Tuesday, January 25. 2011
In my semi-official role as currator of all things Christgau, I took a look at his NAJP blog last week and found two new-to-me posts, dated Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, attacking Julian Assange and Wikileaks:
The first referred to an article by Robert P. Baird, What Is Julian Assange Up To?, and the second reiterated the recommendation. I myself wrote about Baird's post back on Dec. 9 (Wikileaks), although what I got out of it was completely different than what Christgau got. I glossed over the section in the middle of Baird's piece about the "language poets of the 1970s" (whoever they be) thinking it irrelevant and possibly nonsensical, but it seems to mean something for Christgau. Still, I doubt that one needs a theory of poetic language here. The real issues are more basic than that.
Continue reading "A Muddle of Ideas"
Thursday, December 9. 2010
I haven't been following the Wikileaks revelations and controversy at all closely, but the following links help explain why the leaks should eventually make government more transparent and accountable and, well, more decent. That's all in the longer term, of course. In the short term, they're making this government more repressive and much more dangerous. The few precedents for this, such as Nixon's plumbers unit and the 1950s McCarthy hysteria, are things that until recently we regarded as national embarrassments. The most comparable efforts to suppress the Internet today are from China, efforts that have been uniformly condemned by Americans of all political stripes, not least by Secretary of State Clinton. It may be that any US president would react to embarrassment and powerlessness of the loss of control of so many secret cables the way Obama has, but once again Obama has a lot more campaign promises than most to eat: having made many speeches about the need for more transparency in government, he now finds himself the plumber-in-chief.
By the way, the illustration to the right is something I found on Facebook, in the sketchbook of Ram Lama Hull. Hope he doesn't mind me using it.
3 Quarks Daily: What Is Julian Assange Up To? This seems like a pretty good explanation of WikiLeaks and the thinking behind it:
I'm not particularly inclined to view the internal workings of government, corporations, and such as conspiratorial, but they do largely operate behind closed doors, and secrecy renders their motives and strategies opaque, giving us all the more reason to distrust them. A culture that ensures that anything significant that happens behind closed doors will become public goes a long ways toward revealing those motives and strategies, and ultimately helps build trust in those institutions. That won't happen right away. The initial reaction of those exposed is embarrassment and fury, and we're seeing plenty of that right now -- as I am writing this Assange has been arrested, WikiLeaks' finances are being systematically shut down, WikiLeaks' web access is being denied both by corporate pressure and by cyberwarfare. (There can be little doubt that there is indeed a conspiracy to get Assange and to terrorize anyone who might be tempted to aid him and to contribute to future leaks. One urgently awaits the leaking of the details of this conspiracy.) In the long run though what is most likely to happen is that successful "public servants" will learn to behave in private as if they were in public. The major scandal about the State Department cables is how undiplomatic these so-called diplomats are when they thought they were safe from public scrutiny. The fact is that they would be much better diplomats if they learned to practice in private what they preach in public.
One thing I'm reminded of here is Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify before Congress and the 9/11 Commission about her advice given to Bush when she was his National Security Adviser. She argued that knowing that her advice would become public would have deprived Bush of her complete candor. You have to wonder how valuable candor really is under those circumstances. For one thing, we now know that in effect virtually all of her candid advice turned out to have been wrong, so it seems at least plausible that had she been less candid -- had she given more thought to her reputation once her advice became public -- she might have done a better job. Still, there is little reason to get optimistic over these leaks. We tend to assume that had Rice been less candid she would have been more circumspect, but that assumes what the choice of the word "candid" denies: that she actually knew better. The main thing that secrecy did in Rice's case was to obscure her incompetence. Leaks can potentially improve the workings of government less in the short term by encouraging people to think through their advice and arguments than in the long term by convincing liars and crooks to stay away from forums where they will inevitably be exposed.
Still, it's possible that this will all come to naught, and not even with the authorities successfully clamping down on leaks. The post ends:
So that pretty much explains what Assange is up to. Now what are Obama's minions up to?
David Samuels: The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange: This is a few days old, so the note that Assange, relative to Pfc Bradley Manning, "enjoys a higher degree of freedom living as a hunted man in England under the close surveillance of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies" is no longer true.
Glenn Greenwald: Joe Lieberman Emulates Chinese Dictators: Greenwald has been on this story practially full time, especially once the focus shifted from revelations about the US State Department to the harrassment and suppression of Wikileaks and the arrest and punishment of Julian Assange. Comparisons of the Obama administration to the Chinese dictatorship is to be expected given that until now the Chinese were the ones most notorious for trying to censor and choke the Internet. The (presumably) independent role of Sen. Joe Lieberman is unprecedented, except perhaps for wild goose chases Sen. Joseph McCarthy led in the 1950s. One reason to check out this particular post is the 9-point list of major revelations that have come from Wikileaks.
Thursday, September 9. 2010
Laura Tillem has a letter in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Tea and Guns":
Thursday, September 2. 2010
Josh Marshall: More on 9/11 Books: I got a little carried away here, because 9/11 is a linch pin for a couple of main themes I want someday to write up in book form. Marshall polled his readers (who unlike mine evidently do write back) for recommendations on books about 9/11, but he didn't get much feedback (maybe response is just proportional to readership size): mostly Lawrence Wright's neatly focused The Looming Tower and The 9/11 Commission Report, with Terry McDermott's Perfect Soldiers, on the hijackers, and William Langeswiesche's American Ground, on the rubble, getting occasional mention. Marshall writes:
This set me off on my own search, and the first thing I noticed is that searching for 9/11 doesn't get you much that really matters. I found some picture books, some on the scene memoirs, and a lot of rants pushing their own theories of what it all meant or even what actually happened and who actually did it. You have to broaden your search to start to pick up the main threads that were woven into 9/11: Al-Qaeda and its background -- the anti-imperialist backlash in the Middle East and the turn to fundamentalism; the US global security system, how it impacted the Middle East, and how it works within the contexts of conservative and neoliberal politics in the US; the cultural shock of being attacked, and the political opportunities that opened up. Without those threads converging, 9/11 wouldn't have been such a big deal -- even if it had happened as a freak event, which most certainly it wouldn't have.
There are many more books on each of these threads, but 9/11 is often little more than a blip in each, unless it serves some particular political purpose to highlight it. It is commonly believed that Bush went to war because of 9/11, but there is much evidence and logic that even before he craved a shot at Iraq, and that his administration was moving toward supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and his attitude toward Sharon's counter-intifada in Palestine amounted to nothing short of cheerleading. With Donald Rumsfeld, he had already started the "transformation" to the lightweight preemptive attack units he would need for those wars. 9/11 may have driven some people crazy, but it fell right into the ready lap of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al.
So I've added some books to the list below that work these threads forward and back. I've avoided specialist books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bush, although there are some here and there. The one thing I think is missing is a detailed account of how the media trumped up the case for war and beat down any chance of responding any differently.
The primary books (many have links to my book pages, where I have comments and, usually, lots of representative quotes):
The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: Authorized Edition (2004, WW Norton): The consensus view, seems to be fairly well regarded, at least for the narrow range of topics. There's also a new 2010 paperback published by CreateSpace, much more expensive, no inkling why.
