April 30, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The shaping operations, the preparatory operations have been ongoing already for some months... The operation in Kandahar is not going to be a conventional offensive. The enemy fights back, and our experience in Iraq was that it got harder before it got easier."

- General David Petraeus
, "shaping operations"

Countdown to Israeli-Palestinian Impact

The next several weeks will see a frenzied exchange of activity between America, Israel, the Palestinians, and Arab states.

The Arab League has already approved a second attempt at “indirect negotiations” between the three other parties. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Egypt on Monday, and later in the week US envoy George Mitchell lands in Jerusalem for what is being billed as the first round of proxy talks.

Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will then travel to Washington to officially rekindle the peace process while shaking a smiling President Obama’s hand.

These movements will be accompanied by a high decimal level of diplomatic and media chatter. We’ll be told that every party is firmly and finally committed to achieving a lasting peace in the region, and that those who spoil the quest will be held accountable. The problem is, we’ve been here many times before.

A bigger problem: the next few weeks could obscure the distant object hurtling towards the region. Ironic that would be though, because all the politics and media coverage should magnify it.

Theoretically another Biden fiasco is unlikely before Netanyahu and Abbas visit Washington, and the following weeks should be similarly calm. No way America and Israel blow their scene a second time, right? Of course they went against logic the first time so maybe the proxy talks do fail to launch twice.

But what if they don’t? What if Israel and the Palestinians begin on unstable terms and negotiations deadlock instead, breaking down sometime in the summer? Or if Israel continues approving and constructing settlements in East Jerusalem?

The Obama administration reportedly has that option covered too: an international peace conference convened by the Quartet (US, UN, EU, and Russia).

Call him smart, or hopeless, but The Haartez reports, “Obama is determined to exert his influence to establish a Palestinian state, the officials said, and several European leaders have vowed that the EU would support any peace plan proposed by Washington. Therefore, though so-called proximity talks are set to start in the coming weeks, Obama is already readying for the possibility that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks might reach a dead end.”

Now Abbas claims the White House promised him it would prevent any provocative Israeli moves this time around, but we’ve heard that before. We’ve been told for two years that a new US peace plan is coming, while other reports deny the White House is moving in this direction. An international summit is always around the corner.

It is a good idea though, so could Obama survive the fire if he does transfer control to the Quartet? So far he’s disappointed - now he faces his greatest challenge yet. The situation calls for defusing a nuclear bomb of self-interests and converting it into a mass celebration.

The next four to eight months potentially countdown to a new status quo in the Middle East. Predicting exactly what will occur - and if the whole affair is a dud - is impossible, but the rest of the year is likely to significantly alter the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for better or worse. Sort of like the Big Bang.

We can see all the way until the last second.

One of the Arab League’s primary conditions for its support, aside from freezing Israel’s settlement activity in East Jerusalem, is that “progress” be demonstrated by September. This is no arbitrary date, ambiguous as the condition may be. Netanyahu’s 10 months settlement freeze outside the West Bank expires, the UN General Assembly convenes, and thus the Palestinians are expected to decide on direct negotiations.

If Israel continues building settlements and shooting protesters in East Jerusalem, and refuses key Palestinians conditions, then the Palestinian Authority is threatening to demand unilateral UN recognition.

"We want our state to be declared under an international agreement," Abbas said recently while visiting the Jordanian capital of Amman, in line with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s vision. "If this could not happen, the Arabs will go to the UN Security Council to get recognition of Palestinian statehood."

That’s when Obama will likely step in, not just for the Middle East’s sake but his own political campaign.

Israeli officials are predicting a US proposal at the end of the year, saying Obama might postpone an international conference and his own peace plan until after the midterm Congressional elections in November. This doesn’t make sense though. The Haaretz observes, “his Democratic Party is widely expected to suffer heavy losses.”

Maybe the White House wants more GOP backing? Democrats are no less pro-Israel.

A formal rollout before November makes more sense; Obama doesn’t have time to wait if negotiations break down before September. He’s also likely to repeat his demand for a two year time-frame, which he’s been trying to fit in before November 4th 2012 since assuming office. The perfect October surprise - if the plan works.

Unfortunately for the White House resistance from Netanyahu, emboldened by his recent election “victory,” appears unavoidable. The Israeli government might have to change its configuration, a hot theory, but is there any formation that will split Jerusalem? Will Israel take negotiating orders from the Quartet or ever allow Palestinians to declare unilateral statehood?

The road to peace is a minefield and Obama will be judged by his ability to influence Israel towards a fair two-state solution. Achieve one and Hamas’s support could dry up, a strategy more feasible than occupation and war. Two defined states should also be more palatable to Israel than unilateral Palestinian statehood, while one state could descend into asymmetric civil war.

These pressures are too demanding for America alone, increasing the chances of navigating a two-state solution under Quartet oversight.

Such a shift, among other advantages, will help neutralize Obama's lack of experience, US bias, and the Israeli lobby. He and most of Washington still consider America the ideal broker, but that’s part of the problem - it’s not. Removing that insularity boosts the odds of a successful peace process.

Israel’s future is better off in America’s hands, but Israel and Palestine’s future is better off in the international community’s.

April 29, 2010

Quote of the Day

"This gives us an impression that there is a regional and international project that wants to mount a coup through ballots, otherwise why this big fuss and weeping in the world over the recount issue?"

- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, defending his recount against "international plots"

US Still Justifying Unjustifiable Killings

Back in January General Stanley McChrystal deployed an ingenious - and cruel - weapon of war. In a two prong attack, McChrystal discouraged the use of air-strikes and ordered coalition forces to avoid night raids when possible, and to bring Afghan troops if they can’t.

The decisions were hailed as a turning point in US military thinking in Afghanistan. McChrystal, we were told, deeply understands counterinsurgency and is sensitive to Afghan culture.

At one level McChrystal’s new strategy is long overdue. Civilian casualties topped 800 in 2008 and nearly 600 in 2009, unsustainable levels. Reducing casualties through limited air-strikes and night raids also allowed the Taliban to statistically become the main cause of death, useful for perception and propaganda purposes.

And if sincere, the US military is finally realizing that counterinsurgency is won not by killing people, but by understanding them.

Yet beneath this pristine surface lies a dark motive that no White House or Pentagon official can disguise, which isn’t to say they won’t try. After a botched operation we’re swiftly and frequently told by the entire Pentagon - Gates, Mullen, Petraeus, McChrystal, and their host of spokespeople - that “all precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties.”

Gates, though, sometimes slips back into “accidents happen in war” mode, realizing the first justification doesn’t work when repeated endlessly. He would be right too, civilian deaths are part of the fog of war, but not every time. The “accident” justification doesn’t hold up either during recent atrocities in Afghanistan. These are no accidents, and they have no justification other than human error.

What McChrystal did by ordering his rules is create a false image to point at every time civilians are killed - especially when those rules are disobeyed. By doing investigations you look good, even what you did is bad. We had advised quicker apologies and investigations, but only if it was sincere.

Afghans can see through Western PR.

We want to be careful to avoid hyperbole since Afghans has suffered countless gruesome acts over their history and in the last nine years alone. Just weeks before McChrystal ordered his new rules of engagement eight children were handcuffed and executed by NATO forces, an incident that still lacks any resolution.

But the following months after McChrystal’s declaration saw some particularly brutal and shady murders.

Possibly the most horrific involved three women killed by NATO troops on February 12 during a nighttime raid in Paktia province; the episode is famous for the US military actively covering up the murders. Two months later NATO admitted to botching the operation and killing the women - and tried to forget the incident.

Here is the US State Department’s justification:
QUESTION: General McChrystal apparently has ordered a second investigation into the deaths of three Afghan women and two men during this nighttime raid in February. Apparently, originally, they thought it was an honor killing, but now it seems that there might have been some kind of cover-up and General McChrystal is ordering a new investigation. I was just wondering if you think that these type of incidents dilute the Afghan confidence in the U.S. military and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it underscores in my mind exactly what we were talking about a minute ago about other operations in and around Afghanistan moving forward. That has been a fundamental change in General McChrystal’s strategy.”
Look familiar? This is the US script for civilian casualties going forward. The fundamental change in McChrystal’s strategy is that people like Mr. Crowley are reading from that script when unjustifiable errors are committed.

