Monday, December 29, 2008


If you are unclear about the meaning of the word "terrorism," read the following quote from an Israeli newspaper:

"To pick a time like this, 11:30 [A.M.], to bomb in the hearts of cities, this is terrible. This choice was intended to cause as large a massacre as possible," [Dr. Haidar Eid] summed up.

Abu Muhammad was 200 meters from the hospital, when an awful sound was heard: Three large police centers which were bombed, were located close to the hospital. "Within seconds, this was a little Baghdad, bombs everywhere, smoke, fire, people not knowing where to hide. Fear everywhere, and rage and hatred," he said. He himself ran to his daughters' school, like tens of thousands of other parents in the Strip. From 11:25 until 11:30, as some 50 warplanes bombed their targets, hundreds of thousands of children were in the streets. Some were coming from the first shift of classes, others were going to the second. "In the schoolyard I saw 500 frightened girls, crying. They did not know me, but clung to me..."

For more details on Gaza, see this summary.

U.S. Troop Shortage & Recession: Unrelated Facts?

EXCERPT: Fact one: Washington rush to bail out the rich when the financial crisis hit. Fact two: relative to its global ambitions, Washington has a military manpower shortage. Fact three: the recession is leading to rising enlistments in the military. Proof of a connection? No. Nevertheless, might it tempt expansion-minded officials to welcome the recession?

TEXT: Washington’s response to the financial crisis has provoked considerable criticism over the past three months as Americans saw the rush of the Washington elite to protect their colleagues who control Wall Street firms and banks contrasting with the elite’s slow, halting steps to alleviate the suffering of common citizens. The absence of any genuine efforts to hold accountable the captains of finance for provoking this crisis by their knowingly risky behavior and the glaringly obvious lack of controls on how they will spend their bailout billions hardly need reiterating at this point. Whether or not this was an intentional effort by the rich to help themselves is perhaps still a point for debate, but the fact of how Washington responded to the crisis is now rather obvious.

A second fact that has recently become so clear that the media could hardly overlook it is the paucity of U.S. military forces relative to the demands of Washington’s expansionist agenda. For the incoming Obama Administration to frame the issue in terms of removing soldiers—who, one might think, now deserve a vacation—from Iraq in order to ship them to Afghanistan only underscores this shocking lack of manpower relative to ambition.

These two facts appear unrelated until one considers a third fact: the Pentagon has just reported that enlistments are up in response to the financial crisis!

The existence of this interesting third fact, which just happens to solve the problem posed by the second fact does not prove evil intent:

  • The rise in enlistments does not prove that Washington planned the financial crisis that it caused through a generation of rejecting regulation of the financial elite, encouraging the population to live beyond its means, and borrowing from the People’s Republic of China to fund overseas adventures.
  • It also does not prove that Washington’s scandalous handout of (again) unregulated billions to the CEO’s who had just showed themselves to be incompetent was designed to keep the elite in comfort while provoking continuation of financial distress for the rest of the population.

Whatever the truth of those issues, the convenient solution to the Pentagon’s manpower problem now evidently being provided by the financial crisis does raise this question: might it tempt an expansion-minded official to see the financial crisis as a blessing in disguise? After all, given the absence of a draft, all those foreign wars cause members of the elite no more personal harm than does the financial crisis itself. In truth, the foreign wars are highly profitable to the elite, who circulate between leadership positions in government and the military-industrial complex; similarly, the financial crisis seems to have been highly profitable to the elite, almost none of whom have so far been forced to fall on their swords in recognition of the enormous harm their limitless greed has caused. And as long as the unemployed are volunteering to fight those wars, there will be no need to engage in agonizing reappraisals to come up with a new foreign policy that would be, shall we say, more cognizant of global realities and U.S. capabilities.

So far, these are just a group of facts; no causal relationship has been demonstrated. Watch Washington’s behavior over the next three months to see if it matches the behavior of the last three months:
  • Look for the balance between funds made available to the “captains of finance” and funds made available to commoners (by new policies to, e.g., ensure that the unemployed and underemployed retain health coverage, ensure that those unfairly facing foreclosure because they lost jobs through no fault of their own have help to keep their homes, ensure protection of retirement benefits).
  • Look for steps to track the expenditure of bailout funds.
  • Look to see if distinctions are made between protecting individuals responsible for the totally unnecessary financial crisis we are in and protecting the institutions that they lead.
  • Look for moves away from foreign policy based on military solutions and hubris toward foreign policy based on realism that searches for compromise.

In such evidence will be found answers to the question of whether the elite comes down on the side of protecting Americans or pursuing its own agenda.

Review of the News: Gaza

Review of the News

Confused about what is really going on? Want a bottom line put in context so you can quickly understand the key turning points leading to what happened and get back to your life? Try this blog’s new quickie review of the news.

The Event: Israel Attacked Gaza on Dec 27
The Reason: To prevent Hamas from ruling Gaza effectively.
A. Actually let the democratically elected Hamas try its hand at the sobering process of governing under continued Israeli oversight.
B. Persuade Egypt or the U.N. to take responsibility and give up its illegal occupation of Palestine (or perhaps just Gaza).

The Background:
Hamas participates in elections. In 2006 traditionally violence-prone Palestinian resistance group Hamas accepted the Washington/Tel Aviv invitation for it to enter the democratic process and play by their rules: it participated in Palestinian national elections…and, to the chagrin of Washington and Tel Aviv, won.

Israel declares economic war. Unwilling to accept its own democratic rules, Israel promptly launched economic warfare against Gaza, turning it increasingly into a concentration camp for the 1.5 million residents, and provoked a split between Hamas (the electoral winner) and Fatah (the electoral loser). Collective punishment was Israel’s weapon to prevent democratically-elected Hamas from governing.

Hamas returns to violence. Prevented by Israel from ruling peacefully, Hamas lost control of the West Bank but took over Gaza. Unable to rule in the face of Israeli economic warfare against the whole population of Gaza and unable to persuade Israel to allow Gaza even basic autonomy or access to the outside world (food, energy, medicine), much less its freedom, Hamas returned to violence.

Israel attacks. Intent on preventing Hamas from creating a successful administration over Gaza, Israel abruptly intensified its combination of economic warfare plus small scale military attacks, carrying out an aerial massacre, targeting Hamas government buildings and police installations.

Lame Duck, Lame Reasoning: Needlessly Prolonging the Agony of Gaza

Sure, President Bush, it is up to Hamas to stop fighting first, then perhaps the Israeli masters of colonial Gaza will suddenly shift from decades of oppression to ending their illegal occupation. And the trouble-making inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto should have cooperated with the Nazis. It is the duty of the weak, the poor, the occupied, the imprisoned, the despised to be cooperative; only then will the possibility of equality, freedom, justice be entertained…if and when the powerful find it convenient. If the weak, poor, occupied, imprisoned, despised want even a taste of the treatment their masters take for granted, then they must earn the right by being nice. Getting angry when you are oppressed is not nice; fighting back is not nice; refusing to submit is not nice. Using weapons against your oppressors who ignore you when you are quiescent and subvert you when you play by their rules is not nice. The people of Gaza have no business expecting such luxuries as airports, electricity, a government that can collect taxes, freedom from aerial bombardment, or international trade because Hamas is not nice.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Complexity Theory & Conflict on the Pakistan-Afghan Border

EXCERPT: The conflict in Tribal Pakistan between the West and radical Islam is characterized above all by confusion and misperception. Complexity theory offers an array of concepts that can call attention to critical questions that must be asked if we are to find our way out of this dangerously intensifying crisis.

TEXT: The conflict in the Pakistani-Afghan border region seems characterized above all by misunderstanding of reality. One key to understanding is asking the right questions. Confusion about what actions to take to achieve national goals is rampant; the effects of actions taken are appalling; the outcomes of policies repeatedly prove harmful to the very actor who adopted the policy. It is evident that mankind needs to view global affairs in a new way, to ask deeper questions in hopes of opening doors to obtaining more helpful answers.

Complexity theory offers a rich array of concepts that can help us ask deeper questions. Taken together, these concepts argue for viewing world politics increasingly as a group of tightly bound actors evolving together, characterized more by context than their innate nature, vulnerable to surprise from new groups whose members decide independently to organize themselves in new ways and for new purposes. These concepts argue further for assuming that substantive consequences can arise, sometimes rapidly, from initially minor conditions and that organizations and countries will have a dangerous tendency to push themselves to limits beyond which catastrophe is almost unavoidable.

