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Commentary: The ambiguous Mr. Obama

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM– More than any other national leader, Barack Obama has a global constituency. The world does not vote in American elections, but his capacity to fulfill his obligations depends on the cooperation of other national leaders, and the opinions of publics that have at least a minimum of influence on them.
Balancing those far flung publics is not easy. The task may have something to do with the 20 percent of Americans who are think that their president is a Muslim, and his forth and back postures with respect to the controversial idea to build a mosque near Ground Zero.
The tensions built into the world context of his presidency also help us to understand his repeated efforts to divorce the concepts of Islam and terror, while he is leading the greatest crusade against Islam since the 13th century.

Politicians lie. Of course. They have to. How else to juggle the multiple obligations they are expected to serve. They say one thing and do something else. The higher the office, the more likely the dissembling. And Obama’s is the highest.

His loyal supporters may already be furious at me. He did not begin the war against Iraq. He has proudly announced the withdrawal of combat troops, but commentators are not confident that he is leaving behind anything close to a victory, or a  regime that can keep things stable. He has adopted and expanded American military efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Barack Obama makes Richard the Lionheart look like a boy who got into a schoolyard brawl.

Guantanomo is still holding jihadists, despite the president’s campaign pledge to close it down. This may not be his desire, but who can be sure about the desires of a politician who has to serve so many interests, and is beholden to Congress, the courts, advisors who may convince him to abandon some commitments, and–in this case–the governments of other countries not enthusiastic about taking some of those prisoners off his hands?

Obama has had a mixed record on Israel, but mixed records are the nature of political leadership.

After his Cairo speech and demanding a freeze of building for Jews in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, only 4 percent of the Israeli Jewish population felt he was supportive. Since then, however, he has backed off from his sweeping demands against the country’s capital city, and his invitation to Israeli-Palestinian talks is close to the Israeli desire of no preconditions.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes what has been seen for some time in Israeli media, that American military aid remains at a high level, with Israeli access to some of the most advanced weaponry, and joint exercises that may surpass what previous administrations have offered. One passage in the WSJ reinforces the image of a crusade against Islamic extremists.

“The intensified partnership is part of the Obama administration’s broader policy of boosting military support for American allies in the Mideast amid heightened tensions with Iran and its allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas . . .”

Judging presidents is a task best left to historians and others with a broad perspective, some years after an incumbent has left office. Archives, memoirs, and contemplation can take the place of partisan passions. Even distance leaves open a number of difficult issues. How much credit should be given to any president for the nature of a national economy that responds to international and non-governmental stimuli, as well as to what the president does on top of what former presidents did? A dispassionate assessment of what came out of Congress and the White House under the heading of health reform might conclude that it is a mess not likely to deal with the self-serving efforts of insurance companies and HMOs, but only a child would think that a president can dictate legislation in such a context, or even maintain control over the details in a bill that grows from 1,000 to more than 2,000 pages.

Obama stirs passions. Soon after his inauguration, there were reports that he was the most threatened president since the Secret Service began its protection after the assassination of William McKinley. More recent news is that the tempo has declined to what has been the norm. 

The President’s 2008 campaign stimulated great emotion, but a careful study of his nomination indicates that it had something to do with the formulas used by state Democratic parties to divide the delegates between him and HIllary Clinton (Mattan Sharkansky, “The Impact of the Electoral System on Delegate Allocations in the 2008 American Primaries,” Representation, 46/2, July 2010). Obama’s victory in November was more clear cut, but we can argue if that was on account of Obama, McCain, or Palin.

Currently the tea leaves do not look promising for his party’s success in the mid-term Congressional elections, and I have not seen any rosy predictions for his success in 2012. That, too, is part of the job. George Washington might have still been a national hero when he left office, but that is not the image of presidents that I have been observing since FDR.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Commentary:Ground Zero mosque controversy confronts political correctness

August 18, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The issue of the New York City mosque near ground zero has awakened discussion of that big gorilla in the American living room. Despite all the platitudes slung back and forth about religious freedom and the separation of church and state, and the assertion that the problem of terror is not Islam, the gorilla will not go away.

Americans who write to me are strongly disinclined to see the reality, but they are already in the forefront of the battle in behalf of western civilization. It may not be mentionable in polite society, but a religious survey will not turn up many Christians or Jews among the enemy fighters killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, or still kept prisoner in Guantanamo.

The Soviet Union spent great amounts of blood and treasure dealing with Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan, just over the border of its own Muslim republics. It encountered not the cooperation of the United States, but the active opposition of American arms and money. The result may have advanced the end of the Cold War and entered the books as an American victory, but what was left behind turned against the United States. The Russians are still hurting in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Like others, they are disinclined to say that the problem is Islam, per se.. The New York Times reports the latest chapter in this story.

Dissembling may be necessary when dealing with an issue as explosive as religion. Christians and Jews can become feisty when public figures attack values held dear like homosexuality, abortion, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, Chanukah, or ritual slaughter, but they are nothing like sword waving and suicide belt wearing Muslims.

Scholars can find hateful doctrines in all the monotheistic religions, but those of Judaism and Christianity are historic relics. There are rogue rabbis who write about the conditions when it is proper to overlook the suffering of goyim, and priests who insist that the Jews really were the killers of Christ, but they are far from typical. Aggressive elements of Islam may not be statistically dominant among the faithful, but they are loud, arguably ascendant, and in control of fighters, governments, and armies in enough places to be more than a nuisance.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, prominent among the promoters of Cordoba House, has compiled a thick file of endorsements and doubts. Ambiguous comments about Hamas and American responsibility for violent Islamic anti-Americanism leave some wondering about his moderation, and the kinds of lessons that will be taught in the mosque and classrooms that he wants to build.

