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August 30, 2008

In the Track of the Storm (again)

Mother Nature seems to like beating up on New Orleans. Now, just three years after the Katrina disaster when the Category 3 hurricane slammed into New Orleans and the ocean surge crumbled and over washed the levees, a new natural monster named Gustav is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. How we deal with natural disasters are one aspect of infrastructure security and hazards response.

As the hours pass, the story and the projected storm track changes. In disguise, that is both a blessing and a curse. We will also get to see just how much was learned about emergency preparedness and response for a natural disaster has advanced in these three years. No longer do we have the excuse of blaming an unprepared Department of Homeland Security or FEMA, no longer will we have the ineptitude of the local politicians to point at as people stand on their roofs awaiting rescue. Some of the predictions are ominous. This will certainly test our ability to deal with an All Hazards Response that defines the three threats as manmade, natural disaster and terrorist.

4 p.m. UPDATE: Gustav's winds have increased to 150 mph this afternoon, bringing it to the cusp of category 5 status prior to landfall in Cuba. The official track this afternoon remains largely unchanged and is focused on central Louisiana, although the hurricane center now forecasts the storm to come ashore in just two days time.

New Orleans began evacuation on Friday and continued into Saturday. Places like Beaumont Texas were evacuated as well. Over 1 million people are in the process of fleeing the Coast. However, it is very likely that Gustav will reach Category Five early Sunday before it makes landfall. Some people waited on long lines for buses and trains to evacuate from the Coast area. Others, express intentions to “ride out the storm” despite the now mandatory evacuation order from New Orleans Mayor, Ray Nagin who called called Gustav the storm of the century and told residents to "get your butts out of New Orleans now."

Unlike Katrina, when thousands took refuge inside the Superdome, there will be no "last resort" shelter, and those who stay behind accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," said the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed. Yet the presence of 2,000 National Guard troops that were expected to join 1,400 New Orleans police officers patrolling the streets following the evacuation - along with Gov. Bobby Jindal's request to neighboring states for rescue teams - suggested officials were expecting stragglers.

Regardless, the City of San Antonio now the focal point for the evacuation and disaster response efforts. The game plan is being coordinated by the City’s new Emergency Operations Command Center located at the converted Brooks City Base and at Lackland Air Force Base, preparations are being made to begin receiving evacuees. Over 200 buses had staged at the old Kelly Air Force Base, now called Port San Antonio, to be used during Coastal evacuations (officials actually expect more than 1000 buses to be ready for deployment).

Jack Colley, head of the Texas Division of Emergency Management made the following comment:

“Our job is to control Gustav and not let Gustav control us,” Colley said Friday from the State Operations Center. “This is a very dangerous storm, make no doubt about it.” Evacuation orders must come from local governments; those decisions would be made about 48 hours before Gustav's arrival.

According to the latest advisory (8pm Eastern on Saturday, August 30, 2008), the minimum central pressure of Gustav is 941 mbar (compared to the 904 mbar recorded by Katrina when it made landfall). Make no mistake about it that our ability to deal with a natural disaster like Hurricane Gustav tells us volumes about how we would be able to respond to a mass casualty terrorist attack.

August 29, 2008

Technology and Unintended Consequences

By some accounts, kidnapping in Mexico rose by almost 10% last year; statistics also show that reported kidnappings rose by 40% from 2004 to 2007. These are just the reported numbers. In Mexico City, officially there were 323 kidnappings in the first half of 2008, nearly reaching the total of 438 reported in 2007. However, according to ICESI, the Institute of Studies on Citizen Insecurity, the number of kidnappings probably exceeded 7,000 in 2007. The disparity in the numbers stems from the fact that many kidnappings are unreported.

To some extent the fear of police involvement is the reason that they are not reported (police involvement is not too surprising – I am aware of one kidnapping in 1998 in which a local District Attorney was implicated).

Also, many of the kidnappings do not involve the typical target, members of wealthy families. The tactic of kidnappings, or “snatch and grab” type crimes now affects the middle class, and often occur in a flash of time (sometimes just a few hours). These “Express Kidnappings” often involve the victim being forced to withdraw funds from an ATM or “simply” stripping the victim of all of their valuables.

In response to this meteoric rise in kidnappings, a Mexican company named Xega is now marketing a crystal-encased chip the size of a grain of rice that is supposedly able to track the person by GPS satellite.

Most people get the chips injected into their arms between the skin and muscle where they cannot be seen. Customers who fear they are being kidnapped press a panic button on an external device to alert Xega which then calls the police.