The resultant picture of the 21st century world of high technology, instant communication, dense international connectivity at all levels of society, and universal education is one of a political world not only constantly evolving but evolving more rapidly, where actors can change course abruptly, policies that worked can suddenly fail, and success will go to the nimble. To understand the political world now coming into being, we need to learn how to use these new analytical tools from complexity theory (interdependence of parts, criticality, adaptation, co-evolution, self-organization, nonlinearity, criticality, and emergence). This post will launch a new series considering how various concepts from complexity theory apply to the conflict currently under way in the region comprising the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that may for simplicity be referred to as “Tribal Pakistan.”

Interdependence of Parts. When pushed, we may all recognize that everything has at least some influence in world affairs on everything else, but typically most people assume their own country has a fixed nature independent of the rest of the world. Most people also all too easily slip into the assumption that all parts of a foreign country share a set of defining characteristics. Complexity theory’s concept of interdependent parts sets a different baseline: unless you happen to have specific evidence to the contrary for a given case, assume all components in a class are the same.

Interdependence in the Tribal Pakistan Conflict System
Taking the high-level perspective, consider the complex system to be defined as encompassing all actors involved in the socio-political system of Tribal Pakistan, i.e., including al Qua’ida, Western military forces, India. Interdependence tells us that all components will change as a result of their involvement. This raises questions some may find troubling, e.g., not just how will the military confrontation between al Qua’ida and Washington change Tribal Pakistani society but how will American pursuit of military victory in Tribal Pakistan change America?

Co-evolution. The conventional perspective denies that "we" can be influenced by the enemy. The complexity perspective sees actors adapting to respond not only to others but to their perceptions of how others will adapt.

Co-evolution in the Tribal Pakistan Conflict System
Co-evolution differs slightly from “interdependence” in that it emphasizes not just the linkage among components but the potential for joint evolution in a particular direction. Without involvement in a war against Islamic radicals in Tribal Pakistan, the U.S. might evolve, say, toward improved middle-class democracy, while Tribal Pakistan might evolve toward greater integration with the rest of Pakistan or perhaps remain in stasis, unaffected by the outside world.

With such involvement, on the other hand, the two may form a new two-body system with its own “gravitational momentum” that propels the two in some new direction, e.g., mutually antagonistic religious fundamentalism plus rising acceptance of a new social norm that approves of increasingly unrestrained violence against enemies. In other words, a vicious cycle will be generated in which violence by A may provoke violence by B, and therefore further violence by A, with both societies ending up reaching some psychological, cultural position that neither intended or, in the beginning, would have considered morally acceptable.

The co-evolution may alter the nature of each side; it may also alter the perception each side has of the other. One result of a subtle co-evolutionary process (almost a redundancy since I would suggest that any co-evolutionary social dynamic is highly likely to be a very subtle process) that alters mutual perceptions is the creation of a Twilight Zone conflict in which each side perceives itself to be battling against a monstrous enemy that in reality does not exist. The fact that the enemy is not as perceived of course in no way minimizes the expense of fighting; it just makes the fight pointless. This is obviously an unfortunate situation: innocents or neutrals are killed in the mistaken perception that they are dangerous enemies. As they are killed, their deaths--perceived as useful--are counted as achievements when they are in fact just more gasoline poured on the flames.

To summarize this point, two dangers exist. First, the two sides may in fact be unaware that they are truly themselves turning into dangerous monsters that must be slain as the result of the conflict itself, not due to any fault in their original nature. Second, the two sides may mistakenly perceive each other to be so evolving. The fiercer the combat, the harder it is to stop and take an honest look at the situation--at the nature of the enemy, at the causes for the enemy’s nature, and at the behavior of oneself.

In each society there will no doubt be certain actors who consider such an evolution highly desirable: al Qua’ida hoping to gain political ground for one, some members of Western military-industrial complexes hoping to profit economically from the chaos for another. Broader society should think carefully about the fact that complexity theory predicts the danger of such an unintended co-evolution into new territory, consider which actors on each side benefit from it, and ask if such a co-evolutionary path is a price worth paying.

Many questions that need to be asked about the conflict flow from the above theoretical discussion:

  • Is the conflict creating a new society that the world may find much more problematic than the current one? A simple answer would be, “Yes – Tribal Pakistan is becoming fractured, deprived, and radicalized.” That is an assumption on my part. How might we test this assumption? Would a series of polls of the political attitudes of the some 400,000 refugees from the fighting in Bajaur be a worthwhile investment?
  • Might some change in tactics positively impact such an evolutionary process? Would a massive aid program to ensure that those refugees have warm tents before the already on-coming winter save the world from a new flow of recruits for al Qua’ida next summer?
  • Are these questions so sophisticated that decision makers simply cannot understand them or do decision makers know perfectly well that their military approach to conflict “resolution” provokes chaos and are them perhaps using those tactics intentionally, in pursuit of some hidden agenda (e.g., the extension of military bases to control international oil routes)?
  • Are the youth of Tribal Pakistan joining extremist groups because al Qua’ida propagandists and the rain of Predator missiles is convincing them that Washington is some sort of non-existent monster? If so, how might Washington convince them of their mistake?
  • Is Washington battling a mythical enemy with its relentless insistence on calling all opponents in Tribal Pakistan “the Taliban” as though all were part of a single organization composed of uniform individuals? There is plenty of evidence that the group of people willing to take up arms against Western or Pakistani forces contains a wide variety of groups, from those true monsters who throw acid in the faces of young girls to unemployed men who have no source of income but robbing military convoys. Might it be beneficial to make such distinctions? In the field, exactly how might one do this? NATO is already paying protection money to “the Taliban,” according to press reports. That is certainly one answer. Are there better answers?

Complexity theory does not provide answers; it does, however, offer a rich framework for identifying critical questions that otherwise can all too easily be overlooked. Watch for further posts on additional concepts from complexity theory that address aspects of the conflict in Tribal Pakistan that desperately cry for attention.

Friday, December 19, 2008

South Asian Marshall Plan

EXCERPT: A "South Asian Marshall Plan" would be a more reliable route to security for both the West and the South Asian region than the current approach of endless war. The current attempt to defeat terrorists through violence plays into the terrorists' hands, costs a great deal, and fails to address the issues that generate the violence in the first place.

NOTE: Thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing the original version of this essay.

TEXT: Although thinking Americans always found the trickle-down theory of wealth (let the rich get richer and enough will trickle down to satisfy the “lower classes”) highly insulting and detrimental to American democracy, the U.S. and the rest of the West have long practiced trickle-down toward the developing world. The revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the spread of civil war in tribal Pakistan, and the “canary-in-the-mine” terrorist attack against anyone and everyone within range in Mumbai (not to mention the disastrous rise in the price of grain) together suggest that perhaps conditions are now getting so bad in South Asia that it is time for the West to accept that it must replace the convenient concept of letting drips of Western wealth trickle down to the “developing” (or, today, in some cases—thanks to Western behavior--“declining”) world with a policy of helping them catch up.

Such a “Manhattan Project for the Poor” or “South Asian Marshall Plan” policy of self-discipline and generosity on the part of the West could of course be phrased in moral terms, but my argument rests on security.

The West today is spending enormous sums to defend its interests in South Asia. The Afghan War has cost the U.S. an estimated $184 billion. NATO allies are spending additional billions, with Canada alone having already spent an estimated $18 billion. The conflict is costing Pakistan itself $6 billion per year—this for a country whose inability to fund government services for its poverty-stricken border regions is one of the primary causes of the war in the first place. According to a Pakistani Ministry of Finance official, “the loss of lives and economic cost imposed by the war is now rising to an unbearable level.” With both the Taliban and Washington intent on expanding the conflict, the costs can only go up. Indeed, British costs are symptomatic, seeing a 50% rise in 2008, to an annual cost of $3.5 billion.

One can only imagine the social stability that could be achieved by using such sums to provide economic security to the people of South Asia. One cannot know if this would work, but it is very clear that the alternative—a rising tide of war against all those who protest current conditions—is not working. Rather, it is visibly worsening both local conditions and the security of the West itself. As for local conditions, 60% of FATA’s several million residents (population estimates vary widely) live below Pakistan’s poverty line. And that figure was derived before Pakistan’s brutal August military offensive in Bajaur Agency that left several hundred thousand people homeless. In the words of researcher Ahmed Humayun, who recently returned to the U.S. from the region, “Refugees are scattered across NWFP and eastern Afghanistan, desperately seeking shelter in improvised camps with no electricity or running water. Women find it difficult to maintain veiled segregation, a deep affront to conservative tribal sensibilities.” As usual, despite the approach of winter, funds are being channeled to the military rather than the refugees. What impact this will have on future Taliban recruiting can only be imagined. As for Western security, the Mumbai tragedy speaks for itself.

