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WaPo on Iran and the al-Qaeda HVT list

| 10 Comments | 4 TrackBacks

I've got several copies of this Washington Post article in my Inbox and while I think that there are a number of entirely valid (albeit, at least IMO, politically-timed) criticisms of the administration that can be made.

It is also my belief that the people, likely in the State Department, who leaked details of the early 2002 negotiations with Iran to the Post are not reporting the full details of what was going on. The article makes some valid criticisms of the administration's approach to the war on terrorism, and I'd still recommend reading it. But there are some egregious errors that the Washington Post makes in this story, either out of ignorance or by design, and as such I thought I'd feel free to point them out.

I'll briefly deal first with the issue of Iran and then with the al-Qaeda high-value target (HVT) list.

What the Iranians Did ...

Now to be fair, the Post article starts out pretty good:

Days after Bush declared an "axis of evil," one of its members dispatched an envoy to New York. Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister, arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the first week of February 2002 with a thick sheaf of papers. According to sources involved in the transaction, Zarif passed the papers to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who passed them in turn to Washington.

This would likely be a UN source, for those who are curious.

Neatly arranged inside were photos of 290 men and copies of their travel documents. Iran said they were al Qaeda members, arrested as they tried to cross the rugged border from Afghanistan. Most were Saudi, a fact that two officials said Saudi Arabia's government asked Iran to conceal. All had been expelled to their home countries.

"They did not coordinate with us, but as long as the bad guys were going -- fine," a senior U.S. national security official said.

Which would be fine, were that in fact the case. The problem is, as the Post itself reported back in September 2002, things didn't work that way:

The sources said Iran's transfer of 16 al Qaeda operatives to Saudi Arabia in June, along with small deportations to other countries, were a pretense used to rebutt the Bush administration's charges and encourage the idea that it was cooperating in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, cited the June handover as an instance of such cooperation in an interview this month.

Now according to press reports, we know that over 160 Saudis who returned from Afghanistan (presumably via Iran) were given the revolving door jail treatment upon their arrival. Among them was none other than the mastermind behind the first Riyadh bombings, who had been promptly released by Saudi authorities after being turned over by the Iranians. Assuming that the Iranians and the Saudis are each aware of the other's respective dalliances with the terror network, citing Iran turning al-Qaeda operatives over to Saudi Arabia as a sign of progress in the war on terrorism doesn't pass the smell test, especially when:

Officials in Arab countries said that captured al Qaeda operatives have said in interrogations that their Iranian hosts had told some of them they had to leave after Bush included Iran in an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea in his State of the Union address. But crucial al Qaeda figures were allowed to stay, they said, and some of those who left were provided with false papers or had their passports cleaned of incriminating stamps.

Still others, or their wives and children, were turned over to their home governments in a display of solidarity with the United States and its allies.

In one case, the wife of a prominent al Qaeda figure was sent home and told officials when she arrived that her husband was still in Iran, another intelligence officer said.

Moving right along in the article ...

In late November 2001, the State Department's policy planning staff wrote a paper arguing that "we have a real opportunity here" to work more closely with Iran in fighting al Qaeda, according to Flynt Leverett, a career CIA analyst then assigned to State, who is now at the Brookings Institution and has provided advice to Kerry's campaign. Participants in the ensuing interagency debate said the CIA joined the proposal to exchange information and coordinate border sweeps against al Qaeda. Some of the most elusive high-value targets were living in or transiting Iran, including bin Laden's son Saad, Saif al-Adel and Abu Hafs the Mauritanian.

They were also being protected by Qods Force, which is the elite of the IRGC, again according to the Post. And it wasn't just Saad, Saif al-Adel, and Mr. Mauritania either - there were over 400 al-Qaeda operatives being harbored by the Iranian government according to both Western and Arab intelligence sources.

Representatives of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fought back. Any engagement, they argued, would legitimate Iran and other historic state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria. In the last weeks of 2001, the Deputies Committee adopted what came to be called "Hadley Rules," after Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who chaired the meeting. The document said the United States would accept tactical information about terrorists from countries on the "state sponsors" list but offer nothing in return. Bush's State of the Union speech the next month linked Iran to Iraq and North Korea as "terrorist allies."

Context, context, context. At the time these rules were drawn up, large numbers of al-Qaeda operatives were fleeing into Iran from Afghanistan even as Iran was providing the US and the Northern Alliance with intelligence that was useful in defeating the Taliban regime. So adopting these rules would make a great deal of sense under the circumstances, unless one is of the opinion that we should reward the Iranians for assisting us with defeating lesser enemies while they themselves are helping out the greater ones.

Twice in the coming year, Washington passed requests for Tehran to deliver al Qaeda suspects to the Afghan government. Iran transferred two of the suspects and sought more information about others.

In other words, we didn't shun the Iranian request per se but instead farmed it out to the Afghan government, which we could (and probably did) let us know if there was anything interesting that came up. And before anyone starts screaming about how this is yet another sign of the administration shirking its responsibilities, do keep in mind that we have always resorted to third parties when interacting with countries like Iran ever since the 1979 embassy seizure, so this is hardly a departure from traditional US policy. If Iran had really been serious about stopping al-Qaeda, they could just as easily have handed these individuals over to the UK, France, Germany, Russia, or any of the other European nations that has diplomatic relations with Iran. They didn't, and I think that the fact that the only time in which the Iranians appeared even half-way serious for turning these people over was only after the war in Iraq in return for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq members says a great deal in of itself about how serious they were.

Ultimately, what needs to be understood is that if Iran were ever truly serious about getting rid of al-Qaeda members on its soil, there were a multitude of ways in which this could have been accomplished. Moving 200 of them to Ein al-Hilweh isn't among them. The problem is, Iran hasn't done so and as such people need to start asking why exactly that is.

The Issue of the al-Qaeda HVT List

Moving along to the next topic, we have the issue of the HVT list:

At the CIA's Counterterrorist Center in Langley, which then as now maintained wall-size charts of al Qaeda's global network, the approximately 30 names at the top were known as "high-value targets." At the time, a year into the manhunt, many of Gordon's peers agreed that "leadership targets," in the argot of U.S. military and intelligence agencies, were a "center of gravity" for al Qaeda -- a singular source of strength without which the enemy could be brought to collapse.

Mike critiques this approach in his book, IIRC, but I still think it's a valid one. Somebody with the experience, planning capabilities, and skill of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed does not come along that easily, though I still think that his entire extended family should be rounded up for the sake of general principle - of the ones who are now in custody, they're all a pretty nasty bunch, though I'm not going to get into the argument of why exactly that is. Ditto for Abu Zubaydah, with his ability to manage hundreds if not thousands of dispersed cells from memory. Zarqawi is also on the HVT list, and I think that recent events should demonstrate just how prudent it was to put his name up there back in 2001.

Hunting al Qaeda's leaders cut them off from their followers, Gordon said then, and "layers of interdiction" stood between would-be attackers and their targets. Some could be stopped in their country of origin, others as they crossed the U.S. border, and still others as they neared the point of attack. Each defensive measure, in theory, created U.S. opportunities to strike.

Also true. The problem is, though, that they only have to be successful once while we have to be successful in thwarting them every time.

"If I can cut him in half every time he comes through," he said, "now I can give the FBI and local law enforcement a manageable problem."

Works in theory.

That did not happen. On its own terms -- as a manhunt, measured in "high-value" captures and kills -- the president's strategy produced its peak results the first year.

That's because after the first year they had dispersed, whereas they had previously been concentrated in one area. If the US attacked the Kordestan, Central, or Sistan-Baluchistan provinces of Iran, I imagine you'd see a not-inconsiderable rise in the number of HVTs who are captured or killed. Ditto if we invaded Baluchistan or the Northwest Frontier Province in northern Pakistan. Now I'm not recommending either of these options for much the same reasons the administration hasn't chosen to undertake them, but it's still worth noting.

Classified tallies made available to The Washington Post have identified 28 of the approximately 30 names on the unpublished HVT List. Half -- 14 -- are known to be dead or in custody. Those at large include three of the five men on the highest echelon: bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Zawahiri and operational planner Saif al-Adel.

It also includes Abu Faraj al-Libi, but that's neither here nor there. My question is whether we're talking about the current HVT list or the one that got drawn up immediately after 9/11 - these are separate lists with separate names on them. And I don't believe that al-Libi is on the post-9/11 one, whereas he is on the current one.

More significant than the bottom line, government analysts said, is the trend. Of the al Qaeda leaders accounted for, eight were killed or captured by the end of 2002. Five followed in 2003 -- notably Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the principal planner of the Sept. 11 attack. This year only one more name -- Hassan Ghul, a senior courier captured infiltrating Iraq -- could be crossed off.

