Iron and Empire: The Rise of Assyria

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Iron was first utilized as a technology of war around 1300 bce by the Hittites. By the beginning of the first millennium bce, the secret of iron metallurgy and cold forging had spread to Palestine and Egypt by way of the nomadic invasions, and perhaps to Mesopotamia as well. Iron weapons were superior to bronze weapons because they were heated and hammered into shape rather than cast, making them stronger, less brittle and more reliable than their bronze counterparts. Within a few centuries the secret of tempering was discovered and diffused, and iron became the basic weapon material for all the armies of the period.

The invention and diffusion of iron smelting, cold forging and tempering created no less than a military revolution in the classical world. The importance of iron in the development of classical warfare lay not only in its strength and ability to hold an edge, but also in the widespread availability of iron ore. No longer were civilizations dependent on copper and tin deposits to make their bronze weapons. Five hundred times more prevalent in the earth’s surface than copper, iron was commonly and widely available almost everywhere. The plentiful supply of this strategic material allowed states to produce enormous quantities of reliable weapons cheaply. In fact, a democratization of warfare took place, with most members of an army now being issued iron weapons. Now almost any state could equip large armies with reliable weapons, with the result being a dramatic increase in both the size of battles and the frequency of war. The first people to take full advantage of the potential of the Iron Age were the Assyrians.

Assyrian monarchs had long understood the precarious strategic position of their state. Centred on the three major cities of Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur on the upper Tigris River, in what is now north-western Iraq, Assyria was cursed with a dearth of natural resources and few natural barriers to keep out enemy invasions. Assyria lacked wood for constructing forts, temples and dams, stone for building walls and castles, and iron ore deposits to forge weapons. Assyria also lacked the large steppes necessary to support large horse herds, essential for chariotry and cavalry. If Assyria was to survive, it needed to expand at the expense of its more advantaged neighbours. Beginning in the fourteenth century bce, the Assyrians successfully resisted Mitannian, Hittite and Babylonian expansion and subjugation to finally emerge as a regional power under Tiglath-pileser I (c.1115–1077 bce). The empire created by Tiglath-pileser did not long survive his passing, and a new phase of expansion began in the ninth century under the reign of Shalmaneser III (858–824 bce). By Tiglath-pileser III’s reign (744–727 bce), the Assyrians had expanded into Syria and Babylonia, securing their western and eastern frontiers.

The Assyrians quickly mastered iron metallurgy and applied this new technology to military equipment and tactics. By the eighth century bce, the Assyrians had used their large, iron-equipped armies to conquer much of the Fertile Crescent, and, for a short time in the seventh century, Egypt as well. The general size, logistical capabilities, and strategic and tactical mobility of the Assyrian army were indeed impressive, even by modern standards, with the lessons learned by the Assyrians being passed on to the Persians.

As early as 854 bce at the battle of Karkara (modern Tel Qarqur), Shalmaneser III was able to field a multinational army of over 70,000 men, made up of 65,000 infantrymen, 1,200 cavalrymen and 4,000 chariots. By the eighth century bce, the entire Assyrian armed forces consisted of at least 150,000 to 200,000 men and were the largest standing military force the Near East had ever witnessed. An Assyrian field army numbered approximately 50,000 men and was a combined-arms force consisting of various mixes of infantry, cavalry and chariots which, when arrayed for battle, had a frontage of 2,500 yards and a depth of 100 yards. Still, the Assyrian army, as large as it was, seemed small when compared to armies that appeared some three centuries later. For instance, by 500 bce, a Persian Great King could raise an army of around 300,000 men from his vast territories, and Alexander may have faced a Persian army at the battle of Gaugamela of perhaps 250,000 men, including 20,000 cavalrymen, 250 chariots and 50 elephants.

The Assyrians also recognized the need for increased specialization in weapon systems. With the exception of an elite royal bodyguard and foreign mercenaries, Assyrian kings relied on a farmer-militia raised by a levée en masse. But as these mobilizations increased in frequency, the Assyrians began to supplement their militia muster with an ever-growing cadre of specialized troops. By Sargon II’s time (r. 721–705 bce), the Assyrian army was a combined-arms fighting force of heavy and light infantry, cavalry, chariots and siege machinery supported by specialized units of scouts, engineers, spies and sappers.

Assyrian heavy infantry were armed with a long, double-bladed spear and a straight sword for shock combat, and were protected by a conical iron helmet, knee-length coat of lamellar armour (a shirt of laminated layers of leather sown or glued together, then fitted with iron plates) and a small iron shield. There is some evidence that can be gathered from the panoply depicted on stone bas-reliefs that the Assyrian royal guard was a professional corps of articulated heavy infantry who fought in a phalanx. In battle, these Assyrian heavy infantrymen were organized in a battle square with a ten-man front and files twenty men deep. But even if these troops were capable of offensive articulation, the financial resources, drill, discipline and esprit de corps necessary to field large numbers of these specialized troops was not a dominant part of the Near Eastern art of war, so if present, it was not the decisive tactical system that it would become under the Greeks. Instead, light infantry archers were probably the main offensive arm of the Assyrian army.

Assyrian archers wore a slightly shorter coat of mail armour and the same conical helm as their heavy infantry counterparts, and are often depicted with a shield-bearer carrying a large, rectangular shield made of densely matted reeds covered with oiled skins or metal, similar to a pavise of the medieval period. The shield was curved backward along its top edge to provide extra cover from long-distance arrow or stone attacks and against missiles fired from enemy walls. Archers came from many regions within the empire, so bow types differed, with the simpler self-bow in use as much as the composite bow. The Assyrians invented a quiver that could hold as many as fifty arrows, with some arrows fitted with special heads capable of launching combustible materials. Referred to as ‘the messengers of death’, these flame arrows were targeted at enemy homes or crops. Slingers constitute another type of light infantry employed by the Assyrians. They are often depicted on stone bas-reliefs standing behind archers.

Changes in technology also enabled Assyrian ironsmiths to design a stronger chariot, with builders emulating earlier Egyptian designs by moving the wheel axis from the centre to the rear of the carriage. The result was a highly manoeuvrable vehicle that reduced traction effort. Still, the chariot suffered from terrain restrictions, unable to exploit its impressive shock capabilities on anything but level ground. Perhaps the chariot remained the dominant weapon system into the early Iron Age because of the sociology and psychology of the forces the chariot led and faced. In the Bronze Age the chariot was the weapon of the aristocracy, ridden into parade and battle by a social class culturally ordained as superior to the common soldiers who gazed upon these often excessively decorated weapons. It is possible that the utility of cavalry was not fully tested by the Assyrians because of a carry-over preoccupation with the Bronze Age domination of the battlefield by chariots. For over 2,000 years chariots were free to scatter formations of poorly equipped and weakly motivated infantry. This preoccupation with a battlefield anachronism would continue with the Persians as well, until their final defeat in 331 bce at Gaugamela by a Macedonian army unburdened by chariots.

Most significantly, Assyria was the first civilization in the west to exploit the potential of the horse as a mount. The introduction of larger, sturdier horses from the Eurasian steppes gave the Assyrians a new weapon system, the cavalryman. The first Assyrian cavalry were probably nomadic cavalry, perhaps Median mercenaries from tributary states across the Zagros Mountains on the Eurasian steppes. But not wanting to rely on foreign horsemen, the Assyrians began to develop their own cavalry corps, specializing in both light and heavy tactical systems. Assyrian light infantry emulated their nomadic neighbours, riding smaller, faster steeds and firing arrows from composite bows on the fly. It is notable that writers of the Old Testament called these Assyrian cavalrymen ‘hurricanes on horseback’. Assyrian light cavalry faced all kinds of opponents, including camels used as platforms for Arab missiles, with mounted archers sitting behind the beasts’ jockeys back-to-back and firing at pursuing Assyrian infantry and cavalry.

Assyrian heavy cavalry was in a state of continuous evolution. The original mounted lancer modified the equipment of foot soldiers to meet the needs of shock combat. The armoured coat was reduced to waist length and the shield was made smaller. Heavy cavalry were armed with both sword and lance, but the absence of a stabilizing stirrup meant Assyrian lancers, like their other classical-age counterparts, thrust out and loosened their spear at their enemy as they passed instead of riding through their target using the synergy of horse and rider.

Over time, the Assyrians developed their own cavalry corps and their own horse recruitment, acquiring specialized ‘yoke’ horses for chariots and riding horses for cavalry from as far away as Nubia and Iran. It remains a mystery why this weapon system, far superior to the chariot in both strategic and tactical mobility, was never fully exploited by the Assyrians. Possibly the lack of the horseshoe made the use of cavalry in rough terrain too expensive in animals, or the Assyrians’ preoccupation with chariots precluded them from sustaining large forces of both chariots and cavalry.

From: Brian Carey, Warfare in the Ancient World

Turks and English

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Battle of Lepanto, turning point for Chrisendom.

It is easy, in thinking about the international politics of the Tudor century, to overlook the fact that there was another major player besides the Hapsburgs, the kings and queens of France and England, and a papacy that at various times became involved as referee, cheerleader, or freelance utility infielder.