The logic of this argument rests on the assumption that violence comes from resentment, which in turn comes from a degree of injustice that is both significant and visible. Of course, it is most convenient for the lucky (i.e., Westerners) to pretend that those committing violence against the West and its proxies and allies “come out of the blue,” as some thoughtlessly claimed after 9/11. Despite the hard lessons of the last seven years, wishful thinking seems to continue. In an individual case, that could theoretically be true: one individual might choose terror because of mental instability or some personal grievance. But those who self-servingly make the claim that the West bears no responsibility because terrorism comes out of the blue have never been able to explain why leaders advocating such violence (whatever their personal motivations may be) are finding such an endless supply of recruits willing to give up their lives. Until such Westerners can come up with a plausible argument, it seems reasonable to go with the obvious one: they volunteer to die because they are angry and desperate.

Now that we are past that issue, the challenge becomes one of understanding what makes them angry and desperate. In South Asia, the answer is a bit complicated (i.e., you have to be aware of several different things at the same time), but it is not really all that hard and is certainly no secret.

Many volumes have already been written about the details and more should be, but those details are not critical. The basic message (whether you, dear reader, happen to be just a taxpayer or a president-elect) is that the following are the components (ALL of which must be considered simultaneously [to the attention-challenged, my apologies, but this is the way the world works; if you don’t like it, go to the mall and let someone else make decisions in Washington]):

  • Self-Determination for Kashmir, whose people were cheated out of promised self-determination by Nehru and have been victimized ever since;
  • Economic Security – rapidly declining throughout the region over the last two years because of the rising price of grain (in great measure as a result of Western desires to use valuable agricultural land to produce biofuels);
  • Ethnic Nationalism – thanks to the very conscious British colonial decision to split the Pashtun people up, some going to Pakistan and the rest to Afghanistan; (An estimated 7 million Pashtuns live in the FATA, in addition to 28 million in the Northwest Frontier Province [NWFP] and 15 million in neighboring Afghanistan.);
  • Religious Nationalism – thanks to colonial British policy, exploitation of Hindu nationalism by Indian politicians, Pakistani military exploitation of Moslem nationalism;
  • Poor Governance of Pakistan’s Tribal Regions – due to lack of interest by Pakistani regimes in providing good governance and economic security for its Pashtun tribal people that it has nevertheless insisted upon retaining within the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state.

That’s about it. Those are the basic issues that need to be addressed. Yes, of course, al Qua’ida is in the region, taking advantage of all the above for its own purposes. Indeed, given all the above grievances, how could it resist? Yes, of course, the West is in the region interfering with local agendas as it pursues its own agenda. Yes, of course, Indian and Pakistani politicians exploit regional tensions, inciting communal hatred for personal gain and, perhaps, out of genuine concern over security; India makes matters worse with its uncompromising treatment of Kashmiris, and Pakistan makes matters worse with its insistence on resolving the Kashmir issue through force. South Asia is, despite India’s admirable record of democracy and recent Pakistani steps in that direction, a black hole of injustice that sucks in every troublemaker in the universe.

I intend no disrespect whatsoever to all the admirable people of the region who are clearly aware of the problems and doing everything they can to address them; quite the contrary. I am making the point that the existence of this degree of injustice generates an irresistible gravitational force attracting both troublemakers and those willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for justice. Indeed--as is true precisely in the case of Lashkar-e-toiba, which has helped victims of natural disasters, fought for Kashmiri freedom, and no doubt committed acts of terrorism, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

To evaluate the utility of a particular government policy (e.g., a Predator attack by Washington, an army campaign by Pakistan in its tribal regions, an Indian military strike on “terrorist training camps”), ask how it addresses these five basic issues. If it does not address them, then it probably makes the situation worse, i.e., it probably decreases the long-term security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the West.

How to resolve all these issues may not be obvious or simple, but the first clue lies in the word “simultaneously.” Much could be said about the fluidity of a complex adaptive system. To keep things simple, imagine that each of the above five issues is a balloon; the five balloons are connected and floating; you are standing on those balloons and realize they are all slowly losing air. Fortunately, you have the ability to pump air into the balloons. All must be pumped up simultaneously because otherwise the whole system will destabilize and you will tip off into the water.

Back to reality, a statement condemning attacks on India might be coupled with a statement condemning repression of Kashmiri civil liberties and condemning neglect of governance in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Backing for the maintenance of the arbitrary international borders that happen to exist might be combined with calls for local autonomy for, say, Kashmiris and Pashtuns. Aid might be offered on a regional basis in a way that required regional cooperation for all the most neglected areas rather than on a state-to-state basis as a reward for kowtowing to whatever arbitrary, short-term policy the donor state happened to have dreamed up.

The bottom line, then, is that the above five issues need to be addressed simultaneously to resolve the problem. It does not matter whether you define “the problem” as injustice for the people of South Asia or as terrorist attacks that hurt the West: same problem, same solution. The world has become so small and so aware of injustice that injustice in South Asia equals insecurity in the West.

Follow-Up: Dialogue and Research

The goals of this essay were to offer a treatment both balanced and simple, in hopes that this would provoke dialogue. Comments on imbalances or over-simplistic treatment of the issues will be warmly welcomed. Data to explore further will be even more welcome. If readers want a more formal dialogue than provided by comments, I would be happy to moderate it, perhaps on this blog. But much more is needed…

Determining how intervention of various types impacts this delicate situation merits significant research. A potentially valuable first step would be rigorous consideration of complexity theory concepts such as self-adaptation and emergence to provide an intellectual foundation for conducting a well-grounded scenario analysis. The facile but currently popular conclusion that since seven years of war has failed, the solution must be to have more war, seems somehow to miss the mark.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ominous Somali Crossroad

Somalia’s long struggle for survival in a hostile world seems about to get worse unless the world, which to date has exacerbated local problems, can carefully nurture the faint ray of light offered by negotiations among moderates occurring amidst general reorganization. [See also “Does Anyone Care About the Somali Disaster?”, Dec. 5; "The Other War Washington Is Losing," Nov. 26]

That forgotten “other war” in Somalia is about to get even worse…but a ray of light actually exists in Somalia’s long night. (Ethan Zukerman in an excellent review comes down on the very plausible side of getting worse.) At the moment, both the Islamic opposition and the internationally-recognized rump regime supported by the Ethiopian intervention force are reorganizing. The ray of hope is that moderates from the Islamic Courts Union and the rump government are talking and might be able to form a centrist regime.

Unfortunately, although Ethiopia has recently talking about withdrawing, it is actually reinforcing its army in Somalia, which is likely to spark more violence and undermine movement toward compromise. The Ethiopian intervention is what has been fueling the rising extremism over the past two years. More of the same is not likely suddenly to have the exact opposite impact. On the opposite side, the hard-line Islamist faction that emerged in response to the Ethiopian intervention, the Shabab, just declared an Islamic state in territory they control.

Therefore, the ray of light is likely quickly to be darkened: yes, a moderate middle of national reconciliation is emerging, including the prime minister of the rump government and a faction of the old ICU. Conversely, both the Ethiopians and the extreme Islamist faction are consolidating their positions even as peacekeeping efforts appear to be fading. Outside forces with the power to make a difference are happy to exploit Somalia for their broader goals but otherwise reluctant to get involved in any serious effort to restore peace to a society that outsiders have been abusing for so long.

This evidently delicate situation will require careful international handling--sensitivity to local conditions and willingness to listen to local grievances--to avoid intensifying the collapse of Somali society and to preserve what little movement toward peace now exists.

If Obama sincerely intends to “change,” the sudden fluidity in Somalia would make this an opportune moment for shifting Washington’s stance from hard-line reliance on military solutions in support of one side to a neutral search for a solution acceptable to a majority of Somali society.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time to Get Over The Idiotic "Capitalism vs. Socialism" Debate

Americans need to get beyond their hang-up over “socialism vs. capitalism.” We need to learn to discriminate: we need more socialism in health care and wealth distribution, more capitalism when it concerns bailing out the rich. Today we are getting the bad aspects of both socialism and capitalism without the good aspects of either. [See also Governing Ourselves, Dec 12.]

It’s not about socialism vs. capitalism. Both the childish American terror at the mention of the word “socialism” and its childish worship of the word “capitalism” only show the ignorance of Americans. The idea that a government policy is good because it is capitalistic and bad because it is socialistic is just as idiotic as the opposite argument, which for 70 years was made so vociferously by America’s mirror-image, the Soviets.

