Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Tag

FBI agents stole $7.8 million from taxpayers

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

MSNBC reports that FBI agents posted to Iraq received $7.8 million in overtime and pay that they weren’t entitled to, an average of $45,000 per employee between 2003–2007.  They claimed the pay for, inter alia, doing watching movies, exercising, and attending parties.

One employee defended the fact that he claimed pay for the time he spent doing laundry, “When you’re in that environment, anything you do to survive is work for the FBI.”  It must be nice to work for that agency when you can do immoral things and get away with it.  Just about all the agents posted to Iraq claimed 8 hours of overtime per day, every day, for the three months they were there.  There’a a term for that sort of behavior: stealing.

Advertisements

Iraqi cabinet approves status of forces agreement

The new Iraqi flag eliminates the three stars but keeps the

The new Iraqi flag still has the takbir (Allahu Akbar/God is Great). The version used from 2004-2008 had three stars and a different script. The 1991-2004 flag had yet another script, rumored to have been Saddam's own handwriting.

Today the Iraqi cabinet unanimously approved a Status of Forces Agreement that will allow U.S. forces to stay in the country legally after their UN mandate expires at the end of this year.  According to Al Jazeera the vote was 27-0 with one cabinet member abstaining and nine members not present.  The agreement must now be approved by the full parliament.

The pact requires U.S. troops to leave the country’s towns and cities by mid 2009; they will then be based in rural areas and will assist in urban areas only when called upon to do so by Iraqi forces.  U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the 31 December 2011.  It was because this agreement was in the works and that no Iraqi government would or could approve a document that allowed the U.S. to stay much beyond 2011 that I didn’t think the recent presidential election would have any impact on the withdrawal of the American military from Iraq; John McCain couldn’t keep the troops there indefinitely and Barack Obama is unlikely to pull them out ahead of schedule.  .

While Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) are considered treaties under international law (see Article 2 Section 2(a) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties), under U.S. law they are considered executive agreements and are made pursuant to the president’s inherent power as commander in chief of the armed forces, not his or her treaty-making power; they therefore do not require approval either by the full Congress or the Senate.

In Iraq the pact is controversial, with Sunnis tending to be most opposed and some calling for a public referendum.  Now that the Iraqi cabinet has approved it, the agreement must now be passed by the 275-member Iraqi parliament where its fate is uncertain.  It then would have to be ratified by the three-member presidency which includes Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who has led calls for a public referendum and could veto the pact.  There are currently about 150,000 American military personnel in the country.

Saudi Arabia tries to reform jihadists

The Saudi flag bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet"). Note that the hoist end is to the right.

The Saudi flag is green, a color associated with Muhammad, and bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet").

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on a several year old Saudi program to deprogram jihadists.  The issue of deconverting people from radical, violent Islam is an important one for the Kingdom, which has produced huge numbers of terrorists recently, including 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers and bin Laden himself.  In may areas of the world, from Chechnya to the Philippines, the largest contingent of Islamic militants is comprised of Saudis; it’s a big problem.

Of course, to get someone to renounce terrorism it is important to understand why people join terrorist groups in the first place.

Though the exact nature of the role that religious belief plays in the recruitment of jihadists is the subject of much debate among scholars of terrorism, a growing number contend that ideology is far less important than family and group dynamics, psychological and emotional needs. “We’re finding that they don’t generally join for religious reasons,” John Horgan told me. A political psychologist who directs the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, Horgan has interviewed dozens of former terrorists. “Terrorist movements seem to provide a sense of adventure, excitement, vision, purpose, camaraderie,” he went on, “and involvement with them has an allure that can be difficult to resist. But the ideology is usually something you acquire once you’re involved.”

The article points out that other scholars disagree with this assessment and do stress the significance of political belief and grievance.  “But if the Saudi program is succeeding, it may be because it treats jihadists not as religious fanatics or enemies of the state but as alienated young men in need of rehabilitation.” 

At the end of the two-month program, which includes instruction in the correct understanding of jihad as well as art therapy, many of the men are given a car and financial assistance to rent a home along with help getting additional education and employment.  They are also encouraged to get married since “getting married stabilizes a man’s personality … He thinks more about a long term future and less about himself and his anger.”

I found the description of what the rehabilitation centers are like to be interesting.

