Friday, June 29, 2007

Hammering a Screw

Canada day is July 1st. Canada is at war but life goes on here undisturbed. We have little idea of what's happening in Afghanistan. In most of most of the country the central government is nothing more than a rumor and in the east the American military is racking up a high civilian body count creating widespread unhappiness among Afghans. This path will only lead to trouble.

Canadians are posted in the province of Kandahar (15), birthplace of the Taliban.

As an immigrant Canadian from a war-torn country I find it strange to think that our country is at war. Every week we hear about more soldiers dying in Afghanistan while at home most Canadians couldn't point to Kandahar on a map or tell you the difference between Pashtuns and Tajiks.
Many are under the misconception that Canada is engaged in "peacekeeping operations." That Canadians are dying to provide security and stability and help the Afghan government stand alone. Well Canada is not.
The Canadian military is fighting a, so far, low level insurgency (if Iraq is high level). The goal, as stated publicly, is to wrestle control Kandahar province away from the the Taliban and other local militias.
That's all well and good but the fight is going on in complete opacity. The NATO and Canadian spokespeople only offer vague platitudes espousing "progress" and "good-will." Reporters covering the conflict rarely leave the military bases and when they do they are accompanying a military mission or patrol. If they do ever run into locals they do so within eyesight of soldiers. Additionally locals probably don't see much difference between the foreign troops and the reporters along for the ride. Odds are neither group will ever discover the true local sentiment.
And when fighting insurgencies unvarnished information from locals is crucial.

Fighting a war against and army is like hammering a nail. The more force the better. In this situation the military is trying, as I heard a US soldier say once, "to break things and kill people."
Fighting an insurgency and against a guerrilla force is like tightening a screw. The right tool and precision is key to success. Counter insurgency depends more on small, correctly calibrated actions than large scale shows of force.
From a NATO perspective, there is one big problem in Afghanistan right now. First is that both strategies (counter-insurgency and traditional war-fighting) are active in the theater at the same time. In the east Americans are bombing, attacking villages trying to kill any opposition.
Meanwhile Canadian, British and Dutch troops are trying to mount a classic counter-insurgency in the south with a limited number of soldiers.
Both these regions are majority Pashtun, the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the ethnicity of the majority of Taliban fighters. Any heavy handed measure undertaken by the US military (like killing school children last week) is going to have blow back all across the Pashtun heartland. No matter how careful the Canadian, British and Dutch troika try to be as they try to drain Taliban support they will be continuously undermined by inevitable errors in the US controlled zone.
(Errors are inevitable when bombing from from the air in civilian areas. Even a success rate of 90% in picking out and hitting the right targets will result in many civilian casualties.)

It's also important to point out that not all Afghans shooting and bombing Canadians are Taliban.
The new western-backed central government in Kabul is dominated by warlords who made up the Northern Alliance, an organization made up of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, although President Karzai is a Pashtun. The Northern Alliance fought a long civil war against the majority Pashtun Taliban for a long time (which they won thanks to American air support after 9/11). So trying to to bring the south and east under government control will inspire some ethnically based resistance (which will probably only be expanded by civilian casualties). In addition to, there are probably many drug-lords in the area who dislike foreign eyes snooping around.
Fighting an insurgency requires dividing your enemies and co-opting as many groups as possible. Lumping together all resistance under the moniker of Taliban is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it will unify the resistance and make it harder to defeat.
Events in Anbar province in Iraq are perfect example of this. During the Rumsfeld era all Iraqi resistance was labeled al-Qaeda or terrorists and not to be talked to or negotiated with. During this period resistance was fierce and Anbar fell completely out of US control. Recently the American military has managed to co-opt several militias -Islamic Army, 1920 Revolutionary brigades, etc- so that they are now shooting at al-Qaeda and not Americans. Anbar has gone form al-Qaeda safe haven to a contested area again.
Just because someone shot at you before doesn't mean they have to shoot at you forever. In tribal societies switching sides during a conflict is a deeply rooted tradition.

