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)

Thursday, 29 July 2010

How to talk to the Kurds?

The Economist reports on increased tension in the Kurdish populated areas of Turkey and Iraq. This is not a new problem but any increase in tension - and potentially violence - would come at a very difficult time for the Turkish government and the AKP ruling party.

From an international perspective, the concern has always been that Turkey - which has the second-largest standing army in NATO - could become too distracted by its campaign against Kurdish guerrillas to fulfil its international commitments. Having said that, while Turkish troops play important roles in ISAF, KFOR and EUFOR Althea, in terms of numbers their contributions are not (proportionately) among the most significant.

There are other - very real - possibilities which could arise from increased tension and/or violence between the Turkish Army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). There is the fear of increased conflict between Turkey and Kurds across the border in Iraq, just as the US is drawing down its presence in Iraq. Moreover, as the Economist article points out, any PKK resurgence would leave Prime Minister Erdogan in a very difficult position.
As next July’s parliamentary elections draw nearer, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is unlikely to risk nationalist ire by openly talking to a group deemed by Turkey and its Western allies to be terrorists. On the other hand, as Mr Erdogan knows, abandoning reform in favour of war will only strengthen the hand of his opponents within the army. He is, as an old Turkish saying goes, holding a stick with shit at both ends.
That is reason enough for the international community to be concerned at this potential development - and also reason enough for the international community to encourage and/or pressure Turkey to solve this as reasonably and effectively as possible, admittedly not an easy task.

On that subject, there are some questions to raise. The article states that secret talks have been going on with Abdullah Ocalan. While it may well be true that he retains huge support and affection from the rank-and-file, the fact remains that he has been in solitary confinement for eleven years. How can he be expected to have a clear understanding of the situation on the ground as it is now? Does he know the mood among the Kurdish rank-and-file (a different generation from the one he knew)? Does he know the key players on his side and on the Turkish side? Does he know the public mood in Turkey, notably in the context of next year's elections?

Furthermore, these secret talks have apparently been led by security and intelligence operatives and the PKK have - understandably and rightly - stated that they want to talk to politicians.

One could make a comparison to the discussions held in Algiers in 1989 between ETA and the Spanish government. ETA were represented by Antonio Etxebeste, who was released from prison for the occasion. The Spanish government was represented by the Interior Minister, José Luis Corcuera, but also by Rafael Vera, director of State security, who was said to have close links to the government black ops unit known as the GAL. Vera had previously participated in discussions with ETA, also in Algiers, accompanied by Jorge Argote, a lawyer who had defended men accused of torturing ETA prisoners, and Jesus Martinez Torres, chief of intelligence for the national police, who was suspected of actually having participated in torture.

With interlocutors like that, it is no surprise that the talks went nowhere but the real point is that the Spanish government and ETA alike displayed a failure to recognise the political nature of the problem. Both sides sent in security and/or intelligence operatives (on the ETA side, Etxebeste was accompanied by two operatives from the Madrid commando) who neither understood nor cared to understand the political realities of the situation or public opinion in the Basque country and in Spain (ETA's lack of political nous is a subject previously covered on this blog).

That is an approach which the Turkish government would do well to avoid - assuming that it is serious about finding some kind of solution to the Kurdish issue - but also because, as the Economist points out, if they let the military and security apparatus of the State take the lead then the civilian government could find itself undermined in the ongoing existential debate over what kind of State Turkey should be.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Think before you talk

It has not been a particularly good week for the British Prime Minister and his Deputy, as each have made rather unfortunate public remarks.

Speaking in the US, David Cameron referred to Britain as the junior partner in the fight against Nazi Germany in 1940. Meanwhile, during a formal session of Parliament, Nick Clegg (standing in for the absent Cameron) referred to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as illegal.

Apparently David Cameron forgot that the United States did not enter World War II until December 1941 as, when discussing the 'special relationship' between Britain and America he said that "We were the junior partner in 1940 when we were fighting the Nazis."

