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Archive for January, 2011

Posted by DownWithTyranny on January 29th, 2011

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

I wish I had more friends who read completely different things than I do. My friend Danny follows the strangest subjects and sends me stuff no one else has ever even heard of. I mean… I really do want to do another post– and will, I promise– on how corrupt David Rivera (R-FL) is but… Bran Symondson is someone I bet you never heard of. And you should.

Bran served in the British Army in Afghanistan. “Who didn’t?” you ask. Well, he’s a photographer, and he went back to Afghanistan after his term was up, so he could take pictures of the Afghan National Police. You know, the organization our governments say they’re pumping so much money into ($6 billion a year, year after year after year), with the idea that when they’re ready to take over the fight against the two dozen al-Qeada members left in the country, we can stand down.

Building up Afghanistan’s security forces has been fraught with setbacks, including a staggering attrition rate and poor training. Press reports suggest that the Afghan National Civil Order Police’s (ANCOP) attrition rate has been as high as 82 percent, and is currently somewhere above 50 percent. The Force’s operational capability suffers obviously as a result. As of February, only one of Afghanistan’s more than 360 districts has been deemed completely capable of conducting operations independently. Only 14 other districts received readiness ratings of 85 percent or higher.

Bran’s work is on display at Idea Generation Gallery at 11 Chance Street in London (very close to the best raw vegan place I found on my trip there last month, SAF in Shoreditch) from today until February 20. The show is called The Best View Of Heaven Is From Hell, and the photos “shine a light on the idiosyncrasies of a culture almost entirely alien to the western paradigm– one with its roots very much in opium, religion and open homosexuality.” Dazed Digital, a photography magazine, talked to Bran “about the largely hidden world he captured in the candid eye of his lens upon his return.” While there he had been “almost warmed,” he said, to the ANP, “this kind of tribe within a tribe… There was an intimacy about the way they groomed each other that was very effeminate, despite the fact they lived in a very harsh environment.” The “vast cultural differences” he observed made him want to return to Afghanistan to take photographs.

Dazed Digital: What did you hope to convey in the pictures you took when you returned?

Bran Symondson: I really just wanted to convey the softer side of a war zone. I mean, to most people Afghanistan conjures images of troops jumping out of helicopters, but it is a very beautiful country and there is an underside to the conflict that no one here ever sees. I mean, you can really understand why there was a hippie trail through the country in the 1960s: fields of flowering poppies, pomegranate trees, snow-capped mountains… It’s stunning, and when you are there it takes your breath away.

Dazed Digital: Do you think this softer side comes from the fact that opium use is so prevalent?

Bran Symondson: Yeah, I think so. They are all stoned and there is no getting away from that. When I was actually serving, it would sometimes be hard to put a patrol together because lots of them were wasted on hash or opium. It’s changing slowly, though. Maybe in a few generations they could become a police force as we understand it, but our concept of policing and their concept of policing are completely different. What people don’t realise is that bribery out there is a completely open thing. We are a bit arrogant to think that we don’t live around bribery and that everything here is above the law, because it’s basically bullshit– you only have to scratch below the surface to see how the government, banks and corporations work; it’s all backhanders. And yet, we go over there, and because the bribery is obvious, we claim it’s outrageous.

Dazed Digital: Why do you think homosexuality and the subjugation of women are so prevalent in the Afghani culture?

Bran Symondson: I think the men find solace in each other because of the lack of women. I mean, men there don’t even socialise with women. It’s very bizarre. Most of the women are actually kept in compounds. I think the oldest girl I saw who wasn’t in a burka was probably about twelve years old. Women used to secretly ask us for pens and stuff, but if they were caught with them they would get a serious beating. There are two sides to that though, and there is a photograph in the exhibition that deals with it called Rude To A Woman. It shows a policeman with his feet chained up and another policeman holding the chains. The reason I am showing that image is that it really epitomises the segregation between men and women.

Dazed Digital: In what sense?

Bran Symondson: Well, the guy in chains was at a roadblock and a woman turned up on the back of a motorbike in a burka. He wanted to pat her down, knowing the Taliban use women as mules to carry weapons. Because his colleagues felt he had been rude to her they put him in chains for a week. In a way, I think it’s a bit like having a beautiful pet bird you so much that you keep it in a cage. Women are like that out there. People forget that this behaviour is only a few decades old though. Afghanistan was a very cosmopolitan country in the 1900s. At the end of the day, what we have now this is just one man in hiding who is the leader a bunch of guys who are afraid of women. They hide behind the mask of religion, but that’s what it all really comes down to.

I was in Afghanistan twice, late in the ’60s and early in the ’70s, for over six months. I was living on the ground– not one night in a hotel– often with families. I never met an Afghan man who wasn’t zonked on hash and/or opium. Not just stoned, zonked. Not in Kabul, not in the countryside. And as for women, my best friend got married while I was there, living in his family’s compound. I was the guest of honor at the wedding. I never even saw the wife, not before, not that night and not in the months afterward when we lived in the same house. Not even in a burqa.

UPDATE: Suicide Bomber Takes Out Deputy Governor Of Kandahar

Abdul Latif Ashna won’t be coming to for the exhibition in Shoreditch this month. The Deputy Governor of Kandahar province was assassinated today by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. “The loss of a great deputy governor like this is a setback. What we’ve seen is consistently Afghan government leaders emerge and the people continue to rally in an effort to establish security in this province,” said US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who was visiting Kandahar at the time.

