Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The F-35 can't win in a dogfight against an F-16, the jet it is supposed to replace. War is Boring.

F-35C in a test flight. US Navy Photo/public domain. 

The F-35 has no business being in a dogfight and will lose to the F-16, one of the planes it is meant to replace. War is Boring. The blog War is Boring, obtained a scathing report on a test flight that pitted the beleaguered aircraft against a F-16D. In the practice dogfight, the F-35A, the most maneuverable model compared to the Marines B model and the Navy's C model, had trouble turning, climbing and keeping energy up. The F-35 should have had the advantage because the F-16D was loaded down with heavy drop tanks that would have limited its maneuverability. Instead, the F-35 had difficulty keeping energy up and was outmaneuvered by the older fighter. When the F-35 tried to get guns on target, the F-16 was able to jink but when the positions were reversed, the F-35 was unable to do the same. The only way the F-35 could engage the F-16 was to bleed off energy by using its rudders to create a fast yaw rate, which is incredibly dangerous in a dogfight. The test pilot also complained that he was unable to turn his helmet effectively to spot the enemy plane when it was behind him. The pilot essentially stated the F-35 was inferior in a dogfight to both the F-16 and the F-15.

My Comment:

I have a few things to say that kind of defend the F-35's lack of dogfight ability. I'm no fan of the plane but I believe in providing context. First, our F-22's, which are effective dogfighters, are supposed to be the planes clearing out the skies. We only have 187 F-22's so combat losses in a major war could force the F-35's in a fighter role. And of course, the Navy doesn't have F-22's to use. But for the time being, the F-35 won't be the only option. 

Second, our entire military doctrine is to destroy jets on the ground so they never get up into the air to dogfight. The F-35 can do this, though not as well as other planes. In theory the F-22's should clear out the skies so the F-35's and various bombers can destroy airfields and aircraft on the ground so they never get a chance to fight. 

Third, dogfighting doesn't really happen much in modern air combat. Most air to air engagements take place outside of visual range and they rarely devolve into turning dogfights. Even energy fighting would be rare. Most of the time, if the fighters aren't blown up on the ground, they will be targeted by missiles from very far away and would never get a chance to get into a dogfight in the first place. 

Of course the counter argument is that the F-35 doesn't have all that many missiles, unless it uses hardpoints which kills its stealth, so in an extended engagement they may be forced into close combat. And there is always a chance that the F-35's could be caught by surprise by enemy fighters. In an ambush situation, the F-35 would either be forced to run or try to win a dogfight at a huge disadvantage. And from what it sounds, the rudder maneuver to increase yaw while getting on target that the report mentioned would make them extremely vulnerable to other enemy aircraft even if they were able to get guns or missiles on target during a dogfight. I'm no expert of dogfighting but one thing I do know is that you need to keep speed and energy up in a dogfight. If you don't you leave yourself extremely vulnerable. 

The obvious solution is to not let F-35's get into dogfights. But it is going to be forced into the role. It's also being forced into other roles it isn't well suited for, such as close air support and ground attack. Sure, it can do all of these things but it can't do anything well. It's a true jack of all trades and master of none. It was designed to do everything so it shouldn't be surprising if it ends up in a close range fight at some point.

I think the F-35 could have been a decent plane if it had just focused on being one thing or the other. The F-35B model will probably work out for the Marines, considering what they need it for. The Harrier was never all that good either, but the short take off characteristics was more important then the deficiencies it had. Like the Harrier, the F-35 was never meant to be the front line fighter for the U.S. military. It was meant to take off from amphibious assault ships in support of Marines on the ground. 

Instead the F-35 is getting pushed into all kinds of roles that it just isn't suited for. A much smarter way to do things is to have a separate fighter for each role. Right now our Air Force has the F-22 for air to air, with the F-15 and F-16 being fighter-bombers, and the A-10 for ground assault. The F-35 is going to be asked to take on all rolls and by trying to do everything it can't do any of those rolls as good as the planes it is replacing. 

Considering the obscene amount of money the F-35 is going to cost us, it is a utter shame that it can't do much of anything well. Our rivals, China and Russia, aren't having the same problems. Indeed, China pretty much copied the F-35 with their J-31 and refined the design, slimming the plane, making it more maneuverable and gave it a critical second engine. In short, the Chinese have a better fighter then the F-35 in the pipeline and there is little doubt in my mind that the Russians will have a better fighter as well. 

If it wasn't for our limited number of F-22's, which have had some minor problems of their own, America could lose our air superiority. I just hope that we don't double down and continue to throw good money after bad for the F-35. But given how much money and how many jobs are on the line, I don't see the F-35 going anywhere anytime soon. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Islamic State is celebrating one year since declaring themselves a Caliphate. NBC News.

A map showing where ISIS has power and where it has attacked. NBC News/IHS Jane's. 

One year ago today ISIS declared themselves a Caliphate. NBC News. Since then, ISIS has been able to hold on to their gains and have expanded across the Middle East. Despite U.S. military intervention that has cost $3 billion, ISIS is still expanding and is in an even better position then it was a year ago. In the past year IHS Jane's has recorded 3095 attacks by ISIS which has resulted in the deaths of 6545 non-militants. Despite U.S. airstrikes, ISIS has not had to dramatically change tactics and are still using attacks with massed vehicles and car bombs. In Syria, ISIS has out-competed rival rebel groups and has better weapons and more money then any other group. In Iraq ISIS has greatly benefited because of poor coordination between Sunni tribesmen, Shia militias, the Kurds and the Iraqi government. ISIS is also doing an excellent job at recruiting new members and has gathered allies. ISIS now has affiliates in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and have convinced more established terrorist groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, to swear allegiance to the Caliphate. 

My Comment:
It's been a fairly good year for ISIS, and a fairly bad one for everyone else. It is important to note that ISIS has suffered several defeats since they declared themselves a Caliphate. They were unable to capture the city of Kobani from the Kurds and were beaten back by the Kurds recently to the point where their capital city of Raqqa was threatened. In Iraq, they have lost in places like Sinjar and Tikrit. And many of the terrorist attacks they inspired have failed to the point where they only killed the terrorists. 

From a purely military stance, ISIS is not in that good of a position. They are taking heavy casualties and they are compounding those casualties by cavalierly spending the lives of their recruits and experienced fighters alike. The recent raid on Kobani is a great example of this. They sent in a bunch of car bombs and experienced fighters into the city on a suicide mission. That attack killed a lot of people and possibly caused a bit of a distraction for the Kurds, but in terms long term advances it did little to nothing at a high cost for their own troops. Even though ISIS is recruiting people from all over the globe at an alarming rate, they are losing people almost as quickly. I don't see that being sustainable.

Sooner or later ISIS is going to run into supply problems as well. Though ISIS has managed to capture enough weapons to equip an entire army, they have no way to produce weapons and have a limited ability to purchase them. And other then oil and gas they have little in the way of an economy. ISIS is essentially a barbarian horde, that depends on capturing supplies, weapons and money. I don't think that is sustainable either. 

All that being said, as bad of a position that ISIS is in, everyone else in the region is in worse shape. In Syria everyone is so busy fighting each other that they don't have a way to fight ISIS. One one side you have the Syrian regime, pushed to the edge and being bled white by every other faction, except their Kurdish allies who are problematic allies at best. The Kurds are handicapped by the Turks, who hate them and want them to fail. The various rebel groups are, for the most part, not coordinated and the ones that are, are allied with al-Nusra, which is almost as bad as ISIS. And the Americans, Europeans and gulf allies are bombing without much in the way of coordination with any of the groups fighting ISIS. 