Capitalism is the pursuit of profit, which at its best generates marvelously efficient markets but at its worst generates child labor; wars of imperialism; and waves of unrestrained, depression-producing greed. Socialism is the pursuit of fairness, which at its best generates security, justice, and equality but at its worst protects industries that deserve to fail and condemns people to living in communal flats with shared bathrooms, dependent on government handouts for economic survival purchased at the price of loss of freedom. The great academic theories underlying each are equally vulnerable to abuse by greedy captains of industry and elitist politicians. The pollution of Soviet industry and the pollution of Western oil companies are equally poisonous. Soviet imperialism against East Europe in the name of Marxism and Western imperialism against oil producers in the name of democracy are equally dishonorable.

This fall’s bailout of Wall Street was not bad because it was socialistic; it was bad because it bailed out rich people who were knowingly gambling and should have been allowed to fail just as the unproductive industrial dinosaurs of Soviet industry should have been allowed to fail. Protecting the incompetent just because they are powerful is one of the evils of socialism. When the government of a capitalistic system does that, it is practicing socialism for sure, but that is not why the practice is bad. It is bad because, regardless of the system, incompetence should not be rewarded.

The issue in the U.S. today is not capitalism vs. socialism. The current economic crisis illustrates what happens when too much wealth is held by too few; the wealth needs to be spread around. The post-Reagan years of intentional government irresponsibility show that capitalism, by itself, is a lousy, dangerous, immoral system that we cannot afford. But the opposite extreme of letting the government control everything—economic choices, living style, politics, choice of reading material—was shown by the Soviet experience to be equally bad.

We need to become a little bit more mature. We need to learn to discriminate. When the issue concerns health care, economic security, or the behavior of entities with enormous power over people, a dash of socialism is essential to producing a well-flavored social stew:

  • Health care must be for everyone.
  • Minimal economic security must be granted to everyone (even mental patients, who otherwise become a public danger helplessly roaming the streets).
  • Entities with power (be they financial firms, automobile manufacturers, or ministries of internal security) must be regulated, inspected, checked, balanced, and made to behave transparently.

When the issue concerns civil rights, consumer choice, freedom to set up your own business, a dash of capitalism is essential to producing a well-flavored social stew:

  • the government needs to keep its distance from controlling what people say, read, write, or advocate;
  • the government needs to keep its distance from telling people what they can buy or sell;
  • the government needs to keep its distance from controlling all sources of production.

The problem in the U.S. today is not one of capitalism vs. socialism. Washington has for generations designed all manner of property protection, wealth preservation, foreign policy, trade policy, tax policy laws and actions with the express intent of giving rewards to the rich. Sure, that is socialism – but it is the bad side of socialism; socialism for the rich plus capitalism for the poor. Even the incredibly wealth oil companies get all manner of under-the-table socialist rewards from the Government. Of course, the government has also done much for the poor (otherwise, we would have long since had our own communist revolution). But the 40% of Americans without health care need more socialism, while Wall Street millionaires and oil companies deserve less.

The problem today in the U.S. is that Washington is practicing the bad aspects of socialism and capitalism while evading the good aspects of each. We are increasingly getting the worst of both worlds.

Victory in FATA: One Toothache at a Time

The way to win the conflict with terrorists is not through a military
struggle for domination but through social networks - one tribesman with a
toothache, one unemployed father, one schoolchild at a time. Sustained, low-key, flexible, delicate, bottom-up (i.e., helping individuals) solutions will be the key to success. [See also "Confrontation With Islam," Dec 10.]

The essay below by Ashley Bommer in Pakistan's Daily Times about what is missing from U.S. policy toward Pakistan's tribal regions and how the U.S. could develop a positive policy is so important that I have reprinted it in full.

Ms. Bommer points out how a policy of socio-economic suppport rather than military suppression might be devised by working through accessible social networks to make contact with people who are current inaccessible to the West...but very much accessible to competing networks. The way to win the conflict with terrorists is not through a military struggle for domination but through social networks - one tribesman with a toothache, one unemployed father, one schoolchild at a time.

Because the US has no presence on the ground in any capacity, Americans are seen as the aggressors, and the militants are seen as the protectors. There are a few exceptions; in Bajaur, for example, some tribesmen regard the militants as the enemy and are fighting back. Sitting next to a four-foot-tall water pipe, I asked the tribal leader in front of me: What does victory mean to you? He sputtered smoke, raised his bushy white eyebrows, and said, “Victory. How can you have victory here?”

The United States went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. But seven years later, what has the US achieved? It has spent over $170 billion in Afghanistan, and yet Al Qaeda and the Taliban are growing stronger. We know that the road to the heart of Al Qaeda now leads to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. Last month, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, referring to Al Qaeda leadership said, “That’s where they live. That’s where they are. That’s where it will come from. And right now [the threat] resides in Pakistan.”

Yet the US has no presence in the FATA. It has little contact or communication with its people and leaders. It provides little support, healthcare, or aid to the population there. America sends in missiles and air strikes that infuriate the people rather than aid and emissaries to engage them. It is no surprise that the US has not won their support.

But there is a way to do so. People who have influence in the “unsettled” tribal areas live nearby, in settled areas. These tribesmen move to the settled areas for economic and security reasons, and they are the lifelines of their home villages. The US must establish dialogue with and services for these influential people in order to build a bridge to the tribesmen in the unsettled FATA areas. These leaders already know the tribal chiefs, spiritual leaders, and tribal customs and codes. They also know who the enemy is and can play a role in isolating militants from local people.

A friend from the region described the FATA as “a forgotten age” where only the “law of the jungle” prevails. These unsettled areas have become infiltrated by a multinational anti-state terror network (Al Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network, and roughly 14 definable anti-state elements operating in the FATA alone), which the US government calls “anti-coalition militias” and are far more sinister and interconnected than the West imagines. With five years of Iraqi experience — and powerful communication and financial support behind them — this network is growing rapidly.The FATA tribesmen are completely aware of this situation. When asked, “If Osama bin Laden was in the house next door, would you notify the authorities?,” the answer from the tribesmen I met was a resounding “no.” As Frederick Mackeson, a British colonial officer, observed of the tribesmen in 1850, “their fidelity is measured by the length of the purse of their seducer, and they transfer their obedience according to the liberality of the donation.”While the enemy weaves in and out of the tribal areas, living and interacting with the people, the US fights the war against Al Qaeda superficially through military air strikes and covert special operations. Homes are destroyed and people die.

And, because the US has no presence on the ground in any capacity, Americans are seen as the aggressors, and the militants are seen as the protectors. There are a few exceptions; in Bajaur, for example, some tribesmen regard the militants as the enemy and are fighting back — for now.According to the Pakistani Centre for Research and Security studies, 90 percent of the FATA’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, earning less than two dollars a day. To a newborn, life will be a struggle for survival in a war zone.

It is not just America’s presence that is lacking. The Pakistani government provides little to no services in this area. And the international community is absent as well.The links between the settled and unsettled areas started over a century ago. Facing tribal unrest and incessant fighting, the British proposed to settle the tribes from Waziristan (present-day North Waziristan and South Waziristan) in British territory. The Secretary of State wrote to Queen Victoria, “The pacification of border tribes by preserving in the exercise of humanizing influences is more likely to be permanent than their subjection by military force....[and would] afford a reasonable prospect of rendering the people on the frontier line between our territories and Afghanistan peaceful and friendly neighbors.”The British moved some members of the tribes from the unsettled areas of the frontier to the settled (colonial) areas. Prior to this policy, the British had spent 15 years and countless funds repressing and punishing the tribes, without result. The essence of British policy continues today in the FATA.

There are effective local organizations, such as the Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP), with which the US could cooperate immediately in the settled areas to get started. These organizations work with the people to assess their needs and then build the institutions to deliver care. SRSP has the capacity; they just need direction and financial support in order to expand. Once dialogue and cooperation are established with the tribesmen in the settled areas, inroads can be laid into the tribal unsettled areas.

Yes, the British were ultimately defeated. But they left a unique roadway to the FATA through the adjoining settled areas. It is time to get back in the driver’s seat.

