General David Petraeus was the most lionized general of his generation. General John R. Allen, the marine who replaced him as head of the Afghan war when Petraeus went to the CIA, was likewise the subject of near unanimously fawning press.
That is all over. St. David's halo has been permanently dented by the revelations of his affair with Paula Broadwell, the army reservist who he anointed as his personal biographer. And the strange tale of sex and secrets is only growing stranger, with Ms. Broadwell's North Carolina home thoroughly searched by FBI agents last night.
General Allen, who was expected to fly through a pro-forma confirmation hearing on his appointment as the head of US forces in Europe on Thursday, is now caught up in the middle of it all, though it's hard to say precisely how with any certainty, with contradictory reports flooding from unnamed "officials" and "sources" to various DC-focused reporters.
Last night, an unidentified "senior defense official" told reporters that Jill Kelley, a married Tampa Bay socialite who complained to an FBI acquaintance that she was receiving anonymous and threatening emails over her relationship with Gen. Petraeus, was linked in some way to Allen. Ms. Kelley's complaint led to the FBI probe that forced the public revelation of Petraeus' affair with Broadwell.
What's the link to Allen? Well, The Washington Post originally reported that, according to the Pentagon official, "the FBI was looking at 20,000-30,000 pages of email between Allen and Kelley that contained "potentially inappropriate" content."
That claim has been partially walked back by the same reporter in a followup in the Post this morning, The Post now reports the original allegation as: "According to a senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of documents — most of them e-mails — that contain “potentially inappropriate” communication between Allen and Jill Kelley."
The distinction might seem subtle, but it isn't. The first suggests 20,000 or more emails between the two, a staggering volume that's suggestive more of forwarding on floods of email from his inbox rather than personal communication. The second refers to 20,000 or more "documents" that might contain "inappropriate" email between Kelley and Allen. That is, any contact between the two, inappropriate or not, is a subset of a large number, not its entirety.
The Post also quotes another unnamed "senior" official who appears to take Allen's side in this confusing tale. According to the second anonymous source, Allen and Kelley exchanged “'a few hundred e-mails over a couple of years,'” beginning when Allen was the deputy commander at the Central Command, this senior official said. But “most of them were about routine stuff. 'He’s never been alone with her,' the senior official said. 'Did he have an affair? No.'"
What's going on here? Well, welcome to the "wilderness of mirrors," as legendary CIA counter-intelligence boss James Jesus Angleton once called the world of deception and counter-deception in intelligence. In this case, the wilderness is the happy hunting grounds of national security reporters and the anonymous sources who love them, with self-serving spin, efforts to undermine rivals, and leaks made by concerned whistle-blowers all echoing through the hills and valleys daily.
For those of us on the outside, great care should be taken in assessing each new "reveal." For the moment, Allen's appointment to Supreme Allied Commander Europe is on hold, and if it turns out his emails with Kelley were about more than charitable balls and base dances, he will never take up that post.
So what of it? The politics of this scandal will reverberate for months, and is particularly messy given that Petraeus was also originally due for questioning this week on the large CIA operation in Benghazi that was targeted by a militia on Sept. 11, leaving four US government employees dead. But has a blow been dealt to the US military or to its intelligence capabilities?
Probably not. For each general appointed to a high post, there are other candidates just as qualified who didn't get the job. As for the leadership of the CIA, Petraeus was far from indispensable there.
The Afghan war will continue to sputter along, and the debates over the role of the CIA in the government's drone assassination program abroad, which has been championed by President Obama, will continue. Much as they were with Petraeus and Allen in harness.
Rarely has a country been brought back into the American fold as fast as Myanmar (also known as Burma) has.
Starting in late 2010, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 stunningly reversed course.
Not only did it release Aun San Suu Kyi, whose political party won the 1990 elections that the military promptly ignored, from almost two decades of imprisonment and house arrest, but allowed her unprecedented freedom of movement and political organization.
Last year the country swore in a civilian government – though still tightly controlled by the military – released hundreds of political prisoners, and rescinded its ban on Ms. Aun San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
This year, the country again released hundreds of political prisoners, held parliamentary by-elections the NLD won in a landslide, and promised elections for a new parliament in 2015.
The pace of change in Myanmar, a country whose ruling generals implacably resisted outside pressure for change for decades, even as the country descended into penury under the weight of US sanctions and the corrupt and capricious rule of the military, has been matched by American and European overtures.
