Thursday, September 30, 2010

Co-opting To The Extreme

Crane Brinton in his classic study of offensive insurgencies Anatomy of Revolution focused on a critical dynamic found in most insurgencies which he called "co-option to the left."  By this he meant the process by which all offensive insurgencies (those which seek a total reconstruction of the political, social, and economic order of a state) move continuously to the Left, a trajectory to the ever more extreme.  The dynamic is reversed with the inevitable reaction.  The reaction sees a continuous move to an ever more extreme Rightest position.

It has been interesting to see a akin process at work in several Muslim venues.  The only difference between that which is seen currently in Muslim locations as diverse as the Gaza Strip and Chechnya and the one described by Brinton is the ideological basis.  In Muslim societies the predicate is religious while the examples employed by Brinton were secular in nature.

Let's take a quick dekko at Gaza.  Hamas shot its way to power as a nationalistic entity with the larger goal of ending Israel as a sovereign state.  The lads of Hamas had far more familiarity with crude rockets, AK-47s, and suicide vests than the Koran or Haddith.  In addition to their long standing and now defeated rival, the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority, Hamas faced other rivals most notably Islamic Jihad.

Islamic Jihad and other, smaller groups were every bit as dedicated to the dubious proposition of wiping Israel off the map.  Beyond this the rival groups expounded an austere version of Islam based as was that of Taliban on the Wahhibist interpretation favored by Saudi Arabia.  Hamas found itself under challenge not for a deficiency of zeal in seeking to kill Israelis but in its dedication to the One True Faith.

To meet this threat Hamas has moved speedily to the extreme.  It has called and raised its rivals in religious enthusiasm and commitment to the strictures of Islam.  In quick order Hamas moved to force the citizens of Gaza to act like Muslims--or else.  In ways completely devoid of surprise, the weight of the new Hamas Live Up To Mohammad campaign fell on women.

Hamas shoved women back into garbage sacks from which they had long been liberated.

It moved on to suppress women so boldly un-Islamic as to puff water pipes in public.

Then coed beaches were banned.  As was swimming apparel more revealing than the landlocked garbage bags.

A man on a motorbike with a woman riding behind him?  No way!  Mixed sex groups at a cafe?  Forget it!  A public display of the mildest affection?  Call the cops!

If necessary Hamas will emulate Taliban in all respects.  School for girls?  Yer outta your mind.  Women working?  Against the will of Allah.

Badda-bing!  We, the Fearless Warriors of Hamas have proven ourselves far more truly Muslim than the wannabes of Islamic Jihad and the rest.  We can oppress women better!

Lest one think that only thuggish groups comprising pretend governments can enter the Live Pure Or Die! contest, Chechnya is a case study.  In that insurgency wracked backwater of Russia, the insurgency oriented adherents of violent political Islam are in the process of being religiously outpointed by the handpicked local chieftain put in place by Vladimir Putin with the demand that the situation "be clarified and put to order."

While there is a strong odor of violent political Islam in the air of Chechnya, the insurgents are primarily oriented toward gaining independence from Moscow.  The agenda is: Independence first, Shariah later.  For most Chechans, most of the time, the fashion statements and etiquette requirements of Islam are not of great moment.  The insurgent leadership has not wasted time, energy, or legitimacy on insisting that women show no more of themselves than one or two eyes or putting chastity barriers between the sexes.

The Moscow subservient government of Chechnya has taken up the cause of Islamic morality.  Thugs in the employ of the government both uniformed and not have been set out in pursuit of un-garbage bagged women, as well as women in the company of men other than their brothers, fathers, or husbands.  Condign and salutary beatings have been freely and publicly administered to women found not in compliance with the new government standards of appropriate Islamic apparel and conduct.

The government is saying to all Muslim Chechens, "See, we oppress women best.  We are the True Embodiment of the True Faith, you must rally to us--or be branded apostate."

There is a problem here, Moscow.  You see, your local heavyweights have misread the situation.  Chechnya is not Afghanistan of fifteen years ago.  It isn't even Gaza today.  It is not the right place for an imitation Taliban.

In Chechnya, a very traditional society, custom dictates that it is the father, or the husband, who has the sole responsibility and authority to determine what constitutes proper Islamic clothing or behavior for his daughters or wife.  Not the government.  Not even the nationalistic insurgents.  Islam in practice, Islam as it has an effect on daily life, is not even the province of the local cleric.  It is the sole prerogative of the man of the house, archaic as that term may be to Westerners.

Pakistan is balancing precariously on a tipping point between continuing as it has--an Islamic republic with notable secular features--or becoming a quasi-theocracy of the Taliban variety.  In the contest with the Taliban of Pakistan and related groups, the pressure on the government to get out in front of the anti-government forces in applying severe strictures is intense and may prove irresistible.

Much of the population of Pakistan is already far to the religious "right" of the government.  To keep its slim hold on power, the government may see the least-worst option is that of adopting a more-Muslim-than-thou approach.  Proving it can oppress women better may be the course of action most attractive to the men of the current elite and the government it controls.

A lurch to the religious extreme would have severe and immediate repercussions in the already tenuous relation between the US and Pakistan.  A government crackdown on immodest dress or "immoral" behavior on the part of women particularly if combined with a Taliban or al-Shabaab campaign against music, movies, dancing, or anything smacking of fun would not sit well with many in the US government to say nothing of many of We the People.

But, desperate governments undertake desperate actions.  Faced with an imminent loss of power, a seismic shift to Wahhibism on steroids is not only thinkable but the only thinkable proposition.  The potential of American opposition, of a weakening of US support, will be discounted on two predicates: The US needs Pakistan too much and, what the hey, the US can accept the Saudi oppression of women.

Both rationalizations may prove true.  But, before the government of Pakistan considers adopting the out-Taliban-Taliban approach it might recall the joy with which those Pakistanis who had at first welcomed Taliban came to despise and fear the Men of Turban and Koran.  Despise them so much that the incoming Pakistani forces were welcomed literally as liberators.

Having no fun in life wears thin.  Just ask an Iranian.

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Islamabad At Its Annoying Best

In a combination of hyper-nationalistic snit and one more extortion attempt, the Pakistani government has shut down the supply route running through the Khyber Pass.  While this is only one route, it is the easiest, fastest land line of communication supporting the war in Afghanistan.  Should the Pakistani blockade prove long lasting, the results would be harmful but not fatal to our military operations.

The Pakistani action has been taken in retaliation for the killing of three Frontier Corps troops manning a checkpoint two hundred meters from the international border with Afghanistan.  The killings (along with the wounding of the other three paramilitary personnel at the site) occurred as American forces were engaging a Taliban unit preparing and firing mortars from a location near or even on the imaginary line dividing Afghanistan from its neighbor.  At the completion of a firing run the helicopters may--or may not--have swung briefly into the airspace of Pakistan.

It was at this point that the six hearties of the Frontier Corps opened fire on the gunships with small arms.  The "air weapons team" then returned fire pursuant to self-defense rules of engagement.  The results were unfavorable for the men downrange.

The Pakistani interior minister frothed about the need to determine if Pakistan and the US were allies or actually enemies.  Of course, in the view of the majority of Pakistanis surveyed in recent months, the answer is already known--the US is Enemy Number One.

The closure as well as the event which apparently precipitated it both occurred as CIA director Leon Panetta is in country meeting with his ISI counterpart as well as President Zardiri and PM Gilani.  The prime minister reportedly told Panetta he was "profoundly concerned" about this most recent incident as well as the air weapons team attacks on Haqqani network trigger pullers a few days ago.

The irony of this development is found in fortuitous timing.  A bit of video potentially exceptionally embarrassing to the government and army of Pakistan has surfaced on Facebook with a consequent spread to the MSM.  The video is explicit but nowhere near as grisly as others showing Taliban executions.  It shows men in Pakistani uniforms, using the standard military small arm, the H&K G3, lining up and shooting down a half dozen men in civilian clothes who are blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs.  Near the end of the five and a half minute clip, a troopie is seen administering the mercy shot to those still living.

(Update: Facebook has removed the video.  What a bunch of socially unconscious wimps!)

If the video is confirmed in its authenticity, which is far from improbable, the consequences for Pakistan and, by implication, the US-Pakistani joint "war on terror" will be major.  US law prohibits granting aid to military forces whose members engage in war crimes.  The extra-judicial shooting of actual or suspected guerrillas does constitute a war crime no matter how justifiable by the doctrine of military necessity it may appear in the eyes of those ordering the summary execution.

The Pakistani armed forces are very heavily dependent upon American largess.  So far the money, weapons, and equipment have flowed without cease no matter how uncooperative or inefficient the recipient may be in prosecuting operations against Taliban and all the others dedicated to violent political Islam.  It will be difficult to the point of impossibility to continue flooding Pakistan with weapons in the face of the behavior captured in this video.

Rumors and similar undocumented tales of Pakistani army violations of the laws and customs of land warfare have abounded for some time now.  It is easy to pass off stories of abuses as insubstantial or fabricated, but doing such when it is possible to go to the videotape is not so easy.

