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One of the main reasons for the declining violence in Iraq the past few years was that the Sunni insurgents gave up their arms and started working with and for the American military and the Shia government. Salaries from the Americans and promises of jobs and influence within the government made the Sunnis realize that supporting Al-Qaeda would have devastating results for Iraq and possibly throw the country in to an all-out civil war. This switch of sides is known as the “Sunni Awakening”, and it has helped in restoring hopes for a more secure Iraq.

In the past few months however, Iraq has seen an increase in violence, as the Americans are withdrawing and the country is at a political standstill. Members of the Sunni awakening group are also switching sides again, due to an Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia recruitment offensive. The Sunni ex-insurgents are complaining that they are not getting the relevant jobs they were promised by the government, and that salaries are rarely being paid. An ex–Awakening Council leader, Nathum al-Jubouri says that “The Awakening does not know what the future holds because it is not clear what the government intends for them.”  Less than half of all Awakening members have been offered jobs within the government, and rejoining Al-Qaeda and the insurgency seems like the only solution for many of the Awakening members.

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Within the mainstream media, the Taliban in Afghanistan is often portrayed like many other enemies to America…”ruthless killers who are bent on destroying America and providing aide to Al-Qaeda if they are to regain control of Afghanistan.” Granted, this characterization is not completely devoid of some truth. I do think it is entirely fair to claim that they would provide a haven to Al-Qaeda if they came back into power in Afghanistan. However, the characterization of them as “ruthless killers who are bent on destroying America,” undoubtedly leaves me a bit skeptical. After all, waging a war against an enemy has many fronts, including on the front of public opinion, so naturally, I hesitate to believe much of the picture that the mainstream media tries to paint. And my skepticism was justified after I saw this:

Taliban Primp, Sing, Snipe U.S. Troops In Rare Video

The video is an approximately 20 minute documentary film by a Norwegian documentary filmmaker who managed to embed himself with a Taliban troop outfit hiding up in the mountains of Afghanistan, launching repeated attacks on American convoys. The film does not glorify or romanticize the Taliban in my view. It tells the story of the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of the Taliban (albeit a small subsection of it) like it is, which is simultaneously disturbing and fascinating. It portrays “them” as they are and gives particular insight into who they are and why they are fighting. At the very least, the film humanizes them, and while I was watching it, I was frequently reminded of several other war films I have seen of late, the most recent of which being “The Hurt Locker.” I am continually fascinated by the portrayals in this film (and others) of the desensitization of violence that occurs amongst the troops and the  dehumanization of the enemy that takes place so that it’s easier for American troops to kill them in combat without feeling remorse. The reason I was continually reminded of this while I was watching the documentary was because I noticed that the Taliban troops exhibited the same characteristics.

The conclusion I came to after watching this film, of which I think should be the goal that we all aspire to, is to recognize that war is something that needs to be avoided, at all costs, because the result is that it causes us to dehumanize each other when instead we should be recognizing and embracing the commonalities that we all share. After all, if we instead focused more on seeing each other as fellow human beings, we just might have less of an inclination to kill each other.

Last night I had the opportunity to see the film ‘Sweet Crude’ with a panel discussion afterward.  The film is about the struggle of the people of the Niger Delta to get their government to listen to them about the damage the oil companies in the region are doing to their communities.

A little background before I continue: Oil companies moved into the Niger Delta shortly after Nigeria gained independence in 1960 from the British. Since then, the environmental damage to the area has been extensive — fish are no longer in the rivers, acid rain falls regularly as a result of the gas flares. Since the oil companies’ arrival, the people of the Niger Delta have protested in non-violent ways modeled after the work of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.  The Nigerian government responded with force, killing non-violent leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and many others in the process.  As a result some of the young men from the region have formed MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) which has resorted to using force.

Members of MEND say they only use force to attract attention to their group — that the government has responded to their peaceful protests with force so they are responding in kind.

