Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Growing Concern: Terrorist Havens In 'Failed States'

Instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon Raise Risk That U.S. Seeks to Address
By Yochi J. Dreazen and Philip Shishkin
Wall Street Journal
September 13, 2006

In April, Saudi Arabia disclosed plans for an unusual and hugely expensive project: a multibillion-dollar electrified fence along its 560-mile border with Iraq.

The move angered U.S. and Iraqi officials, but Saudi officials said Iraq's growing instability left them little choice. They said they were concerned about militants infiltrating from Iraq to carry out attacks aimed at either toppling the ruling family or inciting Saudi Arabia's restive Shiite minority to seek independence.

Concern about extremism seeping out of Iraq underscores a painful irony in the five-year-old war against terrorism: The U.S. and its allies now face the distinct possibility that the same kind of "failed state" that gave terrorists a haven when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan -- leading to Sept. 11 -- could be forming again, in more than one place.

Both Iraq and Lebanon are threatening to degenerate into states with weak central governments where extremists can thrive. Iraq already appears to serve as a kind of finishing school for young radicals seeking battlefield experience. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's war with Israel this summer both destabilized the country and enhanced the reputation of Hezbollah extremists, who in the past have demonstrated a desire to extend their reach beyond Lebanon's borders.

To make matters worse, Afghanistan itself now appears to be sliding backward so much that it could again become an international terror breeding ground.

Forces from the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are locked in the bloodiest fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001. U.S. casualties are running at more than twice last year's rate. U.S. military commanders speak openly of an "Iraq-ification" of Afghanistan: Once-rare suicide bombings and roadside bombs have become common, and both arms and militants flow over mostly undefended borders. Much as in Iraq, the bulk of the Afghan insurgency is local, but there are signs al Qaeda-linked foreign fighters are participating.

Attack in Syria

The violence and instability roiling the Middle East spread to another country yesterday, as Islamic militants armed with machine guns, grenades and an explosives-filled van mounted a brazen but unsuccessful attack on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. The attack in Syria, which borders both Iraq and Lebanon, left three of the attackers and one Syrian guard dead.

This unwelcome picture is forcing changes in America's posture across the region. Most significantly, the U.S. in midsummer abandoned a plan that Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, had crafted that would have had the U.S. withdrawing some of its forces beginning this month.

Instead, the number of American forces in Iraq is increasing. In recent weeks the U.S. has shifted thousands of troops to Baghdad as part of an effort to secure the city, which means the U.S. has had to increase the overall number of troops in Iraq. Last week, the Pentagon said there were 145,000 troops, or 18,000 more than in late July and the highest level since the start of the year.

Senior military leaders say their top priority is to ensure that Iraq doesn't become a failed state. That has caused shifts in how U.S. forces operate on the ground. In places such as Tal Afar in northern Iraq and Tarmiyah, a Sunni stronghold northeast of Baghdad, U.S. military forces are reaching out to insurgent leaders in search of some sort of compromise that would get them to participate in the political process and move away from terror groups. As a result, American officers today are negotiating with Sunni leaders who only a couple of years earlier had been in jail.

U.S. officials acknowledge their main goal in Iraq now is to prevent it from turning into a place run by fundamentalists who export terrorism to the region. The administration's public comments also have shifted markedly in tone, from stressing the benefits of a democratic Iraq to citing the threats that failure in Iraq would pose to U.S. national security.

"If we abandon the Iraqi people before their government is strong enough to secure the country," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at an American Legion convention last month, "we will leave the makings of a failed state in Iraq, like that one in Afghanistan in the 1990s, which became the base for al Qaeda and the launching pad for the Sept. 11th hijackers." She added: "And we should not assume for one minute that those terrorists will not continue to come after the American homeland."

Similar concerns are leading the West to adopt a more aggressive strategy for extending the strength and reach of Lebanon's government. After several years of a U.S. policy of benign neglect toward the country, Ms. Rice threw herself into crafting and ensuring implementation of a United Nations resolution to create a peacekeeping force that the U.S. hopes will keep Hezbollah at bay. The U.S. Treasury Department has launched an effort to shut down the flow of money to Hezbollah from Iran. And partly to try to limit Lebanese citizens' attraction to Hezbollah -- which provides extensive local social services -- the U.S. pledged millions of dollars in aid and got involved in projects to clean up oil spills and rebuild wrecked schools.

The picture in Lebanon and Afghanistan, to say nothing of Iraq, is an uncomfortable one for the Bush administration. After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush announced a far-reaching policy shift. No longer, he said, would the U.S. allow what he called failed states to be havens for terrorist groups plotting attacks outside their borders. If the countries were unwilling or unable to root out extremist groups, the president said, the U.S. would strike both the groups themselves and the governments that sheltered or tolerated them.

Now the U.S. is forced to try to keep extremists from taking deeper root in the very places it hoped would be footholds for stability -- most notably Iraq.

There, a typical battle against the resilient and elusive guerrillas began one spring night on a trash-strewn lot in Samarra. U.S. soldiers quietly surrounded the house of a suspected leader of an insurgent cell. As the advance team took down the front door and burst inside, Army Capt. Chris Brawley climbed over mounds of garbage and trained his rifle on a back alley. A shadow went flying over a narrow alleyway separating two houses, as the suspect scurried across an adjacent roof and then merged into the darkness.

