Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is This The Decisve Week In The Ukraine Crisis?

The situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate heading into what looks like a crucial week for the country.

The political unrest took an ugly turn over the weekend when more than 30 protesters were killed in a fire in Odessa after storming the city's trade union building.  As with many of the recent events in Ukraine, the exact details of what occurred are murky, though this series of first-person accounts from the BBC offers perhaps the best picture of events.  Competing pro-Kiev and pro-Russian rallies turned into a string of running street fights between the two groups that culminated in the pro-Russian side storming the trade union building.  Accounts on what happened next differ.  The building was set on fire by molotov cocktails, though it is unclear whether the petrol bombs were being thrown at the building or by those inside as well.  The pro-Russian group claims that the pro-Kiev protesters prevented the pro-Russians from fleeing the building, while the pro-Kiev demonstrators say that they tried to help rescue people from the fire.  Some 30 people are said to have died in the fire with several others dying as they jumped from the building to escape the burning building.  All sides though seem to agree that Odessa's police were ineffective, doing little to either stop the fighting or to control the scene around the burning trade union building and facilitate a rescue of those inside.

The situation in Odessa is shocking because the city is far removed from the Ukraine/Russia border region that has previously been the site of the pro-Russian unrest.  According to the BBC report, Odessa had been quiet up until this weekend's violence, with tourists – even Russian tourists – enjoying springtime on the streets of this city by the Black Sea.  Ukraine's government is once again blaming Russia for fomenting unrest in Odessa, claiming that Russian agitators snuck into the region from Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, which is near to Odessa, to cause trouble in the city.  Both sides are seizing on the death toll from Odessa as proof of the brutality of the other, further ratcheting up tensions in the country and making the successful staging of the May 25th presidential election seem even more unlikely. 

In addition to Odessa, there are two other factors that could make this the decisive week in whether or not there will be a full-scale war in Ukraine.

This Friday, May 9, is Victory Day in Russia, a national holiday to commemorate Germany's surrender in what most of the world calls World War II, but what Russia still refers to as the “Great Patriotic War”.  While Victory Day serves the same purpose as Memorial Day does in the United States, it also traditionally is the most patriotic day on the Russian calendar, a time to celebrate Russia's armed forces and the date of a massive military parade in Moscow.  The key symbol of Victory Day – the black-and-gold St. George's ribbon (analogous to the Memorial Day poppy in the US and Great Britain) – has already been appropriated by Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists as a sign of their solidarity with Russia.    It is possible then that Russia could use this very patriotic holiday to launch their long-threatened military action to rescue the supposedly threatened Russian minority in Ukraine.

The second reason has to do with the make-up of the Russian military itself.  Russia still relies on conscription for the bulk of their armed forces, with men over the age of 18 (supposedly) required to serve at least one year in the military.  As Pavel Felgenhauer explains here in Foreign Policy, conscripts are typically taken into service in two cohorts per year and the hitch for one of those cohorts is reaching its end, meaning that these troops are, theoretically, at the peak of their military training.  Once their conscription period ends though, they will be replaced by a new batch of raw recruits who will have to go through the process of learning to be a soldier from scratch, greatly diminishing the effectiveness of the 40,000 or so Russian troops stationed along Ukraine's eastern border.  From a Russian military point of view, the time to strike is now.
Whether Russia will remains an open question.  By Pres. Vladimir Putin's benchmarks, with the deaths in Odessa and ongoing Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” operations being conducted in the pro-Russian separatist cities in eastern Ukraine, the causes belli exist.  Putin may also be emboldened by another round of relatively weak sanctions laid down by the United States and the European Union.  Plus, as discussed earlier, Putin's larger goal of destabilizing Ukraine would be set back if the country can stage a successful presidential election at the end of the month.  It is more likely than not then that Russia will conduct some type of direct military action against Ukraine in the coming days, though with Putin, nothing is ever quite what it seems.
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Why The Road To Genocide Can Be Distrubingly Short

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is, sadly, another illustration of how quickly conflicts can explode, even among people who previously had lived together as neighbors and friends.

