Archive for November, 2009

The orders have been given. All that’s left is to give the speech before a bunch of strapping young cadets and install the procurator Augusti. Thirty-six thousand more troopsThirty thousand more troops, $1 million a piece, per year. More IEDs in response. More bombs. More night searches. More economic damage. Hope. Change.

We’ve seen planes in the windows of buildings crumbled in
We’ve seen flames send the chills through London
And we’ve sent planes to kill them
But some of them were children
And still we crumbling the building
–Flobots, “Stand Up”

This evening, the Austin Peace and Justice Center organized a vigil to mourn the escalation outside of the offices of Senator John Cornyn. I decided to attend the vigil, even though I’d have to be late because of work. I drove down to 6th and Lavaca. I didn’t have a sign, but if they had candles, I’d gladly join in. No luck. When I drove past, I saw between a half-dozen and a dozen participants, some in costume, most with signs, but no candles. At most, I could stand there with them and hope not to be mistaken for a pedestrian waiting for a light. Maybe it was a cop-out, but I decided I could do more here at my kitchen table on my laptop to voice my opposition to the war than by standing without a sign on a street corner.

From Lavaca, I turned right on 7th to make my way to I-35, which would take me home. As I rounded the corner, a flock of black birds swooped and circled above. This is that strange time of the migratory birds in Austin, when thousands upon thousands of dark, screeching shapes fill the air, swarm the telephone poles, perch on the the power lines. I’ve never lived anywhere that was such a gathering place for this many birds in the fall. Tonight at dusk they were particularly agitated, diving and jerking in mad formations, the air thick with them. They thinned enough as I drove toward I-35 that I could pay more attention to my surroundings. That’s when I saw the intersection of 7th and Neches.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH, sits on that street corner. Tonight, the homeless were as thick as the birds, crowding all the way around the block. The sound of the crowd’s chatter temporarily blocked that of the birds as I drove by with my window cracked. Some talked, some shouted, some sang, all while they waited for help to get through a chilly, rainy night. One million dollars per troop, per year, I thought. Guns or butter.

Then, I thought, We’re all going to Hell for this. (more…)

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Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal. You can say no to escalation in Afghanistan by signing our CREDO petition at http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/saynotoescalation/. For each signature, CREDO will donate a dollar to support Crowe’s work.

I loathe the use of my tax dollars for any violence, but you know what I loathe even more? The use of debt taken out in my name to fund violence.

The latter includes the anti-Christian choice of using violence in conflict and it adds extreme, immoral irresponsibility to the original sin. Not only did the deficit-fueled war spending of the Bush years lead to massive human suffering, but it also contributed mightily to the economic crisis. Here’s Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes writing in The Three Trillion Dollar War just before the economic crisis fully materialized (p. 115, 125-126):

The question is not whether the economy has been weakened by the [Iraq] war. The question is only by how much. Where you can put a figure on them, the costs are immense. In our realistic-moderate scenario…they total moe than a trillion dollars.

The Federal Reserve sought…to offset the adverse effects of the war, including those discussed earlier in this chapter. It kept interest rates lower than they otherwise might have been and looked the other way as lending standards were lowered–thereby encouraging households to borrow more–and spend more. Even as interest rates were reaching record lows, Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, in effect invited households to pile on the risk as he encouraged them to take on variable rate mortgages. The low initial interest rates allowed households to borrow more against their houses, enabling America to consume well beyond its means.

Household savings rates soon went negative for the first time since the Great Depression. But it was only a matter of time before interest rates rose. When they did so, hundreds of thousands of Americans who had taken on variable interest mortgages saw their mortgage payments rise–beyond their ability to pay–and they lost their homes. This was all predictable–and predicted: after all, interest rates could not stay at these historically unprecidented low rates forever. As this book goes to press, the full ramifications of the “subprime” mortgage crisis are still unfolding. Growth is slowing, and the economy is again performing markedly below its potential.

As an aside: Once I was derided for attacking the president’s willful disregard of the Sermon on the Mount’s unequivocal call for nonviolence because I was not also jumping up and down about deficits. Not only was that not true, but that jab assumed that the war in Afghanistan was not, in fact, a budget-busting mortgaging of the common good. Oops.

Some Democrats in Congress seem to understand this, at least:

Top Democrats have made it clear to Obama that he will not receive a friendly reception should he announce what is considered the leading option: sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The legislators have indicated that a request for more money to finance a beefed-up war effort will be met with frustration and, perhaps, a demand to raise taxes.

If the president wants to spend $1 million per troop, per year, he should have to justify it to the people who will bear the brunt of the ensuing economic damage.

