The Battle for Kobani

Suruc

From my VOA dispatch last night:

“The days of battle are falling into a pattern.

The mornings start off quietly, but by lunchtime a crescendo builds of furious small-arms fire and airstrikes only to subside.

Then the battle resumes in early evening as the sun begins to fall – the nights are full of fury, explosions and intense gunfire.

This week Islamic State militants tried to bomb their way through Kurdish defenses by using suicide bombers. There have been nearly a dozen efforts.

In low-lying Turkish villages and hills along a 15-kilometer stretch of the border facing Kobani, refugees from the town and local Kurds have been watching the raging battle unfold with a mixture of feelings.

They cheer when an airstrike sends black plumes of smoke into the sky and crane to see where the ordnance struck. They seesaw between hope and despair, expressing one moment confidence the town won’t fall and then conceding they don’t know how the outgunned and outnumbered defenders can hold out.”

Full story here.

A Series On Christopher Stevens And Ansar al-Sharia

Tripoli

Under the pressure of events and filing a couple of stories a day on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and its aftermath I have neglected sadly my personal bog. Below are the links to the series of articles I filed for the Daily Beast and Voice of America between September 12 and September 18.

September 12

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three State Department officials were killed last night in a targeted rocket attack, after riots over a U.S. film depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud.

September 12

Despite President Obama’s pledge that the violent assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not “break the bonds” between the U.S. and Libya, it would appear to have weakened them. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that U.S. diplomats are to be evacuated in the coming days. It was not clear whether a skeleton staff would remain, and the embassy could not be reached for comment.

September 13
Heavily-armed assailants waged a five-hour firefight against Libyan and American guards—at two locations. Fury over a film or a planned mission?

September 13

For many Libyans the deaths are shocking enough—and apologies are spontaneously offered to Americans—but underlying the condolences is a fear that the U.S. will reduce its commitment to the Arab Spring.

September 14

Shifting explanations from Libyan officials and contradictory recollections by survivors and witnesses are hampering U.S. officials’ efforts to reconstruct the night of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 15

America and Libya should share responsibility for the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, according to the spokesman of Libya’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. He says that so far no evidence has turned up that suggests al Qaeda had a hand in the attack.

September 17

An amateur video appearing to show a motionless but apparently still alive Ambassador Christopher Stevens was posted Sunday on YouTube. The video focuses on a window of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where some members of a crowd—it is not clear if they are protesters, looters, or nearby residents drawn to the scene after the attack—discover the mortally injured Stevens and celebrate that he’s still alive.

September 17

Another day and more clashing explanations from different Libyan officials about who was behind the assault on the consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens dead along with three other Americans. Not only are the accounts of what happened and who was involved contradictory, so too now are the number of arrests made and whether they are real arrests or just questionings of people known to have been at the protest before the shooting started.

September 18

Senior U.S. security and intelligence officials met secretly on Monday with Libyan counterparts to share information that the Americans have gathered, through electronic surveillance, on the assault on the U.S. consulate that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 18

Sharp disagreements between senior Libyan officials over who was behind the U.S. Consulate assault in Benghazi are a sign of a “leadership deficit” in Libya that’s undermining the credibility of the newly elected authorities, diplomats and analysts warn.

And Voice of America

September 13

The call to prayer sounded over a subdued Tripoli Thursday as residents of Libya’s capital tried to understand the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three diplomats during the storming of the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Have a Dog in the Fight – Freedom

The winds of change are blowing once again — this time in the Middle East. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic 1960 “Winds of Change” speech in Cape Town about the continent of Africa, he elected to place Britain on the side of history and to hasten decolonization.

Ever the realist, Macmillan recognized that change was coming, and even though its arrival would be disruptive, the best thing for the West would be to be on the right side of it. To imperialist opponents in his own country, and to white South Africans, he warned, “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

Likewise, we face a choice now: to be timid or to be bold. How far should we go to encourage and nurture change in the Middle East even when that change won’t necessarily be helpful to our short-term interests, and even when it may result in the overthrow or weakening not only of foes but also of some Gulf regimes that we count as allies?