The remark has naturally been seized upon by opposition politicians but has also drawn criticism from veterans' organisations, which won't help Cameron's stated aim of a new covenant between the British military and the people.

This has been a difficult trip for Cameron who has already had to deal with a storm of controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, by the Scottish government in August last year.

In the case of Clegg, the remark was significant because, while it may well have been accurate, he is no longer a politician in opposition but a Cabinet Minister.

While one could argue that Clegg was merely expressing his own and his party's long-held view, when standing at the government dispatch box in a formal meeting of Parliament he represents the government and not the Liberal Democrat party. Claiming to be speaking in a personal capacity is not an option and it is in that context that the remark was unfortunate.

The Guardian quotes Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London: "A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful."

Cameron's remark, on the other hand, was simply wrong and also quite bizarre considering the pervasiveness in Britain of the 'we stood alone' historical narrative regarding the summer of 1940. For a head of government to betray such a tenuous grasp of history is rather worrying.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Russian 'Black Widows' and the culture of revenge

Last week the Russian security services arrested six women in Dagestan who they claim were preparing suicide attacks against the Russian heartland. It's long been established practice for North Caucasian militants to use female suicide bombers against Russian cities - the most recent example being the March attacks on the Moscow metro system. And while female bombers are not unique to the North Caucasus, the use of 'Black Widows' as the 'face' of a terror campaign is fairly unprecedented.

It's true that the majority of Dagestani and Ingushetian militants that carry-out armed attacks within the North Caucasus are male, but the face of the bombing campaign in Russian cities over the last decade has been distinctly female. In addition to the attacks on the metro, Black Widows were also responsible for the bombing of Russian passenger planes in 2004, and were present at both Beslan and the Dubrovka Theatre siege.

The motivation of these women has been largely attributed to revenge. Blood feud runs deep in the Caucasus and is not confined to the male population alone. As a result, many women whose husbands or sons are killed by the security forces end up exacting revenge. But the question that many have asked is why are women, and not men, being used to carry out the attacks on Moscow? One answer is that female suicide bombers are used precisely because the practice raises significant questions regarding their individual motives. It contains a greater 'shock' factor, which would explain why female bombers were carefully inserted into the sieges of Dubrovka and Beslan.

However, while the use of Black Widows may increase the short-term psychological impact of a suicide attack, it doesn't appear to have had a long-term effect on the resilience of the Russian people. In fact, the more that female bombers are used, the less of an impact they have. Should a suicide attack be carried out against a Russian city tomorrow then it's almost expected that the perpetrators will be female.

It's clear that a number of cultural factors are at play when a Dagestani woman volunteers for such an operation, but there is a lesson that can be taken from the use of female suicide bombers: its psychological impact is directly related to the number of times it's used. As a result, Muscovites now appear more hardened to the tactic than they were at the beginning of the decade.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Iran & the West III

In the last part of the BBC documentary, following details are worth noting:

  • After 9/11, Iran offered to cooperate unconditionally with the US in its 'War on Terror'. This was because Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban were enemies of both the US and Iran.
  • In the 6+1 talks at the UN, Iran provided the US with crucial intelligence about the situation in Afghanistan, such as targets for the bombing campaign. Furthermore, Iran helped the US create a new Afghan government.
  • In light of those events, the US state department advocated a policy of rapprochement. But George W. Bush opted for the goal of regime change in Iran.
  • Nine months later, British foreign minister Jack Straw went to Teheran to gather support for the invasion of Iraq. Chatami promised help and advice. He suggested to repeat the successful cooperation of the times of the Afghanistan operation. But Bush torpedoed the deal, again against the advice of the state department.
  • The famous letter that addressed all of the mutual grievances between Iran and the US and that was conveyed by the Swiss ambassador, was rejected by the top of the US state department, not the US president.
  • When the foreign ministers of the UK, France and Germany (E3) went to negotiate with Iran the halt of their enrichment programme, they agreed to apply the definition of "suspension of the enrichment programme" of the IAEA. The question was whether that would mean a total stop, the Western demand, or no infusion of Uran into the centrifuges, the Iranian interpretation. Iran had met El Baradei the day before the E3 meeting. In this meeting, El Baradei supported the Iranian interpretation. He later changed his mind and adopted the Western interpretation.
  • The Iranians offered a deal in which they would stop killing Western troops in Iraq if in return they could pursue their nuclear programme. That was the first time that Iran admitted responsibility for coalition deaths in Iraq.
  • In June 2006, Javier Solana offered the Iranians to keep centrifuges for research purposes. Something that Jack Straw had rejected two years earlier. This time, Ahmadinejad turned the offer down. In return, the West imposed more sanctions.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Iran & The West II

