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Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who first published the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, testifies in front of the Brazilian Federal Senate's Parliamentary Inquiry Committee in Brasilia in this October 9, 2013 file photo. (Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS/File)

Joe McCarthy, Glenn Greenwald, and me

By Staff writer / 01.16.14

Yesterday morning I woke up and read The New York Times piece on Edward Snowden's latest revelation about NSA methods. The report details a "secret technology that enables [the NSA] to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet."

Relying on NSA documents provided by Mr. Snowden and its own interviews with officials, the Times reported that the NSA had designed USB cards and circuit boards secretly installed on computers to read their contents and transmit them via radio waves to NSA controlled computers up to eight miles away.

The utility of such a technology to a spy agency hardly needs to be explained and allows for the theft of data from offline computers that would generally be presumed highly secure from technical snooping.

The targets? The sixth paragraph of the Times's article reads:

Among the most frequent targets of the N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United States Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on American industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, according to officials and an N.S.A. map that indicates sites of what the agency calls “computer network exploitation.”

The paper continued: "There is no evidence that the NSA has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States."

I've been interested for some time in the binary thinking applied by many to Snowden, an NSA contractor who absconded to Russia with thousands of internal NSA documents and has generated a series of scoops for journalists. His supporters insist he's a whistle-blower and should be given a medal. His detractors call him a traitor and want him, at best, to spend the rest of his natural life in prison.

To me it's always seemed clear that Snowden's revelations have done two things. First, he has exposed NSA programs that improperly targeted US citizens and represent enormous government surveillance overreach in the post-9/11 era. Second, and more frequently, he has brought to light entirely legal and appropriate NSA programs aimed toward foreign intelligence targets (which is after all the NSA's remit from Congress). I often try to point out on my Twitter feed that many Snowden revelations have nothing to do with protecting the US Constitution and have the effect of helping foreign intelligence targets of the NSA. I wrote yesterday after reading the Times article:

   

I very quickly started receiving a deluge of abuse from anonymous Twitter followers (you know, I'm a government shill, a fascist, etc...). I had an inkling that it might be thanks to Glenn Greenwald, the acerbic anti-secrecy activist who broke the original Snowden stories and has worked most closely with the former NSA employee.  Sure enough, I found the following "sub-tweet" of me on his feed:

 

Mr. Greenwald is a very popular guy on Twitter, with about 320,000 followers. And he has earned a reputation for bullying people who don't share his views, frequently using his megaphone to launch unfair and frequently dishonest personal attacks. It will be interesting to see if he keeps this up at the $50 million news venture he's starting that's being bankrolled by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

I was furious that he compared me to Joe McCarthy, the mid-20th century charlatan who led an ideological witch-hunt against legions of Americans for their political beliefs. My crime? Taking what, to me at least, is the uncontroversial position that NSA disclosures about fully legal overseas intelligence operations are not a form of whistle-blowing and help US foreign intelligence targets.

While Greenwald and Snowden frequently decry abuses by the US government, the rest of the world gets a free pass – including Russia, where Snowden has temporary asylum. While the abuses of any other country don't excuse ones by the US, to set yourself up as a principled advocate for personal rights and privacy while ignoring Russia's vast surveillance state and routine suppression of what Americans consider fundamental liberties is the height of hypocrisy.

For instance in July of last year, Snowden wrote a letter of thanks to countries that have supported him. "These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless."

There are people who think all spying is immoral and many who think it's always counterproductive, and thus view all of Snowden's releases as doing America a service.

But Greenwald, with no hint of irony, seeks to cow dissenting views with attacks on the character and integrity of people he disagrees with. He also suggested I was a "coward" for not criticizing the Times for publishing the story. I tried to patiently explain to him that it's a journalist's job to publish, and that I probably would have run the story if it had been up to me.

Greenwald is a public figure of considerable popularity. He attacks others to shut them up or to discredit them, not to engage with their ideas. Sounds like an echo of a certain junior senator from Wisconsin. 

A judge shows a villager a ballot for the constitutional referendum inside a polling station in Dalga village of Minya, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (Roger Anis, El Shorouk Newspaper/AP)

Egypt's constitutional referendum: It's not about democracy any more. (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.15.14

The referendum on Egypt's new constitution is wrapping up, its passage a foregone conclusion. The interim military government and its backers have fostered a martial, nationalistic climate around the vote with a simple message: A "yes" vote is a vote for Egypt; a "no" vote is a vote for terrorism and chaos.

By any standard, the vote today is the least free and fair of the five national referendums and elections held since Egypt's military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power by mass protests in February 2011. The new constitution won't change the principal issues that led to the uprising – rampant police brutality with no accountability, a sclerotic and corrupt economy dominated by the cronies of those in power – and it appears to pave the way for a restoration of the old manner of government that prevailed before the protests against Mubarak broke out.

Is this is a complete disaster? Well, if you believe that democracy is the answer to all a society's ills, then yes. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who leads Egypt's interim military government, is now in pole position to win Egypt's presidency and he's not that different from Mr. Mubarak.

But it also can't be ignored that what's going on in Egypt right now is very popular among Egyptians. How popular is difficult to say – but the mass protests that broke out last June against Egypt's first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, creating the conditions for the military's takeover, were by most accounts even larger than the ones that helped sweep Mubarak from power.

