The most dangerous place in the world

When you land at Mogadishu’s international airport, the first form you fill out asks for name, address, and caliber of weapon. Believe it or not, this disaster of a city, the capital of Somalia, still gets a few commercial flights. Some haven’t fared so well. The wreckage of a Russian cargo plane shot down in 2007 still lies crumpled at the end of the runway.

Beyond the airport is one of the world’s most stunning monuments to conflict: block after block, mile after mile, of scorched, gutted-out buildings. Mogadishu’s Italianate architecture, once a gem along the Indian Ocean, has been reduced to a pile of machine-gun-chewed bricks. Somalia has been ripped apart by violence since the central government imploded in 1991. Eighteen years and 14 failed attempts at a government later, the killing goes on and on and on—suicide bombs, white phosphorus bombs, beheadings, medieval-style stonings, teenage troops high on the local drug called khat blasting away at each other and anything in between. Even U.S. cruise missiles occasionally slam down from the sky. It’s the same violent free-for-all on the seas. Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off one of the most strategic waterways in the world, the Gulf of Aden, which 20,000 ships pass through every year. These heavily armed buccaneers hijacked more than 40 vessels in 2008, netting as much as $100 million in ransom. It’s the greatest piracy epidemic of modern times.

In more than a dozen trips to Somalia over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to rewrite my own definition of chaos. I’ve felt the incandescent fury of the Iraqi insurgency raging in Fallujah. I’ve spent freezing-cold, eerily quiet nights in an Afghan cave. But nowhere was I more afraid than in today’s Somalia, where you can get kidnapped or shot in the head faster than you can wipe the sweat off your brow. From the thick, ambush-perfect swamps around Kismayo in the south to the lethal labyrinth of Mogadishu to the pirate den of Boosaaso on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia is quite simply the most dangerous place in the world. [continued…]

Obama’s war on terror may resemble Bush’s in some areas

Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda.

In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”

These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”

We all knew that was a great line when Obama came out with it a year ago but we should all have been wondering: does he really mean it and if he does, does he have the guts to follow through?

The mindset that got us into war was one in which a combination of fear, anger, humiliation and vengefulness offered license for the use of torture, kidnapping, assassination, extra-judicial punishment and led to a belief that the unambiguous defense of human rights posed a threat to America’s national security.

It appears that the president has yet to free himself from that mindset.

Judges: Torture, abuses undermine values in U.S., U.K.

In international group of judges and lawyers is warning that systemic torture and other abuses in the global “war on terror” have “undermined cherished values” of civil rights in the United States, Britain and other nations.

“We have been shocked by the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counterterrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world,” said Arthur Chaskalson, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, in a statement announcing results of a three-year study of counterterrorism measures since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights,” said Chaskalson, a former chief justice of South Africa.

The Geneva-based panel’s conclusions, released Monday, were echoed by those of a former British domestic intelligence chief who said that people in Britain felt as if they were living in a “police state” because of the government’s counterterrorism actions. [continued…]

Surveillance will cost more than £34 billion say Convention on Modern Liberty

The cost of running Britain’s state-run databases over the next ten years has soared to £34 billion, according to estimates from a new campaign against what it called the surveillance society.

Supporters of the Convention on Modern Liberty claim that spending on computer systems ranging from the NHS Spine to the ID card register is rising at an alarming rate. The convention will hold its first meeting in London at the end of this month, with prominent supporters including Philip Pullman, the author, David Starkey, the historian, and Brian Eno, the musician, as well as politicians, lawyers and civil liberties campaigners. The event has been timed to coincide with the publication by the Home Office of a consultation paper on the future of communications surveillance.

A Home Office working party has drawn up three options for surveillance of telephone calls, e-mails and text messages, including a huge government database. Opponents describe this as a Big Brother project that could cost £12 billion over the next ten years. But the police say that access to data about the time and duration of calls and texts, and the location of callers and senders, is essential. They emphasise that they are not seeking access to the content of calls and e-mails, but believe communications data must be retained in some format. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Without implying a conspiratorial connection, it’s worth noting that the beginning of the war on terrorism came just in the nick of time to provide a much needed boost to the IT industry as it was still reeling from the bursting of the tech bubble. If anyone had the time and means to trace how much technology seed-funding got replaced by defense and security funding, there I am sure would be a fascinating story waiting to be told.

After the surge, the splurge: Iraq spends $5bn rebuilding its forces

America is supplying the Iraqi armed forces with tanks, fighter jets and other high-tech weapons worth billions of dollars, in one of the biggest rearmament programmes ever seen in the region.

The Iraqi Army, Navy and Air Force are all being rearmed under the programme, which is designed to make sure that the fledgeling Government in Baghdad is able to subdue the insurgency once US troops leave. The weapons should also be enough to defend the country against hostile neighbours.

Already on order are 140 M1 Abrams tanks. The air force is to get F16 fighters by 2015, and the navy is awaiting the arrival in June of the first of four 450-tonne Italian patrol ships. [continued…]

Putting stamp on Afghan war, Obama will send 17,000 troops

President Obama said Tuesday that he would send an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer, putting his stamp firmly on a war that he has long complained is going in the wrong direction.

The order will add nearly 50 percent to the 36,000 American troops already there. A further decision on sending more troops will come after the administration completes a broader review of Afghanistan policy, White House officials said.

Mr. Obama said in a written statement that the increase was “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” [continued…]

Secrecy and denial as Pakistan lets CIA use airbase to strike militants

The CIA is secretly using an airbase in southern Pakistan to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taleban militants on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, a Times investigation has found.

The Pakistani and US governments have repeatedly denied that Washington is running military operations, covert or otherwise, on Pakistani territory — a hugely sensitive issue in the predominantly Muslim country.

The Pakistani Government has also repeatedly demanded that the US halt drone attacks on northern tribal areas that it says have caused hundreds of civilian casualties and fuelled anti-American sentiment. [continued…]

Afghan civilian casualty rate at highest since Taliban rule

The number of civilians killed in the war in Afghanistan increased by 40% last year to a record 2,118 people, the UN said in a report today.

The research also showed 829 people were killed by US, Nato and Afghan forces, an increase of more than 30% year-on-year. Militants were responsible for 1,160 deaths, or 55% of the total, it said. [continued…]

Israel-Palestine revisited

Israel’s assault on Gaza has opened a new chapter in the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is yet another signal that the focus of the Israel‑Palestine conflict is now urgently focused on the Gaza Strip and, more broadly, on relations between Israel and Hamas.

The election of Barack Obama offers the international community the opportunity for some new thinking about how to re-energise its commitment to end the occupation and create a sovereign, independent Palestine at peace with Israel. The selection of former senator George Mitchell, a mediator of international standing, as President Barack Obama’s special envoy is widely viewed as an inspired choice.

As Mitchell begins a much-needed reassessment of the US-led effort to strengthen Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and weaken Hamas, he inherits a US policy based upon the following principles. The first denies Hamas’s role in Palestinian affairs, demands its adherence to the Quartet principles (recognition of Israel, foreswearing the use of force and accepting the Oslo-Annapolis agreements); and refuses to accept its rule in Gaza. [continued…]

It’s possible to live with Iran

One of the most urgent strategic issues the new government will have to deal with is Iran. The cabinet will have to choose one of four options for addressing the Iranian threat, or a combination: active defense, passive defense, attack and deterrence. The significance of the choice will be seen in the huge budgets that will have to be directed to the options chosen.

The choice of one or more of the first three options is liable to turn out to be a major strategic mistake. Unfortunately, such a choice has already been made, because for the time being Israeli policy is based on active defense. The only justification offered by defense officials for the continued large investment in the Arrow missile defense system, which will increase with the development of the next-generation Arrow 3, is that this is the way to defend Israel from Iran’s nuclear missiles.

Hopefully the cabinet will be presented with the strategic doctrine developed in the United States during the Cold War and adopted by the Soviet Union, whereby countries must not rely on active defense. After all, it is enough for two nuclear missiles to hit the greater Tel Aviv area for the price to be unbearable. Since no defense system can promise a hermetic defense, and a number of missiles can be expected to trickle through, a defense system becomes irrelevant in the face of a nuclear threat. What American defense secretary Robert McNamara understood more than 40 years ago they are refusing to internalize here. [continued…]

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