Monthly Archives: July 2011

Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A Hit

Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A Hit

Dispatches From the Edge

July 23, 2011


The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai in Kandahar July 12 is one of those moments when the long and bloody Afghanistan war suddenly comes into focus. It is not a picture one is eager to put up on the wall.


Karzai, a younger half brother (because their father had multiple wives) of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was the Kabul government’s viceroy in southern Afghanistan. What his nickname, “the king of Kandahar,” translates into is “warlord.” He controlled everything from the movement of drugs to the placement of car sales agencies. Want to open a Toyota dealership? See “AWK,” as he was also known, and come with a bucket load of cash.


AWK’s power, according to the Financial Times, “lay in a mafia-style network of oligarchs and loyal elders, funded, according to U.S. media reports, by heroin trafficking.” He was also on the CIA’s payroll. No truck moved through the south without paying him a tax. No United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) projects could be built without his okay. In case someone didn’t get the message, his Kandahar Strike Force Militia explained it to them. Next to AWK, Al Capone was a small-time pickpocket.


And he was our guy.


So was Jan Mohammed Khan, assassinated July 17, a key ally and advisor to the Afghan president, and a man so corrupt that the Dutch expeditionary forces forced his removal as the governor of Uruzgan Province in 2006.


The entire U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan—from the initial 2001 invasion to the current withdrawal plan—has relied on a narrow group of criminal entrepreneurs, the very people whose unchecked greed set off the 1992-96 Afghan civil war and led to the victory of the Taliban.


AWK was a member of the Popalzai tribe, which along with the Alikozai and Barakzai tribes, has run the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand since the early 1990s, systematically excluding other tribes. According to the Guardian’s Stephen Gray, “The formation of the Taliban was, in great measure, a revolt of the excluded.”


When the Americans invaded, “AWK and the Barakzai strongman and former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai not only seized control of NATO purse-strings by acquiring lucrative contracts, but they also manipulated U.S. intelligence and Special Forces to gain help with their predatory and retaliatory agenda,” says Gray, harassing and arresting Taliban members until they fled to Pakistan.


AWK not only poured money into the coffers of the Kabul government, he insured a second term for his brother by stuffing ballot boxes in the 2009 election, and he was a key actor in identifying targets for U.S. night raids. It is the success of these night raids in killing off Taliban leaders that has allowed the Obama Administration to claim a measure of victory in the Afghan war and to lay the groundwork for a withdrawal of most American troops by 2014.


With U.S. polls running heavily against the war—59 percent oppose it—and with more than 200 votes in Congress for speeding up the withdrawal timetable, the White House wants the war to be winding down as the U.S. goes into the 2012 elections


For the Afghan central government and the Obama administration, then, AWK was probably the most powerful and important warlord in the country.


As in chess, there are winners and losers when a major piece falls.


The assassination has dealt a serious blow to the Americans. The rosy picture of progress painted by the U.S. Defense and State departments is shot to hell, literally. The Taliban have demonstrated that all the hype on “improved security” is about as real as an opium dream. Even if the assassination was due to a personal quarrel rather than a Taliban hit, few will believe that is so, particularly after Khan’s assassination just five days later.


While the Kabul government has appointed another Karzai in AWK’s place, there is almost certainly going to be a bloody intercine battle among surviving Kandahar power brokers. A major infight will end up robbing Kabul of much needed funds and further isolate the government. The only hope for the Karzai government now is to ramp up talks with the Taliban while Kabul still has some power and influence.


And that fact puts Pakistan in the driver’s seat, because there will be no talks without Islamabad. The Americans need these talks as well, so don’t pay a lot of attention to the White House’s huffing and puffing over aid.


In any case, the decision to cut some $800 million in aid to the Pakistani military has been less than a major success. Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar told Express TV that “If Americans refuse to give us money, then okay…we cannot afford to keep the military out in the mountains for such a long period.”


Pakistan currently has tens of thousands of troops on the 1,500-mile Pakistan-Afghan border, fighting an insurgency that did not exist until the American invasion drove the Taliban into the Tribal Areas and the Northwest Territories. From Pakistan’s point of view it is fighting its own people, and losing up to 3,000 soldiers and civilians a year, because of Washington’s policies in the region.


One loser is India, even though in the long run peace in Afghanistan will allow New Delhi to reap the rewards of a Central Asia gas pipeline. In the short run, however,Indian diplomacy in the region has badly misfired. India intervened in Afghanistan— providing more than a billion dollars in aid—in order to discomfort Pakistan.


