Nixon and the Shah


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In 1953, after an arduous journey across Asia, US vice-president Richard Nixon and his wife Pat finally arrived in Tehran, which was scheduled as their final destination before returning to Washington. As Nixon would later recall in a speech given during a visit by the shah, “despite the deep depression of spirit which seemed to infect many of those who observed Iran in that period of crisis, His Majesty saw the problems but also had a vision for the future”.

In Nixon, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi saw a man who was very much on the same page as him. After their first meeting, Nixon noted that with the shah, he “sensed an inner strength in him and I felt that in the years ahead he would become a strong leader”. Together these two men, from very different backgrounds worked to ensure the primacy of US interests in the Middle East. For anyone who briefly studies the Nixon doctrine, they will see that Iran formed an important part. The shah would police the region with the tacit understanding that he would be supplied and supported from afar. This was the ideal solution for the US, since the war in Vietnam had consumed much of the country´s militaristic energy.

According to the academic Gholam Reza Afkhami, it was Ardeshir Zahedi, later to become the shah’s foreign minister, who was instrumental in bringing the president and the shah together. Even after Nixon´s failed bid to become governor of California in 1962, an outcome which had left him in the political wilderness, Zahedi maintained his friendship with the former vice-president.  Later on, according to Armin Meyer who served as US Ambassador to Iran during the late 1960s, the genesis of the Nixon doctrine emerged in 1967, while Nixon was on a mission to the country. A meeting had been arranged by Zahedi, but according to Afkhami, the shah was initially reluctant to meet, since he did not want to sully his relationship with President Lyndon B Johnson, even though he complained that “Harvard boys” in the administration had too much control over US foreign policy. Yet as a result of this meeting the men understood and would come to understand together how much their geopolitical ambitions were aligned.

Man to Man

There is some debate about the extent of the personal affinity that existed between Nixon and the shah. Biographer Anthony Summers asserts that they were close friends, as well as Abbas Milani, but Gholam Reza Afkhami suggests that “neither man displayed much propensity for personal relations”. On the other hand, Abbas Milani notes that Nixon´s visit to Iran as vice-president would mark the start of a “close lifelong friendship between him and the shah”. Milani mentions that generous gift giving on the part of the shah would land Nixon in trouble. In 1956 he received a Persian rug, which he did not declare to the authorities. The men also exchanged notes and letters of ´profuse gratitude´. “It was most thoughtful of you to remember Mrs. Nixon and me, as you did during the holiday season with the caviar”. wrote the former president.

However numerous reports have surfaced that the shah also financially supported a number of Nixon´s electoral campaigns. In 1972 he is alleged to have contributed $1 million USD, as well as to his 1960 presidential bid. One thing that would become clear, especially in light of the Watergate scandal and Nixon´s later impeachment, was just how both men had a prickly relationship towards political opposition. In 1972, the shah remarked to his chief advisor Asadollah Alam: “Thank God we in Iran have neither the desire nor the need to suffer from democracy”.

Big Spender

Iran in the 1960s was in the midst of an economic boom. When Nixon entered into office in January 1969, Iran was the single largest purchaser of weapons from the United States. By 1972, with the exception of atomic weapons, Nixon promised to provide the shah with any weapon he desired. Almost a quarter of Iran´s national budget was devoted to military spending. With other US presidents, according to Milani, the subject of Iran´s military budget had always been a ´thorny´ issue, but not with Nixon. Two years before in April, US Ambassador to Iran, Douglas MacArthur II informed Washington that the government should extend annual commitments on foreign military sales for a further three to four years. Yet the response from the Pentagon, or in particular, assistant secretary of defense G. Warren Nutter, was that Iran simply did not possess the absorption capacity to be granted such a large volume of weapons. By 1974, the shah´s military purchases swelled to over $6 billion USD. In order to finance his profligate spending, the shah needed to raise oil revenues, which was something opposed by the US. In the 1970s OPEC was not a force to upset and in 1973, they issued an embargo which lasted until March 1974, because of US support for Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The price in oil quadrupled, yet Iran never joined the rest of the Arab OPEC members in the embargo. In the mid-1970s, according to writer Andrew Scott Cooper, Henry Kissinger warned his colleagues against pressuring the shah for the fear that he would be replaced by an unfriendly ´radical regime´. Later in 1979, journalist Jack Anderson, in a syndicated article that appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, alleged that intelligence documents uncovered previously revealed that ´agitation´ by the shah and ´acquiescence´ by the Nixon Administration granted oil prices to rise in order for Iran to cover its expenses. This was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia which also tried to persuade Nixon that prices needed to drop. The allegations certainly serve to dislodge the notion that the shah was wholly subservient to US interests.

Gods of the Gulf

In the late 1960s, geopolitical sands were shifting. Britain under the Labour leader Harold Wilson sought to extricate itself from its security responsibilities in the Persian Gulf. This aroused considerable consternation among the Americans, and especially within the Johnson Administration, who took Britain´s actions as a sign of negligence. The shah on the other hand saw this as an opportunity to act as the guarantor of security in the region.

At the same time, both the British and the Americans saw Saudi Arabia as the other eligible candidate for keeping the region safe.  In fact both Iran and Saudi Arabia were cited as part of the ´twin pillar´ strategy, which was outlined in National Security Decision Memorandum 92. The British were less impressed with the shah. Dr Roham Alvandi notes that William Morris, who was Britain´s ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the late 1960s, considered the monarch to be an ´upstart´. Britain, while wishing to get out of the region, was not keen to pin their hopes on him as their successor. They considered King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to be the preferred choice, but his Kingdom, appeared uninterested in taking the reins in regional affairs. For instance, as a point of comparison, at the start of the 1970s, Saudi Arabia´s army stood at 30,000, while Iran´s stood at 150,000.

The geopolitical ambitions of the shah were clearly on display in 1969, when he wished to assert Iranian control over the strategic waterway of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that both Iran and Iraq claim. It was not an act supported by the shah´s western allies. While he had the ear of the president and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the shah was not looked on favourably by both the State Department and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Yet by April 1970, there was a consensus that Iran alone could contain Soviet influence within the Gulf. In November of the following year, the Iranians seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. It was considered a breach of international law, yet the Americans made no effort to intervene. The shah had the audacity to take the islands just one day before the United Arab Emirates was granted independence from the UK. As Simon Henderson from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, the UK and the UAE were not in a position to respond and the US also believed that Iran was sufficient in filling the regional security vacuum. It also signalled to the shah that as long as he boasted his anti-Soviet credentials, he could get away with much in his own backyard. It was the Nixon Doctrine in practice.

In Retrospect

In 1971, the shah chose to celebrate 2500 years of monarchy in an egregious display of decadence at the site of Persepolis. Nixon did not attend the lavish event, but his vice-president Spiro Agnew went in his place. Within the next year, Nixon´s own political future would hang in the balance as embarrassing revelations came to light about the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington DC and other efforts by Nixon insiders to go after his political enemies.

The shah´s response to the investigation surrounding the president was one of circumspection. According to some news reports, he was concerned over whether or not the Nixon Doctrine could endure. In August 1973 he told the press at the time, “that everything that would weaken or jeopardize the president´s power to make a decision in a split second would represent grave danger for the whole world”. He never wavered from supporting the president.

In fact he stood by him and even offered to give him employment by representing US companies that wished to do business in Iran. The absence of Nixon did nothing to quell the shah´s spending habits. Both the Ford and Carter Administrations never made any real attempt to rein him in and, as noted by historian Ervand Abrahamian by 1977, “The shah had the largest navy in the Persian Gulf, the largest air force in Western Asia, and the fifth-largest army in the whole world.” Devoting so much energy towards military might was a cause lost to many Iranians who were facing poverty, state control and political oppression. The shah was simply unaware and ill-informed by those around him to know the realities of life in Iran.

In the days and weeks following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Nixon kept abreast of news concerning the shah. He made visits to his residence in Mexico, where the ousted monarch praised Nixon´s “loyalty to old friends”. The former president even went so far as to denounce President Carter´s treatment of the Shah as “one of the black pages of American foreign policy”. The shah spent much of his remaining months hopping from one country to the next, before settling in Cairo, where he passed away on July 27, 1980. One key illustration of Nixon´s loyalty was his determination to attend the shah´s funeral in spite of warnings by the State Department. He travelled to Cairo, where along with Zahedi he walked with the cortege.

