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Archive for August, 2009

Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 17th, 2009

An overnight development shows why the Kabul regime is not worth another drop of American blood, and why the elections later this week will be far from the democratic triumph presented by U.S. officials. Drug kingpin and war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum is back in Afghanistan, working to help re-elect President Hamid Karzai.

KABUL — A notorious Afghan warlord accused of allowing the murder of hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners and then destroying the evidence returned to Afghanistan Sunday night as part of what appears to be a political deal brokered with President Hamid Karzai.

Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum arrived from Turkey just four days before the Afghan presidential elections, in which his support could be key to Karzai’s chances of securing more than 50 percent of the vote – the threshold for avoiding a second round of elections.

Karzai has come under criticism for consolidating his position by striking deals with warlords like Dostum and those suspected of connections to the country’s opium trade.

Dostum, you may recall, is responsible for a 2001 massacre in which he and his men stuffed thousands of prisoners into metal containers, suffocating most and then shooting at close range those who survived. Physicians for Human Rights uncovered the massacre and Dostum’s attempt to cover it up, a cover-up aided by the U.S. government (Dostum was a CIA asset at the time). He is the worst sort of war criminal, and an opium kingpin at that. And yet, he’s held senior positions in the government on whose behalf U.S. troops are killing and dying, and he’s only one example of a wide swath of the Afghan government populated by warlords and drug traffickers.

The general’s return raises the question of why we haven’t (and possibly won’t ever) touch him for the war crime he committed in 2001. Two reasons present themselves:

  1. Karzai is relying on him to “deliver” (buy? coerce?) a million votes to avoid a runoff vote.
  2. Dostum was a CIA asset at the time of the 2001 massacre.

Dostum’s return to a warm embrace by the U.S.-backed government in Kabul shows us that:

Here’s a very short video on the rise of warlords and drug kingpins into senior positions in the Kabul regime, using clips from Rethink Afghanistan:

The Afghan government is not worth one more drop of American blood. The Bush-era idea that terrorism is a problem to be dealt with through invasion and occupation of foreign lands has led us down a path that ends with our morally culpability for the behavior of a narco-state flush with cash from the opium trade and U.S. taxpayer dollars.

The Beltway debate about whether to add more troops is akin to the WW-II Japanese generals asking “Should we attack Pearl Harbor on November 13 or December 1?” The real question was whether they should have attacked at all. Similarly, the question is not whether we need more troops in Afghanistan. The question is whether we should have invaded and occupied Afghanistan in response to 9/11 and whether that occupation and military action should continue. The answer is no, and we should get our troops out of there, now.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 14th, 2009

Plenty.

Take a look at President Obama’s approval disapproval ratings on various issues in this June 2009 Gallup poll:

Gallup poll on President Obama

(The same results persist in more recent polling, but I use this poll because of its use of two separate relevant indicators.)

Note that the two questions on federal budget–the handling of the deficit and controlling government spending–are the only two areas on which the President received negative ratings. The poll may ask people what they think about Obama, but it’s actually about the mood of the American people. Anxiety about deficits is rising. Politically, that means that the President’s opponents have a line of attack with traction: “out-of-control government spending.” The politics around this issue mean the President will be somewhat constrained in his policies by anxieties about spending, and that means any spending commitment could crowd out other priorities.

Politics aside though, the simple fact is that we could be insuring millions of Americans with the same dollars we’re spending on war in Afghanistan.

So, what are the health care opportunity costs of continued military action in Afghanistan? Here’s a quick video overview, using clips from Rethink Afghanistan, Part Three: Cost of War:

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 13th, 2009

Dick Holbrooke took some time on August 12 to let us know that there is no Afghanistan strategy.

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Wednesday that while American forces have been making progress in the region it is still too early to tell what success might look like.

“We’ll know it when we see it,” said Richard Holbrooke, referencing the “Supreme Court test” of how to identify pornographic material.

If one does not have a definition of success, one cannot create a strategy to get there. Thus, if no definition of success exists other than a warm fuzzy feeling in the administration’s collective gut, we don’t have a strategy in Afghanistan. Like Rob says in High Fidelity:

“I’ve been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old and, frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

“We’ll know it when we see it” means we can’t tell you clearly why your tax dollars and your sons and daughters are killing people in your name right now. “We’ll know it when we see it” means that we’re measuring success like we’re measuring pornography–whatever turns you on, man. The difference between ill-defined standards for pornography and a directionless war, of course, is that one of these vagaries leads to a happy ending. The other leads to years, lives and treasure wasted on a pile of corpses for which we have nothing tangible to show–except the missing years, lives and treasure.

