Friday, November 25, 2005

Al Qaeda has lost the Middle East

That's the basic thrust of this Economist article. The key paragraphs:

The global al-Qaeda franchise, whose Iraqi branch claimed responsibility for the Amman atrocity, has scored many own-goals over the years. The carnage in such Muslim cities as Istanbul, Casablanca, Sharm el-Sheikh and Riyadh has alienated the very Muslim masses the jihadists claim to be serving. By bringing home the human cost of such violence, they have even stripped away the shameful complacency with which the Sunni Muslim majority in other Arab countries has tended to regard attacks by Iraq's Sunni insurgent “heroes” against “collaborationist” Shia mosque congregations, funeral processions and police stations.

In Amman, al-Qaeda's victims included not only Mr Akkad and his daughter Rima, a mother of two, but also dozens of guests at a Palestinian wedding. The slaughter of so many innocents, nearly all of them Sunni Muslims, in the heart of a peaceful Arab capital, inspired a region-wide wave of revulsion. Far from being perceived now as a sort of Muslim Braveheart, the man who planned the attack, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may be the most reviled person in Jordan, the country of his birth. His own tribe, which had previously taken some pride in its association with the Iraqi resistance, has publicly disowned him. Tens of thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets of Amman to denounce terrorism. Opinion polls, which had previously shown Jordanians to be at best ambivalent about jihadist violence, now show overwhelming distaste for it.

Similar changes in attitude have overtaken other Arab societies. Some 150,000 Moroccans marched in Casablanca earlier this month to protest against al-Qaeda's threat to kill two junior Moroccan diplomats kidnapped on the road to Baghdad. The execution by Mr Zarqawi's men of two Algerian diplomats and the Egyptian chargé d'affaires in Iraq earlier this year aroused similar indignation in their home countries. Two years of bloody jihadist attacks in Saudi Arabia have rudely shaken the once-considerable sympathy for radical Islamism in the conservative kingdom. A top Saudi security source reckons that 80% of the country's success in staunching violence is due to such shifts in public feeling, and only 20% to police work.

The direct impact of tragedy has not been the only impetus for change. Arab governments used to treat local terrorism as something that dented their prestige and should be covered up. Now they eagerly exploit the images of suffering to justify their policies. The way such events are reported in the press no longer hints at a reflexive blaming of external forces. The Arab commentariat, much of which had promoted sympathy with the Iraqi insurgency, and focused on perceived western hostility to Islam as the cause of global jihadism, has grown vocal in condemning violence. Jihad al-Khazen, the editor of al-Hayat, a highbrow Saudi daily, is a frequent and mordant critic of western policy. Yet his response to the Amman tragedy was an unequivocal call for global co-operation to combat what he blasted as the enemies of life, of joy, and of the light of day.

Popular culture, too, has begun to reflect such shifts in attitude. Recently, during the peak television season of Ramadan, satellite channels watched by millions across the region broadcast several serials dramatising the human toll of jihadist violence. One of these contrasted the lives of ordinary Arab families, living in a housing compound in Riyadh, with a cartoonish view of the terrorists who eventually attack them. Another serial focused, with eerie foresight, on a group of jihadist assassins in Amman. Their plot to murder a television producer who is critical of their methods goes awry, killing three children instead. Unusually for an Arabic-language serial, even the villains are presented as conflicted souls, alienated from society and misled by dreams of glory and heavenly reward.

Religious leaders have chipped in. Moderate Muslim clerics have grown increasingly concerned at the abuse of religion to justify killing. In Saudi Arabia, numerous preachers once famed for their fighting words now advise tolerance and restraint. Even so rigid a defender of suicide attacks against Israel (on the grounds that all of Israeli society is militarised) as Yusuf Qaradawi, the star preacher of the popular al-Jazeera satellite channel, denounces bombings elsewhere and calls on the perpetrators to repent.

All good news. Methinks the more controversial paragraphs are the following ones:
Noteworthy in all these subtle shifts is the fact that they are, by and large, internally generated. Few of them have come about as a result of prodding or policy initiatives from the West. On the contrary, the intrusion of foreign armies into Iraq, the consequent ugly spectacle of civilian casualties and torture, and the continuing agony of Palestine, have clearly slowed down the Arab public's response to the dangers posed by jihadism.

