Russia’s Clash With the West Is About Geography, Not Ideology
The Marshall Plan recognized the limits of U.S. power in Europe. To be successful, so must diplomacy with Moscow today.
At his dacha, standing before a map of the newly expanded Soviet Union shortly after Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Josef Stalin nodded with approval. The vast buffer he’d carved out of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe would now protect his empire against future Napoleons and Hitlers. Stalin then took the pipe from his mouth, waving it under the base of the Caucasus. He shook his head and frowned.
“I don’t like our border right here,” he said to his aides, gesturing at the area where the Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan met the hostile powers of Turkey and Iran.
Over the next year and a half, U.S.-Soviet relations would collapse as Stalin pressured Ankara and Tehran for territorial concessions and U.S. President Harry S. Truman pushed back by sending a naval flotilla to the Mediterranean. In February 1947, a penniless Britain told the State Department that it could no longer defend the Greek government in its civil war with Yugoslav-backed Communist rebels, prompting Truman to pledge U.S. economic and military aid for Athens and Ankara. Stalin, whose country was struggling to recover from Nazi devastation, fell back on defense. His aim now would be to hold the new security zone in Eastern Europe and to prevent the United States from controlling Russia’s mortal enemy: Germany.
In March 1947, the new U.S. secretary of state, George C. Marshall, embarked on six grueling weeks of negotiations in Moscow with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, over the future of occupied Germany. With neither side willing to accept the possibility of such a dangerous, strategically situated country becoming an ally of the other, the talks ended in stalemate. Yet Stalin still believed that Truman would ultimately be compelled to concede German unification on Soviet terms — massive reparations and a political structure favorable to the Communists — in order to fulfill his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe within two years after the war.
Marshall left Moscow convinced that cooperation with the Soviets was over. Germany, and much of Western Europe, was edging toward economic and social collapse, and the Leninist dictum “the worse, the better” appeared to be Stalin’s response. The time had come, Marshall decided, for unilateral U.S. action to secure democratic, capitalist government in the parts of Europe still outside Soviet control. In an iconic speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, he presented the outline of what would become a massive four-year U.S. aid scheme to support European reconstruction and integration: the Marshall Plan.
Stalin denounced the plan as a vicious American plot to buy political and military domination of Europe. He feared losing control not just of Germany but of Eastern Europe, too. Prior to the launch of the Marshall Plan, Stalin had never been dogmatic about the forms of socialism pursued by countries within the Soviet sphere. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were all allowed to form coalition governments of one sort or another. His demand had merely been fealty to Moscow on foreign policy. That would soon change. By the end of 1948, Stalin had fully co-opted or crushed the remaining non-Communist elements in the governments of Eastern Europe.
Truman had wanted to use the Marshall Plan as a tool to reduce U.S. security entanglements in Europe. But the State Department had conditioned the $13.2 billion (more than $135 billion in today’s money) in grants on the recipients integrating their economies, leaving them to object that the loss of self-sufficiency would make them more vulnerable to Soviet (and German) harassment and threats. So the president now acceded to French and British demands that Marshall aid be given a military escort. On April 4, 1949, a year and a day after signing the Marshall aid legislation, Truman signed the founding agreement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The following month, the United States, Britain, and France accepted the constitution for a new West German state. The Soviets responded by creating their own East German state in October. The dialectic of each side’s suspicions of the other having played out as far as it could without war, the European borders of the Cold War conflict would remain frozen for the next 40 years.
Four decades later, on Nov. 9, 1989, frenzied East German crowds gathered at the Berlin Wall yelling “Tor auf!” (“Open the gate!”). When a worried and confused border guard complied, tens of thousands began pouring into the West. Millions more would do so in the coming days.
In Dresden six weeks later, a crowd greeted West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl shouting “Einheit! Einheit! Einheit!” (“Unity!”). Nearby, a nervous but determined 37-year-old KGB officer had spent weeks burning mounds of documents in preparation for possible attacks on his station by angry mobs. The enormous volume of ash destroyed the building’s furnace. Years later, Russian journalists interviewed the former officer about his work in Germany. “We were interested in any information about the main opponent,” Vladimir Putin explained. That opponent, NATO, would continue to obsess Russian leaders in the years to come.
By early 1990, the East German Communists, imploding under the weight of popular revulsion and infighting, were a spent political force, and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to reconcile himself to German unification. What he still demanded was that a reunified Germany not be part of the Atlantic alliance. Continued German membership of NATO, Gorbachev told German and Soviet journalists, must be “absolutely ruled out.”
Gorbachev and his Russian successors have maintained that they were misled over whether the alliance would be permitted to expand eastward. NATO, the Soviet leader said, was “an organization designed from the start to be hostile to the Soviet Union.” “Any extension of the zone of NATO,” he told then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, would therefore be “unacceptable.” Yet when Germany reunified in October, he was powerless to stop the eastern part from exiting the Warsaw Pact and entering NATO.
With the demise of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin continued to press the issue with his American counterpart. The United States, he told then-President Bill Clinton, was “sow[ing the] seeds of distrust” by dangling NATO membership in front of former Warsaw Pact states. For a Russian leader to “agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia,” he told Clinton during a 1995 meeting at the Kremlin, “would constitute a betrayal of the Russian people.” Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned Polish leaders that his countrymen saw the alliance as a “monster directed against Russia.” Foreign Intelligence Service head Yevgeny Primakov, who would later become foreign minister and prime minister, argued that NATO expansion would necessitate a more robust Russian defense posture. “This is not just a psychological issue for us,” he insisted to the U.S. diplomat Strobe Talbott in 1996. “It’s a security question.” Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy warned that NATO enlargement would make “the Baltic states and Ukraine … a zone of intense strategic rivalry.”
Russia’s resistance left Clinton two sensible options. He could ignore it and insist on expanding NATO in a robust way, under the logic that “Russia will always be Russia” and would harass and dominate its neighbors if not contained by the threat of military force. This was the Republican position at the time, outlined in the party’s 1994 “Contract with America.” The other was to sit tight until Russian behavior belied its pledges to respect its neighbors’ sovereignty. This was former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan’s position. But Clinton, being Clinton, chose a third option, which was to expand NATO on the cheap — under the logic that the alliance faced no real enemy. In 1996, Ronald Asmus, soon to become an influential Clinton administration official, argued that NATO expansion costs would be modest since the “premise [was] avoiding confrontation with Russia, not preparing for a new Russian threat.”
“Are we really going to be able to convince the East Europeans that we are protecting them,” asked an incredulous Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn in a speech to military officials, “… while we convince the Russians that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with Russia?” Talbott warned in an internal memo that “An expanded NATO that excludes Russia will not serve to contain Russia’s retrograde, expansionist impulses.” On the contrary, he argued, “it will further provoke them.” But Richard Holbrooke, then Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, dismissed this warning. The United States, he wrote in World Policy Journal in 1998, could “have [its] cake and eat it too … years from now … people will look back at the debate and wonder what all the fuss was about. They will notice that nothing has changed in Russia’s relationship with the West.”
Holbrooke could not have been more wrong. “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries,” the 94-year-old Kennan told the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in 1998, “even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” He would prove right. Clinton’s gambit would pit an under-resourced NATO against an ever-more embittered and authoritarian Russia.
Days after the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO in March 1999, the alliance began a three-month bombing campaign against Serbia — which, like Russia, is a Slavic Orthodox state. These attacks on a brother country appalled ordinary Russians, especially since they were not carried out in defense of a NATO member, but to protect the Muslim population of Kosovo, then a Serbian province. NATO’s actions in the former Yugoslavia — in Bosnia in 1995 as well as in Serbia in 1999 — were undertaken with noble aims: to stop the slaughter of innocents. NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact countries, however, all but guaranteed that Russians wouldn’t see them that way. Moscow knew that its former vassals, by joining the alliance, had now bound themselves to support Western policies that challenged Russian interests. The farther east NATO expanded, the more threatening it would become.
That seemed especially clear when NATO members began taking unilateral actions hostile to Russia, actions they would never have taken outside the alliance. In 2015, for example, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had crossed into its airspace from Syria, where it was bombing opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime. “Turkish airspace … is NATO airspace,” the Turkish foreign ministry pointedly told Russia after the attack. Russia took notice. “Turkey has set up not itself” as the actor, “but the North Atlantic alliance as a whole,” said Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in an interview with Time magazine. “This is extremely irresponsible.”
Russia’s conflictual relationship with the West has been described as a Cold War-like confrontation. In reality, these powers are engaged in an asymmetric rivalry, not a Cold War.
Russia’s relations with the United States and other Western nations have been increasingly conflictual. The Kremlin has challenged the position of American hegemony globally and in regional settings. Following election of Donald Trump as the U.S. President, Russia’s military strategy, cyber activities, and media role have been under particular scrutiny although the Kremlin has acted assertively since the second half of the 2000s.
While many Western observers place responsibility for the conflict on Russia, some tend to blame the West. However, most observers agree that a Cold War-like confrontation is set to define the two sides’ relations. Today the narrative of a new Cold War commands the attention of political and scholarly circles.
The Misleading Cold War Framework
As compelling as it may seem to some observers, the Cold War framework is misleading. In particular, it fails to address the global power shift and transitionary nature of the contemporary international system. In today’s world, the old ideological rivalry is no longer applicable. The new world is no longer divided by the communism-capitalism dichotomy. Instead the competition of ideas is predominantly one between liberal and nationalist principles of regulating the economy and political system. While in the eyes of many the West continues to represent liberalism, the realities of Brexit, Trump, and tightening migration regulations in the European Union demonstrate the global power of nationalist ideas. On the other hand, China, Russia, and other allegedly autocratic and nationalist polities continue to favor preservation of liberal global economy, and oppose regional autarchy and Trump-favored protectionism.
Instead of reviving old Cold War rules and principles, new rules and expectations about the international system and state behavior are being gradually formed. China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran, and others are seeking to carve out a new space for themselves in the newly emerging international system, as the United States is struggling to redefine its place and identity in the new world.
The described changes altered position of the only superpower in the international system. Structurally, it is still the familiar world of American domination with the country’s superiority in military, political, economic and symbolic dimensions. Yet dynamically the world is moving away from its US- and West-centeredness even though the exact direction and result of the identified trajectory remained unclear.
As a result, many non-Western countries are developing their own rules and arrangements in world. Russia and other non-Western countries increasingly have international options they never had before as new global and regional institutions and areas of development outside the influence of the West gradually emerge.
This does not mean re-emergence of a new international confrontation. Most non-Western nations are not looking to challenge the superpower directly and continuing to take advantage of relations ties with the West. The U.S.-balancing coalition or a genuine alternative to the West-centered world has not yet emerged. Unlike the previous eras, the contemporary world lacks a rigid alliance structure. The so-called Russia-China-Iran axis is hardly more than a figment of the imagination by American neoconservatives and some Russia conspiracy-minded thinkers. The world remains a space in which international coalitions overlap and are mostly formed on an ad hoc basis depending on issues of interests.
Partly because of these global developments, the Cold War perspective also misunderstands Russia’s motives and power capabilities. Unlike the old era, Russia does not seek to directly confront or defeat the other side. Rather, the objective is to challenge the rival party for the purpose of gaining recognition and negotiating a greater space within the still largely West-influenced global order.