But in 2009 New Delhi withdrew its support for the Karzai government because India was convinced the Americans were about to jettison the Afghan President. That never happened, but Karzai decided that his long-term survival lay in making peace with the Taliban, which in turn meant warming up ties with Islamabad.


In the meantime, Pakistan—fearful of India and suspicious of the U.S.—tightened its ties with China (discomforting the Indians even more). In fact, in the end, China may be the big winner. Beijing runs a huge copper mine and seems to have no trouble getting its ore out of the country, which suggests there is a deal among China, Pakistan and the Taliban to keep the roads open. China is also building a railroad, as well as exploring for iron ore and rare earth elements.


There are other potential winners here as well. Iran has traditionally been involved in northern Afghanistan, where it has roots among the Tajiks, who speak a language similar to Iran’s Farsi. Iran also has close ties to the Shiite Hazaras and pumps aid into western Afghanistan. Iran’s help will be essential if the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are to join in any peace agreement.


Whatever the final outcome, the U.S./NATO adventure has been an unmitigated disaster. With Europeans overwhelmingly opposed to the war, there is a stampede for the exit by virtually every country but Britain and the U.S. In the end, Afghanistan may well end up the graveyard of NATO.


The major losers, of course, are the Afghans. So far this has been the deadliest year for civilians since 2001. Most of those deaths come via roadside bombs, but casualties from NATO air attacks are up. In spite of hundreds of billions of dollars in aid, Afghanistan is still grindingly poor and stunningly violent. After almost a decade of war the words that spring to mind are Macbeth’s: “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”













Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, China, India, Iran

Italy: The Barbarians At The Gates

Italy: The Barbarians At The Gates

Foreign Policy In Focus

July 13. 2011

Paestum, Italy

Walls tell you a lot about a country’s history. Since their purpose is to keep people out who want to get in, they generally mean trouble. In the case of this stunning ruin of a city southeast of Naples, back in the 6th century BC the Greeks were trying to keep out the Etruscans who didn’t cotton to a colony plunked down in their midst.


Italy has lots of walls, particularly in the north and center where towns and cities cluster on the high ground. The Italians did not build on mountain tops for the view. What is picturesque now was safe haven from the barbarians back then.


Except, the barbarians are back, only this time they are not tribes with scary names like Goths, Huns and Lombards. Today the brutes have bland sounding labels like the International Monetary Fund IMF), the European Union (EU) and Moody’s. And some of the worst are homegrown: Silvio Berlusconi and Giullo Tremonti.


Italy is in deep trouble, though it is hardly alone. While the headlines go to Greece, Portugal and Spain, Italy has the second highest rate of debt in Europe and one of the lowest growth rates. On July 8, Italian bond yields jumped to a nine-year high, and the country’s stock market tanked. Given that Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone, if it is in trouble, so is the Euro. And, unlike Portugal, Greece or Ireland, Italy is far too big for a bail out (not that the thuggish austerity programs being forced on all three of those countries have anything in common with “bail outs.” They are simply taxpayers covering ruinous speculation binges by French, German and Dutch banks).


There are signs that the Italian economy is running off the rails, but the signs are subtle. Lots of locked houses and long grass, for instance.


The locked houses are in Pompeii, where the government no longer has the money to shore up the walls of the 2,000 year-old city. From the Pompeii of glorious mosaics and stunning frescos it has become a ghost town that one views from roads and sidewalks.


The immense Doric temples at Paestum are wonderfully preserved, but grass has reclaimed much of the rest of the site. It is charming to wander through the ruins, finding lovely mosaic floors, peristyle gardens or swimming pools, but the Italian authorities did not let the grass grow in order to stimulate the curiosity of tourists; they don’t have the money to cut it.


There is a sense in this country that people are holding their breath. The current center-right government is pushing through a $68 billion austerity package that will increase the retirement age, cut medical benefits, and lay off state workers, but many of the cuts will not take effect until 2013 and 2014. Hoping to avoid the wrath of voters, the current finance minister, Giullo Tremonti, has back loaded the cuts so they won’t take effect until after next spring’s elections.


As in ancient Rome, there are graffiti everywhere. There are hammers and sickles painted on the walls in Naples, as well as scrawls threatening “death to the Communists.” The left took power here in the last elections and is currently locked in a battle with the local Mafia over corruption. A cursory glance at this teeming, energetic, and most Italian of cities suggests the left is holding its own: the Mafia’s tactic of flooding the place with garbage is not working. The streets are chaotic, loud, and anarchic, but clean.


