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Archive for December, 2010

Posted by Just Foreign Policy on December 14th, 2010

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

When a Member of Congress dies, sometimes other Members name a bill after that Member that advances some cause identified with the Member. So, for example, we had the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act” – Kennedy was a champion of volunteer service.

Such naming has multiple effects. Of course it honors the departed. But, like the Spanish hero El Cid, whose companions suited him up and placed him on his horse to drive off their foes, it also gives the departed one last ride into battle. When you name something the “Our esteemed colleague who just passed” Act, you’re laying down a challenge – don’t leave this one on the cutting room floor. And everyone gets to cheat death a little by giving the departed one last accomplishment associated with that person’s name.

The uncompleted challenge of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic career was a peace deal in Afghanistan. It was the hope of many that Holbrooke would help broker a peace deal between the warring factions in Afghanistan and between their regional patrons that would end the war. This hope was encouraged by Holbrooke’s role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

This unfinished business was apparently very much on Holbrooke’s mind as they prepared him for surgery from which, presumably, he had some inkling that he might not return.

You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan,” Holbrooke said, according to family members.

Are peace talks to end the war a pipe dream? Not according to many Afghanistan experts with decades of experience in the country.

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Posted by on December 14th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The six month review of progress in Afghanistan that President Obama promised when he ordered the surge there is due on Thursday. But don't hold your breath for anything radical – the fix is in.

Today, Admiral Mullen became just the latest senior official to say that nothing would be changed by the review.

Adm. Mike Mullen told troops there won't be any significant increases over the current level of roughly 100,000. But he says there won't be big decreases either. The Obama administration plans to begin a modest withdrawal in July next year.

"I'm comfortable with where we are in terms of numbers," Mullen later told reporters traveling with him. He said it remains the plan to bring some forces home in July.

"From where? How many? Don't know," he said.

Gates kicked off with the same news in September. Holbrooke, Eikenberry and anonymous White House aides have all told us the same thing .

Reuters reports what we all already know will happen – the review will kick the can down the road for another six month Friedman Unit:

A long-awaited review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan due on Thursday will report some progress despite the bloodiest year in nine years of war and signal no major change in President Barack Obama's plans.

The review of the revised strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama unveiled a year ago, comes amid mounting concern about rampant corruption in Afghanistan and worries in Congress and among allies about how much more blood and treasure it will take to finally defeat the Taliban.

U.S. officials are downplaying the review, which assesses the impact of Obama's build-up of forces in the last year meant to create conditions for Afghan security forces to gradually take over and let U.S. troops start coming home in July 2011.

…But even reports of modest progress might surprise many in Afghanistan, where a recent U.S. military report found an expanding, tenacious insurgency, entrenched corruption and dysfunctional governance despite some pockets of security.

Almost 700 foreign troops have been killed in 2010, at least 477 of them Americans.

"What's going to happen next year is quite clear: less Europeans, more Taliban, and Karzai not being able to do the work," said Gilles Dorronsoro, a critic of the U.S. strategy and scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It makes you wonder what the White House and Pentagon are smoking.

Recent wikileaks cables and news reports have made the true situation crystal clear. Karzai says he'd join the Taliban if he had it all to do again. Several districts are entirely out of government or NATO control and most others have Taliban "shadow" governments, corruption is rife on all sides and Afghan polls are not encouraging. At least a large portion of the warlords and drug lords are being backed by the U.S. The notion that "they will stand up so we can stand down" is broken to the point of being a ridiculous idea, yet is a key past of Obama's plan going forward. In Kandahar, Marjah and Sangin, violence continues unabated and troop deaths are at their highest levels ever. In all, 2,169 NATO troops have died since 2001, more than half of those in the past two years alone. Civilian deaths are on an ever-increasing spiral too, and NATO gets no kudos from Afghans for reducing the number of civilian deaths at its own hands – it's supposed to be protecting the population, and failing at it. Finally, Pakistan, the actual key to the whole mess, is as two-faced an ally as it ever was.

If all of that isn't a reason to re-evaluate the "surge" strategy and say it isn't working, then nothing is. But instead, we're being treated to "serious persons" like Andrew Exum of CNAS telling us, as an article of faith, that it is too early to tell and we need to wait another six months. And in another six months, they'll be telling us to ignore the evidence again and wait another six months. In this, CNAS is just echoing Petraeus, Mullen and the rest. At a cost of $116 billion a year, that they're getting away with this evidence-ignoring claim unquestioned is a shocking failure for the media and politicians.

It's significant that no-one in the corridors of D.C. seriousdom, neither White House nor Pentagon nor CNAS nor the ostensibly more anti-war Afghan Study Group, has ever advanced a plan which gets the U.S. to zero troops in Afghanistan. All envision a perpetual presence of at least 10-30,000 troops. That ties in with other worrying trends: the claim by many top analysts that the U.S. is being intransigent on negotiations which could settle the war, becoming the main obstacle to peace; the $300 million plus allocated to long-term basing in Afghanistan; the whole debacle that the training of Afghan security forces has become; and of course the already ubiquitous assertions that even 2014 isn't a "withdrawal date".

And yet, despite all these signs that the U.S. plans to ignore the bad news and stay in Afghanistan forever, there's just enough schizophrenia in the White House policy to be uncertain. Some, like Joe Biden, seem as set on papering over the cracks in Afghan society long enough to at least claim not to have lost then bolting for the exits with their European allies by 2015 at the latest. Such opponents of perpetual occupation, if that's indeed what they are, aren't making enough noise, though. One gets the feeling that many are just making noises to placate their domestic base and independents – only Republicans would really vote for an explicit policy of occupation with no end in sight.

And few if any serious persons are talking about the other option. Realise that we've lost in Afghanistan more than we've won, that we're now occupying a country simply because the consequences of invading and occupying the country next door are too horrible to contemplate, and pull out the military now. That needn't mean the end to civilian aid, nor should it, but after nine years it is high time Afghans – and I mean all Afghans, Taliban and Northern Alliance and all – decided what the future of their nation will be. That would doubtless be messy and bloody, but not as messy and bloody as a perpetual occupation by the U.S. when all its allies have deserted it.

It's about time we remembered the old Pottery Barn Rule, before Colin Powell hi-jacked it for neo-colonial ends: "You broke it, you pay for it and get the f**k out of our store." At that point, it's up to the store owners whether they rebuild, re-open as a different kind of shop or burn the whole edifice down around their own ears.

It's called self-determination, or if you like, freedom. And no-one ever said it was easy.

Update: More from Joshua Foust, who kindly links to this post and writes "We cannot wait another Friedman Unit for things to change—as far too many blind militarists are demanding. Negotiations are the only reasonable choice left." I'd point out to Joshua and others that a NATO military presence isn't a necessary requirement for negotiations and may well be a drag to such, given that the Taliban have repeatedly said that they'll only negotiate when there's at least a certain date for withdrawal of foreign occupying troops.

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Posted by on December 12th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

A key part of the supposed strategy for Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is meant to be training their security forces so that "they can stand up while we stand down". That key component becomes questionable as soon as one realises that the U.S. expects to be footing the bill for those forces for at least the next ten years, because for a certainty the Afghans won't be able to afford them on their own.

But then come reports of massive attrition in the Afghan army and in the Afghan Police. The Guardian reports today that:

Foreign Office statistics show that more than 20,000 officers from the Afghan National Police (ANP), the country's main law enforcement agency, have left over the past year. The Foreign Office figures will cause concern in the armed forces, where the success of the police is seen as the basis for handing control to an Afghan government in 2014 and British troop withdrawal in 2015.

…The attrition rate – including losses caused by deaths, desertion and dismissals, often due to positive drug tests – is currently 18% a year, with monthly attrition at 1.5%, according to figures released to the Labour party.

Apparently the target attrition rate for the Afghan Police is 16.8% annually!

The attrition rate for the Afghan Army is "only" a massive 12% – but that only counts those soldiers who complete their basic training. But General William Caldwell, Bush's former hand-picked military spinmeister in Iraq and now in charge of all training of Afghan forces, admitted back in October that to raise the Army's strength by 56,000 requires finding 141,000 new recruits – because 85,000 will just walk away during or immediately after their training.

At attrition rates of between 12 and 17%, it only takes a few years to reduce the Afghan security forces to ghost forces unless they keep recruiting. Yet recruiting so many to lose well over half during basic training isn't going to plug the gap for very long. At such rates, they'd run through all eligible Afghans in around ten years – all recruited and then deserted or killed. During which time the U.S. will be paying for this non-starter of a "strategy" we've already spent $16 billion plus pursuing.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Ministry of Interior admits that at least eight districts are completely out of their control, they have no forces in any of them, and know idea who is running them.

It's insane. Either that, or it's not an exit strategy at all, just a way to present convincing evidence that, since the Afghan security forces aren't going to be ready, the U.S. will just have to extend its own military presence past 2015.

I'd suggest that's why neither the Pentagon nor prominent establishment think-tanks seem to have any account of "when and how does this end". Because they all know they don't intend it to. It would explain a lot of apparently intransigent stupidity.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and other Western governments seem happy to not look too hard at the "exit strategy". It doesn't actually matter if it works, as long as no-one says the word "lose". In America's case, that myopia seems to be steering policy towards perpetual occupation with tens of thousands of "non-combat" troops fighting an insurgency the U.S. refuses to actually negotiate with. For their counterparts in NATO, the same myopia is steering them towards slapping some paper over the Afghan cracks, claiming victory, and heading for the exits in a rush – and the Afghans will be left to suffer the consequences. Neither course seems like a good idea to me.

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Posted by The Agonist on December 12th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Borzou Daragahi | Kabul | Dec 12

Los Angeles Times – Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with regional leaders Saturday to sign an agreement for a massive energy project that could eventually net his country billions of dollars in revenue: a 1,000-mile natural gas pipeline whose proposed route cuts through the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.

As if to highlight the complications facing the project, at least 26 people were killed in attacks Friday and Saturday, including a Taliban commander and several people believed to be with a private security firm, Afghan and NATO officials said.

The United States strongly supports the proposed pipeline because it could draw Central Asia’s significant energy resources to Pakistan and India an bypass Iran, Washington’s top adversary in the region.

Karzai met with Turkmen, Indian and Pakistani officials in Ashgabat, the capital of neighboring Turkmenistan, to sign the accord.

“On this very important occasion, let me once again highlight our vision for regional cooperation, which is to contribute to regional stability and prosperity,” Karzai said in a statement, “and to enhance the conditions for Afghanistan to resume its central role as a land bridge in this region.”

But the proposed $7.6-billion TAPI Gas Pipeline project and any revenue it may generate may be years away. The planned route passes from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic, through violent territory still unsettled by insurgencies, including the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and the Pakistani city of Quetta, which is considered the home of the Taliban leadership.

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Posted by on December 10th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

It has long been the conventional wisdom among D.C.'s "very serious people" that the U.S. must use military force to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table "on our terms". It's the whole point of NATO's Lisbon agreement and of Petraeus' strategy in Afghanistan since it's perhaps the only thing that can allow Western powers to spin Afghanistan as anything other than a loss.

However, a roll-call of important Afghanistan analysts, all of whom live in the country or have spent substantial time there, have today released an open letter to President Obama calling the stratgy a mistake. It is worth quoting in full.

Mr. President,

We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

 Despite these huge costs, the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country. It is now very difficult to work outside the cities or even move around Afghanistan by road. The insurgents have built momentum, exploiting the shortcomings of the Afghan government and the mistakes of the coalition. The Taliban today are now a national movement with a serious presence in the north and the west of the country. Foreign bases are completely isolated from their local environment and unable to protect the population. Foreign forces have by now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Red Army.

Politically, the settlement resulting from the 2001 intervention is unsustainable because the constituencies of whom the Taliban are the most violent expression are not represented, and because the highly centralized constitution goes against the grain of Afghan tradition, for example in specifying national elections in fourteen of the next twenty years.

The operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and in Helmand provinces are not going well. What was supposed to be a population-centred strategy is now a full-scale military campaign causing civilian casualties and destruction of property. Night raids have become the main weapon to eliminate suspected Taliban, but much of the Afghan population sees these methods as illegitimate. Due to the violence of the military operations, we are losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Pashtun countryside, with a direct effect on the sustainability of the war. These measures, beyond their debatable military results, foster grievance. With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution. Drone strikes in Pakistan have a marginal effect on the insurgency but are destabilizing Pakistan. The losses of the insurgency are compensated by new recruits who are often more radical than their predecessors.

The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure. Military action may produce local and temporary improvements in security, but those improvements are neither going to last nor be replicable in the vast areas not garrisoned by Western forces without a political settlement.

