Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency

The Great Myth: Counterinsurgency

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 10, 2010

There are moments that define a war. Just such a one occurred June 21 when Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry helicoptered into Marjah for a photo op with the locals. It was to be a capstone event, the fruit of a four-month counterinsurgency offensive by Marines, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, and the newly minted Afghan National Army (ANA) to drive the Taliban out of the area and bring in good government.

As the chopper swung around to land, the Taliban opened up, sending journalists scrambling for cover and Marines into full combat mode. According to Matthew Green of the Financial Times, “The crackle of gunfire lasted about 20 minutes and continued in the background as a state department official gave a presentation to Mr. Holbrooke about U.S. and U.K [United Kingdom] efforts to boost local government and promote agriculture in the town.”

The U.S. officials were then bundled into armored cars and whisked back to the helicopter. As the chopper took off an enormous explosion shook the town’s bazaar.

When it was launched in March, the Marjah operation was billed as a “turning point” in the Afghan War, an acid test for the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or “COIN,” a carefully designed strategy to wrest a strategic area from the Taliban and win the “hearts and minds” of the local people. And in a sense Marjah has indeed defined COIN, just not quite in the way its advocates had hoped for.

In his bible for counterinsurgency, Field Manuel 3-24, General David Petraeus argues, “The cornerstone of any COIN effort is establishing security for the civilian population.” As one village elder who attended the Holbrooke meeting—incognito for fear of being recognized by the Taliban—told Green, “There is no security in Marjah.”

Nor in much of the rest of the country. The latest U.S. assessment found five out of 116 areas “secure,” and in 89 of the areas the government was “non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive.”

That the war in Afghanistan is a failure will hardly come as news to most people. Our NATO allies are preparing to abandon the endeavor—the Dutch, Canadians and Poles have announced they are bailing—and the British, who have the second largest contingent in Afghanistan, are clamoring for peace talks. Opposition to the war in Britain is at 72 percent.

But there is a tendency to blame the growing debacle on conditions peculiar to Afghanistan. There are certainly things about that country that have stymied foreign invaders: it is landlocked, filled with daunting terrain, and populated by people who don’t cotton to outsiders. But it would be a serious error to attribute the current crisis to Afghanistan’s well-earned reputation as the “graveyard of empires.”

The problem is not Afghanistan, but the entire concept of COIN, and the debate around it is hardly academic. Counterinsurgency has seized the high ground in the Pentagon and the halls of Washington, and there are other places in the world where it is being deployed, from the jungles of Columbia to the dry lands that border the Sahara. If the COIN doctrine is not challenged, Americans may well find themselves debating its merits in places like Somalia, Yemen, or Mauritania.

“Counterinsurgency aims at reshaping a nation and its society over the long haul,” says military historian Frank Chadwick, emphasizing  “infrastructure improvements, ground-level security, and building a bond between the local population and the security forces.”

In theory COIN sounds reasonable. In practice it almost always fails. Where it has succeeded—the Philippines, Malaya, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and the Boer War—the conditions were very special: island nations cut off from outside support (the Philippines and Sri Lanka), insurgencies that failed to develop a following (Bolivia), or were based in a minority ethnic community (Malaya, the Boer War).

COIN is always presented as politically neutral, a series of tactics aimed at winning hearts and minds. But in fact, COIN has always been part of a strategy of domination by a nation(s) and/or socio/economic class.

The threat of “Communism” and its companion, the “domino theory,” sent soldiers to countries from Grenada to Lebanon, and turned the Vietnamese civil war into a Cold War battleground. If we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, went the argument, eventually the Reds would storm the beaches at San Diego.

Replace communism with “terrorism” and today’s rationales sound much the same. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes Afghanistan as “the fountainhead of terrorism” and, when asked to explain why Germany was sending troops to Afghanistan, then German Defense Minister Peter Strock argued that Berlin’s security would be “ defended in the Hindu Kush.” British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown routinely said that confronting “terrorism” in Afghanistan would protect the home front.

But as counterterrorism expert Richard Barrett points out, the Afghan Taliban have never been a threat to the West, and the idea that fighting the Taliban would reduce the threat of terrorism is “complete rubbish.” In any case, the al-Qaeda operatives who pulled off the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon got their training in Hamburg and south Florida, not Tora Bora.

The U.S. has strategic interests in Central Asia and the Middle East, and “terrorism” is a handy excuse to inject military power into these two energy-rich regions of the world. Whoever holds the energy high ground in the coming decades will exert enormous influence on world politics.

No, it is not all about oil and gas, but a lot of it is.

Winning “hearts and minds” is just a tactic aimed at insuring our paramount interests, and/or the interests of the “friendly” governments that we fight for. Be nice to the locals unless the locals decide that they don’t much like long-term occupation, don’t trust their government, and might have some ideas about how they should run their own affairs.

Then “hearts and minds” turns nasty. U.S. Special Operations Forces carry out as many as five “kill and capture” raids a day in Afghanistan and have assassinated or jailed more than 500 Afghans in the past few months Thousands of others languish in prisons.

The core of COIN is coercion, whether it is carried out with a gun or truckloads of money. If the majority of people accept coercion—and the COIN supported government doesn’t highjack the trucks—then it may work

And then maybe not. Tufts University recently researched the impact of COIN aid and found little evidence that such projects win locals over. According to Tufts professor, Andrew Wilder, “Many of the Afghans interviewed for our study identified their corrupt and predatory government as the most important cause of insecurity, and perceived international aid security contracts as enriching a kleptocratic elite.”

