Archive for September, 2012

Christopher Lee

September 10, 2012


Bagram? Guantanamo? Spot the difference? Thought not

On Monday last, the United States handed over 3000 inmates and the new jailhouse, once the notorious Bagram just 25 miles north of Kabul to Afghan authorities.  

The handover and others to come is a little discussed stage in the 2012-2014 NATO withdrawal calendar from Afghanistan.  

The prisons will all be under the management and then governorship of Afghanistan authorities well before the pull-out is completed.  President Hamid Kazai has declared the handover as an example of the restoration of authority to the state without the support of coalition forces. The acting Afghan Defence Minister Enayatullah Nazari described the handover as “a glorious ceremony that marks the handing over of responsibilities of Afghan prisoners to Afghans themselves.”  

The measure of the US respect for what the minister had to say, is that not many  NATO and US officers attended.  To them it is neither important not a desirable duty to pull – Bagran’s reputation in American minds and Afghanistan eyes rates with the equally notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq which became known as a house of torture.

Not surprising then that as ever in Afghanistan, as in Iraq at the time for withdrawal, the story is not so simple as it sounds.  The main facility of Bagram Jail has been transferred to the nearby two-year old Parwan Detention Centre.  Officially no one talks about Bagram.  Unofficially everyone does talk about Bagram because ever since 2001, it has represented in most minds a disturbing factor in this war of many disturbing factors.

Most significant, although less reported, is the refusal of the Americans to hand over all the inmates; they have kept hold of “hundreds” and significantly, more than 50 non-Afghan prisoners they suspect were sent to Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces.

The US has made no secret of this hold-back and say, for example, that as many were captured during military operations, many of them come under the category of battlefield prisoners – the nearest, albeit vague, definition of a prisoner of war.  However, few of the recognized Geneva Convention protocols have been applied to these detainees.

At the start of this year, Afghani officials accused the Americans of running a torture centre in Bagram, an allegation the Americans denied.  A couple of weeks later, US troops were seen burning Korans at Bagram.  This led to a mass protest and killings throughout the country.  The fact that American officials apologized and said there was no malicious reason for the burnings did absolutely nothing to suggest that the American and Afghan authorities were at all in agreement over prisoner handling, detention and interrogation procedures at Bagram or anywhere else.

Little wonder that the American refusal to handover considerable numbers of US-classified Category A prisoners  raises the point: at what stage in the withdrawal will America release these people into Afgh custody especially as they are considered in two classes: those with further interrogation values and those likely to continue terrorism if released.

But if they are so worried, why cannot the Americans hand them over with a clearly labelled security category to the Afghans?  They simply do not trust Afghanistan’s security force.  The US really judges that anyone of Intelligence value or anti-NATO capabilities would be released by the Afghanistan judicial system, if indeed it was used at all.

This US uncompromising stance is seen by Karzai as a matter of national integrity and even sovereignty.  He’s right on both counts but realistically, if it were not for the Americans, Karzai would not be in power and he knows that.  The Americans all but ignore political sensitivities and accept that statements against the occupying forces are aimed at domestic audiences rather than being realistic criticisms.

This morning, American officials were shrugging off concerns about the hold on Afghans and foreign fighters in Bagram.  They look at the Daily State Board and see this morning’s suicide attack in Kunduz in the north of the country.  At least 16 killed, more than half of them policemen policing a demo. What was the demo for?  Probably supporting one of the local war lords. It’s that sort of country, many more will die and others maimed in incidences like this.

So, the US is not going to shut down its special facility at Bagram.  The real suspicion is that it will become, or even has become, another Guantanamo. Plenty of military and Intelligence agency people simply shrug.  If that’s what it takes, then so be it.  America plans to go home on its own terms – that includes hanging on to “nasties” to make sure they don’t get back into the fight..

Christopher Lee

September 5, 2012

Obama ticks most of the defense & foreign policy boxes


4th September 2012

Barak Obama speaks with authority of office.  Romney speaks from an empty can of rhetoric. That is the reality of the two opening rallies of the men who would be President of the United States.

