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Archive for January, 2011

Posted by Derrick Crowe on January 7th, 2011

On Wednesday, January 5, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) delivered a “State of the State” address to warn New Yorkers that big cuts are coming to their public services. According to him, New York’s $9.2 billion budget deficit means policymakers have to slash things like health care and education spending. But it seems to me that before we go cutting kids off their field trips to the museum or their doctor’s visits, we should start by looking for big chunks of money leaving New York state for useless purposes.

And it turns out there’s a $9.6 billion stack of cash that’s going to be sucked out of New York this year–that’s how much New York taxpayers will be charged for Afghanistan War spending this year.

That $9.6 billion is more than enough to fill the budget hole this year. New York has plenty of money to keep kids in school and to make sure they can see a doctor when they’re sick or hurt. It’s just that too many of the state’s politicians just have broken priorities. Those broken priorities are reflected in the narrow majority of the state’s federal congresspeople voting in favor of the latest war funding bill (14 voting “Yea,” 13 voting “Nay”):

Voting “Yea” (in favor of the Afghanistan War spending)

  • Timothy H. Bishop (D)
  • Steve Israel (D)
  • Peter T. King (R)
  • Carolyn McCarthy (D)
  • Gary L. Ackerman (D)
  • Michael McMahon (D)
  • Eliot L. Engel (D)
  • Nita M. Lowey (D)
  • John Hall (D)
  • Scott Murphy (D)
  • William Owens (D)
  • Michael Arcuri (D)
  • Christopher J. Lee (R)
  • Brian Higgins (D)

Voting “Nay” (against the Afghanistan War spending)

  • Gregory W. Meeks (D)
  • Joseph Crowley (D)
  • Jerrold Nadler (D)
  • Anthony D. Weiner (D)
  • Edolphus Towns (D)
  • Nydia Velazquez (D)
  • Carolyn B. Maloney (D)
  • Charles B. Rangel (D)
  • Jose Serrano (D)
  • Paul Tonko (D)
  • Maurice D. Hinchey (D)
  • Dan Maffei (D)
  • Louise Slaughter (D)

Thanks in part to those who voted “Yea,” $9.6 billion will leave New York this year in the form of federal tax dollars to pay for the Afghanistan War. On top of the initial loss of the original $9.6 billion, the New York economy also takes a hit in the form of lost potential jobs and economic activity. An October 2007 study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) found that per $1 billion invested in the following fields, you create wildly different numbers of jobs:

  • Defense: 8,555 jobs
  • Construction for home weatherization/infrastructure: 12,804 jobs
  • Health care: 12,883 jobs
  • Education: 17,687 jobs
  • Mass transit: 19,795 jobs

In other words, thanks to policymakers spending New York taxpayer money on the Afghanistan War instead of things like mass transit this year, the state lost 107,904 potential jobs, along with all the economic activity (and state tax revenue!) those jobs would create.

Since defense spending is one of the least economically stimulating ways to spend money, New Yorkers might as well have set that $9.6 billion on fire to watch it burn for all the good it will do the state.

If Governor Cuomo wants to avoid cutting school kids off of their educational opportunities and cutting poor kids off their doctor’s visits, he might consider calling the congressional switchboard at 202.224.3121 and asking to have a word with the Members of Congress on the list of people above who voted “Yea” on funding for the Afghanistan War.

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Posted by on January 6th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

This week's TIME has a piece by veteran fan of armed interventions, Joe Klein, risably entitled "What it will take to finish the job in Afghanistan". It's worth a read as an example of how the U.S. hasn't a blessed clue how to accomplish any such thing, being a precis of the conventional wisdom from Pentagon and Beltway that points up the strawmen, dubious premises, internal contradictions and faulty logic. You won't know whether to laugh or cry.

The short version of Klein's piece is that "what it will take" is more of the same stuff that's failed so badly so far: nation building at gunpoint and an occupation that never ends (as no-one from Beltway or Pentagon has yet come up with a plan that doesn't involve about 30,000 US troops there in perpetuity), all because we're occupying the nation next door to where the real problem is.

For me, the very worst part comes at the foot of page one.

"But even if Afghanistan can be stabilized militarily by Election Day in 2012 — an enormous if — the situation could quickly unravel if the government of President Hamid Karzai remains as corrupt and incompetent as it is now and if Afghanistan's neighbors India and Pakistan continue to see it as a pawn in their never ending enmity."

He's absolutely right but fails to note that those two unravellers – Karzai's corruption and Indo/Pak emnity – are as certain as night following day and there's bugger all the U.S. can now realistically do about either of them.

