Friday, November 30, 2007

Boycotting the Beijing Games

I'm boycotting the Beijing Olympics. No, I have not been invited to participate, nor was I ever really planning on attending.

Normally I'm kind of opposed to boycotts. In the modern economy, revenue streams can be very complicated and corporations are often wholly- or partially-owned subsidiaries of some other company. The goals of many boycotts are ambiguous and the message intended to be sent and the means by which it will be sent are often unclear. Furthermore, the time span for most boycotts is vague: if the boycott's goals are not achieved in a timely manner, will it drag on indefinitely?

To address such questions, I figured I'd post a small manifesto for my Beijing Olympic boycott:

What is to be boycotted?

Coverage of the Games, in print or on television, including the opening and closing ceremonies. Any merchandise is also out.

How long will the boycott last?

The length of the Games, 8-24 August 2008.

What is the goal of the boycott?

I am under no illusion that the infinitesimal amount of money the Chinese regime will lose due to my boycott will go noticed. Nor am I under the illusion that millions will flock to my side, creating a mass movement that will in some way harm the regime. (Though I must confess that, if this happened, I would not be opposed.)

Instead, this boycott is aimed at educating fellow Americans about the evils of the Chinese regime. Inevitably there will be get-togethers to watch the opening ceremony; I plan on being in the next room telling folks why I'm not watching the TV. The list of reasons is so extensive I struggle to find the right place to start:

* The Chinese regime has supported the military junta in Burma for years; had the Chinese wanted to stop the suppression of monastically-lead pro-democracy demonstrations this year, it could have. It didn't.

*The Chinese regime conducting ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, intentionally conducting nuclear tests upwind of population centers of Turkic Uyghur populations, releasing violent criminals into Xinjiang to help kill of the Uyghurs, and settling large numbers of heavily-armed ethnic Han Chinese to drive them out.

*The Chinese regime is destroying Tibetan culture, to such an extent that the Dahli Lama has threatened not to reincarnate himself in Chinese-controlled Tibet, so oppressive is the environment.

*The Chinese regime and its various state-owned industries stealing American commercial secrets left and right. This is not free trade, this is industrial espionage, intellectual piracy. Under the guise of winning jobs for their own people, the Chinese regime demands that most products sold in China be made in China; this allows them to copy any and every design for products made there. (And have no doubts, they are copying with a vengeance.)

*The Chinese regime routinely hacks American networks, trying to steal military and political secrets from the government and contractors.

*The Chinese regime is busy subverting South Pacific island nations, as it tries to out-maneuver Taiwan for diplomatic influence in the region. This subversion has included - but is not limited to - support for the coup in Fiji.

*The Chinese regime has armed the Taliban, thereby threatening the lives of Afghans, Americans and their other allies, and delaying democracy and development in that nation.

*The Chinese regime suppresses democracy at home, heavily censors the internet, makes use of slave labor, oppressing the Catholic Church, poisons its own rivers and engages in more abuses than I have time to type.

*Oh, yes. And the Chinese regime has displaced 1.5 million of its own people to build the Olympic Park in Beijing. And you thought use of eminent domain was out of control here...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Return of the Airship?

A 170-foot non-rigid airship, the Polar 400, made its maiden flight the day after Thanksgiving; its revolutionary design may result in a low-cost alternative to heavier-than-air unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Virginian-Pilot carried the story, complete with exclusive photos.

"It's very responsive. It's the most maneuverable blimp I've ever flown," said test pilot Doug McFadden. "To my knowledge, no one has mounted an engine on a non-rigid surface, and no one has used hydraulic propulsion to do it," explained Alan Ram, head a propulsion for the project.

Blackwater Airships, a unit of Blackwater Worldwide, designed the airship to carry intelligence-gathering cameras, sensors and communications gear for counterterrorism, counternarcotics and border security operations. The vehicle is unmanned and piloted by remote control from the ground.

