November 26, 2004

Yushchenko's ailment

The Toronto Star's website inexplicably declined to post their most interesting letter to the editor from yesterday, so hopefully they won't mind me doing so here:

"Viktor Yushchenko probably has one of two possible medical conditions that would account for his rapid facial changes. The diseases are scleromyxedema or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. He needs a skin biopsy. I cannot conceive how poisoning could cause these changes."

--Howard Bargman, MD, associate professor of dermatology, University of Toronto

Um, shouldn't reporters be CALLING guys like this? Yushchenko has been proclaiming since September he's been poisoned by his enemies... either he has, and there's some fearsome new manmade or natural agent at work here, or he's getting really bad medical advice a la Arafat, or he's bordering on being a little unbalanced himself. Also, the condition has clearly worsened considerably month by month since his initial hospitalization, making one wonder if he'll even be able to take elected office in Ukraine if it's given to him.

Certainly it's a mystery... the dioxin-induced chloracne explanation certainly doesn't seem to be holding up.

PS: Excellent example of an expert stepping up to the plate on an issue of major public importance, btw. But the blogs' capability of parsing out the truth from dozens of sources, a la Rathergate, so far seems to be misfiring on this one.

Posted by BruceR at 11:21 AM

More Fallujah mail: the LT's role

More thoughts on the Fallujah killing-on-film, from regular correspondent Dave T.:

"An aspect that interests and disturbs me is the way Sites deals with the lieutenant in his account:

"'When we arrive at the front entrance, we see that another squad has already entered before us. The lieutenant asks them, "Are there people inside?" One of the Marines raises his hand signaling five. "Did you shoot them," the lieutenant asks? "Roger that, sir, " the same Marine responds. "Were they armed?" The Marine just shrugs and we all move inside.'

"It's seems an odd exchange. Then once inside, Sites tells the lieutenant that these men were the wounded from the day before. The officer goes outside to radio in a report and the now-famous event then unfolds... but even though significant time unfolds in Sites' narrative after the firing of that additional shot, the lieutenant doesn't reappear -- despite presumably being close enough to have heard the shot and be able to tell it was from inside the mosque.

"Here's an officer who established his men may have killed unarmed, wounded individuals but did not exert control on the situation (Sites doesn't indicate the lieutenant gave any instructions before leaving to radio in). And then when an additional shot rang out from where he knew his men had surviving wounded in custody, this officer apparently did not immediately come racing back in.

"I haven't been able to closely follow the U.S. public discussion of this or the other blogging, but I haven't heard this addressed -- and Sites doesn't address it in any overt way (though he seems to intentionally dangle it out there to be picked up by others).


Posted by BruceR at 10:30 AM

November 25, 2004

A couple columns worth reading from Canadian blogger-columnists

Andrew Coyne is exactly right about helmet laws. I rode a bike everywhere as a child. I wouldn't bother now. The only tangible result of this one will be fatter Canadians.

And Paul Wells' comparison of Paul Martin to James T. Kirk actually illuminated my understanding of both their characters, surprisingly. So I'm a better Canadian and a better Trek fan now.

Posted by BruceR at 01:53 PM

Response from a familiar Marine

Ex-Marine Cecil T. responds to my thoughts on the Fallujah killing, two posts below:

"While you may believe this is a clear case, I'd point out the perception that counts is primarily the individual Marine's. Judging from the video (and particularly from the tone of his voice), it's obvious he considered the man a threat. If he mistakely took the man for a shamming, injured enemy who was likely to detonate an explosive, it's a tragedy, but not a war crime. And apparently the man had a reasonable suspicion that might have been the case. The Morant analogy assumes the man's motivation was revenge, which I think faulty. Mack Owens covered it well in this article.

"However, I think you got the bottom line dead on (which nobody else seems to've noticed, but was my first impression on hearing the story): why were wounded prisoners left there in the first place? That, along with the numerous perfidious acts by insurgents, was the root cause, and ought to figure prominently in the investigation."

I would only add that the court-martial in the individual Marine's case could well turn on whether non-responsiveness to a command by a wounded and unarmed man can constitute a clear and reasonable indication of perfidy, even under Fallujah-like conditions. It will be a judicial determination worth watching.

I would also say that I'm not entirely convinced that revenge was the sole motive in the historical Morant atrocity (even if Edward Woodward's character in the movie played it so... "they MUTILATED him!" etc.), either. Morant apparently believed the power of summary execution was within his ROEs under certain circumstances, and clearly desired to deter a perfidious enemy tactic (wearing British-style uniforms) in his area of operations that was then threatening his and his men's lives. Plus he'd also just lost his dear friend to enemy perfidy. Had he lost his head when he killed his first prisoner, the wounded Boer allegedly wearing his dead friend's tunic, or was it a coldly rational act? Hard to say: the functioning of the human mind making rapid decisions in combat conditions wasn't that simple then, or now. (Morant's later prisoner-killings are obviously less defensible by any measure, including the execution of the unarmed eyewitness, Rev. Hesse... ironically the one killing for which he was acquitted, due to lack of evidence.)