Despite questions of whether or not the chip actually enables tracking of a kidnap victim, it is not too unobvious that simply promoting the use of this chip could result in some very brutal unintended consequences (your imagination does not have to wander very far). A number of years ago, one of my associates considered and then rejected a very similar embedded chip for that reason.

No matter, though. At a cost of $4,000 plus a yearly fee of $2,200, Xega sees kidnapping as a growth industry and is planning to expand its services next year to Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.

Technology has unintended consequences, and sometimes, the by-product can actually be worse than the incident itself.

August 27, 2008

Site Recovery In Process

After a catastrophic drive failure on our server, readers may note that recent content is gone from site and that it had been effectively down for several days. It wasn't an attack, but rather hardware failure and an extensive data recovery effort. Recent content will be in the process of restoration and, once we are back to current, our publishing operations will return to normal.

We apologize for the inconvenience and are working hard to get fully back on line, which will probably occur within the next 24 hour period.

August 22, 2008

US Ambassador Calls Russian Response 'Legitimate'?

It is far from helpful when the US Ambassador to Russia ignores the Russian instigation of the incidents in Georgia and, like so many others, only acknowledges events after Georgia’s baited response. To the Russian paper Kommersant, US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle called Russia’s initial attacks “legitimate,” later adding that Russia has simply “gone too far.”

From Reuters via the Globe and Mail:

In his first major interview since his arrival as Ambassador last month, John Beyrle gave the Russian daily Kommersant his views on the conflict and warned about its impact on U.S. investor confidence in Russia.

“Now we see Russian forces, which responded to attacks on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, legitimately, we see those forces now having advanced on to the soil of Georgia; Georgian territorial integrity is in question here,” Mr. Beyrle told the newspaper.

He said Washington had not sanctioned Georgia’s initial actions when on Aug. 8, after a succession of tense skirmishes, Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia, triggering a massive Russian reaction when its peacekeepers there came under fire.

“We did not want to see a recourse to violence and force and we made that very, very clear,” Mr. Beyrle was cited as saying in quotes the U.S. embassy confirmed as accurate.

“The fact that we were trying to convince the Georgian side not to take this step is clear evidence that we did not want all this to happen,” Mr. Beyrle said in the interview, which was published on Friday.

“We have seen the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as calls by some Russian politicians to change the democratically-elected government of Georgia. Some question the territorial integrity of Georgia. That is why we believe that Russia has gone too far,” the envoy said.

Mr. Beyrle said Washington still supports Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, which has still not been finalized after more than a decade of talks. [Emphasis added.]

(It is a bit curious that the Kommersant English version contains no direct quotes from the Ambassador.)

This is simply difficult to fathom and is an embarrassment to the State Department’s foreign service and diplomatic corps. Or rather, it should be. To many, perhaps it is not.

While nuance is overrated, there is a distinct difference between diplomatic nuance and event revisionism.

For starters, here’s hoping the US Department of Treasury is monitoring the bank accounts of South Ossetia’s ‘president’ Eduard Kokoity for any recent or near-future - shall we say - “transaction anomalies. ” It takes a lot of money to start a war. To my knowledge, South Ossetia’s entire provincial economy is somewhere south of that of Ford County, Illinois. And regional strongmen never skim for their own pockets. Never.

Just a hunch.

All that said, is there anyone who thinks Ambassador Beyrle actually believes his own words characterizing the Russian response as ‘legitimate’?

Let’s get something straight here: The Georgian response to the calculated and prolonged Russian baiting was illadvised. The Russian response to the Georgian response was illegitimate, for it was all a fabrication. Just like the Russian claims of ‘genocide’ in order to justify their early actions.

Russia has quietly scaled down it’s initial Ossetia ‘genocide’ toll from 1,600+ to now just 133. There’s no need to propagate the extravagant lie anymore. They own the Ossetia and Abkhazia provincial dirt, plus much of the rest of Georgia still.

Check the accounts please, Treasury. Inquiring minds want to know.

Clarity Needed Over Consensus On 'The American Side'

This report from Tbilisi by Michael Totten in the City Journal must be read, and in its entirety.

In this space we have brought to attention the Russian strategic design, the weakness of NATO in response, and a rather blunt recognition that viewing Russia as any sort of strategic partner - at least under Putin - in any endeavor is folly supported only by seemingly welcomed facade.

