Monthly Archives: August 2011

Juan Cole: 10 Myths About Libya?

10 Myths About Libya?

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 24, 2011

In his essay, “Top Ten Myths about the Libyan War,” Juan Cole argues that U.S. interests in the conflict consisted of stopping “massacres of people,” a “lawful world order,” “the NATO alliance,” and oddly, “the fate of Egypt.” It is worth taking a moment to look at each of these arguments, as well as his dismissal of the idea that the U.S./NATO intervention had anything to do with oil as “daft.”

Massacres are bad things, but the U.S. has never demonstrated a concern for them unless its interests were at stake. It made up the “massacre” of Kosovo Albanians in order to launch the Yugoslav War, and ended up acquiring one of the largest U.S. bases in the world, Camp Bond Steel. It has resolutely ignored the massacre of Palestinians and Shiites in Bahrain because it is not in Washington’s interests to concern itself with those things. Israel is an ally, and Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Cole accepts the fact that Qaddafi would have “massacred” his people, but his evidence for that is thin, and he chooses to completely ignore the deaths and casualties resulting from the NATO bombing.

The U.S. is interested in a “lawful world order.” That would certainly come as a surprise to the Palestinians, the Shiites in the Gulf, and peasants in Colombia who suffer the deprivations of death squads aided by the U.S.  etc. The U.S, supports international law when it is in its interests to do so, undermines it when it is not, and ignores it when it is inconvenient. I wish Cole were correct but he is not. The record speaks for itself.

Okay, spot on for the NATO alliance, which is exactly the problem.  Africa has increasingly become a chess piece in a global competition for resources and cheap labor. It is no accident that the U.S. recently formed an African Command (Africom)—the Libyan War was the organization’s coming out party—and is training troops in countries that border the Sahara. It is already intervening in Somalia, and a recent story in the New York Times about an “al-Qaeda threat” in Northern Nigeria should send a collective chill down all our spines. NATO has already “war gamed” the possibility of intervention in the Gulf of Guinea to insure oil supplies in the advent of “civil disturbances” that might affect the flow of energy resources.

NATO represents western economic and political interests, which rarely coincide with the interests of either the alliance’s own people, or those of the countries it occupies. The Libyan intervention sets a very dangerous precedent for the entire continent, which is why the African Union opposed it. Who will be next?

Ummm, Egypt? Certainly the U.S. has “a deep interest in the fate of Egypt,” which ought to scare hell out of the Egyptians. But overthrowing Qaddafi was important because he had “high Egyptian officials on his payroll”? Is Cole seriously suggesting that Libya’s 6.4 million people have anything to do with determining the fate of 83 million Egyptians?

Opposition to the Libyan War is not based on supporting Qaddafi, although Cole’s portrait of the man is one-sided. For instance, Libya played an important role in financing the African Bank, thus allowing African nations to avoid the tender mercies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Libya also financed a continent-wide telecommunications system that saved African countries hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing them to bypass western-controlled networks.  He also raised living standards. This does not make him a good guy, but it does say that Libya’s role in Africa cannot be reduced to simply “sinister.”

Lastly, the charge that this was about Libya’s oil is “daft”? Libya is the largest producer of oil in Africa, and the 12th largest in the world. Its resources are very important for NATO’s European allies, and over the past several years there has been competition over these supplies. The Chinese have made major investments. During the war China, Russia, and Brazil supported the African Union’s call for a ceasefire and talks, and pointed out that UN Resolution 1973 did not call for regime change. One of the first statements out of the Transitional National Council following Qaddafi’s collapse was that China, Russia and Brazil were going to be sidelined in favor of French, Spanish, and Italian companies. Quid pro quo?

The war was not just over oil, but how can anyone dismiss the importance of energy supplies at a time of worldwide competition over their control?  The U.S. is currently fighting several wars in a region that contains more than 65 percent of the world’s oil supplies. Does he think this is a coincidence? Sure, the companies that invested in Libya will take some initial losses, but does Cole think those Libyans beholden to NATO for their new positions will drive a hard bargain with the likes of Total SA and Repso when it comes to making deals? If I were those companies I would see the war as a very lucrative investment in futures. In any case, when the U.S., China, and Russia are locked in a bitter worldwide battle over energy resources, to dismiss the role of oil in the Libyan War is, well, daft.

