Archive for March, 2011

General David Petraeus is set to testify before Congress today, and he’s expected to again try to put a positive spin on a war effort that’s utterly failing to meet the goals set by its backers. While intelligence assessments show that tactical moves on the ground in Afghanistan have failed to fundamentally weaken the growing insurgency, Petraeus expected to offer “a mostly upbeat assessment today of military progress.” Petraeus’s Potemkin village tours of Afghanistan for visiting dignitaries may have “impressed” people like John McCain, but Defense Intelligence Agency head General Ronald Burgess rains all over the progress talk with the sobering news that the casualties inflicted on the Taliban have caused “no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight.”

As if to underline Burgess’ point, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a recruiting station for the Afghan Army, killing at least 35 people in northern Afghanistan on Monday.

Despite the assurances from the administration, the military and their think-tank allies, the massive troop escalations of 2009 and 2010 have failed to reverse the momentum of the insurgency or protect the Afghan population from insurgent intimidation and violence. From today’s L.A. Times:

A report March 2 by the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee concluded that despite the “optimistic progress appraisals we heard from some military and official sources … the security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is deteriorating.” Counterinsurgency efforts in the south and east have “allowed the Taliban to expand its presence and control in other previously relatively stable areas in Afghanistan.”

“The Taliban have the momentum, especially in the east and north,” analyst Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the committee. “There is no change in the overall balance of power, and the Taliban are still making problems.”

While the Taliban maintained momentum in 2010 and early 2011, the escalation strategy backed by Petraeus failed to protect Afghans from violence as promised, with 2010 being the deadliest year of the war so far for civilians.

One of the most hawkish of the Petraeus backers in the Senate, Senator McCain, is working hard to set the bounds for acceptable debate in Congress, but he, like the counterinsurgency campaign, is failing:

“I expect certainly some skepticism on both sides of the aisle,” McCain said. “I don’t see any kind of pressure to withdraw immediately.”

McCain only sees what he wants to see, apparently. A Rasmussen poll conducted March 4-5, 2011, found that 52 percent of likely voters want all U.S. troops brought home this year, with more than half of those wanting them brought home immediately (31 percent of likely voters). In January, a USA TODAY/Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to act this year to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan (including 86 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 61 percent of Republicans), with 41 percent strongly favoring such actions. And despite McCain’s efforts to blot it out, there is, in fact, a resolution being offered before Congress “calling for Obama to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan either in 30 days or no later than Dec. 31, 2011.”

Petraeus and McCain can try to spin this all they want, but the fact is that the counterinsurgency gamble failed, and the American people want our troops out, pronto. Nobody buys the counterinsurgency propaganda anymore, and the more these guys trot it out, the more damage it does to their credibility.

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter, and join your neighbors for a Rethink Afghanistan Meetup in your hometown.

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March 12 is the feast day of Maximilian of Thavaste, whom tradition holds was beheaded for refusing to serve in the Roman military because he was a Christian.

1. On the 12th day of March during the consulship of Tuscus and Anolinus [295], when Fabius Victor had been brought into the forum at Tebessa, together with Maximilianus, and their advocate Pompeianus had been granted an audience, the last declared, “The temonarius Fabius Victor is present, together with Valerianus Quintianus, the praepositus Caesariensis, and the fine recruit Maximilianus, Victor’s son. Since he is acceptable, I ask that he be measured.” The proconsul Dion said, “What are you called ?” Maximilianus replied, “Why do you want to know my name ? It is not permitted to me to serve in the military since I am a Christian”. The proconsul Dion said, “Ready him”. When he was being got ready, Maximilianus replied, “I cannot serve in the military; I cannot do wrong; I am a Christian.” The proconsul Dion said, “Let him be measured”. When he had been measured, an official reported, “He is five feet ten inches tall.” Dion said to the official, “Let him be marked.” And as Maximilianus resisted, he replied, “I will not do it; I cannot serve in the military.”

2. Dion said, “Serve so that you do not perish.” Maximilianus replied, “I will not serve; cut off my head; I do not serve the world, but I do serve my God.”Dion the proconsul said, “Who has persuaded you of this ?” Maximilianus replied, “My soul and he who has called me.” Dion said to his father Victor, “Advise your son.” Victor replied, “He himself knows – he has his purpose – what is best for him.” Dion said to Maximilianus, “Serve and accept the seal.” He replied, “I will not accept the seal: I already have the seal of my Christ.” Dion the proconsul said, “I will send you to your Christ right now.” He replied, “I wish that you would do so. That is even my title to glory.” Dion said to his staff, “Let him be marked.” And when he was resisting, he replied, “I do not accept the world’s seal, and if you give it to me, I will break it, since I value it at nought. I am a Christian. It is not permitted to me to bear the lead upon my neck after [having received] the saving seal of my Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, he whom you do not know, who suffered for the life of the world, whom God surrendered for our sins. All of us Christians serve Him. Him we follow as the source of life and author of salvation.” Dion said, “Serve, and accept the seal, so that you do not suffer a terrible death.” Maximilianus replied, “I will not die. My name is already with my Lord; I cannot serve in the military.” Dion said, “Have regard to your youth and serve; for this befits a young man.” Maximilianus replied, “My service is for my Lord; I cannot serve the world. I have already said: I am a Christian.” Dion the proconsul said, “There are Christian soldiers in the sacred retinue of our lords Diocletian, Maximianus, Constantius, and Maximus, and they serve.” Maximilianus replied, “They themselves know what is best for them. But I am a Christian, and I cannot do wrong.” Dio said, “What wrong do they who serve do ?” Maximilianus replied, “You know well what they do.” Dion replied, “Serve, lest, having scorned military service, you begin upon a terrible death.” Maximilianus replied, “I will will not die; even if I do depart the world, my spirit will live with my Lord Christ.”

3. Dion said, “Strike out his name.” And when it had been struck out, Dion said, “Because you have disloyally refused military service, you will receive the appropriate sentence in order to serve as an example to others.” And he read his decision from his tablet, “Maximilianus, since you have disloyally refused the military oath, it has been decided for you to be punished by the sword.” Maximilianus replied, “Thanks be to God.” He was 21 years, 3 months, and 18 days old. And when he was being led to the place [of execution], he spoke as follows, “Dearest brothers, with an eager desire, hurry with as much courage as you can so that it may befall you to see the Lord and that he may reward you also with a similar crown.” And with a joyous face, he addressed his father as follows, “Give that guard the new clothing which you had got ready for me during my military service, so that I may welcome you with a hundredfold reward and we may glory with the Lord together.” And so he suffered death shortly afterwards. And the matron Pompeiana obtained his body from the judge and, having placed it in her carriage, she brought it to Carthage, and buried it beneath a little hill near the martyr Cyprian and the palace. And so, after the 13th day, the same woman died, and was buried there. But his father Victor returned to his home with great joy, thanking God that he had sent on ahead such a gift to the Lord, he who was about to follow shortly afterwards.

As I wrote about this account last year:

Controversy surrounds the historicity of this account. However, what’s important about this story is not its historicity, but that the early church would celebrate the protagonist of such a story as a martyr. Declaring someone a saint is a political act, and the canonization of Maximilian as a saint in the eyes of the church also tells us something about the orientation of the early church to questions of war and violence. Interestingly, the author of the above-linked article debunking the historicity of the martyr story dates its composition to C.E. 384-439, during the time when the militarized Constantinian version of Christianity was supplanting the earlier anti-violent incarnation.

Today is also the anniversary of Fr. Rutilio Grande’s murder in El Salvador in 1977. Grande was a close friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero and an outspoken opponent of the abuses of the U.S.-backed government. The speech that probably got him killed was his “Apopa sermon,” delivered on February 13, denouncing the expulsion of a fellow priest from the country. He said:

“I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border.  All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive—against sin, it is said.  So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter.  They would accuse him, the man-God, the prototype of man, of being an agitator, of being a Jewish foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas, and i.e., against the minorities. …Brothers, they would undoubtedly crucify him again.  And they have said so.”

One month after delivering the Apopa sermon, Grande was gunned down, and the local government authorities refused to order an autopsy. The Jesuits hired their own physician to conduct an autopsy, which determined that Grande had been shot by the same type of automatic rifles used by the police. This was only one of several signs of government complicity in the murder.

Grande’s death was a crucial moment in Romero’s life, and triggered his move to openly oppose the Salvadoran government. He canceled all future attendance at state events and meetings with the president pending the fulfillment of his demands for an official investigation, and that investigation never took place.

