November 02, 2011

Pax Americana Reaches Uganda, Part 1

US forces are now engaged on yet another front, this time an unexpected one against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. This brings to seven the number of publically disclosed theatres where US forces wage war, six of which are against insurgents of various shapes. One hundred Special Forces troops, possibly the first of several waves, now serve as "trainers" in the central African nation. In this first article of a series on the topic, I review the historic context for the Uganda incursion.

Uganda is a landlocked and impoverished nation. However by African standards, it does relatively well. Due to its colonial heritage its army is one of the most structured and professional in Africa, though that isn’t saying much. However, military efficacy is not the only thing that a colonial heritage handed down to Uganda. Created by lines drawn across a map somewhere in Europe, Uganda suffers from having no common national heritage. Rather, it is home to a plurality of tribes which do not get along. The British amplified this problem by grooming bureaucrats and business elites from the South, and soldiers and workers from the north. Hence under London’s hand the South became rich, while the army became Northern.

Once Britain stepped out of Africa, Ugandans were left to their own devices, and it was not long before a perpetual cycle of civil war wrecked the country. The South would take power, only to face Northern guerrillas. Once they took power, Southern guerrillas would take to the bush. Idi Amin was a product of this equation, and a vicious example of how war is waged by Northerners. The current “president”, Museveni, has been in power since 1986, the latest guerrilla-come-head-of-state. He is from the South, and so a Northern guerrilla movement soon materialized. However this revolution failed to gain traction and changed leadership several times, only to fall in the current leader’s hands, one Joseph Kony.

As the Northern tribe (the Acholi) lost hope and faith in this new movement, now called the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony was forced to reinvent insurgency theory. While most movements count on the population for supplies, shelter and recruits, Kony took what he needed by force. The Lord’s Resistance Army became a self-sustaining bush army, only coming out of the jungle to ransack villages for goods and recruits. Kony will pillage everything in his path, leaving behind nothing but cinders and scars. He takes with him children of all ages, to train most boys as “soldiers” and most girls as “wives”. Those not worthy either end up as workers or worse – as fatal tests of the other children’s loyalty.

The government of Uganda is little better, utilizing this security threat as a pretext to tighten its grip on the afflicted north (see this site for one Acholi perspective). Civilians have been herded into “refugee camps” by the Ugandan forces, so as to “better protect them”. However, these civilians have not been given the choice, and now they are forced to abandon their ancestral lands, and all their worldly belongings, to go live in impoverished – and guarded – camps. There they exist (in contrast to living) at the mercy of South Ugandan and Western aid, and suffer massive abuses at the hands of Ugandan soldiers. All the while, their “unsafe” lands are being auctioned off by the government, perpetuating the crisis beyond this generation.

The world has looked on all the while, without giving much more than lip service to the Acholi's cause. They have stood on the sidelines for many reasons, chief of which is the absence of direct national interest for any would-be helpers. There are no ressources to secure in Uganda. There is no port of interest. There is absolutely nothing in this landlocked country which could have warranted a costly intervention. Hence pressure has been limited to the pearly halls of international justice, from where condemnation is throw at Joseph Kony in the form of an international warrant for his arrest. Ironically this only harms the peace process, as Kony now knows that he can forget about any peace deal involving amnesty for him and his top commanders.

For over twenty years this difficult conflict has raged as much in the souls of Ugandans as on their lands. Anyone under 30 in Uganda has known nothing but horror for as long as they can remember. It is in this context that President Obama has ordered forth the firm hand of US benevolence, as decades of diplomacy and legal pressure have yielded nothing but time for Kony’s bush army to perfect its craft.

August 10, 2011

What’s a Little Game of Chicken among Roosters?


The current world order cannot long withstand the stresses it is suffering these days. A series of shocks has withered the entire system, which is now breaking at the seams.