Special Forces are taking over the U.S. military. Africom is increasingly active on the continent. NATO has just finished its first intervention in Africa. With Qaddafi gone, every country that borders the Mediterranean is now associated with NATO, essentially turning this sea into an alliance lake.

This is not a good thing.


Filed under Africa, Middle East, Military

Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up

Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up


Conn Hallinan

Aug. 17, 2011

For decades the U.S. military has waged clandestine war on virtually every continent on the globe, but, for the first time, high-ranking Special Operations Forces (SOF) officers are moving out of the shadows and into the command mainstream. Their emergence suggests the U.S. is embarking on a military sea change that will replace massive deployments, like Iraq and Afghanistan, with stealthy night raids, secret assassinations, and death-dealing drones. Its implications for civilian control of foreign policy promises to be profound.

Early this month, Vice Adm. Robert Harward—a former commander of the SEALs—the Navy’s elite SOF that recently killed al-Qaeda leader Osma bin Laden—was appointed deputy commander of Central Command, the military region that embraces the Middle East and Central Asia.  Another SEAL commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, took over the number two spot in Southern Command, which covers Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Obama Administration has been particularly enamored of SOFs, and, according to reporters Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post, is in the process of doubling the number of countries where such units are active from 60 to 120. U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Col. Tim Nye told Nick Turse of Salon that SOF forces would soon be deployed in 60 percent of the world’s nations: “We do a lot of traveling.”

Indeed they do. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) admits to having forces in virtually every country in the Middle East, Central Asia, as well as many in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. But true to its penchant for secrecy, SOC is reluctant to disclose every country to which its forces are deployed. “We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s not advantageous for us to list where were at,” Nye told Turse.

SOF forces have almost doubled in the past two decades, from some 37,000 to close to 60,000, and major increases are planned in the future. Their budget has jumped from $2.3 billion to $9.8 billion over the last 10 years

These Special Forces include the Navy’s SEALs, the Marines Special Operations teams, the Army’s Delta Force, the Air Force’s Blue Light and Air Commandos, plus Rangers and Green Berets. There is also the CIA, which runs the clandestine drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

It is increasingly difficult to distinguish civilian from military operatives. Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA, is now Defense Secretary, while Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus—an expert on counterinsurgency and counter terror operations—is taking over the CIA. Both have worked closely with SOF units, particularly Petraeus, who vastly increased the number of “night raids” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The raids are aimed at decapitating insurgent leadership, but have caused widespread outrage in both countries.

The raids are based on intelligence that many times comes from local warlords trying to eliminate their enemies or competition. And, since the raids are carried out under a cloak of secrecy, it is almost impossible to investigate them when things go wrong.

A recent CIA analysis of civilian casualties from the organization’s drone war in Pakistan contends that attacks since May 2010 have killed more than 600 insurgents and not a single civilian. But a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in Londonfound “credible evidence” that at least 45 non-combatants were killed during this period. Pakistani figures are far higher.

Those higher numbers, according to Dennis C. Blair, retired admiral and director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010, “are widely believed [in Pakistan] and, Blair points out, “our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our soldiers is bitterly resented.”

Rather than re-examining the policy of night raids and the use of armed drones, however, those tactics are being expanded to places like Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. The question is, who’s next?

Latin America is one candidate.

A recent WikiLeak release demonstrates that there was close coordination between right wing, separatist groups in eastern Bolivia—where much of that country’s natural gas reserves are located—and the U.S. Embassy. The cables indicate that the U.S. Embassy met with dissident generals, who agreed to stand aside in case of a right-wing coup against the left-leaning government of Evo Morales. The coup was thwarted, but Bolivia expelled American Ambassador Philip Goldberg over U.S. meddling in its domestic politics.

The U.S. has a long and sordid history of supporting Latin American coups—at times engineering them— and many in the region are tense over the recent re-establishment of the U.S. Fourth Fleet. The latter, a Cold War artifact, will patrol 30 countries in the region. Given the Obama administration’s support for the post-2009 coup government in Honduras, its ongoing hostility to the Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and now the WikiLeak revelations about Bolivia, the idea of appointing a “shadow warrior” the number two leader in South Command is likely to concern governments in the region.

SOFs have become almost a parallel military. In 2002, Special Operations were given the right to create their own task forces, separate from military formations like Central and Southern Command. In 2011 they got the okay to control their budgets, training and equipment, independent of the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. If one reaches for an historical analogy, the Praetorian Guard of Rome’s emperors comes to mind.

