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)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Political Courage and the New York Mosque

During the past week, President Obama has stirred a great deal of emotion in the United States after lending support to the construction of a mosque close to Ground Zero. Were Obama's comments an act of political courage? Did he inadvertently politicise an issue that should have been dealt with at the local level? Has he opened a door that the Democrats should have kept firmly shut? These are all questions that many people are asking.

First, what constitutes an adequate distance from Ground Zero? There's a huge difference between building a mosque on the actual site and building one two streets away. If two streets is not far enough, then what is? Four? Six? You simply can't claim there is a two mile exclusion zone around the site within which no Islamic establishment can be built. Not only is that argument offensive to all Muslims, it's particularly offensive to the families of those Muslims that were killed on 9/11.

So, although Obama's comments were morally and constituionally correct, will they have negative political consequences? There are numerous reports that suggest his popularity has declined sharply over the last week. There is also the question of whether this was an act of political courage or a move to shore-up support from minority groups.

Even if it was a courageous statement, was it the right thing to do? While the content of the statement was certainly correct, addressing the issue so directly has turned it into a national debate, perhaps reinforcing divisions rather than healing them. This will be a conundrum for many politicians that seek to address ethnic tension - should they speak out in defence of religious freedom, or should they avoid these discussions for fear of what may be said in the ensuing debate?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Talking to the enemy - post scriptum

The BBC has an interesting story on alleged back-channel communications between dissident Irish Republicans and the British and Irish governments respectively. The claim was made by Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, who must be considered a credible source given his own considerable experience of just this kind of back-channel communication. Having said that, it would be interesting to know why he chose to reveal this as I'm not quite sure what purpose he is serving in doing so.

I just wanted to highlight this briefly as an illustration of some points I made earlier this week. The Continuity IRA would be just the organisation who, according to the notions I expounded in my previous post, would not really be worth talking to on account of their lack of political nous.

However, this news raises a point which I probably should have dwelled on more in my previous post. The IRA in the early 1970s also had zero political nous - their entire political manifesto was 'Brits Out'. Some have argued that the political path on which the republican movement would eventually embark began at the Cheyne Walk talks in London in July 1972, which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness attended and at which they realised that armed struggle alone would not be enough to achieve their objectives.

[NB: Peter Taylor's books Provos and Brits gives an in-depth and highly informative account of these initial talks. Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA gives an excellent account of the way in which Adams and McGuinness would subsequently lead the republican movement down a political path.]

In short, by opening dialogue with armed groups you might be able to get them to think differently about their position, their methods and their objectives. That would have to be the aim of these back-channel contacts with dissident republicans, as Martin McGuinness has said. Incidentally, I think this quote answers the earlier question as to why he chose to reveal these talks - he's trying to put public pressure on dissidents to accept the inevitable, that the armed struggle is long over and to stop stirring up trouble which might hinder the perceived mainstream republicans from achieving their political goals.
"That suggests to me that these groups are recognising that at some stage they are going to have to wake up and smell the roses in terms of their inability to destroy the peace process," he said."
Ordinarily, the success of this kind of outreach would depend on many factors - for example, the leadership of the armed group itself, the background of the government negotiators (who must also be politically aware) - but it could be a worthwhile enterprise, albeit one that usually does not bear fruit immediately and the IRA are a prime example of precisely that.

Of course, this outreach must be done in such a way that it is easy deniable - note the strenuous British and Irish denials in the article, e.g. "it has never been our practice to speak to these people" - and indeed, according to some people mentioned in the article, these contacts have been very indirect and carried out by people from government bodies representing the intelligence agencies. In other words, this is not an official government policy.

However, the comparative lack of public or political outcry (aside from the occasional blustery comment from unionist politicians) perhaps shows to what extent people have accepted that talking to the enemy is a necessary and inevitable part of any kind of peace process.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Obama's Georgian success

President Obama's attempted re-set of relations with Russia was criticised by many U.S. Republicans who claimed the policy would leave Georgia and Saakashvili out in the cold. Brian Whitmore argues in Foreign Policy that the re-set has enabled the United States to gain much needed leverage over Moscow, thereby restraining Russian policy towards Tbilisi.