Furthermore, Russia is in no position to challenge the Western nations globally given the large – and in some areas widening – gap between the U.S. and Russian capabilities. The importance of defending Russia’s interests and status by limited means has been addressed through the idea of asymmetric capabilities applied on a limited scale and for defensive purposes. When the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov first described the so-called hybrid war he did not mean to provide a template for an offensive military strategy. Rather, as several military analysts noted, he intended to recognize that the West had already being engaged in such war against Russia and that Russia had to be better prepared for the new type of war. While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is not acquiescing to American pressures, he is engaged in asymmetric rivalry. The latter targets the competitor’s selected vulnerable areas and is designed to put on alert and disorient, rather than achieve a decisive victory. Asymmetric methods of Russian foreign policy include selective use of media and information technology, cyber power, hybrid military intervention, and targeted economic sanctions.
Finally, the Cold War narrative underestimates a potential for Russia’s cooperation with the West in selected areas. The described asymmetric rivalry does not exclude the possibility of Russia and Western powers cooperating in some areas (nuclear non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, cyber issues) and regions (Middle East and North Korea) while perceiving each other as competitors over preferred rules and structure of the international system. In the increasingly fragmented world, Russia and the West may move beyond viewing each other as predominantly rivals if they learn to focus on issues of common concern and find a way to reframe their values and interests in non-confrontational terms.
Cooperation with Russia remains possible and indeed desirable. Russia’s constant attempts to engage the United States and other Western nations in cooperation, including those over Iran and Syria, demonstrate the importance to the Kremlin of being recognized in relations with the outside world. Despite its internal institutional differences from Western nations, Russia sees itself as an indispensable part of the West and will continue to reach out to Western leaders in order to demonstrate Russia’s relevance.
Although the West continues to possess the power of influence, Western leaders have not been effective in using such power. Instead of devising a strategy of selective engagement and recognition, they largely rely on containment and political confrontation in relations with Russia. The West remains fearful of Russia and wants to force the Kremlin to comply with Western demands to relieve pressures on Ukraine or conduct a more restrained foreign policy.
These pressures are not likely to work. If the West continues to challenge Russia’s perceived interests, there are indeed reasons to expect that Putin may fight back. Even with a stagnating economy, the Kremlin commands a strong domestic support and an ample range of asymmetric tools for action.
However, for reasons of psychological and economic dependence on the West, Russia, unless provoked, is not likely to engage in actions fundamentally disruptive of the existing international order. If the United States does not engage in actions that are viewed by Russia as depriving it of its great power status, the Kremlin will refrain from highly destabilizing steps such as abdication of the INF treaty or military occupation of Ukraine or other parts of Eurasia.
As difficult as it might be to accept for the West, there is hardly an alternative to engaging Russia in a joint effort to stabilize the situation globally as well in various regions including Ukraine and wider Europe. The new policy must be based on understanding that the Kremlin’s “revisionism” is partly a reaction to the West’s refusal to recognize Russia as a potential partner. The alternative to the new engagement is not a compliant Russia, but a continued degradation of regional and global security.
Andrei P. Tsygankov is professor of political science and international relations at San Francisco State University. He has published widely in the United States, Russia, Europe, and China. His books include Russia’s Foreign Policy and Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin, and he has recently edited the Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (to be published in 2018).
WikiLeaks Cables: Breaking Conventional Lies About the Coalition War in Yemen
Global Research, February 01, 2018
The Saudi-led coalition unleashed a barrage of air strikes on Yemen, slaughtering as many as 71 civilians (many of them children) within a period of 48 hours, reported the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera on Christmas Eve. This massacre attained little attention and dissolved into history, forgotten. On the next day, December 26, the coalition targeted more sites, killing at least 68 men, women and children.
Those who are not annihilated by bombs risk dying from starvation. The Yemeni people are under blockade, enforced intentionally, with an aim to starve them into submission.
By definition a vicious war crime, it is not a newsworthy subject across the Western media sphere. Silence is particularly well kept at the U.S. news network MSNBC, found a study conducted by an investigative team of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). The leading liberal channel did not air a “single segment devoted specifically to Yemen in the second half of 2017.”
Unfortunately, there is a reason for this. Serving increasingly as a mere agent of power, the media implies silence when it protects and justifies the interests of our mighty “masters of mankind”, to borrow the words of Adam Smith. Therefore, the crimes committed by the forces we label as our ‘adversaries’, are there to be amplified and condemned. Atrocities committed by us and our allies are there to be overlooked, ignored. Consequently, this conventional practice divides victims into worthy and unworthy. If this phenomenon was to be rated, then Yemenis would perhaps represent the most unworthy victims.
The country falls into this model perfectly. To begin with, the bombs that destroy its infrastructure and kill its men, women and children are manufactured by the military-industrial corporations, which are headquartered in countries such as Great Britain and the United States. Furthermore, they are dropped on Yemen’s targets under intelligence support of the mentioned powers, by their regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. These are the crimes of our empire and its client states, and therefore they would be forgiven and erased from the contemporary record.
However, after breaking conventional lies employed to justify the war, and after recovering the sources of what Vandana Shiva calls the “subjugated knowledge”, one will discover an inconceivable crime; perhaps the worst atrocity in decades being committed, precisely to propel the agenda of the most cynical forces controlling power.
It is past time to break the silence.
Our Ally in the Middle East
While the Saudi coalition has been bombing Yemen since 2015, not a word was uttered about its actions when American president Donald Trump visited Riyadh in May. It is forbidden to talk about human lives when a business that destroys them is booming. The Trump administration arrived in Riyadh to continue the legacy of its predecessors by signing a massive $109.7 billion arms contract with Washington’s corrupt and autocratic client state, promising high yields to the shareholders of America’s vast defense industry. Celebrating this contract, the business press published a piece with a headline stating: “Defense stocks at record highs on Trump-Saudi deal.”
It doesn’t matter that Saudi Arabia is a brutal theocratic and autocratic state, the single biggest sponsor of terrorism and a force waging an aggressive policy towards its neighbors in the Middle East.
In fact, Washington is well informed about it. An email released by WikiLeaks from the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, reveals it very instructively. While elaborating on the U.S’s fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Clinton points out that “we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” A nearly identical conclusion was drawn in a cable dating back to 2009. It assesses that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Though we leave this note for now, the subject of terrorism will appear again.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Adel Al-Jubeir, the newly named Saudi Foreign Minister, upon arriving at the Saudi Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 6, 2015, for a meeting and working dinner with Crown Prime Mohammed bin Nayef. (State Department photo)
Material support Saudi Arabia receives from Washington also signals a green light to its conduct in Yemen. It is worth stressing that the American empire plays an important role within the Saudi-led coalition. Adel al-Jubeir, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, spoke openly about the partnership with the co-anchor of CBS, Norah O’Donnell. Replying to her softly-pressed concern about the coalition’s use of indiscriminate bombing, he replied:
“We are very careful in picking targets, we have very precise weapons, we work with our allies, including the United States on these targets.”
Supporting its client state in his political goals, the United States helps the coalition to identify “targets” in Yemen. This is an important point. Since Washington is so deeply involved in the war, it too bears responsibility for war crimes. Investigating further, we will discover the extent to which the interests of these two powers bond in Yemen, both before and during the current war.
The myth about Iranian Proxies
The reason that Saudi Arabia, along with its coalition partners, is waging war in Yemen has been repeated ever since the conflict started. Riyadh is fighting Houthis, a former guerrilla movement from the country’s Shia-populated Northern Province of Sa’ada. The Saudi intervention came months after Houthi rebels advanced from their Northern stronghold into the Central and Southern Provinces of Yemen, captured major cities, including the capital Sana’a. Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, at that time Yemen’s serving President, fled the capital in 2014 to the Southern port city of Aden, where he stayed until fleeing to Saudi Arabia. The coalition started bombing Yemen immediately after his exile in March 2015.
Straightaway, the goal of the bombing was stated clearly: Riyadh sought to restore the government apparatus of President Hadi in Sana’a and crush the Houthi uprising. Justifying its actions, the Saudi coalition blamed Iran for supporting the rebel movement and thus destabilizing the entire region. Therefore, the coalition intervened in Yemen to stop the spread of Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Obediently, the Western news media amplified this message. A proxy war scenario was born. On 26 March 2015, the Guardian summarized events in Yemen in the following fashion: “The conflict, spreading outwards like a poison cloud from the key southern battleground around Aden, pits Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim power, plus what remains of Yemen’s government against northern-based Houthi rebels, who are covertly backed by Shia Muslim Iran.” Thus “the primary Saudi aim is to pacify Yemen, but its wider objective is to send a powerful message to Iran: stop meddling in Arab affairs.”
This narrative is still relevant today. Under a premise that Houthis are no more than proxies of Iran, it is possible to draw a conclusion that Riyadh responds reciprocally to Iran’s actions. Of course, such a narrative is grossly oversimplified, though it is repeated routinely in the corporate papers, and thus it has become a conventional wisdom. Before breaking down this myth, it is worth stressing that even if the conflict is portrayed as a regional fight between the two rivals – Riyadh and Tehran – the United States has numerously demonstrated its unilateral position on the issue. Speaking at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, President Trump made it clear that
“Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction” across Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
In this context, Iran’s destabilizing “extremist groups” in Yemen are the Houthis. Such a statement will not be a surprise for those who listened to the earlier remarks of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who described Iran as “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” As we already know, this is a lie.
The nucleus of the argument that Iran is fighting a proxy war in Yemen stresses that Houthis receive their weapons from Tehran. Indeed, in order to see how much support Iran provides to Houthis, it is worth examining the U.S. diplomatic cables. Classified by the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Stephen Seche, a cable from 9 December 2009
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(when the rebels operated in Sa’ada Province) examines:
Contrary to ROYG claims that Iran is arming the Houthis, most local political analysts report that the Houthis obtain their weapons from the Yemeni black market and even from the ROYG military itself. According to a British diplomat, there are numerous credible reports that ROYG military commanders were selling weapons to the Houthis in the run-up to the Sixth War. An ICG report on the Sa’ada conflict from May 2009 quoted NSB director Ali Mohammed al-Ansi saying, “Iranians are not arming the Houthis. The weapons they use are Yemeni. Most actually come from fighters who fought against the socialists during the 1994 war and then sold them.” Mohammed Azzan, presidential advisor for Sa’ada affairs, told PolOff on August 16 that the Houthis easily obtain weapons inside Yemen, either from battlefield captures or by buying them from corrupt military commanders and soldiers. Azzan said that the military “covers up its failure” by saying the weapons come from Iran. According to Jamal Abdullah al-Shami of the Democracy School, there is little external oversight of the military’s large and increasing budget, so it is easy for members of the military to illegally sell weapons.
The cable also points out that Houthis are a “decentralized guerrilla army”, retaining support from Sa’ada residents “because of ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government] injustices, abuses by local sheikhs, and the brutality of the war.” Although the Houthi military wing can be classified as religiously motivated, its leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, is described as a “political-military leader rather than a religious one.”
Grievances of Sa’ada residents towards Sana’a are legitimate. Since the Houthi uprising started in 2004, the Yemeni government under President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been waging a violent campaign against the group. Back then, Saudi Arabia also sought to “pacify Yemen”, and supported Sana’a in its campaign by bombing the Northern Province. From what U.S. diplomatic cables reveal, Riyadh’s previous conduct in Yemen against Houthis is strikingly similar to the strategy applied since 2015.
