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Archive for October, 2010

Posted by alexthurston on October 26th, 2010

This story originally appeared at

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Handicapping the Global Midterms 
Winners and Losers 
By Tom Engelhardt

You can’t turn on the TV news or pick up a paper these days without stumbling across the latest political poll and the pros explaining how to parse it, or some set of commentators, pundits, and reporters placing their bets on the midterm elections.  The media, of course, loves a political horse race and, as those 2010 midterms grow ever closer, you can easily feel like you’re not catching the news but visiting an Off-Track Betting parlor.

Fortified by rounds of new polls and all those talking heads calibrating and recalibrating prospective winners and losers, seats “leaning Democratic” and “leaning Republican,” the election season has essentially become an endless handicapping session.  This is how American politics is now framed — as a months or years-long serial election for which November 2nd is a kind of hangover.  Then, only weeks after the results are in, the next set of polls will be out and election 2012, the Big Show, will be on the agenda with all the regular handicappers starting to gather at all the usual places.

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, though, that this mania for handicapping remains so parochially electoral?  After all, it could be applied to so many things, including the state of the world at large as seen from Washington.  So consider this my one-man tip sheet on what you could think of as the global midterms, focused on prospective winners and losers, as well as those “on the cusp,” including crucial countries and key personalities.

Prospective Winners

Osama bin Laden:  Who woulda thunk it?  More than nine years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and his number two compadre, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be alive, well, and living comfortably in the Pakistani borderlands with not a cave in sight, according to the best guesstimate of a “NATO official who has day-to-day responsibility for the war in Afghanistan.”  With the globe’s “sole superpower” eternally on his trail — admittedly, the Bush administration took a few years off from the “hunt” to crash and burn in Iraq — he’s a prospective global winner just for staying alive.  But before we close the books on him, he gets extra points for a singular accomplishment: with modest funds and a few thousand ragtag masked recruits, swinging on monkey bars and clambering over obstacles in “camps” in Afghanistan, he managed to lure the United States into two financially disastrous, inconclusive wars, one in its eighth year, the other in its tenth.  To give credit where it’s due, he had help from the Bush administration with its dominatrix-like global fantasies.  Still, it’s not often that someone can make his dreams your nightmares on such a scale.

The Taliban:  Here’s another crew heading toward the winner’s circle after yet another typically fraud-wracked Afghan parliamentary election conferring even less legitimacy on President Hamid Karzai’s toothless government in Kabul.  Think of the Taliban as the miracle story of the global backlands, the phoenix of extreme Islamic fundamentalist movements.  After all, in November 2001, when the Taliban were swept out of Kabul, the movement couldn’t have been more thoroughly discredited.  Afghans were generally sick of their harsh rule and abusive ways and, if reports can be believed, relieved, even overjoyed, to be rid of them (whatever Afghans thought about their country being invaded).  But when night fell in perhaps 2005-2006, they were back, retooled and remarkably effective.

And it’s only gotten worse (or, from the Taliban point of view, better) ever since.  Yes, they are now getting pounded by a heightened American bombing campaign, a Special Operations night-raids-and-assassination campaign, and pressure from newly surging U.S. forces in the southern part of the country.  Nonetheless, as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, they are achieving some remarkable successes in northern Afghanistan.  After all, the Taliban had always been considered a Pashtun tribal movement and while there are Pashtuns in the north, they are a distinct minority.  The Journal nonetheless reports: “[T]he insurgency is now drawing ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other minorities previously seen as unsympathetic to the rebel cause.”

If, more than nine years later, the Taliban — the Taliban! — is attracting groups that theoretically loath it, have few cultural affinities with it, and long fought or opposed it, then you know that the American campaign in Afghanistan has hit its nadir.  Thanks to us and our man in Kabul, the Taliban is increasingly the fallback position, the lesser of two disasters, for Afghan nationalists.  This helps explain why more than $27 billion dollars in American training funds hasn’t produced an Afghan military or police force capable of or willing to fight, while Taliban guerrillas, lacking such aid, fight fiercely anyway.

Iran (in Iraq):  Remember that old witticism of the neocons of the ascendant Bush moment back in 2003: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad.  Real men want to go to Tehran”?  Well, it’s turned out to be truer than they ever imagined.  Just recently, for instance, Iraqi caretaker prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, went to Tehran to try to hammer out a deal to keep his position (see Sadr, Muqtada al-, below).  It’s undeniable that Iran, a moderate-sized regional power the Bush administration expected to crush and instead found itself struggling with by proxy in Iraq for years, now has a preponderant position of influence there.  Despite so many billions of dollars and American lives, not to speak of years of covert destabilization campaigns aimed at Iran, Tehran seems to have outmaneuvered Washington in Baghdad (and perhaps in Lebanon as well).  Call that an on-going win against the odds.

China: Here’s the bad news when it comes to China — a weak third quarter dropped the growth rate of its gross domestic product to 9.6%.  Yep, you read that right: only 9.6% (down from 10.3% in the second quarter).  For comparison, the U.S rate of growth leaped from 1.7% in the second quarter to 2.3% in the third quarter, with some experts predicting no growth or even shrinkage by year’s end.  Make no mistake, China has its lurking problems, including an overheating urban real-estate market verging on bubbledom (which, post-2008, should cause any leadership to shudder) and tens of millions of peasants left in dismal poverty in the long decades when “to get rich” was “glorious.”  Still, the country has managed to pass Japan for number-two-global-economic-power status, to corner a startling range of future global energy reserves so that its economy can drink deep for decades to come, and to forge a front-running position in various renewable-energy fields.  Its leaders have accomplished all this thanks to economic muscle, diplomacy, and cash (think: bribes) without sending its soldiers abroad or fighting a war (or even a skirmish) overseas.  They have even learned how to be thoroughly belligerent while relying only on economic power.  Check out, for instance, the over-the-top way they crushed Japan in a recent stand-off over a Chinese trawler captain in Japanese custody, wielding only the threat to withhold rare earth metals (necessary to various advanced industrial processes), 95%-97% of which are, at the moment, produced by China.  We’re definitely talking global winner here.

