Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Former American diplomat Peter Gailbraith ended his tenure as Deputy Special Representative of the U.N's mission to Afghanistan after clashing with his boss, Kai Eide, over the presidential elections.
Gailbraith had railed against the corruption of the Karzai administration for some time, and warned of ballot fraud before the election. After the election, Gailbraith,
...Had pressed aggressively for an exhaustive probe, arguing that Karzai's election had been tainted by fraud, according to diplomatic sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They said that Eide argued that the international community should not press too hard for an investigation because it could undermine Afghanistan's national stability.
You have to love Eide's commitment to national stability- what could bring greater stability to Afghanistan than a blatantly fraudulent election? Interestingly, today the U.N is also in the headlines for encouraging the Karzai government to reach out to the Taliban for peace talks. Eide noted, "There has to be some kind of peace process," he said. "That process has to include not only Taliban representatives on the ground, but also the Taliban superstructure."
I have recently joined a DailyKos group called "IGTNT", which stands for "I Got The News Today". The group consists of DailyKos members who make sure that each soldier who loses his or her life during Operation Enduring Freedom properly has their story told. The posts are all moving, celebrating the life of these young men and women, free of political charge. The most recent post pays tribute to John Malone, Titus Reynolds, Edward Smith and Joseph White. I will be writing the entry for October 7th, the 8th year anniversary of the war. Particularly if you are a DailyKos frequenter, I recommend you keep on the lookout for these stories.
Biden, who was once friendly with Karzai, increasingly soured on him as Afghanistan fell into corrupt anarchy. This key moment, which took place in February of 2008, appears to have been the breaking point for then Senator Biden:
Biden and his colleagues grilled Karzai about reports of corruption and the growing opium trade in the country, which the president disingenuously denied. An increasingly impatient Biden challenged Karzai's assertions until he lost his temper. Biden finally stood up and threw down his napkin, declaring, "This meeting is over," before he marched out of the room with Hagel and Kerry. It was a similar story nearly a year later...Again Biden dined with Karzai, and, again, the meeting was contentious. Reiterating his prior complaints about corruption, Biden warned Karzai that the Bush administration's kid-glove treatment was over; the new team would demand more of him.
I've argued all along that once you turn on the Afghanistan War, there's no turning back. It's somewhat comforting to know that the Vice-President, chosen as he was for his foreign policy experience, is on the reasonable side of the Afghanistan policy debate.
Apologies for the low-quality picture, but it was the only one I could find of just the two of them where Biden was not smiling as if delighted.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Newsweek has run a fascinating story called The Taliban In Their Own Words, which is kind of like a Behind the Music tale of insurgent thugs. Some in the comment section criticized Newsweek for painting the Taliban in a sympathetic light, and clearly the Taliban version of history has to be taken with a huge grain of salt, but ultimately this is a perspective we never hear. I'd consider that newsworthy.
The first common theme to emerge from the various storytellers is how deflated the initial NATO/American invasion left them. The image of a past and future Taliban commander selling potatoes on the penny in a small village could be in any epic action movie. So how did things fall apart for the occupying forces?
The Americans and their Afghan allies made mistakes after mistake, killing and arresting innocent people. There was one village in Dayak district near Ghazni City where the people had communist backgrounds, from the days of the Russians, and had never supported us. But the police raided the village, beat the elders at a mosque and arrested them, accusing them of being Taliban. They were freed after heavy bribes were paid. After that incident the whole village sent us a message asking forgiveness for the abuses of the communist era.
For those debating whether the Taliban is tied to foreign fundamentalist operatives or a home-grown operation, the oral history provides fascinating insight. While foreign nationals established many of the guerrilla insurgency operations, Afghan Taliban eventually displaced them in number, leadership, and today no longer even whole-heartedly welcome their presence:
Those first groups crossing the border were almost totally sponsored, organized, and led by Arab mujahedin. The Afghan Taliban were weak and disorganized. But slowly the situation began to change. American operations that harassed villagers, bombings that killed civilians, and Karzai's corrupt police and officials were alienating villagers and turning them in our favor. Soon we didn't have to hide so much on our raids. We came openly. When they saw us, villagers started preparing green tea and food for us. The tables were turning. Karzai's police and officials mostly hid in their district compounds like prisoners.
Again, taking these comments with a big grain of salt, the oral histories explain both difficulties NATO forces will have in winning the war, in any conventional sense, and also why winning the war might be less important to our national security than we think:
We still worry about helicopters and bombers, but we are suffering fewer American night raids. I think they just don't have the intelligence they used to have. Fewer people are willing to cooperate with them and betray us.
Personally I think all this talk about Al Qaeda being strong is U.S. propaganda. As far as I know, Al Qaeda is weak, and they are few in numbers. Now that we control large amounts of territory, we should have a strict code of conduct for any foreigners working with us. We can no longer allow these camels to roam freely without bridles and control.
This a story of back-country people who fervently believe god is on their side. Their commitment is to the death. The day will come when we admit that they want this mountainous desert more than we do. An interesting read worth your ten minutes.
Monday, September 28, 2009
I've had no trouble finding journalists and academics questioning whether the war in Afghanistan is necessary from a national security perspective. Today, however, the German magazine Der Spiegel ran an interview with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Whether you think the Council on Foreign Relations is a casual gathering of powerful policymakers, an international conspiracy, or something in between, Haass's depiction of the war was startlingly sanguine, and he's somebody who speaks with gravitas.
Indeed, even though Obama allegedly lifed the phrase "war of necessity" from him, Haass now calls Afghanistan a "war of choice." Haass calls for President Obama to challenge the assumption that what happens in Afghanistan is critical for the global effort against terrorism. His reasoning is clear:
It was a war of necessity after the attacks of 9/11 when you had a hostile government led by Taliban in Afghanistan. Now you have an essentially friendly government in Kabul and al-Qaida has re-established itself in Pakistan. So I am no longer sure what happens in Afghanistan is still essential to the war on terrorism... The choice is not between pulling out and increasing resources. We can reduce our troops' ground-combat operations but emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan soldiers and police officers, and development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban.