Easy, but a serious mistake. Because throughout the entire period a fourth force was at work, one more aggressive, more dangerous, and more powerful overall than any of the others. It was the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks, which at midcentury reached the zenith of its six-hundred-year history, controlled eastern Europe south of the Danube, and directly or indirectly was affecting the destinies of all the Christian powers. The fields of force that it projected, like some vast dark star at the edge of the universe of European nations, are a major reason why Elizabethan England was able to preserve its autonomy in spite of being smaller and weaker than France or Spain and potentially a pariah kingdom in the aftermath of its withdrawal from the old church. By sapping the strength of its principal rival, the Hapsburg empire, Ottoman Turkey contributed importantly to the survival of Protestantism across much of northern Europe.

When Elizabeth became queen, the Ottomans either ruled directly or controlled through puppet regimes not just Turkey but Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and much of Hungary. And that was only the European segment of their dominions, which also encompassed Egypt and Algeria and other strongholds in North Africa, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and some of the most important islands in the Mediterranean. They had been ferociously expansionist since their first emergence among the Turkic-Mongol peoples of Anatolia in the thirteenth century, and generation after generation they had consistently demonstrated their ability to outfight formidable adversaries on land and at sea. In 1453 they captured Constantinople, which had remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and of the Orthodox Church for centuries after Rome itself fell, turning it into the principal metropolis of the Islamic world. And because they were Muslims with entirely non-Western cultural roots, their success in pushing northward and across and even beyond the Balkans was seen, not without reason, as a mortal threat to European civilization itself.

The tenth and greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman I, was in the thirty-ninth year of his reign when Elizabeth began hers. To his subjects he was Suleiman the Lawgiver, having in the course of his awesomely fruitful career rewritten his empire’s entire legal code. Europe called him Suleiman the Magnificent, a title he richly deserved. Like his forebears, he was above all a soldier, having personally led campaigns that crushed a revolt in Damascus, captured Belgrade in Serbia and Buda in Hungary, taken much of the Middle East from the shah of Iran, expelled the Knights Hospitalers from the island of Rhodes, and twice laid siege to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. But he was also much more than a soldier: an accomplished poet and goldsmith, a lifelong student of philosophy with a particular devotion to Aristotle, the guiding patron of a remarkable efflorescence of Islamic art, literature, and architecture. Impressive and even admirable as he was, however, he should not be sentimentalized. At the heart of his regime—of the entire Ottoman enterprise—lay something worse than barbarism. Suleiman’s father, Selim I, himself a great conqueror who nearly tripled the size of the empire in only eight years as sultan, cleared the way for his favorite son to succeed him by killing his own brothers, his brothers’ seven sons, and all four of Suleiman’s brothers. Suleiman, decades later, would watch through a peephole as his eldest son and heir, a young man much honored for his prowess in war and skill as a governor, was strangled by court eunuchs to make way for a different, younger, and (as time would show) totally worthless son. Fratricide on a grand scale became standard Ottoman practice; each new sultan, upon taking the throne, would have all his brothers and half-brothers murdered and those members of his predecessor’s harem who happened to be pregnant bundled up in sacks and thrown into the sea. Conquered peoples were treated little better. Eventually the viciousness of the regime would lead the whole empire to shocking depths of cruelty and degeneracy and finally, in the First World War, to collapse. But through much of the sixteenth century, under Suleiman, it appeared to be almost invincible. The possibility that it might break through into central Europe, and continue onward from there, not only seemed but was terrifyingly real.

The threat fell first and most heavily on young Charles Hapsburg, who became the seventeen-year-old king of Spain in the same year that Cairo fell to the Turks. By the time he was elected Holy Roman emperor two years later, the Turks had taken Algiers from Spain, the trade routes of Venice and the other seafaring cities of the Italian peninsula were in danger of being cut off by Turkish raiders, and the southern Hapsburg kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were under direct threat. Francis I was king of France by then and Suleiman was about to become sultan, and for the next three decades they and Charles (the three had been born within six years of each other, and all came to power between 1515 and 1520) would be locked in an almost continuous, endlessly complicated struggle. Henry VIII, from his safe haven on the far shore of the English Channel, would join the fray and withdraw from it as the mood struck him and the state of his treasury dictated.

Despite the size of his empire, Charles V usually found himself on the defensive, with Francis repeatedly trying to pry away substantial chunks of Italy and Suleiman both pressing northward out of the Balkans and seeking to clear the Mediterranean of European ships. Charles’s successes were almost always limited and his defeats were occasionally serious, but when the number and strength of his adversaries are taken into account (Germany’s increasingly numerous Protestant states were soon joining forces to oppose him), he merits recognition as one of the great commanders of the age. When Francis launched an attack on Milan in 1525, Charles not only destroyed his army but took him prisoner. But just a year later, with Charles occupied elsewhere, Suleiman invaded northward, inflicted a ruinous defeat on the Hungarians, and seized territories that the Hapsburgs regarded as theirs by ancient right. Next came Suleiman’s 1529 siege of Vienna, which Charles and his brother Ferdinand were barely able to lift after both sides suffered heavy losses, followed by the sultan’s attempt to take the island of Malta from the same order of crusader knights from whom, some years earlier, he had taken Rhodes. Emboldened by his success in saving Malta and killing thirty thousand Ottoman troops in the process, Charles decided to carry the war into enemy territory. He crossed to North Africa and, at Tunis, succeeded in expelling Suleiman’s client regime and installing one of his own.

The contest seesawed back and forth year after year, as Charles and Suleiman traded blows along the Danube and in the Mediterranean but neither could gain a decisive advantage. For a time Henry of England joined with Charles against Francis, later switching sides and finally turning away from the continent to focus on Anne Boleyn and his conflict with the church. One development that shocked many Europeans, who saw in it a betrayal of all Christendom, was Francis’s entry, in 1536, into an alliance with Suleiman and the Turks. Once again he was grasping at Milan, though he like Charles was very nearly at the end of his financial resources. An important side effect was that Henry VIII was left alone and unthreatened as he completed his break with Rome and fattened on the wealth of the church. Under other circumstances a crusade against England’s schismatic king by the Catholic powers of the continent might have been at least possible. Under the circumstances actually prevailing in the mid-1530s, nothing of the kind could be seriously considered. Neither Charles nor Francis was in any position to make trouble for England. Either would have been grateful for Henry’s active friendship.

In 1538 Suleiman’s great admiral Khayr ad-Din, called Barbarossa by Westerners because of his red beard, defeated the Hapsburg navy in a battle so conclusive that it made the Turks dominant in the Mediterranean for the next thirty-three years. In 1541, as Charles tried and failed to restore Algiers to Spanish control, Suleiman resumed offensive operations in the north. He had sufficient success to impose a humiliating peace on the Hapsburgs: Archduke Ferdinand was obliged to renounce his claim to the throne of Hungary and to become a Turkish vassal, pledging to pay an annual tribute for the portion of Hungary he was permitted to retain. In 1542 Charles and Francis were once again at war, and when the French king asked Suleiman for assistance, the sultan cheerfully agreed. He dispatched a fleet of one hundred galleys, warships powered by oars, to France’s south coast, permitting them to pause along the way to pillage Charles’s kingdoms of Naples and Sicily and the city of Nice, also a Hapsburg possession. On all fronts, Suleiman appeared to be gaining in strength.

Fortunately for Europe, Suleiman like Charles had multiple enemies and more than the conflict between their two empires to deal with. By the late 1540s the shah of Iran had recovered much of the power that had been shattered by Suleiman’s father thirty years earlier, and was making himself troublesome. From 1548 to 1550 Suleiman waged war on the shah, and must have been taken aback to find himself making little headway. He settled in for a time at his sumptuous Topkapi Palace, indulging in the pleasures of the court and involving himself in domestic-dynastic intrigues. (It was during this interlude that he had his son Mustafa murdered, so that the son of the Russian slave girl he had made his wife could become heir.) In 1554 he returned with his army to Iran, finally securing a peace in which he received Iraq and eastern Anatolia but relinquished any claim to the Caucasus. By this time his old ally Francis, along with the distant Henry of England, had been dead for seven years. The emperor Charles, spiritually and physically exhausted, was beginning the process by which, over the next two years, he would give the crown of Spain to his son and that of the Holy Roman Empire to his brother and retire to a monastery. Suleiman alone—older than any of the others except Henry—remained vigorous and actively in command. His enemies were not free of him until 1566, when, at age seventy-two, he suddenly died. At the time, he was leading an army northward to Hungary, making ready to reopen the war there. We can only guess at what Europe may have been spared by his passing.

After Suleiman the Ottoman dynasty went into an abrupt decline. His successor, for whose sake the splendid young Mustafa had been eliminated, was a drunkard who reigned in a stupor for eight years before falling in his bath and fracturing his skull. His successor specialized in copulation, fathering 103 children in his twenty years as sultan, and every Ottoman ruler after him proved to be utterly incompetent or deeply degenerate or both. The empire, however, was slower to decay; its administrative machinery would wind down only gradually over the next three centuries. To the end of Elizabeth’s reign it would remain a formidable presence.

A major turn in Europe’s favor came just five years after Suleiman’s death. In 1571, off the western coast of Greece, the Ottoman navy met the forces of Christendom in what was, for the latter, a desperate last stand. On the Turkish side were 222 galleys supported by numerous smaller vessels and carrying some thirty-four thousand soldiers. Opposing them was a smaller fleet contributed by members of what called itself the Holy League: Venice, Spain, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Knights of Malta, the Papal States, and such places as Genoa and Savoy.

