Tag Archives: Iraq

The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.

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Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

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

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

Nouri al-Maliki: il nuovo dittatore iracheno?

Il confronto tra il nuovo primo ministro e il regime di Saddam non dovrebbe essere enfatizzato. La profonda valenza emotiva che vi può essere dietro tale parallelo, e i limiti relativi al regime di Nouri al-Maliki, dovrebbero far desistere tutti coloro che tendono a marcare tale comparazione.

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[dropcap]P[/dropcap]er Nouri al-Maliki, la recente storia politica dell’Iraq rimane lo spettro che continua a tormentare il suo regime. Il dominio totalitario di Saddam Hussein ha lasciato pochi precedenti per attuare quella ricostruzione nazionale e democratica auspicata da politici locali e internazionali. Non sorprende quindi che il partito attualmente in carica abbia adottato politiche che ricordano un passato ben più sinistro, tanto da far sorgere l’accostamento tra le politiche di Maliki a quelle messe in atto da Saddam; in particolare, anche Maliki ha ordinato l’arresto di dissidenti politici e ha stabilito il controllo del governo centrale sulle forze di sicurezza. La reazione del primo ministro iracheno alle proteste popolari, ha nuovamente ridestato considerazioni legate alla democraticità del suo regime. Eppure, non sarebbe appropriato elaborare troppi confronti con il regime di Saddam. La profonda valenza emotiva che sostanzia tale parallelo, e i limiti del potere di Maliki rispetto a quello di Saddam, dovrebbero far desistere chi tenta di paragonarli.

Nonostante questa considerazione preliminare, Maliki ha indubbiamente attuato atteggiamenti e misure politiche che hanno suscitato un certo timore tra gli iracheni. In un editoriale pubblicato a settembre, The Guardian sosteneva che “Nouri al-Maliki ha ancora molta strada da fare prima di arrivare ai livelli di terrore di Saddam Hussein, ma l’elenco delle imputazioni a suo carico sono in crescita.” Ad esempio, quando le forze combattenti statunitensi lasciarono il paese nel dicembre del 2011, Maliki emise il famigerato mandato di arresto nei confronti del suo vice-presidente Tariq al-Hashimi. Sotto la guida del figlio di Maliki, soldati e carri armati circondarono la casa di Hashimi, catturando alcune guardie del corpo che, sotto tortura, confessarono che il vice presidente aveva organizzato degli squadroni della morte illegali contro i suoi rivali politici. Pertanto, Hashimi fu subito condannato a morte in contumacia per i suoi presunti crimini. The Guardian  sentenziò senza mezzi termini che “Iraqiyya [il partito di Hashimi]…non [era] la prima vittima dell’ascesa al potere di Maliki.”

Maliki si è così servito dell’esercito iracheno per rinforzare la propria posizione, rimodellando la catena di comando in modo da consentire al suo staff di detenere il pieno controllo sul dislocamento del personale e le scelte strategiche. Le Forze Speciali Irachene sono al servizio personale del primo ministro, così come lo sono diventati il settore giudiziario e l’intelligence. Dopo aver schiacciato l’opposizione Sunnita, molti paventano che i suoi prossimi obiettivi saranno i sadristi e successivamente i curdi, attraverso la messa in atto di misure militari pseudo-legali.

In ogni caso, permangono ancora delle differenze cruciali, tra il suo regime e quello di Saddam, che non possono essere tralasciate. Innanzitutto, Maliki esercita un potere di gran lunga inferiore a quello del suo omologo dispotico. L’incapacità del primo ministro di costringere il presidente curdo Massoud Barzani a rivoltarsi contro Hashimi nel 2011, ad esempio, conferma una tale ipotesi. A differenza di Saddam, Maliki non ha quasi alcun potere o controllo sul Kurdistan iracheno. Questa regione, infatti, supportata da Turchia, Iran e Stati Uniti, è praticamente off-limits per Baghdad, per timore che Maliki possa esacerbare violentemente le tensioni con i suoi vicini regionali.