Not really, because while the top echelons have regrouped along the same lines listed above. There are also additional lists of 50, 200, and 400 that the Post isn't taking into account here. The US has done a heavy number on al-Tawhid in Iraq, for example, but it doesn't show up on the HVT list because the only al-Tawhid member on the list is Zarqawi. That doesn't render the elimination of a sizeable percentage of al-Tawhid's "officer corps" as unimportant or meaningless, however.

"I'll be pretty frank," Gordon said this fall after leaving the administration. "Obviously we would have liked to pick up more of the high-value targets than have been done. There have been strong initiatives. They just haven't all panned out."

I'd agree. I should note, however, that even if the April 2004 Pakistani offensive into Waziristan been entirely successful, we still wouldn't have seen any of the people on the HVT list taken out, as al-Zawahiri was never there to begin with.

As the manhunt results declined, the Bush administration has portrayed growing success. Early last year, the president's top advisers generally said in public that more than one-third of those most wanted had been found. Late this year it became a staple of presidential campaign rhetoric that, as Bush put it in the Sept. 30 debate with Kerry, "75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice."

There's a somewhat misleading overtone to this statement, as it's referring to known al-Qaeda leaders on the post-9/11 list have been eliminated.

Although some of the administration's assertions are too broadly stated to measure, some are not. Townsend, Bush's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said "three-quarters" of "the known al Qaeda leaders on 9/11" were dead or in custody. Asked to elaborate, she said she would have to consult a list. White House spokeswoman Erin Healy referred follow-up questions to the FBI. Spokesmen for the FBI, the National Security Council and the CIA did not respond to multiple telephone calls and e-mails.

Geez, people. The list they're talking about is likely the same one that has been routinely disseminated to media outlets in the wake of captures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It's the post-9/11 list, which is why there's nary a mention of people like al-Libi and why Saif al-Adel is still classified as one of bin Laden's security chiefs. All the same, 75% of the people on it are now in custody or dead, which in of itself represents a powerful victory for the war on terrorism.

In conclusion ...

Like I said, the article makes some valid criticisms of the administration's approach to the war on terrorism, and I'd still recommend reading it. But these are some of the two more egregious errors that the Post makes in this story, either out of ignorance or by design, and as such I thought I'd feel free to point them out.

UPDATE: Reader Mike Daley notes Prof. Cori Dauber has more on the WaPo article from a different perspective: the "Afghanistan vs. Iraq" argument.

4 TrackBacks

Tracked: October 23, 2004 2:26 AM
Excerpt: Both Winds of Change and Cori Dauber address a WaPo article that takes a look at the success or lack thereof of the administration's performance in the GWOT. These are long articles, necessarily, but if you really want to understand what's going on, ...
Tracked: October 27, 2004 3:18 PM
POLITICS: Getting The Job Done from Baseball Crank
Excerpt: The latest and apparently last theory that Kerry and his media allies have settled on is to attack Bush's execution of the War on Terror, including both the Iraq war and Afghanistan; the theme of the attacks has been that...
Tracked: December 17, 2004 6:02 PM
The Persian Approach from the fourth rail
Excerpt: Dr. Kaveh Afrasiabi, professor of political science at the University of Tehran has published an article outlining Iran’s strategy against a possible confrontation with the United States. As Colt stated in Thursday’s Winds of War Briefing, the arti...
Tracked: December 17, 2004 6:07 PM
The Persian Approach from the fourth rail
Excerpt: Dr. Kaveh Afrasiabi, professor of political science at the University of Tehran has published an article outlining Iran’s strategy against a possible confrontation with the United States. As Colt stated in Thursday’s Winds of War Briefing, the arti...

10 Comments

I thought the most important point made by the article--more important than negotiations with the Iranians or the target list--was this one, about the difficulties of walking and chewing gum at the same time:

Twenty months after the invasion of Iraq, the question of whether Americans are safer from terrorism because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power hinges on subjective judgment about might-have-beens. What is not in dispute, among scores of career national security officials and political appointees interviewed periodically since 2002, is that Bush's choice had opportunity costs -- first in postwar Afghanistan, then elsewhere. Iraq, they said, became a voracious consumer of time, money, personnel and diplomatic capital -- as well as the scarce tools of covert force on which Bush prefers to rely -- that until then were engaged against al Qaeda and its sources of direct support.

The article gives examples, e.g. redeployment of Task Force 5 members.

Of course, it's possible to accept this point and to still believe that going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do (because of the benefits of overthrowing Saddam Hussein). But when you weigh the costs and benefits, you need to consider the costs of moving scarce resources (special forces, CIA) from Afghanistan to Iraq.

