Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mali: The French go to the desert.

   It's always time to break out the popcorn when the French go to war.

  The French intervention in Mali, Operation Serval, isn't exactly a shocker since the French can be pretty touchy when it comes to what goes down in their former colonies. True, the French can be pretty touchy about just about everything but foreign deserts they used to own get them extra twitchy. Especially since their former Saharan colony in Mali is engaged in one of those shitty Islamic civil wars where the bad guys are threatening the official French friendly government. It's one of those typical post colonial African wars we've been seeing a lot of lately. As usual, the bad guys want to turn the country into some shitty Sharia theocracy  and re enact that monkey bar training video Western media roll out every time they want to remind you how easily you could die on the bus to work if the designated scary people get their hands on some ungoverned desert real estate.

   The new French President, Francois Hollande, decided to intervene militarily which is seen as a ballsy move for a liberal and buys him street cred with a French population feeling decidedly small on a world that has become decidedly large since the heady days of Napoleon's 'whiff of grapeshot'. Sure, the French bombed Gadaffi with British and American help but Mali is their baby and a war they can  win all by themselves. Yes, Obama will probably throw some drones into the mix to help things along but the French winning a war will be a self esteem boost and help with the new American strategy of letting their allies clean up their own messes for a change.

   In truth, Afghanistan has taught the US the lessons of imperial over reach and how protracted campaigns, even against goat herders, have a tendency to bankrupt your treasury. So it's time to put on the training wheels and see if the French can deal with the crazies in the desert all by themselves. There are good reasons the French are touchy about Mali. The one thing about civil wars in Africa is that they have this nasty habit of spreading into neighboring countries due to the arbitrary lines the Euros drew on Africa when they were chopping it up for fun and profit. One neighboring country is Niger, and that's currently number one on the French list of favorite former colonies.


  Because Niger is France's main supplier of uranium, that pesky yellow cake the Bush Administration lied about when they needed access to Iraq's oilfields. Uranium is basically what keeps the lights on in France and nuke reactors provide 75% of Gallic electricity generation; electricity they also export to neighboring countries for serious bank. Any disruption in supply and the French get further exposed to the big fear of every developed economy in the 21st Century; buying energy on world markets that are sure to get increasingly pricey as we strip mine the planet frantically in search of more juice.

   Right now, the French have retaken all the key objectives in northern Mali but that's the easy part. Warfare these days is boring as hell because the results are so predictable. How can a bunch of guys in pick up trucks with AKs possibly go up against Mirage jets, attack choppers and trained troops? They'll just run away even if it means postponing the rendezvous with the 72 virgins in the after life. The ability of these people to hold ground is non existent and with all that empty space out there, it's just as easy to run away for a while and see how much money the "invaders" want to burn holding on to their newly acquired desert. The current plan includes a UN and African force (ECOWAS) coming in after the French scatter the bad guys so everyone can share the price tag.

   One of the main rebel groupings fall under the banner of the Ansar Dine. They're just another bunch of wannabe al-Qaeda's who drive around in Toyota pick up trucks sporting slightly rusty Warsaw Pact surplus small arms (RPGs, DShK 12.7mm and the usual plethora of AK variants) and want to impose strict Sharia law on every poor fuck with a camel. This means chopping off kids hands for stealing an apple, stoning women who flash their ankle and getting rich off unsecured mineral wealth if given a chance. If you're a poor guy in Africa who can handle himself in a scrap it's not a bad career choice considering the alternatives are tending goats, tending camels or hitting up Bono for a handout.

   By far my favorite outfit in the Mali desert are the Tuareg warriors.

    They are pretty badass fighters. They're one of those old nomadic Saharan tribes who never had much use for civilization and preferred wandering the desert and discovering cool new interesting stuff like water. Then, when African nations gained independence from the colonials in the 1960s, the Tuareg found their open ranges suddenly chopped up into nation states; nation states that didn't fancy free peoples wandering across their bit of desert. The Tuareg are indigenous to Mali, Niger, bits of Algeria, Burkina Faso and even African behemoth Nigeria. They fought the French with swords v machine guns in the early 1900s and that didn't work out well so the Tuaregs were forced into treaties that chopped up their roaming grounds. Most recently, Gaddafi hired them as mercenaries (or private contractors if you prefer contemporary nomenclature) for $1000 per day which approaches Blackwater or Halliburton payscales. One side effect of their involvement in Libya was that they got to loot Gaddafi's armories when the smoke cleared and sailed through Niger and Algeria's porous borders to Northern Mali in 4x4s flush with some nice Warsaw Pact weaponry. They've been selling this to the Islamic sky god believers and making some nice bank on the spoils of Gaddafi's defeat.

