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    I Read al-Qaeda’s Inspire Mag So You Don’t Get Arrested

    October 10, 2014 // 3 Comments »



    Inspire is an English language online magazine published since 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I just read the latest issue so you won’t get arrested doing so.

    Aimed primarily at radicalizing youth audiences in the U.S. and Britain, the mag appears semi-regularly (twelve issues so far) online only, as a PDF, and is entirely in English. Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine shift among sometimes bad-English reporting, religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, and bomb making instructions.

    Yeah, bomb making instructions. That’s the part that sort of is controversial, the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.

    Inspire and al-Awlaki

    The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon, gone-bad.

    Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, thus ending his editorship, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.

    Disclaimer

    Because reading/possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it online in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list or another, I’ll just offer the one link here to the full text if you want to read the whole thing. For me, if I’m not on some list already I haven’t been doing my job and should just go back to my true passion, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction.

    Inside the Spring 2014 Inspire Mag

    Things begin straight-forward enough with a note from the editor:

    The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs! Therefore, as our responsibility to the Muslim Ummah in general and Muslims living in America in particular, Inspire Magazine humbly presents to you a simple improvised home recipe of a car bomb. And the good news is… you can prepare it in the kitchen of your mom too.

    To be fair, the kitchen of your mom has to be stocked with some pretty unusual stuff to pull this off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

    There follows some quotes by famous people on news topics, most predictable. But one by a Muslim college student in the U.S. stands out:

    I remember I had one professor that said that if he was in Iraq, he’d probably be on the other side. And I remember I was just looking at him thinking I’ll be in jail if I thought that.

    A quote by another leaves you with the uncomfortable impression that these guys “get it,” saying the things we just don’t hear from our own media:

    If we don’t change our stupid foreign policies, there will sooner or later be many more people overseas wishing to do this country harm! We’re already the most hated country in the world and through our own stupidity that will only get worse. Moreover, we’re spending ourselves into oblivion over this!

    So while there is plenty of bloody jihad stuff written in Borat-level English, it isn’t all that way in Inspire. One wonders if this approach, accidentally humorous and purposefully serious, is not actually an effective way to speak to disaffected youth.

    Dog Food

    Despite my promise to you, I did not actually read every word of articles that began “Twelve years have passed since the blessed Battles of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania…” or asked “Is the modern Buffalo soldier worth a Labrador? Would the U.S. Army at least honor them with Dickin Medals?”

    I sort of can figure out without getting 800 words in what the point of a piece that asks “Isn’t it saddening that Bo, Obama’s dog, dines with the tax payers’ money on better food than that of 100 million Americans?” But hah, Inspire, got you there. A lot of lower-income Americans are forced to eat the same dog food Bo does!

    Salty Obama

    And see if you can puzzle out this one:

    Obama is like a very thirsty patient that suffers from high blood pressure. As he becomes thirstier he finds a cup of salty water with salt crystals visible. To make the water drinkable, he has to get rid of the salt. So he stirs the water. As he stirs, the salt begins to disappear, this makes him very happy. Yes, the salt disappeared from sight, but the taste of the water became saltier. This is exactly what Obama is doing by the use of unmanned drones.


    Bombs

    Things alternate like that for most of the magazine, kind of thoughtful stuff, weird unintelligible stuff, sort of parable, sort of makes sense maybe stuff, a lot of anti-Semitism and rants intermingled with Quranic quotes. But things get deadly serious when the topic turns to making and employing car bombs.

    The magazine explains the bomb making instructions are “open source jihad,” to allow persons via the web to “prepare for jihad,” all from the comforts of home. I am not a chemist, but the details seem easy to follow, broken down into steps with photos to illustrate. Theory is tagged on to the practical; how explosive combustion works, how pressure is measured and so forth. Different ignition switches are discussed, depending on whether you seek a timed explosion or intend a suicide attack where you’ll trip the bomb manually.

    You turn away with the impression that this is something simple enough that you could probably make it work.

    It is made clear the type of bomb you’ll be making is aimed at destroying people, not buildings, and advice is given accordingly.

    Closing the Pages

    It would be unfair to close the pages of Inspire and say I felt anything but creeped out. I’ve tried to come up with something more intelligent sounding, but what starts as a laugh ends very seriously. Someone was very effective at making me walk away thinking they want to kill me.

    So when you read other versions of what’s in Inspire, most of which focus on creating their own, new levels of fear-mongering or in belittling the magazine as “clumsy,” spare a thought to what the magazine is really achieving: it makes you afraid. That’s what good propaganda does, effectively get inside your head. Inspire is good propaganda.



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over

    October 7, 2014 // 3 Comments »



    I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”

    I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it.  After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?

    The Sons of Iraq

    Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)

    We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.

    In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.

    I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.

    False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.

    When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.

    U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.

    The Grandsons of Iraq

    The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

    According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

    Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

    The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

    And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

    The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.

    It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle

    The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.

    One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.

    Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.

    Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.

    Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.

    Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.

    On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.

    If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.

    Apocalypse Then — And Now

    America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.

    We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

    As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Iraq: How Many Turning Points and Milestones Until We Win?

    September 18, 2014 // 23 Comments »



    Meanwhile, 71 percent of Americans now support airstrikes in Iraq, and 65 percent in Syria.

    Secretary of State John Kerry said that the formation of a new Iraqi government was “a major milestone” for the country.

    Kerry told reporters at the State Department that the government formed on Monday in Baghdad had “the potential to unite all of Iraq’s diverse communities for a strong Iraq, a united Iraq and give those communities a chance to build a future that all Iraqis desire.”

    Kerry did not mention that divisive former Prime Minister Maliki, who was Washington’s man in Baghdad since 2006 tasked with uniting Iraq, stays on in the new government as Vice President. Kerry also did not mention that the job of uniting Iraq has been on various U.S.-supported Prime Ministers’ and other Iraqi officials’ to-do lists since 2003, never mind the eventual point of the nine year American Occupation and 4600 American deaths.

