Monday, November 12, 2007

Before the Storm...

I'm hoping my ambition didn't overload my meager talents in this post. Good luck, reader(s).

Beirut, Lebanon - kind of...

My ringtone wakes me up. I pick my head off the sofa cushion and paw at the table feeling for my phone. The display tells me it's a long distance call. I answer.
On the other end I hear muffled gunfire, lots of it.
"Listen to this," I'm told, "I'm going to stick the phone out the shebehk (window)."
The crackle of Kalashnikovs morphs into a loud hiss of feedback; the tiny ear speaker can't handle the noise. I yank the phone away from my ear.
"Did you hear that?"
"Yes, I heard it, how could I have not? What's going on?"
"It's Hezbollhah!"
The phone's back outside the window again, more feedback, then slowly the shots ebb and then a new sound, cars honking, takes over. I briefly picture a nightmare scenario, firefights in streets, Hezbollah fighters crossing the airport road into a Sunni neighborhood. That can't be, I think, it's too soon. Plus, why are honking their horns?
"What's going on?"

Baghdad, Iraq - Bab al Sheikh neighborhood

The neighborhood is calm. People feel free to play music, drink arak, and hang in the barbershop talking politics... frankly. The vitriol directed at the central government, the insurgents, the militias, the Americans, the terrorists is withering but witty. The people here still smile. This is old Baghdad; the Baghdad that dates back to the times of the Caliphate, the grand libraries and the luscious gardens - to a time when it was the jewel of the world. The resident families have lived here for generations, they have intermarried, their children have grown up along side each other. They know each others sectarian affiliation but it doesn't matter; in this place you are from the neighborhood first, and everyone looks out for each other, no matter what.

Baghdad, Iraq - Ghazaliyah neighborhood, ground zero of the Petraeus surge

This is the Western edge of Baghdad. From here it's a straight shot to Fallujah and Ramadi, right through Abu Ghraib. To the north is the Shiite neighborhood and Sadrist stronghold of Shula. Ghazaliyah, before the invasion, was a mostly Sunni middle class neighborhood. Now it is an exclusively Sunni neighborhood, and poor. The Shiites were driven out or killed and the Sunnis with enough money have fled the fighting. The entire neighborhood is surrounded by miles of concrete blast barriers, and the only ways in and out are manned by U.S. soldiers and "Ghazaliayh Guardians," a U.S. armed and funded "concerned citizens brigade" (the current euphemism for militias allied with the Americans). This seems to have slowed, if not stopped, the flow of Shiite Jeish-al-Mahdi (aka JAM aka the Mahdi Army) fighters from Shula pouring south into Ghazaliyah, sweeping in and leaving mutilated bodies dumped in the ditches and empty lots between the two neighborhoods. It has also eliminated the need for Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist militias, invited into the neighborhood to counteract JAM. Al-Qaeda and their ilk, the cure, tuned out to be worse than the disease; demanding money, enforcing rules that made life unbearable and killing anyone who disagreed. Most of their members are gone now, those that have stayed behind have joined on with the Guardians; working closely with the Americans. The talk among many of them is of revenge. They have exacted some, but there are still many blood debts to be paid. The thirst has yet to be quenched. Revenge against the Shiites to the north, revenge against the central government. (The Americans, until recently charter members of this list, are now glaringly left off.) They talk of retaking Baghdad, which after years of fighting and ethnic cleansing is a predominantly Shiite city. They plan for the next act, a bloody one. But for now, it's calm.

Baghdad: B denotes Bab el Sheikh, and G, Ghazaliyah

Beirut, Lebanon

It turns out that Nasrallah has just made a fiery speech. In the speech he pledged Hezbollah would never disarm, demanded that the cabinet be sacked and declared that early parliamentary elections are the only way out of the current impasse. He also suggested that the head of the military should be a nationalist who would fight Israel. (The man has clearly lost his mind - if the army can barely take on a trapped Islamic militia what can they do against the IDF? They'd be wiped out inside a week.) After the television address concluded, Hezbollah members took to the streets, firing volleys into the air to send a message - we may be hidden but we are numerous, ubiquitous, armed to the teeth and not to be be trifled with. For them laws don't apply, international resolutions don't apply, the constitution doesn't apply, logic doesn't apply - only brawn applies and they have it and are not about to give it up.
And Hezbollah are not the only ones in the region unwilling to give up their arms.

Before Edward Wong, a New York Times correspondent, left Baghdad for a new assignment, he wrote his first and only analysis/opinion piece about the situation in Iraq. He concluded the political parties of Iraq were not laying the groundwork for peace, they were arming for war.
(Recent example: The Iraqi government, Shiite dominated, just spent millions dollars on a huge order of Chinese weaponry, most of it destined for the National police and the Interior Ministry. The same police who are, for all intends and purposes, the uniformed arms of Shiite militias - state sponsored death squads. And the same Interior Ministry that was caught red-handed holding Sunnis without cause and torturing them. The Iraqi government turned to the Chinese after the US balked at providing weapons to organizations with such - deserved - reputations.)
I wrote Mr. Wong an email thanking him for all the reporting he'd one over the years and mentioned to him that I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war and compared it to present day Iraq. Here's my exact quote (please excuse the righteous indignation):
"The suits talk, the militias fight, the generals and presidents come and go. The ceasefires and promises of peace come and go too (but at a faster clip than the generals). On the ground, for you, John Q. al-Aziz, nothing changes. Like a hurricane, you just have to wait it out and hope your roof doesn't get blown off. Only this hurricane is not blowing away for a long time."

