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Dayton's Lost Gamble: The USSC and America's lost innocence in the West Bank

January 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm

By early 2005, most of the developed infrastructure of the West Bank lay in ruins and the security services of the Palestinian Authority were in disarray – the result of the fighting that had occurred during the Second Intifada. Just months before, in November of 2004, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had died in Paris and while his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, had succeeded him, he had yet to fully extend his governing legitimacy. The Oslo Peace Process, inaugurated in Washington under the auspices of President Bill Clinton in September of 1994, was in ruins.

It was for these reasons that, in March of 2005, newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to establish the Office of the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority – “a joint, international and inter-agency team” to oversee U.S. security assistance to the PA.  The appointed U.S. Security Coordinator would “transform and professionalize” the PA security sector, and build trust between it and the Israelis, thereby setting the conditions for a negotiated two-state solution.

On paper, the State Department’s initiative seemed almost mundane. America would assist the Palestinians in training a police force to return law and order to the West Bank.  In fact, however, Rice’s idea was highly controversial, not least among serving U.S. military officers, who were loathe to become involved in another conflict in the Middle East, no matter how tangentially.

When it was announced that a senior U.S. officer would head-up the mission, several questioned whether it was wise for the military to collaborate in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, or become embroiled in the region’s most deeply rooted and intransigent conflict. Over time, these concerns would become more deeply rooted, and the office of the United States Security Coordinator, and those officers who headed it, would become more controversial.

Critics outside the administration provided an even harsher critique. The purpose of the force, its detractors said, was not to provide law and order, but to act as an arresting arm for an Israeli establishment worried about the increasing strength of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, seen by both the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization. But Israeli officials also had their doubts about the Rice initiative: many of them viewed USSC as a naïve attempt to revive a process that was better left dead and buried. Worse yet, the Palestinian security services, if revived, would provide a nascent army to launch yet another intifada.

At first, these worries seemed exaggerated. The first American coordinator, Lt. General William E. “Kip” Ward, arrived in Jerusalem in mid-2005 with a small technical team, established a small office and made contacts with both Israelis and Palestinians. He traveled to and from Jerusalem to Ramallah, met with Israelis and Palestinians, sent reports to Washington – and did little else. His goal was to set the stage for the larger efforts of his successor, Lt. General Keith Dayton, whose program was to train the battalions of the Palestinian NSF — the National Security Force – in Jordan.

Prior to his arrival in Jerusalem, Dayton had distinguished himself by being undistinguished: serving as a highly competent army artillery commander in a number of billets in Europe and complementing this experience with a term as U.S. Defense Attaché in Moscow where he came to Rice’s attention. Dayton had a reputation of being a low key and capable diplomat-officer, just the kind of military man to fill the role that Rice had carved out for the USSC in Jerusalem. When he arrived at his post in January of 2005, he set to work, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians and hiring a capable training staff many of whom were familiar with Palestinian society.

The January 2006 Palestinian elections spurred Dayton’s training program which was established at a center south of Amman, Jordan. There Palestinian recruits (mostly aged 20-22) were given rudimentary courses in policing and firearms skills supplemented by courses on crowd control, patrolling, interrogation and checkpoint operations. A U.S. contractor, DynCorp, was hired to provide the training, and the recruits were outfitted with smartly pressed dark uniforms. Even so, despite the sophisticated training program and Dayton’s repeated reassurances, the Israelis were among the greatest skeptics of the American program: the NSF looked like an army in the making – perhaps even a formidable one.

But those Americans who monitored DynCorp’s program (there were no direct American military officer trainers actually involved), testified that the object of building the NSF was not to confront the IDF in the West Bank, but to “supplement” its policing and counterterrorism activities. “The while point here,” a U.S. Lt. Colonel who served as a part of Dayton’s staff told me at the time, “is to provide a Palestinian force that will take over for the Israelis as they withdraw from the Occupied Territories. There has to be security in place for a peace process to work, or there won’t be a peace process. It’s just that simple.”

In fact, as Dayton himself said many times, the whole point of the USSC mission was premised on the bet the Bush Administration had made that Israel was telling the truth: that it wanted a two state solution, and that it would negotiate an end to its conflict with the Palestinians only when it was certain that what it was leaving in its wake was a state that was both at peace with it and governable. This was the premise behind the Dayton Mission; that the Israelis remained in the West Bank only because they had to, and that as soon as the Palestinians could police themselves, they would leave. 

That is to say, in a fundamental way, the “land for peace” formula that was at the heart of the peace process for the last forty years (since 1967) lay at the heart of the Dayton’s “withdrawal for security” vision. “As the Palestinians learn to police themselves,” I was told by a member of the Dayton mission in 2008, “the Israelis will leave.” The military officer then added: “The formula here is simple: the more and better policing, the more comfortable the Israelis will feel. As the Palestinians extend their security writ, the Israelis will leave. And there will be peace.”

