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U.S. Billions Spent in Training Foreign Forces Produce Little

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Eric Schmidt and Tim Arango report in the NY Times:

With alarming frequency in recent years, thousands of American-trained security forces in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia have collapsed, stalled or defected, calling into question the effectiveness of the tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States on foreign military training programs, as well as a central tenet of the Obama administration’s approach to combating insurgencies.

The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries that present the administration with some of its biggest challenges. The Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the heartland of the Islamic State militant group, have barely engaged its forces, while several thousand American-backed government forces and militiamen in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province were forced to retreat last week when attacked by several hundred Taliban fighters. And in Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers. [A U.S. general estimated that five (5) soldiers have been trained: $100 million per soldier. – LG]

American-trained forces face different problems in each place, some of which are out of the United States’ control. But what many of them have in common, American military and counterterrorism officials say, is poor leadership, a lack of will and the need to function in the face of intractable political problems with little support. Without their American advisers, many local forces have repeatedly shown an inability to fight.

“Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a former military commander and United States ambassador in Afghanistan.

The American military has trained soldiers in scores of countries for decades. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that mission jumped in ambition and scale, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the ultimate goal was to replace the large American armies deployed there.

The push to rebuild the Iraqi Army that the United States disbanded after the 2003 invasion had largely succeeded by the time American troops withdrew eight years later. But that $25 billion effort quickly crumbled after the Americans left, when the politicization of the army leadership under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki eroded the military’s effectiveness at all levels, American officials said.

In Afghanistan, basic training typically included marksmanship, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills. Before they could begin that, most new Afghan recruits also needed time-consuming literacy training so they could read the serial numbers on their weapons, or lessons on proper hygiene to prevent illnesses that would reduce their effectiveness in combat. Still, there were notable successes: Afghan special forces trained and advised by their American counterparts proved to be especially capable fighters.

Then, in a commencement speech at West Point in May 2014, President Obama put the training of foreign troops at the center of his strategy for combating militant groups that threaten American interests. The United States, he said, will no longer send large armies to fight those wars and, in the case of Afghanistan, would continue to withdraw the forces that are there. Instead, it will send small numbers of military trainers and advisers to help local forces, providing them with logistical, intelligence and other support.

“We have to develop a strategy,” Mr. Obama said, “that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments. We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us.”

Expensive Failures

Mr. Obama’s approach has already endured several setbacks, but with no political appetite among most Republicans or Democrats to send in large numbers of American troops, the administration is adjusting its strategy, often turning to regional allies for help in supporting local forces.

In northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million to combat Islamist militancy, with training programs stretching from Morocco to Chad. American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner. But in 2012, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya to rout the military, including units trained by United States Special Forces. That defeat, followed by a coup led by an American-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, astounded and embarrassed American commanders. French, United Nations and European Union forces now carry out training and security missions in Mali.

In Yemen, American-trained troops and counterterrorism forces largely disbanded when Houthi rebels overran the capital last year and forced the government into exile. The United States is now relying largely on a Saudi-led air campaign that has caused more than 1,000 civilian casualties.

More recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the military campaigns against the Taliban and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have made little headway. After acknowledging that only four or five American-trained Syrian rebels were actually in the fight there, Pentagon officials said last week that they were suspending the movement of new recruits from Syria to Turkey and Jordan for training. The program suffered from a shortage of recruits willing to fight the Islamic State instead of the army of President Bashar al-Assad, a problem Mr. Obama noted at a news conference on Friday.

“I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to,” he said. “A part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL, the response we get back is, ‘How can we focus on ISIL when, every single day, we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the regime?’ ”

In Afghanistan, the United States has spent about $65 billion to build the army and police forces. Even before last week’s setback in Kunduz, many Afghan forces were struggling to defeat the Taliban, partly because of what many senior commanders said had been a precipitous American drawdown before Afghans were ready to be on their own. But how thousands of Afghan Army, police and militia defenders could fare so poorly against a Taliban force that most local and military officials put only in the hundreds baffled and frustrated the Pentagon. . .

