The Visual Du Jour – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth conflict is, of course, a concept borrowed from Virgil Hawkins, denoting conflicts that are by and large ignored by Western media for a variety of reasons (as opposed to chosen conflicts). As a result, a stealth conflict, when it is not completely ignored, is often treated as impossible to explain, based on ancestral tribal rivalries that are so atavistic as impossible to stop (the underlying colonial racist logic is only thinly veiled here). The most egregious example of stealt conflict is, of course, the conflict in the DRC but Somalia does not rank far behind. So, it is nice to see at least an attempt at explaining the sequence of events that led to a country without government and torn by conflicting parties:

It is a nice attempt but it is very light on content and quite simplified, which is a common problem when one designs infographics: striking the right balance between overloading the visual with information v. oversimplifying. But it is more attention than this conflict has received. Actually, most of the attention paid to Somalia has been on pirates because they kidnapped Westerners or threatened Western interests.

Urban Space… The Final Frontier

I know, I know, but I couldn’t help it.

Anyhoo, in her inimitable style, Saskia Sassen updates her ideas regarding global cities with different items.

First, the ‘smart city” and urbanizing technologies:

Lift 2011 – URBAN – Saskia Sassen from videosfing on Vimeo.

It is worth 30 minutes of your time on the topic of the city as strategic space.

As Sassen states:

“This notion of urbanizing technology is one of several along those lines that I have been working out for a while. The starting point was not necessarily cities. It was the notion that in interactive domains the technology delivers its capabilities through ecologies that include non-technological variables –the social and the subjective, the logics/aims of users, for example finance uses the technology with different aims from Amnesty international, etc etc. Again, I make this argument for interactive domains, not, say, data pipelines.

There is another condition present in the interactive domain, separate from the technology itself. At the beginning I studied how the logic of finance (a sector that is deeply embedded in digital networks and digitized spaces) is not the logic of the engineer and computer scientist and software developer who made the digital domain. The effect is that the user (finance) does not necessarily use all the properties that the engineer etc. put into it. I also looked at civil society organizations along the same lines. This helps explain why the outcomes never correspond to what we may have predicted based on the capacities of the technology.

Now I am looking at cities through the same lens. Users bring their own logics to these technologies. In the case of a city with its vast diversities of people and what makes them tick, the outcome can be quite different from what the designers expected. And this matters. This keeps the city alive, and open. When you embed interactive technologies in urban settings, it is important to allow for this mutating as diverse types of users bring their own logics to those technologies. If the technology controls all outcomes in a routinized fashion ((as if it were a data pipeline) there is a high risk that it will become obsolete, or less and less used, or so routinized that it barely is interactive. More like buying a ticket from an automaton: yes you have choices, but you can hardly call this interactive.

The key, difficult, and ever changing question is how do we keep technologies open, responsive to environmental signals and to users choices, including what may seem quirky from the perspective of the engineer. The city is full of signals and quirky uses: given a chance , it would urbanize a whole range of technologies. But this possibility needs to be made – it is not simply a function of interactive technologies as we know them now, and it needs to go beyond the embedded feedback capability. Open Source is more like it.”

And I especially find this important:

“Urbanity is a mutant. And this means it is made and remade along many different concepts/ideas/imaginations across the world. It can happen in sites where we, we of our westernized culture, might not see it. At night in working class neighborhoods of Shanghai bus stops become public spaces –that is urbanity. In some megacities the only spaces that the poor, often homeless have, are what during daytime hours we see as infrastructure: spaces where multiple bus lines intersect or end in. There are many many such examples of practices that destabilize the formal meaning of a space: this, again, takes making, and in that making lies an urbanity. I do think that urbanity is made; it is not only beautifully designed urban settings.”