The Egyptian military really is wildly popular within Egyptian society, and fear that Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood would forcibly Islamicize Egyptian society if left in power is real.

This is the paradox of Egyptian politics at the moment. The country is moving further away from democracy and vast numbers of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority, seem OK with it. The room for political dissent that existed in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall has steadily narrowed, and now Egypt is about as free or unfree as it was before Jan. 25, 2011, when protests broke out. Hundreds of political prisoners are in Egypt's jails, police corruption and brutality (which provided the initial spark for the uprising) are as bad as ever, and a climate of fear has returned.

The constitution isn't really that important, though from the perspective of basic rights it seems to be an improvement over the previous document, which had far more democratic legitimacy. This one curtails the role of Islam in legislation, promises equal social and political rights for men and woman, provides more latitude for freedom of speech, and bans discrimination based on religion or belief. (Evan Hill has a nice rundown on the differences between this constitution and the 2012 version.) Like the document from 2012, it retains the military's autonomous powers – including the power to try civilians in military courts.

But the words in a constitution are usually far less important than a country's political constitution, and many constitutions that looks good on paper (the current Iraqi one comes to mind) are often simply ignored when they get in leaders' way. Is Egypt about to become a paradise for the rights of women or its Christian minorities because the constitution says so? Will the journalists currently in detention be sprung from the jails after the referendum? Almost certainly not.

None of this can sweep away the grim turn Egypt's so-called "spring" has taken.

Egyptian police have arrested citizens for the crime of campaigning for a "no" vote on the constitution, political paranoia led to the investigation of a satirical television puppet on charges it supports terrorism, and even a hint of sedition can lead to being thrown in jail. Consider this piece by Max Rodenbeck, where he points out that an Egyptian man's home has been raided multiple times by the police and he now sleeps in the olive groves around his village. Why? A car that looks much like his own was captured in a photograph of a pro-Muslim Brotherhood mob burning down a local police station a few months ago. Rodenbeck writes:

Apparently unconvinced by protests from his family that Mr Y has never had anything to do with the Brothers, officers of the law keep barging into his house. For his own safety Mr Y has given up driving his taxi. He sleeps in the dense olive groves surrounding the village, only occasionally slipping home. He says he would like to give himself up and prove his innocence, but fears he will be dragged off to prison.That is what has happened to several other alleged Muslim Brothers in the village, while the former local Brotherhood MP has fled to Sudan. Not knowing what else to do, Mr Y’s family has put up signs affirming that they, too, will proudly vote YES.

Many Egyptians came to believe that straight-up democracy was destined to empower the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most focused and organized political group, and have supported efforts to prevent that from happening. Since the military came to power the Brotherhood has been outlawed as a terrorist group (despite having publicly disavowed using political violence to achieve its goals decades ago). The chance of fair and open competition in the political sphere any time soon is next to none.

Will Egypt be willing to live with that? It certainly seems so for now - though the country's dire economic state and millions living on just a few dollars a day could end up changing that position, again.

A constitution isn't going to fix Egypt's myriad problems. Whether the country's incoming leaders, with the certain-to-be large influence of the military, will be able to remains to be seen. (For a flavor of the Army worship that's broken out of late, look at the video at the bottom of this post).

If recent history is anything to go by, the outlook is not good.

 

An Israeli soldier holds up a Skylark I unmanned drone as part of a demonstration for Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, (c.), in an urban warfare army training facility, near Zeelim, southern Israel in July 2013. Yaalon was quoted Tuesday as deriding US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace efforts as naive and foolhardy. (Ariel Schalit/AP/File)

Israeli defense minister slams John Kerry for 'messianic' pursuit of peace deal (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.14.14

There's something charming about the way US Secretary of State John Kerry has thrown himself into the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," that graveyard of diplomatic ambitions that his predecessor Hillary Clinton mostly dodged.

Secretary Kerry actually believes that, somehow (charm? force of will?) he's going to crack a case that has defied all efforts since the ink dried on the Oslo Accords.

But the fact remains that Israel's political leadership is not interested in the sorts of compromises that would be necessary for a Palestinian state. These include starting to contract, rather than expand, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and signal that under the right conditions it's willing to hand back territory.

The latest to signal this defiance is Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who lashed yesterday out at Kerry's mediation and his warnings that time is running out for Israel to make a lasting peace.

"Secretary of State John Kerry – who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling – cannot teach me a single thing about the conflict with the Palestinians," Mr. Yaalon was quoted as saying in the country's largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. The paper said the Likud member's comments were made in private. He was also reported to have said that "the only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone."

This is a fairly mainstream position within Israel's pro-settlement right, which views the Palestinians as an implacable security threat to Israel, expanded settlements into the West Bank as positive for security, and US mediation as soft-headed. 

At the end of last month, cabinet ministers, led by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, voted in favor of a non-binding resolution urging Israel to annex the west side of Jordan River Valley. Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, who backs annexation, said the vote sent "a clear statement by the government that the towns in the Jordan Valley are a strategic and security asset of the State of Israel that must stay in our hands." Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, also from Likud, said "there is no separation between settlement and security, and the Jordan Valley is a consensus among Israeli citizens."

These claims are absolute killers of any two-state peace process. So to a certain extent, Kerry is tilting at windmills, though it must be said that his efforts are getting some Netanyahu supporters hot under the collar, which brings us back to the defense minister's outburst. 

