Category Archives: Afghanistan

Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies

Foreign Policy, Lord Palmerston & Appendectomies
Dispatches From The Edge
Sept. 15, 2014

Thinking about U.S. foreign policy these days brings to mind a line from songwriter/comedian Tom Lehrer: if you are feeling like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis you have good reason.

1) The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is creating a Rapid Reaction Force to challenge Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, and the U.S., the European Union, and Russia are lobbing sanctions at each other that have thrown Europe back into a recession. Russian planes are buzzing U.S. and Canadian warships in the Black Sea.
2) The U.S. is bombing Iraq and Syria in an effort to halt the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while at the same time supporting insurgents trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus, the pool from which ISIL was created.
3) After 13 years of war, Afghanistan is the verge of a civil war over the last presidential election, while the Taliban have stepped up their attacks on the Afghan military and civil authorities.
4) Libya has essentially dissolved as a country, but not without supplying insurgents in central Africa and Nigeria with greatly enhanced firepower.
5) The U.S. encouraged the Japanese government to bypass Article 9 of Japan’s peace constitution that restricted deploying its military outside of Japan. Washington also committed the U.S. to support Tokyo in the event of a clash with China over the ownership of a handful of islands in the East China Sea. American, Japanese and Chinese warships and military aircraft have been playing chicken with one another in the East and South China seas.

What is going on? Did some Greek open a box she shouldn’t have? Is the Obama administration—take your choice—incompetent? Trying to wind down two of America’s longest wars? Giving liberal cover to a neo-conservative strategy to re-institute a new cold war? Following an agenda?

How about all of them?

There certainly has been incompetence. The 2009 surge into Afghanistan did nothing but kill a lot of people, and the Libya intervention substituted Chaos Theory for diplomacy.

It is also true that old wars are winding down. In 2008 there were 110,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 182,000 in Iraq. By the end of 2014 there will be no U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and—at this time—only a handful in Iraq.

Cover for the neo-cons? The Obama administration did help engineer the coup in Ukraine, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland—who oversaw the action and handpicked the interim coup president—was Dick Cheney’s principle foreign policy advisor.

And the U.S. certainly has an agenda, which may best be summed up by 19th century British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Henry Lord Palmerston—England’s hammer of empire, who oversaw the Opium Wars with China and the Crimean War with Russia: “We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”

What are our “interests” in Ukraine?

Certainly not spreading democracy. We supported a coup against a corrupt, but legally elected oligarch, and replaced him with another oligarch in an election that excluded half the country.

There are, in fact, multiple currents at play. During the Cold War disagreements about foreign policy among the ruling elites were suppressed by the overarching need to defeat what was perceived as a real threat to capitalism, the socialist world. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” was the watchword back then. But once that threat evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, those disagreements were free to come pouring out. Democrats and Republicans now openly sabotage one another’s policies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and different wings of both parties battle over using the American military.

Which doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground.

One shared interest is pushing NATO east, something the U.S. been doing since the U.S. double-crossed Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Gorbachev agreed to pull 380,000 Soviet troops out of East Germany provided NATO did not fill the vacuum. “Not one inch east,” U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised. Now, virtually every Warsaw Pact country is a member of NATO.

There is also general agreement—underlined at the recent Alliance meetings in Wales—to expand NATO into a worldwide military alliance, although that creates a certain dilemma for Washington. Currently the U.S. foots 75 percent of NATO’s bill, but is finding that increasingly hard to do, given the enormous costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the pivot to Asia, and the expanding war in Iraq and Syria.

The Ukraine crisis has served as the perfect excuse to dragoon other members of NATO into increasing their contributions, though that won’t be a slam-dunk. Most of Europe is in recession, and while the NATO ministers are all for becoming global policemen, their constituents are less enthusiastic. European publics turned sharply against the Afghan War, and most polls show strong opposition to any more “out of area” deployments or increased military spending at the expense of social services.

One strong current at work these days are the neo-conservatives, whose goals are not to just break Ukraine away from Russia, but go for regime change in Moscow. They also lobby for overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria, and for war with Iran. They are overwhelmingly Republicans, but include Democrats.

Allied to the neo-cons in policy—if not politics—are the liberal interventionists, most of whom are Democrats. The interventionists led the charge on Libya and also lobbied for bombing Assad. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Samantha Powers may not have the same politics on all issues as the neo-conservatives, but in places like the Ukraine they share common ground.

A leading “interest” in Ukraine is challenging Russia’s designation as the world’s top energy exporter and throttling its oil and gas industry. With Siberian fields almost tapped out, Russia is developing offshore and arctic sources, and the sanctions are aimed at blocking Moscow from getting the technology it needs to do that. The sanctions are also aimed at the South Stream pipeline, which, when completed, will run from the Caspian basin, across the Black Sea, to Europe. South Stream will eventually supply Europe with 15 percent of its gas and generate $20 billion in yearly revenue for Moscow. The U.S. and Turkey have been trying to derail South Stream for over a decade.

There are minor currents and back eddies as well.

Eastern Ukraine has large shale deposits that Chevron has been sniffing around, and—if you like conspiracies—one of U.S. Vice-president Joe Biden’s kids, Hunter, is on the board of Burisma Holdings, the Ukraine group exploring the country’s energy potentials. Joe Biden has been particularly hawkish on the Ukraine, comparing it to the Munich appeasement with Nazi Germany in 1938.

But the overriding “interest” of American foreign policy—regardless of the different currents—is to marginalize competition. Russia’s economy is no competition for Washington’s, but Moscow is a major supplier of energy to China. The two countries recently inked a $400 billion pipeline deal.

China’s economy is on the verge of passing the U.S. as the world’s largest, and it has already replaced the U.S. as the leading trade partner for most of the world. It is also the globe’s number one consumer of oil and gas.

This latter fact is a sensitive one, particularly given growing tensions between the U.S. and China. Some 80 percent of Beijing’s energy arrives by seas currently controlled by the U.S. Sixth and Seventh fleets.

Russian supplies, however, travel mostly by train and pipelines, and are, thus, out of the U.S. Navy’s reach. China is also negotiating with Iran over energy, and once again, those energy supplies would mostly move through pipelines.

To understand U.S. interests in the Ukraine involves tracking all of these currents, some of which may run at cross purposes. Obama’s push to damage the Russian energy industry is not popular with the American oil company ExxonMobil. He wants to push NATO east, but there is no indication he is seeking regime change in Moscow, and he has even tried to reduce some of the sturm und drang around the crisis. The neo-conservatives, on the other hand, want to arm Ukraine and put Putin’s head on a stake.