Back in reality, two days after February 12th, another missile slammed into McChystal’s strategy by killing 12 civilians. Again it was the precise manner in which this attack occurred that made it more unjustifiable than usual. One day after Operation Moshtarak landed in Marja and NATO missiles kill Afghan civilians is the topic of conversation.

Had the attack occurred even a week into the operation the fallout would’ve been minimized. As it is there’s no justification, which obviously leads us to last night’s raid on Safiya Sidiqi’s house, a member of parliament.

The Associated Press reports, “NATO said Thursday that a joint operation with Afghan forces killed ‘one armed individual while pursuing a Taliban facilitator’ on Wednesday night. The person killed ignored demands given in English and through an Afghan interpreter to lower his weapon, NATO said, without giving details of the person's identity.”

According to Sidiqi, who wasn’t home at the time, “family members told her about 100 NATO soldiers stormed her home around 11:30 p.m. Sidiqi said the soldiers broke the windows of her home, entered and pulled out 15 members of her family who were then photographed and fingerprinted."

"My brothers thought they were thieves," Sidiqi told AFP. "One of my relatives took a shotgun and walked out of the room. The troops shot him dead."

She called the raid "barbaric" and, in line with our theme, vowed, "Whatever happened, it was the mistake of NATO.”

If the Taliban is supposed to be scary, imagine a group of 6 foot + US and NATO soldiers in body armor and laser scopes breaking into your house like Night of the Living Dead. Naturally hundreds gathered on streets near Jalalabad to burning tire and shouting anti-U.S. slogans.

"I will raise my voice. I am a member of Parliament, my residence must be protected," Sediqi said. "This man had five children. The Americans have created five more enemies."

But did America make these new enemies because NATO forces, surely led by US troops, took every available precaution and simply got unlucky? Was this an accident of war? Maybe Sediqi is lying and an investigation exposes a different picture, but all of McChrystal’s rules appear to have been broken.

This was no accident, it was a system failure.

Already a night time raid near a lawmaker's home doesn’t sound like a good idea. Perhaps a Taliban soldier was using it as a shield, but the dubious risk/reward of assaulting Sediqi’s house remains unthinkable. Any error could have exponential consequences compared to a normal raid, and likely will.

Furthermore, “She said she had phoned Afghan authorities from inside the house during the raid to try to have it stopped, but the US troops had the compound surrounded and did not let Afghan forces interfere.”

The only thing worse would be, according to provincial police spokesman Ghafoor Khan, if the operation hadn’t been coordinated with Afghan security forces. ISAF says it was, he says it wasn’t.

A night raid led by US forces, who interfered with and possibly failed to coordinate with Afghan forces, a dead Afghan and relative of a parliament member, protests, and germination of denial. And whoever did pull the trigger on Sediqi will most likely get away. A few thousand dollars will be dolled out and ISAF spokespeople await the next “accident.”

How many strikes on General McChrystal’s “new strategy? Six or seven? That’s beyond unjustifiable nine years into the Afghan war.

It’s unconscionable.

Pentagon Detonates Afghan Propaganda Bomb

What started out a bad joke ended as an explosion. First came the headline Afghan Taliban getting stronger.

The Los Angeles Times had reported that a Pentagon briefing to Congress, “presented a sobering new assessment Wednesday of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that its abilities are expanding and its operations are increasing in sophistication, despite recent major offensives by U.S. forces in the militants' heartland.”

This is the height of lunacy - the Pentagon admitting to and ignoring a wobbly strategy. Funny in a terrible way.

“The report, requested by Congress, portrays an insurgency with deep roots and broad reach, able to withstand repeated U.S. onslaughts and to reestablish its influence, while discrediting and undermining the country's Western-backed government. But the Pentagon said it remained optimistic that its counter-insurgency strategy, formed after an Obama administration review last year, and its effort to peel foot soldiers away from the Taliban will show success in months to come.”

Then I visited the Department of Defense (DOD) website, wishing to read the congressionally mandated Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, and found this headline: Report Notes Afghanistan Developments, Challenges.

Paragraph one: “Stability in Afghanistan is no longer on the decline, and most Afghans believe that despite increased violence, security actually has improved since this time last year, according to a new report Pentagon officials sent to Congress today.”

Lunacy indeed as this statement is followed by, “But it offers what a senior defense official speaking on background called a sobering assessment of the conditions on the ground, and a recognition of the importance of what happens within the next six months in determining the direction the operation ultimately will take.”

How exactly does that work? If the war is starting to right itself why the urgency of six months? Isn’t that an admission that America and NATO are out of time and down to their last chance?

Comparing the two articles, one written by the LA Times and one by the American Forces Press Service, to us they come off as parallel worlds. The LA Times plays down what the DOD plays up, and plays up what the DOD omits. Our prior analysis leads us to believe the LA Times, even if it is indulging in sensationalism, is speaking more truthfully than the Pentagon.

The DOD report goes from stability to sobering in three paragraphs, alerting more doublespeak ahead. The Times quotes the senior Defense official as acknowledging the assessment of the insurgency was more pessimistic than in previous assessments.

"This is a very serious and sober report,” he said.

According to the report, “A ready supply of recruits is drawn from the frustrated population, where insurgents exploit poverty, tribal friction, and lack of governance to grow their ranks.”

Yet through the Pentagon’s eyes, “The report, which covers the situation on the ground from Oct. 1 to March 31, cites progress in President Barack Obama’s strategy aimed at disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan... Despite increased violence, the report notes that the downward trend in stability appears to have stemmed, along with Taliban momentum.”

So Taliban momentum is expanding and stemmed - such duplicity litters the DOD report. The official, after prefacing the premature nature of “turning the corner,” claims, “We are on the cusp. We are no longer moving in the wrong direction... we are moving in the right direction.”

Now that doesn’t sound sobering at all.

These statements aren’t pros and cons, but contradictory, and these reports mix like a Molotov cocktail. What’s really going on here? Who’s reacting to whom, the US media to the Pentagon or the Pentagon to the media? Were there two separate briefings? It almost sounds that way.

From what we can tell the Taliban is getting stronger and the US strategy is in serious jeopardy. We’ve outlined why at the city level in Marja, regional level in Kandahar, and at the national level. The Taliban’s resiliency would also better explain why the Pentagon is engaged in a psy-ops campaign that centers around US Special-Forces and dead Taliban commanders.

Even the few areas where America appears to have something going come with major caveats.

The LA Times cites one statistic that appears ominous: “The report concludes that Afghan people support or are sympathetic to the insurgency in 92 of 121 districts identified by the U.S. military as key terrain for stabilizing the country. Popular support for Karzai's government is strong in only 29 of those districts, it concludes.”

Conversely, it makes sense that the Taliban hold the districts key to stabilizing the country. What would be worse is if high activity in districts they don’t control, a statistic not offered in either report. But this logic is similar to US and coalition deaths, attributed not to the Taliban’s growing sophistication but more enemy contacts.

In reality it’s both.

The LA Times also reports, “Despite the view of an insurgency gaining in strength, the western military effort also has some important advantages. A survey conducted in March showed 52% of Afghans blame insurgents for insecurity in the country, while a minority blame the Afghan security forces.”

That leaves 48% who don’t blame the Taliban.

Most importantly the Pentagon found that Afghan training programs are “broadly on track,” but this knife cuts both ways too. We won’t even go near “broadly on track.” Unquestionably an Afghan army and police force is the real bridge out of Afghanistan for US forces, but this bridge will be out of order for years.

More time than President Obama has at least.

And at the strategic level a self-sufficient Afghan army and police will never be forged without an accountable government, still the weak link in America’s strategy. Funds for the troops could dry up, a lack of trainers wastes time, and the Taliban will continue infiltrating the ranks.

How are we to be persuaded that the Pentagon is finally putting politics first when it admits at the very bottom of the report, “For Afghan forces to be prepared to take the security lead, other elements also must be in place - governance, courts, judges, prosecutors and correctional capacity, among them.”

Expecting a propaganda campaign has made us extra leery, but this propaganda shouldn’t get far anyway. No military surge will succeed if America doesn’t get on the same page with Hamid Karzai and Pakistan. Until then the Taliban will continue to thrive.

Maybe Afghanistan has “stabilized” because it can’t go much lower.

(Karzai apparently feels the report reflected poorly on him too.)

April 28, 2010

Hakimullah Mehsud Alive

“But Mehsud's power has lessened, and other Taliban commanders, such as Waliur Rehman, are now overshadowing him, the official told The Associated Press.”

