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Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Spy vs. Spy in Guinea-Bissau

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

One of the best features of the old Mad Magazine was the brilliant Spy vs. Spy comic strip. For those who don’t recall it or weren’t Maddicts like I was as a pre-teen, two beak faced spies, one all in white, one all in black, would spend the panels of the strip plotting heinous, Roadrunner vs. Coyote type traps for one another, usually involving a surprise bomb or someone popping out of some strange place to blast the other’s head off. It was great stuff as a kid and it’s actually still pretty funny if you find them on line. When a Spy vs. Spy strip comes to life, however, it isn’t quite as much fun.

Guinea-Bissau is a tiny, poverty ridden nation at the extreme western margin of the African continent, prominent for little besides being little. A former Portugese colony, Guinea-Bissau became an independent nation in 1974 and has seen little go right before or since. Its people are well fed by the Atlantic Ocean so it is not subject to the starvation that besets so much of Africa, but it has no oil, no manufacturing base and a geography that doesn’t lend itself to much valuable enterprise.

Except one. Drug smuggling.

The Bolango Archipelago sits immediately offshore Guinea-Bissau’s western beaches and is rife with tiny, isolated desert islands, making it an outstanding base of operations for South American drug cartels seeking to move product across the Atlantic and into Europe. It is estimated that 800 kilos of cocaine pass through the archipelago each week, worth billions of dollars and making drug transshipment by far the nation’s leading economic sector. The drugs are are transported to Guinea-Bissau by aircraft flying from the East Coast of South America or are shipped via freighter and dropped offshore, where they are collected by smugglers from the archipelago who repackage them into transit packs and send them to Europe via established smuggling routes. The government has long been a partner of the South American cartels, with longtime strongman-President João Bernardo "Nino" Vieira profiting mightily from the trade.

Vieira’s complicity in the drug trade was recently a major issue in Parliamentary elections in Guinea-Bissau, which featured uncomfortable questions for the President and the first stirrings of an overthrow since Viera retook power in 2005 after having been deposed himself in a coup several years earlier. Deciding that action must be taken to quiet the anti-Viera, ani-Cartel forces in the country, Viera apparently ordered the assassination of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday night, having General Batiste Tagme na Waie blown to the proverbial smithereens by a bomb placed in his car. Upon learning of the unanticipated and widespread distribution of their General, the military seems to have taken exception to Mr. Vieira’s policies and responded by shooting him in both knees and removing with a pair of scissors the parts of the body that men are often most fond of before shooting him in the head.

It was a bad weekend to be a leader in Guinea-Bissau. They all seemed to go to pieces.

The interesting thing about all of this is the manner by which General Waie was removed from the scene. West Africa, sadly, is no stranger to assassinations and killings; they seemingly happen constantly and almost always the same way– by shooting. In fact, nobody I’ve seen interviewed on the topic can seem to recall the last time a bomb was used to kill a West African leader.

Portions of South America do, however, see many killings by way of explosives wired into people’s cars, especially in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. That raises an uncomfortable possibility, that the assassination of General Waie was either facilitated or carried out by Cartel operatives moving to ensure their continued de facto control of GUinea-Bissau by Vieira’s narco-friendly regime. In other words, they were protecting their own.

Far looking geopolitical thinkers recognize that Africa will be one of the major locations of interest as this century unfolds, with China and India looking for space to grow, with natural resources abundant but poorly exploited, with a population that largely continues to struggle far below the standards of the rest of the world and thus potentially easy to manipulate or otherwise control. The forces of Islamization are snaking further west and south as Iran and Saudi Arabia become major players in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States under the Bush Administration considered improving relations with sub-Saharan Africa to be a major foreign policy objective, a policy which will be continued under the Obama Admin. In its waning days the Soviet Union turned its gaze on Africa, as well, and in a novel way– by sending legions of Russian Orthodox missionaries into the countryside to convert the populace to their faith and establish an affinity where no natural one had existed, a tactic which has been revived by the Putin-Medvedyev cadre. Is it then possible that we’ve all been ignoring a major non-governmental player in Western Africa, and one that not only is actively seeking power but that has already effectively taken ownership of an entire nation? If, as now seems obvious, the South American drug cartels have taken control of the nation of Guinea-Bissau one has to wonder what else they are controlling in Africa and other corners of the world not often gazed upon by the West.

In this Spy vs. Spy scenario, we’re going to need more colors than just black and white.


Posted in Africa, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Embracing An Islamist Regime?

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

David Axe’s brilliant blog, War Is Boring, yesterday explored what I view as a patently insane proposal from the Council on Foreign Relations to establish an internationally funded Somali Coast Guard to combat piracy. Somalia cannot govern itself, provide food for its people or police its own territory much less the oceans so yes, sure, let’s assume that the mythical Somali government not only would use the international funding to establish a hugely expensive and technically complex force structure but also that they would even have the inclination to do so.


Axe himself had a more interesting idea– is the answer to the Somali problem simply embracing the concept of a hard line Islamic regime in Mogadishu? For the sake of background, Somalia, long the victim of near total anarchy, was for a brief while in 2006 & 2007 effectively governed by a confederacy of Sharia-law courts, known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). That came to an end in 2007 when the Bush Admin encouraged and facilitated an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia under the concept that the ICU was providing a home base for alQaeda and similar Islamist radical elements. The Ethiopian Army, supplied with intelligence and armaments by the US in addition to oft rumoured US Special Ops raids and operations, had little problem defeating the ICU’s armed militia, taking back Mogadishu and eventually driving the ICU out of its last strongholds, leaving Somalia once again ungoverned and the ICU reduced to a guerilla band.

The piracy problem grew out of control shortly thereafter begging the question of whether we would be better off with an Islamic regime that isn’t disposed to liking the West or the current mess which threatens international commerce and the flow of oil. A fuller description of the piracy issue and the US Navy’s lackluster response to it can be found in my previous entry, The Vaporware Navy.

As the American Presidency moves to Barack Obama, we are seeing a different attitude being taken towards the Islamic World. While the realities and exigencies of war still exist and have been accepted by President Obama, an effort is clearly underway to defuse hostilities by winning over the Islamic people. Could that effort extend all the way to the acceptance of a true Islamist regime in Mogadishu if it meant Somalia would be under some authority and the piracy problem would be curtailed?

A return of the ICU may be underway already, even without our help or acceptance. With the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces Somalia has reverted to form and become an anarchist failed state, while the ICU is starting to re-emerge in the south. That being said, if the Obama Admin backed a return of the ICU as a reversal and redress of the policies of the previous admin ICU could take control of the entire nation fairly quickly.

What are the risks of an ICU/Islamist Somalia? There is, of course, the risk that our enemies would find haven there; it is a questionable risk, however, given that they are just as likely to find haven in an ungoverned Islamic region such as Somalia is now; indeed our Special Forces have been very active in Somalia taking down terrorist camps and operations. There is the risk of severe human rights abuses, as seen from a Western perspective, of allowing a Sharia-court based system to govern the country. Clearly it will not be pretty– women in burkas, denial of human rights, the reality of Sharia-mandated punishments for adultery, etc. That entails political risk to Obama’s left flank as the women’s rights and Amnesty Internaitonal crowds will feel betrayed by their President on this issue– the reality that the people of Somalia are living with even less human rights and dignity now doesn’t seem to penetrate the dogma of these folks. There will also be risk to his right flank as the Limbaughs and McConnels of the world try to hang a “soft on Islamic terror” label on Obama if he reaches out to the ICU. Never mind that you cant win a war against a movement and that you need to find soft solutions to the problems.

On the upside, we would almost certainly see a huge reduction to pirate activity out of Somalia. The Islamic Courts greatly curtailed piracy when they had control in ’06 & ’07 and there’s no reason to think that they suddenly see piracy as being in keeping with Islamic law; for a change we’d be on the benefit side of Sharia. Obama would have the opportunity to really make an impact on the Islamic “Street”; it would be very hard to demonize America as the enemy of Islam if we very publicly came out in favor of returning a Sharia movement to its role as ruler of an islamic nation. This is the kind of move that would do what Obama hoped to do with his recent interview with al Aribiya Television– prove that America is not the enemy of Islam. Additionally, returning order to Somalia would make possible real foreign aid to a suffering people, including the safe delivery of food. One wonders if the solution of so intractable a problem as Somalia might not also lay the groundwork for real action in regional neighbor Sudan’s Darfur region.

Can Obama recognize the ICU and return it to power in Somalia? Clearly it is within his power to do so, but the political cost, both at home and in Western Europe, will be extremely high. So too would be the potential payout. The time is arrived for America to realize that the export of Democracy and western style human rights to unwilling nations or those simply not yet equipped to deal with them is not a reasonable or even desirable goal; “better dead than red” does not translate to “better secular than starving”. Somalia is an Islamic nation in a state of chaos; resisting the emergence of an Islamic government to fix the problems is a fundamentally unsound strategy.

To look at past as prologue, consider the fact that a young socialist by the name of Ho Chi Minh desperately sought the acceptance and support of Harry Truman in 1945 & 1946. Ho effectively controlled post-Japanese occupation Indochina and had instituted a workable governing structure that was feeding the people and keeping order; he petitioned the United States to recognize his government and stop the French from reoccupying Indochina in much the same way we were making it clear to other European nations that the colonial period ended with the cessation of World War II. Ho was, sadly, not politically acceptable to a Red Scare America despite his friendly overtures; the rest is history. It is important for America to learn from that oft forgotten lesson and not allow our Islamist Scare mindset to prevent order from returning to Somalia and security returning to the seas off of the Horn of Africa.

Posted in Africa, American Politics, Foreign Affairs, History, Human Rights, Islamists, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Vaporware Navy

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 8, 2009

pirate_01We love to talk about military hardware. Its sexy. Missiles, fighters, cannons, tanks– they’re big, they go boom, they’re the ultimate guy toys. They’re hardware. Orders, commands, Rules of Engagement– that’s military software. Just like any other system, the hardware is useless without the software to run it, the software is useless without the hardware to run on. When you have one and the other is simply a promise, a notion, something that may or may not happen– that’s vaporware.

The US Navy, those fine folks in white with all that big expensive hardware, with all those complex software routines and systems to run that hardware… they know a little something about vaporware.

Today the US Navy announced the formation of Combined Task Force-151 (CTF-151) to take on one of the most vexing problems that the Navy has faced in a while– the very high profile, very annoying, very anachronistic presence of the Pirates of Somalia. Our friends who have traded in the cutlass for the Ak-47 and the 12 pounder for the RPG have become the nail that needs pounding down… but nobody seems to have a big enough hammer to do the job, not because the pirates are too strong to smash but because they have the annoying habit of not staying in one place long enough to get hit in a meaningful way. They’re guerrillas at sea, and guerrillas have never been our specialty. We’ve heard the brass tell us that we aren’t optimized for this mission, that there’s just too much ocean to track them consistently, too much shipping to protect. They were honest, but honesty, like guerrillas, has never been our specialty.

An intractable problem. A public asking why it’s intractable when it wasn’t in the Seventeenth Century. Some US hardware in the area. Why not issue a box of software to make it look like perhaps we’ve come up with a solution, but just maybe, perhaps, forget to put the CD in the box?

That is what CTF-151 is– a shiny software package that has nothing inside. CTF-151 is a commander, an org chart, and a big pile of paper– nothing more. CTF-151 isn’t getting any ships that aren’t already in the area under CTF-150. CTF-151 isn’t getting any orders to shut down piracy by hitting them in the one place where it could make a difference, on the beach. That’s just as well because it doesn’t have the hardware to do so. CTF-151 isn’t even getting an updated Rules of Engagement or legal advice one how to handle any latter-day Steed Bonnet that they might nab on the high seas– a particular problem because there’s pretty much nothing in the current law that would allow us to do anything with ones that we do capture in international waters and nothing effective to do with any we might grab in lawless Somali waters.

Somali piracy is a serious problem; these guys are grabbing ships on the high seas and making a fortune– a fortune– doing it. Estimates of their take in ransoms last year alone runs into the high tens of millions. They grabbed a ship full of Russian tanks and ammunition; they grabbed an Iranian ship that people are still wondering about the cargo of. They’ve grabbed a supertanker full of oil. They’ve attacked passenger liners– and won’t it be a bit of a pickle for the civilized world when they actually succeed in taking one of those and offer to ransom back the passengers for fifty million? How about when they take a real floating bomb– say an LNG tanker or one full of chemicals that are weapon precursors?

