Thursday, October 18, 2018

Killings in Kandahar: Instant Reaction

The news out of Kandahar is pretty awful: the top leadership of the province was killed in an apparent attempt to kill General Austin Miller, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country.  There is not many details, but the WashPost account is suggestive of some key dynamics and challenges.

First, it sounds like the killer was apparently part of the provincial governor's security team.  Not great.  It does seem like the primary threat in Kandahar to elites are their security teams, as I seem to remember it was also a member of Ahmed Wali Karzai's security team that killed him. 

Second, and, more importantly, the focus is on Abdul Razik the police chief of Kandahar.  Why?  Because (a) the inability to build institutions meant that the US, Canada and the rest of NATO bet on individuals.  That if we had the right individuals in place, we can manage things and even perhaps improve them.  The story focuses on Razik's own networks and his own capabilities, not that of his office.  That he is hard to replace--because we have relied on individuals.  And, yes, individuals come and go.

Third, the focus is on the police chief, not the governor.
Among those reported killed in the attack inside the governor’s compound in southern Kandahar province were the country’s top police general, Abdul Raziq, who was seen as the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan.
That says something about how little progress has been made--that it is still very much about who controls force, not who governs.  If progress had been made, the focus would be more on the political side--the assassination of a governor.  If we think about this happening in most other places, wouldn't we note the political leader first and foremost?

Fourth, um, about Razik, the discussion of his "strengths" reflects some desperation on the part of the outsiders:
Amrulleh Saleh, a former Afghan national intelligence chief, tweeted that Abdul Razik had been “an architect of stability” in Kandahar who had established “deep political networks” in support of the government. “This is a pan-Afghan loss,” he wrote.
Abdul Razik, a lieutenant general in the Afghan National Police, was a controversial official who had been repeatedly accused of torturing detainees and other abuses during his rise to power in Kandahar. At the same time, he earned a reputation as a ferocious opponent of the Taliban and gained the respect of successive American and NATO military officials in Afghanistan.
Controversial figure?  Indeed.  This points to the biggest challenge facing any outsider hoping to run a successful counter-insurgency effort--local allies.  Do they have similar interests?  Do they behave in ways that alienate local constituencies?  Does one need brutality to win a counter-insurgency?  I am not sure, since this guy was brutal and yet.... is Kandahar a success or a failure? It hasn't fallen (unlike Kunduz), but it is not a haven of security either.

This one story, again based on initial reports, is just very suggestive about how complex counter-insurgency efforts can be, how difficult they are, and how many tricky tradeoffs are involved.  I am sure the US/NATO forces are mourning the loss of Razik, but maybe they should be wondering why they are so dependent on one guy?




Monday, October 15, 2018

Confirmation Bias: Canadian Defence Procurement Edition

I have been arguing that defence contractors in Canada have been underrated..... as sources of dysfunction.  So, when I read today's story about the defensive strategy of the former Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, Mark Norman, who has been accused of leaking stuff, I find myself nodding my head.  Norman's attorney is going after the Liberal government and specifically the ties between the head of the Treasury Board (key budgetary watchdog) and the Irving Shipbuilding company, which seeks to monopolize all naval defence contracts.

Sure, of course, a guy with ties to the Irvings is in a spot to help them, one who has leaked before.  If it is not true, it is still useful "reasonable doubt" fodder.  I do wonder if the government has any ability to wave off the prosecutors since this is a bad news story timed for the election--that is when the trial will be. 

But to step back and examine my own bias for a second, I have long thought this case was handled poorly, that it made little sense to go after a VCDS for leaks when the entire government (which the defence attorney will prove pretty easily according to this article) leaks like a sieve.  However, this article is pretty much PR for the Norman defence and does not have much else in the way of sourcing.  Which gets to a different existing bias I have--that parliament does not have much of a role in this, and, if it did, it would be operating like Pugliese--via leaks. 

And so, I have to remember leaks do not perfectly portray what is going on but portray reality as the leaker would like it to be portrayed. Media outlets that rely on leaks can get played. I am not saying Pugliese is getting played, but I am not saying he is not. I tend to agree with him that Norman is getting shafted because the Liberals fucked up--they fell for Irving's pressure, started to push against a plan to fill the gap in supply ships via a Quebec firm, and then got caught via a leak.  As it turns out, Davie, the Quebec yard, was able to get the ship transformed and in service--a good news procurement story that might have gone the other way.