Of course the “interests” the Obama administration is pursuing in Ukraine are not the “interests” of the majority of Americans—or Ukrainians, for that matter. They are the “interests” of the neo-cons, energy companies, arms manufacturers, and international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank. In short, the interests of the 1 percent over the 99 percent.

Up until ISIL started cutting American journalists heads off, U.S. polls reflected overwhelming exhaustion with foreign wars. The Center for Public Integrity found 65 percent of Americans would choose to cut military spending. But Americans are also easily stampeded by bombast: The “Russians are coming” (while it was the West that marched east). “Chinese cyber warriors are going to crash our national power grid” (except we don’t have a national power grid and the only countries that have engaged in cyber war are the U.S. and Israel). “And the turbans are going to get you in your bed” (even if U.S. intelligence agencies say the ISIL has not threatened the U.S.).

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. has spent almost $70 million an hour on security and around $62 million on domestic needs. Since 9/11 some 23 Americans have died as result of “Muslim terror plots” in the U.S., while the number of those killed by right-wing extremists is 34.

The reality is the U.S. cannot do much about climate change, growing economic inequality, infrastructure deterioration, and the slow motion collapse of our education system without confronting the $1 trillion it spends annually on military and defense related items, or the $4 to $6 trillion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually cost us.
With the U.S. about to begin an open-ended air war in Iraq and Syria (to join those in progress in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) the cost of fighting an almost non-existent “terrorist” threat to the U.S. is about to sharply escalate. In whose interest is that?

Increasingly, what is in the interest of the few is incompatible with the interest of the many.

Conn Hallinan can be read at disptchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com or middleempireseries.wordpress.com

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Empire’s Ally: The U.S. & Canada

Book Review

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 30, 2014

Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan

Edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo

University of Toronto Press

Toronto Buffalo London

2013

Americans tend to think of Canadians as politer and more sensible than their southern neighbors, thus the joke: “Why does the Canadian chicken cross the road? To get to the middle.” Oh, yes, bit of a muddle there in Afghanistan, but like Dudley Do Right, the Canadians were only trying to develop and tidy up the place.

Not in the opinion of Jerome Klassen and a formidable stable of academics, researchers, journalists, and peace activists who see Canada’s role in Central Asia less as a series of policy blunders than a coldly calculated strategy of international capital. “Simply put,” writes Klassen, “the war in Afghanistan was always linked to the aspirations of empire on a much broader scale.”

“Empire’s Ally” asks the question, “Why did the Canadian government go to war in Afghanistan in 2001?” and then carefully dissects the popular rationales: fighting terrorism; coming to the aid of the United States; helping the Afghans to develop their country. Oh, and to free women. What the book’s autopsy of those arguments reveals is disturbing.

Calling Canada’s Afghan adventure a “revolution,” Klassen argues, “the new direction of Canadian foreign policy cannot be explained simply by policy mistakes, U.S. demands, military adventurism, security threats, or abstract notions of liberal idealism. More accurately, it is best explained by structural tendencies in the Canadian political economy—in particular, by the internationalization of Canadian capital and the realignment of the state as a secondary power in the U.S.-led system of empire.”

In short, the war in Afghanistan is not about people failing to read Kipling, but is rather part of a worldwide economic and political offensive by the U.S. and its allies to dominate sources of energy and weaken any upstart competitors like China, and India. Nor is that “broader scale” limited to any particular region.

Indeed, the U.S. and its allies have transformed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from a European alliance to contain the Soviet Union, to an international military force with a global agenda. Afghanistan was the alliance’s coming out party, its first deployment outside of Europe. The new “goals” are, as one planner put it, to try to “re-establish the West at the centre of global security,” to guarantee access to cheap energy, to police the world’s sea lanes, to “project stability beyond its borders,” and even concern itself with “Chinese military modernization.”

If this all sounds very 19th century—as if someone should strike up a chorus of “Britannia Rules the Waves”—the authors would agree, but point out that global capital is far more powerful and all embracing than the likes of Charles “Chinese” Gordon and Lord Herbert Kitchener ever envisioned. One of the book’s strong points is its updating of capitalism, so to speak, and its careful analysis of what has changed since the end of the Cold War.

Klassen is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies, and Greg Albo is an associate professor of political science at York University in Toronto. The two authors gather together 13 other academics, journalists, researchers and peace activists to produce a detailed analysis of Canada’s role in the Afghan war.

The book is divided into four major parts dealing with the history of the involvement, its political and economic underpinnings, and the actual Canadian experiences in Afghanistan, which had more to with condoning war crimes like torture than digging wells, educating people, and improving their health. Indeed, Canada’s Senate Standing Committee on National Security concluded that, in Ottawa’s major area of concentration in Afghanistan, Kandahar, “Life is clearly more perilous because we are there.”

After almost $1 trillion dollars poured into Afghanistan—Canada’s contribution runs to about $18 billion—some 70 percent of the Afghan population lives in poverty, and malnutrition has recently increased. Over 30,000 Afghan children die each year from hunger and disease. And as for liberating women, according to a study by TrustLaw Women, the “conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combined” make Afghanistan the “most dangerous country for women” in the world.

The last section of the book deals with Canada’s anti-war movement.

While the focus of “Empire’s Ally” is Canada, the book is really a sort of historical materialist blueprint for analyzing how and why capitalist countries involve themselves in foreign wars. Readers will certainly learn a lot about Canada, but they will also discover how political economics works and what the goals of the new imperialism are for Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

Klassen argues that Canadians have not only paid in blood and gold for their Afghanistan adventure, they have created a multi-headed monster, a “network of corporate, state, military, intellectual, and civil social actors who profit from or direct Canada’s new international policies.”

This meticulously researched book should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the how’s and why’s of western foreign policy. “Empire’s Ally” is a model of how to do an in-depth analysis of 21st century international capital and a handy guide on how to cut through the various narratives about “democracy,” “freedom,” and “security” to see the naked violence and greed that lays at the heart of the Afghan War.

The authors do more than reveal, however, they propose a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan. It is the kind of thinking that could easily be applied to other “hot spots” on the globe.

For this book is a warning about the future, when the battlegrounds may shift from the Hindu Kush to the East China Sea, Central Africa, or Kashmir, where, under the guise of fighting “terrorism,” establishing “stability,” or “showing resolve,” the U.S. and its allies will unleash their armies of the night.

