Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Rotten Core of Mubarak's Egypt

Every sentence of the following short article from Agence France Presse reveals another facet of the soul crushing depth of corruption and repression in Egypt:
Egyptian security forces detained a schoolboy for several hours after he wrote in an exam that President Hosni Mubarak was a tyrant who ruled over cowards, an Education Ministry official said on Monday. Safwat Hassan, 17, wrote in his end of high school exam in the southern city of Luxor that Mubarak was "a tyrannical leader" and Egyptians were "a cowardly people," the official in Luxor told AFP. The official said the boy wrote the answer in a maths exam because he was convinced that he was going to fail as he comes from a poor family that could not afford treating school staff to the customary meals during exam time. Egyptian teachers are notoriously badly paid and almost always have to take on private classes and accept gifts to make ends meet. Hassan was questioned for several hours by local security forces and "might be charged with defamation," the official said, without being able to say how security services found out about the boy's answer. The teenager has been barred from taking more exams this year and will have to retake them all next year, the official said.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Remembering D-Day

I was too backed up to post about the anniversary of D-Day, but wanted to jot a few thoughts down. In my post about visiting Fort McHenry, I mentioned how shipyards in Baltimore churned out the Liberty Ships that made D-Day (and the Allied victory) possible. As it happens, I am also in the middle of listening to John Keegan’s Six Armies at Normandy. Keegan, a masterful military historian adeptly blends his personal story with the history. As a young boy during World War II, he was living in a quiet corner of west England, where the war was very interesting to a boy – but not close at hand. Then quite suddenly, the Americans began appearing. They came in numbers that were simply unimaginable, bringing with them vehicles and machines never before seen in England like their bulldozers. The American khaki itself glowed compared to the uniforms of the superannuated garrison of the home guard. They were charming and wonderfully casual, and readily tossed friendly children mounds of candy equivalent to a month’s sugar rations. Keegan notes that as a boy he observed, “Something was going on in west England that Mr. Hitler should be extremely concerned about.”

And this was only the engineering units building quarters. Then the troops arrived and just as suddenly were gone – had disappeared. It was June 6, 1944. Keegan reports that men in town kept fiddling with their radios – to keep up with events (a predecessor perhaps to scanning news sites and blogs for some new tidbit of breaking news.)

The mass citizen armies, drawing on America’s bottomless wealth are part of our national narrative. And it is true that it took American generals and bureaucrats to envision and implement the massive landing at Normandy that was the only way to bring the war to its inexorable close.

But while Keegan writes deftly about grand strategy, his books always come down to the furious small unit actions and the individual soldiers that fight them that actually comprise a war. Keegan notes that while there is an American national myth, the U.S. Army has its own soul – he feels it is in Leavenworth, Kansas. Leavenworth was the staging ground for the Indian War of the 1870s and 1880s. In these conflicts small detachments, far from home, fought savage battles on unfamiliar terrain. Keegan writes that their successors in the American paratroop divisions did credit to this ethos in the landing areas inside France on D-Day.

This ethos lives on as the U.S. Army confronts challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere) in places where inherent American advantages in material are neutralized and the soldiers are forced to rely on their training, guts, and initiative.

About 2500 Allied troops died on D-Day (and several thousand more Germans). World War II was a war of 9/11s weekly, if not daily. Terrorism is terrible, but so is a full-scale of war of attrition between industrialized great powers. Hopefully, that era of human history has drawn to a close.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

FARC's Top Military Commander Ailing?

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports that Mono Jojoy, the top FARC military commander has a severe form of diabetes. (A picture from El Tiempo is posted below.) Head of the “Eastern Bloc” Mono Jojoy is generally believed to be the organization’s top military leader. With 4000 fighters the Eastern Bloc is one of the stronger FARC Blocs. It borders Venezuela and is heavily engaged in the drug trade. Mono Jojoy represents the military wing, as opposed to the new chief Alfonso Cano who represents the political wing. There has
been substantial speculation that the two are rivals – although the internal processes of FARC decision-making are opaque so much of this is guesswork (like Kremlinology without the snow or military parades.)

If Mono Jojoy were ill, that would provide an alternate explanation for, or at least another factor in, the leadership transitions. In addition, it appears that Mono Jojoy’s position is not completely secure, his own bodyguards recently tried to kill him. The Colombian military also claims that it is putting pressure on the Eastern Bloc in general and Mono Jojoy in particular. While individuals with access to quality medical care can live perfectly healthy lives with diabetes, life on the run in the jungle cannot be good for Mono Jojoy’s condition and a weakened physical state may interfere with his ability to command the Eastern Bloc or take part in the FARC’s internecine power struggles.

What this means for the future of the FARC is difficult to say.

Mono Jojoy, who was born Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, and is also known as Jorge Briceno Suarez, has a background similar to the late Tirofijo, the FARC’s founder. Like Tirofijo he was born to very modest rural circumstances. He joined the FARC as a boy, served as Tirofijo’s bodyguard, and has a reputation as a very capable commander. Mono Jojoy represent’s the FARC rural roots and commitment to autonomy that were embodied by Tirofijo. If Mono Jojoy fades, the better educated, more urban leaders such as Alfonso Cano may be more inclined to increase FARC’s political presence while demoting its military activities. (These hopes should be tempered by the reality that Cano too is a deeply committed radical who, among other things, may have been plotting to take FARC operations international by attacking Colombians in Madrid.)

Still, the political leadership may be more inclined to end the terrible hostage crisis (including the release of the three American contractors held by the FARC for five years), which has brought FARC almost no benefit whatsoever. At the very least, if Mono Jojoy is ill, it is yet another sign of the FARC’s decline and hopefully an end to the armed struggle that has ravaged Colombia.