Permissible Arms

Water, everywhere?

Posted in arabian peninsula by Karaka on 23 July 2010

I stumbled into reading this fascinating 1968 paper by Paul Ward English, The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World because I’ve been trying to figure out if Yemen’s historical shift from irrigated spice and produce exporter to impovershed, drought-stricken nation came as a result of destruction during the Mongolian invasion or from another cause I can’t pin down through variations on boolean searches.

Image of a qanat from the Irrigation Museum.

It essentially goes into the construction and operations of qanats, their historical significance, and alludes to the challenges nations might face in transitioning from this traditional technology into more modern devices. Challenges, of course, that have remained in place in the intervening forty years since the paper was published.

Most qanats in Iran are constructed by a class of professional diggers (muqannis) who inherited this task from the slaves and captives of the Achaemenid and Sassanian kings. These men form a community of traveling artisans, migrating from place to place as floods destroy qanats in one area or a lowered water table demands that qanat tunnels be lengthened in another. The tools of the muqanni are primitive: a broad-bladed pick, a shovel, and a small oil lamp. His profession is well paid but hazardous. The muqanni must work with water flowing around him, ventilation is poor, and the chances of cave-ins are great. Today, qanats are still being built by these muqannis and the techniques of construction have changed little.

The stuff you learn. I still can’t figure out the origin of the onset of Yemen’s dusty world, but I enjoyed this brief paper too much not to pass it on.

One of the things I pulled from Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted–of the many things, this book was marvellous–was that waterworks throughout the Mongol-conquered Islamic world were destroyed from a mixture of vindictiveness, suppression, and population control. It’s been rattling around in my head for awhile now, this idea that they were never rebuilt to the extent that they existed prior to the Mongolian expansion. How has that contributed to the destabilization of governments (of every stripe) in the Islamic world over time? I hesitate to make an argument similar to that of climate conflict, because simple/reductionist arguments are easily (and rightfully) refuted. But there’s a clear economic impact in the transformation of a producing society into a non-producing society, with political impact close on its heels.

Anyway. Qanats are a good start to a problem I want to understand better.


Just turn off your phone. It’s not that hard.

I don’t care if the Army said it was nifty keen, I can’t get this stupid Lady Gaga song OUT OF MY HEAD and I’m blaming it on paratroopers.

Of note: Stephen McInerney’s article on budget & appropriations for the Middle East in 2011. His analysis notes the increases in funding for Yemen, the withdrawal of support to Iraq in line with the withdrawal of assets and personnel, and the continued increase in funding to Afghanistan/Pakistan. The URL itself is actually a nice brief on Obama’s budget submission, but there’s a longer PDF as well. Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal responds, noting the Problem of Egypt.

USAID has released a couple of reports of note, including a report on internally displaced persons in Iraq, and human resources and logistical support in Afghanistan (both PDF). The GAO has also released Operation Iraqi Freedom: Actions Needed to Facilitate the Efficient Drawdown of U.S. Forces and Equipment from Iraq, which is sure to be a scintillating read, and a report on the problems of aid and contracting in Iraq and Afganistan (both PDF, more at Diplopundit).

Break the Kandahar Mafia:

It’s even worse than that, according to an in-depth poll of Kandahar residents completed last month for the U.S. and ISAF command. Conducted by U.S. Army human terrain teams, the poll found that corruption is viewed as “a widespread problem,” and that “most people have sympathy for the reasons AGEs (anti-government elements, i.e., the Taliban) take up arms against the government.”

A majority of the 1,994 people surveyed said a lack of security was their biggest problem, and that they felt danger mostly from Afghan army and police checkpoints and convoys.

The poll found “almost universal agreement that negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting.”

At leas the Human Terrain Teams are working? I feel like my comparison of Ahmed Wali Karzai to Don Corleone is a little more on the nose now. From the Washington Post, the US is shoring up support the actual, technical governor of Kandahar:

In the hope of pushing power brokers such as Karzai to the sidelines, American officials are trying to infuse Wesa and his government with more clout and credibility. They see better governance as a central part of a U.S.-led effort that has brought thousands of troops to the region for a summer offensive against the Taliban.

But the government headed by Wesa has severe problems of its own. It remains understaffed, is viewed by many as corrupt and does not reflect the province’s tribal mix. Karzai and other allegedly corrupt political bosses who dominate Kandahar show no sign of giving way.

“Wesa is a weak governor,” said Rahmatullah Raufi, a former general and Kandahar governor. “If Ahmed Wali Karzai wants him to die, he will die. If he says, ‘Live,’ he’ll live.”

Isn’t that something. If it looks like a warlord, quacks like a warlord, it must be…

AP via Stars & Stripes covers the perils of contracting in Afghanistan:

Afghan companies often bid on projects that they don’t have the money or skills to complete, Wilson said. Quality inspectors end up teaching the basics of drainage or safe electrical wiring.

Small Afghan companies are also under more pressure to pay bribes to local authorities than large international firms, Wilson said. The military has received invoices for as much as $40,000 from Afghan contractors for bogus building permits, he said. International companies either have the power to say no or don’t even try to get their money back from the military.

On NATO bases, hours are also lost each day getting Afghan workers through security.

Despite the problems, Wilson says the “Afghan First” program is the right approach given the new focus on winning over the population. The problem is that this year, in the midst of a troop surge, there’s just too much to build.

Makes you wonder how much of the appropriations for Afghanistan in the budget above will actually be used for stated purposes.

Anthony Cordesman issued a pointed critique of the Obama administration’s communications efforts (or lack thereof) on Afghanistan et cetera via CSIS; some good notes, though I wonder what, if anything, Cordesman might have changed if this had been released after the Afghanistan report instead of before.

In addition to his whirlwind speaking schedule, Secdef Gates published an article in the May/June Foreign Affairs, Helping Others Defend Themselves (PDF). It effectively articulates what Gates (and presumably Clinton) would like to see change in the duration of their time with the Obama administration, perhaps in part from the conclusion of the QDR and QDDR.

The United States now recognizes that the security sectors of at-risk countries are really systems of systems tying together the military, the police, the justice system, and other governance and oversight mechanisms. As such, building a partner’s overall governance and security capacity is a shared responsibility across multiple agencies and departments of the U.S. national security apparatus — and one that requires flexible, responsive tools that provide incentives for cooperation. Operations against extremist groups in the Philippines and, more recently, Yemen have shown how well-integrated training and assistance efforts can achieve real success.

But for all the improvements of recent years, the United States’ interagency tool kit is still
a hodgepodge of jury-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes. The National Security Act that created most of the current interagency structure was passed in 1947, the last major legislation structuring how Washington dispenses foreign assistance was signed by President John F. Kennedy, and the law governing U.S. exports of military equipment was passed in 1976. All the while, other countries that do not suffer from such encumbrances have been more quickly funding projects, selling weapons, and building relationships.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. The Martha Brady of insurgency-riddled nations. Anyway, I’m curious to see what Gates says in his next speech–he seems to be on something of a campaign. Also, let me point out this rebuttal of Gates’ Navy League speech from Brian McGrath at Information Dissemination; it’s a point by point response, and really gets into the meat of what Gates is proposing.

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