Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year to All

2008 Taipei City New Year Countdown Party: The...
Thank you loyal readers and to all, a happy, prosperous and healthy New Year.
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US Foreign Policy Gains with Recess Appointments

Fortunately, President Obama has finally shown some backbone and made several important recess appointments that are critical for US foreign policy. Three of the key appointments are those of ambassadors to Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan.

Frank Ricciardone is the new ambassador to Ankara ending five months without representation in Turkey, a key player in the region. In proceeding with the recess appointment President Obama has filled a gaping hole in the ability of America to have a voice on the ground in a critical area of the world. A gaping hole produced by the rank stupidity of the Republicans and their anti-Turkish allies who would sacrifice a relationship with the most powerful and influential country in the region for the pitiful, Russian ally, Armenia.

Similarly, American, not Armenian or Israeli interests, will be served well by the appointment of late Wednesday, Obama announced recess appointments of Matt Bryza to be ambassador to Azerbaijan and Robert Ford to Syria.

Bryza’s confirmation had been put on hold by pro-Armenian Democratic senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez; Obama’s recess-appointment decision was protested by the largest and most influential U.S. Armenian group.

Bryza is a career diplomat but was opposed by some in the Armenian-American community because of comments he made in his previous position as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs while trying to negotiate an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an intractable issue largely controlled by Russia.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said “Armenian-Americans are deeply troubled by President Obama’s decision today to circumvent the U.S. Senate and use a recess appointment to send a deeply flawed diplomat to represent America in Azerbaijan” .

“The president’s push to send Matt Bryza to Baku without Senate approval represents a disservice to American diplomacy that will, sadly, undermine our nation’s ability to advance our interests and values in the Caucasus region”.

Mr. Hamparian, with all due respect, is full of it. Armenia is a Russian ally. It is unbelievably corrupt and undemocratic despite, or perhaps as a result of, being the recipient of hundreds of millions of US aid dollars. It recently signed a treaty with the Russian Federation renewing the military base in Gumri and all its borders are guarded by Russian troops. The California Armenians are very willing to fight to the last local Armenians in defense of retaining the NK as a part of Armenia. Yerevan’s values and interests have nothing to do with Mr. Hamparian’s values and interests. Furthermore, from a geo-political standpoint, keeping Azerbaijan independent of Russia is vastly more important despite it’s less than stellar political system.

For a taste of what Mr. Hamparian is touting as Armenian values, one case currently before the European Court of Human Rights is an appeal to review the case of Armenian opposition activist and former newspaper editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian.

His attorney filed suit at the Strasbourg court against Pashinian's unjust prosecution, prison conditions and limitations to visiting hours. Pashinian was arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting violence against the authorities and organizing mass unrest on March 1, following a February 2008 election, an election that was questionably handled.

He was convicted by an Armenian court and ordered to serve a 7 year sentence. He is currently being held in Artik prison. Artik prison is an atrocious facility.

Pashinian is the editor-in-chief of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak (The Armenian Times), a popular daily known for its support for Armenia’s first president Levon Ter-Petrosian, and has written a number of severely critical articles about President Serge Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian.

His lawyer is not allowed to see his client in private to discuss the course of the trial. This is an open violation of human rights and, I might add, violates even Armenian laws. Further, his wife has claimed that he had been assaulted in prison several times in the last two months by masked people. Having lived and worked in Armenia, I would give this claim credence. She has said she feared for his life and is only allowed to see her husband once a month for four hours.

His situation is just an example of the crippled state of Armenian democracy and how human rights and the freedom of speech are persecuted in the country for the political ends of the few.

And here is another: Armenia has denied a broadcast license to an independent television station, A1+, despite a European Court of Human Rights judgment that previous denials violated freedom of expression, an international Human Rights watchdog reported this week.

"Today's decision is another setback for freedom of expression and information in Armenia," said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's clear that keeping a critic off the air is more important to this government than its international legal obligations.

So when a head of an Armenian-American lobbying group talks about values he needs to take a pill and face reality. It is not in American interests to support an un-democratic Russian ally with delusions of regional importance.

The Turkish appointment is vastly more important than the one to Azerbaijan. Turkey is a NATO member and a balancing force with a vibrant economy and strong military. The Russian Federation actually pays attention to Ankara and as the US has found out, without a voice on the ground it has far less influence in Turkey’s foreign affairs decisions.

Also, from a geo-political standpoint, engaging with Syria is a major component in US middle-eastern foreign policy. As much as the current Israeli government, under the control apparently of its thuggish foreign minister, might prefer to isolate Syria that policy has been a mistake. Syria is intent on regaining what it considers historical control of Lebanon and to that extent is not entirely happy with the level of Iranian intervention through Hezbollah. Turning Syria would only help Israel as nothing gets to Hezbollah from Iran without Syrian acquiescence. Iran knows this as well so the appointment of a US ambassador to Damascus will be of great concern to Tehran.

Good for President Obama.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Random End of Year Thoughts

I've been away from my usual place of work, recouperating in the Seychelles which improved my less than stellar French and driving on the left without careening into trees or oncoming traffic.  At least there - as opposed to here - driving is civilized, correct and polite.

