Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A decline in Pacific terrorism follows worldwide trend

A bomb exploded 22 October in Poso, Indonesia, injuring three people including two traffic policemen.

Police attending this initial explosion site appear to be targets of a secondary bomb that killed two of the responding officers. A third device located nearby bore similar characteristics to the first two bombs but did not detonate.

The attacks in Poso occurred just days before an expected raid on an alleged terrorist camp in the mountains of Tamanjeka province. During the raid officers confiscated several live bombs, high explosive materials, bomb parts and bomb-making manuals in the raids

The group suspected of carrying out the bombings last week is known as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT). The group is widely considered to be the forerunner of the more well-known Indonesian terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and was added to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorist entities by the U.S. State Department in February of 2012.

Jemaah Islamiyah is the larger, more experienced, big brother organisation operating in the islands of Indonesia. They reached an activity spike in 2002 when their successful bombings in Bali killed 202 people, mostly Australian tourists.

Yet a decade later, despite their association with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda group, the Indonesian terrorists have been unable to conduct any further significant attacks against foreign citizens or interests inside or outside Indonesia.

The relatively few numbers of successful attacks by South Pacific terrorists such as JI reveal the inherent difficulties all international terrorist groups face following a concerted, decade-long disruption effort by Western governments.

The South Pacific is also speckled with difficult to reach, disparate islands in a vast archipelago spread over thousands of kilometres. Geography alone is a hugely limiting factor in the spread of transnational terrorism in the Pacific.

After the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 many governments, including Jakarta, increased pressure on such groups internally while simultaneously addressing the threat of transnational terrorism. But the lack of terrorism in the South Pacific over the past decade also reflects a broader trend amongst Islamic terrorism community, and with the overall tactic of terrorism in the modern era.

While the governments of the Western world have fed billions of dollars into fighting terrorism over the last decade, deadly attacks still slip through the expensive security nets. Some countries, Indonesia included, are simply unable to allocate many resources to fight either domestic or international terrorism, relying instead on foreign aid and counterterrorism expertise.

However, a strong economy is not a fool proof vaccine precluding rich countries from attack. Across the wide Pacific Ocean, American law enforcement often uncovers and interrupts individuals in various stages of terrorist planning.

As recently as September 15 an aspiring jihadist named Adel Daoud attempted to detonate a homemade bomb outside a Chicago bar. The device was inert and refused to explode because United States FBI agents had supplied Daoud with fake explosive material after discovering his ambitions in an online chat room.

Such “Kramer Jihadists”, so named after the bungling Seinfeld character, have been relatively common around the world since 2001. Some of these committed amateurs have succeeded in attacking their targets but government intelligence agencies are gaining competency, disrupting many conspiracies before they become operational.

The Chicago case exemplifies the shift in some terrorist tactics away from core groups such as al Qaeda towards a more grassroots, diffuse set up. Moving into this style of terrorism has lessened the likelihood for large, theatrical attacks on hardened targets but it has also increased the possibility of smaller, easier strikes on softer targets.

If these individuals meet other competent jihadist operatives instead of government officials, the potential for their conspiracies to reach fruition is still alarmingly high. Had Daoud received real explosives and blown up a crowded bar in Chicago, his amateurishness leading up to the attack would have been moot.

With the collapse in 2001 of the group led by Osama bin Laden, Islamic terrorists have struggled to inflict consistent successful attacks internationally.

The 9/11 attacks in America caused a geopolitical shift in which the United States concentrated the full weight of its resources against al Qaeda and its supporters.

What was mostly unexpected was the speed with which international terrorism was disrupted. Many of the institutions throughout the world, created to fight the international terrorists, were quickly made redundant as it became apparent the jihadist threat was not as widespread as initially assumed.

Jemaah Islamiyah was a significant terrorist organisation other Pacific countries were just waking up to after 9/11. Their motives for bombing Bali were in supposed retaliation for Australian military assistance in the U.S.-led Afghanistan campaign. Yet Jemaah Islamiyah was never able to export their members offshore to attack Australian targets inside Australian cities.

New Zealand is also involved with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan alongside the Australians and Americans and was surely on the Indonesian terrorist’s target list, yet New Zealand was not attacked either. Rather it was Jemaah Islamiyah that was broken up, no longer posing an international threat to the Pacific.

As the United States and members of the international community begin to wind up a decade-long focus on international jihadist terrorism, some have announced the end of terrorism. Yet as last week’s attacks in Indonesia demonstrate, the tactic is still favoured by regional militants and likely will continue to be a part of the international landscape for the foreseeable future.

Underlined by the Daoud arrest in the United States along with the 2007 case closer to home of groups observed in the North Island’s Ureweras, domestic terrorism will continue to be a remaining theme of general life in many countries.

