What a lucky break!

Tomorrow is Election Day in Nigeria, the end of a long campaign that has already been delayed once, ostensibly due to Boko Haram-caused violence but, well, who knows, and in which President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election is by no means a sure thing. Earlier today, in the happiest of total coincidences, the Nigerian army apparently destroyed Boko Haram’s headquarters:

Nigeria’s military said on Friday that it has destroyed the headquarters of Boko Haram in the northeast town of Gwoza — a claim that comes one day ahead of Nigeria’s presidential elections.
“Troops this morning captured Gwoza destroying the Headquarters of the Terrorists self-styled Caliphate,” Nigeria’s defense department said on Twitter.
It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.

You don’t say.

Now, I would never suggest that President Jonathan is inventing this story about destroying Boko Haram’s HQ to boost his chances in tomorrow’s vote. Neither would I want to suggest that he strung out the campaign against Boko Haram deliberately in order to maximize the political impact of this operation. So let’s just say…um, way to go, guys?

Hopefully Jonathan and his opponent, former dictator Muhammadu Buhari, can get through tomorrow and the next few weeks without their supporters killing anybody. Their history with one another suggests that this is unlikely, but there’s always a chance.

Iran talks: over-abundance of deadlines causing problems, and France holding out?

Laura Rozen is quoting a “senior State Department official” in Switzerland for the current round of Iran nuclear talks, who says “we can see a path forward here to get to an agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program by March 31. That sounds great, but maybe a little vague seeing as how that March 31 deadline is coming up fast and, really, the talks are still hanging on the same key issues that have dominated the talks for months now: the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, its ability to research more advanced centrifuge technology under the terms of the agreement, the level of Iran’s cooperation with IAEA inspectors, the duration of the agreement’s constraints, and the timetable for sanctions relief. We’ve been supposedly close to an agreement plenty of times over the past year, only to have the talks ultimately break down.

It’s possible, though, that this round of talks might be a little different. Past rounds of negotiations have operated under a series of self-imposed deadlines, and all they really managed to achieve was to demonstrate that self-imposed deadlines aren’t really deadlines at all, since they can always be extended without real cost. The last time the talks failed to meet their deadline was in November, when negotiators agreed to once again extend the deadline, but the ambiguous nature of that extension, combined with the inevitable Congressional attempt to break the talks up, seems to be causing its own drama right now. The November extension actually created two new deadlines, not one: a March something (initial reports said March 1, which later became March 24, and now seems to be March 31) deadline to reach a “political agreement” on the basic framework for a deal, and a July 1 deadline to fill in the technical details and produce a final document. But then it became clear that Congress was planning to act on some kind of legislation (either new sanctions against Iran or something that would put conditions on the Obama administration’s ability to accept and uphold a deal) that would seriously risk an Iranian walkout, and that it would most likely be able to muster a veto-proof majority for that legislation. Republican overreach alienated Democrats for a while, but there’s an April 14 vote scheduled on Bob Corker’s Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which includes constraints on the administration that could cause the Iranians to throw up their hands and walk away, and that veto-proof majority seems likely to materialize absent some major new development.

Where this is now impacting the talks is in terms of the two sides’ understanding of this nebulous March “framework” deadline. Continue reading

So, does that make John Boehner “pro-war”?

John Boehner rolls out a bizarre new talking point:

“The world is starving for American leadership. But America has an anti-war president,” the Ohio Republican told reporters. “We have no strategy, overarching strategy, to deal with the growing terrorist threat. And it’s not just ISIS or Al-Qaeda or all of their affiliates. We’ve got a serious problem facing the world and America, by and large, is sitting on the sidelines.”

First of all, as that TPM piece says, Obama has done an awful lot of warring for a guy who’s anti-war. But second, and more importantly, isn’t it good to be “anti-war”? Don’t most people, except maybe psychopaths or something, generally agree that war should be avoided if at all possible? Shouldn’t we want our president to prefer not to do war all over the place, if it can be avoided?

To put it another way, what does it say about John Boehner that he thinks the description “anti-war” is some kind of insult?

"I just *sniff*, sometimes I get emotional when I think about all the wars that we could be fighting if it weren't for this president"

“I just *sniff*, sometimes I get emotional when I think about all the wars that we could be fighting if it weren’t for this president” *begins weeping*

Saudi airstrikes push Yemen from “civil war” to “whatever’s worse than civil war”

Yesterday in Politico, Adam Baron, who knows a thing or two about Yemen, wrote this:

The truth is far more complex, and the solution right now should be more along the lines of: Just stay out of it. While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

Luckily for the rest of the Middle East and the world, yesterday a bit before 7 PM east coast time the Saudis (plus the rest of the GCC) and Egyptians, with US support, um, overreacted and intervened. The Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, announced the start of airstrikes against targets around Sanaa affiliated with the Houthis andwith forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has been collaborating with the Houthis, either to engineer his own political comeback or, more likely (given his age) to set his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, up as the Houthis’ partner in government.

Leaving aside all the added human suffering this intervention is sure to cause, you have to be impressed at the chutzpah on display among the intervening parties. Continue reading

Today in “things that happened faster than expected”

Regular readers will recall that I’m skeptical that the current Iraqi campaign to drive ISIS back is sustainable, but I’ll confess that I didn’t expect things to bog down so quickly. The offensive to retake Tikrit has “stalled”:

The Iraqi offensive on the city, supported by the Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), had initial success, with a number of towns on the city’s outskirts captured quickly and PMU spokesman, Karim al-Nuri, declaring the city would be liberated in “no more than 72 hours” earlier this month.

