10 May 2014

Negotiating with the Taliban: Lessons from history

Key Points: 

The past 36 years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents. 

The Taliban’s track record of negotiation is replete with deception. In the past two decades, the Taliban has used negotiation more as a ploy to gain political and military advantages than as a way to settle conflicts. 

Pursuing negotiation with the Taliban as an exit strategy, as the Soviet experience in the 1980s shows, is both unrealistic and dangerous. Instead, the United States and the next Afghan government should take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan. 

On April 5, seven million Afghans defied Taliban threats and went to the polls to choose President Hamid Karzai's successor, and with no clear winner in the first round, the top two vote getters-former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai-are readying for a runoff vote tentatively slated for June 7. Once the election is over, the next government will have to deal with a myriad of security and governance challenges as the international community's involvement in the country is shrinking.

Although the Taliban failed to disrupt the election process, the terrorist group remains a potent force that threatens Afghanistan's future stability. During the campaign season, both Abdullah and Ahmadzai stated that security would top their government agenda and that they would try to negotiate with the Taliban for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. While Abdullah cautioned that "there is no alternative but to confront" the radical Taliban groups militarily, Ahmadzai echoed a more conciliatory tone and pledged one-sided concessions to the militants, including freeing more Taliban prisoners and declaring a ceasefire.[1]

Nevertheless, if history is any guide, efforts to negotiate with the Taliban will not just fail; they will also strengthen the terrorist group and further destabilize Afghanistan. To bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has unilaterally offered the group significant concessions over the past decade, including freeing thousands of its prisoners, promising its leaders a share in the government, providing monetary and political incentives to reconciled ex-combatants, and purging anti-Taliban and pro-West figures from the government. Far from accepting peace, however, the Taliban has reciprocated by stepping up violence, refusing to talk to Kabul, and maintaining ties with al Qaeda. Attempts by the United States and its NATO allies to negotiate with the Taliban have been equally counterproductive. As the United States and its allies wind down their mission and a new Afghan leadership replaces Karzai this summer, there is an urgent need to reassess the policy of negotiating with the Taliban and to take practical measures to ensure stability in postwithdrawal Afghanistan.

In fact, it is not the first time that a foreign power or the government in Kabul is unsuccessfully seeking a negotiated end to the war in the country. The past thirty-six years of conflict in Afghanistan provide valuable lessons about the advantages and the perils of negotiating with insurgents. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union tried to negotiate with the mujahideen to facilitate an orderly withdrawal of its troops and ensure the survival of its satellite regime in Afghanistan; between 1994 and 2001, the Taliban disingenuously used diplomacy as an instrument to further its military agenda and enhance its international legitimacy. Most important, Washington and Kabul must learn from their mistakes of engaging with the Taliban in the past decade, which have only exacerbated the political and security situations in the country. A political solution to end America's longest war is desirable, but a shortsighted deal with the terrorists could complicate the exit strategy of the United States and its allies, jeopardize the hard-won gains of the last decade, and inflame ethnic tension in the country.

Soviet Negotiation with Mujahideen (1985-1990)

The Soviet Union's decision to militarily disengage from and seek a negotiated end to the Afghan war was a reflection of both political changes in Moscow and security realities on the battlefield. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, the conflict in Afghanistan had become a stalemate, and officials in Moscow had begun questioning the feasibility of defeating the insurgency through a conventional war. Consistent with his "new thinking" foreign policy, Gorbachev decided to end the occupation of Afghanistan-which he called "the bleeding wound"-and urged his Afghan counterpart to reconcile with the opposition in a power-sharing government.[2] Although troop drawdown did not begin until February 1988, Kremlin's ultimatum sent shockwaves across the Afghan government, whose survival depended on the Soviet military and financial assistance. On December 30, 1986, as a result, Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah announced a national reconciliation plan to rally public support for the state and negotiate a peaceful settlement with mujahideen.[3]

To prove that his peace proposal was genuine and not an "empty, deceptive slogan," Najibullah unilaterally offered the insurgents major concessions, including declaring a six-month unilateral ceasefire, approving a new constitution that recognized Islam as the state religion, introducing an electoral and multiparty system, implementing economic reforms to respect private property, granting amnesty to opposition leaders, releasing more than 16,000 political prisoners, and offering the opposition half of the posts in a government of national reconciliation.[4] The government also toned down its propaganda against the mujahideen, and state-run Radio Kabul began to call the mujahideen beradaran narazi(disgruntled brothers) instead of ashraar (terrorists).[5]

Pakistan Faces Travel Restrictions Over Polio Concerns

Due to new concerns over the spread of polio, Pakistanis will face travel restrictions.

May 07, 2014

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of polio a global health emergency. According to the statement, the first few months of 2014 have seen an acute rise in polio infections worldwide. The states that pose the greatest risk of exporting the virus including Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria. Furthermore, there have been outbreaks in a host of other countries across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The WHO statement declares the current increase in polio infections an “extraordinary event” and a public health risk to all states. To face the threat, a “coordinated international response” is critical. The WHO notes:

At end-2013, 60% of polio cases were the result of international spread of wild poliovirus, and there was increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to this spread. During the 2014 low transmission season there has already been international spread of wild poliovirus from 3 of the 10 States that are currently infected: in central Asia (from Pakistan to Afghanistan), in the Middle East (Syrian Arab Republic to Iraq) and in Central Africa (Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea). A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop this international spread of wild poliovirus and to prevent new spread with the onset of the high transmission season in May/June 2014; unilateral measures may prove less effective in stopping international spread than a coordinated response.

One of the WHO’s recommendations is for citizens traveling abroad from these high-risk countries to seek certification that they are vaccinated for polio before any foreign travel. This marks the most extreme action the international organization has taken on polio; according to the Associated Press, “WHO has never before issued an international alert on polio.”

Western intervention will turn Nigeria into an African Afghanistan

The plight of kidnapped girls is set against the corruption and inequality that the west's economic war has helped to create

 6 May 2014 

A protest against Shell after a oil spill in 2011. 'There is widespread corruption, yet weapons and armies are paid to protect the wealthy and the foreign companies like Shell that want to access the country’s resources, especially oil.' Photograph: George Esiri/EPA

It seems almost beyond belief that more than 200 girls can be kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria, held by the terrorist group Boko Haram, and threatened on a video – shown worldwide – with being sold into slavery by their captors. The disbelief is compounded by today's news that, overnight, eight more girls have been kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram gunmen in north-east Nigeria. This tragedy touches the hearts of everyone, evoking a feeling of revulsion not only at the danger and loss of freedom itself, but at the assumption that for young girls their destination must be forced marriage and servitude, not education.

There is rightly anger that so little has been done by the Nigerian government to find the girls, and that those who have demonstrated in huge numbers against President Goodluck Jonathan have themselves been accused of causing trouble or even temporarily arrested.

But we should be wary of the narrative now emerging. This follows a wearily familiar pattern, one we have already seen in south Asia and the Middle East, but that is increasingly being applied to Africa as well.

It is the refrain that something must be done and that "we" – the enlightened west – must be the people to do it. As the US senator Amy Klobuchar put it: "This is one of those times when our action or inaction will be felt not just by those schoolgirls being held captive and their families waiting in agony, but by victims and perpetrators of trafficking around the world. Now is the time to act."

The call has been for western intervention to help find the girls, and to help "stabilise" Nigeria in the aftermath of their kidnap. The British government has offered "practical help".

Yet western intervention has time and again failed to deal with particular problems and – worse – has led to more deaths, displacements and atrocities than were originally faced. All too often it has been justified with reference to women's rights, claiming that enlightened military forces can create an atmosphere where women are free from violence and abuse. The evidence is that the opposite is the case.

Does China Have a Contingency Plan for North Korea?

A leaked document purports to contain China’s plan in the event of regime collapse in North Korea.

May 07, 2014

On Saturday, the Japanese agency Kyodo Newspublished what it claimed was a contingency plan for North Koreans collapse issued by China’s People’s Liberation Army. The document was reportedly published last summer by the Chinese military and contained a plan for China’s response to extreme chaos in its neighbor. Daily NK had a detailed run-down of the document’s contents.

The document calls for an increase in surveillance along the border, including “‘reconnaissance groups’ to assess the situation, ‘investigation groups’ to question those who come into [China], ‘blockade groups’ that prevent the influx of threats, and ‘armed groups’ to defend against hostile powers.” There are also plans to set up a number of refugee camps in the border region to handle an expected influx of North Koreans.

The document also dealt with the possibility of “key figures” (North Korean military and political leaders) attempting to regroup within China’s borders. “Key figures must be moved to a separate investigation facility to ensure they cannot command any military activity nor band together with other forces” within China, the document recommended. It also mentioned the need to protect such people from assassination attempts.

Interestingly, the document seemed to imply that this crisis scenario would result from an attack on North Korea by an unnamed third party. “Foreign shows of force are out of our control,” the document noted before running through the potential scenario of North Korean soldiers and refugees fleeing to China.

China’s Foreign Ministry has denied the veracity of the report. “The report made wild guesses, and was groundless and with ulterior motives,” a spokesperson said according to Xinhua. The spokesperson continued, “We hope [for] the Korean Peninsula to maintain stability, and hope [for] the DPRK to achieve economic development and people’s happiness.”

This is undoubtedly true, but hoping for the North Korean state to remain intact doesn’t preclude planning for a worst-case scenario of regime collapse. In fact, the U.S. and China have reportedly discussed their respective plans for such a scenario multiple times, including just prior to Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011.

As John Delury of Yonsei University told The Guardian, if the leaked document is real, it simply means that “the PLA is doing what militaries do – they draw up contingencies.” On that note, Delruy said he “wouldn’t believe China’s denials” but he also wouldn’t “draw too many conclusions from” the document.

Rather than drawing new conclusions from the report (for example, some speculated that it was intentionally leaked to signal Beijing’s displeasure with Pyongyang), it’s more useful to weigh the document against what was already known or assumed about China’s North Korea policy. In this sense, the report meshes well with the assumption that China is extremely concerned about the possibility of North Korean refugees and soldiers flooding its borders in the event of major instability. Accordingly, the major priority in the plan is to maintain control of the China-North Korea border with an increased troop presence.

Strike Shut Down in China Before May Day

Rural immigrant workers confront their employers. Is this the beginning of the end for the Made-in-China era?

By Han Zhang
May 07, 2014

Starting in mid April, about 40,000 footwear workers in Southern China walked off the assembly lines in a bid to force their employers to pay housing subsidies and social security contributions. The strike continued for two weeks before the government intervened at the end of the month.

Played down by the state-owned media, this was nonetheless the largest strike that China has seen in recent years.

The employer, Yue Yuen, “the world’s largest branded footwear manufacturer,” according to its website, is a Taiwanese company headquartered in Hong Kong. It supplies shoes and other products for international brands such as Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and Timberland.

The action is expected to cost Yue Yuen $60 million in 2014, including the direct cost of the strike and the increased payment to workers.

At the height of the strike, Adidas announced that it would be moving future orders elsewhere, in order to avoid an impact on its operation.

Nike’s CEO, Mark Parker said that Nike was still close monitoring the situation to see whether the factory was in violation of Nike’s workplace standards. “We want to invest in the partners that are really doing the right thing with the workforce,” Parker said at a CEO club in Boston.

The International Union League organized protests at Nike and Adidas stores in Tapei, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Los Angeles, New York and Melbourne. An organizer called Adidas’ behavior “typical” – in that they systematically moved their orders to factories with exploitative conditions.

In fact, Yue Yuen itself has been reported as shifting production lines to Southeast Asia in response to rising costs in China.

Meanwhile, Xinhua, China’s national news agency acknowledged that local governments may have also played a part in the workers’ discontent. To attract foreign investment, local officials sometimes allow corporations to escape payment.

Observers noted that the significance of the strike went beyond a labor-management conflict and pointed to more profound changes taking place in China. “In the longer term, the Yue Yuen strike could prove to be a critical juncture in the evolution of Chinese reform… a harbinger of China’s meaningful transition to a new economic model,” William Hurst, author of The Chinese Worker After Socialism, wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera.

Why Does China Downplay Its Economic Might?

May 6, 2014

According to the summary of a forthcoming report by the World Bank’s International Comparison Program, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) will overtake America’s in terms of purchasing power parity this year—five years earlier than had been projected. The announcement has predictably renewed three lines of discussion, the first of which runs counter to the other two:

· America’s relative decline is accelerating. There should no longer be any doubt that this century belongs to Asia, and especially to China.

· It is more accurate to measure aggregate economic size at market exchange rates.

· While GDP tends to capture the headlines, it is only one component of economic power. Considering metrics such as per-capita GDP, the centrality of the dollar in global financial markets, and the share of the world’s most innovative companies, America’s economy will remain stronger than China’s for decades to come.

The most interesting aspect of the World Bank’s announcement, however, has been China’s reaction. The Financial Times reports that “China fought for a year to undermine new data showing it is poised to usurp the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy in 2014.” While perhaps more pronounced, this behavior is in keeping with China’s reaction to previous economic milestones.

In January 2010, for example, when data confirmed that China had eclipsed Germany the previous year as the world’s largest exporter, a researcher with the State Council’s Development Research Center (DRC) observed that “in terms of the structure of exports, technological innovation, and industry competitiveness, China is far from being eligible for the title of ‘trade power’.”

In July 2010, when the International Energy Agency calculated that China had overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest energy consumer, a spokesman for China’s National Energy Administration countered that “[b]y our calculation, the U.S. was still the world's largest energy user in 2009.”

Later that year, when data revealed that China’s second-quarter GDP was slightly larger than Japan’s, the China Daily argued that “a large GDP figure, impressive as it is, bears little importance in practical terms.” It urged China’s leaders not to “be intoxicated by big numbers.” 

Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear

China's economy is on the rise—and so is its military. Should Washington be concerned? 

May 7, 2014

In the last twenty years, China has quickly ascended from a regional to global military power. A generation ago, the People’s Liberation Army was armed with antiquated weapons and oriented towards a manpower-intensive “People’s War”. In the intervening period China has gone from a green to blue water navy,the air force is actively developing so-called fifth-generation fighters, and the army has been extensively modernized.

A vast array of new Chinese weapons are under development, some alarming in their potential.

China’s neighbors and the United States are observing China’s buildup with interest and concern. China is showing itself to be particularly interested in projecting military power in support of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Weapons that empower China to take decisive military action in support of such claims could escalate a regional crisis into a larger one involving Washington.

China recognizes the potential for conflict with the United States, however small, and is planning accordingly. China is pouring resources into weapons specifically designed to target American forces and limit their ability to operate near the Chinese mainland. These “anti-access, area-denial” (A2/AD) weaponshave the potential to exclude American forces from China’s innermost defense zone: the so-called “First Island Chain” consisting of the Kuril Islands, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo.

The chances of a shooting war between China and the United States are remote, and neither is set on war with the other. However, the extent to which the interests contradict or compete with each another means war cannot be entirely ruled out. With that in mind, here are the five Chinese weapons the United States fears most.

DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile

The most dangerous weapon to U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region is the Dong Feng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). Somewhat prematurely dubbed “the Carrier Killer”, the DF-21D is a medium-range ballistic missile specifically designed to attack American aircraft carriers, skirting the defenses of a U.S. naval task force to attack ships from above at hypersonic speeds.

DF-21D is a land-based system, with an estimated range of up to 1,500+km. Once launched, the missile would release a reentry vehicle traveling at speeds of up to Mach 10-12. The resulting velocity and kinetic energy—to say nothing of the reentry vehicle’s payload—would cause serious damage to even the largest naval vessels. Nobody knows for sure, but it is believed direct hits from a DF-21D could be enough to put an aircraft carrier out of action, or even sink it.

Thailand’s Deep South: Living in Conflict

In a region seemingly under occupation, local residents cope as best they can.

By Franco Galdini (words) & Sulochana Peiris (images)
May 07, 2014

With the presence of more than 150,000 military, police and armed civilian forces, life in the three provinces of Thailand’s Deep South – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – gives the impression of happening under occupation. Checkpoints cut the main arteries between and within cities, where military convoys on patrol whizz by civilian vehicles preceded by soldiers on motorbikes, who scout the area in advance for any suspicious items, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Manned and unmanned checkpoints also dot the countryside in an attempt to hamper the insurgents’ movements. In Ruam Mit road, a busy commercial area in Yala city center, blast plinths line both sides of the street in order to minimize the impact of possible car bombs, which have already struck the area in the past with devastating consequences.

Babo Mohammed Ramli, the head of a pondok, or Koranic school, in Bra Ngan village in Yala province shared his views in no uncertain terms: “This is a jihad against the Thai state, but it has nothing to do with al-Qaeda.” To prove his point, he reads out in Arabic an excerpt from Imam al-Nawawi’s al-Majmu‘ sharḥ al-Muhadhdhab, a comprehensive manual of Islamic law according to the Shafi‘i school – one of the four main schools of jurisprudence in Sunni Islam to which the greatest majority of people in the Deep South adhere. “The basis for the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is peace and security, unless non-Muslims encroach on their rights, homes and properties. In that case, it is the individual duty of Muslims to fight jihad to ward off aggression.” He adds: “There is consensus among scholars about this, but no-one dares to speak out, for fear of the consequences.”

Yet despite the massive human cost of a decade of low-intensity conflict, the streets of the Deep South’s main cities are bustling with commerce and trade: markets are replete with goods; customers fill cafés and restaurants during the day and at night; and the ubiquitous motorbike-mounted food carts are patronized by young and old alike. Access to education remains unhindered with students flocking daily to schools and universities, although Thai remains the only official language of instruction – a major point of grievance for the majority Malay-speaking population.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst. Sulochana Peiris is a freelance documentary film maker and photographer.

Checkpoint on the outskirts of Yala

Beholden to Bangkok: Dialogue in Thailand’s Deep South

A Constitutional Court ruling on Yingluck Shinawatra today could imperil an already stuttering peace process.

By Franco Galdini
May 07, 2014

Driving the two-hour distance between Hat Yai airport and the city of Pattani, in Thailand’s Deep South, the transition could not be starker. From one of the country’s many tourist destinations, one is catapulted into a city seemingly under occupation. Pattani lies only few hundred kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Phuket’s pristine beaches and yet, since 2004, the latest round of a low-level insurgency pitting 3,000 Malay Muslim fighters against the Thai state has claimed more than 6,000 lives, with thousands more injured.

The bone of contention is the political future of the Deep South provinces, namely Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, along with five districts in Songkla province, which roughly constituted the territory of the Malay Sultanate of Patani founded in 1390. Since its incorporation into Siam – Thailand’s name before the Revolution of 1932 – over a century ago, the majority Malay Muslim population living in the Deep South has refused to be assimilated in the highly centralized Thai state, whose discriminatory policies have triggered a series of rebellions since the 1960s.

Although the insurgents are ostensibly fighting for merdeka, “independence” in the local parlance, “this doesn’t mean that they are not willing to lower their political goal and consider autonomy. So, although the dream is still alive, there are factions ready to compromise because they realize that, realistically, independence is unattainable,” says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a consultant to international NGOs. Ahmad Bualuang, a former member of the National Reconciliation Commission, agrees: “If you ask people in the streets what they want, they’ll all answer merdeka, but most do not know what that entails. In reality, any just solution to our problem will be accepted.”

On February 28, 2013, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surprised everyone by announcing the beginning of a peace dialogue with key political representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), which is widely believed to represent the main force on the ground. The event took place in Kuala Lumpur under the auspices of Prime Minister Najib Razak, with Malaysia presiding over the process as facilitator.

Since then, the parties have met only three times, with their last meeting taking place in June 2013, after which the dialogue ran aground. However, for all its shortcomings, many observers underscore the importance of this latest effort as it is the first time the Thai state has officially recognized the rebel side as “partners” in a political process. For their part, activists point out that the dialogue has ushered in a new degree of openness within civil society in the Deep South, where people now engage in public discussions on subjects previously considered taboos, including merdeka. All suggest that civilian deaths took a significant dip since the beginning of the Kuala Lumpur process.

The Rebel Side

Right from the start, questions arose about the legitimacy of the rebel representatives at the dialogue. Crucially, some doubted that the BRN’s alleged point man at the table, Mr. Hassan Taib, had any real standing among the insurgents. While others pointed to the 10-day respite in violence during a short-lived Ramadan ceasefire initiative in August 2013 as proof of some degree of command and control exercised by the political representatives at the table over the juwae, or fighters, on the ground, most observers seem to concur that the rebel movement is divided about the dialogue process.

For one, Don Pathan – a veteran analyst of the conflict in the Deep South – thinks that “there is a big gap between the position of the exiled leadership, who is willing to talk to the Thai government, and the BRN leadership – including the fighters – on the ground. The latter harbor a deep mistrust of the Thai side. They tell me: ‘you want to talk to us and then you kill Abdullateh? What kind of behavior is that?’” Mathus Anuvatudom, a researcher at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, disagrees: “The BRN has been ready to explore dialogue as an option for quite some time. However, one can identify three loosely-defined camps within it: one is pro-peace dialogue, the other is for a military solution, and the third adopts a more cautious wait-and-see attitude.”

Whatever the case may be, the end result has turned out to be more of the same: the rebel side lacks a unified leadership, and thus strategy, to engage with the Thai state, if and when it decides to. In the meantime, attackscontinue unabated, although – a decade on – it is unclear how anything but a negotiated settlement can usher in a durable peace.

After Six Months of Fighting, Thai PM Yingluck Is Finally Ousted by Court

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the Constitutional Court on May 6, 2014 in BangkokBorja Sanchez-Trillo—Getty Images

Thailand plunges further into political chaos after the country’s highest court ousts Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for abuse of power. The 46-year-old remains popular with much of the country and tens of thousands are already slated to protest the decision

She’s finally gone. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office by the nation’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday, in the culmination of six months of antigovernment protests.

Thailand’s first female Premier was convicted of abusing power by transferring the National Security Council chief to another position in 2011. Several other malfeasance cases are also pending against her.

Yingluck has denied any wrongdoing, telling a hearing Tuesday, “I am entitled to carry out responsibilities I have toward the people.”

While Yingluck’s opponents say transferring the civil servant was unconstitutional and an attempt to consolidate power for her Pheu Thai Party, critics have called the court’s decision a staggering overreach by the judicial arm of government.

“[The decision] shows you how politicized and compromised the Thai judicial system has become over the last decade,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, tells TIME. “In most other countries the sitting government has authority to make transfers of officials.”

In addition, the country’s highest court decreed that nine current cabinet members who were all serving with Yingluck in 2011 must also leave their posts.

Thailand has teetered on the brink of meltdown for almost half a year now. Antigovernment protests first erupted in November, sparked by opposition to an amnesty bill that would have allowed Yingluck’s brother — former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — home from exile.

The billionaire telecoms mogul is a divisive figure. He is credited with enfranchising the rural poor, but offended traditional elites and was eventually ousted in a coup in 2006. He was then convicted of corruption in absentia, charges he insists were politically motivated.

Can East Asia Move Past Its History Problem?

Can Washington take advantage of an unusual opportunity to advance both its strategic and normative interests?

May 7, 2014

In East Asia, distrust and failed cooperation is often blamed on the region’s “history problem.” To date, that conversation has emphasized Japan’s failure to atone for its World War II-era atrocities, how this poisons contemporary relations, and how Japan must show greater contrition in order to make things right. Sometimes the United States is exhorted to pressure Tokyo for more apologies.

The United States should help its allies and partners deal with the region’s history problem, and in doing so, can take advantage of an unusual opportunity to advance both its strategic and normative interests. Washington has a national security interest in strengthening its relations with Tokyo; in encouraging close ties between Japan and other American partners, especially South Korea; and in thwarting Chinese efforts to use history to drive a wedge between Japan and its neighbors. Furthermore, the United States has a normative interest in drawing attention to human rights abuses in East Asia today.

U.S. national security and normative interests overlap—and yet Washington has so far missed the opportunity to advance them in this case. That’s because it’s a challenge on the one hand to focus on contemporary human rights abuses without making survivors of World War II-era violence feel as if their suffering is being forgotten or marginalized. And it’s a challenge on the other hand to focus on those events to a sufficient degree without unfairly singling out Tokyo.

The United States and its partners can square this circle by reframing the conversation about East Asia’s history problem. The conversation about Japan’s World War II atrocities should be fit within the historic sweep of human rights abuses in East Asia. In the past, human rights violations were committed by colonizers and combatants like Japan, the United States, and others; but today are committed by authoritarian governments against their own peoples.

Why Apologies are Unproductive

The apology frame is a dead end for three reasons. First, Japan has apologized. A lot. Although critics will protest that Japan only offered half-hearted apologies, this is unfair. For example, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, often described as a far-right nationalist because he visited Yasukuni shrine, also visited Seoul’s Seodaemun prison. This was where, during Japan’s rule of the Korean peninsula, colonial authorities incarcerated, tortured, and killed Korean independence leaders and their family members. Today the prison features a museum that explicitly details Japanese atrocities, and a monument to Korean independence leaders.

Syria is a sideshow

May 5, 2014 

A man carries a wounded girl in the wake of a government “barrel bomb” attack in Aleppo.Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s chaos is growing, with increased fighting among the opposition groups and fresh evidence that Bashar al-Assad is again using chemical weapons. But the chaos of US Syria policy is growing too, with the news that the administration is now supplying the rebels advanced weapons.

Chaos is not a good answer to chaos. By vacillating for three years on whether to arm “moderate” opposition forces, by failing to uphold his “red line” on chemical weapons and by indulging in rhetoric unaccompanied by action, President Obama has helped produce the worst of all possible outcomes.

When the Arab Spring erupted and Assad’s opponents took to the streets, many in Washington believed he would fall quickly. When Assad cracked down and armed conflict ensued, those same observers predicted his rapid defeat. When Assad fought back ruthlessly, the observers called for arming the rebels. When the rebels became increasingly dominated by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the observers went largely silent.

By contrast, Obama consistently ordered that aid to Syria’s opposition be either humanitarian, or confined to training and advising rather than equipping rebels with lethal weaponry. His advisers argued repeatedly that Russia would be an active, willing partner in negotiating a peaceful transition, replacing Assad with representative government.

But Obama and rebel supporters alike have consistently misunderstood what’s actually going on. The risk was always high that the opposition would be dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood at best, if not by outright terrorists like al Qaeda. After decades of Ba’ath party repression, there was as little chance of finding Jeffersonian democrats waiting to take over in Damascus as in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s fall. There were too many scores to settle — political, religious, ethnic and more.

And it was delusional from the start to think we had anything like common interests with Russia. Why would Moscow willingly help depose its sole Arab ally and risk losing the naval base at Tartus, its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union?

Even more mystifying was Obama’s unwillingness to acknowledge the underlying reality in Syria: Assad has long been effectively a satellite of Tehran, a key component in its regional arc of Shia influence, including Iraq’s al-Maliki government and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Obama either refused to see Tehran’s dominance or feared to confront it, worried that his prized negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program would be a casualty of any effort to oust Iran’s henchman in Damascus.

Why Israel Worries

Jerusalem views America as quixotic at best, absent at worst as the foundations of its security erode.

May 6, 2014

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is momentarily breathing a sigh of relief now that he can blame Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for scuttling the latest round of peace negotiations. Abbas’ reconciliation pact with Hamas in Gaza allows Netanyahu to wash his hands of the peace process—because militant Hamas will not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist—to focus on more acute Israeli security worries.

The Israelis have been exasperated that the United States has wasted time, attention and diplomatic capital on this failed round of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israelis see the Palestinian issue akin to a house in the neighborhood with electrical wiring that is not up to code. It needs to be fixed, least it risk causing a fire in the future. The Israelis, however, see other neighborhood houses ablaze in Syria and Iran. The Israelis want the United States to come running with a water hose, but, instead, they see the Obama administration coming with an electrician’s toolbox. That exasperation was publicly revealed when Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon undiplomatically called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” about the peace process and hoped that he “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone.”[1]

The Israelis think that the Americans too willingly accepts the Arab narrative that the “root cause” of all the problems in the Middle East lie in the failure of the Palestinians to have their own nation-state. The Israelis of all political stripes know all too well that even if they and the Palestinians were to some day live in separate nation-states enjoying neighborly bliss, most of the region’s troubles would remain. From the Israeli security standpoint, the conflict with the Palestinians is manageable, its costs tolerable, and its dangers longer term; the fallout violence from the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are here and now and should be high on the American security agenda.

American national-security officials and military commanders have their hands full these days, but few would want to trade places with their Israeli counterparts. Israel has impressively defended itself in numerous wars for several decades against unfavorable odds. Despite those military feats, the foundations of Israeli security have cracked and crumbled rapidly since 2011 and the onslaught of the so-called Arab Spring. Notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess, the country’s security is growing more precarious on a numerous fronts, and the Israelis are gravely concerned that the United States might prove to be a fair-weather friend in future contingencies.

A cornerstone of Israel’s security foundation has been the “cold peace” with Egypt since the 1979 peace treaty. Israel and Egypt, bolstered by American economic and security assistance, have mutually enjoyed a secure border along the Sinai Peninsula for more than thirty years. The Arab spring, however, has jeopardized that security stability. The future course of the regime in Cairo is uncertain. The military regime for now seems content maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. But Jerusalem wonders how long the military regime will last and whether or not its redoubled political repression will eventually backfire to bring the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood back into the streets en masse, and from there back into the halls of political power. Even if the Egyptian military regime hangs on, the situation along Egypt’s border with Israel continues to deteriorate. Tribes and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are growing in influence and operations in the Sinai and mixing with human trafficking from Africa into Israel.

How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf

May 6, 2014

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (Louafi Larbi/Courtesy Reuters). 

David Roberts, lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, based at the Joaan Bin Jassim Staff College in Qatar, offers expert insight into the recent tensions among the major GCC states. 

“I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me.” With this less than subtle statement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the vocal Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood scholar tried to do his part to repair regional relations in the Gulf that have badly frayed in recent weeks. Long-brewing discontent erupted in early March with the unprecedented withdrawal of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors from Qatar. Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to the cuspof a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon. 

But core differences remain. Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. It can do this because its domestic security is strong and, without internal restrictions to speak of such as a strong Parliament, its elite is unusually unconstrained and capable of pursuing unusual foreign policy tangents such as assiduously supporting the new movements in the wake of the Arab Spring. 

Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante. 

