Monday, February 18, 2008

A return to the past in Kosovo

While Kosovo's "declaration of independence" on Sunday may be feted by those who, like Taiwan, believe in the universal right to the self-determination, there is reason to worry that Pristina's move, accompanied by official recognition by Washington today, could lead to a resumption of violence in the Balkans.

Even though nine years have elapsed since NATO launched its largely ineffective78-day air campaign against Serbia to force it to end its campaign against the breakaway province (Moscow pressure on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic is what broke the impasse), and despite the fact that during that period the violence there — though not entirely gone — no longer made headlines, the truth of the matter is that none of the proximate causes that led to violence in the 1990s, from social distribution to land claims to grievances to poverty, were resolved by NATO and the UN during that hiatus. Absence of violence, as any political scientist will tell you, by no means signifies absence of conflict. In fact, were it not for the presence of NATO and UN forces on the ground separating Serbs and Kosovars, thus creating an artificial peace, we most assuredly would have seen violence after 1999.

Having failed, just as the Dayton Accord of 1995 ending war in Bosnia and Croatia failed to address the Kosovo issue, to remedy the socio-political underpinnings to the conflict, the international community now finds itself with a problem on its hands: By declaring independence, Kosovo is once again giving the hardline nationalists in Belgrade, along with the many militias that were not disbanded after 1999, renewed arguments to resort to violence. This time around, the UN and NATO could very well find themselves stuck between the two warring factions — in other words, as the very boots on the ground the US and other countries sought to avoid as they limited their "humanitarian" intervention to an air campaign at 15,000 feet in 1999.

Furthermore, having failed to address the strategic foundations to the regional conflict, the declaration on Monday risks driving a wedge in the UN Security Council, with Russia and China on one side and NATO powers on the other, at a time of increasing Sino-Russian-American strain. More distantly, it risks even adding fuel to conflict in the Taiwan Strait, with Taipei recognizing Kosovo while Beijing reiterates its threat against Taiwan should it make a formal move toward independence.

Regardless of whether sovereignty for Kosovo is desirable or not, the failure to choose the appropriate time to do so can only create more problems than were necessary, with many lives in the balance. Should things escalate — as they very well might — the US, NATO and the UN will feel compelled to intervene one way or another, but doing so will further drain the already overstretched alliance, which cannot even manage to produce the force level necessary to deal with the resurgent militants in Afghanistan, which in the past two days suffered its greatest number of civilian casualties since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Israel's twin dynamics

Syria and Iran announced yesterday that they would conduct a joint investigation into the car bombing on Wednesday that killed top Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyeh. Given their shared interests in Hezbollah, the conclusions reached by Tehran and Damascus are not difficult to predict — Israel, without or without Washington’s blessing, did it. In other words, this will hardly be an unbiased investigation, or the kind of probe that one would like to see regarding the assassination, three years earlier, of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Myth and conspiracy theories abound in the Middle East, and all of them point to, again, Israel or the US. Although the Mugniyeh assassination bears all the hallmarks of an Israeli hit operation, there might have been some Syrian complicity in the coup, which a serious investigation could uncover but in the present case would most assuredly smother.

What this means, therefore, is that probe or not, all the arrows will point to Israel. And Jerusalem knows this.

Hezbollah has already named Mugniyeh’s successor, but its threat of responding to Israel’s “open war” in kind, anywhere in the world, has yet to materialize. If it did, however, and if Hezbollah were to strike against Israeli interests somewhere in the world, it would be playing right into Israel’s hands.

Two principal dynamics help explain why Israel was likely behind the assassination and why, if it was, it chose to strike when it did.

One is that Israel was humiliated by its incapacity to defeat Hezbollah during its war in Lebanon in July 2006. The pressure within the Israeli defense establishment to “finish the job,” or to exorcize Israel's own "Vietnam Syndrome," cannot be ignored.

The second, as I noted in the Feb. 13 entry on Mugniyeh’s assassination, is that Israel, which has long pushed for a military solution to Iran’s nuclear threat, fears that the findings of the US National Intelligence Estimate have taken the military option off the table. Seeing that intelligence has “failed” it, Israel may well have engineered an act — Mugniyeh’s assassination — that, given Hezbollah’s expected reaction (retaliation), could force the US to come to Israel’s assistance military by targeting the organization's main sponsor.

Put in simpler terms, Israel wants another go at Hezbollah and wants the military option against Tehran back on the table.

The ball is now in Hezbollah’s camp. Given its own domestic pressures, it might be very difficult for the Shiite organization to show restraint this time around.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What Mugniyeh’s assassination means

The assassination of the former head of Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (or Foreign Security Organization), Imad Mugniyeh, in a car bomb in a Damascus suburb yesterday, closes a long chapter in the West’s bloody meddling in the Levant, which began (or some would say resumed) in the early 1980s when the Lebanese Shiite organization was born.

The problem, however, is that the killing will likely open a new, and perhaps bloodier, chapter.

Despite Israel’s denial it had anything to do with the assassination, no other country, not Iran, certainly not the US, has the technical skill and geographical and social access to mount such a targeted operation against the elusive militant, who was believed to be in hiding either in Iran or Lebanon. While Mugniyeh was wanted by Interpol for, among others, his alleged involvement in embassy bombings and abductions in Lebanon in the 1980s, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA aircraft and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, assassination by car bombs is not in the arsenal of the international police organization.

Israel, on the other hand, has long refined the technique of decapitating the leadership of the various organizations arrayed against it, including Hamas (against whose cadres it struck twice in recent years) and Hezbollah, and has made no effort to hide this policy. Interestingly, Mugniyeh’s assassination comes days after Jerusalem announced it could attempt to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza, and three years, almost to the day, after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.

But despite the celebrations in Jerusalem, today’s assassination was not vengeance. Rather, it was strategic positioning through an attempt to alter the status quo.

Like Hamas, Hezbollah is sponsored by Tehran, the Jewish state’s No. 1 source of fear, mostly because of the rhetoric of its firebrand leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the belief that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons. Ever since a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), released late last year, claimed that Iran had ceased nuclear weaponization efforts in 2003 — thus deflating (though not ending) ongoing efforts to isolate Tehran — Israel, which disagrees with the NIE findings, has shown increasing signs it is willing to go it alone against Iran, perhaps in a repeat of its preventive bombing of a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981.

(The presence of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Turkey, Israel’s main regional ally, the same day Mugniyeh was blown to pieces may not have been coincidental either. Despite denying it is so, Turkey would serve as the most logical launch pad for Israeli strikes against Iran.)

Mugniyeh’s assassination will also create additional pressures in Lebanon and risks undermining ongoing efforts to create a stable government there by bolstering the Shiite organization and pro-Syrian factions. Hezbollah, which announced the killing yesterday on its Al-Manar TV station, will very likely retaliate. Expecting this, Jerusalem has put its overseas missions on notice and called for a redoubling of security in preparation for a move by Hezbollah — which may just be what Israel is waiting for, as it would provide it with the justification it needs to launch an attack against Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor. As I have written on many occasions on this site, it’s all connected.

The ashes had barely settled in Beirut following the July 2006 war against Israel than prospects of a renewal of hostilities — especially if Hezbollah renews its rocket attacks against Israeli positions or launches raids from Lebanese territory — seem to have become more likely, if not inevitable.

Involved in many deadly operations during his lifetime, even in death Imad Mugniyeh risks leading to many more.
Cheers for Mr. Spielberg

Renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s announcement today that he was bowing out of his participation in the Beijing Olympics ceremonies is a welcomed development for the human rights movement worldwide. After months of pressure from various rights groups, the director of such movies as Schindler’s List and Empire of the Sun must have realized that the image he had groomed over the years — that of a wise artist embracing such worthy causes as the history of the Holocaust and the personal sacrifices of soldiers during World War II — risked being cast as fraudulent should he become complicit, however indirectly, in the crimes of the Chinese government in Darfur.

Sadly, in his press release Spielberg only focused on Darfur and failed to address the equally serious shortcomings of Beijing on human rights, or its equally nefarious activities in other countries, such as Myanmar. Although the pressure on Spielberg came from groups whose imagination was sparked by images of atrocity in southern Sudan, his credentials as an artist of conscience and role model would have shone even brighter if he had used the occasion to decry the numerous other areas where Beijing clearly fails to act responsibly — including Taiwan — and stated that those shortcomings had also weighed in his decision to cancel his role in the Olympics.