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Posted by on January 27th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

I wrote yesterday that all the happy talk on the war in Afghanistan is just that, and that 2014 is not the end of the story by a long chalk. It's a theme taken up by the respected expert Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network today in a talk at the Davos 2011 Open Forum. In a summary of her thinking, she writes:

International actors in Afghanistan have long been torn between negative trends, bleak assessments, ambitious strategies and ritualistic reports of hopeful developments. Their publics at home are uneasy about the lack of clarity on why their forces are in Afghanistan and what exactly they are achieving. Well-informed diplomats and policymakers are often very pessimistic in private, having seen the limitations of intervention from up-close, even though they cannot repeat their views in public. It is clear that international forces cannot stay indefinitely and that the current level of spending is unsustainable, but there are serious misgivings as to what might happen once they leave.

…Not enough thought has gone into what will remain once the numbers have been achieved and the narrative of success has been completed. At the moment the focus is clearly on the honourable retreat for the internationals.

…The military have also significantly ramped up their media and communication strategy, in an attempt to shape the narrative and perceptions of the transition process. Much of the current reporting on Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency, particularly in the major news outlets is based on briefings by military officers or ‘unnamed officials’. The coming years are probably, more than anything else, going to be a battle for perceptions –  focused on international audiences and aimed at bringing the troops home.

ISAF need a story that allows them to claim ‘mission accomplished’. But the Afghan population threatens to be left behind with a factionalised political arena, a well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law, an insurgency that is likely to resurge, and a fragile government propped up by foreign funding and a limited military presence. Not despite our best efforts, but quite possibly because of them.

And in a companion piece for AAN:

It has been said many times before, but the gap between rhetoric and what people experience is mind-boggling and ultimately leaves you feeling speechless. How often do you want to keep pointing out that media reporting is being manipulated; that the gap between what policymakers believe privately and what they propagate in public is so vast that it must hurt their brains (not to mention their conscience); that the definitions of success are being defined by what can be achieved and measured, rather than by what could be relevant.

It is the gap between rhetoric and empirical experience which dictates that the US military will try to leave a rump presence in Afghanistan after 2014, to keep the cracks papered over. And we're already seeing the kind of government by elite that is likely to emerge there, propped up by the US presence.

Last year, I wrote that US policy on poppy eradication amounted to simply picking the winners of Afghanistan's drug trade and this year that has come to pass.

US embassy cables published recently by WikiLeaks expose the insider opinion that Afghan officials are using poppy eradication teams to weed out the competitors of major traffickers with whom they are linked.

The leaked cables follow previous observations, investigations, government reports and testimonials by former contractors that say eradication efforts have long been corrupted and misused, and that Afghan officials have consistently thwarted any serious attempts at stemming the heroin trade.

…US officials talk a good game to the public about the Taliban's links to heroin, but rarely do they admit the extent to which their closest allies are involved in the industry.

These cables show some of their real understandings, and what insiders, investigations and UN statistics have already suggested: that the Taliban is just one fish in a sea of heroin traffickers, and that when targeted eradication efforts are employed by the Afghan government, they increase the profits of major drug networks linked to those in power. This in turn increases the price of opium and heroin, bringing those networks huge profits.

Understanding such economic incentives suggests that those lobbying for eradication as a policy may be linked to those who benefit from the rising price. These lobbyists represent the world's largest heroin dealers.

The "well-established network of ‘new elites’ who are above the law" described by van Bijlert are drug dealers placed there by US policy. They are now so powerful that to go after them would utterly wreck the happy-talk narrative and show Afghanistan for the disaster in foreign adventurism that it truly is, so the US and its allies will do nothing…and eventually, will leave. At that point, this elite will be entirely in charge, with no brakes or balances. It's not going to be pretty.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 27th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Defeat al-Qaida
Make the taliban irrelevant
Make Afghanistan a viable state

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Posted by on January 27th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

President Obama had some happy-talk on the Afghan occupation last night, saying:

In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11.

Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.

And just hours before, Saint General Petraeus was helping that happy-talk along in a letter to US troops in Afghanistan.

Petreaus said that over the last year, the U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign had succeeded in halting "a downward security spiral in much of" Afghanistan and even reversed "it in some areas of great importance."

As evidence, Petraeus said that despite occassional attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital and surrounding region "enjoyed impressive security throughout the latter half of 2010." He called the reduction in insurgent strikes there "particularly noteworthy given that nearly one-fifth of the Afghan population lives in the greater Kabul area and Afghan forces lead in all but one of the (Kabul) province's districts."

Petraeus said "hard-won progress" also was made in the southern Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the focus of last year's surge of an additional 30,000 U.S. forces, and there were "advances" in areas of the east, west and north.

The problem is, none of it is true, as the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) has noted today in a report: It's just happy-talk.

“No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim, messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of the withdrawal,” the group said in its quarterly report, which is aimed at helping aid groups make decisions involving security.

The report is not released to media but Reuters obtained a copy.

“(The messages) are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here,” the group said.

It found militant attacks were up 64% last year compared with 2009, equivalent to an average of 33 incidents a day, and while violence may have decreased in some areas, it had dramatically increased in others.

“If losses are taken in one area they are simply compensated for in another as has been the dynamic since this conflict started,” ANSO said. 

And the latest public report from the group, covering the last quarter of 2010, underlines their assertion that it's all just spin. You can read the PDF here but here are a couple of key figures that tell a very different story from that pushed by Petraeus

A graph:

Monthly Attacks 06-10 

And a map:

Provincial insecurity Dec10 

Meanwhile, the senior NATO civilian in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, is saying even 2014 is not the end of NATO's troop presence there.

