This week's guest editors

Israel at 60: the “iron wall” revisited

In 1923, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism, published an article entitled On the Iron Wall. He argued that Arab nationalists were bound to oppose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Consequently, a voluntary agreement between the two sides was unattainable. The only way to realise the Zionist project was behind an "iron wall" of Jewish military strength. In other words, the Zionist project could only be implemented unilaterally and by military force.

The Iran risk, again

The risk of a conflict between the United States and Iran is, unexpectedly and in a new context, acquiring fresh force. True, the current scenario has elements of the familiar - the recent deployment of two US carrier-battle groups in the Gulf, a pointed reminder to the Tehran government of the extent of Washington's naval power; and a continuation of arguments over Iranian nuclear ambitions, including inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the imposition of a third layer of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. What makes the latest phase of tension between Washington and Tehran different, however, is the influence on US calculations of its predicament in Iraq and Afghanistan - and, in particular, of the upsurge in violence in March-April 2008 in Basra and Baghdad.

The world’s food insecurity

The food crisis is now affecting many countries across the world. Millions of people in dozens of countries are unable to afford the food they need, and malnutrition is on the rise.

Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent

There have been many suggestions among media and military analysts since 2003 of possible parallels between the war in Iraq and the United States imbroglio in Vietnam that ended so humiliatingly in 1975. The argument is most prominently made by critics of both wars, though it has also been articulated by defence scholars or officials concerned that the US learns the "right" lessons from its costly Vietnam experience.

Hamas: talk to them

The trend of events in Gaza in the first months of 2008 has highlighted once again that the current situation is untenable. From Hamas's bulldozing the border-fence with Egypt to enable Gazans to break out of their international blockade and stock up on food and energy essentials, to the rocket-attacks on Israeli towns and Israel's punitive military incursions, it is clear that something has to give. The question is: what?

A war of decades

The long, slow, perceptible if cautious bubble of optimism about the United States's progress in Iraq has finally been punctured. It was the product of the measurable if limited progress in the security situation in Iraq in 2007 that was partly the result of the US military "surge" of February-July 2007; it was fuelled further by the wishful thinking of a country desperate for some good news after more than four years of grinding war, and by the driven ideological certitudes of neo-conservative commentators.

The Iraqi whirlwind

A persistent drumbeat of optimism about the progress of the war in Iraq has been audible among some United States commentators in the last months of 2007 and the early months of 2008. The reduction in American military and Iraqi civilian casualties during much of this period has helped fuel this mood, and the notable decrease in US media interest in Iraq - partly owing to the blanket coverage of both an effervescent presidential-election campaign and a severe economic downturn - has further encouraged the subliminal sense of a gradual improvement.

Lebanon’s “14 March”: from protest to leadership

Three years ago, on 14 March 2005, Lebanon witnessed an unprecedented event: a demonstration of a million or more civilians protesting against the assassination of their former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri a month earlier and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. The occasion led observers to draw comparisons with Ukraine's "orange revolution" of the winter just passed, when protestors encamped on the streets of Kyiv refused to accept the results of a fraudulent presidential election and eventually - through their sheer persistent and peaceful democratic defiance - forced a re-run and in the process became citizens of a free state.

Basra’s second battle decoded

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website,

Also by Reidar Visser in openDemocracy:

"Iraq's partition fantasy" (19 May 2006)

"Iraq lives" (22 November 2006)

"Washington's Iraqi 'surge': where are the Iraqis?" (12 January 2007)
On the surface, the story may look plausible enough. A provincial city rich in oil degenerates into mafia-style conditions affecting the security of citizens as well as the national revenue from this precious resource; the central government intervenes to clean up. This is how many in the media have been reporting the week-long clashes between government forces and militiamen in Basra which ended on 30 March 2008 with the withdrawal of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army from the streets.