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is trouble. Undermined by American tactics and our own denial. But it can be turned around.
We live in a democracy, a democracy were politicians are extremely sensitive to changes in public opinion. By becoming more informed and demanding more lucid, more truthful and detailed information from our government a change in policy is still possible (putting pressure on the US to be more discriminate would help, for one).
Unless the Canadian public becomes more involved this endeavor is likely to end in failure. That would be a black mark on us all and a tragedy for Afghanistan.

"You don't send an army to war. You take a country to war."
- Tim Russert, NBC

A Guardian article about one of many raids in Afghanistan showing how hard it is to get at the true facts.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Played with fire, got burned.

That's what should be written on the gravestone of Fatah in Gaza.

Fatah got exactly what it deserved.
That may seem a bit harsh but let's review the recent history:

Hamas won the legislative elections and that victory granted them the right to form a government and rule the "country."
This was a big problem because in Fatah's eyes it is the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. In the aftermath of the elections Fatah members, who make up the vast majority of state employees, refused to accept the results. They had powerful allies: Israel, the US and other Western powers. A plan was set into motion.

- Starve the Hamas government of funds.
- Arm and train security forces loyal to Fatah only.
- Work through President Abbas and ignore Hamas in all political dealings.
- Encourage Fatah (who did not need much encouragement) to stonewall Hamas at every turn.
- Hope these policies cause a crisis, then Abbas could call for early elections which Fatah would win.

So, from the beginning Fatah bureaucrats and soldiers refused to take orders from Hamas ministers and used all means (legal and illegal) to thwart Hamas.
This led to the first round of factional fighting which ended with a Saudi brokered peace and a Hamas led unity government containing several Fatah and independent ministers.
This agreement was supposed to allow Hamas to rule but in a more tempered manner with more Fatah input. It was hoped, unwisely as it turned out, that with this new government that foreign aid would begin to flow again. It did not. The Bush administration repeated that any government containing Hamas would not be acceptable to them or their allies.
(I listened to a lot of American speeches about democracy in the middle east. I must have missed the part where they mention that they get to pick the winners.)
Many Fatah hardliners also did not agree with the new arrangement. The hardliners with American help continued to confront Hamas. The biggest hardliner of them all, Mohamed Dahlan (the Fatah military man in Gaza and Abbass' national security advisor), began working with the Americans and the Egyptians to train and arm a "Presidential Guard" in Gaza, with the tacit support of the Israelis, that would report directly to him and and not to the Hamas cabinet. This was direct a military challenge to Hamas in their stronghold.
The fact that this challenge was led by Dahlan added to the affront. Hamas and Dahlan have a history.
He not only spent the 1990's arresting Hamas members and having them tortured in the some of the very buildings overrun by Hamas yesterday, but he is an excellent example of Fatah corruption. He owns several opulent villas in the territories, he's a millionaire several times over, and has a reputation of always looking out for number one, party and country be damned.
When Dahlan's men crossed the border from their Egypt , where they were training, into Gaza during the first few days of fighting their was now no turning back. Hamas was never going to back down to Dahlan and his private militia. A decision was then made at the top levels of Hamas, if we cannot convince them to recognize our strength and let us rule, we will force them. Total victory was now the goal.
Hamas fully released their military brigades (the Qassam brigades), while holding back their executive force (the "legal" security forces) as a reserve. It wasn't needed. The Qassam brigades proved to be too strong for Fatah's disorganized and unmotivated fighters.

Fatah played with fire by not allowing Hamas to run the government through the official channels. Fatah got burned when Hamas removed all obstacles to their rule. Hamas members may not be the sophisticated, urbane politicians that the Fatah men are but they are not stupid. They knew what was going on. They could read the papers. They could read the plan in motion against them.

Hamas leaders saw this plan in action and when they felt themselves cornered they came out swinging. Borrowing from the Israelis it used a provocation (Dahlan's military build up) in order to create facts on the ground. Now Hamas cannot be ignored. No matter what happens now (like when Abbas dissolved the cabinet and ignored the parliament this morning), at a bare minimum Hamas will control Gaza.

