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If you can’t join us at IPS to see noted author and Hampshire College professor Michael Klare, whose latest book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet describes the geopolitics of the energy crisis, talk about the causes behind the Gulf oil spill, join us for the online webcast from 12-1:30.


Kyrgyzstan: Tinderboxes and Tangled Webs

For most Americans, Kyrgyzstan is the most unpronounceable of the six “stans” that constituted the former Soviet Union’s southern flank. It has little in the way of wealth or natural resources, but it has what every real estate agent looks for: location, location, location. Bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China, the mountainous nation is the U.S.’s wedge into Central Asia, and its umbilical cord to the war in Afghanistan.

Supporters of KyrgyzstanMuch of the oil and fuel that keep the U.S. war machine running comes through Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base, a sprawling complex close to the country’s capital. In March of this year, 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops moved through the base. Indeed, without Manas, it is hard to conceive how the U.S. could support the current surge of troops into Southern Afghanistan.

Because Afghanistan is landlocked, the logistics of supplying fuel, food and weapons to U.S. troops is daunting. While it costs about $400,000 a year to support a soldier in Iraq, the price tag in Afghanistan is $1 million. According to U.S. Marine Gen, James T. Conway, gasoline costs $400 a gallon in Afghanistan.

It now appears that since 1991 the U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz politicians through two shadowy companies, Mina Corp. Ltd and Red Star Enterprises, both registered in Britain and British-controlled Gibraltar. The latter is little more than a big rock and a tax dodge.

According to The New York Times, the ousted president skimmed as much as $8 million a month off the no-bid contracts. So far, the Obama administration is stonewalling the bribery charges, but the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee is sniffing around the issue.

But the U.S. is interested in more than fuel costs in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan borders China’s volatile Xingjian Autonomous Region, where local Uyghur anger at the growing influx of Han into the area has touched off several riots over the past few years. There is also a nascent Islamic resistance movement in parts of the region. If the U.S. wanted to stir up trouble for China in its restive west—and maybe peek into its military deployment in the area—Kyrgyzstan is the place to be.

So far, Beijing has been quiet on the recent revolution, merely commenting, “China hopes that relevant issues will be settled in a lawful way.” China is Kyrgyzstan’s number one trading partner, and it is clearly concerned about the quarter of a million Uyghurs residing in Kyrgyzstan.

There is certainly suspicion by the Russians that the U.S. would like to rope countries along its southern border into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a distrust for which one can hardly fault them. In spite of assurances given to the Russians that NATO would not expand into former Soviet states, or recruit ex-members of the Warsaw Pact, NATO now counts Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia among its members and was on the verge of recruiting Georgia before its 2008 war with Russia.

Following a February tour of Central Asia, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.’s special representative to Afghanistan, proposed expanding NATO’s reach into the region as a foil to organizations like al-Qaeda. A recent NATO report calls for the Alliance to “help shape a more stable and peaceful international security environment,” the rationale for its current deployment in Afghanistan.

The U.S.’s sponsorship of the Islamic radicalism to destabilize Afghanistan in the 1980s is certainly in the back of the Russian’s mind, which is already concerned about Islamic extremism in places like Chechnya. The region has a number of Islamic groups in the wings, and if the Afghan War really does wind down, there will be plenty of battle-hardened recruits coming home to fill the ranks of those groups.

Most the nations in the region are tied together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose meeting this June in Tashkent will likely focus on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a military alliance that also includes a number of countries in the area, has been working to stabilize the situation. Kazakhstan currently chairs the OSCE and had already sent a representative to Bishkek.

If the current situation remains regional, then there are organizations in place that can play an important role in defusing the instability. But if Kyrgyzstan becomes a pawn on a larger board, then the “Great Game” will shift from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the rest of Central Asia, with all the pain and misery that follows in the wake of imperial maneuvering.

Worst Fears May be Realized In Iraq

In December, 2002, the talk of our holiday gathering was the looming possibility of the invasion of Iraq. The conversation was not just political — it was personal. For one of us, born in Baghdad, the faces of those back home were imagined and fears for their future gripped like a vise.

