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Archive for January, 2013

Victory in Mali?

30 January 2013

Victory in Mali?

By Gwynne Dyer

As usual, a well-trained Western army has gone through a fierce-looking but virtually untrained force of African rebels like a hot knife through butter. Two weeks ago, the northern half of Mali was entirely under the control of Islamist militants, whose forces were starting to advance into southern Mali as well. So France decided on very short notice to send troops and combat aircraft to its former colony in West Africa.

Today, every town in the north of Mali is under French control, and the surviving rebels have fled into the desert. But most of them did survive: after losing a couple of major clashes in the first days of the French drive northwards, the Islamist forces simply abandoned Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the main towns of the north, as soon as the French forces came near. The easy part of the intervention is now over.

It’s not surprising that the French military intervention was an instant success. The Islamist rebels, like most African paramilitaries (and quite a few African armies, too), did not even know the basic combat drills that every infantryman in a Western army has practised until they are second nature. But now come three tasks that are considerably more difficult.

The first is to deploy an African Union-backed military force, made up of units from armies elsewhere in West Africa, to take over from the French. You can’t just hand the recaptured towns back to Mali’s own army, which is so incompetent and rotted by politics that it would promptly lose them back to the militants.

This force, dubbed the International Support Mission to Mali, has the unanimous blessing of the United Nations Security Council. International donors met in Ethiopia on Tuesday and pledged $455.53 million to pay for this force. Mali’s many neighbours – it has open desert borders with seven other West African countries – have already identified the units they are going to send.

But it’s going to be weeks or months before those African units actually arrive, because many of them aren’t very well trained either. (French and British troops are being sent to train some of them before they even set foot in Mali.) In the meantime, the north of Mali will really be entirely under French military rule.

This means that there will be none of the looting, rape and murder that tends to follow the Malian army’s arrival in town, but the French troops are very foreign indeed. They are not even Muslims, in a country that is nine-tenths Muslim. They were welcomed as liberators when they rolled into the northern towns in the last few days, but if they stay for too long they will become first unpopular, and then hated. That’s just the way things work.

Once African troops replace the French, the next task is to rebuild the democratic government of Mali, which was destroyed by a military coup last March. The interim president, Dioncounda Traore, says that he wants to hold elections next July, but behind the scenes the greedy young officers who made the coup still hold the real power. They will have to be sent back to their barracks before elections take place, and that will not be easy.

And the third task is to win the very different kind of war that starts in Mali now. Retaking occupied towns was easy. Now that the militants have scattered across the vast deserts of northern Mali, they will launch a different kind of war – a “war of the shadows”, conducted by raids, bomb attacks and assassinations.

Countries can survive for decades with that kind of low-intensity war going on in the background, but the only way to shrink it to a manageable level is to make a political deal. This is not impossible in Mali, because the Islamist fanatics actually hijacked the revolution from their former allies, the Tuareg separatists.

Most of the people in the north are Tuaregs, desert-dwelling people of Berber stock and nomadic heritage who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from the black African majority in southern Mali. Many of them support the separatist movement that wanted to create an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali, but few actually share the extreme religious views of the Islamist militants.

The two groups made an alliance to drive the Malian army out of the north, but the Islamists then turned on their allies and seized absolute power for themselves. Their harsh rule was resented by most people, however, and so it should be possible to isolate the Islamists if the Malian government is willing to make a deal that gets the Tuareg separatists on its side.

They won’t get independence, but they would probably settle for a large degree of autonomy for the north. It will be hard to get a new Malian government that is elected almost entirely by the votes of southerners (90 percent of the population lives in the south) to make that concession, but the alternative is a long, draining guerilla war in the north.

Was the French military intervention in Mali necessary? Yes, in the view of the United Nations, the African Union, and most Malians. Was it a success? That remains to be seen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“But it’s…work”)

 

 

 

Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands

27 January 2013

Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands?

By Gwynne Dyer

Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too closely. Twice last month Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be serious?

The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric about it in China has got downright bellicose.

Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? The dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the islands that the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case pretty well.

Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival historical claims going back to the 19th century or “ancient times”? Check. A truly foolish war that killed lots of people? Yes, in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Not yet.

One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina’s claim relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (which was preceded by somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the 1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the Senkakus/Diaoyus.

Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to the islands, and with no resident population they are wide open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country. That could trigger a real military confrontation between China and Japan, and drag in Japan’s ally, the United States.

It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese government bought three of the islands last September. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry suspected that he would then land people there to assert Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.

The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat would be in the fire. But the Japanese government’s thwarting of Ishihara’s plans did not mollify the Chinese. The commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken either country’s claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to grow.

It has got to the point where Japanese business interests in China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent protests, and Japan’s defence budget, after ten years of decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China’s defence budget rises every year.) It’s foolish, but it’s getting beyond a joke.

Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar confrontation has been simmering for years between China, which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims over various parts of the sea.

Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are being beefed up. Once again there are fishing rights at stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves are believed to exist underneath them. The United States, because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.

All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and gas resources, however big they may be, will remain unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory evenly between the interested parties, and exploit the resources jointly.

This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war in the Arctic.

The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. A similar deal between the countries around the South China Sea would be more complicated to negotiate, but would yield even bigger returns. So why don’t they just do it?

Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands, sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of “sacred national territory, handed down from our forefathers,” over which large quantities of blood can and must be shed.

China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11 (“Meanwhile…region”) and the second sentence of paragraph 14 (“A similar…returns”).

 

 

The Little Englanders Win Big

23 January 2013

The Little Englanders Win Big

By Gwynne Dyer

The real problem is continental drift: Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is getting further and further away from England. Or at least that is British Prime Minister David Cameron’s line.

Cameron made his long awaited speech promising a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union on 23 January, and he placed the blame squarely on plate tectonics: “People are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity or their taxes are used to bail out governments on the other side of the continent.”

The “frustrated” people in question are English, of course. Hostility to the European Union is mainly an English thing, but that matters a lot in the United Kingdom, where 55 million of the kingdom’s 65 million people live in England.

The Scottish nationalists seeking separation from England in their own referendum take the opposite tack. They promise the Scottish electorate that leaving the UK would NOT mean leaving the European Union (although in fact Scotland would probably have to re-apply for membership). Scottish politicians have to promise to stay in the EU, because otherwise very few Scottish voters would say “yes” to independence. But England is different.

The “Little Englander” glories in the notion of England being unencumbered by foreign ties and commitments. It’s the kind of nationalism that Americans call “isolationism”, and the phrase is now used to describe strongly nationalist, even xenophobic people on the right of English politics. Those people, always present in significant numbers within Cameron’s Conservative Party, have now won the internal party debate.

Every Conservative leader has had to deal with these people. They always managed to contain them in the past, because the European Union is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and it is obviously in Britain’s interest to belong to the organisation that makes the rules for Europe’s “single market”. What has changed is that the long recession and relatively high immigration of recent years have increased the popularity of the extreme right in England.

That doesn’t mean that populist demagogues and neo-fascists are about to win power in the United Kingdom. Far from it: they’d be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote. But it does mean that the Conservatives are losing their more right-wing supporters to the anti-EU, anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party.

UKIP could never win an election in Britain, but it could easily steal enough votes from the Conservatives to make them lose the next election. So there has been mounting panic in the Conservative Party, and not just among its instinctively anti-EU members.

Cameron’s promise of a referendum on EU membership is first and foremost an attempt to steal UKIP’s thunder and win back the defecting Conservative voters. He doesn’t really want to leave the EU, but he really does want to win the election that is due in 2015.

His reluctance to be the man who took Britain out of the EU was evident in the way he hedged around his referendum promise. The referendum would not take place until after the next election, and only if the Conservative Party won enough seats in 2015 to form a government on its own. (Its current coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, opposes the whole idea).

Cameron says he will spend the next two years renegotiating the terms of Britain’s EU membership to “repatriate” many powers from Brussels to London, and to make various changes in the way the EU is run. Then, if he is satisfied with the outcome, he will support EU membership in the election and in the subsequent referendum, which will be held by 2017. But he had no satisfactory answer to the hard questions that followed his speech.

What if the 26 other EU members choose not to waste months in talks on changing Britain’s relationship with the EU? What if they do negotiate but refuse to tie themselves up in knots just to ease Cameron’s local political problems? Would he support continued EU membership in the promised referendum if he didn’t have a “new deal” to offer the voters. He simply wouldn’t answer those questions.

There is much that could be done to improve the accountability and efficiency of the European Union, but it is not helpful to open a negotiation with 26 other governments by standing at the exit door and threatening to leave if you do not get your way. The time may well come when Cameron has to answer those questions, and he probably does not know himself which way he would jump.

So for the next four years, all those foreign companies that have been using the United Kingdom as a convenient, English-speaking centre to produce goods and services for the European market will be re-thinking their investment strategies. If the United Kingdom may leave the EU by 2017, is this really the right place to put their money? It will probably be a long dry season for the British economy.

How did an allegedly grown-up country talk itself into this position? It’s an attitude that was summed up in an apocryphal English newspaper headline of the 1930s: “Fog in (the English) Channel; Continent Cut Off.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 13. (“The Scottish…different”; and “There is…jump”)

 

 

Kim the Reformer

21 January 2013

Kim the Reformer?

By Gwynne Dyer

If North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, wanted to end the brutal and destructive tyranny that his father and grandfather imposed on the country, he would need support from abroad. The military and Communist Party elites who control and benefit from that system would have to be brought round or bought off, and that would require lots of foreign aid and a global amnesty for their crimes. So how would he get the foreigners to help?

Well, he’d have to show them that he was willing to reform – but he couldn’t be too obvious about it at first, or those elites would just get rid of him. He’d drop a hint here, make a gesture there, and hope that the foreigners would trust him and help him to change the country. Rather like the rest of the world responded when the Burmese generals started hinting that they were ready to dismantle their half-century-old dictatorship two years ago.

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un would drop the same hints and make the same gestures if his only wish was to sucker the outside world into propping up the bankrupt system in North Korea with more big shipments of free food and fuel. There’s no way to read his mind, so how should the foreigners respond?

This is not a theoretical question, for he is sending out those signals. Never mind the cosmetic stuff like being seen in public with a new wife who dresses in fashionable Western clothes. In his televised New Year’s message to the Korean people, he spoke of the need to “remove confrontation between the North and the South,” and called for dramatic improvements in the national economy.

It’s the first time the regime has ever celebrated the Western New Year (including fireworks in Pyongyang). It’s nineteen years since the country’s leader last spoke to the people directly. He may be trying to tell them and the rest of the world that he is starting down the road of reform, or he may be bluffing. What to do?

Unfortunately, since he’s not making any political or economic reforms at home at the moment – that’s what he MIGHT do if he had foreign help – we can’t conclude anything about his intentions from his domestic policies. And his foreign policy is hardly encouraging either.

North Korea doesn’t have much by way of a foreign policy. The only consistent thread is its obsession with military power (it has one of the world’s biggest armies, though it has about the population of Australia), and latterly with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Both of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons tests, in 2006 and 2012, were conducted when Kim Jong-il was still alive and in power, but Kim Jong-un has not repudiated them. Moreover, he has continued to test ballistic missiles, including the launch last month of a rocket that his regime says could hit the United States. (It was ostensibly used to launch a satellite, which it did, but the technology for satellite launchers and ICBMs is almost identical.)

On the other hand, here is a man whose only claim to power is heredity, in a country that does not have a formally recognised monarchy. To consolidate his power, he must persuade the military and Party elites that he is a reliable successor who will perpetuate the system that keeps them fat and happy, so his current aggressive posture in foreign policy is really no guide to his real intentions either.

In fact, at this point there is really no way of telling what he means to do. The rest of the world, and in particular the United States and North Korea’s neighbours, South Korea, China and Japan, are going to have to make their decisions blind. What can they do that would help Kim Jong-un to bring the country out of its cave and start loosening the domestic tyranny, without actually making matters worse if he is not a secret reformer?

The safest course would be to encourage dialogue between North and South Korea (which has just elected a new president, Park Geun-hye, who has declared her presidency ready to initiate unconditional talks with the North). It would also be sensible to ease back on the embargoes and other restrictions on North Korean imports for a while, since they are obviously achieving nothing in terms of stopping its weapons projects anyway.

And what if Kim-Jong-un dares not or simply does not want to respond to these gestures with more promising moves himself? Then you just give up and go back to the policy of containment that has had so little success over the years. North Korea is really a very small threat (except for its own people, of course), and it’s safe to take a little risk in the hope that the new ruler will respond.

It’s the country’s only hope. There is not going to be a North Korean spring in the Arab style.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It’s…do”; and “Both…identical”)