Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Hezbollah as a model for Afghanistan/Goldstone steps back

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Update from AIJAC

October 16, 2009
Number 10/09 #05

Today’s first two articles look at the implications of a report from the Washington Post  claiming some Obama Administration officials believe the Taliban cannot be beaten and must therefore be coaxed into the Afghan political process. The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which participates in elections but also has a powerful militia army that it uses on a regular basis internally and externally, is reportedly being referenced as a possible model for how the Taliban can be brought in from the cold.

First up, we offer an analysis of the Hezbollah model by counterterrorism expert Dr. Matt Levitt from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Levitt argues that Hezbollah is a destabilising force in Lebanon that operates as a country within a country through the enclaves it controls. An organisation that is involved in weapons and drug smuggling and has thousands of rockets pointed at Israel, and which has vowed to never renounce its right to a military arsenal is not a satisfactory endgame position for the US vis-a-vis the Taliban, he argues. To read this incisive article, CLICK HERE.

Next up, peripatetic US journalist Michael Totten - who reports on the ground and the front line from across the Middle East and Afghanistan - writes that prosecuting a war on the basis that Afghanistan would be a better place if the Taliban were more like Hezbollah is "bonkers”. He points out that the Taliban doesn't enjoy popular legitimacy in Afghanistan and still has extensive links with al-Qaeda, and to involve it in any power sharing deal would be to abandon Afghans to a terrible fate. To read the opinion of an observer who has reported on the ground from both Lebanon and Afghanistan, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the saga of the politically motivated Goldstone investigation/report on the Gaza war early this year continues with the United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday debating whether to recommend the report to the UN Security Council. The report’s many critics argue that the charges contained therein are just unsubstantiated allegations, and Richard Goldstone admitted to the New York Jewish Forward this was true, saying “if this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven”.  Law Professor Alan Dershowitz parses Goldstone’s public comments on the report and determines that the acclaimed jurist is saying different things to different audiences. Dershowitz writes that the language of the report reads like a judicial decision, which contrasts markedly with Goldstone’s other comment to the New York Jewish Forward that he "wouldn't consider it in any way embarrassing if many of the allegations turn out to be disproved." If this is the status of the report's allegations according to its main author, Dershowitz argues, it is incumbent upon Goldstone to prick the delusions of those who would treat it with greater gravitas. To read this important wake up call, CLICK HERE.

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Afghan Hezbollah? Be Careful What You Wish For

Matthew Levitt
Middle East Strategy at Harvard, October 10, 2009.

The Washington Post reports that some in the administration see the Lebanese Hezbollah as a possible model for transformation of the Taliban. Describing the Taliban as a movement "deeply rooted" in Afghanistan, much like Hezbollah is in Lebanon, proponents of a Hezbollah model for the Taliban see a scenario in which the Taliban participates in Afghan politics, occasionally flexes its military muscles to benefit its political positions at home, but does not directly threat the United States even if it remains a source of regional instability.

According to the Post, while the idea has been discussed informally "outside the Situation Room meetings," it has not yet been presented to President Obama. That's a good thing because the notion is deeply flawed, and its implementation would have dire consequences for Afghanistan, the region more broadly, and U.S. counterterrorism efforts all.

Hezbollah in Lebanon is a destabilizing force, as is the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not only does Hezbollah maintain an independent militia in explicit violation of United Nations resolutions, it uses this private army to create semi-independent enclaves throughout the south of Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley where Lebanese Armed Forces are not allowed. In these spaces, Hezbollah maintains training camps, engages in weapons smuggling and drug trafficking, and maintains tens of thousands of rockets aimed at its neighbor to the south, Israel. Hezbollah collects intelligence on people traveling through Beirut international airport, and has built its own communications infrastructure beyond the reach of the national government.

In Afghanistan, an independent Taliban militia that controls territory of its own; maintains bases and training camps; facilitates weapons smuggling; and engages in every aspect of the narcotics production pipeline from poppy cultivation and processing to taxing delivery and smuggling abroad, would certainly seek to maintain its control over its own territory. Indeed, an increasing number of major Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrests over the past few months have targeted drug kingpins closely tied to the Taliban, like Haji Juma Kahn and Baz Mohammad.

