Tuesday
Sep072010

Readbook: Copyright Trolls, Iran Sanctions, Koran Burning, & the Unwisdom of Crowds

WELCOME TO THE READBOOK, our daily trawl of content noteworthy, tl;dr, and below-the-fold. Posted early and updated throughout the day. Track updates via Twitter @EditorsCI. Get in touch via email at editors@currentintelligence.net


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MORNING EDITION


In-house. Chris Albon, writing from South Africa, notes that when all else fails and medical services collapse (as have done in SA this past week), military personnel are often the ones who fill the gap. Journalist, author, and academic Anatol Lieven reviews three recent books on Afghanistan.


Iran sanctions.  The central bank of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has asked Emirate lenders to declare remittances to Iran on a monthly basis, in a study of the economic impact of UN sanctions. The Emirates are home to a sizable community of Iranians, and the central bank states that it was already tracking remittances on a quarterly basis; the study is meant to more closely examine the specific impact of the latest round of sanctions. (It also effectively establishes an additional layer of sanctions compliance). 


Koran burning. Alternate title: "Never underestimate the influence of deliberate stupidity on international relations." This has been churning for a few days now, and there isn't a lot to be said about it that wasn't captured in the alternate title: a small Florida congregation calling itself the "New Testament, Charismatic, Non-Denominational Church" is planning a Koran-burning party, to be held this Saturday, in commemoration of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Local fire safety officials aren't impressed; neither is General David Petreaus, who thinks it could (and already has) inspire(d) backlash in Afghanistan.


Speaking of which, David Rieff, on the "unwisdom of crowds": "...our political crowds are studies in lowest-common-denominator subordination of the individual to the collective and of the thought to the slogan: in short, complexity to simplicity." More: "The lesson, whether about geopolitics or daily life, should be clear: If what you are thinking could just as easily be expressed in a slogan, and shouted out or held aloft on a banner by a crowd, then you are probably not thinking at all. And in troubled times such as our own, times of the most enormous moral, social, cultural, and technological dislocation, that is immensely dangerous."


Righthaven. It was only a matter of time before the "copyright troll" nabbed a big (or at least official) fish in its net. The company, which buys intellectual property rights so it can sue copyright violators, has filed suit against US Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle for allegedly reprinting "two Las Vegas Review-Journal articles on her campaign website without permission." Idle thought: Righthaven's strategy might look and feel slimy, but the flip side of things is that such efforts could - could - nudge online news and other media towards new norms of behavior. Cross-posting, aggregation and liberal appropriation of other forms of intellectual property (ie. images) are almost standard practice, but no less legally murky for all the mainstream media adoption of such web-based worst practices. Sitting on the editorial side of the fence, I've developed an acute sensitivity to what that means after expending all manner of effort getting content ready for publication, only to see it appear elsewhere, unlicensed, unpaid for - to the benefit of others who haven't expended said energy and resources.  


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VIDEO


Inland Effects of the BP oil spill, video courtesy of National Geographic.


Tuesday
Sep072010

The Shrinking of Humanitarian Space in Pakistan

The Pakistani Taliban (the "Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan", or TTP) has been designated a terror organization by the State Department. On the face of it, this would seem to be a no-brainer. The group has bombed minority mosques, tribal elders and murdered women. It has attacked US and Pakistani interests in the region, and is suspected of involvement in the slaying of Benazir Bhutto. The threshold for qualifying for the US State Department list has also been breached: the group has claimed responsibility for the Times Square bombing, and State says it has corroborated this claim.


But a practical political downside of this designation is that it risks shrinking humanitarian space in Pakistan while the country is in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in its history. Funding guidelines and the power of the purse-string make it extremely challenging for aid groups to do business with black-listed local organizations, and in the US it is a federal offense to provide “material benefits” to any such group. In a recent ruling the Supreme Court interpreted “material benefits” so broadly that even disseminating international law to such groups could result in penalties for aid organizations.


Now, consider four facts. First, civilian NGOs in areas like Pakistan – stateless in places, dangerous and at present in the midst of both man-made crises and natural disasters – must often rely on assistance and cooperation from local armed groups in order to access vulnerable civilians. Second, in areas where such groups are already substituting for the state, their support may be indispensable to getting humanitarian supplies and care to the needy. Third, in places where such groups are responsible for crimes against civilians, humanitarian diplomacy (or what the US would now deride as “negotiating with terrorists”) may be a vital tool for the protection of civilians. Fourth, the appearance of even-handedness allows aid groups a protective cloak of neutrality on which their own lives may depend: aid workers are often attacked as soon as local groups believe they are siding with “the enemy” rather than simply assisting civilians in an impartial manner.


These tensions are not new. But now that the Pakistani Taliban is labeled a “terrorist organization” it may be that much politically trickier for aid groups to access, protect and assist Pakistanis in Taliban-controlled areas of the country. This will not only prevent Pakistani civilians from accessing aid, but may also imperil aid workers, who will increasingly be seen as tools of the US rather than neutral humanitarians. So it’s ironic that it’s this very risk, in part, that the State Department has cited in its decision to blacklist the Taliban – as the designation is only likely to make the scenario worse.


Preventing humanitarian diplomacy by neutral agencies with groups to whom the US is politically opposed has drawbacks for the US as well. Under such circumstances, the aid organizations most likely to get access to civilians in those areas will be those funded by non-Western sources. In terms of public diplomacy, or what the US calls “hearts and minds work,” this risks wasting the opportunity for Western-backed aid groups to provide secular assistance and protection to the Pakistani people. This role is likely to be picked up instead by those elements of the (admittedly diverse) Islamic humanitarian sector who are least dependent on Western funding sources… including elements in Pakistan that may be using humanitarian “soft power” for very different ends.


Jonathan Benthall has written a great deal on the relationship between US foreign policy, the shrinking of secular humanitarian space and the proliferation of the Islamic humanitarian sector post 9/11, and he is interviewed here

Monday
Sep062010

Readbook: WikiLeaks Strangeness, Bruce Hoffman Blogs, The McChrystal Seminar, Corruption in Afghanistan, & NATO's Forever Wars

WELCOME TO THE READBOOK, our daily trawl of content noteworthy, tl;dr, and below-the-fold. Posted early and updated throughout the day. Track updates via Twitter @EditorsCI. Get in touch via email at editors@currentintelligence.net


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MORNING EDITION


In-house. Eric Randolph writes about India's fragmented civil society, in response to a recent article in The Diplomat.


WikiLeaks. There's been some netbuzz about the rape/molestation charges against Julian Assange in Sweden. See James Fallows at The AtlanticHeather Horn at Atlantic Wire, and Fabius Maximus for an extensive round-up of coverage.


Bruce Hoffman blogs at the National Interest. So does Paul Pillar, along with a few other notables. Remarkable, really. I have no idea how interactive they are with commenters, but that's besides the point. What's important is that some very authoritative voices have been added to the social media brew (and they aren't writing for the Foreign Policy juggernaut!). One to watch.



Corruption in Afghanistan. There's a really simple solution, according to one Kabul merchant, Ahmed Shah Hakimi, quoted in a NYT article on Afghans' loss of faith in their political leaders.. Everyone knows who the corrupt members of the government are, he claimed. “What the Americans need to do is take these Afghans and put them on a plane and fly them to America — and then crash the plane into a mountain... Kill them all.” The article follows a week of reporting on the status of Kabul Bank, believed to be at the centre of official Afghan corruption. The Guardian reports Kabul Bank is set to receive a US$200 million Afghan government bailout to stem the hemorrhaging caused by thousands of bank clients withdrawing their funds.


The McChrystal syllabus. Not exactly the much rumoured "graduate seminar in counterinsurgency" descriptor beloved of the COIN-blogging realm... The Yale Daily News, Yale's college daily, has published detailsof the graduate seminar on leadership that retired General Stanley McChrystal will be leading this fall. The published syllabus reveals what you'd expect someone of McChrystal's recent experience might be teaching, but what caught my eye was this little gem: "... while students enrolled in the class are free to talk with the media about their impressions of the class, the seminar itself will be off the record." I can understand McChrystal's personal sensitivities, but it strikes me as counterproductive that students attending a university seminar won't be able to discuss, cite, or otherwise share the knowledge gained from it. There's also more than a little irony in the fact that a seminar on leadership is happening behind closed doors. Integration into civilian life continues...


NATO's forever wars. NATO has been involved in Crisis Response Operations since 1996, when the Implementation Force (or IFOR) was stood up for the Former Yugoslav states. There were some NATO air operations (notably, through lift-and-strike) from 1994, but full-on, ground-based interventions only started in 1996... and have been a constant of the alliance ever since. The Stabilization Force (SFOR), which replaced IFOR in 1997, was stood down at the beginning of December 2004; NATO had the Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as various other sundry missions, to keep it knee-deep in crisis. David Bosco suggests that that may be coming to an end, and what's a political-military alliance to do in the absence of war?