Romney did his best and that, ladies and gentlemen of the American electorate, is the shame of it.  Romney said nothing to prove that he had the credentials of a world leader other than the fact that he wants the job.  Obama’s track record is much better than Republican suggest and that record of office speaks for itself.

Importantly for the world beyond the United States, an American President’s global credentials will decide or heavily influence foreign and defense policy for more than a quarter of world governments. These governments are America’s natural allies such as the UK and Israel, governments with bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaty obligations such as NATO members, governments with both established and burgeoning commercial agreements including defense equipment deals and remember, those governments opposed to American policy that adjust theirs in response to US postures.

Commonly, we are reminded that the single biggest influence on the American voter is The Economy Stupid.  However, to a significant degree, US economics is nudged in different directions by White House defense and foreign policy and its success or failure over a long period unlike the markets that only flutter the economy.

Hence the need to see Obama’s global record. To begin with, it might be remembered that when Obama moved into the Oval Office, the economy was in the worst state since Franklin D Roosevelt arrived at the White House in 1933. From Lehman Brothers to AIG to Bank of America to General Motors and Chrysler, there was a sense that however Obama reacted, his presidency could never recover America’s confidence at home.  

Abroad, America’s foreign policy was suffering from the military hangover in Iraq and the utter impossibility of imposing its will in Afghanistan. His let’s go decisions on Iraq were easy top make because there was no distinct, certainly no logical option to stay.  Americans wanted home, the Iraqis wanted Americans out so they could get on with their cruel and therefore cynical internecine war.

The Iraq surge example devised by General David Petraeus was deployed in Afghanistan without apparently understanding that this was tactical and theatre warfare on a quite different scale and moreover, a complex tapestry of kill and burn, low intensity operation and imperial combat.  America was totally unsuited to fighting the enemy within Afghanistan surrounded by political contradictions in Pakistan, India, the Central Asian Republics and Iran. Worse, Obama’s advisers did not understand that the war was not to be won.  

After the initial Petraeus and then the long assessment to the White House, Obama saw what many of his military did not see: the US had to be out.  His declaration of a 2014 withdrawal was totally contrary to accepted doctrine of announcing a pull-out, but that mattered not.  Obama said Bring Them Home. It was a sensible decision.

In 2011, he – with advice of course – announced that US defense policy would have to reinforce its Pacific interests especially with a major force deployed, not as a threat but as a prudent precaution in the China and South China Seas.  The establishing agreement with Australia for a basing arrangement in the Northern Territories was the clearest reminder that NATO, while an important alliance, no longer had America’s full attention.

If global policy were that easy.

The Arab Spring and all that followed (including the racked-up Iran Question) tested US foreign analysis.  Obama was fortunate in having one of the most energetic Secretaries of State in generations, Hilary Clinton and the shrewdest and most trusted of UN Permanent Representatives, Susan Rice. On balance, it’s been a good team.

But at home, The Economy Stupid has remained Public Enemy Number One. That alone has caused the Administration to look at defense procurement and acquisition and cut the budget by a token amount – $500 billion.  (Romney says it should be increased by $2trillion – but doesn’t say where the money’s coming from).  Projects have been delayed, reviewed and cancelled, including part of the F35 program.  None of this will weaken US defense systems nor the overall security of the nation, a security system that has been running hard since Harry Truman was in office.

So what’s the reading on Obama? No President gets it right because foreign and defense policy is long term and cannot be switched like monetary or even fiscal policy and market conscience programs. Thus on balance, the Obama Administration has coped with what it inherited – hence the absolute minimum involvement in Libya, the cautious re-deployment in the Pacific and Australia, the slowly-slowly position on ABM defenses in Europe.

In all, and pork-barreling aside, whoever takes the poll ion November will not inherit a disastrous foreign & defense policy.  On present evidence, a Democrat White House may handle it better.


Christopher Lee

September 3, 2012

Erdogan & Kurds & Syria & Presidential Palaces – don’t add up


3rd September 2012

Ten Turkish security checkpoint troops were killed by Kurdish rebels (PKK) operating in the south eastern Sirnak province close to the Turkish-Syrian-Iraq border. Another soldier died Monday from his wounds.

The raid is another moment in the nearly 30 years feud between Turkey and PKK militants who demand their own homeland in this part of Turkey. No Turkish government has been able to resolve the confrontation which, if you accept what authorities are saying in the Turkish capital, is being encouraged by the Al Assads in neighboring Syria.

Turkey is against the Syrians in their civil war and so it’s in Syrian interests to exacerbate  the Kurdish-Turk violence.

There was a point when some pundits in the region thought the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quietly successful in calming the whole Kurdish Question in his country, a question without too many answers that goes beyond the PKK demands for a homeland.

However, how to handle Kurdish demands (mostly at domestic level including education) is in Mr Erdogan’s schedule of political ambition.  That ambition is fast becoming less and less liberal and accommodating. The reason for this is his long term personal political hopes. He leads the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AK) that got into power in 2002.  AK won the election (and others since, including last year) because the electorate had had enough of the incompetence of the previous regimes.

Mr Erdogan has been reasonably successful in gently changing Turkey for the better.

He began by clipping the political wings of the military but by bringing them into confidence of future plans for the country.

He brought in social reforms – including a better deal for women in employment and for the stateless Kurdish population.  At the same time he got going a civil engineering program that would help generate the economy by building roads, public services including schools and hospitals.  Within three years of getting to power, Mr Erdogan’s reforms including cautious and limited Human Rights improvements were looking good enough for the European Union to open preliminary talks about EU membership.

When AK got in for a third time in the summer of 2011, Mr Erdogan was looking like a leader that could do business with Europe (although not over Cyprus) and be a power broker in Middle East politics.

But somewhere since that June 2011 night of promise, Mr Erdogan has stumbled. He has come face to face once again with Kurdish violent opposition. He has to handle his country’s position with what’s going on next door in Syria – who to support and why; hundreds of thousand of refugees; Gulf States demands for intervention.

Furthermore, he is losing his grip on the plan (his own) to introduce a new Turkish constitution – including a hot potato clause that Kurdish pupils and students should be taught in Kurdish.  

This massive change in the Turkish social and political rule book needs all-party support. Just when that’s needed, Mr Erdogan is on a collision course with the Muslim Gulenists (named after Gul, the president).  They for a start, are not going to let the Kurds get anything to improve their lot.  He has the parliamentary majority he needs, but Turkish politics are not simply a matter of numbers.  The political game in Ankara is called pragmatism. Majorities may bring about changes, but only pragmatism allows them to work

One result is Mr Erdogan’s change of tactics.  Instead of sanctioning secret talks with Kurdish leaders, he has started to turn the screw. That’s why he has sent in the army against the PKK rather than the political negotiators.  Thousands of Kurds – including nearly 3000 students – have been arrested and jailed.  Almost any journalist calling for social and educational improvements has been tried and jailed. With one eye on the possibility of yet another palace revolution, senior army officers – up to and including generals- have been arrested.  The army is nervous and lip-buttoning – for the moment. In short, Mr Erdogan’s sense of nationalism is far removed from his early ambition for a modern state.

This all comes when Mr Erdogan has to rethink his personal future.   He cannot continue as AK leader. Coincidentally to this, the present president, Abdullah Gul ends his term in 2014.  If Mr Erdogan is to continue in the power seat of Turkish politics he needs to get Abdullah Gul’s job.

So what we have is an increasingly hard-line prime minister, accusing Syria of inciting instability and internally, less able to treat with the political and religious opposing groups.  It is the ideal time for any militancy, especially the PKK, to cause further havoc. That’s exactly what is happening and will continue to happen.

It does not produce the ideal circumstances that supporting but often helpless allies – particularly the US and UK governments – need to leap aboard a close regional solution when the opportunity arises to the civil war in Syria