Archive for December, 2007

An insider’s view of the Iraqi insurgency

December 28, 2007

iraq ablaze cover

Zaki Chehab, the London Bureau Chief of the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat, attempts to paint a more nuanced picture of who comprise the Iraq insurgency and the different reasons for their continuing struggle. Travelling all over Iraq to interview Saddam loyalists, Wahabi-Salafist Islamists, Iraqi nationalists and Iranian or Syrian-backed foreign insurgent infiltrators, Chebab shows why the US was wrong to have initially viewed the insurgency as a amorphous monolith, and how the military’s operational arrogance, ignorance and high-handedness, coupled with the CPA’s failure to provide highly reliable and sustained basic civilian services, actually fuelled much of the nationalist, tribal-driven insurgent movement. He points squarely to the failure of the US to understand, anticipate and thus preempt the various nationalist, tribal and Islamist forces at play in Iraq that caused it to lose precious ground to the insurgency from 2003 to 2005.

post-holiday blues: how do I drag myself back to work?

December 26, 2007

Looking back over the past month, I’m just realising I haven’t written a personal post for ages – it’s all been about the books I’ve voraciously devoured during the holiday.  And now, as I get ready to go back into the grind and face the uncertainties of the unknown, I find myself asking “Did I really enjoy this holiday?”  Well, I guess in some ways the long break did take me out of my element of the Job and its routines, so that it’s admittedly difficult to have to face the reality that I won’t be leisurely hanging out with WS or reading as much as I want to, in return for schedules, scripts and charges (don’t even know whether I’ll be getting the same ones).  Already they’ve pencilled me in for newbies’ induction tomorrow and Thursday, which is kind of weird since I’m already 6 months inducted, but meeting new people will be nice, and may help me get into the ‘back to work’ ethos faster.  I still have a couple of books I haven’t touched, which tears me to pieces because I really should return them and focus completely on the work.  I was originally going to blog my review of Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism and related essays, but I have decided not to do so because I don’t have time to re-read them again, in which case I won’t be able to do justice to the pieces. I suppose I can wait until the next uninterrupted break before trying again.

Christmas 2007 was toned-down, intimate and definitely far from the maddening crowd, something which I appreciate. I’m not sure if WS totally bought the idea, but it seemed the best way to go knowing that we’re definitely going to face new frontiers come ’08. I’m not exactly thrilled to be given C2 next year, but I suppose one can only hold one’s breath and plunge deeply in what seems inevitable. Time will tell.

What it’s like being bubbled in a state of denial

December 26, 2007

state of denial hardcover

Finally managed to get through Woodward’s third book about the Iraq war, which is one hell of a tome with a whopping 45 chapters. And yes, he does deliver the killer knockout blow offering in every minute detail how Iraq became a morass in the absence of a coherent Phase IV strategy of nation building (the idea of which is not as thorough scrutinised as other authors have done). State of Denial is not so much about Bush as it is about Rumsfeld, and as the narrative progresses, Woodward’s increasing frustration and incredulity about the ‘dysfunctional’ Secretary of Defense builds up to an almost uncharacteristically caustic climax in the final pages of the book. Whether Woodward will pen another volume remains to be seen, since it is quite clear that he has fallen out of favour with the Top Two in the administration, but reading this brought back all the familiar anger and angst that reading Ricks first elicited from me and prompts me to wonder: when the dust finally settles, how should the main players be held accountable for the tragic mess that they’ve helped to create?

Ex-CIA G-man takes hard look at the GWOT, offers even harder suggestions

December 22, 2007

imperial hubris cover

I held off writing a review of this book straight off after I’d finished it, because I wanted time to digest its controversial contents and views regarding the way the GWOT has been conducted thus far, in view of other material I’ve read. The author, who has since been identified as Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who had been on the bin Laden case since the early 1990s, doesn’t mince words; in fact, some of his analogies and ironies are downright bitter and caustic. Also, the “West” in the subtitle seems a misnomer, since Scheuer refers solely to America’s conduct of the GWOT. Here’re my observations about some of Scheuer’s key points:

1. Scheuer criticises the American obsession with surgical strikes and instant wars, partly as a result of its Vietnam syndrome, for the failure to commit sizeable forces at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and consequently creating 2 half- and badly-fought wars with no end in sight. As many others like Ricks and Packer have commented, this is a valid point. However, his assumption that the enemy can only be defeated by fighting a conventional war misses the point. Yes, more troops should have been committed to secure borders and prevent looting in both theaters, but a full-scale ground assault would probably have created its own problems. In any case, whether the enemy is classified as ‘terrorists’ or ‘insurgents’ – Scheuer prefers the latter – there is no doubt that the US failed to develop a viable counterinsurgency as well as a post-war stability strategy in both theaters.

2. While Scheuer is correct to say that al Qaeda offensives are in response to, and are targeted at, specific US foreign policy and military actions, his view that the enemy should not be classified as ‘terrorists’ because the term implies enemies who are state sponsored and must be dealt with primarily using law-enforcement offensives is a little off. There is every indication that tracking and freezing terrorist finances does and have worked, if laws are employed to preempt and deter acts of terrorism in the homeland and abroad.

3. Scheuer claims, because a sizeable number of Muslims worldwide have been successfully drawn to (he prefers the analogy ‘infected by’) bin Laden’s rhetoric, that the US is at war with Islam. This is somewhat erroneous. While the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are indeed jihadist magnets, there is no indication that the majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have operationalised or intend to operationalise their supposed radicalism, even if they arguably have legitimate grievances against US policies in the Middle East (which Scheuer admits and lists). It may be more accurate to say that there has been a broadly awakened and active Islamic reaction against specific US policies, some of have taken the form of radical extremist responses. By calling for a total war with what he claims to be ‘a larger international Sunni Islamist insurgency’, Scheuer risks self-fulfilling a ‘clash of civilisations’ where there is none.