    But Kerry did say the week’s events are a major milestone. That’s the same as the turning point so often mentioned before about Iraq, right? Let’s look back:

    “This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003

    “We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003

    “That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004

    “Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004

    “A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004

    “Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004

    “Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005

    “The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005

    “On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005

    “I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005

    “The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005

    “2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005

    “We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006

    “We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006

    “This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006

    “When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006

    “Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007

    “This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007

    “Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008

    “The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008

    “Iraq’s ‘Milestone’ Day Marred by Fatal Blast,” Washington Post, July 2009

    “Iraq vote “an important milestone,” Obama, March 2010

    “Iraq Withdrawal Signals New Phase, But War is Not Over,” ABC News, August 2010

    “Why the Iraq milestone matters,” Foreign Policy, August 2010

    “Iraq Milestone No Thanks to Obama,” McCain, September 2010

    “Hails Iraq ‘milestone’ after power-sharing deal, ” Obama, November 2010

    “Week’s event marks a major milestone for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012

    “National elections ‘important milestone’ for Iraq,” Ban Ki Moon, April 2014

    “Iraq PM nomination ‘key milestone,'” Joe Biden, August 2014




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Book Review: Agent Storm, My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA

    September 10, 2014 // 9 Comments »

    Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a worthy read; if it was fiction it might be called “a good yarn.” The book is instead straight-up non-fiction, making it all the more interesting as a window into the world of modern espionage.

    An Enthusiastic Muslim

    The book is the “as told to” autobiography of Morten Storm. Storm grew up on the dark side of Denmark, a tough, a brawler, a street gang member who always looked for a fight and usually found one. He did some jail time, and lived on the outskirts of society, surviving well enough off Denmark’s generous social welfare system. Socially and spiritually adrift, he was a quick convert to Islam, driven into his new faith by a chance encounter with a library book on the life of The Prophet. The descriptions of the built-in camaraderie of the mosques shows their appeal to disenfranchised youth.

    Storm quickly found a way to combine his street smarts with his new faith, gravitating into the growing European jihadi underground. He soon moved to the UK, taking up life in “Londonistan,” the slang term for England’s dark underbelly of Muslim immigrants. Like them, Storm felt marginalized, left out, looked down on and began moving in ever-more radical circles. Despite his over six foot height and bright red hair, he found himself well-accepted. An encounter with a fellow Muslim, who died almost in his arms, propelled Storm to Yemen in search of meaning for his own life. His devotion to Islamic studies and his tough attitude saw him befriended not just by his classmates, but soon by Anwar al-Awlaki himself. Storm takes on all sorts of courier missions for the cleric and becomes a member of his trusted inner circle.

    A Double-Agent

    Another chance event suddenly has Storm again reverse course. He falls in with Danish intelligence and Britain’s MI5/MI6 and becomes a double-agent. His second conversion is marked by a bacon sandwich and a beer with his new intel friends to seal the deal. He begins accepting money and taskings from both the British and the Danes.

    Storm quickly becomes invaluable, exploiting his connections with al-Awlaki and apparently nearly every significant jihadi in Europe to the advantage of his handlers. He finally attracts the attention of the CIA, which dispatches case officers to work with him toward one goal: pinpoint the location of al-Awlaki so the Americans can assassinate him. Storm agrees and over a series of events, the American citizen cleric is indeed assassinated by an American drone (along with his 16 year old son, also a U.S. citizen.) The CIA, however, double-crosses Storm, denies him the $250,000 payment promised for his work and eventually drives the big Dane in from the cold. His last conversion is to go to the media with his tale, and leave the world of espionage behind.

    Tradecraft

    Without a doubt the very best parts of the book expose a bit of intelligence tradecraft. Unlike what one sees in movies and reads in (fictional) spy books, “spying” is 90 percent working patiently with people, with just a little high-tech thrown in. The book portrays this accurately, showing the best spies are more like skilled psychiatrists than hardened killers. A few details of the recruitment process appear to have been left out, perhaps for security reasons, perhaps because of the unusual three-way sharing of Storm. In real life, case officers of the CIA (the KGB, the Danish security services, MI5/MI6…) spend a lot of time seeking out people (“agents”) who can be convinced to betray their organization or nation. Motives vary, and a smart case officer will pay close attention to what his/her agent really wants– money, adventure, sex, etc. We watch as Storm is cleverly manipulated with both money and the lure of adrenaline rushes, and as his failed fervor for Islam and desire to provide for his family is worked against him.

    Of equal interest are the contrasts drawn among the three services involved in handling Storm. The Danes are friendly, clubby, out for a good time even as they subtly draw Storm in and play him off against the Brits and the Yanks. The British impress with their professionalism and appeal to Storm’s sense of adventure, setting him up for sessions in arctic survival with an ex-Royal Marine and shooting lessons with an SAS man.

    Then there is the CIA. Storm saves the Americans for his most unflattering portrayal, painting them as impatient, and ready to hand over obscene amounts of money when needed, only then to double-cross their “man” inside al Qaeda when needed. The CIA has another agent, secretly, alongside Storm and never even feigns to trust either of them. The CIA’s simplistic and crude handling is one of the main drivers behind Storm’s break with the intel world.

    A Few Criticisms

    A few criticisms mark an otherwise decent read. Storm is not shy about his own accomplishments, taking personal credit for a number of significant intelligence successes during the years he worked as a double-agent. One does wonder how accurate such an accounting is, suggesting as it does that the combined European and U.S. spy agencies had very few other people on the inside. Storm is also quite casual, almost dismissive, about how easy it was for him to gain the complete trust of hardened terrorists, despite his very recent infidel past and quick conversion to Islam. The bad guys never really put his allegiance to the test absent a few word games, leaving the question of if al Qaeda’s operational security is really so lame why the intel agencies did not have hundreds of inside men and women. Apparently one need only send the average red-haired European Viking into Yemen claiming he is a recent Muslim convert and bam! you have infiltrated the world of terror.