"I support the decision to go into Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime," said Downing, a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief. "But in fact it was a gamble of sorts because Iraq did take focus and energy away from the Afghanistan campaign."

"It's been extraordinary painful, very frustrating," said a member of one elite military unit who watched what he considered the main enemy slip away. Even now, with a modest resurgence in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the task force "is not getting as much attention from the home office as Iraq."

Much the same drawdown took place in the CIA.

Anybody here read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars? It's a very good behind-the-scenes description of how the CIA supported the Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion, and then tried to track down and capture or kill bin Laden. Unlike Woodward or Hersh, Coll provides sources for his information. It gives a good picture of how complicated Afghanistan was, and how many different players were involved.

One minor comment on the blog post:

In other words, we didn't shun the Iranian request per se but instead farmed it out to the Afghan government....

This wasn't an Iranian request: "Twice in the coming year, Washington passed requests for Tehran to deliver al Qaeda suspects to the Afghan government." It was a request from the US to Iran. The Iranian request (which the US didn't respond to) was for the US to interrogate some prisoners at Guantanamo, suspects in the killing of Iranian diplomats.

Dan,
Cori Dauber, the Ranting Prof, has done a great post on the same WaPo article, but from and entirely different perspective.
At least it appears to be the same, I can't get her link to work, but many of the quotes in her piece are identical to the one you've linked to.
Mike Daley

http://www.rantingprofs.com/rantingprofs/2004/10/retired_army_ge.html

I find it appalling that the implicit assumption in all of these types of articles (and the corresponding complaints) is that America isn't even capable of fighting a war on two fronts at the same time. Geez, in WWII we fought in Europe, Asia and Africa at the same time and won. Now we can't even pursue some bad guys and fight in Iraq at the same time?

Give me a break!

Dan! I think you've invented a new artform! Pseudo-intel fisking! :-)

I wonder if the concentration on high value targets isn't itself a digression. Does anybody think that if they had just gotten rid of Columbus Europeans would never have invaded the New World? Once Columbus had demonstrated that there was a there there getting rid of a few top guys wouldn't have made a great deal of difference.

"I find it appalling that the implicit assumption in all of these types of articles (and the corresponding complaints) is that America isn't even capable of fighting a war on two fronts at the same time. Geez, in WWII we fought in Europe, Asia and Africa at the same time and won. Now we can't even pursue some bad guys and fight in Iraq at the same time?"

Apparently not.

Look, WWII was a total war: the side with the most men and the most weapons would win. The US mobilized an army of 8 million, and the UK and the Soviet Union were fighting on the side of the Allies.

This is not a total war. The key isn't to destroy the enemy's army--the 1991 Gulf War was the last time someone was stupid enough to try to fight a conventional war against the US. Instead, the enemy is concealed among the general population. The key is intelligence and political support: you need to isolate and identify the enemy. To do this, you need CIA and Special Forces who can speak the native language, and they're pretty scarce.

All the weapons in the US arsenal, including the nuclear weapons, aren't going to win the war if you don't know who they should be aimed at.

John Paul Vann: "This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle--you know who you're killing."

Winning this war requires solid intelligence, not maximum destructive power. The US has unlimited destructive power, but it doesn't have unlimited intelligence assets.

Russell Wvong (6:30pm) wrote:

Instead, the enemy is concealed among the general population. The key is intelligence and political support: you need to isolate and identify the enemy.

Wretchard made much the same point today, though he is more guardedly optimistic about the prospects for a relatively favorable long-run outcome in Iraq.

The major modern innovation of the Arab Way of War has been its radical new conception of defense in depth... [The] Arab redoubt was founded on establishing an underground of terror in the civilian populace. From the anonymity of crowds, they could emerge to attack the enemy from the rear...

The battle began to go against them from the start. In essence, Ba'athist-terrorist coalition was unable to inflict the losses necessary to disrupt the organizational learning curve of the American forces...Today, many of the [American] military objectives in the developing siege of the terrorist stronghold are abstract. They consist of developing a network of informers in the city; of setting up a functioning wireless network; of getting close enough for smaller US units to deploy their line-of-sight controlled UAV and UGV units to create a seamless operational and tactical environment...[The] enemy...can only hope to be saved by the bell. Objectively, there is little chance of that. But as Lileks said: "hope is on the way".

Time will tell.

Hey, Dan!

When are your sponsors going to get you a copy of this so that you don't have to use MS Word or memorize everything anymore?

Looks cool, how much does it cost?

Probably a few thousand. But apparentely its what the CTEG has been using.

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