The Streets of Jerusalem

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part Two)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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This is the second of a two part series. You can read the first half here.

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Yesh Atid: New Kids on the Block

Perhaps the most unpredictable ‘wild card’ in the 2013 Israeli elections is Yesh Atid, a new party chasing the oft-cherished chalice of Israel’s ‘secular middle-class’. Led by the charismatic journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, polls suggest the party will garner between 11 and 18 seats.

The party’s policy platform is deliberately vague, flitting from left to right with each of Lapid’s daily pronouncements. Yesh Atid is something of a populist ‘anti party’; Lapid frames his near-total lack of foreign policy, security or parliamentary experience as an asset, by labeling himself as ‘the outsider’.

Yesh Atid has successfully wooed pan-demographic, cross-party notables: Lapid made a national-religious rabbi his right hand man, whilst also co-opting popular mayors from as far afield as Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu.

Whilst ‘Yesh Atid’ translates from Hebrew to the optimistic assertion that ‘There is a Future’, questions persist as to the long-term survivability of the party, which is something of a one-man show. Does anyone remember Shinui, a secular, liberal middle-class party that disappeared from the electoral map just as quickly as it had risen? In case you were wondering (which you weren’t) it was headed by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid. Thus, the barometer of Yesh Atid’s durability is not this election, but whether it still exists by the next one.

Wildcard #2: Shas

Shas are anything but newcomers: the party has maintained a near-constant presence in governments of both right and left since its appearance in 1984. Despite representing ‘traditional’ (orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi voters, a cursory glance at Shas’ higher echelons betrays Charedi hegemony; its leaders are beholden to a ‘spiritual’ guide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The party is ‘flexible’ on the peace process, instead prioritising its domestic agenda: an unholy alliance of religious intolerance and welfare capitalism. Under leader Eli Yishai who recently claimed that ‘this country belongs to us, the white man’, the party has outshone even its own outstanding roll-call of bigotry.

Before the dawn of ‘Bieberman’, Shas’ continuation in government was almost a certainty, despite polls suggesting the party would continue to hover at around ten seats. However, Lieberman legitimised the merger through a call to limit the size of ‘small parties’, a thinly-veiled reference to the disproportionate power wielded by Shas, throwing the party’s future role into doubt.

Yishai’s authority now hangs in the balance due to the re-admittance of Aryeh Deri, a former party leader and convicted criminal. Deri is far more prone to working with the left and prioritising socio-economic concerns; expect an interesting and increasingly ugly power struggle to unfold.

The Zionist Fringe: The Far-Right and Meretz

Recent elections have not been kind to Meretz. The green/socialist/secular ingathering of the leftists has consistently staked its position as the most radical of all the Zionist parties and has languished in opposition since 2001, barely surviving the 2009 elections with just three seats.

However, thanks to Kadima’s downward spiral and Labor’s abandonment of the peace process, the party may double its representation to six seats. Whilst Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On is busy creating clear red water between the party and Labor, she has also ruled out sitting in government with Likud. Resultantly, Meretz is likely to remain in opposition, arguably its natural home as the party of the non-conformist left.

By contrast, the fate of the far-right is anyone’s guess. Exemplified by the fringe religious Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union parties, talk is afoot of a merger between the two groups.

Throwing a spanner in the works, the National Union’s Michael Ben-Ari has called for the formation of a new party- inspired by the deceased racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Because Ben-Ari openly admires a leader who spawned a proscribed terrorist organisation, all signs point to a life sentence in opposition and a splintered radical right; the least explicitly racist elements of which may wrangle their way into government if Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu can’t cobble a coalition together that is spared the demands of fringe parties.

Left/right in the Cold? United Torah Judaism and the Arab Parties

Whilst Shas may stand to gain Likudnik Mizrahi voters who object to Yisrael Beitenu’s secularism, the same cannot be said for United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ’s electorate is almost entirely Charedi; the party doesn’t try and ‘reach out’ to other demographics, instead relying on staking a place in multi-party coalition governments to retain its authority.

Followers of Israeli politics will remember party leader Yaakov Litzman attempted to make Swine Flu ‘Kosher’ (renaming it from to Mexican Flu, causing a diplomatic spat), and refused to shake the hand of the Belgian Health Minister, on account of her being a woman.

UTJ approach the election from their most disadvantageous position in years: if the newly-formed Likud-Beitenu alliance wins enough seats, narrow religious interest parties, traditional ‘king makers’ of coalition governments, may find themselves out in the cold.

Whilst the fate of the Jewish parties is anyone’s guess, the chances of the ‘Arab parties’ gaining a seat at the cabinet table are negligible. Of the four parties currently representing Israel’s Arab population in the Knesset, none have ever entered government. This is the result of a bizarre unspoken status-quo agreement: the Arab parties generally refuse to ‘prop up’ Zionist governments, whilst being perceived as reliant on the non-Zionist Arab parties would be the kiss of death for any Israeli administration.

Until the Arab parties learn to emulate Shas and UTJ and serve as kingmakers and powerful community representatives, voter turnout amongst Arab communities will remain low, whilst representatives’ influence will be negligible.

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Photo credit: dmitrysumin

Marjah elders schedule regular meetings, offer bridge to community

The Race Has Begun For The 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections

The confirmation that the Afghan presidential elections will be held, as per the Constitution, on 5 April 2014 will intensify the already febrile political atmosphere in Afghanistan.

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Marjah elders schedule regular meetings, offer bridge to community

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The decision of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) underlines recent statements, including from Karzai himself, that the Constitution will be respected and should help to (somewhat) ease suspicions as to the real intentions of the current administration. It also partly addresses a recommendation recently made by the International Crisis Group (ICG) but the IEC must now follow up – quickly and convincingly – with a timetable and practical measures for a new voter registry.

An April election is the best option in that i/ it should calm opposition fears that the Executive will bypass the Constitution and ii/ ISAF will still have sufficient boots on the ground to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in carrying out their duties.

On the latter point, ISAF personnel will limit their role to strategic support, as per the process of security transition which will have reached its final stages by April 2014. The Afghan Police and Army will take the lead in ensuring both physical security and electoral security (e.g. chain-of-custody of ballot boxes). Again, this is consistent with the security transition but more importantly means that the elections of the sovereign Afghan State will be conducted by their own people.

The widespread fraud and vote-rigging that marred the 2009 presidential elections cannot be repeated in 2014. While impossible to fully eradicate, electoral fraud must be significantly reduced if the legitimacy of the next president is not to be undermined. Thus the already complex practicalities of voter registration have become highly politicised, as demonstrated by the recent statement from the Coordination Council of Political Parties (CCPP), a loose umbrella organisation for the political opposition.

Moreover, the opposition have predictably rejected the Palace’s statement that the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) must be solely composed of Afghans [NB: In the past, two of the five Commissioners have been foreigners]. In the short-term, the elections will be fought on these technical issues: nobody is ready yet to identify candidates.

At this stage, it is extremely difficult to predict who will run. According to the Constitution, Hamid Karzai must step down in 2014 after serving two full terms but, according to the ICG, “[t]here are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy.”

This is almost certain but, as yet, nobody stands out as an obvious choice. Arguably, any such individual would not only be Karzai’s straw man but rather that of his current entourage. For example, some believe that Farooq Wardak, the influential Minister for Education, will stand in 2014 but it is equally possible that he will bide his time until 2019, when the conditions for his candidacy may be more favourable, but still maintain considerable influence until then through a proxy.

In truth, there is no certainty whatsoever as to the identity of the Executive’s favoured candidate or even that of his potential opponents, despite ongoing opposition activity.

That said, however Karzai stacks the deck, any candidate supported by the current Executive would almost certainly win anyway as no single political party has their means to reach the majority of the population. The real concern is that if Karzai over-reaches (as in 2009) the fundamental legitimacy of the result will be undermined and that would be highly dangerous in the context of 2014.