This really is the elephant in the room: everyone knows it and everyone says it but no-one on the pro-war side of the debate is ready to face up to what it plainly means: any plan whatsoever to "finish the job" in Afghanistan is fucked (Yes, Tommy, properly fucked).

I figure the Beltway and Pentagon crowds might be ready to face the elephant by August, when their surge's Freidman Unit runs out and they're still no closer to being able to say the word "progress" without crossing fingers behind their backs. Still, I won't hold my breath. We're now in a Lokking Glass world where the ANA being 90% non-Pashtun, "in effect a larger version of the old Northern Alliance", is something Klein thinks is worth celebrating!

And then there's this, the bit worth crying over:

Holbrooke believed tensions could not be reduced without a diplomatic solution. He wanted to cap his long career with a final haggle — this one with the Taliban themselves, leading to a peace conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bonn accord, which established the Karzai government in December 2001. He was at odds with Petraeus about that. The general was looking for something closer to a surrender than a negotiation from the Taliban, and his remains the default position in the Obama Administration.

Well yeah – this was always the only way to do anything even remotely close to "finishing the job". But Obama wouldn't back Holbrooke with the authority he needed over Saint Pet and now Holbrooke's gone. Veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering was, according to Klein, offered Holbrooke's shoes to step into and flat refused. I'm not at all surprised.

But with the "great peace conference" dead at Petreaus' behest, we're left with a tangle of cross-purposed tactics, no grand strategy, and an occupation which will last forever if it goes according to plan. This is the conventional wisdom as propounded by the Beltway set of very serious people.

And they call those of us who want a proper, timetabled, withdrawal plan "unserious"…

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Posted by Josh Mull on January 6th, 2011

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

Last month we had the phony Afghanistan strategy review in Washington, and thanks to Politico, we got a shiny new buzzword: The “Progressive-Realist-Centrist Axis of Agreement”. It’s a fancypants way of saying “conventional wisdom”, roughly synonymous with the “Establishment” or Digby’s “Village”. Whatever the out-of-touch think tankers, journalists, and politicians in DC happen to think this week, that’s the “Axis of Agreement”.

The strategy review was Washington’s way of unveiling it’s brand new Axis of Agreement on the war in Afghanistan, transitioning from last year’s platinum mega-hit “COIN” (or counter-insurgency) to the new 2011 narrative. I wrote:

[The] review is not really a review of the military strategy, it’s an act of political theater. This is not the Commander in Chief and his generals tallying up their data and fine-tuning their tactical approach, this is the whole class turning in a book report so they get an A. [...]

[This] year’s line is “effective, affordable, and sustainable”. That means 30,000-ish troops, training police, drones ‘n Pakistan ‘n stuff, and also negotiating with the Taliban (ooh, controversy!).

Well, it’s a new year, and it’s time for the media wing of the Axis of Agreement to start turning it’s Afghanistan homework. A perfect example of this is Joe Klein’s new piece for Time titled “What It Will Take To Finish The Job In Afghanistan”. Here’s the plan: (more…)

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Posted by alexthurston on January 6th, 2011

This story originally appeared at

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Can you believe that, in certain circles, support for obesity is becoming an American birthright (as in “the freedom to be…”) and a political position?  Like various radio and TV shock jocks, Sarah Palin has been attacking Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative as yet another example of “the nanny state run amok.”  (It’s enough to make you hyperventilate on the couch while watching “Law and Order” reruns!)  Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell let loose a blast at the National Football League for postponing a Philadelphia-Minnesota game because of an upcoming blizzard.  “We’re becoming a nation of wussies,” he thundered. (It’s enough to make you text and tweet up a storm from that same couch!) 

A question arises: Doesn’t anybody have anything better to do?  I mean, aren’t there a few more salient problems to attack in our American world, like the decline and fall of just about everything?  Take the U.S. military, about which — as TomDispatch regular and retired Lieutenant Colonel William Astore points out — American presidents (and the rest of our political crew) can never say enough hyperbolically praiseworthy things.  Well, bad times are supposed to be great for military recruitment.  But even if a flood of gays and lesbians sign on as soon as Do-Ask-I’ll-Tell becomes official policy, there are other long-term impediments to producing an effective fighting force.

In April 2010, for instance, a group of retired top brass and others released a report claiming that 27% of Americans between 17 and 24 are “too fat to fight.”  “Within just 10 years, the number of states reporting that 40 percent of their 18- to 24-year-olds are obese or overweight went from one [Kentucky] to 39.”  No reason to focus on that, though.  After all, it was so last year.

