Friday 27 November 2009

27 November 2009

I have a question for you: where have more US military personnel died this year – in Afghanistan, or Iraq?

Afghanistan, of course, is the right answer: 297 deaths so far this year, compared to 144 in Iraq. (There have so far been 98 UK military deaths in Afghanistan this year.)

But it’s also the wrong answer. Because more US men and women in uniform have committed suicide this year – at least 334 – than have died in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

I mention it because it’s worth taking into account as we prepare for President Obama’s announcement next Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning if you’re in the UK) on his plans for future military deployments in Afghanistan.

He knows that for tens of thousands of American military families – and for many, many more who live in their communities – what matters is not only how many men and women are killed in action, but how deep are the scars, both physical and mental, that they bear long after they have returned home.

So my hunch is that the President will present his decision next week as a strategy for getting out of Afghanistan. This, he will say, is what we intend to do so that we can leave the place to its own people, knowing that we have given them a decent chance of running it themselves.

I suggest that you look not so much at how many extra troops he’s decided to send (32-35,000 seems to be the current best estimate), but where he’s sending them and what he’s asking them to do. Because according to many analysts, there’s now a growing realisation in Washington that killing Taliban fighters doesn’t get you very far.

One of the most common questions that policy-makers get asked when they’re making decisions about military deployments is: “How will we know when we’ve won?” After all, no one expects the Taliban to sign a formal surrender document.

So, the usual answer is: when the people of Afghanistan can be relatively confident that they and their families are secure, and when there is a degree of political stability that looks likely to last.

Take a look at how other insurgencies in the region have been tackled. According to Paul Staniland, writing on the website, the usual deal involves “messy and ambiguous bargains that states make with armed groups and local political actors combining accommodation, coercion, bribery, and coexistence.”

He calls it “ugly stability”. “The government accepts that insurgents will continue to control parts of their own community, but insurgents know that pushing the state too hard can trigger a crackdown. Governments flip over some former insurgents to act as pro-state militias, insurgents and warlords sponsor normal politicians, and both sides become linked to peripheral war economies. A strange but often enduring quasi-stability can persist, whether in Karachi, the Bodo hills, or Nagaland.”

In other words, it’s not anything like what you’ll find in Westminster or Washington, but in a way, it works. And it’s an approach that closely resembles what a US army special operations officer, Major Jim Grant, is reported to have outlined in a paper called “One Tribe at a Time: A strategy for Success in Afghanistan.”

According to Fred Kaplan, of, Grant’s premise is that Afghanistan "has never had a strong central government and never will. Its society and power structure are, and always will be, built around tribes – and any U.S. or NATO effort to defeat the Taliban must be built around tribes, as well.”

So is this the picture that’s emerging? Forget all that stuff about democracy and women’s rights – what this is about now is getting out as quickly as possible without leaving behind too much of a mess. According to an increasing number of analysts, that’s likely to be the best offer available.

Friday 20 November 2009

20 November 2009

When you were at school, did you ever want to be friends with someone who just didn’t want to be your friend? However nice you were to them, they simply ignored you?

Now, I wouldn’t dream of comparing Barack Obama to a friendless school-child – after all, he’s probably one of the most popular men in the world, and a former Harvard law professor as well – but he doesn’t seem to be having too much luck at the moment making new friends among the people who count.

Iran, China, Cuba – you name it, he’s tried to be friendly. But wherever he goes, whomever he talks to, they all seem to be disciples of the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Take Iran, for example: what do its leaders think are their nation’s eternal and perpetual interests? To do what Washington (and, to be fair, many other governments too) wants them to do? Or to plough on with what looks to many like a secret nuclear weapons programme in order to emerge as a regional nuclear power?

Or take China. Where do its interests lie? In forming a strategic alliance with the US, or with continuing its economic development while keeping a firm lid on political pluralism?

