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Archive for January, 2010

Posted by alexthurston on January 19th, 2010

From TomDispatch this afternoon, a startling and provocative exploration of whether a military “stealth coup” is possible in America and ten things Americans can do to stop it — retired Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore’s, “A Very American Coup, Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You” 

Historian and former professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, retired Lieutenant Colonel William J. Astore begins his latest TomDispatch post on whether the U.S. military could “go rogue with combat boots” with a futuristic scenario:  “It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.”  Not only that, they are returning to face the tenth year of the Great Recession.  What if, along with the 2016 version of the “tea-baggers,” they take to the streets, our own version of the between-the-World-Wars German freikorps in formation, and a military man who led them in their wars in Central Asia sweeps to the presidency that year? 

“Yes,” writes Astore, ”it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?”  He offers ten steps that are needed to put a break on America’s ongoing silent coup and the rise of the Pentagon.  

He concludes, in part:  “If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

“Don’t expect a ‘Seven Days in May’ scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to.”

This is perhaps Astore’s most striking TomDispatch piece to date.  I hope you’ll attend to it carefully!

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 18th, 2010

A wave of suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Kabul on Monday, January 18, 2010. Targets of the attackers included government buildings and locations known to be frequented by foreigners. Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, suicide terrorism was almost totally unknown in that country.

Learn more about the Afghanistan war.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 18th, 2010

By a variety of measures, U.S. military policies in the Afghanistan war are failing.

You probably haven’t heard much about this, in part because of the justified media focus on Haiti, but a confluence of very bad indicators point to failure even by the military’s avowed yardsticks. The civilian casualty rate in Afghanistan rose significantly in 2009. War-related violence is at its peak since 2001. The armed resistance to the Kabul government is spreading rapidly and can now “sustain itself indefinitely” according to the top military intelligence officer in the region. Efforts to build the Afghan National Army are flailing, as are pro-government efforts to rebuild infrastructure. In short, despite the happy talk from General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral James Stavridis, a great many signs indicate that the U.S.-led pro-government coalition is headed for failure.

The Primary Benchmark: Civilian Casualties

In his confirmation hearing, McChrystal said:

Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.

According to this measure, the U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan is failing. The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim reports:

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan climbed in 2009 to their highest number since the fall of the Taliban, the United Nations says in a recent report.

The rising number of innocent Afghan casualties constitutes a major failure for the American forces if judged by the standards set out by General Stanley McChrystal in the summer of 2009, when he testified before Congress.

Here are the specifics from the UN report Grim references:

“At least 5,978 civilians were killed and injured in 2009, the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001…UNAMA Human Rights (HR) recorded a total of 2,412 civilian deaths between 01 January and 31 December 2009. This figure represents an increase of 14% on the 2118 civilian deaths recorded in 2008. ”

Several bloggers have touted the fact that the U.S.-led, pro-government forces killed about 28 percent fewer civilians than last year: 596 in 2009 compared to 828 in 2008. This sort of self-congratulation is as myopic as it is callous. The pro-Kabul-government coalition killed roughly 600 people whose right to life exists independent of the U.S.’s desire to eliminate Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Only the most idiotic messengers would cheer about this statistic in public. Imagine a man cheering that he only beat his wife six times this month compared to eight times last month. That’s what chief ISAF spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks means when he says, “Statistical kinds of things don’t play that well [in Afghanistan].” Journalists, bloggers and public officials who tout this statistic like it’s some sort of victory should have their pulses checked and their canines examined.

The same goes for comparisons between the number of combatants killed by the pro-government forces and the number killed by the armed opposition. U.S. policymakers rationalized the addition of more U.S. troops in Afghanistan by claiming the new forces would be able to protect the civilian population. Noting the ratio of casualties attributed to either side of the conflict is a weak salve if the addition of new forces did not lead to an overall drop in the civilian death rate. If coalition leaders can only point to the ratio of civilians killed by either side, they are tacitly admitting that they new troops cannot protect the population from the insurgents. That admission would fit with the facts in the UN’s report.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine claims that putting troops among the local population while exercising restraint versus the enemy will allow an actor to win the local support. But when the inserted troops fail to protect the population – i.e., if their insertion is followed by an increase, not a decrease, in civilian casualties – COIN tactics can backfire. Consider the analogy of a neighborhood plagued by gang violence: Locals are outraged by the violence of the local gangs. If the police, as representatives of the legitimate authority in a community, show up on the streets in force and protect the bystanders while taking down the gang, they and the city government win the citizens’ support. However, if police claim to be representatives of the legitimate authority in town, but their arrival on the streets in force is followed not by a decrease in local violent deaths but an increase, police will not only get the blame for the deaths they cause, but also for the total situation which they’ve promised to rectify as it spirals out of control. That’s exactly what’s happening in Afghanistan. As Grim notes:

