Permissible Arms

The political barometer

Posted in united states by Karaka on 10 May 2010

George Packer’s assessment of Obama’s foreign policy words and actions gets my pick for read of the day.

Over time, the President and his officials have acquired a more supple voice, finding a better balance between engagement and criticism. In January, for example, Clinton delivered an important speech on freedom of the Internet, a blow aimed at Beijing, among others. Obama has begun to speak more frequently and forcefully about what he calls “universal rights,” emphasizing that they are not an American invention. But the perception has been established: this Administration will devote its energy to repairing relations with foreign governments, and will not risk them for the sake of human rights. Where the stakes are low, as in the West African nation of Guinea, the Administration speaks out against atrocities, with positive effect; but where there’s a strategic interest, as in Ethiopia, which has jailed dozens of journalists and opposition politicians, the policy is mainly accommodation.

Obama never placed democracy and human rights at the center of his foreign policy. He campaigned on three initiatives—withdrawing from Iraq, redoubling in Afghanistan, and reëngaging with friends and enemies alike. He has expressed admiration for the foreign policy of the first President Bush and his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and, on one level, Obama fits their mold of classic realism: wary of moral posturing, he analyzes the world country by country, calibrating American interests accordingly, without trying to impose a single abstract doctrine everywhere.

It’s been interesting, in a not particularly surprising sort of way, to watch Obama slowly shift to a less idealistic and more grounded set of policies. I think it has as much to do with the aides that advise him as the political realities of America’s friends and enemies. The groundspring of support he received in 2008, both domestically and internationally, perhaps buoyed public opinion that his administration would be able to enact more sweeping changes than have actually happened. Or are likely to happen.

This is not to say that Obama has been unsuccessful in his fairly moderate foreign policy goals; but I suspect that, internally, his crowning achievement would be considered the halting of nuclear proliferation, and reduction (or at least the promise of reduction) of nuclear arms throughout the world. If he can get a clean landing on that one, even Israel-Palestine might not look so bad.

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I ran, I ran so far away

Posted in iran by Karaka on 20 April 2010

Honestly, since every deadline made has been blown through like a stack of dead leaves, I’m not entirely certain what further sanctions on Iran will accomplish; Juan Cole and I agree on that. From Salon:

A Swiss company just signed a deal worth $13 billion to import Iranian natural gas over the next 25 years. As for financial sanctions, so far Iran is evading them through banking partners in the United Arab Emirates, and Iran and Venezuela have two joint banks. These measures provide Iran with a back door, allowing it to mitigate the effects of financial sanctions.

Very few sanctions have actually produced regime change or altered regime behavior. The U.S. could not even accomplish this goal with regard to a small island 90 miles off its shores, Cuba. That an oil giant halfway around the world with a population of 70 million that is as big as Spain, France and Germany can be effectively bludgeoned with sanctions is not very likely.

And BBC reported this morning that Turkey has offered to mediate on Iran’s nuclear programme:

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, announced the offer after talks with his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki.

Western powers say Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and the US and its European allies have been pushing for new sanctions against Tehran. Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes. Last year, Turkey offered to store Iran’s uranium as part of a deal for Iran to send low-enriched uranium abroad to be turned into fuel rods. The plan faltered, but on Tuesday Mr Davutoglu said Turkey could help revive a diplomatic solution.

I mean, at least they picked a side, but it’s a seriously weak move and pretty late in the game. I don’t know–the more I learn about Iran, the more disgruntled I get. Not because of the brutal buffoonery of its secular leader, or the state’s general harm towards its citizens, or even because there’s little for me to do on this very far other side of the world except wonder about exactly how much truth I’m reading. I’m disgruntled because there’s no simple resolution here, from any direction. It’s like a chess match where half the pieces have been swept away, and doubles of others have been inserted onto the board.

If economic sanctions won’t work, and the West is generally less likely to bomb Iran without open provocation, and Ahmadinejad plays with the olive branch of dipliomacy like it’s a child’s toy, what are the other options? Waiting for another hostage crisis to take action? Seeing if Iran has actually managed to build a missile that will reach beyond Syra and Jordan?

There’s an appropriate variation of an adage for this: don’t blog about foreign policy if you can’t handle unanswerable questions. But this one seems more unanswerable than most.

I bet the award is already collecting dust.

Posted in terrorism, united states by Karaka on 14 April 2010

So I guess this is why Obama was pre-emptively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? I’ll admit, it reads as a fairly impressive accomplishment for a second year in office. I mean, if the “house gifts” the Obama administration went after can actually be held accountable. And that’s the question, innit?

