Turkish-Egyptian Naval Exercises Recall Muslim Dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, December 22, 2011

The combined fleets of the Ottoman Sultan and his Viceroy in Cairo once dominated the eastern Mediterranean.  Beginning in the 19th century, the forces of European imperialism and Arab nationalism began to drive apart the two anchors of Muslim supremacy in the region. Political separation and defeats at sea were followed by a steep decline in naval capacity in both nations. Now, however, new political trends are bringing the Turkish and Egyptian navies together again to restate their military potential in the face of challenges posed by new rivals such as Israel and Iran.

Ottoman Navy 1The Ottoman Navy

The naval exercises, code-named “Sea of Friendship 2011,” began December 17 and are scheduled to finish on December 23 (Turkish Radio-Television Corporation, December 15).  Turkey is acting as the host nation and the exercises will take place in Turkish waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt’s contribution in terms of ships and personnel is the largest yet in the series of three Turkish-Egyptian annual naval exercises. According to Turkish sources, the Egyptian force will consist of two frigates, two assault boats, one tanker, a helicopter and an underwater assault team, while the Turkish contingent will consist of two frigates, two assault boats, a submarine, a corvette, a tugboat, two fast patrol boats and an underwater assault team (Anatolia News Agency, December 15).

Despite growing tensions between Egypt and Israel, the commander of the Egyptian Navy, Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, publicly insisted that the naval exercises are not directed towards anyone, but were rather part of an ongoing effort by Turkey and Egypt to maintain peace and security in the region (Ahram Online, December 15). A Turkish press release emphasized the development of mutual cooperation and interoperability between the Turkish and Egyptian fleets (Turkishnavy.net, December 15).

The naval exercise with Turkey follows the Egyptian Navy’s biggest live ammunition war games in its history on October 30 in the seas off the coast of Alexandria. Aside from a number of coordinated operations between the navy’s air and sea assets, the games also provided an opportunity to introduce new speedboats to the Navy (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], October 30).

In August, Turkey pulled out of a scheduled naval exercise with Israel and the United States for the second year in a row following the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in May, 2010 (Jerusalem Post, August 6). In September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a decision to increase Turkey’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean in light of the attack on the Mavi Marmara and Israeli gas exploration operations in Cypriot territorial waters disputed by Turkey. At a conference held in Tunisia, Erdogan said “Israel will no longer be able to do what it wants in the Mediterranean and you’ll be seeing Turkish warships in this sea” (AFP, September 15). Ankara is also challenging the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.

There have also been suggestions that the exercises will present a show of force to Iran as it pursues an aggressive Middle East policy. Turkish friction with Iran over the conduct of Syria’s repression of its growing internal political opposition has increased in recent weeks, with Iranian leaders suggesting that the Turkish government’s Islamist model is unsuitable for the Arab world (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 15). Threats from Iranian military leaders that NATO air defense system bases in Turkey would be attacked in the event of an Israeli/American strike on Iran have further aggravated relations between the two regional powers.

Ottoman Navy 2Egyptian Yonca-Onuk MRTP-20 Fast Interceptor

Egypt is in the process of taking delivery of the first of six Turkish-built Yonca-Onuk MRTP-20 (Multi Role Tactical Platform) fast interceptor boats. Some of the boats are being built in yards in Istanbul, while others are being built in Alexandria with technology transfer agreements. Egypt is the fifth country to purchase the MRTP-20, which features the ASELSAN – STAMP weapons system (STAbilized Machine gun Platform), a remote-controlled system which its builders say is designed to defend against asymmetric threats on land or sea-based platforms.

The Egyptian Navy is also preparing to take delivery next year of four Fast Missile Craft being built in Pascagoula, Mississippi by the VT Halter Marine company under a Foreign Military Sales deal worth $807 million. The missile ships will each carry a 76mm gun, Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles designed for use in littoral waters, MK49 Rolling Airframe surface-to-air missiles and a Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) for self-defense (UPI, October 27; AP November 1). Capable of doing 34 knots per hour with a crew of 40 sailors each, the ships are intended for use in the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the coastal waters of the Mediterranean.