In addition to these ideas, Sassen also recently wrote of the city as technology of war in the context of new wars and asymmetric conflicts:

“Cities have long been sites for conflicts – wars, racisms, religious hatreds, expulsions of the poor. And yet, where national states have historically responded by militarizing conflict, cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. But major developments in the current global era signal that cities are losing this capacity and becoming sites for a whole range of new types of conflicts, such as asymmetric war and urban violence. Further, the dense and conflictive spaces of cities overwhelmed by inequality and injustice can become the sites for a variety of secondary, more anomic types of conflicts arising from drug wars or the major environmental disasters looming in our immediate futures. All of these challenge that traditional commercial and civic capacity that has allowed cities to avoid war more often than not, when confronted with conflict, and to incorporate diversity of class, culture, religion, ethnicity.” (33)

Emphases mine.

More specifically, Sassen identifies three challenges for global governance that being played out in the cities:

  1. New military asymmetries where the search for national security creates conditions of urban insecurity
  2. Global warming and other environmental issues more likely to create major urban breakdowns
  3. Urban violence as visible in Ciudad Juarez (gang and police violence) and Baghdad (military and insurgent violence as massive asymmetries)

It is not hard to see that over the past 20 years, much terrorist violence has taken place in cities, along with other forms of conflicts. Such conflicts can either push people to the cities (mass displacement) or expel them from urban environments (ethnic cleansing or the creation of ethnic or religious ghettoes). Such segregating practices are also used to separate the wealthy from the impoverished or downwardly mobile.

The important thing here, for Sassen, is that all these trends undermine the city’s ability to be a source of coexistence, diversity, and cosmopolitanism at a time or reassemblage of the state and global governance.

Read the whole thing.

Michael T. Klare on The New Thirty Years’ War


Why the comparison to the original Thirty Years War?

“From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years’ War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state. Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.

Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War. It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet. Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them. The question will be: Which will dominate the world’s energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century? The winners will determine how — and how badly — we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result. The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.

Why 30 years? Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development. Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process. Some will not. And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game. At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.

This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest.”

Is there no other path?

“When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself — this time around energy needs. In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason: there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world’s future requirements. It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or, forget Westphalia, the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.


To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world’s existing energy portfolio. According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% percent from all renewable forms of energy. Together, fossil fuels — oil, coal, and gas — supplied 10.4 billion tons, or 87% of the total.

Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years’ time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.”

And two facts are unavoidable: we are running out of oil (and certainly the era of “cheap” and easily accessible oil is over) and global climate change.

And this also means that we will see an over-militarization of the states in order to access these diminishing resources, if it bankrupts them in the process (as with the US, for instance).

And yes, there are already existing alternatives and research done to find more, but nothing will be really usable on a larger scale within the next thirty years.

How will it end?

“Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels). Strict limitations on carbon emissions will certainly be universally enforced and the consumption of fossil fuels, except under controlled circumstances, actively discouraged. Oil will still be available to those who can afford it, but will no longer be the world’s paramount fuel. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question. Nor can anyone say today which of the contending forms of energy will prove dominant in 2041 and beyond.


Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies — and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.”

My guess is it won’t be the US as it is still in denial about peak oil and global climate change.

This Is Globalization

While taking a break from my last grading marathon of the term, I watched this episode of Wide Angle on PBS on the failed coup against the government of Equatorial Guinea:

Part 1:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

This is globalization:

  • A small African country with vast oil reserves
  • Western countries and oil companies, very interested in said oil
  • A corrupt and violent government with an authoritarian leader
  • Mercenaries… or, I should say, private military contractors meddled with Western secret services
  • China
  • The son of Margaret Thatcher
  • The remnants of the racist army of South Africa, selling themselves to the highest bidders
  • Banks that are more than happy to stash the dictator’s oil money
  • And the local population, squeezed in the middle, impoverished and oppressed while Western oil companies and governments wine and dine the dictator… for as long as it is convenient for them to do so.

And at the end, China wins.

Watch the whole thing.

The Visuals Du Jour – War and Peace

The great French magazine Alternatives Internationales (the international version of the equally great Alternatives Economiques) has a whole issue dedicated to globalization. One of the articles centers on conflicts and has some pretty neat illustrations to go along with it.

