Diplomacy Is the Way To Beat the ‘Islamic State’

During the short drive from Beirut toward Damascus, our taxi turned off the road and pulled into a refugee camp in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. As a journalist and academic who writes about international security, I wanted to see the refugee situation I had read about for myself. I watched as a truckload of women went to work in in Lebanon’s most fertile area, gathering vegetables and grapes for the area’s prized vineyards. They earn a pittance – about three dollars per day– so they can pay rent to the owners of the land where they occupy makeshift shelters.

People huddle behind burlap, peeking through doorways covered by sheets to see visitors. Children sneak up and as I turn, they giggle and run away. They ask for nothing. Empty water bottles litter the camp. I am humbled at the generosity the residents show. They invite us in for coffee and tea and I feel ashamed of myself as I drink. They have so little, but it would insult them if I declined.

This is one of many camps that now scatter the region. The United Nations estimates that up to two million Syrians are now refugees, many housed in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Another two million are also internally displaced from their homes.

Syria is just one nation in the region experiencing what seems to be an endless humanitarian disaster – sparked initially by the Arab Spring uprisings that began more than three years ago.

This disaster has fueled the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS), which has brutally exploited the chaos to establish its own nation. Some 12,000 foreign fighters have flocked to the region in support of the fledgling IS. And after acquiring U.S. and Iraqi weapons IS, is becoming stronger and more organized every day.

The Obama administration is reportedly laying the groundwork for a military expansion into Syria from Iraq to pummel the IS. This is the wrong move. And it reflects a much larger failure that American policymakers must address before we can intervene in this regional turmoil: Our once powerful diplomatic muscle is atrophying.

As early as World War II, the U.S. began squandering its diplomatic tools – and the net effect has been a collective amnesia: the only effective option we seem to remember is the military option. Militarization of U.S. foreign policy had been creeping up for decades. Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 “Cruise of the Great White Fleet” to the current day, the U.S. has been asserting its military influence to a much greater degree. In the name of weak and failed states that may not be able to control terrorism and international criminal activities, all of which threaten America’s interests, the U.S. military has steadily increased its security related outreach through military means. By selling arms, military to military training, and the establishment of new joint task forces and commands, civilians have lost control of international objectives and programs. In the Middle East, only military civilian affairs teams are often allowed to venture out of the embassy compounds to work with locals.

Over the years, Administrations have become increasingly centralized when it comes to international policy and decision-making, preferring to construct policy within an exclusive inner circle. Their solutions muzzle and declaw U.S. civilian foreign policy agencies whose expertise is too often ignored. They, in turn, funnel civilian energies into supporting specifically outlined projects while leaving the complex ones to the military. Consequently, the U.S. has forgotten how to shape policy through negotiation, alignment of interests, knowledge of history, cultures and peoples. Our representatives in Congress and the Administration have neglected strategies that would leverage economic and political interests. Instead of helping to craft long-term solutions for our national security, the U.S. continues to rely on short-term military fixes. Today, there are few in Congress willing to question the military or its spending. Yet our civilian agencies are continually interrogated with little discussion about their vital role, never mind the budget.

Let’s look at the impact of this strategy on the Middle East: Years of ignoring Israeli aggression, turning a blind eye to kingdoms supporting fanaticism in the name of religion and championing regional dictators with pure disregard for humans has left the region in turmoil. It also seems to have left the U.S. with no options to quell the instability—that is, no option other than war.

While our most gifted civilians sit behind concrete and barbed wire, Congress continues to approve the transfer of small arms, anti-tank missiles and shoulder held surface to air missiles to “moderate” forces in the region. The unfortunate part is now the most fanatic IS has those weapons. Without careful planning on the civil, political and governance level, no military solution is going to stop them. And to be sure, no form of diplomacy or non-lethal aid is going to rid the world of IS. However, there are plenty of diplomatic tools that can diminish its impact, and work to bring the region a bit of peace without empowering yet another hegemonic country or organization that gruesomely outdoes the other.

This must be done in a comprehensive manner. Successful international negotiations are a balancing act – before intervening, it’s essential to understand the political, military, economic, regional, international, tribal histories and current realities of a place. Any actor must come prepared with the tools of negotiation – the identification of specific interests that can be aligned or traded, and a deep understanding of the nuances of body language, for example. This never happened in Iraq. In 2003, the Administration immediately readied for war, ignoring diplomatic tools like dispatching teams of negotiators, aligning with national and regional players, and, developing a deeper understanding of the stakeholders to decode the rhetoric of the deposed leader, Saddam Hussein. Today, with the rise of IS, the U.S. seems once again to be responding with piecemeal reactionary solutions that are not addressing the major foundations of the region’s problems.

