Saturday, March 6, 2010

By: Æ Beacon

Part I: October 25th, 2007

Over the past fifteen years the federal government has spent billions of dollars on something that does not exist; bird flu. Despite few known cases of human to human transmissions, none of which having occurred in the wildfire fashion envisioned by public health experts, considerable funding has gone into fighting this purported menace. At this very moment several million doses of Tamiflu, the antiviral with supposed action against bird flu, are parked in warehouses outside of several major US cities awaiting distribution. Further, a half dozen manufacturers have promised the ability to ramp up production in case of a large scale outbreak.

Unfortunately these solutions neglect the dynamics of disease spread and our ability to respond to widespread public health emergencies. Recent biomedical successes with polio, mumps, measles, smallpox and a variety of other illnesses have perhaps contributed to an overwhelming sense in our culture that we can triumph over illness through medicine. Though successful in certain instances, modern diseases like HIV/AIDS have proven to be more divisive and adaptable than we are prepared to handle through drugs alone. Even if we had a cheap vaccine tomorrow, how long would it take to inoculate the millions infected and the billions at risk? Ask any of the men, women and children still living in areas with endemic polio, a full half century after the development of two effective, cheap vaccines, and they will tell you it takes a long time.

What can we learn from viruses? Perhaps the most important lesson is that medicine, while perhaps the ultimate cure for a given illness, is only part of the answer.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Well here we are again -- Friday. Your humble correspondent asks your forgiveness for his few posts these past few days, but what better way to kick off a return to the blogosphere with a TWIW!

Now, I know that we love Facebook here in the West, but Israel is definitely addicted. While normally something about Isreali love for social networking would be a puff piece below the fold in a sad newspaper -- it has become an international security issue. Take a look!

From the facebook post of an IDF soldier:

On Wednesday, we’ll be cleaning up in Katnaa [an Arab village near Ramallah], and on Thursday, please G-d, we’re going home.

The problem? This was posted on a Monday. Whoopsiedoodle! The poor Farmville addict continued to list his unit name, and the ...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

By: Maren Christensen

The central concern for the future of Afghanistan, and thereby the future of our operations there, is whether the Afghan government can emerge as legitimate. Such legitimacy is critically important because the insurgents cannot be defeated by firepower alone; removing popular support is the only definitive way to ensure the death of the movement. The Obama administration pays much lip service to the administration of justice and promotion of rule of law as essential elements of legitimacy, but in Afghanistan, the bark doesn’t seem to have any bite.

First, the bad news. Afghanistan has never had successful centralized state authority, meaning that there is very little if any history of rule of law at the national level. In fact, attempts to centralize state authority in law and the administration of justice have historically been met with firm resistance and rebellion by traditional leaders, who represent a blend of tribal and Islamic viewpoints. These leaders are the custodians of popular legitimacy for their communities. Perhaps international actors thought their views were backward and therefore irrelevant, or maybe they thought them to have somehow been a part of the problems with Islam behind 9/11 (God forbid such a series of dark assumptions), but we didn’t solicit their voices when we put together a new legal system for the country. As a result, popular perceptions of the state justice system deem it to be corrupt, ineffective, and foreign. This does more than just make it hard to establish a standard national legal system. I would go so far as to say that we’re contributing to the insurgency’s popular support base by treating rule of law as something that is imposed, not as something that begins at a very local level.

Now the good news: there’s room to bridge this gap, as long as internationals encourage and facilitate genuine cooperation, as opposed to papering over decades of resentment and distrust with mere coordinating mechanisms. Just as the broader COIN strategy focuses on direct engagement with and protection of civilians, one locality at a time, building rule of law from the bottom-up means direct engagement that is community-specific: bringing together traditional leaders, local state justice officials, and progressive stakeholders such as women’s rights advocates to come to a better understanding of each other’s intentions, priorities, practices and values. This kind of dialogue would build consensus on an arrangement that covers all bases in the administration of justice between the courts and informal jirgas or shuras. There are cutting edge examples of such efforts being piloted with a significant level of success, particularly through the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Fear not friends, I have been closely watching the news coming from Marjah and Afghanistan in general, although I have not had the time to craft a detailed update. In the meantime, here are a few stories worthy of your attention.

  • In today's NYT, Josh Foust has an op-ed about Marjah and the short-sightedness of the U.S. approach to governance. It's possibly the best piece I've seen explaining the importance of governance and why the U.S. isn't making the right choices.
  • Gulliver at Ink Spots has a post in a similar vein, wondering why the biggest priority for training the ANSF is marksmanship.  Shouldn't it be more focused on rule of law and human rights? 
  • Via Tom Ricks, a great interview with Ahmed Rashid in which he stresses that a complete defeat of the Taliban is impossible, and that the prudent course is to begin negotiations now to ensure a stable situation after the coalition withdrawal.
  • Finally, I found this Alissa Rubin article in the NYT fascinating.  The fact that the government in Kabul sent a Vice President that doesn't speak Pashtun is astounding, and, I think, indicative of the token level of commitment we can expect from the Karzai regime moving forward.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Anyone who knows me will likely tell you that should you ever hear me say anything good about the most recent Bush administration that you may want to get your ass to a Church because there is a decent chance that its a sign of the ends of days. However, some recent thinking I have been doing about Al Qaeda has led me to believe that the Bush Administration might have actually done something that prevented further attacks inside the United States for the seven years following 9/11 despite the general overall level incompetence shown by the White House in those years.

While the vast majority of the Bush administration's security policies produced nothing more than a frightened U.S. population convinced that Saddam Hussein had actually been behind 9/11 and that democrats hated the troops and were going to get us all killed, their scare tactics might have actually cut Al Qaeda off at the knees.

Now what I mean by all this is that with the Bush administration constantly talking about the imminent threat posed by Nuclear terrorism, anthrax and dirty bombs etc. that the bar for what would be considered impressive feats of terrorism have simply been set beyond Al Qaeda's tactical reach. While the Bush administration insisted that Al Qaeda was close to obtaining weapons of mass destruction for its own political purposes, the rest of the world (including the Muslim world) began to buy into the myth of Al Qaeda's power. At this point should Al-Qaeda perpetrate any attack against the US that was considered less shocking than 9/11, the rest of the world would view them as the relatively weak organization that they are.

Here are some facts for you. According to the Al-Qaeda defector Dr. Fadl, Bin Laden tried to purchase some highly enriched Uranium from a Sudanese General in 1993 for $1.5 million. Turns out the canister he bought was actually filled with a substance known as Red Mercury or "Cinnabar," a compound that physically resembles Uranium Oxide but is chemically quite different. This is the closest that Al-Qaeda has been to a nuclear weapon and that was back when bin laden had relative freedom of movement.

As far as Anthrax goes, no Muslim terrorist organization has ever approached the level of sophistication needed to produce Anthrax. As it turns out, the Anthrax attacks that killed five people back in 2001 were actually the result of an army biologist named Bruce E. Ivins who blew a gasket and decided to use American government produced anthrax against his fellow citizens.

Finally, not even Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese Cult that sought to speed up Armageddon by carrying out a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway could properly pull of a successful mass chemical attack (12 people died). Aum Shinrikyo had over a billion dollars as well as high tech labs and technicians at its disposal, far more capability than any other terrorist group has ever had and even they failed to produce much more than temporary panic. Honestly, more destruction would likely be caused by yelling "Godzilla!" in the streets of Japan (bad joke...moving on)

Turns out carrying out attacks of mass destruction are hard and by setting expectations so high for Al-Qaeda, we forced them to make the strategic choice of trying to carry out less spectacular attacks that over time would destroy the myth of their power or instead rest on their laurels and allow self starter terrorists to draw inspiration from them. (they have gone with the latter)

My overall point here is that for the most part, terrorism is a nuisance not the likely apocalyptic reality that Dick Cheney would like you to believe. Occasionally, these groups can accomplish something big like 9/11, however, terrorist acts of mass destruction are the exception and not the rule. So take heed my fellow disciples of reason and realize that there may be some value to propping up the myth of Al Qaeda in the media, but when it comes to the list of things that keeps you up at night, don't let this be one of them.

And that's my fifty cents (inflation....)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Washington Post reports:

"Indignation only heightened as Greece's deputy prime minister, responding to German calls for deeper spending cuts, suggested last week that instead of criticizing its policies, Germany should compensate Greece for the Nazi invasion of 1941."
Many of the more bizarre statements in the world of diplomacy have been made with one's domestic constituents as the primary audience. And I know referring to the evils of Nazi Germany is usually good domestic politics. But, was this really a good idea?

"Ms Merkel, you owe us for Kalavryta, you owe us for Distomo, you owe us 70 billion ($95 billion) for the ruins you left us."
As the title of this post implies, this is most decidedly not the way to ask Germany for money.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is taking advantage of a "loophole" in the Afghan constitution to alter the landscape of Afghanistan's elections, the New York Times reported on Tuesday. This has been decried by the international community and his political opponents, saying the move "threatened the nation’s stability." It seems fairly certain that Mr. Karzai is undermining the independence of the Election Complaint Commission, but it's also certain that he's not doing anything illegal. The Afghan constitution, written in 2003 by more than 500 representatives to the Constitutional Loya Jirga, expressly allows Karzai's policy actions.

Mr. Karzai rewrote Afghanistan's election law, giving the President the authority to appoint all five members of the Election Complaint Commission, which currently consists of two Afghans and three foreigners picked by the UN. How did he do it?

From the NY Times article:

Article 79 states that when the Parliament is in recess, the president has the right to enact emergency legislative decrees, which have the force of law, but that when the Parliament returns, it has 30 days to reject them.

However, another provision, Article 109, states that “proposals for amending elections law shall not be included in the work agenda of the National Assembly during the last year of the legislative term.” That means the one kind of decree that Parliament cannot discuss in the last year of its term is one that changes electoral laws.
So what is the take-home lesson here? I'll offer one: "war-gaming" various policy alternatives needs to be a part of modern constitution drafting. (Not being an expert on the Afghan constitution, nor someone who speaks Dari or Pashto, I won't speculate about other potential issues within the document) In the present day, there's no excuse for being surprised by a constitutional "loophole."

By: David Schoeller-Diaz

Over 10,000 phone messages reportedly arrived at the Colombian Presidential Palace within 24 hours of the long awaited Constitutional Court ruling, which barred President Uribe from seeking a second reelection by a 7-2 vote. Coming from the Press Chief we can accept the figure as embellished, but nonetheless points to the strong emotions involved.

As the ‘Uribe Era’ comes to a close, less than 150 days of uncertainty remain before the new path of the country is forged. One thing, however, is clear. Colombian democracy is stronger today, illuminating institutional autonomy in a region long dominated by populist “caudillos” and military dictators. A third presidential term would have most certainly led to further concentration of power in the executive branch, and more precisely, in the hands of a single dominant figure, threatening the long-term institutional capacity to tackle the evolving threats facing the nation.

For long, Colombia has had a paradoxical democracy, simultaneously one of the most resilient in Latin America with a rare history of virtually uninterrupted elections, and fraught with chronic political violence for over 50 years. While a democratic tradition solidified early on, the state never acquired the heavy-handed measures of most countries in the region to enforce their authority and provide necessary social services throughout the territory. In other words, while Colombia has been truly privileged to circumvent the grueling struggle towards democracy, effective nation building never reached far beyond the major cities allowing illicit activity to flourish. The tough terrain and decentralized character of Colombia make it extremely difficult for a non-state army to existentially threaten the government, and for the government to patrol its frontier lands against insurgents, paramilitaries, or drug trafficking.

Álvaro Uribe, the Harvard and Oxford-educated Governor of Antioquia, was elected at a time when most Colombians were saying “No Más”, following two highly ineffective Presidents.

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