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Archive for the 'Security Studies' Category

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy by Paul Pillar Reviewed in the New York Times

Paul Pillar

Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Thomas Powers calls Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, by Paul Pillar, a “rich, useful and important book.”

Paul Pillar’s examination of the politicization of intelligence, particularly by the Bush administration during the lead up to the war with Iraq offers several disquieting revelations. While Powers acknowledges that there might be some who criticize the book for being “a special pleading of an insider.” Power continues:

But [Pillar] is a lucid writer drawing on long experience and wide reading. At stake is our ability as a nation to think clearly about what intelligence services can do and for whom they should do it. Standing in the way of getting this straight has been deep public reluctance to recognize two facts — the Bush administration’s role in turning a blind eye to the dangers of terrorist attack before 9/11, and its determination to whip up fears of Iraqi W.M.D.’s, which allowed the president to send an American army into the heart of the Middle East.


Friday, September 16th, 2011

Paul Pillar on Iran

Paul Pillar

Paul Pillar’s recently published Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform explores some of the missteps in reorganizing intelligence in the wake of al-Qaeda attacks. One of the most crucial challenges facing U.S. intelligence and foreign policy today is, of course, Iran and its nuclear program.

As Paul Pillar has argued that Western intelligence cannot detect a decision that hasn’t been made about Iran’s nuclear program and cannot be completely relied upon. He writes in a recent post for The National Interest that the United States should seriously consider Iran’s offer to allow nuclear inspectors of its activities. Pillar argues:

It would be a mistake to respond as Americans have too often responded, which is to assume the worst about the intentions on the other side and to act in a way that would make sense only if that assumption were true, even though we don’t know it to be true. It would make far more sense to act with the realization that as far as we know the Iranian statement could be anything from a major breakthrough to a phony bit of rhetoric. The only way to find out is to explore the unexplored road and talk with the Iranians about it. If the favorable possibility turns out to be true, talking could be the first step toward a comprehensive safeguards agreement. If the unfavorable possibility turns out to be true, little or nothing is lost; in fact the Western case for pressuring Iran would be strengthened by demonstrating that the West is willing to go the extra mile.

Paul Pillar also recently participated at a public briefing at the Atlantic Council, in which they discussed a recent report they issued, How Reliable is Intelligence on Iran’s Nuclear Program? You can read a summary or listen to the panel discussion here.

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Paull Pillar on the Legacy of Propaganda and the Iraq War

Paul Pillar

“When an administration sets out to manipulate truth and falsehood as shamelessly as the promoters of the Iraq War did, the damage is not limited only to adoption of whatever policies the manipulators are promoting. The substantial lingering misconceptions among the public make for broader damage. The persistent mistaken beliefs among more than a third of Americans about Iraq and al-Qaeda greatly inhibit public understanding about terrorism, about the Middle East, and about how their own government has operated.” — Paul Pillar

In The Iraq War and the Power of Propaganda a recent post on his blog for The National Interest, Paul Pillar reminds readers of how the administration of George W. Bush manipulated intelligence to sell the idea of an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda. As Pillar writes, “The postulation of such an alliance also contradicted judgments of the U.S. intelligence community and other experts inside and outside government.” Pillar goes on to explain that “The belief was cultivated by repeatedly uttering ‘Iraq,’ ’9/11′ and ‘war on terror’ in the same breath. The cultivation was so successful that by the peak of the war-promoters’ sales campaign in late 2002 a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein not only was allied with al-Qaeda but also had been directly involved in the 9/11 attack.”

The falsity of the Bush administrations claims are now widely acknowledged but as Paul Pillar demonstrates, a recent poll indicates that, remarkably, a significant minority continues to believe that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had a role in the September 11 attacks. In the conclusion to his post, Pillar explores some of the implications of the continued success of the Bush administration’s “sales campaign” for the war in Iraq:

A couple of implications follow about the present. One is that when an administration sets out to manipulate truth and falsehood as shamelessly as the promoters of the Iraq War did, the damage is not limited only to adoption of whatever policies the manipulators are promoting. The substantial lingering misconceptions among the public make for broader damage. The persistent mistaken beliefs among more than a third of Americans about Iraq and al-Qaeda greatly inhibit public understanding about terrorism, about the Middle East, and about how their own government has operated.

