Cyberwars: Is Putin Going to Cut Off Russia’s Internet?

Russia ButtonFew politicians today elicit the same level of controversy as Vladimir Putin. Adored by many Russians at home and abroad, he is also reviled by many for his near-absolute grip on power, intimidation of political opponents, political repression, and military aggression against neighboring states. But in this latest coup de grace, Putin may be seeking the kind of power that few modern states enjoy – the ability to shut down his country’s access to the internet.

According to the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, Putin and his security council met this past Monday to discuss a way to disconnect Russia’s internet should it be deemed necessary. According to various sources, it is a tool that could be enacted in times of war, massive anti-government protests, or in order to “protect” Russians from Western countries like the United States or members of the European Union.

putin-sanctions-west-response.si_Citing an intelligence officer as their source, Vedomosti claims that this is the result of the Ministry of Communications conducting exercises to test vulnerabilities in Russia’s internet and can now successfully disable IP addresses outside of Russia. All of this is being done in order to see if the Runet (Russia’s internet) can operate on its own without Western web access, with the hope that it will be functional next year.

It is not hard to imagine the Kremlin justifying such a clamp-down by whipping up fears that it’s the West that wants to disconnect Russia from the web, said industry experts. In Russia’s current political environment, anti-western propaganda has been used effectively to create the impression of a siege mentality, used largely to justify their current economic woes and the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis.

RunetAnalysts say similar measures have been introduced by countries such as Iran and Cuba, which developed national Internet limits to curb the spread of Western culture and ideas. Prior to the meeting, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Security Council meeting on Internet security would be taking place, but he declined to discuss details of the agenda.

In addition, he denied that Russian authorities have plans to disconnect the Internet, instead insisting this is a question for other countries to answer. He also added that Russia needs a way to protect itself from the West. Peskov cited the “unpredictability” of the European Union and the United States before implying that these countries would in fact disconnect Russia from the Internet and not the reverse.

russia-internet-putin-670-1In a statement to Russia Today – a government-run website launched in 2005 by Putin as a “PR campaign to improve [Russia’s] image in the eyes of the world.”- Russia’s communications minister, Nikolay Nikiforov, said:

Russia is being addressed in a language of unilateral sanctions: first, our credit cards are being cut off; then the European Parliament says that they’ll disconnect us from SWIFT*. In these circumstances, we are working on a scenario where our esteemed partners would suddenly decide to disconnect us from the internet.

*Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication

The “unilateral sanctions” he refers to are the ones that were placed upon Russia by the US and the EU in response to its seizure of the Crimea, which have since escalated thanks to Russia’s ongoing involvement in the eastern portions of Ukraine where rebels – whom many claim have been supplied with Russian-made weapons and are now being supported by Russian troops – continue to fight against the new Kiev government.

Ukraine_crisisInterestingly enough, whether it is the West that disconnects Russia from the Internet or if it is Putin that does so, both possibilities highlight the world’s dependence on Western internet. In fact, many countries, including Brazil and Germany, have been complaining about this since Edward Snowden’s revelations last year. Putin himself has expressed concern over the NSA spying on him via the web and the security of the internet in his country in the past.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether or not it could be done. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian spy expert who recently spoke to the Guardian on the subject, claims that it is technically possible given how few internet exchange points Russia has. However, it seems unlikely at this point that Putin would do this given the repercussions for Russian businesses that rely on the Western internet to function.

russia_protestsAlready, Russia has been feeling the pinch because of Western sanctions, particularly sanctions targeting its oil industry that have been leading to a drop in prices. At this rate, several economists and even Russian ministers are predicting a recession in the near future. This in turn could present Putin with a scenario whereby he would have to disconnect the internet, in order to block mass protests sites in the event of people protesting the economic downturn.