What's interesting about Yaalon's rage at Kerry is what prompted it: An entirely reasonable line taken by the US secretary of state.

As Haaretz summarizes:

In recent months, Kerry has stressed several times the urgent need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US secretary of state also warned that demographic changes could mean that unless a Palestinian state is established, Israel would no longer be able to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Kerry has also repeatedly warned that failure of the peace talks could lead to a third intifada and to a wave of boycotts against Israel.

Based on current trends, the ethnic-Arab population of Israel proper is expected to grow faster than the Jewish one. When the West Bank is taken into account, Jews are already in a minority in historic Palestine. This is an uncomfortable truth for Israel: the longer that Israel frames a two-state solution as a fantasy, not a reality, the closer Israel gets to choosing either apartheid and the abandonment of democracy or the demise of the Jewish state itself. It may annoy Yaalon to be reminded of this, but it doesn't make it any less true. 

As for a third Palestinian uprising, or intifada, it's hardly controversial to suggest that the festering wounds of occupation and settlement expansion increase the risk of Palestinian political violence.

Yaalon's remarks have peeled back the curtain on official Israel thinking about Kerry's efforts at peace-making and the willingness of its political establishment to meet him halfway. Men like Yaalon, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, don't feel they have to meet anyone, anywhere.

Would you do this job for free? Afghanistan's government apparently thinks paying its cops isn't a priority. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

How inept is Afghanistan's government?

By Staff writer / 01.13.14

The New York Times reports today that the Afghan National Police have not been paid for two months and that neither the government of President Hamid Karzai nor the US officers and civilian officials responsible for administrating the funding of Afghanistan's government appear to have noticed.

The paper writes:

The government has the money, which comes from the United States and its NATO allies, but the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, missed a deadline for filing the necessary forms with the Finance Ministry, said Afghan officials interviewed Sunday. The back salaries will be paid in the next few days, the officials said, playing down the issue as a minor administrative mix-up.

... Western officials, in this case, were caught off guard. Despite the billions of dollars their countries spend to pay the police, many American and European officials were not aware that the police had not been paid for nearly two months. They first heard about it when contacted by a reporter on Sunday.

This is a stunning display of incompetence from all quarters and deserves consideration given the Obama administration's continued hope that President Karzai will sign an agreement that allows US troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Karzai has refused to sign and two American-set deadlines have passed. US officials continue to insist that allowing foreign troops to stay is crucial for the continued flow of aid to Afghanistan and for the country's stability. 

Afghanistan's national police number over 150,000 members. Since 2002 more than $30 billion has been spent on training and equipping them. While NATO touts its success in training cops, the police force is better known for its predatory disposition towards average Afghans. Extortion, theft, unlawful killing, and collaboration with the opium trade are often what passes for a thin blue line in Afghanistan. Naturally, it gets worse when their meager salaries aren't paid. 

But it doesn't seem that anyone was minding the store. Another problem with the Afghan National Police is that they sometimes sell NATO supplied weapons and ammunition, particularly when they're in need of cash. With police salaries averaging below $240 a month, that almost certainly happened in the past few months.

If after 10 years and a war that has cost the US at least $1 trillion the government can't remember to pay its police (with money entirely provided by the US and other donors) - how many more years and how much money must be spent before it learns how?

Syrian National Coalition Chief Ahmad al-Jarba (l.) listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry during the start of their meeting at the US Ambassador's residence in Paris January 13, 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/REUTERS)

More wishful thinking on Syria

By Staff writer / 01.13.14

There's a key element that's missing from much of the coverage of Syrian "peace talks" scheduled for next week in Geneva: A frank explanation that the meeting is not going to yield an end to the war, a limited cease-fire, or anything resembling a political road map out of a conflict that has already left 150,000 Syrian's dead and displaced millions from their homes. 

The problem is the same one that made previous talks futile: Parties that control the violence won't be present at the meeting, and even if they were, conditions for peace aren't present, given that both rebel factions and the Assad government and its supporters feel they're locked in an existential struggle.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an exile group that the US and other Western actors have promoted as the political leadership of the rebellion, has never developed any control over rebel units on the ground, and certainly not over the jihadi groups that have eclipsed more secular-minded rebels thanks to material support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies.

The SNC itself has been torn apart by internal political competition and may not participate in the Geneva talks, especially since a decision to do so would further discredit the group among rebel units on the ground. But participate or not, the notion that the SNC speaks for the rebellion remains as fictional today as it has always been. They don't have the power to stop the fighting. 

Not that you'll hear that acknowledged by the great and the good as they insist that "diplomacy" is the answer to Syria's ills. "There is no other political solution," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today. "There will be no political solution for Syria unless 'Geneva II' meets."

Or consider US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in Paris that SNC attendance at the Geneva talks would be a "test of credibility" for the group. But credibility in whose eyes? Perhaps in American ones, but that's of limited utility in ending the war.

In Paris today the US and Russia, a strong supporter of Bashar al-Assad, discussed possible solutions, the BBC reports:

"We talked today about the possibility of trying to encourage a cease-fire, maybe a localized ceasefire in Aleppo," Mr. Kerry told a news conference after talks with (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria.