 

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“Are You Serious?” Awards 2013

2013 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 19, 2013

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 2013.

Creative Solutions Award to the Third Battalion of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division for its innovative solution on how to halt sporadic attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Zhare District: it blew up a hill that the insurgents used as cover.

This tactic could potentially be a major job creator because there are lots of hills in Afghanistan. And after the U.S. Army blows them all up, it can take on those really big things: mountains.

Runner up in this category is Col. Thomas W. Collins, for his inventive solution on how to explain a sharp rise in Taliban attacks in 2013. The U.S. military published a detailed bar graphs indicating insurgent attacks had declined by 7 percent, but, when the figure was challenged by the media, the Army switched to the mushroom strategy*: “We’re just not giving out statistics anymore,” Col. Collins told the Associated Press.

Independent sources indicate that attacks were up 40 percent over last year, with the battlegrounds shifting from the south of Afghanistan to the east and north.

*Mushrooms are kept in the dark and fed manure.

The White Man’s Burden Award goes to retired U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. McChrystal told the Associated Press that the Afghans don’t really want the U.S. to withdraw, because they are “Like a teenager, you really don’t want your parents hanging around you, but…you like to know if things go bad, they’re going to help.” The General went on to say the U.S. needed to stay because “We have an emotional responsibility” to the Afghans.

The “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News” Award was split between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Greek state television network ERT’s reporting of the widespread opposition to the current austerity policies of the center-right Samaras government apparently annoyed the Prime Minister. Samaras dismissed all of ERT’s 2,700 employees and closed down the station (the fired workers are occupying ERT’s headquarters and continue to broadcast programming). When the government restarted broadcasts a month later, it led with a 1960’s comedy, followed by documentary about a Greek surrealist poet.

Turkish PM Erdogan pressured Turkey’s 24-hour television news stations not to cover the massive June demonstrations that paralyzed much of Istanbul and, instead, to broadcast a panel of medical experts talking about schizophrenia and a documentary about penguins. There are no penguins in Turkey, although the schizophrenia program may have been an appropriate subject matter for the Prime Minister .

The Bad Hair Award to the Dublin city government for spending $6.8 million to promote a Redhead Convention in the village of Crosshaven on Ireland’s southeast coast.

Ireland is currently in a major depression triggered by a banker-instigated housing bubble. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission—the so-called “troika”—bailed out the banks and instituted a massive austerity program on Ireland. The cost of the bailout is approximately $13,750 for every Irish citizen.

The salaries of government workers were cut 20 percent, and 35,000 public employees were laid off. Pensions, unemployment and welfare benefits were slashed and new taxes imposed. Unemployment is at almost 13 percent—28 percent for young people. A survey found that 67 percent of families with young children are unable to afford basic necessities, and are in arrears on their rent, utility bills, and mortgages. Some 20 percent of Ireland’s children live in houses where both parents are out of work—the highest in Europe—and in a population of 4.6 million people, more than 200,000 have emigrated, about 87,000 a year.

Alan Hayes, the convention’s “king of the redheads,” told the Financial Times that the “Festival of ginger-loving madness” would draw Irish from all over the world. It is estimated that the Irish diaspora makes up about 100 million people.

“Ireland has one of the highest populations of redheads in the world and we will celebrate by getting together as many as possible,” says Hayes. The competitions will include the best red hair, eyebrows, and the “most freckles per square inch.”

The Jackal Award goes to the government of France for leveraging its opposition to a settlement between Iran and the U.S. over Teheran’s nuclear program as a way to break into the lucrative Middle East arms market. France’s spoiler role was praised by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan and Morocco.

“France could gain financially from the GCC’s frustrations over recent U.S. policy in the Middle East,” the global security analyst group Stratfor notes. “Significant defense contracts worth tens of billions of dollars are up for grabs in the Gulf region, ranging from aircraft to warships to missile systems. France is predominantly competing with Britain and the United States for the contracts and is seeking to position itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as it looks to strengthen its defense and industrial ties with the region.”

The French arms company Thales is negotiating to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s short-range missile systems for $3.34 billion and working on a $2.72 billion deal to modernize the kingdom’s air defense system. Paris is also negotiating an $8 billion contract to supply the Emirates with 60 Rafale fighter-bombers and trying to sell 72 Rafales to Qatar. France is smarting over the recent collapse of a $4 billion deal to sell Rafale aircraft to Brazil, and a big sale in the Gulf would more than make up for the loss.

Israel—which also praised the French stance vis-à-vis Iran and the U.S.—invited French President Francois Hollande to be the “guest of honor” at last month’s “France-Israel Innovation Day” in Tel Aviv. Israel’s aeronautics industry had more than $6 billion in sales from 2009 to 1010, and Israel is the fourth largest weapons exporter in the world. France would like to sell its commercial Airbus to Tel Aviv, as well as get in on Israel’s expanding drone industry.

C’est la vie.

The Confused Priorities Award to the Associated Press for its March 5 story titled “Little Reaction In Oil Market to Chavez Death” on the demise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The authors noted that Venezuela has the second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, but that the leftist former paratrooper had squandered that wealth:

“Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums in Abu Dhabi.”

When Chavez won the presidency in 2001, some 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. Two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and the gap between rich and poor was one of the worst in Latin America.

According to the Gini Coefficient that measures wealth, Venezuela now has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and “extreme poverty” from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been virtually eliminated, and infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Health clinics increased 169.6 percent, and five million Venezuelans receive free food.

But on the other hand they could have had a copy of the Victory of Samothrace or the Mona Lisa.

The Pinocchio Award to the five countries that violated international law by forcing Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane down and then lying about it.

Morales had been meeting with Russian officials in Moscow when U.S. intelligence services became convinced the leftist president was going to spirit National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden back to Bolivia. When Morales’ plane left Russia, the U.S. leaned on France, Italy, Spain and Portugal to close their airspace and deny the plane refueling rights. Morales was forced to turn back and land in Austria, where his aircraft sat for 13 hours.

When Morales protested, the French said they didn’t know Morales was on the plane, the Portuguese claimed its international airport couldn’t fuel the aircraft, the Spanish said his flyover permit had expired, and the Italians denied they ever closed their airspace. The U.S. initially said it had nothing to do with the incident, but that excuse collapsed once Spain finally admitted it had received an American request to close its airspace to Morales’s plane.

The Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon all protested the actions by the five nations as a violation of international law and international commercial airlines treaties.

An angry Morales said, “The Europeans and the Americans think that we are living in an era of empires and colonies. They are wrong. We are a free people…they can no longer do this.”

The Frank Norris Award to the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency in charge of spy satellites, for its new logo: a giant, frowning octopus, its arms encircling the world, sporting the slogan “Nothing is beyond our reach.” Norris wrote a famous turn of the 20th century novel called “The Octopus” about the struggle between farmers in California and the railroads that dominated the state’s politics.

The Broad Side of the Barn Award to the Obama administration for spending an extra $1 billion to expand the $34 billion U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in spite of the fact that the thing can’t hit, well, the broad side of a barn. The last test of the ABM was in July, when, according to the Pentagon, “An intercept was not achieved.” No surprise there. The ABM hasn’t hit a target since 2008.

The $1 billion will be used to add 14 interceptors to the 30 already deployed in Alaska and California.

Runner up in this category was Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the maker of “Iron Dome,” the Israeli ABM system designed to intercept short-range rockets. According to Rafael officials, Iron Dome was 80 percent effective in intercepting Qassem and Grad rockets fired by Palestinians from Gaza during last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense.

But an independent analysis of Iron Dome’s effectiveness discovered that the 80 percent figure was mostly hype. Tesla Laboratories, a U.S. defense company, found that the interception success rate was between 30 and 40 percent, and Ted Postal—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who successfully debunked the accuracy claims for Patriot missiles fired during the 1991 Gulf War—says Iron Dome has a “kill rate” of between five and 10 percent.

But a lack of success seems to be a sure fire way to open the cash spigots.

The U.S., which contributed more than $200 million to build Iron Dome, will spend an additional $680 million through 2015. The U.S. will also throw $173 million into Israel’s high altitude Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 interceptors, part of which are made by Boeing.

ABMs tend to be destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat them is to overwhelm them with missiles, thus spurring an arms race. They also give their owners a false sense of security. And while they don’t work, they do cost a lot, which is bad news for taxpayers and good news for Boeing—also, the prime contractor for the U.S. ABM system—and Toys R Us. Yes, Toys R Us makes the guidance fins on the Iron Dome rocket.

 

The Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin (with a tip of the hat to sub-contractors Northrop Grumman, BAE, L-3 Communications, United Technologies Corp., and Honeywell) for “shoddy” work on the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. History. The plane—already 10 years behind schedule and 100 percent over budget—has vacuumed up $395.7 billion, and will eventually cost $1.5 trillion.

A Pentagon study, according to Agence France Presse, “cited 363 problems in the design and manufacture of the costly Joint Strike Fighter, the hi-tech warplane that is supposed to serve as the backbone of the future American fleet.”

The plane has difficulty performing at night or in bad weather, and is plagued with a faulty oxygen supply system, fuselage cracks and unexplained “hot spots.” Its software is also a problem, in part because it is largely untested. “Without adequate product evaluation of mission system software,” the Pentagon found, “Lockheed Martin cannot ensure aircraft safety requirements are met.”

In the meantime, extended unemployment benefits have been cut from the federal budget. The cost? About $25 billion, or 25 F-35Cs that don’t work.

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Pandora and The Drones

Pandora & The Drones

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2013

In November 2001, when the CIA assassinated al-Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef with a killer drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the U.S. held a virtual monopoly on the technology of lethal robots. Today, more than 70 countries in the world deploy drones, 16 of them the deadly variety, and many of those drones target rural people living on the margins of the modern world.

Armed drones have been hailed as a technological breakthrough in the fight against terrorists who, in the words of President Obama, “take refuge in remote tribal regions…hide in caves and walled compounds…train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.” But much of the butcher’s bill for the drones has fallen on people who live in those deserts and mountains, many of whom are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or get swept into a definition of “terrorist” so broad it that embraces virtually all adult males.

Since 2004—the year the “drone war” began in earnest—missile firing robots have killed somewhere between 3,741 and 5,825 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and injured another 1,371 to 1,836.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that this death toll includes between 460 to 1,067 “civilians” and as many as 214 children.

But, because how the U.S. defines “civilian” is classified, it is almost impossible to determine exactly who the victims are. Up until recently, it appears that being between the ages of 18 and 60 while carrying a weapon or attending a funeral for a drone victim was sufficient to get you incinerated.

In his May address to the National Defense University, however, President Obama claimed to have narrowed the circumstances under which deadly force can be used.  Rather than the impossibly broad rationale of “self-defense,” future attacks would be restricted to individuals who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and who could not be “feasibly apprehended.” The President added that there had to be a “near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured.”

As national security expert and constitutional law professor David Cole points out, the new criteria certainly are a more “demanding standard,” but one that will be extremely difficult to evaluate since the definition of everything from “threat” to “civilian” is classified. Over the past year there has been a drop in the number of drone strikes, which could reflect the new standards or be a response to growing anger at the use of the robots. Some 97 percent of Pakistanis are opposed to the use of drone strikes in that country’s northwest border region.

The drones that roam at will in the skies over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, are going global, and the terror and death they sow in those three countries now threatens to replicate itself in western China, Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, highland Peru, South Asia, and the Amazon basin.

Drones have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and countries across the planet are building and buying them. Many are used for surveillance, but the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all own the more lethal varieties. The world’s biggest drone maker is Israel.

For a sure-fire killer you want a Made-in-the-USA-by-General-Atomics Predator or Reaper, but there are other dangerous drones out there and they are expanding at a geometric pace.

Iran recently unveiled a missile-firing “Fotros” robot to join its “Shahad 129” armed drone. China claims its “Sharp Sword” drone has stealth capacity. A Russian combat drone is coming off the drawing boards next year. And a European consortium of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and Switzerland is developing the armed Dassault nEURon drone. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of drone programs worldwide jumped from 195 to 680. In 2001, the U.S. had 50 drones. Today it has more than 7,500.

While drone promoters claim that robot warfare is the future, they rarely mention who are the drones’ most likely targets. Except for surveillance purposes, drones are not very useful on a modern battlefield, because they are too slow. Their advantage is that they can stay aloft for a very long time—24 to 40 hours is not at all unusual—and their cameras give commanders a real-time picture of what is going on. But as the Iranians recently demonstrated by downing a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone, they are vulnerable to even middle-level anti-craft systems.

“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” says U.S. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command. “I couldn’t [put one] into the Strait of Hormuz without putting airplanes there to protect it.”