Let’s not mince words. We have indulged our policymakers’ expenditure of lives and funds for eight years now because we, a generation of Americans raised to grope wildly for a chance to live up to the example set by the “Greatest Generation”, allowed ourselves to be convinced that the 9-11 attacks were not spectacular criminal attacks, but (finally!) our new Pearl Harbor. We agreed to this adventure in The Graveyardtm because it was sold as the appropriate action to bring justice to Bin Laden and his network, along with their Taliban enablers. There was an implicit deal made between the people and the power-holders: we turn over our loved ones and our funds to you, and you go get the perpetrators of the attacks.

But here we are, eight years later, still indulging policymakers throwing more money and troops at the problem. This latest year, 2009, has seen five different policy reviews, and the best they’ve come up with so far is to (surprise!) send more troops, along with a pitifully small “civilian surge” that has the nice side effect of increasing the number of private military contractors operating in Afghanistan, plus the use of drones in Pakistan that kill ten times as many non-combatants as suspected militants. For all this money and blood, here’s what we get:

Afghan government map showing threat of Taliban attacks

Afghan government map showing threat of Taliban attacks


And now, here is Holbrooke, letting it slip that we can’t tell you what success looks like but we’ll know when we succeed by how amazingly turned on he’ll be when we get there.

Enough is enough. The American people reject more than the likely request for more troops. We should reject the war in Afghanistan altogether, along with the worst legacy of the Bush era: the idea that war is the appropriate response to terrorism.

Or we could just go with Holbrooke’s gut while more people die. Whatever turns you on.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 12th, 2009

It looks like reports of an escalation’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

This weekend, Obama’s National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, went on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to let us know that he never told commanders in Afghanistan that they’d have to make do with what they had. And, General McChrystal gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal to raise alarms about Taliban momentum, interpreted by many as laying groundwork for a troop increase request. However, MSNBC reported on Monday night that McChrystal is pushing back hard against the WSJ’s characterization of his words, which raises questions about the WSJ’s agenda. Regardless, multiple analysts and commentators in multiple media indicate that McChrystal will likely require more troops to implement what is known of his upcoming strategy recommendations.

In other words: unless we push back, hard, another escalation could be on its way.

There are a million reasons to oppose a troop increase in Afghanistan, but if you need just one, you might as well go with “cost.” Here’s a quick video using excerpts from Rethink Afghanistan Part Three: The Cost of War to drive the point home:

Here’s a chart from War Resisters League showing the rising cost of the so-called “War on Terror,” which includes Afghanistan:

War Resisters League bar chart

Much of this spending is financed through debt. As Geithner’s comments show, we do not have the luxury of indefinite deficit war spending. In fact, such spending helped create the economic crisis in the first place, as Stiglitz and Bilmes show in The Three Trillion Dollar War. As I wrote last month, “We have limits. Failure to consciously decide on those limits before we make further decisions does not mean those limits do not exist; it only means that we will be incrementally pushed toward and then past them, painfully and to our regret, before we discover them.”

We cannot afford continued war spending in Afghanistan, much less an escalation.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 11th, 2009

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently said on ABC News’ “This Week” that U.S. deficits are unsustainable and have to be brought under control if our economy is going to fully recover.

U.S. policies in Afghanistan, however, undermine this goal. As Sunday’s Washington Post points out, our deepening involvement in Afghanistan will eventually cost more than the Iraq war.

We cannot afford it.

Watch Part Three of Rethink Afghanistan to learn more about the unsustainable costs of the war in Afghanistan.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 10th, 2009

The Washington Post on Sunday published a report warning that the deepening U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will be far more costly than the Iraq War.

As the Obama administration expands U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, military experts are warning that the United States is taking on security and political commitments that will last at least a decade and a cost that will probably eclipse that of the Iraq war.

…Aid expenditures, excluding the cost of combat operations, have grown exponentially, from $982 million in 2003 to $9.3 billion last year.

