Monday, 30 April 2012

Boko Haram's constraints in Nigeria

Gunmen shot and killed at least five people, including a pastor, at a Church of Christ in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on April 29, AP reported. A police spokesman confirmed the attack. Also on April 29, eight people were killed and 11 were injured by explosions and a gun attack during a church service in a theatre at a Kano, Nigeria, university, Al Jazeera reported. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, a police officer said.

On April 26, two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) exploded in the offices of several Nigerian news agencies located in Abuja and Kaduna. 

The first explosion took place around 11:30 a.m. when a suicide bomber reportedly drove a vehicle into the main compound of a This Day newspaper office in Abuja, killing at least three people. 

The second explosion took place near a compound in Kaduna that houses offices of The Sun, The Moment and This Day newspapers, killing several bystanders. The combined casualty estimates for the attacks reach as high as 37 dead and 100 injured.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, which regularly downplays the casualty figures of militant strikes, has condemned the attacks suspected to have been carried out by militant Islamist group Boko Haram who claimed responsibility. Jonathan indicated that his government would “exploit every means possible” to find a solution to the violence.  

Currently President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, holds power in Abuja and relieved Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, a Muslim, who died in May 2010. Because of the religious division, the country’s politics mean the dominant religions must alternate tenures. During the presidency of a Muslim, a Christian must serve as vice-president. 

Part of the reason for the uptick in militant attacks by Boko Haram and other groups from the north in the past few years is that Jonathan’s succession essentially placed a Christian in Abuja for two consecutive terms. 

Yar’Adua was in power for less than two years when Jonathan ascended. Boko Haram gained notoriety in 2007 with a series of attacks on civilians in Maiduguri, the capital of the north-western Borno state. Since then the group, whose stated goal is to establish Sharia in all of Nigeria, has conducted successful attacks on banks, churches, mosques and government facilities in the country’s northern regions.

Jonathan’s government has been cracking down on the Islamist group since the particularly bloody attack January 20 in Kano. Security measures at popular sites such as hotels and embassies have been tightened from either Nigerian government recommendations or external intelligence. 

As a result, the extra security could have forced the militants to attack relatively soft targets as they were unable to target hotels or embassies. Hardening a target through by swelling security personnel, increasing standoff distances to the target and positioning obstacles has been shown to deter militants in other high-threat areas.

The VBIEDs in Abuja and Kaduna appear to have defeated whatever hardening the targets had. No amount of security will insulate a target from every attack, especially when simple human error can magnify an attack’s effectiveness. But Boko Haram appears to be increasing their level of sophistication in penetrating and performing successful terrorist acts.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

Boko Haram had been conducting relatively simple grenade and primitive IED attacks as part of its militancy until about a year ago. They are dominant militant group in northern Nigeria, and in the past five years has been attempting to expand beyond its core area of activity in the country's northeast. 

Their area of operations however, seem to extend only through to the capital Abuja, located in the centre of the country. The group’s operational capabilities have been simple until they managed to detonate reasonable-sized VBIEDs in June and August of 2011. This operational jump potentially indicates external assistance and the addition of experienced militants from outside the region.

Boko Haram as a group is looking to introduce and maintain a version of Sharia law in Nigeria and have carried out a start-stop militant campaign to achieve this. The ethno-sectarian divide between the majority Muslim north and Christian south, compounding existing differences between geographically separate tribes, has led the group to try to conduct attacks outside of its northern core.

The potential for Boko Haram to evolve into a transnational militant group has been a concern for western governments. The increase in sophistication of their attacks does point to a focusing of target choice and a willingness to carry out more effective attacks. However, their ability to carry out militancy outside of Nigeria is constrained by their local ideology, primary goals and from rival groups.

Growing resentment towards Boko Haram in the northern Nigerian states has made support difficult for the group, giving Abuja an opening to coordinate with the local leaders to counter the group’s influence there. And as long as Boko Haram struggle to operationally expand from, and continue to conduct attacks in, north and north-western Nigeria, their support base will constrict as the local Muslim populace feel the brunt of the militancy.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

On Dying and Getting Old

I had a thought today: what if this is as good as it’s going to get for me in this life?

I don’t really want to be comparing myself with anyone else’s life, otherwise things could get ridiculous. But I noticed while sitting there on the blue couch thinking about my life so far, the things that have gone wrong or turned out badly do seem to be outweighed by those that went right. I can’t explain what exactly was either ‘right’ or ’wrong’ about these things, I just know at that seated moment, and generally, the balance seems to tip in favour of the good.

