Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Al Qaeda vs. The People

Daniel Drezner writes in a post in Foreign Policy arguing against Niall Ferguson's latest article in Newsweek. I can sympathise with Drezner in one way; Ferguson has become more polemical in his writings - but thats probably why he's writing in Newsweek and not a  journal. Drezner's criticism is mostly focused to Ferguson's claim that "If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, [he] hasn’t noticed." Drezner writes
Psst... Niall.... just because you haven't noticed does not mean that radical Islamist movements haven't declined. Last I checked, groups like Al Qaeda were waning in popularity among Muslim populations (to the point where Osama bin Laden mused about renaming Al Qaeda). Oh, and if you failed to notice, you should know that Osama bin Laden is still dead.
It doesn't take a genius to figure where Drezner has gone wrong; while movements strive for popular support that does not measure the threat or the capability they have. It is undeniable that support for Al Qaeda is dropping - advocating a Taliban-style authoritarian rule whole killing scores of civilians does that - but in terms of operational capability that does not mean there is a significant decrease in their force. Bruce Hoffman makes the point that Red Army Faction had almost zero public support and yet managed to inflict serious damage for almost three decades.  The same applies to Al Qaeda; Peter Bergen goes even further saying that "Al Qaeda values one recruit more than a thousand supporters." I don't know if Ferguson was talking about populations or movements, but Drezner conflates and confuses the two. 

Al Qaeda has increased its networks from 7 in 2008-9 to 11 networks, globally in 2011. When Al Qaeda operated in 2001, its membership numbered only something like 200 people. Leah Farrell the former Senior Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police in her recent Foreign Affairs article stated that
Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks.. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.
Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman in their 2010 study 'Assessing the Terrorist Threat' come to a similiar conclusion:
Overly optimistic arguments about al-Qaeda’s demise based on the attrition of itsleadership overlook three key points. First, al-Qaeda has always been a small, eliteorganization...  Second, al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to awide range of militant groups in South Asia, all of which are relatively large... Finally, al-Qaeda Central has seeded a number of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa [... which] has now allowed them to co-opt American citizens in the broader global al-Qaeda battlefield.
Drezdner also makes a ridiculous point in linking the killing of Bin Laden with further proof that radical Islamism is on the decrease. While it is certainly true that Bin Laden had certain operational control over Al Qaeda Central and its affiliates activities and that his death is a strategic gain for the West, that does not diminish the threat of Al Qaeda. Its to entirely misunderstand the way Al Qaeda makes its decisions;
al Qaeda’s second-tier leadership manages most of the group’s interaction with its subsidiaries, the removal of either Zawahiri or bin Laden would not overly affect the unity among the organization’s core, branch, and franchises, nor would it impede communication among them.. Messages from the branch and the franchises to the core then generally go through al Qaeda’s second-tier leadership, which briefs Zawahiri, bin Laden, or both if the issue is urgent — that is, involves gaining permission for external operations or resolving a conflict between or within the subsidiaries.
None of this contradicts the recent evidence which finds that 
Information confirming bin Laden’s active role in al Qaeda continues to emerge, painting the portrait of a “micro-manager,” as an unidentified U.S. official quoted in ProPublica, called him. “He was down in the weeds [determining] best operatives, best targets, best timing.” And U.S. intelligence analysts pouring over bin Laden’s personal diary have concluded that he was involved in “every recent major al Qaeda threat.” He also remained involved in planning future attacks...
Underestimating the threat posed by Al Qaeda is dangerous; the thought that Al Qaeda was not an organisation but an ideology seems to have subsided in the face of overwhelming evidence but overblown arguments based on the death of Bin Laden and the decline in popular appeal seem to be re-emerging. 

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Overview: The Long Divergence

A few months ago Niall Ferguson appeared on Newsnight and when talking about the problems facing the Middle East stated that
It is far more illuminating to talk about the legacy of long term of the Ottoman rule than of British, French or Italian imperialism. We want to beat ourselves and say its all our fault that these problems exist [but] they are far more deep rooted... The culture that exist in the Middle East today bears very few resemblances to the culture that the Europeans tried to implant there.. and that owes far more to the long lasting impact of Islam which has had the biggest impact on the region of any empire. Arguing that its the fault of British imperialism is to misdiagnose the problem.  
And as far as the economic situation of the Middle East goes, Timur Kuran in his book 'The Long Divergence' shows that Ferguson is indeed right about the long lasting effects of Islam. What follows is more of an overview of the book than a review of the book. The Middle East is economically and developmentally backward, especially compared with the West; in terms of GDP per capita ($9,418 against the OECD $33,755), adult literacy (74.7% against 99%), life expectancy (69.4 against 77.8), Human Development Index (0.73 against 0.93).

