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A Middle-east democracy success story

By the Sandmonkey

It's hard not to get excited over what's going on in Muritania. I mean, a country that was ruled by a despot for 21 years gets a military coup, that gets done by a group of military officers who chose not to rule the people but hold fair and democratic elections, where not a single one of them or anyone backed by them gets to run, and where they will resign from power and the military after the new government is in place, and this is the middle-east? And they did this totally by themselves, without foreign intervention or pressure? How could you not love that?

Power in Mauritania has never changed hands at the ballot box,

although past votes have been held by dictators amid opposition cries

of fraud. The last president, Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, took power in

a 1984 coup and held it until a popular military junta led by Col. Ely

Ould Mohamed Vall toppled him in August 2005.

Vall has been praised for ending the nation's history of

totalitarian rule, making good on promises to ensure a free press and

establish an independent judiciary. In June, he oversaw a successful

referendum that enshrined basic constitutional liberties and limited

future presidents to two five-year terms. Municipal and legislative

elections took place in November.

"We have big hopes for democracy," said Ahmed Ould Daddah, a leading

candidate in Sunday's race and a longtime opposition figure who ran

twice against Taya in past ballots and spent four years under house

arrest. "People are afraid of a return to the old ways. They are

paranoid about this."

And they won't. Once given a choice, no one would take tyranny over democracy!

Let's hope the entire middle-east follows suit one day!

Bin Laden Turns 50

By The Sandmonkey

Remember those old looney tunes cartoons, where a character would be given a birthday cake, and the candle is really a dynamite stick and it blows up in his face?

You do?

Can you think of a more appropriate gift for this guy?

On the Record with IDF Intelligence

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I spoke recently with an Israeli Defense Forces intelligence officer about last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah in South Lebanon. He still serves in the IDF and therefore must remain anonymous. I’ll call him David, which isn’t his name.

David works in a fire control unit stationed in the Northern Command. During the war he managed intelligence pertaining to Hezbollah rocket fire, selected targets for air and artillery strikes, and occasionally assisted in real-time control of fire. He is familiar with some of the high-level decision-making and hints at some of what he knows that is officially classified.

MJT: Let’s start with a general question. What, exactly, did Israel accomplish in the summer war with Hezbollah? Are there any tangible lasting benefits?

David: Well, to understand what was accomplished we need to look at the starting point. Virtually all Israelis were very happy the IDF withdrew from Lebanon — many think it was foolish to have gotten in there in the first place and even those that don’t agree we overstayed our welcome, so to speak. Following the pullout Hezbollah established itself very firmly in South Lebanon — of particular worry to the military was their ground-ground rocket and missile array, ranging in various calibers and ranges. I cannot go into all the intelligence data, but Hezbollah’s capability to hit Israeli population centers was well known for quite some time. So this was the primary problem — only it was never tackled by any Israeli leadership, not that there was much that could have been done. That remains a problem today, though from what I hear they’re having a much more difficult time restoring their abilities. I wouldn’t call it a success story, though. The problem’s still there. Another worry was Hezbollah’s attempts at kidnapping Israeli soldiers.

There have been several attempts made, and each one was more calculated and planned than the last. Apart from the famous instances in which IDF soldiers did in fact die or get kidnapped, there was one memorable attempt that was foiled due to good thinking and alertness in the tactical levels. There were also “anti-aircraft” barrages that hit inside Israel, killing one boy in one instance if I recall correctly. Hopefully, the last conflict sent a message that will make these acts less desirable.

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Hezbollah propaganda on the border

There were also general shows of force at the border, usually organized “demonstrations” or throat-cutting gestures at soldiers from armed persons. There’s a road that passes a few meters from the border and they made sure to build a position right on top it with Hezbollah flags, just as a gesture. We no longer have Hezbollah right on the border, and that is the most tangible benefit.

The UN forces have uncovered a few munitions hideaways. It’s not much, but every rocket counts. So that’s a somewhat limited benefit.

MJT: Hezbollah may no longer control the border. But they can still sneak across the fence to kidnap more soldiers if they really want to. UNIFIL doesn’t have the authorization to stop them. And they can still fire Katyusha rockets from just north of the border and shoot them over the heads of UNIFIL. Meanwhile, if there is another war between Israel and Hezbollah, UN soldiers will be in the way as obstacles or even human shields. How much of a “win” is this really?

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A UNIFIL convoy drives through the village of Ain Ebel, South Lebanon

David: It’s not much of a win at all — and it’s no secret here. The Chief of Staff is being replaced by the same person he competed against for that job. You can’t get a stronger signal than that. We knew we could not deal with the rockets without sending in ground troops. There were plans for the exact scenario at the start of the conflict. We practiced these plans a very short time before the real thing. These plans included a much larger ground offensive that would systematically clear out Hezbollah rocket fire.

