Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.

British Household Wealth Declines by 13 Percent

Is there anyone out there who really believes that the British Labour Party can secure re-election in the spring? Maybe there is a Labour politician here and there who still thinks the Tories can be fended off. If anyone needs convincing that the game is up they could do worse than turn to a staggering study just released by the think tank the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

According to the study, household wealth in Britain dropped by nearly 13 percent between 2007 and 2008. The decline was a combination of a £394bn fall in housing wealth and a £450bn decline in net financial assets. Governments that are in office for such economic misery just don’t get re-elected.

Dollar Alarmism

The Economist has a highly intelligent leader on why the the recent slide in the value of the dollar is unlikely to lead to a short-term collapse. The article is a welcome corrective for the dollar alarmism of Fox News and the London Independent — the former has used the dollar’s decline as a stick to beat up on President Obama and the London paper ran a recent article that was clearly relishing the image of the U.S. being on the ropes. Of course I am pointing to it because it supports my earlier blog postings scorning the alarmism of the Independent.

Dealing with the facts, the Economist quite rightly points out: “Yields on Treasuries have not risen and spreads on riskier dollar assets continue to shrink. If investors were growing leerier of dollars, the opposite should have occurred.” The editorialist notes that a weaker dollar is what you would expect “given the relative cyclical weakness of America’s economy.” Much of the recent slide reflects a growing optimism about recovery in other economies and reverses the rush to dollars in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse in the autumn of 2008.

“The dollar will not quickly lose its reserve-currency status. The lesson of the past year is that it is still a currency to flee to, not from,” concludes the leader. Certainly there will be a long-term erosion of the value of the dollar because of the increasing economic strength of top developing nations. But a sudden collapse of the greenback’s status and its replacement as the reserve currency of choice as envisaged by the Independent is far-fetched.

Obama Aides Have No Option But To Hammer Fox

I disagree with my friend David Corn that Fox is just a “distraction, an irritant” from the point of the Obama administration. Writing in Politics Daily, David urges the White House, which has launched a series of ferocious attacks on Fox, to cool it. As a media counsel, I would argue that the White House is right to go for Fox. To all intents and purposes, Fox along with Rush Limbaugh and some other talk radio conservatives constitute the Opposition and whatever the GOP leadership may say they represent the leadership of the GOP and as such they have to be confronted  forcefully.

It isn’t that the White House has to do this because there is a chance they might be able to convert the three million-strong diehard audience of Glen Beck, for instance. I think it highly unlikely that they would be successful in that endeavor. What is more important is that other cable news outlets tend to follow the Fox agenda, if only indirectly and Fox can generate tremendous amounts of misinformation and disinformation to skew the trajectory of coverage and debate on other channels and in the press and online. I think this was what Rahm Emanuel had in mind when he urged other outlets to stop “following Fox.”

The unfortunate reality is that because of staff cuts, a decline in media standards and the pressure of 24/7 news, too few media outlets bother to check facts and information — even when coming from Fox – and just go ahead and report even to the extent of reporting opinion as fact.

David is surely right, though, when he castigates the White House for trying to isolate Fox by, for example, deciding to withhold administration guests from Fox News Sunday. And the administration should not ignore David when he urges the White House to opt for “strategic derision”, which he describes as “good-natured belittling”. “Don’t demolish Fox, demean it.,” says David.

Ridicule is a great weapon but I am not too sure it should be that good-natured to be effective in the current political arena. Too foppish, too weak and it looks like it is just a game — as serious as Jon Stewart, say. Jonathan Swift’s ridicule or Samuel Johnson’s – two ancient masters of the craft — contained a lot of indignation

Talk About The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

The Bank of England governor Mervyn King has delivered a speech in Edinburgh arguing that stricter and more interventionist regulations won’t be enough to control the risks Britain’s large banks pose for the country’s economy. He wants them broken up and for the retail banks to be separated from  investment banks with the former avoiding the risky stuff and the latter being allowed to be more adventurous. Shouldn’t his words of warning also apply to his own bank? Isn’t the Bank of England “too big to fail” and hasn’t it also taken on some highly risky bets recently?

What is also odd about his speech is his claim that investment banking was to blame for the financial crash. It was but only up to a point. Sub-prime mortgage lending by retail banks in the US was what brought us all low. Yes, the scale of the lending was boosted by the the securitisation market, but seperating institutions will not prevent that happening again. Sorry to say but capitalism involves risk.

Afghans To Re-Run Election – Deja Vu

Following up from my Perfect Storm post. With Karzai’s agreement for a re-run of the election, we have now  an imperfect storm. Questions: How will vote-rigging be avoided this time round? With the Taliban rampant, is it likely that we will see an increase in turnout?

The way Karzai acceded to a run-off doesn’t augur well. He was begrudging in the extreme and as the New York Times pointed out “you could almost hear his arm being twisted” by Secretary of State Clinton and other allied leaders, including Britain’s Gordon Brown and France’s Bernard Kouchner.  Is Karzai likely to become the kind of credible partner President Obama says is necessary before agreeing to the dispatch of reinforcements to Afghanistan?

Even now Karzai seems reluctant to accept that nearly one-third of his first-round votes were stolen. Does anyone really think that vote-rigging of that magnitude is somehow not connected with Karzai himself?

And to stress the point I made above. How is this election going to be more credible and fair than the last? Election day is only three weeks away. Much of the fraud was also connected to a faulty registry of voters that international observers knew had problems with it months before the summer election. Is the register going to corrected? Of course, not as there is not enough time.

And how to ensure that the runoff is fair and credible when many of the poll-workers who were responsible for the fraud last time will be involved this time? They can’t all be sacked as there is not enough time to train replacements.

And when Karzai wins, which he is likely to by all accounts, will he see the errors of his way and transform himself into the leader people had high hopes he was many years ago? Again it is his begrudging acceptance now of the runoff that suggests that a re-elected Karzai will be no different from before. A priority for the next Afghan government must be to root out corruption, including the corruption within the Karzai family, notably his brother. After that basic services must be improved – that change could well be more important than the sending of additional troops. It has been the neglect of the economy and the country’s infrastructure by the allies and by the Afghan government that has so far doomed the democratic experiment in Afghanistan. Why should people believe democracy is a good thing when they have no reliable running water or electricity even in the capital of Kabul?

The failure of the Afghan government to deliver services along with widespread corruption has fueled the insurgency as much as the presence of foreign troops.

Perfect Storm

So Obama won’t send the additional 40,000 troops his top army commander in Afghanistan says are necessary until there is a legitimate government in Kabul and Karzai won’t agree to an election run-off following a UN determination that the summer elections was rigged. Meanwhile the Pakistan army’s squeeze on the Taliban south of the Afghan border is likely to prompt an increase in Taliban activity in Afghanistan. This is looking increasingly nasty.

In the Heat of the Moment

Speaking at Bristol University, MI5 chief Jonathan Evans has raised more questions than he has answered when he says his agency has never condoned torture but had no choice but to use Al-Qaeda-related intelligence generated by partner agencies overseas who did employ torture. Clearly, he is right when he argues that MI5 would have been negligent, if it had not acted on such intelligence, but exactly what did MI5 know about (and when did it know of) the abuses and torture employed by U.S. agencies, for example?

Were British officers ever present when torture was employed? There have been claims they were. And how did MI5 change operational principles when it was clear that the U.S. was employing torture? Evans does not clarify that in his speech. Further, were the British intelligence agencies collusive in renditions?

Full transcript here.

UK Newspapers Take a Pounding

The UK’s national newspaper circulations fell badly in September. The Guardian and Independent fell 9.7 per cent and 15.6 per cent year on year respectively. But the biggest loser among the quality dailies was my old paper The Times, down 10.4 per cent. Despite its international brand name, the Independent has a circulation way below 200,000. Is it time it followed the example of the Christian Science Monitor – namely, be exclusively an online product and focus solely on international news? When is it going to close its sister Sunday newspaper, a paper that adds little to its brand and doesn’t help with the finances?

The circulations for the once excellent indigenous Scottish qualities make for grim reading. Another one of my old papers, Scotland on Sunday, twice the UK newspaper of the year, has seen its circulation halved in less than a decade. Both the Scotsman and the Herald are selling fewer copies than some major regional English dailies. Andrew Neil did not help the commercial cause of the Scotsman Group when the Barclays Brothers were the owners: telling the Scots they are a miserable lot and should be more like the English tends not to boost newspaper sales over the border. But, of course, it is not all Neil’s fault: the Internet reaper is doing its bits in Scotland, too. Clearly the only way forward for the Herald and Scotsman Groups is somehow to bridge the west-east cultural divide in Scotland and to merge.