Good for you, Pelosi, Obey, Rangel, et. al. Keep it up.

Watch Rethink Afghanistan to learn more about the costs of war.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

If Matthew Hoh could tell you one thing to help you understand the U.S.’s predicament in Afghanistan, he’d tell you:

The presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al-Qaida.

Think about that for a moment. We are paying roughly $1 million per troop, per year in Afghanistan. That’s roughly twice the per-troop cost in Iraq. We’ve suffered well more than 800 deaths in Afghanistan. And yet here is the former top civilian official in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, a former Marine who served in Anbar province in Iraq, telling us that the presence of our ground forces does nothing to defeat the organization that’s supposedly the target of our operations in that country.

So, if we’re not going about the business of defeating al-Qaida in Afghanistan, what are we doing?

We’re involved in a civil war in Afghanistan. We’re only taking one side in that civil war. And, our presence there is only encouraging the civil war to go on.

Hmm. This is all sounding very familiar.

I spoke to Matthew on Friday afternoon by phone from the front seat of my car. My first call to him went straight to voicemail, where I learned that apparently he’d had so many press calls about his resignation letter that his voicemail message directed inquiries on that topic to his email address. If you recall, the State Department took his letter seriously enough that it prompted job offers from Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke to get him to stay. Since then, Hoh has been the focus of a great deal of media attention, and for good reasons:

  • With all the rhetoric about the “success” of the so-called “surge” in Iraq and its supposed lessons for Afghanistan, the opinion of a person with experience with both has a lot of heft.
  • The fact that his feelings about the situation were strong enough to provoke a resignation and a subsequent rejection of a position in Washington gave him moral authority.
  • And, Hoh was the beneficiary of good timing: his resignation came at a time when the media and policymakers had been cajoled into a willingness to entertain views outside the Washington, D.C. conventional wisdom that failure to send more troops immediately would lead to disaster.

Over the course of the past year, groups opposed to deepening U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan (such as Brave New Foundation’s Rethink Afghanistan project, the Get Afghanistan Right coalition and many other groups and individuals) worked relentlessly to keep a critical perspective on the war in Afghanistan in the public debate. These escalation opponents relentlessly hammered the proponents of a counterinsurgency (COIN) effort for their inconsistencies and self-contradictions, especially with regard to the COIN doctrine’s need for a legitimate host-nation partner. By the time the Afghan presidential elections exploded into a showcase of abject corruption and illegitimacy, these activists had laid the groundwork that helped the American people interpret the events of late August 2009 as a serious blow to the assumptions underlying the rationale for a deep military involvement. At the same time, President Obama refused to be rushed into a second troop increase in Afghanistan by an increasingly abrasive Pentagon whisper campaign, allowing the nation to take a collective breath and widen the debate about options. These factors, combined with cratering public support for the war effort, pushed policymakers and the media into a willingness to entertain views dissenting from those presented by General Stanley McChrystal. Enter Matthew Hoh.

Matthew’s letter is a four-page punch in the gut to the rhetoric of pro-counterinsurgency factions. It wrecks the idea that the U.S. will ever have a legitimate partner (referred to by the COIN field manual as a “north star”) in Afghanistan or that our strategy will lead to the destruction of al-Qaida. He ends the letter with regret that assurances can no longer be given that those who died in Afghanistan gave their lives in a mission worth the cost in “futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept.”

Hoh sees our presence driving the conflict in at least two ways. On one hand, our military support for the corrupt Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan assures the Kabul cartel that we will not allow them to be overrun by insurgents. Because of that perception, the GoIRA is not willing to work out a political settlement with their opponents to form a true national government. The support we have given thus far (which is very close to the maximum possible support we can give), however, is not enough to allow the GoIRA to crush the insurgency totally. Thus, within the constraints on U.S. and Afghan national power, the only possible solution to the conflict other than strategic failure is a political solution negotiated between GoIRA and it’s opponents–and that’s precisely what the GoIRA won’t seek as long as they can be assured of our continued military support.

[T]he only way to end this civil war is through political reconciliation, through some kind of political negotiation reaching to some kind of settlement. …The Afghan officials who are on our side have no interest in doing that. …They have no interest in giving up the position they have right now. And our presence there keeps them in power that way. I don’t really see them having any interest in taking Afghanistan into, you know, a modern age or a progressive country, all of the things we believed we were doing there for the past 8 years.

On the other hand, the U.S. presence fuels the ever-expanding insurgency, pulling people who resent our support for a corrupt, predatory government and who intensely resent outside interference in their lives into conflict with coalition troops.