Nevertheless, Spielberg should be commended for his decision. His move will give renewed hope to rights organizations — in China and abroad — that even Beijing, whose official position on the Olympics is one of hardened indifference to criticism, is not exempt from world opprobrium and that individuals can still choose to say no to it.

An artist like Spielberg — the very personalization of Mr. Hollywood, if ever there was one — who depends on the Box Office for his livelihood and who cherishes, not undeservedly, the mantle of morality, Beijing had simply become too radioactive.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

Readers may wonder why Afghanistan, seven years after the US and its allies bumped out the Taliban, remains a quasi failed state, where violence, opium and starvation continue to dance with and feed upon one another, or why, after billions of dollars in investment and major contributions by NATO and the UN, it doesn’t seem any closer to falling back on its feet. Of course, the roots of the problem lie in the country’s geography, its limited natural resources and the geopolitical neighborhood it is in, with Pakistan and Iran having long influenced its internal politics.

But a shortcut to understanding the source of the present troubles exists, however, and lies with the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent US-led undercover efforts, with Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the coup, to arm the mujahidin with the necessary weapons — mostly surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons — to fight the mighty Soviet army.

The principal character behind this endeavor is Charlie Wilson, a debauched, scotch-breathing congressman from Texas who, simmering in a tub in Las Vegas with buxom strippers, has an epiphany when he sees footage from Afghanistan and wonders what should be done.

What comes next is a descent into the unaccountability of political power, where a single congressman, using his influence on the United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, the panel responsible for funding CIA operations, embarks on a mission to double the initial US$5 million US funding to the Afghan resistance. After an eye-opening tour of an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan and a chat, back in Texas, with disgruntled CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos, Wilson plays the levers of power, uses and, in turn, is used by ideological, socialites and wealthy Christian fundamentalist high rollers, to raise funds and increase the amount of money and weapons sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan.

The rest is history — in fact, one of the turning events of modern history. Wilson’s efforts pay dividends and an increasing quantity of soviet helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are shot down with SA missiles, leading to the Soviet withdrawal — its first defeat at the hands of another people — and ultimate implosion. That year, about US$1 billion in military assistance was flowing into Afghanistan, mostly from the US and Saudi Arabia.

Though Charlie Wilson’s War (based on a 2004 book by George Crile, with Tom Hanks playing the role of the congressman and Philip Seymour-Hoffman that of Gust Avrakotos) causes laugher throughout, the humor conceals terrifying truths about a catastrophe in the making, perfectly encapsulated in the unfailingly undiplomatic Avrakotos’ recounting, toward the end, of a Zen master parable of a boy and horse. We may have won the war and defeated the communists, but is it a good thing? We’ll see. As he says this, he hands Wilson a report about the “crazies,” the very fighters Wilson et al had funded for years, who were seizing power in Afghanistan, replacing a bloodbath with another. The dialogue, crude, sarcastic and violent, is done to perfection and can be interpreted at different levels. In one unconfortable scene, Avrakotos tells Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a Jesus-loving, communist-hating Houston socialite who played a major role in Wilson's cause, why the CIA should never mix with politics. When it does, he tells her, he loses sight of who it is he is supposed to be shooting at.

The beauty of the movie is that it doesn’t force its agenda on the viewers, nor does it feel compelled to spell out what the consequences of winning the war in Afghanistan, only to abandon its destitute people, would be for the future. The audience knows that, and pictures of passenger aircraft obliterating the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, would have been unnecessary, if not bad moviemaking.

For those of us who have had a chance (if such a term can be used) to work in intelligence and/or politics (or where the lines intersect), the movie has a special flavor, from Avrakotos’ shouting match in his supervisor’s office (reminiscent of my own altercations) to the mundane operative talk in the CIA cafeteria, from the religious belief in a cause to the myopic view of the consequences and resistance to dissent, all are humorously exposed, and though they draw a laugh, we know too well that the risibility of politics and intelligence also leaves piles of charred bodies by the roadside.

Whatever happens next in Afghanistan, will it be a good thing? We’ll see.