It seems we’ve lost Luke Skywalker’s home planet:
Tataouine, the town in Tunisia where George Lucas filmed parts of Star Wars, has become embroiled in the country’s unrest with Isis.
The town’s simple domed structures became iconic after they were used for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine, and die-hard fans often make pilgrimages to them. But the town has become increasingly unsafe, as it is a waypoint for Isis fighters travelling to and from training bases in Libya, 60 miles to the east.
CNN reports that major arms caches have been found in the area this month, one of them with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Yeah, well, Obi-Wan Kenobi did warn Luke about the place, the day they showed up in that one dusty Tatooine town to find someone who would get them out of there so they could go fight the bad guys – “Mos Eisley spaceport: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
Sometimes location mangers get it right, but Tunisia is being cautious, after two ISIS gunmen stormed into the Bardo museum in Tunis on March 18 – shooting 23 people quite dead (for real) before being killed by security forces. This item also goes on to report that Tunisia “has massively stepped up military presence in cities, and created a buffer zone around the border to restrict passage to Libya and Algeria.” One can’t be too cautious. They need that tourist trade, although the new Star Wars movie – The Force Awakens – uses locations in Ireland and the UK and Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is still safe. Check out the world’s biggest roller-coaster restaurant that just opened there. Perhaps that’s the world’s only roller-coaster restaurant.
The rest of the region is just a roller-coaster. Nowhere is safe, so of course we’re staying in Afghanistan:
President Obama’s decision to maintain troop levels in Afghanistan through 2015 is partly designed to bolster American counterterrorism efforts in that country, including the Central Intelligence Agency’s ability to conduct secret drone strikes and other paramilitary operations from United States military bases, administration officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday announced that he would leave 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan until at least the end of the year. The announcement came after a daylong White House meeting with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan. The two men said the decision was a necessary response to the expected springtime resurgence of Taliban aggression and the need to give more training to the struggling Afghan security forces.
But two American officials said that a significant part of the deliberations on the pace of the withdrawal had been focused on the need for the CIA and military special operations forces to operate out of two large military bases: Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan and a base in Jalalabad, the biggest city in the country’s east. Reducing the military force by half from its current level, as planned, would have meant closing the bases and relocating many of the CIA’s personnel and its contractors.
That wouldn’t do:
The resilience of Al Qaeda in the mountains that straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has surprised many American officials, and there are fears that the Islamic State could gain a foothold in the Afghan conflict. Mr. Ghani has repeatedly raised the specter of the Islamic State in comments ahead of his trip to Washington and during his visit.
Yes, those Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS, are a bother, and this Shiite guy is quite okay:
While the primary mission of Mr. Ghani’s trip is a military extension, he is also using his visit as a public-relations blitz aimed at repairing Afghanistan’s reputation as a country whose leaders have taken American help for granted over the past decade.
In a series of appearances Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Ghani repeatedly thanked American troops for their sacrifices in his country, and he promised that Afghanistan would reciprocate by building a government that could stand on its own economically, socially and militarily.
“You stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and I’d like to say thank you,” Mr. Ghani said at the news conference on Tuesday. “I would also like to thank the American taxpayer for his and her hard-earned dollars that has enabled us.”
The last guy, Hamad Karzai, never said such things. He was a bit of a jerk, but Ashraf Ghani proved he wasn’t in his address to a Joint Meeting of Congress. Unlike Benjamin Netanyahu, Ashraf Ghani was invited by all the members of Congress, not just the Republicans, in coordination with the White House and the Department of State – no one was blindsided – and Ashraf Ghani wasn’t there to proclaim that Obama was a fool and should be stopped from having anything to do with foreign policy, immediately. Ashraf Ghani is not Netanyahu and this went well:
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invoked Islamic State as the latest threat to his country in a speech to the U.S. Congress seeking continued backing for America’s longest war.
While offering effusive thanks for 13 years of support in combat that cost more than 2,300 American lives, Ghani said Wednesday in an address to Congress that Islamic State and other terrorist groups are seeking inroads in Afghanistan and its neighbors. …
Attempting to depict the defense of Afghanistan in terms of terror threats now gaining the most attention, Ghani said the Sunni extremists of Islamic State are “already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to test for vulnerabilities.”
Even as he appealed for continued U.S. support, Ghani said he was determined to create a “self-sustaining Afghanistan” that would contribute to the global economy, bolster women’s rights and serve as “the graveyard of al-Qaeda and their foreign terrorist associates.”
He was different. He wasn’t going to be a whining freeloader, playing victim all the time, asking for billions here and billions there, and then calling American leaders fools – perhaps he was saying he wasn’t going to be Benjamin Netanyahu – and that won the day:
“The speech was quite extraordinary in every regard,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“I know he made a lot of bold statements,” said Corker, referring to Ghani’s aspirations for the next decade. “But I do feel certain he’s going to make a lot of progress.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Ghani’s advocacy for women’s rights is a “shining example of the real difference we have made in Afghanistan.”
