The Nightly News Without Brian Williams

Hello All,

This blog is all about world politics and foreign policy. I am a student in Washington D.C., and I'm hoping this forum becomes a good place to discuss the big issues that are facing our world today. I'm not pretending to be an expert, just looking to learn more and help others do the same.

Thanks,
Elias

Another Military Coup in Thailand

Just days after declaring martial law, the Thai Military has seized complete control of the country in a bid to end months of debilitating political paralysis and street protest. In a televised address the head of the Army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, stated that the coup was necessary “in order to bring the situation back to normal quickly” and to “reform the political structure, the economy and the society.” 

Thailand has been marred by six months of public protests, both by anti-government and pro-government forces, resulting in violence and economic stagnation. Pro-government protesters, known as the “red-shirts” support the powerful Shinawatra family whose populist political platform have allowed them win every election since 2001. On the other side are the “yellow-shirts”, royalist supporters who oppose the dynastic rule of the Shinawatras, and believe that their domination of government institutions eliminate the possibility of free and fair elections. 

Thailand is no stranger to domestic military intervention. Over the past 80 years the military has conducted 12 successful coups, most recently in 2006. It remains unclear how the army plans to manage rising social tension and the extreme polarization of its political system. 

The kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls has captured the attention of the entire world, catalyzing a global sense of outrage that has fueled an international campaign for their safe return. Noble as the public outcry over the crime may be, the media’s narrow focus on Boko Haram as a terrorist organization obfuscates some important elements of Nigeria’s socio-economic reality and history that contextualizes the existence of groups like Boko Haram in a nation that has risen so rapidly to a position of global prominence.

Nigeria is not only a rising regional power, but also a state that, over time, will have/has developed the capacity to compete with the G7 for economic strength. Recent updates to the measurements of the nation’s GDP indicate that Nigeria is, and has been for quite some time, the largest single economy in all of Africa. Unfortunately, this impressive evolution in development has not befallen the entirety of the Nigerian state. Since British Colonial rule, the necessary resources for development have been divided unequally along ethnic, religious, and geographic lines.

During the time of British dominion in Nigeria, governance was delivered through local leaders, and the level of development resources afforded to those leaders depended on their malleability to British interests. The British found the predominately Muslim North, who maintained an existing Islamic based social structure and system of rule, were far more opposed to the imposition of foreign institutions than their more diffuse southern counterparts. As a result, by 1950 there was only one university in the north, while a system of bureaucracy and education grew and took root in the South. Despite being home to nearly 54 percent of the population, the North produced less than 10 percent of the country’s primary school enrollments and 5 percent of secondary school graduates. Unsurprisingly, southerners dominated the government and other important sectors/public spheres. By the time Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the Western oriented, Christian south had an established institutional power base.

The ramifications of this legacy plagues Nigeria to this day. Despite the tremendous advances in Nigeria’s development, the economic situation in the northeast is appalling and getting worse. In all indices of immiseration, the North is considerably behind its southern counterparts– in health, employment, literacy, and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps not without warrant, the people of the North feel a profound sense of marginalization and that the predominately Southern government in Abuja does not care about their wellbeing. Socio-economic environments that combine public dissatisfaction, marginalized ethnic and religious groups, poverty, poor public health, lack of education, and an absence of state authority become obvious breeding grounds for militancy. Since 2009, Boko Haram has used the North as a home base, a staging area, and recruitment center for an ever-expanding war against the State.

The government’s response to the Boko Haram insurgency has done little to reassure the people of the North of their government’s consideration. The government has pursued a narrow military-based policy, instituting a state of emergency in parts of the North and committing to a scorched earth campaign that many in the region view as equally as violent and indiscriminate as that of Boko Haram’s. In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch Report documented a military raid in which soldiers set fire to thousands of homes, leaving hundreds of innocent civilians dead. Whether the operation was meant to target Boko Haram members or punish the civilian population for their possible support for the group is unclear. Regardless, military actions that result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians are unacceptable.

Indeed, the level of support enjoyed by Boko Haram is a question that should merit some debate. Most of the information from the North is transmitted via the Military to its commanders in Abuja. There are few foreign correspondents there and limited access to phones and other communication tools, much less the Internet. The validity of the government’s claims that Boko Haram enjoys no popular support seems dubious. At the very least, while the people of the North may view Boko Haram with anger and disgust, this does not consequently translate into support for the central government.