Just as the year ended, however, the Education Trust issued a report indicating that nearly a quarter of all applicants to the Armed Forces, despite having a high-school diploma, can’t pass the necessary military entrance exam.  This isn’t Rhodes Scholarships we’re talking about, but not having “the reading, mathematics, science, and problem-solving abilities” to become a bona fide private in the U.S. Army.  We’re talking the sort of basic that, according to an Education Trust spokesperson, makes it “equally likely that the men and women who don’t pass the test are [also] unprepared for the civilian workforce.”

Last month, as if to emphasize the seriousness of the problem, Shanghai’s students came in number one in the Program for International Student Assessment, a well-respected test given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries in reading, science, and math skills.  U.S. students came in a glorious 17th in reading, 23rd in math, and 31st in science.  In today’s dispatch, Astore asks whether the U.S. military is actually “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Then there’s that other question: These days, can anyone call the United States the finest nation in the world with a straight face?  The fattest?  Maybe, though we’re behind various Pacific island nations for that honor.  The least well educated?  Not yet, but heading that way.  Maybe it’s time for Congress to launch a No-Nation-Left-Behind program — for us.  Think about it while you’re eating those s’mores Sarah Palin is plugging.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire
What It Means When We Say We Have the World’s Finest Fighting Force
By William J. Astore

Words matter, as candidate Barack Obama said in the 2008 election campaign.  What to make, then, of President Obama’s pep talk last month to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in which he lauded them as “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”?  Certainly, he knew that those words would resonate with the troops as well as with the folks back home.

In fact, this sort of description of the U.S. military has become something of a must for American presidents.  Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, for example, boasted of that military as alternately “the greatest force for freedom in the history of the world” and “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.”  Hyperbolic and self-promoting statements, to be sure, but undoubtedly sincere, reflecting as they do an American sense of exceptionalism that sits poorly with the increasingly interconnected world of the twenty-first century.

I’m a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a historian who teaches military history.  The retired officer in me warms to the sentiment of our troops as both unparalleled fighters and selfless liberators, but the historian in me begs to differ.

Let’s start with the fighting part of the equation.  Are we truly the world’s greatest fighting force, not only at this moment, but as measured against all militaries across history?  If so, on what basis is this claim made?  And what does such triumphalist rhetoric suggest not just about our national narcissism, but Washington’s priorities?  Consider that no leading U.S. politician thinks to boast that we have the finest educational system or health-care system or environmental policies “that the world has ever known.” 

Measured in terms of sheer destructive power, and our ability to project that power across the globe, the U.S. military is indeed the world’s “finest” fighting force.  Our nuclear arsenal remains second to none.  Our air forces (including the Navy’s carrier task forces, the Army’s armada of helicopter gunships, and the CIA’s fleet of unmanned aerial drones prosecuting a “secret” war in Pakistan) dominate the heavens.  Our Navy (“a global force for good,” according to its new motto) rules the waves — even more so than old Britannia did a century ago.  And well should we rule the skies and seas, given the roughly one trillion dollars a year we spend on achieving our vision of “full spectrum dominance.”

But this awesome ability to exercise “global reach, global power” hardly makes us the finest military force ever.  After all, “finest” shouldn’t be measured by sheer strength and reach alone.  First and foremost, of course, should come favorable results set against the quality of the opponents bested.  To use a sports analogy, we wouldn’t call the Pittsburgh Steelers “the finest team in NFL history” simply because they annihilated Penn State in football.  Similarly, we can’t measure the success of today’s U.S. military solely in terms of amazingly quick (if increasingly costly and ultimately dismal) “victories” over the Taliban in 2001 or Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in 2003.

To carry the football analogy a few yards further, one might ask when our “finest fighting force” had its last Super Bowl win.  Certainly, 1918 and 1945 (World Wars I and II) were such wins, even if as part of larger coalitions; 1953 (Korea) was a frustrating stalemate; 1973 (Vietnam) was a demoralizing loss; 1991 (Desert Storm in Iraq) was a distinctly flawed win; and efforts like Grenada or Panama or Serbia were more like scrimmages.  Arguably our biggest win, the Cold War, was achieved less through military means than economic power and technological savvy.

To put it bluntly: America’s troops are tough-minded professionals, but the finest fighting force ever?  Sir, no, sir.

We’re Number One!

Americans often seem to live in the eternal now, which makes it easier to boast that our military is the finest ever.  Most historians, however, are not so tied to nationalistic rhetoric or the ceaseless present.  If asked to identify the finest fighting force in history, my reaction — and I would hardly be alone in the field — would be to favor those peoples and empires which existed for war alone.