In the second part of the BBC documentary on Iran and the West, I noted following things:

  • The UN did not condemn Iraq for attacking Iran, nor did it demand an Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory
  • The UN did not condemn the use of chemical weapons against Iran, despite the fact that it was a violation of the Geneva convention
  • When the Israel-Lebanon war started in 1982, Iran send 1000 soldiers to Lebanon, in order to gather support for Iran and the revolution in the Muslim world. The Lebanese who received training by those Iranians became known as Hezbollah
  • Iran intervened to liberate the French hostages (in return the French agreed to stop selling arms to Saddam Hussein and payed a considerable amount of money). This deal was called off, because the French opposition (led by Jaques Chirac) offered the hostage takers of Hezbollah more favorable conditions under the precondition that the release of the hostages was delayed until after the French election
  • Rafsandjani forced Khomenei to accept the ceasefire offered by Iraq
  • After the death of Khomenei, Rafsandjani guided the assembly of religious scholars to elect Khamenei as new supreme leader
  • In August 1998, the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats in Masar-i-Sharif. In response, Iran prepared to go to war with the Taliban. In order to really international support, they addressed the Afghanistan committee at the UN, the only forum where Iran and the US both sat together. For the first time, a US foreign minister met with a foreign minister of the Islamic Republic. At least that's what the US believed. Actually, nobody of the US delegation knew the Iranian foreign minister. Finally, Kofi Annan revealed the Americans that it was not the foreign minister but his deputy. Khatami, the Iranian president, had downgraded the level, to appease his domestic rivals.

The Afghan Awakening

Much has been said this week about the decision to create local defence units in Afghanistan, along similar lines (broadly speaking) to the Sunni militias - known as the Awakening - who turned against Al Qaida in Iraq and are recognised as being a major factor in the success of the US surge from 2006 onwards.

Tom Ricks' take on this issue is one of the more level-headed and informed, given his knowledge of the surge in Iraq. He has described that campaign as a strategic military success but a political failure. This apparent paradox is largely down to the fact that, while working with and/or recruiting local (Sunni) militias helped improve security, it also weakened the (Shia) central government and the political and institutional development of the Iraqi State.

In Iraq that was a price the Americans were willing to pay. Given the increased nervousness in the US and elsewhere about the direction of the war in Afghanistan, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many (in the US and elsewhere) would be willing to pay that price again, a fact which will not be lost on Hamid Karzai.

Ricks however puts his finger on the dilemma - while arming local militias can provide sustainable security, it takes a long time. Time, as we all know, is the one thing the international community does not have in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai knows this too.

In that context, it will be extremely interesting to see if this issue crops up during next week's Kabul conference intended to symbolise greater Afghan ownership.

These local militias are probably not quite the kind of Afghan ownership that Karzai had in mind and his reaction to this initiative may well prove crucial.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Iran & The West

If you are interested in learning about Iranian history, I recommend you the BBC documentary 'Iran & The West: The Man Who Changed The World'. It is a three part series, featuring interviews with most of the relevant actors.

