Focal Points Blog

The Wikileaks Release: Smile, You’re on YouTube!

The only amazing thing about the release by Wikileaks of 92,000 plus classified documents related to the Afghan war is that anyone would think it’s amazing.

What the story really tells us is how far out of touch US policymakers are with the world in which they purport to operate. Failure to understand strategic and operational environments is a fatal error in warfare, and failure to recognize that media is a strategic front is an example of just that kind of failure. As revelations of incompetence and stupidity in Afghanistan surge, it’s increasingly obvious that the ‘fog of war’ is largely between the ears of those in charge.

What these ‘best and brightest’ have failed to recognize is that we live in an open source world in which every person is a unique media channel. Where the bandwidth of each individual used to be constrained by geography and number of personal connections — like how many people are in your gossip circle at the local market — now it’s potentially everyone with a cell phone, iPad and / or internet access. The only question is when individual ethics, sensitivities or pathologies will trigger release of sensitive information over those networks.

We also live in the most documented era ever, and it’s only getting more so. For a variety of reasons, not least covering one’s butt when things go sideways, virtually everything is recorded. Everyone — whether cops beating suspects, politicians making ‘off microphone’ comments, CEO’s making shady deals or four star generals unloading in a bar — has to expect that anything shared or stored digitally may reemerge at some inconvenient time.

Finally, just about everything — at least in broad strokes — is already in the public domain if we want to look hard enough. This is why the recently revealed Russian spy ring didn’t need access to classified material — only a rigorous trawl-and-collate system for open source materials. As Stewart Brand said way back in 1984, ‘Information wants to be free.’ Only lotus eaters and politicians believe they can contain it indefinitely.

The hard reality is, if policymakers want to avoid the kind of blowback that occurs when inept, criminal or just plain stupid actions are revealed, it’s best not to undertake inept, criminal or just plain stupid actions in the first place.

Dinosaurs Can’t Dance: The Impending Extinction of the Nation-State

Nation-state extinct like dinosaursWhen I was a young philosophy student, my Marxists fellows discussed the ‘withering away of the state’ with an almost rapture-like awe. We would all, they assured me, be hunters in the morning, fishers in the afternoon, and poets in the evening.

Today, the nation state is clearly withering. But where Marx saw this as the logical result of a workers’ utopia and the perfection of humankind, it is precisely the failure to manifest that utopia and perfection that is both a primary driver, and a primary symptom, of the state’s demise.

This withering has profound implications for foreign policy. Counterinsurgency and nation building doctrines are based on enhancing the legitimacy of the state. If the state as a functional structure is circling the drain, then so are these policies – which might help us understand why nothing seems to work in Afghanistan. The basic assumption of creating a viable state is itself nonviable.

Complexity science heads don’t do – or even believe in – prediction. The world is too fluid and emergent for that. But we do track behaviors over time and play with scenarios, probabilities and trajectories. So let me climb out on my favorite limb with my trusty chainsaw and suggest that the nation state, as we know it, will go extinct over the next few decades.

There are several reasons for this. Most important is that the world is just too big, too fast and too interconnected / interdependent for states to effectively respond to emergent events. Their timelines are too long. They have to recognize the issue, consider the political benefits and pitfalls, decide on a course of action, draft and argue out legislation, fight over appropriations, determine the spin, brief the players . . . Meantime, the world has moved on and new crises have appeared, perhaps driven by the actions or inactions of the state(s) in question.

States also suffer terribly from ‘over prescribed’ structure. They have literally millions of rules, regulations, check and balances, as well as parallel layers of administration that often compete with and obstruct each other. Multiplied together, this induces paralysis.

Meanwhile, the world is continuously manifesting ‘butterfly effects’ – events that trigger something, which then triggers something else, which then triggers a whole cascade of effects. It’s iterative and emergent, and bureaucrats can do little but run in circles screaming and tearing their hair, while trying desperately to blame someone / something else for the fallout.

Another key factor is that states no longer have a monopoly on violence. We live in an open source world, and states can neither exclusively apply, nor effectively contain, violence as a policy tool. The loss of that control equates to a loss of prestige, which also means a loss of deterrence.

As state structures dissipate, they will be replaced by a variety of ‘post national’ entities. In the near term, these may be primarily parasitic – such as hybridized gangs, militias and crime syndicates – profiteering on the chaos of a governance vacuum. In the longer term, however, these emergent entities will likely become the new centers of innovation that define, design, prototype and ‘infect’ through their success the future shape of civilization.

There is no agreed upon language for this kind of emerging entity. I like the term, ‘Other Guys’ (OGs). They’re not government, not an NGO, not a political party. They’re just self-organizing networks of . . . other guys.

OGs stand outside the dominant system, even as they navigate and exploit it. They follow Bucky Fuller’s advice not to fight the existing reality – except as necessary to maintain freedom of action – but to build new models that make the old ones obsolete.

