US admits it has no Idea who it is Assassinating by Drone

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The tragic deaths last January, just now being revealed, of two Western hostages in drone strikes on a relatively empty housing complex in northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan border underlines that the Obama administration is killing people from the air without knowing who they are and is killing significant numbers of innocent civilians. Just as hostages don’t move around outside so that spy cameras can observe them, so too in gender-segregated Pushtun society, women are often immured at home and so the CIA or US military who are running the drones do not know if they are in the sights.

Contrary to assurances given by President Obama a couple of years ago, the US government admits that it had no idea who it was targeting when it hit that building. Indiscriminate fire is a recognized war crime, and it seems to characterize the US drone program.

These are the figures for the US drone assassination program in Pakistan, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Total strikes: 415
Obama strikes: 364
Total killed: 2,449-3,949
Civilians killed: 423-962
Children killed: 172-207
Injured: 1,144-1,722

That is, as many as a fourth of those killed by US drone assassinations are non-combatants.

Death by drone is inherently lawless. There is no constitutional or legal framework within which the US government can blow people away at will. For a while in the 1970s through 1990s, assassination was outlawed.
Now it is back, but has taken this freakish form where bureaucrats thousands of miles away fire missiles from large toy airplanes. The US is not at war with Pakistan, so this action is not part of a war effort. You can’t be at war with an organization– a state of war has a technical legal definition.

The US government maintains that it is only shooting when it sees a high value target. This is a lie. They had no idea who was in the building. The US government maintains that it kills hardly any local civilians with its drone assassinations, whereas journalists on the ground find evidence of substantial non-combatant deaths. The killing of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto is not just a tragedy; it reveals the US assassination technique for the world to see.

related video:

TomoNews: “CIA drone strike accidentally kills Al Qaeda hostages Warren Weinstein, Giovanni Lo Porto”

Rand Paul: GOP Hawks are Obama’s “Lapdogs;” McCain: Paul ‘Worst Candidate’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

The philosophical difference between the Libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and the GOP hawks has burst into open name-calling. First, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that Paul had been more wrong than right, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) jumped in, calling him “naive.”

On Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom” on Tuesday, Paul hit back, calling Graham and McCain “Obama’s lapdogs,” who wanted to follow his policies abroad but intensify them:

Sen. Rand Paul Appears on America’s Newsroom on Fox News – April 21, 2015

Paul connected Graham and McCain to the Libya intervention backed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which he called a mistake, and said it had led to the rise of Muslim radicalism in that country. He admitted that he thinks the US needs to intervene against ISIL in Iraq, but said he regretted that ISIL had so many American weapons, which fell into their hands after Graham and McCain voted to invade Iraq, create a new army, and arm it with American weapons.

Paul said he was against bombing the facilities in Syria of President Bashar al-Assad, because that would make ISIL stronger. He also opposes arming Syrian rebels because, apparently, he does not trust them to remain American allies; they could defect to al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIL or ISIS). (It is true that many former moderate Free Syria Army forces have now joined one or the other extremist group).

It has come out that Hillary Clinton was in favor of arming the Syrian rebels early in the Syrian turmoil, but was blocked by President Obama. McCain supported the same policy, though urged it be even more muscular, and wants a full-blown US intervention in Syria to overthrow the al-Assad regime.

McCain and Graham fired back on Wednesday. McCain called Paul “the worst possible candidate” on foreign policy. Graham said Paul’s approach was “one step behind leading from behind.”

What are the rights and wrongs here?

It is true that McCain and Graham haven’t seen a war they wanted to stay out of. They watered at the mouth at the prospect of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, and only regret we couldn’t just permanently colonize them. They supported the Libya intervention but wanted Obama to do more than provide a no-fly zone, going all the way to directly overthrowing dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

In contrast, Obama opposed the Iraq War and was unenthusiastic about the Libya intervention (one leak said he called it a “turd sandwich.”). He basically gave in to Samantha Powers, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton because the National Security Council predicted tens of thousands dead in Benghazi if Gaddafi’s murderous sons were allowed to crush it with their tanks.

So Paul’s characterization of McCain and Graham as “Obama’s lapdogs” is inaccurate. It is true that where Obama has intervened, as with bombing raids on ISIL, those two senators approved and wanted him to do more. But they supported many wars and interventions that Obama opposed or felt lukewarm about.

Paul is also being a little disingenuous, insofar as he approves of the bombing of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, so he is not a consistent anti-interventionist. It is a little difficult to see the difference between bombing Iraq to stop Daesh from taking it over and bombing Libya to stop Gaddafi from winning out.

The really big difference to which he points is that he wants to stay out of Syria even more fervently than Obama does. Whatever Obama says, he hasn’t actually created a credible pro-Western rebel force that could take on the Baath regime in Damascus. He has avoided bombing Baath facilities. His main targets have been Daesh and al-Qaeda. So Paul’s proposed Syria policy looks a lot like Obama’s actual Syria policy. It is true that it is non-interventionist and contrasts with the interventionism of H. Clinton and John McCain.

One take-away is that Rand Paul seems a little bit of a defensive realist insofar as he can live with an al-Assad-ruled Syria, even though al-Assad is by now a war criminal.