The nighttime sweep did net several other suspects. Soldiers roused a man named Ayoob from his bed, stepping around the dinner leftovers of fries and sausage on the floor of his decrepit living room. A man named Mahmoud was grabbed next to a hollowed-out vehicle that looked like a car bomb in the making. Soldiers also rounded up a skinny man with a scraggly goatee who had a bag of suspicious-looking circuit-breakers stashed in his house.

Back at their base, soldiers checked the detainees' names and photos against military intelligence reports. The reports said Ayoob was reported to have received training from al Qaeda-linked groups. Mahmoud had fought the U.S. in Fallujah and now specialized in small arms and roadside bombings. The skinny man's circuit-breakers were parts for improvised explosive devices.

The emergence of this new generation of experienced militants in Iraq -- along with the critical issue of how much political violence they may carry out in neighboring countries -- is a source of deep concern for counterterrorism officials.

Until now, Iraq's violence has largely been contained within the country's borders, except for the bombings that killed 60 people in Amman, Jordan, in November. Intelligence officials worry that extremists are building a durable foothold in the vast and lawless Sunni province of Anbar, in center-west Iraq, as a future base for attacks in neighboring countries like Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

Last week, President Bush cited an al Qaeda document found in Anbar that laid out a detailed governing structure for the province. It included education, justice and social-services departments plus an "execution unit" -- responsible for "sorting out, arrest, murder, and destruction."

A senior Jordanian official says that since the Amman bombings, Jordan is bolstering its long border with Iraq with motion-detectors, cameras and other electronics. After discovering that the bombers had entered with forged Iraqi passports, Jordan instituted a two-step system for entering Iraqis: Border personnel search them, while others study their passports for evidence they were faked.

The U.S. faces a diplomatic cost as three allies in the region -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- increasingly chart their own courses because they see a possible threat to their security from extremists in Iraq. The U.S. communicated "unease" to Saudi Arabia after it announced plans for its fence, according to a U.S. official familiar with the exchange. The U.S. saw it as a slap in the face of the new Iraqi government. But the Saudis said they would press ahead.

The U.S. has renewed its push to build a force that can hold Iraq together. In the early days after the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials were hesitant to build too strong an Iraqi army. The concern was that if the army became the most powerful instrument in the country, it would dominate political affairs, and instead of a flowering democracy Iraq might begin to look like other Middle Eastern states.

Today, the U.S. military's focus is building as strong an Iraqi army as possible to impose some semblance of order. Often that means empowering Iraqi commanders who have little faith in or loyalty to the current government. At Camp Taji, a U.S.-run base in central Iraq, many senior officers in Iraq's sole armored division are Sunnis who once were officers in Saddam Hussein's military.

Many of the officers express little faith in Iraq's current Shiite-led government. Some complain openly that the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is little more than a puppet of Shiite-dominated Iran. To enlist these officers' support, U.S. commanders have used the promise of a steady paycheck, as well as appealing to their wish to stem chaos in their country.

In Lebanon, the government's inability or unwillingness to curb Hezbollah has given the group a better base from which to carry out attacks. Hezbollah has long shown a willingness, but limited ability, to attack outside the Mideast. Now, the State Department's most recent "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report says Hezbollah "has established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America and Asia." That contrasts with other militant groups in the area such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which restrict their operations to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Hezbollah's history worries terrorism experts even though its last known overseas strike was more than a decade ago. A few months ago, Argentine prosecutors announced that the deadliest act of terrorism in their country -- a 1994 suicide bombing at a Buenos Aires Jewish community center that killed 85 -- had been carried out by a Hezbollah member, Ibrahim Hussein Berro.

Israeli intelligence officials say that in 2002, representatives of Hezbollah and other Islamic fundamentalist groups met in a South American area called the tri-border region (the intersection of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay) to discuss possible strikes. "Hezbollah thinks globally, not regionally," maintains Ilan Berman, an Iran expert at the right-leaning American Foreign Policy Council.

Meanwhile, amid mounting concerns that Lebanon and Iraq are becoming terrorist havens akin to Afghanistan under the Taliban, Afghanistan itself appears to sliding back toward disarray.

U.S. and NATO commanders cite three big problems there. The Hamid Karzai government is deeply unpopular in many rural areas, seen as a U.S. puppet. Opium-poppy production is skyrocketing, with Afghanistan now supplying 92% of the world's supply of the heroin ingredient, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The biggest threat is a military one: A resurgent Taliban has triggered the heaviest fighting since the U.S. toppled the fundamentalist Islamic group's rule in 2001.

Taliban offensives have left more than 1,000 people dead in the past four months and greatly complicated reconstruction efforts. In just the past few days, a suicide bomber killed a provincial governor, and then another suicide bomber attacked at his funeral.

NATO commanders in southern Afghanistan have been surprised by both the intensity of the Taliban attacks and the tactics used. They say the Taliban have shifted from ambushes to larger-scale ground assaults, in which the militants stand and fight rather than melt back into the countryside. On Thursday, NATO's top commander, Gen. James Jones, asked the alliance's 26 member states to send more soldiers, warplanes and helicopters to reinforce the allied forces battling the Taliban.

Some veteran observers of Afghanistan are watching the violence with alarm. In 2004, Joseph Collins, who had recently left a senior Pentagon post, wrote a scholarly paper saying the U.S. was successfully blending three missions in Afghanistan: combat operations, humanitarian aid and peace-keeping work. He called it "Afghanistan: Winning the Three Block War." If he wrote it today, Mr. Collins says, "There'd be a question mark in the title, if not two or three."

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