Now, or so it seems, it is the cooling of the Palestinian intifada, a slight lowering of the volume of imagery featuring ugly Americans in Iraq, and a general weariness with jihadist hysteria that have allowed attention to refocus on the costs, rather than the hoped-for rewards, of “resistance”. At the same time, the rising tide of American domestic opposition to the war has begun to reassure deeply sceptical Arabs that the superpower may not, after all, be keen to linger on Arab soil for ever. (emphasis added)

The administration has consistently crticized the domestic opposition to the Iraq war effort because it ostensible undercuts troop morale. However, the suggestion that this same opposition helps to vitiate Arab claims of U.S. imperialism is an intriguing one.

I'll leave it to the readers to determine if this is also true.

posted by Dan at 11:08 AM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Could be worse... could be in Harbin

Among the things to be thankful for this year -- my family does not live in Harbin, China. David Fickling explains in the Guardian:

Panic was today spreading in Harbin, with officials preparing to cut off water supplies as heavily polluted river water flowed towards the Chinese city.

Residents were storing water supplies in bathtubs and buckets ahead of the expected three-day drought. Supermarkets reported panic buying of water, milk and soft drinks, while Harbin's airport and railway station were jammed with people fleeing the area.

The provincial government was also trucking in water from neighbouring areas, testing little-used local wells and demanding 1,400 tonnes of activated charcoal to purify the water intake after the pollution had passed through the city.

Harbin's authorities warned residents not to even approach the Songhua river because of the risk of pollutants escaping into the atmosphere when the polluted water hits the city around 5am tomorrow. The 50 mile-long stretch of pollution is not expected to flow out of the city until Saturday....

The city, in China's icy north-eastern Heilongjiang province, has a population of 3.8 million and draws most of its water from the Songhua. The river has been contaminated with more than 30 times the usual levels of benzene after an explosion at a chemical plant on its banks.

The blast, in the neighbouring Jilin province, happened on November 13, killing five people and causing 10,000 to be evacuated from the area, officials said.

Benzene, a component of petrol, is highly flammable and toxic. Short-term exposure to the chemical in drinking water can cause long-term damage to the nervous system, while long-term exposure can result in cancer and leukaemia.

Of course, my thanks is tempered by the fact that 3.4 million people do live there.

posted by Dan at 04:22 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

A civil/military disconnect on Iraq?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, has released its latest poll on America's Place in the World:

This quadrennial study examines the foreign policy attitudes of state and local government officials, security and foreign affairs experts, military officers, news media leaders, university and think tank leaders, religious leaders, and scientists and engineers, along with the general public.
There are two stark findings. First, there's been a strong turn towards an isolationist foreign policy:
As the Iraq war has shaken the global outlook of American influentials, it has led to a revival of isolationist sentiment among the general public. Fully 42% of Americans say the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." This is on par with the percentage expressing that view during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the 1990s after the Cold War ended.
Second, there is a growing gap between civilian and military elites about the likelihood of success in Iraq. Here's the relevant table:
Is the military out of touch on this one? In his Los Angeles Times column today, Max Boot argues that perhaps the military agrees more with Iraqis than Americans:
[I]n a survey last month from the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, 47% of Iraqis polled said their country was headed in the right direction, as opposed to 37% who said they thought that it was going in the wrong direction. And 56% thought things would be better in six months. Only 16% thought they would be worse....

Now, it could be that the Iraqi public and the U.S. armed forces are delusional. Maybe things really are on an irreversible downward slope. But before reaching such an apocalyptic conclusion, stop to consider why so many with firsthand experience have more hope than those without any.

For starters, one can point to two successful elections this year, on Jan. 30 and Oct. 15, in which the majority of Iraqis braved insurgent threats to vote. The constitutional referendum in October was particularly significant because it marked the first wholesale engagement of Sunnis in the political process. Since then, Sunni political parties have made clear their determination to also participate in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election. This is big news. The most disaffected group in Iraq is starting to realize that it must achieve its objectives through ballots, not bullets.

There are also positive economic indicators that receive little or no coverage in the Western media. For all the insurgents' attempts to sabotage the Iraqi economy, the Brookings Institution reports that per capita income has doubled since 2003 and is now 30% higher than it was before the war. Thanks primarily to the increase in oil prices, the Iraqi economy is projected to grow at a whopping 16.8% next year. According to Brookings' Iraq index, there are five times more cars on the streets than in Saddam Hussein's day, five times more telephone subscribers and 32 times more Internet users.

The growth of the independent media — a prerequisite of liberal democracy — is even more inspiring. Before 2003 there was not a single independent media outlet in Iraq. Today, Brookings reports, there are 44 commercial TV stations, 72 radio stations and more than 100 newspapers....

