January 29, 2007

Goo bombers update

I'd say George "Dick Destiny" Smith says all that's worth saying about the unfolding farce in a British courtroom these last couple weeks. My personal favourite part:

"...if [I] was a terrorist and ... was wasting time taking a community college course in chemistry, one with a lab section, [I] would steal some potentially useful reagents just before leaving class for the last time.

"Instead, the incompetent class of terrorist can't seem to figure this out, glomming onto making bombs from hundreds of bottles of peroxide or poison from apple thousands of apple seeds or a handful of cherry pits."

Sounds about right.

As for "forensic expert Claire MacGavigan," cited above, who apparently honestly believes that the bathtub peroxide-flour mix would have been as deadly and explosive as a TNT-equivalent, well, keep that little bit of testimony in mind next time you're wondering why all those CSI shows are so full of it, and why the legal system still really, really needs responsible jurymen, and good defence lawyers, too. In like vein, see also here.

Also see Nigel Sweeney, QC's explanation of the bomb method:

"Mr Sweeney said: 'The explosive was intended to consist of liquid hydrogen peroxide, concentrated, mixed with chapati flour, the flour being the fuel that would burn and the hydrogen peroxide providing oxygen, so that when fired by a detonator the mixture would explode.'"

Does one really have to possess a university chemistry degree to see that doesn't make any sense? Cause, I mean, I fully admit that I don't and I can still tell you that whole sentence is just wrong, on just about every level.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. Take a look at the picture at the first link above, and trust your intuition, if nothing else. The "bombers" (admittedly with a murderous intent, no argument here) made litres and litres of a vaguely corrosive goo. They could have cased their detonators in pure flour and it probably would have been more effective. I find it amusing that the forensic experts quoted above conclude from the fact that all four detonators (made with a real explosive) fired effectively, yet none of the "bombs" exploded, as evidence the detonators must not have been LARGE enough. To quote another troupe of British comic artists -- whom I now find almost as funny as this pathetic lot of terrorist wannabes now in the dock -- after much effort the pathetic clowns managed to come up with the Norwegian Blue of explosives: "this bird wouldn't "voom" if you put four million volts through it."

Posted by BruceR at 12:48 PM

Has to be said: Michael Yon's writing

Props to the guy for being where the action is, but Glenn Reynolds thinks this is the level of prose that should be in the New Yorker?

I kind of wish he'd try submitting, though. Guy needs an editor.

Posted by BruceR at 11:39 AM

Canadian Afghanistan update you didn't read

In the "News you didn't read in your weekend papers" column, it has been over two months since the last Canadian fatality in Afghanistan.

No, it's not going to last forever. Let's hope it lasts as long as possible, though.

Posted by BruceR at 11:26 AM

January 19, 2007

About opium

Look, I don't want to be the downer on this, but legalizing Afghan opium, as recommended here, is not as useful a policy approach as it sounds.

"Just like Afghanistan, Turkey had a long tradition of poppy cultivation. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey worried that poppy eradication could bring down the government."

Um, okay, look, the 1971 yield of opium resin for Turkey was 58 tonnes, which would normally yield you 6 tonnes of heroin. In 1971, when the U.S. backed eradication effort started this was enough to be 7 per cent of the world's supply. The eradication was largely achieved, Applebaum is correct in saying, by reserving 80% of the legal U.S. market for opiates for Turkish farmers to fill.

The 2006 Afghan yield for opium resin was 6100 tonnes of opium, the equivalent of 610 tonnes of heroin. This is at a time when it's believed the total annual world consumption of heroin is only 450 tonnes (the rest is consumed as other opium products). That's two orders of magnitude higher than the Turkish problem.

Currently, Turkey meets all its legal opiate exports from about 5,000 hectares of farmland. This isn't poppy, by the way, but poppy straw, which can be harvested mechanically, unlike traditional opium, which requires manual harvesting. India, the only country legally allowed to produce opium poppy, can meet all the world's demand for that method with less than 9,000 hectares under cultivation.

Last year, 165,000 hectares of Afghan land were sown with opium.

The Indian government also forbids any farmer to seed more than 0.1 hectares with opium poppy to prevent diversion, in a country where the illegal price is about five times the government-controlled legal price. Average yield per farmer in 2005 was 5.6 kg, which was sold to the government at an average price of $26/kg. About 90,000 farmers are licensed to plant opium in this way, and much more land would be available for cultivation if demand rose and the government allowed it.

(In Afghanistan, there are over 300,000 opium farmers, receiving a market price of $100/kg, a comparable price to what Indian farmers receive on their own black market.)

There is no way that any increased legal market for this substance can possibly make a dent in these kinds of numbers. Trying to draw lessons from the Turkey situation given that kind of differential seems pretty absurd.

