Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Obama & Reagan: Foreign Policies in Comparison

Unlike Reagan’s prompt reaction to the events of 1983 in Beirut, the supposed passivity of the current American president, shown following the attack in Benghazi, is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Stevens, President Obama responded with a resolute but cautious approach, in line with the foreign policy choices of his first term: “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

The voluntary preference for the term “act of terror,” and not “terrorism,” shows to what extent the strategy in presidential foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, is focused towards a path which diverges from that of the previous Bush administration, with both linguistic and cultural discontinuities. Behind such language there also lies the undeniable need to put into perspective a constant, and often exploitable, reference to the “Islamic” matrix of the attacks. The will to not concede to the easy temptation of military intervention further confirms the overall tendency towards caution and reflection.

A different reason for this behaviour is to be found in the additional aim of reaching a stabilisation of the political situation in the Middle East and a complex re-evaluation of the image of the United States. The current U.S. president has acted in awareness of America’s political limits in such a context, and has favoured an approach which is more pragmatic than the traditional idealism typical of U.S. foreign policy. The American presence in Middle Eastern and North African affairs during the 20th century has resulted in increased tensions, particularly post-9/11and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ordered by Bush. Anti-American sentiment, demonstrated by terrorist actions against sensitive U.S. targets, has grown in the last decade: it is one of the greatest problems faced by Obama, who was also elected for his promise of comprehensive normalisation.

Even the recent trip to the Middle East, described by the press, unsurprisingly, as a “maintenance trip“, showed Obama’s approach to be particularly tentative, almost reflexive, and his reluctance to take more incisive action, by virtue of a high-profile repositioning away from typical frenzied American interventionism.

The title of Fawaz Gerges’ essay, which appeared in March in Limes, effectively sums up  widespread opinion on the so-called Obama doctrine: “Barack the Cautious.” Gerges’ words underline Obama’s pragmatism in the Middle Eastern context, focused on maintaining the status quo by avoiding ideological excesses and encouraging a calmer atmosphere. According to Gerges, this approach is the result of a deliberate American disengagement from the Middle East, in favour of the Pacific. Michele Basso, however, wonders just how realistic this outcome is, and alternatively to what degree a pivotal role in crisis contexts is still a determining factor for America, thus confirming Washington’s presence, albeit in a “softer” manner.

In many respects the same policy of re-evaluation and American outplacement came to be implemented, albeit with different strategies, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The stated objective was to regain credibility among Middle Eastern countries as well as to encourage a process of pacification, however in a strategic framework strongly influenced by the 1982 Westminster Address. Reagan’s doctrine was based on the idea of facing the Soviets at a global level in low-level-intensity conflicts, that is, those not directly fought between the two superpowers, also supporting guerrilla groups and opponents of philosocialist or pro-communist regimes wherever necessary. This aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy, imbued with an anti-communism which was as superficial as it was simplistic, had a positive influence in the direct conflict with Moscow in the long term, but greatly tarnished the image of Americans in other contexts. The U.S. invasion, often maladroit in essentially local matters, such as conflict between Israel and Palestine, or between Iraq and Iran, led to a tightening of international relations, particularly in Lebanon, Iran, and Central America. The American intervention in Lebanon in support of Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had exploited the civil war to undermine the Israelis, was considered an act of interference. The reaction to this “reintegration” in the area was very violent with a long series of attacks and abductions of hostages that characterised the entire Reagan presidency. The most shocking episode, which was in a certain sense similar to that of the embassy in Benghazi last year, was in October 1983 in Beirut, which saw the death of more than 200 Marines. The attack, then claimed by Hezbollah, led to a ramping up of American political choices at global level.

Reagan’s reaction was therefore quite different from that of today’s commander-in-chief. The then Republican president showed no reluctance to talk of “terrorism”, condemning the attack and planning a military response, which resulted in the Urgent Fury mission in Grenada. Despite the facade of a reasoning which concerned the defence of civilian and military Americans in the country, where there had been a resounding advance of the philosocialist regime, in so doing Reagan expressed the will for a muscular politics which would restabilise the predominant role of the United States.

Such a modus operandi seems to have been abandoned by Obama, who has always refused military involvement akin to that of the Reagan era. According to Del Pero’s reading, the re-elected president has initiated a policy of “low cost interventionism”, characterised by a general caution, “approaching passivity,” dictated by the pledges established by President Obama himself in electoral campaigns. Observers within the international community are currently reflecting on the validity of this approach with respect to issues in the Middle East and wonder about the need for the U.S. to play a more decisive and incisive role.

At the same time, one should not forget that the president has not completely abandoned the instrument of interventionism: for example, the uses of drones in war zones or in operations like the one that led to the killing of Bin Laden.