On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was a senior editor at the Washington Times Corp. and broke with the editorial line by opposing the U.S.-led invasion on the grounds that democracy would likely not take root if imposed by foreign armed intervention. Invading Iraq would strengthen Iran, distract us from the War on Terror and lead us to neglect the already-invaded Afghanistan, I wrote at the time.

I still believe that position was the right one. But the situation in Libya is different, and this time my concern isn’t that we have entered the fray but that we are not going far enough.

What is in the offing in the region is easily as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism. Not everything that comes out of it will be good: the defeat of Communism gave us the blessings of democracy in central Europe and the reuniting of Europe, but it also gave rise to Slobodan Milošević, a series of vicious Yugoslav civil wars and Vladimir Putin.

And the same will be the case in a changing Middle East. Turmoil will be unsettling for our oil-dependent economies. We can’t be sure where this all will end and certainly won’t be able to guarantee the nature of the governments and leaderships that may replace outgoing regimes. Some are likely to be more pro-Western than others; some will be serious about multiparty democracy, while others may pay lip service to it in the same sly and ridiculing way of Putin, with his “managed democracy.”

Election results won’t always be to our liking — as we found in 2006 when Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian parliament.

In Libya, we don’t at this stage fully understand the balance of power within an opposition consisting of secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers and defectors from Gaddafi’s camp. We do know Al Qaeda attracted many recruits for its terror campaign in Iraq from eastern Libya, the heartland of resistance to Gaddafi. But not all Islamists are the same and it is naïve of us to lump them altogether — the Islamist government of Turkey is no ally of Al Qaeda and the current leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been respective of secular liberals.

We know also that many of those who have taken to the streets across the Middle East to protest against oil-rich despots and repressive rulers have been the young and educated. They are eager for a dignified future of individual liberty. They have not been chanting Al Qaeda slogans or pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Instead they have been calling for freedom and dignity and demanding a greater say in what happens to them.

Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now even Syria, where 60 percent of the population is under 24 years old. On Friday, in the most serious protests to have been mounted against the al-Assad family in four decades, demonstrators in dozens of cities and towns across the country called for freedom and not jihad.

Back in 1960, Macmillan saw that the tide of national consciousness rising in Africa had its origins in the West: “For its causes are to be found in the achievements of Western civilization, in the pushing forwards of the frontiers of knowledge, the applying of science to the service of human needs, in the expanding of food production, in the speeding and multiplying of the means of communication, and perhaps above all and more than anything else in the spread of education.”

The origins of what is happening now in the Middle East are to be found in the West, too.

That is something President Barack Obama should outline to the American people tonight when he addresses the nation. It is something he should have been saying to U.S. lawmakers even before American planes were launched to enforce the no-fly zone as part of an administration effort to ensure Congress was adequately consulted and supportive.

So what further practical steps should be taken?

First, we shouldn’t be timid. The protesters across the region, as well as the rebels in Libya, are urging us to help — this isn’t change we are imposing but change we are being asked to assist.

That doesn’t mean putting boots on the ground — the Arabs have to win their own freedom for it to take root. It does mean continuing with the expanded no-fly zone and going even further, striking and degrading Libyan government forces. If Gaddafi succeeds in staying, it will chill the Arab Spring and embolden other rulers, such as the al-Assads. It could well encourage the young and frustrated to turn to Al Qaeda and other extreme groups to execute change.

Second, we should be arming the Libyan rebels and making it clear that our mission in Libya is to see the end of Gaddafi and his handing over by the Libyans to the International Criminal Court.

Third, President Obama should be leading and cheerleading more. While it may make sense to hand over command and control of military operations to the Europeans, he should be coaxing and goading them to be bold. The last time the Europeans took the lead was in the Balkans, where they couldn’t agree on what to do and things went from bad to worse.

Lastly, we and the Europeans should be channeling funds rapidly to our democracy and governance and civil society NGOs and hurrying them into the region to train and counsel in Tunisia and Egypt.

This is an historic moment and we need to seize it. A positive outcome is not assured. But if we fail to back protesters and rebels alike, then we risk not only prolonging repression in the Middle East but providing succor to Al Qaeda and the Islamists, who won’t be slow to find ways to benefit.