An important point to note is that Afghan voters will elect a president but also his running mates on a single ticket. Afghanistan has two Vice-Presidents – currently Fahim Khan, a Panjshiri affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami, and Karim Khalil, a Hazara from a minority faction of Hezb-e Wahdat. That being the case, whichever individual Karzai and his entourage put foward will need to form some sort of coalition with influential blocs in order to ensure a manageable political equilibrium

To put it crudely, enough powerful people must be given their piece of the pie, as always. However, in the current political climate it is crucial that the Afghan people believe - at last – that their elected representatives have been legitimately elected and are genuinely representative.

This is an absolute minimum if the Afghan body politic is not to explode in 2014. The stakes are now much higher than in 2009 so all concerned must i/ ensure that the technical aspects of the elections are conducted properly and, ii/ beginning now, there must be real political dialogue so that, when Karzai steps down, the winner is accepted as legitimate and the losers believe they can best advance their interests through democratic means and not through violence.

This is a very tall order but the Afghans must deliver – for their own sake.

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Photo credit: isafmedia

london education cuts protest

Are Protests A Complete Waste Of Time?

As the NUS prepares for another round of protests on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is a waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results.

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london education cuts protest

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20th October 2012 saw one of the largest protests in recent years. Titled “A Future That Works”, around 150,000 students, activists, politicians and other members of the public filled the streets to voice their disapproval and anger at the public cuts, welfare budget cuts and against austerity measures put forward by the Coalition government. Additionally the protest aimed to change the way politics works in Britain. Their objective is to create a nation which pays workers a living wage, where bankers do not get high bonuses, where the government ensures the inequality between the rich and the poor is shrunk.  These objectives are not new and throughout the years citizens have demonstrated against their government’s policies in hope of change. But does change ever come?

Undoubtedly some protests can have devastating effects on the governments. The Arab Spring is a perfect example of small scale marches turning into full-blown revolutions which resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Protests have also had a positive impact in America where slavery and segregation were abolished thanks to the protests and marches organised by Martin Luther King. Finally, Gandhi had an innovative idea of protesting – peaceful non-violent civil disobedience which led to the independence of India from the British Empire.

However, recently a large number of people have claimed that protests do not achieve anything and looking back over the last few years it is understandable why that is the case. Almost a million marched against the war in Iraq in 2003, yet the march did not prevent the invasion. Thousands of students marched against the rise in tuition fees, yet once again the results were unsuccessful. One has to also ask what the Occupy Movement has achieved over the last year except media coverage.

Evidently some protests and marches achieve their aim and some do not. Perhaps one explanation for this could be the cause of the protests. While most marches have some validity, one can argue that marching against authoritarian regimes and against slavery and segregation is far more important than marching against a tuition fee rise or austerity measures. In addition, some of the causes which have been successful are quite objective. Anyone with any sense of morality would agree that racism, slavery and life under a dictatorship is wrong and thus it was inevitable that change would eventually come. Austerity measures, education cuts and even the invasion of Iraq are issues which are less clear cut and can be viewed as rather subjective.

Does that mean that less important matters should be left untouched by activists and protesters?  Absolutely not: the secondary aim of marches is to illustrate the dissatisfaction of citizens against a particular policy and additionally to spread the narrative among the public who may not be aware of the damage these policies may be causing. This is exactly what the protests against the invasion of Iraq, against the tuition fee rise, and the most recent austerity march has achieved: the illustration of anger at the government and widespread media coverage attracting others to the cause.

Let us also not forget that student demonstrations can be very effective. For example, thousands of students took over the university as part of the uprising of the Polytechnic University of Athens. As a result the military junta stormed the university gates using tanks. The outcome was the killing of many students by the dictatorship, however, a few days later a nation-wide uprising took place against the junta. This demonstration resulted in the creation of the famous legislation known as the Students Asylum or Academic Asylum. This law was introduced to protect freedom of thought and expression on campuses in 1982, when memories of Greece’s repressive military dictatorships of the late 1960s and early 1970s were still raw.

So where does this leave modern day protests and marches? As the NUS prepares for another demonstration on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is just another waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results. From the examples given in this article it is clear that many marches do create change, regardless of whether it takes weeks or years. In addition these marches can achieve much more than transformation of the society. They can ensure the government is well aware that their citizens are not prepared to stand back and let the establishment make unpopular choices. Demonstrations keep the government on their toes and ensure politicians are always accountable for their actions. For these reasons, protest and demonstrations are vital ingredients of our political system and have an intrinsically important role to play in society.

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Photo credit: Selena Sheridan

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai

Karzai & His Talib ‘Brothers’

Karzai’s desire to secure his legacy as the father of a modern Afghan nation is behind his public olive branches to the Taliban. However, Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions toward the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others.

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Last week, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar once again referred to President Karzai and his administration as “stooges” and “puppets” and rejected any notion of negotiation between them. On the other side, Karzai has on numerous occasions referred to the Taliban as “brothers”, including in a graveside oration for his slain [NB: not by the Taliban] brother Ahmed Wali – and has been heavily criticised for doing so.

The relationship between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban is clearly complex, which will pose problems in whatever political dialogue will take place up to and beyond 2014, but it is not as paradoxical as it would seem.

While doubtless very amusing to Americans who have dealt with the Afghan President, the Taliban’s repeated dismissal of Karzai as a US stooge is actually quite rational. From their perspective, the legitimate government of Afghanistan is that of the Islamic Emirate and its legitimate leader is Mullah Omar. To negotiate with Karzai on equal terms is to surrender that legitimacy.

In addition to this question of legitimacy, there are other factors in the Taliban’s relationship with Karzai which are often overlooked by, or simply not known to, western observers. Indeed, there is a history stretching back to the mid-1990s and the very creation of the Taliban – which the young Karzai initially welcomed.

This soon changed and Karzai, in exile in Pakistan, began to work against them. In July 1999, Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad, was assassinated by the Taliban and his son led a massive funeral procession into Kandahar province in open defiance of the Taliban regime.

Over the past ten years, the manner in which Karzai has built his power base (which was non-existent in 2001) has only deepened the enmity of the Taliban. Beginning with his late brother, Ahmed Wali, key Karzai allies in southern Afghanistan are figures of detestation to the Taliban (and many others besides).

Matiullah Khan and Abdul Raziq, the current police chiefs of Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces respectively, are notorious for their brutality towards Taliban fighters. Another hated individual is Asadullah Khalid on the basis of his actions while Provincial Governor of Kandahar and later as overall security coordinator for southern Afghanistan. Khalid was recently appointed Head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan internal intelligence agency, and as such will play a central role in any sort of reconciliation process.

In short, while there are rational political reasons for the Taliban’s public stance towards Karzai, there is also a deep visceral hatred of the President and his allies in the south. This combination must seriously call into question any possibility of meaningful negotiation.

As for Karzai himself, his stance towards the Taliban may appear irrational given all of the above and given the heavy criticism he has received when he has referred to them as “brothers” [NB: On occasion Karzai has even threatened to join the Taliban, although he was not thought to have been serious]. They may not be immediately apparent but Karzai does have his reasons nonetheless.

Karzai’s survival – political and actual – depends in large part on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan by the end of 2014 when he leaves (or is supposed to leave) office. His desire to secure his legacy as the father of the modern Afghan nation – an Afghan Ataturk, if you will – is a significant factor behind his very public olive branches to the Taliban. The problem there is that Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions towards the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others, for example key power brokers and politicians affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-ye Nazar.

Northern suspicions as to Karzai’s agenda of ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban also stem from the fact that the President’s inner circle has, in recent years, become increasingly dominated by Pashtun nationalists whose politics closely resemble those of the Taliban, at least to northern eyes. This is in stark contrast to the early years of the Karzai administration, during which the Interim President’s massive reliance upon northern powerbrokers (usually Panjshiris) within his Cabinet, such as current Vice-President Fahim Khan, allowed them to effectively run the government.