Recover some sense of itself, I think. Constant crisis, and the constant "innovation" that it drives, can be in its own way a perverse form of inertia. The NATO and Allied Command Operations bureaucracies have been in near-constant turmoil over restructuring, cuts, expansion, more cuts, more restructuring, fighting to keep, justify or shed personnel, developing capabilities to satisfy operational requirements, cutting programs, offices and funds in order to pay for those same operations... the list goes on. It can often feel as if nothing much is actually getting done. Many of the uniformed staff officers assigned to NATO billets claim (and as I heard it said often enough) more than a little ruefully that change is the illusion of progress. How else to demonstrate something - anything - achieved, in such a schizophrenic, incoherent environment? A little stasis, I think, will be good for the soul. 


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VIDEO


The boss is a robot.... an observation made by many. Now there's proof.  Video courtesy of the New York Times.


Monday
Sep062010

Military Personnel As Health Workers Of Last Resort

I currently live in South Africa where, for the last three weeks, there has been a strike of 1.3 million government workers, including nurses and hospital workers. The effect on the public health care system has been devastating. Since the strike started, all government hospitals are either closed or barely functioning. Newborn patients in intensive care units were abandoned by their nurses and one non-striking nurse was beaten and stabbed by protestors. There is no end to the strike in sight.


In response, the South African government deployed its health workers of last resort: the military. The South African Military Health Service (which interestingly is its own branch of the South African military) has sent medical personnel to 37 hospitals around the country. These military doctors and health workers are charged with keeping at least some public emergency services open. This is not the first time a nation has relied on the military to provide health service during strikes. In February, Nigeria deployed Army and Air Force doctors and nurses during a state hospital strike. While far from ideal, the world's militaries provide a valuable but under-recognized service as the health care providers of last resort.

Friday
Sep032010

Readbook: Collective Responsibility, Kabul Bank Bleeds, and Political Science & Journalism

WELCOME TO THE READBOOK, our daily trawl of content noteworthy, tl;dr, and below-the-fold. Posted early and updated throughout the day. Track updates via Twitter @EditorsCI. Get in touch via email at editors@currentintelligence.net


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MORNING EDITION


In-house. Joshua Foust discusses the apparent contradictions involved in charging militants with criminal behavior. John Matthew Barlow explores our love affair with violence. Faisal Devji, in his first column for Current Intelligence, explains the true significance of the Park51/Ground Zero Mosque debate.


Collective responsibility inevitably causes some degree of discomfiture in discussions of politics and violence. Leon Wieseltier's note on the Park51 debate don't break the mould. I'm still chewing on it; my first reaction is that Wieseltier walks a fine line, and only the elegance of his prose keeps his argument from straying into dangerous territory. But that's always the case, isn't it? Our understanding of the vagaries of cultural and collective influences on individual behavior inevitably relies on language as its crutch - the ability to clearly articulate and convey meaning, if not truth.


The bank bleeds. Kabul Bank, that is. Its depositors have withdrawn US$180 million over the last couple of days, according to Dexter Filkins, reporting for the New York Times. Loss of confidence in the bank follows news that it's at the heart of massive fraud and corruption investigation, and that the government would take control of it to correct the problems. President Karzai's take on the current situation? Piffle. It's all been made up by the press. “People don’t need to be worried," he's quoted as saying. “We’ve got enough cash to support the bank," and "Even if the whole financial system in Afghanistan collapses, we have enough money to support it." Well then. No problem, nothing to see here, move along. 



Political science and journalism. The American Political Science Association (APSA) conference in D.C. hosted a panel on the subject, including the likes of Marc Ambinder, politics editor at The Atlantic. His thoughts on the subject are worth noting, particularly when, in what reads like a natural progression, he strays into the differences between political science and history - something that many of us who do both (or all three, if you include the journalism) have been struggling with for some time:



Political science does not have a good explanation for Sarah Palin, and while it can, in retrospect, apply its theories of candidate selection, it cannot tell us why John McCain believed that he could trust Sarah Palin, or why President Obama was so stubborn about health care. It cannot shed much light on the personality of a president and how presidential personalities effect governing and management. There are typologies, but they are created post-facto and aren't very satisfying. Historians can locate Sarah Palin fairly easily (as they can Glenn Beck) as the latest in a series of conservative populist candidates that have been revolting against elites from the days of Jacksonian America, but their stories are satisfying because journalists are predisposed to recognize patterns (even where they do not exist) and jump onto a narrative. Historians tend to be closer to journalists in using descriptive, reporting-based analysis, rather than the hard tools of social science, to answer questions.  



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VIDEO


Indonesian trash mountains, video courtesy of France24.