Here is a transcript from the appearance at Fox News’ America’s Newsroom :

“HEMMER:… Let’s talk about your campaign because people want to know if you get the nomination how you would govern. Lindsey Graham said this about your world view, “Generally speaking, you have done more wrong than right.” John McCain says, “You don’t understand. You displayed this kind of naivete since you came to the Senate.”

What’s going on there?

PAUL: This comes from a group of people who’ve been wrong about every foreign policy issue over the last two decades. I’ll give you a couple of examples, where they support the President’s foreign policy and I don’t. They supported Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya. They supported President Obama’s bombing of Assad. They also support President Obama’s foreign aid to countries that hate us.

So if there’s anyone who is the most opposed to President Obama’s foreign policy, it’s me. And these people who call loudest to criticize me are great proponents of President Obama’s foreign policy. They just want to do it 10 times over. But I’m the only one actually standing up and saying: the war in Libya was a mistake; the bombing of Assad would make ISIS stronger; the arms to the Islamic rebels would make ISIS stronger.

So I’m really the one standing up to President Obama. And these people are essentially the lap dogs for President Obama and I think they’re sensitive about that.

HEMMER: Well, how would you define yourself? I mean, you’re an inventionist or an isolationist? You will be asked that question repeatedly. And you will say what?

PAUL: Yeah, I’m a Reagan Republican. I believe in a strong national defense. I believe in peace through strength. I think that intervention is not always the answer and that some interventions lead to unintended consequences.

So for example, Hillary’s war in Libya has made Libya less table, more chaotic and has allowed the rise of radical Islam. So we are more at risk after that war. It was a mistake for that war to occur and for the U.S. to be involved with toppling Gadhafi.

Realize that these people who criticize me were for giving arms to Gadhafi last year or the year before, they were for toppling Gadhafi. So they’re on both sides of so many wars. Some of these critics are for bombing both sides of the Syrian war. Their foreign policy is so disjointed, confusing and chaotic that really people need to re-examine those who want to be involved in every war. I say we get involved when there’s American interest. I think we do have to militarily stop ISIS. But I am sad that ISIS got a lot of the weapons from interventionists in my party and the President who gave them the weapons indirectly.

HEMMER: The word I got from New Hampshire over the weekend is that you guys are playing nice. Perhaps not?

PAUL: I’ll play nice, if they’ll place nice. But if they’re going to trot around the country, criticizing me, I’m going to make sure that the American public knows that these are precisely the people that support President Obama’s foreign aid, Libyan war and the Syrian war. And they need to explain themselves.

HEMMER: I know you had a big weekend in New Hampshire and you’re back in Iowa later this week. Senator, we will speak again. Thank you for your time today.

PAUL: Thank you.

HEMMER: You bet. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky.”

Top Ten ways to prove you Love the Earth on Earth Day

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

I was a junior in high school on April 22, 1970, on the first Earth Day, called for by Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wi) (d. 1981). The road leading to our school had been littered with trash, and a group of us went out with black plastic bags and cleaned it up.

Environmentalism meant something different in 1970 than it does now. We were worried about industrial pollution. And trash. The air in Los Angeles, where we lived for a while in the late 1960s, was extremely polluted, so that you couldn’t really go for a jog. I was in Beijing last month, and it now is like L.A. was then.

That the real problem was the carbon dioxide and methane that humanity was releasing into the atmosphere may have been realized by an elite group of climate scientists, it wasn’t widely understood. In the days before computer modeling it wouldn’t have been easy to say conclusively that we were dangerously warming the globe.

Now, it seems to me, that Earth Day has to be above all about stopping the CO2 avalanche and keeping warming to 3.6 degrees F. (2 degrees C.). Or if we can’t do that, we have to try to stop it at 5 degrees F. If we go to a 4 degrees C. increase (7.2 degrees F.), that could be a step too far. The climate could go chaotic, with superstorms, massive sea level rise, drought and desertification in some regions, crop disease, and a die-off of sea life. We could even make it hotter than that if we keep emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And there is the real danger that a warming ocean will release frozen methane clathrates from the seafloor, in a one-two punch that could heat things up really dramatically. This kind of thing has happened before in the geologic record.

Mind you, even a best case scenario of a 3.6 degrees F. rise could still lead to 20 to 40 feet of sea level rise over the next few hundred years, along with more extreme weather, and enormous movement of people (Bangladesh and Egypt, which together have 270 million people, will likely have to find some other place to live– that is like all Americans becoming homeless refugees in, say, Central America.

So how can we keep to “only” a 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit increase? The suggestions below seem to me practical for most people in industrialized societies, and I personally think we can only make headway if we remain practical. We can’t get people to shiver all winter or give up flying entirely, and that wouldn’t even address the problem most vigorously. In fact, just the first two of my suggestions below would address a significant proportion of the problem.

1. We have to give up beef. Growing cattle is extremely carbon intensive .

2. We have to ban coal. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and a third of all carbon emissions come from burning it.

3. If you are a homeowner and you can arrange the finances, put solar panels on your roof. This will greatly reduce your household’s carbon emissions. Over time you will actually make money by doing this, especially if you couple the panels with an electric car or plug-in hybrid. Moreover, studies show that households adopt solar panels when they see neighbors doing so, so you can be a thought leader here with a real impact. Also, Swanson’s law states that every doubling of orders for solar panels leads to a 20% drop in their price. So by just ordering them and putting them up, you’ve helped make them more affordable for others.

