Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flow Of Arms To Syria Through Iraq Persists, To U.S. Dismay


An Iranian cargo plane during an inspection at Baghdad’s airport in October. Iraq has been reluctant to do inspections.

The American effort to stem the flow of Iranian arms to Syria has faltered because of Iraq’s reluctance to inspect aircraft carrying the weapons through its airspace, American officials say.
The shipments have persisted at a critical time for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has come under increasing military pressure from rebel fighters. The air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenade and mortars.

Iran has an enormous stake in Syria, which is its staunchest Arab ally and has also provided a channel for Iran’s support to the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.

To the disappointment of the Obama administration, American efforts to persuade the Iraqis to randomly inspect the flights have been largely unsuccessful.

Adding to American concerns, Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

“It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes. 

Regarding the arms shipments, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a commitment from Iraq’s foreign minister in September that Iraq would inspect flights from Iran to Syria. But the Iraqis have inspected only two, most recently on Oct. 27. No weapons were found, but one of the two planes that landed in Iraq for inspection was on its way back to Iran after delivering its cargo in Syria.

Adding to the United States’ frustrations, Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, American officials say, citing classified reports by American intelligence analysts.

Iran’s continued efforts to aid the Syrian government were described in interviews with a dozen American administration, military and Congressional officials, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

“The abuse of Iraqi airspace by Iran continues to be a concern,” an American official said. “We urge Iraq to be diligent and consistent in fulfilling its international obligations and commitments, either by continuing to require flights over Iraqi territory en route to Syria from Iran to land for inspection or by denying overflight requests for Iranian aircraft going to Syria.”

Iraqi officials insist that they oppose the ferrying of arms through Iraq’s airspace. They also cite claims by Iran that it is merely delivering humanitarian aid, and they call the American charges unfounded.

“We wouldn’t be able to convince them, even if we searched all the airplanes, because they have prejudged the situation,” Ali al-Musawi, the spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, said of the American concerns. “Our policy is that we will not allow the transfer of arms to Syria.”

Mr. Musawi acknowledged that one of the planes was not inspected until it was returning from Damascus, but said it was a simple error, not a deliberate effort to help the Iranians. “Mistakes sometimes occur,” he said.

But one former Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation by the Iraqi government, said that some officials in Baghdad had been doing the bare minimum to placate the United States and were in fact sympathetic to the Iranian efforts in Syria.
The Iranian flights present challenges for the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebels or to establish a no-fly zone over Syria for fear of becoming entangled in the conflict. They also illustrate the limits of the administration’s influence with the Maliki government and point to divergent foreign-policy calculations in Washington and in Baghdad.
While Iraq’s actions clearly benefit Iran, a Shiite country with close ties to many Iraqi officials, Mr. Maliki may have his own reasons to tolerate the flights.

Mr. Maliki, American officials say, is worried that if Mr. Assad falls from power it may embolden Sunni and Kurdish forces in the region, including in Iraq, which could present challenges to his Shiite-dominated government.

Iran’s support for Syria is vital to the Assad government, American officials said. In addition to flying arms and ammunition to Syria, Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force is sending trainers and advisers, sometimes disguised as religious pilgrims, tourists and businessmen, the officials say.

Iran’s flights of arms to Syria drew the concern of American officials soon after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq last December. Iraq lacks an air force and is unable to enforce control of its own airspace, and Iran took advantage by ferrying arms to Syria.

Under American pressure, Iraqi officials persuaded the Iranians to hold off on the flights as Iraq prepared to host the Arab summit in Baghdad in March. Soon after the meeting, President Obama, in an April 3 call to Mr. Maliki, underscored that the flights should not continue.

But after a bombing in Damascus in July that killed ranking members of Mr. Assad’s government, the Iranian flights resumed. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. raised American concerns over the flights in an Aug. 17 phone call with Mr. Maliki. So did Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who met with Mr. Maliki in Baghdad in October.

When Mr. McDonough raised concerns over the inspection of the plane that was on its way back to Iran, Mr. Maliki responded that he was not aware that the inspection had been carried out that way, according to one account of the meeting by an American official. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council declined to comment.

There is evidence of collusion between Iranian and Iraqi officials on the inspections, according to American intelligence assessments. In one instance, according to an American intelligence report, Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, ordered that a flight to Syria carry only humanitarian goods. An Iraqi inspection occurred soon after, when the plane was asked to land in Iraq on Oct. 27.

Much of the American intelligence community’s concerns about possible collusion has focused on Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation, who is believed to be close to the Iranians and was among the Iraqi traveling party when Mr. Maliki visited Washington last year. Mr. Amiri said: “This is untrue. We are an independent country and our stance is clear. We will search whichever plane we want, whenever we want. We will not take orders.”

Nasir Bender, the head of civil aviation in Iraq, said there was no indication that Iraqi officials had tipped off the Iranians. “We have orders to search any plane that we feel is suspicious, but the ones we have searched were only carrying medical supplies and clothing,” he said, adding that the Iraqis had inspected only two Iranian flights because of the cost of fuel. “We can’t search every plane because there are so many heading to Syria,” he said. “It would be a big waste of money. Each plane we take down we must refill with fuel.”

In one instance in late October, however, an Iranian flight ignored an Iraqi request that it land, according to American intelligence assessments, presumably because the Iranians did not want its cargo to be inspected.

Iraq’s attitude toward the Iranian flights has drawn the concern of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state in Mr. Obama’s second term.

“If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact,” Mr. Kerry said in September, “that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response.”

The activity at the Syrian chemical weapons sites, described by American, European and Israeli officials, poses an additional challenge for the West. The senior American official confirmed on Saturday that in the past two or three days, United States and allied intelligence have detected that the Syrian military was carrying out some kind of activities with some of its chemical stockpiles.

Since the crisis began in Syria, the United States and its allies have stepped up electronic eavesdropping and other surveillance activities of the sites.

-This report was published in The New York Times on 02/12/2012
-Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Tim Arango from Baghdad. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bahrain Burning

The island kingdom is descending into violence, and nobody has a plan to restore order.


Violence is once again rearing its ugly head in Bahrain. The coordinated detonation of five home-made explosive devices in the capital of Manama on Nov. 5, resulting in the death of two people and the maiming of another, was not some crude attempt to celebrate Guy Fawkes night, but an escalation of bloodshed that threatens to tip the island kingdom into chaos.
The attack appears to be an amateurish attempt to cause terror and mayhem, achieving no result other than killing innocent expatriate labourers. The quality of the explosive devices was poor, suggesting that the attacks were the work of unsophisticated actors working with little institutional support.

Four individuals were arrested for the bombing just one day after it occurred, with Bahrain officials warning darkly that the attacks "bear the hallmark" of Hezbollah. The link to the Lebanese militant organization is crude: Poorly constructed pipe bombs are not Hezbollah's style -- one need only look at the July attack on the Bulgarian city of Burgas to see the group's devastating efficiency in killing innocents. So while it is possible that the individuals responsible may hold some affinity for the group, it is highly unlikely a Hezbollah cell is to blame for this act.

Government officials and some of their more hard-line supporters have at times stretched the truth in describing actions by anti-government factions as terrorism, and very rarely has the opposition's strategy of civil disobedience strayed into violence. But let's be clear: the Nov. 5 bombings were acts of terrorism, committed by terrorists. The government would be justified in prosecuting the offenders to the fullest extent of the law.

The important question to ask is why terrorist actions are now increasing to what appears to be a sustained level. The fact is, this latest attack is the result of a political reconciliation process that is going nowhere and is radicalizing the Bahraini population in the process. The Interior Ministry's Oct. 30 decision to ban all protests and the Nov. 7 decision to strip 31 activists of citizenship are just the latest in a series of measures taken in the kingdom that appear oppressive, and serve only to further harden the political battle lines in this deeply divided country.

There is, fortunately, a silver lining amidst this grim news. Some of the reforms proposed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which the monarchy commissioned to investigate the abuses committed during last year's uprising, have been implemented: Security reforms have been comprehensive, and some police units' performance has improved significantly -- instances of police brutality have dropped significantly in recent months. Furthermore police units still acting irresponsibly will have to face an independent ombudsman who will judge their actions without political or ministry interference. Additionally, five Shia mosques that were inexplicably razed to the ground last year are also in the process of being rebuilt, with two more scheduled for reconstruction, though there are still 32 lying in rubble.
However, the key for Bahrain to emerge from its current crisis is to solve its economic problems -- namely, the lack of jobs and sources of social empowerment for Bahraini citizens, many of whom happen to be Shia. Jobs may not solve the island kingdom's political problems overnight, but they would help build conditions whereby many of Bahrain's poorer citizens can gain some respect and dignity.