This summer the EU rescinded almost all of its sanctions on Myanmar. This June the US suspended many of its own sanctions, particularly allowing US firms to invest in the government-controlled oil and gas industry, and sent Derek Mitchell as the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years.
Now President Obama is making Myanmar a stop on his first international trip since winning reelection. The visit will be the first time a sitting US president has ever visited the country (when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last year, she was the most senior US official to visit the country in five decades). Obama's trip, slated for Nov. 17-20, will also include stops in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as part of his ongoing push for an increased US policy focus on Asia.
Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one.
The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.
The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy.
But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.
To much criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided both condemning and condoning the specific violence against the Rohingya, which saw 75,000 displaced in Rakhine state this June.
While she's a hero to many for her principled opposition to the military junta – at great personal cost – she's first and foremost a politician with a nationalist constituency that looks askance at many of the country's minorities, perhaps the Muslims chief among them.
So, is the US moving too fast?
The International Crisis Group (ICG), which is publishing a report on the country next Monday, says all is not well in the Southeast Asian nation. An advance copy of the report, "Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon," details a host of worries, most pressing; the violence that started out targeting Rohingyas but has apparently spread to the country's Muslim minority in general.
In the last two weeks of October, a further 89 people were killed in the communal fighting. And in a separate ethnic clash along the Thailand border, 32,000 more were driven from their homes in the Christian Karen state.
The ICG argues that the very lifting of decades of oppression can create communal violence as new freedoms lead to political jockeying.
Unquestionably. In Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, small ethnic and religious wars flared across that sprawling nation, costing thousands of lives.
Myanmar, like Indonesia, is a patchwork of ethnicities that have spent much of the country's modern history in a tense relationship with the central government, when not in open revolt. Even new media freedoms, often seen as an antidote to violence, could have been part of the problem.
"The transition has opened up unprecedented space to organize that has been denied for decades, including for long-suppressed nationalist causes," the ICG writes. "It has allowed sub-national groups to air bitter grievances and issue a call to arms without moderation or censorship. Access to the internet has only aided the spread of these ideas."
The Rohingya people are classified as illegal migrants, although many of them came from modern day Bangladesh to Myanmar during British rule. And some 800,000 of them do not have official Burmese citizenship, despite having lived in the country for generations.
The issue surrounding the Rohingya minority, and Islam in general, is a powder keg in the majority Buddhist country.
In the ICG's words: "The experience of others in the region and the country’s own past suggest that communal tensions can be exploited and inflamed for political gain. In particular, there is a real risk that the violence in Rakhine State will take on a more explicitly Buddhist-Muslim character, with the possibility of clashes spreading to the many other areas where there are minority Muslim populations. This would have very serious consequences for stability and reform."
READ MORE: Monitor Staff Writer Peter Ford's Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms
The real test of change in the country will be in 2015, when full parliamentary elections are held.
Until now, all change has largely been at the pleasure of the military, which remains political powerful.
"There is a serious risk of instability if existing power holders feel threatened by their inevitable loss of political power (which is different from a serious risk of a return to authoritarianism, which is unlikely), or if important constituencies are marginalized," argues the ICG. "It will be necessary for the NLD to ensure that its expected electoral success in 2015 does not come at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and ensure an inclusive and stable transition – whether by introducing some form of proportional representation, reaching a transitional national unity agreement with the current government, or building coalitions with other parties."
If all goes well, the Obama administration’s overture toward Myanmar will go down as a major foreign policy achievement, and more importantly signal a brighter future for Mynmar’s 48 million people. But there are challenges and pitfalls ahead, and with each concession the US and other major powers make before 2015, a potential carrot to offer for positive change is spent.
Hopefully, Obama will not have gone to Myanmar too soon.
But one point that I failed to consider is the impact of two approved US ballot measures on Mexican policy. It turns out that incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto may adjust his country's approach to tackling marijuana production in his country in response.
The AP reports that the head of President Pena Nieto's transition team Luis Videgaray told Radio Formula that:
... the Mexican administration taking power in three weeks remains opposed to drug legalization. But he said the votes in the two states complicate his country's commitment to quashing the growing and smuggling of a plant now seen by many as legal in part of the U.S.
"Obviously we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status," Videgaray said. "I believe this obliges us to think the relationship in regards to security ... This is an unforeseen element."
Videgaray stopped short of threatening to curtail Mexican enforcement of marijuana laws, but his comments, less than three weeks before Pena Nieto travels to the White House days before taking office, appeared likely to increase pressure on the Obama administration to strictly enforce U.S. federal law, which still forbids recreational pot use.