European missile defence: the America-Russia-Iran knot

At the Nato summit of heads of state in Bucharest on 2-4 April 2008, the issue of missile defence will figure high on the agenda. The odds are that, without any meaningful parliamentary debate within or between European states, Europe will quietly go along with the United States proposal to instal missile-defence interceptors in Poland and a powerful radar system in the Czech Republic. Moreover, but it appears that further steps will then be taken to integrate this strategic US "national missile defence" system with "theatre missile defence", currently being developed by Nato countries at an annual cost of €1 billion euro ($1.58 bn).

Iraq in 2012: four scenarios

The United States is in the middle of an intense series of discussions, hearings and reports about the future of its military forces in Iraq. Each assessment of the current predicament carries some implication for possible ways forward. But the unfolding pattern of events in Iraq is not a matter for the US alone: whatever happens in that country will profoundly affect the lives of Iraqis themselves and people and states in the neighbouring region.

A global threat multiplier

A European Union study on the problems of global climate change, leaked to the press four days before its official launch on 14 March 2008, contained the sobering assessment that a failure to take radical action now to address global warming would create the likelihood of severe conflict over resources in the decades ahead. Two days later, on 16 March, data from the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) reveals that the rate of shrinking of glaciers across the world - a key marker of climate change - has accelerated; this more than doubled between 2006 and 2007, and the 2007 figure was five times the average for the 1980-99 period. These two documents, taken together, present governments and citizens in the leading emissions-producing countries in particular with an unavoidable test.

Pakistan’s tough inheritance

Even as newly elected legislators were sworn in at Islamabad’s imposing national assembly amidst tight security on 17 March 2008, Pakistanis remained unaware who their next prime minister is going to be. The reason for this uncertainty is that the leading member of the coalition formed after the elections of 18 February, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has yet to name its candidate.

Halabja: the politics of memory

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of horrifying events that are known to few, denied by some, and exploited for political gain by others. Twenty years ago, on 16 March 1988, Iraqi bombers dropped chemical agents on the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing several thousand civilians. The attack laid the precedent for the tactical use of poison-gas against the Kurdish countryside on the first day of every stage of a five-month counter-insurgency campaign that followed shortly afterwards (this was codenamed Anfal, an Arabic word meaning "spoils of war"). These chemicals killed a few hundred and achieved the intended effect of flushing terrified villagers into the arms of Iraqi armed forces, who transported them to transit centres, sorted them by age and sex, and carted off tens of thousands to execution sites in the country's western deserts, far from Kurdistan, where they have laid buried underneath a thin layer of sand until this day.

Israel, the United States and Iran: the tipping-point

The resignation of Admiral William Fallon, the commander of United States Central Command (Centcom) on 11 March 2008 brings the issue of a confrontation between the George W Bush administration and Iran suddenly back on the security agenda. Most analysts had thought that the risk of war had subsided with the publication on on 3 December 2007 of the US national-intelligence estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran was probably not now developing nuclear weapons. There were various qualifications and provisos in that report - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - but it still appeared to limit the administration's war option by removing the main argument.

Jordan: directing democracy

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is far from being a democratic state in the western sense, but the condition of political liberty in the country in recent decades compares favourably to that of its Arab neighbours Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Even a historian as critical of Arab states as Bernard Lewis has argued that it is in the "reforming autocracies" of the Arab world such as Jordan, that the best prospects for democracy exist. The country's record in defending an (albeit constrained) space of internal freedom and open debate is arguably even more impressive in light of its exposure to the fallout from the war in Iraq since March 2003 - which includes bombs in Amman, regional pressures and tensions, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

The war over there

The frenzy of the presidential election season in the United States means that the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are getting little coverage in the local media. But much is happening on the ground in these countries - and elsewhere - that will help shape the agenda of the new incumbent in the White House in January 2009.

Islam and ideology: the Pakistani connection

The various debates on Islam, Islamism and sharia law in openDemocracy have reflected different currents of thought on these great issues in the context of modern political and intellectual developments: including the use of religion for ideological ends, and the controversy over the speech of the Church of England's spiritual head which explored the place of religion-based legal codes in modern Britain.

