Saturday, October 31, 2009

Abdullah says "peace out" to run-off elections

Abdullah Abdullah has withdrawn from the November 7 run-off election against President Hamid Karzai after Karzai refused to fire the top election official who oversaw the August 20th voter fraud debacle. While the canceled election deeply undermines Hamid Karzai, it also saves the world the trouble of watching another violent, fraudulent and low turn-out contest.

While Senator John Kerry was being widely praised for recently convincing President Hamid Karzai to enter the run-off election, as Karzai was legally required to do, some started wondering, 'If Karzai cheated the first time, won't he just do it again, especially when the U.N is sending fewer election monitors?'

That question certainly crossed Abdullah's mind. Several days ago, Abdullah submitted his list of demands. Abdullah demanded the firing of Azizullah Lodin, the head of the amusingly-titled Independent Election Commission, along with two hundred of his staffers. It was a demand that Karzai was sure to reject, and frankly, it would have been incredibly difficult to replace two hundred election officials in less than two weeks and have any confidence that they would not be corrupt themselves. That is why Abdullah added a caveat that if his supporters could monitor poll locations and vote counting, he would remain in the race.

"These conditions are not that difficult, and I have thought about the lawful and legal issues of all conditions," Abdullah said at the time, submitting his request to both the Election Commission and the U.N.
Needless to say, his conditions were not met. The Election Commission will provide more polling locations, the U.N will send fewer monitors, and there will thus be more opportunities for fraud.

It will be hard for the Obama administration to spin this as good news. Secretary Clinton responded, "We see that happen in our own country where, for whatever combination of reasons, one of the candidates decides not to go forward. I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election." Well, it could be "whatever combination of reasons", but concern about widespread fraud by the incumbent seems like a solid one. This pull-out makes Senator Kerry's work seem not only wasteful, but actually harmful, as he made Karzai look weak among the local population without making him seem more credible in return.

There is some speculation that Abdullah threatened to boycott the election to get a power-sharing arrangement out of Karzai. That doesn't make a great deal of sense to me, as he's denied interest in power-sharing before, and has already served as foreign minister in the Karzai administration before quitting in 2005. It seems clear he doesn't want to work with the man.

Obama probably doesn't want to work with him either, but you go to war with the corrupt dictator you have, not the corrupt dictator you want to have. That's why you should think hard about not going to war.

Friday, October 30, 2009

War Notes: October 30, 2009

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof makes the classic books not bombs argument, introducing evidence that new schools have managed to largely stay open despite the ongoing war:
Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” has now built 39 schools in Afghanistan and 92 in Pakistan — and not one has been burned down or closed. The aid organization CARE has 295 schools educating 50,000 girls in Afghanistan, and not a single one has been closed or burned by the Taliban. The Afghan Institute of Learning, another aid group, has 32 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with none closed by the Taliban (although local communities have temporarily suspended three for security reasons).
Kristof couples these success stories with analysis comparing money spent on education in Bangladesh, where there are now more girls in school than boys, with military spending in Pakistan, which is still is still highly unstable and uneducated. It is unsurprising that Kristof does not favor a massive military escalation, but this article is an optimistic reminder of how we can help the Afghan people even if we begin to withdraw troops.

The photo is of Greg Mortenson with a group of schoolkids, from the website Hearts and Minds.
Earlier this week, Taliban insurgents raided a U.N compound in the heart of Kabul, killing eight people, including six foreign workers. A DailyKos writers pays a touching tribute to two of his friends and co-workers who died in that attack, Jossie Esto and Lydia Wonyene. These two women, working for the U.N as volunteers, were there to help run the presidential elections, and between them, they leave seven children behind. The attack has reminded people on the ground that even Kabul is unstable at the moment, and foreign workers have been told not to leave their homes.
President Obama recently visited Dover Airforce Base to pay respects to 18 slain soldiers returning from Afghanistan, and met with their families. You can see moving video clips and photos here.
Ahmed Wali Karzai amusingly denies having any connections to the CIA or drug cartels. Seems like a guy we can take at his word.

Cost Confusion: U.S government fails Accounting 101

NPR reports that no one has any idea how much money we are spending fighting the war in Afghanistan. Senator John Kerry, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has put the tab at $243 billion. The Congressional Research Service has put the figure at $227 billion, while the Pentagon, not surprisingly, has argued it has only cost $156 billion (though these are the people who according to their own admission do not know how many contractors they have on the payroll).

The former Pentagon Chief Financial Officer, Dov Zakheim, suggests it's easier to measure by cost per soldier, which he pits at $1 million per year, on top of salary and existing inventory. Such a cost, accepted by the Obama administration, puts a price tag on the McChrystal plan at an additional $40 billion per year.

In calculating the true costs of the war, however, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes point out that future costs, especially medical and mental health treatment for veterans, are never included in war budget planning. That is the basis of their book, the Three Trillion Dollar War, which is largely about cost overruns in Iraq. It is also unhelpful to our calculations that the Pentagon auditor was recently sacked for serial incompetence. As long as we are following the 'out of crisis comes opportunity' meme, we might as well use the combination of an aimless war and a recession to start asking harder questions about how we are tracking spending for this quarter-trillion dollar conflict.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Karzais, Drugs and the CIA

It was common knowledge to everyone on the ground in Afghanistan except for Senator John Kerry that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai's brother, heads a massive, lucrative opium trafficking operation. Kerry said he had asked U.S intelligence agencies "for the smoking gun", and had not gotten "the hard and fast" evidence. A few days ago we found out why: the CIA has been keeping Brother Karzai on their payroll since 2001, turning a blind eye to his criminal operations in exchange for helping local contribute paramilitary forces to the NATO effort and acting as a go-between with the Taliban. The CIA is not exactly a saintly organization, and having A.W Karzai cooperating with the U.S is probably quite helpful, especially during his brother's presidency. Yet this is another example of hypocricy from an administration that demands "accountability" and "reform" from the Karzai administration while openly paying off one of its most vice-ridden figures.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

War Notes: October 28, 2009

In a sad story revealing the far reaches of the war in Afghanistan, eight Afghan refugees drowned when their raft sank en route to Greece from Turkey. Local officials believe the boat may have been part of a "clandestine human trafficking ring." The untold thousands who flee Afghanistan and Iraq as war refugees are easy fodder for sex and labor traffickers.

Jose Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor and winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, pens a piece advocating the commencement of negotiations with the Taliban. Though generally an optimist on the future of Afghanistan, Ramos-Horta is a realistic on the current situation: "The Taliban is strong enough to make Afghanistan ungovernable for the U.S. indefinitely. Yet the U.S. is strong enough to keep the Taliban from ever cementing its hold on the country if Washington wants to do so." Ramos-Horta invokes the other unsavory people we negotiate with now- "Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan or the military junta in Burma." I am all for negotiations, because like Ramos-Horta, I believe the Taliban would gladly take power back in exchange for turning on Al-Qaeda. My only concern is whether what we consider 'The Taliban' really speaks with one voice.