Posted by BruceR at 01:21 PM

November 24, 2004

Alexander the Mysterious

David Edelstein joins with other reviewers in complaining that Oliver Stone's filmography doesn't show you how Alexander won Guagamela and his other battles:'s impossible to tell where one army is in relation to another, or just how Alexander gets the best of his impassive Persian counterpart...

I'm not surprised. The simple fact no one's really clear today on how Alexander won any of his battles. The pat answer is that it had to do with the combination of Greek spear infantry formations equipped with longer spears, similar to the pikemen of late medieval times, and the creation of the first truly Hellenic cavalry (lancers on horses), among other things. Yet historians have never really come up with a satisfactory answer on how those stirrup-less Macedonian and Thessalian cavalrymen were able to carry out the most devastating lance charges the world has ever seen, and no one's really happy with the answer on how long those infantry spears were, either. It's all just (frequently inspired) historical guesswork, based on next-to-zero useful historical and anthropological data (you could charitably describe it as five secondary sources from Roman times -- Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Curtius, Justin -- and some coins). I personally favour Delbruck's theories on Alexander's victories as sounding closest to the truth in most cases, but every model the historians have come up with has its own holes.

Could be worse. Don't get me started on Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Their doctrine and tactics are even more of a mystery. The simple fact is from a military point of view we know more about Egypt or Assyria or even Mycenae, hundreds of years farther back in the past, than we know for sure about Hannibal's Carthage. Alexander's Macedon is just slightly above that.

UPDATE: Note how Fox, a superb writer whose book seems to have been the basis for the screenplay on this movie, even seems to have his ideas about the Macedonian cavalry, as authoritative as anyone's, challenged by his own movie extra experiences. I skimmed his tome again today, and he never seriously challenges the Roman historians' estimates of the Persian army on the tiny battlefield of Guagamela (near Mosul) as numbering five times Alexanders'; a quarter-million men or more (although he does give himself a fudge factor, saying little about the battle can be known for sure).

(Oddly, he also seems to subcribe to the classical legend that the elite "silver shields" (argyraspids) of the Diadochi wars were the same guys -- not just the same unit, the same actual GUYS -- who had fought as hypaspists in Alexander's battles 40 or 50 years previously... making them a battle formation of sexagenarians. Sort of the "Space Cowboys" of classical lore.)

Delbruck (rightly, I believe) dismissed the vast numbers of Persians in this and many other Greek battle accounts as a fantasy, pointing out that the Greek authors split evenly on whether Persian soldiers were better individual fighters, or more numerous... if they were both, one presumes they could not have been consistently defeatable by any Greeks who felt like dropping in on them for over 150 years.

For the best modern scholarship on Alexander, one should weigh Fox in with N.G.L. Hammond, A.M. Devine and A.B. Bosworth, with Delbruck as your gross error detector. The truth's somewhere in between the five of them.

PS: So, how many Persians at Guagamela? Best back-of-envelope guess: 65,000, +/-15,000. (Alexander, it's reasonably certain, had 47,000). Still the largest army by far anyone who witnessed it had ever seen, but any number larger than that is the usual classical hyperbole.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM

November 22, 2004

I'm sorry, I don't see the issue

The Marine killing in Fallujah was pretty cut-and-dried even before the cameraman who caught the now infamous footage provided his play-by-play. Five wounded enemy combatants had been left in a captured mosque the day before, without their weapons, and the next day another group of Marines passing by killed four of them. The last man killed was clearly hors de combat under Geneva, and while there will certainly be no end of arguments of extenuating circumstances, there can be no doubt the underlying act caught on tape was therefore unlawful, under the military justice of any Western nation. It's just an updated version of the Breaker Morant case (with the exception that the modern day Morant didn't also kill the civilian cameraman witness, as Morant's men did). The Geneva hors de combat provision is very simple: if you have a weapon trained on an unarmed, wounded man, and he's doing nothing hostile, you cannot shoot him. Period. It's not a hard rule to understand, even if following it does require summoning up some basic human morality under combat stressors.

So I fail to understand why the legal minds with blogs are focussing their arguments on another, hypothetical case, where some enemy combatants are killed the moment they were wounded/dropped their weapons. There is exactly zero evidence to this point that the dead Iraqis in the current example were doing anything but lie and wait for their deaths. Volokh with his "...though he had been fighting minutes ago..." and Phil Carter with "Killing the insurgent in a split second because it was instinctual" seem to be discussing an entirely different battle altogether. Their military-serving hypotheticals are simply not the situation in the news at the moment.

