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Archive for June, 2012

Posted by The Agonist on June 9th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Jun 9

Global Post – A suicide bomber disguised in a burqa killed four French soldiers in an assault in eastern Afghanistan today, reported Reuters.

The attack took place in the eastern mountainous Kapisa province, an area mostly controlled by French troops serving in the NATO coalition, said Reuters.

Officials said the violence — which has been claimed by the Taliban — also left five soldiers wounded, according to Agence-France Press.

More from GlobalPost: Afghans fear conflict will escalate long after it ends for America

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi described the attack as “unfortunate” in comments to Reuters, saying the troops were targeted at a little bazaar “by a suicide bomber wearing a burqa.”

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Posted by The Agonist on June 9th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Related: More from Rashid, on how Russia & China’s attempts to set the post-NATO AfPak agenda signal a “major regional shift;” Stephen Blank: Russia’s “modest, albeit real, rapprochement [with Pakistan] is…built upon a long-standing foundation of mistrust;” “Sincere and selfless help” or cynical play for resources? Hey, nobody groks disingenuous bottom-feeding like Business Insider does.

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Posted by The Agonist on June 7th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Michael Cohen points out that Americans love Obama’s drone strikes:

To understand why the existence of a presidential kill list won’t do much to dent Obama’s strong foreign-policy standing, it’s important to remember that Americans don’t just like drone warfare — they love it. A Washington Post poll this February found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy. (It’s hard to think of anything that 83 percent of Americans agree on these days.) In addition, a whopping 77 percent of liberal Democrats support the use of drones — and 65 percent are fine with missile strikes against U.S. citizens, as was the case with the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed last September by a drone.

The popularity of unmanned vehicles is not difficult to understand. They’re cheap; they keep Americans out of harm’s way; and they kill “bad guys.” That unnamed and unseen civilians may be getting killed in the process or that the attacks stretch the outer limits of statutory law are of less concern. Indeed, rare is the American war where such legal and humanitarian niceties mattered much to the electorate.

Americans, including a plurality of liberals, couldn’t care less about the innocents who happen to be standing next to drone targets or those who are targeted when they shouldn’t have been. As long as the President can spin the story as “bad guys get killed, good guys – i.e. Americans – don’t” then a plurality of the populace don’t give a damn about morality or legality. Michael points out on Twitter that the same was true in Iraq, where U.S. opposition to the war was all about American troop deaths, American money wasted and bashing Bush; the vast number of Iraqi civilians who died were a bipartisanly “meh” subject.

The same seems to be true of Obama’s cyberattacks on Iran, only more so. They may be illegal aggressive warfare of the kind that the Obama administration has said would be worthy of physical retaliation should another nation do it to the U.S.A. but Americans could care less.

Now I need a drink.

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Posted by The Agonist on June 5th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

New Delhi | June 5

AP – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is urging leaders of India to play a more robust role in Afghanistan, as U. S tensions with Pakistan, India’s arch-rival, continue to churn.

India has not been a major military player in the war, largely focusing on economic development and reconstruction in Afghanstan, but U.S. defense officials said Panetta will talk with Indian leaders about possibly helping to train the Afghan army and police.

Such discussions, however, come at a particularly fragile time and risk further roiling U.S. relations with Pakistan.

On Monday a CIA drone strike targeted a top al-Qaida leader inside Pakistan. And that same day, NATO reached an agreement with other Central Asia nations that would bypass Pakistan to move military equipment in and out of Afghanistan.

Washington and Islamabad have been deadlocked over negotiations to re-open ground supply routes into Afghanistan that were shut down late last year after a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.

It’s not clear whether the new NATO accord could be used to pressure Pakistan into reaching an agreement on opening its ground routes, or whether Panetta’s visit to India at this time would help or hinder that effort.

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Posted by Tom Engelhardt on June 5th, 2012

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.  The last two presidents may not have been emperors or kings, but they — and the vast national-security structure that continues to be built-up and institutionalized around the presidential self — are certainly one of the nightmares the founding fathers of this country warned us against.  They are one of the reasons those founders put significant war powers in the hands of Congress, which they knew would be a slow, recalcitrant, deliberative body.

Thanks to a long New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” we now know that the president has spent startling amounts of time overseeing the “nomination” of terrorist suspects for assassination via the remotely piloted drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush and which he has expanded exponentially.  Moreover, that article was based largely on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers.”  In other words, it was essentially an administration-inspired piece — columnist Robert Scheer calls it “planted” — on a “secret” program the president and those closest to him are quite proud of and want to brag about in an election year.

The language of the piece about our warrior president was generally sympathetic, even in places soaring.  It focused on the moral dilemmas of a man who — we now know — has personally approved and overseen the growth of a remarkably robust assassination program in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan based on a “kill list.” Moreover, he’s regularly done so target by target, name by name.  (The Times did not mention a recent U.S. drone strike in the Philippines that killed 15.)  According to Becker and Shane, President Obama has also been involved in the use of a fraudulent method of counting drone kills, one that unrealistically deemphasizes civilian deaths.

Historically speaking, this is all passing strange.  The Times calls Obama’s role in the drone killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.”  And that’s accurate.

It’s not, however, that American presidents have never had anything to do with or been in any way involved in assassination programs.  The state as assassin is hardly unknown in our history.  How could President John F. Kennedy, for example, not know about CIA-inspired or -backed assassination plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, and South Vietnamese autocrat (and ostensible ally) Ngo Dinh Diem? (Lumumba and Diem were successfully murdered.)  Similarly, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the CIA carried out a massive assassination campaign in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix.  It proved to be a staggeringly profligate program for killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese, both actual enemies and those simply swept up in the process.

In previous eras, however, presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts.  We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.

Religious Cult or Mafia Hit Squad?

Here’s a believe-it-or-not footnote to our American age.  Who now remembers that, in the early years of his presidency, George W. Bush kept what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward called “his own personal scorecard for the war” on terror?  It took the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world’s most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out by Bush once captured or killed. That scorecard was, Woodward added, always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.

Such private presidential recordkeeping now seems penny-ante indeed.  The distance we’ve traveled in a decade can be measured by the Times’ description of the equivalent of that “personal scorecard” today (and no desk drawer could hold it):

“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. This secret ‘nominations’ process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases, and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by [counterterrorism ‘tsar’ John O.] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”

In other words, thanks to such meetings — on what insiders have labeled “terror Tuesday” — assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president.  Without the help of or any oversight from the American people or their elected representatives, he alone is now responsible for regular killings thousands of miles away, including those of civilians and even children.  He is, in other words, if not a king, at least the king of American assassinations.  On that score, his power is total and completely unchecked.  He can prescribe death for anyone “nominated,” choosing any of the “baseball cards” (PowerPoint bios) on that kill list and then order the drones to take them (or others in the neighborhood) out.

He and he alone can decide that assassinating known individuals isn’t enough and that the CIA’s drones can instead strike at suspiciouspatterns of behavior” on the ground in Yemen or Pakistan. He can stop any attack, any killing, but there is no one, nor any mechanism that can stop him.  An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given that growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual.  This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from.

In the process, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the president has shredded the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing Americans that they will not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel produced a secret memo claiming that, while the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee does apply to the drone assassination of an American citizen in a land with which we are not at war, “it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” (That, writes Greenwald, is “the most extremist government interpretation of the Bill of Rights I’ve heard in my lifetime.”)  In other words, the former Constitutional law professor has been freed from the law of the land in cases in which he “nominates,” as he has, U.S. citizens for robotic death.

There is, however, another aspect to the institutionalizing of those “kill lists” and assassination as presidential prerogatives that has gone unmentioned.  If the Times article — which largely reflects how the Obama administration cares to see itself and its actions — is to be believed, the drone program is also in the process of being sanctified and sacralized.

You get a sense of this from the language of the piece itself.  (“A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan…”)  The president is presented as a particularly moral man, who devotes himself to the “just war” writings of religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and takes every death as his own moral burden.  His leading counterterrorism advisor Brennan, a man who, while still in the CIA, was knee-deep in torture controversy, is presented, quite literally, as a priest of death, not once but twice in the piece.  He is described by the Times reporters as “a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.”  They then quote the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, saying, “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

In the Times telling, the organization of robotic killing had become the administration’s idée fixe, a kind of cult of death within the Oval Office, with those involved in it being so many religious devotees.  We may be, that is, at the edge of a new state-directed, national-security-based religion of killing grounded in the fact that we are in a “dangerous” world and the “safety” of Americans is our preeminent value.  In other words, the president, his apostles, and his campaign acolytes are all, it seems, praying at the Church of St. Drone.

Of course, thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.

How far we’ve come in just two presidencies!  Assassination as a way of life has been institutionalized in the Oval Office, thoroughly normalized, and is now being offered to the rest of us as a reasonable solution to American global problems and an issue on which to run a presidential campaign.

Downhill All the Way on Blowback Planet

After 5,719 inside-the-Beltway (largely inside-the-Oval-Office) words, the Times piece finally gets to this single outside-the-Beltway sentence: “Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”

Arguably, indeed!  For the few who made it that far, it was a brief reminder of just how narrow, how confining the experience of worshiping at St. Drone actually is.  All those endless meetings, all those presidential hours that might otherwise have been spent raising yet more money for campaign 2012, and the two countries that have taken the brunt of the drone raids are more hostile, more dangerous, and in worse shape than in 2009.  (And one of them, keep in mind, is a nuclear power.)  News articles since have only emphasized how powerfully those drones have radicalized local populations — however many “bad guys” (and children) they may also have wiped off the face of the Earth.

And though the Times doesn’t mention this, it’s not just bad news for Yemen or Pakistan.  American democracy, already on the ropes, is worse off, too.

What should astound Americans — but seldom seems to be noticed — is just how into the shadows, how thoroughly military-centric, and how unproductive has become Washington’s thinking at the altar of St. Drone and its equivalents (including special operations forces, increasingly the president’s secret military within the military). Yes, the world is always a dangerous place, even if far less so now than when, in the Cold War era, two superpowers were a heartbeat away from nuclear war.  But — though it’s increasingly heretical to say this — the perils facing Americans, including relatively modest dangers from terrorism, aren’t the worst things on our planet.

Electing an assassin-in-chief, no matter who you vote for, is worse.  Pretending that the Church of St. Drone offers any kind of reasonable or even practical solutions on this planet of ours, is worse yet.  And even worse, once such a process begins, it’s bound to be downhill all the way.  As we learned last week, again in the Times, we not only have an assassin-in-chief in the Oval Office, but a cyberwarrior, perfectly willing to release a new form of weaponry, the most sophisticated computer “worm” ever developed, against another country with which we are not at war.

This represents a breathtaking kind of rashness, especially from the leader of a country that, perhaps more than any other, is dependent on computer systems, opening the U.S. to potentially debilitating kinds of future blowback.  Once again, as with drones, the White House is setting the global rules of the road for every country (and group) able to get its hands on such weaponry and it’s hit the highway at 140 miles per hour without a cop in sight.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest of them knew war, and yet were not acolytes of the eighteenth century equivalents of St. Drone, nor of presidents who might be left free to choose to turn the world into a killing zone.  They knew at least as well as anyone in our national security state today that the world is always a dangerous place — and that that’s no excuse for investing war powers in a single individual.  They didn’t think that a state of permanent war, a state of permanent killing, or a president free to plunge Americans into such states was a reasonable way for their new republic to go.  To them, it was by far the more dangerous way to exist in our world.

The founding fathers would surely have chosen republican democracy over safety.  They would never have believed that a man surrounded by advisors and lawyers, left to his own devices, could protect them from what truly mattered.  They tried to guard against it.  Now, we have a government and a presidency dedicated to it, no matter who is elected in November.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.

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

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on June 4th, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

There was a Guardian piece over the weekend about Western banks ‘reaping billions from Colombian cocaine trade’ which is well worth a look. It highlights a practise we really hear very little about from the mainstream media – Western banks profiteering from drug money. Writers on the subject are almost exclusively confined to the libertarian conspiracy-minded fringe, and so it’s been one we in the West have been able to ignore.

The vast profits made from drug production and trafficking are overwhelmingly reaped in rich “consuming” countries – principally across Europe and in the US – rather than war-torn “producing” nations such as Colombia and Mexico, new research has revealed. And its authors claim that financial regulators in the west are reluctant to go after western banks in pursuit of the massive amount of drug money being laundered through their systems.

The most far-reaching and detailed analysis to date of the drug economy in any country – in this case, Colombia – shows that 2.6% of the total street value of cocaine produced remains within the country, while a staggering 97.4% of profits are reaped by criminal syndicates, and laundered by banks, in first-world consuming countries.

The other big drug-producing areas of the world might be expected not to have substantially different splits of the profits with Western banking giants – and indeed that seems to be the case in Afghanistan. A 2009 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted:

Of the $65 billion turnover of the global market for opiates, only 5-10% ($3-5 billion) is estimated to be laundered by informal banking systems. The rest is laundered through legal trade activities and the banking system.

The annual turnover of Columbian cocaine is in the order of $300 billion, according to the new study cited by the Guardian – and of that, only $7.8bn stays in the country.

Obviously, Western banks must be making massive – I mean bailout-sized – profits from drug-money laundering. The Guardian piece notes:

The mechanisms of laundering drug money were highlighted in the Observer last year after a rare settlement in Miami between US federal authorities and the Wachovia bank, which admitted to transferring $110m of drug money into the US, but failing to properly monitor a staggering $376bn brought into the bank through small exchange houses in Mexico over four years. (Wachovia has since been taken over by Wells Fargo, which has co-operated with the investigation.)

But no one went to jail, and the bank is now in the clear.

That 2009 UNODC World Drug Report essentially said that many banks only survived the financial crash because of drug money.

“Interbank loans were funded by money that originated from drug trade and other illegal activities”, and there were “signs that some banks were rescued in that way”. “At a time of major bank failures, money doesn’t smell, bankers seem to believe”

One of the authors of the new study in the Guardian report put it bluntly:

Gaviria said: “We know that authorities in the US and UK know far more than they act upon. The authorities realise things about certain people they think are moving money for the drug trade – but the DEA [US Drugs Enforcement Administration] only acts on a fraction of what it knows.”

“It’s taboo to go after the big banks,” added Mejía. “It’s political suicide in this economic climate, because the amounts of money recycled are so high.”

Worth remembering next time you read about the Taliban’s paltry estimated take of only $125 million annually – about 10-15% of it’s income – or about how the Afghan elite enriched themselves from an opium trade war the US picked the winners for.

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Posted by The Agonist on June 3rd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

Rod Nordland | Salang Pass | Jun 3

NYT – Nowhere is the impact of Pakistan’s ban on NATO truck traffic more visible than here at the top of the Hindu Kush, on one of the only alternative overland routes for supply convoys to reach Kabul and the rest of the country.

For 20 miles north and south of the old Soviet-built tunnel at Salang Pass, thousands of trucks are idled beside the road, waiting for a turn to get through its perilous, one-and-a-half-mile length.

This is the only passable route for heavy truck traffic bringing NATO supplies in from the Central Asian republics to the north, as they now must come.

There are other roads, but they are often single-lane dirt tracks through even higher mountain passes, or they are frequently subject to ambushes by insurgents and bandits. So a tunnel built to handle 1,000 vehicles a day, and until the Pakistani boycott against NATO in November handling 2,000, now tries — and often fails — to let 10,000 vehicles through, alternating northbound and southbound truck traffic every other day.

“It’s only a matter of time until there’s a catastrophe,” said Lt. Gen. Mohammad Rajab, the head of maintenance for the Salang Pass. “One hundred percent certain, there will be a disaster, and when there is, it’s not a disaster for Afghanistan alone, but for the whole international community that uses this road.” He said 90 percent of the traffic now was trailer and tanker trucks carrying NATO supplies.

The tunnel near the top of this 12,000-foot pass is so narrow — no more than 20 feet across at the base, and less toward the top — that the heavily laden trucks often jam as they try to pass one another, lodging in tightly against the sloping, rough-hewn walls. The trucks have to be winched apart and dragged out by heavy equipment.

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Posted by The Agonist on June 3rd, 2012

From our partners at The Agonist

June 2

BBC – Four aid workers kidnapped in northern Afghanistan last month have been freed by coalition forces, officials say.

British nutritionist Helen Johnston, Kenyan medic Moragwa Oirere and two Afghans were rescued in Badakhshan province on Friday after being captured on 22 May, the Nato-led Isaf said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron called it an “extraordinarily brave, breathtaking” operation.

Five kidnappers were killed in the rescue, by UK and US special forces.

The aid workers – all employees of Switzerland-based aid group Medair – were making their way on horseback to the remote, mountainous province of Badakhshan, in north-eastern Afghanistan, when they were captured.

A fifth member – another Afghan national – was released soon afterwards.

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