Archive for March, 2009

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Are Extremes the Only Options for the Fight in Afghanistan?

March 30, 2009
President Obama announcing US strategy for AfPak. Behind stands his NSC. From Left: Bruce Reidel, chairman of the interagency review; Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; James Jones, NS Advisor; Secretary Clinton; Secretary Gates; Michelle Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to AfPak (Getty Photo)

President Obama announcing US strategy for AfPak. Behind stands his NSC. From Left: Bruce Reidel, chairman of the interagency review; Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; James Jones, NS Advisor; Secretary Clinton; Secretary Gates; Michelle Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to AfPak; VP Biden absent. (Getty Photo)

Last Friday President Obama announced the results of a strategy review that was underway for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan (shortnamed AfPak). The President had made vague commitments during the presidential campaign to the fight in Afpak, but he had avoided describing the exact shape of his policy until the NSC review was completed (read his strategy report here).

But the timing of the strategy’s unveiling last Friday was no routine affair. It comes just before the President is scheduled to fly to Europe for meetings with the Russian President, G20, NATO, and EU officials, et al. It comes also just before the Hague conference on Afghan reconstruction and coordination where Secretary Clinton is set to appear and also be joined by officials from Iran. Question is: has the President outlined a winning strategy? And if so, will other countries get on board to support it?

The answer to the first is the 64 thousand dollar question. Obama’s strategy is notable not so much for what it does, as for it what doesn’t. It doesn’t expand the US military presence greatly. In a losing fight with an insurgency military logic requires either to go big, or to get out. Intermediate positions are thought to accept all the risk with none of the rewards. That was the reasoning behind President Bush’s decision to surge troops into Iraq in 2007. President Obama however decided not to order more than the additional 17 thousand troops to Afghanistan, despite the request for at least 30 thousand. He will concede another 4 thousand troops to deploy, but only into non-combat training posts. Their mission will be to rapidly scale up the Afghan army and police forces, perhaps to 400 thousand in number, double the current size (read here).

This is clearly a compromise position. Compromises may for good politics. It is not as certain that they make for good war strategy. And the political calculation can be discerned elsewhere. The mission object is defined as “counter-terrorism” even though not a single policy described in the report fits that bill. Instead most everything falls either into the category of counter-insurgent, counter-narcotics, nation-building, or diplomacy. The ends therefore appear divorced from the means. The gap between is probably explained by the desire for message management. That at least seems to be the bargain reached in tough internal deliberations within the national security council (read here). The generals seem to have lost the argument. The hope is they don’t also lose the fight.

The strategy release was more than a statement of intent however. It was also meant to signal to foreign nations the US is committed but is in need of help. Can Iran be convinced to join the effort? Will Afghanistan and Pakistan finally coordinate more closely? Or NATO countries be persuaded to commit more men and money? Will Central Asian states expand their cooperation with transit and overflight? And can “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban be peeled away from the insurgency? The outcome here is indispensable for US success in the AfPak war.

It is early to know, but first indications suggest mixed results. President Karzai and Zardari both praised Obama’s strategy—a good sign (read here). And rumors are that some European states would be willing to promise additional resources to Afghanistan. But there is also reports that the Taliban may be consolidating politically against Obama’s counter-offensive into AfPak (read here). If true, this would be a certain setback if it cannot be undone.

There is no decisive military victory to be won in the AfPak fight. So watch the diplomatic front to see what victories Obama can score.

by an Unashamed Armchair General

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Are Sino-Russian Military Modernizations the Spearhead of a new Arms Race?

March 28, 2009
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev addressing the top brass of the Russian military. His speech outlined a large rearmament program. (Getty Photo)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev addressing the top brass of the Russian military. His speech outlined a large rearmament program. (Getty Photo)

Two weeks ago President Medvedev announced his countries program for military modernization (read here). The changes include money to transform the military into a more lean, agile, expeditionary force (read here). China’s military too was in the news (read here). On Friday the US released its annual assessment of China’s military. The report repeats its conclusions from years prior: that China is rapidly growing its military, and seems to be adopting weapons designed to counter a US air and naval operation (read the report here).

Modernization is not necessarily mobilization. But Russia and China are considered the near peers of the US in military capacity. Question is: are the modernization programs cause for US apprehension? Do they implicitly challenge US military supremacy?

The answer is likely no. The speech by President Medvedev is another in a long process to try and reform the Russian military, perhaps the single most stubborn bureaucracy in the world. The army is still organized on plans for a confrontation with NATO. And draws it soldiers mostly from conscription, not voluntary service. Medvedev’s speech was intended to make clear that the military will go forward with a cut in the size of the Russian army. In exchange new money will be available in 2011 for equipment to offset the force-reduction.