The 2014 deadline to put the Afghan National Army in command of security is not realistic. Considering the quick disappearance of the state structure at a district level, it is difficult to envision a strong army standing alone without any other state institutions around. Like it or not, the Taliban are a long-term part of the Afghan political landscape, and we need to try and negotiate with them in order to reach a diplomatic settlement. The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think — a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more — are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

The current contacts between the Karzai government and the Taliban are not enough. The United States must take the initiative to start negotiations with the insurgents and frame the discussion in such a way that American security interests are taken into account. In addition, from the point of view of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations – women and ethnic minorities, for instance – as well as with respect to the limited but real gains made since 2001, it is better to negotiate now rather than later, since the Taliban will likely be stronger next year. This is why we ask you to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan. A ceasefire and the return of the insurgency leadership in Afghanistan could be part of a de-escalation process leading to a coalition government. Without any chance for a military victory, the current policy will put the United States in a very difficult position.

For a process of political negotiation to have a chance of addressing the significant core grievances and political inequalities it must occur on multiple levels – among the countries that neighbour Afghanistan as well as down to the provincial and sub-district. These various tables around which negotiations need to be held are important to reinforce the message — and the reality — that discussions about Afghanistan’s political future must include all parties and not just be a quick-fix deal with members of the insurgency.

We believe that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan, enables the Taliban to become a responsible actor in the Afghan political order, ensures that Afghanistan cannot be used as a base for international terrorism, protects the Afghan people’s hard-won freedoms, helps stabilize the region, renders the large scale presence of international troops in Afghanistan unnecessary and provides the basis of an enduring relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. All the political and diplomatic ingenuity that the United States can muster will be required to achieve this positive outcome. It is time to implement an alternative strategy that would allow the United States to exit Afghanistan while safeguarding its legitimate security interests.

Signatories include such luminaries as Matt Aikins, Giles Dorronsoro, Antonio Giustozzi, Anatol Lieven, Nir Rosen and Alex Strick van Linschoten.

As Michael Cohen wrote at Democracy Arsenal recently:

It seems that the entire ISAF political strategy (and it's hard to even use those words) is predicated on not finding a workable political solution, but dividing and conquering the enemy or pounding them into submission. In short, negotiations are just another way to "win" in Afghanistan. The conflict is still seen by top policymakers as a black and white struggle between good guys and bad guys.

What is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban (who are certainly bad guys) will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future – and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept.  Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future – but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future. We have neither the time nor the resources nor the inclination nor the knowledge to do such a thing.

Back at the beginning of October, we heard a lot about how Petraeus' startegy was working, that individual Taliban leaders were indeed being forced to the negotiating table. But then analysts and observers on the ground began questioning that narrative and it turned out to be just psyops – an attempt to get Taliban leaders to the table by making them fear they were missing out – and that no such success was happening.

Back then I asked "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."

Today's open letter, from such an august group of analysts and experts, may at last put some pressure on the Beltway Boys to end their intransigence and thus move towards ending the occupation of Afghanistan.

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Posted by on December 10th, 2010

From our partners at

Commentary By Ron Beasley

As I have said here more than once the circus in Washington DC is not about ideology but is tribal warfare.  Juan Cole takes a look at why the conflict in Afghanistan no longer appears to be news. 

So here’s the reason the whole bloody Afghanistan war is off the radar: it isn’t a partisan issue. The Republican Party, except for a few Liberatarians, is solidly in favor of the war and would apparently like to go on fighting it for decades if only they could. But the Democrats cannot oppose the war (as they eventually opposed the Iraq War) because their own president has implemented a surge and is dedicated to prosecuting the war. The rank and file Democrats may not be very happy about Obama’s adoption of the war, but they are loathe to attack their own party leader (i.e. many of them feel as though they have to support their team).

In the United States of America, if you cannot get an argument going on a partisan party basis, then it just tends to be ignored and to generate no buzz.

I fear he's probably right.  The sport is the partisan tribal warfare and that becomes the "news."  Cole notes that his posts on Afghanistan get less traffic than posts on other subjects.  The United States has become a country of mindless sports fans and the sport is red and blue tribal warfare.  Yes – this is how Empires end. 

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Posted by Derrick Crowe on December 9th, 2010

The state of Indiana just denied life-saving surgery to a six month old after making deep budget cuts to their state health care safety net. The surgery saved the lives of 58 of the last 60 kids to get it. “Too bad, kiddo, we can’t afford it.”

Except, they can. Easily. We know this because of how much Indiana politicians are throwing — excuse me, shoveling — at the failed Afghanistan War.

The surgery that could save Seth Petreikis’ life costs $500,000, which is ridiculous on its own. (That’s half of what it costs to send a troop to Afghanistan for a year, by the way.) The state says it can’t afford it after making more than a billion dollars in health-related budget cuts. The thing is, taxpayers in Indiana will pay $1.8 billion for proposed Afghanistan war spending for FY2011, far more than the cuts. And none — none — of the state’s Members of Congress or U.S. senators voted against the most recent war funding bill.

Indiana State Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley (R) is talking about even more drastic budget cuts for kids like Seth — even opting his state out of Medicaid altogether. He says “We can’t afford it. We have to be serious about finding alternatives.”

Hey, I’ve got an alternative for you, Kenley. How about you and the rest of your state’s politicians get their priorities in order? You can afford it. You guys just don’t think it’s as important as wasting money on a war that’s already killed or wounded 217 people from Indiana so far.

Bring home one troop from Afghanistan for six months and save Seth Petreikis’ life. There’s your alternative.

We need our politicians focused on fixing our problems here at home, not on costly, failed war in Afghanistan.

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

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Posted by alexthurston on December 9th, 2010

This story originally appeared at

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I mean, you couldn’t make this stuff up.  In fact, if I were to offer a conspiracy theory to explain it, I might suggest that the U.S. government now exists mainly to feed material to The Daily Show.  I’m referring to an article in the New York Times reporting that “the Obama administration and the Department of Defense have ordered the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors not to view the secret cables and other classified documents published by Wikileaks and news organizations around the world unless the workers have the required security clearance or authorization.”

Don’t laugh.  No, really, stop it! 