Technical note for analysts:
Ashley Bommer paints a picture of some 14 distinct anti-Western networks that are currently expanding operations in the region and strengthening cooperative links among themselves. Any social network analyst would immediately see this as an exceedingly dangerous structure because of its combination of flexibility, resilience, dispersion, and adaptability. Many conclusions can be inferred from even this simple description, e.g., that their goals and modes of behavior and willingness to compromise will differ; that the use of force against them will push them together; that no obvious target for attack will exist; that the nature of the threat will adapt rapidly and unpredictably; that opposing them with rigid, hierarchical external pressure will work about as well as punching a pillow to make it flat; that, regardless of the force, energy, resources, determination employed, bigger--from the perspective of anyone competing with these anti-Western networks--will probably not be better. Rather, sustained, low-key, flexible, delicate, bottom-up (i.e., helping individuals) solutions that fit into niches voluntarily offered to them by the local culture will be the key to success.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Follow-Up on Supplying NATO Via Peshawar

Following up on my previous post about supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan via Peshawar, an interesting hypothesis about why there is suddenly such fierce pressure by insurgents against the route is:

La route pakistanaise est en effet de plus en plus menacée par des insurgés chassés de la Zone tribale de Bajaur, où l'armée pakistanaise se bat depuis l'été dernier.

So, if this is true, it was Washington's pressure on Pakistan to attack the Taliban in Bajaur this past August that resulted in pressure (by insurgents pushed out of Bajaur) against NATO supply lines. Ask and ye shall receive!

Are folks in Washington seeing the big picture here?

Islamic Radical Resistance without Terror

In May, Darul Uloom Deoband Madrasah, located north of New Dehli, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against terrorism. As stated on its website,

According to Islamic Shariah, whether it is the matter of an individual, group or ideological difference, persons who are not concerned or related to a particular action, cannot be held respon­sible for the action of others.

In November, 4,000 senior Indian ulema (religious leaders) endorsed the fatwa in a mass gathering in the city of Hyderabad. Although issued in a “strict Indian context,” the ideological forerunners of the Taliban might have some influence over Taliban attitudes.

It would, however, be well to consider the specifics. As Maulana Mahmood Madani, general-secretary of the party founded by the Madrasah, noted, “The killing of innocents or atrocities against them is terrorism.” That is certainly the standard definition of terrorism, so Taliban acceptance of such an attitude would certainly constitute a huge step forward – no more acid attacks on schoolgirls or random attacks on markets or hotels.

However, “the killing of innocents” is hardly the working definition of terrorism employed by the Neo-Cons, who use the word to describe any act of violence in opposition to them. Agreement by the Taliban to renounce terrorism would not prevent them from continuing the war against Western interference in their country. Moreover, for the Taliban to take such a step would beg for an obvious Western quid pro quo: the end to air strikes that kill innocents.

Such a change would have several affects on the course of the war: removing from the West one of its most potent threats and thus presumably forcing the West to put significantly more effort into dangerous ground patrols is the obvious initial impact. Perhaps even more significant, consider the potential impact on the Afghan public of a Taliban insurgency that focused completely on resisting foreigners without causing any harm to Afghans. Would the Taliban then become generally viewed in Afghanistan as the patriotic national resistance? (Admittedly, the question raises the further question of the degree to which they already are so viewed.)

Although I know of little evidence to back up the assumption, it appears likely that the propensity of many Islamic radicals to use violence against their own populations is one of their major weaknesses. It would seem that Moslem populations suffering from such attacks must certainly resent such treatment, regardless of their opinion of the ultimate goals of the radicals. Indeed, this seems to have been a key reason for the “success” of the U.S. surge in Iraq – many found compromise with the occupier a lesser evil than the continued mayhem of ethnic war.

A radical Islamic insurgency that took care to protect the local population might prove very difficult to defeat.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Confrontation With Islam in Afghanistan & Pakistan

Supplying Kabul along a road that invites ambush. [Al Jazeera video on YouTube.]

This video [Al Jazeera video on YouTube] about one small group of "Taliban" fighters implies that the Taliban are highly "fragmented" (my phrase and one that makes them sound weak) or, to put it differently, "networked" (my phrase and one that implies great resilience). If this video accurately represents the structure of the Taliban, reaching any agreement will be highly complicated.

Here is a grim military backgrounder about local Afghan conditions. [Journeymanpictures video on YouTube.] Note the extremely intrusive behavior by a squad of Australian soldiers in a remote village simply because an Afghan was seen using a cell phone. How would your teenager react to this type of behavior by police whenever he or she touched a cell phone? Winning hearts and minds??? Watch the whole video, including the part where the NATO general makes a distinction between "good" and "bad" Taliban. In the comparison that follows of the Australian and American approaches to the conflict, we also see a distinction between "good" and "bad" NATO soldiers.

UN: Israeli War Crimes Against People of Gaza?

The following remarks by Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights on Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, are not pleasant to read and are even less pleasant to think about. This Al Jazeera video reviews Israel's news blackout on Gaza (from YouTube). But read them carefully nonetheless, and then think about the striking difference between the undisguised honesty of Falk's remarks and the way most public officials talk.

Protective action must be taken immediately to offset the persisting and wide-ranging violations of the fundamental human right to life, and in view of the emergency situation that is producing a humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding day by day. However difficult politically, it is time to act. At the very least, an urgent effort should be made at the United Nations to implement the agreed norm of a 'responsibility to protect' a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity. In a similar vein, it would seem mandatory for the International Criminal Court to investigate the situation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law. As AbuZayd has declared, "This is a humanitarian crisis deliberately imposed by political actors."It should be noted that the situation worsened in recent days due to the breakdown of a truce between Hamas and Israel that had been observed for several months by both sides. The truce was maintained by Hamas despite the failure of Israel to fulfill its obligation under the agreement to improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza.

Do We Still Know How to Govern Ourselves?

All of our big national systems--national security, finance, health care, and governance--are in crisis. This pattern of failure suggests that fixing the mess will involve more than just replacing individuals or parties. Rather, these systems have become so complex that one wonders if American society still knows how to manage them.

Today, America’s most critical national systems have all become complicated beyond the comprehension of any single managing entity. Regardless of intent or determination, they can quite simply no longer be controlled.

First is what I will call the “national security system,” by which I mean both the protection of the U.S. and the conduct of foreign policy (which is associated but broader, in that it concerns not only U.S. security but other international goals). Second is the financial system, which I mean to encompass not just Wall Street and banks but the whole economy. Third is the health care system, including not just doctors and hospitals but also insurance. One could include other systems, such as one of looming significance – the system of maintaining the environment, but I will conclude the list of critical national systems for the purposes of this essay with the most important of all: our system of governance, encompassing democracy based on civil rights, tolerance for dissent, parties with different policies, and separation of powers.

Today, the national security system, the financial system, the health care system, and the system of governance all are not just too complicated for any single individual or managing entity to understand but seem to have become complicated beyond the ability of society as a whole to manage effectively. Widely divergent in terms of process, function, and the particulars of the challenges each faces, these four major national systems nevertheless share the obvious “feature” that each is in crisis. It can hardly be doubted that if all four national systems are simultaneously in crisis, then the nation as a whole truly faces a challenge. Beyond that rather obvious conclusion, this pattern begs the question: Do we have the knowledge to manage our increasingly complicated society?

As our technology and power and desire to satisfy all of society increase, we intentionally build more and more elaborate systems to deliver the goods. The more democratic we become, the higher the proportion of citizens who have significant involvement in designing these systems, which means that they become more complicated, like a house with many competing carpenters. Big, complex social systems tend to evolve without clear central direction, i.e., to evolve on their own, leaving society to keep up as best it can.

Partly as a result of this process of evolution and partly as a result of gratuitous mismanagement by executives intent on abusing the system, all of these systems are now teetering on the edge of a cliff. It would, of course, be easy to focus on the abuse, as innumerable articles in the media have done concerning the financial system since the Federal bailouts began during the fall of 2008. Important as abuse may be, to focus on it misses the deeper issue of whether or not we still have the capacity effectively tomanage the core systems of our society.

More ominously than suggested by the above metaphor of systems “teetering on the edge of a cliff, they stand like mountaineers roped together with rubber bands, every jiggle of each system throwing all the others off balance. When standing on the edge of a cliff, it is advisable to plant one’s feet firmly on what little ground there is. If, instead, you are not only jiggling but fail to recognize why you are jiggling, then you “have a situation.”

Having just observed that no one person or group can even understand the functioning of one of these major national systems, we are now forced to conclude that in order to manage society effectively, we must grasp how they all function together! Are we in the midst of a war that “must take precedence” over all else? Are we facing a financial crisis that “must be resolved first”? Sorry, in our modern world, the only answer that will work is to resolve the problems of each in the context of all the others (though certainly not necessarily in lock-step since the time scales of key dynamics in these systems vary, imposing yet another layer of complexity).

Among the various easily overlooked systemic factors contributing to the mess are at least two that must be understood. First, these critical national systems are constantly “self-adapting,” i.e. adapting as the result of a multitude of internal changes planned by no one. The second easily overlooked systemic factor impacting the evolution of these national systems is that each system affects all the others.