If you were sitting in Beijing, or Tehran, or even Pyongyang, and the message came from Washington: “Hey, we’ve got a new guy in charge, and he wants to be friends”, what would your immediate reaction be?

Would it be: “Oh, that’s nice, let’s tell him we want to be friends too”, or would it be: “Hmm, how can we get something out of this?”

I don’t want to over-simplify: it is perfectly possible, of course, for leaders to act in what they perceive to be their national interest and also to form alliances, or friendships, with former adversaries. But Palmerston’s view was that it’s the interests that come first, not the friendships.

Now, if you’re the man in the White House – and you passionately believe that it should be possible to find common ground even with former adversaries – it can be a challenge to work out what to do if your faith in the power of shared interests isn’t reciprocated.

What do you do about Iran, for example, if they seem to be stringing you along, saying that they might, one day, like to be your friend, but not just yet. What do you do about China, which seems to be making a lot of the right noises about reducing carbon gas emissions, but – again – not just yet.

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” was Churchill’s too-often quoted maxim. But if the other lot don’t fancy jaw-jaw, do you perhaps need a Plan B that stops short of war-war?

The Obama line is that it’s still early days. It takes time to create a new global diplomatic discourse; no one should expect new friendships to be formed overnight. And the White House can claim some success: there’s little doubt now that there will be a useful US-Russia nuclear stockpile reduction agreement soon, and Moscow seems to be closer to Washington than it used to be on the idea of some tougher sanctions against Iran.

We’ll be returning to some of these questions in January, when we’ll be taking stock of Obama’s foreign policy achievements on the first anniversary of his inauguration, with the help of some of Washington’s leading public policy pundits.

More on that nearer the time, but meanwhile, just a very brief toot on the trumpet: I wrote a month ago that I didn’t think Tony Blair was going to be chosen as President of the EU Council. And last night, he wasn’t.

Friday 13 November 2009

13 November 2009

Do you remember the floods of summer 2007, when some parts of England suffered more than twice as much rain as the average? On one day alone in London (20 July), Heathrow airport cancelled more than 140 flights, and 25 stations on the London Underground were closed. There was huge disruption affecting millions of people.

Now, fast forward to 2012. The opening ceremony of the London Olympics: 27 July. And just suppose it comes after two solid weeks of unusually heavy rain. Public transport has been disrupted, power supplies are down, in some places, food is running short. Could London cope? Are planners already trying to work out what they would do?

It would be what’s known in the trade as a “low probability, high consequence event”. In other words, it’s not very likely to happen, but if it does, it’ll have very serious consequences. And it is directly relevant to the current debates over climate change, in the run-up to the international climate change conference to be held in Copenhagen next month.

I spent a day discussing all this at a conference earlier this week, organised jointly by The World Tonight, the foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House, the journal International Affairs, and the scientific academy The Royal Society. (You may have heard our discussion broadcast on Tuesday evening. If not, you can still hear it via the website.)

It was one of those conferences that leave you with plenty to think about. So here’s some of what I learned:

 Planners are already working on “worst case” climate change scenarios. They regard climate change as a “threat multiplier”; in other words, all the other challenges that we may face over the coming decades – food security, access to clean water, increased demand for energy – become even more acute because of climate change.

 But traditional planning theory is based on the assumption that certain things will remain constant: rainfall in the future will be more or less the same as in the past; water flow in major rivers will remain pretty much what it was. If constants become variables as a result of climate change, how do you make your plans?

 In the Himalayas, average temperatures are already rising much faster than elsewhere. Glaciers are melting rapidly, which means that water flow in the major rivers, which depends on ice melting in the summer, is already down by 60 per cent or more.

 One quarter of all humanity depends on that water; and three of the nations in which those people live are nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, and China. Military forces in those countries are “war gaming” how they would deal with a major water crisis.

 Black carbon, soot, is one of the major causes of warmer temperatures in the Himalaya region because millions of people heat their homes and cook their food on open fires. But black carbon is not a carbon gas, so it will form no part of the discussions at the Copenhagen conference next month.

 The US Department of Energy has set up an Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence to provide detailed analysis of all available data on energy and climate-related issues. The US government regards the possibility of climate change-inspired conflict as a major potential security threat.

 Some intelligence officials worry about what they call “organisational adaptive disabilities”; in other words, they fear that governments simply aren’t up to the job of dealing with some of the scenarios under consideration.

By the way, did you hear about the major power cuts that hit much of Brazil this week and left nearly 60 million people in the dark? Unusually strong storms brought down power lines, apparently, and knocked out all electricity supplies to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and several other major cities. (Brazil will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Think about it …)

But yes, I did pick up one bit of good news: the global economic slow-down has resulted in a significant reduction in the emission of carbon gases. We’ve got about four more years than would otherwise have been the case.

Friday 6 November 2009

6 November 2009

I suspect you’ve been reading and hearing quite a lot about Afghanistan over the past few days. But how much have you been reading about Pakistan?

The shooting dead on Tuesday of five British servicemen by an Afghan police officer whom they’d been training seems to have brought to a head many of the nagging questions that a lot of people have been asking about the whole Afghan operation.

Can we trust them? Is it worth it? Might it be better just to leave them to get on with it?

In Washington and London, the answers from government are Yes, Yes, and No. As I write, Gordon Brown is about to re-state his government’s determination to stay the course – Britain, he says, “will not be deterred, dissuaded or diverted.”

Meanwhile, in Pakistan …

The army is conducting a huge operation against Taliban fighters in the border region of South Waziristan. No foreign observers or reporters are allowed anywhere near the scene, other than on tightly-escorted trips … so we have no idea what’s happening. But it’s hugely difficult terrain, and it has defeated countless military operations before.

The government has been told to its face, by Hillary Clinton on her recent visit, that Washington doubts its resolve in dealing with jihadi insurgents. Many Western analysts believe that some army elements are still quietly backing jihadis based in Punjab, close to the border with India, even as the military are battling against their fellow-jihadis at the other end of the country.

Why? Because to many of the military top brass, even after everything that has happened over the past two to three years, it’s India that remains Public Enemy Number 1, not jihadi fighters. And if some jihadi groups can continue to make trouble for India in Kashmir – and let’s not forget the attacks in Mumbai a year ago – well, that, they seem to think, is bound to be good for Pakistan.

Looked at from Rawalpindi, the Pakistani military HQ, India is a military giant: its standing army, including reservists, is more than 3 million strong, making it the second largest military force in the world, after China. And a substantial chunk of that military might is stationed along the border with Pakistan.

The Obama administration insists that it recognises the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan as inextricably linked. Hence that ugly name AfPak for its strategic approach. But for the simple reason that there are US troops dying in Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan, that’s where the attention is focused. (And because British troops are dying there too, we hear far more here about the Af than the Pak.)

So what flows from all this? Well, it’s cerainly true that Pakistan is in a permanent state of crisis. It is used to weak government, rampant corruption and insecurity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read – or even written – that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Perhaps if the political leaders of Pakistan and India were able to do more to improve their relationship, then their military chiefs would stop glowering at each other with thousands of troops stationed more or less permanently on their borders. And then, perhaps, they could turn their attention to their domestic insurgents.

(The so-called Naxalite insurgency in India goes almost wholly unreported … did you know, for example, that just a couple of months ago, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Maoists, as “perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces”?)

My point is this: yes, of course, Afghanistan has to remain the priority as long as our governments are sending troops there to fight and die. But Pakistan remains a serious issue, with a gruesome series of bomb attacks over recent weeks already beginning to dull the senses with their frequency.

Perhaps the fog will clear a bit after President Obama has announced what he intends to do about the US military’s request for tens of thousands more troops for Afghanistan. But the truth is that there is no end in sight. And things could get a lot worse before they get better.