To do this we need to start deploying our geopolitical experts with cross cutting personal skills, and give them some of the jobs that right now are in the purview of the military. And that means a rethink of the way USAID and the State Department are structured. Neither has a cohesive strategy to focus on today’s multi-dimensional, increasingly complex and interconnected world challenges. We do not need more papers or files, better twitter accounts or a bigger presence on Facebook. We need seasoned nonpartisan professionals who are working to find options to support U.S. interests, build relationships with international counterparts and are given the freedom to unequivocally support all these “values” of democracy – like, freedom, and human respect.

The military is expected to “prevent, shape, and win” with full government support, but U.S. Secretaries of State are expected to wing it while handcuffed Foreign Service Officers are stuck behind compounds trying to understand the population and its multidimensional intricacies, often getting little if anything done. This has to change.

Diplomacy takes time, patience, and risk. It also builds long-term trust and rapport with possibilities beyond war for a prosperous, or at the very least, a less devastating future.

The Heresies of Humans

In the month of August 1945, Japan witnessed the most horrific human carnage.  Two nuclear bombs plummeted from United States warplanes killing thousands.  Some estimates put the death toll at over 200,000 within the first two months due to the affects of the radiation.  Within months, people succumbed to burns, radiation sickness and other illness from these toxic man made weapons. To date survivors suffer cancerous disease and other radiological side affects.

The majority of those who suffer and/or died were innocent civilians, killed because those in government decided war was the answer.  The use of these horrific weapons was applauded in the West.  Despite the brutal massacre, the US readied to use more. Seeing what humans are actually capable of, the Japanese Emperor surrendered.

In his declaration he referred to the atomic bombings:

“the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

Political and academic circles continue to debate the “ethics” of this genocidal instrument.  Stating that the war would have caused more carnage if they weren’t used.

The massive destruction should have given the world more than a verbal debate, it should have given all of us pause.  Seeing the devastating impacts – burning flesh to the bone, killing thousands in seconds, actually watching people, and I repeat, people being incinerated – should have horrified us all.  It did not.  Instead of doing everything in our power to prevent war and weapons, the world chose to make more.

Looking around today, the world is looking pretty terrifying.  Militants are rampant, religion used as an excuse to kill, young children being bombed, beaten, shot and burned.  And I’m not just talking about the Middle East, or Africa. Europe, South America, Asia are all seeing unrest. You need look no further than your neighborhood schools or the US border with Mexico. The world is angry.

You would think after all that mankind has seen through war after war and endless holocausts that things would change.  Yet, discontent has only gotten worse.  Two massive nuclear explosions changed Japan who decided to disarm; the remainder of society chose to continue to kill.

As bombs drop on Gaza, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, militias terrorize throughout the world, governments marginalize and repress thoughts, ideas, and societies until they snap.  The human race is capable of unspeakable horrors and we are seeing them daily.

Japan stood still after two nuclear missiles.  The world froze after New York’s World Trade Center fell.  Hundreds of thousands died, families mourned, the psychological trauma never ends.  And day after day, nations, peoples continue to look to solve their issues with lethal weapons through violence. The US for its part engaged in two of the longest wars in history only to see more unrest, viciousness, and annihilation.  Iraq and Afghanistan are not better.  They both are worse.  So what now?  My bet is on more bombs, guns, and other weapons.

Although, know it does not have to be this way.  Peace may not be as dramatic or sexy as war has become, but is sure does give people safety, contentment, and the ability to live a truly democratic and free life.

To Have or Not to Have Guns

One week ago twenty children in an American school were massacred in less than ten minutes by a semiautomatic weapon. Too many innocent children are getting killed senselessly by guns. It is absolutely shocking that the Newton Elementary School shooting had to happen for people to noticed how many kids are dying in gun violence.

From 2008-2009, guns killed 5,740 youngsters according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Less military personnel died in Afghanistan and Iraq in ten years of war (5,013).

They are not alone. Plenty of adults die with them. In the US alone, some 9,000 people died of gun violence. Now brace yourself, this was within ONE year!

No this is not a tirade about guns. How can any breathing American not understand that weapons protect, not kill, (note sarcasm) even though every statistic shows us otherwise. After all every one needs a gun and a hummer (more sarcasm).

In the case of Connecticut, Nancy Lanza, the mother of the shooter, was a gun owner.
Despite the fact that she felt her son was dangerous she had guns and they failed protect her. They killed her, six other adults and twenty young children.