Today, Pashtuns affiliated to Hezb-e Islami occupy a number of key positions in the administration (e.g. Karim Khurram, his Chief-of-Staff, and Farooq Wardak, Minister for Education) and it is reasonable to suppose that Karzai’s policy towards the Taliban is, in part, a result of their influence.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, a formerly high-ranking Talib, presciently wrote that Karzai is imprisoned within a circle of people who keep him from the truth, adding that:

Karzai is between the tiger and the precipice and he wakes up every day unsure which way to go. He cannot differentiate between friend and enemy.

In the context of a peace process and a nationwide political dialogue, that could spell real danger.

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Photo Credit: isafmedia

A view of Jerusalem

Recognizing A Palestinian State Would Be Disastrous

A hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the United Nations no matter what – and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient.

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A view of Jerusalem

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This is a response to  ‘Blocking Palestine: America’s Big Mistake

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Many groups have seen hope for a solution to the Middle East conflict in the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, the thinking being that international pressure will exert  pressure on Israel. Following this logic, American opposition to the move is regarded as a diplomatic mistake given a growing consent among the UN member states for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) request for statehood. Americans, the argument goes, are opposed to it out of concerns that the Palestinian state could then file a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel for illegal occupation of its territories. This stance takes root in its loyalty to a close ally despite the fact that such policy goes against its principles and values and undermines its influence across the Arab World. American behavior with regards to the PA is even more perplexing when one takes a look at its efforts to support democratic changes in North Africa.

I would like to counter that argument. Accepting a Palestinian bid for statehood would be a dangerous development, not only for the US and Israel, but first and foremost for Palestinians and the wider region. Americans oppose Palestinian statehood out of security concerns rather than a morally dubious attachment to its ally. At this moment in history Palestine is by no means ready to become a state, and the blatant international disregard for the Israeli input in the matter could have dire consequences, including an all-out conflict across the region.

The first and most important risk originates in the fact that the PA does not exercise full control over its territories, even in Zone A, and cannot guarantee the rule of law over all of its lands and stability at its borders – the Gaza Strip and Hamas, for example. Let’s imagine the PA finally gets the statehood it wanted – how is it supposed to oust Hamas from Gaza and reinstate itself as the ruling power? What do Abbas’s assertions on peaceful cooperation with Israel mean if once Palestine becomes independent Hamas will continue to dictate its own policies, fire missiles at Israel and recruit Bedouins to attack from Sinai? Palestine can only become a state if it has all the features of a state – territory and population are not enough.

Let us imagine the newly independent Palestine files a lawsuit against Israel at the ICC, the ICC finds Israel guilty and demands its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Then what? No state in history will voluntarily abandon strategic positions without being fully confident that its withdrawal will not be instantaneously used against it. Palestinian state apparatus and security forces are too weak to deal with rioting and protests, let alone successfully fight domestic terrorist groups. Can Abbas really guarantee that no missiles will be launched on Ben Gurion Airport from the West Bank hills? That he will make sure nobody smuggles firearms from Jordan into Ramallah? That Hezbollah operatives would not enter Palestine to train and recruit new terrorists?

The risk is just too big to take, especially now with sectarian conflicts raging all over the region. The PA does not wield enough power – state institutions are weak and security forces are ill-trained and corrupt. Israel contains the terrorist threat coming from the Occupied Territories at the disgraceful costs of humanitarian abuse and violence, but its tactics and strategy are successful. Can Israelis gamble put their safety and security in the hands of weak and semi-failed institutions out of a moral imperative? It would be against common sense to claim they should.

The first condition for the PA is to exercise the full rule of law, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, when it will be able to contain terrorism on its own territory before it hits Israel. Secondly, Israel cannot be forced into an internationally orchestrated Palestinian statehood. Israelis would not yield to such pressure, whereas encouraged Palestinians would interpret such move as a green light for staging a Third Intifada. The consequences would be more bloodshed, more violence and a greater Israeli military presence in the Occupied Territories. Such a move would delay any chance for a comprehensive solution for another couple of decades.

The peace process must be negotiated with the involvement of the great powers. The counter-argument is irrelevant as all the parameters for a peace solution have been set and defined as far back as Taba Summit in 2001. The problem lies in the lack of good will between the two sides; if the solution was mutually desired, Palestine could become an independent state over one night. Any international solution without the Israelis on board would deteriorate the situation, enhance the risk of violence, and fuel hawkish moods both in Israel and in Palestine.

Lastly, statehood would be disastrous for the PLO and its legitimacy. If the PLO could not gain any substantial improvement in the Palestinian situation following recognition, Palestinian society would question the PA’s ability to deliver, thus further undermining its already weak support. It is not hard to imagine a wave of social protests bolstering radicals’ support base, who could build their popularity on harsh critique of the PLO’s inertia and passiveness, calling for the people to forcefully take what has been promised by the UN itself. If another intifada were to break out, the PLO would have no chance of controlling the uprising, nor would it be able to compete with the militant and populist Hamas in rallying the support of the society to lead the fight. If Arafat could not control the Second Intifada, it is beyond the realms of possibility that someone as uncharismatic as Abbas will do better.

I do not intend to defend Israeli policies; I am no fan of Bibi and his politics. But a hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the UN no matter what - and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient and appreciate the current situation, as irrespective of what we think, Israeli-Palestinian relations, both on official and social levels, haven’t been as peaceful as they are now for some time.

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Photo credit: Adam Biggs / theriskyshift.com

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Bosnia & Herzegovina’s EU Dilemmas

As its neighbours move towards the European Union, Bosnia & Herzegovina still has a host of complex obstacles to overcome.

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With a recent history starkly streaked with ethnic violence, political upheaval and economic uncertainty, Bosnia and Herzegovina desperately needs a sign that the future shall be better. For its neighbours, as for many eastern European states, the golden goose has long been accession into the European Union. Bosnia officially shares this ambition, but while others have made substantial progress in meeting the necessary criteria for membership, Bosnia remains hamstrung by its constitutional and political composition.

Croatia, whose membership shall be affirmed next year, has satisfactorily addressed outstanding issues on minority and human rights; Serbia has set itself well on the way with the high-profile arrests of Karadžić, Mladić and other suspected war criminals (a noted condition for Serbia’s candidacy); and Montenegro has been applauded as the state with greatest press freedoms in the region. In contrast to this, Bosnia’s politics remain characterised by strong hostilities, mistrust and ethno-national alignment, and its constitutional structure perpetuates division and decentralisation.

While the European Commission recognises that some progress has been made towards minority rights, the rigidity of the constitution framed at the Dayton Agreement is hindering further success. An example is the legacy of the prominent Sejdić-Finci case in 2009, which led to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the electoral provision – only allowing the election of “Constituent Peoples” (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) to the tri-member Presidency and House of Peoples violated the rights of minorities – must be amended. However, there followed a period of virtual inactivity for almost two years. After this, deadlines set by the Council of Europe came and went with no firm agreement on how to accommodate changes.

Although such constitutional issues are a major hurdle, the socio-political problems obstructing Bosnia’s progress run much deeper. A solution on Sejdić-Finci is not impossible, but nationally-mandated politicians frequently seem reluctant to cede or dilute their stake in federal power to any degree. This is perhaps not surprising when the national identities developed amongst Bosnia’s populace in the preface to and during the 1992-1995 war have become no less entrenched over time. From a national to a local level, politicians are almost universally elected on the basis of nationality, with tension still flaring around raw nerves relating to the conflict, as Reuters recently reported in Srebrenica’s mayoral election. The division between the two entities of the Federation and Republika Srpska is especially pronounced and often proves disruptive to effective national government and commerce, not to mention furthering “us and them” mentalities within the single state.

