Of all the potential powder kegs on earth, none is more precarious than the South China Sea. Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines all have claims there. China builds artificial islands to reinforce its claims and the U.S. Navy patrols nearby.
The various militaries have brushed by each other in the water and in the air. “The Chinese people do not want to have war,” Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said Thursday. “We will be opposed to [the] U.S. if it stirs up any conflict … if the Korean War or Vietnam War are replayed, then we will have to defend ourselves.”
This week on War College, we talk to U.S. Naval War College professor James Holmes about the South China Sea, China’s artificial islands and the entangling alliances that may lead to war.
Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group’s goal has been remarkably consistent: to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings. As General Ray Odierno puts it: "They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq." Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS’s goal remained the same.
North Korea has reportedly fired shots at South Korea, according to state-run South Korean media, KBS. The shelling, which happened at 4pm local time, is believed to be aimed at loudspeakers on the South Korean side of the border that have been airing anti-Pyongyang propaganda. South Korea fired shots back at the north. “Our side staged a counter-attack with dozens of 155mm shells,” a ministry spokesmantold AFP.
Tensions between the two Koreas, still technically at war after agreeing to an armistice and not a peace treaty in the 1950s, have been higher than normal recently. Seoul accused North Korea of planting a land mine that killed two South Korean soldiers earlier this month. In response to the land mine incident, South Korea took up a tactic last used over a decade ago, and began blaring anti-North Korea broadcastsover the border. (The speakers have also been used to blast K-pop into the country.) The area between North and South Korea is one of the most militarized borders in the world.
The two countries have traded shots over propaganda before—in October last year, North Korean military fired anti-aircraft guns at balloons released into the country by South Korean protesters. Observers worry that under the leadership of North Korea’s young and increasingly unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un, incidents like this can easily escalate.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of alâ€‘Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as â€œSheikh Osama,â€ a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaedaâ€™s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the groupâ€™s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic Stateâ€™s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamd Attaâ€™s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observationâ€”that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguiseâ€”and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic Stateâ€™s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to â€œmoderns.â€ In conversation, they insist that they will notâ€”cannotâ€”waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic Stateâ€™s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and â€œsmash his head with a rock,â€ poison him, run him over with a car, or â€œdestroy his crops.â€ To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishmentsâ€”the stoning and crop destructionâ€”juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an â€œuncircumcised geezer.â€)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops aloneâ€”unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Make sure you read the entire article. Â Itâ€™s a long read but worthwhile. Â
In the end, they are preaching a form of Islamic fundamentalism where violence, executions, and war is all normalized as a part of a bringing about the end times. Â Actually it seems more like a cult rooted in Islam rather than just fundamentalism (which when extreme leads to violence no matter what faith you associate it with) Â Even Al-Queda thought they were over the top.
During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic Stateâ€™s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdiâ€”a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were â€œtalking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisionsâ€ based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. â€œAl-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say â€˜Cut it out.â€™â€‰â€
So this isnâ€™t terrorism even in the way we think of terrorism (state sponsored or politically motivated). Â It is terrorism driven by a belief in the end times.
Earlier this month, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and forces loyal to the Western-backed government in Kyiv, Dmitry Kiselyov, the pugnacious, middle-aged journalist who heads Russiaâ€™s main state news agency, gazed defiantly into a TV studio camera. â€œWhat is Russia preparing for?â€ he asked. As if in reply, the director cut to an ominous backdrop image of an intercontinental ballistic missile emerging from an underground launch silo.
â€œDuring the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first,â€ Kiselyov told the audience of Vesti Nedeli, his current affairs show, one of the countryâ€™s most widely watched programs. â€œBut Russiaâ€™s current military doctrine does not.â€ He paused briefly for effect. â€œNo more illusions.â€
There was nothing out of the ordinary about this reminder that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a â€œthreatâ€ to its statehood. Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, which has massive geostrategic importance for Russia, state-controlled TV has engineered an upsurge in aggressive anti-Western sentiment, with Kiselyov as the Kremlinâ€™s top attack dog.