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A bombed house near Bint Jbail, South Lebanon

Unfortunately, the Chief of Staff was the first Air Force man to have this job. The general attitude in the IDF was to let the Air Force control everything, and so the ground forces weren’t called up early enough, and the plans were never used. That was the biggest problem, in my opinion — the way the Air Force “runs the show”. In some cases, soldiers that were not given water one day, because the Air Force did not want to risk landing a helicopter, were dehydrated and airlifted the next day. In general, the coordination between the ground forces and the Air Force was very lacking. There was a helicopter that crashed due to what was later discovered to be a manufacturing fault, but at the time they thought it was hit with artillery fire. So they limited artillery fire in a real knee-jerk sort of way, etc.

The failure to follow the pre-determined plans would be the second biggest problem, in my opinion. Everything was improvised, units would have their orders change constantly, the high-level commanders failed to utilize some very important principles in warfare that every officer in the IDF memorizes. Perhaps their hands were tied by the politicians, but no one can deny a major part of the blame lies on the Chief of Staff’s neglect of the regular military, which was very eroded by policing the territories and later evacuating the settlers from Gaza, without any sort of rehabilitation afterwards.

But there are other sides to the coin. I think Hezbollah’s leadership and the Iranians take Israel a little more seriously now. They did not agree to end the hostilities for no reason. Nasrallah himself said he did not expect that kind of backlash. I believe they have a different image of Israel now. They saw the way we handle the territories — where we tense up over every soldier that gets hurt — and they made sure we would know they’re waiting for us in south Lebanon, and that it is going to be costly to send ground forces in there. But this was not the territories — tanks were getting hit all over the place, there were some very costly battles — and Israel seemed like it could go on for a while. If you ask me, that is the truest victory. Apparently Hezbollah and the Iranians thought rocket barrages on Northern Israel would weaken us – the opposite was true.

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A line of tanks near Metulla prepare for a ground invasion of Lebanon, August, 2006

I cannot comment much about the situation today. What’s important is that there is no regular Hezbollah presence right on the border. This presence was essential to their planning and desensitizing of IDF forces prior to the kidnappings. True, they can still sneak — as they probably do — but it is quite different from having Hezbollah men sit in positions right on the border, from the Mediterranean to Mt. Hermon.

As for the UN — no Israeli believes they do any good any more.

How much of a win is it? Not much, which is why a lot of people think there will be another conflict with Hezbollah in the near future. As soon as they feel they have something to gain by it, they will try it again.

MJT: Do you think anything concrete was achieved by bombing Hezbollah’s command and control center in the dahiyeh, in the suburbs south of Beirut? The area was pretty heavily pulverized — I was recently there and took pictures — but many Israelis have discounted it as irrelevant. It’s hard for me to say because, for the most part, I can’t tell by looking at the area what was hit and what wasn’t.

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Whole swaths of towers were destroyed in the Hezbollah dahiyeh south of Beirut

David: Bombing the dahiyeh made a genuine contribution to the military effort — every organization would have its function impeded without its permanent headquarters. Furthermore, forcing Hezbollah commanders to be mobile also increases the chances of them being located. However, Israelis are mostly disappointed that none of Hezbollah’s leaders were eliminated in the dahiyeh strikes. They probably stayed hidden away before the kidnapping took place, but asymmetric warfare is about producing “effects,” and the fact that there was no tangible, immediate achievement that the IDF could present shows good preparations on the part of Hezbollah.

MJT: Do you think either side “won” the war? Or was it more of a draw? It looks to me like both sides lost, but in different ways. Israel failed to meet most of its objectives, but Hezbollah was clearly more wounded.

David: This is an academic question. What constitutes a victory? Besides, it’s a piece in a much bigger conflict that’s still being played (which is why I don’t often refer to it as a “war”). Hezbollah is heavily reliant on Iran. Iran needs a functional, armed Hezbollah as a deterrent, a hanging sword over the heads of Israeli policy-makers (and ordinary Israelis). This conflict was never out of control as far as Iran is concerned. They control the heights of the flames, and they made sure to extinguish them when they thought the price to continue was too high. They would rather keep a few cards up their sleeve for whatever happens next. In the internal Lebanese field, I’m not sure whether Hezbollah reaped significant fruit from this conflict. Lebanon was on the way to restore its former glory after the IDF, and later the Syrians, left. Hezbollah is constantly subverting Lebanon’s progress. I hope the Lebanese manage to solve this problem. Time will tell. The current events there definitely serve as strong leverage for Iran over the West. It’s a shame Lebanon has to pay the price for other nation’s aspirations.