I sit here now and it’s quiet. The rain and wind have stopped, I can hear crickets chirping outside below my window and going about their life-cycles without care for my churning thoughts. I’m pretty sure I can still hear a cicada in the distance, even though it’s ten o’clock and hasn’t been light for a few hours now. Maybe I’m just hearing them in my head; they have been rather loud today. I’ve just had a shower and am nursing some fairly good blisters after a satisfying soccer game. And as I wait to fall asleep and dream the kind of cool dreams I’m used to now, I can’t really understand how so many people seem to be haunted by horrific dreaming, I truly am sorry for them. In the morning I’ll awake to begin another week of a great job that I’m pretty happy with. It’s not my dream job, but I’m pretty sure it’s keeping me sane.

Which is why I was really surprised when I was hit again by some disturbing thoughts about life. These do seem to come and go with some regularity. Some weeks I can go without thinking about the big issues, while in other weeks I can’t seem to stop the flow. I correlate it with being tired. That usually brings my confused thoughts to the surface for attention.

You know it’s weird, thinking about getting old and dying. I don’t think anyone wants to get old to the point where they’re just waiting for death. I mean, I guess they know they’re getting old and everything, it’s not like it has just snuck up on them. One minute you’re 18 the next you’re 80. I would say though that we don’t really expect things to change the way they do. Maybe they’re resigned to it, who knows. I know it’s coming, but all I can see and feel right now is how things appear to a young man with little life experience.

For me, as someone without supernatural belief especially, these questions are hard. But I presume it’s hard for everyone, regardless of what you believe. I’ve made a conscious decision to learn as much about this world and universe as possible. I don’t expect to be involved in anything special in my life; I don’t expect to help very many people overcome problems or work through different strife; I can’t really see myself changing anything worthy; and there’s not too many influential people I know nor even am I exposed to extraordinary events. And as much as Disney would have me believe, I can’t do anything I want. My life ambitions are constrained by forces outside of my control, and there’s really no point in despairing over this fact. I think getting on with living and doing whatever I feel interests has to be the best recourse.

I am in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment I think. Ever since I began to discover the world wasn’t the way I’d always been told, and the framework began to come down, things have been different. My goals changed. I’ve become more interested in learning; it’s an almost unquenchable thirst to discover. I won’t say this’s only just happened. I do feel I was definitely brought up that way. What I will say though is that there’s been a definite drive to find out more about the world, whatever form that takes, be that experience, book, films, discussion, etc. Yet for all that, I’m not convinced this is a good thing to be spending the majority of my time doing.

Given that I just said, like a hundred words before, that I’m under no illusion that my life will be significant, I can’t help but feel it might be worth giving it a try. I don’t mean striving for grandeur; I’m referring to actually getting better at something and making the world a better place for those coming after me. Just like all those people I talk and listen to say, it’s not about what you can do for yourself, you’ve got to think about the children. What if they come into a world and want to learn and discover all the things you so enjoy now? Wouldn’t it be great if you could add just a little bit more for them to discover and write a few more pages of knowledge?

Yes, I do think that would be a good thing. But somehow, sometimes, it all feels so pathetic. Just stepping back and actually looking at the things I’m doing with cold rationality doesn’t help the old optimism. All this knowledge I’m gaining about the world is just sitting inside my head. Sometimes I put it on paper and into words while sometimes I even discuss things with other people. But ultimately it just sits there, all but useless, in my skull.

Sure a lot of it helps me get through life in various measures. My interest in geopolitics helps me understand the world and people and keeps me from falling into dangerous thought-traps and conspiracies. My love of intelligence and the world of espionage have real application to seeing geopolitics in a deeper light and it actually gives me useful skills in my day-to-day existence. Be that walking the streets or talking to people. I live my life as if I were a spy. I don’t do anything that brings unwanted attention to me and I make sure I understand the situation fully before beginning any action. Purpose, response. I can’t think of any situation in life where the skills I’ve come to really enjoy practising wouldn’t be useful.

I have a deep appreciation of science and some key scientific discoveries. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to wrap my head around difficult scientific subjects and disciplines. I can safely say I am not ignorant of science. So much if it is important, and I’ve come to realise this more and more as I look at some of the other people I know. I feel that one can’t have a very deep understanding of the world if one doesn’t understand how science works or what it’s discovered. We can be so prone to reversion to primal instincts and emotions that being able to understand biological and evolutionary reasons for human actions can make you feel so powerful and in control of your own life. It really is like nothing else.

My experience of this world is broken down into very distinct parts. I live in New Zealand. This means I’m about as far away logistically from most of the major human centres of this world. I don’t know if this bothers me very much as communications are pretty awesome and getting better by the day. Sure, I’d like to see more of the world, but living in New Zealand isn’t really all that bad.

I’m a male. This gives me pretty good access to a lot of things. More so than my female counterparts unfortunately. I’m in a privileged position being white also. The history of humans is disgustingly full of terrible stories of racial division.

