Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cuba Embargo

This is just plain stupid. And Obama knows it.

The US voted against a resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba. OK. It was a condemnation aimed at the US. But the Obama administration knows - knows (and everyone with a scintilla of intelligence knows) that the embargo is a joke and harms the interests of the US, not to mention the investments that private firms (hotels, etc.) could make there and reap the rewards.

Every US ally in the world voted against the US except Israel (which, incidentally, has investments in Cuba). Bears worth repeating - every ally voted against the US. Obama and Hillary should have voted: abstain.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Let the Games Begin - The Race for President in Ukraine

Well, it has begun. As reported in Hurriyet the campaign to take over the weak position of President of Ukraine has achieved lift-off. Yulia Tymoschenko held a large rally and lambasted Yuschenko.

I can't say I'm particularly interested in who wins - it won't be Yuschenko - but it would be a tragedy for the election to go to Yanukovich. So I guess I'm for Yulia.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Afghanistan II - What's the Plan?

Militant Taliban on the road out of Kabul, Afg...Image by Carl Montgomery via Flickr

The decision to invade Afghanistan was aimed at the destruction of Al Qaida as an effective force able to stage complex and large scale terrorist activities, deny it a secure base and simultaneously to drive the Taliban from power. Al Qaida has since been marginalized and since the invasion has been unable to mount any form of coordinated, serious attack against the US. They are no longer a threat to the US and no longer have a base of operations in Afghanistan such as existed under the protection of the Taliban.

The Taliban were driven from power by US and allied forces. There was no effective follow-thru and soon, the Repblican administration abandoned the hunt for Osama bin Laden and allowed the rural areas to become havens for the Taliban. The US is now paying the price for the misjudgements of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and the choice to turn its eye, efforts and money on Iraq.

The Taliban are resurgent and effective. The country is dangerously corrupt. Karzai is more the mayor of Kabul than president. The recent election was shot thru with fraud and after a recount, a new election is likely. General McChrystal's solution is a major troop surge of at least 40,000 while NATO allies have had enough and will send no more. They want an exit strategy. What alternatives does the new Obama administration have after inheriting a shattered foreign policy, shattered economic policy at home and questionable support from NATO allies?

First, there is the McChrystal alternative. It is not surprising for the general in charge to see the effects of more than six years of indifference to the mission and ask for more troops. But will more boots on the ground really make a difference? That is highly unlikely. The Taliban know that the US will not be in place forever and they can afford to wait. The US treasury cannot continue to absorb endless wars, whether justified or not. And the US cannot continue to sacrifice its military on what very well may be an unwinable war in the conventional sense. Historically there would be no precedent for military victory.

However, putting an additional 40,000 troops into Afghanistan will smack of an occupation. More troops is not better. In fact, it will antagonize the Afghans and serve as a rallying cry for the Taliban. Far more effective would be highly trained special forces that are used to pinpoint targets and terrorist bases to disrupt and destroy Taliban operations. Coupled with an effort to make sure that aid is meaningful - rebuilding infrastructure for example - would go a long way to removing the attraction of the Taliban and deflate any propaganda characterizing the war as an occupation.

Second, the Obama administration has already dialed down the effort to eradicate opium poppy production. This was a misguided effort as all it did was drive poor farmers into the hands of the Taliban. Opium growing accounts for a third of the Afghan economy. No substitute was offered and destruction of the fields meant destruction of the family. It was a foolish policy and the Obama administraton should continue its targeted opium field destruction policy while significantly raising the level of effort to give farmers alternatives so they and their families don't have to choose between starvation and the Taliban.

Third, and most importantly, it is clear that somewhere in 2005 - 2006 the US slowly slipped into a nation-building mission. This was a huge error and needs to be rapidly reversed.

Afghanistan has never been a nation - so there is nothing to rebuild - and the US should not be in that business. Nation building requires the assent of the population and they must do it themselves. The Bush administration indulged in an alarming tendency to lecture other nations and peoples. How has that worked out? It is absurd to believe that anything the US does can result in a viable, cohesive Afghanistan when its entire history is one of tribal rivalry which only seems to come together when a foreign presence descends on Herat or Kabul be it Persia, the Mongols, England, Russia or the US. It is truly the 'graveyard of empires'. None have succeeded. None.

The choices facing the Obama administration are stark and not of its making. Eight years of mismanagement and myth building will not be fixed quickly. President Obama must ignore the conventional wisdom that permeates the Washington village. It has been consistently and deadly wrong for eight years - and not just in Afghanistan.

Everyone wants success but is unable to define it. Richard Holbrook defined success as "knowing it when we see it". Really? What are the goals? Who exactly, is the enemy? I respect Ambassador Holbrook enormously, but I certainly hope that "we'll know it when we see it" is not the definition of success being adopted by this administration. The US needs an exit strategy - an end game - and not one for a long-term engagement with significant military forces.

The internal political problems that the Obama administration faces regarding Afghanistan are one of "damned if you do and damned if you don't". It is abundantly clear that the Republican opposition is not interested in engagement and debate and is simply going to try and tear down, obstruct and damage this administration in any way possible, including fear, obfuscation and outright lies. They will need to be steamrolled. Period.

Granting General McChrystal the troops he claims is necessary for victory - or at least to stabilize the situation - is not necessarilly what is needed. Again, a significantly larger military footpring will achieve the opposite effect with the population. Additional troops of this magnitude will make it impossible to disangage and will be used to justify more troops and money. It has happened before and is a disease that seems to infect American foreign policy.

Fewer troops with a narrow mission of containing and destroying Al Qaida is much more practical than a massive ground war against the Taliban. At the same time,the United States should increase international assistance to Afghanistan under UN supervision. The aid should target the creation of sustainable development, particularly in rural areas. Furthermore, continuing to target opium producers directly tied to the Taliban is a viable policy while providing income-producing alternatives to all the rest would reduce the growing antipathy toward the US.

The Obama administration needs to brush aside the wise old men who pontificate every Sunday on television and in the rapidly shrinking print media who suggest that if only the US had enough troops and enough time, we could build a nation. The US could stay in Afghanistan for a thousand years and it would not achieve its definition of success if the definition is the creation of some sort of Jeffersonian democracy.

Next, I want to discuss the larger picture. Iran, Russia, Europe and Israel.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Accidents Happen

Su-24 FencerImage by Deutscher Friedensstifter via Flickr

This could ruin your whole day.
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Ukraine and the US BMD System

Sarych headland near Foros, Ukraine.Image via Wikipedia

Apparently, the US and Ukraine really are talking about a BMD radar placement. That should annoy Russia, but it is really impractical and can only mean that the US is playing with the Kremlin's mind. Would upgrading and the use of an existing base in Crimea make sense? Sure. It faces southeast. Will Ukraine do it? Probably - except for that minor problem of the government changing to a more pro-Russian stance in January. But it is a hint of the Obama velvetglovebutstillinyourfaceRussia foreign policy. More on that later.

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Afghanistan I

The pass of Salang, approximately 3800 meters ...Image via Wikipedia

US involvement in Afghanistan recently passed its eighth anniversary. As President Obama has said, this was not a war of choice for the US. The question is, what has it become and where is the US going.

Briefly, in 2001 when the US invasion began, the goal was to destroy safe havens for terrorists which were under the protection of the ruling Taliban. The Taliban were targeted too since their rule had facilitated al Qaida training camps and they refused to turn over Osama bin Laden claiming he was a guest. The Bush administration publicly made the mission one of destroying the Taliban and capturing or killing bin Laden. Neither goal, obviously was met while the mission drifted until the Bush administration clearly abandoned the search for the man behind the death of 3,000 American, British, Iranian, French and other nationalities at the World Trade Center.

The Taliban collapsed outwardly rather quickly, being unable to challenge US and US supported troops in the field. Having utter control in the air, the US and its Afghan allies rapidly rolled up territory and simply drove into Kabul. What happened next was a series of misplaced priorities and actions.

First, US strategy relied on high altitude bombing which resulted in high civilian casualty counts. Not the way to win over the population to the cause. Small scale anti-terrorist operations may have been more effective and resulted in fewer civilian deaths while offering a better chance of capturing or killing the most wanted criminal - up to that point - for the US. The Bush administration then handed over power to the military warlords and Islamisists who had support the US campaign.

Even when Karzai came to power and tried to curb the power of the warlords, the US continued its support because of the perceived necessity of using them to root out al Qaida and Taliban elements. Unfortunately as well, the US did not seek to internationalize the effort by asking for European - and especially troops from Muslim countries - to join as part of a coalition at that time.

Without an effort to build security beyond Kabul, the stage was set for a Taliban resurgence - which began three years ago as the effects of the war of choice in Iraq sucked down US troops, attention and treasury. By 2005 the US poured in half a trillion dollars into Iraq and during the previous two years slashed reconstruction aid to the Karzai government by 30%. By 2005, even the aid provided was not going to the Afghan people (and those of us in the development business know exactly how US foreign aid operates). Action Aid estimated at the time that only 14% of all aid goes to real development project. I know some of the people who were in Afghanistan - the 50% of development aid funding that went to these dubiously qualified consultants to be spent on questionable US products was a joke. At that time Karzai was justified in his harsh criticism of all foreign aid - and especially that from the US. Karzai was fiercely critical of the Bush policies even in 2005. Indeed, the US spent more on bombing Afghanistan than rebuilding it.