Dealing with Islam, or any other aggressive religious group is not simple in a society that prides itself on openness, tolerance, and moderation.

Israel suffers the disadvantage of being in the midst of a Muslim region, and having attracted the enmity of jihadists and their friends. It also has the advantage of long experience, and a willingness to invest heavily in intelligence gathering and defense. Critics speak out in embarrassment and anger about what their government does, but supporters are more numerous than doubters.

Israeli authorities know what is said in the mosques after Friday prayers. They pressure clerics who go over the line of what is acceptable. The police assemble in their thousands when the word is that something might happen. They announce that young men will not be allowed to enter the Old City, and put an observation blimp overhead. One of the most excitable clerics has been questioned about his incitement, arrested, tried, banished from Jerusalem, and imprisoned. An even more excitable cleric, based in Gaza, was sent to his Paradise by the IDF.

It is easier for Americans and Western Europeans to deal with rogue religious movements far from home, while telling their citizens that the issue is not Islam. There may be no better way of dealing with this problem while denying that it exists.

Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the stork also serve noble purposes.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Assessing U.S. Counterterrorism Strategies: An Interview with Michael Chertoff

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

-Reprinted from Summer 2010 issue of inFocus Quarterly

On May 27, inFOCUS editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005-2009. As secretary he developed and implemented border security policy, homeland security regulations, and a national cyber security strategy. He also served periodically on the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, and on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Prior to his appointment to the Cabinet, Mr. Chertoff served as the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he oversaw the investigation of the 9/11 attacks. Today, he is senior of counsel at the law firm of Covington & Burling in Washington, DC.

iF: The Obama administration decided to abandon the term “war on terror” in favor of “overseas contingency operation.” Is this a semantic shift, or does it have practical consequences?

MC: Actually, I don’t know if that’s accurate. I don’t know that they have abandoned it. Sometimes I hear them use it and sometimes I hear them not using it, so I don’t want to characterize what their position is.

I think that the problem with the war on terror is that it is treating terror as a tactic. Although I think we all know what we mean when we say it, but I mean if you want to be literal it’s not literally accurate because terror is a tactic. I think that we are at war. I do think that the enemy is radical Islamist ideologues and their network. Obviously, al-Qaeda is part of that network but there are other parts of that network as well. And, we are in different degrees of war. We are in a hot war with some and a cold war with others. So it’s a little more complicated than the sound-bite but I think it is more accurate.

iF: Just yesterday the president’s top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, described the violent extremists as victims of political and economic social forces. But he said that those plotting attacks in the U.S. should not be described in religious terms. So if America’s adversaries are very clear in how they define us as enemies, why is it so difficult for the U.S. to identify with whom we are at war? Is the administration currently missing the boat here?

MC: Well again, I spent a lot of time when I was secretary talking to people, including many Muslims, about what is the right way to refer to adherents to the ideology that we’re fighting. And, there is an Arabic term, takfirism, which means basically the view is that everybody who disagrees with me is an apostate and should be killed, which is probably the most accurate but unintelligible. I don’t think you can avoid the fact that the people in this ideology are arguing, incorrectly, but nevertheless arguing, that they are reflecting a religious mandate. And so what I like about the term “radical Islamism” or “extremist Islamism” is that it makes it clear that we’re talking about Islam not as a religion but as a political doctrine – and that we’re talking not about all political Islam but extremist political Islam.

That being said, if we are not willing to be candid about the fact that it is a self-described movement that claims religious roots, then we’re not being honest about what it is we’re facing. Similarly, when I was a prosecutor, we did organized crime. I’ll never forget Governor Cuomo criticized us for using the term “La Cosa Nostra mafia.” Then I was the U.S. attorney prosecuting a case called the “Commission Case,” and we had tapes where the guys on the tapes said: “we’re the mafia, we’re La Cosa Nostra.” And so when the tapes got played in court, Cuomo got embarrassed. And Rudy [Giuliani] was Italian. But nevertheless he acknowledged that the group itself, while not emblematic of Italians by any means, did select only Italians or people of Italian lineage to be made members, and that was a self-imposed rule. So you can’t ignore that; that was part of how the group set itself up. So, to me, radical Islamism or extreme Islamism is probably the right balance to have.

iF: Do you see a pattern in the recent spate of terrorist incidents at Fort Hood, the Christmas Day bomber and Times Square. What do these mean?

MC: Well, we’ve had homegrown terrorists before. If you go back to 2002-2003, the Lackawanna Six – the people that we convicted up in Oregon and Washington. It does seem like there’s an uptick. And I think it’s attributable to two reasons. First, there’s been a self-conscious effort on the part of the extremists to recruit Americans or lawful residents because its gotten much harder to bring foreigners into the country. And second, I think that there’s been a tendency for some populations that have been alienated in this country to become a little bit more active. I think we’ve got much less of that than the Europeans have, by a considerable measure. But we’re a large country and you’re going to find some people who are alienated, and this ideology is one attractive way for them to deal with their alienation.

iF: In January the Pentagon released its report on the Fort Hood massacre carried out by Major Nidal Hasan. Defense Department Secretary Gates said there were “shortcomings” in the Department’s ability to defend against internal influences. In his speech after the failed Christmas Day bombing, President Obama said there were “systematic failures.” Janet Napolitano said, “the system worked.” Which is it? What is the state of our counterterrorism capabilities?

