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Archive for August, 2010

Posted by alexthurston on August 17th, 2010

This story originally appeared on TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch readers: I have a special offer to make today.  Chalmers Johnson has regularly written for this site since 2003.  He’s been a stalwart here.  His remarkable new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, is due out today.  As a signal of his support for TomDispatch, he’s agreed to sign a book for any TD reader or enthusiast willing to contribute $150 to this site. (All contributions to TomDispatch.com are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law. For more information, click here.) 

In the past, surprising numbers of you have dug into your pockets and contributed generously to this website, helping us expand modestly, offer a little extra help to young writers, develop our new TomCast audio interviews and podcasts, hire some part-time help to take the load off my aging brain, and simply stay afloat.  Those of you willing to dig into your pockets, whether for the first time or again, and contribute $150 directly to TomDispatch (by clicking on the “support us” icon to the right of the main screen or simply going here), will get your own personalized, autographed copy of Johnson’s new book.  Those of you among Johnson’s legions of admirers not able to offer such a sum, but still eager for his latest work (as well you should be!), keep in mind that, if you order it by clicking here, or via any other TomDispatch link to Amazon, TD will get a small cut of your purchase, a gesture of support that won’t cost you a cent! Tom]

In September 1998, I was handed a submission for a proposed book by Chalmers Johnson.  I was then (as I am now) consulting editor at Metropolitan Books.  9/11 was three years away, the Bush administration still an unimaginable nightmare, and though the prospective book’s prospective title had “American Empire” in it, the American Empire Project I now co-run with my friend and TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser was still almost four years from crossing either of our minds.

I remembered Johnson, however.  As a young man, I had read his book on peasant nationalism in north China where, during the 1930s, Japanese invaders were conducting “kill-all, burn-all, loot-all” operations.  Its vision of how a revolution could gain strength from a foreign occupation stayed with me.  I had undoubtedly also read some of Johnson’s well-respected work on contemporary Japan and I knew, even then, that in the Vietnam War era he had been a fierce opponent of the antiwar movement I took part in.  If I didn’t already know it, the proposal made no bones about the fact that he had also, in that era, consulted for the CIA. 

I certainly turned to his submission — a prologue, a single chapter, and an outline of the rest of a book — with a dubious eye, but was promptly blasted away by a passage in the prologue in which he referred to himself as having been a “spear-carrier for empire” and, some pages in, by this passage as well:

“I was sufficiently aware of Mao Zedong’s attempts to export ‘people’s war’ to believe that the United States could not afford to lose in Vietnam.  In that, too, I was distinctly a man of my times.  It proved to be a disastrously wrong position.  The problem was that I knew too much about the international Communist movement and not enough about the United States government and its Department of Defense.  I was also in those years irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self-indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework [on the history of communism in East Asia]… As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow.  They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive.  In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement.  For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.”

I was little short of thunderstruck.  I knew then — and I think it still holds today — that no one of prominence with Johnson’s position on the war and in his age range had ever written such a set of sentences.  At that moment, knowing nothing else, I made the decision to publish his book.  It was possibly the single most impulsive, even irrational, and thoroughly satisfying decision I’ve made in my 30-odd years as an editor in, or at the fringes of, mainstream publishing.

Though I didn’t have expectations for the book then, the rest is, quite literally, history.  After all, its title would be Blowback, a term of CIA tradecraft that neither I nor just about any other American had ever heard of, and which, thanks to Johnson, has now become part of our language (along with the accompanying catch phrase “unintended consequences”).  On its publication in 2000, the book was widely ignored.  In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, it seemed nothing short of prophetic, and so, in paperback, stormed those 9/11 tables at the front of bookstores, and soared to bestsellerdom. 

That I ever edited Blowback or Johnson’s subsequent books was little short of a fluke, one of the luckiest of my life.  It led as well to a relationship with a man of remarkable empathy and insight, who was then on a no less remarkable journey (on which I could tag along).  Now, a new book of his, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hopehas arrivedfocused on the many subjects — from our empire of bases to the way the Pentagon budget, the weapons industries, and military Keynesianism may one day help send us into great power bankruptcy — that have obsessed him in recent years.  It’s not to be missed.  (Be sure to catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Johnson discusses that empire of bases and his new book by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.)  Tom

The Guns of August 
Lowering the Flag on the American Century
By Chalmers Johnson

In 1962, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the start of World War I and called it The Guns of August. It went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  She was, of course, looking back at events that had occurred almost 50 years earlier and had at her disposal documents and information not available to participants. They were acting, as Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it, in the fog of war.

