Is US-led campaign against IS making much progress?

The recent defeat of Islamic State (IS) forces in the Syrian border town of Kobane has been greeted by the US-led coalition fighting the group as a significant victory.

But the killings of two Japanese civilians and a Jordanian pilot held prisoner by IS suggest it shows no sign of backing down in the face of five months of American-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

So how much progress has the military offensive against IS made?

The defeat of IS at Kobane was achieved by a combination of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the ground supported by more than 700 air strikes which have flattened much of the town.

This success supports the view of many analysts that to defeat Islamic State, air strikes alone are not enough and ground forces are essential if the organisation’s territorial gains are to be rolled back.

The size of the challenge this presents is made stark by the assessment of informed observers that contrary to what President Obama told Congress in his State of the Union speech last month, since the campaign against IS began last August, the Islamist fighters have in fact doubled the amount of territory they control, especially in eastern Syria.

IS has also succeeded in gained allies beyond Syria and Iraq. In the past few weeks, Islamists in Egypt and Libya, who have affiliated themselves to Islamic State, have carried out large scale attacks. The group is also reported to be establishing links with the Pakistani Taliban.

Following the taking of Kobane, the US-led coalition, which includes the air forces of several western and Arab states, as well as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, is turning its sights on the Iraqi city of Mosul.

It was the fall of Mosul to IS last June that galvanised Washington to intervene again in the region following the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

If Mosul can be recaptured, it would represent a much bigger blow to IS than Kobane, which it had never fully controlled. But Mosul is a much tougher proposition.

IS has consolidated its control of the city – Iraq’s second largest – and the remaining population is largely Sunni Arab, many of whom may prefer the rule, however harsh, of IS to the return of rule by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, despite the efforts of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al Abadi, to reach out to disaffected Shias.

It is also unclear whether the Iraqi army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive last summer, is yet in a fit state to launch a large-scale ground offensive against Mosul.

The Americans and other western countries, including Britain, have been training and rearming Iraqi forces, but the corruption that is blamed for their cave-in to IS will take time to root out, if indeed it can be.

The lack of an ally with powerful enough ground forces is even more acute in Syria. Continue reading

Wishful Thinking and Great Power Politics

Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.

Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.

This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.

The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.

The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.

The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.

Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.

This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.

In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.

Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.

If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics,  when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.

As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.

On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.

Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.

Labour and Uncle Sam

Should Britain expect more from the Special Relationship with the United States than managed decline? What price should progressives be willing to pay for influence? Latest in our #progressivedilemmas series on conundrums facing the next Labour government. 

Obama – inevitable lame duck

Tweet on election night:

It took a few months but the Guardian is finally on it today:

Obama lame duck

It is not a comparison that many people thought would ever get much traction.

But, assailed this week by multiple scandals and at the mercy of a furious press, President Obama has endured a legion of pundits wondering if he is the 21st-century Richard Nixon – and whether his second term is already a lame-duck disaster.

Obama’s failure on climate

In the Guardian, George Monbiot is incandescent about the failure of Obama and Romney to speak out about climate change.

The two candidates remain struck dumb. Speech fails them, action is abominable, they will not even raise their hands in self-defence. The world’s most pressing crisis, now breaking down the doors of the world’s most powerful nation, cannot be discussed.

Although Monbiot briefly refers to a lack of action, most of his article is dedicated to what the candidates have or haven’t said during the course of an interminable election campaign. Real world data, by contrast, does not get a look in.

As far back as the first Bush administration, successive presidents have been promising that they would restrain America’s carbon emissions, but have failed to deliver. Instead, emissions rose sharply during their term in office. Under Obama, they have finally hit a peak, are falling, and are expected to continue to do so.

By 2020, according to a projection published last month by Resources for the Future, US emissions will be 16% below a 2005 benchmark, in line with the Obama’s administration’s pledge under the Copenhagen Accord. (See Michael Levi for a useful discussion of the RFF study.)

As this graph shows, tighter regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act  is playing the greatest role, with new standards kicking in in 2011. This is followed by ‘secular trends’ (higher energy prices) and action at sub-national level, mostly in California.

There are many problems with US policy at the moment. For example, the extent to which the US exports the coal it no longer needs will have a huge bearing on the net climate impact of its increased use of gas for electricity generation, for example.

However, its emissions trajectory is shifting, and this is likely to continue, and could accelerate, if Obama wins a second term today. It will also be fascinating to see how an American president deals with climate internationally if, for the first time, he walks into a negotiation with a story to tell of progress at home.

Lessons Obama learnt from Rumsfeld’s aborted 2005 raid on Pakistan

Today’s raid on Abottabad, where US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, brings back memories of an aborted raid in 2005:

A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials.

The target was a meeting of Qaeda leaders that intelligence officials thought included Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy and the man believed to run the terrorist group’s operations.

But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.

Rumsfeld called off that raid because he thought too many US lives were at risk. The plan started off life sounding very similar to the one that took out bin Laden – just a small team of Seals.

But as the operation moved up the military chain of command, officials said, various planners bulked up the force’s size to provide security for the Special Operations forces.

”The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,” said the former senior intelligence official involved in the planning. Still, he said he thought the mission was worth the risk. ”We were frustrated because we wanted to take a shot,” he said.

The aborted raid became politically controversial after a young American senator denounced the decision in August 2007 in an early foreign policy speech:

Let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

Senator Obama was then on the campaign trail, and facing formidable odds, running 23 points behind Hillary Clinton in the polls. His commitment to “getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan” didn’t go down well with the other candidates for the Democratic nomination, with Clinton chiding Obama for destabilising President Musharraf’s regime.

In 2008, Senator McCain repeatedly bashed Obama over the issue, using the speech to claim that America would be taking an unnacceptanle risk putting itself under “confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan.”

Asked by Larry King whether he would go after bin Laden in Pakistan, McCain replied “I’m not going to go there and here’s why, because Pakistan is a sovereign nation.”

Obama is surely feeling vindicated on two counts today. First, the decision to pursue intelligence that bin Laden was indeed in Pakistan and, second, in not allowing the original plan to mushroom into something too unwieldy as it did in 2005.

Of course, if – say – one helicopter crash had turned into two and the mission had failed, we’d all be busy reaching exactly the opposite conclusion.

Russian bear hugs the West tighter?

Two years ago, Georgian forces shelled the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia hitting the base of Russian peacekeepers as well as civilian housing. Russia responded immediately with a massive ground and air assault and in five days inflicted a heavy defeat on its tiny neighbour, occupying a band of Georgian territory into the bargain.

The conflict had several immediate results.

Already fraught relations between Moscow and Tbilisi plunged to new depths and diplomatic relations were severed.

Russia and three other countries recognised the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

And relations between Russia and the West – the US and the EU – deteriorated to their worst level since the collapse of the USSR – there was even talk of a new Cold War from western politicians.

The Cold War analogies led some commentators to argue Russian foreign policy had taken a decisive anti-western turn and things could and/or should never be the same again

Two years later, the one thing that seems unlikely to ever be the same again is the shape and size of Georgia. If recognition from Russia was not enough, the recent International Court of Justice opinion that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was not against international law, makes it even less probable Tibilsi could regain control of its lost regions. Continue reading