There is a cult-like quality about SOFs that the media and Hollywood has done much to nurture: Special Forces are tough, independent, competent and virtually indestructible. The gushy New Yorker magazine story about SEAL Team Six, “Getting Bin Laden,” is a case in point. According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the story will be made into a movie-for-TV and released just before the 2012 elections.

There is a telling moment in that story that captures the combination of bravado and arrogance that permeates SOF units. An unidentified “senior Defense Department official” told author Nicholas Schmidle that the bin Laden mission was just “one of almost two thousand missions that have been conducted over the last couple of years, night after night.” And then adds that these raids were routine, no big thing, “like mowing the lawn.”

But war is never like “mowing the lawn,” as 38 American and Afghan SOFs found out the night of Aug. 6 when their U.S. CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter flew into a carefully laid ambush just south of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“It was a trap that was set by a Taliban commander,” a “senior Afghan government official” told Agence France Presse. According to the official, the Taliban commander, Qari Tahir, put out a phony story that a Taliban meeting was taking place. When Army Rangers went in to attack the “meeting,” they found the Taliban dug in and waiting. Within minutes the Rangers were pinned down and forced to send for help.

The Taliban had spent several years practicing for just such an event in the Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan. According to a 2009 Washington Post story—“Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics”—the Valley is a training ground to learn how to gauge the response time for U.S. artillery, air strikes and helicopter assaults. “They know exactly how long it takes before…they have to break contact and pull back,” a Pentagon officer told the Post.

“The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take,” said the Afghan official, because “that is the only route, so they took position on either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets.” According to Wired, the insurgents apparently used an “improvised rocket-assisted rocket,” essentially a rocket-propelled grenade with a bigger warhead.

As soon as the chopper was down, the Taliban broke off the attack and vanished. According to the U.S., many of those Taliban were later killed in a bombing raid, but believing what the military says these days about Afghanistan is a profound leap of faith.

SOFs are not invulnerable, nor are they a solution to the dangerous world we live in. And the qualities that make them effective— stealth and secrecy—are in fundamental conflict with a civilian controlled armed forces, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

As Adm. Eric Olson, former head of Special Operations, recently said at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, having Special Forces in 120 countries “depends on our ability to not talk about it,” and what the military most wanted was “to get back into the shadows.”

Which is precisely the problem.

Conn Hallinan can be read at



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

Afghanistan: Of Bumps & Foolishness

Afghanistan: Of Bumps & Foolishness

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug. 2, 2011

Kabul, Afghanistan-American and allied forces in Afghanistan are strengthening a layered defense along the border with Pakistan to seize Haqqani network militants as they try to make their way to Kabul to carry out spectacular attacks, according to senior military officers—New York Times, 8/1/11

Okay, New York Times, time for a little geography lesson, with a few bits of history thrown in.

Let’s start with that old Rand McNally three-dimensional map of the world that formerly graced the walls of grammar schools across the country (I happen to have one in my closet). It has low spots to demonstrate deep-sea trenches and bumps for mountain ranges. Among the biggest set of bumps are the Hindu Kush (the western extension of the Himalayas) that corresponds to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest of those bumps is Mt. Noshaq (24,580 ft).

This is also a very long border, 1,510 miles more or less (more on that later). Think of the distance between Portland, ME and Miami, FL, New York City and Dallas/Fort Worth, or London and Moscow. It is mostly really big bumps, (except some lower ones on the western edge of the border), so it is not only long, it contains some of the most formidable terrain on the planet.

In fact the “official” border is marked from Sikaram Peak to Laman Peak. It is always a bad idea to fight a war where you measure the battlefield by the distance between peaks. If there are general rules of war, certainly one of them is: “Do not fight in places that the Rand McNally three-dimensional map puts lots of bumps.”

This is also not a border, in the normal sense of word, with the striped guardhouses and border checks. For one thing, the Afghans and the Pakistanis had nothing to do with establishing it. That was done—with considerable mischief in mind— in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, then England’s lead colonial officer in India (Pakistan did not yet exist).