MC: I think our counterterrorism capabilities are good and they’re very much better than they were prior to September 11. They are not perfect, and I think in some cases what you see is human error – people who just didn’t see something they should have seen or perhaps didn’t work as urgently as they should have worked. And that’s what my focus would be. You need to drive this as a matter of leadership; it’s got to be a front-burner issue. The second piece is that you need to continually adapt. The tactics and strategies that worked last year are not all going to work this year because the enemy has adapted. So there’s a need for continuous improvement and focus. And you also finally have to support your field operatives. You know, the people you’re sending out in the field – you’ve got to have their back.

iF: Are we doing that?

MC: Well, I think the decision to go back and revisit the issue of prosecuting CIA agents after that was previously declined was probably not a helpful message. Right now, according to the newspapers, we’re using armed force against people in Pakistan and Yemen. So assuming that to be true, I hope and I would expect that we have the backs of the people who are doing that and in a year or two somebody’s not going to come back and say: “Whoa, wait a second. This is murder and we’ve got to investigate that.” To me, it’s leadership, it’s adaptation, and it is supporting your troops. Those are the three pillars of staying ahead of this.

iF: Did the decision to quickly pivot to charging the Christmas Day bomber as a criminal interfere with investigators’ ability to obtain the maximum amount of information? Was it the right decision?

MC: I can’t answer that because I wasn’t in the room. I think what they did with the Times Square bomber shows a more deliberate and thoughtful approach. Now, sometimes the answer may be that you give a person his Miranda rights because you’ve exhausted everything you can get out of him and, you know, in some of the cases we had we had been investigating people for months. So we had wiretaps and stuff, so we knew everything. The point is that it’s got to be a thoughtful decision; it can’t be a reflex to automatically default to the criminal justice system.

iF: The attempted car bombing in New York on May 1 has been traced back to a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who spent five months in Pakistan last year. The Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack. What do you make of the fact that nearly every attempted or successful terror attack on Western targets in recent years has been traced back to Pakistan in some capacity?

MC: Well, the Christmas Day would-be bomber was Nigerian who went to Yemen. And we’ve had cases of Somalians. I think that Pakistan is probably still the epicenter of where this extremism is planning and training. But I think we have to watch Somalia, we have to watch Yemen, and we even have to start watching North Africa. I was in North Africa about a week ago and there’s a growing concern there about al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which is involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping. That group could become the next Yemen. So this is a spreading problem; this is not limited to one geographic area.

iF: The United States has been using unmanned aerial drones to target al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. Some have questioned the legality of these “targeted assassinations” while the Obama administration has insisted they are lawful acts of war done in conjunction with the Pakistani government. What is your take?

MC: Well, assuming this to be true, what’s reported, I’m not going to confirm anything, but assuming that to be true I don’t have a problem legally with using force when you’re at war. But some people on the left have not at least hitherto accepted that we are at war, so they’re going to have to figure out how they deal with this issue. I don’t have a problem with it.

iF: Attorney General Eric Holder has been widely criticized, first for deciding to try terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in New York City, and then for reversing his decision earlier this year. What do you think is the appropriate venue for trying terrorism suspects – civilian court or military tribunal?

MC: I think for people who are captured oversees, I would put them in a military commission. Unless they’re American citizens who under the current law are not allowed to be in a military commission. But if you’re not an American and you’re captured oversees, I see no reason to import you to the United States. Now, people captured in the United States present a different set of issues…

iF: Even if they’re foreign-born?

MC: Even if they’re foreign-born presents a different set of issues. But, certainly if you’re captured oversees I think it’s the right course to put them in a military commission. And frankly I don’t think you need to bring them into the U.S. to do that. I think you can try them somewhere else.

iF: What do you make of the decision to close Guantanamo Bay?

MC: I think it’s going to turn out to be a lot harder than was originally projected. Part of the problem is this: In a way, the easiest way to deal with it is that if someone’s been convicted and they’ve gotten life imprisonment or execution, that’s the easiest thing. You could then put them in a U.S. facility; lock them up at a place like Florence and that would be that.

The people who have not been tried yet or who are being detained, that’s the hard problem because what do you do if at the end of the day you can’t make a criminal case under U.S. criminal law? Do you release them in the U.S.? Do you deport them? Well, look what just happened in Great Britain. A week ago an immigration court in Britain said we have two terrorists that were acquitted, or there was insufficient evidence to charge them with a terror plot. But the court said: these are terrorists. One is clearly a member of al-Qaeda and the other is clearly ready to carry out al-Qaeda’s orders. But, under European law, because there is a slight risk they can be mistreated back in Pakistan, we’re not going to send them back but they have to remain in Great Britain. Now what? Are they going to put them under these control orders? That’s controversial, too. Well, we don’t want to have that in the United States. I can guarantee you that would be a huge mistake. So, before you start bringing people from Guantanamo into the United States you better have all the legal ducks in a row as to what happens if people can’t be convicted. And I don’t think we’re there yet.

iF: What do you make of the report of the transfer of Scud missiles from Syria to Lebanon-based Hezbollah? Is this a “game-changer,” as the Israeli’s have insisted? How should the U.S. respond and does Hezbollah present a threat to the United States or American interests?

