What on Earth Does it Take?

The chairman of Nigeria’s largest bank (and a former cabinet officer) walks into the American Embassy in Lagos and says that his son (identified by name) has been radicalized and may be up to no good. After spending time in Yemen, the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is denied a visa into Britain (where he went to University College in London) for lying on the application. And yet, he still held a two-year open visa (good for unlimited trips into and out of) the United States (from the same State Department who runs the embassy in Lagos). Mr Abdulmutallab acquires a one-way ticket in Lagos for a Lagos-to-Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight aboard American Airlines flight 253 and pays for it with cash. He has no check-through baggage. He passes security in Lagos and Amsterdam with 80 grams of PETN powder, a nitroglycerin derivative, sewn into his underwear and a liquid accelerator in a plastic syringe attached to his underwear. But for malfunction or misoperation, Mr Abdulmutallab, flight 253, and its passengers, would have rained down on a Detroit suburb.

If he and his actions didn’t trip red flags, there are no red flags to trip. He was identified by name by a reliable source directly to the State Department; he bought a one-way ticket for cash; he had no luggage; he had detectable high explosives on his person. All he didn’t do was wear a T-shirt with “Death to America!” emblazoned in Arabic on it.

Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s next-day reaction? “After the incident, the system worked.” So … once the system failed multiple times and allowed Mr Abdulmutallab onto an American airliner to detonate his device … then the system worked? What does that even mean? The body-bag truck would have been on time?

President Obama’s next-day reaction? Round of golf.

What’s really pathetic is that this all took place months after another walking red-flag shot 41 people at Fort Hood.

Counterterror by Moe, Larry and Curly.

the End Game

The Persian Conundrum is a tertiary puzzle. We will end up with Iran minus a nuclear program; or Iran with a nuclear program; or Iran under new management. We are insisting on the first option, which is least likely and will only happen voluntarily in light of the third; the second is the most likely outcome given a decade of flaccid Western response; the third is more likely than the first, but still remote.

Nuclear weapons are not the problem – who holds the launch codes is. Under a pro-Western government, Iranian nuclear weapons would be no more intrinsically threatening than are Israel’s. Under the current regime, they are unacceptable. Deterrence of the Islamic Republic is troublesome because we continue to exhibit our near total ignorance of the Arab mind. Yes, technically, Persians are Indo-Aryan and not Arab, but the Bedouin ethos permeates Middle Eastern psychology. There are vital differences, but they tend to be sociological rather than innate.

The problem isn’t Persian exceptionalism or even Iranian nationalism; the problem is Iran’s leadership’s apocalyptic interpretation of Shi’ite Islam and Iran’s – today’s Iran’s – place in it. They are radical extremists who see cataclysm as the path to their savior’s return. Whereas the godfather of the revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is their equivalent of a saint; the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi (Persian: مهدي Mahdī, 9th century), is eqivalent to Christ, and will return to bring order (and Islam) to the world during a period of great upheaval. Thry believe that bringing about widespread chaos will bring about the return of the Mahdi. They are utterly sociopalthic toward “outsiders”, which can expand to mean non-Middle Easterners, or contract to mean not of their Lord of the Flies version of Islam. This is what makes them dangerous, especially so in possession of WMD. This is why Israel sees today’s Iran as an existential threat to their very existence.

They’re not irrational, they’re Klingons, and we don’t understand their logic.

That’s the downside. The upside is that the general population is the most cosmopolitan and Westernized in the Middle East, and, by and large, detests the Shi’ite zealots running Iran today. There is now no hope of stopping the Iranians from acquiring the materials and expertise necessary to construct nuclear weapons. They never could have been “negotiated” out of it, and there now isn’t time for real sanctions (which haven’t been tried yet) to work. Our choices are reduced to the acceptance of a delusional regime acquiring nuclear weapons, or removing that regime.

Gasoline sanctions will be useful for about the next six months – the amount of time it should take Iran to sew up their hedge strategy and move to it (eliminating the companies that could now be threatened by the sanctions) – and could be useful in implementing a coordinated effort to support the internal strife started by, but not limited to, the bungled elections in Iran. We sorely need a group of native Persian-speakers to oversee content and context of messaging sent into Iran, and to advise CIA efforts to assist the uprising. It’s vitally important that we not violate cultural or Iran-specific taboos in this effort. We need to get (Iranian) money into their hands, and cell phones. Many pre-paid Middle Eastern cell phones. This would be an excellent time for a black operation inside Iran that points to regime responsibility. We should sponsor the formation of a shadow government somewhere outside Iran.