As Turkey’s former strategic alliance with Israel begins to fade away, Ankara appears to be turning towards the new Arab regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to strengthen its expanding role in the Middle East. Efforts to increase military cooperation through exercises such as “Sea of Friendship” represent important steps in spreading Turkish influence and exerting a more independent post-Mubarak foreign policy in Egypt.

Note:

  1. For STAMP, see: Undersecretariat of Defense Industries Export Portal, International Cooperation Department, http://defenceproducts.ssm.gov.tr/Pages/ProductDetails.aspx?pId=71 .

Salafists Target Works of the Ancient Egyptians

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, December 22, 2011

Egypt’s Salafist parties, which did surprisingly well in the first round of parliamentary elections with 24% of the vote, have tried hard to present themselves as compatible with modern norms, so long as they fit the moral standards established by Islam’s earliest generations. Youssry Hamad, a leader of al-Nur (The Light) Party, the leading Salafist movement in Egypt, has protested claims that the Salafists wish to turn back the clock in Egypt: “We are surprised to find that the liberal and secular current, which rejects the doctrine of Islam, distorts our image in the media through lies and speaks about us as if we came from another planet… We will not tell people to ride camels, as others have said about us. We want a modern and advanced Egyptian society of people” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], November 19).

Salafist 1Youssry Hamad

Egypt’s rapidly expanding population is facing a host of major problems that will require the attention of any new government. There have been fears, however, that an Islamist-dominated parliament might devote itself to social issues such as reforms directed at dress, gender mixing and alcohol consumption at the expense of more pressing concerns. While the Muslim Brotherhood continues to keep its distance from suggestions it might have a radical Islamist agenda, many Salafists have embraced the opportunity to express extremist interpretations of Islam in the post-Mubarak environment. Some Salafist preachers have suggested it is time to put an end to the “idolatry” encouraged by the monuments of Ancient Egypt. Though the last known worshipper of the ancient Egyptian religion converted to Christianity in the fourth century C.E., these Salafists have suddenly decided to address the alleged danger posed to Islam by these monuments, suggesting their destruction or concealment as a solution.

A Salafist leader and al-Nur Party candidate for parliament in Alexandria, Abd al-Moneim al-Shahat, described the civilization of ancient Egypt as a “rotten culture” that did not worship God (Ahram Online, December 2). While al-Shahat has not called for their complete destruction, he has suggested that the ancient works be covered with wax to prevent their worship (Reuters, December 9). Al-Shahat has also voiced his concerns over the literature of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, denouncing it for inciting “promiscuity, prostitution and atheism” (Ahram Online, December 2).  Though running in an Islamist stronghold in Alexandria, al-Shahat lost the run-off election last week to an independent candidate supported by the Muslim Brotherhood after Copts and Liberals banded together to defeat the controversial al-Nur candidate (Reuters, December 8).

Salafist 2Abd al-Moneim al-Shahat

The growing signs that the newly ascendant Salafists might begin a campaign against Egypt’s vast archaeological and cultural legacy, one of the most impressive in the world, have sent shock waves through Egypt’s tourism industry. The legacy of the ancient Egyptians represents the nation’s principal source of foreign currency and over a tenth of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

In response to the Salafists’ verbal attacks on the ancient remains, a group of roughly 1,000 protestors gathered in Giza near the site of the Great Pyramid to denounce the Salafists’ remarks (Reuters, December 9; Ahram Online, December 10).  Al-Shahat’s suggestions for dealing with the issue of idolatry in Egypt were later soundly refuted by Shaykh Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy leader of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the most respected center of Islamic scholarship in the world. Referring to the great Caliphs and other respected Islamic leaders who had ruled Egypt, Ashour noted that neither the 7th century Muslim conqueror of Egypt and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Amr ibn al-As, nor any of the other Islamic rulers of Egypt “had a problem with ancient Egyptian monuments or thought they have to be destroyed or that they are against Islam” (al-Arabiya, December 12; Bikya Masr [Cairo], December 13). Abd al-Nour, a former leader of the Wafd Party and current Minister of Tourism in the interim government, blasted the Salafists’ approach to tourism, saying that the “rejection of God’s blessings [such as Egypt’s] unique location, a shining sun and warm water, is tantamount to atheism” (Ahram Online, December 10).

