Thinking Aloud: A Checkpoint on the Road to Peace

Apr. 23, 2014 by Darius 

It’s not news that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are in dire straits and likely to soon fail.  Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, recently renewed a previous threat: if negotiations break down, he will dissolve the Palestinian Authority, reverting the West Bank back to direct Israeli control.

That would put Israel in charge of providing for the health, the security, the education, and the economy of the West Bank.  Abbas pointed out that Israel has labored to make sure the Palestinian Authority has no real power anyway, so why not just turn the day-to-day operations back over to Israel?

After all, Abbas can’t have an easy time of it as leader of the Palestinians.  It’s easy to see why he might not want his job anymore. :)

Despite the fact that some prominent Israeli politicians have mocked Abbas’s threat to dissolve the PA, it’s not an outcome Israel wants.  The Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords as a predecessor to a full Palestinian government.  If the Palestinian Authority dissolves, it would mark the final death knell of Oslo – something the Israeli government wants desperately to avoid, given that Israel has spent much of the last decade, at minimum, trying to convince the world that it actually cares about finishing what started in Oslo and reaching a real peace deal.  No PA, no fig leaf.  Moreover, without the Palestinian Authority, there would be no entity Israel would have leverage over by threatening to withhold tax remittances, and Hamas and others more extreme than the PA’s old guard would almost certainly become more influential in the West Bank.

Dissolving the PA isn’t popular in senior Palestinian circles, either.  If nothing else, it would mean an end to the privileges enjoyed by the top tier of the PA government, including the perks  of corruption (51% of Palestinians reported paying a bribe in 2010).  Additionally, the rump of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party controls the Palestinian Authority and doesn’t want to lose the West Bank to Hamas any more than it wanted to lose Gaza to Hamas seven years ago.

That said, a few hours ago, Fatah and Hamas announced unprecedented plans for unified government, putting more pressure on Israel and the US to deal with the interests and circumstances of Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in short all of Palestine.  Reconciliation attempts between Fatah and Hamas have been tripped up before, but announcing unification plans again now, as peace negotiations teeter precariously, seems a strategic miscalculation by Abbas, especially as Hamas has never recognized Israel and neither Israel nor the US will hold direct talks with Hamas.  What was intended as a show of unity may instead be a nail in a coffin.

Events of the last few days suggest enormous political courage will be necessary if  this rare opening to resolve the decades-old question of Palestine is to be salvaged.

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News You Really Need To See: “Young and Afghan”

“Young and Afghan”

The Washington Post, April 22, 2014, p.A6

“Amid the news of bombings, political rivalries and Afghanistan’s uncertain future as U.S. troops depart, the daily life of the nation’s young people is hardly noticed by the outside world.  In rural areas, the rhythms of farming and family exist much as they have for generations.  But in the capital, the younger generation enjoys access to information and freedoms that were unthinkable in the dark days of civil war and Taliban oppression in the 1990s. … A host of new television programs, wider access to the Internet, and the presence of numerous American troops and diplomats have challenged social mores in one of the world’s more conservative countries. … Afghanistan is young — nearly two-thirds of its people are younger than 25 — and youths are becoming key players in the nation’s politics.  During this month’s presidential election, all the major candidates tried to woo the youth vote, posting campaign updates on Facebook and Twitter and sending text messages.  And politicians and observers speculated that urban youths may be breaking out of the allegiance to ethnic blocs that has long defined friends and enemies here.”

Quickie analysis: Two-thirds of Afghans are younger than 25.  Wow.  That means 2/3 of Afghans have no personal memory of the Soviet occupation — the Soviets having left 25 years ago — and it is possible the majority of Afghans have no personal memory of life under the Taliban and/or life in Afghanistan before the arrival of US troops.

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Thinking Aloud: Too Much of a Good Thing

Apr. 22, 2014 by Darius 

Today is Earth Day.  Earth Day was created in 1970 to raise awareness about the environment and the ways humans are harming it.  Now, 44 years later, one statistic stands out above all others demonstrating the strain humans are putting on the Earth: sheer numbers.

In 1970, there were approximately 3.691 billion people on the planet.  Today, there are about 7.243 billion.  In short, the Earth’s population has all but doubled since the original Earth Day. And the population is still rising.  Estimates for the planet’s population by 2050 range from around 8 billion, assuming a drop in fertility rates worldwide, to a downright frightening 10.2 billion people.

In her new book The Sixth Extinction, which details the effect of human activity on the earth’s ecosystems, science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert succinctly describes humans as “the most successful invasive species on the planet.”  Yay for us.  But it definitely gives one pause for thought.

Happy Earth Day.

Blue Marble

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News You Really Need To See: “U.S. Promotes Network to Foil Digital Spying”

“U.S. Promotes Network to Foil Digital Spying”

The New York Times, April 21, 2014, p.A1

“A group of academics and computer enthusiasts who took part in the 2011 uprising in Tunisia that overthrew a government deeply invested in digital surveillance have helped their town become a test case for an alternative: a physically separate, local network made up of cleverly programmed antennas scattered about on rooftops.  The State Department provided $2.8 million to a team of American hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system, called a mesh network, as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely than they can on the open Internet.  One target that is sure to start debate is Cuba; the United States Agency for International Development has pledged $4.3 million to create mesh networks there. … [I]t is clear that the United States sees Sayada [Tunisia] as a test of the concept before it is deployed in more contested zones.”

Quickie analysis: Interesting article on an interesting technology (mesh networks).  Of course, the irony of the US supporting efforts to subvert (some) countries’ abilities to spy on their own populations while having no apparent problem spying on its own population is quite rich. 

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Thinking Aloud: Afghanistan, Election Update

Apr. 21, 2014 by Darius 

More than half of the votes are counted in Afghanistan’s presidential election.  Now the real politicking can begin.

As was expected, it seems no candidate will have secured enough votes to avoid a runoff.  That means the top two candidates will need to engage in some serious political horsetrading to win endorsements from also-rans going into the runoff.  The results also mean that some unsavory people will gain influence in the future government.

Topping the polls at this juncture is Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up to President Hamid Karzai in 2009, long considered the front runner, and now potentially Afghanistan’s first non-Pashtun leader.  (Although Abdullah is actually half Pashtun and half Tajik, he is widely viewed as a Tajik candidate.)  Abdullah has received 44.4% of the vote, though counting continues.

Coming in second and thus heading to a runoff with Abdullah is Ashraf Ghani, former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official, who got about 33% of the vote at this point in the counting.  Ghani himself, who is Pashtun, was likely not the biggest pull for his supporters; that title would go to his VP, the unofficial leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community who embraces the title “warlord.”

The third-place vote-getter was Zalmai Rassoul, a Pashtun confidant of President Karzai.  He has won about 10% of the vote thus far; in other words, he holds the balance between Ghani and Abdullah.  Who will he choose to support?

Finally, in fourth was Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, who won 7% of the vote.  Sayyaf represents just about every backward element in Afghanistan, not least of which are tribalism and Islamic fundamentalism.  (This was the guy who invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan.  That worked out well for Afghanistan.)  Unfortunately for Afghanistan, Sayyaf’s share of the vote is valuable to the candidates in the runoff.  To secure that vote, someone will probably need to give him and his VP (a Tajik warlord) some serious concessions.

There were hopes that the various candidates, especially the six who will not be in the runoff, would be able to get together to present a united front of support.  There were even hopes that Ghani or Abdullah could be persuaded to drop out entirely in return for a high position in the next government, avoiding a runoff altogether.  It remains to be seen if these events will materialize.

What is certain, though, is that a lot of people will be promised a lot of things in the days to come.  In some cases, those agreements might be good for national unity, but in other cases those agreements might nudge Afghanistan towards its darker past.  But regardless if one is a democrat or a chieftain, it’s all a familiar part of the game.

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News You Really Need To See: “Fish Imported to U.S. Was Often Caught Illegally, Study Finds”

“Fish Imported to U.S. Was Often Caught Illegally, Study Finds”

The Washington Post, April 21, 2014, p.A4

A new study that examined illegal and unreported marine harvests brought into the United States found that some fish shouldn’t be on U.S. tables.  Up to 32 percent of imported wild shrimp, crab, salmon, pollock, tuna and other catch is poached, according to the study.  Scientists are concerned about illegal fishing because the world’s oceans can barely sustain legal seafood harvests. … Earlier studies have shown that illegal and underreported fishing accounts for up to 31 percent of the world’s catch, but this study is the first to examine how much of it slips past the better-inspected ports of the United States. … U.S. inspectors are more concerned with the freshness of seafood and its potential impact on human health.  What gets by inspectors is valued in the study at $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion per year, a sum that encourages more illegal and unreported fishing, Pitcher said. …[F]ishing vessels and seafood processors rely on a shell game to deliver illegal and unreported catch to U.S. ports.  Ships fish at different spots on the high seas often for months at a time, using ‘transition vessels’ to taxi the catch to market while they keep trolling for fish.  Documentation of where the fish is caught is lax, the study found.  Many of the fish, crab, shrimp and other products are rushed to Chinese processing plants, where low-paid workers fillet salmon, clean the guts of tuna and pull meat from crabs.  Illegally caught fish are easily mixed at the plants with those that were caught legally.”

Quickie analysis:   With 85% of the world’s commercial seafood fisheries *legally* fished at or beyond their biological limit, this level of *illegal* fishing will crash the system, sending species below their biological limits to extinction.  The US medical establishment’s recommendation to “eat more seafood” is clearly at odds with the environment’s recommendation to eat less seafood.

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Thinking Aloud: The Darius Index, Chad

Apr. 20, 2014 by Darius 

[A month ago I introduced the Darius Index, which aims to measure the discrepancy between a country’s wealth – as measured by GDP per capita – and what that country does with the money – as measured by the UN’s Human Development Index.  See]

This week we’ll check out the #6 country on the list, Chad.

Many of the dynamics of Chad’s place on the list are similar to those of other countries previously discussed.  But while Botswana and South Africa, for instance, have good per capita GDP but only decent human development, Chad has a very low per capita GDP and atrocious human development.

Most of Chad’s economy comes from oil, but Chad’s oil is relatively recent: exploitation only began in 2003.  Like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, most of Chad’s oil money never reaches the people.  Instead, it is siphoned off by government corruption.  Chad’s ranks a rather miserable 163 out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index.

Chad has an additional hobble to human development not shared by other countries on the Darius Index, though: geography.  Chad is a landlocked country in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  Even with appropriate governance and funding, human development in Chad is going to be very difficult indeed.

It’s possible that oil money will make a difference to Chad’s people over time, but given Chad’s corruption, authoritarianism, and geography, don’t expect a big change any time soon.

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