NATO's Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan Mark Sedwill made the remarks at a joint press conference with Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb after the two held a meeting at Helsinki in Finland.

Xinhua quoted Sedwill as saying that the transfer of power in 2014 will not be the end of NATO's operation in Afghanistan, but the beginning of a new phase of the campaign.

NATO also claimed that the participatory countries would continue to be present in Afghanistan, but only the role of NATO troops will change.

Sedwill insisted that a long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the international community would be required even after 2014 to nurture Afghan security forces, and for the country's socio-economic development.

Stubb said that the transition in 2014 does not mean a withdrawal, adding, "We will be there as long as we are needed and required."

Don't believe what you're being told – the Pentagon, bolstered by the neoliberal elite who believe in beneficient American hegemony, intend to stay forever if we let them. The current aim is only to achieve an excuse for drawing down troops to Iraqi levels, around 30,000 or so "non-combat" troops who won't hit the front pages every week. And in Iraq too, we've been hearing from the military that the 2011 pullout date Obama said would be kept isn't set in stone either. The idea is that US troops can stay longer if the Iraqis ask them to – and Iraqi arms can always be twisted so that they ask. Neo-whatever dogma of American empire, miliary wishes to keep excuses for larger budgets and general officers' wishes for career enhancing postings – all working together in happy harmony at the expense of lives and dollars we can't afford to lose.

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Posted by Peace Action West on January 26th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

Today, General David Petraeus published a letter to the troops in Afghanistan about what’s ahead in the coming year. He praised their efforts and let them know to expect “much hard work” in 2011 and a “difficult” way ahead. One thing he neglected to mention? The July 2011 troop withdrawals that President Obama first promised in his West Point speech in 2009. Spencer Ackerman notes the absence over at Danger Room:


In other words: all around Afghanistan, 2011 is going to be a difficult year, characterized by a tough fight. Petraeus has already intensified the war since assuming command in July, with increases in air strikes and raids by Special Operations Forcestanks and rockets in Helmand and Kandahar; knocking down empty Afghan villages that the Taliban turned into bombfests; and  accelerated development of Afghan security forces. His letter shows every indication of maintaining that tempo this year.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that there’s no mention of July 2011 — what the Obama team used to call its “inflection point” for transitioning security to Afghan control. Instead, Petraeus writes that the war got “a further boost” by NATO countries committing to support “President Karzai’s goal of Afghan forces being in the lead throughout Afghanistan by the end of 2014.” (Some want a “strategic partnership” with Afghanistan “beyond 2014″ as well, he notes.)


This is another in a long line of signs that the administration needs to face serious pressure to articulate what exactly they intend to do in July. They’re going to need pressure from the public and Congress to give them the political space necessary to push back against an overeager military leadership and hawkish Republicans who are already planning to go after the squishy transition date.

Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal expresses a frustration that I and many people share in constantly reiterating the same arguments about the war in Afghanistan and why we need a different approach. His post offers an important reminder about why we must continue to raise our voices and we must not relent in pressuring the administration and Congress until this tragic war comes to an end.


Sometimes when you focus so much energy on strategy and tactics the human toll is forgotten. Then I read stories like this one in the Los Angeles Times, which recounts the devastating impact of the war on just one Marine regiment, and I realize that voices must continually raised against the war in Afghanistan and the manner in which it is being prosecuted…

…Please read the entire article. It packs an emotional wallop; but it also tells a story that needs to be re-told – about a war that is tangential to US interests; that is being poorly prosecuted by our military leaders; that has been sold by our political leaders as though it is in this nation’s vital interests when it is anything but; and that is wreaking a terrible toll on both our fighting men and women in uniform and their families.

But above all, it is a reminder that this terrible and unnecessary war that is, in reality, doing very little to keep Americans safe is ruining too many young lives, both here and in Afghanistan.



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Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 26th, 2011

Because It's Time vote promotion

We need your help to pick the best comments from our “Because It’s Time” wall to be used in the next Rethink Afghanistan video!

We’re approaching the one-year anniversary of the launch of President Obama’s escalated military campaign in Afghanistan, so we here at Brave New Foundation decided we’d mark the occasion with a new Rethink Afghanistan video that will convey the reasons why it’s time to end the war. We put out a call to our supporters to share their photo and the reasons why they think it’s time for the war to end on our “Because It’s Time” wall. Almost 1,000 people responded, and the community created a fantastic collage of images and personal statements to take a strong public stand for peace.

In the coming weeks, we’ll use the best comments left on the site to create a new video that sends a strong message to Washington, D.C. that it’s time to end the war.

This is where you come in. We’ve narrowed submissions to just 20 finalists, and we need you to vote on your favorite entries to help us cut this number down to the top three comments and participants. The winners of this vote will get the chance to star in our latest video declaring to policymakers that it’s time to end the war.

Please take a minute to vote on your top three favorite reasons to end the Afghanistan War, and stay tuned for future updates about the results of the vote!

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Posted by on January 25th, 2011

From our partners at

By Dave Anderson

I'm dittoing Bernard Finel's argument on the COIN tactical to strategic disconnect:

By trying to suggest that local, operational successes can be assessed independently of strategic outcomes he is reinforcing the main problem in our discussions of COIN. Look, good COIN is COIN that defeats the insurgency. Any use of force has to be measured, ultimately, by the political outcomes it achieves. This is particularly true since the nature of these conflicts are intimately political. You can judge whether, say, an amphibious operation was successful based on whether you establish a bridgehead, by the number of losses, etc. But what in the world does it mean to do "good COIN" if insurgent activity or control expands in the process. You just can't assess it independent of the outcomes.

