Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

The last post of 2009.

Happy New Year
Heri ya Mwaka Mpya
С Новым 2010 годом!
Веселого Різдва і з Новим Роком

Iran on the Brink

Coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Iran. ...Image via Wikipedia

Well. Not exactly. But the Western media would have you believe it is as they continue to portray the "opposition" as some sort of anti-clerical, anti-Islamic group (this does not apply to the protesters in the street who are likely very anti-clerical rule).

I recently received an email of an alternative view which seems to me much more reality based although I can't vouch for its accuracy. Essentially, the alternative view says this:

1. This is not about a conflict of ideology. It is about economics - those that affect the economic elites.

2. On one side is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The other side is represented by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former has been on the short end of the deal to Ahmadinejad lately and his businesses are not doing well. Remember, he is a very wealthy cleric.

3. Rafsanjani is basically shut down in Iran - he is no longer privy to the inner circle discussions or decisions.

4. The 30 year old sanctions have taken a toll and Rafsanjani developed a strong overseas network for trade. So, Rafsanjani's overseas network has come into play.

5. Ahmadinejad did not sit on his hands and has been developing his own overseas network. This has not worked out so well as Rafsanjani gave the names etc of people the President had been working with to the CIA and MI5 who have dutifully scotched the deals. In a tit for tat, Ahamdinejad closed his opponents out of the internal banking system. Bad if you need loans to run businesses.

6. If either side voiced this in public, the religious mantle they cover themselves with would vanish. Nothing but the political and economic hacks that they are.

7. The street protests are mostly those Iranians who are westernized. Not many, I'm afraid.

8. The growing pressure by security forces to put an end to the demonstrations is becoming intense. If they are unleashed, the bloodshed so far seen will be nothing.

9. Since Rafsanjani is out of the loop, anything he or his people say to the west must be considered unreliable.

10. Ahmadinejad will deal on the nuclear issue but the US has to simultaneously (or a nano-second before) drop sanctions so that he will come out looking like a savior.

11. The economic control war is playing out, but the regime is running thin on patience.

What is left unsaid above is what would happen if the US agreed, as a New Year gesture, to lift sanctions? Would the demonstrations stop - or be stopped?

As I said, take the above with a grain of salt. But it is entirely plausible under the circumstances and is consistent with other political power struggles - one only needs to look to the clan struggle going on now in Russia. It's all about the money.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Failed Plane Bombing - War in Yemen

The growing clamour from the usual suspects in the US to insert itself somehow into the Yemen as a result of the failed attack on the Delta plane over Detroit is very reminiscent of previous cries by the same cast of characters to invade Iraq and bomb Iran. Before succumbing to the mendacious arguments put forward by some of the dumbest members of the legislative community (I'm talking about you Hoekstra), a little bit of fact checking is in order.

First - Republicans (again I'm talking to you Hoekstra, and you Bachmann, and you Boehner)voted against appropriating the necessary funds for airport security which included explosive detection devises. And shame on you BBC, CNN et al for not reporting that and on the Obama administration for not shoving it in their collective faces. Oh. It was the Bush administration that released (presumably for lack of evidence) two Yemenis who were the alleged plotters behind this attempted bombing. So Cheney - STFU.

Second - The BBC revealed today that the CIA knew about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old (wealthy brat) Nigerian and failed to talk to anyone about it - thereby allowing his visa for the US to continue. No comment.
Third - Joe Lieberman (R-CT) said on Fox News Sunday that the US should launch a pre-emtive war against Yemen - quoting an anonymous administration source. Does this sound familiar? Yemen, Senator, has not attacked the US and, in fact, is cooperating with a key US ally in the region - Saudi Arabia - to disrupt and destroy what is known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Who does he want the US to pre-emtively attack?

The call for the US to significantly increase its presence in the conflict, which is partly a civil war, all as a result of a failed attack by a lone, pathetic rich kid from Nigeria, of whom the US was warned by his father, is bordering on the insane. However, it may be too late as CNN reported today that although there has been no deal on a US Special Forces helicopter-borne assault that puts boots on the ground, that the US would like the Yeminis to develop that capacity.

That Yemen is a mess, politically and economically is clear. It has been fighting an indigenous al Houthi insurgency in the north for years and a growing secessionist movement in the south. The al Houthi are the proxy now for Iran in its regional competition with Saudi Arabia and are not connected with al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) whose stated goal has been the overthrow of the Saudi government. The Saudi's can and have crushed al Houthi incursions on Saudi territory and have even launched effective airstrikes against their mountain strongholds in Yemen.

AQAP is the combination of the now destroyed Saudi al Qaeda group and its Yemeni counterpart. The group has been singularly ineffective in doing anything and has now lost its leadership as a result of a succession of air/ground attacks. AQAP is hardly the type of threat requiring any more attention from the US than is already being given. Politically, however, the US administration may not have a choice as the media and Republicans press for "action" and pre-emptive war.

The Lieberman crowd need to dial down the hysterics. Yemen is a fragile state posing absolutely no threat to the US or anyone else. The government can only push the jihadists so far without running into trouble with the various tribes in the area and it's own security units (sound familiar?) The government has to fight an al-Houthi insurgency and a secessionist movement in the south. Disintegration is a word that comes to mind. But, the prospect of another failed state in the region (Somalia is the other) does not appear to concern the neo-con element that is palpably tingling with anticipation for another war. Yemen is on the edge of the failed state slope and insertion of more US forces would push it over that edge.

The reality, Senator Lieberman, is that this matter is much more complex than you are leading people who watch Fox to believe. Furthermore, the US does not need to escalate any more than it already has, to wit:

December 17: Mohammed Saleh Mohammed Ali al-Kazemi, a senior leader of AQAP, and dozens of other AQAP militants, were killed in an air strike in the southern province of Abyan. The U.S. Navy carried out the strike. The strike was accompanied by coordinated ground raids by Yemeni forces to prevent escape. The use of US naval assets is already a dramatic escalation by the US.

December 24: A Yemeni assault on AQAP was backed by US air assets resulting in 30 killed, including the cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, Nasser al-Wuhayshi (al-Qaeda's regional leader) and his deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri. The cleric, by the way, had contact with three of the 9/11 hijackers and also exchanged e-mails with Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

The bomber was trained and supplied in Yemen by AQAP. That much he has admitted. So what? His mentor in Yemen is probably dead. What is it about AQAP that has the media blasting headlines and demands for a pre-emptive war against the country that is, after all, fighting AQAP? For the US to go after AQAP any more than it currently is doing risks a full scale meltdown of the current government. That is an unpleasant prospect. US policy should be to coordinate and support, as it is doing, the Saudi and Yemeni government efforts, not make this a US war.

AQAP began in Saudi Arabia with the express purpose of destabilizing the regime. It was destroyed and kicked south. Now it is isolated, surrounded, under assault and incapable of producing any serious threat to anyone as it is gradually worn down and its leadership killed. The desire for a grand fireworks display to assuage Lieberman's and Hoekstra's delusions of manhood is both foolish and counterproductive.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Washington Post - Bad for Mental Health

I admit I have abandoned reading most US newspapers. However, at times I am compelled to seek out stupid. So I read the Washington Post.

The latest Hiatt editorial regarding Hillary Clinton's recent speech is stupendously moronic, but typical of the AIPAC and neo-con mentality that appears to have hijacked a formerly great newspaper.

There is this, for instance:

She offered an innovation: The Obama administration, she said, would "see human rights in a broad context," in which "oppression of want -- want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact" -- would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. "That is why," Ms. Clinton said, "the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda" would be "supporting democracy" and "fostering development."

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy -- but the idea behind it is pure 20th century.

First of all - he might have just as well characterized this as "soooo 20th century", dismissing freedom from want as some sort of passing phase. This is the conservative equivalent of "let them eat cake". The point made by the Secretary of State is that human rights must encompass freedom from hunger, disease, and access to education as well as supporting democracy. This is not a new policy Freddy and is fundamental to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which the US is a signatory.

...and this:

Ms. Clinton said that in adding "human development" to human rights and democracy, "we have to tackle all three simultaneously." But there are two dangers in her approach. One is that non-democratic regimes will seize on the economic aspect of her policy as an substitute for political reform -- as dictators have been doing for decades. Another is that the Obama administration will itself, in working with friendly but unfree countries, choose the easy route of focusing on development, while downplaying democracy.

Hiatt is amazingly transparent here while also conveniently ignoring those parts of the speech that don't fit his view of the universe. He and his fellow travellers believe that dictators are interested in economic development in a vacuum and indulge in assuring their population are adequately housed and fed only in order to please Washington. Simultaneously, he clearly has no problem with that so long as US corporate investments (China leaps to mind) get their cut, while ignoring the non-democratic aspects of the government.

Kazakhstan Takes Up the OSCE

In 2010, the Republic of Kazakhstan will assume the chair of the OSCE. Is this a cause for concern or is it possible that the government in Astana will become more democratic as a result?

I don't really think the chairmanship will turn into the possible debacle that has been portrayed by organizations like Human Rights Watch. Neither will it produce the deep changes in Kazakhstan's human rights record precisely because in order to alter attitudes within the country, laws restricting basic human rights such as freedom of expression and religion, will need to be amended so as to remove the vagueness surrounding, for example, what can be written in the press without charges of affecting the welfare of the state. Unfortunately, Astana is a totally top-down government. Nothing happens unless lower level officials receive explicit instructions from the Presidential Administration and then often it must come from the president himself.

In the meantime, perhaps the first test of the chairmanship will be monitoring the elections in Ukraine in January. Considering that after the Orange Revolution even mentioning the events in Ukraine was met by cold stares from government officials, to have Astana judging a much more robust democratic expression (despite its flaws) in Ukraine is worrying. Astana will need to approve of an election process in Ukraine (and it will) that is in stark contrast to its own.

Astana is in a position to gain considerable prestige from its chairmanship, but it will also focus attention upon its own, considerable, failings. Will the attention prove too much for the government to tolerate? Perhaps by 2011, they will be glad to have done with it. Kazakhstan is a tribal society with a ruler not accustomed or tolerant of dissent. The people were appalled by the Orange Revolution and are repelled by the apparent chaos that it represented. Stability is highly valued, just like it is in China. Holding the reins of the OSCE for a year will not change that perception and although legislation may be enacted to assuage the sensibilities of OSCE members and organizations like Human Rights Watch, implementation will unlikely be pushed very hard.

This is not to say that pressure to change will be entirely unsuccessful or should be abandoned. But more will be needed than simply appealing to Astana's sense of justice and respect for human rights. After all, they are much more interested in economic development as the newest pipeline to China indicates or recent energy deals with France.

Economic strength is a priority for the government and the general population and attitudinal changes only come after people feel economically secure. The misconception peddled by donor agencies that civil society programs alone have a significant impact in societies such as in Central Asia (or in any of the former Soviet Union for that matter)is simply a waste of money in the absence of economic stability. To put it simply, a family does not care about what happens to journalists, who owns the media or the lack of government transparency when there is no job and no food on the table. More, not less, economic development and investment will be needed to establish a foundation for systemic change while at the same time keeping the pressure on for an end to human rights abuses.

Finally, what damage can Kazakhstan possibly do to the reputation of the OSCE? Silvio Berlusconi was President of the EU for a year and the universe did not collapse.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Back from the Tanzania Bush

Returned from an amazing trip to Ruaha National Park - no crowds, no cars, no cell phones and solar power only - with close-up, non-enclosed viewing of lions - very, very close. Bumped into an elephant outside my banda as well - and retreated in a hurry. People need to do this at least once.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukka from Tanzania

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 20: A giraffe re...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I won't be posting for a week. I'm off on safari to Ruaha National Park for three days, four nights in a tent camp where hopefully there will be lion, giraffe, hippo and wild dogs. A 2+ hour flight on a small plane to central Tanzania. Back on Christmas day. Incidentally, it is over 40c during the day here lately. Almost the same at night.

So - Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah to all.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Yegor Gaidar - RIP

Yegor Gaidar, former Russian minister of finances.Image via Wikipedia

At 53, one of the leaders of economic reforms in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union has died. Many Russians despise him, but they are wrong and frankly, never understood the economic and political situation that the country faced in 1993.

Like many in his position had and continue to learn, the immense problems created by a corrupt, venal and criminal political and economic system are then blamed on the successor as the reforms that are necessary take form and are implemented. (The Republicans and the Bush administration somehow come to mind). As Rome's leaders learned, the "mob" easily forgets - but is just as easily bought off by whomever has the money, the slogans and the simplistic solutions.

I only had the chance to meet with Gaidar once together with Anatoly Chubais, when I first arrived in Russia during the latter part of 2004. The meeting was brief and I was not alone, but I remember clearly how relaxed and logical he was in describing what he felt needed to be done. It was a perilous time, but one that held enormous hope. Unlike Russia today, the chaos was a democratic kind and numerous parties were maneuvering, compromising and arriving at less than satisfactory deals in order to move forward.

Russians used to say that everything was free in the Soviet Union. I remember a town meeting outside of Moscow in 1995 when one person after another voiced similar sentiments. Except it was palpably false. Nothing was free. The speaker, a member of the Duma, then asked if they would prefer the old economy where they had jobs but nothing to buy or one where the shelves were full and choices wide. The difference, of course, was clear. They would have to work to earn what they needed. In the USSR (and I went to school for a short time in Leningrad) prices were cheap - paid for by poor salaries. Nothing is for free.

Yegor Gaidar's choices were stark and, like Robert Frost, he took the road less travelled by - and it made all the difference. Russians can thank him for saving their country regardless of the mistakes - and they were huge. But Russia survived because of him, Chubais and even - yes even - Yeltsin.

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Russia Strikes it BIG

Russia has succeeded in convincing the guano capital of the planet, if not the galaxy, to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It only cost Russia's treasury a paltry $50 Million USD to the island nation of Nauru for it to cave in to the tidal wave of support for the two Russian created regions.

It is unknown what the nation's 11,320 citizens think of this monumental decision by their country which will soon be ratified by Nauru's parliament. Lavrov must have really worked hard to achieve this diplomatic coup right under the nose of the West. I'm sure that the Kremlin will now put the unlimited supply of bird droppings their money has purchased to good use.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Peace Prize, US and Iran

In reading President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I was struck by certain sections which are indicators of what may come. Here are the 'graphs:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naive -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms.

...I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms....

If I were making a bet, then this part of the speech means that if Iran keeps thumbing its nose at the international community, refuses the proposals of Russia, Turkey and others, then the US is going to act militarily. I make no judgement of whether this is smart or not, but even Moscow seems to be frustrated. Iran's leadership need to pay attention.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Short Answers to Dumb Questions

Speaking to President Obama's speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Rude Pundit had these questions:

"To put it simply, Barack Obama wasn't talking to you. He wasn't even talking to Europe, really. No, he was speaking to history, offering a philosophical and not dispassionate assertion of American leadership in the world, a reasoning behind his war policies, a defense of the "just war" doctrine, and a plan for future peace. It wasn't a stemwinder, a breathtaking oratory cum sermon. It was a speech, from an intellectual president to intellectuals, and it was so fucking smart. Have we gone so far down the dumbing-down highway that we can no longer see the importance of hearing a rational man grapple with the conflict between realism and idealism? Have we been so numbed by the cowboy presidency of George W. Bush, along with a steady diet of reality-TV hysterics and high-fructose corn syrup-infused food products, that we're no longer capable of understanding anything except in relation to how it makes us feel?"

Answer to all the above regarding the American Publicus Idiotus: Yes.

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Off Topic - Wingnuts in the US

It is only by exercising enormous restraint that I refrain from posting on the loathsome, lowlife, uneducated morons in the US who oppose science and choice: in health (insurance) reform, for women, for lifestyle, for climate change and of religious (or no religious) beliefs. What I think should happen to them is largely unprintable. Oh - and screw Stupak and his allies.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Afghanistan Surge

The Obama plan is not what I would have hoped for since other than the July 2011 date to begin withdrawal there is no exit strategy. Perhaps there is one, but the strategy was not announced. To my mind, this was a necessary step in explaining the entire plan to the public. Now, however, and despite statements to the contrary, the withdrawal must really begin in the summer of 2011.

General McChrystal largely got what he wanted. The media, as usual, reported that the approved 30,000 was short of the troop surge that he had requested. He has more. The media conveniently forgot the 21,000 sent earlier this year. So, the US has committed another 51,000 and not 30,000. So be it and I really hope the general is correct in his assessment because he has 18 months to prove it.

If the troop withdrawal does not start in July 2011 then the surge will convert to an occupation in the eyes of the Afghans, something I would hope the US had learned to avoid from its ongoing experience in Iraq. This would be a mistake of enormous proportions because it would be seen that the US is supporting a corrupt regime in the face of an indigenous Pashtun uprising with an army made up of minority Tajiks.

Furthermore, Obama has stated that this is not a war of choice, but of necessity. Maybe - but I still wonder who we are fighting. That the Taliban are a despicable throw-back to twelfth century beliefs does not make them the enemy. Distasteful, oppressive and dangerous internally to Afghans - particularly women - they may be. But, the US cannot wage war on those grounds everywhere. So is the Mugabe regime, not to mention the proposed legislation in Uganda calling for the death penalty for homosexuals (supported, by the way, by the US homegrown Taliban known as the far right christian fundamentalists and their Republican allies).

If the purpose of the surge is to protect areas long enough to solidify opposition to the Taliban, then who is going to do that after the withdrawal? The Afghan army is composed largely of Tajiks who will have serious trouble operating in Pashtun majority areas. Indeed, it has taken 8 years to train 100,000 Afghan troops. Is the plan to train an equal number in 18 months even remotely feasible?

Is the goal to destroy al Qaida? It wouldn't seem necessary to employ 55,000 troops to go after a shattered organization which has not mounted a serious attack in 5 years. In any case, destroying the terrorist organization should not be the goal in Afghanistan not merely because its total destruction is likely impossible, but because the goal should be to deny it a base. Again, that does not take 55,000 troops.

The US has indulged in nation building in Iraq and is dangerously close to that goal in Afghanistan. This is the worst mistake since it is not a nation and only can be dealt with - if that's the phrase - as a collection of tribes and clans. The US cannot afford to stay in Afghanistan to cobble together a unified nation and certainly not with Karzai, the mayor of Kabul.

My take on this strategy is that there are too many points where it can fail ranging from the perception of occupation by foreigners to a corrupt, ineffective government that has lost legitimacy but which will attempt to keep the US in the game well beyond the 2011 withdrawal phase.

Beyond the borders of Afghanistan, the US and the surge will produce additional tensions between India and Pakistan. The latter have no desire to see Afghan Taliban, supported by the Pakistan government, pushed into Pakistan only to be followed in hot pursuit by troops or an increase in drone attacks. Pakistan is also concerned by Indian influence in Afghanistan and, paranoid or not, feels that India is encircling it.

Then there is Iran which seems to be involved in a slow motion drain circling dance internally but which also appears to be deliberately provoking the West. With troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a belligerent Israel and an independent minded Turkey, how does Obama deal with a sudden Iran crisis? More importantly, how does he deal with the massive unemployment in the US while funding these military interventions.

I hope McChrystal is right and the Obama strategy works - at least to a certain extent - so that the US can declare it has done what it can do for Afghanistan, eliminated a base for al Qaida to operate within to train and launch attacks, and then leave.

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Work in Tanzania

Ok. I now have a little time to post again. The long break was due to the shocking fact that those who pay me actually like to see reports and deliverables.

I'll be back today. Watch this space.