The U.S military clashed with Afghan government officials over the fight against drug trafficking. Fed up with drug cartels that act with virtual impunity, NATO forces have been given lists of traffickers to capture or kill. The Afghan government is not pleased with this arrangement, as it undermines their fledgling justice system. Afghanistan's Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammad Daud Daud noted, "They should respect our law, our constitution and our legal codes. We have a commitment to arrest these people on our own." Former Interior Minister Ali Jalali, added, "There is a constitutional problem here. A person is innocent unless proven guilty. If you go off to kill or capture them, how do you prove that they are really guilty in terms of legal process?" These conundrums demonstrate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of fighting a dangerous enemy and trying to create a civil society from scratch in the same place at the same time.

U.S Official Resigns Over War in Afghanistan

Matthew Hoh, a State Department officer who was serving as Senior Civilian Representative for the U.S government in Zabul Province, recently tendered his resignation in dramatic fashion.
His literary resignation letter (it includes the word "Pollyannaish") lays out many of the reasons against the continuation of the current Afghanistan War policy that we have written about here, including the corruption of the Karzai adminsitration, the lack of a clear military mission, and a combat strategy that allows the Taliban to turn locals against the United States, all at an enormous financial and human cost. Hoh scoffs at the announced goal of staying in Afghanistan to fight Al-Qaeda, a strategy which would "require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc."

Hoh, despite his admission that he wants his "fifteen minutes to be up", is highly eloquent in rebutting false presumptions being used to continue the war in an online session in which he answered questions from Washington Post readers. There are too many good answers to cpoy and paste them all here, but in response to one hackneyed set of questions about remembering 9/11 and the rights of Afghan women, Hoh responds, "I disagree and I think it is emotional arguments like this that keep us tied to Afghanistan and to a policy that fuels the insurgency as well as adds credence to calls for global Islamic jihad." I recommend folks read the whole session.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Abdullah threatens to pull out of run-off

Presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah, whose second name may be the result of a press conference misunderstanding, slammed the Karzai-appointed Election Commission, and said fair elections could not be held with out significant changes. Abdullah said that unless the chief of the Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, is sacked, along with 200 of his staffers, and unless Abdullah supporters can observe polls and vote counting, he will boycott the November 7th election.

"These conditions are not that difficult, and I have thought about the lawful and legal issues of all conditions,"Abdullah told a press conference. Abdullah has submitted his complaints to the Election Commission and to the U.N, giving the bodies till the end of the month to find a way to meet his demands. The U.N had previously considered sending fewer poll monitors than last election, in which Karzai racked up over a million fraudulent votes.

It bears mentioning that Karzai's campaign team was found to have committed election fraud as well, though not on nearly the same scale. Abdullah's lack of participation in the run-off would completely undermine President Karzai, so look for the U.S and U.N to work quickly to hatch out a last minute election rescue plan.

Karzai points the finger at US

After facing weeks of criticism that perhaps he is not the right partner for the United States, President Hamid Karzai struck back, questioning whether the United States was the right partner for Afghanistan.

In a rambling interview with CNN, Karzai asked, "Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner?"

Karzai said a true partnership takes plan "where the Afghan lives are respected, where Afghan property is respected, where the Afghan traditions are respected, where we know the direction we are moving to."

If he wants us to respect the Afghan tradition of bribery and corruption and local feuds orchestrated by bloodthirsty warlords, perhaps we should oblige him. From the videos I've watched our soldiers try very hard to respect Afghan property, well aware of the inflammatory consequences of not doing so. Unfortunately, language and religious barriers are enormous hurdles to overcome.

This comment may also be a bone Karzai is throwing to the irate mobs who believe the U.S military recently descreated a Koran.

Eight more die in Afghanistan

The New York Times has reported the death of eight more soldiers, apart from the 14 killed over the weekend. These soldiers were the victims of "multiple, complex" bomb attacks. The number of U.S soldiers who have died in the month of October is now 55, surpassing this past August (51) as the deadliest month for our soldiers since the war began in 2001.

Monday, October 26, 2009

War Notes: October 26, 2009

Obama was burned in effigy in the streets of Kabul by a mob of angry protesters accusing U.S soldiers of desecrating a Koran. Though the U.S military said the charges were baseless, after the Danish cartoon incident of a few years ago, it is not surprising that a rumor could spark widespread national protest.

Public support for the war is tanking in the U.K following PM Brown's announcement that he is sending 500 more troops. Only 6% believe NATO is winning the war, a further 36% said victory was eventually possible, and 48% said victory was not possible. Those numbers don't really add up to 100%, but it is Britain. Another question polled found 62% of Brits favoring an immediate or near-immediate withdrawal.

Also on the British front, U.K soldier Lance Corporal Joe Glenton has been court martialed for refusing to return to Afghanistan, and he's not keeping quiet about it. Glenton led an anti-war rally in London over the weekend, and said that after deploying proudly for his first tour of duty, he was repulsed by what he saw happening throughout Afghanistan. He now claims he is "bound by law and moral duty" to stop the war, which he calls "illegal." He is a fascinating character, and we will follow his story from across the pond.

Former U.N Envoy to Afghanistan gives his prescription

The man who served as U.N envoy to Afghanistan from 2000 to 2008, Francesc Vendrell, has been much sought after as the nation unravels from war and corruption. The Spanish diplomat has laid out several remedies he believe can turn things around quickly:

1. Go ahead with the run-off election: "The more credible the new president is, the better -- the more credibility he has, first with the Afghan public and, secondly, of course, with the international community, who are so deeply involved, particularly in the Western countries and with Western public opinion."

2. Move towards the parlimentary election system that most South Asian nation use, perhaps with Karzai and Abdullah both serving in a temporary transition team:
"Simply replacing one person by another one and then giving him free rein for five years is not the right solution."

3. Begin an era of reform by clearing out the most corrupt Afghan officials:
"It would help Mr. Karzai enormously if, in one go, he got rid of 15 or 20 Afghan public figures who are notorious and disliked by most Afghans. It would help his image enormously."

Amidst all this discussion of military stragegy, it is refreshing to hear one of the top Afghanistan experts in the world discuss ways non-military ways that the struggling nation needs to move forward.