But Obama is still a fool:
Republican lawmakers were less eager to praise Obama’s decision on suspending U.S. withdrawals because he stood by his vow to remove all but about 1,000 troops from Afghanistan by January 2017.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said while he welcomed Obama’s decision to delay the drawdown, he worries about the timeline.
“Don’t pick an arbitrary date,” said Graham, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a potential presidential candidate next year. “ISIL and other groups are looking for places to go,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Oh well, there’s no pleasing these people, but this is interesting:
Some lawmakers noted a welcome contrast exhibited by Ghani and the oftentimes frosty relations with Karzai.
Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Ghani as a “very humble man” whose “recognition of the sacrifices of the U.S.” marks a shift from his predecessor.
“It’s like night and day,” Engel said.
There was that, and this:
Ghani used much of his speech to thank everyone from Obama to U.S. taxpayers for years of sacrifice battling al-Qaeda and its Taliban sympathizers.
He said that someday he hoped U.S. combat veterans would return to visit Afghanistan “not as soldiers, but as parents showing their children the beautiful country where they served in the war that defeated terror.”
The American-educated Ghani, a former World Bank official, described being in the bank’s New York offices when terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and even recalled eating “corned beef at Katz’s, New York’s greatest, greasiest, pickle-lined melting pot.”
There you have it – Katz’s Delicatessen isn’t strictly kosher, but it’s pretty damned Jewish. There was a lot of signaling going on, and everyone remembers Katz’s from Meg Ryan’s famous fake orgasm scene at a table there in When Harry Met Sally… – where the woman at the next table says “I’ll have what she’s having.”
That’s what Ghani was saying too, and as he has a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University (1982) he also got to swap college stories with Obama, who did his undergraduate work at Columbia. This guy is good. Of course we’re staying in Afghanistan. After fourteen years, what’s another year or two, or three, or more, among friends?
So be it, but in Iraq, things are less clear-cut:
American warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Tikrit late Wednesday, finally joining a stalled offensive to retake the Iraqi city as American officials sought to seize the initiative from Iran, which had taken a major role in directing the operation.
The decision to directly aid the offensive was made by President Obama on Wednesday, American officials said, and represented a significant shift in the Iraqi campaign. For more than three weeks, the Americans had stayed on the sideline of the battle for Tikrit, wary of being in the position of aiding an essentially Iranian-led operation. Senior Iranian officials had been on the scene, and allied Shiite militias had made up the bulk of the force.
Mr. Obama approved the airstrikes after a request from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi government counterterrorism forces that have worked most closely with United States troops, American officials said. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising forces around Tikrit, was reported on Sunday to have left the area.
To clarify – Iran had been in Iraq fighting ISIS – those Sunni madmen – for us there, using the many Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, because the regular Iraq Army is hopeless, even after all our training. Their generals, from Iran, were directing the effort, there on the ground. Haider al-Abadi must have had a back-channel conversation with the folks in Tehran – one Shiite leader to another (they are close allies now) – and convinced the Iranians to stand down, to see if Iraq and the Americans could take care of the bad guys. Iraq isn’t part of Iran, not quite yet, and the Americans seem to want to jump in once again. Let them. Take the weekend off.
We did want to jump in again, to make eight years of war in Iraq, and five thousand lives, and two trillion dollars, worth all that:
The United States has struggled to maintain influence in Iraq, even as Iran has helped direct the war on the ground against the Islamic State. But as the struggles to take Tikrit mounted, with a small band of Islamic State militants holding out against a combined Iraqi force of more than 30,000 for weeks, American officials saw a chance not only to turn the momentum against the Islamic State but to gain an edge against the Iranians.
If the Americans did not engage, they feared becoming marginalized by Tehran in a country where they had spilled much blood in the last decade, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
American officials now hope that an American-assisted victory by Mr. Abadi and his forces will politically bolster him and counter the view of Iranian officials, and many Iraqi Shiites, that Iran is Iraq’s vital ally. “Taking back Tikrit is important, but it gives us an opportunity to have our half of the operation win this one,” one American official said. “It’s somewhat of a gamble.”
The administration also hopes that a Tikrit victory with American air power will ensure that it is their coalition with Mr. Abadi’s forces, and not the faction led by Mr. Suleimani, that then proceeds to try to recapture the larger and more pivotal city of Mosul.
Iran may not care about all that. Get rid of those awful Sunni ISIS folks and they’ll be happy. America will be gone one day, and then Iraq can become one of the provinces. They can wait, even if there was a little grumbling:
Shiite militia figures have criticized any outreach toward the United States. “Some of the weaklings in the army say that we need the Americans, but we say we do not need the Americans,” Hadi al-Ameri, the prominent leader of the group of Shiite militias known here as popular mobilization committees, said last week. …
At Friday Prayer in Karbala last week, a sermon by Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaee, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the powerful spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, pointedly called for more unity and better organization in the fight in Tikrit. That was widely taken as implicit criticism of the offensive’s lack of success.