What I fear is that Mr Obama will “carefully think through” this response until it’s too late to be effective (i.e., until after they have initiated their hedge strategy). And our efforts will only serve to endanger the uprising. Time, as it usually is in intelligence-driven efforts, is absolutely of the essence, and this president doesn’t do well at rapid response to anything.

Our only non-war hope is to assist a popular uprising inside Iran. Anything short of that – or excessive foot-dragging on it – will result in Israel acting in their own survival interests, and even limp-wristed international law permits that.

Iranian/American Hold ‘Em

Last time, I talked about the gambit being run by the US (holding out international gasoline sanctions against Tehran’s continued unsupervised nuclear activity) and Iran’s response (kidnapping of three Americans and the occupation of a southern Iraqi oil well). Now, let’s look at the game itself.

Iran has assumed that as long as the arena chosen by the West consists of “sanctions” or “negotiations”, time was on Tehran’s side, since as long as multinational companies were willing to deal with Iran, sanctions by their home countries are meaningless; and they have never negotiated in good faith (only using the endless talks to occupy the West while Iran continues to work).

We have assumed that the West has until some “line in the sand” of developmental progress has been crossed before precipitous action had to be taken. Although that “line” has never been articulated, it is presumed to be some milestone such as the confirmed presence of highly enriched uranium (HEU), or overhead imagery of an underground testing facility under construction, something like that.

Both of those assumptions are flawed.

We have revealed that the West is willing to go beyond meaningless government-based sanctions, and deal directly with the companies involved, foreclosing vast market opportunities to them for non-compliance. While Russia, PRC and Venezuela could make up most of the slack, it would require an extremely painful ramp-up, during which an already volatile Iranian population could ignite[1]. This changes the game by morphing the threat to Iran from rhetorical to existential.

If we employ such a policy, we will have raised Iran’s call – we will have “ignored” their taking of Americans and occupation of an oil well, and moved beyond the proxy stage to applying pressure directly on the Iranian economy (and possibly given succor to Iranian dissidents). I don’t know anyone in or out of government that expects this would lead Tehran to cave and open their full nuclear program to international inspection and future supervision of their enrichment activities. Therefore we should expect Iran to re-raise.

Typically, when the international situation displeases Iran (e.g., progress on Arab/Israeli peace talks), Tehran has worked to raise the price of oil. This was partly why they chose to occupy a disputed Iraqi oil site (oil did blip upward), and they could simply detonate the well-head and leave – that would spike (if temporarily) spot-price on Light Arabian Crude, which is the index for world oil prices. More likely, the ayatollahs would choose to do something more dramatic and foreboding. They could cast far more doubt in Western capitals by harassing shipping in the Gulf. This would directly threaten 70% of the West’s oil supply. Aside from oil price spikes, insurance for tankers and freighters navigating the Gulf would also spike. They could use proxies (Hizbollah, pirates, etc) to disable/sink a tanker exiting the Gulf. Same effect. These spikes would be more permanent than any caused by an isolated incident in Basra (which wouldn’t affect Lloyd’s rates at all).

While the above punishes the West (sans Israel), they may try to localize their response to America, and that they could do by diddling in Iraq or Afghanistan. With Wednesday’s announcement by the Taliban that they are surging into Afghanistan to meet the new American troops, Iran would be better served by concentrating on Iraq. They could fire up the suburbs of Baghdad again, or use al Qaeda’s trick of sparking sectarian violence by striking at Sunni symbols in the cities. They could simply flood their operatives with RPGs, Symtex, and such, and send in controllers to run Tehran-developed operations against specific targets. The idea would be to rub the White House’s face in the fact that Tehran can destabilize Iraq anytime it wishes.

Iran’s third tool – Hizbollah – wouldn’t be that useful at this point in the game. Renewed activity in the Levant would occupy Israel, but Israel isn’t the problem with the gasoline threat. Tehran would probably hold this option for a time when the ayatollahs believe that an Israeli strike is eminent, tying up Israeli forces (particularly their air assets) in a domestic or near-domestic crisis.