There is real merit to this argument. Russia has much more to lose by attacking Georgia today than it did in 2008. This is primarily due to the economic benefits that Russia seems set to gain if the bi-lateral relationship continues on its current trajectory. One key area of potential economic cooperation, as Whitmore points out, is the proposed U.S. investment in Russia's high-tech sector, coupled with Moscow's need for U.S. support in its application to the World Trade Organisation. As a result, any return to military means against Georgia would be a blow to its economic development.

Georgia appears to welcome this breathing space.

However, there is one additional element that Whitmore doesn't mention: Russia's primary policy aim in the 2008 conflict - preventing Georgia's accession to NATO - has been largely achieved. Of course, this is a questionable statement - one that many will disagree with. But Georgia's membership of NATO has, at the very least, been indefinitely delayed and the conflict with Russia appears to have been a key contributor to that delay. Therefore, how much can the Obama re-set really take the credit for Russia's more restrained policy towards Georgia? It's likely that the truth is a combination of Russia having achieved its objective and it having more to lose today than it did in 2008.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Talking to the enemy

Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, has featured on this blog on more than one occasion, each time on the subject of conflict resolution - more specifically its methodology (if such a thing exists) and the importance of talking to the enemy.

This week he is to be found arguing - not for the first time - in favour of dialogue with the Taliban and al Qaida.

It is hard to object with much of Powell says here, above all because his argument is based on his long-standing personal experience in Northern Ireland, contacts with mediators in other late 20th century conflict zones and a pragmatic look at history.
"There seems to be a pattern to the west's behaviour when we face terrorist campaigns. First we fight them militarily, then we talk to them, and eventually we treat them as statesmen. That is what Britain did with Menachem Begin and the Irgun in Israel, with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau in Kenya and with Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus."
While there are many differences between these three cases alone, there is one common thread that runs through them and countless other 'terrorist' groups - it was once heresy to even suggest talking to these people but talk to them we (eventually) did.

I would hope that's a given for any serious student of history but for anyone who argues that it is morally reprehensible to talk to the likes of the Taliban and al Qaida, I would simply answer that we (the west) have talked and in fact actively supported worse characters than them in most parts of the world.

I don't therefore have any problems with Jonathan Powell's argument on moral grounds. My question is this - is it practical?

One could argue that talking to extremists is more than just practical, it is necessary. For example, as Powell realised in Northern Ireland, only extremes can build a lasting peace because there will be nobody left to outflank them. The British and Irish governments original intention was to build peace from the centre (ie. the moderate nationalist and unionist parties) and, while this was enough to reach a settlement, it was not enough to implement it. Only the extremes could do that.

That was the case in Northern Ireland but that lesson is not easily applicable to other situations, such as Afghanistan. We are obliged to keep in mind the basic question - is it practical? - and it is here that we must raise doubts on the notion of talking to the Taliban.

On a previous occasion (in 2008), Powell stated that:
"It's very difficult for democratic governments to do - talk to a terrorist movement that's killing your people," he said. "[But] if I was in government now I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban; and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida."
This is where I have a problem. Powell gives three examples of organisations which bear almost no resemblance to each other whatsoever. Say what you like about Hamas but they have a hierarchy, clear political objectives and unity of effort within the ranks. On that basis, you have some kind of starting point for negotiation.

Al Qaida, on the other hand, has none of those elements. Who would we talk to? What would we talk about? Even if we could find a credible interlocutor from among their ranks, there is no way he could win over the multitude of disparate al Qaida - or 'al Qaida inspired' - cells strung out across the world and bring them into a process of negotiation. Talking to al Qaida is simply a non-starter and I am amazed that Powell would compare them to Hamas.

The case of the Taliban is more complex and, of course, very topical. Much of what I have just said about al Qaida applies to them also. Who would we talk to? The most obvious answer here is Mullah Omar and/or the Quetta Shura but would they carry the entire movement with them?

The apparent generational divide within the new Taliban has featured on this blog before. As far as I can tell, amid all the ongoing talk of reconciliation and reintegration, nobody has thought to ask if we are dealing with one organisation or several, or if we are dealing with a leadership that truly controls its rank-and-file.

Even if they do - and that is a big 'if' - does Mullah Omar, who presumably has spent much of the past nine years in hiding, have a clear understanding of the domestic politics within Afghanistan and of the regional and global dimensions to this conflict? In my recent post on the alleged talks between Ankara and the Kurdish Workers' Party, I raised similar concerns about Abdullah Ocalan. To be credible, an interlocutor has to understand his own movement and the environment in which it resides.

Next question - what do we talk about? Do the Taliban have negotiable aims that the whole movement agrees on? On this issue, Powell raises some very pertinent issues:
"For the IRA, as long as the objective was "troops out", little discussion was needed. The same is true in Afghanistan. The Taliban will need to move beyond the single demand that foreign forces must leave first, and consider what they really want to achieve. What changes do they want in the Afghan constitution? What sort of power sharing should there be between the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities? How would they demonstrate that they had separated themselves from al-Qaida? What attitude would they take to women's rights and girls' education? They probably haven't thought these questions through themselves, but opening a channel would help them to start elaborating answers. And experience from other conflicts suggests this can take a long time."
All good points but I would add to them by saying that the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and other minorities must be consulted and their fears must be allayed. That is paramount, assuming that it is even possible. Memories of inter-ethnic massacres during the 1990s civil war - notably in Mazar-e-Sharif between the Taliban and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - will not have been forgotten.

The fact that very few people have asked these questions must raise some concerns about the increasing chatter on reconciliation. Reintegration is different and, although still problematic, it does seem to have been more thought out than reconciliation. Until the Afghan government and the international community have asked hard questions about the very notion of talking to - and ultimately reconciling with - the Taliban, then we could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this smacks of a smokescreen as we start edging towards the exit door in Afghanistan.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


So according to Wikileaks, Pakistan is apparently supporting the Taliban. Grateful as we all are for that particular revelation, it seems to have kicked off a renewed round of discussion on the regional dimension to the conflict in Afghanistan, such as this article in the Washington Post which argues that the real problem in Afghanistan is Kashmir.

Many have made this argument before - Robert Fisk for example - and there is undoubtedly a degree of truth in the image of Afghanistan as a regional chessboard but there is a tendency to take that line of thought too far, as in the WP article.
"Fighting terrorists or fighting the Taliban -- or indeed, fighting in Afghanistan at all -- addresses symptoms rather than the disease in South Asia: the horrific, wasteful, tragic and dangerous six-decade confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

This confrontation ravages Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance, which was organized to fight the Taliban, is backed by money and weapons from India, and militant groups among the southern Pashtuns are backed by Pakistan. It is a big part of why peace eludes the country, even though the Soviets left a generation ago
That line of thought mirrors the current debate in the United States between those who argue that American presence needs only to be properly mobilised to bring about a decisive end to the conflict and those who argue that the American presence is the whole problem. Abu Muqawama recently addressed that particular debate and, to my mind, made a rather strong case against attaching excessive importance to the actions of external actors.

By that same token, is it realistic to think that improved relations between New Delhi and Islamabad - on that subject, see this interview with Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao - would lead to an exponential improvement in the security situation in Afghanistan?

The quote above would have us believe that the various sides in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s were nothing more than Indian and Pakistani proxies. That conflict saw greater destruction (notably of Kabul) and more horrific massacres than have been seen under both the Soviets and ISAF... and yet, taken to its logical conclusion, that overly simplistic rationale would have us believe that if the regional and global powers who have a stake in the Afghan conflict can come to an agreement, then we can all pack our bags and go home.

Just one question - has anyone asked the Taliban, or the Afghan people in general for that matter, what they think about all this?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Interesting approach to the same old question

"The question is not what to do in Afghanistan, the question is how to respond to an organised international criminal conspiracy." I found this quote in an interview with Andrew Bacevich, professor at Boston University. Bacevich argues that militant Islamism is not an existential threat and should be treated as organised crime, rather than an enemy that we have to defeat militarily.

An international police effort is, according to Bacevich, the appropriate response. He makes a comparison with the (police-)fight against the Mafia that obviously does not include the military occupation of countries.

Bacevich, a retired Colonel of the US Army, shares many more interesting ideas, so make sure to check out the rest of the interview at the Democracy Now! website, or click here.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

New Nato HQ Brussels

Check out NATO's new headquarters. To be completed in 2015. It will be located just across the street from the current NATO compound.

With such an impressive building, NATO will certainly not become irrelevant any time soon.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Chronomap IEDs in Afghanistan 2004-2009

I came across a fascinating chronomap, indicating all IED attacks in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. You can find it over a liveleak.

A clear proof how the insurgency gained momentum over the years.

A shout out to all our boys and girls currently serving in Afghanistan, particularly the ones who recently deployed.