It was the last major battle ever fought entirely with ships powered by oarsmen, one of the biggest naval battles in history, and according to some historians the most important since Mark Antony lost the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. and his rival Octavian became master of Rome as the emperor Augustus Caesar. When the Battle of Lepanto was over, all but forty of the Turkish galleys had been captured or destroyed, perhaps twenty-five thousand Turks had been killed or captured, and ten thousand Christian slaves had been freed. The league, by contrast, had lost only twenty galleys and thirteen thousand men. It was not the end of the Ottoman Empire, not even the end of the empire as a great power, but it did bring the empire’s mastery of the Mediterranean to a permanent close. The momentum of Turkish expansion was not yet entirely exhausted—the capture of Cyprus and recapture of Tunis still lay ahead—but the Ottomans would never again be quite the threat they had been in Suleiman’s time, and they had been deprived of the vast opportunities that a victory at Lepanto would have opened to them.

The commander of the Holy League fleet was the twenty-four-year-old Don John of Austria, Charles V’s illegitimate son by a Bavarian girl of common stock. Second in command, himself only twenty-six, was Alessandro Farnese, great-grandson and namesake of Pope Paul III, son of Charles V’s illegitimate daughter Margaret, future Duke of Parma. The two, though scarcely more than boys, had changed the course of history. We will encounter both in connection with another of the great conflicts that shaped the Tudor century.

Operation Desert Shield

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After his disastrous and fruitless eight-year war with Iran, in the late 1980s President Saddam Hussein decided to distract public attention away from the economic and political failings of his regime by embarking on a new foreign adventure. He planned to reclaim Iraq’s lost province – oil-rich Kuwait. The catalyst for his invasion was a spurious row over oil production, but it served its purpose. The tension was rapidly cranked up to breaking point.

Saddam’s military build-up was swift. On 15 July 1990 a Republican Guard division of 10,000 men and 300 tanks moved just north of Kuwait. Four days later three divisions of 35,000 men deployed 16km from the border. By 27 July these forces had swelled to an overwhelming eight divisions numbering 100,000 troops. Many observers mistook this build-up for bellicose posturing, dismissing the idea that, after the exhausting decade-long conflict with Iran, Saddam would embark on yet another war so soon. They were quickly proved wrong.

Saddam’s Medina and Hammurabi Divisions, two powerful Republican Guard Corps armoured units, invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The following day the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division moved to secure Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia, sealing off the country from the outside world. Approximately 140,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,800 tanks poured into Kuwait. In the face of such military muscle there was no hope of the Kuwaitis defending themselves.

The Kuwaiti Army, not fully mobilized to its standing strength of just 16,000 men, was swiftly overwhelmed. Prior to the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait’s armoured holdings included 70 old British Vickers Mk1 tanks, 40 Centurions, 165 Chieftains and 6 Yugoslav M-84s. Some 224 examples of the latter, Soviet T-72s built under licence, were still on order and had they been delivered Saddam might have thought twice.

Only around the Emir’s palace in Kuwait City itself was there any extensive resistance, lasting about two hours. The small Kuwaiti Air Force briefly attacked the Iraqi armoured columns swarming over the country but its base was quickly overrun. The Iraqis seized 4 Kuwaiti Mirage jet fighters, 12 Hawk trainers, 5 A-4 Skyhawks, 4 C-130s, 2 DC-9s, 2 Gulfstream 111s and 43 helicopters. Kuwait found itself under Saddam’s control within the space of just twelve hours. The Arab states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the rest of the international community were aghast. The invasion of Kuwait seemed a precursor to a much wider war.

Saddam appointed Ali Hassan al-Majid as the de facto governor of Kuwait and Alaa Hussein Ali as the prime minister of the puppet provisional government of Free Kuwait. The former was known as ‘Chemical Ali’ after his extensive use of chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurds in the late 1980s, which culminated in the infamous attack on Halabja. His appointment caused great alarm amongst coalition intelligence circles for it seemed to confirm Saddam’s intention to use chemical weapons to defend Kuwait. Although al-Majid was recalled to Baghdad in November 1990, it was not before the troops under his command had systematically looted Kuwait of everything they could lay their hands on, and had driven out large numbers of the population.

On 28 August 1990 Kuwait was formally annexed and transformed into the Kuwait Governorate, Iraq’s 19th province. Alaa Hussein Ali disingenuously remarked, ‘Kuwait is now ours, but we might have refrained from taking such a decision if US troops were not massed in the region with the threat of invading us.’ Kuwait had been part of Basra province during the days of the ottoman Empire, and Saddam felt it only right that he take it back. The Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council declared: ‘The free provisional Kuwaiti government has decided to appeal to kinsfolk in Iraq, led by the knight of Arabs and the leader of their march, President Field Marshal Saddam Hussein, to agree that their sons should return to their large family, that Kuwait should return to the great Iraq – the mother homeland – and to achieve complete merger unity between Kuwait and Iraq.’

In the wake of the invasion, western and Arab states were quick to deploy forces to defend Saudi Arabia. Since the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, Saudi pre-eminence had increased, for while it lacked significant military manpower, it played a significant role in the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as the leading producer. Despite being a feudal society divided by Islamic dogmatism and liberalization, Saudi Arabia’s security remained (and remains) a priority for the West as it has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. Kuwait was vital as a buffer zone between Saudi Arabia and its volatile neighbours to the north and east.

In the early 1980s the fear was that fundamentalist Shia Iran could easily overwhelm the combined Sunni Arab states of the GCC. Ironically the Saudis and Kuwaitis ‘loaned’ Saddam Hussein in excess of $50 billion for his war effort against Iran during the 1980s, and Saudi volunteers fought in the Iraqi armed forces. Now Saddam was threatening Saudi Arabia’s security and sending oil prices spiralling.

On 7 August 1990, in response to the invasion five days earlier, the United States Air Force’s (USAF) 1st Tactical Fighter Wing deployed with forty-eight F-15 jets from Langley Air Force Base (AFB) in Virginia to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Poised to fly defensive missions within hours of arriving, they commenced combat air patrols along the Iraqi frontier three days later. The enemy stayed out of the way until on 11 November 1990 an Iraqi MiG-25 brazenly crossed the Saudi border, but flew back before any action was taken. As hostilities had not officially commenced, it was felt prudent not to shoot it down.

On 11 September 1990 US President H.W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress:

In the early morning hours of 2 August, following negotiations and promises by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein not to use force, a powerful Iraqi army invaded its trusting and much weaker neighbour, Kuwait. Within three days 120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. It was then that I decided to act to check that aggression.

At this moment, our brave servicemen and women stand watch in that distant desert and on distant seas, side by side with the forces of more than twenty other nations….

Our objectives in the Persian Gulf are clear, our goals defined and familiar: Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately and without condition. Kuwait’s legitimate government must be restored. The security and stability of the Persian Gulf must be assured. And American citizens abroad must be protected. These goals are not ours alone. They have been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council five times in as many weeks. Most countries share our concern for principle. And many have a stake in the stability of the Persian Gulf. This is not, as Saddam Hussein would have it, the United States against Iraq; it is Iraq against the world.

President Bush then instigated Operation Desert Shield, a massive multi-national effort to defend Saudi Arabia. Major General Houston’s US 82nd and Major General James H.B. Peay III’s 101st Airborne Divisions arrived in August 1990. The US 24th Infantry (Mechanized) Division, in the shape of its 1st and 2nd Brigades under Major General Barry McCaffrey, was the first heavy formation to deploy to the Gulf in September 1990. It was followed by Brigadier General John Tilelli’s US 1st Cavalry Division the following month and Major General Thomas Rhame’s US 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) in December. All these units had come from America and, with the exception of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, were equipped with the M1 or IPM1 Abrams tank armed with a 105mm gun.

Due to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the negligible threat posed by the USSR, Washington was also able to redeploy Major General Ronald Griffith’s 1st Armored and Major General Paul Funk’s 3rd Armored Divisions from Germany to bolster Desert Shield. These units were equipped with the newer improved M1A1 tank with a Rheinmetall 120mm M256 gun.

By late January 1991 there were well over half a million US personnel from all services in theatre. The number of US ground forces committed to Desert Shield and the subsequent operations (Desert Storm and Desert Sabre) under General H. Norman Schwarzkopf to liberate Kuwait was staggering: approximately 260,000 troops equipped with about 2,000 M1A1 tanks and 2,200 M2 and M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, supported by 500 artillery pieces plus 190 Apache and 150 Cobra attack helicopters. There were also 90,000 Marines with 200–300 M60 tanks, 250 light armoured vehicles, 430 amphibious assault vehicles and 160 aircraft.

Britain committed 35,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billière, including the 1st British Armoured Division under operation Granby. This comprised the 7th Armoured Brigade (the ‘Desert Rats’), with two regiments of FV4030 Challenger Mk 3s, and the 4th Armoured Brigade plus another regiment, totalling 160 tanks commanded by Major General Rupert Smith. The division’s three mechanized infantry battalions were each equipped with forty-five new FV510 Warrior mechanized combat vehicles. The two reconnaissance units were equipped with a range of vehicles based on the Scorpion.

