Category Archives: Military & Might

Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Filed under Human Rights, International Focus, Military & Might, War & Peace

A Harder Line on Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama discussing the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. (Source: CNN)

In a landmark speech on the Middle East, President Obama staked a strong position for the United States towards Israel, Palestine, and the conflict between the two nations. Rather than the usually-noncommittal tack taken by previous US leaders, Obama strongly stated that Israel and Palestine must set apart their differences, each recognizing the other as a sovereign, independent state.

It’s been the unofficial stance of the United States for years that Palestinian borders should be restored to their positions in 1967, prior to the Six-Day War, in which Israel forced Palestine out of yet more of its territory, after having already been given Palestinian territory by the United Nations in 1947. But Barack Obama is the first US president to openly state that this will be America’s official policy toward the conflict.

This is a crucial statement on Obama’s part, both politically and strategically. On the political side, Obama is finally reviving one of his campaign “promises” (I use quotes because all presidential candidates make promises that are unlikely to come to fruition; it’s how they get elected) by bringing up the issue of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Strategically, Obama may have helped place himself on the right side of a coming conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I say “coming conflict” because, unfortunately, it seems quite likely that another intifada may come along. The revolutionary spirit of many other parts of the Arab world could easily catch on in Palestine, and not necessarily in the peaceful ways it did in Egypt or Tunisia. The recent merger of Fatah and Hamas has Israel even more concerned, and the Palestinian plan for a unilateral declaration of independence at the UN’s General Assembly this coming September is pushing things to dangerous levels. Last week, Palestinians from neighboring countries marched on Israel, calling for recognition of a Palestinian state. 13 were killed by Israeli soldiers.

All of these events, combined with the energy of the Arab Spring, may put Israel on very bad footing on the international stage. If Palestine can take the reins of this revolutionary fervor in a peaceful way, Israel will have to either make peaceful concessions or react oppressively to Palestinian desires. If Israel doesn’t acquiesce but instead reacts with repression, it stands to lose an enormous amount of hard-won respect around the world.

Perhaps a new, peaceful intifada is in order. Instead of the bloodshed and violent hatred that marked the second intifada though, this revolution should be a nonviolent shaking-off (as the word intifada literally translates to) of Israel’s repression. Palestine must recognize Israel’s right to statehood, but Israel must do the same for Palestine. Only if these two peoples can see one another’s value will there be any true resolution.

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A Bad Moon Over Pakistan

Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Source: ACUS.org)

Things have recently gone south over the past weeks and months in an already-rocky relationship between America and Pakistan.

Truth be told, this relationship hardly goes back far. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 back in 2001 and the beginning of America’s War on Terror, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf agreed to give the US the support it needed in the Middle East, and even to help in America’s counter-terrorist aspirations in Afghanistan. Since joining the War on Terror as a US ally in 2001, Pakistan has lent its assistance to American anti-terror operations and opposed the Taliban within its own borders and across the line in Afghanistan.

Well… sort of. The young relationship between the US and Pakistan has run into tough times as of late, due to a distinct gap in trust between the two countries, and it seems that this nascent alliance is in danger of disappearing soon.

There are a few reasons for this. First, no one on either side seems to be completely sure of the other’s intentions. This has been something of a chronic problem since the beginning of the US-Pakistan alliance, but it has heated up to dangerous temperatures recently. Both sides feel as though they are being kept in the dark about the operations and intentions of the other. This is particular troubling from Pakistan’s point of view, as they are unsure of the extent to which American agents, technologies, and agendas are secretly operating in their country.

The US has been extensively using drone aircraft to strike Taliban and al Qaeda targets. These drones have not been popular with the Pakistani brass, who feel that the US should not be operating their weaponry inside of Pakistan’s borders, especially without consulting the military leadership in the very country in which they’re operating. On top of that, these drone strikes have killed a number of civilians, which the Pakistani government can hardly be blamed for objecting to. This adds yet another layer of complexity and distrust to the murky relationship between the nations.