Even though the al Qaeda core is marginalised and broken, the ideology of jihadism and the tactic of terrorism survive, winning new sympathisers each year. While jihadists acting inside Indonesia do not necessarily pose a geopolitical threat on anything but a regional scale, they continue to kill scores of people.

For this reason jihadists, and other people willing to use terrorism to achieve political goals, will remain a permanent fixture of the international community. It is crucial not to confuse the decline in large terrorist attacks over the decade as the harbinger of a utopian world without terrorism. That world is likely many decades away, if it will ever arrive.

Monday, 29 October 2012

What happened in Sudan last week?

An explosion ignited the Yarmouk arms factory in Khartoum just before dawn on October 23, starting a huge fire, a witness said. More explosions occurred as soldiers blocked roads and tried to contain the fire.

Sudan will file a complaint with the U.N. Security Council over what it says was an Israeli attack against the arms complex. Sudan reserves the right to strike back at Israel,” Mr Osman said, saying two citizens had been killed and that the plant had been partially destroyed.

Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Belal Osman said the explosion was a result of an attack by four military aircraft. Other witnesses in the area reportedly heard the sound of missiles during a large municipal blackout before massive explosions rocked the Sudanese capital.

Mr Osman claimed the aircraft involved in the explosions approached the plant from the east and has blamed Israel for the strike. However there are many questions surrounding the incident that point away from Israel as culprits.

The destroyed factory was suspected in 1998 of harbouring Iraqi chemical weapons that Saddam Hussain was trying to conceal from the U.N. inspectors. The Yarmouk facility is some 1800 kilometres from Israel.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the incident. Israeli defence official Amos Gilad explained to Israel's army radio that Sudan's regime is supported by Iran and serves as a conduit for Iranian weaponry funnelled into the hands of militants in the Palestinian territories. Mr Gilad referred to Sudan as “a dangerous terrorist state”.

Iran has responded to the incident itself saying, Israel's attack on Khartoum is in clear violation of international law and of Sudan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called for action to be taken against the aggression.

A number of large national players are involved in the country, all of whom are locked in a fierce covert battle rarely leaked to the world. The question is not whether explosions occurred at the arms facility in Sudan; the factory is a smouldering, cratered wreck. The question seems to be: was this incident more sinister than a simple accident?

Perhaps Israeli warplanes have undertaken an 1800 kilometre airstrike into the very heart of Sudan, but the evidence is fairly flimsy at the moment. The pictures Khartoum wish to present to the United Nations, those of supposed fragments of missiles, do not appear to be like anything what the Israeli air force would be expected to employ in an airstrike.

A flight from Israel to Khartoum would only take few hours for fast moving fighter jets. Routes ranging from as-the-crow-flies to more circuitous ones are not outside the operational capability of the Israel Defence Force (IDF). Jerusalem has shown willingness to launch long-range, complex, and successful airstrikes in the past. In 1985 Israeli aircraft bombed a Palestinian Liberation Organisation headquarters in Tunisia in ‘Operation Wooden Leg’, at an impressive distance of some 2000 kilometres from Israel.

Flying to Tunisia took Israeli aircraft through international waters over the Mediterranean. There was little reason to request passage. The Tunisia attack might have been known by the United States at the time but Israel has a long history of acting without Washington’s knowledge.

The route to Khartoum is much more difficult, passing as it inevitably would over the Egyptian-controlled Sinai or through Egypt proper. Relations between Egypt and Israel are tense following increased militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, Palestinian rocket attacks thought to be implicitly assisted by Egypt, and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s potential plan to redraft an old peace treaty with Israel.

Military flights through Egypt would not go unnoticed. Egypt has a robust, redundant surface-to-air missile system (SAM) designed specifically to deal with Israeli fast moving jets. Many of the Russian built SA-3 sites are situated near Suez. Egyptian SAM sites do not run down south of the Gulf on the coast of the Red Sea. Although many Early Warning (EW) sites hug the coast, after El-Bahr El-Ahmar older sites are all that remain and they are no longer maintained.

As for the Sinai Peninsula, a bilateral treaty between Cairo and Jerusalem has kept the peninsula largely free of military installations. As a result EW and SAM sites are virtually non-existent. Much of Egypt’s air defence is placed along the Suez Canal to defend against Israeli aircraft and is well back from the peninsula itself. But Egypt isn’t the only country Israel might choose to pass through.

Saudi Arabia, also a begrudging diplomatic friend of Israel, would need to be accounted for in any airstrike on Sudan. The emirate maintains SAM batteries in Tabuk province of both U.S. built Patriot anti-missile SAMs and anti-air HAWK SAMs each within the engagement envelope of the Gulf of Aqaba. These batteries cover the approach of any aircraft or launched missile travelling down or over the Red Sea. Saudi coastal EW sites are not as numerous as equivalent Egyptian sites, but their positions compliment Egyptian coverage.