Many observers see Bahrain exclusively through a sectarian prism: The political outcome, they believe, revolves around how Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia acts. But the truth is that neither of these regional powerhouses wishes to see Bahrain remain in its current state of disorder. The vast majority of Bahrain's issues are local, and their impact is felt on people's everyday lives. The country is more than a pawn on a global chessboard: The grand schemes of Iran's supreme leader or Saudi Arabia's custodian of the two holy mosques are not the decisive factors in this conflict.

This fact makes the need for comprehensive economic reform and the revitalization of the domestic political reconciliation process all the more crucial. The recent attacks could throw a wrench in the process: Those on the pro-government side may see entering negotiations with al-Wefaq, the country's largest opposition body, as a reward for terrorism. Such a reaction, however, would be a mistake. Wefaq does not encourage -- nor is it responsible -- for terrorist acts in Bahrain, and responded to the attacks by signing a declaration that explicitly "condemns violence, in all its forms, sources, and parties." The party, however, has been reluctant to admit that this recent terrorist act came from the Shia community.

It may suit some in the Royal Court to demonize Wefaq and its spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim -- and the party's rather ambiguous condemnation of the most recent attack affords them ammunition to do so. But in the long run, loyalist hard-liners' continued intransigence and efforts to undermine the party are foolish. A weakened Wefaq will exercise even less control over disparate elements in the Shia community. Hard line groups -- such as the al-Haq movement or the leaderless but loosely associated February 14th movement -- already pay little heed to Wefaq's calls for restraint, and the problem does not need to be made any worse.

The real way to solve the country's longstanding issues centers on a comprehensive deal between Wefaq and the government, led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad. Both actors have been considered moderate representatives in their respective camps -- and both have made mistakes, with Wefaq's refusal to accept the crown prince's terms in March 2011 being perhaps the greatest mistake of all.

The current direction of events in Bahrain does not suggest a bright future for the country. Also worrying is the absence of any significant international press coverage. Those with a violent political agenda know full well that mayhem will once again return Bahrain to the attention of the outside world -- a fact that usually benefits the opposition, due to the overwhelming perception in Western media that the government bears most of the blame for the country's problems. The holy month of Muharram and the Shia commemoration of Ashura, often flashpoints for political grievances, loom in the near future. It is likely that we will see more terrorism and violence during this period -- and where Bahrain goes after that is anybody's guess.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 7 November 2012-11-07
-Michael Stephens is a researcher at RUSI Qatar

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Beirut Horror Story

 By David Kenner

From the outside looking in, Beirut sometimes appears to be an endless horror story. A car bomb here, an assassination there, even a Showtime series that depicts it as a war-wracked city where militias runs amok over the trendiest of neighborhoods. This portrayal has always been an exaggeration -- but today, it became a little closer to the truth.

This afternoon, a car bomb ripped through Beirut's Sassine Square, a main commercial center in Ashrafieh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the Internal Security Forces' Information Branch, has been reportedly killed in the blast.

In Lebanon, each security branch is a fiefdom of a different political party. Hassan wasn't just a non-partisan official, but widely recognized as the central ally of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, the country's most important Sunni party. As FP contributor Elias Muhanna writes, Hassan had "long been the target of...ire" from Lebanon's pro-Assad political alliance. Hassan had been riding high: His branch had just arrested Michel Samaha, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest allies in Beirut, on charges of plotting attacks against Christian areas on orders of the Syrian regime.

For Hariri and his anti-Assad allies, then, this looks like payback: They struck a blow against one of Assad's men, so the Syrian regime took revenge by killing the man who orchestrated the arrest. The backlash is already brewing: Lebanese press outlets have reported scattered clashes and blocked roads in areas of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli that are typically flashpoints for violence.

Lebanon has muddled through the Syrian revolt under what Prime Minister Najib Miqati calls "disassociation" -- it would neither offer its support to the Assad regime, or the rebels trying to topple it. "What is happening in Syria is very unfortunate, but at the same time we cannot take the country to something similar," former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a supporter of the policy, told me a few weeks ago in Beirut. "We had our share -- for years. And we know what civil war is about."

That carefully constructed fa├žade has always shown a few cracks: Hezbollah fighters are widely suspected to be fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad, while Hariri ally Okab Saqr is reportedly working from Turkey to funnel weapons to the anti-Assad rebels.

But now, the entire effort to keep Lebanon out of Syria's war could come crashing down. And if that happens, Beirut could turn into something all too similar to what you see on the movie screen.

-This report was published in Foreign Policy on 19/10/2012

Egypt’s Return Of The Judiciary

By Tarek Radwan

Long in the making, the embers of a dormant showdown between President Mohamed Morsi and the Egyptian judiciary have started glowing hotter in the past few weeks. Observers smelled traces of smoke when Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud failed to convict 24 prime suspects in the Battle of the Camel, the February 2011 attack on anti-government protesters in Cairo. More recently, members of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), the court responsible for the Supreme Council of the Armed Force's (SCAF) legal cover to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, held a press conference rejecting all articles of the draft constitution concerning the powers of the court. Lastly, the administrative court set to rule on the validity of the second constituent assembly, elected by the disbanded parliament, postponed the case yet again before issuing a verdict, which is planned for next week. These events could be taken at face value -- insufficient evidence, an ambiguous constitutional framework, and more time needed to deliberate, respectively -- but the political implications behind each step suggest an institution issuing subtle warnings to restore its clout on the Egyptian stage or suffer the chaotic mess of a renewed constitutional process.

The Battle of the Camel marked a moment during the January revolution when all pretenses were dropped as the Mubarak government pursued any means to quash the popular uprising. Twenty-four defendants, including high profile figures from Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party such as former Shura Council Speaker Safwat al-Sherif, former People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, and ceramics tycoon Mohamed Abul Enein, faced charges for sending armed men on camel and horseback to raid Tahrir Square, killing nearly a dozen protesters in an effort to clear it. The judges found all of the accused not guilty, claiming that the only credible witness in the case had testified to seeing no casualties in the incident, despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In a case as sensitive as this, no part of it could escape politicization -- particularly in the context of countless acquittals and a near total lack of accountability in other cases investigating the killing of unarmed protesters. Whether their acquittal stemmed from a statist impulse to protect (former) members of the government bureaucracy or to test the resolve of Morsi's government, the verdict had political consequences of which the judges were no doubt aware. If the intent was even partially aimed at drawing Morsi into conflict with the judiciary, the judges clearly succeeded.

The acquittals coincided with Morsi's decree to pardon all political prisoners detained "for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted-crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of its goals." The decree was supposed to mark a moment of victory for the Egyptian revolution (and President Morsi), fulfilling one of the outstanding demands of protesters. However, the move was overtaken by anger over the news of the acquittals baiting Morsi to forcibly reassign Mahmoud to the post of ambassador to the Vatican. Morsi's reactionary response, however, lacked either the legal or popular authority necessary to do so. (H. A. Hellyer remarks on the lack of revolutionary legitimacy that might have otherwise allowed Morsi to act extraordinarily to remove Mahmoud, among other measures.)

Realizing his mistake too late, the president had two options: either use his legislative authority to grant himself the ability to remove the prosecutor, which would almost certainly spark protest over the misuse of power and interference with judicial independence; or backpedal on his "demand" and "politely ask" the prosecutor to resign, which would only result in temporary embarrassment as well accusations of interference with judicial independence. He chose the lesser of two evils, unwilling to risk further damaging his legitimacy. Nonetheless, personalities such as Judge's Club Ahmed al-Zind (among hundreds of others) defended Mahmoud's refusal to leave the prosecutor's office. Morsi's inability to force his will revealed limitations on his authority: namely legitimacy on one hand, and a resistant judicial bureaucracy on the other.

The judiciary's counter-moves to Morsi appear calculated given its vulnerability a few months ago. During the formation of the first constituent assembly in April, and the debate between Morsi and the SCAF surrounding the reinstatement of the first parliament in June, the courts and their judges revealed themselves as political actors in Egypt's transition. Even if based on legal reasoning, the verdicts put forth served statist -- and secular -- interests in the ambiguity of the transitional period. After Morsi issued his decree ending the SCAF's political role in August, renewed battle in the courts was expected, but this contest of wills never took place. Whether by virtue of an implicit or explicit understanding with the executive that allowed each branch to govern without interference from the other, the judiciary had lost too much political capital without the SCAF's support to challenge the new president.

Since then, the Morsi administration was mostly left to its own business to pursue the president's political appointments, his 100-day plan, and his economic recovery strategy. His justice minister's initial forays into reconciliation, such as allowing judges to assign their own people to the Judicial Review Board, were rebuffed and suggestions at judicial reform (such as eliminating the SCC) were outright rejected. As fears of a majoritarian takeover of government bureaucracies increased and initial leaks of constitutional articles limiting judicial powers filtered through the media, the judiciary must have felt a growing threat to the self-perceived integrity of its institution. This was not the deal they had struck with Morsi, but the judges still have another card to play.