Second is the covert nature of US operations in Pakistan. The CIA has had a shadowy involvement in Pakistan almost since the alliance began, and it’s still unclear to Pakistani officials exactly what that involvement is and how far it goes. This uncertainty surfaced violently after a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, fatally shot two Pakistanis in Lahore. A third man was killed as another vehicle rushed to assist Davis.  An unknown number (though it’s come out that the number is likely between 40 and 60) of CIA agents are operating in the country at this point, and after the Davis incident, that’s naturally unsettling to Pakistani leadership.

Finally, the US and Pakistan seem to have very different goals and visions, both for the future of the Taliban and Afghanistan as a whole, and these are coming into the light more and more as the Afghanistan endgame approaches. While the US wants to simply crush the Taliban into submission, the Pakistani government seems to have less-straightforward plans for the terrorist group. US intelligence officials have long known of Pakistan’s tactic of choosing between “good” and “bad” Taliban groups. Whether America likes it or not, Pakistan also has its own interests in Afghanistan, and is not above using certain parts of the Taliban to advance those interests. There have been reported incidents of the ISI (Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency) warning certain Taliban factions of imminent drone strikes or other attacks, as these factions hold strategic significance to the ISI or greater Pakistani command.

With all of these entanglements and trust deficits, it’s a small wonder that things are so tense between the US and Pakistan. It’s beginning to seem that what was never a committed or involved alliance is splitting at the seams. And when things finally begin to settle down in Afghanistan (pray that this comes soon), there is little way of knowing how the two nations will resolve their differences.

I used resources from the New York Times (clicking this will use a free view), Long War Journal, and the ACUS for this article. If you want to learn more about the issue, check out these links!

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Crossing Qaddafi

The UN Security Council has decided to take action against Qaddafi. France has shown particular initiative.

The United Nations passed a vote on Thursday to begin enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, as well as deciding to permit “all necessary actions” (code for military enforcement) to defend the civilian population of Libya from Moammar Qaddafi.

This is incredible news, and though it comes quite late in the day, the Libyan opposition movement has been jubilant about the UN’s much more official and pragmatic declaration of support. In fact, it would seem that French jets have already fired on at least one occasion against Qaddafi, and the US has launched missiles targeting his anti-air defenses. The current number of missiles launched at this post’s time of publication was 110.

Col. Qaddafi has been pushing the rebels back, city by city, towards the east, and has forced them as far as Benghazi, the current seat of rebel power. The declaration against Qaddafi was widely welcomed, and indeed celebrated by rebels, who see it as a somewhat late move but what could be a turning point for them against the dictator who runs the country.

In response to the UN’s decision, Qaddafi “declared a ceasefire.” I put this in quotes for two reasons. First, this ceasefire seems to have yet to materialize. Witnesses have been reporting violence in Benghazi and elsewhere even after the so-called peace. Second, how is it at all possible to trust Qaddafi at this point? He’s made such ridiculous claims as “I have all the Libyan people with me and I’m prepared to die. And they are prepared to die for me. Men, women and even children,” in a letter to President Obama. Qaddafi is hardly known for his powers of common sense and rationality, and it shows plainly in his assertions that all of Libya stands beside him. Would a man so willing to lie outright about the loyalty of his people be honest about a ceasefire? No, it seems obvious that Qaddafi’s words have utterly lost their meaning. A man can’t go from spluttering violent threats against his own civilians to saying that there is peace.

That said, I think Qaddafi still has a chance to step down or step aside. Now that the UN’s condemnation of his actions has taken a form stronger than words, Col. Qaddafi has a much shorter timer on his autocratic slaughter of his own people. With coalition forces beginning to hit his military, this dictator may begin to put his money where his mouth is (hopefully).