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Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

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For his first presidential act upon taking office on Jan. 20 last year, President Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. Many liberals and human rights activists breathed a sigh of relief as Obama promised to return the U.S. to the “moral high ground” and put an end to a shameful chapter in modern American history. One year later and that high ground appears beyond the reach of the Obama administration, as Guantanamo Bay prison remains open with the White House lacking a comprehensive plan to deal with its estimated 245 detainees.  

Obama’s laudable plan to close the prison has stalled for various reasons, some of which are beyond his control. The first reason relates to his attempts to re-house some of the prisoners on American soil. Local senators and governors have fiercely objected to the notion that their state should house suspected terrorists on the grounds that the new prisoners could endanger the safety of Americans. This nonsensical affirmation has been echoed by other partisan commentators and TV networks, despite the fact that the U.S. already houses many convicted al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as various other dangerous criminals. 

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The foiled terrorist attack on Christmas Day served as a timely reminder that the U.S. remains vulnerable to plots from Al-Qaeda. As more details emerge about the security lapses that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board his flight to Amsterdam and later to Detroit, President Barack Obama has come under intense criticism from opportunist Republicans over his handling of the so-called War on Terror. Yet instead of dodging the role as a partisan punching bag, Obama appears willing to engage in domestic squabbling, at great cost to his foreign agenda.

Obama’s announcement on January 4 that the U.S. was to introduce tougher airport screening for “security risk” countries underlined the air of desperation and ineptitude that has gripped the White House since December 25. The countries included on the list were Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. While some of the countries are merely the usual suspects, the inclusion of Cuba seems anomalous. Its appearance is explained by its unfortunate presence on another U.S.-produced list: state sponsors of terrorism. Nevertheless, many experts believe its inclusion is anachronistic, given that there is no current evidence to support the theory that Cuba sponsors terrorists, especially not those linked to Al-Qaeda. Many Cubans hoped that Obama’s election would help restore diplomatic relations between the two nations, and indeed the Obama administration has made tentative steps to this effect. The guileless inclusion of Cuba on a “security risk” list needlessly hinders potential rapprochement.

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While on the campaign trail for the 2008 election Barack Obama often extolled the virtues of the Afghanistan War, contrasting it sharply with the disastrous Iraq War which he had vociferously protested.  A year after winning that election, he faces arguably his toughest political decision to date: should he send more troops to Afghanistan? The debate within the White House appears to be focused on how Obama should continue this war (more troops or more sophisticated technology such as unmanned drones) as opposed to why he should. In reality, sending in more troops is delaying the inevitable and Obama must put an end to this war as soon as possible.

The first reason to end this war is the lack of clarity over the war’s objective. In March, the President stated that his goal in Afghanistan was to “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda”. Yet most experts will tell you that al-Qaeda is a diminished force which has largely fled Afghanistan. It would be more prudent for the U.S. to concentrate on defeating al-Qaeda in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, which have recently become a hotbed for Islamic extremists, while paying more attention to the tinderbox that is Pakistan. Unfortunately, the U.S. is bogged down in a perpetual battle with the Taliban at huge human cost for all concerned. The War in Afghanistan has evolved into another nation-building exercise, despite the fact that Obama stated that “We are not going to be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy“.

The military is ostensibly in Afghanistan to protect the U.S. from future al-Qaeda attacks, yet how many of al-Qaeda’s most devastating attacks have been organized from Afghanistan? 9/11? Yes. The attacks provided the casus belli for the war. The 2002 Bali Bombings? No. They were planned in Thailand. The 2004 Madrid Bombings? No. They were planned in Spain and North Africa. The 2005 London Bombings? No. They were planned in England. The idea that the War in Afghanistan will protect the U.S. from future attacks is naïve and myopic.

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Post by Dylan Matthews, Campus Progress

The nation’s initial response to 9/11 was one that could have easily come from an eleven-year-old. Let’s hope we’ve moved beyond the need for war as a response to terrorism.

9-11 tribute

The Tribute in Light is an art installation of 88 searchlights placed next to the site of the World Trade Center to create two vertical columns of light in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. (Flickr/macten)

I was in my sixth grade newspaper class when I heard that a plane had hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until the second plane struck the other tower that my middle school sent around notes to teachers telling them to make the announcement. One plane, I suppose they had reasoned, could have been an accident and perhaps not worth causing panic. Two was something altogether different. After a brief and, in retrospect, fairly odd warning from my teacher against assuming it was Muslim terrorists that were responsible, we flooded into the school library to watch madness unfold on the school’s 50-inch TV as Dan Rather informed us that the Pentagon had been hit as well.

Everyone one of us, old and young, has of these stories. For people my age—that is to say, those of us currently in college or late high school—the impression of that day has been particularly formative. Before that day, this country we lived in was not one that fought wars. We were barely sentient for the Gulf War, if alive at all. Our country was not one that was attacked on its own soil.

This was the first truly huge event of our lives, and its sheer scale overwhelmed all but the most immediate details. We were too overwhelmed to wonder or care whether al-Qaeda or Iraq or a Timothy McVeigh-like domestic terrorist had planned the act.

That evening, President George W. Bush addressed the American public, “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution.” My eleven-year-old self understood his logic and took the next step. Big acts, Bush was saying, necessitate big responses.

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The recent torching of over 100 NATO military depots, a Pentagon official claimed, ‘has had an overall insignificant impact to date’ in the US’s strenuous effort to stabilize Afghanistan.  The comment couldn’t be further from the truth.

This significant attack did not occur in Afghanistan but on the US’s new front in the War on Terror – the tribal areas of Pakistan.  The Guardian and The Boston Globe identified the Taliban as the perpetrators, while other outlets, like the International Herald Tribune, said ‘Islamic militants’  were too blame.  There is speculation, however, that the attackers had no affiliation to either identity, and that in fact, they were simply Pashtun tribesmen defending their ancestral homeland, their tribal codes of honor, and their religion of Islam.  But how can the US distinguish between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Pashtun militants?  The label of ‘terrorist’ remains loosely defined but yet dangerous as ever.

When the War on Terror began in 2002, the US identified the Afghan government, then controlled by the Taliban, and the terror network they supported, al-Qaeda, as the primary enemies.  Bush invaded Afghanistan, captured Kabul, and overthrew the Taliban stronghold – which eventually found a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Bush also gave millions of dollars to support his military alliance with Musharraf, who eventually conducted military raids in the ‘Talibanized’ tribal areas dominated both in population and culture by Pashtuns.

When the Taliban regrouped after the initial battle for Afghanistan, Bush blamed Musharraf for his lackluster commitment in destroying the terror cells in the tribal areas.  As a result of Musharraf’s poor performance, Bush increased the US military’s presence in the Pashtun dominated tribal areas.  This diplomatic blunder created the greatest mishap of the Bush administrations War on Terror – the little consideration paid to the intricacies of tribal culture and the fierce resistance with which the Pashtuns have historically shown towards foreign invasion.

The Pashtun tribe is the largest ethnic group in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Their geographic region extends along the border from northern Pakistan into southern Afghanistan.  The Pashtuns are historically a fierce and very proud people, as they have ousted the likes of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union from its ancient turf.  The Pashtuns govern themselves on the Pashtunwali, the traditional tribal code that strictly governs behavior and personal honor – it also provides warm hospitality to visitors – hence why their Muslim brothers of the Taliban were welcomed after the overthrow of the Afghan government in 2002.  Moreover, they are proud Muslims and adhere closely to the Islamic law, customs and values.

The Pashtuns today, my colleague Frankie Martin notes, ‘feel threatened by the Pakistani government and military, composed mainly of urban ethnic Punjabis; the government in Afghanistan, composed mainly of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras’.  Recently, the Pashtuns are threatened with the US’s cross border raids into tribal villages in pursuit of terrorists, as well as with US drone attacks that often claim the lives of innocent civilians.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many Pashtuns are identifying and sympathizing with the religious rhetoric and zealotry of the Taliban’s mullahs and al-Qaeda’s charismatic leaders.

Poor diplomacy and culturally insensitive policies towards the Pashtuns have proven to be the US’s achilles heal in Afghanistan.  If Obama seeks to change the direction of the war, he must avoid the disastrous policies initiated by President Bush.

