The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 31 May 2010

British and French nuclear submarine sharing

There have been discussions in recent months about the possibility of the United Kingdom and France sharing nuclear submarine patrols. Both countries maintain a policy of 'continuous at-sea deterrence' whereby at least one ballistic missile nuclear submarine is at-sea at any given time, usually in the Atlantic. The theory goes that by maintaining a continuous at-sea presence you ensure invulnerability and enhance deterrence. This is an expensive exercise (as was noted in the recent U.K. general election campaign) that drains significant resources from defence budgets. Many have also argued, with good reason, that it's an anachronistic cold war policy that has little utility against modern day threats.

As a possible alternative, individuals in France have suggested that the two nuclear states begin 'deterrence-sharing', with officials from both countries having discussed the proposal. However, it appears that the U.K., in particular, has been lukewarm to the idea. This is surprising given that it's the U.K. where the debate over the cost of nuclear deterrence has been raging. Here are some of the arguments for and against this proposal:

Arguments for:

1) Shared threats

Both countries face the same threats -- something that is widely acknowledged. This makes the plan conceivable from an operational standpoint as a nuclear threat to one is almost certainly a nuclear threat to the other.

2) Financial savings

The most obvious advantage appears to be cost. If the two countries share patrols - perhaps on an alternating basis - then they don't need to maintain four nuclear submarines each (as is currently the case). However, although there are savings to be made from operational costs, it should be remembered that much of the expense in building a fleet of submarines comes from the research and design phase. This means that the net saving from building three submarines instead of four is significantly less than 25 percent.

3) Advancing the multilateral disarmament agenda

Although the financial savings may not be huge, we should also consider the symbolic significance of further reducing submarine fleets and nuclear warheads. It would provide a boost to the perception among non-nuclear weapon states that the recognised nuclear powers are living up to their end of the NPT nuclear bargain. Therefore, the fact that the proposal would allow for a further draw-down in warhead numbers means it should be given serious thought.

Arguments against:

1) Operational questions

Although the proposal is conceivable in theory, there are some serious operational questions that would need to be answered. For instance: who would give the launch order? Could the French government overrule a U.K. order to one of its Trident submarines? This last question is especially pertinent if the crews of each submarine continued to be manned entirely by one nation. These problems could be overcome, but they represent a significant bureaucratic obstacle.

2) Sovereignty and domestic opinion

What is surprising about this proposal is that it came from France. Historically, Paris has been very attached to its nuclear deterrent as a symbol of national independence that enables it to conduct an autonomous foreign policy -- a well-known fact that has been acknowledged by a number of respected French scholars such as Bruno Tertrais. As a result, I don't think we can assume that this proposal enjoys wide support throughout the French government. Nor is it likely to be supported by the majority of the French public, who are also attached to the country's independent nuclear deterrent (I could be wrong on this point). Of course, similar questions apply within the United Kingdom as well, but I suspect that the opposition there primarily comes from governing officials rather than the general public.

3) Anglo-American nuclear cooperation

A further obstacle standing in the way of effective implementation on the British side is the country's Mutual Defence Agreement with the United States. This agreement forms the back-bone of extensive nuclear cooperation between the two countries, which includes scientific cooperation, warhead design, and the British purchase of the Trident missile. While it is possible that the proposal can be framed in a way that does not lead to any sharing of expertise between London and Paris, the United States may still have some concerns.

Overall this seems to be an interesting concept for which there are clear arguments on both sides. Time will tell if it gets any traction and is debated more widely, particularly in the context of the upcoming U.K. Strategic Defence Review. To be honest, it's probably unlikely. But if a wider debate does come about then the key argument in favour should be the furtherance of the multilateral disarmament agenda and not financial savings.

Is trust a necessary prerequisite in international relations?

The PBS journalist Charlie Rose went to Damascus to interview Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. In this interview, Meshaal said that if 1) Israel withdraws to the 1967 border, 2) Jerusalem becomes the Palestinian capital and 3) the refugees are granted the right to return, the Palestinian resistance will end.

Except the right of return perhaps, this package of a peace agreement is accepted virtually by the whole world, except the USA and Israel. It basically reflects the outcome of the Geneva initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian peace coalition with prominent supporters on both sides.

Proponents of the position of the Israeli government are very likely to dismiss Meshaal's proposal, as they did reject the Geneva initiative. From their point of view, Hamas is not to be trusted. Hamas would use the gained sovereignty to re-arm and prepare the attack on Israel proper. Therefore, the survival of Israel demands a tight grip on the West Bank and Gaza.

Let's disregard for a moment other possible explanations of the Israeli policy, namely the ideology of a greater Israel (Eretz Israel) stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean or messianic Judeo-Christian ideologies. If we disregard those possible explanations, the Meshaal offer could be considered by the Israeli government as a good basis for a future peace agreement. If it wouldn't be for the fear and distrust, we could welcome Meshaal's statement as a first step to real peace negotiations.

It is understandable that Israel feels threatened, being surrounded by Arab states. But is this feeling of fear a good adviser in matters of national security? Master Yoda says that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering - and those are the dark side of the force. On that he is in line with Noam Chomsky in its latest interview, who stated that Israeli policy was dominated by paranoia and irrationality (This interview is very worth watching because the interviewer confronts Chomsky with the arguments of the Israeli government).