The second implication is that the government of the day, if applying enough single-minded determination, has tremendous power to sway the populace and generate support for new initiatives. This power could be used for good and not only for ill. Just imagine, for example, if the kind of concerted sales campaign that made it possible to do something as extraordinary as launching a major offensive war were to be applied to an all-out U.S. effort to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an effort still would run up against resistance from a strong lobby, but unlike with the Iraq War, selling the effort would not require manufacturing any issues or manipulating any falsehoods. Lack of resolution of the conflict really does hurt U.S. interests, and one could explain that while sticking totally to the truth.

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Paul Pillar Challenges Conventional Wisdom on Intelligence Failures

Paul Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy

As mentioned in previous posts, in his new book Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, Paul Pillar confronts the intelligence myths Americans have come to rely on to explain national tragedies, including the belief that intelligence drives major national security decisions and can be fixed to avoid future failures. Pillar believes these assumptions waste critical resources and create harmful policies, diverting attention away from smarter reform, and they keep Americans from recognizing the limits of obtainable knowledge.

In the introduction to the book Pillar highlights several misconceptions about intelligence, replacing them with realities that are contrary to broadly held beliefs:

* Despite intense attention to an infamous intelligence estimate in 2002 on Iraqi unconventional weapons, most prewar intelligence analysis on Iraq was good, especially regarding the prospective consequences of the war. The policy implication of the intelligence community’s work on Iraq was to avoid the war, not to launch it.

* Despite near-universal acceptance of the 2004 report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission) as thorough and careful, the commission misrepresented much of the intelligence community’s pre-9/11 strategic work on terrorism and never mentioned large portions of it. This misrepresentation and elision distorted a record in which the intelligence community successfully identified and described the threat from al-Qaida and imparted that threat to policymakers.

* Notwithstanding some instances (such as with terrorism) of intelligence enlightening policy, the overall influence—for good or for ill—of intelligence on major decisions and departures in U.S. foreign policy has been negligible. Most notorious intelligence failures have similarly had almost no effect on U.S. policy or U.S. interests.


Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Paul Pillar on the Dark Side

Paul PillarIn 2006, Paul Pillar, author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, appeared on the Frontline documentary The Dark Side, which examined how then-Vice President Richard Cheney pushed to expand executive power, transform America’s intelligence agencies and bring the war on terror to Iraq.

In an extended interview posted on the Frontline site, Pillar discusses the problem of politicizing intelligence; the tntelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war; the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate; and politics at the CIA. Pllar also shares his thoughts on renditions and torture.

In the following exchange, Pillar discusses changes at the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11:

What did you think would happen with the agency after 9/11 happened?

Paul Pillar: That there would be a major increase in resources devoted specifically to counterterrorism. That’s the natural reaction to any kind of disaster. But other than that, it’s not a matter of something happening to the agency. The basic mission would stay the same. … What changed drastically overnight was, of course, the policy priority and the public concern.

Did you feel the agency was at all responsible for it?

Paul Pillar: No, no. The lack of tactical information is in large part a reflection of the target itself: small groups, highly secretive, very conscious of operational security, extremely difficult to penetrate. With hindsight, there are some miscues we’re all aware of in terms of tardiness, of people being placed on watch lists, that sort of thing. How much difference would that have made historically? That’s a matter of hypothetical alternative scenarios. But in terms of strategic understanding and strategic warning, it’s hard to get more explicit than [what] the head of the intelligence community was even speaking [about] just publicly, let alone in a classified forum to Congress and to the administration leaders.