Selected for its consistency with that context, the following excerpt from Michael’s latest illustrates precisely that strategic competitor’s perspective from the Russians through the words of their foot soldiers. The conversation, one between Michael and a family that fled their Gori farm, takes place in a jammed Tblisi school housing refugees. He has just described “massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack paramilitary units swarming across the border,” resulting in 90% of the central city of Gori’s population to flee, primarily to the Tblisi capital. (Note: “Irregular Cossack paramilitary units” = largely-Chechen marauders loosed on Georgia.)

“Did you actually see any Russians,” I said, “or did you leave before they got there?”

“They came and asked us for wine, but first we had to drink it ourselves to show that it was not poisoned. Then they drank the wine themselves. And then they said to leave this place as soon as possible; otherwise they would kill us. The Russians were looking for anyone who had soldiers in their home. If anyone had a Georgian soldier at home they burned the houses immediately.”

Her husband had remained behind and arrived in Tbilisi shortly before I did. “He was trying to keep the house and the fields,” she explained. “Afterward, he wanted to leave, but he was circled by soldiers. It was impossible. He was in the orchards hiding from the Russians in case they lit the house. He was walking and met the Russian soldiers and he made up his mind that he couldn’t stay any more. The Russian soldiers called him and asked where he was going, if he was going to the American side.”

“The Russians said this to him?” I said.

“My husband said he was going to see his family,” she said. “And the Russians said again, ‘Are you going to the American side?’”

“So the Russians view you as the American side, even though there are no Americans here.”

“Yes,” she said. “Because our way is for democracy.”

It should be clearly understood that the Russians consider the Georgian capital and Sakaashvili, their enemies, as ‘the American side.’ We had better acknowledge such in short order and without clarity-reducing nuance.

And if a consensus organization like NATO is mired in internal argument over a nuanced response, we must recognize that America does not require NATO consensus to take and stand by the principled position of defending and supporting democracies in need in the face of tyranny wrought through violence.

Meanwhile, Russia is once again reporting that their forces are beginning to pull back, particularly from Gori. But to any degree there is truth to the statements this time, it is for little reason other than Russia simply doesn’t need those forces in Gori any longer.

A larger PrincipalAnalysis is in the process of being written that makes clear Russia’s two larger and inescapably inter-related strategic aims being striven for at great expense to Georgia and emerging democracies in the region: Energy and influence.

August 21, 2008

From The Prague Spring to The Tblisi Spring In 40 years

European reader Renshaw sends a note and a link:

“40 yrs on and events repeat themselves …?”

The link is simple yet expository: A BBC photographic series by Josef Koudelka of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the storm that ended the Prague Spring. Have a look.

Today it is the Tblisi Spring being plowed under, while the West musters the courage to resist with all the ferocity of strongly worded statements, at least thus far. What’s next, the mowing down of the Ukrainian Summer?

The West had better get it together and match the determined will of the resurgent Bear, with his rusted sections of the Iron Curtain in dutiful tow.

Al-Qaeda's Female Bombers: Recruiting In Iraq

The UK Times Online’s Deborah Haynes has a pretty good report from Diyala province, Iraq, on how al-Qaeda grooms women as ‘perfect weapons’ and the (effective) phenomenon of female suicide bombers in Iraq.

Women are the perfect weapon in a country where it is frowned upon culturally for a man even to approach a woman without her husband or father in tow, let alone frisk her for weapons at one of the many checkpoints that are the bombers’ favourite targets. In addition, it is easy to hide a vest packed with explosives under the traditional Islamic robes worn by women in Iraq without drawing suspicion.

In total, there have been 24 attacks involving women suicide bombers since January, including four on Monday in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk that left scores dead. Al-Qaeda is “a very adaptive enemy”, a US Special Forces captain based in Diyala said. “They will try to use whatever works best for them to attempt to exploit whatever political or cultural restrictions we have.”

In the past, al-Qaeda fighters have used mosques to hold meetings and hide weapons, knowing that the US military will not raid religious buildings. “Now they’ve adapted to try to use female suicide bombers.”

The military believes that al-Qaeda employs a variety of tactics to get women to become suicide bombers. Some are easy prey because their husband or children have been killed or detained by US forces, said Captain Matthew Shown, the intelligence officer for “Sabre Squadron”, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, which is based in southeast Diyala.

Another method is for a member of al-Qaeda to marry a woman and then dishonour her in some way, such as letting someone else rape her. “This would leave her with no choice but to end her life,” Captain Shown, 34, said.

There are also reports of women being told that their husband or child will be killed unless they agree to become suicide bombers.

Haynes also writes a blog from her vantage in Iraq, called Inside Iraq. Might have a butch at it. It’s not simply the bird’s bin between columns.

President Zardari In Pakistan? Trouble Brews . . .

On one hand, the nomination of PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari to replace Pervez Musharraf as president appears to be a rather decisive stroke, which in itself bids relatively well for the Pakistani coalition government. The balance-tipping middle parties between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N seems to have largely lined up behind Benazir Bhutto’s widower, giving it an apparent clear majority in votes (Pakistani presidents are elected by its parliament (National Assembly), not directly through national vote.)

But on the other hand, decisive or not, Zardari is the very embodiment of corruption - the very reason Pakistanis cheered Musharraf’s bloodless coup in 1999. And the fight between the PPP and the PML-N over the reinstatement of judges is central to Zardari’s corruption. The corruption charges against Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, were essentially dropped by the current set of judges installed by Musharraf. And the reinstatement of the original judges means Zardari (or Mr. Benazir Bhutto, if one prefers) may well see them come back to life. Thus, the fight within the PML-N/PPP coalition.

And for all his faults, the level of corruption under Musharraf - one of his stated reasons for taking power - was lower. A Zardari presidency is a return to the old in that regard, and one reason why this coalition government may have been popularly elected yet will remain both fractured and unpopular in the eyes of the general Pakistani population. ‘The same, only different.’

With that context in mind, and excerpt from Pakistan’s Daily Times report today.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the major coalition partner in the federal government, has decided to nominate its Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari as the next president of the country.

A source close to Zardari House told Daily Times that this decision had been taken by the top hierarchy of the PPP and the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) would formally announce the decision after its meeting on Friday (tomorrow).

“The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) will endorse and second the PPP CEC’s recommendation to nominate Asif Zardari as a presidential candidate,” the source said.

He said in return for its support to the PPP, the MQM would continue to hold the office of Sindh governor besides joining the coalition in the centre and accepting ministerial slots in the federal cabinet at a later stage.

It has also been learnt that the PPP expects the Awami National Party (ANP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) to also support the PPP CEC’s recommendation.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), however, wants the next president from Balochistan or NWFP. But the PPP hierarchy insists that the top offices in the country are a right of the major political party.

The PML-N, it should be noted, is thus seeking a president from a province currently wrestling with an insurgency directly afoot. This is not insignificant.

View From the Front

Background and analysis (pdf) on the Georgia (and wider) situation from an energy as well as pol-mil aspect from another next-generation think tank that is much closer to the action.

Risky Business

One runs the risk of sticking a foot square in the mouth by commenting on something they have not actually read, so it is with some trepidation that I point out this latest national security development:

A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion … senators said the new guidelines would allow the F.B.I. to open an investigation of an American, conduct surveillance, pry into private records and take other investigative steps “without any basis for suspicion.” The plan “might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities,” …

That’s one reading of the plan, another is quite different:

The Justice Department is already expecting criticism over the F.B.I. guidelines. In an effort to pre-empt critics, Mr. Mukasey gave a speech last week in Portland, Ore., describing the unfinished plan as an effort to “integrate more completely and harmonize the standards that apply to the F.B.I.s activities.” … Mr. Mukasey emphasized that the F.B.I. would still need a “valid purpose” for an investigation, and that it could not be “simply based on somebody’s race, religion, or exercise of First Amendment rights.”

So which is it? As noted earlier there are those who can interpret things clearly and those who will manipulate the language and intent of a thing in their own self interests. There is no reason to think that the same thing is not happening here, but I’m not prepared to pass judgment till I see the text.

Does any of this matter? Yes, but probably not for the reasons you might think. What we are essentially talking about here is a nascent domestic intelligence capability and as men more erudite than I have pointed out, the FBI is not the place to house such a capability. In fact such a capability (which I back) belongs in no badge-and-gun issuing agency because intelligence and law enforcement have two different and competing goals and outlooks; the former views data and seeks anomaly in order to preempt; the latter deals with suspects after the fact.

Domestic intelligence can be done in a way that denies no one liberty or freedom. Putting such a capability in the hands of people who view people as suspects and perpetrators has the potential to strike at our national heart and soul.

August 20, 2008

Domestic Gitmo-ization

Activists in Denver are aghast at a “secret” prison being built to house potential arrestees during the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Naturally there is nothing secret about it, and given the very real possibility of violence (references to the DNC Convention in Chicago forty years ago have been made), activists are equally aghast that local law enforcement might actually take law and order seriously.

