Monthly Archives: January 2011

Iran, the NY Times & the Laws of Physics

Iran, the NY Times & the Laws of Physics

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 29, 2011

Why is the New York Times claiming the laws of physics are different in Iran then they are anywhere else? Well, the tip off to that answer is the word “Iran.”

First, a few basics:

The thing about physics is that it is black and white: things happen or they don’t. Want to live forever? The Second Law of Thermodynamics says, nope, can’t do that (unless you can get rid of entropy, and you can’t). Want to rocket off to the nearest star a la Star Trek? Well, okay, but it is going to take a really, really long time to get there because you can’t go faster than the speed of light (and inertia would kill you long before you got close to 186,000 miles per second).

Back to the Times.

For the past several weeks the Times has been claiming that Iran is very close to producing weapons-ready nuclear fuel. On Jan. 23, Steven Erlanger, in an article entitled “Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program Close With No Progress,” wrote that Iran is stepping up its production of enhanced uranium and has “enriched about 90 pounds of it to 19.75 percent, which is more than halfway to the level required for a bomb.”

Not close. Again, a little physics.

Uranium occurs naturally as U-238, with tiny traces of U-235. In order to make a bomb you have to separate out the U-235 from the U-238 (or make Plutonium 239). “Enrichment” is used for a lot of things besides obliterating cities. Uranium enhanced to 3 percent can run a power plant. Uranium enhanced to 19.75 percent can be used for medical purposes, like zapping cancer. For a nuclear weapon, however, uranium must be enhanced to between 80 percent and 90 percent.

Virtually all nuclear warheads currently use uranium that is 90 percent enhanced, although it is possible to produce a weapon with as little as 80. To detonate a weapon using U-235, all you need to do is blast two pieces of sub-critical fuel into one another. Two sub-criticals equal one critical, you achieve “fission” and a really big “bang!” The so-called “nuclear gun” is virtually foolproof and was the design of the Hiroshima bomb. In fact scientists were so confident it would work that they never bothered to test it.

Plutonium is trickier. The “gun” method doesn’t work because of the unique properties of Pu-239. You have to wrap plutonium with an explosive, and then implode it. The Nagasaki bomb (Fat Man) was composed of both U-235 and Pu-239, and it was the device that was tested at White Sands New Mexico in 1945. Today almost all nuclear weapons in the world use this implosion method.

The Hiroshima bomb carried 64.1 kg of U-235 enhanced to 80 percent. The South Africans also produced at least six nuclear weapons that worked on the “gun” model, and those were enhanced to between 80 percent and 93 percent. The greater the enhancement, the less fuel you have to use. U-235 makes a perfectly serviceable nuke, but plutonium gives you more bang for the buck. The Department of Energy estimates that you can make a small nuclear weapon with a little as 4 kg of plutonium, and some scientists say you can make a nuke with as little as 1 kg of plutonium.

Keep in mind what they mean by “small.” The Hiroshima bomb—“Little Boy”—had an explosive force of between 12 and 15 kilotons of TNT. It killed over 70,000 people in the initial blast, and more than 30,000 in the weeks and years that followed. Its fireball reached 6,000 degrees centigrade at ground zero, and it utterly destroyed 62,000 buildings. Today “Little Boy” would be considered a tactical nuclear weapon.

Here is “big”:

The W76 warhead-100 kt

The B61 warhead-350 kt

The W88 warhead-475 kt

The B53 warhead-9, 000 kt

The B41warhead-25 megatons

The Tsar Bomba (Russian)-50 megatons.

What the laws of physics tell us is that 19.75 percent enhancement is not even a quarter of the way toward producing fuel that could be turned into a weapon. It is not nice stuff, mind you. Do not hug a container of 19.75 percent fuel. Radiation poisoning is really not the way you want to go.

The problem with the Time’s error (and it was repeated several times in other articles) is that it makes it sound like the Iranians are on the threshold of producing weapons-grade fuel. By virtually every account, they are not. Even Israeli military intelligence says Teheran is not currently working on producing a nuclear weapon, although it adds that Iran could produce the requisite fuel within two years if it wanted to.