Tariq Ali: The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002; paperback, 2003, Verso): With its cover photo of Bush morphed into Bin Laden, the first response to 9/11 to see both sides as fully -- equally is hardly an issue -- deranged in their fundamentalism. Starts by recounting his atheist childhood in Pakistan before moving to England and editing New Left Review -- a background which has given him a uniquely clear and fearless view of the madness. [link]
Larry Beinhart: Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (2005; paperback, 2006, Nation Books): One of the better short books around on the media and manipulation of consensus thinking that made it so easy for Bush to parlay 9/11 into war against Iraq. [link]
Peter L Bergen: Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden (paperback, 2002, Free Press): First book out to provide much background on Bin Laden, whom Bergen interviewed in 1997. Bergen also wrote The Osama bin Laden I Know (paperback, 2006, Free Press).
Kristina Borjesson, ed: Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11: The Journalists Speak Out (2005, Prometheus): Interviews with 21 journalists on the pressures to support the Bush terror wars. Includes some war critics like Juan Cole and Chris Hedges, bigwigs like Ted Koppel, and others I'm not so sure of.
Steve Coll: Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin): The standard history of the Soviet- and post-Soviet-era Afghan civil war, with the CIA feeding guns and money to jihadists to slaughter foreign occupiers, then watching thoughtlessly as the war lords turned on each other, opening up an asylum for al-Qaeda, and setting the stage for yet another decade-plus of internecine fighting against yet another foreign occupier. [link]
Joan Didion: Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (paperback, 2003, New York Review Books): Just a pamphlet (56 pp.), but one of the few books to dig into the effect 9/11 has had on our thinking and discourse, especially how "fixed ideas, or national pieties" were marshalled "to stake new ground in old domestic wars."
Tom Engelhardt: The American Way of War: How the Empire Brought Itself to Ruin (paperback, 2010, Haymarket): Mostly later, but the first chapter, "Shock and Awe: How We Got Hit" looks back at the immediate impact of 9/11 is useful ways.
Susan Faludi: The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (2007, Metropolitan Books): Brings 9/11 back home to America, in the context of American mythology going back to Indian abductions of white women. [link]
John Farmer: The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 (2009, Penguin): Pretty detailed chronology of the attack itself, by one of the guys who worked on The 9/11 Commission Report. Also includes a similar treatment of Katrina that is less interesting and less relevant. [link]
Kenneth R Feinberg: What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11 (2005; paperback, 2006, Public Affairs): Attorney and mediator involved in the fund payouts. The compensation fund was one of the oddest things to come out of the 9/11 attacks -- I'm tempted to call it hush money to deflect any suggestion that the US was to blame for the terror attacks (even though the effect is just the opposite), but also blood money as it cleared a foundation for the wars to come. I doubt that Feinberg gets into any of this.
Paul Goldberger: Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York (2004; paperback, 2005, Random House): A book on the machinations to rebuild something where the World Trade Center used to stand. This might provide some insight into the cultural and psychic impact of 9/11, or maybe just into internecine New York city/state politics and the ego of architects. Don't know. But it is curious that they don't seem to have built much.
Seymour Hersh: Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib (2004, Harper Collins): More on the latter, which was a breaking story for Hersh, but the road started back on 9/11.
Fred Kaplan: Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (paperback, 2008, Wiley): More on Rumsfeld's "transformation" fetish, the notion that the US could fight fast, light wars of shock and awe -- the enabling concept behind the chosen path. [link]
Gilles Kepel: Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2002; paperback, 2003, Harvard University Press): By far the broadest book written on Islamism up to 9/11 -- the book came out in France before 9/11 and actually saw Islamism in decline, with 9/11 as much as anything else a desperate bid to provoke. Kepel later wrote The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004; paperback, 2006, Harvard University Press). [link]
William Langewiesche: American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (2002; paperback, 2003, North Point Press): Detailed account on the physical destruction at the World Trade Center, from how the buildings collapsed to the process of sorting out and trucking off the rubble.
James Mann: Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004; paperback, 2004, Penguin): The key people who turned 9/11 into a Global War on Terror, where they came from, how they got into positions of power.
Terry McDermott: Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It (2005; paperback, 2006, Harper): Background check on the hijackers, a rare attempt to put personal stories behind the attacks.
John Powers: Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers, and Other Strange Species in George Bush's America (2004; paperback, 2005, Anchor Books): A cultural history, hence way too much on American Idol and O.J. Simpson, but 9/11 lies at the ugly heart of it. [link]
Frank Rich: The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina (2006, Penguin Press): Follows the political machinations, mostly the selling of the Iraq War, but it all starts back on 9/11. [link]
Ron Suskind: The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (2006, Simon & Schuster): Draws heavily on George Tenet is laying out the progress of the war on terror, with especially unsettling glances at Dick Cheney, deep in his bunker, beset by all kinds of fantasies. [link]
Bob Woodward: Bush at War (2002; paperback, 2003, Simon & Schuster): The first -- and most adulatory, at least as long as it seemed to be working -- of Woodward's insider guides to Bush's war plotting.
Lawrence Wright: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006; paperback, 2007, Vintage): Well-written general history; background bios of Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden; Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan; the al-Qaeda attacks in Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, Aden, and, of course, New York. [link]
Much more in the extended text . . .
Continue reading "9/11 Books"
Wednesday, September 1. 2010
Ron Sylvester: Iraq vet: Wounds outlast combat: The Wichita Peace Center sponsored a video/talk at the library last night, where a local Iraq War vet, Ethan McCord, talked about the WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video. It basically shows a US helicopter mowing down a group of Iraqis on a street in Baghdad, one of whom was carrying a video camera (mistakenly identified as some sort of weapon). A van then pulls up, the driver trying to load up the wounded to take them to get help. The helicopter then destroys the van. McCord was one of the first soldiers on the ground in the video. He pulled two badly wounded children out of the van, and carried them to an Army vehicle nearby to be taken for treatment. (Not clear if that even happened, since at one point we hear orders countermanding use of the vehicle to help the civilians, let alone whether they survived.) McCord left Iraq disabled with wounds from an IED, and is currently working with Iraq Veterans Against the War. Another Iraq vet, Will Stewart-Starks, also appeared.
For me the most striking thing about the talk was the detail in how US soldiers are desensitized and brutalized to fulfill their combat roles, and how this is constantly reinforced through the ranks. When asked about fragging, which happened often enough in Vietnam to sour the officer core on the draft, McCord pointed out that today's soldiers are more likely to kill themselves. He then cited yet another case just a day or two ago.
There was much play on the "support the troops" meme, but what I took away is something different. The real atrocity isn't what happens when you put troops into action, regardless of the reasons for doing so; rather, it starts in basic training, when you start to turn normal people into soldiers. Once they are soldiers, their skillset and survival instincts are bound to produce atrocities, as we've seen continuously in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those atrocities raise serious questions as to whether there is any practical political use for the US military in foreign nations where the US wants to consolidate any sort of friendly popular alliance -- i.e., where the collateral damage intrinsic to the way US troops are trained and deployed makes it impossible to sway enough "hearts and minds" -- and that should be enough to convince us to shy away from those wars.