PS: For the record, I agree with most Australians that Morant and Handcock's 1902 executions were an excessive punishment for the crime in question, given the men's record of bravery, and the preferential treatment given the British soldiers involved in the incident. I don't think Morant should have been acquitted entirely either, though.

UPDATE: To clarify, I agree the issue of the Fallujah killing caught on tape does need to be resolved via military justice, and there is every indication that is what is being done. The cameraman's account is further evidence that the Marine superiors have recognized their responsibility in this case, and are investigating the situation appropriately. The cameraman's actions throughout are also commendable.

The basic narrative seems to be that tankers perceived they were under fire, then believed they had located either fire or possibly movement of individuals in the previously cleared mosque and opened up with machine guns. It's conceivable there could have been a fighter firing from there, who then escaped with his weapon, but more likely that the tankers were simply mistaken about the location or even existence of any enemy fire (their situational awareness from within their armoured shells is notoriously poor in urban environments; you hear a ping on the armour, then you look around for movement... it's entirely possible one of the wounded men showing a face at a window was sufficient for these first Americans to open fire). Marines closed on the objective from two directions to re-secure the building, and may themselves have instinctively waxed some of the wounded men on entry. The final killing, after the building was secure and the tape was rolling, was at once militarily unnecessary, unlawful, and understandable.

Any investigation of Geneva violations should not focus on that one soldier, but also on the decision by someone higher to leave non-ambulatory wounded enemy in an unmarked building overnight after the first emergency care. While it's entirely possible there was no other option, the abandonment of enemy wounded prisoners in that situation was not only the precipitating act, but also a potential Geneva infraction.

Posted by BruceR at 07:11 PM

November 11, 2004

Intelligence problems in Iraq

Matthew Yglesias and Jim Henley are talking about intelligence problems in Iraq. I don't mean to harp on this, but there's some interesting information, yet again, in those two French journalist interviews with, you know, actual insurgents.

The Nouvel Observateur piece, interviewing "Ahmed," one of the two fellows who actually fired a missile at that DHL cargo jet, identifies him as someone the Americans thought was collaborating with them (ie, passing intelligence), having overlooked his possession of a small arsenal postwar because they believed he had been turned:

"'Ahmed,' 23, the younger brother of the owner of the place, accomodates his brother-in-arms in a small prayer room. A few months previously, the American army had imprisoned him along with his three brothers when one of his neighbours turned them in for a $600 reward. In the farm, the coalition soldiers had found 21 bombs and as many RPG's. Since then the weapons have been buried in a safer place. The family was released after promising to collaborate with the American army."

The guerilla quartermaster Abou Abdallah, the fellow who drove through Al QaQaa seven months after the fall of Baghdad, still unguarded, to pick up a cup or two of high explosive, also admitted he was doing some contract work for the Americans on the side, and en route was able to josh his way through a roving checkpoint, even with a French journalist and a bunch of other insurgents IN HIS CAR.

In the Paris-Match interview, an anonymous guerrilla leader tells of another member of their same group escaping interrogation:

"One of our people was stopped because he was carrying a gun with a silencer. He was imprisoned for 19 days. One morning, an American interrogator came to question him. This officer did not even know why he had been stopped. Our friend said to him that he missed his wife and children, and he didn't know he was in prison, either. The interrogator released him. The Americans do not know anything. They do not even keep files on people."

"Humint" is hard work, and there have been some great successes by the American military, as well. But if American bloggers were reading the French media, they might not be so surprised at the knowledge gap.

(Following that first year in Iraq, American military intelligence also took a serious look at itself... it found too few patrols were bringing back usable intelligence, and trained intelligence staff were generally being wasted tagging along on raids as rank-and-file door kickers, rather than doing actual analysis work. The Hussein capture on the other hand, a huge success for combat intelligence methods, had much to do with the way the 4th Infantry Division that succeeded in it kept a core of intelligence operators, a "fusion cell," working the problem at a high level, with a brigade's worth of available resources directed at supporting them. You get that kind of thing working and working right, it's like the freaking Eye of Sauron. But even in the resource-rich American military, those favourable conditions are rare... rarer still for other nations.)

Posted by BruceR at 12:35 PM

November 08, 2004

A plea

Dear Chinese government investors:

If you could please keep the American dollar in freefall until after Christmas, so we can use that ludicrously favourable exchange rate to finish stocking up on electronics and computer supplies, and maybe get in a trip to Florida or California or somewhere, we'd really appreciate it up here. Re-electing Bush is really helping us stretch the kids' toy budget out farther than it's used to, and we'd really like to keep a good thing going.

