Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Brief Iraq Update

Iraq has been quiet enough lately that the media, government, and public have all turned fully towards Afghanistan; as a country, we're now engrossed in it. And frankly, that's correct. It's trouble--Iraq is not. This quick update is to keep you informed, and help your experience with the Iraq War feel a little bit more tied up.

First, deaths continue to fall. US deaths hit a new record low of 8 in March; Iraqi violent deaths stand at 252, up from February, but still lower than any month before 2009, and represents well less than 0.01% of all Iraqis. This violent death rate is now lower than the United States, which sees about 4,200 violent deaths per month, or 0.014% of all Americans (sourced again here). And it looks like it will continue to drop. This lack of violence will give the Iraq government ample opportunity over the next 18 months to strengthen its police force, its political institutions, etc, as they prepare for the exit of the US.

Some problems persist, though they are largely civil (for the moment). Power production continues to lag demand significantly; frankly, I have no idea what the excuse for this is. Even Baghdad only has power 17 hours per day, which is enough to have a pretty full business day, but it makes it hard to run severs, keep refrigerators, have security systems, and all sorts of other pretty important stuff that a business (and thus an economy) needs. Beyond this, Iraq is facing a quiet, but significant, measles outbreak, which is likely to test its public health system.

Otherwise, things are going well. Anbar remains quiet, despite recent government crackdowns on Sunni militia leadership that has the potential to shake the delicate alliance between the Sunni Reawakening Councils and the state. So far, the Sunnis are exclusively using political channels to express their grievances--if these channels prove effective, then they will create an excellent precedent for participation.

Iraq's Kurdish regional authority is being more cooperative, though its rebels are not. Kurdish leader Talabani is backing Baghdad's call for PKK to disarm and become peaceful or face the consequences. But the PKK has shrugged the calls off. Such a scoffing may lead to a confrontation in the north between the PKK/PKK sympathizers, and the state.

But al Qaeda seems to be making its last stand in Mosul; and it's not going particularly well for them. Despite a truck bombing earlier today, violence in Mosul is slowly receding. News reports on activity in the region are minimal.

In light of all this, the US is moving out. Only five of Iraq's 18 provinces have yet to be handed over to full Iraqi security control (putting the US back in bases where it awaits a call by the Iraqi Army for help). By June, Baghdad is planned to be handed over as the last province. Compare this to the mess of 3 years ago:

I think this is rather self-explanatory.

In full, I think even the most hardcore doubters of the efficacy of the Surge/ latter US operations in Iraq are being quieted. There will probably be a few more sporadic updates on the topic by me, but it's mostly time for us all to move on to our other regional problem.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama's Vietnam

Well to be very optimistic: This Afghanistan thing is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And Obama's new strategy isn't going to be helping--at least, if the strategy is what he outlined.

First, a recap of recent trends. Remember that peace deal signed with the Swat valley Taliban? Well, as much as Swat is quiet (except for Taliban now running around lashing anyone that doesn't follow Allah's will), the deal is turning out to be pretty sour. First, it sets a terrible precedent: make life hard enough on the Government, kill enough people, terrorize hard enough, and the government will cave. Now, I know that there are people that attribute this problem to any peace deal, anywhere. But a peace deal must, if one side is giving more than peace, include a promise of more than peace from the other side. The Taliban are free to move (and regroup, rearm, train, propagandize, and prepare in other ways) about all they want in Swat. In 2 short years, they were able to get Pakistan to "surrender" the area to direct Taliban rule. Why stop here? Without pressure from the state, the Taliban can grow more powerful. What if they want more next year? They have no incentive to follow the peace deal (why, just because they said they would?) Now there is a Sharia mini-state in Pakistan, at the heart of all the militants running around making trouble. Frankly, it's a complete disaster. And it's a terrible model for future Taliban negotiations.

