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Not a Riddle: Reading Russia - and Responding Resolutely

Putin's strategy is to intimidate, confuse and divide the West. He wants us to worry about his next steps. He appears stronger than he is, if Western decision-makers and opinion leaders consider Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Churchill's famous description from October 1939 has made a comeback in the last fifteen months, but unfortunately not as the full quote:

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe.  That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.

Churchill's reference to the "riddle", I believe, was mainly about forecasting Russia's actions, which is similar to the weather forecast. The next few days can be forecasted with quite some authority, but not the next weeks. Yet, we all know the not too distant future: Winter is coming. (Only stupid bureaucrats in charge of our public transport systems get surprised by the first heavy snow fall.) Russia's future looks bleak as current policies are not sustainable.

Continue reading "Not a Riddle: Reading Russia - and Responding Resolutely"

U.S. Generals Indicate No Quick Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Recent statements from top U.S. generals are dashing hopes in the US and among European Allies that the war in Afghanistan will wind down in the next year, despite President Obama's stated intentions to begin troop reductions in July 2011.

Consider comments from the top U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, General James Conway, reported by Daily Times:
In recent months, US officials have played down expectations of any large withdrawal of troops in July 2011. Conway echoed those sentiments, saying he believed Marines would remain in the south for years. He said that Afghan forces would not be ready to take over security from US troops in key southern provinces for at least a few years.

“I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us,” he said, referring to Marines deployed in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Conway said some Afghan units somewhere might be able to assume the lead for security in 2011 but not in the south.
Further statements by General David Petraeus regarding the Afghanistan drawdown make it clear that the July 2011 date does not signal a hard end of the war, writes
Petraeus also repeated his view that the drawdown in U.S. and NATO forces, scheduled to begin in July 2011, will not result in a swift withdrawal.

"July the date when a process begins. It is not the date when the U.S. forces begin an exodus and look for the exit and a light to turn out," Petraeus said.
General Petraeus discusses the July 2011 drawdown in a video interview with the BBC, found here.

In the article "Why Europe Fears
Petraeus's Urge to Surge", Financial Times argues that European leaders not only desire a more expedient withdrawal from Afghanistan, but also want to pursue a different strategy for ending the conflict based on negotiations with the Taliban:
In discussions with European generals, diplomats and officials – each involved in their government’s Afghan policy – a common fear emerges. That US president Barack Obama will not be able to refuse demands from Gen Petraeus to extend the surge well beyond July 2011; that the general will continue to push for a continuation of military strategy; and that he will decline any suggestion of opening negotiations with the Taliban – something that many Europeans are very keen on.
European officials are coming to the consensus that they would like the Nato summit and Mr Obama’s Afghan policy review – both at the end of the year – to reach a position where negotiating with the Taliban is the political strategy around which military strategy is determined.

Troop withdrawals, which Mr Obama says will start next July, would then take place according to the pace of talks between the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government; not on the basis of hard-to-gauge battlefield success. Europe also wants the US to press Afghanistan’s neighbours not to interfere in its affairs.

Gen Petraeus wants to convince Washington, Nato and Europe to do just the opposite, determining withdrawals on the basis of the military, not the political, situation.

DOD Releases Afghanistan Report

The US Defense Department delivered a report to Congress this week providing an update on progress in Afghanistan from the period October 2009 to the end of March 2010.  Titled "Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan", the congressionally mandated report is extensive at 152 pages and covers everything from troop numbers in country to the details of ISAF counter-narcotics policy.

I have not read the entire report yet, but here are some highlights from the Executive Summary:


Violence is up but Afghanis feel more secure

“Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago. At the same time violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.”  The report says that while violence has increased, this is largely due to increased ISAF activity.
US, partner-country, and Afghani force levels are increasing

US presence:
 “On March 31, 2010 there were approximately 87,000 U.S. forces and approximately 46,500 international forces in Afghanistan… force levels expected to approach 98,000 by August 2010.”

"The President’s strategy is dependent not only on the application of military capability, but also on increased civilian capacity. Since January 2009, the Department of State (DoS) has more than tripled the number of civilians on the ground in Afghanistan to 992. The increase in civilian personnel is a reflection of the President’s strategy to increase civil military cooperation at all levels of operations."

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Boell Foundation: Civil Projects Need to Play a Greater Role in Afghanistan

I have interviewed the Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Kabul office about yesterday's London Conference. Dr. Scheller states that along side security, the international community also needs to strengthen Afghan civil society and that Iraq does not serve as a model for Afghanistan. See video below. More information on Atlantic Community and at the website of the Boell Foundation, which is independent, but philosophically close to the German Green Party, which explains the background colors... The voters of the Green Party are more supportive of continued engagement in Afghanistan than the voters of Germany's other main parties.


On Monday I have conducted another interview: UNHCR: Tweets from the Edge: I was talking to Claudia Gonzalez, who was leading Public Relations and Special Projects at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was using Social Media to give refugees give voice, allowing people around the world to engage in a conversation about how to improve the lives of those most affected by wars and conflict.

NATO to Develop Contingency Plans to Defend Baltics

“Thanks to Poland, the alliance will defend the Baltics”, reports the Economist:

IN A crunch, would NATO stand by its weakest members—the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? After five years of dithering, the answer now seems to be yes, with a decision in principle by the alliance to develop formal contingency plans to defend them.

Speaking in Prague in April 2009, President Barack Obama publicly demanded that NATO develop plans for all of its members, which put the Baltic case squarely on the alliance’s agenda. But in the months that followed, inattention and disorganisation in his administration brought no visible follow-up. Instead, snubs and missteps, particularly on the missile defence plans, deepened gloom about how seriously America took the safety concerns of its allies in Europe’s ex-communist east. An open letter by security bigwigs from Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and other countries publicly bemoaned the decline in transatlantic relations.


Now that seems to have changed. Formal approval is still pending and the countries concerned have been urged to keep it under wraps. But sources close to the talks say the deal is done: the Baltic states will get their plans, probably approved by NATO’s military side rather than its political wing. They will be presented as an annex to existing plans regarding Poland, but with an added regional dimension.

A proposal to create Baltic contingency plans has been shot down before, according to Baltic Reports:

General James Craddock, NATO’s supreme commander at the time, asked the alliance for approval of a contingency plan for the Baltics in October 2008. However Germany and France opposed the measure, fearing it would unnecessarily agitate Russia, and the issue as been debated in secret within the alliance since.

It should be interesting to see how this develops. Formal contingencies established or not, my feeling has always been that if any NATO member is attacked, the Alliance will invoke Article V, the mutual defense clause. Article V is the core foundation of the Alliance -- if NATO failed to defend one of it’s members, that would shatter the Alliance. Perhaps this perspective is too idealistic though?

Germany Blocks EU-US Bank Data Agreement

An agreement negotiated between the US and the EU on sharing bank data in the context of antiterrorism has just been blocked by Germany, France, Finland and Austria. This shift in German policy signals general political changes that will continue to impact transatlantic relations.

  • Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, German Minister of Justice, has a strong socially liberal profile. She had the same post in a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition in the '90s and resigned when her party agreed to far-reaching surveillance measures, eventually turning to bring a case before Germany's constitutional court that overturned much of the legislation.
  • This move has happened in the EU at the ambassador level of the Council, in anticipation of a decision that would have been taken on November 30th. That is, one day ahead of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which will give the European Parliament the power to vote on this matter. The European Parliament, which wants to add significant protections or indefinitely shelve this agreement, was outraged by these plans. This procedural concern was also noted by Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

Changes in Germany's coalition following the victory of the CDU/CSU and FDP have resulted in a more liberal profile on internal security matters.
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Britain to leave Iraq (in shame?), increase troops to Afghanistan

In an anticipated move, Gordon Brown announced that the remaining 4,100 UK troops will leave Iraq by the end of July.  Mr. Brown is quoted by the BBC:
I feel that the task that we set out to do is being done and that's why we can take a decision to bring most of our forces home.
The Times Online is less cheery, characterizing Britain’s withdrawal as “a humiliating proposal that lumps the once-valued deployment with five smaller contingents, including those of Romania, El Salvador and Estonia.”

Continue reading "Britain to leave Iraq (in shame?), increase troops to Afghanistan"

Georgia Conflict Gives Boost to European Missile Defense Talks

A poll by Opinion Research Corporation finds a strong majority of Americans support missile defense, as reported by Market Watch:
A national poll released today revealed that 87 percent of the American Public believes that the United States should have a missile defense system. The public survey showed that 58% of the American Public thinks that there is a real threat from missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction and that missile defense is the preferred option over pre-emptive military action or diplomatic efforts for dealing with the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction by nation states.
This is an astonishingly high number considering the broad opposition to missile defense in Europe, and the reluctance to embrace it by several leading Democrats, including Barack Obama.

It will be interesting to see if Russia’s intervention into Georgia will increase or decrease European support for US systems.  Initial reports suggest Russia’s actions have provoked a renewed sense of urgency into recently stagnant negotiations between Poland and the United States.  According to the Financial Times:
Talks on building part of a US missile defence shield on Polish soil restarted on Wednesday, with Polish officials sending much more positive signals than recently, in part because of fears awakened by the Russian attack on Georgia.

The fighting between Russia and Georgia appears to have made the benefits of having a permanent US troop presence on Polish soil more apparent to Warsaw. US negotiators are also interested in strengthening security ties with Poland.
Talks stalled over Polish demands that the US beef up Polish domestic defenses, including with expensive Patriot interceptors, in order to place US missile defense systems on Polish territory.  However, Polish political leaders argue that Russia’s intervention against Georgia has provided substance to its demands, as reported by the Associated Press:
Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Tuesday the attacks in Georgia justified Poland's demand for additional security guarantees if it accepts a U.S. installation.

"The increase in international tension that we are dealing with now, but which we had not expected, makes the security guarantees ... an issue even more important than before," [Polish Foreign Minister] Sikorski said.
Russia has strongly opposed US missile defense systems based in Poland and the Czech Republic, which it sees as a security threat.  It is interesting that Russia's incursion into Georgia has emboldened Poland and the United States to push forward with missile defense plans, rather than making them “think twice” before moving ahead with the controversial project.