Thanks for listening,


Posted by BruceR at 07:01 PM

More on SAMs and Iraq

Paul Glastris comments on a NYT piece on the 4,000 unaccounted-for SAMs in post-invasion Iraq.

As it turns out, the failed attack on the DHL cargo aircraft in Baghdad did turn out to be one of the most documented surface-to-air missile attacks in history, thanks in part to some French journalists travelling with the insurgents. The Nouvel Observateur piece we translated last week (the same one that describes a guerilla venture into an unguarded Al QaQaa in November, 2003 to pick up more explosive) makes reference to "'Sardar', a Kurdish missile specialist in Saddam's army" who trained the local guerillas in shoulder-launched missiles. According to the Paris-Match interview with the same group, they had recovered "28 missiles from 2 dumps," and successfully launched 23, with 4 technical failures, with only the near miss on the DHL plane to show for it.

The DHL attack itself, no offense to "Sardar," was itself technically inept, firing from a high-deflection location at the very edge of missile range, that would have been almost beyond the capability of a SA-7, and only marginal for a SA-14.

As I said at the time, the missile itself seems to have missed the plane entirely, with the proximity fuze detonating the small warhead as it passed under the far wing. If the resulting shrapnel hadn't set the wing fuel tank on fire, rapidly burning through the wing structure, the aircrew might have retained full control of the aircraft. Current plans to render future aircraft gas tanks more inert to fire by pumping in nitrogen in place of air would also have saved this Airbus from all but minor damage, an idea considerably less costly than specific anti-missile countermeasures, and making the plane safer in other kinds of potential disaster scenarios as well. (Most military aircraft already have this safety measure, while civilian aircraft do not.)

The evidence so far shows that large multi-engine aircraft, if not attacked right at the zero margin-of-error point of wheels-still-down takeoff itself, have historically been almost immune to attack by small shoulder-launched missiles. A four-engined jet has never been successfully brought down by one, and the survival rates for twin- and tri-jets, even with a confirmed strike, are pretty impressive. The 4,000 missing missiles are far more a threat to American helicopters in Iraq (against which they have proven relatively effective) than they are to commercial airliners worldwide. That doesn't excuse losing them in the first place, of course.

As a side note, one of the two examples of an airliner being shot down by a shoulder-fired missile is the Lubango Boeing 737 crash in 1983, which was never being conclusively established as being missile-based. In that crash, the 737 had only reached 200 feet before suddenly tipping hard to the left, with its wingtip impacting the ground 800m past the runway. The plane was completely destroyed. The local UNITA rebels claimed responsibility, but there has never been any conclusive evidence that one of their missiles actually hit the plane, or even that a missile was fired at all. (They would have had to have launched practically from the tarmac to hit the plane that early in takeoff.) My complete listing of civilian aircraft brought down by ground fire is here.

Posted by BruceR at 01:59 PM

Geneva and civilian hospitals

The storming and destruction of the Fallujah hospitals raises the interesting question: "don't the Geneva Conventions protect civilian hospitals?"

In fact, they didn't historically, until the 1949 (Fourth) Geneva Convention, which states (Art. 18): "Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict." Both the United States and Iraq ratified Fourth Geneva in the 1950s.

During the brief initial fighting last April, moreover, many people specifically criticized the Saddam regime for not respecting the sanctity of hospitals, and thereby violating Geneva.

I have no doubt the DOD legal team has come up with the reasons for making exceptions to this rule, and that they're as sound as, say, their rather original readings of the Geneva articles related to prisoners of war, but I'm still going to be interested to read the rationale when it's issued. Links appreciated.

Posted by BruceR at 09:40 AM

November 04, 2004

Nouvel Observateur article confirms Al QaQaa unguarded in November

Well, I've read Sara Daniel's original piece for the French magazine La Nouvel Observateur, which ran in November, 2003. I've translated it here. It repeats her claim in the magazine this week that she spent time with a guerrilla group, the one responsible among other attacks for the SAM attack on the DHL Airbus last November, and that it was still using the Al QaQaa munitions dump to supply itself with TNT that month, seven months after the fall of Baghdad, and that the depot was effectively unguarded when she drove on to it and wandered around in broad daylight along with the guerrillas. Daniel's website has a photo from the dump apparently taken Nov. 6, 2003.