And when the critics, the vice president included, say, “Where was the human intelligence?” …

Paul Pillar: There is always no substitute for the well-placed human source when it comes to counterterrorism; there’s also nothing I can think of that’s harder to do than place a human source inside a terrorist group. I don’t mean at the periphery — there have been enough of those; I mean in the innermost circles where plans are laid. It’s not that people haven’t thought of that or haven’t worked on that very hard for a long time. It’s always been extremely difficult; it always will be, no matter how the intelligence community is organized and no matter how many resources you give it. …


Monday, September 12th, 2011

Paul Pillar on the Pretend Fix of U.S. Intelligence

Paul Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Misguided Reform“Ten years ought to be enough time for Americans to get over their overwhelming post-9/11 need for catharsis and reassurance and to look more critically at what was done for that purpose, including measures that pretend to be fixing something but really aren’t.”—Paul Pillar on the failure of intelligence reform

In a recent on his blog for National Interest , Paul Pillar encapsulates one of the main arguments in his new book Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform. Pillar argues that the findings of the 9/11 Commission and the subsequent reorganization of the intelligence agencies did little more than serve as a catharsis after the tragedy of 9/11. Pillar writes:

The commission performed that role [of catharsis] masterfully, hitting all the expected notes about making Americans safe by fixing a broken intelligence community. It did not matter that the intelligence community had actually provided strong strategic warning about the threat that would materialize on 9/11. The commission staff dealt with that inconvenient fact by producing a highly politicized report that conveyed a different impression, mostly by simply not mentioning a large portion of the relevant and accurate work that the intelligence community had done. It also did not matter that there was a lack of good new ideas about how to do such work better. The favorite Washington response when lacking better ideas for fixing something is to reorganize. So reorganization it was. The commission dusted off an old idea to separate the position of Director of Central Intelligence into two jobs. It added another proposal, also based on pre-9/11 ideas, for an additional counterterrorist center alongside the existing centers devoted to the topic. The net result of this rearrangement of the intelligence community’s wiring diagram was more, and more complicated, bureaucracy.


Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Paul R. Pillar on the true costs of the Iraq war

In a post today at The National Interest Paul R. Pillar, author of the new book Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, discusses the true cost of the Iraq war for the United States. In his post Pillar argues that:

The single largest contributor to the ballooning of the national debt over the past decade has not been handled with such honesty. The Iraq War, besides also representing the single biggest self-inflicted wound to U.S. national security during the same period, was also the biggest act of fiscal recklessness—reckless in the sense both of the sheer cost of the enterprise and of the failure to make any provision to pay for it, other than going deeper into debt. The George W. Bush administration was the only one in U.S. history to launch a war while cutting taxes. The direct costs of the Iraq War so far are approaching $800 billion. That alone would be over half of what the super committee is charged with finding in savings. Significant additional direct costs, such as long-term care for wounded veterans, will continue even if U.S. troops are out of Iraq at the end of this year, not to mention interest payments on the money borrowed to fund the war. If one figures in all the indirect economic and financial costs of the war, such as the impact on the price of oil, the total cost of the Iraq War to the United States is likely far higher. The dishonest approach to funding was compounded by the repeated use of supplemental war appropriations separate from the rest of the Defense Department budget, as if somehow the war costs did not count in determining how much the United States is spending on its military.

and goes on to discuss the concept of a war tax.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Martin Murphy, author of “Somalia the New Barbary,” on the Newshour

In the wake of the most recent incident of hijacking by Somali pirates, PBS’s Newshour interviewed Martin Murphy, author of Somalia, the New Barbary?: Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa and Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World.

In the interview Murphy argues that though attention has faded from this problem, hijacking continues. There are now around 700 hostages still being held by pirates and the amount of money they now receive is greater than ever.

He argues that while improvements have been made in terms of naval vessels patrolling the area and there has been greater coordination in prosecuting hijackers, the area in which pirates now roam has grown tremendously. For the problem to improve, the United States and other nations must directly engage with North East Somalia, where many of the hijackers are based.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Interview with Ami Pedahzur — The Israeli Secret Services & The Struggle Against Terrorism

The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism
The following is a reprint of an interview with Ami Pedahzur, author of
The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism. The book is now available in paperback:

Q: Have you ever worked for the Mossad or any other intelligence agency?

Ami Pedahzur: No. never. I was a senior medic in the IDF, and there was nothing clandestine or exotic in that.

Q: So what led you to the topic of the Israeli secret services and their struggle against terrorism?

AP: When I was six years old, IDF stunned the world when its elite forces released the Israeli and Jewish Hostages of Air France flight 139, who were being held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Entebbe, Uganda. Like most of the kids of my generation, I idolized the heroic soldiers and started reading whatever I could find about the Israeli struggle against terrorism. I have not stopped since then.