On arrival, each prisoner is given a suitcase filled with gifts: clothes, a digital watch, school supplies and toiletries. Inmates are encouraged to ask for their favorite foods (Twix and Snickers candy bars are frequent requests). Volleyball nets, PlayStation games and Ping-Pong and foosball tables are all provided. The atmosphere at the center — which I visited several times earlier this year — is almost eerily cozy and congenial, with mattresses and rugs spread on stubbly patches of lawn for inmates to lounge upon. With few exceptions, the men wear their beards untrimmed and their thobes, the long garments that most Saudi men wear, cut above their ankles in the style favored by those who wish to demonstrate strict devotion to Islam. The men are pleasant but many seem a bit puffy and lethargic; one 19-year-old inmate, Faisal al-Subaii, explained that they are encouraged to spend most of their daytime hours in either rest or prayer.

The article also describes one of the classroom sessions, a discussion of jihad, and some conversations that the men have with their instructors.  Their experience as people who went to Iraq to fight the infidels was very interesting for me to read about.  On man, Azzam, said that he “didn’t have the chance [to fight]. For months, we went from safe house to safe house. There wasn’t anything to do — no action, no training. Finally, they asked me to be a suicide bomber. But I know that suicide is forbidden in Islam, so I came back home.”  It sounds incredibly banal.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.  Your gas money at work.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.

Another former militant, Abu Sulayman, said that “most people just want to carry weapons,” and didn’t really have any well thought out religious reasons for joining the fight.  Many of the men were disappointed with the poor organization of the militants in Iraq and disapproved of the infighting between the various Muslim groups.  The rehab process encourages them to feel victimized by propaganda and a distorted form of Islam.

One topic they especially want the men there to correctly understand is takfir, a concept in Islamic jurisprudence referring to the declaration that a fellow Muslim is an apostate and, therefore, subject to attack.  Some extremists have been applying this to the Saudi regime, which ranks up there with American support for Israel on the list of Al Qaeda’s grievances.  The Saudi Royal Family is pretty corrupt, but they rather like being in power and would really rather not have to change too much.  But they need to, if they really want to eliminate terrorism, both against their country and exported from their country, they’ve got to stop using textbooks in their schools that portray the rest of the world as being against Islam and call for a literal application of Shariah.  They also need to create better opportunities for their people.  This rehab program seems to recognize that, as it tries to reintegrate the men back into society in a productive role.

Doing that will be a better long-term solution than simply trying to blow up as many of them as possible before they blow us up, without all the collateral damage and blowback.  The Times article also gives some indications that police action may be more effective in breaking up terror cells than military force. 

In any event, there’s a lot of work to do still.  Saudi officials claim that no graduate of the program described here has returned to violent jihad.  We’ll have to see if that holds true.

My thoughts on Biden-Palin debate

The Vice Presidential Seal.  Who will get to use it post January 20th, Biden or Palin?

The Vice Presidential Seal. Who will get to use it starting on January 20th, Biden or Palin?

Like many Americans, I was very eager to see Joe Biden and Sarah Palin go head-to-head in the first and only Vice Presidential debate. Though the two are the Number Twos on their respective tickets, I have found the veep debate has been very much worth watching in both of the past two election cycles (I thought Cheney scored clear victories in both 2000 and 2004).

This time, to use a boxing analogy, there clearly wasn’t a knockout, nor even a knockdown; but I think that there were several solid blows landed, all of them by Biden, who I’d say won on points. He didn’t commit any gaffes, nor did Palin say anything really dumb. Without repeating things that the pundits have already gone over to death, here are some disparate observations of mine that haven’t been talked about (much) in the media. Please forgive the meandering format.

The first thing that struck me during the debate came when the candidates came out and shook hands. Palin asked her Democratic counterpart “Can I call you Joe?”, a request to which he apparently assented, though his mike didn’t pick up his response. I guarantee you that this was carefully planned and done for the audience at home, to play up the governor’s friendliness and make her seem down to earth. Do I have evidence? Yes: the transcript. The word “Joe” crossed Palin’s lips exactly two (2) times: once a reference to the average American “Joe Six Pack” and the other at the end of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” which was probably her best line of the night.

Palin tried to paint Obama as a big tax hiker, a claim that I think Biden countered effectively, stressing that 95% of taxpayers will get a tax cut and that no taxpayer making under $250,000 would see an increase under Obama’s plan. He stressed the importance of helping the middle class and their importance to our economy and painted McCain’s tax plan as simply tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations. He repeated the point—effectively, I think—and parried the Palin attempt to paint the Democratic ticket as big tax hikers. His line that McCain’s health plan is “the ultimate bridge to nowhere” was pretty lifeless, though I guess he had to get that in there somehow to remind voters of Palin’s flip-flop on the bridge.