As state breakdowns become more obvious – whether military failures, bungled relief efforts, endemic corruption or unresolved financial and social crises – we can begin to see what the triggers are. How that varies by culture or region or GDP. Over what time period it plays out. And what emerges in its place.

That last is especially important, but so far, the answer is . . . a lot of different answers. Rather like William Gibson’s observation that, ‘The future has already arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

There are, however, some basic organizing principles and common threads.

First, these emerging entities operate along ‘organic’ pathways. As with natural selection, multiple groups try multiple avenues, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating. OGs arise to fill niches in the cultural ecosystem created when states vacate social space. Those that do the best job filling the voids in people’s lives – especially around security, livelihood, development and infrastructure – also fill the governance void.

The most successful OGs function as ‘constructive networks’, continually adapting and reconfiguring in response to changing conditions. They learn, unlearn and relearn, and continually co-evolve with their social / economic / ecological landscapes.

‘Positional’ or hierarchical leadership – think president, maximum leader or grand poobah – is displaced by group intelligence and open space / open source models. Titular leaders may remain, but the most effective will be more facilitators than commanders.

And while ‘isms’ may provide an initial rallying point, successful OGs are more likely to be entrepreneurial than ideological because, as Stafford Beer put it so beautifully, ‘Ideology is a very poor variety attenuator.’ It tends to make orgs non-adaptive – too often acting out of dogma rather than objective realities.

There are several OGs we can study to see how these variables play out.

Hezbollah may be the most visible example of a ‘first generation’ OG org. And – as a militia, political party, social welfare provider and upholder of the faith – perhaps the most diversified. The Hezbollah model, however, may not be replicable or scalable. Emergent outcomes are the result of complex interactions among initial conditions, rules and relationships, and Hezbollah has enjoyed some very fortuitous initial conditions and relationships.

Not least are a coherent narrative, a homogeneous population, an enemy to rally against, and allies with relatively complimentary goals and deep pockets. What it lacks is a true source of livelihood, which I’d argue is the one absolute essential. If you’ve got the gig, you can create the rest. Hezbollah is vulnerable due to its economic dependence on Iran and Syria.

Perhaps a better example is the La Familia Cartel in Michoacán. They produce and distribute methamphetamine, smuggle people, pirate DVDs and run a strong arm debt-collection service. (Their fulfillment rate is reputed to be near 100%. They kidnap defaulters.) They also collect ‘taxes’ for protection and buy politicians.

In exchange, the cartel provides drug treatment to mitigate the impact of their products within their territory, supports schools and clinics, keeps order and even does micro lending. (Word is their rates are lower than banks and turnaround time from application to funding is under 72 hours.) This is all wrapped in a quasi evangelical ideology and a Robin Hood aura, supported by social networking capabilities, and all underwritten by a solid gig.

Mara Salvatrucha – MS-13 – is an example of a geographically distributed model. It has a powerful Identity and primary loyalty. Members have their tats, Uzis and homies to demonstrate belonging. And they have drugs, theft, protection and smuggling as a gig.

There are two primary weaknesses to that model, however. Where it arose primarily to protect Salvadorians from other immigrant gangs, MS – 13 is purely parasitic today, so lacks the kind of popular support Hezbollah and La Familia enjoy. And it hasn’t decoupled from the larger system, so when that system goes into crisis, it has no ‘crumple zones’ to absorb the impact of a crash. The gang’s cash is still tied up in the global system, and they can’t eat it. MS 13 lacks deep resilience.

That lack of deep resilience is common to most of the current crop of OGs, and it’s often multiplied by a lack ‘requisite variety’.

The greater the diversity within a system – the greater the number of perspectives it can see and possibilities it can imagine – the more effective it is, and the more resilient it is to perturbations. But the composition and Identity of most OGs today are too narrow to support genuine resilience. Their goals are too small – even too personal – and don’t benefit the larger community, which will ultimately come to see them as the parasites they are. (Think Taliban.)

The fact is, if most of today’s OGs were decoupled from legitimate social and political grievance, they would be seen as simply criminal, and deserving of eradication. Since they are often able to mask themselves as crusaders against oppression – or simply as those who succeed in a system crafted to suppress them (Super Fly Syndrome) – they are often viewed as heroes. Admiration without remuneration, however, is not sustainable. OGs that don’t give back will go away.

Potentially more durable models are beginning to emerge in more affluent regions and neighborhoods. Not because the people there are smarter or more ambitious, but because it’s a lot easier to pursue transformation in a relatively stable environment where you have a significant degree of safety, and the necessary economic resources.

These new models are hyper local, scaling down to city block size or smaller. They feature components like local energy production and grids, with surplus power as an export product. Water capture and reclamation. Food production, including permanent production edible landscapes. Security is provided through self policing – whether through internal patrols or contract providers – with social governance enforced by ‘tribal’ models such as shunning and banishment.

These ‘urban village’ models create local institutions to capture and locally recirculate the big outflows of a typical community – interest, insurance, energy and food – and underwrite community livelihood. In so doing, they decouple from the global system and create the crumple zones that will allow them to weather external system shocks. (Citi goes, bust? Oh well. Our assets are in local infrastructure, local financial institutions, local currencies, seed banks, time banks, root cellars . . .)

In an OG world, the metrics for success are local, democratic and entrepreneurial, with a significant degree of insulation from external fluctuations. Self sufficient, self protective and self healing. Successful OGs will generate not only livelihood, but also safety, Identity, community and fun.

That’s what security means in the 21st century, and that’s what nation states can’t provide.

Which is why they’re heading for the dustbin of history.

Will Wikileaker SPC. Bradley Manning Be Redeemeed?

By now, you’ve heard about Wikileaks’s Pentagon Papers-esque document leal. Rather than add a few snowflakes to the media blizzard today, we’ll direct you to some of the best coverage. We’ve been following it at the Guardian, one of three outlets, along with the New York Times and Der Spiegel, on which Wikileaks dumped the documents. It’s hard to imagine the latter two improving on the Guardian, which sprang out of the blocks in fine form.

Here’s the Guardian’s home page for itscoverage: Afghanistan: the War Logs

And, to keep from overwhelming you’ll, we’ll just send you to three blogs for today. First, Siun at FireDogLake: Wikileaks’ Release of Secret Afghan War Archives

Next, Steve Hynd at Newshoggers: The War Logs: The Largest Pentagon Leak Ever

Finally, Glenn Greenwald at Salon: The WikiLeaks Afghanistan leak (Big “sic” to Salon for capitalizing the “L” in Wikileaks, not to mention repeating the word “leak” — just signs of how much everyone is rushing to jump on this story.)

Bear in mind that the man who transferred the documents to Wikileaks, SPC. Bradley manning, was taken into custody by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in early June. Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter at Wired’s Threat Level report:

“When Manning told [infamous hacker and also a Wikileaker Adrian] Lamo that he leaked a quarter-million classified embassy cables, Lamo contacted the Army, and then met with Army CID investigators and the FBI at a Starbucks near his house in Carmichael, California, where he passed the agents a copy of the chat logs. At their second meeting with Lamo on May 27, FBI agents from the Oakland Field Office told the hacker that Manning had been arrested the day before in Iraq by Army CID investigators.

“Lamo has contributed funds to Wikileaks in the past, and says he agonized over the decision to expose Manning — he says he’s frequently contacted by hackers who want to talk about their adventures, and he has never considered reporting anyone before. The supposed diplomatic cable leak, however, made him believe Manning’s actions were genuinely dangerous to U.S. national security.”

In fact, whatever SPC. Manning’s motivations, they may be eclipsed by those of Lamo, whose credibility is considerably more questionable than Manning’s will ever be. (Most of that information I received “on background.”) Will Manning eventually be seen as the second coming of Daniel Ellsberg?

In the meantime, please include Focal Points among the sites you follow for analysis of the leak that is to leaks as Deepwater Horizon is to oil spills.

The Long Knives Close in On “Caesar” Silvio

Berlusconi protestIn spite of all his billions and his control of Italy’s media, there is a growing sense that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—the one-time cruise ship crooner— is finally headed for a fall. Two of his ministers and a senior treasury official were forced to resign over corruption charges, and the investigation may soon engulf Berlusconi himself.

The corruption investigation netted three of his closest associates, including the Neapolitan politician and Treasury undersecretary Nicola Cosentino; banker Denis Verdini, a major figure in the Prime Minister’s People of Liberty Party; and Senator Marcello Del’Utri, a former executive in Berlusconi’s media empire.

The three are accused of setting up a cabal of politicians and wealthy businessmen aimed at influencing judges to reverse the Oct. 7, 2009 ruling by the Constitutional Court that a law passed by the Berlusconi-dominated legislature, immunizing the PM, the president, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament from criminal charges, violated the principle that all Italians are equal before the law. The court ruling means Berlusconi faces charges of tax fraud, bribing judges, and paying his English lawyer to lie in court.

A wiretap caught the three men talking about the scheme and referring to someone at the center of the conspiracy by the code name “Caesar.” Berlusconi denies he is the “Caesar.”

Right. This is the Prime Minister who fancies himself a reincarnation of ancient emperors, holds rallies near Rome’s huge coliseum, throws lavish parties filled with prostitutes, under-age girls, and naked people a-la Nero, and has the most to gain from a reversal of the ruling by the court. Silvio “Caesar”? Perish the thought.

Actually “Benito” is probably a better moniker. Berlusconi has praised the fascist leader Benito Mussolini on more than one occasion, and his People of Liberty Party was formed by merging his Forza Italia Party with the neo-fascist National Alliance Party (NAP). The NAP’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, currently speaker of the house, used to give the stiff-armed fascist salute at party rallies. Berlusconi’s other ally is Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, an openly racist party that provides the winning margin for Berlusconi in the upper house.

There is a strong odor of the Mafia around all this. Dell’Utri, the senator from Naples, was convicted of “associating” with the Mafia, a conviction recently upheld on appeal. Indeed the press is calling the “gang of three” nailed by the wire taps, “P3” after the 1980s P2 scandal that linked Masonic lodges to fascist groups, the Mafia, and Italy’s military intelligence agency, the SID.

Up to now Berlusconi’s wealth from his $6.5 billion holding company Fininvest, and his domination of the media—he controls Italy’s three most watched television channels (sports, soaps and cleavage), plus the public channel RAI though his command of the government—has protected him and his friends. But no longer.

In fact, the current crisis feels much like the early ’90s when “tangentopoli” (“bribesville”) tanked the First Republic. The current P3 scandal could well bring down the Second Republic.

Most observers think that Berlusconi will call a snap election this next spring, because, while his popularity is dropping, he still gets favorable ratings from many Italians. But his troubles are not all of the legal variety. Italy’s economy is in serious trouble and growth has been less than 1 percent a year since 2000. Of the G7 countries, only Japan has seen a greater loss of Gross Domestic Product. Factories are idled and unemployment hovers at around 8.6 percent, though that figure is much higher in the poorer south.

Referring to the “gang of three” resignations, Ezio Mauro, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Repubblica, told the Financial Times, “The ghost ship of the Berlusconi government is throwing corpses into the sea to survive.” But it is not clear that the Left can take advantage of the situation. It is fractious and has yet to put forth a unified program.

Berlusconi announced July 16 that he was canceling his plans for a summer vacation in order to work on reorganizing his People for Justice Party. But as investigators continue to burrow into the charges of tax evasion and bribery, and the corpses of his associates pile up around him, the three-time Prime Minister may soon find himself on permanent holiday.

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

South Korea Odd Man Out in Cheonan Outcome

Many of us suspect that, given the lack of proof, the light South Korean warship the Cheonan wasn’t sunk by a North Korean missile. But, whatever we think occurred, North Korean culpability is, by consensus, the premise from which the United States and China have proceeded. Peter Lee explains at Asia Times Online.

As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week met in Seoul with their Republic of Korea (ROK) counterparts . . . the Cheonan sinking in March, the defining crisis that was supposed to highlight . . . their relationship, instead cast an ugly shadow over the event. The United States failed to organize a vigorous international backlash against North Korea [and] the United Nations Security Council failed to condemn [North Korea]. Joint US-ROK naval exercises, designed to build on UN condemnation with a massive show of united force and resolve, have instead turned into an embarrassing fizzle.

Initial plans for the exercises targeted the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula and promised the intimidating presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The reports aroused a barrage of official criticism and popular anger inside China. In response, the expected location began to drift eastward. … The most recent report is that the US will . . . split the difference . . . with the George Washington and three destroyers in the east and a face-saving smaller exercise in the west.

China, which as recently as two weeks ago looked to be facing an intransigent united front of the US, South Korea and Japan, received an unexpected gift thanks to this American muddling: an alliance showing distinct signs of dismay, demoralization and division.

An alternate scenario courtesy of the author (emphasis added):

If the Barack Obama administration had a modulated policy combining recognition of core Chinese interests and pushback against Chinese opportunism . . . concessions on the . . . US-ROK drills might have been viewed as a welcome sign that [everyone's] mutual interest [was being respected].

However, in the context of an Obama administration foreign policy that appears to frame Asian affairs as a zero-sum game of global norms . . . vs Chinese [parochialism] it is difficult to view the saga of the wandering naval exercise as anything other than a defeat. [Meanwhile] South Korea, which for a time expected to ride the Cheonan crisis to . . recognition as the key US security partner in Asia . . . instead found itself shunted to the side as the two superpowers, China and the United States, once again dispose of the affairs of the Korean Peninsula between them.

South Korea, if you really did accuse North Korea of sinking the Cheonan when you knew that, in truth, it ran aground, freed itself, and collided with another ship . . . well, how’s that working out for you?

Proclaiming One’s Supremacy Doesn’t Become a Supreme Leader

Last Tuesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a lightning rod of a fatwa that has since been removed from the web. One “Mr. Verde” at Enduring America (the website’s title is an ironic take on Operation Enduring Freedom) furnishes us with a comprehensive analysis of the fatwa.

Khamenei is claiming that he is a cleric of the highest rank who possesses all the required credentials to hold the position of [Supreme Leader].

    Many Shia clerics and scholars . . . believed in 1989 that Khamenei did not have the required religious credentials to permit him to hold the position of Supreme Leader. Other regime officials have said that Khamenei has the credentials, but such claims were made [only] in political speeches. This time the claim is made in the name of a religious edict and by Khamenei himself.

    Khamenei is claiming that his rule is a direct succession to that of the Prophet and the Shia Imams.

      During recent months, as he has been trying to cope with the fallout of the crisis within the Islamic Republic, Khamenei has repeatedly compared himself to the first Shia Imam and his opponents to the Imam’s enemies. Now he is claiming that he is not only the successor of the Imams, but of the Prophet too. … [Emphasis added.]

      The obvious significance of this fatwa is that Khamenei is saying that his orders must be carried out without failure. [But he] has not been able to demonstrate that he has any real authority in Iran beyond the use of force by his security personnel.

      On Thursday, in a follow-up post at Enduring America, Mr. Verde adds that according to his fatwa, Khameini . . .

      . . . sees no necessity for the constitution and the laws of the land, as he — the rightful successor to the Prophet and the Imams and the leader of the Muslims of the world — can decide whenever he wants what should or should not be done. … If such a fatwa were to stand, then elected officials would become courtiers in Khamenei’s service, not the servants of the people.

      The United States was formed partly in reaction to the idea of a state controlled by a religion, with its inclination to intolerance and tyranny. However, a religion endowed with power is not only destructive to the state, but to itself — or, more to the point, to its worshippers.

      Today we’re witness to the insensitivity that the pope displays, ostensibly in the interest of shoring up the institution of the Catholic church, to the rage and pain of its members over clerical child abuse. Their spiritual lives are left to moulder as local priests are given few tools to work with by the church hierarchy to facilitate healing. Inevitably, the religion’s “brand” is sullied.

      It’s no different with Islam, when Iran’s Supreme Leader countenances the savage repression of the Green Movement (including street shootings, as well as killings and rapes by armed guards in prisons), arming Hezbollah, and, arguably, developing nuclear weapons. The sensibilities of moderate Muslims are hung out to dry, much as they are by the methods of Islamists like al Qaeda, as well as the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

      It’s easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to find the Islam in Islamism. It’s equally as difficult to locate among the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

      On Trying Not to Think of Stalin While Reading the Priest-Arkin Series

      Joseph StalinNot long ago I read Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, a magisterial biography — stop right there. Don’t you hate it when reviewers reflexively laud a biography with the cliche “magisterial”? Besides, the reactions this nonetheless important book evoked in me ranged from banal (okay, another cliché, this one to describe evil, of course) to disgusting — the deeds Stalin committed. It was written in 1991by Dimitri Volkogonov, one of Russia’s highest ranking generals and among the first to gain access to secret archives of the Stalin years . If you’ll recall, that was a time when the life of a Russian, especially if he or she worked for the state, was like a game of Russian roulette.

      We haven’t reached the point in the United States where the state capriciously singles out individuals for execution or imprisonment (at least not on the scale Stalin did). But has any recent reporting brought home the extent to which the U.S. government has become a secretive national security state than the series by Dana Priest and William Arkin that the Washington Post is publishing this week?

      Part one, A hidden world, growing beyond control, begins (as you probably know since you’ve no doubt read it):

      The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

      For example . . .

      Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. . . .

      In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

      To begin with, imagine Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden — assuming he’s not dead or a permanent resident in al Qaeda’s nursing and rehab center — reading a translation of this series. Al Qaeda may never again be the force it was (if it ever really was). But, along with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started in its name, our inflated military budget, and our staggering secret national security state, al Qaeda’s leaders can’t help but celebrate how well their strategy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy seems to be working.

      It’s true that the government of a large country is, almost by definition, a cold, unfeeling entity. But more and more, one can’t help but view the U.S. government as the citizens (or subjects) of countless countries have perceived theirs since the inception of statehood. Such governments don’t exist for the benefit of their people; instead, we exist to ensure the hardiness and continuity of the state. More to the point, the apparatus of the state, as epitomized by Soviet Russia, is perceived as an occupying force in not only other states, such as, in our case, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in its own country.

      But let’s go straight to the most critical issue: After the Priest-Arkin series, exactly how are we supposed to respond to Tea Partiers who condemn big government?

      Part 2: National Security Inc.
      Part 3: The secrets next door

      Pakistan’s Insurgents More Like Our Founding Fathers Than We Know?

      Though the New York Times is a valuable source of information, its tone and content sometimes betray its mainstream liberal bias to an embarrassing degree. This Monday’s front-page piece, titled “Pakistan’s Elite Pay Few Taxes, Widening Gap” well illustrates the point.

      Published in sync with Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan, the report says that the absence of an equitable tax system is helping to “[create] conditions that have helped spread an insurgency that is tormenting the country and complicating American policy in the region.”

      Tongue-clucking about Pakistan’s failure to do its part in America’s war, it describes “a sorry performance for a country that is among the largest recipients of American aid, payments of billions of dollars that prop up the country’s finances and are meant to help its leaders fight the insurgency.”