I don’t know what the jail capacity in Denver is, but I’m fairly sure that it is not capable of housing - even temporarily - the dozens if not hundreds of people who may fall into a police cordon or - rightly or wrongly - get caught up in a mass detention a’la Washington DC. A temporary holding area (or “jail” if one prefers) only makes sense; unless activists would prefer a black hole of Calcutta on the Platte instead?

Some people can appreciate the concerns on both sides and understand reality; others not so much.

August 19, 2008

Sorry Charlie: Taliban Bombers Fail In Afghanistan

As ABC News reports:

The militants failed to gain entry to Camp Salerno in Khost city after launching waves of attacks just before midnight on Monday, said Arsallah Jamal, the governor of Khost. The base is just a few miles from Pakistan’s border.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said Afghan soldiers, aided by U.S. troops, chased and surrounded a group of insurgents, and that six militants blew themselves up when cornered. Seven other militants died in those explosions and a rolling gun battle, he said.

“(The Afghan National Army) is saying that anytime we get close to them, they detonate themselves,” Jamal said.

Unfortunately, an ambush outside Kabul left ten of our French allied warriors dead. Godspeed to our brothers in arms and their families. Thankfully, Sarkozy stated that he remains undeterred in the Taliban-al-Qaeda effort to affect French public opinion on troop deployments.

August 18, 2008

Russian SS-21's Moved to Ossetia?

Russian SS-21 missiles moved into South Ossetia for an enduring threat to Georgia? No… You don’t say.

You mean, like these?

Just for the record, Russia has moved back behind the “Trust, but verify” line of departure. We are now inarguably into “Don’t Trust, and verify anyway” territory.

What we do now with other former-Soviet republics like Ukraine and former-Soviet satellites like Poland and the Czech Republic will be critical. They must not be allowed to perceive that the cost of Western alliance and democracy is unfettered Russian invasion. Such is Putin’s message.

We are compelled to intercept it on principle. And we do not need NATO to do it.

August 14, 2008

Farewell Musharraf, Farewell Pakistan?

At FrontPage Magazine today, they have chosen to run Farewell Musharraf, Farewell Pakistan? as their feature article. It’s a look at the current difficulties for both the United States and Pakistan as the new government seeks to impeach president Pervez Musharraf. If he is impeached or steps down beforehand - and the latter now appears probable - the United States will see much of the current Pakistani cooperation evaporate.

The government of Pakistan is in far more disarray now than before Musharraf’s PML-Q party was unceremoniously given the electoral boot. Power struggles continue to play out with an ebb and flow that tear at fought-over institutions and in ways the very writ of government. Pakistan lacks a strong central figure that, for all his flaws (and they are many), it at least had in Musharraf. Pakistan has always been infamous in its corruption, and the battle lines only magnify that now, with instability growing and encroaching on American strategy against terror like gathering storm clouds on the too-near horizon.

For there are two central tenets that the ruling PPP/PML-N coalition agree on; distancing themselves from the United States as an ally in the war on terror and the ouster of Pervez Musharraf, America’s most vital connection. Both of these tenets are aims shared by both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who have made numerous assassination attempts on Musharraf and are currently executing a very patient insurgency inside Pakistan. This is not to say that the Pakistani ruling coalition and the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance are partners by any means – and certainly not the PPP, whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by the latter.

But it is worth noting that the head of the PML-N, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was reported by the Pakistani press at the time to have received billions of rupees as a campaign donation by Usama bin Laden in his first failed run at the premiership in the late 1980’s. He also has a close relationship with Hamid Gul, the former ISI director said to be good friends with bin Laden and often referred to as the father of the Taliban, which he had a significant hand in creating and supporting.

This is the new government of Pakistan, which seeks the end of Musharraf’s days and the end of Pakistan’s days as anything more than a nominal American ally. And there appears little in the way to prevent that. The future for us thus becomes much more difficult in our drive to liquidate al-Qaeda and the Taliban, still with sound sanctuary in the parts of Pakistan where the government has little if any writ. And the level of that writ decreases daily in more and more areas.

Musharraf’s resignation appears imminent as India’s The Hindu reports today that Musharraf’s own PML-Q party has abandoned him and voted in Sindh province for his impeachment to proceed.

Speculation that President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation may be imminent heightened after his political isolation became apparent when even the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, until now a trusted ally, deserted him on Wednesday in Pakistan’s Sindh provincial assembly.
The Sindh Assembly was following the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province assemblies in passing a resolution demanding that the retired General Musharraf step down or seek a vote of confidence.