The 21st century really began on September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden was successful beyond imagining when he brought down the World Trade Center towers. The knee-jerk US invasion of Afghanistan proved to be first step down the spiralling staircase that was the last decade. First Afghanistan, and then Iraq, eroded the legitimacy of Pax Americana from the standpoint of all but the American right. Those wars, and the quiet but absurd ballooning of the US security apparatus, also had the parallel effect of indebting the sole empire and financial backer of world order.

When the markets came crashing in 2008, the US lacked both capital and legitimacy. The world watched in dismay as economies everywhere came tumbling down. The European Union suffered multiple economic crises, and is still dealing with defaults from its member states. China, the spectre in the minds of American hawks, also had to 1.65 trillion to its local governments; money it is unlikely to ever regain. Simultaneously, China has expended billions – if not more – in a blue water fleet. It is churning out diesel submarines, whose primary historical purpose is not defensive, at an alarming rate. It has not one, but three aircraft carriers at various stages of development. It has also developed what it claims is an indigenous “fifth generation” stealth fighter, in a move which probably has more strategic communications relevance than strategic impact. The end result is a renewed arms race in an environment of fiscal scarcity. The world increasingly looks like a textbook example of zero-sum games.

Yet China has everything to lose from going to war (even a limited one) with the US. Its economic growth is currently tied to US markets, and it is nowhere near ready to tango with Uncle Sam. However its population is increasingly nationalist and wants China to take its place on the global pantheon. Chinese ships and aircraft have therefore aggressed foreign patrols near its territory. They have also pushed their contested claims to nearby land and waters, and done so brandishing the quiet menace of their navy, the PLAN.

The current financial crisis, engendered by the US debt ceiling debacle, could not have come at a more critical moment. The fragile economies of the world powers cannot withstand much more. Whatever remains of US legitimacy as guarantor of the Global Commons, and of a reserve currency, teeters on the edge.

In this era of uncertain futures, the US right is resurgent. The Tea Party movement clearly demonstrated its intransigence during the US Congress’ deliberations on the debt ceiling. This new Right must not grab the reins of US foreign policy at a time when the US’ greatest military threat is also the greatest holder of US debt. 2 trillion in national debt is what some would call a motive. What happens if China, which is foolishly bold and aggressive in international waters surrounding it, makes a bluff that the US calls?

May 08, 2011

The death of Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden’s death is not a great event in and of itself. What will make it great, for anyone concerned, is how it is handled. Here is a look at what has unfolded so far, and opportunity resulting from the assassination of the world’s most infamous terrorist.

Acts of Derring-Do

The US Navy’s SEAL Team Six has, overnight, become the ultimate symbol of American exceptionalism. Ten years in the making, the OBL assassination operation had everything required of great Hollywood action epics. A nation wronged. Innocents dead. Fearsome men that live in the shadows swoop to the rescue. They invade a sovereign state armed with nothing more than audacity and American steel, and the intent to avenge the American spirit, soiled and battered as it is by the aftermath of 9-11. They succeed, and young American boys now have an alternative to dreaming of becoming firefighters. In a time of impending US defense cuts, the US Navy and SOF communities are the only clear winners so far.

The US Presidential Narrative

The Obama administration has had mixed success in capitalizing on this feat of arms. On one hand, Obama has long been accused by the American Right of being weak and “conciliatory” in his foreign policy. He now has demonstrated ability in upholding the US ideal of unwavering will. The “Osama Bump”, as it has been called, has the potential to win over some US conservatives in the 2012 election. It may also prove to be a catharsis of sorts for the US, should its society choose to abandon the internal politics of fear of the last decade.

At the same time, his administration has demonstrated humility to the Arab street and to the world. Underlying all international sentiments of resentment towards the United States is the impression that with their vast wealth and power, they tend to treat matters of state with the same jingoistic bravado and flag-waving as organised sports. Obama has showed another side of the American psyche. He has buried OBL at sea to exile him from the physical world, yes, but he has done it while observing Mulsim practice as best he could, and most importantly he has been unwavering in his refusal to disseminate photographs of a beaten enemy in his lowest state. Let us remember for a moment that OBL represents everything that Americans loathe most, and President Obama has refused to be brought down to the level of Islamist terrorists who distribute photos and videos of Westerners being decapitated while in their custody. This is a clear sign that the US has learned something about imperial humility in the last decade.

However, the administration’s media-reactions in the aftermath of the OBL killing has not been so perfect. The narrative provided by the administration has shifted with the days, clearly indicating that they are fabricating events to their best ability (which is not very good). The first story heard had gallant Navy SEALS in a heroic 40 minute firefight which culminated in the killing – in self defense – of a most vile nemesis. Then came news that there was no 40 minute firefight. No, in reality there were only three people in the compound: OBL, his wife, and one follower. We also find out that only the third individual was armed. However you can rest assured, America, that this was still a just deed: rumors have it that OBL was holding his very own wife as a human shield. How base and anathema to the American way. Good riddance. But no, wait, this didn’t happen. Actually what really happened was, the SEALS on the ground had full authority to do what they did, and they chose to kill OBL, so they must have had good reasons, and the President stands behind them. With these statements, not only has the President tarnished some of his integrity in what concerns American humility, but he has also dodged responsibility for what is clearly presidential authority. No US SEAL would assassinate a man in an operation of this magnitude without express orders from the President of the United States. There are certainly a few fearsome men this day who do not appreciate this act of political swashbuckling.

Opportunities for Us

Long War advocates have suffered an ironic setback. The killing of OBL is akin to the removal of the enemy king in chess. Yet in real life, the game goes on, and peons still fight without their leader. In the current political climate, it will be harder to mobilize Western populations for renewed efforts in the Afghan war, most notably in the face of allies such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who doesnt seem to realize his power comes from our support, and the fence-sitting Pakistani government. Without OBL, there is no more underlying rationale for war. There is no more iconic symbol against which to rally. Afghanistan is just another foreign wasteland, and the Taliban is just another foreign organization of epitomized evil. There are countless others in the world, so why get involved in this one? Why squander billions?

OBL’s death may therefore result in what Canada wishes for most: An honourable end to the war. “The US got OBL, so we don’t need to be here anymore”. That narrative sidesteps the political damage which a "retreat" may invoke. It enables withdrawal to be dignified – on our terms. The death of OBL may allow us to say “We did our part, we stood by our allies, but we know when to stop burning dollars and burying men”.

March 19, 2011

Canada sends F18s to Lybian NFZ operation

We are sending six F18s and roughly 140 pers. to assist in the Lybian No Fly Zone.

To be sure, this marks a surprising shift from words to action. However the purpose of this action remains unclear to many. Military operations shouldn't be goals in and of themselves. Hence, the NFZ should not be it's own purpose. We may derive quite obviously from this that the operation, which denies Tripoli the chance to utilizing its airforce to decimate the rebel force, that our purpose is to protect the rebels. So what happens once Tripoli stops sending aircraft, and resorts to sending armored forces down the road to Benghazi?

We will face a new choice. Either we, the West, fail at our evident goal, or we commit to further operations. Some have called for a "No Drive Zone", which is a ludicrously disinginuous way to say we are commiting to the destrution or capitulation of the Tripoli regime.

Every knowledgeable general or analyst should scream in despair at these words. Does this mean we have our warplanes bomb all of Ghadaffi's forces? In accordance with the principles of war, there is no way we could conclusively affect the conditions on the ground - who wins - without having boots on the ground. That means an invasion force.

And what do we know about invasion forces, even when they win against opponents as weak as Lybia's military?  To guarantee that we "win the war", we have to also guarantee that we "win the peace", or remain behind to guarantee security during transition, and gently nudge Lybia in a conveniently democratic and liberal direction.

To underline the importance of this last statement; imagine if we had bombed the Taliban out of power, but had declined to impose our will on Kabul after the initial fight. The Taliban would have walked back in, and our investment in treasure and blood would have been likened to a brief vacation from power by the Taliban.