But over the tribal areas of Pakistan, the rural villages of Yemen and the coast of Somalia they are virtually invulnerable. Flying at an altitude beyond the range of small arms fire—which, in any case, is highly inaccurate—they strike without warning. Since the drone’s weapon of choice, the Hellfire missile, is supersonic, there is no sound before an explosion: a village compound, a car, a gathering, simply vanishes in a fury cloud of high explosives.

Besides dealing out death, the drones terrify. Forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld found that drones inflicted widespread posttraumatic stress syndrome in Yemeni villagers exposed to them. Kat Craig of the British organization Reprieve, who accompanied Schaapveld, says the terror of the drones “amounts to psychological torture and collective punishment.”

But do they work? They have certainly killed leading figures in al Qaeda, the Haqqani Group, and the Taliban, but it is an open question whether this makes a difference in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, a number of analysts argue that the drones end up acting as recruiting sergeants by attacking societies where honor and revenge are powerful currents.

In his book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s war on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” anthropologist Akbar Ahmed argues that the drone war’s major victims are not ideologically committed terrorists, but tribal people. And further, that when a drone sows death and injury among these people, their response is to seek retribution and a remedy for dishonor.

For people living on the margins of the modern world, honor and revenge are anything but atavistic throwbacks to a previous era. They are cultural rules that help moderate inter-community violence in the absence of centralized authority and a way to short circuit feuds and war.

Kinship systems can function similarly, and, in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone war ends up creating a broader base for groups like the Taliban. The major target of drones in those countries is the Pashtun tribe which make up a plurality of Afghanistan and a majority in Pakistan’s tribal areas. From the outside, Pashtun clans are a factious lot until they encounter an outsider. Then the tribe’s segmentary lineage system kicks in and fulfills the old Pashtun adage: “Me against my brother; my brother and me against our cousins; my brother, me andour cousins against everyone else.”

Occupying someone else’s lands is dangerous and expensive, hence the siren lure of drones as a risk-free and cheap way to intimidate the locals and get them to hand over their land or resources. Will the next targets be indigenous people resisting the exploitation of their lands by oil and gas companies, soybean growers, or logging interests?

The fight against “terrorism” may be the rationale for using drones, but the targets are more likely to be Baluchs in northwest Pakistan, Uyghurs in Western China, Berbers in North Africa, and insurgents in Nigeria. Some 14 countries in Latin America are purchasing drones or setting up their own programs, but with the exception of Brazil, those countries have established no guidelines for how they will be used.

The explosion of drone weapons, and the secrecy that shields their use was the spur behind the Global Drone Summit in Washington, titled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance” and organized by Codepink, the Institute for Policy Study, The Nation Magazine, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild. The Nov. 16 meeting drew anti-drone activists from around the world to map out plans to challenge the secrecy and the spread of drones.

Zeus gave Pandora a box, and her husband, Epimetheus, the key, instructing them not to open it. But Pandora could not resist exploring what was inside, and thus released fear, envy, hate, disease and war on the world. The box of armed drones, but its furies are not yet fully deployed. There is still time to close it and ban a weapon of war aimed primarily at the powerless and the peripheral.

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Afghanistan: The End Game?

Afghanistan: Is It Really the End Game?

Dispatches From the edge

May 29, 2013

“Gunmen in Pakistan on Monday set ablaze five trucks carrying NATO equipment out of Afghanistan as the international military alliance winds down it combat mission there, officials said.”

-Agence France Presse, 3/1/13

There is nothing that better sums up the utter failure of America’s longest war than getting ambushed as you are trying to get the hell out of the county. And yet the April 1 debacle in Baluchistan was in many ways a metaphor for a looming crisis that NATO and the U.S. seem totally unprepared for: with the clock ticking down on removing most combat troops by 2014, there are no official negotiations going on, nor does there seem to be any strategy for how to bring them about.

“I still cannot understand how we, the international community and the Afghan government have managed to arrive at a situation in which everything is coming together in 2014—elections, new president, economic transition, military transition——and negotiations for the peace process have not really started,” said Bernard Bajolet, former French ambassador to Kabul and current head of France’s foreign intelligence service.

When the Obama administration sent an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the “surge,” the goal was to secure the country’s southern provinces, suppress opium cultivation, and force the Taliban to give up on the war. Not only did the surge fail to impress the Taliban and its allies, it never stabilized the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Both are once again under the sway of the insurgency and opium production has soared.  What the surge did manage was to spread the insurgency into the formally secure areas in the north and west.

With the exception of the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan, virtually everyone has concluded that the war has been a disaster for all involved.

The Afghans have lost more than two million dead over the past 30 years, huge sections of the population have been turned into refugees, and the country is becoming what one international law enforcement official described to the New York Times as “the world’s first true narco state.” According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Afghans are at or below the poverty line, and 20 percent of Afghan children never reach the age of five.

The war has cost American taxpayers over $1.4 trillion, and, according to a recent study, the final butcher bill for both Iraq and Afghanistan will top $6 trillion. The decade-long conflict has put enormous strains on the NATO alliance, destabilized and alienated nuclear-armed Pakistan, and helped to spread al-Qaeda-like organizations throughout the Middle East and Africa.

Only U.S. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford, head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) thinks the war on the Taliban is being won, and that the Afghan Army is “steadily gaining in confidence, competence, and commitment.” Attacks by the Taliban are up 47 percent over last year, and the casualty rate for Afghan soldiers and police has increased 40 percent. The yearly desertion rate of the Afghan Army is between 27 percent and 30 percent.

In theory, ISAF combat troops will exit Afghanistan in 2014 and turn the war over to the Afghan Army and police, organizations that have yet to show they can take on the insurgency. One of the Army’s crack units was recently overrun in eastern Afghanistan.  Given the fragility of the Afghan government and its army, one would think that the White House should be putting on a full court press to get talks going, but instead it is following a strategy that has demonstrably failed in the past.

The tactic of “shooting and talking” that is central to the surge has produced lots of casualties but virtually zero dialogue, hardly a surprise. That approach has never worked in Afghanistan.

Part of the problem is that the call for talks is so heavily laden with caveats and restrictions that that they derail any possibility of real negotiations, among them are that the Taliban have to accept the 2004 constitution and renounce violence and “terrorism.”

However, the Taliban argue that the 2004 constitution was imposed from the outside, and they want a role in re-writing it. As for “terrorism,” the Taliban denounced international terrorism five years ago.

