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.
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.
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?")
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Saudi Arabia hasn't been shy about pressuring the US into direct involvement in the Syrian civil war on the rebels' side. The latest prominent Saudi to throw his hat into the ring is Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the ruling family and the ambassador to Britain.
In an Op-Ed in The New York Times today, Prince Nawaf tied Syria policy with his own country's longstanding rivalry with Iran in the region, writing that "we believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East."
Under President Bashar al-Assad, Syria is one of only two Arab countries friendly to Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to see Mr. Assad's government toppled, to be replaced by a Sunni-dominated regime. That would to some extent rebalance the effects of the US-led war in Iraq, which toppled the Sunni Arab-dominated there that was hostile to Iran and led to its replacement by a Shiite government far friendlier to the Islamic republic along its eastern border.
While international efforts have been taken to remove the weapons of mass destruction used by the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, surely the West must see that the regime itself remains the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all? Chemical weapons are but a small cog in Mr. Assad’s killing machine. While he may appear to be going along with every international initiative to end the conflict, his regime will continue to do everything in its power to frustrate any serious solution.
The Assad regime is bolstered by the presence of Iranian forces in Syria. These soldiers did not enter Syria to protect it from a hostile external occupation; they are there to support an evil regime that is hurting and harming the Syrian people. It is a familiar pattern for Iran, which has financed and trained militias in Iraq, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and militants in Yemen and Bahrain.
And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.
His comments need to be read with skepticism. While it's true that Syrian government forces have carried out war crimes in Syria, so have rebel units – particularly Islamist formations that, with informal flows of weapons and money from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, now dominate the forces opposed to Assad. Part of what has stayed the Obama administrations hand is fear of becoming a direct participant in a sectarian conflict that could become much uglier if the Syrian state collapsed.
The backbone of the Assad regime has been the Alawite minority – a long-ago offshoot of Shiite Islam – that he hails from. The country also has significant Shiite and Christian minorities, many of whom are afraid of what would happen to them in the aftermath of a rebel victory. Quite simply, while Assad may be running a killing machine, his men are far from the only killers in the conflict.
With the open participation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party and militia backed by Iran, the conflict is shaping up to be a proxy war between Iranian and Saudi interests. That the House of Saud would like the US and other powers to intervene on its side in the conflict is as clear as the desire for Iran or Hezbollah for the US not to do so. None of the intentions of these outsiders is as pure as the undriven snow in this conflict.
As for Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the interim agreement struck between Iran and world powers to halt enrichment for six months while a permanent agreement is crafted may indeed fail. But the prospects of success make clear that a deal is in US interests. Getting what you want at the negotiating table is, after all, far cheaper and better for the lives and limbs of all concerned than war.
But Saudi Arabia's interests – and those of Israel, which is also opposed to efforts to forge a deal with Iran – are not really aligned with the United States' interests in this case. The Saudis don't want to see Iran, with its vast oil reserves, large economy, and substantial conventional military forces, strengthened by an end to sanctions, nukes or no nukes.
Is Nawaf right that "Al Qaeda’s activities (in Syria) are a symptom of the international community’s failure to intervene?" Well, the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq was a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been in large part thanks to Al Qaeda's already established presence just over the border. ISIS is the latest iteration of Al Qaeda in Iraq – a group that received substantial support from Saudi citizens during the US occupation of Iraq, and after.
That isn't to say direct US-led intervention sooner would have definitely made things worse on that front – but this bald assertion is made over and over by advocates of intervention (often with their own ultimate objectives unstated) without any consideration of recent history.
Nawaf asserts that "the policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region" and that as a consequence "this means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs... nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World."
As a statement that Saudi Arabia will pursue its interests in the region as it sees them, this can be taken at his word. When democracy protests in Shiite majority Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia acted in favor of stability, sending troops to participate in a bloody crackdown against the protesters. Amnesty International alleged in a report this week that Bahrain is routinely detaining and torturing involved with anti-government protests.
Don't expect Saudi Arabia to speak out against this. Its interests are aligned with Bahrain.
The country is also looking to stability at home. This week the Saudi cabinet approved a draft law that criminalizes acts deemed to "disturb public order, defame the reputation of the state or threaten the kingdom’s unity," the Associated Press reports.