Although I have sympathy with the Israeli concerns and woes, it is difficult to envisage a positive development for all parties involved when feelings dictate their behaviour. Let's put it differently: is trust a necessary ingredient in international relations? And if yes, what could the EU do to build trust between the various antagonists?

Friday, 28 May 2010

Current developments in German defence policy I

The last couple of days, some interesting developments took place in the German defence policy. To begin with, the German president, Horst Kohler, said in an interview that the German participation at ISAF is also due to economic and trade reasons.

In an interview with a German radio station, Kohler made a statement that stirred up the political establishment. He said:

"I guess that we are making good progress to understand that a country such as ours with its export driven economy and, therefore, dependency on exports has in emergency situations to rely on military force to protect its interests, for instance trading routes or prevention of regional instabilities that could have a negative impact on trade, employment or income."

This statement that would hardly even be noticed in other countries, opened a Pandora's box in Germany. Most of the German politicians claim that we are in Afghanistan to bring peace and stability. In her speech to the parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated the fact that Afghan children can return to school as a first reason for our engagement.

Stating that national economic interest is also a reason for the deployment of the BUNDESWEHR, poses two major problems: first, we Germans don't this kind of stuff. We Germans want to help others and altruism is our primary motivation. Taking of national interest always has a taste of something that we thought we left behind 65 years ago. The reasons for our engagement vary from enabling Afghan children going to school to solidarity with the NATO alliance. The economy as a reason has never been mentioned before by any prominent politician.

Second, there is a legal problem with this statement: according to the German constitution, the armed forces cannot be deployed for economic reasons. Also, the mandate of the German parliament for the participation at ISAF does not cover for economic interests, but only security reasons.

The German president has only representative functions. He is nominated by the parties and elected by the federal assembly, a body where the parliament and representatives of the local governments are represented. He has no political power. However, he can influence the political discourse with speeches, as he did with this latest interview.

NB: For the first time, a German warship has been integrated into a US Carrier Strike Group (CSG). The Frigate HESSEN is currently part of the HARRY S. TRUMAN CSG, which is on its way to the waters off the coast of Iran. The German government did not release any statement concerning the reasons for this deployment, yet.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan

Patrick and I talked about the scale of the jihadi network in Central Asia. There is some literature about the subject available, with a general consensus that Uzbeks and Tadjiks and even Bosnians and Germans joined the ranks of the Taliban. Whether the network extends to Chechnya seems not to be quite clear. In this article, however, a Canadian "veteran infantryman" points out that Chechen fighters are the toughest enemy confronting the Canadians in Afghanistan.

As nationalities who are involved in the insurgency he mentions Egyptians, Saudis, Pakistanis, and Yemenites. "Asked whether he had personally encountered foreigners on the battlefield, the sergeant (...) replied with a grin and classic military jargon: “I have not interacted verbally with them.” Remains the question how he could determine the insurgent's nationality.

Canada's top ranking general confirms that more and more foreigners are joining the fight. He explains it with the improved living conditions of the Afghans who would prefer to stay home. "This may be because less people from Afghanistan are joining the fight. They are not getting the numbers they need here. They are not regenerating forces. What is their pool? It is not extremists but people who feel they don’t have a choice. And that pool is reducing."

If this depiction is accurate, it could indicate that McChrystal's strategy change bears some fruit.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Israel, South Africa and the Bomb (2)

For those of you that are interested in this issue it's worth reading Julian Borger's commentary. He includes the views of Avner Cohen, which are particularly interesting. For those of you that don't know, Cohen is an Israeli that has written two books on Israel's atomic weapons programme. He has often been critical of Israeli policy so his comments shouldn't be taken as biased.

Israel, South Africa and the Bomb

The Guardian claimed yesterday that in 1975 Israel - through its Defence Minister Shimon Peres - offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons. If this evidence (uncovered by American academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky) proves to be true then it has two implications: 1) it provides further confirmation that Israel has nuclear weapons despite its policy of ambiguity; and 2) that it was previously willing to transfer this technology to a non-nuclear weapon state.

These claims come at an unfortunate time for Israel. Last week it found itself under increasing pressure at the Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT RevCon) and there have been reports today that another of its diplomats has been expelled from an allied nation - this time Australia. If the conclusions that have been drawn are true, then Tel Aviv will look hypocritical in claiming that Iran can not be trusted with nuclear weapons when Israel itself previously offered the bomb to apartheid South Africa.

But, at this stage at least, there is cause to question some of the article's conclusions. Although it's difficult without seeing the original documents, the information provided by the Guardian does not appear as conclusive as the article's headline suggests. There seems to be ambiguity as to whether Israel was actually offering South Africa Jericho missiles armed with nuclear warheads, or was simply offering them nuclear-capable Jericho missiles that South Africa could arm with its own nuclear warheads. Selling nuclear-armed missiles is not the same as selling nuclear-capable missiles.