But all this knowledge bothers me. I know I’m not nearly finished with finding things out. I know things about some topics. Then there’s stuff I know nothing about. And stuff I know about, but only in parts. And then there’s the stuff I don’t know that I don’t know. In fact I remember a scene from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where he’s in the US National Library or something. He’s standing in front of a shelf of books 12 feet high, the camera can barely fit him and all the books into the frame. He’s telling us about the average amount of books a person can read in a year and the camera pans about as he measures them out with his arms. Carl looks at the camera telling us to extrapolate that out to the maximum amount of books read in an average lifetime. He begins to walk along the hallway measuring this length out. It begins to look impressive. The viewer is exposed to hundreds of books as the camera follows him. You can still see Carl quite clearly as he explains that it would be great feat to read that much and absorb all this information in a lifetime.

Then he does a clever thing, and something that has always stuck with me. He says that this information is a drop in the bucket of current human knowledge. He says this as he laments that all the knowledge he could possibly gain wouldn’t come close to representing all the possible knowledge he could gain, given the requisite time. The camera begins to zoom out as he says these words and you realise that the library is enormous. There’s got to be millions of books lined up on seemingly endless high shelves as Carl himself gets get smaller and smaller in the foreground. Suddenly the great volume of information he said an average human could read in a lifetime doesn’t look all that impressive. And a deep sense of futility and urgency hits me.

This scares me, but why? I mean, I know I won’t be able to read everything I want to and get access to every piece of information to fit all the puzzle pieces together. I’m well aware of the limitations in both my intelligence and time on this planet. I didn’t really need Carl to point that out for me. No, what scares me about all those books is probably the futility of reading even one of them, let alone all of them.

I don’t think this makes me a nihilist to figure no amount of reading will have an ultimate purpose. In fact presuming an ultimate purpose even exists is a bit of a stretch. But this is what bothers me so much. If I’m just going to die in another 80 years (hopefully, I’m 24 now, so I have my hopes and doubts about this lifespan) or maybe I’ll die in the next few days, then what does all this knowledge I’m dedicating my life to attaining really worth? Should I even be asking about something’s worth as if it were inherent? Why would worrying about it even be “worth” my time at all?

It’s worse than that though. Not only will I perish and fall into oblivion when I die. My cells will break down into their constituent star-stuff and sink into the planet erasing eventually even the memory of the evidence of my existence. Outside of me, those things that seem at least more permanent like the city I live in, or the culture, or even the species I’m a part of will all eventually fall apart in much the same way as my body. One day, the memory of even the existence of humans will be gone from this earth. Even the planet upon which all of this stuff happens will one day disintegrate until that word ‘disintegrate’ no longer means anything. There will simply be an end to anything that could remotely point to my existence. It will be as if I were an unborn baby. All this will be as if no words to even describe that words will eventually break down have even existed. The destruction will be ultimate, complete, permanent and utter. The universe will be bereft of something it probably doesn’t even know it has.

But the universe, if I can even address it as though it were a thing to be described (such arrogance in the light of utter eventual destruction of the describer), cares not a jot. From the little I know about this universe, I can fairly safely assume that this destruction has happened before, somewhere, some-when, long ago. We humans can’t possibly discover the tales of other suburbs of distant solar systems long since perished. Even now as I sit here typing to the quiet chirping of my neighbourhood crickets there’s probably many great galactic systems perishing, blown to the far reaches of the universe as we will be.

I’m more than a little worried about all this. But I’m not even sure something this complete or inevitable is worth worrying over. Surely more pressing needs deserve my worry, like finding food, water and a partner. Spending my short life with as much happiness an upright ape can attain should really be the goal. And so it is for all of us, I think. Simple, easy, evolutionarily accurate desires and worries should focus the majority of my time, not this existential bullshit. But still, it floats to the surface, and I can’t push it down. Like an itchy, annoying hair that just won’t cooperate this worry stands to attention and calls out to be noticed. So I give it a scratch, this annoying hair.

I do worry about being old and dying. I’ve seen terrible things like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia attack people who once were just like me. They were dancing, laughing, running, falling, reading, watching, thinking and loving; and now just a shell of their former selves. It breaks my heart to think that my own parents may one day have to ask for my name again. In that moment it will be as if I have never existed to them, and I really don’t know what I’m going to do at that point. I think I’ll cry, I think I’ll cry long and deeply. I will know then what it will be like to not exist. I’m extremely frightened about meeting that moment.

I can console myself in my understanding of the end of life. I have no reason to fear the time before I were born, so why should I fear the time following my death? In fact, ‘time’ in this sense doesn’t seem to fit at all. There is no time once death reaches me. Time is in the human mind, without the mind there is no time. Sure, the world will probably keep spinning around that ordinary binary star and some forms of life will evolve and live on this clump of rock for a little while longer, it means nothing to me. Yet to continue living amongst people who should care the most but can’t remember a thing about me is as close to being dead as I ever want to be. Losing one’s mind through old age is a terrible thing but I think it’s somehow worse for those people around the sufferer. After all, I’ve no reason to think that after some point the patient doesn’t even know they’re losing their mind, it’s just happening and steadily getting worse and worse. The people around them notice and it probably affects them more. I really don’t know how I’m going to cope if I’m forgotten by my parents.