While each of his counter-suggestions come with their own problems- the civilian casualties of drone attacks, the lackluster training effort so far, and the massive scale of infrastructural needs- Haass agrees that the Obama approach leaves much to be desired:
The risk of ending our military effort in Afghanistan is that Kabul could be overrun and the government might fall. The risk of the current approach -- or one that involves dispatching 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers more -- is that it might produce the same result in the end, but at a much higher human, military and economic cost.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I strongly believe all lives are created equal, which is one of the reasons I opposed the war in Afghanistan in the first place, but as a New Yorker it is hard not to be extra moved by this story, from the New York Daily News.
Lance Corporal John Malone, a 24 year-old Marine, was killed in combat last Thursday, only a few weeks before he was scheduled to return home. A decorated veteran of the Iraq War, and a much-loved member of both his military unit and community back home, Malone had expressed his apprehension about the combat situation in Afghanistan to his friends.
"When he was in Iraq, it seemed like he felt a lot more safe, and everything seemed better," explained Josh Blumenstetter. Our hearts go out to his friends and family, who lost a great young man.
Of the 1,500 civilians who died from January through August, three-quarters were killed by militants, and one-quarter by NATO forces, mostly during air strikes.
The AP estimates that 174 civilians were killed in August, and officials in Afghanistan expected another spike in violence once the election results are declared. Though this has been the deadliest year of the war for Americans and NATO allies, the number of Afghan civilian deaths is still below 2008 levels, when 2,118 civilians were killed.
Azari is convinced that the months following the certification of Karzai's victory will only intensify support for the Taliban in the southern and eastern regions of the country. His complaints against Karzai are written from the perspective of an educated Afghan ex-pat, who can thrive in contemporary Afghanistan only by entering Karzai's criminal cabal. Azari also includes fun stats, such as the World Bank naming Afghanistan "the most inefficient judicial system in the world" last year. For those who are still on the fence about our role in Afghanistan, it is always worth listening to Afghans who have put great thought into the future of their country, and express grave concern about the direction it is heading.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Countrywide, the most frequent cause of troop deaths has been what the military calls improvised explosive devices, typically containers packed with rudimentary ingredients found on many farms, like nitrate-based fertilizers, diesel fuel, aluminum shavings or kitchen ingredients.
These homemade explosives are buried along roads traveled by Western military forces. They are often activated when the weight of an armored vehicle — or sometimes just a soldier or a Marine walking overhead — squeezes together a trigger consisting of two buried slats, which closes a circuit that detonates the bomb. Despite their basic construction, many of these bombs are powerful enough to rip open more lightly armored coalition troop carriers.
It is highly problematic for NATO forces that these bombs are so easy to manufacture. Unlike the Viet Cong, the Taliban insurgents have no impressive benefactor providing them with the weaponry to engage us in combat. Through the use of these bombs, however, they can kill Americans without even firing a single shot.
Friday, September 25, 2009
If you were going to leak sensitive government information, why go to Andrea Mitchell before she goes on Joe Scarborough? Anyway, here is the new revelation from the McChrystal report, according to Mitchell:
"The numbers are really pretty horrifying. What they say, embedded in this report by McChrystal, is they would need 500,000 troops - boots on the ground - and five years to do the job. No one expects that the Afghan Army could step up to that. Are we gonna put even half that of U.S. troops there, and NATO forces? No way."
Now, in fairness to McChrystal, he wants to speed up military training to get the Afghanistan armed forces up to 240,000 in the next five years. But that is optimistic- even the government only claims that 90,000 local troops are trained now, and their performance has been questionable. The question remains, even if 240,000 troops to get trained, where are the rest coming from?
In the coming weeks, you'll hear about the need for "a few thousand" new advisors. Or 10,000 more troops. Or 10,000-45,000 new troops. Or 500,000 - X, X being the number of illiterate people we train to shoot guns at their tribal enemies. Haven't we all seen this movie before, and why are we going to watch it again?
Though there are many heroes on the battlefield, there are few in D.C, where flocks of chicken-hawks keep the war going. Every Friday, OutofAfghanistan will recognize a policymaker who is working hard to hasten the end of the occupation.
This week, we salute Florida Congressman Alan Grayson. Grayson is a progressive Democrat in a moderate district, and Republicans have made him their number 1 target in the 2010 congressional elections. I included this picture because before Grayson joined Congress he worked as an attorney exposing contractor fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan, an issue that should be dear to everyone's heart, regardless of ideology. His campaign website has some of the better ads I've ever seen, addressing a topic that often goes unmentioned.
Yesterday, Grayson took the time to live-blog on Crooks and Liars. He impressed me with the moral certainty with which he believes we must withdraw. Maybe he hasn't been in Washington long enough, because he abhors b.s phrases like 'containment': Containing what? "Containment" is an empty metaphor, like "the domino theory."
Grayson tells it how it is, saying that for too many in Washington, the Afghanistan "strategy" is driven by war profiteering: Whose strategy? KBR's strategy? KBR's strategy is to perpetuate the war, and KBR's profit stream.
Finally, on multiple occasions Grayson raises an almost entirely unmentioned cost of the war: The appropriated cost is around $10 billion a month, which is enough to pay for the entire health care plan by itself. But that doesn't include the future health care costs for injured American soldiers, which is staggering...We're talking about a quarter of a million Americans who will need care for the rest of their lives (referring to both wars).
We thank Alan Grayson for his work to help end the war.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Pfc. Matthew M. Martinek, 20, of DeKalb, Ill,, died Sept. 11 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany of wounds suffered September 4th in Paktika province.
Staff Sgt. Bryan D. Berky, 25, of Melrose, Fla., killed September 12th near Bala Baluk.Sgt. 1st Class Shawn P. McCloskey, 33, of Peachtree City, Ga., died September 16th of wounds suffered September 15th in Helmand province.
Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills, 24, of El Paso, died September 16th from wounds suffered September 15th in Helmand province.
Sgt. Robert D. Gordon II, 22, of River Falls, Ala., died Sept. 16 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after becoming ill Sept. 11 in southern Afghanistan.
Pfc. Jeremiah J. Monroe, 31, of Niskayuna, N.Y., killed September17 in Kandahar.
Sgt. David A. Davis, 28, of Dalhart, Tex., killed September 19 at Bagram Airfield.
Spec. Corey J. Kowall, 20, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., killed September 20th in Zebol province.
Spec. Damon G. Winkleman, 23, of Lakeville, Colo., killed September 20th in Zebol province.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The New York Times reports this morning that President Obama is taking Vice-President Biden's plan to scale back the military presence in Afghanistan into consideration.
Under the Biden plan, special forces would be sent into Pakistan to take out Al-Qaeda cells, while conventional warfare in the Afghan countryside would wind down. NATO forces would continue to train the Afghani police and military.
Though Obama rejected this approach in March, apparently the success of unmanned drones and cooperation from Pakistan has yielded some success on the other side of the border. While spilling the war on terror into another country seems problematic, my biggest reservations with military action in Pakistan were the civilian casualties from unmanned drones and resistance from the Pakistani government. If they are, in fact, collaborating in operations, then civilian casualties will likely be reduced, and national sovereignty will not be infringed.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Time Magazine's Joe Klein, has been breaking hard with the Obama administration's war policy. In last Thursday's piece, he explained that a 21st-century military is stuck in the wrong province because the orders given by a commander who stepped down in June couldn't be changed in late September.
The story is that we sent a large number of troops to Helmund province, where 60% of the world's opium crop is located. There was certainly a strong Taliban presence there, but it quickly became apparent that conditions in neighboring Kandahar, governed by Karzai's opium trading brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, was under major assault from Taliban forces. Klein admits that diverting forces to Kandahar to stop the Taliban rampage would probably leave Karzai allies in Helmund more vulnerable, but as it turns out, there is no choice to be made:
As McKiernan's replacement last June, General Stanley McChrystal was pretty much presented with a fait accompli: the troops were arriving in Helmand. "The ship was moving in that direction," a military expert told me, "and it would have been difficult to turn it around." Indeed, it would have taken months of planning to change course.
Does it not stagger anyone else that our military is facing a major tactical problem in having its troops move in a different direction? Wasn't Rumsfeld supposed to be "modernizing the military" to make it "sleeker"? In contrast, it took the Allied forces six months from the invasion of Normandy to drive the Nazi army entirely out of France. As one Afghanistan war veteran commented at the Washington Post, it's in part as simple as there not being roads in most of the country. There is also the whole upcoming winter- a military planner spoke of holding off until "the spring fighting season."
For now, the battle in Kandahar rages. "The Taliban own the night, slipping death threats under the doors of those who would cooperate with the government." As the capital city in the Pashtun region of the country, and the home of the Karzai family, Kandahar's fall to the Taliban would be a major setback. If McChrsytal gets more troops, they are probably going to Kandahar.
And the beat goes on...
In case anyone was in the mood for a bonus anecdote about conditions on the ground, Klein provides this hand-wringing nugget:
A member of the Barakzai tribe was recently installed as a district leader in a Pashtun area. He was told to hire his top staff by merit. Instead, he hired only Barakzais — which caused the tribe's leaders to switch sides from the Taliban to the government ... and caused most of the other tribes in the district to switch from the government to the Taliban.
We asked some experts on Afghanistan strategy how should additional troops be deployed?
Mind you, they did not bother to ask if more troops were actually a good idea. Fortunately, the comment section put them in their place. People are sick of this war, and they are sick of people working in ivory towered think-tanks calling the shots.
Let's break down to one sentence what each of the five pundits proposed.
1. "Weed out corruption" by training more anti-narcotics police, to wipe out the only export, poppy, that Afghanistan currently has going for it.
2. Demonstrate patience, and "show that we are not just passing through Afghanistan" after eight years.
3. Withdrawing troops due to Karzai's corruption would just illegitimize the Karzai administration, so send more troops to show it is still legitimate.
4. Stop destroying poppy fields, because that's the only thing they can grow- and send troops to Kandahar, because the Canadians there are leaving.
5. Stop putting our troops in danger by sending too few of them to fight the war. Listen to generals when they want more troops- they know what they're doing.
The New York Times has blood on its hands for allowing the Iraq War to steamroll through without giving a voice to the dissenters. This morning they paid some professional warmongers for their thoughts. Maybe they should stick to knitting.
Rohulla Samun, a Karzai ally, said that there is no weapons distribution programme and that Noor is, "just using this as an excuse to kill Pashtun tribal leaders he doesn't like." Oh good, glad that's all that's going on. Noor, by the way, is Tajik.
The article said it was inconclusive whether or not there were actually weapons being distributed, and though the government suggests it will investigate the matter, who do it or when that would happen was also unclear.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The choice exchange began when Stewart asked, "Eight years into this war in Afghanistan and it appears we are now fighting an intractable war only to establish a corrupt, undemocratic state. How did this happen?"
Oliver shot back, "Really? America is having a hard time fighting in Afghanistan? How could that be? Especially considering Afghanistan is only the most unconquerable place on earth."
Pointing out that Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Soviet Union all failed in their attempted occupations of Afghanistan, Oliver chastised the United States for its arrogance, concluding, "Even Britain was routed there. Afghanistan is the gold standard for quagmires."