This was illustrated by a video clip shown by the BBC on Monday, April 14.  It showed the aftermath of the seizure of a police station in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian militias.  Two men, presumably Ukrainian police officers, were being assaulted by a mob at the foot of a staircase.  The makeup of the mob at first was typical – a group of young men in their late teens/early twenties, but then something unexpected happened: two older women, perhaps in their forties, who had been watching the attack, stepped forward and got their own licks in on one of the prone men.  According to the BBC, the man thankfully survived his beating.

The video serves as an illustration of a disturbing, yet fascinating, phenomenon: how quickly peaceful, multi-ethnic communities can devolve into open sectarian - and often brutal - war.  

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been a nation with a large Russian minority population.  While there has been some occasional tension between the groups over issues like whether or not Russian should be recognized as an official language in Ukraine, the two ethnicities have basically lived together peacefully – there have been no reports of systematic violence between the two groups.  This is especially true in eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of Ukraine's Russian population is located.  There, the two ethnicities lived together and intermarried; it was not uncommon for families to be spread out between Russia and Ukraine and crossing the border of the two nations was usually given about as much thought as crossing the street.  Certainly there are no outward physical signs to distinguish a Russian from a Ukrainian.  Even just a few months ago such inter-ethnic violence in Ukraine would have been unthinkable.  Yet now, cities across eastern Ukraine are being roiled by just such attacks.  Ethnic Russians in Ukraine have been flooded by messages from Russian-based media outlets condemning the “Fascist putsch” that overthrew the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and ominous warnings that Fascist mobs were heading east from Kiev to brutalize the ethnic Russian population (a comprehensive United Nations report could find no evidence of these alleged attacks).  For their part, some ultra-nationalist groups that became involved with the Maidan protests in Kiev have talked openly about their desire for Ukraine to be “for Ukrainians” - meaning ethnic Ukrainians and not Russians who happen to also be citizens of Ukraine; though again, the anti-Russian, Ukrainian-nationalist mobs that the Russian media constantly warns about have not materialized.

The BBC video brings to mind another recent European conflict: the Yugoslavian Civil War in the 1990s.  Before the conflict – Europe's bloodiest since World War II – Yugoslavia had been a fairly prosperous multi-ethnic nation, of Serbians, Croatians and Bosniaks (Muslims from Bosnia), who peacefully co-existed.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sarajevo, a vibrant, multi-ethnic city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.  A decade later, the city would lie largely in ruins, having borne witness to the worst acts of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust.  The roots of the Yugoslavian Civil War can be traced back to then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, himself an ethnic Serb.  In an effort to bolster his regime, Milosevic filled the airwaves with Serbian nationalist rhetoric, some of it reviving ancient ethnic tensions that dated back to the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 between the Serbs and the Muslim Ottoman Empire.  A conflict soon emerged with neighbors who had lived together, sometimes for decades, beating, killing and raping each other in a brutal inter-ethnic war.

The Ukrainian crisis also comes along at the 20th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities of the past century; the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  Here again, two ethnicities – the Hutus and the Tutsi – who had lived side-by-side were soon embroiled in a genocide that would kill more than 800,000 people in the space of just three months.  The roots of that conflict can be traced back to Rwanda's time as a colony when the ruling Belgian empire used minor physiological characteristics to create a division between the two very similar Hutu and Tutsi peoples.  A century later, these differences would be exploited - again through a deliberate mass-media campaign - to sow division between the two groups that would eventually lead to the genocide.

In the United States even today tension exists between the Caucasian and African-American communities; occasionally the rhetoric employed around this tension can be ugly and hateful.  But with these two communities, there are outward signs of difference; a way for one to cite the “otherness” of the opposite community.  These outward differences are minor in the cases of the ethnicities involved in the Rwandan and Yugoslav conflicts and totally absent in Ukraine where the “Russian” and “Ukrainian” ethnicities are entirely social constructs with no basis in physiology.  Yet in each case it has been remarkably easy for some actors within one community to use the mass-media to portray the other ethnicity as something evil or dangerous, an existential threat to the welfare of the actor's ethnicity.  What is disturbing is how willingly people are to buy into the victimization narrative and turn on the others, even if they were their friends and neighbors.  During the heights of the Yugoslavia and Rwanda conflicts it was not uncommon for people to rape and murder the neighbors they had lived next to for many years just because they belonged to the other ethnicity.  