This is as we expected, though it doesn’t change much if true. Rehman, commander of South Waziristan, more accurately reflects the TTP's hierarchy.

Quotes of the Day

"I'm disappointed with him. With the friendship, sympathy and commitment we have toward Israel, we still can't accept this foot-dragging. I don't understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants."

- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to Israeli President Simon Peres

"And we're at a point now, where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world, and this is obviously destabilising for the whole region and we're watching it very carefully.

- US Defense Secretary Robert Gates

"Our choice was and remains to secure all the arms of resistance that we can."

- Hezbollah Parliament member Hassan Fadlallah

Is Somalia Nearing A Tipping Point?

Among the most challenging predictions, if not the holy grail of COIN, is when a government or insurgency reaches the point of true collapse. Either can die and be revived by a foreign influence. Often their “end” never occurred in the first place. Some insurgencies are so mixed up that the state appears dead, and yet continues to live.

The US Joint Forces Command’s Operating Environment 2010, which repeatedly but superficially addresses insurgencies, briefly highlights this last phenomenon.

“There is one dynamic in the literature of weak and failing states that has received relatively little attention, namely the phenomenon of ‘rapid collapse.’ For the most part, weak and failing states represent chronic, long-term problems that allow for management over sustained periods. The collapse of a state usually comes as a surprise, has a rapid onset, and poses acute problems.”

The JOE 10 then directs its attention away from rapid collapse, at least in its civilian copy, forcing us towards other sources. As luck would have it RAND cites the venture of predicting rapid collapse in its study, How Insurgencies End.

One of RAND’s main conclusions, after amply referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: governments generally prevail as time passes, “contrary to conventional wisdom,” but a state’s collapse is also quicker than an insurgency’s.

“Insurgents lose slowly; as their effectiveness declines, it does so at a decreasing rate,” reads the report. “Governments, on the other hand, lose more quickly; the end comes with a dramatic thud as the state collapses on its own disintegrating foundation.”

This is the “rapid collapse” theory the JOE speaks of and it certainly demands more attention. That’s our job.

If questioned a week ago, without knowledge of yesterday, which failing state is closest to an absolute breaking point, Somalia would have been my answer. But yesterday waved a huge red flag yet to be flown: Unpaid Somali soldiers desert to insurgency. And in RAND’s study desertions, defections, and infiltration are key indicators to a collapse on either side.

“The rates at which these phenomena occur, as well as changes in these rates, often indicate significant trends and, occasionally, tipping points.”

According to the Associated Press, “Hundreds of Somali soldiers trained with U.S. tax dollars have deserted because they are not being paid their $100 monthly wage, and some have even joined the al-Qaida-linked militants they are supposed to be fighting.”

About half of the 1,000 French-trained recruits being paid on an unfulfilled $2 million have deserted, said Somali army Col. Ahmed Aden Dhayow. "Some gave up the army and returned to their ordinary life and others joined the rebels.”

Somalia's state minister for defense, Yusuf Mohamed Siyad, wouldn’t reveal a number but confirmed some trainees had joined al-Shabab. He said guarantees should have been given before programs begin.

"If this is not done, then we shouldn't even start. Otherwise the soldiers will just join the opposition.”

The need for urgent examination and preparation for a toppled Somali government doesn’t appear to be an overreaction in light of the AP’s discovery. Though al-Shabab is turning off Somalis with its excessive violence, the Somali government already suffers from multiple signs of collapse including brain drain and uncoordinated foreign support.

Al-Shabab’s monolithic nature matched against such a weak government allows it to expand relatively unchecked.

Military speaking Somalia is looking worse than ever as al-Shabab continues to seize towns and territory, even putting pirates in their sights. The government’s counter offensive in Mogadishu, where it now controls only a few blocks, stalled without the necessary manpower and equipment.

America must have realized that no amount of Special Forces could tip the scale, as it's already looking ahead.

The AP reports, “The desertions raise fears that a new U.S.-backed effort beginning next month to build up Somalia's army may only increase the ranks of the insurgency.”

“How can observers and practitioners detect whether the conflict’s end game is under way?” asks RAND. “As the end approaches, people ‘vote with their feet’ in hurried attempts to avoid being on the wrong side of the struggle as it draws to a close, thus creating a ‘negative bandwagon’ effect.”

Ultimately the effects of these “deserters” will be decided by who exactly they are. The JOE and RAND are certainly right about the lack of attention and understanding of rapid collapse. It’s staring us right in the face: Unpaid Somali soldiers desert to insurgency. A grammatical impossibility, soldiers cannot “desert” to anything.

They defect.

RAND writes, “In analyzing the trends associated with defection and desertion rates in particular, it is important not to confuse definitions... If deserters do not also defect to the other side, this may indicate disillusionment with both sides.”

RAND points out the obvious that, “officer desertions may have greater value than foot-soldier desertions. It cautions, “Simple desertions should not necessarily be taken as a significant indicator of success for one side or the other.”

This doesn’t seem to be the case in Somalia, at least not yet. But an alternative could be just as deadly to the government: what if those fighters defecting to al-Shabab were the same meant to fight it in Mogadishu?

We do know that Somali troops sound bluer than al-Shabab’s.

“During a recent AP visit, dejected-looking soldiers sat under dust-covered thorn trees at the government's main military base, Camp Jazira, which lacks toilets, a clinic or even a perimeter fence. They had not been paid, some for months, they said, adding that their wages were intercepted by senior officials.”

Considering that these men are supposed to counter al-Shabab - one of the most dangerous jobs in the world - for peanuts, it’s possible that they’re switching to the perceived “right side.” If this trend continues it could actually become the straw that breaks the TFG, paving the way for al-Shabab rule or another weak government entity.

Three years ago this outcome wouldn’t be so big a problem for America and the West. Until relatively recently al-Shabab was issuing national rather than transnational goals, a stance that chafed with al-Qaeda. But US operations inside and outside Somalia drove them to merge.

The door has been opened for the nightmare scenario: an attack on US soil, planned by al-Qaeda in the al-Shabab ruled deserts of southern Somalia.

To get a fresh taste of plausibility, al-Shabab just attempted a not-so-successful suicide attack on an African Union base in Mogadishu. Dubious as the claim may be, al-Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage said the attack was in retaliation for US military operations in Iraq.

"This attack was a retaliation for the killing of our mujahedin brothers Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu al-Masri... in Iraq."

We have no doubt that al-Shabab and al-Qaeda want America to occupy Somalia and will try to goad Washington through international provocation. No longer will al-Shabab topple the TFG and then sit around.

Their sanctuary could shift al-Qaeda back on the offensive.

For so long Somalia has survived as a weak state, but could its government be on the verge of a real collapse? The US Joint Forces Command is stressing over that question right now.

April 27, 2010

Red Flags Flying Over Afghanistan

Though red flag theory is an emerging economic and social indicator, it makes for an equally effective political and military barometer.

The idea is that no one factor is responsible for a trend or can predict future trends. For instance red flag theory is deployed as a lie-detector test by counting the number of physical ticks. Several or no flags may simply mean a good liar, not a truth teller, but a row of flags can often prove conclusive.

The same principle is applicable to counterinsurgency.

An interesting partner joins our negative outlook in Afghanistan. As we defined US military operations in Kandahar as a bleak reality, so has RAND, the central US government think tank, concluded, “If we look at the Taliban insurgency in light of our findings, a rather stark picture emerges.”

The mystery continues as to why Washington doesn’t follow its own advice - a red flag from the start.

After a more thorough reading we still find RAND’s study too basic (though exhaustive), but those less familiar with COIN literature may find the study useful. And since RAND is somewhat fair in confessing to the subjective nature of its study, we will reciprocate in kind.

“The assessments of insurgency endings are inexact,” it writes at the beginning of Chapter 3. “Even though functional-area experts carried out the study, the somewhat subjective nature of this research exposes How Insurgencies End to legitimate criticism.”

Our criticism lies with convention, as RAND makes clear that strategic breakthroughs and unconventional thinking aren’t forthcoming. While criticizing RAND when they own up may be unfair, our appetite for an unconventional study on Afghanistan is nevertheless unsatisfied. RAND expends relatively little focus on the Taliban for how immediate and perilous the war is.

Though we must tend to the warnings at hand, our intention is to create an unconventional COIN study to compliment conventional thought. Such a project is necessary considering that the Taliban is the essence of unconventional.