In its results, such behaviour does not appear far removed from Reagan’s more aggressive approach, as the escalation of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and in neighbouring regions does not appear at all diminished. At this time the greatest doubt is found in asking whether Obama’s current foreign policy is an almost obligatory and voluntarily considered choice to change the balance of power in ever-changing contexts, especially in light of the great political and cultural upheavals of recent years. It is highly likely that the American president’s supposed passivity is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.

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Original Article: Obama e Reagan: visioni e scelte strategiche a confronto 

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: isriya

 

Obama e Reagan: visioni e scelte strategiche a confronto

Diversamente dalla pronta reazione di Reagan dopo gli avvenimenti del 1983 a Beirut, la presunta passività dell’attuale presidente americano, mostrata in seguito all’attentato di Bengasi, è necessaria per orientarsi in una situazione in progressiva, e soprattutto, imprevedibile evoluzione. Infatti, azioni preventive di tipo militare peggiorerebbero la percezione della presenza statunitense nelle aree di conflitto e in quelle geopoliticamente più sensibili.

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[dropcap]D[/dropcap]opo l’attentato all’ambasciata americana di Bengasi e l’uccisione dell’ambasciatore Stevens, il presidente Obama ha risposto con un atteggiamento risoluto ma cauto, in continuità con le scelte di politica estera del suo primo mandato: “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for“.

La volontaria preferenza per la locuzione “act of terror” e non “terrorism” dimostra quanto la strategia presidenziale in politica estera, nello specifico in quella mediorientale e nordafricana, sia orientata lungo un percorso divergente rispetto alla precedente amministrazione Bush, con una discontinuità sia linguistica che culturale. Dietro tale linguaggio si nasconde anche l’evidente necessità di ridimensionare un costante, e spesso strumentale, riferimento alla matrice “islamica” degli attentati. La volontà di non cedere alla facile tentazione di interventi militari conferma ancor di più la complessiva tendenza alla cautela e alla riflessione.

Una diversa motivazione di questa condotta è rintracciabile nell’ulteriore obiettivo di pervenire ad una stabilizzazione della situazione politica nel Medio Oriente e ad una complicata rivalutazione dell’immagine degli Stati Uniti. L’attuale presidente degli Stati Uniti si è mosso nella consapevolezza dei limiti politici dell’America in tale contesto e ha preferito un’impostazione realista al tradizionale idealismo tipico della politica estera statunitense. La presenza americana nelle vicende mediorientali e nordafricane nel corso del Novecento ha favorito l’acuirsi di tensioni, in particolare dopo l’11 Settembre e le guerre in Afghanistan e Iraq ordinate da Bush. Il sentimento antiamericano rinvenibile nelle azioni terroristiche contro obiettivi sensibili USA, accresciutosi nell’ultimo decennio, è uno dei maggiori problemi affrontati da Obama, eletto anche per la promessa di una complessiva normalizzazione.

Anche il recente viaggio in Medio Oriente definito dalla stampa, non a caso, un “maintenance trip”, ha mostrato l’approccio di Obama particolarmente attendista, quasi riflessivo e restio ad un intervento più incisivo, in virtù di un riposizionamento d’alto profilo lontano dal frenetico e tipico interventismo americano.

Il saggio di Fawaz Gerges, apparso a marzo su Limes, ben sintetizza nel titolo un’opinione assai diffusa sulla cosiddetta dottrina Obama: “Barack il cauto”. Nelle parole di Gerges si sottolinea il pragmatismo di Obama nel contesto mediorientale, orientato al mantenimento dello status quo evitando eccessi ideologici e favorendo un clima più sereno. Secondo Gerges, questo atteggiamento è frutto di un voluto disimpegno americano dal Medio Oriente in favore del Pacifico. Michele Basso, infatti, si chiede quanto quest’esito sia realistico, o quanto invece sia ancora determinante per l’America un ruolo pivotale nei contesti di crisi, confermando dunque la presenza di Washington seppur in maniera più “soft”.