Similar measures have been taken in the past by countries like Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, the UK, and Thailand, who chose to block Facebook at various points because protesters were using it to organize. Venezuela also blocked Twitter this year during times of political unrest to prevent people from sharing information and real-time updates. But a total disconnect has yet to be seen, or even seriously contemplated.

russia-censorshipWhether or not Putin and Russia’s ruling party is the first to do so remains to be seen. But it is not entirely unfeasible that he wouldn’t, even if economic consequences were entailed. For as the saying goes, people will “cut off their nose to spite their face”, and Putin has already shown a willingness to challenge his country’s economic interdependence with the world in order to ensure control over neighboring territories.

One can only hope that he won’t feel the need to snip his country’s connection to the rest of the world. In addition to ensuring its ec0nomic isolation – which would have dire consequences and reduce the country to the status of a developing nation – it will also resurrect the specter of the Cold War years where Russians were effectively cut off from the outside world and entirely dependent on state-controlled media.

We’ve simply come too far to go back to an age where two superpowers are constantly aiming nuclear warheads at each other and entire blocs of nations are forbidden to trade or interact with each other because of political rivalries. History does not respect regression, and the only way to make progress is to keep moving forward. So let’s keep the internet open and focus on building connections instead of walls!

Source: motherboard.com, news.discovery.com, ibtimes.com

Climate Wars: Cropland Destruction and Improvement

cereals-agriculture-earClimate Change is currently recognized as one of the greatest threats to the stability and well being of the world and its people. But far worse than rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and an increase in forest fires is the threat that it could have on the global food supply. As our population increases by several billion over the next few decades, these problems will make it even harder to feed everyone.

Up until now, predictions and projections have taken into account rising temperatures, drought, erosion, and longer growing seasons. But a recent study, produced by researchers at MIT and Colorado State University shows that air pollution is also a major factor. In their report, which was published in Nature Climate Change, they claim that ground-level ozone could exacerbate the effects on staple food crops like wheat, soybeans, maize, and rice.

crop_failureUsing two scenarios, researchers mapped out the tandem relationship between pollution and climate change. As a baseline, the MIT and Colorado State researchers estimate that climate change alone will result in a 11% decrease in global crop production. But if countries fail to substantially curb greenhouse gas emissions (the first scenario), the scientists’ model shows that air pollution could trigger an additional 4% of crop failures.

That means that barring significant changes, croplands could see a 15% drop in productivity in the next 40 years. But if countries work to decrease greenhouse gas emissions after 2040, the researchers’ model shows that reduced air pollution could actually offset other negative impacts of warming on crops. They calculate that reduced air pollution in this second scenario could actually increase yields by 3%.

Pollution over Mexico CityThe link between air quality and food production may seem a bit odd, but the logic is actually very straightforward. Basically, the atmosphere forms ozone when sunlight energizes pollutants generated from sources like cars and power plants. Ozone concentrations can also increase at higher temperatures, the kind that already wither temperature-sensitive crops like maize. On top of the heat, increased ozone levels attack pollution-sensitive crops, like wheat.

In the climate scenario where emissions decrease after 2040, the reduction in ozone alone would be enough to increase wheat production in the U.S. and China, the researchers say. Their findings show that reducing air pollution could slow the negative impacts of climate change–even enough to reverse some of them. But some regions will be negatively impacted no matter what.

trafficAs Amos Tai, one of the study’s co-authors, explained:

It appears that South Asia will be the most hard-hit by the combination of warming and ozone trends, where ozone is expected to increase even in the more optimistic scenario. African countries with low domestic production and heavily reliant on food imports are also expected to suffer more in terms of climate-pollution-driven food insecurity.

In short, food production is likely to suffer no matter what, but the effects could be confined to certain areas of the world. With proper management, and the provision of food to these regions from those that are unaffected (say, a pollution-fighting US and China), the worst could be avoided. And there’s some good news coming from another report, which claims we can further increase our food production without taxing the environment.

crop_growthAccording to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, by focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of three billion more people while simultaneously decreasing agriculture’s environmental carbon footprint. The report, published in Science back in July, may sound like fantasy, but the argument offered is logical and compelling.

The report focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption. It then proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that have the greatest potential for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture while boosting production. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where NGOs, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can have the greatest impact.

agriculture_indiaThe biggest opportunities cluster in six countries – China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan – along with Europe. As the report’s lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative, explains:

This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people. By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.