With such tortuous internal divisions, it might be assumed that membership in the European Union is of secondary importance to Bosnians. On the contrary, however, opinion polls have repeatedly shown overwhelming support (as high as eighty-six percent) for Bosnia moving towards accession. Bosnia’s economy could certainly use the relative security provided by the EU, even as the union weathers an unprecedented crisis of its own. Unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina is officially estimated at above twenty-five percent, but may actually be well over forty percent. Growth is sluggish after its notable pre-2009 rates. Foreign capital from loans, aid and investment has supported Bosnia since 1995 and while this may encourage over-reliance, the potential for greater investment as an EU member state is profound.

Furthermore, very real economic and social dangers shall arise for Bosnia as neighbours ascend to membership. Croatia, which has hitherto operated in common with Bosnia under the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), is in the process of adopting more stringent EU regulations. This shall come as a blow to Bosnia’s exports- over fifteen percent of which go to Croatia – particularly in the agricultural sector, where production standards are not expected to meet the raised bar. An additional strain shall be the status of Bosnian Croat citizens, most of whom have Croatian passports and thus will have the right to work in the EU while other Bosnians will not. The socio-economic rift that could develop between these groups shall only be exacerbated by Bosnia’s other neighbours gaining membership in the future.

If Bosnia is to avoid divisions and disadvantages, it must decisively address these overdue political and commercial issues in the coming months and years. Yet it is difficult to see how these problems can be finally overcome without an eventual confrontation with and restructuring of its constitutional and political systems.

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Photo credit: dimnikolov

The Streets of Jerusalem

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part One)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.

With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.

Likud Squared

‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.

The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.

By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.

At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.

Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting. 

Yalla (Bye?) Kadima

Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.

Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.

Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’.  Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist partyjoin Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.

The Redemption of Labor

Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its  lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.

Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement.  With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.

Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.

This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.

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 Photo credit: dmitrysumin

US Presidential Election Roundup 21/10 – 27/10

This week’s roundup of the US presidential elections…

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Romney ad focuses on executive role [CNN] A new ad from the Romney campaign has focused on the executive roles of Mitt Romney and President Obama.

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Super PAC breaks fund record [Huffington Post] A super PAC that supports Mitt Romney raised nearly $15 million in September, meaning that it has now raised over $100 million overall during the election.

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Romney insists on TV show reference [Huffington Post] Mitt Romney has continued to make reference to the US television programme Friday Night Lights after being asked by the show’s creator to stop.

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‘Romnesia’ causes campaign criticism [The Hill] Members of both the Romney and the Obama campaign have spoken about President Obama’s suggestion that his opponent’s policy shifts are symptoms of ‘Romnesia’.

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Ryan campaigns in Iowa [ABC News] Paul Ryan has spoken at a campaign event in Iowa on the Republican ticket’s chance of victory.

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Poll suggests tie [NBC] A new poll suggests that the presidential election is tied at 47%.

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Obama campaign targets environmental issues [The Hill] An email sent to environmentalists has sought to demonstrate President Obama’s stance on green issues.

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Ohio polls suggest close result [CNN] A new series of polls suggests a close race in the battleground state of Ohio.

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Campaign finances compared [Huffington Post] The Huffington Post contrasts the way in which each campaign has handled its campaign finances.

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Third presidential debate takes place [New York Times] The third presidential debate took place this week with a focus on foreign policy issues.

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Polls suggest Obama debate win [National Journal] Poll results following the third presidential debate favoured President Obama.

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Debate viewing figures released [The Hill] Nielsen Ratings reports that the third presidential debate was watched by around 59.2 million people, fewer than the previous debates.

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Obama comments on close race [NBC] President Obama has said that he is not surprised at the closeness of the presidential race.

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Campaigns tied among women [The Hill] Mitt Romney has a national lead and is tied with President Obama among women, a new poll suggests.

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Ryan reveals Halloween plans [CNN] Republican candidate for Vice-President has shared his plans for Halloween.

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Cheny and George HW Bush campaign for Romney [CNN] CNN reports that former Vice-President Cheney and Former President George HW Bush will attend Romney campaign fundraisers.

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Romney speaks on ‘change’ [The Hill] Mitt Romney has said that if elected, he and Paul Ryan will ‘bring big changes’ and described President Obama’s approach as ‘status-quo’.

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Campaigns confident in early voting [NBC] Both campaigns have expressed confidence over the impact of early voting in Ohio.

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Obama campaign comments on interview [Yahoo News] The Obama campaign has sought to explain remarks apparently made by the President in a soon-to-be published Rolling Stone interview in which he suggests Mitt Romney is ‘a bullshitter’.

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Ann Romney discusses food shopping [ABC News] Ann Romney has appeared on the Rachel Ray Show, where she discussed groceries.

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Obama votes early [The Guardian] President Obama has become the first president to cast his vote early, in an effort to encourage others to do so.

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Washington Post endorses Obama [Washington Post] The Washington Post has publically endorsed President Obama.

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Powell criticised for Obama support [Huffington Post] Senator John McCain has criticised Colin Powell for declaring his support for President Obama.

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Obama leads in Iowa and Wisconsin [Public Policy Polling] New polls suggest President Obama leads in Iowa and Wisconsin.

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Poll suggests close race in Nevada and Colorado [The Hill] A poll has found that President Obama has a three-point lead in Nevada and is tied with Mitt Romney in Colorado.

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Obama campaign reports finances [CNN] The Obama campaign has revealed that it raised around $90.5 million in the first part of October.

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Obama discusses Trump [Huffington Post] President Obama has joked about Donald Trump on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

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Obama leads early voting [Reuters] Reuters report on the percentage of votes cast early, as polls suggest President Obama leads early voting.

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Compiled by Patrick McGhee.

Obama & Romney Caricature

Lo Sprint Finale Della Corsa Alla Casa Bianca: Un Commento Conclusivo.

Si riducono le possibilità per Obama di conquistare i voti degli indecisi. A questo punto il presidente dovrebbe sperare che vada tutto per il verso giusto – nessuna gaffe o incidenti internazionali – e che la base del suo elettorato accantoni la delusione per le promesse non mantenute e si rechi a votare.

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Obama & Romney Caricature

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E’ risaputo che gli scontri aperti e sul filo del rasoio siano quelli preferiti dalla stampa. Questo spiega perchè il primo dibattito televisivo fra Mitt Romney e il presidente Obama abbia appassionato così tanto il pubblico di tutto il mondo. Il candidato repubblicano, dopo settimane di gaffe che sembravano aver messo seriamente a repentaglio la sua candidatura, è tornato in corsa per l’elezione dopo il primo confronto televisivo. Infatti, l’insufficiente, e per questo incomprensible, performance di Obama ha permesso a Romney di far emergere la credibilità e la ricchezza delle sue proposte politiche, sebbene in contrasto con quelle precedenti, confermando quanto l’efficacia della comunicazione politica ed elettorale sia molto più rilevante e determinante di qualsiasi incoerenza programmatica.

Così, mentre la stampa e i commentatori politico-elettorali hanno ritrovato nuova linfa ed energia grazie a questo inaspettato successo repubblicano, la base democratica ha avvertito il presagio di una possibile sconfitta del proprio candidato, apparso quasi noncurante sull’esito della corsa alla Casa Bianca. Tuttavia il rischio maggiore che incombe sulla rielezione di Obama è rappresentato dal disinteresse dei suoi stessi sostenitori. Sebbene appaia improbabile una vittoria schiacciante come quella del 2008, al pari di un significativo spostamento degli elettori democratici verso Romney, è necessario considerare che, il 6 novembre, la partecipazione di questi ultimi non sarà affatto scontata, dato che durante il suo mandato Obama non è riuscito ad ottenere successi politici netti ed evidenti.