Old Bob Woodward has a piece in today's Washington Post about a memo sent from top Afghanistan commander General McChrystal to the administration, assessing conditions on the ground. The conclusion- things are really bad:
McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.
He provides extensive new details about the Taliban insurgency, which he calls a muscular and sophisticated enemy that uses modern propaganda and systematically reaches into Afghanistan's prisons to recruit members and even plan operations.McChrystal even used the term "crisis of confidence", perhaps forgetting that Jimmy Carter was still alive. Here's another gem:
"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."
Better late than never on the "Afghanistan is complicated" party. The solution? As Billy Idol would say, it's more, more, more. McChrystal wants at least 10,000 more troops, and he wants them going on more dangerous missions. More on this later today as the new cycle unwinds, and Gibbs and co. are sent in to clarify.
Yesterday reporter Golnar Motevalli published the following:
Daoud Ali Najafi, Chief Electoral Officer of Afghanistan, urged a U.N.-backed watchdog to speed up a fraud investigation in order to avoid having to delay a potential second-round poll until after winter snow has melted in mainly-rural Afghanistan.
"Based on the climate situation in Afghanistan, if we could not have a run-off in the third week of October, then it's not possible for us to have a run-off this year," he told Reuters.
Najafi strongly prefers having the run-off in October, but notes that the U.N-backed Electoral Complaints Commission must first certify election results, having recently declared 10% of polling locations worthy of review for fraud. The ECC has not taken a stance on whether they will certify the election results based on samplings.
UPDATE: As of 11:30pm, September 21, the LA Times is reporting that a sampling method will be used. There is apparently tension among U.N officials over how methodology, but most people seem to agree that rigor has to be sacrificed in order to get this run-off going before snow "renders much of the country inaccessible." Huh...so forget the election, how will snow affect Obama's "civilian surge" for the next few months? Questions for another day, I suppose. Also of note- the same article notes the expectation that once votes are thrown out for fraud Karzai will not reach 50%, contradicting CIA Director Panetta's comments from earlier this week.
Every week the Washington Post publishes updates of the fallen soldiers of Operation Enduring Freedom. Our condolences to the friends and family of these brave men and women. All eight soldiers that died last week were in their 20s.
Lance Cpl. Christopher S. Fowlkes, 20, of Gaffney, S.C., died September 10th of wounds suffered September 3rd in Helmand province.
1st Lt. Tyler E. Parten, 24, of Arkansas, killed on September 10th in Konar province.
Staff Sgt. Nekl B. Allen, 29, of Rochester, N.Y, killed on September 12th in Wardak province.
N.Y. Spec. Daniel L. Cox, 23, of Parsons, Kan, killed on September 12th in Wardak province.
Sgt. Tyler A. Juden, 23, of Winfield, Kan., killed on September 12th in Turan.
Sgt. Andrew H. McConnell, 24, of Carlisle, Pa. killed September 14th in southern Afghanistan.
1st Lt. David T. Wright II, 26, of Moore, Okla., killed September 14th in southern Afghanistan.
Spec. Demetrius L. Void, 20, of Orangeburg, S.C. died September 15th at Kandahar Airfield of noncombat injuries.
From what I understand, non-combat injuries most often refer to traffic accidents, other types of accidents, suicide, or murder. Since the Washington Post ran this article, the Pentagon has announced the death of three more soldiers, but their names have not been disclosed yet.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
The entire article is excellent, but one passage in particular caught my attention:
Elliott , a Black Watch infantryman, had told his friend that he was terrified of Afghanistan, with its innumerable booby traps and a redoubtable enemy that seemed to be getting deadlier by the week. The 24-year-old believed that he would never come back if he returned to Helmand.
When we talk about the need to stay in Afghanistan, we often lose sight of who we are asking to stay there. Of course, this is true in all wars, but this is not a conventional war where trillions of dollars in military technology and first-rate training can protect our troops. Suicide bombs, roadside bombs, an enemy that blends in with the civilian population, this is truly terrifying stuff. That's why anyone who says "we", as in, the troops should still be there, they should be ready with a damn good explanation for why.
I have discussed the problem with the moral argument before- as long as we support the corrupt Karzai government, we have no moral standing among the Afghani people. In a fascinating Washington Post op-ed, however, former CIA Deputy Chief for Counter Terrorism Paul Pillar argues that allowing Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan is not as big a security threat as most people suggest.
Pillar points out, "The preparations most important to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States. " We all ridiculed these monkey bar type videos when they came out. But now, Obama is essentially arguing that the ability to have these monkey bars warrants our continued occupation of the country.
It is unclear that the Taliban are interested in allowing Al-Qaeda to resurface- after all, incurring the wrath of the world is not in their self interest either. But Pillar asks the most important question yet- why does it matter that Al Qaeda can have a few caves in Afghanistan, rather than some other impoverished Central Asian, Middle-Eastern or African backwater?
Friday, September 18, 2009
Surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed today describing the futility of the war in Afghanistan. It seems to be the European edition, which could explain things. Author Gunnar Heinsohn rather callously explains that because of disparate birthrates between the West and Afghanistan, Afghani "disposable sons" will eventually outlast NATO forces:
"Nearly half a million (Afghanis) reach military age every year. Close to 300,000 of them may be tempted by Taliban tales of victory or heroic death. When it comes to high-tech weapons, ISAF has the advantage. But when it comes to "disposable sons"—the ultimate weapon of war—the ratio between Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF is four million to zero in favor of Afghanistan."
Heinsohn posits that the Soviet Union, in which most families only had one son, could not stomach a bloody drawn out war, and NATO forces will not either, in contrast to the local population, in which the supply of young men that the insurgent forces will send to war is literally endless. If you think that's blunt, check out his plan for NATO untangling itself from the conflict:
"Western nations try to turn the international war, for which they do not have enough manpower, back into a civil war in which it will fall on the Afghans themselves to consume recent and coming youth bulges. The West does not count on the bloodshed ending soon. Yet, they hope to get their own men out of harms way..."
