Obama team mulls aims of Somali extremists

Senior Obama administration officials are debating how to address a potential terrorist threat to U.S. interests from a Somali extremist group, with some in the military advocating strikes against its training camps. But many officials maintain that uncertainty about the intentions of the al-Shabab organization dictates a more patient, nonmilitary approach.

Al-Shabab, whose fighters have battled Ethiopian occupiers and the tenuous Somali government, poses a dilemma for the administration, according to several senior national security officials who outlined the debate only on the condition of anonymity.

The organization’s rapid expansion, ties between its leaders and al-Qaeda, and the presence of Americans and Europeans in its camps have raised the question of whether a preemptive strike is warranted. Yet the group’s objectives have thus far been domestic, and officials say that U.S. intelligence has no evidence it is planning attacks outside Somalia. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — One of the great soundbites of the Obama election campaign was: “I want to end the mindset that got us into war.”

So far, the Obama administration has paid more attention to linguistic adjustments (“war on terror” is out) without any clear evidence that it is willing to address the deeper issues of political transformation.

Somalia provides the perfect test case of whether the war on terror has truly ended or whether it is simply going to be repackaged.

The threat posed by al Shabab is a direct result of policies shaped by the war-on-terror mindset.

Al Shabab’s precursor, the Islamic Courts Union, brought the first period of peace and order experienced in Somalia for over a decade but this experiment in Islamist rule was cut short by the Bush administration because of it’s name: “Islamist.”

The mindset that all Islamists are cut from the same cloth made it inconceivable that any form of Islamist rule could be deemed tolerable. Moreover, the fact that the neocons deemed Somalia as having been the arena in which American weakness had emboldened al Qaeda in the nineties, meant that American toughness — even if primarily through Ethiopian proxies — would have to put on display.

The direct result of this misconceived policy is that Somalia is now largely under the control of the much more extreme al Shabab splinter group and during the political turmoil resulting from the US-backed Ethiopian invasion, Somali piracy has become the strongest sector in the economy.

As the Obama administration develops it regional policy towards the Horn of Africa, the first thing it needs to acknowledge is that military solutions rarely solve political problems. The second is that the Bush administration made a serious mistake in undermining the Islamic Courts Union. Supporting a movement that enjoys broad indigenous support is more important than determining whether the political complexion of that movement is appealing in the eyes of Americans. Moreover, the American tradition of choosing its allies on the basis of who they oppose rather than whether they have grassroots support has invariably been a miserable failure.

Requiem for the war on terror

This is the way the Global War on Terror (also known, in Bush-era jargon, as GWOT) ends, not with a bang, not with parades and speeches, but with an obscure memo, a few news reports, vague denials, and a seemingly off-handed comment (or was it a carefully calculated declaration?) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The administration has stopped using the phrase [“war on terror”] and I think that speaks for itself. Obviously.”

This is often the way presidents and their administrations operate when it comes to national security and foreign policy — not with bold, clear statements but through leaks, trial balloons, small gestures, and innuendo.

In this case, though, are we seeing the cleverly orchestrated plan of a shrewd administration, every move plotted with astonishing cunning? Or are the operators actually a bunch of newbies bumbling along from day to day, as a literal reading of press reports on the end of GWOT might suggest? Unless some historian finds a “smoking gun” document in the archives years from now, we may never know for sure. [continued…]

Obama to appeal detainee ruling

The Obama administration said Friday that it would appeal a district court ruling that granted some military prisoners in Afghanistan the right to file lawsuits seeking their release. The decision signaled that the administration was not backing down in its effort to maintain the power to imprison terrorism suspects for extended periods without judicial oversight. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — One has to ask: where’s the push coming from to maintain extrajudicial power? Most likely, the CIA. CIA murder suspects like Mark Swanner seem no closer to facing charges. Swanner’s role in the homicide of an Abu Ghraib prisoner was supposedly being investigated by the Justice Department. But as Jeff Stein points out:

It’s not likely Swanner, who was not an undercover employee, was ever really under investigation by the Bush administration’s Justice Department, which constantly found loopholes for CIA interrogators to escape Geneva Convention and congressional strictures on torture.

