Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 Dispatches News Awards

2011 Dispatches News Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Jan 1 2012

Every year Dispatches From The Edge gives awards to news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for the year 2011.

The Golden Lemon Award to Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms company, whose F-22 Raptor fighter has some “performance” problems: the pilots can’t breathe.

The U.S. Air Force was forced to “stand down” its fleet of 160+ F-22s—at $150 million apiece, the single most expensive fighter in the world—when pilots began experiencing “hypoxia-like symptoms” from a lack of oxygen.  But the company got right on it, according to Lockheed Martin vice president Jeff Babione, who said he was “proud to be a part” of the team that got the radar-evading aircraft back into the air—for five weeks. When pilots continued to have problems, the F-22 fleet was grounded again.

According to the Air Force, no one can figure out why oxygen is not getting to the pilots, but that pilots “would undergo physiological tests.” To see if the pilots can go without air?

Runner-up in this category is Lockheed Martins’ F-35, at $385 billion the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history. The cost of an individual F-35 has jumped from $69 million to $113 million a plane, and while this is cheaper than the F-22, the U.S. plans to eventually purchase more than 16 times the number of F-35s than F-22s. It seems the F-35 fighter has “cracks” and “hot spots” that, according to the director of the program, Vice Adm. David Venlet, are “hard to get at.”

Dispatches suggests that the Air Force issue ice packs and super glue to pilots.

 

The P.T. Barnum Award to Dennis Montgomery, a computer programmer who scammed the U.S. government for more than $20 million. Montgomery claimed he had software that could spot terrorist conspiracies hidden in broadcasts by the Qatar-based Arabic news network, Al-Jazeera. He said his program could also detect hostile submarines and identify terrorists in Predator drone videos.

The Bush administration took his claims so seriously that in December 2003 it turned back flights from Britain, France and Mexico because the software had “discovered” the planes flight information embedded in an Al Jazeera’s crawl bar. The White House, fearing the planes would be used to attack targets in the U.S., actually talked about shooting the planes down.

The CIA eventually concluded the software was a fabrication, but rather than rebuking those in charge during the hoax—Donald Kerr and George Tenet—both men got promotions. The spy agency also didn’t bother to tell anyone in the military, so in 2009 the U.S. Air Force bought the bogus software for $3 million.

 

C. Northcote Parkinson Award to the U.S. Defense Department for upholding the British sociologist’s dictum that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson—a social scientist with a wicked sense of humor—was hired after World War II to examine the future of the Royal Navy. He concluded that, given the military’s deep love of fancy gold lace, as well as its addiction to bureaucracy, eventually there would be more admirals than ships. Needless to say, that is exactly what happened.

But it is not just the Brits who yearn for the golden epaulets. According to the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), the U.S. military is adding brass to its ranks at a record pace. While the enlisted ranks have grown by 2 percent from 2001 to 2011, three and four star generals and flag rank admirals have increased 24 percent, one and two star generals and admirals by 12 percent, and lower ranking officers by 9.5 percent.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an attempt to cut the ranks of the top brass, but as soon as Leon Panetta took over the post, he reversed the cuts and added six more generals. In fact, at the same time as the Pentagon was cutting the enlisted ranks by 10,000 in anticipation of an end to the Iraq War, it added 2,500 officers.

According to POGO, “Today’s military is the most top-heavy force in U.S. history.” Between 2012 and 2021, POGO estimates that the six new generals Panetta appointed will cost taxpayers $14 million.

However, there may be a silver lining here. Generals and admirals don’t fight, that’s the job of enlisted men. At this rate the U.S. will run out of privates and the business of war will be left to generals and admirals. If that comes to pass, Dispatches predicts an outbreak of pacifism.

 

The Confused Priorities Award is a three-way tie between British Prime Minister David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern.

In the midst of a savage austerity program, with massive cutbacks in social spending, Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal government will spend up to $40 billion on a new generation of missile-firing submarines. While British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said the submarine was necessary to maintain the country’s nuclear deterrence, critics say the program is really a boondoggle for BAE Systems, the United Kingdom-based arms company that will make the new weapon system.