Tragedy in the air

Americans in Afghanistan suffered one of their deadliest weekends of the war when fourteen soldiers and civilians died in two separate helicopter crashes. The first helicopter, which crashed without explanation from the U.S military, resulted in the death of seven soldiers and three civilians, with numerous other injuries. The second accident involved two smaller helicopters crashing into each other, resulting in the death of four more American soldiers. A fifteen died this weekend from an IED explosion, and a sixteenth died from an insurgent attack. There will be more information in the coming days about these brave men and women.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Conference Call with leading Afghan feminist: Zoya

Zoya is a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a feminist group that combats the persecution of the Taliban and other extreme elements in Afghanistan. She is currently touring the United States, and you can check out a list of appearances by her and other members of the Afghan Women's Mission here. Despite her loathing of the Taliban Zoya feels that it would be best for her nation that the United States withdraw from Afghanistan. You can hear more about her vision during a conference call she will be conducting tomorrow. Zoya will speak for approximately 30 minutes, and I'm guessing that's probably from about 1:20 to 1:50. The details are below:


Sunday, October 25, 2009 1:00 – 3:00 PM EasternTime. Call in to this number: 1-218-936-4700 . At the prompt, enter this access code: 575758# . Note: This conference will be recorded. If you cannot attend at the scheduled time, send an email to with the subject line “Zoya Teleconf” to receive access instructions to the recorded version

RAWA’s position: “Liberation can only come from within – end the US occupation.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ann Jones: Can Life Get Worse for Afghan Women?

Women are made for homes or graves.
--Afghan saying

In her new piece for The Nation, Ann Jones has ripped the heart out of the argument that we should continue our mission in Afghanistan to prevent the plight of women. As someone who has worked with women there, Jones comes to this conclusion out of frustration at the Karzai administration, the extremist judiciary and the misogynistic rural warlords who have done so much to retard the advancement of women that there are not many steps backwards for women’s rights to take.

Jones kicks off her depressing account of the Afghan woman by treating us to the country’s constitution, which promises , "The citizens of Afghanistan--whether man or woman--have equal rights and duties before the law.” While some in the west might see the borrowed language of equality and freedom, the Afghan court interprets the phrase to suggest that men have a right to work while women have a right to obey their husbands. Not like rural women are really bringing class action lawsuits to challenge that assumption in the first place.

Next, Jones explains how President Karzai signed the Shiite Personal Status Law through run of the mill horsetrading with different conservative blocs. He didn’t think twice about selling out women’s rights (his own wife, a doctor, is rarely allowed to leave home). This law, also known as the Marital Rape Law includes the following provisions:
1. Husbands are authorized to deny food to a wife who does not provide sexual services once every four days (assuming the man has four wives, the maximum allowed under the law).
2. Only under rare conditions can women inherit, divorce or have guardianship of their children.
3. Women cannot marry without permission, and may be forced into marriage, beginning at the age of 16. (It apparently took a serious lobbying effort from women in Parliament to up the age from nine)
4. Women cannot leave the home except for “legitimate purposes”, as defined by their husbands or fathers.
5. Raping a woman outside of marriage is considered a property crime, requiring monetary restitution to the aggrieved man, not the victim.

In case anyone was wondering, the Afghan Supreme Court has declared the law constitutional. After its passage, even a female member of Parliament (one not under the control of her local warlord) forlornly conceded, "without a written law, men can do whatever they want." The marital rape law brought to mind the great philosophical challenge to democracy: what to do when, as in Nigeria, a law can be passed calling for a woman to be stoned to death for adultery, even if she was a rape victim?

Anyone who has traveled abroad, or even in parts of the United States, knows that sexism is a matter of gradation, and that women face appalling conditions all over the world. But the stuff coming out of Afghanistan is hard to match in its monstrosity. Here is the reality: right now female activists are murdered when they go public. We aren’t just talking about rabble-rousers though- popular local TV performer Shaima Rezayee, who was shot and killed after complaining of her gender driven ouster from television, and an actress, Parwin Mushtakhel fled Afghanistan after her husband was murdered for letting her out of the house.

According to UNIFEM, 87% of women are beaten regularly at home, and rape is nearly as prevalent, although women are unlikely to be forthcoming about rape, since it can land them in jail for adultery. UNAMA researchers concluded after one case, “For women, "human rights are values, standards, and entitlements that exist only in theory and at times, not even on paper.” Because it is U.S trained policemen who are hunting battered and raped women to throw them in jail, one can understand why the U.S plan to accelerate police training and arm more local men doesn’t exactly have women fired up and ready to go.

Interestingly, Jones makes the case that in pre-Soviet Afghanistan, half of the nation’s doctors and civil servants, along with three-quarters of the teachers were women. Jones suggests that the endless cycle of violence has permanently elevated ruthless, violent men to power in Afghanistan, and destroyed the civil institutions where women once played a prominent role.

Unfortunately, Jones doesn’t have an easy answer- she opposes staying the course and escalation, and admits that life wouldn’t get better under the Taliban. As Mark Danner explained to Bill Moyers the other night, though, sometimes the journalist is just the journalist. There’s nothing worse than a writer squeezing in a half-baked solution to close out a well thought-out fact piece (my paraphrasing). Ann Jones is one journalist, and while her perspective deserves more credence than most, there are probably some foreigners and locals that would claim she understates the heightened malice the Taliban would bring. But her article is too comprehensive to recreate in one diary without heinous copywrite infringement, so I’ll simply encourage people to check out the whole article.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Who is Abdullah Abdullah?

A few weeks from the Afghan presidential run-off, few people in the west know much about President Hamid Karzai's opponent, Abdullah Abdullah. Since President Karzai is clearly an unworkable partner if we want to succeed in Afghanistan (at any level), it's worth evaluating his rival. I was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered.

Abdullah was born in Kabul in 1960, and graduated from medical school there with a degree in ophtalmology in 1983 (Ophtalmology deals with eye disease and surgery). Like Karzai, he is an ethnic Pashtun.

After finishing his residency, Abdullah worked in the Ophthalmology Hospital for Afghan Refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan and also became the Director of Healthcare for the Resistance Front. In 1986, by which time the Soviet Occupation had turned especially sour, Abdullah became the Special Advisor and Chief Assistant to Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was not only a legendary insurgent against the Soviets, but he led the Northern Alliance military resistance against the Taliban. Some suggest it was no coincidence that he was murdered by Al-Qaeda before the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Abdullah himself served as Defense Minister from 1992-1996. After the Taliban take-over, Abdullah served as Foreign Minister of the government in exile, and was a key diplomat to the west until the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

Abdullah was Minister of Foreign Affairs for then-Chairman Karzai's transitional government, and became his first Foreign Minister, a position he held until 2006. Interestingly, Abdullah pushed for Afghanistan to adopt a parliamentary system, arguing that presidencies outside the United States too often led to autocracies.

This isn't the most detailed biography, but then, we don't get to vote. We only get to know who our potential partners are, Abdullah's background makes me inclined to root for him over Karzai.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Karzai in for another round of election fiascos

Despite post-fraud election totals pushing him below the 50% required to avoid a run-off, President Hamid Karzai wasn't exactly in the mood to follow the law. Since our Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbroke, apparently hasn't talked to Karzai in weeks since they got into a shouting match, the task of persuading Karzai to accept the election results feel to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Senator John Kerry. They did good, and Karzai is now in for a run-off, scheduled for November 7.

