Friday, April 28, 2006

A British Jihadi in Iraq?

I only recently came across this interesting story in the Times. A British student in Iraq, Mobeen Muneef, gets 15 years from an Iraqi court for a visa violation - i.e. he entered Iraq without one. That would indeed seem a very harsh sentence, but of course he isn't really being punished for the visa offence. Both the Iraqis who convicted him and his family and his legal team trying to defend him say that the length of the sentence is to serve as a warning to other foreign Muslim who want to come to Iraq to join the insurgency. The only difference is the Iraqis say he was fighting with the insurgents and his supporters say he wasn't.

Of course one newspaper story is not a fair trial but the evidence against him as put forward by the report is pretty damning. He was seen handling weapons for insurgents who then fired at US troops as they chased Muneef, he entered the country illegally from Syria where he had been studying for some years, he was in Ramadi - not a very safe part of the country for a foreigner, and allegedly he had traces of explosive on his hands.

His family and defence team seem to be pushing a risky line by saying that he shouldn't have been charged for the visa violation. Surely, the alternative is to have been tried by the court of being part of the insurgency - a crime that could lead to the death penalty. They are also complaining that he has been held by the US in Iraq rather than in an Iraqi prison. After the Abu Ghraib scandal led to changing some rules, I would imagine that being held by Americans is actually the better option to being held by the Iraqi government.

The article also states that "at least" eight British men have died fighting for the insurgents, including three as suicide bombers. There hasn't been much reporting on that - I might dig around to see if I can come up with more information.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Finally, the global oil market is working as it American politicians want to shut it down.

It has been with great interest that I’ve read the ‘high price of gas’ discussions in the United States in recent months. It seems politicians, be they Democrat or Republican, have been infected not by the H5N1 virus but rather a colossal ‘anti-liberal capitalist’ virus. How else can one account for the calls to investigate ‘price gouging’ by gas stations? Well, the reasons are manifold but I’ll explore some at the end of the post.

Instead of the naïve and useless (in terms of reducing the price of gas right now) ideas being presented by various Congress men and women, such as calling for taxation of oil corporations ‘windfall profits,’ opening up the ANWR for drilling, or giving every American a $100 gas rebate check, in my dream world of ‘what ought to happen’ I see this: All congressmen and women would together – that way no one gets punished more than the other at elections – tell the public: This Is How Capitalism Works! Supply decreases (or even the expectation that it does) and price goes up.

Admitting the obvious, that the market is working exactly as it should and needs to be, is clearly beyond the American political elite. That the American political establishment reacts like this is not surprising. The political history of the country is littered with examples of a retreat from international free trade (liberal capitalism) when important domestic constituencies are threatened.

It is unfortunate that the political elite in the United States have long since conditioned the electorate to punish those politicians running for office that are willing to speak the uncomfortable truths. Yet, just like it is too easy to blame OPEC for high gasoline prices, it is too simplistic to blame only American politicians for the consumers’ inability to accept high gasoline prices. There are strong cultural reasons for why American consumers (and politicians) view the use of and pricing of petroleum products quite differently from their European friends, but I’ll explore those differences in a later post.

Rather, I’d like to close by noting some of the ironies at play in this debate. Nearly all of the proposals mentioned above have also included mentions of supporting research into alternative fuel sources such as ethanol – to create substitutes for ‘Unleaded Premium’. However, rising oil prices are making many current alternative energy sources economically competitive. For example, depending on the location, wind power can become economically sustainable when crude oil hits about $60 per barrel, as of writing the price is north of $70. While this sounds like the beginning of the golden age of energy-fuel alternatives, the rising price of crude actually is likely to significantly expand global oil reserves, continuing the reign of petroleum as the world’s central source of fuels. The reason is that rising crude prices also make it economically profitable to explore previously ‘unrecoverable’ deposits – increasing the recoverable reserves of petroleum in the world. This has recently made Venezuela the country with the largest recoverable crude reserves in the world (Canada now hold third largest crude reserves), a fact that surely has not gone unnoticed in Washington D.C.

What does this mean for the EU and Finland? Tune in next week to find out.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Hollywood Generals?

Charly’s ruminations on American generals from last week means that I just can’t help myself and I’m going to have to link this article from the Telegraph. It doesn’t matter how Atlanticist and pro-American us Brits are, even when the US has so few other friends, it won’t stop us from being snobs. It would seem that senior British officers are sniggering at their American comrades’ shoulder holsters. Brigadier Alan Sharpe, whose credentials would seem to be impeccable as the US gave him a Bronze Star for his work in Iraq, said there was a “strong streak of Hollywood” amongst the US generals he worked with.