A cable dating from 30 December 2009 explains that “the Saudi military has employed a massively disproportionate force in its effort to repel and clear the lightly armed Houthi guerillas from the border area.” Of course, the “disproportionate force” cannot be employed without assistance from Washington.
During the campaign, the Saudi military turned to the U.S. for emergency provision of munitions, imagery and intelligence to assist them to operate with greater precision. The U.S. military responded with alacrity to the extent possible, primarily by flying in stocks of ammunition for small weapons and artillery.
This conflict received practically no media coverage in the West, though it affected at least 150,000 civilians. The precise number of people killed in six wars between 2004 and 2010 is unknown.
As it was pointed out earlier, there is no direct arms link between Iran and the Houthis. Consequently, it did not matter to the Saudis, and therefore their intention to crush the rebels can be attributed to a different cause.
The Saudi Colony
What should be analyzed then is the sudden rise of the Houthi movement in 2014. Did something change between December 2009 and September 2014, when the rebels captured Sana’a? Is Iran the sponsor of their victories?
The answer perhaps lies in the political shifts the country experienced during the Arab Spring, and in the relationship of its establishment elite with the regional powers. One of the central figures of our assessment is, therefore, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long-serving President who united the territories of North and South into one country that is Yemen in the 1990s. Holding power for over 3 decades, he was forced to resign amidst protests in 2011. Two years after handing the post to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Saleh formed an alliance with the Houthis. Hence the start of the war; the armed forces loyal to the former President aided the rebels to fight against the ground militants of the Saudi-led coalition and exiled President Hadi.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi address reporters before their bilateral meeting at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2013. (State Department photo)
One would be correct, however, to label the alliance fragile. Looking into to the past record of Saleh, one perhaps should read a classified cable from 16 November 2009. While assessing the Saudi military involvement in Northern Yemen, it presses that “President Saleh has long been encouraging Saudi Arabia to join the fight” against Houthis. Therefore, “In the short-term at least, it seems like President Saleh has gained the most from the Saudis’ entry into the conflict. His glee when the Saudis launched their airstrikes indicates he finally received what he has been pushing for— political, financial, and direct military support for the war from Yemen’s powerful neighbor and principal benefactor.” It is vital to keep in mind that the two sides – Saleh and Houthis –would in future be united against the Saudi coalition.
A secret cable from June 18, 2008, nonetheless indicates that in the overall process, Saleh and the Yemeni political establishment could perhaps be the “second class” beneficiaries. This particular cable is long and extremely informative. In it, Sana’a’s relationship with Riyadh is described as following:
Yemenis perceive the relationship as heavily balanced in favor of Saudi Arabia, which remains involved in Yemen, to the extent necessary, to counter the potential threat of Yemen’s unemployed masses, poor security, unrest, crime and the intentions of foreign countries (Libya and Iran) that might create a threat on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
Striking deals with the country’s corrupt elite and providing “substantial development assistance”, Riyadh is indeed countering “the potential threat of Yemen’s unemployed masses.” In this context, the Houthis perhaps represent the biggest threat, as they attract support from people who are tired “of ROYG injustices” and “abuses by local sheikhs.”
Assessing the tribal factor that plays a significant role both in shaping the internal politics and external relationship between Yemen and its Northern neighbor, the cable outlines: “Yemen’s proximity to Saudi Arabia and their history means that many tribes in Yemen share ancestry with Saudi Arabia.” At the same time, it points out:
Yemenis are aware that other Arab nationalities, including Saudis, see them as backward uncivilized people. In ref B, Yemeni Colonel Handhal, commander of al-Badieh military airfield near the Saudi border, said that Saudis treat Yemenis as second class citizens. This second class designation may extend to the official level as well.
It is therefore logical that Riyadh is pursuing to use Yemen for its self-benefiting projects.
A British diplomat based in Yemen told PolOff that Saudi Arabia had an interest to build a pipeline, wholly owned, operated and protected by Saudi Arabia, through Hadramaut to a port on the Gulf of Aden, thereby bypassing the Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf and the straits of Hormuz. Saleh has always opposed this. The diplomat contended that Saudi Arabia, through supporting Yemeni military leadership, paying for the loyalty of shaykhs and other means, was positioning itself to ensure it would, for the right price, obtain the rights for this pipeline from Saleh’s successor.
The construction of a pipeline which will connect the Eastern oil fields of Saudi Arabia with the Gulf of Aden is a strategic goal. If implemented, the Hadramaut project will have a geopolitical significance. “Bypassing the Arabian Gulf/Persian Gulf and the straits of Hormuz”, the pipeline could potentially reshape the map of oil shipment routes in the Middle East. The problem with an established order was indicated by Anthony H. Cordesman, the Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major foreign policy think tank based in Washington D.C. His article published on 26 March 2015, a day after Riyadh and its allies began bombing Yemen, indicates the current significance of the Strait of Hormuz as “the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of its daily oil flow of 17 million barrels per day in 2013. Flows through the Strait of Hormuz in 2013 were about 30% of all seaborne-traded oil.” Therefore, the problem lies in the lack of “functioning pipelines that provide alternative export routes.” While the issue of dependence of global oil exports on the Strait of Hormuz was not conveyed explicitly, it can logically be nothing other than Iran. A close proximity of the world’s most important oil route to the adversary of the American empire seems to cause a headache to Washington strategists. Thus the construction of the Saudi pipeline through Yemen represents an explicit step in the right direction.
As it maintains a cold war relationship with Tehran, the Saudi Kingdom foresees its dependence on the Strait of Hormuz as a strategic weakness, too. Redirecting the oil exports to the Gulf of Aden and hence to the Red Sea would be a win/win venture for both Riyadh and Washington; the Red Sea route is a vital oil shipping lane to Western countries, protected by the empire’s client states such as Djibouti, a country that is also a military base of East Africa, hosting as many as 5000 troops from Europe and the United States.
Returning to the cable, it was vividly stated there that President Saleh “has always been opposed” to the Hadramaut pipeline. His opposition was, of course, unacceptable to Riyadh, the same as any opposition that comes from the “backward” and “uncivilized” Yemen. The bet was that “Saleh’s successor” and his establishment would implement this project for “the right price.” Thus, a campaign to remove Saleh from power was enabled. Though the Yemeni leader would step down in 2011, WikiLeaks reveals that the plan of action for his removal was crafted as far back as 2009. A classified cable from 31 August 2009 portrays an influential figure within the right-wing Salafist (an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam) Al-Islah party, Hamid al-Ahmar, threatening to organize mass demonstrations to oust Saleh.
Hamid al-Ahmar, Islah Party leader, prominent businessman, Member of Parliament, and de facto head of the Hashid tribal confederation, told EconOff on August 27 that he had given President Saleh until the end of 2009 to “guarantee” the fairness of the 2011 elections, form a unity government with the Southern Movement, and remove his relatives from military leadership positions. Absent this fundamental shift in Saleh’s governance of the country, Ahmar will begin organizing anti-regime demonstrations in “every single governorate,” modeled after the 1998 protests that helped topple Indonesian President Suharto.
“We cannot copy the Indonesians exactly, but the idea is controlled chaos.”
Mr. Ahmar nonetheless debunks his ultimatum and clarifies:
“There’s really no way to verify that Saleh is serious about free and fair elections, but I won’t wait until the 2011 elections to move forward.”
Implementing the “controlled chaos” to oust the long-serving President, whose family commands the country’s military apparatus, is rather a difficult task requiring external assistance.
Removing Saleh from power in a scenario that does not involve throwing the country into complete chaos will be impossible without the support of the (currently skeptical) Saudi leadership and elements of the Yemeni military, particularly MG Ali Muhsin, according to Ahmar.
“The Saudis will take a calculated risk if they can be convinced that we can make Saleh leave the scene peacefully.”
Saleh’s successor, Ahmar noted, should be close to Riyadh and come from the South.
Denying any personal ambition to lead the country, Ahmar said that Yemen needs a president from one of the southern governorates and that the Saudis would eventually come around to the idea.
“If the Saudis were going to put anyone in power instead of Saleh, it would be me — everyone knows I am close to them — but I told them the next president must be a southerner, for the sake of unity.”
United Decentralized Yemen
Large demonstrations against Saleh started on 27 January 2011, amidst the winds of the Arab Spring challenging dictators in Egypt and Tunisia. Marginalized by the country’s “sheikhs” and political establishment, Yemenis too wanted change to the status quo. Their demands, however, were exploited from the beginning. It is worth remembering that the uprising was to be “controlled.”
Organizing protests was the opposition comprised of different factions – all challenging the General People’s Congress, a party of President Saleh. Their symbiosis with the marchers, however, is quite interesting to look at. An article about the student protests in Sana’a, published on 13 February 2011 by the New York Times, points out the difference between the spontaneous popular demonstrations and organized marches.
Unlike the earlier protests in Yemen, which were highly organized and marked by color-coordinated clothing and signs, the spontaneity of the younger demonstrators appeared to have more in common with popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where opposition groups watched from the sidelines as leaderless revolts grew into revolutions.
Hamid al-Ahmar is featured in the article. He articulates the conflict of interest between the protesters and their opposition organizers. A popular uprising against the establishment was indeed not on the agenda.
Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, an opposition leader, said in an interview on Sunday that political leaders had tried to prevent the younger demonstrators from taking to the streets to demand immediate changes to the autocratic rule of Mr. Saleh. But, he said, “It’s not that they aren’t cooperating with the new protests,” only that opposition leaders would like to move more slowly.
Predictably, the government security forces responded viciously to the protests. Hundreds of people died in clashes. As planned, the Gulf countries got involved in the crisis. They crafted an agreement to ensure Saleh’s ‘peaceful’ resignation, which the Yemeni leader signed on November 23. The New York Times reported on the deal:
According to a Gulf-brokered agreement, which Mr. Saleh signed on Nov. 23, he and his family must give up their powers in exchange for immunity and allow for a peaceful, democratic transition from his 33-year rule. The military, which was divided during the protests and brought the country to the brink of civil war last summer, must also be restructured and integrated.
Another article, published on the same day as Saleh resigned, amplified the concern of protesters that the agreement “would preserve the status quo by keeping the country’s elite” in power.
Their concerns were nonetheless irrelevant. All parties representing power worked “to counter the potential threat of Yemen’s unemployed” and “uncivilized” masses. As diplomatic cables reveal, American empire supported Saleh as its close ally prior to the events in 2011. Simultaneously, it sought to use “Saudi Arabia to address development in Yemen.” Therefore, Washington supported the deal which ousted Saleh and attained similar alliance with his successor. Coming from the South and thus ensuring Yemen’s unity, while also playing to the interest of Riyadh, Mr. Hadi consolidated the objectives expressed in 2009 by Mr. Ahmar.