To begin with RAND found that most insurgencies last 8 to 16 years, but if the insurgency survives that long. “the likelihood of an expeditious conclusion from then on tends to decline.” The Taliban accumulated throughout the 1980’s, officially formed in 1994 and have years ahead of it, putting it well into its third decade of existence.

Though RAND found that time generally favors the government, “contrary to conventional wisdom, ” it also states, “Once an insurgency starts its third decade, the government takes longer to win it than to lose it.”

Theoretically the tail end of the Taliban insurgency, win or lose, could be equal to its rise. The war is likely to last another decade or two, possibly three or more.

Due in large part to its longevity the Taliban holds advantages in Kandahar that reflect the overall battlefield: weak national and local government, unstable foreign support, established history of national insurgency, and internal and external sanctuaries. These elements are the primary building blocks of a successful insurgency and shape RAND’s study.

The final tally doesn’t add up in America’s favor.
“Based on decided cases, voluntary sanctuary theoretically gives the Taliban an unweighted 2:1 advantage, and external support a slightly greater than 1:1 advantage. The Afghan government is receiving direct external support, a 5:4 advantage for the Taliban. The Taliban has learned to discriminate in its use of terror, statistically reducing its exposure to popular backlash and shifting its odds (with this correlative factor only) from 5:11 to 14:8. The Taliban is fighting an anocracy (fake democracy) in the Afghan government, a 6:1 Taliban advantage. No matter how one interprets the insurgent organization—hierarchical or mixed—the outcome is quantitatively null. And, finally, the Taliban is operating in one of the most impoverished rural areas in the world. Both low income and low urbanization imply an advantage greater than 2:1 for the insurgent.”
RAND also found, not surprisingly, that unpopular governments lose outright more than half the time (23 out of 42 decided conflicts). Hamid Karzai’s government probably qualifies there as well.

That the Taliban holds nearly every metric RAND categorizes underlines President Obama’s fundamental flaw. Though we’re often harsh on US COIN operations in Afghanistan, neither are we are saying these operations are D grade. Certainly wrong decisions have been made, but they’re being amplified by the fact that America is warring the most advanced insurgency on Earth.

This leaves no margin for error, and yet Obama is pushing his surge through rows of red flags.

Two among the many stand out in RAND’s report. While voluntary sanctuary in a foreign state has proven overwhelmingly decisive in the insurgent’s favor, and equally destructive if denied, RAND concludes (as we do), “Sanctuary alone cannot keep the Taliban afloat.”

Few matters are more immediate. US officials seemingly believe the war would be headed towards victory if only Pakistan denied the Taliban access to Balochistan and the FATA.

RAND continues to list every Taliban’s advantage: “strong grassroots support from a Pashtun community that feels alienated from both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, some rural Afghans who have learned to respect the group’s toned-down religious message, and on drug-related income and other external support.”

Thus even if Pakistan shuts down the FATA for good, a prospect either unlikely or too far out of America’s timeframe, the loss is unlikely to create a true tipping point against the Taliban.

Another of RAND’s grave predictions is the paradoxical nature of external support to the government. Whereas insurgents thrive on external support, governments naturally tend to grow accustomed to handouts and bailouts. Supporting a government’s counterinsurgency, RAND argues, is primarily a matter of timing:
“Why does outside intervention not confer greater benefit to the counterinsurgent? Qualitative analysis of the 30 cases of intervention points to the challenges in achieving just the right balance of support and in providing that support at just the right time. In practice, the quality and consistency of the support provided to the government in each of these cases varied considerably.”

1. Providing too little or the wrong type of support risks failure, while providing too much risks creation of a weak, dependent state security apparatus.

2. Timing of the intervention is critical. Step in too soon and the government can lose credibility or the insurgents might seek sanctuary before they can be engaged; step in too late and the insurgents may already have effected a tipping point.

3. Just as the withdrawal of external support to an insurgency can cripple the insurgents, inopportune withdrawal of support for a government can, and very often does, lead to defeat or at least a mixed settlement.”
Many observers believe America missed the timing and see Afghanistan already suffering from these symptoms. The last is especially concerning as Obama set what we believe is a premature withdrawal deadline at July 2011. Whereas funding Karzai for years is unlikely to bring an end to the war, withdrawing support could lead to rapid destabilization.

Though the real outcome may be otherwise, all of these red flags predict futility in Kandahar and ultimately Afghanistan if not radically and ingeniously corrected.

It is perhaps most disturbing that the few green flags that do exist are being ignored. RAND states, “If insurgencies, to paraphrase Clausewitz, are politics by other means, it may be helpful to know that more than half of all insurgencies (40 out of 73) have been settled through negotiations.”

Despite what they say, US officials continue to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in negotiations with the Taliban. Yet we must conclude, no matter how long America avoids it, that its mission will end on a political agreement with the Taliban. This will likely occur at the point when the Kandahar campaign stalemates.

Unconventional thinking will be of the highest necessity.

Quote of the Day

"We are not facing a big threat. You get one or two incidents once or twice a week. That shouldn't be a concern. A suicide attack can happen anywhere."

- Ahmad Wali Karzai, telling the AP that the UN should stay in Kandahar

April 26, 2010

Kandahar’s PR Campaign Can’t Hide Dark Reality

The New York Times is a dutiful soldier. Aware of the lies, it nevertheless participates in the US government’s effort to “control the message” in Afghanistan. The NYT isn’t alone though. The entire US media faces this common dilemma: either stay in line and gain access to the White House and Pentagon, or stray and be cut out.

The American people and all those negatively affected by the US government lose either way.

The NYT reports
, “Small bands of elite American Special Operations forces have been operating with increased intensity for several weeks in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city, picking up or picking off insurgent leaders to weaken the Taliban in advance of major operations, senior administration and military officials say.”

Fortunately Kandahar can’t be disguised - unfortunately it’s not pretty. Could it be possible that no matter what happens, US and NATO forces can achieve nothing more than military stalemate with the Taliban? Stalemate, given President Obama’s narrow timeframe, is as good as defeat.

Not only are alarms sounding on the operation itself, America’s problems begin before Kandahar, in Marja. Military strategists have warned throughout history against fighting a war that’s already lost. Only two paragraphs pass before the NYT admits Marja isn’t on track. What was supposed to be the military and propaganda setup for Kandahar has gone quiet.

“Two months after the Marja offensive, Afghan officials acknowledge that the Taliban have in some ways retaken the momentum there, including killing or beating locals allied with the central government and its American backers," reports the NYT.

“We are still waiting to see the outcome in Marja,” said Shaida Abdali, the deputy Afghan national security adviser. “If you are planning for operations in Kandahar, you must show success in Marja. You have to be able to point to something. Now you don’t have a good example to point to there.”

The NYT labeled the once triumphant Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand Province, as “somewhat flummoxed.” Nicholson had predicted a few weeks would be needed to secure Marja, then a month. The operation is going on three months.

“We’ve got to re-evaluate our definition of the word ‘enemy,’” admitted General Nicholson. “Most people here identify themselves as Taliban.”

Said one anonymous tribal elder, “The Taliban are everywhere.”

Now Taliban propaganda could be exaggerating its activity in the region, going after high value targets and spreading leaflets at night, but their activity is flagrant. Masked gunmen killed a 22-year-old man, Hazrat Gul, in broad daylight as he and four other Afghans built a small bridge only a third of a mile from a base in central Marja.

Mr. Gul’s boss, an Afghan contracted by the Marines to build the bridge, says he was warned four times by the Taliban to stop working before the attack. At the same time US funds for local projects and alternate farming methods are disappearing, with at least some dollars ending up in Taliban hands.

Colonel Sakhi, an Afghan National Police commander deployed in Marjah, told the NYT, “You shake hands with them, but you don’t know they are Taliban. They have the same clothes, and the same style. And they are using the money against the Marines. They are buying I.E.D.’s and buying ammunition, everything.”

If Sakhi, an Afghan, can’t tell the difference what chance do US troops? And according to Sakhi, the Taliban’s shadow governor in Marja returned to the area in early April.

For an operation that was supposed to spring “from a box,” we wonder whether deep below the Pentagon they currently consider Marja a failure. Combining the ongoing situation there with the exponential complications of Kandahar creates a bleak outlook.

We won’t say the odds of success are zero, but the coalition appears to have lost the battle before it begins.