This is a particularly problematic issue because, I would argue, much of what passes for COIN theory reflects little more than the reification of perceived operational needs. If I send troops into a region to fight an insurgency, the only way they can plan operations is with some local intelligence and cooperation. So, in order to allow tactical units to operate, then need to build bridges to the local community, and the best way to do that is by — on one hand — offering goods and services and — on the other — making collaboration somewhat safer. I get all of that. But what remains unclear to me is how this turns into strategic success, and here I think the theory becomes much, much fuzzier.

COIN as currently practiced by the United States has a massive disconnect between what happens on the ground and the political superstructure and goal sets:

the political costs of the COIN strategy were very high; promises of ten to twenty year wars, consumption of the society's productive surplus, the consistent threat of de-pacification, severe social and domestic political instability and legitimacy threats. These costs could be borne if the theatre of war was critical to the existence and maitenance of a desired social order as these costs were borne in World War Two. However in both examples, especially in Vietnam, the objective loss function was fairly small as Vietnam was a tertiary interest for the United States.

COIN today promises the same type of inputs — ten to twenty year wars, operational costs of one to two points of annual GDP at a time of structural deficits and domestic fiscal crisis — with the same type of outcomes — weak, client states in need of continual support in secondary or tertiary areas of interest.

And shockingly the public of democracies don't like COIN nor do they want to spend those resources for minimal real gains in security that operational and tactical successes may or may not generate.

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Posted by DownWithTyranny on January 25th, 2011

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

More than ever– thanks to an astonishingly partisan, corporate-oriented Supreme Court– the easiest way to influence public policy is through legalistic bribes to Members of Congress. The Republican Party, one of the two mainstream political parties, has been 100% captured by this business model and it’s only arguable by what percentage the other party– the one that’s supposed to represent ordinary Americans– is in the same bag. Some say it’s less than half but most observers say they’re far closer to the GOP when it comes to systemic corruption and that the Blue Dogs, New Dems, DLC, Third Way and all that faux-moderate crap is just window dressing for the same out-and-out corruption racjet that rules the roost over in top Republican circles.

Of course it isn’t only check book politics that determines the Republican agenda. Never forget the importance of Hate Talk Radio and Fox. Yesterday at Roll Call Christina Bellatoni wrote that the media has “an increasing sway on how Members shape their agenda.” And she wasn’t talking about rational information from Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Thom Hartmann or Nicole Sandler. “To be fair”– it’s an Inside-the-Beltway outlet she’s writing for with an Inside-the-Beltway readership– she does do the false equivalency-boogie, if just half heartedly.

At a time when Rush Limbaugh reaches as many people as vote in Florida and California combined, and when Jon Stewart can draw several hundred thousand people to the nation’s capital, these outsized personalities based far outside the Beltway have become as much a part of Washington’s political ecosystem as the lawmakers themselves.

…A Republican strategist and former top Republican National Committee aide told Roll Call that Members have one of two reactions when constituents start a message with “I just heard on Rush today …”– “joy and panic.”

Limbaugh has more than 20 million listeners, and most Members couldn’t dream of their message being so widely spread back home, the GOP strategist said.

“You’ve got to break eggs to make an omelette, and if you’ve never been mentioned on these shows in either a favorable or less than favorable context, one has to wonder, are you actually making an impact?” the strategist said.

If Limbaugh or Beck pushes an issue, his audience picks up the phone and taps out e-mails, asking lawmakers to take action. “These Members understand that their constituents are listening to this, and the consequence will elicit action that will place pressure on them,” the strategist said.

Ron Bonjean, who was a top aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) before the Democratic takeover in 2006, said outside influences have ballooned at almost warp speed over the past few years.

“It used to be that if Rush said something on the air and the Washington Times wrote an editorial, it was earth-shattering. But now there is so much competition and [Members] are hearing from a lot more voices,” Bonjean told Roll Call.

Bonjean said Republicans frequently assert their independence from conservative talkers, but he admitted, “The show hosts definitely have an influence over the decision-making of leaders.”

The liberal watchdog group Media Matters has compiled examples of Limbaugh and Fox themes that made it from the airwaves to the floors of the House and Senate.

After Fox replayed “sting” videos showing alleged fraud at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure to cut ACORN’s government funding. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) wrote a resolution honoring James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles for producing the ACORN videos, and 31 of his GOP colleagues signed on. It never received a vote.

When Beck suggested on his show in June that an Obama administration drilling decision helped liberal billionaire George Soros, two Republican Members repeated the claim using similar language on the House floor. Limbaugh called the BP oil spill fund set up last year a “slush fund,” a term repeated by Members in television appearances and during floor debates.

With the addition of the tea party movement to the national conversation, the spin cycle has added a setting that could be labeled “outrage.” Ideas that hosts use to gin up their base go from television to the House floor to the cardboard signs displayed by tea partyers on the National Mall.

“The ecosystem of each ideological movement within the political parties is much bigger than just the elected officials,” said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House who now leads the progressive group New Democrat Network.

Rosenberg identified religious groups, community organizations, labor unions and activist outlets such as as holding more influence over the agenda. On the left, he sees MSNBC, progressive blogs and Stewart’s Comedy Central as dramatically changing the conversation in Washington, and he said their influence has increased in recent years.

Late last year, Stewart used The Daily Show to advocate the passage of the 9/11 responders bill. It was going nowhere but somehow was resurrected in the eleventh hour of the lame-duck session after his show highlighted first responders in a highly rated segment.