My objective while away was to refrain from outside contact.  I succeeded - with no computer, no phone(mobile or otherwise) and no newspapers (which I've largely stopped reading anyway).  On returning to my terribly unique place of work (so the natives seem to believe) I noted a couple of things happened in the world despite my vacation.

The first is that President Lukashenko was re-elected in a landslide.  I'm shocked. Let's see if Brussels can figure out a greater than submissive response to the joke of Eastern Europe. It is time to dump the Eastern Partnership Program as it applies to Belarus. It may be time to seek alternative means to rid Europe and Belarus of Mr. Lukashenko - whether the Kremlin likes it or not.

Speaking of the Kremlin, a Moscow court on Monday found jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty in his second fraud trial, a judgment that should be seen as a pivotal moment in Russia's post-Soviet history . This joke of rule of law should be a warning to potential investors that Russia is not a safe place to do business, that democracy of any form is dead and that it is time for the world to see the back of Putin and his concept of "controlled democracy".   Foreign policy dealings with Moscow should reflect that this is not a free country but is rather one with no press freedom, saddled with a legal system riddled with corruption and a government that is little better than a dictatorship, marginally better than China, but without the grace.

Then, of course, there is Israel whose foreign policy is being run by the boorish, dangerous, car-salesman from Moldova. If anyone must go, and go soon, it is the current government.  It is isolating Israel through genuinely stupid remarks made by Lieberman, a simpleminded thug. Although both Turkey and Israel have been trying to reconcile behind closed doors, Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the fundamentalist wing of Netanyahu’s right wing government appears determined to be a total spoiler of any rapprochement between the two. The fact that Lieberman is under investigation for corruption yet still controls the foreign policy of the country is appalling.  In 2011 there will be recognition of an independent Palestinian state wheter Israel likes it or not. The war for more bedroom space will enter a new phase.

Then Hugo the Pompous of Venezuela didn't like the last election result so he has arranged for the lame duck legislature to allow him to rule by decree for 18 months.  Now, a true dictator, he too needs to go.

Finally, Africa remains itself.  The refusal of the Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo to step down following his election loss is an African leadership disease. It remains to be seen whether Africa will back up its threat to oust him by force. They failed with Mugabe.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Petro Morgos, RIP

I am very sad to post that Petro Morgos succumbed to a an insidious cancer which he fought with perseverance, grace and gallantry for almost two years. He lived a life that many would envy for its fullness.

He was my friend.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

USAID Closes Down a Contractor

A little scandal in the development world is always fun – except for the people who are the cause of the scandal.

AED, it was reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, has been suspended from future USAID contracts while the Office of the Inspector General completes an investigation of the non-profit.  The Post reports that according to a statement from USAID, the initial findings by the inspector general's office "reveal evidence of serious corporate misconduct, mismanagement, and a lack of internal controls, and raise serious concerns of corporate integrity.  AED holds 65 contracts with USAID worth over $640 million. The article also points out that USAID said it decided to suspend AED after the inspector general's investigation started in spring 2009 and found "substantiated evidence of misconduct by AED.”  AED had to return money following an investigation into its Pakistan project.  AED also has significant contracts in Afghanistan. 

How much of the misconduct is related to shorting consultants and pocketing the difference?  the article does not say, but if you are in development, you know what I mean.  Example. Hotels can be expensive but if the organization tells the consultant that he or she can only bill for $100 per night and USAID allows up to $250 per night – what happens to the difference if the firm charges USAID the full permitted rate?

Now, this sort of thing has happened before.  I was once brought in to resurrect an organization where one or two staff (out of 15) had colluded with outsiders to fraudulently obtain about $185,000 during the previous two years and the OIG had shut down operations.  In that case, however, my organization had discovered the fraud, reported it to USAID, paid the money back, took responsibility for the sloppy internal financial management but USAID panicked, called in the OIG resulting in a further investigation that held up operations for another 9 months after the situation had been resolved. Nevertheless, this sort of thing happens.

The venerable Harvard University sponsored Russia development program back in the 990s was also involved in some shady practices through some subtle maneuvering by its senior person in the field.  They were found out and black-balled with ramifications all the way to the top at Harvard.

However, my question is, if this investigation started in 2009, why was AED just awarded a USAID contract in Ukraine – the kick-off of which is supposed to be on Monday, 13 December?  How on earth does USAID justify that?  By saying it’s a signed contract?  So what?  On what planet do they live?

Oh. And the CEO of AED reportedly earns close to or over $800 thousand a year. This is rumor, of course, but if true,  nice work in the Not-For-Profit universe for someone who doesn’t have to spend time in the field in the garden spots of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Israel's Poodle

The Telegraph and BBC report that the US has abandoned its efforts to convince Israel to stop building settlements on illegally held Palestinian land. This is quite a walk-back from the tough talk that Obama exhibited early in his first term when he challenged the leader of the Israeli apartheid movement, Benjamin Netanyahu. Much of this has to do with the rise of theocratic true believers in the US.  Those recnetly elected were supported by Americans who manifest their hate by attacking civil liberties, suppressessing women, and undermine science and education to suit their superstitions – just like Islamic fundamentalists. The election of far right representatives and senators, bought and paid for by AIPAC has made confronting Israeli excesses and breaches of international law difficult at best. But this cave-in is still a cowardly concession to right wing Americans who would have opposed any action against the South African apartheid regime regardless of whether they could find South Africa on - as that deep think Sarah Palin would say - the "country of Africa".

