NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: April 16

The battle against piracy begins in Mogadishu

We call them “pirates”, because that is how they most easily translate into Western culture, but the Somali marauders currently terrorising Indian Ocean shipping might better be termed ocean-going shiftas, heirs to a long and uniquely African tradition of banditry.

The term shifta may be unfamiliar, yet it is a key to understanding what is happening off the coast of Somalia, and how it might possibly be resolved. Shifta, derived from the Somali word shúfto, can be translated as bandit or rebel, outlaw or revolutionary, depending on which end of the gun you are on.

In the roiling chaos that is Somalia, the killers and criminals are variously pirates, warlords, kidnappers, fanatics or Islamic insurgents. Most are young, angry men with no prospects, no education and a great deal of heavy weaponry. But all are historically descended from the shiftas who have plundered the Horn of Africa for decades. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When the Daily Show turns on some triumphalist, hot-blooded American nationalism (not withstanding some token irony) it makes me wonder how differently a Democratic president would have handled 9/11 from the way George Bush did.

The event of three teenage Somali pirates being shot has been treated as though President Obama has successfully traversed a national security rite of passage. Three scalps held aloft, he can now be hailed by his followers as a blood-anointed chieftain. The ghosts of Mogadishu has been exorcised.

Less attention has given to the fact that the lifeboat containing the pirates and their hostage was tethered no more than 80 feet behind the USS Bainbridge, presenting a bobbing but not very distant target. Or, that we really have no way of knowing whether the critical moment came dramatically with Capt Phillips’ life in immediate danger or whether it came clinically when three pirates simultaneously found themselves in the snipers’ cross hairs.

As for the administration’s broader response to what has been dubbed “the scourge of piracy”, Hillary Clinton’s statement sounds horribly like a piece of vacuous off-the-shelf diplomacy.

What we will do is first send an envoy to attend the international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting scheduled in Brussels. The solution to Somali piracy includes improved Somali capacity to police their own territory. Our envoy will work with other partners to help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy.

Second, I’m calling for immediate meetings with our partners in the International Contact Group on Piracy to develop an expanded multinational response. The response that came to our original request through the Contact Group for nations to contribute naval vessels has turned out to be very successful. But now we need better coordination. This is a huge expanse of ocean, four times the size of Texas, so we have to be able to work together to avoid the pirates. We also need to secure the release of ships currently being held and their crews, and explore tracking and freezing pirate assets.

Third, I’ve tasked a diplomatic team to engage with Somali Government officials from the Transitional Federal Government as well as regional leaders in Puntland. We will press these leaders to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories.

And fourth, because it is clear that defending against piracy must be the joint responsibility of governments and the shipping industry, I have directed our team to work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures. So we will be working on these actions as well as continuing to develop a long-term strategy to restore maritime security to the Horn of Africa.

The elephant in the room here is that Somalia effectively has no government. Where there is no rule of law, there are in a practical sense no law breakers. Pressing leaders of a powerless government to “take action against pirates” is really a rather transparent way sidestepping the core political issue: the need to help in the establishment of an effective Somali government whose legitimacy is accepted by the majority of the population.

Netanyahu’s false promises

Tony Blair, who now serves as the Middle East Quartet’s envoy, has told Time magazine he has concluded that the return to power of the newly elected Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu – universally seen as a near-fatal setback to prospects for a two-state solution – may be a blessing.

Blair informs us that he had a serious chat with Netanyahu in which it became clear that far from putting Palestinian statehood beyond reach, Netanyahu intends to become the father of the Palestinian nation. Like his friend George W Bush, Blair apparently looked into his interlocutor’s soul and concluded that this man aspires to nothing less than “to build the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up”.

Of course, there is the annoying matter that Netanyahu refuses to affirm his support for a two-state solution; indeed, Netanyahu considers a Palestinian state a plague to be avoided. However, Blair would like all of us to understand that “circumstances must be right” for Netanyahu before he can let the world in on his secret passion for Palestinian nation-building. [continued…]

IDF planning largest-ever drill to prepare Israel for war

The Home Front Command is preparing to hold the largest exercise ever in Israeli history, scheduled to take place in about two months, in hopes of priming the populace and raising awareness of the possibility of war breaking out.