Whatever Iran decides to do, it will be after they have initiated their hedge gasoline operation[2], so if anyone in the White House is watching Chinese and Venezuelan shipping or monitoring Russian pipeline activity through Azerbaijan, we should know the approximate timing of an Iranian response. We should insert two additional hunter-killer submarines into the Gulf to face and monitor the Iranian coastline, watching for small boat operations. They could be moved around and positioned with the help of overhead imaging. These subs should be equipped to launch land-attack cruise missiles to answer anti-ship missile launches from Iranian soil. Iran also operates half a dozen mini-subs, which should be located and tracked.

Until Iran’s intentions are disclosed, we should vastly improve border surveillance (Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, etc, in addition to satellites) watching for staging and transport of weapons and personnel, and unusual traffic toward the Iraqi border. Under present circumstances, the taking of prisoners should not be encouraged. If and when the White House decides to engage in a gasoline embargo, withdrawals from Iraq should cease, as troops might be needed to rush to the border, or fill-in for those who do. The hiatus should last as long as Iraq is part of an Iranian response.

Whatever course we take, it should be remembered that Hizbollah and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK, Persian: وزارت اطلاعات جمهوری اسلامی Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhuri-e Eslami) have agents in the US, and will be aware if we are doing anything prophylactically or just ignoring possible Iranian ratcheting-up of the situation. We might do well to take a page out of Norman Schwarzkopf’s book and “leak” preparations for some rapid reaction response in, say, the Mediterranean theater (or some such ruse).

All of this, of course, assumes that Mr Obama is serious about Iran.

[1] We could increase this perception by President Obama publicly stating that we stand behind “all peoples being repressed by their governments.” And follow up with Persian radio and TV broadcasts into Iran from bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and via satellite.

[2] Tehran will have plenty of time to make arrangements and draw contracts before we actually get around doing anything about the threat of gasoline sanctions.

Iran Calls Our Bluff

I’ve discussed Iran’s nuclear weapons program in these pages before, but an incident occurred early Friday that has been under-reported. A small unit of special operators entered southern Iraq and occupied an oil well in an area that Iran claims was never returned after the Iran-Iraq War, and raised the Iranian flag. This is fairly typical Iranian intransigence and could be dismissed as such were it not for the timing.

This comes on the heels of SecState Clinton’s rather forceful statement in Copenhagen that it is time for the world to stand up and say “No” to Iran’s now undeniable march toward the ability to construct nuclear weapons[1]. What is finally being talked about is severely restricting Iran’s access to imprted refined petroleum products – gasoline in particular. This would do real damage to Iran’s internal economy, and quickly.

The first time this was mentioned out loud, three American dilettantes (stupidly hiking along the Iraq-Iran border) were kidnapped, and are still being held. This time the mechanism has been mentioned – that any oil company doing business with Iran would not be allowed to do business in America or the EU – and they occupy a well-head in Iraq. We are desperately trying to get PRC and Russia on board, but even if we don’t, the threat of losing US and EU markets would give the world’s oil majors pause before selling refined goods to Iran. PRC and Russia could probably make up the difference, but after a painfully long ramp-up period, and with vastly more time-consuming and costly infrastructure.

Iran is reminding us of one of its options – meddling in Iraq during our drawdown. They’ve got two others: unleash Hizbollah along the Mediterranean rim or elsewhere; and mine the Straits of Hormuz (or attack shipping within the Gulf). Tehran sees meaningful resistance to its nuclear policy as being a Washington-Jerusalem axis, and their ultimate response will be aimed at America and Israel, no matter what shape any actual threat to Iran takes. Given that reality, one could only hope that CIA and Massad are doing some sort of coordinated contingency planning. Just as Israel can’t pull off an effective unilateral strike against Iran[2], it would be of great assistance to have Israeli help in engaging Hizbollah forces in the first moments of any American strike on Iran.