We need to learn to view these individual systems (or “sub-systems” of the “American system”) as complex entities that are both very complicated and constantly in the process of changing on their own, without direction from any responsible human agency, where “responsible” means people officially charged with managing. Instead, myriad lower-level individuals make endless unofficial, untracked, misunderstood decisions. These decisions are either unknown or at least their long-term implications are unknown even though they add up to forces that fundamentally reshape the system. These systems change for two reasons: because they are made up of a large number of interconnected components that are constantly jostling around, pushing each other in myriad directions and because each subsystem is connected with all the others.

The result is that the system evolves via self-adaptation into something that is not only new but unplanned: no one is in control. This, as one might expect, leads to surprise. Since society has already put a great deal of effort into designing these systems to maximize output, it should come as no surprise that the surprises generated by our loss of control are usually unpleasant.

The details of the dynamics pushing this process in contemporary America are essentially unknown, but much can be said by way of shedding light on the subject. Stay tuned…and contribute your own insights!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hope for Gaza?

Bad news for control freeks everywhere. Medicine and baby food smuggled into Gaza! Just can't run a good concentration camp anymore.

From the Free Gaza Movement comes the press announcement below. YouTube video by Palgaz has comments from academic participants.

Does anyone have further information about what appears to be news truly deserving publication? Did they really "break through" the Israeli naval blockade or is Israel becoming embarrassed by its own behavior? Maybe some of those U.S. warships sailing around aimlessly in the Persian Gulf making Ahmadinejad look like a patriot and defender of helpless Moslem masses should be put to good use doing their own breakthrough of the Israeli naval blockade...Anyway, here's the news release:

(GAZA, 9 December 2008) - The Free Gaza Movement ship “Dignity” successfully broke through the Israeli blockade for the fourth time since August, arriving in Gaza Port at 2:45pm, Tuesday 9 December. The ship carried one ton of medical supplies and high-protein baby formula, in addition to a delegation of international academics, humanitarian and human rights workers. Three earlier missions made landfall in Gaza in August, October, and November through the power of non-violent direct action and civil resistance. The Free Gaza ships are the first international ships to reach the Gaza Strip in over 41 years.Ewa Jasiewicz, a Free Gaza organizer, journalist, and solidarity worker, pointed out that, “Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day, and it's high time the world turned its rhetoric on human rights into reality. We mounted this mission to give our solidarity to the people of Palestine and to highlight the strangulating conditions Israel causes in besieged Gaza. The inhumane effects of this siege threaten to stunt an entire generation - both in terms of physical and mental growth due to malnutrition, terrorization by bomb attacks, incursions and the use of sonic booms - but also in terms of the generation of students which have won places at academic institutions around the world but cannot fulfill them, and those undermined on the ground in Gaza by a lack of food, medicine, electricity, materials, and the peace and space to make use of them in.”For over two years, Israel has imposed an increasingly severe blockade on Gaza, dramatically increasing poverty and malnutrition rates among the 1.5 million human people who live in this tiny, costal region. The World Bank recently warned that the entire banking system in Gaza may soon collapse resulting in “serious humanitarian implications.” Already, over eighty percent of Gazan families are dependent on international food aid in order to feed their children. Lubna Masarwa, another Free Gaza organizer and the current delegation’s leader, pointed out that, “The Palestinians of Gaza don't need charity. What they need is effective political action that changes their lives and ends the Occupation. We can't bring electricity to Gaza on our boats. We can't import freedom of movement or safety. But we can get into Gaza and we are intent to keep coming. We will come again and again and again until the world breaks its silence and we shatter this siege once and for all.”

Confrontation with Islam: Endless War or a Way Forward?

A group of extremists exists in the West that simply wants to control global oil, deeming that the best way to remain rich and get richer. Indeed, so long as the oil lasts and so long as pursuing such a goal does not provoke the explosion of a degree of global resistance too fierce to handle...Pursuing such a goal locks one into certain forms of behavior, which would be well exploring. But those in the West who put their bets on oil empire are only concerned about the short-term (while they, as individuals, remain alive), and the oil will admittedly last that long. As for provoking global resistance, which is certainly a good part of the explanation for 9/11-style violent jihad, these Western extremists are evil enough to welcome the resultant chaos as the excuse for their militarism and have the hubris to feel they can defeat all comers. So much for the details; the bottom line is that this group of extremists, like some on the Islamic side, is beyond rational discussion.

For the rest of us, however, i.e., for those who would like to maintain as much as possible of our comfortable lifestyle but grant that others also have a right to some portion of the globe’s treasures, and who consider such things as justice, democracy, civil rights, and peace to be pluses in life, a possible way forward exists. It is a narrow, rocky path through a darkly shadowed forest thick with growling wolves of temptation, for sure. No guarantees will be proffered. But those rightwing U.S. and Israeli militarists still howling for nuclear aggression against Iran can offer no guarantees either, except the certainty of a globe-circling cloud of apolitical and cancerous radiation.

So, given the failure of war to end the confrontation with Islam, perhaps it’s time now to take a new path. A number of concepts are relevant to the new path. One is empowering moderate neutrals rather than enemies. Another is working with and through intermediaries who may understand some things we don’t or may be able to get points across to adversaries who would reject the same arguments coming from American lips.

Can we have any rational expectation that such an approach would be more effective than the endless bombing of wedding parties, Predator strikes on friendly countries, incarceration of whole populations, and arrogant public threats against adversaries that serve mostly to turn them into dangerously powerful folk-heroes?

Yes. On several fronts of the global confrontation, evidence exists that an alternative path could bear fruit. (My thanks to two blogging colleagues, Richard Norton and Nasir Khan, for some of these arguments.)

Turkey, under its current moderate, Moslem leadership, is now well positioned to serve as intermediary with Iran. From the field: Obama’s Turkish Partners#links And, given the Obama camp's interest in drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and the need to find new supply routes to Afghanistan, Washington and Tehran may have some real mutual inducements to reaching agreement.

Mumbai, apparently an effort by extremists to provoke tension if not outright war between India and Pakistan, could with care be turned into an opportunity to bring moderates on both sides together in a determined effort to resolve some mutual issues. “Look how the extremists are manipulating you!” just might be an effective argument. It is certainly true that Indian intransigence on Kashmir remains an enormous obstacle. Nevertheless, last week's electoral rejection of Hindu nationalist warcries offer a ray of hope.

On the Northern Pakistan/Afghan front, the Taliban seem, rather than some implacable and monolithic adversary that must be fought to the death, to be a complex and fragile coalition brought together by the common desire to get the U.S. Armed Forces off their backs. There may be room to compromise with those portions of this coalition that do not advocate throwing acid in the faces of girls or conducting a violent global jihad. Karzai has called recently for both a timetable for victory and a compromise solution. Even the redoubtable Mullah Omar seemed, according to secondary reports, to have been hinting at a negotiating position recently: peace in return for a Western pull-out schedule.

Somalia has already gone some distance down the path of compromise. The combination of public Ethiopian talk about pulling out its intervention forceand internal negotiations to form a government of national unity have set the stage. Sincere support for compromise from Washington might produce the needed leverage to achieve success.

In the Levant, Lebanon has taken some domestic steps forward in recent months with the aid of Qatar. Movement is afoot between Lebanon and Syria, and perhaps in Syria's relations with the West. Obama seems about to continue the traditional mistake of allowing those committed to the Israeli military-industrial complex and its shortsighted policy of security through overwhelming military superiority to manage U.S. policy toward Israel, but perhaps he will realize that a superpower should run its own policy. Imagine the reaction in the U.S. if Obama were to put U.S. Iran policy in the hands of individuals committed to Ahmadinejad or U.S. Russian policy in the hands of a faction committed to Putin! Just possibly, the recent clear U.N. denunciation of Tel Aviv's mistreatment of the whole population of Gaza combined with the pogrom by Israeli settlers living on Palestinian land in the West Bank--so egregious that it was even denounced by Israel's own leaders--will prompt a move toward some degree of U.S. even-handedness toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Does all this still amount to faint hope? Perhaps, but first steps toward peace can build momentum for peace just as we have seen first steps toward oppression building steps toward war.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Adding Up the Score in Pakistan

An estimated 70% of supplies for the US/NATO campaign in Afghanistan go through Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, amounting to some 700 trucks a day. Other routes include going by truck through the wild west region of Baluchistan and by air. Insurgents have attacked supply depots in Peshawar three times this week – each attack consisting of enough insurgents to overwhelm security. Three outright insurgent victories in a row destroying shipping containers so big that some contain Humvees. Video report about one attack on YouTube. The Pentagon may be claiming this remains small change, but in post-financial crisis-America, the open checkbook for empire may soon slam shut.