France contributed 14,000 men, as part of Opération Daguet, under Lieutenant General Michel Roquejoffre, who commanded the French Rapid Reaction Force. The French force comprised Foreign Legion, Marine infantry, helicopter and armoured car units. The main formation was the 6th Light Armoured Division, with forty AMX-10C AFVs under Brigadier General Mouscardes. It should be noted that French divisions are smaller than their NATO counterparts and are typically reinforced brigades. However, the 6th Division was augmented with reinforcements that included the 4th Dragoon Regiment, a tank unit equipped with forty-four AMX-30B2 tanks, from the French 10th Armoured Division. Although the AMX-30B2 model was old and due to be replaced by the Leclerc, it was more than able to deal with most Iraqi tanks.

The Kuwaiti Army in exile consisted of three or four brigades, totalling 10–15,000 men, equipped with over sixty Chieftain and M-84 tanks. The principal armoured unit was the 38th Kuwaiti Armoured Brigade, dubbed the ‘Al Shadid’ or Martyrs. It had lost twenty-two of its eighty Chieftains during the Iraqi invasion. The 35th Kuwaiti Mechanized Brigade was equipped with M113 tracked APCs.

Saudi contributed two main forces: the regular Saudi Arabian Armed Forces (SAAF) and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). By 1991 the SAAF totalled 67,500 men, the army or Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) fielding 40,000 of them, organized into two armoured, four mechanized (including the 10th Armoured, and the 8th, 10th, 11th and 20th Mechanized Brigades), one infantry and one airborne brigade, equipped with 550 tanks (including 300 French AMX-30s and 250 American M60s) and 1,840 combat vehicles, APCs and armoured cars. SANG totalled 55,000 men with 35,000 active troops and 20,000 tribal levies, equipped with 1,100 American V-150 Commando APCs.

The largest Arab contingent, comprising some 47,000 troops, came from Egypt. It consisted of the 3rd Mechanized Division (with about 200 M60s, 300 M113 APCs and M109 self-propelled guns) and the 4th Armoured Division (with about 250 M60s and 250 M113s and M109s). Syria committed 19,000 men, consisting of one airborne brigade and the 9th Armoured Division (with 250 T-62 and T-72 tanks plus BMP IFVs). In return for its support Syria received $1 billion from Saudi Arabia. Both Egypt and Syria stated that their troops were only to be deployed to defend Saudi Arabia, though this attitude was to change. Qatar also provided an armoured battalion equipped with about twenty-four French-supplied AMX-30 tanks. In total the Coalition gathered half a million men from thirty-one countries armed with 3,400 tanks and 1,600 pieces of artillery, while the allied air forces included 1,736 combat aircraft and 750 support aircraft.

General Schwarzkopf was an experienced pair of hands. Commissioned in 1956, he had served as an adviser and then as a battalion commander during the Vietnam War and was highly decorated for his exploits. He was a divisional commander during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Five years later Schwarzkopf assumed command of US Central Command or CENTCOM based in Tampa, Florida, with responsibility for military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Supporting him were Lieutenant General John Yeosock, commanding the US Army forces deployed for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Vice Admiral Stan Arthur, commanding the US Navy forces in the Gulf, Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, commanding the US Air Force in the Gulf, and Lieutenant General Walt Boomer, commanding the US Marines in the Gulf.

Despite the massed array of military hardware and repeated calls by the United Nations for Iraq to withdraw, Saddam Hussein refused to leave Kuwait. In the face of such obstinacy, the Coalition prepared its plans for a ground war, but first, under the guise of Operation Desert Storm, coalition fighter-bombers were to hunt down every piece of Iraqi military equipment they could find. What followed was a largely uncontested air war – some likened it to a turkey shoot.

Iraqi Army in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO)

DESERT STORM

Two Iraqi T-55 main battle tanks lie abandoned on the Basra-Kuwait Highway near Kuwait City after the release of Iraqi forces from the city during Operation Desert Storm.

RETRO-GULF WAR-IRAQI ARMY-DESTRUCTION

A long line of vehicles, including destroyed Iraqi Army Russian-made T-62 tanks and trucks stand abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops on the outskirts of Kuwait City 01 March 1991 after the Allied troops liberated the capital of Kuwait. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 02 August 1990, ostensibly over violations of the Iraqi border, led to the Gulf War which began 16 January 1991. A U.S.-led multinational force expelled Iraq from Kuwait during the “Desert Storm” offensive and a cease-fire was signed 28 February 1991. (Photo credit should read PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

By early January 1991 western intelligence reports suggested that Saddam’s forces deployed in the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO), encompassing Kuwait and southern Iraq, numbered approximately 540,000 men, equipped with 4,000 tanks, 2,700 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and other armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), and 3,000 pieces of artillery. This force included the 120,000–150,000-strong elite Republican Guard Corps. These figures were based on the assessment that forty-three Iraqi divisions were in the KTO. On the face of it, this was a formidable fighting force that would not be easy to defeat.

To make matter worse, overall Saddam Hussein had almost a million men under arms, consisting of seven corps directing seven armoured/mechanized divisions plus forty-two infantry divisions, whilst the Republican Guard had four armoured/mechanized divisions and three infantry divisions. Despite its huge manpower and powerful armoured forces, closer inspection showed that the Iraqi Army’s fearsome reputation was based largely on myth. Its military reputation was not as great as it had been made out to be, and certainly its track record during the Iran–Iraq War was nothing to boast about. The Iraqi Army had not conquered great swathes of Iran and it had struggled to fight Iran’s massed human-wave attacks to a bloody standstill.

The Iraqis had considerable but somewhat mixed experiences of armoured warfare. In 1973 the Iraqi 3rd Armoured Division had been committed in support of the Syrians, but performed fairly poorly, losing 140 tanks to the Israelis. This was followed by nine years of war with Iran between 1980 and 1989. However, tactical use of tanks on both sides was at best unimaginative. There had been no grand blitzkriegs across Iran or Iraq. Nonetheless, within the Iraqi armed forces Saddam’s Republican Guard Corps had gained a particularly tough reputation. While hardly comparable to Hitler’s Waffen-SS, during the Iran–Iraq conflict the Republican Guard had formed a strategic reserve, acting as a ‘fire-brigade’ that was sent to any front that was in need of bolstering. It fought on almost every front and in most of the major battles, expanding from a single armoured brigade in 1980 to one infantry, one commando and three armoured brigades by 1987. Four years later it was claimed that the corps consisted of seven whole divisions. Whenever the Republican Guard appeared, Iraqi morale was greatly improved, as was their combat performance. These observations were not lost on western planners.

Principal Iraqi Armoured units in the KTO:

Republican Guard Corps:

Hammurabi, Medina and Tawakalna Armoured Divisions

Iraqi Army:

3rd, 6th, 10th, 12th, 17th and 37th Armoured Divisions

1st, 5th, 14th and 51st Mechanized Divisions

26th Armoured Brigade

20th Mechanized Brigade

Despite the impressive numbers, the truth was that neither the Iraqi Army nor the Republican Guard had been given time to recover from the gruelling conflict with Iran. In 1990 Iraq was still equipped with the Brazilian, Chinese, Czech and Russian armour with which it had fought the Iran–Iraq War. Much of it was poorly serviced and in desperate need of spares. Saddam’s armoured forces were equipped with some 5,500 tanks comprising 2,500 Russian T-54/55s, 1,500 Chinese Type 59/69s, 1,000 Russian T-62s and 500 T-72s, as well as 8,100 APCs consisting of Russian BMP-1/2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, BTR-50/60/152 and MTLBs, Czech OT-62/63s, Chinese YW-531s, American M113s and Brazilian EE-11s. These were supported by no fewer than 500 Russian-supplied self-propelled guns of 122mm, 152mm and 155mm calibre, and 3,200 pieces of artillery and multiple rocket launchers.

The bulk of the Iraqi tank fleet consisted of the tried and tested Soviet-supplied T-54/55, T-62 and T-72 types, all of which were decidedly long in the tooth by 1990. The T-72 was the Iraqi Army’s most modern tank during Desert Storm, although it was a good ten years older than the US Abrams. A few Iraqi-upgraded Russian T-54/55s and Chinese Type-59/69 tanks with additional frontal arc armour (giving a greater degree of protection against high-explosive anti-tank rounds) were encountered by coalition tanks during the fighting. Some of the Iraqi T-62s were also modified in a number of areas (including the addition of covers to the turret-mounted searchlights). It was not known if any had been modified to fire laser-guided missiles via the 115mm gun. Egypt also supplied Iraq with 140 M-77s, a Romanian copy of the T-54 that was also known as the M1977 or TR-77.

The Americans had very good intelligence on the T-55/62 and even the T-72, in part due to the Arab–Israeli wars. The Israelis first fought the T-54/55 in 1967 and the T-62 in 1973. During the 1967 Six-Day War the Arabs lost 1,072 tanks and about another 2,000 in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and many were passed on to the US for exploitation. The guns of both types performed poorly in long-range exchanges (over 1,500m), and while the T-62’s 115mm U5-T smoothbore gun was effective, crew performance was hampered by cramped conditions. Likewise their excellent armour was compromised by the location of internal fuel and ammunition stores (adding greatly to the risk of internal detonation, even by a glancing hit). The Soviet-designed tanks also had a tendency to overheat in the desert, thereby aggravating the already severe problems of crew discomfort.

