Saturday, November 20, 2010

Destroy and Relax: Bring in the Tanks

Helmand needs some tanks! Not water storage tanks, tank-TANKS. Over 1,000 tonnes of M1 Abrams tankage wielded by the United States Marine Corps.

Force multiplier, force protection, forced outcome. Whatever US/NATO calls this, tanks in Afghanistan is about more force.

One poor lad described the tanking of Helmand (as if the writing wasn't already on the wall) as follows:

"You know what scares the hell out of dismounted insurgents? 70 tons of badassery that will make them dead if they mess with it...If the problem in Helmand is a highly-active insurgency that requires a firepower solution, then the M1A1 is what you want to bring to the fight."

Afghanistan is deadly riddle. Consider the following fairly straightforward conundrums:

- Is the enemy 'not winning but not losing either' (in the case of the Taliban/AQ/'Terror') a security interest?

- Does it matter if the enemy moves on - should we just stay and fight anyway?

- Counter-insurgency doctrine often demands a lot of tactical thinking into things like where to dig wells, where to build hospitals, roads, and the like. Why do we need soldiers making these decisions - aren't such matters the government's purview?

- Is counter-insurgency or COIN actually relevant or is was this a doctrine used to paper over US/NATO's unimaginative (and doomed) approaches to stabilising Afghanistan?

- If Karzai is a corrupt and ineffective ally, how can his dysfunctional government actually be the recipient ofcounter-insurgency and stabilization (or so-called nation-building) dividends?

- Can a foreign occupier even counter an insurgency as fluid and population-centric as the Taliban? Indeed, doesn't military occupation only fill their ranks?

- How many small wars waged by foreign occupation forces have had legitimate/clean/able government?

- Are the measures used to gather information on AQ/Taliban targets sufficient and reasonable to justify pre-meditated (and extra-judicial) killing? Will this chicken come home to roost in 5-15 years time? And will China exploit this double standard in U.S. committments to upholding human rights?

- Is there a correlation, or a measurable relationship, between the way US/NATO forces conduct their operations and deteriorating security? (The Afghanistan Study Group is slowly coming around to this conclusion. Essentially, they are suggesting that the occupation - in its complexity and through the force of its will - is (re)fueling the enemy.)

Of late, I have found it bewildering that some U.S. commentators think that a U.S. withdrawal will be anti-climactic. These are usually the same commentators who dismiss the release by Wikileaks of nearly half a million classified documents from war theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq as "nothingnew". Glance for a moment at all the major news wires; news on the U.S. is totally over-represented. Any withdrawal, however incremental or precipitate, will create a lot of excitement. (And whilst I am on the subject, if the deluge of war logs released by Wikileaks is nothing new, why is Julian Assange being continually harrassed and Bradley Manning being detained?)

If a withdrawal happens - and I do hold out hope - several things are very likely to happen:

- Karzai will shift allegiances faster than you can say "I am a reliable partner". Iran will get its hooks deeper into Afghanistan, at Pakistan's expense. This game is neither great nor determinative; it's theirs to play. Karzai will be ousted within months unless his contortionist ways save him.

- The UN will have a meltdown of sorts. They'll recover.

- The US economy will recover faster. Because you will have more resources for stimulus and your brighter minds can start thinking their way around this riddle, instead of an unnecessary war in Central Asia.

- The President will have a lot of explaining to do with the idiotic right castigating him for 'cutting and running'. This is the touchstone issue - can Obama afford to lose in Afghanistan? Or is the smarter money on prolonging the war and dumping it in the lap of the next President?

- Pakistan will pack its daks because it will realise that it's waterbed-cum-state is next cab on the rank. The magnitude of failure of this nation as a result of poor policy, service-delivery, and security in Kashmir, Beluchistan, FATA, now Sindh and Punjab, safeguarding the judiciary, and pursuing constructive relations with India are withering and abominable. But it's not the U.S.'s problem. It's Pakistan's. The U.S. can certainly help on the development and trade side, but Pakistan's foreign policy is neither controlled chaos or diabolical. It's infested with its leaders' self interests, which appear to be absolutely rotten.

It will take Herculean effort to pull out of this ditch; the political torque required is there. Obama is a strong leader, still with untapped reservoirs of confidence around the world. Letting Afghanistan gowould transform America's international prestige (positively), but it would also excoriate national morale.

(the photos are from the Battle of Kursk, July-August 1943)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bob Herbert on Afghanistan

The comments are just as sharp as the op-ed piece itself:

Why is there not an organised movement of similiarly minded people?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Papers (Over) Pentagon

Bravo to the folks at Wikileaks!

The Pentagon and the Attorney-General’s office are demanding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange surrender the remaining 15,000 classified files encrypted in a cache ominously entitled, “insurance”. Oh, and he should do the right thing and tear down all the other leaks and delete all Wikileaks records permanently.

Says an irate U.S. federal official, "If doing the right thing is not good enough for them, then we will figure out what other alternatives we have to compel them to do the right thing…"

Yikes! Like slap a Predator drone on them? Or is that honour only bestowed upon non-U.S. nationals? Actually, Assange is an Aussie, so he’s probably fair game.

According to most experts and war pundits, the leaks have not revealed anything that people don't already know. Then, why are Pentagon and FBI officials entreating Wikileaks to delete the files claiming that they contain sensitive information on active operations (informants, tactics, etc)?

The release of the documents has coincided with some other subtle but significant changes.

Criticism and skepticism is starting to make a dent on the Pentagon's much-heralded counter-insurgency campaign that has been put forward as the field-tested (i.e. ostensibly proven during the Iraq Surge in 2006-2007) and the most sensible course to stabilise Afghanistan and inoculate it against terrorism. But then why is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, so ambivalent about his government’s counterinsurgency strategy? If Eikenberry was judged solely on diplomacy and his ability to cause Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, to be supportive of U.S. foreign policy, his scorecard wouldn't be something to write home about.

Operations such as search and destroy, counter-terrorism, and the remote-controlled assassination campaign using drones are being ratcheted up steadily. Some reports have Obama’s administration’s prodigious reliance on these methods (usually more associated with the Bush administration) rising steadily. By way of illustration, Obama approved 50% more drone attacks in 2009 compared to the previous year under the Bush administration. It appears that drone attacks this year (2010) may be 2-5 times 2008 levels. Meanwhile Joe Biden and Admiral Mullen have gone on the public record confirming that there is a shift away from the counter-insurgency/surge model of approach to operations that search for the bad guys and pick them off. In Pakistan, local populations claim that civilians, including many women and children, are being killed or injured by these strikes (but, they’re probably lying because, well because).