Moving forward, President Hadi enabled procedures to establish a suitable environment for the implementation of Saudi goals. On March 18, 2013, the National Dialogue Conference was kick-started in Sana’a— backed by the United Nations and hosted at the luxurious Movenpick Hotel. To the Western audience, the conference was portrayed as a reconciliation effort, aimed at resolving the existing differences between the Yemeni factions (political parties and secessionist movements). The real agenda was hidden behind closed doors. Observing the conference, an article published on the news blog of the Atlantic Council points out that a weakness of the National Dialogue is a lack of “communication with the Yemeni public.” The hotel where the conference was hosted has been “reportedly packed with foreign governance experts and consultants who are being handsomely compensated, but little is known regarding the affiliation of these experts, what technical assistance they are offering Yemenis, or whether their role is beneficial and effective.”
In a revealing analysis published in 2015 on her personal blog, which she later deleted, the Senior Advisor for Security/Rule of Law/Human Rights at the Netherlands Embassy in Yemen, Joke Buringa, summarizes the processes in the country as follows.
When the situation really became untenable the Gulf States, under the watchful eyes of the US and the EU, convinced Saleh to step down in exchange for immunity. His Vice-President Hadi would take over the presidency until the planned presidential elections. De facto, the existing system was kept intact. The subsequent National Dialogue led to the decision to form a federal state with six countries. The governorates of Hadramaut, Shabwa and al Mahra were to come together in a new state called Hadramaut. When asked last year, the current Yemeni minister of Information Mrs. Nadia Sakkaf (residing in Riyadh) could not explain how that decision was reached: one day it had simply been made. The new state of Hadramaut counts 4 of the 26 million inhabitants of Yemen, 50% of the land area, 80% of the oil exports and – contrary to large other parts of Yemen – a sufficient water supply. In addition, a gold reserve worth 4 billion US dollars has recently been discovered.
Not only will this plan turn Yemen into a decentralized colony of Riyadh, but it will also spearhead implementation of the Hadramaut pipeline, which will be accepted “for the right price” by tribal leaders and corrupt sheikhs. Bypassing the populated and resources-scarce Eastern Provinces through the autonomous and sparsely populated Hadramaut would also provide enough means for the Saudis “to counter the potential threat” of the Yemeni people. In accordance with the plan, Yemen will nonetheless remain a united country, at least on the map. Separating the Northern Provinces from the South was clearly not on the agenda; perhaps because controlling two sovereign countries would be more difficult.
In the article, Buringa also observes “the governorate of Hadramaut is one of the few areas where the Saudi-led coalition did not conduct any airstrikes.” Thus “the port and the international airport of Al Mukalla are in optimal shape and under the control of Al Qa’eda. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been delivering arms to Al Qa’eda, who is expanding its sphere of influence.” Controlling vast swaths of a territory of what has proven to be a vital Province for the Saudi interest, Al Qa’eda was tolerated; its grip on Al Mukalla, the fifth largest city in Yemen, was broken in 2016, retaken by the coalition-backed militias. The city was recaptured almost immediately, just a day after the offensive was launched.
While details about the pipeline project have remained unspoken in the media sphere, the fragmentation of Yemen into semi-autonomous regions has gained some attention. Shortly after the end of negotiations, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported on 10 February 2014 that Yemen will “become a federation of six regions” – “two in the south – Aden and Hadramaut – and four in the north – Saba, Janad, Azal and Tahama.” The new decentralized government structure will be “enshrined in a new constitution.” The existing differences between the North and South was a conventional explanation for the decision to implement a decentralized system of governance.
An outcome of the conference was praised internationally. The State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, welcomed the National Dialogue conference as “evidence of the will of the Yemeni people to work together constructively for the future of their country.” Canadian Minister of Foreign Affair, John Baird, congratulated “the people of Yemen” for having “spoken for a more open society that respects freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” Voices from within Yemen did not necessarily share the optimism. The Houthis rejected an outcome, stressing that “it divides Yemen into poor and wealthy” regions.
The political reality outside of the Movenpick Hotel was a power vacuum. It is safe to say that Hadi’s transitional government was highly unpopular among the people, representing a status quo they fought to topple. The security apparatus was also divided, with a large faction of the military remaining loyal to the former President. Consequently, not Iran but a failure of the fractured army to foster a coordinated effort against the Houthis, provided them the necessary power vacuum to expand. It seems that the subsequent alliance between Saleh and Houthis was merely political – an attempt from his side to retake control of Sana’a. This political shift nonetheless had a significant impact on the planned implementation of a framework from the National Dialogue. Combined together, the two factions have formed a force neutral to sectarian differences and strong enough to challenge Hadi’s government and its international backers.
This is unforgivable.
Starving the Rebellion
Nothing can morally justify the coalition intervention in Yemen – especially the naval blockade it imposed on the country of 28 million people, the poorest in the Arab world. Examining its conduct closely brings a shocking revelation. It is pure barbarism, to say the least.
The blockade was enforced just days after the coalition began its air campaign. Food security for millions of Yemenis was already dire prior to the conflict. With less than 3 percent of the land being used for agriculture, Yemen struggled to meet the demands of its growing population. Domestic cereal production, for instance, covers less than 20 percent of the total internal demand, while at a minimum, 90 percent of all wheat is imported from abroad(this was not the case just a few decades ago). Severely restricting the importation of essential goods –machinery equipment, medicines and food – the blockade has created an environment for a humanitarian catastrophe. One of Yemen’s vital ports located in the city of Al Hudaydah –a Houthi controlled port supplying imports to country’s largest cities, including the capital Sana’a – was severely impacted, often staying idle for weeks as ships are stuck in the waters, prevented by the coalition from docking. Indeed, a goal of the blockade is vicious though explicit: use starvation as a weapon against the Houthis and Yemeni civilians in disregard of international law.
Returning from his visit to the country in 2015, Peter Maurer, the head of the International Red Cross Committee, observes “Yemen after five months [of war] … looks like Syria after five years.” A report released on 10 June 2015 overlooking the food security situation confirms Maurer’s assessment. Using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale that divides the population into five categories – generally food secure (phase 1) to famine (phase 5) – it estimated 6,071,831 people were experiencing humanitarian emergency (phase 4), just a step away from famine. The United Nations warned of a potential famine, and the media conglomerates have periodically amplified its message.
It is a fact that the situation has deteriorated dramatically since then. In the following summer of 2016, the population under humanitarian emergency surpassed 7 million. Most recent data on the situation was reiterated by the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick. Stressing that
“the continuing blockade of ports is limiting supplies of fuel, food and medicines; dramatically increasing the number of vulnerable people who need help,” McGoldrick warned “8.4 million Yemenis” are “a step away from famine.”
Indeed, the coalition has been implementing its starvation tactic quite methodically. Air campaigns have targeted infrastructure that is essential for maintenance of life, for example; bridges, airports, food warehouses and agricultural production. In fact, the precision with which the coalition planes strike these targets is shocking. Martha Mundy, the emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and author of a report about the war on Yemen and its agricultural sector, commented for this piece:
“the evidence from the total pattern of bombing and the blockading of ports is that disruption of production, processing distribution of food forms a central part of the Coalition strategy.”
The report itself confirms this instructively. Using conservative data from the ministry of agriculture and irrigation in Sana’a, it concludes between March 2015 and August 2016 the coalition targeted 257 farms/animal farms, 30 sites related to water infrastructure and dozens of food storage facilities and markets. The Sa’ada Province suffered particular damage; small rural areas were bombed and agricultural life systematically disrupted. Vividly, the bombing was intending to inflict starvation, a vicious war crime.
Agricultural production hence declined amidst the fact that Yemen has enjoyed satisfactory rainfall. The total cereal harvest in 2017 was predicted to be half of the five-year average (that includes time before the war). Simultaneously, the distribution of imported food into the rebel-controlled territories is difficult. Dr. Mundy writes the blockade is “encouraging traders to move food either through southern ports or across land borders,” thus “forcing prices up massively” in the markets. “There is good evidence,” she points, “of processed food flowing in from Saudi Arabia overland, the issues being of course the destruction of food processing plants in Yemen by air strikes and the price that the imported goods then cost.”
In the Houthi-controlled coastal areas, the coalition enforces its blockade by restricting boats from sailing into the sea. Small fishing vessels have repeatedly come under attack, with crew members – sometimes the only family breadwinners – killed or severely wounded. Thus starvation prevails in the communities.
Evidently, civilians are bombed indiscriminately; in fact, 3158 coalition air strikes hit civilian targets between March 2015 and August 2016, concluded the Guardian after reviewing records from an independent data collection project known as The Yemen Data Project. At that time, the project recorded 8617 strikes across Yemen. The number has since increased dramatically, topping 15489 by mid-December 2017. How many of them hit agricultural production, infrastructure and civilian areas?
Exacerbating the impact of the mentioned “forms of aggression,” stresses Dr. Mundy, is the “economic war that takes the form of moving the central bank to Aden [controlled by pro-coalition forces] and then failing to pay government employees throughout all the areas under Houthi/GCP [General People’s Congress] control.”
Apart from contributing to rising prices, the economic war struck a devastating blow to the assets of public use. 72 percent of Yemeni teachers, for instances, have not received salaries for months, leaving over 4.3 million students without education, concludes the latest report on humanitarian needs
Making an empirical assessment on the human toll of the coalition war is virtually impossible. The official death toll only accounts for fatalities from the combat zones and air strikes. By this measurement, around 10,000 people have died since 2015. This estimate was first revealed to the media by the UN humanitarian coordinator to Yemen in August 2016 and remained practically static ever since. There is no doubt that thousands more have died from the blockade.
It has already caused the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history, with over one million people infected and 2237 deaths; of course, that is if one believes the official fatalities record. Hunger is also taking countless lives. A UNICEF report dating from 12 December 2016 voiced alarm about increasing child mortality with its estimate of one child dying every ten minutes from acute malnutrition and diseases (no longer treatable under the blockade). Considering that conditions on the ground have not improved, it is plausible that over 55,000 more Yemeni children have died between 12 December 2016 and 1 January 2018. Another plausible estimate can be made with the data from the mentioned above IPC reports. By definition, between one and two deaths are occurring within the population of 10,000 per day under phase 4 humanitarian emergency. Placing into the equation 8.4 million people who live in conditions of humanitarian emergency, and using the nominal mortality rate of its definition, would mean as many as 840 deaths are occurring daily across the country. Amidst the repeated warnings, famine has not yet been officially acknowledged, and perhaps it will not be until the situation becomes too critical to ignore.
“It is not clear who would declare the famine,” Dr. Mundy says. “The statements of the UN Humanitarian Affairs Officer in Yemen are as close to authoritative for the international agencies as one can get. For obvious reasons the Houthis have little to gain by declaring that there is a famine.”
An instructive warning was once echoed in the article on Time:
“The last time famine was formally declared, in Somalia in 2011, most of the 260,000 victims had already died.”
It is, unfortunately, valid to say that an overall death toll from the Saudi-led coalition war and blockade now ranges within borders of hundreds of thousands.
Making Excuses for the Genocide
There was a remarkable spectacle in Washington D.C recently. Inside a warehouse at the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling military installation was Nikki Haley, the United State ambassador to the United Nations, speaking before a group of reporters. On the background were the remnants of what we should believe is a missile – the “Iranian missile”, as she describes. The premise for Haley’s presentation was Yemen, where Houthis fired a missile directed towards King Khalid’s International Airport in Riyadh on November 4. Condemning rebels for targeting a “civilian airport”, the ambassador warned about Iran’s “destabilizing behavior” in the region. In Colin Powell’s fashion, Haley descended that “we must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is: a threat to the peace and security of the entire world.”
