Friday, January 25, 2013

Drone Wars: the end of History?

Drone Wars: the end of History?
NYT Jan 25, 2013LONDON — A prominent British human rights lawyer [Ben Emmerson] said on Thursday that a United Nations panel he leads would investigate what he called the “exponential rise” in drone strikes used in counterterrorist operations, “with a view to determining whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing….”

“This form of warfare is here to stay, and it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”

Awesome Engineering Co.

Memo To all Sales Staff:
Big News!
The Liquidator, our new unmanned aerial vehicle, is now in full production. But were after far more than the U.S. market. More than seventy countries already have dronesarmed and unarmed. Thats just for starters. Every self-respecting head of state is going to want his own fleet.  

And the Liquidator will be the flavor of the decade.

It can takeoff, land and hover for a week without need of a human operator.

And it can't be fooled.  From six miles up, thanks to our new Awesome Laser Optical Scanner (ALOS), it can zoom in to photograph the face of anyone below, as well as capture the underlying bone structure, with amazing resolution.

This means there is no way the bad guys (or gals) can conceal their identity by growing beards, dyeing their hair, losing weight, or undergoing radical plastic surgery.

The next sales point is also sensational: The Liquidator can work totally on its own. Its scanner can instantly interface with a database of all known or suspected bad guys in any intelligence agencys files, or from the new global terrorist data base that we offer as an additional service. At the same time, the ALOS can also assess the area around the target for risk of collateral damage. [cd]  

Note: for an extra 1$million per unit, we will equip the Liquidator with a CDR (collateral damage regulator) that permits the operator to dial in the degree of cd judged acceptable for any given assignment.

The operator then has an option. A.  Let the Liquidator run on auto-kill . That means that once is positive confirmation of the bad guy target, and the cd is acceptable, the on-board missile is automatically fired. Absolutely no time-wasting intervention required from the operator.

Option B. Of course, the operator can also make the kill decision himself, if there is, for instance, the need clearance from higher up the command chain.

Most of our clients follow the precedent established by President Barrack Obama, who established his own terrorist kill list. This enables him to wipe out the bad guys without encumbering legal procedures, yapping congressmen, or public trials that provide a soapbox and cheap publicity for the terrorists or whatever and their hysterical rants.

We expect this system to continue spreading worldwide. [In fact, we know of one European country where the wife of the President gets to have her own kill list; and another state where the Prime Minister gave kill privileges to his 16 year old mistressthough she only gets to have five people on the list at a time.]

As part of this presentation, we include a new interactive: How the history of the world would have been totally changedmaybe even ground to a halt--if kings, czars, sheikhs, imams, tribal chiefs, presidents, and dictators-for-life, had had something like The Liquidator at their disposal in years gone by.  

The Brits, for example, could have blown to smithereens early on Jomo Kenyatta, No way he would have survived to become glorified as the founding father of Kenya. Ditto Robert Mugabe branded as a terrorist in what used to be known as Rhodesia. Ditto Michael Collins of the IRA.

In the 1940s, London also could have knocked off a couple of future Israeli Prime Ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir , who organized the bloody-minded Irgun revolt against England, bombing a hotel and murdering British police.

Going back even earlier, George III could have nipped the Boston Tea Party in the bud; taken out Paul Revere before hed even saddled up. Hell, America might still be British.

In the same way, the French would have dispatched Ben Bella, wiped out the FLN before most people even knew what FLN stood for, and Algeria would still be French. So, perhaps, would Vietnam, if theyd targeted Ho Chi Minh when they should have.

And the Germans, if theyd had the Liquidator the Warsaw Ghetto uprising would have been still born, Jean Moulin and the French Resistance would have been turned into road kill. Same thing for the Soviets:  No Hungarian revolution. No Prague Spring. 

Best of all, theyd have shredded Osama Bin Laden, long before hed even thought about turning his bearded crazies against America.

Batista would have splattered Fidel and Che all over the Sierra Maestra in Cuba.
Same story for jokers like Geronimo, Zapata, and Pancho Villa.

And Nat Turners slave rebellion in 1861 in Virginia would also have been instantly squelched: No need to put him into the history books by publicly hanging the guy, then flaying and beheading the corpse. The Liquidator would have accomplished all that, and more--but discretely.