Drone Makers: If America’s wars are eternal field laboratories for new weaponry, then the grand winners of the latest round of wars are the drone makers.  General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the jewel in the crown of Southern California’s drone industry, now employs 10,000 workers and runs double shifts in, as W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times writes, a “fast-growing business… fueled by Pentagon spending — at least $20 billion since 2001 — and billions more chipped in by the CIA and Congress.”  Washington has been plunking down more than $5 billion a year for its drone purchases, the development of future drone technology, and the carrying out of 24/7 robot assassination campaigns as well as a full-scale Terminator war in the Pakistani borderlands.  These “precision” weapons are capable of taking out people, including civilians in the vicinity, from thousands of miles away.  The drones themselves — termed by CIA Director Leon Panetta “the only game in town” when it comes to stopping al-Qaeda — turn out to be capable of settling nothing.  For every bad guy they kill, they kill civilians as well, seeding new enemies in what is essentially a war to create future terrorists.  But that hardly matters.  Terminator wars are hot and the drone, as a product, is definitely a global winner.  Not only are American companies starting to export the craft to allies willing to pay in global hotspots, but other countries are lining up to create drone industries of their own.  Expect the friendly skies to continue to fill.

Muqtada al-Sadr:  Here’s a heartwarming winner’s circle story about a highly experienced political operator, still known in the U.S. press as the “anti-American cleric,” who just couldn’t be kept down.  Sadr led an armed Shiite movement of the poor in Iraq that, in 2004, actively fought U.S. forces to a draw in the old city of Najaf.  He himself was hunted by the U.S. military and, at one point during the years when Washington ruled in Baghdad, warrants were even put out for his arrest in a murder case.  Still, the guy survived, as did his movement, armed and then un- (or less) armed.  In 2007, he packed his bags and moved to the safety of neighboring Iran to “study” and move up in Shia clerical ranks.  In the most recent Iraqi elections, now seven months past, for a parliament that has yet to meet, his movement won more than 10% of the vote and with that he was declared a “kingmaker.”  He has always unwaveringly called for a full American withdrawal from his country.  Now, with the potential power to return Nouri al-Maliki (for whom he has no love) to the prime ministership, he is evidently insisting that Washington retain not a single future base in Iraq — and the Obama administration is twitching with discomfort.

General Stanley McChrystal: And here’s another heartwarming winner’s circle story.  Once upon a time, McChrystal was essentially the U.S. military’s assassin-in-chief.  For five years he commanded the Pentagon’s super-secret Joint Special Operations Command which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh called an “executive assassination wing” out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Then, the general was appointed Afghan War commander by Barack Obama and, under the worst of circumstances, tried to implement his boss’s textbook version of counterinsurgency doctrine (see COIN and Petraeus, General David, below).  He actually cut back radically on the U.S. air war in Afghanistan in an attempt to kill far less of the civilians he was supposed to “protect” and have a better shot at winning “hearts and minds.”

The result: utter frustration.  The Taliban grew, Afghans remained miserably unhappy, and American troops hated his new war-fighting policy which meant they couldn’t call in air support when they wanted it. He and his circle of former Special Ops types flew to Paris to greet NATO allies (for whom, it seems, he had nothing but contempt), drank hard, and vented their feelings toward the Obama administration, all in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter.  Next thing you know, the president has canned his war commander, putting him momentarily in the loser’s circle — and that was his good fortune.  He was shown the door out of Afghanistan before the going got worse.  He is now in the process of retooling himself via a teaching position at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University as a budding leadership guru and inspirational speaker. (“Few people can speak about leadership, teamwork, and international affairs with as much insight as General Stanley McChrystal…”)

If you’re a typical American of a certain age laid off in today’s bad times, the likelihood of getting a half-decent job is next to nil (and retraining isn’t going to help much either).  On the other hand, if you begin high enough and, say, the president of the United States axes you, all’s well with the world.

On the Cusp

General David Petraeus:  The Great Surgifier of Baghdad and the Seer of Kabul is now, it seems, in something of a rush.  For one thing, his fabulous 2006-2008 surge in Iraq turns out to have been for the benefit of Iran, not Washington (see Iran in Iraq above).  In addition, as members of the Sunni Awakening Movement reportedly peel off in disillusionment or disgust with the present largely Shiite government and rejoin the insurgency in significant numbers, his modest success is threatening to unravel behind him — and so is American support for the Afghan War he now commands, according to the opinion polls.