Several Republicans privately admitted Members carefully monitor what’s being said on conservative airwaves to make sure they aren’t contradicting it or enraging talkers.

Democrats needled the GOP in early 2009 over whether Limbaugh was actually the leader of the Republican Party. When then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele said Limbaugh was an “entertainer” and not one of the party’s leaders, he was forced to apologize after days of negative headlines and backlash on Limbaugh’s show. Steele relented: “There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”

Allen West, on the other hand, seems to be taking on the role of right-wing entertainer– even even makes haters and sociopaths like Beck and Limbaugh look nearly sane.

UPDATE: Another Way To Exert Pressure

I don’t imagine this one will work– but I lent my name to it because I believe in the cause. David Swanson at War Is A Crime organized over 150 prominent activists, authors, and academics who are launching a petition drive. Here’s how it begins. Please read the whole thing– and sign it if you’d like– at the link above.

We the undersigned share with nearly two-thirds of our fellow Americans the conviction that our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should be ended and that overall military spending should be dramatically reduced.  This has been our position for years and will continue to be, and we take it seriously.  We vow not to support President Barack Obama for renomination for another term in office, and to actively seek to impede his war policies unless and until he reverses them. 
Since he became president, Obama has had three opportunities to work with Congress to reduce military spending, but instead has championed increases in that spending each time, despite the fact that this spending represents a clear threat to the economic future of our country.  He has continued as well to try to hide the true costs of the wars by funding them with off-the-books supplemental spending bills, despite the fact that he campaigned against this very practice.

The President has escalated a war on Afghanistan in which rising civilian deaths and atrocities have become routine.  

Among the signers are:

Elliott Adams, president, Veterans For Peace
Nellie Hester Bailey, Harlem Tenants Council & Black Agenda Report
Medea Benjamin,  cofounder, Code Pink*
Frida Berrigan, War Resisters League*
William Blum, author of books on U.S. foreign policy
Patty Casazza, 9/11 widow, former 9/11 Commission Family Steering Committee Member
Jeff Cohen, author/media critic
Sibel Edmonds, founder & director, National Security Whistleblowers Coalition
Roy Eidelson, past president, Psychologists for Social Responsibility
Daniel Ellsberg, former State and Defense Dept. official, whistleblower of Pentagon Papers
Lisa Fithian, convenor, United for Peace and Justice
Chris Hedges, author, Death of the Liberal Class
Steve Hendricks, author, A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial
Dahr Jamail, journalist/author
Kathy Kelly, Voices for Creative Nonviolence*
Howie Klein, publisher,
Rabbi Michael Lerner, Tikkun/Network of Spiritual Progressives
David MacMichael, Ph.D., former CIA analyst
Ethan McCord, IVAW, VFP, former army specialist from “collateral murder” video
Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst
Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy*
Bruce Nestor, past president, National Lawyers Guild
Gareth Porter, author and journalist
Bill Quigley, Center for Constitutional Rights and professor of law, Loyola University New Orleans*
Jesselyn Radack, former Department of Justice legal adviser
Garett Reppenhagen, chair of the board of directors, Iraq Veterans Against the War
Coleen Rowley, retired FBI agent, one of TIME’s 2002 Persons of the Year
Michael Steven Smith, Law and Disorder Radio; board member, Center for Constitutional Rights*
John Stockwell, former intelligence officer, author
Elizabeth De La Vega, former assistant U.S. attorney, author
Marcy Winograd, former Democratic congressional candidate
Ann Wright, US Army Reserve Colonel and former US diplomat

*for identification only

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Posted by alexthurston on January 25th, 2011

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently took a four-day tour of the Middle East, at each stop telling various allies and enemies, in classic American fashion, what they must do.  And yet as she spoke, events in Lebanon, IraqAlgeria, and even Egypt seemed to spin ever more out of American control.  Meanwhile, the regime in Tunisia, one of the autocratic and repressive states Washington has been supporting for years even as it prattles on about “democracy” and “human rights,” began to crumble.   

In Doha, Qatar, in front of an elite audience peppered with officials from the region, Clinton suddenly issued a warning to Arab leaders that people had “grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and that “in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” With Tunisia boiling over and food riots in Algeria and Jordan, she insisted that it was time for America’s allies to mend their ways and open themselves to “reform.” A New York Times report, typical of coverage here, described her talk as a “scalding critique” which also “suggested a frustration that the Obama administration’s message to the Arab world had not gotten through.”

And there, of course, was the rub.  After all, since Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in January 2009, U.S. foreign policy has essentially been in late-second-term-Bush mode and largely on autopilot, led by a holdover Secretary of Defense and a Secretary of State who might well have been chosen by John McCain, had he won the presidency.  Look at Clinton’s address again and, beyond a reasonably accurate description of some regional problems (and that frustration), only the vaguest of bromides are on offer.

The problem: Washington’s foreign-policy planners seem to be out of ideas, literally brain-dead, just as the world is visibly in flux.  In their reactions, even in their rhetoric, there is remarkably little new under the sun, though from Tunisia to India, China to Brazil, our world is changing before our eyes.  

One of the new things on this planet has certainly been WikiLeaks, whose document dumps were initially greeted by the Obama administration with stunned puzzlement and then with an instructively blind and repressive fury.  (Forget the fact that the State Department should be thanking its lucky stars for WikiLeaks’ latest document dump.  Overshadowed by the Pentagon as it is, all the ensuing attention gave it a prominence that is increasingly ill-deserved.)  As TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website and is the author of Engaging the Muslim World, makes clear, it’s not just America’s Arab allies who are “sinking into the sand.”  These days, for the Obama administration, it’s a quagmire world.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Cole discusses Washington’s backing of corrupt autocratic regimes globally, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

The Corruption Game 
What the Tunisian Revolution and WikiLeaks Tell Us about American Support for Corrupt Dictatorships in the Muslim World
By Juan Cole

Here’s one obvious lesson of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011: paranoia about Muslim fundamentalist movements and terrorism is causing Washington to make bad choices that will ultimately harm American interests and standing abroad.  State Department cable traffic from capitals throughout the Greater Middle East, made public thanks to WikiLeaks, shows that U.S. policy-makers have a detailed and profound picture of the depths of corruption and nepotism that prevail among some “allies” in the region. 

The same cable traffic indicates that, in a cynical Great Power calculation, Washington continues to sacrifice the prospects of the region’s youth on the altar of “security.”  It is now forgotten that America’s biggest foreign policy headache, the Islamic Republic of Iran, arose in response to American backing for Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the despised Shah who destroyed the Iranian left and centrist political parties, paving the way for the ayatollahs’ takeover in 1979. 

State Department cables published via WikiLeaks are remarkably revealing when it comes to the way Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his extended family (including his wife Leila’s Trabelsi clan) fastened upon the Tunisian economy and sucked it dry.  The riveting descriptions of U.S. diplomats make the presidential “family” sound like True Blood’s vampires overpowering Bontemps, Louisiana.

In July of 2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador dined with Nesrine Ben Ali el-Materi and Sakher el-Materi, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, at their sumptuous mansion.  Materi, who rose through nepotism to dominate Tunisia’s media, provided a 12-course dinner with Kiwi juice — “not normally available here” — and “ice cream and frozen yoghurt he had flown in from Saint Tropez,” all served by an enormous staff of well-paid servants.  The ambassador remarked on the couple’s pet tiger, “Pasha,” which consumed “four chickens a day” at a time of extreme economic hardship for ordinary Tunisians. 

Other cables detail the way the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans engaged in a Tunisian version of insider trading, using their knowledge of the president’s upcoming economic decisions to scarf up real estate and companies they knew would suddenly spike in value.  In 2006, the U.S. ambassador estimated that 50% of the economic elite of Tunisia was related by blood or marriage to the president, a degree of nepotism hard to match outside some of the Persian Gulf monarchies. 

Despite full knowledge of the corruption and tyranny of the regime, the U.S. embassy concluded in July 2009: “Notwithstanding the frustrations of doing business here, we cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral.” 

The notion that, if the U.S. hadn’t given the Tunisian government hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid over the past two and a half decades, while helping train its military and security forces, a shadowy fringe group calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb” might have established a “toehold” in the country was daft.  Yet this became an all-weather, universal excuse for bad policy.

In this regard, Tunisia has been the norm when it comes to American policy in the Muslim world.  The Bush administration’s firm support for Ben Ali makes especially heinous the suggestion of some neoconservative pundits that George W. Bush’s use of democratization rhetoric for neo-imperialist purposes somehow inspired the workers and internet activists of Tunisia (none of whom ever referenced the despised former US president).  It would surely have been smarter for Washington to cut the Ben Ali regime off without a dime, at least militarily, and distance itself from his pack of jackals.  The region is, of course, littered with dusty, creaking, now exceedingly nervous dictatorships in which government is theft.  The U.S. receives no real benefits from its damaging association with them.

No Dominoes to Fall

The Bush administration’s deeply flawed, sometimes dishonest Global War on Terror replayed the worst mistakes of Cold War policy. One of those errors involved recreating the so-called domino theory — the idea that the U.S. had to make a stand in Vietnam, or else Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and the rest of Asia, if not the world, would fall to communism.  It wasn’t true then — the Soviet Union was, at the time, less than two decades from collapsing — and it isn’t applicable now in terms of al-Qaeda.  Then and now, though, that domino theory prolonged the agony of ill-conceived wars.

Despite the Obama administration’s abandonment of the phrase “war on terror,” the impulses encoded in it still powerfully shape Washington’s policy-making, as well as its geopolitical fears and fantasies.  It adds up to an absurdly modernized version of domino theory.  This irrational fear that any small setback for the U.S. in the Muslim world could lead straight to an Islamic caliphate lurks beneath many of Washington’s pronouncements and much of its strategic planning. 

A clear example can be seen in the embassy cable that acquiesced in Washington’s backing of Ben Ali for fear of the insignificant and obscure “al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.” Despite the scary name, this small group was not originally even related to Usamah Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, but rather grew out of the Algerian Muslim reformist movement called Salafism. 

If the U.S. stopped giving military aid to Ben Ali, it was implied, Bin Laden might suddenly be the caliph of Tunis.  This version of the domino theory — a pretext for overlooking a culture of corruption, as well as human rights abuses against dissidents — has become so widespread as to make up the warp and woof of America’s secret diplomatic messaging.

Sinking Democracy in the Name of the War on Terror

Take Algeria, for instance.  American military assistance to neighboring Algeria has typically grown from nothing before September 11th to nearly a million dollars a year. It may be a small sum in aid terms, but it is rapidly increasing, and it supplements far more sizeable support from the French.  It also involves substantial training for counterterrorism; that is, precisely the skills also needed to repress peaceful civilian protests. 

