Archive for February, 2008


Iraq: Recent Shia Ceasefire

February 27, 2008

Fickle Alliance or Military Success?

By Mark C. Partridge

27 February 2008:
Violence in Iraq has fallen in recent months. Supporters of President George W. Bush, as well as analysts, have pointed to the build up in U.S. forces as one of the main reasons for the positive developments. However, there have been a number of other factors that have helped lightened the pall of daily suicide attacks and sectarian strife.

One major component has been the decision by radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to “suspend” his Mahdi Army’s assaults on U.S. and Sunni forces, which he recently extended by another six months. While Sadr’s ceasefire has not been adhered to by all of his followers, the cessation of attacks by the largest Shia militia-along with the U.S. Army’s larger footprint in the country-has allowed American forces to focus on other groups in Iraq such as Al Qa’eda.

This Shia ceasefire has been matched by a corresponding Sunni ceasefire, which has commonly become known as the Awakening. In an intriguing article in Rolling Stone, Nir Rosen outlines some of the details behind this dramatic turnaround:

“Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides-and [commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq-it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq’s central government.”

According to Rosen, there are at least 80,000-mainly Sunni-men who are on the payroll of the U.S. (This NPR report gives some more information about these U.S. financed groups.) In the short term, this strategy looks to have been particularly effective in neutralizing Al Qa’eda and tamping down the violence-and some might argue it has been more effective than the surge itself.

But what of the long term? As Rosen points out, “loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle.”

There is certainly historical proof to back up this claim. Whether is was the U.S.’s financing of the mujahideens’ war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, or the British Crown’s backing of privateers against the Spanish in 17th century, the group that you support today will not always be on your side tomorrow. There is certainly a risk that these Sunni groups will use the money, weapons, and training that they are getting now to attack U.S. troops and Shias in the future.

Another risk is that the Sunni Awakening and the Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire are simply ways for the two sides to regroup, strengthen vis-à-vis each other, and bide their time until the U.S. military has fewer troops on the ground. If this is the case, the U.S. can still use the lull to try and avert the storm-even if the ultimate prize of Iraqi political progress, in the words of Gen. Petraeus, “not worked out as we had hoped.”

Therefore, in as far as the surge has been a success, these gains can be attributed not so much to the increased number of boots and guns on the ground, but to diplomatic initiatives that have splintered enemy alliances and fostering ceasefires. But the question at this point is: can these positive developments be sustained through the drawdown in U.S. troop levels-especially given the strain being felt by the American military machine? Or, are bought alliances simply too fickle?

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Fidel Castro gives up his seat, but is he giving up his power?

February 25, 2008

By Pedro Vargas

25 February 2008: Cuban leader Fidel Castro did not die while in office. After a year and a half ill, he announced his official resignation last week anointing his brother, Raul Castro as his successor. But this is not the last we see or hear of Fidel Castro; he may have given up his seat but not his power.

Cuba is one of the last few countries still organized politically and economically communist. Even though, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro tried a few free-market oriented policies, the economy was always centralized by the state.

What is expected of Cuba after almost 50 years of communism? Leaders around the world are asking for a peaceful transition towards democracy and free market economics. Is this realistic with Fidel Castro and his old guard still in the shadows? Even with his resignation, Fidel Castro will continue to control-to some degree-behind the scenes.

So what then, of Fidel Castro’s resignation?

The most possible scenario is that life for Cubans will continue in the same way. With Fidel Castro alive nobody in the government or civil society will dare to ask or push for real reforms. Cubans are aware that dissent will be punished with jail or death. The economy will continue to be state-controlled and the repressive political regime will continue with Raul at the forefront and Fidel in the background.

But when Fidel dies, his brother Raul and the other “comrades” of the Cuban Communist Party will not have the muscle to exercise the kind of repressive and absolute power that Fidel Castro has exercised all these years. Only then, will there be time for real change in Cuba.

People inside and outside the island will ask for reforms and the Cuban government will have to answer for how that will be done. Overnight, as they were done in many of the Eastern European countries?  Or follow China’s example, become a more open economy with a communist regime still reigning?  The most realistic option would be the slow transition towards democracy and the free market. The West and the U.S. could help with the latter.

Cubans inside and outside the island are getting ready for the day when they can demand real changes for Cuba. They will not want those changes in a slow pace. The international community should be ready when this happens as it will not be an easy or smooth transition. Fidel Castro’s resignation has created a scenario in which the final battle for real change in Cuba will be staged.


Iraq Beyond the Headlines

February 21, 2008

Uncovering the individuals and groups at the heart of the insurgency in Iraq

By John Bavoso 

21 February, 2008: It seems that not a day goes by without hearing a report on a cable news program or reading a story in a newspaper which references a tragedy in Iraq and identifies its source “insurgents.” While the notion of the insurgency in Iraq is becoming more and more ubiquitous in the international media, its actual nature and the individuals which comprise it continue to be abstract concepts to most people. In order to truly understand what’s happening “on the ground” in Iraq, one must break down this single term which encapsulates a large number of groups and positions into its diverse and mysterious parts.