The Obama administration may hope the stories of Pakistani abuses will fail to have legs this close to the midterm elections.  The administration may hope as well that the Republicans will let sleeping atrocity tales remain unawakened.  Both of these hopes are well grounded.

The tape and the others like it which may well surface in days and weeks to come do present an opportunity for the administration to push back against the annoying extortion tactics of Islamabad.  It is quid pro quo time.

The quid is simple.  The Pakistanis stand down from their hyper-nationalistic dudgeon and either get on the stick in North Waziristan or let us do the job without the niggling annoyances of episodic governmental blathering.

The quo is equally simple.  We will not make a federal case (literally) from the video and any others yet to come.  We will also make every effort to block any aid cutoff should push come to shove in Congress.

Admittedly, that sort of trade off is shabby in its ethical base.  All that can be said in support of the idea or any other resembling it is that such deal making is sanctioned by the requirements imposed by the need to abate the nuisance presented by groups motivated by the imperatives of political Islam.

The unfortunate, even tragic, reality is that of Pakistan's inherent instability.  A halt to our bribes, particularly the one represented by military aid, would result with the predictability of the law of gravity in the collapse of the government.  If not collapse, the government would have to transmogrify itself into a simulacrum of Taliban in order to remain intact and in power.

This would render continuation of the war in Afghanistan both nugatory and impossible.  It would also breed a greater international threat from the advocates of violent political Islam.

A collapse or Taliban tilting of the Islamabad regime would require prompt neutralization of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, stockpile of fissile materials, and the means of making more.  Neutralization of these assets and facilities is a non-trivial undertaking. Quite the contrary: It would be a major military and diplomatic challenge.  However global security and stability make the effort an absolute imperative.

There is a chance that cooler, saner minds will prevail.  The Pakistani Army high command is realpolitik enough to see what is at stake with both the blockade (and its rhetorical blanket) and the release of the incriminating video.  If not Leon Panetta personally then certainly the Agency of which he is head is equally rooted in the soil of realism and well understands the implications of too hasty movement by either party in this dispute.

The wild card, even the joker, in the deck is represented by the "progressives" both in the US and Western Europe.  For these people (and it appears President Obama as well), the war in Afghanistan is anathema.  The same groups are the most likely to be loudly horrified by the video of Pakistani infantrymen gunning down civilians--even if it could be proven that each bullet catcher was a card carrying martyr-in-waiting.

The global Left as well as the vocal segment of the easily offended global Muslim community will demand that somebody do something!  Calls for investigation, trials, punishment of the guilty will resound through both new and traditional media.  Fingers will be pointed at the US unless the administration takes swift, certain, and transparent action against the offenders in Pakistan.  Failure to do so, failure to stop the military aid, will be seen as complicity in the crime.

It might get very, very ugly.

This alone is reason for the cooler, saner minds in both Washington and Islamabad to end the contretemps with the utmost speed.  Unless this happens or something else emerges to grab attention, the consequences may be delayed but they will not be denied.

The message for Islamabad is short.  We must hang together in this or we will be hung separately.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's (Long Past) Time To Rewrite The (Muslim) Narrative

The single most important event in Twentieth Century history other than the Bolshevik Revolution was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the coming to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his theocratic regime.  A second chain of events which reinforced powerfully the impact of the Iranian Islamic Revolution also started in 1979.  In that year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to keep its Marxist-Leninist client government in power.

Even before the American diplomatic personnel kidnapped and held prisoner by "students" in Iran (which group included a young Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) were released and long, long before the Red Army kicked the dust of Afghanistan from its combat boots, a specifically Muslim narrative emerged concerning, first, the deposing of the Shah and, later, the "defeat" of the Soviet forces.  The twin, interlocking narratives have been and continue to be key in understanding the seemingly sudden rise of violent political Islam.  Certainly the Muslim narratives are critical in propelling the belief in the invincibility of Islam which pervades the Islamic societies and the states they control today.

Stripped to its essential, the core narrative for the Islamic "victories" in Iran and Afghanistan is simply this: The power of pure faith so filled and inspired the fighters for Muslim verities that not even the well armed, well trained, well supplied military of the Shah, even with the support of the US and other Western countries, could withstand the assault.  In Afghanistan it was also the power of faith which assured that a small number of fighters unafraid of death and sure of Allah's favor would defeat the enormous forces of the atheistic Soviets.

This narrative has captured the Muslim world almost to the last man.  Beyond that, it has been accepted in slightly modified form by many people in the West, particularly among the uncritical adherents of moral equivalence and cultural relativism.  By virtue of repetition in a context remarkably free of critical analysis or historical understanding, the Muslim narrative has gained remarkable traction and endurance.

The narrative is quite appealing to Muslims.  It is almost as appealing to those who "blame America first" and those of similar mind.  It is utterly, totally, absolutely specious, as wrong as a cat barking, as disconnected from reality as the ravings of a frank schizophrenic.

Because the narrative is so important in the development and growth of violent political Islam--and its non-violent but equally injurious conjoined twin--it must be both understood and challenged.  While exposing the counterfactual nature of the Islamist narrative will not change any Muslim minds, there is another reason for no longer allowing it to have a get out of jail free card.  By demonstrating the baseless nature of the narrative by underscoring the actual reasons the Shah fell and the Red Army finally compelled to withdraw, it may be possible for more Americans and their counterparts in other civilized states to resist the encroachments and threats of expansionist political Islam more effectively in the years to come.

There is only one reason the Shah was tossed from the Peacock Throne.  The context may have been rich in variables, filled with justifications, replete with motives, but when night falls there was and is only one proximate reason the Ayatollah bested the Shah.

The reason is to be found, not in Tehran nor in Paris nor in Qom; rather, the eyes must focus on Washington, DC.  Specifically one has to consider the Oval Office and the man sitting behind the only desk in the room.  The man was Jimmy Carter.  It was his evaluation of the Shah, the Ayatollah, the probable consequences of seeing the Shah gone and someone else coming to power which decided the direction of history for decades, perhaps generations, to come.

For many years now, the role played by a single person in the tipping points of history has been deprecated by historians.  Starting in Europe in the aftermath of World War II and spreading to the US during the Sixties, historical inquiry refocused from the role of high profile individuals (the "Great Men" interpretation) to the part played by the historically inarticulate "mass."  Individuals were seen as important only insofar as they gave focus and identity to the "masses."

With that as intellectual background, it is not surprising that Western, even American, historians have been eager to grant credit to the Ayatollah while deprecating the part played by Jimmy Carter.  The Ayatollah was seen as giving a face and an identity to the desires of the Iranian "masses" while Carter was simply an American president.  As a result there was no immediate push back to the rapidly blooming Muslim narrative.

Comes now, a bit of a push back.  Jimmy Carter may still see himself as having been ill-served by the American intelligence, diplomatic, and military communities.  In part he was.  The intelligence regarding the precarious relationship between the Shah's posterior and the Peacock Throne was misleading where it was not flatly wrong.  The US Embassy in Tehran was no more perceptive.  Nor was the US military assistance group.

Even if Mr Carter had received more accurate appreciations and a better, more comprehensive evaluation of the probable consequences of a clerical takeover, there is little reason to believe he would have acted any differently.  President Carter had a deep dislike for the Shah.

In part this dislike was justifiable in terms of the Carter priority given (for the first time in American foreign relations) on human rights.  The Shah's regime had no regard for human rights if having such would interfere with internal stability.  Savak, the Iranian internal security service, rivaled KGB or the SD at their worst.  Other instruments of state including the army were no better.  As an exponent of human rights, the Shah was below zero.

Beyond the dislike which could be justified easily with the preeminence accorded human rights by Jimmy Carter, there was a deep personal dislike.  Personalities do count in foreign relations even if the fact is not acknowledged by one or the other individual.

As a result, the American president was not loath to see a regime change in Tehran.  Given the Shah's record including his imperviousness to American advice, the change would have to come from within and thus would be more likely than not to be revolutionary in nature--in all senses of the word.

The main opponent to the Shah was a cleric, a senior and highly respected one at that.  Mr Carter was a man of deep faith.  He was preconditioned to see men of the cloth, regardless of the details of confession, as being of the better sort: high minded, lofty thinking, just, loving peace not war, men exhibiting all the virtues and few if any of the vices to which humans are heir.

Given the nature of the contest--total--and the nature of the two opponents, it was simple for Mr Carter to determine which side he was on.  American support for the Shah was withdrawn.  The outcome from that point on was predetermined.  The rapidly aging and quite ill Shah understood that without complete US support he could not let his army off the leash.  He also knew that without overwhelming force, his hold on power was measured in microseconds.  His political will evaporated with the loss of American support and he cashed in his chips.

Because Carter was a good Christian man he compounded his surrender of national interest by extending a humanitarian hand to the homeless and very sick Shah.  This act infuriated the Iranian Islamic revolutionaries from the Ayatollah on down as they wanted to slit the Shah's throat, stone him, hang him, and then get tough with the guy.  Thus ensued the "hostage crisis" and the long lived implications of that humiliating episode which, of course, features prominently in the Muslim narrative under the heading of Allah Punishes The Great Satan.

