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US Central Command Seeks to Legitimize Hamas and Hizb'Allah

[Mark Perry, Foreign Policy]

Summary ... In what can only be termed an incredible development, senior intelligence officers at US Central Command (CENTCOM) are recommending that Hizb'Allah and Hamas be designated as political parties instead of terrorist organizations. The stance is at once provocative, controversial and at odds with current US policy.

While it is anathema to broach the subject of engaging militant groups like Hizb'Allah and Hamas in official Washington circles (to say nothing of Israel), that is exactly what a team of senior intelligence officers at US Central Command — CENTCOM — has been doing. In a "Red Team" report issued on May 7 and entitled "Managing Hizb'Allah and Hamas," senior CENTCOM intelligence officers question the current US policy of isolating and marginalizing the two movements. Instead, the Red Team recommends a mix of strategies that would integrate the two organizations into their respective political mainstreams. While a Red Team exercise is deliberately designed to provide senior commanders with briefings and assumptions that challenge accepted strategies, the report is at once provocative, controversial — and at odds with current US policy.

Among its other findings, the five-page report calls for the integration of Hizb'Allah into the Lebanese Armed Forces, and Hamas into the Palestinian [sic] security forces led by Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Red Team's conclusion, expressed in the final sentence of the executive summary, is perhaps its most controversial finding: "The US role of assistance to an integrated Lebanese defense force that includes Hizb'Allah; and the continued training of Palestinian security forces in a Palestinian entity that includes Hamas in its government, would be more effective than providing assistance to entities — the government of Lebanon and Fatah — that represent only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace respectively" (emphasis in the original). The report goes on to note that while Hizb'Allah and Hamas "embrace staunch anti-Israel rejectionist policies," the two groups are "pragmatic and opportunistic."

The report opens with a quote from former US peace negotiator Aaron David Miller's book, The Much Too Promised Land, which notes that both Hizb'Allah and Hamas "have emerged as serious political players respected on the streets, in Arab capitals, and throughout the region. Destroying them was never really an option. Ignoring them may not be either." The report's writers are quick to acknowledge that the two militant groups "are vastly different," and that treating them together is a mistake. Nevertheless, the CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel's publicly stated view — that the two movements are incapable of change and must be confronted with force. The report says that "failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior."

"There is a lot of thinking going on in the military and particularly among intelligence officers in Tampa [the site of CENTCOM headquarters] about these groups," acknowledged a senior CENTCOM officer familiar with the report. However, he denied that senior military leaders are actively lobbying Barack Obama's administration to forge an opening to the two organizations. "That's probably not in the cards just yet," he said.

In the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon said that those on board the Mavi Marmara, the scene of the May 31 showdown between Israeli commandos and largely Turkish activists, had ties to "agents of international terror, international Islam, Hamas, al Qaeda and others." The same senior officer wasn't impressed. "Putting Hizb'Allah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda in the same sentence, as if they are all the same, is just stupid," he said. "I don't know any intelligence officer at CENTCOM who buys that." Another mid-level SOCOM [Special Operations Command] officer echoed these views: "As the US strategy in the war on terrorism evolves, military planners have come to realize that they are all motivated by different factors, and we need to address this if we are going to effectively prosecute a successful campaign in the Middle East."

The most interesting aspects of the report deal with Hizb'Allah. The Red Team downplays the argument that the Lebanese Shi'ite group acts as a proxy for Iran. The report includes a quote from Hizb'Allah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, stating that if Lebanon and Iran's interests ever conflicted, his organization would favor Lebanese interests. "Hizb'Allah's activities increasingly reflect the movement's needs and aspirations in Lebanon, as opposed to the interests of its Iranian backers," the report concludes. It also criticizes Israel's August 2006 war against Hizb'Allah as counterproductive. "Instead of exploiting Hizb'Allah's independent streak ... Israeli actions in Lebanon may have had the reverse effect of tightening its bonds with Iran," the authors note.

The report goes on to say that, while there are "many ways in which Lebanese Hizb'Allah is not like the IRA," there are "parallels" between the Irish Republican Army's eventual participation in the Northern Ireland peace process and a potentially productive US strategy for dealing with Hizb'Allah. CENTCOM officers cite a meeting between the British ambassador to Lebanon and Hizb'Allah leaders in 2009 as providing an appropriate model to begin the integration of the organization into the LAF. Such talks should "be pursued again with the same vigor that peace talks in Northern Ireland were pursued," the report recommends. "As the US took the lead with peace talks in Northern Ireland, the British could take the lead with unity talks between the LAF and Hizb'Allah in Lebanon."

The brief's authors also have interesting things to say about Hamas, which has ruled in Gaza since its takeover of the impoverished coastal strip in 2007. While the Red Team report does not make explicit policy recommendations, the senior intelligence experts that drafted the statement signal their unease with Israel's anti-Hamas policies, particularly the continuing Israeli siege of Gaza. CENTCOM officers note that Israel's strategy of keeping Gaza under siege also keeps "the area on the verge of a perpetual humanitarian collapse" — a policy that the intelligence report says "may be radicalizing more people, especially the young, increasing the number of potential recruits" for the organization. The report argues that an Israeli decision to lift the siege might pave the way for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which would be "the best hope for mainstreaming Hamas." The Red Team also claims that reconciliation with Fatah, when coupled with Hamas's explicit renunciation of violence, would gain "widespread international support and deprive the Israelis of any legitimate justification to continue settlement building and delay statehood negotiations."

In supporting the creation of a unified Palestinian security service, CENTCOM's Red Team distances itself from the US effort to provide training to the Fatah-controlled security forces in the West Bank, which began during George W. Bush's administration. While that effort, currently headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, is not mentioned specifically in the report, the Red Team makes it clear that it believes that such initiatives will fail unless the Israelis and Palestinians [sic] negotiate an end to the conflict. While Dayton and the administration are focused on building a "National Security Force" in the West Bank that excludes Hamas, and jails its members, the focus of Palestinians is elsewhere. "But all Palestinians are watching the clashes in East Jerusalem, which continue to feed into the Palestinians perception the Israelis are incapable of negotiating in good faith," according to the report.

CENTCOM's implicit criticism of Dayton is not a surprise: the general's program is controversial among some senior military officers, who question an effort that, in Palestinian perceptions, makes the US a partner in the Israeli occupation. Dayton is also criticized in military circles for making a May 2009 speech before the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which he described as "the foremost think tank on Middle East issues, not only in Washington, but in the world"). In the speech , he said that the reason a high-ranking general was appointed as security coordinator was because he "would be trusted and respected by the Israelis." The statement was not universally welcomed at the Pentagon, where one officer shook his head. "You would have thought Dayton's primary mission would be to win the respect and trust of the Palestinians," he told me.

According to a senior CENTCOM officer, while the CENTCOM Red Team report has been read by outgoing CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus, it's unknown whether its recommendations have been passed on to the White House. Even so, there's little question the report reflects the thinking among a significant number of senior officers at CENTCOM headquarters — and among senior CENTCOM intelligence officers and analysts serving in the Middle East. And while any "Red Team" report by definition reflects a view that is contrary to accepted policy, a CENTCOM senior officer told me that — so far as he knows — there is, in fact, no parallel "Blue Team" report contradicting the Red Team's conclusion. "Well, that's not exactly right," this senior officer added. "The Blue Team is the Obama administration."

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[ Published: July 26, 2010 ]



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