The wild cards are PRC and Russia – not so much with sanctions, but their reaction to kinetic operations in Iran. China would be against it, as they are Iran’s second largest client for crude, and would be hard-pressed to replace their Iranian contracts, thus restricting economic growth and Beijing’s programs of improving rural poverty (thus increasing the potential for internal unrest). This prospect might persuade PRC to begrudgingly cooperate in sanctions. Russia, on the other hand, would say all the right things, protesting military action in the Middle East and all, but as Europe is Iran’s largest customer, any disruption would almost certainly be filled with Russian oil, at now inflated prices. They could also use the war to sell their technology around the world (“our reactors are so good, the Americans couldn’t have them operating in Iran”). It would further tie up American assets, leaving Moscow free to strengthen its position in their Near Abroad. These prospects might actually dissuade Russia from cooperating in sanctions (while delaying deployment of S-300 SAM installations, increasing the probability of significant critical infrastructure damage inside Iran).

These scenarios must be balanced against the alternative of not being able to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, further demonstrating America’s new, weaker image throughout the region. For example, if Iran is deterrable, would deterrence be credible from someone they perceive as weak? Are the ruling ayatollahs as zealously apocalyptic as Ahmadenijad, and if so, are they deterrable at all?

In the final analysis, the most important legacy of the Bush administration may well be the leaving of Iran’s nuclear ambitions to a geopolitical neophyte.

[1] The weekend release of UK intelligence reports of Iran’s work on neutron initiators (discussed here in Obama’s Summer of Discontent, 6 September 2009), which have no non-weapons use, pretty much seals the deal on what they are doing with their nuclear engineering program.

[2] Also discussed in these pages, The Obama Triangle, 20 April 2009.

Shoving Us Beneath Damocles’ Sword

It’s now indisputable that the Congressional minority has won the healthcare debate. Virtually every poll now shows that the American people don’t want Obama/Pelosi/ReidCare. And the president and congressional Democrats don’t care. That’s a working definition of an ideologue.

I don’t mind Mr Obama staking his presidency on a profoundly unpopular coup d’etat of the healthcare industry, but I do his forcing the American people to share his Sword of Damocles. After making millions of people dependent on government, if his plan doesn’t work – and it can’t – it will be politically impossible to undo (which is why Social Security is called the third-rail of politics, which is why they can’t take half a trillion out of it, which is why ObamaCare can’t work).

Their intent is clear, even as they deny it. The Democrats want single-payer healthcare, which is bureau-speak for socialized medicine. The President (before being elected to that office) is on record multiple times saying he favors single-payer healthcare; several members of Congress have been overheard saying that the bills being considered are the way to get to single-payer; in a meeting with Senate leadership, Rahm Emanuel told them to pass healthcare – everything is negotiable except passing something – because “we can always go back in and ‘perfect’ it”. No one in the room was confused as to what he meant.

Mr Emanuel’s current task is to convince Ms Pelosi of the same wisdom (pass anything, giving “us” a platform to later “perfect”) by placing the Senate bill on the floor of the House for an up-or-down vote, thus bypassing conference. This would present the Senate with a House-approved bill that is unchanged from the Senate bill. Senate leadership will then try to send the bill directly to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote (bypassing debate – “it’s the same bill we’ve already debated” – and another cloture vote), requiring only 51 votes to pass. The Democrats are, in other words, trying to weasel something past us that they know we don’t want.

We already know they bought one vote for $300 million – Louisiana Purchase 2.0 – and now they’re threatening to put Offutt AFB on the base closure list if Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson doesn’t vote for cloture. This would put Omaha’s largest employer out of business in the middle of joblessness prompting the same people to say they are “doing all they can to get people back to work”. The same people who “care” so much about your healthcare.

Hardly the high-water mark of representative democracy.

This is a textbook example of what’s wrong with one-party rule. If that’s all it were, it would be a painful period of political history that would pass, but it’s much more than that – it’s about dismantling a significant part of constitutional democracy and usurping a sixth of our economy in the same act.

I would be no less upset if all this were happening over something that I believed in … I don’t know why more Democrats aren’t upset at the despicable behavior of their representatives.

Bimbos and Tiger and Dope, Oh My!

Remember in the dim, dark past when Tiger Woods drove through a fire hydrant on his way to a tree? Shortly thereafter news-readers hinted that a domestic argument over an affair immediately preceded the accident. “Malicious and irresponsible!” was Team Tiger’s response. Fast forward – past fourteen (and counting) “affairs” – to Tuesday morning, when the New York Daily News noted that Mr Woods’ doctor, Tony Galea, had been arrested in Buffalo with the banned doping drug Actovegin, a human growth hormone (HGH) – one of those dreaded performance enhancing drugs, or (all trendy stuff have acronyms these days) PEDs. “Any accusations that Mr Woods has used PEDs are irresponsible,” says Team Tiger.

