Khaled Meshaal, Keith Dayton, and the future of Palestinian security forces



Khaled Meshaal speaking in Damascus (Al-Jazeera screenshot)


 Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, yesterday gave a speech in Damascus which welcomed direct, unconditional dialogue with the Obama administration and repeated his previously signaled support for a two state solution within the 1967 boundaries.  He called Obama's statements thus far a step in the right direction, but -- like virtually everyone else in the Arab world -- immediately reserved judgement to see whether concrete actions followed the words.  While his outreach to Obama is important, the more important part of his speech may have been his warning about the "repressive" practices of the Fayyad government and his call for the removal of General Keith Dayton's mission of training Palestinian security forces

 Meshaal called General Dayton's security forces the greatest obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation and called for his removal.  Many in the U.S. will take this as a sign that Dayton's mission is succeeding, and that Hamas is growing worried about the increasing competence and strength of the Palestinian Authority's security forces.  Certainly, Israelis seem impressed with their improved performance, as do American officials and Congress.  And on our recent trip we heard considerable testimony (from Palestinians, not just Israelis and Americans) about the improving law and order on the streets of West Bank cities. 

 But serious questions about the role and future of these security forces need to be asked -- not just because Meshaal raises them, but because his concerns reflect widespread Palestinian sentiments.   It is now common to refer to the current Palestinian government as either the "Fayyad/Dayton government" or just "the Dayton government" and the Palestinian security forces as "the Dayton forces."  This is not meant as a compliment.  This widespread perception partly represents a strategic communications failure on the part of Dayton's team -- and partly represents real, perhaps unresolvable, contradictions. 

 There are major questions about the mission of these new Palestinian security forces which have largely escaped serious public debate.  Are they meant to establish law and order, as per the official mandate?  Is it something akin to the logic of COIN, establishing security and population security in order to provide the breathing space for political reconciliation?  Is it to target Hamas and its infrastructure, as the Israelis demand and as seems to have been happening of late in Qalqaliya, Hebron, and elsewhere?  How do these security forces fit withing Netanyahu's concept of a demilitarized Palestinian state? 

 There are also real concerns about the implications of a rapidly improving security sector combined with hapless, inefficient and dilapidated civilian ministries.  One Palestinian Minister told me in Ramallah last week that the budgetary request for the security forces had almost equalled the entire proposed budget for the Palestinian Authority.  Rule of law, the judicial system, governance, and economic development trail far behind. And as for transparency and accountability, there seems to be a veil over the activities of these security forces from the point of view of most Palestinians.  The active grumbling and concerns about their alleged abuses and their real mission come from far wider precincts than just Hamas.  

 Such questions are not abstract.   They go to the core of exactly what kind of Palestinian state is supposedly being built, and what the balance will be between security (primarily an Israeli demand) and everything else. 

 These questions will be brought to a knife's edge if a Palestinian national unity government were against the odds to be achieved, and Hamas joins Fatah and the other factions in a national unity government -- something which most people assume is necessary if there is going to be serious negotiations towards a final status agreement.  Will the Palestinian security services cooperate with Hamas or continue to crack down upon them?  Will General Dayton's team continue training the security forces of a Palestinian Authority which includes Hamas?  Will Hamas men be brought in to the security apparatus?  And what about the elections scheduled for January 2010, which Salam Fayyad wants held on schedule -- were Hamas to win again, as they did in 2006, what will become of these new security forces? 

 There are all important questions which have to be addressed -- and can not simply be dismissed as Hamas propaganda. 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.