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, 30 September 2010

The African front

I recently wrote about the ongoing debate in Uganda over the country's participation in AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. This article in the Guardian argues that Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, has less than altruistic reasons for sending Ugandan troops to Somalia and that he is quite happy to be used as an American pawn in the war on terror.

The argument goes that, through Ugandan participation in AMISOM, Museveni's regime is seeking to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community in order to i/ divert attention from its military interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its alleged human rights abuses against rebels in northern Uganda and ii/ maintain the flow of western aid into the country (amounting to one third of the government's annual budget), not to mention US military training and logistical support, despite the widespread corruption of the regime.

On top of this, since al-Shabaab bombed Kampala in July and killed over 70 people, the government has introduced extremely restrictive security measures. In the words of the Kampala police chief:
“We are sounding a warning. No gathering of more than five people, even if it is in your compound, should be held without clearance from the Inspector General of Police. People intending to hold wedding parties, music galas, football matches and road processions should notify the IGP first.”
From a wider perspective, the article takes a swipe at Washington, insinuating that the US is content to turn a blind eye to all this as Uganda is proving a useful proxy in the war on terror through its engagement in Somalia. Aside from a brief reference to DynCorp (which equips and trains the peacekeeping force in Somalia with State Department funding), there is little attempt to delve into the detail of what the US is doing in Somalia (or Africa generally) or to construct an argument as to why intervention in Somalia is such an inherently bad idea.

As a matter of fact, African leaders at last week's UN General Assembly argued for more western intervention in Somalia and Africa more generally. Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, President of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (which physically controls only a small corner of Mogadishu), said progress was being made in many areas but that ultimately the solution to both terrorism and piracy lies in greater international engagement on land, notably by training national security forces and providing support to AMISOM. In other words, don't just send ships to patrol the Gulf of Aden, help us build a proper State.

Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya, went so far as to claim that the deteriorating security situation in Somalia poses a "threat to international peace and security greater than in any other conflict in the world" and that more opportunities should not be lost through benign neglect.

Specifically, Kibaki exhorted the United Nations and the international community to to support the appointment of an eminent high-level personality for Somalia, effectively deploy 2,000 troops and review the current mandate of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to enhance its peace enforcement capacity. He also urged the world to fully support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan ahead of the secession referendum in January.

In other words, more engagement not less. Taking swipes at the US is not going to help anybody here. This is precisely the time when the international community should be seeking to engage constructively in Africa and with so much attention fixed on Afghanistan there is an opportunity for other actors, notably the European Union, to step up to the plate. The EU has already begun to set up its Somalia Training Mission - ironically based in Uganda - but, if Messrs Sharif and Kibaki are to be believed, much more needs to be done.

The best way to avoid Africa - and specifically Somalia - becoming a full-blown front in the 'war on terror' would be to engage properly now. In Afghanistan, the golden hours were wasted and the west has consequently found itself fighting a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign. We should hope that the wider international community will have the foresight to avoid repeating that mistake in Africa.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Interoperability in WWII

I'm currently re-watching the - still excellent - BBC series The World at War from the 1970s. In this day and age of multi-national military alliances and buzzwords like 'interoperability', I was amused to hear this from General Mark Clark, Commander of the US 5th Army, in reference to the campaign in Italy during WWII.
"[The Germans] were well-trained troops, tenacious and well-led... and they were homogenous. They were all of one nationality, they were all equipped with the same weapons and ammunition, they ate the same food, they believed pretty much in the same God.

I had sixteen different nationalities with me, some of whom couldn't eat this and that, some didn't want to fight on Fridays or some other day of the week and then we had the British with their infantry weapons and artillery completely different from ours. You couldn't move with ease from one front to another like the Germans could."
I don't know how much, if anything, we should read into a statement like that (although I'd be curious to know what the sixteen nationalities were). It just struck me as quite ironic when viewed from an early 21st century perspective. I doubt we'll hear an American general (much less a European) say this kind of thing publicly anymore... but I wonder how many of them think this way.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Obama the Commander-in-Chief

The fall-out from Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, has seen much heated debate on President Obama's handling of national security and relations with the military. The following two articles highlight some interesting aspects of that debate. One is critical, the other is favourable. Both address the fundamentals of the role of the US Commander-in-Chief and how Obama is measuring up.