MC: Without commenting on the specific report, I think Hezbollah, as I think I’ve said publicly before, is in terms of sophistication the most powerful of the terrorist groups. I mean, they are much more sophisticated than al-Qaeda. They have not attacked Americans directly to my knowledge since the Khobar Tower in 1996. But they do have a growing presence in this hemisphere, which they’ve been in the process of gaining over a period of decades now. I think that the issue has always been: at what point would they engage in hostilities with the United States? I think a lot of that is frankly tied to where we are with Iran. So I think they’re a piece of a larger geo-political issue having to do with Iran and its relationship with the United States and its relationship with the other countries in the region.

iF: Some have argued that the creation of the Homeland Security department merely adds one more level of bureaucracy and red tape to the government. How essential is the department to keeping the U.S. safe? Does it help or hinder the flow of information between governmental agencies?

MC: Actually, it made it much easier. We used to have the various pockets of things that were involved with border and infrastructure security scattered in different departments. So you had a piece of the border stuff in the Department of Justice, another piece in Treasury, another piece in the Department of Transportation, and they never worked together. They had uncoordinated plans. By bringing this department together, we for the first time built a coordinated border plan, which is one of the reasons that – contrary to what you hear on the news – we’ve actually had significant decreases in flow across the border in the last couple of years. We now share platforms between the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. They share intelligence, they have joint planning, and they have joint exercises. So I think like any other maturing organization there are some growing pains, but I think it is significantly far ahead in terms of coordinating on border and infrastructure security than was the case when they were in separate departments.

iF: Excellent. Thank you very much for your time.

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Preceding reprinted with permission from inFocus Quarterly published by the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

House adopts resolution memorializing advocate for children who died in Uganda terrorist attack

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

 WASHINGTON, D.C. (Press Release)– The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a resolution (H. Res. 1538) introduced by Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) condemning the World Cup bombings in Kampala, Uganda and recognizing San Diego activist Nate “Oteka” Henn who died in the terrorist attacks.

Henn was a volunteer with Invisible Children Inc., a non-profit organization based in San Diego that helps children, especially child soldiers, impacted by Uganda’s 23-year war.

“Invisible Children works to shed light on the grim reality that is faced by many Ugandans, particularly the children who are abducted and forced to become child-soldiers there,” said Davis during the debate. 

“Nate was a beloved and hard-working part of this cause…whether at the helm of an Invisible Children van as a member of a team of “roadies”…or as an effective and heartfelt fundraiser who helped send Ugandan students to school.”

As the world watched the World Cup finals on July 11, 2010, terrorists claiming to represent the Somalia-based al Shabaab terrorist organization launched suicide attacks against civilian targets in the city of Kampala, Uganda.  Tragically, at least 70 people died in the blasts, including the 25-year-old Henn.

Because of Henn’s outsized personality, his friends had given him the Acholi name of “Oteka,” which means “the strong one.”

Davis’s resolution sends a message to the allies and adversaries of the United States that it stands by our strategic partners. It also highlights the urgent need for the United States to continue to work with the international community to address the root causes of extremism and terrorism in Somalia and the region.

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Preceding provided by Congresswoman Susan Davis

Remembering another July 4 when an American president stood up for Israel

July 4, 2010 Leave a comment

 By Rabbi Ben Kamin  

Rabbi Ben Kamin

SAN DIEGO — One recalls July 4, 1976—the great Bicentennial—with much nostalgia and affection.  America was exactly 200 years old, had survived the Watergate scandals and a presidential resignation without bloodshed or constitutional tremors.   

The dreadful Vietnam War was over after some fifteen years of entanglement, though we struggled (and still do) with the cosmic shock of having lost 57,000 young lives in war that we lost and through which we all but lost our national soul.  Vietnam itself was a scarred waste of napalm and blood; for what?

But on July 4, 1976, the President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, stood up in the White House and proclaimed:  “Today, Israel has given us the best present we could have on the Fourth of July.”  This decent and plain-spoken president then announced the details of Israel’s brilliant and daring rescue of 103 civilian hostages at Entebbe airport, near Kampala, in Uganda.

An Air France jet had taken off a week earlier and was skyjacked by Palestinian terrorists.  After landing at Entebbe, all the non-Jewish passengers were released (an act dubiously reminiscent of standard Nazi procedure).   The rescue of the hostages and the defeat of the terrorists and their Ugandan hosts was a feat of unparalleled intelligence and military luster.  One Israeli commando was killed—the commander of the mission, Jonathan Netanyahu, the brother of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Ford was moved and had the integrity and uprightness to praise and congratulate our ally, Israel.  Indeed, the operation inspired a variety of American tactical rescue scenarios and the deployment of similar teams; American military reliance upon and interaction with Israeli intelligence and maneuvers has been a hallmark of the unique friendship between these two democracies for over sixty years.   It may be more important than ever, given the trending of Turkey (long before the recent contrived flotilla incident) away from the West and into the hands of Islamist plotters.

Why the ambivalence and hand-wringing now of our president and government about the fundamental and irreparable alliance we share with both the practical and historical narrative of the State of Israel?   

For the love of God, we wine and dine and wink and rationalize the ignominy of Afghanistan’s ungrateful and fraudulent  warlord president; we pine for Iran to turn into Oz; we practically apologize to the Arab global establishment after its hard-boiled and virulent opposition to the American ideals of education, liberty, creativity, and gender equality continue to be embellished by the unchecked Koranic provocation that blankets more and more millions of people from the Middle East to Africa to Asia and into Europe.