Sound familiar?

Two things: Dr Galea flew to Mr Woods’ Windermere [FL] home to treat him after knee surgery earlier this year with his platelet-rich plasma injection therapy, known as “blood spinning[1];” and, Dr Galea is widely known for self-injecting Actovegin daily (and has been linked to the doping of athletes)[2].

Why would Mr Woods choose a controversial doctor with ties to PEDs to perform a procedure that could be done by any of a number of local physicians? Wouldn’t Team Tiger have vetted any doctor – especially in the wake of Major League Baseball’s recent foray into steroids and HGH? Does this and tales of Mr Woods being on Vicodin and Ambien at the time of his accident mutually reinforce each other?

I can’t remember a more highly thought of public figure sinking into so much muck so quickly. I guess all that’s left is cell-phone footage of him drowning kittens.

[1] The process involves spinning blood in a centrifuge and re-injecting it into injured joints in the hope of accelerating healing.

[2] There is no current drug test that reliably detects HGH.

Obama’s AfPak

In a speech that needed to be delivered by Captain Kirk, we got one by Mr Spock. What should have been a rallying of the troops, both militarily and politically, was instead a monotone professorial exposition lacking even feigned enthusiasm. No “YES WE CAN!” so prevalent while asking for the job. Before this speech, our allies and enemies didn’t know if President Obama is committed to accomplishing the mission or just ending it. They still don’t know.

He squandered his greatest gift.

The decision itself is what had to be done if counter-terror is declined as a workable solution to AfPak. Having decided to go with his general’s advice, he then skipped over the “it will take a long time to win” part and limited the adventure to July 2011, at which point we will begin “transitioning” to Afghan “responsibility” (read: drawdown). Well, that’s not how counterinsurgency works.

The ops plan is good. Set up around Kandahar and secure the Taliban’s link to the real world; spread out into the countryside, and so on. The problems are two – we’re still trying to do COIN top-down; and you can’t do COIN in 18 months. Our hopes are also two – that field commanders can make rapid progress in the countryside; and that President Obama will miss the arbitrary July 2011 deadline as he has all his others.

There are two seminal pieces on American COIN, Special Forces Major James A Gavrilis’s experience in Iraq[1] and Special Forces Major Jim Gant’s experience in Afghanistan[2], that I sincerely hope our Afghan-bound maneuver units have read. Both tell a story of how COIN works, and that it must begin in socially isolated pockets – in Iraq, in remote towns; in Afghanistan, in individual tribes – and give actual people reasons and means to resist the insurgents’ threat-based authority. The difference in these theaters is that in Iraq, people see themselves as being [Sunni/Shi’ite]-Iraqis-from [Province], and Afghans see themselves as [Tribe]-Muslim-Afghans. Iraqis have been subject to centralized authority since before there was an Afghanistan; Afghans have never risen above tribalism as the basic social form. This makes “handing Afghanistan over to Afghans” far harder than our task in Iraq, because when we say “Afghans” we mean Kabul; when an Afghan says “Afghans” he means tribal chiefs.

A common thread between Iraq and Afghanistan is that we have abandoned each in the recent past, and must convince them that we are with them in this fight and beyond. That our interest is in salvaging a functioning Iraq/Afghanistan run by their own people, but bolstered by real (rather than rhetorical) American support. President Obama’s speech had to frighten every Afghan working – or tempted to work – with us. In their minds, they see an 18-month commitment. Win the war in a year and a half or go home. I know that’s not what he said, but that’s what they heard. It confirms a Taliban saying: “They’ve got the watches, but we’ve got the time.”

A fundamental of COIN is convincing both the population and the insurgents that COIN will out-stay the insurgency. There is absolutely no way that we can stand up a competent Afghan National Army and a competent Afghan National Police, and convince a tribal society to trust centralized authority in eighteen months. And the Taliban knows that.

This policy, as articulated, won’t work. And our allies know that.

[1] James A Gavrilis, The Mayor of Ar Rutbah, in Foreign Policy, November/December 2005, available upon request.

[2] Jim Gant, One Tribe at a Time, United States Army Special Forces, August 2009, available upon request.