I am fond these days of quoting the Dumbledore line about it being easier to forgive other people for being wrong versus admitting they were right.  Seems to me the government of Canada, under the Liberals, should be reading more Harry Potter.  But again, that is my bias. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Tide of Voterfraudfraud Reverses

With the elevation of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, voterfraudfraud is back in fashion.  We had a period where the courts were ruling against voter suppression efforts, but that is over.  Yesterday's ruling that makes it harder for Native Americans to vote in North Dakota--the clearly suppressive law that requires street addresses in a state where a certain group relies on POB addresses was allowed to stand--is the beginning of the next wave of efforts by the Republicans to win by denying the vote to people who are unlikely to vote GOP.

As I have argued before, the voter fraud as a threat is itself a fraud--there is not much of a threat of people voting illegally.  What is a threat?  Voter suppression, which Republicans have clearly made as a key strategy.  They know they can't appeal well to large swaths of the country--students, African-Americans, Native Americans, the poor, etc.  So, how to win elections?  Make sure these people can't vote.  Georgia has kicked people off of voting rolls.  States have made it harder to vote by shortening early voting periods.

The effort is systematic and anti-democratic.  The electoral sin of the United States has been voter suppression.  It is why the Voting Rights Act was enacted.  The Roberts Court said that racism was over, and so the VRA could be diminished because.... Roberts is fricking blind.  Since that decision, the GOP has enthusiastically sought to make it harder for non-Republicans to vote.  The myths they spout about fraud seem to work... for those who want them to work--that Republicans believe this bullshit despite few recorded cases of voter fraud.  Yes, it is known to happen, but it is rare and it is a far less severe problem than disenfranchisement.  That they don't get this, but it is not that different than being willing to speed up death penalties despite the risk of killing innocent people.  Of course, they may hot have a problem with that.

While I think that the Dems will still do well in 2018, I fear that two more years of unfettered voterfraudfraud may make it very hard for the Dems to win in 2020.  People in my business disagree about how to code the US as a democracy: was it a democracy when people where enslaved? Was it a democracy when less than half of the population could vote (prior to women's suffrage)?  Was it a democracy when a large minority was essentially denied the right to vote prior to the VRA?  Well, we may start pondering at what point is voter suppression so intense that the US is no longer very democratic.  Maybe we can code the US as a full democracy from 1965 to 2018?

Monday, October 8, 2018

Happy Potter Questions

Seems a bit late to ponder Harry Potter, since he is now well past Hogwarts and deep into his career as an Auror.  However, various folks have been asking questions that have been making me think a bit about stuff stuff.  So, here's how I answer some of the questions of late:
My answer: Accio!  The summoning charm is super-useful even it is pretty mundane.  This would be aimed not just at grabbing the remote control from across the room, but finding stuff that is lost around the house--keys, ipod, phone, etc--or stuck under the seat in one's car.  I could have chosen disapparation as a mode of travel, but I can't call the ability to disappear in one spot and appear in another shockingly mundane use of magic.

The next question: listening to the Binge Mode folks at the Ringer answer questions between podcasts that analyze the books and movies, they were asked to name five Order of the Phoenix members (1.0 or 2.0) they would want on a rescue mission, but, the person asking the question said that Dumbledore could not be included.  Both of the folks on the podcast agreed on Harry and Hermione because the former, despite sometimes making poor decisions, had courage, leadership, and luck (he is something like 5-0 against Lord Voldemort), and the latter is just super-smart.  Mrs. Spew agreed on Hermione, but not so much on Harry.  But I will take Harry because of his record of beating the odds and his "saving people thing."
Who else?
  • I wouldn't have Sirius since he was a bit too cocky--he died because he was too busy laughing at Bellatrix.
  • Lupin is very good at defending against the dark arts, but is unavailable and positively a danger to his team a few days every month.
  • Tonks is klutzy, but has the ability to change her look, making it easy for her to get anywhere.  However, for a short rescue mission, anyone can quaff some polyjuice potion to get a similar effect.  
  • Speaking of which, having a potions master on board makes sense because that brings all kinds of capabilities to the team--truth serum to get info, liquid luck to have better odds, sleeping drafts to eliminate guards, etc.  In the books, we have three highly skilled potion-makers: Slughorn who is not really a member of the Order and has shown a greater desire for self-preservation than for rescuing others; Snape who is gifted at potion making (he is the half-blood prince, after all), but is, as the Binge Mode folks said, bad chemistry--he does not play well with others; and .... Lily Potter.  She thrice evaded Voldemort back in the old days, and is known to be very skilled at potions.  The only weakness here is that she might be more concerned about Harry than about the target of the rescue.
  • The Binge mode folks are high on McGonagall, who is tough enough to take four stunners, and is fiercely loyal, but quick she is not.  
  • Mundungus?  Sure, any D&D party needs a thief, but a rescue mission?  Nope, since he cut out when they needed seven fake Harry's as they sought to flee the Dursley House at the start of the seventh book.
  • Mad-eye Moody?  Constantly vigilant and 2.0 has the ability to see through objects.  Does being ruthlessly paranoid serve as a plus or minus?  For a rescue mission, probably a plus, so count him in.  
  • Ginny?  She packs a lot of power into a small but fierce body.  She is also good on a broom and brings much comic relief. Hem, hem.  Mrs. Spew went with her mother since she was fierce enough to take down Bellatrix, but I do think she worries too much.  So, I will go with the younger Weasley woman.  Harry might be distracted by Ginny's fate in a fight, but they proved at the ministry to be able to fight together quite well.  That was pre-romance, but still....
So,  there's my team--a mix of young and old, brains and action, speed and daring.  What's yours?