As a result, according to Washington pundit (and Petraeus-lover) David Ignatius, he’s making a “strategic pivot” — a decorous phrase — in Afghanistan.  Give him credit for daring — or desperation.  He may be known as the progenitor of the Army’s present counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, the man who dusted off that failed, long discarded doctrine from the Vietnam era, made it thrillingly sexy, complete with new manual, and elevated it to a central position in Army planning for years to come, but he’s not a man to let consistency stand in his way.  Seeing the need for quick signs of “progress” in Afghanistan (where the war has been going desperately badly), both for a December Obama administration policy review and to keep any U.S. troop drawdowns to a minimum in 2011, he has countermanded former war commander McChrystal’s COIN-ish attempt to radically scale back U.S. air strikes.  Instead, he’s loosed the U.S. Air Force on the Taliban, opted to try to pound them with anything available, pushed for escalation in the form of “hot pursuit” across the Pakistani border, upped Special Operations “capture or kill” raids, and generally left COIN in a ditch.  Think of his new tactics as BKJ for bomb-kill-jaw — the jawing being about “peace talks” and aimed at influential sectors of the U.S. media, among others, part of a rising drumbeat of “progress” propaganda from the general’s headquarters.

Well-connected, savvy, and willing to shift tactics on a moment’s notice, Petraeus is a figure to contend with in Washington, our most political general since I don’t know when.  Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he may be playing a cagey hand to extend matters through 2012, when a president ready to fight on till hell freezes over could take office.  He’s a man on the cusp, destined for success, but only a few hops, skips, and jumps ahead of failure.

(By the way, keep an eye on another Bush-era holdover, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, if you want to gauge what Washington thinks of the war’s “progress.”  Just a month ago, he was publicly muttering about retirement early next year.  He’s not a man who will want to preside over disaster in Afghanistan.  If he does leave early in 2011, just assume that the war is headed for the toilet and, having supported his war commanders in their surge strategy through 2009 and 2010, he’s getting out while the going is still good and his reputation intact.)

Pakistan: Only recently 20% underwater, Pakistan is in a protracted military, intelligence, and policy dance with the U.S., the Afghans, the Taliban, India, and god knows who else so intricate that only a contortionist could appreciate it.  For Washington, Pakistan is an enigma curled in a conundrum wrapped in a roti and sprinkled with hot pepper.  With the Obama administration schizophrenically poised between partnership and poison — policies of “hot pursuit” across the Pakistani border and placation, showering the Pakistani military with yet more weaponry and cutting off some units from any aid at all — anything is possible.  Armed to the teeth, clobbered by nature, beset by fundamentalist guerrillas, surrounded by potential enemies, and unraveling, democratic and ever at the edge of military rule, Pakistan is the greatest unknown of the Greater Middle East (even if it is in South Asia).  If it’s on the cusp of hell, then, like it or not, Washington will be, too.

Israel:  The question here is straightforward enough: Just how badly can Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and his government treat the Obama administration (and the president himself) and get away with it?  Right now, the answer seems to be, as badly as it wants.  After all, Washington put almost all its global diplomatic apples in one ill-woven negotiating basket, named it making progress on a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem, started talks, and then offered Israel a package of goodies of a sort that would normally only be given away deep into negotiations, if at all, for nothing more than a two-month extension of the Israeli settlement-construction freeze.  The result: Israeli settlers are again building up a storm on the West Bank while the Netanyahu government plays even harder to get.  If the Obama administration can’t do better than this, then at the next TomDispatch handicapping session Israel has a reasonable shot at being elevated into the winner’s circle.  If Obama and his team ever get tired of being kicked around by Netanyahu & Co., especially with the U.S. midterms behind them, life could get tougher for Bibi.  The real question is: Can the prime minister play out this version of the game until 2012 in hopes that Obama will lose out and a new U.S. president will be ready to give away the store?

Iran (not in Iraq): Nasty government, shaky economy beset by international sanctions, poor choices and poor planning, irritated population, enemies with malice aforethought, and an embattled peaceful nuclear program that could be headed for “breakout” capacity versus fabulous reserves of oil and natural gas and integration into the great Eurasian energy grid as well as into the energy-eager plans of China, Russia, Pakistan, and India.  It’s anybody’s bet.

The Global Economy: I wouldn’t even think about handicapping this one or guessing what it might be on the cusp of.  After all, Asian economies (minus Japan) are heating up, as are a number of developing ones like Brazil’s (with capital flowing to such places in problematic amounts); meanwhile, the American economy is cold as a tomb, and Europe is teetering at the edge of who knows what.  If this isn’t the definition of a jerry-built Rube-Goldberg-version of a global system, what is?  Put your money down if you want, but you’ll get no odds here.

Prospective Losers

Counterinsurgency Doctrine or COIN:  It was Petraeus’s baby and later the belle of the military ball as well as the talk of the militarized intelligentsia at every Washington think-tank that mattered.  It took the U.S. Army by storm and, when it comes to laying out the latest plans for the U.S. Army’s future fighting doctrine, it’s still counterinsurgency all the way to the horizon (and 2028).  But how long does any fad last?  Who remembers hula hoops, bell bottoms, or the Whiskey a Go Go?  In the same way, in Afghanistan, COIN, the military doctrine of “protecting the people” in order to win “hearts and minds,” just lost out to smashing the enemy — and whoever else happens to be around (see Petraeus, General David, above).  Okay, COIN is still there, and you’ll hear the carnies in and out of the war-making tent talking a great COIN game for some time to come, but that was the case in Vietnam, too, even after B-52s were carpet-bombing the South Vietnamese countryside and CIA-sponsored teams were roaming the provinces murdering locals by the score.  Hearts and minds?  COIN’s a loser, and even General Petraeus now seems to know it (though he’ll never admit it).

Great Britain: The British lion just got a haircut and — who could be surprised — most of the hair that got cut was shorn from women and children, always first to disembark from the HMS Economy.  One other casualty of government slashing, however, is the British defense establishment, suffering an 8% budget cut over the next four years — which means losing lots of jets, 17,000 bodies, and even the fleet’s flagship aircraft carrier, which will be “decommissioned,” leaving the British unable to launch a plane at sea until at least 2019.  As the Washington Post politely put the matter: “[T]he [government’s] moves amount to a tactical scaling down of military ambition by the one European ally consistently willing to back the United States with firepower in international conflicts.”  Put more bluntly, as the British in their imperial days used native recruits to help police their colonies and fight their wars, so in recent years, the Brits have been America’s Gurkhas. No longer, however, will Britain be, militarily speaking, the mouse that roared.  Despite pathetic pledges to remain at the American side in Afghanistan forever and a day, the sun is now setting on the British military, which means that the U.S. has lost its key sidekick in any future “coalition of the willing.”  (Note for the Pentagon: Carpe diem.  The Brits are the canary in the mine on this.  Sooner or later, it will be your turn, too.  By then, of course, women and children in the U.S. will already be well shorn.)

Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans: We’re talking peoples here.  Afghans and Iraqis have spent these last years, if not decades, in hell.  Lives ripped apart and destroyed, exiles created in vast numbers, basic services debilitated.  The numbers of dead and wounded, while contested, are vast enough to stagger the imagination.  Just the other day, thanks to the Wikileaks Iraq document dump, Iraq Body Count was able to identify approximately 15,000 previously unknown Iraqi civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009. As that organization’s John Sloboda commented, the new cache of 400,000 U.S. military documents from 2004-2009 shows “the relentless grind of daily killings in almost every town or village in every province.” The Iraqis, like the Afghans, deserved better and yet, when it comes to misery and death, there’s still no end in sight.  Both peoples were supposedly “liberated” by American invasions.  Both are the true losers of the last decade and the saddest of stories, planetarily speaking.  And let’s not forget the American people either, pounded in their own way.  Just imagine what kind of winners they might have been if, instead of building vast, useless base complexes in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East) and fighting trillion-dollar wars, the U.S. had chosen to build almost anything at home.  But why go down that road?  It’s such a sorry what-if journey to nowhere (see Economy, the American, below).

Barack Obama & Company: He had the numbers (in the polls and in Congress) and the popularity in early 2009.  He could have done almost anything.  But first, in the key areas of foreign and economic policy, he surrounded himself with the old crew, the deadest of heads, and the stalest Washington thinking around.  While this was presented as an Ivy League fest of the best and the brightest, so far their track record shows them to be politically dumb and dumber.  They missed out on jobs (about as simple and basic as you can get), and took a dismal year of review to double down twice on a war from hell.  Now, the president stands a reasonable chance in 2012 of turning over to a new (possibly far more dismal) administration an even more disastrous Afghan War, an unfinished Iraq crisis, a Guantanamo still unclosed, “don’t ask, don’t tell” still in place (who says the coming Congress will care to do Obama’s bidding on this one, now that he’s bypassed the courts), and a jobless nonrecovery or worse — and that’s just to start down the path of DisObamapointment.

The American Economy: Don’t even get me started.  Just kiss this one goodbye for a while.

Check back in a month.  With the global (and American) midterms over and the Big Show of 2012 ahead, rest assured that our hardy gang of pollsters and pundits will soon be gearing up again.  You can sort through the odds and place your next set of bets in late November.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s  His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). You can catch him discussing war American-style and that book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on October 26th, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

You can’t follow U.S. print media coverage of the war in Afghanistan for any length of time without running into some variation of the following assertion:


"The Taliban Will Never Negotiate, As Long As They Think They’re Winning."

No serious effort is usually made to substantiate this claim, which is asserted as if it were a self-evident truth. What you generally don’t see, reading the newspapers, is a sentence that looks like this:


"The Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they’re winning, and the reason that we know this is…."

Yet, if you look back over the course of the last year, the assertion that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they’re winning" is a very important claim. Why did the U.S. send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last year? Because "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they’re winning." Why are we killing innocents today in Kandahar? "Because the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they’re winning."

A claim that is a key buttress of life and death decisions about people we have never met and know little about and who have no say in our decisions, and yet which has never been substantiated, is a claim that deserves sustained scrutiny.

How could it be a self-evident truth that "the Taliban will never negotiate, as long as they think they’re winning?" Logically, two possibilities present themselves:

1) It is an immutable fact of human nature that no party engaged in a conflict ever negotiates as long as they think they’re winning. The US never negotiates as long as it thinks it is winning; Britain never has; France never has; no guerilla army or insurgent movement ever has.

read more

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Posted by The Agonist on October 25th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Laura Kin | Oct 25

LA Times – Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Monday acknowledged that his office regularly received large cash sums from Iranian officials but insisted there was nothing untoward about the payments.

The New York Times, in an article in Monday’s editions, described the periodic transfer of bulging sacks of currency to a senior Karzai aide and strongly suggested that the money was meant to curry favor on behalf of the Tehran government in policy matters.

At a news conference in the capital, the Afghan leader acknowledged receiving semiregular cash payments totaling around $2 million annually from Iran but said the sums were meant to defray governmental operating costs. Other countries, including the United States, make such donations as well, he told reporters.

“The government of Iran assists [the presidential] office,” Karzai said. “Nothing is hidden. … Cash payments are done by various friendly countries to help the presidential office — to help expenses in various ways.”

Hours before Karzai’s disclosure, Iranian authorities in Kabul dismissed the allegations with gusto.

“Such baseless rumors by certain Western media are raised to create anxiety in the public opinion and impair the expanding relations between the two friendly and neighboring countries,” the embassy said in the statement released early Monday, according to the pro-government Fars news agency.