In Lybia, we could possibly succeed in eliminating the current regime from the air, or weakening it to the point that it can no longer return. However, even if this is the case (not a guarantee), we cannot guarantee that what comes next is not a period of anarchy which makes Kadhaffi look like a national hero, or perhaps a brutal regime making Khadaffi look like a Saint. One thing is certain, we would have no say in the matter.

To reiterate: Getting involved in "limited gains" operations when these conclude with open-ended scenarios is, in my humble opinion irresponsible policy-making. So I hope dearly that our governments have access to information which we do not, and are commiting our forces to conflict for a rational goal.

March 05, 2011

Thinking Over the Horizon About the Arab Revolts

The Arab world has been engulfed in unrest for roughly a month now. As the situation unfolds, Western positions on the matter are taking shape. Non-intervention, cautious statements, and measured efforts at protecting our assets appear to be the rule of the day.

These are the politics of status quo; attempting not to position ourselves against Arab democrats, while also not removing our support for the dictatorships they oppose. Sadly these politics of caution and care also ensure that we harm our interests in the future by priotizing the short-term.

Should dictators win the majority of these conflicts, they will be bitter that their international backers did not lend a helping hand. Worst yet, if the democrats win - and we should hope so - they will rightly feel that when push came to shove, we did not act upon our oh-so-stated ideals of human dignity and democracy.

When wars end, generals do not retire. They are voted into office. Those who fought are celebrated and lead their nations into peace. Those who were recalcitrant to fight, or worst yet were hedging their bets against their peers, are cast out of the new order. In '79 the US found itself on the wrong side of a national revolution in Iran. That guaranteed an anti-American slant to whatever came next. We do NOT want that to happen all over the Middle East. We want to actively support a side, and assist them in organizing themselves. Most notably because most of these revolutions do not have coherent structures and power centers. This power vacuum in the middle of temporarily galvanized societies means that if the West does not step in, someone else will. Do we want China to come accross as an agent of democratic change in oil producing countries? Or more likely, do we want Islamic elements of those societies (who represent the only organized civil society groups) to effectively carry the flag of the oppressed? What an ironic situation that would be.

These words are not meant to be alarmist. 2011 is not 1979, and Egypt is not Iran. But where water does not flow, air will. We cannot afford to be left out of this historic event. The Arab world is finally following in our democratic footsteps. Why on earth would we not want to be a part of this?

The cautious analysts would tell us that there is a simple answer: We do not want to shake the board on these late turns of the Great Game. We have established interests in these societies, and risking everything means, well, risking everything.

With all due respect, I oppose these opinions. Our civilization has a powerful political tradition of democratic government and human rights. These are inextricably linked to our legitimacy throughout the world. We cannot afford to be hypocrites in the eyes of those who wish to emulate our institutions. We must cheer them on, then become eager mentors as they embark on the perilous road to democracy.

February 08, 2011

Canadians fail to know why we fight

If you ask citizens on any given Canadian street the reasons for our Afghan adventure, you’ll get a depressing litany of answers. Most simply don’t know. Quite a few point to conspiracy theories about “their oil” and 9-11. Occasionally a rational answer comes, such as “to give them democracy”, or “to help the afghans.” Then there’s “to fight terrorists on their own soil”, and “because the Americans twisted our wrists.”

What is absolutely stunning is that even when you even get an answer, it’s never the same one. We are sending our sons, and some daughters, to fight without even knowing the object. Canada does not often take up arms. Before Afghanistan, not a single shot of Canadian artillery had been fired in anger since the Korean War. So what is so important enough to us in far-off central Asia for force of arms?

War-making is not unlike other political decisions. It is a combination of factors and yes, quite a bit of happenstance. Initially, we embarked on this mission because the United States was attacked. The US is our ally in NATO, a military organization which calls for an attack on one to be an attack on all. Should one of its members be attacked, all have signed an oath to partake in retaliation. It is an artefact of the Cold War, yes, but a useful, valuable and noble one at that.