Overall, the report identified a number of major areas of opportunity and key leverage points for improving the efficiency and sustainability of global food production. First, there is reducing the “yield gap” – i.e. the difference between potential and actual crop yields – in many parts of the world. Currently, the largest gaps are to be found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and reducing it by just 50% could provide enough calories to feed 850 million more people.

china agriculture researchSecond, there is improving growth efficiency. The study identified two key areas where major opportunities exist to reduce climate impacts and improve efficiency of crop growth. These included the reduction of emissions of global greenhouse gas – which agriculture is responsible for 20 t0 35 percent of – in the form of CO2, tropical deforestation and methane, as well as improved efficiency in water usage.

In the case of emissions, the biggest opportunities are in Brazil and Indonesia where deforestation is a major problem, and in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, livestock, and crop fertilization all lead to sizable carbon and methane emissions. With respect to nutrient use, the study found that worldwide, 60 percent of nitrogen and nearly 50 percent of phosphorus applications exceed what crops need to grow.

agribusinessIn the case of water usage, the greatest opportunities are in China, India and the US, where the production of rice, wheat and corn create the most demand for irrigation. India, Pakistan, China and the U.S. also account for the bulk of irrigation water use in water-limited areas. Thus, by boosting crop water use efficiency could also reduce water demand by 8 to 15% without compromising food production.

Third, the report calls for improved efficiency in crop use, which can be done by shifting crops from livestock to humans use and reducing food waste. Currently, the amount of crops fed to animals is sufficient to meet the calorie needs of 4 billion people. The U.S., China and Western Europe account for the bulk of this “diet gap,” with corn being the main crop diverted to animal feed. Shifting these crops could also form a “safety net” in the event of an unforeseen shortfall.

Last, but not least, the report calls for the elimination of food waste, which accounts for some 30 to 50 percent of food production worldwide. Again, the U.S., China and India are the major players, and reducing waste in these three countries alone could yield food for more than 400 million people. All told, these changes could allow for enough food for an additional 3 billion people, which is what the world population is expected to reach by 2050.

world_hungerOverall, West summarizes the report and its recommendations as follows:

Sustainably feeding people today and in the future is one of humanity’s grand challenges. Agriculture is the main source of water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat loss, yet we need to grow more food. Fortunately, the opportunities to have a global impact and move in the right direction are clustered. By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment. Of course, while calories are a key measure of improving food security, nutrition, access and cultural preferences must also be addressed. But the need to boost food security is high. So let’s do it.

As always, the good news is contained within the bad. Or more precisely, every crisis present us with an opportunity for change and advancement. Though Climate Change and air pollution may threaten current and future levels of food production, there are solutions. And in all cases, they present opportunities for healthier living, more efficient use of land and water, and a more sustainable way of meeting our most basic needs.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, sciencedaily.com

Cyberwars: NSA Building Quantum Computer

D-Wave's 128-qubit quantum processorAs documents that illustrate the NSA’s clandestine behavior continue to be leaked, the extents to which the agency has been going to gain supremacy over cyberspace are becoming ever more clear. Thanks to a new series of documents released by Snowden, it now seems that these efforts included two programs who’s purpose was to create a ““useful quantum computer” that would be capable of breaking all known forms of classical encryption.

According to the documents, which were published by The Washington Post earlier this month, there are at least two programs that deal with quantum computers and their use in breaking classical encryption — “Penetrating Hard Targets” and “Owning the Net.” The first program is funded to the tune of $79.7 million and includes efforts to build “a cryptologically useful quantum computer” that can:

sustain and enhance research operations at NSA/CSS Washington locations, including the Laboratory for Physical Sciences facility in College Park, MD.

nsa_aerialThe second program, Owning the Net, deals with developing new methods of intercepting communications, including the use of quantum computers to break encryption. Given the fact that quanutm machinery is considered the next great leap in computer science, offering unprecedented speed and the ability to conduct operations at many times the efficiency of normal computers, this should not come as a surprise.

Such a computer would give the NSA unprecedented access to encrypted files and communications, enadling them to break any protective cypher, access anyone’s data with ease, and mount cyber attacks with impunity. But a working model would also vital for defensive purposes. Much in the same way that the Cold War involved ongoing escalation between nuclear armament production, cybersecurity wars are also subject to constant one-upmanship.

quantum-computers-The-Next-GenerationIn short, if China, Russia, or some other potentially hostile power were to obtain a quantum computer before the US, all of its encrypted information would be laid bare. Under the circumstances, and given their mandate to protect the US’s infrastructure, data and people from harm, the NSA would much rather they come into possesion of one first. Hence why so much attention is dedicated to the issue, since whoever builds the worlds first quantum computer will enjoy full-court dominance for a time.

The mathematical, cryptographical, and quantum mechanical communities have long known that quantum computing should be able to crack classical encryption very easily. To crack RSA, the world’s prevailing cryptosystem, you need to be able to factor prime numbers — a task that is very difficult with a normal, classical-physics CPU, but might be very easy for a quantum computer. But of course, the emphasis is still very much on the word might, as no one has built a fully functioning multi-qubit quantum computer yet.

quantum-entanglement1As for when that might be, no one can say for sure. But the smart money is apparently anticipating one soon, since researchers are getting to the point where coherence on a single qubit-level is becoming feasible, allowing them to move on to the trickier subject of stringing multiple fully-entangled qubits together, as well as the necessary error checking/fault tolerance measures that go along with multi-qubit setups.

But from what it’s published so far, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences – which is carrying out the NSA’s quantum computing work under contract – doesn’t seem to be leading the pack in terms of building a quantum computer. In this respect, it’s IBM with its superconducting waveguide-cavity qubits that appears to be closer to realizing a quantum computer, with other major IT firms and their own supcomputer models not far behind.

hackers_securityDespite what this recent set of leaks demonstrates then, the public should take comfort in knowing that the NSA is not ahead of the rest of the industry. In reality, something like a working quantum computer would be so hugely significant that it would be impossible for the NSA to develop it internally and keep it a secret. And by the time the NSA does have a working quantum computer to intercept all of our encrypted data, they won’t be the only ones, which would ensure they lacked dominance in this field.

So really, thess latest leaks ought to not worry people too much, and instead should put the NSAs ongoing struggle to control cyberspace in perspective. One might go so far as to say that the NSA is trying to remain relevant in an age where they are becoming increasingly outmatched. With billions of terabytes traversing the globe on any given day and trillions of devices and sensors creating a “second skin” of information over the globe, no one organization is capable of controlling or monitoring it all.

So to those in the habit of dredging up 1984 every time they hear about the latest NSA and domestic surveillance scandal, I say: Suck on it, Big Brother!

Source: wired.com

The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and Overstock.com, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.

Sources: ottawacitizen.com, wired.com, fastcoexist.com, bbc.co.uk, uxblog.idvsolutions.com

Cyberwarfare: Not Just for Anarchists Anymore!

Hack the Planet by von Shin Kurohoshi
Hack the Planet by von Shin Kurohoshi

For those deeply concerned about internet security and privacy, the year of 2013 certainly opened with a bang. First, there was the news that a cyberspy ring – apparently operating out of Russia – had been spying on embassies, governments and research institutions around the world for the past five years using a virus dubbed “Red October”. This was back in January, when the Moscow-based antivirus firm known as Kaspersky Lab announced the discovery of the international intrigue.

Then, on Jan. 30th, the New York Times announced that they too have been the target of hackers, this time from China. In a statement released by the newspaper, the company claimed that Chinese hackers have been persistently attacking their publication for the last four months, infiltrating its computer systems and getting passwords for its reporters and other employees.

Jin_jiaboaThe timing of the attacks coincided with a Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings. The hackers tried to cloak the source of the attacks on The Times by first penetrating computers at United States universities and routing the attacks through them.

With the help of  Mandiant, the internet security company hired by The Times, they were able track the intruders, study their movements and help erect better defenses to block them. In the end, The Times reported that they had successfully expelled the attackers and kept them from breaking back in. However, the fact these hackers were able to infiltrate the network of a private news organization in the first place was much cause for worry.