Once everyone is done patting themselves on the back, however, they should consider U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observation that it will be a "huge challenge" to overcome the challenges of widespread fraud that marred the August 20th election.

Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, commented, "While I am prepared to go for a run-off, at the same time my door is open." This open-ended statement, Abdullah conceded, could either mean he is open to a power-sharing agreement (though not "a cabinet position"), or that the logistics of winter and lack of security could render a run-off impossible. He seems like a shrewd operator- he knows the spotlight is on Karzai, and he can only lose by injecting himself into the fray.

Karzai, incidentally, has rejected the idea of power-sharing, claiming, "There is no space for a coalition government in the law." Glad to see his burgeoning interest in the rule of law. There's probably space for more of that.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Americans make Vietnam connection

Apparently, most Americans get it. After years of not paying attention, Americans have woken up to the war in Afghanistan, and they do not like what they see. The CNN poll shows that by 52-46%, people feel the conflict has turned into a situation like the Vietnam War.

In case you feel like you alone out there opposing an escalation and supporting a withdrawal, more Americans are with you then you think. The same poll found that Americans oppose escalation 59-39%. In addition, 28% want a complete, immediate withdrawal, 21% favor a partial withdrawal, and 8% think troop levels are just about right. Those numbers fall a few short of 100%, but it looks like at least half of Americans favor a partial or complete withdrawal. As I always say, those numbers will only go up. For opponents of the war, now is the time to make your voice heard.

Monday, October 19, 2009

War Notes: October 19, 2009

The consequences of a giant Afghan army: Tom Engelhardt, who has written extensively on the war in Afghanistan, and post Cold War foreign policy generally, asks an important question: How wise a longterm strategy is it to create a massive Afghan security force and army, in addition to one in Iraq? In both cases, Engelhardt argues, we are arming a group of people that have given no indication that they will share our interests and cooperate with our Middle East/South Asia policy in the long run. In Iraq, we currently have established a security structure with 262,000 soldiers, 480,000 policemen, and 98,000 Sunni insurgents that have been put on our payroll so they don't fight with the first two groups. In Afhganistan our goal is 400,000 soldiers and policemen, though we are nowhere near that number at the moment. Here's to hoping that we stay friends forever, especially after we cut off their funding.

Where the money goes
: In case you are one of the people arguing that we should be in Afghanistan to support the liberated women there, you should probably talk to Soya, a member of the Afghan women's group, RAWA. Speaking in Boston recently, she denounced the starvation taking place within 1000 feet of Karzai's presidential palace, and thanks American soldiers resisting deployment to Afghanistan for "refusing to kill our children and our people." Soya explained that many men fight for the Taliban because the $8 a day wage is the only reliable work they can find. Makes you wonder where our billions of war dollars go, and whether they couldn't be better served fighting hunger and providing work. Short of that, pay people $9 a day NOT to fight for the Taliban.

Rahm Emanuel stepping up? Echoing some of the comments made by Senator John Kerry, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel expressed the need to evaluate President Karzai's capacity as a partner for reform before we escalate the war in Afghanistan:
"It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop levels if in fact you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether in fact there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that U.S. troops would create and become a true partner in governing."
For a guy known for his 'ruthless' political pragmatism, it's reassuring to know that he is apparently supporting the Biden plan behind the scenes, while Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbroke argue in favor of escalation.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Election Commission Drops Karzai to 47%

In a surprising move, the Independent Election Commission released numbers suggesting that Karzai's vote total, after votes for fraud were removed, had dropped to 47%, short of the number required to avoid a run-off with his main challenger, Abdullah Abduallah. A run-off would be extremely complicated, as it would have to take place before snowfall renders transportation nearly impossible in rural parts of the country. Furthermore, fear of violence and disillusionment over voter fraud are just as likely to plague the run-off as the original, and ultimately, Karzai would quite likely defeat Abdullah even without fraud.

Since postponing the run-off till the spring would create a disastrous power vacuum, and not having one at all would be a huge propoganda victory for the Taliban, people are scratching their heads about what to do, and momentum seems to be building for a coalition government. Abdullah has said he would withdraw his candidacy if Karzai would add some of his allies to the government cabinet, a move that the Obama administration suppoorts.

"If you can mediate a settlement which leads to a stronger and more unified government, our sense is that that would be a means of garnering the most significant support by the Afghan people and enhancing the perceived legitimacy of that government," said a senior Obama administration official in Washington.

Unfortunately, Karzai is not only reecting Abdullah's overtures, but he may reject the Election Commission's findings entirely. He has called the U.N committee biased, which is absurd, given recent revelations that if anything, they are biased towards him, and he will probably insist on deferring to the misleadingly titled Independent Election Commission, which is made up of Karzai appointees. This is the same Karzai administration that recently ordered the release of five thousand men held on drug charges operating in the Walid Karzai (Hamid's brother) international narcotics operation. This is the same man our crack team is deciding whether they can successfully partner with in the years to come. Well, I don't need to see anymore- that man is no friend to American interests, no matter how you define them.

Protest at Hammerstein on Tuesday

President Obama is coming to Hammerstein Ballroom in New York this Tuesday to do a fundraiser for the DNC. The email hilariously billed the event as "thank you to supporters", which is of course why tickets are $250-1000, with a limited set of $100 tickets.
I am helping organize a protest to welcome him. The details are below:

DATE: Oct. 20 (Tuesday)

TIME: 4:30 to 6:30 pm (5:00 to 6:00 pm will be the main time)

ASSEMBLE: 4:30 at GPO on Eighth Ave. (btwn. 32 & 33 Sts.), Then proceed to:

PLACE: Hammerstein Ballroom (north side of 34th btwn. Eighth and Ninth Aves.)

SUBWAYS: “34th St./Penn Station” (at 8th Ave.) on A, C, E trains; “34 St./Penn Station” (at 7th Ave.) on 1, 2, 3 trains

For more information, call Ruth Benn at 718-768-7306 or email

A Tale of Two Kerries

I was about to congratulate Senator John Kerry for encouraging Obama to weigh his decisions carefully before sending another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Speaking from Kabul, Kerry said,

"Look, it would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country, when we don't even have an election finished and know who the president is and what kind of government we're working in."

But it's hard to be really pumped about John Kerry for any significant amount of time. I next read a CNN article titled, "This is not Vietnam, Kerry says of Afghanistan." Speaking to John King, Kerry explained,

"We are here in Afghanistan because people attacked us here in the most significant attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. We are here because there are still people at large who are plotting against the United States of America. And we are here because the stability of this region is a critical strategic interest to the United States. So the basic assumptions here are very, very different from what we experienced years ago in Vietnam."

It's hard to know where to begin dissecting this blather. First, the nation of Afghanistan did not attack us on 9/11. It was small band of Al Qaeda operatives who are not in Afghanistan at all according to General Petraeus, and have not been for several years, according to President Karzai. If there are Al Qaeda operatives in the region, rather than, say, Yemen or Somalia, they are in Pakistan. As for the strategic importance of the region- Afghanistan is strategic for the same reason Vietnam allegedly was- a fear of a domino effect.

For someone to say Afghanistan and Vietnam are not similar is to misunderstand Vietnam or Afghanistan. In Kerry's case, I'll assume it's the latter. In both conflicts, we were supporting an unpopular, corrupt government, fighting insurgents who could easily blend in with the local population, who were also being aided by a foreign government- in this case Pakistan's ISI. The Taliban are not as militarily powerful as the Viet Cong, and while the VC were more popular among the local population, they certainly benefitted over the years from an anti-occuption, nationalist sentiment.

Finally, Kerry, who had been talked about as a supporter of the Biden plan, came out strong for the McChrystal escalation plan:

"I do not believe that a counterterrorism strategy all by itself without a sufficient level of counterinsurgency will work, because if you don’t have a presence on the ground that’s effective it’s almost impossible to collect the kind of intelligence that you need to be equally effective in your counterterrorism."

This might actually be true, though if we conduct our operations from Pakistan, I imagine we would have the Pakistani military to support our operations on the ground. Kerry is ultimately hanging his hat on the idea of a successful counter insurgency in partnership with some Jeffersonian reformer. Since it looks like in reality our partner will still be Karzai, he's going to have to abandon his idealist philosophy and explain how he can ask a man to be the last man in Afghanistan to die for a mistake.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jumping Jack Flash- a gallon of oil costs $400 in Afghanistan

We all know war is brutal, bloody and expensive, but sometimes we need specific reminders. Today, The Hill reports that the cost of transporting gas to the military in Afghanistan runs at $400 per gallon.

"It is a number that we were not aware of and it is worrisome," responded Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense panel.

Wait, you mean the defense contractors who are your biggest campaign donors neglected to tell you the costs of war? Astonishing. Though not surprising to anyone who watched Robert Greenwald's outstanding new film, Rethink Afghanistan.

The numbers were released to Murtha's committee after they asked for the Obama administration to explain its claim that each thousand soldiers it plans on adding to combat operations will cost $1,000,000,000 per year. Incidentally, federal aid to rebuild New Orleans this year was pegged at $1,400,000,000.

The cost of delivering fuel in a mountainous, landlocked nation is simply staggering. Trucks deliver most of the fuel through Pakistan, but with the increased use of roadside bombs, this is a dangerous process. One report noted that in the month of June, 2008 alone, the U.S lost 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of oil due to attacks and explosions on truck routes. The safer fueling option, helicopter delivery, can run as high as $1,000 per gallon.

To be clear, I'm not saying we shouldn't deliver fuel, or anything like that. But at a time when we apparently can't afford to provide healthcare for our citizens, rebuild our cities or fund our schools, it's worth asking- can we fund this intractable war?

Safe Haven Claim Questioned

Richard Barrett, a counter-terrorism official from the U.N, and a former British intelligence officer, has concluded that the “safe haven” meme is probably inaccurate:

The Afghan Taliban have their own objectives. And their objectives are to take power in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida can join the party; fine, they can help them, but to a certain extent, al-Qaida doesn’t help them because if – and I think Mullah Omar’s made this very clear – if they take over in Afghanistan, they want to consolidate their power. They don’t want to be kicked out again like they were in 2001. And to consolidate their power, they don’t want al-Qaida hanging around. They want to be able to say we are a responsible government; we’re not going to support anybody who meddles in the business of our neighbors or in other international countries or partners.

Well, you might say well, they’d say that anyway; why wouldn’t they – why shouldn’t they say that? But I don’t think they lose a lot if they don’t say that. They don’t gain a lot by saying it and they don’t lose a lot by not saying it. So I think that we could possibly think that we might take them at the face value – that they would not automatically allow Afghanistan to become a base for al-Qaida.

Barrett recently gave a comprehensive overview of international terrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Wrath of Khan

Pakistani cricket legend, Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to the World Cricket Championship in 1992 before turning to politics, is calling on Pakistan to sever its commitment to the war on terror in Afghanistan. Khan argues that by deploying military forces and launching air raids against Pashtuns, Pakistan is stirring up a hornet's nest that did not previously exist:

"The Afghan mess had spilled over to Pakistan. Now we’ve a situation where the entire Pashtun population has turned against us...We had no violent Taliban before Islamabad allied with the US’s Afghan disaster."

One of the assumptions about the war that the mainstream media and beltway politicians have rammed down our throats is that a revived Taliban could destabilize Pakistan, a nation with nuclear weapons. Nothing could be more backwards. The Taliban have no imperialist designs on Pakistan. Their attacks on Pakistani military outposts are part of the ongoing military conflict that Khan notes the Pakistanis have unwittingly stumbled into.

There was a time when Pakistan's lack of cooperation in the war on terror used to infuriate me. But ultimately, northwestern Pakistan is full of fundamentalist Pashtuns who mostly want to be left alone. Involving the Pakistani government in air raids are about as popular an idea there as if China asked the U.S government to carpet bomb manufacturing plants in Ohio. If we are really worried about destabilizing Pakistan, we should ask them to publicly withdraw from the Afghanistan campaign. We would undoubtedly still receive secret intelligence from the ISI, which is more useful to us than a couple thousand hapless Pakistani soldiers anyway.

Update: For more on the deteriorating situation in Pakistan, read this account of the recent increase in terror attacks, some deep inside the country, which have killed over 2,000 people so far.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The British Are Coming!

Sortof. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his own troop increase yesterday. Splitting the baby with his generals, who recommended 1,500-2,000 troops, and the public, which wants to get the heck out, Brown is calling for 500 more troops to be deployed. Brown added, "I believe the decision we are announcing is consistent with what the Americans will decide." Not to deride our strongest security ally, but if the best the second biggest NATO partner can provide is 500 new troops, then we should quickly dispell the notion that any subtantial increase in troops will be an international effort.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor Questions The War

I spent the best year of my life, 2005-2006, down in Biloxi, Mississippi, but there is no question that southern Mississippi politics are a little different than New York City politics. That is why I was intrigued to hear Rep. Gene Taylor's comments criticizing the war in Afghanistan.
What really got Taylor going was the drug trade:

“We’ve sent a whole bunch of young Americans down to Colombia to train their army in counter narcotics forces, while we are coddling a corrupt bunch of dope dealers in Afghanistan,” Taylor said. “The irony of that drives me nuts. We do have a dope problem in this country. I would rather see those resources going to the Biloxi Police Department to battle meth labs than to Afghanistan.”

