Did Egypt bomb Libya ?

Quoting Reuters, “Renegade General Khalifa Haftar’s air force was responsible for strikes on Islamist-leaning militia in Tripoli on Monday, one of his commanders said“. The Guardian has a  profile of Haftar. With Haftar’s backing, the Zintan militia had been fighting Misrata militia for Tripoli’s main airport, which the Misratans have now captured.

Haftar claims his forces did the bombings, which the Zintans praised as professional. Reuters: “A Zintani source said fighters in his unit saw planes bombing a Misrata militia position. “Our forces at the airport saw massive and accurate bombings,” he said.

Of course, what we’d really like to know is, who is going to win Libya, Haftar, or the Islamists. But the attention of the press is elsewhere, so the question is not currently tractable, other than to note that losing the airport is not a good sign for Haftar’s bunch. So we start small: Whose airplanes were they? With open source intelligence, this might eventually add up to something.

NATO and Egypt exclude themselves: “A U.S. official and an Egyptian security source, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said their countries had not been involved. ” Since no statement appears credible, this is an occasion to sift through the contradictions, while enjoying a crooked smile:

  • Capability. It is almost a fact that nobody in Libya has warplanes that work.
  • Unimportance of the target. The target has been described as no more than “a Misrata militia position.” This favors Haftar’s claim of responsibility, since the more distant the responsible party, the more important the military justification.
  • Denials. The U.S. and Egyptians deny, but “both speaking on condition of anonymity.” Usually, a denial of involvement is made loudly and with official imprimatur.  But it’s important not to fall into the trap of excessive conspiracy. Their shyness does not inculpate the U.S. or the Egyptians, but it at least implies that the force responsible for the bombings is shielded by ambiguity. And it gives Haftar the benefit of propaganda.
  • Strength. Haftar wants credit for the bombings, because the ability to bomb implies strength, and strength evokes loyalty. There is always an attraction to being on the winning side.
  • Ethics. In the Middle East, in the current conflicts of nationalist versus tribal, there seems to be a “golden rule”: atrocities committed by one tribe against another are acceptable, but outside interference is considered unfair. This is all too familiar to law enforcement responders to domestic violence calls, when one or both parties interrupt their attempts to murder the other by turning on the responders.
  • Secular vs. Islamist. Islamism of all sorts is packaged for export. It has been claimed that Saddam Hussein initiated the Iran-Iraq war because he feared Iran would export revolution to Iraq’s Shi’ites. Saddam’s Iraq was comparatively secular. El-Sisi’s Egypt is secular compared to Libya’s Islamists. By analogy, el-Sisi could fear the potential of Libya’s Islamists to refuel the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • The U.S. ? This might seem attractive to those distant from U.S. politics, to those who see the U.S. as the author of conspiracies such as have historical record. Those closer to the U.S. political scene understand that the country has changed. For better or worse, the giant has feet of clay.
  • Israel? Although there is talk of actual cooperation between Israel and Arab states that fear political Islam, it would be unprecedented. The process of exclusion would lead to Israel only if el-Sisi could not safely motivate the Egyptian military to attack Libyan Islamists. But the climate in Egypt, particularly in the insular military, seems permissive of the action.





Making Plans; Getting Ready; Iraq Mosque Massacre

In political impact on attempts at unification, the massacre, reported by CNN, is the most significant of recent massacres, because, unlike the others, it is interpreted as an act by one political faction against another.  The word “interpreted” is added just to guard against the  chance that it was  a false-flag ISIS operation. In the dismal accounting, it adds to the pile supporting the hypothesis of “Important Iraq Question“, and “Iran’s Strategy of Partition.

Proving nothing, the massacre is merely compatible with the Iran hypothesis, but I find myself  surprised that the perpetrators couldn’t find something better to shoot at. In the long game, the difference will show, but in the intermediate, the massacre highlights the nonviable nature of a U.S. strategy based on a politically unified Iraq.

Western culture is one of plans. In histories of World War II, much credit is given to Allied planning, which encompassed industrial and logistical effort spanning multiple years. While the raw material, men and their lives, remained the same as in previous wars, waging WWII became an exercise of management science. The specialty of operations research originated in the U.K., but was subsumed by U.S. technologists postwar. Some readers may be familiar with linear programming. One of the first postwar uses of digital computers was to solve linear programming problems as they appeared in the context of O.R.

