Sunday, November 30, 2008

Has the National Economic Council Hit the Big Time?

The National Economic Council (NEC) was founded by the last Democratic President. He promised to "focus like a laser" on the economy. The NEC was supposed to be an economic equivalent to the National Security Council. It was viewed with some skepticism within the bureaucracy. National security almost always includes two heavyweight departments (State and Defense) and often other agencies as well. Treasury does not have a peer competitor on economic policy. Smaller players on economic policy were also not keen on this new structure. To mollify the Council of Economic Advisers, it was agreed that the NEC wouldn't have any actual economists - it would manage process rather than forge policy.

The NEC however had an important asset. Its first chief, Robert Rubin, was an able player with access to the President and an excellent relationship with Lloyd Bentsen the Treasury Secretary. But it wasn't clear if this new structure was here to stay, or merely an effective vehicle for Rubin.

When Bentsen stepped down, Rubin replaced him (just as National Security Advisers have often replaced Secretaries of State.) When Rubin stepped down as Secretary of Treasury he was replaced by his deputy at Treasury Lawrence Summers.

Now, in the Obama administration, Summers is the head of the NEC. Offhand I cannot think of a Secretary of State coming back to be the National Security Adviser. Kissinger held both positions at once - but started as the NSA.

So does this mean that the NEC has now become an important component of the White House bureaucracy? The NEC wasn't exactly front an center in the Bush Administration. More than likely this is a return to the NEC's roots as a vehicle for an out-sized personality that the President wants to keep close at hand.

Mumbai Whodunnit: Names vs. Networks

Following the tenets of Journalism 101, the first question about the Mumbai attacks was “who?” Most of the speculation has focused on Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), although their spokesperson and the spokesperson of their political wing (reported by CTBlog’s Evan Kohlmann) have both denied their organization’s involvement. The reality is that the structures supporting this attack go beyond specific organizations.

In a prescient article, “The Supporting Structures of Pakistan’s Proxy War in Jammu & Kashmir,” in the June 2001 issue of Strategic Analysis (a journal of India’s Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis - the article is not a available online) the author, Ajay Darshan Behra argues:
The supporting structures for the proxy war in J&K are much more complex and go beyond Pakistan's unstated policies or strategic objectives. Some of these structures have developed their own dynamics… Since the end of the Cold War, these structures have embedded themselves deeply in the political economy of the region. The Pakistani state does not control them but merely exercises influence over them and is able to exploit them to serve its own strategic designs. It is due to the advantages accruing from these structures that Pakistan has been able to engage India militarily for more than a decade through a proxy war, with little cost to itself. Thus, there may be a grain of truth in Gen Musharraf's statement that the Pakistan Army is unable to stop militants from crossing the LOC. The Pakistani ruling elites are not in complete control of the supporting structures for terrorism, which they have been using for their proxy war in J&K. Because of the above factors, jehad and terrorism in J&K are likely to continue even if the Pakistani ruling elites give assurances about the withdrawal of their support.
The primary factors identified are: the extensive illicit arms trade within Pakistan which ensures that there is an endless supply of weapons, the uncontrollable sources of funding – particularly narcotics trafficking and donations both from within Pakistan and from around the world, and the tens of thousands of radical madrassas that indoctrinate Pakistani youth into radical Islam from Pakistan’s bottomless well of unemployed. The author does not discuss some other related factors, such as the complex geography (particularly the mountainous terrain), which makes controlling substantial parts of the country and particularly the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir a daunting problem.

This places Jammat ud-Dawa’s denial in context, paralleling Pakistan’s own use of the proxy forces to fight its battles with India. Pakistan fomented the Islamist organizations fighting in Kashmir in order to pressure on India while maintaining plausible deniability. Now, the Islamist organizations such as Jammat ud-Dawa may in fact have separated from their armed wings, but continue to contribute to the broader radicalization that facilitates the violence.

The nature of this radical Islamist network also has serious implications for India and the world. With its long borders and coastline, complex and varied terrain, and enormous domestic Muslim population, India faces Herculean counter-terror challenges and presents enormous opportunities for the Kashmiri networks. Islamist radicals have already collaborated with Indian crime lords (most famously Dawood Ibrahim) in the past. The explosives used in the 1993 Mumbai bombings, which Ibrahim reputedly organized under instructions from the ISI, may have also been smuggled in by sea.

Policy Implications

The nature of the Kashmiri network complicates policy responses. There are no quick or easy options. Merely tracking down key leaders or targeting specific organizations is unlikely to be effective. Jamaat ud-Dawa holds annual festivals that attract nearly a million people. Shutting down organizations that operate on that scale is not a matter of signing an edict – and Jamaat ud-Dawa is but one of a plethora of Pakistani organizations devoted propagating the Islamist message.

