Monday, February 22, 2010

Dredging 9/11 fear to support war

Nine years later, U.S. officials continue to justify the war in Afghanistan with the threat of another 9/11. On NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, U.S. general David Petreaus said, "I don't use words like 'optimist' or 'pessimist.' I use 'realist.' . . . We're in Afghanistan to ensure it cannot once again be a sanctuary for the kinds of attacks that were carried out on 9/11."

However, Afghans perceive U.S. military efforts there as terrorism, as civilians continue to be killed through drone bombings and other strikes. Just today a NATO airstrike killed 27 Afghan civilians in Marjah, despite the U.S. proclaimed effort to avoid civilian deaths during its current offensive there, the largest since the war began. Ironically, in its attempt to wipe out the Taliban, the U.S. and its (increasingly few -- see below) allies continue to stoke the flame of anger, resentment and fear within civilians, creating an even richer breeding ground for "terrorists" filled with anti-American sentiment.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government collapsed Sunday over its role in Afghanistan. When, after a 16-hour debate, Parliamentarians could not agree whether Dutch troops would continue to work in Afghanistan under a NATO request, all members of the Labor Party resigned their 12 Cabinet post. They wanted to reject the request. Shortly after the collapse, Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende said troops would pull out of Afghanistan as originally planned.

If only the U.S. would figure out a way to follow suit.

Friday, February 19, 2010

News of Marjah, and beyond?

Much of the news from Afghanistan this week centers around the "Marjah offensive," with both Afghan civilian and U.S./NATO deaths, consensus in mainstream press that the offensive is "working" despite ramped up gunfire, roadside bombings and more from the Taliban, and Pakistan's "lucky accident" capture of Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Some outlets report that Taliban fighters have been using civilians as human shields, propping them up and firing from behind them, preventing U.S./NATO forces from fighting back or advancing.

Few outlets however give nearly as much analysis, if any, to the next step in the U.S. plan for Afghanistan once Marjah is "cleared." If any, like in this New York Times piece, it centers around the strategy to hand off power to Afghans, or as Obama says, a transfer. But, said Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.”

Government in a box? Is it a transfer of power, or a U.S. installation of its own puppet government?

Monday, February 15, 2010

12 Afghan civilians killed by US troops

Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, offers on his blog today a straightforward analysis of the start of the current U.S./NATO offensive in Marjah, Afghanistan. Because of many roadside bombs and other Taliban guerilla tactics, foreign troops are moving slowly.

Yesterday the US military shot rockets at a civilian home, killing 12 civilians, 10 from the same family, believing it to be a Taliban "source" of attacks. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said these sort of attacks must stop, since they'll continue to tick off Afghan civilians. Not good, Cole writes, since U.S./NATO "conceive of Marjah as a counter-insurgency operation, which begins by clearing out the insurgents but then depends on the territory being held in the long term, with locals being guaranteed security and prosperity by the forces coming in from Kabul."

The offensive might last 30 days. For Afghan civilians, it might feel like 30 years.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Women contractor employees finally get some respect

In some relatively good Friday news: the Pentagon is finally showing a small sign of recognition and respect for U.S. employees of U.S. military contractors (private "security" corporations hired by the U.S. government) who are sexually assaulted.

After pressure from Congress, the Pentagon will set up a system to monitor these assaults, and is developing plans of how to help survivors of assault, whether through medical, legal and other forms of assistance.

Many employees, most of them American, have had enormous trouble having their claims taken seriously. One Texas woman, Jamie Leigh Jones, sued Halliburton Co. and its former subsidiary KBR, after some employees gang raped her in 2005 while she was working for KBR in Iraq and the companies did nothing. Jones, who started a non-profit to support other assault survivors, said 40 former employees have contacted her "alleging a variety of sexual assault or sexual harassment incidents -- and claim that Halliburton, KBR or other PMCs have either failed to help them or outright obstructed them," according to the United Press Press International, and there are surely more.

But the Military Criminal Investigative Organizations conducted only 25 sexual assault investigations between 2005 to 2007, according to the New York Times.

Sexual assault, many argue, is hardly given attention within civilian society, and is most definitely a low priority within a military culture with imperial interests. But for all the attention given to comraderie, trust, and military honor, one would think the treatment of women contractors and soldiers within a military environment should be taken far more seriously.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Talking with the Taliban, speaking for women

More folks today have joined the debate of whether the U.S. should talk with the Taliban, most claiming talks would be too dangerous and ineffective. In a New York Times column today on the subject, Richard Bernstein quotes Robert Mnookin, chairman of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law, at length -- in fact, he's the only source he consults for the whole of his column (so much for fair and balanced). Mnookin draws a comparison to Churchill's decision not to talk to Hitler at the height of World War II, and Bush's decision to refuse talks after Sept. 11. Negotiations with the Taliban now would fail and essentially give them more power and control, Mnookin said.

Mnookin also adds, “With control, I have no doubt they would shut down schools for girls and do lots of things that would be disastrous.”

Like hundreds of other political pundits, Mnookin cites the conditions of Afghan women as the first, or best (?), justification of why U.S. military force in Afghanistan must continue and alternative solutions to force must be discounted. One wonders how many Afghan women Mnookin has spoken with; do they share his concern, and does he speak for them? Afghan women do speak out -- in fact, Afghan women are quite strong and willing to organize -- and they say that while they suffered incredibly under the Taliban, all Afghans, especially women, will suffer as long as the U.S. occupation continues -- no solution within the context of a military occuation will prevent that. Mnookin's "saving Afghan women" argument is not only offensive, as it makes them bargaining chips without even a seat at the bargaining table, but also a red herring from the real argument -- whether talks would work to end the occupation more quickly, to strengthen the Afghan army, to supply humanitarian aid and job training, and allow Afghanistan to rebuild itself.

But since Mnookin brought it up: will talks hurt or help Afghan women? The jury's out. If only Goldstein could write his column about that.

(Photo: AP)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Salted pamphlets from the sky

In cars stuffed with clothes and mattresses, Afghan civilians are fleeing the southern Afghanistan town of Marjah in droves to avoid a coming NATO offensive intended to drive out the Taliban there.

The town's 80,000 civilians learned of the offensive this weekend after NATO troops dropped leaflets over the area warning them that it was coming. It is expected to be the largest offensive since the war's start in 2001.

This warning, on the surface, seems thoughtful. But it's too little too late, just more salt in the wounds. After all, in the past nine years of their occupation, foreign troops have done far too little to ensure civilian safety. Under the banner of rooting out terror, U.S. troops have killed thousands of civilians with aerial drones and other weaponry, more than 2,400 last year. They have knocked into Afghan homes in violent midnight raids, have inflamed more Taliban and spent way too little effort investing in infrastructure, schools, job training, and food and water aid for Afghans. No wonder civilians feel angry, weary, distrustful and anxious for new solutions.

"Ending operations in Afghan villages is what the Afghan people are seeking as a priority," President Hamid Karzai said yesterday in Munich. "...That means Afghanistan really gaining judicial independence completely and rather very very soon."

Many of the fleeing civilians will stay with family, according to humanitarian groups, though the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have prepared resources to set up refugee camps in case a refugee crisis develops. Let's hope NATO and U.S. officials do the same -- after all, if or when that happens, civilians will need far more than pamphlets.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Winning Afghan hearts and minds -- a better strategy

After more than eight years of war in Afghanistan, many Americans -- including politicians and military leaders -- have begun to question whether military action really offers any solution.

In this remarkably clear-cut piece today, Hekmat Karzai, director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, and US Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA), argue that the Afghan people know exactly what's needed to defeat the Taliban and rebuild the country. This includes an investment in and cooperation with local companies rather than foreign corporations, more training and payment for Afghan soldiers, an end to collaboration with extremely corrupt warlords (allowing most Afghan civilians to again trust our efforts, especially as we continue to criticize President Karzai for his corruption).
"Afghans want better delivery of services, professional and competent appointments, and minimal bureaucracy within the government, all of which reduces corruption...The key to the main challenges facing the country is to build Afghan acceptance and ownership. When 80 per cent of all foreign aid dollars circumvents the Afghan government entirely, and when the same amount leaves the country in contractor hands not Afghan ones, locals question the motive of the US."
Of course, Afghanistan is a sovereign nation -- why do innocent Afghans have no say in America's role there? As the authors point out, we must begin listening to them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Karzai faces more rejection over nominees

President Karzai's cabinet nominees were once again rejected by the Afghan Parliament. Two weeks after Karzai saw 17 of his 24 nominees denied, Parliament approved seven more. This leaves Karzai's cabinet with fourteen approved appointees, but ten vacancies two months into his presidency.

The main issue, as during the first round of nominations, is Karzai's attempt to appoint cronies of local warlords he owes favors to for their support during last year's presidential elections.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Yemen and a Confused American Intelligence Community

Before the underwear bomber captured America's attention, there was a growing rumbling about the "next front" of the fight against terrorism, Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and it is run by a despotic president who lavishes himself with exorbitant mosques and palaces while his people suffer from lack of food and water. President Sellah will be our "ally" as we seek to crack down on the hundreds of local Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, but the more important figure in the equation is Sheik Abdulmajeed Al-Zendani (pictured above). The most important religious leader in Yemen, Zendani has given the green light to target CIA operatives in Yemen as a form of Jihad.

Zendani is not so subtly cautioning against U.S military intervention in Yemen, a sentiment offered by the brilliantly titled Minister of Religious Endowment and Islamic Guidance, Hamoud al-Hitar. Al-Hitar has said said that military action by the U.S or any other government will inflame and unite the Yemenese people.

These words of caution are being disregarded by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), who rather cavalierly suggested that the U.S should consider airstrikes in Yemen. Levin has held reasonable positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, so his hawkishness could be a classic Washington case of "finding the good war," which is how Obama because so committed to escalating Afghanistan.

A recent article by the excellent Tom Engelhardt reveal seismic weaknesses in our Afghanistan intelligence operations that seem likely to be repeated in Pakistan and Yemen. Whether intentionally or not, the military and intelligence community continue to insist on referring al-Qaeda as a global operation, when it is in fact a highly fragmented series of cells that largely do not communicate with each other.

Engelhardt calls this bin Laden's "open-sourcing-" basically any set of disgruntled young militants that subscribe to his beliefs can carry out their evil deeds "in the name of al-Qaeda." This open-sourcing renders our pursuit of "top al-Qaeda leadership" in Afghanistan and Pakistan less meaningful than we might be led to believe. Yet we still pour in thousands of troops to these mountainous wasteland, creating what Engelhardt calls a "666:1" ratio between NATO forces and known al-Qaeda fighter.

My summary can't do Engelhardt justice, so you should reach his whole piece. The larger point, however, is that both Afghanistan and Yemen currently contain known jihadists looking to attack the United States in some capacity. In the first country, we have engaged in an exhausting, deadly and expensive 3024-day war with no end in sight. In the latter, we still have choices. Let's choose a little more carefully before we jump to military action in Yemen.

Grim Numbers for Afghan Civilians in 2009

The United Nations is reporting that more civilians were killed last year than any other since the US-led invasion of 2001. According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, over 2,400 died in 2009, a 14 percent increase from 2008. These figures come in the heels of a report from the Afghanistan Rights Monitor alleging that over 1,050 people under the age of eighteen have been killed in Afghanistan, an average of at least three every day.