Examples immediately spring to mind: the Assyrians, the Spartans, the Romans, the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Nazis.  These peoples elevated their respective militaries and martial prowess above all else.  Unsurprisingly, they were bloodthirsty and ruthless.  Unstinting ambition for imperial goals often drove them to remarkable feats of arms at an unconscionable and sometimes difficult to sustain cost.  Yes, the Spartans defeated the Athenians, but that internecine quarrel paved the way for the demise of the independent Greek city states at the hands of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander (soon enough to be known as “the Great”). 

Yes, the Romans conquered an empire, but one of their own historians, Tacitus, put in the mouth of a Celtic chieftain this description of being on the receiving end of Roman “liberation”:

“The Romans’ tyranny cannot be escaped by any act of reasonable submission.  These brigands of the world have exhausted the land by their rapacity, so they now ransack the sea.  When their enemy is rich, they lust after wealth; when their enemy is poor, they lust after power.  Neither East nor West has satisfied their hunger.  They are unique among humanity insofar as they equally covet the rich and the poor.  Robbery, butchery, and rapine they call ‘Empire.’  They create a desert and call it ‘Peace.’”

Talk about tough love.

The Romans would certainly have to be in the running for “finest military” of all time.  They conquered many peoples, expanded far, and garrisoned vast areas of the Mediterranean, North Africa, and what would become Europe, while their legions marched forth, often to victory (not to speak of plunder), for hundreds of years.  Still, the gold medal for the largest land empire in history — and the finest fighting force of all time — must surely go to the thirteenth century Mongols. 

Led by Genghis Khan and his successors, Mongol horsemen conquered China and the Islamic world — the two most powerful, sophisticated civilizations of their day — while also exerting control over Russia for two and a half centuries.  And thanks to a combination of military excellence, clever stratagem, fleetness of foot (and far more important, hoof), flexibility, and when necessary utter ferocity, they did all this while generally being outnumbered by their enemies.

Even the fighting power of the finest militaries waxed and waned, however, based in part on the quality of those leading them.  The Macedonians blossomed under Philip and Alexander.  It was not simply Rome that conquered Gaul, but Julius Caesar.  The Mongols were at each other’s throats until Genghis Khan united them into an unstoppable military machine that swept across a continent.  The revolutionary French people in their famed levée en masse had martial fervor, but only Napoleon gave them direction.  History’s finest fighting forces are associated closely with history’s greatest captains.

Measure that against the American military today.  General David Petraeus is certainly a successful officer who exhibits an enviable mastery of detail and a powerful political sense of how to handle Washington, but a Genghis Khan?  An Alexander?  A Caesar?  Even “King David,” as he’s been called both by admirers and more than a few detractors, might blush at such comparisons.  After all, at the head of the most powerfully destructive force in the Middle East, and later Central Asia, he has won no outright victories and conquered nothing.  His triumph in Iraq in 2006-2007 may yet prove more “confected” than convincing.

As for our armed forces, though most Americans don’t know it, within U.S. military circles much criticism exists of an officer corps of “tarnished brass” that is deficient in professionalism; of generals who are more concerned with covering their butts than leading from the front; of instruction at military academies that is divorced from war’s realities; of an aversion “to innovation or creativity… [leading to] an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism” that undermines strategy and makes a hash of counterinsurgency efforts.  Indeed, our military’s biting criticism of itself is one of the few positive signs in a fighting force that is otherwise overstretched, deeply frustrated, and ridiculously overpraised by genuflecting politicians.

So I’m sorry, President Obama.  If you wish to address the finest fighting force the world has ever known, you’ll need a time machine, not Air Force One.  You’ll have to doff your leather Air Force-issue flight jacket and don Mongolian armor.  And in so doing, you’ll have to embrace mental attitudes and a way of life utterly antithetical to democracy and the rights of humanity as we understand them today.   For that is the price of building a fighting force second to none — and one reason why our politicians should stop insisting that we have one.

“The Greatest Force for Human Liberation”

Two centuries ago, Napoleon led his armies out of France and brought “liberty, equality, and fraternity” to much of the rest of ancien régime Europe — but on his terms and via the barrel of a musket.  His invasion of Spain, for example, was viewed as anything but a “liberation” by the Spanish, who launched a fierce guerrilla campaign against their French occupiers that sapped the strength of Napoleon’s empire and what was generally considered the finest fighting force of its moment.  British aid to the insurgency helped ensure that this campaign would become Napoleon’s “Spanish ulcer.