This should hardly come as a surprise. Most regimes the U.S. ends up supporting against insurgents are composed of narrow elites who rule through military power and political monopoly. Our backing of the El Salvador and Guatemalan governments during the 1980s come to mind. Both were essentially death squads with national anthems.

The U.S. doesn’t care if a government is corrupt or democratic—if it did, would countries like Egypt and Honduras be recipients of U.S. aid, and would we be cuddling up with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? The only thing the U.S. cares about is whether the local elites will serve Washington’s interests by giving it bases, resources, or commercial access.

Afghanistan is no different. The government of Hamid Karzi is a kleptocracy with little support or presence outside Kabul.

In many ways COIN is the most destructive and self-defeating strategy a country can employ, and its toxicity is long-term. Take what didn’t get reported in the recent firing of former Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal.

McChrystal cut his COIN teeth running Special Operations death squads in Iraq, similar to the Vietnam War’s  “Operation Phoenix” that killed upwards of 60,000 “Viet Cong cadre” and eventually led to the Mai Lai massacre.  The success of Phoenix is best summed up by photos of desperate South Vietnamese soldiers clinging to U.S. helicopter skids as the Americans scrambled to get out before Saigon fell.

But COIN advocates read history selectively and the loss in Vietnam was soon blamed on backstabbing journalists and pot-smoking hippies. The lessons were re-written, the memories expunged, and the disasters re-interpreted.

So COIN is back. And it is working no better than it did in the 1960s. Take the counterterrorism portion of the doctrine.

Over the past several years, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been carrying out a sort of long-distance Phoenix program, using armed drones to assassinate insurgent leaders in Pakistan. The program has purportedly snuffed out about 150 such “leaders.” But it has also killed more than 1,000 civilians and inflamed not only the relatives of those killed or wounded in the attacks, but Pakistanis in general. According to an International Republican Institute poll, 80 percent of Pakistanis are now anti-American, and the killer drones are a major reason.

“Hearts and minds” soldiers like Petraeus don’t much like the drone attacks because they alienate Pakistan and dry up intelligence sources in that country.

But McChrystal’s Phoenix program of killing Taliban “leaders” in Afghanistan is no better.  As author and reporter Anne Jones notes,  “Assassinating the ideological leaders, the true believers and organizers—those we call the ‘bad Taliban’—actually leaves behind leaderless, undisciplined gangs of armed rent-a-guns who are more interested in living off the population we’re supposed to protect than being peeled off into abject Afghan poverty.”

The “hearts and minds” crew have their own problems. McChrystal and Petraeus have long stressed the counterproductive effect of using airpower and artillery against insurgents, because it inevitably produces civilian casualties. But this means that the war is now between two groups of infantry, one of which knows the terrain, speaks the local language, and can turn from a fighter to a farmer in a few minutes.

As the recent Rolling Stone article found, McChrystal was unpopular because his troops felt he put them in harm’s way. Firefights that used to be ended quickly by air strikes go on for hours, and the Taliban are demonstrating that, given a level playing field, they are skilled fighters.

In his recent testimony before Congress, Petraeus said he would “employ all assets” to insure the safety of the troops and “re-examine” his ban on air power. But if he does, civilian casualties will rise, increasing local anger and recruits for the Taliban.

The war in Afghanistan is first about U.S. interests in Central Asia. It is also about honing a military for future irregular wars and projecting NATO as a worldwide alliance. And once the U.S. endorsed Karzi’s recent fraudulent election, the Afghans know it isn’t about democracy.

One of the key ingredients in COIN is a reliable local army, but U.S. soldiers no longer trust the ANA because they correctly suspect it is a conduit to the Taliban. “American soldiers in Kandahar report that, for their own security, they don’t tell their ANA colleagues when and where they are going on patrol,” says Jones.  Somebody told those insurgents that Holbrook and Eikenberry were coming to Marjah.

Afghanistan is ethnically divided, desperately poor, and finishing its fourth decade of war. Morale among U.S. troops is plummeting. A U.S. officer told the Washington Times, “We are a battle-hardened force but eight years in Afghanistan has worn us down.” As one Sergeant told Rolling Stone, “We’re losing this f—ing thing!”

The sergeant is right, though the Afghans are the big losers. But as bad as Afghanistan is, things will be considerably worse if the U.S. draws the conclusion that “special circumstances” in Afghanistan are to blame for failure, not the nature of COIN itself.

There was a time when the old imperial powers and the U.S. could wage war without having to bank their home fires. No longer. The U.S. has spent over $300 billion on the Afghan War, and is currently shelling out about $7 billion a month. In the meantime, 32 states are sliding toward insolvency, and 15 million people have lost their jobs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post, “It just can’t be that we have a domestic agenda that is half the size of the defense budget.”

Empires can choose to step back with a certain grace, as the Dutch did in Southeast Asia. Or they can stubbornly hang on, casting about for the right military formula that will keep them on top. That fall is considerably harder.

The choice is ours.

—30—

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Closing In On “Caesar” Berlusconi

The Long Knives Close In On “Caesar” Silvio

Dispatches From The Edge

July 24, 2010

In spite of all his billions and his control of Italy’s media, there is a growing sense that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—the one-time cruise ship crooner— is finally headed for a fall. Two of his ministers and a senior treasury official were forced to resign over corruption charges, and the investigation may soon engulf Berlusconi himself.

The corruption investigation netted three of his closest associates, including the Neapolitan politician and Treasury undersecretary Nicola Cosentino; banker Denis Verdini, a major figure in the Prime Minister’s People of Liberty Party; and Senator Marcello Del’Utri, a former executive in Berlusconi’s media empire.

The three are accused of setting up a cabal of politicians and wealthy businessmen aimed at influencing judges to reverse the Oct.7, 2009 ruling by the Constitutional Court that a law passed by the Berlusconi-dominated legislature, immunizing the PM, the president, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament from criminal charges, violated the principle that all Italians are equal before the law. The court ruling means Berlusconi faces charges of tax fraud, bribing judges, and paying his English lawyer to lie in court.

A wiretap caught the three men talking about the scheme and referring to someone at the center of the conspiracy by the code name “Caesar.” Berlusconi denies he is the “Caesar.”

Right. This is the Prime Minister who fancies himself a reincarnation of ancient emperors, holds rallies near Rome’s huge coliseum, throws lavish parties filled with prostitutes, under age girls, and naked people ‘a-la-Nero, and has the most to gain from a reversal of the ruling by the Court.  Silvio “Caesar”? Perish the thought.

Actually “Benito” is probably a better moniker. Berlusconi has praised the fascist leader Benito Mussolini on more than one occasion, and his People of Liberty Party was formed by merging his Forza Italia Party with the neo-fascist National Alliance Party (NAP). The NAP’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, currently speaker of the house, used to give the stiff-armed fascist salute at party rallies.  Berlusconi’s other ally is Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, an openly racist party that provides the winning margin for Berlusconi in the upper house.

There is a strong odor of the Mafia around all this. Dell’Utri, the senator from Naples, was convicted of “associating” with the Mafia, a conviction recently upheld on appeal. Indeed the press is calling the “gang of three” nailed by the wire taps, “P3” after the 1980s P2 scandal that linked Masonic lodges to fascist groups, the Mafia, and Italy’s military intelligence agency, the SID.

Up to now Berlusconi’s wealth from his $6.5 billion holding company Fininvest, and his domination of the media—he controls Italy’s three most watched television channels (sports, soaps and cleavage), plus the public channel RAI though his command of the government—has protected him and his friends. But no longer.

In fact, the current crisis feels much like the early ‘90s when “tangentopoli” (“bribesville”) tanked the First Republic. The current P3 scandal could well bring down the Second Republic.

Most observers think that Berlusconi will call a snap election this next spring, because, while his popularity is dropping, he still gets favorable ratings from many Italians. But his troubles are not all of the legal variety. Italy’s economy is in serious trouble and growth has been less than 1 percent a year since 2000. Of the G7 countries, only Japan has seen a greater loss of Gross Domestic Product. Factories are idled and unemployment hovers at around 8.6 percent, though that figure is much higher in the poorer south.

Referring to the “gang of three” resignations, Ezio Mauro, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Repubblica, told the Financial Times, “The ghost ship of the Berlusconi government is throwing corpses into the sea to survive,” But it is not clear that the Left can take advantage of the situation. It is fractious and has yet to put forth a unified program.

Berlusconi announced July 16 that he was canceling his plans for a summer vacation in order to work on reorganizing his People for Justice Party. But as investigators continue to burrow into the charges of tax evasion and bribery, and the corpses of his associates pile up around him, the three-time Prime Minister may soon find himself on permanent holiday.

–30–

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Israel: Warped Mirrors & White House Sofas