Like Marja we are being told that Kandahar is a political surge first, military second. A series of shuras are supposed to be held periodically to coordinate local programs, gather feedback, and address grievances. But without immediate progress they will likely emulate Karzai’s less than warm welcome in early April and potentially work against US commanders.

The NYT reports, “This may be the most difficult hurdle, since there are doubts among Western officials about the ability of the Afghan government to supply an ample number of effective and qualified civil administrators.”

Indeed, if the resources don’t exist to staff Marja’s local government they don’t exist to run Kandahar.

In regards to President Hamid Karzai, the constant friction generated with Washington will hinder the entire Kandahar campaign. First, at a national level, Afghanistan is unlikely to undergo the reforms necessary to reconstruct Kandahar province and employ its people. He’s also threatened to block the operation.

And at the local level sits his immovable brother and head of the provincial council, Wali Karzai, who the NYT calls, “the most powerful person in Kandahar.” US officials admit they’ve failed to persuade Karzai to remove his brother so now, “would like to see his influence reduced as provincial government is reformed.” Accordingly, “American and NATO officials are not eager to speak publicly about one of their biggest challenges.”

This unprepared political environment will have adverse and potentially disastrous effects on the coalition’s military campaign, and could very well determine America's fate in Afghanistan.

The many flaws in what everyone realizes is the do or die campaign explains why The New York Times is leading with Special Forces - they’re the only thing America has going in Kandahar. So while the political situation nosedives what we hear from Washington is, “Large numbers of insurgent leadership based in and around Kandahar have been captured or killed.”

Just like Marja.

But there’s an alternative reason for why US Special Forces are stalking the outskirts of Kandahar. American and allied commanders, unable to call off the operation, have recognized the local approval necessary to support sustained military operations doesn’t exist. They are trying to minimize the US presence as much as possible, hoping to rely heavily on Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the city.

Reuters reports, “Inside the city itself there is very little presence of Western forces. Many of the city's teeming residential districts are almost entirely out of bounds for Afghan police, especially at night.”

US commanders must ultimately confront the reality their troops are heading into. According to preliminary battle reports the offensive will involve, in addition to 8,000 presently stationed NATO troops, another 23,000; about 8,500 Americans, 3,000 Canadians and 12,000 Afghan soldiers and police.

Again returning to Marja, Reuters notes that US commanders tried to lead with Afghan forces - and how the Marine Corps officers ended up doing most of the hard fighting.

How then could Afghan forces possibly take the lead in Kandahar when they didn’t in Marja? And how, if Marja required 15,000 total troops, are 30,000 supposed to capture a city 5 times larger in area and population? Marja was high-balled at 80,000 people and is more like 40-60,000; Kandahar houses at least 300,000 people. Nor is Marja as vital to the Taliban in the grand scheme to Kandahar, or as ingrained with their influence.

Yet how long does the US military expect to “secure the city?” August, not even several months after the main operation begins in late May or early June. Just like they told us with Marja.

Leaving aside the province, what if Kandahar city takes until 2011 or beyond to “secure?” What if the Taliban do as they say, melt away, and return? What if Kandahar’s security reverts like Marja in the absence of political reform? So many parts of the West’s strategy don’t make sense.

Ultimately it may not be a military operation specifically that Kandahar locals oppose, but the reality that force will solve nothing in the end. They barely trust the military operation to succeed and have no trust at all in the political system.

Rather than feeling liberated, they feel doomed.

The NYT reports, “While the officials stressed that they will limit civilian casualties, an increase in operations will put more residents in the cross-fire. The fighting already under way in the province is putting at risk the sharp drop in civilian casualties that followed General McChrystal’s orders to strenuously avoid them. Recent episodes of civilian casualties, including an attack on a bus, have undermined trust for NATO operations.”

“Instead of bringing people close to the government,” cautioned Haji Mukhtar, a Kandahar Provincial Council member, more combat “will cause people to stay further from the government and hate the foreigners more.”

Sounds like we’ll continue hearing a low flow of information from Marja and a lot more US Special Forces.

April 25, 2010

Bloody Future For Bangkok?

Not hard to see Thailand’s security crackdown coming. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has warned the Red Shirts will be “removed” from their protest site at Rajprasong, a shopping district in Bangkok, within 48 hours if they don’t disband. The Red Shirts are vowing to hold their ground.

But they also provide another view. While the two objects may not collide directly, that's not how several Red Shirt leaders survey the battlefield.

First one Red Shirt, Natthawut Saikua, claimed he has inside knowledge that Abhisit had ordered an operation if the protesters refused to withdraw. Jatuporn Promphan, another red-shirt leader, said Army chief General Anupong Paochinda has ordered 70 companies of police and heavy weaponry to be deployed.

According to The Nation:
“Jatuporn said Anupong had instructed 70 companies of police to report to him at the 11th Infantry Regiment by noon today. He said 23 companies of soldiers would move to Lumpini Park, three companies of quick-response units, 200 motorcycles and pickup trucks - apart from 150 motorcycles from other military units that would operate in plainclothes but be fully armed with M16 and A2 guns, including 2,000 shotguns.

About 80 of them would disguise themselves and mix with red-shirt protesters and would shoot at the leaders when the crackdown order was issued, he claimed. Four Black Hawk helicopters and a Chinook helicopter would be used. Twenty special task force officers were being readied to rappel down ropes and capture red-shirt leaders.

Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situations spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd admitted they were preparing to suppress the protesters at Rajprasong but waiting for the right timing. He confirmed the deployment of 70 companies of police from the Police Region 1-7 to execute the crackdown. Police commanders of seven regions would oversee their subordinates and work under the policy of the centre.”
Jatuporn said the crackdown would be carried out today or tomorrow. Propaganda or reality? The wait won't be long.

"We are ready to fight till death,” promised Jatuporn. “No matter how many weapons they are going to use.”

The US/Israeli Endgame: Demilitarizing Palestine

A truer reflection of the US position towards on Israeli-Palestinian conflict than what’s going around lately - and why objective mediation from Washington is impossible. Zbigniew Brzezinski isn’t the top of the totem poll, but he’s not much lower either.

He epitomizes why both short and long term US mediation verges on futility and requires sweeping transformation to broker a real truce.

At first Brzezinski he takes an equitable route when asked by Foreign Policy who's to blame: “The United States. On more than one occasion it pledged to become seriously engaged in promoting peace, but in fact its engagement has been more rhetorical than real, lacking in will to use the obvious dependence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians on American support.”

Such rationality, wasted on a setup.

His “out-of-the-box idea: To announce to the world America's commitment to a framework for peace based on four key points, namely (1) no right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel proper; (2) West Jerusalem as the seat for Israel's capital and East Jerusalem as the seat of the Palestinian capital with some internationally based sharing of the Old City; (3) the drawing of borders between the two states along the 1967 lines, adjusted on the basis of one-for-one swaps as the frontiers; and (4) an essentially demilitarized Palestinian state with U.S. or NATO forces on the west bank of the Jordan River.”

Would Israel give up half of Jerusalem to put Palestine in a cage? Because that is what Brzezinski is suggesting, essentially punishing Palestinians for using violence to resist Israel’s occupation and justifying the occupation. Israel’s security is a primary concern, but so too is the liberty of the Palestinians.

President Mahmoud Abbas referred to temporary borders as a trap, but that’s only one of the first traps.

Brzezinski’s “framework” could represent a large part of the US elite - and not necessarily the part that already supports Israeli absolutely - conjuring forecasts of inevitable failure. Besides the questions of why, if Brzezinski is so smart, deploying US troops in Palestine without a fair resolution is a good idea, and where the refugees would go, the Palestinians will refuse to accept a demilitarized state.

Israel is also going to want recognition and Palestinians an apology. Social norms matter. And on a higher strategic level, does a demilitarized Palestine discourage or encourage Arab and Muslim states to arm themselves? The latter is entirely possible.

Brzezinski is increasingly stepping out of the shadows to parrot his lines. Even if “indirect talks” manage to launch America is programming a crash course. President Obama doesn’t have much time to regain control of “his” White House if disagrees with any of this.

April 24, 2010

Obama Preparing New Show

So now indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is supposed to start no later than “mid-May.”

The Haaretz reports
, “On Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received an official invitation to the talks from U.S. President Barack Obama. In the message to Abbas, Obama acknowledged that he was unable to extract a commitment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze construction in East Jerusalem. But the president expressed confidence that Israel would refrain from ‘significant’ actions in the eastern part of the city during negotiations.”

