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United States

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Imperfect Afghanistan

“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.

President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.

“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for,…dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.

Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The United States did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.

You could argue (and I would) that luring the US military into the quagmire of a long guerilla war in Afghanistan that would drive millions of Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda was precisely what Osama bin Laden was hoping to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. The United States simply fell into the strategic trap that he laid.

Even so, and despite all the rapidly changing reasons for “staying the course” in Afghanistan that Washington deployed in later years, the original and abiding motive in Washington was the perception, accurate or not, that who rules Afghanistan is a matter of great importance for the national security of the United States.

Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular US official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year US military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?

As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.

Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.

In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.

Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.

There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.

It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.

Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Karzai’s…States”)

The United States of Tatooine

“Tatooine” is, you will surely agree, a pretty stupid name for a planet, but there are so many Star Wars fans that some unfortunate world is bound to end up being called exactly that. Let’s just hope that its inhabitants, if there are any, never find out. On the whole, though, giving more user-friendly names to newly found planets orbiting other stars is a good idea.

There is, for example, a potentially habitable “exoplanet” only sixteen light years from here that is currently known only as Gliese 832c. As any real estate agent could tell you, it would attract a lot more attention if you renamed it “Nirvana”.

There are gazillions of stars, and only around three hundred have proper names (Antares, Procyon, Sirius) in any language. Some of the other bright ones are named after the constellation they are in, with a Greek letter or a number to indicate which one they are (Alpha Centauri, 61 Cygni). But most are just a number in a star catalogue. Jerome Lalande’s, published in 1801, had 47,390 stars, Henry Draper’s, published in 1918, listed 225,300.

Gliese 832 was named in a list of 3,803 “nearby” stars (up to 72 light years away) first published by Wilhelm Gliese in 1957, and updated several times since. The “c” was added when Gliese 832 was discovered to have planets two months ago. All very sensible and orderly, but not very romantic. So the International Astronomical Union called in the consultants, and the result was (pause for trumpet flourish) a competition!!

The NameExoWorlds contest, announced last year, will give the global public an opportunity to give more exciting or at least more memorable names to about 300 planets circling other stars. Starting next month, a site will open on which astronomy clubs and other non-profit organisations can register with the IAU, and in October they will be asked to pick 25 or 30 of these planets for the first round of naming.

Starting in December, these clubs and organisations can propose names for the planets and their host stars (only one planet per group), and in March the general public can rank the proposals in an online vote. They’re expecting more than a million votes.

The winning names will be announced at the IAU General Assembly in Honolulu a year from now – and Tatooine will certainly be one of the winners, provided that George Lucas gives his permission. (There might be a copyright issue.) But Vulcan will not be one of the names (sorry, Trekkies) because he was a Roman god, and names of religious figures aren’t allowed.

The IAU’s naming rules are the most interesting part of the exercise. Names may not be longer than sixteen characters, they should only be one word, and they must be pronounceable in some known language (though not necessarily yours). They shouldn’t be rude, they must not be of a commercial nature, and the names of pets are not acceptable.

Most importantly, they cannot be the names of living individuals, nor the names of individuals, places or events principally known for political, military or religious activities. Which would have caused a lot of problems if the rule had already been in force during the last big round of naming places.

Imagine that the IAU’s rule had been in force in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when European sailors and settlers were sprinkling names on all the “new lands” in the Americas and Australasia. No New England, no Melbourne, and certainly no El Salvador. No Sao Paulo, no Los Angeles, and no Sydney.

The southernmost Australians dealt with the problem in 1856 by changing their island’s name from Van Diemen’s Land (he was a former governor of the Dutch East Indies) to Tasmania (Abel Tasman was simply an explorer, and safely dead by then). But New Zealand would not pass muster on the word count, and New South Wales is simply ridiculous.

Waterloo in Canada will have to go, as will Washington (both the city and the state) in the United States, and they’ll have to do something about Bolivia too. But the biggest problem will be what to do about the Americas: two entire continents called after an individual who was still alive when they were named.

Amerigo Vespucci, originally from Florence, moved to Spain in 1492 and subsequently became involved in organising various voyages of exploration to the “New World” for the kings of both Spain and Portugal. In 1507 he was credited by the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller with discovering that these lands were not part of Asia, as Columbus had originally believed, but a huge separate land-mass between Europe and Asia.

On his world map of that same year, therefore, Waldseemuller named that land-mass “America”, after the Latin version (Americus) of Vespucci’s first name. But Amerigo Vespucci was still alive – he didn’t die until 1512. The name caught on, as it happened, but Waldseemuller broke the IAU rules.

It’s never too late to fix a mistake, but what shall we call the place instead? I know. How about the continents of North Tatooine and South Tatooine? And, of course, the United States of Tatooine.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11 . (“There…225,300″; and “The southernmost…ridiculous”)

MH17 – Who Did It? What Next?

“…and once the TAR (Target Acquisition Radar) has lock-on, this light will go green. Then just push this button here, and the rest’s automatic. Good luck!  Oh, and make sure nobody’s standing behind the missile when you launch.”

Maybe the crew who launched the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon were trained professionals, but it seems unlikely. That crew (or somebody else) was good enough to down three Ukrainian Air Force planes over the rebel-held zone in the past week, but they weren’t good enough to tell the difference between a military aircraft and a civilian airliner.

The Ukrainian planes were smallish aircraft flying low in a combat zone; the huge Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was flying straight and steady at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). A fully trained operator would know the difference in an instant. Somebody who had just had a crash course in firing Buk missiles (two tracked vehicles and a lot of electronics) might not. So 298 people died.

There are two questions to answer here. One is: who did it? The Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian rebels and the Russian Federation have all denied responsibility. The other is: what happens if, despite their denials, the rebels and/or the Russians themselves are to blame? Is this horrible event a “game-changer”?

Who did it is actually pretty obvious. At least one Buk launch team was spotted by an Associated Press reporter in the rebel-held zone on Wednesday, and there may have been more. The Russians have been trying to deny the air-space over the combat zone to the Ukrainians so that their army has to do all its fighting without air support and suffers increased casualties. Six Ukrainian planes have been shot down in the past six weeks.

The Ukrainian government says it has no surface-to-air missiles in the area, and it is probably telling the truth. With one possible exception, there have been no reports of Russian planes overflying the region, so anti-air defences were not needed.

The really damning evidence, however, is on the social media sites. First there is a post on a top rebel commander’s site, just at the time MH17 went down, claiming to have downed a Ukrainian transport plane. Within hours that post was deleted. Then the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) posted intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders on YouTube.

“Demon”, commanding the rebel troops who are the first to the crash site, reports: “Cossacks from the Chernunkhino checkpoint shot down the plane….They found the first body. It’s a civilian.” “Were there many people?” asks his superior, nicknamed “Greek”. “A fuckload,” replies Demon. “The debris rained right into the yards.”

“Any weapons there?” asks Greek. “None at all. Civilian things. Medical stuff, towels, toilet paper,” says Demon. “Any documents?” asks Greek. And Demon, finally realising what must have happened, replies: “Yes. From an Indonesian student. From Thompson University.” And he curses again.

It’s pronbably not Thompson University, which is an entirely online institution in the United States. It’s almost certainly Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, which has a student exchange agreement with the International Islamic Education Council (IIEC) in Indonesia.

And there’s no way, without access to the crash site and with only a few hours to do the job, that the Ukrainian intelligence service could have come up with that kind of detail to put into a fake recording. It’s genuine. The rebels did it.

Russia didn’t want the Cossacks at Chernunkhino to shoot down a civilian airliner, but it has been giving the rebels heavy weapons while strenuously denying it. It has been caught red-handed, and hundreds have died. This is indeed a game-changer – but in which direction?

One option would be for Moscow to admit it, apologise whole-heartedly, and abandon its clients in eastern Ukraine. That is unlikely to happen. As President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, “This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in that country, or in any case, if hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine. And certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”

In other words, yeah, we gave the rebels the weapons, and they used them to shoot down the airliner, but the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the Ukrainian government had just given in to the rebels. So it’s really Kiev’s fault, not ours.

The signs are clear: Russia is going to brazen it out, and go on supplying the separatist rebels with weapons. The Western Europeans have been trying to look the other way (although the United States did impose some extra sanctions this week), but they can’t look away after this. Western sanctions against Russia are going to go up quickly and steeply now. It’s already ugly, and it’s going to get even uglier.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“There are…game-changer”; and “The Ukrainian…needed”)

The Worthless US

“THE Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” – Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski, secretly taped in early 2014. Discuss. Use only one side of the paper.

The publication of Radoslav Sikorski’s comments in the Polish weekly magazine Wprost will not help his bid to become the European Union’s foreign policy chief, but there are senior foreign policy officials elsewhere who might be tempted to make similar remarks (though perhaps not in alcohol-fuelled conversations in well-known restaurants where they might be overheard). And there are those in Washington who are saying the same thing.

Some, like former Vice-President Dick Cheney – “The policies of the last six years have left America diminished and weakened. Our enemies no longer fear us. Our allies no longer trust us” – are so discredited by their own past blunders that they can be easily dismissed. But some of America’s overseas friends and allies also are quietly dismayed by President Barack Obama’s clear reluctance to send in the troops, or at least the drones.

Sikorski’s angry remarks can be explained by the date when they were made. It was before the Ukrainian revolution succeeded in overthrowing the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and before the United States responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by imposing sanctions on Russian leaders and sending reinforcements to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. He would presumably sing a different song now.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, is undoubtedly now talking much like Sikorski did last winter. After all the horrors that the US invasion inflicted on Iraq in 2003-11, Maliki must feel that he has a right to expect American military help when things start to fall apart at home. But he doesn’t get it.

Maliki might get US military help if Washington believed that the survival of his regime was a “core national interest” of the United States, as Obama put it in a speech at West Point Military Academy last month, but even then it would be help in carefully measured amounts. Which is to say, no American troops fighting on the ground.

Well, all right, Obama did send 300 American troops back to Iraq last week, but they are being sent only to train and advise Iraqi troops, not to kill and get killed. He might consider using some drones and cruise missiles too, if Maliki agrees to step aside for someone less divisive – but it would only be a token gesture even then.

This is because President Obama knows two very important things. The first is that the American public simply will not stand for another large US military intervention in the Middle East. The other is that neither Iraq, nor indeed even Ukraine, is a “core national interest” of the United States.

“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” said Obama at West Point, and he has no intention of doing the same thing. Does that mean that the United States has become a “worthless ally”? No, but it does mean that it may not always be a “faithful friend”.

The distinction is important. An alliance like NATO or the US-Japanese alliance is a formal commitment to fight in support of another country in certain stated circumstances. However, very few wars that the United States has fought in the past fifty years were of that kind. They were “wars of choice”, fought in places where the United States had no legal obligation to fight.

Back when American power seemed irresistible and American wealth inexhaustible, Washington repeatedly sent US troops into wars that had only the sketchiest relationship with any definable American national interest. From Vietnam to Iraq, it literally did not count the cost. But it does now, and only actual allies can count on the United States showing up when it’s needed.

How do you get to be an ally of the United States? By being a country whose independence, borders, and/or political orientation are seen by Washington as truly vital American interests. The one exception to this rule is Israel, whose hold on America is more sentimental than strategic, but for everybody else there is a very high threshold.

Poland actually crosses that threshold, because Russia, the country that obsesses the Poles, remains a major American security concern as well. Ukraine, on the other hand, lies beyond NATO’s security frontier, and not many NATO members would be willing to fight a war with Russia to save it, so Ukraine is not an ally. And Iraq is definitely not an ally.

Despite the general US obsession with the “terrorist threat”, Obama may actually realise how little the outcome of the current turmoil in Iraq really matters to American security, and Iraq’s oil, post-fracking, is not even a consideration any more. No core American national interests here. So the US cavalry will not be riding over the hill to the rescue.