For instance, in the current context, isn’t it interesting that Saudia Arabia and the UAE are big weapon buyers? Also, note how buyers and sellers are distributed: only the US sells to Israel (and to Singapore… really?), Russia still seems in Cold War mode.

Equally interesting, this map showing the almost perfect correspondence between failed states and piracy. We have heard of piracy on the African East coast but I didn’t know South East Asia had it so bad as well:

I also did not know that South Africa had become such an attractive destination of asylum seekers and refugees:

And finally, the now classic bar chart showing how the US is spending more than the rest of the world combined on its military. Apparently, military expenses are growing everywhere. If I believed in conspiracy theories, I’d say governments are preparing themselves for unruly masses, what with the economic crisis and rising food prices… gotta keep the riff-raff in line.

Zygmunt Bauman on Drowning The Axmen

In the Social Europe Journal, Zygmunt Bauman argues that military technology has shifted power and responsibility away from the axmen to the axes:

“By the start to the 21st century, military technology has managed to float and so “depersonalise” responsibility to the extent unimaginable in Orwell’s or Arendt’s time. “Smart”, “intelligent” missiles or the “drones” have taken over the decision-making and the selection of targets from both rank-and-file and the highest placed ranks of the military machine. I would suggest that most seminal technological developments in recent years have not been sought and accomplished in the murderous powers of weapons, but in the area of “adiaphorization” of military killing (i.e., removing it from the category of acts subject to moral evaluation). As Günther Anders warned after Nagasaki but still well before Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, “one wouldn’t gnash teeth when pressing a button… A key is a key”.[i] Whether the pressing of the key starts a kitchen ice-cream-making contraption, feeds current into an electricity network, or lets loose the Horsemen of Apocalypse, makes no difference. “The gesture that will initiate the Apocalypse would not differ from any of the other gestures – and it will be performed, as all other identical gestures, by a similarly routine-guided and routine-bored operator”. “If something symbolizes the satanic nature of our situation, it is precisely that innocence of the gesture”[ii], Anders concludes: “the negligibility of the effort and thought needed to set off a cataclysm – any cataclysm, including the “globocide”…

What is new is the “drone”, aptly called “predator”, that took over the task of gathering and processing information. The electronic equipment of the drone excels in performing its task. But which task? Just like the manifest function of an axe is to enable the axman to execute the convict, the manifest function of the drone is to enable its operator to locate the object of the execution. But the drone that excels in that function and keeps flooding the operator with the tides of information he is unable to digest, let alone promptly and swiftly, “in real time”, to process – may be performing another, latent and unspoken-about function: that of exonerating the operator of the moral guilt that would haunt him were he fully and truly in charge of selecting the convicts for the execution; and, more importantly yet, reassuring the operator in advance that in case a mistake happens, it won’t be blamed on his immorality.

If “innocent people” are killed, it is a technical fault, not a moral failure or sin – and judging from the statute books most certainly not a crime. As Shanker and Richtel put it, “drone-based sensors have given rise to a new class of wired warriors who must filter the information sea. But sometimes they are drowning”. But is not the capacity to drown the operator’s mental (and so, obliquely but inevitably, moral) faculties included in the drone’s design? Is not drowning the operator the drone’s paramount function? When last February 23 Afghan wedding guests were killed, the buttons-pushing operators could blame it on the screens turned into “drool buckets”: they got lost just by staring into them. There were children among the bombs victims, but the operators “did not adequately focus on them amid the swirl of data” – “much like a cubicle worker who loses track of an important e-mail under the mounting pile”. Well, no one would accuse such a cubicle worker of moral failure…”

It is no surprise that the US Department of Defense has used video games as recruiting tools.