The failures that were self-evident in 2005 and widely discussed, except as is ever the case to ardent supporters of Bush and Cheney and the neo-con leadership, were largely the result of the diversion of resources to Iraq. An Afghanistan policy review took place in 2005 and progress there was widely praised by the Bush administration. Yet, the Afghanistan operation remained an unfinished effort, faded from the ever vigilant US media. The focus in Afghanistan was completely lost after the Tora Bora operation that failed to capture or kill the primary target of the US, Osama bin Laden. Then, specialized elements of the US Army assigned to track him down were withdrawn in 2002 for the preparations against Iraq.

The Obama administration has said that it has completed its deliberations on a policy direction for the US in Afghanistan which will also determine the number of "surge" troops demanded by General McChrystal. Where and how the US directs its efforts at this point is critical. This administration needs to get it right and not follow the knee jerk crazies in the Republican Limbaugh Party - who, by the way, don't serve in any capacity in Afghanistan but who are very willing and eager to watch other peoples' children die.

The next post will discuss some myths that prevail about Afghanistan and posit a way forward - if the administration does not make the post moot. I will also review the larger picture of the changed foreign policy strategy of the Obama administration and the effect on Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran.
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Work Break Over - Afghanistan Next Post

A view of the Dar es Salaam SkylineImage via Wikipedia

OK. I know the post below suggested an immediate start to a couple of entries on Afghanistan. I was completely sidetracked. By work. Hey - it happens.

So the next posts will begin shortly. I need to go sailing first off the coast here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to recover from reports and presentations to government officials.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Afghanistan Fast Forward

For the past eight years, the US has been fighting in and supplying technical assistance to Afghanistan.

The focus of the current debate is whether to send significantly more troops - General McChrystal wants 40,000 - as the only alternative to "win" the war. President Obama, the Pentagon and the State Department, among others, are slowly developing a plan - something that has been lacking - regarding the way forward. But, before determining the size of the military presence, President Obama needs to explain the goal.

The goal used to be the destruction of al-Qaida and the capture of Osama bin Laden. Then the focus changed, particularly with the preparations for the war-of-choice of the Bush-Cheney administration to invade Iraq which had no connection whatsoever to the attacks by al-Qaidi in New York and Washington. The preparatioins for the Iraq war can be directly linked to the failures in Afghanistan which were well documented by 2005 and with which the US must deal with in expanded form now.

In subsequent posts I want to examine where we have been and where we may be going in Afghanistan and some of the assumtions that underlie many policies undertaken by the US that may well be very wrong.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Well Put

I think the vision is perfect and reflects the general deep, ingrained ingorance of the right wing leadership and its followers in the US:

Reactionaries playing checkers - Prez playing chess.

Credit for the phrase where it is due. However, the remainder of the post is a little light - particularly the world government meme. Ignore it. The phrase is worth it.

US, Ukraine, Georgia, Iran and Russia

A few days ago Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, reportedly suggested that Ukraine would be an appropriate location for radar sites such as had recently been scraped for the Czech Republic as part of the ill-conceived BMD system of Bush that involved placing BMD missiles in Poland. Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs was taken by surprise, to say the least, as was Ukraine.

What appears to have happened is that Vershbow was referring to existing radar systems in Ukraine and not the prospect of placing US BMD systems in their place or even in addition.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense is also visiting Moscow and will be in Georgia starting on October 19 where defence discussions will be on the agenda. These discussions will likely review and revise the military training support provided by the US to the Georgian army. What is unclear is whether the training will now be ratcheted up and include offensive capabilities.

Both the comment regarding Ukraine's inclusion in the future BMD shield (and after all, the land based system will not be implemented until 2015)and the meetings in Georgia are likely to raise hackles in Moscow, more regarding Georgia than Ukraine. Ukraine will have a new, more Russia centric president in January, so any US or NATO hopes for retaining Ukraine as a potential balance to Russia is circling the drain. Implementing a policy such as suggested by Vershbow - even using existing Ukrainian radar bases - would be rapidly unwound by the new government. It's a waste of energy and an empty threat.

Georgia, on the other hand, is a completely different matter to Russia. They have made it clear that Sakaashvili is not high on their list of favorite leaders. They have effectively seized portions of Georgia and declared their independence. As far as Russia was concerned, they virtually had the Caucuses wrapped up. So an increase in the US presence in Georgia would be a set-back for Russia's planning.