In both the east and the south, where our troops were heavily engaged in combat…on a daily basis, those are areas populated by rural Pashtuns…The bulk of those people were fighting us just because we’re occupying them–not out of any ideology, not out of any real ties to the Taliban, not out of any hatred for the West. It was just because they did not want foreign troops, or, for that matter, the Afghan national army or Afghan national police, which do not represent them, in their valleys and villages.

…If you take the Korengal Valley, for example, which is well-known to the American people as “The Valley of Death,” …it’s 15-20 miles long, it only has about 10,000 residents, they speak Korengali…these are people who are not interested in things outside their valley. They prefer to be left alone. Of course, putting more troops in their valley is something they’re going to rebel against, especially troops from the central government, which does not represent them. …It’s really a question of these people wanting to determine their own existence and …govern themselves. For every Korengal we’re in, there’s a hundred that we’re not in, and if we were in [them], it would be the same issue of us having to fight them only because we’re occupying them.

On the topic of that corrupt, unrepresentative government, Hoh offered a couple of anecdotal examples of the corruption that permeates every level of government in Afghanistan:

I know a USAID official who got into a plane…with the governor of his province, and the governor had about $300,000 in a duffel bag with him. …The governor that I worked with had been removed from another province as the governor because he had been caught red-handed in a fairly extreme corruption case. Now this governor, Governor Sari, has been a friend of President Karzai for 35 years. So, after the U.S. embassy exposed this and complained about it, all Karzai did was move this governor…from one province to another province….To believe that the vast majority of Afghan officials that you’re working with have any allegiance to what we’re trying to do other than to enrich themselves or to make out in some manner is wrong.

I asked Hoh about the recent report on the quadrupling of the insurgency since 2006. According to at least one estimate, 10 percent of the estimated 25,000-man-strong insurgency were hardcore religious extremists, while the rest accepted training and funds from the “Taliban,” but lacked ties to their ideology or broader agenda beyond throwing out the invaders.

I completely agree. The number I’ve seen is that there are 25,000 “Taliban” (which I believe is an incorrect term to apply to the people who are fighting us because it makes a reference to the Taliban regime of pre-September 11, 2001, and I think that misleads people and causes confusion, particularly among the American public about who we are actually fighting there.). But if you go with that 25,000 number…only a few thousand of those are actual hardcore “Taliban” with a capital “T.” The majority of the rest of those groups are local fighters who are pretty independent of one another, just primarily concerned with their local areas, their valleys, their village, and who are tied to the Taliban with a capital “T” only through monetary or funding allegiances, and through a desire not to be occupied by a foreign power or by the other side in a civil war.

…But, if there are 25,000 troops now, Derrick…if we put more troops into the south, if we put 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 troops into the south, next year there will be 30,000, 35,000 or 40,000 enemies fighting us. As we move into more valleys and more villages…people are going to rebel against us.

So, the continued presence of massive numbers of U.S. troops removes the incentives for the GoIRA to negotiate a political settlement while providing the fuel for the growth of the insurgency. Hoh’s advice to policymakers? End combat operations and sharply reduce U.S. troop levels. Doing so would pull U.S. troops out of areas where locals fight us just because we are there and would compel the GoIRA to negotiate with their opponents. Otherwise the U.S. presence will continue to fuel an unsustainable dynamic whereby the GoIRA has a near-term upper hand but cannot decisively defeat their opponents while the opponents use our presence as a recruiting tool for the resistance movement.

You’re either characterized as all in our all out, and that’s wrong. I don’t think anyone is calling for us to completely wash our hands of Afghanistan and just walk away. When I call for withdrawal I call for stopping combat operations because it just doesn’t make any sense; all it does it just prolong the conflict. I call for some kind of political reconciliation to end the fighting there. So a withdrawal would have to be somewhat gradual while negotiations were going on.

But wait, one might ask: what about al-Qaida? Hoh’s policy prescription deals mainly with settling the civil war between the “Taliban” and the GoIRA. How does al-Qaida fit into this? Aren’t they the reason we’re in Afghanistan in the first place? Wouldn’t our withdraw allow them to reestablish “safe havens” and allow them to keep the ones they have in Pakistan?