Worse, Pakistani media are now starting to suggest the possibility that the whole city of Peshawar may fall to the insurgents, calling “the government itself” a “hostage” beleaguered in an “Iraq-style green zone.”

Alternative routes of course exist, but there are both geographic and self-inflicted political problems facing Washington. The Pak Alert Press blog has done a nice review of the geographic realities, including the (pipe) dream of driving through Georgia.

A second possible route is to go by rail through Russia and Central Asia to the northern border of Afghanistan, where supplies would presumably be transferred to truck. Recall that Washington has been busy in recent months sticking it to the Russian bear (US missiles in East Europe, the propaganda campaign over Georgia). Indeed, Russia has already threatened to terminate its agreement to allow Washington to use the air supply route. In late November, Russia gave Germany permission to transship supplies via Russian railways. Nevertheless, Moscow has sent the message that routes via Russia will come at a political price. Moreover, Russia no longer borders Afghanistan. But even if all that were resolved, does anyone remember the old days with Ahmed Shah Masood and the Salang Tunnel?

Then there’s route three – through that old enemy of the Taliban, Iran. Is it time to go hat-in-hand to Tehran and cut a deal? It would of course not be the first time Iran helped Washington in Afghanistan, but this time, Washington will no doubt have to promise Iran not to follow up with any gratuitous “axis of evil” insults. A Tehran moderate trying to make the case within the Iranian regime that the U.S. should be trusted will not only have a tough logical case to make but will be putting his career and perhaps life on the line because Iran is one of those primitive political systems in which those who argue for creative policies are sometimes accused of being traitors.

Pursuing wealth and influence on the world stage with a calculating eye is an interesting ambition that can perhaps be recommended to the flexible. For the true believer who rushes to categorize the world into good vs. evil, a career closer to home might be advised.

How does all this look from the Pakistani perspective? The moderate and thoughtful Frontier Post editorialized, “what do you expect when a wicked axis of America’s CIA, India’s RAW and Israel’s Mossad with in tow Afghanistan’s own intelligence service as their carpet sweeper are so active in fueling and fanning militancy in our tribal region?” Accurate or not, if this is the perception of moderate, English-language media, then what is the perception of the average Pakistani, not to mention of the average Pakistani in the tribal regions?

The Frontier Post continued,

The CIA is there to give a life to the American neocons’ dream to push FATA under Washington’s wings for America to sit on the neck of China , the global economic giant and a fast-emerging world power rival. The RAW is there to concretize the Indian establishment’s cherished goal of outflanking Pakistan from its western border as well to put it in a postion of a pincer offensive with a softened up tribal region. The Mossad is there to move in and encircle Iran , which the Jewish state openly pronounces to be its enemy number one, from both Afghanistan ’s and Pakistan ’s sides. And the pigmy Afghan spy agency is at works for furthering its actual boss, the Northern Alliance, to keep the Pakhtuns across the divide in a constant state of tizzy and enmeshed in troubles in their heartland in order to keep the Pakhtun majority at home at bay from power which the Afghan minorities have grabbed with the connivance of the US-led western community for the first time in the modern Afghanistan’s history.

This perspective goes beyond the media. For example, The NWFP Governor, Owais Ghani, was reported in November to have “hinted at the involvement of the Indian intelligence agency RAW and Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in the destabilisation of the tribal areas.”

This perspective that the world is ganging up on Pakistan combined with the appearance of the Taliban being on a roll (even though it is attacking parked vehicles that are evidently being guarded hardly better than your average New York City parking lot) may begin to add up to a meaningful change in popular mood. The question arises: what is most important in this conflict – military power, supply chain, or popular mood?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Washington's Confrontation With Islam: Failure of a Leader

Studying the confrontation between Washington and Islam over the past two years has led me to the conclusions enumerated below, conclusions reached in August 2008. In future posts, I will examine global developments that have occurred since that time in the context of these conclusions.

1. It has, since 9/11, become conventional among political circles and in the media to discuss nuclear aggression by the West in the absence of an immediate threat as though it were just another policy option—a striking and sudden degradation of public morality. Few could have imagined in the darkness of the hideous and terrifying Cold War that we would have descended to such a depth of public insanity only 15 years after winning victory. Whatever happens to Islamic radicalism, the stain on America’s soul of treating nuclear wars of choice as legitimate policy options will for the rest of our lives undermine efforts to build a peaceful international order.

2. Whatever reasons Moslems may have had to be angry with Western governments in September 2001, in 2007-8 those reasons were amplified and intensified. The most fundamental reason may be the sudden global crisis in the cost of grain, which has put the core of human diet out-of-reach of much of the world’s population, indicating a basic breakdown of the West’s pet project of globalization. Beyond this non-negotiable need for food are Israel’s barbaric economic war against the population of Gaza, the dramatic rise in the frequency of U.S. missile strikes on Moslem countries with which the U.S. was not at war, a highly menacing U.S. campaign against Iran, the combination of U.S. support for friendly Moslem dictators combined with coldly unsympathetic and blatantly intolerant behavior toward Moslem actors taking independent stands, and the final pulverization of already stateless Somali society by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian army. Coming on top of the deepening Moslem-Western confrontation of the 2001-2006 period, the events of 2007-8 make highly probable an intensified level of Moslem resentment and resistance over the next seven years. Such resistance can be expected to radicalize, fragment, and destabilize Moslem states, undermining moderates and empowering extremists.

*** For further commentary on how this lesson is playing out at present, see this post.

3. On the part of major candidates, the media, and the public during this U.S. presidential election period, there seems to be a concerted effort to bury heads in the sand, carefully avoiding fundamental questions that should be at the center of debate. Minute tactical shifts in policy toward Iraq are discussed rather than whether the U.S. should be colonizing the Middle East in the first place. The tactics of the effort to stop terrorists with overwhelming military force are debated rather than asking if military solutions can be effective for such an intricate social, cultural, psychological phenomenon or if the so-called “War on Terror” amounts to much more than a way for the elite to trick the voters into supporting a new imperialism. America’s continuing state of denial is the most potent source of strength for the many extremists on both sides who remain determined to provoke ever more violent confrontation.

4. Washington—not just the neo-cons—remains focused on pursuing a “war on terror,” evidently desiring only to terminate the tactic of opponents attacking civilians without any consideration of why they might wish to do that in the first place. This emphasis on changing the opponent’s tactics without addressing his concerns or the concerns of the far broader mass of (so-far) moderate Moslems will ensure a flow of new recruits for Islamic extremism, fuelling this confrontation into the foreseeable future.

5. Israeli security, an American foreign policy goal now elevated almost to the level of a religion, is becoming steadily more difficult to ensure as the size, remoteness (from Israel), and power of its opponents rises, yet the Israeli policy of security through overwhelming superiority in military force remains a taboo (in the U.S.) that cannot be questioned. This pattern is increasingly likely to lead to a cataclysmic disaster for the very exposed Israeli population.

6. Al Qua’ida has gone from being the fringe organization of a few extremists to an ideology inspiring untold thousands. In the 1990’s, jihadis committed to terror could destroy an occasional building; by 2001, they could manage to kill several thousand; 2008 finds the West caught in two enormous and debilitating traps set by al Qua’ida – Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether or not some Western leaders actually welcomed fundamentalist Islamic terrorism as the excuse they had been seeking for a long-planned imperialist campaign, the fact remains that few Westerners see any good escape route from these two quagmires. In fact, each is worsening—the Iraqi conflict spilling into both Iran and the Levant; the Afghan conflict spilling into Pakistan. The physical, financial, and moral harm to the West being caused by al Qua’ida has been steadily rising for 20 years, and this trend shows no sign of changing course.

7. Shortsighted U.S. arrogance about what it is capable of doing combined with incompetence in governing what it has conquered have served to intensify Iranian hostility even as that perverse combination of arrogance and incompetence has opened the door to Iranian reemergence as a regional power. As Iranian moderates are sidelined in the international atmosphere of brinkmanship, Iran’s Shi’ite allies solidify control in Iraq, Hezbollah consolidates its political and military position in Lebanon, and Iran--often skillfully--maneuvers its way into the regional political dialogue, Tehran’s ascendancy seems likely to continue.