This will have two affects, generally. First, it will drive the United States ever closer to India, whom many - including this writer - have long seen as a natural ally for the United States, complications of the Cold War notwithstanding, of course.

Second, it will put the new Pakistani government in a challenging position of balancing the appearance of just enough cooperation to maintain the billions in aid now coming from America with the distancing from America that they desire.

At the end of the day, they cannot have it both ways. And the closer the United States’ relationship grows with India, Pakistan’s arch enemy, the more distant the United States and its aid will drift (via its own inertia) from a very needy Pakistan. In short, they will get that which they desire.

And as damaging as it may be for US interests, it will ultimately be exponentially more damaging for Pakistan herself, struggling with a slow motion insurgency from the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance, patiently and effectively executing its strategy of ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts.’ Musharraf’s exit will be an amputation among hundreds of cuts thus far.

When a domestic party’s interests intersect with that of their nation’s own internal (or external) enemies, the results are always ugly - a fact not exclusive to Pakistan.

August 13, 2008

Russia Deployed Chechen Units Into Georgia

Earlier this week, I popped on from vacation long enough to note that Russia may have employed the communist PKK just before the fighting to bomb the Turkish leg of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that leads through Georgia. Today, I pop on again, and just long enough to note another rather curious (though wholly expected) bit of Russian play: The use of units comprised of ethnic Chechens to do much of the very dirty work in Georgia.

The nickname [‘Shrek’] given by his comrades to the bald, pug-eared soldier was the only moment of light relief during a day of tense drama in which The Times witnessed Russia breaching the ceasefire agreement over South Ossetia at will.

At a checkpoint set up by the Russian Army on the approach to the city of Gori from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, an armoured personnel carrier blocked the road and riflemen had fanned out in the surrounding bushes, their weapons trained on anyone who approached.

All were ethnic Chechens, whose reputation for pitiless brutality in war made them feared throughout the Caucasus.

The last sentence is an understatement. Russia once again choosing separatists of choice, either because of political compatibility or sheer ruthless effectiveness.

So much more to this as it continues to develop, but noting the Chechen units of the Russian Army on the ground was warranted here.

August 11, 2008

Did Russia Employ Communist PKK Ahead of Georgia Invasion?

On vacation and woefully disconnected from most of the civilized world (and marginally civilized, as it may be), did I miss anyone noting the likely connection between the Kurdish PKKs bombing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline in Turkey a mere 72 hours ahead of Russian tanks rolling on Georgia?

If someone has clearly and I have missed it in disconnection, good. If not, call me crazy, but let’s keep in mind that the PKK is a communist group - the Kurdistan Worker’s Party - and therefor the type of rebel group that stays near Putin’s KGB heart.

ThreatsWatch reader Michael F. Halasz left this comment at Warren’s earlier Recon item, which is the closest to making the direct connection I have seen. It’s been bugging me while away and offline, and popping online for a few minutes, I was glad to see someone at least flirt with what seems to me an obvious employment of a useful terrorist group.

The Baku-Ceyhan gas pipeline - built to by-pass Russia to Europe - will no longer be secure even if Russia withdraws to the South Ossetian “border.” Given that Europe is ever more dependent on imported gas, windmills notwithstanding ,this is a momentous defeat for the anti-Russian faction in Europe. For Germany of course alignment with Russia has always been an alternative to war with it. [consider that ex-chancellor Schroder now has a good job with Gazprom]. I’m afraid that the U.S. -overextended and virtually without a functioning government -now holds the short end of the stick. America’s reckless Georgian clients walked into a trap. Russia’s longer-term objective is likely to be full participant in any broad Middle East settlement, as was always the case during what we might call the Henry Kissinger era.

Meanwhile, reports that the Georgian army flees in disarray as Russians advance are not encouraging. I was online just long enough this weekend to read Ralph Peters’ latest at the New York Post (‘Raping Georgia’) at the outset of the fighting, and found his initial observations spot on.

What just happened? The Kremlin decided it was time to act, since Georgia was only growing stronger under its democratically elected government. Although NATO has been hemming and hawing about admitting Georgia, the Russians didn’t want to take any chances. (Just last month, 1,000 US troops were in Georgia for an exercise.)

Calculating that the media and world leaders would be partying in Beijing, the Russians ordered North Ossetian militiamen, backed by Russian “peacekeepers” and mercenaries, to provoke the Georgians earlier this month.

