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Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous


With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.

These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.

Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.

“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”

In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.

Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.

But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.

CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.

The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.

The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.

In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.

Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.

While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:06 AM | Permalink

Turkey’s Game of Chicken


So. The Turks voted on Wednesday to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militants. What now? Probably nothing more than more border skirmishes, a bit of diplomatic posturing and more confusion – as if there could be more – over Iraq.

But it would be unwise to dismiss the Turks’ saber-rattling as nothing more than a school-yard test of nerves. This is a very serious problem for the U.S. since 70 percent of all American air cargo bound for Iraq passes through Turkey, mainly through the Incirlik Air Base, a crucial logistical hub for U.S. forces.

And the Turks clearly know who their friends are. Or at least they’re saying they do. Ankara has said that just because Wednesday’s vote in parliament authorizes cross-border incursions, they’re not imminent. All the big players involved – Iraq, Turkey and the United States went to great pains to play down an immediate invasion. “I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow, but we will act at the right time and under the right conditions. This is about self-defense.”

Still, there’s little doubt that Turkey is royally pissed off and resentful of the United States and have decided to warn the Americans with what they see as a legitimate security measure to protect their borders. More than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed by PKK rebels in the last two weeks. “Those who criticize us in regards with the motion, should explain what they’re looking for in Afghanistan,” said Mehmet Ali Sahin, the Turkish justice minister. “Turkey applies the same international law that granted the right and authority to those who entered in Afghanistan in connection with some organizations with which they had linked the attacks on twin towers. Therefore, nobody has the right to say anything.”

Well, Iraq’s Kurds won’t take any movements against them lying down. They have no fond memories of the previous 24 incursions from Turkey over the past 23 years, but this one is different. For one, the Americans are in Iraq now, and the Kurds have an economic success story they – and to some extent, the Americans – want to protect. Yesterday, Kurds in Irbil, in northern Iraq marched by the thousands to protest the Turkish vote. Some threatened “resistance” should there be any cross-border funny business on the part of NATO’s second largest military.

But what would any military action on Turkey’s part look like? Are we looking at a major invasion? Probably not. Here’s why: northern Iraq is very inhospitable terrain. (I know; I’ve walked it.) It’s a maze of mountain passes and gullies, of treacherous peaks and loads of spots for ambushes. It is prime PKK territory. Also, winter is coming on, making a tough area even tougher. Many of the camps with the main body of PKK leadership and hardened fighters are in the Qandil Mountains, among the most rugged in the Middle East and on the Iranian border. Getting there is going to be a major challenge for the Turks. These raids would likely accomplish little by way of military objectives.

But faced with the difficulties of conducting effective precision strikes, the Turks will likely do what all militaries do when confronted with a wily foe: overreact with disproportionate force. That means the establishment of a buffer zone, manned by thousands of Turkish troops. And what happens when you put a foreign invading force on top of a resentful population in Iraq? Ask the Americans.

Of course, the Turks realize all this. This is their backyard after all. So it looks like the real game is not cowboys and indians, but the school-yard test of nerves called chicken.

What Turkey is really attempting to do is to force the U.S., Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to act against the PKK to pre-empt any action by Turkey. The Turks figure that the KRG and its American backers will choose to crack down on Kurdish rebels if they’re faced with the prospect of a Turkish invasion and the collapse of the Kurdish economic miracle in the north – much of which relies on trade with Turkey and Iran. It would be the lesser of two evils.

But if the U.S. and its allies don’t or can’t tackle the PKK, Turkey will be forced to act. Right now, there seems to be no great thirst for incursions that almost inevitably would lead to a larger and more permanent ground force and the Kurdish insurgency that almost certainly would follow.

Chicken is a dangerous game. The hardest part is knowing when to blink. Do Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds know the rules?

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 11:43 PM | Permalink

Busy Signal in Beirut


As I type this, I’m fuming. My Internet connection, one of the most advanced in Lebanon, is on the fritz again, and it’s not an unusual occurrence.

My situation is not unique. Lebanon lags behind most other countries in the Middle East in access to reliable, high-speed Internet, a fact that isn’t lost on most of its young professionals. They remember the mid-1990s when Lebanon was a trailblazer in Net access, being one of the first Arab countries to make it widely available. It is this digital slowdown that is holding back much of Lebanon’s development.

The slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri envisioned Lebanon as a New Media powerhouse of the region, attracting jobs and talent – and drawing upon its deep well of natural talent. Lebanon’s universities brim with smart young Web programmers, coders, graphic designers, marketing majors and advertising whiz-kids. There must be something in the water.

Hariri knew that if he was to rebuild the country after the devastating civil war of 1975-1990, he would need to attract business and investment. To that end, the national phone system was rebuilt with digital lines even back then. Hariri lured foreign investors with – at the time – the beginnings of an advanced telecom infrastructure.

And then, some time around 2000, all that forward moment ground to a halt, in a sort of national “404 File Not Found” error. Dubai, Egypt and, yes, Israel, galloped ahead in upgrading their infrastructures and cutting costs. While Lebanon, ground under the boot of a Syrian occupation that was waking up to the threat of unrestricted Internet access, began to fall prey to its usual ills: corruption, cronyism and a bureaucracy paralyzed by sectarian infighting. This happened in almost every ministry, but it was in the telecommunications ministry that people really felt it — and paid for it.