But the revelations also could serve Iran’s interests, underscoring its continued influence in the region even as Washington attempts to isolate Tehran over its continued pursuit of sensitive nuclear technology.

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Posted by on October 25th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Last week, the media was full of stenography of the official narrative that the awesomely Saintly General Petareus and his surge(tm) were forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table and the insurgency was in its last throes, with success just around the corner etc. etc.

That was until various observers (myself included) suggested that the official narrative was…how to put this…bullshit.

The idea appears to be that officials are saying that the surge is forcing the Taliban to the table in the hope of convincing the Taliban that it is true, and panicking them into making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem there, of course, is that if the ploy doesn't work then it undermines official credibility, the surge and any negotiation track all at the same time.

Richard Holbrooke appears to have realised this and is doing some pullback on the official happy-talk about talks while still trying to keep to the original narrative of surge success. His efforts are less than successful.

Meetings between Afghan leadership and Taliban figures are ongoing, but the two sides are nowhere near a peace deal and in fact are not even to the point of negotiating one, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said Sunday.

"I think the press has left the impression that negotiations of the type which ultimately ended the war in Vietnam in 1973 and ultimately ended the war in Bosnia in 1995 are somehow breaking out. That is just not the case," he said on CNN's GPS with Fareed Zakaria show Sunday morning.

"What we've got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, hey, we want to talk," Holbrooke explained. "I think this is a result, in large part, of the growing pressure they're under from General Petraeus and the ISAF command."

Holbrooke was adamant that — whatever talks are taking place between the government of President Hamid Karzai and leaders of some of the insurgent groups — it should not be called a "negotiation."

Huh? High level Taliban want to talk, because of Petraeus' awesome surge, but there's no actual talks that could be called a "negotiation" going on? Why the hell not? Who is dragging their feet? If the Taliban want to talk and Karzai obviously wants to talk then we're left only with the US and its Western allies as the party poopers.

Or is it the case that Petraeus' awesome surge isn't all that awesome after all, that Karzai and the Taliban are talking anyway and the US is being frozen out to the point where it doesn't know for sure what both are aiming for?

Enquiring minds want to know.

P.S. Here's a gem of messaging #fail from Holbrooke:

There is a widely dispersed group of people that we roughly call the enemy," he said. "So the idea of peace talks, to use your phrase, or negotiations, to use another phrase, doesn't really add up to the way this thing is going to evolve."

Right there is your very definition of mission creep - "a widely dispersed group of people" that we've labelled as collectively "the enemy" in the hope no-one notices they're a widely dispersed group of people. Whatever happened to Obama's insistence that Al Qaeda was the enemy? 

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Posted by on October 24th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Andrew Exum, known as Abu Muqawama, is a fellow at the neoliberal, interventionist mothership – the Center for a new American Security. As such, he's a fairly influential voice within the D.C. "serious people" foreign policy set. So you'd think he could do better than his summary of the state of play over possible negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan for Foreign Policy.

Exum gets the main mover-and-shaker right in his piece (all bold emphasis is mine):

The reality, though, is that negotiations between the insurgent groups and the government in Kabul will only go so far as the Pakistani security services allow. Some Western analysts took heart in Pakistan's decision in February to arrest Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. At the time, however, the arrest of Mullah Baradar, who was in negotiations with the government in Kabul, was interpreted by the Taliban rank and file to be a stark warning to those who would negotiate without the permission of the Pakistani government, under whose patronage and protection the Taliban has operated east of the Durand Line since 2005. Today it is widely accepted that this was indeed the case and that Pakistan deliberately thwarted negotiations between the Quetta Shura Taliban and the government in Kabul to serve its own parochial interests. Since that event, there is no sign that Pakistan's powerful military has taken a softer line on negotiations between the Taliban and the government in Kabul.

But his prescription for future action completely ignores that reality:

Afghans are perfectly comfortable talking while still fighting. So too, at least in practice, are the United States and its allies: In insurgencies from Vietnam to Northern Ireland, we have negotiated with insurgents while combat operations were ongoing. In the American public's mind, however, wars take place sequentially: First, you fight; second, you negotiate a settlement. The word "negotiations" conjures up hopes for an end to the conflict in the minds of Americans and other Westerners — when all that really might be occurring is another round of jockeying for position between Afghanistan's warring political forces.

My question, simply stated, is:  if neither fighting nor talking to the Taliban will work unless the Pakistani intelligence agency allow them to – and there's no signs at all that it will - then why are we wasting billions of dollars and thousands of lives doing both?

As a justification for our continued military presence and perpetration of organised violence in a foreign nation, "a better negotiating position" is very weak tea given the underlying reality. So weak as to have no sense at all. Exum stands surrogate here for all the D.C. Beltway insiders who have always had a massive military hammer to hand and cannot think of any alternatives to using it. That's been true since the very beginnings of the intervention in Afghanistan, when the Bush administration had a clear alternate option – the Pakistani government made it clear it could preserve its own interests and America's both at once and convince the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden and his senior leadership. Bush didn't even consider it. Thus we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

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Posted by The Agonist on October 23rd, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Truthout, By Jason Leopold & Jeffrey Kaye, October 15

In 2002, as the Bush administration was turning to torture and other brutal techniques for interrogating “war on terror” detainees, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz loosened rules against human experimentation, an apparent recognition of legal problems regarding the novel strategies for extracting and evaluating information from the prisoners.

Wolfowitz issued a little-known directive on March 25, 2002, about a month after President George W. Bush stripped the detainees of traditional prisoner-of-war protections under the Geneva Conventions. Bush labeled them “unlawful enemy combatants” and authorized the CIA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to undertake brutal interrogations.

Despite its title – “Protection of Human Subjects and Adherence to Ethical Standards in DoD-Supported Research” [PDF] – the Wolfowitz directive weakened protections that had been in place for decades by limiting the safeguards to “prisoners of war.”

“We’re dealing with a special breed of person here,” Wolfowitz said about the war on terror detainees only four days before signing the new directive.

One former Pentagon official, who worked closely with the agency’s ex-general counsel William Haynes, said the Wolfowitz directive provided legal cover for a top-secret Special Access Program at the Guantanamo Bay prison, which experimented on ways to glean information from unwilling subjects and to achieve “deception detection.”

“A dozen [high-value detainees] were subjected to interrogation methods in order to evaluate their reaction to those methods and the subsequent levels of stress that would result,” said the official.

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Posted by Peace Action West on October 22nd, 2010

From our partners at Peace Action West

This week, Greg Mortenson, who has been successfully building hundreds of schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan, offered a brilliant alternative to war in Afghanistan via Nicolas Kristof’s piece in the NY Times:

Mr. Mortenson says that $243 million is needed to fund all higher education in Afghanistan this year. He suggests that America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers (each costing $1 million per year) on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities.

Is this talk of schools and development naïve? Military power is essential, but it’s limited in what it can achieve. There’s abundant evidence that while bombs harden hearts, schooling, over time, can transform them. That’s just being pragmatic.

The piece dovetails nicely with a new study just out from Robert Pape, a professor from the University of Chicago, that examines the motivations behind suicide bombing. Pape wrote about his research this week in Foreign Policy magazine, giving statistical heft to the obvious, but vigorously denied assertion that, It’s the Occupation, Stupid.

In the decade since 9/11, the United States has conquered and occupied two large Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), compelled a huge Muslim army to root out a terrorist sanctuary (Pakistan), deployed thousands of Special Forces troops to numerous Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, etc.), imprisoned hundreds of Muslims without recourse, and waged a massive war of ideas involving Muslim clerics to denounce violence and new institutions to bring Western norms to Muslim countries. Yet Americans still seem strangely mystified as to why some Muslims might be angry about this situation. …

More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically — from about 300 from 1980 to 2003, to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.

Both Kristoff and Pape are talking about the means to achieving stability where military force has failed. Both point to the importance of local control. From Kristoff:

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.” …

In another part of Kunar Province, the Central Asia Institute is running a girls’ primary school and middle school in the heart of a Taliban-controlled area. Some of the girls are 17 or 18, which is particularly problematic for fundamentalists (who don’t always mind girls getting an education as long as they drop out by puberty). Yet this school is expanding, and now has 320 girls, Mr. Karimi said.

It survives because it is run by the imam of the mosque, and he overcomes Taliban protests by framing it as a madrassa, not a school. That seems less alien to fundamentalists and gives them a face-saving excuse to look the other way.

From Pape:

One of the most important findings from our research is that empowering local groups can reduce suicide terrorism. In Iraq, the surge’s success was not the result of increased U.S. military control of Anbar province, but the empowerment of Sunni tribes, commonly called the Anbar Awakening, which enabled Iraqis to provide for their own security. On the other hand, taking power away from local groups can escalate suicide terrorism. In Afghanistan, U.S. and Western forces began to exert more control over the country’s Pashtun regions starting in early 2006, and suicide attacks dramatically escalated from this point on.

Pape’s study is just one of many to reach generally similar conclusions. In 2008, a RAND study showed that military force is the least effective means to stopping terrorist groups. If that’s not enough, we have nearly a decade of two wars without progress in Iraq and Afghanistan to convince us.  A number of aid groups in Afghanistan, including the Central Asia Institute, have shown how funneling resources to locally lead projects aimed at improving education, infrastructure, and economic conditions pay off at far greater dividends then military force.

The evidence is in. The question is, how do we get politicians to pay attention? Pape makes his appeal to America as a product of the Age of Reason:

The United States has been great in large part because it respects understanding and discussion of important ideas and concepts, and because it is free to change course. Intelligent decisions require putting all the facts before us and considering new approaches. The first step is recognizing that occupations in the Muslim world don’t make Americans any safer — in fact, they are at the heart of the problem.

It’s up to us to make sure reason wins out in the end.

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on October 22nd, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

Like many Americans, I have a great deal of sympathy with the thrust of Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30. It’s bad enough that the debasement of public discourse is unpleasant, and encourages some Americans to want to withdraw from politics completely; but the debasement of public discourse is also a major obstacle to enacting policies that America needs.

If you think, for example, that endless war in Afghanistan is not in America’s interest, and that we would be better off seriously pursuing a negotiated political solution with leaders of the Afghan Taliban and with countries in the region including Pakistan and Iran, it’s not in your interest to have a political environment where someone can essentially shut down your voice by accusing you of wanting to "cut and run," or of being "soft on terrorism," or of "not caring about Afghan women." Such a political environment is a mandate for endless war. The debasement of public discourse has been a major obstacle to ending the war in Afghanistan.

This week the New York Times reported that serious efforts towards "talks about talks" have begun between the Afghan government and leaders of the Afghan Taliban. This and similar reports have sparked significant debate: are these developments really significant, or are they being hyped? Are Taliban leaders of sufficient rank being included to make the talks meaningful? Is Mullah Omar, leader of the main branch of the Afghan Taliban, being excluded? Is Pakistan being excluded? If key players remain excluded, won’t that be likely to sink the talks?

read more

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Posted by Jake Diliberto on October 22nd, 2010

Observing the relationship between the American and Afghan soldiers is rough, ugly, and beautiful all at the same time.