Ukraine has not sunk to that level of violence yet, but recent history has shown that it can sadly be a very short descent.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

John and Sergei in Paris: No Progress on Ukraine

Secretary of State John Kerry made a last-minute diversion on his flight home from the Mid-East Saturday night for an emergency meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for crisis talks on Ukraine Sunday in Paris.  Judging from the after-meeting conference, he should have spared the trip. 

Russia remained set on their position that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and brushed aside US demands that they pull back the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along Ukraine's eastern border, saying the troops are merely participating in a routine military exercise and adding that Russia has “no plans” to invade Ukraine.  Kerry, meanwhile, turned down Russian demands that Ukraine adopt a “federal” form of government – where each of Ukraine's regions would be a de facto state, capable of making their own laws, collecting taxes and conducting foreign relations, while also maintaining broad autonomy for their ethnic minorities.  Kerry rejected the demand on the crazy notion that choosing Ukraine's form of government is a decision that the Ukrainians themselves should make.

The demand for a federalized form of government is emerging as the key to resolving the conflict from the Russian side.  Lavrov contended that a federal state was the only way that the rights and interests of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine could truly be protected.  Lavrov is continuing the idea pushed by the Putin government since the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, that being a Russian living in Ukraine in 2014 is about the same as being a Jew living in Poland in 1940, while offering scant evidence to support the claim that the provisional government in Kiev is actually threatening the safety of Ukraine's Russian population.  This notion of an impending threat was the justification Russia used for its intervention in Crimea. 

The real reason behind Russia's push for the federalization of Ukraine though is to ensure that the country would be basically ungovernable from Kiev and to diminish Ukraine's prospects of having a prosperous future.  As explained in this earlier post, Putin's biggest fear over Ukraine is that the government that will take power after the upcoming elections in May will finally get their act together and put the country on the path to developing as a Western European-style market economy with an open and representative government.  To have a country so culturally tied to Russia successfully follow the post-Soviet path of development that has been seen in Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, would undercut the foundations of Putinism.  Russia, therefore, has a vested interest in making sure that Ukraine fails, the push for federalism is simply the latest attempt from Moscow to make this happen.  
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Strange Sanity of Vladimir Putin

One side-effect of getting a Master's Degree in international affairs with a specific focus on Russia and the former Soviet Union is whenever something important happens in that part of the world, your friends all ask for your views on the event.  This has been happening recently with the ongoing situation in Ukraine.  Questions about the sanity of Vladimir Putin have been coming up a lot lately, along with the definitive statement that “Putin IS crazy” over his (and by extension Russia's) actions with Crimea.

But the thing is, Putin's not crazy. In fact, he's far from it.  He may be cold, calculating and cunning, but crazy?  No.  But he is very much playing by a different set of rules than the global community and is being driven by a different set of impulses.  One quote that has been brought up quite often in the commentary about the Ukraine is Putin's statement that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical mistake of the 20th century”.  His seizure of the Crimean then is an attempt to rebuild the old Soviet Union, right?  Not exactly.  Rather Putin's Crimea gambit is not so much an attempt to restore the glory of the Soviet Union as it is trying to ensure that Ukraine continues to falter.

To better understand what's going on today, we need to take a very quick look at Putin and both Russia and Ukraine following the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Quite simply, Russia in the 1990s was a mess: a country rocked by economic turmoil, with a crumbling infrastructure and inept leadership in the form of the old, ailing and occasionally drunk Boris Yeltsin.  When Putin took over from Yeltsin in 1999, he had the unenviable task of rebuilding both the country and in reestablishing the role of government in the country.  Putin tackled this problem in two ways: the first was personal.  The images of Putin bare-chested in Siberian rivers, flying in fighter jets, throwing opponents on the judo mat, diving in submarines, and occasionally hugging a fuzzy puppy, have become a staple of late night comedy shows in the US.  But rather than expressions of odd personal vanity, these are carefully crafted images meant to portray Putin as a muzhik, a Russian term for a “real man” - a strong and virile leader, a counterpoise to the tottering Yeltsin.