It’s perhaps a cliché that the British Army are superb peacekeepers whilst the Americans aren’t – but like other clichés maybe there is some truth in it. An Estonian officer who had served in Baghdad with the Coalition told me the same (and also that the US reservists were much better peacekeepers than the regulars). Another contact who is a serving British officer told me of his time as a KFOR liaison officer with the French in Mitrovica (northern Kosovo) and how the French were “gobsmacked” when he used to stop to chat with the locals. Perhaps the practice provided by ‘policing’ the Falls Road during the troubles, and having bottles of piss thrown at you on the good days and bottles of burning petrol on the not-so-good-days, really has taught the British Army some valuable lessons.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

If People Die in Darfur and You Aren't Told About it - Do They Still Die?

I woke up today determined to write a brilliant analysis on superpowers and the media. Rather, having a range of studies and reports floating in my mind, I could not help but think of the ‘Be a Witness’ campaign and video I saw some time ago. The ‘Be a Witness’ video castigates the major American TV news providers for, well, ignoring Genocide in Sudan (where about 400,000-800,000 people have died in the past three years, with another 2 million becoming refugees)

While I had far loftier goals in mind I could not shake the sheer mental violence of knowing that in June 2005 the combined power of CNN, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, Fox News, and NBC was used in the following way: 485 stories on ‘the Runaway Bride’ (she didn’t show for her wedding, faked her own abduction); 6248 stories on Michael Jackson; and, 1534 stories about Tom Cruise (and his current fiancée Katie Holmes). Darfur? 128. One-hundred twenty eight. 1 – 2 – 8.

Going to write this entry I checked out Google News and was offered further proof on the true gift of some media editorial boards to retain their laser-like focus on the truly important. One of the top five news stories was, ”Tom [Cruise] to eat Katie’s [Holmes] placenta.” Fortunately there were only 131 articles on that subject. In comparison, whether the United States would take military action against Iran could be read about in 470 related news stories. I’m glad to know that a potential U.S.-Iran war rates as four times more important that Tom Cruise eating Katie Holme’s placenta. The world is heading in the right direction – so to speak.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More Chad - last for today

Earlier reports that a French Mirage fired warning shots at the rebel column advancing on N'Djamena seemed to have changed into them dropping a bomb. According to the French MoD spokesman, this was OK as it "landed in the sand" and didn't hurt anyone, it was just a warning bomb. The idea of warning shots is hardly new, but a warning bomb seems, well, you'd be pretty silly not to take the point.

Deby is claiming all of the capital is under his government's control and journalists were shown a relatively small number of dead bodies said to be rebels that were clearly designed to make this point.

I have only just noticed, but the rebel group being called in English "the FUC" is about the only funny side to this story.

Iraq is not the only reason 'the Generals' and Rumsfeld don't get along

The past month has seen perhaps the most ferocious attacks on and calls for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. What makes these different from the calls heard during the past five years is that they are coming from senior Generals (all retired though) and conservatives (many of whom still support the war, though often not how it has been executed). The key theme among all is that the McNamarian micromanagement of the planning and execution of the war in Iraq – and the subsequent failures – are Rumsfeld’s fault. The common wisdom, therefore, is becoming that Generals at the Pentagon hate Rumsfeld because of Iraq, and his abrasive style (harshly criticizing them in front of junior officers, not wanting dissenting opinions etc.). As often is the case, conventional wisdom is only part of the story. There are other reasons why ‘the Generals’ and Rumsfeld do not get along:

Rumsfeld entered his office determined to reestablish true civilian control of the Pentagon. In his view the military had done little to genuinely change itself since the end of the Cold War, making it dangerously incapable of engaging with the security threats identified in the late 1990s U.S. National Security Strategies. Rumsfeld, therefore, determined that his primary job was to shepherd the Pentagon down a path so that its strategic, operational and tactical capabilities could more effectively contribute towards addressing the threats identified in the national security strategies.

In practice this required changes at all levels of the armed forces, and a level of civilian oversight/control that the Pentagon Generals were not used to. Some of the more public changes have had to do with canceling (or trying to) programs that the various services had designated as ‘key’ or ‘flagship’ projects. The Army’s Crusader mobile artillery system serves as a good example of such a project (picture courtesy of U.S. Army).