Canada’s Harper got into the winner’s circle by spending over $100 million on summit meetings and pork barrel projects for Conservative cabinet member Tony Clement. The summit expenditures included $13,711 for “glow sticks,” $62 million for accommodations, and $4.3 million for a temporary fence to keep Canadians away from the lake where the Group of 8 meeting took place. Half of the summit money was used to build an office building in Fraser’s district, as well as develop airports and communities that the cabinet member could take credit for. In the meantime, Harper slashed spending for health care and education, and cut $200 million from environmental protection and monitoring.

Ahern, Taoiseach of the Irish Dail from 1997 to 2008, oversaw the bank speculation and real estate bubble that destroyed Ireland’s economy in 2008. Ahern claimed that no one told him that the financial situation was so dire, although an investigation by independent analyst Rob Wright found that the Fianna Fail government had repeatedly been warned that a crash was coming. Asked what his greatest regret was, Ahern replied that it was his failure to build a stadium to match those in Arab states. “I think unfortunately when I see little countries like Qatar and Kuwait…talking about their 10 stadiums and we never succeeded in getting one national stadium. That’s an achievement I tried hard to do but I didn’t get.”

 

The White Elephant Award to the Greek Army for considering taking 400 free M1A1 Abrams tanks from the U.S. “This is a free offer,” said Greek army spokesman Yiannis Sifakis.

Well, sort of free.

The Abrams, the U.S.’s main battle tank, is a 67.6-ton behemoth that burns 10 gallons of gas just to start, and gets 1.6 gallons to the mile. The tanks will also cost $11 million to transport to Greece.

In the meantime, the Greek Socialist government has laid off tens of thousands of workers, cut wages, slashed health care, increased sales taxes, and advanced the retirement age. Massive demonstration and general strikes have convulsed major cities, and the country is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Maybe the army is thinking that if German banks try to repossess the country, those 400 Abrams tanks might come in handy (if Greece can afford to gas to run them)?

 

The Dr. Frankenstein Award to former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright for her sponsorship of Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a man accused of murdering Serb prisoners during the 1999 Yugoslav War and selling their body parts.

Reporting on the scandal in CounterPunch, reporter Diana Johnstone, author of “Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions,” cites a report by Swiss Senator Dick Marty implicating former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Thaci of running “safe houses” during the war where Serb prisoners were tortured and killed.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization with 47 member states, sponsored the Marty investigation.

“An undetermined but apparently small number of prisoners were transferred in vans and trucks to an operating site near Tirana international airport [Albania], from which fresh organs could be flown rapidly to recipients” the Marty Report says. “Captives were killed, usually by a gunshot to the head, before being operated on to remove one of more of their organs.” Kidneys seem to have been the major harvest.

Thaci has also been linked to the heroin trade and prostitution.

Albert and her aide, the late Richard Holbrooke, pushed Thaci into the leadership of Kosovo during the Rambouillet negotiations leading up to the war. According to Johnson, far more prominent leaders of the Kosovo delegation to those talks were pushed aside, and Thaci—known in law enforcement circles as “The Snake—became the face of Albanians secession movement.

Asked about the Marty Report, U.S. State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley said the Americans would continue to work with Thaci because “any individual anywhere on the earth is innocent until proven otherwise.” Of course, it also helps that Thaci approved the construction of a massive U.S. base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, giving the U.S. its first military foothold in the Balkans.

 

The Surreal Award to the U.S. Justice Department for finally agreeing that lawyers defending prisoners at Guantanamo can view classified files that were prominently displayed on the WikiLeaks website. The Department ruled that lawyers may access the documents, but cannot “download, save, print, or disseminate” the material, a ruling that attorney David Remes said was “still surreal.”

 

The Grinch Award to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for complaining that Colombia’s minimum wage was too high, and driving up the cost of labor. The minimum wage is $1.80 an hour and, for full time workers, brings in around $300 a month.