Mr. Wong wrote me back, saying that the people of Iraq were basically doing just that. Waiting for the storm to pass, and they are not optimistic that it will be over soon or that the worst has passed.

Iraq is now in the eye of that hurricane. The surge, destined to end in a few months, has only brought certain parts of the country under control. The eastern countryside is as wild and violent as as any part of Iraq has ever been. And even where it is calm, the situation is extremely fragile.

There is a precedent for the current U.S. tactics and their results; the French counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria under the command of Général Maurice Challe.

Challe was brought in at a critical moment. The FLN, the Algerian resistance, seemed absorb heavy blows from the French military and continue on, virtually unaffected. The French military, meanwhile, was short on manpower after years of fighting. It had lowered the criteria to enter the army in order to increase the number of recruits. And at home, the French population grew restless as more blood and treasure was sank into the sands with little effect. A change in tactics was needed.
Under Challe, the French army was was moved off its static and dispersed bases and put into the field, and concentrated into the resistance strongholds. The goal was to push the resistance out of its safe havens. Mass arrests were curtailed, seen as cumbersome and counter productive. The use of informers and French-allied Algerian militias was emphasized. The military plan was coupled with a political plan, whose aim was to improve the the image of the French occupation among the general population. The public works programs were intensified. In the field, with the help of Algerian eyes, the enemy, previously invisible, could be targeted. The resistance decreased significantly under the pressure; there were even mass purges after the first few informers were discovered (ironically, the purges did more damage than any informer could have dreamed). The FLN was pushed out of the large cities (walls were built up during the battle for the capital, Algiers, and access to certain neighborhoods strictly controlled) and the FLN was confined mostly to the countryside. The French went to work, building up areas they now controlled.
This, by now, should all sound eerily familiar. And it should. General Petraeus has read the history, and he knew a tactical success when he saw one. He has modified these tactics brilliantly to fit Iraq and the tactics have been, just like in Algeria, largely effective.
But there is a reason the French are no longer in Algeria. The tactics outlined above provided a tactical success but not a strategic one. The factor fueling for the war remained unchanged; most Algerians wanted the French out of Algeria. And today in Iraq the fuel is plentiful, the political factions are still armed and still bent on destroying each other and unless they're Kurdish, Iraqis have little appetite for the "South Korean model" that many American generals and politicians are proposing; an open ended, large-scale military presence.
Al-Qaeda are weaker, but not defeated. The level of sectarian strife, mostly carried out by armed wings of political groups, has slowed but not stopped. The situation could reverse very quickly, and it most likely will. A tragedy has five acts; I'm sure we haven't reached the fourth and it's possible we're still haven't seen the third.

More on this film soon.

Lebanon is now still mired in act one; it has yet to be struck by the full force of the storm. The only thing holding the country together is the army. But for how long can it hold together? How long before an order is refused? How long before Hezbollah brands it as loyal to a government of spies and traitors?

In Iraq and Lebanon, the problem is not between sects (who have previously lived alongside each other peacefully), or inside the societies (which were relatively coherent until recently) or some backwardness in the culture (American women in the 1890s couldn't vote or hold most jobs, but that didn't seem to hurt the peace or slow the growth during the Gilded Age). The problem is the political groups are also armed groups. These parties will never give give up their arms because their arms are a central pillar of their party platform. Without the guns, they wouldn't be important, because their parties are not built on ideas but on strength. They are protectors of their followers, not advocates for them. These parties don't have policies papers, or reforms to champion; their only goal is to rule. The politics practiced are distinctly of the zero-sum variety. Compromise is weakness, victory through strength and unyielding resolve is seen as the only way forward. This has knock-on effects. First, the parties fight amongst themselves for power. Second, the large and organized armed groups weaken the government, hurting its ability (to say nothing of its desire) to function normally. Third, the people, unable to get justice from an impotent government (if it's even trying to deliver it, that is) mete it out themselves, with all the obvious complications that entails.
The populations are left sitting there, waiting, while outside civil strife rages with no one strong and neutral enough to put a lid on it, the normal business of government is left unattended and blood feuds and clan rivalries drag on endlessly.
The conflicts have a momentum of their own. Nobody wants them except the people fighting in them.


Lebanon and Iraq are starting to feed off each other.

Watch this video for proof.

Just like in the 1970s with the Palestinian militias, Syrian intelligence is slowly making links, arresting, interrogating, and co-opting key elements of the insurgency. Damascus main transfer point for the Sunni jihadis and the Syrians have taken full advantage. Some of the most dangerous and the most useful jihadis have been deposited in Lebanon, mostly in and around Tripoli and the inside the Palestinian refugee camps. There can be little doubt that the Syrian intelligence apparatus would love turn some groups into their clients.

- A beautifully written article in the Nov 12 New York Time by SABRINA TAVERNISE and KARIM HILMI
- Jon Lee Anderson's Nov. 19 New Yorker article about the surge.
- Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (a powerhouse of a book)
- Unnamed sources in Beirut and Baghdad
- That NYT video linked above (quite frightening, huh?)
- The film, The Battle of Algiers (an overlooked masterpiece)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

R.I.P. Norman Mailer

1923 - 2007

An Interview