Anche il blocco politico sunnita al quale appartiene Hashimi, seppur indebolito, si appoggia ad alcuni alleati stranieri. Nonostante i ripetuti tentativi, Maliki non può eliminare o minacciare l’opposizione sunnita, poiché i suoi leader si rivolgerebbero immediatamente all’Arabia Saudita. Maliki, allo stesso tempo, non potrebbe neppure interferire in tali relazioni. Pertanto, l’unica cosa che gli resta da fare è intimidire e isolare i sunniti – sebbene con scarso successo – senza però riuscire a zittirli definitivamente.

Allo stesso modo, anche all’interno della fazione sciita esistono profonde divisioni che impediscono a Maliki di consolidare il suo potere in maniera ancor più significativa. Moqtada al-Sadr, l’instancabile leader del movimento sadrista, ha ripetutamente preso le distanza dal partito in carica. Nonostante i suoi tentativi, Maliki ha poche chance di danneggiare o mettere a tacere la minoranza sadrista. A Sadr, che riveste il ruolo della classica “pecora nera” nella politica irachena, basterebbe coalizzarsi con gli altri leader dell’opposizione per inficiare seriamente il rafforzamento di Maliki. Una tale mossa, peraltro, sarebbe subito messa in atto se l’attuale primo ministro dovesse attuare un ulteriore accentramento del potere politico.

Queste differenze sostanziali tra Maliki e Saddam devono essere valutate freddamente e senza alcuna fretta. I parallelismi tra i due leader ignorano spesso la realtà delle dolorose e terrificanti condizioni che caratterizzavano il regime di Saddam Hussein. Non sarebbe né giusto, né preciso operare raffronti così superficiali quando gli scenari di fondo risultano obiettivamente differenti. Non v’è dubbio che le azioni portate avanti da Maliki abbiano un carattere autoritario, duro e legalmente discutibile, ma è altrettanto importante ricordare la crudeltà di Saddam, il clima di paranoia e gli spietati calcoli politici fatti con la vita dei suoi cittadini, che in Iraq hanno causato ferite molto più profonde. Per molti aspetti, il governo di Maliki è il fallimentare risultato del tentativo americano di instaurare la democrazia, interrotto a seguito della partenza delle truppe statunitensi. La sua amministrazione, infatti non si conformerà mai agli ideali egalitari e rappresentativi sostenuti dai leader statunitensi. In una situazione simile, il confronto con Saddam ha un effetto disastroso, poiché giustifica il tentativo dell’attuale regime ad adottare politiche ancor più restrittive, e al tempo stesso contribuisce a lasciare senza risposta le radici del problema.

Sicuramente, la tendenza verso l’autoritarismo seguita dal governo di Maliki non ispira alcun ottimismo, né andrebbe incoraggiata. Ciò nonostante, il modo migliore per analizzare il problema non è quello di paragonare il regime autoritario di Maliki con quello totalitario di Saddam. A questo punto, l’opinione pubblica mondiale come dovrebbe giudicare Maliki? A livello metodologico, se si riuscisse a guardare oltre l’era Saddam, le risposte sarebbero di gran lunga più illuminanti.

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Articolo tradotto da: Valentina Mecca

Articolo originale: Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq’s Newest Dictator?

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

Addicted to Oil Cash and Seeking Help (Part 2)

In part two of this series looking at the fight for transparency in Iraq and Yemen’s energy sectors, Diana Kaissy of the Publish What You Pay coalition and Yemen expert Fernando Carvajal look at some of the big challenges facing Yemen, as continued strife puts pressure on food supplies.

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Read the first half here

Last month we looked at some of the problems with Iraq’s first report as an EITI “compliant” country. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative awarded Iraq this status satisfied that Iraq’s energy revenue flows were adequately accounted for and publicly viewable. Oil expert Ahmed Mousa Jiyad was quick to point out some of the flaws in Iraq’s EITI report, while I noted the challenges facing civil society in Iraq as it struggles to hold a notoriously corrupt government to account.