The representative also said that fighters should refrain from flying Shiite religious banners, suggesting that better efforts should be made to involve Sunnis in the fight.
Yeah, that’s a problem:
American officials seemed heartened that Mr. Abadi had made a point of calling the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey last weekend to reassure them that once the Islamic State is rooted out of Tikrit, the Sunni city would be returned to the control of its Sunni police, not dominated by Shiite forces.
We did create a monster. We got rid of the Sunni despot Saddam Hussein, claiming he was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, even if al-Qaeda had been saying for years that they hated Saddam Hussein. Sure, he was a Sunni like them, but he was a secular Sunni. He wore western suits. He lived a lavish lifestyle. He never seemed to mention Allah. He wasn’t seventh-century austere. He wasn’t serious. They had no problem with America spending its blood and treasure, and ruining its reputation around the world, to get rid of that one guy. And they could wait. America got rid of the Sunni fool.
They shouldn’t have wished for that. It was inevitable that Iraq would end up with that Maliki fellow – a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight, for decades. The sectarian civil war continued, with the roles reversed. Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, and told them that any new Shiite leader, like Maliki, would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. Yeah, sure – that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals. It’s no wonder Sunnis in Iraq seem okay with ISIS at times. The ISIS crowd may be awful, but they’re better than that Shiite crowd in Baghdad. A little hope is better than none.
And there’s one other complication to this. Early on, Paul Bremmer ordered the Iraq Army disbanded, and ordered that every member of Saddam’s Baath Party be purged from government. Sunni generals from the former Iraq Army are now senior ISIS commanders, and many of the Sunni Baathists who lost everything are its foot soldiers. Paul Bremmer didn’t create ISIS, but he helped staff it. We pulled a few strings two years ago and got rid of Maliki, but Haider al-Abadi is little more than a more pleasant version of Maliki – a Shiite strongman who smiles and says he’s working on that be-nice-to-Sunnis thing. Now and then he makes the right sounds. That’s about it.
We did make a few mistakes in Iraq, but like Iran, we’ve always been fighting those deadly Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then ISIS. They’re out to get us, but our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that – they do behead folks and stone others to death, where women are not allowed to drive or be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is an odd place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff – and a lot of private Saudi donations have always funded al-Qaeda – and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – and Osama bin Laden is from a prominent Saudi family. Is Saudi Arabia out to get us? No, this is all about the oil. We’re close.
Fine, but then this happens:
Saudi Arabia led a coalition of 10 Sunni-ruled nations to begin massive air strikes against Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels as it seeks to stop the spread of Iranian influence on its southern border.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, has accused Shiite Iran of fomenting unrest in Yemen, which has emerged as the latest ground for a proxy confrontation between the two regional rivals. The air strikes come after forces loyal to the rebel group marched on the southern port city of Aden, the stronghold of Yemen’s President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi.
The operation is aimed at protecting “the legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis,” Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir said. Huge blasts could be heard all over Sana’a, as well as explosions at the al-Dailami air base near the capital.
Up north and a bit to the east we’re siding with the Shiites and hoping the “good” Sunnis don’t mind, but here we may have to go the other way, because these Sunnis have a coalition:
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar said they responded to a request from Hadi, according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency. Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Jordan are also part of the operation, according to Al Arabiya TV, bringing the total number of aircraft involved to 185.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations say they are taking more assertive military action to prevent the instability across the Middle East from hurting their interests in the region.
We have to be careful here:
U.S. President Barack Obama has “authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support” for the operation, the White House said in a statement. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support.”
Escalating chaos in Yemen threatens the Obama administration’s ability to combat the al-Qaeda affiliate that’s most intent on attacking the U.S. and its allies. Obama singled out Yemen last June as a model for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism by relying on training allied forces rather than risk American lives.
Yeah, we wanted to combat a Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate there, but now the bad guys are Shiites, aligned with our enemy, Iran, with whom we have a shared interest in knocking off Sunni madmen, not Shiites, at the moment:
The Houthis marched from their northern base to capture Sana’a last year. The group then moved to strengthen ties with Iran, sending a delegation this month to Tehran to discuss economic cooperation and starting direct flights with the Iranian capital.
The Houthis, who follow the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam, say they operate independently of Iran and represent only their group’s interests.
That doesn’t help. Obi-Wan Kenobi had it right – “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
If only it were that easy. Obi-Wan Kenobi should have had a word with George Bush back in 2003 – not that it matters now. We’re all-in now. We’ll just have to muddle through.