 

The Historical Re-write Award to Jean-Francois Cope, general secretary of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative Union for Popular Movement and the man behind the “Burka Ban.”  Cope organized a recent conference on secularization that, according to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, led to “a stigmatization of Muslims.”

Cope defended the conference as “controversial but necessary,” adding that “the values of France are like the Three Musketeers: liberty, equality, fraternity.”  Except that the Alexander Dumas novel was set in 1625, and the Musketeers were fighting for Louis XIII and the Catholic Church. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the slogan of the 1789 French Revolution, and was not highly thought of in the Feudal court of Bourbons.

The creative Language Award to the Obama administration for its denial that the American bombing of Libya constituted a war. It was, according to the White House, a “time-limited, scope-limited military action.”

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Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Obama’s Dangerous Asia “Pivot”

Counterpunch

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 8, 2011

“On his recent trip to Asia Pacific, the President made it clear that the centerpiece of this strategy includes an intensified American role in this vital region,” Financial Times Nov. 28, 2011

–Tom Donilon, President Barak Obama’s national security advisor

“An Indo-Pacific without a strong U.S. military presence would mean the Finlandisation by China of countries in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore,” Financial Times Nov. 30, 2011

–Robert Kaplan, senior fellow Center for a New American Security and author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean the Future of American Power

Donilon is a long-time Democratic Party operative and former lobbyist for Fannie Mae and a key figure in the Clinton administration’s attack on Yugoslavia and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. Kaplan is a Harvard Business School professor and advisor on the Mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as current U.S. military intervention in the Horn of Africa.

Something is afoot.

Indeed, it is. The Obama administration is in the middle of a major shift in foreign policy—a “strategic pivot” in the words of the White House—in two regions of the world: Asia and Africa. In both cases, a substantial buildup of military forces and a gloves-off use of force lie at the heart of the new approach.

The U.S. now has a permanent military force deployed in the Horn of Africa, a continent-wide military command—Africom—and it has played a key role in overthrowing the Libyan government. It also has Special Forces active in Uganda, Somalia, and most of the countries that border the Sahara.

But it is in Asia that the administration is making its major push, nor is it coy about whom the target is. “We are asserting our presence in the Pacific. We are a Pacific power,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the National Defense University in August, “we know we face some long-term challenges about how we are going to cope with what the rise of China means.”

There is whiff to all this of old fashioned Cold War hype, when the U.S. pumped up the Russian military as a world-swallowing force panting to pour through the Fulda Gap and overrun Western Europe: the Chinese are building a navy to challenge the U.S.; the Chinese are designing special missiles to neutralize American aircraft carriers; the Chinese are bullying nations throughout the region.

Common to Clinton’s address, as well as to Kaplan’s and Donilon’s opinion pieces, were pleas not to cut military spending in the Pacific. In fact, it appears the White House is already committed to that program. “Reduction in defense spending will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific,” Donilon wrote, “There will be no diminution of our military presence or capabilities in the region.”

The spin the White House is putting on all this is that the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing China to throw its weight around in Asia. Donilon’s opinion piece was titled “America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules.”

It is hard to know where to begin to address a statement like that other than with the observation that irony is dead.

Asia and the Pacific has been a major focus for the U.S. since it seized the Philippines in the 1899 Spanish-American War. It has fought four major wars in the region over the past century, and, not counting China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it deploys more military personnel in the Pacific than any other nation. It dominates the region through a network of bases in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Marshall Islands, and island fortresses like Guam and Wake. The White House just announced the deployment of 2,500 Marines to Australia.

The American Seventh Fleet—created in 1943 and currently based in Yokosuka, Japan—is the largest of the U.S.’s naval fleets, and the one most heavily armed with nuclear weapons.

We aren’t “back,” we never went anywhere.

But the argument fits into the fable that U.S. military force keeps the peace in Asia. Kaplan even argues “A world without US naval and air dominance will be one where powers such as China, Russia, India, Japan and others act more aggressively toward each other than they do now, because they will all be far more insecure than they are now.”