Honestly, it’s perfectly sensible.  Secrecy being such an all-encompassing value for our government, why shouldn’t its employees work in the dark, even when the rest of us, the rest of the world, knows what’s going on.  Fortunately, I’m not an employee of the U.S. government or its military-industrial contractors; so, though Raytheon, the Library of Congress, and other places have been thoughtful enough to try to minimize the pain of the ongoing Wikileaks dump of State Department documents by blocking people from reading them, and the Obama administration and assorted Internet crews, including Amazon and PayPal, are trying to ensure that there won’t be a fourth, fifth, or sixth round of dumps, I’ve been wandering the Web like any 12-year-old reading around.

You want to know what struck me?  Something small.  And it happened in Yemen, that anything-goes country whose president Ali Abdullah Saleh gave Washington almost carte blanche to act militarily — “an open door on terrorism,” as he put it to Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan in September 2009 (according to one of the State Department documents Wikileaks released).  More like an open bomb bay, actually.  And Saleh was even eager to take credit for those bombs we were dropping.  “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” he told then-Centcom commander General David Petraeus last January.

In return for the right to drop bombs and launch missiles, the Yemeni president got his own “open door” — directly into the U.S. Treasury: tons of money (it’s euphemistically called “aid”) shoveled his way, U.S. trainers and training for his troops, and lots of fancy military equipment because, let’s face it, Washington is still laboring in a coalition-of-the-billing, not a coalition-of-the-willing world.  Still, even for Saleh, there were limits and — it’s so Washington 2010 of us — we nonetheless tried to exceed them.  According to that State Department document, Petraeus evidently wanted to get U.S. troops — probably Special Operations forces — on the ground in combat areas with Yemeni units.  According to a State Department observer, “Saleh reacted coolly, however, to the General’s proposal to place USG [U.S. Government] personnel inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence from U.S. ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] platforms overhead.”

In other words, anywhere we have a foot in the door of war, the next thing you know we’re trying to slip a (uniformed) body through it as well.  That catches the American way of war these days and helps explain why we always seem to end up more, not less involved, in conflict in distant lands.  Among the places where the U.S. offers big dollars for the right to blast the hell out of things, Yemen is actually a Johnny-come-lately.  Only recently have American officials made Sana’a, its capital, a Club Med for recreational bombing. 

On the other hand, ever since Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage marched into the office of Pakistani autocrat General Pervez Musharraf soon after the 9/11 attacks and reportedlytold him that the U.S. would bomb his country “back to the Stone Age” unless he joined the fight against al-Qaeda, that country has been a magnet for Washington’s top brass, military and civilian.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen had visited 16 times by early 2010 and sometimes there seems to be a greater density of American officials, wheedling, bribing, threatening, cajoling, and maneuvering in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, than in Washington itself.  Meanwhile, the CIA’s drones have been attacking Pakistani territory, its helicopters crossing the border shooting, its Special Operations troops on the ground, and the CIA swarming, as Washington acts with relative impunity in that land.

Fatima Bhutto, whose father, a member of Pakistan’s parliament, was killed by the police in 1996 during the premiership of his sister, Benazir Bhutto, offers an insider’s vision of just what impunity means in the Pakistani context.  She has recently written a stirring memoir, an epic search for the truth behind her father’s life and death, Songs of Blood and Sword.  Tom  

A Flood of Drone Strikes
What the Wikileaks Revelations Tell Us About How Washington Runs Pakistan
By Fatima Bhutto

With governments like Pakistan’s current regime, who needs the strong arm of the CIA? According to Bob Woodward’s latest bestseller Obama’s Wars, when Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, an obsequiously dangerous man, was notified that the CIA would be launching missile strikes from drones over his country’s sovereign territory, he replied, “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It doesn’t worry me.”

Why would he worry?  When his wife Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007 to run for prime minister after years of self-imposed exile, she was already pledged to a campaign of pro-American engagement. She promised to hand over nuclear scientist and international bogeyman Dr. A.Q. Khan, the “father” of the Pakistani atomic bomb, to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  She also made clear that, once back in power, she would allow the Americans to bomb Pakistan proper, so that George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror might triumph.  Of course, the Americans had been involved in covert strikes and other activities in Pakistan since at least 2001, but we didn’t know that then.

This has been the promise that has kept Zardari, too, in power.

According to the recent cache of State Department cables released by Wikileaks, his position and those of his colleagues in government haven’t wavered. In 2008, for example, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani enthusiastically told American Ambassador Anne Paterson that he “didn’t care” if drone strikes were launched against his country as long as the “right people” were targeted. (They weren’t.) “We’ll protest in the National Assembly,” Gilani added cynically, “and then ignore it.” 

In fact, protests by the National Assembly have been few and far between and yet, by the end of November, Pakistani territory had been targeted by American unmanned Predator and Reaper missile strikes more than 100 times this year alone. CIA drone strikes have, in fact, been a feature of the American war in Pakistan since 2004. In 2008, after Barack Obama won the presidency in the U.S. and Zardari ascended to Pakistan’s highest office, the strikes escalated and soon began occurring almost weekly, later nearly daily, and so became a permanent feature of life for those living in the tribal borderlands of northern Pakistan.

Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike against Pakistan just 72 hours after being sworn in as president. It seems a suitably macabre fact that, according to a U.N. report on “targeted killings” (that is, assassinations) published in 2010, George W. Bush employed drone strikes 45 times in his eight years as President.  In Obama’s first year in office, the drones were sent in 53 times. In the six years that drone strikes have been used in the fight against Pakistan, researchers at the New America Foundation estimate that between 1,283 and 1,971 people have been killed.

While the dead are regularly identified as “militants” or “suspected militants” in newspaper stories and on the TV news, they almost never have names, nor are their identities confirmed or faces shown.  Their histories are always vague. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) took a careful look at nine drone strikes from the last two years and concluded that they had resulted in the deaths of 30 civilians, including 14 women and children.  (Perhaps, of course, superior American military intelligence classified them as “militants in training.”)  Based on this study, an average rate of error can be calculated: 3.33 civilians mistakenly killed in each drone attack. The dead, Pakistanis will assure you, are largely unnamed, faceless, unindicted, and un-convicted civilians.

Pakistanis are considered irrelevant, however, and collateral damage, as it turns out, doesn’t seem to worry anyone in the governing elite.