The rest of the interview with "Abou Abdallah," the guerrilla leader, is interesting in its own right, specifically on how the guerrillas were organizing themselves a year ago (at the doors of mosques), and how he and others specifically disavowed either loyalty to Saddam (then still at large), suicide bombing, or foreign Muslim influences. It's well-read in company with the contemporaneous Paris-Match interview, apparently with a leader of this same group of insurgents ("Abou Abdallah" again?). One thing you can say for sure... a year ago, the French periodical industry seems to have had a much better human intelligence penetration into the Iraqi resistance than the Americans did.

Interesting note: apparently on the same roll from Nov. 6 is Daniel's photo of two men holding surface-to-air missiles, a SA-7 and a SA-14. This pretty much confirms these are the same guys as in the Paris-Match piece, who also had one of each when they attacked the cargo plane leaving Baghdad Airport (and the same grungy white car, for that matter). Not publicity-shy, these ones.

UPDATE: A couple other thoughts this morning:

1) I never understood the hawk objection to this story, that it was only 200-plus tons of IAEA-sealed material at Al Qa Qaa. As you can see by aerial photographs, the IAEA-sealed bunkers comprised at most 10 per cent of the facility, and the agency's manifests show those bunkers as being far from full. Plus it was known to be one of the 80 or so largest weapons caches in Iraq, which supposedly had 400,000 tonnes of ammunition. Even the most conservative estimate of munitions at Al QaQaa then at the end of the war would be 2,000 tonnes, including the IAEA-sealed stuff... probably MUCH more. That's why the Pentagon briefing with the ordnance officer who cleared out the "easily accessible" 200 tonnes was so meaningless. At absolute most it was a tenth of what was there.

2) The two French interviews both also put paid to the idea that terrorists couldn't use anything but "blocks of C-4." Both interviews make reference to mixing their own explosives from the powdered explosives they had looted. (Compared to extracting HE from artillery shells, it's much safer, in fact.)

3) Here's a thought... the American major said he cleaned up all the easily accessible stuff, on the ground and in the bunkers; the subsequent pictures, including Daniel's from November, 2003, show ordnance all over the ground. Isn't that itself an indication of uncontrolled looting?

4) Daniel's article directly contradicts the Pentagon talking points on this, that the facility was "looted and stripped and vandalized" within 4 weeks of the fall of Baghdad. But Daniel's guerrillas were allegedly still going back to pick up extra High Explosive in November, rather than taking the risk of being caught with it elsewhere... therefore, it can hardly have been "stripped." The Pentagon line indicates that things happened too fast (the whole "catastrophic success" thing), but Daniel's story suggests the Americans could have still taken some corrective action any time through the summer and early fall and still kept some explosive out of the hands of guerrillas keen to use it.

Posted by BruceR at 01:37 AM

November 03, 2004

French reporter's Al QaQaa story translated

The Nouvel Observateur story of a reporter's trip to the Al QaQaa facility with some Iraqi guerrillas is out. It's not much of a barnburner, compared to the previous Paris-Match interview, apparently with the same publicity-friendly insurgent group. Still, it's worth a read. French journalist Sara Daniel claims she accompanied guerrilla leader Abou Abdallah to pick up some explosives he needed from an unguarded Al QaQaa in November, 2003. Translation follows:

Iraq: The explosives dump had been plundered for at least a year
by Sara Daniel

"It is a city of explosives: the paradise of the insurrectionists. The Al Qaqaa site where 350 tonnes of explosives disappeared from, according to the IAEA, was used a long time after the fall of the regime to supply groups of Iraqi insurrectionists. When I wrote about guerrilla cells in the Lattifiya area in November 2003, I had accompanied the group which a few days later, after our visit to Al Qaqaa, would make the attack against a DHL cargo plane. Abou Abdallah and his comrades in arms were still using the place, to cache their TNT and explosives. The spectacle offered by this city of bombs, a terrorist's Ali Baba's cave that extended for tens of kilometers, was amazing.

"To get there, the group that attacked the plane kept to side roads, the small unpaved ways that the American soldiers do not use because they are too risky. They said that they had moved out weapons and stocks of TNT by the truckload right after the fall of the regime, thinking that the Americans would seize this cache of weapons before long. They had shown us that arsenal: rocket launchers, grenades, and helicopter missiles, arranged and buried in yellow zucchini fields.

"But they had soon realized that a whole army would be needed for the Americans to guard the old Al QaQaa weapons factory . Then they did not take the trouble anymore of burying TNT in their farm fields. The earth-covered hangars themselves, vast vaults of explosives, contain all they need. The Abou Abdallah group told me they had already used the invaluable red powder inside [high explosive] to attack a convoy on the road between Al Asoua and the Bassora motorway.

"As the guerrillas' car moved towards the ammunition dump of Al Qaqaa, it had been intercepted by an American patrol. On a tank, a young male soldier had pointed his automatic weapon on the group. Abdallah, smiling as he got out of the car, joked in Arabic with the American soldier of Jordanian origin who interrogated them. After three minutes, he had let them go. When we arrived at the factory, nobody prevented us from entering.