H/t to Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, for reminding me of these anniversaries.

The Pentagon wants you to ignore some inconvenient facts about the failure of the escalation strategy in Afghanistan.

The latest Petraeus/Gates media tour is under way in preparation for the general’s testimony to Congress next week, and they’re trotting out the same, tired spin they’ve been using since McChrystal was replaced in disgrace last year. Despite the most violent year of the war so far, despite the highest civilian and military toll of the war so far, and despite the continued growth of the insurgency, they want you to believe that we’re “making progress.” While they spend this week fudging and shading and spinning, we’ll waste another $2 billion on this brutal, futile war, and we won’t be any closer to “victory” than we are today.

Let me make a couple of predictions about Petraeus’ testimony based on experience. He will attempt to narrow the conversation to a few showcase districts in Afghanistan, use a lot of aspirational language (“What we’re attempting to do,” instead of, “What we’ve done“) and assure the hand-wringers among the congressional hawks that he’ll be happy to suggest to the president that they stay longer in Afghanistan if that’s what he thinks is best. Most importantly, he will try to keep the conversation as far away from a high-level strategic assessment based on his own counterinsurgency doctrine as possible, because if Congress bothers to check his assertions of “progress” against what he wrote in the counterinsurgency manual, he’s in for a world of hurt.

Here’s what Petraeus’ own U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says about the main goal of a COIN campaign:

“I-113. The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.”

Not by any stretch of the imagination is the counterinsurgency campaign under Petraeus’ direction serving what his own field manual says is the primary goal of his campaign. If we were looking for a legitimate government in Afghanistan, it’s crystal clear that we backed the wrong horse. Hamid Karzai and his family are neck-deep in any number of corruption scandals, the most glaring of which involves the largest private bank in Afghanistan and a sweeping control fraud scheme that has already resulted in unrest across the country. (That scandal, by the way, is likely to result in a U.S.-taxpayer-funded bank bailout for Kabulbank, according to white-collar crime expert Bill Black.) The Karzai administration is an embarrassment of illegitimacy and cronyism, and the local tentacles of the Kabul cartel are as likely to inspire people to join the insurgency as they are to win over popular support.

Even if the Karzai regime where a glimmering example of the rule of law, the military campaign under Petraeus would be utterly failing to achieve what counterinsurgency doctrine holds up as the primary way in which a legitimate government wins over support from the people: securing the population. From the COIN manual:

“5-68. Progress in building support for the HN [“host nation”] government requires protecting the local populace. People who do not believe they are secure from insurgent intimidation, coercion, and reprisals will not risk overtly supporting COIN efforts.”

The United Nations reports that 2010 was the deadliest year of the war for civilians of the decade-long war, and targeted killings of Kabul government officials are at an all-time high. Petraeus often seeks to deflect this point by citing insurgent responsibility for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but that is largely beside the point. As his own field manual makes clear, reducing the number of civilians killed by your forces is insufficient according to COIN doctrine. If you can’t protect the population (or the officials within the host nation government!) from insurgent violence and intimidation, you can’t win a counterinsurgency.

Petraeus and Gates like to talk around this blatant break in his own strategic doctrine by narrowing the conversation to what they call “security bubbles.” In his recent remarks following his trip to Afghanistan, Gates spoke of “linking zones of security in Helmand to Kandahar.” But those two provinces have seen huge spikes in violence over the course of the past year, with attacks initiated by insurgents up 124 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Today’s New York Times explains one of the main reasons for these jumps in violence as U.S. troops arrive in new areas:

“[G]enerals have designated scores of rural areas ‘key terrain districts.’ The soldiers are creating, at cost of money and blood, pockets of security.

“But when Americans arrive in a new area, attacks and improvised bombs typically follow — making roads and trails more dangerous for the civilians whom, under current Pentagon counterinsurgency doctrine, the soldiers have arrived to protect.”

The military escalations in Afghanistan have failed their key purpose under counterinsurgency doctrine, which is to secure Afghans from insurgent violence and intimidation.

While the U.S. government is failing to achieve its military objectives in Afghanistan, it’s also failing to make good on the other components of counterinsurgency strategy, especially the civilian/political component. Here’s what The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual says on p. xxix, emphasis mine:

“Nonmilitary Capacity Is the Exit Strategy

“The [counterinsurgency] manual highlights military dependence not simply upon civilian political direction at all levels of operation, but also upon civilian capabilities in the field. ...[T]he primacy of the political requires significant and ongoing civilian involvement at virtually every level of operations.”

To meet this prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency strategy, the administration promised a “civilian surge” to accompany the military escalation. But the March 8, 2011 edition of The Washington Post shows that the civilian surge has so far been a flop that’s alienating the local population:

“Efforts to improve local government in critical Afghan districts have fallen far behind schedule…according to U.S. and Afghan officials familiar with the program.

“It is now expected to take four more years to assess the needs of more than 80 ‘key terrain’ districts where the bulk of the population lives, based on figures from Afghan officials who said that escalating violence has made it difficult to recruit civil servants to work in the field.

“…Of the 1,100 U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan, two-thirds are stationed in Kabul, according to the State Department.

“‘At best, our Kabul-based experts simply reinforce the sense of big government coming from Kabul that ultimately alienates populations and leaders in the provinces,’ a former U.S. official said.”

As with the military side of the equation, the civilian side of the strategy is so badly broken that it’s actually pushing us further away from the administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan.

The costs of this pile of failure are huge. It costs us $1 million per troop, per year to maintain our occupation of Afghanistan. That’s $2 billion every week. Politicians at the federal level are contemplating ugly cuts to social safety nets, while politicians at the state level are already shredding programs that protect people suffering in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In this context, the admonitions from the White House and the Pentagon to be patient while this misbegotten strategy limps along the progress-road-to-nowhere seem perverse. The American people have been patient for roughly a decade now, but that patience has run out.

Petraeus and Gates want to you to ignore the ugly truths of the Afghanistan War: it’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the costs. The escalation strategy isn’t working. It’s not going to work. Enough is enough. End it now.

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the costs, join a local Rethink the Afghanistan War Meetup and follow Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve often said that I think the Christian religion could benefit from a shift away from emphasizing a set of beliefs to an emphasis on daily practice. Take, for example, the practice of meditation.

“The [newly released] study, published last month in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, suggests that meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy. …These brain changes may suggest that meditation improves people’s ability to regulate their emotions, control their stress levels, and feel empathy for others, says Britta Hölzel, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Geissen in Germany.”

It would be interesting to see if there are any similar alterations in the brain arising from anything in typical Christian worship services in the U.S.  Given that in recent history, frequent church-goers in the U.S. were found to be more prone to support torture, I doubt it. That points to a severe deficiency in Christian spiritual life in the area of empathy development that church leaders should be working urgently to address. But, until that happens, we individual Christians should be adopting practices like daily mediation on our own.

 

Fresh from the reported killing of more than 60 civilians, U.S. forces in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, killed nine boys gathering firewood in Afghanistan. General Petraeus says he’s sorry.

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” Gen. Petraeus said in a statement. “These deaths should have never happened.”

Too little, too late, general. Nine boys now lie among thousands of others who had a right to life independent of U.S. goals in Afghanistan, and “sorry” doesn’t cut it, especially from the general who’s tripling the air war over Afghanistan. Air strikes are the leading tactic involved when U.S. and coalition forces kill civilians. We know this. We use them anyway. These boys’ deaths, or at least the idea of these boys’ deaths, were factored in to a calculation and deemed insufficient to deter the use of air power long before they died, and their deaths don’t seem to have changed Petraeus’ or ISAF’s calculus. Sorry doesn’t cut it.

But at least Petraeus didn’t try to blame the boys’ families for blowing them up to frame him this time.

Sorry certainly doesn’t cut it for the brother of one of the dead:

“I don’t care about the apology,” Mohammed Bismil, the 20-year-old brother of two boys killed in the strike, said in a telephone interview. “The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] or a suicide vest to fight.”

President Obama says he’s sorry, too:

President Obama expressed his deep regret for the tragic accident in Kunar Province in which nine Afghans were killed.  The President conveyed his condolences to the Afghan people and stressed that he and General Petraeus take such incidents very seriously. President Obama and President Karzai agreed that such incidents undermine our shared efforts in fighting terrorism.

Oh, good, he takes such incidents “very seriously.” Here’s a fun thought experiment: can you imagine President Obama (or any high-ranking visiting U.S. dignitary, for that matter) scheduling a visit to the graveside of any civilian victim of U.S.-fired munitions on his next trip to Afghanistan? Give me a call when the images from that photo-op make the front pages, would you?

I don’t doubt for a second that President Obama and much of Washington officialdom think that they take these deaths very seriously. Yet, they continue to rubber-stamp funds and to approve a strategy and various supporting tactics that are guaranteed to cause future incidents like these.  Because that’s the case, they’re conscripting tax money that we send to D.C. every year for the purpose of building our nation together into policies that we don’t support and which kill people for whom we feel no malice. In fact, the strategies and tactics are so ill-conceived that they’re putting our money into the hands of insurgents who kill U.S. troops.

From Talking Points Memo:

After nearly a decade of mismanagement, theft and fraud, the U.S. military still hasn’t found a way to staunch the flow of what is likely hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars in lost fuel in Afghanistan, some of which is sold on the black market and winds up in Taliban hands, a TPM investigation has found.

…When TPM asked Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), a longtime member of the defense spending panel, about the fuel losses on Wednesday, Moran was well-versed on the topic, noting that he and other members of the committee had received private briefings by defense officials about the thorny security, logistics and corruption issues posed by the fuel theft.

Over the years, the transport of the fuel into the country at times has involved agreements to siphon a portion to outside parties in order to guarantee safe passage of the trucks, Moran said, and some of that fuel has ended up in enemy hands.

This same news story also included mention of a report from last year that showed that U.S. taxpayer funds funneled through protection rackets was one of the insurgents’ most significant sources of funding:

…A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee investigation last year revealed that the companies under the host-nation contract often paid private security contractors to ensure safe passage through Afghanistan. The security contractors, in turn, made protection payment to local warlords in exchange for their agreement to prevent attacks.

“In many cases, the investigation discovered, these protection payments made their way into the hands of warlords and, directly or indirectly, the very insurgents that U.S. forces were fighting,” Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), the ranking member of the national security oversight subcommittee, wrote in a January letter to Issa highlighting the problems with the trucking contract.

Even completed big-ticket completed projects intended to win hearts and minds for the coalition have resulted in new funding streams for insurgents. From Yahoo! News:

WASHINGTON – By pumping more than $100 million into a hydropower plant, the United States sought to improve the lives of Afghans and win the hearts and minds of tribesmen and farmers who might otherwise turn to the Taliban insurgency. Instead, a prominent outside Pentagon adviser argues, the bungled boondoggle ended up funding the insurgents while doing little to help the United States end the war and bring troops home.

…Half the electricity from the project in the volatile Helmand province goes to Taliban territory, enabling America’s enemies to issue power bills and grow the poppies that finance their insurgency, he says.

With our money fueling the insurgency and our killing of civilians driving more people to join the Taliban’s side every week, it’s little wonder that the insurgency continues to grow in size and sophistication. But that brings us back to that calculation, the one that put those nine dead boys in the column titled “Acceptable Losses.” With official promises that more troops would lead to more security for ordinary Afghans having collapsed so badly that they read like a bad joke, what could possibly justify this continued bonfire of lives and resources in Afghanistan? The war’s not making us safer and it’s not worth the cost. Dragging this out until 2014 won’t change that one bit.

This week U.S. forces burned children along with the firewood they were gathering. If we allow this brutal, futile war to continue, you can bet that more children and more of our resources will be kindling to a fire that’s not keeping anybody warm. The American people want our troops brought home, and it’s time President Obama and Congress took that “very seriously.”

If you’re fed up with this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost, join a Rethink Afghanistan Meetup near you and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The movement to end the Afghanistan War is gaining momentum, and on March 12, it will gain some more. In a little less than two weeks, supporters of Rethink Afghanistan (“Rethinkers”) will get together with their neighbors in hundreds of communities to talk about what can be done locally to stop the war. We’re going to swap stories, share a coffee or a beer, and make the personal connections with other Rethinkers in our neighborhood that will carry us through to our goal of bringing our troops home. Join us in your hometown for Rethink the Cost, a worldwide Meetup for people who want to end the Afghanistan War.
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