Continue reading.

I wonder whether the Administration and Congress can learn from this experience, which is a startling record of abject failure.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 October 2015 at 10:20 am

Terrorism is bad, whether by Israelis or Palestinians

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Assaf Sharon reviews two books on Jewish terrorism in the NY Review of Books:

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917–1947
by Bruce Hoffman
Knopf, 618 pp., $35.00

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land—A True Detective Story
by Patrick Bishop
Harper, 299 pp., $26.99

In the early morning hours of July 31 this summer masked men torched two houses in the West Bank village of Duma. One of the houses was empty. In the other, the Dawabsheh family lay sleeping. Saad, his wife Riham, and their four-year-old son Ahmad were severely injured as flames spread through their bedroom. Eighteen-month-old Ali burned to death, and Saad died a week later of his wounds. A year ago three Jewish extremists kidnapped sixteen- year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir outside his East Jerusalem home. They drove him to a forest where, after beating him, they poured gasoline over his head and burned him alive.

Execution by fire has always been about more than just killing. It carries a message. The masked men who threw the Molotov cocktail into the Dawabshehs’ bedroom made their message explicit, leaving graffiti of a Star of David with NEKAMA! (Hebrew for revenge) sprayed on the wall.

This brand of Jewish terrorism is not new. In 2002 a clandestine group of Jewish settlers attempted to blow up a Palestinian girls’ school. In 1994 an American-born Jewish settler gunned down twenty-nine Palestinians while they were praying in Hebron. A decade earlier a number of loosely connected underground cells carried out terrorist attacks against Palestinian targets, including the Islamic college in Hebron, public buses, and West Bank mayors.

The roots of contemporary Jewish terrorism lie in the radical movements and individuals who roamed Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. Two new books, Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers and Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning, explore these roots.


While I was in Jerusalem I heard nine bomb explosions not far from my hotel. The immigration offices of the Palestine Mandate at Haifa and Tel Aviv were blown up, and two Palestine policemen were murdered. There are three extremist groups, all illegal military organisations. They have Fascist manners and Fascist uniforms, and are storm troopers.

This is how a Reader’s Digest reporter, Frederick Painton, described his encounter with Jewish terrorism early in 1944. (1) The bombings Painton heard were the opening shot of the revolt against the British Mandate announced on February 1 by the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization, also known by its Hebrew acronym, Etzel). Eleven days later members of the Irgun, under the direction of their recently appointed leader, Menachem Begin, bombed British immigration offices in Palestine’s main cities.

Begin, who had emigrated from Poland in 1942, belonged to the Revisionist faction of the Zionist movement, formed by Vladimir Jabotinsky. Its aim was to revise the Zionist Labor movement’s “practical Zionism,” which was primarily concerned with building national institutions and cultivating a Jewish society in Palestine. “Jabotinsky’s grand ‘Revisionist’ Zionism put the Jewish state first,” Avishai Margalit recently wrote in these pages, “and worried about the society later. The Jewish state was to be achieved by aggressive diplomacy and military might.” (2) On one fundamental issue, Jabotinsky agreed with his Labor Zionist rivals: Zionism’s goals were to be achieved through alliance with the British Empire. Correctly predicting that the Ottomans would be defeated in World War I, Jabotinsky organized five battalions of Jewish volunteers to fight with the British. He hoped this would bolster the Zionist case after the war and create the foundation for a Jewish defense force.

Both hopes would be frustrated. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 September 2015 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Books, Mideast Conflict

What If Barack and Bibi Are Both Right?