Kuran’s explanation is that while Islamic institutions were suitable for commerce before, began to impose burdens and impede economic growth and development which caused the current divergence and lag between the West and the Middle East. This is also not to say that Islamic law is static: there were reinterpretations but these were mere ‘ripples in the pond.’ This is not to say that there is no economic advancement, rather its relative economic growth and global contribution is waning. Indeed, from 1820 to 1913, per capita income grew by about two-thirds and then tripled between 1950 and 1990. Yet, its share of GDP decreased from 10% in 1000 to 2.2% in 1700. It is the consequential position that the book concerns.

Kuran dismisses the idea that colonialism and ‘machinations of Europeans’ are the source for the economic lag experienced by the Middle East as they ‘miss vital ingredients of the historical record.’ It is based on two false premises: firstly, that social interactions are of a zero sum quality and secondly, ‘they leave unexplained why the region succumbed to imperialism at that time and not before.’ Indeed, it was the Middle East’s colonial era that brought fundamental transformation in the institutions described below; it was this change that brought rising literacy, education and enrichment at unprecedented rates (between 1000 and 1820, GDP fell but between 1820-1870 had an annual increased average of 0.4% and between 1870-1913 the annual increased average was 0.7%). This is of course, not an argument for colonialism but against the Islamic institutions which fostered stagnation.

Early Commerce under Islamic Rule

Islam is not incompatible with capitalism; indeed, there are various Quranic verses and Hadiths which encourage trade, private property and commerce:
4:29: ‘Believers, do not consumer your wealth among yourselves in vanity, but rather trade with it by mutual consent’
Mohammed turned the annual pagan pilgrimage in Mecca to an Islam’s most scared sanctuary and kept the pagan tradition of conducting trade. This pilgrimage became the most important commercial forum in early Islamic history as on their way, merchants would sell and cooperate. Its economic effectiveness was vast; 200,000 people gathered in Mecca. And this economic success remained until the 19th century; now its importance is limited to western Arabia. This should not be overstated either; the importance of the pilgrimage to commerce also had disadvantages: it meant that secular trading fairs would be considered sacrilegious. The equivalent of the European Champagne fairs could not have been established in the Middle East for this very reason.

Institution 1: Islamic Partnerships

There were two types of contract agreements; (i) Mudaraba; money would be provided by an active investor who would have a managerial role or (ii) Musharaka; the merchants also provided some of the investment. These Islamic partnerships often had prearranged calculations of how to split the profit; a passive investor was not responsible for any third party damage nor was the merchant liable for the loss of his investment. Kuran notes that these methods of risk allocation were also used in Italy and resembled the Commenda. The Islamic partnerships, thus, in their early usage were ‘globally optimal’. The religious practices also made them more reliable to their fellow Muslims and helped foster mutual trust enhancing trade.

However, these Islamic partnerships are unsuited to today: they support ventures of finite length, they are unsuited to large organisations with large investments and parties deal with each other as individuals not as members of a firm. This lack of legal personhood is an anomaly – even in today’s least developed countries. The agreements meant that individuals would be liable for their mistakes; the barista at Starbucks being responsible for losses is something which a worker would find unbearable. Legal personhood brings with it collections of people acting as single unit able to uphold commitments.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Benny Hill vs. Benny Morris

The London School of Economics hosted Benny Morris on a talk about the 1948 war on Tuesday night. The lecture Morris gave didn't contain anything new that he hasn't already written down. Yet, the people in the audience seemed to confuse giving a lecture with an actual book with footnotes. And it now appears, people present just don't seem to be listening. In a blogpost about the event on 'London BDS,' they make several claims about what Benny Morris said - a lot of which is just untrue. For those who wish to fact-check, the full lecture is now available on LSE's youtube page; 

London BDS states:
Morris claims that the war of 1948 was not only about land and national rights, but ‘the Arab’ side was also driven by an Islamic Jihad. He cited a few sources for this conclusion – it was not clear how authoritative or genuine the sources are, but that does not matter to Morris. 
Nope. Morris said that some elements in the Arab side thought of the 1948 war as a Holy War. In saying so, he cited three examples: declarations from Al-Zahr University, the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the Arab Higher Committe. In essence what Morris is saying is that there were some elements which thought of it as a Holy War; and he was honest about not overstating this -- more than once: 
"I've scratched the surface.. I've thrown it out. It something that exists there and is a reality but how deep a reality, how wide a reality has to be more thoroughly investigated.. What I'm saying is that you'll find what they [Al Zahr Univerity] what they passed on the 2nd of December elsewhere in the Arab world as well including among the leadership. Its true we are not talking about democracies.. so you don't really know what the masses were thinking but to the extent what one knows what was going in the higher echelons many people took what was happening in 47-47 as a Holy War"
"From the Arab side, it was seen as a jihad by some leaders and some of the people.. It is something which has to be investigated.. to fully comprehend how deep was it"
 London BDS:
Extraordinary though, is his view about the Zionist movement at the time; Morris said later in an answer to a question from the audience that Zionists in the 1948 war were almost atheists and not mainly motivated by religion.
Morris was faced with several questions about the religious dimension of the Jewish side in the '48 war, with one audience member suggesting that there was some kind of 'Jewish Jihad.' In this context, he is absolutely right to say that this is "nonsense." The Zionist movement was a nationalist, predominantly secular, socialist movement. Morris was right when he said that "[they] had thoroughly rejected God.. one finds nothing basically, of a Jihadi element in the Jewish side; it was a secular movement driven by secular concerns..."

London BDS:
Morris then went on to speculate that in 1948 Arabs had genocidal intentions towards the Jews. No evidence was provided by Morris to support his speculation.
Nope. He was very clear that there was no evidence and speculation was dismissed:
On the Arab side... the Jews interpreted what the Palestinians Arabs were doing as an effort to destroy their community and perhaps genocidally to destroy them... But this is not documented, and is not well documented at all in terms of the Arab leadership in Palestine. They very rarely used genocidal terms, I've gone through the material.. They don't talk genocidally, they do talk politicidally.. [On Arab states] were their states genocidal? We don't know that either because there were no genocidal or verifiable genocidal statements... Nobody said that."
London BDS:
Morris claims there was no official policy to force out Arabs in 1948. He thinks the hundreds of thousands of Arabs refugees just happened – through fear. He does not mention or discuss at any time evidence from other historians that the forced expulsion of Palestinians in 1947 and 1948 was part of a calculated plan.
Because there was no official policy; there were intentional expulsions, expulsion orders but no official uniform policies. Its obvious to tell that the person writing this is not paying attention to the nuance of Morris' record on the Palestinian refugee problem. There were several factors; and this 'fear' caused by the war itself, the Jewish attacks on neighbouring villages, the direct, intentional expulsions. True, propagandists like Ilan Pappe claim there was a policy but this is just simply not true. Plan D was never implemented as a formal leadership decision (and why Arabs remain in Israel). 

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Regimes in Perpetuity

This might seem like a trivial post but a recent run-in with an Iranian regime propagandist made me make the simple case for self-determination. The argument is not one of benefits, utility, fundamental protection of rights but just a simple argument about what self-determination is. (And hence the lack of links). A couple of things need to me made clear: this is not a discussion about whether there is sufficient support for the Iranian regime. The following arguments are made on both the assumption that a regime can have 99% or 1% support. Similarly, they are not about policies but about the systems and processes which give rise to them. Nor is it about getting into the actual credibility of elections. 

The argument that was presented to me was: if people accept an Islamic system, then the system will dictate who is fit to govern and therefore, candidates can be eliminated on the basis of that system (see quotes below). There are several issues with this argument; firstly, allowing people to choose once what system they want and thereby forbid any change in that system thereafter has several effects: (1) not only does it bind the entirety of the people, (2) it silences those who originally or start to disagree with it who are in a minority.

(1) Does one bind oneself in entering, what is in essence, a contract in perpetuity? Yes; by accepting the system – and then having a conversion from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam or to Judaism – while one can in theory change opinions, it will mean that the ability to form a new system is eradicated because this system only allows those who are vetted enter its framework. And it just so happens that it does not allow those who support a new system. Mill put it accurately:

He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favour, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.

(2) A possible response to the argument above is that ‘the majority accept it’ and if they did not, then the legitimacy would be gone. But this misses the point, and indeed, makes for a more worrying picture: the argument above was talking about an individual forfeiting his rights to change a system based on his own assessment. The argument, here, however is that a majority can choose a system in which the minority are bound by (and I strongly emphasise system). This takes away the possibility to have a potential minority have their voices heard in the process. Self-determination is not simply mob-rule and then silencing the minority based on that vote.

It also raises the question: if one is confident that the majority will accept those candidates, why is it even necessary to block those advocating a new system? Why is it necessary to have an a priori system at all? Cut the middle man and have an open, fair, democratic process. This is not to say that the laws passed will be good laws, of course. I am fairly confident that this country is a nation which mostly accepts personal freedom and accepts private property; I have no need to ban socialists. By having an open system, what I support and what the majority support is put into practice without having to deprive potential minorities. 

And thus lies Iran; the unelected Guardian Council vets candidates thereby stalling the system; 2,500 reformists in the 2004 parliamentary elections, 1,700 in 2008 parliamentary elections, 471 in the 2009 presidential elections. And even then, the unelected clown in chief will get his way against even the vetted successful candidates. This is partly why the 2009 elections legitimacy shouldn't be overstated: all of them lack openess and fairness.  

The internal coherency of the propagandistic arguments is close to nothing: while debating, there are various circularities. These are quotes (with fixed punctuation and spelling): 
(a) People decide whether they want an Islamic system or not once they have, then Islam decides everything else. There is no need for a referendum... Islam chooses the best leader for you. Not you. You can choose whether you want Islam or not.
(b) [If] the majority don’t want it, then religiously the govt. becomes illegitimate and it is an obligation for those in charge to step down

Friday, 3 June 2011

Victims of Western Imperialism #1

‘But the real question in judging success is not whether people are better off than they were before, but whether people are better off than they would have been had the West not acted.'

Juvenile anti-Americanism is prevalent in British society; and by this, I do not mean that there is nothing for America to be criticised about, but the infantile aversion to American foreign policy with minimal knowledge. In this thinking,  it is often 'Western intervention' that is made to look like an evil policy. One common objection is that 'that wasn't the reason' and therefore it cannot be used in a debate. This faulty thinking fails to address the issue: is it right to intervene? Linked is the argument that 'what about China?' Both of these arguments conflate the issue of motivation of party (which is arguable itself) with the issue of making the right decision. And in the case of the latter argument is merely an argument for further interventions, not against that particular one. WW2 is a just war; it matters not that in coming to that conclusion that Churchill was partially acting to maintain colonialism. Indeed, the benefits of liberation still arise. And they continue to arise.

In Afghanistan:
A decade ago, 9 percent of Afghans had access to basic medical care. Today, 85 percent do. Under the Taliban, about one million kids (almost none of them girls) were in school, whereas now about seven million children are being educated (more than one-third of them girls, with the proportion rising). Before the U.S. occupation, a telephone system barely existed in Afghanistan. Today, one in three Afghans has a cell phone. Afghans once had access to no media outlets apart from the Taliban's Voice of Sharia radio network. Now there are, in the words of the BBC, "scores of radio stations, dozens of TV stations and some 100 active press titles." More than five million Afghan refugees have returned home. Kabul has become so crowded with cars and people that the city's pollution is statistically more lethal than the war... Afghanistan's economy is also booming. Thanks to the improvements in security provided by the United States and NATO, GDP growth between 2009 and 2010 was a strong 22 percent. No wonder, then, that 70 percent of Afghans told pollsters for the BBC late last year that their country is now going in the right direction. It's also why Afghans give surprisingly high marks to the U.S. military, even after nearly a decade of often bungled occupation: 68 percent favorable, according to a BBC/ABC poll released in January 2010.
  • Since 2001, more than 90 percent ofchildren are now immunized against polio. Under-5 mortality has dropped by 26 percent, to 191 deaths per 1,000 live births,and deaths of infants before age 1 have dropped by 22 percent, to 129 deaths per 1,000 live births. The number of TB treatment facilities has tripled, and TB cases have fallen by 60 percent.
  • The  population with no access to electricity declined from 94% in 2001 to 42% in 2006 to 33% in 2009. 
  • Today the Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan worked with female election observers in 13 provinces in the 2009 election. Inthe 2010 parliamentary election, FEFA expandedits initiative to 21 additional provinces, ensuringthe presence of female observers throughout the country.
  • When USAID arrived in 2002, there were only 50 kilometers of intact paved roads. To date, USAID has built or rehabilitated approximately 2,700 kilometers of roads, including 715 kilometers of the Ring Road, national highways, and provincial and rural roads.
  • There are now 158,000 teachers in the country, up from 21,000 in 2002. Of this number, 29 percent are women; this allows more girls to attend school.
  • More than 500 square kilometres of land have been released back to Afghans, free of mines and remnants of war. Since 2007, more than half a million vulnerable Afghans living in mine-affected areas have received mine-risk education.
  • Civilian deaths caused by pro-government forces decreased by 24% from 2009-2010, making up 15% of civilian casualties (the Taliban and their allies are responsible for 75% of civilian causalities). 
And so much more.