Similar for China. Though not renovating the whole house like the Russian military, China is conducing its own military home improvement. The People’s army was designed for the purpose of internal security. Its new priorities focus on fighting at the Taiwan straits. Anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapon systems together with a new generation of ballistic missiles all suggest a strategy of deterrence and denial. The object is certainly the US, but the strategy is inherently defensive, not offensive, like a large surface-ship building program.

The modernizations therefore don’t appear belligerent, but that doesn’t mean they are harmless. The decade before the First World War relations between Britain and Germany soured with the decision to expand the size of the German battleship fleet. For precisely this reason Britain organized a treaty in 1922—the Five Power Treaty—to regulate the number of capitol ships operated by the great states and preempt another arms race. A problem of a similar kind helped push the US and Russia into the Cold War when mutual suspicions caused a frantic rush for missiles and warheads capable of waging full nuclear war. Several test-ban, limitation, and reduction treaties have since been agreed, and the problem of the nuclear arsenal still remains an outstanding issue. Are the modernization programs of today a repeat of the same process?

It’s a little early yet to say. Military relations between the US and China at the moment appear cordial. But earlier this month a confrontation between US and Chinese ships near Hainan island renewed mistrust. Could be that military embassies are ultimately inadequate to restore confidence. If so, a treaty like that of 1922 might be needed to headoff another arms race.

by a Shameless Advocate for Arms-Control

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Is the Dalai Lama’s Diplomacy in Complete Disrepute?

March 26, 2009
File Photo. The current Dalai Lama (left), as a young adult, meets with Mao Zedong (right) at the National Peoples Congress in 1954. Five years later the Dalai Lama would flee. A meeting between the two offices has not occurred since. (AP Photo)

File Photo. The current Dalai Lama (left), as a young adult, meets with Mao Zedong (right) at the National Peoples Congress in 1954. Five years later the Dalai Lama would flee. A meeting between the two offices has not occurred since. (AP Photo)

Thousands of Chinese soldiers have been deployed into Tibet. The capitol Lhasa has been placed under strict martial order. The Dalai Lama, in an uncharacteristic moment of outrage, denounced the Chinese authorities and accused them of cheating on their promises (read here). Are the negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama near collapse? Has the Dalai Lama’s diplomatic strategy wholly failed? And if so, has he consigned his Tibetan people to a century of Chinese domination, disgrace, and the real risk of destruction?

Forced to flee his Tibetan homeland in 1959, the Dalai Lama has been without the resources of a kingdom of his own, and without a powerful patron-state to support his cause. That not to mention China is the counterpart to the negotiations—the up-in-coming power of the day—and the Dalai Lama should enjoy the maximum latittude when assessing the success of his diplomacy.

Certainly he should. But even a diplomatic mulligan does not excuse the Dalai Lama from the lifelong bankruptcy of his Third Way to approaching China. Instead of total capitulation on the one side, or armed uprising on the other, the Dalai Lama has pursued a policy of dignified engagement. But he had little to offer the Chinese, and nothing to threaten.

Last summer, in the wake of an uprising throughout Tibetan-China, international attention at its height, and the Beijing Olympics near their anticipated start, the Dalai Lama was at the apogee of his power. Gordon Brown said he would boycott the Games in protest. Nicholas Sarkozy suggested he might, and then backtracked. The Dalai Lama asked for negotiations with Beijing, and he got them. A meeting was held in May, but with no result (read here). Further negotiations were scheduled, but none till after the finish of the Olympics. The Chinese temporized, and they won.

The Dalai Lama let the moment slip. His negotiations have produced nothing. Worse even, he has exposed the weakness of his strategy to foreign leaders. South Africa has said it will not permit the Dalai Lama to visit so close to the 2010 World Cup (read here). Insult to injury. And the Indians have made a show of suppressing pro-Tibet activists at events and marches (read here). India’s support is indispensable to the success of Tibet’s cause. A shift in New Delhi from diffidence to distrust is all that stands between government-in-exile and complete political oblivion for the Dalai Lama’s movement.