According to Agence France Presse, Israeli Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi told the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee that “it was unlikely that Iran, which currently enriches uranium to 20 percent, would start enriching it to the 90 percent level needed for a bomb, because it would be an open breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, exposing it to harsher sanctions or even a U.S. or Israeli military strike.”

But the Times has Teheran more than halfway there—providing you ignore those annoying laws of physics. It is one thing to get someone’s name wrong, or misspell a word. Getting things about nuclear weapons wrong can have very dire consequences in the real world.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel has just acquired a new mid-air fuel tanker from the U.S. that would make an attack on Iran easier. The Israeli daily Ha’artz says the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defense secretary Ehud Barak are seriously considering a strike at Iran. And according to UPI, the new Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Yoav Galant, also favors attacking Iran. If Iran is “more than half way to the level required for a bomb,” why not?

In the real world bad science has the potential to produce dangerous politics.




Filed under Iran, Israel, Middle East, Military, Syria

Lebanon: Roots of the Crisis

Lebanon: Roots of the Crisis

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 11, 2011

Viewed through the prism of the American mainstream media, Lebanon always appears a place that best defines the term Byzantine: a bewildering mélange of different religions, rival militias, cagey politicians, and shadowy regional proxies taking orders from Teheran, Tel Aviv, Damascus, Riyadh, and Ankara.

Lebanon is a complex place indeed, but it is not quite the labyrinth it is made out to be, and, if France, the United States, and Israel would stop putting their irons in the fire, the country’s difficulties are wholly resolvable.  But solutions will require some understanding of the pressures that have forged the current crisis, forces that lie deep in Lebanon’s colonial past. While history is not the American media’s strong suit, to ignore it in Lebanon is to misunderstand the motivations of the key players.

Lebanon, like a number of other countries in the region—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Israel, to name a few—is a child of colonialism, created from the wreckage of the World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The colonial power in Lebanon was France, although Paris’ interest in the area goes back to 1861. In that year the French helped Maronite Christians establish a “sanjack,” or separate administrative region around Mt. Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire.

Christian Maronites and French Catholics were natural allies, and the French saw the potential of controlling traffic going from the Mediterranean coast to inland Mesopotamia. For their part, the Maronites had picked up a powerful ally for their dreams of creating a “Greater Lebanon” that would take in not only the mountains they lived in, but the fertile Bakaa Valley to the east and the rich coastline to the west.

Lebanon’s mountains are mostly Christian dominated, though not all Christians are Maronites. There are also Greek and Syrian Orthodox, Armenians, Copts, and Roman Catholics.  But the Bakaa—the northern extension of Africa’s Great Rift Valley—is mostly Muslim, as is much of the coastal plain.  The Muslims themselves are divided between Shiites and Sunnis. As in much of the Middle East, Shiites have been marginalized politically and economically.

Those divisions were set in stone when the great imperial powers carved up the corpse of the Ottoman Empire at San Remo in 1920. France got “Greater Lebanon,” while the British seized oil-rich Mesopotamia—modern Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel. Since Britain already had Egypt, it now dominated the Persian Gulf, and hence Iran’s oil, as well as the Red Sea. While Lebanon may have seemed small potatoes in that exchange, it was the gateway to Damascus and the easiest land route for land-based goods going east and west. It also became the banking capital of the Middle East, with the French skimming off the cream. Manufactured goods flowed east, raw materials and gold flowed west.

“Greater Lebanon,” however, was formed by slicing off a big hunk of western Syria. Indeed, many Syrians still think of Lebanon as “occupied.” Since the Maronites were France’s allies, they got to run the place, and the Sunnis and Shiites—particularly the Shiites—took the hindmost.  The latter became day laborers and peasants, squeezed by absentee landlords and taxed and exploited by the colonial government.

