27
Aug

how not to end a plague

Written on August 27, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Africa, News, Op Ed

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia’s first experiment with urban quarantining amid the Ebola epidemic began last week in West Point, one of the poorest, most densely populated, and ethnically diverse communities in Monrovia, the country’s capital. On the morning on Wednesday, Aug. 20, West Pointers woke up to find that they were cordoned off from the rest of the city by a makeshift barricade made of wooden tables and concertina wire and manned by armed police officers and soldiers. They panicked — they had no idea how they would tend to their business, when they would eat, or how they and their families would receive medical treatment. No one informed them of what was to follow. When the town commissioner, the presidentially appointed official in charge of West Point, Miatta Flowers, attempted to escape with her family from the quarantine zone, outraged residents of the ramshackle seaside slum rioted, clashing with the police and army troops who had been dispatched to ring them in. Their commissioner seemed to be abandoning them, making a getaway while leaving them trapped.

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Published on Aug. 26 by Clair McDougall in www.foreignpolicy.com

25
Aug

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory as they head to the front line near Mosul Dam on the outskirts of the northern city of Mosul on August 18, 2014 as fighting continued with Islamic State militants for control of the strategic site  (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

t’s a turning point. Or at least it should be. Kurdish guerrilla fighters, aided by the Iraqi Army and American airstrikes, have managed to retake the crucial Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) extremists. They have delivered these bloodthirsty fanatics their first major strategic setback in many months. The fundamental vulnerability of Islamic State forces has been demonstrated. And one method by which they can be defeated, particularly by an array of different forces working together, has been successfully realized.

Indeed, the initial reports were considered by many too good to be true. Doubts were fueled by the lack of video footage demonstrating that the Dam was back under the control of Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. However, when President Barack Obama interrupted his family vacation at Martha’s Vineyard on Monday to publicly confirm the development, and defend the use of American aircraft in the fighting, virtually all doubts were put to rest.

Assuming Islamic State fighters really have been routed and their hopes of controlling the Dam are permanently crushed, the momentum must be seized. It would be almost criminally negligent to allow the Islamic State to regroup, lick its wounds and prepare to fight another day. Instead, this dramatic reversal of fortunes needs to be relentlessly built on, both on the ground and at the symbolic register of narratives.

Kurdish forces were hardly ideally suited to this task. For decades they have been focused on defending the largely mountainous regions now governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. They have become exceptionally effective and adept at doing this. However, the operation at the Dam required these fighters to project their force far beyond their normal area of operation, in very different terrain and under very different circumstances than they are used to, and to take on an offensive posture.

The support they received, particularly from punishing American airstrikes, were undoubtedly crucial to their success. But it’s still striking that Islamic State militants appear to have crumbled when confronted with a concerted military opposition. Even an unlikely and jerry-rigged combination of forces demonstrated that these extremists are highly vulnerable to any robust challenge.

That fact needs to be communicated in no uncertain terms to the Islamic State’s constituency and target audience, who often seem primed to believe that its military and political success is divinely ordained. And it needs to be reinforced by a series of additional defeats, even if they are less dramatic and indeed perhaps modest, in fairly short order.

The ultimate goal of a concerted campaign against the Islamic State must be to drive it out of Iraq, if not altogether, then at least in the main. This will obviously have to be done in stages and over time. Patience is as important as determination in such a mission. However, a combination of incentives and disincentives is urgently required to isolate the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s appeal to both its core constituency and its allies of convenience such as Sunni tribesmen and former Baathists is its reputation as an effective, if not invincible, fighting force.

That mystique, precisely, is what needs to be smashed to pieces. It has just been badly cracked. Clearly, the current moment provides a crucial opportunity to inflict further damage on this mythology.

But that’s going to require all serious parties to put their differences aside and work together, or even independently, towards the same goal. Given that, for one reason or another, it’s in all of their interests, this should certainly be possible. Acting in their own interests, Kurdish groups and the United States are now leading the battle against the Islamic State. The key missing element is the Arab world.

Arab states have an obvious and urgent interest in obliterating the Islamic State. The raison d’être of the organization, after all, is not merely to become a state to rival existing ones. That would be bad enough. Instead, it is a far more serious challenge: the Islamic State sees itself as the alternative to the existing Arab state system. Its goal is to eliminate that system altogether and replace all existing states with itself writ large.

Attitudes that may have once existed towards the Islamic State in the past, whether disinterest, ambivalence or even perhaps some vague sympathy, given that they were perceived to be fighting obnoxious regimes in Syria and Iraq, should have been dispensed with long ago. At this stage, there is simply no intelligible argument for anything other than alarm among Arab states and mainstream societies.

The Islamic State threatens everyone simultaneously. Therefore the response to it should be similarly mutual.

The process of ridding Iraq of the Islamic State cancer is probably going to be complicated and protracted. Even greater patience will be required when it comes time to confront the Islamic State in its redoubt in Syria, especially since strengthening the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship must not be a byproduct of a necessary and unavoidable campaign against IS terrorists. But none of this is beyond the ability, assuming they wish to fight back, of those targeted by the Islamic State, either at present or in some aspirational future.

The Mosul Dam defeat is likely to be a defining moment for the Islamic State. Either this will set off a chain of events that ultimately leads to its collapse, even if that’s a relatively slow process, or it’s a defeat that demonstrates the limits of the ambitions, but not the inevitable defeat, of the IS.

Arab states will play a crucial role in determining whether or not this is the beginning of the end for what is by far the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history. They must, in simple self-defense, become part of a concerted campaign to rid the Middle East of the Islamic State, or live to rue the day.

Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog

Published on 18/08 in https://now.mmedia.me/lb

22
Aug

On the 636th day of James Foley’s captivity, and roughly the 1,250th day of Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war, a video surfaced online that claimed to show the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheading the American photojournalist, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in Iraq (the militants also threatened to kill the missing American journalist Steven Sotloff, who seems from the footage to be an ISIS captive as well). The Obama administration has confirmed the authenticity of the video, and the Foley family has paid tribute to the slain reporter.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother posted on Facebook on Tuesday evening. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

That exposure is growing fainter by the day. Foley died while working in what is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter—a country where dozens of journalists have been killed and kidnapped in recent years. As the Syrian conflict has grown more indiscriminately violent; as the Syrian government has targeted journalists, censored local news coverage, and barred foreign journalists from the country; as ever-stronger extremist groups have started seizing members of the press (and not even bothering to make demands for their release), news outlets around the world have pulled their staff from the country. Many Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists have been silenced. Freelancers—empowered by the journalistic tools at their disposal, but often lacking the professional experience and institutional safety nets that are invaluable when working in conflict zones—initially helped shore up the coverage, but they too have been deterred by the deteriorating security situation and by risk-conscious news organizations that are wary of publishing their work.

As The Atlantic‘s David Rohde wrote in November, “Syria today is the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism, more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s. A combination of criminality, jihadism, and chaos is bringing on-the-ground coverage of the war to a halt.”

The result: The Syrian civil war, which has left more than 170,000 people dead and displaced 9 million more, in perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis so far this century, is grinding on as a dwindling cohort of daring journalists bear witness to its tremendous destruction. It’s grinding on in the background of our churning news cycle. We see its deleterious effects everywhere in the Middle East. But we rarely see it.

The 40-year-old Foley, a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and a Teach for America alum from New Hampshire, was abducted in northwestern Syria in November 2012. He’d come to the country as a freelancer after embedding with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and being captured by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces while covering the 2011 Libyan revolution.

And he understood the importance of the work he was doing in countries like Syria. “It’s part of the problem with these conflicts. … We’re not close enough to it. And if reporters, if we don’t try to get really close to what these guys—men, women, American [soldiers], now, with this Arab revolution, young Arab men, young Egyptians and Libyans—are experiencing, we don’t understand the world,” he told an audience at Medill in 2011, shortly after returning from his 44-day ordeal in Libya.

He admitted that his motivations were as prosaic as they were high-minded. Asked why he’d decided to travel to the Middle East, he responded, “My brother [a member of the U.S. military] was over there, I guess some kind of romantic notion you have about yourself, too: You want to be a writer, you want to see the world, fiction didn’t work out too well, let’s try the real thing.”

“The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn’t always repel you,” he added. “Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to.”

Published by Uri Friedman on Aug. 19 in http://www.theatlantic.com

19
Aug

A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time. And delusions of easy winnings still happen. It’s only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine’s government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap.

And for that matter, remember when the Bush administration predicted that overthrowing Saddam and installing a new government would cost only $50 billion or $60 billion?

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say that the confrontation in Ukraine is all about shoring up an authoritarian regime that is stumbling on other fronts. But there’s surely some truth to that story — and that raises some scary prospects for the future.

Most immediately, we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine. All-out war would be hugely against Russia’s interests — but Mr. Putin may feel that letting the rebellion collapse would be an unacceptable loss of face.

And if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

By Paul Krugman, published on Aug. 17 in the http://www.nytimes.com

14
Aug

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism by which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.

Alongside the proxy battle is the renewed fervor of armed militants, motivated by the goals of cleansing the faith or preparing the way for the return of the messiah. Today there are tens of thousands of organized sectarian militants throughout the region capable of triggering a broader conflict. And despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics to reduce tensions through dialogue and counterviolence measures, many experts express concern that Islam’s divide will lead to escalating violence and a growing threat to international peace and security.

Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. In many countries it has become common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same mosques. They share faith in the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and perform similar prayers, although they differ in rituals and interpretation of Islamic law.

Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority. Islam’s dominant sect, which roughly 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims follow, viewed Shia Islam with suspicion, and extremist Sunnis have portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates. Read more…

Editorial in the Council on Foreign Relations http://www.cfr.org

 

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