Both Mr. Kerry and Lavrov said they hoped ceasefires could be in place before the talks, along with plans for prisoner exchanges and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

Mr. Kerry said it was up to the Syrian government to show they were serious.

Notice what's missing from the discussion? That's right: The Syrian government and the rebels. For two years now well-meaning foreigners with limited leverage have announced plans to obtain cease-fires while never in fact obtaining them (Exhibit A), and there's no reason to expect the current state of play is any different.

From Assad's perspective, rebel infighting between Al Qaeda-style jihadists and more nationalist rebel units has weakened his opponents while terrifying many Syrians at the prospect of a rebel victory, given the jihadis penchant for summary execution of not just enemies but people who don't practice Islam in the fashion they demand. The Syrian Army has been making gains against the rebellion and would be foolish not to press its current advantage.

And Assad has limited incentive to reduce the pressure on the rebels with a cease-fire – particularly since the US and other foreign powers insist that Assad's departure from power most be part of any political settlement. Negotiations that require the other side to eventually fall on his sword as a first step rarely work out.

For the rebels there are two problems. There is no trust that the government would deliver on any promises made after two years of bloodshed that has seen government forces routinely shell civilian neighborhoods in the country's major cities and torture to death political activists in detention. And with such a fractured and leaderless insurgency it isn't possible to guarantee a cease-fire from their side anyways.

What of outside powers? Well, the US has yet to abandon it's "Assad must go" rhetoric, which queers the pitch for any good faith diplomatic negotiations. The Russians seem likely to continue backing Assad, as well Iran and the Lebanese Shiite militant movement Hezbollah. They will do so because they see their interests as secured by Assad staying in power, and threatened if he's overthrown and a Sunni Arab government comes to power. Saudi Arabia meanwhile will continue to back rebel jihadis, since any letup in the pressure on Assad increases the chances he survives.

None of this is intended to downplay the daily horrors of Syria's civil war, or the risks of the conflict spreading to neighbors like Lebanon. But wishing that the conditions are ripe for peace talks, or that there really is a coherent rebel leadership to participate in them, won't make it so.

This undated image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant , left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. (AP Photo via militant website)

The myth of Iraq's squandered stability

By Staff writer / 01.10.14

In early 2008, Gen. David Petraeus was presiding over a strategy that was designed to restore security to Iraq and, crucially, give the country's political factions breathing space to pursue reconciliation and compromise.

In March of that year, Gen. Petraeus said that despite a lack of progress on national reconciliation, he was hopeful that Iraqi leaders would "exploit the opportunities that we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to provide them." A key to his strategy was the Sahwa, or Awakening, a militia movement that drew its strength from Sunni Arab tribes who were sick of Al Qaeda's local affiliate and wanted to carve out a peaceful future in a new Iraq. 

As it turned out that opportunity was spurned at the very moment that it was offered. Instead, the political course that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies charted in 2008 has, more than anything, led to the state of near open-insurrection across the Sunni Arab dominated Anbar Province today. 

This is the key to unpicking Iraq's challenges today - and assertions from politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain that all would be different if President Barack Obama had managed to keep a residual force of 12,000 or so US troops in the country is highly speculative, at best. Iraqis failed to negotiate a durable and just peace when they were over 150,000 US troops in the country. Nor did the extended military drawdown prod them in that direction. The last combat troops left in December 2011. 

In the summer of 2008, reporter Sam Dagher covered the US handover of a supposedly pacified Anbar Province to Iraqi security control for the Monitor. The handover came towards the end of the US troop "surge," which was supposed to have routed Al Qaeda from its strongholds in Sunni majority areas. 

Things in fact remained quite bad. On the original date of the handover ceremony, a suicide car bomb killed 20 people, three of them US marines. The rescheduled ceremony in Ramadi ended up being canceled because of a sandstorm that grounded US helicopters. It was unthinkable that Baghdad-based Iraqi and American dignitaries could have driven the 70 miles from Baghdad to Ramadi, the provincial capital. 

Why? The lone highway through the province was a death run of insurgent improvised explosive devices, suicide car bombs, and ambushes. 

His piece from almost five years ago makes a point that remains true today and that is being lost in the frankly petty partisan point-scoring exercises that is raging on cable news.

The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstruction in Anbar and on training, equipping, and funding local forces, including the tribal militias, who make up the anti-AQI forces known as the Awakening. In some instances, the American money has been used to buy the allegiances of powerful tribal sheikhs.

But Anbar remains as it has always been: fiercely clannish, nationalistic, and conservative. It's a place that is hostile to outsiders, be they Americans or foreign fighters. The American money spent here also does not appear to have helped much in reconciling this vast western province with Iraq's Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

President George W. Bush said in a statement at the time that "Anbar has been transformed and reclaimed by the Iraqi people," but that simply wasn't true. Anbar remained Anbar, and while its people had been more cooperative of late with the US thanks to the tribal outreach, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, didn't uphold the new spirit of cooperation.

By the end of that summer the Maliki government was already turning on leaders of the Awakening; some were arrested by Iraqi authorities. Gen. Petraeus publicly complained that Maliki was dragging his feet on delivering the government jobs promised to roughly 100,000 Awakening members who had fought alongside US troops. The US had been paying $300 a month to over 85,000 of these militiamen. The Iraqi government was expected to ultimately provide them jobs, and that didn't happen.