Neither will Hezbollah today nor a similarly modeled Taliban tomorrow tolerate government challenges to its private army or other sources of power. In the words of then-Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr, such groups are out for themselves, and will turn on their fellow Lebanese or Afghan citizens, respectively, when under pressure. "Events in Lebanon since May 7 [2008] demonstrate that Hezbollah -- with the full support of Syria and Iran -- will in fact turn its weapons against the Lebanese people for political purposes," Kerr explained. "Hezbollah sought to justify its attacks against fellow Lebanese as an attempt to defend the resistance against attacks by the government." Scores of Afghan civilians have been killed in Taliban suicide bombings, including the most recent attack outside the Indian embassy which claimed the lives of 17 Afghans, including 15 civilians and two Afghan police officers. It is all the more difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Taliban play a stabilizing political role in Afghanistan in light of the fact that, unlike Hezbollah, the Taliban adhere to a strict salafi-jihadi doctrine which is anathema to secular politics and requires the strict implementation of shariah law.

Commenting on the philosophical distinctions some in the administration make between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs distinguished between the Taliban as an Islamist element in Afghanistan and "an entity that, through a global, transnational jihadist network, would seek to strike the U.S. homeland," like Al Qaeda. But in the assessment of people like Bruce Reidel, an Al Qaeda and Taliban expert who oversaw the administration's policy review regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban's ties to Al Qaeda run deep. "It's a fundamental misreading of the nature of these organizations to think they are anything other than partners," said Reidel. "Al Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban insurgency, and it's highly unlikely that you're going to be able to separate them."

Here too, Hezbollah -- a group involved not only in politics in Lebanon but in terrorist activity worldwide -- is the wrong model. Even as the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition campaigned ahead of Lebanon's June 7 elections this summer, the group was forced to contend with the unexpected exposure of its covert terrorist activities both at home and abroad. At home, Hezbollah stands accused of playing a role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Abroad, law enforcement officials have taken action against Hezbollah support networks operating across the globe, including in Egypt, Yemen, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Azerbaijan, Belgium, and Colombia. Just this past week, a court in Azerbaijan found two Hezbollah operatives guilty of plotting attacks on the Israeli and U.S. embassies in Baku, among other plots, and sentenced them each to 15 years in prison.

The Taliban is primarily involved in attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though it has been tied to at least one plot in the United States and another in Europe. In the United States, a group of eleven jihadists in Northern Virginia were found to have connections with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Lashkar-i-Taiba. In Europe, the Pakistani Taliban -- distinct from but closely allied with the Afghan Taliban -- claimed responsibility for a failed plot to bomb subway trains in Barcelona in 2008. And while historically the Taliban was an adversary of Iran's, the United States believes since at least 2006 Iran has arranged frequent shipments of small arms, RPGs, explosives and other weapons to the Taliban. The Qods Force also provides the Taliban in Afghanistan with weapons, funding, logistics and military training, according to the U.S. government.

As National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter made clear in his congressional testimony last week, Hezbollah is a very poor model for a future Taliban. According to Leiter, the U.S. intelligence community holds the following to be true:

While not aligned with al-Qa'ida, we assess that Lebanese Hizballah remains capable of conducting terrorist attacks on U.S. and Western interests, particularly in the Middle East. It continues to train and sponsor terrorist groups in Iraq that threaten the lives of U.S. and Coalition forces, and supports Palestinian terrorist groups' efforts to attack Israel and jeopardize the Middle East Peace Process. Although its primary focus is Israel, the group holds the United States responsible for Israeli policies in the region and would likely consider attacks on U.S. interests, to include the Homeland, if it perceived a direct threat from the United States to itself or Iran. Hizballah's Secretary General, in justifying the group's use of violence against fellow Lebanese citizens last year, characterized any threat to Hizballah's armed status and its independent communications network as redlines.

Modeling the Taliban after Hezbollah is a recipe for failure. It would doom efforts to promote democracy in Afghanistan and engender long-term instability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan along the traditional Pashtun tribal belt that straddles the country's shared border. It would embolden one of Iran's newer allies in the region and empower a salafi-jihadi organization with close and ongoing ties to Al Qaeda to firmly establish control over parts of the country from which it would continue to produce massive quantities of drugs that ultimately make their way to the West. Looking to Hezbollah as the model for a future Taliban displays both ignorance of Hezbollah and naivete regarding the Taliban. No matter how you slice it, that's a dangerous combination.