In many ways, Lebanon resembled Ireland, where religion was used to drive a wedge between landless Catholics and privileged Protestants. In reality, Protestants were also exploited, but the fact that they also had rights and privileges denied the Catholics—including the right to own land— kept the two communities divided and easily manipulated by the British.

And so it was in Lebanon. There the religious mix was more complex—it also included a sizable minority of Druze—but the strategy of divide and conquer through the use of religious and ethnic divisions was much the same. Those divisions pretty much defined the country until two great catastrophes befell Lebanon: the 1975-1990 civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation.

It was the Israeli invasion that ignited the Shiite community and led to the creation of Hezbollah. And it was Hezbollah that finally drove Israel out of southern Lebanon, though it took 18 years of ambushes and roadside bombs to make the price of occupation unacceptable. And, for the first time in Lebanese history the Shiite community had a voice. It is the sound of that voice we are hearing these days.

Shiites are not a majority in Lebanon, but they may be a plurality. Christian communities likely make up about 32 percent of the population, and the Druze 5 percent, although no one actually knows how large each community is. There has not been a census since 1932, because the Christians, in particular, are nervous about what it would show. Political power in Lebanon is divided up on the basis of ethnicity.

The Israelis characterize Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy, and the Americans dismiss the organization as terrorist. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned that the U.S. would cut off aid to Lebanon if a government friendly to Hezbollah emerges from the current crisis. The Americans are currently backing away from that threat.

But Hezbollah is not al-Qaeda, it is a homegrown organization that represents the long pent-up frustrations of the Shiite community, nor is it a cat’s paw for Iran, and any thought that the organization would go to war because Teheran ordered it to is just silly. For starters, Lebanese Shiites are very different than their Iranian counterparts. The latter come from a strain of Shiism that believes clerics and religious figures should govern directly. Lebanese Shiites think political power eventually corrupts religion, which is why they are backing Sunni Najib Mikati for the post of prime minister. Under Lebanon’s ethnic-driven system, that office must go to a Sunni.

As for the “terrorism” charge: That all depends on how you define the term. There is no question that Hezbollah has used assassinations and bombs to deal with its enemies, but then so have Israel and the U.S. In any case, Hezbollah is a major player in Lebanese politics, and any attempt to sideline it is the one thing that actually might touch off a civil war.

The current uproar was sparked by the refusal of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to reject the findings of a United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)  investigating the death of Hariri’s father, Rafik al-Hariri, in a massive bomb attack in 2005. The bombing led to the so-called “Cedar Revolution” that pushed Syria out of Lebanon and brought Saad Hariri into power.

The  STL investigation is apparently ready to pin the blame for the attack on Hezbollah, and when Hariri backed the Tribunal’s findings, Hezbollah withdrew its allies and the government collapsed.

Reading U.S. press accounts, one would assume that an unbiased investigation found Hezbollah the guilty party and that the Shiite organization ignited the crisis to avoid getting blamed. But a closer look suggests that the STL’s case is less than a slam-dunk.  An investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) late last year found several key witnesses had apparently lied to the Tribunal, including the man responsible for Hiriri’s security that day, Lebanese Colonel Wisam Hassan.

The Tribunal started off blaming the Syrians, then jailed four Lebanese generals—after four years, the generals were released for lack of evidence—and finally settled on the Shiite organization. Hezbollah presented documents to the STL this past summer indicating that the Israelis were monitoring Hariri the day of the assassination and may have been behind the bombing. If so it would notbe the first time that Tel Aviv has resorted to assassination in Lebanon. But the STL has not questioned any Israeli officials to date, nor has it examined Hassan’s alibi, one that the CBC called “flimsy, to put it mildly.”

Chief UN inspector Garry Loeppky considered Hassan a suspect in the murder, but the Tribunal refused to investigate his alibi because, according to the CBC investigation, he was considered “too valuable to alienate.” Hariri says Hassan’s loyalty is “beyond question.”

Hezbollah and its allies are also upset that the STL leaked its investigation to the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as the CBC, Der Spiegel, and the French newspaper Le Figaro.