"With a few engineering innovations, Blackwater hopes to turn a time-tested platform - the Navy used blimps to watch for enemy submarines in World War II - into a modern tool for combating terrorism and for other 21st-century needs," the Virginian-Pilot explained.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kremlin Detains Garry Kasparov

As if there were not already enough reasons to distrust Pooty-Poot's Russia, here is one more. The BBC reports that Garry Kasparov, opposition leader and former world chess champion, has been detained by the Kremlin.

When Kasparov's Other Russia Party, recently banned from December's parliamentary elections, attempted to march to the Electoral Commission, the police moved in. The election has been a contentious issue for Other Russia, a coalition which brings together leftists, nationalists and mainstream politicians; their appeal to the country's Supreme Court, disputing the election ban, was dismissed.

However, the BBC's Richard Galpin in Moscow report that "attending the rally for the first time was the leader of one of the mainstream liberal parties - a sign that the movement is growing." Let us hope that, with Western support, the opposition can mobilize in a powerful way. Sadly, I will not holding my breath.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

NYPD Goes International

Serviam magazine reports that the New York Police Department, faced with the threat of terrorism, with only limited help from the CIA and FBI, has begun "running operations as far away as Virginia and Mississippi, and has raised eyebrows with the expansion of a virtual foreign intelligence arm present in more than a dozen countries." In addition, NYPD "has tapped the private sector for help, and created an analytical unit that rivals the finest teams at the FBI and CIA." Among their products is a recent report titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report has received critical acclaim not only for its insight and actionability, but also the absense of political correctness that hamstrings so many other efforts. While some people might be worried about this new activity on the part of the NYPD, I would contend this is simply one of the strenghts of the federal system: if one part of the government fails to do its duty, others are able and willing to step into the gap.

Internal State Department Memo Praises Contractors

A few days ago The Spy Who Billed Me published an internal State Department memo which enumerated five cases of "superior/heroic contractor performance" in the war on terror. Dr. R. J. Hillhouse explains, "The first four instances involve contractors from Blackwater and the last one is most likely Triple Canopy." She removed the last names, but has otherwise included all original text. I reproduce it below in its entirety, for your consideration:

Five Examples of Superior/Heroic Contractor Performance

Protectee Evacuation: On 23 Jan 07, Raven 7 was on venue at the Municipalities and Public Works Annex (MMPW) building. At approximately 1113 hours they reported receipt of heavy small arms fire. DOS [Department of State] Air Assets were contacted by RSO TOC [Tactical Operations Center] and requested to provide aerial support. At 1118, the RSO Air Assets arrived in the vicinity of MMPW, and one round of SAF [small arms fire] struck an RSO Air Asset door gunner in the cheek. At 1120, RSO Air Assets took their door gunner to the 28th CSH [combat support hospital]. This COM PSD [personal security detachment] member was pronounced KIA [killed in action]. During this engagement, the COM Tactical Support Teams (TST) 22, 23, 24 and 26 responded to the MMPW building to support the engaged COM PSD teams, and received heavy SAF while in route and on location. Army attack aviation and Stryker units also responded to the MMPW building during this period. The Designated Marksman from Raven 7 on the roof of the MMPW venue remained engaged with a heavy volume of SAF.

At 1150, the RSO Air Assets returned to the scene and again received SAF. This caused one RSO Air Asset to land at Ministry of Health. The other RSO Air Asset (Hughes 530) crashed at MB 4318 8958, approximately 700 meters southeast of the Municipalities and Public Works Annex due to heavy SAF. This location was not confirmed until 1315. The search for the downed RSO Air Asset began immediately. During this search, U.S. Army, COM PSD, and RSO Air Assets were continuously engaged with heavy SAF. Additional RSO Air Assets were requested and responded to the vicinity of the last known location of the downed RSO Air Asset.

At 1315, the Army Stryker unit secured the crash site, and was engaged with a heavy volume of SAF. COM TST [tactical support team] linked up with the Stryker unit at 1323. All four COM PSD in the RSO Air Asset were declared KIA. U.S. Army, COM PSD, and COM TST remained continuously engaged by an undetermined number of insurgents during the evacuation of the 4 KIA remains. At 1541, all COM PSD elements were secure in the International Zone.