Combat experience had already shown that the 105mm/M68 tank gun firing armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) projectiles was capable of penetrating the frontal armour of early T-72s. The Abrams’ 120mm gun had the added advantage of firing the M829 APFSDS-T (T – tracer) round with a depleted uranium penetrator. This meant that the M1A1 Abrams and the 105mm-armed M60 could easily deal with the cream of the Iraqi armour. In fact the US Department of Defense was almost ecstatic over the Abrams’ performance in the Gulf. Likewise the British Challenger’s 120mm weapon could knock out enemy tanks at 2,500 yards and beyond, and with its excellent thermal sights it was just as effective at night. Its Chobham armour was also enhanced by the addition of extra armour packs on the front and sides.

The Soviet-designed 2S1 self-propelled howitzer entered service in the early 1970s and remained in production until around 1991. Iraq is believed to have imported about 140 of these and the 2S3 in the late 1980s, and several were subsequently captured during Desert Storm. The 2S3 self-propelled howitzer had also entered Soviet service in the early 1970s and some 10,000 examples of this type were built. Numbers of Iraqi 2S3s were overrun in 1991, their crews probably having fled in the face of overwhelming air attacks.

In 1989 the Iraqis displayed a BMP-1 Infantry Combat Vehicle with appliqué armour fitted to the sides of the hull for protection against 12.7 mm and 14.5 mm armour-piercing rounds. However, none was fitted to the turret or glacis plate. Holes were also cut into the hull armour package to allow the infantry to use their small arms from within the vehicle. It is not known whether this type entered service with the Iraqi Army in quantity. The Iraqis obtained a small number of BMD-1 Airborne Combat Vehicles, and a number in poor condition were later captured in Kuwait. They were presumably used in a fire support or reconnaissance role.

The Soviet-built MT-LB Multi-purpose Tracked Vehicle was used as an artillery tractor for 100mm and 122mm guns, as a command vehicle, as an artillery fire control vehicle, as a cargo carrier and as an APC. Iraq is believed to have imported up to 800 of them during the 1980s, and some were modified to carry an Egyptian-supplied 120mm mortar. Many of the MT-LBs came from Bulgaria, which built them under licence.

Iraq had acquired about 300 EE-9 Cascavel fast and well-armed Brazilian 6×6 armoured cars during the 1980s. A number were deployed with the Iraqi garrison in Kuwait City in 1990 and were subsequently caught by air strikes trying to flee north. The Iraqis also imported several hundred Brazilian EE-3 Jararaca scout cars and EE-11 Urutu 6×6 APCs.

The OT-62 Armoured Personnel Carrier jointly developed by Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1960s was largely a copy of the Soviet BTR-50. Iraq procured about 500 of these and the wheeled OT-64. The OT-64 Armoured Personnel Carrier 8×8 wheeled APC served the same function as the Soviet BTR-60 APC (although they are not physically the same). Production ceased in 1990, by which time 10,300 had been built for home and export markets.

The Chinese Type YW-531 tracked APC was developed in the late 1960s and saw combat in Angola, Iraq, Kuwait, Tanzania and Vietnam. From 1983 onwards Iraq received some 500 of these vehicles, a number of which were captured in 1991, including the Type YW-701 command post vehicle (based on the YW-531 and deployed by regimental and divisional commanders) and several Type YW-750 ambulances. This APC would first see action with the Iraqi Army at Khafji in Saudi Arabia.

All in all, Saddam’s forces in the KTO were not to be underestimated, and while western intelligence had a good idea how they might perform, it was certainly far from a foregone conclusion. Saddam and his generals were gambling on being able to inflict sufficient casualties on the coalition forces to compel the coalition commanders to accept a ceasefire brokered by the UN Security Council. The reality was that Saddam’s timing could not have been worse, especially as his key ally, the Soviet Union, was in the throes of disintegration and was in no position to influence events. Nor was it able to offer a massive re-supply operation as it had done with Egypt and Syria during the Arab–Israeli Wars. Saddam was on his own.

VIETNAM WOMEN FIGHTERS 1945–75

Female Viet Cong Warrior c.1973

“When war comes, even women have to fight.” This ancient saying of the Vietnamese took on a new relevance in the thirty years that followed the end of World War II, during which the Vietnamese rid themselves of two more foreign interlopers, first the French and then the Americans.

By the summer of 1941, the French colony of Indochina had fallen under the effective control of the Japanese. In December 1944, the Vietnamese guerrilla commander Vo Nguyen Giap organized a group of thirty-five Viet Minh (Communist) guerrillas, of whom five were women. The women were particularly useful in explaining the party line to Vietnamese villagers, who were impressed by their skill in handling firearms.

In 1945, as the war came to a close, Vietnamese women seized Japanese food depots to stave off starvation, and in August and September they joined Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, in the seizure of power in Hanoi, in northern Vietnam. However, the French returned after the Japanese surrender and in 1946 reoccupied Hanoi, the prelude to an eight-year war.

At the outset, Ho Chi Minh’s military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, suffered a string of defeats before a vital victory at Dien Bien Phu, which led to the surrender of ten thousand French troops in May 1954. During the fifty-five-day siege, short and slight minority tribeswomen played a vital role, hauling heavy equipment, bicycles, artillery components, food, weapons, and ammunition on their backs to supply Giap’s forces, and evacuating the Viet Minh wounded to the rear.

In July 1954, Vietnam was partitioned into the Communist North and US-backed South, as the United States sought to stem Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Approximately one million women had participated in the anti-French resistance, an experience that foreshadowed the twenty-year war for a reunited Vietnam. From its formation in 1961, women were active in the Communist National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NLF).

In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson decided to commit combat troops to the war. For the North Vietnamese leadership, the struggle against the South and the Americans was seen as both military and political, including recruitment, the maintenance of morale, and the simultaneous undermining of the morale of the South Vietnamese forces and government. For these tasks, women were considered ideal, not least because by 1965 the NLF suffered a severe manpower shortage.

The Women’s Liberation Organization, an arm of the NLF, also had a vital auxiliary military role to play, liaising between villages in the South and NLF units in the jungle, performing intelligence work, providing food and clothing for NLF fighters, concealing them from the enemy, and nursing the sick and wounded. They were also tasked with staging “face-to-face” confrontations with US and South Vietnamese troops, the aim being to harass them at every turn.

Women were also responsible for placing propaganda leaflets for the enemy to find, and Nguyen Thi Dinh, who eventually became deputy commander of the armed forces of the NLF, launched her career in this way. These activities enabled some women to play a significant part in the NLF’s political and administrative cadres. Ho Chi Minh honored them with the name “long-haired warriors.”

Women mainly worked in support formations, carrying huge quantities of rice into the jungle to supply NLF units and returning with wounded fighters, often traversing the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the infiltration route running through Laos to South Vietnam. The young women often had to negotiate the trail carrying burdens greater than their body weight, while suffering from malaria.

By the end of 1967, the numbers of women involved in NLF support and combat operations had risen steeply and they were a constant presence in the resistance to the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, a factor that was badly underestimated by the US commander, General William Westmoreland, and his staff. While many of them did not bear weapons and few fought full-time, this did not prevent women from being imprisoned, tortured, and killed in Operation Phoenix, the CIA-sponsored attempt to eliminate the NLF.

Women also played a part in the 1968 Tet offensive, which, although a military catastrophe for the NLF, fatally undermined the claims made by the United States that it was making progress in the war. One of the combatant women in Saigon was Hoang Thi Khanh, who had been part of a sapper unit that liaised with NLF guerrillas in the surrounding countryside and smuggled arms into the city. In the buildup to the offensive, she had guided guerrillas—many of them women—into Saigon and coordinated them once the fighting started. After her unit had been roughly handled by South Vietnamese troops (ARVN), she organized a counterattack. She survived until November 1969, when she was captured by the ARVN.

Other women who took up arms during the Tet offensive included two sisters, Thieu Thi Tam and Thieu Thi Tao, who unsuccessfully tried to blow up the police headquarters in Saigon. They were captured, interrogated, tortured, and sent to the prison at Con Dao, notorious for its cramped “tiger cages,” whose open ceilings enabled the jailers to drench the inmates with lime.

Fifteen miles west of Saigon lay the area of Cu Chi, which boasted a vast network of tunnels providing shelter for NLF fighters and containing underground hospitals and assembly points for major operations. The women of Cu Chi had helped to excavate the tunnels, claustrophobic work undertaken in the most dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Cu Chi also boasted a female fighting formation, C3 Company, which had been formed in 1965. All its members were trained in the use of small arms and grenades, the wiring and detonation of mines, and assassination. However, they were discouraged from taking on Americans in close-quarter combat because of their small stature.

The war also subjected the people of North Vietnam to a long strategic bombing campaign, undertaken from 1964 by fighter-bombers of the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. From the outset, female militias were raised for the defense of North Vietnam, guarding roads and bridges, engaging South Vietnamese Rangers around the 17th Parallel dividing the North and South, and serving in antiaircraft batteries, both artillery and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). By the time US B-52s launched their own strategic bombing campaign, Linebacker II, in December 1972, Hanoi was the most heavily defended target in the world.

By then all young women in North Vietnam had long been required to join the local militias and self-defense units, making up some 40 percent of the total personnel. They also moved into roles that very few women had filled before 1965. Approximately 32 percent of North Vietnam’s skilled and scientific workers were women. Women replaced men in the health sector and provided some 70 percent of the North’s workforce, toiling in factories, fields, and offices. They taught in universities and worked for the government.

