Monday, May 30, 2011

Western guns and training used to crush the Arab spring

The NYTimes deserves credit for rigorously and scathingly going after the private security firm, Blackwater, and its founder, Erik Prince, in the last few years. The latest has been its reporting of a 800-member foreign militia that Erik Prince is building for the UAE:

Secret Desert Force Set Up by Blackwater’s Founder (NYTimes, May 14, 2011)

I wish that the NYTimes had similarly scrutinized the military training and arms sales done under the official stamp of the US government and Congress. The US logistical support, troops training, and counter-insurgency equipments have facilitated far too many dictatorial regimes in their attempts to suppress the legitimate concerns of their people.

US Congress notified over $60bn arms sale to Saudi Arabia (The Guardian, October 21, 2010)

Also See: U.S. Arms Sales Agreements with the Middle East, 1999-2006 (Statistics)

Further, the NYTimes could also cover similar support given by other so-called pro-democratic, western countries to dictatorial regimes around the world. For instance,

UK training Saudi forces used to crush Arab spring (The Guardian, May 28, 2011)

Friday, May 27, 2011

The early beginnings of the Afghan War

Below, see a well-known and important article from The Nation that sets the record straight on how the 'Afghan war' started.

The American provocation may be true, but it is also true that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of the larger Soviet ambition of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The Soviet-US politics should be viewed in the context of ongoing 'Cold War' which began long before the 1979 provocations and invasion.

On a critical note: The article seems to rely on the (false) assumption that 9/11 as well as Al-Qaeda were products (or 'blowback') of the Afghan war. Quite the contrary, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are separate entities with different geographic origins, leadership, and goals. They may have developed connections, but they (or some of their factions) also have been at odds with each other in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

'Blowback,' the Prequel
Eric Alterman, The Nation, October 25, 2001

The story of what historians call the second cold war often begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which shocked Americans into their own overreaction in Central America and Africa, as well as into arming the mujahedeen resistance. Today, it is a truth universally acknowledged in the punditocracy that while the United States may have played an indirect role in the creation of the Taliban and perhaps even the bin Laden terrorist network through our support for the radical Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan, we did so only in response to that act of Soviet aggression. As Tim Russert explained on Meet the Press, "We had little choice." Speaking on CNN, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Tomsen speaks of our "successful policy with the ordnance we sent to the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets." Writing on "The 'Blowback' Myth" in The Weekly Standard, one Thomas Henriksen of the Hoover Institution rehearses the Soviet invasion and then notes, "First President Carter, then, more decisively, Ronald Reagan moved to support the Afghan resistance."

The truth is that the United States began a program of covert aid to the Afghan guerrillas six months before the Soviets invaded.

First revealed by former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates in his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, the $500 million in nonlethal aid was designed to counter the billions the Soviets were pouring into the puppet regime they had installed in Kabul. Some on the American side were willing--perhaps even eager--to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-like entanglement. Others viewed the program as a way of destabilizing the puppet government and countering the Soviets, whose undeniable aggression in the area was helping to reheat the cold war to a dangerous boil.

According to Gates's recounting, a key meeting took place on March 30, 1979. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wondered aloud whether "there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, 'sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.'" Arnold Horelick, CIA Soviet expert, warned that this was just what we could expect. In a 1998 conversation with Le Nouvel Observateur, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted, "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would."

Yet Carter, who signed the finding authorizing the covert program on July 3, 1979, today explains that it was definitely "not my intention" to inspire a Soviet invasion. Cyrus Vance, who was then Secretary of State, is not well enough to be interviewed, but his close aide Marshall Shulman insists that the State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading and would never have undertaken a program to encourage it, though he says he was unaware of the covert program at the time. Indeed, Vance hardly seems to be represented at all in Gates's recounting, although Brzezinski doubts that Carter would have approved the aid unless Vance "approved, however unenthusiastically."

No one I interviewed--those who did not mind the idea of a Soviet invasion, and those who sought to avoid it--argues that Carter himself wished to provoke one. Gates, who was then an aide to Brzezinski, says the President did not think "strategically" in that fashion. "He was simply reacting to everything the Soviets were doing in that part of the world and felt it required some kind of response. This was it." Brzezinski, similarly, says he did not sell the plan to Carter on these terms. The President understood, he explained on the phone, that "the Soviets had engineered a Communist coup and they were providing direct assistance in Kabul. We were facing a serious crisis in Iran, and the entire Persian Gulf was at stake. In that context, giving some money to the mujahedeen seemed justified." Why Carter actually approved the aid remains unclear, however. Carter, it should be added, does not seem to remember much about the initial finding. Otherwise, he would not have asked his aide to fax me the pages from his memoir Keeping Faith, which ignores it entirely, and like the rest of the pre-Gates memoirs of the period, professes great shock and horror regarding the onset of the Soviet tanks.