The United States is not losing any many soldiers in combat as the Russians did, or as we did during the Vietnam War. However, the U.S military is stretched to the brink in Iraq, where we have shown little signs of a serious draw-down. Without massive extensions of tours of duty or a draft, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which we can compete with wave after wave of young, angry, Afghani insurgents.
Afghanistan's massive heroin production has led to regional warlords running drug cartels, trafficking the biggest economic product the country has to offer. This was known. But today's article in USA Today sheds some figures on the growing epidemic of Afghani heroin addiction.
USA Today writes, "The number of addicts in Afghanistan is far greater than in the USA. A survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2005 showed Afghanistan had 920,000 heroin addicts, or 3.8% of the population. In the USA, 282,000 people are dependent on heroin, or .2% of the population..."
To do the math for you, that means 19 times as many people per capita are addicted to heroin, in a country with far fewer resources. One man interviewed in the article explained, "I use it to get through the day, to tolerate the depression of my existence." Damn. Add this problem to the to-do list.
Goodwin has just returned from a"listening tour" of Afghani villages, which yielded disturbing stories of how the administration's corruption impacts Afghani lives on a daily basis: "[T]he homeowner who has to pay a bribe to get connected to the sewage system, the defendant who tenders payment to a judge for a favorable verdict. People were so incensed with the current government’s misdeeds that I often heard the disturbing refrain: 'If Karzai is re-elected, then I am going to join the Taliban.'"
The Taliban, looking to make political use of this corruption, has itself worked to root daily corruption out of their controlled jurisdictions, creating grievance filing systems and erecting efficient court procedures. Fundamentalism and authoritarianism are terrifying forms of government, but if there's one thing they can do, it's eliminate low level crime and petty corruption. Goodwin makes a number of quasi-helpful suggestions, but his biggest stick- withholding money from noncomplying provinces, will probably backfire. Corruption spreads like mold, swiftly in every direction. Without the Karzai administration setting an example from the top, there is nothing NATO can do to stop it.
This article is a worthwhile read for anyone who thinks we need to stay in Afghanistan out of an obligation to the Afghani people. There is nothing inherently wrong with that presumption, but the more you learn about what this American-propped government has offered them, the more you understand why they want us to leave, and why we should.
The Washington Post writes,
"The blast, which could be heard across the city, left bodies strewn among market stalls and vehicles incinerated in the streets."
Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi has vowed to remain committed to the war, against the tide of popular opinion in Italy
Since the wars began, thousands of veterans have struggled with post traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, and suicide.
The issue of veteran care is something that Democrats, including Obama, rightly criticized the Bush administration for. There is nothing more deplorable than using soldiers as props for patriotism, and then cutting VA hospital budgets and veteran care.
I do believe the Obama administration is trying- with people like former General Eric Shinseki and Tammy Duckworth at the helm services are bound to improve. Yet there is no denying that the mental health problems these veterans face will likely plague them and their families for the rest of their lives, and that pain is rarely calculated by the beltway politicians and pundits who are asking if this war is still worth fighting.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
It seems that the Taliban has already taken over almost the entire countryside.
I apologize for the low quality of these pictures- I recommend you go to the ICOS link above, and check out this more comprehensive post about the Taliban resurgence published at DailyKos.
The dark red symbolizes heavy Taliban/insurgent activity, the light red represents substantial Taliban/insurgent activity, and the gray indicates light Taliban/insurgent activity. The top map is from September of 2009, while the bottom map is from November of 2007. In those two years, NATO forces have surrendered an additional quarter of the country to either the Taliban or anarchy, including most of the border with Pakistan, such that 80% of Afghanistan is under heavy anti-NATO attack. It is not a pretty sight, rather an unfortunate reminder of how difficult any military victory would be.
TomDispatch.com has posted a mind-boggling compilation of facts and figures to wrap our despondent heads around. I strongly encourage people to check out Tom Engelhardt's article in full, but below I've pulled some of statistics that I find insightful, as we figure out a proper course of action in Afghanistan. Most of the stats have links to them, and the ones I find particularly egregious have been highlighted in bold.
Annual funding for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002: $20.8 billion.
Annual funding for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2009: $60.2 billion.
Total funds for U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, 2002-2009: $228.2 billion.
War-fighting funds requested by the Obama administration for 2010: $68 billion (a figure which will, for the first time since 2003, exceed funds requested for Iraq).
Funds spent since 2001 on Afghan "reconstruction": $38 billion ("more than half of it on training and equipping Afghan security forces").
Afghan gross national product: $23 billion ("the size of Boise" Idaho's, writes columnist George Will) -- about $3 billion of it from opium production.
Annual budget of the Afghan government: $600 million.
Maintenance cost for the force of 450,000 Afghan soldiers and police U.S. generals dream of creating: approximately 500% of the Afghan budget.
Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2001: 12.
Number of American troops killed in Afghanistan, 2009 (through September 7th): 186
Total number of coalition (NATO and American) deaths in 2009 thus far: 311, making this the deadliest year for those forces since the war began.
Two worst months of the Afghan War in terms of coalition deaths: July (71) and August (74) 2009.
U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, 2002: 5,200.
Expected U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, December 2009: 68,000.
Percentage increase in overall Taliban attacks in the first five months of 2009 (compared to the same period in 2008): 59%.
Number of gallons of fuel per day used by the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan: 800,000.
Cost of a single gallon of gas delivered to the Afghan war zone on long, cumbersome, and dangerously embattled supply lines: Up to $100.