Between the Saudi batteries and Egyptian EW sites, it would take a sophisticated electronic countermeasures team, stealthy aircraft, blind luck, or perhaps even Egyptian/Saudi complicity for Israeli aircraft to fly over the Red Sea without detection. Some commentators have suggested the possibility that attacking aircraft could fly under Egyptian or Saudi radar. Israeli F-16 fighters are capable of such manoeuvres but refuelling aircraft and escort planes probably are not capable. An airstrike conducted at such a distance as last week’s would require all three aircraft types and potentially others.

If reports of the scale of this attack are accurate, it would have taken more than a single manned or unmanned aircraft to succeed. Certainly, the sheer size of the attack profile and distance would require multiple aircraft, all of which would need to pass through, loiter above, and escape over a predetermined flight path. Israel has aerial refuelling capability and strike fighters that could be refuelled over the Red Sea before returning to base.

Sources close to the ground in Sudan report aircraft initially travelling east and leaving Sudanese airspace over the Red Sea near the Egyptian border. This indicates a direct home route back to Israel, but fails to shed light on the approach path.

If Israel was the cause of the explosions in Khartoum then their aircraft’s approach is critical. Without drastically lengthening flight paths, Egypt would have to be at least informed about the operation as it is the most likely candidate for overflight by Israeli jets. This raises the politically implications of high-level Egypt/Israel military complicity and an assurance that Egypt not informs others of their assistance.

It is possible Israel attacked the arms factory; unconfirmed rumours about previous airstrikes in Sudan against Palestinian militant operatives were blamed on Israel. In one of those strikes, according to a leaked Israeli document, a convoy of trucks was blown up in January 2009 close to the Red Sea by dozens of attack planes, escort fighters, and refuelling aircraft. Drones then assessed the damage. And in April of 2011 a car carrying a Hamas arms trafficker was destroyed by an explosion Sudan then blamed Israel for causing.

Both strikes occurred far from Khartoum near the coast. Israel has clearly shown an ability to strike targets on the periphery of Sudan but Khartoum is fully 800 kilometres further inside Sudan. Again, this extra distance is well within Israeli aircraft’s operational capability, but would probably require mid-air refuelling and multiple aircraft. The attack profile would be large and difficult to hide. Given the distance and target it is unlikely such a group of aircraft went unnoticed, yet by all accounts they were like phantoms.

The United States might have had some hand in any airstrike. The U.S. military operates out of Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the base of operations for counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa. Aircraft as large as the AC-130 gunship are believed to operate from this airbase, though most of the American presence there is thought to consist of CIA and special operations force elements.

The Pentagon certainly has the assets in place to accomplish an operation like this but as yet no one is pointing at Washington. It bears mentioning that the United States launched cruise missiles against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998 in retaliation for the terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania earlier that year. There is some precedent to airstrikes in Sudan by Israel as well as the Pentagon.

There are other reasons for doubting the given story. While Palestinian militants have increased rocket attacks on Israel in the past few months, it is unclear that arms travelling through Sudan via Egypt from Iran or China would be significantly impacted by the loss of a single arms factory in Khartoum. A simple cost/benefit calculation makes it difficult to believe Israeli military planners happily risked multiple highly-precious aircraft for a strike on a distant arms factory in Sudan.  

Sudan is a well-known transit route for illicit Iranian arms through the border crossings in Gaza destined for Palestinian militants fighting Israel. Sudan is such a crucial hub of illegal arms traffic it can be guaranteed plenty of other facilities brimming with small arms and equipment will compensate for the loss of one facility. Some of those arms would already be warehoused in Gaza and unaffected by any airstrike 1800 kilometres away in Sudan.

Also, other countries in the region are smuggling weapons into Gaza. Libya, after Gadhafi, has become a major source of heavy weapons, many of which have disappeared from weapons depots abandoned by defeated Gadhafi troops. Israel is well aware of this and in April 2011 Israeli special forces, ferried by helicopters into Sudan, ambushed and killed two high-level Hamas officials. According to intelligence, the officials were on their way to Libya to finalize a million dollar deal, financed by Iran, to buy about 800 chemical munitions from anti-Gadhafi rebels who had taken over a couple of chemical weapons depots from the pro-Gadhafi forces.

Given the regional dynamics between Iran and Israel and all the garrulous rhetoric slung over the diplomatic nets, an attack like the one in Sudan would be heavy with symbolism. Jerusalem recently released a video of a drone shot down by Israeli fighter jets that the Iranian Shiite proxy group Hezbollah was quick to claim responsibility for. The drone, said Hezbollah officials, was “Iranian made and one of many flown undetected over Israeli airspace”.