4. If you are in a position to do so, try to live near your work.

5. If you can do so, bike to work or use public transport.

6. If you must commute, get an electric car or plug-in hybrid and fuel it from the solar panels on your roof.

7. Use energy-efficient household lights and appliances, and obviously turn things off when not needed.

8. If you are a homeowner, make sure your home is properly insulated. This will save you money and make you more comfortable, as well as reducing carbon footprint. Our suburban home, I was surprised to find when we moved in 20 some years ago, didn’t have insulation in its attic. We put it in, and it made a big difference. A quarter of buildings in the US are still not insulated!

9. Public opinion is hugely important to making these changes. Get informed on climate change– what causes it and what its impacts will be. And then annoy everyone around you by trying to convince them of the urgency of doing something, now. Opinion polling shows that Americans trust friends and family as much as they trust scientists on global warming as a phenomenon. Be that friend or family member who reinforces the overwhelming scientific consensus.

10. Individuals can make a difference by our choices. But the most rapid and biggest advances we can make in reducing carbon emissions come from public policy. Don’t vote for climate denialists even if you like their other positions. Subject them to the ridicule they deserve and discourage your friends and family from voting for them, either. Put people in office who care about the future of the earth and will incentivize reduction of carbon emissions and the development of green technologies.


Related video:

NASA Celebrates Earth Day

Pakistan as Hong Kong West: China’s New Silk Road & US Failure

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit, full of pomp and circumstance, to Pakistan on Monday, but its centerpiece was a $46 billion investment in the country, dwarfing the US Congress’s $7.5 bn. program initiated in 2008. Whereas the US likes to sell useless weapons systems that either rust in warehouses or foment wars like that in Yemen, China’s investment is divided between $11 bn. in infrastructure and $35 bn. in energy.

President Xi underscored that Pakistan had been his country’s friend back in the 1960s when China was isolated on the world stage, and called Pakistan China’s “Iron Brother.” (In the 1960s India and China had had a brief border dispute, and Pakistan and India have had a long term set of struggles over Kashmir, so Pakistan and China allied, in part against India).

But the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is less about India and more about regional development for China and stabilization for Pakistan. The northwestern Xinjiang Province (pop. 22 mn.) has faced marginalization and a small separatist movement by the Uygur Muslim minority, which China sees as stirred up by the US CIA. Some Uygurs went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Beijing has dealt with that separatism in part by settling Han Chinese there in large numbers and in part by crackdowns. But the Communist Party now seems to hope that new forms of economic advance with bring prosperity and tranquillity. Xi said, “Our cooperation in the security and economic fields reinforce each other, and they must be advanced simultaneously.”

China’s enormous northwest is much closer to the Arabian Sea than to the port of Shanghai. It is about 2800 km. from Urumqi (pop. 4 million, the size of Los Angeles inside city limits) to Karachi, but twice as far to Shanghai. China has decided to develop its northwest by turning Pakistan into a sort of Hong Kong West. Hong Kong played, and perhaps still plays an important role as a gateway for certain kinds of foreign investment into China. In the same way, Pakistan can be a window on the world and a conduit for oil and trade into northwestern cities such as Urumqi and the smaller Kashgar (pop. 1 mn.)

New rail lines will be built to Karachi and to the new port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea near Iran. Some will go through Baluchistan, tying that restive province, which has seen a separatist movement, more tightly to Islamabad. For its part, China will be at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and appears to hope for pipelines bringing oil across Pakistan and the Himalayas up to Xinjiang. (In my own view, by the time all those pipelines and deals are done, China will have largely transitioned to electric cars fueled by renewables).

Since last June, Pakistan’s army has somewhat inexplicably turned on its former allies among the Pakistani Taliban with a big aerial bombing campaign (“Zarb-e Azb”) aimed at disrupting the Haqqani and other terrorist networks that had been targeting US troops and the Afghanistan National Army across the border. Haqqani leaders are said to have scattered. China appears to have made a defeat of the Pakistani Taliban insurgency a prerequisite for the CPEC, perhaps because of their links to Uygur fundamentalists. And, obviously, Pakistan can’t be Hong Kong West if it is routinely blown up by Taliban.

China will also build a solar electricity plant (yay!) and a coal plant (boo!) for Pakistan, which suffers from a massive shortfall in electricity. That shortfall is a big brake on economic development, since factories can’t run efficiently if the electricity keeps going out (Pakistanis call these brown-outs “load shedding.”

Because the Chinese plan involves a great deal of transit trade for Pakistan, and because China is wisely attending to energy and infrastructure, the CPEC could have a tremendous impact on the Pakistani economy, which has been lethargic in comparison to India’s in recent years.