It may be that Hezbollah—or a rogue element within the organization—is behind the bombing, but the STL’s consistent missteps have lost it a good deal of credibility, and many in the region view it as deeply politicized, and little more than a way for France and the U.S. to pressure Syria and Hezbollah.

In any case, the crisis in Lebanese politics is not over “terrorists” seizing a government. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Jan. 23 that his organization wanted a national unity government and that “We are not seeking authority.” A U.S. effort to influence who governs in Beirut has not been well received. “Mikati is not coming to power by force of a coup or by civil unrest,” said Hassan Khalil, publisher of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, “Mikati is coming to power by the parliamentary system of Lebanon.”

Nor is this a proxy war between Iran and Israel. It is an attempt by Lebanese players to rebalance and reconfigure a political system that has long favored a rich and powerful minority at the expense of the majority. The U.S., France and others may want to turn this into an international crisis—Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom called it an “Iranian government” on Israel’s northern border— but its roots and solutions are local.

Certainly there is a role for regional powers, including Turkey, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But talk of proxy wars or a triumph for “terrorists” is the language of war and chaos, something the Lebanese are heartily sick of.


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Filed under Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Etc, Middle East, Syria

Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 20, 2011


For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin America has been relatively low-key, partly because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic power and political independence. But, with Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, that is about to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers, an aggressive and right wing Congress is capable of causing considerable mischief.


Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is the new chair of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will try to put the former on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.


Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela’s supposed ties to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and banks. “It will be good for congressional subcommittees to start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo] Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about issues that have not been talked about,” she told the Miami Herald.


The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin America.


Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that created an opening for the Republicans. While the White House came in pledging to improve relations with Latin America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military’s presence in the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its failed war on drugs.


Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama administration was well aware that the June 2009 Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-going American hostility to the Morales regime in Bolivia and Washington’s sympathy with secessionist forces in that country’s rich eastern provinces.


Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama administration would bring a new approach to its relations with the region, but some say they have seen little difference from the Bush Administration. “The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness,” says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da Silva. But things may go from bad to worse if the White House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn by Congress.


The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme poverty by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The region has also increased its south-south relations with countries like China, South Africa and India. China is now Brazil’s number one trading partner. An economic alliance—Mercosur—has knitted the region together economically, and the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American Nations.


But many countries in Latin America are still riven by wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties between local oligarchies and the region’s curse: powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador’s progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.


One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled “A Southern Cone perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S. leadership,” pointed out “Southern Cone militaries remain key institutions in their respective countries and important allies for the U.S.” The author of the cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is currently principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to Latin American militaries to help them “modernize.”


In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance, Republicans played a key role in supporting the Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)—a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—brought together U.S. business leaders and Honduran officials to discuss American investment. Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful of Latin American governments recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo.


It was the Obama Administration, however, who recognized the government established by the coup, and remains silent in the face of what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calls widespread human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.


A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled waters ahead.


Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular. He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled university enrollment, and extended health care to most of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But a “supporter of terrorism” designation would cause considerable difficulties with international financing and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy,  in the long run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.


While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in Cuba’s growing oil and gas industries. Companies are already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around the current embargo.  The Spanish oil company Repsol and Italy’s Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig in China to dodge the blockade.


“It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company, is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles from Florida,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times. If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be applied to those oil companies.


Ecuador’s Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup, largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He has doubled spending on health care, increased social spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to marginalize them. While those groups did not support the coup, neither did they rally to the government’s support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to destabilize the government.


In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak released cables, according to Latin American journalist and author Benjamin Dangl, “lays bare an embassy that is biased against Evo Morales’ government, underestimates the sophistication of the governing party’s grassroots base, and is out of touch with the political reality of the country.”


The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information from extreme right wing and violent secessionist groups in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and training from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Both groups have close ties to American intelligence organizations. Given Brazil’s strong opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is not clear a succession movement would succeed. But would Brazil—or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay—actually intervene?


Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left and right, with a progressive president who warned last year that a coup by the country’s powerful military was a possibility.


The Obama administration’s acceptance of the Honduran coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos as an answer to the region’s surge of progressive politics and independent foreign policy. The recent effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an independent course on the Middle East by nations in the region. Several countries have formally recognized a Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin America summit Feb. 16.


Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus of the north, but its growing independence is fragile, as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still substantial. The economies in the region are growing at a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes, the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest military. This, plus anti-democratic forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for mischief, particularly if there is not strong resistance on the U.S. home front.















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Killing The Peace In Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Killing Peace

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 15, 2011

In spite of a White House declaration that “progress” is being made in Afghanistan, by virtually any measure the war has deteriorated significantly since the Obama Administration surged troops into Kandahar and Helmand provinces. This past year has been the deadliest on record for U.S. and coalition troops. Civilian casualties are on the rise, and, according to the Red Cross, security has worsened throughout the country. U.S. allies are falling away, and the central government in Kabul has never been so isolated. Polls in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Europe reflect growing opposition to the nine-year conflict.

So why is the White House pursuing a strategy that is almost certain to accelerate a descent into chaos, and one that runs counter to the Administration’s stated goal of a diplomatic solution to the war?

It is not an easy question to answer, in part because the major actors are hardly being straight with the public.

For instance, while U.S. commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus says his strategy of counterinsurgency is making headway, in fact the military abandoned that approach long ago. Instead it has ramped up the air war and replaced the campaign to win “hearts and minds” with “night raids” aimed at assassinating or capturing Taliban leaders and supporters.

“Night raids” have more than tripled, from an average of 5 a night to 17, and they more and more resemble the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. Phoenix was aimed at decapitating the leadership of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and dismantling the NLF infrastructure in the countryside. It ended up assassinating somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people.

As in the Phoenix Program, night raids are directed at destroying “shadow governments” the Taliban have established in virtually every province in the country. Over the past three months, U.S. and NATO forces claim they have killed or captured 360 “insurgent leaders,” 960 “low-level leaders,” and some 2,400 fighters.

The Taliban have responded by assassinating government officials in Kandahar and increasing their cooperation with the two other insurgent groups, the Hizb-i-Islami and the Haqqani Group.

In spite of the raids, United Nation’s maps show that the central battlegrounds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces are still considered “very high risk” and the situation has grown considerably worse in the north and east.

The White House argues that the only solution to the long-running war is a diplomatic one, but the administration seems bent on systematically sabotaging that outcome by trying to kill the very people who will be central to any negotiated peace.

“By killing Taliban leaders, the war will not come to an end,” former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttwakil told the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, “on the contrary, things get worse.” Indeed, according to former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef, the killings push more radical leaders to the fore. “It will be worse for everyone if the [current] Taliban leadership disappears,” Zaeef told Scahill.

The US has also sharpened its criticism of Pakistan to the point that a recent intelligence analysis essentially says the Islamabad is the major problem. There is even talk about sending U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the special 3,000-man Afghan army organized by the CIA into Pakistan to attack insurgent camps near the border, an act that would almost certainly further inflame anti-Americanism in that country.

In reality, there is not a whole lot Pakistan’s 600,000-man army can do. It is already fighting a homegrown Taliban, and its tense relations with India require it keep substantial forces on their mutual border. It has also largely taken over the job of dealing with Pakistan’s devastating floods last year. But even were it use all its forces, it is doubtful it could control the mountainous, 1553-mile border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis argue that current U.S. policy, not the border, is the problem. They point to the fact that the Americans have hitched themselves to the corruption-plagued Karzi government and have little to show for the billions spent to train the Afghan Army and police. “The Americans are looking for a scapegoat,” says leading Pakistan politician Mushahid Hussain.

Is the problem that Obama has turned the war over the military?

For all of Petraeus’ talk about “hearts and minds,” the military’s job description is to kill people. That is why Karl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern war, pointed out that war is much too important a matter to be left in the hands of generals.