Cracks are appearing all over Iraq. The seemingly intractable political impasse between Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi coupled with the broad and acute deterioration in security across Iraq give lie to the snake-oil claims of the COINdinistas. What does this mean for Afghanistan? An Anbar-style awakening in Afghanistan will not, if it ever happens (which is hughly unlikely), be a product of counter-insurgency doctrine; it would be a political outcome caused by attune political actors from within the region and sensitive U.S. civilians. Not US/NATO troops.

The rising clamour from Viet Nam veterans drawing comparisons with America's devastating quagmire of the 50s, 60s, and 70s is not longer a trickle. It’s an angry torrent. And as if to emphasise the parallels with America's past errors of tact and judgement, classified documents are being leaked. While it's not at all uncommon for secrets to be shared during times of war (McChrystal, Eikenberry, and others have all done their bit), the scale and breadth of the Wikileaks' cache of 91,000 documents is on par with Daniel Ellsberg's so-called 'Pentagon Papers'. It is worth remembering that at the time, Ellsberg questioned the value of the documents he was copying from RAND, fearing that they lacked the sensational revelations that would make them an instant hit. Back then, just as now, the New York Times demonstrated the same methodical and balanced interest in unearthing the truth of why and how the US gets itself into deadly wars that start off small and become ungainly, unwinnable, yet somehow remaining un-daunting for the powers-that-be.

In fact Ellsberg's prescient and withering analysis at the time can be summed up very simply; successive administrations knew the costs and consequences of escalation (in all its forms) but chose escalation for clear political reasons. Successive presidents did not want to be associated with failure. So, instead of throwing in the towel and admitting defeat, they kept the war simmering thereby deferring what they perceived as 'blame' and voter-alienation in response to 'losing the war'. The Pentagon Papers were 9,000 pages of the best and brightest people's analysis and decision making; detailing all the political contortions and resulting carnage done, not in the interests of the U.S., but in the interests of the political capital of sitting administrations. The Wikileaks Papers may be very similar, possibly even more far-reaching. It's not clear how much of the data is raw intel, how much primary analysis has already been done, and if secondary analysis and higher-level consideration is contained within the cache. Potentially, there may well be a basis for answering critical questions that concern the public interest, issues like:

- Is counter-insurgency being implemented or was this a doctrine used to paper over US/NATO's unimaginative (and doomed) approaches to stabilising Afghanistan?
- Are there clear instances where ISI support to the Taliban (and/or Al Qaeda) have been verified?
- Are the measures used to gather information on AQ/Taliban targets sufficient and reasonable to justify pre-meditated (and extra-judicial) killing?
- Has the remote-controlled technology and new weapons like drones made killing easier?
- Is there a correlation, or a measurable relationship, between the way US/NATO forces conduct their operations and the deteriorating security across Afghanistan?
- Is the way the war in Afghanistan being fought in accordance with international law?
- Is the way US forces conduct the war in Afghanistan within the spirit of Congress's mandate to go to war in Afghanistan?
- Are the numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan and Afghanistan being concealed or omitted from public scrutiny?

I find it both beguiling and highly suspect that so many political commentators and foreign policy analysts are so quick to dismiss what could be information vital to the public interest.

Again, Bravo Wikileaks!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

STOP PRESS! Kashmir as a model for Southern Thailand

Apparently Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand believes that there are "emerging opportunities" to learn from India's experience with counter-insurgency, referring to the so-called Muslim-Malay Insurgency that has intensified in the southern part of Thailand since 2004.

Moreover, Prime Minister Abhisit cited Kashmir as a living example of how to fight small wars, one that he feels Thailand could learn from.

The report goes on to say that "...insurgency is due to ...historical and cultural reasons ...which includes occupation, ...and alleged cultural and economic imperialism, including allegations of security personnel brutality and corruptions."

I can't recall if the article attributed this description to Kashmir or the Deep South.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When we said 'not guilty' that didn't mean you're free to go...

In the past I have celebrated the impressive way in which US/NATO occupying forces in Afghanistan are handling the socio-political terrain of so-called "nation-building" in Afghanistan. This progressive integration of justice best known as 'detention-without-charges' and 'trials-without-charges'. Well, 'they' have just added acquittal-without-freedom to their Integrated Justice product line!

The Taliban on the other hand seem to have a much more fluid and less determinist grasp on administration and governance at a local level.

Some might say that in conflict-affected contexts it means an awful lot to have some recourse to policing, justice, and compensation – however loaded with ideology and concessions that assistance might be served.

It's pretty obvious that the manner in which local people are detained and prosecuted by occupying forces is bound to become a focus for the local population and the insurgents.

I was reading a NYT article and it seems that Integrated Justice now uses two really cool systems, one in which prisoners of war are detained without charge and their cases periodically reviewed by American officers; the other in which detainees ‘will be tried in an Afghan court, before an Afghan judge, and defended by an Afghan lawyer’.

What maked this exciting new Integrated Justice product so fabulous is that an acquittal does not mean a person is free – he may still be detained if there is a feeling amongst American military offices that the person poses a security threat. As the NYT articles muses, an Afghan court could acquit a detainee whom the American review board deems a continuing threat.

Fortunately, Capt. Gregory Belanger, director of legal operations for Task Force 435, clears up any confusion:

“Anybody not found guilty can be released, but we have an interest in not releasing people that pose a risk to the people of Afghanistan and to us...I’m not going to say it’s not binding, but if someone is acquitted in state court, they can still be prosecuted in federal court”.

So the US/NATO Integrated Justice System now offers Afghans more options than ever before:

- Afghans can be incarcerated without charge (obviously!);
- These same detainees may be prosecuted for crime(s) that s/he wasn't charged (duh!);
- The trial will be held in a prison (which saves everyone so much time);
- Even if you are acquitted, this is no guarantee of your freedom (because an acquittal may not be binding).

Clears things up for me. What a relief!

Contrast this with the Taliban, who warn you (night letters, etc.) if you are threatening their interests, and kill you if you go to far or persist after being warned. Otherwise, if you have accusations and grievances against other people (civil stuff, whatever), their local officials are available at the village-level to dispense justice using some traditional mumbo-jumbo mechanism (boring!).

It's pretty obvious which justice-provider offers better terms...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lessons Unlearnt from Uganda and Afghanistan

Eerie similarities in the political calculus underpinning the impact of an International Criminal Court indictment and the U.S. government’s designation of foreign terrorist organizations.

I believe that both designations – either as an indictee or foreign terrorist organization – potentially have the opposite desired outcome in terms of efforts to arrest (as in stop) small wars and armed groups?

Mark Landler and Thom Shanker of The New York Times write that the “new American military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, is pushing to have top leaders of a feared insurgent group designated as terrorists, a move that could complicate an eventual Afghan political settlement with the Taliban and aggravate political tensions in the region.”