Firstly, this article, by comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln, makes a thinly-veiled attack on the former's handling of the war in Afghanistan, an attack which fails because it is based on a very poor understanding of Abraham Lincoln's approach to the role of wartime Commander-in-Chief.

In a nutshell, the article claims that Lincoln had the good fortune to find a highly competent general in Ulysses S. Grant and did what every good President should do - delegate the entire conduct of the war to his General and protect him from his detractors, regardless of the potential political consequences. On the other hand, Barack Obama has found a highly competent general in David Petraeus but continuously meddles in his conduct of the Afghan war and places his own party political agenda above national security.

Its a neat comparison, one that will undoubtedly find favour among the readers of this particular newspaper (although it's doubtful that the readers of The Republican-American would need much convincing that Barack Obama is not a very good Commander-in-Chief). However, the pseudo-historical basis for the article is all too easy to disprove and this in turn undermines the article's whole conclusion.

In Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen's seminal work on top-level civil-military relations, the author convincingly argues against the notion (which for a long time was the received wisdom in academic and political circles) that Lincoln merely found a good general and let him get on with his job. In fact, Cohen shows that Lincoln strove to i/ keep a very close eye on what his generals were doing and ii/ become just as knowledgeable, if not more so, than his generals on every detail pertaining to the conduct of the war (for example, technological innovations). Moreover, Lincoln was acutely aware of the unavoidable influence of politics in the conduct of war.
"Lincoln had to educate his generals about the purposes of the war and to remind them of its fundamental political characteristics. He had not merely to create a strategic approach to the war, but to insist that the generals adhere to it... It was Lincoln's understanding of the interplay of war and politics, no less than his ability to absorb military detail and to read human character, that made him the greatest of American war presidents."
The truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a much better war leader than this article gives him credit for and the same may yet prove to be true for Barack Obama. That remains to be seen but the point is that the conclusions of this article are plain wrong, simply because it exhorts Obama to be more like Lincoln but in fact criticises Obama for trying to do the very things that Lincoln did. Obama might be making mistakes but his intentions are sound.

Secondly, on a very closely-related theme, this article from Foreign Policy, aside from being an insightful look at the interplay between politics and strategy, directly addresses Obama's most famous quote from the book - "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party" - in reference to his decision to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Needless to say, even though few people have actually read the book, the vultures are already circling.

Of course the likes of John Bolton are not really advocating that President Obama completely ignore domestic party politics when making national security decisions. What John Bolton is really doing is making a not-very-subtle attempt to score political points - the truth is that the "cold-blooded, cynical, grotesquely political manipulation of national security" is Bolton's, not Obama's.

However, taking the accusation at face value (for the sake of argument), any serious student of history would not even countenance the notion that strategy and politics should be kept separate.

As Tip O'Neill famously said, "all politics is local". As Stephen Biddle explains, there have been countless examples of the importance of domestic politics in strategic decision-making. To expect otherwise is simply unrealistic.
"Good strategy is politically sustainable strategy. Anything else is unrealistic and self-defeating. And any president who did not worry about the domestic politics of his strategy would be a very poor commander in chief indeed."
We may disagree with Obama's decisions but the fact remains that, in demonstrating his keen awareness of the fundamental link between politics and strategy, he is behaving just as a President - and a Commander-in-Chief - should.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

African parallels

Just as many European nations debate what course of action to take in Afghanistan, with troop withdrawal becoming an increasingly serious option, there is a similar debate ongoing in Uganda with regard to that country's participation in AMISOM, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Uganda has maintained 2500 troops under AMISOM since 2007 - 33 have been killed in action and, in July of this year, over 70 people were killed by al-Shabab bombs in the Ugandan capital Kampala, that group's first attack outside Somalia and in direct reprisal for the participation of Ugandan troops in AMISOM.

