North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The US posture on terror ...

This past week, US President Obama outlined his policies for the world's lone superpower approach to tackling "the war on terror." While this blog normally avoids coverage of US politics and events (enough obsessive coverage available everywhere), this issue has worldwide implications for many countries already struggling to deal with terrorism (and its rather common strain of extremist Islamic purity).

US President Obama speaking May 23 on his administration's policies towards terrorism and warfare balanced by American ideals.

The speech by the president (available here as "his remarks as prepared for delivery") covered the past 15-20 years - pre-9/11, the first decade since that event, and now his attempt to begin shifting the nation's posture. In Teatree's estimation, here are his main points regarding applying US force around the world in the fight against terror:

* "Americans are deeply ambivalent about war, but having fought for our independence, we know that a price must be paid for freedom. ... From the Civil War, to our struggle against fascism, and through the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War, battlefields have changed, and technology has evolved. ... on September 11th 2001, we were shaken out of complacency. Thousands were taken from us, as clouds of fire, metal and ash descended upon a sun-filled morning. This was a different kind of war. No armies came to our shores, and our military was not the principal target. Instead, a group of terrorists came to kill as many civilians as they could. And so our nation went to war. We have now been at war for well over a decade."

US troops in Afghanistan

* Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States, and our homeland is more secure. Fewer of our troops are in harm’s way, and over the next 19 months they will continue to come home. Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world. In sum, we are safer because of our efforts. Now make no mistake: our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.

* "... America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend."

* "Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11. Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates."

al Qaeda in Yemen remains the most active cell of the terror group - the nation of the US fatal drone strike against an American citizen - self styled Sheikh Awlaki.

* "Unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria. Here, too, there are differences from 9/11. In some cases, we confront state-sponsored networks like Hizbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals. Others are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory. While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based."

* "Finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States. Whether it’s a shooter at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; a plane flying into a building in Texas; or the extremists who killed 168 people at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. ... Deranged or alienated individuals – often U.S. citizens or legal residents – can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon."

The strange case of Major Nidal Hasan - this administration seems to go to some lengths to minimize his Islamic extremist views and allegiance. Even today, "the U.S. Defense Department confirms Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood massacre suspect, is still drawing his pay while those injured have been denied combat pay. Hasan, a military psychiatrist suspected of going on a shooting rampage at the Texas base that left 13 dead and 32 injured in 2009, has been paid $278,000 since the shooting," KXAS-TV, Dallas/Fort Worth, reported Tuesday.

* "Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11."

* "First, we must finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces. In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Our troops will come home. Our combat mission will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counter-terrorism force which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies. Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."

* "It is ... not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist. And even when such an approach may be possible, there are places where it would pose profound risks to our troops and local civilians– where a terrorist compound cannot be breached without triggering a firefight with surrounding tribal communities that pose no threat to us, or when putting U.S. boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis. To put it another way, our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. ... It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones."

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Drone strikes by the numbers during the past two administrations

* "Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. ... by the end of 2014 (after the US reduces its forces in Afghanistan), we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes. Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces."

* "when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team ..."

Hmmm, a drone strike roughly equivalent to a police swat team - what's your thought?

The US President talked long on other issues of more domestic concern - surveillance laws and policies, legal framework of drone strikes, authority of Congress regarding war and oversight responsibilities, as well as one of his passionate stances that Guantanamo be closed and re-purposed from indefinitely holding enemy combatants.

Guantanamo prisoners - enemy combatants - continue to trouble the US President more it seems than his drone strikes which he has rationalized as the equivalent of domestic swat teams in action. At one time the numbers held peaked between 558 and 579, as of March 2013, 166 detainees remain - most are not wanted by their home government. Dozens of those earlier released turned up in further conflicts.

What President Obama has attempted to do was provide his narrative to issues of national security, personal liberties, the country's ideals, and the nature of war and our limits. Each president to some degree attempts to provide a cohesive narrative for his policies. Just from World War II on, we've seen narratives through the Korean war, the dismantling of many colonies into independent nations in the early 60s, and the machinations through the decades-long Cold War (with many failures of moral consistency from CIA manipulations of various regimes in Africa to the Vietnam War to influences in South and Central America). President Reagan's robust challenge to the Soviet Union and its ultimate collapse in 1989-1991 was consistent with his strongly-worded narrative. Turmoil in the Balkans and the rise of Islamic extremism culminated during the Clinton years was not matched by any particular narrative (can anyone remember a Clinton doctrine?), but with the attack of 9/11, George W Bush did in fact theme his response as a "war on terror."

US President Reagan with his conservative UK ally, Margaret Thatcher. Reagan unequivocally challenged the Soviet Union, calling it an evil empire, and when six months later, after an incident where the Soviet airforce shot down an unarmed Korean civilian passenger jet near Seoul, the narrative was more firmly set.

Now we have seen the last two narratives. President George W Bush pushed a positive component of his war on terror narrative (that the US was prepared to fight terror especially in the form of Islamic extremism wherever and however necessary) during the Iraq war. This positive message was that people around the world longed for freedom, that the march of humanity was always towards freedom, and in spite of not finding weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi people were better off than before, as democracy would work anywhere it was legitimately tried.

President Obama's narrative overall seems to Teatree to be a plausible and sensible one.. At least when it comes to America's armed response, very few will argue against at some point it is time to "stand down." The president lays out the case that it is now - when the conventional military footprint is reduced in Afghanistan next year, drone strikes, intelligence gathering and covert operations will remain wherever threats emerge. The President's narrative says these threats are much more local and regional in scope than harboring international aspirations.

Four musings to the above.

#1 Even plausible sensible narratives will over time either reflect reality well or be exposed as wishful thinking.

#2 When President Obama describes random individual attacks as just that, is he diminishing the overarching presence of Islamic extremism? Certainly his insistence that we always consider the Oklahoma City bombing, or a Wisconsin shooting involving a Sikh temple seems disconnected to his only lightly noting, "Unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries ..." Again and again, as we've seen in four incidents in just the past few days (the UK cleaver attack on a British soldier, the suicide bomber in Dagestan, a broader attack in Niger, and the stabbing of a French soldier on home soil) there is this underlying narrative involving Islamic exrtremist motivation.

The latest display of deranged violence in the name of Islamic purity - two individuals running over a British soldier on leave, then hacking at him with knives and meat cleavers.

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Even the "lone wolf" or opportunistic view of the UK killing has been quickly challenged by the emergence that one of the suspects, Michael Adebolajo, had been detained in Kenya in 2010 for his connections to Islamic extremists in neighboring Somalia.

#3 When does the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance tip from its current regional crisis to a full blown geopolitical confrontation? Or has it already? Russia on the one side with these three nations, and the western democracies on the other.

Hezbollah defiantly declaring support for Syria's Assad, death to Israel, and being armed by Iran with Russia's tacit approval. Just a regional issue?

#4 How tightly will he cling to his narrative. The Benghazi attack on the US ambassador there is still being debated whether it was an example of the administration attempting to shape the facts to fit the Obama narrative. One only has to ask whatever happened to that individual who was detained for making up the disrespectful Islamic video that was the initial posture of the administration...

Yes, the familiar Muslim rage, a discredited video story - both difficult to place in a coherent narrative.

And so on we go.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Arctic Council ...

Not exactly a familiar group - yet as the north pole ice cap shrinks and summertime water appears, the possibilities of mineral and fossil fuel exploration in the arctic sea, as well commercial shipping in the short July-September season has catapulted this obscure group into red-hot geopolitical importance.

In this view of the Arctic Ocean, can anyone recognize any of the land masses and countries involved?

Perhaps this helps ... Alaska and Canada along the bottom, the large island Greenland to the right, so Russia is to the left ...

The full Monty

What is the Arctic Council?

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the council is an "intergovernmental body that promotes research and facilitates cooperation among Arctic countries on issues related to the environmental protection and sustainable development of the Arctic region. The council was created in Ottawa in 1996 by the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council (the Ottawa Declaration). Member states of the council include Denmark, Canada, Norway, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The council also has a number of permanent participants drawn from groups that represent communities and peoples indigenous to the Arctic."

The council began its 8th meeting yesterday in Sweden (meeting biennially), marking the end of Sweden's chairmanship, and the beginning of Canada's (the US is slated for the next leadership role after Canada). Without delay, the Council plunged into controversies which emphasize the growing stakes and interest in the lands and waters it focuses on as a forum. From Germany's Deutsche Welle, we read, "Asian countries China, India, Japan,South Korea and Singapore have been granted permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, which coordinates research and development activities in the far North. Canada, Iceland, Norway, Russia, the USA and EU members Denmark, Finland and Sweden are currently members, while six indigenous groups are permanent participants. An application from the EU was blocked by Canada. Although numerous EU countries are already represented in the forum as members or observers, the EU is seeking permanent observer status for itself as a bloc."

Kiruna, Sweden, the location of this meeting is somewhat apropos or ironic depending on one's point of view, as it is adjacent to the world's largest iron ore mine, first operating over 100 years ago.

The Kiruna mine in northern Sweden has some synchronicity with the Arctic Council's emergence of importance, as the Arctic Ocean is becoming more interesting for mining and drilling companies, not to mention governments that abut the body of water.

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Teatree believes we're looking at Kiruna, a town of 23,000 at the other end of the gap in the previous picture. The town may actually be moved by the state owned mining company, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB)to about a mile away, in order to provide the mining corporation better access to the vein of iron ore that apparently extends further into the town itself.

The EU blocked, and other reasons to be offended.

The EU, as mentioned, has been blocked from holding an observer seat at the Arctic Council - most maintain that Canada is behind the decision primarily because the EU in 2010 banned the sale of seal meat and fur in the trading block. That EU decision also "ruffled the feathers" of a variety of northern Canadian ethnic groups and other Arctic- bordering workers.

As the UK Independent notes, "Fur traders, including Inuit from Greenland and Canada and sporran makers in Scotland, are among those appealing against the 2010 EU ban in a European court. The legal battle is being led by the Fur Institute of Canada, which says that the ban has had an impact on the Canadian seal trade. Fishermen from several countries also allege that seals have become a menace, with growing populations reducing fish stocks. But environmental groups say fish stocks will not be boosted by a seal cull and that it is not possible to conduct one humanely. Campaigners also criticised Inuit groups for aligning themselves with commercial organisations.

Seals are hunted mainly for their skin, fat and meat, but there has also been a market for omega-3 capsules containing seal oil. In 2007, seal pelts sold for £60, but that has dropped to about £6. Concern is growing in Europe about the need to cull seal populations to protect fish stocks, even if seal products can no longer be used."

A conundrum - cute seals eat lots of fish. On whose side are you?

At the same time, and also with some irony, the new head of the Arctic Council is Canada's lone authentic northerner - Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's Health Minister, and Nunavut territory’s sole MP. As the Canadian Globe and Mail described it, Ms Aglukkaq "wasted no time as she took the helm at the ministerial meeting that marked the end of Sweden’s chairmanship." She declared "We must remember that the Arctic Council was formed by Northerners, for Northerners, long before the region was of interest to the rest of the world...” Ms. Aglukkaq makes no secret of the fact that that she regards the EU ban as an offensive bit of unfair interference by arrogant southerners in the lifestyle of her people, calling it a “huge, huge issue.”

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's Health Minister, Nunavut territory’s MP, and now the chair of the Arctic Council.

Ms. Aglukkaq also promised “big change” at the Arctic Council. Gone will be the focus on science for its own sake. Instead, research to develop the North for the benefit of northerners – such as her own Inuit and other indigenous peoples in Russia, Alaska and the Nordic countries – will take priority, she said. “It’s time to make sure science is relevant … to improve the well-being and the prosperity of people who live in the Arctic,” said the minister, who grew up in tiny, isolated Gjoa Haven. She announced a pan-Arctic business forum to be launched by Canada later this year as a major initiative to spur trade and development by sharing entrepreneurial successes among the nations ringing the Arctic."

The small hamlet of Gjoa Haven where Ms Aglukkag grew up.

Nunavut itself is the newest (1999), largest, and northernmost territory of Canada - about the size of Western Europe, but home to only 31,000 people.