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Hezbollah Isn't a Model for Afghanistan

Michael J. Totten, Commentary online, October 14, 2009.

According to the Washington Post, some White House foreign-policy hands may be willing to call it a day in Afghanistan if the U.S. military can beat the Taliban down into something that resembles Hezbollah. I suppose I can see why this appeals to those who know just enough about the Taliban to think it's possible, and just enough about Hezbollah to think it's desirable.

Hezbollah is moderate and almost reasonable compared with the Taliban. It participates in democratic politics and even conceded the most recent election to Lebanon's "March 14" coalition. Not even its worst fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women as the Taliban does. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, doesn't require women to wear headscarves, let alone body-enveloping burkhas, in territory he controls. While the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddha statues in Bamyan with anti-aircraft guns in 2001, the Roman Empire's Temple of Bacchus, where Western imperialists used to hold pagan orgies, remains an unmolested tourist attraction bang in the middle of Hezbollah's Bekaa Valley stronghold. Oh, and Hezbollah hasn't killed any Americans in Lebanon lately.

So, yes, Afghanistan would be a better place if it suffered the likes of Hezbollah instead of the Taliban. But prosecuting a war for that outcome would be bonkers. Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy militia and a Lebanese guerrilla army that starts wars with the country next door and violently assaults its own capital. It's also a global terrorist network with cells on five continents.

Last year, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested Hezbollah operatives who planned to detonate car bombs alongside Baku's Hyatt Tower, where the Israeli, Japanese, and Thai embassies are located. Twenty-two members of an Egyptian Hezbollah cell are on trial right now for plotting terrorist attacks against tourists. A Hezbollah suicide car bomber killed 29 people at the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992, and another suicide bomber killed 85 more at a Jewish community center there two years later.

The Iraqi branch of Hezbollah is hardly an improvement over the Taliban. "Hezbollah kills civilians as well as Americans with total disregard for Iraqis," an American soldier told me in Baghdad recently. "I don't know why Hezbollah is so much more ruthless [than Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia], but they are."

A senior administration official said the Taliban is "a deeply rooted political movement in Afghanistan" and therefore must be treated differently from al-Qaeda. That's true of Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it's not true of the Taliban. The last thing a senior administration official should want is for it to become true of the Taliban.

Hezbollah isn't popular enough to win an election in Lebanon, not even as part of a diverse coalition of parties from more than one sect. Hezbollah is, however, supported to one extent or another by a majority in Lebanon's Shia community.

The Taliban's popularity, meanwhile, is around 6 percent in Afghanistan. Most Afghans and Pakistanis who submit to its rule do so because they've been conquered. The Taliban doesn't even have popular legitimacy in the ethnic Pashtun community it hails from. It is no more "deeply rooted" than al-Qaeda was in Iraq's Al Anbar.

The fantasy that the Taliban might someday become more like Hezbollah and less like al-Qaeda is based on misunderstandings of all three. Hezbollah isn't half as moderate as some analysts think, and the Taliban is more bound up with al-Qaeda than many of these same people want to admit.

“It’s a fundamental misreading of the nature of these organizations to think they are anything other than partners," Bruce Riedel said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama appointed him to lead the overhaul of its policy there between February and April this year. "Al-Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban insurgency, and it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to separate them.”

Of course al-Qaeda is embedded in the Taliban. That's why NATO invaded Afghanistan in the first place. After September 11, 2001, the Taliban was given a choice to arrest and hand over the al-Qaeda leaders on its soil or suffer war, and it chose war.

Because it's bound up with al-Qaeda, it's still a threat to American and European national security. Matthew Levitt at Middle East Strategy at Harvard points out that the Taliban claimed responsibility for a plot to bomb Barcelona's subway system last year and that 11 men arrested in Virginia a few years ago were connected to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs cooperated with Americans to destroy Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's branch of that franchise, not because they became pro-American all of a sudden, but because al-Qaeda violently suppressed their tribal political structure and tried to replace their traditional culture with something alien and totalitarian.

The Taliban are waging the same kind of war against ethnic Pashtuns and their traditional culture in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The Taliban systematically destroyed Afghan and specifically Pashtun culture by banning music, the arts and any kind of artistic expression," Dr. S. Amjad Hussain wrote earlier this year after returning to the U.S. from his hometown in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. "For me there is the escape of flying home to America. That can't be said about millions of people who are being terrorized by these self-appointed, self-anointed, uneducated, and uncouth custodians of my faith."