In one quote, Taylor hit on several themes that you'll be hearing a lot at town halls across the country: corruption, drugs, and money being spent abroad during an American recession. Taylor is a conservative Democrat who walks a political tightrope. Like New York Mayor Ed Koch, you are likely to find him on the politically expedient side of an issue. His turning on the war is no great moral achievement, but it's probably a good bellwether of how his constituents are feeling about the expensive, open-ended conflict.

The people of southern Mississippi are about as patriotic as you can get. They waved their flags even as Bush administration mangled their response to Hurricane Katrina. Biloxi is home to Keesler Airforce Base. But Mississippi is also very poor. They know the patriotism is about supporting what is best for your country, and spending billions overseas on a hopeless quagmire is not what this country needs right now.

When The Villagers Starts Turning On Ya

As friends know, I am no fan of Thomas Friedman. To himself, he is the man with the plan- if only people in Washington and the Middle East and Israel listened to him, all the problems of the world would be solved. For the rest of the world, he is a widely discredited warmonger and free marketeer. To read a delicious takedown of his new book, check out Matt Taibbi.

I bring him up today, because he is turning on the war in Afghanistan by using Karzai as a scapegoat:

I would not add a single soldier there before this guy, if he does win the presidency, takes visible steps to clean up his government in ways that would be respected by the Afghan people.

This is, of course, a dishonest analysis from a "foreign policy expert" like Friedman. Karzai's corruption has been documented for years. But Friedman is looking for a respectable way out, and for that I commend him. He is after all, one of what Markos Moulitsas calls "the Villagers"- the bloviating pundits who influence Washington policy. Having made a horrendous miscalculation in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, these Villagers want to save face, and get out of Afghanistan without conceding that we never should have occupied the country in the first place. Of course, it's Karzai's fault!

Obama will ultimately be taken to task for highlighting Afghanistan as "a war of necessity" when it clearly is not. But if he can get away with blaming the whole situation on Karzai, that's one last half-lie I'm willing to stomach to get our troops back home.

Who We Send To Serve

Some would argue that my characterization of the war as a failed mission is unfair, or premature. Those folks argue that, as we enter year nine, we need to show more patience, and commit more resources.

These two men were recent casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom. Robert Sanchez (pictured left) was on his fifth tour of duty fighting the war on terror. Sanchez was only 24 years old. At 24, he had already served three combat tours in Iraq, and was on his second combat tour in Afghanistan. When we ask the President to commit more troops, more soldiers don't magically appear. As his tribute attested, Sanchez was fearless, and a good soldier to the end. But why is it ok for us to send a man like him into a combat zone five times in six years to pursue a failed policy?

No combat death is easy to take, but there is nothing more heartbreaking than hearing about an engaged man (or woman) waiting to get back home. Brandon Owens (pictured right) was only 21, and he will never marry the love of his life. "He wanted to be a father," said his mother Lynda. "And a husband. God saw fit to something else for him." As did President Obama, Secretary Gates, General McChrystal, and all individuals who support the continuation of this reckless war.

Remember the men and women who serve every time you discuss "war strategy." This may be a volunteer army, but no kid who signs up for the Army Reserves out of high school asks for or deserves to be sent to a hostile land to train illiterate foreign fundamentalists to be policemen for a corrupt drug state.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

So what is the plan, again?

Today Hamid Karzai did what any scandal-ridden American politician would do- he went on "Good Morning America" with Dianne Sawyer to clear his good name. After dispelling notions of election fraud, Karzai surprisingly threw a wrench into the propaganda of the war escalators. Though Karzai supports the McChrystal report, he also said:

"Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan in 2001. They have no base in Afghanistan. The war against terrorism is not in Afghan villages, is not in the Afghan countryside."

This should not be shocking news- General Petraeus actually conceded that much back in May.

Every week or so we should pause and ask, "What exactly are we doing in Afghanistan?" If the nation's president and our top military commander (Petreaus is essentially McChrystal's boss) both say Al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, then wouldn't the logical plan be to send special forces into the Pakistani mountains? That sounds more like the Biden plan. Surely we don't need 40,000 more soldiers to fight the Taliban in the countryside when President Karzai is telling us the fight is not in the Afghan countryside.

Heck, do we even have to send these soldiers through Afghanistan? The infrastructure is far better in Pakistan, and as it is, we route many supplies through Pakistan to get to our outposts in Eastern Afghanistan. Either way, tracking down 200-300 members of Al Qaeda in the mountains is no easy task. Just look at these pictures.

Make no mistake, every soldier we send to Afghanistan to escalate the war will cost us $775,000, per soldier per year. Many of those soldiers will die. And 100% of this blood and treasure will go to defeating Taliban fighters who have no long-term interest in anything but reclaiming what they believe is their land, and we will do so at the behest of the crooked and corrupt Karzai family.

So tell me, what is the game plan again?

War Notes: October 13, 2009

Assorted stories from the ongoing war in Afghanistan:

The Minnesota Independent pens a nice piece on the coalescing of progressive forces against troop escalation, with an ultimate aim of withdrawal. These hitherto disparate dissenters inside and outside Congress are beginning to speak with one voice and organize together.

Over at the Washington Note, Steve Clemons wonders why we are spending $65 billion per year in Afghanistan (that's pre-escalation numbers) when that nation's GDP is only $22 billion. Don't those figures call into question whether the problem so far has been "lack of resources"? Breeze down to the comment section and find a pretty lengthy analysis of Congressmen who have invested their stocks heavily in war profiteering companies. I personally don't think most of these people manage their own money accounts, but the facts are still pretty gross.

Finally, everyone's favorite- war games! It seems the U.S and India have been participating in war games, recognizing that they may need to work together if Pakistan is determined to destabilize Afghanistan. Why it has taken the U.S so long to recognize and respect the world's largest democracy has always stirred my blood. Nehru was a quasi-socialist as prime minister in the 40s and 50s, and thus the U.S had to back ruthless thugs in Pakistan for half a century. Go figure. India isn't exactly innocent when it comes to its relationship with Pakistan, and the U.S must like the idea of buddying up with a fellow rival to China, but if you're gonna pick a nation in the world to build a better partnership with, India is as good as any.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Peter Gailbraith Unplugged: Former U.N deputy tells the full story of Afghan presidential elections

Whether it's the preposterous scale of the voter fraud or the very public letter to U.N Secretary General Moon, the scandal surrounding the August 20th presidential elections may have marked the turning point in the War in Afghanistan. The U.S has now officially aligned itself with a leader whose corruption knows no bounds, and the international organization sent to impartially oversee Afghan elections has just been found in bed with him.

The whistleblower, the U.N's former #2 man in Afghanistan, Peter Gailbraith, has penned an article in Time Magazine, for the first providing his full version of the story. The title, How the Afghanistan Presidential Election Was Rigged is a good indicator of what he thinks went down.