There were 5 RSO Air Asset members KIA during this engagement. There were no COM direct hires injured during this engagement. There were no other casualties, or injuries to COM personnel. There are numerous impacts of SAF on COM vehicles, as well as an undetermined amount of damage to equipment.

Explosive Discovery/Mission Aborted: November 2, 2006 - Team 13, advancing for Team 11, arrived at the venue. DDM [designated defensive marksman] was in a position on the roof of the venue and observed a local national placing an object on the ground adjacent to the entrance of the venue. The object had protruding wires. Team 13 with embedded RSO agent (K.) advised Team 11 to abort the mission and return to base. DDM's on the roof observed a second man they surmised was the trigger man for the command detonation of this IED. Blackwater air was contacted and extracted the DDM’S from the roof of the venue (B22) leaving aerial gunners in their place. Air took Team 13 shooters to LZ [landing zone] Washington (B5) and dropped them, returning to pick up their aerial gunners and provide convoy coverage for Team 13 as they returned to B6. Team 13 returned safely to base at 1118 with no further incidents. No shots were fired by our team, and no COM personnel were harmed.

Rescue Operation: October 22, 2006 - Today at about 1630 hours, Blackwater Aviation “Little Birds” BW 33(Chalk #1) and BW 34(Chalk #2) were returning from a mission when BW 34 observed a US Army motorcade that was attacked by an insurgent placed explosive formed charge (EFP) in the vicinity of G3.
The aircrews observed that the vehicles struck by the EFP contained numerous US casualties. BW 33 with Door Gunners Mark Y. (Medic) and John S. made the decision to land at the attack site, assess the wounded and provide MEDEVAC capabilities. Mark exited the aircraft upon landing at the site with John providing security. Mark quickly went to work assessing the wounded and beginning triage. He made a rapid decision to immediately transport two of the more seriously wounded via BW 33 to the Combat Surgical Hospital (CSH) in the International Zone. As the wounded were loaded, Mark would remain behind to continue treating the remaining casualties, while John accompanied the wounded and continued in-flight care.

During this time, BW 34 with Door Gunners Emmett R. and Steve C., provided overhead protective cover for BW 33 expecting a secondary attack during the rescue efforts. BW 34 also requested the medium lift helicopters (412) BW 126 and BW 608 respond to the scene and assist with the MEDEVAC due to the potential number of causalities involved. BW 34 would remain on scene and secure the site and protect the soldiers on the ground while BW 33 flew to the CSH with the first load of wounded soldiers.
BW 126 carrying Door Gunners Saleem A. and Andrew P., and BW 608 with Door Gunners Luigge R. and Gregg K. arrived on scene. The gunners set up a security perimeter and began loading wounded soldiers for transport. Luigge (Medic) immediately assisted Mark Y. with medical duties and evacuated the remaining wounded to the CSH.

Throughout this incident each individual performed his duties flawlessly, with the utmost concern for the wounded and the safety of all those involved. Their calm demeanor and actions prevented unnecessary causalities during the rescue efforts and saved the lives of five US soldiers.

Rescue Operation: On 8 September, 2006 at approximately 1345 hrs, Air Force Major Nori L. drove out of the International Zone (IZ) inadvertently past Check Point 12 (CP12) into the Red Zone. MAJ L. then became lost. She realized her error and tried to backtrack into the IZ. During this maneuver she was fired upon by unknown persons with small arms fire (SAF). The SAF then broke out the driver’s side window of her soft-skinned Ford Explorer. She escaped the attack and drove to an Iraqi Checkpoint where the Iraqi Police surrounded her and protected her. She called a friend in the IZ who then called the RSO TOC and gave us her number. The RSO TOC then called MAJ L. and tried to determine her location. The Watch Officer sent Blackwater Air and the TST team to search for her while she was on the phone with the RSO TOC. After an intensive search MAJ L’s Explorer was located southwest of the IZ on Route Jackson. Blackwater air evacuated her to the Combat Army Support Hospital (CASH). Her injuries appeared to be minor at that time. The Army sent out a unit to recover her Explorer.