Ultimately, large-scale capacity building in both India and Pakistan to expand their respective law enforcement capabilities and coordination while addressing the economic and educational deficiencies that fuel to the growth of radicalism. Unfortunately, capacity building is never a quick fix. It will be years before these policies would have a real effect.

In the short-run the instinct of India’s leaders will be confrontation with Pakistan. Their frustration is understandable – but Pakistan’s present leadership, while imperfect, is as committed to peaceful relations with India as any in recent history. While past Pakistani regimes, and elements of the current government helped set this radicalism into motion, it has spiraled out of their control. While Pakistan must be pressed to reign in its security services and eliminate rogue elements allied to the Islamists, ultimately preventing future Mumbai attacks (and Marriott bombings for that matter) hinges on disrupting the trans-national structures supporting radical Islam.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Willacy County v. Cheney: Prosecutor Indicts Ham Sandwich

So, Dick Cheney has been indicted - not by the ICC or Spain's Baltasar Garzon (who has a thing for indicting international figures for crimes against humanity or by some other avatar of human rights.

No, this indictment stems from Cheney's holdings in a company that invests in for-profit prisons. Alberto Gonzalez, Bush confidant and the former Attorney General, was also indicted. Here's a descriptive bit from the San Antonio Express-News:
Cheney is accused of contributing to the neglect of federal immigration detainees by contracting for-profit prisons.

“By working through corporations as prisons for profit, Defendant Richard Cheney has committed at least misdemeanor assaults of our inmates and/or detainees,” the indictment reads, adding that a “money trail” can be traced to Cheney's substantial investments in the Vanguard Group, which invests in privately run prisons.

Megan Mitchell, spokeswoman for Cheney, said: “We have not received an indictment. We haven't received a call from the district attorney's office. ... We haven't heard anything from the district attorney.”

[Willacy County DA Juan Angel] Guerra said he kept Operation Goliath secret for four months over concern that pressure would be brought to bear to stop it.

He said “everything was being worked out of my house” and only one trusted member of his staff knew about it. He said he enlisted the help of people all over the country and talked to witnesses all over the country. Everyone who helped was assigned a biblical name. Guerra was known as David.
We've heard this story before, deranged local prosecutor goes through the looking glass to take on the powerful at the heart of a vast conspiracy. Paging Oliver Stone...

Guerra, the re-incarnation of Jim Garrison, issued a whole slew of indictments against local officials for "official abuse of official capacity and official corruption."

Guerra has been indicted himself (for public theft) and responded by camping out in front of the county jail with goats, roosters, and a horse. He was later defeated in the primary and will soon be out of office. No doubt he can find a gig on the international anti-Cheney circuit.

There is a very good chance the case will be dismissed, but it will be interesting to watch how this story moves through the international media, blogosphere, and labyrinth of conspiracy theories.

And of course it proves the old adage, a good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mobile Opportunities

Last week, Andy Cochran, wisely urged the incoming administration to develop the legal and institutional capabilities needed to deal with mobile banking. There is no question that terrorists and criminals will demonstrate tremendous creativity in stealing from mobile banking or cel-phone payment systems or using these new technologies to transfer and launder money. Time and again, the Internet being only the latest example, terrorists and criminals have shown themselves extraordinarily talented at adapting the newest technology to their nefarious needs.

But just as important is developing a framework to police this new technology is the maddening question of why we (that is the United States and other agencies charged with counter-terror missions worldwide) cannot be as creative or quick to take advantage of these technologies.

An Army Captain friend told me (this was several years ago) that training the Iraqi military was bedeviled by Iraq’s lack of a modern banking system. Recruits, unsurprisingly, had signed up to receive a salary. But because Iraq had no banking system, they had to hitchhike home in order to support their families. It was during these trips that the soldiers became vulnerable to kidnappings and executions. Presumably this problem has been ameliorated, but it is easy to see how a mobile banking system could have been extremely helpful in this situation.

Whatever ills will result from mobile banking, they will also be an enormous boon to people worldwide and could be an important tool for counter-terrorism and related development issues. Throughout the developing world, even where Internet access is extremely limited, mobile technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, sparking a revolution on a par with the Internet revolution experienced in the developing world. (See this New York Times Magazine article on how cel-phone makers are hiring globetrotting anthropologists to study how people use their mobiles to get a sense of the scale of this technological shift.)

Mobile banking could ease the delivery of aid in disaster situations and be a boon to development programs in general. This is not to spark the debate over whether poverty causes terrorism, that link is tenuous. But poverty does contribute to instability that can create safe havens for terrorists and criminal cartels. Besides which, effective development and disaster relief policies are good public diplomacy as well as being morally just.

There are other potential positives to the increasing availability of mobile technology. What are the U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the mobile space? It could be a valuable sphere of operations. In many cases phones are shared by extended families, so the individuals with the most access are also at the center of their social networks. A mobile public diplomacy campaign could reach the opinion shapers on the grassroots level. It is also an interactive media, unlike radio, so that public diplomacy programs could receive instantaneous feedback. Finally, public diplomacy agencies could purchase airtime in bulk and reward its audience with free airtime (effectively a two-for-one combining an information campaign with an aid program.)

The legal and forensic aspects of mobile banking do require attention. But policy-makers and analysts need to view new technologies as opportunities to do good. Unfortunately, getting ahead of the bad guys, or at least keeping up with them is never an easy task. This ongoing challenge calls to mind something Kurt Vonnegut wrote in The Sirens of Titan:
There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil.
The triumph of anything is a matter of organization.
If there are such things as angels, hope that they are
organized along the lines of the Mafia.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Nobel Prize-worthy Stimulus Package

Father Goof has developed a an elegant and inexpensive plan to pull the U.S. economy out of the current crisis.

He begins:
Congress should immediately mandate daily (or more) show and tell sessions for all school children: preschool through college.
It may not seem like much, but it creates a massive economic ripple effect. Read the plan here and see if this guy doesn't deserve a Nobel Prize.

Obama & The World: The Biggest Deal

In the coming weeks there will be much discussion about what Obama's victory means for the United States and its relations with the rest of the world. Obama's impact on international affairs will be both much less substantial than many hope and more profound than many expect.

The changes will be less substantial because many American policies are shaped around core U.S. security and economic interests. These interests do not change quickly or easily. Obama may change some policies and or at least adjust their implemention, but earth-shaking course changes are unlikely. Even in terms of implementation, Obama's hands are tied because there is very little money to fund new initiatives.

But the crowds that have cheered for Obama around the world, were not only doing so because he wasn't W. or because they looked forward to the U.S. being a less overbearing superpower. The crowds cheered for what Obama represented, an America that lives up to its highest ideals.

I cannot, off-hand, think of another country where something comparable to Obama's victory has occurred. The outpouring of international warmth towards Obama reflects, at least in part, the hope that there is a nation where ancient hatreds do not always carry the day and that people do not have to be slaves to history. People around the world need to know that such a place exists.

W. spent his Presidency attempting to spread freedom and democracy. Obama is an essential second act - reminding the world that, despite the failings and disappointments of the past decade, democracy and freedom are at least possible.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Canada@War: Echoes of History

Yesterday The Washington Post ran a lengthy story about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers have been serving bravely their since 2001 (and losing 97 soldiers) and there are currently 2500 Canadian troops serving in tough country near Kandahar.

They article highlights that while they undertake combat missions (unlike some nations contributing troops) Canadian doctrine insists on an absolute minimum Canadian casualties. This requires intensive planning, overwhelming force, and a slow pace of operations. The article describes one operation:
The soldiers' target, a Taliban bomb-supply compound, was only a little more than two miles away. But it took the contingent of 200-plus troops about three hours to march from the cemetery to the insurgent stronghold. That is the way the war is being fought in southern Afghanistan: inch by inch....

The first shot rang out a little before first light as dozens of Canadian soldiers crept to the edge of a wide irrigation ditch. Someone shot a wild dog that was attacking a group of soldiers approaching the main compound. Two helicopters swooped overhead. A contingent of Canadian tanks rumbled loudly over the fields in the distance. An Afghan interpreter shouted into a megaphone that anyone in the compound should come out unarmed. The show of force was met with silence....

The firefight was over in minutes. The Taliban fighters faded into the countryside as the Canadians poured into the compound...

After their return to the base, Lt. Col. Roger Barrett, the Canadian battle group commander, appeared pleased with the results. He wore a confident smile as he surveyed the troops lounging in the sun and guzzling Gatorade after the operation. It had taken about 230 ground troops and 150 troops in the battle group's mechanized division to strike the Taliban compound. Megaman had escaped capture, but there wasn't a single Canadian casualty.

"Lots and lots of effort went into this," Barrett said. "It's a game of inches, but we're winning it."
Canadian Way of War

One small engagement required about 15% of the Canadian contingent's manpower as well as tank and helicopter units. Casualty aversion is a feature of virtually every Western military and a reliance on overwhelming force is the stereotype of American strategy.

But in Canada this approach has old roots. I happened to listen to John Keegan's Six Armies at Normandy over the summer. Canada is one of the nations that participated. However, earlier in the war, a Canadian division had assaulted the well-defended French port Dieppe (as a sort of trial run for a massive amphibious assault) and was repelled with very heavy casualties. Any military and political would have been horrified by these losses. But in Canada this was particularly problematic. Because Canada was an uneasy confederation, conscription was not feasible - but heavy casualties complicated recruitment.

Taking lessons learned from Dieppe, the Canadian military assembled a truly massive flotilla to provide artillery support to the 14,000 Canadian troops landing at Juno Beach. Although the defenders fought fiercely, the Canadian assault was successful and the strategy worked.

Hopefully, history will repeat itself in Kandahar.