Think of it this way: this summer, monsoon rains and floods submerged one-fifth of Pakistan, affecting 20 million people.  It was the country’s worst natural disaster in its history. Although the body count, under the circumstances, was considered comparatively low — 2,000 killed — the United Nations concluded that the destruction caused by the floods surpassed the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004, the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, and the recent earthquake in Haiti combined. Two million homes were destroyed and the crucial food belt in the key agricultural provinces of Punjab and Sindh was ravaged.  Millions of children were left homeless or at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases. According to the World Heath Organization, 1.5 million potentially fatal cases of diarrhea and another two million cases of malaria are still expected.

During what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon termed the worst disaster he’d ever seen, with the country desperate and prostrate, the CIA launched its most extensive drone campaign yet. Over the 30 days of September, as Islamabad rushed to assure Washington that it would not divert too many troops from the war effort to help with flood relief, 20-odd drone strikes were called in. They would produce the highest number of drone fatalities for a single month in the last six years.

In 2009, in one of the many State Department cables Wikileaks loosed on the world, U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson confirmed that key player and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani directed his forces to aid those American drone strikes.  Various U.S. operations in the country’s northern and tribal regions were, the ambassador wrote, “almost certainly [conducted] with the personal consent of… General Kayani.” 

The Pakistani media has welcomed the release of the State Department documents because much that reporters and pundits have long claimed (and which Washington has long denied) has now been confirmed: that, for instance, the mercenary private contractor Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) has been operating in Pakistan at the behest of the Americans, that the country’s military high command has given the green light for drone strikes on its own people, and that the infamously corrupt government of President Zardari has turned the country over to the Americans in exchange for money. 

Pakistan already receives approximately two billion dollars in military aid a year, and that’s just for the army. Under the Kerry Lugar Bill passed by the U.S. Congress, if Pakistan plays nice, opens up its nuclear secrets, and the Army’s internal documentation on how it selects the Chief of Army staff and other matters, the country will get $7.5 billion dollars of “civilian aid” over five years — and this is just the tip of the financial iceberg, which, of course, offers the present leadership the chance to extend their incompetent rule just a little longer. 

One newspaper baron and government chamcha – apple polisher in Urdu — became the laughing stock of the country’s new media when he went on television to suggest that revelations about how Pakistan’s government had lied to its people, subverted its national sovereignty, and coordinated foreign attacks didn’t faintly measure up to those about leaders in other countries. Look at Berlusconi!

The Pakistani political establishment has always believed that the West is best.  It has, after all, been the ultimate source of their power and so, on December 3rd, Prime Minister Gilani called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, the Defense Minister, and various cabinet ministers, including the Finance Minister, to discuss the Wikileaks scandal and strategies for dealing with any potential embarrassments in yet-to-be-released cables.  (Lie, undoubtedly. It worked so well before.)

Tariq Ali, the Pakistani writer and historian, reacted to the Wikileaks revelations swiftly and with a frustration and anger felt by many Pakistanis. “The Wikileaks,” he wrote, “confirm what we already know: Pakistan is a U.S. satrapy. Its military and political leaders constitute a venal elite happy to kill and maim its own people at the behest of a foreign power. The U.S. proconsul in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, emerges as a shrewd diplomat warning her country of the consequences if they carry on as before. Amusing, but hardly a surprise, is that Zardari reassures the U.S. that if he were assassinated, his sister would replace him and all would continue as before. Always nice to know that the country is regarded by its ruler as a personal fiefdom.”  

Still, that elite carries on with little sense of the grim absurdity of recent events.  As the Wikileaks documents pour out, various members of parliament are queuing up to have their names put forward as possible replacements for the prime minister.  Since the only person capable of replacing the president is his sister, there’s no need for debate there. 

Like many military chiefs in the past, General Kayani is putting forward his own set of favored names, overstepping the official limits of his office with impunity, while the unelected dark overlord of the government, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, has been offering himself for another unelected posting.  

Malik came to public notoriety as Benazir Bhutto’s security adviser — until her assassination. The job of policing the nation was always a peculiar reward to offer a man who couldn’t keep his one charge safe.  Malik, for whom President Zardari issued a presidential pardon and who had all corruption charges against him dropped under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (an odious law pardoning 20 years worth of graft carried out by politicians, bankers and bureaucrats) was also given a senate seat by his friend the president.

Zardari, it is worth noting, did not stand for elections either, has no constituency, and was made president in the very same manner as Pakistan’s previous ruler General Pervez Musharraf: he was selected by his own parliament. 

What will Pakistan’s elite learn from Wikileaks?  Undoubtedly nothing. And if we’re going by the White House’s response so far, nor will Washington feel more constrained than it ever has when it comes to choosing its allies and running the South Asian arm of its informal global empire.  

The Zardari government makes no secret of its gratitude for American support. They have, after all, watched as a foreign power bombs its land, illegally detains or renders its citizens, and turns a blind eye to Pakistan’s flagrant censorship and abuse of human rights.

This obeisance to power is the key to Zardari’s American engagement.  And so it will remain. While we wait for Wikileaks to reveal the rest of the cables, which are unlikely to have any bearing on Washington’s future dealings with the corrupt governments of Zardari in Pakistan or President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan (or anywhere else for that matter), we watch as American officials argue for expanding their drone attacks southwards into the natural-gas-rich province of Balochistan.  That it shares a border with Iran hardly seems a coincidence.

The Zardari regime’s essential acquiescence has recently been acknowledged via a multi-year “no strings attached” offer of a military aid package by Washington.  At the height of the devastation wreaked by the summer floods, the Health Secretary of Balochistan and the Deputy Chairman of the Pakistani Senate both alleged that aid could not be airlifted out of an air base in the city of Jacobabad on the border between Sindh and Balochistan, two flood ravaged provinces, because it was being used by the Americans for their drone strikes in Pakistan. The American embassy issued a swift and suitably hurt-sounding denial, but the damage was done — and the message was clear: the war against Pakistan continues unabated, with its own government at the helm.

Fatima Bhutto, an Afghan-born Pakistani poet and writer, is most recently the author of Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir (Nation Books, 2010).  Her work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Daily Beast, and the Guardian, among other places.  Her father, Murtaza Bhutto, son of Pakistan’s former President and Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and an elected member of parliament, was killed by the police in 1996 in Karachi during the premiership of his sister, Benazir Bhutto.  Fatima lives and writes in Karachi, Pakistan. To listen to a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview in which Fatima Bhutto discusses the unequal U.S.-Pakistani relationship, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Fatima Bhutto

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Posted by on December 8th, 2010

From our partners at

 A Guest Post by Keith Boyea

The Washington political winds have changed, but unless you closely observed such things, you may not have felt the breeze. Yesterday, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a well-connected Washington DC think tank, released a report on Afghanistan titled, Responsible Transition. The report lays out a strategy for the United States to lessen its investment in Afghanistan while still securing America’s interests in the region.

The report is good news for people like me who want to end the Afghan war, because it signals a change in thinking for very serious people that make up the Washington consensus. That’s probably the best thing that can be said about the report: In the tenth year of war in Afghanistan, the Washington elites are finally considering ways to bring it to an end.

With that faint praise aside, the report’s “Balanced Strategy” for exiting Afghanistan consists of a three tiered political approach and a military transition from US led to Afghan led operations. I’ll argue that none of these approaches will work and that the United States should work to extricate itself from Afghanistan far in advance of the 2014 sustainability date laid out in the report.

The authors, David Barno and Andrew Exum, begin their political approach with what they call a “Top-Down Approach.” They spend several paragraphs pointing out just how impossible the Afghan government really is. According to the report, 69 percent of the Afghan government is financed by foreign governments, and since President Karzai took office in 2002, “Vast outlays of international resources have been wasted, stolen, and diverted…” In 2009, Afghanistan was rated the most corrupt country in the world.

The prescription for this problem, according to the report, seems to be a revamped economic strategy. The authors trot out the old and discredited arguments about the benefits of road building, and call attention to the vast mineral wealth recently discovered in Afghanistan; even though some experts say extracting those minerals would require 10 years and a billion dollars, assuming security conditions were safe enough to begin work. Additionally, the authors call for the development of a “functioning legal system that makes investment attractive to both Afghan entrepreneurs and foreign investors.” Regrettably, the International Crisis Group says, “Afghanistan’s justice system is in a catastrophic state of disrepair.”

Barno and Exum then suggest a “Bottom-Up Approach” that compliments the top down approach. “The United States should now adopt a stronger bottom-up approach to governance, investing in those local power structures and leaders who best represent the local populations, in lieu of the Kabul-centric approach favored until now.” This makes at least one area expert uncomfortable, and rightly so. Pouring significant resources in to local power brokers risks putting the locals at odds with the American installed government in Kabul. The authors recognize this risk and good on them for that. It isn’t clear, though, how the United States can cultivate local governance without alienating the national government in Kabul.

The third leg of the political approach focuses on Pakistan. The report rightly recognizes the double game the Pakistanis have been playing in regards to Afghanistan, and calls for the United States to take a tougher stand—publically if necessary—with Pakistan. However, if the recent Wikileaks released cables have taught us anything, it is that American influence in Pakistan is more limited than anyone previously believed. Threatening Pakistan with military action is more counterproductive than anything; a recent American raid into Pakistan caused the Pakistanis to block a key American supply line into Afghanistan. Additionally, pressuring Pakistan to “do more” has been a piece of advice issued by nearly everyone—this really isn’t new.

While the political strategy is merely problematic, the military transition plan is complete fantasy. According to the report, “The overall concept of operations is to bring the U.S. and allied military power down …to a smaller and more sustainable number while largely substituting Afghan National Security Forces trained and advised by the United States and its NATO allies…” The fantasy in that statement is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is unlikely to be ready to take on such a task in any acceptable time frame.

In June 2010, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found (.pdf) that NATO had consistently overrated the ANSF’s capabilities. The SIGAR report also documented other deficiencies including, “logistics problems, personnel attrition, inadequate personnel authorizations, infrastructure challenges, corruption, and drug abuse and illiteracy.” The low capability of the ANSF is evidenced in their performance. In what was to be a showcase of ANA capability, in August of this year, the Afghan National Army led an operation that the New York Times dubbed a “debacle.”

Capability aside, the size of the ANSF is a perpetual concern. Growing the ANSF to raw numbers large enough to take over the fight will be, well, challenging. According to the man in charge of training the ANSF, Lt Gen Bill Caldwell, NATO would have to train 141,000 new soldiers and police in order to grow the force by 56,000 by October of 2011. That is a staggering number—over 13 months NATO would have to train about two and a half times the number of soldiers they actually need.

So, if the political strategy is problematic, and the military strategy is a fantasy, how should we think about this report? I am of the opinion that this report is somewhat of a correcting measure for CNAS. Last year, CNAS published a report called Triage (.pdf) which advocated a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. CNAS advocated COIN even though all the factors I described above were evident at the time Triage was published. President Obama took their advice and agreed to a somewhat more modest COIN campaign. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the COIN campaign failed to change the conditions in Afghanistan. Think about that: Just 14 months ago, CNAS argued for a resource intensive, long term COIN campaign in Afghanistan and now they are searching for ways to get out. In that respect, this new report is the closest you’ll ever get to an admission of failure by DC insiders.

Lastly, I think the report misses some serious consequences for the United States if it chooses to stay in Afghanistan through 2014. 2014 happens to be the end of Hamid Karzai’s second term as President of Afghanistan. He is constitutionally limited to two terms, but President Karzai does not have a reputation for rationality. Karzai may put the United States in the very uncomfortable position of running for an unconstitutional third term. Even if Karzai steps aside, “every election in Afghanistan has been worse than the one before.” While some may see this as a call to stay and oversee the 2014 election, I see it as a potential for another four years of heavy American involvement in Afghanistan. The best case scenario for 2014 is one in which the election is only half-way corrupt. The temptation for the American policy making elite will be to re-affirm the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan, which would keep American troops in Afghanistan for many more years. This is to be avoided, as the United States should envision a world without any troops in Afghanistan. Pie-in-the-sky? Maybe, but it is something CNAS doesn’t even consider.

Our guest blogger today is Keith Boyea, a graduate student at Georgetown University studying international affairs and an Air Force veteran of OIF and OEF.

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Posted by alexthurston on December 7th, 2010

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One November’s Dead
The American War Dead Disappear into the Darkness

By Tom Engelhardt

America’s heroes?  Not so much.  Not anymore.  Not when they’re dead, anyway. 

Remember as the invasion of Iraq was about to begin, when the Bush administration decided to seriously enforce a Pentagon ban, in existence since the first Gulf War, on media coverage and images of the American dead arriving home at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware?  In fact, the Bush-era ban did more than that.  As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote then, it “ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers’ homecomings on all military bases.” 