That China views its role in Pakistan as that of an agent of vast economic progress likely makes it a more attractive partner for Islamabad than the US. A majority of Washington’s aid (and often a vast majority) has been arms and “security-related” according to the Center for Global Development:

“Between FY2002 and FY2009, only 30 percent of US foreign assistance to Pakistan was appropriated for economic-related needs; the remaining 70 percent was allocated to security-related assistance. In the period since the KLB authorization (FY2010 through the FY2014 budget request), 41 percent of assistance has been allocated for economic-related assistance.” But 100% of the CPEC is development aid and loans, which in turn are aimed at increasing trade and manufacturing. If the $31 bn. the US has spent there since 9/11 had been structured more like the Chinese plan, the US might have won in Pakistan. As it is, it is relinquishing that sphere of influence to China.

Related video:

Reuters: Chinese president to launch economic corridor link in Pakistan

Khamenei: US invented nuclear Myth; Iran will Never Invade another Country

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The clerical leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, gave a speech on Sunday in which he urged that Iran maintain its military readiness in order to fend off any hostile invasion or attack. But, he said, “Iran has never invaded a country and never will.” He also called US charges that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon a “myth” and “propaganda.”

Whatever else is wrong with the Islamic Republic of Iran, you have to admit that it is refreshing for a country’s leader to make such a pledge. No American politician could even run for election on such a platform, of “no conventional military attack on another country.” American politicians are always talking about keeping all options open or ‘on the table’, by which they mean that Washington might at any moment take it into its head suddenly to go to aggressive war against another country, even though that country had not attacked the US. The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was only the most recent and dramatic such attack.

Iran has a small military budget, about $10 bn., on the order of that of Norway or Singapore. It has no air force to speak of. The US military budget is roughly 80 times that of Iran.

Khamenei said that Iran has a no first strike policy and is no danger to its immediate neighbors (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, and Kuwait), much less to countries further away (he may be referring to Israel and Yemen).

What about Khamenei’s claim that Iran hasn’t invaded another country? He probably meant the the Islamic Republic has launched no wars of aggression since its founding in 1979. This is true. In 1980 Iraq invaded Iran. Iran fought the invaders to a standstill and ultimately made peace, making no effort to occupy Iraqi territory.

Iran did invade Herat in Afghanistan in the 1850s, but Iranians argue that Herat had long been part of the Iranian empire and so Iran was just recovering what was theirs. Before that, Iran invaded Iraq in 1785 and took Basra. So it has been a long time.

Critics of Iran will complain that it does support Hizbullah and the al-Assad regime in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. This is true, though the latter has been exaggerated. But offering an ally strategic advice or logistical help on demand is different from invading with tanks.

Those who only read the US press on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program may be surprised to see Khamenei deny that Iran wants a nuclear bomb. But he has been saying this all along. He said in 2006 of US criticisms of his country:

“Their other issue is [their assertion] that Iran seeks [a] nuclear bomb. It is an irrelevant and wrong statement, it is a sheer lie. We do not need a nuclear bomb. We do not have any objectives or aspirations for which we will need to use a nuclear bomb. We consider using nuclear weapons against Islamic rules. We have announced this openly. We think imposing the costs of building and maintaining nuclear weapons on our nation is unnecessary. Building such weapons and their maintenance are costly. By no means we deem it right to impose these costs on the people. We do not need those weapons. Unlike the Americans who want to rule the world with force, we do not claim to control the world and therefore do not need a nuclear bomb.”

Khamenei has repeated this stance numerous times, but the US media can’t seem to hear him say it. He considers nuclear bombs to be against Islamic law, since they kill large numbers of innocent non-combatants, including women and children, when deployed. Of course, he could be lying. But that is sort of like the Pope maintaining a condom factory in the basement of the Vatican. You have to ask yourself, why ban something religiously that you intend to promote in actuality? If the contradiction became known, it would damage the religious leader’s credibility.

According to the BBC Monitoring translation of , Khamenei said:

“Iran not “a threat” to any country

The Islamic Republic is not a threat to any country. We have never been a threat even to our neighbours, let alone to distant countries. Our contemporary history clearly shows this. Even when some of our neighbours treated us not in a neighbourly manner, we showed restraint. Iran has never invaded a country and never will. The fake myth of nuclear weapons has been devised by America and then Europe and some other bootlickers in order to portray the Islamic Republic as a threat.”

Khamenei went on to point out that it is the USA that has illegally launched wars of aggression in the Middle East, along with Israel. Iran, he said, never has.

I think he was pointing to Iraq when he said, “Even in some cases it has graciously forgiven the bad attitude of its neighbours. Insecurity is coming from the direction of unleashed powers which take over everywhere.”

As for Yemen, while Iran stands accused of giving military aid to the rebel Houthi movement, that charge is not easy to prove. It seems unlikely that the Houthis needed Iran to launch their protest movement. It is Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the USA, who have launched an attack on the Houthis even though they did not attack Saudi Arabia. Khamenei in his speech said that Iran is merely helping countries that have been attacked.

Today, these heartbreaking events are happening in Yemen and the Americans support the tyrant. The West supports the tyrant. Insecurity is coming from their direction. It is them who make countries unsafe, and make the environment insecure for people to live in. It is them who bring insecurity. The Islamic Republic of Iran considers security as the biggest divine gift both for itself and others and stands up for its security and defends it.”

h/t to BBC Monitoring for translations.

Related video:

Wochit News: “Khamenei Says Iran Nuclear Weapons are a U.S. ‘myth'”

As US Consulate in Irbil. Iraq, is Bombed, can US still do Diplomacy in ME?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

A bombing that killed 3 people and wounded 10 on Saturday outside the US consulate in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, raises an important question about the US diplomatic presence in the eastern reaches of the Middle East. Is it still possible for diplomats to do their work this way?

The US is bombing positions of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria daily, and it is not surprising that the organization (which claimed the Irbil attack) should attempt to strike back.

Security for US embassies and consulates is largely the responsibility of the host country, which is a scary fact in places where the state has failed. There are a few US military troops guarding these facilities, and the ones in Irbil spotted the approach of the car bomb as it approached and fired on it, detonating it prematurely before it could reach the consulate gates. Thus, there were no American casualties or damage to the consulate. Two of the bystanders killed were Turkish nationals. Security is on the whole good in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, but Daesh has targeted the city and even mobilized ground troops against it last summer before US air strikes and Peshmerga Kurdish fighters pushed them back.

Last summer, Daesh tried to attack the US embassy itself. The US has an enormous embassy complex in Baghdad, protected behind the blast walls of the Green Zone. But contrary to original plans, it has been vastly scaled back, and only about 1,000 US personnel are there. Diplomats from the State Department are probably a fraction of this staff. Embassy personnel seldom are able to venture out into Baghdad. Much Iraqi government business in Baghdad is still done inside the Green Zone, but being stuck behind the blast walls of the security area interferes with the embassy’s outreach. I visited the embassy in May of 2012 and it was like entering a different world (my hotel was in an ordinary part of the city, not behind those walls, and the ministry of culture kindly ferried us around in minibuses; I had a sense I’d seen much more of the city than had the brave and clearly frustrated embassy staff.)

There are also to be 3,000 US military personnel in Iraq as trainers and advisers to the Iraqi army, which has collapsed. Contrary to what I and others had assumed, these troops are staying on Iraqi military bases and don’t seem to be going out embedded in Iraqi army or Peshmerga units. Still, given that thousands of Iraqi troops just ran away from Mosul last June, letting Daesh have the second largest city in the country, you have to wonder how secure those Iraqi military bases are.

On several occasions in recent years embassy personnel, from Beirut to Tunis, have complained to me when I visited the Middle East that the restrictions they now face on their movements interfere in their doing their jobs as diplomats.

This have been made worse by the politicization of consulate security by Congress and the Benghazi witch hunt. It used to be that politics stopped at the US border. But now the Obama administration has every reason politically to err on the side of caution, and to restrict diplomats or close embassies and consulates so as to avoid all the hearings that would come with another attack on them.

The collapse of armies and of governments in a wide swathe of the Middle East has left the US entirely without embassies in Syria, Yemen or Libya. The staff in Tunis has been reduced to a skeleton crew and families have been sent home. This, at a time when Tunisia is among the few political success stories, so far, in the region and would benefit from more US civilian aid and exchanges. Elsewhere, as in Beirut or Cairo, the embassy is virtually an armed camp, rather than being a window on American for locals or a place from which US diplomats can get to know local society. There is some question whether US diplomacy is even possible in much of the region.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “lamic State claims car bomb at U.S. Consulate in Erbil”

Iraq: Why it doesn’t Matter if Ezzat al-Douri was Killed

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The currently partly unemployed Iraqi governor of Salahuddin Province, displaced from much of his territory by Daesh (ISIS or ISIL), maintains that former Baath vice president of Iraq under Saddan Hussain, Ezzat al-Douri, has been killed by Shiite militias in a firefight north of Tikrit in the Hamrin mountains. The body has been delivered to the US embassy in Baghdad for a DNA test. Al-Douri was one of those wanted officials featured in George W. Bush’s stack of playing cards. The Baath Party of Iraq has denied the reports of his death.

Al-Douri is significant because he was one of the first high Baath officials to turn to a religious group as a power base. This strategy became common after the 2003 US invasion, but al-Douri did it in the late 1990s. The Baath Party had been founded by Christians and was militantly secular, often persecuting religious groups and parties.

Al-Douri, however, became a patron of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Mosul, northern Iraq. Sunnis in Iraq at that time were still largely traditionalists, and Sufism was part of their tradition. Sufis emphasize mystical experience and are often dismissive of dry legalism (Christians might hear echoes of St. Paul and thinkers like Meister Eckhart). They meet on Thursday (and other) evenings for group chanting, and see God as a divine beloved. Their sensibilities are very different from the Wahhabi-influenced Salafi brand of Sunni Islam, which highlight strict adherence to its conception of Muslim religious law

The “Men of the Naqshbandi” emerged as one of the more effective guerrilla fighters against US and Iraqi Shiite troops in northern Iraq. Al-Douri was said to be behind them, a shadowy figure directing their insurgency. Still, there were some fifty major insurgency cells in northern and western Iraq during the past 12 years, and the Naqshbandis were only one. Some were secular, as most Sunni Arabs in Iraq had a secular mindset. Note that the Naqshbandi order in Turkey, Central Asia and Pakistan and India is not typically militant and that this Iraqi branch only turned to guerrilla activity because of American colonialism.

last spring, the Naqshbandis in Mosul were one of the groups that decided to ally with Daesh or ISIL to throw out the Shiite army. Daesh took advantage of the alliance to arrest leading Naqshbandi figures and ex-Baathist ones, stabbing their new allies in the back. (Daesh is an offshoot of Salafism and hates Sufis under ordinary circumstance).

The US military has a cult of ‘decapitating’ insurgent organizations. But this strategy manifestly has not worked against the Taliban or in Iraq. In part, some of these organizations are led by clans as republics of cousins, and when one leader is killed, his cousin just steps in. In part, they are based on religious ties. Jenna Jordan found that in only 5 percent of her 300 cases of insurgency was a decapitation strategy successful against a religious group. Religious charisma seems to be easily transferable.

So, it probably just doesn’t matter that much if al-Douri was killed (his death has been reported many times in the past). He was old in his 70s, and likely not very vigorous any more. And his earlier successes as an insurgent have turned bitter since his foolish decision to ally with Daesh went bad and the latter displaced him.

One conclusion we can draw is that by destroying the Baath government of Iraq, the Bush administration created a vacuum of power and culture that religious forms of resistance filled. Iraqi Sunnis were among the more secular people in the Middle East. It is desperation that drove them to religious revolt. One man’s death won’t make any difference in that process.


Related video:

Euronews: “Izzat al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man, ‘killed in shoot-out'”

Juan Cole: Syria, Yemen Conflicts only seem to be about Sunni-Shiite from 30,000 Feet

David Speedie | (Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs) | –

David Speedie of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs interviewed me in New York on Monday. Below is an excerpt of the transcript, but the whole thing is at their web site. Also below is the video of the interview.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Juan, you have written so prolifically and so expertly on a range of interconnected topics. We have put up here “The Crisis of Europe’s Muslims” [as the title of the talk]. I do want to cover that in our opening 20 or 25 minutes before we go to the audience. But I also want to perhaps to start with the question of schisms within the Muslim world, which are, I think, imperfectly understood by an American audience, and especially with reference to the recent agreed framework with Iran and the P5 + 1 on April 2.

You wrote recently a thought-provokingly titled article, “Can the Arab World Live with the Iran Nuclear Deal?” I throw the question back to you in welcoming you. Can the Arab world live with the Iran nuclear deal?

JUAN COLE: I think the answer is that some parts of it can live with that deal very handily; others have some problems with it. When we think of the Arab world in the United States, we tend to think of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, the Gulf oil monarchies, who are often neighbors of Iran or just across the Gulf from them, and who have been more cautious—sometimes vocal—in being critical of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. But if you take the 22 states of the Arab League, it becomes clear that the Arab world is quite divided on these issues.

First of all—we don’t think of it this way—there are several countries in the Arab world that are allied with Iran. This is true of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, all of whom expressed delight at the program. I figure you are talking about on the order of 60 million people in the Arab world right there. Then the independent nationalist Arab states, ones who are not close to Saudi Arabia—sometimes they have a leftist Arab nationalist background—Algeria, for example, was optimistic, as was Tunisia, the only of the Arab Spring states that has had a relatively successful democratic transition.

If one means, “Can Saudi Arabia live with this deal?”—that is a very different question than the Arab world in general.

So I think the attitudes are quite diverse, even within the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the major members of the six is Oman, which has played a role in mediating between the United States and Iran, and which expressed itself very positively about this deal.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, some others issued communiqués saying that they welcomed that there was this framework and they are hopeful where it would go and so forth. They are obviously hedging their bets. But in the region in general—I think what Tunisia said was that any framework that allows for peace rather than war would be a great good thing for the Middle East.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Iran, of course, is the major Shia Muslim state in the extended region. Again, in terms of imperfect awareness of what exactly is going on, when one looks at what is happening in Yemen and with ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] and so on, there is this sense that we are in some sort of existential struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam—Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the one hand and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Sunni coalition, on the other.

I think you have a somewhat more nuanced and qualified view of that as a defining theory.

JUAN COLE: I agree that from 30,000 feet, it looks as though Iran has put together a bloc of countries with significant Shiite populations and is using the Shiite form of Islam as a kind of soft-power wedge to establish a kind of bloc. But if you go down on the ground, then that way of looking at it becomes difficult to maintain.

Syria, for example, where Iran is supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, is a Baathist state, which is irreligious. They actually persecuted religion. It is true that the upper echelons of the Baath Party in Syria are staffed by members of the Alawite minority, who are technically—at least scholars would consider them a form of Shiite Islam. But Alawite Islam is barely Islam. They don’t have mosques. They don’t pray five times a day. They have Neoplatonic and Gnostic philosophies coming from the pre-Islamic Greek world. There is a kind of mythology there that is very important in their thinking.

I went to Antakya one time, which is an Alawite city, and I asked someone—I was eager to meet an Alawite—I asked someone local, “Are you an Alawite?” He said, “No. Praise be to God, I’m a Muslim.”

The idea that Iran is supporting Syria because orthodox Twelver Shiite Islam feels any kind of kinship with the Alawites is crazy. The ayatollahs would issue fatwas of excommunication and heresy and so forth against Alawites.

Then the Alawites are only one part of a coalition of Syrians that involves Christians, Druze, and very substantial numbers of Sunnis. The regime still has about two-thirds of the country, which it cannot have unless a large number of Sunnis in Damascus continue to support it, because the business class has benefited from that regime and so forth.