[N]o matter who’s actually causing the violence, the people hold the coalition forces and central government responsible — as veteran combat reporter David Wood wrote on Friday for Politics Daily.

Wood’s article quotes Col. Shanks confirming this dynamic:

As a result, he said, “When the Taliban blow up a bunch of people, you don’t see a lot of protest. But when we screw up and accidentally kill somebody, you get riots in the streets.”
Cheering that we’re killing fewer innocent bystanders than anti-government elements is a losing argument. Referring back to the gang violence analogy: If police officers declare they are moving into a neighborhood to deal with a gang problem, touting the fact that today they’re killing fewer innocent bystanders a) is just another way of saying “We’re killing some bystanders,” and b) tells you absolutely nothing about their success or failure in dealing with the gang problem. But, it turns out that the U.S. military has some very good statistics on the state of the “gang problem” in Afghanistan. It’s spiraling out of control.

The Strengthening Insurgency

Major General Michael T. Flynn ruffled some feathers earlier this month when he released a scathing critique of U.S. intelligence operations in Afghanistan through a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Less attention was given to a far more consequential presentation authored by Flynn in late December 2009: The State of the Insurgency [h/t Wired's Danger Room blog]. The graphics in the slide show are time lapse images of creeping yellow and red smears, ever-escalating bar-chart waves of mayhem. It shows an insurgency on the wax and a dynamic of violence that grows as we add troops.

Here are just a few key statements from the presentation:

“The Afghan insurgency can sustain itself indefinitely”

“The Taliban retains required partnerships to sustain support, fuel legitimacy and bolster capacity”

“Organizational capabilities and operational reach [of the insurgency] are qualitatively and geographically expanding”

“Taliban influence expanding; contesting and controlling additional areas.”

“The Taliban now has “Shadow Governors” in 33 of 34 provinces (as of DEC 09)” …up from 11 in 2005.

“Regional instability is rapidly increasing and getting worse”

“Kinetic events are up 300% since 2007 and an additional 60% since 2008.”

Also notable is what Flynn’s presentation does not describe: there are no mentions of a swing in momentum brought on by the significant increase in U.S. troops over the last year. It certainly does not describe the beginnings of a dynamic hoped for by the COIN pushers; absent is any mention of a population throwing its lot in with the Kabul-centered government. To the contrary, Flynn notes that detained insurgents were motivated by a “Karzai government universally seen as corrupt and ineffective” and pervasive crime and corruption amongst security forces.

If You Don’t Have a Dream, How You Gonna Have a Dream Come True?

In an interview made public on January 11, 2010, ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked McChrystal, “Last we heard you said we needed a ‘quantum shift.’ We needed something dramatic, something to shift the momentum. Have you done it? Have you turned the tide?”

McChrystal answered, “I believe we’re doing that now…I believe we are on our way to convincing the Afghan people that we are here to protect them.”

Sawyer plays the skeptic for about one second in this interview when she responds, “Already?”

McChrystal answers, “We’ve been at this for about 7 months now.”

The general is either deceiving himself or Sawyer. There has been no quantum shift, according to Flynn’s presentation. The cyclical, seasonal spikes in violence are steadily worsening and the Taliban retains the momentum. And, various other indicators aside, McChrystal himself pointed to a singular measure for our success in Afghanistan during his confirmation hearings: “the number of Afghans shielded from violence.” The United Nations’ latest report shows that the U.S.-led coalition is failing by the very measure proposed by its commanding general.

McChrystal’s statement that “we’ve been at this for about 7 months now” is a two-fold assertion. On one hand, he’s asserting that we’re moving towards success in Afghanistan, an assertion flatly refuted by the information in Flynn’s report. On the other, he’s asserting that his “new” policies have been in place long enough to lead to have measurable effects on the ground in Afghanistan. With the first assertion being such a transparent untruth, McChrystal’s (and the wider Obama Administration’s) policies are damned by the second. If having been “at this for about 7 months now” has produced causal links rather than simple correlation between U.S. actions and the various indicators on the ground, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is leading to failure, along with massive human suffering purchased at enormous cost.

As I complete this, there are reports of a major Taliban attack in Kabul.

But by all means, gentlemen, continue the happy talk about the Afghanistan war.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 15th, 2010

The United Nation’s latest report on civilian deaths in the Afghanistan war shows that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is failing if measured by the standards proposed by General Stanley McChrystal during his confirmation hearings in June 2009.

McChrystal laid out a very clear measure for American success in Afghanistan during his confirmation hearing:

“American success in Afghanistan should be measured by ‘the number of Afghans shielded from violence,’ not the number of enemy fighters killed, he said.”

The UN report shows that 2009 was the deadliest year so far of the Afghanistan war for civilians.

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Posted by Steve Hynd on January 14th, 2010

Click here for more information about the Afghanistan war.

I’m unsure why the Pentagon gets to decide this. I mean, one assumes that the Afghan government OK’d it but you never know.

The Pentagon has authorized a substantial increase in the number of Afghan security forces it plans to train by next year, in time for President Obama’s deadline for United States combat forces to begin withdrawing from the country, military officials said Thursday.

…The new training goals would increase the size of the Afghan army from its present 102,400 personnel to 171,600 by October 2011, according to Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the American officer who heads NATO’s training mission in Afghanistan.

…The Afghan National Army is already planning to increase in size to 134,000 by Oct. 31 of this year, General Caldwell said. Presently there are a record 18,000 fresh recruits in training, encouraged by pay increases of up to 30 percent. They undergo an eight-month-long course run by NATO. The Pentagon decided on Wednesday to further raise that number to 171,600 by October 2011. Additionally, Afghan police forces, which now number 96,800 would increase to 109,000 this year and U.S. officials hope to further increase that to 134,000 by the following year, Caldwell said.

Previously the goals had been to increase Afghan forces to 159,000 soldiers and 123,000 policemen by 2011.

The U.S. military’s budget for training Afghan forces is now at $11.6 billion, and the increased number of personnel would be paid for out of that, according to Col. Gregory T. Breazile, spokesman for the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.

Now, for one thing, the training course is only eight weeks, not eight months.

For a second, how on earth is the Afghan government ever expected to afford such a massive military and paramilitary police force structure? Back in 2002, Pentagon force planners and independent experts wondered if an army of 70,000 might be too much for its economy to ever bear and an army of as few as 30,000 was even suggested. Back then, US planners said that a 70,000 force was expected to cost “$350 million a year to train, equip and operate, and that this training can be completed in two years.” That proved wildly optimistic. The Soviet-era Afghan army, at a little more than half the end strength proposed today, was entirely beholden to foreign donors to keep it going. Remember, that $11.6 billion is just the training expense – it costs more again to keep the army and police force going. Such a massive establishment at such an exorbitant cost would make Afghanistan a satrapy of the U.S. and its allies for as long as it was in existence.

And despite claims by Gen William B Caldwell, currently in charge of training Afghan troops but once Bush’s hand-picked spinmeister for Iraq, that recruitment has spiked since Obama announced his 2011 withdrawal-that-isn’t date, that’s probably not the case.

Recruiting in Afghanistan’s harsh winter months is typically stronger than it is in the warmer months. In the spring, when construction companies resume hiring, recruiting ebbs.

[Col. Dennis Brown] is anticipating a similar drop around April. “The strategy is to over-recruit during the good months,” he said.