    Conclusion

    Storm’s own blustery self-image and the bit of unrealness noted aside, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA is a decent read for anyone watching the world of intelligence who also appreciates a good story.




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Satire: Interview with Obama’s Nobel Prize Statue

    August 25, 2014 // 12 Comments »

    Famously, the Nobel Committee in 2009 awarded its prestigious Peace Prize to President Barack Obama.

    The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award, cited Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation and a “new climate” in international relations, especially in reaching out to the Muslim world.

    In an exclusive interview, for the first time ever the actual Peace Prize, a large, coin-like object, speaks out.

    “At first, it was an amazing time. Like the Committee, I too was all caught up in hope and change. Sure, some cynics said from the beginning that Obama just got awarded me because he wasn’t George Bush, but that just wasn’t what it felt like, honestly. We all believed. The man took me into his home and at first displayed me on his mantel in his private office. It was the same office Clinton got busy with Monica in, so I was on hallowed ground. Really, it was hashtag Proud. At the same time, Obama had his kids’ pictures on the same mantel, which felt cool at first then became kinda creepy. I should have taken the hint. I guess I was in love, and love can make you naive.”

    “Looking back, I can almost pinpoint the moment things started to fall apart. At first Barack would come in to the office, alone, and just look at me. One night, very late and after a well-deserved Scotch or two, he said to me ‘I don’t have a birth certificate, but I’ve got you my Peace Prize.’ I never felt closer to him. Then after he dropped his college transcripts behind the file cabinet and was trying to fish them out to shred, he came upon a Post-It note George Bush left behind. It read ‘They’ll believe anything, just do whatever the hell you want.’ The next day he turned me toward the wall, and a few days after that he shoved me into the junk drawer of his desk.”

    “Bang, on December 1, less than two months after getting me, Barack announces he is surging 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He even used that filthy word, surge, whereas a real man would just call it an escalation and take the heat. I still wanted to believe, so I rationalized it as something he had to hold his nose and do to clean up that mess Bush started, but looking back I now wonder how I could have been that stupid. I guess I wasn’t alone in that, but shut away in the dark drawer, I felt I could only blame myself. Sure I was being mistreated, but I somehow felt it must have been something I had done, you know, somehow my fault. If only I had been more supportive, maybe a little warmer to him after those hard days he had. I knew about Michelle, and of course knew he’d never leave her, but still.”

    “Once Barack had taken that first step, the rest just tumbled out. Drone strikes everywhere, then Libya, denying the Arab Spring, Special Ops all over Africa, whatever happened between him and Putin that one crazy weekend to ruin things, Syria, Ukraine, it just went on and on. Sometimes he’d open the drawer for a stapler or something and I’d swear his eyes were glowing bright red in the dark.”

    “But the real end for us was Iraq. Barack got elected on the fact that he was one of a very few Senators who voted against that awful war, and beat Hillary using that against her own yes vote for Iraq. He took some heat in 2011 for the pull out of the last troops from Iraq but stuck it out. So you can imagine how I felt when he announced 300 advisors being sent in, then unlimited months of air strikes, then more advisors, then whatever that Yazidi thing was, and on and on. Now the U.S. is back in Iraq on another open-ended campaign that seems to have no goal, no endpoint, no definition of ‘victory.’ Meanwhile, we are still in Afghanistan and Gitmo is still an open sore. So where have we seen this movie before, right? I keep asking myself, is this 2014, or 2006?”

    “Anyway, I begged him to just let me go. I said he should give me away to Bono or Sean Penn, or just send me off to the Carter Foundation, but he said no, I was his and always would be. I even snuck out and called the Nobel Committee, but man, if you could hear a shrug over the phone that described it.”



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Satire: U.S. Plan in Place to Defeat ISIS

    August 16, 2014 // 14 Comments »




    Special Forces Sergeant Bill “Buck” Turgidson took a knee behind a sand berm, at an undisclosed location in the scrappy northern Iraqi desert.

    “Old Mr. ISIS is a clever fighter,” said the hardened veteran, “but even though Uncle Sam has been fighting him for the last 11 years continuously, long past my failed first and second marriages but I ain’t bitter, we still have a couple of tricks up our sleeve. Yes, sir, this time around we’re getting on the inside to unleash hell.”

    The Sergeant shuffled nervously from foot to foot as he spoke, reminding this reporter that he was told to avoid placing both feet on the ground at the same time in front of anyone so that the president could honestly claim there were no American “boots on the ground.”

    “Yeah, it gets tiring, but we’re trained for it,” said the Sergeant.

    “Last round of fighting in Iraq, we tried bombing and artillery, some rockets, even knives and rocks, but nothing really stuck. Even whatever the Surge was didn’t seem to do the trick, and I’d heard from some buddies of mine up the chain that most people liked that back home. Oh well, this time is the charm. Hey, back in the U.S. do people still do that yellow ribbon thing? Kinda liked that. I once was thanked for my service losing these three fingers here near Mosul with a two-for-one coupon at Taco Bell.”

    The secret weapon to defeat ISIS?

    “Actually it is a three-part strategy to take down ISIS. And no, it’s not involving Chuck Norris! A little inside joke among us Green Beanie types. Anyway, the first part of the plan is already in play. We have secretly wanted all along for ISIS to capture some of our old military equipment. American stuff needs regular and careful maintenance. When we gave it to the Iraqis on our way out of the country, I guess that was ‘temporarily’ now, we knew the Iraqis would never take care of it. I mean, have you seen this country? People say they’re poor and all, and then everywhere you look there are mountains of trash. How can people who say they don’t have anything create that much garbage every day?”

    “Hey, you see that little hill over there? I took a round in my left thigh over there in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort when we saved the Kurds. And that way? By that well, near the sheep pen, that’s where I got hit in 2003 saving the Kurds again. Lotta stuff up here needs saving it seems, so after this intervention I’m gonna leave behind some shirts and socks so I don’t have to pack so much stuff in next time.”