In the rural areas, women cared for and educated the children evacuated from urban centers to save them from the bombing. They worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, wielding picks and shovels, heaving baskets of soil, and filling bomb craters by day so that trucks could roll by night. Rural women were already inured to hard work. Now they had to learn new skills to operate heavy machinery and raise rice yields and a range of new crops.

The women defending North Vietnam provided ideal subjects for war photographers. Perhaps the most famous image of the home front in the North was that of a minute young peasant girl, Nguyen Thi Kim Lai, the seventeen-year-old commander of a female militia unit, escorting a US airman who had been shot down in December 1972 during Linebacker II. The sight of the hulking American, his head bowed and hands tied, dwarfing the tiny, alert woman wielding an elderly rifle, provides a metaphor for the humbling of the United States in Vietnam. In 1985 the airman in the photograph, William Robinson, returned to Vietnam to meet Nguyen Thi Kim Lai and to ask for her forgiveness, which she readily gave.

Reference: Sandra C. Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution, 1999.

Ukraine—Hotspot?

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Situation Mid-2014

Ukraine, once the breadbasket of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), proclaimed itself an independent state in August 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet in the second decade of the 21st century independence has become an ambiguous concept, with Ukraine’s future a prize to be contested between Russia to its east and the EU to its west – and with the contest resurrecting fears of a new cold war between the United States and Russia.

For Ukraine’s 44 million population the promise that came with independence was first tarnished by rampant corruption; now it has given way to destructive differences defined partly by language and partly by the competing lures of the capital, Kiev, and Moscow. Whereas three-quarters of the population are ethnically Ukrainian, around 17% – mainly in the east of the country – are ethnically Russian and around 30% of the population say Russian is their first language.

Some 2 million of these Russian-speaking Ukrainians instantly became Russian citizens on March 18th 2014 when Crimea, which had been made part of Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 (this generous gesture reflected Communist Party infighting in the Soviet Union), was formally annexed by Russia – the first time that a Russian government had expanded the country’s borders since the second world war. The loss of Crimea was compounded by a well-armed pro-Russia separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, which has led to months of heavy – but inconclusive – fighting with government forces.

By the summer of 2015 this conflict in eastern Ukraine had claimed more than 6,000 lives since pro-Russian activists in early April 2014 seized government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. In the succeeding months both the violence and the rhetoric mounted: Russian troops were stationed intimidatingly close to the border and the US and the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia and travel bans on senior Russian associates of President Vladimir Putin. In one hyperbolic outburst, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in late April 2014 accused Russia of seeking to trigger a third world war; in June Russia’s Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and said any future supplies would have to be paid for in advance by the near-bankrupt Ukrainian authorities. In a particularly troubling incident in July 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, with 298 people on board, was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a missile allegedly (and presumably mistakenly) fired by a rebel.

Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis is a matter as much of opinion as of fact. The Kremlin denies any participation by Russian troops in the fighting, while Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said in January 2015 that Russia had sent 9,000 troops and 500 tanks and armoured vehicles to support the pro-Russian separatists. What is undeniable is that in August 2014 Ukraine handed ten captured Russian paratroopers, who claimed they had crossed the border by accident, back to Russia and Russia handed 63 Ukrainian troops, who had crossed into Russia to escape separatist attacks, back to Ukraine.

The tensions with Russia emphasise Ukraine’s troubled history since independence. With the country set free from the command economy of the Soviet Union, Ukraine suffered deep economic recession and high inflation under the first president, Leonid Kravchuk (a long-time Communist Party functionary belatedly embracing nationalism). His successor in 1994, Leonid Kuchma, attempted to stabilise the economy by fostering closer links with Russia while also adopting pro-market reforms (economic growth did not finally resume until 2001).

An important feature of Kuchma’s first year as president was his signature, along with those of the US president, Bill Clinton, the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and the UK prime minister, John Major, on the Budapest memorandum, under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet-era nuclear warheads (the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal at the time) and transfer them to Russia. In return, the other signatories pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”. It is this agreement that the West accuses President Putin of flouting in his annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

But the Kuchma presidency was also marked by corruption, cronyism and censorship; worse still, audio tapes were found that appeared to implicate him in the murder in 2000 of a dissident journalist (in 2011 a court dismissed the prosecution case). Cleared by the Constitutional Court to run for a third term in 2004, Kuchma decided instead to endorse his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, who also had the backing of Putin. Yanukovych’s opponent was Viktor Yushchenko, who argued for a close relationship with the EU – and who fell victim to a mysterious illness. This turned out be caused by dioxin poisoning and left him with a badly pockmarked face. Amid accusations by independent observers of electoral fraud, Yanukovych was declared the winner in the election’s second-round run-off in November. This immediately provoked the pro-West “Orange revolution” of 2004, with demonstrators in mass protests wearing orange, the campaign colour of Yushchenko. In December the Supreme Court ruled that the November run-off had been invalid and ordered a second one, which was won on December 26th by Yushchenko.

The following month President Yushchenko appointed Yulia Timoshenko, his foremost ally in the Orange revolution, as his prime minister – and within months was at odds with her. By 2008, with the country suffering not just from endemic corruption but also from the impact of the global financial crisis, Yushchenko was locked in a bitter power struggle with Timoshenko. In the presidential election of January 2010 Yushchenko received only 5% of the vote, leaving the February run-off to be decided by Timoshenko and Yanukovych.

Victory went to Yanukovych, and Timoshenko immediately claimed the result had been rigged. No matter: the pro-Putin Yanukovych was in the presidential palace and by June 2011 Timoshenko was on trial on charges of abuse of power during her two periods as prime minister, notably over a 2009 deal to purchase gas from Russia at an inflated price. In October 2011 she was sentenced to seven years in prison, and then in November she faced new charges of embezzlement and tax evasion allegedly dating back to the 1990s.

Whereas Yushchenko had seen Ukraine’s future in a close alliance with the EU (hence negotiations that began in 2007), Yanukovych – born in eastern Ukraine and instinctively pro-Russian – looked towards Russia. In April 2010, in exchange for a lower price for Russian gas, he extended Russia’s lease on its naval base in Sevastopol, in Crimea, to 2042, but then enraged many in Ukraine by declaring that the Soviet-era famine of 1932–33, in which perhaps 5 million Ukrainians died, was not – as Yushchenko had charged – a Soviet-inspired genocide.

Ukraine’s descent into chaos and war began in November 2013, when President Yanukovych backed out of a trade and co-operation agreement with the EU just days before it was due to be signed, arguing that Ukraine would be better off in the Eurasian Economic Union advocated by Putin (the EEU came into force in January 2015 with Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as its founding members).

The immediate result of Yanukovych’s apparent abandonment of the dream that one day Ukraine might be part of the EU was a swelling tide of popular demonstrations and the occupation by thousands of pro-West protesters of Kiev’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). After weeks of protest, around 100 Maidan demonstrators were shot dead on February 18th–20th 2014, apparently by government snipers. On February 22nd, a day after Yanukovych fled from Kiev, parliament voted to end his presidency and Timoshenko was freed from prison.

On the face of it, the pro-EU and pro-Western forces that a decade earlier had triumphed in the Orange revolution had triumphed once again. As Yanukovych retired to safety in Russia, his private residence outside Kiev was opened to the public to see its extraordinary opulence and the interim government issued a warrant for his arrest for mass murder.

Yet Russia and its allies have a different view. They see the Orange revolution as the continuation of a campaign by the US government and Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Open Society Foundations of George Soros, to seduce countries that once were in the Soviet orbit – for example, Serbia and Georgia – into the economic and political embrace of the West. In the same vein they see the ousting of Yanukovych as an illegal coup engineered by the West and favouring Ukrainian fascists (Svoboda, a political party tainted by anti-Semitism and with pro-Nazi origins, played a prominent role in the Maidan demonstrations). This coup d’état meant that it was the West, not Russia, that was reneging on the Budapest memorandum.

This does not, of course, legitimise the annexation of Crimea, but in March 2014 President Putin, accusing the West of double standards, offered Kosovo’s independence in 2008 as a parallel and self-determination as a justification:

Our Western partners created the Kosovo precedent with their own hands. In a situation absolutely the same as the one in Crimea they recognised Kosovo’s secession from Serbia legitimate while arguing that no permission from a country’s central authority for a unilateral declaration of independence is necessary.

Whatever the legal validity of Crimea’s secession, it was achieved with the loss of only two lives. The reason was that any Ukrainian military resistance would have been futile, since under its lease agreement for its Sevastopol base Russia was allowed to station up to 25,000 troops in Crimea. By contrast, government forces have fiercely opposed the separatists in eastern Ukraine. In March 2014 pro-Russia militias in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) seized government buildings and pro-Russia and pro-government demonstrations became increasingly violent. By early April pro-Russia separatists had declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the goal of unification with Russia. Later in the month separatists declared the People’s Republic of Luhansk, which in May merged with its Donetsk equivalent to form the confederation of Novorossiya (recognised only by South Ossetia, the barely recognised pro-Russia republic that seceded from Georgia in 1990).