As a result, Sunni Arab tribal figures - who were among the fiercest opponents to the US invasion - were left in the awkward position of fearing a US departure that left them at the mercy of a Shiite-dominated central government. This was more than two years before the US military withdrawal and yet neither Bush nor Petraeus nor any other US politician or officer could sway the Maliki government.

The reason for that was simple: Maliki did not view his interests as America's interests, and with his own people entrenched in the halls of power, there was no pressure to play nice with America. That's a big part of the reason he refused to sign a deal extending the US troop presence in the country. Not only was that politically unpopular, but from his perspective the US had already served its purpose.

Did President Obama withdraw from Iraq? Well, yes. But you could also say the US was kicked out. The Pentagon tried to negotiate an agreement that would allow a residual force to stay, but Maliki refused to meet America's terms, particularly immunity from Iraqi prosecution. That was always going to be a deal breaker, and he knew it.

But what if we were still there? Senator Graham said Wednesday: "If we'd had a residual force of 10- to 12,000, I am totally convinced there would not have been a rise of Al Qaeda... The political process would've continued to move forward."

Perhaps. But the political process wasn't really moving forward in 2008, and had begun to deteriorate severely by the last quarter of the year. It seems doubtful that the presence of 12,000 troops would make the US position in Iraq stronger today than it was back when there were over 100,000. The numbers don't add up. 

Sunni gunmen in Fallujah chant slogans during a Jan. 7 protest against Iraq's Shiite-led government, demanding that the Iraqi army not try to enter the city. (Reuters)

What's really going on in Iraq's Anbar Province? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.09.14

Iraq has a major crisis on its hands, make no mistake.

The country's civil war never really ended – it just went off the boil for a while. Last year, the heat was turned back to high, with the number of civilian deaths from political violence doubling to roughly 8,000 people over the previous year, the highest civilian death toll since at least 2008.

With the civil war raging in Syria and a porous border between Syria and Iraq's Anbar and Nineveh Provinces that has allowed militants – many of them jihadis in the style of Al Qaeda – to flow back and forth pretty much at will, Iraq's central government has a major challenge on its hands. It doesn't help that Iraq has parliamentary elections scheduled for this April and that its political polarization breaks down largely on sectarian lines.

But the country is not "on the brink" or "about to implode," if these stock phrases are meant to imply Iraq's impending descent into the depths of savagery that swept the country in 2005-07 or that Syria, with more than 150,000 dead, is experiencing now with its war.

And unlike Syria, locked in a long and grinding war which neither the government nor feuding rebel factions has the ability to win, Iraq has political tools at its disposal that could bring the conflict back down to a simmer if compromises are made.

So what's really going on there? A review of some common assertions: 

Al Qaeda has taken over Anbar Province.

No. It hasn't.

The first challenge is defining "Al Qaeda." Since the moment that a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq was established in the country, shortly after the US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, there's been a lot of confusion about the precise nature of the connection between the Sunni jihadis fighting inside the country and the original Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri saw the US invasion as a great opportunity and got in contact with the group, which was then run by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in a US airstrike in 2006). By 2004, Mr. Zarqawi had given an bay'a, an oath of allegiance, to bin Laden, and in the media narrative the two groups became intertwined.

But Zarqawi rarely followed orders from Al Qaeda central in Pakistan and Afghanistan – and a string of communications between his group and Zarqawi recovered by US forces during the war showed an enormous amount of frustration from Al Qaeda central over how its supposed Iraqi affiliate wouldn't do as it was told.

Part of the problem was that the militants fighting in Iraq had to cooperate with local Sunnis angry at the US occupation of the country – and the Shiite rise it was enabling – and less interested in Al Qaeda's mission of global jihad to create a multinational caliphate.

The fact that the Iraqi group's goals were largely national was clear as early as October 2006, when the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq. It has also been made clear by the lack of any plots targeting the US or its European allies – something that would be a top objective if bin Laden and Zawahiri had control over the organization.

Ok, but Al Qaeda's fellow travelers have seized control of Fallujah and Ramadi, right?

Well, again, not exactly.

The Sunni Arab tribes along the Euphrates River in Syria and Iraq's Anbar Province have strong cultural and familial ties, and many Syrians flocked to Iraq to fight the US and its allies in the area in the mid-2000s. That's a key reason that the Islamic State in Iraq was able to merge relatively seamlessly with Syrian jihadis to become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) last year.

But while the group has been on a high the past few weeks, roaming relatively unhindered and prompting the Iraqi police to abandon their posts in both towns, "controlling" is something else.

During the US war in Iraq, the group quickly wore out its welcome with the major local tribal confederations and the general public. Summary executions of locals for violating Islamic law, floggings, and general contempt for tribal practices and authority saw to that – as did the direct threat they posed to the economic interests of powerful figures in the region, who had long controlled lucrative smuggling routes and didn't appreciate the interference of the so-called mujahideen. That opened the door for the Sahwa, or "awakening," in which Sunni Arab tribes took up arms against the jihadis in exchange for money and political influence promised by the US military. 

The same dynamics are in place today. Anbar hates and fears the central government in Baghdad since, after all, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has treated the region and its leaders like dirt. But many leading tribal figures don't much like the jihadis either. They may passively support them, or even join forces with them against what they see as a greater enemy – the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi was touched off by Mr. Maliki's decision to use the military to violently clear year-old protest encampments against his government on Dec. 30. But longterm, they don't want to be run by any outsiders.