Putin's second method was to strike a deal with the oligarchs – the class of businessmen who became fabulously wealthy and powerful in the chaos of the 1990s.  Putin agreed to let them have their business empires, so long as they didn't challenge his political authority.  The one oligarch who was seen as breaking this covenant – Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the oil conglomerate Yukos and once Russia's richest man – was quickly jailed on dubious charges, his assets seized.  The rest of the oligarchs either fell in line or left the country; their media empires reinforced the image of Putin as a strong leader.  Of course Russia's citizens knew this was going on.  But under Putin the ruble stabilized, consumer goods became more available and affordable, life, for most, became more comfortable, so, for the most part, Russia's citizens went along with the deal.

Ukraine experienced a similar economic chaos after the end of the Soviet Union.  But for Ukraine, things didn't get better, the economy continued to falter, a small elite took advantage of corrupt leadership to become wildly wealthy.  In 2004 the people had enough; the mass public protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution swept aside the existing government.  But the new government formed by the Orange Revolution's leaders Viktor Yushenko and Yulia Tymoshenko was consumed by infighting between their two rival factions.  The economy continued to falter, so much so that Ukrainians would eventually reelect President Viktor Yanukovich, the very man the Orange Revolution drove from power.  Yanukovich continued to rip off the state, while cozying up to to Putin and moving Ukraine closer to Moscow, which sparked off another round of public protests, the EuroMaidan, that again drove him from power.

Putin's fear now is that this time the new leaders of Ukraine might get it right – that they could set Ukraine on the path to development and prosperity.  It is not an idle fear.  While things are much better in Russia today than they were in the 1990s, the country still lags far behind most other European countries.  The average monthly salary in Russia is just $500 a month, far lower than in much of Europe, especially western Europe.  Again, Russians are aware of the disparity, many Russians have friends or family who live in the “West” (the United States, Great Britain, Canada, etc.), so they know that other countries have higher standards of living, less corruption, better infrastructure, and so on.  But these positives are balanced out by statements of the problems with these foreign societies: the Americans are too driven by careers; the British are too fussy.  When those stereotypes fail, the fall-back argument is while these societies may work fine for their native ethnicities, they would never work in Russia because they fail to understand the ever-mysterious “Russian Soul” (which contrary to Russian belief isn't all that mysterious); Russia as a nation may have its short-comings, but the society has “soul”.

But this argument would hall apart should Ukraine follow a path like Poland and transition to becoming an open and prosperous (relative to their position at the end of the Cold War) society.  Another frequently made point over these past few weeks is how the Russian and Ukrainian people are “brothers”.  The Russian identity started not in Moscow, but near Kiev, 1,000 years ago; Kiev, and Ukraine, still hold a mythic place in the Russian imagination.  Ukraine already has a much more open press and has staged far freer elections in recent years than Russia.  If this were paired with economic growth, should Ukraine's per capita income surpass that of Russia, then the theoretical underpinning of Putinism – that Russia is such a complex society it needs a “strong” leader – would be swept aside.  This is what keeps Putin awake at night, the thought that Ukraine might succeed in a way that Russia has not and that the Russian people would take notice.  This is why Putin is determined to undermine the provisional government in Kiev and the one that will take office following the scheduled May elections.  Ukraine cannot be given the chance to develop outside his shadow and in a way that may surpass his creation.

The situation in Ukraine will remain highly volatile.  While it is unlikely that Putin wants a war, he does benefit from the perception that a war could happen and the instability that brings to Ukraine.  Putin does not believe that the West, particularly the United States, will take any meaningful action to stop him, in large part because Russia faced no serious repercussions following their conflict with Georgia in 2008 and because Europe is dependent on energy supplies, particularly natural gas, from Russia.  This is a recipe though for miscalculation.  The longer that armed and angry men are kept faced off with each other, the chance for an accident that sparks off a conflict grows.  And if Ukraine is invaded or otherwise drawn into a conflict, the US and European Union will be compelled  to act in reply, whether they want to or not.      