In Iraq, the situation is similar, but a little less chaotic. The various factions in Iraq, the government, the Kurds and the Shia militias, aren't fighting each other, but they aren't coordinated very well either. And the Iraqi army has just been embarrassed by ISIS. They are far to reliant on U.S. air support which has been inconsistent at best. 

And Lybia, Yemen and Afghanistan are rope for the same kind of chaos and unpredictability that allowed ISIS to thrive in Iraq and Syria. I've said before that ISIS thrives in a power vacuum and in every country I just mentioned there is a major power vacuum due to weak  governments, multiple rebel groups and warfare. 

But even if ISIS were to lose all their territory tomorrow their ideology is still a threat. They have managed to inspire and corrupt an entire generation of young Muslims. It will take decades to undo the damage they have done, if we can undo it at all. So many people have either joined the Caliphate or tried to carry out attacks in its name. Even if the Caliphate falls and ISIS has its organization destroyed, their actions and propaganda will still have an effect for years after they are gone. People will still hear their call to commit terror in their name, even if ISIS is defeated. And I don't think ISIS is going anywhere soon. 

I think the Islamic State will reach its second birthday as well. There just isn't anyone that is willing or able to step up and stop them. I think they may have reached their high water mark in Iraq, but with the utter weakness of everyone in Syria, I think they will probably capture more territory in that country. And I think they will also expand in whichever country is unstable enough to allow them a foothold. They will continue to inspire terror attack throughout the world and will keep killing thousands of people. The real question is if they will still exist 5 years from now. My brain tells me that they can't sustain their country the way they are running it for that long. My gut tells me that nobody has the will to stop them. My heart hopes that my gut is wrong.

Finally, I've often debated with myself about what I should call the Islamic State. I tend to vary between ISIS and Islamic State, but I often think I should just call them Daesh. That's the name the enemies of ISIS give them and I understand ISIS hates it. I think calling them the caliphate, or even Islamic State, gives them too much legitimacy. Even ISIS gives them more credit then they deserve. Still, inertia is a powerful thing, and I will probably stick to calling them ISIS. 

I'd also like to say that if you had told me that there would be a group calling themselves a caliphate two years ago today in Iraq in Syria, I don't know if I would have believed it. If was told that they are a death cult that wants to bring about the apocalypse, I would have been incredulous. If you pointed out that they brought both Syria and Iraq to their knees, had supporters across the Middle East and had committed several major terrorist acts, yet nobody seems willing or able to stop them I would have been furious. And if you had told me two years ago that the United States was too busy beating itself up over social justice, gay marriage, race relations and other pointless wedge issues to even really pay attention.... I would have believed it completely. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Homeland Security has issued a terror warning for the 4th of July. USA Today.

Homeland Security Department headquarters. USA Today/AP.

Homeland Security and the FBI has issued a terror warning for the 4th of July on the heels of several major terror attacks overseas. USA Today. Though there are no specific threats that have been identified, it is feared that terrorists may use the holiday for an attack against police or civilian targets. The warnings come after law enforcement has disrupted several terror plots. Officers shot and killed a man who had planned to attack police in Massachusetts, while a New York man was arrested after attacking a FBI agent who was investigating him for attempting to make pressure cooker bombs. There is also concern of further racial violence after the shooting in Charleston.  

My Comment:
Normally a non-specific terror warning wouldn't rate comment on this blog, but I think it deserves to be talked about this time. Yes the FBI and Homeland Security like to overplay threats. After all nobody wants to be the equivalent of the guy at Pearl Harbor that ignored a bunch of radar contacts back in 1941. But given recent events, the chances might be a bit higher then normal for something to happen.

As I mentioned all last week, ISIS is on a role lately. The three terror attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, along with the devastating raid on Kobani and the developments from their offensive in northeastern Syria all add up to a lot of media attention for ISIS. Though the gay marriage Supreme Court case pushed ISIS out of the news, they still reach thousands of people. It isn't a stretch of the imagination that a lone wolf terrorist could decide that the 4th is a perfect opportunity for an attack. And it is possible that their al-Qaeda competitors could move up some plans to wrestle some attention back from ISIS, though at this point I don't even think they are capable of doing so. 

There is also a small chance that the gay marriage announcement could anger someone enough that they could do an attack as well. Though the stereotypical threat is from a right wing extremist, don't forget that ISIS and other Islamic extremists don't particularity like homosexuality either. Indeed, ISIS generally executes any gays they find, so it is possible that a radical Muslim could be angry about the Supreme Court's decision in addition to whatever non-Muslims that are upset about too. That isn't to say that there isn't a threat from a non-Muslim terrorist, I just think it's possible that the event could be a trigger for Jihadists, Not that they need much of a trigger in the first place, but it bears mentioning.

If any attack does occur, expect it to be a spur of the moment kind of attack instead of a well planned out massacre like the attack in Tunisia or Kuwait. My guess is that some radical, be it Islamic or otherwise, could just decide that this is the time to grab a weapon and try and hurt some people. The good news is that these kinds of attacks usually fail, in America at least. Even the attack in France, which involved one man who killed his boss, was more spontaneous then planned. And, other then the decapitation and the propaganda effects of publicizing the attack, it failed completely. In a country with trigger happy cops and a strong gun culture, any spur of the moment attack is likely to fail and fail spectacularly. 

And it's not like there isn't going to be security at pretty much every 4th of July celebration in the country. Even Podunk USA will have cops on duty to keep on eye on things. My guess any spur of the moment attack on the 4th will fail quickly. A successful terror attack taking planning and training and any lone wolf attacker isn't going to have much of either. 

My advice to anyone worried about an attack in America on the 4th is to not worry about it all that much. As always, take notice of your surroundings but keep in mind that even with this alert the chances of your 4th of July celebrations being attacked are extremely low. And even if an attack happens, it is extremely unlikely that the attackers will accomplish much. Like I said before, security agencies like to hype up the threat. The threat is real, but remote. 

Honestly, I think the chances of an overseas attack is much greater on any given day of the week then it is here in America on a major holiday like Independence Day. We don't have a large radicalized Muslim population and our right wingers are, for the most part, harmless. Neither of those things are true for Europe and the situation is even worse in the Middle East. 

I would be very surprised if there was any kind of major terrorist attack on the 4th of July in America. But given recent events, and the amount of coverage and chatter about the recent terror attacks, I would also be surprised if there isn't another lone wolf attack somewhere soon. My guess is that it will be in Europe yet again. But I doubt it will happen here. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Will Greece exit the Eurozone? Tensions high after Greek government issues referendum on bailout. AFP.

Greek citizens wait in line to withdraw money from their bank. Yahoo/AFP

Greece is coming much closer to exiting the Eurozone after the latest bailout offer was put up for referendum. AFP. The referendum is scheduled for July 5th and will ask the Greek people if they wanted to agree or disagree with the Greek creditors demands for debt repayment. Leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rejected the latest debt deal because it would involve austerity. Eurozone finance ministers were not impressed with that and without further action by the end of the month, Greece will default on its $1.7 billion payment to the International Monetary Fund. Though it is unclear if Greece will leave the Eurozone, if Greece fails to get a bailout the damage to the economy will be severe. Polls show that many Greek citizens support a deal with the creditors. News of the breakdown of talks lead to a run on Greek banks as citizens desperately took their money out due to fears that the banks would close next week. 

