Archive for the ‘Mideast Conflict’ Category
Eric Schlosser writes in the New Yorker:
Among the many questions still unanswered following Friday’s coup attempt in Turkey is one that has national-security implications for the United States and for the rest of the world: How secure are the American hydrogen bombs stored at a Turkish airbase?
The Incirlik Airbase, in southeast Turkey, houses nato’s largest nuclear-weapons storage facility. On Saturday morning, the American Embassy in Ankara issued an “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens,” warning that power had been cut to Incirlik and that “local authorities are denying movements on to and off of” the base. Incirlik was forced to rely on backup generators; U.S. Air Force planes stationed there were prohibited from taking off or landing; and the security-threat level was raised to fpcon Delta, the highest state of alert, declared when a terrorist attack has occurred or may be imminent. On Sunday, the base commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, and nine other Turkish officers at Incirlik were detained for allegedly supporting the coup. As of this writing, American flights have resumed at the base, but the power is still cut off.
According to Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, underground vaults at Incirlik hold about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs—more than twenty-five per cent of the nuclear weapons in the nato stockpile. The nuclear yield of the B-61 can be adjusted to suit a particular mission. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had an explosive force equivalent to about fifteen kilotons of TNT. In comparison, the “dial-a-yield” of the B-61 bombs at Incirlik can be adjusted from 0.3 kilotons to as many as a hundred and seventy kilotons.
Incirlik was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of the Second World War; when Turkey joined nato, in 1952, it became a crucial American base during the Cold War. With a flight time of about an hour to the Soviet Union, the base hosted American fighters, bombers, tankers, and U-2 spy planes. And, like many nato bases, it stored American nuclear weapons. natostrategy was dependent on nuclear weapons as a counterbalance to the perceived superiority of Soviet conventional forces. The threat of a nuclear attack, it was assumed, would deter Soviet tanks from rolling into nato territory. And grantingnato countries access to nuclear weapons would strengthen the alliance, providing tangible evidence that the United States would risk a nuclear war fornato’s defense.
By the mid-nineteen-sixties, more than seven thousand American nuclear weapons were deployed in Western Europe, Greece, and Turkey. They came in all sizes, shapes, and yields: nuclear warheads, bombs, land mines, depth charges, artillery shells, even small nuclear projectiles that could be fired from a recoilless rifle. The weapons were technically in the custody of U.S. officers, ready to be handed over for use in wartime by nato personnel. But custody of the weapons was not the same as control of them. A delegation of U.S. senators visiting Europe in 1960 was shocked to find hydrogen bombs loaded onto German planes that were on alert and crewed by German pilots; thermonuclear warheads atop missiles manned by Italian crews; nuclear weapons guarded and transported by “non-Americans with non-American vehicles.” The theft or use of these weapons by nato allies became a grave concern. “The prime loyalty of the guards, of course, is to their own nation, and not to the U.S.,” the Senate delegation warned in a classified report.
Two years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara worried that Turkish officers might try to fire some of nato’s nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union without permission—and ordered American custodians to sabotage the missiles, somehow, if anyone tried to launch them. Coded switches were subsequently placed inside nato’s hydrogen bombs. These switches, known as Permissive Action Links (pals), were designed to hinder unauthorized use of the weapons; the bombs wouldn’t detonate if the operator didn’t enter the right code. But pals could be circumvented by someone with the proper technical skills. When two nato allies, Greece and Turkey, were on the cusp of war in 1974, the United States secretly removed all of nato’s nuclear weapons from Greece and cut the arming wires of every nuclear weapon stored in Turkey, rendering them inoperable.
Thanks largely to stockpile reductions during
the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, the United States now has about a hundred and eighty nuclear weapons deployed with nato, all of them B-61 bombs. In addition to Incirlik, the weapons are stored at bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. Today, the symbolism of these bombs is far more important than their military utility; missiles carrying nuclear warheads reach targets much faster, more reliably, and with much greater accuracy. The advocates of retaining nuclear weapons in nato argue that the B-61 bombs demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to the alliance, intimidate Russia, and discourage nato members from developing their own hydrogen bombs. Opponents of the weapons, like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, consider them “absolutely senseless”—and an inviting target for terrorists.
