Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kidnapped American Soldier

A few more details were reported today by CNN about an American soldier who was apparently kidnapped in Baghdad yesterday:

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Masked men grabbed a U.S. soldier, handcuffed him and forced him into a vehicle, the U.S. military said Tuesday, offering a relative's account of the kidnapping in Baghdad.

The soldier, who has not been named, was visiting the relative at a residence when the kidnapping occurred Monday night. He did not have permission for the visit, a military spokesperson said Tuesday.

Shortly after the abduction, the kidnappers reportedly contacted the relative on the soldier's cell phone, the military said.

The soldier is of Iraq descent, and apparently paid an unauthorized visit to some relatives in Baghdad for Eid al-Fitr, and was kidnapped while he was there.

The fact the kidnappers contacted the relatives suggests the motive for this kidnapping: money. Over the past two years, many Iraqis have been kidnapped. Those Iraqis who are from wealthier familes are much more at risk - and many Iraqis have chosen to allow the exteriors of their homes to fall into disrepair, drive beat-up old cars, etc. so that people may be less likely to kidnap them.

In the case of the American soldier, the kidnappers likely figure that, even if the US government does not pay them off, the soldier's family in the US has money, and may be inclined to pay, the kidnappers, rather than see the kidnappers "sell" their son to one of the jihadi groups who may may him the star of their latest beheading video.

Kidnapping for ransom money is a major problem in Iraq now. All of the friends I know from there have horror stories of kidnappings or attempted kidnappings of people they know. In most cases I have heard of, the kidnappers demand ransom, and quietly release the victim if the family pays up.

The fact that the kidnappers phoned the family from the soldier's own cellphone suggests that ransom money may be the motive. If they were simply planning to murder the soldier, why would they bother kidnapping him, and why would they bother phoning?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Eid Mubarak!!

Eid mubarak (blessed Eid) to all of my Muslim friends around the world. I wish all of you a happy and safe Eid al-Fitr holiday with your families.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Arrogance and Stupidity

Earlier today, a senior US diplomat named Alberto Fernandez gave a rather interesting interview on al-Jazeera. One of the more notable quotes:

We tried to do our best [in Iraq] but I think there is much room for criticism, because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq

Parhaps the strangest irony of this interview is that, no matter how stupid and/or arrogant one might think the US government has been in Iraq, it pales to the stupidity this Alberto Fernandez guy seems to have exhibited by doing this interview in the first place.

For a career diplomat in the State Department, doing an interview on al-Jazeera and calling one's bosses "stupid" and "arrogant" is not exactly the smartest career move one could make. Of course, the good news for the Bush administration is they now have a top candidate for that vacant consular position in Kinshasa, Ouagadougou, or whatever other remote diplomatic hell-hole they think is needing of Mr. Fernandez's services.

Friday, October 13, 2006

What to do about North Korea

Earlier this week, North Korea defied the world community and conducted a test of a nuclear weapon. Some have questioned the success of the test: based on the seismic measurements from neighboring countries, the yield was surprisingly low, suggesting the bomb may have been a partial dud. But, regardless of whether the test was fully successful or not, the fact that North Korea attempted to test a weapon sends a troubling signal to the rest of the world, confirming that North Korea is actively developing these weapons and is willing to defy the rest of the world in their use.

Now that North Korea has gone through with this test, the key question remains of what to do about it. And, in considering this question, it is important to realize that North Korea's nuclear weapons are more of an Asian problem then they are an American problem. Asian countries, especially Japan, China, and South Korea, are the ones within reach of North Korean missiles, and thus at the greatest risk. For this reason, this primarily Asian problem should be solved by a primarily Asian solution. The main role of the United States, if any, should be to encourage our Asian friends to take action to stop this menace, and to provide assistance if requested.

China and Russia, in particular, should be key to the solution here. As traditional allies of North Korea, China and Russia allowed this Frankenstein country to fester on their doorstep for the past fifty years. However, China and Russia did both discourage North Korea from pursuing its nuclear program - if China and Russia (both nuclear powers) wanted North Korea to have nuclear weapons, they would have just given the technology to them. The fact that they did not give this technology to North Korea suggests their attempts to discourage North Korea from developing this technology were genuine. And, because of this, North Korea's defying of this discouragement represents a major embarrassment for both China and Russia. Hopefully, this means these two countries will support taking action.

North Korea's provocative nuclear test deserves a strong response from the world community. And yet, a military attack on North Korea is the wrong answer, since it would cause unnecessary loss of life, and may backfire by galvanizing public opinion within North Korea. A better solution is to target North Korea's economy - a targeted series of measures intended to cause North Korea's already fragile economy to collapse. Some measures that could be key to this:
  • A military blockade: Simply slapping sanctions on North Korea is not enough here - there will always be someone willing to defy them. In a military blockade, all ships and aircraft to/from North Korea would be forced to land at a Chinese or Japanese port to be screened. Only certain types of goods (food, medicine, etc.) would be allowed through.
  • Cutting off oil supplies: North Korea is dependent on oil from China. Shutting off the spigots from China, and using the blockade to prevent oil imports from anywhere else (Iran, etc.) would cause North Korea's transportation infrastructure to grind to a halt.
  • Infrastructure impairment: Shutting down the electrical grid, major roadways, railroads, and all airports through targeted bombings of transformer stations, bridges, rail lines, and airport runways.
  • Inhibiting cash flow: Using the blockade to block ALL exports from North Korea, which would cut off North Korea's ability to raise foreign cash. In the resulting liquidity crisis, the value of North Korea's currency would collapse on the open market, making it more difficult for North Korea to import needed goods. Freezing all North Korean assets outside North Korea could help this effort as well.
  • Funding rebel groups: Providing local rebel groups with weapons and money.
  • Psyops: Dropping flyers, running radio stations, etc. to encourage North Koreans to support rebel groups.

North Korea's economy has been in trouble for a long time, and a concerted effort like this could cause it to implode. While this would be painful for the North Korean people, it is significantly less painful than a full-scale war.

One does not need to look far for a parallel to Korea. Like Korea, Germany was partitioned into two separate countries - one Capitalist, and one Communist. After the collapse of the Communist East Germany, the country became one again, and the Berlin wall fell. North Korea has the potential to undergo the same metamorphosis through a reunification with South Korea. The most likely way for this type of reunification to occur is for North Korea's economy and government to implode. This will likely happen at some point in the future anyway, but if the world community is able to bring about this eventuality sooner, the result will be less suffering for the North Korean people.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Canada's Payback

Much to the consternation of your average American cop, one of Canada's bigger exports to the United States is marijuana. Some Canadian variants, like the infamous "BC Bud" are sold for a higher than normal street price due to their reputed high quality and potency.

Today, it seems, Canada got its own back (source):

OTTAWA, Canada (Reuters) -- Canadian troops fighting Taliban militants in Afghanistan have stumbled across an unexpected and potent enemy -- almost impenetrable forests of marijuana plants 10 feet tall.
General Rick Hillier, chief of the Canadian defense staff, said Thursday that Taliban fighters were using the forests as cover. In response, the crew of at least one armored car had camouflaged their vehicle with marijuana.
"The challenge is that marijuana plants absorb energy, heat very readily. It's very difficult to penetrate with thermal devices. ... And as a result you really have to be careful that the Taliban don't dodge in and out of those marijuana forests," he said in a speech in Ottawa, Canada.
"We tried burning them with white phosphorous -- it didn't work. We tried burning them with diesel -- it didn't work. The plants are so full of water right now ... that we simply couldn't burn them," he said.
Even successful incineration had its drawbacks.
"A couple of brown plants on the edges of some of those [forests] did catch on fire. But a section of soldiers that was downwind from that had some ill effects and decided that was probably not the right course of action," Hiller said dryly.
One soldier told him later: "Sir, three years ago before I joined the army, I never thought I'd say 'That damn marijuana'."

What's that sound? A bird? A plane? No, it's a laughing sound coming from all the DEA and US Customs offices across the country...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

November Elections: The Foley Factor

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Iraq Factor, and its potential effect on the November elections. In the time since then, an even bigger factor has come up: the Foley Factor.

By now, pretty much everyone has heard of Mark Foley and his disgusting X-rated emails and instant messages to teenage male pages at the House of Representatives. What is less apparent is how much damage this will cause to the Republican Party in the upcoming election in November.

I personally think this scandal will cause significant damage to the Republicans, just because of the nature of the Republican party and who supports them. The bulwark of the Republican party's support comes from the southern "Bible Belt": fundamentalist Christians who believe in good old-fashioned "family values". And, Foley's lecherous, homosexual and pedophilic emails fall about as far away from those "family values" as you can get. For many fundamentalist Christians, homosexuality is an abomination before God, and thus seeing a grown man like Foley trying to seduce vulnerable teenagers into what they perceive as a sinful lifestyle is an anathema. If this scandal was surrounding a Democrat, it would not be as damaging (Democrat supporters tend to be more socially liberal), but for a Republican, it erodes at the party's core support base.

The key question in many of the voters' minds will be how early the Republican house leadership knew about Foley's revolting behavior. Early news reports indicate they knew in 2005 and chose to do nothing about it, but some other news reports have suggested concerns about Foley's behavior date back to as early as 2001.

The big problem for the Republicans is this scandal is just in its initial stages, and by the time voters go to the polls, the investigations will still be in their early stages, leaving voters with little to go by except their own instincts. And, if the poll released by Time Magazine today is any indication, these instincts may spell big trouble for the Republicans. In the nationwide poll, 80% of respondents were aware of the scandal, two-thirds believe that Republican leaders tried to cover up the scandal, and only 16% approve of the Republican party's handling of it. A quarter of the respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a Republican candidate as a result of the fiasco.

Between the Iraq factor and the Foley factor, the Democrats are seeming more and more likely to wrest control of the House and possibly the Senate as well this coming November.