Sotto molti aspetti la stessa politica di rivalutazione e ricollocamento americano venne attuata, sebbene con strategie differenti, da Ronald Reagan negli anni Ottanta. L’obiettivo dichiarato era quello di recuperare credito fra i paesi mediorientali nonché di favorire un processo di pacificazione, in uno schema però fortemente influenzato dal discorso di Westminster del 1982. La dottrina Reagan si fondava sull’idea ben definita di fronteggiare i sovietici a livello globale nei conflitti a bassa intensità, ossia non direttamente combattuti tra le due superpotenze, sostenendo laddove necessario anche gruppi di guerriglieri e oppositori di regimi filosocialisti o filocomunisti. Proprio questo versante della politica estera reaganiana, intrisa di un semplicistico quanto superficiale anticomunismo, incise positivamente nel confronto diretto con Mosca nel lungo periodo ma deteriorò fortemente l’immagine degli americani in altri contesti. L’invadenza statunitense, spesso maldestra, in faccende prettamente locali come il confronto tra Israele e Palestina o tra Iraq e Iran, condusse ad un irrigidimento delle relazioni internazionali in particolare in Libano, Iran e Centro-America. L’intervento americano in Libano, a supporto di Israele contro la Palestine Liberation Organization, che aveva sfruttato la guerra civile per insidiare gli israeliani, fu considerata un’azione di interferenza. La reazione a questo “reinserimento” nell’area fu molto violenta con una lunga serie di attentati e rapimenti di ostaggi che caratterizzarono l’intera presidenza Reagan. Il più clamoroso, ed in un certo senso assimilabile a quello all’ambasciata di Bengasi dello scorso anno, fu quello dell’ottobre del 1983 a Beirut, che vide la caduta di oltre 200 marines. L’attentato, poi rivendicato da Hezbollah, condusse ad un’estremizzazione delle scelte politiche americane a livello globale.

La reazione di Reagan fu perciò ben diversa da quella dell’odierno commander-in-chief. L’allora presidente repubblicano non ebbe nessuna riluttanza a parlare di “terrorism”, condannando l’attentato e pianificando un’azione militare di risposta, concretizzatasi nella missione Urgent Fury a Grenada. Nonostante la motivazione di facciata riguardasse la difesa di civili e militari americani nel paese, dove vi era stata una clamorosa avanzata del regime filosocialista, così operando Reagan manifestava la volontà di una politica muscolare che ristabilisse il ruolo predominante degli Stati Uniti.

Un tale modus operandi sembra sia stato abbandonato da Obama, che ha sempre rifiutato un coinvolgimento militare simile a quello dell’epoca Reagan. Secondo la lettura data da Del Pero, il rieletto presidente ha avviato una politica di “interventismo low cost”, improntata ad una generale cautela, “prossima alla passività”, dettata dalle premesse gettate dallo stesso Obama nelle campagne elettorali. Gli osservatori della comunità internazionale riflettono attualmente sulla validità di questo atteggiamento nell’approccio alle questioni mediorientali e si interrogano sul bisogno di un ruolo più decisivo e incisivo degli Stati Uniti.

Allo stesso tempo, non bisognerebbe dimenticare che il presidente non ha abbandonato del tutto lo strumento interventista: basti pensare all’utilizzo dei droni nelle aree di guerra o ad operazioni come quella che ha portato all’uccisione di Bin Laden.

Una simile condotta, nei risultati, non appare assai lontana da quella più aggressiva di Reagan poiché la spirale di antiamericanismo in Medio Oriente e nelle regioni limitrofe non appare affatto attenuata. In questo momento il dubbio maggiore consta nel chiedersi se l’attuale politica estera obamiana sia una scelta quasi obbligata e volontariamente prevista per mutare i rapporti di forza in contesti in continua evoluzione, anche alla luce dei grandi stravolgimenti politici e culturali degli ultimi anni. Molto probabilmente la presunta passività del presidente americano è necessaria per orientarsi in una situazione in progressiva, e soprattutto, imprevedibile evoluzione. Infatti, azioni preventive di tipo militare peggiorerebbero la percezione della presenza statunitense nelle aree di conflitto e in quelle geopoliticamente più sensibili.

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Photo Credit: isriya

No SOFA: US Troops In Post 2014 Afghanistan

The discussions surrounding US troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all.

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On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Mattis stated that he believed the proper number of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 would be 20,000, 13,600 being American. This number is significantly higher than what was discussed at a recent NATO summit, where preliminary estimates were 9,500 US troops and 6000 troops from other NATO nations. The White House has yet to come out with an official number.

These discussions, while important to have for the Administration, Congress, and military leaders to get on the same page, in many ways put the cart before the horse. Before any US troops can be committed to post 2014 Afghanistan, the question of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has to be resolved. While there are many things covered in a SOFA, the most important and most controversial points are those which grant immunity to US troops from criminal prosecution under Afghan law.

President Karzai has said that he will not make the decision but will make the case for a SOFA to the Afghan people and leave the choice to a Loya Jirga, a meeting of elders. However President Karzai is also the same leader who demanded security contractors leave the country and that US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan’s villages. It seems then that Karzai wants, or understands the necessity of, continued US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but does not want to be the one held responsible for its potential consequences. By leaving the decision to a Loya Jirga, President Karzai can say “this is what you wanted”, deflecting blame from potentially unsavory US action.