The Media, Politicians and The Press

A thoughtful analysis from Matthew d’Ancona in today’s Telegraph in which he warns that politicians’ obsession with news cycles assists terrorists put me in mind of an article I wrote back in July 2002. I run it here complete — it still holds up…

“Combating terrorism is a desperate undertaking for any democratic government. Fight with merely military might and the struggle can be lost – as the Reagan administration belatedly learned in Central America in the 1980s and the Russians have found in Chechnya.

As every successful antiterrorist expert knows, an essential ingredient in defeating an insurgency or terrorist group must involve mounting an effective, two-pronged, hearts-and-minds strategy that aims, on the one hand, to wean supporters away from the terrorist opponent and, on the other, to maintain the morale and backing of your own people. Repression or overreaction and curtailment of civil liberties risks undermining the hearts-and-minds effort.

The Bush administration did a fine job on the keeping-up-morale front in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, steadying jittery Americans and urging them to get back to business. The speedy toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan certainly helped to convince Americans that the Bush administration knew what it was doing and was on the right track.

But in its efforts to ensure the continued support of Americans and to garner backing for proposals such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security, the administration risks falling into the trap that other democratic governments fighting terrorism have slipped into to their cost. Bush officials are giving the terrorists what Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s liked to call the “oxygen of publicity.”

Thatcher had in mind more the media’s role during the troubles in Northern Ireland – troubles which, of course, spilled over to mainland Britain in the form of car-bombings and assassinations. She blamed the media for over-covering the Irish Republican Army [IRA]and other paramilitary groups.

As far as the Iron Lady was concerned, the media and the terrorists became locked in a symbiotic relationship. The terrorists needed the coverage; reporters and TV producers needed the stories. She had a point. The aim of terrorists is to prompt fear; by closely covering their actions, foiled plots and threats, the media in Britain became a hugely important element in scaring the British public and even in sapping the political will of the British establishment.

But shutting off that oxygen supply can be a tricky thing for a government to pull off. The attempt can lead to a greater enrichment of the terrorist atmosphere, as well as leading to an undermining of the very values a democratic government purports to be defending.

Take the Iron Lady’s bid to “suffocate” the IRA by prohibiting British broadcasters from transmitting the voice of paramilitary leaders such as Gerry Adams. The ban, of course, merely prompted the broadcasters to seize on a loophole and guaranteed the Sinn Fein president even more airtime, albeit with a voice-over enunciating his words.

Nowadays, with 24-hour news cycles, cable and satellite TV and editorial standards that allow too much speculation and ill-informed analysis to pass as news, the pernicious side of the media’s role in confrontations with terrorists has increased. With its voracious appetite needing to be satisfied, the TV media remain in hyperactive overdrive, giving the impression that the United States is on the brink of turning into a Belfast or a Beirut at the height of their troubles. The public is being scared witless.

But it isn’t all the media’s fault. In recent weeks, the administration, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, appears to have done everything it could to ratchet up the scare factor, too. The disclosure in early June of the May 8 arrest of the feckless terrorist wanna-be Abdullah Al Mujahir, otherwise known as Jose Padilla, is a case in point.

Few experts believe Padilla was anywhere near capable of fulfilling his dirty-bomb mission. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop the administration from speaking in apocalyptic terms. The manner of the announcement by a live TV linkup for Ashcroft in Moscow and a star-studded news conference at the Justice Department added massive drama. With the surprising exception of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aides and officials appeared determined to talk up the dirty-bomb threat.

Ashcroft subsequently was criticized for hyping the radioactive menace by the White House [via off-the-record briefings to the press, of course]. But the disclosure nonetheless fits into a recent pattern of dramatic statements from senior administration figures that have only added to widespread public alarm.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and FBI Director Robert Mueller all have made startling comments of late. All have endorsed the idea that it is inevitable terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. The media, of course, add to the hype.

It is hard not to have sympathy with some Democrats when they argue that the Bush administration seems intent on deflecting attention from the claims of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence lapses and laxity. Others maintain the administration has increased its warnings of future terrorist outrages to help garner support for major measures, such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security.

Arguably there is nothing wrong with a massive public-relations effort – the United States needs to prepare to defend itself and to prevent future attacks. But hyping the risks, whatever the motives, remains a dangerous game to play as public fear easily could swing out of control and force the government into more extreme actions at home and abroad. Governments can provide the “oxygen of publicity” for terrorists as well as the media.”

Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.