Book Review – Brave New War

BNW John Robb ‘s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and The End of Globalization (Global Guerrillas Blog) adds a few concepts to the topic of new wars and the changing nature of warfare. At the same time, for those of us who have studied the changing nature of warfare and are familiar with the writings of people like Mary Kaldor or Herfried Munkler, there is a lot that is neither new nor original.

At the same time, John Robb’s perspective is different Kaldor’s or Munkler’s because he has worked in intelligence and counterinsurgency. His first hand experience in this field provides interesting insights as well as some issues.

Let me get out of the way the things I did not really like in the book. I think the author has a tendency to latch on to easily on all the fashionable concepts of the day: black swans, long tails, etc. And the author’s contention regarding resilient communities (the author’s idea of empowered communities able to resist oppression and terrorism) smells a bit too much of the fetishism of the local for my taste. Again, the local is not an automatic equivalent to empowered autonomy and resistance.

Things get a lot more interesting when we delve into the changing nature of terrorism and conflict in the global context. Specifically, Robb argues that one of the strengths of insurgent groups, such as the ones in Iraq is their open-source networked nature that lacks a clear center for greater flexibility. This has allowed for smooth and flexible connections between terrorist groups and organized criminal networks and these connections permeate the global economy.

According to Robb, the Iraq insurgency is the future of insurgency and terrorism with a new method: systems disruption: the disruption of basic services that are essential to smooth societal functioning and whose disruption damages the legitimacy of governments and nation-states. One problem here: this is not new. This used to be the tactic adopted by white African groups (the Executive Outcomes type) again newly independent African nations. To attack power plants and water treatment centers repeatedly would force these new governments to spend enormous resources rebuilding them. And if it led to government failure, then, it would prove that Africans were unable to govern themselves.

However, one can clearly see, as the author argues, the rise of “virtual states” in the sense of “superempowered groups” who can challenge national governments (and, I would say, especially, failed states) and connect to other groups and criminal organizations through ICTs. Which is why many peripheral conflicts are not fought between states but between a mix of sub-national actors dedicated to system disruption.

“This new method of warfare offers clear improvement (for our enemies) over traditional terrorism and military insurgency. It offers guerrillas the means to bring a modern nation’s economy to its knees and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the state sworn to protect it. Furthermore, it can derail the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security. The perpetrators of this new form of warfare, however, aren’t really terrorists, because they no longer have terror as their goal or method. A better term might be global guerrillas, because they represent a broad-based threat that far exceeds that offered by terrorists or the guerrillas of our past.” (14-5)

But global guerrillas are not only distinctive because of system disruption. Their organizing structure – the decentralized network – is also a specificity, as opposed to hierarchies. These global guerrillas are main actors in what Robb calls fourth generation warfare (4GW), the first three being

  • Mass warfare: use of massive firepower on clear conflict fields, such as the Napoleonic wars or the US Civil War.
  • Industrial warfare: wearing down of the opposing state through greater mobilization and firepower, such as World War I.
  • Blitzkrieg: taking down of an enemy army and state through maneuvers, deep penetration and disruption, such as World War II (I would argue that WWII was also industrial warfare).

And here, Robb was prescient:

“The use of systems disruption as a method of strategic warfare has the potential to cast the United States in the role that the Soviet Union held during the 1980s – a country driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically. We are staring at a future where defeat isn’t experienced all at once, but through an inevitable withering away of military, economic, and political power and through wasting conflicts with minor foes.” (32)

As an aside, this is something Michael Mann had already written about in Incoherent Empire.

The issue I have then is the supposed big discovery of the changing nature of warfare (decentralization, networks, etc.) as if this were the first book about this. Seriously, Mary Kaldor is not even mentioned or referenced even though she wrote the book (literally) on New Wars. And P.W. Singer and others have also written quite extensively about the de-nationalization of warfare and the emergence of non-state actors and their prevalence in contemporary conflicts. And it has been long known that these global guerrillas and global criminal networks have been pretty savvy with ICTs.

Robb also argues that global guerrillas be distributed according to the long tail model (as opposed to Gaussian distribution).