While it would be purely speculative to asses whether a SOFA will be approved by Afghan elders, it is worth highlighting that acknowledging that US troops are needed and agreeing that they should have legal immunity is not the same thing. Local leaders may see the utility in a continued US presence for preventing al Qaeda to regain a foothold, however selling legal immunity to their “constituents” is a horse of a different color. Indeed this is the same problem Prime Minister Maliki faced in the failure to build sufficient support for a SOFA in Iraq. Both alleged criminal actions from US service members, such as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, and civilian casualties from NATO operations, most recently the accidental killing of two young boys gathering firewood who were thought to be Taliban, are likely to be sticking points for the approval of a SOFA by Afghans.

A SOFA is far from settled and without this agreement there will be no US presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As President Obama said in January:

 “It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are (not) in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country,”

With this line being drawn and a SOFA still unresolved, the discussions surrounding troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are still valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all. Without legal immunity under a SOFA, the debate over 20,000 or 13,000 troops is a moot point.

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Photo Credit:  isafmedia

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Mali Islamist Militants

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Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.

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Photo Credit: Magharebia

Legacy of Lines on a Map

In Robert Kaplan’s recent book Revenge of Geography,  Kaplan argues that geography, particularly land masses and oceans, have played a distinct role in determining the geopolitical fault lines of the world both in the past, present and he predicts into the future. Although this idea isn’t particularly new, Kaplan argues that it is one that has largely been forgotten and has resulted in the development of many of the geopolitical trends that we see today. Although Kaplan spends most of the book looking at six distinct areas: Europe, Russia, China, India, the Middle East and finally North America and how geography has shaped the ebb and flow of power within and between each region. A more interesting analysis is how these rules of geography can be applied to the periphery of the world system.

When looking at many of the protracted conflicts from recent history and today there is a common thread that seems to tie them together. That common thread is geography. What I mean by geography is that I am not speaking specifically about rivers, plains and mountains although they do play a role; I am more speaking about the lines that we find on a map. So many of the protracted conflicts that are festering around the world have to do with where arbitrarily lines have been drawn on a map.

Look at Afghanistan, the ongoing insurgency is largely based in Pashtun region that straddles Afghan/Pakistan border which prevents proper counter-insurgency operations from being carried out. Had the British drawn the borders a little different, it would have dramatically altered the battle against Al-Qaeda and Taliban. Even before the US invasion, northern portions of the country where Tajik, Uzbek and Turkman population are centred, battled as members of the Northern Alliance against the governing Taliban.

The same can be argued for Africa, the divorce between North and South Sudan illustrates the same issues as do the ongoing conflicts in the Congo, Mali and the East African horn. Lines drawn on a map with no acknowledgement of geography are often plagued with instability due to the fact that geography often dictates the cultural and ethnic distinction of the peoples within a region. So when geography was ignored in the past, it has resulted in instability in the present and future.

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Photo Credit:  Eric Fischer

La guerra è davvero inevitabile?

Se l’umanità vuole davvero emanciparsi dall’illogicità della guerra, deve iniziare a reagire e a classificarla con gli stessi aggettivi che si riservano, oggi, alla schiavitù e ai sacrifici umani: disgusto e disprezzo.

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Arlington-Cemetary.James-Sheehan

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[dropcap]G[/dropcap]uerre e conflitti appartengono alla storia dell’umanità quasi dall’inizio dei tempi. La nostra stessa civiltà è contraddistinta dall’insegnamento, a scuola, di un gran numero di guerre, a partire dall’età medievale e arrivando sino ai nostri giorni. Di conseguenza, tali fenomeni si sono radicati così profondamente nel nostro vissuto al punto che diamo subito per scontato, e normale, che le varie dispute tra le nazioni debbano risolversi in sanguinosi scontri fratricidi.

Forse è questo il motivo per cui la maggior parte dei cittadini non protesta a sufficienza contro le guerre. Ad esempio, si prenda il caso del Regno Unito: senza dubbio migliaia, se non milioni, di cittadini erano adirati contro la decisione del governo inglese di partecipare ai conflitti in Afghanistan, Iraq e Libia. Ciononostante, tale rabbia è rimasta inespressa e covata, senza tradursi in una protesta di massa contro la guerra. Così, mentre gran parte della società inglese si lamenta ancora per l’atteggiamento guerrafondaio avuto dalla Gran Bretagna negli ultimi anni, al tempo stesso accetta, banalmente, che partecipare ai conflitti sia ormai parte del nostro modo di vivere e intendere il mondo.

Se analizziamo la questione nel dettaglio, ci rendiamo conto che, forse, tra le invenzioni del genere umano, la guerra è la più illogica di tutte. Certo, alcuni potrebbero contestare che la guerra sia un fenomeno naturale, e poiché noi essere umani altro non siamo che animali, ci comportiamo come tali, combattendo e massacrandoci gli uni con gli altri. In effetti, si tratta di una osservazione logica, che però non considera il fatto che la specie umana sia l’unica al mondo capace di usare la propria lingua, non solo per produrre rumori, piuttosto per comunicare, elaborare linguaggi, e a creare i presupposti per l’azione diplomatica. Altri ancora potrebbero sostenere che, nonostante gli sforzi della diplomazia, alcune dispute per decidere chi comandi e debba dettar legge non possano essere risolte pacificamente. Sebbene la storia confermi una simile asserzione, ancora una volta non si tiene conto dell’esistenza di alcune società che non hanno mai utilizzato la guerra per risolvere le proprie controversie. Gli stessi buddisti, il sistema dei kibbutz in Israele e anche l’Islanda sono soggetti che non sono mai stati coinvolti in guerre internazionali. Anche in tal caso, gli scettici potrebbero obiettare che le suddette minoranze non rappresentano il quadro generale; il punto fondamentale, comunque, è che gli esseri umani, come in questi casi, sono in grado di vivere senza rimaner coinvolti in alcun conflitto. Alcuni affermano che, invece, siano le armi l’elemento da estirpare: fin quando queste saranno a disposizione delle nazioni, la guerra sarà inevitabile. In riferimento a questa ipotesi, è utile ricordare l’esistenza di un certo numero di Paesi sprovvisti di forze armate, come Andorra, Costa Rica, Liechtenstein e Grenada. Probabilmente, però, le ragioni più convincenti contro l’inevitabilità della guerra risiedono nel progresso dell’umanità: storicamente anche la schiavitù, il sistema delle caste, la sudditanza del genere femminile, le dittature, e finanche i sacrifici umani erano considerati fenomeni naturali e inevitabili. In definitiva, quindi, non bisognerebbe abbandonarsi all’idea che, solo perché qualcosa appare consueta e “normale”, debba rimanere immutata e incontestata nel tempo.

Mettendo in pratica ciò detto, ci si dovrebbe chiedere se i recenti conflitti nel Medio Oriente, e quelli possibili contro Siria e Iran, siano davvero segnati dall’ineluttabilità degli eventi. I governi occidentali sostengono che la diplomazia non funziona contro gli spietati e sanguinari terroristi che operano in Medio Oriente. Piuttosto, il recente aumento del numero di attacchi terroristici nella regione, che hanno innalzato il livello di insicurezza come mai prima d’ora, dovrebbe dimostrare che non si risponde alla minaccia terrorista attraverso invasioni e occupazioni militari. Attualmente l’Iraq è una palude disastrata, in cui le esplosioni delle autobombe scandiscono la quotidianità del Paese. Gli Stati Uniti hanno abbandonato l’Afghanistan a causa del crescente numero di vittime (in totale, si contano circa 2000 caduti tra gli americani e un numero imprecisato tra la popolazione afgana). Il continuo rifornimento di armi ai ribelli siriani ha provocato un netto aumento di vittime civili, e l’invasione dell’Iran produrrebbe solamente conseguenze catastrofiche nell’intera regione. Forse, la migliore soluzione sarebbe di lasciare alle popolazioni mediorientali le proprie responsabilità, visto che sarebbero in grado di risolvere da sole i relativi problemi. Dopotutto, è necessario ricordare che la transizione più pacifica dopo la Primavera Araba è avvenuta in Tunisia, un Paese in cui l’Occidente ha svolto un ruolo minoritario.

In conclusione, se la morsa dei conflitti dovesse stringere il Medio Oriente e i paesi arabi nei prossimi anni, a causa dei repentini cambiamenti geopolitici e della relativa instabilità provocata, i Paesi occidentali dovrebbero incoraggiare il dialogo tra le diverse fazioni in guerra tra loro, piuttosto che etichettarsi come gli inventori della pace e della diplomazia, e incoraggiando la violenza allo stesso tempo. In effetti, l’Europa ha attraversato e vissuto le guerre più terrificanti: proprio per questo motivo, i Paesi occidentali dovrebbero evitare che simili atrocità avvengano altrove. Alcuni teorici delle relazioni internazionali sostengono che le democrazie non combattono mai tra loro. Di sicuro, però, le democrazie hanno giocato un ruolo decisivo nel promuovere e causare conflitti in altre aree del mondo. Per questo, se l’umanità vuole davvero emanciparsi dall’illogicità della guerra deve iniziare a reagire e a classificarla con gli stessi aggettivi che si riservano, oggi, alla schiavitù e ai sacrifici umani: disgusto e disprezzo.

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Articolo tradotto da: Giuseppe Paparella

Articolo originale: Is War Inevitable?

Photo Credit: James Sheehan / theriskyshift.com

A ‘War On Terror’ Or A ‘War On Chaos’?

The European deployments throughout Africa are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence.

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Two and a half thousand French forces are being deploying in Mali in the largest European military deployment by any EU state since 2001. Supported by British and then American logistics in under a week the French have advanced against both columns of the advancing AQIM affiliated fighters, halting them completely in the East and beginning a counter-attack in the North. Bombing raids have struck Islamist positions behind the front lines as West African forces begin to arrive to double the foreign troops fighting to defend Mali’s capital.

The situation in Mali is the most significant action by western forces since the NATO operation in Libya, another in which the French military lead the way, flying 35% of the total offensive foreign air missions of the conflict and 90% of the helicopter missions. But even that is a fragment of French military involvement in the last year. They are the most active western state in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, formed the bulk of the force which ousted Ivory Coast dictator Gbagbo and are a primary contributor to the European army, the CSDP.

France has never been a passive military power. Ever since its founding as the western branch of Charlemagne’s German Frankish Empire it has been at almost constant war. From its constant conflicts with the British of the medieval period it went on to dominate continental Europe with its huge military and financial strength. Napoleon, perhaps the greatest European tactician in history, conquered the entire continent before his army was struck down by disease. In fact if it wasn’t for this disaster and the allied tactic of attempting to avoid ever facing Napoleon’s genius directly in battle he may have created the first truly European state. It went on to build an empire to challenge that of the British and Spanish, fighting stoically through the First World War and ferociously in the Second, though not always on the same side. As the empires of Europe collapsed France fought over the remains of its global power, only admitting defeat after the disasters of Vietnam and Algeria. Now, after years of struggling to regain its place at the forefront of European military strength it is by far the most active of the Western powers outside America.

Much as this may surprise many, fueled by the completely misplaced British-propaganda stereotype of French as the white-flag-wavers of Europe, it’s not quite as surprising to most as the mere idea of European military action, let alone a dedicated EU military force. The mere thought seems alien to American audiences still unused to their new supporting role in conflicts and horrifying to the eurosceptic English. However, the European CSDP (Common Security and Defense Policy) military has grown from a mere token force to the largest coalition army outside the ISAF in Afghanistan. The European force is now significant enough that it has involved itself in twenty-five foreign operations, all separately from NATO. Presently well over 5,000 European forces operate under the EU flag of the CSDP as well as four naval warships. Alone this is a larger force than any of the militaries involved in Afghanistan other than the United States and Britain.

There is a key difference however between the armed forces of the French and EU compared to that of the USA and Britain, none of these forces have been involved in the reputational suicide of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The unilateral invasion, without international support (unlike Afghanistan or any French missions of the last decade) ruined the international status of the two Atlantic powers as supporters of international order and made them as much pariahs to the developing world as the “Axis of Evil” they fought against. Instead European forces, and 4,500 French forces fighting under the tricolour or the twelve stars, represent a force of stability in conflict-torn areas. They come on invitation and international support and yet lack the need for the sometimes crippling restraint forced on UN peacekeepers.

The European deployments throughout Africa and in potential conflict zones across Europe and Asia are an entirely different creation to the US-led “War on Terror”. The European “War on Chaos” is one of pragmatic national interest but also of support for those states who play by the rules and protection for the millions under constant threat of violence. The French-led war for military stability across the world is mirrored by the German-led battle for economic stability at home in Europe. Together they form two arms of increasingly powerful demands for a unified Europe bringing stability to both its own citizens and those of the world at large. The Germans have expressed their support for the new European military and the French are aligned with them in the push for a new centralised European economic system. A new Europe is being born, one regaining the pride and prestige it had lost for almost a century. The US was forged in the fire of the British Empire, states forced to band together into Union to guard against the return of the world’s most powerful force. The Union of Europe may well be forged from the threat of Eurozone collapse and Islamist terrorism breeding from every failed state and unstable region.

The result may well be a split in the Western world. The liberal continental Europe, one built upon consensus and cooperation, is radically different from the relatively conservative United States, swinging violently between neoconservative interventions and proud isolation, too sure of its own exceptionalism. Between them stands Britain, unsure of which road to take. However, as the Atlantic divides the west and the US turns to the pacific, a lonely island may not have the clout to strike fear as its empire once did. As the French fight in Mali and Somalia, and Germany grants the keys to economic power to the European Union, the European War on Chaos will proceed with or without royal Britannia.