With the number of radar installations and high-tech SAM sites Israel maintains, it is difficult to believe Hezbollah’s rhetoric. But the drone shoot-down does offer another potential reason for an Israeli strike in Sudan, albeit a weak one with heavy implications.

Retaliating with a long range strike on Khartoum would send a clear message to Tehran that distances of thousands of kilometres can be crossed effortlessly by the IDF without repercussions and with complete mission success. From Israel to Khartoum is a distance placing all “known” Iranian nuclear sites within range except for Damghan in northeast Iran. This message, if Israel undertook the mission in Sudan, would be read loud and clear in Tehran. It would be an implication Israel will be happy to perpetuate regardless of complicity in the Sudan incident.

Given the nature of clandestine acts, the general fog pervading the Middle East and Israel, and the dearth of accurate witnesses and reporting of events on the ground October 23 it is unclear that Israel carried out the airstrikes it is being blamed for.

The Sudanese government are aware that Jerusalem has been behind other strikes on its soil in the past and could well be pointing the finger to garner attention. Mistakes do happen and if the explosions were a result of clumsiness on behalf of the facility workers, then it might make sense to defer blame. The evidence so far indicates a simple accident in a munitions storage yard co-opted into a political opportunity by Khartoum and blamed on Israel.  

Reporting in TIME magazine recently Richard Cochrane, a Sudan expert at Jane’s Intelligence, said “The Sudanese officials’ accounts seem a bit far-fetched. If the aircraft were supposedly radar-evading, then how did they know there were four?” Mr Cochrane outlined the current unhealthy domestic political situation in Khartoum could explain a deflection of blame towards Israel sufficiently covering up potentially embarrassing incompetence at the facility.

However, if Israel did order the attack then it represents a heightened level of operational capability and political will in a tense time. The exact nature of the arms factory was not accurately known. It could well have been a significant target worth risking hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft to destroy. If Israel indeed saw a target of opportunity this indicates actionable intelligence with significant longevity. 

Jerusalem may have had a serious reason for destroying the building but there is little evidence proving their complicity. Israeli silence on the issue is a classic political method of neither denying nor accepting responsibility. It simultaneously dampens the event and increases the deep sense of mystery Israeli intelligence services have fostered for so long.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

A disturbing return of chequebook diplomacy to the Pacific

The United States president Barack Obama is pushing what could be the biggest agreement his administration has carried forward.

The Trans Pacific Partnership, while not a significant enlargement of America’s trading relationships, would bring together many Pacific nations under a free-trade zone in much the same way as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Currently only four nations are considered members and original signatories: New Zealand, Brunei, Chile, and Singapore. However, economically large countries such as Australia, the United States, Mexico, Peru, and others are negotiating for entry.
While the agreement itself has attracted a healthy level of controversy, the geopolitical realities of the 21st Century will keep such an agreement in the spotlight. The Pacific is becoming a diplomatic battleground as chequebooks are being produced by the likes of China, Russia, and the United States.

The United States announced earlier this year that its primary focus will ‘pivot’ towards the East and onto the Pacific. With access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, whoever dominates North America will always have an interest in the Pacific region. This is why the world’s largest economy never really left the Pacific even while Washington’s focus obsessively fixated for much of the past decade with the other East, the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced her leader’s new vision for the future by scheduling an unprecedented visit to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in the Cook Islands, the country that recently succeeded New Zealand as Chair of the PIF, before attending the larger Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) held in Vladivostok, Russia.

Although the United States is the second largest donor to the many Pacific islands behind Australia, the U.S. has promised to increase their aid. Mrs Clinton’s attendance at these summits and U.S. President Barack Obama’s invigoration of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) are exemplary of America’s heightened dove-like presence in the Pacific.

There is some logic to Washington’s change in tack. The South China Sea is the world’s busiest energy highway; crude oil almost literally flows from the Middle East into the fast-growing economies of Asia. Close to 50 percent of all ocean tonnage passes through the South China Sea and it is in Washington’s interest to assure those markets continue to receive their goods.

These days, mentioning China as a comparison to Washington’s movements in the Pacific is almost cliché. Yet according to the Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute, in 2009, China gave close to US$183 million to the Pacific region south of the equator in what are termed “soft loans”.

This number includes an increase in aid to Fiji, the once dreamy holiday nation that Australia and New Zealand politically maligned after the 2006 coup. Chinese influence in the Pacific is just as inevitable as American interest. Geopolitically, Beijing’s protection of sea routes and trading partners is crucial for its economy.

Today the majority of China’s trading partners are in Asia and South America. Expanding from the claustrophobic Yellow Sea is imperative if Beijing wishes to continue their meteoric rise into the 2020s.
China is doing business with tiny also-ran Pacific nations to shore up support as a race for influence in the Pacific increases at pace.