Still, experts questioned whether it would ever be possible to “lock down” nuclear material completely, noting that there is no uniform standard and no international authority to check on compliance.

Among other challenges, there are still hundreds of civilian research reactors around the world that use highly enriched uranium. Converting them to use low-enriched uranium is expensive.

And some experts raised doubts about whether the IAEA is up to the task of helping ensure nuclear security. The agency’s main job is making sure that countries aren’t building atomic bombs, and it has a budget of less than $10 million for the safeguarding of nuclear material worldwide, Luongo said.

The summit avoided the divisive issue of whether countries should extract plutonium from spent fuel from nuclear energy plants. The material can be reused in other reactors but could also be used in bombs.

I know, I know, the nuclear issue will never truly die (at least not in my lifetime). But I think there’s a point to be taken that, even if it’s thirty years after the Cold War, forty-seven people got around a table and agreed on something positive relating to nuclear weaponry.

Monday Reading

Posted in afghanistan, american media, iran, united nations, united states, us politics by Karaka on 19 October 2009

Things I’m reading this morning:

Steve Coll’s piece in this week’s New Yorker:

A second round of voting now looks probable; it could help calm the country, or it could make things worse. In any event, the election is not yet an utter catastrophe. Two years ago, in Kenya, Mwai Kibaki allegedly stole his reëlection to the Presidency, and the country erupted in mass riots and militia killings. In June, Iran’s fraud-riddled vote ignited a protest movement with revolutionary ambitions. In Afghanistan, despite possibly decisive fraud, the opposition has barely thrown a rock. Abdullah Abdullah, the aggrieved second-place finisher, just holds press conferences in his garden.

It goes without saying that Afghans have had enough of violence. Abdullah’s restraint signals a broader, resilient desire among many political and tribal leaders to avoid having their country descend into chaos again. This is the opening that American policy has repeatedly failed to grasp since the Taliban’s fall in late 2001: an opportunity to reject the false expediency of warlords and indispensable men, in favor of deepening participatory, Afghan-led political reform and national reconciliation.

Christopher Hitchens on Iran:

So backward has the theocracy made its wretched country that it is even vulnerable to sanctions on refined petroleum, for heaven’s sake. Unlike neighboring secular Turkey, which has almost no oil but is almost qualified—at least economically—to join the European Union, Iran is as much a pistachio-and-rug-exporting country as it was when the sadistic medievalists first seized power. So it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if a regime that has no genuine respect for science and no internal self-critical feedback had screwed up its rogue acquisition of modern weaponry. A system in which nothing really works except the military and the police will, like North Korea, end up producing somewhat spastic missiles and low-yield nukes, as well.

But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to “break-out” as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?

Juan Cole on Pakistan:

In other words, this military campaign is not just a matter of troops versus guerrillas. It is becoming a rallying point for Muslim radicals, with volunteers coming in from Afghanistan and others from madrasahs from all over Pakistan — and with Pakistan’s own security hanging in the balance.

Tariq took responsibility for the recent horrific bombings in the Punjabi city of Lahore, which targeted Pakistani security forces, thus claiming that South Waziristan had a very long reach into the rest of the country.

Pakistani security forces also arrested some 300 Afghans on Sunday.

David Rohde’s account of being held by the Afghan Taliban:

Eight days earlier, a Taliban faction had kidnapped me along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal, during a reporting trip just outside Kabul. The faction’s commander, a man who called himself Atiqullah, had lied to us. He had said we were being moved to southern Afghanistan and would be freed.

Instead, on Nov. 18, we arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an isolated belt of Taliban-controlled territory. We were now in “the Islamic emirate” — the fundamentalist state that existed in Afghanistan before the 2001 American-led invasion. The loss of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and billions in American aid had merely moved it a few miles east, not eliminated it.

Through seven years of reporting in the region, I had pitied captives imprisoned here. It was arguably the worst place on earth to be an American hostage. The United States government had virtually no influence and was utterly despised.

Since 2004, dozens of missiles fired by American drones had killed hundreds of militants and civilians. The Taliban had held Afghan, Pakistani and foreign hostages in the area for years, trading lives for ransom and executions for publicity.

“We’re in Pakistan,” I said out loud in the car, venting my anger.