Ukraine’s armed forces began their counter-offensive in mid-April 2014. With around 160,000 frontline personnel and almost 3,000 tanks, as well as helicopters and aircraft, on paper they should have had no problem in reasserting the government’s control over the east. Much of the army, however, is composed of conscripts with no wish to risk their lives – hence growing numbers of defections – and recruits mobilised in 2014 and 2015 were described by one government adviser as “alcoholics and dodgers, drug addicts and morons”. Moreover, despite its denials, it was clear that Russia was supplying the separatists with arms – and quite possibly with trained soldiers, too. The result has been a military stalemate, marked by ineffectual ceasefires and coinciding with an increasingly acute economic crisis and the massive destruction of many towns in eastern Ukraine.

The challenge for Petro Poroshenko, elected president in May 2014, is somehow to find a solution that will leave Ukraine intact, at least in principle if not in practice. Poroshenko’s pro-West stance is not in doubt, and was confirmed on June 27th 2014 – just 20 days after his inauguration – by his signature on the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement that Yanukovych had rejected. His pro-West policy is also of long standing: he was a billionaire supporter of the Orange revolution (his fortune comes from control of a business empire that includes a confectionery company – hence his nickname “the chocolate king”) and he served as President Yushchenko’s foreign minister. He also served as trade minister for President Yanukovych, but he was trying, he says, to move Ukraine closer to the EU despite Yanukovych’s opposition.

Despite his impressive curriculum vitae, any solution must clearly be agreed by players much more powerful than Poroshenko, who has not helped his cause by declaring in December 2014 that Ukraine should hold a referendum on joining NATO – precisely the opposite of what Putin has in mind. In February 2015 marathon talks in the Belarus capital, Minsk, involving Poroshenko, President Hollande of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany and, of course, President Putin, yielded a ceasefire under which both the Ukrainian government and the separatists would withdraw their heavy weapons and leave a wide security zone between them; all foreign troops and mercenaries would depart; militias would disarm; and Ukraine would recover control of its borders after the holding of local elections.

Optimists were encouraged by the Minsk agreement; realists have remained sceptical, not least because Poroshenko’s date for the local elections was a distant October 2015. The level of violence certainly diminished in the wake of the Minsk ceasefire, but not the level of rhetoric, with Russia particularly criticising the dispatch to Ukraine in April of American paratroopers on a six-month mission to train Ukrainian troops. In short, Ukraine’s crisis has all the features of a post-Soviet frozen conflict, with the country trapped between West and East, or as cynics might say, between a rock and a hard place.

Modern Russia-Towards a New Cold War?

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Stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, the Russian Federation (as Russia is now officially known) is the world’s largest country. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Russia, with a population of 143 million, is also a giant both militarily and politically: it has around 7,500 nuclear warheads (and is said to have had the world’s largest stock of biological and chemical weapons during the Soviet era); it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council; and it vies with the United States as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. In short, Russia is a power to be reckoned with, and has been for centuries, from the empire created by Peter the Great in the 18th century to the Soviet bloc ruled over by Joseph Stalin and his successors in the 20th century.

That power is also characterised by a capacity for endurance: in the second world war (which the Soviet Union entered in 1941 and termed the Great Patriotic War) the Soviet Union was instrumental in the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, and was willing to accept a military and civilian death toll estimated by some historians at around 25 million.

Yet for the rest of the 20th century Russia’s leaders were reluctant to wage war directly. In the Korean war of 1950–53, for example, the Soviet Union provided weapons and aid to its Chinese and North Korean allies, but did not commit troops. The basic reason was the balance of terror that existed in the wonderfully named cold war between the Soviet Union, intent on spreading communism around the world, and the United States, intent on spreading capitalism. Since both were superpowers with thousands of nuclear-armed missiles, both were conscious that any conflict leading to one or the other pressing the nuclear button would mean mutually assured destruction – a prospect that seemed horribly possible in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, until President John Kennedy convinced Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet missiles from the island. The existence of what Churchill termed the iron curtain, dividing the communist Soviet bloc from the West, meant that Russian troops could invade Hungary in 1956 to put down the uprising against Soviet control and could invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quell the reform movement – on both occasions without any reaction by NATO.

The consequence of this superpower rivalry of the 20th century was a plethora of wars, rebellions and coups by proxy, be they in Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East. But there is one exception, on the Russian side at least, to this conflict by proxy: the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, intended to preserve communist rule against the increasing threat of the mujahideen insurgents (a mujahid is someone performing jihad, which means struggle but which is often – and not always accurately – translated as holy war).

The rationale for the Soviet intervention was the Brezhnev doctrine, a decision by the then leader that once a country had joined the socialist camp it could never leave it (the Soviet Union had supplied arms to Afghanistan since 1955 and the country had turned to communism in 1978). The occupation was a decade-long disaster – Russia’s Vietnam, as the headline writers like to say. Apart from the toll of death and destruction wreaked on Afghans, 13,310 Soviet troops were killed, 35,478 were wounded and 311 were reported missing by the time Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of troops in February 1989.

In retrospect, the Afghanistan war, coupled with Ronald Reagan’s determination to surpass Russia in defence spending and capability, was clearly a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet it has also been a factor in the Islamist extremism that threatens both Russia and the West today: the victorious mujahideen had been supported with weapons and money by several outside powers, notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, and among their recruits were many foreign Muslims, the most famous of them being a certain Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda.

In the 21st century, Russia’s reaction to the demise of the Soviet Union has become markedly forthright under Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who assumed power in Russia in 1999 after the chaotic era of Boris Yeltsin (the successor to Mikhail Gorbachev and the first president of the Russian Federation). Putin was Russia’s president until 2008, when he was constitutionally obliged to step down after two successive terms in office. But he remained the real power in the land as prime minister to President Dmitry Medvedev until 2012 – at which date he was again elected president.

Throughout his tenure in the Kremlin, Putin’s ambition has been to restore Russia’s status in the world, famously telling the Russian nation in 2005 (in the official translation):

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

What that meant in 2008 was an invasion of Georgia in support of the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which had favoured closer links with Russia. In 2014 it meant the threat of military force to help local pro-Russian forces accomplish the annexation of Crimea – a majority of whose population are ethnically Russian – from Ukraine. In the same year pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine could rely on the political – and potentially military – backing of Russia in their effort to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Western governments professed outrage at the plight of Ukraine and the loss of Crimea, not least because in 1994 in the Budapest memorandum the US, the UK and Russia agreed to be joint guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Yet the situation is more complex than the headlines criticising Russian aggression presume. Crimea, for example, became part of the Russian empire in 1783 and remained part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev (hoping to consolidate his power at a time of Communist Party infighting) donated it to Ukraine in 1954. Crimea also contains the port of Sevastopol, a base for Russia’s Black Sea navy giving it access to the Mediterranean. It is also clear that most Crimeans did want to join “mother Russia”, given that in a referendum held in March 2014 and denounced as illegal and one-sided by the Ukraine government some 97% of the vote was for Crimea to become part of Russia.

It may well be true, also, that a majority of the population in the eastern part of Ukraine wish their region to be part of Russia, especially after the Ukrainian parliament in February 2014 voted to annul a law that has allowed 13 of Ukraine’s 27 regions to use Russian as a second official language (the parliament’s decision was not signed into law). Putin, with Russian troops poised to cross the border if needed by the pro-Russian rebels, argues that the West is backing a regime in Ukraine that came to power illegally after demonstrations in Kiev forced President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014 to flee into exile. The background to this crisis was a competition for influence between the West, in the shape of the EU, and Russia. Ukraine had been about to sign an association agreement with the EU, but Yanukovych abruptly rejected the EU proposal in favour of a loan from – and closer links with – Russia.

That competition has its roots in the decision during the Clinton presidency in the United States to offer NATO membership – or the prospect of membership – to former members of the Warsaw Pact (the mutual defence pact between the Soviet Union and its satellite states). That membership was eagerly embraced by Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it then was), Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. When other states in the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union were invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace, Russia saw this as an attempt to spread Western power at its expense – hence its invasion of Georgia when an invitation for Georgia to join NATO itself seemed on the cards.

The consequence now is the threat of a renewed cold war, and the possibility – if only by accident – that it might become hot. In 2014 the Baltic states in particular, because of their large Russian minorities, feared Putin’s intentions and clung to the hope that NATO’s mutual defence pact (an attack on one is an attack on all) would not have to be put to the test. So, too, did Poland, with its shared border with Russia and its memories of Soviet rule. Evidence of the changing temperature was the exchange of sanctions between the West and Russia, with the US and the EU imposing financial constraints and travel bans on Russian individuals and with Russia banning food imports from the EU, the US and some other Western countries. Pessimists recalled that the first world war, 100 years earlier, had been the improbable consequence of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

In purely military terms Russia is no match for NATO, or for the US, NATO’s leading force. With 766,000 active military personnel, Russia’s armed forces are only half the size of the US’s and a fifth of the NATO total of 3.37 million. But such numbers would hardly be relevant if NATO’s political will to combat Russia were lacking. Certainly, there was no appetite in the West to intervene in the Georgian conflict on Georgia’s behalf. And certainly, Putin is keen to reinforce and even increase Russia’s military power, hence not just the determination to keep the Sevastopol base in Crimea and the naval facilities at Tartus in Syria (where Russia opposed the West’s desire for regime change) but also a desire, outlined by Russia’s defence minister in early 2014, to establish bases in a number of foreign countries which are not former Soviet republics, from Vietnam and Cuba to the Seychelles and Nicaragua. As Putin is well aware, in Soviet times Russia had a large naval base in Vietnam and a radar facility in Cuba, but both were closed down for financial reasons.