The only solution is the removal of Netanyahu and his apartheid policies by the Israeli's. In the long term, the Netanyahu approach will continue to isolate Israel from Europe and collapse it from within. The continuance of past US foreign policy in the region, slavishly toeing the Netanyahu line, without regard to US foreign policy interests, will leave Israel with only two friends – the US and a bankrupt, perpetual anarchic Greece. Add to this the advance of Iranian Shiite interests in the region over the past five years – a pro-Iranian government in Iraq made possible by George W. Bush; fence mending visits to Tehran by the Lebanese Sunni leadership; growing Syrian influence in Lebanon after being tossed out; and, Israel’s loss of Turkey as an ally through its criminal blockade of Gaza, and US foreign policy aims, if anyone really knows what those are in the region, are doomed.
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wikileaks Again

Yet again, the media (and for the benefit of a friend in Afghanistan likes to parse this sort of thing, I mean both broadcast and print) is touting as news the cables being dumped by the gossip channel Wikileaks.

Yes. I find the cables entertaining. I also think that the field staff for the US Department of State come off extremely well, exhibiting incite and knowledge in their recommendations and comments. Too bad no one in Washington listens to them. As for the releases in general, they are not, contrary to some hyper-ventilating politicians, particularly secret. The cables themselves were officially available to about 3 million people. None of the cables is labeled as top secret. Furthermore, all the cables are vetted and redacted not only by Wikileaks – but by its partners in the press. Rinse, repeat. All the cables are vetted and redacted by both Wikileaks and its partners in the press.

After a little digging, I find it hard to justify any legal recourse against Julian Assange and his people under any US law, which is why they are going after his bank accounts and convinced Amazon to drop dissemination. As for the purpose of Wikileaks, unfortunately it may actually produce exactly the opposite result that it contends to promote – transparency.

You can be sure that from the day of the first publication, fewer people in governments will have access to or be able to provide candid information about their local political and economic environment. This will actually hamper diplomacy and might lead to some unforeseen consequence. The Chinese government may be a little less ready to work with South Korea now that its cover has been blown with the non-revelation that it is not happy with North Korea. It’s sort of like telling someone who spent $10 million on a Picasso that it is a fake. It is not in their interest to prove you correct.

Nevertheless, it is nice to have confirmed that western nations are worried about Pakistan losing control of her nukes. But that is all it is – confirmation. Today’s release also confirmed that NATO and the US developed a plan to protect the Baltic states from Russia following the latter’s invasion of Georgia. Wow.Given the complaints by Russia regarding the treatment of ethnic Russians in those countries, and particularly in Estonia, around the time Russian tanks rolled across the Georgian border this could hardly have been surprising. I’m sure the Russian military was so shocked it needed to take a collective rest in a sanitorium in Crimea.

From a historian’s perspective, these documents are a gold-mine. They provide the type of background that helps to explain the context within which actions are taken. Expect a flood of books that re-write history as we know it based on the information contained in the cables.

In the meantime, the cables are like potato chips – addictive but without any substance.

Late addition:  Assange has said that he developed a poison-pill if he is arrested (likely) or killed (melodramatic self-importance) which will dump a massive amount of the really good stuff. Wait for it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks, Nothing New - except the DNA stuff

From left to right, the structures of A, B and...
I'm still not astounded at anything in the diplomatic chatter released by Wikileaks.  It is not surprising that elements of China's leadership think that North Korea 1) behaves like a child; 2) needs to be brought under control and (least surprising of all) 3) believes that the Korean peninsula would be better off unified by the South.  It is also not surprising that most Arabs would prefer to see Persians vanish.  All this is a BGO - blinding grasp of the obvious.

What is surprising is why US State Department officials would want their diplomats to acquire DNA and other biometric data on foreigners. Not to mention how they were to go about it.
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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Libyan Mystery Solved - Courtesy of Wikileaks

In November of 2009 I was assured of a Team Leader position with a project in Libya. At a meeting in London a month earlier I had been told that not only did the Libyan government want an American to head the project, but were insisting. So, I packed up from Central Asia and, at the request of the Egyptian firm which had hired me, flew to Cairo at the end of November despite the fact that I did not yet have a Libyan visa but which the Egyptians told me would be taken care of after I arrived. And I waited. And waited. For a month in Cairo (a city I never want to visit again for a variety of reasons).

The entire matter crashed and burned. I left Cairo and ended up two months later in Ghana. But, I never was given any adequate explanation why the visa was not issued. I suspect I now know why, courtesy of the recent Wikileaks dump.

This is from The Atlantic in the context of Libya’s agreement to abandon its nuclear ambitions:

Libya agreed to remove its weapons-grade materials and equipment shortly after a 2003 incident in which the U.S. government intercepted a ship bound for that country with Pakistani-made black-market centrifuges. For six years, Libyan officials complied with U.S.-led international efforts to dismantle the program. In November of last year, when officials without notice halted the dismantling process, the Libyans were down to their last 5.2 kilograms--not enough to make a conventional weapon, but sufficient for a dirty bomb.* A few days later, the U.S. embassy was contacted by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif is widely seen as Libya's great hope for reform should he win out against his more conservative brother, Mutassim, and succeed their father. But on that day, Saif told the U.S. ambassador to Libya that he was "fed up" with the U.S.  (emphasis mine)
Now, I can’t be sure that my visa was denied because of the US passport – but the timing of incident is a little more than coincidental. And anyway, it satisfies my curiosity as to what happened.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks Strikes - World Ends - Film at 11

This blog, more or less successfully, keeps to foreign policy and development matters (though not much on the latter as I’d like to keep my job until I find something in the private sector that is not funded by some government).  To the extent that Wikileaks touches on foreign policy, I am happy to address issues and revelations that are exposed in their publication of official documents.

However, let me first say this (caveat - I loathe US Republican congressman Peter King, the ranking member of the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee, and virtually everything he and his fanatic, screw- the- country-we-want- to- be- in- power party stand for):

Legally, it might be in the future for Wikileaks to be labeled as an international terrorist.  Although I do not see Wikileaks being designated as a foreign terrorist organization - difficult at best to prove since the criteria to be applied are narrow; nevertheless, the criteria for applying penalties for international terrorism are not so tight (I happen to think they are far too broad – but the law is the law).  The definition of "international terrorism" states that the activities must be "dangerous to human life" and "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion".    If brought to court, any reasonably competent lawyer should be able to mount a vigorous and probably successful case against the application.  But maybe not. That’s not the point. 
The point is that classified documents that could harm the government and affect foreign policy in the short-term have been published.  I would expect the necessary actions against those who did it and they should be willing to accept the consequences of those actions.  If you’re going to be a revolutionary or are so upset with the current order that it is necessary to undertake actions that, though possibly illegal may change the order, that’s great.  Don’t whine, however, if the forces of order come after you.

Ok. Having gotten that bit of moralizing out of the way, I have to say that from what I’ve read so far, the revelations are not so astounding. Saudi Arabia wants the US to “cut off the head of the snake” by taking out Iran?  Wow. Saudi Arabia’s government is a prime target of Iran from a geopolitical and religious standpoint so their position is not so surprising.  Interesting to note, though, how many Arab governments are all for an attack on Iran – by someone else, of course.  

Is it surprising that US foreign policy advisers are unsure of the direction and intentions of the government in Ankara?  So is everyone else, including its neighbors who are none too eager to fall under the sway of a new Ottoman Empire. 
I personally liked the reference to the Russian leadership team as Batman and Robin.  Wikileaks strikes again.

Frankly, so far, the fact that diplomats say things in private that are not reported in public should not be the cause for earth shattering tremors.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Weekend Quick Hits - Korea, Wikileaks, START

China is stepping up to control the dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula - and if you don't think it is dangerous keep in mind that the political atmosphere in Seoul is toxic and another attack by the North Koreans may not be met with great restraint. However, this remark by its Foreign Ministry is an interesting example of how China views a US carrier battle group steaming around its front yard:

We oppose any military act by any party conducted in China's exclusive economic zone without approval.
From an international law standpoint, China is not on shaky ground here. There is no ground. If China somehow claiming that the Yellow Sea is off limits to any naval units then the Foreign Ministry in Beijing needs to go back to school.  I prefer to think this is for domestic consumption which is fine, but inherently dangerous as it sets up the reply: "Or else, what?" resulting in the loss of face from the ultimate climb down.

On another front, Wikileaks is about to publish another release which even the US is warning will contain some embarrassing documents including, it seems, US support for the PKK, Turkish support for al Qaeda supporters in Iraq and some unflattering characterizations of Russian leadership.  Of course, this is as yet speculation and it could very well be that the US was talking to the PKK - which is a terrorist organization but secular and opponents to the Kurdish Hezbollah which works with al Qaeda. This is called realpolitik. The idea that Turkey officially supports al Qaeda is absurd merely because it would involve the military which is not known for supporting non-secular movements.  Nevertheless, this could be fun. Really.

And entering the world of he terminally stupid (the US Republican party), Senator Richard Lugar (R - Indiana) one of the last of the breed with brains, had to warn members of the lizard party that the failure to ratify the treaty could have drastic consequences for other facets of U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation -- especially the Nunn-Lugar effort to secure loose nuclear materials throughout the former Soviet Union. If START fails, the cooperation between the United States and Russia on securing loose nukes could be imperiled, representing an even bigger risk for national security, Lugar said.

The money quote:
There are still thousands of missiles out there. You better get that through your heads.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

China, Credibility on the Line

Sep. 28, 2002 — USS George Washington transits...
Now that South Korea's defence minister has resigned, what will be the next step?  China is the direct beneficiary, if that is the correct term, to the attack by North Korea on the South.  Beneficiary because it is an opportunity to repair its damaged credibility in the region as a leader by taking some action with its ally. As it is, China will be terribly embarrassed, and not a little bit angry, with the movement of a US carrier task force into the South China Sea - something it has condemned in the past as a provocation should it ever happen - again. This is a gutsy move by the Obama administration to pressure China into action. Maybe it will work.

Nevertheless, the infantile, deadly antics of the lunatics in Pyongyang in and of themselves may finally rub out China's patience, with the help of the George Washington battle group.