The Globe and Mail article continues, "Greenpeace demonstrators, who hauled a fake, stuffed polar bear atop a mock oil spill to Parliament Hill, portray Ms. Aglukkaq as a pro-development pawn. The minister, who has the hide of a polar bear shot by her 11-year-old nephew hanging on her office wall, counters that some opponents just want to use their anti-whaling and anti-sealing campaign to raise money."

Wizards at imagery, Greenpeace protesters in Moscow last fall wearing polar bear costumes.

However, Inuit leaders in Canada rejected the [protest] as a “Greenpeace-orchestrated campaign” against resource development. “I know that the legitimate Inuit claims organizations and leaders across Canada’s Arctic regions do not share this view and we collectively reject Greenpeace’s questionable use of the Indigenous voice as a front for its own campaign,” Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in a release.

And so the fight is on, Greenpeace, EU voices of concern, pro-development forces that interestingly include significant indigenous peoples, all meeting at the city next to the largest iron ore mine in the world. It appears to Teatree that some development of resources in the Arctic, with a strong emphasis on strengthening the lives of indigenous peoples is a fair goal. Greenpeace, while legitimately challenging the risks of unthoughtful industrialization often seems to ignore the rather sterling examples of Norway and Sweden as they stand for environmental protection while developing resources for the betterment of their citizens.

The North Sea between Norway and Scotland has brought great wealth and stability to Norway and its government in turn has strongly supported state of the art industry standards and protection as well as repeatedly putting itself in a position of leadership for environmental safeguards.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Bangladesh tragedy

By now, most people are familiar with the collapse over two weeks ago of an shoddily and overbuilt garment factory in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh - a country of 150 million primarily Muslim people, that emerged from a 1971 war of secession from Pakistan.

Bangladesh is a low lying country at the apex of the Bay of Bengal. It is subject to regular flooding from three major river emptying into the Bay, and at danger of typhoons and hurricanes driving water back into the land. Any rise in the ocean levels would be an immediate concern of this country, unlike The Netherlands with its substantial investment in dikes, seawalls, and drainage contingencies.

As CNN described it just this morning, "More than two weeks after a factory collapsed in Bangladesh, trapping workers in a mangled concrete heap, the death toll has surpassed 900.

Authorities pulled more bodies from the rubble, bringing the number of people killed to 912 , officials said Thursday.

The Rana Plaza building - only three floors of the 8-story building were legal ...

Rescue workers saved more than 2,400 people in the aftermath of the collapse, but have focused on using heavy machinery to uncover bodies buried beneath the ruins. The building, which housed five factories full of garment workers, caved in, burying hundreds of people in a heap of concrete. It is the South Asian nation's deadliest industrial disaster. ..."

The building collapse and loss of life has brought up a number of questions - typically focused on who to blame. In order of immediacy:
#1 the owners of the factories in the building who did not heed the Bangladesh authorities warnings to evacuate the structure due to ever widening cracks
#2 the construction standards and inspection frequencies
#3 the original construction company, but also the ones responsible for adding additional floors that were beyond the original design and permits
#4 the western companies who purchased clothing manufactured at the factories. They are blamed for a vague coercion of the actual manufacturers in demanding very cheap prices or they will take their business elsewhere in the world.

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The garment manufacturing industry in Bangladesh has been growing at a fast pace for nearly two decades, providing millions with a lift out of absolute poverty. According the the CNN article, "Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry accounts for 77% of the country's exports." However, industrial safety standards for buildings and working conditions for workers have not kept pace among the nearly 5000 factories in the sector.

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A haunting embrace photographed by a Bangladeshi reporter has gone around the world - emphasizing the tragedy of this situation.

While the debate over who is to blame is the immediate one, the real question is whether actual changes will occur in building codes, in penalties for those who violate codes, and a more rigorous system of, and capability in, inspections and warnings. These address items 1, 2, and 3. Who will be willing to pay for such improvements will be the focus of item 4. Global trade can grow economies, but responsibilities within long global supply chains remain murky, and need to be forcefully addressed by both governments and industries.

Two final points:

#1 This particular tragedy is only one of a string of garment factory accidents - several fatal - and in fact another occurred just today, May 8 when a fire in a garment factory building killed eight workers. The challenge in Bangladesh is large, and one suspects equally challenging in a number of developing countries that have offered low wage/cost alternatives to companies at the far end of the logistics - Western clothing retailers.

#2 Inexplicably, days after the Dhaka building collapse, deadly riots occurred - not with the focus on improving working and building standards however - but by Islamists seeking to pressure the government to impose stricter tenets of Sharia law.

As the New York Times wrote on May 6, "Violence erupted across Bangladesh on Monday as Islamist fundamentalists demanding passage of an anti-blasphemy law clashed with security forces, leaving a trail of property damage and at least 22 people dead after a second day of unrest.

The skirmishes began Sunday when thousands of Islamic activists staged a march on Dhaka, the capital, followed by speeches and a mass demonstration. The authorities say several hundred shops were vandalized, and local television channels showed fires in the central part of the city. Later, when protesters refused to leave, security officers unleashed tear gas and fired rubber bullets to drive them out of the capital.

The confrontations escalated on Monday, as a major clash occurred about 15 miles outside the capital in the district of Narayanganj ... Bangladeshi news media reported that three security officers were beaten to death while a dozen other people were killed, including protesters shot by the police. Traffic was halted for at least eight hours on one of the country’s most important highways, connecting Dhaka with the southern port of Chittagong.

The angry faces, once again, of aimless, religious-oriented mobs, spurred on by Islamic fundamentalist clerics. While the NY Times reported 22 deaths, others report at least 37 deaths from the mayhem.

For nearly two weeks, Bangladesh’s feuding political parties and Islamic movements have essentially called a truce as the country reeled from the collapse of the Rana Plaza building ... Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had called on Islamic hard-liners to postpone their planned march — described as Siege Dhaka by supporters on social media — but they refused. The march was organized by Hefajat-e-Islam, a group of Islamic hard-liners who have called for Bangladesh’s Constitution to be drastically amended with a 13-point program that would ban intermingling between men and women and punish by execution Bangladeshi bloggers accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad."

Police and the mob ...

Wounded police being attended to by their colleagues

Here are the 13 demands of the Islamist group leader, Hefajat-e Islam Bangladesh ameer Shah Ahmad Shafi:

1. Restore the phrase ‘Complete faith and trust in the Almighty Allah’ in the constitution and repeal all the laws contrary to the holy Quran and Sunnah.

2. Pass a law in parliament keeping a provision of the maximum punishment of death sentence to prevent defaming Allah, Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and Islam and smear campaigns against Muslims.

3. Take measures for stringent punishment against self-declared atheists and bloggers, led the so-called Shahbagh movement, and anti-Islamists who made derogatory remarks against the Prophet.

4. Stop infiltration of all alien-culture, including shamelessness in the name of individual’s freedom of expression, anti-social activities, adultery, free mixing of male and female, and candle lighting.

5. Make Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels canceling the anti-Islamic women policy and anti-religion education policy.

6. Officially declare Qadianis (Ahmadiyyas) as non-Muslim and stop their propaganda and all conspiratorial ill-moves.

7. Stop setting up sculptures at intersections, schools, colleges and universities across the country.

8. Lift restriction on saying prayers in all mosques across the country, including Baitul Mukarram National Mosque, without any hassle and remove obstacles to carrying out religious activities.

9. Stop evil efforts to spread hatred in the mind of young generation regarding Islam through the misrepresentation of religious dresses and cultures in the media.

10. Stop anti-Islam activities by NGOs across the country, including in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and evil attempts of Christian missionaries for conversion.

11. Stop attacks, mass killing, oppression and indiscriminate shooting on Alem-Ulama, devout followers of the Prophet and towhidi janata (revolutionary people).

12. Stop threatening teachers and students of Qawmi madrasas, Islamic scholars, imams and khatibs and conspiracies against them.

13. Free immediately all the arrested Islamic scholars, madrasa students and towhidi janata and withdraw all false cases filed against them, compensate the victims and bring the assailants to justice.

Teatree muses how appropriate it would have been for these Islamic purists to have added a #14 - something along the line of "strengthen our building codes, fully fund our inspectors, stiffen our penalties for those who violate workplace safety standards, etc."