Category: cultures of war

In which I play a historian on the Internet

So how do you get people to join an army and learn a highly specialised skill set, in fact, several, if your elite as a society is trying not to be part of society?

Two links, both from Small Wars Journal. Plutocratic insurgency, starting with the Mont Pelerin Society – a far better framing than Harvey’s, damn, I’m really writing myself into doing that review. Fielding and Phasing In the Venture Capital Green Beret.

One thing I’ve learned from reading Erik Lund’s awesome blog is that if I’d only tried harder when the people who said “Alex, if you only tried harder…” told me to try harder, I too could still be working in a West Yorkshire KwikSave. That’s not really my point, but it is on topic.

Another thing I learned from reading Erik Lund’s awesome blog is that, in history, it’s only a start to talk about equipment and logistics rather than General So-and-So’s brilliant manoeuvre. So much is determined by the economy of skills, specifically, how armies find the craftsmen they need to be mobile, and also, what happens when they are reintroduced into the civilian economy. Joining up to get a trade is still an important British folkway to this day.

So, the rich don’t think they owe society anything, and in fact, they increasingly see themselves as rebels against conformity rather than the power behind conformity. They try to privatise the state services they need and withdraw from what they think of as political, public life. Of course, the nature of politics is that withdrawing from it is reliant on a massive investment of resources in politics – the great buildup of lobbying, fundraising, and wanktanking – just they don’t call it politics.

At the same time, they still want the army to fight for their interests, and the nature of those interests demands a certain kind of army. Alternatively, the politics that goes with the pursuit of their interests demands a certain kind of army. In fact, the enemy that the army fights demands a certain kind of army, and we are arguing about how the enemy is chosen.

The certain kind of army makes heavy use of its special forces, because it’s the kind of war that involves getting into odd political crevices and renders a lot of the heavy metal less useful than it looks. The special forces are recruited from the whole army, and are necessarily much more skill-intensive, in all kinds of odd specialities. Not only that, but they are multi-skilled. That’s the point. But why would you take on a job that requires many years more learning and tends to be more dangerous?

One reason to do something like that is if you think you’ll come back with a secure slot in society, a man worthy of respect, a citizen honoured by the republic. This is a status closely connected with the acquisition of skills. My grandfather, the communist sailor and valve-era radio hacker, escaped the Great Depression through the Royal Navy’s mobilisation of unemployed cockney youths fascinated by technology, and came back in 1949 as an electronic engineer, heading for the new town of Basildon with the wife he met at his test bench at the REME central radio workshops.

The government had decided to bet on the highest of high technology for the survival of its crazy island empire, and then the people who built the radars returned to the civilian economy equipped for a future unimaginable a few years before, not least because they replaced the government with one unimaginable a few years before on the way.

Robert Bunker’s post about plutocratic insurgency inevitably fingers the financial sector, but wisely, he doesn’t restrict himself to “the bankers”. There are plenty of guilty men who made fortunes in the 2000s out of finance without being bankers. Notably, our tech sector mates in venture capital! So, what better way to offer the special forces warrant officers a future after the war, than to make them into “Venture Capital Green Berets”? And, in fact, the detail of the proposal involves them getting MBAs.

The notion sounds repellent. Of course. It is repellent. It reeks of everything dreadful about the last 15 years, which is why it is worth writing about. After all, this is a society where getting a PhD or joining the Green Berets is no guarantee against a career at Kwikkie’s or the US equivalent and nobody seems to want to change that. Its author has apparently quit the VC world to join up, which is impressive and worthy of respect, but I suspect that part of the point here is that you can’t argue for a jobs plan without pretending it’s a new strategy from the people who brought you the iPhone.

Protection….

Update: I originally didn’t want to publish this because I didn’t think it was good enough, but I hit the wrong button. Anyway, Alistair Morgan read it and thinks one of the premises of the whole thing is wrong. Namely, the weapons were going in the same direction as the drugs, not the other way around. Well, at least the story moved on a bit, but this renders mostly useless a whole additional post I put together from reading a lot of crazy-but-interesting stuff out of the bottom of the Internet. Also, despite the Jessie J reference there’s better music at the bottom if you get that far.

