Monthly Archives: June 2011

What’s Happening in Syria?

Things are changing on the ground in Syria, but where it will end is anyone’s guess.

Recently Syria let in a few foreign journalists, including NPR’s Deborah Amos, after barring them throughout the revolution. The government permitted a vigil in the capital, mourning those killed in the uprising. They allowed 150 opposition leaders to meet in the capital as well, though some of the youth behind the protests denounced any government-approved meeting while the killing was still going on.

Most surprisingly — and the motives and outcomes are still unclear — the government pulled its forces out of several cities where opposition was strong, including Hama, where an Islamist rebellion was put down in 1980 with at least 10,000 killed. The New York Times reported:

“I don’t think it’s a tactic,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group. “It’s exhaustion, a lack of resources and a lack of finances.”

Evidently, the government had made an agreement with Hama residents earlier, to permit protests if they remained peaceful. When security forces pulled out,

“The security and the army are completely absent,” said a resident who gave his name as Abu Abdo. “They are not harassing us at all, neither before nor during the daily rallies, which have been gathering day and night. There are no patrols. Life is normal.”

Indeed, protesters in the streets in Hama are declaring they have overthrown the regime, and calling to the youth of Damascus to do likewise.

Currently the government cannot stamp out the protests, but the protesters cannot force out the regime. As the human right activist put it, “Everyone is stuck, at this point. … The regime is stuck, the protesters are stuck and the opposition is stuck.”

Meanwhile to make Syria more complicated, next door in Lebanon a UN Special Tribunal today released indictments, reportedly of four members of Hezbollah, for the assassination of a Lebanese prime minister in 2005. Syria is a major backer of Hezbollah, and occupied Lebanon from 1976 until after the assassination (which put pressure on Syria to withdraw). It appears unlikely that Lebanon’s fragile government, dominated by Hezbollah, will arrest the wanted men.

Libya Moving Forward

Superficially Libya seems stuck, with little direction or progress. At second glance, though, the war there is moving steadily — though painfully slowly — toward its ultimate resolution with a new government in the country.

Video on al Jazeera describes the rebels’ most recent advance, capturing a huge weapons depot less than 20 miles south of the town of Zintan, south of the capital Tripoli. The fighting in the area, known as the Nafusa Mountains, is about 50 miles southwest of TLibya mapripoli and moving closer. The NY Times provides this map of the area:

Progress is also occurring, though very slowly, in the rebels’ westward movement from Misrata along the coast road toward Tripoli. Misrata was once the center of the war, now firmly in rebel hands and with a school even back in business tentatively.

On the legal front, the International Criminal Court has now issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son, and his intelligence chief for crimes against civilians committed this year. British blogger Brendan O’Neill calls it “moral posturing” by comfortable white liberals, but it’s good to lay out the case when someone commits war crimes.

On the diplomatic side, a new British-led report recommends measures to stabilize Libya after Gaddafi falls. These include retaining Gaddafi’s military and police forces to keep order (lesson from Iraq) and probably bringing in a UN peacekeeping force initially composed of troops from countries in the region.

In terms of movement in Gaddafi’s favor, there is really nothing. The U.S. Congress may squawk about authorization for the action, but is not about to pull the plug on an operation with NATO and the UN that hasn’t had to put American lives on the line. (Discussion by legal scholar Jordan Paust.) Gaddafi shows no sign of wanting to negotiate an exit, and may prefer martyrdom — a wish he may soon get. He can meet Osama bin Laden in hell and make plots against passenger jets together.

The Yemen Mess

If you know the answer to the deteriorating situation in Yemen, just click on “Comment” below and let us all know, because nobody seems to have a clue where it’s going or what to do. Al Qaeda militants are expanding their hold on territory in the south of the country, while the political crisis has ground the government to a halt.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of Yemenis turned out to demonstrate peacefully for a transitional council to take over from President Saleh. With the president still in a hospital in Saudi Arabia — where Western diplomats say his progress will take months — bargaining on his exit from power seems truly stalled. The president’s supporters say he will make a speech to the nation shortly and return to the country soon. The vice president, the military led by the president’s son, and the opposition armed tribes all are circling without much direction. The son is even talking peace recently, though it’s hard to know if there’s anything behind that. The bright side is that a cease-fire between the government military and the armed tribesmen has pretty much held up over the last couple of weeks.

No such good news in the south of the country, however. Historical tensions between the north and south — along with a familiar mix of poverty and corruption — have fed a genuine Taliban-style insurgency in the south that has made great headway while the capital up in the north is in turmoil. The militants here are al-Qaeda affiliated and have attacked U.S. targets in the past — the so-called “underwear bomber” plot originated here, as did the attempt to blow up U.S.-bound planes with bombs hidden in printer cartridges.

In March the Islamist militants captured the town of Jaar in the south. Then a month ago they captured Zinjibar, a larger city. Last week they successfully staged a prison break, not for the first time, and released dozens of their comrades. Lethal fighting continues today near Zinjibar. The government authorities largely fled when attacked in these places, and some observers wonder if President Saleh set the whole thing up to prove, especially to his American backers, that he is essential to keep Al Qaeda from taking over the country. There is little evidence this is the case, however, and it seems more plausible that the militants have some genuine support among the southern population (they seem to treat civilians better than the government forces do) and took advantage of the government’s weakness to go on the offensive.

The militants might actually capture the main city in the south, Aden. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the fighting. And the country’s economy — already the poorest in the Arab world — has declined by half amidst all these problems.

Why does it matter for Americans? Ten years after ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan so that al Qaeda did not have a safe territorial base from which to attack America, the militants in Yemen are poised to potentially give al Qaeda a safe territorial base to attack America.
Yemen Map
North and South Yemen were separate countries from 1962 to 1990 and potentially could be drawn back into a civil war. Although that prospect is not imminent, there is an urgent need now to put the government back on track with a transitional council to replace President Saleh, and then a difficult task of regaining control of the south from the Islamist militants.  Like I said, if you know how this ends, please let us know.

Obama’s “Tide of War Is Receding” Speech

Since everyone seems to have hated Obama’s Afghanistan speech last night, it’s my job to tell you why it was a heck of a good speech, and one worth paying attention to.


By ordering a faster-than-expected troop withdrawal, Obama has signaled that the United States is moving decisively into the drawdown phase of the war, and hence of the “decade of war,” as he called it, since 9/11. Obama said of Iraq and Afghanistan, “These long wars will come to a responsible end.” And more expansively, “The tide of war is receding.”

Before you dismiss this as political hyperbole, consider some facts. U.S. troops will be out, or nearly out, of Iraq by the end of this year. They wrecked the country but did some good, leaving behind a messy democracy. The same will follow in Afghanistan in the next three years.We will leave behind an unfinished situation. But with this speech, for the first time, it is clear that the “surge” really was temporary, that we will not keep escalating in Afghanistan as we did in Vietnam, and that we have moved irrevocably toward a long but terminal end-game.

Nor is any other big war around the corner for the United States. Quite the opposite. Meanwhile the U.S. has pulled 65,000 troops from bases in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America in the past decade. And U.S. defense budgets are slated for at least 5 percent reductions (Obama’s proposal), perhaps much more, in the coming years. So the tide of the war decade does indeed seem to be receding. This comes at a time of declining armed conflict around the globe, with Iraq and Afghanistan being exceptions (see my new book on that subject).

Critics on the right, and apparently many of the military commanders, feel the withdrawal is too speedy, with the risk of losing the recent gains. Delaying the big withdrawal planned for next summer, even just by a few months, would give the force one more fighting season to cement gains against the Taliban, they say. But that’s the point – Obama did not want to give them one more fighting season, another season of dying Americans and spent dollars. Anyway, if the Taliban come back after this fighting season, might they not come back after the next, or the next?

The surge did what it was supposed to – shifted the momentum of the war. It was not intended as a permanent occupation force. Pulling it out after a couple of years is completely appropriate. The fact that it happens during a presidential election and might benefit Obama’s chances does not mean it’s a bad idea.

Critics on the left say Afghanistan is not worth any American lives. They blame Obama for the surge in the first place and wish he would pull everyone out today or, better, yesterday. Not only is this difficult from a practical and logistical perspective, but it would not be responsible to make abrupt military moves in a turbulent neighborhood still filled with extremely dangerous and combustible elements. “Responsible” was the word Obama used, and a good one.

Can American political discourse on either the left or the right envision an end to the decade of war? Have we all become so used to being at war that we can no longer imagine peace? Obama’s speech should spur us to use our imaginations again!

Costs key to Afghan withdrawal strategy

President ObamaWell, I laid it all out about war costs last Saturday, and today’s NY Times has war costs in the top spot on the front page. The cost factor seems to have played a major role in President Obama’s decision to withdraw more troops, more quickly, from Afghanistan than had been expected.

The decision to be announced tonight will reportedly call for a reduction of the 100,000-ish U.S. troop level in Afghanistan by 10,000 this year and another 20,000 by the end of next summer. If you haven’t studied calculus recently, that’s an accelerating pace of withdrawal, and means that the 2014 target for being out, or pretty much out, is likely to stick.

The death of Bin Laden will be a central talking point in explaining this withdrawal, but money is the big subtext. A recent report quotes this source:

“From a fiscal standpoint, we’re spending too much money on Iraq and Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said. “There’s a belief from a fiscal standpoint that this is cannibalizing too much of our spending.”

There are two big dangers in making Afghanistan policy, and perhaps not that much room to maneuver between them. If you stay too long you exhaust political support at home, try the patience of our allies, raise suspicions in Pakistan, and contribute to our money woes. If you leave too quickly, you waste the gains won in blood and sweat since the 2009 “surge,” and invite trouble back to a country that for better or worse has become a central focal point of the international community’s efforts to combat terrorism. Twice before, we abandoned Afghanistan to its fate — after the Soviet Union was defeated and again after we got distracted by Iraq — and both times it came back to bite us.

What, then, is the perfect compromise to navigate this strait without crashing? Probably something like 10,000 troops this year and 20,000 more by the end of next summer. Making the best of a bad situation all around. There will be a lot of mixed opinion on this, though. See Phil Arena’s take, Juan Cole’s view, Daniel Serwer’s analysis, and a good interview with Ambassador James Dobbins at CNN.


Costs of War

Ever wonder how much America’s wars cost and how we pay for them? I’m doing a radio show in the Bay Area tonight on that topic (subject of a previous book of mine), so here’s a summary of the big picture.

Most people get overwhelmed by the large numbers and their complexity, so let’s think about the average U.S. household. Every billion dollars in the national budget is equivalent to a ten-dollar bill for the average household. Now look how that translates…

The overall U.S. military budget is around $900 billion a year (15 percent of that is for veterans’ benefits). So, easy, that’s 900 of those little ten-dollar bills — whoa, that’s a lot of moola. Each household is paying $9000 a year for the military. Of that, about $1600 a year is for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the “war on terror.” The bulk of the $9000 pays for heavily armed forces waiting around in case we need to fight a real war against another mechanized army. We probably won’t (see my next book in September). By the way, U.S. defense spending is nearly half the world total, way more than all the other great powers combined.

Cumulatively, over the decade since 9/11 the cost of these wars has now exceeded $1 trillion, or $10,000 per household — about $1000 a year over the last decade. Of that, nearly two-thirds has been Iraq, and one-third Afghanistan, according to an excellent new report from the Congressional Research Service. The Libya operation is small change; it has cost America $700 million to date, $7 per household.

Foreign aid is not in the same league at all — about 5% of military spending each year, and a similar share of the overall spending related to the “war on terror” in the past decade.  The current foreign aid budget, which is being reduced, is about $50 billion a year, 80 percent economic and 20 percent military aid. That totals $500 a year per household, and is a lot more cost-effective than the military budget.

The best bargain of all is UN peacekeeping. For a world total of $7 billion, or half of one percent of world military spending, the UN has more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 operations worldwide. Since Americans pay only about a third of the cost, the average household’s share is $25 a year.

Before you grumble about that $25 let’s go back to the real problem, the $10,000 a year you pay for the U.S. military. Historically, we got that money from taxes, especially by taxing the rich. The tax rate on higher-income Americans (usually those earning more than a few hundred thousand dollars) was 70 percent in World War I, 94 percent in World War II, 92 percent in Korea and 77 percent in Vietnam. During the “war on terror,” for the first time ever, tax rates were lowered in wartime. The top rate is now 35 percent, and 15 percent for capital gains where rich people get a lot of their money.

So now military spending is sky high and tax rates are low. This is not the only main cause of the federal deficit, but it’s one of the main ones. Historically, poor Americans fought our wars and rich Americans paid for them. Today, poor Americans fight them and we are borrowing the money to pay for them. Our children and grandchildren will pay.

The solutions:  Reduce military spending and restore higher taxes on the rich, as part of an overall long-term deficit-reduction plan (which will also have to include Social Security and Medicare). Maintain foreign aid and increase support to peacekeeping. And when you hear “billion,” think of that ten-dollar bill.



Hotspots still hot

The news that matters most is coming from Sudan, where fighting continued Friday. The northern army reportedly advanced a bit into the south, but was repelled, and the north shelled a town on the southern side of the border, near Abyei. Talks continue in Ethiopia’s capital, and there are now reportedly 113,000 people displaced by the new fighting in Abyei and another 60,000 in South Kordofan. Sudan’s leader is planning to visit China later this month, and both the United States and human rights groups hope the Chinese will influence him to change his behavior. China buys oil from Sudan and has been more supportive of its government than the rest of the world has. The UN Security Council got a briefing on the north-south fighting, and on Monday will hear a report on the progress of negotiations.

In Libya, the airwar continues while Gaddafi remained defiant. In Syria, 24 more nonviolent protesters were killed after Friday prayers. The protests are not losing steam but neither are they getting closer to dislodging President Assad.  In Yemen, nothing has changed enough to warrant a report. Stay tuned…

Sudan brief

Violence escalated in Southern Kordofan Wednesday. The Nuba people in that area fought on the southern side in the Sudanese civil war but now will find themselves on the northern side of the international border come July 9. It appears that the Sudanese government is trying to “ethnically cleanse” this hostile population off its land and subdue the province, figuring that it can get away with a lot since the south does not want to upset the independence process. Many people are worried that this subduing action could mean Darfur-style genocide. The besieged UN peacekeeping base in Southern Kordofan is running short of supplies. Meanwhile fighting has reportedly resumed in Abyei.

President Obama told the Sudanese government via Voice of America that “There is no military solution. … The government of Sudan must prevent a further escalation of this crisis by ceasing its military actions immediately, including aerial bombardments, forced displacements and campaigns of intimidation.” Talks continued at the ministerial level but made little progress on the sticking point of whether an Ethiopian peacekeeping force in Abyei should have a strong mandate to use military force if needed (as the south wants).

Sudan update

Chicken games are always scary and dangerous, and there’s a big one playing out today on the border of north and south Sudan.

While talks go on in Ethiopia (background in earlier post), the north — Sudan’s central government under indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir — intensified a military assault on Nuba tribes in South Kordofan province. They bombed an airstrip serving as the last main lifeline for relief supplies to reach civilians in the area, which is north of the new border but whose population fought with the south in the civil war. The bombing led to speculation that Sudan’s government is trying to ethnically cleanse the area ahead of the coming split on July 9. A refugee crisis has ensued.

The UN peacekeepers are cut off and hunkered down at their base, surrounded by thousands of displaced civilians, under imminent threat of violence from surrounding armed forces.

Meanwhile at the negotiations the north has presented an ultimatum to the south on the sharing of oil revenue after southern independence — reach a deal on revenue-sharing before July 9 or lose access to the north’s infrastructure of pipelines and ports without which neither side can export the oil. That this threatened action would hurt the north as much as the south, at a time when the north is economically squeezed by debts and international sanctions, is another indication that the game of Chicken is at work here.

Top of the Stack – Sudan

Developments in Sudan are reaching a turning point and will soon lead either to the birth of the UN’s 193rd member state or the resumption of a civil war that killed millions.

As events continue in a holding pattern in Syria (bloody crackdown), Yemen (talks in the capital, fighting with Islamists in the south), and Libya (closing in on Gaddafi), let’s consider the importance of Sudan. It has oil, but not so much as to make it strategically important. It was the scene of the world’s most recent genocide, in Darfur around 2004, so it’s on the map for human rights concerns. But the current crisis derives from Sudan’s location straddling the divide between the mostly Arab and Muslim north of Africa (above the Sahara desert) and the mostly Black and Christian or animist sub-Saharan Africa. That divide also runs through Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict, among others.

In Sudan, this conflict underlay a decades-long civil war that killed tens of thousands directly and reportedly led to as many as two million deaths indirectly through displacement, disease, and famine.

Finally in 2005, with a diplomatic push from the United States and others, the north and south reached a cease-fire agreement. Southern rebels were given positions in Sudan’s government, though sadly their leader died in a helicopter crash as the process was just getting under way. The two armies began exercising together, and the two political leaderships began hashing out details of a transition that was to lead to a referendum in the south five years later. The United Nations put in a peacekeeping force of 10,000 troops, supplemented by European peacekeepers, and the fighting died down, notwithstanding periodic flare-ups of fighting between armed local groups, as when recurring thefts of cattle led to clashes and even massacres.

Borders were poorly defined in the peace agreement, and fighting occurred around the disputed border town of Abyei in particular. The two sides sent the border issues to an international court in the Hague, Netherlands, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and both agreed to abide by the court’s decision which gave the best oil fields in the area to the north but other desirable territory to the south.

In January 2011 the referendum finally arrived, as planned five years earlier. Against the predictions of many observers, it came off successfully and peacefully. Southerners voted overwhelmingly, by almost 99 percent, to secede and form a new country, South Sudan. The central government in the north, under international pressure and wishing to improve its standing, indicated it would accept this result. A separate referendum was to have been held in the border town of Abyei, where the situation was complicated by a seasonal influx of herders allied to the north while the permanent residents favored the south. That referendum has not happened.

In recent weeks, the government of Sudan has sent military forces to mass near the border, and has attacked and seized Abyei. Two other provinces that belong to the north but whose population fought on the side of the south during the civil war — South Kordofan and Blue Nile — have also been swept up in new fighting. South Sudan alleges, credibly, that the north has twice used air strikes on the southern side of the border as well.

The northern and southern leaders are meeting in Ethiopia yesterday and today, with Hillary Clinton arriving today to give things a push. The hope is to have the north agree to withdraw from the town and bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers there.

Conventional wisdom holds that the north and south depend on each other. First, most of the oil is in the south, but the pipelines run through the north, so neither side can profit from it without cooperation (nor can the Chinese and Sudan’s other oil customers).  Second, the civil war was devastating and neither side can benefit from its resumption.  In this case, the conventional wisdom is probably right.

So the recent fighting can be seen as essentially a Chicken game, a really nasty and violent one but nonetheless a case of brinksmanship. The north is trying to push the situation to its advantage, without actually provoking a war. The south is yelling about it but basically suffering some losses in service of the larger goal, a successful independence day, which will come on July 9 — God willing.

Update — later in the day the two sides agreed to withdraw Sudanese troops from Abyei and to bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers under the UN flag. Talks continue on the difficult substantive issues of how to administer the town after South Sudan’s independence.