What this means is that while Fallujah and Ramadi are clearly not in the government's control, they're also not really in "Al Qaeda's" control either. And many of the tribal figures who have fought government forces in recent days have framed their struggle in nationalist terms, referring to Maliki's government as doing the bidding of Iran against the interests of the Iraqi nation. But others have tentatively sided with the government to fight ISIS, and some are remaining on the sidelines. 

Shiite-Sunni hatred is driving all this, right? 

Well, no. At least not exactly.

The Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq does drive much of national politics. But it's far from the whole story. Intermarriage between the sects is common, most Sunnis and Shiites still list "Iraqi" as their core identity, many of the largest tribal confederations contain both – and, at any rate, the divide is drawn by power and money, not dispute over the nature of Muslim worship. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the backbone of his murderous secular dictatorship, was open to Shiites as well as Sunnis, and many Shiites joined up for the economic and social advantages it conferred.

This is not to say that sectarian hatred isn't real, or wasn't a crucial component of the darkest days of the civil war. Sectarian death squads roamed the country in 2006 and 2007, torturing and killing people purely for their religious beliefs. In traditionally mixed cities like Baghdad, whole neighborhoods were depopulated of Sunnis and vice versa in a revenge cycle that still reverberates today.

It was always a given that Hussein's removal and free elections would lead to an ascendancy of Shiite religious parties, given their popularity and the fact that Shiites make up a majority of Iraq's population. That many Sunni Arabs would lose out in a post-Saddam Iraq, and resent this, was also a given.

But much of the current hatred revolves around very recent political choices. Most of the Shiite Islamist politicians who lead Iraq today lost multiple friends and family members in a crackdown, brutal even for the Hussein regime, on underground Shiite political movements after the first Gulf War. Today they view securing the political and military ascendancy of their sect as the top priority.

The Sunni Arabs of Anbar, who were bought off with state largesse during the Baath years, are viewed by Maliki and other leading Shiites as a potential threat to this goal. His government's systematic persecution of prominent Sunni Arab political figures is a key reason that ISIS has such a strong opening in Iraq right now.

This is clearly bad news. But there is a glimmer of hope. Read on.

Iraqi tribal leaders march during a ceremony marking Police Day at the police academy in Baghdad, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (Karim Kadim / AP)

Iraq: politics could be the solution, not the problem

By Staff writer / 01.09.14

Last year was the most violent in Iraq since at least 2008, and this year is off to a terrible start, with jihadis and their Sunni Arab allies in Anbar Province having driven central government forces out of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The suicide bomb that killed at least 21 people at an Iraqi military recruiting center in Baghdad today is certain to be followed by more bloodshed. (See "What's really going on in Anbar Province?")

Why?

The national reconciliation that the US military's "surge" of 30,000 extra troops into the country was supposed to enable never took place. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist political movement with close ties to Iran, has governed Iraq with intolerance and arrogance, stubbornly refusing to reach out to Iraq's disenchanted Sunni Arab majority and dismissing almost all of the community's political leaders who stand up to him as terrorists or friends of terrorists.

Though it may seem strange, this is good news. Because what's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion. 

To be sure, there's been no sign of dawning wisdom yet.

The chain of events that touched off the current crisis in Ramadi stretch back to Dec. 21. That day, ISIS successfully lured the Iraq Army's 7th Division into an ambush in Nineveh Province (north of Anbar and along the Syrian border), killing the division's commanding general Mohammed al-Karawi and three other senior officers. The killings shocked the nation, with Sunni tribal figures in Anbar and elsewhere condemning the attack and vowing to stand with the Iraqi state against ISIS.

It was a rare moment of opportunity for the Maliki government, as Joel Wing pointed out in a prescient note on Dec. 30"In recent history there have been few times where Iraqis have rallied behind the flag," he wrote. "The deaths of the officers provided one of those events where both the elite and common people came out to express their support for the security forces and the fight against Al Qaeda." 

The problem? Maliki used the attack as a pretense to go after Sunni Arab political protesters and political leaders. He linked the Anbar protesters with Al Qaeda in public and on Dec. 28 dispatched troops to arrest Ahmed al-Alwany, a lawmaker for the Iraqi Islamic Party and a powerful figure in Ramadi. (Mr. Alwany had engaged in inflammatory and violent anti-Shiite rhetoric.) During the raid, six people were killed, including al-Alwany's brother. The arrest and killings inflamed Ramadi and Fallujah, with rallies condemning the central government. Peaceful protest encampments were forcefully evicted. 

All this had the thoroughly predictable result of infuriating Anbar's tribes and clans, and saw many make common cause with ISIS, which made its gains in Fallujah and Ramadi this week. At the national level, 44 Sunni Arab lawmakers quit parliament in protest. The group has support from across the Sunni political spectrum, from Islamists to the resolutely secular.

Right now, the central government is considering its options, with troops massing for assaults.

But this sad state of affairs also points to a way out. In 2007, after years of futilely trying to beat fiercely independent Sunni Arab tribes into submission, the US realized that encouraging cooperation with jobs, money, and promises of national respect was a better course. The Sahwa was born. That's a course that remains open to Maliki.

