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