I think that Biden also effectively defended his ticket from the charges that they want to cut-and-run from Iraq or, as Palin put it, hoist “the white flag of surrender.” Delaware’s sernior senator pointed out that Obama’s plan for withdrawing from Iraq is pretty much the same as that of its Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and will draw down U.S. troops over about a year and a half. Biden’s best line of the night came after Palin talked about McCain’s exit strategy, or, as Biden put it, the lack thereof: “With all due respect, I didn’t hear a plan.” Personally, I think the plan is just to keep repeating the words “victory,” “Iraq,” and “McCain” together in the same sentence a whole bunch of times until voters simply feel that McCain will win the war while Obama will surrender somehow.

Throughout the night, Biden tried to tie McCain’s positions to those of George W. Bush, on both domestic issues and foreign policy and; he wanted to show that there was no difference between them the nominee and the, very unpopular, incumbent. One effective moment for Biden was when he brought up each of the globe’s current hot spots seriatim and asked how McCain’s views differ from Bush’s, with the clear implication that they don’t. [Note: FireFox’s spell checker doesn’t recognize “seriatim” as a word.]

Additionally, I was surprised to learn that we spend as much every three weeks on combat operations in Iraq as we have in the past 7.5 years in rebuilding Afghanistan. If this is true, that’s almost a good sign: it won’t cost that much to significantly increase our efforts to get that poor country on it’s feet. C’mon, guys, cough up the dough.

Did you know that the Vice President of the United States has his (or her) own flag?  Too bad it's nothing special.

Did you know that the Vice President of the United States has his (or her) own flag? Too bad it's nothing special.

On climate change, an area where there is some disagreement between McCain and his running mate, Palin admitted that it’s real and that there’s “something to be said for man’s activity” in causing it, but she didn’t want to argue about the causes, just the solutions. Biden voiced what I was thinking at that point: without knowing the causes you can’t solve the problem! He pointed out that McCain has voted against alternative energy frequently and tried to make Obama look friendlier to renewables, though I don’t think he was as effective on the point as he could have been. “Drill we must,” he said, but it’ll take 10 years for that oil to hit the markets. Unfortunately, Obama’s plans—and any plans—for new technology will also probably have a time horizon of about a decade.

Joe Biden went toe-to-toe with Palin over how their family lives put them in touch with regular Americans, a possible strength for the truly and obviously middle class Governor of Alaska. Biden got genuinely choked up when talking about the death of his first wife and young daughter in a car accident that also critically injured his two sons. For a guy who has spent over a third of a century in the United States Senate, he doesn’t do too bad on the “seems like a normal guy” test.

Anyway, Palin beat expectations in the debate, but I don’t think by enough to make any real difference; vice presidential debates rarely do. To the surprise of no one, Biden’s answers on foreign policy were much more nuanced and contained more specifics and details. I didn’t get the impression that Palin’s on foreign policy questions had any depth to them, though she seems to have done a good job of studying her briefing books. I think she’s fortunate that the debate format didn’t allow for questions from the other candidate or for serious follow up questions from the moderator, either of which I think would have exposed her shallow grasp of the various issues.

She came off as being on message and my assesment of her political skills has accordingly gone up; she avoided a possible disaster and a bad performance from her in this debate could have been a mortal blow to McCain’s chances. But I still don’t think that Sarah Palin will make a good vice president at this point in time—she should have been groomed for higher office longer before being thrust onto the national stage. One thing they definitely should have worked on is her pronunciation of nuclear; she says noo-cu-lar, like George W. Bush does. That’s not a good sign.

The political futures markets have given a good sign to Barack Obama and his supporters, however. Following the debate, Intrade contracts on an Obama victory have risen to 67.0 and those for a McCain victory have fallen to 33.0, movement of about 4 points or so up and down, respectively. The chances that Palin will be withdrawn as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee fell in post-debate trading from 10.5% to just 4.1%. The chances that Biden will be withdrawn from his ticket only fell from 5.7% to 4.9%.

Anyway, the race goes on. The next presidential debate, which will be town hall format, will be held Tuesday night starting at 9:00 pm EST. The election itself will be held one month from today, on November 4th.