One of the key components comprising this movement is also the one with the most historical importance. Iraqi tribes, the power and influence of which are embodied in their sheiks, represent simultaneously a tool to be used by Coalition forces in controlling the periphery and a threat to the new central government’s hold over rural areas.

Tribes and tribal groupings were extremely important in Iraq during the time of the Hashemite monarchy, to the point where many considered them to be a major pillar which held the monarchy up. When the Ba’thists came to power in 1963, they immediately began trying to eradicate the sheiks, considering them to be vestiges of the past and challenges to the central government’s authority among the peasants. Part of this strategy was to keep any mention of the sheiks out of the mass media. There was, however, a distinct shift in 1991, when the tribes were given more attention in the national media and by 2003 Saddam Hussein had officially recognized about 7,200 sheiks and held them firmly under his control.

By the time the Unites States invaded, however, the tribes were harboring ill will towards Al-Qaeda and were open to working with Coalition officials. By 2005, the Coalition had figured out a way to systematically engage tribal leaders to make their job easier. Experts in the field, however, warn that the United States and its allies must be careful to strike a delicate balance. “You are riding a tiger. It is a kind of art,” says Dr. Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, Israel, “they are the blade runners between the central government and the tribes, and between the tribes themselves.”

The second component central to the insurgency is made up of both a charismatic individual and his loyal followers. This group is known as the Sadrists, a Shia Islamist political party led by Muqtada al-Sadr, an important Iraqi religious and political figure. Al-Sadr’s ultimate goal is to become a supreme Islamic leader and in the short-term is vying for control of Iraq’s government.

Those monitoring and studying al-Sadr’s progress, such as Dr. Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, draw attention to that fact that at this moment al-Sadr’s quest is “essentially stalled.” This is because there are two routes one could take to reach this position: to become a mujtahid, or Islamic scholar who makes decisions based on interpretations of Islamic law, or a muqallid, a jurist authorized to make rulings based on the judgments of mujtahids. Right now, al-Sadr is technically neither, though he appears to be taking steps towards remedying this situation.

Scholars such as Dr. Visser are choosing to pay special attention to the future of this movement and how it will affect the Coalition’s attempts to establish stability within the region. He advises that the Coalition should “deal with the Sadrists independently rather than allowing the Iraqi government to serve as an intermediary,” since the government is often caught up in in-Shia politicking.

Finally, there are the groups most commonly referred to as insurgent groups. These factions can be divided into unique groups with different goals and outlooks and broad trends simultaneously affecting them all can be identified. Sam Parker, a program officer at the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, has identified three such trends.

The first trend is what Parker refers to as “The Great Consolidation,” or the process of diverse insurgent groups coming together to form four distinct entities. These groups include: The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Qaeda, which have a broad international Islamist focus; The Political Council of Iraqi Resistance which represents the coming together of at least six disparate insurgent groups focusing solely on resisting the new Iraq government; The Front for Jihad and Change which is a coalition of eight factions and refer to themselves as the “Iraqi Patriots”; and The High Command of Jihad and Liberation, which is essentially a Ba’athist group in all but name.

The second trend is that there has been a general turn in sentiment against Al-Qaeda by the other groups as a result of perceived aggression on Al-Qaeda’s part.

Finally, the third trend is that all of these groups are moving away from merely reactionary violence and adopting legitimate and thought-out political platforms and goals.

While the task to try to comprehend such a nuanced and complex movement is daunting, it is a necessary step towards discovering the truth about what’s happening in Iraq so we may better address security issues in the country.


Kosovo Independence

February 19, 2008

By Mark C. Partridge

19 February 2008: Kosovo’s long-anticipated declaration of independence from Serbia finally arrived this week amid much fanfare.

President George W. Bush proclaimed to the world’s newest nation, “the United States will be your partner and your friend.” Russia, on the other hand, was less pleased by these developments and declared the move “unacceptable.” Serbia promptly recalled its ambassadors from Washington, France and Turkey.

While London, Paris and Rome were quick to recognize Pristina’s independence, others in Europe are concerned about the precedent that could be set. Asia is similarly worried. The great concern is that Kosovo’s newly found sovereignty will spark a string of similar breakaways by disgruntled peoples in Canada, Spain, Georgia, etc.

European and U.S. officials assert that the Kosovo situation is unique and should not be replicated. Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times international affairs columnist, agrees:

For me, the Kosovo declaration is reminiscent of East Timor’s declaration of independence from Indonesia. In both cases, the new countries were so small and economically fragile that statehood seemed – on logical grounds – distinctly ill-advised. But – in both cases – their entanglement with the country that they were breaking free from was so full of blood and bitterness, that independence eventually looked like the only feasible option.

Here, Rachman touches on an important issue: Kosovo’s economic fragility. Unemployment in the nascent state stands at around 40%. The country is landlocked and according to the World Bank, around 45% of the population live in poverty – and 15% in extreme poverty. Furthermore, foreign aid in the amount of nearly $1 billion accounted for 29% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2006 according to the UN mission in Kosovo. This picture is pretty bleak and any road to stability and prosperity will be a long and arduous one.