 Unsurprisingly, the Nigerian government’s military campaign has done little to quell the violence. On the contrary, the scale of Boko Haram’s operations has only grown over the past five years. In its early days, the group’s attacks focused on assassination of magistrates or attacks on security installations. Since then, Boko Haram’s operations have expanded to include civilian targets. In fact, despite the media’s emphasis on the kidnapped schoolgirls, it may well be one of the least barbaric of the group’s recent acts. In February, Boko Haram slaughtered 40-60 young students and teachers in Yobe State, and just weeks after kidnapping the 300 girls from their school, Boko Haram gunmen ran rampant in a public market in the North East, killing dozens of residents.

 The truth is that a military-only solution, especially from a military whose overall professionalism is profoundly lacking, will not solve the problem of Nigerian terrorism. Without a serious investment in infrastructure and development in the North, Boko Haram is likely to continue to have the geographical impunity needed to plan and execute operations like the one that ended with the capture of nearly 300 schoolgirls. The government needs a broader policy that corrects for the massive social inequalities in the North, particularly in education, health care and employment – “a Marshall plan for northern Nigeria,” as former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, put it. Without demonstrating a desire to include the North in the future development of the nation as a whole, the challenges Nigeria faces today will continue to act as an anchor on the potential ascent of this supposed rising power.

So Its Been a While…

To my brave 59 followers who, for whatever reason, have decided to continue to follow me despite a 3 year absence, I am happy to say that I am returning to the blogosphere. 

Over the past several years a combination of academic and professional commitments have, unfortunately, nudged extracurriculars to the periphery of my attention. Nevertheless, my passion for discussing important aspects of international affairs has not waned, nor has my joy in sharing those stories with others. So here we are. And none to soon, as events in world affairs continue to develop at a dizzying pace. 

So to start here are some photos, courtesy of boston.com’s The Big Picture, capturing moments that represent some of the important stories of the past year. 

The last two weeks have proven truly decisive in the Libyan civil war. It seems that, after 6 months of hard fighting, the Libyan revolutionaries can claim victory. Though Qaddafi himself has not been found, and pockets of Loyalist resistance remain, it is clear that the Libyan rebels have essentially toppled the Qaddafi regime.

Throughout the campaign doubts as to the military capacity of the rebel forces shrouded the entire movement with a sense of pessimism. True, after the initial air assault led by the United States, rebel forces suffered a host of military and strategic failures, often proving themselves incapable of holding captured territory. However, the sheer magnitude of their task is difficult to overstate. The rebels were not some guerilla group or insurgency – they were civilians, totally new to the battlefield. Before the war they were teachers, doctors, artists, craftsman, engineers that somehow managed to unify into a fighting force competent enough to fight the organized, well trained and well equipped Qaddafi military. With little preparation and few weapons the rebels have ousted Col. Qaddafi and are now facing the prospects of rebuilding Libya.

Despite amateur nature of the rebel military, the battle for Tripoli demonstrated astounding coordination, swiftness, and tactical prowess. The planning for the assault on Tripoli was carefully drawn out, and executed with shocking precision. In addition to the weapons and fuel supplied by the French British and Qatari intelligence organizations, around 100 rebels were sent to Qatar to receive special training specifically for the operation. Having cut off supply lines to Tripoli over the preceding weeks, the rebels activated sleeper cells within the Libyan capital who they had been supplying with weapons and ammunition for months, to begin their attack. In coordination with the insurgency inside Tripoli, rebel forces advanced from all sides, even by boat, arranging a flotilla from the town of Misurata in an operation the rebels called Mermaid Dawn. When the fighting inside the city became especially intense, the Qatari trained rebels were sent in as decisive reinforcements. From the west, intensified NATO airstrikes paved the way to Tripoli and successfully thwarted an attempted Loyalist counteroffensive against Zawiyah. Once in the city, the rebel offensive moved at a breakneck pace through the capital. Finally, on August 23rd the rebels managed to take Qaddafi’s command compound – effectively capturing the Libyan capital.  

Still, elements of Qaddafi’s Loyalist militias remain, evidenced by the continued fighting in Tripoli, where reports of gunfire throughout the city center suggest that, militarily, there is still work to be done. But perhaps the most daunting task facing the Libyan people is the prospects of a Libya without Qaddafi. Though they have achieved a military victory, strategically managing to unite all of Libya under a single banner may prove their most grim challenge. Libya is a patchwork of diverse tribal/ethnic loyalties, and without Qaddafi as the unifying enemy, there are fears that Libya could slip into a protracted civil war. But for the moment, the rebels may breathe a brief sigh of relief and accomplishment – for now, Libya is theirs to build or destroy.

Battle for Tripoli

A spokesperson for the National Transitional Council in Benghazi Libya has reported that Libyan rebels have captured Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi in Tripoli as their troops break through Loyalist defenses. Seif Qaddafi is Col Qaddafi’s son and 2nd in command as well as the leader of the 32nd brigade - the Libyan special forces.

Rebels claim to have captured huge tracks of Tripoli, Qaddafi’s last stronghold, as rebel flags begin to dot the skyline. NATO has continued to provide essential close air support, clearing the way for the rebel advance and thwarting an attempted Loyalist counteroffensive to retake Zawiyah. It seems that the rebels may be inches from claiming victory.

Battle for Tripoli

Rebel forces have begun fighting on the fringes of the Libyan capital, where they have managed to capture the khamis brigade compound - the headquarters for the 32nd brigade, the special forces unit controlled by Qaddafi’s son and thought to be the best trained and equipped troops in Libya.

Fighting gas continues throughout Sunday, as rebels advance deeper into the city where loyalists are using heavy machine-guns and mortars to fend of the attackers. Qaddafi made a second radio broadcast where he called on the people of tripoli to arm themselves and fight. Massive street demonstrations have also been reported

Qaddafi’s Ouster Seems Imminent

Reports of heavy fighting in outlying Tripoli neighborhoods suggests that rebellious factions within the Libyan capital are beginning to revolt in coordination with the rebels of the East and West. In recent days rebel forces have effectively cut off and surrounded Tripoli, capturing the towns of Zawiyah, Ziltan and possibly Brega. In addition, another high ranking Qaddafi government official has defected, binging to total to three in the last week.

Still, Qaddafi has amassed his forces around the city center where they are well dug in, and maintains control of Sirte - a loyalist city to the south that remains a bastion of Qaddafi support.  In the past rebels have proven incapable of holding captured territory to forceful counteroffensives. Yet, with a significantly intensified NATO bombing campaign, it seems unlikely that Qaddafi could mass the needed forces for an effective counteroffensive without becoming incredibly vulnerable to NATO air support. 

Rebel commanders in the East and in Tunisia say they are preparing to enter the city where they are working with local forces to soften Qaddafi’s frontlines, but reports also indicate that Qaddafi’s forces are taking up sniper positions and blocking off roads in preparation for a fight. Though the outcomes still remain uncertain, it seems that a battle for the Libyan capital is imminent. 

From Boston.com’s The BIg Picture Series. The United States is tentatively beginning the process of withdrawing a number of its combat troops form Afghanistan - a pledge that was made by President Obama in an address to the nation saying he would remove 33,000 troops by the end of 2012. However, a recent surge in violence seems to undermine the feasibility of such a draw-down - in recent weeks the Taliban have managed to take hostage the intercontinental hotel in Kabul, detonate a host of IEDs in and around the capital, shoot down a U.S. helicopter killing more than  20 Navy SEALs, and most recently taken over a British Council in Kabul. 

Yet, NATO military commanders point out that, though there has been a recent surge in bloodshed, it is still a far cry from the massive violence of 2008, 2009 and even 2010. This may, in part, be due to the fact that the Taliban have resorted to attacking civilian targets. 

(Source: Boston.com)

From the New York Times Battle for Libya series. In recent days, Libyan rebel forces have made substantial tactical progress in both the Eastern and Western fronts. Rebels in the West appear to have taken complete control of the strategically crucial city of Zawiyah, cutting off Col Qaddafi’s most vital supply line, essentially isolating Tripoli. 

In the East, Rebels are facing fierce fighting in the vital oil city of Brega. Recent reports indicate that rebels now control two of the three main residential districts, though they have yet to penetrate into the city center. Still, Col Qaddafi’s surely understands the importance of the city, and has the area heavily fortified and his forces dug in. 

These victories are important not just for their tactical significance but also for the moral boost they offer the rebel movement who have suffered a string of recent strategic and psychological setbacks, including the assassination of their premier military commander and internal tribal confrontations. In recent weeks many questioned the sustainability of the rebel movement, especially the National Transitional Council’s ability to control and mediate internal tribal divisons that threaten the movements unity. These recent victories may partially alleviate some of those fears. 

(Source: The New York Times)

Libyan Rebels Advance

Amidst recent speculative claims that the assassination of the rebel commander General Abdle Fattah Younis signaled a breakdown of the rebel structural unity into tribal factionalism, the Rebels have made a strong advance into the key city of Zawiyah, potentially cutting off the strategic supply route for Col Qaddafi’s forces in Tripoli. The offensive is an important tactical maneuver into this crucial city, coordinated in conjucntion with rebellious elements within Zawiyah and baked by NATO airstrikes. 

If the offensive can be sustained and the town itself held, it would be a huge defeat for the Qaddafi regime, who rely on the town as supply route to Tunisia - especially vital as the NATO naval bockade and Eastern rebel forces have eliminated other supply lines. Without it Qaddafi’s military, already facing food, fuel, and weapons shortages, could begin to feel even more pressure. Indeed, the advance would put the rebels in the West within 20 miles of Tripoli, and likely undermine Qaddafi’s war efforts in the Eastern oil city of Brega.  

What’s more, a victory here would be a much needed moral boost for the rebel forces, who have begun to show signs of strain from the 6 month long stalemate. It also speaks to the resilience of the rebel forces, who have undertaken the offensive without central organizational leadership, relying on their local commanders for direction and coordination. However, reports indicate that elements of Qaddafi’s military still remain in Zawiyah, including snipers who have taken up positions across the city’s highest buildings.  

From Boston.com’s the Big Picture Series. A young Somali refugee with his terminally ill mother at the Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenyan border. 

From Boston.com’s the Big Picture Series. A young Somali refugee with his terminally ill mother at the Dadaab refugee camp near the Kenyan border. 

As the war in Libya rages on, Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, declared that the government was fostering an alliance with radical Islamists elements within the rebel ranks. In an hour long television address, Mr. Qaddafi spewed out borderline delusional statements meant to show the world the great lengths the regime was willing to go to to remain in power. 

Mr. Qaddafi insinuated that he and his father would be willing to turn this war into one of bloody religious one, pitting more liberal secularist factions against “terrorist” groups the government has spent years eliminating. In fact, the comments represent a complete 180 for the regime, which for decades had styled itself as an anti-Islamist force that was keeping Libya from falling into the hands of extremists. 

However, Mr. Qaddafi’s claims were refuted to some extent by other members of the Qaddafi government and those individuals Mr. Qaddafi cited as his contacts within the rebel ranks. Instead, his statements indicate a certain level of desperation within Tripoli -  it seems the drawn out nature of the conflict has taken its toll on the Qaddafi government as well. 

(Source: The New York Times)

From a Times Photo Essay. Photographer Alvaro Ybarra Zavala spent several months embedded with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) or FARC, a marxist insurgent organization that has waged a guerilla war against the Colombian government for nearly half a century. Though their fight has cost thousands of lives, in recent years the organization has come under intense pressure from a strong Military offensive heavily supported by American intelligence/defense agencies. In June, the groups top commander, Guillermo Torres, was captured in Venezuela, yet another devastating blow to the struggling organization.

(Source: TIME)

One of the few Western correspondents to make it into the contested areas of Syria, Anthony Shadid and photographer Moises Saman captured aspects of the Syrian resistance in Hama, like makeshift barricades intended to block tanks and personel carriers from re-entering the city. However, the recent military offensive in to Hama, and more recently into Deir al-Zour, have demonstrated the heroic futility of civilian defiance in the face of tanks and APCs. 

One of the few Western correspondents to make it into the contested areas of Syria, Anthony Shadid and photographer Moises Saman captured aspects of the Syrian resistance in Hama, like makeshift barricades intended to block tanks and personel carriers from re-entering the city. However, the recent military offensive in to Hama, and more recently into Deir al-Zour, have demonstrated the heroic futility of civilian defiance in the face of tanks and APCs. 

This week, elements of the Al-Shabaab militant Islamic organization withdrew from the Somali capital, Mogadishu - the first time the city has been entirely free of the Islamist militia in years. 

Recently, Al-Shabaab has sustained a series of tactical and strategic setbacks that may have prompted the retreat, including the death of its leader in a recent gun battle, continued American drone strikes that have eliminated members of its top leadership, and the loss of military control of the Bakara Market. In general, the intensification of fighting over the past several weeks between the African Union Peacekeepers that back the Somali Transitional Federal government and Al-Shabaab have been costly for the militant organization, who are not as well trained or well equipped as their African Union counterparts.

Although the Somali President, Sharif Ahmend, has declared victory, Al-Shabaab’s leadership has said that the withdrawal is part of a larger strategic shift in their operations that will move the organization’s tactics from conventional warfare to the sort of “hit-and-run” techniques that are the trademark of organizations like the Taliban. 

The hope among Western Nations, and no doubt of the Somali people, is that in Al-Shabaab’s absence foreign aid organizations may be able to begin providing desperately needed assistance and supplies to the famine stricken nation. Al-Shabaab had outlawed foreign aid groups from operating in their areas of control, making addressing the massive starvation in Somalia frustratingly difficult.