With a few hours and the right tools and training, you could open one of nato’s nuclear-weapons storage vaults, remove a weapon, and bypass the pal inside it. Within seconds, you could place an explosive device on top of a storage vault, destroy the weapon, and release a lethal radioactive cloud. nato’s hydrogen bombs are still guarded by the troops of their host countries. In 2010, peace activistsclimbed over a fence at the Kleine Brogel Airbase, in Belgium, cut through a second fence, entered a hardened shelter containing nuclear-weapon vaults, placed anti-nuclear stickers on the walls, wandered the base for an hour, and posted a video of the intrusion on YouTube. The video showed that the Belgian soldier who finally confronted them was carrying an unloaded rifle. . .
Murtaza Hussain writes at The Intercept:
Not much is yet known about Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the 31-year-old man French police say is responsible for a horrific act of mass murder last night in the southern city of Nice. In the wake of the killings, French President Francois Hollande has denounced the attack as “Islamist terrorism” linked to the militant group the Islamic State. Supporters of ISIS online have echoed these statements, claiming responsibility for the attack as another blow against its enemies in Western Europe.
While the motive for the attack is still under investigation, it is worth examining why the Islamic State is so eager to claim such incidents as its own. On the surface, ramming a truck into a crowd of people gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks seems like an act of pure nihilism. No military target was hit. Initial reports suggest that the killings may lead to French attacks on ISIS’s already-diminishing territories in Iraq and Syria. And French Muslims, many of whom were reportedly killed in the attack, will likely face security crackdowns and popular backlash from a public angry and fearful in the wake of another incomprehensible act of mass murder.
But the Islamic State’s statements and history show that such an outcome is exactly what it seeks. In the February 2015 issue of its online magazine Dabiq, the group called for acts of violence in the West that would “[eliminate] the grayzone” by sowing division and creating an insoluble conflict in Western societies between Muslims and non-Muslims. Such a conflict would force Muslims living in the West to “either apostatize … or [migrate] to the Islamic State, and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”
This strategy of using violence to force divisions in society mimics the group’s tactics in Iraq, where it used provocative attacks against the Shiite population to deliberately trigger a sectarian conflict, one that continues to rage to this day.
It may be that the Islamic State had no direct line of communication to Bouhlel. Unlike many other previous attackers, he had not been on the radar of French security services. There is no indication that he had received training or traveled to ISIS territory. Initial reports from those who knew him paint a picture of a depressed and angry man who “spent a lot of his time at a bar down the street where he gambled and drank.” He had a history of petty crime, including an arrest this past May following a road-rage incident.
But in a way, these details don’t matter. ISIS’s model for terrorism relies on the weaponization of individuals such as Bouhlel; the group calls on the young, angry, and purposeless around the world to lash out at those around them in its name. In this way, the power of desperate insurgents is magnified through a combination of social media and propaganda of the deed. An influential text used by the group, titled The Management of Savagery, prescribes terrorist attacks as a means of “inflam[ing] opposition,” to drag ordinary people into conflict whether “willing or unwilling, such that each individual will go to the side which he supports.”
Far-right parties hostile to minorities are growing in popularity in Europe, while in the United States, polls show significant public support for once-unthinkable measures like banning non-citizen Muslims from the country. Like a hurricane in slow motion, every act of violence seems to do incremental damage to the possibility of a tolerant, liberal society.
After yesterday’s attack in Nice, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich piled on by calling for “[testing] every person here who is of a Muslim background” and adding, “If they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” . . .
I recall once some decades ago, I was in a somewhat emotional discussion, and my brain was in overdrive, trying to logically reason it out. It really felt odd, like getting no traction or finding no solution, when my co-discussant said, “No. Wrong direction.” That stopped me cold, which was exactly right, and I tried looking in other directions, like emotion. It wasn’t a logical problem, it was an emotional problem and the answer would be in that area.