First part: the revolution and hostage crisis

interesting points:

  • Ahmadinejad, the current President of Iran, was the only one out of four student leaders who opposed the occupation of the US embassy
  • The occupation of the US embassy started without Khomeini being informed. When he learned the news, he was first against the occupation and ordered the Foreign Minister to get the students out of the US embassy. But then flipped and gave his blessing to the occupation. This move, which forced the entire Iranian government to resign, pushed the moderates out of the revolution. Khomeini became supreme leader.
  • The hostage taking was initially undertaken to force the US to send the Shah, who was at the time in the US, back to Iran. But it continued after the Shah left the US. For the release of the hostages, the US returned assets to Iran that President Carter had frozen before.

The monkey insurgency

The Taliban have taken asymmetric warfare to new levels, according to the Chinese media and amid great consternation in Washington.

In a major blow to ISAF's counter-insurgency strategy, the Taliban are training monkeys as insurgents in the hope that these trigger-happy, Kalashnikov-wielding primates will turn the tide in the Taliban's favour.

Naturally this poses many serious questions for the ISAF mission.

Should there be a special 'simian clause' in the rules of engagement? How will western public opinion react if ISAF kills a monkey in combat?

The Taliban think they have the answer to that question. "If a person who loves animals knows the monkeys may be injured in the war, they might pressure the government to force the withdrawal of western forces in Afghanistan," said one (human) Taliban insider.

In the context of reconciliation and reintegration, how can we persuade these monkey jihadists to put down their guns and reintegrate into Afghan society? Will the monkey Talibs be amenable to a negotiated settlement with the Karzai government?

The seriousness of this new threat must not be under-estimated. The most obvious short-term solution would be for ISAF to ban the import of bananas into Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Two Big Questions

In response to Prof. Stephen Walt's post on the five big questions for the future, I commented the following:

As a matter of fact, the EU overtook the US already in terms of population (450 million to 320 million) and GDP (16 trillion to 14 trillion). Of course, whereas the US is a nation state, the EU is a ...let's say... a nameless beast.

However, bearing in mind the size of China or India, it is fair to say that the sheer size is not the decisive factor. So why is the US dominating the world?

First, because the US spends roughly a quarter of its budget on the military (EU average less than 2%).

Second, the world commodities, particularly Oil, are traded in US Dollars. Because of that, every nation needs dollars, which in turn stabilizes the dollar and allows the US government to borrow large amounts of money.

Hence my two biggies:

1) Will the political class in the US accept that the US is not capable of keeping the defence budget as high as it currently is? Will it accept a drastic cut, which will lead to the consequence of the US losing influence in the world? Will the US democracy survive a decline? Will some US politician gather the hundreds of thousands of Veterans and march against Washington? (Prof. Galtung wrote an interesting piece about this option)

2) When will the emerging powers of the world refuse to trade in US dollars? When will the BRIC and France go ahead with their project of an alternative world lead currency? How will the US react to this move?

Europe's direction (or lack thereof)

European Voice asks the very valid question of why Europe did not do more at the recent G20 summit. The article is framed very much within a G20 context and does not therefore directly address the security and defence issues which are the main focus of this blog.

However, the question of the European Union and its current and future role on the world stage has arisen many times in our posts so its worth dwelling on the broader question of where Europe is going.

Paola Subacchi outlines four areas where Europe could potentially help move the G8/G20 agenda(s) forward - i/ help the resumption of the Doha Development Agenda; ii/ help switch attention from the G8 aid agenda to the G20 development agenda; iii/ address the issue of rebalancing the world economy; and iv/ address the issue of its own representation by collapsing the four European seats into an EU one.

While the recommendations made by Subacchi are valid (although perhaps a little vague and, in the case of the final point, highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic), do they address the real existential question of where Europe is heading? Are the four specific areas where Europe can move the agenda forward a means to an end - if so, which end? - or an end in themselves?

Too often in Brussels that crucial distinction is not made. Too often it seems that action, any form of action, will do and questions such as 'where are we going with this?' can be left for later.

Stephen Walt gets rather closer to the crux of the matter by asking where the EU project is headed... and, crucially, stating that "the answer matters".

As an example he refers to two diametrically opposed viewpoints from the other side of the Atlantic. Rosato goes very far in stating that "nothing can be done to salvage the [European] dream" for, as Moravcsik says, people have predicted the demise of the EU since before its inception and yet its still here. I do however find it very striking that Rosato makes exactly the same point about the European Union that many make about NATO - that without the Soviet threat it has no raison d'etre.

However, I digress for the real issue is this:

Walt is not the first person these days to ask where Europe is heading but he is one of the few to suggest that merely conjuring up an answer is not enough - it has to be a good answer.

I'm reminded here of Jonathan Powell's warning on political negotiation. Ambiguity in negotiations is complicated and needs careful handling. Although almost always necessary at the beginning, 'constructive ambiguity' must be squeezed out (painfully and over time) as a project cannot endure on the basis of an ambiguous understanding.

The building of the European Union is one big project in political negotiation but after 50+ years can we really say that constructive ambiguity is being squeezed out?

I think few will disagree that the European Union needs a greater sense of direction but how many leaders and policy-makers have given serious thought to what the direction should be? How many have weighed up the different options, run a cost-benefit analysis on each of them and decided what direction they want to pursue, either for their own nations, for Europe as a whole or for both?

I have said it before and will undoubtedly say it again but it is high time that hard questions were asked in Brussels... because the answers matter.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Facts about Afghanistan

  1. We are in Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda (see Obama's speech at West Point, Dec. 2009)
  2. There are between 50 and 100 Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan (interview with CIA Director Leon Panetta, July 2010)
  3. 102 NATO troops have been killed in June 2010 alone
  4. That's roughly one dead NATO soldier for each Al Qaeda member in Afghanistan
  5. In 2010, operations in Afghanistan will cost the US taxpayer alone more than 100 billion US$
  6. That's roughly one billion Dollar per Al Qaeda member in Afghanistan per year
  7. At least 4.2 billion US$ in cash left Kabul airport in the past three-and-a-half years (AFP)
  8. That means that more money is legally flown out of Afghanistan each year than that the country collects in taxes
Is there not a more efficient way to keep Al Qaeda on the run?

How to interpret civilian casualties in Afghanistan?

A report out today suggests that civilian casualties in Afghanistan are rising slightly - but that the number of those killed by ISAF is dropping. The mid-year study from Afghanistan Rights Monitor confirms a trend evident for some time now, again proving that the Taliban and friends are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths and injuries in Afghanistan.

This would appear to be encouraging news for the international community's engagement in Afghanistan and, more specifically, serves to vindicate General McChrystal's tightening of the ISAF rules of engagement last year. It shows that ISAF has greater regard for civilian life than the Taliban does.

However, is that really the point?

In all probability that is the spin that will be put on this story but that attitude will not help to win the war. The statistics may show that ISAF has greater regard for civilian life than the Taliban does but that is supposed to be a given. The real question, the real hearts and minds issue, is the extent to which ISAF is able to protect civilians.

If we are to use the American surge in Iraq from 2006 onwards as an example then we see that, within the context of a population-centric COIN approach, a decrease in civilian casualties is an indicator of progress. Even as American fatalities rose in Iraq during the surge, Iraqi civilian casualties were decreasing. Essentially, US troops were putting themselves between the insurgents and the people - which is one of the objectives within the population-centric approach and a fundamental pre-condition to any kind of military success.

While it would be wrong to judge from afar, this report and others before it suggest that ISAF has not yet achieved that crucial objective.

From a public diplomacy perspective, I can understand that reports such as these could be useful to show people on the home front (assuming of course that they're still listening) that i/ ISAF tries very hard to limit civilian casualties and ii/ the Taliban are evil. However, that interpretation can be - in fact is - counter-productive because we miss the point. Not killing civilians is not enough, we're supposed to protect them.

I would add that the timing of the report is important in that it seems to vindicate General McChrystal's tightened rules of engagement, just as General Petraeus is said to be reconsidering these (in reality, that remark at his Senate confirmation hearing was really for domestic consumption and any minor changes to the RoE will be in interpretation rather than in letter and certainly not in spirit).

Worryingly, there was a demonstration this week-end in Mazar-e-Sharif (not exactly a Taliban stronghold) against civilian casualties and Petraeus' potential loosening of the rules of engagement, showing that ISAF is rightly being held responsible by the Afghans no matter what the statistics say. The facts as we know them tell us that ISAF is not the main culprit and that General Petraeus will not suddenly undo all the good work of his predecessor. The demonstration tells us that Afghan perception is more important than statistical reality.

In short, this report does not entitle the international community to a pat on the back. In actual fact, it only increases the urgency to get things right in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Israel's nuclear deterrent

In his latest talk, Professor John Mearsheimer analyses the costs and benefits of the Israeli nuclear deterrent.

He argues that since Israel's conventional military forces are superior, no neighbour would dare attacking it. Hence, the nuclear deterrent has no added value.

I tend to disagree. The 2006 war with Hizbollah in Lebanon did indicate, that asymmetric militias can pose a serious challenge to conventional forces. Israel will probably make sure that the next round in Lebanon will not end in a similar defeat by changing training, tactics and equipment. However, proliferation of advanced weapons systems can turn a strategic inferiority of irregular forces into a tactical superiority. In 2006 Hizbollah managed to do so when it lured Israeli tanks in an ambush and destroyed several of them.

I would argue that the current military dominance of Israel is not guaranteed forever. Therefore, it is simply good statesmanship to maintain a nuclear deterrent.

Mearsheimer also points out that the posture of Egypt has changed profoundly since the 1950's and 1960's and today is no more a hostile state. Israelis tend to agree but argue that nobody knows what will happen next in Egypt. I concur with this assessment. To speculate that Egypt will remain friendly and, therefore, one main reason for the need of a nuclear deterrent became redundant, would not convince me, if I were Israeli.

I would argue that the situation in the Middle East is much too volatile for Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons. There are the ultimate defensive weapon and hence necessary in the armoury of every country that feels threatened.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Timing of the Russian spy scandal

Following the FBI's uncovering of eleven Russian spies last week, an interesting issue (beyond the photographs of Anna Chapman) comes to mind: the timing of the arrests. An article in the Economist poses a number of questions that many people have been asking themselves: was the timing an attempt by hard-line individuals in Washington to undermine the improving relationship with Moscow? Was it an attempt by Moscow hard-liners to undermine Medvedev? Or, could it have been a policy of collusion between Obama and Medvedev to undermine Vladimir Putin and strengthen the hand of the current Russian president?

The final question is particularly interesting given that the ineptitude of the spies has embarassed the Russian secret services and made them look amateurish. As a result, it may weaken the political constituency that has been so dominant since the resignation of President Yeltsin, the siloviki, and with it the position of Vladimir Putin. Although this theory is a little far-fetched, it shouldn't be entirely discounted.

Two issues make at least one of the above hypotheses likely: first, the agents don't appear to have suddenly become a security threat - they were unable to pass any useful information to Moscow; second, there were more politically expedient moments in the recent past in which to make the arrests - most notably during, and immediately following, Russia's war with Georgia in 2008. So why now? Well, it's unlikely to have been an attempt to undermine President Obama as he is said to have sanctioned the arrests. But was there a political rationale for his decision? Or, had some of the agents become more of a concern than the press is giving them credit for?

Monday, 5 July 2010

Michael Scheuer's take on Afghanistan

I can't think of many arguments that would undermine Michael Scheuer's outspoken criticism of what we are doing in Afghanistan...

Ron Paul makes also a good point, again...

Thursday, 1 July 2010

CENTCOM report: talking to Hamas and Hezbollah

Seems like the US military is leading innovative thinking: in a report by the Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Petraeus old working place, a study group called Red Team evaluated the pains and gains of talking to Hamas and Hezbollah.

The reason why Israel is furiously blocking this move is also mentioned in the report:

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."