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What remains of downtown Bint Jbail, South Lebanon

Most Israelis think Israel’s deterrence was damaged in this conflict. Deterrence is a crucial element in Israel’s security, and so this is quite a major deal. However, Israelis are used to winning every battle decisively. But in this day and age there are some things a military simply cannot achieve without paying a price.

Hezbollah were meticulously prepared for this conflict by Iran, and had numerous advantages. I wish I could reveal just a sliver of what we know of Iran’s preparation of Hezbollah. The IDF, on the other hand, was much less prepared for this conflict. However, as I mentioned, asymmetric warfare is about achieving effects on your enemy. In this case, Hezbollah and Iran’s desired effect is to demoralize Israel’s society and so to tie the hands of its elected leadership, as well as some other, long-term effects. They proved to achieve the exact opposite — Israeli society united for the first time in a long while.

I know quite a few people who volunteered for reserve service. Many residents of the north left their homes but others remained, some because there was no alternative and some simply in defiance. A Channel 10 reporter spoke recently of an instance when she was reporting from a house in Tiberia that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket. Next to her at the time was a reporter for Channel 2, who completed his report by saying Tiberia’s residents are tired of the bombardments — and the local residents around him were very angry to hear this. She made sure to mention their high spirit, and was cheered by the crowd when she ended her report.

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Portraits of Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini are common in South Lebanon

Iran and Hezbollah mistakenly see the opposition within Israel to the occupation and various other internal struggles as a weakening of Israeli society. They were definitely surprised by Israel’s strong stand during the fighting — and in my opinion, in asymmetric warfare that can be termed as a small victory. Israeli politicians are ,of course, paying a price for their mistakes in managing the conflict. However, there are grander issues plaguing them so their role in the conflict takes a secondary role most of the time.

Olmert’s failure to define clear, achievable, and measurable objectives is often criticized, as are Peretz’s poor rhetoric skills and lack of military experience. It does not matter much — they will go and others will take their place — and whatever their successors do and say will be criticized as well. Such is our nature.

MJT: You’re an intelligence officer. Target selection was part of your job. Can you tell us about Hezbollah’s alleged use of human shields? Are any of these reports overblown, or was Hezbollah’s use of civilian lives and infrastructure even more common than we’ve been led to believe? I spoke to Lebanese civilians who said their entire village of Ain Ebel, which was full of people at the time, was used as a shield. And I spoke to an Israeli soldier who said he didn’t see a single civilian anywhere in South Lebanon. These people were describing events in different places, but they do contradict each other a bit.

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Shrapnel holes in the side of a house, Ain Ebel, South Lebanon

David: Before the conflict, Hezbollah would do in South Lebanon as they pleased. In those villages that supported them — Shia villages — they had absolute freedom to establish an infrastructure that offered them some protection against strikes as well as intelligence collection. Prior to the hostilities, Hezbollah personnel lived inside the villages or in their vicinity and were mostly indistinguishable from the local populace. They had stored weapons and ammunition inside civilian residences, set up local command and control facilities etc. I know this not only from processed intelligence, but also from direct unprocessed reports from ground forces that uncovered such facilities left and right.

For example, in one residence our forces found a room that served as a long-range observation post equipped with advanced thermal imaging equipment, maps, and communications equipment. Hezbollah drew detailed plans for holding each village, and as the soldier testified, even prepared stationary combat positions in the villages it was able to do so.

As the Ain Ebel resident testified, during the fighting Hezbollah fighters prevented civilians from leaving their villages. Intelligence from several locations perfectly matches the testimony of Hezbollah attacking fleeing civilians in your report. Hezbollah did not exclusively use villages, as you saw in the valley below Ain Ebel.

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A demolished Hezbollah bunker in the valley below Ain Ebel

The demolished building that you saw was probably used for long term stay during calm periods and was quite probably abandoned prior to the kidnapping that sparked the fighting. They had meticulously prepared many such valleys with systems of foxholes and bunkers, designed to protect their men and weapons while maintaining readiness and making them difficult to clear by ground forces. They knew exactly how to minimize the window of opportunity to locate and destroy these small fighting elements, and indeed it took much effort to silence them. Though we did manage it, the rate at which the small rocket launchers were silenced was unsatisfying. Still, they had considerably more advantage in the villages, especially once our ground forces started clearing these valleys.

We had maps and aerial photographs of every village that had mosques, schools, UN positions and other sensitive locations marked, and we tried to avoid hitting them, especially after the death of UN observers from IDF return fire.

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An undamaged mosque amid rubble in the border village of Maroun al-Ras

We also have various tools for locating and analyzing what is termed “steep trajectory fire,” and there was an evident trend in their rocket fire: as the conflict progressed, Hezbollah rocket fire came closer and closer to those locations we tried to avoid hitting, and in many cases originated there. In addition, when the UN coordinated safe passage for a convoy, Hezbollah would launch rockets near the convoys’ paths. They could have been informed (perhaps the UN coordinated with them as well) or they could have simply observed the UN convoys at some point during their journey.

Hezbollah’s military-like organization was not limited to the tactical levels. They had a military-like logistic structure. In simple terms, their biggest supply stores were north in the Bekaa valley, from which their weapons and munitions were transported to secondary supply locations, where in turn they were distributed to smaller fighting units. There is much criticism of the IDF’s targeting of bridges and roads, but it made a big difference in their ability to fire deeper inside Israel, again evident in their launch patterns: the Litani river has two “knees” where its flow alternates between south and west. These are the closest locations from which they could fire shorter range rockets into Israel — specifically its northern tip — without crossing the river, and accordingly, the north/west banks around these “knees” were regular launch hotspots.

I do not think there is a contradiction between the soldier’s and the villagers’ testimonies. The IDF tried to steer clear of non-Shia villages such as Ain Ebel, both in the fire and in the maneuver effort. We would only return fire in response to rocket launches from these villages, and as far as I know ground forces stayed away from them as much as was possible. The Shia villagers were probably allowed to leave their villages as the IDF approached them. Ground movement in such a theater is very slow and careful, there is no element of surprise, so the villagers — as well as Hezbollah — were quite probably aware of IDF forces en route.

MJT: What was your experience like during the war? I understand part of your job was watching the war in real-time on monitors while the rockets were flying.

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Surface-to-surface missiles are fired from Israel toward Lebanon, August, 2006

David: I’m one of many Israeli students, and the war caught us during an exam period. Like I mentioned, most of the reserves weren’t called up for a few days, so we stayed at home, unable to study with the events continually unfolding on the TV. I belong to a generation that has known relative safety, and the conflict changed my perspective on the seemingly trivial safe life I lead here.

It was unlike the first Gulf War, when everyday life would continue amidst the polyethylene sheets and gas masks. It was more like living in a history piece about the days when the Syrians and Jordanians were shelling Israeli settlements, but even in those days I don’t think it was so intense, it definitely was not as deep into Israeli territory as Hezbollah’s attacks. Considering my reserve service I was better prepared than most Israelis who paid little attention to the headlines about Hezbollah’s arsenal that would show up in the newspapers every once in a while.

When I was finally called up I made my way up north, where the mood was set by the empty roads and closed businesses that became more evident the further I traveled. There were also many fires scarring the green Galilee. At one point I had to meet someone at a rallying point, passing by several fresh hits on the way, with trucks carrying all sorts of weapons and supplies passing me by — not unlike an action movie. These sights motivated me for the work ahead, but when I joined my unit I was somewhat let down.

The Air Force was doing everything, us “green” units weren’t doing much — there was no significant ground maneuver yet. We returned fire to where Hezbollah would launch the rockets, tried our hardest to make sense of all the launch data we collected and prepared for whatever would come next, but there was no real work to do.

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A Katyusha rocket explodes in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona

When you sit in front of monitors and maps showing countless trajectories from Lebanon into Israel — into the very places your friends and family live — it can be quite agitating. Some of us were becoming very impatient, and in the many dead moments there were debates whether our response should be harsher. Of course, none of us were in any position of real influence. It was somewhat of a relief when the ground offensive was escalated, even though virtually everyone had people who were very close to them in combat units. I had some very tense conversations with people who were about to enter Lebanon, trying to prepare them without letting out really sensitive information. Talking to friends and family back home sometimes proved difficult because they would ask questions I could not answer — either because I did not know the answer or because it was sensitive. Even today there are some very basic facts about the conflict that I would like the entire world to know, but divulging them would mean that we’ll have poorer intelligence in the next round.

After the ground offensive was escalated things were getting better, though as I previously mentioned it was not according to any of the predetermined plans and that led to a lot of problems. Some of us would leave to go to funerals and then come back. The cease-fire was called when it was clear the IDF would clear South Lebanon in a few days.

There was one instance before the cease-fire, though, that was personally unnerving. The Syrians were making threats and preparing for an attack. We started organizing for working on the Syrian front, and if seeing trajectories over maps of south Lebanon is agitating, seeing tactical unit markings over maps of the Golan is downright scary. I don’t mean to exaggerate — I never really thought they would attack, and we’re much better prepared for dealing with the Syrian army than with Hezbollah — but it was an ominous sign nonetheless.

MJT: Can you give us any hints about those basic facts you wish you could divulge? Don’t tell us so in so much detail that it will weaken your intelligence capabilities next time. Be as vague as necessary to protect yourself and your assets. But give us an idea of what you’re talking about, if you can. If you’re thinking of basic facts here, the world should know as much as possible, even if you can only tell us one thing we didn’t already know.

David: Unfortunately, information these days is not worth much unless presented in raw form, which is impossible for me to deliver. I can only repeat matters that have already been leaked.

For example, the reports on the Hezbollah bombings of the Jewish community center and Israeli embassy in Argentina state there was increased communication activity from the Iranian Embassy before the attacks, leading to the conclusion the Iranian embassy was used to coordinate these attacks. Quite obviously, this is only the publicly disclosable part of the intelligence regarding the bombing — it is very likely that it is not only the volume of these communications that was monitored, but also their contents. This example also proves Iranian embassies have been used by Hezbollah in the past. One can safely assume this practice continues today. Add to this already leaked information regarding the whereabouts of Nasrallah during the conflict and you can extrapolate the nature of at least one undisclosable piece of intelligence.

[Note: He is referring here to reports during the war that Hassan Nasrallah used the Iranian embassy in Beirut as a safe house.]

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Ehud Olmert had fierce critics in Israel even before he became the Prime Minister— I took this photo at a bus stop in Jerusalem a week before he was elected.

MJT: The Israeli political establishment is suffering severe criticism inside Israel for botching the war. Do any of these critics, perhaps including yourself, have any idea what might work better against an asymmetric enemy like Hezbollah in the future? If there is another Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, can we expect better results next time if the right people make the decisions?

David: Analyzing your and your enemies’ weaknesses and strengths is crucial for success in asymmetric warfare. In the case of Hezbollah I believe there are two major weaknesses: their geopolitical distance from their power base (Iran), and their incompatibility with what the majority of Lebanese agree is the path to a secure and prosperous future.

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Billboard advertisement in Beirut’s northern suburbs

These weaknesses require attacks of a diplomatic nature. Any direct Israeli involvement in these areas will harm its interests, so currently the best thing for Israel is to do is persuade “neutral” parties to strengthen pro-western Lebanese behind the scenes. Distancing Syria from Iran would provide a serious blow to Hezbollah, but the Syrians are well aware of this (they are arming Hezbollah for leverage over Israel) and considering the internal conditions in Israel as well as the Syrian expectations, I believe peace with Syria is highly unlikely. There is also the possibility that this is part of a concerted Iranian effort to prevent an attack on their nuclear program by presenting such an attack as dangerously destabilizing what may seem to be a finally stabilizing Middle East. That may explain the US Administration’s prohibition of any official Israeli contact with Syria.

Iran and Hezbollah assumed the greatest Israeli weakness would be the Israeli public’s reaction to the war. It would seem Israel weathered this particular test. While they thought their actions would be met with the then-typical knee-jerk attacks that incur little damage or that a large-scale response would be criticized by what they perceived as a defeatist society, there is very little debate in Israel whether the response was disproportionate. Of course the situation outside Israel is very different, and this is one flank Israel must reinforce, but there is little you can do against such a well-oiled propaganda machine that is Hezbollah.

From a pure military perspective, I am certain the lessons will be learnt and applied. Though the commission that is investigating the conflict has yet to publish its findings, the initial reports in the papers suggest they have hit the tactical aspects on their proverbial heads: they have pointed out the rift between the Air Force-dominated General Staff and the Northern Command as one of the main reasons for the IDF’s failure to stop rocket fire into Israel. The new Chief of Staff seems to be emphasizing cross-arm cooperation and training. However, the IDF needs to prepare for the next conflict, not the last. Russia is arming Syria with very advanced rockets of various sorts, a previously unknown “Palestinian liberation” organization in Syria has made headline-grabbing announcements and suddenly Syrian “peasants” are lobbing land mines across the border. Hezbollah’s successes have certainly not gone unnoticed.

If there will be another conflict with Hezbollah it will be different by several aspects: Hezbollah is somewhat less obvious these days, particularly south of the Litani. Their rocket re-armament, according to the media, is primarily north of the Litani. They realize, as do we, that to stop rocket fire on Israel the IDF must clear the launch areas with a large ground maneuver. They will probably utilize the region south of the Litani as a defensive belt, to weaken and slow down an IDF attack and later disrupt logistical support of IDF forces north of the Litani. They will probably forgo the inaccurate medium and large sized rockets that were nearly annihilated during the first stages of the fighting and expand their small-rocket array. They will certainly try and recreate their real and perceived naval successes (Nasrallah believes Israel has covered up the drowning of a second ship), though the relevant weapons were very likely operated by IRGC teams. They may also try and expand their anti-aircraft capabilities, especially in the rear. Hopefully we will never have to address these new challenges, but as I mentioned several times: this is part of a bigger puzzle. Iran will certainly utilize Hezbollah in case of a conflict with Israel or the US, and it seems such a conflict is not unlikely.