"The few Iraqi armed guards we saw did not even ask what we were doing there. Stunned by the ease of it all, we were able to wander around this city of bombs, shells and explosives. All the military history of Iraq lay before us. After the fall of the regime, many looters had descended to grab the shells which strewed the ground. It was impossible to understand why the place had not been guarded better. The following day at one of the welcome parties thrown by an American agency at the Palace, I asked one of the generals in charge of creating the new Iraqi army why Al Qaqaa was not supervised more. He had never heard about one of the largest explosives and bombs factories in the Middle East..."

Daniel first described her Al QaQaa adventure in a longer piece, published November, 2003. Translation of that piece to follow shortly.

Posted by BruceR at 03:50 PM

Things to take pride in

Hamid Karzai was officially declared the winner of his election this morning, as well. Canadian military efforts have played their small part in helping keep the Kabul area calm this last 18 months or so: we should take pride that we helped a country that once seemed unfixable find a couple years of peace and relative tolerance to rebuild itself.

Posted by BruceR at 01:33 PM

Just call me Mr. Cassandra

As a pessimist, I am frequently right. I hate that.

"The more I find out about Clarkdeankerry, the more I recall steadfast democrat Tom Binkley from Bloom County, fetal on his bed because he secretly thinks Jesse Jackson is "a little loopy..." Ex-Canadian Samantha Bee had a nice piece on the Daily Show last night comparing them all to fringe presidential candidate "Lobsterman." Viewing the candidates sans the still-opaque-to-me Edwards from afar, I'd vote for the lobster... American Democrats! Trust the two Canadians on this one! If anyone knows squishy-centrist leftism, it's us! We've built a whole country on the notion!"
--Flit, Jan. 20

"Kerry and Clark are in their own ways, versions of the McClellanist strategy. And as in 1864, running a war hero with obvious human flaws, against a wartime president who, if not winning the current war, is not obviously losing it either, is almost certainly a losing political strategy."
--Flit, Jan. 22

"I personally think Sen. Kerry will be a disaster for the Democrats."
--Flit, Feb. 12

Posted by BruceR at 10:29 AM

November 01, 2004

Fallujah thoughts

Stunning interview of Fallujah refugees from Riverbend. Consider the source, of course, but her account of fleeing civilians essentially trapped inside Fallujah by an American cordon is worth reading in company with Prof. Reynolds' dismissive, "there aren't that many civilians left in Fallujah at this point."

I'm actually thinking all bloggers should list their provable/unprovable predictions on one page, so that people can judge our batting averages. But in lieu of that, here's my latest: Zarqawi will not be killed or captured before the Iraqi election. He's the Emmanuel Goldstein of 2004, and the American track record on these things is not good.

Posted by BruceR at 08:14 PM

Reporter: I rode with Al QaQaa looters

This should be an interesting article when it comes out:

"A French journalist who visited the Qaqaa munitions depot south of Baghdad in November last year said she witnessed Islamic insurgents looting vast supplies of explosives more than six months after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime. The account of Sara Daniel... will be published Wednesday in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur..."

Daniel allegedly claims the leader of the looters, "Abu Abdallah," is the same fellow who Paris-Match interviewed a year ago following his surface-to-air missile attack on a cargo plane -- an interview that was first translated into English here on Flit. In that interview, the unidentified insurgent leader claimed to have cached away two tons of high explosive that had been looted from unguarded dumps.

Posted by BruceR at 07:32 PM

Couple problems with Hitchens OBL piece

After crediting it two posts below, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Christopher Hitchens plays fast and loose with his sourcing in his piece on the Bin Laden videotape:

"But there are some not-so-cryptic elements in the latest sermon that have escaped attention. First, the open--and repeated--endorsement of collusion with Saddamists. This is stated twice. It is no less suggestive for being coupled with forceful attacks on the 'infidel' ideology of 'the socialists.' Notwithstanding their deformities, says Bin Laden, 'there will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interest of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders.' This will not, of course, embarrass those who continue to believe that cooperation between 'secular' Baathists and Islamists is improbable by definition. Nothing embarrasses such ideologues; neither the invocation of jihad by Saddamists nor the solidarity with embattled Baathists expressed by Bin Laden.

"Then there is the prospective list of countries to be liberated by holy war. In the order given, these are "Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen..."