Yemen faces many similar problems, notably a tenuous security situation and the lack of a free press. This has not stopped them from joining Iraq in signing up to EITI, and despite a delay in the validation process (due to the revolution) the country was declared “compliant”to EITI standards in March 2011. Overall progress against corruption has been mixed, depending on your opinion of EITI and whether it will work. Nonetheless, the country has its own coalition (TCEIW) determined to hold a dangerously fragmented transitional government to account. Diana Kaissy explains:

 “TCEIW is an independent, neutral and non-for-profit coalition that represents an organizational frame that unifies the efforts of civil organizations, academia, human rights activists, media and others, who participate in monitoring extractive industries to achieve transparency and a better utilization of these resources. Its aim is also to ensure easy access to information related to this sector.”

Kaissy gives an insight into the network of pressure groups and civil society organisations working for transparency:

“Since 2009, PWYP has been closely collaborating with the TCEIW to help them in their mission. Coalition members have attended several capacity building workshops done by PWYP /RWI targeting areas of revenue monitoring, advocacy planning, oil contract reading and understanding, national strategy building and execution. PWYP has lately been heavily involved with the coalition to help them expand and include new members that are representative of the several provinces in Yemen.”

She goes on to say how this also works within a regional framework:

“Members of the TCEIW participated in PWYP MENA (Middle East North Africa) workshops 1 and 2 that were done last year to help promote building a national as well as a regional strategy that is aligned with PWYP vision 20/20. TCEIW members will also be participating in the upcoming 3rd MENA workshop organised by PWYP in Beirut in March. The workshop aims at helping current PWYP coalitions in the MENA area finalize their national strategy, and build the capacity of participants in areas such as contract understanding and analysis, obtaining/using access to information laws, good governance within coalitions and revenue monitoring.”

A looming disaster?

Many reports have noted that Yemen’s oil production is dropping rapidly and liquid natural gas production is not yet at the stage where it can make up for these falling revenues. By many indicators such as violence, economic potential and even the supply of food and water, Yemen is in serious trouble. I wondered if there was a sense of urgency among those in Yemen to get EITI working and leave the old days of patronage and corruption behind, or if things were moving slowly. Kaissy believes there is positive momentum:

“There is definitely a sense of urgency within the Yemeni multi stake holders to get the EITI working in order to reduce corruption in the extractive industry sector that is fast becoming depleted.The Yemeni parliament endorsed its annual budget on January 19th, 2013, where serious concerns regarding the use of their fast dwindling resources were raised, with parliamentarians making several demands.

These included requiring the ministry of finance and the ministry of oil and minerals to draw the contracts related to the transfer of oil derivatives (by land or sea) in accordance to the tenders, auctions, and government storage law, and to refer all those who were caught smuggling oil derivatives to the judiciary court. Also, parliamentarians demanded the establishment of a national public organization for petrol that will handle all excavation, production and administration of gas and oil fields.”

Kaissy remains optimistic that this new sense of urgency about a looming crisis will continue:

“Taking the above into consideration, and keeping in mind the very active role of the Yemen PAC (Yemen Parliamentarians Against Corruption), a group of Yemeni parliamentarians who are actively lobbying against corruption within the Yemeni parliament, we can clearly see that the Yemeni multi stakeholder groups (government, parliamentarians and CSOs) are very much aware of the critical situation that Yemen has reached where its EI sector is concerned. This awareness should ultimately be maintained by their position as an EITI compliant country with huge obligations to maintain “compliant” status.”

A bleaker view

In 2006 USAID identified oil wealth as “the main source of state patronage in Yemen.” I asked a Yemen analyst (who wished to remain anonymous) if he thought the networks of patronage are changing or dissolving and are whether he was hopeful about the current “national dialogue”-ongoing talks about the future of Yemen’s political system:

“Oil networks run through Ali Muhsin (powerful Yemeni general) and Hamid al-Ahmar (millionaire politician) as much as Ali A Saleh (former president.)  There are many shifts involving Islahis now (Yemen’s largest party affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood) specifically in the petrol industry. Hadhramawt’s oil is highly contested (the main oil producing region) and the main airport is under the control of a commander under Ali Muhsin.”

This analyst was sceptical about reports of Yemen’s oil running out: great news if they can put a stop to corruption, but this is apparently “a big if.”

“There are no ‘dwindling’ oil supplies because Yemen has huge reserves (according to diplomats and oil companies.) Access to supplies is just more difficult and expensive and needs more security. Only Total and OMV have a hold on the industry, so why would they demand more transparency?”

Press freedom

Without a free press, civil society will be unable to access information on oil deals and revenues from Yemen’s oil and growing natural gas extraction (as well as Zinc mining which is also covered by EITI.) I asked Fernando Carvajal about how press freedom is evolving in Yemen today. Like the unnamed analyst, his outlook was also bleak:

“In 2010 an NGO was holding ‘investigative journalism’ training workshops in Sanaa. There is no way this approach will ever have a real impact. The issue is with political actors who have a hold on journalists. It is an underpaid profession co-opted by all political sides. Yemen’s media is a long way from being a truly independent media.”

Likewise, the unnamed analyst was particularly gloomy about the prospects for transparency:

“Transparency is of no interest to any party, not the government, not the oil companies.  We saw this issue arise last year with the Ministry of Energy, where a tender was given to an Islah ally to buy power for cheap and sell it back to the government at a much higher price. Someone leaked the contract to a newspaper and only when it reached social media outlets did the government deal with the issue, but the contract is still valid today.”

Conclusion

Yemen and Iraq’s ascendency to EITI compliance has arguably had a limited impact on the wider culture of corruption that afflicts them. Additionally, oil companies’ commitment to transparency is erratic in both countries. But EITI could be the start of something excellent for the region, and is getting increased international backing in the form of tough US and EU legislation that major oil companies have opposed. In both countries, EITI has brought the subject of corruption into focus at the highest levels. This is surely a start for nations recovering from decades of war and dictatorship, and a long way from when EITI started a decade ago.

But like the many groups now fighting corruption, CSOs who back EITI are not ignorant of the challenges ahead. Like the first protesters of the Arab Spring, they are determined not to give up, believe in their cause and won’t be satisfied until there is real, lasting change.

From my own analysis of Iraq and Carvajal’s analysis of Yemen, I fear the success of these initiatives will always be fragile until the rulers of these countries commit to transparency. Until then, the global coalition against corruption will keep on fighting. EITI, while flawed, is a necessary start in a long battle.

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Photo Credit: Loco Steve

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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[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

Addicted to Oil Cash, and Seeking Help (Part 1)

Two of the Middle East’s most corrupt governments have signed up to a cutting edge anti-corruption initiative.  In part 1 of a 2 part series, Iraq oil expert Ahmed Mousa Jiyad explains Iraq’s commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

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Of the 32 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, only 2 have signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the worldwide scheme initiated by civil society organisations with oil company involvement which “aims to strengthen governance by improving transparency and accountability in the extractives sector.”

Incredibly, the MENA region governments who have signed up to this “resource curse” beating plan are Iraq and Yemen, two of the most corrupt and unstable governments in the region. But EITI is an excellent idea, and has already had a major impact in Nigeria where major anti-corruption investigations have been boosted by its reports.

In the first of a two part series, I spoke to Iraq oil expert Ahmed Mousa Jiyad who has reviewed Iraq’s first EITI report after the country won “compliant status”- the seal of approval from EITI that oil and gas revenue flows are transparent. But a deeper analysis of the conditions required for EITI to be truly effective show that the scheme is not the silver bullet that will end the “resource curse” – at least not until there is full disclosure and a healthy civil society with sufficient access to information, two things Iraq and Yemen currently lack.

RT: If the recent US SEC law, proposed EU law and the EITI cover all International Oil Companies (IOCs) operating in Iraq, is there any chance for corruption to remain in Iraq’s oil and gas sector?

AMJ: The enforcement of the above mentioned modalities would surely work as both a deterrent and a punitive measure against corruption. However, the three of them are not sufficient to ensure what I call the “Transparency Value Chain” (TVC) which is peculiar to the “Extractive Industry” in Iraq and I would claim to all other developing countries.

The concept of the TVC basically aims to trace and account for all “resource and cash flows” pertaining to this industry. And these flows fall in three categories, firstly, payments by IOCs. These cover two main items, cash payments to the host country- such as signature bonuses and all other fees like corporate income taxes etc, and secondly  investment (in the related contracted project.)

The first items could be controlled and accounted for with a good degree of transparency and verification, though Iraq’s Report for 2010 did not cover them properly. But there is difficulty and resentment on the part of IOCs regarding their actual investment in the related activity.Without full disclosure of investment there can be no comprehensive and meaningful transparency.

The second category is resource flowcharts and revenues, which covers two items. The first is the export of resources (say oil) and the generated export revenues. The parties involved here, in Iraq’s case, are SOMO (Iraq Oil Marketing Company) and all International Crude Oil Buyers-ICOBs. All export revenues are in US Dollars, and currently should be deposited in the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York  (FRBNY) which confirmed total export revenues in 2010.

The second item in this category is the domestic use of resources and generated revenues. The parties involved are the Ministry of Oil (MoO) through its Regional Oil Companies (ROCs) which deliver oil and gas to other entities such as refineries, power plants, industry etc. The MoO provides very aggregate data on the produced oil and gas from ROCs and their allocation to export and for domestic use (only Refineries, Power plants and flared gas) but no revenues are provided for.

While the first item is subject to confirmation by all reporting entities and thus easy to reconcile and account for all export revenues, the second item is not. So a comprehensive modern and functional metering system is critically needed to insure the material balance of petroleum between all producing ROCs and receiving entities. Without such a comprehensive modern and functional metering system the transparency in the petroleum sector would be compromised. (Lack of metering was a critical factor in energy sector corruption in Nigeria- RT.)

The third category of resource and cash flows covers payment by Iraq to IOCs, which can be done easily, since each IOC is contractually obliged to prepare and present annual work programmes and corresponding budgets. Moreover, IOCs are obliged to submit “invoices” on actual expenses to MoO for auditing, approval and payment purposes.

The significance of knowing and accounting for IOC investment is to use such information in the verification and reconciliation process of “payment” that Iraq will make to these IOCs once the process of investment recovery and payment of remuneration fees begins.

According to the service contracts (type of oil contract currently in effect in Iraq) the payment of dues to the IOCs might be in kind- crude oil. Such payment in kind would be technically and statistically included in oil export shipments, but no export revenues would result from them.

Unless a special category in oil exports data and terminology is created to cover this payment in kind and cater for its accountability, there will be too many discrepancies in the reported data on oil revenues. Such payment in kind had started already in 2011, and it is expected to increase significantly in volume and value in the years to come.

It is worth recalling that each of these contracts has duration of more than twenty years. Therefore, it is vital to create the capacities and make the necessary preparations as early as possible to cover these items fully, properly and effectively.

For a country such as Iraq, especially in its current conditions, it is vital to have all three flows under the watchful eyes of transparency.

RT: In the last report, Open Oil claimed that signature bonuses amounting to over $1 billion were not documented. While some of these are the form of a loan, another bonus was altered to be simply a payment. Can they do that?

AMJ: Technically and contractually it is incorrect to claim that the Report for 2009 did not account for or document the signature bonuses. The reason is simple: no signature bonuses were due in 2009.

According to the service contracts of the first and second bid rounds, the related signature bonus has to be paid within one month from the “effective date” of the related contract. This implies that all signature bonuses from the 11 contracts resulting from the first two bid rounds were paid in 2010.

The 2010 Report confirms and accounts for all $1.65 billion paid by IOCs and received by MoO. But the Report did not cover what I call “Bid Round Related Payments,” which include four types of payments.

Moreover, the Author and the Reconciler of the 2010 Report, PwC, (PricewaterhouseCoopers) was not successful in producing a good and coherent report. The PwC Report suffers from many flaws, inconsistencies and shortcomings. I was asked to give opinion on the Report, which I did, and communicated my assessment to Baghdad and others within my professional network.

Ahmed Mousa Jiyad’s verdict on the PWC report can be found here.

Looking ahead

As Ahmed Mousa Jiyad can attest, some progress has been made in shining a light on Iraq’s energy sector, but much more needs to be done. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, in order for any transparency initiative to be successful there must be a fairly free society so that people can access information, hold officials to account and affect change. This is a problem in Iraq, where the media have been increasingly under siege: according to Reporters Without Borders, Iraq ranks 152 out of 179 in the press freedom index. As we will see in the next part of this series, finding a role for civil society in the EITI process has been a stumbling block in Yemen.

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Photo Credit: Loco Steve

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

What Noughties Labour Left Behind

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership; Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded.

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One of the key defences used by both Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg is that obstacles such as the deficit have been left behind by the Labour Party and must be ‘cleaned up’ by the Government. Cameron used his first House of Commons speech as Prime Minister to emphasise this argument, and it has remained a frequent response to criticism from the opposition during Prime Minister’s Questions. However repetitive this argument might be, the coalition’s desire to emphasise the inherited failings of its predecessor is politically understandable. What is more curious is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s apparent enthusiasm for doing the same thing.

Upon assuming the role, a new party leader might be expected to give a speech or two in which, by criticising old policies or established members of the party, they attempt to create a sense of renewal and innovation. But Miliband has repeatedly introduced Labour’s record – and, in his view, its failings – into the discourse on numerous issues over the course of his leadership. There have been frequent admissions by the Labour leader regarding the mistakes he believes were made by his party’s government. According to Miliband, Labour was wrong on issues such as the economy, immigration and Iraq. Leaving aside what one may thinking about Labour’s previous approaches to these and any other issues, it seems reasonable to wonder why Miliband is so keen, insistent even, on reminding everybody about his party’s failures, real or perceived.

It has been suggested that Miliband’s recent remarks to the Fabian Society, which took a similarly apologetic approach, are part of an ‘attempt to distance himself from elements of the last government’s record considered toxic by many strategists.’ While it is important for Miliband to be honest and self-critical about his party’s shortcomings, there is something self-defeating about his constant referral back to New Labour’s record if his aim is to disassociate himself from it. These kinds of apologies can be useful in the first year or so of opposition as a way to rebrand, but after three years out of power, Labour needs to focus on establishing its new approach and produced a clear pitch to the electorate about its policies. Labour’s Policy Review should eventually shed more light on the tangible elements of the party’s approach, but Miliband should nevertheless emphasise the future rather than dwell on the past in the meantime.

Of course, Labour has already made policy suggestions on various issues, but these often focus on ‘learning lessons’ and accepting hard truths about Labour’s past efforts. For example, on immigration, Miliband told the Fabian Society that during the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ‘high levels of migration were having huge effects on the lives of people in Britain – and too often those in power seemed not to accept this. The fact that they didn’t explains partly why people turned against us in the last general election.’ And on the economy: ‘One Nation Labour has learnt the lessons of the financial crisis. It begins from the truth that New Labour did not do enough to bring about structural change in our economy to make it work for the many, not just the few. It did not do enough to change the rules of the game that were holding our economy back.’ In these remarks, Miliband is trying to demonstrate the heightened self-awareness and self-improvement of ‘One Nation Labour’ in contrast to the old and often mistaken ‘New Labour’. Yet this ploy, along with the attempt to play down Labour’s record by giving it extra attention in speeches, treats the electorate with little respect. Voters remember New Labour, favourably or not, and they will not be convinced that there are no similarities at all between the brands ‘New’ and ‘One Nation’ any more than they will forget the successes and limitations of Blair and Brown.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is that Miliband and his strategists seem to have assumed that the argument over New Labour’s record was lost along with the 2010 election. Indeed, Miliband’s tone contains none of the positivity exhibited by his predecessor in the last days of the 2010 campaign, during which antipathy towards the party was exceedingly high. Despite Labour’s damaged image at the end of thirteen years in power, Gordon Brown retained a sense of pride in his party’s accomplishments in this speech, without any of the obligatory qualifiers and ‘howevers’ that seem to accompany the current leader’s reminiscing monologues. Both the content and the delivery of Brown’s speech demonstrate that celebrating New Labour’s record is politically credible and potentially convincing. Even if Miliband feels morally or politically obliged to remind everybody of how poor he believes Labour’s performance has been in the past, he should also feel more confident about celebrating such political events as the minimum wage, the renovation of thousands of schools or the cancellation of developing world debt.

