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2015 Year-Ender

If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.

This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.

Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.

That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders

There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.

Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.

The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.

There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.

The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.

This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.

That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.

The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.

The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.

Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.

In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.

The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.

So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.

Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.

The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.

But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.

Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.

There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.

In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.

And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.

However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.

They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).

They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
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To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.

Afghanistan: Going Down

If the Taliban were not so busy fighting the rival Islamic State jihadis who began operating in Afghanistan early this year, they might now be within reach of overthrowing the Afghan government that the Western powers left behind when they pulled out most of their troops last year. Even with that distraction, the Taliban are doing pretty well.

On Monday, a Taliban suicide-bomber on a motorcycle managed to kill six American soldiers who were patrolling the perimeter of Bagram air base near Kabul. On the same day Taliban fighters took almost complete control of Sangin in Helmand province, a town that over 100 British troops died to defend in 2006-10.

As Major Richard Streatfield, a British officer who fought at Sangin, told the BBC: “I won’t deny, on a personal level, it does make you wonder – was it worth it? Because if the people we were trying to free Afghanistan from are now able to just take it back within two years, that shows that something went badly wrong at the operational and strategic level.”

It was probably a mistake to invade Afghanistan in the first place. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists could have been dealt with without invading an entire country, and there was never any evidence that the Taliban government of the day knew about his 9/11 attacks on the United States in advance.

Having invaded the country, it was a mistake not to hand it over to a tough regime made up of warlords from the major ethnic groups and get out before the presence of over a hundred thousand foreign troops gave the Taliban a second wind. Trying to create a Western-style liberal democracy in Afghanistan was even more naive than the previous Soviet project to build a modern, secular, “socialist” one-party state in the country.

The 19th-century British army and the 20th-century Russian army could both have told them: it has always been easy to invade Afghanistan, but it has always been hard for foreign troops to stay there more than a couple of years.

And having made those mistakes, it was another mistake to pull almost all the foreign troops out before the Afghan government’s army was up to holding the Taliban off. If, indeed, it can ever be brought up to that level.

The parlous state of the Afghan National Army and the sheer fecklessness of President Ashraf Ghani’s government was highlighted by last weekend’s desperate plea by Helmand’s deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasulyar for supplies and reinforcements for the troops holding Sangin.

It’s not just that the army had neglected the plight of those soldiers. It’s the fact that Rasulyar had to resort to posting his plea on Facebook to get the government’s attention.

Part of the problem is that the government and the army high command are profoundly corrupt. For example, up to a quarter of the army’s troops are “ghost soldiers” who only exist on paper, so that officers can draw their pay.

The worse problem is that President Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, only won last year’s election by massive fraud. Conflicts with the aggrieved losers have left the government paralysed: twenty months after the election, there is still not even a permanent defence minister.

Morever, Ghani believes that a decisive military victory over the Taliban is impossible. This is probably correct – but he is therefore committed to cultivating close ties with Pakistan in the hope that Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA, will deliver the Taliban to the table for peace talks. (Most Afghans believe that ISI controls the Taliban.) But Ghani is wrong on two counts.

The Taliban have no reason to agree to a power-sharing peace settlement, since they can still hope for an outright military victory. And Pakistan doesn’t really control the Taliban, although it gives them a safe haven and can manipulate them to a limited extent. There were preliminary peace talks early this year, but there has been nothing since July.

The Afghan army would be collapsing a good deal faster if so much of the Taliban’s attention were not focused on fighting off the challenge from Islamic State. (It has killed at least a thousand IS fighters this year.) But the Taliban still managed to seize the city of Kunduz in the north for a week in September, and now Sangin in the southwest is going.

We are seeing the usual short-term responses in the West. President Obama has halted the withdrawal of most of the remaining 9,800 US troops in the country (which was scheduled for the end of this year), and Britain has ordered ten of the 450 troops it still has in Afghanistan back to Sangin.

But that won’t make much difference, and there is no chance whatever that the NATO countries will build their troop strength in Afghanistan back up to the level – around 140,000 – where it was five years ago. The Afghans are on their own now, and they will be lucky if they end up back under the rule of the Taliban rather than in the clutches of Islamic State.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“The 19th…years”; and “Moreover…July”)

After the Spanish Election

“I’m going to try to form a government,” said Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as the results of the national election came in on Sunday night, “but it won’t be easy.” His right-wing People’s Party (PP) still won the most seats in parliament, 129 – but that was far down from the 176 seats it would need for an absolute majority, let alone the 186 it had before the election.

Pablo Iglesias, the man who founded the Podemos (“We can”) party only two years ago, agreed with Rajoy on this, if on little else. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking in the name of Podemos,” he told a rally during the campaign. “We thank you for choosing the path of change. We’re expecting a bumpy ride with political turbulence.”

Podemos ended up with 69 seats, not bad for a two-year-old party in its first national election – but it doesn’t seem interested in cooperating with the other left-wing party. “Hopefully Podemos would be willing to work with us,” said Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which got 90 seats, “but so far I perceive a threatening mixture of arrogance, self-infatuation and condescension.”

“If the socialists or PP had done nothing wrong, neither Podemos nor us would exist,” said Albert Rivera, leader of the even newer party, Ciudadanos (Citizens). Last January it was barely known outside Catalonia, with only 3 percent support in the polls. Last Sunday Ciudadanos got 14 percent of the national vote and 40 seats. So forming a new government in Spain is going to be a long and messy process.

Ever since the dictator Francisco Franco died and democracy returned to Spain forty years ago, only two parties have mattered at the national level. The PP was the traditional right, close to the Catholic Church, and getting most of its votes from rural areas and older voters. The PSOE was traditional left, and got the urban vote, the young, and what’s left of the working class.

The PP and the PSOE alternated in power, and during the three-decade boom after Spain joined the European Union nobody much minded the lack of viable alternatives. Then came the world financial crisis of 2008, with stagnant or falling wages for most Spaniards and an unemployment rate that reached 27 percent.

Each party had a turn at trying to deal with the crisis, and each cut the national budget, rescheduled or repaid as much debt as possible, and imposed severe austerity on the population. Even Spain’s population began to fall, as the young left in droves to find work elsewhere in the EU.

Maybe all that austerity has finally worked. This year the Spanish economy is growing at 3 percent, the highest rate in the EU, and unemployment is down to 21 percent. But that’s still higher than anywhere else in the EU except Greece, and it’s too late for a lot of voters. They don’t believe that either traditional party’s policies had much to do with the upturn in the economy (and a lot of them don’t even believe the statistics that say there is one).

So there was plenty of room for a new party offering an end to austerity, and for a while it looked like Podemos was it. It was anti-capitalist, its 36-year-old leader wore a pony-tail, and it promised radical change. Some people worried that it had “Venezuelan” tendencies, but a year ago the polls suggested that it could even come out ahead of both traditional parties in an election.

Not so fast. Since January the other new party, Ciudadanos, has been luring away the more timid people who once considered voting for Podemos, but were alarmed by its “Venezuelan” tendencies. Ciudadanos also has a 36-year-old leader (no pony-tail) who talks about radical change, but it is really a centre-right party that sits comfortably in the middle of the road, long left empty by the traditional parties of left and right.

That split the protest vote, so now Spain has four major parties, and creating any sort of coalition government is going to be very hard. The arithmetic means that either the PP or the PSOE must be in any coalition that can command a majority in parliament, but Ciudadanos swears that it will not join any government that it does not lead.

Podemos is being equally difficult, saying that it will ask its supporters to vote on joining any coalition. (Being fed up with both traditional parties, they would probably say no.) So unless there is a “grand coalition” between the PP and the PSOE – which is also very hard to imagine – it may not be possible to form a new government at all. In which case, after two months, there must be another election – and you can forget the economic recovery.

Hard times do not usually make people more moderate and open to compromise. Spain was a perfectly reasonable country that managed its democracy well for forty years, but it may just have made itself ungovernable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Ever…class”; and “Maybe…one”)

Syria: Not a Peace, But Maybe a Ceasefire

Abu Muhammad al-Golani is an Islamist fanatic, a head-chopper (although only in moderation), and the leader of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is classified by the United States as “terrorist”. He spent almost a decade killing American occupation troops and Shia civilians in Iraq as a loyal member of the Sunni extremist organisation that is now called Islamic State before going home to Syria in 2011.

He was sent home to create a Syrian clone of what was then called ‘Islamic State in Iraq’, on the orders of Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and now the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of all the Muslims. Golani named the Syrian branch the Nusra Front, and it did so well that he broke with Islamic State and went out on his own in 2013.

There was a three-month turf war between Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Syria in early 2014 that killed an estimated 3,000 jihadis. Islamic State won it and now controls most of eastern Syria (and all of western Iraq). Golani managed to hang on to northwestern Syria, where the Nusra Front and another extreme Islamist organisation, Ahrar al-Sham, now completely dominate a rebel alliance that also includes several smaller “moderate” outfits.

So you would not expect Golani to favour a peace deal that left the brutal Assad regime, secular in form but Shia-dominated, in power in Damascus. And indeed he does not: in a rare interview recently, he condemned the peace deal being cooked up by the US and Russia as “unacceptable”. It was, he said, a plot to merge more moderate rebel fighters with Assad’s forces in order to fight extremist groups like his own and Islamic State.

Golani was right to be suspicious, and yet he may go along with the deal in the end, because it isn’t really a permanent peace settlement that is being discussed. It’s actually just a ceasefire that will leave all the players in Syria in control of the territory they now hold – except for Islamic State, which they can then all concentrate on destroying.

This is the sort of Machiavellian thinking that caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to accuse Washington recently of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones,” but it’s just as much a part of Russian thinking. When Moscow started bombing the rebels in Syria in September to save the Assad regime from collapse, it bombed them all indiscriminately: the Nusra Front, Islamic State, even the “moderates”, if it could find them.

But it quickly became clear that what Russia had in mind, after stabilising the battlefronts, was precisely what Golani was condemning: a ceasefire that would effectively partition Syria between the Assad regime and the various rebel groups, and enable them all to turn on Islamic State.

You can’t admit that that’s what you are doing, of course, so you talk in terms of a peace settlement. That’s what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry were doing in Moscow on Tuesday, and the result is that a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the Syrian peace process will probably be passed on Friday.

The current round of “peace talks” began in Vienna on 23 October, with no Syrians present, just Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It subsequently expanded to include about twenty countries, and the organisers are now deciding which Syrians can attend the next round of talks, probably early in the new year.

On one side, obviously, will be the the representatives of the Assad regime. On the other side will be some of the leaders of the armed opposition, but not all of them. Islamic State won’t be there, of course, and at the moment the Nusra Front says it won’t be either. Since those are the two most powerful groups fighting the Assad regime, what’s the point of talks?

But the Nusra Front’s close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, did show up at last week’s meeting in Riyadh where decisions were being made on which groups could attend the peace talks. At one point it walked out – and then, after some further thought, it added its signature to the joint declaration.

The Islamists of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are clearly in two minds about a ceasefire (disguised as a peace agreement). On one hand, it would leave the Assad regime in power. On the other, it would give them time to consolidate their control over the territory they now hold, and maybe to eliminate their most dangerous rival, Islamic State. So in the end, they may go along with the idea.

It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t necessarily be permanent either. But it would stop most of the killing, it would at least contain if not eliminate Islamic State, and it might even let some of the refugees go home. It’s basically a Russian initiative, but Moscow is wisely letting the US take the lead now. If anybody has a better idea, please let us all know.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This is…State”)