Indeed, there is not a lot, really, that can justify the rebel launch of a missile towards Riyadh, although the motive was clearly retaliatory. While condemned, the attack killed no one; the missile was intercepted. By contrast, the Saudi-led coalition was not condemned when it bombed civilian airports in Yemen, including the complex in Sana’a. In her presentation, Haley mentioned nothing about the coalition air crimes, about its deliberate policy of starving Yemenis to death. This is not something the ‘world community” should be concerned about. Highly publicized, the presentation has, in fact, once again validated the coalition war and justified the naval blockade. Perhaps one would not be wrong for calling the speech ‘a formal excuse for genocide’.
Again, it is worth remembering that there is no explicit arms link between Iran and the Houthis. From the beginning, however, the coalition employed Iran’s material support for rebels to justify the naval blockade. It has become a conventional fact that Iranian weapons, transported on boats via what is one of the world’s most patrolled sea routes, is what keeps the rebel resistance going. The theory is ludicrous, to say the least.
It is therefore not a surprise that one aspect of the war in Yemen has gained less media attention than anything else – concrete evidence of the coalition’s success at stopping Iranian weapons from flowing into the rebel arsenals. Perhaps there are two reasons for that. First, there is nothing really to present before journalists. Second, the United States and some of its NATO allies are too heavily involved in the blockade enforcement. Reporting for the Consortium news on 31 October 2016, an investigative journalist, Gareth Porter, powers the two claims with evidence.
Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the new variant of the Obama administration’s familiar theme about Iran’s “nefarious activities” in the region two weeks after Saudi Arabia began its bombing in Yemen on March 26, 2015. Kerry told the PBS NewsHour, “There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran,” citing “a number of flights every single week that have been flying in.” Kerry vowed that the United States was “not going to stand by while the region is destabilized.”
Later, the administration began accusing Iran of using fishing boats to smuggle arms to the Houthis. The campaign unfolded in a series of four interceptions of small fishing boats or dhows in or near the Arabian Sea from September 2015 through March 2016. The four interceptions had two things in common: the boats did have illicit weapons alright, but the crews always said the ship was bound for Somalia – not Yemen and the Houthis.
But instead of acknowledging the obvious fact that the weapons were not related to the Iran-Houthi relationship, a U.S. military spokesman put out a statement in all four cases citing a U.S. “assessment” that the ultimate destination of the arms was Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen.
These boats were intercepted by the navy of countries participating in the Combined Maritime Forces, a 32-nation coalition patrolling waters near the East coast of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden. Protecting a strategic trading route, the coalition is commanded from the U.S. navy base in Bahrain.
Pressure on Riyadh and its allies to lift the blockade remains pitiful. So far, there was perhaps only one instance when this crime against humanity had attained sizable publicity: it happened after the coalition tightened its siege to the point where even basic humanitarian supplies were no longer allowed to enter Yemen. A total blockade on air and sea was announced after the rebels fired a missile towards Riyadh’s airport, the event Nikki Haley exploited in her December theater of the absurd.
The twenty-day siege was later eased on November 26, 2017, amidst the mounting international pressure. However, with the first humanitarian cargo arriving in the rebel-held port of Al Hudaydah, the plight of Yemenis was once again forgotten. It did not matter that the siege remains tight, unjustified, supported by the world’s strongest power and violates international law.
“The situation in Yemen – today, right now, to the population of the country – looks like the apocalypse,” spoke to journalists the head of the UN office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock. “Unless the situation changes, we’re going to have the world’s worst humanitarian disaster for 50 years.” Silence from the Western media conglomerates makes clear Lowcock’s statement was not newsworthy enough.
The reluctance of the American empire to cease its involvement and press on its Gulf allies to stop the unsought in Yemen is hardly surprising. Back in the 1990s, the U.S. and Britain were backing and justifying a similar medieval siege of Iraq. Killing as many as 500,000 Iraqi children was “worth it”, declared the Secretary of State for President Clinton, Madeleine Albright.
The Pragmatist is Gone
While the Gulf countries have advocated for Saleh’s resignation in 2011 in favor of President Hadi, they still regarded him and the General People’s Congress as the mainstream political forces, capable of maintaining a status quo that serves the interests of both parties: the Yemeni elite and Riyadh. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington D.C, therefore observes that Saleh’s alliance with the rebels was an attempt to “use the Houthis” to “take revenge against his allies who defected from him in 2011.” Advancing from their Northern stronghold “Houthis saw in that an opportunity to grab power. Both, however, have been fierce enemies and fought six wars against each other between 2004 and 2010.”
As it was mentioned earlier, an alliance between the two was too fragile to stand. It collapsed by the end of November 2017, prompting a week of fighting in Sana’a between the loyalists of Saleh and Houthi rebels. Attempting to flee the capital on December 4, Saleh was caught and ambushed. Filming his corpse after execution, the fighters chanted “praise God, Sayyidi Hussein is avenged,” referring to Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a leader of the rebel movement sentenced to death under the orders of President in 2004. Saleh’s death has gained wide publicity across the media spectrum. There seems to be no hope left; peace between the coalition and Houthis is now unthinkable, we are told.
The Washington foreign policy think tanks agree. “With the passing of Saleh, the ultimate pragmatist with longstanding political and diplomatic ties both locally and internationally, an opportunity has passed with him,” assesses the Atlantic Council. If Saleh was alive, the only way to solve the crisis was to follow the United Nations Security Council “resolution 2216, which called on Saleh to change his destabilizing action, facilitate disarmament of the Houthis, and return to the National Dialogue Conference’s outcomes.” Hence an outcome where the Houthis are not represented and where Yemen was to be fragmented into six autonomous regions, controlled by and serving for the ventures of Gulf powers, including the construction of the Hadhramaut oil pipeline. A vivid exclusion of the rebel movement is justified: “the Houthis, an irrational movement lacking in political experience, make for a highly emotional and unreliable party at the negotiating table.” Perhaps the same is applicable to the Yemeni people, the “backward” and “uncivilized”, posing a “threat” to the regional powers and their Western backers.
Establishing whether the Houthis are “an irrational movement” in the Yemeni theater, one needs to compare them with the forces backed by the coalition and therefore representing the officially recognized government. As Neil Partrickwrites for the Carnegie think tank, the coalition has embraced “often rival Yemeni fighters as long as they are willing to fight Houthi or Saleh forces.” They are tribal militias and elements from political factions, including the Salafist Al-Islah party. Enhancing the alliance of “rival Yemeni fighters” are thousands of paid mercenaries, recruited from as far as the South American Colombia and as close as the African Sudan. Their ground activities are supervised by a limited number of soldiers from the Gulf countries, more precisely the United Arab Emirates. The U.S special operations forces are also on the ground, assisting their Emirate partners in missions.
Divisions nonetheless exist not merely between the armed militias who fight Houthis; there is competition for control and thus instances of tension between the main Arab actors involved in Yemen – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Writing for the Carnegie think tank, Dr. Partrick puts the relationship between the two as following.
At times these differences have created competition for influence and even conflict. In February , the Emiratis and their Yemeni allies fought Saudi-backed Yemeni fighters loyal to the nominal president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for control of the Aden airport, a struggle that prevented an Emirati plan to move north to Taiz. The risk of such confrontations remains, although because the UAE eventually secured control over the airport, it will likely focus on consolidating its existing southern power bases. Lacking ground forces anywhere in Yemen, the Saudis worry that the UAE could be carving out strategic footholds for itself, undermining Saudi influence in the kingdom’s traditional backyard.
Existing cracks within the anti-Houthi alliance perhaps reveal why the forces have made such a marginal progress against the group since 2015. In fact, the failure is quite dramatic, considering an unprecedented campaign the coalition enabled to force the Houthi-controlled territories into submission. One can only wonder what will happen to these factions if the prime enemy in the war is defeated. One would also be right to conclude that the officially recognized Aden-based government of exiled President Hadi maintains little to no authority over the country. The real power rests in the hands of the militias and their commanders.
With Saleh now dead, there is an expectation that his military and party loyalists will unite with the Saudi coalition to defeat the rebels. His son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former head of the elite Republican Guard, has promised revenge:
“I will lead the battle until the last Houthi is thrown out of Yemen … the blood of my father will be hell ringing in the ears of Iran.”
It is impossible to establish whether his message had any ramifications on the ground. So far, little has changed to the status quo.
Receiving diplomatic protection and military support from Western powers, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is spearheading a purge of his royal princes at home and wages an increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East. It seems that he is prepared to go to great lengths to crush the rebels in Yemen, or at least to push them out of its major cities.
An opportunity for a more democratic Yemen was stolen from its people during the tumultuous months of the Arab Spring. The war and its culmination is what will determine the future of this ancient land. Managing to maintain resistance for almost three years against the superior military might of the Saudi-led coalition, Houthis remain perhaps the only established forces fighting for the country’s sovereignty. An alternative to their fight is the submission of Yemen to colonial powers.
Reading to this point, one would have to try hard in order to miss the sheer cynicism behind the war in the Arab world’s most marginalized and underdeveloped country. Conducted with weapons of the military-industrial corporations and made legitimate by the media apparatuses spinning deceptions as conventional facts, the perpetual policy of the world’s strongest powers towards Yemen has been a war; essentially, a war against its people, a strategy to counter their common interests, or a “threat”, as it is described. Internally, that means supporting the status quo of power being handled by a “pragmatist” and experienced elite, which understands the agendas of the mighty powers with its “longstanding political and diplomatic ties.”
Thus the lives of civilians are irrelevant – in Orwell’s lexicon, they are ‘unpeople’. It will be “worth it” if thousands of them perish in air strikes or die from hunger, so long as elitist goals are implemented, and the feasible status quo is maintained.
Nothing can justify this aggressive, this cynical war against defenseless people.
On 29 December 2017, Reuters published a rather exceptional report on the humanitarian impact of this continuing aggression. The author – SelamGebrekidan – writes about a new epidemic threatening thousands of people. On top of the ongoing cholera emergency, diphtheria is now spreading like wildfire. Reporting from a hospital in the coalition-controlled city of Aden, Selam conveys a story of an invisible crisis taking the lives of Yemen’s youngest and most vulnerable. Once with a chance of life on this Earth, they live no more.
Nahla Arishi, chief pediatrician at the al-Sadaqa hospital in this Yemeni port city, had not seen diphtheria in her 20-year career. Then, late last month, a three-year-old girl with high fever was rushed to Arishi’s ward. Her neck was swollen, and she gasped for air through a lump of tissue in her throat. Eight days later, she died.
Soon after, a 10-month-old boy with similar symptoms died less than 24 hours after arriving at the hospital.
Two five-year-old cousins were admitted; only one survived.
A 45-day-old boy, his neck swollen and bruised, lasted a few hours. His last breath was through an oxygen mask.
Thousands of miles to the West from Yemen is the government of the world’s mightiest empire, controlled by the interests of corporations and their shareholders on Wall Street. Indeed, the stock market has broken records in recent times, with defense stocks performing particularly well. From 17 January 2017 to the time this article is typed, the stock of Boeing has doubled in price; the shares of Raytheon rose 35 percent, Lockheed Martin whooped 30 percent and General Dynamics 17 percent, respectively. The war economy of an empire is experiencing exciting times. Ties between Washington and Riyadh remain strong and unhinged.
The coalition’s onslaught in Yemen continues.
Maxim Nikolenko is founder and editor of Alternative Beacon where this article was originally published.
North Korea’s Capture of the USS Pueblo Still Resonates
On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea seized a U.S. Navy ship that had allegedly strayed into its territorial waters. Fifty years later, as tensions flare between Washington and Pyongyang, we are republishing this column from January 2015 that recounts a visit to the captured vessel.
On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korea boarded and captured the USS Pueblo, an intelligence gathering ship belonging to the U.S. Navy. Pyongyang claimed the vessel had strayed into North Korean territorial waters, an allegation that Washington denied. The incident, already diplomatically embarrassing, was exacerbated by a number of factors, not least of which was the clandestine nature of the ship itself and the secret documents and recordings onboard. It would take almost a year for the United States to recover the 82 alive but traumatized Pueblo crewmembers from North Korea — with the notable exception of one man who lost his life during the boarding.
Although exasperating for the United States, when seen through North Korean eyes, the Pueblo incident was a major triumph against an overbearing and threatening global power. Pyongyang was able to achieve a substantial propaganda victory, extracting maximum satisfaction by compelling Washington to release a statement admitting culpability — though the statement was heavily caveated and the U.S. government quickly renounced it. The incident was deeply uncomfortable for Washington, but it was only one of many challenges that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration faced at the time. The U.S. government was contending with an increasingly problematic war in Vietnam, domestic social unrest and the ever-looming specter of the Cold War. For Pyongyang, however, the capture of the Pueblo resonated beyond its short-term implications, inspiring feelings of pride and tenacity in the North Korean population.
Originally a light cargo ship launched toward the end of World War II, the Pueblo was redesignated AGER-2 by the U.S. Navy and equipped to conduct signals and electronic intelligence gathering and surveillance operations. Its mission at the time it was boarded was to monitor Russian activity in the Tsushima Strait and intercept radio transmissions from Soviet ships as well as from North Korea.
Around midday on Jan. 23, 1968, a North Korean submarine chaser and three torpedo boats, supported by a MiG-21 pair overhead, approached the Pueblo. Ordered to heave to, the Pueblo showed its American colors and made full steam for the open sea. Unable to outrun the faster craft, the American ship attempted to prevent boarding action by taking evasive maneuvers, vying for time to destroy sensitive materials and cryptographic equipment onboard. Eventually the North Korean boats engaged the Pueblo with cannon and machine-gun fire, forcing its compliance. It was then boarded and escorted back to North Korea; any attempt to deviate course was met with more fire. One U.S. sailor was killed in the engagement and a number were wounded. Although the Pueblo had two .50-caliber machine guns for defense, they were not used. Only a fraction of the classified materials and equipment aboard the Pueblo were destroyed before its seizure.
The capture of the Pueblo came at a difficult time for Washington. Only two days before, a B-52G Stratofortress carrying four nuclear weapons crashed near the Thule Air Base in Greenland, causing the dispersal of nuclear material and a major diplomatic incident. Vietnam was not going as planned — in fact, the Tet Offensive would commence a week after the Pueblo was taken, sparking fresh pessimism about the war. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and Martin Luther King Jr. refused to let social injustice be sidelined. The space race had stalled, with both Russia and the United States suspending manned operations in 1967 after a number of fatalities. And, providing the backdrop for all of this, the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the West continued to grind on. At that moment in time, the capture of a U.S. Navy surveillance ship and all its sailors by North Korea was the last thing Washington needed.
Exploring the USS Pueblo in Pyongyang
Vice President of Asia-Pacific Analysis Rodger Baker shares his impressions of a visit to the USS Pueblo, now a museum in Pyongyang, during a journey to North Korea in 2005. The following excerpt is taken from his personal journal.
Our tour guide aboard the USS Pueblo, it turns out, is Kim Jung Rok, who was part of the boarding party that took the Pueblo. He stands in his dark uniform, his chest covered in campaign ribbons under his Kim Il Sung badge, his wrinkled face under a shining white hat with black brim. He exudes pride; pride in his job, pride in his place in history and pride in his privilege to share his story and view with Americans on this day. It is a moment that makes you realize, whatever your ideology, that a veteran is a veteran.
The tour begins with the «invasion» of the «pirate ship» General Sherman in 1866. The General Sherman, we are told, was the first ship from America to invade North Korea, but certainly not the last. It was sunk by «our people,» the guide says, and then informs us that the citizens who attacked the General Sherman in the defense of Korea were led by none other than the great-grandfather of Kim Il Sung himself.
We are sat in front of a television in the ship’s galley and watch a propaganda film, loaded with glorious images reminiscent of a 1950s Cold War movie shown in elementary school to warn us of impending war with the Soviets. The music is a match. The narrator — with an accent more reminiscent of the comic French-English of Peter Sellers than the English-speaking North Korean it actually is — draws us into the story of the «Pueblo armed spy ship of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces.» The ship had a crew of 83 when captured, including six officers. One American sailor died in the capture.
My attention wanes as a mosquito drones around my ear. There appear to be parts of the galley wall that have been rebuilt with fiberglass, but otherwise the interior is relatively well maintained. «…the brazen-faced U.S. imperialists…» It is interesting that the video credits Kim Jong Il with handling the negotiations at the time — in 1968. «…the enemy kneeled down before the Korean people and made an apology…» A flag-draped coffin flashes across the screen — the one American who died in the action. «…the U.S. imperialists who kneeled down before the Korean People are now running on down hill…»
The Pueblo was moved to Pyongyang as a trophy — and opened for tours — in 1999, after North Korea carried out its first Taepodong launch attempt. It was part of Kim Jong Il establishing himself and his bona fides as the legitimate and strong leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In 2013, the ship was moved again to a new location as part of an expansion of North Korea’s military museum.
Starting the tour in earnest, we lead off through the officer’s mess, past the damage from the boarding action — the scarred metal is marked with red circles to highlight hits from gunfire and shrapnel. We see the Pueblo’s flag, a copy of the letter to Truman, and other items of interest. When we reach the bridge, it is time for another story. When the North Koreans captured the Pueblo’s captain, we are told, neither spoke the other’s language, prompting the North Koreans to draw a picture of a big-nosed man on a piece of paper. After making questioning gestures, the captain was prompted to write the number 83 (83 members of the crew). The Koreans then drew an eagle, by which the American wrote a «6» (six officers).
Again we are told that the Koreans are so proud of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for capturing the Pueblo — the only instance that a boat of seven soldiers has captured a ship with a crew of 83. Given that our guide was part of the seven that boarded the Pueblo (from their 12 person missile boat), one would think he would remember that neither Kim Jong Il nor Kim Il Sung were actually there with him, but no.
I have mixed feelings about my tour of the Pueblo. On the one hand, it is simply a trophy of a bygone conflict. On the other, here I am standing with one of the Koreans who actually took part in the action — not exactly bygone. Here, Kim Jung Rok is a hero; in America, he is a villain and a pirate. Having met Commander Pete Bucher (the Pueblo’s captain in 1968) in the past, I stand here where he defended his ship, and smirk as I remember his story of his «admission» of guilt, and his offering to paean Kim Il Sung, paean the North Korean military… (pronunciation being «pee on,» the word being one he said he heard as a child in a radio commercial for ice cream). With our trip complete, we are escorted off the ship.
The capture of the Pueblo speaks to deeper truths about the inherent nature of North Korea. From Pyongyang’s perspective, they are a small, embattled nation, surrounded on all sides, and overtly threatened by the most powerful country on earth. From their comparative zenith in the 1960s, Pyongang has watched its economy and global status decline, almost in parallel to South Korea’s rise through the 1970s to the present day. The Pueblo, like the General Sherman before it, is part trophy and part living testament to North Korea’s ability to overcome greater odds — to still be able to deal a humiliating blow to would-be aggressors.
As outwardly resilient and standoffish as North Korea appears, the country remains deeply insecure and acutely aware of its own precarious position. Yet, as innate as its diffidence is, Pyongyang’s belief in the ability of the Korean people to endure is supreme. The country will continue to act in what the West perceives as an aggressive manner because to show weakness is an invitation to be overrun, an unacceptable outcome for a nation that harbors such intensely illustrious sentiments. Also, from Pyongyang’s perspective, the United States is a bully, and a fickle one at that. Relationships and accords can change on a whim, depending on the geopolitical riffles and eddies that influence global power politics. Iraq was a U.S. ally in the 1980s, as was Afghanistan; Washington supplied arms and support to both countries but didn’t hesitate to invade them years later. North American history is littered with examples of broken accords, fractured relationships and aggressive military action.
This is why the continued military drills and cooperation between Washington and Seoul concern Pyongyang so much. North Korea may well be willing to curtail its nuclear activities, but it needs something in return: assurances from the West that the Democratic People’s Republic is not under direct threat. The North Korean administration is acutely aware that, in the current global picture, the United States lacks a clearly defined enemy. The Iraq and Afghan campaigns are officially over, barring small-scale training and advisory tasks. The Islamic State is turning into the world’s problem, not just America’s or the Middle East’s. The rapprochement with Iran is nullifying one traditional enemy, and although Russia continues to antagonize the West, it is economically too weak and too wary of provoking NATO to return to a Cold War level of menace. North Korea, on the other hand, remains very firmly in Washington’s sights. Beneath its inherent pride and outward veneer of audacity, Pyongyang is pragmatic; it cannot compete militarily or economically against a U.S.-supported South Korea, but the Pueblo is a living reminder that North Korea is still capable of surprises.
Published Jan 25, 2015, by Strafor
Danish PM Løkke Rasmussen Cries for Istanbul Attack Victims forgets His Sponsorship of Terrorism
nsnbc : Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen responded to the terror attack on the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, “tweeting” that he is crying with the Turkish people who once again are witnesses to a cowardly terrorist attack. The Danish PM, conveniently, forgets his background as fundraiser and supporter of Afghanistan’s “mujahedeen”; And then there was the unexplained rape-murder of a female anthropologist who stayed at the hotel in Peshawar that Lars Løkke used.
The death toll after Tuesday night’s terrorist attack at the Atatürk Airport in Istanbul has according to announcements made by the local governor risen to 41. At least 239 have been injured.
The victims reportedly included at least 10 foreign nationals and three people with dual citizenship.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen not only “tweeted” that he is crying with the Turkish people.
He also conveniently forgot that he denounced a cowardly act of a terrorism that he has, indeed, helped to unleash.
Lars Løkke Rasmussen was Denmark’s Prime Minister during NATO’s bombardment of Libya that led to the ousting and ultimately the sodomizing and murder of Libya’s head of State Muammar Qaddafi by Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda linked terrorists.
In a nonchalant fashion, the Danish PM forgets that the disaster in Libya created the foundation for the massive proliferation of weapons from Libya, via Turkey to Jabhat Al-Nusrah and ISIS in Syria.
Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s moral engagement with the victims in Turkey is only paralleled by his apparent selective moral disengagement, and his track record with regard to sponsoring terrorism and it does not stop nor did it begin with Libya.
He was one of the most active fundraisers for Afghanistan’s Taliban (and by implication Al-Qaeda) during the 1980s.
In 1988 Lars Løkke Rasmussen, proudly let himself be photographed alongside Taliban friends in Afghanistan, clinching an AK 47 assault rifle. Lars Løkke would cross the borders into Pakistan and Afghanistan on horseback and deliver 600,000 DKK to the “mujahedeen”.
The money had been raised by Afghanistan youth committees within Løkke Rasmussen’s Venstre and Pia Kjærsgaard’s Fremskridspartiet that was transformed into today’s Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party).
There is one fact, besides the fundraising for terrorists, that may be of interest.
After returning from Pakistan, the now PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was detained by police and charged with the rape and murder of a female anthropologist who had been living at the same hotel in Peshawar that Lars Løkke Rasmussen stayed in.
Police released the then 25-year-old while the charges against him were upheld. It is noteworthy that the young female anthropologist was opposed to the “freedom fighters’” increasingly radical, fundamentalist and chauvinist policies. In 2011 Lars Løkke would use the pulpit of a Danish church to justify the war on Libya.
CH/L – nsnbc 29.06.2016
Bernie Sanders and His Supporters Should Do What the Democratic Party Won’t: Advocate for Candidates of Color
By focusing on supporting progressive leaders and organizations of color, they could make a mark that lasts long beyond 2016.
Saudi Arabia wants US to kill 9/11 bill, threatens to dump US assets worth $750 bn – report
Saudi Arabia appears to be blackmailing the US, saying it would sell off American assets worth a 12-digit figure sum in dollars if Congress passes a bill allowing the Saudi government to be held responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The warning was delivered by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month during a visit to Washington, the New York Times reported. He said his country would sell up to $750 billion in US treasury securities and other assets before the bill puts them in jeopardy.
The newspaper said Riyadh’s resolve to actually deliver on the threat is dubious, since selling off those assets would be technically challenging and would damage the dollar, against which the Saudi national currency is pegged.
Under the current US law, foreign nations have a degree of immunity from being sued in American courts. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 is one of the reasons why families of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks largely failed to bring to court the Saudi royal family and charities over suspicion of financially supporting the attacks.
The bill introduced in the Senate would waiver the immunity for cases involving terrorist attacks that kill US citizens on US soil. Introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, it managed to overcome partisan divisions in the US legislation and passed without dissent through the Judiciary Committee in January.
“As our nation confronts new and expanding terror networks that are targeting our citizens, stopping the funding source for terrorists becomes even more important,” Senator Cornyn said last month.
Possible links between the perpetrators of the attack and Saudi Arabia may be hiding in 28 classified pages of the 2002 congressional report on 9/11, which allegedly describe how Saudi Arabian nationals with links to the government financially assisted the 19 hijackers who flew airplanes into World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many people, including the co-author of the redacted pages, former Florida Senator Bob Graham, have been campaigning for years to make them public.
The Obama administration is opposing the bill, saying it would make foreign nations retaliate by passing similar legislation and target American citizens and corporations in their national courts. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel in February that the bill, in its current form, would “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.”
Ironically, sovereign immunity didn’t stop a US judge from last month ordering Iran to pay $10.5 billion in damages to families of the 9/11 victims. The ruling was passed because Iran didn’t defend itself against the allegations. These put the blame on Iran over its links with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which, plaintiffs argued, aided Al-Qaeda. The argument is based on the same congressional report, which also said no link between the hijackers and Iran had been found.
None of the 19 hijackers were Iranian citizens. Fifteen were citizens of Saudi Arabia, while two were from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter regional rivals, adhering to competing sects of Islam and battling for position in the Muslim world. The US had been a stalwart supporter of Saudi Arabia and opponent of Iran, which overthrew the US-backed Shah in 1979 and became an Islamic republic.
Washington’s cordial relations with Riyadh chilled somewhat as it sought a thaw with Tehran last year, participating in a deal to resolve the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
US Intelligence Is More Privatized Than Ever Before
Despite hacks, leaks, and system failures, for-profit contractors are still getting lucrative intelligence contracts.
US Special Forces Are Operating in More Countries Than You Can Imagine
In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight. It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers. And it was the second time they failed.
On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day. Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports. Most of the militants escaped.
That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.
During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries—roughly 70% of the nations on the planet—according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises. And this year could be a record-breaker. Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life—just 66 days into fiscal 2015—America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.
Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans. Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny. In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
The Golden Age
“The command is at its absolute zenith. And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.” Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August.
His rhetoric may have been high-flown, but it wasn’t hyperbole. Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination. The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.
Those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t give a full sense of the nature of the expansion and growing global reach of America’s most elite forces in these years. For that, a rundown of the acronym-ridden structure of the ever-expanding Special Operations Command is in order. The list may be mind-numbing, but there is no other way to fully grasp its scope.
The lion’s share of SOCOM’s troops are Rangers, Green Berets, and other soldiers from the Army, followed by Air Force air commandos, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen and support personnel from the Navy, as well as a smaller contingent of Marines. But you only get a sense of the expansiveness of the command when you consider the full range of “sub-unified commands” that these special ops troops are divided among: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the globe-trotting Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC—a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by McRaven and then Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force, that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.
And don’t think that’s the end of it, either. As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019. The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.
Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf. After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered.
A phase-out of the task force was actually announced in June 2014. “JSOTF-P will deactivate and the named operation OEF-P [Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines] will conclude in Fiscal Year 2015,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee the next month. “A smaller number of U.S. military personnel operating as part of a PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command] Augmentation Team will continue to improve the abilities of the PSF [Philippine Special Forces] to conduct their CT [counterterrorism] missions…” Months later, however, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines remained up and running. “JSOTF-P is still active although the number of personnel assigned has been reduced,” Army spokesperson Kari McEwen told reporter Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring.
Another unit, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Bragg, remained in the shadows for years before its first official mention by the Pentagon in early 2014. Its role, according to SOCOM’s Bockholt, is to “train and equip U.S. service members preparing for deployment to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.” That latter force, in turn, spent more than a decade conducting covert or “black” ops “to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of” the Afghan government. This meant night raids and kill/capture missions—often in concert with elite Afghan forces—that led to the deaths of unknown numbers of combatants and civilians. In response to popular outrage against the raids, Afghan President Hamid Karzai largely banned them in 2013.
U.S. Special Operations forces were to move into a support role in 2014, letting elite Afghan troops take charge. “We’re trying to let them run the show,» Colonel Patrick Roberson of the Afghanistan task force told USA Today. But according to LaDonna Davis, a spokesperson with the task force, America’s special operators were still leading missions last year. The force refuses to say how many missions were led by Americans or even how many operations its commandos were involved in, though Afghan special operations forces reportedly carried out as many as 150 missions each month in 2014. “I will not be able to discuss the specific number of operations that have taken place,” Major Loren Bymer of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan told TomDispatch. “However, Afghans currently lead 96% of special operations and we continue to train, advise, and assist our partners to ensure their success.”
And lest you think that that’s where the special forces organizational chart ends, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan has five Special Operations Advisory Groups “focused on mentoring and advising our ASSF [Afghan Special Security Force] partners,” according to Votel. “In order to ensure our ASSF partners continue to take the fight to our enemies, U.S. SOF must be able to continue to do some advising at the tactical level post-2014 with select units in select locations,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Indeed, last November, Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani quietly lifted the night raid ban, opening the door once again to missions with U.S. advisors in 2015.
There will, however, be fewer U.S. special ops troops available for tactical missions. According to then Rear-, now Vice-Admiral Sean Pybus, SOCOM’s Deputy Commander, about half the SEAL platoons deployed in Afghanistan were, by the end of last month, to be withdrawn and redeployed to support “the pivot in Asia, or work the Mediterranean, or the Gulf of Guinea, or into the Persian Gulf.” Still, Colonel Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, whose troops served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan near Kandahar last year, vowed to soldier on. “There’s a lot of fighting that is still going on in Afghanistan that is going to continue,” he said at an awards ceremony late last year. “We’re still going to continue to kill the enemy, until we are told to leave.”
Add to those task forces the Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements, small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.” SOCOM declined to confirm the existence of SOC FWDs, even though there has been ample official evidence on the subject and so it would not provide a count of how many teams are currently deployed across the world. But those that are known are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.
Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators. «This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it’s across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way,» SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.
The Air Commandos are hardly alone in their exploits on that continent. Over the last years, for example, SEALs carried out a successful hostage rescue mission in Somalia and a kidnap raid there that went awry. In Libya, Delta Force commandos successfully captured an al-Qaeda militant in an early morning raid, while SEALs commandeered an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen. Additionally, SEALs conducted a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which its members were wounded when the aircraft in which they were flying was hit by small arms fire. Meanwhile, an elite quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10) has been engaged with “strategic countries” such as Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria.
A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons—including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles—as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment. As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned. It was then reportedly taken over by a militia.
In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso. Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup. Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted. Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech.
A World of Opportunities
Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach. In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world. By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post. In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120 by the end of the year. With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134. Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command—which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014—special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries. “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before—in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.
He wasn’t kidding. Just over two months into fiscal 2015, the number of countries with Special Ops deployments has already clocked in at 105, according to Bockholt.
SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations. The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years. A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet.
In January and February, for example, members of the 7th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted a month-long Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) with forces from Trinidad and Tobago, while troops from the 353rd Special Operations Group joined members of the Royal Thai Air Force for Exercise Teak Torch in Udon Thani, Thailand. In February and March, Green Berets from the 20th Special Forces Group trained with elite troops in the Dominican Republic as part of a JCET.
In March, members of Marine Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1 took part in maneuvers aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens as part of Multi-Sail 2014, an annual exercise designed to support “security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” That same month, elite soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines took part in a training exercise code-named Fused Response with members of the Belizean military. “Exercises like this build rapport and bonds between U.S. forces and Belize,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Heber Toro of Special Operations Command South afterward.
In April, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group joined with Honduran airborne troops for jump training—parachuting over that country’s Soto Cano Air Base. Soldiers from that same unit, serving with the Afghanistan task force, also carried out shadowy ops in the southern part of that country in the spring of 2014. In June, members of the 19th Special Forces Group carried out a JCET in Albania, while operators from Delta Force took part in the mission that secured the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. That same month, Delta Force commandos helped kidnap Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected “ringleader” in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, while Green Berets deployed to Iraq as advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.
In June and July, 26 members of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron carried out a 28,000-mile, four-week, five-continent mission which took them to Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Japan, among other nations, to escort three “single-engine [Air Force Special Operations Command] aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.” In July, U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Tolemaida, Colombia, to compete against elite troops from 16 other nations—in events like sniper stalking, shooting, and an obstacle course race—at the annual Fuerzas Comando competition.
In August, soldiers from the 20th Special Forces Group conducted a JCET with elite units from Suriname. “We’ve made a lot of progress together in a month. If we ever have to operate together in the future, we know we’ve made partners and friends we can depend upon,” said a senior noncommissioned officer from that unit. In Iraq that month, Green Berets conducted a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar as part an effort to protect ethnic Yazidis from Islamic State militants, while Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in northern Syria in a bid to save American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by the same group. That mission was a bust and Foley was brutally executed shortly thereafter.