Russia Plans Massive Population Shift - Development Agencies Begin Drooling

Get your attention?

This is about a week old, but Agence-France-Press (behind subscription wall) has reported that Russia plans a “major population shake-up”. If that sounds alarming – well, it isn’t. Aside from a misleading headline which, I must admit, prompted me to open the article, the population shake-up is in the form of a policy that hopes to reverse the Stalin era effort to urbanize everything that was not cemented in place already.

A new, not-so-secret, government paper recommends a plan to concentrate the bulk of Russia’s people in 20 urban centers rather than scattered across the country. The document says that developing small towns with a population of less than 100,000 people (90 percent of Russia's towns) had no perspective in the future and conditions should be created to speed up migration from small towns to larger centers. The document warned, however, that if the process was carried out in a disorganized fashion there could be serious risks for the state due to imbalances between regions. I’d add – among other things.

In perhaps one of the biggest understatement of the year, a government official said “Changing the map of the country is a necessary but not simple task which needs to be done very carefully as any overreaction could lead to a fight for urban resources".

Why is this at all relevant to anything – I mean aside from the shear scope of the concept which seems very Stalinesque in nature?

Think of the development assistance Moscow may source to implement a project of this magnitude. The World Bank, USAID and EC could be at the feeding trough for decades assisting the Russians in the planning and execution of the plan. And then, mid-way, re-thinking, re-designing and re-implementing the project – something development agencies have perfected over the past thirty or forty year under the theory that there is never enough time to do it right, but always enough to do it twice.

Seriously, once President Medvedev announces the secret plan I will bet the ranch that international development professionals – from experts in administration, transportation, land policy and urban planning to environmental protection and family planning – will be beating down all the Kremlin gates.

Hell, it’ll be like an annuity.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tantrum Time in Hermit Land

Speculation is flooding the airwaves regarding why the North Koreans decided to unload over 200 artillery shells at a populated South Korean island just outside the sea border.  More important than the fact of the event, is the motivation.

It is unlikely that the sole basis of killing South Koreans was to force the party of six back to talks. It is also not a particularly wise method of obtaining more food aid following this season's disastrous crop, although it fits with the usual infantile "pay attention to me NOW" tantrums of the government.  After all, the sinking of the Chon An was far more serious. So, why now and why a conventional attack as opposed to, say, testing a nuclear weapon (which is coming)?  Pyongyang may be pushing the limits of what constitutes "acceptable" provocations to conventional attacks to determine how far it can raise the threshold of a response from the South.  If the latter, then the situation becomes exceedingly dangerous. South Korea has every ability to inflict a great deal of pain on the North Koreans but is unlikely to do so because of the risk of a war.  But that restraint is unlikely to continue for long and if there is no military response, what does South Korea know that we don't?

Reports are that Korean ports are empty of warships.  There are at least 50 major combat ships heading toward the Korean coast including elements of the US 7th Fleet- something that probably puts it on the top ten list of  least favourite things in Beijing. Having a fleet of that size parked in your front yard is not designed to improve anyone's mood.  And, in the end, China is key. This sort of thing makes them uncomfortable.But loss of credibility as the regional leader is worse. China needs to step up and deal with its ally.
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Where the Spies Are? Afghanistan Scam

Ali Bin Mohammed OmarImage by Tails for Whales via Flickr
This would be very funny if it were not for its implications for the rapidly building futility of the muddled Afghanistan mission. 

What can possibly be said when senior political and intelligence officials pass large amounts of money to and conduct talks with – in the same room – a senior Taliban official who, it turns out, is not who he said he was.  Months ago, the Taliban leader in Quetta, Mullah Omar, repeatedly stated that no such talks were occurring between the Taliban and NATO or Karzai.  Now we know why – because the guys running the show don’t know what they are doing.  The imposter must be laughing all the way to the bank with his cash and whatever information he gathered for whatever organization he works. 

You can't make this stuff up. Feel free to suggest captions to the picture.
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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Future of NATO to be decided over a Week-end

As NATO meets this week-end in Lisbon, three crucial issues will be on the table.

The first is Afghanistan. The timetable for withdrawal of NATO forces will focus on pace, not if. The rising crescendo of certain politicos in the US that there should be no withdrawal apparently forget that this is a NATO mission, not a US mission regardless of the fact that the majority of troops are American. Decisions in NATO are taken by unanimous consent. A decision not to withdraw is not an option. However, that does not mean that the mission – a decade old, by the way – should not be molded to fit the reality on the ground.

First, as often pointed out by me and others, Afghanistan has not been and will not be a country. It is a largely feudal system of differing tribes, some of whom have more power than others. The mission of NATO and the US in particular, was established as a response to the 9/11 terror attack by Al Qaeda which launched its training and planning from Afghanistan and who were guests of the Taliban. I’m sure there are elements of the Taliban today who wish they had not indulged their cultural traditions quite as much and thrown Al Qaeda out. Nevertheless, NATO has achieved its goal of destroying Al Qaeda Central and the mission needs to consider how to assure that Afghanistan does not become a base for international terrorism again. To do this, it will need to involve Pakistan, Russia, India and (yes) Iran.