In the eyes of many, both leaders were seen as a disgrace, but in the decades that have followed some revisionists have been kinder. Nevertheless one thing is clear, both of them displayed enormous loyalty to each other, even though their actions brought them into disrepute. They believed they were practitioners of realpolitik, while others believe that while the Nixon doctrine allowed US allies to take greater control of their own affairs and defence, without direct US interference, it also meant that leaders such as the shah were under no obligation to reform the country, democratise or improve human rights. It was nevertheless a potent principle and one that could only truly develop through personal affinity.  According to Alvandi, the friendship that existed between Nixon and the shah helped to bring new ideas to the White House. It was also one of the most prodigious periods in relations between a US president and an Iranian leader. It has yet to be repeated.


The President Versus the Generals: Algeria’s Latest Power Play

In September this year, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he had replaced the country’s head of intelligence, General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène, who had served in the role for the past twenty-five years. In the eyes of many Algerians, Mediène had obtained an almost deity-like status as an aloof and feared military official—a secretive figure, of whom only a few pictures exist. Some have also called him Algeria’s J. Edgar Hoover, since he served for so long and oversaw almost all government activities. Writing in the French publication Jeune Afrique, journalist Farid Alilat noted, “He was allergic to anything that is not controllable.”

For such a large nation, Algeria doesn’t often make much noise in the Anglosphere media. Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria has been timid about opening itself up to the world. It hardly felt a shudder during the Arab Spring. Some suggest that the memories of the civil war in the 1990s are still too fresh, but others put it down to the influence of le pouvoir (the power), the military and intelligence services who play a significant role in running the country’s affairs. Throughout the 1990s, commonly referred to as the country’s “dark decade,” Algeria’s heads of counterterrorism and intelligence services ruled, in what some academics say was an “informal” manner, behind the scenes and behind the face of the civilian presidency. Their position remained firm, and since Algeria exists in a neighbourhood seething with instability, many Algerians have been hesitant to challenge the status quo.

Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, was elected head of state in 1999, with the military’s blessing—and the tacit understanding that military personnel associated with atrocities over the previous decade would avoid criminal charges. This was part of the amnesty that was launched in order to bring an end to the violence, and would later culminate as the 2005 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. Nevertheless, Bouteflika has never been comfortable playing the role of an obedient servant to the security elite, which has, according to Sciences Po Lyon Professor Lahouari Addi, characterized every presidency since the death of Houari Boumédiène in 1978.

With the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule in Libya, pressure on the country’s security forces has grown. In many circles, there was disbelief that the DRS, the Intelligence and Security Directorate headed by Mediène, failed to prevent or thwart the attack at the gas field jointly operated by BP, Sonatrach and Statoil in In Amenas, which led to the deaths of sixty-seven, including thirty-seven foreigners, in January 2013. As a result, high-profile critics within the regime started to emerge and were not shy to point out the failings of the DRS. In February 2014, the secretary-general of the ruling FLN, Amar Saadani, called for the resignation of General Mediène and cited, among other reasons, the failure to prevent the assassination of President Mohamed Boudiaf and the kidnapping and killing of seven French Trappist monks from Tibhirine in May 1996. He noted, “if we assess the missions of internal security in some important cases, one will find this service has increased in its failures”.

That is just one high-profile example among many Bouteflika loyalists who have come to question the role of the DRS. Much of it has been orchestrated by Chief of Staff Ahmad Gaid Salah, a firm supporter of the president. In late July this year Bouteflika made the decision, without any formal announcement, todismiss three senior security officials: Major General Abdelhamid Bendaoud, who directed the internal security service known as the DSI; Major General Ahmed Moulay Meliani, head of the Republican Guard; and General Djamel Medjdoub, head of presidential security.

The dismissal of Mediène was the final chapter. The official reason given is Mediène’s wish to retire. His replacement, General Athmane Tartag, worked closely with General Mediène for years, but after the failed attack at In Amenas, he was forced to step down. According to reports, his relationship with Mediène soured, which helped him curry favour with the civilian authorities. In 2014, he was taken on as a presidential advisor.

Bouteflika has not appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Matters of governing have fallen to Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who claims not to have presidential ambitions of his own. On the question of a likely successor, the aging Bouteflika is believed to favour his brother Said, but he is not a popular choice in the eyes of the military. Retired General Hocine Benhadid has accused Said Bouteflika of waging a campaign to break up the country institutionally in order to remain the only man in charge.

Rachid Tlemçani of the University of Algiers believes that it was President Bouteflika’s insistence to run for a fourth term which pushed his problems with the DRS into the open. Therefore, the removal of Mediène is symbolic, since it reveals that despite his poor health, Bouteflika is unafraid to take dramatic steps, lest anyone think for a moment that his guard is down.

But what does it mean for ordinary Algerians? With falling oil prices, the infrastructure needed to keep the country in check is being undermined. People are unhappy, with more and more young men forced to join the ranks of the harragas (those who burn), who cross the Mediterranean in search of work. With the generation of liberators aging rapidly, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty over who will govern in the future.

Unfortunately, there are so few signs on the ground as to who will shape the country as it moves forward. Academics such as Tufts professor Hugh Roberts point to the lack of an influential opposition movement. “What you have in Algeria, are ineffectual welters of vaguely opposing groupings,” he says. “The regime can’t democratise and there is no coherent reform movement”. The popular writer Kamel Daoud says Algeria will be truly free only when it has been “liberated” from its “liberators.”

Master of Deception: The Tale of Yehuda Gil



In the mid-1990s, a precocious young journalist named Stephen Glass was building a reputation as one of Washington D.C.’s hottest new journalists. His articles were appearing in Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and the late John F Kennedy Jr.´s publication George. However he was most known as the New Republic´s plucky young staffer. His abilities to sniff out stories made him the envy of his colleagues, and numerous publications itched to feature his work. Glass was on his way to cementing himself as a firm fixture in Washington´s competitive journalistic world. Yet others in the business winced at Glass´s confidence and impudence. He could write articles at the speed of lightning and unearth scoops that had escaped everyone´s attention. However there was a simple reason for this:  Glass was a master of deception. Over the course of three years, he had simply concocted story after story, and proved  adept at covering his mendacity by producing reams  of  notes  while talking to alleged sources, or attending events which in fact never took place. It was only after careful detective work, carried out by a Forbes‘ journalist named Adam Penenberg that Glass was found out.  His ability to deceive his colleagues and work diligently to cover his tracks, ensured that the whole affair would go down as one of the most infamous cases of fraud in US journalism. One should not forget that the New Republic  was considered at the time as a stickler for journalistic integrity. Yet not one of their numerous fact checkers or editors were capable of reading between the lines of Glass´s articles. The whole episode was later immortalised in the 2004 film Shattered Glass. Hayden Christensen plays the role of the anxiety-prone Glass.  What the film reveals is how inexplicable it seems that so many intelligent and critically minded people could be fooled so easily.


In 1970, a 36-year-old Libyan-born Jewish recruit named Yehuda Gil joined the ranks of Israel’s external intelligence agency, Mossad. Not long after immigrating to Israel, Gil enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces.  It was there that his gift for foreign languages was noted by his superiors who saw to it that he work in military intelligence. This then led him to Mossad. Over time Gil would go on to qualify as a trainer and his lectures were peppered with anecdotes about his colourful experiences. One of his popular courses was entitled, “Lying as an Art”, in which students learnt how to maintain their spy covers and cope with stress during intelligence missions. Gil’s primary role in the  agency was as a human intelligence collection officer or (‘katsa’). Mossad’s main focus has always been on gathering human intelligence ( ‘HUMINT’) and a katsa is expected to recruit and run human sources.  Their activities are overseen by the division known as Tzomet (Hebrew for ‘Juncture’).

Since the beginning of the 1970s, Gil had spent considerable time working his way into the Syrian social scene, portraying himself as a business man. It was in 1974 that he was alleged to have recruited the assistance of a Syrian general, whom he handled as a source for decades on Syrian-related activities. Contact with him was likely to have taken place on a territory neutral to both parties i.e. somewhere in Europe. Since Israel’s establishment, Syria had been unrelenting in its opposition towards reaching a peace deal. This was mostly down to the status of the Golan Heights. According to writer Bruce Madd-Weitzman, there were widespread rumours that after the success of Israel’s peace treaties with some of its neighbours, Syria may  choose to launch an attack against Israel as a means of forcing it to the negotiating table. Yet by the mid-1990s, and more crucially at the end of 1995, a series of talks took place between the two sides. There was a degree of confidence that some resolution could be hammered out.  Haifa University’s Uri Bar-Joseph says that following the First Gulf War, it was thought Hafez al-Assad would be ready to talk and make a strategic shift. In other words, to improve Syria’s relationship with the US, Assad thought it necessary to reach out to Israel in some way.