Ed Miliband sometimes sounds like he’s running against Tony Blair for the leadership rather than against David Cameron for the premiership. To correct this, Miliband’s speeches should emphasise the persistent values at the heart of his party and the principles on which it was founded. Crucially, he should not be afraid ask David Cameron what the coalition is doing to maintain and build on the progress in healthcare and education left behind by the Labour government.

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Photo credit: Policy Network

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

Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq’s Newest Dictator?

The comparisons to the Hussein regime should not be over-stretched. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Nouri al-Maliki’s power compared to his predecessor, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

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iraqi girl

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For Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s recent political history remains a specter haunting his regime. Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule left little precedent for national, democratic reconstruction according to what external and domestic policymakers had hoped. It is thus unsurprising that the current ruling party has enacted policies that resemble those from a far more sinister past, and Maliki’s practices have been compared to Saddam’s; most importantly, he has arrested political dissenters and established central government control over the security forces. His recent response to the protests sweeping Iraq this past week have raised afresh these analyses. Yet the comparisons to Saddam’s regime should not be stretched too far. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Maliki’s power compared to Saddam’s, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

Maliki has certainly exhibited tendencies that spark fear amongst Iraqis. In a September editorial, The Guardian argued that “Nouri al-Maliki’s has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein’s terror – but the charge sheet is growing.” For example, as US combat forces departed the country in December 2011, Maliki issued the notorious arrest warrant for his vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Soldiers and tanks led by Maliki’s son surrounded Hashimi’s house, detaining several bodyguards who later, after torture, confessed that the vice president had organized illegal death squads against his political rivals. He was soon sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged crimes. The Guardian concluded by bluntly noting that “Iraqiyya [Hashimi’s party]…is not the first victim of Maliki’s power grab.”

Maliki has reinforced his grip through the Iraqi military, reshaping the chain of command so that his office has full control over personnel placement and field strategy. The Iraqi Special Forces have become a personal guard for the Prime Minister, as has the intelligence and judiciary branches. Having confronted the Sunni opposition, many fear that his next targets will be the Sadrists and eventually the Kurds using his strengthened psuedo-legal military options.

Yet there are several key differences between his and Saddam’s regime that must not be ignored. Above all, Maliki simply wields far less power than did his despotic counterpart. The Prime Minister’s inability to coerce the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani into turning over Hashimi in 2011, for instance, underscores this reality. Unlike Saddam, Maliki has nearly no influence or control in Iraqi Kurdistan. Supported by Turkey, Iran, and the United States, Kurdistan is essentially off-limits to Baghdad, lest Maliki violently exacerbate tensions with his regional neighbors.

The Sunni political bloc to which Hashimi belongs, albeit battered, has its foreign allies too. As much as he tries, Maliki cannot eliminate the Sunni opposition, as its leadership would immediately turn to Saudi Arabia if seriously threatened. And he does not have the influence to prevent such links. He can only intimidate and isolate the Sunnis — which he continues to do with limited success — but can never silence their voice.

Even amongst the Shia faction, deep divisions undermine Maliki’s ability to meaningfully consolidate his power. Moqtada al-Sadr, the indefatigable leader of the Sadrist movement, has repeatedly spoken against the ruling party. For all his maneuvering, Maliki has relatively little opportunity to significantly damage or silence the Sadrist minority; Sadr, a “black sheep” in Iraqi politics, needs only align with Iraq’s other opposition leaders to pose a serious threat to Maliki’s grasp on Baghdad, a move he is willing to make if Maliki further strips his political options.

These empirical differences between Maliki and Saddam must be viewed alongside a far less exact, emotional element. Comparisons between the two leaders often ignore the serious and painful realities of the terror with which Saddam Hussein ruled. It is neither accurate nor fair to make such offhand comparisons when the reality does not match. There is little doubt that Maliki’s actions are authoritarian, harsh, and legally questionable, but it is also important to remember that Saddam’s true cruelty, paranoia, and unfeeling political calculations with the lives of his citizens tore far deeper wounds across Iraq. In many respects, Maliki’s ruling style is a product of the stillborn democracy left in the wake of the American departure. His rule will never conform to the ideals of egalitarian and representative government that US leaders espoused. But to compare it to Saddam’s merely exacerbates the situation by pushing the current regime to adopt more insular policies, while at the same time ignores the problem’s roots.