The Obama Administration seems paralyzed by a combination of those in its ranks who support a muscular foreign policy, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Richard Holbrooke, a fear that the Republicans will brand them as “soft” in the 2012 elections, and an unwillingness to confront the generals.

The tragedy here is that many of the pieces for a deal are already in place. The Taliban and its allies are not tightly organized groups with a common ideology other than expelling invaders. They range from dedicated jihadists to local people fighting over turf or for revenge. And while Afghans have a reputation for being fierce, they actually excel at the art of the deal. If they did not, the country would have been depopulated long ago.

Of course, there are substantial roadblocks to overcome. The Taliban insists all foreign troops must leave, and the U.S. and Karzi demand the insurgents accept the Afghan constitution and put down their weapons. None of the above is likely to happen.

But the Taliban said back in 2008 that they would accept a “timetable” for foreign troops to leave. Of course both sides would have to agree to a ceasefire.

The U.S will have to back off from its insistence that the insurgents accept the current constitution. The document establishes a powerful centralized government, a form of organization that flies in the face of the country’s history and which few Afghans outside of Kabul support. A constitution based on strong local autonomy would garner more support. In turn, the insurgents would have to guarantee that groups like al-Qaeda could not set up shop.

The Americans insist they will not talk with the Haqqani Group or others they consider “irreconcilables,” but you have to negotiate with the people you are fighting. No party has the right to veto the participation of another.

Any agreement will have to take into account regional security issues, including Islamabad’s fear that India will make Afghanistan a client state, thus surrounding Pakistan on both sides.

The polls are on the side of those who want to end the war.

A recent survey found that 83 percent of Afghanis want negotiations, (though 55 percent show little sympathy with the insurgency). According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of the American public say the war “is not worth fighting.” Opposition to the war is much higher in Europe, reaching 70 percent in Germany.

The U.S. polls suggest that any Republican charge of the administration being “soft” is not likely to make much headway with voters.

Further, the conflict is hemorrhaging money at a time of severe economic crisis. The war is costing $8 billion a month, not counting the tens of billions the U.S. has spent training the Afghan Army and police. So far, the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars is $1.1 trillion, but, according to economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmer, the long-term costs of both wars will be $3 trillion.

One thing Democrats in Congress can do is to press for a troop drawdown starting this year. Again, the polls show 55 percent support withdrawals starting in summer 2011, with another 27 percent saying it should begin sooner.

According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, delaying the withdrawal date from the end of 2011—the President’s original goal—to 2014 will cost an extra $125 billion. As a comparison, the House Republicans pledge to cut $100 billion from the domestic budget—excluding the military, Homeland Security, and veterans—would require a 20 percent across-the-board cut in all programs.

The war is lost. We are broke. Many of the key protagonists are prepared to talk. It is time to silence the guns and seek common ground.

Read Conn Hallinan at


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Vang Pao, Drugs, the CIA and the Media

Vang Pao, Drugs & the CIA

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 12, 2011

Cynicism, as the late Molly Ivins once noted, is the death of good journalism, but reading through the New York Times and the Associated Press’ obituaries of Laotian-Hmong leader General Vang Pao made that sentiment a difficult one to resist.

Vang Pao, who died Jan. 6 in Clovis, a small town in California’s Central Valley, was described in the Times as “charismatic” and in AP as a “fabled military hero” who led a Hmong army against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian civil war. Van Pao’s so-called “secret army” was financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as part of the U.S.’s war against North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.

Well, “financed” is a slippery word, and while, it was true Vang Pao got a lots of money and arms from the CIA, a major source of his financing was the opium trade run out of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle.”  That little piece of history never managed to make it into the obits, which is hardly a surprise. The people the CIA hired to run dope for Vang Pao went on to run dope for the Contras in the Reagan Administration’s war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And talking about close ties between drugs and the CIA in Southeast Asia and Central America might lead to some very uncomfortable questions about the people we are currently supporting in Afghanistan.