Should there be a war, Israel would have insufficient emergency and rescue response units, according to a senior Home Front Command officer.

Speaking with Haaretz, Col. Hilik Sofer, who is in charge of the Department for Population at the Home Front Command, said that “in wartime there will be insufficient Magen David Adom, rescue and chemical and biological warfare units. Even if we call up the reserves of the Home Front Command, we will have to rely on the population itself.”

“We need to train for a reality in which during war missiles can fall on any part of the country without warning,” he said.

The Home Front Command is hoping to convince the population that in a future war the entire country can become a front without warning. [continued…]

Aid rots outside Gaza

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of aid intended for the Gaza Strip is piling up in cities across Egypt’s North Sinai region, despite recent calls from the United Nations to ease aid flow restrictions to the embattled territory in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.

Food, medicine, blankets, infant food and other supplies for Gaza’s 1.5 million people, coming from governments and non-governmental agencies around the world, are being stored in warehouses, parking lots, stadiums and on airport runways across Egypt’s North Sinai governorate.

Egypt shares a 14-kilometre border with Gaza that has been closed more or less permanently since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007.

Flour, pasta, sugar, coffee, chocolate, tomato sauce, lentils, date bars, juice, chickpeas, blankets, hospital beds, catheter tubes and other humanitarian- based items are all sitting in at least eight storage points in and around Al- Arish, a city in North Sinai approximately 50 kilometres from Gaza’s border.

Three months after the end of the war, much of the aid has either rotted or been irreparably damaged as a result of both rain and sunshine, and Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing. [continued…]

Iran treating Obama declarations as policy

It appears Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun treating the declarations of U.S. President Barack Obama as policy, and this is a substantive response to the new American strategy, coordinated with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Contrary to previous Iranian declarations, Ahmadinejad is dropping the precondition to dialogue that the United States first change its policy.

The new American strategy assumes that Iran will continue developing nuclear technology and enriching uranium, and says the Bush policies toward Iran have failed. As such, Washington has decided to do away with Bush’s preconditions, which refused dialogue with Iran as long as Tehran enriched uranium. It appears Obama is willing to allow Iran to continue enriching a limited amount of uranium under strict supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The lifting of this precondition was perceived by Tehran as American recognition of its nuclear program and its right to pursue nuclear technology. Iran also assumes that the threat of further sanctions is now on hold, at least during the dialogue. Iran may be encouraged that the dialogue is not limited in time, and that the U.S. president’s rhetoric does not include ultimatums or threats. Moreover, Washington has decided that there is no point in waiting until the Iranian elections are over, both because Ahmadinejad has a very good chance of being reelected, and because the Iranian people fully support the country’s nuclear program. [continued…]

Gates warns against Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities

Amid increasing suggestions that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned this week that such a strike would have dangerous consequences, and asserted that Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb can be prevented only if “Iranians themselves decide it’s too costly.”

Using his strongest language on the subject to date, Gates told a group of Marine Corps students that a strike would probably delay Tehran’s nuclear program from one to three years. A strike, however, would unify Iran, “cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them,” he said.

Israeli officials fear that the Islamic Republic may gain the know-how to build a bomb as early as this year. Several of them have warned that Israel could strike first to eliminate what it considers an existential threat. [continued…]

Iran ‘to propose nuclear package’

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran has prepared proposals aimed at resolving his country’s nuclear dispute with the West.

Speaking in southern Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad said that the package would ensure “peace and justice” for the world.

It would be offered to the West soon, he said, but gave no further details. [continued…]

Pakistan dodges a bullet

A month ago, Pakistan came close to a political breakdown that could have triggered a military coup. How that crisis developed — and how it was ultimately defused — illuminates the larger story of a country whose frontier region President Obama recently described as “the most dangerous place in the world.”

A detailed account of the March political confrontation emerged last week during a visit to Islamabad by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen. As described by U.S. and Pakistani officials, it’s a story of political brinkmanship and, ultimately, of a settlement brokered by the Obama administration.

At stake was the survival of Pakistani democracy. Allies of President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to cripple his political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The opposition leader took to the streets in response, joining a “long march” to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of Pakistan’s deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The march threatened a violent street battle that could have forced Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, to intervene. [continued…]

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