The AP also quotes Alejandro Hope, a former senior Mexican intelligence official who helped author a paper arguing that Mexican drug gangs would be damaged by the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington (summarized here) as saying that if the US federal government cracks down on the marijuana trade anyways, the impact in Mexico will be negligible. What will the Obama administration do? We'll see.
And if the Mexican government becomes less interested in enforcing anti-marijuana laws, will that make much difference? On the one hand, probably not. The big drug traffickers move cocaine as well, and remain a violent threat to government authority in multiple Mexican states. But if it does, the marijuana business could become a less dangerous, and therefore less expensive, business for Mexican traffickers to engage in. It's not inconceivable that could lead to much cheaper Mexican marijuana entering the US than currently.
It has long been a popular argument among campaigners for reform of America's marijuana laws that legalization would strike a major blow against the violent Mexican drug gangs that have brought so much misery to parts of that country and, increasingly, along the US border.
The logic is simple. Marijuana smuggling is a major earner for drug gangs, so a legal crop in the US would have a dramatic impact on their operations, lowering the amount of money available to them to bribe cops and hire killers south of the border.
Fairly typical of the tone of such reporting was a nice piece for the Monitor earlier this month by Sara Miller Llana, titled "Biggest blow to Mexican drug cartels? It could be on your state ballot."
The piece summarizes a paper from a Mexican think tank that argued legalization in any of the three US states considering legalizing recreational use of the drug – Oregon, Washington, and Colorado – could do major damage to organized crime south of the border:
A “yes” for any state would have huge implications for the US, but the referendums would also have ramifications south of the border. A new study released by the think tank Mexican Competitiveness Institute (IMCO) shows that if the referendums do pass, proceeds for Mexican drug trafficking organizations could be cut by up to 30 percent, depending on which state goes forward with the referendum. (Read the report here in Spanish.)
“The possible legalization of marijuana at the state level in the US could provoke a considerable loss in proceeds of drug trafficking for Mexican criminal organizations,” the report concludes. In fact, it says, ballot initiatives Tuesday could represent the biggest blow to Mexican criminal syndicates in decades.
Well, yes, it could. But with Washington and Colorado now having passed their measures (voters rejected legalization in Oregon), the theory of "more legal pot = less drug violence in Mexico" is about to be put to the test of experience, with a whole host of assumptions made about its salutary effect coming up against facts.
Color me skeptical. While any student of American history knows that Prohibition creates the opportunity for big profits for criminal syndicates, and violence always follows that, the prediction of a big hit in the cartel pocketbook relies on a set of uncertain assumptions: That marijuana production in Washington and Colorado will surge; that this additional supply, without the expense and danger of crossing an international border, will be cheaper and bleed out into the 48 other states, displacing Mexican imports; and that the malign influence of drug gangs on Mexican society will therefore be reduced.
The Mexican think tank estimates that $6 billion a year is derived from marijuana exports from Mexico. Is this estimate accurate? Hard to say. It's not as if we can crunch the numbers from excise tax rolls. But let's assume that's a fairly accurate picture – what portion does that represent of cartel income? Well, nobody knows.
The US Justice Department has estimated that drug shipments from Mexico are worth a total of $18 billion to $39 billion a year, a staggeringly wide range that shows how hard it is to quantify the economics of the overall trade. Is the $6 billion assumption one-third of overall illegal drug shipments? Or is it one-sixth? Or some other number entirely?
Then there are the assumptions of what legalization will cost the drug gangs. The think tank suggests that roughly $2.7 billion in cartel income will be lost as a result of legalization in Colorado and Washington, as new legal production comes on line. But Washington is already one of the top 10 producers of marijuana in the US (as is Oregon).
While surely some additional acreage will come on line in response to legalization, the Feds will be watching closely for evidence that Washington state's marijuana is flooding its neighbors, and growers will still face the risk of seizure of property under federal laws by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Any businessman thinking about a major marijuana operation in Washington or Colorado, particularly one that will rely on markets where the drug is still deemed illegal, will think long and hard about how much capital to risk. The Obama administration has been fairly aggressive in going after major pot businesses in states that already have legalized medical marijuana.
Finally, there is the fact that cocaine and heroin are far more profitable ounce for ounce for drug traffickers than marijuana. A kilogram of Mexican pot wholesales for about $1,200 in the US. Meanwhile, drug gangs are thought to buy a kilogram of cocaine in South America for about $2,000, and the wholesale value of that kilogram is about $30,000 by the time it makes it to the other side of the Rio Grande (and ends up retailing for as much as $100,000). There are enormous expenses in transporting the drugs compared to legal goods, what with bribes, violence, "taxes" charged by other gangs to cross their territory, the loss of product to seizures, and the fuss of smuggling across the border.