Israel: Warped Mirrors & White House Sofas
Dispatches From The Edge
Conn Hallinan
July 15, 2010
If anyone had doubts about the outcome of recent talks between Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama, they
were put to rest July 13 when Israeli authorities demolished three Palestinian
houses and announced the construction of 32 new homes in East Jerusalem.
According to the British Guardian, “A further 48 housing units are expected
to be approved next week.”
So much for the “freeze” on evictions and settlement building; so much for
the “peace process” According to Jeff Halper of the International Committee
against Home Demolitions, “The rule of thumb in this part of the world is
that in the run-up to the U.S. elections Israel has a free hand. Israel is now
taking advantage of that.”
The collapse of the “freeze”—which wasn’t a freeze in any case because
it did not cover East Jerusalem or “existing settlements”—will spike any
1
negotiations between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians, and
accelerate Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. According to a recent study
by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that process is rapidly reaching
the point of no return.
The B’Tselem report found that settlers now control 42 percent of the West
Bank, far more than was previously thought, and much of the land seized
from private Palestinian landowners. Any settlement land in the Occupied
Territories is considered a violation of international law, but taking privately
owned land also contravenes rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.
“The settlement enterprise has been characterized, since its inception, by an
instrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, local
legislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled the
continuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank,” the report
states.
Settler councils have either fenced off or designated massive tracts of land
for future expansion, and they have seized 21 percent of the privately owned
land on the West Bank. This drive to take over the entire West Bank has
been greatly aided by Israeli government policies, including subsidized
housing, tax breaks, bypass roads, and the seizure of scare water resources.
2
Israeli groups that oppose the settler expansion, or are critical of government
policies vis-à-vis Gaza, are finding themselves increasingly under fire. In
recent months demonstrators have been arrested for peacefully assembling
and picketing, and a bill that demonizes non-governmental organizations
(NGO) that accused the government of war crimes during the 2008-09 “Cast
Lead” operation in Gaza is working its way through the Knesset.
The bill would outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign or
international organization, like the United Nations, that results in a charge
of war crimes. When the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the
UN’s investigation of Cast Lead, groups like B’Tselem provided about 14
percent of the information that eventually went into the Goldstone Report.
The Report found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.
According to the Forward, “The proposed legislation would apply to
NGOs that provide information directly to accusers, or to NGOs that put
information in the public domain that leads to such accusations.”
Some 17 Knesset members from the Kadima Party and other rightwing
parties have signed on to the legislation. Some observers say it has little
3
chance of passing, but that will depend on the position of the government.
“Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce it
to ashes,” reads a statement signed by 10 human rights NGOs.
Polls show the legislation—ram-rodded by Kadima Knesset member Ronit
Tirosh—has support. A Tel Aviv University survey found that 57.6 percent
thought that NGOs that exposed “immoral conduct” by Israel should not be
allowed “to operate freely.”
There is a growing chasm “between the slogans like, ’Israel is a great
democracy,’ and ‘the army is the most moral in the world’—and the reality,”
says Professor Daniel Bar-Tal who conducted the poll. Israelis, he says, “do
not look in the mirror” and do not wish to be reminded by NGOs about their
image. The result, he says, is that “the foundations” of democracy in the
country are under siege.
The mood to pull the wagons in a circle has helped revive a push by
rightwing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel Israeli
citizenship for the country’s 1.3 million Arabs, and transfer them to
a “Palestinian state.” The plan—which would violate international law—
was first proposed in 2003, but then shelved. In the current atmosphere,
4
Lieberman has dusted it off and put it back on the agenda.
The Obama Administration says Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution,
but the Prime Minister has filled his pledge with so many caveats that there
appears little possibility that such an entity could ever appear under his
government. Indeed, his national security advisor and close friend, Uzi Arad,
recently attacked the “magic” of the two-state solution and told a meeting of
the Jewish Agency, “The more you market Palestinian legitimacy, the more
you bring about a detraction of Israel’s legitimacy.”
Israel has never been so isolated internationally. Several nations recalled
their ambassadors in the aftermath of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza
flotilla, and leading politicians, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livini and
Vice Prime Minister Mosche Ya’alon, have decided to curb travel to Britain
because they fear an arrest warrant.
This isolation is likely to get worse with the Goldstone Report coming
before the UN’s General Assembly in late July and Turkey assuming the
chair of the Security Council in September.
The current Israeli leadership is a major part of the problem. “Ever since the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the
5
stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings have
been masked by propaganda and by Israel’s American insurance policy,”
says the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.
Cockburn points out that the last Israeli military victory was the 1973 war
against Syria and Egypt, and that over the past 37 years Israel has lurched
from one failure to another. “Israel’s only victories these days are won on
the sofa of the White House.”
The reason, he argues, “is that Israelis believe their own propaganda and
their supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an article
of faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distorted
picture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness and
arrogance robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders to
underestimate their enemies.”
None of that is likely to be changed by refusing to look in the mirror or by
killing the NGO messenger .