Meanwhile in August 1996 Mossad received news via Gil’s Syrian source that despite the tempered mood, Assad had not given up on the war option and was planning to use his 14th Special Forces Division to launch an offensive action against northern Israel. The word was an attack was imminent “pending weather”. Gil at this time had already retired from the Mossad, but due to his years of experience, was called back to work as a consultant. On hearing the news of Syria’s plans, Mossad chief, Danny Yatom, thought something didn’t smell right. His suspicions were aroused further when Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Israel’s Chief of Staff, was of the opinion that nothing significant was brewing. He was even prepared to put his career on the line if he were proven wrong.  It added traction to Yatom’s concerns that something was afoot.  In any intelligence agency, a source can have numerous handlers, since the value of a source can last many years, beyond the career of an intelligence officer. Gil’s source from the outset had been adamant that any information he shared, would be with Gil, and Gil alone. Such an arrangement, while not unheard of, did raise questions over the authenticity of the news. Yatom was not the only person to have suspicions. Brigadier General Amos Gilad,  director of military intelligence, also shared Yatom’s reservations about the likelihood of a Syrian attack. Signal intelligence did not tally with Gil’s assessments. Also the Americans were not convinced.

It was decided that it was necessary to ask permission from the Israeli attorney general to take a closer look at the comings and goings of agent Gil. With discretion and careful planning, Mossad found evidence that Gil had fabricated a meeting with his source and lied about its contents. In other cases, he was simply economical with the truth. It became clear that the Syrian general, who Gil depended on for information, had in fact retired years ago. What’s more, according to reports, the man in question had never been comfortable giving information away, but instead was happy to accept the expensive goods that Gil could offer. In reality, whenever a meeting with his source was due to take place, Israeli military intelligence would brief Gil on the subjects they wanted clarified. With this information, along with the help of his personal trove of military and open source material, he was able to draft reports. It took one year for Mossad to gather sufficient evidence against Gil. Through their investigations, it was discovered that Gil had hidden wads of cash in mattresses in his apartment in the town of Gadera, south of Tel Aviv.  Money that was meant for his Syrian source. In the meantime, Amos Gilad successfully dissuaded Israel’s defence minister at the time Yitzhak Mordechai from moving troops to the Golan Heights.

The news of the Gil affair stunned the agency, which in 1997 was dealing with a number of high-profile scandals. Dr. Ahron Bregman from King’s College London remembered it being a` big shock, that someone who was regarded as one of the best Mossad operators ever , and trained many would be spies, could act in a way that endangered Israel so much, bringing it to the brink of war with Syria´. Perhaps the agency could have absorbed the shock more decisively if it had not occurred only months after two Mossad operatives failed in their mission to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan.  At the same time, in Switzerland, four Mossad agents were discovered setting up wire taps under an apartment belonging to a Hezbollah activist and one was captured by local police. Nevertheless, the shock of the Gil reverberated around the country, and the Prime Minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quick to allay concerns, noting that Mossad never relies on one source alone for its intelligence assessments. Gil himself was given a five-year sentence on charges which included relaying information with the intention to “harm state security, theft and fraud”. In 1997, he told the newspaper, Yediot Ahronoth, ‘I know I did something that should never have been done´. However in a 2010 article in Haaretz, Gil told journalist and intelligence expert Yossi Melman, that he was innocent of any wrong doing and it was in fact Yatom who tried to frame him. Melman said it was easy to be persuaded by him, but after listening to the advice of the newspaper’s editors, the story was killed.

There was enormous speculation over why Gil did what he did. Some believe he was motivated as a result of his affiliations to the right-wing Moledet party, which was notorious at the time for advocating land transfers.  Prof. Bar Joseph suggests that it was down to his ego, while Melman believes that Gil may have suffered from a personality disorder.   Yet others say that the culture of the Mossad helps in part to explain why Gil chose to take such extraordinary risks. According to Dr. Tamir Libel of University College Dublin, an “old school network” existed in Mossad, and not wanting to let the side down, Gil perhaps believed it was better to carry on. In fairness, few people believe that Gil’s erroneous intelligence caused Israel real harm; however what is or was alarming was how he managed to evade scrutiny for so many years. He was not a lowly operative, but a highly respected individual who must have felt the strain of fabricating lies. ´Spies lie all the time – they have to. And when you lie all the time you sometimes do not know when to stop. And if you’re good at it – Gil was very good at it – then you think you can lie forever´, says Dr. Bregman. In the years following the Gil scandal, Bregman notes that Mossad handlers were instructed to secretly record their conversations with their sources in order to have some control over the information being passed. Recruitment practices changed and Gil´s story is now a test case for students in the agency. Nevertheless, ´there will always be Gils. Organisations like the Mossad, CIA, MI6 and so on, attract many eccentrics and these people are often unpredictable and difficult to control,´ he says. Unfortunately it is often these characteristics that are the key ingredients in creating the perfect spy.


Behind the Shades: Umm Khultum

The great Armenian-Egyptian painter Chant Avedissian is famous for his colourful depictions of  Egypt’s most iconic personalities. None more so than the legendary Umm Khultum. Avedissian colourfully immortalised her signature beehive and jewel dotted black sunshades in his work Umm Khultum’s greatest hits and for anyone who views it, the painting exudes the mysteriousness of Egypt’s most famous songstress.

No one can tell the story of Egypt in the 20th century without mentioning Umm Khultum. She led  the epitome of  a public life and to an outsider she was a cross between Billie Holiday and Eva Peron. She considered herself a champion of the poor, who managed to transition smoothly through each of Egypt’s historic upheavals. She was close to both King Farouk and later Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Charles de Gaulle even referred to her as “The Lady”. Today, almost forty years after her death, her star power shows no signs of waning. Her songs still sell in the millions every year and millions more fall in love with her unique sound, as she conjures up memories of a time when the Arab world was experiencing a cultural rebirth.


Umm Khultum was born in 1904 in the town of  El Senbellawein in the Nile Delta. There is some debate over  the accuracy of the year, as some say it was six years earlier.  However as a young girl, Khultum was known for being both intelligent and engaging. Her parents had  enrolled her in a Quranic school, at a time when it was still rare for girls to be educated. In addition to her academic achievements, Khultum was known as having an excellent singing voice. It was through the assistance of her open-minded father,  who was also an imam,  that Khultum was encouraged to develop her talents further. She would sing at parties and local gatherings, but she would dress as a boy in order to avoid harassment by drunken revelers.

Her singing career took off  during the 1920s after she moved to Cairo and began to sing at working class venues with her father and siblings. In the capital, she promoted herself as an actress and made her first movie in 1935 called “Widad”. As her following grew, she worked with different poets and musicians, and adapted songs to deliver them in her own unique way. She collaborated with the likes of Ahmad Rami and Mahmud Bayram el-Tunsi, and worked to perfect the vocal style of music called ‘tarab’, which induces a soothing, but also haunting feeling in those who hear it.  Her most famous songs include: “Inta Omri” (You are my life) and “Leilat Hub” (Night of love). She performed every month and audiences would swell into the thousands. From Morocco to as far away as Iran, Khultum’s  voice proved to be extremely popular. She became known as Kawkab al-Sharq or ‘star of the east’. In Egypt itself, her success was also down to the fact that she was considered an authentic Arab singer, who had no need of imitiating western styles of performance.

Khultum was also unabashedly pan-Arab in how she marketed herself. Her songs reflected her staunch loyalty and devotion to her homeland. No subject was too prosaic to sing about. She even found a reason to put pen to paper and sing about the construction of the Aswan Dam. She undertook numerous  charitable projects, which sealed her place in the hearts of Egyptians and by extension the rest of the Arab world. In the aftermath of Egypt´s defeat in the 1967 war, Khultum went on tour  to raise money for Egyptian veterans. The needs of the people were always a top priority.

What makes Khultum truly extraordinary is the way she shrewdly managed her career. She was a master of PR and she knew how to be photographed, when and where, and in what outfit. She could generate publicity at the most effective moment. She could teach many of her contemporaries about how one can achieve longevity in the tricky world of show business.  Her legacy has  inspired artists such as the Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat to travel to Cairo to make a movie about her life and Israeli singers such as Sarit Hadad have covered Khultum’s songs.

Her Legacy

When she died of heart failure in 1975, Khultum’s funeral attracted an estimated four million people. Later her house on the Cairene island of Zamalek was destroyed in the early 1980s, but in its place a statue of the Khultum was erected. Today in Cairo, there are still many cafes and restaurants named after her.