As anyone looking in Google can quickly confirm for themselves, both quotes Hitchens cites are actually from a February, 2003 audiotape attributed to Bin Laden, not the current video. Bin Laden saying just before Iraq was invaded that his followers should have no doubt which side he would prefer to win is vastly different from him collaborating with "dead-enders" today, or them with him, which is what Hitchens is claiming. Maybe he was looking at the wrong transcript...

And despite it spreading all over the blogsphere this morning, there is no reference in the full transcript to Bin Laden "bemoan[ing] the recent democratic elections in Afghanistan and the lack of violence involved with it." Someone seems to have just pulled that out of his ass. Doesn't stop some people from repeating it, uncorrected, though.

UPDATE: LGF has yet to correct the entry above, and now they have a full one with a link to the Bin Laden transcript saying Bin Laden "acknowledge[s] Al Qaeda has been damaged." Needless to say, Bin Laden says no such thing. (The only negative reference, to "15,000 [Muslims] killed" is almost certainly to Iraqi civilians killed, and is probably derived from well-publicized Iraq Body Count numbers.)

Posted by BruceR at 03:17 PM

OBL video: last thoughts

One more thing: notice how little Bin Laden talks about Iraq? No props to the "hardy defenders of Fallujah," nothing. If Al Qaeda had had any role in that city's previous and ongoing defence, he would have said more, one suspects. He does refer to Hussein as "an old agent" of the United States, and Allawi as their "new puppet," and derides the American fixation with the country, but says nothing to indicate he feels it is ground vital to his struggle at the moment. Could it not be he thinks everything's going his way there?

PS: Daniel Benjamin, in an otherwise sound analysis, writes: "As October surprises go, Osama Bin Laden's video appearance must rank as the least surprising one imaginable. With the world riveted by the American presidential election, Bin Laden was sure to grab the spotlight to remind us what a pivotal figure he is on the global stage." Nice to have the benefit of hindsight there, and the accompanying sure knowledge the man was still alive, but I still count myself a little surprised that the Al Qaeda leader would have the message discipline to keep himself out of sight until absolutely the best moment. Three years of patient hiding from the hyperpower, followed by a revelation at a time of your own choosing, is still a remarkable PR coup, and will almost certainly have the desired effect... the further elevation of Bin Laden to the status of a modern hero of the anti-Western Islamic world.

ONE LAST THING: Yes, it's true that Bin Laden does not talk about easy victories over the Americans in this videotape. Really, how could he? Instead, he is framing the current situation for his followers (many of whom no doubt remember the last one) as another war of attrition, as it was for them against the Former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Given that at this stage in their war, the Soviets had lost roughly 2,500 men, and the Americans, with their far superior technology and training, are nearing 1,200 in Iraq alone, it's not so far-fetched. Bin Laden's saying it's drip, drip, drip, again, boys, but time is on their side.

There is no doubt he miscalculated the American response in Afghanistan in late 2001. Duh. Before the fall of Kabul, he thought Americans would be easier than the Soviets to run off. Now he's conceding they are not. If someone wants to take solace from his implicit acknowledgement of that reality, well, good for them... but it doesn't mean he now doubts his eventual victory, or even that he doesn't think the current Iraq war is proving a great blessing to his cause.

ONE VERY LAST THING: Interesting that Bin Laden makes no proud reference to the other terror attacks since Sept. 11, isn't it? He mentions the African bombings, the Cole, and Sept. 11, but not Madrid or Istanbul, or Bali. Why would he not take equal pride in those?

Posted by BruceR at 02:58 PM

The OBL tape: the usual suspects get it wrong, again

Wow. The wrong-headed reactions across jingopunditry to the Osama videotape Friday show the degree to which the American pro-war right has failed to learn anything at all.

The exception, as in so many things, is Chris Hitchens, who nails it: "Yet in every report that I read, including in serious newspapers, the entire emphasis was on the possible effect of this ranting tape on tomorrow's election. Parochialism like this, which is present in both parties, causes one to moan and whimper."

Bin Laden's primary audience is, and always has been, the more extreme members of the Muslim ummah. Any influence he has on American domestic politics is a secondary effect for him. I'm not convinced he cares that much who wins this U.S. election, in fact. (He obviously thinks the election of a second President Bush was a sign of impending autocracy, but then again so does Eminem.) The exception to that would be the "each/any U.S. state" line, where I have no authority to challenge the MEMRI translation. (If it's really better translated as "each," instead of "any," then that would constitute a direct threat of violence to American Republican voters, but I'm skeptical.)

(The most remarkable line for me was the direct appeal to ROBERT FISK to pick up the phone and give him a call: "The latter [Fisk] is one of your compatriots and co-religionists and I consider him to be neutral. So are the pretenders of freedom at The White House and the channels controlled by them able to run an interview with him? So that he may relay to the American people what he has understood from us to be the reasons for our fight against you?")