So where are we this August of 2010, with guns blazing in one war in Afghanistan even as we try to extricate ourselves from another in Iraq?  Where are we, as we impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and threaten worse), while sending our latest wonder weapons, pilotless drones armed with bombs and missiles, into Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, Yemen, and who knows where else, tasked with endless “targeted killings” which, in blunter times, used to be called assassinations?  Where exactly are we, as we continue to garrison much of the globe even as our country finds itself incapable of paying for basic services?

I wish I had a crystal ball to peer into and see what historians will make of our own guns of August in 2060. The fog of war, after all, is just a stand-in for what might be called “the fog of the future,” the inability of humans to peer with any accuracy far into the world to come.  Let me nonetheless try to offer a few glimpses of what that foggy landscape some years ahead might reveal, and even hazard a few predictions about what possibilities await still-imperial America.

Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world?  What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us?  Not likely.  Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the U.S. is even conceivable.

Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate?  It seems far likelier to me that, as our overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.

Would various countries we’ve invaded, sometimes occupied, and tried to set on the path of righteousness and democracy decline into “failed states?” Probably some would, and preventing or controlling this should be the function of the United Nations or of neighboring states. (It is well to remember that the murderous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot was finally brought to an end not by us, but by neighboring Vietnam.)

Sagging Empire

In other words, the main fears you might hear in Washington — if anyone even bothered to wonder what would happen, should we begin to dismantle our empire — would prove but chimeras.  They would, in fact, be remarkably similar to Washington’s dire predictions in the 1970s about states all over Asia, then Africa, and beyond falling, like so many dominoes, to communist domination if we did not win the war in Vietnam.

What, then, would the world be like if the U.S. lost control globally — Washington’s greatest fear and deepest reflection of its own overblown sense of self-worth — as is in fact happening now despite our best efforts?  What would that world be like if the U.S. just gave it all up? What would happen to us if we were no longer the “sole superpower” or the world’s self-appointed policeman?

In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession — none of these are likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies, weapons, wars, global garrisons, and bribes for petty dictators.

Even without our interference, the Middle East would continue to export oil, and if China has been buying up an ever larger share of what remains underground in those lands, perhaps that should spur us into conserving more and moving more rapidly into the field of alternative energies.

Rising Power

Meanwhile, whether we dismantle our empire or not, China will become (if it isn’t already) the world’s next superpower. It, too, faces a host of internal problems, including many of the same ones we have. However, it has a booming economy, a favorable balance of payments vis-à-vis much of the rest of the world (particularly the U.S., which is currently running an annual trade deficit with China of $227 billion), and a government and population determined to develop the country into a powerful, economically dominant nation-state.

Fifty years ago, when I began my academic career as a scholar of China and Japan, I was fascinated by the modern history of both countries. My first book dealt with the way the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s spurred Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party he headed on a trajectory to power, thanks to its nationalist resistance to that foreign invader. Incidentally, it is not difficult to find many examples of this process in which a domestic political group gains power because it champions resistance to foreign troops.  In the immediate post-WWII period, it occurred in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all over Eastern Europe; and today, it is surely occurring in Afghanistan and probably in Iraq as well.

Once the Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966, I temporarily lost interest in studying the country. I thought I knew where that disastrous internal upheaval was taking China and so turned back to Japan, which by then was well launched on its amazing recovery from World War II, thanks to state-guided, but not state-owned, economic growth.

This pattern of economic development, sometimes called the “developmental state,” differed fundamentally from both Soviet-type control of the economy and the laissez-faire approach of the U.S.  Despite Japan’s success, by the 1990s its increasingly sclerotic bureaucracy had led the country into a prolonged period of deflation and stagnation.  Meanwhile, post-U.S.S.R. Russia, briefly in thrall to U.S. economic advice, fell captive to rapacious oligarchs who dismantled the command economy only to enrich themselves. 

In China, Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping and his successors were able to watch developments in Japan and Russia, learning from them both.  They have clearly adopted effective aspects of both systems for their economy and society. With a modicum of luck, economic and otherwise, and a continuation of its present well-informed, rational leadership, China should continue to prosper without either threatening its neighbors or the United States.

To imagine that China might want to start a war with the U.S. — even over an issue as deeply emotional as the ultimate political status of Taiwan — would mean projecting a very different path for that country than the one it is currently embarked on.