Number of American bombs dropped in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2009: 2,011 (a fall of 24% from the previous year, thanks evidently to a directive from U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, limiting air attacks when civilians might be present).
Number of Afghan civilian deaths recorded by the U.N. January-July 2009: 1,013, a rise of 24% from the same period in 2008. (Unfortunately, Afghan deaths are generally covered sparingly, on an incident by incident basis, as in the deaths of an Afghan family traveling to a wedding party in August, assumedly due to a Taliban-planted IED, or the recent controversial U.S. bombing of two stolen oil tankers in Kunduz Province in which many civilians seem to have died. Anything like the total number of Afghans killed in these years remains unknown, but what numbers we have are undoubtedly undercounts.)
Number of additional troops General McChrystal is expected to recommend that President Obama send to Afghanistan in the coming months: 21,000 to 45,000, according to the McClatchy Newspapers; 10,000 to 15,000 ("described as a high-risk option"), 25,000 ("a medium-risk option"), 45,000 ("a low-risk option"), according to the New York Times; fewer than 10,000, according to the Associated Press.
Number of support troops Defense Department officials are planning to replace with "trigger-pullers" (combat troops) in the coming months, effectively an escalation in place: 6,000-14,000. ("The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request... officials said.")
Number of additional NATO forces General McChrystal will reportedly ask for: 20,000.
Optimal number of additional Afghan National Army (ANA) troops to be trained by 2012, according to reports on General McChrystal's draft plan: 162,000. (According to Naval Postgraduate School professor Thomas H. Johnson and retired Foreign Service officer M. Chris Mason,"[T]he U.S. military touts 91,000 ANA soldiers as 'trained and equipped,' knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty.")
Public OpinionSupport for increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan is now at just 25%, down 14% from April.
Percentage of British who feel their forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan: 59%.
Percentage of Germans opposed to that country's 4,000 troop commitment to Afghanistan: More than 70%.
The Presidential Election
Number of ballots cast at the Hajji Janat Gul High School polling place, half an hour from the center of Kabul: 600.
Number of votes recorded for Karzai at that polling station: 996. (Number of votes for other candidates: 5.)
Number of ballots marked for Karzai and shipped to Kabul from 45 polling sites in Shorabak District in Southern Afghanistan that were shut down by local officials connected to Karzai before voting could begin: 23,900.
Number of fake polling sites set up by backers of Karzai where no one voted but hundreds of thousands of votes were recorded: as many as 800, according to the New York Times. (Another 800 actual polling sites were taken over by Karzai supporters "to fraudulently report tens of thousands of additional ballots for Mr. Karzai.")
Number of ballots in Karzai's home province, Kandahar, where an estimated 25,000 Afghans actually voted, submitted to be counted: approximately 350,000.
Percentage of the Pentagon's force in Afghanistan made up of contractors in March 2009: 57%.
Ranking for the percentage of contractors used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan: highest in any conflict in U.S. history.
Cost of the State Department's five-year contract with Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) to provide security for U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan: $210 million.
Cost of the State Department's contract with ArmorGroup North America, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Wackenhutt Services Inc., to guard the U.S. Embassy in Kabul: $189 million.
The Metrics of Success
Defense Secretary Robert Gates on success in Afghanistan: It will take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Admiral "Mike" Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Meet the Press: "I believe we've got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months." (He would not directly answer the "how long" question.)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on the Afghan War: "None of the civilian officials or military officers interviewed in Afghanistan and elsewhere expected substantial progress in the short term. They talked in terms of years two, five and 10... Military officials believe the Afghanistan mission can only succeed if troops are there far longer -- anywhere from five years to 12 years."
Military experts cited by Walter Pincus of the Washington Post warn: "[T]he United States is taking on security and political commitments that will last at least a decade and a cost that will probably eclipse that of the Iraq war."
New chief of staff of the British Army, General Sir David Richards: "The Army's role will evolve, but the whole process might take as long as 30 to 40 years." (After much criticism, he retracted the statement.)
Afghanistan by the Numbers
Cost of a kilo of heroin in Afghanistan: $2,500. (Cost of that same kilo in Moscow: an estimated $100,000.)
Cost in police bribes of getting contraband into or out of Afghanistan: "$20 on each weapon, $100 for a kilo of heroin and $1,000 for each thousand kilos of hashish."
Afghanistan's ranking among the globe's "weakest states," according to the Brookings Institution: second weakest. (It is also regularly referred to as the world's fourth poorest country.)
Unemployment rate in Afghanistan, according to the CIA World Factbook: 40% (2008 figures).
Monthly wage for Afghan National Police: $110 (less than $4 per day).
Number of registered Afghan refugees still in Iran and Pakistan: 3 million.
The Next War
The price tag the Obama administration's budget team reportedly put on U.S. future wars almost every year through 2019: More than $100 billion a year.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international organization, has written a letter to President Karzai rebuking him for the treatment of journalists in the Kandahar province, particularly in the weeks leading up to the election.
Journalists have complained about intimidation and harassment from the local government, which is headed by President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Journalists were instructed not to report on attacks during the lead-up to the election out of concern for “intimidating voters.” Some publications indicated that they had to receive approval from local officials before being allowed to continue operations.
The Karzai government has been accused of widespread corruption for years. The best way to root out government corruption is through a robust free press. By clamping down on news organizations, the Karzai government is continuing its mockery of the democratic experiment, and planting the seeds of its own demise. Without permitting criticism from journalists, the central government will increasingly lose touch with the country it is governing, and drive more people into supporting the Taliban.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Pat Tillman, one of the more heroic symbols of the last decade, is the subject of a new book by Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory.
Tillman was a football star at Arizona State, and went on to become an All-Pro player in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. In 2002, he and his brother enlisted in the Army Rangers as a response to September 11th. Giving up millions of dollars to serve his country, Tillman became a heroic figure, until his tragic death in 2004 during a Taliban ambush.
In the years to come, however, his death became no less tragic, but far more mysterious. Following a lengthy investigation, the military admitted that Tillman had been killed in friendly fire during an intense battle between U.S forces and the Taliban. The Bush administration, which sought to block the report, was accused of manipulating the circumstances of Tillman's death in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential elections. Additionally, the conclusion that his death was from friendly fire was withheld from his family for more than a month, in violation of military protocol, which infuriated Tillman’s mother. To this day Mary Tillman argues Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, played a role in the cover-up.
The story took another twist when a subsequent investigation found that the incident leading to Tillman's death did not even involve hostile engagement with the enemy. Rather, an explosion had confused two allied units, who began firing at each other. In fact, Tillman’s brother Kevin was in the unit firing on him. Finally, in an even more dramatic turn, official documents leaked to the Associated Press in 2007 showed that the military doctors performing the autopsy suspected murder.
Now Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, has published Tillman’s side of the story. Relying on numerous letters and journal entries, Krakauer finds that Tillman was privately a strong critic of both President Bush and the military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman referred to Bush as a “cowboy” who had started an “illegal and unjust war” in Iraq, “an imperial folly that was doing long-term damage to US interests.”
Tillman was pretty astute, as revealed by his analysis of the rescue of Jessica Lynch, an operation he was involved with. While watching approximately 1000 soldiers prepare for the rescue, he reflected in his journal, "This mission will be a POW rescue, a woman named Jessica Lynch. As awful as I feel for the fear she must face, and admire the courage I'm sure she's showing, I do believe this is a big public relations stunt. Do not mistake me, I wish everyone in trouble to be rescued, but sending this many folks in for a (single low-ranking soldier) screams of a media blitz." Later investigations revealed that Tillman was correct- Lynch was never in mortal danger or bad health, and Iraqi authorities had already tried to turn her over to the United States.
Tillman expressed disgust with the behavior of his commanding officers, writing on a separate occasion, "We've had leaders telling guys to shoot innocent people only to be ignored by privates with cooler heads ... It seems their battlefield sense is less than ideal. Given the stress of a situation, I absolutely will listen to my instincts before diving headfirst into any half-baked scheme of theirs. Perhaps this is not the 'military right', however these past couple of months have suggested it's necessary."
Pat Tillman, a true American hero, remains a symbol of the war in Afghanistan- a victim of manipulation by the American government and military to goad the public into support for a venture that should have been abandoned a long time ago. You can read an excerpt from the book, courtesy of ABC News, here: Krakauer excerpt (http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/Books/excerpt-jon-krakauers-men-win-glory/Story?id=8564499&page=2).
Tracking the diminishing poll numbers has always been interesting- support for the war could only go down from the 88% support Americans gave it in October of 2001. But 2009 has been a more significant turning point than any previous year.
In December, 2008, 56% supported the war. That number dropped to 53% in April, 51% in May, 41% in September, and now rests at 39%, the lowest figure of the war.
The reason for this probably economic. We are all weathering a really harsh recession, and the notion of blowing billions of dollars on a hopeless war thousands of miles away is probably turning a lot of people against the war. Government spending on war is particularly sensitive now that health care reform opponents criticize the relatively modest price significant improvements would require. The dip could also be a response to the 48 U.S deaths in August and 45 in July, the two deadliest months of the entire war for U.S soldiers.
To dissect this poll a little further- 23% of Democrats currently support the war, along with 39% of independents and 62% of Republicans. That Republican figure has dropped 8% from a poll taken only two weeks ago, and accounts for the shift in overall numbers.
Martinek was from the Chicago area, and came from a family of soldiers.
Back home he and his friends had started a company named Digital Tour Bus, which filmed bands on the road, and had worked with Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish and other notable bands.
Martinek was the 805th U.S soldier to die from combat in Afghanistan. Our condolences go out to his family.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
As usual, Senate blowhards provided useless talking points. John McCain (R-AZ), worshipped by the mainstream media as a foreign policy guru, praised Obama's decision to suck 21,000 new soldiers into the conflict, warning that any delay would "put lives in danger." In contrast, any delay in sending more young men and women to the desert mountains presumably keeps their lives out of danger. Carl Levin (D-MI), who is actually opposed to escalating the conflict, insisted on a more urgent and ambitious training program for Afghan for security forces, as if getting an illiterate and impoverished police force up to speed isn't everyone's goal. Jack Reed (D-RI) suggested that we needed "civilian efforts" due to the "dysfunctional" and "illegitimate" state of the Afghani government. When are these Senators and military men going to admit that this operation has been a total failure? Real courage requires the ability to say we made a mistake, and the only way to right it is to bring our troops home.
The best line went to Smokey Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who said that sending "only" trainers, as opposed to more combat troops, would send the wrong message. "They're essentially going to decide we're on our way out." If only it were that easy, Joe.
Monday, September 14, 2009
On September 14, 2001, the Senate voted 98-0, and the House 420-1 to authorize military force in Afghanistan. The only Congressperson to vote 'no' was Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California. I spent the days after September 11th on the Upper West Side, where grief was mixed with a quiet hope that the tragedy would not lead the country into rash judgment. It was clear that action was necessary against Al-Qaeda, but it was not as obvious that a full-scale invasion and overthrow of the Taliban was necessary, particularly because there was no time to develop a coherent strategy for our long-term goals in Afghanistan. After all, we had been negotiating with the Taliban to build an oil pipeline only weeks before 9/11, and had forsworn "nation-building."
To vote 'no' on the military force authorization took tremendous courage in the post-September 11th political and social environment. Lee implored Congress to "step back for a minute, and consider the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control...As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."