I am watching a hyper-militaristic movie, Clear and Present Danger, one of the Harrison Ford movies based on Tom Clancy’s novels of the same stripe. (I just watched a long sequence on launching a fighter jet from an aircraft, shown with great detail, no dialogue (but background music), and I realized that this sequence, which had zero to do with plot, was simply a quid pro quo for the cooperation of the Navy: they get to insert recruiting sequences. (At least that’s how it looks.)
And as I watched all the variety of armed response—the RPG-wielding drug dealers, the US Navy, the CIA: they all try to find the answer through the sort of violence known as “armed conflict”—in essence, a microwar. That’s the wrong direction, it seems, based on evidence to date.
There is, of course, another direction, which seems to be admired. Maybe we should try that direction.
Interesting: that thought was from reading the article at the link, and seeing the movie, along with that memory, triggered it.
TL/DR: Culturally, we’re going in the wrong direction, a direction we know does not end well. Why?
UPDATE: I realize that this is not a novel insight. What is novel for me is how glaringly obvious it is if you just look. The Iraq War did not, in fact, bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East, but that’s sure what was promised. Maybe the military “solution” is not the right solution. Have you noticed the pickup in terrorism? That’s certainly the wrong direction. We can see it very easily in the other culture but seem oblivious to it in our own—that is, we cannot recognize that the military response has been counter-productive, which suggests that it is the wrong direction to take.
UPDATE 2: Hah! I just read this David Brooks column after writing the above. The thought seems to be in the air.
UPDATE 3: I got to thinking about the cycle that we kicked off when, in the course of the Cold War, we armed the Afghani mujardeem and taught them guerilla warfare (a CIA operation, told well in the bok Charlie Wilson’s War and much less well in the movie of the same name). We gave them weaponry and taught them how to figut the Soviets, who had superior technology. And, as we know, they learned well.
Let’s see: Osama bin Laden was mainly angry about US military bases in Saudi Arabia. He obviously embraced violence as a good direction (overall, in the long term) and supported various terrorist acts incuding 9/11, which of course triggered a strong reaction that was dealt with by going to war (of course! only possible response!), First with the war in Afghanistan (we’re still there and it’s spilling over into Pakistan more and more) and then in Iraq, which resulted in melting down the middle east.
Back and forth, each side responding with a way that has proven, over and over, not to be a good strategy, long term. And yeah, I know about Ghengis Khan. But 9 times out of 10? Makes it worse, not better. Hell, the British are still suffering various after effects of their policies in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and so on across the world. And the US is still suffering from the aftereffects of building a slave-based economy. (I feel certain that there are other choices and options, though probably not many that would be so profitable for the plantation owners.)
History has a lot of echoes: cultural waves breaking against each other and combining in various ways. (I do like William H. McNeill and recommend his History of Western Civilization. Or another favorite, read with the same point of view of cultural waves clashing and creating echoes, is David Anthony’s
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Basically, it’s meme evolution. (Another (frequent) recommendation: Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine.)
As Richard Dawkins demonstrates in Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene, memes by necessity must evolve, since they are replicators that allow occasional variation, and thus variations that help survival and reproduction get passed along. Genes are the basis of lifeform evolution, memes the basis of cultural evolution.
So memes gotta struggle. Surving demands it. But that struggle need not and should not harm the meme’s host (the animal homo sapiens, evolved to support memes). Better if we could find how to resolve meme struggles without harming the hosts.
The NY Times editorial board has a good editorial about the Chilcot report of a deep investigation into how the UK decided to invade Iraq with the US. It is a particularly damning report, showing clearly how the leadership of the US and the UK quite deliberately lied about the reasons for the invasion, and noting the horrible disasters that have followed the invasion.
But the UK, at least, has faced the problem, investigated it, and reported to the public what it found. The US lacks this kind of courage. The US government is weak and unable to face any unpleasant truth, and the rot from that is doing great damage to our country.
Tony Blair himself cannot face the truth:
Mr. Blair’s critics are no doubt disappointed that in response to the Chilcot report, he has continued to defend his actions. “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer as a result of it,” he said, which seems willfully blind to the current chaos in Iraq and beyond.
But the report enables us to take the measure of the man and look at the quality of his judgment: he’s a weak man and has poor judgment, and nothing will change that. He cannot recognize his flaws, so he cannot fix them.
The editorial concludes with the observation that the US government is incapable of doing such an investigation:
Though the United States was not the subject of the inquiry, it was the Bush administration that falsely sold and launched the invasion. There has been no comparable, comprehensive official inquiry in Washington by independent investigators into the origin and politics of the fateful decision to go to war. Years have passed, but the public, in the United States and abroad, still yearns for the full truth and deserves an American investigation on the scale of the 9/11 Commission.
Given the partisan divide in Washington, however, it is hard to believe a similar exercise would produce anything even remotely dispassionate or honest. And yet it is the United States, far more than Britain, that needs to understand how national policy can be hijacked by lies and ideology so that there’s less chance it will happen again.
Things are badly out of whack in our Federal government.
Israel has every right to protect itself against terrorists and to take action against terrorists. Israel goes far beyond that in its treatment of the Palestinian people, apparently taking the view that every single Palestinian, regardless of age, is in fact a terrorist, and operating on that assumption. Alex Kane reports at The Intercept:
On the morning of August 28, 2014, two days after the end of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Sohaib Zahda hopped into a shared taxi in Hebron that was going to Ramallah, where he had a job interview.
Thirty-three-year-old Zahda, who owns a paintball company, is an unlikely terrorist. An avid cyclist who speaks Arabic, Italian, French, and English, he is a member of Youth Against Settlements, a nonviolent organization that protests against Israeli settlers who live in and around Hebron. He is opposed to Hamas firing rockets into Israel. He likes to tell visitors his grandfather had Jewish friends in Hebron in the 1920s.
Hebron and Ramallah are about 25 miles apart. To get between them, Palestinians must pass through the “container checkpoint,” manned by Israeli soldiers on a road that connects the southern West Bank to its central and northern cities. At the checkpoint — named for a shipping container once located at the barrier — Palestinian pedestrians queue up to get their IDs checked, while cars wait for inspection and for soldiers to wave them through. When Zahda’s taxi drove up, masked Israeli soldiers stopped the vehicle, asked him to get out, and then handcuffed him.
They took his mobile phone and his bag and brought him to a room near the checkpoint. After two hours, he was told he was being investigated for threatening an Israeli army leader. The alleged threat was made on a Facebook page calling for an uprising in Hebron. Zahda was then blindfolded and placed in an Israeli military jeep.
The soldiers took Zahda to a counterterror unit of the Israeli police, which held him for the crime of incitement to violence. At one point during Zahda’s interrogation, the police showed him content they had collected from his personal Facebook page. But Zahda wrote Facebook posts from the West Bank, an area governed not by Israeli civilian law but by Israeli military law. The police had no jurisdiction over Zahda, said Nery Ramati, his attorney. Instead of releasing him, the police transferred Zahda to an Israeli military prison. When asked about his arrest and interrogation, the Israeli army responded, “Because Mr. Zahda’s case is still open, we are unable to elaborate on any specific details.” The Israeli police did not respond to detailed requests about the interrogation.
Zahda’s case, still ongoing, is part of a new battleground in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Palestinians using social media to spread news about arrests and deaths, and Israeli intelligence and law enforcement officers scouring the web for clues about the next stabbing or protest. . .
The Age of Disintegration: Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World
Patrick Cockburn writes at TomDispatch.com:
We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely reduced to ruins. There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.
All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals — well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than 2.4 million people have been displaced in recent years.
Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.
In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the protest of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama’s Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats’ approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the “root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”
It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.
Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.
A Mass Extinction of Independent States
The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise — and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones — is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.
The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police on the books in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have fought their way into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as 900. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.
Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.
Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.
The question for our moment: Why is a “mass extinction” of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? . . .