As alluded to by Rachman, economic hardship and violence have been inextricably linked in Kosovo. While he talks about violence in the past tense, economic problems can easily lead to tension and conflict. East Timor is indeed a good example. According to a 2004 World Bank report, “unemployment in [East Timor’s capital] Dili was estimated at 23% and youth unemployment at 40%, rising to 58% for the 15-19 age group.” The World Bank goes on to note: “With half the population under 18, urban youth unemployment and its associated problems will increase unless vigorous growth in the non-oil sectors can be created.” [Emphasis added] These “associated problems” (read: unrest) lead to the displacement of 150,000 people from Dili in 2006, and just last week the country’s president, Jose Ramos-Horta, was shot in his own home by rebel soldiers.

The implication is clear. To be a successful, Kosovo (and all states, for that matter) must be economically viable. All the talk about freedom is well and good, but what steps will states take to ensure that Kosovo can survive, and eventually thrive? This question is an especially tricky one for the European Union, which is by far Pristina’s largest aid donor. There is also the seeming paradox of Serbia, which according to its president, Boris Tadic, will continue to pursue EU membership, while opposing Kosovo’s independence.

On this divisive issue, what policies can diplomats and politicians put in place to ensure peace and prosperity in the Balkans – not just between nations, but within nations? What must Kosovo do to help itself? And finally, how will this issue be used by the likes of Russia, which is looking to reassert its authority in its former Soviet sphere?


Iran and Nuclear Developments

February 13, 2008

By Mark C. Partridge

13 February 2008: The process of isolating Iran, both economically and politically, in an attempt to stop Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear power-which it claims are for peaceful purposes-has been an arduous and, thus far, unsuccessful one. For every step forward, there have been corresponding, and seemingly inevitable, reverses.

Negotiations on the Iranian issue have been made difficult largely by two factors: the number of players that have a vested interest in this dispute and Iran’s petroleum reserves.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it is thus far been impossible to maintain a united front. The results have been chaotic and often innocuous. On the one hand, nation-states have been in conflict with one another. U.S. President George W. Bush has asserted that “all options are on the table.” But last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to the region and retorted: “It is futile to frighten Iran and its people,” and declared the country’s rights to pursue “peaceful nuclear activities.”

In another instance, it was multilateral institutions that bugled proceeding; while the international community eventually came together to pass sanctions against the country, the International Atomic Energy Agency stepped in and reached a deal whereby Tehran would answer questions about its previously shrouded nuclear history-a deal that western diplomats saw as pulling the rug from under their feet.

Domestic interagency feuds are also playing their part to derail the sanctions effort. Late last year, as negotiations on a third round of sanctions against Iran were moving forward at the United Nations, the U.S. intelligence community released its now famous National Intelligence Report – reportedly despite the efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney-which many have speculated was an effort to stop another march to war. (I should note that the British intelligence community has yet to agree with the American assessment, despite analysing the same data.) The NIE report has made the sanctions effort an up-hill battle, and led to a watering down of a third U.N. resolution and allowed the likes of Russia and China to continue with their business dealings with Iran.

With the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, the United Nations, the IAEA, China, Russia and all the other players that are involved in this dispute, coming up with a consistent policy towards Tehran has been an impossibility. It is little wonder that the Persian state has continued with its uranium enrichment in the face of “international pressure.”

Secondly, Iran’s oil and natural gas reserves-third largest and second largest in the world, respectively-have been used by Tehran to weaken and circumvent all efforts to constrain and punish the country. Only days after the release of the NIE, Iran signed $2 billion oil deal with China’s Sinopec. Beijing has also indicated its willingness to take part in a major pipeline project that would bring Iranian gas through Pakistan to the Middle Kingdom. The pressures of maintaining the economic blossoming that is being seen in Asia and the Middle East at the moment is trumping the heartfelt efforts of the U.S. and its western allies, and is another indication that realpolitik is the foreign policy de jour.

As of last week though, we can add a new obstacle to the list. According to reports, Iranian engineers have developed a new type of centrifuge, an integral component in the development of nuclear fuel, which is “more ingenious” than the current P-1 model in use today. Much of Iran’s nuclear program has relied on technologies and designs acquired from the Pakistani A.Q. Khan network. But this disclosure shows that Iran has more domestic knowledge and expertise than was previous thought-and draw into question the assumptions and conclusions of the NIE.

There looks to be one constraining factor: Iran would likely need to import parts from abroad. This means that sanctions still have a part to play as inspections and trade restrictions could stop Tehran from acquiring the necessary parts-despite the fact it has the know-how to enrich uranium. Add to this the fact that Russia has recently made public its concern about Iran’s launch of a rocket, and Germany’s efforts to tamp down its business ties with the country.

The question that remains to be answered is the one that has been hanging over this affair from the beginning: Are these developments a step towards a united international community that will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear technology, or will the obstacles enumerated above be enough for Iran to facture its enemies?

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