Nor were CIA officers in charge of interrogations at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan, where another prisoner died of hypothermia, ever held to account. CIA inspectors found that headquarters officials had carefully coached them on what to say in their official report. But the matter, including the names of the CIA’s Baghram base chief and his deputy, remains classified, and no one was punished, much less prosecuted.

Swanner’s name, too, might have remained secret, were it not for Mayer’s story. But it quickly slipped beneath the waves, not to surface again. Nor has the Justice Department announced it has decided not to pursue charges against him.

Swanner’s case has just been left to die quietly, without notice, a former CIA official involved in the matter observed, on condition of anonymity because it remains classified.

CIA to close secret prisons for terror suspects

The Central Intelligence Agency announced on Thursday that it will no longer use contractors to conduct interrogations, and that it is decommissioning the secret overseas sites where for years it held high-level Al Qaeda prisoners.

In a statement to the agency’s work force, the director, Leon E. Panetta, said that the secret detention facilities were no longer in operation, but he suggested that security and maintenance have been continued at the sites at taxpayers’ expense.

“I have directed our agency personnel to take charge of the decommissioning process, and have further directed that the contracts for site security be promptly terminated,” Mr. Panetta said. “It is estimated that our taking over site security will result in savings of up to $4 million.”

The C.I.A. has never revealed the location of its overseas facilities, but intelligence officials, aviation records and news reports have placed them in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Jordan, among other countries. Agency officials have said that fewer than 100 prisoners were held in them over several years. [continued…]

Netanyahu returns

We’ve learned that the Netanyahu character remains the same as it was during his previous three-year episode in power, in the late 1990s: He is, in principle, a hardliner. That said, the principle he holds most strongly is that he should be prime minister. And the public advocate of unbending diplomatic stances is, in fact, a weak negotiator who hands out contradictory concessions to whomever he meets. Barack Obama, take note: Netanyahu speaks loudly and carries a small stick.

To build a coalition, Netanyahu cut deals with five parties besides his own Likud Party. Left out was the centrist Kadima, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, which actually won more seats in the Knesset than the Likud did in February’s election. Livni’s most public conditions for joining the government were that Netanyahu commit himself to a two-state solution and that he continue the negotiations with the Palestinians begun at the 2007 Annapolis conference. Reportedly, she also demanded a rotation agreement, under which she would serve as premier for part of the four-and-a-half-year term. (The precedent was the 1984-1988 agreement between the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Labor’s Shimon Peres, after an electoral stalemate between the two parties.) Netanyahu was neither willing to share power with Livni in the Israeli government nor to divide the land now under Israeli rule into two states. [continued…]

The gathering storm

Six years to the day since the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, the war that has dominated American politics for half a decade and upturned an entire regional order is being not-so-gently forced from centre stage. Iraq specialists at the National Security Council in Washington have hung signs on their office doors declaring that theirs is now “the good war”; the Obama administration is eager to declare victory in Iraq and shift its attention to the long-neglected conflict in Afghanistan.

It is difficult to predict what will occur as the Americans reduce their troop numbers, but few Iraqis feel optimistic, despite the recent reduction in violence: whatever comes next, it is unlikely that Iraq will recover quickly from six years of chaos and bloodshed.

Iraq’s economy remains in tatters. The central government has bought a provisional peace by placing hundreds of thousands of military-age men on its payroll. But the drop in oil prices has forced the state to slash its budget at a time when it is almost the only source of employment.

The oil sector, still Iraq’s most significant industry, is plagued by a rotting infrastructure. Pipelines in Basra are being kept together by “duct tape and spit”, according to one concerned American official. “They can burst at any minute.” Most Iraqis today might say much the same about their country. They are grateful for the temporary respite from extreme violence, but certain it will not take much to reignite the flames. [continued…]

General Ray Odierno: we may miss Iraq deadline to halt al-Qaeda terror

The activities of al-Qaeda in two of Iraq’s most troubled cities could keep US combat troops engaged beyond the June 30 deadline for their withdrawal, the top US commander in the country has warned.

US troop numbers in Mosul and Baqubah, in the north of the country, could rise rather than fall over the next year if necessary, General Ray Odierno told The Times in his first interview with a British newspaper since taking over from General David Petraeus in September.

He said that a joint assessment would be conducted with the Iraqi authorities in the coming weeks before a decision is made. [continued…]

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