4. Still, Scheuer is largely correct in his calls for the US to rethink its blind support for Israel and her policies, as well as to establish energy independence by making a concerted effort to develop alternative energies.

Overall, a good book that takes a hard look at what’s been happening to the GWOT, but I recommend that it should be read in concert with other material so as to obtain a broader perspective.

In the end, “large abstract terms” aren’t worth the human cost of war

December 19, 2007

assassins gate cover

A very readable and somewhat more literary recount of the familiar fiasco that is America’s intervention in Iraq. Whereas Fiasco delves greater into operational detail, Packer gives a good and comprehensive background of the ideological origins and underpinnings behind the war before he launches into his account, which is structured around a series of anecdotes of key figures which he returns to repeatedly through the narrative. Packer is only slightly more sympathetic in his treatment of the CPA and his sketches of officials who were trying their darnest to get and things moving is eerily similar to Ricks’. Framing his account of the fiasco is the story of Iraqi exile intellectual and academic Kanan Makiya, who, in what would be considered a poor excuse for a happy ending in a tale such as this, is reunited with his sweetheart in the end, as they continue the work of the Iraq Memory Foundation.

The gloves start to come off in second Woodward offering

December 18, 2007

plan of attack cover

The second part of Woodward’s trilogy tells a familiar story – the twists and turns, the musings and deliberations, planning and more planning, in the run up to the Iraq War of 2003. When reviewing Bush at War, I wrote that Woodward seemed to be hedging on whether Dubya and the neocons were just crazy warmongers thinking that regime change would be uncomplicatedly and easily achieved and, what’s more, welcomed.  Though he tries to keep to the same objective tone in Plan of Attack, in his authorial comments and subtle asides there is a growing unease – if not outright criticism – that the case for war was, not quite made all the way through 2002 and up to 19 March 2003. Maybe Woodward feels that going for the jugular would be downright unpatriotic given that Americans are – still – dying to defend “freedom”, but one senses that he can no longer in good conscience keep holding back the punches. Now all that remains is for me to find out whether State of Denial delivers the killer knockout blow.

got 102 minutes?: A journey through the smouldering ruins of ‘The Pile’

December 14, 2007

nine months at ground zero cover

Grout gives us a more accessible, highly readable layman version of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche.  I had read the latter quite some time back (at least more than a year ago) and its lyricism and heartfelt empathy to the recovery operation left quite a big mark on my mind.  Grout’s book in a sense brings some of that back – in plain simple language and short snippets he takes us through the journeys of a small number of men and women who answered history’s calling and spent nine months in what can only be imagined, and then some.  Sure, some parts make one can’t help but feel this is the ‘pat-us-on-the-back’ memoir of the ‘brotherhood of construction’, but if you want a textual companion to the several photojournalistic accounts of Ground Zero available in the market, this is not a bad first choice.

Two hours that shook the world, not broke it

December 14, 2007

two hours that shook the world cover

The trouble about reading material on 9/11 published immediately after 9/11 is the danger of encountering an uncomplicatedly over-optimistic or pessimistic picture of things to come, due to a lack of analytical and perspectival distance from the events.  An example would be some of the essays in The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11, co-edited by Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda, which, in their naive expectation of a measured US response post-9/11, is almost painful to read, considering what we now know to be the case.

In light of this, it was refreshing to find that Fred Halliday is surprisingly very conscious not to fall into the oversimplification trap in his book. In his chapters discussing the post-Cold War and post-9/11 international environment, globalisation or notions of ‘Islam’ versus the ‘West’, he casts suspicion on those who would make the claim of history to support what are to him merely modernist and in fact political rather than religious concerns.  For a book written so soon after 9/11, he wisely takes issue with those who initially espoused the inevitability of Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ argument. Halliday makes a persuasive case to show that 9/11 changed certain things, but in some very important ways, the world proceeds apace. Indeed, for him, it is time the world vigorously addressed calls for increasing political, economic and cultural equity around the world, to counter the dark effects of a globalised world.

A sound base from which to understand Islamic extremism

December 10, 2007

2nd edition cover

Burke offers an extremely insightful, readable and analytical treatment of the origins of modern Islamic radicalism and debunks earlier, “Terror, Inc” assessments of al-Qaeda as a monolithic organisation with a global span and reach.  Indeed, the very formulation of the acronym ‘AQT’ (for al-Qaeda-Taliban) in the early days of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ arguably demonstrates the great possibility of misguided analysis of the nature of al-Qaeda.  Instead, Burke shows us how viewing al-Qaeda through the respective models of the university, the venture capitalist firm, and a commissioning house of jihadi operations like the ‘Manhattan gizwa‘ provides a more useful conception of a phenomenon that is not new, but has been able to harness the best and the brightest of globalisation to push its anti-modern, millenarian agenda that hides behind an excuse for a cosmic ‘clash of civilisations’ to fulfill its markedly political aims.

Good visual backgrounder to 9/11

December 7, 2007

the road to 9/11 DVD cover

This PBS production gives a detailed background into the factors that led to the rise of political Islam and the history of Islamic extremism culminating in the events on 9/11. The documentary is notable for citing the views of many female Arab experts (now residing in the West) and brings a feminist critique to the tenets of Wahabi or Salafist Islam. If you don’t have time to plough through Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower or find the National Geographic’s Inside 9/11 too confusing chronologically, then this is recommended for you.  A textual companion, Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda, the first edition which I am currently reading, is also insightful.  More about the latter when I’m done.