Why not love and admire our friend and acolyte and defender, Israel, its flaws (and our own) notwithstanding?   Would we prefer the Iranian / Hamas / Hezbollah public goals of Israeli and Jewish extermination?  Who would we then to turn to—Egypt?  Syria?  Somalia?  Iran?

Would that we had a president again who had the audacity to stand up for our real friends on July 4.

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Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer and author based in San Diego.

McChrystal affair points up wisdom of punishing enemy but not occupying its territory

July 1, 2010 Leave a comment

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is not as seismic as some are contending, but it is significant. The comparison  with Truman and MacArthur is not appropriate. MacArthur acted against presidential policy, and helped create the military and political disaster of Chinese entry into the Korean War. McChrystal and his aides only criticized the president and his political advisors. They did it publicly, with the Rolling Stone format adding to the insult. His action was dismissable, but its significance goes beyond the details of how a general must respect his political superior. It indicates more about the folly of American war policy than the personalities who were commanding the most prominent part of it.  

We cannot know all the details, at least until biographies appear some years in the future. There seems little doubt, however, that it reflects a lack of clear and agreed policy about a conflict mired in something approaching chaos. 

Reports are that June was the heaviest casualty month for NATO forces in a 9 year war, as well as marking another lengthening of what already was the longest war in US history. Newspaper readers should be well aware of the corruption at the highest levels of what stands as the Afghan government, and its dealing with the Taliban behind the back of the Americans. One media personality said that the dismissal would be costly because McChrystal had good relations with Presient Karzai. But that  may be an acceptable cost insofar as Karzai does not rule much beyond his official residence, if even that. 

Also well known is how American forces must close their eyes to the “war on drugs” while fighting what they call the “war on terror.”

President Obama has recently said that his “goal is to break Taliban, and to empower Afghanistan.” Against that is a comment from a retired general, beyond the range of a dismissal, that “There is no way to win this war. It will end with an argument rather than a victory.” 

There is nothing close to obvious wisdom about what American and NATO forces should do in Afghanistan, or its cousin wars in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and perhaps elsewhere. Nine years have seen a lot of allied casualties and enough “collateral damage” to harden the goal of dealing with the terror that the politically correct refuse to describe as Islamic.

My own perspective sees a lesson in the experience of tiny Israel that the vastly more impressive United States could adopt as a way of preserving its own power over the long term. No one should try predicting the decline of this greatest of powers the world has seen, but it would be equally naive  to assume that dominance is permanent.

The lesson Israeli leaders have learned, which has evaded American leaders is that the longer an army stays in a hostile place, the  harder it is to leave. It happened in Vietnam, and is happening in Iraq despite the fig trees planted around the continued violence. The McChrystal dismissal suggests that whatever fig trees are in store for Afghanistan will have to be of the thickest variety. Transparency is not in the cards

The corollary is that local rulers should be left to do what they want in their country, provided they do no harm to more powerful others. This modest but cogent strategy is what Israel did in Lebanon II and Gaza, and what the United States should have done in response to the 9-11 event labeled “Made in Afghanistan.” The appropriate epigram is “Hit hard and leave,” without aspiring to remake, or even to play politics in a country so far beyond the ken of outsiders. 

Sadly the lesson is too simple for a country that prides itself on highly educated military personnel, who learn social science and languages as well as tactics and strategy, plus all the civilian talent in universities and think tanks. The warnings were clear, but expertise is no guarantee of success. Competing experts typically point in different directions. Moreover, the president is Commander in Chief. One Bush with a mission to democratize Iraq or an Obama certain about increasing force in Afghanistan are enough to outweigh a great deal of talent in the military and around its flanks. 

It may be time to pray for the United States. Others will be praying in their own way for Afghanistan. Each will claim the support of the One God. It’s a scenario that Leo Tolstoi described in War and Peace, dealing with a conflict that occurred two centuries ago..

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

Counter-terrorism specialist says greater efforts needed in host countries

May 22, 2010 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON, D.C (Press Release)–Following is a speech that Daniel Benjamin, coordinator of the counter-terrorism office in the U.S. State Department, gave on Friday to members of the Washington Institute:

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be back at the Washington Institute and see so many familiar faces in the room. Thanks to Matt Levitt for inviting me. A few weeks ago Matt and I shared a panel at the Anti-Defamation League. For 25 years now, the Washington Institute has been putting out quality scholarship on the Middle East – work that I read regularly when I was in the think tank world, but is perhaps even more valuable for me now as a senior U.S. government policymaker. Rob Satloff’s fascinating book and the follow on documentary on the Muslims in North Africa who helped save Jews during the Holocaust shed new light on the events of that era, and has relevance for today as well.

I’m also pleased to be participating in the Washington Institute’s counterterrorism lecture series, which my predecessor Ambassador Dell Dailey kicked off in December 2007, and I know you’ve had at least 20 of the USG’s top counterterrorism officials. I’m particularly glad to have the chance to be here today because as I think most people in this room recognize, there have been some important changes in the nature of the threat in recent months. So I want to discuss with you what those changes are and on how the Obama administration is adapting and re-shaping the way the U.S. combats terrorism both in the short- and in the long-term.

Let me begin with the baseline: Over the last year, al-Qa’ida has suffered a number of important setbacks. As you’ve heard from the leaders of our intelligence community recently, the group remained under pressure in Pakistan due to Pakistani military operations aimed at eliminating militant strongholds in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the FATA. It’s had a number of leadership losses and is finding it more difficult to raise money, train recruits, and plan attacks outside of the region. As my friend and colleague Treasury Assistant Secretary David Cohen noted here last month that AQ is now in the “worst financial shape it has been in for years.”