Every previous U.S. intervention has assumed at least the fiction of political stability. This is now absent. It’s more like a game of pinball where you don’t even get to pull the plunger. The ball skitters out onto the table, while the adroit “cheat” tries to tilt the table without activating the “tilt switch.” Perhaps a closer analogy occurs if the pinball machine is in the mess of a destroyer in a rough sea.

Normally, I would stick to just trying to guess what’s coming down the pike, but the situation is so unusual, I venture an opinion. A situation like this defeats the normal concept of a plan, requiring innovation in the approach:

  • The immediate goal is dynamic, point-to-point minimization and containment of the threat, not molding of regional politics.
  • The response should be fluid, opportunistic, highly dynamic, and capable of varying rapidly and repeatedly from intensity to quiescence.
  • Since all of the players, with the possible exception of the Kurds, seem capable of uncivilized activities, politics must be very practical.
  • The duration is unknown.
  • The endpoint cannot be defined.
  • As the situation evolves, it is possible that opportunities for exit, or a more conventional strategy, will present. But not now.

Whether the challenge can be met will largely depend upon whether the planning structures of the U.S. government can adapt to these new requirements.


ISIS Executions & Emotional Reactions

Part of predicting is gathering of information and analysis. Another, equally vital component, is the mindset in which these activities occur. For two broad reasons, the ISIS executions should not shock. One reason is that analysis  should have already been performed, anticipating the executions.

But the best predicting also requires a kind of emotional detachment that is contrary to the need to wish for the good, the beautiful, and the true. I have found it useful to imagine, inside my head, a “little man” who feels detached, and who analyzes and predicts on my behalf.

Since computers became widely available, the term “virtual machine” is probably understood by many readers. Psychologists have a term, “empathy”, which is enabled by imagining the thought processes of another, or equivalently, simulating a simplified version of another person’s mind. This is a type of virtual process.

All this was anticipated by the mathematical specialty of estimation theory, which advocates, “Every good predictor contains a model of the system that is the subject of prediction.” Sure enough, in linear systems theory, where prediction and control systems can be drawn as diagrams, there is always a block identifiable as the system model.

So, if you find yourself more than modestly affected by the recent ISIS atrocities, you need to do some work on the part of your self you use for predicting. In my own case, this has resulted in lesser inclination to stomp on my hat and gnash my teeth, but without harm to my soul.

Iran history II: two societies

One author of an Iran history (possibly Armajani, but I’ve misplaced the volume) compares the Iranian historical concept of  the “right to rule” to a dye that stains the ruler, almost but not quite indelibly. It’s a notion compatible with enduring class consciousness of modern Iran. That author gives a marvelously detailed account of how the clerics of the  Safavid  dynasty, whose political period spanned roughly 1500 to 1722, manipulated the legitimacy question in the popular mind, gaining power in the process.

This is hard to pick up from Elton Daniel’s very precise The History of Iran. Written in the traditional mode, it does not provide “Google Street View”.  But about the Safavids, he writes (p92-93),

“This was also the period when the problem of excessive clerical influence became most severe. …In the case of Shah Abbas, such actions were probably intended only to cultivate the mojtaheds through the use of flattery and financial rewards…The notoriously timid and superstitious  Shah Soltan Hosayn (1694-1722), for example, was thoroughly  dominated by the ulama.”

The resemblance to the current situation, of a limited and easily intimidated secular government, is startling enough to keep handy.   But while the concept of the Islamic jurist, the faqih, is very old, the tradition is of governance is very new. Before Khomeini’s innovation of velyat al faqih, if someone were determined by a legitimate faqih to be guilty of adultery, it would be up to others to carry out the prescribed penalty.

Some of the strangeness of the situation can be removed, so as to better concentrate on the remainder, with a comparison to the history of the West.  Between the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.,  and 1870, when the Papal States were dissolved, the West encompassed varying degrees of theocracy, religious/secular symbiosis, and competition at intensities up to the level of warfare, with some periods and geographies of oppression more extreme than modern Iran.  In the Middle Ages of the West, freedom of expression was not even a debatable subject. In contrast, most Iranians are not religious. Fewer Iranians worship at mosques than Americans go to church. And unlike the Middle Ages, Iranians have satellite TV, the bootleg variety, so they can watch what they want.