In short, the kiddies will get into fights unless Uncle Sam is around to teach them manners. And right now, China is threatening to upend “the rules’ through an aggressive expansion of its navy.

China is indeed upgrading its navy, in large part because of what the Seventh Fleet did during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. In the middle of tensions between Taipei and Beijing, the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits. Since there was never any danger that China was going to invade Taiwan, the carriers were just a gratuitous slap in the face. China had little choice but to back down, but vowed it would never again be humiliated in its home waters. Beijing’s naval buildup dates from that crisis.

And “buildup” is a relative term. The U.S. has made much of China acquiring an aircraft carrier, but the “new” ship is a 1990 vintage Russian carrier, less than half the size of the standard American Nimitz flattop (of which the U.S. has 10). The “new” carrier-killer Chinese missile has yet to be tested, let alone deployed. Only in submarines can China say it is finally closing the gap with the U.S. And keep in mind that China’s military budget is about one-eighth that of the U.S.

If the Chinese are paranoid about their sea routes and home waters, it is not without cause. Most invasions of China have come via the Yellow Sea, and 80 percent of China’s energy supplies come by sea. China ships much of its gas and oil through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. With major suppliers based on the west coast of Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it has little choice. Those sea-lanes are controlled by the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain and the Seventh in Japan.

China is also building friendly ports for its tankers—the so-called “string of pearls”—and why Beijing is suspicious about the sudden thaw in U.S.-Myanmar relations. China plans to build a “pearl” in Myanmar.

Indeed, a major reason why China is building pipelines from Russia and Central Asia is to bypass the series of choke points through which its energy supplies pass, including the straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian and Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean pipelines are already up and running, but their volume is not nearly enough to feed China’s 11 billion barrels of oil a day appetite.

In spite of protests, the U.S. recently carried out major naval operations in the Yellow Sea, and Washington has injected itself into tensions between Beijing and some of its neighbors over the South China Sea. In part, China has exacerbated those tensions by its own high-handed attitude toward other nations with claims on the Sea. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

China’s initial arrogance on the issue has allowed the U.S. to wedge itself into the dispute and portray itself as the “protector” of small nations. Less than 40 years ago it was trying to bomb several of those nations back into the Stone Age, and Vietnam just recorded its 100,000th casualty since 1975 from explosives left over by the American war.

Beijing has since cooled its tone on the South China Sea and is backing away from defining it as a “core” Chinese area.

Why the “strategic pivot?”  Undoubtedly, some of it is posturing for the run-up to the 2012 elections. Being “tough” on China trumps Republican charges that Obama is “soft” on foreign policy. But this “pivot” is more than cynical electioneering.

First, China does not pose any military threat to the U.S. or its allies in Asia, and the last thing it wants is a war. Beijing has not forgotten its 1979 invasion of Vietnam that ended up derailing its “four modernizations” drive and deeply damaging its economy.

Part of this “China threat” nonsense has to do with the power of the U.S. armaments industry to keep the money spigots open. When it comes to “big ticket” spending items, navies and air forces top the list. An aircraft costs in excess of $5 billion, and the single most expensive weapons program in U.S. history is the F-35 stealth fighter.

But there is more than an appetite for pork at work here.

China is the number two economy in the world, and in sharp competition with the U.S. and its allies for raw materials and human resources. It is hard to see the aggressive U.S. posture in Asia as anything other than an application of the old Cold War formula of economic pressure, military force, and diplomatic coercion. From Washington’s point of view, it worked to destabilize the Soviet Union, why shouldn’t it work on China?

“If you are a strategic thinker in China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, “you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China.”

Since U.S. foreign policy is almost always an extension of corporate interests, squeezing China in Asia, Africa and Central Asia helps create openings for American investments. And if such a policy also protects the multi-billion dollar military budget, including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, so much the better.

