Direct Democracy, Militia Style

Democracy is a tough project. Even in well-established democratic countries the process can get extremely messy at times and some even claim that here in the United States our democracy is failing. Now, the accusation that American democracy is failing might be hyperbolic, but try to imagine constructing a democratic system in a country without any history of democratic rule, a lack of institutional viability, and no control over what happens within its own borders. Enter Libya.

Qathafi claimed, in his Green Book, to have found “the final solution to the problem of the instrument of governing.” Of course, the Brother Leader never really precisely laid out what the organizational apparatuses of the Jamahiriya were supposed to be. Oh sure, you can find charts aplenty that show the interrelations between his proposed Popular Congresses, but the operational aspects? Regardless of ‘theory,’ Qathafi left a state that wasn’t a state. What was meant to be an attempt to reach the ‘ideal’ of direct democracy effectively remained a totalitarian state under the thumb of the Brother Leader and his family. There was almost no institutionalization to speak of and rule of law was a pipe dream. What existed was a bizarre combination of both strong and weak state.

Flash forward to today and one sees that creating a democracy from such a shambles is indeed messy. Perhaps messy is too light a term. What we are seeing now is a shambles. The country is effectively split between various militias and localized groups that maintain control of their region/ city/ neighborhood/ street. At this point even the government’s nominal ability to influence the country has been significantly damaged.

Let us look at only Tripoli, for the sake of brevity. This week has seen militias storm government offices, including the parliament, and dictating legislation. From April 28 until May 5, militias held the government under siege until parliament passed a political isolation law that would exclude former Qathafi-era government workers (of any rank) from holding office in the new Libya. This law could potentially even include the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who had defected from the Qathafi regime in the 1980s. The vote was only democratic in the sense that it was passed by elected representatives. Now a precedent has been set. Bring enough guns to the table and the Libyan government will be forced to acquiesce.

Unsurprisingly, the militias responsible have no made further demands upon parliament, including explicitly requiring the Prime Minister to resign, freezing the state’s budget, and taking charge of the foreign ministry. The government is powerless to do anything about this, although rival militias claiming to support the government are now offering to dislodge those besieging the government. Zeidan himself is trying to play the man in middle saying, “We don’t have militias in Libya, we have revolutionaries.” In this case, truly a distinction without a difference.

Democracy simply cannot function without an effective security sector. Without the proper level of coercive authority the state becomes simply another player in a complex version of the Middle Ages as groups struggle to assert territorial and governmental dominance.  While Libyans explicitly refused any sort of external peacekeeping force post-revolution it is hard at this point to see how an effective transition can be made without one. The state simply cannot support itself and without any sort of security cushion it is hard to believe that militia-style direct democracy won’t become the wave of the future. Of course, getting anyone to sign up for such a task would be no easy feat. And defining what end such a theoretical force would be may prove even more difficult.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Bibi Returns?

In my last post I discussed Israel’s lack of a true strategic dimension in policy thought and mentioned the difficulties Netanyahu faced gathering a government together. It now seems that Bibi has managed to cobble together an alliance of sorts that will allow him to head a government finally. Notably missing from the coalition are religious parties, such as Shas, that have often been necessary to any attempt at forming a workable coalition. However, the current group does not bode well for an evolution towards a more strategically minded Israeli policy.

The new coalition will be, broadly speaking, between four parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. While this coalition does give Bibi the votes necessary to govern the Knesset, it is an alliance that will be very difficult to contain. Of key importance will be the push and pull between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi. Lapid has, in the past, made his preferences known that he prefers negotiations with the Palestinians towards the goal of a two-state solution. Bennett, while not explicitly turning against a two-state solution, has proposed full annexation of the parts of the Occupied Territories termed “Area C” by the Oslo accords. If this plan went ahead, a map of the Occupied territories would look something like this:

GoodMap

This plan does not leave the Palestinians with an effective territorial basis within which to form a state (although Bennett does propose naturalizing those Palestinians resident in “Area C” in order to avoid charges of apartheid). While Lapid does favor maintaining control of most settlements, this plan is far outside of what he has proffered in the past.

Suffice it to say this is a major difference of opinion. While Bennett’s suggestion is unlikely to ever come to fruition anytime soon, any attempt to wade into solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly certain to raise significant strains in the current government. Both Livni and Lapid favor new negotiations, Bennett is less so inclined. For the time being, priorities will likely lie on the domestic front, tackling issues such as fiscal responsibility and lowering the cost of living.

However, some analysts have suggested that the Palestinians may be headed for a new intifada. If such a struggle breaks out it may be impossible for the Israeli government to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue.

To return to my point from earlier in the week, all this finagling and inward turning will make it extremely difficult for Israel to formulate any sort of strategy. Not only is the stability of the current coalition dubious, it is highly likely that Israel will retain its tactical approach and eschew any serious strategic rethink.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali in the Crucible

The battle for Mali appears to have greatly accelerated in the past few days. Firstly, Islamists, including Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine, have begun a march on southern targets. On 8 January Islamists marching in the direction of Mopti were fired on by the Malian military. Just today, 11 January, Islamists have taken control of the village of Konna. The situation is summarized thusly:

The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.

It may be that a major offensive on the side of the militants is underway. The loss of Mopti, while still hundreds of kilometers from Bamako, would constitute a major setback for the Malian government. However, to counter this advance it appears that the French have decided to participate directly in the Malian conflict.

On the same day that Konna fell, President Hollande stated:

“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence…I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”

The Malian and French governments have confirmed that French troops are on the ground. The French have been involved in interventions as recently as 2011, in Cote D’Ivoire. It is likely that a trained French force could provide significant support for the Malian military, but direct French involvement carries with it other issues that may impede the success of the mission. While President Hollande did recently go to Algeria and acknowledged “the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people”, he did not apologize for said suffering. Whether or not Algeria feels comfortable with a French intervention so close to its border may have unforeseen consequences for the Malian conflict.

Whether or not any of these events represent a turning point in the Malian conflict remains to be seen. What can be sure, however, is that a difficult situation just got significantly more complicated.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

A Smooth Criminal

Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, has rescinded his pledge to halt violence and work with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Bamako. Specifically, “Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou.” This could mean greater difficulty for any force seeking to break up the control of Northern Mali by various Islamist groups. However, it is important to recognize that Ag Ghali is a canny operator and may not have as strong an ideological commitment to militant Islamism as it appears.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ag Ghali has been on the scene for some time. He was instrumental in launching a previous rebellion in 1990. However, Ag Ghali also signed the Tamanrasset Agreement with Bamako in Algeria. He even obtained a Malian diplomatic posting to Saudi Arabia. Although it appears he was removed from his post for consorting with jihadis, it is unclear what real effect this had on him. His main connection was with Tablighi Jamaat, which, while definitely fundamentalist, does not generally espouse direct violent political jihad. 

After all, before the breakout of the current conflict, Ag Ghali was known to desire a position in the secular MNLA. He was rejected not for any Islamist leanings, but because of his prior relationships with Bamako, not to mention exterior actors such as Algeria. Even after getting rejected for a position as secretary general of the MNLA, Ag Ghali still didn’t go the Islamist route. Instead, he attempted to become the political head of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs. After he failed to attain this position he finally decided to helm the Ansar Dine movement.

This, by no means complete, history doesn’t show a particularly ideological man. The fact that Ag Ghali has retracted (for now) his offer to lay down his arms should not detract from the fact that he has been willing to talk to both the MNLA and Bamako. Not to mention that Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine have not ruled out laying down their arms in the future. In fact, the current retraction of the offer to stop hostilities was followed by a statement that Ag Ghali was open to “new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate.”

While it is believable that Ag Ghali’s time in Saudi irrevocably changed him, it is entirely possible that Ag Ghali is simply holding out for the best deal. If he believes that association with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) will be more profitable for him, he will likely maintain a more bellicose position. However, when events start moving in another direction he may prove more receptive to diplomatic overtures. For now, with any international intervention months, if not a year, away and Bamako seemingly incapable of retaking the North alone, he will likely continue to vacillate between conciliation and conflict.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jumping the Gun?

The conflict in Mali may proceed at a greater pace than desired by the international community. Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, recently came out and stated that, “The legitimate, legal, quick and clean war we want to wage with the international community’s support… needs more time for all technical, strategic and legal aspects to be fine-tuned. However I can tell you one thing: Mali will not wait months, as some seem to advocate. We will not wait for the cancer to spread. The war against the terrorists will happen sooner than expected and the Malian army will be at the forefront.” This seems like it will be far in advance of the September or October dates envisioned by the United Nations and other international actors.

A preemptive strike by Malian forces could make a difficult situation more untenable. It is highly unlikely that the Malian military, itself in disarray after the March coup, will be able to wholly retake land lost to Islamic radicals in the North. It will likely rely on impromptu militias that have been forming out of populations that have fled the Islamist dominated North. On top of that is the question of what will happen to the MNLA, the secular Tuaregs that kickstarted the rebellion. Will Bamako be able to come to a meaningful agreement with the MNLA, or even Ansar Dine?

While it is clear that something must be done in Northern Mali it may not be feasible to expect action immediately. Perhaps President Traore’s statement is meant to catalyze quicker action by the international community. It may also be a result of internal politicking. After the arrest and resignation of Prime Minister Django Sissoko in December, the President may be acting to shore up support with the military. However, if not, then a new wrinkle will fold out in an already complex situation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali: A Brief and Incomplete Overview

Mali has increasingly fallen under the specter of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. A paralyzed, non-functioning government to the south has been toppled in favor of a weak, disorganized military regime. It is unlikely that Mali, by itself, will be able to thwart the goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as they consolidate their control in the North. Cities which were once focal points of Western tourist traffic are now enduring scenes of cultural destruction, as well as amputations and executions.

The United Nations has proposed that, in order to save Mali, the Economic Community of West African States formulate a planned military intervention on behalf of the Malian government. This plan envisages a force of between three and four thousand ECOWAS troops that will enter Northern Mali and rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ignoring ECOWAS’ dubious record at successful intervention (ECOMOG, ECOWAS’ intervention in Liberia, was often referred to as “Every Car or Moveable Object Gone”), there is still the matter of a four thousand man operation ostensibly maintaining security in a zone the size of France.

This force, however, is not projected to even begin operations until September or October of next year. Al Qaeda is not going to sit still during this time. Malians, especially those displaced by the conflict, are not willing to wait. Already, locals are forming militias with the goal of retaking the North. While the formation of these militias does help demonstrate that AQIM is not highly popular, they also can lead to future instability. Once groups arm themselves and gain some level of political control of a region it can be very difficult to get them to put down their arms and rejoin the civilian world.

Finally, even assuming the intervention force gets rolling, no major spoilers appear, and the Malian government becomes more defined, there is no guarantee that the Tuaregs will be willing to place themselves under the control of Bamako once more. There have been rebellions in 1916, 1962, 1990, 2007, and now in 2012. These rebellions are not short affairs either, most last at least two years. The Tuareg rebels who began the current rebellion, the MNLA, have indicated their willingness to accept autonomy rather than full independence. Ansar Dine, up until now allied AQIM, may be able to be turned, but Iyad Ag Ghaly is a canny operator. It is unclear whether his interests lie with militant Islam or with his own personal stature.  

This whole plan has a lot of “ifs” – if Ansar Dine drops AQIM, if the MNLA and Bamako agree, if the intervention ever gets rolling, etc. The problem in Mali is not fundamentally one of Islamic radicalism. It is one of state weakness and dysfunction. The weakness of the state allowed for a rebellion which the Islamists used to their advantage. If a solution is to be found to the current problem, it will lie in strengthening the organs of the Malian state, whether by federalized institutions or not. A flexible approach is absolutely imperative.

This has only been a brief overview. I intend to explore the situation in Mali in more depth over the coming weeks.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Iraq on the Brink of War (Again)

Buried beneath the headlines of Egypt’s constitutional crisis and Syria’s potential implosion another flashpoint in the region has quietly been escalating. A standoff in the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk between Iraqi army and police forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish Peshmerga forces under the command of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has threatened to erupt into a full scale war.

This latest confrontation between Baghdad and the KRG stems from a November incident in the town of Tuz Kharmato approximately 45 miles south of Kirkuk where one person was killed and ten wounded when Iraqi police attempted to arrest a Kurdish businessman accused of smuggling oil. Since then both sides have made provacative statements accusing the other of further escalating the conflict. During the past two days attacks in Kirkuk have resulted in the deaths of 11 people and two bombings in Tuz Kharmato killed five and wounded 24.

In the past, the U.S. military had helped ease tensions in Iraq’s disputed northern territories that separate the semi-autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. In 2009, the U.S. set-up a “Combined Security Mechanism” that placed an equal amount of Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and U.S. soldiers at checkpoints along the green line that marks the border of the disputed territories to prevent miscommunications from turning into confrontations. But Kirkuk in particular was deemed too divisive to adhere to this arrangement, and U.S. troops manned the checkpoints along with local Iraqi police not beholden to either Baghdad or the KRG.

This past July, with U.S. troops long gone from Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki formed a new Tigris Operations Command that placed Kirkuk under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi army for the first time. The KRG responded by unilaterally moving Peshmerga troops to Kirkuk’s northern edge. The U.S. has again tried to help mediate between the two sides by brokering talks led by Lt. General Bob Caslen, commander of what remains of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, known as the Office of Security Cooperation. But in Iraq’s current political climate, Iranian led efforts to diffuse the crisis may now hold more sway with officials in Baghdad and Erbil.

Most analysts view this latest crisis as simply political posturing ahead of provincial elections set to take place in April 2013. Prime Minister Maliki may be seeking to burnish his image as an Iraqi nationalist to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis who view Kurdish incursions into the disputed territories as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. But even if Iraq manages again to avoid a return to full scale violence, the underlying issue of Kirkuk and the disputed territories is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, the announcement today that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani may be in critical condition after suffering a stroke removes one of the leading voices of moderation from the conflict.

The latest events in Kirkuk reveal just how little national reconciliation has taken hold in Iraq almost five years after the U.S. troop surge supposedly provided the Iraqis space to hammer out their toughest political divisions. Until these underlying issues are somehow resolved Iraq will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis teetering on the brink of a return to war.  

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.