Thinking Aloud: Permanently Undermining the Two-State Solution?

Aug. 21, 2014 by Darius 

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is dead, and neither side showed much interest in serious negotiations.  The Israeli negotiating team simply left the table and Cairo, the site of negotiations, and Hamas began firing rockets into Israel.  Israel retaliated with airstrikes.  In one way, this seems to be a return to business-as-usual, but in another this may finally be the end of a long road.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down months ago.  “Negotiations,” if they could even be called that, have now also broken down between Israel and Hamas.  Neither set of negotiations ever got off the ground.  The two-state solution is looking pretty dead.  Can we all just stop pretending that the two-state solution is viable anymore?

The most recent phase of warfare between Israel and Hamas may be a permanent death blow to the two-state solution.  Why?  Tunnels.

Hamas’s tunnels from Gaza into Israel were a relatively minor cause of the recent war but quickly became the focus of most of the fighting.  The Israeli public was horrified to learn the extent of the tunnel system – the phrase “intelligence failure” was not uncommon.  The longest of these tunnels reached a mile into Israel.  But Israel’s border with Gaza is quite small, minimizing the possible effectiveness of tunnel warfare.

But what about Israel’s border with the West Bank?  Tunnels a mile long from the West Bank could reach into a very large chunk of Israel.  Given the inherent covert nature of tunnels, even a “trustworthy” government in an independent West Bank could never assuage Israeli concerns on this issue.  A people living on top of the land would never feel secure if they had even the slightest suspicion that someone with unknown intent might be tunneling beneath them, and who could blame them?

Thus, Hamas’s tunnel tactic may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank.

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News You Really Need To See: “‘Terrorists’ Help U.S. in Battle Against Islamic State in Iraq”

“‘Terrorists’ Help U.S. in Battle Against Islamic State in Iraq”

Reuters, August 21, 2014

Washington has acquired an unlikely ally in its battle against Islamic State militants in Iraq – a group of fighters it formally classifies as terrorists.  The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), condemned for its three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, says it played a decisive role in blunting the militants’ sweep through Iraq, which triggered U.S. air strikes to halt their advance. … The involvement of the PKK has consequences not only for rival Kurdish factions who failed to stop the Islamic State’s advance, but also for Turkey and the international community, which is being lobbied by the PKK to drop the terrorist tag. … An armed sister group of the PKK – People’s Defense Units (YPG) – has carved out an autonomous zone in Syria’s northeast, successfully fending off attacks by IS militants who have proclaimed a caliphate straddling the frontier with Iraq.  When the militants overran peshmerga positions in northwestern Iraq, YPG fighters crossed over from Syria and evacuated thousands of minority Yazidis left stranded on a mountain with scant food and water. … With Kurdish forces from all four countries fighting the same enemy for the first time, for now at least, PKK guerillas and peshmerga stand side by side at checkpoints on the road to Makhmur.  Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and also head of the KDP visited the camp himself to thank PKK commanders for their assistance.”

Quickie Analysis:  Kurdish politics tend to be like those of a large dysfunctional family.  For now, at least, the emphasis is on the “family” part of that description.

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Thinking Aloud: “What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-1989″

Aug. 20, 2014 by Darius 

I recently read What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by former CIA analyst and National Security Council member Bruce Riedel.  Riedel’s book differs from other accounts of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in that Riedel, in the CIA at the time, was intimately involved and knew many of the players personally.

The basic facts of the Afghan war are straightforward: in 1978, the Communist Party in Afghanistan overthrew the government and took power in what became known as the Saur Revolution.  Soon after, a popular uprising in Afghanistan began in response to the Communist Party’s atheism and support for gender equality.  This uprising came to threaten the survival of the Communist regime, so in December 1979, the Soviet Union, on Afghanistan’s northern border, responded to repeated requests for assistance by the Afghan government and entered the country to shore up the Communist regime.  The US saw an opportunity to create a Vietnam-like quagmire for the USSR and began funneling arms to the Afghan rebels, known as mujahedin.  Ten years later, the Soviets retreated, defeated, and the USSR broke up soon after, as well as the Afghan Communist government.

What We Won makes a number of important corrections to the mainstream historical record of the Afghan War (in the US anyway).  US support for the mujahedin is popularly portrayed as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” named for the flamboyant Texas congressman who was instrumental in pushing for more funding in Congress for the mujahedin.  But Charlie Wilson doesn’t deserve the credit, according to Riedel.  From the US end of things, it was President Jimmy Carter who decided to take a strong stance against the Soviet invasion.  By the time Carter left office in 1981, US arms and money were flowing to Afghanistan in large quantities.  His successor, President Ronald Reagan, merely inherited and expanded Carter’s policy.  In the US, Carter does not get the credit he deserves.

The Americans, though, were not the major players in the Afghan war.  Riedel has described the US as merely the “quartermaster” for the war.  Instead, Riedel rightly focuses on the true major players: the Afghans themselves, who did almost all the fighting and dying, the Saudi royal family, which matched American funds dollar for dollar, and, above all, General Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of neighboring Pakistan at the time.

Without Zia’s aggressive partnership, US and Saudi efforts against the Soviets would have been meaningless.  With the exception of a small amount of Iranian aid, everything that came into Afghanistan went via Pakistan and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.  As the war went on, Zia became increasingly bold, approving raids into the USSR itself and ISI commando teams on the ground in Afghanistan.  Zia was also running the greatest risk: the Soviet forces in Afghanistan could have easily invaded Pakistan as well.  A joint Soviet-Indian attack on Pakistan could have overrun Pakistan completely.  Zia was well aware of these risks, yet chose to pursue an aggressive policy in Afghanistan, leading the charge to change the goal of the war from bleeding Soviet forces  in Afghanistan to expelling them entirely.

What We Won is very well-researched and well-written.  My biggest complaint is that, at times, the book is short on details – it seems more of a sketch than a finished project.  It is clear that Riedel knows a great deal on the subject, and the book could have benefited from him sharing his knowledge for more than 175 pages.  Regardless, though, What We Won is an accessible, corrective, insider account that would appeal to anyone with an interest in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the CIA, or pretty much the entire rise of Islamic insurgency.

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News You Really Need To See: “Liberia Police Fire on Protesters as West Africa’s Ebola Toll Hits 1,350″

“Liberia Police Fire on Protesters as West Africa’s Ebola Toll Hits 1,350″

Reuters, August 20, 2014

Police in the Liberian capital [of Monrovia] fired live rounds and tear gas on Wednesday to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighbourhood, as the death toll from the epidemic in West Africa hit 1,350. … Liberia – where the death toll is rising fastest – said its Ministry of Health warehouse had run out of rubber boots and bottles of hand sanitiser, essential for preventing the spread of the disease. … Liberia recorded 95 deaths in the two days to Aug. 18, the World Health Organization said. … Attempts to isolate the worst affected areas of the country and neighbouring Sierra Leone have raised fears of unrest in one of the world’s poorest regions should communities start to run low on food and medical supplies. … In an effort to calm tensions, authorities on Wednesday started delivering tonnes of rice, oil and essential foodstuffs to [the quarantined neighborhood of] West Point, residents and a government official said. … West Point residents said they were given no warning of the blockade, which prevented them from getting to work or buying food.  Many people in impoverished parts of Monrovia buy food to eat each day rather than stocking it. … The task authorities face is made harder by misinformation.  One West Point resident told Reuters the government had sealed off the neighbourhood in order to bring the disease in.  A crowd at West Point looted a temporary holding centre for suspected Ebola cases at the weekend, 17 of whom fled.  All 17 were now accounted for and being treated, and the government has abandoned plans for the centre due to fierce resistance.  Meanwhile, Democratic Republic of Congo has sent its health minister and a team of experts to the remote Equateur province after several people died there from a disease with Ebola-like symptoms, a local official and a professor said.”

Quickie Analysis:  Rumor, panic, and lack of government communication are undermining social order and making a bad situation worse.

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Thinking Aloud: Ebola, For Want of a Glove

Aug. 19, 2014 by Darius 

Institutional incompetence is making Ebola so much worse.  Liberia is a case in point.  As of this week, more than 35 health care workers in Liberia have died of Ebola after having contracted the disease from patients.  Not all of them were doctors, but at least some of them were.  Liberia is a country of about 4 million people.  Prior to the Ebola outbreak, those 4 million people were treated by only about 200 doctors nationwide.  Losing even one is a huge loss.

What is killing the doctors?  In large part it is a lack of disposable rubber gloves and basic disinfectants.   Just how bad is the shortage of basic sanitary items like rubber gloves?  At one clinic, which was recently forced to close due to Ebola, only a single box of 50 pairs of rubber gloves had been delivered since April.  (Source: “For Want of Gloves, Ebola Doctors Die,” The Wall Street Journal, August 16-17, 2014,

Here’s where the incompetence comes in.  Liberia, ironically, is an exporter of rubber.  It isn’t that the government is too poor to afford rubber gloves for its doctors.  Instead, the money goes other places.  Additionally, the Ebola outbreak cannot be said to be a sudden surprise.  Ebola was known to be brewing in the interior of West Africa for months before the major outbreak.  Thus, the fact that clinics and hospitals were missing basic items like rubber gloves months into the outbreak speaks volumes to the incompetence and unpreparedness of the governments involved.

Even if Ebola stops tomorrow (which it won’t), the toll taken on the entire health care system – and on the economy and on the people’s faith in their government –will ripple through West Africa for years to come.

To paraphrase the old nursery rhyme, “For want of a glove, the doctor was lost.  For want of a doctor, the clinic was lost.  For want of a clinic, the people were lost.  For want of a people, the nation was lost.  All for the want of a glove.”

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News You Really Need To See: “Airstrikes Over Tripoli Kill Six; Source of Bombing Is Unknown”

“Airstrikes Over Tripoli Kill Six; Source of Bombing Is Unknown”

The New York Times, August 18, 2014

Unidentified warplanes on Monday bombed a small arms depot and other locations in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that are controlled by Islamist-aligned militias, suggesting that a foreign state had intervened in the escalating battle for control of the city.  At least six people were killed, The Associated Press reported.  The origin of the planes remained a mystery.  The airstrikes were beyond the capacity of the limited Libyan Air Force, and Libyan authorities said the planes had come from a foreign state.  The United States, France, Italy and Egypt all denied responsibility. … But the targets indicated the intent of the strikes. Although the month-old conflict in Tripoli is largely a contest for power between rival coalitions of cities and tribes, one side is considered to be allied with the forces of political Islam, while the other portrays itself as fighting an Islamist takeover.  The strikes on Monday all hit the Islamist side.  Representatives of a renegade former general, Khalifa Hifter sought at times on Monday to claim responsibility; General Hifter is fighting to purge eastern Libya of its Islamist fighters.  But the accounts were inconsistent, and General Hifter’s forces — mainly leftovers from the Libyan military — are not believed to have the capacity for the strikes, either.  Egypt, to the east, and Algeria, to the west, are each led by military-backed governments that have ousted elected Islamists.  Western diplomats say that Egypt and Algeria have advised the Libyans that any resolution of the fighting will require the defeat of Libya’s Islamists, including moderate politicians and the militants.  But there was no evidence on Monday linking the strikes to either country.”

Quickie Analysis:  It’s bad when someone bombs your capital city.  It’s even worse when you don’t know who did it.

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Thinking Aloud: No, the UN and Humanitarian Organizations Can’t Do it All

Aug. 18, 2014 by Darius 

The United Nations recently increased the official humanitarian emergency level in Iraq to three, the highest possible level.  That means that there are today more Level 3 emergencies than at any point in history.  Humanitarian crises in Iraq, Syria, the Ebola zones of West Africa, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic – the Level 3 emergencies – add up to a new era of instability worldwide.

The UN designation of emergency level opens up increased levels of funding available to respond to the crisis.  But no matter how much the UN devotes to responding to a crisis, it can never really be enough.  Unfortunately, with the partial exception of the Ebola outbreak, all of the UN’s current Level 3 crises are entirely human-caused.  In Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and the Central African Republic, it’s people killing other people, not natural disasters.

The lack of government success, or in some cases even effort, in containing these humanitarian crises means that private organizations need to step up.  Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French name: Médecins Sans Frontières), not government doctors or public health agencies, has been the main source of medical expertise fighting Ebola in West Africa.

Unfortunately, it was also announced today that 2013 was the deadliest year ever in terms of attacks on humanitarian aid workers, with more than 150 were killed worldwide.  So far in 2014, 67 aid workers have been killed.  This is a tragedy for not only the aid workers and their loved ones but for the communities they served.  Attacks on aid workers also discourage others from following them, making any disaster far, far worse.

None of the UN’s five Level 3 crises are close to resolution.  Fumbling political actors and attacks against private aid workers add up to a great deal of human misery – in this case, entirely preventable misery.

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