NATO, and the US, did not plunge into the Afghan civil war raging at the time in the north between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban for the purpose of nation building. Good governance and civil society building were not part of the writ then and are a long vanished opportunity now. It was a wasted opportunity and short-sighted policy, but the reality is that the Taliban are deeply embedded in society, NATO is going away, and other tribes, particularly in the north, will not be inclined to cooperate with the Taliban alliance. These are the ingredients to a return to an Afghanistan with which all the local participants are very familiar. After NATO vanishes, expect a return to localized tribal war.

That is why NATO needs to discuss the structure of future involvement in Afghanistan, not only among its member states, but also with the surrounding players. It will need to formulate a strategy to deal with potential threats. The Taliban pose zero threat to NATO or any member country. They posed no threat in 2001 and less now. We may decry the return to what most in the West consider barbaric practices; but, aside from complaints, no one in the West was in favor of a massive use of force against the Taliban for their cultural proclivities and abuse of women. Otherwise, NATO might as well invade Saudi Arabia – an unlikely proposition.

NATO, as a body, appears particularly useless at this point in time and its principal mission, defending Europe from the Soviet Union, is not relevant. It must redefine its role and Afghanistan is a good place to start.

The second issue on the table is its relationship with a resurgent Russia. This is complicated by factors that Russia considers important to its foreign policy and its relationship with Europe – such as missile shield deployment and securing its field of influence. NATO has frequently stated that Russia is a partner, not an opponent. Many in the US do not see it that way and may well sink the START Treaty which is supported by the US military and important (thinking) Republicans. If START goes down and they are not included in the decision to deploy a missile shield, expect trouble.

For a start, Moscow may stop cooperating with the United States on Iran and, bearing in mind that Afghanistan will not be over for at least another few years, it may not be so generous with the transit of non –lethal material over its territory to supply NATO troops. It may renew pressure on its “near abroad” through energy supplies and less than subtle political pressure to make sure that NATO – and particularly the US – do not renew the Bush era political invasion of their turf. Finally, if START is not ratified and the Republican leadership succeeds in bringing a return to the confrontational policies of the previous administration with Russia, then Moscow hawks may win the day. So much for the reset button.

Third, and connected to the above is this issue of the missile shield. NATO, through the US, changed its focus from an overtly challenging system aimed at Russia that Bush and his neo-con allies sought to install, to one which is aimed at defending Europe and others from Iranian missiles. NATO will try and force the issue with Turkey for example. It has already asked that Turkey allow anti-missile shields to be placed on its territory. If Turkey says ‘no’, that will lose the second most powerful military to NATO, not to mention an important Muslim ally. If NATO pushes and Turkey says ‘yes’, then its standing in the Middle East will plummet- leaving Iran as the great protector. Ultimately, it is hoped that no specific countries are cited, giving Turkey the cover to place the shield on its soil. Of course, this is not to say that Turkey is not making some serious blunders along the way. The recent demand by Turkey that it be given operational control of the system based on its territory is absurd – but indicates the levels to which Turkey will go to gain respect and leverage in its back-yard. Time for NATO to be clever and devise a satisfactory solution because it would be sad to begin the ritual “who lost Turkey” refrain. Turkey needs to climb down from some of its positions as well.

By the end of the week-end, NATO will need to formulate an approach to the entire Middle East. It should have the wit to see how key Turkey is to the alliance and the West and not permit Israel to dictate policy. Fortunately, there is only one member of the alliance that allows its foreign policy to be directed by Israel. The others are not so inclined.

Finally, aside from specific areas of concern that must be addressed, NATO must redefine itself. It is already largely irrelevant but is unable to dissolve itself. None of its members, even France and Germany and certainly not Poland and the Baltics, want that to happen. Sweden and Finland will likely increase their participation in NATO short of becoming members. So, what is NATO to become? Because, the Cold War is over and political relationships are getting back to normal.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thundering Morons

This would be funny if it were not so galactically stupid.  US journalism today - publish anything - anything.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Weekend Quick Hits - US Ethnic Cleansing, Cantor's Treason, Myanmar Baby Steps

Republicans are succeeding in satisfying the needs of their racist followers as CBS News reports that the Hispanics in Arizona are about 100,000 fewer after the ethnic cleansing law was enacted.  Fortunately, Arizona is suffering financially as whole cities - like San Jose - are boycotting the state.  Arizona's foreign affairs department no doubt has hit rock bottom in its relations with Mexico. Hit them where it hurts - the pocketbook.

Eric Cantor (R-VA) voices the opinion of the vast majority of Republicans, that they run US foreign policy when he "stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration..." regarding its Middle East foreign policy.  For the opposition to make this type of remark is a deliberate attempt to undermine US foreign policy and is treason.  

Putting aside the strings attached, the release of  Aung San Suu Kyi by the military junta in Myanmar is a great event.

Finally - think about this:  US foreign policy for the past decade has been to wage war.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Credibility to Die For in Afghanistan

Over at Bellum, Mark Rice argues for staying in Afghanistan to preserve US credibility.  Aside from the fact that the loss of more life in defence of credibility is morally unacceptable, the comparison with Vietnam (denied in the article but clearly being used as an example) is a false one. He uses credibility as a justification for the his definition of the goal of NATO intervention - the conflict of liberal democracy against Islamism.

There is no doubt that the Taliban are Islamists. But that was not the goal of NATO intervention.  It was to destroy the central command of al Qaeda.  The goal has been accomplished. To now move the goalposts in an increasingly unpopular war to support a corrupt government (much like Vietnam, by the way) is intrinsically misleading.  This is not a war for the hearts and minds of millions of people as he asserts. The argument that everyone is watching to see how NATO handles the conflict - in particular Russia - is to assume that NATO has a strategic vision of its future.  It does not.

Many NATO allies have a marginal interest regarding the Afghan mission and there are profound differences over the appropriate means to address the threat of transnational terrorism in general.  Europeans do not think that the threat of jihadism should be countered in the Middle East and South Asia with major commitments of troops, but rather at home using domestic law enforcement or, as Vice President Biden advocated, handled abroad with clandestine operations.
Nevertheless, the US still has both a motivation to bring the senior leadership of al Qaeda to justice and a strategic interest in leaving Afghanistan with a government capable of preventing the country from devolving into a terrorist safe haven. The problem is the overcommitment to combating terrorism in this manner at the cost of threats elsewhere and with so much of its resources and political capital invested, it is reluctant to withdraw. This does not mean that it should stay - and most certainly not to retain some ephemeral credibility. Europeans, after all, have essentially already left.

Ruh, ruh

This cannot be good. 

Coming on the heals of an ineffective and useless G-20 meeting it looks like Europe - and the US - is headed for another round of financial and economic pounding.

A Final Word on the US Elections and Foreign Policy

The world should worry about the ramifications of the recent election in the US which saw a loss of the House of Representatives to the extreme Christian right as well as the loss of governorships in some states to those same extremists who will now form new voting districts – gerrymander - to their hearts’ content to assure they can never lose power while simultaneously disenfranchising anyone who is not white. The foreign policy these extremists want to pursue will make matters far worse for the US, particularly in the Middle East.

First, it is necessary to expose the people who fund the Christian and other right wing extremists in the US for their own gain – which does not translate into gains for their pawns, the tea baggers. The US has continued its descent to plutocracy, exemplified by the dangerous right wing libertarian beliefs of the Koch family. Although much of the policy issues that the brother’s Koch and the shadowy non-profit orginazation which they fund have a domestic focus, they also are establishing a foreign policy agenda that will bring back the Bush administration policies.

They have quietly organized a multi-million dollar assault on the US government and President Obama in particular. One only needs to study the gradual disintegration of the Roman Republic culminating with the Rubicon crossing of Caesar to see what is unfolding in the US. Among the Koch domestic targets are social programs for the needy and heavy funding of opponents climate change legislation which would affect their energy and chemical empire directly. These are the well hidden financiers behind the tea baggers whose incendiary language about those with whom they disagree will ultimately lead to violence. They are out to prevent any progressive initiatives and to destroy those that exist. But the plan goes further than just domestic US considerations.

The impact of the changing nature of US internal policies will spread to foreign policy issues.

In 2008 for example, Koch funding to a libertarian non-profit produced an anti-Muslim video designed precisely to frighten people into voting for McCain. This played to the religious fundamentalist tendencies within the Republican party. The recently elected swarm of religious right House Representatives will now unfailingly support any action, however illegal, undertaken by Israel and provide the support to the Netanyahu government to indulge in building on occupied territory – like the commencement of construction of 6,000 units in East Jerusalem. The Christian right think Israel should control all of “Palestine” forever to fulfill their sick interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and bring about the "end-times".

These same groups and their newly minted representative will oppose any discussions with Turkey regarding its views on how to defuse the Middle East and, indeed, will selectively provoke Turkey and Syria pushing the former into a the false choice of “us or them” while effectively subverting any progress with Syria and a peace deal with Israel. Their cheerleaders will be AIPAC and the Netanyahu government.

Next is the confrontation with Iran. The Netanyahu government will now be emboldened to push the newly elected US Congress to do more than impose sanctions. Expect a push for military action sooner rather than later as Senators, such as that false liberal Lieberman, grab the tail of the tea bagger dog for a free ride. Senator McCain is already there.

These same Representatives and Senators will also open a wide second front against the Obama administration beginning with the START treaty and extending to the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Indeed, the latter has already started with McCain and Lieberman calling for a delay in the planned 2011 drawdown despite the fact that their handpicked leader in Kabul has happily accepted funds from Iran, falsified elections and is generally ridiculed by Afghans. Nevertheless, according the far right, more people need to die to support “democracy” in Afghanistan – the longest war ever engaged in by the US and which achieved its goal of breaking Al-Qaida central years ago.

Lest the rest of the planet think the plutocracy and right wing rise in the US is a passing phase, keep in mind that it is messianic. They even attacked George Bush’s plan for a Palestinian state. Messianic theology is centered on the belief in a hegemonic Israel as a necessary precursor to the second coming of Christ. Although this doctrine is certainly an important part of the Christian right's support of a militaristic and expansionist Jewish state, fundamentalist Christian Zionism in the United States ascribes to an even more dangerous dogma: that of Manichaeism, the belief that reality is divided into absolute good and absolute evil. This is how they intend to implement their foreign policy and it is a threat.

An argument can be made that President Obama controls foreign policy. Not exactly. The new Republican House will control spending and thus have significant influence on US foreign and military policy.

Republicans will also try to block deals with the EU on any issue - climate change, financial regulation, trade, and will throw wrenches into EU Mideast peace plans. Republicans will push that the EU fall in line with sharp changes in US policies toward Russia, the Muslim world, and China. Deeply hostile to Russia, they will try to block this entente and press deeper into the Russian backyards of the Caucuses, Central Asia and Black Sea regions. Expect a much harder line towards Cuba and Venezuela. Militarisaton and foreign policy will be interchangeable.

In 2012, unless the economy improves and the progressives get off their collective asses, the Koch’s will have won and will install another puppet in the White House, completing the next step in the destruction of the Republic. The US will then adversely affect the lives of millions and alter the foreign policies of dozens of nations - and not for the better as far as the US would be concerned. Friends will be hard to find, except maybe in Israel. The tail wags the dog.

Monday, November 8, 2010

India, Pakistan and Afghanistan - Obama in India

President Obama is in India. Pakistan is miffed. India considers an Afghanistan empty of US troops as a threat since it will revert to a land mass controlled from Islamabad through Pakistan’s security apparatus working with acceptable elements of the Taliban. Pakistan’s western border would then be reasonably secure allowing it to turn its attention to India and the Kashmir issue.
India is, to say the least, touchy about foreign intervention attempts at settling the Kashmir “problem”. As far as India is concerned, Kashmir is an internal security matter. As NATO and US presence begins to evaporate in Afghanistan, India has been inserting itself with development aid and establishing a foothold to maintain its leverage against Pakistan and prevent it from turning its attention to the east.
However, what possible alternatives are there to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a center of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist training if it is not a strong Pakistani presence? Islamabad is very familiar with the players and would not be inclined to accept the former Taliban regime from regaining anything close to its former level of power. They would likely support enough Taliban control to stabilize Afghanistan through traditional tribal deals and to create a status quo that resembles the Afghanistan of pre-Soviet times. This is what India will try to disrupt.
Is there a deal that can be brokered between India and Pakistan and can Obama do it. Frankly, I doubt it merely because Pakistan wants a settlement of the Kashmir issue, India does not except solely on its terms and the US has little leverage. Pakistan may want continued US support, but that won’t happen at the expense of India if only because of the economic element – Pakistan has little to offer while India controls a huge market that impacts US jobs and trade. There is also a little matter of balancing China’s growing influence.

Nevertheless, it is US foreign policy that can play the largest role in the sub-continent – no one even comes close. Obama visits Pakistan next year and will have a chance to smooth over the ruffled feathers in Islamabad. Afghanistan will be in full wind down. No one can afford a vacuum. The transfer of power to multiple parties in Afghanistan, including Karzai, the mayor of Kabul, needs to be arranged with security and stability in mind.
Unlike Iraq, where the US invasion and handling of the aftermath has resulted in the destruction of secularity and a gift of the entire country to Iran, the transition process in Afghanistan must carefully balance regional interests so that no one country ends up on top.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Right Wing Russia - A Mirror of Right Wing America

This alarming analysis  out of Moscow (Russian only)  just shows that right wing reactionary nightmares in the Russian Federation are very similar to right wingnut fantasy scenarios regarding Iran in the US.  The entire article is an review of the military status of countries in Central Asia and the threats to Russia - but goes on to postulate a Chinese seizure of Central Asia.  With ease.  The paranoia about China in Russia is deep.  I'm not sure why - unless it has something to do with the ancient Mongol domination of Russia.  Whatever.  This is simply not going to happen. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

South Caucuses and a Return to Normal Foreign Policy

Map of the Kura River, whose watershed drains ...Image via Wikipedia
 In what should be considered another example of a return to “normal” foreign policy choices cited in a previous post, Russia signed a treaty with Armenia that commits it to defend the borders of Armenia proper while in August, Turkey signed a Treaty on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance with Azerbaijan that happens to include the establishment of a military base in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic – an Azerbaijani exclave between Armenia and Turkey. The tacit agreement, with US preoccupation in other regions, is that the South Caucuses (see map) now belongs to Turkey and Russia to work out. Indeed, both the EU and the US seem to have concluded on a period of strategic neglect in the region.

What is interesting about the latest round of treaties vowing to protect the territorial integrities of Azerbaijan and Armenia by, respectively Turkey and Russia (with the notable exception of the Ngorno Kharabakh enclave which both Armenia and Russia studiously avoided), is the return to a 19th and early 20th century diplomacy. These are zones of interest which could be characterized as a return to normalcy after the end of history in 1991. It also represents the collapse of any agreement on Ngorno Kharabakh as the two local players rely on their much more powerful regional allies to assure their relative safety and prevent the conflict from reigniting while retaining the status quo.

Meanwhile, both Turkey and Russia are shepherding a solution to the Ngorno Kharabakh issue by working on bi-lateral meetings between Baku and Yerevan – the first one having been held in the Russian Caspian Sea city of Astrakhan during the last week of October and the next soon to be held at the OSCE conference in Astana. The absence of the EU and the US from this process is telling and another example of a new, old foreign policy system based on regional power.
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