Canadian Thanksgiving: Canadian Academia Rocks!

A Semi-Spewful tradition has been to enumerate what I am thankful for on Thanskgiving--whether it is in October or November.  This year, I want to be a bit more focused.  While I am still very thankful for much about Canada, I am going to focus on the academic side this year.  Why?  Because I have spent much of 2018 working on an effort connect the Canadian defence and security community--the Canadian Defence and Security Network.  The big grant is due later this month, so I have been nagging many partners and participants to do their part in this effort--mostly fighting an online form process.  The upside of this effort has been several-fold:
  • I have worked with a small team of academics who serve as co-leaders/partners-in-crime.  These folks are smart, dedicated and fun. Not only did we get together to hash things out in August, but I have been in constant contact with them.  I will forever be indebted to them for tolerating my flood of emails, the requests to review drafts of many documents, the requests to help with institutions they brought to the network, and their patience and endurance as they waged battles within their institutions to get the necessary approvals and commitments.
  • This grant effort has compelled me to reach out across Canada to a variety actors interested in the issues at stake.  I am very thankful for their enthusiasm for this project and their willingness to do the necessary steps to get this thing to work.
  • I am very, very grateful for the support of my institution.  From the VP for Research to the Dean  of the Faculty of Public Affairs to the grant facilitator to the Director of my school to my colleagues, I have received incredible amounts of support and encouragement.
  • I am very thank for the research assistance I have received along the way: undergrads, MA students and now a Phd student have all played key roles. I am learning better how to delegate, and they are doing an excellent job making sure I provide clearer instructions.  
 And if it is not, well, I will have benefited greatly anyway, as I am now better connected with Canada's defence and security community.  They have much expertise to give. They have helped me greatly understand not just Canada and its role in the world, but how to think comparatively about civil-military relations and alliance politics.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I am very, very thankful to those near and far who are helping me and making TeamCDSN an insightful, engaging, and fun endeavor.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Implausible Deniability, SCOTUS edition

I have not been writing much lately--busy grant-writing and too depressed.  What is there to say about the US Senate confirming someone who has lied repeatedly to the Senate, who gave a partisan screed at his confirmation hearing, and who clearly could not pass a real investigation of his past?

What I can say is that implausible deniability is now very much a thing.  Susan Collins and the others who voted for Kavanaugh, including Joe Manchin, had to rely on implausible claims:
  • that Dr. Ford was assaulted but not by Kavanaugh--Collins literally said this, perhaps buying the Ed Whelan conspiracy theory
  • that the FBI investigated and didn't find any compelling evidence.  Of course, the FBI didn't really investigate, but the extra week and its "report" gave Flake and other senators the opportunity to say that they did due diligence.
  • that Kavanaugh is not going to overturn Roe v. Wade or anything else that is "settled law."  
 I can go on and on.  The basic point is this: there were very thin, small, broken fig leaves that were used to cover up the ugly realities, and that the politicians who wanted to vote for Kavanaugh due to party id (Collins, Flake, etc) and those who wanted to vote because of concerns about re-election (Manchin) had enough bits and pieces to deny that Kavanaugh was clearly unqualified.  The truth is that Kavanaugh is unqualified for many, many reasons, but the GOP and the FBI gave the politicians opportunities to deny.  Do we buy these denials? Hells no.  But they serve a purpose--it allows the politicians to live with themselves and perhaps fool those who want to be fooled.

Every time a Supreme Court decision whittles away access to abortion or gives the Trump administration more ways to misbehave (self-pardons, allowing the President to pardon state-level prosecutions, etc), Collins and Manchin and Flake will need to be reminded that they are responsible, not just for telling women that they should not come forward, but for enabling the destruction of the rule of law.  Flake is leaving the Senate, but I hope he faces a lifetime of recriminations.  I hope that Collins loses office in 2020, and I guess I hope that Manchin sticks around long enough to give the Dems a majority but not much longer than that.

Because they all sold out whatever values they claim to have and they claim they did not because they have the thinnest of cover.  Their deniability is implausible, and we need to call them on it.  Again, democratic politics relies on shame, and we need to make these people feel the burn of shame.  Implausible deniability, if unchallenged, leads to shamelessness which paves the way to the end of democracy.

Afghanistan Anniversary

Today is apparently the 17th anniversary of the start of the US (and then allied) war in Afghanistan.   Not quite old enough to drink but old enough to disapparate.  Anyhow, when I was working on ethnic conflict stuff, including my time in the Pentagon on Bosnia, the frequent refrain was that it takes generations for a society to start to recover from a war.  Indeed, when I first heard that the US was calling its post-invasion role in Iraq "Occupation," I was relieved.  Why? 

Because I thought we might have realized that it takes quite a while to make progress after conflict.  That many of the previous conflicts were still problematic because each peace-keeping/nation-building effort was focused on the very short term, as in one year at a time or so.  Indeed, I remember an American officer comparing Bosnia to the American civil war since his unit was one that combined VA and MA personnel--blue and gray.  My response (in my head): yeah, because the North and the South only took 100 or more years to get along.

If the US had invaded Afghanistan with the intent of being there twenty years, as opposed to looking to get out at the first moment possible, much might be different.  Not only would the Taliban perhaps have been less willing to just out-wait the outsiders, but the plans, operations, campaigns and investments might have been different.  Rather than focusing on just getting to the next election or other key milestone (definitely not benchmarks), the US and its allies could have been more focused on building institutions.  Institutions take time to become legitimate and respected and taken for granted. 

Of course, it would be unrealistic for any democracy to tell its public that it would be going to war in a place for two decades.  Far more realistic to say we will be there just for a few years and then keep kicking the can down the road.  This works for winning (or not losing) support back home, but it does no favors to those in the field. 

So, on this anniversary of the Afghanistan campaign, I am embracing humility.  Since we can't expect politicians to defend long term investments, we probably should avoid making decisions that lead to long term wars.  Maybe an American intervention in Syria in 2012 might have improved things compared to what happened, but how many forever wars can the US be sucked into at any one point in time?  As long as we keep thinking that these wars are all going to be short, we are going to do just enough to make sure that they are prolonged.


And, yeah, I am in a pretty pessimistic mood given the destruction of American institutions the past week or two.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Is the New NAFTA Treaty Half-Full or Half Empty?

I am not an expert on trade or trade agreements, but I have opinions and this is the Semi-Spew--where I can speculate or judge without much data or knowledge, so here we go.

NAFTA 2.0 (I hate calling it USMCA, just like I don't call the airport near the Pentagon Reagan but National--I am stubborn and, yes, conservative, that way) is a strange beast.

It does not radically revise NAFTA, but it is an excellent rorschach test. How one views it really depends on what one is expecting from such an agreement.  On the one hand, Canada did not get anything out of the agreement that wasn't already in NAFTA, from what it sounds like.  It did give in a bit on a few key things--a bit more dairy access, limits on cars sold into the US.  So, that sounds like a defeat--that Canada didn't get much or anything but gave up on stuff.

On the other hand, Canada averted major restrictions on cars and perhaps other sectors.  Note the expansion of the US trade war with China to cover lots of goods.  So, Canada gave up a smidge of access to the dairy market--something like access to 3.75% of the dairy market compared to 3.25% in the TPP that Trump walked away from--to keep the trade war limited.

Limited trade war?  Yes, because we still have the steel and aluminum tariffs.*  If Trump rolls that back, then, yes, this agreement is a significant victory.  If not, then it is like a mid-war agreement to keep the carnage limited.  Kind of like implicitly agreeing not to bomb China as long as China does not bomb Japan in 1951.  The trade war would still go on, but it is now less likely to escalate.
*  I talked to my colleague, a trade agreement expert, and she argued that this was a bridge too far because Trump's steel/aluminum tariffs aimed at multiple actors, not just Canada and Mexico.
 One last thing: nothing that Trump says now means that he will follow through.  This is both because Congress may not go along AND Trump has no credibility, his word is not good, and he changes his mind a lot.

This was probably the best Canada could do, which is sad to say, but reflects both the asymmetric power relationship and how messed up the Trump Administration is.  I doubt any other politicians in Canada could have done this better.  I do hope this means that Chrystia Freeland can be the Foreign Minister again and not just the trade negotiator.