So, Alistair Morgan’s twitter feed frequently hints at “cocaine, weapons, and Ireland” as well as police corruption as being factors involved in the case of his brother, Daniel Morgan, the private detective murdered in 1987, probably by people who were since employed by News International. It’s often been said that Morgan was on the point of publishing some sort of huge revelation when he was killed, but nobody knows what it was beyond his brother’s hints based on what the police told him at the time.

Since the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal, a number of sidelights have come up which linked the News of the World, its cadre of ex-police gumshoes, and its contacts inside the police force. Notably, it seems to have spied on the former Army intelligence agent-handler, Ian Hurst, on an NGO, British-Irish Rights Watch (because documents of theirs were on Hurst’s computer when they hacked it), and perhaps on the chief of police, Sir Philip Orde. It would have been hard for people working for the press not to have covered at least one Northern Irish story in the last 20-odd years simply because it was such a news staple, but it’s worth noting their interest.

The War Economy of Northern Ireland

So, what might link Morgan, cocaine, weapons, Ireland, and policemen? There are some fairly well-known stylised facts or stereotypes about the economy of the Troubles. The IRA mostly funded itself from money collected in the United States, from bank robberies, and from unofficial taxes it collected in the North. It also got contributions from friendly countries, specifically Libya. The Loyalists didn’t have a reliable source of their own money abroad like NorAid, and so specialised in protection and drugs. Both sides also got involved in smuggling across the border as a commercial exercise.

That’s a glib summary ‘graf; obviously, I collect a revolutionary tax for the struggle, you impose fines on drug dealers and dishonestly stick to some of the money, and they are merely thugs operating a protection racket. Traditionally, both Sinn Fein and the British tended to stereotype the Loyalists as basically criminal and the IRA as proper insurgents – there may be some truth in there, but the distinction is one of emphasis and degree and also of propaganda rather than of kind.

Having obtained money, they both needed to convert some of it into arms. The IRA got a famous delivery in the 80s from Libya in its role as Secret Santa, and also often bought guns in the US over the counter and smuggled them back. I don’t know how well characterised the sources of Loyalist arms are, which of course gives me license to speculate.

Permanently Operating Factors

Now for the cocaine, which has often been known to land in bulk quantities on the wilder, less populated bits of the Atlantic coast that also offer good harbours. This is a rare combination, as people live near ports. Two of the best bits on that score are northwest Spain and southwest Ireland. Having landed, you can move it on anywhere in the UK-Ireland common travel area without much more trouble. Since the creation of the Schengen area, Galicia is even better for this because there is such a choice of markets you can reach without a customs inspection. But in 1987 this was an un-fact, so you might as well go to Ireland.

This transit trade had important consequences – notably the rise of Martin “The General” Cahill, the assassination of Veronica Guerin, and probably a substantial chunk of the Irish property bubble via the laundering of profits and also by the boost to those ol’ animal spirits the drug provides.

Imagine, then, that an important criminal actor supplying the London market with cocaine also had access to a reliable surplus of weapons. There is the potential for trade here.

However, it’s not that simple – the famous Libyan shipment would have fit in a couple of shipping containers, and it kept the IRA going up until peace was signed, with a fair bit left over to be buried in concrete by the international commissioners on decommissioning. It is very unlikely that any plausible flow of arms to Northern Ireland would have paid for the flow of cocaine into the South-East.

We Don’t Need Your Money, Money, Money, We Just Wanna Make The World Dance…

There’s something else going on – Diego Gambetta would have already pointed out that you need to understand the trade in protection. To sell protection, you need weapons, which are the capital equipment of the business of private protection. In so far as the buyers in the UK were paying in guns as well as cash, they were arguably expressing a protector-protectee relationship. While on our territory, we protect you, and license you to provide protection. This was also reciprocated. In accepting them, were the sellers of the cocaine undertaking to protect it in transit on their own territory?

Another way of looking at this, which Gambetta would also approve of, would be in terms of costly signalling. Being both a supplier and a protector is a powerful position, but it might be worth letting the other side have it as a guarantee or hostage, to signal that you didn’t intend to break the agreement and deal with some other supplier. This makes even more sense given that you still have a regular supply of guns you could cut off or use against them, and therefore both parties have something to lose.