Explosive Found: On 23 April 2006, at 1100hrs, my explosive detection K-9, Peggy, and I were assisting Hammer 4 on a mission in support of the US Embassy to Panjshier Valley PRT [provisional reconstruction team]. During this mission we were providing security for Under Secretary of State Fore. During this mission K-9 Peggy was used to search the parking lot adjacent to the PRT and the storage facility prior to the Under Secretary’s arrival. Canine Peggy showed a noticeable difference in behavior and pulled upwind towards a row of old Russian V-twin motors. Peggy started to scan the area and moved towards the center of the motors and placed her nose on a green in color object which she sourced and recognized as explosive odor. K-9 Peggy began to alert as I recognized the object to be a live RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] round. I verbally praised the canine and moved away from the area. I immediately notified our OPS, Rob C. and the TC for Hammer 4, Robert H. They both confirmed the object to be a RPG 5 with the pin removed and already fired (rendering it live ordnance). The shift leader was notified and the area was determined to be unsafe. The mission continued but the Under Secretary was kept at a safe distance from the UXO [unexploded ordinance].

Saturday, November 17, 2007

FBI Mum on Blackwater

This blog, because of its interest in the question of private security contractors, has run a number of posts relating to Blackwater and the 16 September shooting at Nisoor Square, Baghdad. Heretofore we have written relatively little on the FBI's investigation, precisely because the mainstream media seemed to have the story sufficiently well-covered. But, at the request of an anonymous commenter, I decided to take a deeper look. And what I found was surprising.

Because so many news stories get recycled and spun so many times, I decided to go to the horse's mouth: the archive of FBI press releases. There have been, in total, three releases relating to Blackwater. None of them deal with the FBI's findings, since the investigation is not yet complete. The brevity of these press releases allows me to reproduce all of them here.

For Immediate Release
October 2, 2007

Washington D.C.
FBI National Press Office
(202) 324-3691

FBI Investigating Alleged Blackwater Shooting in Iraq

At the request of the Department of State, the FBI is sending a team to Iraq to assist in the ongoing investigation into the September 16, 2007, shooting incident allegedly involving Blackwater employees. The team will provide investigative assistance to the State Department investigators leading the investigation. For any additional information, we refer you to the State Department.

For Immediate Release
October 3, 2007

Washington D.C.
FBI National Press Office
(202) 324-3691

Security for FBI Personnel Investigating Blackwater

FBI personnel deployed to Iraq have been provided security by Blackwater USA during travels outside the Green Zone under the existing State Department contract. However, to avoid even the appearance of any conflict, the FBI team deployed from Washington to assist the State Department in the investigation of the events of September 16th will have any additional security needs provided by U.S. Government personnel.

John Miller
Assistant Director, Office of Public Affairs
Federal Bureau of Investigation

For Immediate Release
October 10, 2007

Washington D.C.
FBI National Press Office
(202) 324-3691

FBI Conducting Independent Investigation Into Alleged Blackwater Shooting in Iraq

At the request of the Department of State, the FBI has sent a team to Iraq to conduct an independent investigation into the September 16, 2007, shooting incident allegedly involving Blackwater employees. For any additional information, we refer you to the Department of Justice.

Now why would the FBI be so quiet about its investigation of Blackwater? A few days ago, CNN brought us the answer: the FBI's not done. CNN's website explains:

"To the best of our knowledge, the key people in this incident have yet to even speak with investigators," said Blackwater Worldwide spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. She said it was her understanding that none of the five "key" Blackwater employees involved in the incident have been interviewed by the FBI.

In addition, a senior U.S. official who asked not to be identified told CNN that "most, if not all, of the shooters" in the September 16 killings "have not been interviewed."

An FBI representative refused to comment on Tyrrell's statement.