The news of the covert program has provoked considerable confusion among those who seek to blame the United States for the September 11 massacre. Proponents of an overly schematic "blowback" scenario, including at least one vocal supporter of the Soviet "rape" of Afghanistan, have seized Brzezinski's comments to claim that Osama bin Laden is merely one of America's "chickens coming home to roost." This is both simplistic and obscene. Blowback exists in absolutely every aspect of life, because nothing comes without unintended consequences. Does it make sense to blame the destruction of the World Trade Center on a $500 million nonlethal aid program that took place more than twenty years ago? We cannot even know for certain why the Soviets decided on their invasion.

Nor can we ever know for certain whether the US officials wished to inspire one. Memories deceive, records get destroyed and even original documents can be written to be deliberately misleading, as were the period's official memoirs--save, ironically, that of Gates, the former spymaster. The covert action was undoubtedly approved by those involved for a host of reasons, some of which may be contradictory. Helping the Afghans resist Soviet domination was not exactly a controversial policy in 1979, though no one at the time could even dream that it might lead to the evil empire's eventual disintegration.

Brzezinski argues that even given the 20/20 hindsight after September 11, the covert aid remains justified. He shares the common view that America's most significant mistake was to abandon the nation to its unhappy fate following the Soviet withdrawal. Our terrorist problem, he insists, would be much worse with the Soviets still around to support their terrorist minions among the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Libyans, the Iraqis, etc.

Certainly this is much too kind to the Reagan-era military aid to Taliban-like elements. But a more accurate historical record can only lead to more intelligent debate about the future.

Views on Middle East Politics

A couple of noteworthy posts:

Revising the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War
by Heathlander (May 05, 2011)

Wikileaks, Al Jazeera, and the Qatari Public Diplomacy Challenge
by Lina Khatib (Dec 06, 2010)

Saudis scramble to preserve the reigonal status quo

A neat story from today's NYTimes is quoted below. I found the connection made with Nasser's Egypt at the end to be quite relevant. Particularly, it suggests that the logic of Saudi scramble is more than just an 'anti-Shia impulse'. It is the status quo that the Saudis seek to protect against any contenders, 'Shiite' or otherwise.

In Syria, I think that none of the major regional players wants the 'regime' (+/- Assad) to go and replaced by chaos (likely) or the 'extremist groups' (less likely). Though some do want to see the Syrian regime get weaker enough so it could not play the 'Ace' card it has usually played in regional politics, particularly in Lebanon.

For Yemen, the article's suggestion seems a bit off the mark. I think it is the replication of the 'Eygptian solution' that the Saudis (and GCC+US/Israel) seek in Yemen: Remove Mubarak, but make sure the 'regime' is in place; promote 'reforms' but make sure that only the 'good' guys from the opposition (and not just anyone from the opposition) come in power through the political process.

However, that solution hasn't worked for Egypt, yet. The protests are ongoing; the Egyptian foreign policy for Israel and Iran is changing; the MB has formed a new political party and seeks to contend in the upcoming elections. It is also unlikely that such a solution will work for Yemen. Chaos seems likely to occur if Saleh does not step down. The post-Saleh regime that the Saudis wish to build would also face protests and resistance. Any widely representative government in Yemen will probably build more cordial relations with Iran, undermining the monopolizing influence that the Saudis seek over its neighboring states.

On a related note, it's intriguing to see how the Qatar-based AlJazeera's coverage of Yemen increases when Saleh refuses to cooperate with the GCC and decreases when he makes cooperative gestures. When not in the 'ignore' mode for Bahrain, AlJazeera is subtly promoting a distinction of 'moderates' (the good guys) against those 'extremists' who want to topple the system of Sheikhdom altogether.

Saudi Arabia Scrambles to Limit Region’s Upheaval
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, NYTimes, May 27, 2011

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.

From Egypt, where the Saudis dispensed $4 billion in aid last week to shore up the ruling military council, to Yemen, where it is trying to ease out the president, to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, which it has invited to join a union of Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to forestall more radical change and block Iran’s influence.

The kingdom is aggressively emphasizing the relative stability of monarchies, part of an effort block any dramatic shift from the authoritarian model, which would generate uncomfortable questions about the glacial pace of political and social change at home.