But the human cost of supporting this kind of military goes back further, all the way to basic training. If we really cared for the people who fall under the "support the troops" slogan we wouldn't turn them into soldiers in the first place. We'd work to give them education, jobs, a chance to build families and grow old without the scars of war.
One person at the meeting made the point that he voted for Obama in 2008 specifically to stop the war, then was shocked when Obama turned around and escalated the war in Afghanistan. He didn't seem to take this personally -- e.g., as an example of the perfidy we expect from politicians. Rather, he wondered what there is in the power structure in Washington that bends people who should know better to their will. Another person pointed out that as we were meeting Obama was speaking about the semi-withdrawal of US forces and semi-closure of the US war in Iraq. Reading about Obama's speech in the paper this morning was far more disappointing than imagining it last night. There was no need for Obama to hie off to an army base to frame the speech, or to make a big show of going around shaking hands with soldiers. And there was no excuse for saying this:
It's bad enough to continue some Bush policies because you can't move the federal bureaucracy around fast enough to realign it on a new set of principles. But it's something else completely to go out of your way to whitewash George W. Bush, a president who ended eight years of one miserable, cynical failure after another with public support polling around 22% -- Obama, despite being the victim of a well-financed, professionally-managed smear campaign, as well as the drag of two wars and a huge recession he didn't start, still polls better than 45%. If Obama was elected for any reason at all, it was to bury Bush. What he said isn't just false -- if Bush was truly committed to our security, he wouldn't have started wars to engender future attacks on us; if he loved our country, he wouldn't have bankrupted the government and filled it up with corporate cronies to pick over the remains; if he cared about our young people he wouldn't have turned so many of them into soldiers to be cracked in hopeless, pointless foreign wars. And it's not time to turn the page: there are still 50,000 troops in Iraq, more than double that in Afghanistan, plus unlimited air power and imperial embassies relentlessly poking and prodding their way in what should be the internal affairs of other countries; there are still strong efforts to resist our presence and dominance, and they will keep fighting as long as we are there; there are still millions of displaced people, with little hope of returning to any sort of normal life until we leave; and we are still burning up hundreds of billions of dollars every year we stay, while our own country rots and collapses. Just because Obama has surrendered to the pro-war forces in this country doesn't mean we should; all it really means is that Obama has become as much a part of the problem as the hawks he once ran against.
Then Obama goes on to say:
Uh, hullo! Some of us were dead set against "the use of force against those who attacked us on 9/11" as of that very day. Obama may be asserting that we're not in the political spectrum, not even at the far fringes of it, which would be a pretty insulting position to take for someone so eager to forgive and cozy up to war criminals like Bush. But more importantly, it's a downright stupid position to take. One big reason so many people went along with the "use of force" idea after 9/11 is that they didn't have the faintest notion of what they were getting into. Had it been well understood that nine years later "use of force" would wind up meaning that 4,400 US soldiers would die, another 32,000 would be wounded (many gravely), that 20-25% of US soldiers would suffer from PTSD (leading to a rash of suicides), that we would have burned through $750 billion in direct expenses while incurring long-term debts and liabilities of several trillion dollars, that we would have vastly destabilized Iraq and Afghanistan (and less directly Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and Lebanon, while pushing Iran much closer to developing nuclear weapons), that even after drawing down troops in Iraq we would still have more than 160,000 troops stationed in Asia, that we still wouldn't be able to lay our hands on the two supreme leaders of Al-Qaeda, would we still be talking about near-unanimous "use of force" support?
Some of the people who opposed that "use of force" did so for basic principles, but some were just a hell of a lot smarter than the conventional wisdom. But then conventional wisdom was pretty dumb to think that you could round up a small cell of religious fanatics on the far side of the world with a huge army and air force and navy that were built to reduce whole nations to stone age rubble. In fact, the only people, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who were in any way responsible for 9/11 who were captured were picked up by old-fashioned police work, by Pakistan -- we'll see about bringing them to justice when/if they ever get a trial, but we've so debased the concept of justice along the way it may not matter.
As if that wasn't enough, let's wind up with one more Obama quote:
First, the wars that Obama lines up here aren't equivalent, and to the extent that they form a trend line we should be disturbed. The American Revolution was a war to throw off an abusive foreign power, fought against their troops on our soil. The Civil War was a struggle between competing notions (ideals and interests) of what our nation should be, with one side defending their custom of holding most of their workforce in perpetual slavery. WWII was a war that we reluctantly entered after an aggressively imperial Japan attacked us, or more specifically our relatively benign imperial interests in the Pacific. Korea can still be painted as a defensive war, but only if you assume that our occupation of Korea is legitimate and a Korean invasion of our occupied zone isn't. Although Vietnam was superficially divided like Korea, it was us who invaded there, with over 500,000 troops to prop up a puppet government that even we had to overthrow several times before we got a stable combination. And Afghanistan didn't even offer us the fig leaf of a favorable invitation: from 1979 on we deliberately and perversly wrecked a country that meant nothing to us, promoting a religious fanaticism that ultimately turned back on us, leading us to further escalate the destruction.
There are three vectors to these wars: one is that each one is further removed from home; the second is that the ideals we use to justify these wars have become ever more debased; the third is that the soldiers have become more mercenary -- even before the draft was eliminated the balance of effective force shifted toward the professional air force and navy, but today's warrior caste is an unprecedented extreme.
The second big problem with this quote is the assertion that fighting these wars has made "the lives of our children better than our own." Independence removed an imperial burden, the Civil War cleared the stage for a vast industrial expansion, but those blessings were accomplished post-war. WWII is a bit anomalous in that it did significantly boost the domestic economy by proving the value of massive Keynesian spending and regulation, traits that we kept for the most universally prosperous decades of our history. On the other hand, all subsequent wars have drained our economy and sapped our resources for virtually no benefit. We haven't been threatened by a foreign power in over 200 years. Virtually everything that has made our lives better results from science and industry and trade, and those are blessings of peace.
As for "troops are the steel in our ship of state," it's hard to imagine a more brazenly imperialist line of crap. If Obama keeps spewing lines like that it's going to be awful hard to argue back when Glenn Beck accuses him of being a fascist.
Of course, what Obama's doing here is probably just pandering. Practically everybody panders to the troops -- probably more than half of the crowd in last night's antiwar meeting are guilty in some sense, even if what they really mean by "support" is that they want to salvage the human beings they presume the troops were before they were shipped off to war. But pandering to the troops isn't about salvaging people: it's about keeping the war machine grinding along. At least when Bush rambled on about "support the troops" you knew he didn't care how many were broken; all he really meant was "support my wars." Maybe what Obama really means by "support the troops" is "don't blame me for my wars." Fair enough, but what I don't see is how he gets to peace without cutting way back on the machinery of war, and the troops are a big part of that -- both because they serve and because they gravitate into cheerleading groups like VFW, which politicians like Obama wind up thinking they have to placate.