Lowering the Flag on the American Century

Thirty-five years from now, America’s official century of being top dog (1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face-to-face with, if not necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international clout, and sagging economy. It may, for all we know, still be Hollywood’s century decades from now, and so we may still make waves on the cultural scene, just as Britain did in the 1960s with the Beatles and Twiggy. Tourists will undoubtedly still visit some of our natural wonders and perhaps a few of our less scruffy cities, partly because the dollar-exchange rate is likely to be in their favor.

If, however, we were to dismantle our empire of military bases and redirect our economy toward productive, instead of destructive, industries; if we maintained our volunteer armed forces primarily to defend our own shores (and perhaps to be used at the behest of the United Nations); if we began to invest in our infrastructure, education, health care, and savings, then we might have a chance to reinvent ourselves as a productive, normal nation. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. Peering into that foggy future, I simply can’t imagine the U.S. dismantling its empire voluntarily, which doesn’t mean that, like all sets of imperial garrisons, our bases won’t go someday.

Instead, I foresee the U.S. drifting along, much as the Obama administration seems to be drifting along in the war in Afghanistan. The common talk among economists today is that high unemployment may linger for another decade.  Add in low investment and depressed spending (except perhaps by the government) and I fear T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” 

I have always been a political analyst rather than an activist. That is one reason why I briefly became a consultant to the CIA’s top analytical branch, and why I now favor disbanding the Agency. Not only has the CIA lost its raison d’être by allowing its intelligence gathering to become politically tainted, but its clandestine operations have created a climate of impunity in which the U.S. can assassinate, torture, and imprison people at will worldwide.

Just as I lost interest in China when that country’s leadership headed so blindly down the wrong path during the Cultural Revolution, so I’m afraid I’m losing interest in continuing to analyze and dissect the prospects for the U.S. over the next few years. I applaud the efforts of young journalists to tell it like it is, and of scholars to assemble the data that will one day enable historians to describe where and when we went astray.  I especially admire insights from the inside, such as those of ex-military men like Andrew Bacevich and Chuck Spinney. And I am filled with awe by men and women who are willing to risk their careers, incomes, freedom, and even lives to protest — such as the priests and nuns of SOA Watch, who regularly picket the School of the Americas and call attention to the presence of American military bases and misbehavior in South America.

I’m impressed as well with Pfc. Bradley Manning, if he is indeed the person responsible for potentially making public 92,000 secret documents about the war in Afghanistan. Daniel Ellsberg has long been calling for someone to do what he himself did when he released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. He must be surprised that his call has now been answered — and in such an unlikely way. 

My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her. I wish I could be more optimistic about what’s in store for the U.S.  Instead, there isn’t a day that our own guns of August don’t continue to haunt me.

Chalmers Johnson is the author of Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006), among other works.  His newest book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (Metropolitan Books), has just been published.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Johnson discusses America’s empire of bases and his new book, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Chalmers Johnson

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Posted by The Agonist on August 17th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

According to the widely cited icasualties.org website, today the number of U.S. soldiers who have lost their lives in the Afghanistan war under President Obama equals the number of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in the war under President Bush. ~ Robert Naiman

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Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 16th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

Our own Eric Martin, writing at his home base Obsidian Wings today, has an absolute must-read post exploring America's overly militarized foreign policy in the context of "liberal inteventionism". Liberal hawks, he says, are doing it wrong:

Leaving aside the issue of the massive loss of life and maiming physical injuries suffered by the target population, if helping foreign people is a motivating force in informing foreign policy decisions, it is simply much, much easier and cheaper to do so in ways that don't involve using the U.S. military in an aggressive capacity (or at all). Why don't we fully exhaust the myriad opportunities to do so in non-violent ways before we even ponder if and when to bomb a given people for their own good. 

For example, malaria kills vastly more people than terrorism (and is particularly malignant for children under 5 years old in Africa), and the weapons needed to combat this disease with a high degree of efficacy (mosquito nets) are cheap and easy to distribute.  Yet there is much less "serious" debate and advocacy for taking easy, cheap, safe measures such as distributing nets amongst the liberal hawk set that is, instead, enamored with imagining new and better ways to use military force for the good of the [INSERT HERE] people.

As alluded to above, the added advantage of non-bellicose humanitarian interventions are manifold: For one, they don't involve killing people, but rather saving lives.  Second, the local population tends to appreciate the foreign intervention, rather than react with violent blowback. For example, as seen with US humanitarian aid to Indonesia post-tsunami, helping people in ways that don't involve killing their neighbors, surprisingly, yields positive results in terms of generating good will. 

Finally, as mentioned above, the costs are lower and, importantly, the outcomes are easier to predict and effectuate, whereas war is the mother of unintended consequences and ephemeral, transient successes – if that.

There's not a word in Eric's post I'd disagree with, but in passing I'd like to mention that Europe is looking to lead the way in a "wingtips on the ground" strategy that delivers humanitarian assistance without green uniforms and assault rifles.

In the wake of severe flooding in Pakistan, wildfires in Russia and the earthquake in Haiti, French President Nicolas Sarkozy Sunday called for the establishment of an EU disasters rapid reaction force.

In a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, released on Sunday evening, Sarkozy said that amid such natural catastrophes "we must take the necessary measures and build a real EU reaction force … that draws on the resources of the member states."

France is to make a concrete suggestion for such a force in the near future, the statement said.

In a multi-polar world where Afghanistan has exposed NATO's charter as less than ironclad, expect the world's liberal democracies to look for ways that maximise their influence without expensive armed force being involved. This is one way.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on August 16th, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

575: That’s how many U.S. soldiers have lost their lives in the Afghanistan war since Barack Obama became President at noon on January 20, 2009, according to the icasualties.org website, which tracks U.S. soldiers’ deaths using reports received from the Department of Defense – and which is widely cited in the media as a source of information on U.S. deaths.

According to the same website, 575 is also the number of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in the Afghanistan war during the Presidency of George W. Bush.

Therefore, total U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have doubled in Afghanistan under President Obama, and when the next U.S. soldier is reported dead, the majority of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan will have occurred under President Obama.

This grim landmark should be reported in the media, and White House reporters should ask Robert Gibbs to comment on it. It is quite relevant to Gibbs’ implicit attempt to marginalize critics of the war in Afghanistan by claiming that they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than the abolition of the Pentagon. The majority of Americans – including the overwhelming majority of Democrats, and at least 60% of House Democrats – are deeply skeptical of the Administration’s Afghanistan policy not because they are knee-jerk pacifists – obviously they are not – but because the human and financial cost of the war is rising, we have nothing to show for the increased cost, and the Administration has not articulated a clear plan to reach the endgame; indeed, Administration officials, led by General Petraeus, have just launched a public relations campaign to undermine the substantial drawdown in troops next summer that Democratic leaders in Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said that they expect.

read more

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Posted by The Agonist on August 16th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Aug 16

The GuardianHamid Karzai is to remove private security contractors from Afghanistan. Find out how many US military contractors there are, and what they do

Under plans announced by a spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai today, private security firms in Afghanistan will be disbanded within four months, and replaced by the Afghan police force.

According to the most recent data from the US Department of Defense (DoD), there are around 112,000 contractors employed by the US military currently working in Afghanistan. Of those, 16,733 are private security contractors (PSCs), protecting personnel, convoys and bases. By contrast, 11,610 of the 95,000 DoD contractors in Iraq work in the private security field.

Those employed in Afghanistan are overwhelmingly Afghan nationals; 70% of all contractors and 93% of PSCs, compared to just 18% of all contractors and only 10% of PSCs working in Iraq who are Iraqi. Only 0.8% of contractors in Afghanistan who work in private security are American citizens (9% in Iraq).

The ratio of contractors to troops also differs between the two theatres of war. In Afghanistan, there are 1.42 contractors to every US soldier, while in Iraq the ratio is much lower at 1:1.

Download the spreadsheet for the full dataset, including a breakdown of the roles played by contractors in Iraq.

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Posted by alexthurston on August 16th, 2010

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  Check out the latest review of my new book, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, in the Charleston Gazette.  And then consider picking up a copy by clicking here.  Note, by the way, that once you are on The American Way of War page at Amazon, there is a remarkable, cut-rate, triple-feature offer there for purchasing in a single package deal my book, Andrew Bacevich's Washington Rules (which jumped onto the extended New York Times bestseller list in its first week of publication), and Chalmers Johnson's new book, Dismantling the Empire, which is to be published this week and about which -- look forward to it! -- there's more to come on Tuesday.  Tom] 

What If Washington…? 
Five Absurd Things That Simply Can’t Happen in Wartime Washington 
By Tom Engelhardt

The other day I visited a website I check regularly for all things military, Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room blog at Wired magazine.  One of its correspondents, Spencer Ackerman, was just then at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the sort of place that — with its multiple bus routes, more than 30,000 inhabitants, PXes, Internet cafés, fast-food restaurants, barracks, and all the sinews of war — we like to call military bases, but that are unique in the history of this planet. 

Here’s how Ackerman began his report: “Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul. There’s construction everywhere. It’s exactly what you wouldn’t expect from a transient presence.”  The old Russian base, long a hub for U.S. military (and imprisonment) activities in that country is now, as he describes it, a giant construction site and its main drag, Disney Drive, a massive traffic pile-up.  (“If the Navy could figure out a way to bring a littoral-combat ship to a landlocked country, it would idle on Disney.”)  Its flight line is packed with planes — “C-17s, Predators, F-16s, F-15s, MC-12 passenger planes” — and Bagram, he concludes, “is starting to feel like a dynamic exurb before the housing bubble burst.”

I won’t lie.  As I read that post, my heart sank and I found myself imagining Spencer Ackerman writing this passage: “Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to stay in Afghanistan after July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul where buildings are being dismantled, military equipment packed up, and everywhere you look you see evidence of a transient presence.”  To pen that, unfortunately, he would have to be a novelist or a fabulist.

For almost nine years, the U.S. military has been building up Bagram.  Now, the Obama administration’s response to the Afghan disaster on its hands is — and who, at this late date, could be surprised? — a further build-up.  In my childhood, I remember ads for… well, I’m not quite sure what… but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds.  They were always tagged with a question that went something like: What’s wrong with this picture?

As with so much that involves the American way of war, the U.S. national security state, and the vast military and intelligence bureaucracies that go with them, an outsider might well be tempted to ask just that question.  As much as Washington insiders may periodically decry or bemoan the results of our war policies and security-state procedures, however, they never ask what’s wrong.  Not really.

In fact, basic alternatives to our present way of going about things are regularly dismissed out of hand, while ways to use force and massive preparations for the future use of more force are endlessly refined.

As a boy, I loved reading books of what-if history and science fiction, rare moments when what might have happened or what might someday happen outweighed what everyone was convinced must happen.  Only there did it seem possible to imagine the unimaginable and the alternatives that might go with it.  When it comes to novels, counterfactuality is still a winner.  What if the Nazis had won in Europe, as Robert Harris suggested in Fatherland, or a strip of the Alaskan panhandle had become a temporary homeland for Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, as Michael Chabon suggested in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, or our machines could indeed think like us, as Philip Dick wondered in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Such novels allow our brain to venture down strange new pathways normally forbidden to us.

Here, then, are five possibilities, five pathways, that — given our world — verge on the fictional.  Consider them not “what-if history,” but “what if Washington…?”

1.  What if Washington declared a ceasefire in Afghanistan, expressed a desire to withdraw all its troops from the country in good order and at a reasonable pace, and then just left?  What would happen?  The answer is: as with the four questions below, we simply don’t — and won’t — know; in part because few of the 854,000 people with “top-secret” security clearances, and so perhaps capable of accessing Washington’s war planning, are likely to think seriously about what this might mean.  (It would be hell on a career, and there’s no money in it anyway.)

On the other hand, after nine years of grim experimentation, we do know what has happened and is happening in the world’s second most corrupt, fifth poorest country.  If you’ve been following the Afghan War story, even in the most cursory manner, you could already write the next news report on Afghanistan’s hapless American-trained police and its no less hapless American-trained army, the next set of civilian casualties, the next poppy harvest, the fate of the next round of counterinsurgency plans, and so on.  These are, as our previous Secretary of Defense used to say, the “known knowns” of the situation and, unfortunately, the only subjects Washington is comfortable exploring further.  No matter that the known road, the well-worn one, is the assured road to nowhere.

No serious thought, money, or effort goes into imagining how to unbuild the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan or how to voluntarily leave that country.  In a terrible moment in the Vietnam War, Vermont Senator George Aiken suggested that the U.S. just declare victory and get out.  But that sort of thing was, and remains, beyond Washington’s normal imagination; and what Washington can’t imagine, it assumes no one else should.

The American peace movement, such as it is, shouldn’t wait for President Obama.  It should convene its own blue-ribbon commission and put some effort into planning how to get out of Afghanistan voluntarily — and, having already done much harm, how to leave in the least harmful and quickest way possible.  It’s true that we don’t know what would happen afterwards: Would the Taliban (or its various groupings) take over part or all of the country, or would they leap for each others’ throats once a unifying opposition to foreign invaders disappeared (as happened in Afghanistan in the early 1990s)?  Or, for that matter, might something quite unexpected and unpredictable happen ?

The future is, by definition, an unknown unknown, and Washington, whatever its pretenses to control that future, has a terrible record when it comes to predicting it.  Who knows how long it would take the Afghan people to deal with the Taliban without us, given the woeful inability of such a crew — second only to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s — to govern the country effectively (or less than brutally).

2. What if a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the president surveyed the 17 intelligence agencies and organizations that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), the 263 intelligence task forces and other new intelligence groupings that have come into being since September 11, 2001, alone, the labyrinthine “community” that is drowning in 50,000 or more “intelligence” reports a year, and decided that we had 16 too many of them?  The last time such a commission met, after the 9/11 attacks, the result was that the seventeenth member of the IC was added to the roster, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which, while proving remarkably ineffective by all accounts, has become a little bureaucracy of its own with about 1,500 employees.

What if such a panel were then to consider the obvious: that 17 competing intelligence agencies are a sign of madness when it comes to producing usable “intelligence”; that, while capable of being intrusive and oppressive, eating up more than $75 billion annually, contributing to a national atmosphere of fear, and throwing a penumbra of secrecy over the nation, they are incapable of doing their job.  What if it were to suggest that we need only one, or for competitive purposes, at most two such agencies, and that they should be geared to assessing the world and providing actual “intelligence” to the president and Congress, not to changing it by subverting foreign governments, assassinating foreign leaders or assorted terrorists, kidnapping citizens from the streets of global cities, and the like?  What if Congress agreed?  Would we be better off?  Is there really safety in a bloated intelligence bureaucracy and the dollars it eats, in all those satellites and all that surveillance, in a maturing culture of all-enveloping secrecy that is now a signature aspect of our way of life?

3. What if the president and Congress agreed to get rid of all secret armies, including the CIA, which Chalmers Johnson once dubbed the president’s “private army,” and the military’s secret military, its special operations forces, 13,000 of whom are now on duty in 75 countries?  What if, in addition, we were to demobilize the tens of thousands of armed private contractors and assorted rent-a-guns the Pentagon and the State Department have taken on to supplement their strength?

4. What if the president and Congress really went after the Pentagon budget, projected to top $700 billion next year, including war-fighting costs (and that’s without all the long-term costs of our military even added in)?  Right now, proposed Pentagon budget “cuts” fill the headlines and yet represent nothing more than a reshuffling of military money in the midst of ongoing increases in defense spending.  What if, instead, we actually cut that budget not by 25%, but in half or more, and used that money to promote our long-term safety through the creation of new jobs to work on the country’s aging infrastructure?  That would still leave us putting more money into our military than any other nation on Earth.

What if, in addition, we stopped pouring money into planning breakthrough generations of weapons for 2025 and beyond?  What if, while we’re at it, we decided to toss out the post-World War II definition of our mission as “national security,” a phrase which helped pave the way for the full-scale garrisoning of the globe and the repeated dispatching of U.S. forces to the far reaches of the planet, and went back to the idea of “national defense.”  What if, in the same spirit, the Pentagon once again became an actual department of defense?

5. What if the Department of Homeland Security were abolished (and along with it, that un-American post-9/11 word “homeland” were banished from the language)?  What if its pre-2002 constituent parts were reassigned to non-national security duties and the rest of it to the trashbin of history, ensuring that we no longer had two defense departments?

In Washington’s world, each of these what-ifs is, by definition, an absurdity, the sort of thing that only a utopian peacenik with his head in the sand could conjure up.  And however badly our world seems to go, however misplaced our priorities and our moneys seem to be, Washington looks like it has all the facts and those who might raise such questions none, because no one ever seriously explores such ideas, no less tests them out (even in more modest ways).

As a result, they exist not in the realm of policy, but in the realm of fiction, and comments on the strangeness of those five-legged cows floating through distant clouds near Hellfire-armed Predator drones are left to marginal characters like me.  What, after all, would we do without our national security wars, our ever-burgeoning intelligence bureaucracy, our secret armies, our advanced weaponry, a Pentagon the size of James’s giant peach, and a special department to protect our “homeland” security (accompanied by its own mini-homeland-security-industrial complex and attendant lobbyists)?  How would we know what was coming at us next?  How could we be safe?

Right now, as a nation, we find it remarkably difficult to imagine ourselves as anything but what we now believe ourselves to be — and Washington counts on that.  We find it almost impossible to imagine ourselves as just another nation (even perhaps, a more modest and better one), making our way on this disturbed planet of ours as best we can.  We can’t imagine ourselves “safe” without being dominant, or being dominant without killing others in distant lands in significant numbers to ensure that safety; nor can we imagine ourselves dominant without that full panoply of secret armies, global garrisons, overlapping spy agencies, fear manias, and all the money that goes with them, despite the abundant evidence that this can’t be safety, either for us or for the planet.

We no longer know what a policy of cautious peace might look like, not having put a cent into envisioning such a project.  War and an aggressive global national security state (and the language that goes with it) are all Washington knows and all it cares to know.  It is completely invested in the world it now so shakily oversees, and cares for no other.

Worlds end, of course, and they regularly end so much uglier when no one plans for the unexpected.  Maybe one of these days, what-if fever will spread in this country and, miraculously, we’ll actually get change we can finally believe in.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing it on a TomCast video by clicking here.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by Josh Mull on August 16th, 2010

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

One of the best parts of learning about foreign countries and their cultures is the sudden realization that these places aren’t actually foreign at all. You’re not studying an opaque alien world, you’re only looking in the mirror. As Americans, it fills us with hope to look across at, say, our progressive allies in Pakistan and note that they’re working hard, just like us, to correct and reform their country’s policies. But are we also capable of seeing the negative parallels? It’s all well and good to lecture the Pakistanis about total military subservience to a strong civilian government, but what about our own weak President and our own anti-democratic generals?

American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.

With the administration unable yet to point to much tangible evidence of progress, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who assumed command in Afghanistan last month from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is taking several steps to emphasize hopeful signs on the ground that, he will argue, would make a rapid withdrawal unwise. Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become experts over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials that they need time to get their work done.

When something like this happens in Pakistan, we completely lose our s**t and call them a failed state, a tyrannical dictatorship, a collapsing nuclear-armed time bomb full of apocalyptic religious fanatics and corrupt, out-of-touch plutocrats. When it happens here, it’s called a “media blitz.” Oh you know, General Petraeus is just out there to “counter the growing pressure” by the American people, and hopefully force the Commander-in-Chief’s hand on war making policy. The young officer corps is simply pressuring your elected politicians to give them more time to occupy foreign lands and engage in aggressive wars. Totally normal, everything is fine.

It’s time for Congress to wake up. Petraeus needs to be reminded of exactly who he works for. The generals don’t tell us what to do, we tell them what to do. This is not Pakistan, this is the United States, and if President Obama is too weak to preserve our civilian-military order, then Congress is obligated to enforce its constitutional authority over the power – and the purse – of war. (more…)

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Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 16th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

The need-to-read article of the weekend isn't about Petraeus frantically spinning reasons to be cheerful where there are none. It comes from the NYT and is about America's shadowy counter-terrorism war which has now spilled out of Af/Pak and Iraq into Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Algeria and beyond.

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, the CIA has been transformed into "a paramilitary organization as much as a spying agency" while Special Operations troops under secret 'Execute Orders' have conducted spying missions that were once the preserve of civilian intelligence agencies" only with even less accountability and:

as American counterterrorism operations spread beyond war zones into territory hostile to the military, private contractors have taken on a prominent role, raising concerns that the United States has outsourced some of its most important missions to a sometimes unaccountable private army.

And if all that isn't a recipe for disaster a-plenty down the line, I'll be more than a little surprised.

the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the Congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the militarisation of America's foreign policy. If all you have is a hammer…

That problem is making itself felt in a whole new way in Afghanistan, where NGOs are targets because the U.S. insistst that they "contribute to COIN goals", making them accessories to an occupation.

The U.S. Agency for International Development requires that humanitarian-aid projects in Afghanistan support the military's war strategy, a policy that has made aid workers targets for the Taliban, say non-government organizations, or NGOs.

"There are more attacks on aid workers now," said Ann Richard, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee, a non-government organization with programs in Afghanistan. "Security for NGOs has gone in the opposite direction."

…Merging nongovernment aid projects with military operations has tarnished the apolitical, impartial image critical to the safety of aid workers, many organizations say. The general assumption among Afghans is that aid organizations are working for the U.S. military, said one aid worker who helps run medical programs for an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for more than 15 years.

"If there's anger at the military, then often times the NGOs will have to pay for it," said the aid worker, who asked not to be named for fear he might jeopardize the organization's programs.

Three aid workers were killed in July when suicide bombers attacked the compound of Development Alternatives, a consulting group that helps implement USAID development projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said was a response to the recent surge of U.S. troops.

"Even the perception of being tied to the military can have tragic results," said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at Center for American Progress.

As Prairie Weather quips: just keep repeating "war on terror" and you'll find America doing the wrong thing — over and over and over again. There has to be a better way, but no-one in power seems especially interested in exploring it.

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Posted by The Agonist on August 15th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Tenzin Tsering | Dharmasala | August 6

Phayul.com

A two millennia Buddhist site covering 4500 square metre monastery in Afghanistan’s Mes Aynak hill, faces impending demolition for mining, reported Andrew Lawler to Science magazine.

A mining project worth $3 billion is awarded to China Metallurgical Group Corp by the Afghan government which plans to dynamite the ancient monastery located near the capital, Kabul.

[edited to correct typos in reporter name and magazine name from Phayul.com] – qB

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Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 15th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Derrick Crowe

Sign our act.ly petition to tell the next journalists on Petraeus' media tour to ask tough questions and expose his effort to extend the Afghanistan War.

General Petraeus is on a media tour to sell the idea that the U.S. military is "making progress" in Afghanistan, a well-worn message aimed at convincing elites to extend this brutal, futile war. So far, it looks like the mainstream media is buying it, hook, line, and sinker.

Petraeus kicked off his spin campaign this morning with an hour-long special on Meet the Press with David Gregory. The piece opened with a montage of Petraeus doing sit-ups, and later showed him jogging, with Gregory opining about him wearing out troops half his age. Gregory went out of his way to set up a "Petraeus saves the day" narrative, asking the general if the situation in Afghanistan reminds him of the "dark days" in Iraq just before Petraeus "succeeded" with the surge. Petraeus hammered home his one-word message relentlessly: progress. Gregory feigned tough skepticism, but betrayed his hero-worship with setups like, "Watch how savvy Petraeus is when he answers my tough question." Throughout, Gregory's sheepish grin conveyed the sense that he wanted to hug Petraeus instead of critically probe his assertions.

As Petraeus battered viewers again and again with his "making progress" theme, Gregory failed to ask probing, skeptical questions. When Petraeus mentioned "oil spots," as if the stain spreading across Afghanistan were one of security, Gregory failed to press him on the huge increase in civilian deaths, the 87-percent spike in violence and the incredible explosion of IED attacks over the last several months. When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman's mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine's cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When Petraeus denounced the Taliban's recent killing of a pregnant woman, Gregory failed to press Petraeus on ISAF's own killing of pregnant women earlier this year in which bullets were reportedly dug out of a screaming woman by special forces troops before she bled to death. Gregory didn't do journalism today. He provided a platform for military spin.

Petraeus and Gregory jovially closed the interview by quoting Generals Grant and Sherman, with Petraeus saying he's no politician. Don't believe that for a second. The military wants to extend this war, and it sees American public opinion as an obstacle in getting what it wants. Petraeus admitted as much when he told Gregory that the point of his upcoming media appearances were scheduled in the hopes of showing "people in Washington" and the public that we're making progress (Finish your drink!) and to shore up support for the failing war effort. This media blitz is about Petraeus shaping public opinion to affect the political environment for a future push to extend the war far beyond the bounds implied by Obama's December 2009 West Point speech. In short, the military is turning its several-billion-dollar public relations apparatus on the American people, and the mainstream media is so far complicit. To quote one of my favorite bands, "There is a war going on for your mind."

If the media fail to ask hard questions, there's a chance Petraeus could get what he wants: the freedom to extend an extremely unpopular war that's not making us safer. We've got to push back, and we've got to do it now.

CBS' Katie Couric is next in line to talk to Petraeus during his high-profile spin campaign, so we're starting with her. Sign our act.ly petition to Couric and push her to ask tough questions about Petraeus' claims of "progress" and his attempt to extend the Afghanistan War. If you're not a Twitter user, don't worry–there are instructions on how you can participate without it.

General Petraeus' media blitz is just getting started. We've got to push our media–hard–to ask real questions and prevent easily disproved spin from polluting the debate. Petraeus wants to change public opinion, and he's spending your money to sell you a brutal, futile war that's not making us safer. If you're tired of this kind of manipulation, join the tens of thousands of other people working to end this war with Rethink Afghanistan.

Plug into the Movement to End the War

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