Gaza: unlock this prison

Geoffrey Bindman is a former chairman and vice-president of the Society of Labour Lawyers. He is chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights. Also by Geoffrey Bindman in openDemocracy:

"Justice in the world's light" (14 June 2001)

"Civil liberties and the 'war on terror'" (5 May 2004)

"From race to religion: the next deterrent law" (18 August 2004)

"War on terror or war on justice?" (3 March 2005)

"Human rights: can we afford them?" (2 February 2006)

Riyadh: city of women

Wafa'a is a very unusual Saudi woman. A character it would be difficult to come across in the streets and shopping-malls of Riyadh city. So I was lucky to have her as my guide during a two-week visit to Saudi Arabia's capital. The adventure started every day after work, when Wafa'a and I met and she gave me the opportunity to "uncover" her city. A different Riyadh than I had imagined, but as real as Wafa'a herself is.

When will they ever learn? Women, men and peace-building

The seventh International Women's Day since the passage of the fabled United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 arrives on 8 March 2008 at a time when the gap between the resolution's fine aspirations and their practical accomplishment seems to be widening. This is particularly clear in the area of conflict resolution and peace-building.

Kosovo and Palestine

If the current Israeli-Palestinian peacenegotiations fail - at the time of writing they have been suspended by thePalestinian side in protest at Israel'smilitary response to rocket fire from Gaza - the Palestinian leaders in Ramallahostensibly have three options:

Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq: the limits of analogy

The declaration of independence by Kosovo on 17 February 2008 is an important victory for the ideas of self-determination and national sovereignty. Ever since most of the old Ottoman vilayet of Kosovo was annexed to Serbia in 1912 after the first Balkan war, the province's mainly Muslim Albanian population suffered under Serbian rule. After 1918, Yugoslavia tried to change the demographic balance by encouraging Serbs to settle in the province, viewed as the birthplace of the Serbian nation. In Titoist Yugoslavia, Kosovo enjoyed an autonomous status, but with the re-emergence of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic this was cancelled, Albanian-language schools were closed, and Serbian functionaries from Belgrade replaced local Kosovar Albanian officials.

The SWISH Report (10)

A seventh report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the progress of the campaign and its ultimate realisation. Click here to read earlier reports.

Thank you for inviting us to deliver a further report on the progress of your movement. You will recall that our work for your planning cell commenced with an initial assessment in July 2004, a follow-up in January 2005 and further reports in February 2006 and September 2006. Because of your concerns over the outcome of the United States mid-sessional elections to Congress in November 2006 you asked us to present an additional report, which we did in December.

We appreciate that it is unusual for you to require a further analysis so soon after our last report in November 2007, but we understand that the pace of events in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan - amid the wider context of the United States presidential election campaign, is such that a further assessment would be useful.

We further understand that you are particularly interested in the recent developments in the US and that you require an assessment as to whether your movement should take any action in the context of its forthcoming election in November 2008. We will therefore review briefly the developments in the other countries before focussing on that element.

Finally, you wish us to make an initial assessment of your ultimate aim of establishing a new caliphate. This we will do in the spirit of openness that you have sought in the past. Our conclusions may not be expected and it is possible that this will be the last report you will commission from us.

Pakistan and Afghanistan

The benefit we have of operating in western Pakistan is one denied to most analysts. It allows us to draw attention to one of the most important features of the 18 February elections in the country, which was missed by most foreign commentators: the exceptionally low turn-out - below 30% overall, and below 20% in some districts. This alone means that too much is being made of the outcome. Within that context, three features of the election and its aftermath are relevant. The first is that the decline in the size of the Islamist vote is less significant than it might appear, given the decision by some parties to boycott the elections. Some argue that such boycotts were solely aimed to avert the embarrassment of certain defeat; but the real point is that in many parts of western Pakistan, elections are simply not relevant since politics works in other ways.