I don’t believe al-Qaida needs or wants safe havens [like they had in 2001]. They just don’t operate that way. they recruit worldwide. They are really an ideological force that exists on the Internet. They influence individuals or their operations are carried out by these small, independent, autonomous cells that really don’t require much to operate other than a couple of rooms and a satellite phone or an internet connection. and if you look at the vast majority of attacks that have happened over the last decade regarding al-Qaida, they’ve been carried out by people not from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, but residents of North Africa, residents of the gulf states or citizens of Europe or citizens and residents of the United States who do their preparation and their training in countries where the attacks occur. So this idea of a safe haven and their requirement for it is not borne out by any evidence of the way al-Qaida has operated for at least the last decade. After 2001, they evolved. They don’t need a safe haven. It would be great for the United States if they did have safe havens because then we could bomb them. So we have to attack al-Qaida as the organization as it exists and not as we want it to exist.

The concern that our presence their encourages people to respond to their ideology is a valid one. We’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and we have to understand that lends credence to al-Qaida’s argument that it is defending the Muslim world from Western invasion.

How many recruits do they [al-Qaida] get per year? A hundred? Two hundred? The Muslim population is over a billion. You’re talking about such a small fraction. It’s really associated with such a fringe movement that we have to attack using human intelligence and using law enforcement techniques. Army brigade combat teams do not affect al-Qaida. Having 60,00 troops in Afghanistan is not affecting al-Qaida. …[T]he destruction of al-Qaida should be our priority…but we need to go after that organization as it exists and not with ground combat troops in Afghanistan.

Matthew said he’s pleased with the state of debate following his resignation and return to the United States.

I can tell you that one of the things that pushed me to resign was this feeling that I had, and I think most people had, or a lot of people had, particularly guys I was serving with in Afghanistan, that an escalation of troops and an open-ended commitment to supporting the Karzai regime seemed almost like a done deal all throughout the summer…There was no discussion of any other type of strategy…it seemed almost like a guarantee…I got home in September and that’s when I first heard there were debates on this within the administration…I’m very pleased the way the debates have been going. I’m not sure what’s going that’s going to happen with [the troop ]increase–I’m sure we’re going to get one. The best thing though …is that we’re going to get some kind of withdrawal date, which is what we need.  If we can get a withdrawal date within a year or two I’ll be very happy, because that’s so much better, so infinitely better, than some type of open-ended commitment or some type of 4- or 5-year plan. My thoughts are hopefully we can get some type of commitment to withdraw and stop combat operations within the next year or two.

I guess that’s being a realist. I’d like to see it stop tomorrow.


Brave New Conversations
recently filmed a conversation between Hoh and Daniel Ellsberg. Here’s a clip:

You can find the full episode on the Brave New Conversations website.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal. Learn how the war in Afghanistan undermines U.S. security: watch Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six), & visit http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) published a piece on just war criteria and the war in Afghanistan (we’ll come back to this, don’t worry) that paraphrased Reinhold Niebuhr, President Obama’s favorite theologian, on American self-image and action on the international stage:

One of the biggest problems of American foreign policy, Niebuhr contended, is that Americans are tempted to overreach, to overestimate the innocence of our own power, and thus also overestimate its possible effectiveness.

This made me think of Malalai Joya. The former member of the Afghan parliament wants the U.S. out of her country post-haste [h/t Tina Rife]:

They [occupying forces] say if troops leave, the Taliban will eat us. But they are supporting the Taliban today, supporting warlords. Both of them are eating us. To fight against one enemy is easier than two. We are between two enemies [the occupiers and the extremists].

This extreme skepticism of (or even contempt of) the idea that the U.S. military can be a good actor in that country often does not compute with American policymakers. For those that badly want to help, they can’t understand the way Joya wants to bat away their hand. For all my disagreements with Niebuhr on issues of war and peace, I would recommend that the “We Just Want to Help” crowd take a moment to reflect on CAP’s paraphrase of Niebuhr’s thought on just war. Neither we nor the people we try to help can afford continued American overreach and overestimation of the innocence of our exercise of power.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal.

Fahim, Karzai and Khalili: The Unholy Trinity of Afghan Corruption

Fahim, Karzai and Khalili: The Unholy Trinity of Afghan Corruption

You know what’s funny? Hamid Karzai, Electioneer-in-Chief, stood between these two guys, Mohammed Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili to declare [h/t and photo credit, Wired’s Danger Room blog]:

Those who spread corruption should be tried and prosecuted. Corruption is a very dangerous enemy of the state. …Afghan ministers should be professional and servants of the people. The government officials should register their earnings.

Just for the record, Hamid Karzai had roughly a million fraudulent votes thrown out in the election. You can learn all about Fahim and Khalili in a Human Rights Watch report titled (and I’m not even kidding) Blood-Stained Hands which details the war crimes for which they and their subordinates were responsible. So by all means, gentlemen, explain to us how you’re going to lead Afghanistan into a new era of peace, prosperity and transparency.