Saudi Arabia’s proposal to include Jordan and Morocco in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council — which authorized the Saudis to send in troops to block a largely Shiite Muslim rebellion in the Sunni Muslim monarchy of Bahrain — is intended to create a kind of “Club of Kings.” The idea is to signal Shiite Iran that the Sunni Arab monarchs will defend their interests, analysts said.

“We’re sending a message that monarchies are not where this is happening,” Prince Waleed bin Talal al-Saud, a businessman and high-profile member of the habitually reticent royal family, told The New York Times’s editorial board, referring to the unrest. “We are not trying to get our way by force, but to safeguard our interests.”

The range of the Saudi intervention is extraordinary as the unrest pushes Riyadh’s hand to forge what some commentators, in Egypt and elsewhere, brand a “counterrevolution.” Some Saudi and foreign analysts find the term too sweeping for the steps the Saudis have actually taken, though it appears unparalleled in the region.

“I am sure that the Saudis do not like this revolutionary wave — they were really scared,” said Khalid Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst and columnist. “But they are realistic here.”

In Egypt, where the revolution has already toppled a close Saudi ally in Hosni Mubarak, the Saudis are dispensing aid and mending ties in part to help head off a good showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Saudis worry that an empowered Muslim Brotherhood could damage Saudi legitimacy by presenting a model of Islamic law different from the Wahhabi tradition of an absolute monarch.

“If another model of Shariah says that you have to resist, this will create a deep difficulty,” said Abdulaziz Algasim, a Saudi lawyer.

Saudi officials are also concerned that Egypt’s foreign policy is shifting, with its outreach to the Islamist group Hamas and plans to restore ties with Iran. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, also retains a personal interest in protecting Mr. Mubarak, analysts believe.

The Arab Spring began to unravel an alliance of so-called moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which were willing to work closely with the United States and promote peace with Israel. American support for the Arab uprisings also strained relations, prompting Saudi Arabia to split from Washington on some issues while questioning its longstanding reliance on the United States to protect its interests.

The strained Saudi posture toward Washington was outlined in a recent opinion piece by a Saudi writer in The Washington Post that suggested Riyadh was ready to go it alone because the United States had become an “unreliable partner.” But that seems at least partly a display of Saudi pique, since the oil-for-protection exchange that has defined relations between the two for the past six decades is unlikely to be replaced soon. Saudi Arabia is negotiating to buy $60 billion in advanced American weapons, and President Obama, in his speech last week demanding that Middle Eastern autocrats bow to popular demands for democracy, noticeably did not mention Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, sat prominently in the front row.

Saudi Arabia is taking each uprising in turn, without relying on a single blueprint. In Bahrain, it resorted to force, sending troops to crush a rebellion by Shiites because it feared the creation of a kind of Shiite Cuba only about 20 miles from some of its main oil fields, one sympathetic to, if not allied with, Iran. It has deployed diplomacy in other uprisings — and remained on the fence in still others. It is also spending money, pledging $20 billion to help stabilize Bahrain and Oman, which has also faced protests.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia joined the coalition seeking to ease out President Ali Abdullah Saleh because it thinks the opposition might prove a more reliable, less unruly southern neighbor. But Arab diplomats noted that even the smallest Saudi gestures provided Mr. Saleh with excuses to stay, since he interpreted them as support. This month, for example, the Saudis sent in tanker trucks to help abate a gasoline shortage.

On Syria, an initial statement of support by King Abdullah for President Bashar al-Assad has been followed by silence, along with occasional calls at Friday Prayer for God to support the protesters. That silence reflects a deep ambivalence, analysts said. The ruling Saudi family personally dislikes Mr. Assad — resenting his close ties with Iran and seeing Syria’s hand in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a Saudi ally. But they fear his overthrow will unleash sectarian violence without guaranteeing that Iranian influence will be diminished.

In Libya, after helping push through an Arab League request for international intervention, Saudi Arabia sat out and left its neighbors, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to join the military coalition supporting the rebels. It has so far kept its distance publicly from Tunisia as well, although it gave refuge to its ousted president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

There are also suspicions that the kingdom is secretly providing money to extremist groups to hold back changes. Saudi officials deny that, although they concede private money may flow.

In 1952, after toppling the Egyptian king, Gamal Abdel Nasser worked to destabilize all monarchs, inspiring a regicide in Iraq and eventually the overthrow of King Idris of Libya. Saudi Arabia was locked in confrontation with Egypt throughout the 1960s, and it is determined not to relive that period.

“We are back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when the Saudis led the opposition to the revolutions at that time, the revolutions of Arabism,” said Mohammad F. al-Qahtani, a political activist in Riyadh.