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Fraternizing with the Enemy

Here’s an old Syrian joke which I’m probably not telling correctly:

An official informed the late Hafez Assad of the results of the so-called election. “Sir,” he said. “You won 99.99 percent of the vote!”

Assad frowned and rubbed his chin.

“Sir,” said the official. “Only 0.01 percent of the people voted against you. What more do you want?”

“Their names,” Assad said.

One of those names was Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and blogger who (bravely?) allowed himself to be interviewed in an Israeli newspaper.

The End of the Arab Bismarckian Era

Tony Badran translated (from Arabic) Ali Hamade’s most recent column from Beirut’s An Nahar newspaper about the winding down of Syria’s imperial project in Lebanon.

Regardless of the results of the Saudi-Iranian summit, there is an essential constant that will not change anytime soon: the era of the Arab Bismarck is over. The Arab Bismarck is of course a reference to the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, who was dubbed by some in the press as the would-be Bismarck of the Arabs, in reference to the Prussian statesman who unified the three hundred feuding German principalities, and led a unified Germany to victory over France under Napoleon III in the war of 1870, stripping it of the Alsace and Lorraine.

Hafez Assad got the title the Bismarck of the Arabs in a decisive and final manner after his total overtaking of Lebanon in 1990, and after getting exclusive mandate to implement the Taef Accord.

At the time, some extremists went as far as considering that Assad managed after 75 years to shred the Sykes-Picot agreement and avenge for Greater Syria, which was stripped of the four districts and Mount Lebanon itself. And in the fits of extremism in those days, it was said that the train of Arab unity had taken off starting with Syria’s de facto annexation of Lebanon and from Assad’s success in gathering several regional cards in his hands to cement the “imperial” basis of Assadist Syria. In other words, he managed to launch his imperial stage beginning with his “crown jewel,” Lebanon.

When president Bashar Assad inherited Syria and Lebanon from his father in 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal, he did not inherit a “unified Germany,” à la Bismarck, as it seemed. Rather, he inherited from his father a dominion similar to the Austrian empire of the early 20th century, which was comprised of Austria and Hungary, and whose separation was a matter of time. The first World War came to hasten that separation and mark the end of the empire.

Read the rest at Across the Bay.

What Do You Want to Know About Iraq?

I’ll be in Iraq soon — first in the northern Kurdistan region, then in Baghdad.

What do you want to know that you don’t already know? What would you like me to write about? What do you most want to see in photographs and video?

Since I’m going to Kurdistan first, let’s limit our discussion to that region for now. We’ll get to Baghdad in time.

Please leave specific questions and general topics in the comments section. I won’t be able to cover everything, but a group brainstorm will still help.

Of course I can think of questions and topics on my own, but I also want to know what the audience wants. I’m working for you here, after all, thanks to your Pay Pal dontations.

Seymour Hersh Botches Lebanon (and Egypt)

Lebanon is the most complicated country I have been to by far. Lebanese politics are as complex and bewildering as any you will find anywhere — and that’s doubly true when you add Syrian politics into the mix.

Writing in detail about that messy part of the world is genuinely hazardous. When writers go wrong…boy do they go wrong.

The latest writer to botch the job almost completely is Seymour Hersh. Lebanese blogger and scholar Tony Badran — who has forgotten more about Lebanon and Syria than Hersh and I put together will ever know — published this harsh and brutal takedown.

UPDATE: Abu Kais, also from Lebanon, says Hersh has abandoned reality for fiction.

UPDATE: Egyptian Sandmonkey says Hersh botched Egypt pretty badly, as well.

I Am Procrastinating — And I Have a Good Reason

I am procrastinating and not blogging any original material right now. But I have a good reason for doing so, and will point you to this fascinating article by Paul Graham on the subject that I found via Armed Liberal at Winds of Change.

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

[...]

I’ve wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they’re just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there’s no one to interrupt them yet. In theory it’s good when the founders finally get enough money to hire people to do some of the work for them. But it may be better to be overworked than interrupted. Once you dilute a startup with ordinary office workers—with type-B procrastinators—the whole company starts to resonate at their frequency. They’re interrupt-driven, and soon you are too.

[...]

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don’t know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming’s exercise can be generalized to:

What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Sometimes this blog is not the best thing I can be working on. Right now I’m immersing myself in something else — I’m intensely studying video and documentary work. I can’t be bothered to write anything original on this blog at this particular moment. But it will pay off later because I’m doing this now. I’m not just going to go to Iraq and turn a video camera on and hope what I capture is interesting. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I have no intention of screwing this up.

I’ve been intending for some time to add video to this blog. Now that I’m genuinely inspired to do so and have the right head space to move forward, I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of what I can do.