That Senator Carl Levin and supposedly reputable national security reporters are passing on Caldwell’s “belief” in stenographic fashion is starkly amazing, especially when you consider that, according to Caldwell, US-to-Afghan troop ratios in Helmand Province have miraculously climbed from three-to-one to an even one-to-one without any explanation of how that happened. No-one seems to be wondering, but that’s impossible unless its by stripping out all the Afghan soldiers who were meant to be doing the “hold” part of “clear, hold and build”. Someone should be asking if such a ratio in offense means we’re not doing as well at gaining anything to hold as the Pentagon would like us to think.

(Does no-one in the Village remember Caldwell from Iraq – like his famous stunt of insisting on being anonymous at the failed “EFPs from Iran” briefing even while he was the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq? The man’s mouth opens, he spins facts.)

Finally, despite all the glad-talk about raw recruitment numbers, we’re still dealing with an Afghan force plagued by desertions, illiteracy and officer corruption, one in which the number of battalions able to actually operate independently has declined, not risen. We’re being misdirected as billions we can ill afford are poured into an unsustainable boondoggle whose most likely long-term role is that of a military coup – if it doesn’t fracture into militias and warlord bands first.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on January 14th, 2010

Click here for more information about the Afghanistan war.

666 to 1
The U.S. Military, al-Qaeda, and a War of Futility
By Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt

This piece originally appeared at

In his book on World War II in the Pacific, War Without Mercy, John Dower tells an extraordinary tale about the changing American image of the Japanese fighting man.  In the period before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was well accepted in military and political circles that the Japanese were inferior fighters on the land, in the air, and at sea — “little men,” in the phrase of the moment.  It was a commonplace of “expert” opinion, for instance, that the Japanese had supposedly congenital nearsightedness and certain inner-ear defects, while lacking individualism, making it hard to show initiative.  In battle, the result was poor pilots in Japanese-made (and so inferior) planes, who could not fly effectively at night or launch successful attacks.

In the wake of their precision assault on Pearl Harbor, their wiping out of U.S. air power in the Philippines in the first moments of the war, and a sweeping set of other victories, the Japanese suddenly went from “little men” to supermen in the American imagination (without ever passing through a human phase).  They became “invincible” — natural-born jungle- and night-fighters, as well as “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to any of the values which make up our civilization.”

Sound familiar?  It should.  Following September 11, 2001, news headlines screamed “A NEW DAY OF INFAMY,” and the attacks were instantly labeled “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.”  Soon enough, al-Qaeda, like the Japanese in 1941, went from a distant threat — the Bush administration, on coming into office, paid next to no attention to al-Qaeda’s possible plans — to a team of arch-villains with little short of superpowers.  After all, they had already destroyed some of the mightiest buildings on the planet, were known to be on the verge of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and, if nothing was done, might soon enough turn the Muslim world into their “caliphate.”

Al-Qaeda was suddenly an organization against which you wouldn’t launch anything less than the full strength of the armed forces of the world’s “sole superpower.”  To a surprising extent, they are still dealt with this way.  You can feel it, for instance, in the recent 24/7 panic over the thoroughly inept underwear bomber and the sudden threat of a few hundred self-proclaimed al-Qaeda members in Yemen.  You can feel it in the ramping up of the Af-Pak War.  You can hear it in the “debate” over moving al-Qaeda detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. maximum security prisons.  The way some politicians talk, you might think those detainees were all Lex Luthorsand Magnetos, super-villains incapable of being held by any prison, just like the almost magically impossible-to-find Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the wild borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Because most Americans have never dealt with or thought of al-Qaeda as a group made up of actual human beings or accepted that, for every televisually striking success, they have an operation (or several) that go bust, the U.S. can’t begin to imagine what it’s actually up against.  The current president, like the last one, claims that we are “at war.”  If so, it’s a war of one, since al-Qaeda and the U.S. military are essentially not in the same war-fighting universe, which helps explain why repeatedly knocking off significant punortions of al-Qaeda’s leadership (even if never finding bin Laden and Zawahiri) doesn’t seem to end the threat.

But let’s stop here and try, for a moment, to imagine these two enemies side by side in the same universe of war.  What, in that case, would the line-up of forces look like?


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Posted by Steve Hynd on January 13th, 2010

Click here for more information about the Afghanistan war.

Last week I wrote about the latest UN report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, noting that “the good news” was that US and allied forces were only killing one kid a day there, as opposed to the Taliban’s two. Overall, civilian deaths in 2009 are up 14% over 2008, and again the Taliban kill a little more than two civilians to every one killed by the US and its allies.

I wrote: “Before anyone even thinks of it – being only half as guilty of such an atrocity as the Taliban is nothing to be proud of.”

The New York Times’ headline writers don’t seem to think so. Today, they’ve headlined Dexter Filkin’s story on the UN report “U.N. Blames Taliban for Afghan Toll“. Anyone reading the story quickly finds out that the UN has done nothing of the sort – it’s apportioned blame where its due and in proportion. But sheesh, NYT, that headline’s a statement of denial that crosses the line into crass and is insulting to those Afghans who have died at ISAF hands. For shame.

For those who like their data raw, here’s the original report in PDF format.

Depressingly, airstrikes are still causing 61% of all civilian deaths attributed to the US and its allies, although:

“IM forces and ANSF also conducted a number of ground operations that caused civilian casualties, including a large number of search and seizure operations. These often involved excessive use of force, destruction to property and cultural insensitivity, particularly towards women.”

And here’s a twist on the “terrorists use civilians as shields” meme:

“UNAMA HR remains concerned at the location of military bases, especially those that are situated within, or close to, areas where civilians are concentrated. The location and proximity of such bases to civilians runs the risk of increasing the dangers faced by civilians, as such military installations are often targeted by the armed opposition. Civilians have been killed and injured as a result of their proximity to military bases, homes and property have been damaged or destroyed; this can lead to loss of livelihood and income. The location of military facilities in or near residential neighborhoods has also had the effect of generating fear and mistrust within communities and antipathy towards IM forces given their experience of being caught in the crossfire or being the victims of AGE attacks on Government or pro- Government military installations.”

So much for the wisdom, imported from Iraq, that population-centric counterinsurgents must be as close to the people as possible. And here’s another COIN failure, from the NYT’s piece:

According to the new [U.S. military] directive, American and other NATO forces should explore other alternatives to night raids, such as cordoning villages at night and then moving in at sunrise.

“In the Afghan culture, a man’s home is more than just his residence,” a draft of the new guidance said. “It represents his family, and protecting it is closely intertwined with his honor. He has been conditioned to respond aggressively whenever he perceives his home or honor is threatened.

“We should not be surprised that night operations elicit such a response,” the guidance said, “which we then often interpret as the act of an insurgent.”

We saw that in Iraq too. People who shoot back will be killed and labelled as insurgents no matter why they fired back. It’s impossible to tell how much influence that labelling has on final civilian casualty figures, but it doubtless has one.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 13th, 2010

The Associated Press reports that President Obama “plans to ask Congress for an additional $33 billion” to fight the unpopular Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “on top of a record request for $708 billion for the Defense Department next year.”

This request comes in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, at a time when our country can least afford it. Economist Dean Baker recently pointed out that “in standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth” and costing huge numbers jobs. These costs are so significant that President Obama felt the need to include mention of them when he announced his most recent decision to add more troops in Afghanistan.

We can’t afford more open-ended, economically damaging spending on these unpopular wars.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 12th, 2010

Afghan protesters were killed today when a tense protest erupted in response to rumors that foreign forces desecrated a copy of the Koran during a night raid in Afghanistan. Reports indicates that the protesters may have been goaded by local Taliban into throwing stones at foreign forces and their local allies. In response, pro-Kabul-government forces opened fire, killing eight.

Read the full story as reported by The New York Times’ Dexter Filkins.

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 12th, 2010

The Afghanistan war is a breeding ground for corruption, and today McClatchy Newspapers reports that it’s not just the corrupt Afghan government that’s feeding at the trough. The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says about three-quarters of its active corruption investigations involved Westerners.

The Associated Press breaks down the numbers:

The U.S. agency overseeing the multibillion dollar Afghanistan reconstruction effort is investigating 38 criminal cases ranging from contract fraud to theft – most involving non-Afghans, officials said Tuesday…Just 10 of the criminal cases under the microscope involve Afghans only, while the rest involve U.S. and other foreigners, according to Raymond DiNunzio, the agency’s assistant inspector general for inspections.


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