Israel: Warped Mirrors & White House SofasDispatches From The EdgeConn HallinanJuly 15, 2010If anyone had doubts about the outcome of recent talks between IsraeliPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama, theywere put to rest July 13 when Israeli authorities demolished three Palestinianhouses and announced the construction of 32 new homes in East Jerusalem.According to the British Guardian, “A further 48 housing units are expectedto be approved next week.”So much for the “freeze” on evictions and settlement building; so much forthe “peace process” According to Jeff Halper of the International Committeeagainst Home Demolitions, “The rule of thumb in this part of the world isthat in the run-up to the U.S. elections Israel has a free hand. Israel is nowtaking advantage of that.”The collapse of the “freeze”—which wasn’t a freeze in any case becauseit did not cover East Jerusalem or “existing settlements”—will spike any1negotiations between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians, andaccelerate Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. According to a recent studyby the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that process is rapidly reachingthe point of no return.The B’Tselem report found that settlers now control 42 percent of the WestBank, far more than was previously thought, and much of the land seizedfrom private Palestinian landowners. Any settlement land in the OccupiedTerritories is considered a violation of international law, but taking privatelyowned land also contravenes rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.“The settlement enterprise has been characterized, since its inception, by aninstrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, locallegislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled thecontinuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank,” the reportstates.Settler councils have either fenced off or designated massive tracts of landfor future expansion, and they have seized 21 percent of the privately ownedland on the West Bank. This drive to take over the entire West Bank hasbeen greatly aided by Israeli government policies, including subsidizedhousing, tax breaks, bypass roads, and the seizure of scare water resources.2Israeli groups that oppose the settler expansion, or are critical of governmentpolicies vis-à-vis Gaza, are finding themselves increasingly under fire. Inrecent months demonstrators have been arrested for peacefully assemblingand picketing, and a bill that demonizes non-governmental organizations(NGO) that accused the government of war crimes during the 2008-09 “CastLead” operation in Gaza is working its way through the Knesset.The bill would outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign orinternational organization, like the United Nations, that results in a chargeof war crimes. When the Israeli government refused to cooperate with theUN’s investigation of Cast Lead, groups like B’Tselem provided about 14percent of the information that eventually went into the Goldstone Report.The Report found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.According to the Forward, “The proposed legislation would apply toNGOs that provide information directly to accusers, or to NGOs that putinformation in the public domain that leads to such accusations.”Some 17 Knesset members from the Kadima Party and other rightwingparties have signed on to the legislation. Some observers say it has little3chance of passing, but that will depend on the position of the government.“Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce itto ashes,” reads a statement signed by 10 human rights NGOs.Polls show the legislation—ram-rodded by Kadima Knesset member RonitTirosh—has support. A Tel Aviv University survey found that 57.6 percentthought that NGOs that exposed “immoral conduct” by Israel should not beallowed “to operate freely.”There is a growing chasm “between the slogans like, ’Israel is a greatdemocracy,’ and ‘the army is the most moral in the world’—and the reality,”says Professor Daniel Bar-Tal who conducted the poll. Israelis, he says, “donot look in the mirror” and do not wish to be reminded by NGOs about theirimage. The result, he says, is that “the foundations” of democracy in thecountry are under siege.The mood to pull the wagons in a circle has helped revive a push byrightwing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel Israelicitizenship for the country’s 1.3 million Arabs, and transfer them toa “Palestinian state.” The plan—which would violate international law—was first proposed in 2003, but then shelved. In the current atmosphere,4Lieberman has dusted it off and put it back on the agenda.The Obama Administration says Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution,but the Prime Minister has filled his pledge with so many caveats that thereappears little possibility that such an entity could ever appear under hisgovernment. Indeed, his national security advisor and close friend, Uzi Arad,recently attacked the “magic” of the two-state solution and told a meeting ofthe Jewish Agency, “The more you market Palestinian legitimacy, the moreyou bring about a detraction of Israel’s legitimacy.”Israel has never been so isolated internationally. Several nations recalledtheir ambassadors in the aftermath of the Israeli commando raid on the Gazaflotilla, and leading politicians, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livini andVice Prime Minister Mosche Ya’alon, have decided to curb travel to Britainbecause they fear an arrest warrant.This isolation is likely to get worse with the Goldstone Report comingbefore the UN’s General Assembly in late July and Turkey assuming thechair of the Security Council in September.The current Israeli leadership is a major part of the problem. “Ever since theassassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the5stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings havebeen masked by propaganda and by Israel’s American insurance policy,”says the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.Cockburn points out that the last Israeli military victory was the 1973 waragainst Syria and Egypt, and that over the past 37 years Israel has lurchedfrom one failure to another. “Israel’s only victories these days are won onthe sofa of the White House.”The reason, he argues, “is that Israelis believe their own propaganda andtheir supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an articleof faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distortedpicture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness andarrogance robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders tounderestimate their enemies.”None of that is likely to be changed by refusing to look in the mirror or bykilling the NGO messenger .

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Korean Ship Sinking: A Rush to Judgment?

Korean Ship Sinking: A Rush to Judgment?

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 15, 2010

The narrative around the Mar. 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy Corvette Cheonan, and the death of 46 sailors, seems pretty straightforward: the ship was sunk by a North Korean (DPRK) torpedo. That was the conclusion by a South Korean (ROK) panel of 47 military and military-research experts and three international  representatives. The only question left unanswered was the DPRK’s motive, with fallout from an internal power struggle holding the inside track.

But two researchers from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University are suggesting there may have been a rush to judgment, and that the evidence presented by the panel is deeply flawed. Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at Virginia, and J.J. Suh, an associate professor of Korean Studies at Johns Hopkins, have analyzed the findings of the Joint Civil-Military Investigation Group (JIG) and found them wanting. (japanfocus.org/articles/3382)

The JIG concluded that the Cheonan was ripped in two by an external explosion from a North Korean torpedo, which ROK naval units recovered. But according to Lee and Suh, those conclusions are “riddled with such serious flaws as to render the JIG’s conclusion unsustainable.” They even suggest that some of the X-ray data used to tie the torpedo to the explosion “may have been fabricated.”

Americans who watch television saw a sobering re-creation of the event in which an exploding torpedo’s powerful bubble destroyed a similar sized ship. But according to the two authors, the South Korean Navy has not been able to “produce a bubble simulation consistent with the information presented in the JIG report.” The simulations run by the JIG instead show a bubble forming, striking the ship, deforming the hull, and making a small rupture, not tearing the ship in half.

According to the authors, “If the bottom of the ship was hit by a bubble, it should show a spherical concave deformation resembling the shape of a bubble, as the JIG’s own simulation suggests, but it does not.” Instead, the damage seems more consistent with a “collision with a hard object.”

What is also missing is any sign of what is called the “pre-bubble shock wave,” nor does internal damage and crew casualties appear to be consistent with those inflicted by a shock wave.

Lee and Suh also take issue with the chemical and X-ray analysis of the residue on the hull that the JIG found to be consistent with the chemical signature of an explosion caused by the recovered torpedo. According to the authors, the “critical evidence” used by the JIG “to link the Cheonan sinking to the alleged explosion of the torpedo is scientifically groundless and perhaps fabricated.”

The two researchers also question the torpedo itself, and particularly a blue ink marking on the weapon spelling out “Hangul “in Korean. The torpedo’s deeply corroded surface is consistent with an explosion that would burn off the weapon’s protective paint. The only problem is that ink boils at a much lower point than paint, 150 degrees Celsius and 350 degrees Celsius respectively.  “This inconsistency—the high heat tolerant paint was burnt but the low heat tolerant ink was not—cannot be explained and casts serious doubt on the integrity of the torpedo as ‘critical evidence,’” write the two authors.

“While we emphatically note that our findings do not prove that North Korea did not do it, we conclude that the JIG has failed to prove that it did,” the authors argue. “The seriousness of the inconsistencies in fact casts doubt not only on the validity of the JIG conclusions but also on the integrity of its investigation.”

If North Korea didn’t sink the ship, who did? Maybe it was not a “who but a “what.” Some of the damage is consistent with a collision. Is there damage that might indicate an internal explosion? The DPRK certainly has a history of doing provocative things, but part of that reputation comes from the relentless demonization of Pyongyang. The North Koreans have always shown an affection for bombast, but they have been generally careful not to do something that would provoke a war.

It may turn out that the North Koreans did sink the Cheonan, but the evidence is hardly the slam-dunk it has been represented as in the media. And doubts about the DPRK’s guilt may well explain China’s reluctance to join in the pile-on condemnations of Pyongyang, as well as for the careful wording of the recent United Nations resolution that condemned the incident but avoided assigning blame.

What is clear is that in-house investigations are always open to suspicion. No matter what the Israeli’s handpicked panel to investigate the attack on a Turkish ship comes up with, it will have no credibility outside of Israel.

Lee and Suh conclude that “given the inconsistencies “ of the JIG investigation, the South Korean government should “re-open the investigation and form a new, and more objective” investigation. “The dead sailors deserve such a report. So does the international community.”

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Africa: No Butter but Lots of Guns

Africa: No Butter but Lots of Guns

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 9, 2010

The developed world has a message for Africa: “Sorry, but we are reneging on our aid pledges made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland back in 2005, but we do have something for you—lots and lots of expensive things that go ‘bang’ and kill people.”

And that was indeed the message that came out of the G8-G20 meetings in Canada last month. The promise to add an extra $25 billion to a $50 billion aid package for the continent went a glimmering. Instead, the G8 will cut the $25 billion to $11 billion and the $50 billion to $38 billion. And don’t hold your breath that Africa will get even that much.

The G-8 consists of Britain, the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Japan, France, and Russia, although Moscow is not part of the aid pledge.

Canada’s Muskoka summit hailed “significant progress toward the millennium development goals”—the United Nations’ target of reducing poverty by 2015—but when it came time to ante up, everyone but the United Kingdom bailed. The Gleneagles pledge was to direct 0.51 percent of the G-8’s gross national income to aid programs by 2010. The UK came up to 0.56 percent, but the U.S. is at 0.2, Italy at 0.16, Canada at 0.3, Germany at 0.35, and France at 0.47. Rumor has it that France and Italy led the charge to water down the 2005 goals.

The shortfall, says Oxfam spokesman Mark Fried, is not just a matter of “numbers.” The aid figures “represent vital medicines, kids in school, help for women living in poverty and food for the hungry.”

AIDS activists are particularly incensed. “I see no point in beating around the bush,” said AIDS-Free World spokesman Stephen Lewis at a Toronto press conference. He charged that Obama Administration’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief “is being flat-lined for at least the next two years.” Lewis said AIDS groups were treating five million patients, but that another nine million needed to be in programs. “There are AIDS projects, run by other NGOs [non-governmental organizations], where new patients cannot be enrolled unless someone dies.”

But ifthe  poor, sick, and hungry are going begging, not so Africa’s militaries.

According to Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project, the White House is following the same policies as the Bush Administration vis-à-vis Africa. “Indeed, the Obama Administration is seeking to expand U.S. military activities on the continent even further,” says Volman.

In its 2011 budget, the White House asked for over $80 million in military programs for Africa, while freezing or reducing aid packages aimed at civilians.

The major vehicle for this is the U.S.’s African Command (AFRICOM) founded in 2008. Through the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, AFRICOM is training troops from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad. The supposed target of all this is the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb (AQIM), but while AQIM is certainly troublesome—it sets off bombs and kidnaps people— it is small, scattered, and doesn’t pose a serious threat to any of the countries involved.

The worry is that the various militaries being trained by AFRICOM could end up being used against internal dissidents. Tuaregs, for instance, are engaged in a long-running, low-level insurgency against the Mali government, which is backing a French plan to mine uranium in the Sahara. Might Morocco use the training to attack the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara? Mauritanians complain that the “terrorist” label has been used to jail political opponents of the government.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said the U.S. was seeking to bolster Nigeria’s “ability to combat violent extremism within its borders.”  That might put AFRICOM in the middle of a civil war between ruling elites in Lagos and their transnational oil company allies, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta, which is demanding an end to massive pollution and a fair cut of oil revenues.

The National Energy Policy Development Groups estimates that by 2015 as much as 25 percent of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa.

So far, AFRICOM’s track record has been one disaster after another. It supported Ethiopia’s intervention in the Somalia civil war, and helped to overthrow the moderate Islamic Courts Union. It is now fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a far more extremist grouping, the al-Shabaab. AFRICOM also helped coordinate a Ugandan Army attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—Operation Lightning Thunder— that ended up killing thousands of civilians.

The U.S. has been careful to keep a low profile in all this. “We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked,” Volman quotes one U.S. AFRICOM officer, “We want Africans to go in.”

And presumably get “whacked.”

AFRICOM’s Operation Flintlock 2010, which ran from May 3-22, was based in Burkina Faso. Besides the militaries of 10 African nations, it included 600 U.S. Special Forces and elite units from France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Yes, there are other arms pushers out there, and the list reads like an economic who’s who: France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Sweden, and Israel. Some 70 percent of the world’s arms trade is aimed at developing countries.

