Archive for November, 2009

Combating Somali Pirates

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, an oil tanker headed to the US from Saudi Arabia was hijacked by Somali pirates.  The attack was another addition to the long list of such incidents in the past decade (10 ships have been hijacked in just the last two month). 

The pirates have increased their capability and range over time.  They now mount attacks from mother ships stationed in the middle of the ocean, from which they launch smaller vessels against their targets.  The tanker captured Sunday was seized 600 miles off the coast of Somalia where the pirate bases are located.

Piracy has flourished in the Indian Ocean between the Gulf of Aden and the Seychelles islands despite increased naval patrols.  This trend may be the result of a flawed strategy pursued by concerned powers.  Navy vessels from the US and other countries cruise off Somalia’s coast and other parts of the ocean looking for pirates, but the area that the US Fifth Fleet and foreign navies have to patrol is 2.5 million square miles, which makes their task daunting to say the least.

A better method of combating the pirates would be to set up a convoy system like the Allies did in World War Two to reduce the effectiveness of German submarines.  A convoy strategy would force hijackers to take on warships rather than evade them as they have been doing.  The odds that pirates could successfully capture oil tankers or other vessels that were guarded by destroyers are very low, so using convoys would almost certainly limit the ability of the hijackers to kidnap people and disrupt trade.

Happy Thanksgiving

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  I am on vacation, but I will resume regular blogging on Monday.

The Politics of Obama’s Troop Level Decision

November 25, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times published an excellent article by correspondent David Sanger in which he analyzes the political implications of President Obama’s impending decision about troop levels in Afghanistan.  He observes that the president will try to satisfy many different parties, including Democrats, Republicans, NATO allies, Pakistan, the Afghan government and the American people, when he addresses the nation on Tuesday.  It has been reported that President Obama will announce his intention to deploy roughly 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines to fight the Taliban.

The president’s attempt to signal his resolve to continue the war until the mission has been completed while conveying that America’s troop commitment is not open-ended will be a difficult task, and in trying to satisfy everybody he may fail to satisfy anybody. 

Democrats will be disappointed by his decision to escalate the conflict, and Republicans will likely criticize him for not sending at least 40,000 more troops, which Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has requested.  Without setting a deadline for withdrawal, most NATO countries will not be inclinded to send more forces because of the unpopularity of the war in Europe.  By declaring that America’s will not maintain a permanent presence in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis will fear the consequences of an American pullout and continue to hedge their bets by maintaining ties with the Taliban in case the militants regain power after the US leaves.  Saying that Afghan President Hamid Karzai must curb corruption in order to insure continuing American support could alienate the leader without motivating him to act because the threat is not credible.  How the American people will be influenced by the president’s speech is uncertain; a slim majority oppose continuing the war, but calls to “support the troops” and help them complete their mission have an emotional resonance.

Maziar Bahari’s Detention

November 24, 2009

Newsweek recently published a fascinating article by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari in which he details his imprisonment and interrogation by the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite security organization (  Among the most interesting revelations are: his interrogators’ belief that his faux interview with Jason Jones, a correspondent for the satirical Daily Show who the Guards believe is an American spy, was real; his main interrogator’s obsession with New Jersey; Ayatollah Khamenei’s belief that there is a “cultural NATO” network comprised of journalists, activists, scholars and lawyers who are trying to bring down the Iranian regime at the behest of Western powers; the Guards’ disdain for the clerical establishment; the ascension of the Guards as a political force; skewed Iranian assumptions about Western sexual mores, including the prevalence of orgies, free love and anonymous sexual encounters; the fact that international pressure to free Mr. Bahari was effective; and the high level of paranoia about the West felt by Iranian leaders.

I highly recommend this article to anyone who is interested in the political situation in Iran and the attitudes of hardcore militants there.

Supporting Afghan Militias

November 23, 2009

Anti-Taliban militias have recently emerged in Afghanistan, and American and Afghan officials are assisting them.  The new plan to expand the armed groups is called the Community Defense Initiative, and it involves the use of Special Forces teams to train local militiamen.  Right now there are hundreds of such fighters, and the US hopes to create thousands more.  The militias are mostly led by tribal elders who oppose the Taliban, but officials hope to incorporate them into the government security forces at some point.

The independent emergence of local militias is a positive development for the Western coalition.  It indicates that some Afghans outside the government are serious about battling the Taliban, and they could serve as  alternative allies for the US, which is frustrated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai whose administration has been plagued by corruption and failure.

Some of the potential benefits of expanding local militias include: an increase in the number of anti-Taliban fighters; more effective protection of towns and villages (as a result of superior local knowledge, respected leadership and reduced ethnic tensions); more intelligence sources; and the reduced likelihood that the Taliban will be able to gain strength and geographical reach in areas of the country where they are relatively weak.

Some of the potential weaknesses of the plan include: the limited power of tribes (especially in relation to the Sunni tribes in Iraq that eventually helped the US fight Al Qaeda there;); the prospect of warlordism by militia leaders; the risk that tribes will feel betrayed if the coalition fails to support them sufficiently; and the likelihood that the Taliban will retaliate against civilians who live in areas where the militias operate.

The Community Defense Initiative is a smart move at a time when Western forces and the Afghan government are having difficulty dealing with the Taliban insurgency and US military commanders have requested more troops.  How well the Afghan militias will be able to combat the Taliban is difficult to predict, but Western efforts to train and assist them may pay major dividends.