The second point is that Pervez Musharraf has been much weakened by the election outcome; even if he survives, he will carry very little authority. This is a concern for the United States which had hoped for a link-up between Musharraf and the Bhutto family's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). If a PPP/Nawaz Sharif coalition emerges instead (as seems more likely), the result is both no guarantee of stability and greater government caution than would otherwise have been the case about supporting or endorsing US military actions in Pakistan.

The third and most important point is the revelation this week that the CIA has been operating Predator drones from a base within Pakistan. In one incident, an armed Predator from this base which fired two Hellfire missiles at a target (also within Pakistan) killed a senior paramilitary leader and many other people. Many observers had assumed that such deployments were indeed part of US policy; this, however, is direct confirmatory evidence that will in due course lead to major problems for the evolving coalition in Islamabad.

Across the border in Afghanistan, we are aware from our local contacts that your Taliban associates are in a position to undertake major actions in spring and summer 2008; we also know that the leadership has excellent intelligence on the build-up of US and British forces in the south and southeast of the country. We have good reason to doubt that a spring offensive will develop as widely predicted. If so, then Nato commanders will hail this as a victory. But they will be wrong.

The Taliban leadership operates with a markedly sophisticated level of military leadership that is recognised among some of the more intelligent senior officers within Nato - though not by the alliance as a whole and certainly not by the western media. This is important enough, but an additional and even more significant development in Afghanistan is the extent to which paramilitaries are now applying the tactics and deploying the munitions developed in Iraq. We strongly doubt that they are going to be in the business of frontal military assaults at any time in the next six months. Instead, they will almost certainly melt away in the face of the additional US marines and Britain's Parachute Regiment forces which will arrive in Helmand province in the coming weeks; and rely far more on urban guerrilla warfare, especially in Kabul, making much use of martyr attacks.

The scale of the revenues now accruing from the drugs trade, especially the move towards the highly profitable refining of raw opium paste into heroin and morphine within Afghanistan, suggests to us the direction of Taliban strategy. Its militia will opt for a slow but persistent campaign stretching over three to four years, designed to wear down the commitment of some Nato states (Canada is the initial focus here). The longer-term nature of this effort means that over the shorter term, Nato may be able to foster the impression of some success and progress. Again, this will be a highly misleading interpretation.


The United States military surge has had some effect, but (as we argued in November 2007) this should not cause you concern. As our report then said:

"The Bush administration, and especially its neo-conservative elements, has now focused on an overall Iraqi narrative of 'probability of victory'. We know this is a chimera but they do not. The consequence of this is that the administration will aim to downgrade the Iraq war in the public consciousness in the coming months, even as the surge is forced to come to an end because of military overstretch."

In the past three months that has proved an accurate prognosis. There has been a recent increase in violence in Iraq, but not enough to have an impact within the United States. Unless there are very major changes in the coming months, the US is not going to have its "Suez moment" - as Britain did when facing up to its declining imperial power and the need for decolonisation in the wake of the brief Suez war of 1956.

We also pointed out in our last report that the oil factor remains a foundation of US security policy in the region, and that this alone makes any full-scale withdrawal from Iraq unlikely for some decades. Although circumstances will not always be as favourable as 2006-07, rest assured that your paramilitary combat-training zone in Iraq will remain viable and of great use to you for the foreseeable future.

The US election campaign

What then of US politics? Three months ago we, like most analysts, saw Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton as the frontrunners. We thought Clinton was the best of the Democratic candidates for you, given her relatively hardline stance on middle-east policy, and we regarded Giuliani as even better.

Times have certainly changed (as we did say was possible...) and John McCain now looks the overwhelmingly likely Republican candidate with Barack Obama emerging as the probable (though not yet certain) candidate on the Democratic side. From your point of view, McCain is reasonably good news. He is reliably hawkish on Iraq and Afghanistan, and although the political momentum of an incoming president gives a conservative president greater scope for policy reversals, we believe the power of the defence and energy lobbies may be too strong for any major changes to come in a McCain first term.