None of this should lead to us overlooking the daily horrors in Syria, or the millions of people displaced and huddling for shelter in makeshift camps during an unusually cold and snowy winter across the Levant.
But it's worth considering that the Saudi military support the country continues to promise to rebels can prolong the war as much as, if not more easily, than it can end it. In this matter, as in so many, national interest is the overriding concern, no matter how nicely it's dressed up as humanitarian concern.
There's always been something a little strange about the story of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who disappeared on Kish Island – a sort of smugglers' paradise controlled by Iran in the Persian Gulf, but with much looser rules imposed on entry and exit – in March 2007.
The US government said it had nothing to do with Mr. Levinson and didn't know why he'd gone to Kish. "He's a private citizen involved in private business" the State Department claimed in 2007. His family said he was dispatched to investigate cigarette smuggling for an undisclosed private client. Dawhud Salahuddin (born David Belfield), a US citizen who murdered an Iranian diplomat in Washington D.C. in 1980 at the behest of the new government of Ayatollah Khomeini and has lived in exile in Iran ever since, says he spent Levinson's last night of freedom with him, and in interviews over the years has suggested a government faction had detained him.
Press TV, a government propaganda outlet with which Mr. Salahuddin has worked off and on for years, said shortly after his disappearance that Levinson was in Iranian custody. "Proof of life" videos were occasionally released by Levinson's family, but without any explanation of what if any demands were being made.
You didn't have to be an intelligence pro to know that something didn't make sense about Levinson's predicament. And it turns out part of his problem was that the people he was working with weren't exactly pros.
The Associated Press broke a story yesterday saying that Levinson was working as part of a rogue CIA operation. The truth of that has been kept out of the public eye since 2007 with the cooperation of members of Congress, the Bush and Obama White Houses, and, for the past three years, the Associated Press itself.
While the AP reports that Levinson's handlers were CIA employees, they all appear to have been analysts, rather than employees expert in gathering intelligence themselves and running assets in the field. The AP says the employees running Levinson as their own private collection agent weren't authorized to do so, and that three analysts were quietly sacked in 2007 for their involvement and a further seven admonished.
How did they break the story? The AP writes:
Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.
The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.
The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.
The New York Times published a version of the Levinson story shortly after the AP's report, and had been sitting on the information for many years as well.
That the AP and other American news operations give more leeway in such matters to the US government rather than private citizens is fairly well established. In 2006, when a colleague of mine was kidnapped in Iraq, the AP observed a news blackout for two days before calling The Christian Science Monitor and saying they couldn't sit on a newsworthy story anymore.
Doesn't add up
Even though the report today answers or resolves a lot of the curious statements about Levinson's disappearance – ie, there was a lot of lying going on – there's still plenty that doesn't add up.
If Levinson was taken by the Iranian government - or a faction within it - Iran could be fairly certain that he was attempting to spy on the country.
And the AP story says Salahuddin was the man that Levinson had exclusively gone to see for information about Iran's nuclear program. A former assassin from North Carolina and an American exile who's frequently talked to journalists in his 35 years and has never expressed any remorse for his actions seems a strange person to know many of Iran's nuclear secrets, or to spill the beans if he did.
He'd also be a strange person for Iranian counterintelligence not to be keeping an eye on, especially since the man who brokered the meeting for Levinson was Ira Silverman, who'd written a 2002 article for The New Yorker suggesting Salahuddin would make an excellent intelligence asset for the US.
A final strangeness is how easily a group of CIA analysts, led by Anne Jablonski according to the AP, managed to break a series of very serious CIA rules for years while not getting caught - even as they used Levinson to create intelligence product to be pushed higher up the chain. Did their training not make clear this was out of bounds? Was no one in a senior position auditing their expenses and activities?
This was six years ago now - long before a young NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was able to flee the United States to Russia with a trove of operational and technical material about American intelligence practices.
How many problems of weak supervision and auditing of employees at US intelligence agencies have we not heard about?
President Barack Obama's Syria policy, such as it's been, is now dead.
That it was on life support has been clear for a long time. But with the routing of the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) from its headquarters recently by Islamist rebel fighters, the plug should be pulled.