Of course, this by no means suggests that we can signal the all clear on conspiracies driven by al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership – we know full well that they are still a highly capable, highly innovative and very determined group. But even outside the FATA, the environment is becoming more challenging. Al-Qa’ida has also suffered from popular Muslim disaffection due to recent and past indiscriminate targeting of Muslims by its operatives and allies in Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and any number of other countries. The number of conservative clerics and former militants speaking out against the organization increased and that’s very good news indeed.

Despite these setbacks to the core leadership, the broader AQ threat is becoming more widely distributed and more geographically and ethnically diversified among affiliates and among those who are inspired by the AQ message. We saw this most dramatically with the attempted December 25th bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner. This incident demonstrated that at least one affiliate – al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula – has not just the will but also the capability to launch a strike targeting the United States at home. We have every expectation that we will hear more from AQAP.

We’ve learned something else important this year: The assumption that Americans have some special immunity to al-Qa’ida’s ideology has been dispelled. While our overall domestic radicalization problem remains significantly less than in many Western nations, several high profile cases demonstrate that we must remain vigilant. As you all know, five Americans from nearby Virginia were arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist ties. We also have seen Americans traveling to Somalia, ones who ultimately ended up joining al-Shabaab.

We have seen U.S. citizens rise in prominence as proponents of violent extremism. The native Californian Adam Gadahn has become an AQ spokesman, enabling the group to increasingly target its propaganda to Western audiences. Another individual, Omar Hammami, an American citizen who grew up in Alabama, has become an important al-Shabaab voice on the internet. The most notable is Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaqi, who has become the most influential voice of Islamist radicalism among English-speaking extremists and has catalyzed a pool of potential recruits that others had failed to reach. The alleged Ft. Hood attacker Nidal Hasan sought him out for guidance, and the December 25 bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, visited him at least twice in Yemen. We should make no mistake about the nature of Awlaqi: As his recent video declaration of allegiance to al Qa’ida suggests, this is not just an ideologue but someone who incites acts of mass violence against Americans and others, and someone who is at the heart of a group plotting such action.

Another domestic dimension of the changing threat: In the last few months we’ve seen two high-profile law-enforcement cases, individuals who appear to have been trained and handled from the FATA, operating within our borders. Najibullah Zazi, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and airport shuttle driver, trained in Pakistan and recently pleaded guilty to charges that he was planning to set off several bombs in the United States. An American citizen, David Headley, has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to crimes relating to his role in the November 2008 Lashkar e-Tayyiba attacks in Mumbai, which killed more than 160 people – including six Americans. Yes, it’s important to note that we found these people and that our intelligence and law enforcement tripwires worked. But that is not reason enough for complacency. The threat we face is dynamic and evolving.

Now we have the Times Square incident to add to the list. You’ve seen the public remarks from Attorney General Holder about Faisal Shahzad and his links to the Pakistani Taliban, and reports of search warrants that have been executed in several locations in the Northeast in connection with this investigation. Because this is an ongoing investigation I can’t say more but what I can say is that the significance of this case cannot be ignored.

Obviously, these changes that we have seen in the threat challenge us in important ways. A Nigerian suicide bomber – someone with virtually no prior record of involvement in terrorism who can be effectively launched at us from Yemen – this presents a real intelligence and security challenge; and, so too does the appearance of operatives in the U.S. who are legal residents or citizens but are connected with AQ or another radical group in South Asia.

Clearly, there is a requirement to improve our intelligence, and without going into details here, I can assure you that the Intelligence Community is working hard on this. And there are challenges for our defenses – especially our aviation security, since aviation remains at the top of the list of al-Qa’ida’s targets – as they have demonstrated recently through both successful and unsuccessful plots directed at aircraft. The United States has taken steps, both on its own and with international partners to bolster aviation security in the wake of the failed bombing on Christmas Day.

Under Secretary Napolitano’s leadership, we have been working closely with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, the G8, and other multilateral fora to lead a global initiative to strengthen the international aviation system against the evolving threats posed by terrorists. Over the past several months, the USG has signed joint declarations with numerous foreign partners on improving information sharing, strengthening aviation security measures and standards, and working together to develop and deploy new security technologies to airports around the world. We have also strengthened the watchlisting system and developed new, more flexible security protocols based on real-time, threat-based intelligence. These measures consist of multiple layers of security, seen and unseen, which are tailored to intelligence about potential threats.

Defenses, of course, are an essential part of the equation. But another equally vital part of the equation is engaging with the other countries that are being used as platforms by terrorists and working with them to contain, reduce, and eliminate these threats. Given what we have seen over the last year and the years before, Pakistan and Yemen are today the countries of greatest concern. So let me turn to our efforts with them.

First Pakistan: Pakistan, we should all remember, is a front-line partner in fighting extremists. We provide a spectrum of assistance to Pakistani counterterrorism campaigns which range from police training to anti-money laundering efforts. Undoubtedly the hundreds of millions of dollars directed to Pakistani counterterrorism efforts have saved American lives and we shouldn’t forget that Pakistan has put out-of-business more al-Qa’ida operatives than any other country.