Last spring, as Washington warned of sanctions over Russiaâ€™s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Kiselyov boasted about his countryâ€™s fearsome nuclear arsenal. â€œRussia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the U.S. into radioactive ash,â€ he declared.
Why is this happening?
â€œI wouldnâ€™t take these statements about nuclear war literally,â€ said Pomerantsev, whose book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, dissects the Kremlinâ€™s media manipulation tactics. Talk of impending nuclear conflict is â€œone of Putinâ€™s mind-benders,â€ part of what he called an attempt to convince the West that the former KGB officer is this â€œcrazy, unpredictableâ€ leader whom it would be advisable not to push too far.
But the lines between fantasy and reality can all too often get blurred.
â€œThere is always the danger that games somehow slip into reality â€“ you start off playing with these narratives, and you end up stumbling into a real conflict,â€ said Pomerantsev.
The Kremlinâ€™s masters of reality have uncorked the atomic genie. It is to be hoped they show the same aptitude when it comes to putting it back in the bottle.
Itâ€™s different for dictators or authoritarian regimes. Flick a switch, pull a lever, and things happen, often instantly. Which is one reason why the Putin-versus-Europe contest in Ukraine is so one-sided; why one side acts and the other struggles to react; why one side is consistently ahead of the curve, the other behind it â€“ in the short-term, at least.
Six months after the Kremlin stunned Europe with its land grab in Ukraine, a Nato summit in Wales unveiled its ideas for shoring up security in eastern Europe. For more than two decades, the alliance had been beset by self-doubt. Having won the cold war, what was the point any more?
Putin gave the military planners at Mons and the armies of bureaucrats in Brussels a new lease of life. Natoâ€™s core purpose â€“ facing down and containing Russia â€“ was newly legitimised.
The summit decided to put a spearhead force at brigade strength, more than 5,000 men, into Poland and the Baltics at short notice: small units of special forces within hours, bigger reinforcements within days, at the first hint of trouble.
That was six months ago. But since the September summit, the plan has atrophied, bogged down in endless circular discussions of who does what, when and where. Who pays for it? Where is the kit coming from? Will the Americans step up to relieve the Europeans? Who will be in command?
First of all, NATO did not win the cold war, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did for the exact reasons mentioned. Â It wonâ€™t win this conflict unless the United States has a stronger foreign policy and from what we have seen from Barack Obama, it will have to come from the next President.
In the weeks after Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire, three Israeli soldiers decided to end their lives with their own weapons. And what was especially striking about their suicides was that all served in the same unit, the Givati Brigade, which had a reputation for its ruthless ferocity, considerable bravery, and the use of Old Testament religiosity to justify the merciless operations of its commander, Colonel Ofer Winter.
So why did it happen?
A contributing factor, according to Staff Sergeant J., who served in the Givati Brigade in the middle of the last decade, and does not want to be named, is that secular Israelis are now avoiding the military or declining to continue after mandatory service. â€œThose who do continue feel a religious and political duty,â€ he says. This has been discussed as a concern by Israeli academics and analysts for years.
The staff sergeant said that when he was in the Givati Brigade in 2007 or so, it was â€œopenly secular.â€ He recalls â€œthere was a group who had come from the yeshiva,â€ but â€œoften they were uncomfortableâ€¦ they felt sidelined.â€ As secular Israelis left, however, the vacancies were filled by settlers, he said.
Could any of this, or some of this, or none of this have affected the decision of three Givati soldiers to take their own lives? The Daily Beast reached out to several post-traumatic stress disorder specialists for their analysis.
â€œIt is strange that they hadnâ€™t seen a mental-health counselor,â€ said Mooli Lahad, an Israeli psychiatrist and psychotrauma specialist with over three decades of experience. He was citing reports that the Givati soldiers hadnâ€™t received treatment. â€œThis isnâ€™t common for the IDF,â€ he said.
Lahad stressed that suicide usually has to do with pre-existing issues, such as depression, and an accumulation of factors can lead to a sense of hopelessness, which counseling helps to prevent.