The process of FTO designation and listing is fairly straightforward in which the Executive branch consults Congress; the authority to designate an entity as a “foreign terrorist organization” rests with the U.S. Secretary of State, and is subject to judicial review.

The consequence of designation and subsequent listing is that a broad class of forms of “material support or resources” shall not be rendered to a foreign terrorist organization. Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court offer guidance on what these forms of material support and resources may include, as follows:
- Property, tangible or intangible; and
- Service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe-houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal sub-stances, explosives, personnel (one or more individuals who may be or include oneself), and transportation.

Over the years the definition of “material support or resources” has shifted to clarify that a violation requires knowledge of the foreign group’s designation as a terrorist organization or its commission of terrorist acts. This requirement of a certain mental state delimits culpability because an unwitting person who has no idea of the foreign terrorist organization’s designation or its terrorist acts lacks the necessary intention or frame of mind.

The U.S. Department of State publicly lists these terrorist organizations offering some preamble and rationale explaining the legal basis and potential consequences of being designated as a FTO, including – and presumably not limited to – the following:

1. Supports efforts to curb terrorism financing and to encourage other nations to do the same.
2. Stigmatizes and isolates designated terrorist organizations internationally.
3. Deters donations or contributions to and economic transactions with named organizations.
4. Heightens public awareness and knowledge of terrorist organizations.
5. Signals to other governments our concern about named organizations.

The same public information states that the “organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States”. This element alone practically constrains the court because it has to straddle the evidence before it and the informed judgment of both Congress and the Executive.

The Supreme Court decisions in Holder, Attorney General, et al. v. Humanitarian Law Project et al. and Humanitarian Law Project et al. v. Holder, Attorney General, et al., both decided on 21 June 2010, provide guidance on the amplitude of what “material support”, “service”, and some of the other confusing aspects of the FTOL really mean.

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (1952 and its amendments) does not penalize mere association, but prohibits the act of giving foreign terrorist groups material support. And whilst some of these groups often have social, political, economic, and humanitarian operations, in acceding to the designation Congress is effectively concluding (explicitly or by construction) that the taint of the group’s violent activities is so great that working in coordination with them or at their command legitimizes and furthers their terrorist means. The court has presciently observed that foreign terrorist organizations do not maintain “organizational firewalls” between their social, political, and terrorist operations – or financial firewalls – between funds raised for humanitarian activities and those used to carry out terrorist attacks. The court also distinguishes between independent advocacy (and therefore freedom of speech) and “service”; the latter is described as “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization”.

That’s the court’s view. In practice, sub-contractors, humanitarian/development organizations, and international agencies won’t touch or go near groups or individuals that have the merest whiff of FTO association. This means that a whole class of people, organizations, and interest groups that merely ‘associate’ their aims and interests with the political and social objectives, policies, and activities of an FTO are effectively isolated or stigmatized (as the U.S. State Department describes). In short, the average aid worker is completely freaked out by the FTO designation.

Which brings me to the effect of the International Criminal Court’s investigations and prosecution of East and Central Africa (‘the situation’ as the ICC likes to refer to it – see the diagram below). Take Uganda’s (and their stomping grounds of Central African Republic, D.R. Congo, and Southern Sudan) Lord’s Resistance Army as an illustration:

The effect of what may, by way of corollary with the U.S.’s FTO designation, be described as the international designation and prosecution of an armed group and its members, is to introduce and maintain effective disincentives that discourage active LRA commanders and combatants to come forward and give up the fight. In an even broader sense, active and former LRA commanders and combatants associate the ICC as an imminent threat to their safety and freedom. The approach that the ICC is taking is high-flown from a moral standpoint; but practically it has the opposite desired outcome.

Consider the following:

Since the ICC indictment, the LRA has become viral, transforming itself from a brutal insurgency in Northern Uganda to a brutal band of terrorists at a regional level active in three foreign countries;

- The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in August 2006 culminated in the failure of the so-called international community to cause the LRA to sign the Final Peace Agreement; -

- Traditional and customary justice mechanisms perceive their competence as inferior to that of the ICC; that is the ICC can undermine, subvert, overrule, and invalidate traditional forms of reconciliation and punishment of the LRA by prosecuting anyway. Point in fact, reconciliation processes in Acholiland (the most hardcore politico-military leadership of the LRA is Acholi-controlled) that involve truth-telling, clan-level accountability, reparations, punishment, and forgiveness have not really been pursued against active or former LRA combatants over the last twenty years. And in anticipation of arguments to the contrary, claims that returning ex-combatants were "cleansed" under traditional custom are disingenuous; this so-called cleansing is nothing more than a short welcome ceremony. No former LRA commanders and combatants have ever gone through a comprehensive process of atonement and punishment.

The point?

Countering or combating insurgency is inherently political. It is wrong-footed in my view to effectively narrow the options for influencing and enticing an armed group (e.g. guerilla-based insurgencies and/or mercenary groups) into the political domain at the expense of their military actions. Why would a commander come forward with the threat of indictment over his head? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but unless the counterinsurgents’ military interventions compel him/her to do so, what would be the upside? Equally, the very actors that can chip away and disaggregate certain individuals and sub-groups (esp. support networks) interests and objectives within a politico-military armed group are virtually barred from doing so if it is a designated FTO.

The only reason I can think of is total misapprehension of the conflict itself. I would argue to anybody who would care to listen that the conflict dynamic should be the focal point of any and all attempts to counter, combat, and otherwise arrest (again, as in stop) an insurgency. This means the following:

- Shifting local narratives (e.g. injustice, impunity, identity) away from or distinguishing certain elements from the politico-military movement;
- Co-opting interest groups and individuals that are effectively key opinion-shapers of the politico-military movement; and
- Disaggregating and co-opting the many and different individuals and sub-groups that comprise a politico-military movement’s support network(s).

If you can’t use every available means to do so, then how can you say that you are striving for optimal results? Perhaps it is by pulling the veil over foreign terrorist organizations and indicting certain commanders and combatants in international tribunals this becomes the justification for covert operations? And in the dark recesses of covert operations, none of us have any idea what happens.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Firing Your Way Out of Chaos: Loose COINdinistas Sink Ships

Michael Hastings has just kicked some COINdinista butt! He inked his scalp, four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal no less, for Rolling Stone Magazine.

McChrystal is mercilessly depicted as an infantile and loose-lipped man intoxicated by the camaraderie and adrenaline of power and his elaborately constructed military persona:

"I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner," McChrystal says.

He pauses a beat.

"Unfortunately," he adds, "no one in this room could do it."

Talk about pride coming before the fall...