Saturday, August 7. 2010
Maria Glod: Burning trash led to illnesses: Relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but worth quoting:
Back around 1950, my father built a brick furnace in the far corner of the backyard. He buried organic garbage, recycling it into a large vegetable garden, and he burned trash -- mostly paper and cardboard, probably a little plastic. (Metal was reused: small tin cans washed out and filled with screws or buttons, large coffee cans cut apart and flattened. Glass milk bottles were returned to the deliveryman.) The city banned trash burning in the early 1960s. They were probably more worried about amateur firebugs than toxic fumes, although they were lucky on the latter count. Hardly anyone burns trash in America any more, and when they do they use large, intense incinerators, not open pits doused with gasoline. We know better now, and won't stand for such irresponsible behavior in our own country. We even chastise campers who don't pack all of their trash to dispose of it properly when they get home. Yet when we spend billions of dollars to invade someone else's country, we revert to savagery.
And, of course, we make excuses:
Well, they could have thought of that before they started the wars. They did, after all, think of all the "comforts of home" they wanted to bring along. I recently read Ann Jones's piece on being "embedded" with US forces in Afghanistan, In Bed with the U.S. Army, and she was especially struck by all the stuff the Army takes to war:
Repeat: all that stuff comes packaged, and all that packaging gets "dumped into a pit and burned." As more soldiers get sick and die from the fumes, the military is under increasing pressure to come up with better solutions -- which means expensive incinerators, since backing down is just not in their genes, but spending more money is.
What the article omits is that most of the contractors doing the burning -- the ones presumably most exposed to the fumes -- are foreign contractors, which leaves them out of the lawsuit. Moreover, virtually all of the "toxic haze" settles in the neighboring areas -- the people we claim to want to help are in fact people we unwittingly poison. Of course, they are also the people we unwittingly bomb, shoot, kidnap, torture -- things that get more press because they're more dramatic. And more commonly, they're people we just tick off with our arrogance and sense of entitlement. We're good at excusing all these things as inevitable consequences of war, but where are they factored into the calculus of war? Has Bill Kristol ever worried that when he wanted to bring freedom to some besotten people he'd also be responsible for a big cancer spike (both there and here)?
And the FOB description above is a relatively sanitary one. I'm reminded of a paragraph in Evan Wright's Generation Kill when he's describing the actual invasion of Iraq, before we built all those world-class latrines:
At least that's what it looks like to Wright, who's no doubt been to outdoor rock festival in the US. To Iraqis it must look like something far more horrific. Our chronic inability to see, or even to hazily imagine, what other people see dooms us.
Much more worth reading lately about Afghanistan, especially in the wake of the WikiLeaks dump. Anyone who claims that they reveal "nothing new" is doing nothing more than showing utter disdain for the actual details of war. That such people are concentrated high in the war's administration and their cheering section in the media points out how little they care about facts, at least in comparison to their treasured ideas.
If Obama persists in prosecuting the leakers you might as well conclude that he's abandoned the reality-based side and gone over to the imperial fantasists. He should be handing out medals to the leakers; prosecuting them is unforgivable.
But rather than dwell on the folly in Afghanistan, look at Glenn Greenwald: What collapsing empire looks like. Just a few vignettes, like states shuttering schools and libraries for lack of budgets, and paved roads reverting to gravel. Hits a false note toward the end:
Makes it sound like the imperialists might have second thoughts and decide that in order to save their cherished empire they might realize that yes, indeed, we do need schools and roads to keep it all functioning. Personally, I don't see anyone who actually wants to keep an empire going. Rather, I see a lot of right-wing psychopaths who hate most of the people in this country, who can't abide any government that in theory represents them, and who want to bring the whole thing crashing down. For such people, militarism and imperialism is a means toward hollowing out and discrediting the state, and it's working pretty well for just that purpose. For such people unwinnable, self-perpetuating wars are the best of all worlds, draining resources that otherwise might possibly be put to some constructive end, making political leaders look like fools. (You have to wonder whether the real point of impeaching Clinton wasn't to coax him into bombing Iraq. And if draft-dodging Clinton could be turned into an imperial mobster in eight years, well, you saw what happened with Bush, and are seeing the same thing happen with Obama.)
Asking Americans to do the right thing in Afghanistan or Iraq (or even in Louisiana) clearly doesn't compute, but at some point you'd think a survival instinct would start to kick in. Soldiers should realize that even relatively pampered wars are hazardous to their health. Officers should realize that actions bound to fail aren't worth their efforts. Politicians should realize that foreign wars bring little but heartbreak and misery. The rich should realize that living in a country where everything is crumbling from rot will eventually impoverish even themselves. And even the right-wingers should realize that making everyone else miserable won't make themselves happy. But they're playing this game awfully close to the vest, making it seem that the only way anyone can learn lessons is the hard way -- and that evidently the finance meltdown of 2008, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, the oil spill in the Gulf, and (at least to date) global warming just haven't been hard enough. Scary to imagine just what it will take.
Sunday, August 1. 2010
Mitchell LaFortune: Learning From WikiLeaks: Hallucinating uncontrollably is more like it. Credentials: "LaFortune, a former Army sergeant, was an intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division from 2006 to 2010." Hard to find a better example of someone stuck in a mental rut because his livelihood give him no better options. Still, he thinks reform is possible:
But no one in the 1970s would have described Afghanistan as functioning "relatively well": it only achieved that status in comparison to the 30 years of war that followed the US decision to try to roll back a Soviet Union advance that occured because the "weak central government" was prone to coups and ultimately split between two communist party factions. The rise of the mullahs was the direct result of US patronage, the purpose of which was to destroy any secular-progressive political forces in the country, because we would much prefer medieval theocracy over modernity if the latter showed any hint of socialism -- not that we actually gave a shit what anyone on Afghanistan actually wanted. Still, it's pretty quaint to think that all the answer takes is to forget the last 30-40 years. And even if you do think that the past is the answer, isn't that the Taliban's solution?
LaFortune makes a series of astonishing proposals to turn the war around:
Let's take these one at a time:
This is pretty incredible. Back in early-2001 at the peak of their power, the last thing you'd ever imagine hearing about is how savvy the Taliban's PR operation was. They seemed to be singularly inept and dysfunctional at everything they did. In particular, the Afghan people were utterly dependent on foreign NGOs as the government itself could be bothered with social services -- they were preoccupied with banning soccer and music, and blowing up ancient Buddhas. On the other hand, the US pumps billions of dollars into PR, hiring hordes of talent, saturating every conceivable media. So how did the Taliban get to be so much better, not just compared to their old selves but compared even to the reigning world champions?
I think you have to entertain three theories. One is that most US propaganda efforts are targeted at Americans, partly because we're all we know and care about, but largely because of the perception -- one of the few "lessons learned" from Vietnam -- that the only force that actually threatens the war effort is the disapproval of the American people. That's still a tough sell, but it wouldn't even be taken seriously if not for the huge PR push to keep us upbeat (or terrified or whatever) on the war.