So while Putin is not crazy, he is currently smug, arrogant and over-confident in the strength of his position, which is almost just as bad.
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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Iran, Space Monkeys and The Pixies

I wanted to try something a little different with this post.  Perhaps it is the result of a few years spent as a DJ, but a lot of times when I see a story in the news, a song will pop into my head, a song that is usually related to the story in some odd way.  That was the case when I read this report about Iran's nascent space program and their successful attempt to launch a monkey into space. The song this conjured up was, of course, The Pixies “Monkey Gone To Heaven”.  So the idea of this post is to talk a little about the story and then a little about the song.

Space, The Final Frontier

With news from and about Iran dominated by that country's nuclear research program, the story of their space launch came as a bit of a surprise.  But Iran has ambitions to become a space-faring nation in their own right.  In 2009, Iran launched their first home-built satellite into orbit.  The Iranian government has stated that their goal is to launch a man into space by 2019, using domestically designed and produced equipment.

By comparison, the mission announced this past Sunday was quite modest – a capsule carrying a single monkey as a passenger was carried aloft by a Pishgam (or “Pilgrim”) missile to an altitude of 75 miles before returning to Earth.  In a good sign for Iran's future astronauts, their monkey passenger apparently survived the flight unharmed.

Though modest in scope – both the US and Soviet Union were doing this sort of thing more than 50 years ago - this mission passed a couple of important milestones for Iran: they crossed the threshold of space (typically defined as any altitude above 62 miles) and managed the G-forces encountered in descent well enough for their primate passenger to survive.  Since man too is a primate, the monkey's survival is indication that Iran has solved some of the basic technological problems associated with returning a manned-capsule safely to Earth.

But there was likely a subtext for Iran's monkey mission.  A rocket that can carry a capsule into space is also capable of carrying a warhead thousands of miles to an enemy's territory.  The United States slipped into a full-blown panic in 1957 after the Soviet Union successfully orbited the Sputnik satellite – not only had US pride been hurt by being beaten into space by the “Reds”, but it was also a clear indication that the Soviet Union now possessed ICBMs capable of reaching the United States.  In this time of high tensions with the US and Israel, a similar message could be drawn from this weekend's Iranian journey into space.

Monkey Gone To Heaven


From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, The Pixies would become one of the bands that defined the college radio/alternative sound, at least before the genre was largely consumed by the Grunge scene out of Seattle, though The Pixies would influence that genre as well. They were a band that specialized in the sound that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain would describe as “quiet, then loud”.  The Pixies were aided in this expression by the smooth lead vocals of singer Black Francis (later Frank Black), with backing vocals by guitarist Kim Deal. They layered lyrics that often trended towards the bizarre over music that could range from light and melodic to crashing walls of sound – sometimes within the same song.

“Monkey Gone To Heaven” is an apt expression of this songwriting formula.  From the album Doolittle, the track is an example of The Pixies at their highest point as a band.  The lyrics of “Monkey Gone To Heaven” go off on explorations of environmentalism, religion and man's relationship with the divine - a relationship that Francis seems to believe the divine will get the worst of.  Early on, the song talks about Neptune, Roman god of the seas, being “killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey” (and as someone who grew up in NJ, I can totally see that happening).  In this respect, the conceit of the “monkey gone to heaven” is an indication of man's diminishment of the divine through the elevation of a primate - and keep in mind that man too is a primate – to the realm of the gods.

You have to wonder what Iran's ayatollahs would make of that?
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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

US Sources Question French Intervention Strategy In Mali

Sometimes the most interesting nugget in a story comes buried all the way at the end; that is the case here with this story on Reuters about France's sudden involvement in the slow-burning civil war in Mali. Near the end of the Reuters piece is this comment from the infamous “anonymous source”, identified by Reuters as a US military official, who asks: “I don't know what the French endgame is for this. What is their goal? It reminds me of our initial move into Afghanistan.”

Before we unpack that statement, a little background on the current situation in Mali. Until last year, Mali had been considered one of the more successful states in West Africa, though a state that still dealt with a long-simmering issue of civil unrest in the northern part of the country where separatists hoped to carve out their own homeland. In one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, this bid received a massive shot in the arm from the US/French/British-led campaign to support the rebels in Libya in their bid to oust Moammar Gadhafi. His overthrow meant the return of thousands of Tuareg mercenaries, formerly employed by Gadhafi, to their homelands in northern Mali, where they teamed up with al-Qadea-leaning militias and turned a minor bit of civil unrest into a full-blown civil war.

The Malian army, not happy with the way the war was being run, staged a coup, overthrowing Mali's president (The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes this is a double-irony for the West since the coup was led by a US-trained army captain). With no functioning military, the Tuareg/al-Qaeda alliance took control over half of the country before having their own setback when the Islamist militias turned on their Tuareg allies. 2012 ended with the situation in Mali an utter mess and Mali's neighbors pleading for assistance to prevent Mali from turning into a failed state haven for al-Qaeda-linked groups.

The US has been promoting a strategy built on the “Somali model”, at least the most recent version of foreign intervention in Somalia, which has been the most successful in the past 20 years. In practice, this means providing funding and logistical support to troops from neighboring African nations who will do the actual fighting. In Somalia this, has been a mix of primarily Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian troops who have managed to largely defeat Somalia's homegrown Islamist militia, al-Shabaab, and restore some semblance of a functioning government to Somalia.

That was the plan, at least for Mali as well, until last week when the French began spearheading their own much more direct intervention, which started with airstrikes against Islamist positions, most notably surrounding the city of Gao. There are now also reports of French special forces troops on the ground in Mali. Why France decided to launch their Mali mission is a topic that is actively being discussed, though it could likely be because the force of 2,000-3,000 peacekeepers from a collection of West African nations would not have been ready to deploy for several months, perhaps not until September, and perhaps not even then.

And that brings us back to our unnamed US military source.  He/she goes on to add: “Air strikes are fine. But pretty soon you run out of easy targets. Then what do you do? What do you do when they [the  militias] head up into the mountains?”  Sadly, since he/she is anonymous, it is impossible to know if they asked these same important questions when the US went stumbling into Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps they are offering up these comments as a sort of advice, hard-won knowledge from the foibles of those two US interventions. But it is hard not to read these comments as being both hypocritical and condescending given the past decade of US foreign involvement, our continued questionable presence in Afghanistan and the calls by the DC warhawks, particularly those of the neoconservative stripe, for a US campaign against Iran, yet another military mission that is unlikely to achieve its tactical goal – elimination of Iran's nuclear program – while possessing a high likelihood of spurring a whole chain of unexpected and unintended consequences.

The “Somali model” idea pushed by the United States sounds good on paper, the problem is that while Somalia had several neighbors with large populations – Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia – to supply troops, the would-be ECOWAS force for Mali is being drawn from a collection of fairly small states like Ghana and Sierra Leone, not countries known for having large and robust armies. Nigeria is the one large neighbor that is pledging troops, but Nigeria is also dealing with their own separatist movement (MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and their own Islamist uprising (Boko Harum), so it is hard to understand why the Nigerians would then suddenly have such better luck when operating in Mali when they have struggled so much against these two groups at home. The proposed Malian peacekeeping force is also made up of only 2,000-3,000 soldiers; by contrast, the Ugandans alone contributed up to 16,000 troops to the ANISOM mission in Somalia. 

Our unnamed source is asking some good and important questions, but they are questions that highlight the problem with the international community since 9/11: there is now a far greater motivation to intervene in troubled nations (especially when supposed “al-Qaeda” forces are involved) and to intervene right away!  But these proposed interventions are launched without clear military objectives in mind, and more importantly, without a plan for the “day after” the initial military campaign is launched, or in other words, without an exit strategy.  The United States has spent 12 years trying to find a way out of Afghanistan, you have to wonder if France will now find that it was very easy to get into Mali, but that it will be very hard to get out.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Closing Time For The Somali Pirates

It has been awhile since we checked in with our old friends the Somali pirates. A big part of the reason was simply that 2012 was not a good year for piracy, with successful pirate raids dropping off sharply.  This turn in fortune seems to be the motivation for one of Somalia's most infamous pirates to call it quits.  The New York Times is reporting that Mohamed Abdi Hassan, better known by his nom de guerre “Big Mouth”, announced his retirement last week in a press conference broadcast on YouTube.
Big Mouth's retirement is a big deal in that he was thought to be the head of a notorious pirate network and was identified in a United Nations report last year as one of Somalia's most influential and most dangerous pirates.  But a host of factors are now working against the Somali pirates, including more effective naval patrols in the Indian Ocean, on-shore raids aimed at disrupting pirating operations ashore and the emergence of effective governments in the capital, Mogadishu, and in the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland.  These factors have combined to reduce the pirate's haul down to a mere 13 captured vessels in 2012, making pirating a far more dangerous and far less lucrative business today than it was a couple of years ago.