But what if that happens to me? What if I lose my mind? All this knowledge and all this learning will have been for nothing. I don’t really know why learning or gaining knowledge should be “for something” but for me it is, it’s something that drives me to wake up in the morning. To know more tomorrow than I do today is a great motivating factor, and something I live by.

It doesn’t help that all this knowledge leads me ironically to explore issues like this. Without knowing about the history of the universe I doubt I would ever have felt the feelings I do now. A mix of elation, fascination and terror is probably the best way to describe it. Ignorance, I guess, really is bliss.

All this knowledge, this entire discovery, all this understanding will be gone. I can’t store it to use later. I can’t use it for very long. 80 or 90 years is miniscule and I can’t come back to try again and start where I left off. No amount of knowledge will save me from this inevitable oblivion and whatever bliss I gain from it is simply going to dissipate as my synapses collapse when I’m buried in the ground. Even if I try to spend my life doing things with the urgency that inevitable death gives me, I feel that even the best experience of life is useless or even futile. I don’t think even considering usefulness as a reason to do anything really changes things. Go and help the poor and the hungry every waking moment of your life, discover as much as you can about how the world works for future generations, enjoy life in the most hedonistic way possible or destroy everything you can possibly find and it doesn’t seem to matter or change anything.  

Why should this bother me if I know that asking the question “why” is meaningless? Don’t we do things because we want to, not for some ultimate purpose? Well, because I can’t really be satisfied with that conclusion. I want to be able to live my life as an ape and enjoy it as much as my brain can make me. I want to feel like when I look back that I enjoyed myself. But this brief blink of time will then be gone. There will be no looking back after a certain moment, and no looking forward. In fact there won’t even be a present. Whatever I am made of now will then be gone. All that went into my life, whether I eventually make a difference in someone else’s existence or I discover extraordinary things about this cool universe will be gone. For me they will be gone. If I sit on my arse right now and don’t move a muscle for the rest of my miserable life I will still be gone, just as surely as if I were to do all the cool things possible.

The option or offer of living forever is just as terrible in retrospect and closer examination. For the exact same reasons, I wouldn’t want to do anything for eternity, no matter how awesome it was. Perishing and not remembering anything is more desirable, a bizarre desire. As hard as that is to say.

So what the hell do I do now?

I don’t have the answer to that as the years keep on rolling in. They do say you have to find something you like to do and that doesn’t feel like a chore and stick with it. Give it as much time as possible, regardless of how pathetically futile it might be. I like this idea, because doing something I love feels important at the time. Doing something I love and being able to help other people with the thing I love seems to speak to the evolutionary part of my history, then again, pretty much everything can be explained in such terms. So I know why I’m happy doing what I love. I think I’ll get busy doing things I enjoy and giving the middle finger to the void. I can’t stop it coming, I can’t cease the feelings of futility all the time; I can’t even seem to convince myself that I can continue. But I think I will, just because there’s no real reason to speed up the onset of oblivion is there? It’s gonna come and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’m going to do the things I want to do in full realisation of the destruction and staring directly into the cold gaping eternal hole of the never ending days of being dead. And I’m going to try to love every moment of it. After all, it’s really been only the last hundred years or so that people could “do whatever made them feel good”. Before that it was more simple, a hand-to-mouth existence for most humans. I know how lucky I am even to have the chance and discover the things I want to do. I won’t talk of wasting life or wasting time. I see no reason to be mournful of time lost doing stupid things. Your whole life is made up of a series of stupid things done for different reasons; I guess we just convince ourselves that they aren’t stupid things. Who cares if you melt your brain watching TV or playing video games? Who cares if you build your brain reading books or taking part in discussion? Who cares if you smash your bones careening downhill on a scooter or waste yourself having awesome and satisfying sex with hot strangers? Do what you will with your time, who am I to tell you what it is that makes you excited?

No, I’m sure that cicada is just a remnant from my tired brain, an echo from my long day. And I think I can hear the gentle rain returning again. That’ll be nice to go to sleep with.

I want to see what happens in the next hundred years on this planet. I’d love to be around to see if they figure out what this Dark Matter really is. It would be amazing to be drawing breath when they announce discovery of life on other planets or in space somewhere. There’s really no way I’m going to be able to see any of that, at least, not with the way things are going. We’re still fighting over ridiculous things, but the trend for human history does seem to be going in a positive direction. Things are looking better. But imagine if they were better a thousand years ago. I could have seen all the things I just listed. But I guess I’d just be yearning for new discoveries in that case.