But within that 15-fold markup, there's a lot of pure profit, surely enough that it could make sense for Mexican drug gangs to try to make up for lost revenue with a volume strategy: Cut their profit margins on the US side of the border to stimulate demand, and increase overall profits (potentially leading to an increase in the use of a far more dangerous drug). And a kilogram is still a kilogram. Moving a high-value good per weight makes a lot more sense than moving a low-value one, when the risk of seizure and prosecution is about the same.
Don't get me wrong. I dearly hope that lives are saved, in Mexico and the US, because of the current, uncertain legalization experiments about to begin in Washington and Colorado. A total end to marijuana prohibition in the US would kill stone-dead illegal marijuana imports, much as it killed illegal liquor imports from Canada after the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.
But the US is a long, long way from that. And the thirst for illegal profits is never slaked. Sadly, the grim toll of Mexico's war with drug gangs (with an estimated 55,000 people killed in the last six years) is likely to lurch on.
Mr. Nakoula, a Coptic Christian and Egyptian immigrant to the US, was jailed for violating the terms of his parole over an earlier fraud conviction stemming from a scheme he ran to steal money from ATM machines. He's far, far better known as the author of the script that became the YouTube clip that prompted a brief takeover of the US embassy in Egypt, and continues to feed much confusion around what exactly happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.
Why has he gone back to prison? Given the nature of his financial fraud, the terms of his release required him to use only his legal name, to tell the truth to his parole officers. In the making of the YouTube clip, he told actors hired for the film that his name was "Sam Bacile." The actors themselves were misled about his plans for the movie, with the most virulently anti-Islamic content dubbed in over their lines later.
In conversations with reporters after the controversy erupted in September, he continued to claim his name was "Sam Bacile" and also lied in claiming that he was an Israeli citizen. His lies, not the content of his video, finally caught up with him.
I wrote about the film as a small cog in the outrage machine between anti-Islam activists in the West and chauvinistic and intolerant Muslim clerics and followers in the East at the time. For a few days, it looked like another major outbreak of mob violence was coming on the heels of the movie, much like what happened after Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005.
But as it turned out, the violence subsided far more quickly. The US embassy breach in Cairo was alarming, but more for what it said about the competence of Egyptian security and perhaps the attention of its new Muslim Brotherhood-led government than of some swelling wave of anti-Americanism. The murder of four US government employees in Benghazi, among them the ambassador to Libya, was at most opportunistically linked to the video, if that. The jihadis who attacked the US government intelligence gathering and diplomatic operations in Libya's second-largest city had planned their attack for some time, and hardly needed extra encouragement to attack Americans.
What's most interesting now is how little notice has been taken of Nakoula's return to prison. While some have expressed suspicion that the push to prosecute Nakoula is more about punishing his speech than his parole violation, there is no evidence to support that, and US officials have not drummed up attention to his punishment as would be expected if this were about mollifying the Muslim world. And so, what seemed like one of the biggest stories in the world for a few days in September is of almost no public interest today.
That's the key foreign policy takeaway from the US reelection of President Barack Obama last night. Mitt Romney had surrounded himself with neocons and other hawkish advisers, eager to regain the influence they lost when John McCain fell to Mr. Obama in 2008. Now, it looks like four more years in the wilderness for them.
The chance that the US will start a new war has decreased, and Obama and like-minded officials will continue to put their realist stamp on US foreign relations as they wind down the Afghanistan war and try to use sanctions, rather than combat, to slow Iran's nuclear program. The dreams of transforming the world with US troops and tanks that inflamed so many of President Bush's advisers at the start of the Iraq war, will now be dreamt a long way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mr. Senor was a key political player for the Bush administration in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, advising Paul Bremer on how to run the country in 2003 and 2004. The frequent Fox News commentator emerged as Mr. Romney's main adviser for the Middle East, squiring him on visits to the UK and Israel. John Bolton, the Bush-Cheney ambassador to the UN (who is famous for hating the UN, among other things), also had Romney's ear and was rumored to be under consideration for Secretary of State in a Romney cabinet. Mr. Bolton has openly mused about going to war with Iran and Syria, and continues to insist the Iraq invasion and occupation was the right course of action.