But please get one thing straight. This is not a call to a status quo, uti possidetis, truce. And it is not a significant change in tone or context from any of Bin Laden's previous statements. "Get off Muslim lands," he's saying, "and this war will end." He said it in 2001, 2002, and again in 2004. The only question has always been whether those forbidden lands included previous Muslim possessions (such as Spain), ie, whether it was an expansionist Islamic Caliphate Bin Laden had in mind in the extreme long-term... he has always been cryptic on that issue (unlike some of his followers), probably purposely.

No, Bin Laden is still as sane as ever. He is not, as much as Bush would like to think, "a madman." He's not a "deranged killer," either. To interpret this as a call to truce is naively optimistic. I'm sticking by my earlier prediction that another attempted mass-casualty event is likely sometime between November and January, to stimulate another American over-response post-inauguration. (On the other hand, if there's no significant attempt within the first couple months of the new presidency, I would have to agree that Bin Laden is losing whatever power to control world events he once may have had.)

The best reason to believe this message is election-independent, more than the content, is that Bin Laden does not have total control over the timing of his distribution mechanism for his messages. He certainly composed it some days or weeks ago, and he could not have counted on it airing before election day the way it did. The point of this was to say, to adherents but also the broader world, "regardless of who wins on Tuesday, we are still here, and our demands have not changed... an end to Israel, to Western-backed Arab autocracies, and a U.S. military presence on 'Muslim lands.'"

Only someone lost in a fog of their own wishful thinking could interpret a call to "leave us alone and we'll leave you alone" as a truce request. "Leaving them alone" for the United States would mean a complete withdrawal from Iraq, a withdrawal from the rest of the Middle East, and an end to military aid to Israel, for starters. That would be a huge American geopolitical retreat. But that's what he called for all along, and that's what he's still calling for now. Does anyone really think he's the kind of guy who would an offer to swap countries like some teenaged Axis&Allies player in a rec room? (Okay, you get to keep Iraq, but only if you stay out of Yemen.)


Belmont Club: "He has stopped talking about the restoration of the Global Caliphate. There is no more mention of the return of Andalusia. There is no more anticipation that Islam will sweep the world." (Bin Laden never personally said any such thing, that I've been able to read. He's not some cartoon supervillain in his secret island lair, and has never sounded like one, either.)

Sensing: "The Islamist triumphalism is absent." What Bin Laden actually said on the tape: "So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah."

Says MEMRI: "For the followers of the Al-Qa'ida ideology, this speech sends a regressive and defeatist message of surrender..." Surrender? Really? They really think that? What Bin Laden actually said: "And even more dangerous and bitter for America is that the Mujahideen recently forced Bush to resort to emergency funds to continue the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan -- with Allah's permission." If he's forsaking classical allusions (and he still makes several), couldn't it just be because he thinks the current news from Iraq is vivid enough in his followers' minds that he doesn't need to?

It's blinkered analysis, and to believe in it overmuch can only contribute to the West being more unprepared for what's to come next.

Yglesias, on the other hand, has the tone exactly right. He's laughing at us. Shouting "He sounds like Michael Moore!" (the number one sign a blog-commentator has nothing informed or original to say about this tape) doesn't change that.

UPDATE: Dan Darling: "My guess would be that he [Bin Laden] is attempting to tap into the pro-democracy impulses that have rocked many quarters of the Arab world over the course of the last year as part of a bid to position himself as their champion before the US has the opportunity to do so..."

"Opportunity to do so?" Opportunity! Jeez Louise. What the f--k does Dan think America is waiting for, before finally getting around to that democracy-promotion thing? Has he looked at how much American aid goes to the Mubarak regime? (Hint: nearly as much as to Israel.) Unless you grasp that America has exactly zero national interest in fostering democratic participation anywhere in the autocratic Middle East, you really have no idea what's going on.

Darling again: "I very much doubt he cares all that much about the state of American civil liberties after 9/11 or voting procedures in Florida, but he's repeating them because he knows enough about the US to know that these are lightning rod issues that divide many of us as Americans."

No, he's repeating them because he knows his primary audience (Arab Muslims) knows enough about the US to feel contempt for Americans on exactly these grounds. Darling naively asks, "Has Fahrenheit 9/11 screened in Pakistan yet?" Of course it has, and it did boffo. People in the Arab world may generally hate America and Americans, but their hatred is not without reference points. They know what the Patriot Act is. But to realize this, you have to stop thinking it's always all about YOU.

Oh, and by the way, the fact that not one among the jingopundits picked up the Fisk reference and harped on it somehow kind of shows none of them actually read the full transcript before spouting, doesn't it?

Posted by BruceR at 11:49 AM