I’m not going to be here for ever. I’m not even going to be here for a decent amount of time. I think I’m ok with that though. It’s a mixture, a problem I’ll never get over. The futility and uselessness of a small planet lost in the far reaches of a swirling galaxy temporarily housing a worried keyboard tapper is a picture that will trouble me forever. I’ll not worry too much about this futility; it has the potential to really slow up my slithering. And like I said, I know it’s a bit weird to want to carry on, but I do think looking forward and outward is better than sitting and waiting for the inevitable void to take me back.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Pakistan's long-term balance with ISAF

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said Pakistan and the United States should consider building a framework for an agreeable alternative to US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes, according to a presidential spokesman, Xinhua reported April 27.

Mr Zaradari spoke during a meeting with US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman. Mr Zardari said Pakistan is committed to assisting with the international presence in Afghanistan but that the economic cost should be a shared burden. The countries need increased counterterrorism cooperation but the Coalition Support Fund reimbursements need to be addressed quickly, Mr Zardari said.
Pakistan has clearly stated it wants an end to unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, but Washington has paid no heed, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said April 25, Reuters reported April 26. Ms Khar said she hopes Washington's listening will improve. She said that other methods to combat militants in border regions must be considered, and alternatives need to be found to methods whose cost is far too high.

US forces continue to use UAV strikes in Pakistan to combat various violent Islamic groups despite the airstrike’s high unpopularity among the Pakistani civilians and within the government. US-Pakistan relations have been at their lowest since the November attack on the Salala outpost in northwest Pakistan, which killed 24 Pakistani troops.

While the US has issued formal apologies, they have come up sort of actually taking full responsibility for the displayed aggression, saying instead the attack was made in self-defence. Pakistan responded to the attack by once more closing the supply route into Afghanistan and calling for an immediate cessation of UAV flights from their air bases. The supply route has not yet re-opened.

As the ISAF and United States forces enter the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan, the pressure to make this season militarily successful is enormous. US troops are scheduled to begin the long process of withdrawal at the beginning of 2013 (completion late 2014) and the remnants of the recent “surge” will only bolster troop numbers until then. US commanders must use what little time they have left to secure volatile regions in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Islamabad understands the coalition timetable very well. Regionally, Pakistan holds significant influence in Afghanistan and Pakistani military intelligence agency ISI has had a lot to do in the country.

Part of the current tension between the US and Pakistan is a result of the long suspected collusion of the Pakistani intelligence community and the transnational jihadists in the region, such as the Haqqani network and Taliban. Where Pakistan sees a difference between groups of Taliban, the US prefers to lump them together and conduct strikes accordingly.

Each group being just as responsible for insurgent attacks as the other. In Pakistan’s eyes there are the “good” Taliban and the “bad” Taliban. The good Taliban receive training in Pakistan and attack ISAF and Afghanistan targets, while the bad sneak around inside Pakistan and stir up trouble.

For instance, a bomb exploded at Lahore Railway Station on April 24, killing two people and injuring at least 27 others, a Lahore police spokesman said, Dawn News reported. The bomb, which contained 5-6 kilograms of explosive material, was not a suicide attack, the spokesman said.

On the same day, bomb disposal experts defused an improvised explosive device (IED) found in a bag aboard Peshawar-bound Awam Express at the Attock railway station, Geo News reported. Police sources said the 20-kilogram bomb was planted on the passenger train.

Incidents like this are what Islamabad has to reckon with, and expect, as it assists groups of Taliban inside Pakistan. The spill-over effect has so far been manageable since 2004 when Pakistani military operations began in the region.
The wild north-east of Pakistan has been both a thorn and a convenience for Islamabad. Once the ISAF troops depart Afghanistan and the last divisions of US troops leave for their homes, the Pakistanis are preparing to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan. No other country in the region has the potential for influence over the history and future of the Afghan government.

In differentiating the Taliban into these sections, very simply, it gives Islamabad a useful crowd it can legitimately support in Afghanistan politics as the Western coalitions leave. From there it can better pull the strings of any resident Afghan government while extending its influence further west into Central Asia.

Pakistan must be seen to be acting against the highly unpopular UAV strikes along its border region because the people that live there will still be Pakistan’s problem once ISAF departs. Having a disgruntled population, and close to half a million people live in Waziristan alone, could be a simmering insurrection for Islamabad.

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said April 19 that thousands of Pakistani citizens have died from terrorist attacks executed by terror groups in such safe haven zones, and said the United States plans to press Pakistan to take action in those areas.

An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official responded to Mr Crocker's comments with concern and said the Pakistani intelligence community was not involved in the attacks. But this is not the full story. Pakistan’s ISI needs to keep a close relationship with amorphous Islamic groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the area, which will inevitably lead to cooperation, resulting ultimately in ISI-funded attacks against ISAF troops. Pakistan cannot escape this logic unless it cuts support for the jihadist groups.

This has been the friction for US-Pakistan relations for a number of years as both feel the other is playing a double game. Islamabad fears the US-India relationship, but Washington needs to balance the coming Pakistani influence in Afghanistan with another strong country.