Of course the Dalai Lama himself has won all kinds of political commendations, including the Nobel Peace Prize. His concession that he seeks only autonomy for Tibet, not independence, was prudent, though tactically risky. But the final lack of results and continuing embarrassment have proven the true insolvency of diplomacy by Third Way. The Dalai Lama is no Gandhi, and pacific diplomacy will not be enough to convince the cold realists who rule in Beijing. The Dalai Lama’s idealism may win him awards and honors, but they come at a cost: the collapse of his cause and the freedom of the Tibetan people.

by a Jealous Reincarnation that was passed-over for Dalai Lama

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Have the Criminal Proceedings Against Bashir Backfired?

March 24, 2009
Sudanese President Bashir (left) and Eritrean President Afwerki (right) at a news conference Monday in Asmara, Eritrea. Bashir returned to Sudan before days end. (Reuters Photo)

Sudanese President Bashir (left) and Eritrean President Afwerki (right) at a news conference Monday in Asmara, Eritrea. Bashir returned to Sudan before days end. (Reuters Photo)

Almost three weeks have past since the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In that time what progress has been made?

Apparently none. Worse even, the situation seems to be moving backward. Last week it was announced that Sudan would expel thirteen aid agencies operating in Darfur—a serious blow to a region of the world that hosts one of the largest populations of refugees (read here). What’s more, Bashir seems to enjoy renewed political standing as the African who defied Western arrogance. And if Bashir has become stronger, the ICC, because of its impotence to act, may itself be weaker.

Beforehand there was certainly concern that Bashir might be too big a fish to fry. The larger concern however was that justice for Bashir would come at the expense of peace in Sudan. That would be an unhappy trade. But worse than that even would be the achievement of neither justice nor peace. Is that the situation the ICC has created?

Truth is it is too early to say. If the ICC made the first move, the ball is now in Bashir’s court. From the look of recent developments he seems ready to swing back. Yesterday President Bashir traveled to Eritrea on an unannounced official visit (read here). He discussed business shortly and then return to Khartoum before the days end. The trip marked the first beyond Sudan’s borders since the ICC issued its warrant.

Coincident with the trip news broke that Sudan will be dispatching three delegations to lobby members states of the UN Security Council to defer the ICC prosecution (read here). Though it is doubtful such an effort could ultimately produce a deferment, or less likely an end of the prosecution entirely, the significance of the mission reveals both Bashir’s resolve and also his inclination to broaden the ICC warrant as an issue. The dispute will center not on whether Bashir is innocent of war crimes in Darfur; rather the counterclaim is that the ICC has overreached its authority and unlawfully impinged upon the sovereignty of Sudan. Question is: how much traction will this get? Will this persuade other countries to assist Bashir? And if so, how actively will they advance his cause?

The answer of course is too early yet to say. But if Western nations refuse to negotiate in the Council, Bashir could up the stakes by fomenting trouble in Darfur. How will states respond?

An early indication will be President Bashir’s future foreign visits. Will he travel far and wide even at the risk of his arrest? A meeting of the Arab League is scheduled for the end of March in Doha, Qatar. Rumors are swirling that Bashir will go others that he will not. Will he spurn international sanction and travel to the Gulf? Watch for how this story will unfold.

by a Miscreant Member of the International Community

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How Deep Does the Ergenekon Conspiracy Go?

March 22, 2009
Marchers outside Instabul dennouncing alleged members of the Ergenekon conspiracy. Banner features images of some of the suspected members. Banner caption reads "The plot will be foiled, U.S.A will lose, Turkey will win". (AP Photo)

Marchers outside Instabul denouncing the Ergenekon conspiracy. Banner features images of some suspected members. Banner caption reads "The plot will be foiled, U.S.A will lose, Turkey will win". (AP Photo)

Details surrounding the Ergenekon Network continues to trickle out. The latest are conversations between Turkish generals that suggest sharp division within the Army itself (read here). Is the Turkish military rent by intrigue and cabals? Is Ergenekon a modern-day Young Turk movement? And should Prime Minister Erdogan fear for his authority?

News of the secret Network first emerged last July when Turkish prosecutors announced they had made 86 arrests in connection with a coup plot against the government (read here).

Since then the size of the alleged conspiracy has grown. Caches of munitions connected with the plot have been uncovered. New suspects have been detained, including former Army generals, several of high station, one of whom was the former secretary general for Turkey’s national security council. Hearings in the investigation have been ongoing since October 2008. To date there have been no convictions in the case.

What does the incident reveal about Turkey’s politics? Opponents of the Ergenekon Network charge that the group is just another iteration in the military’s efforts to frustrate civilian rule. The army has forced a change in government four times since the dissolution of Ottoman rule, the most recent in 1997 when the military pressured the Prime Minister to resign. The military they say is inherently anti-democratic, and this conspiracy is simply the most recent expression of it.