The second major problem is that while there has been a lull in Swat, there has been an increase of activity elsewhere (and I dare you to tell me that they're not getting all sorts of support from Swat). Pakistan was probably hoping such appeasement would get other Taliban to calm down. Quite to the contrary! Once Taliban militants saw that sufficient mayhem would get one group what it wanted, it seems they have all put their chips down. The government cannot credibly tell these groups, "we will not make concessions." So they're going to try to milk the government for all it's worth. After killing 50 worshipers at a Mosque in Peshawar, Taliban abducted 12 police officers yesterday. In Lahore, Taliban killed 8 police cadets and wounded 50 in a raid on a police academy earlier today. The Taliban is trying to break the shoddy police and paramilitary services of Pakistan by making sure that citizens are too terrified to sign up. And they're doing a pretty good job. Pakistan has its tail between its legs.

Enter President Obama, with a brilliant new strategy for Afghanistan! Obama wants to "sharpen the focus" of the war, by concentrating military might on al-Qaeda, rather than the Taliban. This is based on the premise that the Taliban are generally this very large group of nationalists/religious nuts that really hate that the West is there, that happens to include a lunatic fringe (rather than, itself, being a small lunatic fringe). The premise is correct. The strategy stemming from this premise is absolutely absurd, for a number of reasons.

First, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are not very independent in the region. The Taliban leadership supports al-Qaeda. They always have. If we go smash up al-Qaeda members with some precision strikes, give the Taliban the thumbs up to take over the region, and then go home, what makes us think that al-Qaeda is not going to come back? Will the Taliban seriously devote any resources at all to rooting out and squelching an ideologically friendly organization that happens to love killing Westerners even more than the Taliban does? And furthermore, the Taliban is blowing us up not because we're shooting them, but because we're there at all. Obama wants to increase US troops by 150%, but not fight the Taliban! The Taliban won't stop attacking US troops simply because we promise we're only going after al-Qaeda. The concept is somewhat boggling.

There has been some hand-waving about negotiating with the Taliban, but we have no idea how to do that. They certainly don't want to negotiate with us--we're foreign infidels. And Karzai is a Western puppet. Even many of the MPs in his government think he's going to steal the next election. And, currently, we have no bargaining power with the Taliban. They're growing in size, influence, power. They're acting with impunity. Why would they negotiate when they could conquer? As far as I've learned, negotiations work well at a "hurting stalemate--" when both sides are stuck, grinding, bleeding, and not getting anywhere. This isn't the case. The Taliban are only going to negotiate in an acceptable way if they're hurting, too.

The Taliban should indeed have a political voice in the Afghani government, there's no doubt--but negotiations have to center on giving them political power in exchange for laying down their arms and/or joining government forces--just like with the Sunni extremists in Iraq (that became the famed Sons of Iraq / Sunni Reawakening). But it requires putting the hurt on. In Iraq, the Shiites and Sunnis were putting the hurt on each other. Right now, nobody's making the Taliban's life difficult, and they're starting to see evidence that they can take over.

But Obama's hand-wavings about negotiations may largely sum up to letting them take over Afghanistan, which I sincerely hope is not the case. The Taliban is, deep down, a religious extremist organization that hosted al-Qaeda and promoted anti-Western terrorism long before the US was anywhere near Afghanistan. Putting them in charge again won't make US future prospects terribly peachy.

The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are much stronger than those between Vietnam and Iraq, at least tactically. In Afghanistan, we see the same united, organized ideological insurgency that is based in a region we're not, but is relatively ubiquitous among the population. It's casualty-accepting, highly nationalist, and extraordinarily pissed. It's using sovereignty to its advantage, swimming through porous borders that the US cannot follow. President Obama no doubt sees these parallels. But he's drawing the wrong lessons--Obama's plan looks fatalistic: he is looking for a victory by making the victory standards absurdly low. But there is a big difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan--in Vietnam, leaving Communists in charge did precious little to the US but embarrass it. In Afghanistan, we are considering putting in charge an organization that is trying to take over Pakistan, and that has already shown full willingness to support organizations that would attack us on our own soil. And I think leaving them in charge will leave us more vulnerable than before we went in.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Obama's Economic Policies Alienate Rest of World

As much as Obama's domestic critics may be criticizing his policies for having a European socialist tone, it is becoming increasingly clear that the road that Mr. Obama is marching down seems so destructive that the rest of the world--socialist and communist alike--is rallying to criticize it, perhaps in the dim hopes of reversing it.

