A cascade of bad news for the United States from a series of frontlines - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and even the American homeland itself - is provoking a series of emphatic statements of concern and resolve from President Barack Obama. It is becoming clear that the abortive attempt to explode a device on a plane close to landing at Detroit on 25 December 2009 and the bombing of a key CIA station in eastern Afghanistan on 30 December (to name but the most embarrassing incidents) are striking examples of intelligence failure that illustrate the depth of the US’s strategic predicament. The inherited “war on terror” refuses to die.
The Afghan winter
The CIA attack involved a trusted Jordanian official meeting the head of forward operating base (FOB) Chapman in Khost province, along with most of her senior staff and a senior Jordanian intelligence officer. The official was expected to provide new information on the location of al-Qaida leaders, possibly including Osama bin Laden’s deputy and the group’s ideological figurehead, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Instead he detonated a hidden explosive charge which killed the station head, six of her colleagues and the Jordanian agent, and wounded six more people (see Richard A Oppel Jr, Mark Mazzetti & Souad Mekhennet, “Behind Afghan Bombing, an Agent With Many Loyalties”, New York Times, 4 January 2010).
In this context, a new report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) - a think-tank that seeks to develop “strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values” - is timely. The document - Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (4 January 2010) - argues that political and military leaders “are not getting the right information [on Afghanistan] to make decisions with ... The media is driving the issues. We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political decision makers.” The three authors form a powerful team led by deputy chief-of-staff for intelligence of the International Security Assistance force (Isaf), Major-General Michael Flynn; indeed, their earlier connections to military intelligence rather than the CIA and other agencies suggest the possibility that the report includes a strong element of institutional rivalry (even of “getting one’s retaliation in first”).
The CNAS, a fairly new and modestly sized research institution on the Washington scene, is interesting for its proclaimed non-partisan credentials and distance from the familiar neo-conservative connections. At heart it is realist in outlook in that it shares a sense of American exceptionalism in matters of international security.
The military “surge” in Afghanistan is getting underway, with even greater involvement from the US army and marine corps over the next months. There is a recognition in Washington and on the ground that their task is massive and that there is no certainty of success. In such circumstances, the authoritative report from the CNAS puts down a marker; its significance will grow if the new strategy in Afghanistan proves unable to improve the situation there.
The Yemeni shards
The CIA disaster in Afghanistan comes at a time when Yemen has suddenly entered the frame following the near-disaster over Detroit on 25 December 2009. Many commentators in western Europe have yet to appreciate the impact of the Detroit incident within the United States; a reading of the president’s remarks in his statement of 7 January 2010 leaves no doubt about the deep concern at the highest level. For the past eight years domestic opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has grown slowly but steadily. Always, though, has been the thought that at least the United States itself has not suffered another major assault on the model of 9/11. London, Madrid, Istanbul, Jakarta, Amman, Casablanca, Mumbai, Islamabad and many others may have been hit, but the US had been spared.
The Detroit attack came very close to changing that. Moreover, it once again involved a crowded passenger aircraft approaching a major city. In these circumstances it is no surprise at all that Yemen has become such a focus of US attention. There is every possibility that the Barack Obama administration will substantially enhance US intelligence and special-forces operations there, as well as increasing the use of armed drones and possibly even sanctioning attacks by carrier-based strike-aircraft of the US navy (see “Al-Qaida: the Yemen factor”, 2 January 2010).
All this means an expansion of the conflict with al-Qaida and it diffuse associates. This, in turn, coincides with the surge in Afghanistan where the increased US military role is leading to grave concerns in Islamabad that more of the conflict will spill across the border into western Pakistan (see Karin Brulliard, “Pakistan worried U.S. buildup in Afghanistan will send militants across border”, Washington Post, 5 January 2010).
The Iraqi shards
A very rare piece of positive news in the past couple of months for the United States has been the report from Iraq that December 2009 marked the first month since the war began in which no US military personnel were killed in combat. This came at the end of a year in which the loss of civilian lives was also sharply reduced. Iraq Body Count (IBC) estimates that 4,497 civilians were killed by violence up to 16 December, compared with 9,226 in 2008.