The Crusader (if only someone culturally aware could name platforms at the Pentagon) was designed for and during the Cold War. More dangerously, in Rumsfeld’s mind, the platform contributed little to countering the threats identified in the NSS documents. Yet, significant resources were expended by the Army, Congress and lobbyists representing the military industrial services complex to try to keep the project alive. Thankfully the $11Bn project was eventually cancelled (but only after promises from the Bush administration that the money would be redirected to the Army’s next flagship project, the FCS project).

While the Crusader serves as an example here, the point is that Generals at the Pentagon have many reasons to distrust or dislike Rumsfeld, one of which is the fact the he has forced people, organizations and bureaucracies to change – always a painful process to some, even if they do carry three or four stars on their shoulders.

More on Chad - update "...with all the coups and stuff..."

I should read my own sources before posing questions. The Washington Post article I referenced from last July notes the following:

"The U.S.-trained battalion is commanded by Deby's nephew, Maj. Hardja Idriss, and is part of a regiment assigned to protect an authoritarian and the increasingly unpopular president. Deby survived an attempted coup last year, and his grip on power remains fragile. "It just makes sense. They're the president's guard, and in this region, will all the coups and stuff, you'd want them the best trained" said Capt. Jason, the [U.S. military training] team leader."

Some refreshing honesty there from Capt. Jason! I guess that pretty much answers my question on who's side the U.S. trained troops will be on.

Deby is still saying he is in control despite the fighting in N'Djamena.

More on Chad

News moves quickly. I was listening to World Service eating breakfast at home and they mentioned that the newly formed rebel alliance in Chad, the FUC, was advancing towards the capital N’Djamena. Checking on the net, the NYT and BBC had pieces on the advance but were still saying that the rebels had raided a town called Mongo, about halfway between the eastern border with Sudan and the western capital. Having cycled into work, taken a shower and had my coffee, I looked again to see that news sites around the world are covered with wire reports that fighting has broken out in the capital itself. This is coming from multiple sources including the BBC and Reuters. It seems possible now that Deby is never going to make it to the elections scheduled for May. Although Deby has been re-elected a couple of times he came to power in coup. The BBC points out that power has never been transferred by the ballot box in Chad in 46 years since independence, and it clearly looks like the FUC don’t intend for that ‘tradition’ to change.

I mentioned the French presence in Chad in my previous post. The French are reinforcing their troop numbers there and, according to BBC World Service, have been relaying reconnaissance intelligence to the government from their Mirage fighters over-flying the rebel advance. The BBC correspondent suggested it was unlikely that the French troops would actually get involved in fighting (rescue the white people seems to be their most-likely role if Rwanda and Cote d’Ivoire are anything to go by), but in the NYT a French Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned the rebel attempt to change regimes by force and said that Chad was an “anchor for the stability of the continent as a whole”. The NYT doesn’t note if he managed that line with a straight face.

I started taking an interest in this otherwise rather obscure part of the world due to research I have been doing on the US military involvement in the Sahel/Sahara region under a programme called the TSCTI or the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. The US has been in Chad and has trained a small number of troops (see Washington Post 26 July 2006 “US Pushes Anti-Terrorism in Africa”). The BBC’s reporter was saying that it isn’t yet clear how much of the Chadian army is sticking with Deby and how many have joined the rebels, but it will be interesting to see what happens with the US trained troops. One of the worries about the TSCTI was that the US was arming and training small groups in all the Sahelian countries’ militaries that could be central in future coup attempts, due to their superior skills and equipment. Of course the opposite could be true: that these troops end up successfully defending the government. We shall see.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

You learn something new every day: the Anti-Germans

Did you know that there was an extreme left, anti-fascist, anti-German, movement of Germans? No, nor did I. It's probably six blokes and a couple of dogs who never get far out of their Berlin pub, but no matter - they have a sense of humour:

Being English I find it slightly uncomfortable to find that as funny as I do, but never mind – that’s just the post-imperial guilt speaking. Could it all be an elaborate urban-art-guerrilla joke? I hope not as that wouldn’t be nearly so fun.

If anyone can't make out the lyrics on the first listen (or doesn't have broadband), it's basically:

there were ten(9/8/7/6...) German bombers in the air...
Then the RAF from England shot them down...

This is sung loudly with a German accent.

First spotted on Harry's Place.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Chad - where even a little hope is now failing

Some time ago I read an article on how Africa’s newest oil producer, Chad, was working with the World Bank on a project that would ensure it’s new found, if somewhat limited, oil resources would be used for the general development of the country. Oil tends to be more of a curse in Africa than a blessing, but could the World Bank stop this unhappy tradition?