The “Little Corporal” ultimately decided to indirectly strike back at the British by invading Russia, which was refusing to enforce France’s so-called continental blockade.  As Napoleon’s army bled out or froze solid in the snows of a Russian winter, the Prussians and the Austrians found new reasons to reject French “fraternity.”  Within years, Napoleon’s empire was unsaddled and destroyed, a fate shared by its leader, sent into ignominious exile on the island of Saint Helena.

Like Napoleon’s fired up revolutionary troops, the American military also sees itself as on a mission to spread democracy and freedom.  Afghans and Iraqis have, however, proven no more eager than the Spaniards of two centuries ago to be “liberated” at gun (or “Hellfire” missile) point, even when the liberators come bearing gifts, which in today’s terms means the promise of roads, jobs, and “reconstruction,” or even cash by the pallet.

Because we Americans believe our own press releases, it’s difficult to imagine others (except, of course, those so fanatic as to be blind to reality) seeing us as anything but well-intentioned liberators.  As journalist Nir Rosen has put it: “There’s… a deep sense among people in the [American] policy world, in the military, that we’re the good guys.  It’s just taken for granted that what we’re doing must be right because we’re doing it.  We’re the exceptional country, the essential nation, and our role, our intervention, our presence is a benign and beneficent thing.”

In reporting on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rosen and others have offered ample proof for those who care to consider it that our foreign interventions have been anything but benign or beneficent, no less liberating.  Our invasion of Iraq opened the way to civil war and mayhem.  For many ordinary Iraqis, when American intervention didn’t lead to death, destruction, dislocation, and exile, it bred “deep humiliation and disruption” as well as constant fear, a state of affairs that, as Rosen notes, is “painful and humiliating and scary.”

In Afghanistan, Rosen points out, most villagers see our troops making common cause with a despised and predatory government.  Huge infusions of American dollars, meanwhile, rarely trickle down to the village level, but instead promote the interests of Afghan warlords and foreign businesses.  Small wonder that, more than nine years later, a majority of Afghans say they want to be liberated from us.

If the U.S. military is not “the greatest force for human liberation” in all history, what is?  Revealingly, it’s far easier to identify the finest fighting force of history.  If put on the spot, though, I’d highlight the ideas and ideals of human dignity, of equality before the law, of the fundamental value of each and every individual, as the greatest force for human liberation.  Such ideals are shared by many peoples.  They may sometimes be defended by the sword, but were inscribed by the pens of great moralists and thinkers of humanity’s collective past.  In this sense, when it comes to advancing freedom, the pen has indeed been mightier than the sword.

Freedom Fighters for a Fading Empire

The historian John Lukacs once noted: “There are many things wrong with the internationalist idea to Make the World Safe for Democracy, one of them being that it is not that different from the nationalist idea that What Is Good for America Is Good for the World.”

In our post-9/11 world, whatever our rhetoric about democratizing the planet, our ambitions are guided by the seemingly hardheaded goal of making Americans safe from terrorists.  A global war on terrorism has, however, proven anything but consistent with expanding liberty at home or abroad.  Indeed, the seductive and self-congratulatory narrative of our troops as selfless liberators and the finest freedom fighters around actually helps blind us to our violent methods in far-off lands, even as it distances us from the human costs of our imperial policies.

Though we officially seek to extinguish terrorists, our actions abroad serve as obvious accelerants to terror.  To understand why this is so, ask yourself how comforted you would be if foreign military “liberators” kicked in your door, shouted commands in a language you didn’t understand, confiscated your guns, dragged your father and brothers and sons off in cuffs and hoods to locations unknown, all in the name of “counterterror” operations?  How comforted would you be if remotely piloted drones hovered constantly overhead, ready to unleash Hellfire missiles at terrorist “targets of opportunity” in your neighborhood?

Better not to contemplate such harsh realities.  Better to praise our troops as so many Mahatma Gandhis, so many freedom fighters.  Better to praise them as so many Genghis Khans, so many ultimate warriors.

At a time of feared national decline, our leaders undoubtedly prescribe military action in part to comfort us (and themselves) and restore our sense of potency and pride.  In doing so, they violate the famous phrase long associated with the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He welcomes reader comments at To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses the military nightmares of a fading empire, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2011 William J. Astore

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on January 5th, 2011

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

For the third time in the last 20 years, establishment voices, with high-profile slots in traditional media, are trying to convince the public to accept cuts to Social Security by endlessly claiming such cuts are necessary without giving coherent evidence to justify the claim. Twice, under President Clinton and the second President Bush, these voices were defeated. But they didn’t give up. And now they are in striking distance of their goal: the fact that Republicans have taken over the House, combined with the fact that the President appointed a deficit reduction commission which nearly recommended a cut in Social Security benefits, and might well have done so if Rep. Schakowsky hadn’t worked to undermine the co-chairs’ plan, means that one can’t be complacent; some reports have suggested that the President may indicate support for cuts to Social Security in his State of the Union speech. Of the two principal Washington political actors who will shape the outcome – the Republican leadership and the President’s team – one is a determined adversary of the public interest, the other a very uncertain ally. The most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. history is again in grave danger.