Sunni Arab grievances are real, and are symbolized by the fate of Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab from the Iraqi Islamic Party who was Iraq's elected vice president. Hashemi was targeted by the government on trumped-up terrorism charges within a week of US withdrawal in late 2011. He and his family were forced to flee, and he was sentenced to death in absentia in 2012, along with his son-in-law.

That sent an unmistakeable message from Maliki to the country's Sunni Arabs, and is important to understanding last year's spike in violence. But the ideal of Iraqi nationalism remains potent. A fairer share of oil wealth, jobs in the bureaucracy, and guarantees of political autonomy in places like Anbar could go a long way to containing this crisis.

Of course, whether Maliki will make that choice is far from clear; his track record doesn't inspire great optimism. But this is not an intractable conflict, nor one that Iraqis don't have the tools to sort out themselves, were they to choose to try.

Ahmed Maher, one of the three men Egypt sentenced to prison today, at the protest that led to his conviction. (Ahmed Omar)

In Egypt, the 'revolution' is eating its young

By Staff writer / 12.22.13

In January 2011 hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and other cities and achieved what at the time appeared to be a stunning victory: Longstanding dictator Hosni Mubarak, whose regime stood for over 30 years thanks to tight controls on politics, the press, and civil society, was forced from power by huge numbers of Egyptians risking torture and death to say they'd had enough.

The fall of Mubarak wasn't a solution to Egypt's many problems. But it opened the door to imagining the Arab world's largest country, which was once a cultural and political leader in the region, becoming a place where democratic politics could emerge, and citizen involvement in reining in rampant abuses could set an example for the rest of the region.

That dream has been dying for a long time now. And the latest bit of bad news was the sentencing of three activists to three years in prison today under a law passed after the military coup the deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president, in July.

Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, were sentenced along with Ahmed Douma. The incident that led to their arrests and imprisonment came when Mr. Maher arrived at a Cairo courthouse to surrender on an earlier warrant of organizing an illegal demonstration. A small protest accompanied his arrival, in which Mr. Adel and Mr. Douma participated. The protesters complaint was simple. If Maher or any other Egyptian could be charged with a crime for peacefully demonstrating, then Egypt was not free, the uprising against Mubarak had not succeeded.

Egypt's military rulers responded to that protest with new charges against Maher and by arresting Adel and Douma. Adel was arrested in a raid on the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights last week. Douma was arrested at his home in early December.

Their convictions signal a military-government crackdown on political dissent that is expanding far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that catapulted Mr. Morsi to the presidency. The July coup followed massive street protests against Morsi that at least equaled in size those that drove Mubarak from power, reflecting the unease of large numbers of Egyptians at the Brotherhood's efforts to make Islamic Law dominant in Egyptian political and social life.

Morsi and much of the Brotherhood's senior leadership have been jailed since. But whatever question there was that the apparatus of repression would stop at the Brothers has pretty much been settled.

The three men jailed today are all secular leaning activists with roots in the Kifaya, or "Enough," movement that bubbled up against Mubarak and his plans to have his son succeed him in the middle of the last decade. Kifaya's demonstrations were often small, its leaders frequently arrested and harassed. While it didn't succeed outright, it helped lay the ground for the successful protests of 2011.

Maher cut his teeth on anti-Mubarak activism early. The April 6 Youth Movement came together via a Facebook page in support of striking textile workers in the Nile Delta town of Mahallah in 2008. A running theme of the secular activism against the state since the middle of the last decade has been standing up against police and government brutality, and calls for an end to impunity for human rights abuses by security officials. The murder of Khaled Said, a young middle-class businessman and blogger, in 2010 by police in Alexandria, led to a spate of online activism that helped bring the crowds out that brought Mubarak down.

Now it appears that Egypt's interim military government is not going to risk another such outburst. “The Ministry of Interior’s pursuit of these four activists is a deliberate effort to target the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform," Sarah Lee Whitson, the Human Rights Watch director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement before the sentencing. “It should come as no surprise that with the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood well underway, the Ministry of Interior is now targeting leaders of the secular protest movement.”

Maher, like many secular activists, backed the protests against Morsi in the middle of the summer, and was pleased at the time that the military deposed the Brotherhood leader. He quickly grew disillusioned, as he found that the military and security apparatus of Egypt he'd opposed before Mubarak's downfall was much the same as it has always been.

In August, he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that his support for the military-backed interim government had been conditional on the military not interfering in politics. By that point he'd found that interference was their middle name - particularly in the passage of the law that saw him jailed today.

Our support for the transitional road map to new elections was predicated on the military’s pledge that it would not interfere in Egypt’s political life. The expanding role of the military in the political process that we are nonetheless witnessing is disconcerting...

Moreover, I cannot accept that, once again, the government is exerting control over the media on the pretext of the war on terror. Based on my previous experiences with the military — I was arrested and beaten for my activism in 2008 — I cannot help but fear that I may be accused of terrorism if I criticize the new regime...

Despite my support for the June 30 revolutionary wave, and despite the fact that it was a people’s movement before it was a military intervention, I now see much to fear. I fear the insurrection against the principles of the Jan. 25 revolution, the continued trampling of human rights and the expansion of restrictive measures in the name of the war on terror — lest any opponent of the authorities be branded a terrorist.

Maher and his friends opposed Mubarak and, eventually, won. He opposed Morsi and won.

The military in Egypt has sent the message today that they are not interested in him winning again.

A policeman patrolls the site of a suicide bombing in Baghdad's southern district of Dora, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. A suicide bombing targeting Shiite pilgrims in Iraq's capital on their way to Karbala, a holy city, and other violence across the country killed more than 20 people Thursday, officials said. (Karim Kadim/AP)

Iraq violence more than doubles in 2013: is country headed off the cliff?

By Staff writer / 12.20.13

Political violence in Iraq has become a fact of life, the threat of imminent death a practical consideration for any Iraqi who chooses to attend a crowded market, travel by bus or car between towns or neighborhoods of major cities, commemorate religious holidays, or publicly mourn for friends and relatives of past attacks.

Yesterday was no different. A suicide bomber targeted a funeral tent in the Baghdad neighborhood of Doura, a few miles south of what was once known as the Green Zone and that today houses a sprawling, underused US embassy built at a cost of $750 million. The attack, in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood that was among the city's bloodiest at the height of the civil war, is a reminder that death stalks Iraqis even in the heart of the capital. 

Elsewhere on Thursday two suicide bombers targeted Shiite pilgrims in the crossroads town of Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, killing 20. The pilgrims were making their way to the ancient shrine city of Karbala to commemorate the death of Hussein, a grandson of Islam's prophet Mohammed, and were passing through a region that has long been referred to as the "triangle of death."

Although political violence has been a fact of life for Iraqis since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it had declined substantially since 2008. But the death rate for civilians more than doubled this year, raising the troubling prospect of Iraq possibly slipping once more into outright chaos.

How bad is it? This year has been by far the deadliest for civilians since at least 2008, with well over 7,000 killed in roadside bombings and attacks on markets, homes, and mosques.

When the US and other foreign militaries left the country at the end of 2011, there were warnings that violence could spike again. That didn't happen immediately, as United Nation's data shows, but Iraq is once more one of the two or three hottest wars in the world.

These are the totals of civilians killed in Iraq since 2008, based on data compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq:

  • 2008: 6,787
  • 2009: 3,056
  • 2010: 2,953
  • 2011: 2,771
  • 2012: 3,238
  • 2013: 7,157

The 2013 total doesn't include killings in December – and doesn't include Iraqi soldiers and militants who have died. Data compiled by Agence France-Presse – whose methodology differs from the UN's – had at least 337 Iraqi civilians killed so far this month, and that was before the 36 people murdered yesterday.

Why has 2013 been so bad? Was it because the US withdrew combat troops at the end of 2011? (US hopes of an extended presence fell flat when the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declined to grant immunity to US troops from Iraqi prosecution.) Well, the increase in violence in 2012 was modest, certainly compared to the change this year. The absence of large numbers of foreign troops has certainly played a role in creating more space for insurgents and militias.

But a key factor seems to be the explosion of the civil war in Syria, which breathed new life into Al Qaeda in Iraq and its fellow travelers. Iraqi fighters have flowed into Syria, many from Anbar province that was a stronghold for Sunni insurgents during the height of the US war, just as Sunni fighters flowed from Syria into Iraq in the middle of the last decade. The Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq, which once branded itself Al Qaeda in Iraq, renamed itself to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant this year – explicitly acknowledging its connection to the Syrian war.

Violence remains well below the levels that preceded the so-called US troop surge in Iraq that began in early 2007 and ran through the middle of the following year. But the success of the surge largely hinged on encouraging Sunni Arab insurgents to switch sides, convincing them to link up with US and Iraqi government forces in exchange for the promise of jobs and inclusion in the country's emerging political institutions.

But in the years since, Iraq's dominant Shiite politicians have continued to push Sunnis aside and the promised jobs evaporated, a process that accelerated with the US departure from the country at the end of 2011. Political reconciliation never took place, and an angry, disenfranchised Sunni community is fertile ground for recruitment of fighters.

In some ways, the violence just burned itself out. Sectarian cleansing took place across Baghdad and other cities, turning what had once been mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods into strongholds for one side or the other. In short, death squads had fewer easy targets and accomplished a short-term objective. But that adds to concerns over the 2013 surge in violence: Even with this sectarian sorting, the "new" Iraq is a bloody place, where politics are driven by sectarian allegiances, and where their seems to be no shortage of men willing to kill civilians.

As the US continues to debate what it should do about Syria, where the civil war has internally displaced more than six million people and turned two million into refugees abroad, Iraq is a reminder that even massive spending and a sprawling occupation are no guarantees of great success. The US spent more than $800 billion on the war in Iraq and counted on a long-term involvement with the country that would strengthen the interests of both.

The US Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, is a symbol of how things actually turned out. When the embassy was opened to great fanfare in 2009 – then ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said at the time "as our military presence ramps down, many other aspects of our relationship are going to ramp up" – the expectation was that an army of US diplomats and contractors working on aid and development projects would be in the country indefinitely. At that time the embassy was responsible for 16,000 employees across the country. By the end of this year, it's expected to be responsible for fewer than 6,000.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

The athlete-adventurer co-founded a relay run called One Run for Boston that started in Los Angeles and ended at the marathon finish line to raise funds for victims.

 
 
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