This seems to be an answer to prayer for the rebellion, who have been almost pleading for foreign intervention to stop the bloodshed. Their desires have largely fallen on deaf ears, particularly in America, so this development comes as a very welcome change for the opposition. And while there are still drawbacks to military involvement in yet another Arab conflict, it’s a good thing overall that serious steps are being taken to put an end to Qaddafi’s massacre of his own people. It’s time that the international community, especially the US, puts some real meaning behind the assertion that democracy is a basic right for all people.

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Dead Ends in Afghanistan

American soldiers exit a transport chopper in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

Most if not all of my information for this post was taken from this article in the New York Times –  just to let you know! I’d encourage you to read it as it provides a lot more detail than I do!

As the war in Afghanistan grinds on, many soldiers (not to mention critics) are beginning to seriously question how much is really being accomplished there.

In many ways, the war strategy has moved from one focused on the “key” areas of contention in the country: large cities, major thoroughfares, and borders with neighboring nations. But more and more, the fight is being taken to minute, previously unknown (to foreigners at least) villages and towns, with American and Afghan forces trying to clear the Taliban out of the country one building at a time.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t going all that well. This war has been a difficult one since it began way back in October of 2001, and I think it’s safe to say that it hasn’t gotten much easier.

The real problem behind this war’s difficulty has been the Taliban’s elusiveness and at-best shadowy presence in the country. Since being forced from formal power by Operation Enduring Freedom (the post-9/11 military retaliation), the Taliban has snaked into the shadows of the country, using fear to maintain small cells of power-by-terror that dot Afghanistan. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is similar to trying to wave away clouds of smoke; as soon as they’re cleared out of one village, chances are they’ll pop up in another. To add salt to the soldiers’ wounds of seemingly pointless skirmish after seemingly pointless skirmish, many civilians in these tiny townships are far from cooperative. Some will simply play dumb or mute, some may lie, and some even signal troop movements to Taliban fighters nearby.

But can these people really be blamed for this? The Taliban has a near stranglehold on many of the common people across much of Afghanistan, especially in areas out of the reach of government and police forces. They’re held under the extremists’ power by threats and violence, so it only makes sense that their loyalties are more likely to lie with the people who will kill them or their families if they defect.

All the same, this makes the job of American soldiers immensely difficult. Tracking this secondary, shadow government of religious extremism is nearly impossible to do effectively when the people in the villages they’re attempting to clear are afraid to cooperate. The idea behind this small-village strategy has been to expand American presence in Afghanistan, essentially giving Taliban fighters fewer safe zones and places to seek refuge or terrorize civilians. The problem is, as the NYT article put it, is “translating presence into lasting success.” I used the analogy of smoke before: You may be able to clear the smoke of the Taliban away temporarily, but it somehow always manages to flow back in after you go.

This war, which has already been trudging forward for more than 9 years, still seems like a dead end (and an expensive one at that). I know that the Taliban’s influence is a difficult one to root out, and that the group poses a very significant threat, both to people in the region and around the world. But how much longer can we keep trying? How much progress has really been made? The government in Afghanistan, nominally headed by Hamid Karzai, is corrupt at best, and many Afghan security forces (such as police or military) are either afraid or equally corrupt! This really makes one question how much the US has accomplished in Afghanistan. We’ve captured a few important Taliban figures, sure, but there has been little factual evidence that our efforts there are having much success.

Does this mean I know what to do? No. I won’t claim to be a five-star general! I do, however, think that the US must refocus and redouble our efforts towards the reformation of the Afghan government and local forces. There can only be stability in this country if the people who live and belong in it know how to take their security and liberty into their own hands.

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America: Over-Defended (Part 2)

How many more of these do we really need?

(This post is a continuation of America: Over-Defended (Part 1), which you can find right here. Read that first! Not very good blog etiquette, I know, but I wanna keep these posts kinda short and sweet.)