Twenty years ago, Social Security was called the "third rail" of U.S. politics. Touch it, you die. But it turned out that was not true. The Establishment greedheads were not, in fact, afraid to try to mess with this wildly popular program. Maybe Wall Street political power is the third rail.

In these two decades, Social Security hasn’t been the third rail. Instead, it’s been the Grey Goose of folk song legend. The knife couldn’t cut him and the fork couldn’t stick him. Try as they might, they couldn’t kill him. Can the Grey Goose survive the next assault?

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Posted by alexthurston on January 4th, 2011

This story originally appeared at

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The Urge to Surge 
Washington’s 30-Year High
By Tom Engelhardt

If, as 2011 begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine, strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all developments of our moment and beyond.

Just as 2010 ended, the American military’s urge to surge resurfaced in a significant way.  It seems that “leaders” in the Obama administration and “senior American military commanders” in Afghanistan were acting as a veritable WikiLeaks machine.  They slipped information to New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins about secret planning to increase pressure in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, possibly on the tinderbox province of Baluchistan, and undoubtedly on the Pakistani government and military via cross-border raids by U.S. Special Operations forces in the new year.

In the front-page story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with “sanctuaries” for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent border.  You could practically taste the chagrin of the military that their war against… well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas, former Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists, and god knows who else… wasn’t proceeding exactly swimmingly.  You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at the Pakistanis for continuing to take American bucks by the billions while playing their own game, rather than an American one, in the region.

If you were of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one.  Admittedly, these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq years) about turning “corners” or reaching “tipping points,” but you can practically hear those phrases anyway, or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked behind them. 

Take this sentence, for instance: “Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated.” Can’t you catch the familiar conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never “less,” always “more,” that just another decisive step or two and you’ll be around that fateful corner? 

In this single New York Times piece (and other hints about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going cold turkey.  With all the sober talk about year-end reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and “progress” (a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted “overview” of that review recently released by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present tactics, it’s easy to forget that war is a drug.  When you’re high on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical, as the public language you tend to use to describe them.  But don’t believe it for a second.

Once you’ve shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired.  Through its dream-haze, unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn’t do, you fantasize that you can.  Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American planners and the peoples of the region.  It only widened that war into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide.  Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture, they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient against the mightiest of forces.

Think of the American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug’s effect in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call “the Greater Middle East,” Washington is now in its third and grimmest surge iteration.  The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur, or even imperial megalomania.  It focused on a global Pax Americana and the wars that extend it into the distant future.  The third started in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as 2011 commences.

In Central and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves as the urge to destabilize.  Geopolitically, little could be uglier or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan — or the United States.  Three decades after the American urge to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower, the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold War era.  And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an “unprecedented strategic opportunity” as this century dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act of strategic desperation. 

That, of course, is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without much to call your own.  Perhaps it’s fitting that Afghanistan, the country we helped turn into the planet’s leading narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.

So, as the New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.

Getting High in Afghanistan

As 2011 begins, what could be eerier than reading secret Soviet documents from the USSR’s Afghan debacle of the 1980s?  It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens (“The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon as possible — every day precious lives are lost.”); or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan war must be ended in a year, “at maximum, two.” Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can’t help but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss of “credibility” would keep the Soviets fighting on to 1989.

Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an assessment that any honest American military commander might offer a quarter century later about our own Afghan adventure: “There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier.  Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels.” Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan, boasting “on his last day in the country that ‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.’”

Or Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in 1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other great imperial power of the moment: “Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan.  On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out.” (The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)

Or in 1988, with the war still dragging on, to read a “closed” letter the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest American leader could say of our Afghan war): “In addition, [we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]… One should not disregard the economic factor either.  If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures.  The war in Afghanistan costs us 5 billion rubles a year.”

Or finally the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing (just as the American military high command would do of our war effort) that it was “not only unfair but even absurd to draw… parallels” between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American war in Vietnam.  That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000 Soviet soldiers — just about the number of American soldiers there today — left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling.  Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central Asia in increasing turmoil.  In November of that same year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would disappear from the face of the Earth.

Reading those documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and “his euphoric ‘Afghan Team’” toasting the success of the Agency’s 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary operation since the Vietnam War.  The Reagan administration surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists of that moment — “freedom fighters” as they were then commonly called in Washington.

It’s easy to imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of the Vietnam effect.  They had used the “war” part of the Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the two superpowers dry.  As President Reagan would later write in his memoirs: “The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism — money.  The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever.”

By 1990, the urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining.  Forget that it had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that one-third of that impoverished country’s population had been turned into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together, funded, and empowered through the Afghan War.  More important, the urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream.  And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, “our” freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans, that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment to American power that they had been to the Soviets?

The Cold War was over.  The surge had it.  We were supreme.  And what better high could there be than that?

Fever Dreams of Military Might

Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon.  Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a “sole superpower” on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible “peace dividend” — that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects — for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.

And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar.  It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else.  However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army.  In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.

Previously, the “arms race,” like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers.  Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the U.S. prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future.  The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American “global presence” — from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces — enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.

Thanks to the destructive acts of 19 jihadis, the urge to surge would with finality overwhelm all other urges in the fall of 2001 — and there would be a group ready for just such a moment, for (as the newspaper headlines screamed) a “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.”

To take full stock of that group, however, we would first have to pilot our time machine back to June 3, 1997, the day a confident crew of Washington think-tank, academic, and political types calling themselves the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) posted a fin de siècle “statement of principles.” In it, they called for “a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.”  Crucially, they were demanding that the Clinton administration, or assumedly some future administration with a better sense of American priorities, “increase defense spending significantly.”

The 23 men and two women who signed the initial PNAC statement urging the United States to go for the military option in the twenty-first century would, however, prove something more than your typical crew of think-tank types.  After all, not so many years later, after a disputed presidential election settled by the Supreme Court, Dick Cheney would be vice president; I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby would be his right-hand man; Donald Rumsfeld would be Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the Bush-Cheney transition team at the Department of Defense and then the first post- invasion U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as ambassador to Iraq and UN ambassador; Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president with a post on the National Security Council; Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Aaron Friedberg, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director of Policy Planning in the office of the vice president; and Jeb Bush, governor of Florida.  (Others like John Bolton, who signed on to PNAC later, would be no less well employed.)

This may, in fact, be the first example in history of a think tank coming to power and actually putting its blue-sky suggestions into operation as government policy, or perhaps it’s the only example so far of a government-in-waiting masquerading as an online think tank.  In either case, more than 13 years later, the success of that group can still take your breath away, as can both the narrowness — and scope — of their thinking, and of their seminal document, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” published in September 2000, two months before George W. Bush took the presidency.

This crew of surgers extraordinaires was considering a global situation that, as they saw it, offered Americans an “unprecedented strategic opportunity.”  Facing a new century, their ambitions were caught by James Peck in his startling upcoming book, Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, in this way: “In the [Reagan] era, Washington organized half the planet; in the [Bush era] it sought to organize the whole.”

“Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” if remembered at all today, is recalled mainly for a throwaway sentence that looked ominous indeed in retrospect: “Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”  It remains, however, a remarkable document for other reasons.  In many ways canny about the direction war would take in the near future, ranging from the role of drones in air war to the onrushing possibility that cyberwar (or “Net-War,” as they called it) would be the style of future conflict, it was a clarion call to ensure this country’s “unchallenged supremacy” into the distant future by military means alone.

In 1983, in an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”  It wanted, as he saw it, what all dark empires (and every evildoer in any James Bond film) desires: unchallenged dominion over the planet — and it pursued that dominion in the name of a glorious “world revolution.”  Now, in the name of American safety and the glories of global democracy, we were — so the PNAC people both pleaded and demanded — to do what only evil empires did and achieve global dominion beyond compare over planet Earth.

We could, they insisted in a phrase they liked, enforce an American peace, a Pax Americana, for decades to come, if only we poured our resources, untold billions — they refused to estimate what the real price might be — into war preparations and, if necessary, war itself, from the seven seas to the heavens, from manifold new “forward operating bases on land” to space and cyberspace.  Pushing “the American security perimeter” ever farther into the distant reaches of the planet  (and “patrolling” it via “constabulary missions”) was, they claimed, the only way that “U.S. military supremacy” could be translated into “American geopolitical preeminence.”  It was also the only that the “homeland” — yes, unlike 99.9% of Americans before 9/11, they were already using that term — could be effectively “defended.”