As Matthew Hoh noted in his resignation letter, the corruption at the very top in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is only the most visible symptom of the rot that’s set in within the Afghan state from top to bottom, which includes:

  • Glaring corruption and unabashed graft;
  • A President whose confidants and chief advisors comprise drug lords and war crimes villians, who mock our own rule of law and counternarcotics efforts;
  • A system of provincial and district leaders constituted of local power brokers, opportunists and strongmen allied to the United States solely for, and limited by, the value of our USAID and CERP contracts and whose own political and economic interests stand nothing to gain from any positive or genuine attempts at reconciliation; and
  • The recent election process dominated by fraud and discredited by low voter turnout, which has created an enormous victory for our enemy who now claims a popular boycott and will call into question worldwide our government’s military, economic and diplomatic support for an invalid and illegitimate Afghan government.

The Afghan government is not worth one more American life or dollar. This cartel is a very large part of the problem, not the solution, in Afghanistan. We should be reducing, not increasing, or military commitment in that country, post haste.

Tomorrow I’ll be interview Matthew Hoh on the situation in Afghanistan. Until then, here’s another clip of his conversation with Daniel Ellsberg about the need for us to start the drawdown.

I’m convinced that when we look back on the key events on the road out of Afghanistan, we’ll mark Matthew Hoh’s resignation as one of the milestones. Hoh’s resignation letter is a devastating four-page indictment of the misguided U.S. policy in that country, and his experience in Anbar, Iraq gave his views heft in the debate about whether an Iraq-style “surge” provided a template for “success” in Afghanistan. Do yourself a favor: if you haven’t yet read the letter, do so.

Matthew Hoh recently sat down with Daniel Ellsberg for a Brave New Conversation, the trailer for which you can see above. I’ll interview Hoh later this week to get his thoughts on the way forward in Afghanistan and the reaction to his resignation. For now, though, enjoy the conversation.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New FoundationThe Seminal.

James Vega–writing for The Democratic Strategist, co-edited by William Galston, Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira–just published a 2,600+ word memo arguing that “Obama’s final decision” to “approve a significant increase in the number of troops” would not be a “betrayal” of the Democratic base.

You know, that Democratic base that overwhelmingly opposes sending more troops. What utter garbage.

Democrats — Don’t be misled. The media is going to call Obama’s new Afghan strategy a “betrayal” of the Democratic base — but it’s not. It’s actually a decisive rejection of the Republican/Neo-Conservative strategy of the “Long War”

…Based on current reports, Obama’s final decision will approve a significant increase in the number of troops – the exact number depending on the number of major cities to be covered and the degree of protection to be provided for the major road highways. For the many critics who believe that sending large numbers of additional U.S. troops may actually be counterproductive, this is a clear disappointment. But it is also already clear that Obama’s strategy will do several other important things.

  • It will establish specific criteria for success and failure.
  • It will define the mission in a concrete and specific way that can be openly debated and revised.
  • It will include an explicit “exit strategy” rather than an open-ended commitment.

Obama’s specific plan for Afghanistan may turn out to be right or wrong – there are entirely reasonable and cogent arguments that a smaller military “footprint” could actually enhance our ability to achieve our ultimate objectives more than a larger one. But, in any case, the method Obama has used to reach his decision is one that has profoundly undermined the basic foundations of the strategy neoconservatives have been following to embroil America in a perpetual “Long War” – an endless series of open-ended, military campaigns that drag on for decades, constantly requiring more and more troops to achieve hopelessly vague and unquantifiable objectives of fundamental social and cultural transformation across the Muslim world.

Again, total garbage. Decision-making processes are important, true. Asserting civilian control over the military is fundamental to the health of our democratic republic, true. But these issues are totally separate from the question of whether or not sending more troops is a betrayal of the president’s base.

Look, “strategists,” this is very simple. Decisive majorities of Democrats oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan: 60 percent want to actually start withdrawing troops, versus only 26 percent who favor adding any number of troops.

Memo to the memo-writers: you might want to refer to well-documented Democratic public opinion since your About Us section says you:

seek to publish substantial articles that draw strategic conclusions from the latest public opinion and demographic research conducted by the academic community and commercial public opinion polling firms as well as from the leading think-tanks and policy institutes across America.”

If President Obama sends more troops, he “betrays” his base. The end. This is not complicated.

Writing 2,600+ words to take the long way around doesn’t change a “no” to a “yes.” The very least you could do to sell this attempted Jedi mind trick would have been to fabricate a poll. At least then you wouldn’t be patronizing the majority of Democrats whose names you use to get your analysis in the door in order to stab us in the back.