Readers should search out a book by Alfred McCoy called “The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia,” and pull up a Frontline piece entitled “Drugs, Guns and the CIA” by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn. What they will find is not in the Times and the AP obits.

A major source for the Frontline piece was Ron Rickenback, who headed up the U.S. Aid and Development Program (USAID) in Laos. Rickenback says he witnessed drugs being transported from outlying areas in Laos aboard U.S. Air America aircraft, which was then put on larger aircraft for shipment to southern Laos and Thailand. Air America was on contract with the CIA.

Rickenback says the CIA knew drugs were being run on their airplanes, but that the drug trade helped finance the war against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese. To cover their tracks, the CIA took an Air America C-47, painted it, named it Sing Quan Airlines, and gave it to Van Pao. Sing Quan quickly became know as “Opium Air.”

Frontline also tracked down several pilots that flew Sing Quan and Air America planes (some of them were in jail for running cocaine out of Central America), who confirmed that opium was a major part of their cargo. Journalist John Everingham’s investigation also linked Vang Pao to the opium trade.

Leslie Cockburn also managed to land an interview with Tony Poe, the CIA’s key man in Laos, and the model for the out-of-control CIA agent in Apocalypse Now. Poe, who was driven out of the Agency when he refused to go along with the dope dealing, confirmed Van Pao’s central role in drug running.

The trade in opium and heroin in Laos was linked in turn to the U.S. supported regime in South Vietnam led by President Nguyen Van Thieu. Much of that heroin ended up in the bodies of American GIs—during the height of the war there were between two and three fatal overdoses a day—and decimating neighborhoods back in the U.S.

The history of drugs and U.S. foreign policy is a long and dark one. At the end of World War II, the Agency made common cause with the Corsican Brotherhood and the La Cosa Nostra to drive the Left out of the Port of Marseilles. Drug running was a major source of money for the two Italian criminal organizations.

The same people who ran the CIA’s drug operation in Southeast Asia turned up running drugs and guns for the rightwing Contras in the 1980s Nicaraguan civil war. Cocaine money was used to by weapons and supplies for the Contras, with anti-Castro Cubans acting as organizers and middlemen.

And lest we think this is all ancient history, maybe Congress should take a close look at our current allies in Afghanistan: the Karzai government and the Northern Alliance.

First, a few facts.

The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that the Afghan opium trade generates about $3.4 billion a year, of which about 4 percent goes as taxes to the Taliban. There is some dispute over how much cash this represents: the UN says $125 million a year; U.S. intelligence agencies estimate $70 million a year. Some 21 percent goes to the farmers. What happens to the 75 percent left over?

According to Julian Mercille, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, the bulk “is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional power brokers and traffickers.” This includes President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Northern Alliance general, Nazri Mahmad.

Mercille argues that the U.S. has an “historical pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drug lords in [its] pursuit of broader foreign policy goals.”

The pattern—established after the Second World War in Europe, and then later in Southeast Asia and Latin America—is that drugs are a handy way to generate lots of off-the-books money, and an easy way to buy loyalty. It is also good business. That UN report also found that between 90 to 95 percent of illegal opium sales over the past several years—some $400 to $500 billion—were laundered through western banks. Part of that money ended up being used to keep some of those banks from going under during the recent economic meltdown.

What these policies leave in their wake are ruin and destruction. Over 35,000 members of Van Pao’s army were killed fighting a losing war with the Pathet Lao, and some 200,000 Hmong were re-settled in the U.S., mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Nicaragua is still trying to recover from the Contra War, and Afghanistan has turned into a bleeding ulcer.

Vang Pao was a pawn, first of the French, in whose colonial army he served, and later of the U.S. In the global chess game called the Cold War, he and his people were disposable. So were the Nicaraguans, and so are the Afghans.  The dead are at peace; the living should remember, and the media should help preserve, not obscure, those memories.



Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, FPIF Blogs, Latin America, Military, Pacific