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Archive for April, 2009

Posted by ZP Heller on April 30th, 2009

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A couple of Rethink Afghanistan updates to report. A few weeks ago, Anna Almendrala and I told you about Brave New Foundation’s Easter activism in Washington DC and New York, using colorful Easter eggs to draw attention to critical questions surrounding the war in Afghanistan. Well check out the video taken by our volunteer activists who got involved with this campaign in both cities.

And speaking of getting involved, the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace in Sewanee, Tennessee, recently gathered to screen parts one and two of Rethink Afghanistan. Lots of members of the community attended, and University of the South vice chancellor Dr. Samuel Williamson and journalist Henry Hamman led a discussion following the screening. Williamson, an expert on foreign and national security issues, is the author of The Origins of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy, 1945-53. And Hamman set up a relief program for Afghan refugees after the Soviet invasion, in addition to covering the negotiations that led to the Soviet withdrawal.

If your organization or school is interested in screening the first few parts of Rethink Afghanistan, e-mail us at info@bravenewfilms.org.

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Posted by ZP Heller on April 30th, 2009

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Recently, Director Robert Greenwald spoke about his trip to Kabul, Afghanistan at Brave New Studios. He showed clips from his trip and recounted some of his experiences, including his interviews with Afghan women’s rights advocates, and his impressions of how the international community has already begun to step up its humanitarian efforts while the U.S. continues to focus primarily on military operations.

Stay tuned as Rethink Afghanistan goes in depth on the subject of Afghan women’s rights in part four of this documentary. Watch the first three parts available here for free.

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Posted by ZP Heller on April 29th, 2009

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Where is the Change President when it comes to Afghanistan? In President Obama’s first 100 days, we have seen more U.S. raids and air strikes that kill innocent Afghan civilians, fueling animosity toward the U.S. as violence is up 79 percent across Afghanistan when compared to the same period last year. We have heard calls for 21,000 additional troops and tens of billions more in war funding. What we haven’t heard are clearly defined goals, an exit strategy, benchmarks to measure progress, and a timetable for withdrawal. What we haven’t seen is a President willing to break with his predecessor on Afghanistan by prioritizing regional diplomacy and humanitarian aid above military escalation. Here’s why Obama gets a ‘D’ for his first 100 days in Afghanistan.

President Obama made his intentions for this war known even before taking office. He referred to Afghanistan as the “good war” and the “central front to the war on terror.” Even more alarming than this rhetoric was Obama’s decision to surround himself with hawkish holdovers from the Bush era: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. David Kilcullen, and Gen. David McKiernan. This team has thus far dashed any hopes of a more sophisticated approach toward Middle East foreign policy as they continue to militarize a political problem.

President Obama’s stated goal of escalating this war in order to prevent Afghanistan from regressing into terrorist “safe haven” is highly dubious. As John Mueller, an Ohio State Political Science Professor and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, recently suggested, the Obama administration is greatly overplaying the dangers posed by al Qaeda and militant Taliban members in Afghanistan. If and when we negotiate with moderate elements of the Taliban, they will be unlikely to allow al Qaeda to operate within Afghanistan and risk another U.S. military intervention. And a negotiated settlement, as foreign policy experts like Leslie Gelb have argued, seems to be our best option in Afghanistan, as long as it arrives with strong international pressure and economic incentives. What’s more, according to Carnegie Endowment’s Gilles Dorronsoro, the increased presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is the primary reason for the Taliban insurgency, while withdrawing troops would enable us to focus on capturing al Qaeda terrorists in the region. In other words, a broad counter-insurgency will hamper legitimate counter-terrorism efforts.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on April 28th, 2009

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(Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com)

Imagine if, on the day in early April when Jiverly Voong walked into the American Civic Association Building in Binghamton, New York, and gunned down 13 people, you read this headline in the news: “Binghamton in shock as police investigate what some critics call ‘mass murder.’” If American newspapers, as well as the TV and radio news were to adopt that as a form, we would, of course, find it absurd. Until proven guilty, a man with a gun may be called “a suspect,” but we know mass murder when we see it. And yet, in one of the Bush administration’s lingering linguistic triumphs, even as information on torture programs pours out, the word “torture” has generally suffered a similar fate.

The agents of that administration, for instance, used what, in the Middle Ages, used to be known bluntly as “the water torture” — we call it “waterboarding” — 183 times in a single month on a single prisoner and yet the other morning I woke up to this formulation on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition: “…harsh interrogations that some consider torture.” And here’s how Gwen Ifill of the News Hour put it the other night: “A tough Senate report out today raised new questions about drastic interrogations of terror suspects in the Bush years.” Or as USA Today typically had it: “Obama opened the door for possible investigation and prosecution of former Bush administration officials who authorized the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that critics call torture.” Or, for that matter, the New York Times: “…the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and other techniques that critiques say crossed the line into torture…”

Torture, as a word, except in documents or in the mouths of other people — those “critics” — has evidently lost its descriptive powers in our news world where almost any other formulation is preferred. Often these days the word of choice is “harsh,” or even “brutal,” both substitutes for the anodyne “enhanced” in the Bush administration’s own description of the package of torture “techniques” it institutionalized and justified after the fact in those legal memos. The phrase was, of course, meant to be law-evading, since torture is a crime, not just in international law, but in this country. The fact is that, if you can’t call something what it is, you’re going to have a tough time facing what you’ve done, no less prosecuting crimes committed not quite in its name.

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Posted by robertgreenwald on April 28th, 2009

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We saw what happened when Congress rushed to war in Iraq. We must make sure history doesn’t repeat itself with the proposed escalation in Afghanistan. Call your Senator on the Appropriations Committee at once.

This week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee. They will try to make a case for an additional $83 billion in supplemental war funding. All over the country, people are raising pressing questions about the war that must be answered before Congress votes on this supplemental bill. Watch some of the ones submitted to us that we sent to Congress, then call your Senators and urge them to ask Secretaries Gates and Clinton the imperative questions:

  • Why are taxpayers funding a prohibitively expensive war that will jeopardize economic recovery?
  • Why are we militarizing a political problem when more troops will only fuel anti-American sentiment?
  • Won’t escalation further destabilize an already precarious situation in Pakistan?

Call your Senator on the Appropriations Committee to make your voice heard. Tell them all of the critical questions that they should ask this Thursday. Use Rethink Afghanistan and be creative when expressing your questions about the war, but also please be polite on the phone so we can ensure your voice is heard! Then, let us know you made the call. If your Senator is not on the Appropriations Committee, contact Chairman Daniel Inouye.

Keep in mind this war funding bill will bring the running tab for Iraq and Afghanistan to nearly $1 trillion in upfront costs. It will create, as Tom Engelhardt wrote recently, “a vast financial hemorrhage, an economic sinkhole.” An email petition won’t do it, your voice must be heard — call now!

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Posted by Katrina vanden Heuvel on April 28th, 2009

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There were two important hearings regarding Afghanistan on the Hill last week — in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ (CPC) third forum examining the war. Both raised critical questions about the current strategy of escalation — questions Congress should take to heart as it considers the $83 billion war supplemental in coming weeks.

Senator John Kerry — who as a young Vietnam veteran famously asked the Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” — now chaired that same committee’s hearing titled “Voice of Veterans of the Afghan War.” He said in his opening statement that he “would not compare all of our conflicts to the Vietnam War…. [That] does not mean, however, that there are no parallels between the two wars.” The hearing bore out some of those parallels.

There was a diversity of opinion among the four veterans and retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich as to whether sending more troops is the right thing to do. But there was also something they held in common: their connection to this war — its stakes, costs, and consequences — is very personal (in the case of Bacevich his personal connection comes not only from having served in Vietnam but also losing his son in Iraq.)

Retired Corporal Rick Reyes was the most vocal of the Afghanistan War veterans in opposing escalation. He spoke of his determination — and that of his fellow Marines — to “fight the enemy” following 9/11. But Reyes said that instead they were “sent to fight an enemy we could never see. The entire time we were there, we were chasing ghosts.”

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on April 27th, 2009

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(Cross-posted from TomDispatch.com)

Almost like clockwork, the reports float up to us from thousands of miles away, as if from another universe. Every couple of days they seem to arrive from Afghan villages that few Americans will ever see without weapon in hand. Every few days, they appear from a world almost beyond our imagining, and always they concern death — so many lives snuffed out so regularly for more than seven years now. Unfortunately, those news stories are so unimportant in our world that they seldom make it onto, no less off of, the inside pages of our papers. They’re so repetitive that, once you’ve started reading them, you could write them in your sleep from thousands of miles away.