So, yes, Iran is supporting the Alawites of Syria, but you have to have an extremely narrow lens to make this look as though it’s about Shias.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The other, perhaps even more contemporary context in which this being played out in the minds of some Western commentators, of course, is in Yemen, which is a very, very perilous situation, it seems to many of us. Obviously, al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for many terror attacks, including Charlie Hebdo at one point. It is regarded as one of the most virulent and violent of the extremist movements. They, of course, are extremist Sunni. Then this dichotomy, Shia-Sunni, comes into play with, “Oh, Iran is supporting”—now, I read somewhere that they should not technically to be called Houthi, but Ansarullah, the Shia insurgent forces in Yemen.

What’s going on there? What should our response be, for example, to the Saudi-led military action? Is this offering comfort and succor to the extremist elements in Yemen? Or is that again too simplistic?

JUAN COLE: In my own view, Yemen is, of course, a complete mess. It is an ecological mess above all. It is running out of water. The capital may go dry within five years. We can expect vast displacement of people just on, surely, ecological grounds. For it to be bombed is the last thing that it needed. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.

The United States has joined in this effort and is giving logistical support, it says, to the Saudis and others who are engaged in this bombing campaign. The bombing campaign is being conducted against a grassroots tribal movement and seems very unsuited to produce a military victory of any sort. I think it can succeed in knocking out electricity and making it difficult to distribute petroleum and, again, making people’s lives miserable. I’m not sure it can succeed in changing the politics simply by bombing from a distance.

I really think the United States is poorly advised to get involved in this thing. I don’t think that the lines are at all clear. The Houthi movement is named for the family that led it. Of course, it is not what it calls itself. (The Quakers don’t call themselves that either. It’s the Society of Friends. People don’t get to choose.) But they have become known as the Houthis.

They are a movement of the Zaidi Shiite community in Northern Yemen. The Zaidis are known as a form of Shi’ism, again, very unlike what is in Iran and Iraq what is in Iran and Iraq, what Americans are more used to, as being quite close to the Sunnis. They don’t, for instance, curse the Sunni caliphs. They don’t have that kind of animosity towards Sunnism. And they don’t have ayatollahs. They shade over at some level into Sunnism. They are not that different. People in Yemen, anyway, make alliances by clan and tribe, and not so much by which sect the clan or tribe belongs to. There are substantial Sunni tribes that are allied with the Houthis.

Seeing this as Shiite or Iran—maybe it looks like that from a very great distance, but down on the ground, it is a real exaggeration.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, it is superficial to see this as strictly a religious divide. Many of the tribal entities are probably not that religious at all.

JUAN COLE: Many of the tribal entities are not religious at all, and then the ones that are can be united. For instance, most Sunnis in Yemen, in North Yemen at least, are Shafi’i Sunnis, who differ dramatically with the Sunni Wahabi branch of Islam and might well make common cause with Zaidis against the Wahabis.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you for clearing this up. [Laughter] It obviously is a fraught and complex thing.

Let’s move to Europe, if we may, just a couple of questions there. On Europe, specifically in France, you use a very interesting term, a phenomenon you called “sharpening the contradictions,” saying that attacks such as Charlie Hebdo—and presumably, later the incident in Belgium and then in Copenhagen—are actually contrived by al-Qaeda to create a backlash that will bring politically unengaged Muslims into the fold. Explain that a little bit.

JUAN COLE: I see evidence of al-Qaeda thinkers, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was the number-two man for a long time, before bin Laden was killed, being influenced by Marxist thought, and radical Marxism. This is very clear in the technical terms that the Muslim far-right uses. They talk about a vanguard. This was a Leninist term. In some radical forms of Marxism, activists were impatient with the working class, which seemed not to want to fulfill its historical duty by rising up against the business classes, and so it engaged in sabotage—not everywhere all the time, but there were some groups that did that kind of thing in hopes of provoking a class war, because they knew the business classes would call upon their agents, the police, to crack down hard on sabotage and workers’ activism and so forth.

I think that al-Qaeda picked up this kind of thinking from the Marxist fringe in places like Egypt and so forth. I think that it is a deliberate strategy on their part, the sharpening of contradictions, or the heightening of contradictions, as it’s called. I think it explains everything that happened in Iraq.

I remember reading a New York Times piece in 2005 or so that al-Qaeda in Iraq had blown up a pet shop. There were pieces of rabbits and snakes wiggling on the ground. This author in The New York Times expressed himself with amazement. He said, “We should get out of Iraq now, because we can’t understand why you would do that. And if you don’t understand what your enemy is doing, then you should not be there.”

I understood exactly what they were doing. They were hitting soft targets. They were hitting businesses. It was a Shiite-owned pet shop. What they were trying to do was to get the Shiites’ goat in Iraq. They were trying to provoke a civil war, because they hoped that the Shiite clans who were being hit would go and attack Sunnis, and if they went and attacked the Sunnis, then al-Qaeda could go to the Sunnis and say, “Gee, you seem to be being attacked. We could protect you.”

So by provoking attacks on their own community, they actually could parlay that into power.