However, when placed in the context of earlier claims made by Dieter Gerhardt, the South African naval commander who spied for the Soviets, it does seem more likely that there was some form of offer from Shimon Peres - albeit in code. If this is true then why did Peres do it? A more likely scenario would have been for Israel to assist South Africa in building its own nuclear weapon (there is evidence to suggest that it did do this).

Something else that should be remembered: the deal did not actually go ahead. As the article points out, "Botha did not go ahead with the deal in part because of the cost. In addition, any deal would have to have had final approval by Israel's prime minister and it is uncertain it would have been forthcoming." This last point is important as it isn't clear whether or not Peres had the backing of the Israeli Prime Minister or any other government ministers. If there is evidence to suggest that he did, then this revelation will be even worse for Israel.

In the context of the current NPT RevCon it is known and assumed by all parties that Israel does have nuclear weapons. However, it has been politically convenient for Israel not to confirm their existence. This latest revelation may lead to greater pressure being placed on Israel to be transparent about its nuclear weapons stockpile. Untill it does, it will be impossible to make progress on the Middle Eastern Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which has been a topic of discussion at the RevCon - although both Israeli transparency and progress towards a MENWFZ seem unlikely over the short-term.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Clash in Kashmir

There has been a fatal exchange of fire between India and Pakistan along the de facto border in Kashmir. It is not clear how the firing started - both sides are accusing the other of firing the first shots - but the Pakistani army has stated that one of their soldiers has been killed.

Clearly, this is not a welcome development and will distract attention from the campaign in Afghanistan... or perhaps we've got that the wrong way round? Perhaps Afghanistan has distracted too much attention from other problems in the region, of which Kashmir is one of the longest-lasting and most intractable.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Chomsky, Israel, Palestine and me

The reports that US Professor Noam Chomsky was denied entry into Israel are somewhat inaccurate. In fact, Prof. Chomsky wanted to enter the occupied Palestinian Territories and give a speech at the Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, the provisional capital of the Palestinian Territories. The difference between Israel and the Palestinian Territories seem to be unclear to quite a few Israeli border guards, as I can report from personal experience.

When I was travelling from Amman to Jerusalem a couple of years ago, I was asked by the border guard why I wanted to travel to Israel. I felt the need to explain that it wasn't my intention to travel to Israel, but to Palestine. As a consequence, I spend the next five hours or so enjoying a nice conversation with a very attractive female Israeli officer who was very interested in all aspects of my professional as well as personal life.

She asked me to strip down to my underwear, and she was only lucky that I'm so progressive and did not insist on a male guard to supervise my undressing. In the meantime, her colleagues search my bags. They performed their job very thoroughly, which confronted my with the unusual challenge of how to get my tooth past back in the tube.

Apparently, I made a good impression upon the border guards, because they let me, as opposed to Prof. Chomsky, continue my journey. The inconvenience to find a taxi and pay for the ride to Jerusalem, the last bus was long gone, was dwarfed by my gratitude towards the Israeli border guards to let me enter Palestine.

"Keep your friends close but your enemies closer"

Earlier this week I attended a talk by Brenda Shaffer, the author of the book Energy Politics, who gave an interesting interpretation of Russian policy towards Iran. Her explanation was almost entirely based on energy policy, or, more specifically, natural gas. Given that I was discussing this issue in my previous post, I thought it might be worth revisiting.

Shaffer pointed out that Iran sits on the world's second largest reserves of natural gas (Russia being the largest), yet it continues to be a net importer. This situation is explained by a lack of investment from western companies, which prevents Tehran from exploiting its reserves. Although this lack of investment is partly due to sanctions, it is also a result of the difficult business environment in Iran, which discourages any extensive FDI. If this obstacle was overcome, however, then Iran's most obvious export market would be Europe (once a viable transit infrastructure was constructed through the South Caucasus). This is where Russia comes in. As is widely known, Moscow and Gazprom have a significant hold over the European gas market, something they wish to maintain. In this respect, their biggest potential rival is Iran.

This means it's in Russia's interest to do two things:

1) Maintain a certain level of tension in the political relationship between Tehran and the West - making any significant investment in Iran unlikely.

2) Avoid an Iraq scenario in Iran - Russia certainly doesn't want any western occupation of the country (not that it's really conceivable) as it would open the door to western investment in Iranian gas fields.

I found this an interesting argument and one that certainly fits with Russian policy towards Iran. Reminds me of that famous saying "keep your friends close but your enemies closer."

But the Iran crisis is reaching the latter stages now and if you extrapolate Shaffer's argument to the end then there is one outcome that Russia doesn't want: an Iran that suddenly sees the error of its ways, comes clean about its nuclear programme and prior intentions, and then reengages with the international community. A likely outcome of this would be that western companies compete to gain lucrative Iranian contracts.

So how would Russia like to see it turn out? Very difficult to say but one things is for sure: Russian policy towards Iran is extremely complex and can't just be boiled down to economic factors alone.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Policework or politics?

French police have arrested the suspected military leader of the Basque separatist group ETA, an individual named Mikel Karrera Sarobe, or 'Ata'.

Five ETA leaders have been arrested in France over the past two years. Indeed, Ata has only been leader of the organisation since February of this year when his predecessor, Ibon Gogeascoechea, was arrested. That particular fact is interesting because it raises certain questions.