Elisabeth Bumiller’s presentation/reporting on Afghanistan, thirty years ago:

Afghans and Americans alike describe the country in those days as a poor nation, but one that built national roads, stood up an army and defended its borders. As a monarchy and then a constitutional monarchy, there was relative stability and by the 1960s a brief era of modernity and democratic reform. Afghan women not only attended Kabul University, they did so in miniskirts. Visitors — tourists, hippies, Indians, Pakistanis, adventurers — were stunned by the beauty of the city’s gardens and the snow-capped mountains that surround the capital.

“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who met recently in Kabul with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Gouttierre, who spent his decade in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and the national basketball team’s coach, said, “I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Kabul, 1977 (William Borders/NYT)

Kabul, 1977 (William Borders/NYT)

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s report of living in Kandahar from Foreign Policy:

This is our life, and as the only two Westerners living permanently in Kandahar without blast walls and intrusive security restrictions to protect us, it has been a mix of isolation, boredom, disarmingly potent realizations, and outright depression in the face of what is happening. In our 18 months here, we have witnessed up close the ruinous consequences of a conflict in which no party has clean hands. We have spent countless hours talking with people of all persuasions in Kandahar, from mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, to guerrillas who fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, to Afghans who fight against the Kabul government and foreign forces today. And we have learned that Kandahar defies simple categorization; far more understanding is necessary before we can appreciate how (and how many) mistakes have been made by the Western countries waging war here, let alone begin crafting a vision for the future.

Our Kandahar has many faces, though, not all branded by conflict. Life here is also about swimming in the nearby Arghandab River, enjoying the cool caramel taste of sheer yakh, and sitting among the branches of a friend’s pomegranate orchard. It’s listening to tales of the past 30 years told by those who directly influenced the course of history, and it’s watching the traditional atan dance at wedding celebrations.

Friday Errata

Linkdump of what I’m reading over the weekend:

How to Measure the War by Jason Campbell, Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro:

The news is not all bad, however. With the help of outside donors, the Afghan government has made great strides in providing increased access to basic health care, with 82 percent of the population now living in districts that have a basic package of health care programs, up considerably from 9 percent in 2003. This metric is of limited value for truly sick individuals, who probably still cannot access health care in many cases. But it has translated into significant improvements in the rate of vaccinations as well as infant and child mortality rates. Though literacy rates continue to linger at less than 30 percent, more than 6 million children currently attend over 9,000 schools. Gender equity is improving as 2 million of the students are girls and 40,000 of the 142,000 teachers are women. This represents a marked improvement over the Taliban years. Finally, telephone usage has increased dramatically to an estimated 7 million Afghans, up from just 1 million in 2002.

Course Correction by Ganesh Sitaraman:

The project underway at Camp Julien aims to help the United States and its allies succeed where King Amanullah, the Russians, and even the mujahedin failed. Julien is home to the Counterinsurgency Training Center–Afghanistan, where U.S. and coalition forces are trying to teach themselves and Afghans how to fight a different kind of war. For one week each month, 130 students descend on Julien to learn about counterinsurgency. Attendees come from every possible background: U.S. and coalition troops of all ranks, ages, and nationalities; State Department and USAID personnel; Afghan soldiers and police; members of NGOs; contractors; Army anthropologists. (I was there in July as part of my research on law in situations of counterinsurgency.)

The Missing Debate in Afghanistan by Peggy Noonan:

It is strange—it is more than strange, and will confound the historians of the future—that Gen. McChrystal has not been asked to testify before Congress about Afghanistan, about what the facts are on the ground, what is doable, what is desirable, how the war can be continued, and how it can end. He—and others, including experienced members of the military past and present, and foreign-policy professionals—should be called forth to talk to the country in the clearest terms under questioning from our elected representatives.

Before the surge in Iraq, we had the Petraeus hearings, which were nothing if not informative, and helped form consensus. Two generations earlier, we had the Fulbright hearings on Vietnam, which were in their way the first formal, if deeply and inevitably contentious, airing of what was at stake there and what our position was.

Why are we not doing this now? Why are we treating Afghanistan almost like an afterthought, interesting and important but not as urgent a question as health care?

Robert Gates: Solidly in the Middle of the Afghan Strategy Storm by David Wood:

Today, that hard work is paying off as even some congressional Democrats, skeptical of McChrystal’s proposed plan for Afghanistan, are suggesting they wait until they’ve heard what Gates thinks. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has criticized the McChrystal proposal as too troop-heavy. Congress at some point ought to hear directly from McChrystal and Petraeus, Levin said last Sunday. “But above them all is a secretary of defense. We ought to focus on what will Secretary Gates’ recommendation be to the president . . . we ought to listen to the secretary of defense when he makes up his mind.”