Thanks for understanding. And thanks so much to those of you who are donating money to help me buy a nice video camera. I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m studying hard so I won’t.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

On My Way to Iraq

I’ll be spending some quality time in Iraq over the next two and a half months doing consulting work, journalism, and video — first in the northern Kurdistan region and then in Baghdad and the heart of the Sunni Triangle.

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Photo copyright Patrick S. Lasswell

My first job starts two weeks from now and will be another private consulting gig in Kurdistan with my business partner Patrick Lasswell. This will be my fourth trip to the region, which is becoming a regular beat for me now. I’m more comfortable there than I was when I first visited. The people, the terrain, the logistics, and the job are all familiar. The learning curve has flattened out, which means I can multitask now.

Last time I went there as a consultant I had no time for reporting or writing. This time I will because I know how to squeeze it in, even though my first obligation will be to my employers, not to my blog. I won’t be able to write full time, but I will be able to give you something now and then.

This time I’m going to give you some video as well as writing and photographs. Stay tuned for taped interviews with Kurdish civilians and officials, and also some video postcards of what this place actually looks like. Kurdistan always shocks people when they see it for the first time. It doesn’t look anything like the hellish images that come out of Baghdad.

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The Mesopotamian plain gives way to the mountains of Kurdistan

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Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East

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New houses in the city of Dohuk

I’ll be there for a month or so, then will come home for a short break. Then I’m off to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle for two weeks with the American military.

I’ve been coordinating a trip to Baghdad with the Department of Defense for months now. If the original plan worked out I would have been home from Baghdad already. But DoD is a bureaucracy at the end of the day. The troop surge means I’m even lower on their priority list — which is, of course, understandable. My schedule keeps getting pushed back, but they promise to fly me there and provide me with as much access as possible. Theoretically now I’m going at the end of April. Hopefully the trip won’t get postponed again.

I need body armor and combat zone insurance for Baghdad. And I’d like to pick up a new handheld video camera for Kurdistan. I want to give you the highest quality video footage possible over Internet broadcasts. Spending 10,000 dollars on a professional camera would be a waste of money for Internet video, but it would be nice to pick up a 1,000 dollar camera if possible. Best not to waste the opportunity using a cheap one with a small cell phone camera sized lens.

Any donations you can send my way via Pay Pal will help me give you the best content possible, and will help keep me alive and insured when I finally make it, and long last, to Baghdad and the war.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

Here are some still shots I took on my first couple of trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. Imagine what these pictures would look like if they moved. Help me buy a good camera and you will get some pictures that move.

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A young Kurdish boy in the northern city of Erbil

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The fake “Sheraton” hotel in Erbil that isn’t really a Sheraton

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A Kurdish woman enters Erbil’s new Naza Mall

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The lobby of the Khan Zad Hotel overlooks the mountains near Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire’s Darius III. The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Arbella (Erbil).

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Patrick and I shared tea with this Kurdish family in the shade of walnut trees just a few feet (literally) from the Iranian border

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Political murals espousing liberal-democratic values are everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mural is painted on concrete bomb blast walls erected to protect civilians from possible terrorist attacks from the Sunni Triangle.

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Young men make bread at a popular stop on the road between Erbil and Suleimania

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Ziggarats at the pagan temple of Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born

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A shy child at Lalish

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Pedestrians, downtown Suleimania

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Plasma screen TVs for sale in Dohuk

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A man comforts his infant while taking a break from a long cross-country drive

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A flower somehow survives the punishing heat of July in the Kurdistan mountains

UPDATE: My Kurdistan business partner Patrick Lasswell kindly adds the following in the comments section:

When you give Michael the means to report interesting and important stories, he reports interesting and important stories. We’re going to try to do more than we have before this trip, while still providing our employers exceptional results. Our wives are alright with us going out and working ourselves to exhaustion in far off places because we married well and got lucky besides.

As understanding as our lovely wives are, our mortgage companies are less cordial. While we would love to pay for the best reporting gear out of our pockets, the guy with the forclosure notice simply ruins our shopping.

If you value independant reporting, I urge you to support Michael in his efforts to provide exceptional writing with exceptional media. I’m not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.

He does too want to play with the new gear. So help both of us out, and yourself as well, by donating money for a good video camera so you can see Kurdistan and Baghdad move instead of only through still shots.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos except otherwise noted copyright Michael J. Totten

Iraq in Fragments

I cannot recommend a film I haven’t seen. But the high-definition trailer for Iraq in Fragments knocked me out of my chair.

Watch this on the biggest computer screen you have at the highest resolution. Use headphones so you can turn the volume up loud. Be amazed. I have watched this over and over again in quiet astonishment and awe of the gorgeous cinematography and artistry on display.

I’ll watch this one for the camera work alone, but also to learn more about these stories of Iraq’s people regardless of whatever political slant the director may (or may not) bring into the film:

A stunningly photographed, poetically rendered documentary of Iraq today, seen through the eyes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. James Longley’s 3-part opus is a series of intimate, passionately felt portraits: a fatherless 11-year-old is apprenticed to a cruel owner of a Baghdad garage; Sadr followers in two Shiite cities rally for regional elections while enforcing Islamic law at the point of a gun; a family of Kurdish farmers welcomes the US presence, which has allowed them a measure of freedom previously denied.

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post

Ellis Weintraub at The Jerusalem Post interviewed me over the weekend.

Here’s a short excerpt:

You have traveled in Palestinian refugee camps and the territories, yet your writings come across as fair and at times even pro-Israel. What are your ideological views?

I’m an American, so I think in American political terms. Within the American political system I’m basically a centrist. I vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates and suspect I will do so for a very long time. Each party gets some things right and some things wrong.

A huge majority of Americans support Israel. I’m right in the mainstream when it comes to Israel, even though I often disagree with what Israel does. I thought the invasion of Lebanon was foolish, counterproductive, and a waste of money and lives in both Lebanon and Israel. But I sympathize with what Israel was trying to do, and of course with Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. So my criticism wasn’t the shrieking axe-grinding kind that I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. If Israel would have clearly won the war last summer I would have changed my mind, admitted I was wrong, and supported it in hindsight.

You can read the whole thing here.

Back to Iraq — Revisited

My old friend Sean LaFreniere went on that spontaneous and rather ill-fated road trip from Istanbul to Iraqi Kurdistan with me last year. Inspired by the short video from the region on 60 Minutes last Sunday, he posted some of his own observations and photos.

My overwhelming impression was of a region and a people desperately wanting to be “normal”. I was also startled (after living in Europe) to hear people talk about defending their land and risking their lives to do it. These people are peaceful, but pack guns – like Texas.

Their greatest complaint was of boredom. They are tired of hanging out at the “state park” at the waterfall in the hills every night. They want a Starbucks, a few more shopping centers, and maybe a movie theatre.

They seem used to spotty power and poor plumbing. Turkey gives them a few hours each day and the rest comes from generators. It is a bit sad since the Kirkuk oil fields should provide them with ample power if not for the political problems.

They have plenty of mosques and some women wear conservative dress. But I also saw Christian churches. And I never saw anyone drop what they were doing for the call to prayer (I have not seen that in any Middle Eastern country). They seem no more religiously strict than Alabama, maybe less.

Construction was everywhere: new roads, new schools, and new hospitals. Almost every car was shinny and new. The new houses were all several stories with impressive porches, hot tubs, and flat screen TV’s.

Now that they have the freedom to spend some money on themselves they are going for bright and flashy. Maybe it is all a bit overdone, but I think I can understand. This is a bit like California, where too much is just enough to show your change of fortune.

Read the rest and see Sean’s photos here.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy — An Interview with Michael Oren

Pajamas Media published my most recent interview with Michael Oren. Below are the first couple of paragraphs.

PORTLAND, OREGON — Renowned American-Israeli historian and best-selling author Michael Oren is touring the United States promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from 1776 to the present. It’s the first and only book on the subject ever written, and it’s currently inching toward the top of the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction.

I first met Michael Oren under Katyusha rocket fire when he worked as a Spokesman for the IDF Northern Command in Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah, and I met him again when he came to my home town of Portland, Oregon, last week on his book tour.

MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.

MJT: They were more than hostages, they were slaves, weren’t they?

Oren: They were slaves. But beyond the military component — the book is not a military history, it’s also a diplomatic, cultural, artistic, and economic history — I wanted to show Americans today that our experience in the Middle East has very deep roots. Overall it’s a story of magnificent things that America did for the Middle East. It wasn’t always about confrontation, it was also about schools and hospitals and building for development and artistic inspiration and cooperation.

Read the rest at Pajamas Media.

The Other Iraq

If I could distill everything I heard, saw, and learned in the Kurdistan region of Iraq into a 12-minute video, it would look a lot like this. (Fourth video on the right.)

Click that link. Watch. This is marvelous work from 60 Minutes, some of the best mainstream media journalism I have seen out of the Middle East, the absolute antithesis of Diane Sawyer’s useless interview with Syria’s Bashar Assad last week.

I only caught one factual error. The Iraqi flag is not banned in Kurdistan. It still flies in the city of Suleimania, but it’s the old version of the flag before Saddam Hussein wrote Allahu Akbar on it.

60 Minutes has done truly excellent work capturing the essence of this lovely place and these wonderful people and editing it all down into such a brief and comprehensive introduction.

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