Cornering the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal areas will be an unsuccessful military maneuver if the US does not win the respect and favor of the Pashtun people.  A surge of up to 20,000 soldiers will only encourage the Pashtuns to defend their culture and religion from outside influences.  Obama should engage in consistent dialogues with Pashtun leaders in an effort to establish a relationship of mutual cooperation.  Listening to the fears and concerns of the Pashtuns can help Obama swing the pendulum away from the Taliban and into the US’s court, a shift drastically needed to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Most importantly, Obama must be extremely careful with how he labels ‘terrorists’.  Will a terrorist be anyone that attacks US or NATO military convoys?  Hopefully not.  The Pashtuns are not terrorists like members of  al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda is a global network that brings terror to other countries.  The Pashtuns simply defend their homeland, their culture and their religion from foreign invasion.  If US or NATO military outposts are attacked on Pashtun grounds in the future, and if the US declares war on the entire Pashtun tribe, Obama should then prepare for a long, arduous and probably fruitless guerilla war.

I thought this article interestingly points to some very thought-provoking questions about continuing U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki drew comparisons between the present turmoil between armed ethnic and religious militias in Iraq, the predictive future of that country, and those that led to Somalia’s current situation as an anarchic society without a nationally recognized central government. This, I think, strikes at the heart of confused and sometimes cross-pollinating justifications for the American occupation.

Case in point: the Bush administration has alternately called the invasion and subsequent occupation a search to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, a fight to prevent de facto control of Iraq by the terrorist network al-Qaeda, and an all-important theatre in the almost-evangelical pursuit of democracy (self-determination by gunpoint, I suppose). His would-be successor and ideological bedmate, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (AZ-R), recently went further by painting the predictive consequences of a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces in terms of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing," undercutting the mission to spread to democracy but underscoring this continuing realist-turned-idealist approach to foreign policy.

Which leaves a preponderance of questions in the wake of an extremely confused objective in Iraq: Is a continuing military occupation for the United States a moral obligation or a matter of national self-interest? Would leaving Iraq, a country in conflict, simultaneously and recklessly abandon the Iraqi people to acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing by diverse factions?

It calls into light the contrast between foreign policy objectives behind President Clinton’s short-lived 1993 venture into Somalia and his administration’s subsequent decision to remain quiet about the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Another predictive model finds use here: what U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has described as "Lebanonization," or the usurpation of one state’s sovereigny to another’s intervention. The term denotes Syria’s de facto control of internal Lebanese politics through military presence and sponsorship of various political parties, and has been used to describe a post-U.S. occupation role for countries like Syria and, more importantly, Iran, which continues to ship Iranian-made arms to Iraq and allegedly trains and funds Shi’ite militias.

I draw on this because it eerily reflects the conditions on which different factions in Somalia relied to initiate clan-based civil war and oust that country’s dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, between 1986 and 1992. Militias and clans then existing received outside funding from Ethiopia, which enabled them to fight pro-Barre parties, internal factions, and subsequently amongst themselves for control of Somalia, ultimately paving the way for that country to become a failed state circa 2008.

Another potential consequence of U.S. withdrawal is hereby illustrated: Does leaving also mean opening an unstable Iraq to outside control and subjugation by local powers interested in arrogating sovereignty of that country to themselves?

By no means should we narrow opinions to a predictive outcome for Iraq. I think these questions should more carefully delineate our responsibility and subsequent concerns about long-term involvement in Iraq. Otherwise U.S. citizens and their elected leaders lend themselves to a stated hypocrisy, with sides on one hand clamoring for more attention and intervention in the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and others speaking truth to power about strategic failures in Iraq and the need to withdraw, even precipitously, in the name of U.S. national interest.

These things in mind — the threat of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and outside state control — is the Iraqi occupation an obligation to keep for Iraqis, preventing their state’s potential collapse and transformation into another Somalia, or an undertaking irresponsibly taken and just as easily ended?

I suppose we’ll see our foreign policy become clearer in 2009.


August 2020

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