At the time, I was skeptical that they could succeed in this, but you come to last June, and they took over Mosul, the second-largest city in the country, in exactly this way—by continually provoking the Shia, getting reprisals going, and then going to the Sunnis against whom the reprisals were waged and saying, “You need protection.” By that time, the Mosulites said, “Yes, we do. Would you please come in,” even though Mosulites are cosmopolitan, secular-minded people. But they were willing to bring in this radical fundamentalist group just because they were tired of being targeted by the Shiite government.

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Iraq: ISIL surrounds 300 Sunni families, Closes in on Ramadi

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Al-Khaleej (The Gulf) reports that Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) has taken new territory in the western Al-Anbar Province of Iraq and may be on the verge of taking the provincial capital, Ramadi, a week after they were decisively defeated in Tikrit in the south of Salahuddin Province. They were also pushed back from the refinery city of Beiji near Tikrit, though Iraqi authorities revealed that Daesh had slaughtered 300 members of tribes there in the past few days. Daesh killed embers of the Albu Mahall, al-Karabilah, al-Salman, Albu `Ubayd, and al-Rawiyyin tribes. Government forces received close air support from the US Air Force. But despite the success of Iraqi troops and their Shiite militia auxiliaries in Salahuddin north of Baghdad, government forces are facing setbacks to the west of the capital.

Daesh has taken al-Sufiya entirely, chasing the Iraqi army from the district. It continued to hold most of Albu Ghanim and has surrounded hundreds of families there. It has long had a toehold in western neighborhoods of Ramadi, the provincial capital of al-Anbar, and seems to be making a successful push toward the center of the town.

A member of parliament from the province, Adil Khamis al-Mahallawi, called Daesh the “Kharijites of this age,” referring to an early Islamic heretical group, more extreme members of which insisted on undeviating adherence to their understanding of Islam and excommunicated and killed those who differed with them.

He said Daesh had also killed dozens of non-combatants in the district of Albu Ghanim northeast of Ramadi.

The deputy speaker of the al-Anbar provincial legislature, Falih al-Isawi, said, “The situation in the city of Ramadi is turbulent and completely bad. The entire province of al-Anbar is a inch away from being dominated by Daesh.” He also warned that Ramadi is headed for collapse.

Another member of al-Anbar’s provincial legislature, Arkan Khalaf al-Tarmuz, said that Daesh had succeeded in dominating the district of Albu Ghanim east of Ramadi, and had surrounded hundreds of families in the district. He explained that it had happened because the Sunni tribal levies of the area lack weaponry and had seen their stockpiles dwindle. They only have one security station. Likewise, the Popular Mobilization Forces, i.e. Shiite militias, had withdrawn from the area (perhaps to go fight in Tikrit and Beiji?) Al-Anbar is mostly Sunni Arab.

An official in Iraq’s security agency said that there was fierce fighting between Daesh and Iraq security forces, who are supported by tribal levies, in eastern Ramadi

Related video:

Euronews: “ISIL gains ground in western Iraq, raising fears for Baghdad ”

Iran: Putin Explains to Israel’s Netanyahu: Air Defense System is, like, Defensive

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Tuesday with regard to the Russian Federation’s decision to go ahead with the sale to Iran of S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.

Iran bought the batteries several years ago, but delivery was delayed by Moscow because of US and international pressure. The US has led the imposition of severe economic sanctions on Iran, perhaps the most severe ever applied to any country in modern history, including having Iran kicked off the SWIFT bank exchange.

In deference to US wishes, Russia did not ship the system.

Two things have now changed. First, Russia and the US are not getting along nearly as well in the wake of the Russian annexation (or reclaiming, from Moscow’s point of view) of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for ethnically Russian fighters in Ukraine’s east. In fact, the US has begun imposing sanctions on Russia. In turn, Russia no longer has great regard for US wishes.

Second, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have concluded a framework agreement permitting Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, which is aimed at imposing inspections and equipment restrictions that would make it very difficult if not impossible for Iran to break out and create a nuclear weapon. Russia and China have been the least supportive of severe sanctions on Iran, and Russia appears to have decided that since the negotiations have reached a serious phase, it is time to go ahead with this deal, concluded some time ago.

The announcement alarmed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose government has often hinted around that it might bomb Iran.

The Putin government issued a communique that “gave a detailed explanation of the logic behind Russia’s decision…emphasizing the fact that the tactical and technical specifications of the S-300 system make it a purely defensive weapon; therefore, it would not pose any threat to the security of Israel or other countries in the Middle East.

The full implications of the sale are difficult to anticipate because there are several kinds of S-300 systems and we don’t know which exactly is the one that Iran will get.

But it certainly is the case that S-300s are not offensive weapons and they could not be used to launch a war of aggression.

Why, then, would Netanyahu be so upset about the deal going through? Because he wants to keep an Israeli bombing run on the table.

The S-300s would make it much harder for Israel to initiate an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack on enrichment facilities in Natanz would be horrible in any case, releasing redioactive material into the atmosphere and killing or sickening tens of thousands in Isfahan.

This exchange points to the future and underscores the ways that, once Iran is talking to the West, it becomes difficult for any of the players to simply lash out.

Related video:

Wochit News: “Israel’s Netanyahu Protests Russian Plans to Sell Advanced Missiles To Iran ”