Both American and Afghan men deploy into combat zones.  Collectively, they spend weeks at a time without showers, yet they continue to fight. Thus far, the Americans have performed courageously. Many have gone on 3 and 4 deployments suffering from endless injuries.  Countless reports indicate the American warriors are suffering from the “Too much war and not enough warriors syndrome”.  Thus far, the “Too much war” syndrome has made the Pentagons plan for Counterinsurgency almost impossible.

As I walked throughout  the ISAF training facility and the countryside of Afghan villages, it became ever clear to me that the US soldiers were doing all that they can. However, Afghanistan’s problem is not the Americans Soldiers.  Leaving Afghanistan to itself is the glaring nightmare.

Recall the McChrystal/Petraeus pro-Afghan surge strategy:

“To train and equip the Afghanistan Army, and then hand over leadership so American’s can leave

An unnamed Senior Colonel from public engagement/communications dept. at ISAF headquarters made his opinion clear about exiting Afghanistan and COIN:

“In 22 years of military service, I have never seen the current level of large-scale stupidity, this is a world-class cluster F%#$”.

“[The Afghan army] goes through an 8 week training course, they are issued M16’s during their training and when they complete the course, ISAF sends them to the combat field with AK-47’s without previous training.  The US is providing the Afghan Army with pickup trucks, yet most Afghans cannot drive…. they have never driven a day in their lives.  Think for second, how many accidents do American PFC’s get into???  LOTS!!!!  DOZENS!!!!  I know two NCO’s that got into wrecks this morning!!!  Young American PFC’s join the army, and they already have years of driving experience. Afghans have donkeys and motorcycles. In some cases, an American 18-year-old boy scout is more capable than the Afghans, and 30% of the Afghan recruits do not pass or quit once they reach their unit in the combat zone”

Understanding the Colonel’s flamboyant remarks might seem preposterous, seditious, or benign, but if one recalls General McChrystal bombastic remarks in Rolling Stone, the narrative is somewhat familiar. I interviewed a number of ranking people from the low-level to the high level and the story has many parallels.

A Junior Sergeant who specialized in the training of vehicle operations, commented:

“Sir, they just do not work like us.  You can’t understand it unless you’re here. [Afghan’s]…. They…. They… just don’t function how we want them too.  In the time it takes to train one Afghan, I could teach a hundred high school kids.

Another Senior Colonel in charge of the Afghan Army Training curriculum admitted,

“there is an obscene amount of problems with the training operations, and there is NO WAY the Afghans will be able to take over combat operations in July 2011.  We are here building the psychology of the Afghanistan Nation a few hundred thousand troops cannot do that task.”

“even though our own troops have a plethora of stresses, they are performing reasonably well considering all the issues, but again, we are building National capacity for Afghanistan”

The Senior NCO’s and Officers explained the complex reality:

“Afghan’s get 8 weeks of training and then they are sent to the front lines of some really nasty conflict.  A US Soldier gets an entire year of training, and then the 20-year-old boy finds placement in a unit of many seasoned warriors.  The young 20-year-old Marine is conditioned for an entire year and then joins his unit for battle.  Afghan’s have no one to look up to, they are in the Afghan Army for money, and they are looking to American soldiers as parents.  If we leave, the Afghan confidence flies out the window”

Even if the dozens of soldiers I interviewed are wrong, then one should assume an alternative consensus among the Afghan Government. In my trip to Afghanistan, I traveled to several parts inside of the country and I interviewed a variety of political leaders.  I met with US diplomats, US Military commanders, former Taliban leaders, and Afghan Parliamentary figures.

Unanimously, they were in agreement: ”Afghan’s cannot take over in July of 2011″.

The Heritage Foundation has argued it will be a 10 year operation, Gen Barry Mccafrey acknowledged the US is in 10 -15 years, and General Petraeus senior advisor David Kilcullen indicated to the US Congress:

“We need to stop talking about 2011, and begin to think about 2014″

Further extending the problems and complicating the Pentagon’s COIN strategy, Afghan development projects are ending.

Today, President Obama is in the middle of a glaring question: What are you going to do with the 2011 withdrawal”?

If the current policy is kept in place, the US will spend an estimated 300 billion dollars next year on the war in Afghanistan, more soldiers will stay deployed, and Afghanistan will still be in shambles.

After the mid-term election, President Obama and the newly elected congress will have two choices is left:

Either to continue the current McChrystal/Petraeus policy, pushing an extended presence in Afghanistan, or the Obama administration will Rethink Afghanistan.

The only real policy brought forward thus far is from State Dept. official Mathew Hoh, Dr. Robert Pape, Dr. Stephen Walt, Dr. Paul Pillar,and the entire Afghan Study Group.  Their policy continues the long effort of poverty eradication, enacted the plan will save 60-100 billion dollars, and allow the Afghan Army continued training to prevent an al-Qaeda return.  The Afghan study group has an unbelievable list of experts, and it appears to have some heavy traction in Washington, but only time will tell.

Regardless, among the McChrystal firing, the countless stories from American Soldiers, and the current economic crisis, President Obama is in a mid-term Afghanistan nightmare.  Afghans cannot take control in 2011.

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Posted by on October 22nd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

We've heard an awful lot about talks with Taliban leaders recently. There have been reports, deliberately leaked by the Pentagon, of senior leaders being smuggled into Kabul for talks by the US military. There have been rumors that Pakistan has released Mullah Baradar. There's been a lot of smoke – but now experts and an-named officials are suggesting there's not a lot of fire.

Global Post's Jean MacKenzie writes:

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.

“Certainly, what's going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it's all still rumors and shadow-play.”

Nevertheless, the media blitz has been almost unprecedented: Everyone from The New York Times to U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus has been making mysterious references to promising signs that are evident only to those in the know.

It has all the earmarks of a carefully orchestrated play aimed at creating the illusion of success, something that longtime Afghan watchers have been quick to point out.

“The case is being intentionally overstated,” said Martine van Blijert, a senior researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based independent think tank, writing in her blog. “[Officials are] suggesting more fire than the smoke warrants, and … feeding the press information about events that are likely to have taken place in the past.”

No one denies that there are meetings between Afghan government officials and the Taliban. They have been taking place for years, with very little result.

The Taliban's senior leadership have consistently denied any involvement in serious talks in their statements too. McClatchy's Jonathan Landay adds more expert opinion:

"This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," said a U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's outreach effort.

"Exaggerating the significance of it (the contacts) is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency, to make insurgents suspicious with each other and to send them on witch hunts looking for traitors who want to negotiate with the enemy," said the U.S. official. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Ali Jalali, a scholar at the National Defense University and a former Afghan interior minister who maintains close contacts with the Afghan government, said he knew of no significant peace negotiations.

"There is a desire (by the Afghan government and its foreign backers) for talks with the Taliban and others, but the situation is not ready for these talks yet," he told McClatchy. "There is a lot of smoke, but no fire."

…U.S. officials and Afghanistan experts said insurgent leaders have no incentive at the moment to engage in serious talks. They pointed out that insurgents still hold sway over large swaths of Afghanistan despite sustaining significant losses in Army Gen. David Petraeus' intensified counterinsurgency drive and stepped-up night raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

"We have the impression that all of the commanders that have been taken out have been replaced quite quickly," said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected independent policy institute. On a scale of one to 100, Ruttig put progress on peace talks "at somewhere between one and two."

"That (psychological warfare) is exactly what it is," said a former senior U.S. official in touch with the White House. "Petraeus has been upping the attack on the Taliban, and trying to intimidate, and at the same time, reaching out : 'let's talk.'" The former senior official requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing ties with the Obama administration.

If Ruttig and the rest are right – and there are some serious on-the-ground Afghanistan experts quoted above- then it's just a variant on the classic police interrogation ploy: "your pal has already told us everything and is trying to get a plea deal – make it easy on yourself and do the same".

Trouble is, it's not working and in the meantime the psyops ploy is getting in the way of actual real negotiations. Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation quotes experts who say that by excluding those who could really make a deal work – senior Taliban leaders and Pakistan – the psyops ploy is simply paving the way for a new civil war.

Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official who is now at the Middle East Institute…says that inside Afghanistan the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun forces in the north and west of the country, including the remnants of the old Northern Alliance (NA) that fought the Taliban in the 1990s, won't easily agree to a deal with the Taliban, either, which is a huge problem for Karzai. Fearing that the Taliban might make a comeback, the Northern Alliance and its allies are rearming, securing weapons from Central Asia and other allies, Weinbaum says, in preparation for a potential civil war. And the ANA, the Afghan army that is being built brick by brick by the United States and NATO, would fragment and fall apart if there's a deal with the Taliban, with many of the ANA troops joining the NA. "If there's a chance that [the Taliban] would return, the army would break up," he says.

Caroline Wadhams, who leads the Afghanistan-Pakistan work at the Center for American Progress, agrees that the non-Pashtun forces in the north are preparing for civil war, if it comes to that. "I've heard about rearming in the north," she told me. "Part of it stems from the fear that if everything collapses, regardless of the peace talks, there'd be a return to civil war." Karzai, she says, is taking a great risk that people in Afghanistan's north and west would oppose the reconciliation with the Taliban that Karzai is trying to bring about. Both Wadhams and Weinbaum said that Karzai was at pains to name people to the High Peace Council (HPC), including former President Rabbani, who could help persuade northerners that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan isn't in the cards. Rabbani's job, says Weinbaum, is "to say to the north 'there's not going to be a deal that you can't subscribe to.' "

There's a problem with the other end of the plan too, killing Taliban commanders in the hope of breaking the insurgency into factions and forcing it into talks. Back to Jean MacKenzie's piece:

“There is not much hope for the moment that talks will yield positive results while the U.S. military is trying to bludgeon the mid-level and senior leadership of the Taliban,” said van Linschoten. “They are removing the people to talk to, fragmenting the insurgency more than it already is, and creating the space for a newer generation of people to move into leadership positions who are much less interested in political compromise.”

So what happens if the ploy doesn't work? The London Conference made it clear that Western leaders – especially those across the pond – expect reconciliation and negotiation to be the main fig leaf that allows an exit that preserves some "face". They've put some major money and a lot of political capital behind the idea – to the point where even Petraeus has said "this is how insurgencies end".

The longer this psyops goes on, promising talks and hinting of breakthroughs, the more it will undermine the alternative narrative that the Taliban have to be pounded into submission by military force first before they will come to the negotiating table. If by July 2011 no senior Taliban have "cracked", then those who have authorized and perpetrated this psyops ploy – basically lying in the hope of making the lie true – are going to be in some deep caca, career-wise. Even the Teflon General might not be able to sidestep the splatter. As for Karzai…

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