We cannot, however, be certain. It is possible for hawkish leaders (who have thus established their security credentials) to become unexpectedly flexible in office - witness Charles de Gaulle and Algeria, Richard Nixon and China, Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinians. You should therefore entertain the possibility of McCain using his "honeymoon" period (if you will permit us an exotic idiom) to order a radical withdrawal from Iraq. If he does, then your immediate response must be a very strong message hailing victory for your movement. This could well lead to a reversal of his policy.

A new perspective is offered by Barack Obama's progress, and we assume that this is the matter that most concerns you. If Obama does succeed in winning the Democratic nomination, and if he then survives the very heavy pressure on him from the Republican machine, then he may be in a strong position as the election approaches. It is at this stage that you may wish to consider your options. These, however - we would stress - depend primarily on how you would expect Obama to perform as president in relation to how you would most like the United States to behave.

What is best for you is that the United States remains resolute in its support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; fully addicted to oil and therefore determined to remain dominant in the Persian Gulf; and prepared to continue to pursue its war against you with the utmost vigour. In other words, eight more years for George W Bush would have been ideal.

Sadly for your movement, that cannot be.

What, then, of Obama? The candid answer is that we cannot be sure. All the rhetoric notwithstanding, we actually expect little change should he be elected. Yet since we cannot be certain, we would recommend that any sign of his leading the polls close to the actual election date should be met by strong statements from your leader, welcoming the possibility of the election of a president with whom you can do business. That should do much to prevent his being elected.

The long term

Finally, you ask our opinion on your long-term prospects. We have always taken the view that this is a conflict likely to stretch over decades, and we anticipate that you will eventually take control of a country in the middle east or southwest Asia, as a prelude to establishing a new caliphate. The most propitious time for this to happen is when your "far enemy" has had enough of its burdensome military entanglements, an event that you will no doubt see and claim as a great victory.

Yet we are obliged (to use another exotic idiom) to speak truth to power. In the context of your success in winning control of an individual state, the principle enjoins us to express the conviction that only then will your problems really start. While our institute specialises in strategic hermeneutics, we also cover other disciplines, not least political sociology; and our belief is that your version of uncompromising Islamist rule is as unsustainable in the early 21st century as is the American notion that the US can indefinitely occupy countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Your Taliban associates were initially welcomed by many Afghans in the mid-1990s as a stabilising force in the face of the horrors of warlord rule. Even by 2000, though, the doctrinaire rigidity of its regime was losing the movement support. One of the great unknowns of the decade is what would have happened to the Taliban regime if the 9/11 attacks had failed. We suspect that its regime would have been forced to moderate its style of governance, as indeed was already starting to happen in 2001.

You invoke and celebrate the Abbasids, a thousand years ago, as the greatest Islamic caliphate in history; and you seek to recreate that greatness. But for much of their 250-year history, the Abbasids oversaw a flowering of art, architecture, medicine, mathematics and the sciences; they were also notably tolerant of Christians and Jews. We do not see similar attitudes in the speeches and writings of your leaders. Instead there is a dogmatism of attitude that we think would not allow you to hold power even for a decade - let alone a century.

It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report.

South Waziristan
28 February 2008


This is the tenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Six have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and one the United States state department:

"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) – to al-Qaida:
"The immediate requirement…is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:
"You are… in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) – to the British government:
"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) – to the United States state department:
"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years."

"The SWISH Report (8)" (16 May 2007) - to the British govern-ment:
"Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are es-sential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges."

"The SWISH Report (9)" (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:
"Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, is a bonus.We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil.”

Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity

The issue of national identity always has the capacity to provoke argument and debate, especially perhaps among peoples who share many similarities yet who are divided by political boundaries. The Albanians of Kosova (the territory is spelled thus in its Albanian form) are one of those groups who were and are understandably obsessed with issues relating to their ethnic and national identity. For many years, they knew what there were not. They never liked to be called Yugoslavs, though for decades they had Yugoslav passports and benefited from freedoms which people in Albania itself could only have dreamed of. And they were certainly not Serbs, though much of the world regarded their country simply as a province of Serbia, indeed some still do.

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