Q: One cannot avoid noting the critical tone in your book. What happened? What made you change your outlook?

AP: Well, after a decade of studying terrorism and especially during the second Intifada with the long campaign of suicide attacks, I started asking myself the following question: If Israel is indeed such a superpower in counterterrorism as it wants the world to believe, why has terrorism against Israelis only intensified and become more deadly over the years?


Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Avner Cohen — Bringing Israel’s Bomb Out of the Basement

Avner Cohen, Worst-Kept SecretIn an op-ed from yesterday’s New York Times Avner Cohen, author of the forthcoming book The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, and Marvin Miller argue for Israel to end its policy of opacity regarding its possession of nuclear weapons.

As Cohen and Miller explain, “Israel neither affirms nor denies its possession of nuclear weapons; indeed, the government refuses to say anything factual about its nuclear activities, and Israeli citizens are encouraged, both by law and by custom, to follow suit.” This policy has been in effect since Richard Nixon and Golda Meir brokered a secret pact in which the United States would tolerate and shield Israel’s nuclear program as long as Israel did not advertise possession of nuclear weapons.

However, Cohen and Miller contend this policy jeopardizes the Middle East peace process and Israel’s standing in the international community. Cohen and Miller write:

Israel needs to recognize, moreover, that the Middle East peace process is linked to the issue of nuclear weapons in the region. International support for Israel and its opaque bomb is being increasingly eroded by its continued occupation of Palestinian territory and the policies that support that occupation. Such criticism of these policies might well spill over into the nuclear domain, making Israel vulnerable to the charge that it is a nuclear-armed pariah state, and thus associating it to an uncomfortable degree with today’s rogue Iranian regime.


Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Avner Cohen on Israel’s “Secret” Nuclear Arsenal

Earlier this week, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Avner Cohen author of the forthcoming The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.

In the interview Cohen discusses Israel’s policy to never publicly acknowledge that it has possession of nuclear weapons. He also analyzes the ways in which Obama has accepted the policy of Israel’s opacity about the issue.

He describes how a tacit consensus developed among other nations that allowed Israel to have the bomb in light of the Holocaust and their situation in the 1960s. When pressed by Siegel whether “a policy … with deep roots in the postwar history” still made sense, Cohen responded:

Israelis believe so, and I think it’s a great deal a matter of habits. I think it’s time to start looking afresh on this, slow, responsibly to try to find a way to normalize those issue and to find a better way for Israel to come clean with it.

I think the world is ready, even most of the Arabs are ready. So I think that ultimately Israel with the rest of the world, it would be nice not to have nuclear weapons, to be part of the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But I think the time has come to think in a responsible way how for Israel to come clean, to come with putting its nuclear weapons on the table.

To listen to the full interview:

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Kings of War

Kings of War

Every so often we like to feature blogs by Columbia University Press authors. Today we shine a spotlight on Kings of War whose contributors include three Columbia/Hurst authors: Robert Dover, co-editor of Spinning Intelligence: Why Intelligence Needs the Media, Why the Media Needs Intelligence; Patrick Porter, author of Military Orientalism:Eastern War Through Western Eyes; and John Mackinlay, author of The Insurgent Archipelago.

These authors and are all members of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. As you might have surmised the focus of the blog is on strategy, the military, war, and security. Recent posts have discussed the controversy surrounding and resignation of Stanley McChrystal, Wikileaks, the attack on the Gaza flotilla, and changes in the academic discipline of International Relations.

Here is a description of Kings of War from the site, detailing the scope of the blog:

Kings of War is about strategy, widely defined.

We assign each of our posts to one (or more) of seven “columns” – the tabs at the top of the page. Alanbrooke is about British national security and defense. Clausewitz deals with strategic theory. Galula explores counterinsurgency. Grant, like the U.S. general and president, is concerned with American grand strategy. Mao covers insurgency and terrorism. Thucydides is history. Turing, as in Alan Turing, reviews cyberwar and the virtual dimension of conflict.