And listen to Farhat Taj, a Pashtun woman from the same area: "I am writing because I am so very fed up with 'experts' in both Pakistan and the West constantly distorting the realities of our people and area. . . . The people living in northwestern Pakistan under Taliban rule are being held hostage. The Taliban terrorists have unleashed a reign of terror on the people, who are not willing to give up their Pashtun culture. They are overpowered by the armed militants. Their lives, livelihood and culture are attacked by the Taliban in league with al Qaeda."

So I have a better idea than trying to transform the Taliban into Hezbollah, which is no more possible than it is desirable. Let's think of the Taliban as al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan — which it basically is — and vanquish it as we and the locals did to their brothers in arms in Iraq.


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Goldstone Backs Away From Report: The Two Faces of an International Poseur

Professor Alan Dershowitz, Huffington Post, October 14, 2009.

With so much (though not all) of the civilized world justly condemning (or ignoring) the Goldstone report for its distortion of the facts and its one-sided condemnation of Israel, Richard Goldstone himself now seems to be backing away from the report's conclusions--at least when he speaks to his Jewish audiences.

In an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward, Goldstone denied that his group had conducted "an investigation." Instead, it was what he called a "fact-finding mission" based largely on the limited "material we had." Since this "material" was cherry-picked by Hamas guides and spokesmen, Goldstone acknowledged that "if this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven." He emphasized to the Forward that the report was no more than "a road map" for real investigators and that it contained no actual "evidence," of wrongdoing by Israel.

"Nothing proven!" No "evidence!" Only "a road map!" You wouldn't know any of that, of course, by reading the report itself or its accompanying media release. In the text of the report itself, Goldstone neither sought to clarify nor explain what he now claims is the limited scope and legal implications of the report. The language of the report reads like a judicial decision, making findings of fact (nearly all wrong), stating conclusions of law (nearly all questionable) and making specific recommendations (nearly all one-sided). According to the Forward:

    ...the report itself is replete with bold and declarative legal conclusions seemingly at odds with the cautious and conditional explanations of its author. The report repeatedly refers, without qualification, to specific violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention committed by Israel and other breaches of international law. Citing particular cases, the report determines unequivocally that Israel "violated the prohibition under customary international law" against targeting civilians. These violations, it declares, 'constitute a grave breach' of the convention.

It is as if there were two entirely different "Goldstone Reports." The first submitted to the United Nations and the second to the Jewish community. In speaking so differently to different "audiences," Goldstone is reminiscent of Yassir Arafat, who perfected the art of double-speak, by using bellicose language when addressing Arab audiences and more accommodating language when addressing western audiences.

Goldstone apparently lacked the courage to stand up to the other members and staffers of his commission and to insist that his clarifying language be included in the report itself. Nor did he have the courage to file a dissenting or concurring statement. Instead, he spoke out of both sides of his mouth, sending one message to those who read the actual report and a very different message to those who read his words in the Jewish Forward (and the New York Times for whom he wrote a more ameliorative op ed on the day after the release of the Report). In doing so, he is trying to have it both ways.

Goldstone went so far as to tell the Forward that he himself "wouldn't consider it in any way embarrassing if many of the allegations turn out to be disproved." This is total nonsense. Goldstone has put his imprimatur--and his reputation--behind the report's conclusions. The only reason anyone is paying any attention to yet another of the serial condemnatory reports by the United Nations Human Rights Council is because Richard Goldstone--a "distinguished" Jew--allegedly wrote it and signed on to its conclusions. If he really doesn't stand by its conclusions--if he doesn't care one way or another whether they are true or false, proven or unproven--then no extra weight should be given to its findings or conclusions because of the "distinguished" reputation of its Jewish chairman.

But weight is being given by some to its "unproven" and uninvestigated allegations which Goldstone admits may be wrong. There have been calls for boycotts, divestments, war crime prosecutions and other forms of condemnation based on the conclusions reached (or not reached, depending on which side of Goldstone's mouth one is listening to) by the Report.

If Goldstone stands behind what he told the Forward, then he must come forward and condemn those who are treating his report as if the allegations were based on "evidence" and "proven." Don't hold your breath, because such a statement would be heard by both of Goldstone's audiences at the same time.