The forty-some cases challenging the validity of the second constituent assembly on the basis of its unbalanced membership have faced one postponement after another, the most recent administrative court hearing delaying a final verdict on the assembly's validity until October 23. The judges could have delayed the case for a month or more as they often have done in the past, but putting it off for only one more week offers Morsi an ultimatum: Either ensure the judiciary's status does not diminish in the new constitution, or suffer the consequences of a dissolved assembly before a final draft is completed. Similar to liberal and secular efforts to disrupt the assembly's progress, this strategy may seem self-defeating given Morsi's self-appointed constitutional power to simply reassign the assembly as he sees fit until one considers the aftermath of that scenario.

As suggested by Morsi's preferred path in dealing with Prosecutor General Mahmoud, he values the tenuous popular legitimacy he retains. A court-ordered dissolution would not only throw the process into renewed chaos with debates over membership, content, and timeline that would undoubtedly resurface, it would also threaten his legitimacy as a president for "all Egyptians." First, the responsibility for its new membership would lie squarely on his shoulders alone in the absence of parliament. Second, if he reassigned an Islamist majority assembly, he would likely lose whatever non-Islamist support he might have and face additional accusations of majoritarian rule with an Islamist bias. But without an Islamist majority, the Muslim Brotherhood's vision for the constitution -- the prize for which it has struggled since the fall of Mubarak -- becomes blurred. The political (not to mention logistical) nightmare the courts could force on Morsi might leave any president awake at night. The leverage might be substantial enough to secure the judiciary's demands guaranteeing independence, but the turf war is far from over.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 18/10/2012
-Tarek Radwan is the Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. He previously reported on the Middle East with Human Rights Watch's MENA division and served as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Mr. Radwan specializes in Egypt, with a focus on civil society, human rights, the constitution, and judicial issues

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Status quo on the Temple Mount?

By Daniel Seidemann, Lara Friedman

Recent developments in Jerusalem pose a threat to the stability of the city and to the region. The world saw a preview over the recent Jewish holidays, when activists challenged the Israeli-imposed ban on Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif. Sensitivities at the site tend to peak during any holiday season; however, these latest challenges cannot be dismissed as routine or benign. The radicalization in the political discourse in Israel and the growing power of an emboldened group of Israeli activists focused on the Temple Mount are today coalescing into concrete initiatives that aspire to alter the status quo at the site for the first time since 1967. With Israeli elections approaching, the temptation of right-wing politicians to pander to Temple Mount activists will grow. In parallel, as the radicalization trend within Israel continues a settler-inspired "price tag" incident at the site becomes increasingly likely.

The site at the center of this brewing crisis is revered in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. For Jews, it is the Temple Mount, site of the ancient first and second Jewish Temples. For Muslims, since 705 AD the same spot has been home to the third holiest site in Islam, al Aqsa Mosque. For some dispensationalist Christians, restoration of Jewish contol over the site is an essential component in bringing about the "end of days."

Israel captured the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif on June 7, 1967, at the height of the 1967 War. Arriving on the scene, legendary Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan spotted Israeli flags flying over the Mount and swiftly ordered them removed, reportedly stating: We don't need a holy war.

Dayan's order reflected his visceral understanding of the implications of Israeli control over this sensitive, contested site, as did his decision to leave a large degree of authority -- including control of all but one of the gates to the Mount -- in the hands of Islamic authorities, known as the Waqf. This same understanding led Israeli courts from the outset to interpret Israel's first post-1967 war piece of legislation, the Law for the Protection of Holy Sites, as making the exercise of religious freedoms subordinate to considerations like public safety and security. All Israeli governments, backed by the court, have subsequently prohibited Jewish prayer on the Mount -- a prohibition that is also consistent with the predominant interpretations of Jewish rabbinic law.

A few Jewish activists challenged the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif status quo from the start. They aspired to turn the esplanade into a site of Jewish worship, often belittling or denying the Muslim attachments to the site, and with some among them speaking openly of their desire to erase the mosques at the site and replace them with the third Jewish temple. They launched perennially unsuccessful appeals to the court demanding the right to pray on the Mount. Over time, they made inroads into mainstream Israeli society by focusing on issues that appear politically innocent -- like protecting Jewish artifacts at the site.

Their cause was aided by the phenomenon in the Arab and Muslims worlds of "Temple Mount denial." Former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat denied any Jewish connection to the Mount. Others portray Jews as usurpers on the Mount, with no genuine attachments. Muslim extremists regularly claim that Israel is seeking to destroy al-Haram al-Sharif. The result is a vicious cycle, with the discourse ceded to extremes on both sides.

And not to be left out, extreme elements among (mainly) American evangelical Christians have increasingly targeted the Muslim presence on the Mount, as part of a dispensationalist agenda, which includes replacing the mosques there with the Third Temple.

The Temple Mount movement has grown today into a cluster of organizations that boast thousands of supporters, Jews and Christians, in Israel and around the world. As the ideological goalposts in Israel have moved to the right, the Israeli government has contributed to the movement's efforts -- evidenced by the ministry of education's August 2012 announcement that 30,000 Israeli pupils had recently visited the Mount as part of its controversial "National Heritage Project," something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The emboldening of the Temple Mount activists was on stark throughout the summer of 2012, with events peaking during the weeklong Jewish Sukkot Festival. Temple Mount activists, including Knesset members, engaged in almost daily provocations, leading to clashes. Accusations were bandied about equating the ban on Jewish prayer on the Mount to the denial of Jewish religious freedoms in the Soviet Union, comparing those denied the right to pray on the Mount to Jewish martyrs of the Middle Ages, and implying that the government has adopted a Nazi policy by making the Mount "Judenrein."

This emboldened activism comes in tandem with the emergence, for the first time, of a clear and serious political agenda: to force a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. The agenda has two prongs: legislation that would compel the government to permit Jewish prayer at the site, security concerns notwithstanding, and the promotion of a joint (or split) Jewish-Muslim control of the site, modeled on the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in Hebron.

The legislation in question enjoys support from senior members of Netanyahu's coalition and will likely be a factor in Likud party primaries, the general elections, and in the next Knesset. The campaign for more "equitable" arrangements on the Mount may find broad traction, based on the argument that this is a simple matter of fairness that everyone should support, regardless of religiosity or political views -- as if diminishing Islamic authority over the Mount for the first time since the Crusades is nothing more than a natural course of events, and that doing otherwise is intrinsically anti-Semitic.

There is ample historical evidence to show that the eruption of violence in Jerusalem is sparked by threats, real or imagined, to sacred space. Tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif -- a site that is the focus of Muslim fears and longing around the world -- would clearly fall into this category. Modeling arrangements at the site after those in place at the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- the place where Israeli-Palestinians interactions are most toxic -- is virtually guaranteed to turn relations between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem into the kind of violent, zero-sum interactions that characterize Hebron.

Moreover, developments related to the Temple Mount are occurring against the backdrop of intensive settler-related activities that aspire to establish a neo-Biblical zone of exclusionary Jewish hegemony in and around the Old City. Together, these trends threaten to transform a complicated but solvable national-political conflict into an intractable religious war.

Finally, what transpires at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al Sharif will spill over into the region and beyond -- because what happens in Jerusalem doesn't stay in Jerusalem. It could drive emerging forces in the Arab world to positions ever more hostile to Israel and the West, and embolden the extremes. Already, issues surrounding the site have emerged as a fault line within the Arab world. In post-Mubarak Egypt, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo under the banner: "The liberation of Cairo requires the liberation of Jerusalem." In the run-up to Egyptian elections, some Egyptian nationalists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of promoting Al Quds as their capital. A debate is raging within the Arab world over whether Muslims should visit al-Haram al-Sharif while it is under occupation. Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah, have suggested, offering compelling reasons, that Israeli actions related to the site are sowing regional instability.

The potential destabilizing impact of tinkering with the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, wisely laid down by Moshe Dayan in 1967, cannot be overstated. Accordingly, it is wise to recall the Talmudic aphorism: "Jerusalem was destroyed because it was ruled by [an overly rigorous application of] the rule of Torah."

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 17/10/2012
-Daniel Seidemann is a Jerusalem-based lawyer and expert on Jerusalem, and the founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Syria’s Tribes Will Rise Again: An Exiled Chief Remains Unbowed

The leader of the 1.2 million strong Baggara believes in an eventual resurgence despite the Assad regime’s systematic destruction of the underpinnings of tribal society


image: A Free Syrian Army fighter stands on a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 2, 2012.
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands on a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 2, 2012

Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe from Deir Ez Zor, and a former member of parliament representing the province, was one of the first prominent tribal leaders to publicly defect from the regime in January.