It would be interesting to know, if she were still alive, what Khultum would think or rather sing about Egypt today? How would she express the chaos that has engulfed her county in the past few years? How would she address the confusion and disorder that grips the lives of her fellow countrymen and women? How would she react to the grinding poverty, the growing religious fanaticism, the military’s brutal response to opposition elements, and the flight of capital?  It leads one to ask, what has happened to  Khultum’s Egypt?

Whatever has happened, there are millions of Egyptians and Arabs who don`t wish to see what she stood for being lost in a cultural time capsule. There is a desire among many Egyptians who hope to see their country once again become a font of cultural achievements and a place where artistic freedom will be accommodated. Umm Khultum is a symbol of hope and a reminder of what can still be.


Ariana Afghan Airlines

Some years back, a video appeared on YouTube, which was taken from inside a plane bound for Kabul. While the plane is still sitting on the tarmac, the passenger pans around the interior, films the outside and then leans his camera down to film the rim below the window. The plastic cover that sits at the bottom of the windowpane was missing. In other words, part of the aircraft’s inner frame had detached from the window. Yet here the plane was preparing to take off for what must have been a six to seven hour flight. For most of us, seeing that would leave us ashen and welded to our seats in an anxious mix of apprehension and terror as we await for some harrowing mid-air pressurisation failure to take place.

Air travel in the 21st century has become for many a miserable experience. We complain about weight limits, additional and often concealed charges, egregious prices for on board snacks, cramped seating and tight compartment space. However we rarely concern ourselves with the basics i.e., does my seat belt attach properly? Will the emergency exit doors open? Will my oxygen mask drop in the case of a loss of cabin pressure?

However for several decades in Afghanistan, thousands of passengers took the white knuckle decision to venture across this vast land at 30,000 feet, with safety standards at a minimum; the possibility of being hijacked; suffering a catastrophic engine failure or being a sitting duck for a stinger missile.

Since the 2001 US invasion, it has been a monumental task for investors and aviation experts to overhaul Afghanistan’s bad boy reputation when it comes to its airlines. Resurrecting the national carrier Ariana became a matter of pride for many Afghans, who hoped that they could restore the company to its former glory.

Ariana Afghan Airlines got its start back in 1955. The country’s monarch at the time, Mohammed Zahir Shah, wanted to make it easier for Afghan pilgrims to attend the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia. The airline’s pleasant blue livery was even designed by him, since the blue represents the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, for which Afghanistan is famous. In its heyday, during the 1960s and 70s, it operated as a joint venture with Pan Am, which owned 49% of the company. According to writer, Jenifer Van Vleck, the US carrier’s decision was driven in part by the US government’s strategy of providing technical assistance to foreign airlines, as a means of containing the threat of the Soviet Union. The idea was about winning hearts and minds through commercial aviation.

The airline flew to all the world’s major cities, London, Paris, Frankfurt etc. Unfortunately the airline fell victim to historical forces, first through the Soviet invasion, and later under the Taliban. It earned the moniker Scariana, and became known as the world’s worst airline. During the era of the Taliban female cabin crew were sent home and pilots were ordered to grow their beards. In the late nineties, the airline suffered a string of fatal accidents. In 1998 an Ariana flight from Sharjah in the UAE crashed into a mountain near Kabul and during one flight to Kandahar, a pilot got lost and ended up crashing close to the Pakistani city of Quetta. One case which attracted widespread media interest was the hijacking of an Ariana flight in 2000, which ended up in Stansted Airport. The hijackers were desperate to seek asylum in the UK. The plane sat on the tarmac for five days, before the passengers were finally released and among them, at least sixty made a claim for asylum. In the years leading up to the invasion, Ariana was known by the CIA to be working, in the words of the head of the agency’s bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, to be a “terrorist taxi service”. The airline was used for handling arms and narcotics on behalf of al-Qaeda. Most flights served just Pakistan and the UAE, which meant al-Qaeda had ready access to the rest of the Middle East.

In the early 2000s, it was up to the Afghan-American Mohammad Nadir Atash to resurrect the company, revamp its fleet and tackle corruption, which was endemic at Ariana. The most serious problem was the company lacked a culture of safety and qualified staff. Corruption was so rife that it was standard practice for people to offer bribes in order to buy a ticket or reserve a seat. For Atash, it was paramount to transform Ariana into a properly functioning company that could compete with regional carriers, and to do this, he enlisted the help of Lufthansa consultants. The cost of one day’s work was €1650 for each consultant, but as Atash told the Guardian “It’s hard to get the right people to come to a place like Afghanistan. You pay for what you get. And believe me, we are getting bang for our buck”. Despite Atash’s best efforts, and the efforts of other CEOs, including the present one in charge, Captain Moin Khan Wardak, Ariana joined the EU’s inauspicious list of blacklisted aircraft in October 2006 and even now doesn’t have a rating on Skytrax. The airline along with other Afghan carriers that have emerged since 2001 such as Kam Air,Pamir Airways and Safi Airways are now all blacklisted by the EU. Kam Air was accused by the US military of smuggling opium on its flights and as a result it was barred from receiving anymore military contracts.

Ariana still flies to many major cities across Central Asia and the Middle East. Their fleet has somewhat improved, with the removal of their old 727s, and the addition of hand-me-down aircraft from Air India. The company has been working hard to improve its brand and has set up a slick website for its North American market. The airline is managing to solider on despite the enormous obstacles it faces in operating in such a difficult environment. The coming months and perhaps years will be the most challenging as the company could easily become sucked into the maelstrom of Afghanistan’s fractious internal problems. Rest assured though, this bird will keep on flying!

Good days for Ariana

In the Shadows: Hunting Iran’s Scientists

Blown Up Car

Four years ago on a late November morning in Tehran, Majid Shahriari, a physics professor from Shahid Beheshti University was on his way to work, when in the middle of heavy traffic, he noticed a motorcycle moving closer to his car. A moment or two passed, then he heard a loud bang on the side of his car. Before Shahriari’s had a chance to see what happened, his vehicle exploded. He was killed instantly, while his wife, who was travelling with him, was badly injured. His vehicle had been blown up with a magnetic limpet bomb. On the same day, in an almost simultaneous attack, one of his colleagues, Fereydoon Abbasi, a laser expert at the country’s Ministry of Defence, noticed a motorcycle following his car. Quick thinking on his part saved him and his wife, as he managed to leap from his car before the device went off.

In early 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an expert in uranium enrichment, and a director at the Natanz enrichment plant was travelling in his car, when just like Shahriari, he heard a sharp slap against the side of the car. Moments later the magnetic bomb detonated and he along with his driver were killed instantly. Eight months later, 35-year-old Darioush Rezaie, was killed outside his daughter’s kindergarten, when someone approached him and his wife, and began shooting. He was killed, while his wife suffered severe injuries. Just like on previous occasions, the perpetrator managed to escape on the back of a motorcycle.

In light of the five assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that have taken place since 2007, what feelings run among the men and women who make up this elite community is anyone’s guess. Even though their chosen field is beset with risks, many know that they have little choice but to stay in the country and continue their work. From the perspective of the intelligence community, targeting Iran’s most experienced and educated scientists makes logical sense, as it strikes at the heart of the country’s nuclear activities. According to an article which appeared in the Slate, there are estimated to be 50 or so individuals who play a critical role in the country’s nuclear activities.To gather the knowledge requires years of study and it is not easy to replace such skilled individuals.

The Iranian authorities, after each assassination, have been quick to pin responsibility on Israel, or rather the “Zionist regime”. Although the United States is usually cited as equally culpable. Nevertheless, there is widespread acknowledgment that Mossad is the instigator of the attacks. It is thought Israel’s foreign intelligence agency recruits Iranians who follow the comings and goings of their intended targets for weeks, before selecting the most optimum moment to strike. One captured agent, Majid Jamali Fashi, who was later hanged for his alleged involvement with Mossad, claimed in a televised confession that he had been brought to Tel Aviv for training. He was arrested for orchestrating the assassination of 50-year-old Professor Massoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed in January 2010. A booby trapped motorbike was placed outside his home in northern Tehran, and was detonated by using a remote control device. Fashi said he was paid $120,000 to carry out the killing and Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, who has written extensively about Iran’s nuclear programme, says Mossad has a tradition of killing scientists, since it works to spread fear among other scientists that they might suffer the same fate.

Mossad’s recruits most likely come from the within controversial opposition group known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) whose supporters are familiar with the country and can easily blend in. Mossad has an ironclad reputation across the Middle East for acting in an effective manner, which strikes fear into potential targets. In September, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif warned Israel that it “cannot kill all our scientists”. As a result, according to former IAEA official Olli Heinonen, the Iranians have worked to build redundancy into the system, which allows scientists to shadow the work of physicists, thus offsetting the loss of their expertise.