To be sure, the trend towards authoritarianism that Maliki’s government is following does not inspire optimism, nor should it be encouraged. But it should be recognized for what it is, and not compared to a regime it will never truly resemble. How can foreigners understand Maliki? If they look past the Saddam era for answers, the results will be far more enlightening.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

The Peculiar Influence Of The Church of England

Given the influence of the Church of England and the claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, its new Archbishop has a responsibility to provide a transparent account of his views so that they can be properly scrutinised.

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Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

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While it is often said that the United States is politically and socially religious to a considerable extent, it is worth remembering that it is constitutionally secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects the right of every religious group to practice their faith privately, while ensuring that no one group receives advantageous treatment over others via funding or expressions of support from the state. It has also allowed for the establishment of non-religious executive, legislative and judicial branches of the US government, each free from the prejudices inherent in theocratic systems. This luxury, however, is not afforded to British citizens, who are instead expected to accept that the clergy of the Church of England, the dominant sect, will sit in the legislative house adjacent to that of the country’s elected representatives. Moreover, the monarch rather than the Prime Minister is the ultimate head of state and of the state religion, and while this intimate relationship between our democratic and royal institutions is often viewed as little more than a benign tradition, it remains a potential risk to political representation and social equality.

One of the by-products of this fusion of church and state has been the prominence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose commentary on social and political issues is often given a generous amount of coverage in the media. Dr Rowan Williams, who is now stepping down from the post, has frequently commented on issues ranging from economic justice to western foreign policy. However, while Dr Williams is entitled to express his views on these and any other issues, his responsibilities as a political as well as a religious figure mean that his opinions deserve the same critical scrutiny afforded to other political leaders.

Dr Williams’ suggestion in 2008 that elements of Islamic law should be accommodated in the UK provides a useful example of why this scrutiny is so important. While ultimately inconsequential, these comments nonetheless reflect claims about the nature and development of the judicial system. They also reflects a need among advocates of church and state cooperation to accommodate numerous religious groups, in a similar sense to the proposed inclusion of multiple faith representatives in the House of Lords. On the surface, such suggestions may seem to appeal to representation and fairness, but in reality they reinforce the exclusion of minor faiths and unbelievers while empowering major religious traditions undeservedly. Avoiding this discrimination is one of the main advantages of the US political system, which, instead of trying to cater for numerous faiths, separates all religion equally from the state. Far from constituting oppression of religious freedom, this method succeeds in preventing it. Crucially, Dr Williams’ comments on Islamic law suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only a participant in political discourse but can also seek to influence and develop it in ways that other religious and non-religious individuals cannot.

This unique influence can also be seen in religious resistance to equal marriage. On its website, the Church of England describes ‘the enduring place of the established church in providing marriages that have full state recognition,’ and has also claimed that marriage equality could threaten religious establishment in the UK. Moreover, Dr Williams’ replacement Justin Welby has maintained his opposition to equal marriage while simultaneously offering a vague commitment to re-examining his views ‘prayerfully and carefully’. In light of this, it is clear that while religion in the UK may resemble a ceremonial oddity, the views of leading figures on the validity of marriage could have a direct impact on the civil rights of individuals in society. These individuals, as well as advocates of an equal and fair legal system, deserve better than ambiguous spiritual statements of reflection and prayer from the leadership of the Church.

The political prominence of this leadership is indicative of a constitutional framework that places one religious doctrine above all others and insists on fusing it with the operations of the state. This structure is more than a mere historical peculiarity, and exists in opposition to the ideals of a modern and inclusive democracy. Given the potentially tangible influence of the Church of England, and the bold claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, Justin Welby has a responsibility, not only to religious believers but to every citizen, to provide a clear and transparent account of his views so that they may be properly scrutinised.

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Photo Credit: Better Than Bacon

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

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