â€œSometimes, if there is a particularly macho culture, seeking help for depression or PTSD is seen as showing weakness, which is discouraged,â€ Lahad said. â€œIf thereâ€™s a commander who thinks God is whispering in his ear, this can make things even more difficult.â€
The article also speaks of religious radicalization of the Israeli military due to the role of fundamentalist settlements.Â
Russia’s zeal for turning back reform has been felt most powerfully in the U.N.’s leasing of aircraft — a $1 billion a year market — that provide transport for the world’s second-largest expeditionary force. An examination of U.N. procurement practices in the air-transport sector — drawing on dozens of interviews with U.N.-based officials and diplomats, as well as a review of internal U.N. communications and audits — suggests that Russia has enjoyed unfair advantages, including contracts that all but demand that the United Nations lease Russia’s Soviet-era aircraft.
The dispute provides a textbook example of the difficulties of implementing basic financial reforms at the United Nations when major powers have conflicting commercial interests in the outcome. As such, the secretary general and key countries have been unwilling to openly confront Russia because its cooperation is required on a wide range of critical issues at the United Nations.
Guatemala’s president declared a national emergency Friday over the spread of coffee rust, saying the fungus that has hit other Central American countries is affecting 70 percent of this nation’s crop.
President Otto Molina Perez ordered the release of more than $14 million to aid coffee growers. He said the funds would help 60,000 small farmers buy pesticides and also finance instruction to teach them how to prevent the disease and stop it from spreading.
“If we don’t take the needed measures, in 2013-2014 our production could drop by 40 percent,” Molina said in making his country the third in the region to decree emergencies in recent weeks.
Coffee rust, which can kill plants by withering their leaves, also is affecting plantations in El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica. Mexico’s agriculture authorities said the fungus has been detected there but so far has not damaged plants.
Molina said the pesticides will start being applied to coffee plants in April and two more applications will be needed during the year.
Nils Leporowsky, president of the National Coffee Association of Guatemala, or Anacafe, said coffee is grown in 206 of the country’s 333 municipalities.Â
“We have planted 667,000 acres (270,000 hectares) of coffee and of that 477,000 acres (193,000 hectares) have rust, affecting 70 percent of the total,” he added.
Leporowsky said coffee growing generates 500,000 direct jobs as well as 700,000 additional jobs in related businesses each year.”We have lost 100,000 direct jobs already and that will affect millions of people,” he said.
Experts say the fungus has been present in Central American since the 1970s but production hadn’t previously been affected so severely as what is feared this year.
Otto Cabrera, an adviser with Anacafe, said coffee rust arrived in Guatemala in the 1980s.
“The fungus directly affects coffee leaves, initially with yellow spots that later turn orange and reaches around the foliage of coffee, then makes the leaves fall,” he said. “The plant loses its foliage. It’s not able to breathe, so it ceases producing and it eventually dies.”
Cabrera said climate change has brought a rise in average temperatures of about 2 degrees Celsius in Central American areas where the fungus was present, encouraging its growth and increasing the threat of severe damage.
The Syrian accounts also said at least 20 soldiers had been killed in the fighting, but said nothing about civilian casualties. Activist groups reporting from Hama â€” the source of most information about the mayhem there since Syrian forces first besieged the city last weekend â€” have said at least 200 civilians have been killed by military shelling and snipers. They reported a new round of shelling on Friday.
The resident reached by telephone said that 200 tanks had entered the city before dawn, and that security forces were blocking residents from gathering in the cityâ€™s mosques.
â€œThe government has given up its responsibilities and handed everything over to the security forces,â€ said Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure in Damascus. â€œThey have lost their mind. They are acting without any strategic or political goal. The governmentâ€™s armed gangs are roaming the streets, simply looking for vengeance.â€
As the government pressed its crackdown on Hama, military and security forces appeared to prepare for another assault on Deir al-Zour, a city in eastern Syria knitted by the loyalties of extended clans where protests had gathered force for the past month. Those forces shelled the city on Thursday night into Friday morning, residents said.