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Mongolia: Russia’s Next Target

April 1st, 2014 No comments
Mongolia

Mongolia would represent an over 10% increase to Russia’s total land area.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea only weeks ago, many commentators and policymakers in the West have been wondering what Putin will do next. World leaders warned against any further incursions into Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia fretted about their future, and others wondered if Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria (still sporting a hammer and sickle-adorned flag) would be next.

Unfortunately, this Eurocentric point-of-view caught most of us flat-footed at the news that Russian troops began appearing across the Mongolian border today, following minor protests over irregularities in the country’s parliamentary election. Putin declared that the Russian soldiers have merely entered the country as “peacekeepers” in what is becoming an increasingly predictable charade.

Before jumping to any conclusions about these actions, it is important to understand that the recent history of Mongolia has been inseparably linked to that of Russia, much like Ukraine. In the 1920s, in an attempt to wrest control from China, Mongolian revolutionaries looked to the Soviet Union for help, and the Mongolian People’s Party was formed. This new political force took over control of Mongolia, and from 1924 through 1990, the country was a “People’s Republic,” introducing a Cyrillic script and taking marching orders from Moscow.

Milking Yak

Russia seeks to control Mongolia’s lucrative yak milk industry.

There are numerous reasons for Putin to take these actions now. First is historical: John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, has said this is just another example of Putin trying to “put Humpty Dumpty together again.” Second is the geostrategic perspective: Mongolia serves as a buffer between the nothing in northern China and the jack squat in southeastern Russia. Third, there are the resources to consider: according to Laura Puls, Keeper of Knowledge at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mongolia produces 98% of the world’s yak milk. This, along with Mongolia’s booming supply of yurts and grass, make it an enticing target for Russia’s outward expansion.

When pressed on the decision to invade Mongolia, Russian military leaders said they have a right to protect ethnic Russians, and pointed at Yuri, Mongolia’s ethnic Russian. Yuri could not be reached for comment.

Mongolia’s new parliament has drafted a referendum to take place later in April, under the guidance of Russian officials, which will give Mongolians two choices: they can either agree to be annexed by Russia or agree to return to the 1960 Mongolian constitution, which affirms the importance of the “fraternal socialist assistance of the Soviet Union” to growth and development in Mongolia.

Happy April Fools’ Day everybody ūüėÄ

Death and Politics Part II: Foreign Policy

May 17th, 2011 No comments
Portrait of Pakistani ambassador to U.S., Hussein Haqqani

Hussein Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., has been talking tough since the bin Laden operation violated Pakistan's sovereignty, but he still doesn't want the U.S. to cut aid to his country.

For my second post on the political impact of Osama bin Laden’s death, I’d like to address foreign policy and the War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it these days.

In terms of foreign policy, there are two obvious countries in my periscope: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Back during the 2008 presidential debates, Barack Obama stated that if he knew Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, he would go in and get him, even if it meant violating the sovereignty of an ally. McCain called him na√Įve. Fast forward two and half years, and Obama did exactly that. And Pakistan did not like it.

When I watched Obama’s speech announcing the event, one thing I noticed was that the intended audience seemed to be the Pakistani government just as much as the American people. The President made explicit overtures to the continuing friendship of the two countries, and seemed to be implying, “I understand this isn’t going to go over well in Pakistan, but please understand my position and stick with me.” I don’t know if they will. Obama had the option of pursuing a joint operation with Pakistani forces, but nixed it, signaling mistrust either of ¬†their abilities or their intentions. Some Pakistani politicos seem mostly willing to stand with Obama, while also criticizing the operation out of political necessity, but others are angrier. Pakistan’s spy agency, for example, leaked the name of a local CIA chief, seemingly in retaliation, and there have also been increasingly harsh words and saber-rattling. I don’t know whether this is just a necessary “cathartic” process in response to a violation of sovereignty, or whether it really will deteriorate relations further. A recent firefight between U.S.-led NATO helicopters and Pakistani troops near the border suggests more problems on the horizon. Some voices here in America are calling for us to cut off aid to Pakistan, suspecting that the government was at least complicit in hiding Osama. That would be na√Įve because it is still better to have a duplicitous Pakistan as a half-hearted ally than to not have them on our side at all.

Tanks and soldiers in rugged Afghanistan

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, the pressure has been mounting to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a chorus is also growing for the U.S. to start leaving Afghanistan ASAP. The thought process goes that we got bin Laden, so our work is done. This is simplistic because it overlooks the strategic importance of our presence there: first, to prevent an al-Qaeda-supported Taliban from taking over and turning the country into a terrorist launching ground; and second, to be prepared and in the neighborhood for an emergency situation should nuclear-armed Pakistan take a bad turn. Now, at the same time, the argument could be made that police-style intelligence and sting operations like the one that got Osama are a more effective way to combat terrorist networks. They would certainly cost less. However, contrary to popular belief, the nation-building in Afghanistan has actually seen progress since Obama took over from Bush. I still believe it’s possible, with more time and money, and the new emphasis on building the Afghan police force, to leave Afghanistan as a stable, if deeply flawed, nation. Unfortunately, I have no idea if it’s worth it.

Lastly, the killing of Osama has reignited the debate over the use of torture for intelligence gathering. Conservatives have been on a media frenzy to argue that torture helped lead us to bin Laden, so liberals should get over their wussiness already. This idea is so stupid and debunked that I really thought it could be relegated to the domain of frat guys fresh off of the latest episode of 24. Silly me. Despite interrogation experts from right and left agreeing that torture doesn’t provide accurate information, and evidence that torture may have even delayed our progress catching bin Laden, conservatives continue to play up this myth. In many cases, torture only hardens the detainee’s resolve against his captor, and repeated torture yields only, “either limited information, false information, or no information,” to quote the former senior US military interrogator, Matthew Alexander. Case in point, eight years of waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed brought him no closer to revealing the name of Osama’s courier. He was waterboarded 183 times without giving up any leads to the one man that led us to bin Laden. Interrogation techniques based on building rapport have proven to be much more successful. Even John McCain is making it clear that torture did not lead to Osama bin Laden:

Moving beyond its demonstrated ineffectiveness, do we really want to be a nation that tortures? When terrorists “attacked our American values” did we really think the best way to respond was by abandoning those values? If Osama bin Laden says the United States is a cruel, moraless nation, and we respond by torturing all of his friends and shooting him in the face, who wins?

I hope the answers to these questions are obvious, because if not, we have a lot of soul-searching to do on what it really means to be American.

Bittersweet: The Death of Osama bin Laden

May 4th, 2011 No comments

Osama bin Laden is dead.

Dead.

You’ve already received this news from a¬†multitude of¬†sources,¬†unless of course¬†you’ve been living in a cave (which, ironically, would set you apart from bin Laden). When I first heard the news, my reaction was mixed and far more subdued than I expected. I suppose I felt a sense of¬†relief mostly. As I saw my Facebook feed fill with messages of elation and joy, I considered similarly¬†expressing myself, but I did not feel the same emotions. I thought about going to the White House to celebrate as I heard many others were doing, but I did not feel motivated to do so.¬†I wondered if something was wrong with me that I did not feel explicitly happy about being rid of such a mass murderer as Osama bin Laden.

My friend Daniel Shor found an explanation faster than I, posting the message: “As exciting as this is, as necessary as this may have been, I can’t really be happy over someone, anyone’s death.” I realized that I felt similarily, and soon other friends came out of the woodworks to express similar thoughts, followed by sober reactions from a few¬†pundits as well.

I cannot celebrate a massacre, even if I think it was justified. I cannot support revenge, because it runs counter to everything I believe. I am not Christian, but I think Jesus summed up these ideas well in his teachings: instructing followers to respond to evil with compassion and return hate with love.

For many people, this news has awakened long-buried feelings from the day that made bin Laden notorious. His death will not bring back those lost lives, and it certainly will not stop terrorists from plotting future atrocities. For many who lost loved ones, this no doubt represents a sense of justice, but one that is bittersweet, because it reminds us of the history that we cannot erase.

But I’m also¬†not willing to say that everyone who celebrated was wrong. Although¬†it is too fuzzy a distinction for my comfort, I am confident that¬†not everyone was celebrating the physical killing of bin Laden. His actions scarred the nation in too many ways for me to understand what each person felt. The news outlets have repeatedly used the word closure, and I believe that is part of it.

The reason this event is so difficult to understand is that Osama bin Laden ceased to be only a person; he became a symbol as well. Bin Laden was not just a symbol of terrorism, or evil, or anti-Americanism; he was also a symbol of our own helplessness. I believe that is the main reason that emotions concerning him have been so potent. Watching those towers go down was the ultimate moment of helplessness, and it only compounded itself over the years as we  floundered about in Afghanistan, failing to make progress, failing to capture the perpetrator, and all the while knowing that he was alive and well and taunting us with a steady stream of audio and video tapes. Myself and others in my generation have lived about half of our lives in a world where Osama bin Laden was hunted and could not be found.

So I cannot judge everyone’s reactions. I did not lose anyone close to me on 9/11, for which I am grateful, and I know only one or two people who have served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others will have a vastly different perspective. For example,¬†there was the school teacher that vowed not to shave until bin Laden was caught or the girl I overheard explaining how her ex-husband served in Afghanistan and how his PTSD tore their marriage apart. For them, this event was much more personal. Further afield, there was the 33-year-old IT consultant in Abbottabad who “accidentally liveblogged” about the operation over Twitter, complaining about the 1am¬†helicopter noise.

So what I am getting at is that this death has affected each person in a different way, but it is still a death. Bin Laden was shot, unarmed, and his killing was witnessed by his wife (who rushed the commandos and¬†was shot in the calf) and possibly by his 12 year-old daughter (I’ve heard conflicting reports). He leaves behind many family members who were not involved or supportive of his jihadist lifestyle, and I’m sure his death will only complicate their lives. So celebrate if you wish, but please¬†do so with a full and respectful understanding of the impact that this event and your celebration will have on each other person affected by it.

I, for one, welcome the sense of closure that this brings to our nation, but I am also very nervous about the impact this will have on U.S. foreign policy and bin Laden’s legacy, and¬†I pray that our troops will not be the victims of a¬†backlash to this announcement.

I plan to write another post soon on the implications of bin¬†Laden’s death¬†for U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.

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