Obviously, China is not thrilled. China worries that the massive static reserves built up by panicked money-printing by the US Treasury, bailout-tossing by Congress, and Stimulating by the President, will lead to enormous inflation once US money velocity increases. Enormous inflation will gravely devalue the US dollar, giving China two serious problems: first, its large reserves of US bonds will be worthless. Second, it will become extremely difficult to export anything to the US if the dollar is weak against the yuan. There are people that would tell you this is a good thing, but these people would be wrong. In response to the spendthrift policies of the new administration, China has called for a "global super-currency" to replace the dodgy dollar. And before you give China a hard time for being simply selfish, note that the United Nations is making a report recommending that the entire world ditch the dollar, too.

Even Europe is fed up with US spending. EU (and Czech) President Topolanek called US spending a "road to hell," saying that bailouts and obsessive stimulating will nuke the world economy. Frankly, he's probably right. The Japanese are trying to quietly remind the United States about Japan's lost two decades, where they tried time and time again with no avail to stimulate their way out of recession and stagnancy.

Why is US spending bad for Europe? There are a few reasons. First, the state propping up broken financial companies with money that does not exist is a bold form of anti-competition. Europe is resisting the temptation to dump tons of money into most of its sectors, financial and auto-making sectors included. But European companies that were otherwise able to weather the storm will suffer if they are not able to compete with US companies that are receiving subsidies that are nearing 10% of the US GDP. It goes without saying that such propping-up decreases market growth opportunities for companies that managed to not drop the ball; it creates perverse incentives for American business executives (because currently, the way to make lots of money quick is to make your company look like it's broken and needy, rather than strong and efficient); it will lead to horrifying inflation down the line; and, of course, "buy American" policies sprinkled all over the stimulus plan will grossly damage developing nations and anyone that depends on exports, as well as generally shrink the world economy.

So, the President's (and Congress', to be fair) policies are doing very little to improve the US image abroad--and very little to help the world economy. As much as promises of free money now are keeping Obama's US constituency opiated and placated for now, those abroad that are not receiving these checks are much more cognisant of the terrible consequences of reckless spending and panicked economic intervention. When socialists and communists around the world are uniting to tell you to free your markets, perhaps it is time to consider that you're doing something wrong.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The War for Iran's Future

Mr. Obama's current "overtures" (as the Media seems fond of saying, this week) towards Iran have seemed somewhat naive. Simple rhetoric with Iran has proved grossly ineffective. And opening salvos of generosity with the country tend to leave the United States in a much worse bargaining position than it began, with little to show for it (see: Jimmy Carter). Potetntially, tit-for-tat deals, struck in series, could lead to a gentle "unwinding" of the currently-tense relationship between Iran and the United States.

I thought for some time that Mr. Obama's apparent optimism was due to a lack of understanding about the history of the Iran-US relationship. Many people I know think that it was Mr. Bush's placing of Iran on the "Axis of Evil" that caused relations to sour, but I'm not sure they've ever been good. The Clinton years were a period of marked denial by the West over how the non-West felt about the West (and the US in particular). Tehran was quite thrilled when the WTC fell--long before the Axis of Evil.

But while content to hold an opinion of naivete for the inexperienced American president, I was jostled recently by hearing that French president Nicholas Sarkozy was on board with Obama's plan to open up the Iranians. This seemed strange--Mr. Sarkozy is quite the conservative, recently re-joined full NATO command after 43 years of absence, and was probably the leading voice in Europe calling to deliver tough sanctions to Iran for its nuclear program. It made me think a bit.

In June, Iran holds its presidential elections. Back when Mr. Obama was elected, folks gathered in the streets of Tehran to vent their cautious optimistic energy. They tuned in to Voice of America to get the US scoop. They got excited.