    “So anyway, we knew the Iraqi so-called Army would gank up everything we left behind that they didn’t sell off for scrap metal first. No oil changes, no swapped out parts, hell, they’d sooner leave a truck on the side of the road then tighten a few bolts to keep it running. So the ole’ US of A laid that trap out in 2011 nice and quiet like, just waiting for ISIS to bite. Now, ISIS is stuck with all that junk. They might get a few miles out of some of those HUMVEES, but not much more. Our old rifles are clogging with sand as we speak, and nothing meant to fly is ever gonna again. When they call in for tech support, as some of the stuff is so new it is still under warranty, they’ll be on hold and pushing button one for hours, destroying their forward momentum. Sure hope they speak Spanish, too, because the call center is in Costa Rica. Done and done. We’re only in trouble if they stumble on to some old Russian gear from Saddam’s time.”

    “The second part of the plan is Powerpoint. Anybody who has served in the U.S. military knows we plan trips to the porta-potty with a dozen Powerpoint slides, all with animated GIFs. In fact, the Army is the world’s number one consumer of animated GIFs, along with really awful fonts. Another little known fact: 67% of the military is engaged, on average, with creating a Powerpoint presentation somewhere in the world right now. Of course I can’t tell you their exact location, but I know for a fact that SEAL Team Six is on a far-away beach at this moment building a slide deck using only a portable laptop and their night vision gear. The point is simple: we have a couple of guys on the inside of ISIS explaining that all the smart jihadis use Powerpoint. This will slow their planning cycle down by 100 percent. The two hundred Microsoft Office licenses we bought yesterday off New Egg will save American blood today, absolutely. We even had the NSA gin up some fake academic email addresses for us, so we got the four year license cheap so we’re ready for the next intervention, too.”

    “Funny thing is when I went into this in 2003 to get rid of Saddam, I told myself that I was doing it so my son would never have to. Thing is that he’s now 23, and deployed to Afghanistan. Now I’m probably shooting at the older brothers of the people I shot at last war. Small world, huh? By the way, speaking of kids, because of all this intervention I’ve been deployed almost continuously for nine years. Your kids forgive you for missing nine birthdays, right? Hey, freedom ain’t free.”

    “The last sneaky Pete thing we have ‘cooked up’ is, literally, the killer. We have purposefully overshot our drop zones for some of that humanitarian aid we are delivering by air. The stuff is all MREs, Meals Ready to Eat officially, but Joe Troop calls them Meals Rejected by Everyone. The stuff inside is nasty. During our Special Forces training we have to live in the wild, using only our knives and our cunning to survive. Me, I ate snakes and insects for two weeks. After finally being allowed back in camp and given some MREs, the only thing I could do with them was use the ‘food’ inside as bait for more snakes and insects. Pretty soon the snakes wouldn’t eat it either.”

    “So we ‘accidentally’ allowed a bunch of the MREs to fall into ISIS hands. Sooner or later they’ll get hungry enough to push some down their throats. That, my friend, will end this campaign. Can you imagine a fighting force of 100,000 jihadis, everyone of which has to hit the toilet at the same time? Our planes overhead will just roll them up, like fish in a barrell. Actually, come to think of it, fish in a barrel sounds pretty good compared to an MRE.”

    “And yeah, those 72 virgins supposedly waiting in heaven for Mr. ISIS? Well, rumor has it Saint Peter made a mistake and misdirected a couple of Marines into Muslim heaven. Let’s just say there are no longer any virgins available, if you get my meaning.”

    “Bottom line: if we don’t fight them over here, we’ll just have to come back in a few years and still fight them over here.”




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Why Airstrikes in Iraq are a Mistake

    August 8, 2014 // 16 Comments »



    As America goes back to war in Iraq with airstrikes, here’s what to know and do instead:

    — This is a slippery slope if those words have any meaning left. Airstrikes are in part to protect American advisors sent earlier to Erbil to support Kurds there because Iraqi central government won’t. The U.S. is assuming the role of the de facto Iraqi Air Force. What happens next week, next crisis, next “genocide?” Tell me how that ends.

    — Understand how deep the U.S. is already in. It is highly likely that U.S. Special Forces are active on the ground, conducting reconnaissance missions and laser-designating targets for circling U.S. aircraft. If U.S. planes are overhead, U.S. search and rescue assets are not far away, perhaps in desert forward operating positions. Protecting/evacuating Americans from Erbil will be a major military operation. This is how bigger wars begin. Go Google “Vietnam War,” say starting about 1963.

    — The U.S. media is playing the meme that the U.S. is worried about Christian minority in Iraq, as a way to engorge the American people with blood. But the media fails to note that over half of Iraq’s Christians were killed or fled during the U.S. occupation. The play in the Arab world that the U.S. cares more about a limited number of Christians now than untold thousands of Muslim lives will not aid U.S. long-term goals.

    — The questions of why what is happening in Iraq is “genocide” and why what is happening in Gaza is not remains unaddressed by the United States. Even if Americans are not asking for an answer, many others are.

    — Wait a tic– are we again “buying time” by putting American lives at risk so the Iraqis can form a government and reconcile in some short-term thing? Isn’t that what America had been doing since 2003? Wasn’t that what the “success of the Surge” in 2007 was all about? We have seen this movie already friends.

    — The only realistic hope to derail ISIS is to alienate them from Iraq Sunnis, who provide the on-the-ground support any insurgency must have to succeed. Mao called a sympathetic population “the water the fish swims in.” Separating the people from the insurgents is CounterInsurgency 101. Instead, via airstrikes, the U.S. has gone all-in on side of Iraqi Shias and Kurds. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.

    — Sunnis are not confined by the borders of Iraq and this is not a chessboard. U.S. actions toward Sunnis in Iraq (or Syria, or wherever) resonate throughout the Sunni world. There is no better recruitment tool for Sunni extremists than showing their fight is actually against the Americans. ISIS seems to be playing to this, calling the Americans “defenders of the cross.”