Like obituaries, they follow a simple pattern. Often the news initially arrives buried in summary war reports based on U.S. military (or NATO) announcements of small triumphs — so many “insurgents,” or “terrorists,” or “foreign militants,” or “anti-Afghan forces” killed in an air strike or a raid on a house or a village. And these days, often remarkably quickly, even in the same piece, come the challenges. Some local official or provincial governor or police chief in the area hit insists that those dead “terrorists” or “militants” were actually so many women, children, old men, innocent civilians, members of a wedding party or a funeral.

In response — no less part of this formula — have been the denials issued by American military officials or coalition spokespeople that those killed were anything but insurgents, and the assurances of the accuracy of the intelligence information on which the strike or raid was based. In these years, American spokespeople have generally retreated from their initial claims only step by begrudging step, while doggedly waiting for any hubbub over the killings to die down. If that didn’t happen, an “investigation” would be launched (the investigators being, of course, members of the same military that had done the killing) and then prolonged, clearly in hopes that the investigation would outlast coverage of the “incident” and both would be forgotten in a flood of other events.

Forgotten? It’s true that we forget these killings easily — often we don’t notice them in the first place — since they don’t seem to impinge on our lives. Perhaps that’s one of the benefits of fighting a war on the periphery of empire, halfway across the planet in the backlands of some impoverished country.

One problem, though: the forgetting doesn’t work so well in those backlands. When your child, wife or husband, mother or father is killed, you don’t forget.

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Posted by ZP Heller on April 25th, 2009

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This past week I covered the bold testimony of Ret. Cpl. Rick Reyes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, drawing the comparison between Reyes’s anti-war testimony and a young John Kerry alerting the nation to the horrors of the Vietnam War 38 years ago. I certainly wasn’t the only one to connect the dots between Vietnam and the current quagmire in Afghanistan, as you can see from this video with excerpts of Andrew Bacevich’s testimony.

Bacevich, a retired Colonel who served in Vietnam and is now professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, has become one of the most vocal critics of the “Long War,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates dubbed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paraphrasing General Bruce Palmer’s account of the Vietnam War, Bacevich said that our country is once again “mired in a protracted war of an indeterminate nature, with no forseeable end to the US commitment.”

The Long War, as Bacevich exclaimed, has become the second most expensive war in US history (second only to WWII). Now that we our facing trillions in debt, Bacevich urged Congress to question the reasons for escalation in Afghanistan. “We just urgently need to ask ourselves whether or not the purposes of the long war are achievable, necessary, and affordable,” Bacevich claimed, “and Afghanistan is a subset of that longer set of questions.” Congress needs to address questions of cost before they vote on President Obama’s $83 billion war funding bill in the coming weeks. And the most direct way to follow Bacevich’s lead and confront Congress is by calling your Representatives as soon as possible, urging them not to vote until we have more oversight hearings like these, and more questions answered.

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Posted by ZP Heller on April 24th, 2009

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For the third Afghanistan debate between The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, we received over 460 topics. The questions ranged from the costs of war to regional diplomacy to the damage caused by predator drones, and the outpouring of concern clearly shows there are a lot of questions that Congress needs to address in hearings like yesterday’s featuring retired Corporal Rick Reyes.

Korb and vanden Heuvel selected the winning topic, submitted by Lee Fremault of Attleboro, Massachusetts, who asked: “Could you please compare and then contrast Afghanistan with Vietnam?”

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Posted by ZP Heller on April 23rd, 2009

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What happened today in Washington was, as Senator Russ Feingold called it, “historic.”  Thirty-eight years nearly to the day when a young John Kerry shocked the nation with his fiery anti-Vietnam war testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rick Reyes, a former US Marine Corporal, delivered an equally puissant testimony in which he expressed his disenchantment with the war in Afghanistan.  How appropriate Kerry should be sitting directly across from Reyes as Committee Chairman, listening as Congress heard one of the first major voices of dissent on this war.

The son of Mexican immigrants who joined the Marines to escape a violent gang life in Los Angeles, Reyes served as an infantry rifleman in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He upheld his duty to serve our country honorably, and immediately after 9/11, he was deployed to Afghanistan “with the conviction of fighting for justice and the American way.”  All of that changed when Reyes realized US military forces faced the impossible task of fighting militant Taliban members who blended in with the local Afghan population, routinely resulting in the injuries or deaths of innocent civilians.

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