India is the obvious choice. American UAV bases in Pakistan air fields and their strikes are only the most visible diplomatic fighting ground, and they do have immediate repercussions, but the real battle is for who gets what when the US coalition decides they have had enough of the Afghan war.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Israel says other nations ready for strike against Iran

Israel and other countries have prepared their armed forces for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear sites, Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said April 26, AP reported. Gantz did not specify which nations are prepared, but he said that they are ready. Israel hopes there is no need to use force, Gantz added.

Given the rank of the officer dictating these remarks, it would be worth gauging any meaning beyond rhetoric. While it is true that Israeli diplomatic-speak has been vitriolic lately, it would not be surprising if the screws were being tightened. 

Israel is feeling their safety net drop away and the nuclear threat increase. And while many are sceptical of the imminence of an Israeli strike, the pre-emptive strikes it has carried out in the past against both Syria and Iraq prove it is capable of such actions.  

Israel has felt uncomfortable sitting so close to a regime that has threatened multiple times to destroy it completely, and who could possibly have the means to do so in the near future. Israel worries because of the proximity of the two countries, the unrest that has spread over the Middle East and the dour historical and religious tension that still antagonises their relationship. 

Iran still holds its cards very close to its chest regarding their nuclear program but Israeli intelligence has indicated many times that the progress towards a Iranian bomb could at a more advanced stage than otherwise realised.

There were indications recently of an Israeli plan to base a forward operating base in Azerbaijan. This would seem to indicate that Israeli intelligence about the Iranian program may be more comprehensive than some of its allies, namely the US. Israel, as a geographic state, is on the strategic back-foot for any strike into Iran. 

The distance, as the fighter-bombers flies, to the Iranian border is, at its narrowest, 1700km. This would require a fully equipped aircraft to refuel during the flight. If tactics and regional air-space are factored in, the route becomes more convoluted and potentially impassable. Staging an attack from an Iranian border country like Azerbaijan would therefore make sense strategically.

While the rhetoric appears to indicate Israeli military mobilisation is just starting, their intelligence agencies have been hard at work. Reports of dead nuclear scientists have the stamp of the known Mossad modus operandi and the various unexplained (or poorly explained) explosions at Iranian ballistic missile facilities imply Israeli sabotage handiwork.

But Iran is not Syria in 2007 nor is it Iraq in 1981 where the nuclear plants were isolated and the single attacks resulted in destruction of those country’s nuclear programs. Iran maintains multiple nuclear facilities scattered all over its huge country. 

Some are built strictly for material processing. Others are reactor types, while still other facilities have functions that are unknown to most of us and which the Israelis potentially don’t fully understand. Many of these targets are above ground but surrounded by anti-air positions, while a few are hidden inside hardened buildings or even tucked into the side of mountains. 

Addressing the Iranian nuclear threat wouldn’t be a simple drive-through experience with a few aircraft. The raid would surely require a multi-role campaign involving dozens of strike aircraft and tens of support aircraft, with every frame aloft increasing the chance of failure. The Israel Air Force by itself is too small to field so many airframes at once and the consequences of missing even a single nuclear facility are unthinkable for the region’s security.

This is why Israel is coordinating any planned attack, real or hypothetical, with other countries. By itself it cannot inflict lasting damage to the Iranian nuclear program but a coalition of strike aircraft certainly could. The questions are just how many aircraft would be necessary, who would be willing to join the Israelis in the attack, and would an airstrike in itself even be sufficient?

The US and NATO are clearly unwilling to lead any pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear plants. They are fresh from a stand-off air battle with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, still working hard to resolve the Afghanistan security situation, and monitoring their own economic problems with re-emerging national differences in Europe. 

So although the Obama administration has never taken the threat of military action off the negotiating table with Iran, and US carrier groups and minesweeper class destroyers have increased their presence in the Persian Gulf, the US still would prefer to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. Israel can’t rely on US support if it decides to strike first against Iran, even though the US would likely get dragged into the fight to protect its interests. 

Israel has seen a shift in US security guarantees over the past few years and the unconditional support they enjoyed during the Cold War and through the 1990s has slowly dissipated. The US could still assist the Israelis but politically they feel there is a more peaceful solution yet. But there are still a few other options for military support that Israel can turn to.

It would be a huge shock, and extremely unlikely, to see a Saudi-Israeli coalition strike on Iran. But the Saudis are just as concerned over the potential for Iranian petro-blackmail if they attain a nuclear weapon. The Saudis may not assist directly, but they would be the first to wipe sweat from their foreheads if such a strike took place. 

Jordan has its reasons to collude with Israel, but its military is even smaller that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and it lies geographically just as far away. Turkey on the other hand could potentially assist in opening airspace or supplying refuelling aircraft but Turkey’s inevitable position as a regional strongman is too underdeveloped to risk assisting too overtly.  