It is a dangerous game, first, because military tension can lead to war, and, while that is an unlikely event, mistakes happen. “If we keep this up, then we are going to leave the impression with China that we are drawing battle lines,” Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Financial Times. In fact, the Obama administration has drawn up a plan called AirSea Battle to deny China control of the Taiwan Straits.

The consequences for those caught in the middle will be severe. China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it still has a ways to go. An arms race will delay that. For the average American, racked by double-digit unemployment, a vanishing safety net, and the collapse of everything from education to infrastructure, it will be no less of a tragedy.

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Gingrich, The Times & Doomsday

Gingrich, The Times & Doomsday

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 13, 2011

In a recent New York Times article the newspaper’s senior science writer, William J. Broad, takes a dig at Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s obsession with the possibility of a “nightmarish of doomsday scenarios: a nuclear blast high above the United States that would instantly throw the United States in a dark age.”

The phenomenon that Gingrich refers to is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), one side effect of a nuclear explosion. EMPs can destroy or disrupt virtually anything electrical, from computers to power grids. As the Times points out, Gingrich has used this potential threat to advocate bombing Iran and North Korea. “I favor taking out the Iranian and North Korean missiles on their sites,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2009. Gingrich has also talked up the EMP “threat” on the campaign trail.

Broad dismisses EMPs as “a poorly understood phenomenon of the nuclear age” and quotes Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner poo-pooing the damage from an EMP attack as “pretty theoretical.”

While the Times is correct in dismissing any Iranian or North Korean threat—neither country has missiles capable of reaching the U.S., Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and both have never demonstrated a desire to commit national suicide—what Broad does not mention is that the effects of EMP are hardly “poorly understood”: the U.S. has an “E-bomb” in its arsenal.

More than that, the Pentagon considered using it during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Asked directly if the U.S. was considering using an EMP weapon, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld answered, “You never know.”

The U.S. has known about the effects of EMPs since 1958, when a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific knocked out streetlights in Hawaii and radio reception in Australia for 18 hours. In large enough doses, EMPs can fry every electrical circuit in range, many of them permanently. One would essentially go from the 21st century to the 19th century in a few nanoseconds.

The U.S. began researching how to use EMPs as weapons shortly after the Pacific tests, and, while the details are classified, the Livermore and Los Alamos national labs have apparently come up with a working version of an “E-bomb.”

The principle is simple enough: a tube filled with explosives, wrapped with copper wire, encased in a metal shell. The copper wire is used to create a powerful magnetic field and when the explosives are fired, they compress the magnetic field to produce a powerful burst of electromagnetic energy called the “Compton effect.”

A large enough device can generate up to two billion watts, about what Hoover Dam turns out in a day.

The weapon is attached to a cruise missile. Any piloted craft would run the risk of frying its own electronics, because EMP waves can bounce off objects, like the ground, and be reflected back at the attack craft.

Britain’s Matra Bae Dynamics has produced an artillery shell that generates an EMP wave and is capable of knocking out electrical systems for several square miles.

The idea behind the “E-bomb” is that it would blind and disable any military force, but not inflict casualties (except if you are wearing a pacemaker or have electrical implants).  “The electromagnetic pulse generator is emerging as one of the strongest contenders…to find effective weapons to defeat an enemy without causing loss of life,” writes David Fulghum, an EMP expert.

But EMP waves would also paralyze ambulances, hospitals, power plants and water pumping systems, a specific violation of the Geneva Conventions.  Article 54, for instance, explicitly forbids rendering “useless” any “drinking water installations.”

There are ways to shield devices from EMPs, but they are expensive. So-called Faraday Cages intercept EMPs and redirect them into the ground, much like  lightning rod.

While the exact details of the U.S. “E-bomb” are classified, its existence is hardly a secret. Nor is the U.S. the only nation currently researching the uses of EMPs. Any country with a nuclear weapon—Great Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—is undoubtedly aware of its capabilities.