Ci troviamo così di fronte al tipico dilemma dei sistemi bipartitici: i più fermi sostenitori di un candidato sono quelli che destano meno preoccupazione, dal momento che i liberali convinti, per quanto possano sentirsi trascurati, difficilmente daranno il loro voto al candidato repubblicano. In ogni caso sussiste il serio rischio che gli elettori demotivati e disillusi, fra cui si possono certamente enumerare diversi sostenitori di Obama, semplicemente non si rechino nell’urna, appellandosi ad una serie di promesse non mantenute, come Guantanamo Bay, la politica verso le droghe e i costosi compromessi riguardanti la riforma sanitaria. L’amministrazione Obama ha cercato di confutare queste argomentazioni, sostenendo che l’ottimismo iniziale, quasi ingenuo, sull’eventualità di chiudere Guantanamo è stata subito derubricata da un Congresso non collaborativo, al punto che la questione non è neanche emersa durante la campagna elettorale. Tuttavia, la promessa di porre fine al traffico di sostanze stupefacenti è stata completamente disattesa, e l’attuale amministrazione si è addirittura distinta per aver adottato provvedimenti ancor più repressivi, quali l’applicazione di sanzioni federali per la vendita di marijuana ad uso medico. Anche in questo caso, il governo ha trattato come marginali tali tematiche, non ritenendole determinanti per la rielezione. Infine, lamentano gli aficionados democratici, l’assicurazione sanitaria pubblica non è stata introdotta, nonostante Obama godesse della capacità di influenzare il Congresso a suo favore.

In effetti, è comprensibile come in un sistema bipartitico, caratterizzato dall’assenza di evidenti contrapposizioni fra le parti, singole questioni di natura politica non rivestano un’importanza determinante. Anche per questa ragione sia l’affaire Guantanamo, che la lotta alla droga sono stati tralasciati durante il dibattito pre-elettorale. Allo stesso modo, hanno suscitato poco interesse i dati secondo cui il 50% sul totale dei caduti in Afghanistan, e l’escalation di attacchi condotti tramite droni in Pakistan siano avvenuti durante la presidenza Obama, malgrado l’estrema rilevanza di tali questioni per i liberali, considerati a ragione i più fedeli sostenitori del presidente.

Accantonando le succitate divergenze, gli elettori democratici conservano ottime ragioni per non perdere fiducia nell’operato e nello slancio progressista del proprio presidente: a tal riguardo, basti citare la sua decisione di schierarsi a favore della possibilità di matrimoni tra persone omosessuali. D’altronde, gli stessi sostenitori di Obama sono consapevoli che un secondo mandato potrebbe garantirgli la possibilità di agire su nodi politici ancora irrisolti, e finora lasciati in disparte.

A questo punto, a meno di due settimane dal voto, Obama potrebbe fare ben poco per rivitalizzare la propria base elettorale: l’unica strategia, utile ad assicurarsi i voti necessari alla rielezione, dovrebbe mirare alla conquista degli indecisi. A tal proposito, gli esiti del secondo e terzo dibattito sono stati rivelatori: in entrambi Obama si è mostrato molto più fedele all’immagine di se mostrata e ammirata quattro anni fa dal monto intero, e in virtù della ritrovata energia ed entusiasmo, i suoi elettori confidano nel successo finale. In effetti, un approccio maggiormente critico e assertivo ha caratterizzato gli interventi del presidente negli ultimi due dibattiti, durante i quali quest’ultimo ha più volte sottolineato ed evidenziato le numerose contraddizioni e incoerenze programmatiche assunte da Romney nell’estremo tentativo di recuperare consensi e sostegno elettorale.

Da parte sua, il candidato repubblicano ha condotto una campagna abbastanza confusa, cercando di fornire risposte soddisfacenti e onnicomprensive a platee di elettori troppo diverse tra loro, con l’ovvia conseguenza di rendere sfuggenti le proprie reali intenzioni. Così, nelle ultime settimane il baricentro politico di Romney si è progressivamente spostato verso il centro rispetto a tematiche fondamentali, quali la tassazione dei ceti più abbienti e modifiche inclusive alla riforma sanitaria, riguardanti pazienti che soffrono di patologie pregresse. Le sue carte vincenti, come il progetto di un’ampia riduzione della tasse grazie all’eliminazione di numerose scappatoie fiscali, sono state presentate in maniera superficiale ed eccessivamente teorica. Pertanto, nonostante Romney abbia prevalso nel primo dibattito, il formato “townhall” del secondo, tipicamente più colloquiale e con domande fatte direttamente dal pubblico, ha avvantaggiato Obama: in aggiunta, durante il terzo dibattito Romney ha dimostrato una certa incompetenza nell’affrontare temi di politica estera, malgrado il suo sforzo, reiterato ma vano, di rifocalizzare l’attenzione su questioni di natura economica. In effetti, presentando come debole e stentata la reazione all’assassinio dell’ambasciatore Chris Stevens a Bengasi, Romney è riuscito solamente ad essere accusato di point-scoring (tentativo di mettere in difficoltà il presidente con il solo fine di ottenere consenso, ndr), dimenticando la diffusa ed opposta percezione dell’opinione pubblica americana in merito, impegnata a festeggiare la cattura e la morte di Osama Bin Laden meno di un anno e mezzo fa.

Le innumerevoli gaffe di Romney susseguitesi negli ultimi mesi, compresa quella in cui attacca il 47% degli americani che “non pagano le tasse e votano Obama”, dovrebbero garantire un certo margine di tranquillità all’attuale presidente. Tuttavia i sondaggi attestano i candidati in una situazione di sostanziale equilibrio, prevedendo clamorosi pareggi in alcuni collegi elettorali. Con la fatidica data del 6 novembre in avvicinamento, si riducono anche le possibilità per Obama di conquistare i voti degli indecisi. A questo punto il presidente dovrebbe sperare che vada tutto per il verso giusto – nessuna gaffe o incidenti internazionali – e che la base del suo elettorato accantoni la delusione per le promesse non mantenute e si rechi a votare.

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Traduzione ed editing di Giuseppe Paparella (si ringrazia per la collaborazione Marianna Bettini).

Articolo originale: US Presidential Election: The Sprint To The Finish

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey

Afghan policeman helping American soldier

Afghanistan Part 2: The Rise Of ‘Green On Blue’ Attacks

The recent surge of ‘green on blue’ attacks in Afghanistan may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East.

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Afghan policeman helping American soldier

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This is the second part of a two part series on Afghanistan. View the first part here.

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By 2014 the ISAF may well have succeeded in creating an Afghanistan which can be secured by the government, supported by the significant infrastructure and well-trained military developed in the latter half of the conflict. In-fighting between Taliban moderates and extremists and the many groups in the Pakistan federal regions may prevent them developing the strength to challenge government forces. The departure of Western forces may kill off the Taliban’s chief propaganda engine and cut their recruits. The ISAF/UN efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan locals, already having shown some signs of success before the recent resurgence of extremist attacks in the wake of the rise of Pakistan-based groups over the increasingly moderate Afghan Taliban, may yet develop hostility towards yet more violence after the war involving the West is over.

What may result after 2014 is an unknown to even the most knowledgeable military thinkers and strategists. However what the withdrawal itself will show is more solid. What began with the retreat from Mogadishu in 1993 will be completed with that from Kabul in two years time. Western inability to stomach the sacrifice of lives necessary to win such long and non-traditional “bleeding” conflicts may prove the defining element of Western militaries in many conflicts to come. There is no lingering over the death of ever Kenyan to die in the fight of Al-Shabaab nor every Columbian kidnapped and executed by the FARC. Extremist knowledge and use of the strategy, outlined and shown at its most crippling by bin Laden, of goading the west with brutal terrorist attacks into wars which will eventually be defeated by their own public may well be the most devastating development since the advent of nationwide guerrilla warfare in 1800s Spain.

The Taliban will continue to fight to break the hearts of the West to win the minds of their leaders. And they will do so by the use of horrifyingly brutal tactics, by sowing sorrow and despair in those populations least able to cope with them. That is what the ‘green on blue’ attacks symbolise, the massacre of happy Afghans whose only crime was to dance, the murder of raped women and accused homosexuals. This is what terror is, to not know whether the man you taught to bear arms for their own freedom will simply wait till your back is turned before aiming that weapon at your head. Hopelessness and terror is their weapon, and as the ISAF prepares to withdraw they may be giving up their fight against it.

Unfortunately bin Laden was right, and is still winning victories long after his death. The major NATO powers, having not experienced a single conflict on their own soil in over half a decade, have lost the tolerance to violence and death our species had developed over millennia of traumatic and brutal existences. By contrast populations of those states ravaged by war in the Middle East have experienced such constant and repeated violent trauma that death and violence have become normalised. The idea that ten fighters were killed in a raid has become a part of life. In comparison every individual death of ISAF forces is broadcast across world media with sorrowful regret and sentimental remembrance of their life.

I in no way intend to criticise the way the West deals with death. I believe the increasing value placed on lives is a great testament to the culture of individuals rights and the freedom from violence and persecution the West continues to develop. However, it does not lend itself well to war. With every death the Taliban suffers, another willing recruit takes their place. Driven by the trauma of a country which has known no peace, to seek the community, purpose and order of extreme Islamism and with no sense of the sanctity of their own lives, only of that of their purpose. By contrast every ISAF death saps the will to fight of western forces and drives domestic populations away from the idea of a war which is worth fighting.

The recent surge of ‘Green on Blue’ attacks may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East. This colloquial term for the attacks by newly trained Afghan forces on their ISAF allies covers the sudden growth of a new tactic to win the hearts and minds of western audiences. To convince them the war in Afghanistan, possibly a vital one for the fight against Islamist terrorism and regional stability, is both unwinnable and unjust. Why, when ISAF deaths are still so high (despite being nearer half of the losses suffered in the Iraq war), should we believe after a decade that Afghanistan can still be saved? Why, when we dedicate so many of our sons and brothers to the conflict, only to have them killed by those they are trying to help, should we believe the Afghans are deserving of our help?

This has even begun to seep into the highest ranking generals in ISAF forces, commanders vocalising their anger, frustration and sadness at the campaign which continues to drag on with no end in sight. This is no Iraq. The enemy are not collapsing, casualties have not been dramatically reduced by a troop surge, the government is not increasingly powerful or secure. In Iraq both military and civilian casualties dived from their peak after a troop surge which broke the back of extremist elements. In Afghanistan the continuous stream of combatants and extremist preachers from neighbouring Pakistan, outside the reach of the ISAF, is instead breaking the back of western morale. The battle for hearts and minds is one we are losing, it is the strength of religious extremists and their brutal tactics. No where is that more evident than when our hearts fall and minds recoil every time Green turns on Blue.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Prison convict trapped society

Prisoners Should Be Allowed To Vote. No Question.

The answer to preventing criminal re-offenses lies in ensuring that criminals serve their sentences, but never lose their perception that they are still citizens of a nation, and should act like one when they come out of prison.

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Prison convict trapped society

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A brawl is brewing between the European Court and the Coalition government in Britain. The former wants to implement a law which allows the prisoners to have a vote during elections, while David Cameron has defiantly said during Prime Minister’s Questions that the prisoners will never get the vote under his government.

It may perhaps seem like common sense that prisoners should lose their right to vote. After all, they have lost their right to freedom due to committing a crime which has in some way disadvantaged the society, thus they should have no say in the shaping of the society. Nevertheless such a judgment is not truly thought through properly. The purpose of putting criminals into prison is twofold: to protect the community and to hopefully punish the criminals so that they will not re-offend again once they are out. However, Britain has an appalling record of criminals who commit crimes repeatedly. 1 in 3 people who appear before a judge have committed on average 15 crimes before. It is obvious that the search for the holy grail of turning criminals into lawful citizens is still lost. I believe that one of the reasons for this is the fact that prisoners become completely alienated from society once in prison. One may argue that this is the whole point of imprisonment, however is it not essential, and more important to ensure that criminals do not re-offend. One way of preventing re-offenses is to ensure that prisoners do not feel segregated from the rest of the country. Unfortunately, preventing prisoners from voting is doing just that. By taking away the prisoner’s freedom to play a role in who governs the country, society is sending a message to prisoners that he or she is no longer part of that society. This undoubtedly will lead to the feeling of isolation and, in due course, re-offending. After all, following the convict’s freedom from prison, why should he or she feel the need to abide by the law when he or she feels psychologically distanced from the society which made these laws?

If the British government wants to see the figures for re-offending diminished, then the country as a whole should not treat prisoners like sub-class citizens or animals, but instead treat them as citizens who deserve to serve their punishment, but still have a vital role in shaping society. If Britain allows prisoners to vote, it will at least psychologically ensure that the prisoner feels welcomed and senses some compassion which hopefully will ensure he will not re-offend again once the freedom is given back to him.

The debate on whether criminals should be punished or rehabilitated has been discussed for many years now. I believe the real answer does not lie in whether the government disciplines them harshly or treats them as “sick” people who just need to be cured with care just like one is cured from a common cold. The answer lies in ensuring the criminals serve their sentence but never lose their perception that they are still citizens of a nation, and should act like one when they come out of prison.

Whether this method will be effective is undoubtedly debatable. However as the government is yet to find away to curb re-offending, perhaps this method should at least be given a thought.

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Photo Credit: Alakhai85

ISAF soldier in Afghanistan

Afghanistan Part 1: The Failure Of ‘Hearts and Minds’

That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

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This is the first part of a two part series on Afghanistan.

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The war for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan may be the most important propaganda campaign to the West since its long and bitter fight against Communism over two decades ago. However, unlike the Cold War, it is not a fight between two powers stuck in a precarious balance of equal and all-powerful military might. This is a war of power so disproportionate that it has made the battle of ideals so much more vital, not less so. In a conflict where the military balance is so one-sided, it is the hearts and minds of those both abroad and at home which have become the battlefield for both sides.

The Taliban could never hope to inflict any defeat on ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces large enough to swing the conflict in their favour. To do so would have required numbers, equipment and organisation beyond which the organisation was capable of even at its most powerful. Even the rise of new powerful groups such as the Haqqani network poses no real threat to ISAF forces as a whole. Even a total of three thousand casualties over the last decade is a relatively small loss in real terms against a total strength of over one hundred thousand and very little in comparison to the over twenty thousand Taliban and affiliated fighters killed in the conflict. The worst ever single loss of life for ISAF forces was a helicopter shot down, killing 38.

38 simply isn’t a large loss of life. Six harriers destroyed in the attack on Camp Bastion last month may be a the most serious aircraft loss for the US since Vietnam, but is a drop in the ocean to the US defence budget. With their capability to cause any form of military defeat significant enough to cripple with ISAF forces almost completely out of reach, and the continuing losses to their own more limited forces a constant of their campaign, how is it so many are saying the Taliban is winning the war, and why is NATO drawing out so soon from an unfinished conflict?

The truth lies not in military might and casualty figures but with hearts and minds, and not those of the population of Afghanistan. That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

By this I do not mean that the Taliban have succeeded in turning western populations to violent Islamist extremism and a fundamental interpretation of Sharia law. Instead they succeeded in doing exactly what Osama bin Laden set out to do in 2001. Even before the war was launched, Bin Laden stated his aim as to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” on Muslim lands, claiming: “since Americans […] do not have the stomach for a long and bloody fight, they will eventually give up and leave the Middle East to its fate.”

When the US and UK forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 their greatest defeat will not be military, it will be psychological. They will withdraw with heads hung and eyes lowered. They will return to countries where their home populations have long seen their mission as pointless, unjust or an inevitable failure. Too many have tied the UN-sanctioned, internationally supported mission with the illegal invasion of Iraq which followed.

If ISAF forces retreat from Afghanistan, and it proves too early, before the Afghan government can itself secure the mountainous country and so releasing Afghanistan into a chasm of extremist violence and chaos, it will prove the most significant defeat in NATO history. It will prove the strategic brilliance of Osama Bin Laden and the success of the brutally unjust tactics of friendly fire in the Green-on-Blue attacks. If the Taliban manage to break the Afghan government they will not inherit Afghanistan. After a decade of war they are too weak to consolidate control that they were not even capable of before the 2001 invasion. Instead Afghanistan will collapse in the face of waves of combatants from the Pakistan federal regions and the battle between Iranian Shia and Pakistani Sunnis which will follow. Afghanistan will become a pump for terrorist attacks far greater than anything seen in a decade.

Read the second part of this series here.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

PC Motherboard

Cyberwarfare & Syria – Lessons from Dayr az-Zawr

Warfare may not require boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. Cyberwarfare should be considered when thinking about intervention in Syria. 

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PC Motherboard

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[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast Monday I attended a public event run by the UCL Debating Society discussing the pressing question of intervention in Syria. Presenting the argument for intervention was a group headed by Shiraz Maher of ICSR, recently interviewed in the most recent episode of Debrief. These reasons were articulated along a number of specific lines. Initially, appeals were made to the moral and legal duty to assist the people of Syria; repressed, tortured, displaced, and murdered by a wantonly violent and ruthless regime. It was further argued that intervention would substantially undermine Iranian dominance in the Arab World, a dominance bolstered by the removal of Saddam Hussein. Should the Assad regime fall, the strategic implications for Iran would be two-fold; not only eliminating a key military base, but also directly impacting the supply chain to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad knows this, which is why members from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were recently sent to Assad to lend their disturbing expertise in infiltrating and suppressing populations, in an effort to subdue the groundswell and divide the Free Syria Army (FSA). Concurrently, the Syrian government has sought to stir up sectarian violence within a country characterised by a hugely diverse cultural and religious mosaic, by supporting, funding, and arming Kurdish militants within its borders. Were Syria to descend into a full-blown civil war down sectarian lines, it would not only further destabilise the region and undermine the social movement, but also allow Assad to play the long-game until the 2014 ‘election’. The pre-designed outcome of which would almost certainly secure a further 14 years of the present regime, result in claims of legitimacy from Assad, and guarantee the further subjugation of the Syrian people. The final point raised in favour of intervention was in order to kerb the influx of Islamist groups into the country, who are currently seeking to exploit the security vacuum created by the last 19 months of conflict. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups capitalised on similar situations in Iraq, with AQI witnessing a comeback in recent times, in Somalia, and more recently in Mali on the coattails of Tuareg nationalist rebels returning home after fighting for Gadhafi in Libya.

However, I do not wish to simply regurgitate the increasingly strong case for invention already made. Indeed my own stance on whether we should, or even could, intervene in Syria has chopped and changed over the last year and a half. I am familiar with many of the counter-arguments to intervention, including the militarisation of peace keeping, the risk of escalating violence further, perceived neo-colonist attitudes to world policing, the question of China and Russia, the danger of arming and supporting extremist groups, as well as the distinct geographical and demographical differences between Syria and any other conflict of the Arab Spring. However, with the death toll now over 30,000, I believe the time for negotiation, diplomacy, and debate alone has passed, and there is an increasing urgency for some form of decisive action to assist the people of Syria. In this vein, a number of options were proposed along the lines of funding, arming, and training of rebels, enforcing a no-fly zone and naval blockade in the region, or implementing an Arab lead international ‘peace-keeping’ force to secure a buffer zone for civilians along the Turkish border. At this point a few of the audience chimed in, advocating increased aid without military involvement. The naivety of this suggestion shocked me. Whilst the use, or threat, of military action should never be a casual, throw-away decision, and hopefully the last resort after all alternative avenues have been exhausted, we should not underestimate the nature of the beast and the reality of the situation we are dealing with here. This is a regime that detains and tortures children for daring to write anti-government graffiti or supply protestors with water, the likelihood of them nonchalantly permitting the flow of food, tents, and medicine through to the 1.5 million displaced citizens would be laughable, were the situation not so desperate.

Nonetheless, despite a purely humanitarian mission being wildly idealistic, I do admire the attempt at least to think further the polarised arguments presented or the common courses of action proposed. Indeed this made me reflect on what forms of alternative intervention, what differing strategies could be feasible, other than physical military engagement or diplomatic impotence. Specifically, what forms of intervention could minimise the regimes ability to slaughter it’s people, level the playing field between the Syrian army and the FSA rebels, reduce the necessity of international forces being deployed to Syria, whilst ensuring the Syrian people were masters of their own destiny. Today warfare, or indeed the mitigation of warfare, may not necessarily require the use of bullets and missiles or involve boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. While scholars, practitioners, and commentators disagree on Panetta’s alarmist assessment of a pending “cyber pearl harbor”, the utility of cyber weapons in modern conflict is not merely some matrix induced paranoia, but an empirical reality. In fact one of the most significant examples of how such cyber weapons have been utilised, actually unfolded in Syria five years ago. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force carpet bombed a nuclear facility on the outskirts of Dayr az-Zawr in North-East Syria, being built for Assad by the North Koreans. Significantly, the Syrian air defence system displayed a clear night sky when Israeli F15 and F16 fighter jets descended upon the site. Before any protection or retaliation was possible the mission was complete and jets had left Syrian airspace, no one could be rallied because instead of giving up the element of surprise the Israelis controlled what the Syrians saw by hacking their systems at Tall al-Abyad. How this was actually achieved remains debatable, however many believe it is likely that the Israeli attack was most likely preceded by a small ‘stealth’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This would not have shown up on the radar, but would have intentionally flown into the Syrian radar beam and used the same open-ended radio frequency to transmit computer packets back to the radar’s computer, from there the Israelis were able to infiltrate the entire Syrian network. The malfunction warning sidestepped, a loop of a clear sky was played leaving Syrian defences completely redundant. The US have a similar cyber weapon code-named Senior Suter.

Given that five years ago the Soviet built Syrian air defence systems were infiltrated relatively easily and with such dramatically successful results, I wonder what role such techniques may play in conflicts in the future? Whilst international standards, legal frameworks, appropriate terminology, and notions of attribution and accountability are still in their relative infancy and often rather ill defined – the utility of such code in, say, minimising atrocities and protecting civilian lives by crippling state defences, military capabilities, and communications, for example, is perhaps something which should be considered. The supplementing of traditional kinetic warfare with cyber-attacks, either during or prior to engagement, will continue to grow in regularity and effectiveness as technologies develop and the strategic application of such weapons is better understood.

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Photo credit: Accretion Disc

Nuclear bomb

Some Theoretical Concerns on Nuclear Disarmament

Further nuclear proliferation increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, and at the same time, total nuclear disarmament might cause regional tensions and global instability. There is a need to establish those conditions which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more peaceful world
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Nuclear bomb

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The nuclear disarmament agenda may seem to be based, at least in declaratory terms among politicians, on a wide consensus that humanity should actively seek the end of nuclear weapons. Even the objections raised by the dismissive realists mainly pertain to the feasibility of the task at hand, and much less to the desirability of the ultimate goal. Focusing on the latter issue, and from a largely theoretical perspective, I would argue that it is not yet clear, let alone self-evident, as many think, whether nuclear disarmament will lead us to a less violent, much safer world.

In retrospect, few would now disagree that man should have never had invented nuclear weapons in the first place. That being said, the argument that it was nuclear weapons which prevented another world war in the second half of the 20th century is difficult to refute. There are dimensions to this issue that merit some reflection. First, the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry provides considerable empirical indications that between more or less equally strong nuclear powers, mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensures that all-out war is consciously avoided by state leaders as a policy option. The general assertion that nuclear weapons have contributed to peace since 1945 seems valid even if its truthfulness is considered theoretically impossible to prove. Furthermore, at the present state of affairs the claim that the abolition of nuclear weapons will increase international security has not been adequately supported. It seems preconditioned on a radically different, almost utopian(?), international system than the one we have now, in which serious disputes that fuel proliferation are non-existent, and states have attained a maturity and wisdom one can barely imagine at the moment. Even if the ‘global zero’ is at some point achieved, in an anarchical international setting of sovereign states – which is historically in constant flux – nothing can preclude new rivalries emerging that might induce nuclear rearmament. Moreover, nuclear deterrence seems anything but losing its efficacy. It can be argued that it is exactly North Korea’s nuclear capabilities that deter the US from seriously considering any military actions against it, which is perhaps a valuable example and lesson convincing the Iranian leadership that nuclear weapons are the only credible defence against another Iraq-type American campaign in the region, this time aimed at their country.