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James Fallows continues his interesting series on the Iran Deal:

Robert Hunter, a former ambassador and longtime foreign-policy eminence, has written that the Iran debate has reached the familiar “cairn-building” stage. That’s the stage in which each side adds a new rock—of argument, endorsement, rebuttal—to the piled-up cairn it has created. “The merits of the arguments are politically meaningless,” Hunter says. “The side with the highest pile of stones wins!” But as he goes on to say, these piles themselves also become meaningless. All that matters is what actually weighs on the senators and representatives who will cast up or down votes.

Recognizing that the cairn-building is reaching its useful end, and while taking a break from my article-writing duties of the moment, let me introduce three more reader messages on Iran. All bear on an aspect of the debate I’ve mentioned before but keep coming back to.

That aspect is: What lies behind the “existential” complaints?

Of course, the front-and-center reason for Israel’s existential fear of a nuclear- armed Iran is obvious. As The Atlantic’s own Jeffrey Goldberg wrote recently, “My position on this is simple: If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them.” This has been the consistent theme of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s speeches as well, and its emotional and psychological logic is undeniable.

But the strategic logic of the concern is more puzzling. No one doubts (although no officials can publicly say) that Israel has a large nuclear-retaliatory force, including on submarines. Thus any leader in Iran knows that an attack on Israel would with 100-percent certainty mean devastation for Iran as well (as Thomas Friedman went into on Wednesday). So to think that Iran might actually try to “wipe Israel off the map” requires assuming either that its leadership is literally suicidal, or that, like the Nazis in Germany, Iranian leaders are so bent on destruction that nothing other than brute force can hold them back.

The problem with the suicidal martyr-state assumption is that never in its 36-plus years in office has the Iranian leadership taken a move that rashly jeopardized its own well-being or hold on power. Iran’s leadership has been theocratic but not psychopathic. A serious problem for the United States, Israel, and others: yes. A Reich-like monster-state: no. Under its Islamic leaders, Iran has been at war once—a war that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq started when it invaded Iran in 1980. So the “existential” argument would be stronger were there any evidence of Iran’s leaders ever taking suicidal risks.

As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, last week Peter Beinart carefully laid out the reasons that modern Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In every other strategic, political, and military dimension they are completely different.

I am sure that officials in Israel’s security and military services realize this. Perhaps even Netanyahu does as well. So what lies behind the over-the-top claims?

That is what these posts address. The first is from Samuel J. Cohen, who was born in the United States and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies but has lived in Israel since 1977. For 20 years he was a trade negotiator for the Israeli government. He argues that the U.S. government under Obama and the Israeli government under Netanyahu may both be sanely pursuing their national interests, but that these interests may be diverging. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2015 at 2:23 pm

2016 and the Fable of the Surge

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Very interesting post by Kevin Drum, and I think he’s right on how fables—false accounts—take hold and shape our perceptions.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2015 at 6:19 pm

Israeli adopts forced-feeding torture in order keep Palestinians imprisoned indefinitely without charge

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A very ugly scene: Israeli locks up people indefinitely with no charges filed, and if they go on hunger strike in protest, Israel will adopt forced-feeding despite medical personnel stating that this is torture. Israel justifies the torture by pointing out that the US has adopted torture, including forced-feeding, which the US continues to do at Guantánamo. The US: an exemplar of the acceptability of torture—not to mention imprisoning people without charge: cf. the 16-year-old boy locked up in solitary at Riker’s Island for three years, and finally simply released without going to trial. (The boy later committed suicide.)

Joel Greenberg reports for McClatchy:

Israel’s parliament passed a controversial law Thursday authorizing the force-feeding of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, drawing swift condemnation from the country’s medical association, which called the practice torture.

The government-backed bill was introduced in response to cases in which Palestinian prisoners have gone on prolonged hunger strikes to protest jail conditions and their detention without trial, sometimes winning early release.

The legislation, passed 46-40 in the 120-member Knesset, authorizes a district court judge to approve force-feeding of a prisoner who in the opinion of a doctor is in imminent danger of death or severe and irreversible disability.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year cited force-feeding at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp to bolster the government’s case for the practice, in which liquid nourishment is pumped in tubes run through prisoners’ noses into their stomachs.

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who sponsored the bill, said after it passed that “hunger strikes by imprisoned terrorists have become a tool for attempts to pressure the state of Israel.”

“We must not reach a situation in which a prisoner who poses a public threat will be freed because the state did not have the ability to save him from death and is compelled to release him,” Erdan said.

Khader Adnan, a Palestinian prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for 55 days to protest his detention without charges, was released this month by the Israeli authorities because of fears that his possible death could trigger widespread unrest.

Israel holds more than 5,600 Palestinians in its jails, 391 of them without charges or trial, according to the Israel Prison Service.

Dr. Leonid Eideleman, chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, called passage of the force-feeding bill “a black day in the annals of Israeli legislation.” He said his group would instruct doctors not to cooperate with the procedure.

“Force-feeding is torture, doctors must not participate in torture, and Israeli doctors will not participate in torture,” Eidelman said, adding that his group would challenge the law in the Israeli Supreme Court. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2015 at 7:15 pm

WSJ’s Bret Stephens Secretly Plot With “Pro-Israel” Evangelical Group Against Iran Deal

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Glenn Greenwald reports in The Intercept:

The fanatical Israel-devoted group Christians United for Israel, which calls itself “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States with over two million members,” yesterday held an off-the-record call to formulate strategies for defeating the pending nuclear deal with Iran. The star of the show was The Wall Street Journal‘s long-time foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, who spoke for roughly 30 minutes. A recording of this call was provided to The Intercept and is posted here.

Stephens, who previously served as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004 (where he anointed Paul Wolfowitz “Man of the (Jewish) Year”), is essentially a standard-issue neocon and warmonger, which is why his mentality is worth hearing. He begins the strategy call with an attempt to sound rational and sober, but becomes increasingly unhinged and hysterical as he progresses. Here, for instance, is Stephens’ message that he believes should be delivered to wavering members of Congress:

Someone should say, “this is going to be like your vote for the Iraq War. This is going to come back to haunt you. Mark my words, it will come back to haunt you. Because as Iran cheats, as Iran becomes more powerful, and Iran will be both of those things, you will be held to account. This vote will be a stain. You will have to walk away from it at some point or another. You will have to explain it. And some of you may in fact lose your seats because of your vote for this deal. You’ll certainly lose a lot of financial support from some of your previous supporters.”

[listen to this clip here]

First, note the bizarre equation of support for the war in Iraq with support for a peace deal with Iran. Second, since when do neocons like Stephens talk about the Iraq War as something shameful, as a “stain” on one’s legacy? Stephens was a vehement advocate for the attack on Iraq, as was the paper for which he works, and never once suggested that he was wrong to do so. Third, yet again we find journalists at newspapers claiming the pretense of objectivity who are in fact full-on activists: here, to the point of colluding with a right-wing group to sink the Iran Deal – there’s nothing wrong with that on its own terms, other than the conceit that journalism is distinct from activism.

If the Iran deal is defeated in the U.S., what’s the alternative? The relatively honest neocons admit, as Norm Podhoretz did today in Stephens’ paper, that the alternative is the one they really seek: full-on war with Iran. Here is Stephens’ attempt to answer to that question: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2015 at 12:55 pm

Posted in GOP, Mideast Conflict

A very specific test for the Iran deal

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James Fallows provides a useful framework for how we should approach the Iran deal:

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real-world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.

“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.

Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

— The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.

Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on Day One in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.

Many Israelis in and out of government, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Natan Sharansky. And, using arguments like Netanyahu’s, American organizations like AIPAC, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America (which went out of its way to endorse Huckabee’s statement), the Anti-Defamation League, and of course Sheldon Adelson.

So who do we have on the other side?

Most of the American public, by a 54-38 margin, according to a new poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. “Voters within every gender, race, and age group are in support of it, reflecting the broad based mandate for the deal,” the PPP analysis said.

Most Jewish Americans, by a larger margin than the public in general, according to a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reported in the The Jerusalem Post. In this poll, American Jews supported the deal by a 49-31 margin; among the rest of the public in this study, the support was only 28-24, with a very large group undecided. According to the poll, 53 percent of Jewish Americans wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 percent who wanted Congress to stop it.— Numerous Israeli analysts and former military and intelligence-service officials. For instance, various members of the IDF’s general staff; a former head of Mossad; a former head of Shin Bet; a scientist from Israel’s nuclear program; a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch; a former deputy national-security advisor; another former IDF official; the think-tank Molad; Marc Schulman of; and many more. Every American has seen and read the literally cartoonish fulminations of Netanyahu against the deal (see below). How about more coverage of the Israeli defense professionals making the opposite case?

Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties, and three former U.S. Under Secretaries of State (including Thomas Pickering, who held both jobs), who issued a public letter on Monday supporting the deal. Sample passage: “Those who advocate rejection of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, a.k.a. the deal] should assess carefully the value and feasibility of any alternative strategy. … The consequences of rejection are grave: U.S. responsibility for the collapse of the agreement; the inability to hold the P5+1 together for the essential international sanctions regime and such other action that may be required against Iran; and the real possibility that Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon under significantly reduced or no inspections.”

More than 100 former U.S. ambassadors, career and political alike, and from both parties, who signed a similar public letter endorsing the deal. It begins, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

More than 60 American “national-security leaders”—politicians, military officers, strategists, Republicans and Democrats—who issued their own public letter urging Congress to approve the deal. E.g., “We congratulate President Obama and all the negotiators for a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.” Here are a few Republicans who signed this letter: former Special Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Here are a few Democrats: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; former Defense Secretary William Perry. I’m resisting saying: But what do any of them know, compared with Mike Huckabee?

Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who a dozen years ago tried to avert the disaster in Iraq. He says of the deal, “I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.”

— A number of Iranian dissidents, who say that the deal could shift the internal balance in their country.

— An increasingly solid bloc of Democrats in Congress, being marshaled by Representatives David Price of North Carolina and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who have been working since last year to reinforce support for the deal. “While demanding thorough scrutiny, this agreement appears to mark genuine progress for all who believe that peace will make us more secure than war with Iran,”Doggett (a longtime friend from our days in Texas) said when the deal was announced. “The bomb-Iran naysayers for whom the only good deal is a dead deal will unceasingly raise obstacles, but ultimately reason will prevail and the President’s leadership will be sustained.” It is interesting (to put it neutrally) to contrast the Price-Doggett effort, which has the support of Nancy Pelosi, with the equivocation of their Senate counterpart, leader-aspirant Chuck Schumer.

— An increasing number of journalists asking: if not this deal, exactly what? A notable example is Fareed Zakaria, who wrote: “Let’s imagine that the opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran get their way: The U.S. Congress kills it. What is the most likely consequence? Within one year, Iran would have more than 25,000 centrifuges, its breakout time would shrink to mere weeks and the sanctions against it would crumble. How is this in the United States’ national interest? Or Israel’s? Or Saudi Arabia’s?”

I could go on, but you get the point. Judge for yourself. You can be persuaded by Netanyahu, Huckabee, Cruz, Kristol, Adelson, et al., all of whom were wrong on the last high-stakes judgment call about U.S. interests in the Middle East. Or by an overwhelming majority of the people from both parties with operating experience in America’s war-fighting and peace-making enterprises in this part of the world.

The Rut of History . . .

Continue reading.

It’s pretty simple: Don’t like the deal? Then tell me a realistic, specific, better option. If you cannot, then you have to accept that the Iran deal is the best option possible. (The question is not whether you dislike the Iran deal. It’s whether you can offer anything that’s better. If you can’t—well, then.)

Related story: Why History Gives Obama the Benefit of the Doubt on Iran

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2015 at 11:14 am


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