Sadly, such excitement didn't mean too much, but Mr. Obama is likely trying to take advantage of it. By extending his hand to the Iranian people rather than its leadership, and in particular by giving an address that outlined specific policy changes necessary to put Iran on good terms with the West, Mr. Obama (in his video address) did a few things simultaneously. First, he snubbed Iranian leadership and made it clear that they were far too conservative and oppressive. Second, he specifically outlined what the US was offering, and in the light of current trade sanctions and general isolationism, it seems like a lot. Third, the US cast the first stone, but made it clear that a strong response was necessary--indeed, it is clear that Mr. Obama is putting himself out on a limb.

And I think that Mr. Obama got the response that he was looking for. Iranian leadership did not laugh off the video, but it did make some pretty bold demands of policy change--offering only talks or negotiations in return. The current Iranian leadership does indeed want a dialogue with the US, but feels it must stand firm against the US, lest it give credit to its moderate parties. But if Mr. Obama's videotape can ring true among the Iranian people, then Tehran's leadership clamming up will give all the credit to Iran's moderates that they need. Tehran must walk a very fine line, now. But if they are not able to, they must make a choice: balk and concede a friendly attitude and open negotiations, or remain rigid and unmoved, causing already-weary Iranian citizens to question their leadership right before the election.

So it looks like all of Mr. Obama's talk may be part of a very quiet war for Iran's future, fought through diplomacy. Should he be successful, he will have landed a victory (though a relatively small one) on the long-time agenda of conservatives in the US: regime change in Iran. Mr. Obama is in no particular rush to have these talks, but the Iranian leadership may be. Over the next few months, Obama can simply continue to put pressure-with-a-smile on Tehran, and hope that they make a mistake in either direction. In the words of the US President that Obama admires most: "Heads I win, tails you lose."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Western IGOs' Misguided Altruism May Doom Darfur

As you, dear reader, probably know by now, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on March 4th. I'll admit, even I was a bit excited over the matter, when it was first leaked. Though Mr. Bashir's reaction to the leak (before the point of no return on unsealing the warrant) started to worry me, and it turns out there were good grounds for such worry.

The ultimate problem with such a warrant is that it greatly escalates a conflict between Sudan's government and the International Community. For Bashir himself, it takes away any residual incentive that might have possibly been left for him to cooperate, therefore turning him into a rational--and dangerous--rogue actor (this failure to understand incentives is actually something I have had the opportunity to criticize the UN and ICC on in a report that we haven't published openly yet). Now Bashir has every incentive in the world to make sure that people with a loyalty to an ICC member state, the UN, or the International Community in general is expelled from the country, lest they are able to find a way to make his life more difficult, or make sure he is arrested. And, given that he is not being given any options to win his way to redemption, he has no incentive to make his life even marginally more difficult to be helpful (even in cases that might not directly endanger his life or freedom).

Furthermore, it gives him perverse domestic incentives. As much as it is surprising to believe, Bashir has an electing constituency, and is facing elections this very year! And, indeed, he is using the ICC's action to whip up nationalist fervor in Sudan. For the moment, Sudan's executive electoral system is still one-vote majoritarian run-off (meaning that each person votes once, and the winner is that with 50% of the vote; if they do not get 50%, the top two candidates run-off), and the Arabic-speaking-Muslim population of Sudan is well more than 50% of the country. And they're not happy. The warrant is seen as a pinnacle of international meddling in what many Sudanese see as a nasty civil war, started and perpetuated by non-patriotic Darfurian rebels (which is a partially-true story of the civil war). To get an idea of why this reaction is happening, imagine if the ICC had issued a warrant for the arrest of President Bush, while he was about to run for re-election. Suddenly, his decision to (probably) torture captured combatants, and his War in Iraq that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths becomes much less important than the fact that Europe is trying to actually gank the American president, while in power, humiliate the country, and throw him in jail. Now imagine you've been told that Europeans are out to crush your very religion, and that they are primarily responsible for your economic woes (of which you have many). Then imagine that you have been fighting some sort of civil war for the last 30 years, and how much you actually care about collateral damage. Then you'll get some idea of how well-received this warrant might be among the larger chunk of Sudanese people.