In a sense President Carter had a failure of political will.  He failed to properly appreciate US national and strategic interests at the time or into the future.  He failed to consider the needs of the state over time against his personal predilections, preferences, and prejudices.  He failed to set aside the personal in order to consider properly just what was at stake in the Iranian context.

In short, Mr Carter paved our collective road to hell with the asphalt of his personal convictions and understanding.  No amount of ex post facto explanations or excuses or finger pointing can erase that fact.

Nor can the Muslim narrative be right.  It was not the power of Islamic faith which toppled the Shah.  Nor did Allah show an interest in Iranian politics when the Ayatollah triumphed.  Both resulted from a man far removed from the position of deity: Jimmy Carter.

It may not be intellectually fashionable to assign such a great responsibility--the crucial decisions which forged a world historical moment--but that is the real deal.  It is no comfort to Americans to acknowledge that their own president formed the face of the new great enemy--the Iranian theocracy.  It is not bracing for the advocates of political Islam to face the reality that their faith had nothing to do with the triumph of the Iranian Islamic Revolution.

The boisterous confidence of the adherents of political Islam both violent and non-violent is based on a very, very big lie.  The real deal is simply the American president blinked.  Had he stood firm, there is little doubt that the son or grandson of the Shah would be on the Peacock Throne presiding over a constitutional monarchy not unlike that in Jordan today.

The actualities in Afghanistan during the years following the Soviet invasion are at a great distance from the Muslim narrative.  The specious view peddled by, among others, Osama bin Ladin, gives no credit to the intense tribal and provincial drives at work within the Afghan population during the years of anti-Soviet war.  Nor does it give credit to the enormous amount of American aid which flowed directly and, later, through the Pakistanis to the anti-Soviet groups.  No reference is made, for example, to the game changing nature of the US provided Stinger shoulder fired antiaircraft missiles.

Most importantly, the Muslim narrative gives no credit to the most important single factor determining the Soviet defeat.  That was the collapse of political will within the Soviet leadership.  The Afghan fighters did not win nearly so much as the Soviets admitted defeat.

This, of course, is typical in all unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns.  During the American War of Independence, it was not the patriots who "won."  Rather it was the realization by the British elite and as a consequence the government that the game just was not worth the expense.  The American rebels maintained their political will and the British lost theirs.  So it was in Afghanistan as well.

The Soviet loss of political will in Afghanistan was part of the general collapse of faith which infected the geriatric ruling class and drifted downward in the ranks until their successors caught the same disease.  In understanding the Soviets in Afghanistan, it is essential to recognize that it was not Allah who triumphed but rather the god of Marxism-Leninism which failed.

For different reasons the civilian leadership of Russia and the command structure of the Russian Army have been content to let the Muslim narrative pass unchallenged.  The Army has taken the same position as the German Army after World War I or the US Army following the Vietnam debacle--the civilians stabbed us in the back.

The civilian leadership has adopted a different interpretation, one that is closer to the facts.  Civilian historians in recent years have argued that the Communists were responsible for the defeat; the Communists gave up, loss heart.  In tandem, it is contended that the same outcome would not happen today as it is now good Russian nationalists running things--and nationalists cannot lose faith in the Motherland and her people.

The facts comprising the dynamics of both the Iranian regime change and the self-inflicted Soviet failure are simple, straight forward and so easy to grasp that even a Congressional staffer can get a grip on them.  The facts are on the side of the civilized states and plumb against the myth makers of political Islam.  Considering that the struggle between the civilized states and their Islamist opponents is one of political will, it is important, essential even, that the realities be put forth.  This can benefit the civilized states; it only can harm the adherents of political Islam.

Get a grip on it, Mahmoud.  Allah had nothing to do with it.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another Fun War You May Have Missed

Considering all the wars of much higher profile currently underway around the world, a person may have missed the one steadily accelerating in Tajikistan.  Not until eight days ago when the NYT performed its self-assigned task as "the newspaper of record," have events in the faraway Central Asian state of Tajikistan made even the smallest of blips on the Western media (and probably, political) radar scopes.  The attention grabbing specific was one more exchange in the see-saw war between the central government and groups combining adherents of violent political Islam and nationalists who also are Muslims.

Tajikistan's southern border is with Afghanistan.  Its eastern border is with China.  To the west is Uzbekistan while the northern border is with Kyrgyzstan.  Several features unite Tajikistan with its coterminous states or regions.  They are all Muslim majority.  They are all possessed of internal instability including violent unrest and the presence of groups advocating violent political Islam.  With the exception of Afghanistan all are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO.)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan went through five years of internal war.  The war for control of the state was ethnic (usually camouflaged as "regional") between Uzbeks, who had run the place during the seventy years of Soviet overlordship, and the native Tajiks.  The war ended in a peace of exhaustion which featured the appearance but not the reality of power sharing.  While roughly eighty percent of the population is Tajik, these did not exercise an equivalent amount of power.  Rather, it was the sixteen percent who were Uzbek who got the majority of the "say" as well as the benefits.

It is not surprising that many Tajiks did not find the settlement agreeable.  Retreating to the remote, mountain ringed and almost totally isolated Rasht valley, the die hards rested and regained strength.  They also gained both recruits from and combat experience in Afghanistan.  For years, until May 2009, the valley was a no-go area for the central government and its army.  During the years of immunity, the resting, regrouping insurgents also discovered a very prolific cash cow--establishing drug transportation routes.  While the dollar amount accruing to this ever more lucrative activity cannot be estimated with any pretense of precision, there is no doubt but much, perhaps most of the morphine base flowing from Afghanistan to customers in Russia and beyond came through the friendly Rastht valley.

The Dushanbe government was under Kremlin pressure to "do something" about the embarrassing flow of drugs.  To this end as well as with the expectation of speedily ending the pesky rebels, the army moved a regimental equivalent (say, 2000 men) into the valley in May 2009.  It may be that the Tajik government anticipated goodies from the US and its NATO partners for playing an indirect roll in reducing the narco-trafficking from Afghanistan.

In the event, the insurgents did not pack it when the army showed its flag a year and half ago.  What happened instead was a slow motion but still bloody exchange of raids and counter-raids, ambushes, snipers, vehicle bombings, and the usual accompaniment of atrocities, extra-judicial killings, and general human rights abuses.  But, being remote and in part protected by the media blackout capabilities of both Russia and China, the nasty little war went unnoticed.

Then, in a dramatic change, the government opted for its own version of a war winning "surge."  The surge resulted in a very dramatic culmination: On 19 September a platoon plus sized column of Tajik troops was ambushed in Komarob Gorge by forces headed by a veteran of the earlier civil war, Alovuddin Davlatov.  When the bang-bang stopped, twenty-eight Tajik troopers were dead.  At least twenty-five more were wounded.  The insurgents took no known losses.

The government has made retaliatory raids.  Small success has crowned the efforts.  Effective escalation is not a viable option--unless it was underwritten by an outside power.  And, this is unlikely as the only candidates, Russia and Uzbekistan, are preoccupied with internal problems such that neither would seek further complications either domestic or international.

The capacities of the Tajikistan government are limited by several very powerful constraints.  The first is economic.  Tajikistan is far and away the most impoverished of the states carved from the corpse of the Soviet Union.  It is not a gross exaggeration to say that hunger is already stalking the land.

A second potent limitation on the government's ability to act decisively is the widespread nature of anti-government sentiment.  The impoverished majority blame their situation on the government, its corruption, its inefficiency, its arrogant remoteness, and its minority nature.  This combination propelled the overthrow of a seemingly well-entrenched regime in Kyrgyzstan.  President Rahmon is not eager to share the same fate.

Yet another limitation arises from the low average age of the population.  The median age of men in the place is under twenty-two.  As history and contemporary events show clearly, it is young men who are most amenable to the appeals of true belief such as that offered by political Islam.  Men of this age cohort are also afflicted with the adolescent belief in immortality and invulnerability so are perfect candidates for the excitement, challenge, and specious sense of meaning provided by war.

The US has a presence in Tajikistan which is linked to the overall infrastructure supporting combat operations in Afghanistan.  So the current administration has some reason to worry about the direction of affairs in the country.  So far our response to the growing problem in Tajikistan is an offer to establish an anti-terrorist training center.  Beyond that there is probably a hope that no matter which way the governmental chips might fall whoever is in charge will still need the revenue provided by our base rights lease so we can afford a "what! Me, worry?" approach.  (This level of non-response response is also predicated upon the Kremlin's automatic opposition to any American move which might undercut the presumed Russian preeminence in Tajikistan.)

Russia has much more to fret about, but given the failure of the Kremlin and its handpicked agents to "clarify and put to order" the Muslim insurgency in the Northern Caucasus, it has little to offer.  Further, the relations between the Kremlin and Tajikistan are, to put it in polite terms, "strained."

Then there is China,  China has been having more than a few problems with its homegrown advocates of violent political Islam coupled with nationalism.  They have no reason to ignore a bunch of like minded Muslims next door in Tajikistan.  That, after all, is one of the, more accurately, the reason behind Beijing creating the SCO.  (Russia played a game of "me-too" in a defensive move protecting its privileged position in the Central Asian Republics and isn't thrilled about the SCO's existence.)

Beyond the SCO flexing its semi-mythical muscle, there is nothing real the Trolls of Beijing can do--except send money.  To date the Trolls have seen no need to do this perhaps as they see Rahmon's regime as a poor investment.

Winter's winds are starting to blow from the mountains surrounding the Rasht valley.  The government, having been soundly bested in its attempt to wind up the insurgency before the snow calls a time out, there is not much chance that anything spectacular will happen in the next few months.  Yet, as is the case in most "time-outs" in insurgent guerrilla war, the advantage goes automatically to the insurgents.  They have the greater opportunity to operate, recruit, gain resources.  The government will have the time to be weakened further by the slow but sure erosion of legitimacy and support which comes with pervasive poverty and loss of confidence in the future.

Don't despair, bucko, we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from the fun little war in a very faraway place by the time the next equinox rolls around.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Another (Nuclear) War Waiting To Start?

For an aficionado of impeding crises, there are plenty locations from which to choose.  As the events of the past couple of weeks demonstrated, one of the most probable spots is Kashmir.  The MSM spent a fair amount of time and attention on the civil unrest on the Indian side of the dividing line but didn't bother to place the strife in the context where it belongs.  Kashmir today is the contemporary version of Sarajevo in the summer of 1914.

The conflict over Kashmir holds the world record for longest running Cold and Hot War.  The shooting over the 92,000 square miles started with the independence of India and Pakistan sixty-two years ago.  The killing and dying have not stopped yet with the most recent additions to the body count being a hundred or so locals felled by the guns of Indian paramilitary police.

When the wars of partition ended, India was in possession of two thirds of Kashmir.  Pakistan got the rump, the less densely populated mountain region in the west.  The population divided in about the same proportion so that roughly eight million Kashmiri live on the Indian side of the Line of Control.  Three million reside on Pakistani territory.  It is important to note that over three quarters of the Kashmiri population is Muslim.  Twenty percent are Hindu with the rest scattered between Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists.  It is almost unnecessary to point out that religion is not a trivial consideration in the region.

The wars since partition have been short, bloody, inconclusive, and have usually ended to Indian advantage.  In 1999 the two powers came perilously close to yet another war.  By this time both possessed nuclear weapons.  Considering the ranges and travel times involved, both India and Pakistan would have had no choice but launch-under-warning.

The launch-under-warning necessity continues today.  Considering the most recent changes in both country's delivery systems there is good reason to posit that each is skidding toward a launch-under-threat doctrine.  That reality is sufficient to make even the most limited, most ambiguous direct contact between Pakistani and Indian forces along the Line of Control a very scary thing.

China has played and continues to play the role of the dual sided sword in the Kashmir conflict.  On the one hand Beijing has served as a destabilizing presence.  An example: Back in the days of Mao, the Fifties to be precise, the Chinese occupied and annexed a portion of Kashmir, a stretch along the Aksai Chin mountains, to allow the building of a military road between Tibet and the Xinjang province in China.  The close relationship between the Indian government under Nehru with both Moscow and Beijing assured this event went by with little noise and international interest.

Perhaps emboldened by the quick, quiet success of this action, Beijing went on to claim the Ladakh region of Indian Kashmir.  The rapid and decisive slap down administered to the Indian army by the PLA was not uncoupled from this claim.  Nor is the ongoing face off high in the mountains between Indian troops and their PLA rivals.

Through the Seventies and even more in the Eighties, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) armed, trained, and directed the activities of Kashmiri jhadi.  In 1989 the long simmering but low level ISI managed partisan war escalated to a level rivaling or surpassing the Palestinian intifadas.  The Indian security forces suppressed the uprising in a welter of blood--at least forty thousand were killed.

Neither the anti-Indian sentiments of the Kashmiri nor the ambitions of ISI were extinguished by the suppression as the rapidly blooming crisis of 1999 made clear.  The Pakistanis did not even pretend to ratchet down the partisan war until the administration of George W. Bush used a combination of bribery and diplomatic pressure in the days following 9/11 to convince Islamabad to make genuflections before the alter of peace.

Even if someone were so delusional as to believe that the results of the Bush effort would be either genuinely effective or long lasting must have been disabused of this belief when the US showed a willingness to open new avenues of cooperation with the Indian government.  These steps, most importantly the move to facilitate Indian civil nuclear power development, gave the Pakistanis pause.

Islamabad used this pause to reconsider their relations with China.  It was not a Dulles style "agonizing reappraisal" but rather a quick but well-considered demarch to Beijing.  The Trolls of Beijing were more than a tad interested in a new axis of interest between China and Pakistan.  India was seen increasingly through the prism of the Forbidden City as an emerging rival for regional preeminence as well as an economic competitor in the making.

Given this and the profound anti-American sentiment in the Pakistani government and public, it has not been surprising to see Beijing successfully seek opportunities for investment and influence alike.  Chinese money is developing port facilities in natural gas rich Baluchistan.  China stands ready, willing, and eager to supplant the US as chief armorer of the Pakistani armed forces.  Beijing's aid in the wake of the flood has been quick and generous.  And, China is standing by to aid Pakistan in developing its nuclear power needs.

The Indio-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir has spilled over into Afghanistan.  India has developed a major presence in Kabul.  Indian money has been spread generously around the Karzai government, a dynamic which is aided greatly by the Indian government's open minded attitudes regarding bribery and corruption.  The Indians have been successful to an outstanding extent in both countering Pakistan's paramount place in the Kabul government and expanding its own interests there.

This, in turn, has alarmed Islamabad.  The vision of strategic depth in Afghanistan has driven Pakistani policy there since the last days of the Soviet occupation.  In ongoing pursuit of this dream, Islamabad, particularly the ISI, has provided support and assistance to the anti-Karzai insurgents.  The training camps and other necessary facilities strewing the remoter portions of Pakistan are there because Taliban and the Haqqani network are seen as keys to eventual Pakistani dominance of Kabul.

Kashmir and the groups advocating violent political Islam are joined head and hip.  There is a set of very real problems for both India and Pakistan involved in this intimate relation between Kashmir and groups such as but not limited to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT.) It will be recalled that LeT was the executive agent of the 2008 attack on Mumbai.

As the ISI and others in Islamabad have found out repeatedly, LeT like Taliban and the Haqqani network are monsters which easily escape the leash of their creator.  LeT and the others will and do pursue what each determines to be in its "national" interest.  If that coincides with Islamabad's needs or desires, well, fine.  If it doesn't, well, that is just too bad.

Terrorists need tensions to provide the necessary context for their operations.  The combination of terrorism, violent political Islam, and tensions between states or within the population of a country is as natural as coffee and a doughnut.  However, the combination of religiously predicated terrorism and inter-state tensions turns very ugly when operations are conducted in an environment with a launch-under-threat component.

The presence of Chinese troops in northern Pakistan in a place coterminous with Kashmir can be either stabilizing or it opposite.  The troops are there ostensibly to repair the Kharakorum  highway which is the only direct land route between China and the Pakistani region of Gilgit.  The tipping point where the Chinese presence can shift from one of a potentially stabilizing one to its opposite comes with the unpleasant recent complication of an independent Kashmir.

About a million Kashmiri live in Gilgit which is historically a part of greater Kashmir.  Within this million there are those (number unknown) who, like compatriots on both sides of the Line of Control, take the view that only an independent Kashmir can find peace and prosperity.  Nationalism has been growing well under the radar scopes of the West, including the US.  This is a very dangerous fact and one which augments the analogy between Kashmir today and Bosnia in 1914.

As yet another generation comes of age in divided and bloody Kashmir, the appeals of nationalism are being reinforced.  The (to the outside world) invisible Chinese presence even though small and low profile is one more bit of kindling on the nationalistic fire.  A growing but unquantifiable number of Kashmiri are seeing themselves as "occupied" pawns in an inscrutable Game of Nations.

In this context the force of armed political Islam should not, cannot, be overstated.  A new generation of terrorist Frankenstein monsters is under construction.  Soon this new force will be far beyond the control or even influence of Islamabad or Delhi.

As the world learned nearly a century ago, the effects of a small act of nationalistic terror can be totally non-linear in its ultimate effects.  If this was true in an era of six shooters, where the machinegun was a world beater and the fighter aircraft not yet invented, think how true it might be in a day of nuclear tipped missiles and a launch-under-warning imperative.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Way Or There Ain't No Way

That is the negotiating stance of the Palestinian Authority (PA.)  The PA capo, Mahmoud Abbas, has made that abundantly clear.  The centerpiece of the PA's current exercise in brinkmanship is the expiration of the temporary freeze on new construction in the Israeli "settlements."  Abbas has stated categorically that if a single brick is laid or a single shovel of dirt moved, the talks are off.  O-F-F.

