Thinking Aloud: Fool Me Once, Shame on You…

April 27, 2016 by Darius 

President Obama recently wrapped up a trip to Saudi Arabia.  In a piece written just prior to Obama’s trip, Bruce Riedel of Brookings made the case for why the US must continue to invest in its relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the many problems.  Riedel cites economic deals, a shared interest in fighting ISIS, and a few other areas of US-Saudi cooperation.  One of his reasons, though, caught my eye: according to Riedel, the US and Saudis “should enhance cooperation to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown dramatically during the war in Yemen.”

In a nutshell, with this sentence, Riedel perhaps unknowingly encapsulates much of what’s been wrong with US policy in the Middle East for the last 60 years.  Why?  Because while Saudi Arabia did not create al-Qaeda in Yemen, its invasion was and is almost entirely responsible for AQAP’s dramatic growth.  It’s been the standard modus operandi of Middle Eastern regimes for more than half a century: create or exacerbate a problem, then convince the US the problem can’t be solved without supporting the regime.  The US falls for it every time.

Examples abound, ranging from the minute to the large.  In Iran, for instance, during the early 1950s, the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led to the growth of the Communist Party in Iran, known as Tudeh.  Fear of a Tudeh takeover led the CIA to sponsor a coup against Iran’s last democratically elected leader (who, by the way, was in no way, shape, or form a Communist) in favor of helping the Shah gain near-absolute power.  Tudeh was crushed, but 25 more years of the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led directly to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In Egypt, current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the country’s democratically elected (if rather unlikable) government in a coup, launched a massive crackdown that resulted in, at last count, at least 30,000 political prisoners, and turned Sinai into a free-fire zone to battle a supposed insurgency.  Sisi now justifies his value to the US because, not surprisingly, the insurgency in Sinai has spread to other areas of the country, fueled by massive discontent with his regime.  The US bit hook, line, and sinker and continues to indulge Sisi to the tune of several billion dollars each year.

In Yemen, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the very least turned a blind eye to jihadist groups (and probably funded them) in order to claim the threat of jihad as a justification for his regime.  US support for Saleh only became untenable after 25 years in power.

Even the centerpiece of the US’s Middle East policy, Israel, is no exception.  Israel is a valuable “security ally” and “partner in the War on Terror” because it goes after terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  Would these groups exist if it hadn’t been for decades of Israel’s bad behavior?  Doubtfully.

And now the Saudis: create a problem with a resurgent al-Qaeda in Yemen, then present yourself as the only solution to that problem.  It’s a time-honored tactic, and one that seems to work again and again.  (Curious how political opponents used to be “Communists” and now they’re all “terrorists,” isn’t it?)

I’m not saying the US should immediately axe all its Middle Eastern relationships.  That would be like having police officers no longer carry guns: far too late to be a good idea.  But there needs to be a greater degree of accountability, and the US needs to be at least aware that most of its “allies” are helping it with one hand and setting up the next problem with the other.  The US really can’t afford to continue business as usual: in addition to leading to massive human rights violations, each of the examples I listed above has resulted in terrible outcomes for the US and for US interests.  And that just keeps the cycle going.

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News You Really Need To See: “Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes”

“Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes”

The New York Times, April 25, 2016

“Disenchantment with the political mainstream is no surprise.  But research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to [US] manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation’s bitter political divide. … Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by-district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically. … While whites hit hard by trade tend to move right, nonwhite voters move left, eroding support for moderates in both parties, the study concluded. … The new paper underscores a broader rethinking among economists of the costs and benefits of policies aimed at encouraging industrial competition across borders. … Until the Nafta agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994, and especially the entry of China into the W.T.O., trade deals were mostly multilateral and the rise in manufacturing imports to the United States came primarily from other advanced industrial nations like Germany and Japan. … The authors found that voters in congressional districts hardest hit by Chinese imports tended to choose more ideologically extreme lawmakers.  Between 2002 and 2010, districts in the top 5th percentile of trade exposure, on average, experienced a 19 percent greater drop in manufacturing employment relative to districts at the other end of the spectrum.  Those hard-hit districts became, on average, far more conservative: the ideological equivalent of moving from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz.”

Quickie analysis:   An interesting study that sheds light on how economic disenfranchisement fuels political extremism.  Although the study focuses on the US, the dynamics in Europe are likely similar.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part III

April 21, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan, and  Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.  Today, I’ll share the comments of Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, who spoke about Somalia.]

Bruton began with a description of Somalia as it stood on September 10, 2001.  According to Bruton, by 2001, the chaos of the 1990s was over, and throughout Somalia, violence was at a low level.  Critically, there was no significant radical Islamist activity, despite the fact that al-Qaeda had made a deliberate effort to base itself in Somalia during the 1990s.  Al-Qaeda found it impossible to work in Somalia thanks to the clan politics, warlords, and climate, and was effectively forced to retreat from Somalia in defeat.

However, Bruton said that after 9/11, the US decided it could no longer afford to leave Somalia alone.  This decision was based on two perceptions: first, that most Somalis hated Americans (which stemmed from the Black Hawk Down incident of the 1990s), and second, that a security vacuum would inevitably lead to terrorism taking root in Somalia, despite al-Qaeda’s attempt and failure.  The US marshaled Somalia’s neighbors to create a government for Somalia.  This provoked an immediate backlash of Somali public opinion, and individual members of the Somali “government” set up in Nairobi became targets for assassination.

According to Bruton, at this point, the CIA decided more intervention in Somalia was needed.  The CIA chose to recruit warlords to do its dirty work.  The corruption, violence, and generally heavy-handed tactics of these CIA-backed warlords provoked a massive public uprising that forced the warlords out of the capital, Mogadishu.  The only institution remotely capable of governing was a council made up of religious authorities called the Union of Islamic Courts.  Although Bruton said the UIC was in retrospect extremely moderate, the Bush administration thought the UIC was a front for al-Qaeda.  On the basis of this false assumption, in 2006, the US gave a green light to an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The Ethiopian invasion quickly took Mogadishu, destroyed the UIC, and installed the supposed government in exile.  However, given Ethiopia’s status as Somalia’s traditional enemy, the Ethiopian occupation provoked massive discontent.  Within a year, a new group arose to oppose the Ethiopian occupation: al-Shabaab.

Ethiopian casualties quickly mounted, and Ethiopia was forced to end its unilateral occupation.  With US backing, the Ethiopian troops were replaced by an African Union peacekeeping force whose mandate was to protect the Somali “government,” which, according to Bruton, would not last for a day without foreign troops to prop it up.  Bruton said that for the next three years, due to its tendency to deploy enormous, indiscriminate firepower in civilian areas, the AU force was responsible for 95% of civilian casualties in Somalia.

In 2010, al-Shabaab unilaterally withdrew from Mogadishu, though not in defeat.  In 2011, though, a famine in Somalia was largely blamed on al-Shabaab, leading to a major erosion of its political support.  The AU peacekeeping force reformed its practices of engagement and managed to win a large amount of territory back from al-Shabaab.

In 2011, though, Kenya decided to invade Somalia.  The US decided to add Kenya to the AU peacekeeping force, instantly undoing all the goodwill the AU force had attained in the previous year.  The Kenyan invasion did little other than make Kenya a major target for Shabaab terrorist attacks.

Today, there are approximately 20,000 African Union troops in Somalia.  It is not nearly enough to stabilize the country.  The ostensible Somali government remains far too weak to survive on its own.  Al-Shabaab is active throughout East Africa and retains enough power in Somalia itself to serve as an effective spoiler of anything the government or anyone else tries to accomplish.

Bruton blasted US policy in the harshest terms.  She felt the US turned a country that was largely peaceful into a country that is aggressively exporting terrorism and has destabilized the entire region.  She noted, however, that the US’s failure is not due to bad intentions or excessive intervention.  In fact, the US has kept its role to a minimum and is the only player involved with a genuine concern for the Somali people and for Somali civilian casualties.  Instead, as Bruton said, the US has irreparably harmed Somalia by providing political cover for Ethiopia and Kenya to run amok in Somalia.  She felt direct US action in Somalia would have been far better.

Troublingly, according to Bruton, the US has persistently refused to learn from its mistakes in Somalia.  In fact, the US does not see Somalia as a mistake at all: first President Bush and then President Obama have held up the US’s strategy in Somalia as a success that can be replicated elsewhere in Africa rather than acknowledging that US strategy there has been a catastrophic failure.

Bruton said the US could not have designed a worse outcome for Somalia.  She felt that given al-Qaeda’s failure to enter Somalia during the 1990s, it is likely that without US intervention, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab would still not be in Somalia.  She summed up what US policy has done to Somalia: “The US took its worst nightmare and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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News You Really Need To See: “China and Africa: A Despot’s Guide to Foreign Aid”

“China and Africa: A Despot’s Guide to Foreign Aid”

The Economist, April 16-22, 2016

“Pity the UN ambassador of a small African country each time a vote is called in the General Assembly. Many of the resolutions will be ones that their president and most of their compatriots neither know nor care about. … But what of more contentious resolutions, such as one condemning North Korea for abuses of human rights?  Deciding whether to vote yea or nay ought to be easy: North Korea has one of the worst records on earth.  Yet 19 countries voted against the resolution, among them Zimbabwe, Burundi and Algeria.  Another 48 abstained, among them Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia.  One reason, perhaps, is that China (which dislikes criticism of its pals in Pyongyang) smiles on nations that agree with it.  AidData, a project based at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, keeps a huge database on official aid flows.  Its number-crunching shows how much China appears to reward African countries that vote with it.  The relationship is not a simple one …, according to Brad Parks, a director of the organisation.  China gives proportionally more money to poorer countries, for instance.  But by and large countries that support China do better.  AidData reckons that if African countries voted with China an extra 10% of the time, they would get an 86% bump in official aid on average.  If Rwanda, for instance, were to cast its ballot alongside China 93% of the time (instead of its current 67%), its aid from China could jump by 289%. … Even so, cash-strapped African leaders should probably hire a data scientist or two to optimise the yield on their votes, or at the very least make sure their ambassadors turn up.  Burundi, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo missed almost half of the votes that America considers key.  Swaziland missed two-thirds of its opportunities to cosy up to America or China. Surely in the business of vote-buying the principle of ‘no vote, no pay’ applies.”

Quickie analysis:   Interesting statistical support for the anecdotal evidence that China, which now has the world’s largest economy, is increasingly throwing its economic weight around to ensure diplomatic support.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part II

April 18, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan.  Today, I’ll share the remarks of Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.]

Schmitz said the US is actually conducting two “secret wars” in Yemen right now.  The first is a long-standing campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while the second consists of quiet US support for the Saudi coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war.

According to Schmitz, the Yemeni civil war started because the transitional government, led by President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, proved itself utterly incapable of actually governing, especially in the face of a rising economic crisis.  Because of the economic situation and lack of governance, the so-called political transition process was completely divorced from the experiences of Yemenis.

At the same time, an internal power struggle within the Zaydi Shia Houthi movement led to the party’s military wing winning out.  The military wing launched a fast campaign from the movement’s northern strongholds and took Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.  For the Saudis, who don’t even consider Yemen to be a foreign country, this was unacceptable.  Schmitz described the Saudis as paranoid about even a US presence in Yemen.  The war quickly escalated.

However, when it came to the US’s campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthi takeover was not a bad thing.  In fact, the Houthis did aggressively go after al-Qaeda in Yemen, including in areas where the Yemeni government had been unable to.  According to Schmitz, the US did not initially have a problem with the (dubious) links between the Houthis and Iran.  However, according to Schmitz, the US allowed the Saudi intervention because (1) the US feared the further rise of ungoverned spaces and (2) the US and Iran had just agreed to a major nuclear deal which left the Saudis feeling marginalized.  Schmitz also said that when it comes to Saudi policy more broadly, personalities in the US administration shine through.  President Obama was ambivalent at best towards Saudi Arabia and felt that the US should pursue a more even-handed policy towards the region, but Secretary of State John Kerry is very pro-Saudi.

Schmitz said that as a result of the civil war and Saudi intervention in it, the fabric of Yemeni society has been absolutely ripped apart.  He said the country has been set back at least 25 or 30 years.

Looking to the future, Schmitz felt the war is heading towards a political settlement.  The Saudis have realized that not only is there no military solution to be had in Yemen but that “their” Yemenis are incapable of governing even the areas they control, much less the whole country.

For its part, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the war to expand.  They initially positioned themselves as the defenders of Sunnis against the Houthis, then took the southern port city of Mukalla in the chaos.  The Saudis made a conscious decision not to go after al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is anti-Houthi.  However, Schmitz said al-Qaeda has made a great deal of money from oil sales and is definitively stronger than before the war.

The US drone campaign against al-Qaeda has continued since the start of the civil war.  According to Schmitz, the campaign has been even more successful than before at taking out top al-Qaeda leaders because the capture of Mukalla apparently led some AQAP leaders to assume they were safe.  (They weren’t.)  However, the US drone campaign has failed in one important aspect: despite killing top leaders, it has not effectively degraded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in Yemen, including in the areas of money, organizing, and recruiting.  In fact, al-Qaeda is finding it easier to recruit than ever because the civil war has rendered Yemen so poor that the promise of a salary is all AQAP needs to attract recruits.

Schmitz criticized the US campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen more generally.  He felt that although AQAP is often portrayed as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda, it has actually done very little and met with even less success.  In his view, the danger is overblown.  He also criticized the political need to be seen to be going after al-Qaeda.  He said that what is needed for Yemen instead is a long-term (25- to 30-year), locally nuanced strategy, and that one cannot hope to solve the complex problems that lead to the emergence of ungoverned spaces through small tactical operations and by throwing money at the problem.

Schmitz was not optimistic about Yemen’s political future.  He felt that for governance to improve, there must be a certain minimum political base.  Yemen’s Saudi-backed “government” lacks even that base.

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News You Really Need To See: “Why Iraqis Living Under the Islamic State Fear Their Liberators”

“Why Iraqis Living Under the Islamic State Fear Their Liberators”

The Washington Post, April 11, 2016

While the Iraqi military and its allies may be slowly retaking cities from the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, most Iraqi Sunnis fear and distrust the forces that are ‘liberating’ them from those militants.  But what do the majority of Iraqis want for their country’s future?  A recent study sheds light on this, painting a picture of an Iraq deeply divided by sectarianism. … Our data from February 2016 shows Sunni Arabs fear the forces meant to liberate them from the Islamic State.  In Mosul — where a campaign to liberate Iraq’s second-biggest city from Islamic State control just started — 74 percent of Sunni survey respondents say they do not want to be liberated by the Iraqi army on its own.  But this distrust for the Iraqi army is surpassed by distrust for the Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.  Of the 120 Sunni respondents in Mosul, 100 percent do not want to be liberated by Shiite militias or the Kurds.  There is a very deep distrust of forces that are meant to free Sunni Iraqis from the clutches of the Islamic State.  No, it is not because most Sunnis support the Islamic State.  In fact, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Sunnis oppose the Islamic State.  An IIACSS poll conducted in January 2016 showed that 99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunnis across Iraq oppose the Islamic State.  If so many Sunnis oppose the Islamic State, why are they so concerned about the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga working to liberating them?  The answer lies in the collective identity that Sunni Iraqis hold — and the sense that their community is and will not be treated fairly by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and its allies. … A vast majority, 91 percent, of Sunnis do not believe that Iraqis are treated equally in terms of their rights.  On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of Shiite believe that the Iraqi government applies equal protection of rights to all Iraqis.”

Quickie analysis:   Troubling evidence that the Iraqi government has done almost nothing to address the underlying discontent that led to ISIS’s advance in the first place.

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part I

April 15, 2016 by Darius 

I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute (I know, outside my normal range!) on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known on-going interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  Over the next few days, I’ll share their comments.  Today’s post will be the remarks of Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed Pakistan.

The “invisible war” the US has conducted in Pakistan has stood out from the other invisible wars because it is entirely a product of US policy towards a separate country: Afghanistan.  Because its involvement in Pakistan has been overshadowed by its involvement in Afghanistan, the US has never psychologically seen itself as being at war in Pakistan.  At the same time, US counterterrorism policy in Pakistan is driven by a mistrust of the aims of the Pakistani government.  According to Yusuf, this mistrust is not just a matter of misunderstanding but instead reflects Machiavellian politics and a very real divergence of interests between the US and Pakistan.  However, American options vis-a-vis Pakistan are constrained by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: the US dares not push Pakistan too hard for fear that it collapses entirely, destabilizing its nuclear weapons.  Yusuf described the entire US-Pakistan relationship with the line, “We all know this is a bad marriage, but divorce is too expensive to try.”

Yusuf proceeded to briefly narrate US-Pakistani terror policy.  According to Yusuf, Pakistan’s prior military ruler and president, Pervez Musharraf, was very reluctant to send Pakistani troops into Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions to fight militant groups.  Although Musharraf eventually succumbed to US pressure and did so, the US and Pakistan drew very different conclusions from the fighting in the tribal regions.  The US thought Pakistan was too soft on the militant groups, whereas Pakistan concluded the entire venture was a costly mistake.

As a result of these diverging conclusions, the US decided that it could not trust Pakistan and needed to act on its own to protect US interests in Afghanistan, whether Pakistan liked it or not.  This policy manifested itself with some drone strikes and raids such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden.  Yusuf said there was originally an understanding between the US and Pakistan on US drones strikes within Pakistan, but that understanding fell apart at some point.

According to Yusuf, it is Pakistan, not the US, that has blocked transparency regarding the US’s “invisible war” in Pakistan.  The Pakistani government avoids transparency because the US is so unpopular in Pakistan that the Pakistani government fears a massive popular backlash if the scope of its cooperation with the US were to be revealed.  Instead, the Pakistani government opted for a policy of “public rebuke, private partnership,” at least until around 2011, when the entire relationship fell apart.  According to Yusuf, the Pakistani government’s refusal to allow greater transparency effectively killed the US’s campaign to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.  However, Yusuf believes that it is far too late for a paradigm shift in relations with Pakistan and that at this point transparency would do more harm than good.

Yusuf said that American and Pakistani divergence of interests does not stem from Afghanistan or the Taliban.  Instead, it comes from Pakistan’s obsession with India: Pakistan is disrupting the US in Afghanistan in an attempt to punish the US for getting closer to India.  Yusuf said there is no way the US can reconcile with Pakistan while keeping its relations with India; yet because of India’s sheer size and economy, US officials have decided (rightly so, in Yusuf’s mind) that India is much more important.  Yusuf felt that the US will not be able to achieve a solution in Afghanistan without solving the wider India-Pakistan problem.  (Good luck with that.)

Yusuf said that the insurgency in Pakistan against the Pakistani government was the result of years of bad policies by the Pakistani government but that the trigger for the insurgency was external—in this case, the 9/11 attacks.  Because 9/11 was so sudden, though, both the US and Pakistan were caught without a strategy in place.  They acted anyway.

According to Yusuf, all of the US’s counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan, including drones, was no more than a Band-Aid.  Instead, the US’s real attempt at a solution was to throw money at the problem, in the form of vast amounts of aid to the Pakistani government, much of which went straight to the military.  Unfortunately, as Yusuf noted, kinetic force and throwing money at the problem are completely ineffective in South Asia.

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