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US Bombing of Laos: 1965 -1973: I was there first

Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.

Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.

However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

Central African Republic Gets a New President: Is there now hope for the CAR?

It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.

Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.

From the NYT:

The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.

Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.

The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.

Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80′s and 90′s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.

Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.

Could Westgate Have Been Part of An Increasing Trend in Violence in Somalia?

SomaliaI’m sure it’s obvious that I’m still trying to process the recent events in Kenya. I became interested in knowing if the attack was perhaps part of a greater trend of violence in the region, particularly Somalia.

The Armed Conflict Location and Events Database logs all conflict events around the world in one location. Events are recorded from newspaper reports, NGOs and self reports from people on the ground. I downloaded the latest version of the data and restricted the dataset to only Somalia.

It turns out, that violence has been on the rise in Somalia since at least 2005, with a small break around the time of the global financial meltdown, then rising consistently from 2010. The Kenyan military, who have been blamed for the attack, didn’t arrive in Somalia until October of 2011. Sadly, their entry hasn’t been associated with a decline in events.

It’s worth noting that Doctors Without Borders exited Somalia last August due to kidnappings and violence, part of a greater trend of attacks on aid workers. Even before that, news reports were telling of increased attacks around Mogadishu.

The Economist reported increased numbers of attacks in Iraq and speculated that it was part of a wider, global trend. If this data on Somalia is to be believed, the world should start bracing itself for even more carnage. Again, I’m quite conflicted on what might be the causes of this violence, most of which is waged on targets that have little to do with Americans (despite what Ron Paul would like you to believe). I’m also at a loss as to what to recommend to do about it, but ignoring this worsening problem will not improve the situation at all.

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

More Reflections on the Nairobi Massacre

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left...

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left…

This one just hit far too close to home. It’s not known precisely, but there might be close to 70 people dead, and nearly 200 injured, and likely hundreds or even thousands more in mourning. Having grown to love Nairobi over the summer and having frequented places like Westgate and enjoyed them doesn’t make it any easier. Being personally connected to people who lost friends in the attack just makes it incredibly sad.

A second attack is likely. I can’t imagine that Al Shabab or any other terror organization is going to let this success lie. This was probably merely a test. And as Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the NYT this morning, a second attack will devastate the Kenyan economy.

If there is another major terror attack here, it will be devastating. Kenya will be branded as insecure and expatriates will leave in droves. The billion-dollar tourism industry will crash, and everyone from pilots to safari guides to the maids at the wildlife lodges will be jobless. Tourists eager to see spectacular game and life-changing vistas will go to other African countries, and thousands of Kenyans will go hungry.

I am also thinking of all the research projects that will shutter and move to safer Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Though those countries desperately need those projects, it will be a great loss of livelihood to all the capable and dedicated Kenyan researchers, survey workers, staff, drivers and security guards.. and their families. People sometimes become quite cynical about development and research dollars, but even the most uninteresting of projects means food for a family or education for their kids.

As awful as it is to say, I can’t help but reflecting on the political controversies surrounding the use of drone attacks to combat terror groups. Though drone attacks aren’t without their own civilian costs, I can’t help but wishing one of them might have killed the 10-15 individuals who stormed Westgate Mall before they had the chance to shoot toddlers gathered on the roof to make a childrens’ movie.

Al Shabab is a real threat to the world, to Kenyans, and particularly to Somalis. It’s hard to argue that letting them simply do what they like in Somalia in the name of isolationism and vague notions of anti-imperialism would have ever been a good plan, given that this massacre is precisely what they wanted to do. I don’t think there are any easy answers or solutions here, but to do nothing is an entirely misguided solution. Actually, it’s not a solution at all.

Photo by Karim

If a recent Economist article is to be believed, the Westgate attack is merely part of a worldwide trend of increased terror activity in 2013. After reflecting for a while, I realized that terrorists in 2013 are of a completely different generation than those of 2001. The complexities of global terror are well outside my field of expertise, however, so I will refrain from commenting further.

The upside of all this, is that the event may draw Kenyans together as they never have been before. The long lines to donate blood and outpouring of support from everywhere across the country are nothing short of inspiring in a nation as fractured and divided as Kenya. My friend Karim posted some great photographs of Kenyans queuing to give blood and voicing support.

Assault at Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Kenya

Today I’m reading the new reports on yesterday’s gun assault on Westgate Mall in Nairobi. The numbers killed and injured keep rising. Last I checked, there’s around 50 dead and nearly 200 injured.