The US can insist that its suspension of non-lethal aid (and a trickle of weapons) to the FSA via a group called the Supreme Military Council (SMC) is temporary all it wants, but the momentum now belongs to Islamist rebels who are as hostile to US interests as they are to those of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Assad's military has won a series of victories around Damascus and Syria's second city, Aleppo, and its evolving alliance with the Lebanese Shiite military group and political party Hezbollah has strengthened both sides.
What precisely happened is a subject of some dispute. US officials, behind veils of anonymity, told reporters yesterday that the recently created Islamic Front – representing a variety of rebel units all interested in imposing the Sunni version of Islamic law on Syria – had overrun the more secular and Western-leaning headquarters of the FSA. The Islamic Front also seized a storehouse filled with US-supplied telecommunications equipment, field rations, and medicine, as well as weapons.
The claim was that FSA chief Gen. Salim Idris had been forced to flee to Qatar – a humiliating exit for a rebel leader touted by US officials as the commander of the armed Syrian rebellion.
Today, the exiled politicians in the Syrian National Council, a US-backed civilian group, claimed that the Islamic Front had actually come to the FSA's rescue. The US has sought since last year to put this council forward as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people. Its spokesman, Khaled Saleh, said that the FSA's base was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a rival Islamist group to the Islamic Front that sprung out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Reuters reports. The Islamic Front was then invited in by the FSA, and drove out ISIS, Saleh said. Are we clear so far?
Maybe that's the way it happened, but the dramatically different stories told by the US and the US-favored Syrian opposition are not very reassuring. The disputed events near the Turkish border were said to have taken place over the weekend.
The Syrian National Council has often been touted as an umbrella for most of the Syrian rebellion's fighting strength (for instance by Elizabeth O'Bagy, a paid advocate for US intervention in Syria who lost her job earlier this after she was found to have lied about her academic credentials). However, in practice it has represented the FSA and little else – and not very effectively.
Fred Hof, who previously served as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria, writes this week that in the absence of the kinds of guns and money that have been provided to Islamist groups by Gulf sponsors like Saudi Arabia (Hof doesn't name them), rebel units have been abandoning the FSA in droves.
Recent events have highlighted the extent to which respectable Syrian nationalists in the opposition have been sidelined, and the recent suspension of non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army by the United States further attests to this reality. Fighters affiliated with the recently formed Islamic Front—a coalition of armed, non-al-Qaeda Syrian Islamist groups opposed to the Assad regime—recently seized some US-supplied, non-lethal materiel from the Free Syrian Army. Personnel of the Islamic Front can now dine on meals-ready-to-eat and communicate with one another using equipment paid for by US taxpayers. General Salim Idris, the very capable officer through whom the United States wanted all weaponry and equipment for the armed Syrian opposition funneled, has seen forces he had hoped to command migrate to Islamist formations whose sponsors and supporters deliver arms, ammunition, and money, as opposed to rations, medical kits, radios, and pickup trucks. The Coalition-affiliated Supreme Military Council and the disparate units of the Free Syrian Army loosely associated with it are now essentially out of business
"Now essentially out of business." If Mr. Hof is right, and there's very little reason to disagree with his assessment, pulling back together whatever strands of the FSA are left will be very, very hard. The temporary suspension of US aid will make it harder for what remains of its units to hang together. Moreover, a weaker FSA may mean that whatever US aid does go to Syria ends up in the hands of rebel fighters who are hostile to US interests.
Furthermore, the claim today that the FSA teamed up with the Islamic Front to stand up to the Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS won't exactly give US officials the warm and fuzzies. The front's units have engaged in hyper-sectarian rhetoric and are opposed to any kind of political settlement that would leave in place Syria's current power structure – the only real hope for a negotiated end to the war at this point.
A negotiated end is what Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have insisted is the only way out of the war, but the marginalization of men like Idris makes any grounds for meaningful talks even shakier than they'd been all along.
What are the options going forward for a real US strategy in Syria – where the conflict continues to cast a shadow of destabilization over Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and to some extent Turkey? None particularly obvious.