 I mean, guys, when you think about it, what were really offering our clients is a real shot at The End of History.

Friday, January 18, 2013

France in Mali:Chasing Roadrunner over a cliff?


Within the next few days, France will have deployed some 2,500 troops to Mali. That’s as large a commitment as France made to what became a profoundly unpopular war in Afghanistan. No one knows how long the troops will be there, but the price tag will surely be tens if not hundreds of millions of Euros, this to born by a French economy already in woeful shape. 
The danger is that President Francois Hollande and the French state, may shortly find themselves in the disastrous situation of the hapless coyote in the cartoon, Roadrunner, so intent on chasing his prey that he scurries right over a cliff and suddenly finds himself flailing in mid air, about to plunge to the desert below.  
President Hollande said the menace of a radical Islamic takeover was so imminent that he had no choice but to intervene—to save not just Mali, but all of Western Africa, and, the French now imply, Europe as well.  
Strange thing though, despite the supposed urgency of the situation, France has had precious little luck so far in convincing its European partners to contribute their own troops to the intervention. Indeed, the last thing those countries want, after the traumatic experience of Iraq, Libya and the Afghan crusade, is to become enmeshed in what risks to be an open-ended conflict, on behalf of an unelected Malian government, against a vague assortment of ethnic rebels and jihadis in the desert wilds of North Africa. Thus, so far there have been a lot of pats on the back from France’s allies, offers of logistic support, intelligence, a few troop transports, drones, but that’s it.  
 "You say, 'We'll give you nurses and you go get yourselves killed,'" said French deputy Daniel Cohn-Bendit, railed at his fellow deputies in the European Parliament. "We [Europe] will only be credible if French soldiers are not the only ones getting killed."
Actually, it was surprising to learn that France, still considered a major military power, doesn’t have the capability to transport a couple of thousand troops and their equipment to North Africa. France even had to rely on an offer from the Italians (!) for tankers to handle in-flight refueling of French fighter jets.
Despite the tepid response from France’s allies, French government spokesman are still reassuring the public that French troops are not going to play the major combat role in the coming ground battles.
The fact is, that even if they wanted to play a major role, there are nowhere near enough French boots on the ground. It’s instructive to speculate on France’s combat strength, using what is known as the “tooth to tail” ratio, that is, the number of support troops in the rear needed to support each combat soldier at the front. For the U.S. military that ratio is about three to one. If we use the same figure for France, that means that out of 2500 French troops deployed to Mali, probably about 600-700—a thousand at best--would actually see front-line combat.
And Mali, don’t forget, is twice the size of France, or Afghanistan or Texas.
The actual down-and-dirty fighting, we are told, is to be done by troops from West Africa, some of whom have finally begun arriving in Mali. But all the reports about those contingents indicate a woeful lack of equipment, morale, and training, particularly in being able to fight a guerrilla war in the desert reaches of the Sahel. 
After months of discussion, this week—in the wake of the hostage crisis in Algeria-- France’s European allies finally agreed to dispatch 250 troops to help train the Malian army and perhaps other African units. But—unless the fallout from the Algerian disaster changes things--it’s already determined that those European trainers are to be non- combatants. They will not even be advising the Malian soldiers in battle. As one senior EU official made very clear. “We will not go north. We will stay in the training areas,”
By the way, one thing I can never figure out—whether it be Mali or Afghanistan--we‘re always hearing about how the forces being backed by the U.S. and its allies, like France in this case, invariably seem to be poorly trained and equipped and demoralized, despite hundreds of millions of dollars and years of training. [Think Afghanistan where only one out of 23 battalions is able to function independently of U.S. support.]
Meanwhile, the ragtag rebels they’re combating, usually from those same third world countries, like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Touaregs in Mali are portrayed as dedicated, fierce, battle-hardened warriors, who wreak havoc on their opponents with often the most primitive improvised weapons or suicide bombs. Reports are that it will take many weeks, probably months, before the various African troops will be ready to do any serious fighting. And there are other problems to deal with apart from training and equipment: the danger, for instance, of unleashing Christian soldiers from Nigeria to suppress Islamic rebels in Northern Mali.
Ironically, as I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, while France’s allies are hanging back, the Chinese, who have huge economic interests and construction projects underway in every one of Mali’s neighbors, continue to go about their business, apparently still content to leave the police work to France and Europe and the West African states. 
The French, for the record, insist that the groups they are battling in Mali –and now in Algeria--are all lumped together as “terrorists”, linked to al-Qaeda. There is no recognition of the fact that most of the different rebel groups, most of them driven by strong ethnic and nationalist aspirations, as much as by religion--not that different perhaps, from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In that case, it’s obvious that the only way this conflict will ultimately be settled is not by somehow eradicating the “terrorists” ,but by sitting down to negotiate a deal, as will probably be the case in Afghanistan.  
In Mali, such a deal may be not be that different from the kind of settlement that was offered the Touaregs years ago after a series of rebellions, but which the Malian government ultimately reneged on.
So, how do the French feel about this?
Estimates are that anywhere from 400,000 to one million French took to the streets of Paris last weekend. A counter-protest, expected to draw hundreds of thousands of other militant French, is now being organized. Tempers are flaring. 
What’s the issue?
Well, actually, no. It’s whether the French government should legalize gay marriage.
As for the intervention in Mali, at first the French, from all ends of the political spectrum, seemed to be solidly behind their government and their fighting men.
That consensus is already unraveling, and it’s certain that as the intervention drags on, the casualties and costs mount, and France’s European allies still drag their heels, the patriotic surge will flag 
Which bring us back to the Roadrunner. At  some point the French may suddenly look down to find to their president has taken them over a precipice, and they’re suspended there, gazing in horror at the chasm below.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mali: A double tale of unintended consequences

With hundreds of French troops in Mali, and hundreds more headed that way, the U.S. among other countries, has also pledged some limited support: intelligence, communication, logistics, unarmed drones. But Washington obviously would like to keep a low profile. Washington, in fact, had been militating against just such a move, fearing that another Western intervention in an Arab land would provide another ideal recruiting target for erstwhile jihadis across the Muslim world, not to mention to provoking a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe.

In fact, though, it turns out that the U.S. has already played a major role in the crisis. It’s a devastating lesson of plans gone awry, another dreary footnote to the law of unintended consequences.

According to an excellent New York Times account, for the past several years, the United States has spent more than half a billion dollars in West Africa to counter the threat of radical Islam, America’s “most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara.”
The aim of the program was that, rather than rely on the U.S. and its allies to combat Islamic terrorism in the region, the United States would train African troops to deal with the threat themselves.
To that end, for five years U.S. Special Forces trained Malian troops in a host of vital combat and counterterrorism skills. The outcome was considered by the Pentagon to be exemplary
But all that collapsed as the result of another unintended consequence-- of the French-led intervention in Libya. After the fall of Khadhaffi, droves of battle-hardened, well-armed Islamic fighters and Tuareg tribesmen, who had been fighting in Libya, swarmed into Northern Mali.
Joined by other more radical Islamist forces, some linked to Al Qaeda, they had no trouble defeating the Malian army.
Why? Because of the defection to the rebels of several key Malian officers, who had been trained by the Americans.  Turns out that those officers, who were supposed to battle the rebels, were ethnic Tuaregs, the same nomads who were part of the rebellion.
According to the Times, The Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units in the north, at the height of the battle, decided to join the insurrection, taking weapons, valuable equipment and their American training with them. They were followed by about 1600 additional army defectors, demolishing the government’s hope of resisting the rebel attack.   
In other words, it’s very likely that the French and their allies-to-come in Mali will be battling rebel troops trained by the U.S. Special Forces.
Caught totally by surprise by the whole ghastly mess, the American officials involved with the training program were reportedly flabbergasted.
There are obvious questions: How was it possible for the Special Forces and their Pentagon bosses and the CIA to have had such a total lack of understanding of the Malian officers they’d trained and the country they’d been operating in for over five years?

 But you could ask that same question about U.S. military actions in any number of countries over the past few decades, from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan, where the most apt  comparison might be to releasing elephants into a porcelain shop.

Which leads to a more fundamental question: how is the U.S. to avoid similar catastrophic mistakes down the road? The Pentagon has recently announced that some 3,000 troops, no longer needed in Afghanistan, have been reassigned to work with the local military in 35 countries across Africa--to deal with the threat of Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.

Sounds just like what was going on in Mali.

But does anyone really think the U.S. and its military will have a better understanding of the myriad forces, tribes, religions, governments, legal and illicit financial interests struggling for power and influence in those countries than it did in Mali?  

Or in Iraq, Or Afghanistan or Iran or Somalia or Lebanon, or Vietnam or Cambodia.

And has France now embarked down the same tragic path?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Intervention in Mali-Another free ride for China?

Very reluctantly, we are told, President Francois Holland was forced to order French troops to intervene in Mali, a former West African colony. There was no other way to ward off disaster, to prevent yet another failed African state from becoming a haven for terrorists linked to Al Qaeda. France had strong cultural, economic and military links to the region that couldn’t be ignored.
The risks of France’s vague, open-ended venture—which the U.S. has already indicated it will support--are already being debated. But what I find particularly ironic is that the country that has probably most to gain from the intervention--is China. 
Because, by thwarting the rebels’ drive, France and its partners-to-be will be preserving the security not only of Mali’s rickety regime, but of Mali’s neighbors as well, also former French colonies, none of which can make a serious claim to stability.
But in every one of those countries, China does big business—in several of them, very big business.
 --In Niger, for instance, where France has a program of military cooperation, a Chinese company operates what is China’s largest uranium mine, at Azelik—breaking what was a defacto monopoly on Niger’s reserves once enjoyed by France.
China also runs a major oilfield and has signed a deal to upgrade the country’s power supplies.
--In Chad, where per capital income is about $900 per year, the French have a large  airforce base that is being used for their offensive in Mali. The Chinese have a different kind of operation: their national petroleum corporation is backing a $1 billion dollar project, to lay 300 kilometers of pipelines from oilfields in Southern Chad to a Chinese-built refinery near the capital, Ndjamena. The refinery is jointly owned by China and Chad. China is also building a new international airport nearby.
- The Ivory Coast, once a jewel of the French colonial crown, also has a French military base, and lots of French business interests. But just two days before President Holland intervened in Mali, it was announced in Abidjan, that China and the Ivory Coast had agreed on a massive $500 million low-interest loan from China’s Export Import bank—to finance the construction of a hydropower station-- by a Chinese engineering firm--that will be the largest in the country and will export power to neighboring countries.  
China is also drilling for oil in the Cameroon, building an airport and port in Mauritania, importing cotton from Burkina Faso, making huge deals for iron ore in Guinea and Sierra Leone, while building schools, hospitals, stadiums, not to mention railway lines all over the continent.
So why is China willing to make such massive gambles in a part of the world where governments seem to change from week to week, and huge countries like Mali, which used to be considered one of West Africa’s most stable regimes, can disintegrate into chaos almost overnight?
Part of it is that China, to fuel its soaring economy, is willing to get along with just about anyone in power. They’re not out to organize coups, overthrow regimes or impose their views. 
And in much of West Africa, at least, they’ve probably been bolstered by the thought that, when the chips were down, highly trained and equipped French and American troops would help keep chaos at bay. Indeed, the Pentagon is building small, discrete bases—known as lily-pads--across the continent, and has also assigned more than three American thousand troops to work with and train African solders to deal with “terrorist” threats, like the one that’s just exploded in Mali.  
If the presence of those foreign troops ultimately rubs the native population the wrong way, due to anything from cultural differences to civilian deaths in collateral damage, it’s the French and/or Americans and their African military allies who will have to take the heat.
Without any of their own boots on the ground, without helicopter gun ships or drones in the air, and not a single base outside of China, it won’t be the Chinese.
That’s how it’s been in many other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East: the Chinese have had a free ride, with the U.S. and its allies patrolling key trade routes, intervening in the name of political stability.
At least, that’s the way it was. But with the French and other NATO countries more reluctant to intervene than ever, and with the U.S. military facing major budget cuts, the day will soon come when China will have to pick to pick up its own security tab, protect its own trade routes, become at least one of the cops on the global beat.
China’s leaders may know that. Which is part of the reason for their on-going military build up, particularly the navy. They’ve already made a deal to train Afghan soldiers, for instance, now that the U.S. is pulling out.
That may all make a lot of sense—from China’s view.
But how on earth will the U.S. adapt?