Since the Jan. 30 election, not a single Iraqi unit has crumbled in battle, according to Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who until September was in charge of their training. Iraqi soldiers are showing impressive determination in fighting the terrorists, notwithstanding the terrible casualties they have taken. Their increasing success is evident on "Route Irish," from Baghdad International Airport. Once the most dangerous road in Iraq, it is now one of the safest. The last coalition fatality there that was a result of enemy action occurred in March.

[But James Fallows asserts in the Atlantic that Iraq doesn't really have a viable security force--ed. Yes, but David Adesnik points out that the overwheling focus of the Fallows piece is on the period prior to June 2004.]

Now if you want a different take on what's happening in Iraq right now, see Barrack Obama's latest speech.

My qusestion to readers -- who suffers from the greater delusions -- the military or civilian elites?

posted by Dan at 08:17 AM | Comments (55) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The difficulty of doing good on HIV/AIDS

UNAIDS released a good news/bad news kind of report yesterday about the state of the AIDS epidemic. These paragraphs from their press release capture the nature of the problem:

Despite decreases in the rate of infection in certain countries, the overall number of people living with HIV has continued to increase in all regions of the world except the Caribbean. There were an additional five million new infections in 2005. The number of people living with HIV globally has reached its highest level with an estimated 40.3 million people, up from an estimated 37.5 million in 2003. More than three million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2005; of these, more than 500000 were children.

According to the report, the steepest increases in HIV infections have occurred in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (25% increase to 1.6 million) and East Asia. But sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the most affected globally with 64% of new infections occurring here (over three million people).

"We are encouraged by the gains that have been made in some countries and by the fact that sustained HIV prevention programmes have played a key part in bringing down infections. But the reality is that the AIDS epidemic continues to outstrip global and national efforts to contain it," said UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot. "It is clear that a rapid increase in the scale and scope of HIV prevention programmes is urgently needed. We must move from small projects with short-term horizons to long-term, comprehensive strategies," he added.

The report recognizes that access to HIV treatment has improved markedly over the past two years. More than one million people in low-and middle-income countries are now living longer and better lives because they are on antiretroviral treatment and an estimated 250 000 to 350 000 deaths were averted this year because of expanded access to HIV treatment....

Levels of knowledge of safe sex and HIV remain low in many countries - even in countries with high and growing prevalence. In 24 sub-Saharan countries (including Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda), two-thirds or more of young women (aged 15-24 years) lacked comprehensive knowledge of HIV transmission. According to a major survey carried out in the Philippines in 2003, more than 90% of respondents still believed that HIV could be transmitted by sharing a meal with an HIV-positive person.

David Greising has a front-pager in the Chicago Tribune about the efforts of Abbott Laboratories to help Tanzania cope with the AIDS epidemic. The story highlights the fact that this is not simply about access to cheap medicines:
For five years now, Abbott has worked with Tanzania's government to alleviate the impact of AIDS. The experience has taught the company that the biggest obstacles are less obvious, and less readily overcome, than getting drugs to the villages.

Hospital laboratories are archaic. Treatment wards are overrun with patients. There is little capacity to treat AIDS-related illnesses such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Tanzania cannot adequately care for the orphans of AIDS victims. A social stigma against AIDS victims persists, which deters people from getting tested and treated for the disease.

"People who simplify this into just drop-shipping gobs of drugs into remote areas of Africa, they're nuts," said Miles White, Abbott's chief executive, during a trip to Tanzania last month to review the progress of Abbott's work. "It's a lot more complicated than that."....

Dealing effectively in Africa also means avoiding pitfalls that have hit other donors.

The United Nations-supported Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria early this year cut off support for five programs in Uganda, citing widespread mismanagement. In Kenya, skepticism over the government's ability to deliver drugs has led church-backed organizations to form a private distribution company.

Merck & Co. teamed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation five years ago to launch a groundbreaking $100 million program to aid Botswana, where 37 percent of the adult male population has AIDS. But the donors have found it difficult to distribute money, in part because of bottlenecks and logistical difficulties.

posted by Dan at 10:12 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

A data point for frozen turkeys

One of the fiercest debates among the staff here at about the Thanksgiving holiday is whether the convenience of purchasing a frozen turkey days in advance outweighs the added taste of cooking a fresh, unfrozen bird.

Angela Rozas has a story in the Chicago Tribune that highlights a heretofore unknown value of the frozen turkey -- in an emergency, it can save lives:

Mark Copsy saw the smoke inside the car, and watched as the vehicle careered into a curb in Northlake on Sunday afternoon. It took him only a moment to realize the horror--the car was on fire, and there were people inside. Copsy and his 12-year-old son ran the half-block to help.

When they got to the car, Copsy, 42, said he couldn't open the door. Inside, he could see an elderly man in the driver's seat. A female passenger sat next to him, her face white. He tried to smash the glass with his foot, but couldn't do it. In his hands, he held a 20-pound frozen Norbest turkey he and his son had just bought for Thanksgiving.

"I said, `Hell, I'll just use the damn turkey.' And that's what I did," Copsy said. He yelled for the driver to cover his face, and used the turkey to smash out three windows.

By then, police and others had arrived at Wolf Road and North Avenue, and together they pulled the elderly driver out of the car.

posted by Dan at 10:05 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hmmm.. what's missing from this survey?

There are a lot of news stories (here's one from's Jo Best) out today on the latest Pew survey that shows search engines have become the second-most frequent online activity after e-mail. According to Pew's Lee Rainie:

These results from September 2005 represent a sharp increase from mid-2004. Pew Internet Project data from June 2004 show that use of search engines on a typical day has risen from 30% to 41% of the internet-using population, which itself has grown in the past year. This means that the number of those using search engines on an average day jumped from roughly 38 million in June 2004 to about 59 million in September 2005 - an increase of about 55%. comScore data, which are derived from a different methodology, show that from September 2004 to September 2005 the average daily use of search engines jumped from 49.3 million users to 60.7 million users -- an increase of 23%.
Here's a link to the data memo in .pdf format. What I found most interesting was "the proportion of that daily population who are doing some well-known internet activities":
Email 77%
Search engine 63%
Get news 46%
Do job-related research 29%
Use instant messaging 18%
Do online banking 18%
Take part in chat room 8%
Make a travel reservation 5%
Read blogs 3%
Participate in online auction 3%
Two thoughts -- first, this blog number is consistent with other recent surveys suggesting that not a large fraction of Americans are blog consumers.

Second, there's one very large invisible elephant in this survey. One obvious online activity was not included in the above list. See if you can guess what it is. [What is it?--ed.] Umm.... just guess. [Can you give the people a hint?--ed.] Ummm.... er.... Chapelle's Show had a hysterically funny skit about what people do when they're on the web that best captures this activity.

If search engines are more popular than that invisible elephant, then I'll start to disagree with Asymmetrical Information about Google's share price.

posted by Dan at 03:03 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

That old Iraqi nostalgia

Ellen Knickmeyer has a front-pager in the Washington Post about U.S. and Iraqi efforts to reconstitute the Iraqi army's junior officer corps with former officers from Saddam Hussein's army. Kinckmeyer's report suggests that this process is going pretty smoothly by Iraqi standards -- but it leads to some very bizarre scenes:

Clad in the olive-green uniform of old, his heart rising to the sound of the lilting march to which he once went to war for President Saddam Hussein, Sgt. Bashar Fathi, a veteran of Iraq's once-elite Republican Guard, watched Iraqi tanks trundle across a parade ground recently -- just as they once swept across the sands of Kuwait.

"This ceremony -- this same music -- it makes us remember the old army," marveled Fathi, standing on the top tier of a reviewing stand south of Baghdad. Next to him was Capt. Khudhair Alwan, whose contact with U.S. forces began by trying to kill them as they invaded the southern city of Basra in 2003....

[There was] a ceremony Thursday officially delivering 77 Hungarian-donated Soviet-era T-72 tanks to the Iraqi army, giving the force its most formidable armor so far. Loudspeakers played music that would be familiar to members of Hussein's army -- including "We Are Walking to War," the anthem to which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men went to battle against Iran in the 1980s.

The low-slung, refurbished T-72s, with gunners saluting from the hatches, rolled past the reviewing stand without breakdown or excessive smoke. The music, the martial pageantry and the tanks -- the same model as the tanks Hussein used to roll out to war against his neighbors and his peoples -- had men in the stands speaking nostalgically.

[Er... isn't the reliance on former army people a bad thing in terms of democratizing Iraq?--ed. It's been a while since I've perused the comparative politics literature on this, but if memory serves there has never been a successful occupation or revolution that did not rely on the cooperation of the prior regime's technocrats. It's just a fact of life.]

posted by Dan at 12:07 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)