Conflict update: December 29 2016

and that’s the way it was is hitting the road for a few days and, if it’s all the same to you fine readers, I’d kind of like to turn the blog more or less off and take a real break. That means we won’t be back to regular posting until January 3. Happy New Year and see you in 2017!

What? Oh, right, one more round of mostly shitty news before I go.

World War III

The long-mehwaited American response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election was unveiled today:

The targets of the sanctions include Moscow’s top intelligence services, the Federal Security Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, as well as three companies and a handful of individuals. Among the individuals are top officials from the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

The State Department expelled 35 Russian operatives from the Russian embassy in Washington and the Russian consulate in San Francisco on Thursday. The officials and their families were given 72 hours to leave the U.S.

The State Department also notified Russia that as of Friday Moscow would be denied access to two Russian government-owned compounds—one in Maryland and one in New York.

This is…about what you’d have expected, it seem to me. There’s been took much noise about this story for the Obama administration not to have done something, even though as far as I can tell (or at least as far as anybody outside the intelligence community has been allowed to know) the evidence behind this accusation against Moscow is still pretty circumstantial. And this is definitely something. These are tangible actions that will hurt Russia a little and embarrass it more, and they’ll be tough for Donald Trump to undo without raising eyebrows. What they’re not is anything that could honestly be categorized as an escalation, if you’re operating from the assumption that Russia has indeed screwed with America’s electoral process.

Moscow will now respond as it can (at least 35 US diplomatic personnel in Russia will certainly be expelled within the next few days, for example), and that will be about it. President Obama said today’s actions aren’t the end of the US response, but realistically this is about it at least as far as a public response. Obama also ordered the release of information on Russian cyber-activity that could help US individuals and businesses take stronger security precautions, and if you ask me that’s the most impactful part of today’s actions. Assuming anybody actually bothers taking those precautions.

Speaking of responses, let’s see what President-elect Trump had to say about all of this yesterday:

President-elect Donald Trump is less than enthusiastic about some senators’ suggestion that Russia ― and perhaps even Vladimir Putin himself ― should be sanctioned for interfering in the U.S. elections, telling reporters Wednesday that it’s time people move on.

For Trump, the real culprit isn’t the Russian president or his hackers. It’s computers and technology.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump said Wednesday, according to the pool report. He was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, standing next to boxing promoter Don King. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need. But I have not spoken with the senators and I will certainly will be over a period of time.”

Ah, I-uh, that’s very, ahhhh, he’s got a…well I think what he means is, see, there are computers, and they have speed, and a lot of other…things…and…the senators, also too. Hail to the Chief!

War on Terror

So this is potentially interesting: Continue reading

The best stupidity money can buy

You have to wonder whether the guy who recently wrote this:

Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption. Their business success demonstrates that they know how to achieve goals and convince skeptics that good deals can be made to the benefit of both sides. Isn’t this just what America needs?

knows what an unbelievable lie that is or is really stupid enough to believe it. I’d like to suggest a third option: willful stupidity. If Larry Kudlow thought about that sentence for five seconds, he’d realize it’s bullshit. But Kudlow has been very, very well-compensated precisely because he’s prepared to say this kind of crap without thinking about it. He’s stupid, but that’s his competitive advantage.

I look forward to Kudlow’s potential tenure as the chair of Trump’s council of economic advisers, mostly because at this point I think we all have to embrace the suck to some degree. I’m not a “heighten the contradictions” person, and in fact I routinely feel like I’m voting for the lesser of two evils and do it anyway. But the greater evil won this time and has been winning at every level below president for a while now, so it’s going to get bad and there’s not much anybody can do about it for the next couple of years. The steeper the dive, the less time this gang will have to stick around and wreck everything in a longer-term sense.

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Conflict update: December 28 2016

In the rarest of rarities, I might actually get to go on a date with my wife this evening, so I’m getting this out there early. If anything big happens later I’ll come back and update.

Israel-Palestine

John Kerry’s speech on the Israel-Palestine peace process was perhaps (though perhaps not; see below) the biggest story of the day. Part standard US argument in favor of the two-state solution, part defense of the Obama administration’s approach to the issue (including last week’s UN abstention), part parting shot at Benjamin Netanyahu, the speech was shocking in that you will almost never find a US Secretary of State willing to speak candidly at length about all the ways in which the Israelis, not just the Palestinians, have thwarted efforts to achieve peace. But at the same time, this was an 11th hour (later, really) speech from an outgoing Secretary in a lame-duck administration, and in practical terms it really couldn’t be less consequential.