Now, Gambetta’s work mostly deals with Sicily, where a very important protection supplier has often been irrelevant. London is a very different society from this point of view. Whatever you think of the police, you can’t just ignore them as a factor. In some other societies, the police might be protection consumers, but here, police corruption usually takes the form of policemen selling protection. (In a sense, the more effective the police, the more tempting this will be. Nothing sells like the good stuff.)

So, gazing down on this complex, neo-medieval exchange of cash, credit, and protection, there is a sort of Sun King whose permission is required for any protection contract to be signed. It’s like a feudal society. My liege lord is only so, because he is the King’s subject, and the King at least theoretically owes duties to the Emperor, or later, directly to God. Our buyer is in a position to offer protection for his end of the business because he enjoys protection supplied by the police.

Who were the recipients, the sellers? They might have been drug dealers who needed to buy protection from one or other paramilitary group. They might have been drug dealers who wanted to build up enough arms that they could stop buying protection, or rather, change protector. Or they might have been paramilitaries who sold protection to the drugs trade. The distinction is surprisingly unimportant.

So, to put the pieces together, there was some group of South-East London villains importing cocaine from transit providers in Ireland, who were also exporting weapons in the opposite direction as part of an exchange of protection for their common business. This required buying protection from the police. Where did the weapons come from? And why is News International involved?

Protection….

Update: I originally didn’t want to publish this because I didn’t think it was good enough, but I hit the wrong button. Anyway, Alistair Morgan read it and thinks one of the premises of the whole thing is wrong. Namely, the weapons were going in the same direction as the drugs, not the other way around. Well, at least the story moved on a bit, but this renders mostly useless a whole additional post I put together from reading a lot of crazy-but-interesting stuff out of the bottom of the Internet. Also, despite the Jessie J reference there’s better music at the bottom if you get that far.

So, Alistair Morgan’s twitter feed frequently hints at “cocaine, weapons, and Ireland” as well as police corruption as being factors involved in the case of his brother, Daniel Morgan, the private detective murdered in 1987, probably by people who were since employed by News International. It’s often been said that Morgan was on the point of publishing some sort of huge revelation when he was killed, but nobody knows what it was beyond his brother’s hints based on what the police told him at the time.

Since the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal, a number of sidelights have come up which linked the News of the World, its cadre of ex-police gumshoes, and its contacts inside the police force. Notably, it seems to have spied on the former Army intelligence agent-handler, Ian Hurst, on an NGO, British-Irish Rights Watch (because documents of theirs were on Hurst’s computer when they hacked it), and perhaps on the chief of police, Sir Philip Orde. It would have been hard for people working for the press not to have covered at least one Northern Irish story in the last 20-odd years simply because it was such a news staple, but it’s worth noting their interest.

The War Economy of Northern Ireland

So, what might link Morgan, cocaine, weapons, Ireland, and policemen? There are some fairly well-known stylised facts or stereotypes about the economy of the Troubles. The IRA mostly funded itself from money collected in the United States, from bank robberies, and from unofficial taxes it collected in the North. It also got contributions from friendly countries, specifically Libya. The Loyalists didn’t have a reliable source of their own money abroad like NorAid, and so specialised in protection and drugs. Both sides also got involved in smuggling across the border as a commercial exercise.

That’s a glib summary ‘graf; obviously, I collect a revolutionary tax for the struggle, you impose fines on drug dealers and dishonestly stick to some of the money, and they are merely thugs operating a protection racket. Traditionally, both Sinn Fein and the British tended to stereotype the Loyalists as basically criminal and the IRA as proper insurgents – there may be some truth in there, but the distinction is one of emphasis and degree and also of propaganda rather than of kind.

Having obtained money, they both needed to convert some of it into arms. The IRA got a famous delivery in the 80s from Libya in its role as Secret Santa, and also often bought guns in the US over the counter and smuggled them back. I don’t know how well characterised the sources of Loyalist arms are, which of course gives me license to speculate.

Permanently Operating Factors

Now for the cocaine, which has often been known to land in bulk quantities on the wilder, less populated bits of the Atlantic coast that also offer good harbours. This is a rare combination, as people live near ports. Two of the best bits on that score are northwest Spain and southwest Ireland. Having landed, you can move it on anywhere in the UK-Ireland common travel area without much more trouble. Since the creation of the Schengen area, Galicia is even better for this because there is such a choice of markets you can reach without a customs inspection. But in 1987 this was an un-fact, so you might as well go to Ireland.

This transit trade had important consequences – notably the rise of Martin “The General” Cahill, the assassination of Veronica Guerin, and probably a substantial chunk of the Irish property bubble via the laundering of profits and also by the boost to those ol’ animal spirits the drug provides.

Imagine, then, that an important criminal actor supplying the London market with cocaine also had access to a reliable surplus of weapons. There is the potential for trade here.

However, it’s not that simple – the famous Libyan shipment would have fit in a couple of shipping containers, and it kept the IRA going up until peace was signed, with a fair bit left over to be buried in concrete by the international commissioners on decommissioning. It is very unlikely that any plausible flow of arms to Northern Ireland would have paid for the flow of cocaine into the South-East.

We Don’t Need Your Money, Money, Money, We Just Wanna Make The World Dance…

There’s something else going on – Diego Gambetta would have already pointed out that you need to understand the trade in protection. To sell protection, you need weapons, which are the capital equipment of the business of private protection. In so far as the buyers in the UK were paying in guns as well as cash, they were arguably expressing a protector-protectee relationship. While on our territory, we protect you, and license you to provide protection. This was also reciprocated. In accepting them, were the sellers of the cocaine undertaking to protect it in transit on their own territory?

Another way of looking at this, which Gambetta would also approve of, would be in terms of costly signalling. Being both a supplier and a protector is a powerful position, but it might be worth letting the other side have it as a guarantee or hostage, to signal that you didn’t intend to break the agreement and deal with some other supplier. This makes even more sense given that you still have a regular supply of guns you could cut off or use against them, and therefore both parties have something to lose.

Now, Gambetta’s work mostly deals with Sicily, where a very important protection supplier has often been irrelevant. London is a very different society from this point of view. Whatever you think of the police, you can’t just ignore them as a factor. In some other societies, the police might be protection consumers, but here, police corruption usually takes the form of policemen selling protection. (In a sense, the more effective the police, the more tempting this will be. Nothing sells like the good stuff.)

So, gazing down on this complex, neo-medieval exchange of cash, credit, and protection, there is a sort of Sun King whose permission is required for any protection contract to be signed. It’s like a feudal society. My liege lord is only so, because he is the King’s subject, and the King at least theoretically owes duties to the Emperor, or later, directly to God. Our buyer is in a position to offer protection for his end of the business because he enjoys protection supplied by the police.

Who were the recipients, the sellers? They might have been drug dealers who needed to buy protection from one or other paramilitary group. They might have been drug dealers who wanted to build up enough arms that they could stop buying protection, or rather, change protector. Or they might have been paramilitaries who sold protection to the drugs trade. The distinction is surprisingly unimportant.

So, to put the pieces together, there was some group of South-East London villains importing cocaine from transit providers in Ireland, who were also exporting weapons in the opposite direction as part of an exchange of protection for their common business. This required buying protection from the police. Where did the weapons come from? And why is News International involved?

as for the Mahler, I think it could do with a helipad

China’s neo-con blogging fever-swamp, via (of course) Jamie K.

For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: “Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war.

A well-known music critic? Now that’s special. You don’t get detailed comment on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s seabasing capability from Martin Kettle when he’s in one of his SUCK ON MY CULTURE, PROLE moods, or indeed when he’s editorialising, do you? Does Brian Sewell take a view on whether the much delayed Maritime Afloat Replenishment Ship project should go down the Dutch/Canadian JSS route, perhaps building on licence from Schelde in the UK, or stick with specialised tanker and dry-replenishment hulls?

It’s a pity that this doesn’t mean their politics is any more pacific.

review of a movie that doesn’t exist yet

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang’s blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there’s a great movie to be made here – the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher’s bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They’re as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty’s Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons – to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off – but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme – the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself – a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.

Why are these scumbags so scummy?