As Anatol Lieven, a King’s College London professor, senior researcher at the New American Foundation, and probably the best informed English language writer on Afghanistan, points out, the Americans consistently paint themselves into a corner by demonizing their opponents.

That, in turn, leads to “a belief that any enemy of the United States must inevitably be evil. Not only does this tendency make pragmatic compromises with opponents much more difficult (and much more embarrassing should they eventually be reached), but, consciously or unconsciously it allows the US government and media to blind the US public, and often themselves, to the evils of America’s own allies.”

For instance, the Americans will not talk with the Haqqani group, a Taliban ally, even though it is the most effective military force confronting the NATO occupation. The same goes for Iran, even though Teheran played a key role in organizing the 2003 Bonn conference that led to the formation of the current Kabul government. Iran also has legitimate interests in the current war. Because opium and heroin are not a major problem in the US, Washington can afford to turn a blind eye to the Afghan government’s alliance with drug dealing warlords. Heroin addiction, however, constitutes a national health crisis in Iran and Russia.

It is not exactly clear what will happen in 2014. While American combat units are supposed to be withdrawn, in accordance with a treaty between NATO and the government of President Harmid Karzai, several thousand Special Forces, trainers, CIA personal, and aircraft will remain on nine bases until 2024. That agreement was the supposed reason for the massive suicide bomb May 16 in Kabul that killed 6 Americans and 16 Afghans. Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group based around Kabul and the eastern part of the country, took credit for the attack.

That attack underlines how difficult it will be to forge some kind of agreement.

Hezb-i-Islami pulled off the bombing, but the party’s political wing is a major player in the Karzai government, holding down the posts of education minister and advisor to the president. Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also a rival of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the bombing could just as well have been a maneuver to make sure Hezb-i-Islami has a seat at the table if talks start up. Hekmatyar has offered to negotiate with NATO in the past.

The Taliban itself is divided into several factions, partly because the Americans’ systematic assassination of high and mid-level Taliban leaders has decentralized the organization. The Taliban is increasingly an alliance of local groups that may have very different politics.

The Haqqanis’ have a strong presence in Pakistan, which requires that the organization maintain cordial relations with Pakistan’s Army and intelligence services. They scratch each other’s backs. So any understanding to end the war will have to be acceptable to the Haqqanis and Islamabad. No agreement is possible without the participation of both.

Instead of recognizing the reality of the situation, however, the Obama administration continues to ignore the powerful Haqqanis, sideline Iran, and to alienate the average Pakistani though its drone war.

As complex as the situation looks, a solution is possible, but only if the White House changes course. First, the “shoot and talk” nonsense must end immediately, General Dunford’s hallucinations not withstanding.  If the U.S. couldn’t smother the insurgency during the surge, how can it do so now with fewer troops? All the shooting will do is get a lot more people killed—most of them Afghan soldiers, police, and civilians caught in the crossfire—and sabotage any potential talks.

According to Lieven, the Taliban are far more realistic about the current situation than is the White House.  Last July, he and a group of academics met “leading figures close to the Taliban” during a trip to the Persian Gulf. He says there was “a widespread recognition within the Taliban that while they can maintain a struggle in the south and east of Afghanistan indefinitely,” they could never conquer the whole country. Further, “in their own estimate,” they have the support of about 30 percent of population. A recent Asia Foundation poll came to a similar conclusion.

While the Taliban refuse to negotiate with the Karzai government, Lieven says they told the delegation, “there can be no return to the ‘pure’ government of mullahs,” and “most strikingly, they said that the Taliban might be prepared to agree to the US bases remaining until 2024.” The latter compromise will not make the Iranians, Chinese, or Russians very happy—not to mention Hezb-i-Islami—but it reflects a deep-seated philosophy in Afghan politics: figure out a way to cut a deal.

The Taliban’s rejection of talks with the Kabul government means that going ahead with next year’s presidential election is probably a bad idea. An all-Afghan constitutional convention would be a better idea, with elections postponed until after a new constitution is in place.

There are numerous issues that could sink a final agreement because there are many players with multiple agendas. Regardless, those agendas will have to be addressed, even if not quite to everyone’s satisfaction. And everyone has to sit at the table, since those who are excluded have the power to torpedo the entire endeavor. This means all the combatants, but also Iran, India, China, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

And the White House needs to get off its butt. Afghan President Karzai, just returned from an arms buying spree in India, asked New Delhi to increase its presence in Afghanistan. This will hardly be popular with Pakistan and China, and Islamabad can make serious mischief if it wants to.

The ambush in Pakistan brings to mind Karl Marx’s famous dictum about history: it happens first as tragedy, then as farce.

The first time this happened was during Britain’s first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), when Afghans overran an East India Company army retreating from Kabul. Out of 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians, a single assistant surgeon made it back to Jalalabad.

The most recent ambush certainly had an element of farce about it. Four masked gunmen on two motorbikes forced the trucks to stop, sprinkled them with gasoline and set the vehicles ablaze. One driver received a minor injury.

There is no need for a chaos-engulfed finale to the Afghan War. There is no reason to continue the bloodshed, which all the parties recognize will not alter the final outcome a whit. It is time for the White House to step up and do the right thing and end one of the bloodiest wars in recent history.

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Four More Years: Central and South Asia

Four More Years: Central & South Asia

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 30, 2012

From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than two millennia conquerors have been lured by the mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth: China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind little more than forgotten graveyards and the detritus of war.

Americans and our NATO allies are next.

It is a cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is not true, just that it is repeated over and over again until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy that the US was “numb” to that particular platitude, although we have company. In the past 175 years England has invaded Afghanistan four times.

Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth—that the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more than a 100 years ago.

Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the Afghan people. The country has staggered through more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the area’s young children—one million under the age of five—are acutely malnourished. “What’s shocking is that this is really high by global standards,” Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, told the Guardian (UK). “This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance.”

The area in question embraces Kandahar and Helmand, the two provinces targeted by Washington’s 2009 troop surge. That the provinces have widespread malnutrition and are still deeply restive—both are among the most dangerous areas in the country— is a commentary on the futility of the entire endeavor.

The question is, what now? How the White House answers that will go a long way toward determining whether Afghanistan can begin to extricate itself from its long, national nightmare, or once again collapse into civil war that could destabilize the entire region.

There are a couple of truths the White House will need to absorb.

First, there can be no “residual” force left in the country. Right now the Obama administration is trying to negotiate a status force agreement that will allow it to keep anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 troops in the country to train the Afghan army and pursue al-Qaeda. Such an agreement would exempt US forces from local laws, and is a non-starter for Afghans from the get go. The Taliban and their allies—in particular the highly effective and quite lethal group, the Haqqanis—will not allow it, and insisting that US troops remain in the country will guarantee the war continues.  If there is one truth in Afghanistan, it is that the locals don’t cotton to outsiders.

Nor are the regional neighbors very enthusiastic about having the American military in residence next door. Since those neighbors—specifically Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia—will be central to any final settlement, one does not want to annoy them. It doesn’t take much effort to derail a peace process in Afghanistan.

As for al-Qaeda, it doesn’t exist in Afghanistan, and it is even a specter of its former self in Pakistan. In any case, the Taliban and its allies are focused on local issues, not worldwide jihad, and pose no threat to the US or NATO. Indeed, way back in 2007, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, pledged that the organization would not interfere in the affairs of any other country.

The White House can get the ball rolling by finally closing down Guantanamo and releasing its Taliban prisoners. Pakistan has already started its prisoner release. Washington must also stop its aggressive use of drones and Special Forces to pursue Taliban leaders. These so-called “night raids” and drone assassinations are not only provocative, but make any final agreement more difficult to negotiate. The US has already decapitated much of Taliban’s mid-level leadership, which, in turn, has atomized the organization into scores of local power centers. In fact, that decentralization may make reaching a final agreement much more difficult, because no single person or group of people will be empowered to negotiate for local Taliban affiliates.

In the long run the war will most likely be resolved the way most things end in Afghanistan: in a compromise. For all their war-like reputation, Afghans really excel in the art of the deal. The Taliban will be part of the government, but all the scare talk about Islamic extremists sweeping into power is exaggerated. The Taliban are mostly based in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, and they will remain the biggest players in Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika provinces. But Pashtuns only make up a plurality in the country—about 42 percent—and will have to compromise with the other major ethnic groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Even when the Taliban ruled the country it never succeeded in conquering northern Afghanistan, and it has less support today than it did then.

One major danger comes from US support for local militias that do nothing to control the Taliban, but are quite successful at building up provincial warlords and protecting the opium trade (harvests increased 18 percent over a year ago). The Soviets followed exactly the same path, one that eventually led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.

In short, the US needs to get out, and as quickly as possible. Its NATO allies have already boarded that train—the French are leaving a year early, the Dutch are gone, and the Brits are bunkered down—and prolonging the war is more likely to end in a debacle than any outcome favored by Washington. It is not our country, we don’t get to determine its history. That is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, but apparently did not.

The future of Afghanistan is linked to Pakistan, where current US policy is in shambles. A recent poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered Washington an enemy. Many attribute those figures to the deeply unpopular American drone war that has killed scores of civilians. The drones have definitely made a bad situation worse, but the dispute goes deeper than missile-toting Predators and Reapers.  Pakistan is legitimately worried about its traditional opponent in the region, India, and Islamabad views Afghanistan as part of its “strategic depth”—a place to which to retreat in case of an attack by the much stronger Indian Army. Given that Pakistan has lost four wars with its southern neighbor, paranoia about the outcome of a fifth is understandable.

Instead of showing sensitivity to this concern, Washington has encouraged India to invest in Afghanistan, which it has done to the tune of over $2 billion. India even has paramilitary forces deployed in southern Afghanistan. Further, the Obama administration has taken Kashmir off the table, in spite of the fact that, in the run-up to the 2008 elections, Obama promised to seek a solution to the long-running conflict. Dropping Kashmir was a quid pro quo for a growing alliance between New Delhi and Washington aimed at containing an up and coming China.

But Kashmir is far too dangerous to play the role of a regional pawn. India and Pakistan came very close to a nuclear war over the area in the 1999 Kargil incident, and both countries are currently accelerating their nuclear weapons programs. Pakistani and Indian military leaders have been distressingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries. Rather than actively discouraging a nuclear arms race, Washington has made it easier for New Delhi to obtain fuel for its nuclear weapons programs, in spite of the fact that India refuses—along with Pakistan—to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As with agreeing to mute concerns over Kashmir, the US’s waver of the NNPT is part of Washington’s campaign to woo India into an alliance against China. A nuclear exchange between the two South Asian countries would not only be a regional catastrophe, but would have a worldwide impact.

Independent of the dangers Kashmir poses for the region and the world, its people should have the right to determine their own future, be it joining Pakistan, India, or choosing the path of independence. A UN sponsored referendum would seem the obvious way to let Kashmir’s people take control of their won destiny.

For starters, however, the US should demand that New Delhi accept a 2004 Indian government commission’s recommendation to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which Human Rights Watch calls “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.” The Special Powers Act was first created to control Catholics in Northern Ireland and then applied across Britain’s colonial empire. It is used today by Israel in the Occupied Territories and India in Kashmir. It allows for arrests without warrants, indefinite detainments, torture, and routine extra-judicial killings.

Washington’s fixation with lining up allies against China has also seen the US cut corners on human rights issues in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Indonesia. But recreating a version of the old Cold War alliance system in the region is hardly in the interests of Central and South Asians—or Americans, for that matter. India and Pakistan do not need more planes, bombs and tanks. They need modernized transport systems, enhanced educational opportunities, and improved public health. The same can be said for Americans.

There was a time when countries in Central and South Asia were responsible for much of world’s wealth and productive capacity. In 1750, India produced 24.5 percent of the world’s manufactured goods. England, in contrast, produced 1.9 percent. By 1850, the world had turned upside down, as colonialism turned—or to use the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term, “de-evolved”—India from a dynamic world leader to an economic satrap of London. The region is emerging from its long, colonial nightmare, and it does not need—indeed, cannot afford—to be drawn into alliances designed half a world away. It is time to bring the 21st century’s version of “the Great Game” to an end.

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The U.S. and The Afghan Train Wreck

The U.S. & The Afghan Train Wreck

Dispatches From The Edge

April 16, 2012

The recent decision by the Taliban and one of its allies to withdraw from peace talks with Washington underlines the train wreck the U.S. is headed for in Afghanistan. Indeed, for an administration touted as sophisticated and intelligent, virtually every decision the White House has made vis-à-vis Afghanistan has been a disaster.

On Mar. 15 the Taliban ended preliminary talks with Washington, because, according to a spokesman for the insurgent organization, the Americans were being “shaky, erratic and vague.” The smaller Hizb-i-Islami group followed two weeks later.

