment to close the gap between the United States and Islamist forces. Before taking office Obama’s transition team leaked stories to the press that U.S. intelligence services would open a “secret channel” to HAMAS. But beyond earmarking token amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza President Obama has pursued a counterproductive One and One-Half State Strategy that backs negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel to the exclusion of HAMAS. While the West Bank received large infusions of aid and assistance the U.S. joined Israel to politically isolate Gaza and reduce it to a state of economic desolation. Obama’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been flawed from its inception. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to halt settlement construction embarrassed Obama and left Abbas in an untenable position to negotiate. Following Israel’s June attack on the Turkish flotilla that was condemned internationally Obama again squandered an opportunity to recast U.S.-HAMAS relations. He simply  doled out more humanitarian aid and stated the obvious: that Israel’s “siege was not sustainable.” In many ways it is Obama’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is not sustainable. Notwithstanding Obama’s feckless response to Israel’s attack on the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, the incident widened the growing breach between Washington and Turkey’s Islamist government led by Tayyip Erdogan-historically America’s most reliable partner in the Middle East.      

Ironically, while Obama has repeatedly distanced himself from HAMAS, senior intelligence officers at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) have made the case for a diplomatic course correction. In a Red Team Report issued on May 7, 2010, titled “Managing Hizbollah and HAMAS” the report questioned the administration’s policy of “isolating and marginalizing the two movements.” Instead the report recommended a mix of strategies that would integrate both movements into their respective political mainstreams.  The report states that while HAMAS embraces a “staunch anti-Israeli rejectionist policy,” the group is “pragmatic and opportunistic.”  In particular, the Red Team report stated that reconciliation between HAMAS and Fatah combined with an explicit renunciation of violence by HAMAS would gain “widespread international support and deprive the Israelis of any legitimate justification to continue settlement building and delay statehood negotiations.” The CENTCOM report that has been read by General Petraeus also broke with current U.S. policy by stating that lifting the Israeli siege of Gaza represents the best opportunity to pave the way toward unification of al Fatah and HAMAS.  

            As the Obama administration approaches the half way point of his four-year term, the window to push forward his “Islamic Opening” is closing. The headwinds of democracy and change blowing across the Middle East are largely animated by Iran’s and its Shiite Islamic impulses. As chaotic as Iran’s managed democratic elections are there is nothing remotely comparable occurring in the pro-U.S. Sunni-led dictatorships in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirate Gulf States. Iraq’s continuing democratic experiment punctuated by sectarian violence with Kurd and Sunni forces is largely a Shiite-led enterprise backed by Tehran. In Lebanon, despite the Shiite-based Hezbollah forces narrow defeat by the Cedar coalition in the 2009 parliamentary elections, Hassan Nasrallah maintains effective control over the country. Iran’s growing “crossover” appeal and penetration of HAMAS’s Sunni Islamists movement in the Palestinian territories are a wake-up call that America’s Middle East foreign policy must be reassessed and placed on more sustainable ground. 

Having wisely initiated the “Islamist Opening” the Obama administration appears to be paralyzed by ambivalence and fear of an Israeli and Republican Party backlash to its enterprise.” In the meantime al Queda and salafists forces are mounting a political counterattack against Islamists forces. Salafists have reportedly taken back control from Muslim Brotherhood’s moderates in Egypt and Jordan. Similarly, Salafists forces in Qatar have siezed editorial control over Yusef Qaradawi’s IslamOnline website and their political attacks on Islamist academician Tariq Ramadan continue unabated. In short, there are real consequences attendant to America’s reluctance to bestow agency on and support Islamists forces. For better or worse, the Islamists are the emerging Muslim mainstream. If President Obama is elected to a second term, perhaps the slow pace of his incremental “Islamic Opening” strategy may bare fruit. But that is a big if. The sooner the Obama Administration and American foreign policy makers come to grips with the new realities and the need to embrace Islamists forces the sooner they can counteract the growing influence of al Queda inspired salafists and the growing specter of Iranian expansion in the Middle East.