Like most governments, Lebanon’s collects revenues through taxes. But not income taxes. The state is largely funded by a 10% VAT and tariffs on goods coming into the country. (There is an income tax, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually pays it. There’s no real collection mechanism.) And one of the biggest gold mines for tax revenue is the telecom ministry. Last year, according to news reports and the government’s own figures, the ministry provided 38 percent of the state’s budget. Think about that: A single ministry provides almost two-fifths of the state’s revenue.

Which brings us to the Internet. There are more than 700,000 Internet users in Lebanon. Since 1997, GlobalCom Data Services was the exclusive licenser of data lines, a monopoly conveniently owned by a close relative of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian stooge. GDS took a cut of any Internet installation and there was little incentive to speed things up, given that Syria was in charge. This arrangement gladdened both Lahoud (his family made money) and the Syrians (they got cash and kept control.) Legal residential “broadband” — it could barely be considered that, seeing as it topped out at 128Kbps — was unavailable until 2004. Today, that’s not the case; The Syrians are mostly gone and you can get what is generously called broadband in the home, like I do.

I use a wireless receiver, about the size of a toaster, to suck down Internet access. For $150 a month — three times what you’d pay in most other developed parts of the world — I get 512Kbps download (never happens) and 64Kbps uplaod (ditto.) That means I could theoretically download the average pop song from iTunes in a little over a minute. Unfortunately, that theoretical speed is rarely reached. In contrast, your average American connection is at least 1.5MBps, which is about three times as fast. To add further insult to injury, my data use is capped at 5GB per month. If I go over it, I have to pay $25 for 500 more megabytes. My upload speed is too slow to allow video conferencing or VOIP, which is fine with the telecom ministry, as VOIP calls would cannibalize their mobile phone revenues. Skype is officially banned here.

Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel, recently paid a visit to Lebanon to on behalf of the Partnership for Lebanon, a private initiative formed in September 2006 after last summer’s war. “Broadband technology is absolutely key in developing Lebanon,” he said. “You need big pipes going into your country.”

That’s not happening. Lebanon’s data cables were only recently updated, to 1Gbps, or about 250 bits per person. The United States has 3,308 bits per person in 2004, according to data from the World Bank.

Barrett and his partners, who include Microsoft, Cisco, Occidental Petroleum and Ghafari Inc., face regulatory tangles, high tariffs and taxes, and infrastructural limitations. They also face a government more eager to wring revenue from the struggling industry rather than encourage its development. “Our message is loud and clear,” Barrett said. “If you regulate and price connectivity as a revenue source, then you inhibit the economy.”

But the unregulated, black market economy is doing just fine, thank you. Jerry-rigged Internet connections and unlicensed ISPs are the norm for most Lebanese. They’re slow and unreliable, but they’re cheap and they don’t have a data cap. These guerilla netheads’ efforts hint at the innovations in services that might be offered if Lebanon’s telecom industries were fully deregulated and left to compete. For example, one operator in Gemayzeh, the East Village of Beirut, sweetens his service by running a local network on his pirated lines and encourages and promotes P2P file sharing of games and movies among his subscribers. Because his subscribers essentially form one big local area network, this file sharing is much faster than the data flow from the outside Internet. Just think if that creativity could be channeled to legitimate access and services.

Which is why in May, when residential DSL finally came to town, there was much rejoicing. The regulatory schemes had been updated, the data pipes into the country had been upgraded, the old switches had been swapped out. Game on.

And what did we get? We got … a little more speed, a little more data, but not enough to jump start the IT economy. Disappointed, Lebanon’s Internet users howled — especially on the forum boards of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, an anti-government, middle-class group of people who stood up to Syria through much of the 1990s and first half of this decade. “The whole connection is a robbery, not just the money payed (sic) for going over the limit,” wrote a guy calling himself Jules3. “It’s a joke!”

“We have the most expensive cell phone rate, and now the most ironic (I think he meant moronic) DSL connection,” wrote someone called Osiris.

It’s this lack of connectivity that is turning off a lot of businesses, which is further retarding Lebanon’s recovery from last summer’s war. According to Zuheir Berro, President of the Consumers Union, the Internet sector in Lebanon has grown only 2 percent in six years, while other Arab countries have averaged 50 percent growth over the same time period. Without foreign investment, there is nothing driving Lebanon’s economy. Furthermore it’s not taking advantage of its greatest resource: the creativity of its young people. Instead, they’re leaving in droves to take advantages of opportunities elsewhere. Dubai is popular, thanks to its booming economy driven by its Media City economic zone – which, not coincidentally, features fast and cheap Net access.

Ultimately, the tangled wires of Lebanon’s IT “industry” is a symptom and symbol of the noisy crosstalk dominating the political scene here. With no political consensus, there’s no stability, which doesn’t encourage businesses to invest here and demand a better communication infrastructure. Without the infrastructure, remaining businesses that depend on communication will flee, meaning there’s less revenue for the state, perpetuating its weakness and making it unable to find or impose a political solution on its non-state and foreign rivals. (I’m looking at you, Hezbollah and Syria.) It’s a vicious cycle.

When it comes to the Internet, communication and Lebanon, the most commonly heard sound is a busy signal. All political and business circuits are jammed; please try again later.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:32 AM | Permalink

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