It is always more heart breaking when children are involved. But lets face it people, guns got us into this tragedy not out of it. The idea that people should have weapons to protect themselves from the ills of society is a cop out. It sure didn’t work for Nancy. So despite the fact that this idea of gun ownership backfired, there are a slew of people out there that still think people should have more. They are going so far as to wanting to arm the teachers and no doubt the kids too. Really?

This argument was also used in the Jovan Belcher’s case. You know the football player who recently shot his wife then himself. Well, the standard response was ‘If she had a gun, she could have stopped him. ” Yeah right. I can see it now, “Oh honey, could you hold your fire a minute or so while I put down the baby, get my gun and try to protect myself from you?”

Those guns belonged to Lanza, the mother, who was caught by surprise and even if she had a gun on her person, there would have been no way to react to her situation in order to save herself.

The larger question here is why on earth are we so preoccupied with having all the guns, all the time, regardless of their dangers or what is happening in society. Recent inquiries into Lanza’s life show her to be paranoid and what Americans have now termed “preppers,” which we can learn about through this organization called the American Preppers Network.

She, like many other paranoid Americans, was preparing in case the U.S. turns into a nation of anarchy. Kind of like Syria I’m assuming. She was getting ready for economic mayhem that will do doubt arrive since the American Congress and the President can’t get its fiscal cliff talks in order. I wonder if she was also one of those who wanted to be prepared to fight off the government in case they were sending someone to take away their guns or preparing for the Mayan calendar end of thw world date. That’d be today folks and we are still here.

In truth, being prepared is a good thing. Socking away retirement funds or water in case you are hit by a hurricane are good starts. It’s also great to save for a rainy day, be self sufficient, and independent or prepare for injury, illness or the death of a loved one. No one would argue with that, but come on, if the U.S. is truly heading toward this anti-government anarchy, we better find another way to prevent it.

No weapon is going to save everyone from total mayhem or the end of the world. I hate to tell you all this, but if the world ends you are going with it. It does not matter how prepared and self sufficient your are or how many guns and ammunition you stashed – you are on your way out with the rest of us and there is nothing your guns are going to be able to do about it.

Personally I think all this violence is a reaction to, and perpetuation of, seclusion, fear, and this consuming obsession with Armageddon that is driving people over the edge. Maybe if we spent a little more time and money on building the economy and intellectual capacity instead of hiding from and contributing to the demise of it, things wouldn’t look so bad.

President Obama finally announced that he will have a plan by January to help curb the gun violence. Instead of applauding and aiding in the effort, the response is a 360-degree turn – people are running out to buy more weapons. No lessons of mice and men here.

I am free to end my life in many ways. Skydiving, driving, and even flying a plane, but I need training, preparation and a license for all of them. Perhaps a little gun control wouldn’t hurt. No one is taking your weapons, all those who died by accident, drive by shooting or massacre and their loved ones would just prefer that these things stop. So, no big deal, get screening, training and a license. Chill, if there’s nothing in your background you shouldn’t worry.

Sadly, since those twenty innocent children lost their precious lives, many more have joined them. No life, liberty, doomsday or second amendment will be a worry for them.

Frankly, all this “my right to a gun” stuff is getting old. It is high time we look beyond “to have or not to have a gun.” There is a reason these things are called weapons. Alternatively, let’s take action so these horrific situations end. Yes, we the people must work on psychology, mental health, anger management and the like. However, beginning our efforts with a bit of weapons control would not be the worst thing.

These precious children should not be allowed to die in vain. We need to come together and work on stopping the violence with positive change. Then perhaps Americans can stop living in fear of fear itself thus withdrawing from, rather than, engaging in a more communal and peaceful society that protects all instead of just some.

Eyes and Ears: It’s Time They are Opened: The tragedy in Libya

Eleven years after the September 11th attacks, I woke up to an eerily similar day. Clear skies, nice weather, and, more or less, a noticeable amount of silence. I remember that day, first I heard the planes and then I watched the towers fall. I remember thinking how small the world had gotten, how actions elicit violent response and how this day should remind us that the world, not just Americans, must work more closely for less war and stronger relationships with, at the very least, mutual respect and understanding. Destiny sent us in an opposite direction. It sent the world toward conflict and war.

Some years later, I was in Afghanistan when pastor Terry Jones of Florida decided he was going to be the epitome of religious intolerance and burn some Korans, Islam’s holy book. To me this was an abomination. Not because I don’t believe in freedom of speech, but because it was completely irresponsible, insensitive and downright disrespectful. Here I was with countless other Americans and our allies trying to stabilize Afghanistan so our troops could come home and some American, pastor no less, was putting my life in danger . I knew that building strong relationships with Afghans would ensure trust and loyalty thus ensuring the likes of Al Qaeda would be kept at bay, but now my own intentions were being questioned.

Unfortunately for those of us in harms way, compatriots like Jones were the ones that made our safety and security much worse. The bottom line is that Americans have no idea how mindless actions like these jeopardize the safety of the rest of us.

The riots Jones incited in Afghanistan put my life and the lives of many Americans and their allies in grave danger. Apparently, the results of his careless actions were dismissed because he took it upon himself to inform the world about more senseless stupidity.

Now get ready because this is a soap opera. Supposedly an Israeli, living in the US, who is more probably a real estate developer, but calls himself a filmmaker, decided to make a “politically provocative” mockery of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad in and eight minute trailer and then past it on YouTube. In most countries he would be arrested for crimes against the state and inciting violence, but that’s another story. This person, supposedly named Sam Bacile, is spreading his own bigotry and intolerance caused more devastating international outrage than even Jones could muster. This time the insensitive provocation ended in the death of two US diplomats and the US Ambassador in Libya. The news now reports he unapologetically went into hiding while Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his staff, their families and this country pay the price for his indiscretion and ignorance.

The incident in Libya was senseless. And, yes, the First Amendment exists, in the US that is, and you are more than welcome to through up any piece of garbage on the Internet. No problem. As long as you don’t bash my faith, you’re fine.

Honestly though, I’m getting really tired of the hypocrisy. People spewing hate when they know first hand what it is like to have hate spewed at them. They see no problem with insulting others despite the fact that they have had plenty of issues to face in their own lives. I bet Bacile, or who ever he/she is and if he is Jewish, is horrified every time someone questions the Jewish Holocaust though he will never make a satire about that. I haven’t heard one peep of protest from other religions. Christians who were incensed with Martin Scorsese’ Last Temptation of Christ or Jews who was thoroughly infuriated by Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ are silent. Although none of these movies showed Jesus with his face in Mary Magdalene’s crotch, the one that is showing Mohammed between Khadeja’s legs is ironically ok. Really??

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, blamed Barack Obama. Just like everybody else he went straight to security instead of diplomacy. Romney was right in one aspect – that it is never wrong for a President to come out and speak against despicable acts. He is wrong, and so was Obama, about criticizing (in Obama’s case ignoring) the statement coming out of the US Embassy in Egypt. The US, in this case especially, must trust and stand by their diplomats to do the right thing in the countries they serve. Only the staff of the US Embassy in Egypt actually got it and made a hasty statement that worked to quell the masses. It was not an apology Mitt, and heartbreak like this should not be political, it was a way to ensure that the incident in Egypt did not end in the same tragic way it did in Libya.

If the US would take a deep breath and realize that the real issue here is that lack of diplomatic power, not to mention a failure of foreign policy in this region, it would be able to mitigate these types of problems. The US needs to get back to words and actions and away from endless war. It is time we learned the lessons from two decades of war. There is no military solution and the US must invest more consciously in its foreign service so they can engage in the countries where they serve. Currently, the military is training the warrior for the 21st Century; why is our government leaving the civilians out?

Becile, and Jones for that matter, knew what they were doing and our foreign service must be better prepared to respond. These actions have consequences and our civilian, like our military men and women must be engaged with the population. That, my friend, does not mean hunkering in the bunker. It means getting out there and building solid relationships so you’re working with the people, for the people and by the people, with your eyes open and ear to the ground giving you plenty of heads up that things like this are coming. Only then can our diplomates help manage the anger before it spreads.

This article was originally published on The Mantle

Follow Tricia on Twitter @Tricias_Take

Afghanistan: Time To End This War

Western officials are hoping the violent outburst after the careless Koran burning at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan will not happen again. Despite their deepest desires there is no doubt that it will.

This was not the first furious demonstration against the U.S. and its NATO partners, who Afghans consider occupiers, and it definitely will not be the last. No As-Salāmu `Alaykum or apology is going to help. Such blatant disrespect only further insights the anger and anxiety of endless war and violence that existed before the post 911 invasion and continues to thrive today.

The majority of foreigners, both civilian and military, should pack their bags and get out. Of course they will not. Afghanistan has this way of convincing even the savviest imperialist that there is hope the place might actually be tamed. This is an illusion. Afghans have their own culture and way of life and it doesn’t coincide with the efforts of modernization by the West.

The U.S. and NATO will dismiss the signs of failure, much like Brits and Soviets, and, instead, “stay the course.” That is because their idea of “stay the course” involves two things simultaneously. The first is negotiation with the Taliban and handing over Afghan security to the Afghans or replacing armed NATO soldiers with armed Afghan ones. Might as well go right back to the civil war where the Taliban and mujahedeen fighters killed and maimed while fighting for power.

Basically, the U.S. will again prop up the really nasty guys – in tandem this time. The Taliban will get the government back and the warlord members of the former Northern Alliance will get control over something we like to imagine called ‘security.’ The Taliban will probably keep its name while the Alliance will strategically be called the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police hoping no one will notice.

Although the Taliban is really vile, during the civil war, the Northern Alliance was brutal. These warlord/mujahedeen fighters raped women, burned up communities, and brutally murdered and tortured anyone who got in their way. Afghans hate the Taliban, but fear the leaders of the Northern Alliance. They do not trust them now and I guarantee that these feelings won’t change in 2014 when the troops retreat.

A new goal, followed by a thought process and strategy, is long overdue. If the parties want to leave without all hell breaking loose they need to start thinking beyond war.

There must be an Afghan political solution. The U.S. must assist the Afghans in stabilization the country instead of turning it into a martial state. Holding the space so that the Afghans can structure their own government instead just training a “security” force and causing yet more war is the key.

Recent FY 2010 figures show that the U.S. is spending around $2 billion a week on this war. I am sure two years later that it is more, but for arguments sake, I’ll leave it at that. With 52 weeks in a year, and two more years of battle, that comes out to around $208 billion (oh what I could do with $208 billion!).

I tried, but cannot seem to find out how much a Jirga or a tribal assembly of elders costs (A Jirga is a large group of people, sometime numbering up to 2000, that makes decisions by consensus), but after a bit of research I can safely assume that it costs less than a million a week. Since I like to overestimate, let’s just go with that number. At a million a week, the US can save a bundle over the next two years.

Now, why a Jirga you ask? Well, because this is the Afghan next best thing to democracy (and actually includes more people in the decision making than its American counterpart). Further, a Jirga will finally allow the Afghans to sit down and hash out their own future. While the West saves money and the elders debate lives will be saved because they’ll be busy talking instead of shooting or blowing things up. Historically Afghans have found one way or another to work out immense differences through this type of method.

Time gives another opportunity. One that would include bringing in regional actors so they too can participate and understand the benefits of dropping the “great game.” Pakistan, India, China and even Iran must agree to stop playing tug of Kabul. Perhaps in the process the U.S. can kiss and make up with Iran (I know, wishful thinking, but why not?)

The Afghans can develop an Afghan government for the people, by the people with Western mentorship instead of imposition. Let’s face it folks the Afghan government has done nothing but pretend to try to like the constitution and centralized American style government forced on them.

Will it be perfect? Probably not. Tell me one governance system that is. Afghans have had a pretty tough history filled with endless war and talk about post trauma stress… so it will all take time and patience. Reminds me of that saying, “good things come to those that have patience.” (ok, so I changed the last part, but you get the picture).

It is, however better than more NATO and U.S. officers dying, an all out Afghan civil war, propping up more malevolent warlords, or bringing back the Taliban so they can beat women if their shoes make noise.

In the meantime, it is time for everyone else — civilian and military alike — to reevaluate the lack of impact they are having and leave. Afghans need their space and the world needs to allow them to ‘ask’ for help when they need it. After all, it is preferable to ask for things not have them shoved down your throat.

Besides, there are too many compounds surrounded by concrete and barbed wire enclosing too many people doing way too little. I am not saying that they don’t mean well, I’m just saying in that type of environment a small stealth imprint makes much more impact. Fortresses with armored everything don’t really encourage relationships at all let alone long-term reciprocal ones.

Civilians can bow out fairly gracefully, however, it is those left behind to tear down the monstrous bunkers and the military withdrawal that will be a bit more complex to remove. The Obama Administration will have to be very strategic as it brings back most of its troops while leaving a very small contingency just in case. Historically as troops pack up and leave Afghanistan fighters from surrounding villages sabotage them. Both those in the British and former Soviet military can attest to that. Therefore, any extraction must be carefully calculated. Nevertheless, it must be done.

After speaking to some people on the ground, it is clear that the protests that were triggered by the Koran burning were a built up reaction to the overwhelming presence of “the foreign occupiers” and the Afghan people are feeling helpless as things get progressively worse. They continue to struggle for even the basics — electricity, water, and food.

Taking steps to allow Afghans to take the lead while supporting their efforts toward peace, governance and security will satisfy interests on both sides. U.S. and NATO troops can go home leaving a somewhat more stable nation while continuing a political partnership with the Afghans and their neighbors. We will all save money, but more importantly we will save lives on all sides by finally ending this war.