His plan was to split up the Pashtuns—an ethnic group who have populated the region since at least the fifth century BC—so that they would not constitute a majority in either region. Pashtuns make up about 42 percent of Afghanistan and about 15 percent of Pakistan. The Pashtuns have never recognized the Durand Line, and neither has the government in Kabul. This makes Pakistan nervous, because aside from India, one of the things Islamabad fears most is ethnic dismemberment: the establishment of an independent Pashtunistan.

Pashtuns on both sides of the border are bound by a common language, culture and kinship system, so independence is hardly out of  the question.

Pashtuns are among the most hospitable people in the world, but they don’t like being invaded or occupied, which no one has successfully managed to do, although many have tried. A 19th century British general remarked that when one gets ready to invade the area, the first thing to do is plan a line of retreat, the inevitable course followed by all militaries.

So now, let’s look at “layered defense along the border,” as well as American pressure on the Pakistani military “to cleanse their border of militants.”

First, from the Pashtuns’ point of view, Pakistan’s military is just as much a foreign intruder as were the Greeks,  Buddhists, Mongols, Muslims, and British, and Islamabad’s army would have just about the same level of success as all those other invaders. Second, any attempt to “cleanse” the border would stir up major hostilities among the tribes and clans in both countries and feed Pashtun nationalism, which is exactly what Islamabad does not want to do.

But even if Pakistan was to decide to actually try to “cleanse” the border, Islamabad has neither the manpower nor the money to do so (even if it were possible, which history argues it is not). Pakistan has some 1.4 million men under arms, but only a little over 600,000 of those are regular troops. The rest are reserves or border police and local paramilitaries. And most of those troops have to be kept on the border with India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars.

Pakistan’s military is currently engaged both in fighting its own domestic Taliban in South Waziristan and maintaining troops in North Waziristan, but the North West Frontier and Federally Administered Tribal Areas—the part of the world we are talking about—are vast tracts of terrain, and “pacifying” them is quite beyond the capabilities of any army in the world, let alone Pakistan’s.

The situation is not much different on the Afghan side of the border. The combined NATO forces are about 132,000, of which 100,000 are Americans (although 4,000 are headed home in the next few months). However, with the exception of the British, Canadians and Australians, most of the allied troops are not involved in active combat, so the actual number of troops available is closer 110,000. And not all of those troops fight. Some drive trucks, some handle supplies and logistics, some man bases. The final number of fighters? Maybe 60,000.

The Afghan Army is somewhere between 150,000 and 171,000—the exact number is hard to pin down because so many desert within the first few months—of which only several thousand—two brigades— are capable of fighting on their own. There are also134,000 Afghan police, but they don’t fight. In fact, according to most Afghans, they mostly extort.

You can’t put all those U.S., allied, and Afghan troops on the Pakistan border, particularly since the Taliban have spread their attacks to formally “pacified” areas of the country, in the north, east and west. And. in any case, the Afghan Army is still training (although it is curious that while the Taliban soldiers receive virtually no training, they are able to hold their own in battle with the most sophisticated and well-trained military force in the world).

For arguments sake, let’s say you could put a mix of 40,000 troops on the border, a border of massive mountains and deep valleys, a border filled with passes, trade routes and goat trails, a border that stretches 1,510 miles. With 20,000 troops, the British Army could not seal the 224-mile border between southern and Northern Ireland.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtun, although not all Pashtun are Taliban. Polls indicate that about 12 percent to 15 percent of the Pashtun support the group. But the vast majority of Pashtuns recognize that sooner or later, the Kabul government and the U.S. will have to sit down and make a deal with the Taliban for some kind of coalition government. The lack of support for the insurgents does not mean the Pashtun will betray them. Since the Haqqanis are Pashtun, they can cross this border virtually anyplace, and, as the last few weeks have illustrated, the Taliban and their allies can strike almost anywhere.

The problem with all this nonsense about “thickening the Afghan border” is not the “senior military officials”— generals lie, it’s part of their job description—but that the New York Times would print this blather.

It is not only silly, it feeds dangerous illusions at a time when clear thinking is called for. As Gareth Porter of IPS News reports, “The Taliban leadership is ready to negotiate peace with the United States right now if Washington indicates its willingness to provide a timetable for a complete withdrawal.” According to Porter, the Taliban are willing to break any ties with al-Qaeda and won’t even demand a withdrawal date. The only thing they will insist upon are no U.S. bases.

So why isn’t the Times reporting this breakthrough instead of peddling foolishness?



Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, Pakistan