Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the vacuous utility of torture

Politically, and in some ways even culturally, the latest round of Academy Awards were correctly attributed.

Argo was a rare Hollywood film painting not only the United States in a respectable light, but also told an uplifting narrative of the Central Intelligence Agency actually touching something that didn’t immediately turn to dust. The cameras of course had well and truly finished rolling before the long tension between the United States and Iran intensified after the 1979 debacle.

Zero Dark Thirty was the better movie however. It wasn’t better by choice of scenery or dialog, it was better because of how the story’s subject was approached and the cultural questions it raised about the last 10 years.

The film is not a documentary, it certainly is meant for entertainment with a lot of creative license. But given the subject matter, it could quite easily have collapsed under its own weight.

The Academy chose their winner correctly because many people in the United States, and indeed, the world, are probably not quite ready to coolly look at the film’s cringingly disturbing torture scenes and decide where to place them on the cultural bookshelf.

Torture is a nasty topic for dinner conversation and many people, quite within the bounds of sanity, prefer not to discuss it in polite company. Creating a film relying heavily on the role that torture played in finding Osama bin Laden was a risky career step for director Kathryn Bigelow, but the discussions it has stirred between people makes the film an important one and she is rightly commended for her work.

Critics of the film have sided largely on one of two conclusions regarding the use of torture for intelligence: using it was either morally wrong and tactically pointless or tactically important and morally ambiguous.

Ms Bigelow’s film doesn’t necessarily depict or emphasise either end of this spectrum; hers is a collection of facts and story filmed in a stylistic pattern. Watching the film certainly will reinforce one’s preconceived ideas about torture, but these are subjective conclusions, not the objective assumption of the narrative itself.

The movie describes a semi-fictional character being tortured by semi-fictional U.S. government employees for information about an impending terror attack. The detainee eventually divulges snippets about the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers following his torture, but giving the name up not directly because of the torture. The well-known story unfolds from there.

This shows three things. First, that information gained from tortured subjects has the potential to expose real and useful information. Second, the United States was willing to use torture and expected it to work. And third, that defending or not defending torture is not the point of the film rather, the question of the utility of torture is the issue really worth raising.

What is interesting about the movie is that torture apparently led the detainee to talk about bin Laden’s courier. The patterns were pieced together over many more years by a diligent CIA employee who used multiple lines of converging evidence streams to get a clearer picture of the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts. But the original snippet from the tortured detainee is shown to have pushed the ball.

However, the torture was not directly responsible for this initial success, or at least it is not clear it is. What squeezed the information from the detainee’s head was a clever psychological game about the result of his fellow al Qaeda member’s attack. Torture was definitely used in previous scenes, and the man was clearly bedraggled and exhausted which may have oiled the gears in his mind, but the question was asked and answered using shrewd hands-off psychology.

Whether or not torture was as normal in the American intelligence community as it is depicted in the film belies the clear take-home point of torture’s medieval nature. Torture is archaic and possesses an expired usefulness. Torture has moved beyond the point of utility and irredeemably into the realm of sadism and humiliation.

Pressing the fictional man in the torture chamber to deliver information about bin Laden only serendipitously revealed the useful information. It was only realised later by the CIA analyst to be important information when other lines of evidence converged and a pattern emerged. The tortured man’s words were considered part of the rest of his gibberish at the time.

Perhaps the most important scene comes later in the film when a CIA employee digs out a manila folder said to contain details of bin Laden’s courier. The file apparently was sitting in a cabinet in someone’s office for years before it was read, suggesting the CIA’s real problem is a lack of a good filing system and the ability to actually read the information they may already possess.

Had they done this in the first place, the detainee’s ordeal may not have been necessary after all. Of course, this is fine in hindsight, but it is not clear what revelations the many hundreds of other detainees around the world might have uncovered either. Presumably these people were also tortured, but perhaps none of them knew anything of value.

Nevertheless, torture was obviously integral to the devastation of al Qaeda. Would the American’s have found bin Laden without the use of torture? Maybe. If they had eventually connected the dots, applied humane information-gathering techniques on their detainees, and some enterprising analyst had actually read the existing paperwork they might have stood a chance and retained moral superiority in the process.

But the movie depicts the successful role torture played in finding bin Laden, and this is why the film is so important. Using torture might sometimes elicit valuable information, and we must weigh this result against the ethics of our society.

Morally, many people recoil from the idea of using torture but they do this exactly because torture can be so effective. It may not work in every case, but it has been a useful tool in the past. Torture can have the desired effect of getting answers the questioner needs.

Mark Bowden, author The Finish, in a review of the movie’s torture scenes said, “We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.”

Bowden’s point is that saying torture fails goes beyond saying it is wrong. If it didn’t work, then those using it would be only inhuman and cruel. Instead, we hate torture because it works, and it is a nasty thing to do with few justifications.

We know torture works, and we know that the United States decided to use it. But as any psychology undergraduate knows, there are plenty of ways to extract information without torture, it just takes a little more cunning.

Embarrassingly, both al Qaeda and its Western enemies dipped back into the gloomy days before the enlightenment in order to fight this war. The Islamist doctrine bin Laden espoused had to have the desert sand swept off the pages before he started reciting. Bin Laden’s game was always steeped in bronze-age myths and ideology. Perhaps his conduct and eventual actions could have been interdicted before he became the Jihadist pole star.

And frustratingly, in this 21st century, the culturally and technologically much more advanced nation of America completely vindicated the ranting and raving of a zealot. Bin Laden wanted the world to see how corrupt and depraved the United States could really be. He was convinced that if the world would just open its eyes to see the West for what it really was, then his victory would be assured.

In the end, America’s endemic use of torture and precipitating abdication of the moral high-ground handed bin Laden a significant ideological triumph. It was only bin Laden’s ineptitude and the overwhelming power and resources of the United States that meant he could not press this victory.

Just as frustratingly, it is very clear the last decade did not need to emerge so broodingly and callously stained. Our advanced knowledge of human psychology and of how the brain’s chemicals interact should have been employed in place of torture. Zero Dark Thirty solidly outlined the vacuous utility of torture and, if there is any justice in the world, should help banish the tactic to the history books once and for all.

The use of torture in such a capricious and vengeful way was entirely unnecessary and Ms Bigelow's movie expertly shows why. The hunt for bin Laden might very well have been a joy to tell our children, rather than a tale for history we would prefer not to recite.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The murky world of cross-Pacific cyber espionage

It is becoming more obvious that the culpability of intrusive and thorough cyber-attacks on Western enterprises and governments lies with China.

In the secretive world of espionage Beijing is unlikely to be caught on the metaphorical security camera stealing state or business secrets like the spies of old. After all, they are probably quite capable of wiping the footage right off the cameras so no one would ever know.

Cyber espionage involves the illicit extraction of information from computers. Given the incredible Chinese economic advance over the last twenty years, and the amount of time it takes to conduct indigenous research and development projects, China’s rise to eminence may be due in a large part to their formidable army of internet spies and hackers.

This 12-storey building is alleged in a recent Mandiant report as the 
home of a Chinese military-led hacking group after the Internet security 
firm reportedly traced a host of cyber attacks to the building in 
Shanghai's northern suburb of Gaoqiao. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
On the one side, China’s conventional army of two million soldiers is probably more of a political, internal machine than an aggressive invasion force. Likewise, China’s navy and air force focus mainly on peripheral and disputed territories close to the Chinese mainland.

Some warn these military branches could soon spark serious conflict in Asia. But no one seriously believes Chinese fighter jets, missile cruisers, and artillery pose any kind of threat to world peace. Instead, China’s geographic reality predicts a mostly inward-looking military protecting the mainland.

Belligerent ships may capture the headlines of world media in the Asia-Pacific, but the real battle is raging under the sea, along thousands of miles of fibre-optic cabling connecting radically different countries throughout the world.

It is Beijing’s new military cyber wing that spreads its tentacles far beyond the motherland. This digital division is rumoured to be housed in a nondescript, white high-rise on the outskirts of Shanghai. By the looks of the building aesthetics probably don’t mean much to the “soldiers” tapping away on computers inside; their world is digital.

The army of Chinese hackers conduct daily “battle”. Breaking into and stealing digital prizes are the immediate goal for these government cyber-spies. And neither the supposedly robust U.S. State Department nor the blueprint-heavy defence contractors of Northrop Grumman, Boeing, or Raytheon are immune to concerted attacks from computerised surveillance.

But while the potential threat of cyber-espionage is very high, the spectre of full-blown cyber-warfare remains the filling of average fiction novels. Although much of an advanced culture’s infrastructure is probably accessible over an internet connection, acting aggressively to shut off electrical power to Washington or Wellington or overheat a nuclear power plant would be strategically unwise.

A 2011 document released by the Obama administration declared "…the right to use all necessary means – diplomatic, informational, military, and economic – as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests". The United States issued the stern, and frightening, warning to any country with designs on attacking America with cyber-weapons.

Recent attacks on the United States government have been suspected from China, but the American Presidential administration is so far careful not to overtly blame the Chinese government. With such enormous conventional military strength between the two Pacific powers, pushing the limits of the cyber world too far may unintentionally spill over into the world of the real.

But of course, China is not the only country with a dedicated cyber military division. The United States has created a similar force that is very hush-hush. The other “cyber powers” of the Asia-Pacific are Russia, Taiwan, North and South Korea, and Australia. All of which share the need to access the economically-critical gateway of the internet.

New Zealand’s own GCSB, of Kim Dotcom infamy, is dedicated to fighting cyber-crime and cyber espionage. Our relationship with and intelligence sharing between the United Kingdom and the United States gives both Australia and New Zealand some advantage over other Asia-Pacific countries.

What exactly goes on behind the curtain is obscure, but the United States and China are competing in a new “Cold War” of ones and zeros rather than conventional weaponry.

Chinese citizens such as businessmen, researchers, and students are encouraged to collect information during overseas travel. Without doing anything illegal, these gatherers can contribute to a huge collection of intelligence. Perhaps a deep sense of nationalism helps China’s citizens decide to pass on their information to waiting Chinese intelligence agencies or business enterprises.

After all, gaining business advantage is simple capitalism. But China takes it one step further. Their modernising military and entire government-run agencies are increasing efforts to break into all the secrets they can find in overseas computers. The United States is a major target for Chinese cyber-spies but America is by no means the only country under threat.

The internet is still the Wild West. Money can be made hand-over-fist using even marginally good ideas, just so long as they’re better than the last person’s idea. But it is also a place where it is possible to become entirely anonymous. Tracing any digital movement by computer experts can be extremely difficult.

However, even though China is suspected to conduct most penetrating cyber- attacks on Western targets, actually compiling evidence proving this is probably easier said than done. Pointing the finger is diplomatically unwise without firm proof.

In reality, the world of espionage is already murky, but cyber espionage is a morass. And the hacking game is entirely reciprocal, with American and Chinese hackers fighting a pseudo-Cold War behind the curtain to hopefully gain temporary strategic and economic advantages in a cascading effort.

Espionage can be damaging, but countries do not quickly draw swords over it. Nations supporting cyber espionage appear to be careful to stay below the threshold of what could be considered the use of force or an act of war. But the internet is still an amorphous entity and the future could well bring this digital Cold War into the unforgiving material world with even a slight stumbling misstep.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Russian meteor highlights important new energy sources

Last week’s meteor strike over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was as spectacular visually, and audibly, as it was geopolitically. The air-burst explosion tore out windows from buildings and injured close to a thousand people.

The event offers an extremely vivid reminder of not only the size of the earth, and Russia is the largest country on the planet by far, but also the enormous expanse of space.

It also highlights a quickly developing industry promising to create the world’s newest energy monopolies out of whichever nation can successfully crack the many expensive problems of putting things into orbit. Both public and private industries are joining the new space-race to develop space-based solar energy.

Space-based solar energy is in its infancy today. Obstacles are still more numerous than solutions, and various government institutions may not have the necessary funds to feed their space programs any more. Yet there is a burgeoning private industry dedicated to making space travel both affordable and profitable.

Courtesy Space X
But there are huge problems for these companies at the outset. The largest and most important is in finding a suitable way to lower the sheer cost of lifting goods and cargo into orbit. Currently the average cost to launch a single rocket into orbit is around NZ$12,000 per kilogram.

Both Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk of SpaceX, with pristine straight faces, announce to the world they’re intentions to enter into the lucrative space-tourism market. They’re rockets are meant, they say, for the carriage of people into space for pleasure.

But with projects like theirs, whichever company can significantly plummet the costs of lifting goods into space will ultimately carry away the biggest prize. Since the government-run space programs set the price so high initially, due mainly to fiscal inefficiencies, private companies have great incentives to develop affordable rocket systems.

To rectify the lift problem SpaceX, a private company operating in the United States, will test a new rocket this year that may reduce lift costs to only NZ$1200 per kilogram. Rocket systems in this cost bracket start to become affordable. And moving the equipment necessary for industrial-scale space-based solar energy gathering would be closer to being profitable.

Putting advanced solar panelling into space would be extremely efficient. The solar panel farms, if they were big enough, could transform the sun’s energy into electricity and store it in batteries or other devices. Once converted into usable energy, it could be beamed back to earth using microwave radiation and picked up by receiver stations based on land.

Not only is solar panel technology advancing steadily to both become more effective and smaller, setting these systems in space neatly sidesteps many of the most towering obstacles for land-based solar collection.

Simply enough, the one place that doesn’t need to worry about inclement weather and has no concern for daylight hours is space. The ability to have multiple solar farms orbiting the earth or stuck in geostationary orbits could potentially ensure consistent delivery of high quality energy back to earth.

Putting solar panels on earth, even in some of the brightest, hottest places around is still a poor use of otherwise useful land. Placing those systems in space removes the need to allot some of our most energy-rich landscapes to house fields of solar panels.

Of course the electrical infrastructure of cities would need to be upgraded to cope with high voltage direct current (DC) to decrease energy-loss in the current alternating current (AC) system from 50% down to 3%. But with these changes, powering our cities with space-based solar energy is certainly possible.

Diversifying away from fossil fuels and creating a truly renewable energy system will go some way in reversing climate change. Less carbon emissions can only be a good move. And opening up the last great frontier of exploration to industrial enterprise will create new revenue strains.

Courtesy American Security Project
On paper, the benefits of collecting vast amounts of sunlight are truly impressive. What radiation from the sun doesn’t strike the planet zooms off into space anyway. Putting a few orbiting racks of solar panels out there to capture the rays is smart. Yet as the Russian meteor shows, there are still some problems to monitor.

If such a meteor hit any manmade object spinning around our planet the result would be catastrophic.

All the debris would not burn up immediately in the atmosphere. Instead, as shown when China shot down one of their satellites in 2007, most of that rubble would continue to orbit the earth in entirely unpredictable paths, some of it at tremendous velocities. “Space-junk”, as it is called, already is a danger to orbiting satellites. More is added with each rocket launch.

Meteors are not uncommon either. Plenty of them are sucked into our atmosphere each day. Most of them burning up before they do any real damage.

But the importance of the spectacular meteor event is in highlighting the dangers of space. No matter how many phones or computers rely on satellites, and whether solar energy will become a new strategic energy source, unpredictable rocks could still wipe all this technology away in a flash.

The geopolitical significance of space is being increasingly recognised around the world. Advanced countries from the EU to China to Japan are each trying to establish footholds in space. And while the United States has the most comprehensive space infrastructure, other nations are quickly catching up.

And right behind them are the private companies. The potential investment returns of developing space programs are already drawing some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs to the race.

The trophy of developing affordable and profitable lift costs will open a gigantic new energy market that could seriously change the structure of geopolitics.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The curious ethnic history of Central Asian unrest

As far as powder kegs go, there are surely far more volatile regions around the world than in Central Asia. The Levant is almost entirely immolated, North Africa desolated, and South-east Asia a tinderbox. Yet sometimes it is the countries not making headlines which are the most important to monitor.

The Central Asian states, all once part of the old Soviet Union, have much to offer the world. But there is a growing and violent unrest among those calling that vast landscape home, and a pervasive feeling between observers that a spill-over of tensions is barely held back.

The geopolitical significance of Central Asia is not generally well received, but it is important nonetheless.

While Afghanistan may be forefront in the public consciousness, it is countries with comparable suffixes such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan which threaten to make headlines in the near future in very similar ways.

This is not because each of those Stans harbours expansionist dreams or recalcitrant tendencies. Rather it is their bizarre cartographical structure which threatens to touch off explosive actions. The future is bright for Central Asia if they can leverage their many valuable natural resources. It is their past which continues to cast a long shadow.

The iconic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin failed at many things but used his state powers astutely to control the historically restive Central Asian peoples. If Stalin was to focus on his more pressing concerns of Europe, he needed to ensure those south-eastern borderlands were free of trouble.  

Although he did displace a great many people, with the horrible mass deportations and culling of the educated. It was Stalin’s artificial and puzzling border divisions which cut up the remaining folk exactly where they stood, keeping them occupied with each other rather than with the Soviets. Stalin’s cartographical slicing is puzzling not because it beggars belief, but rather because the result appears remarkably puzzle-like on the map.  

Few places more closely resemble a patchwork of nations as those bordering the strategic, and rich, Fergana Valley. The diamond-shaped valley is only 22,000 square kilometres, roughly half the size of the New Zealand’s North Island. It is fed by two rivers and is a very large oasis in a sea of inhospitable mountains and steppe. Despite its beauty, nothing about the Fergana Valley is simple.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all have borders inside this valley causing regular unrest and trade disputes. Stalin broke up the valley by extending these three ethnically distinct nations directly into it so no single country could control it completely. The Russians even today retain interest in the valley and the echoes of old Soviet-era puppet governance are still heard in the aging dictators of the surrounding Stan nations.

The Fergana Valley is Central Asia’s largest market but is yet to move into the context of a post-socialist economy, although it is still an attractive destination for investors from the region and elsewhere. The world’s second largest cotton plant is based in the valley along with rail and natural gas lines.

The valley is far from any commercial-friendly waterways and a great travelling distance over rugged and sparse steppe to the closest advanced cities. Although there is growing investor interest in the valley’s energy and mineral resources, getting to them with extraction tools is easier said than done.

Population density in the Fergana Valley is on average 360 people per square kilometre. This compares with a density for all Central Asia of a mere fourteen people per square kilometres. In other words, unrest occurs largely because almost everyone living in Central Asia can be found down in the fertile mountain pastures of the Fergana Valley, while the various state capitals are located thousands of miles away over rolling high peaks.

Central control from these capitals is almost non-existent and the artificial borders separating ethnically diverse populations in the only truly fertile land for kilometres around promises to stir significant problems in the future.

The economies of the surrounding Stan countries are extremely undeveloped. Poverty is widespread among the vast resource wealth while one of the world’s least-efficient irrigation systems keeps millions of people just above subsistence levels.

And yet, with all these problems, the FerganaValley is the beating heart of Central Asia and events there affect the entire region. Both China and Russia are playing a new version of the Great Game in the region competing to develop the billions of dollars’ worth of resources in Central Asia.

Just how the region will look in a few decades is anyone’s guess, but there is every chance the map will be redrawn. The Central Asian countries are too artificial, too mingled, and too ethnically tenuous to remain as they are for long.

Only a squad of social scientists, historians and linguists could truly sketch the cultural layout of the Fergana Valley. Mixing people of Uzbek, Turkic, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz with all their unique cultural idiosyncrasies cooled the region for decades during the Soviet colonisation.

Yet today, as Central Asia’s resources become increasingly noticed by the outside world, the all-but-permanent ethnic tensions are beginning to re-emerge while potential fortunes lie scattered throughout the region.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

North Korea's clever nuclear strategy

Internationally operated detectors based in South Korea picked up a rumbling in the earth February 11 registering as a magnitude 5.0 tremor. The seismic activity was the result of a small nuclear device detonated on the North Korean side of the tense 38th parallel.

The North Koreans had been issuing warnings for a few weeks prior to the detected tremor but the event has nevertheless stirred worried activity in South Korea and Japan and caught observer nations off guard. Which is exactly what Pyongyang intended.

North Korea nuclear test site - BBC 
There are two things for certain in North Korea: that they will continue a well-rehearsed charade of appearing unpredictable by launching missiles and detonating crude nuclear devices just when it appears they will not and that when they do the West will sit up, take notice, and “strongly condemn” those unpredictable actions.

Following this latest test, which appears to be larger than Pyongyang’s previous two, the United Nations issued another toothless response denouncing North Korea’s belligerency. Once the U.N. agree on their wording, probably using copy and paste from similarly unheeded denouncements, a new resolution reflecting a high filing number will be issued.

South Korea, Japan, and China each have new leaders this year so the hermetic North Korea’s recent provocation of missile launches and nuclear experiments will themselves be useful litmus tests for the fresh heads-of-state. Pyongyang took advantage of a similar leadership transition in 2009 also by detonating nuclear devices. But pursuing a strategy of condemnation and tightening sanctions may not be the prudent step this time around.

And it is hard to know what to meaningfully do about the provocations. There is a fine line between too little pressure and too much in this situation.

The North Koreans are extremely adept at playing the rogue state but never pushing their actions too far and risk outright military intervention. Bringing war to the peninsula would be extremely unpredictable and probably existentially destructive for both of the two Koreas.

The United States and South Korea have invested great sums of money to ensure the safety of the more docile Southern division of the Korean peninsula. Thousands of U.S. troops are permanently stationed in bases close to Seoul and the Demilitarised Zone, and American warships make regular visits to the country.

However, the fact remains that North Korea’s real ‘nuclear option’ is actually their conventional force. Satellite imagery over the so-called “Demilitarised Zone” reveals one of the most heavily weaponised regions on the globe.

Demilitarised zone - Google Earth
With their conventional assets only, it has been conservatively estimated that any conflict with the North would result in almost complete destruction of Seoul. Worryingly, the two Koreas are still officially at war but apart from the occasional belligerent salvo from the North hostilities have not recommenced in decades.

North Korea’s strategy for survival is complex but rests on one key aspect. It may appear like a weak state with little resources, and their craziness is certainly a practised manoeuvre, but threatening the world with nuclear weapons is probably not the hand-wringing danger it may first appear.

To clarify, the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons is very dangerous and clearly real. The unpredictability of the regime coupled with the destructive power of these devices, crude or not, rightly keeps the international community returning to the negotiating tables.

But there is an important difference between detonating a nuclear device and actually having the capability to deliver the device to a target. Just blowing up a few bombs underground does not mean the North Koreans can level Seoul or place a device in Toyko or Los Angeles.

The December 2012 launch of a satellite by Pyongyang may indicate advancing intercontinental ballistic missile technology suitable for arming with a nuclear device. Yet the rocket test itself was messy and the satellite very soon fell out of orbit.

So even if the North possesses a reliable nuclear weapon, a dubious claim no matter how many officials confirm otherwise, mounting that weapon onto an equally unreliable rocket system would be a risky move which not even the chancy North Korean regime would be likely to make.

Rather, it is the long and winding process of attaining a nuclear device that is Pyongyang’s true goal
If North Korea truly did have a deliverable nuclear weapon, then the rhetoric from the West would be much more vitriolic and hawkish than it currently is. Removing the threat would be a very high priority, and military means would definitely be on the table.

Such a device would provide the perfect cassis belli to resolve the North Korean problem once and for all. Obviously this outcome would be very bad for Kim Jong Un and his government. Pyongyang would much prefer to continue receiving the constant flow of aid from Western nations who try to convince the rogue regime with food and money to stop its dangerous quest for nuclear weapons.

So far, this deft geopolitical dance has tamed the far more powerful Western nations, convincing them to treat North Korea as an equal on the world stage.

Why would Pyongyang want to give up such prestige by taking the foolish step of creating a deliverable and reliable nuclear weapon that would only encourage attack? At the moment, the stages of the lengthy nuclear development path are much more lucrative and politically stabilising than actually having a ready nuclear weapon.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Significant oil discovery assists Canberra's regional objectives

If the Arckaringa Basin doesn’t ring a bell, chances are it will in a few years. That’s if the reports of a truly gigantic deposit of shale oil in the South Australian outback prove accurate.

An independent study conducted by Linc Energy announced 24 January that the company’s 16 million acres of hot Australian desert could hold between 133 and 233 billion barrels of shale oil cosily sitting deep in the rocks. The new find could rival Saudi Arabia, with estimated oil reserves of 262 billion barrels and Venezuela, with 211 billion barrels.

The quality of the oil is largely uncertain but it is mostly embedded in shale, requiring the now-proven but expensive and environmentally controversial process known as fracking to free the oil.

Source: Linc Energy
Just such growing environmental concerns could place the promising find in jeopardy. Already the governmental barriers being raised have turned away foreign energy investors such as Apache Energy and Canadian-owned Bight Petroleum from conducting exploration and surveys in the country. As a result, cooling investor interest could be a major obstacle in developing the Arckaringa Basin if Canberra erects more barriers in this direction.

If all goes to plan, the Arckaringa Basin could net around 20 trillion dollars for the Australian economy. Getting into the position where the deposit can be extracted however, could be a long process costing upwards of AUD$400 million due to the remoteness and depth of the field. This raises questions about the commercial viability of developing the find.

But Australia could become a net exporter of oil if the basin comes online, and the country could soon enter the elite club of the world’s biggest energy exporters. Both the United States and Australia will likely become net energy exporters this century, a fact set to profoundly change the geopolitical landscape.

Just as important, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also launched Australia’s first National Security Strategy on 23 January. The paper has three major columns.

The first is “deterring and defeating attacks on Australia and Australia’s interest”. Here Ms Gillard will build on her predecessor Kevin Rudd’s strategy of modernising the Australian military. But with defence spending reaching criticised lows of 1.6% of GDP, Ms Gillard will face fiscal obstacles chasing this objective.

The second column emphasises Australia’s role in “understanding and being influential in the world”. Australia will increase an already significant multilateral relationship with both China and India, while signing robust security accords with Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam as part of Canberra’s own “Pacific Pivot”.

Drilling at Maglia-1, Arckaringa Basin, South Australia. Source: Linc Energy
Third, Australia’s special relationship with the United States remains a heavy feature for the future, with more than 2500 U.S. Marines rotating in and out of Australian military bases in Darwin. Closer interoperability between Australian and American military hardware will also increase as Canberra plans to purchase high-end American weaponry.

The paper is important because it was released early in an election year. The Prime Minister recently announced 14 September 2013 as the date to take the country to the polls.

Ms Gillard’s new strategy will almost certainly require an increased military budget. And, thankfully for the current government, a recent poll conducted by the Lowy Institute suggests she may have the support of Australians to do so. Apparently upwards of 40% of Australians view China as a growing regional threat and would be in favour of Australia increasing their military capabilities.

Competing militarily with greater powers such as China requires sufficient funding and long-term political willpower which so far is absent in Australia. But predicting Australia’s regional goals to be fulfilled with a shrinking defence budget is bold at best. If Ms Gillard remains in power, the planned defence budget will have to be paid for somehow and the budget markedly ramped up.

This gives some context to the importance of the Arckaringa Basin energy discovery.

If the estimates are accurate, the development cost not stratospherically high, and the profits of selling the extracted oil continue to be reasonable then Canberra could have found all the capital it needs to construct a truly mature defence posture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia’s imperative of ensuring the Strait of Malacca stays clear of belligerent obstruction so it can ship their enormous resources into the heart of the new Asian economic centre of gravity is a great motivation to develop a stronger Australian military. Canberra’s current reliance on American naval power to do this job for them cannot be assumed to be a future constant.

And, using China as bogeyman is one way to encourage Australian constituencies to support a more beefy foreign policy and agree to the need for bigger military budgets.

Most strategic plans offer the usual doomsday list of threats, to be soberly handing out to the media near election time and then quickly forgotten once the polling booths close. But while many features of Australia’s national security plan are simply forgettable, the take-home points outlined above will directly affect future events in the Asia-Pacific and will certainly be taken seriously by Australia’s allies and rivals.

They are all bound to peer closer as Australia develops gigantic energy fields and appears more and more to become this century’s “Saudi Arabia of energy”.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Special Series: Part 4 - Exploring U.S. military presence in Africa

This is a special report on the United States military involvement in Africa. The report will explore the changing militant landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, American motives for creating military bases, and a look at where and how those bases are functioning.

Part 4 outlines the use of drone technology as the rapier weapon preferred by the U.S. government, explains the importance and pervasiveness of inter-governmental military training, and collates the various African nations currently cooperating with the American military or seeing operations conducted inside their borders and in what capacity.

U.S. current and planned African military bases

United States military bases in Africa are positioned address a number of reasons, the most overt of which is housing UAVs for surveillance and interdiction efforts against Islamic militants infecting the North and West Africa. Justly or not, the employment of drone technology in warfare has changed the way military leaders approach conflict.

Alongside interdiction tasks, the United States are in Africa to monitor the rise of Chinese investment on the continent.

Drone bases will certainly become more popular over the next decade as they offer strategically larger opportunities for their operators. And it is only a matter of time before other technologically advanced countries such as China or Russia begin to use drone technology to support their own military operations. American drones have spread from the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistani northwest to the vast stretches of desolate North Africa and everything points to these weapons being used more and more.

But drones aren’t the sole focus in Africa. American military training and advisory roles are becoming more widespread on the continent as well. A number of African countries either currently have or are planning to receive U.S. Special Forces training teams to increase the competency of indigenous militaries. The main goal for these teams is for successful offloading of future and current military operations onto the local forces, removing the need for direct U.S. engagement.

One example is in Somalia. It is still fairly common knowledge that the United States is involved in the on-going, messy conflict in the Horn of Africa.

MQ-9 Reaper USAF
But Somalia isn’t the only place you can find American soldiers. The U.S. is engaged in around 26 different African countries using a special blend of spies, the diplomatic corps, Special Forces, drones, and indigenous proxy soldiers to gain better footholds in Africa. The aim is to create a region with overlapping circles of surveillance to monitor the spread of militancy and foreign interests in Africa, with an estimated 5000 U.S. troops on the continent at any one time.

To accomplish this task, Washington created a military group responsible for U.S. interests in the 53 African nations called Africa Command (AFRICOM). Headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, the command was formed in the year 2000. AFRICOM will continue to strengthen ties with regional militaries and governments by teaching military tactics, medicine and logistics, as well as combating famine, disease and terrorism in secure environments.

At present the United States appears to be focused on international terrorism in Africa, but the rise of Chinese influence in the continent is adding reasons for continued U.S. military presence. American energy and resource investments, especially in Nigeria and other West African countries, are also becoming increasingly important for Washington to protect. The United States is turning to military means as first option to secure these goals.

Some of the most active countries with U.S. cooperation include Nigeria, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and of course Niger. Even the isolated Seychelles hosts a U.S. drone base which send “hunter-killer” missions over the Indian Ocean against Somali pirate activity. The differences and similarities in characteristics for each U.S. engagement in these countries are worth exploring.


Boko Haram, Nigeria’s own Islamic militant group has come under close attention to the United States military after a surprising technical leap in the past year or so. Coming from simple improvised explosive device attacks (IED) targeting mainly Christian institutions and small government buildings or state workers, to quickly employing large, capable vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) within a few short years is suspicious to say the least.

One likely possibility explaining such a technical leap, involving many evolutionary steps, is increased cross-pollination between AQIM and Boko Haram. This cooperation is drawing U.S. surveillance flights from nearby Burkina Faso meant to assist Nigerian government forces in their efforts against the group.

This technical leap and the constant threat of violent escalation in the country are pulling Abuja and Washington closer. At the moment, U.S. troops are training Nigerian security forces to deal with the militant threat from Boko Haram. Around $US300 million of funding has been supplied to the Nigerian government to tackle the militancy as part of an AFRICOM initiative. Some reports indicate Boko Haram members may have made their way into Somalia to work with al-Shabaab members in 2009.


American drones regularly conduct surveillance flights over Somalia, launching targeted missile strikes on militant leaders suspected of belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group al-Shabaab. Drones are perfect for use over Somalia because deploying troops into the instable country risks a repeat of the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident.

At least 400 U.S. troops have been training Somali soldiers in preparation for Somalia’s transitional government’s upcoming first true test of control of the war-torn nation. Drone strikes are very common, as are the constant sound of propellers from the remotely piloted aircraft as they conduct constant surveillance over Somalia.

Earlier in January, the White House officially spoke in a report about launching concerted deadly attacks in Somalia as part of its campaign against the al-Qaeda militant group. Special operations forces are leading the push against al-Shabaab in Somalia, but the CIA also has significant presence on the ground. As well as the media-friendly drone attacks, the U.S. Navy has participated in launching guided missile strikes on militants.


Camp Lemmonier is the largest of all current U.S. military bases in Africa, operated by the U.S. AFRICOM and leased for $US38 million per year. The encampment is situated on the old French-built Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. The French Foreign Legion once used the base, who still operate in a limited form from there, but after September 11, 2001 it has been an important staging base for U.S. forces housing around 3000 military personnel including members of many U.S. Special Forces.

The name of the command operating from Camp Lemmonier is Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). Aside from being the largest in Africa, it is also the most important base for U.S. security operations outside of Afghanistan. Open-source overhead imagery has revealed UAVs inside the base and an October 2012 drone accidental crash just outside of Djibouti City confirmed the aircraft’s presence in the country. Activity on the base is high, and in February 2012, a U-28A crashed as it was returning to Camp Lemonnier killing four members of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

From this base, U.S. drones and other assets have launched strikes into nearby Yemen with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighting a prolonged internecine war against the government in Sanaa for many years. F-15 fighter-bombers also fly from the Camp, as well as Special Forces operators numbering somewhere around 300 as part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).


Small, isolated airstrips are commonly used for temporary surveillance missions throughout Africa. Ethiopian airstrips have been used in the past for drone landings and take-offs, as well as conventional turboprop aircraft, to patrol areas sensitive to security operations in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Ethiopia is working with the international forces intervening in Somalia as part of a special partnership between the United States.

A network of such small airfields provides the U.S. military with deep, but limited, ISR opportunities throughout central and northern Africa. Predator and Reaper drones, each with the ability to carry munitions, operate out of such places in Ethiopia like the Arba Minch airfield in which Washington invested millions of dollars to upgrade in 2011. Aircraft operating from the Ethiopian base have also reached out to strike targets in Yemen and Somalia.

The U.S. Navy also has a forward operating location, manned mostly by the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops, known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.

U.S. aircraft have assisted Ethiopian military engagements against al-Shabaab in the past, using AC-130 gunships operating from the Dire Dawa Ethiopian airbase in the east of the country. However, the Ethiopian government faced internal criticism during this period, and has shied away from allowing more large-scale American military presence in the country. The airfields and intelligence cooperation are likely limited in size and scope, but given their cooperative history, probably include significant clandestine assistance elsewhere.


An engineering battalion of Navy Seabees has been assigned to complete a $10 million runway upgrade at the Manda Bay Naval Base, a Kenyan military installation on the Indian Ocean. About 120 U.S. military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay, which Navy SEALs and other commandos have used as a base from which to launch raids against both Somali pirates and al-Shabaab fighters.

In addition, a small force of around 200 American soldiers is being deployed to Kenya to participate in inter-services military training this year. They will include a rapid-reaction force capable of conducting military operations independent of the Kenyan government. American combat advisors have already greatly assisted Kenyan intervention forces and the Somali transitional government in fighting the militant group al-Shabaab.


As mentioned in previous sections, a new U.S. base is reportedly in the works for positioning close to the Malian border region. The two nations signed a status-of-forces agreement recently that should pave the way for increased military cooperation, and greater legal protection for U.S. forces stationed there.

At the moment only unarmed drones will operate from the base, along with a minimum of around 300 personnel needed for maintenance of the aircraft and other tasks. The need for drone landing rights in central-north Africa is important. In classified cables stored by Wikileaks, turboprop planes already conducting signals intelligence (SIGINT) and ISR flights over northern Mali, flying out of Burkina Faso, have only had limited success. Bringing drones on station with longer flight-time capabilities and different instruments should increase the effectiveness of intelligence gathering.


A small fleet of drones flown from a few hangers in the Seychelles has been shown to effectively patrol Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula from the archipelago on the Indian Ocean. Given this range, the drones retain the ability to survey almost the entire east coast of East Africa, giving them enormous ISR vision over the day-today activities of that region.

Information released on the U.S. basing rights in the Seychelles indicates the primary mission is for monitoring the threat of Somali piracy off the coast of Africa. However, piracy in the region has decreased substantially over the past few years due to increased international security efforts, so drone surveillance missions will be needed less and less.

Maintaining those drones on the Seychelles will still be important if militancy remains an intractable problem in the Horn of Africa. MQ-9 Reaper drones flying from the island chain already strike targets in Somalia and Yemen, a mission surrounded by political secrecy, revealing that these UAVs are also occasionally armed. U.S. officials have hinted at a constellation of missions on the drone task-list, aside from counter-piracy missions.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Special Series: Part 3 - Exploring U.S. military presence in Africa

This is a special report on the United States military involvement in Africa. The report will explore the changing militant landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, American motives for creating military bases, and a look at where and how those bases are functioning.

Part 3 discusses the motives for increased United States military presence in Africa, China’s investments in the continent, African reactions to Chinese investment tactics, and Washington’s underlying strategy for countering Chinese influence in Africa.

China and Sino-African relations

It has been suggested the increasing U.S. presence in Africa is part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which by extension includes a new concentration on the continent in response to increasing Chinese presence there.

The pivot strategy itself has been criticised for its brashness in emphasising addressing a rising China, instead of underlining the positive economic outcomes of increased Pacific cooperation. In planning to increase the U.S. Navy’s Pacific warship ratio from 50 percent to 60, Beijing has, not surprisingly, interpreted this pivot as a containment of China. A conclusion not exactly rebutted in Washington.

Many Asian countries are welcoming a heightened American presence in their backyard, feeling that the past decade spent mired in the Middle East and South Asia has been somewhat of a distraction for the world’s only superpower. Old rivalries in South East and North East Asia did not magically disappear during the U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead they have simmered and grown more pronounced as each vie for greater autonomy over regions with borderlands so ambiguous that lines in the dirt do little to assuage tensions.

China has been most aggressive in the Asian world. However their growth is worldwide with many different investments in South America and Europe. But especially, and increasingly, China is moving investment to Africa.

As global demand for energy continues to rise, China is turning to Africa to secure resources and energy that could sustain China’s truly incredible economic and social evolution. China has helped many African countries improve their promising oil sectors while benefiting from advantageous trade deals as that oil heads to market. China presently receives an estimated one-third of its oil imports from Africa, even though the continent itself holds only 9-10 percent of the total world’s oil reserves.

Chinese investment in Africa for 2012 clocked in around US$180 billion according to a report in the Financial Times. China’s top five African trading partners are Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt. An estimated 800 Chinese corporations are doing business in Africa, many of which hold private enterprises working in the energy, infrastructure, and banking sectors.

The reason for this spectacular increase in Chinese direct investment is a simple one. Africa desperately needs what China is offering – money to finance infrastructure projects such as roads, ports, railroads, and telecommunications systems.

And of course, China needs what Africa has in abundance: raw material and energy supplies. Those Chinese funds landing in African coffers without any of the conditions usually associated with Western donors, makes them very attractive to African governments.

In 2010 China became the most important trading partner for Africa. Since then more than US$10 billion in debt owed to the People’s Republic of China has been forgiven from various African countries.

African governments often sing the praises of Chines investors. For instance, "China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of [Western] investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations," explains Abdoulaye Wade, former president of Senegal.

As an example of this investment, China Daily reported the China-Africa Development Fund is projected to expand to US$5 billion in the next five years, and may eventually exceed that figure.

Thus far, US$1.3 billion invested in more than 40 projects in 20 countries is expected to facilitate more than US$5 billion extra capital investment and create more than 100,000 jobs. The fund plans to invest more in "mega projects" such as transportation and harbour construction in the next five years, seeking partnerships with domestic investors for large projects.

Courtesy Commodity Discovery Fund
Specifically, the Heglig oil fields in Sudan are extremely important to Beijing, whereas the teetering political situation in Sudan is not.

The oil rich region has been plagued with unrest and even the demarcation of two separate countries in the past few years. Yet close to 60,000 barrels per day of oil is produced here, and China is the majority stakeholder. China has been willing to influence both Khartoum and Juba to ensure oil production stays online. But China’s neutrality in the conflict between the two countries is threatening their investments in the region. Getting involved in the conflict will increasingly become necessary for China if it is to protect its oil investments.

As part of a long-term interest in the war-torn country, Sudan announced January 9 that it will receive a US$1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank. The loan will bridge a fiscal gap and enhance its balance of payments. It provides a critical cash infusion for Sudan’s economy, which has struggled since South Sudan seceded in 2011 and took the majority of Sudan’s oil producing territory.

In light of all this movement, the United States is watching Chinese economic investment in Africa intently.

According to diplomatic cables publicised by Wikileaks, Chinese economic activity has been an obsession for U.S. spies and diplomats over the last few years. Niger’s capital Niamey is virtually awash with American spies keeping tabs on who’s talking to whom. One of these cables counselled that, “China is building a major portfolio in Niger’s resource sectors and will probably replace France as Niger’s top foreign investor when projects under construction are fully operational…There are no current examples of US-China collaboration in Niger.”

Overall, Chinese investment in Africa is being touted as a positive development for the continent.

The International Monetary Fund's Regional Economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa estimates growth of 5.3 percent and 5.8 percent for 2011 and 2012, respectively. And just like their American counterparts, the investment strategies are like down-payments for future opportunities, with China investing not just to benefit their own economy but to help leverage contentious political issues should they arise.

(Photo: Reuters
As written elsewhere on this site, the strategy of chequebook diplomacy is in full swing in Africa as well as in the Pacific. If China were to encounter obstacles in the United Nations, countries it has assisted economically in Africa would become ideal support for Beijing.

Yet on the negative side, China does not regularly hire local African labour in many of its investments, angering local African labour markets.

Even if those investments are private enterprises, the Chinese prefer to ship their own workers into Africa to complete the projects. While this frustrates local African labour pools, it is entirely understandable from the Chinese perspective. China is overflowing with citizens in prime working age and there simply is not enough employment back on the Chinese mainland.

Shipping young Chinese workers out to build roads, bridges, pipelines, ports, and cell-phone towers in Africa removes them from China and keeps the money flowing. The former reason is politically important for Beijing because of the historic threat that social instability brings in China with high unemployment rates.

So, coolly assessing all this, Washington feels a pressing need to include itself more overtly in Africa, and covertly. Not only to protect American enterprises already working there, but to counter the influence China is gaining on the continent.

The United States is outpaced by China in terms of trade and investment in Africa. African nations psychologically align themselves with Chinese investors because they rarely request political reform of the governments before investing. Another diplomatic cable, released in the Guardian, warned that if oil or gas is found in Kenya then, "Kenya's leadership may be tempted to move ever closer to China in an effort to shield itself from Western, and principally U.S., pressure to reform."

After the Cold War ended, American support for Africa was larger discarded. Now, with a rising China, whose investments far outweigh American contracts, the United States is slowly beginning to focus once again on the continent.

Aside from militancy and resource acquisition, Washington’s plan for a stronger military presence in Africa stems from a wish to counter Chinese influence in the region before Beijing becomes the new “imperial power” in Africa, much like the British and French before it.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Special Series: Part 2 - Exploring U.S. military presence in Africa

This is a special report on the United States military involvement in Africa. The report will explore the changing militant landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, American motives for creating military bases, and a look at where and how those bases are functioning.

Part 2 looks at the current NATO conflict in Mali as a catalyst for further U.S. military engagement, the high NATO collaboration in Mali, the build-up to the conflict itself, and how the encounter will assist the United States strategically.

The Mali and Libya context

The United States’ new drone base in Niger will be placed in the context of the medium-level conflict currently underway in Mali. Al Qaeda-affiliated militants took effective control of the northern reaches of Mali last year and advanced south through the funnel of the hourglass-shaped country at the beginning of the 2013. France decided to intervene in mid-January due to significant French mining investments in Mali and the spectre of militant expansion.

The French are worried about losing control of their former colony and receiving potentially thousands of Malian refugees fleeing into France if the conflict explodes further. Currently the French have sent combat troops, fighter aircraft, and Special Forces into northern Mali.

But Paris has not acted completely alone. American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets are supplying French ground and air units with high-quality information. The U.S. involvement in Mali is so far strictly logistical and advisory, working with the French from a distance. As far as the public knows, there are no U.S. forces currently fighting on the ground in Mali, although some deniable Special Forces teams are likely operating relaying intelligence to ISR assets in a limited role. 

U.S. refuelling aircraft are assisting French warplanes during bombing missions and U.S. transport aircraft have been reported moving French troops between bases and combat staging areas.  


As well as the Unite States, the U.K. has deployed Special Forces and other military units to the conflict to assist France’s Operation Serval. A few thousand troops from African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are also in theatre, likely shouldering most of the heavy workload.

U.S. officials involved in the Malian intervention warn the conflict could “take years” to stabilise. And as the militants fall back into classic guerrilla tactics, declining combat in the face of larger French military forces, that warning could already be coming true.

Both members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and French commanders will be well aware of recent colourful history of the insurgent campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Each took years to complete, and both have seen limited completion of original goals set by the allied troops. Each side in Mali will be preparing for the long haul in this conflict; although it is unlikely Paris will support an extended campaign with AQIM enjoying the upper-hand of superb terrain knowledge and guerrilla tactics.

Because of this, NATO is approaching the Malian conflict in a different way from their last, poorly-managed, engagement in Libya.

The 2011 war in Libya exposed how militarily limited much of the NATO countries apart from the U.S. had really become. Their air campaign was not able to self-sustain until the United States brought their air/sea assets on station to supplement to fast-depleting munitions stores of French and British warplanes.

The reason for this is clear. The U.S. military has shouldered the majority of defence spending in NATO for many decades. As a result, for European nations such as France, the U.K., and Italy to conduct air sorties and position Special Forces into Libya they had to rely on the United States for support. Originally Washington was not going to assist their NATO allies militarily in Libya, preferring to stay on the side-lines, until it became obvious that Gaddafi was not going to fall unless America intervened and completed the air campaign.

Even though the French military have shown greater competency this time around with multiple successful bombing missions launched from Chad and southern France, and have so far been able to logistically support French ground troops and Special Forces, a few operational holes are obvious. The ISR capabilities of the United States, comprising drone flights, high-altitude manned flights, signals-gathering, and satellite imagery, are far beyond Paris’ military budget. French troops are heavily reliant on American ISR platforms for intelligence in Mali.

Intelligence sharing is an important part of the NATO charter, but the United States’ abilities far outweigh their allies’ capabilities. France and Britain are unable to complement their intervention forces with their own ISR, preferring to accept U.S. assistance. So with these assets on station, beaming real-time imagery and signals intelligence to the French forces, the Americans are truly engaged in Mali, despite what officials in Washington say to the contrary.

Of course, it must be remembered that the NATO intervention in Libya’s Arab Spring uprising is a direct causal link to the spread of militancy in Mali today.

 File Photo by Reuters
After Gaddafi was killed and his army disbanded, Malian troops from nomadic Tuareg tribes, previously fighting for Gaddafi under contract, looted abandoned Libyan armouries. Those Tuareg fighters fleeing U.S.-backed rebel groups, who had set up hunter-killer groups tasked to find all ex-Gaddafi soldiers, then made a quick retreat back to Mali. Once they returned to their homeland in Mali, elements from Tuareg tribes took the opportunity to seize control of a number of northern Mali towns. Their reasoning for doing so appears to stem from a traditional and deeply ingrained nomadic desire to remove themselves from control by a central government.

The ensuing secession precipitated a coup in the southern capital Bamako, and also the sneaky arrival of an equally opportunist AQIM splinter group. Originally, the AQIM group known as Ansar Dine assisted the Tuaregs in their secessionist fight, but it soon became clear the two group’s goals were too dissimilar.

The Islamist group immediately began introducing forced Sharia law into many Tuareg villages and towns, much to the disgust of the locals, and started a campaign to destroy priceless historic artefacts and religious symbols citing Islamic law.

Once control over the secession was wrested away from the Tuareg elements, Ansar Dine and their benefactors, AQIM, along with the other major Islamic group, United Movement for Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, initiated a new drive south to begin taking other Malian towns with the goal to eventually push into Bamako itself and ensure the creation of an Islamic Sharia state.

This low-level violence only gained serious Western attention when the Islamic groups made this drive south.

The NATO Allied Command’s Civil-Military Fusion Center released a study in December 2012 making links between these Malian Islamic groups and others in the region, such as Somalia’s al Shabaab or Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

This study notes that Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and AQIM “appear to be closely coordinating”, pointing out that commanders and fighters of MUJAO and Ansar Dine have come from the ranks of AQIM.

Needless to say, the situation is a tinderbox that international troops may only be exacerbating.

The law of unintended consequences plays a formative role in Mali. What started off as a good-will mission to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering rebel groups in the east of Libya, turned into a hastily constructed, poorly thought-out, and purposefully constrained intervention. Understandably, the United States did not want to get involved on the ground in Libya and risk another quagmire in the Arab world. But not following through on a complex military and political upheaval has led to emergent dangers down the road for NATO.

In fact, the AQIM troops in Mali presently being hounded by NATO forces are many of the very ones NATO armed and supported during the Libyan civil war. And while today’s scenario was difficult, if not impossible, to predict in 2011 during the Libyan campaign NATO are essentially cleaning up a mess they helped create.

But, as the saying goes, if the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. The United States and allied countries will likely benefit from the Malian conflict.

The conflict in Mali serves U.S. interests. First, the context allows Washington to cash-in favours or deals with multiple Saharan and sub-Saharan countries. The over-played threat of a spread of destabilising Islamic extremism into more African nations is a perfect reason, Washington will say, to begin leasing rights or build new airfield and military bases in strategic areas of Africa. Already, with the recent deal signed between Niger and the United States we see this happening.

Second, it could be cynically pointed out that Africa is resource-rich. Perhaps the continent is not flowing with crude oil as in the Middle East but large quantities of uranium, timber, fresh water, gold, coal, and other precious deposits litter the continent.

Displaying willingness to help in an African time of need, as in Mali, Washington and NATO can prepare for the future when bidding-wars become the new form of combat. Many countries are already heading to Africa to develop the continent and if the United States can ensure preferred status for their private enterprises, the more the better.