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Foreign Affairs reviews three Columbia/Hurst books on Afghanistan

My Life with the TalibanIn a lengthy review essay in Foreign Affairs, Seth Jones, who is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and the author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan, considers three books recently published by Columbia University Press/Hurst that explore the unique tribal and local nature of Afghan politics.

Empires of MudThe three books under discussion are My Life with the Taliban, by Abdul Salam Zaeef; Empires of Mud: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007, by Antonio Giustozzi; and Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi.

As Jones points out, the books all provide important insights into the Afghan environment, one in which both Zaeef, the former Taliban leader, and Michael Flynn, U.S.
Decoding the New Taliban
deputy chief of staff for intelligence in Afghanistan, admit that the U.S. and NATO know very little about despite their long involvement in the region. Jones writes,

All three books provide a nuanced micro-level view of the country. More important, they offer a chilling prognosis for those who believe that the solution to stabilizing Afghanistan will come only from the top down — by building strong central government institutions. Although creating a strong centralized state, assuming it ever happens, may help ensure long-term stability, it is not sufficient in Afghanistan. The current top-down state-building and counterinsurgency efforts must take place alongside bottom-up programs, such as reaching out to legitimate local leaders to enlist them in providing security and services at the village and district levels. Otherwise, the Afghan government will lose the war.


Monday, April 12th, 2010

Avner Cohen and Joseph Cirincione on the Nuclear Summit

The historic two-day nuclear summit is getting underway in Washington but not without a few, if not many, questions hanging over the event.

One of the most controversial developments in the days leading up to the meeting was Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to participate in the meeting. According to Avner Cohen’s op-ed in Haaretz published yesterday entitled Israel missing a chance at nuclear global legitimacy, Netanyahu pulled out “after being told that a number of Arab leaders would vilify Israel’s nuclear policy and refusal to sign the treaty.” Cohen, who is the author of the forthcoming book The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, laments the prime minister’s decision and argues that it reflects the weaknesses of its policy of nuclear opacity.

Cohen concludes his op-ed writing:

Opacity is widely perceived as concealment, an act of covering up a secret that cannot be revealed to the public. Today, however, the secret is known to all, so it’s unclear why it must remain wrapped in ambiguity. In a world demanding that Iran speak the truth over its nuclear activity, ambiguity is seen as a bizarre relic from the past.

If Israel’s prime minister feels he cannot uphold the country’s opacity policy at a relatively friendly international forum, it seems this policy is in real trouble. If he is worrying about stumbling into a nuclear ambush and cannot rely on understandings on nuclear issues reached with the U.S. government, it seems Israel’s diplomatic crisis with Washington is much deeper than we had imagined.

Cohen also talked about Netanyahu’s decision in an interview with RT America:


Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Connecting the dots — James Walsh on the recent attempted terrorist attack

James WalshOn his blog, Back Channels, James Walsh, author of The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing, examines the blame game that resulted in the aftermath of the failed terrorist attack on Christmas.

While newspapers and former government officials have pointed to the failures of bad judgment or technology, James Walsh believes politics is to blame. He writes:

Neither people or technology are the root cause of the difficulties in sharing intelligence. Politics is. Government agencies all want to contribute to stopping terrorist attacks, but bring to the table different specific skills and priorities. These differences can make them reluctant to share intelligence with their counterparts. Some fear that their counterparts will reveal methods of intelligence collection that need to be kept secret or will expose information that the terrorist can use to plan their next attack. Others are reluctant to share intelligence that casts a shadow on their efforts or undermines their skills and priorities. On the flip side, some agencies are unwilling to make decisions based on information they did not collect and cannot themselves verify.

Walsh believes that a culture that prizes intelligence sharing might help the situation but he also expresses some skepticism:

One solution might be to foster an intelligence culture that rewards sharing. The military has had some success in promoting inter-service cooperation by, for example, rewarding officers that serve in other areas of the military or government. But this is not an overnight cure. At best, it might create a culture of greater sharing in the next generation of intelligence professionals. Politics can be tamed, but it won’t go away.

For more on the book, you can also read Walsh’s recent post about the attack on the CIA base in Afghanistan or read an excerpt from the book.