This combination of indicators might seem to suggest that at last Iraq is becoming more secure. But a closer look at developments in Iraq leads to less positive conclusions (see “Iraq: the path of war”, 18 December 2009). The war overall is continuing - there were 672 deadly explosions during 2009. Moreover, the careful IBC analysis shows that, for the first time in four years, “there has been no significant within-year decline” (see “Civilian deaths from violence in 2009”, Iraq Body Count, 31 December 2009). The early indication is that violence, which remains high by any international comparison, is no longer easing.
More significantly, a specific pattern of violence emerged during the course of 2009. Over its first few months, there were several very large bombing attacks targeting Shi’a communities, often market-places or mosques. These were probably designed to incite a reaction against Sunni communities which would, in turn, increase support for those Sunni paramilitaries opposed both to the US presence and to the Shi’a dominance of the government.
In the latter part of 2009, there began to be major attacks on government buildings, as well as the specific targeting of police, over 1,100 of whom were killed during the year.
What appears to have been emerging is a specific plan to destabilise the government, with attacks aimed especially at the security forces and also the civil service. This has involved skilful operations against heavily guarded buildings, showing a level of paramilitary sophistication much greater than that needed for “soft” targeting of markets or mosques.
A series of bomb-attacks in August and October targeted five different government ministries, with hundreds of civil servants killed. Then, on 8 December, five bombs were detonated close to government buildings in Baghdad, killing at least 127 people and wounding 448 (see “Baghdad bomb blasts leave 127 dead”, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2009).
On 30 December, bombers managed to penetrate a a heavily protected government compound in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, and kill thirty people, most of them police officers; the provincial governor Qassim Mohammed was among those seriously injured. The operation was targeted as well as deadly. A truck containing around four tonnes of explosives was rammed at high speed into the high-security zone where the regional council, police headquarters and a US provincial reconstruction team (PRT) were based; twenty minutes later, a suicide-bomber wearing police uniform detonated another bomb aimed at security officials investigating the first blast (see Uthman al-Muktar, “Fear grips Iraq’s Anbar after bombings”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 5 January 2009).
This incident follows a concerted campaign of assassination across Anbar that has seen fifty-two political, religious and community leaders killed in less than three months. The group claiming responsibility for the Ramadi attacks is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and is believed to be connected to al-Qaida.
This campaign has continued into the first week of 2010. On 6 January, bombs were planted in four police houses in the town of Hit, north-west of Ramadi in Anbar province; they killed seven people, including the local head of counter-terrorism, Major Walid al-Hiti (see Hamid Ahmed, “Blasts kill 6 in Iraq's western Anbar province”, Miami Herald, 7 January 2010).
What makes these developments all the more disturbing is that Ramadi had, after being one of the main centres of the anti-American insurgency until 2006-07, become much more stable - even regarded as a success story for the US military after the rise of the “awakening movement” of Sunni militias opposed to insurgent groups loosely linked to al-Qaida.
The deep muddy
Much of the surge in activity across northern and central Iraq is aimed at breaking confidence in the elections scheduled for January 2010; its ferocity and persistence make clear that the insurgency is far from over. In particular, it looks as though the withdrawal of US troops from the majority of their urban combat-patrols since 30 June 2009 is allowing insurgent groups to act with much more boldness. This would be serious enough if their aim was primarily to foster intercommunal violence; but their systematic (and often successful) targeting of heavily protected state facilities indicates a more refined strategic objective, and causes even greater concern.
Barack Obama’s administration has many problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is now likely to become much more deeply involved in Yemen. There was at least the hope that the situation in Iraq was improving, but even that is looking markedly over-optimistic. The danger of another assault on the United States itself has been dramatically highlighted by the Detroit near-miss. Once again George W Bush’s toxic legacy re-emerges to place its clammy hand on his successor.