Israeli rhetoric and war-talk works in theory but in practice the country has very limited options. This is not to say they cannot do it, rather it points out the special dynamic that Israel are playing during the on-going negotiations with Iran. Consider the classic carrot-and-stick method, or perhaps the ‘don’t-make-me-loose-the-dogs’. 

In the complex chess game of international relations having an unpredictable and straining Israel must focus the attention of the Iranian negotiators. Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz probably couldn’t launch an effective strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, but the threat is just as effective on Iranian psychology.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Syria plays for time

Three Syrian intelligence officers were killed April 25 in the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, AP reported. The death of the intelligence officers briefly exposes the greater game playing out behind the scenes in Syria. A game where the Alawite government of Bashar al Assad is not the only one involved.

The Syrian regime has held close relations with the Iranian ruling polity for some time, giving it legitimacy and close protection over the years. Indeed, it is Iranian influence in the Levant that has turned this internecine scuffle between the various Syrian demonstrators and the regime, into a battleground for subterfuge. 

Quiet movements are going on inside Syria as intelligence agencies dual for the upper hand. France has discussed invoking Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which permits action that could be enforced militarily, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said April 25, AP reported. These and various promises of imminent NATO force against Syria are just words and nothing has been done nor is likely to be done.

There have been reports that the attacks against 10 Syrian security officials in Sahm al-Golan village April 20 was conducted by transnational Jihadists, the like of which seem to appear in conflicts around the Middle East. 

What is noteworthy about this is that it could point to a lack of Syrian civilian action against their regime. These protestors prefer instead to demonstrate peacefully and air their grievances in more tradition and less violent ways. 

Indeed, reports from both Syrian State TV and the Free Syrian Army, one of the more public of the various Syrian movement factions, stated that militants attacked an oil pipeline in Syria's Deir al-Zour province April 21.

Interference of Iranian elements has been a strategic worry for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in dealing with the unrest in Syria. And a reason the Arab countries have largely deferred dealing with the unrest in Syria. 

While the Assad regime is widely considered amongst the Arab leaders to be a harsh and oppressive government, the regime holds strong ties with big players in the region. It is Iran’s tactics for supporting Syria and Assad that warrants the closest attention. The jihadist attacks in Syria hint at subtle moves by these Arab states to deal obliquely with Iranian influence inside Syria without direct recourse to Riyadh, Amman, or even Ankara.

The Arab states look to undermine Iranian influence in the Levant because Iran has been pursuing a strategy of hegemony in the Middle East since the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and indeed throughout much of its history. 

Due to its intrinsic geographic isolation Iran, and before it Persia, has needed to reach out for insulation and control the lower river and flatland countries towards the Mediterranean in the West and the Persian Gulf in the South. Iran has been threatened in the past from armies crossing through modern-day Iraq. 

Recently, given the vacuum left in Iraq by the departing US troops, Iran has consolidated implicit control over Baghdad through a strong Shiite government.

Iran’s game in Syria is to back the Assad strong-man because of his Tehran-friendly Alawite tribe’s minority status, and also because the majority Sunni population of Syria align themselves more closely with the traditional enemies of Iran: the Arab regimes. 

Losing Assad would not necessarily mean losing Syria for Iran, but supporting him certainly makes sense in the larger scheme for Tehran. They look to grip deeper influence over the Syrian regime in order to spread their control closer to the Mediterranean. Access to this body of water is a strategic necessity for Iran, and one it will be closer to attaining if the current government of Syria stands.

At a quick glance the Assad regime appears to be faltering like Libya before it. But Syria is not Libya. Damascus still retains a lot of support from its populace, as evidenced strictly by the dearth of popular uprisings (currently only a small fraction of the population has taken to the streets). 

Also Syria would not be a push-over like Gaddafi’s regime because the Syrian military is much stronger and has not yet split internally, and shows no signs yet of doing so. Air defences in Syria are comprehensive, especially around key towns such as Al Zabadani Izraa, and Al Kiswah. 

This would deter any NATO-imposed no fly zone. And French rhetoric aside, no European or NATO country has the appetite for the prolonged and bloody fight any attempt at Syrian regime change would be.   

Iran knows this and Syria knows this. That is why their intelligence personnel are working hard at ending or downplaying the uprising in Syria. Their movements betray a sense of urgent purpose, one they are treating calmly and rationally as their mutual advantages increase. Every passing day that Assad stays in power, the Syrian regime, and by extension Iran, grows stronger and more legitimate.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Pyongyang's missile test and rhetoric

North Korea warned Monday of “special actions” to destroy Seoul “within four minutes”. The threat comes after a failed ballistic missile launch April 13. Alongside the heightened rhetoric Pyongyang announced plans to conduct a third nuclear test on the peninsula in the coming months.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described both announcements as a threat to peace, warning North Korea against further provocative measures.