      Nowhere in the article, however, does the Times offer any evidence, statements of fact, expert commentary, or testimony from ordinary Pakistanis to substantiate its claim that its tax policy has “created the conditions” for the insurgency.

      It is doubtless true that inequality is rampant in Pakistan, and it is equally true that its ruling elite is corrupt, parasitic, and stunningly myopic. But that is not unusual in a poor country, and it does not explain the rapid rise of the blistering Pakistani Taliban insurgency.

      A more methodical tax collection effort would certainly bolster state revenue, but most uncollected taxes would be drawn from major cities like Karachi, which lies far to the south, and from the playgrounds of the rich that pepper Islamabad, the country’s capital.

      The insurgency, on the other hand, is burgeoning in the North Western Frontier Province that lies north and borders Afghanistan. The government exercises little administrative control there because of the fierce Pashtun tribalism that prevails on both sides of the border. That has been the case since the country’s founding more than sixty years ago.

      So how could a long history of unfair wealth distribution explain an insurgency that has sprung up only recently? If mere poverty were a kindle for political violence, wouldn’t the populations of, say, Bangladesh or North Korea be engaged in mass revolt? And if taxation policies benefiting the rich were responsible for the violence, shouldn’t America have been in the throes of an insurgency after G.W. Bush enacted massive tax cuts for the country’s richest citizens?

      To find the real catalyst for the insurgency, the Times ought to have looked a little closer to home. Before the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani extremists were either working with the state or lying low. Indeed, it is only very recently—when the U.S. woke up from its neoconservative-induced coma in Iraq and shifted focus back to Afghanistan—that Pakistani cities, mosques, shrines, government centers, and military installations have regularly become scenes of bloody militant attacks.

      Though the Pakistani Taliban have certainly exploited the poverty of the rural masses, their rallying cry has not exactly echoed the slogan of “no taxation without representation”; it has instead homed in on the Pakistan’s support for the U.S. led war along the “Af-Pak” border. Its bloodiest assaults, including the cowardly massacres at an Ahmadi mosque and a Sufi shrine, came only after Pakistan launched a 2009 summer offensive in parts of the NWFP.

      Of course, the American-led war in Afghanistan is not the only reason for the insurgency, even though the Pakistani press, reflecting the impotence of the people, has heaped all blame on America. The Pakistani elites have themselves been playing a cynical and myopic double-game with militants, hoping to leverage ties with extremists such as the local Haqqani network and even the Afghan Taliban to shape Afghanistan once the United States exits the stage. According to one recent report, the ties are even more extensive than previously believed.

      The Pakistani military, blind to the pernicious effects of empowering illiterate and backward Pahstun tribal elements who imagine themselves to be pious Muslims, thinks it can harness the extremists’ violence against Indian interests in Afghanistan—even though these Pakistani “Islamists” have so far succeeded only in killing Muslim civilians and Pakistani soldiers at an unprecedented pace.

      The Times’ fixation on Pakistan’s tax policies is curiously off the mark, blaming Pakistan for the insurgency without pointing to either of the actual reasons to blame. It is the presence of thousands of American troops in neighboring Afghanistan and the Pakistani state’s tacit support for extremism, not an absence of tax collectors, that is most responsible for kindling the flames of the insurgency.

      Are Nuclear Weapons Really the Ultimate in More Bang for the Buck?

      “Saudi Arabia’s decision last week to sign a nuclear cooperation pact with France marks a major step forward for a pan-Arab drive toward nuclear power,” reports UPI. “All told, 13 Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, have announced plans — or dusted off old plans — to build nuclear power stations since 2006. All say they have no intention of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But there is concern that once they’ve mastered the technology they’ll seek to counter Iran’s alleged push to acquire such weapons by doing so themselves.”

      How is it that when a state ponders going nuclear, it always seems to find the money? It’s true that it takes advantage of a tendency on the part of its citizens to: 1. agree that no expense be spared when it comes to defense and 2. take national pride in a nuclear energy program (even more so in a nuclear weapons program). Or is that embarking on nuclear weapons program isn’t as expensive as one would think?

      Conventional thinking holds that nuclear weapons are cheaper than non-nuclear weapons. In other words, they ostensibly represent a means for a state with limited conventional forces to level the playing field with states that boast larger conventional forces or even nuclear weapons. The editor of the Nonproliferation Review and perhaps the world’s leading nuclear weapons auditor Stephen Schwartz wrote at Nuclear Threat Initiative:

      The belief underpinning the rapid increase in nuclear weapons during the 1950s was summed up in the phrase, “a bigger bang for a buck.” According to this widely accepted idea, nuclear weapons were more cost effective than conventional ones because pound for pound they could deliver more “killing power.” The thinking was that nuclear weapons would replace conventional weapons, saving large amounts of money and deterring war. But in reality nuclear weapons supplemented conventional weapons and the United States developed enormous arsenals of both, wiping out any potential savings envisioned by those who championed a large and robust nuclear arsenal.

      Obviously, a nuclear weapons program won’t cost a state as much as the Manhattan Project, with its pioneering research and design — $28 billion (in today’s dollars) or $7 billion apiece for the two bombs. That wheel doesn’t need reinventing (unfortunately). But, the issue of states supplementing their conventional weapons instead of replacing them aside, how are nuclear weapons cheaper?

      In the summer of 2001, Nonproliferation Review published an article by Dr. Stanley Erickson, a scientist who today works in the private sector developing port inspection systems for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. His piece, titled Economic and Technological Trends Affecting Nuclear Nonproliferation, shows how states might afford — or, more to the point, convince themselves they can afford — such an undertaking.

      Continued worldwide economic growth [at that time, just before 9/11] has raised the GNP of many states [some of which] may indeed be crossing the threshold where economic strength would allow the development of a nuclear weapon program without crippling their economy or conventional military forces, even if done rapidly.

      Dr. Erickson adds that “new technologies have been developed to produce nuclear materials [which] may be done with much less capital expenditure.” These include laser processes for isotopic separation. But, “There is little point for a state to develop nuclear weapons if delivery systems for these weapons are beyond the state’s capabilities. The preferred method for nuclear weapon delivery among the major powers has been ballistic missiles. … However, cruise missiles may be a more achievable delivery system for many countries.”

      Cruise missiles — talk about your budget delivery systems. Then there are submarines. Wait, a nuclear submarine costs $2 billion plus. But Dr. Erickson is referring to “conventionally powered submarines . . . with electric generators [from which] a short-range cruise missile [can be launched] from torpedo tubes while the submarine is submersed.”

      Along with laser isotope separation and launching cruise missiles from the torpedo tubes of electric submarines, there’s yet another avenue the aspiring, but cost-conscious nuclear power can pursue. What’s an illicit nuclear program without underground research and manufacturing facilities? Huh? How can that not be expensive? Turns out that while it’s not necessarily cheap, it’s less costly than you might think.

      Modern self-propelled tunneling machinery allows nuclear facilities to be built many times faster and cheaper than they were 20 years ago. Automated tunneling equipment . . . continues to become more efficient and less expensive [allowing] a tunnel two to 10 meters (m) in diameter to be bored at the rate of several m per day or more. … Other types of automated equipment allow supports and linings to be put in place at the same rate as the boring proceeds. [Tunnel boring machines] have lowered the cost and delay barriers that might have formerly inhibited the placing of facilities underground.

      One more option remains available to a state developing a nuclear weapons program on the cheap: skip developing a delivery system, such as missiles, in favor of prepositioning. What does prepositioning involve? Nuclear weapons smuggled, instead of launched or dropped from bombers, into another state such as the United States. Of course, you know that as nuclear terrorism. But what’s to stop a state, instead of a non-state actor (terrorist group), from attempting to plan such an attack? Conveniently Dr. Erickson is one of the few to publicly address that subject, which we’ll address in a future post.

      Meanwhile, though, a state aspiring to nuclear weapons would still be required to develop a delivery systems lest the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the world draw the conclusion that it planned to either emulate nuclear terrorists, or equally troublesome, supply them with SADMs (special atomic demolition munitions), such as low-yield nuclear suitcases or backpacks. Thus, no totally scrimping on a delivery system.

      What to Do About Somalia

      SomaliaNow that the violence of Somalia has spilled over into Uganda, western policymakers and pundits are suddenly all aflutter with the urge to ‘do something’. Exactly what that something might be is uncertain. Drone attacks, special forces, a Gaza-like blockade and even a full scale invasion have been suggested.

      All of those are truly terrible ideas – and exactly the kind of legacy thinking that caused the US to hug the tar baby called IrAfPak. At best, they will generate yet another failure / quagmire, and expand the ever growing pool of pissed off people who want to car bomb Times Square. At worst, they could invite a ‘fifth column’ type of resistance on the part of the Somali diaspora and sympathizers, spreading conflict across the region and beyond. (Somewhere between 40% and 50% of ethnic Somalis live outside the country.)

      Instead of pursuing the same old failed policies, the way to resolve intractable problems is to expand the ‘solution space’ – the range of available options. Solution space is determined by the perspectives – which we might also call beliefs, paradigms or ‘mental models’ – of the players involved. Because we can only act on ideas that get through our political / cultural / personal filters, the way to achieve breakthrough is to broaden our perspectives in order to see a wider range of possibilities.

      Here are five perspectives that could begin to shift the situation in Somalia.

      1 – Disaggregate It

      Somalia is not really a country in the way westerners typical apply the concept. Like Afghanistan, it is a collection of tribes and clans that alternately compete and collaborate, spread across arbitrary boundaries imposed by colonial powers. (Somalia’s borders are a result of combining Northern Somalia, which was a British ‘trusteeship’, with Southern Somalia, which was an Italian ‘protectorate’, to form the Somali Republic. French Somaliland to the north became Djibouti.)

      Even though lines on maps are somehow sacred to most policymakers, they should be ignored here. So long as the US and its allies see Somalia as a single, troubled country controlled by radical Islamists, they will suffer ‘path dependency’, stuck forever with only the limited range of lousy options noted above.

      ‘Chunking’ the issues – seeing Somalia as a diverse jumble of players, areas and interests – would allow adaptive responses based more on objective realities and less on stereotypes. It would also allow distributed, locally appropriate interventions and innovations that could be rapidly prototyped to see whether and how they might scale and extend.

      Perspective 2 – Reinforce the Positive

      There are areas of Somalia that work reasonably well (by local standards), and those should be engaged and fostered. The Republic of Somaliland, in the northwest, is relatively stable and continues to move toward a constitutional democracy, including holding what outside observers consider free and fair municipal, parliamentary, and presidential elections.

      Puntland, which includes the ‘horn’ of Africa, declared itself an ‘autonomous state’ in 1998 and has been relatively stable since. (Again, by local standards. It’s not Sweden.) Puntland has worked to diversify its economy and made education a government priority, especially for girls and the nomadic clans that make up roughly half the population. Early childhood development is also a high priority.

      Engaging these regions with targeted aid and development efforts would increase their stability, and demonstrate that westerners are not the enemy of Somalis. Even more important, it would demonstrate to Somalis in war torn areas that there is hope. Nothing is more destabilizing to a regime than rising or falling expectations, and increasing stability and prosperity in the north could provide a severe challenge to Al-Shabaab, the Islamist movement dominating south-central Somalia.

      The reactionary, ‘crisis management’ focus on distressed areas in the south and center of the country causes neglect of the more stable north and west. That neglect creates openings for parasitic entities. Both pirates and human traffickers operate openly in Puntland, and can be displaced only by developing viable, alternative livelihoods.

      Perspective 3 – Open Lines of Communication

      Complexity science tells us that structures are relationships made visible. In order to create new structures – which will then generate new patterns of events and behaviors – the US needs to create new relationships.

      Obviously, this can be difficult – especially for politicians who have staked out positions based on simplistic jingoism, like ‘Islamofascism’ and ‘Global War on Terror’. But it has been done successfully in equally difficult situations. When Nelson Mandela was criticized by members of his own party for talking to the de Klerk government, he said, ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’

      Although the US despises the Al Shabaab movement, that entity currently controls much of the south and center of the Somalia. If the US truly wants to change the situation on the ground, it needs to get past its prejudice and work with Al Shabaab. Despite competing ideologies, both sides have some common ground and can find ways to work together. As trust and relationships grow, deeper issues can be addressed.

      Perspective 4 – Think Governance, Not Government

      Despite western claims, there is no legitimate government in Somalia. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has no writ beyond a few square blocks in Mogadishu, and would quickly disappear were it not protected by Ugandan and Burundian troops under the auspices of the African Mission on Somalia (AMISOM).

      The TFG is the fourteenth attempt to impose a functioning government in Somalia since the end of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Like many other iterations, it is largely seen by locals as a shill for Ethiopia and the US, and has been accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of chronic rape, murder, looting and theft. Backing it lends no credence to western claims of promoting human rights and democracy.

      Encouraging Al Shabaab to govern well – rather than attempting to subvert that governance – is a more effective strategy. If they succeed and bring forth order and development, everyone wins. If they fail and destroy their own legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, they will be deposed – without resentment against outsiders and the potential for blowback that engenders.

      Perspective 5 – Get Over the Fear of ‘isms’

      Just as America’s fear of communism stampeded it to make disastrous decisions regarding China, Viet Nam, Iran and a host of other nations, its fear of Islam drives stupid and self-defeating policy regarding Somalia.

      It was this fear of Islamism that caused western nations to sponsor the 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia to defeat the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when that group seemed about to consolidate power. By toppling the ICU, the US and its allies created a vacuum that was filled by the ICU’s military wing. Today that movement is called Al Shabaab, and America rails against the very situation it helped create.

      The fact is, Somalia is a Muslim country, in a Muslim region. It is only logical that Islamic values and tradition frame discussions of the country’s future. (Even the TFG ‘president’ offers his degree in Islamic Law as a primary qualification for the job.)

      If US policymakers truly want to help stabilize the situation in Somalia, they need to get past their pathological fear of all things Islamic. In fact, they should encourage all sides to practice fundamental tenets of Islam, including devotional activity, simplicity, charity, humility, patience, and consistency.

      Muslims believe that through such practices believers become more whole, peaceful, loving and compassionate. These virtues, as they become living attributes, evolve into a state of higher consciousness called fana.

      Somalia – and the world – should be so lucky.

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