Despite having tribal ties to Iraq, Sheikh Nawaf fled to Turkey, on the advice of Al Baggara’s tribal chieftain in Iraq. “He told me Iraq wasn’t safe. His son had been detained, and he wasn’t in a position to help me. The Iraqi regime is close to the Syrian regime,” the sheikh told TIME in a meeting in Istanbul where he is now based. “There is great pressure on our tribal brothers in Iraq, how can we ask them for help when they face real threats?”

Al Baggara has about 1.2 million members, and extends from Syria into Iraq. It is one of the largest tribes in Syria, and like many of the other confederations, its bloodlines transcend national boundaries and extend into the millions of members. Al Egaidat is believed to include some 1.5 million people and has kinship links to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A small tribe would number anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000. These tribal confederations are massive potential sources of power, mini-states if you like, whose transnational tribal bonds can be tapped into to forge channels of communication and access to foreign powers in the region, especially in theGulf. But it isn’t quite that easy.

Sheikh Nawaf had opposed the Assads for years, and was slapped with a travel ban shortly after the end of his 1988-90 stint in parliament. He’d been interrogated 76 times in the span of two and a half years. His 77th interrogation was to prove the worst, and his last. He was detained in late July/early August 2011, held for 72 days (a month a half of which was spent in solitary confinement, in a space 2 meters by 1.5, in total darkness, then transferred to a slightly bigger cell where the lights were kept on 24hours a day).  He was eventually released, he says, on the condition that he appear on Syrian state television to praise the president and urge his tribesmen to give Assad’s reforms a chance. “I was forced at gunpoint to say these things,” he says.

In Turkey, he formed a body known as the Free Tribes, which in April morphed into the Tribal Council.

Sheikh Nawaf says that the Ba’ath “dismantled the power of the tribes from the inside” by sidelining people like him. “The regime spent decades sidelining the tribal sheikhs and put obstacles between the sheikhs and their people,” he explains. “The sheikhs’ role and position within his own clan changed. His authority and influence was diminished, and that role was taken over by [state] security, by those within the clan that had ties to the intelligence services, and to those who could solve the problems of their clansmen. They took on a bigger role.” In effect, the Ba’ath created new forms of class structure.

Still, Sheikh Nawaf is confident that the old wayswill prevail. “These obstacles the Ba’ath placed between us and our tribesmen are artificial,” he said. “The sons of the tribes, many of them are playing the regime’s game at the moment, but when the time comes, they will be ready todefend their people against this corrupt regime. It is in their blood.”

-This article was first published TIME on 10/10/2012

Friday, October 12, 2012

Red Lines in the Sand

Israel's credibility problem on Iran.


Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in U.N. General Assembly

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been campaigning for an unambiguous red line to stop Iran's nuclear advance. In an infelicitous foray into American politics last month, he took to the Sunday morning television shows to insist that Barack Obama act to stop Iran, saying, "You have to place that red line before them now." Smarting from the Obama administration's refusals, he challenged the U.S. president with the zinger: "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel." Then, at the U.N. General Assembly meeting, he held up a cartoon of a bomb and with a marker drew a red line, declaring that Iran could not be allowed to produce a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium sufficient (after further enrichment) for its first nuclear bomb. On the current trajectory, as laid out in the public reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran will reach that point in about six months.

As he addresses Iran's nuclear challenge, the prime minister's frustration stems from his knowledge that Israel and the United States have been complicit in a process of drawing red lines they say Iran will never be allowed to cross, watching Iran cross those lines, and then retreating to declare the next obstacle on the path to a bomb to be the real red line.

Addressing the U.S. Congress in 1996, Netanyahu, then serving his first term as prime minister, argued that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb would have "catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind." He warned that the deadline for preventing that outcome was "getting extremely close." Israel declared Iran's possession of a civilian nuclear power plant "unacceptable" until it became operational, when the Israeli Foreign Ministry declared this "totally unacceptable."

Nor was this the last time Israeli politicians and officials have announced a point of no return, only to move the goal posts later. For Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, it was development of a "technical capability" for operating an enrichment facility. As Iran approached that capability, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described the tipping point not as the capability, but as the "enrichment of uranium" itself. After Iran began enriching uranium, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew a new line in 2006 as enrichment "beyond a limited number of cascades."

The pattern is clear: As Iran has crossed each red line, Israel has retreated to the next and, in effect, hit the repeat button. From conversion of uranium, to production of low-enriched uranium (less than 5 percent) that can be used as fuel for civilian power plants, to a stockpile of low-enriched uranium sufficient (after further enrichment) to make one nuclear bomb, to a stockpile sufficient for half a dozen bombs, to enrichment beyond 5 percent to 20 percent medium-enriched uranium, to operation of centrifuges enriching to 20 percent at the deep underground facility at Fordow, to achievement of a undefined "nuclear weapons capability," Israel's warnings have grown louder, but with no more effect.

Most observers have failed to recognize this story line. But this prime minister does. When Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, his national security advisor, Uzi Arad, virtually indicted Israel's leaders of the prior decade for dereliction of duty in failing to prevent Iran's crossing what many Israelis had previously described as "the point of nuclear no-return … defined as … the point at which it has all the elements to produce fissionable material without depending on outsiders." As Arad recognized bluntly: "Iran is now there."

Reviewing this record, readers will be reminded of the children's story of the boy who cried wolf. Unquestionably, the parade of prior alarms has undermined Israel's credibility. Threats unfulfilled necessarily erode deterrence. Nonetheless, we should not forget how that story ends: The wolf finally comes, and he eats the boy.

If Israel, the United States, and the world are to be spared the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, all parties must focus now on what specific actions they can take to stop Iran short of a nuclear bomb. While, as Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf suggests, a credible threat of military action is part of the equation required for success, equally important are the pressures that Iran is feeling from sanctions that are now biting. What remains missing from this equation are terms for halting Iran's nuclear progress that any Iranian government could plausibly accept. Immediately after the U.S. election, that should become the intense focus of the United States, Israel, and the international community.

-this commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 11/12/2012
-Graham Allison is director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

U.S. Military Is Sent To Jordan To Help With Crisis In Syria


US Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in August.

The United States military has secretly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict.

The task force, which has been led by a senior American officer, is based at a Jordanian military training center built into an old rock quarry north of Amman. It is now largely focused on helping Jordanians handle the estimated 180,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed the border and are severely straining the country’s resources.

American officials familiar with the operation said the mission also includes drawing up plans to try to insulate Jordan, an important American ally in the region, from the upheaval in Syria and to avoid the kind of clashes now occurring along the border of Syria and Turkey.

The officials said the idea of establishing a buffer zone between Syria and Jordan — which would be enforced by Jordanian forces on the Syrian side of the border and supported politically and perhaps logistically by the United States — had been discussed. But at this point the buffer is only a contingency.

The Obama administration has declined to intervene in the Syrian conflict beyond providing communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance to the rebels opposing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the outpost near Amman could play a broader role should American policy change. It is less than 35 miles from the Syrian border and is the closest American military presence to the conflict.

Officials from the Pentagon and Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, declined to comment on the task force or its mission. A spokesman for the Jordanian Embassy in Washington would also not comment on Tuesday.

As the crisis in Syria has deepened, there has been mounting concern in Washington that the violence could spread through the region. Over the past week, Syria and Turkey have exchanged artillery and mortar fire across Syria’s northern border, which has been a crossing point for rebel fighters. In western Syria, intense fighting recently broke out in villages near the border crossing that leads to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. To the east, the Syrian government has lost control of some border crossings, including the one near Al Qaim in Iraq.

Jordan has also been touched by the fighting. Recent skirmishes have broken out between the Syrian military and Jordanians guarding the country’s northern border, where many families have ties to Syria. In August, a 4-year-old girl in a Jordanian border town was injured when a Syrian shell struck her house, and there are concerns in Jordan that a sharp upsurge in the fighting in Syria might lead to an even greater influx of refugees.

Jordan, which was one of the first Arab countries to call for Mr. Assad’s resignation, has become increasingly concerned that Islamic militants coming to join the fight in Syria could cross the porous border between the two countries.

The American mission in Jordan quietly began this summer. In May, the United States organized a major training exercise, which was dubbed Eager Lion. About 12,000 troops from 19 countries, including Special Forces troops, participated in the exercise.

After it ended, the small American contingent stayed on and the task force was established at a Jordanian training center north of Amman. It includes communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff members, American officials said. An official from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugee Affairs and Migration is also assigned to the task force.

“We have been working closely with our Jordanian partners on a variety of issues related to Syria for some time now,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, who added that a specific concern was the security of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. “As we’ve said before, we have been planning for various contingencies, both unilaterally and with our regional partners.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met in Amman in August with King Abdullah II of Jordan and at that time pledged continuing American help with the flow of Syrian refugees. Mr. Panetta was followed in September by Gen. James N. Mattis, the head of Central Command, who met with senior Jordanian officials in Amman.

Members of the American task force are spending the bulk of their time working with the Jordanian military on logistics — figuring out how to deploy tons of food, water and latrines to the border, for example, and training the Jordanian military to handle the refugees. A month ago, as many as 3,000 a day were coming over the border. But as the Syrian army has consolidated its position in southern Syria, the number of refugees has declined to several hundred a day.

According to the United Nations, Jordan is currently hosting around 100,000 Syrians who have either registered or are awaiting registration.   American officials say the total number may be almost twice that.

The American military is also sending medical kits to the border and has provided gravel to help keep down the dust at the Zaatari refugee camp, which the task force helped set up and is now home to 35,000 Syrians. It has also provided four large prefabricated buildings to be used at Zaatari as schools. One official estimated the cost so far at less than $1 million.

-This commentary was first published in The New York Times on 09/10/2012
-Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The General's Gambit

Petraeus tried to warn Assad about the foreign fighters in Iraq. Now they're coming for him.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

On Jan. 8, 2008, Gen. David Petraeus's face was beamed onto a screen in the White House for a videoconference with President George W. Bush. The Iraq surge was beginning to wind down, and the general had an unusual proposal for the commander in chief.

"I've received three messages from Bashar al-Assad via Iraqi ministers stating that he'd like to meet," Petraeus told the president, according to a classified script for the presentation. "Stan McChrystal and I still want to go to Damascus to talk AQI only with Bashar al-Assad and solicit his help in stemming the flow of foreign fighters and taking on known AQ personalities who work in Syria."

AQI was al Qaeda in Iraq, the global terrorist group's Iraqi franchise, and Petraeus thought that if he and McChrystal, then the three-star commander of the secret special-operations forces in the region, confronted Assad, they just might convince him to curb the flow of Arab fighters traveling through Syria to join al Qaeda's campaign of suicide bombings in Iraq. The volunteers were Sunni extremists, after all, and their presence might eventually pose a threat to Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand with the help of a small elite drawn from the minority Alawite sect.

The point was underscored by U.S. intelligence assessments, which noted that the route the would-be jihadists took to the war was also their way out. Foreign fighters "who gained operational experience while fighting in Iraq return to their source countries through Syria," one such report observed. "These experienced fighters returning from jihad pose a threat to the Syrian regime. Although Syria currently is mainly a transit point for AQI, Syria will be an AQI target in the future. AQI ultimately intends to conduct attacks in Syria."

Compounding the problem, terrorist networks inside Syria were also overseeing the stream of fighters to Iraq with the knowledge and, U.S. military officers believed, support of Syrian intelligence, which hoped to direct the energies of the jihadists to Syria's neighbor to the east and bog down the Americans.

Petraeus and McChrystal were among the generals Bush trusted the most, but the president deflected the request. "Stay patient," he replied, according to notes of the meeting, and then changed the subject to troop levels. Petraeus never made the trip.

Today, al Qaeda in Iraq has trained its sights on Assad, just as the intelligence reports predicted, becoming a small but deadly part of the resistance in an escalating civil war that has killed more than 20,000 people over the past year and a half. Perhaps the only thing that U.S. officials and Assad might agree on at this point is that al Qaeda should not have a foothold in the new Syria.

Abu Ghadiya

Although there were several networks that provided weapons, cash, and forged passports to al Qaeda's recruits in Syria, by far the largest was run by a figure who went by the nom de guerre Abu Ghadiya. Abu Ghadiya was born into a family of smugglers, and his real name was Badran Turki al-Mazidih. According to the profile drawn by the U.S. intelligence community, he was in his late 20s, with long black hair, a scar on his inner left calf, and a silver ring inset with a black stone that he wore on his left hand.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghadiya was put in charge of funneling explosives and volunteers to al Qaeda in Iraq through Syria. Most of the al Qaeda recruits who made their way to Iraq did so on commercial flights that landed at Damascus International Airport. In 2007, foreign fighters were entering Iraq at an alarming rate, sometimes more than 100 per month, the vast majority through Syria.

"Once in Syria they seek accommodations in hotels typically located near large markets or mosques frequented by foreigners, allowing [them] to blend into the general population," one classified military report noted. "Within a few days facilitators contact the recruits and escort them to safehouses where they await onward movement into Iraq. The safehouses often are clustered in neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo, but also are in border towns such as Abu Kamal and Qamishli." Al Qaeda fighters who had been wounded in Iraq, it added, sometimes "received treatment at al-Nur Hospital in Damascus."

According to U.S. intelligence, Abu Ghadiya split his time between southeastern Damascus, the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, and Abu Kamal, a Euphrates River town near the border with Iraq's Anbar province. Only occasionally would he venture inside Iraq -- all of which posed a challenge for McChrystal's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) based at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad.

McChrystal believed that neutralizing Abu Ghadiya was a high priority, but his commandos could not cross the border into Syria without a presidential finding and the administrative cover of the CIA. They could only pick away at the foreign-fighter network once it crossed into Iraq. McChrystal's campaign against Abu Ghadiya's subordinates, called Operation Daytona, occasionally met with major successes. In 2007, for instance, McChrystal's troops killed Abu Muthenna, who served under Abu Ghadiya as al Qaeda in Iraq's "border emir," an action that prompted Abu Ghadiya's own brother-in-law to step into the post as a replacement.

During the raid, at a site code-named "Objective Massey," near Sinjar, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, JSOC commandos discovered a 5-terabyte trove of documents that sharpened the military's understanding of who exactly was coming across the border.

The personnel records, some of which were later publicly released, revealed that over the previous year, 90 percent of the fighters entering Iraq had done so through Syria. They also confirmed that Syria's military intelligence arm, led by Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, was well aware of Abu Ghadiya's network. Some foreign-fighter "facilitators" who had been caught by Syrian intelligence had been released and "continue facilitation activities," a military briefing on the Objective Massey documents reported. "Intelligence reports suggest [Syrian] authorities quite likely infiltrated multiple networks, most notably the Abu Ghadiyah network, to monitor threats to Syrian interests," another document added a few months later.

Some U.S. officials were fed up with Syria's tolerance of Abu Ghadiya's presence and were pressing for action. At one point, Elliott Abrams, then the senior National Security Council (NSC) aide for Middle East policy, even suggested that the United States consider some form of covert or military action to temporarily halt flights into Damascus International Airport and send a signal that the foreign-fighter flow had to be stopped.

"I thought there were many possible ways to do it," Abrams recalled in an interview. "At one end of the spectrum was some military action, but I thought there were other ways too, from taking out the radar to taking down the computers through something covert. I thought we would only need to do it once, even briefly, to deliver the message to Assad that we would not tolerate him using the airport to ferry every jihadi in the world into Iraq." But Gen. John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, opposed the idea, and it was dropped.

Petraeus's pitch

After Petraeus was named as the top Iraq commander in 2007, he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker commissioned a wide-ranging internal review of military, economic, and diplomatic efforts by a "Joint Strategic Assessment Team." The team was led by Army Col. H.R. McMaster and veteran diplomat David Pearce, and it included Robert Ford, the future ambassador to Syria.

The U.S. ambassadorial post in Damascus had been vacant since the Bush administration pulled out Ambassador Margaret Scobey in 2005 to protest what it was convinced was Syria's involvement in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Now, the review suggested a several-step diplomatic plan for how to reduce the foreign-fighter flow and engage Syria. "Failure to engage/leverage Syria deprives us of opportunity to create a wedge between Syria and Iran," a briefing on the report noted. "Lack of contact also removes an instrument of influence in the effort to change Syria's national interest calculations regarding support for former regime elements/insurgents."

According to the plan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would start the ball rolling by meeting with the Syrian foreign minister at a conference in Egypt in May. Other meetings between U.S. and Syrian diplomats in Europe might follow, with military briefers in attendance to provide evidence on the foreign-fighter problem. If the Syrians began to put the squeeze on al Qaeda fighters, Rice would declare at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September that the United States would be sending back its ambassador. As an incentive, the United States would try to "leverage" Syrian interest in revenue it might derive if a crude oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq to the Syrian port of Baniyas were restored. Rice met with her Syrian counterpart in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But the deal the assessment team hoped for on foreign fighters never materialized.

Then, in late 2007, Assad passed a request for a meeting with Petraeus through an Iraqi minister, the first of several he would make. Petraeus was not naive about Assad; he wanted to take the Syrian leader up on the offer, fly to Damascus, and confront him with the fact that the United States knew about the foreign-fighter networks and his regime's support for them.

According to an official familiar with Petraeus's thinking at the time, the general planned to ask Assad whether allowing "poisonous snakes" to nest in his backyard might not backfire. Driving the point home, one intelligence report noted that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda's figurehead Iraqi leader, had "singled out Syria as an 'apostate regime'" and had criticized Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, for working with "the butcher and traitor, Hafez al-Assad," Bashar al-Assad's father.

McChrystal, whom Petraeus wanted to take along, supported the plan. Although Assad appeared to be calculating that supporting the likes of Abu Ghadiya was in his short-term interest, he might revaluate the situation as JSOC and the rest of the U.S. military continued to rack up success after success against al Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal was also inclined to the pragmatic view that trying to talk sense to an adversary was more productive than shunning him and that it was worth a try because nobody else in the U.S. government seemed willing to take on the mission. (Petraeus and McChrystal declined to comment for this article.)

In October, Petraeus began raising the prospect of traveling to Syria. In late October, he pitched the idea to Adm. William Fallon, then head of Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, and to the White House's war czar, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute. "I also told him [Lute] -- as I recently told Fox Fallon -- that I would like to travel to Damascus to discuss AQI and foreign fighter network issues with appropriate authorities there -- and by virtue of my position in Iraq, could refuse discussions of any other topics (such as the Golan Heights, etc.)," he wrote in a classified letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "I realize there's a reluctance to engage with Syria until we have the bigger policy issues figured out; however, I fear that such thinking will preclude an opportunity to build on the progress we've been making against AQI."

For the next few months, Petraeus made his case to his superiors every four to six weeks like clockwork. "The further we get our hands around the throats of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the more I feel it is time for a brief visit by me and Stan McChrystal to Syria to ask for their help on stemming the flow of foreign fighters and taking on known AQ personalities who sometimes use Syrian soil," he wrote in a classified report to Gates at the beginning of January 2008, just before he broached the trip to Bush in the Jan. 8 videoconference. As Petraeus saw it, if the United States was going to be "all-in" in securing Iraq, that meant taking on diplomacy with Syria as well.


The White House, however, was not anxious for Petraeus to make the trip. Bush and his top aides were trying to isolate the regime. The isolation was not total: The Bush administration invited Syria to the November 2007 Annapolis conference on the Middle East (Syria sent its deputy foreign minister). The Bush administration, however, was determined to avoid anything that looked like "strategic engagement," a former senior Bush administration official said, until the Assad regime began to change its "bad behavior."

A high-profile visit from two senior U.S. generals, Bush aides thought, would undermine that policy and had little chance of success. In a classified June 2007 memo to Bush, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, had noted that the United States had intelligence that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had told his Iranian counterpart that their goal should be "the defeat of the United States." Buttressing this point, Hadley wrote in his memo that the CIA's assessment was that the Assad regime had convinced itself that the United States needed Syria more than Syria needed the United States.

"We had all the sanctions we could pile on unilaterally, and we had a policy of isolating Assad -- and it was working," Abrams recalled. "For a long while, the EU foreign ministers stopped visiting Damascus. We were getting more European support because it was obvious that he was shipping arms to Hezbollah, continuing to kill Lebanese leaders, and making Syria the key entry point for jihadis going into Iraq. Petraeus kept saying he wanted to visit Damascus and talk to Assad, but it seemed obvious to me that would destroy the whole isolation policy. I delayed it to the extent I could at my level, but he kept pushing, month after month; he genuinely thought his visit would turn things around. Finally his request hit the president's desk, and the president summarily dismissed the idea."

After Petraeus was rebuffed in the January 2008 videoconference with Bush, the general joked about the rejection in a morning briefing with his staff. "Some woman kicked him under the table," he quipped, implying that Rice had encouraged Bush to turn down the suggestion.

"I have offered to go to Damascus, but the last time I said that I was told to go sit under a tree until the thought passed," Petraeus told his staff six months later. "Maybe it's time to suggest it again."

Petraeus was not the only one who was rebuffed. After Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with Assad over the summer of 2007, Bush discussed the meeting with him in a videoconference. When Maliki suggested that Assad was open to engagement with the United States, the president shut him down. "Actions speak louder than words," he responded.

Going kinetic

By early 2008, al Qaeda in Iraq was losing steam, hounded by U.S. surge troops, by McChrystal's commandos, and by the "Sons of Iraq" who had emerged as part of the tribal Awakening movement. But Abu Ghadiya was getting bolder. In January, intelligence reports noted that the al Qaeda leader was seeking "100 American military uniforms." The reports suggested that Abu Ghadiya was interested in expanding beyond logistics and smuggling to planning attacks -- possibly false-flag attacks like the one that had killed five U.S. soldiers in Karbala in 2007 when Shiite militia fighters used American-style uniforms to great effect. Other intelligence suggested that with Iraq quieting down, Abu Ghadiya was developing links to al Qaeda's small, underground contingent in Lebanon.

By March, the NSC was deliberating over whether to finally "go kinetic" against Abu Ghadiya inside Syria with a joint JSOC and CIA raid or Predator drone strike. The need for action of some sort was drummed home in early May, when al Qaeda fighters crossed from Syria for a deadly raid on an Iraqi police checkpoint just across the border. "Compelling evidence suggests that Abu Ghadiyah, who runs the largest AQ foreign fighter network in Syria, was behind the murder of the Iraqi police officers," Petraeus wrote to Gates of the attack. "The operation could not have been carried out without the acquiescence of Syrian officials at some level."

The Americans pondered a number of options. One approach was to have Abu Ghadiya designated an international terrorist by the U.N. Security Council, but Muammar al-Qaddafi's U.N. representative blocked those efforts. In mid-July, according to notes of one NSC meeting, Israel offered to kill the al Qaeda leader. The previous September, the Israelis had destroyed a Syrian nuclear site in Deir ez-Zor, the same remote province where U.S. intelligence believed Abu Ghadiya spent part of his time. But the Americans did not accept the suggestion.

The next opportunity came a month later, in August, when a Predator strike was planned in Syria. The strike was set for the night of Aug. 13, but Abu Ghadiya moved and it was canceled. That same week, Interpol added Abu Ghadiya to one of its watch lists, and a JSOC team captured one of his deputies in a raid in Qaim, just inside Iraq across the border from Abu Kamal.

Finally, at the end of October, it happened. In a bold daylight mission on Oct. 26 that bystanders caught snippets of on video, MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flew a JSOC team across the border to a building near Abu Kamal. The commandos entered the building, killed Abu Ghadiya, and took his body back in the helicopters, just as U.S. commandos would nearly three years later after they killed Osama bin Laden. The mission was structured remarkably similarly to the bin Laden raid -- with JSOC commandos working under the CIA.

Because the operation had been run under the CIA rather than under military authority, the Bush administration's response to the raid was sharply different from the fanfare that had surrounded JSOC's capture of Saddam Hussein and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- deafening silence.

Three weeks after the Abu Kamal raid, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met with Assad in Damascus. Miliband pressed Assad about his regime's assistance to al Qaeda in Iraq and asked why his government still referred to Sunni insurgents as the "resistance." Assad complained about the American strike. Why, Miliband asked the Syrian dictator, had his government itself not shut down Abu Ghadiya, especially since the United States had passed along intelligence about his activities?

But Assad refused to acknowledge that Abu Ghadiya had been in Syria, even though the U.S. commandos had taken away the al Qaeda leader's body so that they could prove it. Military action, he said, was a violation of Syrian sovereignty and had not been the way to solve the problem -- "even if Abu Ghadiya was there."


As the end of Bush's second term approached, his administration's attempt to isolate Syria was set back by disclosures that Israel had been negotiating with Syria through Turkish mediators, while the Europeans started to engage Assad openly. Petraeus, who had been elevated to head Central Command by that time, thought that the White House had softened its resistance to his proposal for a visit and no longer objected to a trip to Damascus, his associates said. Abrams insists that Bush seemed as opposed as ever. But the question was academic -- the trip Petraeus envisioned could not be carried out in the administration's waning days.

Flash-forward four years: As the Syrian crisis has unfolded over the past 18 months, al Qaeda's Iraqi franchise has been active in Syria, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Although they represent a small portion of the resistance, al Qaeda's fighters have been among the most battle-hardened, and their presence has undoubtedly complicated the Western response to the crisis. Some of the resistance's most effective tactics, like the use of huge buried bombs to keep government forces out of their areas, closely resemble those of al Qaeda in Iraq.

"[T]here is surely not in modern history a more perfect example of blowback than what is happening now in Syria, where Al Qaeda in Iraq's operatives have turned to bite the hands that once fed them," Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn, a former Petraeus aide, wrote in a February article published by the Hoover Institution. "Having terrorized the Iraqis for seven years, the Syrian regime now cynically seeks the world's sympathy as terrorism's victims."

A gnawing question is how a Petraeus visit might have affected the current situation. Some who served in the U.S. command in Baghdad during the Petraeus years believe that if the United States had persuaded Assad to dismantle much of the terrorism network in Syria in 2008, it might have hampered the flow of al Qaeda operatives to Syria over the past year. There would still have been a civil war in Syria, they say, but al Qaeda in Iraq would have had less of a role.

Others believe that al Qaeda would have found a way to take advantage of the chaos in Syria and get into the fight. Still another view is that any crackdown Assad might have mounted against al Qaeda would likely have had only a temporary effect without a broader accommodation between the Bush administration and the Syrian regime that was not to be. As for what Petraeus, now the CIA director, thinks? He's not talking.

-This article was published in Foreign policy first on 1/10/2012
-Michael R. Gordon is a correspondent for the New York Times. This article is adapted from his new book, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, co-authored with Gen. Bernard E. Trainor. Wesley S. Morgan, a researcher with the book project, helped write this article

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Planting The Seeds Of Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia

By Louisa Loveluck

The attack on Benghazi's U.S. consulate propelled a new jihadist organization into the political spotlight: Ansar al Sharia. As a number of groups sharing the same name have emerged across the Middle East and North Africa, pundits now scrabble for details of this little known yet seemingly ascendant force of global jihadism. This week, an interview with Hassen Brik, a spokesperson for Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, offered some clues as to the motivations and personalities behind the organization's development in Tunisia.

As we enter the family home in Tunis, it becomes clear that the lives of Tunisia's vilified jihadists cannot be reduced to the images of pious fanaticism on which the western media relies. We are greeted by his sister; unveiled, she is casually dressed in khaki cut-offs and a vest top. She says she feels under no pressure from Hassen to dress conservatively. His brothers, too, have followed very different life trajectories. Karim, in fact, goes by the stage name "Minissi" and has gained a large domestic following for his self-produced rap music. In contrast, their eldest brother is a military man, having served as an army sniper during the Ben Ali era.

The life of 34-year old Hassen has, of course, taken a different turn. In 2003, he traveled to Iraq as a fighter but ended up stationed across the border in Syria, operating a safe house for potential jihadists as they were vetted and trained for the mission ahead. There, he was arrested and deported back to Tunisia where he was imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law. And it was in these jails, Hassen tells us, that Ansar al Sharia was born. He claims that communal prayer time served as a forum for discussion and refining ideas that would be put into practice on release.

Ansar al Sharia's moment arrived with Tunisia's revolution. In March 2011, the new transitional government pardoned a number of prisoners who had been convicted under the Ben Ali regime's repressive anti-terrorism laws. Among their number was Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (more commonly known as Abu Iyadh), a former Guantanamo detainee who would lead a press conference the following month to announce the public debut of Ansar al Sharia.

A fighter abroad and a preacher at home, Hassen believes that it is now his duty to open da'wa offices across the country, offering a religious education that conforms to Ansar al Sharia's interpretation of Islam. "This is a long-term vision to prepare society," he says, "We are for jihad, armed revolution, but we cannot do this if the people are not with us. It will only be possible when everyone is behind the vision. Look at Libya, the insurrection was only successful once armed and sharing a common vision."

Although little is known about Ansar al Sharia, Hassen emphasizes that its members do not want to stay in the shadows. "Now we want to talk," he says, "We want to be open, even if you are from the CIA."

References to American power run through many of his assertions and he attributes his own imprisonment to the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. "It used to be permissible to study the Koran openly," he says, "but after 2004 the government terrorized us on American orders."

He is referring to Tunisia's 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, legislation that allowed security forces to arrest civilians with alleged links to terrorist organizations drawing praise from the U.S. State Department. Cases were usually held in private court sessions and many defendants claim that their convictions were based on confessions extracted through torture.

Popular reactions to Ansar al Sharia's emergence have been hostile. Described in the Tunisian media as an "Islamist cancer," the secular middle classes have greeted its rise with a mixture of horror and revulsion. Nor has it found favor with more moderate Islamist groups. The ruling Ennahda party has blamed the organization for this month's attacks on the U.S. embassy, and followers of the more moderate "scripturalist" brand of Salafism also distance themselves from the violent tactics of their theological counterparts.

When asked if Ansar al Sharia can realistically attract wider support, Hassen counters that Tunisian society has failed to listen to its message: "We are trying to extend our hand to the Tunisian people but they aren't taking it yet. We bring a new vision of politics for the Arab world, but we know this will take time. After 50 years of Bourgiba and Ben Ali, people have lost their religion and we are feeding it."

References to the broader regional context litter his speech, although he denies that his organization is operationally linked to organizations in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Morocco that share the same name.

Turning to the subject of attacks on U.S. targets in Tunis the previous week, Hassen chooses his words carefully. Young Ansar al Sharia followers were involved, he says, but not on the direct instructions of the leadership.

"We do not deny that violent acts were committed in our name. We have made mistakes and many of our number have been behind bars. Now we are rehabilitating them, but this will take time. They need to be educated in the very foundations of Islam.

These boys of the districts follow us because they are tired of politicians' immorality. They appreciate our coherence: our words come straight from the heart."

A visit to Tunis's working class El Khadra suburb the previous day suggested that there is truth in this sentiment. Although few were willing to openly align themselves with Ansar al Sharia, several young men expressed admiration at the organization's piety and its refusal to engage in high-level political squabbles. Abu Iyadh's name commanded particular enthusiasm, in the words of one young man, "he is strong where Ennahda are weak. He is the only man to stand up against the Americans."

Demographic studies of those convicted under Tunisia's anti-terrorism laws show that the jihadists have previously found these neighborhoods to be fertile ground for recruitment. Today their inhabitants remain as socially and economically marginalized as they were under Ben Ali, a reality which continues to escape many who rail against Ansar al Sharia as an aberration within Tunisia's cosmopolitan society.

"We stand in solidarity with the weakest," Hassan says, "and in time we will have local leaders who organize the boys."

Yet the notion that Ansar al Sharia's message has found real resonance within small sections of Tunisian society continues to escape the country's chattering classes. High-level political discussion revolves around constitutional issues with little attempt to address the grievances of the most vulnerable. But this is a social blindness that they cannot afford to maintain. "For us, this is an opportunity to plant our seeds in the sunlight." Hassan concludes, "and we are starting to see the fruit."

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 27/09/2012
-Louisa Loveluck is a freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Iraq Red Team

A year and a half before the surge, a secret review group in Baghdad recommended a drastic change in U.S. strategy. If that advice had been heeded, might the war have turned out differently? An exclusive excerpt from The Endgame, a new book on America's final days in Iraq.


Seventeen months before George W. Bush announced that he was sending five additional brigades to Iraq for the 2007 "surge," a team of officers and civilian analysts gathered in Baghdad to conduct a classified review of America's military strategy in Iraq.

In a June 2005 speech at Fort Bragg, President Bush had told the nation that the Iraq war was difficult, but winnable. "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said. "We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do."

But when it convened in August, the Red Team, as the review group was known, came to a very different conclusion. "The perception of many Iraqis is that their government, and by implication, the Coalition has failed the Iraqi people," the report noted. (Read exclusive excerpts from the report.) Not only that, but the strategy Bush so confidently endorsed, the team asserted, would merely burden the Iraqis with a problem they could not handle. Iraqi forces might end up ceding ground to the insurgency in central and western Iraq, and perhaps even in Baghdad. A new counterinsurgency strategy -- one that, in concept though not in resources, bore a striking resemblance to the approach Gen. David Petraeus would oversee two years later -- was needed.

The team's diagnosis and its remedy were both ignored. It was one of the most important -- and until now, unknown -- missed opportunities of the war.

The annals of military history are replete with intelligence failures -- debacles that were not foreseen as a result of cultural ignorance, wishful thinking, or a lack of sources. But what is striking about the early years of the American war in Iraq are those episodes in which dedicated officials correctly discerned the problem and suggested new strategies -- only to be ignored by generals and Bush administration aides who were wedded to their faltering plan.

These missed turning points might have shortened the conflict and provided more breathing room to establish a more inclusive Iraqi government at a time when the United States had maximum leverage in the country. Nobody can say for certain what might have happened, but it is instructive that some of the spurned recommendations were very effective when belatedly implemented years later.

To this day, some of the missed opportunities are not widely known. For all the partisan debate over the Iraq conflict in Washington, only a handful of insiders seem to know what happened during some of its most fateful moments.

As the insurgency began to develop in 2003, for example, a group of officers in the U.S. military's intelligence cell in Baghdad developed a plan to work with the Sunni tribes in the western province of Anbar that was never carried out. Col. Carol Stewart had met with a group of Anbari sheiks and devised a plan to bring them into the fold. The strife-ridden Ramadi and Fallujah areas would be designated a "tribal security zone." Tribal leaders would be authorized to police their own areas and given vehicles, ammunition, and money to pay their men, who would be dubbed the "Anbar Rangers." The entire program would have cost $3 million for six months, a tiny sliver of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction fund for Iraq, officials said.