If Tehran Gets the Bomb: How Iranian nukes would reshape the Middle East by Lee Smith:

If Iran gets the bomb, other regional powers will pursue nuclear programs—if they are not already doing so. Inevitably in a region as volatile as this, there will be a few small-scale nuclear catastrophes, probably rulers targeting their own people. Saddam gassed the Kurds and slaughtered the Shiites, Hafez Assad massacred the Sunnis of Hama, and mass graves throughout the region testify to the willingness of Arab rulers to kill their own people—in their hands, a nuclear weapon is merely an upgrade in repressive technology. Still, it’s extremely unlikely the regimes will use these weapons against their regional rivals. Remember, the main reason these states support nonstate terror groups is to deter one another and thus avoid all-out war.

Ingushetia’s cycle of violence by Dom Rotheroe:

It is a complaint we hear all over Ingushetia, that there is no law or justice. In a society in which blood vendettas are part of a man’s honour, young male relatives of the deceased have to seek their own justice.

They head into the hills to get a gun and take revenge. And while with the extremists, their ideology may shift accordingly. Some may become suicide bombers, of which the North Caucasus has seen a resurgence this summer, culminating in an attack on Ingushetia’s main police station in August which killed 21 and injured more than 100 more.

My most poignant memory of the Albakov family is of Batyr’s younger brother, Beslan. Beslan’s rejects blood revenge and wants legal justice for his brother, a justice he knows will never come. He also knows that the security forces will suspect him of seeking revenge and therefore may come for him at any time.

His quietly desperate face is the face of Ingushetia today, trapped between the rock and hard place of the militants and the authorities who seem intent on feeding the ever-growing cycle of violence.

Tuesday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, iran, iraq, israel, united states, us military, us politics by Karaka on 29 September 2009

It is, god help me for saying this, a quiet day. The President is scampering off to Denmark, weapons inspectors are being invited to Iran, and autumn has chosen to assert its presence over my city with the fickleness of a middle schooler. Rain, sun, rain, grim rainless clouds, rain again, and then sun.

A couple links have kept me entertained despite a complete lack of movement on the military-political issues of the day. First off, Andrew Bentley (who seems to be a civilian contractor for KBR) posted a nifty guide at Instructables: How to Grow Flowers on a Military Base in Iraq. The more you know.

KOW has some thoughts on the inter-related goals of COIN tactics and humanitarian aid:

What is particularly disliked by parties who claim to represent humanitarian ideals is aid conditionality–using aid as a carrot either based on ‘good behaviour’ or to encourage such good behaviour. This is a contradiction of ‘humanitarian principles’ which state the aid should be given on the basis of need, rather than political appropriateness.

Obviously, in terms of COIN, there is an immediate desire to achieve a certain effect, to reward certain behaviour, not necessarily to act according to more lofty principles.

I’m in the process of nailing down my thoughts, because this topic in particular is one of great interest to me. But initially my response is that, whatever your politics are, food should not be used as a weapon, though it can be used as a tool. Cooperation is not dependent upon hunger–a starving person will strike out just as a fed person will–but by employing a methodology that relies on compliance to receive the most basic of human needs, we run far closer to being prison guards than partners.

Still working on that.

Ricks makes a false comparison of Bush 43 to Obama that’s raising some interesting critique in the comments section. I agree that it doesn’t necessarily instill great confidence in me that the Obama administration issued the results of its review of Afghanistan, requested a document that would indicate what was needed to accomplish what was laid out in that March review, and then finds itself reviewing again based on the results of that document. But at the same time, I agree with Ricks–I’d rather he be reviewing than baldly making choices with no critique.

Coming at the same question from a different angle, Stratfor’s George Friedman published his review of Obama and current foreign policy. And Informed Comment has a guest post from Haggai Ram on Israel and Iran that’s worth your time.

Finally, I’m keeping my eye on the SWJ thread on the Army Capstone comment. Still haven’t had time to review my annotations, but I hope to get to that tonight. There’s never any shortage of reading, that’s certain.

Iran, Iran, Iran, it’s like we never parted.

Posted in iran by Karaka on 27 September 2009

Andreas Pershbo over at ArmsControlWonk has some good analysis of what Iran’s nuclear facility actually means.

The Guardian goes further into the story:

At some point this summer, US, British and French intelligence agencies were able to corroborate the information they had, and concluded that the Qom site was an enrichment plant. “We believe that it’s not yet operational. We think it’s most likely at least a few months, perhaps more, from having all of the centrifuges installed and being capable of operating if the Iranians made a decision to begin operating it,” the senior American official said.

That’s some secret spy stuff, right there.

And today, Sec State Hillary Clinton spoke about Iran on Face the Nation; there’s no video out yet, but the article is available.

Clinton said that it is “hard to accept” that the covert uranium enrichment facility plant disclosed by leaders of Great Britain, France and the United States Friday is for “peaceful purposes,” as Iran argues, given that the facility’s existence had been hidden from nuclear regulators, thus raising suspicions.

“One has to ask, if it’s for peaceful purposes, why was it not public? Why was the fact of it not generally known through our working with partners to discover it?” she asked.

Let me say again, to be a fly on the wall come October 1st…

It’s really only a pilot project! Really!

Posted in iran by Karaka on 25 September 2009

I am shocked, shocked I say!, to find this morning that Iran actually has nuclear tech in place!

American officials said that they had been tracking the covert project for years, but that Mr. Obama decided to disclose the American findings after Iran discovered, in recent weeks, that Western intelligence agencies had breached the secrecy surrounding the complex. On Monday, Iran wrote a brief, cryptic letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying that it now had a “pilot plant” under construction, whose existence it had never before revealed.

…oh, wait. That’s not shock I’m feeling. I believe it’s resignation.

Now I’m really waiting for October. P5+1 conversation with Iran: the thing to watch or the thing to watch?

Tagged with: ,

People who wouldn’t sit together at the lunch table.

Posted in iran, united nations by Karaka on 24 September 2009

From the Washington Post:

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a U.S-drafted resolution Thursday morning that affirms many of the steps President Obama plans to pursue as part of his vision for an eventual “world without nuclear weapons. In a first for a U.S. president, Obama presided over the 15-member meeting, joined by such leaders as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese President Hu Jintao and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The meeting marked only the fifth head-of-state summit in U.N. history, and Obama’s presence was intended to signal the importance of the issue for the administration.

It seems Obama may have secured the leverage he’s clearly wanted going into talks with Iran. And this is certainly a different perspective from that of the 43rd President. Looks like those diplomatic moves are working.

Tuesday Errata.

Posted in afghanistan, iran, iraq, united states by Karaka on 22 September 2009

FiveThirtyEight has some nice numbers and a run-down of the various interested parties in Afghanistan with regards to elections at home and abroad:

As the pieces begin to sort out, this week could see a final announcement regarding the international strategy conference on Afghanistan, which the US and UN have reportedly agreed to holding along with France, Germany and the UK. At the same time, a concrete timeline for the final results of the Presidential election is forthcoming. Given the instability in the country and the month that has already passed since the 20 August balloting, additional delays in the formation of a new government could be quite damaging to efforts to build support for the national authorities.

Insightful and succinct, as per usual.

Russia scrapped its own missile plans. Interesting to see the public results of American diplomacy…

The Guardian reports that Obama is pushing for a stricter review of US nuclear weapons doctrine, probably another tool in the public diplomatic arsenal towards legitimizing Obama’s goals regarding nuclear proliferation and Iran. And Stratfor goes into detail on the effect the decision to scrap the Eastern European missile shield program has on other nations in the region.

I found this article, also in the Guardian, about Iraqi widows choosing to remarry really interesting. In one sense, that is a very real, very palpable cultural change that’s resulted from war, necessity, and poverty. And I’m not suggesting it’s a de facto good one. But I do think it speaks to a near inevitable one, after seven years of conflict and–let’s be honest–Western influence.

But, in many areas of Iraq, where the fabric of societies has been shattered by the bloodshed of the past six years, tribal leaders have begun to re-assess prohibitions that make a second attempt at family life all-but impossible. Now, slowly, attitudes are beginning to shift. Operating as part-matriarch, part Islamic scholar, amateur psychologist and de facto big sister, Um Omar believes even hardline areas are starting to accept that Islamic law overrides their customs.

It’s like a perverse dark mirror of women’s rights. Or something. I don’t know, I’m still digesting this.

I really like the blog of the US Naval Institute; it’s always interesting, whatever subject they tackle. Today Christopher Albon had some thoughts on the Navy’s role in current US engagements well worth reading. Also, I’ll be repping for Team Navy in the upcoming blogging contest in support of Project Valour-IT, so keep an eye out for that.

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