A hastily run invasion, the use of young teenage boys as proxy fighters in the "Northern Alliance", the disgusting use of yellow cluster bombs, which were the same color as air-dropped food packets- there were many reasons to be concerned with this war, to say nothing of the notion that a full-scale invasion with civilian casualties would spawn as many vengeful terrorists as it would kill.
There are varying accounts of how many civilian deaths resulted directly from the initial invasion, but I distinctly recall the number approximating 3000 (This is consistent with a number of the sources referenced at Wikipedia), a similar figure to the number of Americans who died on September 11th.
There are many fine people who voted for the war in Afghanistan, and anyone reflecting on those days recalls the national unity and fellowship, the desire to trust our president and have him lead us through the nightmare. That president, of course, was George Bush, and Barbara Lee felt that he had not properly made his case for war. Tonight we remember her words.
Rep. Barbara Lee's speech on the floor of Congress, September 14, 2001: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh_sxilhyV0
“I do not need any more time,” sighed an election expert, after spending 20 minutes examining ballot boxes in a tally center in Ghazni. “It is pretty obvious.”
Currently, the Electoral Complaints Commission is sorting through the mess, and could end up disqualifying nearly 20% of the 5.5 million votes cast for fraud. In addition to the usual political embarrassment that comes with widespread fraud, those disqualifications would also reduce the already disappointing voter turnout, currently pegged at 35% of registered voters.
Should a large number of Karzai votes be disqualified, his totals might dip below the 50% required to avoid a run-off with Dr. Abdullah. The United States has always strongly supported Karzai, and this turn of events puts us in an awfully awkward position. Given that Karzai is the poster-child for the American democratic experiment, we should strongly rebuke him if these allegations of fraud are found to be true. Better late than never.
The Associated Press has written up a bleak portrait of Afghani frustration with democracy that is definitely worth reading.
For more thorough coverage of the voter fraud allegations, read this piece by GlobalPost's on the ground report, Jean MacKenzie.
Moyers interviews Nancy Youssef
The interview is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Moyers has clearly reached the point where he finds no distinction between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Youssef tries to push back on this meme, but is consistently overmatched. I love this exchange:
NANCY YOUSSEF: Yeah, the good news is that the United States is committed to it. The good news is that the world thinks that this is a priority. The good news is that there's now a renewed effort and that the best minds are on this and trying to come up with a solution. And that--
BILL MOYERS: The best and the brightest?
Youssef is an interesting interviewee; in contrast to the usual Moyers guest, who plays along with his story line, Youssef seems torn between the horrific news she brings back from the ground, and a creeping loyalty to the U.S military operation. Observe this rambling, which could have come from a Pentagon press release:
NANCY YOUSSEF: But, you know, we talk about Afghanistan as an eight year war. But the truth is it's been eight separate individual years of war... Because we've never gone after this in a real way. There was a strategy 2001 to 2003. And then we tried something else 2003 to 2005. And then it escalated and we tried something else. So, I think if we-- to me, I think what General McChrystal's really saying is if we're going to do, let's do it. Let's really do it. And I think that's the disparity that from the military perspective they'll tell you we haven't really been given the chance, because we were too busy in Iraq. So it's a true argument. It's a fair argument.
I'm sorry, but eight years of war is eight years of war. As Moyers points out, that is longer than our commitment to World War I and World War II combined. That constitutes "a chance". The fact that multiple military strategies have failed is hardly a ringing endorsement to try a new one.
In any case, I'm riding Youssef a little too hard. The interview is worth watching or listening to because of a number of astute observations she makes about conditions on the ground. Youssef agrees that the war in Afghanistan, as well as the war in Iraq, have been too sanitized, leaving the public misinformed and apathetic to the hardships soldiers are facing on a daily basis.
Youssef also breaks down a major problem in our reconstruction efforts. She claims that because 101,000 NATO troops simply cannot protect more than a third of the countryside, if that, there is little incentive to build hospitals and schools- you know, the good stuff we should be doing abroad, because Taliban forces quickly take them over for their own purposes or blow them up. Brutal times...
You can download the interview by going to Bill Moyers' podcast directory on iTunes, or go to the PBS host page:
Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin P. Castiglione, 21, of Howell, Mich.; 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Battalion, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Killed in Helmand province.
Capt. Joshua S. Meadows, 30, of Bastrop, Tex.; 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Killed in Farah province.
Gunnery Sgt. Edwin W. Johnson Jr., 31, of Columbus, Ga.; 3rd Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan, killed in Konar province.
1st Lt. Michael E. Johnson, 25, of Virginia Beach; 7th Communications Battalion, 3rd Marine Headquarters Group, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan, killed in Konar province.
Staff Sgt. Aaron M. Kenefick, 30, of Roswell, Ga.; 3rd Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan, killed in Konar province.
Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, 22, of Riverbank, Calif.; embedded with Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, killed in Konar province.
"The British and the Russians gave up on Afghanistan, as probably did Alexander the Great of ancient Macedonia. Even if we were to win, what would we have won? The government of Afghanistan is described by most knowledgeable observers as one of the most corrupt in the world. Indeed, the Afghan government does not have the backing of many, if not most, Afghans who are part of a tribal society run by different war lords financed by the sale of heroin and opium."
I would go a half-step further and ask Obama and his chickenhawk boosters to explain what they would define as a "win" in the first place. The reason I find Koch's continued opposition to the war interesting is that Koch, throughout his career, has been a brilliant bellwhether politician. Early in his career he was known as a civil rights progressive, and opponent of the Vietnam War. As the country moved rightward, he turned on minorities and welfare, became a Reagan booster, and was eventually driven out of office in a Democratic primary (against David Dinkins). Since then he has endorsed both Democrats and Republicans, almost all of whom seem to win.
I say this not to tout his principles, but to suggest that he is not the kind of politician who goes out on limbs. His opposition to the war is part of the recent mainstreaming of dissent against a message machine that has long labled this the "just war".
You can read the full article here: