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Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

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 »

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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