So when I see a headline like the one the New York Times ran a few days ago ("FBI Says Guards Killed 14 Iraqis Without Cause"), I am a little confused. The FBI has not said anything. Well, the New York Times article can only cite "civilian and military officials briefed on the case," and "government officials," whomever they may be. But if you did not read carefully, you would get the impression this is a closed case. In fact, the only admission the NYT gives that the FBI is still at work is to cite Ms. Tyrrell, the Blackwater spokeswoman, as saying "she would have no comment until the FBI released its findings."

I, for one, look forward to reading them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Blackwater guard gives account of shootout in Iraq

This just in from the Agence France-Presse:

A guard from the US security firm Blackwater says his motorcade came under fire and that he feared for his life in a deadly shootout in Iraq.

Contradicting reports that the Blackwater motorcade in Baghdad did not come under attack in the September 16 incident which left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, the guard alleged he opened fire on a car that drove towards his team and failed to heed warnings to stop.

He said that then, after coming under fire, he shot at a shack behind the approaching car, at a man with an AK-47 rifle pointed at the motorcade, at a bus which was the source of gunfire, and at two other cars deemed as threats.

"As our motorcade pulled into the intersection, I noticed a white four-door sedan driving directly at our motorcade from the west bound lane," he said in his statement.

"I and others were yelling and using hand signals for the car to stop and the driver looked directly at me and kept moving toward our motorcade. Fearing for my life and the lives of my teammates, I engaged the driver and stopped the threat," he said....

Identified only by the first name "Paul," the Blackwater guard recounted the shooting in a sworn statement to State Department investigators three days after the incident, which ABC posted on its website. His account differs dramatically from that of the FBI, which the New York Times reported found in its investigation that 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified, the New York Times said....

"Paul" insisted the group was shot at after he first fired at the oncoming car. "At the same moment, I started receiving small arms fire from the shack approximately fifty meters behind the car. I then engaged the individuals where the muzzle flashes came from."

When a person in uniform started pushing the car toward the motorcade, the guard said he shouted and shot at the vehicle until it stopped. He then heard on his radio that the motorcade's command vehicle was down, "and that we were still taking fire," he said.

As the command vehicle was towed, he said he saw a man with his AK-47 "oriented" at the rear gunner in a nearby vehicle in the motorcade. "Fearing for the gunner's life, I engaged the individual and stopped the threat."

With gunfire allegedly coming from a red bus stopped at the intersection, he said he opened fire on the shooters. Then when he was told on his radio that gunfire was coming from another car, he fired at the "suspect vehicle" as he again was "fearing for my life."

Later, a red car was backing up towards the motorcade, and the guard -- fearing it was a possible car bombing attack -- again opened fire, he said. "As we were going over the curb, I noticed several civilians and I was motioning, and screaming that they get down and find cover," he said....

The guard said during his time in Iraq he had made "numerous split-second shoot-don't shoot decisions." He said he had passed qualification courses required by the State Department to carry automatic weapons. According to the statement, the man served in the US army in Bosnia between 1992 and 2002 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He later left the military and began working for Blackwater in 2006.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Contractors Help Army "Anthropologize"

Late last year the US Army launched its Human Terrain System to help it understand the cultural aspects of the areas where it is conducting counterinsurgency operations. The New York Times has carried the story, and last year the US Army Professional Writing Collection had a feature as well. Thanks to new Human Terrain Teams, US combat forces now know more than ever about the people they work with, and that is in turn paying big dividends.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists [in the Shabak Valley of Afghanistan], said that the unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

Montgomery McFate, the program’s senior social science adviser and an author of the new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military. “I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the military.”

Russia Accused of Military Build-Up in Georgia

The FT reports that David Bakradze, Georgian minister for conflict resolution, announced on Monday that Russia had deployed five T-72 main battle tanks (pictured above, on parade in Moscow), plus rocket launchers, armoured personnel carriers and an additional 200 soldiers, into Abkhazia, a separatist region Russia has been supporting with "peacekeepers" since the early 1990s.

Nino Burjanadze, speaker of the Georgian parliament, confirmed a “major movement of Russian military equipment in Abkhazia [while] manpower is moving from Russia too.”

For what it is worth, Russia immediately denied moving men or equipment, dismissing the allegations as “plain lies.”

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Blackwater Sniper Footage

With all the talk of Blackwater snipers these days, I figured I'd post some footage. No, this is not the latest stuff, but it gives a good feel for who these men are and how they act. This clip comes from 2005, with commentary below.

(Wait for the helicopter intro to pass; the sniper section is right behind it.)

The 5-man Blackwater crew that was assinged to CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] Najaf were coming under heavy small arms and mortar fire, the city was being taken over by insurgents. The police stations and hospitals were taken over as well, after a day of fighting off hundreds of insurgents the city had been completely overrun, with the CPA in the heart of the city and no way out.

The Team called up to Baghdad and reported the situation, they said they needed immediate extract which Gen Sanchez also denied due to the fact the city had been overrun and there were no US troops there, only contractors.

Well, Ambassador Bremer was pissed at Sanchez and I remember being on office watch during the massive arguments! Ambassador Bremer and our Baghdad Team Leader got together and Bremer said ''I don't want another Bridge hanging! Get those boys out of there by any means nessassary!'' so 12 of us -- 6 pilots and 6 gunners loaded as much as we could in 3 MD530 little birds and headed 70 miles south. we flew in the first day and blind (no comms, and no intel on the heat) to try a resupply, land find out was was going on and then head back, rearm and get ready to go again. Well that night all hell broke lose and we flew back in. Over 1000 insurgents (reported by the F18 pilots) had taken the city and now wanted the CPA after a day of intense fighting by 11 BW
[Blackwater] guys, airstrikes, a handfull of Marines and 1 sniper we were able to hold them off. After it died down and gunships and SF [Special Forces] guys finally started to roll in the battle was soon over and the CPA was saved.

That's pretty much it in a nut shell...

Blackwater Aids California - At No Cost

I believe Standish was the first to carry the story of Blackwater's emergency housing effort in southern California. But now the AP has got in on the act and posted a video here.

The basic story is simple: when the State of California would not hire Blackwater to fight the fires, the contractor decided to provide aid free of charge. As the AP explains, the new emergency food and housing comes at no cost, but will be inspected by state and local officials, to ensure safety. (So much for Blackwater being "unaccountable.") Just further proof that Blackwater really does believe in their humanitarian mission.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Christian Science Monitor Breaks Blackwater Contract Story

Unbeknownst to this blog, the Christian Science Monitor carried the story of Blackwater's State Department contract the same day Statecraft & Security raised the same issue. This is good news for those interested in the truth about how private security contractors behave in Iraq, and why.

The CSM spells out the issue very clearly:

The issue isn't an overly aggressive contractor. It's the State Department's zero tolerance for casualties of its employees in Iraq. Such an approach makes tragedies such as the September episode more common – and it marginalizes the lives of innocent Iraqis who just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Placing so many diplomats and civil servants on nation-building assignments in the middle of a civil war has a high price – perhaps too high.... The US government appears to tolerate a certain number of casualties from the all-volunteer military. But civilian employees are a different story.

It's nice to finally see a large, mainstream media outlet placing blame where it's due: with the State Department, it's lawyers and its flawed contract.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Putin Generation

Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected pope five years before I was born, and took the name John Paul II. I was twenty-one years old when he died. His papacy was the first I ever knew and had a formative impact on my life. Thousands of Catholics who grew up under the Polish pontiff fondly call themselves the John Paul II Generation.

A frightening parallel exists in Russia today. The first generation of post-Soviet youth are coming of age, and they are calling themselves the Putin Generation. The Nashi movement is one of several pro-Kremlin youth groups that foster Putin's cult of personality. The New York Times ran a story this summer about the group, but I think the video images are most stunning, and so I include several for your viewing pleasure, or horror, as the case may be.

The Putin Generation (Part I of II, by the NYT)

The Putin Generation (Part II of II)

Наша армия, a Nashi military recruitment video

(This video is in Russian, but the images and message are clear enough for anyone to see.)

For a scholarly consideration of the origins of Nashi, see Douglas Robert Buchacek's thesis, NASHA Pravda, NASHE Delo: The Mobilization of the Nashi Generation in Contemporary Russia.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Some Monitors Barred from Russian Elections

In a trend remarkably similar to its reduction of NGOs in October of last year, Russia has decided to further reduce the number of foreign monitors for its upcoming parliamentary elections in December. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections in many post-Soviet countries, was lately informed by Russian authorities of the change. While OSCE previously was invited to send 400 monitors to elections in 2003, they may now only send 70. This is quite the decrease in a country and a region where elections have been marred by corruption.

Despite electoral predictions that United Russia, Putin’s cult-of-personality-political-party, will win more seats to complement their majority already, the monitoring is essential to show emerging political trends in the country. The attempt of the opposition to gain seats is important to demonstrate that Russia’s citizens still wish to have a voice in their ever-growing-authoritative-quasi-democracy. Russians must be vigilant for future trends the Kremlin will show. This is already evident in reports that Putin might seek to hold some official position after his required departure from the Presidency, similar to Lukashenko of neighboring Belarus, who altered its Constitution to win a third term.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Gen. Chennault and the Flying Tigers: Private Military Contractors

One of the finest chapters of American history did not even occur in the United States and involved a gang of private military contractors: the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers.

In early 1941 the US was not yet officially at war, but a number of Americans - including President Roosevelt - saw the need to aid the Nationalist Chinese against Japanese aggression. And so airplanes were purchased, with 82 pilots and 359 ground crewmembers recruited for the effort from among former US servicemen. The group was lead by Claire Chennault, a retired US Army Air Corps captain who had become a private military advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

These Americans were technically "mercinaries" in that they were privately hired by the Chinese government. But they were some of the most professional and skilled men in the world: at the defense of Rangoon the Flying Tigers flew alongside the men of the RAF, and by even the lowest figures, these American contractors outflew and outfought their British allies.

The AVG was officially credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed, including 229 in the air. Thirty-three AVG pilots and three ground crew received the Chinese Order of the Cloud Banner, many AVG pilots received the Chinese Air Force Medal and each AVG ace and double ace was awarded the Chinese Five Star or Ten Star Wing Medal. However, success did not come without a price: fourteen pilots were killed in action, captured, or disappeared on combat missions; two died of wounds sustained in bombing raids; and six were killed in accidents.

After World War II, ten ex-Flying Tigers pilots formed a cargo airline named Flying Tiger Line, after the AVG. Flying Tiger Line operated for forty years, and was the largest cargo airline in the world for some time. It was eventually purchased by Federal Express.

Who drives against traffic in a traffic circle?

While trawling the blogosphere I recently came across someone rhetorically asking Who drives against traffic in a traffic circle?, with regards to the recent Blackwater firefight at Nisoor Square, Baghdad.

A fair question. The State Department contract with Blackwater, which is about 1,000 pages long and extensively detailed, stipulate that State Department convoys travel quickly and drive aggressively. Furthermore, no State Department official ever travels with less than three vehicles and they're always the biggest stuff they can find, with those obnoxious "Warning: Stay Back" signs and all of that.

This is in contrast to the CIA, which drives around Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, with contract security, all the time, but doesn't run into trouble. Why? Because they're riding in unmarked beat-up pickups and following traffic patterns. The difference, surprisingly, is not the contractors - both employ them - but the agency that hires them and the terms of the contracts.

It's sad to think that the State Department officially has the lead for public diplomacy. Who most heavily opposed the State Department terms under which Blackwater is employed? The Department of Defense (which also employs contractors, but again, under different terms), folks who actually know a thing or two about public diplomacy, even though it's not their primary duty.

The State Department contract also stipulated that diplomatic security guards must wear wrap-around sunglasses (a cultural faux pas in the Arabic world) and prohibited facial hair (another cultural faux pas). Just what were these State Department boys learning at Georgetown?