Question 1/
What are the objectives of the Spanish and French police and intelligence services? Are they seeking to eradicate ETA altogether or merely reduce ETA's 'campaign' to a manageable or acceptable level of violence?
1a/ If the former is the case then can ETA really be eradicated solely through police and/or intelligence action?
1b/ If the latter is the case then how do we define manageable or acceptable?

Nicolas Sarkozy would appear to have already answered the first part of that question following ETA's fatal shooting of a French policeman in March but is that a realistic aim or merely political posturing for the benefit of a - justifiably - angry French public?

Question 2/
Should there not be some attempt to reach a political solution? More specifically, should there not be some attempt to find credible interlocutors on the other side in order to work towards some kind of political solution? Incidentally, that question applies as much to ETA as towards Madrid and Paris.

Many would argue, not entirely without justification, that ETA are simply not credible interlocutors, that they have neither the requisite level of political sophistication nor of public support to be regarded as an important party in the Spanish and Basque political scenes.

However, while there may be a considerable degree of truth in those statements, ETA do remain in existence and they do remain a threat, not to the monopoly of legitimate violence in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Madrid or Paris but to ordinary people's lives.

Therefore, they must be persuaded/forced to put away their guns and work towards their goals, such as they are, through some other (non-violent) method and that is what we should mean when we refer to a 'political solution' in the Basque Country, not a Basque version of the Good Friday Agreement.

In that context, when leaders keep being arrested every few months then the repercussions on any further attempt at a political solution are usually negative.

There are certain simple, practical factors that make this the case: the over-riding priority of the individual concerned will simply be to evade capture and, moreover, a few months is not enough time to convince a movement like ETA that a change of strategy is necessary, let alone to actually implement such a change. Above all, the strong likelihood is that each new leader will be more hard-line than the last.

ETA are very often compared to the IRA and many people have attempted to draw lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland and apply them to the Basque Country. There is a big difference however.

Any political solution requires a degree of political understanding, or intelligence, among the leadership of the organisation in conflict with the State. That was the case among certain IRA leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, throughout the peace process in Northern Ireland. That has never been the case with ETA.

Partly this is linked to the fact that, as described above, leaders keep being arrested and their successors have to go into hiding (before inevitably being arrested anyway) and are thus even further removed from the society in which they live and for which they claim to fight. If you apply Mao Zedong's metaphor on guerrilla armies, these fish no longer swim in the water of the people. Instead, they are floundering in increasingly shallow water, struggling for oxygen.

A case in point was ETA's murder, in December 2008, of 71-year-old Ignacio Uria Mendizabal simply because his family's construction business was involved in building a controversial high-speed rail link through the Basque Country. How not to win hearts and minds.

ETA may be dying a slow, suffocating death but they seem determined to take others down with them. In order to minimise the harm done to ordinary people, arresting individual leaders is not enough. Should these measures not be accompanied by sustained engagement at street level with the marginalised urban youth from which ETA draws its dwindling number of recruits? Can a purely security-based solution ever be enough on its own?

NB: This post touches on a number of issues which deserve more in-depth examination. Anyone keen to learn more about how the Spanish and French authorities sought to fight fire with fire should start by reading this interview with Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth, who investigated exactly how this was done during the 1980s and the harmful consequences these measures incurred.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Taliban video of attack on an ANA outpost in Nuristan

By watching Taliban videos, one can learn much about the enemy that ISAF is fighting in Afghanistan.

In this video, the Taliban show a coordinated attack on a Afghan National Army outpost. No US or other coalition forces are to be seen; however, an A-10 and at least one Attack-Helicopter show up on the scene.

The attack is coordinated and engages the outpost from two sides. One group provides fire support with mortars, recoilless guns and RPGs, whereas the infantry attack is launched on the other side of the outpost.

Throughout the video, no wounded or killed ANA soldiers are to be seen, although the attack seems to be successful. The Taliban occupy the outpost and capture ammunition, weapons and some pick-ups.

At 7:20 of part 3, the Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers surrender.

In part 5 the Taliban commander and his fighters arrive in a village and are being greeted by the villagers.

In Mudjahedin-ideology, martyrs die with a smile on their faces because they are happy to go to Paradise. That's why the faces of the killed Taliban are shown in detail in part 6. It is remarkable that in this Taliban propaganda video no dead enemies, but plenty of dead Taliban are featured. In Western propaganda quite the opposite is the case.

Why is that?

In the ideology of the Mudjahedin, the martyr (Shahid) wages Jihad for the glory of God. In return, God grants the Shahid access to the highest rank of Paradise. So when a Shahid dies, he fulfilled his part of the deal and can expect to go to the highest rank of Paradise, which explains the smile of some of the faces of the ones killed.

Whereas Mudjahedin fight for this selfish and apparently appealing ideology, ISAF troops fight to defeat terrorism at best but more commonly to stabilise a far away country (lets disregard for a moment that most of the ISAF troops are professionals and volunteers who fight for other reasons, such as for a living or because they signed a contract etc.).

Why is this important?

Sending soldiers to war requires to provide them with a strong motivation, such as nationalism, protection of their family, fight against a perceived threat etc. Is the cause of the mission unclear or not convincing, the moral erodes. In Vietnam, the consequence was alcohol and drug abuse. The consequence for the lack of a cause in Afghanistan has to be seen. But the widespread Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome could be one of them.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Turkish Air Defense System Deployed to Syrian Border

Interesting news reach us from Turkey: the Turkish newspaper Hurryet reports that air defence systems have been deployed to the Syrian border. A source within the Turkish military was quoted that "this move aims at repelling a US or Israeli attack against Iran or Syria".

Al Manar TV, the Hizbollah media outlet, quotes a Turkish political analyst who said "“The news in Hurriyet daily is true. The air defense system was moved from Istanbul to Iskenderun to counter any surprise Israeli air raid, because in 2007 Israeli warplanes used the Turkish airspace to carry out air raids on Syrian targets. Thus Turkey took this precautionary measure so that what happened in 2007 would not happen again.”

In light of Turkey's role in the Iran nuclear fuel swap, it seems that Turkey is determined to support Iran's aspirations to master the nuclear fuel cycle. I think it's reasonable to ask when Turkey itself will declare activities to master the nuclear fuel cycle.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function

Information Clearing House posted a link to a fascinating lecture by US physicist Albert Bartlett. Although it is slightly off the scope of this blog, I found it very helpful to understand the underlying arithmetic of many statistics we read about every day. The subject of the lecture are population growth and the consumption of fossil fuels.

Here are the main points:

1. An average population growth of 7% per year means that the population doubles in 35 years. In order to get the doubling time for any given growth rate you have to divide 70 by the growth rate. See the lecture for the mathematics.

2. Steady growth in a finite environment: you put a bacterium that grows by doubling every minute in a bottle. If you put the first bacterium in the bottle at 11.00 am, at 12.00 noon the bottle is full. Note: at 11.59 am the bottle is only half full.

3. "Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters." (quoted from Isaac Asimov)

What does that mean in the context of security and defence? Population growth is not sustainable, it has to stop at one point. That's an arithmetic certainty. Also economic growth is finite. It will stop as well since it cannot be sustained indefinitely.

I guess that we are moving towards dangerous times with less democracy and human rights but more conflict, internal and external.

Iran, Sanctions, and Russia's Southern Flank

When the western media discusses Russia's position on international sanctions against Iran, it usually focuses its attention on the level of bilateral trade that the two countries enjoy. Two areas, in particular, are consistently noted: the sale of arms (particularly surface-to-air missile systems) and Russia's lucrative contract to construct two nuclear reactors at Bushehr.

But Russia's arms sales only go so far. It hasn't, for instance, followed-through on its agreement to supply Iran with the S-300 anti-aircraft system - something that would complicate any future air strikes against Iran's nuclear sites. Progress on the Bushehr reactor has also been slow, precipitating claims in Tehran that Moscow is deliberately delaying the project's completion. Furthermore, bilateral trade with Iran only represents a very small proportion of Russia's international total.

There is, however, another key issue that factors into the relationship between Tehran and Moscow: security. The proximity of the two countries, and Iran's position just across the Caspian Sea, means that Tehran could have considerable influence in the North Caucasus - should it wish to do so. It didn't exercise this influence during the two Chechen Wars - something for which Moscow is eternally grateful - and this was largely due to the congenial nature of relations between the two governments at that time. But Moscow continues to face instability in Dagestan and Ingushetia, a situation that has the potential to deteriorate rapidly in the future. If Russia supports stronger sanctions against Tehran then it's certainly possible Iran will act differently next time around.

So my question is: can the re-set in relations between the United States and Russia prove enough of an incentive to off-set the security fears that Moscow has regarding external meddling in the North Caucasus? Possibly. But the extent to which the re-set is likely to result in substantial economic benefits for Russia may be significant in explaining how strong any additional sanctions against Iran will be. One other determining factor - China.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Four options for Israel and Palestine

John J. Mearsheimer came forward (in an article and in a speech) with a compelling outline of four scenarios the Israel-Palestine conflict could result in:

  1. the two-state solution: Israel withdraws from the occupied territories, abandons the settlements, and Jerusalem is shared capital of both Israel and Palestine.
  2. the one-state solution, option 1: Israel stays in the occupied territories, grants equal civil rights to the Palestinians and becomes the democratic state of both Israelis and Palestinians.
  3. the one-state solution, option 2: Israel expels all remaining Palestinians from the occupied territories and claims the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river.
  4. the status quo: Israel controls the West Bank and proceeds down the road towards an apartheid state.
Mearsheimer points out that the Israel lobby pushes the Israeli and US governments towards option 4, which would likely end the Western support for Israel and ultimately lead to the end of Israel as such.

I would favour option 2, mainly because I like the idea of states being not exclusively for one particular denomination, but for all their inhabitants.

Who are the (young) Taliban?

According to Newsweek, there is a clear generational divide within the Taliban. Young fighters apparently have nothing but contempt for older leaders based in Pakistan and are not afraid to show it.

This article makes for an interesting follow-up to the report by Anne Stenersen (largely based on Antonio Giustozzi's book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop) which Frederik posted recently.

Amidst all the talk of reconciliation and reintegration, this article raises two questions:

1/ What is the point of reconciling with a leadership that does not control its rank-and-file?

2/ How do you reintegrate young fighters who have never been integrated into anything... and who apparently don't want to be?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Realpolitik in Central Asia

The so-called regional dimension to the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is largely taken to refer primarily to Pakistan and, by extension, India. This is understandable but Central Asia deserves more attention (beyond practical matters such as lines of communication and air bases) so I was interested to come across this report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (dating from March this year).

Few strategic thinkers would argue with the assertion that "Washington’s AfPak policy needs to expand its field of vision to include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan" but the question is how and for what purpose. We should be extremely cautious of seeking to support the COIN effort in Afghanistan without seriously considering potential repercussions.

Although very specific in its focus - namely the evolving threat of Central Asian jihadists - this report is coherent with much of the editorial commentary on the region in that it views the question through the AfPak prism, a prism which could very easily become a trap.
"We argue that the U.S. strategy to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda” in Afghanistan and Pakistan should be expanded to include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Our thesis rests on the judgment that Central Asia’s jihadists pose a potentially grave threat to regional stability and international security. They operate in a geographically contiguous and increasingly interlinked environment that stretches from Pakistan’s safe havens up through the Ferghana Valley. Ongoing hostilities and deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan could transform what has been a relatively minor problem into a potent destabilizing factor in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The time to address this issue is now, before it metastasizes."
Instead of worrying that the Afghan conflict might spill over into Central Asia, we should perhaps be more concerned with severe unrest and growing militancy developing organically in that region and all as a result of the west turning a blind eye to government repression there just to secure some air bases - such as Manas and Termes - and supply routes for the campaign in Afghanistan.

These warnings are not new. For example, the scathing report of Craig Murray, formerly British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, on the Karimov regime - and US support for it - has been well-documented. In the words of Tahulbat Yuldashev, former Uzbek government official turned dissident: "Democracy in Uzbekistan has no financial support any more from the United States. It only cares about Afghanistan."

The following extract of the CSIS report shows just how problems may emerge organically in Central Asia, no matter the outcome in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
"The return of these [jihadist] fighters does not pose an existential threat to Central Asian stability — they lack popular support. But a militant influx could set off a destabilizing cycle of terrorist action and government overreaction amid deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan."
Incidentally, I find that extract to contain a glaring contradiction. If a destabilising cycle of terrorism, government repression and deteriorating socio-economic conditions - not to mention human rights violations - does not qualify as an existential threat then I'd be keen to know what does.

Today it is often said - rightly - that Pakistan is facing an existential threat. We should never forget that this threat began during the 1980s when the west supported a dictatorial regime in order to further its own interests in Afghanistan. There are some differences - the west was supporting Afghan insurgents then, not fighting them, and Pakistan was funding and arming jihadists, not clamping down on them - but the point remains that short-term expediency can unleash even worse consequences in the future.

In that vein, I find it especially disconcerting that the CSIS report outlines a number of key recommendations, all of which target the existing Islamist groups in Central Asia but none of which address the conditions which produce incubators of militant jihadists in places like the Ferghana valley.

Measure such as enhancing U.S. intelligence capacity on Central Asian target sets, launching a border interdiction initiative and focusing more attention on travel documents may address the symptoms of militant islamism in Central Asia but not the root causes.

The one exception is the recommendation to push to bring the counterterrorism legislation of Central Asian countries in line with EU directives and human rights laws. The EU reference is interesting and I'll return to that shortly.

The key question would appear to be to what extent should we balance short-term realpolitik against medium- to long-term consequences?

The fact is we should avoid that distinction as far as possible. Granted, this is not easy in practice but the war in Afghanistan is being fought, ostensibly, because the repressive regime in that country destabilised the region and harboured international terrorists. So what is the point if the measures we take produce the same effect elsewhere?

The international community must surely have the necessary mechanisms at its disposal to find a balance. For example, the European Union has an opportunity to - at last - play a meaningful role in western foreign policy. By encouraging, as far as possible, reform of institutions (police, judiciary) and promoting democracy and human rights through legislative reform (as mentioned above), the much-vaunted soft-power capacities of the EU would be a useful counterweight to the Afghan-based realpolitik of the US and other ISAF nations.

Thus the member nations of ISAF would, with one hand, do what is necessary for the campaign in Afghanistan and, with the other hand, seek to bring about a degree of positive influence in the same region.

The goal is simple - to prevent the storing up in Central Asia of similar and equally serious problems as those which continue to beset Afghanistan.

Even if that specific suggestion requires closer and more in-depth examination, the Central Asian question indisputably requires immediate attention and some kind of workable solution.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Cameron and Hague: the last thing Europe needs right now

The Conservative Party victory (well... almost) in Thursday's UK election could not have come at a worse time for the EU. Given that the Eurozone is grappling with the effects of the Greek debt crisis, it could do without a British government that seems set to push the "little England" agenda.

The feelings of many Europeans (including many British) were summed up by the comments of Pierre Lellouche - France's Minister for European Affairs - in November last year when he branded the Conservative Party's European policies as "autistic" and "pathetic."It can be assumed that the more cordial comments that he made in the New York Times last Tuesday were purely out of pragmatism.

For me, and many others in the UK, the Conservative attitude towards the EU is an embarrassment that will damage the ability of future governments to influence and shape the Union. While Conservatives regularly argue that the UK shouldn't 'relinquish' any more of its sovereign powers to Brussels, they seem to forget that a combative EU policy will inevitably lead to a lessening of Britain's international influence. What is even more surprising is that David Cameron and William Hague appear reluctant to pursue the level of Anglo-American cooperation that was apparent in the Blair-Bush area. This is surprising, but you could argue the Conservatives are being cohesive - Washington has stated time and time again that the transatlantic relationship is best served by a Britain at the centre of Europe. And, as there now appears to be no chance of that happening, relations between London and Washington seem destined to become more distant. The result: A UK that lives firmly up to its geographical isolation and forgets that a train from London to Brussels takes a similar amount of time as one from London to Bristol.

A leaked
memo written by William Hague to David Cameron, and published by the Guardian, provides a good indication of what is to come. In this document, Hague lays out the line he suggests taking at the Foreign Affairs Council. Two issues that stand out are: the statement that the UK will never join the Euro (a needless comment and poor timing given recent events); and the intention to return powers to London on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, criminal justice, and social and employment legislation. Although EU leaders would have seen this coming, the process of negotiation on these issues is likely to be infuriating.

While it may be true that the Conservatives turn out to be more pragmatic once actually governing, it seems certain they will be an obstacle to much EU legislation. There is also their unfortunate alliance with the Kaczynski brothers in the European Parliament.

Clearly I am not a supporter of the Conservatives, but the reasoning behind this position is far more to do with their EU policy than it is domestic issues. This may all seem a bit one-sided. Perhaps it is. But one thing is for certain: these are worrying times for anyone who wants Britain to be a cooperative partner at the centre of Europe.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

How the West was won

Some consider the Native Americans of the Great Plains to have been among the most effective guerrilla fighters in history... and yet they were eventually beaten.

While this episode of history was not one which western civilisation can regard with much pride, there may be some interesting lessons here which could perhaps be applied in a modern counter-insurgency campaign, such as Afghanistan.

These musings are intended to precede a more in-depth - and perhaps more scientific - look at the much-vaunted reconciliation and reintegration efforts currently underway in Afghanistan. I'll write more on that early next week but for now I wanted to look at one historical episode which provides food-for-thought - and not direct parallels - on this particular issue.

Obviously some of the factors in the defeat of the Plains nations cannot be transplanted to Afghanistan: there are no buffalo herds to eradicate and its more than a little unlikely that white settlers will drive into Helmand province in horse-drawn wagons in the pursuit of manifest destiny. These factors were probably more important than the military campaign as they undermined the entire way of life of the nomadic Plains nations.

A further factor must be acknowledged: whereas in Afghanistan one civilian casualty is one too many (although unfortunately it doesn't always work out that way), the US Army had no such restraints when fighting the nations of the Plains, as illustrated most infamously by Custer's massacre of a Cheyenne village at the Washita river in 1868.

Those three factors are (very obviously) entirely irrelevant to the situation in Afghanistan. However, there were two factors in the defeat of the Lakota specifically that might be integrated into a counter-insurgency strategy.

Drown them in baby milk

The fighting strength of the Lakota was sapped by the numbers of young men who, with their families, eschewed the old way of life and instead lived on hand-outs from soldiers living in what we would now call Forward Operating Bases, such as Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail. These people were dubbed the 'Laramie Loafers' and they posed a major problem for the Lakota as i/ they reduced what was already a small pool of young men who could take up arms and ii/ they sapped the morale of those who chose to follow the old way of life.

Drowning insurgents in baby milk (ie. throwing money and material goods at them in order to undermine their motivation to fight) is hardly a new suggestion. I believe this particular metaphor first appeared in Vietnam but the method is as old as time. The example of the Laramie Loafers shows that such an approach can have a big impact.

The modern 'equivalent' in Afghanistan would be to simply provide jobs for people in Afghanistan. It is often said that many Taliban foot-soldiers only joined the insurgency because they would make more money there than elsewhere. Therefore, in simple terms the theory is that by creating licit sources of income (ie. anything other than joining the Taliban and/or growing poppies), many of the rank-and-file would drop their weapons and return home peacefully.

I can see the sense in such a theory and it may well have some impact in its implementation. The question is to what extent and will this be enough to irreversibly weaken the insurgency? That remains to be seen and I would have some questions (and doubts) here, notably concerning the received wisdom that most Taliban fighters are simply in it for the money.

Certain well-respected observers - I'm thinking of Ahmed Rashid and Robert Fisk - have highlighted the origins of the Taliban in the poverty-stricken refugee camps to which Afghans fled in great numbers (3.5m in Pakistan, 1m in Iran) during the Soviet occupation. Fisk argues that the extreme austerity of the Taliban regime stemmed from the fact that, in the refugee camps and madrasas, poverty was all they knew. In similar vein, Rashid describes the Taliban in these terms:

"These boys were a world apart from the Mujaheddin I had got to know during the 1980s - men who could recount their tribal and clan lineages, remembered their abandoned farms and valleys with nostalgia and recounted legends and stories from Afghan history... They were literally the orphans of the war, the rootless and the restless, the jobless and the economically deprived with little self-knowledge. They admired war because it was the only occupation they could possibly adapt to. Their simple belief in a messianic, puritan Islam which had been drummed into them by simple village mullahs was the only prop they could hold on to and which gave their lives some meaning."
I will look at this in greater detail next week. Suffice to say for now that it might not be a foregone conclusion to drown people in baby milk if their basic worldview rejects wealth and material possessions.

Divide and conquer

Another factor in sapping both the fighting strength and the morale of the Lakota was the lack of unity within their ranks. Factions did not so much emerge along tribal lines (the Lakota nation was composed of several sub-groups) as around individuals. Most notably, the personal antipathy of the Oglala leader Red Cloud and the Brulé leader Spotted Tail towards the famous warrior Crazy Horse was a factor which prevented young warriors from rallying behind him and mounting a concerted and organised resistance campaign.

These differences were skilfully exploited by the US Army, or more accurately by their civilian agents, who rewarded the older chiefs with material goods and political recognition (Red Cloud was received at the White House several times by President Ulysses Grant). Red Cloud did not take part in the escalating guerrilla campaign led by Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa medicine man Sitting Bull. Red Cloud's weight among the people split the fighting strength of the Lakota, in terms of numbers, logistic support and morale.

In this vein, Anne Stenersen argues that, instead of negotiating directly with the Taliban leadership, it would be more realistic to weaken the Taliban's coherence by negotiating with - and offering incentives to - low-level commanders and tribal leaders in Afghanistan (see report posted here by Frederik on 27 April). The wide variety of actors that make up the 'opposing militant forces' (the official ISAF term) is a strength that could be turned into a weakness "if properly and systematically exploited."

I can understand the thinking behind this and hopefully I've shown, using one specific historical example, that such an approach can serve a purpose when fighting an insurgency. However, next week I'll raise some questions (and doubts) about the practical implementation of reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan.

Going PowerPoint deep in Afghanistan

Major-General Flynn's report on US intelligence in Afghanistan made the headlines earlier this year, most notably for his claim that the United States had only gone 'PowerPoint deep' in their understanding of the complex situation in Afghanistan.

As reported by the New York Times (and many others), it seems the US military have taken their attachment to PowerPoint just a little too far.

Upon seeing it, General McChrystal is said to have remarked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

As comical as this slide might look, there is a serious point to make here, as illustrated by Julian Borger of the Guardian.

"On a recent tour of the region, [British Foreign Minister] David Miliband was treated to an upbeat PowerPoint slideshow about the battle for hearts and minds in Helmand, neatly condensed into bullet points.

Everyone walked out energised and enthused, until an official with long experience of the region took us aside and told us, in old-fashioned paragraphs, why Helmand was a disaster."

The NY Times article gives a number of examples of how misuse of PowerPoint can have harmful effects, such as over-simplifying complex problems or encouraging group-think. This is dangerous.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control... Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In the dystopian world described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother reduced the English language to the minimal lexicon of 'newspeak'. The pretext was greater efficiency, the real intention - and the result - was reducing people's ability to think by simply reducing the number of words available to them.

Reading the various accounts of military misuse of PowerPoint, it begins to look disturbingly like newspeak.

PowerPoint is not all bad though...

"Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters."

PS: For tips on how to make a good PowerPoint presentation, try this from the BBC.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Burden sharing at home as well as abroad

Over the last twelve months momentum has been building for the withdrawal of NATO's forward deployed nuclear weapons from Europe. Pressure is being gently applied by a group of western European states that include Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg. Although it would be positive for the reenergizing of disarmamnet efforts that this withdrawal takes place, there is a real possibility that the issue may pit the above nations against new NATO members such as Poland and the Baltics.

At the root of this argument is the need to provide a symbolic assurance to Eastern European states that NATO is serious about their security, as well as the need to maintain Alliance cohesion in the form of burden sharing. This suggests that although withdrawal would be a boost to the non-proliferation regime, it is preferable that there be some form of replacement that performs the political role currently carried out by non-strategic nuclear weapons. My point is simple: couldn't this be done by phased and adaptive missile defence deployments? And isn't it about time we linked missile defence directly to non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe?

Missile defence offers the possibility of shifting the burden east towards those states that are skeptical of any sympolic weakening of the U.S. commitment to defend Europe. The fact that assets can be surged into regions at times of crisis also creates the need for regular political and military consultations - something that will help maintain NATO influence over U.S. defence policy.

There is, of course, one big problem: Russia's entrenched opposition to missile defence. But this can be overcome with enough political will and commitment towards the goal of establishing a joint missile defence architecture. If successful, this cooperation will help redefine the NATO-Russia relationship and end the current stalemate on tactical nuclear wepaons. If the argument is articulated in a way that qualms the fears of Poland and the Baltic states (probably Turkey as well), as well as Russia, then missile defense could well be the future of NATO burden sharing.