Ironically, the Algerian generals who control the strings of power were the ones responsible for radicalizing the country’s Muslim political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).  Allowed to run for office in 1992, that party won an overwhelming majority in parliament.  Shocked and dismayed, the generals abruptly abrogated the election results.  We will never know if the FIS might have evolved into a parliamentary, democratic party, as later happened to the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, the leaders of which had been Muslim fundamentalists in the 1990s. 

Angered at being deprived of the fruits of its victory, however, FIS supporters went on the offensive. Some were radicalized and formed an organization they called the Armed Islamic Group, which later became an al-Qaeda affiliate. (A member of this group, Ahmed Ressam, attempted to enter the U.S. as part of the “millennial plot” to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, but was apprehended at the border.)  A bloody civil war then broke out in which the generals and the more secular politicians were the winners, though not before 150,000 Algerians died.  As with Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia, Paris and Washington consider President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika (elected in 1999) a secular rampart against the influence of radical Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria as well as among the Algerian-French population in France.

To outward appearances, in the first years of the twenty-first century, Algeria regained stability under Bouteflika and his military backers, and the violence subsided.  Critics charged, however, that the president connived at legislative changes, making it possible for him to run for a third term, a decision that was bad for democracy.  In the 2009 presidential election, he faced a weak field of rivals and his leading opponent was a woman from an obscure Trotskyite party.

Cables from the U.S. embassy (revealed again by WikiLeaks) reflected a profound unease with a growing culture of corruption and nepotism, even though it was not on a Tunisian scale.  Last February, for example, Ambassador David D. Pearce reported that eight of the directors of the state oil company Sonatrach were under investigation for corruption.  He added, “This scandal is the latest in a dramatically escalating series of investigations and prosecutions that we have seen since last year involving Algerian government ministries and public enterprises.  Significantly, many of the ministries affected are headed by ministers considered close to Algerian President Bouteflika…” 

And this was nothing new. More than three years earlier, the embassy in Algiers was already sounding the alarm.  Local observers, it reported to Washington, were depicting President Bouteflika’s brothers “Said and Abdallah, as being particularly rapacious.”  Corruption was spreading into an increasingly riven and contentious officer corps.  Unemployment among youth was so bad that they were taking to the Mediterranean on rickety rafts in hopes of getting to Europe and finding jobs.  And yet when you read the WikiLeaks cables you find no recommendations to stop supporting the Algerian government.

As usual when Washington backs corrupt regimes in the name of its war on terror, democracy suffers and things slowly deteriorate.  Bouteflika’s flawed elections which aimed only at ensuring his victory, for instance, actively discouraged moderate fundamentalists from participating and some observers now think that Algeria, already roiled by food riots, could face Tunisian-style popular turmoil.  (It should be remembered, however, that the Algerian military and secret police, with years of grim civil-war experience behind them, are far more skilled at oppressive techniques of social control than the Tunisian army.) 

Were oil-rich Algeria, a much bigger country than Tunisia, to become unstable, it would be a strategically more striking and even less predictable event.  Blame would have to be laid not just at the feet of Bouteflika and his corrupt cronies, but at those of his foreign backers, deeply knowledgeable (as the WikiLeaks cables indicate) but set in their policy ways.

The Ben Alis of Central Asia

Nor is the problem confined to North Africa or even anxious U.S.-backed autocrats in the Arab world.  Take the natural gas and gold-rich Central Asian country of Uzbekistan with a population of about 27 million, whose corruption the U.S. embassy was cabling about as early as 2006.  The dictatorial but determinedly secular regime of President Islam Karimov was an early Bush administration ally in its Global War on Terror, quite happy to provide Washington with torture-inspired confessions from “al-Qaeda” operatives, most of whom, according to former British ambassador Craig Murray, were simply ordinary Uzbek dissidents.  (Although Uzbeks have a Muslim cultural heritage, decades of Soviet rule left most of the population highly secularized, and except in the Farghana Valley, the Muslim fundamentalist movement is tiny.)  Severe human rights abuses finally caused even the Bush administration to criticize Karimov, leading Tashkent to withdraw basing rights in that country from the U.S. military. 

In recent years, however, a rapprochement has occurred, as Washington’s regional security obsessions once again came to the fore and the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt ramped up.  The Obama administration is now convinced that it needs Uzbekistan for the transit of supplies to Afghanistan and that evidently trumps all other policy considerations.  As a result, Washington is now providing Uzbekistan with hundreds of millions of dollars in Pentagon contracts, a recipe for further corruption. 

Last spring, one Central Asian government — Kyrgyzstan’s — fell, thanks to popular discontent, which should have been a warning to Washington, and yet U.S. officials already appear to have forgotten what lessons those events held for its policies in the region. As long as ruler Kurmanbek Bakiev allowed the U.S. to use Manas Air Base for the transit and supply of American troops in Afghanistan, Washington overlooked his corruption and his authoritarian ways.  Then it turned out that his regime was not as stable as had been assumed.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb in such situations: bad policy creates even worse policy.  The Obama administration’s mistake in ramping up its Afghan War left it needing ever more supplies, worrying about perilous supply lines through Pakistan, and so vulnerable to transit blackmail by the ruling kleptocracies of Central Asia.  When their populations, too, explode into anger, the likely damage to U.S. interests could be severe. 

And keep in mind that, as the State Department again knows all too well, Afghanistan itself is increasingly just a huge, particularly decrepit version of Ben Ali’s Tunisia. U.S. diplomats were at least somewhat wary of Ben Ali.  In contrast, American officials wax fulsome in their public praise of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (even if privately they are all too aware of the weakness and corruption of “the mayor of Kabul”).  They continue to insist that the success of his government is central to the security of the North American continent, and for that reason, Washington is spending billions of dollars propping him up.