Confidence in Israel as collateral... that’s comical. Abbas has accepted Obama’s invitation, hopefully with an exit strategy.

We’ll see if they get farther than Obama’s last round of indirect negotiations, which failed to begin. Hard to imagine how they will. The White House seems clueless on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sending US envoy George Mitchell to “restart” proxy talks at the same time Netanyahu reaffirmed total control of Jerusalem.

Then Obama vouches for him anyway.

The Haaretz observes, "Sunday will see the conclusion of another pointless visit by the U.S. special envoy. There will be a second meeting with the prime minister, and that will be enough. We still won't grasp the purpose of George Mitchell's frequent trips here, nor will we understand why the emissary would make a mockery of himself and the people who dispatch him."

"Mitchell, for his part, is now singing Israel's praises, as if he were following the talking points the White House updates every now and then," writes Yossi Sarid. "This week, in the wake of Independence Day and the International Bible Contest, the strings are being plucked with finesse and there are no wind instruments in the background. This week, Netanyahu is being handled, for a change, with a soft stick instead of an officer's staff."

Not even Mitchell, the supposed objective observer, is presenting a true representation of the conflict. Again rejected by Netanyahu and going home empty handed, Mitchell insisted that Obama wants a Palestinian state.

“That has been American policy. That is American policy. That will be American policy,” he said. “Comprehensive peace in this region must not be just a dream. It must be and it can be a reality. We want to make this reality happen and soon, not in some vague and distant future time.”

This type of thinking reveals both the ignorance and manipulation of Washington.

If some parts of the White House actually believe they can broker a two-state solution in two years then they’re delusional. Obama can’t get the parties to the table in two years - he certainly isn’t solving the Jerusalem riddle in two years. Other parts of the White House admit to this reality and are trying to hide it.

Of all the flaws in America’s latest attempt to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians, the goal of a quick solution is true madness. Imposing a fair two-state solution is one thing, but creating a sovereign Palestinian state isn’t and has never been American policy. The White House does have a plan: to rush through direct negotiations without the proper conditions and impose a two-state solution under Israel’s terms.

The goals:

1. exploit the resolution politically in the 2012 election and militarily in the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan in particular)

2. bury the conflict so America can return to supporting Israel absolutely and begin policing a Palestinian state with US or NATO troops.

Yet Americans apparently still believe Obama needs to stand up stronger for Israel. Justice is drowned out in ubiquitous deception. The White House's new show opens in May.

COIN 101: Watching the Watchers

Hopefully some jewels are hidden within RAND's latest study: How Insurgencies End; Key Indicators, Tipping Points, and Strategy. So far the report is standard COIN, good in a way but hardly industry-leading material.

“Researchers analyzed 89 insurgency cases and concluded it is possible to shape insurgency endings with sufficient forethought, strategic flexibility and sustained willpower.” They awarded 28 wins for governments, 26 wins for insurgencies, with 19 mixed results and 16 ongoing conflicts. Some major conclusions RAND came to:
"Modern insurgencies last approximately 10 years and the government's chances of winning increase slightly over time.
Withdrawal of state sponsorship cripples an insurgency and typically leads to its defeat, while inconsistent or impartial support to either side generally presages defeat.

Pseudo-democracies do not often succeed against insurgencies and are rarely successful in fully democratizing.

Insurgencies with more than two clear parties involved have longer, more violent and more complex endings.

Insurgent cadres formed around a traditional, hierarchical structure are more often successful than fragmented networks, and insurgencies rarely succeed in middle-income and urbanized countries, but fare better in rural or a mix of rural and urban terrain.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, governments tend to outlast insurgents, mainly because they are typically stronger, better organized and more professional than non-state forces.

Terrorism often backfires and the use of indiscriminate terror is often a sign of overconfidence or weakness. However, weak insurgencies can win, particularly if the government also is weak, loses the war through sheer ineptitude or if the causes of the insurgency are strong enough to carry the fight to its ending. The RAND study found weak insurgencies won in 50 percent of the decided cases."
COIN 101 in a nutshell. Rather than innovate new strategies, RAND’s job appears to be following Washington’s lead and copying from the Army COIN manual; after all it is stocked with current and former government officials. Perhaps our opinion will change as we read deeper, but the PR already suggests this is all we get.

“A lot of the things being done in the current (U.S. military) plan are along the lines of successful things we've seen in the study," said Ben Connable, the lead author of How Insurgencies End. "The key is if the U.S. recognizes it is working with an anocracy (a weak central government) and recognizes the limits of that kind of government, you can work on solutions to that problem."

While a shift in strategy from Bush to Obama cannot be completely denied, key aspects haven’t changed to the degree being portrayed. One is President Hamid Karzai, who US officials woo and scold every other week. This problem became compounded in Kandahar, where Karzai is facing local resistance to a military campaign and US officials are downplaying the limits of tribal leaders.

Another perpetual breakdown in US strategy is Pakistan. Though relations between the two countries have undoubtedly improved since their low point in 2008-2009, this is largely because America had to pay up and Pakistanis still want more compensation.

Apparently aid is already disappearing.

Meanwhile arrests of Taliban commanders were for bargaining, not justice, and North Waziristan has become a haven for TTP fighters. This is because Islamabad has a truce with TTP commander of North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, even though Afghan Taliban also use his territory to attack US troops.

Conversely, Pakistan is blaming America for weakening its own military surge.

The ISI was not only implicated in Benazir Bhutto’s death, it also obstructed the UN’s investigation. And now Afghanistan's police force says it has arrested a Pakistani army officer after breaking up a group planning a suicide operation on Kabul.

"Just a couple of days ago the police arrested 16 people. Nine of them were actually suicide bombers, all trained outside of Afghanistan," Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister, told Al Jazeera.

Asked whether he saw evidence of the involvement of Pakistan or parts of the Pakistani security forces in the alleged plots, Atmar replied, "The evidence speaks for itself. We are investigating into this matter and we will be soon talking to our Pakistani colleagues. And then basically show this evidence to them and say is this happening based on a policy or is it just a couple of rogue people doing this."

What does America really have in Afghanistan? A lot of firepower, some local support, a weak government, ambiguous allies like Pakistan and India, and encroaching threats like Iran, Russia, and China. Maybe America wants to follow a classic COIN strategy like RAND outlines, but it has a long, long way to go. Longer than the White House and Pentagon expect.

The Taliban still possess many advantages of a winning insurgency and, with the average insurgency lasting 10 years, there’s clearly nothing average about the 20 year old Taliban.

We will out-RAND RAND in later analysis.

Quotes of the Day

"Frankly, we will not accept the state with temporary borders, because it is being offered these days."

"Since you, Mr. President and you, the members of the American administration, believe in this, it is your duty to call for the steps in order to reach the solution and impose the solution — impose it. But don't tell me it's a vital national strategic American interest ... and then not do anything."

- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejecting the latest US-Israeli backroom deal

"So there's a lot of ideas that have been floated around, but at the end of the day it's only the Israelis and Palestinians who can make decisions for themselves."

- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, "brushing aside the notion"

This is an outrageous lie, though normal Clinton behavior. The whole plan was for Washington to back Netanyahu’s offer and turn the Palestinians into rejectionists. More shoddy deception from the White House and Israel.

April 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Because of the principled positions we have taken at both the domestic and international level, Zimbabwe and Iran have been unjustly vilified and punished by Western countries. Be also assured, comrade president, of Zimbabwe's continuous support of Iran's just cause on the nuclear issue."

- Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, playing host to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Chinese Checkmate in Sri Lanka

A few supposed certainties about 2030, courtesy of the US Joint Forces Command Operating Report 2010: energy supply will be lucky to meet demand, and both China and India’s population growth isn’t going to stop. Acutely aware of its impending energy needs - only 40 million cars for 1.3 billion people - along with its competition, China’s strategy to avoid a crunch is easy to spot and hard to stop.

Sri Lanka appears to be checkmated on Beijing’s grand board.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is no ordinary politician. A pure breed, Rajapaksa is part of a political dynasty with aspirations of resurrecting Sri Lanka as a strategic powerhouse. With prime geopolitical positioning and a powerful economic base, Rajapaksa could very well transform his vision into reality.

Enter China.

Already obsessed with securing its energy routes from Africa and the Middle East, Sri Lanka is a major piece of China’s plan to secure the Indian Ocean into the 21st century. The shipping lanes from the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb to the Strait of Malacca run right by the island.

An estimated 15 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Malacca, according to the US Department of Energy, 25% of the world’s consumption. Some is headed to Japan and South Korea but most ends up in Chinese gas tanks. Thus both these figures stand to increase.

“The Chinese are laying down approximately 1,000 kilometers of four-lane highway every year, a figure suggestive of how many more vehicles they expect to possess, with the concomitant rise in their demand for oil,” reports the JOE. “The presence of Chinese “civilians” in the Sudan to guard oil pipelines underlines China’s concern for protecting its oil supplies...”

It's not just oil either. The Indian Ocean is omnipotent in Asian economics, carrying a substantial load of the world’s cargo.

These factors drive China’s quest for regional hegemony and could lead to military expansion. Though China appears certain to construct its own aircraft carriers, they may be a lighter type supported by Chinese friendly military ports such in Iran, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Constructing ports, oil infrastructure, and possibly airfields, this strategy would create a politico-military-economic chain from Iraq to Shanghai.

What China is playing for in Sri Lanka is obvious, but what about America? If China’s goal is expansion then America’s is reduction. Addition by subtraction, America (and India) cannot allow China to dominate Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean by hegemony.

Though China hasn’t surpassed America as Sri Lanka’s leading partner in trade and foreign assistance, it has more raw potential. So much so that even with all its power America must remain quiet, resorting to Beijing’s “non-interference policy” of overlooking human rights allegations and abuses for the sake of economic gain.

Hard to say that’s a Chinese thing though.

Months have passed since former General Sarath Fonseka was unceremoniously carried away, imprisoned, and threatened with a court martialing. President Obama was one of the first to congratulate Rajapaksa after his election victory (just like Hamid Karzai), while no White House official has dared weigh in on Fonseka’s condition.

Given the first opportunity in weeks to make a statement, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley revealed what has become Obama’s response for fraudulent or suspicious elections: ignore them.
QUESTION: In Sri Lanka, election results have been announced and they have a new prime minister now, Jayaratne. What’s the message to the new Sri Lankan Government and prime minister?

MR. CROWLEY: I think our primary message to Sri Lanka is that there is – there appears to be a significant mandate coming out of this recent election and the government should use that mandate to help continue to – the healing process within Sri Lankan society to bring all elements of – to help Sri Lanka get past the recent conflict and move forward together.

QUESTION: Do you think things are moving in that direction in the –

MR. CROWLEY: We will continue to encourage Sri Lanka to use the power of this election ad the momentum coming out of this election, use it to best advantage.”
Fonseka was actually released from his detention to be sworn into the parliamentary seat he won while detained, which would sound nicer if his court martial date wasn't postponed again. He’s unlikely to receive a fair trial and indefinite imprisonment isn’t outside the range of possibility. Meanwhile his wife Anoma has allegedly joined the JVP, a Marxist political party with a violent history.

Transport Minister Dullas Alahapperuma recently warned, “We request Mrs. Anoma Fonseka to watch her step as she has joined a political group with a violent past. They have blood on their hands. We all know how they use violence for political gain. Therefore, Mrs. Fonseka should be very careful.”

Now some might wonder why Obama would use his own platform to cast the spotlight on Sri Lanka or Fonseka’s treatment, and they would have a point. He can’t spend all his time engaged in the workings of various foreign states, and neither Rajapaksa nor the Sinhalese people respond positively to what they see as hypocritical Western intervention.

But if America wanted to be a true friend to Sri Lanka it would explain how the conventional war has been won - and not the counterinsurgency.

Left disenfranchised and jobless, another insurgency out of the Tamils is inevitable if they aren’t engaged in a political resolution. Yet America is encouraging what could already be a tyranny of the majority. Consider whether this “mandate” both Sri Lankan and US officials glowingly speak is truly good for the overall unity of the country.

“The president has the mandate... he has said that he'll speak to all the parties. I am sure now that he has a majority [in the house]. He has plans to [implement] constitutional changes," said Mahinda’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister and one of five Rajapaksas in the government.

He dismissed speculation that his brother would seek more powers through constitutional reforms, saying, "He has all the powers; he doesn't need more powers."

Paikiasothy Savaranamuttu, a prominent analyst in Colombo, seized on this reality, saying he couldn’t understand why Rajapaksa perceives Fonseka as a threat.

"He is at the pinnacle of his power. Parliament does provide a forum for Fonseka but he might find it a rather difficult environment. He is only the leader of a minority party and even other members of the opposition are not going to necessarily be tremendously supportive."

The Tamils aren’t likely to receive any better treatment if that is how Rajapaksa, a de-facto king, is going to treat the lowly Fonseka.

Unable to defeat China materialistically, it’s hard to wonder if speaking on the Tamils and Fonseka’s behalf would actually pay off for the US in the long-term. Washington has no hope of competing with Beijing in a silent contest. Convincing Rajapaksa of doing the right thing - engaging the Tamils before it’s too late and giving Fonseka a fair trial - would bring real stability to Sri Lanka and allow for unimpeded economic growth.

And possibly undo China’s checkmate.

April 22, 2010

Quotes of the Day

"I am saying one thing. There will be no freeze in Jerusalem. There should be no preconditions to talks.”

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

"Clearly we have asked both sides to take specific actions. That includes the Israelis as well, and this is part of our effort to continue our ongoing discussions on these specific issues. Both sides need to take responsibility and create the atmosphere to allow the process to move forward."

- State Department spokesman Philip Crowley

Meanwhile Israel has begun deporting Palestinians to Gaza rather than the West Bank, part of a larger plan to imprison them and overload Hamas at the same time. But surely we must be the crazy ones, not US or Israeli officials or the media that shields them...

Obama Trips Over Israeli Curtain

When the White House announced its “indirect negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians with much fanfare, the plan seemed little more than a cover up for the lack of progress. This way the peace process could appear to move forward even though it really wasn’t.

But the plan broke down so quickly - it never began - that it revealed an even deeper illusion had been cast. Rather than an umbrella for rainy peace prospects, Israel triggered a transformation after approving 1,600 settlement units in East Jerusalem upon the arrival of US Vice President Joe Biden.

From then on we were watching a show within a show.

Perhaps some opportunism is at work, but America and Israel have systematically utilized every part of the breakdown to make up as if the entire production was planned. The White House’s criticism lasted a few days before returning to a permanent love-fest. Israel continues marching as if nothing actually impedes it - because nothing does.

President Obama’s “pressure” isn’t real.

The White House is briefly acting confrontational to please elements of the US military and public, and of course the Muslim world. The US and Israeli medias have bought the act because they’re in it, instructed to amplify the crisis and favorably shape their governments’ messages. That the US media has perpetuated this pseudo feud for nearly two months isn’t surprising though, having covered up and conjured up bigger controversies in the past.

That’s why we exist.

But despite keeping their illusion relatively intact, the White House has been anything but clean in their performance. Publicly all over the map on policy and whip-lashing between bad cop and good cop, the last two months have been plagued by contradictory statements and leaks. Yet total meltdowns are also rare.

Obama doesn’t seem to realize it or he wouldn’t have done it, but today he brought the curtain down on his play. Perhaps it wasn’t today or yesterday, but recently Obama decided that the debate over US-Israeli relations had grown too hot.

Needing to cool off public discussion for his own comfort, Obama sent a letter to a leading Jewish figure reaffirming America’s bond with Israel.

“All sides should understand that our commitment to Israel is unshakable and that no wedge will be driven between us,” he wrote. "I am deeply committed to fulfilling the important role the United States must play for peace to be realized, but I also recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside.”

This statement would already make a mockery of his “tough stance” on Israel, but like most US-Israeli interaction the reality is far murkier. Alan Solow isn’t just the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Some believe he got the job based on his personal connection to Obama, having jumped on his election wagon early in the campaign.

Whether this allegation is true or not Solow remains an Obama booster, meaning Obama didn’t actually have to send a letter. Why not just call Solow if he’s such good friends? Obviously a private call would serve no purpose. Solow knows Obama is acting, he was the vehicle for Obama’s message to his audience - the most personal, biased one he could find.

This is Obama’s “tough” hand on Israel and “fair” hand on Palestine.

Has Gaza been eased? No, and now the West Bank undergoes periodic lock-downs, like a prison, for Israelis’ security. Nor have any Palestinian prisoners been released. We’re only told time after time that America and Israel are working out an agreement, how strong their bond is.

Then, as Obama says America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable, his National Security Adviser James Jones goes out and says, “One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Advancing this peace would... help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.”

Still trying to have it both ways, another bad cop to Obama’s good cop.

Certainly Iran uses the Palestinian cause to further its own, and that could qualify for nuclear weapons, but Palestinian occupation is at least part of Iran’s root hostility towards Israel. Instead of focusing on peace dividends, Jones is still focused on war. Iran isn’t “cynically” using Palestine any more than America is using Iran to shift attention away from Afghanistan.

Now notice Jones’ audience: the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And finally Netanyahu still refuses to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem. None of these pieces fit together unless the picture is fake.

But Obama wasn’t finished exposing himself as he let slip one of his worst traits - aversion to blame. In Afghanistan it’s Karzai and with Israel it’s the Palestinians and Arab states - or the US media. Stalled by a lack of planning and vision, Obama is trying to blame his vague, possibly non-existent policy on everyone else’s “misinterpretations.”

"I am sure you can distinguish between the noise and distortion about my views that have appeared recently, and the actual approach of my administration toward the Middle East," Obama wrote to Solow.

Of course, they probably speak regularly.

How insulting to those rational observers of an entrenched and failing policy, one being intentionally obscured by Obama himself. And Palestinians should feel especially duped, his administration has singled them out for inciting violence more than Israel. Obama needs to stand up for Palestinians with actions, not words, if he wants people to stop “misinterpreting” his policy.

Unfortunately Obama’s version of a Palestinian state, along with much of the White House, Congress, and Pentagon, is much closer to what Israel has in mind. Until that changes Washington's "pressure" - in the form of Obama, Jones, Clinton, or Petraeus - is nothing more than wolves in sheep's clothing.

And we’re the prey.

April 21, 2010

Somalia's Laser Blockade

The age of lasers has already dawned.

Long experimented with by governments, corporations, and benevolent scientists alike, the modern world is at least a decade away from a laser revolution. But this is only a few seconds historically speaking. Reports of the US military testing various lasers can be found in every direction. In November 2009 a Boeing system called MATRIX (Mobile Active Targeting Resource for Integrated Experiments) shot down six UAVs in New Mexico. Boeing’s Airborne Laser Testbed (ALT) demonstration in February 2010 created more international headlines.

Lasers, lasers, lasers. Always in new tests and new stages of research, in all branches of service.

And developed under new acronyms: HEL (high energy laser), HELSTF (High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility), THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser), SSLTE (Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment), J-HPSSL (Joint High Power Solid State Laser), and FEL (Free Electron Laser).

SSLTE and FEL appear to be winning the scientific and political race, given that the US military identified them as the future of the industry. Boeing’s ALT, a COIL (chemical oxygen iodine laser), disappointed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in range and power.

“Solid-state, not chemical-based lasers,” he said afterward, “that’s the coin of the realm.”

But that didn’t damper Michael Rinn, vice president and program director of Boeing's Airborne Laser Systems, who said after the test, “It really is a historical event. As we look back... we'll understand how important it was. Some 50 years later, we're out at the speed of light with the new system.”

Why look back later though when we can look ahead now? Lasers will remain in the military sphere until they break out of the battlefield and into ordinary human life. That means they have to transition to the battlefield first - so where will that be?

Though lasers have been theorized and tested for nearly 100 years, only rarely have devices materialized in real conflict zones, primarily for communications and to detonate IED’s in Iraq. The very first waves will soon reach Afghanistan and Israel's missile defense shield, but consider that weaponized lasers are predominantly driven by two functions: RAM defense systems (rockets, artillery, mortars) and non-lethal force.

Variances in laser frequency and chemical makeup don’t obscure the fact that the same laser used to destroy an incoming missile can be trained on an enemy unit and its vehicle. Or a boat off the Somali coast.

Solid-state lasers are already close to the field, one example being Northrop Grumman’s FIRESTRIKE system, and free-electron lasers are close behind. And their future employer tips off how immediate they could see action on the high seas. While anti-missile and the Air Force’s laser experiments receive the majority of attention, the Navy will be the first US military branch to roll out true weaponized systems in a combat environment.

Heavily invested in both solid state and free electron lasers, the Navy possesses two traits conducive to laser deployment that the Air Force lacks: size and stability. Theoretically, Naval vessels should be able to operate exceptionally large lasers with sufficient energy generators, as well as targeting systems capable of tracking hundreds of miles. Current lasers are able to operate with current power sources.

In an asymmetric world, the most logical test subjects of America’s laser technology are no longer equally advanced Russian ICBM’s. The odds favor Somali pirates as the first targets. Signaling lasers are currently used as a bridge until weaponized lasers transition into America’s arsenal. Supposing a laser can fire over 100 miles by 2012-14, the Navy won't need to chase ships so much anchor and fire away. At the motors of boats of course, rendering them motionless, then smaller naval units spaced on a grid could proceed to intercept.

This isn’t to suggest the idea, but to warn it’s already in planning. It makes too much sense not to be considered - Somalia shows no signs of permanent stability. Hard as the US-backed Transitional Federation Government is trying, America and the West have no long-term strategy for ending the conflict. As lasers and computer systems grow even more advanced beyond 2020, and Somalia could still be at war, the temptation will arise to construct a chain of semi-automated laser platforms.

Spaced so their radii cover the majority of Somalia’s coast, a laser blockade around the Horn of Africa isn’t far fetched at all.

The bottom line is that lasers will come upon the human race like the Internet did after the 1990’s, and with this great power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Though lasers could prove beneficial to combating pirates individually they can’t create stable nations on land - and will create more instability if used in isolation.

That same lesson should be applied across the spectrum as humanity enter its next revolution.

April 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The media suddenly started reporting that there are Scud missiles in Lebanon. Do you know what a Scud missile means? I believe it is as big as this room. Threats that Lebanon now has huge missiles are similar to what they used to say about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These are weapons that they did not find and they are still searching for."

"They are trying to repeat the same scenario with Lebanon."

- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri

After Israel's Independence Day

"Minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence, realizing the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland, the United States became the first country to recognize Israel. To this day, we continue to share a strong, unbreakable bond of friendship between our two nations, anchored by the United States' enduring commitment to Israel's security.

Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

I look forward to continuing our efforts with Israel to achieve comprehensive peace and security in the region, including a two-state solution, and to working together to counter the forces that threaten Israel, the United States, and the world.

On this day, we once again honor the extraordinary achievements of the people of Israel, and their deep and abiding friendship with the American people. I offer my best wishes to President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the people of Israel as they celebrate this happy occasion."

- President Barack Obama, commemorating Israel's 62nd Independence Day

“I have shared your pride in seeing the desert bloom, your economy thrive, and your country flourish... Israel today is confronting some of the greatest challenges in its history, but its promise and potential has never been greater...”

- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Palestinians will never receive this kind of treatment, though to be fair America and the Palestinians aren’t allies. We can't find any evidence of a call for Prisoner's Day. Spectators of Israel’s Independence Days, they’re forced to watch Washington obviously dance once more atop Gaza and the West Bank, both under lock-down.

Though Ehud Barak is still rattling his saber at least he’s speaking truth, however backhanded.

“The world is not willing to accept - and we will not change that in 2010 - the expectation that Israel will rule another people for decades more," said the Israeli Defense Minister. "It is something that does not exist anywhere else in the world. There is no other way, whether you like it or not, than to let them [the Palestinians] rule themselves."

Of course he would also take away Palestine’s army along with its border and air control first, but Barak is right on one singular level. Whether Israel and the West like it or not, some day in the future Palestinians will celebrate their own independence. So does Israel want one state or two?

That question begins and ends in Jerusalem, where Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin addressed the public. We're receiving more truth from Israeli than American officials

“Specifically at a time of cultural openness, we are witness today to a dangerous process of intensifying fortification of every group within its four walls This fortification brings with it not only cultural or political polarization, but also fatal segregation in everyday life. For example, look what Jerusalem has turned into in the last decade: separate neighborhoods, separate public transport, separate shopping centers for haredi and secular [residents], Arabs and Jews. Ghettos and more ghettos, separated by walls of alienation, not by walls of cement."

Something for Obama, Clinton and the gang to work on the day after Israel’s Independence Day. We're heard of these, "continuing efforts with Israel to achieve comprehensive peace and security in the region," but yet to see them.