Weary of the Russian presence on their soil, the Georgians took the bait. President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his US-trained military to respond.

That was the excuse the Kremlin wanted. Immediately, a tank brigade from Russia’s 58th Army (the butchers of Chechnya) crossed the international border into Poland - sorry, I meant Georgia.

Though it doesn’t look like his suggestion of a possible “surprise beating” of the Russians at the hands of fierce-fighting Georgians has happened at all. But it is very early in this conflict, and a stubborn Russia may find the longer they stay, the deeper they go, the worse for them it gets. They’re certainly not at that point now, though.

[Interjection: Fernandez makes excellent observations in a comment at the Belmont Club:

BBC is now reporting that the Russians have withdrawn from Gori. I must admit that I have been impressed with their tactical flexibility. They avoided a pitched battle at Kodori gorge, raided Senaki and Zugdidi, and don’t seem interested in holding the ground at Gori. Their linkage of kinetic action with the information war seems to be aimed at the purely political goal of toppling Saakashvili. The clumsy bear is showing a surprising agility. They seem perfectly aware of the dangers of a protracted counterinsurgency in the Caucasus and appear to be confining themselves to probing attacks.

The Russians are performing better than in the old days. But still, they’re only up against a few brigades. They have the air, they have the sea. They have the numbers. But they can’t bag the Georgian Army. In the information warfare sphere, the Georgians are whittling away at the Russian meme that this is all about South Ossetia. If the Russians don’t withdraw this will be about Georgia.

Taken together, the performance of both sides has created an opportunity. If the Georgians had collapsed or if the Russians had run an old style Kursk-type campaign, things would be far worse. Think of it as two fighters in a ring, both of whom can plausibly claim victory. You can get them to shake hands yet. Putin’s best move, as I wrote above, is to declare victory, beat his chest and go back into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But is Putin like that?

Deeper does not appear to be in Russia’s dealt cards, and for the good reasons noted by many.]

Two cents while I have a minute. Perhaps less on both accounts.

UPDATE: Some video that caught my eye…

UPDATE II: With thanks to Corlyss for his comment reminding me, apologies to John Batchelor, who, upon distant reflection, was way ahead of this particular curve and in fact the one who planted the seed in my foggy memory banks. He had sent a note Friday highlighting Georgia right before I headed out on vacation. Within the link sent, the PKK highlight. See for yourself.

Not a Pipeline Conspiracy, a Pipeline Coincidence
It is mighty strange that this Russian attack comes within twenty-four hours of a reported Kurdish guerilla attack, by the well-financed PKK, on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline. This was the first explosion ever reported on the pipleine that carried 1% of he world’s daily need; and the report that the pipeline will be shut for up to two weeks reversed the sell-off in oil and sent it back up through $120. Am I suspicious? Yes. Is it significant that the attack took place outside of the PKK region? Yes. When BP declared force majeure on the pipeline, it freed BP and all members of the consortium from contractual obligations. In other words, your money is no good when there is trouble with that pipeline. And now there are tank battles, air strikes, refugees and anarchy within 40 kilometers of the Tblisi section while the exploded Turkish section near Refahiye must burn itself out for days before it can be replaced.

In a word: Bingo.

Second Russian Front Opened On Georgia

Despite international commendation and calls for a ceasefire, Russia has shown little inclination to wind down, much less halt, military operations against Georgia. Bombing raids targeting Georgia’s military infrastructure have continued apace, and now an additional front has been opened in the escalating conflict. AP writer David Nowak

On Monday afternoon, Russian troops invaded Georgia from the western separatist province of Abkhazia while most Georgian forces were in the central region around South Ossetia. Russian forces also moved into the Georgian town of Zugdidi and seized police stations, while their Abkhazian separatist allies took control of the nearby village of Kurga, Georgia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said.

Nowak proceeds to cite, correctly, that the capture of Gori—a town astride Georgia’s sole east-to-west highway, has the potential to “effectively cut the country in half.” It is not immediately clear how the Georgian military would cope with the loss of this vital strategic thoroughfare.

As noted earlier at ThreatsWatch, Russia considers the area vitally important to its strategic interests. Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent critical land routes for Russian passage into the Trans-Caucasus region. However, while Georgian forces appear battered and in retreat, the Russian onslaught shows no signs of abating. Speculation also abounds that Russian forces may even drive on the Georgian capital. In light of these developments, some are beginning to wonder whether the Russian counteroffensive has nothing short of Georgian subjugation in mind. “It’s all about the independence and democracy of Georgia,” said Georgia’s embattled president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Whether expressed publicly or not, Saakashvili’s sentiments have likely made the rounds among many Western leaders as well. Unfortunately, if Russia does intend to exploit the present crisis to squash independence in a former vassal state, the West would have little strategic leverage with which to counter Moscow’s ambitions.