So, is AFRICOM about fighting terrorism, or oil, gas and uranium? Nicole Lee, the executive director of Trans Africa, the leading African American organization focusing on Africa has no doubts: “This [AFRICOM] is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab.”

And who actually benefits from this militarization of the continent? As Nigerian journalist Dulue Mbachu warns,  “Increased U.S. military presence in Africa may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to its interests, as was the case during the Cold War, while Africa slips further into poverty.”

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Crazy Talk in the Middle East

Crazy Talk in the Middle East

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

6-23-2010

Trying to track—let alone make sense—of recent developments around Iran is enough to make one reach for that stuff they just found lots of in Afghanistan: lithium. While the element is essential for a host of electronics, it is also a standard treatment for bipolar behavior.

Take the issue of Iran’s missile force. The conservative International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London concluded that the threat the missiles pose to Israel, the U.S. or its allies has been vastly overstated. “While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low—probably less than a few hundred,” the study found. Iran’s Shehab-1 and 2 cannot even reach Israel, and it will be at least three years before the longer range Shahab-3B and Sejjil-2 are deployed. In any case, according to the study, the missiles are inaccurate.

But while the IISS was pooh-poohing the danger, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Europe was threatened by “hundreds” of Iranian missiles, although Iran doesn’t have a missile that can come close to hitting Europe. Gates was on Capitol Hill pumping the Obama administration’s new sea and land-based “ phased adaptive approach” to missile defense.

In the meantime, the U.S. was sending an aircraft carrier and almost a dozen support ships into the Red Sea. Rumor has it that the fleet will try to intercept Gaza aid ships organized by the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Several Israeli submarines are current deployed in the Gulf of Iran as well, along with a newly arrived surface warship. While it seems extremely unlikely that the U.S. would actually try to halt the Iranian ships, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “ I don’t think that Iran’s intentions vis-à-vis Gaza are benign.”

The London Times reported that the Israelis and the Americans had come to an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow Israeli warplanes to cross the desert kingdom without being challenged on their way to bomb nuclear sites in Iran. While Riyadh called the story “slanderous, the Times was holding to its sources in the Israeli and U.S. militaries. And Tzahi Hanegbi, chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said that “time was running out” for Iran. And Israeli Natural Security advisor Uzi Arad told a gathering of the Jewish Agency that he thought the international community would support an Israeli attack on Ian. “I don’t see anyone who questions the legality of this or the legitimacy.”

As I said, people are talking very crazy these days in the Middle East.

If Israeli planes did decide to bomb targets in Iran, conventional thinking is they would hit enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom, a gas storage unit at Isfahan and the heavy-water reactor at Arak. Planes might also target the light-water reactor at Bushehr. To do so, of course, would require crossing Jordanian and Saudi airspace, but there is very little either country could do about it. Challenging the Israelis in the air is a very bad idea.

Even with mid-flight refueling, it would be a stretch, but it would be hard to knock out Iranian targets using just their missile firing submarines. Unless, of course, the Israelis are willing to cross the Hiroshima-Nagasaki line and use nuclear warheads. It seems like madness, but then some people are talking pretty crazy these days.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor article, “Does Israel suffer from ‘Iranophobia’?”, reporter Scott Peterson examines the Israeli mindset and found some pretty scary things. “There’s something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat,” says Haggai Ram, a professor at Ben Gurion University and author of “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession.”

Iran is perhaps the most central issue [in Israel], yet there is really no critical debate about this,” says Ram, and for those Israelis who do challenge the idea that Iran is an “existential threat” to Israel, “they are immediately rendered into these bizarre self-defeating, self-hating Jews, and seen as a fifth column.”

According to Ram, “For Israelis, anti-Iran is a consensus. You don’t have to be a neoconservative to wish for the destruction of Iran.” Polls show that Prime Minister Netanyahu is growing in popularity, and that Israelis are circling the wagons on everything from the attack on the Gaza flotilla to the embargo of Gaza Strip.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has also said that one day “Israel will vanish,” but much of his bombast is for internal consumption and the need to divert people from the economic crisis at home. Netanyahu’s comparison of Ahmadinejad to Hitler, and of the current situation to 1939, serves much the same purpose. Focusing on Iran keeps the world’s eyes away from the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands and the strangulation of Gaza.

How much of this is real is hard to sort out. The U.S. talks about Iran as a “threat,” even though Iran has neither the military nor the economic capabilities to inflict serious damage on Americans. Iran can also talk about Israel vanishing, but can do nothing to actually facilitate that. Even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, to use it would be national suicide, and the Iranians have never exhibited a desire for self-destruction.

The danger is that rhetoric and bombast can create its own reality and lead to a mistake. The Israeli attack on the Turkish ship was just that. When people with nuclear weapons talk in apocalyptic language, it’s something to pay attention to.

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Turkey, the U.S, and Empire’s Twilight

Turkey, the U.S, and Empire’s Twilight

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

6-25-2010

When U.S. forces found themselves beset by a growing insurgency in Iraq following their lighting overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the most obvious parallel that came to mind was Vietnam: an occupying army, far from home, besieged by a shadowy foe. But Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s (UK) ace Middle East reporter, suggested that the escalating chaos was more like the Boar War than the conflict in Southeast Asia.

It was a parallel that went past most Americans, very few of whom know anything about the short, savage turn of the century war between Dutch settlers and the British Empire in South Africa. But the analogy explains a great deal about the growing influence of a country like Turkey, and why Washington, despite its military power and economic clout, can no longer dominate regional and global politics.