There are several reasons for this:

(1) War is cheap. The barriers of entry due to costs have declined considerably and one can conduct warfare with AK-47s and child soldiers at really low costs (which create some incentives).

(2) Also, the decentralization of warfare and system disruption mean that small events can create massive costs for the injured party.

(3) Networking technologies allow for a “long shelf life” on ideas driving the guerrillas whose number don’t have to be large. Social networking allows like-minded people to easily find each other. Here, I would add that the strength of weak ties is also relevant as absolute consensus and strong ties are not necessary for a global guerrilla to be operational (and for someone so in love with concepts, I am surprised – disappointed – that Robb did not consider that one).

So, beyond the Iraq insurgency groups, who would count as a global guerrilla? Robb mentions the Chechen guerrilla as well as the Niger Delta movement or the Balochs in Pakistan. How do states fight back against guerrillas that are so adept at asymmetrical warfare? Robb mentions the use of paramilitaries including the US minutemen. And here is another source of annoyance for me:

“Armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry and survival gear, this paramilitary force has formed organically to police the U.S.-Mexican border.

Though many Americans have lamented their existence, few have tried to explain it.” (87)

Really? I guess David Neiwert has not been writing about all this for years now, and showing how such movement has not arisen “organically”. And Robb displays a disturbing respect for these paramilitary groups (including those the US used in Central America) even as he acknowledged their corruption and human rights abuse. It is unconscionable to me to legitimize their use.

Also included in the global guerrillas category are what Robb calls third generation gangs (3GG).

  • First generation: turf protection, unsophisticated leadership, opportunistic petty crime.
  • Second generation: organized around business and financial gain; broader geographical footprint, violence used for intimidation of commercial competition and against government interference.
  • Third generation: global, sophisticated transnational operations, political control in failed government and state areas, high interference in state function.

“Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate worldwide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in fourth-generation warfare, and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all these categories, they parallel the development of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like Al-Qaeda, these gangs are rivals of nation-states.” (93)

All these groups engage in system disruption as main tactic, targeting specifically (or trying to) what Robb calls Systempunkt, the crucial point in a system whose disruption can create system collapse. These may be economic or infrastructural. Anything whose disruption will trigger a collapse in global flows (Appadurai’s scapes) is such a Systempunkt. In the current context, one could argue that global guerrillas are not the only ones who can engage in such system disruption. “Legitimate” economic actors seem to do so as well.

For global guerrillas, then the structuring in scale-free, decentralized and flexible networks allows for capillary kinds of disruptions (Foucault’s micro-power) that can trigger cascading failures, as opposed to coordinated yet non-networked attacks of former generation terrorist groups.

Finally, the last characteristic of global guerrillas is open-source warfare (OSW):

“In OSW, the source code of warfare is available for anyone who is interested in both modifying and extending it. This means the tactics, weapons, strategies, target selection, planning, methods, and team dynamics are all open to community improvement. Global guerrillas can hack at the source of warfare to their heart’s content” (116)

As with open-source software, the main characteristics are as follows:

  • Early release and continuous updates
  • Constant problem solving through community sharing
  • Community members as allies and co-developers rather than competitors
  • Simplicity and easy adaptability of solutions

OSW is one big bazaar of warfare solutions.

I have already mentioned above and throughout this pose the issues I had with the book. I would add that there is too much conflation of security = protection of assets and defense of the capitalist system as it is (or whatever is left of it at this point). Too much defense of paramilitary seen as legitimate actors. And not enough recognition of the work done before on this topic. Some of the ideas in the book are useful in terms of conceptualization but there is too much grasping of fashionable concepts from a variety of fields.

That being said, the book is a quick an interesting read and I would recommend also bookmarking the blog (link above). But I would also say: go read Mary Kaldor first.