Even so, among the handful of scientists who have died, the motivation behind some of their deaths has not always been clear. In the case of Massoud Ali Mohammadi, who worked at Tehran University as an expert in particle and theoretical physics, his death left many baffled. During Iran’s presidential elections in 2009, Mohammadi was a supporter of the green movement and even some Israelis who participated in a project with Mohammadi expressed surprise over his death. In 2002, as part of the multi-national SESAME project, Mohammadi worked with Israeli scientists and those who met him, described him as friendly and humorous. There are suspicions that his death was not necessarily the work of foreign intelligence, but was ordered by members of the regime to send a message that dissent, especially in such an important field, will not be tolerated.

In the cases where individuals have refused to work for the government, their decision has cost them dearly. In January 2011 Omid Kokabee, was arrested at Tehran Airport as he was travelling back to the United States, where he was studying laser physics at the University of Texas at Austin. He was charged with “gathering and conspiring against the national security of the country”. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. However it emerged that Kokabee had been approached by the Iranian nuclear energy organisation to work for them, but he refused. It was one of many attempts by the government to acquire his skills. He turned down a doctorate scholarship from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and employment offers at the Research Centre of Malek Ashtar University in Isfahan. Kokabee believes his current predicament is due to his refusal to cooperate. He is now confined to Ward 350 in Evin Prison, which is notorious as the place where political prisoners are sent. He suffers from poor health and his case stands as a stark reminder to anyone in Iran that refusing government offers is not an option.

For the individuals that have survived assassinations, their careers have enjoyed considerable success. Later Fereysoon Abbasi would go onto to become head of the Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency and with tensions somewhat cooling as Western and Iranian officials go into diplomatic overdrive to settle, what one expert recently wrote the “decade long impasse”, maybe Iran’s physicists can breath a sigh of relief that their numbers might not be up. However not everyone in the Middle East is pleased with the interim agreement and those at the heart of Iran’s nuclear programme, are fully aware that any attempts to do the contrary of what has been agreed, could mean the likelihood of more magnetic bombs exploding in downtown Tehran.

The Red Prince

In the summer of 1972 the world convulsed with shock after nine members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed during a failed rescue attempt by West German police at the airport of Fürstenfeldbruck near Munich. They were killed after a fire fight erupted between police officers and eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Germany at the time did not have special forces, and thus were completely unprepared. Nine athletes died at the airfield, while two other Israelis were killed in the Olympic Village. The Palestinians took advantage of lax security procedures at the event and climbed the fence close to the Israelis’ apartment complex in the early hours of the morning of September 5. After the terrorists stormed the apartment, some of the athletes tried to fight back, but were quickly overpowered.

Hours of painful negotiations were to follow as the Palestinians demanded that the Israeli government release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The West German authorities were caught completely off guard and it didn’t help that TV networks were broadcasting images of police men climbing the roof over where the hostages were staying. All negotiating techniques proved hopeless as the Palestinians were not tempted by financial settlements or other incentives. Finally the Germans decided that they would have a better chance to rescue the hostages if they agreed to the Palestinians’ demand that both they and the hostages be allowed to fly to a friendly Arab country. Helicopters were brought to take the men to Fürstenfeldbruck, where an aircraft would be waiting to fly them to an unknown location. The hasty arrangements gave the Germans little time to consider worst case scenarios and make the necessary contingency plans. When the Palestinians and the Israelis arrived at the airport, the German police were planning to shoot the terrorists by firing from a nearby tower. Yet they were outnumbered. The police had no training in marksmanship, and as a result, chaos ensued. The Palestinians, realising they didn’t stand a chance as more armoured vehicles arrived, took the opportunity to kill the Israeli athletes still waiting in the helicopters. A grenade was lobbed into one, while another gunman shot the remaining athletes in their seats. All but three of the Palestinians were killed and those remaining were soon arrested. However their time in detention was short-lived, as just seven weeks later, a Lufthansa Boeing 727 was hijacked after leaving Beirut by two Black September operatives, who demanded the West German government release the Munich attackers. The German government wasted no time in releasing the men who set off for Libya. In the aftermath of the Munich attack, the world was left reeling as it awoke to the reality of international terrorism.

The Reaction

The shock of Munich was felt with the greatest impact in Israel where Prime Minister Golda Meir knew she owed it to the families of the victims and the Israeli public to bring those responsible to justice. At the time of the attack, Golda Meir ordered Zvi Zamir, head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service Mossad, to send the counter terrorism group Sayeret Matkal to Munich. However the West German authorities refused to let them take part in the rescue effort, on the grounds of legal complexities. The mishandling of the hostage crisis and the lack of impetus on the part of European governments to address the threat of terrorism, increased Israeli resolve to take matters into their own hands.
Meir called on the Mossad to track down the individuals linked to the attack. The mission was code-named “Wrath of God” and the sequence of events that were to take place is depicted in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”. Just forty days after Meir declared the mission, the first assassination took place. First Wael Zwaiter, suspected of being Black September’s leader in Rome, was killed on his way home. Afterwards in December Dr. Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO’s representative in France, but who Israelis suspected of being the head of Black September in France, was wounded in his Paris apartment after a device exploded in his telephone receiver. He would later succumb to his injuries. Killings connected to “Wrath of God” continued to take place across Europe and even in Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut. The obvious pattern between each assassination was enough to signal to the remaining members or co-conspirators of the Munich attack, that they would be next unless they went into hiding. The message from Mossad was being received, yet over the course of seven years, not everything would go according to plan.

One man who proved an elusive figure on Mossad’s hit list was Black September’s chief of operations, Ali Hassan Salameh. He managed to survive five assassination attempts, but since he was considered the architect of the Munich attack it was vital for the Israelis to find him. Salameh’s nom de guerre was Abu Salameh, but the Israelis referred to him as the “Red Prince” due to his involvement in deadly terror attacks. He was one of Yasser Arafat’s confidantes and commanded his personal security squad known as Force 17. In July 1973, the Israelis believed they had located Salameh in the small Norwegian town of Lillehammer. A hit squad planned to ambush him as he walked home with his Norwegian wife, who was pregnant at the time with his daughter. Sadly, they mistook his identity and instead killed an innocent Moroccan waiter. The botched covert operation meant assassinations were put on hold and would only resume after Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1977.


Ali Hassan Salameh was born in 1940 in the Palestinian village of Qula in the British Mandate District of Ramle. His father Sheikh Hassan Salameh was a leader during the Arab revolt of the 1930s, but who later died in 1948 during Israel’s war of independence. His exploits earned him the respect of Yasser Arafat, who took a shine to his young son. The young Salameh travelled to Jordan to receive training and was ordered to track down suspected Israeli agents attending Palestinian guerrilla training camps. He also carried out acts of sabotage in Europe; many in the lead up to the Munich attack.
Salameh spent much of his young life in Beirut, as it was where his mother chose to live after the death of his father. He grew into a man who enjoyed the city’s famous nightlife, wore expensive western clothes and gained the reputation of being a womaniser. During the late 1960s he moved onto the radar screen of the CIA, since the agency was looking for a way to infiltrate al-Fatah. According to various sources, he was approached by the CIA on a number of occasions to work as an agent. In 1970 he was offered the opportunity, but turned it down. Nevertheless the PLO agreed not to target Americans in Beirut. Many believe the reason behind Salameh’s seamless ability to evade death so often was due to his role as an intermediary between Yasser Arafat and the Americans. Salameh would play an important role in protecting US Embassy staff in 1976 as fighting worsened in Beirut. His association with the Americans convinced him that he would be protected in the event of any Israeli assassination plot. It also allowed him to lead a relatively open lifestyle. He married Miss Universe 1972 winner Georgina Rizk, a Christian from Beirut and according to a number of reports, it was the CIA that helped pay for their honeymoon. However, according to some sources, Rizk claims her former husband was never on their payroll.

The Plot

After the election of Likud’s Menachem Begin in 1977, the order was given for Israel’s intelligence service to resume the hunt for Salameh. This was given an additional boost once the Israelis understood that the Black September organiser had rebuffed attempts by the Americans to act as an infiltrator. According to Aaron J. Klein in his book “Striking Back”, the Israelis believed that Salameh was now “fair game”.