Sometimes it is hard to decide if Italians are holding their breath or their noses. For instance, Tremonti’s political advisor, Marco Milanese, a member of parliament, was arrested last week as part of a corruption investigation, forcing Tremonti to give up using Milanese’s luxury flat in Rome. In the meantime, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi secretly tried to slip a clause into the budget bill that would delay paying a huge $1.5 billion fine against his flagship media company, Fininvest.


Compared to social unrest in Greece, Spain, Britain and Portugal, Italy has been relatively tranquil. While the Greeks are in open rebellion against the austerity packages of the IMF and the EU, Italian demonstrations have been big but generally quiet. Tremonti told the Financial Times that Italians are different than Greeks and would accept austerity, because “The Italian people understand,” he said, “their demand is to be serious and rigorous. People are strongly in favor of this discipline.”


Tremonti is whistling past the graveyard, his words an eerie echo of Greek Prime Minister George Papandrerou’s comment that Greeks were “unified” behind the government program.” Outside the parliament Athens seeths with rage, and hundreds of thousands of Greeks battle tear gas and police batons to demonstrate quite the opposite. A recent poll found that 80 percent of the Greeks oppose the austerity plan.


There is nothing to indicate that Italians won’t follow the Greeks into the streets once the cuts hit home here. A stencil on a wall in Citta de Castello shows two stick figures, one firing a gun at the head of the other. Underneath the picture is one word: “capitalism.”


Europe (and much of the world) is currently in the throes of a counterrevolution led by a combination of local capitalists and international finance. Using the crisis sparked by bank speculation, its goals are to weaken trade unions, roll back social services and pensions, and privatize as much as possible. Wages have fallen across the continent, and temporary jobs with sketchy or non-existent benefits have grown at the expense of regular employment.


The “crisis” is a one-way street. As a Financial Times analysis pointed out last month, “Millionaires across the world are richer they were before the financial crisis, the latest sign that the wealthy have weathered the downturn far better than other groups.”


The number of millionaires in North America went from 2.7 to 3.4 million from 2008 to 2010 and, in Europe, from 2.6 to 3.1 million during the same time period. Italy was the only EU country that saw a slight drop in the number of millionaires: 179 to 170. The countries with the largest number of millionaires are, in decreasing order, the U.S., Japan, Germany, China and Britain.


Capital is playing hardball in this counterrevolution.


On one level, governments like in Greece have unleashed their police in an effort to drive the hundreds of thousands of young people, teachers, government workers and trade unionists off the streets.


On another level, rating agencies like Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch deliberately downgrade bonds in order to protect private investors. When investors are asked to absorb some of the losses that their speculation generated, the rating agencies step in and make an offer no country can refuse: drop efforts to make private speculators pay or we tank your bonds and drive up the cost of borrowing money.  “The credit rating agencies are playing politics not economics. The timing of the downgrades are not a coincidence,” one “senior EU official” told the Financial Times.


The “bailout” will not stop Greece from defaulting on its debt (with Ireland, Portugal and Spain likely to follow). Nor is there any way for a country like Greece to climb back out of the debt pit as long as its currency policies are dictated by Germany and France.


Italy has some experience with this business of crisis and currency, although its current leaders choose to ignore it. Back in the early 19th century, Naples was the largest city in Italy, and the south had a diverse and dynamic economy. It was the first region in Italy to build railroads, but the madness of the Catholic Church derailed the effort by blocking passage through the Papal States. Pope Gregory XVI called rails “roads to hell.”


According to Sir Martin Jacomb, former Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the sabotage of railway development marks the beginning of the south’s decline. But it wasn’t until the lira was made the national currency in 1861 that “ it [the south] lost its ability to correct its uncompetitive position. Able and enterprising people moved to the north or emigrated, and the situation became permanent, as it remains today. The tragedy endures.”


Southern Italy has been locked into poverty for close to 200 years, a fate that is almost certain to befall other periphery members of the EU. Generations of poverty and emigration will be the price tag for protecting the investments of the very people who brought the current economic crisis on. The Citta di Castello stencil was, if anything, an understatement.


So far Italy is quiet, but everyone is aware that the coup of capital is being contested in the streets of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Britain, as it will eventually be in Rome, Naples, and Milan.


In the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre in 1819, where the British government sent cavalry to scatter a massive demonstration demanding political reform, an enraged Percy Bysshe Shelly penned “The Mask of Anarchy,” which ended in words that today’s powerful would do well to consider:


“Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number—

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many—they are few.”















Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs