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

Open borders: the great taboo

Matthew Yglesias in Slate has worked out some of what would happen if the United States opened up its borders:

According to Gallup there are 150 million people around the world who say they’d like to move permanently to the United States. Right now the United States has about 89 residents per square mile. Add another 150 million people and we’d be at around 135 people per square mile. How would that stack up in context? Well, France has 303 people per square mile and Germany has 593. Japan has 873. The Dutch have 1,287!

Of course, such a radical move would be anathema to most Americans (including most of those who themselves migrated to the country), but as Yglesias points out, ‘all those places have their share of problems (and so do we) but none of them are exactly post-apocalyptic hellscapes.’ Indeed, there may be large benefits to the US if it worked towards freeing up immigration:

The United States ran an open borders regime throughout the 19th century and we weren’t worse off for it. On the contrary, it laid the foundations for American greatness. Shifting back in that direction—with exceptions for dangerous criminals and other select problem types—over time seems perfectly feasible to me and would substantially increase overall human welfare.

We tend to value the welfare of our fellow countrymen more highly than that of those unlucky enough to be born in other countries (and particularly that of those born in poor countries), so open borders are likely to remain a taboo for now. For those interested in the sum of human wellbeing, though, it’s good to see such arguments getting an airing.

Kosovo re-assessed?

I’ve written on the BBC Editors site about whether the Kosovo intervention is being reassessed in the light of allegations against Prime Minister Thaci

Kosovo has been back on the front pages in recent weeks with lurid allegations against its Prime Minister and dominant politician, Hashim Thaci, accusing him of involvement in organised crime and even harvesting human organs for sale for profit.  Mr Thaci has denied the allegations. 

Mr Thaci has also been in the news as his party was accused of vote rigging in last month’s parliamentary elections which were the first organised by the Kosovo government. This week, the vote had to be rerun in some of Mr Thaci’s strongholds and a new government should be formed in the next few weeks. 

Why is this interesting to people who don’t follow affairs in south east Europe closely? Read More

US and EU: Others must fail

When I took part in a wash-up after Copenhagen with a group  of American policy makers, I was struck by the sense that, although the summit had been tough for the United States, they took great consolation that the Europeans had had a much worse time of it during the climate talks.

It all made me think of a quip attributed to Gore Vidal: “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Today, Richard posts the following digest of Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the UK’s new Foreign Secretary, William Hague (a man she is yet to grow as fond of as she was of his predecessor):

If you want to boil all this down to essentials, I’d suggest the following: (i) Mrs Clinton effectively said, “you’d better show discipline when it comes to the EU”; and (ii) Mr Hague basically said “OK”.

I’d parse the ‘better show discipline’ line in two ways. First, the US wants the UK to play an active role in Europe. Second, it needs the Europeans to respond with one voice to a growing roster of global problems.

Fine.

But to take this beyond complacent lecturing (“we may have a lamentable recent foreign policy record, but at least we’re not as shambolic as those awful old worlders”), the Obama administration needs to do what it can to create an incentive for European cooperation.

When it (i) starts listening to Europeans when they have caucused and arrived at a joint position; (ii) continues to listen, even if it doesn’t agree 100% with the European position; and (iii) foregoes the temptation to divide and conquer by playing favourites among European nations for short term tactical advantage – then, and only then, will I believe that the US is serious once again about the transatlantic relationship.

If Obama’s team wants a ‘disciplined Europe’, good. But it should back this up with its actions. Reward Europe with access when it’s united (as it was, more or less, on climate incidentally). Sideline it when it’s divided. And see the extent to which that makes Europeans pull together in the face of transnational challenges…

The Long Financial Crisis (updated)

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It’s commonplace to describe the financial crisis as a once-in-a-century event, but I question whether that is the case. Perhaps we’re not in the midst of a short-lived financial shock, but a long crisis that stretches back into the 1990s.

Here’s Paul Blustein on Alan Greenspan:

The Fed chief told the G-7 that in almost fifty years of watching the U.S. economy, he had never witnessed anything like the drying up of markets in the previous days and weeks.

Greenspan wasn’t speaking in Autumn 2008 when Lehman’s collapsed, however, but ten years’ earlier in the wake of the spectacular blow-up of Long-Term Capital Management, which lost $4.5 billion almost overnight in what the fund’s principals post-rationalised as a 100-year flood.

Long-Term (with its superbly hubristic name) was brought low by derivatives, just as Lehman’s would be a decade later.

(Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, was one of those left picking up the pieces – part of ‘the committee to save the world’, with Greenspan and Larry Summers. Rubin went on to preside over Citigroup as it needed a succession of massively expensive bailouts, when its derivatives tanked in the subprime crisis.)

Committee to Save the World

The proximate cause of Long-Term’s failure was Russia’s Rouble crisis, when the country defaulted on its debt after the IMF refused to mount a second bailout.

The Russian crisis itself came in the midst of a long series of dramatic economic failures that hits the world between 1997 and 1999, mostly in East Asia (Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia etc), but which also battered Brazil and would devastate Argentina in 2002. Blustein again:

Time and again, panics in financial markets proved impervious to the ministrations of the people responsible for global economic policymaking.

IMF bailouts fell flat in one crisis-stricken country after another, with the announcements of enormous international loan packages followed by crashes in currencies and sever economic setbacks that the rescues were supposed to avert.

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