Yet, the assault on the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has taken longer than expected, now entering its fourth week. Iraq’s defence minister today claimed that the army has slowed down its operation to prevent potential casualties which could occur if they rushed the assault on the explosive-laden city centre.

Now, I don’t want to say that Iraq’s defense minister is playing fast and loose with the truth here, but it’s unlikely that the US would have started providing aerial surveillance of Tikrit if the problem were simply that ISIS had left a bunch of booby-traps all over the place. It’s even less likely that, if explosives were the real problem, Baghdad would now be talking to the US about adding airstrikes to that surveillance. No, I’d imagine the real problem is as it appears in this McClatchey report: heavy resistance from ISIS and disagreements between the Iraqi army and the Shiʿa militias who have been supporting it over how to proceed. The militias would like a bloody frontal assault that may involve lots of potential war crimes against Sunni civilians, while the army and the government back in Baghdad would prefer something a little less bloody and a whole lot less war crimey.

The Americans would likely be happy to oblige the Iraqi Army (EDIT: and as it turns out, actually began obliging them today), so long as it forces those Iranian-supported Shiʿa militias to stand down and stops accepting direct aid from the IRGC’s Quds Force. That possibility has caused the leader of one of the largest Shiʿa militias to publicly criticize “‘weaklings’ in the Iraqi army” for even considering the idea of dumping Iranian support in exchange for American support. This all really bodes well for the eventual campaign to retake Mosul, which ISIS is bound to defend even more strenuously than it’s been defending Tikrit.

Scenes from the brink of a civil war

The Houthis, along with “Yemeni security forces still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh” (there’s a partnership that’s built to last), are closing in on Aden and President Hadi is nowhere to be found. The Houthis have re-captured Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who had only just busted himself out of confinement in Sanaa. Meanwhile, the Saudis are reportedly massing troops on their Yemeni border (UPDATE: well, it didn’t take long for that buildup to become an intervention), and Yemen’s foreign minister announced that the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt had agreed to military intervention, a claim that was almost immediately denied by Egypt.

With Yemen’s civil war now pretty much on, it’s worth reflecting on Barack Obama’s declaration last September that Yemen was a “success story” in the “war on terror.” He was arguing that a mostly hands’ off policy of airstrikes (by drone, even) and counter-terrorism aid to friendly governments was demonstrably working in Yemen. He was, obviously in hindsight (but some analysts said so at the time), utterly wrong. You can diminish groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with airstrikes and by providing aid to corrupt yet friendly autocracies, but you can’t defeat them that way. They’ll simply give up territory and go underground until the inherent instability of such regimes offers them another chance to go on the offensive. ISIS, with its explicit claims to empire-building, may be the exception; if you can take their territory away, it’s not clear they can keep making a case to would-be recruits. But that’s speculation, and anyway it only applies to one group.

What would actually defeat these groups? Does anybody know? The example of the IRA/Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland suggests that the establishment of a stable, self-governing system might work in the long-term, but holy crap is that easier said than done, and very speculative at that (hell, it’s not even clear that it’s working in Northern Ireland, much less anyplace else). The institutions needed to replace a guy like Saleh, or Hadi, with government that co-opts opposition into the political system are incredibly hard to build, and recent history proves that Westerners who try to install them from the outside are, far from simply wasting their time, probably making things worse. Still, does anybody have a better idea? The hope that “democracy can defeat terrorism” is why the situation in Tunisia is so important to watch, but it is very much a hope, not a plan.

Not as I do

I used to teach fourth-year undergraduates in the fine art of conducting research into the ins and outs of the Middle East and the ins and outs of then writing a thesis based on that research. I had 60 minutes a week (maybe 90 if I was feeling cruel) for all of a single quarter in which to cover these fairly expansive topics, and so it always kind of bugged me that we had to spend precious time on things that I would think should be obvious to somebody who’s starting their fourth year at a prestigious university. Having to tell the students that they shouldn’t plagiarize felt insulting, and then spending time going over what plagiarism is and why we have to cite our sources felt both insulting and like time that could be better spent on other stuff. Of course, when our brightest intellectual stars (plus Rand Paul; I KID) can’t be bothered to grasp these things, I guess it’s not all that insulting or frivolous to spend time explaining them to a bunch of 21 and 22 year old undergrads, but it seemed that way at the time.

Another thing that sounded fiercely insulting every time it came out of my mouth was the sentence “Wikipedia is not a source!” The students would always laugh at that one, and then I would too, because of course Wikipedia is not a freaking source (in an academic context, at least), are you kidding me? And yet, how can you expect undergrads to instinctively know that Wikipedia is not a source when tenured university faculty are out there treating it like one?

In Chapter 10 of his 2012 book Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew S. McCormick provides a list of “gods and religions in history that have fallen out of favor.” Between the Chinese deities Jade Emperor and Ji Gong on this list sits Jar’Edo Wens, an exotic-looking nonsense phrase some Australian guy added to Wikipedia seven years prior.

The blog Wikipediocracy recounts the genesis of a wholly fictional Aboriginal deity, created by an anonymous Australian prankster—presumably named Jared Owens, get it?—who published a Wikipedia article for Jar’Edo Wens and added an entry about the god to the site’s page on Australian Aboriginal mythology in 2005. Thanks to Wikipedia’s immense and often indiscriminate ability to disseminate facts and factoids alike, Jar’Edo has spread its gospel of humility and learning to the furthest reaches of the internet in the years since then.

McCormick offered Gawker this statement in his own defense: Continue reading