In addition, it generally seems to be implied that the certain annihilation entailed by a nuclear war must somehow automatically convince all states to either abandon the option of possessing them. But in a MAD scenario, the fact that the use of nuclear weapons on a large scale is practically ruled out can induce only a potential aggressor to agree on a global zero, on the grounds that he cannot use them anyway. On the contrary, a nuclear state of purely defensive posture is actually benefiting from MAD, because that is exactly what deters external threats, and thus would have no strategic/military reason to change this balance. The US, for example, would have never considered nuclear disarmament in the early 50’s, given the perceived aggressiveness and conventional superiority of the Soviet Union, and regardless of how pointless a nuclear confrontation might be at the time.

The above issue of balancing power might seem too theoretical, but has important practical implications, especially when it comes to non-nuclear states’ willingness to commit to non-proliferation, or that of weaker nuclear states to disarm. For such states, the global zero environment could be seen as a situation in which they have lost perhaps the only possible means of defending against a much stronger opponent, should a rivalry occur. While a major power would relinquish only one of its assets of superiority, the weaker state, whether currently nuclear or not, would be required to forego perhaps the most effective possible way of deterring a potential aggressor. In the absence of nuclear weapons, what options would India have in defending against a much stronger and expansionist China, or, similarly, Pakistan against India? How could Israel engage in a conventional arms race with a hypothetical belligerent coalition of Egypt and Syria, without the balancing effect of its nuclear arsenal? Or, why should current Russia, now that the tables are turned, strip itself of the ability to counter Western conventional predominance? With disarmament, the relative position of states to each other clearly changes to the disadvantage of the weaker ones.

Apparently we have reached a dangerous point where, on one hand, further proliferation considerably increases the risks associated with nuclear weapons, given the specifics of the cases of North Korea and Iran – especially the problematic character of their political regimes – as well as the threat of nuclear terrorism, and on the other, total nuclear disarmament, besides being practically very difficult to implement, might regionally cause power imbalances, increased tensions, renewed arms races, as well as further global instability. The nightmarish prospect of widespread nuclear proliferation notwithstanding, the disarmament agenda can also be considered ethically problematic. After decades of advanced and powerful states having enjoyed the benefits of nuclear weapons in terms of security and international position and leverage, now that the oligopoly threatens to collapse, a total ban is being promoted by, one might say, those who do not need them anymore or don’t want to see others ‘catching up’. In any case, there seems to be a need for a deeper theoretical exploration of the issue, in order to establish those conditions and parameters which will ensure that nuclear disarmament will lead to a more, not less peaceful world.

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Photo Credit: futureatlas.com

Obama & Romney Caricature

US Presidential Election: The Sprint To The Finish

The President will now have little opportunity to win over the few remaining undecided voters. At this point, he must hope that events proceed in his favour – no campaign trail slip-ups, no international incidents – and that the core of his support set aside any grudges they bear over broken promises and actually turn up on election day.

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Obama & Romney Caricature

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When it comes to national elections, the press love a tight race. Which might explain the excitement that followed the first US presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama. After weeks of gaffes from Romney which verged on campaign suicide, there was at last a glimmer of hope that he might actually stand a chance on election day. Obama’s inexplicably poor performance allowed Romney to portray himself as energetic and full of ideas, no matter how much these ideas contradicted his previously stated policies. To put it simply, the quality of argument in a televised debate matters much less than the quality of presentation, and on this front, Romney scored a resounding victory.

The excitement among the press at this turn of events was mirrored by fear among Obama’s Democratic base that their candidate had somehow become complacent. But if anything, it is complacency among that base that poses the greatest threat to Obama’s re-election. Certainly, it is difficult to envision the kind of turn-out which resulted in Obama’s landslide victory in 2008. While it is very unlikely that a significant proportion of those who voted for him then will switch allegiance to Romney, the fact remains that Obama has not given his base that much to cheer about over the past four years, so mobilising them to get out and vote on November 6 may prove challenging.

And here we have a routine dilemma in two-party politics: a candidate’s firmest supporters are those to whom they have to worry least about appealing. After all, committed liberals, no matter how neglected they feel, are hardly likely to vote Republican. But there does exist the risk that demotivated and disillusioned voters simply will not show up on the day. And there is certainly a section of such voters among those who supported Obama in 2008. They point to a series of broken promises over, for example, Guantanamo Bay, drug policy, and a watered down healthcare package. But the administration has decent rebuttals for each of these examples: initial optimism, verging on naivety, over the prospect of closing Guantanamo was swiftly undermined by an uncooperative congress, and the issue simply has not arisen during the election. Promises to end the ‘War on Drugs’ have been totally reversed, with the administration taking a harder line than its predecessor on issues like states’ sanctioning the sale of medical marijuana, but the administration can easily paint this as a niche concern, and certainly not an issue for the election. And while the public option failed to materialise during the run-up to the flagship healthcare reforms, despite considerable evidence that Obama had the political clout to force this element through had he so wished, the fact remains that the package which passed will make an enormous difference in ensuring coverage for millions of Americans.

It is a simple fact of two-party politics that where there is no disagreement between the parties, an issue is highly unlikely to receive much coverage. It is in this way that the Guantanamo and drugs war issues have been largely forgotten about in the national debate. Similarly, the fact that half of the American deaths in Afghanistan have occurred under Obama’s presidency has elicited little concern, while the same applies to the dramatic escalation of drone strikes over the past four years. Yet these are issues which matter to liberal Americans, supposedly Obama’s safest supporters.

But there are some reasons for optimism among his base. Perhaps his decision to speak out in favour of gay marriage in May was a signal to these supporters that they had not been forgotten. And perhaps a second term will allow him the freedom to pursue some of the policy areas which he had trumpeted four years ago, but which have been neglected since.

Of course, with a mere two weeks remaining before election day, there is little Obama can do at this point to reinvigorate his base. Instead, he must shore up his appeal to those few remaining undecided voters. His performances in the second and third debates will have helped; both were much more reminiscent of the man so much of the world came to admire four years ago, and his supporters will hope that this renewed energy will last for the final sprint to the finish. The lethargy and disinterest exhibited in the first debate was replaced with a welcome aggression, as he sought to point out the numerous areas of policy on which Romney’s views have changed to suit his audience.

For his part, Romney has represented something of an amorphous fog of policy during this campaign, seeking to be most things to most people but leaving very little by which genuine intent can be discerned. Recent weeks have seen a significant move to the centre, on issues such as taxation of the wealthy and healthcare for those with pre- existing conditions. His marquee policies, such as widespread tax cuts funded by the closing of loopholes, have been poorly explained. All too often, his responses during the debates made reference to “the way I think it ought to be”, with little elaboration. While he certainly dominated the first debate, the town hall format of the second suited Obama much more. And despite his best efforts during the third debate to return to his most fertile ground, the economy, its focus on foreign policy was always going to be prove challenging for the Republican contender. His attempts to paint the incumbent’s response to the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi as weak and uncertain were successfully parried with accusations of inappropriate political point-scoring. And the notion of the president being soft is unlikely to fly among a public who celebrated in the streets upon the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Given Romney’s gaffe spree in the past month, including the effective dismissal of 47% of the voting public, victory should be well within Obama’s grasp. Yet the candidates’ poll ratings are currently even, with some even predicting a tie in the electoral college. The President will now have little opportunity to win over the few remaining undecided voters. At this point, he must hope that events proceed in his favour – no campaign trail slip-ups, no international incidents – and that the core of his support set aside any grudges they bear over broken promises and actually turn up on election day.

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Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey