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Monday
Aug222011

Fall of Tripoli Roundup

How much of Tripoli the rebels control is still very much open to question, but what is certain as of writing this is that the régime of Muammar Qaddafi has crumbled and lost control as a defined unit.  There are a few good pieces that I'll point people to regarding this, that repeat points I have made myself, and also set out my idea on what this means for interventionism in the future.

Two of my favourite commentaries are by Issandr El Amrani ("The Arabist") and Juan Cole.  A common theme of both is that the arguments coming from both extreme right and left are bit ridiculous.  The situation does not look like Syria, there's no guarantee the new government will be any better for oil interests, and no one wants to occupy the place if they can avoid it.  The "quick succesion" of events in the last week has finally vindicated the observations of those who have watched this conflict unfold closely like myself and noticed that there was a lot of movement day to day.  It was only a matter of when that movement became media-friendly and photogenic that the vast majority of commentators noticed.  Likewise, the arguments of how 'boots on the ground' were necessary were rendered irrelevant by the use of security contractors and consultants.

Ultimately, the NATO strategy found its strongest vindication in giving firm material and psychological support to the revolution while standing far enough back to give the rebels a sense of ownership over the outcome.  From my experience on the ground, I feel exactly this; the feeling that people care for Libyans but can also treat them like adults.  The message that I feel I'm getting is that the West showed firm support for liberalism in the Arab world, but also delivered the message that it was no cakewalk.  The tensions amongst NATO members were palpable, especially during the thankfully rare mistakes of the campaign, and this was in a situation where terrain and geographical control rendered intervention feasible.  The NATO mission in Libya in its success actually demonstrates why such a mission would not work in Syria and reminds aspirant populations that there's only so much outside intervention can do.  And hopefully the case is clearer with Western governments that they can't always fix it no matter how much they want to.

I realise I'm being a bit optimistic here, but my shtick is ultimately trying to make things better, and I wouldn't be doing what I do unless I believe that at some level.

Thursday
Jun302011

Thoughts on the Attack on the Intercontinental in Kabul

Another spectacular attack in Kabul.  And as usual media is running in the same circles.  As I've often said, I'm bored of Afghanistan and I recommend people get their analysis from people with a genuine passion for the place like Joshua Foust, Gilles Dorronsoro, and the Afghanistan Analysts Network.  But let me correct a few obvious things I don't see anyone else mentioning:

  • The Intercon was popular with foreigners?  No it was not.  They stay their because of a lot of lacklustre security thinking (see below), but don't socialise there.  It's boring, there's no booze, and the general purpose of an expat going is a very dull meeting with an usually corrupt offical/businessman/both.  The Intercon is of key significance for the Afghan élite however and is regarded as the key place to have a wedding, reception, etc. by that set.  A major reason I didn't hang out there was the shameful and robust display of corruption by said élite. (I could go on about foreigners but that's a different piece.) The average Taliban member might not distinguish this so well, but a lot of planning goes into an operation like this, so for me it is conceivable that the Taliban will say publically that "50 high-ranking foreigners were killed" while still sending a very unnerving signal to the Afghan élite.
  • The targeting of the hotel was therefore much nuanced than what's presented.  It's a strike at the Afghan élite (with a major political event in the form of a governors' conference scheduled to happen the next day no less), and embarrassment of the Afghan security forces, and by proxy an embarrassment of NATO, foreigners, and the political strategies they're using.  This strategy has been apparent before in the instance of a 2010 attack on a PSC guesthouse in Taimani.  The PSC was a legitimate military target but it's location in a neighbourhood where many NGOs and contractors are based sent a clear message about the dangers of co-mingling.
  • The fact that the Intercon was cleared by so many security advisors is further evidence for my contention that the security industry is a scam.  It's a high-profile location that is not only a likely target itself, but also likely to host any number of high-value targets on a given occasion.
  • I have a hard time understanding what "heavily guarded" means.  True, there were a lot of checkpoints, but bad management and lack of enthusiasm typically dent the efficacy of such measures in Afghanistan.  I'm not in a position to know the specifics of the security arrangement at the Intercon, but we could use more reporting on what they were.
  • I'm intrigued that the Taliban claimed responsibility but the attack might have been perpetrated by the Haqqani Network (it did bear resemblance to earlier HN attacks on the Serena and Indian Embassy).  The two groups have often worked at cross purposes before and it would be interesting to see if this were genuine coordination or if it's one trying to trump the other for leadership of the Taliban movement.  Again, I'm not on the ground and am taking a break from Afghanistan so I'll not pretend to have the answer.
Thursday
Jun302011

Giving Weapons to the Libyan Rebels

Yesterday France confirmed that it supplied the Libyan weapons with arms.  So much we already new through numerous witness reports on the ground in Nafusa, many of which noted that the newly-built runway near Jadu had been used.  Rumours in Benghazi have long held that Italy has supplied arms.  Here are my reflections on the situation:

  • What exactly constitutes application of humanitarian principles is contentious.  The reality remains that this war is absurdly one-sided in that Qaddafi's chief tactic is violating humanitarian principles or using them against the international community.  I got to eavesdrop on a UN meeting where humanitarian concerns were completely divorced from there political reality.  Let's say we're dealing with food instead of weapons:  The more food given to non-combatants is more that's available to feed régime armed forces.  The worthy humanitarian principle of feeding people is at odds with the anti-humanitarian principles of the régime.  Luckily there's no dilemma because starving people are easier to cow and therefore in no one's interest but Qaddafi's.
  • Once again, "boots on the ground" doesn't matter in the way most people think it does.  Soldiers and trainers can do the same work not as part of national institutions such as armies, but as paid contractors for private security companies.  This is a problem of widening accountability gaps for state actors, but to the extent that it allows us to work around inefficiencies in the state system, such as awarding sovereignty to one régime over another, I'll accept it as doing something rather than nothing.
  • The confirmation of support could be a figment of convenience, since the rebels are now calling on NATO to do more.  In some ways NATO has, it's just been impolitic to say it.  The rebels kept insisting they can do it themselves and there's a real benefit to everyone, Libyans included, with the sense of empowerment that comes from winning one's own victory.
  • Again, I don't support any of the state actors doing this, nor do I think their intentions are genuine or that they even know what they're doing for that matter.  Hopefully by keeping up the technical fiction that boots are not on the ground we'll also pre-empt the need for Libyan issues to enter into the domestic politics of NATO members after the war is over.  What these air drops do support is the intent of UNSCR 1973, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, and again the only way of doing that has become the removal of a certain dictator.