In all, 17 of Romney's 24 foreign policy advisers served under President Bush, according to Democratic Congressman Adam Smith, and the US approach to both war and peace abroad would have taken on a decidedly more Bushian cast if Romney had won. While Americans mostly voted on pocketbook issues, the fact that most American voters dislike the Bush approach certainly didn't help Romney at the polls. Among the small number of voters who said they cared deeply about foreign policy, Obama had a 56-33 edge over Romney.
That more hawkish orientation was the reason that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so eager for a Romney victory, since he expected the a Romney White House could be easier to talk into going to war with Iran than an Obama one.
It will be interesting to watch how Obama handles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the years ahead, given his chilly relations with the Israeli prime minister. While it is unlikely that Obama will make any dramatic overtures to change the nature of US-Israeli relations, Mr. Netanyahu may find an administration that isn't as wholehearted, for instance, in arguing Israel's case at the United Nations.
But in the broad strokes we'll be getting more of the same, with Obama promising to end the Afghanistan war by the end of 2014. The president was reluctant to get directly involved in the civil war in Syria before the election, and that reluctance is likely to persist.
But while there will be fewer boots on the ground, that doesn't mean Obama doesn't have an aggressive foreign policy of his own. It's just of a different style. The president seems as fond of using drones to kill America's alleged enemies abroad as ever, for instance. Obama has ordered alleged Al Qaeda-style militants killed by the hundreds on his watch in Pakistan and Yemen.
This undeclared drone war probably won't abate, with reports from Washington that Obama officials have been working on ways to justify the killings as legal, even when they involve the assassination of American citizens. There is simply no constituency in Washington against it. And the neocons, as they retreat back to their think-tanks and analyst positions on cable news shows, certainly won't complain.
Mass casualty suicide car bombs. Kidnappings and executions of noncombatants for having the wrong political views. Religious antagonism. An expanding circle of death beyond leaders and fighters to their loved ones. Violence that can descend almost anywhere in an instant, one part traditional combat, two parts terror tactics and civilian ambushes carried out by a patchwork of militias with murky allegiances and ideologies.
That paragraph well describes Iraq at the start of 2004. The real post-Saddam bloodletting was just getting underway, and while death squads and suicide bombings were spreading dread from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, almost no one had a full handle on what was happening, or the horrors that were to come. I certainly didn't see what was coming, or at least didn't want to believe what I was seeing on the ground.
Well, from a distance (I have not covered the war in Syria on the ground), Syria now "feels" a lot like Iraq did then. In the past two days or so, there was a suicide bombing in Hama province that was claimed by the Sunni Jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra and that a pro-opposition group said killed 50 members of the Syrian government security forces. Yesterday, the funeral was held for pro-government television actor Mohamed Rafia, who was abducted and executed by rebels on Friday. Earlier today, Mohamed Osama al-Laham, the brother of Syrian parliament speaker Jihad al-Laham, was assassinated in Damascus.
More generally, fighting raged around the country, with government war planes strafing rebel positions and civilian neighborhoods in rebel-held areas alike. More than 150 people were killed across Syria, many civilians, on Monday.
To be sure, there are stark differences between Iraq then and Syria now. There has been no foreign invasion or occupation, and there are lots of specific differences between the two countries. While Iraq under Saddam had a Sunni-dominated Baathist government and a Shiite majority, in Syria the Alawite sect of Bashar al-Assad is dominant politically and Sunnis are dominant numerically.
A further wrinkle is the presence of the descendants of Palestinians who lost their homes in the foundation of Israel, and now number more than 400,000 people.
The Palestinian community in Syria appears split. While many have taken up arms against Assad, still others have fought on his behalf. There have been persistent claims of Palestinian militiamen from Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command fighting on the side of Assad's forces in some districts of the capital.
The AP reports there's an element of inter-Palestinian conflict in the fighting, with the PFLP-GC saying the fighting started after Palestinians fighting with the rebellion attacked civilians in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.
But there are plenty of similarities, particularly the substantial presence of jihadis in Syria, much as they were in Iraq. These are very much the same sort of people who were fighting the US troops in Iraq (and running death squads against Shiites) during the war there. Aaron Zelin shares on Twitter this pre-martyrdom picture of Libyan Ahmad Bishasha, characteristic of Al Qaeda-style propaganda. Jahbat al-Nusra claims that Mr. Bishasha carried out a suicide attack on that group's behalf yesterday.