But the extremes of Iran catch our eyes: the executions of “heretics” and dissidents, even children; the morality police who until recently roamed the streets, and a theocratic element that with increasing desperation adheres to practices claimed to be divinely inspired, and therefore exempt from the corrosion of time. It is the living embodiment of a Plato’s Republic,  incongruously set against a secular majority that pretty much does what they please — in private. The dichotomy is so severe  as to seem institutionalized hypocrisy.

How did two separate societies get to be in the same place at the same time? Next: goats and donkeys.

Iran: When is history important?

There was a participant in the FWE project who, being an expert on Byzantine history, took every opportunity in the forum for lengthy recitals, which in vague ways were supposed to presage and explain events in the modern Middle East. I could never understand the connections, though the word counts of the posts were amazing. Now, knowledge of Byzantine history is or was a favorite measuring stick of people with big hat sizes. The more you knew, the more brilliant you were, proven in competitive recitals like chess matches. I myself was humiliated by the lawyer  just starting out in the upstairs office who didn’t have enough clients.  I hear he’s doing well.

But even though the Ottomans laid claim to Byzantine legitimacy, and they lasted until 1922, this history doesn’t seem to explain much, if anything. The slate of grudges, obligations, entitlements, and destinies was wiped clean, and replaced by contemporary material. Apparently, people can be very unsentimental about their history:

  • In China, builders are creating idealized facsimiles of American suburban villages, complete with spired Protestant churches. I can’t find the citation where a buyer is quoted as buying the whole package, including religious conversion, so look at the Nine Towns instead.
  • During the70’s,  an often cited survey of West Germans indicated that, if offered the opportunity, most Germans would move to the U.S., “because they could make more money.”
  • In Russia, the prevailing sentiment among the cognoscenti is, “Let’s get outta here!” The spirit of Russia, Stolichnaya, is highly portable.
  • Attempting to engage the local Chinese restaurant owner about Chinese politics, she indicated that she didn’t know and didn’t care. She did tell me that Chinese restaurants in China are much more palatial, “because, why go out?”

Against this, there are the billions who will fight to the death for the right to chant their chants, wear their hats, speak their tongues, and do their Morris Dances.  The relevance of history is tied up with this, somehow. Possibly many citations of historical relevance are in error. So, if the claim is made that Iran’s current behavior is historically influenced, is there a litmus test? Or is it a case of, “I know it when I see it” ?

The books of Azadeh Moaveni, Lipstick Jihad, and Honeymoon in Tehran, are great reads, highlighting what, by lack of exposure in the historical trade, is the equivalent of physics “dark matter”. Everything she writes about, largely preserved by the XX diploid,  winds up in the heads of young men in some sublimated form, perhaps invisibly tempering the natural male inclination to coerce and kill. It’s a whole other side, revealed in the course of Moaveni’s personal struggle to disentangle the  cultural from the religious.

The metal of a key glints: in Iran, there is a distinction between the cultural and the religious. Before proceeding any further, this provides a clue that in Iran, history is very relevant. But proceed we must. It is the contrast agent required to see the mullahs clearly.

More later…


Haider al-Abadi, Iran’s lateral transfer

While his name is always accompanied with the statement that Haider al-Abadi is a member of the same political coalition (State of Law) as Nouri al-Maliki, it is curiously understated or omitted that he is actually a member of the same party, Dawa. From the point of view of the Iranians, this makes Abadi a lateral transfer.

Maliki was the first prime minister to succeed the “provisional government.” Whether he was a chosen Iranian proxy, or an accidental compromise, is open to question. On the one hand, the C.I.A. interviewed four candidates, with the intent of screening out Iranian influence. Opposing  the C.I.A.’s diligence  was the bond of a religion identical between Iran and Iraq’s Shiites, and political actors who have had extensive periods of residence in both countries, with personal associations of a lifetime.