My Comment:
I don't usually cover economic issues on this blog because my knowledge of economic issues is elementary at best, but it's clear that this is an ominous development. Greece has long been underwater when it comes to it's debts. From what I understand it is due to a combination of rich Greeks not paying taxes, an extremely generous social welfare state and the damage caused by the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008. Since Greece is part of the European Union, any default of their debt could bring the Euro to its knees. 

So why care about Greece? Well local economic issues tend to have a ripple effect through the world economy. If the Greeks can no longer afford to buy anything because their banking system has collapsed it will hurt anyone and everyone that trades with them. Also, economic collapse is a large factor in causing conflict throughout history. Though warfare is unlikely, it could push countries that are on the edge over the brink. It may also make lenders less likely to lend money to governments that are unstable or have bad economies. 

None of this is surprising. Greece has been spending far too much money. Not only do they have a bloated and inefficient welfare state, they also spent millions on their military to counter the threat that Turkey has always held for Greece. Any sane country would have made cuts after their debts were larger then their income. But Greece did the exact opposite. 

When push came to shove, Greece doubled down and voted in a government that we even further to the left then what they had before. Their ruling party, Syriza, is so far to the left it isn't much of a stretch to call them communists. Well, we all know how good communists are at running economies. The Greek people are going to get what they voted for. 

As for the rest of the world, I don't think this will match the crisis of 2007 and 2008 if no deal is made. And it's important to note that it is still possible that the crisis will end. Much like the "fiscal cliff" debate here in America, these things tend to work themselves out at the last moment. I think there is a chance of it happening here. But if it doesn't expect the financial markets to take a hit and for Europe to be a lot less secure economically then it once was. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The attack on Kobani was worse then we thought. 142 dead in raid on city. AP

ISIS fighters shooting AA at a Syrian airplane. AP.

The ISIS attack on Kobani was much more severe then first thought. AP. The Syrian government claims that 120 people died in the ISIS raid on Kobani Friday, though Syrian activists gave 142 dead and 183 more wounded, including women and children. 40 ISIS fighters were also killed, though there are fighters still left in the city. The fighters have taken hostages as well. The ISIS forces infiltrated into the city at night and set off three car bombs at dawn while other fighters took up fortified positions. The attack has been described as a suicide mission with the goal of killing as many people as possible. ISIS gunmen are shooting randomly at civilians as they come into range. The attacks come at the same time as a major offensive in Hassakeh, where another bombing killed 20 troops. ISIS has promised that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan a "month of calamities for non--believers". 

My Comment:
This has been a very good week for ISIS in terms of successful attacks. There were three large terror attacks today and it seems like ISIS was directly responsible for the attacks in Kuwait and Tunisia. It's possible they inspired the attack in France as well. With the ongoing situation in Kobani and the terror attack in Hassakeh, that makes at least four major terror attacks in one day, five if it turns out the attack in France had ISIS links. That's a major accomplishment for a terror organization that has largely focused on taking and holding territory. 

I consider the attack on Kobani to be more of a terrorist attack then a legitimate military mission. The fighters that entered the city had no intention of holding it, or even surviving. Their goal was to cause as much destruction and death as possible. There is obviously a military component to their goal as well, after all the Kurds will have to move their forces around to counter this threat and possibly halt their advance as well, but my guess is that this was more about revenge then anything else. 

After all, the Kurds gave ISIS one hell of a bloody nose in Kobani. As everyone should know now, ISIS laid siege to the city, but had to abandon it after months of closer range fighting and withering airstrikes. Kobani was the first major defeat for ISIS and a major symbolic victory for everyone else. Hitting Kobani as hard as ISIS has sends the message that nowhere in Syria is safe and that Kobani may have been a victory, but the war is not over. 

Though Kobani is important the much more important battle is in Hassakeh. It sounds like the Kurds and the Syrians are in danger of losing the city. Kobani will probably still stand but I can't say I am confident that Hassakeh will as well. Something I noticed, buried in the article, is that U.S. airplanes are bombing ISIS positions near the city. Since the city is partially controlled by the Syrian government, it means that the United States is indirectly assisting the Syrian regime. That's how desperate things are there. I don't expect anyone in either government to admit that though... 

Of course, for ISIS the timing couldn't be worse. The news is going to be completely dominated by the Supreme Courts decision to legalize gay marriage. Whatever you think about gay marriage you have to admit that the fact that news is too busy covering it to talk about the biggest group of homophobes on the planet. ISIS won't be on anyone's minds, except for people with a special interest in world events, because for the next week or so the news isn't going to be about anything else besides gay marriage unless something utterly disastrous happens. For ISIS to get back the spotlight, they would have to pull off a major terror attack in the United States or Europe, that makes even today's events look tame in comparison. I guess that is possible but my guess is that ISIS has used up most of its terror attacks in the short term.

This is very bad news for the terrorist organization. Terrorism works by getting into the news and making it seem like people are unsafe. Right now nobody is going to pay attention to ISIS so today's terrorist attacks won't have nearly the impact they would have had normally. Of course, in the countries that were actually hit, they won't have the gay marriage story to distract them, so it's not like ISIS failed at all of their goals. But the American and to a lesser extent, European populations attention is elsewhere. 

BREAKING NEWS! Three terrorist attacks in one day. A beheading in France, a bombing in Kuwait and a mass shooting in Tunisia.

The factory that was targeted by ISIS. New York Times/AFP

Today looks like a banner day for terrorism. Three major terrorist attacks in three separate countries.

The first attack took place in France where two men decapitated someone and then attempted to destroy a chemical plant. New York Times. (Live updates here from the Guardian). The attackers had brought the decapitated body with them. Terrorist flags were found at the scene. The suspects attempted to light off an explosion. On attacker, Yassine Sali was captured in the attack while the second was killed by a firefighter on the scene.

The second attack happened in Kuwait where a Shiite Mosque was bombed. Wall Street Journal. ISIS took credit for the attack which has been confirmed to have had fatalities. The bomber used a suicide belt and hit the Shiite Iman Sadiq mosque. This is the first time that ISIS has targeted Kuwait, which has mostly managed to avoid the sectarian violence in the Middle East. The goal of the attack was most likely to incite violence and anger between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The third, and apparently most deadly, attack happened on two beachfront hotels in Sousse, Tunisia. BBC. (Live updates here from the BBC) At least 27 people have been killed in a shooting spree targeting tourists. At least one gunman was killed in the attack and another is still at large, as of this writing. Tunis was of course the site of another major terrorist attack just a few months ago.

My Comment:
What a terrible day. I'm looking at the latest casualty figures on Twitter and it looks like at least 10 people died in Kuwait, but I haven't seen that confirmed yet. What is really worrying me about this is the possibility that this was a coordinated assault by ISIS. That is in no way confirmed yet, but this strikes me as being too much for a coincidence. If it is true then that is a level of coordination that I haven't seen from ISIS to this point. They have largely been a local menace, and they don't have much experience in these kinds of attacks.

Of course, ISIS always likes to take credit for attacks, even if they had nothing to do with them. They have a long history of taking credit for other peoples terrorism, so we should remain skeptical until more information comes out. Still, none of this looks good. If they are indeed responsible for all three attacks then that is a huge escalation. They are capable of more complex operations and are better at coordinating them then we thought.

The attack on France seems to have been largely a failure. Yes they did manage to decapitate someone, and that is a tragedy, but their larger goal failed and failed miserably. Plus one of them was killed by a firefighter, of all things. I can't imagine how that happened, but I am hoping that the firefighter is all right. If he is, he should drink for free for the rest of his life. That being said, they still managed to decapitate someone in the middle of France. Even if their main goal failed, they still committed a terrible crime.

Kuwait is important just because they haven't been hit before. Attacks on Shia Mosques aren't anything new. After all, ISIS just did the same thing in Saudi Arabia recently. But this is the first time Kuwait has been hit by the Islamic State. The country has largely avoided all the terrorism and death that has cursed the region. Perhaps that is over now.

The most successful attack though is obviously Tunisia. This again looks like a Charlie Hebdo, gunman style attack, and I've said before that these kinds of attacks are extremely effective and very hard to prevent. If you look at all three types of attacks, this one seems like it was the most effective and the easiest to pull off. All they needed were a couple of guys with guns and a low security target to kill 27 people.

I'll keep an eye on this story for the rest of the morning and will update if anything else happens. If not, expect a recap later tonight.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The 2nd battle of Kobani has begun while the Syrian army faces yet another offensive. Reuters.

Wounded civilians are offloaded at the Turkey/Syria border. Reuters

The Syrian regime is under extreme pressure as ISIS has started a 2nd battle at Kobani, as well as the government held city of Hasaka, while other rebel groups try to take the city of Deraa. Reuters. The northern offensive against Kobani and Hasaka are seen as a response to the Kurdish offensive that is threatening Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Kobani was the scene of a bloody battle that saw the Kurds stand against a withering assault by ISIS, which was beaten back thanks to Kurdish reinforcements and U.S. airstrikes. ISIS fighters, deceptively flying the flag of the Free Syrian Army, sent carbombs and gunmen into Kobani in a raid that killed as many as 15 people as well as 20 more killed in a nearby village. Hasaka, which is held by the Kurds and regime forces is another provincial capital, and its loss would be devastating to the regime as it is one of their last outposts in the northeast of the country. ISIS has taken the al-Nashwa district to the south of the city and have begun executions. 

In the South, other rebels are threatening the city of Deraa, yet another provincial capital. If it falls it will join Raqqa and Idlib as the third provincial capital to fall. The rebels in the south, known as the Southern Front are more secular and less Islamist then the al-Nusra led Army of Conquest in the north, though al-Nusra has a presence in the south as well. Both sides of the battle reported that the Southern Front have started to shell the city proper in preparation for an attack. 

My Comment:
It's fairly easy to see what ISIS is doing in Kobani and Hasaka. We have seen this before in Iraq. When Iraqi forces moved in and captured Tikrit, ISIS moved most of their forces out of the area, leaving only token forces and a huge amount of booby traps for the Iraqi troops. When they finally captured the city, ISIS had moved on to other targets. Major attacks at Ramadi and Baji followed. 

The same thing is happening now. The Kurds had a very successful attack to the north of Raqqa. Obviously, ISIS wanted to hold onto their capital so they needed to cause a distraction. They weren't having all that much success on the defensive, so they attacked where their enemy was weak. They hit Kobani and increased their attacks on Hasaka. Both targets are critical for the Kurds, and they will have to defend them. With the battles distracting the Kurds, their offensive aimed at Raqqa may be over. The Kurds have little interest in capturing the city, but have a huge incentive to protect their own land. 

As for the tactics, we have seen this before. ISIS has become experts on raids with a leading attack of suicide car bombers, followed by attacks by gunmen. These tactics are nothing new, but it's disturbing that ISIS was able to pull them off in Kobani. After all the city has been through a lot. I figured after the Kurds had expelled ISIS from the city it would have been more fortified then it seems to be. Perhaps though, the tactics are just that effective. How do you really defend against car bomb attacks? 

This is make or break time for the Syrian Regime. If they fail in either Hasaka or Deraa, they are going to be in serious trouble. Hasaka is about their only outpost in eastern Syria, along with the besieged city of Dier Ez-Zor, which is in danger of falling itself. Should both of these cities fall, Syria will be reduced to even more of a rump state then they are currently. Right now they have a tenuous claim to the east, but it's hanging by a thread. 

Should Hasaka fall it will again split the Kurdish forces in the North as well. The Kurds in Kobani had long been separated from the rest of the Kurdish forces because ISIS had control of Tell Abyad, a city on the Turkish border between Kobani and Hasaka. ISIS was pushed back, but if they take Hasaka, the forces shall be split again. And if Kobani falls this time then the Kurds may be in serious trouble. 

As for the south, Deraa is in a precarious spot. It's a rather large salient surrounded by three sides by hostile forces. Salients are always hard to defend and by their very nature they are prone to being cut off. The situation seems very hard to defend and the Syrian forces in the area are in no position to attack. Though if it were to fall it would come under the control of the last rebels in Syria that even claim to be secular. 

The Syrian regime is under incredible pressure here and I think the end of the war is coming. At the very least it will enter into a new stage where the regime has abandoned the east and the south. They will have to focus on keeping Damascus and the various coastal cities. When this happens, the regime may get a boost from the fact that they won't have as many supply problems that are inherent when you have isolated cities like Hasaka and Dier Ez-Zor and that their front lines will get smaller. But that's the only advantage they are likely to get at this point in the war. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ISIS has begun to destroy the archaeological sites in Palmyra. New York Times.

A photo released by ISIS of the destruction of an ancient tomb. New York Times/AP

ISIS is claiming to have destroyed two ancient tombs near the city of Palmyra, confirming fears that ISIS would damage the ruins in the area. New York Times. ISIS considers all depictions of people and tombs to be blasphemy and have a long history of destroying historical artifacts. The sites that were destroyed were the tomb of a Shiite saint, Mohammad Bin Ali, and the grave marker of a Sufi scholar Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine. Palmyra fell to ISIS after the Syrian government abandoned it last month. Though the government claimed to have saved as much as they could, there are still fears that there will be even more destruction. There have been reports that ISIS has rigged the rest of the Palmyra ruins with explosives with the hope of deterring any attempts to re-capture the city. 

My Comment:
Yet another atrocity committed by ISIS. ISIS has a long history of destroying history. For whatever reason they consider all burial sites to be blasphemous. From what I understand they consider it idolatry. After all, if you are burying and honoring your ancestors, it obviously follows that you are worshiping them. That's sarcasm by the way, the whole idea is stupid. 

In fact, iconoclasm, the hatred of religious images, is about the stupidest religious idea that anyone has ever come up with. Far be it for me to criticize any religion, but the idea that talking about a religious figure is fine, but the second you draw, sculpt or otherwise depict him you are committing blasphemy, is wrong and makes zero sense. It's not just a problem with Islam, because Christianity had iconoclastic periods as well, but right now it's Islamic groups that are really pushing it. I'd go as far to say that iconoclasm is completely incompatible with the most cherished of western freedoms, freedom of speech. 

As for Palmyra, it sounds like ISIS is mostly leaving it alone. My guess is that ISIS has a hierarchy of offensive imagery. Right now a bunch of ruins are pretty low on their list of priorities. Their main concern is winning the war and right now they have to focus on that. The religious tombs were more offensive to them, so they had to blow them up as soon as possible. Rigging the ruins with explosives, booby traps and landmines seems like a good way to deter any attack in the area. 

Sometimes I wonder if my outrage is misplaced. After all, ISIS has done much, much worse things to actual living people. Just this week they released an execution video that raised the bar from regular villainy to utter depravity. I won't link to the video and I really regret watching it, but needless to say they outdid themselves. The executed people via rocket propelled grenades and by drowning them. As a terrible encore they wrapped a bunch of det cord around a bunch of prisoners necks and then exploded them. And these horrible executions are nothing new.

So why get mad about a bunch of ruins and tombs when ISIS is murdering people in new and terrible ways? History is a part of our shared culture and a large part of what it means to be human. These people aren't just destroying  buildings and artwork, they are destroying information itself. Palmyra has information about the lives of people from dozens of cultures, including ancient Rome and Persia. Though death is a tragedy, in the long term, we will never get back what ISIS has destroyed. 

I think in 100 years people will probably still remember how terrible ISIS was to people. But more then anything else they will regret that we weren't able to save the history they destroyed. There is a difference between looking at pictures of Palmyra online and seeing them in person. And there is a good chance that nobody 100 years from now will be able to see these ruins... 

France is not happy that the NSA has spied on their last three presidents. New York Times.

French President Francois Hollande. New York Times/AFP/Getty

France is upset with the United States after discovering that the NSA spied on their last three presidents and dozens of other high ranking officials. New York Times. The revelations were printed by French website Mediapart and the Liberation newspaper and appears to have come from Edward Snowden's NSA data and was provided by Wikileaks. French President Francois Hollande called a meeting with his defense ministers and released a statement saying that the spying was unacceptable. This is the second time the NSA leaks have shown that the U.S. government was spying on a close ally. In 2013 the NSA was accused on spying on German Prime Minister Angela Merkal. The White House claims that the United States does not currently spy on the leaders of France, but did not say if it had happened in the past. France has summoned the American ambassador to answer for the spying. 

My Comment:
Once again the NSA has been caught spying on a very close ally. How close are we to the French? Though they did not help us invade Iraq in 2003, they were always a major partner in the war in Afghanistan. and they are currently helping us in our war against ISIS. Though we have had our disagreements in the past, France has always been an ally and a friend. I personally have held the French in higher esteem then many of my countrymen. 

It seems most of the information that was taken was largely about mundane issues, it is alarming that they were able to get such high level information. These were very  high level meetings and they talked about issues that were very important to France, including the EU economic crisis and the Middle East peace talks. I can't imagine that the French didn't try to protect their phone calls but the NSA was still able to intercept these meetings. The stupid part is that I am guessing the United States could have gotten most of the information just by talking to France. 

I should point out that some level of espionage is to be expected, even among allies. Spying is nothing new and this kind of thing will always be around. But there is a difference between regular espionage and what the NSA was doing. They were monitoring everything the French Presidents were doing and listening into their private conversations. I could see doing that to an enemy, but to your ally? Seems very counterproductive, especially if the information ever comes out, which it did. 

Will anything change though? My guess is that Obama is lying and that the U.S. government is still spying on France. The temptation is huge. If you have the technology to know everything about everyone then it is very hard to resist spying on them. After all, even though France and the United States are allies, they also compete with each other politically and economically. France is also a hugely important factor on the world stage and a major partner in the war against terrorism. It pays to know what they think. The edge you can get from knowing what people are thinking can't be understated.

The downside is that you piss everyone off when you spy this hard. France is going to have a very hard time trusting us after this and they are probably revamping their security systems as I type this. Though I don't think there will be any lasting consequences from this, I do think that people will remember for a long time that the United States betrayed the trust of the French government and the people of France. 

For me though, the idea that the NSA is spying on regular people and collecting data from almost everyone is far more disturbing then a diplomatic row with France. After all, being a politician comes with certain risks. Getting spied on by foreign governments is a pretty standard one. It's not a standard risk for normal civilians though. At least it shouldn't be, but as long as the NSA has the power to collect meta-data from American citizens, the risk is there. Though there have been some recent reforms, the fact is that the NSA can still spy on pretty much everyone. It doesn't matter if you are the President of France or just a normal person, the NSA has your data... 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Taliban attack Afghanistan's parliament with six gunmen and a suicide bomber. Reuters.

Vehicles destroyed in the bombing. Reuters. 

The Taliban attacked Afghanistan's parliament building with six gunmen and a suicide bomber. Reuters. The attack occurred as Afghanistan's parliament was meeting with the interim defense minister. The bomber exploded his vehicle outside the gate while the six gunmen attacked with gunfire. Afghan security forces were able to kill the attackers after a two hour firefight. The attack killed one person and wounded thirty more, but no members of parliament were hurt. Though the attack largely failed, it is concerning that the attackers were able to get so close the to compound. They had to get through multiple checkpoints. The Taliban took credit for the attack, which comes on the heels of several victories in their summer offensive. Afghan security forces have struggled since the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. troops. 

My Comment:
A very bad day for the Afghan security forces. Yes, they repelled this attack, and no members of parliament were hurt or killed, but the fact that it happened at all is not a good sign. Something must have gone terribly wrong for these Taliban to even get close enough to carry out this attack. My guess is one or more of the following happened. None of these are mutually exclusive. 

1. The Afghan security forces are incompetent. This is certainly a possibility. Given how much attrition they have suffered since the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, it would not surprise me if they had second rate troops guarding the parliament building. Even if the troops guarding the parliament were comparatively good, they still might not be up to snuff. It's possible that the Taliban were just able to fool them with fake documents or something.

2. The Afghan security forces are corrupt. Someone paid off the local security forces to look the other way while these guys moved in. Given how poor of a country Afghanistan is, it wouldn't be surprising if soldiers and police could be bought.

3. The most disturbing possibility is that there was a traitor or traitors that helped the Taliban get past the checkpoints. If true that is devastating for the Afghanistan military. My guess is that any troops in the capital are hand picked to be the most loyal, if not the most effective. If the Taliban can get help from them, they can get help from anyone in the Afghan military.

It's clear that this was a symbolic victory for the Taliban. Though they missed their target, and only killed one presumably random woman, they showed that they are still relevant and still powerful. Getting fighters that close to parliament is no small feat, and it shows that the Taliban has the ability to threaten the very seat of Afghanistan's government. 

The Taliban have been on the march lately and have been winning victory after victory. It's clear that the Afghan troops are having a very tough time with them. This latest attack shows that the Taliban are still in the fight, and that they may even be winning the war. Without U.S. troops to give them backbone, the Afghan soldiers are proving to be less proficient then the Taliban. I'm not sure if the Taliban are winning the war, but you can't say they are losing it at this point either.

The wild card is, as it is in so many other Sunni countries with instability, ISIS. ISIS has been making strives in Afghanistan and is actively recruiting from disgruntled Taliban who feel that the Taliban haven't been effective enough at winning the war. They feel that ISIS, which has taken over vast amounts of territory and survived against the full onslaught of U.S. forces, is the horse to bet on. They may have a point as well. Time and time again ISIS has been able to exploit instability and take over where other groups of insurgents have failed. There is at least a decent chance of it happening again, especially if people think the Taliban are on their way out. 

From the Taliban's perspective, this latest attack is crucial, not only in their fight against the Afghan government but also ISIS as well. They are showing to those who would join ISIS that they are still relevant and are powerful enough to not only take territory but that they can threaten the heart of the Afghan government itself. Though the attack didn't kill any of their targets, at least they showed that they are more powerful then ISIS and are still an effective counter to the Afghan government. ISIS hasn't accomplished all that much in Afghanistan yet, so perhaps this will help nip the insurgency against the insurgency in the bud. 

Time will tell if the Taliban prevail as the leading insurgency in Afghanistan, or if ISIS does. The best possible situation for the Afghan government, and indeed the people of Afghanistan, is for both groups to start fighting each other more then they fight the army. If the choice is between a brutal Islamic theocracy, an even more brutal Islamic theocracy, or a corrupt and inefficient government, let's hope the corrupt and inefficient government wins out... If they don't it really doesn't matter if it is ISIS or the Taliban who win. Everyone else will lose.

EDIT: Updated with video capturing the moment of the blast and the aftermath

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Russia has cleared their new anti-aircraft missiles for export, but isn't saying who is buying them. Business Insider.

A 9K38 Verba MANPADS. Business Insider. 

Russia has cleared their latest surface to air missile for export, but they are not revealing who the customers are. Business Insider. The 9K38 Verba is a man portable a defense system (MANPADS) designed to shoot down airplanes. The Verba may very well be the most advanced and deadly MANPADS ever developed. The targeting for the warhead has three different optical seekers on the ultraviolet, infrared and near infrared spectrum, which greatly increases the missiles targeting and accuracy. The system constantly switches between the three modes which makes countermeasures much less effective. With such an effective weapon system their is concern about who the Russians are selling to. If the weapons would fall into the wrong hands they would make an excellent terrorist weapon, and would effectively counter low flying aircraft and drones, with little in the way of training. 

My Comment:
It's important not to understate how dangerous these weapons are. MANPADS are the terrorists dream weapon to take down commercial airplanes. They are fairly idiot proof as well. I'm confident that I could probably use one of these weapons with very little in the way of training. All you need to do is figure out how to activate it, aim at your target and figure out to shoot. That's true for most less complicated weapons systems, but most weapon systems don't let you shoot down a plane.

And the threat is huge. All you need is a launcher and a good location to target and someone willing to shoot and you can take out an airliner. Though a large airplane might be able to survive a hit from a shoulder launched missile, I wouldn't want to be on that plane if it happened. A smaller plane would probably stand no chance, especially considering a civilian pilot would not be expecting an attack. 

The Verba could be a game changer in warfare as well. These missiles can't reach high flying jets and drones, and probably can't defeat stealth, but any ground support craft, attack or transport helicopters or low flying drones could be vulnerable. That's true for any MANPADS system, but the fact that the 9K38's are resistant to countermeasures might be a game changer. We depend on flares and chaff to protect our planes, and it seems like this system can cut through that. This is a huge threat to U.S. military doctrine because we are dependent on close air support and helicopter support for our combat operations. These missiles aren't a "hard counter" by any means, but they are a major threat to U.S. forces. 

Which is why it is important to know where these MANPADS are going. Russia isn't saying, but someone has to be buying these missiles. My hope is that they are selling them to stable countries with little terrorist activity. Then there is almost no chance of proliferation.  

But what if they decide to sell to Iran? And then Iran gives these missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen? Or what if they decide to give them to the Syrian regime? Or what if one of the more stable countries they sell too suddenly becomes unstable? Then you have the perfect terrorist weapon just waiting for someone bad to pick them up.

Of course MANPADS are nothing new, this is just the new and improved version. How come we haven't seen a terrorist attack using them recently? For one thing, controlling MANPADS is a major goal for the various intelligence agencies. Indeed, there has been more then a little speculation that the U.S. Consulate at Benghazi had a CIA outpost there which had the mission of tracking down these weapons. That operation was probably disrupted by the attack there, but I doubt the efforts to clamp down on these weapons has ended. 

It's clear that MANPADS have fallen into the wrong hands already. Al-Nusra and ISIS have both been spotted firing the weapons. Why haven't they used them for terrorism? Because they need them for air defense. Air power is devastating and the psychological impact of being able to fight back alone makes them worthwhile. As devastating as a MANPADS terrorist attack would be, it doesn't outweigh the morale boost you get from shooting down an enemy helicopter. 

Still, I'd feel a bit better about things if I knew where these Verbas were heading too. I'm hoping that Russia is smart enough to only sell it to people who aren't likely to lose them to terrorist organizations. If they aren't then the threat MANPADS present will be even larger. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Terrorism and airstrikes follow the failure of peace talks in Yemen. Yahoo/AFP.

Civilians near the wreckage of a car bombing. Yahoo/AFP.

A car bombing and airstrikes have followed the collapse of peace talks in Yemen. Yahoo/AFP. The car bombing killed two people outside of a Shiite Mosque in Saana, the capital, which has been taken by the Houthi rebels. ISIS has taken responsibility for the attack, which comes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. ISIS also took responsibility for bombings on Wednesday that killed 31 people. In the port city of Aden, Saudi Arabia sent in more airstrikes targeting the Houthi rebels. Aden is currently a major battle zone between the Houthi rebels and government loyalists, with the Saudis supporting the government. The violence comes after the peace talks in Geneva fell apart with no agreement being reached. Both sides blamed each other for the failure. The Houthis wanted an end to airstrikes and the Yemeni government wanted the Houthis to withdraw. Neither side would accept the other sides demands. So far, the war in Yemen has killed 2,600 people and has left 80% of Yemen's people in need of aid. 

My Comment:
I'm not too surprised that the peace talks failed. Though I do think both sides want an end to the war, I also think that neither side is weak enough to give up. The Houthis have captured a decent portion of Yemen and feel they deserve to hold onto what they have captured. The Yemeni government is not in as good of a position, but they have very powerful allies, and the threat of Saudi Arabia and other coalition member deploying ground troops. Nobody is exactly on the brink of collapse either, both sides have military advantages and neither is very close to winning the war on the battlefield alone.

With both sides feeling like they are in a relative position of strength it is not at all surprising that neither would back down. Especially when you consider what the demands were. Giving up all the territory the Houthis captured is not going to be acceptable to them. And stopping the airstrikes is not going to be acceptable to the Saudi government. Something is going to have to happen on the ground to change those demands or make either side back down.

In the chaos that is Yemen right now it appears that ISIS is expanding to yet another country. I would mention that it is always wise to give all claims of responsibility from ISIS with a large grain of salt. They like to take credit for attacks they had nothing to do with, just because of the publicity. It's a good strategy for them, since they reap the rewards without having to actually do anything, but it makes it difficult to get an actual accounting of  who is responsible for what. 

I do know that ISIS is active in Yemen now and it is possible that they did conduct these attacks. Since the targets were Shiite Muslims I would say that it is a strong possibility. Every other faction in the region would mostly leave Shiite civilians alone, with the only exception being al-Qaedea's Yemeni faction, the AQAP. Since ISIS has a major goal in fermenting tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, these attacks was most likely committed by them. 

Either way, the fact that ISIS had gotten a foothold in yet another country undergoing a civil war shows a very strong pattern. In countries where their is instability and a large Sunni Muslim population, ISIS seems to always crop up. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan and now Yemen as well, the organization has shown up wherever there is the opportunity to do so. There should be a lesson there against any further "wars of choice" in the Middle East. Whenever there is a power vacuum, something will fill it, and right now that something is Islamic extremism. 

Finally, it seems like Yemen is going to be another one of those countries where everyone shows up to fight a war. Not only are there the two main factions, the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, everyone else in the region has a stake in the outcome as well. The Saudis and many of the Arab states are fighting with the government against the Houthis and their Iranian sponsors. Al-Qaeda has their most effective group in the region, though the AQAP just had their leadership destroyed by yet another faction, the United States. Add ISIS into the mix and you have a situation that's not unlike Syria. And we all know how Syria ended up... 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Manhunt after man shoots up a prayer meeting in Charleston South Carolina. Reuters.

A still from a security cam that shows the suspect. Reuters. 

A manhunt has begun for the shooter that killed 9 people in a church prayer meeting last night. Reuters. The FBI has released the name of the suspect, a 21 year old named Dylann Roof. Though no motive has been determined at this time, many people suspect that the murders were racially motivated as the suspect is white and the victims were all black. Among the dead was a South Carolina state senator named Clementa Pinckney, who was also the pastor. The other victims were two men and six women, all shot. The church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, is a historic church that has existed since the 19th century. 

My Comment:
Reuters has a live feed up here.

This is a developing story. As I was writing it, Reuters posted the name of the suspect. I hope they have the right guy because I can't imagine being wrongfully accused of such a terrible crime. Last night Twitter did what Twitter did best and made it look like some innocent photographer, who had been briefly detained by the police, was the suspect. To be fair he did match the description, but the way the police handled him made it clear that he wasn't the guy. After all, cops don't generally arrest people accused of multiple homicide but still let them wear their backpack, especially if they also have bomb threats. 

As a matter of fact, Twitter handled the situation poorly to say the least. Before anyone knew anything about the attack they were already blaming it on racism or terrorism or whatever "ism" they could think off. At this time it does seem that this was a racially motivated attack, but even with reports that is the case, I'd still advise caution. Preliminary reports are just that, and we should always wait until more info comes out. A degree of outrage is certainly justified in this case, but it is very important to make sure that they have the right person under the right circumstances. 

But it seems likely that this was a murder based on race. That isn't surprising at all. Race relations are in the toilet in America. It's been that way for a long time, ever since Obama got elected. And the media has poured gasoline on that fire by giving 24/7/365 coverage of every police shooting or violent act against black people, regardless of the truth of the situation, to make it look like there was a war between blacks and whites.  Well this is what happens if you make it look like a race war is happening. When you make it a war, pretty soon a guy like this is going to come out of the woodwork because he wants to win. You don't win a war through reconciliation and understanding. You win a war by killing. And that's exactly what he did. 

If this was a race based killing, the suspect picked a terrible place to kill. You would think that a racist person that hates black people would target young black men, not a bunch of older men and women. And targeting a church? I think even the majority of very racist people would have a huge problem with that, let alone everyone else. My guess is that he was angry with the stereotypical "hood" black men, but was too afraid to confront them so instead decided to attack people that were least like the stereotype. 

A lot of people are calling this terrorism. The FBI is calling it a hate crime. And people are getting upset about the terminology. I think the whole argument is stupid because either way 9 people are dead. I guess racism is a political position, and terrorism is killing for a political cause, but really, does the distinction matters? If this guy is caught, he's getting the death penalty. There isn't a jury in the world that would let this guy off, if and when he is caught. 

The media is already chomping at the bit to make this the next 24/7/365 news cycle. I dread that more then anything else this guy could do. All the coverage is going to do is piss people off and that could lead to retaliation attacks. When you are in a hole that you can't get out of, like we are with race relations in this country, stop digging! But alas, there is money to be made and outrage to fuel. Can't have an honest conversation about race in this country, oh no. Just a false picture designed to make everyone as mad as possible while completely ignoring reality. Crime is down pretty much everywhere and these kinds of racial attacks are almost unheard of. But you would never know it if you turned on the news... 

And I am sure that there will be those calling for more gun laws. To that I say this. Back in 2012, an off duty cop with a concealed firearm stopped a shooting at a church. Had any of the victims in this attack been armed there is a decent chance that they could have shot the suspect before he killed 9 people. He may have still killed one or two, but chances are that he would have died. Indeed, I am betting a major reason he chose to attack a church is because he knew that there wouldn't be anyone there with a gun to stop him. 

Finally, I really hope that they don't take this guy alive. Just once I would like to see a police shooting that the black community would support. I'm not saying they should murder him but if he tries to fight, I have no problem with the police putting this guy down. It would be even better if a private citizen shoots him (with justification).

UPDATE: Reuters is reporting that the suspect was captured in Shelby North Carolina. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

North Korea facing a massive drought. Worst in 100 years. International Business Times.

Kim Jong Un in a rice field. IBT/Reuters

North Korea is facing the worst drought in recent memory, and with it comes fears of starvation. International Business Times. 30% of North Korea's rice fields are too dry to sustain growth. Total crop production could drop as much as 20%. Water levels in lakes, rivers and reservoirs have dropped immensely as well. The drought is especially devastating because North Korea is already dependent on food imports on survival. Even in the best of days 70% of the population of North Korea suffers from food insecurity. 1/3rd of the children in North Korea already suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. This is not the first time that North Korea has had to deal with food insecurity. In the mid to late 90's millions died due to famine. Afterwords, the government made some adjustments to farming, and allowed local farmers more autonomy. North Korea's food production was still poor even after the improvements. 

My Comment:
Not good news out of North Korea. The country has had some truly horrific famines in the past. The one in the 1990's was something out of a horror movie, even compared to everyday life in North Korea under normal circumstances. People were so hungry that their were widespread reports of cannibalism. The people that were starving weren't just the people in the concentration camps. They wer the normal citizens, and they had nothing to eat. Millions died, and even the North Korean government admitted the scale of the disaster. 

Can it happen again? I think it is possible. North Korea is better at agriculture then it was but they still aren't very good at it. And even if they were good at it, look at how bad droughts have effected a modern country like America. The droughts a few years ago in Texas did huge damage to our beef industry and the drought in California is having an impact on food production as well. For a healthy, comparatively well run country like America, these are minor setbacks. They have a price but it's one we can pay. For a basket case country like North Korea, it's a price they can't pay.

In order to avert a huge humanitarian disaster, aid needs to start flowing into North Korea and it needs to happen fast. Acting now could save thousands, or even millions of lives. But I doubt they will get enough of what they need. North Korea has managed to offend and alienate everyone else in the region. Very few people will advocate for the survival of the North Korean people. After all, it is largely their fault that they are in this position, and nobody likes helping people that are largely responsible for their fate. And their is the moral question if it is right to help people if helping people means the continued existence of the North Korean regime.

So why cover the drought if nobody is going to care? Well, for one thing, even if the North Koreans haven't done anything to get rid of their terrible incompetent government, they are still people. Nobody deserves to starve to death. Nobody. And given how terrible the 1990's drought was, it would be a good thing to avoid that amount of suffering again. 

The other factor is that famine is one of the most reliable indicators of instability and war. Though I think it is extremely unlikely for their to be a rebellion in North Korea, food scarcity is a major factor in that kind of unrest. Indeed, it has been theorized that the Arab Spring had more to do with high global food prices then any other factor. I don't see a change in government in North Korea, but there could be unrest. Which means more people in camps and more pointless deaths. There is little chance that any rebellion could succeed without major outside help, but one might happen anyways if the food situation becomes dire enough. 

War is also a possible outcome. It isn't likely because I am sure that even Kim Jong Un knows that he would be destroyed in any real war. But desperate times occasionally result in desperate measures. It wouldn't have to be an intentional war. North Korea has a long history of doing terrible things to get what they want. More often then not this involves some kind of military skirmish. Let's say they want food aid and in order to get it they conduct a cross border raid or torpedo a patrol ship. That could easily spiral into a war that neither side would want.

These kind of conflicts are always at risk of spiraling out of control, but their frequency has lessened lately. But if North Korea ends up with famine they may be more willing to do something stupid. The risks might be higher but the rewards are not having your people starve and/or rise up against you. That makes the potential costs a lot easier to ignore. After all, if you are already going to lose everything, there is no point in not risking everything for a small chance of success a skirmish could gain. There is a good chance that the whole thing blows up in their face though.

Still, North Korea has dealt with this kind of issue before and they haven't really been anymore antagonistic then they have been normally. That is to say that there is always a chance that North Korea could cause some kind of war or conflict just because they like to play a dangerous game. They antagonize and then negotiate. It just seems that war is always averted somehow, no matter how unlikely peace is, it always seems to prevail in Korea. I do think that the drought could increase the chances of a conflict in the region, but I still think that the most likely position is the status quo, only with more people starving to death. I'd say that instead of a 95% chance of nothing happening in North Korea this year, be it a war, regime change or major skirmish, it's now down to 90%. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Al-Qaeda's #2 leader killed in an airstrike in Yemen. Washington Post/AP

AQAP leader Nasir al-Wahishi. Washington Post/AP

Al-Qaeda lost its 2nd in command after Nasir al-Wahishi died in an airstrike in Yemen. Washington Post. al-Wahishi was the commander of the most dangerous sect of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP), and his loss is a devastating blow to both the mainstream al-Qaeda network and the AQAP offshoot. The United States has been slowly dismantling the leadership in Yemen with drone strikes, which have been hampered by the unrest in the country. AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France and failed in a 2009 attempt to blow up an American airliner. Wahishi's deputy, Qassim al-Raimi, has stepped up to replace him. Wahishi died in Mukalla, a port city that AQAP had captured in April, taking advantage of the chaos of the war between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government loyalists. The capture of the city was a double edged sword. Though it was the largest victory AQAP has had to date, it also concentrated leadership in the area, making them an easy target for drone strikes. 

My Comment:
This is a huge blow to al-Qaeda. Wahishi was a hugely important figure and AQAP was the most successful al-Qaeda group in terms of terrorist actions. Al-Nusra may have captured more territory and will probably overtake AQAP at this point, but no other al-Qaeda group is as big of a threat for the west then AQAP has been. This decapitation strike should cripple them and make them much less dangerous then they have been in the past. 

At least in terms of terror attacks. Without leadership, they will have a very difficult time pulling off major terror attacks. Even the less logistically complex gunmen attacks, like the Charlie Hebdo massacre, will probably be, at the very least, disrupted. The best case scenario is that they will now be unable to strike outside of Yemen. 

Of course, the fact that AQAP has taken Mukalla means that even if we decapitate their leadership, they are still a regional power. With the war between Yemen and the Houthi rebels still raging, and looking like it will continue for some time, it seems clear that there is a power vacuum that AQAP can exploit. Much like al-Nusra and ISIS before, the chaos of a civil war could be the thing that propels AQAP into something more then a terror organization. That probably also means that their focus will now be on holding on to that territory and capturing new territory, while attacks against the U.S. take a backseat. In that regard they may become similar to al-Nusra, which has admitted that they aren't particularly interested in attacking the U.S.

I think this means that the threat from al-Qaeda is pretty much gone. Core al-Qaeda is having such terrible financial problems that they had to sell off cars and laptops just to feed themselves.  They just aren't the terror organization they used to be. AQAP was their last effective terror cell, and now I just don't see them pulling off any major terror attacks. They have lost too much of their leadership and their goals seems to be shifting to territorial conquest, and not terrorism. And the rest of al-Qaeda, with the notable exception of the al-Nusra Front in Syria, has long been irrelevant. 

So will the Charlie Hebdo attack go down as the last major al-Qaeda attack? I think it is possible. But their is something else to consider. Many of these attacks that have been pulled off were years in the making. It is possible that there are still al-Qaeda cells in Europe, or even America, that have yet to pull off their plans. Their funding and leadership may have been disrupted but I don't expect them to just give up either. The threat is still there, and it is even possible that AQAP could recover. My guess is though that al-Qaeda is no longer a major threat. A threat yes, but not one that we have to obsess over. 

The elephant in the room is that ISIS had long overtaken al-Qaeda as the largest Jihadi threat anyways. Though ISIS has not managed to pull off any major 9/11 style attacks in the west they have taken massive amounts of territory and have inspired many lone wolf attacks throughout the world. They have built alliances with other Jihadi groups and are active throughout North Africa and the Middle East. And their brutality makes even the old guard Jihadi groups, like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, look tame in comparison. Indeed, ISIS has recently been killing quite a few people from both groups... 

ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, which complicates things. Though they have broken off from the main group and have several ideological differences, they are still essentially the same thing. Al-Qaeda was largely destroyed after years of drone strikes and assassinations. But ISIS is the phoenix rising from the ashes, more dangerous and more powerful then al-Qaeda ever dreamed of becoming. The pessimist in me wonders if yet another phoenix of Islamaic Jihad will rise from the ashes of ISIS, if and when they are defeated... 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Iraq's plan to take Mosul from ISIS is probably a pipe dream. The Daily Beast.

Troops on patrol. The Daily Beast/AFP/Getty.

Iraq's plan to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS is a fantasy. The Daily Beast. Iraq's general in charge of the plan says the offensive will begin this year. The troops are being positioned even now and consist of three whole divisions, a couple of  additional battalions, some Sunni irregular troops and perhaps even some special forces units. In total, the general says he has 30,000 troops to use in the attack. These estimates were met with skepticism by western experts who say there is no way that Iraq has that many troops in the area. One of the divisions, the 15th, was almost destroyed during the last battle for Mosul and exists mostly on paper. There is also little evidence that troops are being moved for the offensive. 

There is some question if the residents of Mosul even want to be liberated. Not only are they afraid of the Shiite militias, who have a record of abusing Sunni civilians, they are concerned about the inevitable destruction that any major battle would cause. It also seems unlikely that the Shiite militias and the Kurdish military would be interested in fighting for Mosul, a Sunni city far away from their bases of power. 

My Comment:
The plans this Iraqi general came up with were so unrealistic that I almost believe that the entire article is just disinformation. Iraq just does not have the forces ready to attack the city. The regular Iraqi Army was all but destroyed in the battle of Mosul and was pretty much finished off during the fall of Ramadi. They still have forces but their morale has been destroyed. And what forces remain are in Anbar, trying to take back Ramadi, or at least stop the ISIS advance. 

And the article is right, the Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga have little reason to take back Mosul. The Shia militias are primarily Iranian proxies and their goal is to spread Shia Islam, not recapture a Sunni city. And after what happened during the recapture or Tikrit, where the militias looted and burned the city and murdered civilians, do we even want them to help? And the Kurds goal is primarily to defend the Kurdish people. Though I am sure the Kurds would love to take Mosul as a Kurdish city, there is no way the Iraqi government would allow that to happen. So they have little reason to fight either. 

That leaves the Iraqi army and any Sunni tribals that aren't already allied to ISIS. The Americans are trying to train up these forces but at this point it probably isn't worth it. Given how the Iraqi military has performed in Mosul and Ramadi, training them might be worthless. There is a good chance that in any battle they will just throw down their shiny new guns and run away. And there are questions about the loyalty of the Sunni militias. There is a chance that they will go over to ISIS instead of fighting for the government. 

All that an more makes me thing that this article was a misdirection campaign by the Iraqi government. After all, if ISIS believes this report and moves their troops around it may help Iraq win the battles in Anbar province, battles which are much more important that retaking Mosul. After all, ISIS is very close to Baghdad itself. There is no battle in the war that is more important. Much like the phony army led by Patton in World War II, this may be nothing more then a distraction. After all, the last time the Iraqi government made noise about re-taking Mosul, they went on offensive at Tikrit instead. 

So will Mosul ever be liberated? I am sure at some point it will be, but it won't be this year. It probably won't even be next year. But it will happen at some point. Who knows who will be responsible for it though. At this point it seems unlikely that the Iraqi Army's situation will change anytime soon. And I doubt any foreign government will deploy troops, with the possible exception of Iran. Sooner or later though someone will liberate Mosul.