It's interesting to note that the debate in Uganda features similar arguments to those we're used to hearing in Europe and in other ISAF nations - that sending troops to Somalia has made Uganda less secure, that Uganda should withdraw its troops if other nations don't pull their weight (only Uganda and Burundi currently contribute troops).

On the other hand, there is also a strong body of opinion in Uganda (and elsewhere in Africa) that AMISOM's mandate should be expanded (despite United Nations' objections) and that troops be allowed to undertake proactive military operations... just like in Afghanistan.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Karzai good, America bad

For all the varied western interpretations of the current situation in Afghanistan, this critique from former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar (who counts Kabul and Islamabad among his postings) is strikingly different to any strand of western opinion.

Bhadrakumar's opinion of the role of Pakistan and the ISI in Afghan politics, more specifically the reconciliation process, is what one would probably expect from an Indian observer and, moreover, his opinion is one which would very likely find favour among many western observers too. What is different, however, is Bhadrakumar's view of Hamid Karzai who, far from being an American puppet, he depicts as their victim.

On the former point, Bhadrakumar is damning in his assessment of malign Pakistani influence, American doublespeak and their joint sabotage of Karzai's reintegration plan - most notably through the arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar in Karachi early this year.
The bizarre operation was undertaken despite the CIA and the ISI being aware that in Mr. Baradar (who is credited with moderate views), Mr. Karzai had a key interlocutor and the two were at an advanced stage of negotiations regarding the Taliban's participation in the upcoming Loya Jirga in April, which, of course, would have become a defining moment of the war. The ISI's detention of Mr. Baradar can only be seen as a move to ensure that Mr. Karzai did not have any top-level interlocutor among the Taliban leadership and to drive home the message that any dealings between the Taliban and Kabul should be conducted through the “proper channels,” namely, Rawalpindi and Washington.
A frustrating aspect of this article is that Bhadrakumar does not explain this in greater detail, either by citing evidence that Baradar was in advanced negotiations with Karzai or by explaining why the US would sabotage Karzai in such a way.

The notion that the Pakistani authorities arrested Baradar, along with several other alleged members of the Quetta Shura, in order to install their own people in their place is hardly unique to Indian conspiracy theorists - it appeared for example on CNN and in the New York Times. In the same vein, Bhadrakumar's assertion that the ISI is playing a long game, willing to bet that Afghanistan's western-style, pluralist democratic system will not last and that eventually the Taliban will come out on top once again, is also not entirely alien to western audiences.

What is less comprehensible is Bhadrakumar's depiction of concerted American efforts to fatally undermine Hamid Karzai and have him replaced as the Afghan leader during last year's Presidential elections. For all the (very public) disagreements between Karzai and the international community, above all the US, the long-term investment in Karzai's political (and actual) survival is surely too great to be ignored. Moreover, if regime change truly is the objective, then who is being lined up to replace Karzai? The list of realistic candidates is not long.

Incidentally, Bhadrakumar alleges that "the U.S. does not want a strong Afghan leader in Kabul with an independent power base" but some informed westerners have previously argued for precisely this scenario.

There are clear reasons, therefore, to call into question's Bhadrakumar's belief that Karzai (along with his family) is the victim of American sniping and manipulation, which should not mean dismissing it altogether. However, where Bhadrakumar's case really starts to fall into place is when he touches (all too briefly) on regional geopolitics.
"The U.S. strategy will be to keep up the pressure on Mr. Karzai in the coming period even as the mother of all questions concerning the U.S. military presence is yet to be addressed. The Afghans will oppose a permanent U.S. military presence, while the Pentagon is bent on getting a status of forces agreement with the powers that be in Kabul so as to retain long-term access, which is needed to effectively pursue the containment strategy toward China."
That line of argument makes more sense - in fact, it would be very difficult to disagree with it - but it still warrants greater explanation and analysis. As interesting and thought-provoking as this article is, Bhadrakumar raises as many questions as answers on several issues, all worth revisiting in the very near future.