Corruption Triumphant in the Name of Counterterrorism

Sometimes it seems that all corrupt regimes backed by the U.S. are corrupt in the same repetitive way.  For instance, one form of corruption U.S. embassy cables particularly highlighted when it came to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans in Tunisia was the way they offered “loans” to their political supporters and family members via banks they controlled or over which they had influence. 

Since these recipients understood that they did not actually have to repay the loans, the banks were weakened and other businesses then found it difficult to get credit, undermining the economy and employment. Thanks to the Jasmine revolution, the problem finally is beginning to be addressed. After the flight of Ben Ali, the Central Bank director was forced to resign, and the new government seized the assets of the Zitoune Bank, which belonged to one of his son-in-laws. 

Similarly, in Afghanistan, Da Kabul Bank, founded by Karzai ally Sherkan Farnood, was used as a piggy bank for Karzai’s presidential campaign and for loans to members of his family as well as the families of the warlords in his circle. Recipients included Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and Haseen Fahim, the son of his vice president and former Northern Alliance warlord Marshal Mohammad Fahim.  Some of the money was used to buy real estate in Dubai.  When a real estate bust occurred in that country, the value of those properties as collateral plummeted. 

With recipients unable to service or repay their debts, the bank teetered on the edge of insolvency with potentially dire consequences for the entire Afghan financial system, as desperate crowds gathered to withdraw their deposits.  In the end, the bank was taken over by an impoverished Afghan government, which undoubtedly means that the American taxpayer will end up paying for the mismanagement and corruption. 

Just as the Ben Ali clique outdid itself in corruption, so, too, Karzai’s circle is full of crooks.  American diplomats (among others) have, for instance, accused his brother Wali Ahmed of deep involvement in the heroin trade.  With dark humor, the American embassy in Kabul reported last January that Hamid Karzai had nominated, and parliament had accepted, for the counter-narcotics post in the cabinet one Zarar Ahmad Moqbel.  He had earlier been Deputy Interior Minister, but was removed for corruption.  Another former Deputy Interior Minister evidently even informed embassy officials that “Moqbel was supported by the drug mafia, to include Karzai’s younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and Arif Khan Noorzai.”  This is being alleged of Afghanistan’s current counter-narcotics czar!

Or take the example of Juma Khan Hamdard, whom Karzai appointed governor of Paktya Province in the Pashtun-dominated eastern part of Afghanistan.  A little over a year ago, the embassy accused him of being the leader of “a province-wide corruption scheme.”  He is said to have been “the central point of a vast corruption network involving the provincial chief of police and several Afghan ministry line directors.” 

According to that WikiLeaks-released cable, Hamdard’s network had set up a sophisticated money-skimming operation aimed at milking U.S. funds going into reconstruction projects.  They gamed the bids on the contracts to do the work and then took cuts at every stage from groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting. 

In addition, Governor Hamdard was reported to have longstanding ties to the Hizb-i Islami militia/party movement of Gulbaddin Hikmatyar, one of the Pashtun guerrilla leaders trying to expel the U.S. and NATO from the country, who, U.S. officials claim, is in turn in a vague alliance with the Taliban.  Hamdard allegedly also has a business in Dubai in which Hikmatyar’s son is a partner, and is accused in the cable of funneling jewels and drug money to Hikmatyar loyalists.  As with Tunisia, the public rhetoric of counterterrorism belies a corrupt and duplicitous ruling elite that may, by its actions, foster rather than forestall radicalism.

Harsh Truths

For a superpower obsessed with conspiracy theories and invested in the status quo, knowing everything, it turns out, means knowing nothing at all.  WikiLeaks has done us the favor, however, of releasing a harsh set of truths.  Hard-line policies such as those of the Algerian generals or of Uzbekistan’s Karimov often radicalize economically desperate and oppressed populations.  As a result, U.S. backing has a significant probability of boomeranging sooner or later.  Elites, confident that they will retain such backing as long as there is an al-Qaeda cell anywhere on the planet, tend to overreach, plunging into cultures of corruption and self-enrichment so vast that they undermine economies, while producing poverty, unemployment, despair, and ultimately widespread public anger. 

It is not that the United States should be, in John Quincy Adams’s phrase, going out into the world to find dragons to slay.  Washington is no longer all-powerful, if it ever was, and President Obama’s more realistic foreign policy is a welcome change from George W. Bush’s frenetic interventionism. 

Nonetheless, Obama has left in place, or in some cases strengthened, one of the worst aspects of Bush-era policy: a knee-jerk support for self-advertised pro-Western secularists who promise to block Muslim fundamentalist parties (or, in the end, anyone else) from coming to power.  There should be a diplomatic middle path between overthrowing governments on the one hand, and backing odious dictatorships to the hilt on the other. 

It’s time for Washington to signal a new commitment to actual democracy and genuine human rights by simply cutting off military and counterterrorism aid to authoritarian and corrupt regimes that are, in any case, digging their own graves.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan.  His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Cole discusses Washington’s backing of corrupt autocratic regimes globally, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2011 Juan Cole

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Posted by The Agonist on January 24th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

ISAF is trumpeting it’s success in destroying a village to save it, as this tweet says, and this story about the affair. The comments are especially enlightening. My personal favorite: “Afghanis are sub human like the 1stsgt said.”

Of course, Joshua Foust has a very different take that we should all read.

Anyone got any Liberty Toast, cuz I’m hungry and it’s early?

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