The international community is looking on with ineffectual alarm, particularly with an eye toward the chances of major sectarian reprisal killings if Assad is defeated and the victorious rebels end up having large numbers of the jihadis in their ranks. UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat that Syria may "turn into a new Somalia" dominated by warlords and militias in the wake of a government collapse. Mr. Brahimi says he wants a binding resolution from the UN Security Council on a Syrian transition to end the fighting, though he's well aware that Russia has vowed to exercise its veto against any such resolution.
“Done. Anything, anything, to get that man out of the country and to have a safe transition in Syria,” he told the network. "Of course I would favor him facing the full force of international law and justice for what he’s done. I am certainly not offering him an exit plan to Britain, but if he wants to leave he could leave, that could be arranged."
For now, Assad remains defiant, and he's pounding both the rebels and civilians who oppose him with artillery, warplanes, and helicopter gunships.
How Syria will play out in the coming months is anyone's guess. When regimes collapse, they collapse fast. But until something changes, Syria looks more and more like Iraq on the verge of the worst horrors of its own civil war every day.
Find someone who works on security, find an alarmist.
Whether it's the IT guys where you work pestering you to change your password every couple of weeks, to a general briefing from Congress on "emerging" threats (that will require big new spending to counter, of course), people who are paid to worry about danger always overestimate on the downside.
And fair enough. When the worst happens, the outraged cry goes up: "Why didn't you see this coming and prevent it?!" (frequently from the same people who were cutting budgets on security, e.g. Benghazi). It's generally a good idea to have your security people losing sleep at night over insecurity.
But the discussion in the US of the security of government computers can be exasperating in its hyperbole, even when it's dealing with real threats. Consider Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month. In an Oct. 11 speech on "cybersecurity" (the charmingly archaic "cyber" seems to live on only in government discourse about modern information technology), he seemed to suggest that a computer virus or infiltration of government computers by a hostile foreign power could kill thousands of Americans.
"Before Sept. 11, 2001, the warning signs were there. We weren't organized. We weren't ready and we suffered terribly for that lack of attention. We cannot let that happen again. This is a pre-9/11 moment," Panetta said. "The greater danger facing us in cyberspace goes beyond crime and it goes beyond harassment. A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states (or) violent extremists groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on 9/11. Such a destructive cyber-terrorist attack could virtually paralyze the nation."
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington claimed nearly 3,000 lives. That led the US into two wars that claimed thousands more American lives and those of tens of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis. As far as I'm aware, the current cumulative death toll from "cyberattacks" globally is zero.
This isn't to downplay the real Internet security arms race. Do the Chinese, or the Russians, want to use computer viruses and other forms of electronic snooping to steal US secrets? Obviously. Can computer viruses be used as weapons, to perhaps infiltrate the control systems of missiles or electric grids? You only have to look at the Stuxnet virus that successfully targeted Iran's nuclear enrichment program to see the reality of that.
Clearly a lot of brain power is going in to malicious software, from governments to gangsters. And of course, there's lots of gray area, with all of the data-mining programs that now run in the background of our Internet use, compiling databases of personal information to better target everything from pitches to buy new cars to campaigns for politicians. Or efforts to game online advertising (this story today claims that automated Internet use – bots – jumped to 36 percent of all Internet traffic from 6 percent last year, mostly due to scams to victimize online advertisers).
Another story that caught my eye today on this comes from Bloomberg, which got a peek of a draft of an annual Internet security report for Congress.
"China is 'the most threatening actor in cyberspace' as its intelligence agencies and hackers use increasingly sophisticated techniques to gain access to U.S. military computers and defense contractors," Bloomberg summarizes.
One statistic in that story is highly suggestive of Chinese interest in exploiting the Internet, though I'd bet a lot of the activity is commercial fraud mixed in among Peoples Liberation Army efforts. Apparently, statistics from the company Cloudfire show that on an average day, 15 percent of Internet activity is malicious – viruses, attempted hacks, malware, and so on. Yet on a major Chinese holiday last year malicious traffic plummeted to 6.5 percent of the total.
Suggestive, to be sure.
But so far, computer code doesn't kill. Certainly not directly. On my personal fear scale, I rate "cyberterrorism" a "meh."
The so-called "fighting season" is over and an Afghan leader's fancy can turn to antagonizing his American patrons for amusement over the cold winter months.
Sure, NATO soldiers, the bulk of them Americans, will be fighting and dying to protect his government in Kabul even as winter embraces Afghanistan, but President Hamid Karzai will probably get even more latitude than normal for airing his views. This is among his favorite times of year to lash out at the Western powers who have given so much so that he can lead Afghanistan. Last October, he said Afghanistan would back Pakistan if the US ever ended up going to war with Afghanistan's neighbor. In April 2010, he sought to blame the UN and the EU for Afghanistan electoral fraud.