The fact that the effects of EMPs are well known, and that the U.S.—and apparently a number of other nations—has weaponized the phenomena, make it all the more curious that the Times treated the issue so lightly and failed to mention the U.S. program. Indeed, Broad says, “many scientists consider it yesteryear’s concern.”

That would certainly come as a surprise to the Livermore and Los Alamos National labs and the U.S. Air Force’s Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico. There is also a test lab in Virginia.

Any such weapon should certainly be illegal under the strictures of the Geneva Conventions. Like poison gas, EMPs do not distinguish between military and civilian and, as such, are illegal under Article 48 requiring that warring parties “shall at all times distinguish between civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operation only against military objectives.”

Gingrich’s apocalyptic views on EMPs are longstanding, but he also uses them as raw meat for the “bomb Teheran and Pyongyang” crowd, a cynical election ploy from one of the more cynical politicians to grace the current U.S. stage.

But the “E-bomb” is real, and the general rule is, if you give the military a new toy, eventually they will want to test it in the real world. That world is filled with civilians— so-called “collaterals”— who will end up absorbing the brunt of this weapon.

Isn’t that worth reporting?

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Pakistan: Anatomy Of A Crisis

Pakistan: Anatomy Of A Crisis

FPIF Blog

Conn Hallinan

Dec. 2, 2011

In the aftermath of the Nov. 26 NATO attack on two border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the question being asked is whether the assault was a  “fog of war” incident or a calculated hit aimed at torpedoing peace talks in Afghanistan? Given that the incident has plunged relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low at a critical juncture in the 10-year war, the answer is vitally important

According to NATO, U.S. and Afghan troops came under fire from the Pakistani side of the border and retaliated in self-defense. American officials have suggested that the Taliban engineered the incident in order to poison U.S.-Pakistani relations. But there are some facts suggesting that the encounter may have been more than a “friendly fire” encounter brought on by a clever foe, an ill-defined border, and the normal chaos of the battlefield.

Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Samiullah Rahmani denies they were even in the area—and the insurgent group is never shy about taking credit for military engagements (of course, if deception was involved that is what the Taliban would say). However, this particular region is one that the Pakistani army has occupied for several years and is considered fairly “cleansed” of insurgents.

The incident was not the case of a drone attack or bombing gone awry, a common enough event. For all the talk of “precision weapons” and “surgical strikes,” drones have inflicted hundreds of civilian deaths and 500 lb bombs have very little in common with operating rooms. Instead, the NATO instruments were Apache attack helicopters and, according to Associated Press, an A-130 gunship. In short, the assault was led by live pilots presumingly indentifying targets to their superiors.

Those targets were two border forts, architecture that has never been associated with the Taliban. It is true the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is porous and not always clearly defined, but the Afghan insurgents don’t build concrete posts. A “fort” is duck soup for a drone or a fighter-bomber, which is why the Taliban favor caves and hidden bunkers.

Naturally enough, both sides disagree on what happened. The Americans say they took fire from the Pakistani border, engaged in a three-hour running fight, and called in the choppers at the end of the battle.

But, according to the Pakistanis, there was no fire from their side of the border, and helicopters started the battle, which went on for a little less than two hours. Pakistan also says there were two Apache attacks. The first struck outpost Volcano, and when the fort’s nearby companion, outpost Boulder, fired on the helicopters, it also came under assault. Pakistan claims that its military contacted NATO to warn them they were attacking Pakistani troops, but the firing continued. The helicopters finally withdrew, only to reappear and renew the attack when the Pakistanis tried to reinforce the besieged forts.

Might it have been a matter of bad intelligence?

According to the Pakistanis, Islamabad has been careful to identify its posts to NATO in order to avoid incidents exactly like this. Pakistan Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem said, “it is not possible” that the “NATO forces did not know of the location of the Pakistani posts.”  Pakistan Gen. Ashram Nader called the attack a “deliberate act of aggression.”

Could it have been “deliberate”? Mistakes happen in war, but the timing of this engagement is deeply suspicious.