Take the current tension in U.S. –Turkish relations around Iran and Israel.

The most common U.S. interpretation of the joint Turkish-Brazilian peace plan for Iran, as well as Ankara’s falling out with Israel over the latter’s assault on the Gaza flotilla, is that Turkey is “looking East.” Rationales run the gamut from rising Islamicism, to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ explanation that the West alienated Turkey when it blocked Ankara from joining the European Union (EU).

While Turkey’s rise does indeed reflect internal developments in that country, its growing influence mirrors the ebb of American power, a consequence of the catastrophic policies Washington has followed in the Middle East and Central Asia.

From Ankara’s point of view, it is picking up the tab for the chaos in Iraq, the aggressive policies of the Israeli government, and the growing tensions around the Iranian nuclear program. As Sedat Laciner, director of the International Strategic Resource Center in Ankara, told the New York Times, “The Western countries do things and Turkey pays the bill.”

While the Cold War is over, argues Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “a new global” order has yet to emerge. Until those “mechanisms” are in place, “It will therefore fall largely to nation-states to meet and create solutions for the global political, cultural, and economic turmoil.”

Davutoglu’s observation about “a new global” order is an implicit critique of a United Nations’ Security Council dominated by the veto power of the “Big Five”: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China. Increasingly countries like Turkey, Brazil and India are unhappy with the current setup, and either want a place at the table or a reduction of the Council’s power. The latest Iran sanctions passed 12 to 2 to 1 in the Council. They would have failed in the General Assembly.

Internally, Turkey is putting its house in order. It has returned the once all-powerful army—four coups in as many decades— to the barracks, shifted power away from Istanbul elites to central and eastern Turkey, eased up on domestic repression, and even begun coming to terms with its large Kurdish minority. Legislation before the parliament would allow Kurdish language television stations and establish a commission to fight discrimination.

Externally, Turkey is following what Davutoglu calls a “zero problem foreign policy.” It has buried the hatchet with Syria, and reached out to Iraq’s Kurds. Of the 1200 companies working in Iraq’s Kurdistan, half are Turkish, and cross border trade is projected to reach $20 billion this year. And the Kurds have something Ankara wants: 45 billion barrels in oil reserves and plentiful natural gas.

Turkey has expanded ties with Iran and worked closely with Russia on energy and trade. It has even tried to thaw relations with Armenia. It has mediated between Damascus and Tel Aviv, brokered peace talks between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and Serbians and Bosnians in the Balkans, and tried to reduce tension in the Caucasus. It has also opened 15 embassies in Africa and two in Latin America.

Its foreign policy is “multi-dimensional ” says Davutoglu, which “means that good relations with Russia are not an alternative to relations with the EU,” an explicit repudiation of the zero-sum game diplomacy that characterized the Cold War.

Turkey’s ascendancy is partly a reflection of a political vacuum in the Middle East. The U.S.’s traditional allies in the region, like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly isolated, distracted by economic troubles, paranoid about internal opposition, and nervous about Iran.

This growing influence has not been well received by the U.S., particularly the recent deal to enrich Iran’s nuclear fuel. But from the Turks’ point of view, the nuclear compromise was an effort to ratchet down tensions in a volatile neighborhood. Turkey is no more in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons than is the U.S., but as Laciner says, it also doesn’t “want another Iraq.”

Of course there is an element of self-interest here. Turkey gets 20 percent of its gas and oil from Iran, and Tehran is increasingly a valuable trading partner. Indeed, Turkey, Iran and Syria are considering forming a trade group that would also include Iraq.

Ankara’s falling out with Israel is attributed to the growth of Islam, but while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party does have a streak of Islamicism, Turkey’s anger at Israel is over policy not religion. The current Israeli government has no interest in resolving its dispute with the Palestinians, and leading members of the Netanyahu coalition have threatened war with Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

A war with any of those countries might go regional, and could even turn nuclear if the Israelis find their conventional weapons are not up to the job of knocking out their opponents.

Ankara has much to lose from war and everything to gain from nurturing regional trade agreements and building political stability. Turkey has the 16th largest economy in the world and seventh largest in Europe.

Turkey has begun working closely with other nations who would also benefit from a reduction in international tension. Ankara’s partnership with Brasilia is no accident. Like Turkey, Brazil’s economy is humming, and Brazil has been key in knitting together Mercosur, the third largest trade organization in the world. It has also played no small part in helping South America to become one of the most peaceful regions in the world.

The U.S., on the other hand, has drawn widespread anger for its support of the Honduran government, expanding its military bases in Colombia, and its increasingly unpopular war on drugs. If much of the world concludes that regional powers like Turkey and Brazil are centers of stability, while the U.S. seems increasingly ham fisted or ineffectual, one can hardly blame them.

The British eventually triumphed in the 1899-1902 Boar War, but what was predicted to be a cakewalk for the most powerful military in the world turned into the longest and most expensive of Britain’s colonial wars. In the end the British won only by herding Boar women and children into concentration camps, where 28,000 of them died of starvation and disease.

All over the colonial world people took notice: a ragtag guerrilla force had fought the mighty British army to a stalemate. The Boar War exposed the underlying weakness of the British Empire, just as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the era when powerful countries could use force to dominate a region or the globe is over.

The world is not going to take the diktats of the powers that have run it for the past two or three hundred years,” political scientist Soli Ozel of Bilgi University in Istanbul told the Financial Times.

–30–

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