Direct military involvement is so unlikely as to make it not worth considering. A major outreach to the non-Al Qaeda Islamists, coupled with a major diplomatic effort to convince the Saudis to arm-twist their clients into compromise? Perhaps that's a way forward – though it would mean the US is supporting a group that is pushing Sunni hegemony in Syria, a country with meaningful Christian, Shiite, and Alawite minorities. The US government's mantra of support for democracy would seem to preclude that.
What else? No good options are left. In retrospect, the US might have held its nose and armed moderate rebels that could stand up to the Islamist armies. But the rebels friendly to US interests were never very obvious or well organized. The notion of a national level "Free Syrian Army" with meaningful command and control at anything beyond the local level has been mostly aspirational. As I wrote in May:
Put simply, the Syrian opposition has not come together in the way the US had hoped – not in its military composition, which now involves a lot of fellow travelers from a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, nor on the international diplomatic front, which is fraught with infighting and doubt about the worth of a conference far from the battlefield.
Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah continue to pour into Syria to fight for Assad, with Iranian and Russian military support for the regime lurking in the background.
Seven months on, a policy that was clearly in the process of failing has failed. And coming up with a new approach more suited to reality on the ground has only gotten harder – even as the bodies mount, and the refugees continue to flee.
In writing up a post on Afghanistan considering reintroducing stoning adulterers to death to its legal system I came across several references to an old chestnut that's been peddled for years by Western officials. The claim is that war is good for longevity. Namely, that Afghan life expectancy has increased by 20 years since the US-led invasion in 2002.
I first came across that claim in 2011, when US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker made the assertion to the hawkish Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. I wrote skeptically about it at the time, arguing that life expectancy rarely, if ever, improves dramatically in countries at war and that, at any rate, good statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan.
The claim is still being bandied about, usually to support the case for an extended military effort in Afghanistan. Adm. James S. Stavridis, recently retired as supreme commander of NATO, wrote in August: "Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time."
The data compiled at Hans Rosling's Gapminder has Afghanistan's life expectancy at birth at 61 years for 2012 and at 56 years for 2003. While a 9 percent improvement in a decade is nothing to sneeze at, it's not a 48 percent increase.
But that's hardly the most interesting part. In September 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which persisted through the start of 2002. What happened to life expectancy in those years? Well, life expectancy at birth rose from 53 years in 1996 to 56 years in 2002 - a 5.7 percent gain. Should this statistic be used to argue that the Taliban should be restored to power?
Of course not. But the steady improvement in life expectancy in a country that has been wracked by war for decades, and is among the world's poorest, is a reminder that correlation is not causation. Afghanistan's gains track similar gains across South Asia. Both Pakistan and India have made similar, linear strides in life expectancy. In the 1980s, when Afghanistan was wracked by civil war, Gapminder data shows life expectancy improved from 41 years to 48, an astonishing improvement of 17 percent. Was the Soviet Union therefore a better foreign steward for Afghanistan than the US during its decade-long occupation?
What's at work here are regional and global trends: The spread of vaccines, cheaper food, and better understanding of hygiene combined with growing wealth. So, yes, Afghan life expectancy has soared while NATO has been in the country. Just as it soared when the Soviets and the Taliban were in charge.
Human Rights Watch reports that a draft of the new penal code being produced President Hamid Karzai's justice ministry contains provisions for stoning people to death for the crime of adultery. Unmarried people found to have engaged in sexual relations will have it a little easier – 100 lashes.
The rights group's Asia director, Brad Adams, called the proposal "absolutely shocking" and added, "President Karzai needs to demonstrate at least a basic commitment to human rights and reject this proposal out of hand."
Perhaps Mr. Karzai will. But these kinds of practices are very popular in Afghanistan, and have remained so during the 11-year NATO war there. While press releases often toot triumphantly about gains in basic rights for women that have been accompanied by foreign aid and influence, claims of great progress often aren't seen much beyond the outskirts of Kabul.
Karzai is seeking to incorporate the Taliban, a movement that elevated stoning from an informal cultural practice to the law of the land when they began to rule Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
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Karzai apparently doesn't see much of a problem for women in that incorporation. In October, he said that Afghan women have nothing to fear from the return of the Taliban. The country's legal system under Karzai has routinely violated the rights of women – for instance, the practice of jailing women for "adultery" (many of whom in fact are simply young women or girls trying to run away from arranged marriages) has been prevalent.
At least 172 women were in jail across Afghanistan in 2012. Of those, 101 were in jail in Herat Province. The significance of that? Herat's chief prosecutor is Maria Bashir, the only woman in that role in the country. She explained away her comparatively higher rate of prosecutions for adultery on the proximity of Herat to "permissive" Iran, the influence of which leads to more adultery in her province.
Ms. Bashir's standing is often cited as evidence for how much better Afghanistan has become for women since the Taliban were toppled in 2002. The Obama administration gave her an "International Women of Courage Award" and Time Magazine wrote in 2011 that Bashir is "establishing precedents that will become the foundations of a just and equal society."
But after a decade of war the argument that "not Taliban" equals "good for women" has been accepted far too readily. The Taliban were a catastrophe for women, of course, but the Taliban were also an organic, Afghan movement that ironically, perhaps, began in part to rise in the mid-1990s after lawless Afghan gangs began raping women across the country, willy-nilly, after the Soviets pulled out.
The Taliban attitudes toward women stem from widespread cultural beliefs, as Tom Peter pointed out last year after a mother-in-law strangled her daughter-in-law to death for giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son.
Many in the international community are quick to blame such behavior on the Taliban or its influence, but the group appears uninvolved. Mistreatment of women is common across Afghanistan's political and ethnic spectrum and incidents like the latest murder stem from traditional practices in Afghanistan that predate the creation of the Taliban. The recent conviction in Canada of wealthy Afghan immigrant Mohammed Shafia, who murdered three of his daughters for not following his strict rules, was another reminder of such traditions.
... While murders like the one in Kunduz are at the extreme end of the spectrum, violence against women is widespread. According to a recent report by Oxfam 87 percent of Afghan women reported experiencing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse or forced marriages.
Gains for women have not been the only "successes" that aren't all they are cracked up to be after further examination. Improvements in health care, for instance, have frequently been overstated.
But as the US and its NATO partners continue to lean on Karzai to approve a bilateral security agreement that would keep foreign troops in the country beyond 2014, they should remember that the government they support will frequently condone practices that their constituents at home find abhorrent.
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"HIV rates and heroin use (in Greece) have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 ($950) per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes."
As a picture of economic despair, what could be more poignant or horrifying than legions of Greeks infecting themselves with an incurable disease that is frequently deadly?
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Press outlets quickly ran with the story. The past day has brought dozens of headlines: "Greeks self-inject HIV to claim benefits," wrote Al Jazeera. "Half of HIV infections in Greece are self-inflicted," said Fox News. "Price of fiscal austerity: Greek's self-inject HIV to claim €700 in benefits," was the headline in the Kremlin-controlled news outlet Voice of Russia.
A properly skeptical take on this claim, however, might have been more along the lines of, "Really?... No, I'm serious. Show me the evidence."
It turns out, as the WHO acknowledges today, there is no evidence – because the statement isn't true. "This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report," the WHO writes.
Where did this tale come from? It started with a note published in The Lancet (a UK-based medical journal) in October 2011. "Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy" was a review of recent developments in health care and infection in Greece. The authors wrote (emphasis mine):
A significant increase in HIV infections occurred in late 2010. The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 new cases versus 605), with half of the currently observed increases attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.19 Data for the first 7 months of 2011 show more than a 10-fold rise in new infections in these drug users compared with the same period in 2010.20 The prevalence of heroin use reportedly rose by 20% in 2009, from 20 200 to 24 100, according to estimates from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs.
Budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 have resulted in the loss of a third of the country's street-work programmes;21 one survey of 275 drug users in Athens in October, 2010, found that 85% were not on a drug-rehabilitation programme.21 Many new HIV infections are also linked to an increase in prostitution (and associated unsafe sex).22 An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.22 These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.
At the end of the day, what we have are "accounts" of a "few individuals" in an "authoritative report" becoming a claim hundreds of people are deliberately infecting themselves. Following the footnote bread-crumbs rather than blindly trusting the WHO when it made an absurd on its face claim would have shown it wasn't true.