Samstag, 30. April 2011

Carter Going to North Korea

When President Nixon flew to Beijing in the early 1970s, he not only ushered in a new era of rapprochement between the U.S. and the People's Republic, he also, involuntarily one might think, coined the term of “Nixon going to China”. Ever since this term represents a move in foreign policy that is as bold as it is overdue. So Jimmy Carter might have hoped to secure a bit of legacy by going to North Korea—and he has been trying hard ever since he set foot on Korean soil. He and his delegation (Mary Robinson, the former Irish President and the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari) were rebuffed since neither Kin Jong-il nor his son Kim Jong-un were in a mood to meet with him and Carter was willing to do their bidding anyway. Here is Carter's wisdom in a nutshell: Resume international help to North Korea immediately. Never mind that there is new construction at North Korea's nuclear installations, meaning that the regime has been using its spare cash  (and we would to have assume, basically all its cash) to resuscitate its nuclear ambitions. No longer bother North Korea over human rights, they are not going to change anyway and hey, since Carter is convinced that withholding international aid to North Korea is the real human rights violation, let's look what he chooses to ignore: The concentration camps, the lack of political freedom and common torture in prisons and camps, public executions and well finish the sentence yourself if you want to. And since the North Korean regime is not going to apologise over the sinking of the Cheonan, maybe its time to move on.

In all seriousness, I wonder who Carter thinks he is going to convince with that bit of nonsense. But one thing should be clear by now anyway. A Richard Nixon he is not.

Samstag, 23. April 2011

On Short Notice: Libya, Drones, Rumsfeld, The New Yorker and Other Random Stuff of a Saturday Morning

The Obama administration has finally realised that in order to, well, perhaps win in Libya it would need to involve itself a little more than it had so far, which, again, leads me to contend that there is something fundamentally wrong when the specific goal of military action is not winning, i.e. removing Qaddafi from power, but expressively not being in the lead. But anyway, the US has finally authorised the use of Predators, so the tide of the fighting is hopefully turning. But against that background it might be useful to look again into the short piece William F. Owen and A.E. Stahl published in Infinity Journal on the effectiveness of targeted killings. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that targeted killings work; that is, well, if enough enemy leaders are being killed. Which in turn brings me to highlight two issues. The first is that drones like the Predator were not designed for conventional battle even tough that is exactly the use they are supposedly being put to in Libya right now. Might it not be more effective, I humbly ask, to reintroduce heavier systems, like the AC 10? But secondly and certainly more importantly, it brings me back to my critical evaluation of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Far too often have, as David Kilcullen repeatedly and rightly pointed out, drones been used not as part of but as substitute for strategy. The Obama administration is gearing up to repeat that pattern in Libya and I am therefore mildly concerned.

For now its back to the desk. The current issue of the New Yorker is a lovely one and Donald Rumsfeld's "Known and Unknown" is a really and surprisingly good read.

Freitag, 8. April 2011

All Things Counter al-Qaeda

Leah Farrall (who is running the highly recommendable All Things Counter Terrorism blog) landed a big one. She managed to get an article into the current issue of Foreign Affairs, in which she analyses al-Qaeda's current status. Her general argument—al-Qaeda might in fact be stronger today than it was on 9/11—will certainly be met with scepticism in large parts of the academic world. Her bottom line is that in assessing al-Qaeda's strength one needs to take its local subsidiaries into account—from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The conclusion is obviously compelling, but academics of the school that likes to refer to itself as critical terrorism studies will certainly disagree and maintain that far too often this approach has led to a confusion of organisations that might very well call themselves al-Qaeda-something into a single organisation with overriding goals and ideologies. A proposition that does not hold up to closer scrutiny and I've got to say on this (and in all probability only on this) the critics are correct, for at least three reasons:

First, Farrall overstates the influence of al-Qaeda's senior leadership. For instance, I am not quite convinced that the merger of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda in 2001, as she maintains, is in any way similar to the adoption of the al-Qaeda label by organisations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Shabaab in Somalia. In fact, al-Shabaab has operated largely without any supervision whatsoever by al-Qaeda's central command and successfully so.

Second, the sort of unity achieved by adopting the al-Qaeda label is superficial at best. It does not in any way mean that all regional allies share al-Qaeda's central agenda or interpretation of Islamic law. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has on numerous occasions abducted European tourists to negotiate for a ransom, whereas al-Qaeda in Iraq has specifically targeted European and American nationals to execute them. Al-Shabaab in Somalia also executes foreigners but does not necessarily want to re-establish the global Ummah. Instead, it has long been suspected of following a nationalist agenda of a Greater Somalia that would unify all Somalis currently living in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya in a single state. Put differently, modi operandi and agendas might differ so strongly among al-Qaeda's allies that Farralls argument might simply be misleading.

Finally, al-Qaeda might well be weaker than it has been on 9/11. The mere fact that its strength now rests with its local subsidiaries is quite indicative for a lack of capabilities on the part of al-Qaeda. But even al-Qaeda's local allies no longer are as strong as they used to be. Al-Shabaab has come under enormous military pressure and might well have passed its peak in Somalia this year. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has only adopted the al-Qaeda label and a regional agenda, because the Algerian state apparatus has basically crushed it within the Algerian states. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is basically beaten. And that is the overall weakness in Farralls argument, nearly all of al-Qaeda's local allies are weaker today than they have been only a couple of years ago.