Friday, March 16, 2012

Kony 2012: African Civil War meets the Internet wristband brigade.

   African civil wars have always scored high on the atrocity scale.

   It turns out the Internet got wise to this last week by way of a slick YouTube video called Kony 2012 detailing the sick fuck exploits of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda in the 2000s. Supposedly, this vid was produced to "raise awareness" of the child soldier armies that have been running around Africa ever since some warlord realized 12 year olds can be just as useful with an AK as any adult. 

   The whole "raising awareness" business always makes me cringe. Most times it's an excuse for rich people and celebrities to throw $2000 a plate charity parties to highlight another hell hole African war zone while photographers snap pictures of which star is banging the latest supermodel. Sure, a cursory Google search would deliver all the awareness of African misery you could wave a wristband and gift bag at, but if there's one thing the kids in our sci fi dystopia respond to these days, it's some slick ass marketing campaign. Before I hate all over the Kony 2012 vid, let's first take a look at the depression inducing mess that is post colonial sub Saharan Africa; specifically Uganda.

    Uganda is one damn scary place even by African standards.

   After the British left with the embassy furniture in 1962, the usual struggle for power erupted amongst the natives in newly independent Uganda. This resulted in a series of military coups with a slew of shady guys in suits vying for control using election fraud, torture and sudden disappearances as the standard set of banana republic political tools. Still, it wasn't until Idi Amin seized power in 1971 that Uganda's body count started aiming for a respectable high score. Amin managed to do away with 300,000 people in his eight year rule. After eight years, he'd pissed off enough people to get himself invaded by Ugandan exiles with the help of neighboring Tanzania. Of course, victories over dictators in Africa are rarely reasons to celebrate and usually just the prelude to more screwed up shit further down the road.

    This was certainly the case for Uganda in the 1980's. The current leader, Yoweri Museveni, has been in charge since 1986. A guerrilla fighter who knows his way around an AK, he fought Amin and also led the National Resistance Army in Uganda's Bush War from '81-'86 which was a power struggle against another warlord, Milton Obote, who'd held power after Idi Amin got exiled on the usual retirement plan for African dictators; Saudi Arabia. Museveni fit a suit well, didn't look too shabby on TV and quickly abandoned his Marxist ideals to gain support in the West. This got him a thumbs up from the World Bank and IMF who advocated the usual series of structural reforms to the Ugandan economy which ensured Western business could continue getting cheap shit out of yet another independent post colonial African hell hole. Museveni is no stranger to human rights abuses either and, just like Joseph Kony, his National Resistance Army have used child soldiers, forcibly displaced thousands, burned villages and executed hundreds. Still, this is Africa we're talking about so no guy in a suit is going to have clean hands.

Museveni with fellow dictator Gaddafi

    So where does this Joseph Kony asshole fit into Ugandan history?

  If Museveni gets a free pass from the international media on the whole war crimes front it's only because he comes up a saint compared to Kony. Kony is the kind of crazy fuck so far off reservation that even a Serbian couldn't make a decent torture porn flick about him because the sick fuck is just too sick for celluloid. If you want to understand Kony you have to take into account his people, the Acholi, a Sudanese tribe of which just over a million live in Northern Uganda. Discriminated against for years by the more civilized and prosperous elites in the south, the Acholi were pretty much used as cheap laborers by the British when Uganda was their protectorate. However, they proved themselves decent fighters and, after independence, made up a sizeable portion of the Ugandan army. Hoping to get a better deal and some respect, an Acholi general grabbed power in a military coup in 1985 but his reign lasted only six months and was toppled by current president Museveni. This set up a simmering low grade civil war by the Acholi against Museveni's rule that lasts to this day.

   The Acholi are devout Christians, mainly Catholic and here is where we inject the crazy into an otherwise typical African power struggle. Once you bring religion into the equation, you know things are going to turn ugly fast. As soon as you infect your army with the mind virus that death is not real and that bullets, machetes and land mines don't kill you but send you to some paradise on the other side of existence, then you've pretty much got yourself an army of ruthless killers.

   Kony's outfit, the Lord's Resistance Army, grew out of the ideas of Kony's batshit insane cousin Alice Lakwena and her Holy Spirit Movement. In 1987, she proclaimed herself a prophet and convinced a size able portion of the down on their luck Acholi that they could defeat Museveni by worshipping Jesus more and covering their bodies in nut oil that would act like some kind of divine Kevlar and protect them from bullets. Her followers were also taught never to take cover and never to retreat from battle which are pretty fearsome tactics for any army right up until they encounter a well emplaced heavy machine gun nest.

   Still, emboldened by religious zeal, Lakwena's army scored some key victories and began to march south. Joseph Kony marched along with her duly noting the effective mixture of religion, AKs and bat shit insane. However, by 1988, the Holy Spirit Movement got their asses handed to them at the town of Jinja (when they ran up against actual heavy MGs), and Lakwena fled to Kenya. This pretty much left Kony in charge of a movement that morphed into the LRA. They laid low for a few years until the mid '90s when the LRA started receiving military support from the Sudanese who were pissed at Museveni's support for rebels in that country.

   As they grew in strength, the LRA under Kony started flexing their muscles on the atrocity front. One of these was their policy of recruiting child soldiers. There's a dirty logic at work here and that is that child soldier armies are pretty fucking scary and effective. Once you ditch the morality of the whole thing, Kony, like a lot of African warlords, realized that a twelve year old can shoot an AK just as well as an adult can. Throw in a blank slate mind too young to have a conscience, some heroin, sprinkle in a little intimidation, convince the kids gunshot wounds send you on the express train to heaven and pretty soon you've got yourself a ruthless clone army of juvenile pint sized killers.

   Under Kony's tutelage, the LRA became a massacre crew that cut a swathe through northern Uganda, killing and intimidating everyone, even the Acholi people themselves who came to be seen by Kony as decadent and not loving Jesus enough. In 2002, LRA members encountered a funeral procession of mourners carrying a dead guy. At gunpoint, they forced the mourners to boil and eat the dead guy and then shot them all for doing it. The LRA went from village to village in the 2000s, killing thousands and displacing many more. There are plenty of reports of cannibalism, medieval type torture and child rape.

   It's hunter gatherer war like they've been fighting for millenia where you sneak up on the neighboring village, take out the sentries and then let the rape and pillage commence. You steal all the shit you need, usually livestock, the odd diesel generator, a DVD player and maybe some Hannah Montana jerk off material. Then you disappear back into the jungle laughing at Amnesty International's rage. It's dirty war. And it doesn't fit the clean war paradigm of the West where the bad guys get cut to pieces by 20mm from a hovering Apache or a 2000lb GBU-24 cleanly obliterates some goat herder's shack and doesn't leave too many body parts for us to stress about.

   Yeah, us Westerners like our killing long range and with minimal gore. That's why you've got to step way outside your comfort zone when dealing with wars fought on the cheap in Africa. Their kind of war is up close and personal and involves the kind of whites-of-their-eyes gore fest that hasn't been seen on Western battlefields since Agincourt. Hate and religion run deep in the Ugandan jungle. For a child soldier in Africa, a blank slate young mind gets acclimatized to the horror fast because there aren't many places to get treated for PTSD in the bush outside a bottle of vodka or stab of heroin.

   The LRA has been hard to defeat too. Congo, Sudan and the Ugandan Army attempted  to crush them in 2008 but even their combined efforts were unsuccessful. One problem is the LRA's mobility and their ability to cross national borders into neighboring countries all of which are as corrupt and suspicious of their neighbors as Uganda itself. The LRA are liable to attack when they're outside Uganda too, most recently in 2009 when they hacked up 300 in the Democratic Republic of Congo with machetes. They made off with eighty children, the boys as fighters and the girls as sex slaves.

   And now Kony is an international celebrity.

   The Kony 2012 vid on YouTube has made 100+ million viewers aware of just how ugly war in post colonial Africa can be. But the scary part about this simplified exercise in "raising awareness" is the elevation of Kony to a global pariah, the embodiment of evil warranting a military solution. What's scary is to what extent do millions of people on Facebook hitting the "Like" button translate into actual foreign policy?

   Am I saying do nothing?


   I'm saying something even worse. I'm saying there's nothing you can do. That's a pretty radical mental adjustment to make but if you live on this planet long enough you get acclimatized to the fact that we humans on the whole are pretty shitty creatures. Once you accept this fact, things sure get a lot easier. Sure, mass media and consumerism have us locked in to this fake reality of happy breakfast kitchens selling us high fiber cereal so we can shit better, energy companies selling eco friendly offshore drilling rigs and hybrid cars that only need a little Mid East oil to function; and that's when you have to face the really ugly truth; all of our consumertopia is built on the rape and pillage of people and places at far corners of the world. Just what countries will do to secure their energy supplies most citizens prefer not to know. It's like pre packaged meat at the supermarket... nobody wants to know exactly how that turkey breast ended up neatly wrapped in plastic.

   Truth is, nobody wants the 'naked lunch' moment where they actually examine what's on the end of their fork. Sure Joseph Kony is a bad guy. But there are many more in Africa just like him. General Butt Naked in Liberia during their civil war ate babies before battle. Now he's a street preacher, runs a mission and he's ever so sorry about the whole thing. He's PTSD free because his god has forgiven him. That right there is one of the most dangerous ideas ever that someone should make a video about. The Christian idea that you can commit any atrocity imaginable and be forgiven for it. But there's no Kony 2012 video assailing that far scarier idea, an idea that's gotten far more mileage in past wars than the warped actions of a single man in Africa.

   Another dangerous idea of Kony 2012 is that the emotionally manipulated masses could actually succeed in having some military action conducted just so some sleazy politician can get re elected. Will simplistic explanations of long running wars become the future of foreign policy? Holy shit that's a scary idea! What'd be next, intervention in Syria and the declaration of a no fly zone because some well funded think tank runs a slick video on Assad's sleazy regime? If this Kony vid succeeds in getting Joseph Kony killed then that'll set a terrifying precedent. Crowd sourced intervention in foreign conflict launched by a bunch of ill informed YouTubers is the kind of thing that should make anyone with a passing interest in global conflict shit bricks.

   The 21st century already has a whole host of proxy resource wars lined up.

   Even Jesus would agree, we don't need any more.


Monday, February 20, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: No foreign intervention when you've got no oil?

    Things are about to get really ugly in Syria.

    Uprisings in the Middle East sure were ugly last year but if we're talking Syria, I prefer to use the term civil war. Especially after I watched video coming out of the Syrian city of Homs last week where a father was carrying his dead baby down the street and trying to push brain back into the infant's skull. That's when I knew it was time to turn off the TV and go have a shower or something. Shelling civilians in dense urban areas is pretty much as dirty as war gets these days outside of someone busting out a nuke. The Syrian Army have surrounded the city with heavy armor and are shelling the metropolitan area indiscriminately with the usual array of Soviet era artillery, rockets and air burst mortars. Homs is no minor town either like say, Dera'a, that small provincial southern outpost where this whole Syrian mass protest movement got started back in March last year. No, Homs is a major industrial center and Syria's third largest city with a population of 800,000. It's now considered the capital of the insurrection and mixed up with all those civilians are some elements of the Free Syrian Army (more on them later) holed up in scattered houses with a bunch of sniper rifles and RPGs.

    The fun question is whether NATO or the Russians or even the Arab League will get involved to stop the shooting? And the short answer is no. For lots of reasons, not all of which are predicated on the fact that, unlike say Libya, Syria has no oil so there's nothing obvious for anyone to grab. That doesn't mean that Syria doesn't figure in to our global proxy resource war future. It's geography is pretty critical in Middle East strategic terms and that makes it important enough that Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel and the US all have a stake in how this mess plays out. That, paradoxically, means it's probably too risky for any foreign player to allow a rival power to get directly involved. That's really bad news if you're a Syrian protester dodging artillery fire. This war has long drawn out stalemate written all over it.

    Dictators shelling their own cities is a pretty good indicator that they are not going to go away nicely with a Learjet full of cash to some beachfront condo in Saudi Arabia like Yemen's Salah or Tunisia's Abidine Ben Ali did last year. Syria's dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, is different. He is one of those other kinds of dictators like Kim-Jong-Il; which is to say he's the son of a more famous and hardcore dictator who ran the country for decades, died and passed on dad's pocket police state to their dip shit "Participation Award" winning son. By shelling Homs and massacring thousands, Assad Junior is trying to prove he can be just as ruthless as his asshole father who leveled the Syrian city of Hama back in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood tried an uprising against Alawite power. That resulted in a scorched earth policy by the Syrian Army and at least 20,000 deaths; most of them civilians. Right now, it looks like Bashar al-Assad is trying to beat his dad's high score.

    Who knew that some humble fruit seller who torched himself in a market square in Tunisia last year could kick start an Arab Spring and shake up the entire Middle East where the citizens of six Arab countries could trade-in their ruthless dictators and exchange them for a whole new variety of oppressive bastards? Especially considering the strategic and resource rich nature of the real estate those demonstrators happen to be living on. The problem for the West right now is that the entire power structure of the Middle East has changed in the last year and, especially when you consider Egypt, none of those changes are in the West's favor. Having dictators on pay roll was a nice deal and made Egypt a client state costing a mere $2 billion a year to buy off Mubarak who kept Suez running smoothly and promised not to mess with Israel. That's all gone now. Libya is a mess right now too but at least the oil is trickling out. You could view these protest movements, initially at least, as organic uprisings against repressive regimes but considering we're dealing with the Middle East here, selective foreign intervention from the West was inevitable.

    However, the Syrian rebels can expect no intervention from the West this time around. Sure, on the surface you might say that's because Syria has no significant oil worth declaring a no fly zone over. But the reason why there will be no NATO 'no fly zone' over Syria is more complex and plays into the wider global proxy resource wars that will characterize the 21st century. If we really want to know what's going on in Syria, we have to go all the way back to the Cold War. Sure, that's only two decades ago but that's practically ancient history in today's techno sci fi dystopia.

    Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union in 1956 after the Suez crisis when Egypt decided that they might actually own their own canal so the French, British and the Israelis invaded to tell them they didn't. They were all forced to withdraw however after the US and Russia got pissed at the strategic land grab by the former old world powers and decided to remind those old farts who the new and real superpowers on the planet were. Syria, under martial law at the time and terrified of an Israeli invasion, signed a pact with the Soviet Union. This was a nice deal for both parties. The commies got a foothold in the Levant, a base on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean and the Syrians got some cool new Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery. Thing is, Syria, like a lot of Arab states is strongman country which means right up until 1970, every guy with an AK tried a power grab and successive mini coups meant the Syrian government kept changing every year.

    It was in this environment that Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 and organized Syria into a lock down security state mainly to make sure no more strongmen could come along to challenge his rule. Syria today has 57 different varieties of internal security forces making them the Heinz ketchup of desert police states. Like I mentioned earlier, the only serious challenge to his rule was from a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood who considered Assad and the Alawite sect he came from heretical to Islam. Assad surrounded the city of Hama and massacred everyone, to this day considered "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".

    Hafez al Assad died in 2000 after 30 years of strongman rule and the Syrian 'parliament' quickly rewrote the rule book so his 34 year old son could take over (previously you had to be 40 to become el presidente). Junior pulled one of those Saddam Hussein type Baath Party elections where no one runs against you and you amazingly wind up with 97.89% of the vote and call it unanimous victory. Which is democracy by desert standards I suppose. With a new guy in charge, a lot of Syrians were hoping for reform and an end to the "state of emergency" that had been in place since 1963. A bunch of small movements and political forums got started in private homes floating the idea of democratic elections. Bashar al-Assad thought about it for about a minute and then decided against it and instead went ahead with locking up everybody who dared voice a contrary opinion; a new desert strongman had arrived.

    Then came the Arab Spring last year and suddenly throwing out asshole dictators became fashionable in the Middle East. The protests started out as teenage graffiti on a wall in the southern farm town of Dera'a and as usual, just like Mubarak and Gaddafi in Egypt and Libya, the dictator gene kicked in and Assad sent in the army. That resulted in dead people which instead of serving as a warning like it might have done 20 years ago, this time it pissed off people right across the political and economic spectrum. The protests grew in size and quickly spread to other cities.

    And right now this fight is entering civil war territory which means it will get even more ugly. We're talking here Lebanon Civil War style ugly. All the ingredients are there especially when you consider the hodge podge ethnic make up of the country. Though 74% Sunni Arab, there a whole bunch of Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians and Turks who could settle old scores if the traditional power structure falls apart. Even then, they'll probably be left to their own devices and no referee will come and break it all up. There are too many conflicting foreign parties involved for any of them to allow the other to scoop up the prize that is Damascus; the heart of pan Arab prestige and the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.

    Let's take a look at the complex web of foreign players with a stake in this mess.


    The Russians have a naval base in Syria. A pretty important foreign base for them on the Mediterranean. With ties going back to the Cold War, Russia cannot allow their old ally to fall into the hands of the Western oligarchy. Down and out since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is a wounded superpower with designs on regaining her stature. Watching the US run riot across the planet for the last two decades, gobbling up desert real estate wholesale sure has pissed them off. But there is a silver lining. Russia has all that resource rich land mass and with oil only going to increase in price, they're well positioned for the proxy resource war future.

    It sure made me laugh when the Russians vetoed the Syrian resolution at the UN a couple of weeks back. The US media were so shocked while leaving out the fact that the US has vetoed every UN resolution aimed at Israel for the past thirty years. Protecting your client states via UN votes is par for the course in proxy warfare. What's really happening here is that we are entering Cold War Part II. As Russia's oil and gas reserves become more and more valuable, strategic containment of the West is key. Syria and Georgia are just the opening salvos.


    Iran is a growing regional power and the West seeks to contain it. With Syria being it's main ally, destabilization in Syria is in the West's interest. A main conduit of Iranian arms to Shia proxy armies (Hizbollah, al-Qassam) in Southern Lebanon, Syria is the gateway for arms shipments to these groups. For this reason, Iran would like to keep Syria open for business and the current regime in power.


    Along with Russia, they used their UN Security Council vote just to hamper the West's designs on the Middle East oilfields. In many ways, they did it for the lulz.


     Obviously, Israel would like Syria destabilized but this is a risky game even for them. When Mubarak fell in Egypt, they lost a compliant dictator on their southern border. It remains to be seen if a new regime in Damascus would be compliant enough to settle the Golan Heights dispute. Strangely, you can throw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Sunni Arab US allies in the region in with Israel as they all fear the growing power of Iran. A weakened Syria plays to this interest.

    The U.S.

    The US would like to see Assad fall because it would push Russia out of the Levant and make it easy to consolidate all their gains in the Mesopotamian oil fields. Syria as a compliant democracy would be vastly weakened insofar as its ability to resist Western encroachment. It would also have the side benefits of knocking out an Iranian ally and cutting arms shipments to Hizbollah in Southern Lebanon.  All in all, a win win on the global chess board. Sure, the country might be left a mess and fall into faction on faction religious warfare but even that kind of chaos is preferable to a hardcore dictator who hates your guts and refuses to play ball. With Syria gone, the only domino left to fall will be Iran for total control of Middle East energy.

    So how does all this play out?

    Most likely it will come down to the Syrians themselves. It is certainly true that foreign special forces have been running around inside Syria, fomenting this along. It is also true that Assad's regime has received weapons shipments from Russia and Chinese 'moral support. Ultimately though, this whole war comes down to whether or not the Syrians can do this for themselves. And as usual, when the shooting starts (as it has) you can brush away that quaint idea that nonviolent protest ever changed any power structure in human history. No need to quote me Gandhi or MLK either. Those peaceful movements only worked because there were far more violent guys waiting in the wings if the peace and love fest didn't work out. So apart from suicidal protesters getting gunned down by the Syrian army, does this protest movement have a little more bite?

The Free Syrian Army and their wide variety of small arms.

    It does and it's called the Free Syrian Army. This army is composed mainly of defecting Syrian Army troops and is under the command of a Syrian air force colonel, Riad Mousa al-Asaad. They claim to be 40,000 strong but this figure is most likely inflated and more realistically in the 15,000 range. Composed mainly of conscript soldiers who either didn't show up for duty or refused to shoot at protesters (risky considering Bashar al-Assad is executing men who fail to pull the trigger on unarmed civilians), they are lightly armed with AKs and RPGs. Most of their operations have been interdiction strikes on Syrian Army supply trucks, hit and run stuff which is the best you can do when you've got no air support or heavy weapons. Only time will tell if the defections continue or if the Syrian Army itself, at least the hardcore element, sees Assad as the lesser of two evils; the other evil being total chaos like in Egypt after Mubarak fell.

   Either way, The Syrian Civil War stays ugly for some time and how it plays out will tell us a lot about the future of the Middle East. And the world.