The fact that the conspiracy was revealed and prosecutions undertaken seems then to be a major victory for proponents of the rule of law and civilian control of the government. But though some big fish in the Ergenekon Network have been named and shamed, the lack of successful prosecutions suggest that the plots masterminds might still be beyond the full power of Erdogan’s government. As the investigation plays out, could be that the absence of justice will leave the coup-plotters stronger, not weaker.

That would make raise the stakes for everyone. The military does not seem to predominate in Turkey’s politics like it once did, but old habits die hard. Erdogan has proven support among a large constituency of the Turkish populace. That makes a military putsch far riskier than ever before. The meaning of Ergenekon then is not clear. Could be that Erdogan has finally ended the military’s veto over the government. But it could also be that a long struggle has begun for the soul of Turkey—will it be civil or military, secular or islamic—that will diminish the nation rather than empower it.

by an Angry Apparition of Attaturk

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Has Bashar Reversed his Father’s Lebanon Policy?

March 20, 2009
Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria (left) and Michel Suleiman of Lebanon (right) reviewing Syrian honor guard in Damascus. (Reuters Photo)

Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria (left) and Michel Suleiman of Lebanon (right) reviewing Syrian honor guard in Damascus. (Reuters Photo)

Renewal of diplomatic relations. Establishment of embassies. Two visits by the Lebanese President (read here). Is it possible that Bashar is ready to bury the hatchet with Lebanon and set relations on a normal footing?

In many ways it is hard to believe. Bashar’s father, Hafez, was more assertive of Syrian rights in Lebanon than any other previous. In 1976 he ordered Syrian troops into the north of Lebanon, and even after the end of the civil war, maintained thousands of troops in garrison of the cedar state and validated their presence by the terms of the Ta’if Agreement of 1989.

When this policy collapsed in 2005, after the Hariri assassination and the Cedar Revolution, and Syria was forced to withdraw its troops, Bashar still supported a policy of interference in Lebanon. The troop removal was followed by a spate of killings of anti-Syrian politicians, many attacks of which were blamed on Syrian designs. And Bashar provided transit for arms and aid to Hezbollah, which was essential in the defeat of Israel during the summer 2006 conflict.

It is hard then to imagine Bashar has sincerely decided to retire his father’s ambitions and a longtime Syrian objective: the hope of reincorporating Lebanon into a greater Syria. But if his latest moves are merely tactical, what exactly are they meant to accomplish?

A few possible explanations.

First, it could be Bashar is interested in influencing the outcome of the scheduled Lebanon parliamentary elections in June (read here). The calculation on his part might be that he can do more to advance the cause of his Lebanese allies by playing nice with Suleiman in the months preceding the vote.

Second, Bashar’s attitude might be shifting to accommodate his warming relations with Saudi Arabia and the Arab Middle East (read here). Syria has long been estranged from major Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia due to its tough stance on Israel and strategic partnership with Iran.  If Bashar has made the decision to walk back this legacy of his father’s, the opening to Lebanon might be another example of this progress.

Third, Bashar could be posturing in anticipation of difficult negotiations, be it with Israel or the US. This explanation however seems highly unlikely since Bashar would seem then to be giving away something for nothing. Why would he improve relations now, without promises to rely upon? It is doubtful that any secret deal has yet been struck. Another possibility is that Syria is fulfilling on a gesture of goodwill, and in so doing it has earned the privilege of serious negotiations.

But whatever the precise explanation, Bashar appears willing to rethink the implementation of core policies that Syria has long held in place. If so, it could be that Bashar, though trained in optometry, not statecraft, could be affecting more momentous changes to Syrian foreign policy than his father ever did.

by a Perturbed Paternal Figure

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Dispatches from Afghanistan

March 16, 2009

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Check out a new Diplomatic Courier blog by award winning photojournalist Sebastian Rich who is currently on assignment in Afghanistan for the Diplomatic Courier magazine. Sebastian’s daily dispatches and photographs are part of a series from “the Field” aiming to record life and the challenges on the ground for service men and women, and medics and support personnel in the war in Afghanistan. This is not Sebastian’s first time in the country. Besides covering almost every single big or small conflict around the world in the past 30 years, Sebastian was in Afghanistan during the war between Mujahedin and the Soviets. Read his essay and peruse the photojournal chronicling those days here: “Afghanistan’s Butterflies of Blue.”

Read Sebastian’s daily Dispatches from Afghanistan here.