To counter fears that an Islamist government could mean the end of Egypt’s vital tourism industry, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hizb al-Hurriya wa’l-Adala (HHA – Freedom and Justice Party) and the Salafist al-Nur Party both announced they would hold “tourism conferences” to promote the industry. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have shaken hands with tourists in Luxor and visited the Giza Pyramids to show their support for tourism based on Egypt’s ancient monuments. A Nur Party spokesman, however, has said his party supports tourism, but prefers a type of “Halal tourism” that would ban immoral conduct and be consistent with Salafist ethics (Bikya Masr, December 12).

In some ways the modern Egyptian Salafists appear to be opposed to the views of the early Arab Muslims they emulate, Muslims who were very familiar with the civilization of Ancient Egypt after centuries of Arab migration to Egypt (there is ample archaeological evidence of some of these Arabs adopting the religion of ancient Egypt in the pre-Islamic era). Though the Arab Muslim conquerors that arrived in the Seventh Century were avid treasure hunters and not above stripping pyramids and other monuments of useful building materials, early Islamic scholars from across the Islamic world visited Egypt to investigate its monuments, culture and history in the interest of expanding knowledge of the world and recording the monuments as evidence of the Holy Scriptures in which they are mentioned. [1]

Note:

  1. See Okasha El Daly, Egyptology: the Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, London, 2005.

“The Notion of Spring Does Not Exist in the Arab World”: Djibouti’s President Ismail Guelleh Wards Off the Arab Spring

Andrew McGregor

December 22, 2011

In a recent interview with a French-language African news magazine, Djibouti’s head of state, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was asked if “the great wind of the Arab Spring” had “blown as far as Djibouti?” Guelleh, leader of Djibouti since 1999, quickly dismissed the notion: “The Holy Koran talks of ‘summer and winter voyages.’ The notion of spring does not exist in the Arab world”  (Jeune Afrique, December 10). [1]

President Ismail Omar Guelleh

The importance of Djibouti to American strategic planning was reinforced this month by a visit to the small African nation from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said partnerships with nations such as Djibouti were essential to the American counterterrorism effort (AP, December 13). Djibouti is home to the American Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), a mission of over 3000 troops engaged in counterterrorism, anti-piracy, surveillance and humanitarian missions. The Task Force is centered on Camp Lemonnier, a former Foreign Legion installation leased by the United States in 2001. The U.S. facility also serves as a base for CIA-operated drones carrying out missions over Somalia and elsewhere.

Government in Djibouti has been dominated by the ruling Rassemblement populaire pour le Progrès (RPP – People’s Rally for Progress).since independence in 1977. After serving as chief of the secret police, Guelleh succeeded his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, as the nation’s second ruler in 1999. Opposition leaders are routinely jailed before or after elections, leading to election boycotts in 2005 and in 2011 after Guelleh amended the constitution to allow for a third six-year term. Guelleh had previously promised his second term would be his last. The president justifies his reluctance to share power by citing an excuse used frequently by authoritarian rulers: “This time round, I will not change my mind. I did not want this last mandate. It is a forced mandate, because the people felt there was no one ready to take over” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti’s Strategic Importance

Djibouti, a small, hot and otherwise insignificant country of 8500 square miles nevertheless occupies one of the most strategic pieces of real estate in the world. Close to many of the major oil-producing regions in the Middle East, Djibouti occupies the western side of the Bab al-Mandab, the southern entrance to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal. Djibouti is also the place where the great east African Rift Valley meets the Gulf of Aden. The deep, fifty-mile-long Gulf of Tadjoura, protected by the Musha Islands at its entrance from the Gulf of Aden, provides an excellent natural harbor for naval and commercial ships, a fact quickly noted by the French imperialists who arrived in the region in 1862, acquiring the port of Obock from local Sultans as a foothold in the region.  The modern port of Djibouti City lies on the southern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura and has historically played a major role in projecting French force and influence into Asia. [2]

Djibouti has played a military role in both world wars, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, the Suez War of 1956 (as part of France’s Operation Toreador), the Gulf War of 1991 (as a base of French operations) and now the current conflict in Somalia (including anti-piracy operations).

Until recently, Djibouti was home for 49 years to one of the world’s most famous fighting forces. The 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion was formed in 1941 from legionnaires who rallied to the Free French cause. The unit was initially created to participate in the attack on Narvik in Norway, but later served in heavy fighting on more familiar desert turf in Syria, Eritrea and most notably in Libya at the Battle of Bir Hakeim.  During its nine post-war years in Indo-China the unit took terrible losses, particularly at the 1952 Battle of Hoa Binh and the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu. After service in Algeria the 13th was assigned to permanent residence in Djibouti in 1962. After deploying from Djibouti to missions in Somalia, Rwanda and the Côte d’Ivoire, the 13th left Djibouti last June for a new French base in the United Arab Emirates. (Defense.gouv.fr, June 20).

Djibouti is also home to another unique military formation, the 5e Régiment interarmes d’outre-mer (5e RIAOM), the last combined arms (infantry, artillery and armor) regiment in the French army. The 5e RIAOM is the successor of the 5e Régiment d’infanterie de marine (RIMa – colonial infantry), which deployed one company of troops to protect the newly acquired port of Obock in 1890. The unit in one form or another had already participated in the assault on Russian forts in the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War as well as colonial campaigns in China, Mexico and Vietnam. In the 20th century the unit was disbanded and recreated several times under slightly different names while participating in campaigns in the Great War, World War II and the Indo-China War. The unit was re-established as the 5e RIAOM in 1969 with the mission of guarding French interests in Djibouti and being available to support French military operations in Africa or the Middle East. The RIAOM is supported by a section of Gazelle and Puma military helicopters.

An agreement reached in May 2010 allowed the Russian Navy to use port facilities in Djibouti but did not provide for the establishment of a land forces base or permanent Russian naval facility. The agreement allowed Russia to deploy warships in the region on anti-piracy or other missions without the necessity of using supply ships (Shabelle Media Network, May 17; 2010; Interfax, May 17, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 28, 2010). The first ever visit to Moscow by a Djiboutian Foreign Minister in October highlighted the growing relations between Djibouti and Russia (Buziness Africa [Moscow], October 20; Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 13).

Japan has also identified Djibouti as an important asset in the protection of its vast commercial shipping fleet. A Japanese naval base and an airstrip for Japanese Lockheed P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft opened in July as a port for ships of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF). Japan typically deploys a pair of destroyers on rotation in the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy operations as well as members of the Special Boarding Unit (SBU), a Hiroshima-based Special Forces unit patterned after the U.K.’s Special Boat Service (SBS) (Kyodo News, July 31, 2009; AFP, April 23, 2010).

Djibouti and the Winds of the Arab Spring

Protests against the regime in Djibouti calling for Guelleh’s resignation began at roughly the same time as the Tunisian revolution and the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in late January 2011. Mass arrests of demonstrators quelled the demonstrations by March, but the problems behind the protests remained unresolved (al-Jazeera, February 18; Reuters, March 4). Though Djibouti is not an Arab nation, its proximity to Yemen, its Muslim majority and its membership in the Arab League mean that developments in the Arab world are often influential in Djibouti’s political development.

Guelleh denies the protests had any political motivation, suggesting they were simply an “expression of a purely social malaise, which some big-wigs of the opposition wanted to transform into a revolution… very quickly, it all degenerated into looting… It was, in a much reduced form, the equivalent of [the London riots] in early August. The only difference is that over there, if the media are to be believed, the British police simply restored order when confronted with the urban riots, whereas here we were said to have savagely quelled the peaceful protests” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

A lingering insurgency by the ethnic-Afar Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy – FRUD) has survived the 2001 peace agreement that brought an end to a ten-year civil war, with some Afar militants still set on deposing President Guelleh (see Terrorism Monitor, September 25, 2009). The Afar (also known as Danakil after their home territory in northern Djibouti) form roughly a third of the nation’s population, with the majority of the population formed from Somali clans, including the majority Issa (a sub-clan of the Dir) and smaller groups from the Isaaq clan and the Gadabursi, another Dir sub-clan. Religion is not a divisive force in Djibout, with 96% of the population practicing Sunni Isam. The government is dominated by the Issa and to a lesser extent by the Isaaq and Gadabursi, with the Afar having only a small representation in the cabinet. For a time in the 1960s, Djibouti was known by the name “Territoire français des Afars et des Issas,” reflecting a short-lived desire to build a post-independence partnership between the two peoples.

President Guelleh has been accused of repressing dissent and an independent press, but denies these charges: “It is not a problem of censorship, but a problem of money. In Djibouti, there are neither investors nor advertisers in this [media] domain, and the potential readership is very much reduced. Here, people prefer to talk endlessly” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Guelleh regularly derides the opposition in Djibouti as immature and incapable of participating in the democratic process: “In Djibouti the conception of democracy that these gentlemen have is as follows: either one is the head or one seeks to topple the head. They have neither the patience nor the will to take care of the rest” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Development in Djibouti

The majority of Djiboutians live in the port city while the rest tend to live as nomadic pastoralists in the harsh conditions of the countryside. Unemployment ranges between 40% to 50% and provides a source of dissatisfaction with the regime. Other than its strategic location, Djibouti has little to trade on; both resources and industry (other than a small fishing sector) are nearly non-existent.

Djibouti has launched an ambitious $330 million plan to triple its port capacity by 2014 by enlarging the existing container terminal and constructing two new cargo terminals. The port is currently managed by Dubai’s DP World. Much of the new commercial traffic is expected to arrive through a modernized rail line from Addis Ababa and a new rail line from Mekele. Since the loss of Eritrea, land-locked Ethiopia has increasingly relied on a traditional commercial route through Djibouti to the sea. Some 70% of the traffic passing through Djibouti originates in Ethiopia. The main stages in the new rail line from Addis to Djibouti are being built with Chinese financing by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) (Reuters, December 17).

Chinese firms are expanding their interests in Djibouti, particularly in the still-nascent energy sector. There is also speculation that Djibouti could be developed as an outlet to the sea for South Sudan (possibly including the shipment of oil products from Chinese companies working in South Sudan) as an alternative to using Port Sudan on the Red Sea in the now separate north Sudan. President Guelleh suggests that China is attentive to Djibouti’s needs in a way that the rest of the international community sometimes is not. Describing Djibouti’s search for assistance in the terrible drought experienced this year, Guelleh notes: “We were asking for $30 million. Four months later, only China made a contribution of $6 million. The rest? They are pledges without any hope of fulfillment” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti has also obtained Kuwaiti and Saudi funding for the construction of a new container terminal on the north side of the Tadjoura Gulf to relieve congestion in the port of Djibouti and enable the handling of greater traffic from Ethiopia (Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 13).

Although Djibouti has not been directly affected by piracy, the phenomenon has led to many ships refusing to come to Djibouti, preferring to use alternative ports to avoid both pirates and rising insurance premiums. Guelleh has urged the international community to address this situation on land in Puntland and Somaliland rather than at sea, where years of international naval activity have failed to deal effectively with the problem (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Djibouti and Somalia

On December 14, Djibouti held a ceremony to mark the long-awaited dispatch of a unit of 850 men and 50 instructors of the 3,500 man Forces Armées Djiboutiennes (FAD) to Somalia to join the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The force, the first Djiboutian military unit to serve outside of the homeland, is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Osman Doubad Sougouleh (Agence Djiboutienne d’Information, December 14).