The second is that the facts don't offer a level playing field. Everybody spins, but it's a lot easier to spin an air strike killing dozens at a wedding against the US than for the US. A US-built school or hospital or road should be easy to spin the other way, but when the money's funneled back to US contractors or siphoned off by Afghan cronies and what's left doesn't make much difference anyway, your PR opportunity wastes away -- and besides, what are those infidels teaching in those schools anyway?
The third is that we're just using PR as an excuse for losses elsewhere. We're a bunch of foreigners who invaded their country on a mission of pure revenge; we kill a lot of people, blow a lot of shit up, snatch people and torture them, bribe people and turn them against their community, then can't understand why they don't like us -- why some even go so far as to fight back against us. So we think up rationalizations to comfort ourselves for losing -- hey, better than introspection! Still, it strains credulity to think that our problems are largely the result of the PR gap. For one thing, how many Afghans -- especially in the rural areas where the Taliban is so successful -- plug in to any kind of media?
Another indication that this PR gap is just scapegoating is LaFortune's quick fix: hey, they're better than we are so let's just kill them! Such a prototypically American solution, I have to wonder why nobody thought of that before the problem got out of hand. LaFortune continues:
But it's also remarkable how much credibility a village leader loses by being surrounded by American troops, especially when they act like American troops and get a little trigger-happy (or drunk or abusive or sacrilegious). I don't doubt that it would have been better to build up local governments around local leaders -- for one thing it allows each ethnic group its own domain, for another it boxes in the losses due to corruption -- but the US didn't do so because they didn't trust local leaders. They preferred instead to deal through an agent like Karzai and a few trusted warlords, and their attendant sinkhole of corruption. Moreover, the US army hasn't been bashful about bypassing the Karzai government -- every commander has a slush fund for dealing with locals. The problem is more that every occupier has tried to govern through bribed local leaders and the result is that those leaders have steadily lost credibility.
When the US decided to overthrow the popular democratic government of Iran in 1953, the first thing the CIA did was to bribe a bunch of imams. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 we brought along our own pet ayatollah (who was killed practically on sight). In between we watched the Saudi royal family requisition fatwas for whatever political purpose suited them, not least our anti-Soviet mujahideen project in Afghanistan. So there's nothing surprising about the assumption that all we have to do is pay a few tolls to get Allah on our side. Still, the assumption that there's this vast reserve of credible mullahs (and other local leaders) eager to do our bidding if only we can provide them with a phalanx of bodyguards is, well, suspect. Also suspect is the idea that you can bolster the credibility of a mullah by surrounding him with armed infidels. And when all's said and done, a mullah is nothing more than his credibility.
We really don't know whether the Afghan people like or dislike the Taliban ulema, largely because there's no framework where one can speak an honest opinion, but partly because you just can't tell. But if you wanted to reduce the power of the Taliban mullahs, a better solution would be to provide secular alternatives -- civil law, personal rights, honest democracy, something to look forward to, maybe even something to fight for. This idea that the Afghans will follow us if we just line up the right mullahs and village elders to lead them back to the placid 1970s is, well, nonsense doesn't begin to cover it -- it's embarrassing. Shameful. I mean, no wonder the US is losing. Pogo understood: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Friday, July 16. 2010
Jason Ditz: US-Backed Jundallah Bombs Iran Mosque, Killing at Least 27: When Obama took office 18 months ago, it seemed like burying the hatchet with Iran would be a relatively straightforward thing to do. But Netanyahu responded to Obama's feint toward the more intransigent Israel-Palestine conflict with alarmist threats against Iran, which Obama thought he could only bottle up by taking a more aggressive diplomatic course. Then there was the Iranian elections and a long period of unrest following, where Iran's conservatives and clerics clamped down on reformers -- many of whom felt themselves to be more in tune with the 1979 Revolution than were the established powers -- so that, too, backed Obama off, putting even more emphasis on his sterile program of sanctions. Now, Netanyahu is feeling cocky enough to push his belligerent tactics through American military channels -- cheered on by Likudnik-inspired neocons like the newly formed Emergency Committee for Israel. The idea of "preemptively" attacking Iran is as criminally stupid now as it ever was. One cannot imagine all of the ways such a misadventure could go wrong: it would dramatically reinforce Iranian resolve to be able to defend themselves with nuclear weapons, while at most inflicting a temporary setback; it would destroy whatever credibility Obama still has in the world's diplomatic circles. Iran would have an impeccable case to take to the UN -- subject to a US veto, of course, another embarrassment. If Iran chose to fight back, they could virtually stop oil tankers from the Persian Gulf region, triggering another runup of world oil prices. They could make life very uncomfortable for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The one threat they can't make is to Israel, which is already itching for another fight with Hezbollah (and/or Hamas). It is easy to see why Israel sees such an attack as win-win: the one guaranteed result is that it will keep Israel away from the peace table for years to come. Best of all, it would make the US as much a pariah as Israel has already become.
What Jundallah has to do with this is sheer stupidity. Back in 1979 the Iranian Revolution embarrassed the Carter Administration and, more importantly, the CIA that had put the Shah in power back in 1953, opening up a period when the US was delighted to sell advanced weapons and nuclear power plants to Iran. Ever since then there have been agitators in the backwaters of the US security system trying to irritate Iran -- Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech back in 2003 was a high point in their crusade. One of their pet schemes has always been to incite minorities to rebel against the Tehran government, and the Balochi nationalist Jundallah group has been a beneficiary of such scheming. Never mind that they're nothing more than a terrorist group. Never mind that they also attack our ally Pakistan. We're so consumed with hatred for Iran that we're happy doing unto them what we'd never stand for them doing unto us. But don't you think Obama should find this really embarrassing? On the one hand, it shows how selective out "war on terrorism" really is. On the other, it shows that however high-minded our fears of Iran's nuclear program may be, deep down all we really want to do is drag the Iranian people into chaos and destruction.
Helena Cobban: Is an attack on Iran really more 'do-able' now? and More on America's pro-Israeli warmongers: Some background info for the above. Joe Klein claims: "Israel has been brought into the [U.S.] planning process, I'm told, because U.S. officials are frightened by the possibility that the right-wing Netanyahu government might go rogue and try to whack the Iranians on its own." The fact remains that Israel would have to fly over US-controled airspace to get to Iran and would probably need US airbases to land at, so it's hard to see how they could "go rogue" without US acquiescence. On the other hand, one of the peculiar effects of Israel's handling of the Gaza flotilla is that while it had been a public relations disaster in the world at large, Israel has managed to stiffen up American political support, making a new round of aggression possible.
Thursday, July 8. 2010
Paul Woodward: Petraeus: mission will be accomplished: I think it was Wolfgang Pauli who once dismissed a fellow physicist's theory by declaring that it was not even false, suggesting there are whole dimensions of mind-boggling nonsense that are based on nothing substantial enough to even be disproved. I felt the same way a couple days ago when I saw a front page Wichita Eagle article that quoted Petraeus: "We are in this to win. That is our clear objective." Nothing can be less clear, since the problem isn't so much how to "win" as what the hell does "winning" even mean in this context? I have no idea, and not just because I've repeatedly argued in the past that war itself is failure, that the moment you go to war the only question remaining is how much you will lose before you can extricate yourself from it.
See if another Petraeus quote helps: "We're engaged in a contest of wills. Our enemies are doing all that they can to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people." For starters, this ignores a very central fact of the war, which is that "our enemies" are in fact a substantial fraction of "the Afghan people"; even more importantly, that we are not "the Afghan people" in any sense. For us to "win" a lot of Afghans have to lose, so who is it who's really trying to "undermine the confidence of the Afghan people"? Then there is the matter of will, one of our central political conceits, the notion that all it takes to bend other people is assertion of our magic will, or more to the point, that all we need for our will to work is endless faith in the force of our magic, thereby reducing the world to nothing more than a reflection of our psyche. Sounds like a clinical definition of insanity.
Even if will worked, you have to ask whose will is Petraeus trying to rally? The self-serving careerist military? The fickle politicians? The vast washed, coddled, attention-deficit masses whose idea of winning is constantly trivialized by "reality" TV? Ultimately it doesn't matter, because all it takes to disable the peculiar magic of will is the inevitable unbeliever -- the future scapegoat for failure because, well, who's going to doubt the general's will? That the bullshit is so transparent should mean that the end is near. But what it certainly means is that the war party wants to make sure we don't learn any lessons from the debacle.
Ann Jones: Strategies for "Success" in Afghanistan: Second title: "Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan . . . But the War Machine Grinds On and On and On." Points out that COIN in theory is "a tricky, even schizophrenic, balancing act"; in practice it's even harder, but since we're obsessed with "success" how about some shortcuts?
Maybe things would work better if we had a politically connected shoe company to get in on the graft, but Halliburton doesn't make shoes.
Brian Katulis: Restrepo: Ann Jones wrote her article after a recent stretched embedded with US forces in Afghanistan. She talks about what she saw, but the recent documentary Restrepo gives you a chance to see some of this yourself. I haven't seen -- or for that matter the Iraq documentaries Gunner Palace and The War Tapes Katulis refers to -- and can't vouch for the movie, other than to point out the obvious that in focusing on American soldiers you'll have to work hard to try to reconstruct an Afghan view of their invasion, and will inevitably miss a big part of the big picture.
Saturday, July 3. 2010
Laura Tillem had a letter in the Wichita Eagle Friday, under the title "War not answer":
People should recall that the first thing that happened after 9/11, even before the CIA-led revenge fantasy in Afghanistan got off the ground, was that damn near everyone in politics and the media started attacking pacifists and war/empire skeptics. Panetta's "no one" is the result of pretending that anyone the least bit doubtful that the only recourse was to plunge into war and occupation of a country which over the previous 22 years had done nothing but fight wars to frustrate every possibility of legitimate government. Silencing anyone not on the war bandwagon was the quickest way to get the war on, and the powers that be were very effective at doing that.
So effective, in fact, that Obama has always taken great pains to prove that he's no pacifist. He couldn't criticize the war in Iraq without offering Afghanistan as "the right war," and that's why he's trapped there. Long time ago Noam Chomsky explained how the bipartisan foreign policy wonks "manufacture consent," but nowadays they don't even bother. They just ignore dissent, dismiss critics out of hand, pretend they can't even hear any criticism, then act surprised when their own pet wars run aground.
Tuesday, June 29. 2010
Gail Collins: General McChrystal's Twitters. Satire, presumably, but rings true, especially in the casual dismissal of the writer: "In Paris with my Kabul posse -- Bluto, Otter, Boon, Pinto, Flounder. Plus some newbie. Guys call him Scribbles." "Team America is partying! Bluto's doing his impression of Joe Biden. Scribbles taped the whole thing -- get ready for laughs when we get home." "Scribbles wants to come, too. Told him only if he buys the next two cases."
Ray McGovern: Obama Misses the Afghan Exit Ramp. Opening lines: "Has it occurred to President Barack Obama that Gen. Stanley McChrystal might actually have wanted to be fired -- and, thus, rescued from the current march of folly in Afghanistan, a mess much of his own making?" I can't say as it occurred to me -- seems to me that McChrystal's nature is more like the one Gail Collins painted above, one that didn't take a Rolling Stone reporter seriously until the ink dried. If you want clandestine motives, it seems just as likely that Obama or someone close to him wanted McChrystal out of the way and told him it'd be good PR to plant an in-depth profile in a hip magazine. We'll know more when McChrystal, relieved of his command and now on his way to a comfy early retirement, writes his inevitable book. If he stays in character, he'll be whining about how folks back in Washington backstabbed him on the verge of success. On the other hand, he could write something actually interesting: about how clear the answers seemed back when he was scheming in the Pentagon, yet how impossible they turned out in the real Afghanistan.
The article has some other gaffes -- like speculation that Petraeus and/or Clinton might run against Obama if he falters as a hawk -- but the title is spot on, pointing out that Obama could have used this moment to start untangling us from Afghanistan, but instead used it to reiterate his failed policies and dashed hopes:
We've seen this already in how the huzzahs for Obama's embrace of Petraeus have almost invariably been accompanied by pleas to forget about the July 2011 withdrawal "start." Indeed, if he misses the next exit ramp, it seems likely that Obama will be running for reŽlection in 2012, campaigning exclusively at VFW conventions and military bases, hounded by protesters kept at a safe distance -- pretty much a rerun of Bush in 2004, or LBJ in 1968.
Gareth Porter: Why Petraeus won't salvage this war. Well, because it's unsalvageable -- even Petraeus knows that, even if he can't say as much. Porter argues that Petraeus isn't inflexibly wedded to any strategy, and was willing to pull the plug on the Iraq Surge until he figured he could bluff his way politically. Also that he remains committed to one goal: salvaging his own reputation.
Andrew J Bacevich: Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance. Recalls America's traditional antipathy to standing armies and their corrosive effects on democracy, something which had seen axiomatic from George Washington to George Marshall. Yet now we have one, increasingly estranged from most of America:
Of course, it's not just the military. There's a huge posse of self-serving experts and flacks dedicated to keeping the money flowing, and politicians find them irresistible, even when they march headlong into a foolish fiasco like Afghanistan. For years and years now we've debated how to "save" Afghanistan, when the only thing the military cult really wanted to save in Afghanistan is their own raison d'Ítre -- 9/11 raised the question of why do we spend $500 billion a year on a military that utterly failed to defend us, but rather than answer that question we've let them con us into $1 trillion a year. Start cutting back there and who knows where it might lead? You might find that cutting back to nothing solves everything, not least this praetorian cult that has eaten away our democracy and left us hopeless, confused, and stupid.
If Porter is right, Petraeus (and with his cover Obama) will try to extricate us from Afghanistan, mostly to try to salvage an army that is being proven worse than useless there. Bacevich wants to go further and unwind the military cult that got us there in the first place.
Sunday, June 27. 2010
Bill Phillips posted a link to my Exit McChrystal post, and got the following comment from his nephew, a captain in the US Army:
Any generalization is bound to produce some exceptions, even the commonplace ones that claim that US military personnel are dedicated, principled, public-spirited, competent, or just plain decent. Back when the draft board was so eager to ship me off to Vietnam, and earlier when my father, his brothers, and numerous relatives were swept up in WWII, the military was an unremarkable cross-section of America, but since the Army went pro in the late 1970s it has largely separated from the rest of the country and turned into a self-promoting cult where "professional excellence in military service" is repeated so often you'd think it's their trademark. We're usually more skeptical of PR hype, but various powerful political and business forces find it useful to pander to the military, and they've managed to wrap the military in the flag so securely that others just shy away for fear of appearing unpatriotic.
I have doubts about the entire enterprise. In 1948 the Truman administration decided to rebuild the military and launch an aggressive worldwide defense not of the American people but of capitalists everywhere. Imperialism, depression, fascism, and war had done much to discredit capital and foment revolution around the world. Businesses were eager for more war profits, and with nuclear weapons it was easy to terrify the public, especially to back a "cold war" strategy that didn't require much of a personal commitment -- Korea and especially Vietnam proved to be unpopular exceptions. In doing so they created a permanent war state, an empire of self-importance that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union to find ever more desperate enemies. This permanent war has haunted the sixty years of my life and shows no signs of abating, even as the costs pile up to unsustainable levels and the returns aren't even negligible -- more like sad, pathetic, tragic.
I don't blame the soldiers for this, but I don't feel like flattering them either. When I was growing up, we had a slogan: "suppose they gave a war and nobody came." I took it to heart and did everything I could to avoid the draft and steer clear of a war machine that I regarded as unjust and unwise, so at some level I don't see why anyone else can't do the same -- especially now that the draft is gone and the consequences of not joining are benign. Back in the 1990s joining the military may have seemed like a riskless, harmless career move, but since 9/11 it has enabled a series of wars that have wreaked havoc around the world while in no way making us safer or a better country. I offered two reasons above why they did so. You might nominate some others -- misguided patriotism, family tradition, boredom, not sure what else.
I'm not in a position to run a survey, but the two reasons I gave certainly loom large in the promo pitch. The career angle shows up in almost every profile of enlisted personnel, as it has for twenty-some years. It's common enough you have to wonder if one reason conservatives have tried to squeeze college support is to drive people through the military. As for "blowing shit up" that may be a glib way of putting it, but I run across that repeatedly in soldier profiles -- Evan Wright's Generation Kill is about one company full of it, and Thomas Ricks's Fiasco covers the same story and mores at the level of upper brass selected for their aggressiveness, even when it mostly yields blowback. My post was occasioned by Gen. McChrystal, who is himself a prime example, yet much of the piece is about soldiers in Afghanistan complaining that McChrystal has set the rules of engagement too restrictively to, as one soldier puts it, "get their gun on."
These two traits are not just prevalent in the US military. They practically define it: the careerism leads to extreme risk aversion, which the aggression masks with bursts of "shock and awe" firepower. The two traits merge perfectly in the ever-increasing use of drones -- riskless slaughter.
Examples of these things abound. For instance, today's New York Times has an article by James Dao, "Gone for a Soldier," profiling a number of soldiers on their way to an Afghanistan deployment. The first one's reasoning is plainly economic:
The next is a gunner. It may not be fair to dismiss him as someone who just wants to blow shit up, but he prides himself on knowing he won't freeze up under fire:
These two happen to come from painfully broken homes. I doubt that that is the rule, but it does seem to happen much more often with military families than with the peaceniks I know. There are some things about the military that I find admirable, including their ability to occasionally pick up broken people and give them hope and purpose, although it seems like the military breaks many more people than they fix. They run a good health care system, and their camaraderie provides more social support at a time when conservatives (and liberals) are dismantling safety nets for everyone else. Still, there are ways to do all of those things without elevating a warrior caste -- ways that are far less wasteful and damaging. And if (much to my surprise) the military turns out to be a bastion of "professional excellence," wouldn't it be nice to apply those skills to something constructive?
Wednesday, June 23. 2010
One of the dumber things I've read in response to the McChrystal flap came from David Kurtz at TPM:
Why not? Reasoned analysis failed to do the trick.
The flap was set off by Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama's Afghanistan comandante, The Runaway General. There are various instances of "imtemperate remarks" scattered throughout the article, but it would be wrong to focus on them. The real problem isn't that McCrystal and his "Team America" entourage think Jim Jones is a "clown" or Richard Holbrooke a "wounded animal," or that he was underwhelmed at his first personal encounter with Obama. Nor is it that he got caught saying so. The real problem is summed up nicely by the alternate title/subtitle on the print edition cover: "Obama's General: Why He's Losing the War." Let's face it, if he was winning he could talk like Tommy Franks and get a presidential medal for it.
The real question is why McCrystal is losing: in particular, how responsible was he for putting Obama into a hopeless losing situation, and what he did to make it worse. The article has some insights into this as well as scattered impressions that could be developed further. It may well be that no American no matter how principled and skilled could have succeeded in his shoes, but that hardly excuses a general who managed to sell his own strategy and leadership as the solution: its failure may be because it was a bad idea in the first place or because it was badly executed or both, but either way McChrystal is responsible. (Obama too, of course, but on another level.)
Here's a good quote to start with:
The quote continues below, but let's pause a bit here. Why on earth would we -- either the US military or the US government -- ever want to do something like this that potentially drags on to decades? (The Afghanistan war's 10th anniversary is coming up later this year, so "if not decades" is sort of ironic there.) COIN is a theory that has never worked, other than to advance the careers of politically-ambitious officers like McChrystal and Petraeus at the expense of gullible politicians. But while those officers may push it doesn't mean that their troops have any secret desire to kick back and buddy up with the locals -- most are simply pursuing limited career opportunities, and the rest have a simple craving to blow shit up (which COIN cautions against but doesn't effectively discipline). Continuing:
Note that McChrystal's "enemy" here isn't the Taliban; it's Obama and anyone in his administration who might argue against sinking the US ever deeper into Afghanistan (e.g., VP Joe Biden, who still takes occasional incoming flak from Team America). I'm reminded here of Gorbachev, who when he came to power in the Soviet Union wanted to quit Afghanistan, but met stiff resistance from the Soviet military; he gave them a year to try it their way, then pulled the plug. Whether Obama had that in mind isn't at all clear, but he's just done that exercise, and it's clear both in this article and in virtually every other news report from Afghanistan that McChrystal's COIN scam is bankrupt. The most explicit quote on this comes a bit later:
Even Team America pretty much concedes that much:
The article goes on to detail the incredible hubris of Team America -- things like how they claim ISAF stands for "I Suck at Fighting." Shitfaced in an Irish bar in Paris, McChrystal tells the reporter, "All these men. I'd die for them. And they'd die for me." Touching camaraderie on the battlefront, in this case deriding the French for not doing enough for NATO. You'd expect that a big part of McChrystal's job as commander is to get and keep everyone pulling together, so the long list of functionaries McChrystal has pissed off is not just brash fighting spirit but dereliction of duty, undermining the mission.
Of course, with McChrystal prodding him on stage and standing next to (and over) him, there's little Karzai can do to look like a credible leader. This is one of the situations where McChrystal is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. You might feel a bit sorry for him if he hadn't schemed and plotted so hard and so disingenuously to get there. Hastings then switches gears to sketch out McChrystal's biography: arrogant son of a general, ranked 298 (out of 855) at West Point, pushed his way up through the ranks, especially once Rumsfeld took charge. He survived at least two scandals: detainee abuse complaints in Iraq, and a role in the Pat Tillman coverup. But he's also one of the few who seems to have relished the Iraq/Afghanistan wars:
Passive-aggressive doesn't begin to describe this strategy; it's flat-out schizo, talking about living with and protecting the people, the same people you fear and keep mowing down by hook or crook. As McChrystal says at one point, "Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing." There's more stuff on McChrystal talking to trigger-happy US troops, who blow back at the restraints he talks about but rarely actually enforces. So add the US troops, and for that matter the Afghan people, to the long list that McChrystal's pissed off.
With the Marjah offensive faring so poorly that McChrystal called it a "bleeding ulcer," the plans for the big Kandahar offensive this summer have been revised so many times that there's little evidence of any plan left. Hastings concludes:
That cuts McChrystal some slack and still he comes up wanting. But it's not like there are a lot of fallback plans: even the COIN theory says that in order to win, or even keep playing, you have to do things that the US is constitutionally incapable of doing. I wish they would decide they've given it their best shot and that's all can be done about it. The more Plan XYZs they dredge up the longer everyone suffers.
David Kurtz: The New Team: No McChrystal, otherwise, looks a lot like the old team, doesn't it? Another golden opportunity wasted.
PS: I originally attributed the "bleeding ulcer" quote to Petraeus, but it seems to have been McChrystal. Evidently Petraeus remains more circumspect in his wording, which I don't consider a point in his favor. The quote echoes Gorbachev's famous description of Afghanistan as a "bleeding wound."
There seems to be a surprising consensus on how well Obama handled the fiasco -- e.g., the article in the Wichita Eagle this morning was titled "Obama gets high marks for firing McChrystal," prominently featuring a lugubrious quote from KS Senator Pat Roberts. Fred Kaplan described replacing McChrystal with Petraeus as "a stroke of personnel genius." It no doubt is a clever twist to hang Petraeus, who remains immaculate in the eyes of the hawks, with the petards of his own COIN strategy, such that both are sure to go down together.
Saturday, May 29. 2010
Robert H Reid: AP tally: 1,000th US military death in Afghan war: Front page article in the Wichita Eagle today. According to icasualties.org, the US number is slightly higher -- 1007 "in and around Afghanistan" or 1086 for all of Operation Enduring Freedom, with "Coalition Military Fatalities" at 1788. The trendline, by the way, is up, with 520 for 2009 vs. 295 for 2008 and 232 for 2007. The first five months of 2010 are running 85% higher than the first five months of 2009 (221 vs. 119), a ratio that will probably drop a bit come July (unless Obama escalates again). This is somewhat anticlimactic given that US military deaths in Iraq stand at 4400. It especially pales in comparison to the number of Afghans killed, maimed, or displaced since we threw our little tantrum in 2001 -- let alone the number of Afghans killed, maimed, or displaced since Brzezinski and Carter decided to have a little fun provoking the Russian Bear in 1979, or Reagan and Charlie Wilson upped the ante in the 1980s. I suppose you could say that at least our costs are manageable: it's not everywhere you can stretch a war out nine years with no end in sight and hold your casualties this low. Problem is, unless you're into war for the sole sake of keeping a war going it's hard to see any upside to such losses.
Fred Kaplan: How Are Things Going in Afghanistan? Well, according to the habitual optimists in the US military, not so well. Go figure.
Juan Cole: Taliban Attack Qandahar Airfield; Parliament goes on Strike: Another report from the Afghan front. Highlights include Taliban attacks against major US airbases and a NATO convoy in Kabul.
Zaid Jilani: Former Argentine president says Bush told him 'the best way to revitalize the economy is war': Chalmers Johnson (and others) have argued that America uses military spending as a form of closet Keynesian stimulus, but Bush seems to feel that the engine of the economy is something more vigorous than mere spending. His actual quote, at least as Kirchner has it, was more blanket: "All of the economic growth of the United States has been encouraged by wars." His is a very bloody way to look at the world. Moreover, he acted vigorously on his theory, so we should be able to test it against actual economic performance which, well, sucked: the result was the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Most people blame the recession on a bank crisis rooted primarily in deregulation and excessive leverage, which are certainly the proximate causes. I would add that the deeper cause was the multi-decade transfer of wealth to the very rich, which Bush didn't invent but advanced to a huge degree. It's possible that those trends simply swamped the growth that Bush anticipated from his wars, but Bush is making a very big claim here -- if it could so easily be swamped he shouldn't have been so sure of its primacy. But the other possibility is that the wars itself contributed to the economic fiasco.
Thursday, April 15. 2010
David Miliband: How to End the War in Afghanistan: I posted my schematic for ending the war in Afghanistan on Monday. The April 29 issue of The New York Review of Books arrived the next day, with a sketch of Hamid Karzai on the cover and a big banner for Miliband's title. Figured I should read it, albeit with some nervousness, like the expert author was checking my work. False alarm, as it turns out. Miliband's a the UK's foreign secretary -- remember when NYRB used to feature real critics instead of schmoozy insiders like Miliband and Peter Galbraith? Miliband does agree on the need to decentralize Afghanistan's government, and on the need for an international agreement to eliminate the outsiders' tug-of-war that has torn Afghanistan apart, although in neither case does he take the point as far to heart as I did. On the other hand, he misses the simplest, most straightforward point: the first (and most important) step to ending the war is to stop the shooting. He acknowledges that Afghans don't like foreign troops, but then he praises those troops and promises to keep them there -- as far as I can tell, forever:
As should be clear by now, it doesn't matter what General McChrystal says. What matters is what his troops do, and they mostly do what they were trained to do: kill people. That's their nature, and the failure of people like Miliband -- all politicians in the US and UK seem to feel duty-bound to pay obeisance to the troops, a trap which prevents them from comprehending what their policies really mean.
There is no military solution to Afghanistan. Thee is only a political solution, and that political solution requires that everyone voluntarily put their guns away. That necessarily means that we have to leave. It also means that Afghans have to learn to treat each other better: they need to develop a more civil and a more equitable society. I don't know how they do that, but it's clear that we aren't the solution -- in fact, we aren't all that good at it ourselves. If we were, our reaction to reading Miliband's boast that now 80% of Aghans have access to health care wouldn't be: wish that were true here.
Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land: Better reading in the April 29 NYRB, an excerpt from Judt's short book on how decent societies were built in Europe and America before the right started tearing them apart. This was a world that Afghans might indeed have envied and aspired to, but especially in America it has started to crumble. (See especially this photo, which reminds us that neglect can ultimately take the sort of toll that bombs render instantaneously.)