Big Mouth seems to have been further enticed by the issuance of a passport by the new Somali government that allowed him to travel abroad to visit his family, according to the Times.  In his farewell press conference, Big Mouth claimed to have also influenced a number of his pirate brethren to give up their pirating ways as well.  But while piracy seems to be on the decline off the coast of Somalia, there is concern that the pirates could come back if international navies scale back their patrols, thinking that the pirate problem has passed; at the same time, the pirate problem may be shifting to the coast of West Africa, where pirate attacks are on the rise.
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Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Bad Relationship With The NHL

I feel like I'm writing a letter to Dear Abby... See, I'm stuck in a bad relationship, I love her, but she takes off months, even a year, for no good reason, then comes back and expects that we'll pick up like nothing ever happened...

Her name is the NHL.

Let me say that I am a big hockey fan, I have been since I was about 10 years old. Growing up, my family had season tickets to the New Jersey Devils; I've ridden buses to Montreal to see a game; when I became the Sports Editor of my college newspaper, I quickly claimed the hockey beat for myself, even though my school had only a club-level team and they were, honestly, fairly bad; in short, I love the game. So you would think that I'd be overjoyed by the news that the NHL's latest labor stoppage came to an end late last week, just in time to salvage part of the 2012-2013 season.

But I'm not. Some of it is anger and frustration with the league over its third labor stoppage in 18 years, a largely pointless fight between millionaires and billionaires over how to carve up league revenues that last season topped $3 billion. But in a bigger sense, my lack of enthusiasm comes from the realization that getting back together after a breakout often seems great as an idea, though the reality is usually disappointing.

People are joyful over the idea that the last-minute labor agreement saved the 2012-2013 season. But let's not kid ourselves, the season is already lost.  Sure, the teams will take to the ice in an ersatz 48-game schedule, as they did in 1995, but this season will be looked at as far from legitimate. The New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup following the shortened 1995 season, but the only reason that championship has any validity today is because the Devils went on to make the playoffs every year for the next decade and win two more championships in 2000 and 2003; without them, the Devils 1995 Cup win would be in the record books with a very big asterisk.

Nor am I looking forward to seeing the quality of the product on the ice this year. Getting ready for a full NHL season is usually a month-long affair of training camps and exhibition games; this year that process is being compressed down to a week – players will report to their teams this weekend and begin play on Jan. 19th, not in exhibition games, but to launch the 48 game season.  Some players will be coming to these mini-camps from professional leagues in Europe, others from stints in the minors, others still with no playing time since their seasons ended last April or May. The teams won't gel as cohesive units, injuries are far more likely because of poor physical conditioning; in short, the 2013 season promises to be a sloppy one.

And even more disturbing are some of the moves the league is discussing for the future. Lost in the hubbub of the labor crisis were two proposals floated by the NHL: expanding the playoffs to 20 teams and expanding the league itself to 32; both are awful ideas. A 20-team playoff format will likely add another round to the playoff structure and will stretch the season deeper into June, considering that the 2011-2012 playoffs didn't end until June 11th, another round could push the end of the Stanley Cup finals almost to the official start of summer – kind of silly for a “winter” sport. It also makes the regular season more irrelevant since 20 out of 30 teams, or 2/3 of the league would be guaranteed a spot in the post-season. Expansion is also a terrible idea, especially since part of the reason for this year's labor lockout was the league's contention that roughly 2/3 of the teams were losing money. Seattle and Quebec City have emerged as the frontrunners in the expansion talks, and while both would be fine additions to the NHL, it would make more sense for them to host teams relocated from some of the NHL's weaker cities like Phoenix or Columbus, OH than to add more teams to what many fans consider to be an already bloated league.

The rationale for these moves is money – expansion franchises must pay a fee to the league, which results in a few million dollars being funneled into the coffers of every NHL team, a hallmark of the Gary Bettman era; while more teams in the playoffs will give four more owners a chance to earn a little more revenue by hosting additional home games for their teams. Whether these moves are good for the quality of the league or the sport is irrelevant if there's a quick buck to be made. And that brings me back to my point about being stuck in a bad relationship. The NHL is never going to change, but in terms of hockey, they are the only game in town, and, unfortunately, the NHL knows that too.  
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Monday, December 24, 2012

Taliban Takes Stand In Favor Of Polio

According to news reports out of Pakistan, groups affiliated with the Taliban have killed several medical professionals working in remote villages on a vaccination program designed to eradicate polio. The Taliban countered that the vaccination program was actually a Western-designed plot to make their children sick, rather than to prevent illness, and that the whole medical effort was really a cover for covert military operations in these remote areas.

These are the exact same arguments made by the Taliban a few years earlier when they murdered other Pakistani medical professionals to halt an earlier polio eradication effort in 2006, an event outlined in Dominic Streatfeild’s book A History of the World Since 9/11.  In justifying their earlier attacks, the Taliban said that if a few children got ill or died from polio, it was “God's will” and a small price to pay to keep their region free of evil Western influences like, apparently, modern medical procedures.

But there is something more sinister at play here than merely the Taliban's religious-inspired paranoia, the vaccination efforts in these remote mountain villages are the last links in a chain of efforts to end polio, not just in Pakistan, but everywhere on the globe, forever. As explained in A History of the World Since 9/11, diseases can be wiped out if everyone carries an immunity to them – without new hosts, the diseases die. But for an eradication effort to work, everyone must get the vaccine.  Diseases have a stubborn tendency to hide out in remote corners of the world and humans have an annoying habit of not staying put. So, remote corners of the globe, like the AfPak border can be just the right place for a disease like polio to wait out a global eradication effort.

The Taliban's murder of the first group of medical professionals in 2006 meant that the first attempt to end polio failed; if these Taliban villages can't be vaccinated now, this latest effort will fail as well.

Of course the United States hasn't helped matters by using an earlier vaccination program as cover for an intelligence gathering operation around Abbottabad, the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, thus somewhat validating the Taliban's paranoia, and casting a pall over efforts like the current polio eradication program.
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What The United States Could Learn From Ghana About Elections

In case you missed it, we had a presidential election in the US last month. After a seemingly endless campaign, President Barack Obama defeated his challenger Mitt Romney in a race that wasn't all that close – Obama won just over 50% of the vote to Romney's 47.3%. Of course this didn't stop the opposition from alleging that Obama “stole” the election: Romney himself claimed that Obama only won by promising lower-income voters undefined “free stuff”. Meanwhile, groups of Americans across the country (but primarily in the South) responded by starting petitions encouraging their respective states to secede from the Union, with the Texas petition gathering more than 100,000 signatures.

Perhaps that's why with piece on the BBC last week about reactions to another hard-fought presidential election, this time in the African nation of Ghana, stuck with me.  In Ghana, incumbent President John Mahama of the NDC party defeated opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo of the NPP.  Even though Ghana is one of Africa's most stable democracies, the election was marked by technical glitches which caused long delays at some polling places.  This, in turn, led the NPP to allege that the election was “stolen” from them.

That's where the BBC piece comes in.  The BBC interviewed five Ghanaians, including supporters of the NPP. What's noteworthy is that rather than join in their party's call to contest the election, the NPP supporters seemed rather embarrassed by the party's stance, with both saying that the party should just accept the results of the election and one voter questioning whether he made a mistake voting for the NPP if this was the way they were going to react.  Another voter explained that the reason the NPP lost was not due to fraud, but because of the party's inability to realize their message wasn't resonating in several of the country's key swing states (and doesn't that sound like an explanation that could apply to the US Republicans as well?)

It was refreshing to see voters not blame their political party's loss on some poorly-defined notions of fraud, or call for unrest, but to accept the results of the election and to blame the loss on the shortcomings of the losing party.  Perhaps the United States could learn a thing or two from the way that Ghanaians practice democracy.
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