Friday, 13 January 2012

Disarm Hezbollah, UN chief tells Lebanon

Reuters are reporting today on the UN Secretary-General's current visit to Lebanon—he's been rather outspoken and it could be said that his presence there is widely unwelcome... Good to see that the UN's top official is actually speaking truth to the situation: Someone actually remembered UN Resolution 1559, after which Hizballah was the only group from the Lebanese civil war that failed to disarm. I suspect it will take more than Ban-Ki Moon's words to deal with Hezbollah, however...
BEIRUT (Reuters) - United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon demanded Friday the disarmament of the anti-Israel Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which had said his visit to Lebanon was not welcome. "I am deeply concerned about the military capacity of Hezbollah and ... the lack of progress in disarmament," he told a news conference after meeting Lebanese leaders.

"That is why we discussed this matter very seriously and I strongly encouraged President (Michel) Suleiman to initiate a convening of this national dialogue to address these issues... "All these arms outside of the authorized state authority, it's not acceptable," Ban declared.

The secretary-general's trip made waves even before he arrived, with one Hezbollah leader saying he was not welcome, a stance criticized by Lebanese politicians opposed to the armed Shi'ite Islamist movement and its Syrian and Iranian patrons.

Hezbollah accepted an expansion of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the south after its devastating 2006 war with Israel, but rejects a U.N. Security Council resolution that demands that it lay down its military arsenal, as all other Lebanese armed groups did after the 1975-90 civil war. UNIFIL troops came under three attacks last year in which Italian and French soldiers were wounded. A rocket was launched into Israel in November and another rocket launching was attempted last month. No group claimed responsibility.

"There are no explicit fears that there is a new climate of hostility to the United Nations," a diplomatic source said. "But there is concern, which the secretary-general will emphasize, over the attacks (on UNIFIL) in May, July and December."

UNIFIL, now about 12,000 strong, is the third biggest U.N. peacekeeping operation and one of the oldest, beginning after an Israeli invasion against Palestinian guerrillas in 1978. The Lebanese army has taken on a bigger role in the south since 2006, but given the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, there is no sign of an exit strategy for the U.N. force there.


Hezbollah, the most powerful faction in Lebanon, is also angry at the indictment by the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) of four of its members over the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri on Beirut's seafront in 2005. It denies any part in the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others and vows not to hand over the indicted men. Hezbollah also wants Lebanon's unity government, of which it is a part, to cut off funding for the tribunal and end cooperation with it.

Lebanon paid $32 million, its 49 percent share of the costs, in November, using a maneuver by which Lebanese banks gave the money to a special fund whose use did not need cabinet approval. Ban said the United Nations "continues to expect Lebanon to support and cooperate fully with the Special Tribunal."

The U.N. chief said he would decide soon, in consultation with the Security Council and the Lebanese government, whether to extend the STL's mandate, which expires in March. Ban, due to speak Sunday at a conference on democratic transitions, said he had repeatedly urged Syria to halt the killings that have turned a 10-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad into one of the bloodiest of Arab uprisings.

"The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people," he told the Beirut daily an-Nahar, adding that the Security Council, so far divided over Syria, should speak with one voice on the issue.

The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the unrest, which Syria blames on armed "terrorists" it says have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.

Russia and China have blocked any firm Security Council action against Syria. The Arab League has sent monitors to find out if Damascus is complying with an Arab peace plan. If their report next week is negative, it may refer Syria to the council.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Obama plans for leaner US military in historic strategy shift

Given the significance of this latest development in the US administration, a large number of outlets feature detailed summaries of announcements made yesterday by President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta. The Guardian provides some of the best coverage from a UK perspective:

President Barack Obama has unveiled plans for America's military future, outlining a historic shift towards a smaller and leaner force that will focus on China and move away from large-scale ground warfare that has dominated the post-9/11 era.

Obama became the first president to announce a strategy change directly from inside the Pentagon – a theatrical gesture designed to underline the significance of the shift. Mindful of the dangers of displaying any weakness over national security in an election year, Obama said he was determined to maintain US military supremacy around the world, but he admitted that the review involved a move to "smaller conventional ground forces" and the removal of "outdated cold war-era systems".

The immediate incentive for the change in tack, set out in a Pentagon strategy paper, is the fiscal crisis and the Congress-led drive for spending cuts. Currently, the Pentagon is under orders to slash $487bn from the resources it had expected to receive over the next 10 years, and those cuts could rise to close to $1tn if Congress fails to reach agreement on alternative reductions by January next year.

Details of the impact of the cuts on military deployments and systems will gradually be rolled out in upcoming budget announcements. For now, Obama and his main advisers, the defence secretary Leon Panetta and general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, stuck to the highlights.

Among the casualties of the new-look military will be the two elements of the military that have formed the kernel of American global might over the past decade: the army and the marine corps. But with the Iraq war over and US commanders struggling to draw back from Afghanistan, that emphasis on the long-term massive ground mission is seen as fading as a priority, and both will face reductions in personel likely to involve tens of thousands of troops from the current Army numbers of 570,000.

There will also be a move away from the decades-old mantra of US military planners that America must be capable of fighting two wars at any one time. "The two-war paradigm has been an anchor in the way we think about the future. That paradigm is a residual of the cold war," Dempsey said.

That is likely to be siezed upon by Republicans as evidence that the Obama administration is damaging US capability around the world. Obama anticipated that criticism, saying: "Yes our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats."

For good measure, he added that the defence budget would continue to be larger than it was at the end of George Bush's term, and larger than the military spending of the next 10 countries put together.

"Make no mistake, we will have the capability to defeat more than one force at any time," Panetta concurred.

The dream of a modern military based on speed and stealth rather than overwhelming ground force has long been desired by military strategists. Donald Rumsfeld made a move towards it in the opening months of the Bush era, but was thrown off course by the 9/11 attacks and the angry US reaction to them in Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Now the Pentagon hopes to get back on that track, with new strategic goals and ambitions. Top of that list, the review has concluded, will be the emerging powers of the Asia-Pacific region amid mounting Pentagon concern about China's growing naval power and investment in high-tech weaponry.

"All trends are shifting to the Pacific. Our strategic challenges will largely emanate out of the Pacific region," Dempsey said.

In terms of the fighting force itself, the increasing reliance on technological warfare is certain to be extended, with the unmanned drone as its centrepiece. Critics on the left are likely to focus on that aspect as evidence of the Obama administration's disrespect for international law and civilian lives.

Panetta said: "As we reduce the overall defence budget, we will protect and in some cases increase our investments in special operations forces, new technologies like unmanned systems, space and in particular cyberspace capabilities and in the capacity to quickly mobilise."

Panetta and Dempsey both recognised that cuts in the strength of US troops would carry security risks. But they said the risks were preferable to doing nothing.

Panetta issued a clear and yet unspoken challenge to the Republican majority in the House of Representatives that has led resistance to the administration's budget plans. He said that if Congress continued along its path towards a further $500bn in defence cuts in January, the country's national security would be in jeopardy and there would be demoralisation within what he called a "hollowed" military force.