That both groups are refusing to talk should hardly come as a surprise. In spite of the Obama administration’s talk about wanting a “political settlement” to the war, the White House’s strategy makes that goal little more than a mirage.

The current U.S. negotiating position is that the Taliban must cut all ties with the terrorist group al-Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution, lay down their arms, and accede to a substantial U.S. military presence until at least 2024. The U.S. has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, its allies another 40,000. The current plan calls for a withdrawal of most of those troops by the end of 2014.

What is hard to figure out is why the White House thinks any of its demands—with the exception of the al-Qaeda proviso—have even a remote possibility of being achieved? Or exactly what the Americans think they are going to be “negotiating” with Mullah Omar of the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-i-Islami, or Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani Group?

The Obama administration’s initial mistake was to surge some 33,000 troops into Afghanistan with the aim of beating up on the resistance and forcing it to negotiate from a position of weakness. That plan was always an illusion, particularly given the ability of the insurgents to fall back into Pakistan to regroup, rearm, and recruit. In any case, the idea that 140,000 foreign troops—the 330,000 member Afghan National Army (ANA) is incapable of even defending itself—could defeat a force of some 25,000 guerillas fighters in a country as vast or geographically formidable as Afghanistan is laughable.

As a series of recent attacks demonstrate, the surge failed to secure Kandahar and Helmand Province, two of its major targets. While NATO claims that insurgent attacks have fallen as a result of the U.S. offensive, independent data collected by the United Nations shows the opposite.

In short, after a decade of war and the expenditure of over $450 billion, Afghanistan is a less secure place than it was after the 2001 invasion. All the surge accomplished was to more deeply entrench the Taliban and elevate the casualty rate on all sides.

The second U.S. error was to estrange Pakistan by wooing India in order to rope New Delhi into Washington’s campaign to challenge China in Asia.  First, Obama ditched his campaign pledge to address the volatile issue of Kashmir, the flashpoint for three wars between Indian and Pakistan. Second, the White House ignored India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allowed it to buy uranium on the world market—the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement—while refusing that same waiver to Pakistan. Add the American drone war and last November’s deadly attack on Pakistani border troops, and most Pakistanis are thoroughly alienated from the U.S. And yet a political solution to the Afghan war without Islamabad is simply impossible.

The U.S. demand to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan in order to continue its war on “terrorism” is not only a non-starter for the insurgents—the Taliban are, after all, the target of thousands of deadly “night raids” carried out by these same Special Forces—it is opposed by every country in the region save India. How the White House thinks it can bring the Taliban and its allies to the table while still trying to kill and capture them, or maintain a military presence in the face of almost total regional opposition, is hard to figure.

The more than 2,000 yearly night raids have eliminated many of the senior and mid-level Taliban leaders and atomized the organization. When it comes time to negotiate, NATO may find it has literally hundreds of leaders with whom it will have to cut a deal, not all of whom are on the same page.

That the insurgency would lay down its arms has a quality of magical thinking to it. Not only is the insurgency undefeated, but according to a leaked NATO report, captured Taliban think they are winning. The report—based on 27,000 interrogations—also found that “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governancy over GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders.”

There is no popular support for the war, either in Afghanistan, the U.S., or among its allies. The most recent ABC Poll found that 69 percent of Americans want the war to end, and according to a poll in the Financial Times, 54 percent of the British want to withdraw immediately.

As for supporting the Afghan constitution, why would an undefeated insurgency that sees its enemies in disarray and looking at a 2014 U.S.-NATO withdrawal date, agree to a document they had no part in drafting?

None of this had to happen. Back in late 2007, Saudi Arabia carried a peace offer from the Taliban in which they agreed to cut ties to al-Qaeda—a pledge they reiterated in 2008—and accept a time table for foreign troop withdrawals.  In return, a national unity government would replace the Karzai regime until elections could be held, and the constitution would be re-written.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations ignored the offer, apparently because they thought they could bring the Taliban to heel. It was thinking that verged on the hallucinatory.

The trump card holders these days are holed up in the high peaks or hiding in plain sight. Opium is booming in Helmand Province because the Taliban are protecting farmers from drug eradication teams, even blowing up tractors that are used to plow the crop under.

As the 2014 withdrawal date looms, the White House’s options are rapidly narrowing. If it holds to its plans to quarter troops in Afghanistan, the insurgency will fight on, and Washington’s only regional ally will be India, a country that can deliver virtually nothing toward a peace agreement. If it insists the insurgency recognize the Karzai regime and the constitution, it will be defending a deeply corrupt and unpopular government and a document that excluded the participation of country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtun. Pushtuns make up the core of the Taliban.

How the U.S. managed to get itself into this mess needs to be closely examined. The State Department under Hillary Clinton has become little more than an arm of the Pentagon, and the White House has shown an unsettling penchant for resorting to violence. In the meantime Afghanistan is headed for a terrible smashup.

The World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s economy is military related. The war is drawing to a finish, and there is no evidence that the U.S. or NATO has any intention or ability to keep the aid spigots wide open.  Europe is in the middle of an economic meltdown and the U.S. economy is struggling.

NATO provides about $11 billion a year to support the Afghan army, a figure that will probably drop to about $4 to $5 billion after 2014. There is already talk of reducing the 335,000-man Afghan army to a more manageable and less expensive force of 230,000.

There is a window of opportunity, but only if the Obama administration takes advantage of it. A strategy that might work—when it comes to Afghanistan there are no guarantees—would include:

  • A ceasefire and stand down of all offensive operations, including the highly unpopular “night raids.”
  •  Shelving any long-term plans to keep combat troops or Special Forces in the country, and shutting down the drone war in Pakistan.
  •  Urging the formation of a national unity government and calling for a constitutional convention.
  • Sponsoring a regional conference aimed at keeping Afghanistan neutral and non-aligned.
  •  Insuring aid continues to flow into Afghanistan, particularly aimed at upgrading infrastructure, improving agriculture, and expanding education.

At home, the Congress should convene hearings aimed at examining how the U.S. got into Afghanistan, who made the key decisions concerning the war and regional strategy, and how the country can avoid such disasters in the future.

It may be too late and, in the end, NATO may tuck its tail between its legs and slink out of Afghanistan. But the deep divisions the war has created will continue, and civil war is a real possibility. The goal should be to prevent that, not to pursue an illusory dream of controlling the crossroads to Asia, a chimera that has drawn would be conquerors to that poor, ravaged land for a millennium.

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