As soon as I can find a transcript I’m planning on posting excerpts at LobeLog, but Kerry put “settlement expansion” right alongside Palestinian violence–which he also condemned–as a reason why the two-state solution is currently receiving last rites. It was as firm a restatement of US policy (well, pre-Donald Trump US policy) on settlements as you’ll find, but, again, it would have been nice to see this kind of full-throated criticism four or so years ago (in fairness to Kerry, the NYT is reporting that he’s wanted to give this speech for two years but was restrained by his boss until now). Still, it was pretty frank:

Mr. Kerry usually speaks in the careful words of diplomacy, being careful not to publicly name names, or put choices in the harshest terms. He dropped most of those niceties on Wednesday, especially about Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

“The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” he said. “The result is that policies of this government — which the prime minister himself just described as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history’ — are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.”

And on settlement expansion:

“Let’s be clear: Settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security; many settlements actually increase the security burden on the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.”

Benjamin Netanyahu naturally responded (I’m watching it now hence the lack of a link), with his typical “why are you picking on Israel” tactic, because the once every four years when a US administration speaks frankly about Israel is apparently too often. He complained that the Obama administration has spent more time complaining about settlements than about “stopping Palestinian terror,” which manages to both be a lie and to elide the fact that the settlements help fuel Palestinian violence.

Syria

Continue reading

Conflict update: December 27 2016

This may be mercifully (for all of us) short tonight.

World War III

Senator John McCain (R-WEBOMBINGANYONEYET) went to Estonia today and said some words about America’s commitment to NATO and protecting its Baltic members from possible Russian aggression. He was trying to reassure the Baltic states in advance of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Trump having as much as said during the campaign that he wouldn’t participate in military action to defend the Baltics if push came to shove. But of course John McCain isn’t really in a position to make any promises about what the Trump administration might do in matters of war and peace, McCain having managed somehow to alienate Trump while endorsing him anyway.

I am not a huge fan of NATO. I am particularly not a huge fan of NATO expansion, which I lump in with a number of very stupid, shortsighted, chest-thumping decisions made by Western nations in the years after we “won” the Cold War. I do, however, think that treaties need to mean what they say, otherwise the entire global system will start breaking down with potentially massive unintended consequences. So I’m sympathetic to McCain’s argument here, and sympathetic to the argument that Trump’s refusal to commit to upholding America’s international agreements makes conflict more, not less, likely. But again, let’s be clear: what John McCain has to say about stuff like this means next to nothing.

Syria

The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is “hoping” that Washington will supply it with MANPADS now that Congress has opened the door for that sort of thing. Russia says any such move would be a “hostile act,” mostly because the only reason the SDF might someday need MANPADS would be to shoot down Syrian (or Russian, or Turkish) aircraft. But the Obama administration is flatly denying that it has any plans to provide MANPADS to anybody in Syria, on the grounds that doing so would be incredibly dangerous. Even the YPG would be a risk to use those weapons at least against Turkey, and that’s without factoring in the possibility that they might lose a handful of them to a group like ISIS or JFS that would certainly use them against Western civilian targets.

In other SDF-related news, their fighters are reportedly a mere five kilometers away from the Tabaqa Dam, about 40 km west of Raqqa, after an offensive that pushed ISIS out of a nearby village and killed somewhere between 25 and 38 of the group’s fighters.

Meanwhile, Turkey wants to bring Saudi Arabia and Qatar with it to the next round of Syrian peace talks with Russia and Iran. Good luck with that.

Iraq

There’s been some small movement in eastern Mosul, but I’d rather focus today on the developing story in Sinjar. The PKK has been invited to set up shop in Sinjar by the Yazidis, who relied on PKK forces to help defend their people from ISIS back in 2014 after Iraqi peshmerga fled the area. But the PKK’s presence in Sinjar is unacceptable to almost everybody–Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government, obviously, but also the Iraqi government and even the US, which still views the PKK as a terrorist organization (and has to routinely do mental gymnastics to pretend that the YPG is not directly affiliated with the PKK). Everybody, that is, except the PKK and the Yazidis. If the PKK doesn’t leave Sinjar, then the situation could easily spiral into violence–between the PKK and KRG, who have gone to war with each other before, and maybe even between Turkey and Iraq. While the Iraqi government doesn’t like having the PKK in Sinjar, you can imagine that it won’t look kindly on a Turkish invasion–something Ankara has been threatening with respect both to Sinjar and Tal Afar–to dislodge them.

Turkey

The first major trial involving people–in this case, 29 police officers–accused of participation in July’s failed coup has begun in Istanbul. Meanwhile, President Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Syria policy has included direct support for extreme jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham as well as for Jaysh al-Fatah, the joint operations command run by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (AKA al-Qaeda in Syria), says the US is aiding terrorists in Syria. Pots and kettles everywhere rolled their eyes.

Israel

I hope you’re sitting down for this: the Israeli government is planning to build thousands of new homes in occupied East Jerusalem despite Friday’s UN condemnation of that practice. This is for some reason being cast by American media as “defiant” rather than, I don’t know, “illegal” or “a war crime.”

Afghanistan

Representatives from Russia, China, and Pakistan met in Moscow today to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan, warning that ISIS’s growing presence in the country is particularly troubling.

What’s that? You’re wondering if there were any Afghan representatives at the conference to discuss Afghanistan?

Ha, funny story. It’s a reasonable question, but no, and Kabul is–understandably, I think–miffed about it. This was a meeting of the Taliban’s #1 patron (Pakistan), a country that has shown some interest in becoming another Taliban patron (Russia), and a country that just wants stability in Afghanistan (China), and they all shockingly concluded that Afghanistan has a big non-Taliban problem and that Kabul should really try being nicer to the Taliban and maybe that might clear things up. Then they promised to invite Afghanistan to come to their next meeting about Afghanistan, which seems big of them.

UPDATE: Shortly after I hit “post” on this, reports started coming in about an explosion in Kabul. This is the most recent news I’ve seen about it:

Somalia

A new Somali parliament was sworn in today, so good for the–I’m sorry, the UN is trying to say something?

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia called on Tuesday for a redo of the legislative balloting that began in October. It said there were a number of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process, including seats reserved for women candidates only that were ultimately taken by male candidates.”

Violence, corruption, intimidation and the unauthorized substitution of electoral college delegates also marred voting, the U.N. Somalia mission said in a statement. It said the decision to not disqualify candidates who allegedly committed election irregularities represented a blanket amnesty.

Huh. Well, that’s probably not good. The country was supposed to elect a new president on Wednesday, but that vote has been postponed and really maybe this one should have been as well.

Mozambique

Warring factions in Mozambique have agreed on a seven-day truce for New Years. Yes, I didn’t actually know there were any warring factions in Mozambique until I read this piece, but I’m glad they’re taking a break from the fighting. The conflict, between the right-wing opposition RENAMO party and the left-wing governing FRELIMO party, goes all the way back to the country’s 1976-1992 civil war but is now being fueled by competition to see who gets to control Mozambique’s apparently considerable offshore energy deposits.

Russia

Russian authorities are blaming a faulty wing flap for causing the crash of their military aircraft over the Black Sea on Sunday. Which presumably rules out terrorism.

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Today in Central Asian history: the Soviets invade Afghanistan (1979)

For a while the Soviet-Afghan War was seen as the Beginning of the End of the Soviet Union, and while there may still be something to that, I suspect we’d think of it a bit differently nowadays. The plucky Mujahideen who earned America’s support and admiration for their brave fight against the Communist Menace eventually became–well, some of them became–al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and, well, we stopped supporting and admiring them.

There’s no way we’re covering the whole nine year-long war here, but we can talk about what led up to Moscow’s decision to invade its small southern neighbor and set a whole lot of, in hindsight, pretty bad shit in motion. I’m cheating a little bit here, because from a technical standpoint the invasion began on December 24, when the first Soviet troops started arriving in Kabul, or at least on December 25, when Russian forces crossed the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. But it was December 27, when those forces seized control of major government buildings across the capital, and the war was really on. So I’m going with December 27.

Afghanistan occupied the frontier in the “Great Game,” the Russian-British competition for control of Asia that lasted most of the 19th century, which meant that it was already in the Russian-Soviet orbit long before 1979. Both the Russian and British Empires came to an end in the 20th century, but Soviet interest in Afghanistan persisted. During the 1960s and 1970s, Moscow cultivated the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a Marxist movement opposed to Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah (d. 2007), and the Soviets were pretty pleased when the PDPA colluded with the country’s former prime minister (and Zahir Shah’s cousin), Mohammed Daoud Khan (d. 1978), to overthrow Zahir Shah and establish a republic in 1973. We should note, however–because we’ll be coming back to it–that in the late 1960s the PDPA began to splinter internally into several factions, the two largest of which were the Parcham, led by Babrak Karmal (d. 1996) and the Khalq, led by Nur Muhammad Taraki (d. 1979) and Hafizullah Amin (d. 1979). Khalq was the more radical of the two and pushed for a Soviet-style revolution, while Parcham supported a slower move toward socialism.