As a Chadian observer puts its: “This project could not survive contact with the reality of Chad” (Gilbert Maoundonodji, who runs a Chadian NGO, talking to the NYT). That reality is a president, Idriss Deby, who came to power by a coup, whose legitimacy has only marginally increased after being returned in two dubious elections, is losing control of the country as supporters defect to rebel groups that are in open revolt in the east of the country. Chad is being sucked into the misery of Darfur, the neighbouring region of Sudan where massacres amounting to genocide have been on-going over the last three years. Chad accuses the Sudanese of supporting the rebels in an attempt to overthrow the Deby government. Meanwhile Sudan accuses Chad of sheltering rebels which they claim are destabilising Darfur, who they additionally claim the infamously murderous Janjaweed militias are simply defending against.

The Deby regime now want to use its oil wealth to buy weapons. If one is charitable you could say this is to help defend Chad and maintain order, whilst the cynics would suggest it is to continue their hold on power. Whatever the reason, and the two are perhaps not so different, the World Bank has said no and will not pay out any more money from the accounts it holds for Chad. The Chadian government has suggested that Exxon, its partner in exploiting the oil, should transfer its royalties directly to the government, not into the World Bank managed account, whilst a Chadian minister hinted that there are “other partners we can pursue” presumably meaning China (see the end of this article), which has expressed an interest, and has shown that it will not let moral scruples get in the way of buying oil in Sudan.

As an aside: France seems to have been less focused on Francophone Africa in recent years with its energies taken up in other areas of the world – they have been quite happy to cooperate with the US in aiding American military training operations across the Sahel - where in the past this would have been a definite no-no - yet they don’t seem to have given up yet on Deby as ‘their man’ in Chad. The French military seems to have played some role supporting government action against the eastern Rebels but, according to AFP (via “Baku Today”! Don’t you just love the internet?), were not involved in the fighting directly.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Finland and NATO: The more things change, the more people insist nothing significant is changing

An initiative to create a more inclusive and advanced partnership structure for a handful of non-NATO member countries that participate in NATO operations was unofficially unveiled over the weekend. In Finland the news was mainly reported as an opportunity for Finland (and Sweden) to participate earlier in the decision making and planning processes of operations that they would contribute resources to.

If you divide, roughly, NATO’s mission into Chp.V mutual defense and rest of world operations, this means Finland could get a stronger say in the mandate and operational planning stages of the latter types of operations. To an outsider it might, therefore, seem that Finland de facto would enjoy NATO membership:

  1. The Finnish military is completely interoperable with NATO standards
  2. Finland participates in two major NATO operations (KFOR and ISAF)
  3. Finns have commanded NATO troops in the Balkans
  4. Finland has military liaison officers in both NATO and US Commands
  5. Finland (according to this initiative) would be able to directly influence the planning and decision making processes of NATO operations.

Yet, the outsider would undoubtedly have missed the subtlety that even if this new advanced partnership structure would become operational, Finland would not have made any binding commitments to militarily assist the other western states, upon whose continued stability its own economy and national security rests. Finland would also not be able to veto a NATO operation – even if in its opinion the said operation would contravene the spirit of international law.

For all those who are afraid that Finland would become a target of terrorists if it were to become a NATO member I have some sad news: Soon it’ll be impossible for anyone but the top politicians in Finland to tell whether Finland is a NATO member or not. Certainly no one contemplating acts of terrorism in Finland – because of Finland’s participation in NATO operations - could tell the difference.

On a more serious and final note; Finland has committed itself – at least morally – to assisting countries in Europe that suffer from a security threat. Few politicians question the expectation that in the event of a grave industrial, nuclear or environmental accident, assistance would be both sent by and received by Finland. This could be called the ‘civilian chapter V promise’. Yet, if the threat were of a military nature – or at least where the response had to be of a military nature – Finland has made it unequivocally clear that because the threat is of a military nature, Finland cannot be counted upon to help. For a country with such a long history of seeing threats in the world through the prism of ‘broad security’, it is surprising that military security threats and their common passive deterrence is such a low priority. The deafening silence of politicians on this new initiative, and the insistence of the Finnish Ministry of Defense spokesman that this initiative will not cause any substantial changes, tell volumes about the need to have an actual, open, non-election time, debate in Finland about NATO and its role in advancing Finland’s, Europe’s and the world’s security interests. Let the debate begin!