Note: Readers may like to see an update by Nowak, Russia drives deep into Georgia.

August 9, 2008

Georgia And Russia Collide In South Ossetia

In an apparent bid to recapture South Ossetia, Georgia launched a surprise military offensive against the breakaway region, prompting an armed response from neighboring Russia while threatening to further fray U.S.-Russian relations.

Sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, Georgia may have timed the gamble to coincide with the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has long aspired to regain control of South Ossetia, and the decision to initiate military action now may have been designed to maximize operational surprise afforded by the international community’s focus on the Olympics. Whatever the reason, Russia responded forcefully, reportedly bombing Georgian military facilities and dispatching an armored column to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali presumably to augment Russian “peacekeeping” forces already station in the breakaway region.

The fighting has now raged for a second day. According to a Boston Globe article:

It was unclear which side controlled the provincial capital of South Ossetia by Saturday evening. Russian military commanders claimed they had driven Georgian forces out of Tskhinvali, which Georgia’s Presiden Mikhail Saakashvili denied. Smoke rose from the city, and intermittent artillery shelling and sporadic gunfire continued.

Georgia’s status as a U.S. ally further complicates matters. Approximately 130 American military trainers are presently stationed in the country, and upwards of 1000 Marines and soldiers had billeted at the Vaziani military base in July to train Georgian troops. Meanwhile, a contingent from Georgia is currently serving alongside allied forces in Iraq.

Given the stakes, the United States has called for a moratorium on all armed hostilities. In a statement issued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. urged “an immediate ceasefire to the armed conflict in Georgia’s region of South Ossetia” and for Russia “to cease attacks on Georgia by aircraft and missiles.” Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, Vasil Sikharulidze echoed Rice’s plea to Russia. “We are asking our friends, and the United States among them,” the Sikharulidze said, “to somehow to try to mediate and try to persuade Russia to stop this military aggression and invasion of Georgia.”

Such calls may fall on deaf ears. Awash in oil revenues and eager to resume a prominent position on the world stage, Russia has demonstrated a strong inclination in recent years to readmit former Soviet states like Georgia into its sphere of influence. In addition, the region contains significant strategic value to the Russian state. “Strategically, Abkhazia {Georgia’s other breakaway region} is the southern terminus of the Sukhumi Military Road and South Ossetia, the Georgian and Ossetian Military Roads,” explained a Russian military expert. “All are traditional strategically vital Russian (Soviet) ground routes across the High Caucasus Mountains into the Trans-Caucasus Region. Russia will never relinquish them, whatever the cost.”

Assuming a cease-fire cannot be brokered in a timely fashion, the United States would be forced to confront and reconcile a pair of competing strategic interests: the desire to assuage Russian concerns over U.S. encroachment and dampen the simmering tensions between the two nations on the one hand, and the desire to support an ally in a vital geo-strategic region against an unhelpful world actor and former enemy on the other. And if abandoning Georgia is unacceptable in lieu of that nation’s cooperation with the United States in Iraq, risking the possible military stand-off with Russia is equally so.

At the moment, the United States must seek a compromise settlement. First, Georgia must be reigned in from military incursions against the separatist government in South Ossetia. The U.S must make clear that its support does not extend to land grabs, particularly one which seeks to incorporate a region that is home to so many ethnic Russians. Secondly, the Russian sphere of influence must be respected but not regarded as sacrosanct especially in light of Russian cooperation with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and with it Moscow’s diktat to exercise complete control over the affairs of former states. Russia must be reminded of this inconvenient truth.

Finally, the United States should continue engaging Russia. From the threat of Islamic extremism to China’s military build-up, the self-interests of the United States and Russia intersect. Neither country should lose sight of this.

August 6, 2008

This We'll Defend

In what bizarro world do federal law enforcement officers get jacked up by a foreign military in our own country with no serious repercussions likely to follow? Facile arguments aside, does sovereignty mean anything anymore or not? A year from now, when the (nominal) Mexican Army kills an American family during one of these incursions, will that be enough to trigger a serious response?

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    What on Earth can Usama bin Laden, the mystical calculus of climate change and US Homeland Security have in common? Does bin Laden really agree with the President of the United States on matters weather? How is it that the...

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