The costs are almost certain to keep growing. The Obama administration is in the process of overhauling the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, putting its focus on long-term security, economic sustainability and development. That approach is also likely to require deployment of more American military personnel, at the very least to train additional Afghan security forces.

These growing costs mean that many of the criticisms Democrats leveled at President Bush’s Iraq policies now apply equally well to the misguided U.S. policies in Afghanistan. Take, for example, the rhetoric of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

If we could not afford the war in Iraq, we certainly cannot afford the war in Afghanistan. To learn more, watch Part Three of Rethink Afghanistan: The Cost of War.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 9th, 2009

A few days ago I posted a blog about a U.S. airstrike killing three children in Afghanistan. It’s useful to examine the ISAF’s response to understand how the military’s propaganda apparatus works as the communications staff fights the “information war” against the Taliban.

Here’s the initial ISAF press release on the strike:

KABUL, Afghanistan – At 1:30 a.m. on 5 August, ISAF forces identified four insurgents in the Arghandab District in Kandahar Province. The insurgents were in open ground with no residential areas in the vicinity. The insurgents were carrying weapons and plastic jugs and were identified as possibly emplacing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in an area known for IED attacks.

ISAF engaged the insurgents with rockets and small arms fire from a helicopter, killing the insurgents. A large secondary explosion was observed at the point of impact indicating explosive material was in the insurgent’s possession. No bombs were dropped.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties. In this case, the insurgents that were targeted were in the possession of a large amount of weaponry and explosives that would be used against ISAF, ANSF and Afghan civilians.

ISAF is conducting a full investigation of this incident.

ISAF deplores the use of improvised explosive devices due to their indiscriminate nature causing death and injuries to innocent Afghan civilians.

There’s a couple of strange things in this release. Note the sections in bold. This press release is written defensively. It has a much more “cover your a**” tone than, say, this press release about another engagement where insurgents were killed. Of course, we now know why:

BBC reports that U.S. forces piloting helicopters killed three children last night in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan. Enraged locals took the bodies to Kandahar to display them to local officials…AFP reports the boys killed in the strike were ages 10-13, along with a 25-year-old man.

Faced with photos of dead young boys, the ISAF then issued this release:

KABUL, Afghanistan – International Security Assistance Force leaders and their Afghan counterparts are investigating allegations that ISAF actions caused civilian casualties earlier today in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province.

ISAF forces identified four insurgents in an open field with weapons and plastic jugs at 1:30 a.m. and engaged the insurgents with machine-gun fire and rockets. The helicopter observed a secondary explosion at the point of impact when the jugs exploded. No bombs were dropped during the incident. The area is known for frequent improvised explosive attacks.

There are also allegations that four civilians were killed in a compound in the vicinity.

It is ISAF policy to take all measures possible to avoid civilian casualties and to fully investigate all allegations that ISAF forces may have caused such casualties.

Note: This is an update to release 2009-08-[IA]-563. Initial reports may have been inaccurate.

Note that this release does not retract any assertions made in the prior release. It just notes that some have reported civilian casualties nearby, while retaining the description of the ISAF’s initial version of the events. What reports were inaccurate?

This is just the latest example of the typical response from the U.S. forces’ P.R. shop in Afghanistan to civilian casualty reports, and it shows how they manage the news cycle to mute outrage. The initial denial inserts doubt into reports of civilian deaths, and the press shop works to maintain any plausible story that vindicates our forces, stringing the story out until it sputters. If you want to see the most egregious examples, you’d need to check out the work of Col. Greg Julian (who makes a brief appearance in Rethink Afghanistan):

Col. Julian’s most transparent and notorious bit of flackery took place in response to the catastrophic Bala Baluk airstrike earlier this year. Same pattern: insert counter-narrative and disinformation, making it difficult to untangle the truth in press reports, and slow-walk retractions until the story sputters (hopefully) in the press.

Keep your eye on the ball, though. This sort of spin is intended to

  • protect the official storyline that our purpose in Afghanistan is to protect the civilian population; and
  • to aid policymakers pushing for further escalation under the rationale of “protecting Afghans.”

The truth, however, is that no past increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan prevented a subsequent yearly increase in a) civilian casualties generally or b) civilian casualties specifically caused by U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 8th, 2009

U.S. officials and those in their orbit are now using the words “Vietnam” and “Afghanistan” in the same sentence.