I had been pretty flabbergasted at the sheer number of false votes Karzai had received, and assumed that the ballot-stuffing had something to do with running up numbers in Karzai-friendly locations. Gailbraith explains how the fraud was actually rather counter-intuitive:

In July, I learned that there were 1,500 polling centers (out of a total of 7,000) sited in places either controlled by the Taliban or so insecure that no one from the IEC, the Afghan army or the Afghan police had ever visited. It was obvious that these polling centers would never open on election day. They were also perfect vehicles for fraud. Since no observer, campaign representative or voter could go to the locations, it would be easy for the election staff — on its own or in collaboration with local officials — to say voting had taken place and then report a tally.

The article is a dazzling indictment of the U.N, which is not exactly popular in American political circles to begin with. Every time someone insists on the need to keep fighting, let's remember that though we fight against some evil dudes, we do it on behalf of corrupt ones too.

What do New York City Afghans Think?

(The following is a guest post from Smriti Rao. You can find this article and her other work at

On Wednesday this week, President Obama will conduct the fifth strategy meeting with his national security team on Afghanistan. Looking how quickly the U.S. is sinking into this hole, I decided to do a little bit of poking around of my own in New York City to get a sense what Afghans living here had to say about what was happening. As expected, many expats were either extremely reluctant to comment or were decidedly politically correct- one of them even quoting Gandhi and Martin Luther King to me. But it was interesting nonetheless to head out Kissena Boulevard, in Queens, which is home to almost 10,000 Afghan expat families.

Many of the Afghans in NYC fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the country from 1979-89. In recent years, continuous fighting between NATO-led troops and militants in Afghanistan has prevented many of these families from returning to their homeland. “What’s the point?,” asked Ahmad Waish, a law enforcement officer in New York who hasn’t been back home for 30 years. “The Americans may shoot me, thinking I am an Afghan fighter,” said Waish who was dressed in a traditional Chapan (Coat) with a Keffiyeh around his neck, “And the fighters may attack me saying I am American.” Waish has also been unable to visit his father who lives in Kandahar. “My father can’t go outside - he will be bombed to pieces.”

Outside the Masjid Saliheen at Kissena Boulevard the streets empty out ahead of the evening prayers. Men in beards and tunic-pants hurry to make it to the mosque in time. Two blocks down, in a park across the street, three men sit in a circle playing Chess or Shatranj on a board made of stone. “We are veterans of war,” says one Afghani who did not wish to be named, referring to the Soviet invasion, the Taliban and the American forces. “We have seen so many killings, homicides. We don’t support war in any form. War is destruction,” he said, adding he was against any troop increase in Afghanistan. As he moved his pawns across the chess board, his companions - a Hispanic immigrant and another Afghani from Kandahar puffed silently on their cigarettes. “I remember the first time America attacked Kabul - the rockets firing- bombs left and right in the city. Sometimes I feel like the war was imposed on America - Sept 11 forced America into this war.”

Other Afghanis like 27 year old Yama Qadari are weighed down by a similar sense of war fatigue and are against putting more boots on the ground. “If there was actually any progress on the ground, then why would we need to send more troops to the country?” asks Qadari, adding there needs to be a cohesive strategy to end the carnage in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan started off as a multilateral effort in 2001. At present, there are 39,000 NATO troops along with 65,000 Americans. If the President decides to dispatch another 45,000 more U.S. troops, the longest American war would also potentially turn into its deadliest. “Afghanistan for the last 30 years has been at war,” added Waish. “ Most people under 30 were born under bullets. Children were born under war. What is the condition of people like that? Their main instinct is ‘kill in order to survive.’”

Others expressed cynicism at the President’s Peace Prize. “What peace are they talking about,” asked Akram Jalali, a former medical worker in Queens.” Everyday there are bombings in Kabul, people are dying all the time, they don’t know the meaning of peace,” he fumed. “People are suffering, innocent civilians are dying. Anyone who has been reading the papers knows the carnage there,” said Waish. Meanwhile, as the Chess game continues in the park, one of the Afghani immigrants sums up the feeling in the community. “Everyone here is tired,” he said. “If only people paid more attention to the teachings of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.”

Despite the gloom surrounding the state of affairs in Afghanistan, some immigrants like Yama Qadari are hopeful for the future. He smiles as he says “No country is beyond repair.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Random War Notes

Sometimes late at night I lack the energy for full posts on what are otherwise interesting topics to dig into.

The New York Times takes a look at why it's so damn hard to capture a one-eyed, semi-literate Taliban leader, in the Curious Case of Mullah Omar.

Any given Sunday, you can find Frank Rich dropping dimes. This week he rips John McCain and his fellow neo-cons, who the mainstream media still treats credibly after their horrendous track record.

The often wise Fareed Zakaria comes out very strongly against a troop surge in Afghanistan. Between him, Joe Klein and their news coverage, Newsweek is becoming the first mainstream publication to turn hard against the war.

Apparently Afghan women can soon look forward to the passage of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act. This legislation to allow prosecutation of physically abusive husbands has been watered down by social conservatives in Parliment, which would never happen in the United States. Even with the bill's passage, a husband may withhold financial support from his wife if she refuses to have sex with him and limit her right to leave the home.

Casualty Update

As is tradition, these are the casualties reported by the Washington Post, along with tributes written by DailyKos bloggers. A glance at the group of eight that lost their lives in ambush near the Pakistani border reveals the pain that every region of the country is facing watching this war continue. Our deepest condolences to the friends and families of these brave soldiers.

Sgt. Roberto D. Sanchez, 24, of Satellite Beach, Fla., killed October 1 in Kandahar province.

Pfc. Brandon A. Owens, 21, of Memphis, Tn., killed October 2 in Wardak province.

A tribute to all eight of these soldiers can be found here.

Sgt. Aaron A. Smith, 25, of Manhattan, Kan., killed October 2 in Wardak province.

Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos, 27, of Tucson, killed October 3 in Kamdesh.

Spec. Christopher T. Griffin, 24, of Kincheloe, Mich., killed October 3 in Kamdesh.

Sgt. Joshua M. Hardt, 24, of Applegate, Calif., killed October 3 in Kamdesh.

Sgt. Joshua J. Kirk, 30, of South Portland, Maine., killed October 3 in Camdesh.

Spec. Stephan L. Mace, 21, of Lovettsville, Va., killed October 3 in Kamdesh.

Spec. Kevin O. Hill, 23, of Brooklyn, N.Y., killed October 4 at Contingency Outpost Dehanna. His tribute can be found here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Under the Radar: Civilian Contractor Deaths

The Department of Labor has released a report that 1,688 civilian contractors have died and 37,000 have suffered injuries working in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began. These numbers are incomplete due to the Pentagon's admitted inability to track what contractors are doing in these countries. Apparently, the State Department and USAID also have no idea how many contractors are presently working for them. While civilian contractors are to some extent serving in these countries more voluntarily than their military counterparts (and being far more lucratively rewarded), it is still senseless that so many will return home in coffins, or with injuries that will affect them and their families the rest of their lives.

Alan Grayson on War in Afghanistan

The site has been committed to questioning basic assumptions that the media and beltway politicians have made about the War in Afghanistan. Speaking at a panel last week, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fl.) rejected the notion that instead of a military solution, the answer was "more aid":

I think that the basic premise that we can alter
Afghan society is greatly flawed. Afghanistan is simply the part of Asia that was never occupied by the Russians or the English in the Great Game. It's not a country; it's not even a place. It's just an empty place on the map. It's terra incognita
. People who live there are a welter of different tribes, different language groups, different religious beliefs.

All over the country you find different people who have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that we call them Afghans, and they don't even call themselves Afghans. They're Tajiks or they're Pashtuns, or they're Hazzaras or someone else. The things that hold them together are simply the things that we try to create artificially.

And the idea that we could transform that society or any other society through aid I think is entirely questionable. I've never seen it happen; probably never will happen. If you go to the Stan countries north of Afghanistan, and I've been to all of them; what you find is that the way that the Russians altered that society was by crushing it. Stalin killed half a million Muslims in Kazakhstan, in Turkmenistan, in Kyrgyzstan, in Uzbekistan.

He simply sliced off the head of that society in order to remake it in the image that he wanted. And I think that we would have to do no less if we wanted to remake Afghanistan in our image. We'd have to destroy it in order to save it, and I don't think the American people are ever going to do that to anybody. So I think that the underlining premise is simply wrong.

Whether or not you agree with Grayson that Afghanistan's lack of national identity should preclude us from sending aid and investing in infrastructure, the lack of a cohesive identity will continually make the process of sending aid extremely complicated. This is a country where loyalty to tribe trumps up all, and I don't know how we would keep all the tribes happy all the time. Ultimately, it would be nice to rebuild Afghanistan, but America does not have the stomach or dollars to do it properly. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner a debate on a real strategy can proceed.

War is the new Peace

Like the rest of the world, I was astonished when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike Republicans, I am proud of him, and I congratulate him. That said, I adamantly do not believe he deserves it.

Obama has not significantly drawn down troops in Iraq. He has done little more than make a speech with respect to Israel-Palestine. Despite his campaign rhetoric, there has been virtually no talk about African issues coming out of his administration. Guantanamo Bay is not close to be closed- perhaps it never will be. He's facing allegations of running a torture prison in Bagram. Finally, and most dearly to me, he is probably going to escalate the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries he has demeaningly lumped together as AfghPak. That is not becoming a person singled out among all others in the world for a prize of contributing to world peace.

Some folks have countered that he was handed a raw deal, a world falling apart, and he has done his best to right the ship. Plus, you know, with the economy being what it is and all. I'm sorry, those are strong defenses of why he has been a good president, but not while he should be singled out for an award that has gone to gigantic figures truly committed to peace, like Nelson Mandela. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee erred in judgment.

This is a sentiment shared by many. The LA Times caught on, asking Afghans in Kabul what they thought of the award:
"I'm not sure I understand -- this isn't for peace here, is it?" said bank worker Homaira Reza. "Because we haven't got any."

Perhaps my favorite response has come from New York activist, the Reverend Billy Talen. I have reposted it in its entirety here:

Subject: On The Obama Peace Prize

Now we have to change all our words around.

I never thought of Peace as a word that was moveable. All our words have been shifted by Consumerism and Militarism. Democracy is gone, America and Freedom are gone. Peace always stayed there in one place.

Peace patiently waited for us to notice the best things about ourselves. Peace always stayed with us. Peace was ignored by the governments and the powerful but it was still there - the monument that is made of the sky and the wind, our memories of a face and our loving touch. But now we have to change our words around. They have taken the word Peace and we'll have to make up a new word, a secret signal.

Predator drones will be released tonight destroying the word we always depended on. The flying bomb will go out over the villages, sailing over the sleeping children and prayers and friends stopping for a laugh. The bombs will float and hesitate and change direction from computers in Florida and Missouri and the soldiers at the computers will know that Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And so they will be consumers of a war that is now being marketed as a product named Peace.

So – it has come to this. War has finally captured Peace.

Yesterday I broke with the tradition of this blog by not posting any news. The reason was my preoccupation with disseminating a reform proposal that would diminish corporate influence in the Democratic Party.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Salute: Rachel Maddow

Last night Rachel Maddow asked some hard questions about the war, as we enter Year Nine. In this four and a half minute clip, she especially questions whether our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan can deliver victory. These last weeks and months have featured endless stories of corruption, incompetence and betrayal.

This site has been dedicated to projecting perspectives often lost when the debate is framed in Congress or on mainstream television. Some posts have questioned the need for a military occupation, for conventional warfare. Here, Maddow is questioning even the viability of any counter insurgency. A counter insurgency simply cannot work without the cooperation of local people and local leaders. So far, the jury is still out as to whether we have that cooperation now, or if we ever will.

Rachel Maddow has had a tremendous year on television, and her twin qualities as an open lesbian and unabashed liberal on major television news has endeared her to many people. But issues of war and peace are more sensitive and more high stakes than most debates in the beltway, so Maddow really had to bring it. This week she most certainly did.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A billion here, a billion there...

The former Senator Everett Dirkson once said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." This summer Congress passed the PAYGO Act, which essentially ties spending to revenues. Congress conveniently exempted defense-related activities from the bill.

Representative Barbara Lee caught wind of this, and along with thirteen Democrats, voted against PAYGO on those grounds. The members are listed here:
William Clay (MO); Bob Filner (CA); Raul Grijalva (AZ); Maurice Hinchey (NY); Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI); Dennis Kucinich (OH); Barbara Lee (CA); Jim McDermott (WA); Ed Pastor (AZ)
Pete Stark (CA); Bart Stupak (MI); Anthony Weiner (NY).
I can understand if a progressive felt PAYGO was important enough to pass despite this deficiency, but these men and women deserve credit for flagging this issue. As long as our wars are paid for by printing more money, we are setting ourselves up for long-term fiscal ruin, if we're not already hopelessly stuck there.

While we're talking about the defense budget, let's look at the $626,000,000,000 Pentagon budget bill, which was approved yesterday by a vote of 93-7. The bill allocates $128,000,000,000 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq has cost over $700,000,000,000 since it began, the war in Afghanistan $300,000,000,000. This year's budget officially put the combined price tag over one trillion dollars. So that phrase is no longer hyperbolic. Six of the "no" votes came from war-mongering Republicans, and the seventh was from Russ Feingold, who we honored here last Friday.

Shockingly, the Senate rejected an amendment that would subject private sector defense contractors to competetive bidding, a reform that passed in the House of Representatives. The bill also blocks the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to any prison on U.S soil, concluding perhaps the most provincial story of the 2009 Congress.