Over the past year, the U.S. government has seen very encouraging signs that Pakistan not only recognizes the severity of the threat from violent extremists, but is actively working to counter and constrain it. Pakistani military operations in Swat and Waziristan have eliminated militant strongholds and damaged the operational abilities of extremist groups. Moreover, we are seeing increasing cross-border cooperation with Afghanistan and ISAF forces, which is instrumental in the reduction of key militant safe havens. And in the wake of the operation in Swat, we have seen public opinion turn more decisively against the militants.

In late March, with the beginning of the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, we started a new phase in our partnership; with a new focus and a renewed commitment to work together to achieve the goals we share: stability, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of both Pakistan and the United States. While this wasn’t the first Strategic Dialogue between our countries, it was the first at the ministerial level, and it reflects the Administration’s commitment to its success. Under the Kerry-Lugar legislation we will be providing Pakistan with $1.5 billion a year for 5 years to address key developmental issues.

The discussions in the Strategic Dialogue generated new momentum and mutual trust to jointly tackle the extremist groups who threaten both Pakistan’s security and the U.S.’s security. And I should mention that under this new Dialogue, I will travel to Islamabad for the second time in three months with an interagency team in June to discuss terrorism with the Pakistanis. During the trip, both countries will discuss how to better use non-military capabilities to fight extremism.

We have seen tangible evidence of Pakistan’s commitment to clamping down on extremist networks operating within its borders. As you know, several top Afghan Taliban leaders – including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – have been apprehended, and we are grateful to the Pakistani authorities for this.

Immediately after the Times Square incident, we also began working closely with the Government of Pakistan on the investigation and they’ve been cooperative in assisting our efforts and we will continue to work with Islamabad on this important prosecution.

Let me turn to Yemen. It’s important to remember that Yemen did not turn into an al-Qa’ida safe haven overnight. In fact, Yemen was arguably the very first front, since the December 1992 al-Qa’ida attempt to bomb U.S. troops was probably the first genuine al-Qa’ida attack in Aden. Those troops, you may recall, were en route to Somalia to support the UN mission there – almost eight years before the USS Cole attack in 2000. Al-Qa’ida has had a foothold in Yemen since the organization’s earliest days and it’s always been a major concern for the United States.

When the Obama administration came into office, it was clear that the Government of Yemen was distracted by other domestic security concerns, and our bilateral cooperation had experienced real setbacks and al Qa’ida was on the rise. In the spring of 2009, the administration initiated a full-scale review of our Yemen policy. The review has led to a new, whole-of-government approach to Yemen.

To advance this strategy, we’ve engaged consistently and intensively with our Yemeni counterparts. Senior administration civilian and military officials – including Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, General Petraeus, and myself –visited Yemen to discuss how we can jointly confront the threat of al-Qa’ida. The result has been a significant – and we hope enduring – turn by the government in taking on al-Qa’ida consistently. Those actions, it is important to emphasize, began before the December 25th plot, and have continued ever since.

Now, Yemen has conducted multiple operations designed to disrupt AQAP’s operational planning and to deprive its leadership of safe haven within Yemeni territory.

We recognize that al-Qa’ida has taken advantage of insecurity in various regions of Yemen that have been worsened by internal conflicts. We also know that Yemen is grappling with serious poverty – it is the poorest country in the Arab world. This lack of resources inhibits good governance, the delivery of services, and the effectiveness of the security that is needed to deal with terrorism. So to have any chance of success, U.S. counterterrorism policy has to be conceived in strategic and not merely tactical terms and timelines. That’s why the administration has adopted a two-pronged strategy for Yemen – helping the government confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida and mitigating the serious political, economic, and governance issues that the country faces over the long term. Not only are we working to constrict the space in which al-Qa’ida can operate in Yemen by building up the Yemeni capacity to deal with the security threats within their borders, we are also working to develop government capacity to deliver basic services and economic growth.

This dual strategy will help Yemen confront the immediate security concern of al-Qa’ida, but also to mitigate the serious political and economic issues that the country faces in the longer term. It is a strategy that requires full Yemeni partnership. It is a strategy that requires working closely with regional partners and allies. It is a strategy that requires hard work and American resources. The challenges are great, and they are many; but the risk of doing nothing is far too grave.

What we are doing in Yemen, what we are doing in Pakistan, is what we are doing in many other countries: building capacity. Consistent diplomatic engagement with counterparts and senior leaders helps build political will for common counterterrorism objectives. When there is that political will, we can address the nuts and bolts aspect of capacity building. We are working to make the training of police, prosecutors, border officials, and members of the judiciary more systematic, more innovative, and more far-reaching. Capacity building also includes counterterrorist finance training; it represents a whole-of-government approach. This is both good counterterrorism and good statecraft. We are addressing the state insufficiencies that terrorism thrives on, and we are helping invest our partners more effectively in confronting the threat–rather than have them look thousands of miles away for help or simply look away altogether.

Ok, I’ve focused on the some of the diplomat’s traditional tools – engagement, building political will, and capacity building. I think we’re deploying these tools well. But the diversification of the threat I’ve described means that we can’t stop there. We need to both use all of the tools in our toolbox, and to innovate and create new ones, to continue to stay ahead of the threat and to maintain and strengthen our defenses.

For example, we need to advance our agenda of building international security cooperation against the terrorist threat. Our allies in Europe have become central partners in the counterterrorism arena, as a number of the plots in recent years illustrate dramatically just how intertwined U.S. and European security interests have grown.

With American and European fates so closely linked, it is essential that we work together even more closely to prevent al-Qa’ida and its affiliates from carrying out a successful attack. The Treasury’s Terrorist Finance Tracking Program and DHS’s Passenger Name Record program are both critically important tools in this effort, and have proven instrumental in protecting the security of both Americans and Europeans alike.

Given the importance of these programs to both U.S. and European security, we and the Europeans have a longstanding partnership to protect both the security of our citizens and their personal data. We know our two approaches to protecting privacy have more in common than divides them and we both share a strong commitment to protecting human rights. The challenge is to reach agreement on the proper balance between security and privacy without impeding the operation of vital programs and creating security gaps that have the potential to harm not only American citizens, but individuals from Europe and beyond as well.

There is one more key area in which we need to innovate. In the past eight years, the United States has made great strides in what might be called tactical counterterrorism – taking individual terrorists off the street, and disrupting cells and their operations. But an effective counterterrorism strategy must go beyond efforts to thwart those who seek to harm the United States and its citizens, allies, and interests. Military power, intelligence operations, and law enforcement efforts alone will not solve the long-term challenge that we face – the threat of violent extremism. Instead, we must look as well to the political, economic, and social factors that terrorist organizations exploit and to the ideology that is their key instrument in pushing vulnerable individuals down the path toward violence. As President Obama succinctly put it, “A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

Quite simply, we need to do a better job to reduce the recruitment of terrorists. To combat terrorism successfully, we have to isolate violent extremists from the people they pretend to serve. In the government, we refer to this as Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. Many have attempted CVE efforts over a number of years from a number of different agencies but without sufficient focus. Now we have an administration that is committed to cutting down on radicalization and recruitment.

The indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians by violent extremists that I mentioned before in Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere has alienated populations, led to a decline of support for al-Qa’ida’s political program, and outraged influential clerics and former allies – who in many cases have spoken publicly against terrorism.

But we cannot count on al-Qa’ida to put itself out of business. So we are also focusing our efforts on undermining the narrative and preventing the radicalization of vulnerable or alienated individuals.

We are working to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of the communities in which violent extremism has taken root. Every at-risk community possesses unique political, economic, and social factors that contribute to the radicalization process. For this reason, we know that one-size-fits-all programs have limited appeal. Instead, programs need to be tailored to fit the characteristics of the audience. “Micro-strategies” need to be customized for specific communities – and even neighborhoods – and they will have a better chance of succeeding and enduring.

We also know that credible, local voices have to take the lead in their own communities. They are the ones best placed to convey counter-narratives capable of discrediting violent extremism. The U.S. government is simply not going to be the most credible interlocutor in this conversation so we are working to identify reliable partners and amplify legitimate voices. The United States can help empower these local actors through programmatic assistance, funding, or by simply providing them with space – physical or electronic – to challenge violent extremist views. Non-traditional actors such as NGOs, foundations, public-private partnerships, and private businesses are some of the most capable and credible partners in local communities. The U.S. government and partner nations are also seeking to develop greater understanding of the linkages between Diaspora communities and ancestral homelands. Through familial and business networks, events that affect one community have an impact on the other.

With the aid of credible messengers, the United States is trying to make the use of terrorist violence taboo and to trump the radical narrative, and also hope to offer something more hopeful. President Obama’s effort to create partnerships with Muslim communities on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, as he outlined in speeches in Ankara and Cairo, provides an opportunity to promote a more positive story than the negative one promulgated by al-Qa’ida.

Clearly, we have not figured it all out. Al-Qa’ida is a nimble adversary, and we have a never-ending race to protect our country and stay one step ahead. Because of the flatness of their organization, a high-level of inspiration, and ingenuity, we need to be on top of our game all the time. We need to keep mind the words of the 9/11 Commission Report, which in this respect got it precisely right: “It is crucial”, they wrote “to find ways of routinizing and even bureaucratizing the exercise of the imagination.” This is really the paramount and enduring challenge we face. Staying sharp, innovating our defensive systems and maintaining our intellectual edge – these are all essential.

Well, I know a speech at the Washington Institute would be incomplete without some discussion of the other side of the terrorism coin, the state sponsors of terrorism. And they are among the USG’s highest priorities as well. Together with Matt Levitt, I spoke at length on this exact subject recently at the ADL conference, and I’d refer you to my remarks from that event, which are posted on the State Department website.

It’s important not to forget that Iran remains the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, supporting Hizballah, HAMAS, and other terrorist Palestinian groups. And Syria has also provided political and material support to Hizballah in Lebanon and allowed Iran to resupply it with weapons. In early April, we reiterated our grave concerns and alarm to the Syrians over reports that they may have provided SCUD missiles to Hizballah.

We have spoken out forcefully about the grave dangers of Syria’s transfer of weapons to that group. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms and have expressed our concerns directly to the Syrian government. Transferring weapons to Hizballah – especially longer-range missiles – poses a serious threat to the security of Israel. It would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. And if such weapons cross into Lebanon, it would absolutely violate UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which bans the unauthorized importation of any weapons into Lebanon.

We do not accept such provocative and destabilizing behavior – nor should the international community. President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region. We know he’s hearing from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It is crucial that he also hear from us directly, so that the potential consequences of his actions are clear. That’s why we are sending an ambassador back to Syria. There should be no mistake, either in Damascus or anywhere else: The United States is not reengaging with Syria as a reward or as a concession. Engagement is a tool that can give us added leverage and insight, and a greater ability to convey strong and unmistakably clear messages aimed at Syria’s leadership.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to your questions.

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Preceding transcript provided by the U.S. State Department