There's new sheriff in town: a Hamas fighter in Mohamed Dahlan's office in Gaza.

What's next?
Collective punishment on a massive scale.
From the NYT:
In security terms, Israel would like to seal off Gaza from the West Bank as much as possible, to prevent the spread of Hamas military power there, where Israeli troops still occupy the territory. Israel would also like to confront Hamas with the responsibility for governing Gaza: providing jobs, food and security for its people.
Political Moves as Calm settles over Gaza, Steven Erlanger and Mike Nizza, June 15th

An Op-ed by Matrin Indyk (former US ambassador to Israel) in the Washington Post:
The failed state of Gaza that Hamas controls is wedged between Egypt and Israel. Its water, electricity and basic goods are imported from the Jewish state, whose destruction Hamas has declared as its fundamental objective. One more Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into an Israeli village and Israel could threaten to seal the border if Hamas did not stop its attacks.

The Israeli government will make sure that Hamas will be unable improve conditions in Gaza. The American administration hopes that Gazans will blame their misery on Hamas and turn on the party and weaken it. The Israelis spout this line publicly too (although they probaly don't believe it).

What will actually happen? The tight restrictions imposed on Gaza will give Hamas any easy excuse and and a group to blame for the conditions in the Strip (see Fidel Castro's script). They will probably become more militant. After a while rockets will be fired from Gaza. "Resistance operations" will probably start in the West Bank to support the "brothers" in Gaza. Etc, etc.

The sigh inducing ballet of violence continues.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Blood in the Water

Part of a phone conversation I had today with someone in Beirut:

Me: How are things?
Beirut: Eh.

Me: Do you think its going to get bigger?

Beirut: Probably.

Me: No, I mean… isn’t this how it started last time?

Beirut: (silence)

Me: This is how it started last time.

Beirut: Yeah it is… (longer silence)

What a strange feeling. Vacationing with my brother in Provence in a an old stone house with a pool, a garden containing fig and olive trees, rosemary bushes big enough to hide in, mint so abundant that every breeze carries with its sweet perfume. Meanwhile, through newspapers and snippets of news programs you watch your homeland disintegrate. And make no mistake that’s exactly what’s happening. The state is weaker than ever and close to ceasing to function. Three hundred Islamists of unknown origin and even more mysterious motives and sources of support are giving the army as much as it can handle. Other groups in other camps are threatening reprisals raising the possibility of several other fronts opening up. And what’s more, other bigger sharks are circling this sinking ship of state: Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

A little surreal being here.

And hearing about this.

Lebanon sat at a historic crossroads. After March 14th everything was possible, many of them good. Now many things are still possible, most of them disastrous.
The euphoria of the moment blinded everyone to the fact that Lebanon was still in a state of crisis. Our problems did not leave on the backs of Syrian tanks. The opportunity was not to start anew but fix the problems of the past. Decades of civil war and Syrian oppression had frozen the country in a political stasis with multiple simultaneous crises. We just forgot they were crises because we had been living with them for so long.
- A sectarian system of government whose only products are deadlock, clan politics, and increased sectarianism.
- Palestinian refugees with fewer rights than their brethren in Israel.
- Hezbollah armed and dangerous.
- Massive and commonplace flouting of civil authority (not paying electricity, water and tax bills was considered normal).
- A civil service based on the twin colonial models of the two previous empires ruling Lebanon (French and Ottoman) in need of serious reform.
- A government with a vast majority of its members had shown themselves during the civil war to be completely incapable of putting anything ahead of their little fiefdoms.

Maybe there wasn’t enough time to address these problems before last summer’s war. Maybe solving these problems in a country like ours is out of the question. And maybe not trying hard enough is why we have a country like ours.

The Lebanon of my teens and early twenties is gone. It wasn’t perfect, far from it, but it provided me with some of the happiest days of my life. The Lebanon of my childhood is back, and all that Lebanon provided me with was terror, exile and exasperation.