Post-scriptum: On a different note, the IWPR report that the Taliban have imposed a maximum price of $3,800 on brides (yes, you read that correctly), which has made one future groom very happy:
Now my father-in-law can’t charge me too much because this Taleban order isn’t like one from the Karzai government - it’s a strict order which no one can disobey.”
Now that is how to win hearts and minds.

Iran and the IAEA

An IAEA Board of Governors Report, made public this week by the Institute for Science and International Security, claims that Iran is interfering with the IAEA's mission in the country by blocking the appointment of particular inspectors -- those that possess knowledge and experience of its nuclear fuel cycle. More specifically, they prevented the return of inspectors who highlighted what they believed was unreported nuclear activity.

This report is significant as it's yet another example of the IAEA drawing attention to its own institutional weakness; on this occasion the inability to select its own inspectors. Instead, the agency presents a list of individuals to the country it's inspecting, which can then object to any names it's unhappy with. And in the end it's the state (not the IAEA) that has the final say.

As a result, the IAEA's work is made difficult by Iran throwing obstacles in the way of individuals who are attempting to build expertise. This is particularly true at the facility level, where experience gained from previous visits to Natanz enables a level of knowledge that can not be gained from reading briefing books. But Iran certainly isn't breaking any rules by these actions, it's just not acting in good faith. So what can be done? Answer: nothing. And if the international community did try to reform the selection process then it will be rightly accused of double standards.

So does this report highlight anything new with regards to Iranian compliance?

Well, not really. Once again it shows Tehran isn't willing to go out of its way to prove its compliance, but under the current rules it doesn't need to. So it's just another example of it dragging its feet, even though there is no real evidence it's diverted nuclear material to a weapons programme. So unless a) there is evidence in the future that a significant quantity of material has been diverted; b) all IAEA inspectors are thrown out; or c) additional uranium enrichment facilities are discovered, then the West and Israel are going to find it difficult to prove what Iran's intentions really are.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Supplying Afghanistan

This study by the IISS provides an interesting snapshot of the bigger geostrategic picture surrounding the war in Afghanistan. It takes a look at supply lines leading to Afghanistan and asks how instability in Pakistan has forced ISAF to diversify and make considerably greater use of northern routes.

Whereas previously 80% of ISAF supplies went through Karachi (and then either to Kandahar via Chaman or to Kabul via the Khyber Pass) that figure has now fallen to 50% since the opening of the northern route in May 2009. Taken in isolation, that statistic is quite striking and would seem to be clear proof that incidents such as the torching of 50 ISAF trucks at a depot near Islamabad in June have had a significant impact on the war effort.

On the other hand, it should be noted that, even with this diversification of supply lines (which is basic common sense, whatever the circumstances), supplies through Peshawar and by extension the Khyber Pass have doubled this year alone, presumably matching the surge in troop numbers. Furthermore, it is also worth pointing out that some countries along the northern routes place caveats on the use of their territory and/or airspace, notably forbidding the transport of lethal cargo, so the importance of Pakistan to the ISAF logistical effort remains uncontested.

Looking at the map makes one wonder though - the US and NATO had to strike deals with all those countries along the northern route and it would be interesting to gain more insight into the financial and geopolitical implications of this. This is yet another example of how the war in Afghanistan is having a significant effect across a very large, important and unstable region.

The article even mentions that the US is looking into the possibility of opening a land route through China, all the way from its eastern seaboard. Aside from the physical challenge of hauling supplies across the Tibetan Himalayas and the Karakorum Range, one wonders what price China would demand for such a service.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

ETA declare a ceasefire... again.

For the second time in four years (and the fourth time overall), the armed Basque separatist group ETA have announced a ceasefire... or rather they have announced that they will "not carry out armed actions."

There is little political substance in their statement and certainly nothing new, although one can almost admire their audacity for claiming that "ETA has contributed to proposals for cooperative actions and resolutions of the conflict."

The immediate reaction in Spain and elsewhere is that ETA are calling a ceasefire because they have no choice, because they are too weak to do otherwise and that this announcement is simply window-dressing to make it seem like they retain the initiative.

Indeed, the basic facts speak for themselves. When Mikel Karrera Sarbe - a.k.a Ata - was arrested in May this year, he became the sixth suspected ETA leader to have been arrested since November 2008. ETA has tried (and supposedly failed) to move its support and logistics infrastructure from France to Portugal. They provoked outrage (and the ire of Nicolas Sarkozy) by killing a French policeman in March this year. Quite simply, ETA had nowhere else to go.

An interesting aspect to this story is the claim by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams that Irish republicans played an important role in persuading ETA to put down their guns. While it is hard to ascertain just how influential Irish voices were in the Basque decision-making process, Adams does make a very necessary point about the role of the Spanish government:
"There is also a heavy responsibility on the Spanish government to grasp this opportunity for peace and progress. It needs to be farsighted, to think strategically and to ignore those voices that seek a resolution in terms of victory and defeat."
Unfortunately that seems highly unlikely given the initial reaction from Madrid in the shape of Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba:
"Eta kills in order to impose itself, so that means one cannot dialogue. Eta has stopped because it cannot do anything ... and also in order to rebuild itself."
While the second part of the statement is undoubtedly true, the first reflects a deeply ingrained mindset within the Spanish State - regardless of which political party happens to be in power. By way of contrast, when the British government was accused by the SDLP (moderate Irish nationalist party) of only talking to the political wings of Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups because they had guns, Jonathan Powell responded "and your point is?"

Having said that, Pérez did no more than articulate the feelings of probably a large majority of Spaniards so, purely from a political point of view, he arguably couldn't have said anything else.

However, it is to be hoped that behind the scenes the Spanish State will indeed be astute enough to take a long-term, strategic approach to this opportunity. For example, if it is indeed true, as alleged, that ETA are merely calling a temporary ceasefire in order to regroup then now is exactly the time, during their period of inactivity, to try and reintegrate ETA militants and their support base (what's left of it) into mainstream society and political life, as I have argued before. Above all, Madrid must positively respond to the Basque left and legalise those parties which do genuinely seek political solutions through peaceful, democratic means and always have done.

This entails 'legalising' the very concept of Basque nationalism, which historically has been an existential non-starter for the Spanish State which has too often sought to taint all Basque nationalists with ETA's violence. However this is very definitely a "democratic minimum" for a political process and the best way to render ETA completely irrelevant and seal their defeat. If Madrid fails to seize this opportunity, then their statements in response to ETA's announcement will very likely become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

PS: Anybody puzzled by the face-masks and berets on display can find answers here.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Rational debate on Afghanistan

There is a lot of noise on Afghanistan these days and not much of it seems balanced or reasoned. Jim Molan's article in the Australian Herald Sun at least asks some rational questions and attempts to encourage a reasoned debate.

When the article appeared last week I thought the notion that more troops would be requested was rather unlikely... and yet that is precisely what has happened this week as ISAF push hard to fill the strategic shortfall of international trainers for the Afghan National Security Forces.

However, the real value of this article lies not in the potential solutions Molan hints at but in his call for proper debate based on assessment of facts, as opposed to knee-jerk 'ideologically prejudiced' reactions which fail to consider the situation as it is and the options available to us.
"If there were to be a debate, then it needs to preceded by an open assessment of where the war is now, where the war is likely to go, and what Australia could do that might be of value... Any debate must primarily address what we should actually and physically do."
The article is specific to Australia but the principle can and should be applied to every ISAF nation individually and the international community collectively.
"There are now 21 very good reasons for re-examining what we are doing, what we should be doing and what we could achieve in Afghanistan."
In other words, that is no less than the fallen deserve.