Al-Shabaab has been angered by Djibouti’s hosting of French and American training for troops of the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and has promised retaliatory strikes within Djibouti should FAD troops arrive in Somalia to aid AMISOM operations (Garowe Online, September 18, 2009). President Guelleh says the nation is remaining vigilant, but “on the other hand, I am not overestimating the Shabaab’s capacity for causing harm; a 2,000 km stretch separates us from their Baidoa stronghold.” Guelleh says he is seeking French military assistance to make Djibouti capable of defending itself, being well aware that French troops do “not want to die for Ras Doumeira [the border territory disputed with Eritrea]” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

President Guelleh has expressed his sympathy for the task set for the TFG in building a new government in an ungoverned nation: “They have nothing. To try to establish one’s authority over a country at war, without revenue, to be constantly solicited [and] harassed by a suffering population is not an easy task” (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Regional Relations

Guelleh is one of the most prominent defenders of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the government’s repression of the insurgency in Darfur. According to Guelleh:

Al-Bashir is not what they say he is. He is the only Sudanese leader who has had the courage of negotiating with the south, going as far as amputating his country in the name of peace. Do remember the way those who are opposing him today were treating southern Sudanese as slaves, beginning with [former Sudanese Prime Minister] Sadiq el-Mahdi! They threw this Darfur wrench in [al-Bashir’s] works by inventing a scarecrow of a pseudo-genocide. It was a fable concocted by evangelists and pro-Israeli lobbies (Jeune Afrique, December 10).

Al-Bashir attended Guelleh’s inauguration in May alongside the French Cooperation Minister and the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Karl Wycoff (Sudan Tribune, May 8). As a signatory of the ICC Statute, Djibouti was required to arrest al-Bashir but, like Chad and Kenya, Djiboutian authorities have declined to do so.

Djibouti has clashed twice with Eritrea (most recently in 2008) over respective claims to ownership of the Ras Doumeira peninsula along the Eritrea-Djibouti border. In the 2008 border fighting, French troops supplied logistical, medical and intelligence support to Djibouti under the terms of their common defense pact (BBC, June 13, 2008). The opposing forces are now separated in Ras Doumeira by a small Qatari buffer force.

Conclusion

Though Djibouti’s external security is assured by its French patron and the presence of an American military base, internally the situation is different, and the heavy-handed response of the security services seems at odds with the president’s casual dismissal of last spring’s protests as nothing more than “the expression of a social malaise.” It also seems likely that Djibouti’s new commitment to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia will invite some type of retaliation from al-Shabaab terrorists who have proven capable of carrying out operations as far afield from their southern Somali base as Kenya, Uganda, Puntland and Somaliland. It seems improbable that Guelleh will be able to survive his new six-year term without substantial internal opposition, though a retaliatory strike by al-Shabaab might play into the regime’s hands, allowing mass arrests and new measures of political repression to ensure Guelleh’s eventual succession, if not by himself, then by other members of his family or the ruling RPP.

Notes

  1. Guelleh refers here to the Surat Quraysh, the 106th chapter of the Quran, which refers to journeys by the Quraysh tribe (that of the Prophet Muhammad) “in winter and summer.”
  2. Charles W Koburger, Naval Strategy East of Suez: The Role of Djibouti, Praeger Publishing, 1992.

This article first appeared in the December 22, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Taliban Spokesman Says Loya Jirga Reveals the Invaders “Sinister Objective” to Occupy Afghanistan

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2011

In a recent interview with a Taliban-run news agency, Afghan Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi provided an official response to the recent Kabul Loya Jirga (Grand Council) that approved a continued American military presence in Afghanistan as well as an assessment of the Taliban’s struggle against NATO forces in various regions of the country. [1]

The four-day Loya Jirga produced a nearly unanimous vote in favor of a strategic agreement with the United States that would permit the continued presence of American military bases in Afghanistan after the scheduled pull-out of U.S. forces in 2014. There were, however, conditions attached, including an end to night raids on residential housing, the closure of all prisons operated by foreign forces and accountability to the Afghan justice system for Americans who commit crimes in Afghanistan (Khaama Press [Kabul], November 19).

The Taliban spokesman suggested that the Loya Jirga decision would actually play into the Taliban’s hands: “The people have realized that the invaders are here for sinister objectives. They want to endanger our religion, prestige and other sanctities at the hands of a few traitors and corrupt agents. They want to keep us as an occupied nation and impose their own systems upon us.”

Given the Loya Jirga’s decision, the Taliban spokesman was asked how long the Taliban will continue to fight against a foreign military presence: “Jihad is a religious obligation upon us. We have no specified time framework for it. When the need for Jihad is ceased, the war will naturally come to an end. It totally depends on the invaders.”

ISAF Regional Command – North

The Taliban spokesman also offered an assessment of the military situation in the southern and northern operational theaters:

  • In the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the site of some of the war’s fiercest clashes, the spokesman admits the Taliban have been driven out of some areas, but attributes this to the occupiers’ complete destruction of orchards and houses in these districts. Otherwise he denies NATO claims that the Taliban are restricted to limited areas in the south of these provinces, insisting that foreign forces are confined to their bases in urban centers while the Taliban conduct attacks throughout the rest of the region at will. Qari Yusuf suggests the inaccurate perception of the situation in the southern provinces is partly due to “the absence of free international media” to observe and report Taliban activities accurately. While attributing this absence to threats against journalists by internal and external secret services, this complaint from an official spokesman demonstrates the Taliban’s growing appreciation for the value of the media in the struggle for Afghanistan. The movement once known for smashing televisions now manages a website in five languages, Twitter and Facebook accounts, radio stations, magazines and a video production company that posts its work on YouTube (Express Tribune [Karachi], December 1).
  • In the northern provinces, particularly Kunduz, a decrease in Taliban activity is blamed on the reluctance of the “mostly non-American” NATO garrisons there “who are fed up with this war” to venture far from their bases, thus reducing the opportunities for Taliban operations. Nonetheless, Qari Yusuf says the Taliban is continuing to increase its presence in the north. The Kunduz Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is one of five PRTs that come under ISAF’s Regional Command-North. With Germany as the lead nation, PRT-Kunduz includes German, Belgian, Armenian and American troops.

Qari Yusuf summed up the rationale behind the Taliban’s continued commitment to a military resolution in Afghanistan rather than entering into political negotiations:

We can never tolerate foreign invasion in our country. We want the strict implementation of Islamic rules and regulations. We want Islamic brotherhood and unity among the countrymen. We want cordial relation with the world on the basis of Islamic principles where no one is harmed. But the enemy is extending the occupation and is dreaming for a prolonged subjugation of our country. In these circumstances we are compelled to insist on a military solution rather than political one because the enemy is not ready to leave our country… and to solve the disputed issues by political negotiations.

Qari Yusuf also stressed that the Taliban’s operational flexibility is a factor in its favor: “When we notice that the public and the mujahideen are both under pressure, simultaneously we open new fronts in other villages and districts. In the same way if one zone is under pressure, we have increased our activities in other zones… We have entered a new phase in the war where we have been able to inflict heavy losses on the enemy and have significantly reduced our own.”

Note

  1. Afghan Islamic News Agency, “Interview of the Spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” Ansar1.info, December 4, 2011.

This article first appeared in the December 15, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

 

Assault on Libyan National Army Commanders Convoy Reveals Rifts between Militias

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2011

As the murder of General Abd al-Fatah Yunis and two of his aides on July 28 showed, Libya’s new government is still subject to the whims of the diverse armed factions that overthrew Mu’ammar Qaddafi. [1]The uneasy relationship between the various self-styled “Brigades” that emerged victorious in the revolution was demonstrated once again on December 10 when members of the Zintan militia became involved in a firefight with a convoy carrying Major General Khalifa Haftar, a CIA-supported anti-Qaddafi dissident who has taken command of the nascent Libyan National Army in a process that has been poorly received by many of the militia leaders.

General Khalifa Haftar

The clash just outside of Tripoli International Airport came the same day as a national reconciliation conference opened in Tripoli (al-Jazeera, December 11). A military spokesman, Sergeant Abd al-Razik al-Shibahy, characterized the attack as an “assassination attempt,” saying two vehicles had awaited the arrival of the convoy under a bridge before opening fire (al-Jazeera, December 11). 

The commander of the Zintan militia, Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, gave a very different account, saying Haftar’s heavily-armed convoy refused to stop at a checkpoint 3km from the airport and opened fire on the militiamen, wounding two. The Zintan fighters pursued Haftar’s convoy to a nearby military camp where a second gun-battle broke out (AFP, December 11; Reuters, December 12).  Two Zintani fighters were reported killed and two others wounded, with no casualties in General Haftar’s convoy (AFP, December 11). A spokesman for the Zintan Brigade, Khalid al-Zintani, suggested the incident was more of a misunderstanding, saying the army had failed to notify the militia that the general was coming to the airport (AP, December 11). Al-Zintani also expressed some of the militias’ doubts about the so-called National Army led by Haftar: “Until now, we don’t know anything about the Libyan national army. Who is in charge, where are the military bases, what is its chain of command or even how can rebels join it? On the ground, the so-called national army is nothing yet” (SAPA-AP, December 11).

It was unclear if the incident was related to other reports that members of “the national army” had tried to confiscate weapons and take over an airport checkpoint from the Zintan militia that controls the airport, leading to a firefight in which at least two were wounded (AFP, December 10). The militia from Zintan, about 160 km southwest of Tripoli, is thought by many residents of Tripoli to have overstayed their welcome in that city after playing a major role in the battle to expel the Qaddafi regime. The Zintan Brigade is still holding Qaddafi’s son, Sa’if al-Islam, after his capture in the deserts of southwestern Libya. Clashes in the town of Zintan with members of a neighboring tribe have also been reported in the last few days (al-Arabiya, December 14).

Haftar was unanimously approved as commander-in-chief of the yet to be formed Libyan national army on November 17 by a group of 150 ex-rebel officers, though many leading commanders (including Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, the powerful Islamist commander in Tripoli) had no say in the appointment. Many militia commanders have since come out in opposition to the move (AFP, November 19; al-Jazeera, December 11). Haftar has since said he hopes to have an operational army and police force running by the end of March, 2012, but estimates that it will still take three to five years to build an army strong enough to protect Libya’s borders (AP, December 12).

The Soviet-trained Haftar was an original member of the Revolutionary Command Council that overthrew King Idris in 1969. Considered a traitor by Qaddafi after he was captured by Chadian forces during the 1980s struggle over northern Chad, Haftar agreed to defect and create the “Libyan National Army,” a CIA-supported anti-Qaddafi insurgent group formed from captured Libyan troops. After a new Chadian regime expelled the LNA in 1991, the group failed to find permanent refuge elsewhere in Africa and Haftar and several hundred LNA members were resettled in the United States to await deployment against Qaddafi. Two decades later the call finally came, and Haftar and a number of LNA members returned to Libya in March to join the anti-Qaddafi revolt. [2]

The troubles at Tripoli International Airport did not end when the gunfire stopped; on December 13 air traffic controllers walked off the job in an unannounced strike that played havoc with local air schedules (Reuters, December 13). In late November, protesters from the Suq al-Jama’a district of Tripoli demanding an investigation into the deaths of several members of the Suq al-Jama’a militia in Bani Walid blocked a Tunisair Airbus full of passengers from taking off at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, a major target during the NATO air campaign (Reuters, November 27).

Despite protests by local policemen against the continued presence of armed gunmen in the streets of Tripoli, the militias claim they are the only ones capable of protecting the capital against unnamed threats. The military council representing the militias has said the gunmen will only withdraw once a new Libyan national army is created (AFP, December 11). Without a centralized security structure, militias in Tripoli continue to man checkpoints, patrol streets and provide security at Tripoli’s military and commercial airports (Gulf News, December 10). With the cessation of hostilities, the militias are essentially guarding areas of Tripoli from other militias.

Libya faces a number of chal