There is little Australia and New Zealand could do about China’s growing influence in the Pacific. Without the economic heft of Beijing, Canberra and Wellington will simply have to get used to the idea that China is here to stay. China needs the Pacific Islands less than they need China, but the reciprocal benefits for Beijing are high enough to continue economic assistance.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, speaking at the Pacific Islands Forum in July, emphasised the ability of the Pacific nations to speak together as one on the world stage. Mr Key said this “gives the Pacific family a much stronger voice in global affairs”.

Mr Key’s words speak not only to the objectively rising geographic importance of the Pacific region; they also highlight how this relevance is being chased by more than one major world power. Washington’s pivot to the Pacific has been mimicked by both Russia and China as each attempt to secure access and influence over the world’s largest ocean.

Mr Key has driven a strong warming in relations between Washington and Wellington during his tenure. And while it is tempting to view these relations as countering a rising China, there are more players in the Pacific than Beijing.

Russia is returning to chequebook diplomacy in a similar way to the United States and China. Its recent targets are South of the equator in the Pacific. Although Moscow has joined the vote-buying game relatively late, it has earnestly sought to close the gap.

Russia is flush with cash mainly due to high energy market prices and is turning up the heat on small Pacific island nations. Alone each island lacks any political weight but the Pacific Islands Forum carries 16 votes in the United Nations, a very attractive prize for any nation wishing to make moves on the world stage.

The historic dynamics between Taiwan and China is a good example of the current diplomatic machinations that Russia is attempting in the Pacific. Both nations tried to outbid each other in a bidding war to buy recognition from smaller countries around the Pacific.

The breakaway Georgian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were recognised by the tiny nations of both Nauru and Tuvalu in 2009 and 2011 respectively. For their kind diplomatic relations, the two nations received massive financial assistance packages of millions of dollars.

Buying the support of sovereign nations benefits the Kremlin even though the two countries are close to bottom of the world’s most populous countries. Such purchasing of political support is expected to escalate as the strongman Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term moves into gear.

Yet Moscow still has a long way to go if it wishes to counter Washington and Beijing’s already healthy lead in the Pacific. Russia was only invited to the recent Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands as an “attending” country, rather than a “dialogue partner”. Treating it as a snub, Russia declined attendance altogether.

Yet Russia’s interests in securing votes from small Pacific nations for its own border headaches undermines the ability of the PIF to speak with a unified voice as New Zealand Prime Minster John Key emphasises as the Forum’s strong point.

This is especially true when it comes to elucidating concerns to the world around marine reserves and the growing threat of climate change. Ultimately the members of the Pacific Islands Forum, including New Zealand, are caught up in an international race for our support by much larger countries.

Perhaps the tiny Pacific islands are shrewdly playing off one power against another to leverage maximum gains. So far it has been easy to sell diplomacy for funds. When the only real resource you have is your vote, it makes sense to sell it for whatever price you can get.

But there are bigger stakes for these small, vulnerable nations. Wise heads must prevail regarding who these nations do deals with and when. Short term gains for any of the three major players in the Pacific could undermine long term, healthier partnerships. Chequebook diplomacy can be detrimental by destabilising governance and instilling corruption and arbitrary policies.

New Zealand’s example of tightening relations with the United States might not be useful for each small Pacific country, but it always pays to think about where aid money is coming from. Wellington would be well served to encourage their Pacific neighbours to move off the dangerous path of selling their support too cheaply.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Insider attacks in Afghanistan are more complex than simple betrayal

A suicide attack on Oct.13 killed two Americans and four Afghan Intelligence agency colleagues.

The attacker detonated his explosive vest as furniture was being delivered to a new intelligence office in Maruf district.

Increasing the bomber’s effectiveness, his explosives were worn underneath an Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) uniform, the attire of the fledgling intelligence agency in Afghanistan. The attack was the first instance this year of an Afghan intelligence employee, perhaps a guard, killing a member of the international coalition, Maj. Martin Crighton.

Although the target in this strike appears to have been the Afghan intelligence officers according to an Afghan official, perhaps more worryingly for on-going stability the official added that it was ‘and attack on the NDS by the NDS’.

This year has seen many similar insider attacks throughout Afghanistan. Removing the injuries caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) an enormous 33 percent of casualties in Afghanistan are the result of intentional actions committed by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The regularity of insider attacks in Afghanistan has increased over the years. There were six incidents in 2010, 15 in 2011 and 64 so far this year.

Insider attacks in Afghanistan have damaged trust between foreign troops and Afghan forces, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Oct. 1. Rasmussen added that NATO will continue to take preventative measures to avoid such attacks.

These so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks by Afghan military or security force members are killing one in three international troops. Sept. 30 marked the 2000th U.S. serviceman killed in Afghanistan; the soldier was killed during an Afghan insider attack on his patrol. Of these attacks, NATO estimates 25 percent are conducted by the Taliban insurgency while the rest are due to cultural misunderstandings and arguments.

Manuals issued to fresh Afghan troops try to temper the potential for cultural faux-pas and missteps. Some tell the recruit not to be offended if, for instance, an ISAF soldier blows his nose in front of them. Tribal and cultural feuds tend to be solved by guns rather than by rational discussion in Afghanistan.

Other common problems arise when training programs include physical pushing or other types of verbal motivation that offend Afghan recruits. The Afghan soldier views such behaviour as a personal affront to their masculinity or status and gun violence is often a way to right any perceived wrongs. Afghan security forces can often also be found intoxicated with local opiate substances even while on operations. Intoxication can lead to mistakes or miscalculations by the soldier.

An uptick in such killings could not come at a worse time for the international forces in Afghanistan. Great effort is being afforded to training the Afghan military and police force to take over responsibility of security. Both the ISAF and U.S. troops have just over two final years before the withdrawal deadline of late 2014 calls them home.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman confirmed Cabinet has agreed the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) will be withdrawn from Bamyan province in Afghanistan by the end of April 2013.

Other members of the International Security Assistance Force will also be departing in 2013.The United Kingdom announced it will withdraw thousands of British troops from Afghanistan next year, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Oct. 14.

The departure of both the U.K. and Kiwi troops from Afghanistan is not directly a reaction to the insider attacks throughout Afghanistan; the withdrawals are part of a structured plan for transition. However, both countries have experienced high relative casualty numbers in 2012. For the U.K. some were a result of insider killings.

Green on blue attacks are clearly reaching a level where something needs to change. Military commanders in Afghanistan understand each attack drives a wedge between local forces and international troops. To reduce the risk of insider attacks, Lt. Gen. James Terry issued an order Sept.16 to terminate routine operations with Afghan forces. Any joint operations will require the approval of a regional commander.

This decision was made following an unusually successful attack by insurgents on the NATO military base Camp Bastion on Sept.14, which seems to have benefited from insider assistance. The attack on Sept. 14 in Helmand province, demonstrated the insurgent’s strength in the area even after the U.S.-led surge has largely completed.

The insider attacks have more to do with inter-tribal warring than Islamism and date back well beyond even the colonial British attempts to subdue Afghanistan. Afghans are an extremely tribal people. Dealing with conflict in a culture where violence is neither abstract nor strategic and is intensely personal and familial sheds some light on why insider attacks are so common.

The concept of a nation state appears to mean little to those living in the provinces outside the Afghan capital Kabul. Tribes are more important to an Afghan individual especially when invading armies and governments consistently collapse when attempting to amalgamate the country.

It appears that after more than ten years of work, tribes and democracy are all but incompatible. An international criminal element must be considered as well. Afghanistan stokes a thriving black market of opium and black-tar Heroin which brings millions of dollars into the local economy. As is being displayed in truly grotesque fashion in Mexico and Columbia, a drug trade can encourage some of the nastiest and violent aspects of humanity.

While the ISAF forces attempt to maintain security and nurture a working government, radical Islamism, a violent drug trade, and centuries-old tribal feuds unleash terrible consequences on the Afghan populace and inevitably the ISAF troops themselves.

Insider attacks in Afghanistan have targeted all levels of the security force, from simple Afghan interpreters to ranking uniformed international military personnel. This indicates the killings may have something to do with the recruit selection process.

When Lt. Gen. James Terry announced the termination of joint patrols earlier last month, he indicated a wish to re-examine the backgrounds of all Afghan security personnel to check for potential security threats. While such an endeavour may be possible in many Western countries, Afghanistan simply does not have the requisite civil records to complete the task.

Initial background checks on current Afghan troops encountered the same problem. Much of the time a basic verbal testimony from a fellow villager was deemed enough to verify the candidate.

Ultimately, insider attacks in Afghanistan are not a clear case of simple ‘betrayal’. Such attacks are a complex storm of effects stemming from an international drug trade, a transnational insurgency, local militant groups leveraging radical Islam, and embedded cultural and tribal norms all wound up in a country with profound literacy and municipal underdevelopment.

Insider attacks will likely continue throughout the remaining scheduled deployment of international forces. The attacks do not necessarily indicate a failure in NATO strategy but are a phenomenon inherent in the Afghan way of life. International forces are dealing with this frightening aspect of war as best they can.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Troop movements offer unprecedented security benefits for Turkey

Tensions remain high along the Syria-Turkey border after several violent artillery exchanges over the past week instigated calls for restraint .from the international community.

Close to 250 tanks were deployed to locations in Turkey's Sanliurga, Mardin and Gaziantep provinces when Ankara ordered the Turkish military to be ready for a possible clash with Syrian forces, unnamed military sources said Oct. 12. Air bases in Diyarbakir and Malatya also remain on alert.

The Turkish armour deployment comes as tit for tat military exchanges in early October escalate the potential for a misstep by already nervous troops. Both governments are taking the necessary precautions to avoid dragging the region into another hot war.

But there are other subtle reasons for these military deployments. Militancy from Kurdish separatist groups in the region has been on the rise. Turkey is exploring new ways of dealing with them and Syrian bombardments might assist Ankara in this. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is positioning Turkey to capitalise on the now almost inevitable scenario of a post-al Assad government in the Syrian capital Damascus.

The Syrian-based Kurdish militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), historically Turkey’s main security threat, may become temporarily vulnerable if Syrian President Bashar al Assad falls from power. Erdogan may take advantage of any political vacuum in Syria to strike militarily at Kurdish militants residing in eastern Syria to help secure his political position in the future.

On October 4 a mortar team in northern Syria killed five members of the same Turkish family when it fired over the border into southeastern Turkey. For the first time since the Syrian conflict began in the spring of 2011, Turkey responded decisively to the barrage by launching volleys of its own artillery over the border into Syria.

Perhaps the potential for larger military operations has grown with the recent artillery exchanges between the two nations. Yet the potential for fighting has been an undercurrent in the region since at least the middle of the year as provocations between Ankara and Damascus increased.

Back in June a Syrian surface-to-air missile struck a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance jet near the Hatay province in Syria, bringing it down over the warm waters of the Mediterranean. At the time, Turkey implored its NATO allies to sanction a direct military response for the outright act of war but Brussels would not comply.

Turkey tried invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter which states that an attack on one member was to be treated as an attack on them all. Yet even as the Turkish jet was being salvaged by the Syrian navy, Turkey was politely requested to show restraint. Ankara was left with no choice but to issue just firm rhetoric towards al Assad. Ultimately Turkey appeared weak and lost crucial credibility as a military power.

Syria on the other hand treated the affair as a propaganda full-house, by intimidating the powers of NATO into backing down al Assad appeared untouchable. This time Turkey was not going to let Damascus dictate the situation. Ankara cannot hold back any longer when its citizens are being killed by forces loyal to the ebbing al Assad regime.

Whether the mortar strikes were carried out under direct instruction from Damascus or were the result of nervous border troops is unclear. The Turkish response was measured and appropriate, winning back some respect for Ankara. Both sides will want to de-escalate the situation before it quickly moves beyond control. According to an Oct. 13 Syrian Foreign Ministry statement, Syria is ready to begin direct talks to ease tensions with Turkey.

The ministry approves Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's suggestion that the best way to resolve the tension between Syria and Turkey is through direct dialogue by officials from the two countries. The amount of military events on the border area finally reached a point where Turkish armed response simply became inevitable. Neither side wishes to engage in open conflict, but neither wishes to appear weak.

Having proved its point that it will not be bombed with impunity, Turkey will begin to return to the defensive and monitor al Assad’s troops from a safe distance. Syria has warned the Turkish government to stay out of their internal war, driving this message home memorably by downing the Turkish aircraft.

Even though Ankara has not yet seen fit to intervene openly in the on-going, messy internecine Syrian upheaval, Turkey is reportedly facilitating the delivery of weaponry and supplies to the Syrian rebels. Aid for the rebels may now be increased by Turkey to draw the Syrian military away from the tensions at the border. Putting the rebels back in the firing line may theoretically alleviate pressure on Turkey while helping the rebels towards their goal of defeating the Syrian regime.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing heightened pressure domestically regarding the civil war raging to Turkey’s south.  

Erdogan received harsh criticism for his non-response to the downing of the fighter jet in June. Opposition political groups in Turkey suggest that Erdogan’s support of the Syrian rebels caused the violence to leak into Turkey fomenting the very situation in which Syrian mortars were launched.

Prime Minister Erdogan plans to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential arrangement by the end of 2012. For such a radical change to occur, the Turkish constitution must be rewritten and the draft ratified by a national referendum. Erdogan has already begun this process and plans to run for president as soon as it passes.

To achieve this Erdogan needs the support of the anti-Kurdish opposition group, the Nationalist Movement Party. Even with all the fighting over the Syrian border, as it stands, Turkey’s main threat is not belligerent Syrian troops but Kurdish militants. A negotiated settlement with the Kurdish separatists might scuttle any support he desperately needs from the National Movement Party. So Erdogan is looking for other ways to address the heightened Kurdish militancy. 

Because of the October 4 Syrian shelling of southern Turkey, the parliament in Ankara enacted a law allowing the deployment of Turkish troops to foreign countries. While Turkey has made periodic incursions into northern Iraq to engage Kurdish militants, it has not been able to strike their safe-havens in Syria.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) is a separatist armed organisation based throughout Syria, Turkey and northern Iraq. In the past, the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad addressed the Kurdish question in much the same way as Turkey: an autonomous Kurdish state is unacceptable to both governments.

But Damascus has had to pull away from this doctrine recently. Syria ceded de-facto control of its northeastern regions to Kurdish groups in July as it focused much-needed troops elsewhere to combat the uprising. If the Syrian regime crumbles, as is becoming increasingly likely, the new law outlined in Ankara could see Turkish unilateral movements into Syria against Kurdish enclaves.

Ankara is flexing its significant regional heft after a long period of adamant non-interventionist policy, but its geopolitical constraints will limit how far it goes. Moving against the Kurds is supported by much of the Arab world. However, the dynamics of Iranian-backed Iraq and Syria will dictate just how much opportunity Turkey will have to achieve this.

Nevertheless, the changing dynamics in the Levant offer Turkey an unprecedented chance to finally sort out an historical security matter for their benefit.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cancer may cut short Chavez fourth term

In downtown Caracas fireworks erupted as supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrated news of a further six years in power.

Yet Chavez’s new presidential term is plagued by the threat of cancer that no-one can confirm is in complete remission.

President Chavez won re-election as president, according to official results from Venezuela's National Electoral Council on Oct. 7.

The results ended speculation that his rival Henrique Capriles Radonski may have led by over 1 million votes.
Chavez won 54.4 percent of the vote to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski's 44.9 percent.

Estimates of voter participation indicate just how important this election was for Venezuelans. Around 81 percent of the nearly 19 million registered voters went to the polls this week.

Claims of election fraud are expected but the voting system in Venezuela is contemporary enough that counterfeiting would be difficult to hide.

For a while, a break in the decade-long Venezuelan presidential normalcy looked set to arrive.

Henrique Capriles Radonski greeted the Venezuelan people following the election results.

Capriles congratulated President Hugo Chavez saying he is convinced Venezuela can be better and that it will be better, encouraging his followers not to feel defeated.

Mr Capriles, the 40 year old lawyer from Miranda state, coalesced and excited the disparate Venezuelan opposition.

He led a nation-wide campaign to reinvigorate the opposition, even going door-to-door in some areas stirring up support.

A strong selling point for his campaign was the power outages, food shortages, and skyrocketing murder rate. Although Chavez’s support base remains strong, many Venezuelans blame the president’s social direction for the dysfunctions.

President Hugo Chavez has maintained power in Caracas for nearly 14 years, surviving both a rough economic patch and an attempted coup in 2002.

Chavez managed the Venezuelan economy on a somewhat ad-hoc basis leading to gross inefficiencies.

Roads and bridges are quite literally falling apart and prisons are apparently grossly overcrowded and full of armed gangs.

The president came to power promising to spread the wealth and address the country’s poor. Riding a wave of popular support, Chavez overturned the elite and organised an inner circle of trusted officials.

The Venezuelan elite did not take kindly to Chavez’s reforms.

A coup attempt in 2002 orchestrated by the Petroleos de Venezuela Oil Company offered Chavez the chance to take control of the country in unprecedented ways and crippled the national oil company.

However, Chavez’s reign expanded Venezuela’s international influence significantly, especially in Central America.

Nicaragua and Ecuador have benefited from Venezuelan oil exports, while Argentina trades willingly and the two country’s relationships have improved.

It is Chavez’s resistance to a perceived United State’s global domination which truly colours his international reputation.

Suspicious of U.S. involvement in the 2002 coup, Chavez repositioned Venezuela away from the United States, cobbling together strange relationships with other anti-U.S. countries.

This has been the toughest election for the leftist Chavez in his long tenure. A strong support base has confirmed a fourth term but things are clearly changing for Venezuela.

Chavez enters his fourth term as President under a cloud of poor health.

The 57-year-old said earlier this year that he had recovered from cancer, although the exact nature of the disease has never been revealed.

The president was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and rumours of his illness have subsided in the lead-up to the October elections, however there are no reliable sources indicating his cancer is in remission.

Chavez’s health concerns make it unlikely he will complete this new term.

A revision in 2009 of the country’s constitution lays out the president of the National Assembly as the immediate successor. Snap elections would then be called within 30 days.

For the first time in over a decade the opposition is united behind a figurehead like Capriles. Regardless of whether Chavez won fairly, a serious reaction can be expected from Capriles supporters.

If Chavez dies during this next term Capriles may have a second chance to gain power.