Mossad devised a plan for an agent to go to Beirut and work their way into the Palestinian social scene and become close to Salameh. Mossad sought the aid of a British woman studying in Israel to perform the role of the honey trap, and later an assassin. In 1978 a young woman known as Penelope moved to West Beirut. She soon gained a reputation of being a bohemian and a pro-Palestinian activist. In reality her name was Erika Chambers, a geography graduate from the University of Southampton, who grew up in an Anglo-Jewish home. She spent one year training in Israel before moving to Germany to live as a sleeper agent. She then headed for Beirut. It was through her association at a Palestinian welfare organisation that she was able to become close to PLO members such as Salameh. His reputation as a playboy and his frequenting of nightclubs, made it easy for women to get close to him, including Chambers. Her job was to monitor his comings and goings. Before the assassination was scheduled to take place, a member of the hit squad arrived in Beirut using a Canadian passport with the name Ronald Kolberg. A second agent soon joined him carrying a British passport in the name of Peter Hugh Scriver. Scriver was tasked with renting a vehicle that would be used to contain 100kg worth of explosives. According to the hotel in which he was staying, Scriver claimed to be a “technical consultant”. A Volkswagen was issued to Scriver who set about wiring the vehicle and then another agent was responsible for parking it close to Salameh’s apartment. Within days of arriving in the city, both men left without anyone noticing their movements.

The assassination was scheduled for January 22, 1979. Nearer to the date, Chambers rented an apartment overlooking Rue Verdun, which was close to where Salameh’s lived. On that day, he was planning to head to a birthday party and was travelling in a convoy with his bodyguards. Chambers waited in her apartment and watched over her balcony for the moment when Salameh’s Chevrolet would pass the parked Volkswagen. At approximately 3.35pm in the afternoon, Salameh’s car neared the booby-trapped car and it is thought that Chambers activated the charge by using a remote control device. Her timing was exact and the size of the bomb killed Salameh instantly and all four of his bodyguards. A number of passers-by were killed, including a teenage boy and a 34-year-old British woman. The bomb shook the city. The Montreal Gazette reported that it knocked out a 40 square section of stone wall next to the car and smashed every window within fifty feet. In the mayhem that ensued, Erika or rather Penelope informed her neighbours in a state of shock that she would feel safer if she moved into a hotel. Penelope never returned and it was in the weeks that followed as investigators combed through the apartment that a British passport bearing the name Erika Chambers was found. The Volkswagen rented by Scriver was traced back to a rental company that had been used previously by a Mossad squad in 1973 for a raid against two Black September members. Once it became clear who the intended target of bombing was, the PLO was enraged. Yasser Arafat announced that, “We have lost a lion”. The death of Ali Hassan Salameh was one of many assassination plots that served to instil fear in the PLO for years to come, as it proved that even in Arab countries, they were not safe. The lone surviving member of the Munich attack, Jamal al-Gashey, who was only 18 when he took part, has spent the past forty years in hiding and is believed to be living in North Africa. None of the agents responsible for Salameh’s killing were found, but it is thought they all escaped to Israel. Chambers has never returned to England for fear of reprisals by Palestinian groups. After seven years Operation “Wrath of God” came to an end. Nevertheless, for many Israelis, the death of Salameh was the final nail in the coffin in putting the memory of Munich to rest.

munich attack

Insurgency 101

I have to get something off my chest. It really is time for a good ol’ kvetch. There once was a time when you could simply fill out a form for a magazine subscription, send it to the postman with your credit card details and in less than a fortnight, your lovely new magazine would land on your doorstep. You could unwrap it from its plastic sleeve and just start flipping. You could fold it into a roll and bring it along wherever you went. This was what I looked forward to when I ordered Newsweek. I could not have been happier, but then, in less than a month, Newsweek/Daily Beast’s editor, Tina Brown, announced that they were switching to a digital format. Basically Newsweek wasn’t really going to exist anymore. However I had paid for my 26 issues, and I still expected to get them. However, after three digital issues, I tried to read my fourth, only to be greeted with demands to use log in names, passwords and entry codes. Whereas before, the only barrier to reading enjoyment was the sheer banality of ripping open plastic; now you have to remember your dog’s birthday and hope to the Lord that your first answer is correct, otherwise Newsweek requires you to wait an hour before attempting another log on. In short, I wanted to strangle the next person I saw eagerly sliding their greasy finger on a shiny screen bestowing the virtues of online formats. No, there is nothing as easy as picking something off the shelf, or from your mailbox, and just reading it without playing extraneous memory games. There should be another way. We deserve another way!

Ok, enough of that!

One book that I highly recommend is Jason Burke’s 9/11 Wars. The book neatly condenses all the conflicts, political upheavals and terrorist incidents of note that took place during the early 2000s. He devotes many chapters to the Iraq war, which for the first four years was badly managed; however he acknowledges the important role played by General David Petraeus, who in February 2007 took command of Multi-National Forces in Iraq and set about applying rigorous counter insurgency strategies (COIN) that had been devised during the 1950s and 60s. Petraeus along with a writing team composed of Lt. General James F. Amos and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl et al. set about producing Field Manual 3-24 , which was released in December 2006, as a redraft to the Field Manual (Interim) 3-07.22. This mighty tome was fundamental in aiding US efforts to finally claim the upper hand in the battle against Iraqi insurgency. It laid out tactics and doctrines in asymmetric warfare that characterised the kind of war that they were up against.

In the manual, the writers acknowledge the work of David Galula, who in 1964 wrote Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. As US forces clamoured to regain control of Baghdad, which had become embroiled in sectarian violence, Galula’s work along with a number of COIN theorists from the 1960s offered many important lessons. Journalist Ann Marlowe has written an excellent monograph on Galula’s life and writes at length about his impact on FM 3-24. In her words, “Without the insurgency in Iraq, we may never have heard of David Galula”.

But who was he? Marlowe mentions that there is little biographical information available, yet what we know is that in 1919 Galula was born in the Tunisian town of Sfax to a Jewish merchant family. He earned his baccalauréat in Casablanca and went on to attend France’s most elite military academy the École Spéciale Militaire de St. Cyr in Brittany. There Galula studied colonial warfare and would later spend time as both a captain and major in Algeria. Galula was imbued with the ideas of counterinsurgency theorists such as the father of French counterinsurgency, Charles Lacheroy who devised “psychological action” and Roger Trinquier who wrote “Modern Warfare”. In his career, Galula travelled extensively and in 1945, he was sent to Beijing as a French military attaché. He learnt to speak English and Chinese, but in 1947 whilst on a visit to the western part of the country he was captured by Chinese Communists. It was during this time that he became intimately acquainted with Maoist theories on fighting an effective revolutionary war. What was critical to asymmetric warfare, according to Mao was that the enemy is able to “move among the people like a fish in water”. Later Galula would comment that the insurgent or the enemy holds no territory, and refuses to fight for it. He is everywhere, and nowhere.

During the late 1940s and early 50s, France was still getting over the devastating impact of World War 2 and its citizens were in no mood to engage in another war in faraway Indochina. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was regarded as a trauma for the French military and it was one that many in the establishment did not want to see repeated in other territories. The French were also keenly aware that they needed to develop effective methods against low intensity warfare. Once the US was saddled with the role of protector in Southeast Asia, it was President John F. Kennedy who believed that work needed to be done in order to address the problem of insurgent movements. He was inspired after visiting Saigon with his brother Robert in 1951, where he learnt first hand of atrocities committed by the Vietminh.

Later during the Vietnam War, commanders such as General William C. Westmoreland adopted strategies that would be the antithesis of Galula’s theories. He sought to wage a war of attrition to wear the enemy down and seek out the Viet Cong in “search and destroy” operations. He showed disregard for theories of COIN, but this, according to Dr. John A. Nagl, was symptomatic of the operational style of US forces at the time. It was inflexible and sclerotic. The body count became a metric for perceived progress on the battlefield, while the Viet Cong were prepared to be flexible in their encounters with US forces.

However there were attempts to initiate a successful pacification programme. First of all, Westmoreland’s successor Gen. Creighton Abram’s moved away from the policy of “search and destroy” and prior to that Robert Komer was sent to Vietnam in 1967 in order to help win “hearts and minds”. He was given the title chief of pacification, and during his time there he worked with the CIA (which was in favour of COIN innovation) and set about implementing the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) programme. This involved ensuring security for civilians, in effect isolating them from ‘enemy’ forces; destroying the infrastructure of the Viet Cong and finally winning the sympathy of the Vietnamese people. But according to Komer, it was all “too little, too late”. In a report for RAND, he argued that: “Instead of adapting our response to the unique circumstances of Vietnam, we fought the enemy our way – at horrendous cost and with tragic side effects – because we lacked the incentive and much existing capability to do otherwise”.

When troops moved into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003, the guiding principles for US forces were based on conventional warfare techniques. One of the anomalies to come out of the Vietnam War was the inability of US commanders to devise appropriate counterinsurgency strategies that could be applied in future combat zones. Therefore, American troops had expected and were trained for a conventional war from the outset, but quickly events would spiral out of control. Therefore the approach that was frequently adopted was “enemy-centric”, rather than “people-centric”.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans chose to live in heavily fortified installations or what are called “forward operating bases”. Troops travel during the day and head back to camp at night, and in the end, says David Kilcullen, locals tend to regard soldiers as “aliens who descend from an armored box”. US troops had to learn on the job about how to approach their surroundings and over the course of the first four years, the country slowly descended into hell. American soldiers were caught in the middle of a tussle as Sunnis and Shiites worked to assert control over parts of the country.

However as part of the famous surge and with ideas from the new field manual, soldiers would have to live among Iraqis and be available to their basic needs. Petraeus helped to establish a network of joint security stations in Baghdad neighbourhoods. In 2007 it was decided that 20-25 thousand new troops would be deployed to Iraq as part of the surge. While in June 2007, there were estimated to be approximately 1500 security incidents per day, by August 2008, the number had fallen to under a hundred. There is little wonder why Petraeus became viewed as the “Mr Fix-it” of the military. An aura of invincibility surrounded him and this would only be shattered through his later peccadillo of having an affair with his biographer Ms. Paula “bionic” Broadwell. His acts of contrition have nevertheless been for the most part warmly received, although it has put a chink in what many considered to be a flawless career. However after Stanley McChrystal resigned as commander in Afghanistan in June 2010, Petraeus attempts to pacify Afghanistan in the same way as was achieved in Iraq proved less successful. More importantly, there is much criticism over the beliefs that Petraeus is single-handedly responsible for turning the situation around in Iraq.

In COIN strategy, there truly is no “one size fits all” approach and it takes a tremendous amount of resources that need to be harnessed for a specific environment. It is also expensive and time-consuming. As Fred Kaplan notes in his book “The Insurgents”, despite the initial success that the Americans enjoyed through initiating the surge, “Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki had no interest in getting his act together”. In other words the Iraqi elite on the ground failed to stick to strategies that had helped bear fruit. There is now ample reason to believe that the country is ripe for a civil war and there is evidence that the US may become involved, especially given the spread of jihadism into neighbouring Syria.

Back to the Future

During the mid 20th century, France was confronted with back-to-back colonial wars: first in Indochina and later in Algeria. Both conflicts would test France’s resilience. Yet the experience of the French would provide the Americans with invaluable lessons; although it would take time to acknowledge them. Both France and the US would fall prey to the axiom that “might makes right”. The nature of revolutionary warfare would turn this on its head. According to Galula, in this type of war, the insurgent has the strategic initiative and has the ideological power of a cause.

In Indochina, the French underestimated the will of the Communists and the Vietnamese to be rid of colonial rule. The Communists were able to offer a nationalist narrative and an idealised vision for the future. According to Professor Douglas Porch, in Algeria, the rebels who formed the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) at first did not have a nationalist message to offer, but given the sheer ferocity at which the French tried to crush the insurgency, it was not surprising that more and more Algerians rallied behind the FLN. Galula outlines in “Counterinsurgency Warfare” that apart from a cause, the insurgent can thrive if they can take advantage of administrative weaknesses in the counterinsurgency camp.

In one of Galula’s other notable works Pacification of Algeria 1956-1958, he makes the case for a “population centric” approach to addressing revolutionary movements. He believed it was necessary to isolate insurgents from the rest of the population. The well-being of residents is crucial, whether it is providing jobs, housing, food or security – they will be more willing to cooperate if it is clear their interests are being looked after. In other words counter insurgency becomes a competition for government. Galula writes in “Counter Insurgency Warfare” that the “exercise for political power depends on the tacit or explicit agreement on the population”. Guerillas depend on the complicity of the population and they will attempt to destroy the links between them and the counter insurgent.

The counterinsurgent has other options at their disposal. They can act directly against the leaders of the insurgency who are on the verge of carrying out an attack. Also leaders are crucial for the ability of a revolutionary movement to get off the ground. It is also possible to infiltrate an insurgent movement or try to encourage the population to provide intelligence. However people will not speak unless they feel safe and believe they will not face retribution. It is important to gain the support of individuals or minority within the population who are opposed to the insurgents and can be motivated to support the cause of the counterinsurgent.

The trouble for the French was simply that the brutal tactics employed by the French against Muslim Algerian communities served to drive a wedge between the population and the French. One of the key theoreticians of “psychological warfare” was Colonel Charles Lacheroy, who proposed that populations be placed in camps and that contact should be cut with neighbouring countries. Galula was completely opposed to the idea of relocating communities, as it only helped to split the insurgency into smaller units. However cutting off communication between Algeria and its neighbours certainly helped to curtail support granted to the FLN.

When the war moved to the capital Algiers and other built-up urban areas, the nature of the conflict grew increasingly internecine. The cost of the war was an enormous headache for the French government, since during the peak of the conflict, it was spending $30-40 million in two weeks, while the FLN spent the same amount in one year. The FLN also had plenty of willing sponsors both close to home and abroad. Galula believed numerical strength also played an important role. The French needed to muster up a ratio of 10-20 counter insurgents for every insurgent in order to be effective. More importantly, Galula believed that when it comes to COIN, its practitioners have to ask themselves the question, can they sustain their operations? Galula believed that successful COIN or at least the only way to claim victory was if the insurgent could be permanently isolated from the population, but this isolation had to be maintained by the population itself.

In the end, while the French managed to absorb many of the lessons of revolutionary warfare, which went for all soldiers in the field, the political class in Paris or more crucially Charles de Gaulle decided to make way for Algerian independence. His decision was poorly received by many in the military and it prompted many to join the resistance movement the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS). Galula on the other hand was reportedly unhappy about the army’s growing involvement with politicking and in 1962, he chose to resign from the military. In the same year he took part in a RAND symposium that has become legendary as it brought together many of the world’s leading COIN theorists. During the early 1960s, he took up a number of jobs, but first went to Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, where he became friends with the likes of Henry Kissinger, and even William Westmoreland who helped him find accommodation. Later he went to work for a multi-national manufacturer of long-range radar equipment and even went to London to work as part of NATO Air Defence Ground Environment Consortium. Not long after, he started to complain of health problems and it was discovered that he was suffering from lung cancer. He passed away not long after at only 48. Nevertheless, his ideas have become firmly galvanised in the minds of military strategists and forces the world over. In his career, he held firm to the belief that one must be open and never stick to the script, as in warfare adaptation is everything.


The Mighty Pen: Literary Consumption in the Arab World

Dear Folks,

One book that a lot of ladies and perhaps men were hoping to find in their stocking at Christmas was the unquenchably popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey”. The writing may leave something to desire, but women everywhere from Rio to Seoul have gone hot under the collar for Mr. Grey. Women everywhere except in the Arab world, where they are still waiting to enjoy the rich and raunchy details fee arabee. The book has already been translated into Turkish and Hebrew, but still no Arabic.

Suffice to say there are plenty of other books far more deserving of translation than tales of romping with the help of whips and chains, yet why deprive millions of Arab women the chance to read about it?

But for some reason books and reading for pleasure seem to take a backseat in the lives millions in the Arab world. Why is this the case is a question that has many scratching their heads. The Middle East has always been considered a historic hub of intellectual activity. So, what is preventing Arab bookworm from thriving in the 21st century? One of the key reasons is censorship. Governments in numerous Arab states, often work with religious authorities to hold back distribution of books deemed religiously or morally questionable. This prevents many Arab authors and their books from gaining a wider audience. Legislation to protect intellectual property is often not enforced. Lebanese author Elias Khoury, told the UK’s Independent newspaper: “The problem of the Arabic book is the problem of Arabic society,” Khoury insists. “It is dictatorship and censorship. And this censorship isn’t only against writers and books – it’s against the whole society.”

Saudi writer, Abdo Khal, whose books according to the Guardian have been effectively banned in his home country, says that there is a resurgence of interest in reading. However, the Saudi authorities have stifled interest in literary affairs by ceding control to conservative elements, who are suspicious of work that could infringe on Islamic principles. A popular literary club Al-Jouf in Jeddah, of which Khal is a director, was a target of arsonists in 2009, who were upset that women writers were attending. Yet, Khal believes that there is a growing hunger among Saudis to read and combat censorship.

However popular books such as The Da Vinci Code only sold 5000 copies in countries such as Jordan, which is considered successful by Arab publishing standards. Yet, this could be blamed on poor marketing and distribution systems, which prevent books from reaching potential customers. This is hampered further by an insufficient number of bookshops and outlets. Bookshop owners also complain that their profits on the sale of magazines, newspapers and books are insignificant. They have to use ingenious ways to make up for losses by selling other products.

Governments are often cited as failing to create the conditions for young people to take an interest in reading for fun. Ministries of education across the Middle East often force-feed schools with set curricula, which is based on rote learning and as a result curtails intellectual curiosity. Teachers complain that school libraries are not properly maintained and students cannot avail of supplementary reading material other than textbooks. Other observers believe that parents are failing to instil a love for reading in their children, which is worsened by the disappearance of public libraries in numerous Arab cities.

All in all, this leads to gloomy statistics about the poor state of literary consumption. One of the most famous examples, which featured in a 2002 UN report, noted that Greece translates five times more books from English than the entire Arab world. This averages to roughly 330 books annually. In 2010, another UN report suggested that less than 2% of the population in the Arab world reads even one book a year. One of the most controversial findings, featured in the Arab Thought Foundation’s fourth cultural development report released last January, which noted that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to 11 books read by an American and seven books by a British person. The report fuelled intense debate, questioning the validity of its findings.

Yet the real elephant in the room is illiteracy. When one looks at some Arab countries, the statistics can be hard to fathom. One of the worst examples is Yemen, which according to the UNDP has an illiteracy rate of 45%, but this figure rises up to 80% among women. Yet, even wealthy countries are not immune. UNESCO in 2011 reported that one in ten people in the UAE are illiterate. Overall, the Arab League estimates that 100 million, i.e. one in three Arabs struggles to read and write. In other words, it is no wonder that books are having a tough time with millions ill-equipped with even basic literacy skills.

But there are dozens who are trying to reverse this analphabetic trend. In the UAE, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan al-Qasimi, works to promote reading for young people and promotes the Kalima translation project, which is state-funded, and aims to translate 100 classic and contemporary books into Arabic every year. It is in Abu Dhabi that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction has been awarded for the past five years. It is considered the Booker Prize of the Arab world. Previous winners include: Bahaa Taher from Egypt, Abdo Khal from Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Achaari from Morocco. One of the goals of the prize is to promote quality translations of Arabic works into other languages.

With regard to the problem of illiteracy, Egypt’s popular Muslim preacher Dr. Amr Khaled, has set up summer camps for young people to come and gain the skills to read and write. There are also initiatives such as “We love Reading”, which works across the Arab world to establish a library in every neighborhood and to instill in young children a love of reading. Schemes like this could not have come at a more crucial time, since one of the key drivers of the Arab Spring was putting fresh ideas about society and democracy into the public sphere. Literacy gives individuals control over their lives and gives them the tools necessary to interpret what is in their interest. Without the aid of responsible governments working towards universal literacy and parents who encourage their children to make reading a hobby, then societies stagnate. Reading is not just for pleasure, but also for progress.

Iran’s Moody Mullah

Dear Folks,

During my vacation to a peaceful Swiss ski resort, my nightly dreams, while usually pleasant were convulsed one night when I found myself on a flight to Seoul, South Korea.  On board, I heard the strange noise of a sheep bleating, but when I looked up; I noticed that it happened to be the Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. He had one too many drinks and seemed to be disturbing everyone on the flight. He even came over to have a chat with me, and discussed writing his Ph.D at the London School of Economics. I can assure all of you out there, that I am positive he has never set foot in that university. I woke up shortly after, not knowing what neurological or environmental stimulants brought upon such a bizarre dream.

The actual Ahmad Jannati was born in 1927 in the beautiful city of Isfahan.  Jannati is a hardliner through and through, and never wants to throw a compromising bone. For him, the Islamic Republic, and all its trappings need to preserved just so. He has been the chair of the Guardian Council since 1988, which is responsible for scrutinizing legislation from the lower house or majlis, and also interpreting the constitution. In July, Jannati was reaffirmed as chair of the Council for another six years. Khamenei is keen to have a stalwart supporter close to him. Jannati firmly believes that anyone considering running for the presidency in the Islamic Republic must “first and foremost” have unwavering devotion for the Supreme Leader. In December 2010, Jannati even said that any form of opposition to the Supreme leader is tantamount to blasphemy and denying God’s existence. Newsweek magazine has called Jannati  the fifth most powerful Iranian. Yet his aloof and inflexible nature is one of the reasons why this octogenarian is a favourite of Iranian bloggers and satirists who say that for him the Big Bang was a memory, and remembers  when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Jannati is a founding member of the Haghani religious school based in Qom. The movement behind the school believes in the concept of the Hidden Imam or Mahdi’s appearance during a period of instability in the world.  It propagates radical Shi’a doctrine, which is also averse to any suggestion that democracy and Islam can mix.  It counts President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as one of its devotees. Many graduates of the school have gone on to become leading figures in the regime. Before rising to prominence after the Islamic Revolution, he remained cooped up in Qom, and was once photographed eagerly kissing the hand of the elegant Shahbanou Farah Pahlavi. After the revolution, his son Hussein, who was a member of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, was killed in a gun battle with forces loyal to the Revolution in 1981.

In the months and now years that followed Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009, Jannati has been vocal in calling for the executions of demonstrators and opposition activists. He supported the decision by the head of Iran’s judiciary to execute two members of a monarchist group, and called for more killings as a way to snuff out any opposition. In the late nineties, during the many student protests that would alert the world to the brewing social tension within the Islamic Republic, Jannati praised the closure of many reformist newspapers saying “you cannot save Islam with liberalism and tolerance”.

It is from on high, standing at the podium on Fridays, that Jannati likes most to stir the masses with his noxious words.

 In February 2011, the Associated Press reported that during Friday prayers Jannati said opposition leaders had lost their reputation among the people and are practically dead and executed. He urged that both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi be effectively kept cut off and isolated. They should not be allowed to send messages, emails or any forms of communication. His brooding contempt and loathing for any form of dissent, as defined by himself and Khamenei, seems one of the key reasons why even former upper echelons in the regime have moved away.

Naturally, pouring scorn on the west is a common occurrence. When an earthquake rocked the Iranian city of Bam in 2003, causing the deaths of 26,000 people, the United State reached out to offer emergency aid, and the Bush administration even agreed to suspend sanctions for ninety days to allow aid supplies into the country. Yet a week or so after the earthquake, during Friday prayers, Jannati responded by telling the crowd: “We slap them [the Americans] in the face and say, for your paltry aid you have sent, we cannot set aside our differences and extend the hand of friendship and relations with you. If you are so full of compassion, why don’t you go and help suffering Palestinians, whose earthquake you created?”  Foreign officials are not spared a tongue lashing. Bill Clinton has been described s a “sexual sadist” and he has even said that every time he sees a picture of former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livini she wishes someone would shoot her.

The cleric believes foreigners had a hand in fomenting the demonstrations in summer of 2009. The British Embassy in particular was named as a base of sedition. He called for the arrest of the locally engaged staff, as he believed they were guilty of plotting the protests. The British according to Jannati are “the worst con men, the most devious people and they are foxier than everyone else”. In regards to the controversy over the surfacing of the film “Innocence of Muslims” Jannati described it as “the most unprecedented and impudent insult to Islam”. In his opinion, it was made in order to prevent an awareness of Islam from spreading in the west. I can only assume, on that basis, he has never seen the film.

 Jannati is not a young man, and neither is Khamenei. Yet their clerical ordinances govern everyday life in the Islamic Republic. Public anger towards the encroachment of clerics and religious police who see fit to harass people on spurious charges of wearing “immodest” clothing and mixing with members of the opposite is on the rise.

The Times in the UK reported that two women recently beat up a cleric in the town of Shahmirzad after he ordered them to “cover up”. He was kicked to the ground by the women and later taken to hospital. In the capital Tehran two members of the Basij militia were beaten up by members of the public, and almost thrown into a canal after reprimanding a woman for listening to music in her car.

Don’t forget that Iran is struggling under the weight of sanctions, economic stagnation and now the government has even decided to prevent both men and women from studying certain subjects in universities. There has been almost no explanation, except that it is likely that the regime thinks this could help undermine campuses sprouting new protests.

If there is anyone within the fold of Iran’s ruling elite, who knows that unleashing more draconian legislation is not the solution to keeping the populace quiet, they obviously haven’t told or are afraid to tell the white bearded clerics at the top. Ayatollah Jannati is one of dozens of mullahs, who were once confined to Iran’s seminaries, but through the Islamic Revolution were given the chance to control an entire nation through the prism of theology. Yet, whether it is through religion or ideology, the manifestation of an insatiable appetite for power always looks the same.