North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tunisia holds national elections - the next step after its ouster of the previous strongman

After initiating a revolt in Arab world in early 2011 which has rocked the establishments in nearly a dozen nations, Tunisia successfully took the first step in setting a new direction. With the ouster of the two decade long rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, elections (widely acknowledged as fair and free) were held October 23rd with a respectable 60% of the population casting ballots.

Tunisia, the first of several Arab nations revolting against their authoritarian regimes, has a population approaching 11 million.

The Ennahda party, (meaning "Renaissance") which was banned for decades and its leaders forced to flee abroad, will lead Tunisia's new government after receiving 41% of the votes, resulting in an anticipated majority of seats in the country's parliament.

The Economist magazine observed, "There is no doubt that Nahda, led by the 70-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, deserved to outpoll its rivals, which included half a dozen small, nearly indistinguishable secular parties, as well as scores of independent groups. The Islamist party ran an exemplary campaign, exploiting sympathies for its history of resistance to the hated previous regime as well as for its identification with working-class authenticity in contrast to Tunisia’s traditional Francophone elite."

Another new 70 year old leader (along with Ireland's newly elected President), Rachid Ghannouchi heads the Ennahda party, an offshoot of his original founding in 1981 of the "al-ittijah al-islami" or Islamic Tendency Movement. The Movement described itself then as specifically rooted in non-violent Islam, and called for a "reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics and the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy."

The intriguing aspect of the Ennahda party win is that it frames itself as an Islamist party, a moderate one. And one of the first messages the leader Ghannouchi has stressed is reassuring secularists it will not impose a Muslim moral code. It will not impose the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, on women "because all attempts to do that in other Arab states have failed ..." One of the party's most prominent candidates is a businesswoman who does not wear the Islamic veil, or hijab, and this week sang along to pop songs at a party rally.

Tunisian society has a large secularist component, noted here by the western relaxed wear of the many Tunisian women voters.

Rachid Ghannouchi said women would have jobs in the new government "whether they wear a veil or don't wear a veil". Ennahda would honor an undertaking to finish writing a new constitution within one year, he said at his first news conference since the election. It would respect all Tunisia's international treaties when it forms a new government.

Ghannouchi told Reuters in an interview he would pursue a liberal economic policy, including making the dinar currency convertible. Ennahda lies at the moderate end of the spectrum of Islamist parties in the Middle East. Ghannouchi models his approach on the that of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. His officials say there will be no restrictions on foreign tourists -- a big source of revenue -- drinking alcohol or wearing bikinis on the country's Mediterranean beaches. Ennahda has also reached out to anxious investors by saying it will not impose Islamic banking rules. It says it is inclined to keep the finance minister and central bank governor in their posts when it forms the new government.

Tunisia's northern coastline on the Mediterranean Sea has a tolerant lucrative connection with European tourists.

Another article attempted to connect this country's decision with previous and future events, saying, "The victory is the first for Islamists since the Hamas faction won a Palestinian election seven years ago. It will resonate in Egypt, where a party with ideological ties to Ennahda is expected to do well in a multi-stage parliamentary poll that starts in November."

In the south of Tunisia, a traditional tribal, conservative population is found - welding separate streams of culture and belief will be the internal challenge for the new government.

So the stage is set. The Western world in particular is longing to see a significant presence of democratic, moderate Islamism. Time will tell whether the new Tunisian government will walk the path it is talking.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Measuring the cost and value of an Individual

Two events this past week emphasized the impact of individuals. One was the release of a young Israeli soldier by Hamas, which had been holding him as prisoner for the past 5 years. In a controversial move, the Israeli government in exchange released over 1000 Palestinian prisoners, including some of the perpetrators of deadly terrorist attacks committed in Israel over the past dozen years.

The other event was the killing of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. One account totaled the US dollar involvement as totaling $1 billion dollars, "Call him the billion-dollar man. One billion for one dictator" (By National Journal Fri, Oct 21, 2011). the article went on ..."According to the Pentagon, that was the cost to U.S. taxpayers for Muammar el-Qaddafi's head: $1.1 billion through September, the latest figure just out of the Defense Department. And that's just for the Americans. The final totals will take some time to add up, and still do not include the State Department, CIA, and other agencies involved or other NATO and participating countries. Vice President Joe Biden said that the U.S. 'spent $2 billion total and didn't lose a single life.'"

To measure lives by the dollars spent to kill them, or by the numbers of prisoners needed to be released in exchange, is of course, strange, and probably not a measurement of anything. The costs as described, do however, emphasize some calculation of human interests.

In the case of Galit Shalid, who at the age of 19 had been captured by Hamas in 2006 along the Gaza-Israel border, there was strong public support for his return, even at the cost of releasing individuals from Israeli prisons who were likely to return to violence. Israelis also had to accept the great celebrations that the prisoner releases brought about in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as one political calculation that predicted Hamas and its violent hardline stance had won at the expense of Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas' more moderate approach to negotiating peace with Israel.

Galit Shalid, back home after 5 years

So the young soldier is back home with his family. So too, soon will be hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Click on picture for full image
Bus's delivering the first round of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in the exchange.

Among the prisoners to be released are:
*Alham Tamimi, who disguised herself as a Jewish tourist as she delivered a suicide bomber to a busy pizzeria in central Jerusalem. Sixteen people, ranging in age from 63 to two years old, were killed in the Aug. 9, 2001 bombing. Two were U.S. citizens. Tamimi has declared herself to be unrepentant.

The aftermath of a 2001 suicide bomber, who was provided transportation to the site by Alham Tamimi

*Nasser Iteima, was responsible for the suicide bombing of a Netanya hotel during a Passover seder in 2002. Thirty people, most of them elderly, were killed in that attack.

*Walid Anajas, was serving 36 life sentences for deaths resulting from two suicide bombings in 2002 – one at a restaurant very close to the prime minister’s residence.

*Ibrahim Younis, planner of a 2003 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem coffee shop. The seven victims included a doctor and his 20 year-old daughter, celebrating her wedding the following day. The cafĂ©’s 22 year-old security guard, who tried to prevent the suicide bomber from entering, was also killed.

All in all, 280 Palestinians with convictions of crimes so serious they were given life sentences were freed. The deal has been analyzed all throughout the region and West - why now, what are the risks, the gains, the losses. In any regard, the action has been taken. Will it lead to further peaceful or violent interactions?


After a popular uprising against this dictator began in early 2011, it found itself in a bloody stalemate when Gadaffi chose to fight rather than flee. Operation Unified Protector stepped in March, with bombs dropped from B-2 stealth planes flown from the USS Missouri and roughly 200 cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Mediterranean. After the U.S. military ramped up the operation, other NATO countries then shouldered most of the air burden. Americans took a supporting role: aerial refueling tankers, electronic jamming, and surveillance.

Now in October, the dictator, after having moved from one stronghold to another, ran out of options. Trying to flee the lone remaining stronghold of his hometown Sirte, his convoy was bombed by French fighter planes, and he fled to a drainage pipe. After being captured, he was roughly treated, and ultimately killed by TNC fighters on the spot.

Click on image for full picture
Drainage pipes from which Gadaffi was finally captured

This action was greeted with various degrees of elation and consternation around the world as well. No trial meant some possibly embarrassing revelations about Gadaffi's long reign and Western agreements would not come out, yet at the same time, no chance for loose ends to be revealed (such as the Lockerbie bombing over Scotland which had Libyan fingerprints on it), nor a sense of how a Libyan legal system might build status for itself in handling such a trial. In any regard, the action has been taken.

A rather poignant comment came through the first reports of Gadaffi's death on the BBC. "I would say congratulations to NTC and all Libyans. But just to add a perspective. Our dear leaders in Africa, including NTC, please avoid clinging to power. Serve the people and when your time is up, give the button to the next person. This is how we shall avoid bloodshed in Africa. Leadership shouldn't always lead to death."

The destruction of Sirte, a testament to the cost of Gadaffi's clinging to power.

With the Libyan transitional government now in control of Sirte, Adm. James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander in charge of the NATO campaign, said the alliance is likely to bring the operation to a halt in a matter of days. President Obama, echoing VP Biden's happy calculations, noted in remarks in the Rose Garden on Thursday. "Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives and our NATO mission will soon come to an end."

So, a momentous week - dollars and prisoners calculated in exchange for two individuals. Neither seems very appropriate, though not totally un-removed, for addressing values such as freedom, oppression, and security. (So what will be the measurements to be used for the troubles in Yemen, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Somalia?)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The US moves on the LRA (in support of South Sudan?)

For a Nobel Peace Prize winner, US President Obama has been unusually active militarily. The latest rather surprising move has been the announcement that 100 armed military advisors are headed to Uganda (and in or out of neighboring countries) to assist African forces in tracking down the long-time leader of a savage group known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

Before a brief discussion of what we can gather regarding this action, it is worth noting the Obama administration's military actions the past two and 1/2 years. After campaigning on the fundamental wrongness of the Iraq war, the White House is following through, drawing down US troops in Iraq to a possible 3000-4000 size by the end of this year. Mainly trainers for the Iraqi army, this reduction is much more than military commanders had recommended. They had requested a force totaling 10 to 15,000 thousand as a deterrent against more aggressive Iranian infiltration. And now, given Iran's recent plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador on US soil, there will be even more concerns over pulling all combat capability out of Iraq.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has significantly built up troop levels in Afghanistan - now at 100,000 compared to 33 thousand when he took office. Yet, at the same time as announcing his buildup, the President immediately detailed a timetable to reducing his "mini surge" beginning in 2012. The surge and timetable for pulling troops out was all in contrast to his field commanders asking for up to 130,000 troops with withdrawals based on "conditions on the ground."

Click on graph for full image

Perhaps most controversial - at least in terms of campaign promises and policy consistency - is the increase in armed drone attacks in Pakistan against Al-qaeda, with the recent expansion of strikes into Yemen.
Armed predator drone aircraft in Afghanistan used primarily in Pakistan

Click on graph for full image
Armed drone strikes have increased significantly since the Obama administration took office

The White House also chose to spearhead armed support to overthrow Gadaffi in Libya, "leading from behind" after first using the US unique capabilities of tomahawk cruise missiles. The Obama administration placed great emphasis on obtaining explicit UN support, a tacit Arab league go-ahead nod, and multilateral coalition building to distance itself from the Bush administration, which was characterized as taking unilateral actions ...

With this somewhat bewildering series of actions outlined (bewildering at least as to consistency, rationale, and actual contrast from the Bush administration), we might now turn briefly to the Lord's Resistance Army based in Uganda.

For context, locate Uganda, then South Sudan to the north (the map does not yet show the division of that country into two), Kenya to the east, and in turn Somalia to the east of Kenya

From the Wikipedia, "The LRA was formed in 1987 and until about 2007 it was engaged in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government. It is led by Joseph Kony, who proclaims himself the "spokesperson" of God and a spirit medium, primarily of the Holy Spirit, which the group believe can represent itself in many manifestations.

The leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, is wanted for trial by the International Criminal Court, just as is the Republic of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir

The group is based on a number of different beliefs including local religious rituals, mysticism, traditional religion, Acholi nationalism and Christianity and claims to be establishing a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments and local Acholi tradition.

The LRA is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children and forcing children to participate in hostilities. The group used to operate mainly in northern Uganda and also in parts of South Sudan, Central African Republic and DR Congo. The LRA is currently listed as a terrorist organization by the United States."

The LRA operations have touched several of Uganda's neighbors

Wikipedia goes on to note that the size of of the LRA at its peak several years ago was as high as 3,000 soldiers, along with about 1,500 women and children. Today, the Uganda military believes the core has been sizeably weakened and reduced to under 1000 fighters. However, one of the horrors of this group is that the bulk of the LRA "soldiers" are children. The LRA may have forced well over 10,000 boys and girls into combat over the past two decades, often killing family, neighbors and school teachers in the process. Many of these children were put on the front lines so the casualty rate for these children has been high. They have often used children to fight because they are easy to replace by raiding schools or villages.

Child soldiers - the ultimate degradation of children ...

There are several first hand reports from missionary acquaintances and other observers that children are often provided collective security centers at which they can sleep and avoid abduction.

Wikipedia noted briefly, almost in passing, that Republic of Sudan has provided military assistance to the LRA, in response to Uganda lending military support to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (now South Sudan).

And yet one might wonder whether in fact this is the key point behind the US move. One US ally, Kenya, has its hands full with the overflow of refugees from the Somali conflict, famine in the region, and most recently a kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from a large refugee camp in the extreme eastern part of the country. South Sudan is struggling to cope with violence on its new northern border with the Republic of Sudan. Uganda provides troops attempting to police the anarchy in Somalia. So perhaps the US believes it needs to additionally support three allies with this small token of military advisors. (And those vaguely described "armed military advisors" may well be US special forces - a whole different level of unit capability)

So while questions abound, and though the Obama administration's reasons to intervene or not and where having no apparent consistency, this possible larger context in East Africa unrest may give us the best framework to see a strategy at work.