Archive for December, 2008

The Surge: Too Vague to Fail

Posted: December 31, 2008 in Uncategorized

Former military man Jeff Huber wrote an excellent piece on regarding the “surge” in Iraq. He points out that the surge was always crafted as a propaganda tactic:

In information operations, the objective, at least the stated one, is so vague and flexible that it doesn’t need to have anything at all to do with the actual military operation. In fact, it’s best if it doesn’t; the less any statement meant for public consumption has to do with reality, the greater freedom of movement the information operator (aka “bull feather merchant” or “BFM”) has.

…[T]he BFMs had to justify escalating the war to the public. Too many brass hats had admitted there was no military solution to the Iraq fiasco, so the “political unification” canard was adopted…[L]ooking ahead, they nested the “security” piece of the puzzle in the original mission statement: establish security in order to allow political unity to come about. Since some measure of decreased violence has been achieved in Iraq, the BFMs can point to it as proof of the surge’s success, and be reasonably confident no one will remember that improving security was the task, not the goal.

Huber then goes on to rip the myth of the “success” of the surge to shreds.

In his three tours of duty in Iraq, David Petraeus has followed the same operational formula: he hands out a lot of weapons, bribes everybody he gave the weapons to not to use them, and transfers the heck out of Dodge before the time bombs he set blow off his successors’ thumbs and noses (Hey, what’s this?).

Four months after Petraeus turned over command of a “tamed” Mosul, the city’s police chief defected and insurgents overran the city. When Petraeus was in charge of training Iraqi security forces, his recruits disappeared into the desert night along with about 190,000 AK-47 rifles and pistols. As commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, he created “Awakening Councils,” groups of former Sunni militants that Filkins says “are credited by American officials as one of the main catalysts behind the steep reduction in violence there.” More that 100,000 of these former anti-U.S. guerillas have been armed to armpits and put on the dole so they won’t attack Nuri al Maliki’s government forces. Creating the Awakening Councils was the single dumbest thing—among a field of highly qualified contenders for the title—that we’ve done in Iraq, and now, it’s one of the most compelling reasons for us to stay there forever: if we leave, the gravy spigot runs dry, and all our beautiful ugliness will melt out the drain pipe when the Sunni gunmen go back to their old line of business.

And thus it is that our catalyst of victory is the machinery of our failure; we’ve succeeded so well in Iraq that we must stay there always.

I highly recommend reading the entire article. Keep Huber’s points about the vaguaries of propaganda in mind as we start to hear more about why we have to double the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan. If the ends are not clearly defined in the same way the prior surge’s goals were not clearly defined, it’s propaganda.

And, in light of Huber’s article, we should be ready for spin about Iraq from either direction as the U.S. begins to draw down forces there. If violence increases as we remove troops, our powerholders will claim that it was our troops that made the difference. If violence drops as the troops decrease, the powerholders will claim success. Either way, we “win.”

The surge in Iraq not only failed to bring about needed political reconciliation, but it also failed to stop ethnic cleansing. Flooding Afghanistan with weapons and bribing people not to use them is the foundation for a never-ending occupation.

Maybe that’s what powerholders want: war without end, amen.

Easier Not to Look

Posted: December 31, 2008 in Uncategorized
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From The New York Times:

Quietly, as the United States presidential election and its aftermath have dominated the news, America’s three broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.

“The war has gone on longer than a lot of news organizations’ ability or appetite to cover it,” said Jane Arraf, a former Baghdad bureau chief for CNN who has remained in Iraq as a contract reporter for The Christian Science Monitor.

Mike Boettcher, a Baghdad correspondent for NBC News from 2005 to 2007, said nightly news segments and embed assignments with military units occurred less frequently as the war continued.

“Americans like their wars movie length and with a happy ending,” Mr. Boettcher said. “If the war drags on and there is no happy ending, Americans start to squirm in their seats. In the case of television news, they began changing the channel when a story from Iraq appeared.”

The Iraq story soured long ago; now the American people look elsewhere, to Afghanistan, to The Good War(tm), to fields of poppies where our bad guys can be unambiguously bad and we the Sleeping Giant roused to wrath, while the illusion holds. But it will not hold forever. One day soon, we will see the images of the civilians killed by our savage pursuit of those we make it okay to hate. Then, sunk deep into the wastes of the graveyard of empires, where will we turn?

Of a Forgetful Sea

Sometimes, I forget the sun
sinking into the ocean.

Desert is only a handful of sand
held by my daughter.

In her palm,
she holds small creatures,
tracks an ant, a flea
moving over each grain.

She brings them to places
she thinks are safe:

an island of driftwood,
the knot of a blackberry bush,
a continent of grass.

Fire ants carried on sticks,
potato bugs scooped
into the crease of a newspaper.

She tries to help them
before the patterns of tides
reach their lives.

She knows about families
who fold together like hands,
a horizon of tanks moving forward.

Here war is only newsprint.

How easy it is not to think about it
as we sleep beneath our quiet sky,
slip ourselves into foam, neglectful
waves appearing endless.

–Kelli Rusell Agodon, Poets Against the War

Were Jesus walking the earth telling parables about the Kingdom of God, his modern version of Lazarus at the gate might instead be a haunted derelict of a person harmed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; stepped over, ignored, beneath our notice.

It’s easier to ignore the suffering and lost outside the gate. But the ignored are the favored ones. We should make sure we are on their side.

If you want to keep your eyes open, you might take a look at Boettcher’s website, NoIgnoring.

Wise Men in Afghanistan

Posted: December 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

Matthew 2:1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

When the guy with the armies suddenly takes an interest in the baby, hide the babies.

Herod wanted to use the wise men in the service of his own agenda. In today’s terms, he tried to use “soft power.” Instead of sending in battalions, he wanted these civilians to go about their not-violent agenda, but, along the way, pass the critical information back to the power players so they could act. Only in the baby’s best interest, of course.

The wise men knew better.

Late last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security — diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.” The man in charge of the nuclear weapons, Secretary Surge-in-Iraq, wants more economic development. The civilian instruments of national security. Soft power.

This month, USAID informed NGOs working in Afghanistan that in order to keep working with USAID, they’d have to start “cooperating” with the U.S. military.  This isn’t a case of the military suddenly learning to love every human being as a sacred image of God. This “cooperation” subverts humanitarian operations to the strategic goals of the military. This is King Herod trying to co-opt the wise men.  But the wise men are on to them.  Check out the excellent article on this topic by Virginia Moncrieff at The Huffington Post.

Moncrieff’s article is a good reminder that humanitarian issues do not motivate or shape our military strategy in Afghanistan, but vice versa.  We did not go to war in Afghanistan for the purpose of providing stability for humanitarian development, but rather to “capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime which had provided support and safe harbor to al-Qaeda.”  Thus, humanitarian issues will always be at best secondary factors subordinate to what the war planners deem “necessary” to achieve the mission objectives. That also means that we risk altering the perception of the local populations regarding humanitarian workers, making them appear to be part of the U.S. agenda in Afghanistan, which would lead to their being targeted by Taliban and al-Qaida as just another piece of the American machine.

Current U.S. strategy considers Afghanistan to be the battlefield, and battlefields by their nature are not condusive to development. This is an important point to keep in mind because supporters of escalation in Afghanistan often claim that “security” (read: an Afghanistan pacified by the U.S. military) is a prerequisite for humanitarian intervention.  The question assumes the status quo is preferable to a less-militarized option for humanitarian reasons. It isn’t.

Why is this important? Well, over the next few weeks the U.S. government will begin to move more and more troops to Afghanistan. They’ll explain that more implements of violence in the region are necessary to make Afghanistan more secure for humanitarian reasons. But that’s not the case. In fact, the reverse is true: the U.S. government is moving to subvert humanitarian operations in the region for military purposes.

Just as King Herod wanted the wise men to go about their business, but to pass the essential information back to him, the U.S. military wants NGOs to go about their business, but pass on intelligence and lend legitimacy to U.S. war aims. The NGOs should follow the wise men’s example and leave by a different road.

Shameless Plug

Posted: December 28, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Yesterday I wrote a piece on BraveNewFilms on the U.S. military’s use of outrage-stoking home raids in Afghanistan. (The point: these kinds of raids led directly to the uprising in Fallujah in 2003 that included the bodies of Blackwater contractors being hung over a bridge which then led to U.S. forces decimating Fallujah. That was the moment many observers point to as the true beginning of the insurgency in Iraq. Our use of these raids shows that the U.S. military has not learned lessons from the Iraq experience, and when they try to portray a proposed escalation in Afghanistan as “applying the lessons of Iraq,” it doesn’t pass the smell test.)

The post is now being promo’d on The Huffington Post. Go check it out and see what you think.

Merry Christmas, Everyone

Posted: December 25, 2008 in Uncategorized


Posted: December 24, 2008 in Uncategorized
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I intended to leave the Christmas post at the top of the page, but I ran across something today on that I thought needed mentioning.  A commenter wrote:

Certainly there are just reasons to kill people. If an enemy nation threatens U.S citizens or attacks this country, the U.S. must respond with force. American lives come first.

What a perfect picture of perverse nationalism. Would anyone dare to explain themselves to Christ with the excuse, “the lives of my people come first”?

Can anyone imagine the same Christ born in the shadow of the Empire’s census, during the cannibalization of his culture by the hegemon, accepting this excuse?

The good news of tonight’s celebration is not just that Christ was born, but that he lived, and he had something to say to us. It would be no bad thing to try to hear him.

He is Born

Posted: December 24, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

I commend to you a beautiful meditation by Thomas Merton. Here’s an excerpt:

The Evangelists, preparing us for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come. Now is the time of final decision, the time of mercy, “the acceptable time,” the time of settlement, the time of the end. It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come. But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world. The time of the end is the time of massed armies, “wars and rumors of wars,” of huge crowds moving this way and that, of men “withering away for fear,” of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction. The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the eschatological message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty. Yet it is heard by those who are aware that the display of power, hubris (power) and destruction is part of the kerygma (message). That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power. Thus it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with the sign of power, aligned with power, and destroyed with it.

The One whose Word will break the Beast is born. Peace on earth; goodwill towards mankind.

A must read in The Washington Post:

We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is at risk.

President-elect Barack Obama‘s selections of James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present the incoming administration with an important opportunity — and a major risk. These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d’etat that has been steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media.

The writer goes on to detail the militarization of programs to rebuild police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which leave trainees more like commandos instead of Barney Fife. These uberviolent militants pose serious risks to the future of democracy in both countries.

I recommend reading the whole article.

In 2001, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his men loaded as many as 2,000 people–“suspected al-Qaida and Taliban”–into metal cargo containers. Most suffocated; Dostum’s lackeys shot the others. The general’s men buried them in the desert. When word got out about the mass grave this year, they used bulldozers to exhume and remove corpses to hide the evidence. NATO forces and the U.S. Defense Department kept silent because Afghan warlord Dostum helped oust the Taliban. The CIA funded Afghan warlords to the tune of millions of dollars. They killed “suspected Taliban and al-Qaida” for us, and we said nothing when they slaughtered thousands via suffocation and close-range execution by firearm.

One would be hard-pressed to exaggerate the dark situation in Afghanistan. Some estimate that the Taliban hold a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country. Conventional wisdom says the Taliban retrenched and recuperated because the U.S. lacks enough troops in Afghanistan. Thus, the proper response is fairly straightforward: the U.S. should simply increase the number of troops to perform a proper counterinsurgency operation.

This is the fantasy of the easy answer. Even if a lack of troops were the problem in Afghanistan, Americans would be dangerously delusional to believe the snake oil being sold by proponents of an Afghan “surge” for the purpose of counterinsurgency operations (COIN). Standard COIN requires 20 troops per 1,000 locals. In Afghanistan, that would require more than 650,000 troops. For only Pashtun areas, COIN requires more than 280,000 troops—far more than we maintain in Iraq. Due to the cost and manpower requirements, though, few propose a full counterinsurgency strategy. A “surge” of 25,000-40,000 troops—as proposed in a paper for Small Wars Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Downey,
Lieutenant Colonel Lee K. Grubbs, Commander Brian J. Malloy and Lieutenant Colonel Craig R. Wonson
—would only provide about half the troops required for COIN only in certain volatile areas of the country.

But even this undermanned, overexposed effort would be enormously expensive. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in The Three Trillion Dollar War, “defense” spending in the current economic crisis would further damage our already reeling economy. We don’t have the troops and it would be self-destructive to send them if we did.

These considerations only become worth debating if we accept a false premise: that the source of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan is a troop deficit. This premise is wrong, and it brings us back to Gen. Dostum. As Sarah Chayes wrote in The Washington Post this past weekend, the Taliban could only revive and insinuate itself into Afghan political life because they are marginally preferable to the behavior of the warlords we pay to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. Our “allies'” egregious behavior, the Kabul government’s ineptitude and failure to provide basic services, and the U.S. forces’ spectacular inability to avoid persistent civilian casualties combine in the minds of Afghans to create a picture so noxious that they prefer those who programatically throw acid into schoolgirls’ faces.

Reckoning with General Dostum and our stunning silence in the face of an Auschwitz-style death convoy has an importance beyond the salvation of our national soul. There are policy implications buried in the desert with the suffocated thousands. The U.S., in cooperation with a thoroughly corrupt Kabul regime, plans to funnel large amounts of cash to local militias as a method of fighting the Taliban. This effort, innocuously dubbed the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, aims to make up for the absolute impossibility of the U.S. fielding an excess of 600,000 troops in theater. But if we implement this plan, the Afghan people will hold us accountable for the new General Dostums, and we will further energize the process feeding the Taliban’s frightening resurgence.

“Elections have consequences” became a popular sound-bite in recent election cycles. In the case of our Afghanistan policy, though, it might be more accurate to say, “campaigns have consequences.” Democratic candidates used the flagging U.S. effort in Afghanistan to attack the president’s Iraq war policies without becoming “anti-war.” What emerged was a simple rallying cry: “Get our troops out of Iraq so we can refocus on the fight in Afghanistan.”

President-elect Obama refined this anti-Iraq war, pro-Afghanistan war frame into a plan that includes an Afghanistan escalation and a partnership with Pakistan to “stamp out” extremists. But all indications are that the winning Afghanistan policy on the campaign trail is divorced from the reality on the ground. Richard Barrett, the head of the U.N.’s Taliban/al-Qaida monitoring group, warned in September that the coalition military presence helps drive the insurgency and that flooding Afghanistan with more of our troops will reunite splintering Taliban factions, who would in turn be more inclined and better able to aid al-Qaida. Pakistan’s military (which receives a healthy chunk of U.S. funds designed to convince them to help hunt terrorists) and intelligence services have long-standing ties to the Taliban and a long history of destabilizing their own country’s civilian government. Presidential candidate Obama may have found a politically effective groove in the “out of Iraq, back into Afghanistan” line of argument, but a great deal depends on his being able to get out of that groove before it deepens into another mass grave.

Flooding Afghanistan with foreign troops and funding warlords and militias will not win the war. The United States has much to offer that could encourage the growth of civil society and good governance in Kabul. The U.S. also has a great deal it could withhold to cajole the central government to be more accountable and to seriously address rampant corruption and abuse of power. These are tools with which we can begin to build real peace in Afghanistan. But reliance on the movers of jungle politics–guns and bribes–can only build the peace of the grave.

We have killed enough wedding parties. We have paid for enough graves in the desert.

False Correlation

Posted: December 17, 2008 in Uncategorized
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This is a great idea! I mean, we tried it before…

…and it didn’t come back to bite us, right?

The U.S. government drew all the wrong lessons from the fall in violence following the ethnic cleansing(s) in Iraq, and insist on imposing their frame on Afghanistan. The surge did not cause Iraq violence to drop. The Sons of Iraq did not cause the violence to drop. Iraq underwent ethnic cleansing and fell silent in the aftermath, but all the noise about the “surge” masked the true cause of the silence. This is correlation, not causation–post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

The last thing Afghanistan needs is more U.S. money funding more means of violence.