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Photo credit: Jerry Gunner

Withdrawal Lessons From Iraq

The United States should think twice about how to withdraw while protecting Afghan democracy at the same time.

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Us soldier Afghanistan children

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On January 11 President Barack Obama declared that the United States is, after 12 years of conflict, moving towards a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan. His meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai marks an emotional turning point in the conflict. The joint agreement to accelerate the military transition to Afghan forces is a step in the right direction, but it is important not to be carried away. The American fighting role in Afghanistan should end. Yet it is crucial to withdraw responsibly, to avoid the mistakes made when leaving Iraq.

Similar to the choices facing leaders in Afghanistan today, the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in December 2011 was a difficult one, commensurate with the conflict’s complexity. Yet, despite its merits (which were considerable), the exit underscored the low priority the Obama Administration placed on Iraq; in the rush to leave a draining war, the Administration left a country unready to support itself. The effects of the premature drawdown are being felt across the Iraqi political landscape today, as Nouri al-Maliki continues to move menacingly towards authoritarianism and fissures open between the country’s disparate factions.

The US military withdrawal created a vacuum in which Maliki has been able to abuse the stillborn democratic political system left behind. The leverage that the military presence afforded US diplomats has evaporated, leaving American ambassadors woefully unable to prevent Maliki from abusing government. Instead, he is reinforcing his grip on the military chain of command, using arrests to intimidate dissenters, and ensuring loyalty from his intelligence and judicial services.

These actions, amongst others, are deeply subversive of the envisaged democratic state for which much blood and money were expended. The Iraqi opposition, wary of engaging in the political process, has looked to regional neighbors for support. The protests across Iraq over the past two weeks further underscore this outward search for allies. The opposition leadership is turning to foreign allies among the Sunni Arab states, mostly in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

This situation was not predestined for Iraq, nor is it for Afghanistan if the right lessons are learned. Between 2008 and 2010, Iraq made stunning progress that surprised even the staunchest cynics. Democratic incentives began to influence the Parliament in Baghdad and politicians across the country. Iraqis were pushed to conduct politics in ways that, as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described, “were uncomfortable and alien for them. Yet they were having to do it, they were all learning democratic processes.”

Yet US leaders did not wait for this fledgling democracy to take root. Their departure just as these processes were beginning to transform Iraq’s political landscape opened the gates for the traditional political culture to reassert itself. American soldiers were, for better or worse, a barrier to the fear that had defined Iraqi politics for decades. Once they were gone, the country reverted to what it once knew: A political system in which a deep distrust of government defined a populace reliant on its own wit to protect itself.

Afghanistan could face a similar fate if American leaders do not understand the lessons from Iraq. Progress in Afghanistan during recent months is worthy of praise, but should be greeted by cautious optimism.

Most importantly, both Obama and Karzai have affirmed their support for negotiations with the Taliban, which has expressed a tentative desire to come back into Afghanistan’s political fold. Each party supports the establishment of an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks, and although all sides have a ways to go before they understand the others’ “red lines,” analysts are hopeful that negotiations are near.

There are, of course, challenges. How much faith can western and Afghan leaders have in their Taliban interlocutors? What role will third party actors like Pakistan can play, in the coming months? Many senior Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate until the Afghan Constitution is amended and Karzai is gone. But within these parameters progress is possible. And if Karzai follows through on his promise to step down next year, a successful start of this conversation will become even more likely.

Negotiations with the Taliban hinge on a synthesis of military and diplomatic lines of operation. The Obama Administration needs to combine military security with increased pressure on politicians to open negotiations. Yet the time to make such a calculation is fast ending. Distressingly, it seems the current administration is sliding towards withdrawal without any attempt to pursue diplomatic options. Obama and Karzai have jointly adopted the transition narrative, emphasizing the transferal of security and administrative responsibility to the Afghan government. Just how ready Kabul is to take over these challenges is uncertain. For Washington, though, this narrative is ideal, as it allows policymakers to hand their problems to the Afghans, without paying a high political price of pursuing negotiations.

Afghanistan stands a great chance of being ripped apart from within and without. Heading a state with no precedent of unity, Afghan leaders must reconstruct a country from political zero. Pakistani, Iranian, and even Indian, Chinese, and Russian influence could further weaken Kabul’s ability to exercise authority over border regions. If conversations with the Taliban break down, internecine conflict could add to these woes.

In this volatile environment, Afghanistan will presumably face a turnover of its government in 2014. Without proper safeguards, Karzai could go the route of Maliki. Like in Iraq, without the leverage provided by a strong military presence, there will be little barrier to such a reversal of democratic progress. The US should think twice about how to withdraw and protect Afghan democracy at the same time. It is a step in the right direction that Karzai agreed to grant US soldiers legal immunity — which Maliki denied — but whether this promise holds is another question.

In Iraq, a good-intentioned but ill-timed withdrawal of American soldiers left a country still finding its political feet without ground on which to stand. The promising developments in the last years of the occupation were largely lost as Maliki reverted to authoritarian practices, the political factions reverted to divisive diplomacy, and the population reverted to the politics of fear. It is yet to be seen whether Afghanistan will follow the same trajectory. The war has cost over 3,000 coalition and countless Afghan lives, and needs to end. But it leaders should examine their own history to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

The Trial Of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales

The trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness among troops and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of the Staff Sergeant.

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In the early morning hours of March 11, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales left Camp Belambay base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, visited two villages and killed 16 Afghans, 9 of whom were children. SSG. Bales’s defense team is arguing that a mix of “alcohol, steroids, and sleeping aids” in the defendant’s system should raise questions about what his state of mind was during the killings. These substances along with the “kinetic and high-pressure” environment appear to be the major points of their defense.

These statements were made as Army prosecutors announced on Tuesday that they will pursue the case as a capital crime, meaning that SSG. Bales potentially faces the death penalty if convicted. The last US military execution was a hanging carried out in April of 1961 and while there have been military capital convictions since then (15) almost all of them have either been overturned, commuted, are in the appeals process, or a stay of execution has been issued (in the case of Ronald Gray).

SSG. Bales’s case is also unique because of those on the military’s death row, he would be the only one charged with killing civilians in a combat zone.  The others awaiting execution have all either committed capital crimes against civilians in the United States or have killed (or attempted to kill) fellow members of the armed services.

While a capital conviction, in a court martial, can be secured by a unanimous vote of the jury, the signature of the President is required to approve the execution. Speaking about capital punishment generally in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama wrote

 “While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.”

Does the murder of 16 people, including 9 children meet the threshold described above? Does the President’s perspective differ in the case of the military? In recent years capital punishment has been a non-starter in American politics. Some states have pushed bans forward through their legislatures, but the discussion on the Federal level has been non-existent. Where there is advocacy it tends to focus on the racial and socioeconomic inequalities presented in the execution of the death penalty (and the judicial system at large) and on its uselessness as a deterrent to crime rather than a moral critique of the state’s right to end life.

Back to the context in which this will play out, the military justice system, this case will likely bring forward some important questions about how mental illness is recognized and confronted in the armed services. If the defense is able to successfully make it about this then it seems unlikely that a conviction will come back from the jury comprised of fellow service members who may know a colleague suffering from (or experienced themselves) a service related mental illness. The fact that SSG. Bales committed the attacks while wearing a cape, and reports of his intoxication earlier in the night, have lead some to question his mental state.

The prosecution will have to prove that mental illness and mind altering substances were not to blame and that SSG. Bales was fully aware of what he was doing.  SSG. Bales made several statements shortly after the attack which suggest that this was the case, that he was lucid, coherent, and knew what he did was wrong or at the very least illegal.

There are also soft-power implications for how this case translates for Afghans or indeed the Muslim world at large. If SSG. Bales is found guilty and President Obama does not sign off on the execution it would indeed send a mixed message to the those living in countries where there has been civilian collateral damage as a result of US operations, “We won’t hold our own accountable”. If the President does sign off on the order it could have a serious impact on morale in the armed forces and could communicate that the administration does not take mental illness in the military seriously (even if it is determined that SSG. Bales was of sound mind the risk of that interpretation is still there).

I would not expect to see many comments from politicians, the President included, during the trial. There is a tendency, and rightfully so, to let the military’s judicial system sort out its own issues removed from political influence. However once a verdict is reached the ball is back in the President’s court and to some extent becomes a political issue. In many ways this case takes two major issues of the past 11 years of war, mental illness and civilian casualties, and rolls them into one. As a result this case has meaning beyond the fate of SSG Bales.

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Photo Credit: Eric Dietrich

Good Luck President Obama, You Need It!

Most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term?

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President Obama looking serious

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“The best is still to come” was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama’s victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama’s foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush’s surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world’s population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China’s own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was an unexpected reversal of this trend. And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don’t expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama’s presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush’s policies to Obama’s, and the US should look very much like Obama’s legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China’s expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually for the US as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters.

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.

  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO’s influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be restrained to the country to avoid regional collapse.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the threat of a new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly or risk facing backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.

Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don’t envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic. Good luck President Obama, you need it.

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Photo Credit: US Army

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

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

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

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

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