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Archive for January, 2012

Posted by The Agonist on January 29th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Doha, Qatar | January 29

VOA – Taliban negotiators are meeting with U.S. officials in Qatar for a series of discussions aimed at building trust and preparing both sides for upcoming peace talks.

Former Taliban official Maulavi Qalamuddin, who once led the group’s religious police, says about five Taliban negotiators are there for the preliminary talks. He says the talks include the possible release of Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Qalamuddin says the Taliban delegation currently in Doha includes several former Taliban officials and a former secretary to the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar.

He says the group traveled to Qatar from Pakistan, a possible sign that Islamabad may be on board with the peace process.

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Posted by Peace Action West on January 27th, 2012

From our partners at Peace Action West

The LA Times ran a great OpEd yesterday highlighting that, as much as the Pentagon would like to convince you otherwise, assessing “progress” in Afghanistan is up to interpretation — kind of like reading tea leaves. For instance, on the “success” of driving the Taliban out of Kandahar:

“Yes, we’ve made gains against the Taliban around Kandahar,” a minister and former Kandahar governor told me recently. “But it takes 18,000 men for a single district. We can’t sustain that.”

And there have been other costs. As troops moved into rural districts the Taliban had held, they built dirt roads right through farmers’ vineyards and orchards. I saw the results when I went to visit a friend’s family land. Debris had been shoved into an irrigation channel that once watered the whole village, razor wire had been looped across a road, and buildings where families dry their grapes to make prized raisins had been destroyed.

There were good tactical reasons for inflicting such damage. Many of the buildings had been booby-trapped by the retreating Taliban, or they obstructed the troops’ lines of sight. But the local economy, already one of the most threadbare on Earth, has been badly hurt. Compensation money was paid out, but still, success against the Taliban came at great cost to residents.

They are left with the question: What now? If their grapevines or fruit trees dry out, what should they plant? If insurgents offer poppy seeds, should they accept? And what about the Afghan soldiers who stole the furniture out of the blown-up buildings? Villagers can’t take them to court because the judicial system is deeply corrupt. So who can give them recourse? A sense of justice? Maybe the Taliban.

And this doesn’t help clarify matters:

The aggressive efforts by some to spin perceptions of Afghanistan have grown unseemly as well as dangerous. I’ve seen dissent disappear from interagency documents. I’ve heard officials tell public affairs officers to pressure reporters about their stories.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 27th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Jay Price | Fayetteville | Jan 25

The (Raleigh) News & Observer – Jonathan Keith “Jack” Idema, the con man extraordinaire from Fayetteville who spent years in an Afghan prison for running a private jail and torture chamber while claiming to be a secret Pentagon operative, has reportedly died in Mexico.

His death at age 55 marks the end of perhaps the most colorful, unpleasant and self-dramatizing character to tread North Carolina soil since Blackbeard.

Idema was a former soldier who reinvented himself repeatedly as he ran cons from Fayetteville, N.C. to Uzbekistan. At various times he claimed to be a businessman, author, “superpatriot” terrorist hunter, drug and gun smuggler, bodyguard, security consultant, CIA paramilitary operator, Pentagon-backed special operator and, finally, charter boat captain.

The cause of death was complications from AIDS, according to local newspaper reports in Mexico and a former girlfriend, Penny Alessi, who was in contact with him until days before his death.

He apparently succumbed several days ago, but a U.S. State Department official in Washington said the government has not been able to confirm his death. A consulate official in Merida, Mexico, said the office is being careful because they’ve had trouble confirming his identity.

They are hardly the first.

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Posted by DownWithTyranny on January 23rd, 2012

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!


I spent a lot of time traipsing all over Afghanistan in the ’60s and ’70s. What a spectacularly beautiful and unique country! And what terrific, hospitable people! Because I also operate a travel blog, people are always asking me if it’s safe to visit Afghanistan yet. And I always tell them the same thing: Maybe your grandchildren will be able to someday. Although Afghanistan was only ranked #7 last year among the world’s worst failed states… well #1 is Somalia, and Afghanistan was named the second most dangerous place to visit, right after Somalia.

And these days, it’s not even safe, or especially not safe, if you’re heavily armed and trained to kill. The Afs want their country back and they want the occupiers out. They’ve always been like that, and they always win in the end.

American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report obtained by the New York Times.

A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.

Underscoring the danger, four French service members were killed and a number were wounded on Friday when a gunman wearing an Afghan National Army uniform turned his weapon on them, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan where the incident occurred and a Western official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The Afghan police official, Asdullah Hamidi, said the shooting happened in Tagab District, an area that is viewed as dangerous and dominated by insurgent forces.

The gunman is in custody, a NATO official said.

The violence, and the failure by coalition commanders to address it, casts a harsh spotlight on the shortcomings of American efforts to build a functional Afghan Army, a pillar of the Obama administration’s strategy for extricating the United States from the war in Afghanistan, said the officers and experts who helped shape the strategy.

The problems risk leaving the United States and its allies dependent on an Afghan force that is permeated by anti-Western sentiment and incapable of combating the Taliban and other militants when NATO’s combat mission ends in 2014, they said.

One instance of the general level of antipathy in the war exploded into uncomfortable view last week when video emerged of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Although American commanders quickly took action and condemned the act, chat-room and Facebook posts by Marines and their supporters were full of praise for the desecration.

But the most troubling fallout has been the mounting number of Westerners killed by their Afghan allies, events that have been routinely dismissed by American and NATO officials as isolated episodes that are the work of disturbed individual soldiers or Taliban infiltrators, and not indicative of a larger pattern. The unusually blunt report, which was prepared for a subordinate American command in eastern Afghanistan, takes a decidedly different view.

“Lethal altercations are clearly not rare or isolated; they reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history),” it said. Official NATO pronouncements to the contrary “seem disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest,” said the report, and it played down the role of Taliban infiltrators in the killings.

The coalition refused to comment on the classified report. But “incidents in the recent past where Afghan soldiers have wounded or killed I.S.A.F. members are isolated cases and are not occurring on a routine basis,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr. of the Army, a spokesman for the American-led International Security Assistance Force. “We train and are partnered with Afghan personnel every day and we are not seeing any issues or concerns with our relationships.”

The numbers appear to tell a different story. Although NATO does not release a complete tally of its forces’ deaths at the hands of Afghan soldiers and the police, the classified report and coalition news releases indicate that Afghan forces have attacked American and allied service members nearly three dozen times since 2007.

Two members of the French Foreign Legion and one American soldier were killed in separate episodes in the past month, according to statements by NATO. The classified report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, when it was completed, at least 58 Western service members were killed in 26 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and the police nationwide. Most of those attacks have occurred since October 2009. This toll represented 6 percent of all hostile coalition deaths during that period, the report said.

“The sense of hatred is growing rapidly,” said an Afghan Army colonel. He described his troops as “thieves, liars and drug addicts,” but also said that the Americans were “rude, arrogant bullies who use foul language.”

…“If you get two 18-year-olds from two different cultures and put them in New York, you get a gang fight,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has advised the American military on its Afghan strategy.

“What you have here are two very different cultures with different values,” he said in a telephone interview. “They treat each other with contempt.”

The United States soldier was killed this month when an Afghan soldier opened fire on Americans playing volleyball at a base in the southern province of Zabul. The assailant was quickly gunned down. The deadliest single incident came last April when an Afghan Air Force colonel, Ahmed Gul, killed eight unsuspecting American officers and a contractor with shots to the head inside their headquarters.

“U.S. soldiers don’t listen, they are too arrogant,” said one of the Afghan soldiers surveyed, according to the report. “They get upset due to their casualties, so they take it out on civilians during their searches,” said another.

The Americans were equally as scathing. “U.S. soldiers’ perceptions of A.N.A. members were extremely negative across categories,” the report found, using the initials for the Afghan National Army. Those categories included “trustworthiness on patrol,” “honesty and integrity,” and “drug abuse.” The Americans also voiced suspicions about the Afghans being in league with the Taliban, a problem well documented among the Afghan police.

“They are stoned all the time; some even while on patrol with us,” one soldier was quoted as saying. Another said, “They are pretty much gutless in combat; we do most of the fighting.”

Stoned all the time? You bet. Gutless? Not on your life. They fight differently, but Afs are anything but gutless and probably have similar feelings about Americans… or maybe consider them terminally reckless. But since the first day of the invasion I’ve been saying that this is a place America doesn’t belong, will never understand and can never defeat– short of nuclear carpet bombing. And even the Russians couldn’t bring themselves to do that. The AP reported that the U.S. puppet leader there, Hamid Karzai, met personally with Hizb-i-Islami insurgents.

Hizb-i-Islami is a radical Islamist militia that controls territory in Afghanistan’s northeast and launches attacks against U.S. forces from Pakistan. Its leader, powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former U.S. ally now listed as a terrorist by Washington.

Based over the Pakistan border, Hekmatyar has ties to al-Qaida and has launched deadly attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Fighters loyal to Hekmatyar also have strongholds in Baghlan, Kunduz and Kunar provinces in the north and northeast Afghanistan.

The other main insurgent group is the feared Haqqani network, which maintains close ties to both al-Qaida and the Taliban and commands the loyalties of an estimated 10,000 fighters. The Haqqanis have been blamed for a series of spectacular attacks, including suicide bombings inside Kabul.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 21st, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Kapisa province, Afghanistan | January 20

BBC – Four French soldiers have been killed in northern Afghanistan after a serviceman from the Afghan National Army opened fire, officials say.

Another 16 French soldiers were injured, some seriously, in the incident in Kapisa province.

An official told the BBC that an Afghan non-commissioned officer got into a “verbal clash” and opened fire.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said France was suspending its training programmes in Afghanistan following the attack.

[...]

He said it was unacceptable for French troops to be fired on by their allies.

A Taliban spokesman said it was not clear if the attacker was a member of their group but described him as a “conscientious Afghan soldier”.

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Posted by The Agonist on January 19th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

. . . how and why coalition troops have died in Afghanistan? Too bad. You don’t need to know.

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Posted by alexthurston on January 19th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it “utterly deplorable.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “total dismay.”  General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was “deeply disturbed” that the actions in question would “erode the reputation of our joint force.”  Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos declared them to be “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history,” and Senator John McCain claimed they made him “so sad.”

Seldom have so many high officials in Washington lined up to denounce an event so quickly or emphatically.  I’m talking, of course, about the video of four wisecracking U.S. Marines in Afghanistan pissing on what might be three dead Taliban or simply — since we may never know whose bodies those are — the corpses of three dead Afghans.  (“Have a good day, buddy… Golden — like a shower, ” you hear them say, seemingly addressing the bodies.) The video went viral in the Muslim world, and the Obama administration moved fast to contain the damage.  After all, no one wanted another Abu Ghraib.

On this subject Washington has been remarkably united (with the exception of Rick Perry, who offered a half-hearted defense of the Marines — “to call it a criminal act, I think, is over the top”). Pardon me, though, if I find this chorus of condemnation to be too little, too late.  It feels like a malign version of one of Casablanca’s famous final lines: “Round up the usual suspects.”

After all, these last years in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan have been utterly deplorable, totally dismaying, and deeply disturbing from start to finish.  On occasion after occasion, U.S. troops, aka “America’s heroes,” as well as private contractors and others in Washington’s employ have run riot.  There is no way to catalogue what’s been deplorable, dismaying, and deeply disturbing, but if you wanted to start, it really wouldn’t be that hard.

In fact, you wouldn’t have to go farther than this website.  If, for instance, it was deeply disturbing pictures taken by our troops you were curious about, you could have read David Swanson’s 2006 piece “The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo,” which focused on the “war porn” photos U.S. soldiers were already taking (or even setting up) and then proudly submitting to an actual porn website for posting (something, by the way, that’s still going on).

Or if checkpoint killings by U.S. soldiers in Iraq were what you were interested in, all you had to do was read Chris Hedges at TomDispatch in 2008, based on interviews he did with American soldiers for the book Collateral Damage: “Iraqi families,” he wrote, “were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son.”  (“‘It’s fun to shoot sh-t up,’ a soldier said.”) And if his word wasn’t enough, you could turn to U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal who, in a moment of bluntness in April 2010, commented: “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”

Or consider something no one has yet denounced as deplorable, dismaying, or deeply disturbing: the obliteration of wedding parties.  Over the years, TomDispatch has counted up at least six weddings in Iraq and Afghanistan that were wiped out in part or full by the U.S. Air Force.  All of these, including the first in December 2001 in which a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, armed with precision weapons, killed 110 of 112 Afghan revelers, were reported individually.  But next to no one in our world thought them dismaying or disturbing enough to write about them collectively or, for that matter, to deplore them.  (Of a wedding in Western Iraq in which U.S. planes killed 40 people, including wedding musicians and children, Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, asked: “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”)

The troves of documents leaked to the website WikiLeaks, for which Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged, certainly caused a stir, but the carnage in them was, in truth, easily available without access to a single secret document.  Washington’s crocodile tears can’t wash away the stain of all this on American honor, as TomDispatch regular Chase Madar, author of the upcoming book The Passion of Bradley Manning, makes all too clear.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Blood on Whose Hands?
Bradley Manning, Washington, and the Blood of Civilians

By Chase Madar

Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about… civilian war casualties?  What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.

A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel.  And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the U.S. have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and “dwelling on” = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.

Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties — but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning. Pfc.

Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks.  Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries.  For instance, the documents revealed that the U.S. military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.

Then there was that gun-sight video — unclassified but buried in classified material — of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children.  There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the U.S. military had previously denied possessing.

Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the U.S.  A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted.  We don’t talk about these cases a lot either.  On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.

Putting Lives in Danger

“[WikiLeaks] might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the release of the Afghan War Logs in July 2010.  This was, of course, the same Admiral Mullen who had endorsed a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which would lead to a tremendous “surge” in casualties among civilians and soldiers alike.  Here are counts — undoubtedly undercounts, in fact — of real Afghan corpses that, at least in part, resulted from the policy he supported: 2,412 in 2009, 2,777 in 2010, 1,462 in the first half 2011, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.  As far as anyone knows, here are the corpses that resulted from the release of those WikiLeaks documents: 0.  (And don’t forget, the stalemate war with the Taliban has not budged in the period since that surge.)  Who, then, has blood on his hands, Pfc. Manning — or Admiral Mullen?

Of course the admiral is hardly alone.  In fact, whole tabernacle choirs have joined in the condemnation of Manning and WikiLeaks for “causing” carnage, thanks to their disclosures.

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, also spoke sternly of Manning’s leaks, accusing him of “moral culpability.”  He added, “And that’s where I think the verdict is ‘guilty’ on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”

This was, of course, the same Robert Gates who pushed for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009 and, in March 2011, flew to the Kingdom of Bahrain to offer his own personal “reassurance of support” to a ruling monarchy already busy shooting and torturing nonviolent civilian protesters.  So again, when it comes to blood and indifference to consequences, Bradley Manning — or Robert Gates?

Nor have such attitudes been confined to the military. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Manning’s (alleged) leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables of being “an attack on the international community” that “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.”

As a senator, of course, she supported the invasion of Iraq in flagrant contravention of the U.N. Charter.  She was subsequently a leading hawk when it came to escalating and expanding the Afghan War, and is now responsible for disbursing an annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt’s ruling junta whose forces have repeatedly opened fire on nonviolent civilian protesters.  So who’s been attacking the international community and putting lives in danger, Bradley Manning — or Hillary Clinton?

Harold Koh, former Yale Law School dean, liberal lion, and currently the State Department’s top legal adviser, has announced that the same leaked diplomatic cables “could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals — from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security.”

This is the same Harold Koh who, in March 2010, provided a tortured legal rationale for the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, despite the inevitable and well-documented civilian casualties they cause.  So who is risking the lives of countless innocent individuals, Bradley Manning — or Harold Koh?

Much of the media have clambered aboard the bandwagon, blaming WikiLeaks and Manning for damage done by wars they once energetically cheered on.

In early 2011, to pick just one example from the ranks of journalism, New Yorker writer George Packer professed his horror that WikiLeaks had released a memo marked “secret/noforn” listing spots throughout the world of vital strategic or economic interest to the United States.  Asked by radio host Brian Lehrer whether this disclosure had crossed a new line by making a gratuitous gift to terrorists, Packer replied with an appalled yes.

Now, among the “secrets” contained in this document are the facts that the Strait of Gibraltar is a vital shipping lane and that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in minerals. Have we Americans become so infantilized that factoids of basic geography must be considered state secrets?  (Maybe best not to answer that question.)  The “threat” of this document’s release has since been roundly debunked by various military intellectuals.

Nevertheless, Packer’s response was instructive.  Here was a typical liberal hawk, who had can-canned to the post-9/11 drumbeat of war as a therapeutic wake-up call from “the bland comforts of peace,” now affronted by WikiLeaks’ supposed recklessness.  Civilian casualties do not seem to have been on Packer’s mind when he supported the invasion of Iraq, nor has he written much about them since.

In an enthusiastic 2006 New Yorker essay on counterinsurgency warfare, for example, the very words “civilian casualties” never come up, despite their centrality to COIN theory, practice, and history.  It is a fact that, as Operation Enduring Freedom shifted to counterinsurgency tactics in 2009, civilian casualties in Afghanistan skyrocketed.  So, for that matter, have American military casualties.  (More than half of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the past three years.)

Liberal hawks like Packer may consider WikiLeaks out of bounds, but really, who in these last years has been the most reckless, Bradley Manning — or George Packer and some of his pro-war colleagues at the New Yorker like Jeffrey Goldberg (who has since left for the Atlantic Monthly, where he’s been busily clearing a path for war with Iran) and editor David Remnick?

Centrist and liberal nonprofit think tanks have been no less selectively blind when it comes to civilian carnage. Liza Goitein, a lawyer at the liberal-minded Brennan Center at NYU Law School, has also taken out after Bradley Manning.  In the midst of an otherwise deft diagnosis of Washington’s compulsive urge to over-classify everything — the federal government classifies an amazing 77 million documents a year — she pauses just long enough to accuse Manning of “criminal recklessness” for putting civilians named in the Afghan War logs in peril — “a disclosure,” as she puts it, “that surely endangers their safety.”

It’s worth noting that, until the moment Goitein made this charge, not a single report or press release issued by the Brennan Center has ever so much as uttered a mention of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military.  The absence of civilian casualties is almost palpable in the work of the Brennan Center’s program in  “Liberty and National Security.”  For example, this program’s 2011 report “Rethinking Radicalization,” which explored effective, lawful ways to prevent American Muslims from turning terrorist, makes not a single reference to the tens of thousands of well-documented civilian casualties caused by American military force in the Muslim world, which according to many scholars is the prime mover of terrorist blowback.  The report on how to combat the threat of Muslim terrorists, written by Pakistan-born Faiza Patel, does not, in fact, even contain the words “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” “drone strike,” “Pakistan” or “civilian casualties.”

This is almost incredible, because terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world.  Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the U.S. had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  How could any report about “rethinking radicalization” fail to mention this?  Although the Brennan Center does much valuable work, Goitein’s selective finger-pointing on civilian casualties is emblematic of a blindness to war’s consequences widespread among American institutions.

American Military Whistleblowers

Knowledge may indeed have its risks, but how many civilian deaths can actually be traced to the WikiLeaks revelations?  How many military deaths?  To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not a single one.  After much huffing and puffing, the Pentagon has quietly denied — and then denied again — that there is any evidence at all of the Taliban targeting the Afghan civilians named in the leaked war logs.

In the end, the “grave risks” involved in the publication of the War Logs and of those State Department documents have been wildly exaggerated.  Embarrassment, yes.  A look inside two grim wars and the workings of imperial diplomacy, yes.  Blood, no.

On the other hand, the grave risks that were hidden in those leaked documents, as well as in all the other government distortions, cover-ups, and lies of the past decade, have been graphically illustrated in aortal red.  The civilian carnage caused by our rush to war in Iraq and by our deeply entrenched stalemate of a war in Afghanistan (and the Pakistani tribal borderlands) is not speculative or theoretical but all-too real.

And yet no one anywhere has been held to much account: not in the political class, not in the military, not in the think tanks, not among the scholars, nor the media.  Only one individual, it seems, will pay, even if he actually spilled none of the blood.  Our foreign policy elites seem to think Bradley Manning is well-cast for the role of fall guy and scapegoat.  This is an injustice.

Someday, it will be clearer to Americans that Pfc. Manning has joined the ranks of great American military whistleblowers like Dan Ellsberg (who was first in his class at Marine officer training school); Vietnam War infantryman Ron Ridenhour, who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre; and the sailors and marines who, in 1777, reported the torture of British captives by their politically connected commanding officer.  These servicemen, too, were vilified in their times. Today, we honor them, as someday Pfc. Manning will be honored.

Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, to be published by OR Books in February.  He is an attorney in New York, a TomDispatch regular, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, American Conservative Magazine, and CounterPunch.  (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) He tweets @ChMadar.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Chase Madar

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Posted by alexthurston on January 17th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

These days, with a crisis atmosphere growing in the Persian Gulf, a little history lesson about the U.S. and Iran might be just what the doctor ordered.  Here, then, are a few high- (or low-) lights from their relationship over the last half-century-plus:

Summer 1953: The CIA and British intelligence hatch a plot for a coup that overthrows a democratically elected government in Iran intent on nationalizing that country’s oil industry.  In its place, they put an autocrat, the young Shah of Iran, and his soon-to-be feared secret police.  He runs the country as his repressive fiefdom for a quarter-century, becoming Washington’s “bulwark” in the Persian Gulf — until overthrown in 1979 by a home-grown revolutionary movement, which ushers in the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs.  While Khomeini & Co. were hardly Washington’s men, thanks to that 1953 coup they were, in a sense, its own political offspring.  In other words, the fatal decision to overthrow a popular democratic government shaped the Iranian world Washington now loathes, and even then oil was at the bottom of things.

1967: Under the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” program, started in the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Shah is allowed to buy a 5-megawatt, light-water type research reactor for Tehran (which — call it irony — is still playing a role in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program).  Defense Department officials did worry at the time that the Shah might use the “peaceful atom” as a basis for a future weapons program or that nuclear materials might fall into the wrong hands.  “An aggressive successor to the Shah,” went a 1974 Pentagon memo, “might consider nuclear weapons the final item needed to establish Iran’s complete military dominance of the region.”  But that didn’t stop them from aiding and abetting the creation of an Iranian nuclear program.

The Shah, like his Islamic successors, argued that such a program was Iran’s national “right” and dreamed of a country that would get significant portions of its electricity from a string of nuclear plants.  As a 1970s ad by a group of American power companies put the matter: “The Shah of Iran is sitting on top of one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world.  Yet he’s building two nuclear plants and planning two more to provide electricity for his country.  He knows the oil is running out — and time with it.”  In other words, the U.S. nuclear program was the genesis for the Iranian one that Washington now so despises.

September 1980: Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein launches a war of aggression against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.  In the early 1980s, he becomes Washington’s man, our “bulwark” in the Persian Gulf, and we offer him our hand — and also “detailed information” on Iranian deployments and tactical planning that help him use his chemical weapons more effectively against the Iranian military.  Oh, and just to make sure things turn out really, really well, the Reagan administration also decides to sell missiles and other arms to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran on the sly, part of what became known as the “Iran-Contra Affair” and which almost brings down the president and his men.  Success!

March 2003: Saddam Hussein is, by now, no longer our man in Baghdad but a new “Hitler” who, top Washington officials claim, undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons program that could someday leave mushroom clouds rising over U.S. cities.  So the Bush administration launches a war of aggression against Iraq, which like Iran just happens to — in the words of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — “float on a sea of oil.”  (Bush officials hope, in the wake of a “cakewalk” of a war to revive that country’s oil industry, to privatize it, and use it to destroy OPEC, driving down the price of oil on world markets.)  Nine years later, a Shiite government is in power in Baghdad closely allied with Tehran, which has gained regional strength and influence thanks to the disastrous U.S. occupation.

So call it an unblemished record of a kind not easy to find.  In more than 50 years, America’s leaders have never made a move in Iran (or near it) that didn’t lead to unexpected and unpleasant blowback.  Now, another administration in Washington, after years of what can only be called a covert war against Iran, is preparing yet another set of clever maneuvers — this time sanctions against Iran’s central bank meant to cripple the country’s oil industry and crack open the economy followed by no one knows what.

And honestly, I mean, really, given past history, what could possibly go wrong?  Regime change in Iran?  It’s bound to be a slam dunk and if you don’t believe it, check out Pepe Escobar, that fabulous peripatetic reporter for Asia Times and TomDispatch regularTom

The Myth of “Isolated” Iran
Following the Money in the Iran Crisis

By Pepe Escobar

Let’s start with red lines. Here it is, Washington’s ultimate red line, straight from the lion’s mouth.  Only last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said of the Iranians, “Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

How strange, the way those red lines continue to retreat.  Once upon a time, the red line for Washington was “enrichment” of uranium. Now, it’s evidently an actual nuclear weapon that can be brandished. Keep in mind that, since 2005, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has stressed that his country is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from the U.S. Intelligence Community has similarly stressed that Iran is not, in fact, developing a nuclear weapon (as opposed to the breakout capacity to build one someday).

What if, however, there is no “red line,” but something completely different? Call it the petrodollar line.

Banking on Sanctions?

Let’s start here: In December 2011, impervious to dire consequences for the global economy, the U.S. Congress — under all the usual pressures from the Israel lobby (not that it needs them) — foisted a mandatory sanctions package on the Obama administration (100 to 0 in the Senate and with only 12 “no” votes in the House). Starting in June, the U.S. will have to sanction any third-country banks and companies dealing with Iran’s Central Bank, which is meant to cripple that country’s oil sales.  (Congress did allow for some “exemptions.”)

The ultimate target? Regime change — what else? — in Tehran. The proverbial anonymous U.S. official admitted as much in the Washington Post, and that paper printed the comment.  (“The goal of the U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran’s government as it is on engaging with it.”) But oops! The newspaper then had to revise the passage to eliminate that embarrassingly on-target quote. Undoubtedly, this “red line” came too close to the truth for comfort.

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen believed that only a monster shock-and-awe-style event, totally humiliating the leadership in Tehran, would lead to genuine regime change — and he was hardly alone. Advocates of actions ranging from air strikes to invasion (whether by the U.S., Israel, or some combination of the two) have been legion in neocon Washington.  (See, for instance, the Brookings Institution’s 2009 report Which Path to Persia.)

Yet anyone remotely familiar with Iran knows that such an attack would rally the population behind Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.  In those circumstances, the deep aversion of many Iranians to the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat would matter little.

Besides, even the Iranian opposition supports a peaceful nuclear program.  It’s a matter of national pride.

Iranian intellectuals, far more familiar with Persian smoke and mirrors than ideologues in Washington, totally debunk any war scenarios.  They stress that the Tehran regime, adept in the arts of Persian shadow play, has no intention of provoking an attack that could lead to its obliteration. On their part, whether correctly or not, Tehran strategists assume that Washington will prove unable to launch yet one more war in the Greater Middle East, especially one that could lead to staggering collateral damage for the world economy.

In the meantime, Washington’s expectations that a harsh sanctions regime might make the Iranians give ground, if not go down, may prove to be a chimera.  Washington spin has been focused on the supposedly disastrous mega-devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial, in the face of the new sanctions. Unfortunately for the fans of Iranian economic collapse, Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has laid out in elaborate detail the long-term nature of this process, which Iranian economists have more than welcomed.  After all, it will boost Iran’s non-oil exports and help local industry in competition with cheap Chinese imports. In sum: a devalued rial stands a reasonable chance of actually reducing unemployment in Iran.

More Connected Than Google

Though few in the U.S. have noticed, Iran is not exactly “isolated,” though Washington might wish it.  Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani has become a frequent flyer to Tehran. And he’s a Johnny-come-lately compared to Russia’s national security chief Nikolai Patrushev, who only recently warned the Israelis not to push the U.S. to attack Iran. Add in as well U.S. ally and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  At a Loya Jirga (grand council) in late 2011, in front of 2,000 tribal leaders, he stressed that Kabul was planning to get even closer to Tehran.

On that crucial Eurasian chessboard, Pipelineistan, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) natural gas pipeline — much to Washington’s distress — is now a go. Pakistan badly needs energy and its leadership has clearly decided that it’s unwilling to wait forever and a day for Washington’s eternal pet project — the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline — to traverse Talibanistan.

Even Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently visited Tehran, though his country’s relationship with Iran has grown ever edgier.  After all, energy overrules threats in the region. NATO member Turkey is already involved in covert ops in Syria, allied with hardcore fundamentalist Sunnis in Iraq, and — in a remarkable volte-face in the wake of the Arab Spring(s) — has traded in an Ankara-Tehran-Damascus axis for an Ankara-Riyadh-Doha one.  It is even planning on hosting components of Washington’s long-planned missile defense system, targeted at Iran.

All this from a country with a Davutoglu-coined foreign policy of “zero problems with our neighbors.”  Still, the needs of Pipelineistan do set the heart racing.  Turkey is desperate for access to Iran’s energy resources, and if Iranian natural gas ever reaches Western Europe — something the Europeans are desperately eager for — Turkey will be the privileged transit country.  Turkey’s leaders have already signaled their rejection of further U.S. sanctions against Iranian oil.

And speaking of connections, last week there was that spectacular diplomatic coup de théâtre, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Latin American tour. U.S. right-wingers may harp on a Tehran-Caracas axis of evil — supposedly promoting “terror” across Latin America as a springboard for future attacks on the northern superpower — but back in real life, another kind of truth lurks.  All these years later, Washington is still unable to digest the idea that it has lost control over, or even influence in, those two regional powers over which it once exercised unmitigated imperial hegemony.

Add to this the wall of mistrust that has only solidified since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.  Mix in a new, mostly sovereign Latin America pushing for integration not only via leftwing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador but through regional powers Brazil and Argentina. Stir and you get photo ops like Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Washington continues to push a vision of a world from which Iran has been radically disconnected.  State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is typical in saying recently, “Iran can remain in international isolation.”  As it happens, though, she needs to get her facts straight.

“Isolated” Iran has $4 billion in joint projects with Venezuela including, crucially, a bank (as with Ecuador, it has dozens of planned projects from building power plants to, once again, banking). That has led the Israel-first crowd in Washington to vociferously demand that sanctions be slapped on Venezuela.  Only problem: how would the U.S. pay for its crucial Venezuelan oil imports then?

Much was made in the U.S. press of the fact that Ahmadinejad did not visit Brazil on this jaunt through Latin America, but diplomatically Tehran and Brasilia remain in sync. When it comes to the nuclear dossier in particular, Brazil’s history leaves its leaders sympathetic.  After all, that country developed — and then dropped — a nuclear weapons program. In May 2010, Brazil and Turkey brokered a uranium-swap agreement for Iran that might have cleared the decks on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear imbroglio.  It was, however, immediately sabotaged by Washington. A key member of the BRICS, the club of top emerging economies, Brasilia is completely opposed to the U.S. sanctions/embargo strategy.

So Iran may be “isolated” from the United States and Western Europe, but from the BRICS to NAM (the 120 member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement), it has the majority of the global South on its side.  And then, of course, there are those staunch Washington allies, Japan and South Korea, now pleading for exemptions from the coming boycott/embargo of Iran’s Central Bank.

No wonder, because these unilateral U.S. sanctions are also aimed at Asia.  After all, China, India, Japan, and South Korea, together, buy no less than 62% of Iran’s oil exports.

With trademark Asian politesse, Japan’s Finance Minister Jun Azumi let Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner know just what a problem Washington is creating for Tokyo, which relies on Iran for 10% of its oil needs.  It is pledging to at least modestly “reduce” that share “as soon as possible” in order to get a Washington exemption from those sanctions, but don’t hold your breath. South Korea has already announced that it will buy 10% of its oil needs from Iran in 2012.

Silk Road Redux

Most important of all, “isolated” Iran happens to be a supreme matter of national security for China, which has already rejected the latest Washington sanctions without a blink. Westerners seem to forget that the Middle Kingdom and Persia have been doing business for almost two millennia. (Does “Silk Road” ring a bell?)

The Chinese have already clinched a juicy deal for the development of Iran’s largest oil field, Yadavaran. There’s also the matter of the delivery of Caspian Sea oil from Iran through a pipeline stretching from Kazakhstan to Western China. In fact, Iran already supplies no less than 15% of China’s oil and natural gas. It is now more crucial to China, energy-wise, than the House of Saud is to the U.S., which imports 11% of its oil from Saudi Arabia.

In fact, China may be the true winner from Washington’s new sanctions, because it is likely to get its oil and gas at a lower price as the Iranians grow ever more dependent on the China market.  At this moment, in fact, the two countries are in the middle of a complex negotiation on the pricing of Iranian oil, and the Chinese have actually been ratcheting up the pressure by slightly cutting back on energy purchases.  But all this should be concluded by March, at least two months before the latest round of U.S. sanctions go into effect, according to experts in Beijing. In the end, the Chinese will certainly buy much more Iranian gas than oil, but Iran will still remain its third biggest oil supplier, right after Saudi Arabia and Angola.

As for other effects of the new sanctions on China, don’t count on them.  Chinese businesses in Iran are building cars, fiber optics networks, and expanding the Tehran subway. Two-way trade is at $30 billion now and expected to hit $50 billion in 2015.  Chinese businesses will find a way around the banking problems the new sanctions impose.

Russia is, of course, another key supporter of “isolated” Iran.  It has opposed stronger sanctions either via the U.N. or through the Washington-approved package that targets Iran’s Central Bank. In fact, it favors a rollback of the existing U.N. sanctions and has also been at work on an alternative plan that could, at least theoretically, lead to a face-saving nuclear deal for everyone.

On the nuclear front, Tehran has expressed a willingness to compromise with Washington along the lines of the plan Brazil and Turkey suggested and Washington deep-sixed in 2010. Since it is now so much clearer that, for Washington — certainly for Congress — the nuclear issue is secondary to regime change, any new negotiations are bound to prove excruciatingly painful.

This is especially true now that the leaders of the European Union have managed to remove themselves from a future negotiating table by shooting themselves in their Ferragamo-clad feet.  In typical fashion, they have meekly followed Washington’s lead in implementing an Iranian oil embargo. As a senior EU official told National Iranian American Council President Trita Parsi, and as EU diplomats have assured me in no uncertain terms, they fear this might prove to be the last step short of outright war.

Meanwhile, a team of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has just visited Iran.  The IAEA is supervising all things nuclear in Iran, including its new uranium-enrichment plant at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, with full production starting in June. The IAEA is positive: no bomb-making is involved.  Nonetheless, Washington (and the Israelis) continue to act as though it’s only a matter of time — and not much of it at that.

Follow the Money

That Iranian isolation theme only gets weaker when one learns that the country is dumping the dollar in its trade with Russia for rials and rubles — a similar move to ones already made in its trade with China and Japan.  As for India, an economic powerhouse in the neighborhood, its leaders also refuse to stop buying Iranian oil, a trade that, in the long run, is similarly unlikely to be conducted in dollars. India is already using the yuan with China, as Russia and China have been trading in rubles and yuan for more than a year, as Japan and China are promoting direct trading in yen and yuan.  As for Iran and China, all new trade and joint investments will be settled in yuan and rial.

Translation, if any was needed: in the near future, with the Europeans out of the mix, virtually none of Iran’s oil will be traded in dollars.

Moreover, three BRICS members (Russia, India, and China) allied with Iran are major holders (and producers) of gold. Their complex trade ties won’t be affected by the whims of a U.S. Congress.  In fact, when the developing world looks at the profound crisis in the Atlanticist West, what they see is massive U.S. debt, the Fed printing money as if there’s no tomorrow, lots of “quantitative easing,” and of course the Eurozone shaking to its very foundations.

Follow the money. Leave aside, for the moment, the new sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank that will go into effect months from now, ignore Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz (especially unlikely given that it’s the main way Iran gets its own oil to market), and perhaps one key reason the crisis in the Persian Gulf is mounting involves this move to torpedo the petrodollar as the all-purpose currency of exchange.

It’s been spearheaded by Iran and it’s bound to translate into an anxious Washington, facing down not only a regional power, but its major strategic competitors China and Russia.  No wonder all those carriers are heading for the Persian Gulf right now, though it’s the strangest of showdowns — a case of military power being deployed against economic power.

In this context, it’s worth remembering that in September 2000 Saddam Hussein abandoned the petrodollar as the currency of payment for Iraq’s oil, and moved to the euro. In March 2003, Iraq was invaded and the inevitable regime change occurred. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi proposed a gold dinar both as Africa’s common currency and as the currency of payment for his country’s energy resources. Another intervention and another regime change followed.

Washington/NATO/Tel Aviv, however, offers a different narrative.  Iran’s “threats” are at the heart of the present crisis, even if these are, in fact, that country’s reaction to non-stop US/Israeli covert war and now, of course, economic war as well.  It’s those “threats,” so the story goes, that are leading to rising oil prices and so fueling the current recession, rather than Wall Street’s casino capitalism or massive U.S. and European debts. The cream of the 1% has nothing against high oil prices, not as long as Iran’s around to be the fall guy for popular anger.

As energy expert Michael Klare pointed out recently, we are now in a new geo-energy era certain to be extremely turbulent in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.  But consider 2012 the start-up year as well for a possibly massive defection from the dollar as the global currency of choice. As perception is indeed reality, imagine the real world — mostly the global South — doing the necessary math and, little by little, beginning to do business in their own currencies and investing ever less of any surplus in U.S. Treasury bonds.

Of course, the U.S. can always count on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates — which I prefer to call the Gulf Counterrevolution Club (just look at their performances during the Arab Spring). For all practical geopolitical purposes, the Gulf monarchies are a U.S. satrapy. Their decades-old promise to use only the petrodollar translates into them being an appendage of Pentagon power projection across the Middle East.  Centcom, after all, is based in Qatar; the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. In fact, in the immensely energy-wealthy lands that we could label Greater Pipelineistan — and that the Pentagon used to call “the arc of instability” — extending through Iran all the way to Central Asia, the GCC remains key to a dwindling sense of U.S. hegemony.

If this were an economic rewrite of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Iran would be but one cog in an infernal machine slowly shredding the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Still, it’s the cog that Washington is now focused on.  They have regime change on the brain.  All that’s needed is a spark to start the fire (in — one hastens to add — all sorts of directions that are bound to catch Washington off guard).

Remember Operation Northwoods, that 1962 plan drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to stage terror operations in the U.S. and blame them on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  (President Kennedy shot the idea down.)  Or recall the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, used by President Lyndon Johnson as a justification for widening the Vietnam War.  The U.S. accused North Vietnamese torpedo boats of unprovoked attacks on U.S. ships.  Later, it became clear that one of the attacks had never even happened and the president had lied about it.

It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine hardcore Full-Spectrum-Dominance practitioners inside the Pentagon riding a false-flag incident in the Persian Gulf to an attack on Iran (or simply using it to pressure Tehran into a fatal miscalculation).  Consider as well the new U.S. military strategy just unveiled by President Obama in which the focus of Washington’s attention is to move from two failed ground wars in the Greater Middle East to the Pacific (and so to China). Iran happens to be right in the middle, in Southwest Asia, with all that oil heading toward an energy-hungry modern Middle Kingdom over waters guarded by the U.S. Navy.

So yes, this larger-than-life psychodrama we call “Iran” may turn out to be as much about China and the U.S. dollar as it is about the politics of the Persian Gulf or Iran’s nonexistent bomb.  The question is: What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Beijing to be born?

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times, a TomDispatch regular, and a political analyst for al-Jazeera and RT. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Pepe Escobar

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Posted by alexthurston on January 15th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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After almost two months in abeyance and the (possibly temporary) loss of Shamsi Air Base for its air war, the CIA is again cranking up its drone operations in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.  The first two attacks of 2012 were launched within 48 hours of each other, reportedly killing 10 ___s, and wounding at least four ___s.  Yes, that’s right, the U.S. is killing ___s in Pakistan.  These days, the dead there are regularly identified in press accounts as “militants” or “suspected militants” and often, quoting never-named Pakistani or other “intelligence sources,” as “foreigners” or “non-Pakistanis.”  They just about never have names, and the CIA’s robots never get close enough to their charred bodies to do whatever would be the dehumanizing techno-equivalent of urinating on them.

It all sounds so relatively clean.  Last year, there were 75 such clean attacks, 303 since 2004, killing possibly thousands of ___s in those borderlands.  In fact, the world of death and destruction always tends to look clean and “precise” — if you keep your distance, if you remain in the heavens like the implacable gods of yore or thousands of miles from your targets like the “pilots” of these robotic planes and the policymakers who dispatch them.

On the ground, things are of course far messier, nastier, more disturbingly human.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have, over the years, killed at least 168 children.  In a roiled and roiling situation in that country, with the military and the civilian government at odds, with coup rumors in the air and borders still closed to U.S. Afghan War supplies (since an “incident” in which American air strikes killed up to 26 Pakistani troops), the deeply unpopular drone attacks only heighten tensions.  Whomever they may kill — including al-Qaeda figures — they also intensify anger and make the situation worse in the name of making it better.  They are, by their nature, blowback weapons and their image of high-tech, war-winning precision here in the U.S. undoubtedly has an instant blowback effect on those who loose them.  The drones can’t help but offer them a dangerous and deceptive feeling of omnipotence, a feeling that — legality be damned — anything is possible.

If, as Nick Turse has long been arguing in his reportage on our latest wonder weapons, drones are, in the end, counterproductive tools of war, this has yet to sink in here.  After all, our military planners are now projecting an investment of at least $40 billion in the burgeoning drone industry over the next decade for more than 700 medium- and large-size drones (and who knows how much is to go into smaller versions of the same).

Turse’s work on drones in his TomDispatch series on the changing face of empire relies on seldom noted realities hidden away in U.S. Air Force documents.  He has a way of bringing the robotic planes down to earth.  They are, as he has written, wonder weapons with wings of clay. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
What 70 Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American Way of War
By Nick Turse

American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly.  What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn.  In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over.  The Predator, one of the Air Force’s workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.

An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch.  They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more.

These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged.  These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces.  Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.

The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations.  Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators — often multiple teams over many hours — from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota.  They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida.  (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)

In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong.  In that November 2007 Predator incident in Iraq, for instance, an electronic failure caused the robotic aircraft to engage its self-destruct mechanism and crash, after which U.S. jets destroyed the wreckage to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.  In other cases, drones — officially known as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs — broke down, escaped human control and oversight, or self-destructed for reasons ranging from pilot error and bad weather to mechanical failure in Afghanistan, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, Iraq, Kuwait, and various other unspecified or classified foreign locations, as well as in the United States.

In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours.  By the close of last year, that number topped 70,000.  As the tempo of robotic air operations has steadily increased, crashes have, not surprisingly, become more frequent.  In 2001, just two Air Force drones were destroyed in accidents.  In 2008, eight drones fell from the sky.  Last year, the number reached 13.  (Accident rates are, however, dropping according to an Air Force report relying on figures from 2009.)

Keep in mind that the 70-plus accidents recorded in those Air Force documents represent only drone crashes investigated by the Air Force under a rigid set of rules. Many other drone mishaps have not been included in the Air Force statistics.  Examples include a haywire MQ-9 Reaper drone that had to be shot out of the Afghan skies by a fighter jet in 2009, a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya last June, an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August 2011, an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel lost during a spy mission in Iran last December, and the recent crash of an MQ-9 Reaper in the Seychelles Islands.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman… Or Do You?

How missions are carried out — and sometimes fail — is apparent from the declassified reports, including one provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force detailing a June 2011 crash.  Late that month, a Predator drone took off from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan to carry out a surveillance mission in support of ground forces.  Piloted by a member of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the robotic craft ran into rough weather, causing the pilot to ask for permission to abandon the troops below.

His commander never had a chance to respond.  Lacking weather avoidance equipment found on more sophisticated aircraft or on-board sensors to clue the pilot in to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and with a sandstorm interfering with ground radar, “severe weather effects” overtook the Predator.  In an instant, the satellite link between pilot and plane was severed.  When it momentarily flickered back to life, the crew could see that the drone was in an extreme nosedive.  They then lost the datalink for a second and final time.  A few minutes later, troops on the ground radioed in to say that the $4 million drone had crashed near them.

A month earlier, a Predator drone took off from the tiny African nation of Djibouti in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in Afghanistan as well as Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia, among other nations.  According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, about eight hours into the flight, the mission crew noticed a slow oil leak.  Ten hours later, they handed the drone off to a local aircrew whose assignment was to land it at Djibouti’s Ambouli Airport, a joint civilian/military facility adjacent to Camp Lemonier, a U.S. base in the country.

That mission crew — both the pilot and sensor operator — had been deployed from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and had logged a combined 1,700 hours flying Predators.  They were considered “experienced” by the Air Force.  On this day, however, the electronic sensors that measure their drone’s altitude were inaccurate, while low clouds and high humidity affected its infrared sensors and set the stage for disaster.

An investigation eventually found that, had the crew performed proper instrument cross-checks, they would have noticed a 300-400 foot discrepancy in their altitude.  Instead, only when the RPA broke through the clouds did the sensor operator realize just how close to the ground it was.  Six seconds later, the drone crashed to earth, destroying itself and one of its Hellfire missiles.

Storms, clouds, humidity, and human error aren’t the only natural dangers for drones.  In a November 2008 incident, a mission crew at Kandahar Air Field launched a Predator on a windy day.  Just five minutes into the flight, with the aircraft still above the sprawling American mega-base, the pilot realized that the plane had already deviated from its intended course.  To get it back on track, he initiated a turn that — due to the aggressive nature of the maneuver, wind conditions, drone design, and the unbalanced weight of a missile on just one wing — sent the plane into a roll. Despite the pilot’s best efforts, the craft entered a tailspin, crashed on the base, and burst into flames.

Going Rogue

On occasion, RPAs have simply escaped from human control.  Over the course of eight hours on a late February day in 2009, for example, five different crews passed off the controls of a Predator drone, one to the next, as it flew over Iraq.  Suddenly, without warning, the last of them, members of the North Dakota Air National Guard at Hector International Airport in Fargo, lost communication with the plane.  At that point no one — not the pilot, nor the sensor operator, nor a local mission crew — knew where the drone was or what it was doing.  Neither transmitting nor receiving data or commands, it had, in effect, gone rogue.  Only later was it determined that a datalink failure had triggered the drone’s self-destruct mechanism, sending it into an unrecoverable tailspin and crash within 10 minutes of escaping human control.

In November 2009, a Predator launched from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan lost touch with its human handlers 20 minutes after takeoff and simply disappeared.  When the mission crew was unable to raise the drone, datalink specialists were brought in but failed to find the errant plane.  Meanwhile, air traffic controllers, who had lost the plane on radar, could not even locate its transponder signal.  Numerous efforts to make contact failed.  Two days later, at the moment the drone would have run out of fuel, the Air Force declared the Predator “lost.”  It took eight days for its wreckage to be located.

Crash Course

In mid-August 2004, while drone operations in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility were running at high tempo, a Predator mission crew began hearing a cascade of warning alarms indicating engine and alternator failure, as well as a possible engine fire.  When the sensor operator used his camera to scan the aircraft, it didn’t take long to spot the problem.  Its tail had burst into flames.  Shortly afterward, it became uncontrollable and crashed.

In January 2007, a Predator drone was flying somewhere in the CENTCOM region (above one of 20 countries in the Greater Middle East).  About 14 hours into a 20-hour mission, the aircraft began to falter.  For 15 minutes its engine was failing, but the information it was sending back remained within normal parameters, so the mission crew failed to notice.  Only at the last minute did they become aware that their drone was dying.  As an investigation later determined, an expanding crack in the drone’s crankshaft caused the engine to seize up.  The pilot put the aircraft into a glide toward an unpopulated area.  Higher headquarters then directed that he should intentionally crash it, since a rapid reaction force would not be able to reach it quickly and it was carrying two Hellfire missiles as well as unspecified “classified equipment.”  Days later, its remains were recovered.

The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare

In spite of all the technical limitations of remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force investigation files, the U.S. is doubling down on drones.  Under the president’s new military strategy, the Air Force is projected to see its share of the budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be a major part of that expansion.

Already, counting the Army’s thousands of tiny drones, one in three military aircraft — close to 7,500 machines — are robots.  According to official figures provided to TomDispatch, roughly 285 of them are Air Force Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk drones.  The Air Force’s arsenal also includes more advanced Sentinels, Avengers, and other classified unmanned aircraft. A report published by the Congressional Budget Office last year, revealed that “the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems” during the next 10 years.

Over the last decade, the United States has increasingly turned to drones in an effort to win its wars.  The Air Force investigation files examined by TomDispatch suggest a more extensive use of drones in Iraq than has previously been reported.  But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, America’s preeminent wonder weapon failed to bring the U.S. mission anywhere close to victory.  Effective as the spearhead of a program to cripple al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone warfare in that country’s tribal borderlands has also alienated almost the entire population of 190 million.  In other words, an estimated 2,000 suspected or identified guerrillas (as well as untold numbers of civilians) died.  The populace of a key American ally grew ever more hostile and no one knows how many new militants in search of revenge the drone strikes may have created, though the numbers are believed to be significant.

Despite a decade of technological, tactical, and strategic refinements and improvements, Air Force and allied CIA personnel watching computer monitors in distant locations have continually failed to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians and, as a result, the judge-jury-executioner drone assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law.

In addition, drone warfare seems to be creating a sinister system of embedded economic incentives that may lead to increasing casualty figures on the ground.  “In some targeting programs, staffers have review quotas — that is, they must review a certain number of possible targets per given length of time,” The Atlantic’s Joshua Foust recently wrote of the private contractors involved in the process.  “Because they are contractors,” he explains, “their continued employment depends on their ability to satisfy the stated performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill targets just to stay employed. This should be an intolerable situation, but because the system lacks transparency or outside review it is almost impossible to monitor or alter.”

As flight hours rise year by year, these stark drawbacks are compounded by a series of technical glitches and vulnerabilities that are ever more regularly coming to light.  These include: Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus infecting the Air Force’s unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots suffering from “high operational stress,” a friendly fire incident in which drone operators killed two U.S. military personnel, increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of an Iranian drone-hijacking, as well as those more than 70 catastrophic mishaps detailed in Air Force accident investigation documents.

Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone pilots, and drone victims, but not much else.  Drones may be effective in terms of generating body counts, but they appear to be even more successful in generating animosity and creating enemies.

The Air Force’s accident reports are replete with evidence of the flaws inherent in drone technology, and there can be little doubt that, in the future, ever more will come to light.  A decade’s worth of futility suggests that drone warfare itself may already be crashing and burning, yet it seems destined that the skies will fill with drones and that the future will bring more of the same.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the fifth in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation.  You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Nick Turse

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Posted by The Agonist on January 14th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Brian M. Downing | Jan 14

Asia Times – Hopes for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan are beginning once more, but the problematic Byzantine geopolitics are not readily apparent. It is not the bipolar confrontation between Britain and Russia that it was in the 19th century. Nor is it simply the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) against the Taliban.

The war in Afghanistan involves Pakistan against India, China against India, the Pashtun Afghans against the northern peoples, Saudi Arabia against Iran, and Russia against China. So arcane and intricate are these conflicts that the US is allied with enemies and at odds with allies.

continue reading here

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