There is a pattern to North Korean rhetoric in the sense that they do not usually culminate in meaningful action.

Calling for military strikes on South Korea can sound impressive, and North Korean artillery and missile sites are within range of Seoul, but North Korean leaders are rational and know just how far to push their neighbours.  

The politics surrounding the failed April 13 launch of the ballistic rocket will keep fixed attention on the rogue state for the time being.

While Pyongyang jumped through every diplomatic hoop to make sure their launch was completely above board, going so far as to invite members of the world’s media to witness the launch, the rocket was viewed sceptically by the international community as a thinly veiled missile test.

Its effective range, had it been operational and equipped with a warhead, put both Japan and South Korea under threat. Tokyo prepared for the rocket launch by mobilising large numbers of its Self-Defence Force that must have looked to the outside viewer as war preparations.

There was even rumour of a potential intercept response from US forces to bring down the missile if it was successful in burning through to its second or third stage.

Despite the expressed criticism from the international community, Pyongyang completed testing of the launch. The rocket was unsuccessful but it is unknown at which stage the rocket failed. For North Korean rocketry, a failure can be more informative for future designs than a success.

All military systems go through preparatory and test development before they truly mature as weapons, and the North Korean project is no different. Politically the regime will have pre-positioned fall-guys it can remove to show retaliatory response to the rocket failure, but ultimately the unsuccessful test will simply pave the way to the next one and provide valuable data for the engineers.

For a country that has recently experienced crippling famine, and whose population still lives close to famine, capital funds injected into a ballistic missile system must appear to be misallocated.

But North Korea’s constant foraying into the world of advanced systems does draw attention from the international community that rightly worries about just what Pyongyang’s intentions are.

Threats and rhetoric aside, the regime has a tried and tested method to achieve political recognition and food aid by periodically ramping up perceived threats.

The international community offers aid not to soothe the fiery words, but to offset their talks as a threat in themselves. Removal of aid can encourage Pyongyang to reign in its actions. But it is a fine line they tread as Pyongyang record of unpredictability and sheer tenacity gets the upper hand in negotiation.

The Six-Party talks have moved a lot of ground over the years, and North Korea has benefited the most from these talks. The next round of rhetoric and military testing may comprise of a third nuclear test but the outcome will be the same, the pattern is simple.

The international community will respond with its own rhetoric and attempt to placate the regime with aid and entice it back to the table. And North Korea will conduct another provocative action to squeeze out more aid.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Intelligence vs Journalism

So to give you guys an idea why intelligence can be better than journalism, basically it comes down to how the author explains any information they have. There’s really nothing to journalism, you only have to keep your ear to the ground and report events as they happen from the most neutral vantage possible.

The key is to make sure all differing positions are explored in order to report what really happened, or as close as you can get to the “truth” (which is always provisional).
As you might expect this approach doesn’t necessarily always work. A lot of the time the information is only partial and disparate events connect well after the event is over, and too long for any meaning to be gleaned from the initial reporting.

Consider journalism to be like a written photograph of events. In the same way you can never see outside the lens with a camera, it is very difficult to get a grip on the context of an event if you rely on journalism for meaning.  Very few journalists have the time or resources to follow a pattern long enough to report profound changes in the international community.

The approach of intelligence analysis to world events is markedly different. Here the context is everything. The analyst doesn’t just monitor the world for stories that might sell papers or drive readers to view their websites.

To them, the world is never just a series of events happening one after another as you might have come to expect it was if you read news. Instead the world is seen as a slowly shifting puzzle whose pieces can be made to fit only if the correct tools are used to dissect them. An analyst’s job is to fit these pieces together to make sense of them.

Geopolitics explains current affairs not in terms of personalities or ambiguous human events but instead as a rational, if constrained, chess board all countries constantly manipulate for their benefit.

George Friedman, for one, outlines the ‘love of one’s own people’ as being a significant factor behind many decisions and actions of governments. Protection of the homeland and her interests will dictate whether a country imposes tariffs, floats a navy, alters currency rules, or invades a country.

Any decision based on personal ideals or opinion is transient and ultimately doomed if the context of geopolitics is removed.
The process of intelligence strings together seemingly unconnected events and generates meaning out of perceived randomness. It tells the reader what will happen tomorrow, rather than just what happened yesterday.

A good intelligence report will find the patterns that journalist are unable to, either because of time constraints, access denials, or lack of information. An intelligence agency or company has many roles, some dedicated to the gathering process and others to the analysis of this information.

Raw intelligence, ranging from snippets of conversation on a train to a highly secret document, by itself means nothing; alone it is unconnected. But by a team of skilled analysts the intelligence is ground down to produce useful information.

Intelligence can tell you more about the world in 1000 words than 1000 articles from traditional, bottom-line journalism ever could. It isn’t so much a role as it is a mind-set, a process and toolkit a person uses when gathering their information. It’s a way of looking at the world to explain events rather than report them.