This time, Mr. Karzai is unhappy about the International Crisis Group, probably the world's leading think tank when it comes to unbiased, factual reporting on conflict (full disclosure; I briefly worked on contract for ICG 12 years ago helping to write a report on religious wars in eastern Indonesia). The Brussels-based research organization receives much of its funding from the European Union and the US, but has established a reputation for independent analysis in its 17 years of work.
Earlier today, a Karzai spokesman said the government was investigating the ICG for possible legal action, complaining that "the ICG reports and activities have been politically motivated" and that "it is detrimental to Afghanistan's national interests and no country will allow such activities by a foreign organisation."
What has so upset Karzai, who returned to power in a fraud-riddled election in 2009 (Afghan elections in general are driven by vote-buying, intimidation, and stuffed ballot boxes)? Well, the ICG had the temerity to suggest in October that Afghanistan is an unstable place that could easily descend into widespread civil war again. As the first sentence of the ICG's executive summary had it: "Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014."
That is as uncontroversial a sentence about the current reality of Afghanistan as one could concoct. That the country is one of the most corrupt in the world, enabled by the billions of aid money and reconstruction spending that sloughed through Kabul over the past decade, is not an opinion. It's a fact. That Afghan government security forces have consistently failed at demonstrating they can operate on their own is likewise not open to interpretation; the Afghan National Army's operations rely on a $4 billion annual subsidy from the US, and the US military continues to run logistics for the Afghans.
The ICG also reported that "there are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy" before scheduled 2014 presidential elections, when Karzai will be term-limited out. The Afghan president might not like this being discussed, but fraud and vote-buying are practically the whole point of the Afghan electoral process.
While the State Department and other government-affiliated agencies like to talk about the wonders of Afghan voting, as if there's merit in the simple act itself, voting in the country has been largely drained of any democratic meaning since backroom deals between warlords and fraudulent counts are where the rubber hits the road.
So, the ICG is only telling the truth. But it now faces sanction for truth-telling, by the very man who the US installed as leader of Afghanistan at such great cost in blood and treasure. And that is the broader context.
Karzai has for years been able to tweak the nose of his US patrons with impunity, on the so-far correct assumption that the US would never withdraw support and risk possibly worse alternatives.
But the era when it was safe to assume that the dollars and the foreign soldiers would keep rolling no matter what he did is probably coming to a close. Whether Obama retains the presidency on Tuesday night or Mitt Romney replaces him, US troops are almost certainly heading for the exits in the next two years. The American people are weary of war, have already endured the Afghan one longer than any other in our history, and Osama bin Laden is dead.
The lack of Afghanistan discussion in the US presidential campaign was largely because there's little daylight between the two men's positions on the country.
So, Karzai can seek to stifle truth telling, to lash out at the biases of the tricksy foreigners that he's grown weary of relying on. But a train of change is coming to Afghanistan, whether he wants to see it or not.
If US officials think they're going to find Syrian allies to prevent war atrocities, or be able to take swift control of Syria in the event of Assad's defeat and steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be sorely disappointed.
As evidenced by a graphic video uploaded to YouTube yesterday that shows a terrified group of at least a dozen men, defeated fighters for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, huddled together on a bare concrete floor in a battle-scared building in the market town of Saraqeb, Syria, the other day as their scowling captors, kicked and cursed them into a pile before executing them.
The jumpy footage shows the following: Men in rags, many stripped of their shoes. Some appear dazed from the wounds of a battle they'd just lost. Others appear to be hyperventilating out their last prayers and thoughts. One pleads for his life. A rebel walks among the prisoners, getting in a few last kicks to the head of one of them.
Then, the cries of "God is great" from the triumphant murderers are drowned out by a buzzsaw of automatic rifle fire.
This latest atrocity is hardly out of character for Syria's civil war. Pro-government troops massacre captives too, and the Assad regime has been bloodthirsty in its torture of not just captured fighters but their family members.
Looking for good guys in this war? They are few and far between.
The execution appears to have been carried out by one of the jihadi militias that have grown ever more prevalent in the fight against Assad. Even the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that supports the uprising against Syria's Baathist regime, suggests that the murders were carried out by an Al Qaeda-inspired rebel group. Rami Abdelrahman of the observatory told Reuters that the killings were carried out by the Jabhat al-Nusra militia.