For those whose lives were formed in the crucible of the Vietnam years, including the civilian and military leadership of the Bush era, the dead, whether ours or the enemy’s, were seen as a potential minefield when it came to antiwar opposition or simply the loss of public support in the opinion polls.  Admittedly, many of the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were often based on half-truths or pure mythology, but they were no less powerful or influential for that. 

In the Vietnam years, the Pentagon had, for instance, been stung by the thought that images of the American dead coming home in body bags had spurred on that era’s huge antiwar movement (though, in reality, those images were rare).  Nor were they likely to forget the effect of the “body count,” offered by U.S. military spokesmen in late afternoon press briefings in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.  Among disillusioned reporters, these became known as “the Five O’clock Follies.”  They were supposedly accurate counts of enemy dead, but everyone knew otherwise.  

In a guerrilla war in which the taking of territory made next to no difference, the body count was meant as a promissory note against future success.  As it became apparent that there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, however, that count began to look ever more barbaric to growing numbers of Americans.

Body Bags and Body Counts 

At the time of the first Gulf War, as part of a larger effort to apply the “lessons” of Vietnam, the Pentagon attempted to prevent any images of the American dead from reaching the home front.  More than a decade later, top officials of George W. Bush’s administration, focused on ensuring that the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk” and a triumph, consciously played an opposites game with their version of Vietnam.  That included, for instance, secretly counting the enemy dead, but keeping mum about them for fear of recreating the dreaded “body count.”  General Tommy Franks, who directed the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, bluntly insisted, “We don’t do body counts.”  But it wasn’t true, and in the end, President Bush couldn’t help himself: his frustration with disaster in Iraq led him to start complaining about being unable to mention how successful U.S. forces were in killing the enemy; finally, compulsively, he began to offer his own presidential body counts. 

But an irony should be noted here.  There was another lesson from Vietnam which didn’t quite fit with those drawn from body bags and the body count.  American troops had been treated terribly by the American public — so went the postwar tale — and particularly by the antiwar movement which reviled them as “baby killers” when they came home and regularly spat upon them.  Often ignored in this mythic version of the antiwar movement is the fact that, as the 1970s began, it was being energized by significant numbers of Vietnam vets and active duty GI’s.  Nonetheless, all this was deeply believed, even by many who had been in that movement, and everyone, whatever their politics, vowed that it would never happen again.  Hence, the troops, and especially the dead, were to be treated across the board and in a blanket way as “American heroes,” and elevated to almost god-like status. 

So, while President Bush carefully avoided making public appearances at Dover Air Force Base as the coffins were being unloaded (lest someone confuse him with Vietnam-era President Lyndon Johnson), much publicity was given to the way he met privately and emotionally — theoretically beyond the view of the media — with the families of the dead. 

In a sense, whatever proscriptions were placed on imagery of the dead, the American dead were all over.  For one thing, no sooner did the Bush administration shut down those images than war critics, following their own Vietnam “lessons,” began complaining about his doing so.  And even if they hadn’t, every newspaper seemed to have its own “wall of heroes,” those spreads filled with tiny images of the faces of the American dead, while their names were repeatedly read in somber tones on television.  Similarly, antiwar activists toured the country with displays of empty combat boots or set up little cemeteries honoring the war dead, even while making the point that they should never have died. 

No less significantly, dying Americans were actually news.  I mean front-page news.  If American troops died in a firefight or thanks to a suicide bomber or went down in a helicopter, it was often in the headlines.  Whatever else you knew, you did know that Americans were dying in the wars Washington was fighting in distant lands. 

One November’s Dead

Well, that was Iraq, this is Afghanistan.  That was the Bush era, these are the Obama years.  So, with rare exceptions, the dead rarely make much news anymore. 

Now, except in small towns and local communities where the news of a local death or the funeral of a dead soldier is dealt with as a major event, American deaths, often dribbling in one or two at a time, are generally acknowledged in the last paragraphs of summary war pieces buried deep inside papers (or far into the TV news).  The American dead have, it seems, like the war they are now fighting, generally gone into the dustbin of news coverage.

Take November in Afghanistan.  You might have thought that American deaths would make headline news last month.  After all, according to the website, there were 58 allied deaths in that 30-day period, 53 of them American.  While those numbers are undoubtedly small if compared to, say, fatal traffic accidents, they are distinctly on the rise.  Along with much other news coming out of the planet’s number one narco-state, ranging from raging corruption to a rise in Taliban attacks, they trend terribly. 

To put those November figures in perspective, if you add up all the Americans who died in Afghanistan in any November from 2001, when the Bush administration launched its invasion, through 2009, you get a total of 59, just six more than last month.  Similarly, if you add up American deaths by year from 2001 through 2007, you get 475, as this is being written six more than have died so far in 2010.  (Note that these figures don’t include deaths categorized by the military as “potential suicides” that might in any way be linked to Afghan tours of duty.  There were 19 potential suicides reported in September and nine in October among soldiers on active duty; 10 in September and 16 in October among reserves not on active duty.  November figures have yet to be released.)

Given the modest attention focused on American deaths here in the U.S., you might almost imagine that, from the Washington elite on down, Americans preferred not to know the price being paid for a war, already in its tenth year (twentieth if you include our first Afghan War of 1980-1989); one that the Obama administration has now agreed to extend through 2014 for U.S. “combat troops” and possibly years beyond for tens of thousands of non-combat trainers and other forces who will be in no less danger. 

After all, in two different incidents in November, Afghans turned their weapons on Americans trainers and eight U.S. troops died.  (In the past 13 months, this has happened to Western trainers six times.)  These stories, too, generally haven’t made it off the inside pages of papers.

In understanding how this relative lack of attention is possible, it’s worth noting that the American dead tend to come disproportionately from easy-to-ignore tough-luck regions of the country, and disproportionately as well from small town and rural America, where service in the armed forces may be more valued, but times are also rougher, unemployment rates higher, and opportunities less.  In this context, consider those November dead.  If you look through the minimalist announcements released by the Pentagon, as I did recently, you discover that they were almost all men in their twenties, and that none of them seem to have come from our giant metropolises.  Among the hometowns of the dead, there was no Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Houston.  There were a range of second-level cities including Flagstaff (Arizona), Rochester (New York), San Jose (California), Tallahassee (Florida), and Tucson (Arizona).

For the rest, from Aroostook, Maine, to Mesquite, Texas, the hometown names the Pentagon lists, whether they represent rural areas, small towns, parts of suburbs, or modest-sized cities, read like a dirge for places you’d never have heard of if you hadn’t yourself lived in the vicinity.  Here, for instance, are the hometowns of the six U.S. trainers who died in a single incident in late November when a “trusted” Afghan policeman opened fire on them. (Whether he was a Taliban infiltrator or simply a distraught and angry man remains an unanswered, possibly unanswerable, question): Athens (Ohio, pop. 21,909), Beaver Dam (Wisconsin, pop. 15,169), Mexico (Maine, pop. 2,959), Quartz Hill (California, pop. 9,890), Senoia (Georgia, pop. 3,720), Tell City (Indiana, pop. 7,845). 

Here, as well, are some, but hardly all, of the other hometowns of the November dead: Chesterfield (Michigan), Chittenango (New York), Conroe (Texas), Dalzell (South Carolina), Davie (Florida), Fort Smith (Arkansas), Freeman (Missouri), Frostburg (Maryland), Greenfield (Wisconsin), Greenwood (Louisiana), Mills River (North Carolina), Pago Pago (American Samoa), Sierra Vista (Arizona), Thomasville (Georgia), and Wyomissing (Pennsylvania).

Back in early 2007, Demographer William O’Hare and journalist Bill Bishop, working with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, which specializes in the overlooked rural areas of our country, crunched the numbers on the rural dead from America’s recent wars. According to their study, the death rate “for rural soldiers (24 per million adults aged 18 to 59) is 60% higher than the death rate for those soldiers from cities and suburbs (15 deaths per million).”  Recently, sociologist Katherine Curtis arrived at similar conclusions in a study using data on U.S. troop deaths in Iraq through 2007.  There’s no reason to believe that much has changed in the last three years. 

Keep in mind that a number of the soldiers who died in November had undoubtedly been in Afghanistan before, probably more than once, and had they lived (and stayed in the military), they would surely have been there again.  The reason is simple enough: the full weight of the American war state and its seemingly eternal state of war lands squarely on the relatively modest numbers of “volunteers,” often from out of the way places, who make up the American fighting force. 

The New York Times’s Bob Herbert, for instance, wrote an October column about an Army Sergeant First Class who died in Afghanistan while on his 12th tour of duty (four in Iraq, eight in Afghanistan).  By 2014, had he lived, he could easily have been closing in on 20 tours.  As Herbert indicated, he wasn’t typical, but multiple tours of duty are now the norm. 

An Epitaph from the Graveyard of Empires

In October 2009, six months after the Pentagon rescinded its ban on coverage of the arrival of the war dead, in an obvious rebuke to his predecessor, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Base.  There, inside the plane that brought the American dead home, he reportedly prayed over the coffins and was later photographed offering a salute as one of them was carried off the plane.  (Eighteen were unloaded that day, including three containing dead agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration.)  It was a moving ceremony and, as Byron York, columnist for the conservative Washington Times, pointed out not long after, the president wasn’t alone.  Thirty-five media outlets were there to cover him.  Like so much that has had to do with the Obama era, as York also noted, this particular post-Bush version of a sunshine policy didn’t last long in practice (though the president himself continues to talk about the American war dead). 

Now that the dead can be covered, with rare exceptions few seem to care.  For those who want to keep a significant American presence in Iraq, continue our war in Afghanistan until hell freezes over, and expand the Global War on Terror (stripped of its name in the Obama years but bolstered in reality), it’s undoubtedly more convenient if the dead, like their war, remain in those shadows. In the Bush years, the dead, despite bans, seemed to be everywhere.  In the Obama years, except to the wives and children, parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors they leave behind, they seem to have disappeared into the netherworld like the “shadows” we sometimes imagine them to be.  In this, they have followed the war in which they fought to a premature graveyard of American inattention. 

Last Friday, President Obama paid a surprise four-hour visit to American troops (including the wounded) at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, one of the vast American towns-cum-bases that the Pentagon built in that country — in this case, ominously enough, on the ruins of a Russian base from the disastrous Soviet war of the 1980s.  There, in an address to the troops, he tiptoed to the edge of Bush-style predictions of victory, assuring “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known” that “you will succeed in your mission.” 

Be careful what you wish for.  In a war in which it costs $400 a gallon to deliver fuel to an energy-guzzling military at the end of embattled supply lines thousands of miles long, another seven or eight years to a “victory” that leaves the U.S. in control of Afghanistan (Afghanistan!) while paying for a 400,000-man strong, American-trained army and police force, might be the worst fate possible. 

When it came to an explanation for why we were pursuing such a war so tenaciously over decades, the president simply reiterated the usual: that our goal was never again to let that country “serve as a safe haven for terrorists who would attack the United States of America.”  These days, when it comes to the “why” question (as in “Why Afghanistan?”), that’s about as much as this administration is likely to offer.  It seems that explanations, too, and even the need for them have disappeared into the shadows. 

Today, the true horror of those dead may lie in the fact that Americans aren’t even calling for an explanation.  It’s possible, in fact, that the Afghan War is now being fought largely due to the momentum that a war state in a perpetual state of war builds for itself, but who wants to hear that?  After all, that’s no way to “support our troops.” 

The president felt absolutely sure of one thing, though.  He told the Americans gathered at Bagram “without hesitation that there is no division on one thing, no hesitation on one thing — and that is the uniformed support of our men and women who are serving in the armed services. Everybody, everybody is behind you, everybody back home is behind you.”

Behind them?  Maybe.  But if so, we’re talking way, way behind.  Americans may support the troops to the skies, but they are taking no responsibility for the wars into which they are being endlessly recycled until, assumedly, they are used up, wounded, or killed. 

And by the way, don’t hold your breath for the day when some new Maya Lin begins to design an Iraq or Afghanistan Wall.  For America’s small town “heroes,” it’s surge and die.  A grim epitaph from Afghanistan, that proverbial graveyard of empires.

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.

[Note: I first visited the subject of America’s rural and small-town dead in January 2007 in two pieces: “Surging from Kenai” and “America’s Forgotten Dead.” Last week, at his invaluable Informed Comment blog, Juan Cole, too, noted the lack of attention to American deaths in Afghanistan.  (“That six U.S. soldiers were killed in one day was generally not news on the so-called news networks, though of course the major print media reported it.”)  In addition, let me mention, as I do periodically, how eternally useful I find (a crew who never seem to sleep) and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context weblog when it comes to keeping an eagle eye on our world of war.]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

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