Dayton’s vision was put to the test in May and June of 2008, when an NSF battalion was deployed to Jenin and Nablus in “Operation Hope and Smile.” As IDF units stood aside, the NSF battalion arrested Palestinian “gangs” and disarmed Palestinian youths. The following October, in Hebron, another battalion provided local police assistance, earning the praise of local police officials. Dayton praised the professionalism of both efforts, and ramped up the training regimens of the battalions being trained in Jordan.

Controversially, however – and in both instances – the NSF identified, detained and arrested local and regional Hamas officials, apparently identified by Israeli security personnel, and with the cooperation of Abu Mazen’s security services.

The precedent was thus set: the PA’s National Security Force was not simply established to provide security for Israel (thus setting the stage for a negotiated withdrawal from the Israeli occupied territories); it was established to provide security for the PA’s leadership in Ramallah, a partisan and unstated part of its mandate. This seemed not to bother either Dayton, or the Bush Administration, who viewed the NSF’s policing techniques as showcase successes – evidence that the Palestinians were capable of providing the kind of security that Israel would insist on as a precursor for entering negotiations on the status of the West Bank and Gaza going forward.

But as the NSF was meeting its first tests in the West Bank, Dayton and the PA’s newest security services were facing three interrelated tests.

The first test was of Dayton himself – and was made public in an April 2008 Vanity Fair report, “The Gaza Bombshell.”  The report alleged that Dayton had cooperated with Fatah strongman, Mohammad Dahlan, in a plot to overthrow the duly elected Hamas government of Gaza. The latter had been separated from Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank as a result of political divisions that followed from the January 2006 elections – which Hamas won. The article alleged that Dayton plotted with Dahlan to foment a violent coup which would return Fatah rule to Gaza. The coup which took place in June 2007 failed.

The article undermined Dayton’s credibility as an objective trainer of the Palestinian security forces and, perhaps more importantly, fed widespread public views within Palestinian society that the NSF was not an arm of the Palestinian people – but rather an extension of the Israeli occupation, and of Mahmoud Abbas’s increasingly anti-democratic tendencies.

A second test took place later that same year. In late 2008, reports reached the U.S. that NSF security personnel had been involved in the torture of Hamas detainees held in Nablus, in the West Bank.  The reports could not be confirmed, but were reported to staff members of the U.S. Senate. General Dayton was questioned about the reports by staffers to Senator Patrick Leahy, who firmly denied the reports, saying that no members of the NSF had been involved in such incidents. Even so, he pledged to follow-up on the reports and to institute a program of education at the Jordanian training camp on the requirements of security officers under international law.

A third incident brought further, if more public, criticism. On May 7, 2009, Dayton delivered the Michael Stein Address on U.S. Middle East Policy at The Washington Institute’s 2009 Soref Symposium.  His remarks were controversial. Dayton’s speech was an obsequious paean to Israel and its military, which he said had praised his work of making the Palestinian interior ministry “a leading arm of the Palestinian government.” It was a virtual admission that what he’d created, on Israel’s behalf, was a police state. An IDF officer, sharing the podium at the symposium with him, nodded in appreciation. But at least one senior officer at the Joint Chiefs of Staff was outraged. “We have reached new heights of supplication,” he told me at the time.

While these three related incidents undermined Dayton’s mission in the West Bank, none of them ended his tenure – and none of them led to the disbanding of his mission. Dayton himself retired in October of 2010, leaving some 3,100 fully trained NSF personnel in his wake. The NSF even took on his name: Palestinians call the NSF “the Dayton force.” Air Force Lt. General Michael Moeller, a former B-52 pilot, succeeded Dayton, and he has continued his work.  As of this writing, a ninth battalion of security personnel is nearing deployment, which will bring to 4,500 the number of NSF personnel deployed in the West Bank.

Depending on your point of view, they are doing a good job. In the areas where they are deployed, there has been a restoration of public order. Gangs have been disarmed, local policing functions have been restored. But there has been a price for such order, and it is usually the law. The NSF has been used, at times indiscriminately, to break up political demonstrations, and to jail dissenters. It has been put into the streets to stop demonstrations, and it has been ordered to jail the Hamas leadership. It has worked well with the occupying power – identifying “terrorists” and detaining them for questioning. In some instances, it has turned over Palestinians to Israeli forces.

Most crucially, the vision of Condoleezza Rice – and Keith Dayton – has not been met. The gamble they made has not paid off, and their naiveté has been laid bare. As the NSF has been deployed to provide security, the IDF has not withdrawn. And the vision that has motivated America; the vision of “security for peace” has turned out to be, at best, a chimera and at worst, a lie. It will be interesting to see whether, in the months ahead, the early nascent signs of the last weeks – of dissent and questioning in the ranks in the NSF itself – will lead to what the Israelis have feared all along. That the security force trained in Jordan to provide law and order in Palestinian society will become, in fact, a nascent army – and turn its guns on the occupying power.

Mark Perry is a military, intelligence and foreign affairs analyst. He is the former co-Director of the Washington, D.C., London, and Beirut-based Conflicts Forum. Perry served as an unofficial advisor to PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from 1989 to 2004.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.