It comes at a delicate moment, when some 50 countries were preparing to gather in Bonn, Germany for talks aimed at a settling the Afghan War. Central to that meeting is Pakistan, the only country in the region with extensive contacts among the various insurgent groups. If the U.S. plans to really withdraw troops by 2014, it will need close cooperation with Pakistan.

“This could be a watershed in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S.,” Islamabad’s high commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, told the Guardian (UK). “It could wreck the time table for the American troop withdrawal.”

Pakistan has now withdrawn from the Bonn talks, and relations between Washington and Islamabad are as bad as they have ever been. The Pakistanis have shut down two major land routes into Afghanistan, routes over which some 50 percent of supplies for the war move. Islamabad has also demanded that the CIA close down its drone base at Shamsi in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province.

Who would benefit from all this fallout?

It is no secret that many in the U.S. military are unhappy about the prospect of negotiations with the Taliban, in particular the organization’s most lethal ally, the Haqqani Group. There is an unspoken but generally acknowledged split between the Defense Department and the State Department, with the former wanting to pound the insurgents before sitting down to talk, while the latter is not sure that tactic will work. Could someone on the uniformed side of the division have decided to derail, or at least damage, the Bonn meeting?

It is also no secret that not everyone in Afghanistan wants peace, particularly if it involves a settlement with the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, made up of mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, want nothing to do with the Pashtun-based Taliban that is mainly grouped in the south and east, and in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The Afghan Army is mostly Tajik, who not only make up the bulk of the soldiers, but 70 percent of the command staff. President Hamid Karzi is a Pashtun, but he is largely window dressing in the Northern Alliance-dominated Kabul government.

There are broader regional issues at stake as well.

It was no surprise that China immediately came to Pakistan’s defense, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechu expressing “deep shock and strong concern” over the incident. China is not happy about the NATO deployment in Afghanistan and less so about the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in that country. At a Nov. 2 meeting in Istanbul, China, along with Pakistan, Iran and Russia, opposed a long-term American deployment in the area.

Iran is worried about the threat of U.S. military power on its border, Islamabad is concerned that prolonging the war will further destabilize Pakistan, and Beijing and Moscow are suspicious that the Americans have their sights set on Central Asia gas and oil resources. Both Russia and China rely on Central Asia hydrocarbons, the former for export to Europe, and the latter to run its burgeoning industries.

China is also anxious about the Obama administration’s recent strategic shift toward Asia. The U.S. has openly intervened in disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, and recently signed an agreement to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia. Washington has also tightened its ties with Indonesia and warmed up to Myanmar. To China, all this looks like a campaign to surround Beijing with U.S. allies and to keep its finger on the Chinese energy jugular vein. Some 80 percent of China’s oil moves through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

A key ingredient in any formula to offset Beijing’s growing power and influence in Asia is the role of India. New Delhi has traditionally been neutral in foreign policy, but, starting with the Bush administration, it has grown increasingly close to Washington. China and India have a prickly relationship dating back to the 1962 border war between the two countries and China’s support for India’s traditional enemy, Pakistan. China claims on part of India’s border area have not improved matters.

India would also like a Taliban-free government in Kabul, and anything that discomforts Islamabad is just fine with New Delhi. There are elements in the American military and diplomatic community that would like to see Washington dump its alliance with Pakistan and pull India into a closer relationship. A fair number of Indians feel the same way.

So far, the White House has refused to apologize, instead leaking a story that showing any softness vis-à-vis Pakistan during a U.S. election year is impossible.

In the end, the border fight may turn out to be an accident, although we are unlikely to know that for certain. Military investigations are not known for accuracy, and much of what happened will remain classified.

But with all these crosscurrents coming together in the night skies over Pakistan, maybe somebody saw an opportunity and took it. In a sense, it is irrelevant whether the attack was deliberate or dumb: the consequences are going to be with us for a long time, and the ripples are likely to spread from a rocky hillside in Pakistan to the far edges of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Conn Hallinan can be read at middleempireseries.wordpress.com

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