Poor old McChrystal won't have to worry anymore about bothersome diplomatic dinners; there will be plenty of dinners at home for him and his suffering wife (the dude celebrates their anniversary in Paris at an Irish theme pub "Kitty O'Shea's" with his slavering entourage of loose-lipped twits in tow). At the end of his anniversary-cum-piss-up he has a teary moment where he confides to Hastings, "All these men...I'd die for them. And they'd die for me."

Dude: Think that chair, lose the crowd, substitute the uniform for a dressing gown,
and add a TV dinner on your lap!

I wonder, now that he has been caponized, whether his men would still die for him? Or will they go limpet-like onto the next powerful general? One thing I would hazard a guess about: I bet you his wife has his back, if only he had the presence of mind to take her out properly in one of the world's most romantic cities - "Kitty O'Shea's" in Paris! Tsk tsk. Poor sausage.

McChrystal makes many a telling admission, likening Afghanistan to a bleeding ulcer. What's most terrifying is that the U.S. fields such politically tone-deaf types to lead a war that demands safer hands when it comes to communication and diplomacy. Silly Global Superpower!

Parting shot:

Yes Eikenberry, you are looking a bit suss too!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Afghanistan: "the Saudi Arabia of lithium"

I am loathe to succumb to conspiratorial speculation about the war in Afghanistan. In fact, I have always maintained - wholly in the absence of any evidence whatsoever - that the motivations for the war in Afghanistan were revenge for 9/11 and destruction of al Qaida and its enablers.

Then this little doosie appears in the NYT yesterday:

New York Times, 13 June 2010

U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai were recently briefed, American officials said.
“On the ground, it’s very, very, promising,” Mr. Medlin said. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”

As if the US occupation wants to fuel conspiratorial fulmination about their reason for being in Afghanistan, the Pentagon fielded some geologists and other experts to see what the mining potential of Afghanistan is; and guess what?

One of of the geologists remarks that, “On the ground, it’s very, very, promising”.

Perhaps the mining division of the Pentagon could counsel the counterinsurgency part on positive thinking in times of crisis.

Luckily, the World Bank had already 'assisted' (not completely written based on precedents from the many developing countries in which the Bank has positively tranformed mining regulatory frameworks, optimistic places like Congo) the Karzai government to rewrite their mining laws.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Integrated Justice; It's Just So Convenient!

I have said for some time that the war in Afghanistan is a comic's dream.

Reading today's NYT, the following article jumped out at me like an angry Muppet in a dark alley after a big night on mescaline:

"The new American-run prison outside the capital will hold its first trial of an Afghan detainee next week, American officers said Wednesday.

"The Afghan prisoner, who was not identified, will be tried in an Afghan court, before an Afghan judge, and he will be defended by an Afghan lawyer, officials said. The trial is set for Tuesday.

"Vice Adm. Robert Harward, the commander of American detention operations here, said he was not sure yet if the trial would be open to the public.

"Even so, the trial would be a significant moment in the evolution of the American detention system in Afghanistan. The Parwan Detention Center, which opened last year, succeeded the prison at Bagram, which had earned a grim reputation as a place where Afghans were sometimes abused.

"Particularly in the early years of the war, Afghans captured during military operations were held at Bagram for long periods without being charged, without facing trial and without being able to see either their families or lawyers. The conditions there were widely criticized as abusive. Two Afghans died in custody at Bagram in 2002, leading to criminal charges against several American servicemen."

So let me get this straight:

- After extra-judicial incarceration without charge;
- The 'detainee' will indicted for a crime that s/he wasn't charged; and
- The trial will be held in a prison.

The great thing about this integrated 'ex-poste justice' system is that the detainee never needs to leave prison! How convenient.

This must be the rights-based approach to establishing a kangaroo court.

Of course, the Afghans will really appreciate this 'show of fairness' by the occupying powers because it will be justice dispensed "in an Afghan court, before an Afghan judge,...defended by an Afghan lawyer" in an American-run prison in their occupied country.

Makes perfect sense!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mountain Jam: New Age Combatants, Guerrilla Gurus, and Magic Marker Mastery

The great thing about this blog is that no-one reads it! I know that sounds silly, but writing in an electronic space that everyone can access and yet remain aloof at the same time has a sublime appeal. Sure as hell beats Facebook, which has to one of the most insidious and viral of e-phenomenon that the i-generation has vomited up. As I recount the descent of this blog from raging commentary that challenges people's points of view (point of views? points of views?) to the ruminant by-product of an overactive mind, I thought I would share the best two books I have read this year.

First of these is Gerard Prunier's "Africa World War", which has some enlightening passages and disturbing observations of the wilful ignorance of the 'international community'. But, I haven't quite finished thinking through this book, and I need more time to properly digest it. It's deep.

The book that I did finish - in a half-day I might add (which speaks for itself) - is Jon Ronson's "The Men Who Stare at Goats".

Ronson takes the reader on a an amusing discovery of the colourful and kooky characters that the US military spawned in the wake of the Viet Nam War. His primary focus is psychological operations and related metaphysical techniques being researched and developed for adaption to modern warfare. The central premise of the book focuses on Jim Channon, the author and protagonist behind the concept-army known as the "First Earth Battalion" - recently played by Jeff Bridges in the star-studded movie by the same name - and how he stumbled and sought out the innocuous, naive, profligate, and remarkable elements of the New Age movement. Naturally, Channon distilled his discoveries into his own movement! Channon makes for a highly serviceable protagonist for Ronson's literary ends, and Ronson deploys him with calibrated gusto, driving the narrative deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine world of the bizarre, the botched, the overcooked, and the heinous doings of the US, its military, civilian agencies, and the irrepressible imagination of its greatest asset - it's people. The following slide (Channon's hand) encapsulates some of his hero's thinking:

Most of 'Goats' is pretty light-hearted (hilarious in parts - you will find yourself laughing at the most absurd notions that transfixed otherwise very serious men), although several sections, most notably the somewhat tangential section on Frank Olsen and MKULTRA make for a frightening reminder of the telling impunity of the US government and the lengths that private citizens have to go to just to extract an admission that a wrong was commited (in their collective name). Ronson focuses on the First Earth Battalion's Manual, which is a magic-marker odyssey of Channon's stream-of-consciousness reflections on both the times he was in and the people and interactions that were framing his thinking, such as the slide below:

The thing that 'Goats' impressed upon me, especially when reviewed alongside the First Earth Battalion Manual, is the wide berth that people like Channon and his acolytes were given to explore different and obscure fields like New Age movements, meta-physical experimentation (e.g. staring goats to death, remote viewing). I wonder if there were a few arms-length and enlightened people within the US military or civilian-government establishments that realised that within these crackpot and far-out fields there might exist an edge or advantage to gain at a time when anti-Communist paranoia only just outweighed the despair that the war in Viet Nam exacted of America's government and people. Beneath the (and I don't think this is not too strong a word) ludicrous manifestations of this openness to new ideas and new thinking probably lay a cold and calculated desire to understand whether these movements were a threat, whether any of these areas had an underlying science, and what new communication mediums and modes of thinking they employed that might have practical applications which could be adapted to modern warfare technology. What is clearly an inexact science (which I have discussed before) is presented by Ronson as a harbinger to more sinister developments in modern warfare; this really is the only potential hypothesis that Ronson posits. For instance, Ronson notes a precursor to the internet came about in the 80s being developed by some of Channon's devotees/admirers (?), and he asserts that certain developments in psychological warfare and interrogation methods were influenced by findings and recommendations attributable to the First Earth Battalion learning and practices. It's instrictive to bear in mind that the First Earth Battalion Manual was collated and written in the late seventies, just as the full horror of the Viet Nam was coursing through the American military establishment.

Anyway. The book is at least as amusing as the movie, definitely as tangential and slow in passages, besides being wonderfully creative non-fiction in a mercifully slim volume! It cannot stand up to the rigours of serious research, and probably shouldn't be discussed in the same breath as Prunier's work. One thing I really liked about 'Goats' is Ronson's treatment of the issues, which is reporter-like and spares the reader the neurotic and obsessive tempo of a lot of writing on conspiracy theory.

If you're interested in the images I lifted from the FEB field manual and Jim Channon's own take on the First Earth Battalion - the following links might interest you:

Part 1 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Part 2 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Download The First Earth Battalion Field Manual

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation"

You gotta love the UN.

As a fifth wheel, they serve a purpose. If not for the world, then at least for themselves. Bear in mind the following:

- There are over 22 specialist UN agencies.
- There are over 51,000 staff directly employed (not including the World Bank or long/short term consultants) by UN agencies.
- There are 46 Under-Secretary-Generals (or quivalent rank/seniority). USGs have diplomatic rank equivalent to that of a national cabinet minister. No other government anywhere in the world has that many cabinet ministers for its functioning. The figure of 46 is not exhaustive and there are more USGs or their equivalent - the UN just doesn't have a list of them all that is accessible in the public domain.

So, someone on behalf of the UN (which is 'One' anyway, except in the case of funding, in which case it's 22+ separate agencies) has urged a negotiated solution because "there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control".

It's like someone on a trolley in ICU being prepped for emergency cardiovascular surgery after a heart attack making a call on his mobile; "yeah, I'm having a heart attack, so things aren't looking too good".

UNHCR, always on the highest of steeds, offers the stern and wholly unsolicited advice, "Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation".

Hmmm. Yes, the UN has spoken. As one. We should sit up and take notice. Because it's the UN.

What's not interesting about the Red Shirts' ten-week protest?

Military attempts to disperse the protesters on 10 April 2010 and more recently have failed; government figures (probably the most reliable in the circumstances) cite 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March.

The police appear to be defending the protesters against the army.

Diplomats and others have approached the Red Shirts to find out what they want; with no change to their pretty obvious demands; "Elections, NOW, NOW!"

The Red Shirts have even trotted out the oldest of negotiation chestnuts in fragile states where the government is self-appointed; UN mediated talks!

The vast majority of the protesters hail from the North and are amongst the rural poor of Thailand.

Let's just imagine, for a moment, what the UN could offer besides from legitimising the protests and turning them into an international incident (because it's not already, it's NOT!):

"We can help you like we've helped Timor Leste, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Aceh, and many other countries. Seriously."

"We have mediators that are taken seriously by all sides, people like Ibrahim Gambari."

The other thing that is so incorrigible about the Red Shirts' protest is the infernal paradox it raises; you can hardly hold an election when the Red Shirts' party affiliates will almost certainly win. Those damned poor farmers in Thailand are really getting in the way with their protesting shennanigans!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mental As Anything: Paris Principles

I was checking out one of my favourite sites, Aid Thoughts, and it brought to mind the dreaded Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. This Pandora's Box of turd-flavoured truffles ostensibly defines the responsibility of developed and developing countries for delivering and managing aid along five core principles:

1.Ownership: Partner countries exercise effective leadership over their development policies, and strategies and co-ordinate development actions
2.Alignment: Donors base their overall support on partner countries' national development strategies, institutions and procedures
3.Harmonisation: Donors' actions are more harmonized, transparent and collectively effective
4.Managing for Results: Managing resources and improving decision-making for results
5.Mutual Accountability: Donors and partners are accountable for development results

As with all of these international instruments, it is stupendously garbled and repetitive, but the purpose of this little ruse appears to be a laudable (and some would argue misplaced) desire to empower recipient countries with determining their own policy direction, development strategies, and related priorities.

Yeah right. This really looks like the wool being pulled over the sheep's eyes! And in development settings, boy oh boy has this been aggressively 'mainstreamed' up the tailpipe of UN agencies and donors! Think 'Rocco Does Paris' and you get the idea.

But, let's reflect just for a moment on a couple of committments explictly agreed to in this document:

"Avoid, to the maximum extent possible, creating dedicated structures for day-to-day management and implementation of aid-financed projects and programmes."

...This means avoid NGO/UN/IO-managed projects, and park your programmes under Government- managed structures. Yes, the very same structures riddled with coruption, gross inertia, and absurdly incompetent bureaucrats not in the least bit interested in equitable development, equal opportunity, integrity and all the other other values that kind of matter in the aid/development sector.

"Rely to the maximum extent possible on transparent partner government budget and accounting mechanisms."

...This means that despite the completely erratic capacities of the Government's financial staff, the long history of collusive practices, the daily malfeasance of public officials - you should trust them to manage these taxpayer funds.

"Progressively rely on partner country systems for procurement when the country has implemented mutually agreed standards and processes."

...Yes, ask that hideous group of people known only for their spectacular rorting and self-enrichment to do your procurement, again with taxpayer funds.

This is not mental at all.

Next topic: Battered Donor Syndrome.

Barefoot or Bare-brained: Trusting Your Way Out of Chaos

The tragi-comedy of errors UN-NATO military efforts in Afghanistan is a minefield of amateurish gaffs and cock-ups.

What's wrong with this photo?

Aside from the obvious - winning confidence and trust whilst still wearing ballistic protection and sporting the latest automatic weapon might have the opposite desired outcome - just take a closer look at these bozos (the ones in camouflage, not the local fellows). They are obviously guests. Now look at the local fellows: You will note that the local fellows have bare feet. This is customary in Muslim communities; entering someone's home (or the mosque) one takes his/her shoes off. We are talking entry-level cultural sensitivity here; even this very elementary of cross-cultural behaviours, the US-NATO cannot manage to get right.

And I am quite certain that there are rules and SOPs about wearing your ballistic vest at all times, keeping your weapon by your side, and never taking your shoes off; but, are these troops here to win a war or comply with procedures?

Another doozie is the following quote from Colonel Randy George (of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division):

“We’re not worried about corruption in itself, but we are worried about governance.”

I can't decide if the tautology and gross misapprehension embodied in this statement is deliciously amusing or vaguely terrifying. Perhaps it's both!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Boss-i-cide: Killing Your Way Out of Chaos (2)

Last week, I shared a provocative piece that appeared in the New York Times on a certain Ugandan former-combatant-on-again-combatant (aka EX-ex-combatant) deployed with Ugandan and US soldiers to hunt down rebels in the wilds of Central Africa.

Boss-i-cide is actually more common than most people think. Reminds me of advice that an old boss once gave me:

"Only a truly loyal employee would kill himself for the good of his boss. Your boss will fondly remember you for at least a week, and you might even win employee of the month. Which is totally worth it."

This quote may be slightly off-piste, but killing yourself is a really strong possibility when you are 800 miles from home, armed to the teeth, and trying to catch jungle guerrillas on foot. If it's not for loyalty to the boss, then perhaps its out of hatred for the boss!

Maybe this whole business of turning the ex-combatant on his erstwhile rebel comrades has been misunderstood! The real buzz for these intrepid former-rebels is the opportunity of knocking off their boss. Admittedly this example is quite elaborate (i.e. helicopter gunships and so forth), but the principle is the same.

Gets you thinking doesn't it...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why Are Cars Still Being Manufactured With Cassete Radios?

Why are cars still being manufactured with cassete radios?

Is it an admission that this simple old technology works? In spite of our iPODs with those infernal little radio transmitter thingies (that disconnect at the slightest bump). The cassette was simple, robust, and lasted. Yet no-one uses them anymore, and car manufacturers still install it as standard!

There's also the possibility that, like so many things that we buy, it's an add-on to validate our need for a certain amenity that is expected as of right. Even if it is useless. Sort of like showers in Africa, when there is no running water!

Which bring me to the incorrigibility of Hamid Karzai. Karzai is the political equivalent of a cassette radio.

He leads a government that cannot maintain its writ or territorial integrity, fails to provide social services without outside help, and he shamelessly depends almost entirely on outside help for everything. The pride of Afghanistan is an outstretched hand, palm-side up.

What he has that no cassette radio has is the gall to bite the hands that continue feeding him!
Afghanistan is a concept. An intoxicating concept of what should be, a dizzying liaison amidst a mess of destruction and misery.

The old cliche, 'who is the fool, the fool or the fool who follows him?' aptly describes Bush-then-Obama's excursions in Afghanistan.

Following Karzai down a rabbit hole and through the looking-glass. We have fancy names for it now - reconciliation, governance, counter-insurgency or 'COIN', and many colourful turns of phrase that omit the bare fact that Karzai and his government are a chimera.

Bush had his weekly phone confab with Karzai, the world's most powerful man indulging his sense of adventure, keeping it close-by, stroking it like a pet python. Then Obama enters the frame; no more phone convos - time for Tough Love.. Deploy 47,000 more troops, nab a Nobel, send in the best and brightest (Holbrooke, Farrow). Time for tough love is it?

Karzai is the dubious leader of an impecunious state that cannot pay its bills, is forever embroiled in bloodshed, and until recently had strategic importance until even al Qaida decided enough was enough. Farcical elections, a poppy-fuelled civil war, rampant fraud, and this mad hatter is still the doyen of international largesse. You either love him or hate him depending on whether you're Republican or Democrat. Whichever is the case, you still pick up the tab. While, I might add, the folks back home are getting retrenched and booted out of emergency!

Even when the enemy ups sticks and leaves the melee (al Qaida), US/NATO decides it may as well keep fighting the Taliban. Participating in a civil war in order to win hearts and minds is the new strategy, 'COIN' it's called (mind you, Karzai's understanding of 'coin' may be little less violent and a lot more mercantilist).

Karzai is an old warlord that no-one really needs, but he came with the purchase, so we keep thinking we need him. Like that cassette radio. He is utterly useless, except for those old tapes you insist on playing, hoping that the right time will come around when someone wants to listen to Neil Diamond. He belongs to the past, yet we keep him in there for the sake of verisimultude.

Again, why are cars still being manufactured with cassete radios?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Killing Your Way Out of Chaos

My commiserations to those poor sods waiting for spiteful Double Negative commentary, here is a paltry belated offering from the New York Times :

Such are the dim bulbs calling the shots on reconciliation/reintegration and counterinsurgency in places like Afghanistan and Uganda; negatively reinforcing the trauma and violent tendencies of the very people who have taken the crucial step of walking away from the fight. By plunging them back into chaos, the strategic effect of such approaches is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. The utter confusion and violence of the fixers' will always have the unintended consequence of precipitating increasingly complex permutations of conflict and fracturing of civil society.

The message this sends out to all other active and demobilized combatants is that you can never get out, never get ahead.

As if crimson hues of the butcher's apron was the new black, Human Rights Watch reckons foreign troops and former rebels traipsing through the jungle in hot pusuit is a good thing.

Depressing stuff.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Leo's Analytical Approach: World's Worst Country

In the Economist’s The World in 2010, self-described as a ‘collection of forecasts,’ which present ‘a flavour of the year ahead’ or ‘a whiff of it’ (pg 11) – you’ve got to congratulate Editor Mr. Daniel Franklin on his sense-based expressions – there is an article entitled ‘The worst country on Earth (pg 91).’ The Economist’s answer is: Somalia. It is based on analyses undertaken by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, which is located in North America. The article’s writer is the Unit’s Editorial Director Leo Abruzzese.

The cluster of factors that Leo puts forth to defend his argument are: civil war, poverty and piracy. [Intruding Q: Did Leo get that three factor approach from McKinsey & Co.?] Three paras are devoted to each of these three factors. The Civil War Para discusses the US’ consideration of Al-Shabab as one of al-Qaeda’s allies and the problems that this poses for People Like Me; the Poverty Para outlines aid dependency in Somalia and the struggles that Aid Workers encounter with regards to security – that argument can be applied to almost all conflict and / or post-conflict contexts, and at the turn-of-the-coin raw materials dependency can be applied to almost all countries in the so-called First-World; and the Piracy Para describes the impact of Somali pirates on world trade. The piece starts by stating that ‘calling Somalia a country is a stretch’ and ends with the forewarning that the ‘world’s most failed state, regrettably, threatens to become a bigger problem for the rest of the world.’ [Intruding Comment: I always admire the whole ‘failed state’ shebang = natural / or unearthly disaster. Was the Mighty-Nation-Sovereign-State God-given in 1648? I thought it was granted by a select number of Bald-White-Tuxedoed-To-The Nines-Gentlemen]. Out of a total of 72 sentences, only six sentences communicate about the conditions of those people on-the-ground in Somalia in terms of food, health, displacement etc.

The focus of this article, and the indicators employed, are all eyes and ears on the impact of Somalia’s domestic state of affairs on Western states, esp. the US, not on familial and social and economic life in Somalia per say. This confuses me. Can someone (anyone!) perform the subsequent straightforward – they’re v. obvious, which is why Leo’s analyses are especially baffling – calculations for me?

  • Ratio of # of people murdered and / or injured by US personnel across the world to # of people murdered / or injured by Somalis across the world in 2009;
  • Impact of US-driven credit crunch on global economy compared to impact of Somali pirates on global economy in 2009.

Final point: I like Pirates. They're like new-age anarchist anti-capitalists - intended or otherwise - employing old-age methods. I hope EU/or US warships discover copies of The Communist Manifesto and Modern Science and Anarchism floating in troubled waters. It would make my day! Can you imagine the headlines: 'The Communists and Anarchists are Back, but Black.'

Saturday, January 16, 2010

11 Members; 11 Countries; 11 Months - Squad-Led-By-God of 11

Guzzling my cappuccino – two espresso shots; two tea-spoon-sized-bags of brown sugar; extra paper cup to ensure that my hands are not subject to the steamed milk’s scorching temperature; extra paper cup of ice-cold H20 in the event that my two-cup-method falls short – in a foreign-possessed coffee shop in a part of the majority world (i.e. developing world) that recently emerged from a decades-long violent conflict, three (one male; two females) happy-sun-sodden white low-/mid-twenties march in, introduce themselves to a comparable group-archetype as members of the “Squad-Led-By-God of 11 Called to 11 Counties in 11 Months” and proceed to chart out their mission statement and enthusiasm re current context:

  • “We’re here to help and learn and undertake the Lord’s message and work – ya know”;
  • “The opportunities in this country to deliver God’s work are awesome, it was so much harder in Turkey and Israel – Muslims make it all so difficult – they have all their own opinions on whatever – I don’t know what their problem is – ya know”;
  • “The spiritual is so much more important than the physical – angels and demons are fighting it out y’all – it’s so weird, but so real – I don’t know why everyone goes on about development and money and roads and stuff – people need God – ya know”;
  • “Life is great – I’m so excited – ya know.”

Enter a “local.” He appears to be associated with the Squad-Led-By-God of 11. Later I discover that he is a pastor at the squad’s local partnering church. He asks: “Have you all eaten?” Squad-Led-By-God of 11 indicate that they have. He says: “I haven’t.” They express sentiments as follows: “Sorry my friend – ya know”; “It’s past lunch – ya know”; “You should have eaten – ya know”; “You must eat soon – ya know”; “You better get pumped up for tonight’s activities – ya know”; “You better have a full stomach so you can hear our mighty Lord speak – ya know.” Squad fails to tune into pastor’s efforts to extract capital for lunch. He probably has the money; just wants them to pay. Female Squad Member One progresses to describe her calling: “I want to travel around the planet for the rest of my life on behalf of God and help people and increase God’s great and glorious army – ya know.” Male Squad Member interrupts and explains that they must all go round the table and compliment one another. He expresses this with gravity and authority and desperation. It’s startling sudden. They take immediate action. The squad members really need these expressions of appreciation – you can tell – particularly Male Squad Member. Pastor’s stomach grumbles. Seriously. It actually grumbles. Compliments are mostly light and directed towards friendship and love and care – it’s really nice. Pastor is thanked for utilizing his van to drive squad members to a village in a neighbouring district last week – “otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to reach those village people, and they wouldn’t have heard about the Bible, and I’m scared to know what would have happened to them after they left their physical bodies and this world and had to face God’s final judgment – ya know.” All squad members confirm that they have salvaged a number of “village people” from eternal damnation. Enter more squad members – approximately between five-six. One male wears an Israeli Defence Forces’ t-shirt; one male wears a tank-top; all males wear Bermuda shorts and fluorescent flip-flops. Female Squad Member One takes Tank-Top-Male outside and asks: “Would you rather punch your mum in the face or eat a lightbulb?” Tank-Top-Male says he’d rather eat a lightbulb. Male Squad Member is clearly upset. He plugs in his iPod. Pastor shifts attention to Israel-Defence-Forces-T-Shirt-Male situated at another table. He asks: “Have you eaten lunch.” Female Squad Member One interjects: “We’ve all eaten!” Shifting concentration, she states: “I’d rather punch my mum.” I tune out.

Three cups of Tea will get you a Marmot

Whenever I, as a development worker, return “home”, I have to deal with well meaning commentary on the profession from neighbors, friends, and Billy Bob the local supermarket checkout clerk.

In America, this usually involves a discussion about why America spends “so much money” (I won’t bore you with the oft quoted less than 1% of the budget stat) on developing countries when we have so many needs in the good ol’ US of A, and someone gazing at me dewy deer eyes saying how “brave” I am for doing such good work. All of this is annoying, but manageable.

And then Three Cups of Tea was published. Suddenly, suburban book club members and NY stockbrokers alike are instant experts on development. One person can make a difference! Now I am confronted with conversations along the lines of “why should we believe an organization can ever make a difference when one man did it all alone up there in Pakistan drinking tea with the natives”.

Yes, I said it. I’m a development worker who hates Three Cups of Tea. Sound the alarm. Call Oprah – this is newsbreaking!

If you haven’t read it please don’t. For the curious, here is the propaganda website:

It sounds like an amazing story, doesn’t it? So heart warming. So human.

So why do I hate it? The dude, bless his poor lumbering heart, got ripped off. He ain’t no saint. He came to the same old conclusions all development professionals have known for years – invest in women, invest in communities, empower locals. Fight Islamic extremism in poverty alleviation and improved access to education. Talk to the locals.


The mass appeal of this book is based on thee things:

  • anti government/big organization backlash: why should the American tax payer pay TAXES to help countries develop when people can do it themselves? While drinking tea?
  • People would like to believe that they too have the potential to become the great white hope and save the world with no instruction manual.
  • The Lebowski factor. The guy is an oaf. A big, strong, lumbering American who probably speaks with a lazy twang. Do not tell me that if he had been a quick talking Chinese- American anyone would have liked the book as much. It just ain’t so. We want our cowboys, this book provided one.

Actually, there is a resemblance between the Dude and Mortensen:

(It’s a comfort knowing the dude is out there somewhere, isn’t it? The dude abides).

When you work in the field and you meet yahoos who have been inspired by this kind of book and have ditched everything to “DO something”; and have to stoop to the level of this book to discuss what you do…. you get a bit sensitive about this sort of thing.

I don’t begrudge Mortensen for doing what he did. Bully for him. Really. But please, don’t assume that the dude approach to development is how things should work – or I may have to throw a marmot into your bathwater.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Best practices,lessons learned and the Forum des Conneries

Two sacred cows of development are "best practices" and "lessons learned". Regardless of your nationality, and whether you are a grubby NGO worker in the field or a desk jockey at HQ, I can guarantee you that somewhere in your office there is a document that refers to "best practices". Everyone writes them. Everyone funds them. Its standard discussion material in round tables on conflict, microfinance, health...whatever the sector, there are BEST PRACTICES and LESSONS LEARNED.

I'm sorry, but it’s all a load of crap.

Not because the findings are not valuable, I'm sure they are (again, and again, and again). The problem lays in the stick your finger in a light socket rule of human psychology. Don't touch the iron, will burn you. I know the vanilla smells great, but trust me, it tastes terrible. She's a bar girl, for god's sake - She doesn't love you! Etc. No one believes that someone else has found a best practice. There is always a better way, and dammit , I SHALL find it (and write a book about it). So donors must - they cannot resist- doing the same old thing, slapping a shiny brand on it and calling it new. And a best practice.

Come to think of it, I am surprised there is not yet an annual prize for best Best Practices development publication. Something to consider, surely.

It goes without saying that arrogance also plays a role in the Best Practices Lessons Learned arena. The implicit assumptions are:

1) that the funder/author is qualified to judge what constitutes a best practice (what exactly are the criteria?) and

2) that someone has actually learned something.

The message is: we did an AMAZING Job on this; everyone should do it just like us!

What about what we did that sucked? How come we never talk about that?

I once had a discussion about this with some of what Artful Aid Worker would classify as Real Aid Worker friends in West Africa. We started trading stories of really bird-brained projects we had worked on (or even designed). We ended up agreeing that what would be really useful is to share those experiences in a Forum des Conneries (idiocies, more or less). It would at the very least remind us that we do not always get it right, and heck, maybe we can even laugh about ourselves a bit instead of touting how much we have learned.

The "Conneries" are endless, and please, do chime in. To get the forum rolling --three I have personally witnessed:

  • An animated film, locally made, of comparative conflicts around the world. It sounded like a good idea. However, in the African example the implementer thought it too sensitive to use Hutus and Tutsis. So they opted for Pygmies instead. I need not tell you what an African Pygmy animated by someone decidedly NOT African looks like. To add to that, the entire dialogue was in poetry. It was...stunning.

  • Paying people to resolve their own conflict. Aside from the incentive to keep talking, talking talking (eg: earning a salary) and not resolve anything, uhm..hello? this is THEIR conflict. Given the sacred cow of sustainability, its difficult to understand how this happens in the first place. Its one thing to support meeting costs, another to give people who ALREADY have jobs money to fix something they should, in theory have a stake in solving.

  • Paternalistic judgments on who suffers most from a conflict that impose selection of beneficiaries. Can someone tell me why, really, its more difficult for a woman to be alive and taking care of her children than for a man to be maimed, tortured, humiliated or just plain dead because of a conflict? Does it really make a difference if the person who has been tortured is in the "ruling class" or "elite" group versus one of the traditional oppressed? Are the psychological effects of torture somehow related to class and former income?

I do believe in best practitioners of development. A best practitioner of Development knows which practices are worth adopting, which can be adapted to local situations and made useful, which to file on the shelf next to the Milli Vanilli cassette tapes.

The best development professionals do not need to tout their successes and sell them as lessons learned. End the proliferation of Best practice and lessons learned pamphlets. Save the trees. Or at the very least, save filing space.


Just a quick one - what the hell is the UN not doing that it should be doing in Haiti with 9,000 blue helmets already there?!

It's tragic they lost so many of their own in the earthquake (viz. conservative estimates are 34 peacekeepers), but why can't the other 8,966 peacekeepers roll up their sleeves and pitch in?

Or is there some reason they can't, like;

- It's not within their mandate;

- Someone hasn't filled out the right form;

- "For safety and security reasons...."

- It's "pending" or "in process"

- Amiable platitudes need to be broadcast on BBC/CNN/AJ/etc. by some UN Aid Lord prior to any token, poorly managed gesture can be made

- Funding is not approved

Oh, for God's sake! C'mon UN, get off your backsides for once!

Links again

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It appears that the unintended benefits of Inexact Science are even more potent than initially reported.

A man currently detained in Saudi Arabia is claiming that his terrorist leanings were motivated by the memory of his Inexact Science Experience.

Mohammed al-Awfi said his Inexact Science Experience started six years ago at the Bagram U.S. military base in Afghanistan before he 'graduated' to Gitmo (we should all know by now that extraordinary rendition is when that fortuitous tap on the shoulder comes in the form of the Inexact Science Opportunity).

BBC journalist Peter Taylor reports that, "Al-Awfi claimed his U.S. interrogators... sat him on a chair, made a hole in the seat, and then pulled out the testicles from underneath which they then hit with a metal rod."

But that is not all - there's more!

Taylor goes on to report that al Awfi alleges, "They'd then tie up your penis and make you drink salty water in order to make you urinate without being able to do so, until they make you scream."

Al Awfi was amongst a select group of the best of the best Inexact Science Experiential prospects. He then moved up to the Science's Higher Learning Orbit, through the Deradicalization and Rehabilitation Campaign in Saudi Arabia.

The DRC in Saudi Arabia reportedly "involves counseling by Muslim clerics to alter their thinking, extensive contact with their families, and practical help to reintegrate them into society."

Taylor notes that, "When I asked al-Awfi why the rehabilitation program had not worked for him, he said it was because the memories of what he had suffered at the hands of Americans were far more powerful than any corrective inducements he had received in the program."

This sort of testimonial is proof undeniable of the efficacy of the Science.

It came as no surprise to his trainers that after passing through DRC in Saudi, in January 2009 al Awfi joined the Yemen-chapter of al Qaeda, as a Commander no less.

The Unspoken Public-Private Partnership between Inexact Science and prominent insurgent networks such as al Qaeda is by now well documented. What's interesting here is the affirmative action by al Qaeda that accredits Inexact Science graduates and reinstates them with a corresponding al Qaeda rank.