New Wars Uncovered – The Afghan War Logs

I am not done going through this but it is a must-read: the leaked Afghan War Logs, leaked to the Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel by Wikileaks. Beyond a detailed account of how war is waged in Afghanistan, they perfectly illustrate the logics of new wars.

In the Guardian:

Der Spiegel:

And the New York Times:

Immunity to Economic Recession: The Killing Business Fighting The Wrong Kind of War

So says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in this newly published report:

“The far-reaching effects of the global financial crisis and economic recession appear to have had little impact on world military expenditure. The USA, with a real-terms increase of $47 billion, accounted for 54% of the world increase in military expenditure. Although the USA led the rise, it was not alone (see figure 1). Of those countries for which data was available, 65% increased their military spending in real terms in 2009. In an analysis by region, Asia and Oceania showed the fastest real-terms increase with 8.9%.

‘Many countries were increasing public spending generally in 2009, as a way of boosting demand to combat the recession. Although military spending wasn’t usually a major part of the economic stimulus packages, it wasn’t cut either’, explains Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, Head of the Military Expenditure Project at SIPRI. ‘The figures also demonstrate that for major or intermediate powers such as the USA, China, Russia, India and Brazil military spending represents a long-term strategic choice which they are willing to make even in hard economic times.’”

Here are a few visuals from Stephanie Blencker’s report:

Milex Major

And my favorite:

Milex Changes

The report notes that a big chunk of this increase, especially for the US has to do with Afghanistan (the “right” war according to the US President, as opposed to the “wrong” war in Iraq). War expert Mary Kaldor argues that all this military stuff is still fighting the wrong kind of war with the wrong strategy leading basically nowhere. Instead of using a national security approach (prop us a national government – even if weak, unpopular and corrupt as is the Karzai government) geared towards the defeat of an enemy, she advocates a human security approach (she dismisses simple withdrawal as simplistic and accomplishing nothing) geared towards population protection from a range of risks (in Beck’s sense).

So, what would a human security approach mean for Aghanistan?

“First, the effort would focus on the security of Afghans as well as British or Americans, rather than the defeat of an enemy. In fact, the strategy adopted by Barack Obama last autumn is based on “population security”. But population security is seen as a means to an end, and the end is the defeat of US enemies. This matters in strategic terms since Afghans see themselves as pawns in a wider battle and cannot have confidence in the international presence; it is perhaps the biggest obstacle to human security.


Human security in the long term can only be guaranteed by trusted political and legal authorities. (…) Establishing trust is all about the relationship between government and governed. Even though the new strategy emphasises local governance, the fashionable tool is “government in a box” – a sort of technical imposition of state capacity from above. What is needed is the involvement of civil society in establishing a framework for a new, much more legitimate government.


Finally, a human security approach has to be civilian-led. McChrystal’s strategy was a big step forward, but the international effort is overly militarised. The UN special representative is squeezed between the government and the military effort, and the US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, is hardly visible.”

In the context of increasing and globalizing risk society, this is an approach that could be applied on many places, not just as response to already existing conflict, but to regions under tension.

Good Documentaries on Oil

With all the discussion floating around the Internet regarding the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought I would mention two documentaries that, I think, do a really good job at addressing issues regarding oil production and consumption.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (full video here) is my favorite so far because it does not have the sob stories and emotional heartstrings heavy pulling that activist documentaries often use, which I find annoying and unconvincing.

The film deals with peak oil, how we got to it, which areas of the world are already there, which ones have not reached it yet, how we are dealing with peak oil (with more intensive, complicated, expensive and risky drilling… sounds familiar?) and the social, economic and political consequences of life after peak oil (resource wars, as only one effect).

The film itself is extremely well done, in terms of graphics, visual and other devices to explain peak oil. Even better, the people sounding the alarm about peak oil and telling us that there are basically no new significant reserves of oil to be found nor new ways of drilling are not environmental activists but people from the oil industry.

It also deals with the question of increasing consumption as China, India and other countries are avidly industrializing and mimicking Western models of development in the context of peak oil and the geopolitical consequences as rich countries try more and more aggressively to gain or maintain their access to oil (see: Sudan, Darfur, genocide).

At the same time, it shows that there are no real alternatives to oil (other sources of energy do not come close to fulfilling energy needs), so changes in ways of life are the only way to go.

This is a very rich documentary that is chock full of information even without dealing with environmental issues. It specifically focuses on peak oil, production and consumption and politics.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil is completely different. This is more on the activist side of documentaries. Crude deals with the class action lawsuit engaged in Ecuador against Texaco / Chevron for the environmental and health damage the company inflicted upon the indigenous communities. So, there are sob stories.

The documentary is more personalized as we follow the travails of the attorneys on the plaintiffs’ side, especially the young Ecuadorian attorney for whom this is the first case (his brother was tortured, mutilated and assassinated just before the court case started… by mistake, the assassins were looking for the lawyer).

It is a classical David versus Goliath story: powerless indigenous communities with cash starved attorneys versus giant global corporation with the means to drag the case for decades (as is already the case, a common pattern for oil companies).

Certainly the images of pollution and contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon are shocking. The main damage is done by the pits that Texaco dug as dumps, then covered with dirt when the company left Ecuador.

The objections from Chevron / Texaco are ones we have often heard before either from other oil companies or tobacco companies: the case is brought by lawyers who want to line their pockets; no one can prove definite cause and effect between contamination and health problems (the tobacco industry polished that one), and besides, how do you know that that black goo is oil or that it’s Chevron oil? None very convincing.

One cannot help but notice that Chevron’s attorneys in Ecuador are white whereas the Ecuadorian attorneys for the plaintiffs are obviously from indigenous ancestry.

Apparently, the lawsuit is still going on. Chevron is now suing the makers of the film to obtain all the raw footage that was shot.

Crude is a movie that is useful when it comes to the issues of indigenous peoples. I would have liked more facts / history, / how indigenous life is affected (more in details, that is) / deforestation, less “let’s follow these courageous guys around”.

Insurgency: An Ideal-Type

This is something I read a while ago but kept as “interesting stuff to keep for future reference”. It is an ideal-typical description of successful insurgencies summarized in 14 traits by Sean Gourley:

  1. Many body: There are many more autonomous insurgent groups operating within conflicts than we had previously thought. For example there are 100+ autonomous groups operating in Iraq (as of 2006).
  2. Fluidity: The insurgents are loosely grouped together to form fluid networks with short half-lives. This is very different from the rigid hierarchical networks that have been proposed for insurgent groups.
  3. Redundancy: If we remove the strongest group from the system another group will rise to replace the previous strongest group
  4. Splinter: When a group is broken it does not generally split in half but instead shatters into multiple pieces
  5. Redistribute: When a group is broken the components are redistributed amongst the other groups in the system. The redistribution is biased towards the most successful remaining groups.
  6. Snowball: The strongest groups grow fastest
  7. Tall poppy: The strongest groups are the predominant targets for opposition forces
  8. Internal competition: There is direct competition amongst insurgent groups for both resources and media exposure. They are competing with each other in addition to fighting the stronger counterinsurgent forces.
  9. Independent co-ordination: Autonomous groups act in a coordinated fashion as a result of the competition that exists between them.
  10. Emergent structure: Attacks in both Iraq and Colombia become ‘less random’ and more coordinated over time
  11. Evolution: The strategies employed by the groups evolve over time where successful groups/strategies survive and unsuccessful strategies/groups are replaced.
  12. High dimensional: Connection occurs over high dimensions (i.e. Internet, cell phone etc) and is not dominated by geographic connections.
  13. Non-linear: It is approximately 316* times harder to kill 100 people in an attack than it is to kill 10 people. (*Results for a conflict with alpha=2.5).
  14. Independent clones: the fundamental structure and dynamics of insurgent groups is largely independent of religious, political, ideological or geographic differences.