Top U.S. officials have reached out to a leading Vietnam war scholar to discuss the similarities of that conflict 40 years ago with American involvement in Afghanistan, where the U.S. is seeking ways to isolate an elusive guerrilla force and win over a skeptical local population.

The overture to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stanley Karnow, who opposes the Afghan war, comes as the U.S. is evaluating its strategy there.

When asked what could be drawn from the Vietnam experience, Karnow replied: “What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Obama and everybody else seem to want to be in Afghanistan, but not I.”

Karnow’s quote reminds me of a recent quote from regional expert Rory Stewart in the Financial Times:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

For the record, here’s some of Rory’s actual thoughts on Afghanistan and Pakistan:

Rory’s analogy in turn reminds me of a comment I made in an exchange with one of my frequent debate partners:

There’s not a magic wand nonviolent answer to this that has the result of some people not getting hurt, but that’s in large part because we’ve been put in this situation by people who refused to listen to the nonviolent in the first place. It’s kind of like asking people who tell you not to drink and drive what they’re solution is now that you’ve killed someone while driving drunk.

Speaking to the AP reporter, Richard Holbrooke displayed a talent for unintentional irony:

Holbrooke briefly commented on contrasts between the two conflicts, noting that the military regime in Saigon was corrupt and unpopular, while the international community seeks to build a democracy in Afghanistan.

Wait, what?

Kept afloat by billions of dollars in American and other foreign aid, the government of Afghanistan is shot through with corruption and graft. From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

From Rethink Afghanistan:

This is no small point. The counterinsurgency manual refers to a legitimate host nation government as the counterinsurgent’s “north star,” meaning it’s essential for victory. “Legitimate host government” joins “a 20-civilian : 1-troop ratio” among several non-existent, basic building blocks of a counterinsurgency strategy. Here’s Bernard Finel [h/t Steve Hynd]:

The COIN theorists would like the Afghan government to field a force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000-600,000 disciplined troops, capable of using discriminant force and avoiding civilian casualties. They’d like the Aghan government to eliminate corruption. They’d like the central government to find a way to build loyalty from provincial governors and other local elites, to ensure an Afghan “whole of government” response.

Actually, it isn’t that the COIN theorists would “like” this. They require it as a precondition for the viability of their strategy.

In other words, the Very Serious Consensus that counterinsurgency will save the day in Afghanistan is built on fairies, leprechauns and unicorns.

Elections are coming up. The political outcomes could be dire. For example, if Karzai wins, his main rival is a Tajik named Abdullah Abdullah whose supporters already promised “Iranian-style protests, but ‘with Kalashnikovs’, should the President win a second term.” And, not insignificantly, the U.S. will still be saddled with a weak leader of a corrupt government that Obama advisors have started comparing to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Here’s a tip for policymakers: if you’re in a situation that’s requiring you to look to the American experience in VIetnam for guidance, you should start looking for the door.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on August 5th, 2009

BBC reports that U.S. forces piloting helicopters killed three children last night in the Arghandab district of Afghanistan. Enraged locals took the bodies to Kandahar to display them to local officials. (Warning: graphic photo.)

“What was the fault of my innocent children? They were not Taliban,” Mr Rahim said. “Did they come here to build our country or kill our innocent children?”

But keep in mind, this is all making you safer, America.

… The villagers shouted “Death to America! Death to infidels!” as they displayed the corpses in the back of a pickup truck.

AFP reports the boys killed in the strike were ages 10-13, along with a 25-year-old man.

There’s discontinuity between the descriptions of the strike: locals say the helicopters attacked a house, while the U.S. military claims they attacked “militants” in an open field. Stay tuned.

The New York Times is also on the story. One addendum to Dexter Filkins’ piece: while his closing paragraph is true,

As the Afghan war has intensified in recent months, more civilians have died. A United Nations report released last week said that 1013 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2009, compared with 818 in the same period last year. Insurgents were to blame for 59 percent of those deaths, the report said.

…it fails to point out that it’s not just the total number of civilians killed that increased during the months in question. Civilian casualties in general and casualties specifically caused by U.S. forces and their allies have steadily increased in each year for which we have systematically collected data, despite repeated escalations intended in part to reduce non-combatant deaths.

For more on the topic of non-combatant deaths, see Rethink Afghanistan’s section on civilian casualties.

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