Freitag, 30. September 2011

Getting Back to United Nations Peacekeeping Missions – The case of MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

A couple of days ago I had the great pleasure and honour of moderating Roger A. Meece, who is the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations and the head of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at an expert talk convened by the German United Nations Association. Roger A. Meece, a former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to countries like Congo, the DRC and Malawi was truly impressive and there are some points I've taken away from the evening that are worth sharing, at least for foreign policy nerds like me.

For a start, one issue constantly raised during the evening was, somewhat unsurprisingly, the inadequate resources at the mission's disposal. Normally, when talking about blue helmet missions, observers point out that most contributors are not equipped for such complex missions since the largest contributors are states like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, etc., states that do not exactly maintain the most professional of all armies. But there are tactical issues that are often overlooked. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for instance, the equipment most needed are transport helicopters. But the withdrawal of attack helicopters has left the mission, interestingly, without a major deterrent to warlords. So far, I've never seen a single paper studying the role of attack helicopters in UN peacekeeping missions. Getting into that now entered my to-do list.

But the major issue with which MONUSCO is currently preoccupied are the national elections coming up in November. The outcome of national assembly elections are difficult to predict, but it stands to reason that a number of parliamentarians are about to lose their seat. The elections are a major challenge to MONUSCO and the government. While in 2006 50.000 polling stations were set up across the country, this years' elections will see 62.000 polling stations up and running. With the increase in polling stations come large scale logistical challenges. While there are less candidates running for president in 2011—eleven candidates are registered, whereas in 2006 33 candidates were running—the number of parliamentary candidates has significantly increased. The drop in number of presidential candidates is partly a product of the success of the 2006 elections. Most candidates then running were surprised to find that the elections were taking place at all and initially registered only to be part of an eventually negotiated settlement of the elections.

The 2011 national elections are going to be particularly challenging when it comes to the national assembly. There are now 19.000 candidates running for 500 seats. In all probability the elections will set a world-record in ballot size, with some 1.500 candidates competing for a single seat. However, the larger circumstances of the elections are somewhat more promising than in 2006. In 2006 three belligerent factions made conducting elections difficult, whereas today there are no armed factions threatening the larger area of the DRC. The major security threat in the 2011 elections, by contrast, are demonstrations. Although they could have an impact on the local level, they should be manageable. Overall it needs to be stressed that the elections will in all likelihood not lead to a new Côte d'Ivoire situation and instead can be expected to run rather smoothly.

Mittwoch, 28. September 2011

The Drug War – A Truly Silly One

While on a train from Berlin the other day (I was moderating a lecture by His Excellency Roger A. Meece, the current head of MONUSCO), I've had a chance to look into the current issue of the Foreign Affairs. Now, I am not among those who oppose any war out of some weird and misapplied principle, but I do oppose silly wars. And yes, I am still supporting the war in Iraq, so you might be wondering which war I find myself opposing? Its the war on drugs; a war that no one will ever win and that will never end, so maybe stop calling it a war is a pretty good idea for a start. But that isn't it. In the current Foreign Affairs' Mark Kleinman is making a rather persuasive argument calling the decades old war a failure. Instead of having been able to curb the influx of drugs, the supply is so plentiful that prices even for hard drugs have dropped by 80 to 90%. And even though the profits that can be made in the drugs business have dropped as well, the U.S. government is today imprisoning more people on drug-related charges than at any other time since prohibition. Kleinman is reaching the most important and convincing part of his case when talking about Mexico by making a small, but decisive note. Mexico, he argues, is fighting a war in which it has absolutely no stake. The war in Mexico, after all, is nearly entirely driven by the high demand on the North American illicit drug market. Would that demand drop or would the border indeed be fully secured, the violence in Mexico would be reduced or should the drug trade follow different routes, Mexico would become less important to the drug cartels virtually overnight. The war is threatening the foundations of the Mexican state, even though Mexico itself is neither the market nor the producer of the drugs. But the solution Kleinman is proposing is somewhat less compelling: he argues that instead of fighting the drug cartels altogether, the U.S. and Mexican authorities should introduce a scoring system and go after the most dangerous and violent cartel only. That strategy would reduce violence, he argues, because it deters drug cartels from fighting each other and killing innocents. I somewhat doubt that that is what would happen. It appears to me that drug cartels would play that system just as much as they have played any system so far. It only takes the first season of the Wire to realise just how futile that would be.  

Samstag, 24. September 2011

Putin's Sclerotic State of Mind

Whoever had time to watch the FOX/Google presidential debate was most certainly spending the next day dissecting just how much of a lacklustre performance Texas Governor Rick Perry delivered and how Mitt Romney succeeded in re-establishing himself as the GOP's best bet to beat Barack Obama in 2012. There are those who find the entire enterprise tiresome and prefer not to spend a regular night listening to nine Republicans harbouring largely similar ambitions. But one is well-advised to remind oneself of the marvel of having such a beautiful process in the first place when compared to the tedious predictability of Russian politics. President Medvedev today nominated Vladimir Putin to serve as Russia's next president. I am not guessing that anyone doubts that Putin will be 'elected'. Not just because Putin is so incredibly popular, but also because anyone daring to challenge him in a serious manner will find himself constrained by two rather daunting hurdles. On the one hand the regime has established a system that favours the government party in ways unthinkable a mere twenty years ago. The press is gutted and the society mobilised in ways that are Orwellian in character. Should a journalist dare to live up to the promise of his profession, he can be certain to face what the state media will term an accident. Then on the other there is the constant danger that too successful a challenge will inevitably lead you to spend the remainder of your life in prison, as Kasparov can attest to.

For many years Western observers made themselves believe that there is a secret struggle between Putin and Medvedev as to who is going to run for president next. And there is a decent chance that such a struggle did indeed take place. But in hindsight Medvedev, despite his moderate leanings, has always been too soft and indecisive as to mount a serious challenge to the Prime Minister. He has been overrun by the Putin time and again and even whilst Medvedev was president, it often looked as if it was Putin who was really in charge. Some observers have suggested that Putin brings stability to Russia and is therefore not the worst thing that could happen to the country, while others have suggested that Russia is on a pathway to again become a Tsarist system. There is some truth in all of that, but one should not forget that Putin is first and foremost a populist; the sort of chap that would sport a little war to manifest himself favourably in history (one might remind oneself for a moment of the 2008 August war). The one thing he will not do is to reform the system of the Russian state, a state that has—as today's news again demonstrate—become literally sclerotic.

Freitag, 23. September 2011

Like a Grown-Up Überpower – The Chinese Attitude Toward the Military-to-Military Dialogue

Becoming a superpower and acting like one are two very different things, as the beloved Chinese seem keen to demonstrate again. In the face of the U.S. administration preparing a major arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing reacts outraged and threatens all kinds of things, most notably the suspension of direct military talks between the United States and the People's Republic. "Rather than working with China to consolidate and expand the positive growth of bilateral military ties, the United States again announced its plan to sell arms to Taiwan, which will create severe obstacles for normal military-to-military exchanges," opined Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng. (By the way, one really has to admire how Xinhua can give a fully biased picture without blinking once)

Its not that the Chinese government should not raise its concerns. But the constant outrage displayed over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is becoming preposterous. One might very well argue that the selling of arms to Taipei is tantamount to meddling in China's internal affairs, but then again, the Taiwanese are enjoying a freedom that is under constant siege. The latest Pentagon report on China found that between 1200 and 1400 ballistic missiles are currently aimed at Taiwan, while 400.000 soldiers and 500 fighter jets are positioned in the military districts on the Chinese side of the Taiwan-strait. Most importantly, the reports conclude consistently that the military balance in the Taiwan-strait is tilting in favour of the Chinese. The U.S. arms sale is not going to alter that trend, so its not that big of a deal in strategic terms.

But being a superpower is also about understanding your rivals. And the U.S. does not have that much of a choice. Ever since 1979 the U.S. administration is legally obligated to help the Taiwanese to defend themselves. Not that will ever come to that, hopefully. But all politics is local and the Chinese regime could at least try to understand the constraints placed upon the administration. But that is not to say the Obama administration could not handle the situation better. The Bush administration cleared the way in its relationship with China in the first year of being in office, pushing through a major arms package and leaving it with seven years in which it could focus on Beijing. That earned Bush rare praise even from liberals like Fareed Zakaria.

The Chinese attitude is all lovely for a moment but using the military-to-military dialogue to voice its concerns with Washington is simply immature for one single reason: The expanding Chinese military is inexperienced in operations outside its own territory. Chinese aircraft and PLAN submarines are now encountering American Navy vessels and U.S. military aircraft more often than at any other time. The close passes of American and Chinese aircraft increase the likelihood of lethal incidents like the Hainan island incident. The military-to-military dialogue is becoming more important in that context and is turning into an indispensable instrument in trying to avoid bilateral tensions emanating from such incidents. Beijing should start looking for a different pressure valve or else it will remain an immature superpower.

Modern Classics in War and Warfare – XI

It isn't often that one finds a page-turner that can be read on a single day, but Denis Johnson has written just that. A highly readable and recommendable account of his travels to Africa, Seek is a masterly written book. Johnson has always been fascinated by the despondency and exotic surroundings one finds abroad and his first book—Tree of Smoke—was a marvellous story of the onset of the Vietnam War. The short stories collected in Seek, however, are not an effort to create a narrative of the warzones he was visiting. For that he had no time, since he spent most of his time getting to where he was supposed to be working. Instead, all stories are roadtrips, Bukowski going to Africa of sorts. The most disturbing encounter took place in Liberia, which he visited twice during the 1990s. Once meeting Prince Johnson, a notorious warlord who tortured and killed Samuel Doe and showed the footage of the so called “interrogation” with pride to journalists and the esteemed writer. When re-visiting Liberia a couple of years later, he is supposed to meet Charles Taylor but is instead shuffled through the country, meeting only drugged fighters and drunk generals. But what emerges is a picture of the intractable nature of the conflict raging in Liberia at the time.

I am just realising that this is probably the fourth or fifth book in a row that could not possibly be summarised as a classic study in war and warfare. But sooner or later I shall come up with a reading list on military affairs and since well-written accounts of Africa's military are hard to come by, this might well qualify. Its a good read in any event. 

Montag, 5. September 2011

Modern Classics in War and Warfare – X

Anthony Feinstein's Battle Scarred. The Hidden Costs of the Border War is not exactly a classic in military history. For one thing, its been published far too recently. For another, Feinstein does not even attempt to write a historic account. The war, which in various forms lasted from 1966 to 1989, remains one of the least studied episodes of the Cold War, though it has everything in it to make it an attractive research topic (Chris Saunders gives a good introduction here). A hot and devastating proxy war in the midst of the Cold War, in which even the Cubans thought it wise to intervene (and in doing so forced a reluctant Soviet Union to get involved as well, straining the Soviet Union's patience with its Cuban ally). Feinstein, a former conscript and doctor in the South African army, is a veteran of the war himself and has now turned his first-hand experience into a well-written and fascinating page-turner, easily read in the course of an afternoon or a long flight over the African continent. His book is one of the few really good personal accounts of the war. Joining the army for his tour of duty, he is asked to give a specific field of medical expertise. He sits down and scribbles plastic surgery on the note and is later surprised to find that the army has given him psychiatry instead. Asking his superiors what on earth had happened, he gets an answer that will somehow sound familiar to anyone having the slightest bit of military experience. In the alphabet PS follows PL.

But Feinstein quickly adapts to military life and finds himself on the front lines, dealing with patients who are unprepared for or devastated by military action and civilians, who can no longer carry the burden of constant conflict. The military historian, however, will find the last 50 pages the most interesting. Here, the author takes the reader on a tour through his small unit, which is deployed on the front lines and has more than one enemy encounter during the war. But an ambush leaves the unit in disarray. Following the attack more than one soldier is haunted by what he has experienced and even the unit's captain is having nightmares. The unit, having lost confidence in its leader, is beginning to fall apart. The book is a powerful reminder not so much of what the hidden costs of the border war are—they are easy to notice—but that unit cohesion is among the things in war that cannot be ordered and even less easily be explained. Feinstein could have put a little more effort in contextualising the whereabouts of his deployment and given more details when it comes to the role his unit had in the overall South African war effort. But having said that, the book should certainly be on everybody's military reading list.