But when Stewart briefed the idea to an aide at L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, she was told that CPA did not plan to make the tribes a formal part of Iraq's security structure. Leaving one meeting in frustration, Stewart muttered, "If the United States was not going to be working with the tribes in the new Iraq, where was this new Iraq going to be? On Mars?" Stewart had no more luck with more senior civilian and military officials in Iraq, and the idea was shelved -- only to be revived when the Anbar Awakening emerged three years later.

The Red Team

But first came the buried Red Team report, in which a select group of mid-level officers and officials who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy were ignored. This account is based on interviews with current and former American and allied officials and military officers -- and access to the 74-page classified report.

The origins of the Red Team go back to the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the United States ambassador to Iraq. A former Pentagon official who was coming to Baghdad from a tour as the American ambassador in Kabul, Khalilzad began to think anew about the military situation in Iraq. Canvassing the experts, he pondered the work of Andrew Krepinevich, who had written a book about the Army's experience in Vietnam and was a proponent of population-centric counterinsurgency.

During Khalilzad's Senate confirmation hearings on June 7, 2005, a skeptical junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, asked Khalilzad if it might take 10 or 20 years to defeat the insurgency. It could be done in much less than that, he responded reassuringly.

After arriving in Baghdad in July, Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, commissioned an internal review -- one that was to be carried out by an eight-person team of military and civilian officials. Col. Bruce Reider, a strategist who was working on governance issues for General Casey, co-chaired the effort on behalf of the military. Other members of his military team included a British intelligence officer, an Australian officer, and one of General Casey's planners. Marin Strmecki, a conservative defense consultant and an advisor to Khalilzad, led the civilian side of the review. A CIA analyst was part of the team as well.

Khalilzad met with the group and outlined the questions they were to consider, the most important being: What would it take to "break the back" of the insurgency in one year and "defeat" it in three years? The entire review was to be done in 30 days.

Although Casey had signed off on doing the study, the four-star general was convinced his plan was generally on track and not in need of a major overhaul. He was supporting troop-intensive counterinsurgency efforts in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar and the border town of Al Qaim in western Anbar as a way of interrupting the flow of foreign fighters from Syria. But they were the exceptions to his broader approach to gradually withdraw American forces and hand the fight over to the Iraqis. It was more than an exit strategy for Casey; it was a means to reward, encourage, and prod the Iraqis to step up. The paradox, as Casey sometimes put it, was that the United States had to draw down to win.

As Reider and the rest of the Red Team worked on their assessment in August, they sensed that the general had a different view of the problem. "There is a fundamental issue over what we are trying to achieve," the colonel wrote in his diary. "Gen. Casey believes we are trying to develop ISF so we can hand the fight to Iraqis. The ambassador believes we are here to defeat the insurgency."

The Red Team's diagnosis of the war was, indeed, a far cry from Casey's. The effort to disrupt the insurgents' planning had not been decisive, it concluded, and the enemy had been able to retain freedom of movement. Many Iraqis had no faith in their leaders. What's more, the Iraqi troops who were being trained were not schooled in counterinsurgency. "Iraqi Security Forces have been stood up at great speed," the review noted. "This tremendous achievement to get them ‘in the fight' has not yet delivered sustainable forces with robust leadership." American aid programs were not reaching Sunni areas.

More importantly, the team did not see how the plan could work. "The current plan hinges on an ability to suppress the insurgency to levels that the ISF [Iraqi Security Force] can handle on its own, which implies that the threat will be reduced before the transition," it notes. "Current operations have not succeeded in suppressing the level of the insurgency, and the campaign plan does not provide new or different approaches that offer greater promise in this regard."

And if the Americans were making little headway, the Iraqi security forces would fare worse. "The planned size of the ISF is likely to prove insufficient based on historical cases. The ISF, still an immature force, will be taking on the burden of security in 2006 and 2007 with inadequate funding and less experience, training and equipment than MNF-I," it added, using the acronym for Casey's multinational command.

The political ramifications of a failing strategy, the report concluded, were enormous. The hydra-headed insurgency might be emboldened is it thought that the main American goal was to disengage from Iraq. As a result, the insurgents could be "less likely to cut the political deals that would be needed to shore up the new Iraq."

Iraqis who had stood by the Americans might also lose confidence in their ally. "The fears of abandonment might lead the Iraqis to hedge their bets by developing greater reliance on Iran," the report continued. "If the transition to self-reliance takes place before the defeat of the insurgency, the Iraqi government and the insurgents could seek external support from neighboring states (e.g., Syria and Iran) in order to fight on, potentially leading to civil war along the lines of the one in Afghanistan in the 1990s."

Public support in the United States might be another casualty. "The American public might question whether a muddled outcome was worth the cost, especially since victory was not the goal."

Ink spots

Having assessed the problem, the group proposed an "ink spot" approach in areas that would be secured and developed politically until a patchwork of safe zones was extended across the country. The notion of separating the population from the insurgency was classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the kind Petraeus would later espouse, and ran counter to a Casey strategy that focused on border control and transition to the Iraqis.

The Red Team assumed that the only U.S. forces available were the ones that were already on hand, which meant that there was no way to blanket the country. So it proposed the concentration of forces in specific areas to effect a mini-surge. The command, for example, could use the beefed-up security for the upcoming December elections to establish an initial ink spot, perhaps in Baquba or in the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor. As more ink spots were created in 2006, they would be linked in a "Two Rivers campaign" to control the population centers along the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Without reinforcements from the United States, it would have been an enormously ambitious undertaking. But one of the main obstacles was bureaucratic. Casey had sponsored previous Red Team efforts and saw the report as a means to draw the embassy more into the war effort. But when the Red Team suggested wholesale changes to his military strategy, it was more than Casey had bargained for, one of his former aides said.

The Red Team approach posited a three-year campaign to defeat the insurgents and advanced a plan for concentrating American forces in insurgent-infested areas, which was inconsistent with Casey's vision of progressively handing over the fight to the Iraqis and making troop cuts in 2006 and 2007.

When it came time for the team to brief some of its conclusions on Aug. 23, Casey made it clear that he did accept the rationale behind much of the report. The team never even got around to presenting its PowerPoint slides. Two weeks later, one of Casey's senior officers approached Reider and said that the general had heard that the Red Team had been pressured to go along with the ink-spot approach by Strmecki. Reider denied it.

In his own post-mortem on the war, which is to be published by National Defense University, it is clear that Casey did not give the Red Team report much weight: he noted only that it made some useful suggestions on how to better integrate the coalition's economic, political, and military efforts.  In December 2005, Casey would hold his own Campaign Progress Review, which concluded that for all the challenges, there were "clear grounds for optimism." (When President Bush opted for a five-brigade "surge" in 2007, Casey still insisted that not all of the forces were needed.)

Still, Khalilzad brought a copy of the Red Team report to Washington and mentioned it to Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, who suggested that it might be submitted through military channels, a former official recalled. But with Casey opposed to the concept, that was unlikely. A member of the British team passed a copy up his chain of command and it eventually made its way to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. By and large, however, the report vanished from sight.

Too little, too late?

The failure to confront the inconvenient facts about America's faltering strategy in Iraq in 2005 had significant consequences. Bush's eventual decision to begin a military surge in Iraq in 2007 and to appoint Petraeus as commander pulled Iraq out of a worsening civil war. The surge strategy succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in diminishing Al Qaeda in Iraq and tamping down the sectarian violence. It also served as a catalyst for the Sunni Awakening, which would make its way from Anbar to the area surrounding Baghdad and, finally, to the Iraqi capital itself.

But if the strategy change had come earlier, a longer surge might have led to more progress in establishing a more inclusive Iraqi government and improving the poor performance of Iraq's ministries -- issues that still bedevil Iraq today. Those questions might have been tackled sooner in an improved security environment and when American influence was at its height. An earlier surge might have saved treasure and, more importantly, lives.

The episode also raises some pertinent questions about the Obama administration's strategy today in Afghanistan, where the United States military mounted a surge that ended last week. The transition to an Afghan lead and the closing of American bases is being executed with all of the mechanistic rigidity of the United States' initial Iraq strategy.

I tracked down Reider, who has retired from the Army and teaches at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. What lessons, I asked, did he draw from the episode?

"You always hear senior leaders talking about the need to adapt," he said. "The plan we had in Iraq was not working and people who had worked on that plan did not want to accept that. This was an opportunity to adapt, and we did not take that opportunity."

-This article was published first in Foreign Policy on 24/09/2012
-Michael R. Gordon is a correspondent for the New York Times. This article is adapted from his new book, The Endgame: the Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, co-authored with Gen. Bernard E. Trainor. Wesley S. Morgan contributed to this article