But what happened at Saraqeb is about more than the prevalence of jihadis in Syria's civil war. The "Free Syrian Army" is a nice concept. In practice, however, the fighters against Assad are a loosely affiliated patchwork of militias, with no unified command.
The behavior of these irregular units varies widely, as do their sources of funding. Some groups have received a trickle of communications and non-lethal aid from the likes of the US. Others have received weapons from states like Qatar or right private donors in fellow Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.
Reliance on Syrian exiles
The influence of the exiled Syrian National Council – which Secretary Clinton declared a failure Wednesday when she announced that the US was withdrawing support – over fighters on the ground is near zero.
So in that sense, the Obama administration is right to look to spend its money and political influence elsewhere. But if Clinton or anyone else in the government thinks they are going to find Syrian allies to steer it in a pro-US direction, they are going to be disappointed.
On Wednesday, Clinton dismissed the utility of working with Syrian exiles on shaping events in Syria. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.
Look at Libya
But you have only to look to Libya to understand how difficult it is to exert influence after a triumphant rebellion in states where politics has merely been another word for patronage for decades, where the lust for revenge is strong, and where the rebellion itself is backed with Islamist militants who not very long ago were fighting US forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Libya is a far more religiously and ethnically homogenous place than Syria. The sectarian shadow that now looms over Syria, with the bulk of the rebellion composed of Sunnis fighting a regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect of the Assads, is happily absent from Libya. But even there, the future remains murky. The Sept. 11 assault on the US intelligence and diplomatic outposts in Benghazi that claimed four American lives, is evidence enough of that. The exiled civilian leaders of the uprising in Libya have exerted questionable, limited influence over the militias who fought and defeated Qaddafi last year.
The militias, it turns out, have ideas of their own about the future. They have fought among themselves over the spoils of victory, and continue to wield guns in what was hoped to be Libya's emerging democratic politics.
What is the current US plan for Syria?
Next week, Clinton heads to Qatar for a discussion on how regional powers will work to reshape the "leadership structure" (in her words) of the uprising. She'll be bearing a list of names of Syrians the US wants promoted to the senior ranks.
The choice of Qatar is an interesting one, given that monarchy's steadfast support for Islamist militias first in Libya and now in Syria. These are not the type of groups the US wants to see strengthened in either place. Qatar, by its actions, clearly disagrees, and has been far more aggressive and responsive in funneling support to them. Qatar does not share the US alarm at the jihadi factions fighting against Assad.
More nationalist rebels have expressed frustration at all this, saying that the character of the Syrian rebellion would have been far different if the US had provided support to them sooner.
In the final debate last week, President Obama said that the US was doing “everything we can” to help the opposition, but warned that “to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step,” and that the US had to be “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping.” Likewise, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would “make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves,” as long as weapons don’t get into “the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”
More radical jihadists?
But on the ground, many Syrians say the US reluctance to support their cause is yielding more jihadists, and more radical ones. And it's questionable whether American reluctance is significantly hampering the flow of weapons to jihadists.
"If the Americans do not give us weapons, then the jihadists will get them from somewhere else," says Abu Baraa, a local Aleppo commander. In his view, current US policy "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates.”
Abu Baraa's complaint is a common one, though not necessarily true.
During the US occupation of Iraq, the US provided plenty of weapons and support to its erstwhile allies there, yet jihadis nevertheless poured in Iraq from Saudi Arabia. And Jordan. And Libya. And Syria.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a native of Zarqa, Jordan, and the leader of what became Al Qaeda in Iraq, was US public enemy No. 1, until his death at the hands of the US in 2006. His followers plague the country to this day, while the Iraqi government, led by the Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has watched in horror at the unfolding prospect of the very people who fought the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq coming to power in their Syrian neighbor.
Jordan hasn't been happy about events either. Zarqawi's band of jihadis hated the Jordanian monarchy as much as they did the Shiites of Iraq, and carried out a series of horrific terrorist bombings in their home country in the last decade. In October, AFP reported that Jordan had arrested two cousins of Zarqawi as they returned home after fighting for five months against the Assad regime in Syria.
The Syrian war, its factions and regional implications, grow more entangled and complicated by the day. Can the intervention of outside powers tip the outcome in favor of the rebels, in a general sense? Certainly. Will the weapons provided end up being used in further atrocities? Quite likely.
Atrocities happen in war, and far more frequently when there aren't accountable officers to stop it. Perhaps that's a price worth paying to be rid of Assad.
But trying to shape what comes next is another matter. Recent history indicates that usually eludes the grasp of America and its allies.