Mohammed Daoud Khan, now President Daoud if you please, was no Marxist. Continue reading

Conflict update: December 26 2016

Israel

The fallout from Friday’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory continued all weekend. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began by summoning the ambassadors of the 12 security council members who voted in favor of the resolution and with which Israel has relations (Venezuela and Malaysia also voted yes but don’t have relations with Israel), plus the US, which abstained but didn’t exercise its veto. It recalled its ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand, cancelled planned state visits from the Senegalese foreign minister and the Ukrainian prime minister, and announced that it was ceasing foreign aid to Senegal. You may note here that Israel seems to be heaping a lot of abuse on Senegal, but not so much on more powerful members of the council. Funny how that works. Today the Israelis announced that they were going to “suspend all working ties” with the 12 countries that voted “yes” and have diplomatic ties with Israel. What are “working ties,” you ask? Beats me. I’m not even sure Netanyahu knows. It sounds like a response and it’s ambiguous enough to mean anything, so there you have it. All in all, you might say we’ve seen a three-plus day-long Israeli tantrum.

True to form, rather than engage the substance of the resolution–it’s not even clear how he could engage with the substance without demonstrating that he’s been lying about his commitment to a two-state solution all the time–Netanyahu has tried to cast Friday’s vote as an international conspiracy against Israel (and, really, all Jews), masterminded by the Obama administration. And there’s something deeply revealing in that framing.

The resolution was about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, period. It certainly wasn’t about Jews, and it wasn’t about Israel…unless, of course, you believe that the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are both part of Israel. But international consensus, US policy, and stated Israeli policy since 1967 has been that these territories are not part of Israel–the entire concept of a “two-state solution” relies on the idea that the occupied territories are not part of Israel. Successive Israeli governments have pretended, with deceasing credibility, that they are firmly committed to a two-state peace. Netanyahu keeps insisting on it. But you can’t reconcile the settlements with a two-state peace, which is why any criticism of settlements is immediately conflated with an attack on Israel itself.

What’s happening now, amid Israel’s collective rage over a UN resolution that, at the risk of beating a dead horse, had no practical effect on anything, is that the curtain is being pulled back, the lie is being exposed. Anybody who believed, or pretended to believe for political reasons, that the Israeli government ever had any intention of giving up occupied territory in exchange for peace with the Palestinians must now reckon with proof that the Israeli government’s actual position is that the occupied territories are, were, and will remain part of Israel. Anybody who’s actually watched the settlement process and its slow-moving ethnic cleansing of the West Bank since the 1970s could have told you this, but it was easier for most people, and certainly most governments, to believe the pleasant lie that a negotiated two-state peace was possible. It’s suddenly become much harder to pretend that Israeli lip-service about trading land for peace has been anything more than a stalling tactic, a way to buy more time to build more settlements (with many more on the way) and drive more Palestinians off of more West Bank land.

And now that those cards are finally out on the table for everybody to see, it’s time for the rest of the world to decide how to deal with them. No more pleasant lies.

Iraq

Continue reading

Season’s Greetings!

With Santa headed our way and Hanukkah already started, let me wish you all a very Happy Holidays from our home to yours. I must especially thank, and yes this is a plug, everyone who has generously contributed to keeping this site afloat, via PayPal and/or Patreon. I literally couldn’t do this without you.

Although I have long since passed from lapsed Catholic into just “lapsed,” I love Christmas music. And as people who’ve been around long enough to remember the old “Saturday Night Tunes” feature will know, I also love jazz. So I have a particular soft spot for Christmas tunes from folks like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. Last December I posted a YouTube video of Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, but it had some weird thing happening at the beginning of the video–I can’t remember what it was but I remember it was weird–and anyway that video seems to have been taken down. Instead, I was just able to find a playlist of Cole singing Christmas songs, which is way better than whatever I posted last year. Enjoy! I’ll have a couple of other collections to share tomorrow.

The stockings are full, I’ve got a bread dough rising and panna cottas setting for dinner tomorrow, I’m trying to keep my dog from eating the cookies we left out for Santa, and once I finally wrap my wife’s gift I think it will be just about time to call it a night. Best wishes, and thanks for reading.