But it was not just the immediate future that cast the deepest shadows across their imagined faces. It was the fear that once Saddam fell, US strategy would never allow for a full Iraqi exit. Heated debates over if the invasion would occur ensued at that gathering in 2002, but no one could believe that the fears of continued occupation would ever be realized.

Now, in 2010, a drawdown of troops in the barely organized chaos of Iraq marches towards benchmark dates. But with the sharply decreased American media coverage of Iraq, much of the news has focused on random bombings around the country and partial coverage of the recent Iraqi elections. How many average Americans are aware that while troop numbers come down, contractor numbers go up? The number of troops in Iraq is supposed to go down by this August to 50,000 but with contractors the number would be 125,000. Can you imagine that candidate Obama would have campaigned on the promise of having 125,000 personnel in Iraq by the end of summer 2010? How many total U.S. personnel would be left by the end of 2011? Is the number by end of 2011 zero as promised, or 50,000 or more? Who is reporting about special operations in Iraq involving troops that are not Iraqi-based, but merely sweep in, do their work, and sweep out again?

In order to understand policy implications, Americans need information about the current status of Iraq, as well as the impact of policies as changes are anticipated. Should we keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq for an extended period to ensure security in Iraq? Should we withdraw as quickly as possible so that Iraqis fully determine the outcome of their country? Is our oil policy good for Iraq or good for America and the West or both? Do policies based on sectarian divisions in Iraq promote fairness — or rabid sectarianism? These are the kind of questions that many Iraqis are asking and Americans must openly discuss. Democracy in our country and in Iraq depends on information, and with that, open and honest discussions.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of the war in Iraq has focused on the impact on American military personnel. By withdrawing many of the journalists from Iraq, America’s mainstream media has turned their backs on Iraqis. With 2.5 million refugees outside the country, 2.0 million displaced in the country, and many of the country’s most educated professionals gone for good, Iraqis are determined, hopeful — but suffering and still in shock. As American policy shifts, Americans need information to debate and deliberate in order to steer a moral and humane course. Without it, hope is as fleeting today as it was in 2002.

Nicholas Kristof: Moonshine or the Kids?

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof is almost always a pleasure to read. He’s thoughtful and balanced while at the same time bold in calling for meaningful change, particularly for women and children around the world.

Kristof rarely spares details or truths from his trips, and his Sunday column, “Moonshine or the Kids?” is no different. But his thesis is an uncomfortable one: “If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed.”

He’s quick to qualify the observation – even admits it sounds “sanctimonious” – but his interviews with locals (in Congo, this time) open up another facet of the already-tangled development debate, involving cultural and societal mores vs objective long-term well-being. The Malaria Policy Center has a post on this as well.

What do you think?

From the Frontlines: May 24th, 2010

Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal (full disclosure: also an IPS board member) on the proposed DC budget cuts: “Sure, raising taxes for this reason is in my self-interest. I’m a business owner in this city, and I want more customers to have money to spend at my restaurants. Having a city with a widening gulf of haves and have-nots simply doesn’t bode well for my long-term business plans.”

Are fines in the millions enough to deter reckless and damaging behavior from oil giants like BP? (Hint: Probably not.)

Activists in London stage some creative protests against Tate Modern, which has ties to BP.

The DISCLOSE Act, which would “ensuring that new disclosure reports detailing electioneering and independent expenditures will be electronically filed and disclosed on the FEC’s website within 24 hours,” passed out of committee a few days ago. Would be a great win for transparency if it went any farther.

ProPublica has new details on the Times Square bomber investigation.

And while we’re on the topic of investigations, CPI’s latest blog post has an entry on some of the other investigations going on around the world – particularly the Balkans, Mexico, and U.S. for-profit colleges.

Where’s taxpayer money in the defense budget going? Not to health care for vets, under our current system. But Alan Grayson’s “War Makes You Poor” Act, just introduced, would “make the DoD work within its means, and the money would instead be used for an across-the-board tax cut that would make the first $35,000 each American earns tax-free.”

Redshirts: To Thai Middle Class They’re Terrorists

BANGKOK — Nearly three days after the event, the country is still stunned by the military assault on the Redshirt encampment in the tourist center of this city.

Captured Redshirt leaders and militants are treated like POWs and the lower class Redshirt mass-base like an occupied country. No doubt about it, a state of civil war exists in this country, and civil wars are never pretty.

The last few weeks have hardened the Bangkok middle class in their view that the Redshirts are ‘terrorists’ in the pocket of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the same time convincing the lower classes that their electoral majority counts for nothing.

Pro-Thaksin versus anti-Thaksin: this discourse actually veils what is–to borrow Mao’s words–a class war with Thai characteristics.

No doubt there will be stories told about the eight weeks of the ‘Bangkok Commune.’ As in all epic tragedies, truth will be entangled with myth. But of one thing there will be no doubt; that Prime Minister Abhisit’s decision to order the Thai military against civilian protesters can never be justified.

Reader Challenge: Does Afghanistan Spell the End of NATO as We Know It?

Is NATO’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure a blessing in disguise? At Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick writes:

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chaired a commission charged with reviewing NATO’s “strategic concept.” . . . On May 17, Albright’s “Group of Experts” released its report. . . . The group’s conclusion? NATO should slim down, scale back, and pass the ball. . . . NATO needs better preparations against cyberattacks, ballistic missiles, and unconventional threats. [Meanwhile] NATO headquarters, with a bloated staff and far too many generals walking its halls, is itself due for slimming down.

But looming over the panel’s effort is . . . a review of lessons learned in Afghanistan [and] the report calls for guidelines on when and where the alliance will again operate outside its borders. . . . Those member states with detachments in Afghanistan will no doubt be eager to join the U.S. caravan that will begin departing in 2011 . . . crushing fiscal retrenchment and sour memories of Afghanistan will likely leave most member states . . . incapable of any significant military expeditions. . . .

After Afghanistan, NATO’s military character will shrink, making way for a more purely diplomatic role. The staff in Brussels — those who remain after the pink slips — will spend more time coordinating NGOs and contractors than directing tank brigades.

Still, do Focal Points readers think confining NATO to its own backyard and scaling back its mission could spell the beginning of its end? Or, as with corporations, might “downsizing” only serve to ensure NATO’s continuation?

From the Frontlines: May 21st, 2010

barricade in thailand. credit: andre vltchekYou can now see a live stream of the BP oil spill, courtesy of Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). And Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland is tweeting about what she’s finding on a beach in the Gulf.

The Thai government is cracking down on protesters, but don’t expect much criticism from Washington. FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek wrote about his visit to the troubled country (picture of barricade at right), while cleanup operations begin in Bangkok.

The Senate passed the Wall Street reform bill…but what’s in there, exactly? Brian Beutler gives a good, quick rundown.

China’s invading the Arctic Circle in a quest for fossil fuel.

Yes! has a great interview with Donna Edwards on the Citizens United case.

AZ Gov. Jan Brewer has a lame response to those criticizing the immigration bill.

Financial Reform Bill Could Stabilize Commodities

The financial reform bill that has finally cleared the Senate would help stabilize commodities markets, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), an OtherWords partner. “The Senate bill helps make the market function like a market should–in an open and transparent way, instead of like a casino where only five big financial firms know what is going on,” said IATP analyst Steve Suppan. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges–to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. We don’t want a repeat of 2008, when prices were so volatile that U.S. grain elevators couldn’t hedge their own risks on commodity exchanges. Some elevators refused to contract to buy farmers’ grain in advance, leading to a cash flow crisis on many farms.” That volatility hammered American agriculture, and exacerbated hunger in developing countries that import much of their food.

Kagan’s Opponents

Conservative criticism of Kagan’s nomination might be getting more ink, but plenty of people on the left don’t want Elena Kagan to serve on the Supreme Court either. For years, Republican presidents have reliably appointed strongly conservative justices, while Democratic presidents kept nominating centrists. As progressive writer Mark Engler puts it: “Kagan is a needless concession to conservatives.” Next week OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul will discuss his problem with Kagan: her alma mater.