The international dance playing out by the US and Russia largely has to do with Iran. Russia wants to continue to reassert itself in the near-abroad and to do so, it holds out its leverage with Iran. The US is refusing to back away from maintaining and increasing its influence in Russia's backyard. The statements regarding Ukraine are meaningless. Georgia, however, is a different matter. US boots on the ground in Georgia become a trip-wire just as Russian troops are on the territories it seized. It would close out full control of the Caucuses for Russia.

As time goes on, however, it is becoming increasing clear that Iran is not going to walk back its uranium enrichment program, a key issue for Israel. If that is the case, then Russia will gradually lose its influence in Iran as well.

Once Russia is perceived as not being able or willing to deliver anything regarding Iran, its leverage will dissipate. Georgia can likely expect increasing support from the US while the US will encourage Turkey to reach diplomatic deals with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia's game plan for the entire Caucuses could unravel.

I think by the end of the year the geo-political landscape will be significantly changed in the region while at the same time making it more dangerous. Everyone should re-read "The Guns of August".

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Armenia and Turkey Take the Next Step

The protocol that will be signed on Saturday will be historic as it brings the southern Caucuses closer to stability and an end to the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (only a ceasefire is in place). A second protocol will expand on the normalization of relations and lead to a vote for ratification in Ankara and Yerevan after which the borders will be open.

The risk, of course, is that the nationalists in both Turkey and Armenia will do everything possible to assure the protocols are not ratified. This is the chosen role of nationalist parties world-wide - a single minded effort to undermine cross-border cooperation largely based on historical affronts by the other side.

Everything must be done in the case between Armenia and Turkey to push the nationalists to the side in the name of the substantial economic and political improvements to both countries.

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Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize


And I am very happy that the Republican Party has finally found its natural allies who were equally critical of the award to the President: Hamas, the Taliban and Iran.

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Most Persecuted Person in History

{{it|Silvio Berlusconi in Giappone.Image via Wikipedia

The law giving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi immunity from prosecution has been struck down by Italy's Supreme Court. The Prime Minister now feels unjustly put upon since he will need to defend himself from what promises to be an onslaught of criminal charges, including bribery and corruption. OK. Innocent until proven otherwise.

But...these responses as reported in the BBC probably won't help him much:

"In my opinion, and not only mine, I am the best prime minister we can find today."

"I am without doubt the person who's been the most persecuted in the entire history of the world and the history of man..."

and the best -

...explaining that the money had gone on paying "consultants and judges", before correcting himself to say "consultants and lawyers". Freud would be nodding his head.

Stay tuned for a mountain of quotables as the trials loom and lumber forward.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Turkish Armenia Protocols

Without question, both Turkey and Armenia are moving toward a mutual understanding while pinching their respective noses. I have long said that the relationship between Ankara and Yerevan was unsustainable for a variety of reasons.

First, the Nagorno-Kharabakh issue was not going to be settled on terms that either Yerevan or Baku liked. While working in Armenia for three years I found that the consensus expressed was that the NK should - and indeed could not be returned to Azerbaijan. However, the parallel consensus was that Armenia should not keep its military presence in the areas bordering the NK. They felt that the NK was Armenia but acknowledged that the occupied areas were exactly that - occupied and should be returned. This may ultimately be part of the deal. In addition, for all the bluster coming from Baku, they were not going to start another war if only because they would run smack into Russian border guards and Turkey would not back them up. That is why it recently proposed that the NK become semi-independent.

Second, Armenia is landlocked, poor and cannot grow economically with closed borders. They mistrust Iran and are not particularly close to Georgia whom they felt indulged in a great deal of profiteering during the war at the expense of Armenia despite being coreligionists. Businesses in Eastern Turkey have long wanted access to and across Armenia and Armenia needs the trade that will result - particularly if it then has additional access to the Black Sea and is not forced to use Georgian ports.

Finally, Turkey would like this diversion ended. It is a rising power in the Caucuses and Central Asia, not to mention the elephant in the room in the Middle East. Turkey is a competitor with Iran and is a democratic country - more so than any of its neighbors. The beginning of the end of this problem would allow Turkey to concentrate on expanding its influence, likely at the expense of Iran and Russia even though Russia wants a hold on Armenia.

The Armenia diaspora is demonstrating actively against any rapprochement. But then, I have always observed that, aside from summer vacations, they don't have to live in Armenia but can retreat to their pleasant California or French homes where they have running water, electricity 24 hours a day and incomes that exceed $35 a month. The Armenians, left to themselves, would have sorted out their international relations some time ago.

Settlements and compromises usually come gradually in diplomatic affairs. Finally, a major step appears to be on the verge of happening. Good.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mouse in the House

I've just learned an important lesson. Don't leave the front door open at night in Dar es Salaam for more than a few seconds. A mouse slipped in and it took almost an hour to chase it out. Not a smart animal, but amazingly quick.

Conveniently, this allows an easy segue into the planned attendance by Senator Inhofe to the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Copenhagen in December.

Senator Inhofe is arguably the dumbest person in Congress, so his plan to tell the conference participants, many of whom are eminent scientists, that the US will not pass any legislation to deal with climate change is laughable. This is the deep thinker who famously announced a few years' back that there could not be global warming because Oklahoma had more snow in the month of March 2009 than ever in recorded history. Fortunately, participating to abate climate change, something the rest of the world actually knows to be true, will be supported by legislation in the majority of countries including the US.

More importantly, since no one with an IQ exceeding 80 will listen much less take seriously anything this mentally challenged politician says, is the concept that he and his "Truth Squad" are actively undermining the policy of the elected government of the US. Perhaps not treason, but actively undermining the policy of the government is a violation of the Logan Act. That's a felony.

The scope of this active effort to undermine the announced foreign policies of the US government is truly amazing. It includes visits to Israel, China and Honduras all for the explicit purpose of announcing to the world that policies of the US government are not substantive and, indeed, are shams. Again, perhaps not treason, but they are damn close to the line and certainly could be considered felonious actions. I am not aware of any other country where the opposition party actively works to undermine its stated foreign policy. It would not even be a brief thought in Great Britain. That's left to the "uniqueness" of America I suppose.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

No Olympics for Chicago

For some valid reasons. Oh well...get over it. Brazil did a good job selling Rio. Not the end of civilization.

Note to the right wing toons in the US - celebrating a loss for the city of Chicago as some sort of political vindication for you is, to say the least, typical of bullies and morons. Go back under your rock.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Tidbit for the Day

Description unavailableImage by Edgley Cesar via Flickr

After looking at the operating hours of an office here in Dar, I was completely confused when I saw 3:00 - 7:00. Then I found out that in Swahili, that means 9:00 to 1:00 PM. Why? You might well ask that.

In Swahili, time is represented by the rise of the sun which, being almost on top of the equator, is usually at 6 AM. So. Being pastoralists 3:00 is 9:00 because it is 6hours past the sunrise. Reverse for the afternoon - so 7:00 is 1:00 PM.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Development Terms of Reference

Excuse the rant, but I have a couple of points to make about TOR writing and expectations of donors, land reform in particular - one of my principal areas of expertise.

One. Land reform that aims to help the public in general and give the poor access to capital in particular, relies on only one key component. Secure tenure. All the rest is fluff.

Two. Secure tenure can be achieved within the confines of two key structures. The first is title registration (I exclude clearly successful deed recording as in South Africa or the United States) and second, effective enforcement mechanisms through the courts or other institutions.

Three. Title registration - the love of donors and particularly the World Bank - is not rocket science.

Four. Surveyors can be the enemy of rapid registration of title, especially in poorer countries where land is worth nothing but the surveyors insist on five to ten centimeter accuracy - in rural areas. Taste reality. People on the ground know where their boundary runs. Don't interfere. I have been in too many countries where no boundary disputes existed before the surveyors landed in their mother ship.

Five. Donors need fewer agricultural economists and surveyors driving secure tenure because the vast majority (except for a few, really, really smart practitioners) don't have the slightest regard of the foundations of the policy of secure land tenure. Valuable land is located in urban areas. That's why everyone is moving there and creating, as in Africa, slums at the rate of five percent a year. Give these people tenure first. The wilderness can come next.

Finally. Donors should not permit the release of a TOR that ignores the edges. In other words, don't target one area for reform without looking at the other sectors that directly or indirectly feed into that one area. That is not negligent. Or lazy.

It is stupid and a waste of money.

End of Rant. Thank you and my apologies to agricultural economists and arm-chair reformers.

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Dreams and Reality in Ukraine

Orange-clad demonstrators gather in the Indepe...Image via Wikipedia

I normally don't write very much about Ukraine any longer because the political and economic environment is in shambles. But, in what may be the strangest combination of rose colored glasses and stark reality was the statement today by President Victor Yushchenko: "I will win the election, and if not, it is not a tragedy"

From the Orange Revolution hope on Maidan to single digit poll numbers, the squandered opportunities are legion. Meanwhile, Speaker of the Rada, Volodymir Lytvyn, said that there would be no opposition to Yulia Tymoshenko should she be elected, but there would be if Victor Yanakuvich won.

Almost a Greek tragedy.

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