In November 2013, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah presented Qatar’s new, 33-year-old Emir – a man one-third his age – with a document demanding a total reorientation of Qatar’s foreign policy under the guise of promoting regional security. In the face of conflicting interests between Saudi and Qatar, this was Abdullah’s attempt to cow Qatar and get its renegade regional foreign policy under control; something he had tried but failed to do for decades with Tamim’s father, Hamad. Tamim demurred, but Abdullah was nevertheless led to believe that the Emir had acquiesced to the Saudi leader’s way of thinking. Yet Qatar’s rhetorical support of the Brotherhood continued and Qaradawi stoked ire across the region in early 2014. In January he accused Saudi Arabia’s leaders of not believing in sharia law and he also declared that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has “always been against Islamic rule” prompting its foreign ministry to summon the Qatari ambassador to explain the lack of an official denunciation or apology. 

The Conspiracy Theory Capital of the World

4 May 2014

Conspiracy theories exist everywhere in the world, but they’re especially common in the Middle East and are rampant in Egypt even by regional standards. They’re generally harmless when only crackpots on the margins believe them, but when they go mainstream and infect the highest levels of government and the media—watch out.

National Geographic has the story on the latest ludicrous theory making the rounds in Egypt, this one put forward by the governor of Minya province.

Local mobs looted a museum and burned fourteen churches to the ground a while back, and he’s blaming the United States in general and the White House in particular.

“It was Obama,” he said. “And all of the American politicians who have divided all of the world. They are the only people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood because they knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would destroy all of Egypt.”

This kind of talk is typical in Egypt and has been for decades. If you don’t think so re-read the essay Samuel Tadros recently wrote about Egypt’s Jewish problem inThe American Interest.

“Israel, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and Qatar are all conspiring against Egypt, screams a self-proclaimed Egyptian liberal; the United States is working against Copts for the benefit of Jews, shouts a Coptic activist; the Brotherhood is implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, writes thenewspaper of what was once Egypt’s flagship liberal party; Israel aims to divide Egypt into a number of smaller and weaker states, writes another; Brotherhood leaders are Masonic Jews proclaims a Sufi leader; no, it’s the coup that is working for the benefit of the Jews, declares the Brotherhood’s website. These are all symptoms of a decaying society.”

The only difference between those outrageous theories—which span the political spectrum—and the latest is that the United States rather than Israel is at its center.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way. American politicians can’t be the only people in the world who supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Their candidate Mohammad Morsi won 51 percent of the vote in the presidential election, the first and only free and fair one in history.

The Brotherhood’s support cratered, of course, after an epic bout of buyer’s remorse, but nobody—nobody—forced millions of Egyptians to vote for Morsi and his party. That’s on them.

I’m not sure why so many Egyptians think Israelis and Americans are hell-bent on destroying their country. Maybe it’s related to the spotlight effect. But for whatever reason it’s a startlingly common belief. I heard some version or another repeatedly in Cairo even, occasionally, from people who otherwise seemed semi-reasonable.

Russian Bomber Patrols in Asia Increase Drastically

US and Japanese officials warn that Russian air and naval patrols in the Pacific have “increased drastically.”

May 07, 2014

Russia has drastically increased its air and naval patrols in the Asia-Pacific, a top U.S. general in the region warned on Monday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Force, said that the events in Crimea and Ukraine are having a direct impact on how Russia is operating in the Pacific region.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine and Crimea has a direct effect on what is happening in Asia-Pacific…. Some of the things we’ve seen is their long-range aviation, and the increase in that. They’ve come with their long-range aviation out to the coast of California. They circumnavigated Guam.”

Carlisle went on to say that Russia has also increased its presence around Korea and Japan, the latter of which it has an outstanding territorial dispute with.

“Ukraine and Crimea is a challenge for us, and it’s a challenge for us in the Asia-Pacific as well as Europe. The number of long-range aviation patrols that have gone around the Japanese islands as well as around Korea have increased drastically,” Carlisle said during the speech.

According to Bloomberg News, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and Pacific Affairs, Danny Russel, joined Carlisle in criticizing Russia’s actions in the Pacific while in Hong Kong today. “It is unacceptable for large countries to use force against small neighbors with impunity and we look to the international community, including countries in the Asia-Pacific region, to send a strong signal to Russia that it should reverse course and use peaceful means to address its border disputes,” Russel said Bloomberg reported.

Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry also began raising concerns about an uptick in Russian aircraft flying near the country’s air space. Japan has said it scrambled jets 359 times last year in response to Russian intrusions, the most times since FY 2001.

The situation has only worsened in the early part of this year as tensions between the U.S. and Russia have grown over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. “Russian bombers are frequently flying (near Japan) in recent days, a situation we didn’t experience even during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by Eric Cantor (R-VA) last month.

Starting on April 13, Japan had to scramble jets in response to Russian intrusions for seven consecutive days.