8. The re-emergence of the Islamic resistance in Afghanistan, this time not so much allied with the Pakistani government as in rebellion against it, combined with the failure of Pakistan’s democracy movement effectively to seize the initiative in the tribal regions and Washington’s increasing go-it-alone attitude of crude interference in the tribal regions make likely a wider regional conflict in South Asia that will re-energize the global anti-Western jihad.

9. There is always a good scenario and a bad scenario. For the future of the world, the destruction of Somalia is the bad scenario of ultimate irony – the one we truly could have avoided. As of August 2008, the evidence fortunately still does not suggest that the Somali scenario will be the future for any other part of the Moslem world, and yet the battle of Fallujah, the war against Gaza, the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and the stream of nuclear threats against Iran are not so dissimilar. Somalia is the canary in the mine of Western-Islamic confrontation.

10. At this point, the great Iraqi question is whether or not Washington has learned enough from all the mistakes it has made in the process of torturing that poor country for its own purposes to change direction. Despite the presence on the edge of the electoral stage of Nader and McKinney and Kucinich and Gravel, so far little evidence in the electoral process of such a reassessment is visible. That the U.S. will retain control over Iraqi oil and that the U.S. will without an end date continue to base offensive military forces in Iraq now appear to be considered in Washington decisions so important they must be taken without thought…and certainly without discussion. The U.S. is well down the slippery slope of imperial overstretch.

11. It is clear that Moslem societies face numerous crises, but still uncertain is the degree to which a single unified, not to say coordinated, Islamic political fault line runs through the Islamic world, pitting defenders of the contemporary international political system and Moslem social order in a zero-sum fight to the death against those who wish to replace it with a fundamentally different approach to governance. An Islamic political fault line yearned for by Islamic radicals is, at the very least, in the process of emerging, and seven years of outright war have not halted this process. Radicals have not had the power to force the full emergence of this fissure in the Islamic world; only by tricking the West into employing its far greater energies in a way that would serve the radicals’ purpose could they hope to achieve their goal. Since 9/11, the radicals have made impressive progress, and the events of the past year must give them great satisfaction. Barring a fundamental reorientation of the West toward understanding rather than subjugation, the emergence of an Islamic political fault line seems destined to continue apace: local crises will become more tightly interconnected, more vulnerable to exploitation by outside agitators, and more difficult to solve. Leaders will become more radicalized and moderates more marginalized, undermining the security of all.

In the years since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the world’s sole remaining superpower has, to put it gently, failed to show the vision one should be able to expect from a leader.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Global Political Patterns of Violence

How can we evaluate the real impact our country's behavior is having on global developments?

The habit of identifying patterns, looking for the causal dynamics that generate those patterns, and considering the conditions under which those patterns can be expected to continue into the future constitute key steps. Although we may all “know” that this makes sense, whether at the level of daily discourse or at the highest reaches of policy-making, this basic advice is all too often ignored. Good luck, better tactics, a change in parties, great leadership, or faith in the curious American belief that the future is bound to be better than the past are thin reeds on which to place one’s hopes in the face of underlying dynamics that push events where they will.

To get a handle on the future, look first not at who is in charge or what events are occurring but at the enduring patterns of behavior that constrain future choices: population dynamics, trends in education, willingness of the current generation to conserve for the benefit of the next generation, quality of governance, attitudes toward common goods (e.g., air, oceans), cultural openness, degree of tolerance toward opponents, and degree of sympathy for the weak.

Whether "you" are president of the United States or Joe the Plumber, you probably do not have time to follow every important detail of what is happening in the world. So, to make the job feasible, try snapshots. Can you take the time to look at three shapshots right now? OK, here they are:

1. SNAPSHOT ONE - After years of Soviet occupation back in the 1980s, Afghan insurgents were recognized to be slowly tightening a noose around Kabul.

2. SHAPSHOT TWO - A report just released portrays Afghan insurgents slowly tightening a noose around Kabul again...after years of U.S. occupation.

3. SNAPSHOT THREE - Pakistani media are now portraying the Taliban as doing much the same to border city Peshawar.

This simple analytical technique gives you two patterns with real significance - a pattern of insurgent warfare defeating a stronger military power that repeats over time and that repeats over space. No mass of detail you don't have time to memorize; just disturbing patterns to think about.

Stop here if you are busy; if you have another five minutes, let's go into a bit more detail...

In terms of the troubled relationship between the West and Islam, the patterns are sobering.

Whatever reasons Moslems may have had to be angry with Western governments in September 2001, by 2008 those reasons had become amplified and intensified. The most fundamental reason may be the sudden global crisis in the cost of grain, which has put the core of human diet out-of-reach of much of the world’s population, indicating a basic breakdown of the West’s pet project of globalization. Beyond this non-negotiable need for food are Israel’s barbaric economic war against the population of Gaza, the dramatic rise in the frequency of U.S. missile strikes on Moslem countries with which the U.S. was not at war, a highly menacing U.S. campaign against Iran, the combination of U.S. support for friendly Moslem dictators combined with coldly unsympathetic and blatantly intolerant behavior toward Moslem actors taking independent stands, and the final pulverization of already stateless Somali society by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian army. Coming on top of the deepening Moslem-Western confrontation of the last seven years, the events of 2007-8 make highly probable an intensified level of Moslem resentment and resistance over the next seven years. Such resistance can be expected to radicalize, fragment, and destabilize Moslem states, undermining moderates and empowering extremists.

That list of patterns that seemed--in my opinion--to be visible by the middle of 2008 is of course debatable. One might argue that the list is biased by omission or flat-out wrong. No doubt plenty of folks might compose a different list and come to different conclusions. How do we resolve such disagreement? That's a hard question to answer, but a good approach is the obvious one of seeing how the above list of patterns sheds light on current events.

Think of the hubris with which Washington invaded Afghanistan and then quickly turned its focus and its resources toward Iraq, leaving the social crisis in Afghanistan unresolved. Seven years later, the re-emergence of the shattered Afghan Taliban should come as no surprise. Think of the lack of progress in integrating Pakistani border regions with the rest of the country since 9/11. The spread of the Afghan insurgency into Pakistan should come as no surprise. Think of the failure of all who are involved to provide the Kashmiri people with hope for a decent future after half a century of being forced to take orders from outsiders. The repeated occurrence of violence between India and Pakistan should come as no surprise.

Given the decline in living conditions resulting from the unsustainable rise in food prices for the poor of South Asia, we can only anticipate even more instability and violence in the future. It does not require detailed information about this or that fundamentalist Moslem or Hindu or Jewish or Christian group, or about this or that expansionist regime, or about this or that rogue intelligence agency or rogue retired intelligence operative to make the prediction that violence will continue. All it requires is recognition of the patterns and the background conditions. Yes, it is very interesting to talk about who did what when. But what is really important to understanding our world is to observe the patterns that are generated by various background conditions. What is really important to improving the world in which we live is to change those background conditions.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Commentary on Mumbai

As you wade through all the official smoke about Mumbai or any of the other acts of wanton violence in our world, take the time to read through Biju Mathew's full essay and think about his warning:

As The Fires Die: The Terror Of The Aftermath
By Biju Mathew
06 December, 2008
As the smoke lifts from Mumbai, skepticism must prevail over those conjectures which support the official state narrative. It is crucial to increase the pressure for transparency and accountability at this moment to ensure that India doesn’t slide into the same state as post-9/11 USA.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Commentary on Historical Context of Mumbai

Following up on my recent post about the Mumbai terrorist attack, see also the commentary noted below by Alvaro Vargas Llosa that puts the attack in a balanced historical context of both international and, especially, domestic Indian events.
India—The Other Side of Glory
MWC News - A Site Without Borders - - Sunday, 07 December 2008

Friday, December 5, 2008

Glib Washington Denial About the Financial Crisis

Speaking at the White House, Mr Bush said: "Our economy is in a recession. This is in large part because of severe problems in our housing, credit and financial markets."
I beg to differ. The question is: what caused these problems?
The recession is due in large part to the generation-long trend of impoverishing the middle class, ignoring the poor, and enriching the rich, who, in the last three months have of course received several trillion (!) more dollars from the middle and the poor. I guess the rich have farther to fall so their fall must be cushioned more.
The generation-long trend of enriching the rich at the expense of everyone else is greatly due to the enormous expense of the military position Washington chooses to maintain astride the globe combined with the government's encouragement of consumption rather than living within our means.
The long-term structural problems of a growing gap between rich and the rest plus the expense of an imperial foreign policy come at a cost that must eventually be paid. If the spark had not been "severe problems in our housing, credit and financial markets," then it would have been something else. Putting out these sparks will not prevent the house from burning.
It's just real tough to solve a problem if you refuse to recognize the cause.