John “War Nerd” Dolan got a job, as a lecturer at the American University of Iraq. Hilarity ensued. You bet. It’s a tale of un-fantastic right-wing academics, a kind of glaring dullness, a total lack of character, and an endless supply of raw cash. It so happens that John needed that more than anything else, so good luck to him. Read the whole thing – what stands out is the vast gap between the neo-con obsession with The Western Canon! Classicism! Principle! Courage! and the petty, provincial, small-mindedness that people like Joshua “Not The Blogger” Marshall practice in their lives. It’s not even the incompetence. It’s the style that gives them away.

The other interesting thing in the piece is John Agresto’s role. Again and again, he turns up wondering why a string of horrible political thugs treated him with disrespect. Lynne Cheney, his old boss, seems to have been a really awful human being close up. Who knew? But somehow, it never crosses his mind to wonder why this keeps happening every time he associates with the Cheneys or Bill Bennett or some other horrific political gargoyle. It’s….full of bastards, just this particular astronaut isn’t going to get out of the ship.

I also loved the notion of a neo-conservative as someone who got mugged by reality and now never goes into town for fear of running into reality again. A lesser writer would say that he started carrying a gun in order to shoot reality. However, that would imply some kind of grand, tragic struggle against brute fate. You can’t have tragedy without dignity, and that’s one thing the administration of the American University of Iraq doesn’t have.

This reminded me of two things, or rather the other way around. If you want Mitt Romney to speak, you’ve got to take a bulk order for his booky wook. Hence the book is a bestseller (for whatever that means in today’s book trade). Similarly, ‘bagger Sharron Angle’s campaign raised $14m and paid $12m right back to the political consultants who organised the donation drive.

The other thing was this documentary series on YouTube about Americans and steroids. Two points come to mind – the enduring role of the quack, and a sort of grinding optimism. And this quote: “Everyone wants to be a monster.”

A critical point, though – I’m fairly sure the sheaf of documents one of the doctors waves while reading out a list of horrible side effects that turn out to relate to vitamin C is from an open-access “adverse event reporting system”, which basically gathers anything anyone anywhere feels inclined to report. They aren’t verified in any way. Anti-vaccine people often abuse this.

Fortunately, someone’s done the actual journalism and documented that the ties between multilevel marketing, quackery, and extreme-right politics aren’t just style, they’re organisational and financial. It goes back a while, too.

2006 again, and a brief history of recent wrong

Adam Elkus has a piece out entitled The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare, in which he criticises what he sees as a tendency to over-rate the power of guerrillas in the light of the 2006 war. Having read it, I think the real question here is about expectations and goals. Hezbollah didn’t defeat the Israelis and hold a victory parade in Tel Aviv, but then nobody least of all them expected or aimed for that. The outcome of 2006 can only be understood in the light of a realistic assessment of the conflict parties’ capabilities, interests, and priorities. A score draw is a much better result for Stoke City against Manchester United than it is for Manchester United against Barcelona.

For Hezbollah, the first and overriding goal was surely survival – as it is for everyone, it’s even the title of the IISS Journal – followed closely by survival as a force in Lebanese politics, survival of their capability to maintain their self-declared insecurity zone in northern Israel, and finally, inflicting casualties and costs on the Israelis in order to create a deterrent effect. In that light, the result of 2006 was surely just as good from their point of view as they made out – they came away still in the field, still firing rockets, and with their status in Lebanese politics enhanced.

For Israel, well, perhaps one day they’ll work out what their strategic aims were.

Elkus argues that the tactical situation at the point when the UN ceasefire went into effect was favourable for Israel, and that had the war gone on they might have done better. This is possible. However, it’s also very common for wars to end like this. The Israelis’ campaign in 1967 was designed, once they got the upper hand, to get to the Canal and onto the Golan before the UN blew the whistle – one of Ariel Sharon’s frequent blind-eye manoeuvres in 1973 was also intended to complete the encirclement of the Egyptian 3rd Army before the UN ceasefire went into effect. The Indian plan for the 1971 war was explicitly intended to take Dhaka before a ceasefire was imposed. More recently, the Russian operation in Georgia was subject to a similar deadline. International intervention is part of the environment, and only fools wouldn’t take it into account as a planning assumption.

An interesting sidelight on this, also from Elkus, came up in a parallel blog debate about “network-centric warfare” – he pointed to this gung-ho but good piece about the action in northern Iraq in which John Simpson was blown up. What struck me about it, however, was more that it was an example of this kind of thing – which should certainly make you think about 2006, especially in the light of this.

Tangentially, Sean Lawson’s essay on the history of “network centric warfare” is well worth reading, especially for the way so many US officials in 2001-2006 seem to have been competing to see who could validate all the most extreme stereotypes of themselves the fastest, and more broadly on the way a basically sensible idea can become a sort of gateway drug to really insane strategic fantasies.

Cebrowski talked of a “booming export market for…security” and warned those who would resist, “If you are fighting globalization, if you reject the rules, if you reject connectivity, you are probably going to be of interest to the United States Department of Defense” (Cebrowski, 2003c).

Measured against the sort of capabilities the NCW thinkers knew they had, and the kind of goals they dreamed on the basis of them, what possible results wouldn’t look like failure? Compared with the enormous arrogance of this vision – they really did want everyone who thinks the CIA wants them dead, dead – what resistance wouldn’t look like success?

cutting down on your mercenary miles

Here’s something interesting.

We must also consider the alternative that many of the most prominent and powerful Afghans are in fact motivated by greed and opportunism. [harrowell: ya think?] It is therefore in their interest to maintain the status quo of massive US and international spending that fuels the Afghan “rentier state” economy.

This isn’t just recreational cynicism; they argue that the latest announcement of a clampdown on private security companies in Afghanistan is to be taken more seriously than the last six, and that this actually represents an effort to integrate them into the Afghan government’s forces or at least its allies. Importantly, and very differently from Iraq, the main players are local rather than foreign – like the 24,000-strong Watan Group. (Check out their Corporate Social Responsibility page.) Rather than just being part of the ISAF baggage train, they’re a significant nonstate actor in Afghan politics.

If you were feeling optimistic, you might consider this as being similar to the various political fixes the Soviets arranged in 1988 to keep the roads open for the Afghan government post-withdrawal. If you’ve been reading this since at least 2007, you’ll know that I think the absolute best that could happen in Afghanistan would be to get back to something like the 1989-1992 period, just without the continuing US/Pakistan/Saudi destabilisation and the cut-off of Russian aid that kicked off the civil war (and the destruction of Kabul, the invention of the Taliban, and so on). I agree this is pessimistic, but then, well, I wouldn’t start from here.

In Iraq, understanding the business/organised crime environment may have played a bigger role than is publicly acknowledged in getting the US Army out of town. For example, here’s a Joel Wing piece on the history of oil-smuggling (you’ll note that the Baiji refinery comes up. party like it’s 2005!). Interestingly, the initial Awakening Council leader Sheikh Abu Risha was an important oil smuggler, and you can bet those networks were of use.

Leaving aside the obvious Afghan export, the analogous business is probably selling stuff to ISAF. Bagram now has its own cement plant, inside the perimeter, but that’s a Turkish construction firm.

we flippin’ murdered them

Peter Beaumont goes for a Holt’s battlefield tour of southern Lebanon:

Cruising through the serene green wadis that connect south Lebanon to the Litani river to the north, the commander explains what happened at the end of the last war. “We knocked out three of their tanks on the first day, as they tried to enter,” he explained at a turn-off by the village of al-Qantara. “But after they entered the wadi, we knew they were going for the river and had to be stopped. So we called out to all the special forces anti-tank teams in the area. And they all swarmed the wadi. Boys would set up and wait for the tanks, fire off their rounds and then pull back. Then they would pull back a kilometre or so down the wadi and wait for them again.”

According to Israeli military reports, after the first and last tanks were hit by rocket fire or mines, killing the company commander, the 24 tanks were essentially trapped inside a valley, surrounded on all sides and pinned down by mortars, rockets and mines. Eleven tanks were destroyed and the rest partially damaged and Israel lost at least 12 soldiers.

Go read the rest; there’s a fair amount of speculation of the informed sort, and an appearance from Andrew Exum opining that the reinforced UNIFIL has succeeded in moving Hezbollah away from the border, rather as it was meant to. Actually, the reinforced UNIFIL should surely be counted as one of the unexpected successes of the last few years – especially if you remember all the yelling at the time.

However, this may be less important than it appears, especially if the Hezbollah guy’s account of their tactics in 2006 is representative – there’s no reason why they couldn’t keep doing that every kilometre, and indeed that’s what the original idea of a screen of small groups of men with guided anti-tank weapons was meant to do in front of the main NATO armies in Germany (remember this post and Stephen Biddle’s analysis?)

Further, the whole concept of a buffer force assumes that both sides would rather not fight, but that neither is willing to make the first move – that a classic security dilemma is operating. If one or both parties are determined to initiate more violence, though, this breaks down. And it’s worrying to see how a lot of Israeli commentary about 2006 has changed over time – in the first 18 months or so, there was a lot of frankness around. The war had clearly been a failure, and Hezbollah had surprised everyone by defending southern Lebanon effectively. Roughly since Gaza, there’s been a denialist phase – a bit like David Lloyd’s crack that “we flippin’ murdered them” after the England cricket team ran out of time trying to beat Zimbabwe. A lot of stuff was blown up in Beirut, and if it wasn’t for those pathetic politicians, we’d have won. You know the pattern.

it is never too late to MEND

This won’t be a substantive post, but more a notice to myself to build one. A seriously under-reported story on the global guerrilla beat is that the Nigerian government has succeeded, at least for the moment, in either defeating the Niger Delta rebels or making deals with them.

It’s worth rolling back a little; time was when they were roaring about the rivers of Rivers State in RIBs with three or four huge Evinrude outboards, assaulting oil installations and demanding money, following a strategy that was based on the current situation of the oil market, including things like the latest hurricane sweeping towards the Gulf of Mexico, refinery stock drawdown – essentially, they followed the market for oil like IPE traders in London. Their faceless spokesman operated from a Hotmail account and a PAYG GSM phone somewhere in South Africa, usually.

Everyone, especially J-Ro, reckoned they were our insurgent future. The lumbering energy infrastructure, supposedly, could never be defended from persistent but random disruption aimed at its key network nodes. They certainly were a guerrilla navy that was tactically and operationally very effective, and whose leaders were pursuing an intelligent strategy; their technology was obviously of the moment.

But what happened, then? A key element, of course, was the price of oil. However, the relationship between the Brent index and the violence in the Delta wasn’t linear; as the price of oil rose, MEND was more able to cause trouble, but the Nigerian government and the oil companies had more money. They could spend it on soldiers, or on bribes. In the other direction, as the price of oil fell, the power of the insurgents to send bursts of panic into the market fell – but the Nigerian state would itself be weaker, and the pool of recruits wider.

Crucially, the demand for oil fell; this is possibly more important than its price. Here’s me in August 2008 on this subject. As an oil-bombing insurgent, it’s not so much the price that you’re interested in as your ability to cause trouble. Much of the industrialised world has passed its peak demand for oil; the US may have done, or it may be the recession. We will only know in hindsight. This means that the oil market is structurally less sensitive.

This is, of course, less to the point if MEND was indeed a new kind of rebellion. I rather doubted this; it always struck me as a fight for a share of export revenues. Oil, as resources go, is remarkably suited to landlordism. Its extraction is capital-intensive, not labour intensive; much of the work is done by expatriate specialists. And, crucially, it helps to run an artificially high exchange rate, which is an excellent way for an elite to loot a country. As a robber elite, most of what you want in the way of goods are imported, and most of what you want in the way of the capital account is an export. You want to get your money out. This also tends to destroy local industries and favour importers; especially importers who need to get a licence from you.

This, and the back story of the rebellion, suggested that the main aim was what they said it was – to extract oil revenues from the Governor’s gut. Unlike tension in the oil market, the money you raise from high oil prices can be stored for later use; the government deployed it this summer, both for force and for persuasion.

I hope this post can expand to take in more information; I’d like to know more about how it happened. I do know that some of the rebel leaders’ men paraded through Port Harcourt getting drunk and shooting in the air before piling their rifles. But that’s about it.