Yet for all Russia’s concern with the West, its most immediate problems are nearer home, with the growth of separatism and Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus region, home to nominally autonomous and predominantly Muslim Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. The break-up of the Soviet Union encouraged separatists to seize their opportunity. In 1991 Chechnya declared itself the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Three chaotic years in Russia later, President Yeltsin sent in Russian troops to reclaim Chechnya; but after 18 months of savage fighting, with the Chechen capital, Grozny, heavily bombarded, the Russian forces withdrew, accepting Chechnya’s de facto independence.

Succeeding Yeltsin in power, Putin had other ideas, launching a second Chechen war in 1999 after Shamil Basayev, a Chechen Islamist opposed to Chechnya’s secular leadership, led his International Islamic Brigade in an invasion of neighbouring Dagestan – the start of what Putin feared could become a regional Islamist revolt. By April 2000 Russia declared a military victory, but combating the continuing insurgency would tie down Russian troops and their Chechen allies for another nine years. Moreover, quelling the twin forces of separatism and Islamism had come at a heavy price. By one account Russia lost more tanks in the first Chechen war than in the battle for Berlin in 1945, and in 2003 the UN described Grozny as the most destroyed city on earth. As to the loss of life, one Chechen official in 2005 said the total number of dead – be they Russian Federation troops, Chechen rebels or civilians – had reached up to 160,000.

A decade after the first Chechen war, despite the enormous loss of life, and despite installing in Grozny a pro-Russian prime minister (first, an ex-separatist, Akhmad Kadyrov, and then, after his assassination, his son Ramzan), Russia can still not regard the North Caucasus region with complacency. Chechnya and its neighbours are poor and corrupt, which means they are fertile ground for Islamist extremism, with an increasing number of the region’s Muslims turning from more moderate Sufism to Salafism, an austere brand of fundamentalist Islam. In 2007, for example, Dokka Umarov, the former president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, announced the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate, with a goal of expelling Russia from the region and creating an Islamic emirate.

Umarov (who is believed to have died, perhaps by poison or perhaps in combat, in 2013) was an advocate of terrorism as a means of putting pressure on Russia. So too was Basayev. Between 1991 and his death in 2006, Basayev was responsible for hijacking an airline, taking a whole hospital hostage and launching suicide bombers in Moscow itself. Perhaps the most notorious of his operations was the seizure by Ingush and Chechen militants of a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004. When the siege, with around 1,200 held hostage, ended three days later, some 334 people were dead, including 186 children. Umarov’s operations included the derailing of an express train in 2009, claiming 28 lives; two suicide attacks in the Moscow subway in 2009, with 40 deaths; and a suicide-bomb attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011 that killed 35.

Will the threat of Islamist violence recede? Perhaps marginally (there were no terrorist incidents to upset the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi), but surely not entirely. Despite brutal counter-terrorism tactics by the state, Russia still recorded 661 terrorist offences in 2013, of which it classified 31 as fully fledged terrorist attacks. Moreover, one feature of Chechen separatism was the number of Chechen fighters who had returned from fighting in Afghanistan, forging links with the Taliban and with the beginnings of al-Qaeda. With the Arab world in turmoil, up to 1,500 jihadists with Russian passports were said to be fighting in Syria and Iraq in early 2015 – and doubtless some will return and attempt to create havoc.

Modern Democratic Republic of Congo

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Despite their nation’s vast natural resources, from diamonds, gold and rare minerals to coffee and oil, the majority of the 77 million people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) exist in poverty, their lives all too often cut short by disease or war. In 2013 the UN Development Programme ranked the DRC at the bottom of its Human Development Index; in 2014 it was beaten to that dubious distinction only by Niger. In decades of conflict, beginning in the late 1990s and involving outside forces from Rwanda and Uganda to Burundi and Angola, more than 5 million people have died – the worst death toll in conflict since the second world war.

Gaining its independence from Belgium in 1960, the Republic of Congo – as it was then termed – was immersed in conflict almost from the start, with the mineral-rich south-eastern province of Katanga, under the leadership of Moise Tshombe, seeking to secede. Early in 1961 Katangan troops, helped by Belgian forces and with CIA encouragement, kidnapped and later killed the founder of the Mouvement National Congolais, Patrice Lumumba, who had earlier been removed as the country’s first prime minister by President Joseph Kasavubu.

The Katangan war ended in 1963 with an accord in which Kasavubu appointed Tshombe as his prime minister. However, their rule was short-lived: in 1965 they were ousted by the chief of the army, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, backed by the US and Belgium. Mobutu then began a dictatorial reign of three decades marked by staggering corruption and an extraordinary personality cult. In 1971, for example, he renamed both the country, as Zaire, and himself as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (the warrior who knows no defeat because of his endurance and inflexible will and is all powerful, leaving fire in his wake as he goes from conquest to conquest).

The country now known as Zaire was hardly immune from strife. In 1977 and 1978 attacks by Katangan rebels based in Angola were repulsed by troops from France, Belgium and Morocco. In 1991 riots by unpaid soldiers in the capital, Kinshasa (Leopoldville before Mobutu’s renaming exercise), helped persuade Mobutu to form a coalition government with the opposition – though an equally persuasive factor was the need to appease the US now that, with the end of the cold war, his professed anti-communism was no longer such a valuable political asset.

The demise of the Mobutu regime came as a consequence of the civil war in neighbouring Rwanda and the victory there of a Tutsiled government. The defeated Hutus had sought refuge in eastern Zaire, and in 1996 Mobutu ordered Tutsi residents to leave. This then provoked Tutsi rebels (the Banyamulenge), aided by troops from Rwanda and Uganda, to seize the eastern part of the country in the first Congo war. With Mobutu abroad for medical treatment, the rebels went on to occupy Kinshasa in 1997, appoint Laurent-Désiré Kabila, from the Luba tribe (the country’s largest), as president and rename the country as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sadly, this did not mean stability. Kabila’s decision to expel the Rwandan and Ugandan forces led, within a year, to the second Congo war, involving directly or indirectly some nine African nations and at least 20 armed groups. In 1999 a ceasefire agreement was signed in the Zambian capital of Lusaka by six combatant nations (the DRC, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda), but in practice, and despite the presence of a 5,500-strong UN monitoring force, the fighting continued. In 2001 Kabila was assassinated by a bodyguard, perhaps at the behest of Rwanda, and was succeeded by his son, Joseph, who agreed to a peace accord signed in Pretoria in 2002 by all the warring parties, followed by a transitional government of national unity in July 2003 and elections in 2006.

Despite the elections, characterised by violence but with Joseph Kabila emerging as victor, coup attempts continued, as did conflict in the east, with government forces clashing with Rwandan Hutus, who ironically had once been their allies. In 2009, after yet more turmoil in the eastern part of the country, the government signed a peace deal with the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP, its French abbreviation), a mostly Tutsi rebel group. However, attempts to integrate CNDP troops into the government’s forces failed, provoking CNDP defectors in 2012 to set up the M23 armed movement, named after an abortive March 23rd 2009 peace accord.

The M23 movement signed a peace agreement with the government in December 2013, but it is hard to see this as a precursor to genuine stability in the DRC – despite the efforts of some 22,000 peacekeepers from more than 50 countries in a UN mission set up after the 1999 Lusaka accord. Meanwhile, there are community-based militias known as Mai-Mai; armed groups led by local warlords; and the Lord’s Resistance Army (in flight from neighbouring Uganda): all continue to terrorise the population, burning villages, raping women and forcibly recruiting children as soldiers.

There have been a few examples of the perpetrators being held to account. In the first Congo war Thomas Lubanga was a commander of the pro-Uganda Congolese Rally for Democracy–Liberation (RCD–ML, its French abbreviation). He then founded the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and led its military wing, the Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC). But in 2006 he became the first person to be hauled off to the ICC in The Hague for war crimes (he was found guilty in 2012).

Another to appear in The Hague is Bosco Ntanganda, a Rwandan-born Tutsi who in 2009 was a general in President Kabila’s Congolese army, even though the ICC had already indicted him in 2006 on charges of conscripting child soldiers during his previous stints as a rebel commander. Ntanganda, nicknamed “the Terminator”, defected with 600 soldiers from the government’s side in 2012 and formed the M23 group; but it was a dispute with another M23 commander, Sultani Makenga, that led to his appearance in The Hague. Apparently fearing for his life, Ntanganda sought refuge in the US embassy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, from where he was whisked away to face the court.

Whatever the occasional success of the ICC or of the UN peacekeepers, the underlying truth is that the DRC is close to being a failed state, prone to constant conflict, especially in the five eastern provinces of Orientale, North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga. Insurgents from neighbouring countries, such as Uganda’s Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Rwanda’s Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and Burundi’s Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), use the DRC territory as a haven and prey on the local population. At the same time Rwanda aids Congolese Tutsi groups rebelling against Kinshasa and confronting the DRC army. Most depressing of all, perhaps, is the simple fact that so many warlords – Ntanganda was a good example – profit so handsomely from illegal logging, “conflict diamonds” and other aspects of the war economy. As Peace Direct, a non-governmental organisation, has pointed out, peace agreements in the DRC have often been flawed, allowing rebel commanders to join the national army and yet keep their illegal moneymaking networks intact.