This kind of setup fosters double agents, not flipped over lunch-cum-blackmail, but cultivated over many years.  So, with all due respect to the C.I.A., I don’t think they could have accurately understood the situation and penetrated the relationships. The Shi’ite bond between Iraq and Iran will always be a hall of mirrors to us. And so the idea that the U.S. successfully engineered the rejection of the supposed Iranian favorite, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in favor of Maliki, is questionable. Quoting from the Wikipedia article,

United States Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said that "[Maliki's] reputation is as someone who is independent of Iran." Khalilzad also maintained that Iran "pressured everyone for Jaafari to stay".[7] More recently, however, it has been claimed that al-Maliki was the preferred candidate of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, and that it was Soleimani who brokered the deal between senior Shiite and Kurdish leaders that lead to his election as Prime Minister.

As Meredith Wilson  observed in “The Music Man”, you gotta know the territory.

Since Maliki’s successor is also drawn from Dawa, the open-source hunch is that there is something special about the party. Statements are made that that Dawa receives financial support from Iran. Although past support seems likely from Dawa’s history, which intertwines with the Iranian Revolution, I can’t find a a reasonable citation for the present.

One significant point of conflict exists between Iraq’s Dawa and Iran’s Qom religious establishment, and it is rather severe. To the Western mind, this might discredit all thoughts of Dawa as an instrument of Iranian subversion. More on this later.

Implosion in Baghdad

Maliki has deployed “special forces” within Baghdad.

But there are no Iraqi “special forces”, only forces special by virtue of bought loyalty. And there are no discretionary forces; these forces were pulled from where they are actually needed, on the perimeter of Baghdad, to be deployed, to no military purpose, in the center.

Our side is probably busy outlining to the various factions, with aerial photography and other visual aids, where ISIS is now, and where it will be tomorrow. Since the details are not available via open sources, what simplification can be made to produce a prediction?

Maliki has gone insane. He’s “gone bananas”, he’s “off his rocker”, he’s nuts. As a general rule, but with the notable exception of Hitler-in-the-bunker, loyalty to the insane is very easily undermined. And unlike Hitler, there are a lot of termites chewing away.

Regime change is in the offing.


Air power in Iraq, an instrument of Popper’s “incremental change” ?

Karl Popper, one of my personal heroes, probably never envisioned the indignity of implementing his doctrine of “incremental change” in the form of aerial bombing. But in Iraq, we face the aftermath of one of the most unsuccessful social experiments in all of history, fashioned by the “neoconservatives” of the second Bush administration.

The  depredations of ISIS could be viewed as the endpoint of a world’s tolerance, about which Popper said,

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. – In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.[40][41][42][43]

In the words, “defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant”, is there perhaps an obligation to employ the weapon at hand, which in this case is air power?

This is an invitation to discussion. Whose voice will be the first on this forum? Man up, make a comment!

Iran’s strategy of partition

In a previous post, I was going to tease out the threads of Iran’s polyphonic Iraq policy, but it has become all too obvious. It now appears that the suggestion of joint Iran/U.S. involvement was a suggestion of the Rouhani “elected government”, which the hardliners of the theocracy are busy cutting off at the knees.

We now read that Maliki’s reluctance to resign is not simply out of concern for his personal safety. The commentary of Sayyid Mahmoud Shahroudi suggests it is actually a projection of Iran’s theocratic voice, Quoting Al-Monitor, “Najaf thus opted for dealing positively with the change by building an inclusive civil state in Iraq that does not only take into consideration the Shiite majority. On the other hand, Qom only saw in Iraq an American threat to Iran’s interests on the one hand and the Shiite majority on the other.”

From Qom’s point of view, what is missing in Iraq is “velayat-e faqih”, the so-called “Mandate of the Jurist”. It was Khomeini’s innovation to interpret velayat-e faqih as  theocratic government. Practically, this can be accomplished only in the portion of   Iraq  which has a Shi’ite majority. To the Iranians, it would be a disaster if Maliki were replaced by a unifying figure.

In “Important Iraq Question“, and “Khameni’s Centrifuges; Breaking the Dollar“, I asked whether Iran really wants Iraq to fall apart. The reporting of Al-Monitor suggests that the part of Iran that really counts, the Qom establishment, really wants this to happen. And like no other religious establishment, the Qom clerics really mix it up in economic affairs.

With Iraq’s southern oil wealth under their thumb, the mullahs may anticipate really tilting the tables of the world’s oil market. Whatever influence the U.S. may have pales compared to that of Iran, which entangles Iraq’s political scene like an inoperable brain tumor. In times like this, one wishes, not for diplomacy, but for miracles.



Iraq and the Old Swiss Confederacy

Models of voluntary political agglomeration of hostile, religious and ethincally distinct polities are rare, perhaps singular.  I can think of only one case in which all of the antipathies existed at once — Switzerland. The cantons that now compose that rock of stability were divided between two religions, Protestantism and Catholicism, and four languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansh, a form of Latin. The divisions still exist, but now as culture, not politics.

The melding occurred, roughly, between 1291 and 1848, during which the usual meddling of external conquerors, Popes, and an endless procession of opportunistic princelings sought to turn things to their short term advantages. As for why it happened, there are several ways to look at it. One could attribute it to the blessing of a higher power, or to the natural superiority of the Swiss, which also enables them to make the best cheese.

Or, one could identify some organic element of the situation, which might save some breath at the bully pulpit in trying to lecture the Iraqis into the same wise choice. The organic element appears to be the terrain of Switzerland, which presented severe difficulties in transporting goods to market.

With a similar problem of geography in the Appalachian region of the U.S., farmers turned their grain into whiskey, called “moonshine”.  The terrain of the Appalachians has the highest average grade in the U.S., with practically no level place to put two feet. There was no way to get grain to market!  Until well into the 20th century, there were no roads to speak of. As late as the 70’s, Appalachians were still happily blasting the tops off mountains to make a little more flat land.

But having converted the bulky grain into a compact, transportable product of high value, the distillers had another obstacle: the evil revenuers of the U.S. government,  with whom they fought a skirmishing battle that began in 1791, and continued at economically significant levels till about 1940.  The effort to bring moonshine to market, involving whole communities,  brought about spontaneous political, and political-criminal, organization. Apparently, bringing goods to market fosters a whole mindset related to “common carrier” problems, like how to get from Point A to Point Z without getting killed, and the goods intact.

The above is hopefully an adequate substitute for the more difficult research problem of how Swiss cheese was transported over the Alps in the Middle Ages.  How communities isolated in the Alps could cooperate in getting their cheese to markets elsewhere in Europe is similar, although it is harder to get drunk on cheese. Unfortunately for this argument, absinthe originated in Switzerland late in the 18th century, too late to explain most of the history of the Swiss Confederacy.

So the organic element that propelled political unification in Switzerlandz is identified: any hostile canton on the way to market could interdict the cheese. Unification secured transportation, which could be understood, even by narrow minded individuals, as leading to their own good as well as the common good.

In trying to secure the Swiss Confederacy as a model of hope for Iraq, there is a problem. Instead of the blessing of cheese, we have the curse of oil. Oil is not the hand crafted product, the labor of love that comes from the weedy patch out back. It comes from holes in the ground that are located as accidents of geography rather than products of virtue. This is why the rather shallow Beverly Hillbillies get to live it up, while the rest of us have to make it on the Protestant Ethic.

In Iraq, some people have oil, which means they get big screen TVs, and air conditioning to temper the merciless heat of Baghdad and Basra in the summer. The Kurds get that, and cool mountain breezes to boot.  The Sunnis get sand. And even though Southern Iraq, Shi’ite country, has oil, they want the Kurds’ portion as well. Or so the Kurds think; the Shi’ites make noises about Iraq the nation, though curiously, the Sunnis are left dry.

So, as I read in the NY Times that even Maliki’s party, “State of Law”, wants him out, my enthusiasm for Iraq the Nation is checked. Why nations, in the modern Westphalian sense, exist at all is still the subject of debate. Steven Weber thinks it has something to do with maps. Perhaps the essentials are an organic combination of geography with  a government that can tax and provide services, around which elements can evolve to cultural compatibility. History abounds with examples of cultural assimilation. But so far, there have been no obvious successes in the direct evolution of nomadic or pastoral cultures suddenly confronted with vast mineral wealth.

Notably absent from the news coverage of Iraq is any evidence of love-like sentiments connecting the different ethic groups (think “Ecstasy”), or sentiments other than, “how am I/or my family going to get out of this alive?” Organic? Not!

Intel9's world view

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