So, it's out with foreign aid agencies. In addition to protecting himself from potential agents of the ICC, Bashir is using a strong response as a sign that he's "not going to take it anymore" from seemingly condescending, cappuccino-sipping, Ivory-Tower Europeans, and that's going to make him outrageously popular. Also, he's marking a deterrent, for what it's worth. The ICC and UN are not the same body, but they're much like two cousins that you have a lot of trouble telling apart. Oh, and by the way: it was the UN Security Council that unanimously referred the Darfur case to the ICC (the ICC would have been powerless without that referral). So now that the UN has decided to try and mess with Bashir and the sovereign leadership of his country, it's actually a pretty popular move to boot out everyone even remotely related to the UN or ICC, if for no other reason than to teach them a lesson, and to not be a sucker.

So, the ICC, and the UN, have indirectly (though rather clumsily) made life a lot harder for the victims of the Darfur war. Lots of critical aid is either gone, or will be within a year. Food will stop being delivered, refugee camps will stop being protected, civil service will fall apart, etc etc. It will be bad. Heck, even the Obama administration's plans are being derailed by the expulsion of NGOs and aid groups. Lots of people are going to suffer. The ICC could probably cut a deal with Bashir and withdraw the warrant in exchange for a reinstatement of all these aid programs, but it won't do that. And, to be fair, it probably can't--it would destroy forever what little effectiveness the ICC and the UN may now have. But they played chicken with Omar al-Bashir, and for now, he will probably sleep well knowing that all those that slighted him are bearing great guilt over the excess death and suffering of millions of people.

Now, many will say, "hold on, this is Justice." And indeed, it is, and Justice needs be served, in particular to make the next genocidal maniac tinpot dictator think twice about doing this ever again--because, indeed, Bashir deserves a thousand life sentences, and more. And, more importantly, we want to have institutional capabilities to make sure this doesn't happen again.

But, as they say, discretion is the better part of valour. And the ICC this month has forgotten their discretion in the name of glory and grandstanding. The timing could not have been worse. Bashir is up for re-election this late spring or early summer, and is constantly campaigning. He obviously can't afford to look weak. Additionally, the Darfurians and Sudanese had literally just sat down in Qatar and agreed to new rounds of peace talks--talks that the JEM felt might finally end their impetus to fight, and, at the very least, end government support of the Janjaweed. Additionally, just when the UN needs the help of the African Union, Sudan's neighbors, and the international community, it has managed to fully alienate almost every predominantly-Muslim state in Africa. (Eg: Egypt, the Arab League)

Perhaps not all of these outcomes were predictable, but some of them certainly were, and it boggles the mind to think that nobody clever in the UN or the ICC though that a genocidal maniac dictator might find a way to react negatively to a warrant for his arrest by a bunch of Europeans. The ICC even has the discretion to keep a warrant sealed, and they chose to unseal it. Waiting, in this case, would have been wise--at least to see where the new Qatari peace talks were going.

But, today, the UN and the ICC stand guilty of grossly misguided altruism. A "we must do something" attitude can so often lead to terrible consequences, and here they come. This warrant may have set back the Darfur peace process, aid and relief process, and even justice process farther than it has been set back in a long time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Big Reset?

Mrs. Clinton recently visited Russia's Foreign Minister (Mr. Lavrov) in Moscow with a gift--a big red button. In English, it said "Reset." But in Russian, the word was closer to "overload" or "overcharge." It was, of course, a gaffe. And indeed, whatever translator gave her that button has probably been sacked. Mrs. Clinton was able to laugh it off, but the button may be more telling than we'd like to admit. The Big Reset, with more than just Russia, is off to a rocky start.

Russia: Medvedev and Putin gave Mr. Obama a grand raised eyebrow when Mr. Obama's letter to Moscow was leaked. While the Russians are not thrilled about the missile shield in Eastern Europe, they know the US is much more worried about Iran than Moscow is of Poland. Russia is going to try to squeeze Washington, and by being the first to balk and ask for a deal, the US injures its bargaining position. Now this may be worth it. But exactly how much can the US and Russia cooperate? The BBC has a pretty good article teasing out points of contention and cooperation, but there's not a whole lot that looks like the US and Russia can make relations immediately peachy, unless the US sells itself and its allies out.