In making their pitch, they were perfectly willing to acknowledge that the United States was already a military giant among midgets, but they were also eager to suggest as well that our military situation was “deteriorating” fast, that we were “increasingly ill-prepared” or even (gasp!) in “retreat” on a planet without obvious enemies.  They couldn’t have thought more globally.  (They were, after all, visionaries, as druggies tend to be.)  Nor could they have thought longer term.  (They were twenty-first century mavens.)  And on military matters, they couldn’t have been more up to date.

Yet on the most crucial issues, they — and so their documents — couldn’t have been dumber or more misguided.  They were fundamentalists when it came to the use of force and idolaters on the subject of the U.S. military.  They believed it capable of doing just about anything.  As a result, they made a massive miscalculation, mistaking military destructiveness for global power.  Nor could they have been less interested in the sinews of global economic power (though they did imagine our future enemy to be China).  Nor were they capable of imagining that the greatest military power on the planet might be stopped in its tracks — in the Greater Middle East, no less — by a ragtag crew of Iraqis and Afghans.  To read “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” today is to see the rabbit hole down which, as if in a fever dream, we would soon disappear.

It was a genuine American tragedy that they came to power and proceeded to put their military-first policies in place; that, on September 12th of the year that “changed everything,” the PNAC people seized the reins of defense and foreign policy, mobilized for war, began channeling American treasure into the military solution they had long desired, and surged.  Oh, how they surged!

That urge to surge was infamously caught in notes on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments taken on September 11, 2001.  “[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon… Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq,” even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack. (“‘Go massive,’ the notes quote him as saying. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’”)

And so they did.  They swept up everything and then watched as their dreams and geopolitical calculations were themselves swept into the dustbin of history.  And yet the urge to surge, twisted and ever more desperate, did not abate.

The Soviet Path

To one degree or another, we have been on the Soviet path for years and yet, ever more desperately, we continue to plan more surges.  Our military, like the Soviet one, has not lost a battle and has occupied whatever ground it chose to take.  Yet, in the process, it has won less than nothing at all.  Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase.  At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made “soviet” and “totalitarian” synonymous. 

The U.S. economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars.  It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the U.S. will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future) — and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package abroad.

And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war — the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory — in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster.  Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans.  But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s not likely to be denied.

Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab.  They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery.  Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.

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 on sources:  The National Security Archive, filled to bursting with documents from our imperial and Cold War past, is an online treasure.  I have relied on it for both the Soviet documents quoted on the Afghan war of the 1980s and an analysis of the American version of that war.  For those who are interested in reading PNAC’s “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” click here and then on the link to the pdf file of the document.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by on January 3rd, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

You can fool some of the people all of the time…especially if they vote Republican.

More than six in ten Americans oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan, according to a new national poll. And a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Thursday also indicates that 56 percent of the public believes that things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Sixty-three percent of people questioned in the poll say they oppose the war, with 35 percent saying they support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

…The survey indicates a partisan divide, with three-quarters of Democrats and more then six in ten independent voters opposed to the war, and Republicans supporting it by a 52 to 44 percent margin. A minority of Democrats and independents say the war is going well, with a majority of Republicans saying things are going well for the U.S.

Afghanistan, Obama's war of choice, has now gone the way of Iraq: only Republicans now support the ongoing occupation, and that only by a thin margin.

So where's our democracy?

Well, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) is showing he's divorced from reality, as always, by saying that not only should the U.S. have permanent bases in Afghanistan, but that the Afghans have to "earn" those bases

And as figures are announced that show over 10,000 people were killed last year in Afghanistan, with civilian deaths and injuries up 20% on last year, NATO spokesman Brig. General Josef Blotz channeled World War One era British Field Marshall Douglas "Butcher" Haig to give some bass-ackwards justification for the death toll:

"Our casualties are not a proof of any failure of our strategy. On the contrary,"…"before it gets better, unfortunately it has to get worse"

Suuuure, General. And I'm sure Haig said something similiar just before the Somme. But sometimes, it getting worse is just because it's getting worse.

What does it tell us when one anonymous U.S. commander is reported as describing Afghanistan as a " non-stop "Tom and Jerry" cartoon, but life-claiming and hazardous"?

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Posted by The Agonist on January 3rd, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist


Door Gunner Petty Officer Richard Symonds of the Royal Navy wears a Santa Claus outfit as he delivers mail and presents to troops around Helmand province in this handout released by Britain’s Ministry of Defence December 25, 2010. REUTERS/Sgt Rupert Frere RLC

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