Once the terrorist strikes of 2001 were deemed an act of war by another country (a point of contention for some), we were bound by international law and national honour to join our US brothers in destroying the Taliban regime. The interesting twist is the cultural and political baggage that came next. In reality, the Taliban was routed from power in a matter of weeks, by NATO air raids and paid-off Afghan warlords. So why are we still in the beleaguered “state” ten years after the fact?

The awkward truth is that no one wants to be there. There is absolutely nothing worth fighting for in Afghanistan – other than protecting our image as the most powerful military alliance in the world. No democracy has ever sprung from a situation as dire as the Afghan one. There is no state to speak of. There is no nation, no law, and no comprehension of Western “rational” governmental rule. No less importantly, there is also glaring lack of cultural affinity for democracy there. For instance, even the most technocratic organization in Afghanistan – its national military, only has marginal literacy rates. How can modern democracy thrive when its citizens cannot even read a ballot – even less a statement of political platform?

Afghanistan is a collection of “medieval” towns, valleys, tribes and religious groups located within a geographic space not even delimited by national edict. Rather, Afghanistan’s borders are the product of the fact that other countries have borders “bordering” this space. The sooner Western populations realize that Afghanistan is Asia’s Somalia, the sooner we can move the debate past the political cantrip of how can we turn it into a democracy. The work there is not to turn the Afghan state into a democracy. It’s to actually build the Afghan state. And our policy makers already know the obvious: The only way to turn Afghanistan into a modern state is the same way we did it at home. By force of arms and the will of tyrants.

Unfortunately that is not a palpable idea in the humanitarian and democratic political climate of Western states. Wouldn’t we be hypocrites if we allowed a dictatorship to rise in the place of the Taliban? Wouldn’t we be “no better than our enemies?” – The answer to that question is that there is seldom space for morals in international relations. Even those involving our precious democracies. Besides. Democracy is a flower that blooms best in its own soil. Not that of foreign “benefactors”.

So if not democracy, what?

Pride and culture. We’ve gone to war to defend our allies. But we are a democratic, “enlightened”, and very wealthy alliance. How could we bomb a poor defenceless (by our standards) country without helping them up afterwards? We simply couldn’t live with our democratic selves. Politicians know better than to tell Canadians the inconvenient reality that we went to Afghanistan because of a political contract. We have to fabricate the usual ideological tirade about humanitarian ideals and the spread of democracy. The problem is that this lie creates the need for increased commitment to the conflict.

And with every Canadian soldier who dies in combat, there is an additional reason to gamble more. Who wants to tell the army that they paid in blood for nothing? So we have to win, you see? Or at least look like we won. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, they did so with much fanfare, parades and victory speeches. But in reality their advanced imperial military was routed by a modest amount of “natives” with Enfields, Kalashnikovs, knowledge of the lay of the land, and the stubborn will to refuse being ruled by others.

So how do we do that here? How do we convince ourselves we won without even having something to win? We befuddle ourselves with mock-objectives. With bureaucratic decision-making and political grand-standing. We tell ourselves that our mission will be completed at the end of 2011. Now if it’s completed, we won, right? When bureaucracy rules, we don’t do victories. We do exit strategies.

No battle was ever won simply by sticking around until it was over. Someone has to reach into the carcass of the enemy and tear out his still-beating political heart. War is that ugly. So what war takes is what we kind, humanitarian and peaceful Canadians cannot bear: Guts and grit. It takes the will shoot someone for no better reason than the fact that he was in the way. In 2011 we will tell ourselves we weathered the storm, did all we could, pat ourselves on the back and be routed by a modest amount of “natives” with Enfields, Kalashnikovs, knowledge of the lay of the land, and the stubborn will to refuse being ruled by others.

And that’s because we didn’t obey rule number one of military strategy: Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. No Canadian citizen can tell you why we’re there because there is no reason. We are there because we went there in the first place. We don’t know what to fight for, so we’ll never win.