Iran: Obama's Iran policy seems schizophrenic. Indeed, he seems to be taking a tough or soft stance on Iran depending on who he's talking to. To the Iranians, he looks to be offering his hand in friendship, trying to open an Embassy, and seeking Iranian help on Afghanistan. At the same time, he is asking the Russians to lean on the Iranians about Tehran's nuclear program, and trying to calm the Israelis on the Iranian issue by promising a tough stance (and calling Iran a "Grave Threat"). Iran has picked up on this, shockingly enough, and has said that Obama is "just as warmongering" as Bush. Mr. Obama is starting to find out that his charisma is not going to get him as far abroad as it does in the US--he cannot simply show up on the scene and improve prickly relations without delivering on policy.

Taliban: Surprisingly, it may be the Taliban with whom the US has the greatest hopes of a serious reset. Mr. Biden may be a bit optimistic when he sees a conversion of 70% of all Taliban fighters given the right incentives, but he has a good point. The Sons of Iraq program helped to end the Civil War in Iraq by giving disenfranchised Sunnis a chance to participate in the government, make enough money to feed their families, and keep their neighborhoods safe. Trying to co-opt moderate Taliban elements is similarly possible. The big difference: In Iraq, Sunni leaders were willing to wheel and deal with the US and Baghdad, and gave the Sons of Iraq program their blessing--the fringe elements were not running the show. In Pakistan, these fringe elements are largely in charge--without their blessing, co-opting the "moderate" Taliban is going to be a fair bit harder.

The US does indeed need a reset with Russia, Iran, and the Taliban, lest life become a lot more difficult in the near future. Obama's recent attempts to cause these resets look largely rhetorical--perhaps he is waiting for lengthly talks before he proposes policy changes. But no reset will happen if policy stays the same--Iran has made this completely clear. This fact will force the Obama administration to have to make a tough choice--while he has an opportunity to make a policy reset, he'll actually have to ask if a good relationship with each of these countries is even possible without placing unacceptable costs on the US or its allies.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Obama's Very Quiet Olive Branch to Moscow

Obama recently sent a letter to Moscow. Presidents do this quite often. As far as I know, we even have a red phone to Moscow in the Oval Office today.

But this letter is a special one. And it was supposed to be a very quiet one. Somehow, through journalistic voodoo and heka magic, the New York Times happened across the contents. It looks, for the moment, that Mr. Obama was quietly implying that the US would halt and undo its missile defense placements in Europe in exchange for Russia making sure that Iran would not be able to build ballistic missiles.

The implications are interesting. First, about the leak--it is unclear whether the letter was supposed to be leaked or not. Intentional leaks are common, in order to let the state throw its hands up and say, "we didn't mean to publicize this," and so further questions are not pressured. This may be an intentional leak--it may be an attempt to show Eastern Europe, Russia, et al, that the missile shield is not intended as an anti-Russian initiative (even though it is). This potentially gives Obama some political traction for continuing the project, should it seem necessary.

But it also makes the shield a bargaining chip with Russia. Obama says, "we know you don't like it, but hey, it's for Iran, so if you can just make that problem go away, we won't need it anymore, and we'll stop spending money on it." It means that, if the Russians choose to (and indeed, are able to) deal with the Iranians, then Obama is willing to reprioritize on defense. The likelihood that the Russians are actually going to engage in ballistic missile brinksmanship bargaining is low... but it is not so low for the Iranians. Furthermore, the EU is actually collectively strong enough to stand up to the Russians if they are willing to get their hands dirty, where Israel is less able to do so (even if much more willing).

So Obama knows that today, one needs to sidle up to the Russians, and pressure the Iranians. Obviously, this is tough to do. Medvedev, when questioned about the leak, mostly shrugged at the situation and said that "nothing concrete" was in the letter. He knows that he is in a relatively good relative bargaining position, and is not ready to yet show his hand.

But ultimately, the missile shield in Eastern Europe is something that the Russians are willing to do a lot to get rid of. In a somewhat ironic way, Mr. Obama can thank Mr. Bush for leaving the incomplete missile shield behind so that he, in the nicest way possible, can use it as a lever to pry Moscow.