A good (if vague) principle to use to combat this, in my opinion, is to start treating the Department of Defense as just that, defensive. America seems to be constantly gearing up for total war, and it’s costing us a shitload of money to do so. Our country has always been a subtly imperial one, worming our military tentacles in wherever possible. In a way, America is a very imperialistic country, but in a subtle, subversive kind of way. There are more than 700 United States military bases across the globe (and 6,000 on US and territory soil), forming a spider’s web of armed power. (My figures are from here) While American imperialism is far from obvious (or perhaps even totally intentional), the simple fact is that American military presence is firmly established almost everywhere in the world. This “passive imperialism” (I think I came up with that myself!) further strengthens my argument that America hardly needs to invest in even more military power, at least for now. In fact, we may benefit from pulling up roots in some more secure areas. After all, as George Bush so deftly showed with Iraq, the United States has mastered rushing into volatile and delicate situations with little reserve.

Back to my defensive Department of Defense idea. As the name implies, the DoD’s primary purpose is, well, defense. According to their website, defense.gov, “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” Notice that its stated purpose is to deter war, not engage in it. The proper use of a standing army is as a defensive measure, a way to keep America and its people from being devastated by war. It is not meant to be used as the arm of American ideology, in the Middle East or elsewhere.

The simple fact is that no country, not even America, can pour so much money into defense without expecting serious drawbacks. If we want our country to excel in the coming years, then it’s imperative that military spending is drastically reduced, and fast.

Here’s how much we’re paying.

 

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America: Over-Defended (Part 1)

The United States is well-known as the strongest military power in the world, and with good reason. Few would claim that America is lacking in military might, and those few would pretty stupid. America has long been the predominant military power in the modern world, and this trend is likely to continue for quite a while.

Simply put, America’s armed forces are more than a few cuts above the rest. But just how far ahead do we need to be? America’s military dominance comes with a substantial price tag. At the time of this post’s writing, America’s defense budget was 739.2 billion dollars. For comparison,  China’s budget for 2010 was 78.6 billion dollars – which is almost the exact sum Robert Gates is proposing we cut from our own defense budget. Got that? The amount we’re hoping to cut from our military spending is the same as China’s entire military spending. Notice from the graph that China is the second largest spender in the world, next to us, and they still pale in comparison.

And it’s not as if America will be put at critical risk if spending were to be cut. America has (for the most part) gotten its money’s worth from its colossal military spending. We’re the world leaders in more or less every kind of weaponry, with eleven times as many aircraft carriers as China, nine times as many nuclear submarines, and a Marine corps twenty times the size of theirs (figures all taken from GlobalSecurity.org). So it seems fairly obvious that we have little to worry about from China, which I’ll remind you is the second largest military spender after us. We’re winning by a huge margin, so to speak.

So, you’ve probably been wondering what the title’s all about. How can a country possibly be over-defended? Well here’s the thing. As I hope most, if not all, of my readers know, the country is facing a pretty titanic budget deficit at the moment. And at the very same time, our country has fallen behind in such crucial areas as education, in no small part because of the lack of money that can be dedicated to it. In 2006, “National Defense” accounted for 57% of our budget, while “Education, training, employment, and social services” got only 8%. There’s a reason Chinese students are destroying American students in areas like math and science, and that reason is that America is pouring over half of its budget into weaponry.

So what needs to happen? We can’t just stop making weapons and vehicles, or stop sending bullets to troops, after all. But there are smart ways to cut back in the areas in which we already excel. Take aircraft carriers for example. As I mentioned earlier, America faces little competition from China in this area, and this trend is common throughout the world. Of the 15 other countries that use or have used aircraft carriers, none has more than 2 carriers in service. By comparison, America has 11. The last aircraft carrier produced by the US, the USS George H. W. Bush, cost 6.2 billion dollars to crank out, and the next one slated for production, the USS Gerald R. Ford will cost around 7.8 billion. Do we really need to be pouring this colossal amount of money into more ships, when we already have more than five times as many of these as the next countries up from us? I could rattle off more examples, but I don’t want to waste too much of your time!

This post is already quite long, so I’m going to break it into two parts. Come back in just a bit for part two!

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