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Sharing intelligence with Pakistan — A post by James I. Walsh

James WalshEvery so often, we like to feature blogs maintained by Columbia University Press authors. Today, we look at Back Channels, a blog by James I. Walsh, author of The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing.

As Walsh describes it, he uses the blog to “write about how social scientists analyze bad things such as terrorism, political violence, and human rights abuses.” In his most recent post Intelligence Sharing with Pakistan: What It Might Look Like, Walsh examines how the interests of the United States and Pakistan both complement and contradict each other when it comes to stamping out Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Drawing on his book, Walsh suggests that finding an arrangement that would allow the U.S. and Pakistan to work together, something Obama and his administration surely hope can be achieved, might prove difficult because of U.S. concerns. Walsh writes:

Neither country [Pakistan or the United States] can trust the other to take actions that protect the long-run objectives of the other. But neither country can achieve its objectives without cooperation from the other. Is there a solution to this dilemma? In The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing, I suggest that countries can successfully cooperate in such situations. They do so by creating a hierarchical intelligence sharing agreement, in which the more powerful state quietly directs and supervises many of the intelligence activities of the subordinate. This allows more powerful state to ensure that the subordinate is acting in a way consistent with its interests. In return, the more powerful country offers the subordinate much closer intelligence, economic, military, cooperation. The United States used such hierarchies with some success in cases as diverse West Germany during the Cold War, South Vietnam in the early 1970s, and some countries in the Middle East since 9/11.


Monday, December 7th, 2009

James Igoe Walsh takes the page 99 test

The International Politics of Intelligence SharingTaking Ford Maddox Ford’s suggestion to heart (“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you”), The Page 99 Test asks authors to focus in on this particular page.

Recently Kelly Oliver took the test and now James Igoe Walsh, author of The International Politics of Intelligence Sharing explains what page 99 of his book reveals about the larger arguments he is making regarding the complexities of governments working together to obtain more reliable intelligence.

Here is an excerpt from Walsh’s piece on The Page 99 Test:

“My” page 99 starts out with a detailed summary of the complaints that political leaders in the European Union have made about their counterparts’ willingness to share intelligence…. It is an example, though, of the key barrier to effective intelligence sharing, which is that one state cannot reliably insure that another is living up to promises to share fully and honestly.

It begins to suggest [the] solution is closer European integration of intelligence activities. That is, these countries would be better off if they applied some of the institutions they have developed to govern trade or money to intelligence sharing. A key benefit these institutions provide is the ability to monitor partners to determine if they are complying with their promises to share. You will have to keep reading, though, if you want to find out why this is unlikely to happen.

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Steve Coll on Decoding the New Taliban

DecodingIn the New Yorker blog, Think Tank , Steve Coll praised Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi calling it “an outstanding and important collection.”

Coll cites two essays from the collection, one that examines Taliban propaganda and communication strategies and another that analyzes the Taliban-affiliated networks of founded by Jalalauddin Haqqani, the former Central Intelligence Agency asset whose followers apparently were responsible for the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde.

Coll concludes the piece, writing:

Overall, the work Giustozzi has pulled together here is as up-to-date as scholarship can be. There is an emphasis on how the Taliban have evolved and changed in local settings since 2001. Equally striking, however, is the portrait that accumulates of the Taliban’s continuity. The book’s essays describe how national and provincial figures from the nineties-era Taliban government, formally known the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, remain intact and operate as a shadow administration, holding portfolios similar to their previous ones.

The Taliban were not shattered in December, 2001, and then forced to reassemble. Rather, their national government in Kabul and Kandahar retreated into exile in Pakistan, survived a relatively brief period of disarray, and then reassembled itself to return to its southern and eastern strongholds in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

The Taliban aren’t so tribal


This month the Le Monde Diplomatique Web site has a fascinating podcast interview with Patrick Porter, author of Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes, about his recent article “Culture Wars in Afghanistan.”

In the article and interview, Porter, who is also a lecturer in the Defense Studies Department at the British Defense Academy, King’s College, University of London, argues that while the United States’ is right to recognize that military and technological superiority is not enough to win the war in Afghanistan, the turn to culture is not without its problems. More specifically, Porter believes that the U.S. understanding of Taliban and Afghan culture falls prey to essentializing and misunderstanding.