   All this desert warfare got me thinking of the state of the planet in the 21st Century. It's falling rapidly into three distinct camps. 
  1. The technologically advanced but mature economies of the West lumbered with debt.
  2. The rapidly developing Asian economies armed with cheap labor craving a bigger piece of the pie.
  3. The backward theocracies in the Middle East and Africa who just happen to be sitting on the energy reserves the other two need.    

  Number one is the old school West; modern, advanced tech nations that have grown fat since the industrial revolution delivered the wonders of the light bulb, the flushing toilet and the laptop. They conquered everywhere and have been sitting pretty since the 19th century. True, they raped the earth to do this but there are side benefits like free education, pensions and welfare states. Trouble is, all this stuff costs money and that's getting increasingly hard to generate on a planet getting smaller by the second. There just isn't much real estate left to exploit to fund the relatively easy lives of the population back home.

  The Asian economies, on the other hand, are working with hive like determination to get back into the game. With huge populations that'll work for cheap, the West thought it'd be a good idea to outsource manufacturing so everyone could have a cheap car and a flat screen. It was basically a way of lowering prices for stressed consumers in the West, a sort of cultural welfare program that worked out well in the 1990s and 2000s but now, the beanstalk has grown huge into a proverbial behemoth and China may become the dominant power on the planet by 2030. 

   The third grouping is all that mineral and energy wealth of the Middle East and Africa. The problem is that people happen to live on top of it. Angry people. One of the side benefits of dirt cheap manufacturing is that technology has become so cheap, even poor people can afford it. That means every mud hut in North Africa and the Middle East has a satellite dish where they get to see the fruits of the modern consumer dystopia beamed into their living space. It's a bit of a culture shock for feudal medieval desert dwellers with strict laws on what you can eat and fuck. They get to see what their lands have been raped for and what they're missing out on. This causes some kind of critical self examination where they get to see the emptiness of living under Imams where they have to obey laws written by some Dark Age goat herder who said women have to dress in black tents, nobody can have sex just for the fun of it and you're not allowed to drink either, even if to wash the pain.

   How do you wash away the pain of hundreds of years of oppression and strict theocracy?

   Blow shit up.

   Blowing up the rich assholes in the West with all their fancy tech goods is a fallback remedy when your god says you can't get some love from the woman dressed in a tent living in a tent in the village down the way. The Amenas gas complex hostage crisis in Algeria is just the latest example of this. The 'Islamic extremists' in the desert are liable to strike easy but strategic energy hubs because these are the things the rich fucks in the West need from their desert; things they don't really need since they're never gonna see the profits anyway. Those profits go to the local strongman who rules the country with an iron fist and Western weaponry. Oil and gas fund those Western lifestyles they see on TV, selling stupid shit desert dwellers never even knew they wanted. The answer is Jihad. Jihad in the name of an exploited history. Jihad because my god is better than your god. Jihad because I'm stuck in a desert fapping to reruns of Baywatch on my cheap Chinese made TV.

   You know what the worst thing about these three distinct global camps is?

   None of them are the "good guys".

   That's the thing about the 21st Century.

  Everybody gets to be an asshole.

  It's not like the previous century when the fascist bad guys were so obviously bad and easy to define. These days war is entertainment. The major powers get to fight in foreign places far from their doorsteps and we watch because the explosions make for good TV. But what happens when the desert dust ups draw a major clash and switch from proxy warfare to direct conflict between major powers?  Right now the world is a Real Time Strategy game with three distinct races. The tech advanced West with expensive units but soft populations, the economic East with millions of infantry and hard, hive mind populations and then the fanatical "terrorists" in the desert with asymmetric tactics and vast energy reserves.

   I'd play that RTS game.

   If it were a game.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Syria: Will Assad go full chemical?

   The Syrian Civil War just made headlines.


   Because, according to Western media, Bashar al-Assad's regime is so desperate that it's threatening to bust out the chemical weaponry and watch the world burn. Death by chemicals is the kind of warfare that makes comfy consumer populations in the US, Europe and even in Russia and China squirm. Chemicals are destabilizing due to the simple horror aspect of their use. Nobody anywhere wants to die WWI trench style. Sure, the trenches of the Great War are far away in the popular imagination but mustard gas, that persistent, skin lesioning horror chemical remains in the collective memory of anybody who ever picked up a history book. Chemical weapon usage is a sure sign that the Assad regime in Syria  is about to die without an exit strategy.  When you load the bombers with chemical weapons you know you've gone full Tony Montana on the whole situation.

   "Say hello to my little Sarin gas!"

   Suddenly, the world is watching the war in Syria and every major power has a stake in the game.

  Up to now, Russia and China have been blocking UN Security Council votes on intervention because all the major powers see Syria as a valuable pawn in the global energy chess game. The Middle East is ground zero and Damascus is the historic and spiritual gateway to the soul of Arabia.

   Chemical Warfare is the kind of warfare that makes general populations shudder.

   Sure, you could argue the case that it makes no difference how you die in a war. Death via explosives or via bullets or via sarin or mustard gas is all the same, right? You still end up dead so what's all the fuss about?

   Actually, no.

   Death by gas is cheating in the popular imagination. And there is wisdom in this.

   War can be fair. It is possible to kill people opposed to you via exploded metal projectiles aimed down a tight cylinder. You can also kill people via a 2000lb GBU laser guided bomb that turns your target's whole body into red meat spray. But killing by chemical is the worst kind of war by every human calculation. It's deadly and most of all, it's indiscriminate.

   There's the rub.


   At least an artillery strike is aimed at something, right?

   Chemical weapons seep across the land. They infect the body. Even if you survive, the cancer may appear later in your kid. Chemical warfare is deemed terrible by our thinking because, while we can all agree that we hate the enemy and want to kill him, chemicals in our bloodstream shouldn't destroy our children. Just because I want to kill that opposing guy with the AK doesn't mean I want to gun down his kid too. Nearly every human who ever lived loved their kid. Even though it sounds crazy, even war can have rules. 

   And chemical weapons break those rules. Chemical weapons break the rules by wiping out everyone everywhere. They're like messy nukes. At least nukes have the courtesy of vaporizing those at ground zero and are so lethal they cancel out their own use on the mutually assured destruction (MAD) paradigm. Chemical weapons are different. You can sneak them in there and maybe get away with using them. Not of course against the US or her allies. Current US policy on chem usage by foreign entities runs like this:

  "The current US retaliation policy, known as calculated ambiguity, warns potential adversaries that they can expect an “overwhelming and devastating” response if they use chemical or biological weapons (CBW) against the United States or its allies".

  In other words, you get Nagasakied if you try any "funny stuff".

   If Bashar al Assad is loading his fighter bombers with chems than you know he knows he's already dead.

   There is no exit strategy for him and his family.He's trapped, beaten and probably delusional.

   If chemical weapons are used then it's basically an invitation to NATO to walk into Syria and grab some amazing free Middle East real estate. Russia and China will wilt and withdraw support for Assad at the UN Security Council because once you go chemical on your population you've gone full Saddam and nobody anywhere will feel any sympathy for you.

   Assad has a selection of gases at his disposal but they mainly come down to just two. Mustard gas sure  is one ugly compound. First deployed in WWI, it likes to pool and remain skin melting in small depressions in terrain for days. The other choice, Sarin gas, makes your muscles fail on contact and you usually die of suffocation because you can't draw air into your lungs a few minutes after exposure.


   While Syria doesn't have much oil, for Western war planners, it has another quality that's hard to sell on the world market.


   Arabian prestige.

   Damascus is the spiritual heart of the Arab world. Mecca and Medina might be nice but Damascus is the home of the real philosophers of Arabia. Damascus had street lighting while the cities of Europe were black in the Dark Ages. The neighboring Egyptians see themselves as the home of Arabian Sunni identity and their revolution is significant. But the fall of Damascus to new powers will be the most significant war in the Middle East since T.E. Lawrence captured Aqaba.

   If Assad uses chemical weapons against his own population he will instantly lose Russian and Chinese support. It'd be a suicide move. That's why I think this whole chemical story in Western media is overblown. One of those fed to the media via "unnamed government officials" that stinks of CIA subterfuge. Still,  I've always marveled at the existence of Assad. He's the son of a famed father, Hafez al Assad who would've known how to deal with Arab Spring rebellions early. His dad would have killed every protester in the street and called them communists or whatever word was necessary to gain support from a major power. Arab dictators who don't play ball in the energy chess game get designated as the enemy. Arab dictators who play ball in the game get called friends.

   That's why king Abdullah in Saudi Arabia is seen as a philantropist and major US ally and Colonel Gaddafi went down fighting with pistols like a badass from the back of a pick up truck. Life and death in the desert is a precarious occupation. It's always been that way. The difference these days is that the world economy depends on the stuff that's buried under Arabian feet. 

    Either Assad is totally desperate and ready to press the red button that will extinguish his whole dynasty Gaddafi style, or, he's already been told by the Russians that he's gone too far and there is no retirement option in a villa on the Black Sea in his future.

   Anyone who's ever played a hand of poker knows that you double down on the bluff when your credit line just got cut off. Maybe someone will believe that crazy look in your eye. So you push all your chips into the middle of the table. That's Assad right now. Chemical weaponry is a way of breaking the bank.

   Personally, I can't believe Assad is serious here.

   Using chemical weapons would be like Hitler biting into a cyanide pill.

   It's certain death multiplied by the destruction of your country.

   But you know what?

   Wounded animals are more dangerous. Dictators are prone to shitty decision making when confined to a bunker. When you know you're about to die and you've got nothing else to lose, sometimes it's fun to just sit back and set the ignition fuse on the firework.