The answers to opium overcultivation in Afghanistan, assuming they exist, are probably going to be the same as they've been elsewhere in the world where this sort of thing has been successful... increasing the rural standard of living to expand farmers' options as much as possible, and target and shut down the opiate processing facilities where those are found as much as reasonably possible. (Attacking the crops, whether through chemical destruction or other means, is almost certainly cost-ineffective and more likely to alienate the local population than anything else.) Hardly a short-term or high payoff approach, this, of course, needs to be largely a matter for local authorities, as the Bonn and London councils that have been coordinating international aid for Afghanistan rightly recognized. But the U.S. focus on crop eradication as part of its own counter-terror strategy in southern Afghanistan up until now seems... somewhat misplaced.

By the way, you know where most Afghan opium goes, don't you? Local labs convert it into more easily transportable morphine base. Then it's shipped to heroin labs in... you guessed it...Turkey.

UPDATE: What I'm really trying to say above is that we need to view opium growing as an indicator of a larger problem, not a problem itself. Actual poppy farming is highly labour-intensive, similar in some ways to 19th century cotton growing. It is an industry that thrives in times of high labour surplus. Many of the rural inhabitants in Afghanistan engaged in this right now literally have nothing better to do. With poppy, what makes economic sense when your entire family is at home will be much more difficult when your eldest son is at the new canning plant in the city, his brother just joined the auxiliary police, and their sister is in school learning to write Dari. Inevitably other pressures on the labour market will drop yields per hectare and take marginal land out of production.

Combine that with the risk involved in any criminal enterprise (government action aside, the risk of the next warlord over driving up their profits at the expense of your warlords by depressing the yields of his farmers is always present) and this is something that farmers can be weaned off of if better opportunities present themselves. There were plenty of stories this year of farmers being blackmailed or extorted into farming poppy. If it was so generally lucrative at the farmer's end, this wouldn't have been the case.

Western nations can still help with targeted actions against the exporters and local criminals. Stronger local police and paramilitary forces can discourage the "encouragement" of local farmers. Improved surveillance can find the drug processing facilities and support border interdiction. Fight the criminals, fight the transporters, and the yield will, slowly but inevitably, drop. It'll never disappear entirely. But it may decline.

Here's another way to look at it. In the 1970s in Turkey, the US spent $40 million to take a couple thousand hectares of their poppy farms out of circulation. Extended to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, that'd be a $13 billion outlay in today's dollars... $600 US for every Afghan. Total foreign aid pledges of all kinds to Afghanistan from all countries are still currently well under $2 billion a year. So it stands to reason we've either got to up the ante considerably or give this a little more time.

Posted by BruceR at 07:35 PM

January 17, 2007

Star on Afghanistan

This opinion piece could have benefited from a little more in the way of rethinking its premise.

Being greeted by the inflammatory, large-type headline was bad enough (it does seem contrary to recent polling). But some of the textual elisions are rather disturbing as well:

Afghans also have been wounded and killed as a result of the ongoing conflict. Afghans die in aerial bombardments by the United States and its allies. They die when caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and NATO forces. Whenever a bomb explodes on a road or in a crowded market and kills Canadian or other NATO soldiers, inevitably some Afghans also die. They also die in "errors," "mistakes" and "accidents" by the U.S. and its allies. Afghans also have been dying because of poverty and disease, the side effects of war. It is obvious that Afghan casualties must be in the thousands.

Note the one major cause of Afghan murders that is not mentioned by the writer... Taliban killings of other Afghans whom they judge to be collaborationists, such as teachers, government officials, etc. It's a curious omission. As reported here in the past, current estimates are that 1-2,000 Afghan civilians were killed in 2006, mostly from Taliban actions (including the planting of mines and IEDs). Another 2-3,000 combatants on both sides were also killed.

It is true that more girls go to school now, but many girls used to find a way to get education when the Taliban was in power, too. The difference is that then they had to get an education secretly and now they are going to school openly.

Sort of a big difference, I'd have thought.

But one thing has not changed: The fear they had then, they have now, too.

That would be fear of a return to Taliban-style repression of women, of course, whether the writer mentions it or not.

Citing elections as evidence of the dawn of democracy and progress in Afghanistan is not credible either. What has democracy achieved when people cannot find food to feed their children? Nor is this the first time an election has been held in Afghanistan.

Before 2005, the last Afghan national election was in 1969.

The writers' recommendations at the end are inarguable, but also rather vague. Look, there's lots more the world could be doing for Afghanistan on the economic front. There's a significant balance-of-trade issue with Pakistan, to start with... Afghanistan only had $98 million worth of exports to that country in 2005, compared with $924 million in Pakistani imports. That's a big problem... if anything is ever going to compete with opium for farmers' attentions, it's things like raisins and pomegranates that can be sold most easily in Pakistan.

We talk about our "soft power," but if you really want to look at soft power in an Afghan context, look at what Iran has been quietly doing in terms of realigning the Afghan export economy in their direction. Note, however, that while Iran has been giving the Afghans preferential sea access, it is still keeping its own domestic industries heavily protected by tariffs. These are the sorts of areas Western governments should be looking for leverage on.

In Canada, there's a huge issue with regard to exactly the kind of development the writer above is talking about, that has very little to do with the military. The Canadian International Development Agency, with its "list of 25" is focussed primarily on development in Africa, and ideally would like to get out of Afghanistan altogether. That said, it's still Canada's #1 foreign aid commitment: our initial government commitment of $250 million in aid to Afghan reconstruction in 2005-09 has already been increased to $290 million.

A bigger problem may be the inherent difficulty with providing aid in an unsecure environment. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) concept, created by the U.S. specifically to address the Afghan situation, has had its critics, and its effectiveness is a subject of significant debate within the military, and the NGO community as well. Only the successful meshing of civilian and military reconstruction support to Afghans will ever address the kinds of issues the writer raises above. One wishes the same space had been dedicated instead to informing readers about that very complex issue instead.

For instance one could have an informed discussion about the differences between the original US model (where military and NGO aid parameters tended to overlap) and the British experience with their Mazar PRT (where a deliberate attempt was made to separate the two), and where the Canadian model in Kandahar lies between the two extremes. Instead all we're hearing from the Star is that it's all hopeless. Pity.

UPDATE: The latest Senlis Council report on southern Afghanistan rewards a detailed read.

Posted by BruceR at 11:21 AM

We have been warned

"Abu Ghraib is one of many points upon which many on the left have made alliance with the terrorists, as they both use it to run a PR pincer attack against the US military. The fact that the military cleaned up the Abu Ghraib mess, and the fact that the terrorists themselves do worse things every day as part of their mainline strategy, doesn’t deter the left/terrorists in their continual Abu Ghraib-based attacks. Continuing to use Abu Ghraib by pundits in the west is unserious and reflects a basic ignorance of the fight; either that, or an alliance with the enemy."

--The appropriately named Michelle Malkin vehicle Hot Air, today.

Posted by BruceR at 10:01 AM

January 15, 2007

British domestic terror update

Turns out the "follow-on" crew for the summer, 2005 London bombings were actually complete idiots. Flour and drugstore-quality peroxide? Come on.

Here's the math, in case you don't get why this is such a joke. One story says the plotters purchased exactly 284 bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Pharmacies normally sell peroxide in pint bottles (473mL) at 3% concentration. That means the plotters could well have had 134.3 litres of solution, or the equivalent of 4kg of actual pure peroxide if all the water were to be boiled off and there was no loss.

The British Crown further says that the peroxide mixture they obtained from boiling was mixed with flour and put into five 6L containers at a 30/70 ratio flour-to-peroxide. Let's be charitable and say that half of each of those containers was filled with other stuff (the detonator, the metal for the planned shrapnel effect, air, etc.) That means that there would have been at least 3L of peroxide-flour in each, of which 0.9L was the flour (likely meant more as some kind of stabilizer than a contributor to the explosion). Between the five containers, there then would have needed to be at least 10.5L of concentrated peroxide solution, post-distillation, to make the "bombs."

Do the math and that indicates the peroxide was likely at no more than a 40% concentration when it was mixed with the flour (the remainder being water and other impurities). That level of peroxide isn't even strongly corrosive, let alone explosive. I have no idea why the plotters would have thought a moderate peroxide solution by itself, as opposed to mixing the peroxide they'd laboriously gained along with other compounds to make some kind of real explosive, would make a satisfactory detonation. It goes without saying the successful suicide cell that had ripped up central London two weeks previously were using a quite different mixture in their bombs, indicating the two cells were not strongly connected operationally.

In other news I don't think enough people have read, here's a concise explanation why the British airline bomb plot scare was another mass hysteria outbreak.

UPDATE: Of course the real reason one can safely conclude that the July 25 bombmakers never got high-concentration peroxide for all their troubles is that they all were still able to run away after their "bombs" went off. If they had managed to obtain a 50% peroxide solution, they'd have covered themselves in the fizzled explosion with a highly corrosive substance; if they'd achieved 70% it would have been highly flammable as well. In either case an immediate need for burn-unit hospitalization would have been the likely result for one or all... but in their case they all managed to run off.

The British Crown prosecutors are quoted as stating in their opening remarks that the transit passengers that would have been the bombers' victims were "lucky" to have survived. I know what they mean by that in that context, but the fact is luck was not involved. What you had in the end was five apparently good-quality detonators, that an incompetent bombmaker managed after much effort in five containers of relatively inert* peroxidy sludge: the would-be human bombs were, in their ignorance, no threat to themselves, let alone anyone else.

*Even 30% peroxide is still not something you want to screw around with, mind.

UPPERDATE: A little more news on the peroxide-flour bombers. Other stories have indicated they bulk-purchased 443L (ie, a bathtub and a half) of peroxide solution (those 284 bottles must then have been the industrial use, roughly 1.75L variety) from hairdressers' suppliers... that choice of source would likely mean the concentration was in the area of at least 5%, not the 3% normally found in drugstores. So that'd actually give you roughly 22 kg or more of hydrogen peroxide in solution at the start of the boiling process. So, contrary to what was stated above, it is possible they could have gotten a fair bit of high quality peroxide if they'd been careful. You just can't do it if your only point of purchase is your local drug store.

The inherent problem would be the apparatus for the boiling off of such large quantities, in one apartment, I suspect. They were obviously successful in creating small test-tube sized amounts of high-quality H2O2 via evaporation or slow heating, sufficient to make their own TATP detonators with. They balked, however, at the kind of large scale heating and mixing with other chemicals sufficient to produce any large quantities of explosive. It's possible they felt they were running out of time after the July 7 attacks and decided to go with what they had. What's baffling is that they managed to convince themselves it would work. And again, whatever they did, they can't even have gotten the concentration of peroxide very high, based on the results they achieved.

(Some more back of the envelope stuff: to fully convert that quantity of peroxide purchased in this plot into a large quantity of one of the two most common derivative explosives would have also required the plotters obtain either 125L (250-plus hardware store-sized bottles) of acetone and 7.5L of high-concentration sulfuric acid, or roughly 1,400 campers-fuel type hexamine tabs. Difficult, but not impossible, of course... and quantities possibly detectable by law enforcement if suitable safeguards were in place -- like those US state laws that limit over-the-counter peroxide sales above a certain percentage to licensed hairdressers only.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:07 PM

The non-barking dog, surge edition

One thing one normally sees in foreign intervention situations, just before the Marines, or whomever, is about to land, is a rapid attempt by the forces in place to lock in a favourable situation on the ground as much as you can. For instance, take Kosovo, where evidence that NATO airstrikes would soon begin led to an increased intensity in Serbian attacks on ethnic Kosovars. Haiti and Rwanda provide another couple examples. "Surge" type announcements almost always lead to a short-term local increase in violence by the forces that would see the surge as a threat to their situation.

What is not being reported in Iraq right now is anything like an increase in violence above the usual baseline. Apparently, no one is trying to change the facts on the ground, at least not any faster than usual. This should say all that needs to be said about the American prospects of significant success, whatever that would mean in this context.

Oh, yes, and the military expert who is more than anyone else responsible for this current plan is saying it won't work, at least to British reporters. Nice to know.

UPDATE: I have no doubt that Gen. Petraeus is the U.S. Army's leading counter-insurgency expert. Unfortunately, although no one seems comfortable pointing this out, the counter-insurgency phase of this war in Iraq all but ended roughly a year ago. We are now in a situation where a "stopping state-sponsored genocide" expert, with on-the-ground experience in Rwanda, Bosnia, or western Sudan, would be really helpful. (See also Zakaria.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:26 PM

January 11, 2007

Hizbullah at War

Diana M. pointed me at this well-written piece by ex-Army Ranger officer Andrew Exum. It was worth the read.

Posted by BruceR at 10:32 AM

January 08, 2007

Saddam: he did die well

I think Gary Brecher gets the story about right on the Saddam death. Actually, so did Shakespeare (talking about Macbeth's executed enemy, the Thane of Cawdor):

..."nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle."

Mark Steyn asks, "How come we have a political culture that can produce a content-free party convention down to the nano-second but gives not a thought to hinge moments of history?"

One presumes only because they're completely ignorant of that history. They've done this before, you know, and much more successfully.

Posted by BruceR at 02:18 PM

Jurassic dreams

In case you were ever wondering at what age you will finally stop having those vivid, can't-sleep-clown-will-eat-me nightmares about being chased and devoured by dinosaurs, um, 37 isn't it.

I'd like to once again thank Steven Spielberg, et al for providing us all with the fully realized spectre of velociraptor attacks to re-haunt our mental mazes, and thereby bringing the dinosaur-nightmare meme back out of the realm of the faintly ridiculous.

Posted by BruceR at 01:36 PM

Afghan must-reads, part 2

Yet another in a growing series of commentaries that actually get Afghanistan.

(It's fair to say that this week's promised Presidential speech about dribbling more U.S. troops into Iraq, with its commitment of every swinging d__k left to yet another pointless Baghdad stabilization attempt, portends to be almost exactly the opposite thing required, at least as far as Kabul is concerned.)

Posted by BruceR at 01:30 PM

January 02, 2007

Cordesman: another Afghan must-read

This is a very succinct summary of the problems facing the NATO Afghan mission in 2007.

Posted by BruceR at 03:28 PM