The belief that the Taliban is a rigid, tribal culture has led the United States to underestimate its enemy’s ability to change. The Taliban can be realists and have changed their position on narcotics, suicide bombing, and even music to help further their cause. For instance, they often produce propaganda in the form of hip hop or find justification in the Koran to support suicide bombing. Moreover they embrace both technology and the profits from the trade in narcotics to help their efforts.

Porter concludes his article, writing:

Culture matters. New attention to the social worlds of foreign societies has helped the US army reform itself as more effective and humane. In a war of insurgency, communal conflict or state breakdown, it helps to be prepared.

But because culture can be treated at many levels of sophistication, the word should always make us nervous. We may never banish the mythologized Oriental from our consciousness. Like fear of death and darkness, it is too powerful to be fully exorcized and will remain a silhouette on our mental horizon. But the fluidity and hybridity of the Taliban and al-Qaeda demonstrate that war jumbles and connects as well as polarizes. No culture, however strange, is an island.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Interview with Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, authors of Jewish Terrorism in Israel

Jewish Terrorism in IsraelThe following is an interview with Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, authors of Jewish Terrorism in Israel.

You can also read an interview with Pedahzur discussing his previous book The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism or browse the book using Google Preview.

Q: What led you to this topic?

Ami Pedahzur: We have both studied political extremism and violence for many years. Together we have devoted a lot of time to understanding the underlying causes of terrorism in general and of religious terrorism in particular. When former prime minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza strip, we felt that Israeli society was entering a tense historical moment. Because of this we just wanted to be on the ground, documenting events as they unfolded and trying to understand the mechanisms that lead groups and individuals to extreme manifestations of political violence.

Q: So what are your main conclusions?

AP: This study corroborates the argument that religion by itself is not a source of violence. However, when it becomes politicized, religion can become a fertile breeding ground for countercultures like totalitarian political ideologies such as fascism and communism. Most countercultures never become violent. It takes a major threat to the community of believers or to its most sacred values to radicalize its members. A minority of them will be pushed over the edge and perpetrate terrorist acts for the purpose of removing the threats.

Q: Lately, a lot has been written on religious terrorism. Could you outline, in a nutshell, the new insights that this book offers?

AP: As we indicated earlier, we contend that the real divisions in the world are not between civilizations and religions but rather between moderates and extremists. We also concluded that many terrorist acts are not generated by organizational frameworks but by more elusive social configurations based on primal ties such as kinship and friendship. One of the most stunning findings in the book is that the most sophisticated terrorist group in Israel’s history, which is known as the “Jewish Underground,” exhibited no features of a terrorist organization. It was rather an extended social network that included many subgroups operating independently at different times and in different locations. There was no leader or central command. The first time many of the alleged members of the underground met was in court, following their arrest.

Q: What can you say about the “profile” of the Jewish terrorist?

AP: The overwhelming majority of the terrorists were young religious males, yet these facts alone are too simplistic a description. If we were asked by an intelligence service how to profile a potential terrorist, we would probably have recommended looking at the bigger picture. Instead of identifying potential individual terrorists on the basis of their of their socio- demographic or religious proclivities, we believe the focus should be on radical communities in times of crises. Once such a community is identified, the next step should be concentrating on networks of friends who are highly invested in the struggle, meet frequently, and have access to weapons. As with criminal street gangs, the turn to terrorism is gradual and involves a process of socialization within a close-knit network. Very few of the Jewish terrorists were lone wolves operating on their own. The majority, including Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, were radicalized and developed their tactics through a peer socialization process.

Q: What can this book tell us about the shape of things to come?

AP: We believe that history can tell us a lot. We open the book by describing Jewish terrorism in ancient times, and, unfortunately, in the ensuing two thousand years little has changed. Over the last forty years extremists have created a religious Jewish counterculture, especially in the West Bank but also in Orthodox pockets inside Israel. Though we are not anticipating removal of more settlements in the near future, we are confident that this day will come, and once it does, the escalation of violence will be dramatic. Terrorist networks will do anything to prevent the government from interfering with what they perceive as the promise of the lord to the Jewish people, even if the toll in human lives is very high.