This was a horrible, inexcusable event. Al Shabab, a Somali terror/warlord group aligned with the collection of groups we refer to as Al Qaeda, has claimed that the massacre was in retaliation for Kenya’s cooperation with the Somali Army to out Al Shabab from the territories it occupies. It is unclear how this strategy is to work, given that Kenya entered Somalia in response to a series of terror attacks by the group.

It is likely that As Shabab intend this as evidence of their continued existence and a way to obtain recognition from other groups that might support them. Admittedly, my knowledge of the complex dynamics of Islamic terror groups is lacking.

The shooting as Westgate was particularly depressing to me. I’ve spent time in Kenya, and grew rather fond of Nairobi this past summer. I have many Kenyan and Japanese friends and colleagues in the area.

In Africa, only certain people can go to upscale places like Westgate. On any given day in Westgate, Ya Ya Centre, or any of the other upscale malls, you might be sharing space with Kenyan politicians, a prize winning African literary figure, brave human rights and relief workers, corporate kings, diplomats from all around the world, and a host of others.

Kofi Amoonor, Ghanaian literary figure

It has already been announced that Ghanaian writer and former ambassador to the UN Kofi_Awoonor is among those killed.

It is really easy to be cynical about an upscale mall in a developing country from afar. I’m positive that disparaging comments have already been made, but I will not search for them.

Places like the Westgate Mall, however, are sanctuaries in a place like Nairobi. Though I only rarely visit malls in the United States, Westgate is a place where people like me can escape the stigma of “otherness” and constant objectification, be free of the constant touting and begging that unfortunately occurs far too often in Nairobi and be in a place where one doesn’t have to look over one’s shoulder at all moments. It may sound quite awful to hear a wealthy, educated and white American complain, but in Nairobi, sadly, all of these things are a given. It becomes extremely exhausting and places like the Westgate happily provide them (along with excellent bookstores).

The worst outcome of this shooting will be that security will become even more intense. The divisions between the wealthy and the poor will become ever clearer. On the one hand, a secured area creates safety, on the other, it creates awful divisions. Nowhere is this clearer than the United States, whose history is filled divisions.

I am wishing the best to all in Nairobi right now. I’m sure that everyone I know in Kenya knows one or more people that were in that mall yesterday.

Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria

rwandan-genocideIn 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.

America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.

The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.

Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.

While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.

Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.

Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.

People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.

In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.

I was incredibly encouraged to see Nick Kristoff’s brave series of posts on Syria, despite the vitriol that came from his readership.

I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.

While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.

Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.

Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:

What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.

September 11, 2001: I just don’t get it.

I don’t get 9/11. That’s not to say I don’t understand much of the events that led up to it, the how and why it happened. I simply don’t understand the sentimental patriotic uproar that followed.

I was in New York City on September 10, 2001. We were playing a show in Brooklyn that night. Like all my visits to New York, I made a point of visiting my good friend from Mississippi, John. We were driving into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the World Trade Center. We started talking about the attempted bombing in 1993 which had intended to blow the foundation out of one tower, knocking it into the other. We both remarked that the towers must be indestructible.

The show ended up going late, we considered staying in Brooklyn, but at the last minute I decided to make the drive back to Providence and go to my awful job the next day. I got two hours of sleep, went to work and found out that the towers were, in fact, destructible.

The reaction on the east coast was nothing short of reprehensible. Mass mobilization of military units into downtown Providence to protect the Raytheon headquarters downtown. Drunken fools chanting “USA” harassing people who appeared “Arab.” The televised arrest of a Sikh man from the Commuter Rail for having a turban and carrying a “deadly weapon.”

The worst, though, was watching the shock on people’s faces as though their own homes had been attacked. For New Yorkers, this reaction would be entirely justified. Outside of New York, I’m not sure why the reaction would be anything other than concern. This same reaction among the so-called counter culture types was also very surprising. Call me shallow.

My passport is blue and it’s quite convenient for travel and wage earning. I believe in the US as a political ideology (constitutional representative democracy) and am quite proud to be an American because we do lots of cool and good things. Though I’m empathetic with the victims, it’s hard for me to get teary eyed at the thought of an attack by an international terrorist group known to be searching for big targets.

Americans weren’t fazed when the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies were attacked in 1998, perhaps because few Americans died. The majority of the victims (Kenyans) were guilty of nothing more than earning a pay check and were sadly caught in America’s international problems.

Mostly, Americans, who viewed 9/11 as an act of war, are oblivious to the ongoing economic war against the poor and marginalized that occurs within their own borders every single day.

In contrast to vile, socialist enclaves such as a Canada, the age of death of an American is directly correlated with his or her annual income. Minorities die earlier. Indigenous peoples are among the unhealthiest in the entire country. Our decentralized and localized education “system” ensures that the poor have few opportunities for advancement. The slow death of the union insures that wages are low and benefits non-existent.

Though the two issues (9/11 and the US’s structural issues) are unrelated (and this post is way off in space), I would ask those reflecting sadly on 9/11, take the time to reflect on what needs to be fixed in the United States. If there is a tear to be shed, it’s for more than 3,000 people who fell victim to a international band of murderous thugs who profited politically from the act. It’s for the millions who fall victim every day to a multitude of equally dangerous and self-interested groups.

Syria

Syrian blogger Edi

Syrian blogger Edi

I’ve been long hesitant to make my views on Syria known. I am still hesitant and my reluctance to say anything on the subject has been extremely troubling.

It seems that there is room for only one view on Syria, just as there was only room for one view on Iraq in 2003. Social media, I believe, has exacerbated the herd like nature of political views. The NSA need not work to create to create a uniform citizenry, the citizenry are quite adept at doing it to themselves. In contrast to 2008, though, the political tables have in some ways been turned.

I won’t say much about any of it, mostly since I have little time to respond to the one or two comments that will inevitably come. I am, however, drawn to a young Syrian blogger (tweeter?) named Edi, whose pictures (two of them) I post here. The situation clearly isn’t as simple as America believes.

I fear that America (and particularly the American left, who have it horribly wrong this time) is vastly underestimating the long term, worldwide consequences of American inaction in Syria.

That is all I will say on the matter (not that my opinion counts for anything).

From Edi's Twitter feed.

From Edi’s Twitter feed.

Food Prices and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

I decided I’d continue on this theme of African conflict for a bit after noticing some interesting trends in the data.

I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).

I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.

Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.

I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Conflict in Africa Getting Worse: A Good Sign?

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Now that the intellectual chaos of PhD defending is over, perhaps now I’ll be able to put together some meaningful sentences.

I started my newfound state of semi-freedom by reading, something I haven’t done in while (outside of papers on malaria). Mo Ibrahim, cel phone magnate and philanthropist was interviewed by the World Policy Journal in the most recent issue.

Mo is responsible for bringing cell phone technology to Sub-Saharan Africa, expanding telecommunications on the continent from a few thousand land lines (outside of North Africa and the country of South Africa) to more than 500 million mobile subscribers today.

The total number of phones in Africa was maybe two or three million fixed-line phones. And this was mainly in South Africa in the south or in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco in the north, and nothing in between. Right now, Africa has more than 550 million mobile subscribers. This is more than the number of mobile phones in Europe, by the way. This brought farmers to the market place. It brought new services. Banking now in Africa is done more with mobiles than in actual physical branches of banks. All kinds of services are available cheap like mobile banking services, which are more used there than in Europe or the United States. It improved elections and democracies. The democratic process improved a lot because of the transparency. It encouraged entrepreneurship and economic growth. So a lot of things happened, especially in a place like Africa, which badly needed that kind of service which bridged so many years of underdevelopment, and that is wonderful. With information at their fingertips, people are able to communicate, able to talk to each other. This should bring a better sense of understanding and less conflict.

It was the last sentence that intrigued me. Could the expansion of cell phone coverage in SSA be associated with a decline in conflict? Armed with my statistical tools, I was ready to check test this hypothesis.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much data on cel phone coverage. It appears that providers are either reluctant to publicize it, or are too fractured to merit a single source of data.

Data on conflict events, however, are reliably stored at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). I have written on the database before, but hadn’t looked at it since late 2010.

What I found was disturbing. Conflict events have not decreased in SSA. In fact, there are more than ever. in 2012, there were more than 10,000 events recorded, almost double the number of events in 2011. Many of these events were protests (3,292) but there was a disturbing number of events involving state violence against civilians (2,706).

These events are spread throughout the continent, but far too many are occurring in developed hot spots like South Africa and Kenya (as the map shows).

Now, this could be a result of increased recording of events in the database. it could also be a result of the expansion of cell phone technology and the free exchange of information on the continent.

It is clear, though, that wider access to mobile technologies is not leading to peace on the continent, but rather more violence. However, protest is a hallmark of democracy and development. Let’s hope that these protests, as bloody as they may be, lead to wider access to public liberties and stable governance.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come? It’s certainly up to debate.

ACLED

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