The UN is making the right noises about the problem– they authorized action on the sea or land to put an end to this problem. The UN, of course, is the biggest issuer of vaporware going; they can ask the producers to make the products and can even tell the world that they’ve ordered them to be developed, but they can’t enforce that order– they can promise anything they want, but they can’t ship.

Russia and even China are starting to show signs of life in at least getting some real force into the area. France, of all nations, has actually done a bit of ass kicking, launching commando raids to free hostages in Somalia and taking down pirate ships on the ocean. The reality, however, is that if anyone is going to put an end to this problem, it has to become too risky for hopeless Somalis to engage in, and that means blowing the living hell out of Somalia again, at least that part of Somalia where these guys are basing. That ultimately can only devolve to the US, we’re the only one with the power projection capacity to handle the job in the Horn of Africa. Of course, we also have had a bit of experience with combat in Somalia and aren’t eager to experience that again.

It’s time to figure out just what we are prepared to do about this problem and then do it. If the answer is “nothing”, then so be it– it’s a bad answer, but at least it would be some kind of an answer and the world could make alternate plans to avoid the Horn of Africa and the Suez Canal and we can get used to the further economic chaos that will cause. If the answer is to take out the pirate’s shore facilities, find a way to punish the pirates that we take on the ocean, and generally make life too dangerous for the pirates, then let’s get ready to deal with this as a front in the current war and get on with it. What we must not do is temporize, issue press releases, and pretend that the hardware and software is in place to do the job when we currently have no desire to put it there or use it to this end.

CTF-151 is vaporware, and vaporware is a singularly bad way to handle problems. Empty promises always are.

h/t to the Custodian at

Posted in Africa, Foreign Affairs, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Power Springs From the Muzzle of a Hoe

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009

An interesting read in the China Digital Times about Chinese farmers “emigrating” to Africa. China has a shortage of arable land chinese_farmer_silhouette1while Africa has a shortage of food, as the story goes.

One must wonder, however, if China, which has an excess of population, isn’t actually keeping their eye on Africa’s undeveloped land, technologically backwards regimes and militaries holding that land, and mineral wealth beneath that land. As African fertility and population rates tremendously decelerate even from the levels of thirty years ago and as AIDS continues to take its toll on the 14-40 male demographic that also comprises fighting aged men, China must sense an opportunity here. They understand that India and to a lesser extent Indonesia also see that opportunity.

China plays the long, deep game. Today’s “emigrant” farmers bring with them to Africa their Yuan, their technology, their way of life and their willingness to give Africa the pusher’s dram of those commodities; the African people, in the absence of any real ground-level diplomatic efforts from the US or EU, will become addicted to that which the Chinese can supply just as they became addicted to that which the British, French, and Belgians supplied in the 19th Century. China is pursuing the soft victory in the mid-term, which may well lead to the establishment of Chinese rule in nations that harbor these Chinese colonials in the long term.

Even George W. Bush realized that Africa will be the setting for this century’s Great Game, with America finally making some small efforts to improve our lot and standing amongst the Africans. Africa has the mineral wealth that the world so dearly craves, the water and land resources that so many nations are short of, and the effective power vacuum that makes them readily accessible to the nations that dare take them. America stands at a key decision point in Africa– do we continue to prop up failed regimes as we have so often to our strategic and humanistic detriment, or do we forge new relationships and give unstintingly of our medical, technological, commercial and mining resources not for the direct betterment of America’s bottom line but for the betterment of America’s long term standing in the world. We must emulate the Chinese by providing to and for Africa without raping their resources and populations so as to provide actual leadership.

Barack Obama faces a dilemma– it is always hardest to take care of “one’s own” when in high office. Mario Cuomo was a Queens politician who made it to the top rank of America’s governors, but during his tenure in Albany Queens got screwed on almost every count– Cuomo could not send home any bacon to Queens for fear of being shown up as self serving. There are elements of American society who would similarly pillory Obama for placing what they might see as undue interest in sub-Saharan Africa by virtue of his lineage for political gain. Hopefully we can avoid stumbling over so obvious a dodge.

Posted in Africa, China, Economy, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

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