In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions. In September and October, Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment deployed to South Korea to practice small unit tactics like clearing trenches and knocking out bunkers. During October, Air Force air commandos also conducted simulated hostage rescue missions at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, England. Meanwhile, in international waters south of Cyprus, Navy SEALs commandeered that tanker full of oil loaded at a rebel-held port in Libya. In November, U.S. commandos conducted a raid in Yemen that freed eight foreign hostages. The next month, SEALs carried out the blood-soaked mission that left two hostages, including Luke Somers, and eight civilians dead. And these, of course, are only some of the missions that managed to make it into the news or in some other way onto the record.
Everywhere They Want to Be
To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected. “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel. Their solution to interlocked instability? More missions in more nations—in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact—during McRaven’s tenure. And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead. «We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt. His forces are already well on their way in 2015.
“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.” The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans. And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them. “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations. In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars. It’s not hard to guess why.
Votel now sits atop one of the major success stories of a post-9/11 military that has been mired in winless wars, intervention blowback, rampant criminal activity, repeated leaks of embarrassing secrets, and all manner of shocking scandals. Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings of American popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles.
This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents; in Afghanistan, it was a similar story, with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of the same. And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.
In 2001, before U.S. black ops forces began their massive, multi-front clandestine war against terrorism, there were 33,000 members of Special Operations Command and about 1,800 members of the elite of the elite, the Joint Special Operations Command. There were then also 23 terrorist groups—from Hamas to the Real Irish Republican Army—as recognized by the State Department, including al-Qaeda, whose membership was estimated at anywhere from 200 to 1,000. That group was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although small cells had operated in numerous countries including Germany and the United States.
After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billionsupon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves. SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001. Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies. Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan—there are now11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former—as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries. One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001. That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.
“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel. “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.” Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done. But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.
Who is responsible for the Pakistan school massacre?
Nafeez Ahmed – 19 DECEMBER 2014
Depends who you ask.
The Pakistan Taliban (TTP), the breakaway group that is spearheading an insurgency against the Pakistani state, has proudly admitted to having executed the horrifying atrocity that took the lives of 148 innocents, including over 130 children.
US officials have been quick to point the finger at Pakistan, noting the role of the notorious ‘S Wing’ of state military intelligence, the ISI, in covertly sponsoring various Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.
And Prime Minister Nawar Sharif, clearly feeling the pressure, has for the first time ever conceded the ISI’s duplicitous strategy and now vows that he will no longer distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, but will bravely fight them all “until the last terrorist is killed.”
Some in Pakistani diaspora communities in the west, however, have a different view. “Mossad did it,” I’ve heard from a surprising number of people. “To make Muslims look bad.” Others blame the CIA, or MI6, or both – indeed, all three.
This sort of pathetic, ignorant denialism is almost as bad as the pathetic official finger pointing.
The sad truth is that none of these actors are free of responsibility for the murky origins of the TTP.
The double game
It is, of course, a matter of record that the Pakistani ISI has secretly supported the Afghan Taliban for more than a decade, a matter I have tracked and documented since even before 9/11. Yet from the very inception of this policy, it has been pursued with tacit and selective US support.
In the run-up to 9/11, the idea was to use the Taliban as a proxy on behalf of two US energy companies, Unocal and Enron, to achieve sufficient stability to permit the construction of the Trans-Afghan pipeline project – the Pakistani ISI, was the chief conduit of US logistical, financial and military aid to the Taliban during this period.
Yet even after 9/11, despite US intelligence agencies being intimately familiar with ongoing Pakistani ISI support for the Afghan Taliban fighting NATO troops in the country, Pakistan has continued to receive billions of dollars of military aid in the name of counterterrorism.
Yet throughout all this US counter-terrorism assistance, the ISI’s support of the very factions NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan has gone on, unimpeded. Two declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports dated two weeks after 9/11, found that al-Qaeda had been “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and ISI funding.
In 2006, a leaked US Ministry of Defence report showed that the British government was fully aware of how: “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism” – including being involved in the 2005 London bombings, and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 further confirmed ongoing ISI support for Taliban insurgents, tracing the complicity to senior ISI officials including Pakistan’s head of military intelligence, in providing extensive military support to Taliban camps in Balochistan and the ‘Haqqani’ network leading the insurgency around Kabul. Despite these reports being circulated around the highest levels of the White House, senior Obama administration officials went to pains to persuade US Congress to extend military assistance to Pakistan for five years, with no need for assurances that ISI assistance to the Taliban had ended.
So it continued, with US support. In 2010, the massive batch of classified US military cablesreleased via Wikileaks documented how from 2004 to 2010, US military intelligence knew full well that the ISI was supporting a wide range of militant factions in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even while receiving billions of dollars of US counterterrorism assistance. And a NATO intelligence report leaked in 2012 similarly showed that the ISI was directly sponsoring the Taliban, providing them safe havens, and even manipulating fighters and arresting only those believed to be uncooperative with ISI orders.
So if it is, indeed, accurate to accuse Pakistan of playing a «double game» in the ‘War on Terror’, what about the United States? The US Congressional Research Service last year pointed out that after 9/11, “the United States has viewed Pakistan as a key ally, especially in the context of counterterrorism and Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance both historically and in recent years.”
This year, Pakistan received $1.2 billion in US economic and security aid. Next year, while the civilian portion of aid is being slashed over concerns about misuse of funds, the US will still provide a total of around $1 billion. The military portion of this will help the Pakistan military “to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations against militants and also encourage continued US-Pakistan military-to-military engagement.”
US military aid in the name of counterterrorism assistance has in other words directly supported the ISI even while it has covertly sponsored the insurgency in Afghanistan. Why?
In 2009, I obtained a confidential report commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which provided a shocking explanation for this seemingly contradictory policy. The report, authored by respected defence consultant Prof Ola Tunander who had previously contributed to a high-level Danish government inquiry into US covert operations during the Cold War, concluded that US strategy in AfPak is to “support both sides in the conflict” so as to “calibrate the level of violence,” ironically to prolong, not end, regional conflicts. This counterintuitive strategy, the report argued, appears to be motivated by a wider geopolitical objective of maintaining global support for US interventionism to maintain regional security. By fanning the flames of war in AfPak, US forces are able to “increase and decrease the military temperature and calibrate the level of violence” with a view to permanently “mobilize other governments in support of US global policy.”
While pundits are now claiming that the TTP, which broke away from the Afghan Taliban to begin targeting the Pakistani state, is the avowed enemy of the ISI, the situation remains complicated. The TTP still maintains relations with its Afghan counterpart for some operations, members of which often flock to the TTP. And in 2009, an Independent on Sunday investigation reported that despite having burned down 200 girls’ schools and conducted 165 bomb attacks against Pakistani security forces, local politicians fleeing the attacks claimed that “elements of the military and the militants appear to be acting together… The suspicion of collusion, said a local government official in the largest town, Mingora, is based on the proximity of army and Taliban checkposts, each ‘a mile away from the other.’”
Pakistani investigative journalist Amir Mir noted that far from being staffed by mullahs, the TTP’s shura councils are filled with former Pakistani military and intelligence officials. The “large number of ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers, as its members,” raised disturbing questions about the extent to which disgruntled extremists inside the ISI have been using the movement to impose their brutal Islamist ideology not just in northwest Pakistan, but within the Pakistani state itself.
Yet as TTP violence has escalated, the Pakistani army has accelerated local military operations in response, just as Obama has accelerated indiscriminate drone strikes across the region. Both these approaches have tended to target not terrorists, but civilians. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Pakistani security forces have conducted major offensives in the northwest Swat Valley and neighbouring areas, killing “civilians with mortars, direct fire, and with bombs… In some years, it appears that Pakistani security forces were responsible for the majority of civilian killings,” as opposed to the TTP, which is clearly brutal enough.
Indeed, while the TTP’s latest wanton massacre of school children has captured public attention, the media has remained essentially silent on the Pakistani military’s slaughter of up to a hundred plus civilians through the first half of this year. No one knows the true scale of the casualties, but the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, analyzing public record news reports (which themselves are conservative due to being based on official government claims), found that the Pakistani airstrikes killed up to 540 people, and that as many as 112 of these could have been civilians. Not a peep of condemnation from either the mainstream media, or Pakistani diasporas in the west.
The CIA’s drone strikes are equally counterproductive. A secret CIA Directorate of Intelligencereport just released via Wikileaks, reviewing the record of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations over the last decades, admits that these “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”
Militarisation is no solution
The rise of the TTP, which appears in some ways even more extreme than its Afghan counterpart, is a direct result of the massive, indiscriminate violence deployed by both the US and Pakistan in the region – which feeds the grievances driving locals into the TTP’s ranks. Denying that this violence radicalizes people on the ground is futile. The fact is that the TTP was spawned as an ultra-extreme reaction to the ongoing militarised approach to the region, which itself has slaughtered thousands of civilians.
Yet the frankly disgusting double-game of the US and Pakistani governments in the violence does not absolve the Taliban and its offshoots from their own responsibility for mass murder. The twisted ideology they use to justify their terrorist attacks against civilians, and children no less, must be countered and de-legitimised.
But equally, the rampant expansion of this ideology in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been enabled by the comprehensive breakdown of local institutions and basic economic infrastructure, where alienation and resentment find their outlets through a violent extremism fed by a fatal cocktail of covert foreign finance and selective ISI sponsorship. The short-sighted obsession with military solutions coming from both the US and Pakistani establishments, in this context, merely throws fuel on the fire. Who will counter the entrenched ideologies behind these failed military policies?
In theory, there is a way out. The US must wind-down its self-serving obsession with military aid to Pakistan, much of which is being used to finance the very enemies we are supposedly fighting. Instead of providing billions of dollars of ‘counterterrorism’ focused aid to a hopelessly corrupt government, such billions could be used in coordination with the state to empower genuine grassroots networks like the Rural Support Programmes and others with a proven track-record in enfranchising communities in self-development and poverty alleviation. Only be empowering the Pakistani people, can the country hope to begin moving towards a genuine democracy based on a vibrant and engaged civil society.
From here, we may begin to see Pakistanis themselves further developing their own indigenous conceptions of Islam, drawing on the well-established Pakistani spiritual-cultural traditions of peace and inclusiveness represented in the musical movements of eastern classical, folk, qawwali, bhangra, Sufi and contemporary hip hop, rock and pop, and represented by nationally-acclaimed cultural icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Junoon, among countless others. Such Pakistani cultural icons demonstrate that truly populist approaches to Islam and spirituality are not regressive, but progressive. The militant madrassas preaching exclusionary violence and totalitarian politics in the name of Islam, are being propped up not by local traditions, but by vast inputs of foreign finance exporting an alien ideology over decades from the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
And there is a role in this for diaspora communities to mobilize their wealth, expertise and resources to help build the long-term capacity of Pakistani communities to resist and counter the alien ideologies represented by movements like the Taliban – but the focus here must be on crafting positive visions for the future, through meaningful institution-building. More than that, diaspora communities, indeed western citizens in general, need to recognize their fundamental responsibility to engage critically and relentlessly to pressure western government institutions and hold them to account for failed foreign policies pursued in our name that are aggravating the AfPak quagmire.
Extremists are gleefully filling a vacuum of despair cultivated by ruthless domestic corruption and callous international geopolitics. It is never too late to begin cultivating the seeds of hope.