Cyber-WarFor one, this is not the first time that hackers, originating in China, have used these sort of subterfuge tactics to hack US databases. According to experts at Mandiant, their company has tracked many such intrusions back to the Chinese mainland, all of which used the same approach of cloaking their efforts using US servers. In addition, this incident, which smacked of state-involvement, did not occurr in a vacuum.

Back in 2008, internet security experts indicated that Chinese hackers had begun targeting Western journalists as part of a wider campaign to identify and intimidate their sources and contacts, and to anticipate stories that might damage the reputations of Chinese leaders. The purpose behind this far-reaching and growing spy campaign aimed at corporations, government agencies, activist groups and media organizations inside the US seemed to be for the purpose of controlling China’s public image, domestically and abroad, as well as stealing trade secrets.

cyber-war-1024x843But of course, China is hardly alone in these sorts of covert cyber-warfare. As already mentioned, Russia has already shown signs of developing cyber weapons to assist in spying abroad, and there’s mounting evidence that Israel, Iran and the US are on board too. Starting in 2008, Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant was hit by a sophisticated computer worm that caused damage to it, thus putting a crink in their efforts to become a nuclear power.

While no one took responsibility for this incident, the evidence seemed to indicate that the worm originated from sources within Israel and the US. Attacks which took place later on American banks and oil companies within the US were believed to have been caused by Iran, in retaliation for the worm that hurt their main source of enriched uranium and a key component in their nuclear program.

anonymous_flagFor some time now, hacking federal databases has become something of a sport for various groups and causes who are seeking to reveal government secrets and expose their inner workings to public scrutiny. The “Hacktivist” group known as Anonymous is a perfect example, a group closely linked to Assange (of Wikileaks) who’s most recent infiltration of the Federal Reserve Bank made the news earlier this month as well.

But as I’m sure all will agree, it’s one thing when private citizen attack domestic and foreign databases, and quite another when nations attack each others. While cyber criminals may constitute a vague and slippery enemy, one which is much harder to identify and prosecute, nation-states constitute a far more frightening one. Not only are their resources far more vast, the consequences of battling them are far greater.

Knowing who your enemy is, and that they have nuclear capabilities and the ability to strike at you physically… Yes, I think that’s a much scarier prospect! While the old ways of plausible deniability and covert action may apply, no one likes the idea of subtle attacks which could escalate into a full-scale conflict. Even if it is waged entirely by computer, the effects are still likely to be felt!

Source: NYTimes.com, money.cnn.com

Going to Seattle!

Space_Needle002Hi folks. Just a heads up from your humble blogger to say that I will be out of town for the next few days, and therefore quite AFK! In fact, it seems I’ve been away-from-keyboard quite a bit these past few weeks. But it’s been that kind of month. Plenty of drama, tragedies involving old friends, injuries and illnesses, and lots of lots of tiring work.

Naturally, this weekend is expected be a reprieve from most of that. The family, which includes my mother, father, sister and brother-in-law, are all getting together in Seattle to celebrate the birthdays of my darling wife, mother and myself. Ah, perhaps I should explain that better. You see, our three birthdays all fall within a few days of each other. And as my sister lives down in Oregon, we find it is difficult for large-scale family gatherings.

As such, we do our best to convene the six of us whenever we can as close to the days of January 21st to 26th as possible. As usual, there is to be shopping, visits to local places of color and culture, and hopefully a good long walk in the Pike Place Market. Always a good time down there, and this year I wonder if I will run into half as many crazies as last year. I tell ya, within the space of a block, there was a man yelling “I didn’t do it!” at me, a woman handing out pamphlets of how RFID chips were the “Mark of the Devil”, and a Church of Scientology offering free IQ tests. I’ll leave it to you to guess which I found the nuttiest!

Pike Place Market SeattleAnd, assuming I get my way, we shall also be taking a tour of the Pike Place Brewery this year, one of North America’s oldest and most venerated craft breweries! As a beer snob with his own website (check it out here), I always enjoy sampling new and exciting beers and this place has been a very good source of Pacific Northwest brews over the last few years. It, like much else about the Northwestern US, makes me think that a Cascadian Republic could really work. Or failing that, that the great states of Washington and Oregon should be invited to become part of Canada. It’s not so crazy, many people say they are practically the 11th and 12 provinces anyway! 😉

In any case, I look forward to seeing my sister again, as we get so few chances to get together anymore. Hoping to score some decent swag and give my sister the presents she’s been waiting on for the past few birthdays and Christmases as well. I shall be back on Sunday, so whatever editing, writing, and articling I have promised or committed to shall resume by then. Hope you all have a great weekend too, cuz I know we’ve all earned one! I look forward to us all being well-rested, relaxed and alert come Monday!

What does Osama’s death mean (part II)?

What is to be done? Well for starters, the US and its coalition allies should withdraw from Afghanistan. If history has taught us anything, its that occupations are a losing battle, especially in places like Afghanistan. That country has made a name for itself grinding up invaders and spitting them back out. It’s mountainous terrain, hardened people and impenetrable network of tribal loyalties have always proven to be the undoing of invaders, no matter who they were or what kind of technological superiority they possessed. But above and beyond all that, it is startling how much Afghanistan is beginning to look like Iraq, which in turn showed the same signs of failure early on that haunt all occupations and foretell their failure. To break it down succinctly, there are five basic indicators that indicate that an occupation has failed.

1. Insurgency: If the population turns against you and begins mounting an armed resistance, you know you’ve lost. Little to nothing can be done at this point because tougher measures will only aid in their recruitment, they have the home field advantage, and can recruit endlessly from their own population. The occupier, no matter how benign their original intentions, can’t allow violence to go unchecked, and so they inevitably play into the hands of their enemy. Already Afghanistan has mounted its own insurgency in the form of a resurgent Taliban that is actively recruiting from the country’s Pashtun majority. Recruits spill over the border on a regular basis from Pakistan, where millions of Pashtuns also live, and there is little the US and Coalition can do about it because the Khyber Pass (the mountainous region that spans the border) is too vast and rugged to keep sealed.

Much like in Iraq, what we’re seeing is a major resistance that is actively recruiting from a major ethnic group that is fighting to regain the power it once enjoyed. In some ways, it worse than with the Sunnis of Iraq, because the Pashtuns constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan with 40 percent of the population, the remaining 60 being made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Arabs, and many other groups. In short, they constitute a larger chunk of the population, and their counterparts are disparate and divided.

2. Weak/Crooked Allies: Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who served in the post-Soviet Afghani government, has a long history of allying himself with US interests. During the Russian occupation, he was a secret contact for the CIA and helped run guns and money to the mujahedin from neighboring Pakistan. During the Taliban’s rise to power, he became a vocal opponent, and after 9/11 he became a major ally of the US . It is also rumored that he was a consultant for Unocal, a major oil firm with strong ties to the Bush family. It’s little wonder then why he was installed as president once Coalition forces had ousted the Taliban. Unfortunately, since the invasion, his government has been notorious for its corruption and impotence. In the former category, his election win in 2009 was tainted by scandal and blatant instances of fraud. His family have also thrived under his rule and committed numerous criminal acts, the most notorious of which were by his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, a prominent drug trafficker and CIA contractor.

In the latter category, Karzai’s political impotence is legendary. In fact, he is often playfully referred to as the “mayor of Kabul” because his power does not extend beyond the capitol. Warlords who owe no allegiance to him or coalition authorities, who were bought off in order to fight the Taliban, are largely responsible for controlling the other regions of the country. Though corrupt and weak, Karzai’s remains an important political ally to the US because of his background and ethnic-ties. He is able to put a Pashtun face on a government dominated by non-Pashtun groups, and is a long-standing enemy of the Taliban which it is still doing battle with. Beyond that, however, he is powerless and fast becoming a liability.

3. Civil War: When the people turn on each other as a result of the occupation, you know you’re not doing a very good job. Iraq is a prime example of this, with the Sunni minority doing battle with the Shia majority and the US and its allies playing the role of arbiter. No one, especially the Iraqi people, can forget the carnage of that episode. But worrying still is how Afghanistan is going in the exact same direction. While the country is no stranger to civil war, it is clear that it has been inching in that direction for years now and another civil war seems inevitable. And when that happens, the general chaos tends to be blamed on the occupation force. Not only is their presence seen as the catalyzing force, which it usually is, but their inability to contain the situation also makes them accountable.

4. Unclear Enemy: While the US and its allies have always claimed that their fight is with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghani people, the reality is quite different. The line between Taliban and Pashtuni’s became blurred sometime ago, with US and Coalition forces now waging war on the dominant ethnic group. This is not a choice position for an occupier to be in. When you can’t tell the difference between your enemy and the general population, you know you’re in trouble. When the line that separates them becomes blurred, and not just to you, you know your mission is doomed to failure. In any failed occupation, this is precisely what happened. What began as a controlled, limited engagement, spilled over and became messy, brutal and confusing. This is what happened to the United States in Vietnam and to the Russians in Afghanistan, not to mention every colonial ruler everywhere. And, inevitably, it backfired… horribly!

5. Criticism at Home and Abroad: When your own people begin to criticize you, not to mention your allies, you know you’ve overstayed your welcome. In any democracy, one cannot prosecute a war without popular support. Dictatorship’s fare slightly better with domestic opposition, but sooner or later, any war effort can be broken because of popular resistance. For years now, public opposition to the presence of US and Coalition troops has been on the rise. Recent survey’s conducted by US news services even went as far as to claim that Afghanistan was becoming “Obama’s Vietnam”. A comparison to Iraq would be more apt, but the existing metaphor has more power.

In addition, Karzai himself has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of Coalition forces “methods”. In this respect, he is not unlike Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister of Iraq, who also skirted the fine line between supporting and condemning his US-allies. In time, Maliki even began to go as far as to say that Iraq would demand a total withdrawal of US forces if things continued on their current track. Karzai may not be in that kind of position, he knows he cannot survive without US support for the time being, but he also cannot sit idly by while Afghani civilians are killed and not speak up. In time, as civilians casualties mount, he may very well be forced to choose sides, no longer able to skirt the line between his allies and his people.

6. Widening Conflict: When your conflict begins to spill into neighboring countries, you’ve got a full blown quagmire! Remember the US bombing of Cambodia during the 70’s, which took part because US forces believed the Viet Cong were running guns through that country? Well, the outcome – hundreds of thousands of people killed, no change in the course of the war, and the rise of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – was hardly a success, regardless of what Nixon would say. Much the same is true of Iraq, where Iran began exercising a sizable influence over Shia politics in the south and had to be called in to mediate. Turkey’s border conflicts with the Northern Kurds is another example, lucky for everyone it did not end in an invasion! But in any case, the rule is clear. If you have to widen the scope of the conflict to strike at your enemy, you got a problem and need to examine your options.

For many years now, this has been the problem in Afghanistan. The conflict has been spilling over the border into Pakistan, due in part to the fact that Osama found refuge there, but also because the shared border region, which remains unsealed, is heavily populated by militants, most of whom share ethnic and cultural ties to Afghanistan Pashtuni population . The US began conducting Predator strikes in the area in 2008, and has since expanded its involvement to include special forces and CIA operatives. While the death of Bin Laden is certainly a symbolic victory for this expansion, it cannot be expected to make the war in Afghanistan itself any easier. In the long run, its more likely to destabilize Pakistan’s already shaky government and create a permanent haven for Islamic militants, much like Cambodia became a radical communist regime.

So, since the war in Afghanistan possesses all of these things in abundance, I would argue that the time has come to pack up and leave. In addition to it being a potential disaster, and that its really not making life any better for those affected, there is also the fact (as stated in my previous article) that it ceased being about Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden some time ago. Now that he is dead and his whereabouts confirmed, perhaps this is just the justification that’s needed to put an end to the last war in the “war on terror.” I doubt anyone would buy it, but what can you do?