The "settlers" are lined up, ready and willing, eager for the clock to run out.  Bulldozers and builders are fired up, good for go.  Feet are pawing the ground as fiery rhetoric fills the air over disputed land.

Facing a political crisis of major magnitude, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for "calm and restraint" on the part of the "settlers" as well as their supporters throughout Israel.  The latter are predominantly members of Netanyahu's Likud Party or its rightwing coalition partners.  Israelis of the Right have never been noted for their propensity for calmness and restraint.

On the other side of the hill, Abbas is seeking an "urgent" meeting of the Arab League so that a coordinated approach can be formulated assuming the moratorium will not be extended.  This call came as the PA sent conflicting messages about its own stance on continuing the talks with Israel.  A spokesman for the PA president averred that the PA would not pull out of the ongoing talks but warned that key members of the Fatah dominated group might do so.  What that vague language might mean in the real world is unclear but at least one group, the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), has announced it was suspending its participation in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the PA was known in bygone days.

Further muddying the already turbid waters of Mideast diplomacy, the PA has suggested that Israel might release some seven thousand terrorists (Israeli view) or political prisoners (according to the PA) presently languishing in the custody of the Israel Prison Service.  According to the PA, such a release would constitute a "good will gesture" serving to facilitate the peace talks.

Golly, is the mass release to serve as a surrogate for a continuation of the freeze?  Or is this good will gesture to be in addition to the extension of the moratorium?  Either way, the reintroduction of this ancient ploy will serve as a platform justifying further foot dragging by the rejectionists of the PA.

Abbas is probably sitting back with his hands folded across his Buddha-like belly, a suitably inscrutable smile on his face as he waits for the US to do the heavy lifting on his behalf.  The Obama administration is apparently giving itself a rupture as it strains to do just that.  Various spokespersons, including those of the exalted rank of presidential intimate such as David Axelrod, have made it clear that the administration owns the problem and is using all means at its disposal to do Abbas' bidding.

While the PA is making non-negotiable demands, it has shown a total unwillingness to consider compromises.  There is a compromise available which would allow the speedy ending of the current impasse. The compromise would permit construction to resume at those "settlements" which will be on the Israeli side of the final border while prohibiting any in areas which will revert to PA rule.

To date Abbas has refused this approach.  The PA insists that the final border, including all necessary land swaps, be achieved first.  This is an unnecessary stipulation.  The pattern of settlement is clear.  Agreement was reached some time back on which blocks would go to Israel and which would remain in Palestine along with what land would be granted by Israel in compensation for the acreage occupied by the "settlements" incorporated into Israel.  No skill at precognition was or is required to see, literally, the lay of the land.

The "borders first" requirement of the PA is simply one more exercise in obscurantist delay.  Refusing the quite obvious and eminently logical compromise serves no useful purpose other than placating the slavering red meat eaters of the Palestinian extreme.  The contention that this placatory stance is necessary to Abbas' political survival is arguable.

Perhaps as a reward for the intense American efforts on his behalf, Abbas has given some hint that there is some chance the talks will not be cancelled instantly in the event the freeze is not extended.  Abbas has alluded to the necessity or at least the desirability of consulting with all stakeholders in the complicated PA structure as well as determining the will of the Arab League states.  This is not much but it does provide a basis for holding some cautious optimism.

Then there is Netanyahu.  He has very real political problems in play.  His coalition is not all that tightly knit.  His foreign minister represents a large strain of opinion which sees the slightest compromise on territory as an act of near treason.  There is no support on the Right of Israeli politics for giving in to PA pressures, even when those pressures are applied by the US.

Nor does the behavior of the assorted extremists within the PA and its constituent factions give any assistance to Netanyahu.  It is all well and good for Abbas to assert as he did yesterday that the Palestinian people will not respond with violence should the talks collapse.  It is another matter when a pregnant Israeli is shot while driving on a highway near an Arab village in the West Bank.

earthmoving equipment and wreaking havoc somewhere in Israel.

Israelis have not been allowed to forget at any time since they evacuated the Gaza Strip that the threat of violent death is a constant companion.  No country in modern history has been forced to live so long under such a high and pervasive level of fear.  No sane Israeli would be given to place much reliance on either the words or the capacities of Abbas when it comes to matters of violent politics.

Nor can any Israeli ignore for a microsecond the primary reason he lives under a constant threat.  It is because he is Jewish.  The Jewish basis of Israel is the basis of the fear, loathing, and hatred which colors all aspects of Arab-Israeli relations, at least at the collective, the state level.

It is for this reason as well as the historical reality of the Holocaust which propels the Netanyahu requirement that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  This is another issue on which Mr Abbas and the PA refuse to compromise.  Their refusal is not trivial.

The PA president and his supporters such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have claimed that the international recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would compromise the rights of non-Jews residing in Israel.  Abbas has gone so far as to assert--contrary to fact--that the only reason Netanyahu has made his demand is as a preparatory move to the forced removal of all Arabs from Israel.

Some twenty percent of Israel's population is Arab in ancestry and language.  It is a matter of easily available fact that these people have the same civil and political rights as their Jewish compatriots.  This is not to imply that Arabs do not suffer discrimination and prejudice, they do.  But it demonstrates that Israel is not cranking up some sort of genocide machine which will be running full blast the instant the PA formally recognizes that Israel is a Jewish state.

It is of more than passing interest that public opinion poll after public opinion poll has shown a marked reluctance of Israeli Arabs to move to the PA administered territory.  It is equally worthy of note to acknowledge that the Arabs of Israel enjoy not simply a better standard of material existence than those resident in other countries, but they also possess political and civil rights which surpass by orders of magnitude those of other Arabs in other states.

These contextual matters demonstrate that the tender concern evidenced by Abbas and other Arab leaders for the present and future condition of Israeli Arabs is misplaced.  The real deal is that Abbas and company hope that by refusing to grant this quite reasonable Israeli condition they will be able to derail the talks without taking any direct responsibility.

It would behoove the American (and European Union) efforts to bolster and facilitate the talks if the Israeli position on the "Jewish state question" would receive full-throated support.  The identification of Israel as the Jewish state is historically justified.  The need for a Jewish state was recognized universally in the wake of World War II.  All non-biased observers agreed in those far gone days that the existence of a "Jewish state" would have gone far to prevent the Holocaust by providing both a refuge and a protector to the Jews threatened by Nazi policies.

It is not unreasonable nor counter-factual to contend that Jews in much of the world are under a threat as great today as was the case seventy-five years ago.  The existence of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state is essential.  The Obama administration must acknowledge this in the context of the current talks.

Coercive diplomacy is OK.  It can be quite useful.  But, as in the matter of the Israeli-PA talks, the coercion must be evenhanded.  If it is appropriate to pressure Israel to limit the "settlement" construction, it is also proper to pressure the PA to accept the compromise outlined above.  And, it is both apposite and necessary to lean on the PA to accept that Israel is a Jewish state, the Jewish state.  This recognition must be clear, unambiguous and formal.  Anything less is an ethical and realpolitik malfeasance.

Most of all, Mr Abbas must be brought to realize that negotiation is a two way street.  It must be all of "our" ways or nothing good will result.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Yo! Mahmoud! Shoot Yourself In The Foot Again?

The Geek is a dedicated maven of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  This is not simply because the once upon a time traffic engineer is amusing.  No, the Geek dotes on every piece of spittle which froths forth from the mouth of the Orator-in-Chief because he is a very dangerous man who fronts for an even more dangerous assemblage of clerical authoritarians.

The danger Ahmadinejad embodies is comprised in equal measure of Iranian ambitions, the Iranian nuclear project(s), the Iranian connection with the almost as unsettling regime in Pyongyang, and the eschatological not to say apocalyptic visions of the Return of the Hidden Imam which permeate the regime and its most avid supporters.

Among all the threats facing the US and the rest of the civilized world, (threats which have increased almost geometrically while the current administration has wrung its collective hands in dismay over the failure of peace to break out everywhere upon the arrival of the New Guy In the Oval,) Ahmadinejad's Iran holds the pride of place.  It is number one.  It surpasses even the unstable and formidably out of touch bunch in Pyongyang.  It is a more immediate danger than the one posed by the Gnomes of Beijing.  Compared to the impending danger from Tehran, even the most grotesque perils of anthropogenic climate change are reduced to insignificance.

This explains why the Geek was alarmed by Ahmadinejad's behavior during the opening days of his most recent American Tour.  In his appearance on Larry King Live as in his numerous interviews with members of the MSM, the Iranian president gave an unsettling appearance of rationality, of calm poise, of being a reasonable man representing a reasonable government, of being firmly committed to diplomatic negotiation in good faith with the members of the P5+1 on the vexing nuclear question.  To his alarm the Geek even found his head nodding in agreement with much that the Orator-in-Chief was peddling.

"What is wrong here?" The Geek muttered to the flat screen before him.  "Where is the usual World According to Mahmoud distortions of what most see as the consensual agreed upon objective reality?"

Finally, came the main event, the Speech.  That is the set piece address to the General Assembly.  The jewel which has always crowned Ahmadinejad's trips into fantasyland.  The Geek's worry level increased markedly when the opening lines were cut from the same charm offensive cloth as the remarks earlier in the week.

Then--Allah be praised!--Ahmadinejad fell back to type.  He delivered himself of the roster of tired, long disproved conspiracy theories regarding the mass murder of 9/11.  Not only did he pin the tail of culpability on the US government, he compounded his offense against reality by asserting that "most people" in the US and around the world believed that to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The amazing thing about the General Assembly audience was not the departure of the delegations from thirty civilized states but rather that anyone stayed after the Orator-in-Chief delivered his (quite evidently) favorite interpretation of 9/11--that the Americans did it to save their crumbling economy and provide a necessary boost to the "Zionist regime."  The Geek could not but wonder just how any person of even average intelligence and ethical integrity could remain and grant a respectful ear to the rumblings of a man functioning in a state of politically motivated delusion.

Sure, one could excuse the continued presence of men representing majority Muslim states.  Religious solidarity must take precedence over mere bagatelles such as the truth.  But the others?  The delegations from countries such as Russia and China, whose diplomatic understanding and support has been cultivated so assiduously by the Obama administration?  What was their reasoning?  Or was their continued presence simply a strong indicator that their governments were closer in alignment with Tehran than with Washington?  Perhaps they were of the view that President Obama's American was not so much a weak horse than a dead one?

President Ahmadinejad's jaunt into 9/11 denial, like his well established position as the world champ of Holocaust deniers, could be interpreted as an exercise in bunkum--a ploy meant to play well back home particularly with the extreme hardliners who have been eviscerating the president in recent weeks.  That view is not impossible, merely improbable.

The improbability of the most charitable explanation for Ahmadinejad's charging off the I'm-so-rational reservation has been underscored by his full-throated defense of his accusation in later press conferences.  Not only did he issue a demand for an "impartial" UN conducted "truth commission," he had the chutzpah to assert that not only did the people of the world deserve this, so also did We the People as it has been the American public which has borne the costs of the wars predicated on 9/11.  It is evident Mr Ahmadinejad believes his performance deserves adulation and not the calumny it has received.

The real deal is simply the Iranian president and both his government and the clerics in charge have been and will continue to tell their narrative in their way.  This was the case with his rendition of the conspiracy theory of 9/11.  It was the case with the companion campaign in which Ahmadinejad as well as the turbaned lads back home equated the execution of a woman by the state of Virginia with the so far not carried out death by stoning sentence passed on an Iranian woman.  It has been and will be the case with all the words expended by Iranian "statesmen" regarding their nuclear program.

The Iranian clerics and their governmental front, now epitomized by Ahmadinejad, have raised the fine art of lying in support of governmental policy to heights previously undreamed of.  Neither the Nazis nor the Kremlin Communists came close to the achievements of Iran in the area of bald prevarication in the interests of state.

The Iranians have enjoyed a fair measure of success from incorporating the technique of the Really, Really Big Lie in their policy arsenal.  Ahmadinejad and the others have correctly judged what various audiences acutally want to hear, wish to believe, and have tailored their propaganda to fit this cloth.

Consider this.  Muslim, particularly Arabs, have wanted to believe that their fellows could not have committed the atrocities of 9/11.  As early as the day after the slaughters, more than one Arab was quoted as saying something along the lines of, "Americans or the Jews had to have done it.  No Arab could get it together well enough to pull off an attack of this size."  Badda-bing, Ahmadinejad's version of history is ever so acceptable to individuals of such a mindset.

Indeed, the Ahmadinejad linkage of an attack fabricated or facilitated by the US or an Israeli-US agreement being used to justify falsely the waging of war on innocent Muslims plays very well not only with Muslims but with a wide swath of opinion throughout the world, even in portions of Western Europe.  In short, the seemingly outrageous jobbing of a conspiracy theory at the UN was a carefully calculated exercise in public diplomacy.  So also were the later explanations coupled with the call for a new Goldstone Panel, this time with the US as the designated bad guy.

While it is true that the Ahmadinejad speech made him no converts in the US and may even have hardened attitudes within We the People, it was nonetheless a success from the Iranian point of view.  It can be argued that had the Orator-in-Chief continued his charm offensive, his come-let-us-reason-together message, it might have paid off in the US or even in Western Europe.  That we will never know.  Instead, the president opted to continue to write-off the American people in favor of gaining more and stronger support elsewhere.

At nightfall, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad, in either his rational or nutter form, is a very dangerous man.  And the government of which he is nominal head to say nothing of the clerics in the background are the most dangerous men on Earth for We the People and others fortunate enough to live in civilized states.  That is something upon which we all must get a grip.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

What Kind Of World Can We Live In---And Will It Exist?

For much of the last century--ever since Theodore Roosevelt dragged us, kicking and screaming, onto the world stage--the US has been a major player in global affairs.  With the exception of the periods of disillusionment and loss of confidence in ourselves and our institutions, the dull and dismal years when the Isolationists reigned supreme in the Twenties and Thirties or the hand-wringing decade of thinking small which followed our defeat in Vietnam, the US has been a major player, at times the major player in world affairs.

When we have been engaged with the world, our focus has been the preservation of democracy.  When we have retreated from the global stage, the loser has always been democracy.

One of the most compelling lessons of Twentieth Century history is that provided by the results of our twenty year love affair with isolationism.  The roots of this disastrous lurch were readily apparent then and now.  The outcome of World War I was not, as we had been promised by the highly idealistic President Wilson, an end to war and a world safe for democracy.  This unfortunate split between promise and consequence made it very easy to surrender to the appealing message of George Washington's Farewell Address and recoil from not only "entangling alliances" but any non-commercial relationship with any country beyond our borders.

The seductive nature of "minding our own business" was enhanced by a strong strain of nativism which ran through American society as reflected by the increasingly restrictive immigration laws of the post-World War I period.  Keeping to ourselves seemed to assure maintaining our purity.  The notion of foreigners and foreign ideas polluting us was reflected as well by the resolute policy of non-recognition regarding those evil commies of the new Soviet Union.

The consequences of our willful retreat from the world were not only drearily predictable, they were highly and immediately visible.  The iron jaws of authoritarian rule clamped hard and fast on Italy and, a few years later, Germany.  These ideologically propelled regimes formed two thirds of a new anti-democratic steel triangle.  The final component was the military dominated government of Japan.

All three anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes were expansionist.  In each case the expansionism was predicated largely upon artifacts of mythology which rivaled religion in their attractiveness and pervasiveness.  In these features the ideological/mythological bases of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Shinto/Imperial Japan were rivaled by the Marxist-Leninist faith of the Soviet Union.

The democracies of Western Europe never went "officially" isolationist, but, led by Great Britain and France, all had lost belief in the power of their own polities and societies in the mud and blood of the World War I trenches.  The self-confidence, the belief in national values, the assurance that one's way of life deserved protection even at the cost of millions killed had all perished in the vast slaughters of what was called, "the Great War."

Had the US not embraced the false security of retreat behind its own borders, it is arguable that not only would Hitler and his counterparts in Rome and Tokyo have had to take account of the US in pursuing ambitions, but the political will of the European democracies would have been reinforced as well.  The absence of the US, the almost literal rejection of the world by Americans, made certain that the wobbly democracies of Europe would wobble all the more--and the ambitions of ideological frenzy stoked.

When the US was finally given no choice--bombs on Pearl Harbor being an invitation that could not be declined--it entered the war with one paramount goal.  The goal was that of making the world safe for us by making it decidedly unsafe for dictators.

Stripped of cant and other rhetorical trappings, the goal of the US during the long, frustrating, and occasionally down right terrifying years of the Cold War was the same--self defense by preserving democracy against the threat of expansionist, ideologically committed authoritarian regimes.  While the monolithic global communist menace never existed in realty, and the Soviet Union often quite conservative, cautious in pursuing its goals, the fact remained that democracy--and its adjunct, state regulated capitalism--were under real, ongoing threat from the Kremlin, from the Forbidden City, from numerous other regimes which embraced Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Looking back at the half century of the Cold War it is evident that the single greatest category of errors committed by the US was that of counting as allies countries which were not democratic but merely "anti-communist."  By confusing means with ends we often were our own worse enemy.  Democracy cannot be preserved, let alone expanded, by authoritarian governments.

In hindsight the errors of relying on totalitarian regimes in the defense of democracy are in high relief.  No one can miss them-or their harmful effects.

There is a cliche which relates to this reality quite well: To be forewarned is to be forearmed.  The same cliche applies to the latest threat confronting democracy  both here and abroad.  We have been forewarned about both the threat posed by violent political Islam and the danger of reposing defense of democracy in regimes which are not democratic.

The US is at a tipping point.  The elections of 2010 and 2012 will go a long way in determining how--or even if--the US will seek to preserve and defend democracy against its latest adversary.

It doesn't matter that the most recent incarnation of anti-democratic, expansionist authoritarianism comes in the guise of religion or, at the least, religiously based ideology.  Quoting sacred literature, waving copies of a sacred book, invoking religious sensibilities does not make violent (or non-violent) political Islam any less of a threat to our democratic center than were those presented by secular ideologies.  As any number of contemporary Muslim clerics, scholars of jurisprudence, and governmental figures have made abundantly clear, there is no compromise possible between political Islam and democracy.

The threat is real.  It is here and now.  It will continue.  If successful, political Islam will result in a world in which the US is less secure, less influential, less comfortable.  If successful, political Islam will result in a world order in which the US is more isolated, more confined, more ill at ease.

The argument for confronting political Islam, by armed force if necessary, is identical in all respects to the one adduced to justify our opposition to the totalitarian regimes and their ideologies of the past century.  Stripped down to the essentials, it is defending the US by defending democracy throughout the world.  Their defense, the preservation of democracy over there is to defend ourselves, to preserve our core values.

The question confronting We the People is not so much "should we" as it is "who will?"  That means who, what group, which party, will have the best ideas, the greatest political will, the orientation necessary to adequately and effectively preserve democracy both here and abroad?

It has become painfully obvious that the current president not only has no clear vision of the nature of the enemy, he has no real commitment to the idea that the US deserves to be preserved even in the most basic feature of democracy.  Despite his recurrent mention of democracy in his speech to the UN General Assembly, one listens or reads Mr Obama's remarks with the uneasy feeling that he sees the US as being in some ineffable way inferior to the rest of the world.

In this Mr Obama is representing the strain of belief which permeated the American academy in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period.  This period was the second outbreak of isolationism in the US.  Unlike the first go-around during which Americans disengaged on the principle that the rest of the world was irredeemably inferior to the US, the second period, the one which was so influential on Mr Obama's world view as it has been the world views of so many others of the American hoi oligoi, grew from the warped notion that the US was inferior to the rest of the world.

It is the impact of the "blame America first" school of belief which is responsible not only for Mr Obama's hesitancy in defending American interests or even acknowledging that our interests and values are under attack by foreign exponents of political Islam but the identical attitude on the part of so many in the American political, media, and academic "elites."  These individuals sincerely believe that the US is so impeached by its past and present record of discrimination, exploitation, racism, environmental destruction that it is exceptional only in the evil which it has wrought on the "less fortunate" in the world.

This is not to imply that the neo-isolationists reside only in the big tent of the Democratic Party.  The advocates of disengagement are to be found in the ranks of the Republicans--and the Tea Party--as well.  In these contexts, the proponents of "mind our own business" are not throwbacks to the first generation of isolationists.  They, even the Ron and Rand Paul sort, are not atavistic in their arguments or conclusions.

Nor are they simple minded folk who equate our foreign involvements with the motives and goals of jihadists. They do not blame the US and the policies of administrations over the past sixty years for the attacks upon us by al-Qaeda and all the deadly others.

Their arguments and conclusions are based on the budgetary constraints operating on the US today.  Correctly, they contend these constraints will not evaporate in the near future.  As a result they are of the view that the US cannot afford either an ambitious foreign policy or the military forces which may (will?) be essential if we are going to preserve democracy.  They contend the US must cut its foreign and national security policies to fit the financial cloth available.

This is not an irrational position.  Nor is it irrational to view the American defense establishment and its collaborator, the foreign policy community, as vast money sumps in which dollars almost literally beyond counting can disappear without visible--or at least, useful--result.  Every detached observer of the Pentagon, including the current Secretary of Defense, agrees this is and has been the case all too often.

Wars are expensive.  But the wars we are currently fighting are on the cheap side of expensive costing less than either the Korean or Vietnam wars when expressed as a percentage of the GDP.  Using the same method--percentage of GDP--our current defense expenditures including those of the foreign policy and intelligence communities are half of what they were in the days of Ike. (Back then they ran about ten percent and today a little under five.)

Too much of a reduction, arguably, any reduction in our defense and foreign policies would be a false economy of the worst sort.  A retreat to our own borders might seem attractive not only for reasons of costs but also because our efforts seem so purposeless.  (Take a dekko at Pakistan for complete justification of the latter contention.)

We have traveled that road before.  Twice.  In the first case, the retreat ultimately cost us much more not only in dollars, but, infinitely more importantly, in lives.  In the second, the consequences were not so great, but that was due to an intelligent decision by We the People which aborted the second flirtation with withdrawal before the results became inordinately costly.

Given the state of play today with nuclear weapons available in Pakistan and soon to be such in Iran, the existence and growth of powerfully motivated groups adhering to violent political Islam, the existence of groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League, and states willing to support these entities in pursuit of national interest, it takes very little time for the costs to reach the unacceptable level.  This means we do not have the luxury of time.  If We the People do not decide quickly that our best means of preserving our democracy and all that arises from that is through an effective and robust foreign policy backed by a highly competent armed force so that democracy can be preserved wherever it exists, the consequences will be both irrevocable and unpleasant.

It's real simple, bucko.  Democracy is worth preserving because we are worth preserving.  To paraphrase a famed American admiral during the Civil War, David Porter, "Damn the expense!  Full speed ahead!"

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Small Man Has Just Gotten Smaller

One doubts that Bob Woodward intended to diminish President Obama in his latest exercise of "insta-history," but that is precisely what has occurred.  That is, assuming the snippets appearing in the Big Two of the MSM are accurate representatives of the book as a whole.

Most bothersome is the President's evident desire for the military to get him off the hook of making decisions by providing him with an exit strategy.  The refusal of the senior military command to take on a job properly resting with the Guy in the Oval is to their collective credit.

Whether Mr Obama likes the idea or not, the defining of the conditions under which American forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan or any other theater of war is a purely political one.  It is necessary under the American doctrine of civilian supremacy--a doctrine so beloved by the President that he fired General McChrystal for allegedly violating it--for the president to define both the political goal and the minimum necessary signs of accomplishing that goal.

It is the president who determines what constitutes the better state of peace for which the war is being fought and defines "victory."  The military command has the task of advising the president as to what its forces can be expected to accomplish, the cost associated with any given level of accomplishment as well as developing and implementing the "theory of victory" by which the goal and its associated concept of "victory" might be achieved.

This dynamic, a process sanctioned by generations of presidents and generals, required that Mr Obama lay out for the military just what constituted a better state of peace.  It also required that the president decide what costs would be acceptable.  Attempting to off-load these messy but central tasks on to the military command structure was both gutless and witless.

A year ago when the overly prolonged exercise in soul searching over Afghanistan was underway, the president and his "team" had a simple choice to make.  They had to decide which of two quite different options would provide the better state of peace in and around Afghanistan.

The choice was termed one between "counter-terrorism" and "counter-insurgency."  In actuality the choice was between a limited punitive and deterrent effort directed against the advocates of violent political Islam in al-Qaeda, Taliban, and the Haqqani network and the far more expansive, not to say, unlimited one of combining a defeat of Taliban et al with the building of an effectively Western style nation-state in Afghanistan.

While there existed a continuum of alternatives between the poles of limited counter-terrorism and unlimited counter-insurgency, the decision was or should have been one of focus, emphasis.  The debate within the ranks of presidential advisers was quite robust as Woodward underscores.  It was also, if Woodward is to be accepted, a debate which was colored heavily by the considerations of domestic politics.

There is, of course, nothing new nor wrongheaded in the involvement of domestic politics in the decision making process regardless of what some Republican critics may say now.  It is and always has been a necessary part of the process.  Arguably it is the single most important consideration when considering involvement in counterinsurgency as this type of war is a struggle between the political wills of the contesting polities, both indigenous and foreign.

The proposition is different when domestic politics becomes the major, perhaps the preeminent policy consideration.  This was the case in the Afghanistan decision.  Mr Obama made the worst of all choices and then made the results of a bad decision even worse.

In essence, the president opted for the counterinsurgency orientation without providing sufficient resources.  At the same time he failed to prepare the American public, particularly that segment most closely aligned with the Democratic Party, for the reality that counterinsurgency demanded extraordinary patience, a willingness to accept inconclusive measurements of progress, and an outcome which would not make everybody--perhaps anybody--happy.

In short, Mr Obama made the same basic errors as had the Bush/Cheney administration--too broad a goal, too few resources, and no proper preparation of the American public so political will would be sapped quickly.  To this recipe for failure, he added a new ingredient.

Mr Obama accompanied his announcement of a mini-surge with a date certain when US combat forces would commence withdrawal.  The justification offered in Mr Woodward's book is the one so obvious at the time--fear of alienating the Democratic Party's progressive base.

The imperatives of what passed for Presidential thinking were pathetically obvious at the time even without Woodward's insider quotes.  Mr Obama wished to protect his flank against attacks from the Right by appearing tough-minded and vigorous as a wartime leader dedicated to the defeat of "extremism" and the installation of democracy.  At the same time he sought to protect his Left flank from attacks on that vector by providing a "date certain" and limiting the number of new hostages to fortune deployed to the war zone.

The results of this politically driven decision were obvious at the time.  The chief beneficiary would be Taliban which now understood that US patience was officially limited.  Paradoxically the next beneficiary would be the government of Hamid Karzai, which would see it could afford to ignore the calls for Westernization and chat up Taliban in search of a middle ground.

There is no real doubt that Afghanistan, the US, and even Pakistan would have been better off had the Nice Young Man From Chicago opted for the limited counter-terrorism approach.  In effect, had Obama picked up the ball which had been dropped so badly by Bush/Cheney.  It is ironic, deliciously so, that had Obama gone for the punitive expedition option discarded by the ever-so-muscular dude from Texas, he would have had a very good chance of successfully achieving a better state of peace characterized by a greatly diminished threat from al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other advocates of violent political Islam in the region.

Of course, to expect Mr Obama to have made an intelligent decision about war is too expect the utterly impossible.  The idea of war offends his tidy, lawyerly mind.  It outrages his personal morality of progressivism.  It violates his belief in the pussiance of international institutions.  War is a subject about which Mr Obama knows so little he has no capacity to know what he does not know.  And, war is a subject which so deeply revolts the Obama sensibilities that he has no desire to rectify his abysmal ignorance nor to come to respect the knowledge and capacities of men in uniform who do know wars and how to fight them.

In this respect he exceeds even Bill Clinton.

Mr Clinton at the least had the vague understanding that defeat by an enemy such as al-Qaeda would have long lasting and very negative consequences for the US--and the rest of the civilized world.  In his distaste for war--and his acceptance of the tenets of the "blame American first" school of history and politics, Mr Obama lacks even this.

Mr Obama is quite evidently unbothered by the possibility of American defeat in Afghanistan.  He is not even overly concerned about the resumption of terror attacks against the continental United States as he has observed that the US could "absorb" more attacks.  This is correct if one restricts the use of the word "absorb" to the purely physical effects of an attack and puts to the side the impact upon national morale, self-confidence, and American standing in global politics.

If the tantalizing bits from Woodward's forthcoming book are accurate, he has performed a useful albeit unpleasant service to We the People.  He has shot another and well deserved arrow into the blimp of myth which is President Barack Obama.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Idealism And Realpolitiks--The MDG At Year 10

Some 140 governmental leaders accompanied by legions of staff, camp followers, and assorted hangers on will be frolicking and conferring in the Big Apple this week. The reason for the crowded festivities in the days before the opening of this year's UN General Assembly is consideration of the first decade of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and introduction of "midcourse corrections" for the upcoming and final five years of the program.

Most of the goals will not be met. That is the major takeaway from the mass of real and virtual ink spilled in the past few days in the run-up to the confab. The picture is dismal enough even when the coarse grain data are used. It gets worse, much worse, when a fine grain appreciation of individual countries is employed.

The overarching sense of failure comes through even in appreciations drafted by people who were involved in the original MDG documents and the specific goals which followed a few years later. The tone of defeat is evident when the opening, very hosanna paragraphs are followed by lengthy recitals alleging why more has not been accomplished and, in all probability, never will be.

Most of the Flying Fingers Of Blame have pointed at the US and, to a lesser extent, other "rich" nations. Even though Uncle Sam is acknowledged as the largest donor, critics are quick to note that even the not-yet-achieved level of international giving promised by President Obama would amount to only twenty cents of every one hundred dollars of overall economic activity, which is well short of the MDG target of seventy cents per one hundred bucks.

Other Western countries do donate at a rate higher than twenty cents per hundred bucks. Of course the total dollar amount is given is far less.

On the "rich" side of the hill complaints have multiplied regarding the various and sundry ways in which donated dollars are either diverted from their intended destinations or simply wasted by recipients: national, international and non-governmental. The usual shorthand way in which the displeasure is displayed is in the always twinned words, "transparency" and "accountability."

Also mentioned albeit in a more sotto voce way are the contributors to failure which cannot be assigned to lack of resources. The primary suspect in this department is the inability or unwillingness of one recipient government after another to engage in necessary social and political reforms which would lead to the internal stability and cohesiveness without which no genuine, sustained economic development is possible. Absent stability and its handmaiden, predictability, it doesn't matter how much money is expended, no development, no improvement in the status of women, no reduction in mortality, no assurance that starvation will not stalk those on the lower levels of economic success is conceivable.

Indeed, this phenomenon, the unwillingness of governments to continence necessary changes, is facilitated by the cash cow of the MDG. Arguably, without substantial changes on the part of numerous, authoritarian inclined governments, the money from MDG generosity is not simply wasted, it assures the continuation of an evil status quo.

Another reason which has been adduced to the less than thrilling performance of the MDG is the failure of many states, particularly in Africa, to embrace effective programs of population limitation. As one of the cited articles insists, the Catholic Church, described as "influential" in Sub-Saharan Africa, is in large measure responsible for this undesirable state of affairs. Left unmentioned is the even more important role played by Islamic clerics in the same region who mouth the line holding the West's emphasis on birth control is a "genocidal" measure aimed at Muslims.

This omission is most unfortunate. Muslim birthrates not only in Sub-Saharan Africa but elsewhere are the highest in the world. And, the truth, down where poverty is the absolute norm, is that there are too many people in the world today. In particular, there are too many people in areas which have the least agricultural carrying capacity.

When the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the land, at best, the country must spend an inordinate percentage of its resources on imported food. This, in turn, means the country does not have the resources necessary to create an economic structure which will assure employment. Even states with ample resources, such as Iran and Venezuela, demonstrate that with too many people, particularly young people, there will be too few jobs.

This dynamic implies that one of the most important questions which will not be addressed at the UN this week is the imperative of population limitation. Because of the power of religious beliefs as well as the invulnerability of these beliefs to challenge or even questioning, it is certain that the issue of too many people will be swept under the highly polished conference tables. In lieu of facing the elephant in the room, there will be demands for more money to be given by the "rich" in order to feed the poor. Emotionally charged images of the starving will be brandished about as will dire predictions of horrid things to come if the hungry are not fed by the overweight of the West--primarily the Americans.

The continuation of foreign assistance to overpopulated countries will not be considered. There will be no discussion of the utter irresponsibility of maintaining and enhancing the problem by pumping ever greater sums into the empty bellies of people so unfortunate as to have been born in countries without sufficient agricultural carrying capacity to meet their needs.

The unquestioned given is simply that every life everywhere is too important, too precious to be allowed to waste away in hunger or disease. There is an unstated but compelling apprehension that anyone and everyone must be held harmless from the consequences of having been born as a result of irresponsible government policies based on premises which have no realistic basis.

The representatives of these many irresponsible governments and their supporters among religions and non-governmental organizations will demand never ending transfers of wealth from the citizens of much more responsible and provident nations. These demands will escalate until there is no more wealth to be transferred--unless a major restructuring of the attitudes underlying foreign assistance including the MDG is made.

The reality of life requires that all parties, donors and recipients alike, recognize that the accomplishment of the MDG rests not on money per se but on the number of people who are at the table eager to eat the pie of international assistance. This means, ironically, that the success of some MDG components such as the reduction of malnutrition or infectious disease works against the success of the overall program.

There is another, more compelling, and far more realpolitik rooted reason to get down to the first principle of population limitation. At some point in the not too distant future, the citizens of the Western donor countries, democracies one and all, will cry, "Enough!"

The combination of the Great Recession, demographic changes, longer life expectancy, and a long experience with a certain, admittedly high, standard of living will result in the various electorates suffering terminal donor fatigue. There is no way on this Earth that the citizens of the US and other advanced countries, facing very real problems in their daily lives, will go along with the endless wealth transfers implicit in the MDG and the inevitable follow-ons.

Both as individuals and as members of a society, a polity, Americans and their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere will question how much they should reduce their standard of living in order that the seemingly endless needs of people in other areas of the world should benefit. It must be recalled that foreign aid has never had a broad base of support within We the People and the narrow base will shrink all the more if the demands escalate without any apparent end.

Americans are generous. That inclination has been demonstrated time after time for generations. The American people will support the MDG and akin aid programs but not without end. And, not without the recipients demonstrating a high level of responsibility in how the money is spent. However, demands based upon threats, extortion as it were, for aid without limit will cause a push back which no elected government can ignore without great peril.

It is hard to say how close We the People are to the "Enough!" point today but it is more than passingly strange that President Obama has been notably reticent on the MDG and requesting great infusions of foreign aid cash. The probability of a Republican resurgence does nothing to ease the minds of those who might be hoping in New York to browbeat or guilt trip the US into committing yet more money to the MDG.

The only way out, the only way in which the MDG or similar programs can lay claim to the money of We the People is if the US government can convince us that the expenditures are critical to core national and strategic interests and not merely a nice, moral thing to do regardless of economic constraints. This pitch will be effective only if it can be supported by an honest demonstration that recipient governments are not only accountable and transparent but also responsible in their use of the aid.

That, in its turn, requires the recipients to finally face up to the reality that too many people will mean failure. Failure which cannot be redeemed no matter how much money is expended.

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