    — Throughout the broader Islamic world, the takeaway is that again the U.S. unleashes war against Muslims. Nothing can inspire jihad like seeing the struggle in Iraq as one against the Crusaders. ISIS seems to know this, and taunts America into deeper involvement with statements such as “the flag of Allah will fly over the White House.”

    — Precise, Surgical Strikes: Sure, just ask those wedding parties in Yemen and Afghanistan how that has worked out. It is near-evitable that mistakes will be made and innocents will die at American hands.

    — ISIS’ connections to al Qaeda are tenuous at present. However, just like when Sunnis felt threatened during the U.S. occupation, fear and military needs will inevitably drive them closer to al Qaeda.

    — Irony: Back to the Future: U.S. airstrikes on Iraq are being launched from an aircraft carrier named after George H.W. Bush, who first involved the U.S. in a shooting war against Iraq in 1991’s Desert Storm.

    — Air strikes will not resolve anything significant. The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better? We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.

    — Oh, but what should we do?!?!? The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.

    Step One: Stop digging the hole deeper (see above, Sunni-Shia-Kurd problem);

    Step Two: 2: Demand the Iraqi government stop persecuting and alienating their own Sunni population, the root of these insurgent problems;

    Step Three: Demand the Saudis and others stop funding ISIS in hopes of choking back their strength;

    Step Four: Demand the Iraqi government launch airstrikes in support of the Kurds as a show of support;

    Step Five: Deliver humanitarian aid only through the UN and the Red Crescent. In Vietnam, this mistake was colloquially expressed as “F*ck ‘em, then Feed ‘em.” So instead, divorce the good U.S. stuff from the bad U.S. stuff.

    Those things will be a good start. Airstrikes are a terrible start that begs a tragic finish.

    Be sure to also see Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea.



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Hearing the Little Voices, or Why History Matters

    July 26, 2014 // 7 Comments »




    From time to time we turn this blog over to a guest post. Today’s is by historian Daniel N. White.

    Why do we need to read history? Why does history matter? Because history helps us to hear the little voices, to discriminate among them, and to silence, perhaps, some of the more troublesome ones. And to act on those little voices, the right ones, when they tell us something important.

    For an explanation of this, let’s crack open my favorite novel, The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna. You might have heard of it somewhere along the way; you might also have seen the 1968 movie, with Candice Bergen and Steve McQueen, which was a fairly decent film.

    The book is noteworthy because it is one of a scant handful of novels about machinery, written by an author who firsthand knew and understood the world of machinery. I’ve always been a sprockethead first class, so seeing machinery written about this well always appealed to me. The book also has passages of descriptive sociology and cultural anthropology of the first order running through it; particularly about the world of men. It is also the best book ever written about the below decks Navy—the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis thought so too and said so on the dustjacket when their press reprinted it some years ago.

    McKenna wrote this book after he retired after 20-something years as a torpedo mechanic in the Navy. Sadly, McKenna died way too young from a heart attack, shortly after this book’s publication.

    The Sand Pebbles is the story of a Caliban-like machinist’s mate in the China Fleet in the 1920s, back when the US, as well as the other Western powers, ran their warships up and down the major rivers of China. The protagonist, Jake Holman, is posted to the most obscure ship on the China Station, patrolling the far reaches of the Yangtze River. Once aboard, Holman makes it a point, as he always had done, to master every single aspect of the ship’s engineering spaces. The ship is a creaky old relic taken from Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and it has a knock in the engine that has always been there and that has always defeated all prior repair efforts. The knock causes main bearing wear that in turn causes increased coal burning and regular major repairs to clean and re-clearance the ship’s crank bearings. Holman is driven to find out what the cause of the knock is, and to fix it.

    Early on in the book Holman is spending time in the ship’s bilges, sloshing around in the dirty bilge water, getting the rustproofing tar in his uniforms and skin and hair, staring at the huge pieces of rotating machinery just inches from his face, trying to figure out the problem.

    McKenna talks about all the little voices in the engine room around Holman, all the little noises of the machinery in operation, all its sights and smells, and how it is all a confusing welter of little voices, each trying to be heard. He can hear them, but he can’t hear the right one, on account of the crowded welter of them all, and his ignorance of what voice he should be listening for.

    Under the ship’s main crank spinning overhead, Holman sees a drop of oil on the engine soleplate, a drop of oil that expands and contracts regularly. All of a sudden, Holman recognizes that he’s seeing something important–this drop of oil, expanding and contracting, indicates relative movement in the soleplates, where they should be absolutely dead tight. Holman picks up a ballpeen hammer and beats on all the soleplate bolts, and discovers that many of them are loose.

    The light bulb goes off in Holman’s head–the soleplate bolts are loose, and the soleplates therefore are in misalignment, causing the rest of the machinery to be in misalignment, all on account of a long-ago grounding that bent the hull slightly. Making the soleplates true and tight to the hull will fix the problem that has dogged the ship’s engine for decades.

    McKenna goes on for a spell about the little voices in the passage that tells the above story. Anyone who has worked around machinery knows about those little voices, because they are always out there in machinery, telling you the machine’s story about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what you can do to fix it if it is broken. Anybody who is any good as a wrench, or e-tech, knows about the little voices and how important it is to listen for them. You don’t fix broken things very well without having an ear for the little voices, no matter how skilled you are as a technician. To be any good, you have to have the craft knowledge, the skills, AND the ear for the little voices.

    The story of Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles is really the same story about us and history. History gives us, should we choose to use it, the ability to hear the little voices that tell us the key important facts about some big event going on around us, some big event that is surrounded by a huge welter of competing voices. And if we read history with a keen eye—if we listen to it with discriminating ears–we are far better able to pick out the right little voice out there from all the welter of them that explains things to us, and gives us, combined with our life craft-skills that we acquire as we live and learn, the ability to understand, and perhaps even fix, the problems in our world that bedevil us.

    Ace technicians, with a sure eye, ear, and feel for the little voices, are rare, as are ace historians, and ace political leaders. But we all can do better if we are aware of these little voices, and try at least to listen for them. And that is what the study of history is for.

    Here’s an example from our today. In our train-wreck of a war in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) troops, which the US military is training, sometimes turn sides and shoot the trainers—Green on Blue violence is what the Pentagon calls it. Shoot the trainers, and if they aren’t themselves shot, they then defect to the Taliban.

    Such attacks, according to the Pentagon, are unprecedented in human history. That’s rubbish. We only need look back to France’s war in Algeria (1954-62): to cock our heads and listen to the little voices of that war. Listen for that voice, and maybe heed it:

    One day in the war there was this French infantry patrol out in the bled (the deep countryside) that got fired on by someone hiding in an orchard just outside this small village. The French patrol returned fire, and a dead fellaga (FLN—Front National Liberation, the Algerian Muslims fighting for Algeria’s independence from France) fell from one of the trees. The members of the patrol went over to his body to investigate and discovered that the person who shot at them was a very old man, who had let fly at them with some antique muzzleloader. The soldiers went through his pockets, and found a Medaille Militaire in his pocket, from the old man’s First World War days in the French Army. Thumbing the medal, and looking down at the corpse of the dead old man, the Lieutenant said, “You know, there’s just something terribly wrong with this war, terribly wrong.”

    That fellaga, a combat veteran, knew what he was up against and what he was doing and how suicidal it was for him when he grabbed his muzzleloader and went to try and bag him a Frenchman. The obvious lesson was that the gig was up for France in Algeria, and that France had to leave. Even if that wasn’t quite clear yet to that Lieutenant. He, and most all of France, had not yet the ears to hear, even if the little voices were screaming it.

    In that war, there were dozens of instances of Algerian troops killing their French officers and NCOs while they slept and then deserting to the FLN—in at least one instance, a full company of men did.

    The French were deaf to what events like these were telling them about Algerie Francais. They refused to hear the little voices. We are equally deaf, and I’d say deliberately so in the Pentagon’s case, with what Green on Blue attacks are telling us about our war in Afghanistan.

    When the Pentagon claims these attacks are unprecedented, beyond human ken and understanding, they’re willfully refusing to pay any attention to the discordant voices of history. Anyone who has read anything about the French war in Algeria knows better about the lazy canards about Green on Blue put out by the Pentagon. Anyone who has read anything about counterinsurgency has read about that war, as the French were the foremost practitioners of counterinsurgency in the 20th century, and knows about the Algerian soldiers regularly mutinying and killing their French leaders and deserting.

    The gig is up for us in Afghanistan, and the American endeavor in that country is every bit as dead as Algerie Francais. That is clear and beyond refutation.

    That lesson should be obvious, if you know your history and understand the little voices studying it lets you hear. Few in this country have read any of that history, any history much period, and so we don’t hear those little voices, and so the problems we face remain beyond our ken to understand enough to fix. But Jake Holman heard those voices in the engine room, and he fixed that engine. But that’s another, absolutely great, story from that book that I’ll leave to you.

    This piece by Dan White originally appeared on The Contrary Perspective and is reprinted by permission because it is worth reading.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    John Kerry Accidentally Sanctions Self

    July 23, 2014 // 4 Comments »




    “I’m still not sure exactly what happened,” said gaffe-prone, beleaguered Secretary of State John Kerry, “but I’m told I agreed to sanctions on myself.”


    In an exclusive, Kerry explained his mistake.


    “So there we were in the Middle East. I travel almost constantly, and at my age, even with a large staff, it can get hard to keep track. I mean, have you ever been to the MidEast? Every place looks like every other place. It’s hot, sandy, and each country seems to have some sort of odd headgear. Look, I’m not the first to get confused by all this.”

    “Anyway, so I’m tired. We’re in West-Somewhere-Stan, some forsaken patch of garbage with no oil, where the national export is dust, and I’m shaking hands for a photo op with what seems like the same orphan I shook hands in Baghdad, Kabul, Cairo and Tunis. Does that kid travel on the plane with me? We had had some local food for lunch which did not agree with me, and so I proposed sanctioning humus. Maybe it was sort of a joke, maybe I meant Hamas, maybe it was the Ambien talking. Next thing I know, the State Department spokesperson in Washington is telling reporters I have imposed a sanction on a beloved food product.”

    “It really hits the fan then. Half the Middle East turns around and imposes retaliatory sanctions on me. Those people can’t agree on something simple like not killing each others’ kids, and bang! overnight they band together on some silly food thing. I had hoped it was going to blow over after another suicide bombing like always, but then Israel joins in the sanctions against me. Cray cray, amiright?”

    Kerry leaned over to an aide, who confirmed for him that he had read his printed talking points correctly.

    “Can’t be too careful, right?” joked Kerry, now chewing on the edge of the note card.

    “So once Israel agreed to join every Arab nation on the planet in sanctioning me, my hands were tied. I mean, when Israel barks, I’m there with a Scooby treat, often a multi-million dollar treat. So, in a show of solidarity with Israel– who indeed has the right to defend itself against me, which I strongly support– I agreed to join the sanctions regime against myself. I even explained that the United States views the situation with concern to make it all official. Tomorrow I’ll add ‘grave concern.’ That’ll show me I mean business about myself.”

    “Next thing I know, everybody in the U.S. is on TV about it. I thought nobody actually watched those Sunday morning news shows, but it turns out that Fox has an intern who takes notes if she’s up early. Pretty soon all of the media has opinions on this, some former Ambassador is writing an Op-Ed and then Barack orders me to come home and not leave my room.”

    “So we get on the plane and I’m relaxing with a stiff drink when out the window I see three F-18’s escorting us. My pilot tells me they’re trying to force us to land somewhere, saying I’m violating my own sanctions by flying, plus I’m on the No-Fly list now. Guess what? I end up in Moscow! Nearest airport somehow. You’d think they had a lot of places to stay there with capitalism and all, but I found out all the VIPs are stuck in the same place, which was booked solid for the Ukrainian National Day celebration, and I get stuck on Edward Snowden’s couch for the night. Awkward.”

    “At least the guy is pretty quiet, though he leaves his towels on the floor in the shower. And who doesn’t flush? But we got along OK and he even helped me with my laptop. The State Department still runs some software thingie I’m told is called “Windows XP” and Snowden told me it hadn’t been ‘patched’ since ‘like when the first Matrix came out.’ I had left the paper with all my passwords on the plane, but he knew mine somehow. He even said he installed a free ‘keylogger’ for me and some other good stuff. I asked him if I needed a new laptop and he was adamant that I should never, ever stop using the one he had installed all that magic stuff on. What could I say? Hah hah, I can’t even program my VCR I told Ed.”

    “That was apparently funny, because my aide had to explain to Ed what a VCR was. Ed said ‘LOL,’ which made me feel good after all those sanctions.”

    “How it could the day get worse? One word– Vladimir Putin. Really, what is that guy’s problem? Putin shows up on TV opposing sanctions against me. C’mon, does that dude have to oppose everything we do? Yeah, apparently he does. So I have to throw together a press conference where I call out Putin for opposing sanctions on me, and call on the international community to robustly support even greater sanctions against me. The EU issues a statement saying they resolutely aren’t sure what their position is, and the press sniping starts all over. I’m stuck ‘accidentally’ saying into an open mic I’m personally really angry at myself for not upholding the sanctions. What a mess.”

    “Next thing I know, my own State Department starts Tweeting about the sanctions, hashtagging my sorry self with junk like #SaveALifeSanctionKerry. Worse yet, they’re sending me emails asking me to approve the Tweets about myself, something about policies come and go but bureaucracy remains. Man, me and Snowden had a laugh about that one. He knew my password for Netflix and so we just chilled after that.”

    “So here I am stuck in Russia with all these sanctions on me. I hear Obama is threatening to ‘ratchet down’ the sanctions on me if China doesn’t lower tariffs. I’d like to fly there and sort that out, but with the sanctions I’m really over a barrell. I can’t even use my card at the ATM. At this point I’m not sure what to do next. I’m thinking of calling up Jon Stewart and seeing if he’ll weigh in for me. He’s about the only guy left Barack really listens to. Wish me luck.”



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Another Whistleblower Speaks Out: Air Force Contract Fraud

    July 18, 2014 // 16 Comments »




    Looking for a new hero? Meet former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tim Ferner, who exposed millions in U.S. government contract fraud, and paid the price for his patriotism.


    Contract Fraud with Your Money

    Tim Ferner blew the whistle on a contract-steering scam involving a middleman in Florida and an engineering company hired to develop anti-terrorism techniques.

    Tim Ferner suspected the scam in 2007 when his superiors at the Coalition and Irregular Warfare Center downplayed his concerns about how contracts were being doled out. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), received those contracts.

    Ferner tried to go through military channels to stop the fraud he witnessed, Instead of helping, his superiors made his life difficult, even threatening to deploy him to Afghanistan while he was undergoing cancer treatment. Ultimately, he was fired from his job as Chief of Staff for the Coalition and Irregular Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base and relegated to a menial position. With channels closed off and retaliation underway, the case went to court.

    Settlements

    SAIC and the government reached a settlement. The Department of Justice went to pains to note the settlement contained “allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.” However, SAIC agreed to pay the government $5.75 million to resolve allegations it circumvented the bidding process to obtain lucrative contracts.

    Ferner’s lawyers claimed the alleged scam was facilitated by a civilian middleman who “claimed to be a high-ranking government official who had authority to bypass the bidding process, none of which was true.” Ferner himself “was alarmed that his military supervisors condoned and wanted to cover up the violation.”

    And hey, small world: SAIC around the same time also paid the government $11.75 million to settle allegations it charged inflated prices for another, unrealted, contract.

    EXCLUSIVE: Ferner Recounts His Whistleblowing

    Ferner received a nice financial award under the False Claims Act, and left the U.S. for New Zealand. In an exclusive, he speaks out on his own experience as a whistleblower, with some hard words for America about how its government works:

    Exactly one year after my whistle-blowing case became public, I’m looking back and wondering: “What the hell was I thinking?” Like many whistleblowers, my allegations were validated; I was vindicated but nobody was ever held accountable. So actually, what was accomplished?

    My case pales in comparison to others working in the government who have come across really bad people doing horrendous things. All across America there are thousands of regular people, brave men and women who happen upon malfeasance. These people had the courage and conviction to do the right thing and report it. Why? Like myself, these people did the right thing because honor and integrity are the core essence of who they are. Unfortunately, honesty, integrity and dedication to professionalism are dying traits across America and individuals who demonstrate these qualities are punished, especially those who work within the government sector.

    I’ve always felt that as a member of the United States military it was an honor and privilege to serve a great nation. And that, in addition to my legal obligations, I had a moral obligation to ensure that the monies the American people paid were spent in the most effective and efficient manner. I always treated government monies the same as my own personal money and spent it judiciously. Unfortunately, other military members and government employees don’t hold the same view. Consequently, millions and millions of taxpayers’ dollars are wasted needlessly. Like thousands of other whistle-blowers working for the government, I found out what happens when you have the audacity to call them out on fraud, waste and abuse and try and hold people accountable.

    The terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11 changed our country in many ways. People don’t recognize that it’s changed the way the government provides safety and security to the people. The government embraced contractors to provide security in keeping America safe. We seem to be safer but at what cost? This decision has transformed the governmental contracting process into something akin to a gigantic hog’s trough. The government pours an endless supply of money into the trough and the contractors continue to “belly up” and feed totally unchecked. The government provides little oversight over monies spent and a fearful public doesn’t care so long as they think they are safe.

    Consequently, unscrupulous individuals continue to line their pockets at our expense. Even when they are caught, the government does nothing and seemingly doesn’t care. Contractors pay huge fines under the auspices of “avoiding the costs of protracted litigation” while the individuals involved plead to lesser charges in exchange for working with prosecutors. The fraud, waste and abuse is so prevalent that this ridiculous cycle is the only way to keep it in check. The “Justice System” is devoid of any justice or accountability; it’s solely a process designed to make it look like something is being done.

    I uncovered in excess of $42 million in fraud. Despite this, nobody has been prosecuted or held accountable. Like so many other contractors, a multimillion dollar settlement was paid to the government to “costly, protracted litigation.” The individual operating as the “middleman” was ultimately found to be liable for $42 million. Despite this, he negotiated this down and paid a fine of $105,000 in exchange for providing assistance to the government in “ongoing investigations.” Amazingly, all these people still have security clearances and still work as a contractors for the government. What message does this send about the government’s commitment to honesty and integrity in the contracting community?

    The Air Force officers responsible for overseeing the programs involved in the fraud all walked away with no repercussions to their careers. The taxpayers paid a lot of money to some very senior officers to not be held accountable. A sad commentary that in today’s Air Force, the moral fibre of the command environment is so fetid that it views fraud as a normal cost of doing business. Nice to know the senior leaders who are deciding the fate of your sons and daughters get that privilege given their lack of morality. How can we expect them to make an appropriate decision on the sanctity of life when they lack the morality to decide simple things like what’s right and wrong concerning contract fraud? Aren’t the military supposed to be above the pettiness of politics? Or has the military just become another breeding ground for the dysfunctional politicians that now stymie our political system? Given the fiscal state of the country people should be outraged!

    Like so many other whistle-blowers; I know in my heart I did the right thing in reporting the fraud. And again, like so many other whistle-blowers I was the only one who paid a price throughout the ordeal. Ostracised, targeted and ultimately punished because I had the audacity to believe we the people deserve better. When are we going to start holding people accountable? Like other whistleblowers; I’ve done my part. Everybody needs to do their part. It’s hard for others to look at maleficence in government and report it when they see how whistleblowers are treated but more needs to be done.

    I hope you never find yourself in the unenviable position of being a whistleblower; and I mean that. Yeah, I got a nice settlement for my troubles as a whistleblower but that’s not why I did it. I did it because it was the right thing to do. Knowing what I know now, I’m still looking back thinking; “What the hell was I thinking?”






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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Ten Reasons Airstrikes in Iraq are a Terrible Idea

    June 23, 2014 // 6 Comments »




    The smell of blood is once again in the air in Washington, this week for airstrikes and other forms of violent intervention in Iraq (reference: many of the same people– McCain and Graham in particular– were only recently calling for airstrikes or other military action in the Ukraine, and before that Syria, and before that…)

    Here are some of the many reasons airstrikes (or any other form of U.S. military action) in Iraq are just a terrible idea.


    1) Air strikes will not resolve anything significant.

    The short answer is through nine years of war and occupation U.S. air power in Iraq, employed on an unfettered scale, combined with the full-weight of the U.S. military on the ground plus billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, failed to resolve the issues now playing out in Iraq. Why would anyone think a lesser series of strikes would work any better?

    We also have a recent Iraqi example of the pointlessness of air strikes. The Maliki government employed them with great vigor against Sunnis in western Iraq, including in Fallujah, only six months ago, and here we are again, with an even more powerful Sunni force in the field.


    2) But air strikes now are crucial to buying the Iraqi government time to seek a political solution.

    See above about nine years of ineffectiveness. Today’s crisis is not new; Iraqi PM Maliki has been in power since 2006 and has done nothing to create an inclusive government. Indeed, he has done much to actively ostracize, alienate, jail and destroy his Sunni opposition. Maliki currently is his non-inclusionary own Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense. Replacing Maliki, another regime change the U.S. now apparently supports, is no magic cure. Maliki’s successor will most likely come from his own majority party, and inherit his own ties to Iran and the many Shia groups needed to stay in power. Even with good intentions, a new Prime Minister will walk into office in the midst of a raging, open war against Sunni forces, not exactly the best place to start towards a more inclusive government. This argument of buying the Iraqis time is the same falsehood that fueled the unsuccessful Surges in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009). History matters, and it is time to accept that despite arguable tactical progress, in the longer view, the Surges did not work. And long views are what matter.

    Even David Petraeus, once America’s golden boy as architect of the Iraq Surge, warns against military intervention now in Iraq.


    3) John Kerry flying around the world diplomizing on Iraq is an air strike of its own.

    Worth noting is also the uselessness of American diplomacy. Since 2006 the U.S. has maintained its largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, with thousands of State Department and military personnel, alongside no doubt a healthy intelligence presence. It is clear that all those diplomats have not accomplished much in service to Iraqi reconciliation under even the more peaceful conditions in the past. It is unrealistic to expect more now.

    As for recruiting allies to intercede somehow with America in Iraq, that seems equally unlikely. The British, America’s former stalwart companion in global adventures, refused to get involved in American action last September in Syria. British involvement in the 2003 invasion remains controversial at home, and it is hard to see the Brits getting fooled again.



    4) Air strikes are surgical.

    Oh please. Check with the wedding parties in Yemen destroyed, and funeral gatherings massacred in Pakistan. Bombs and missiles are not surgical tools. They blow stuff up. It is impossible to avoid killing people near the other people you set out to kill, what the U.S. blithely refers to as collateral damage. And even that assumes you are aiming the weapons even close to the right place to begin with. Bad info that identifies the wrong house means you kill an innocent family, not a ISIS command cell.

    And even if you take the coldest American view possible that collateral damage is just an unavoidable cost of war, you fail to understand the real cost. Every innocent killed sets the population further against the U.S. and the people the U.S. seeks to support, both in Iraq and throughout the greater Middle East. Videos of dead children propagate well over social media.


    5) Air strikes are not a counterinsurgency tool.

    See nine years of war and occupation in Iraq, or forever years of war in places like Vietnam. You cannot bomb away a political movement. You cannot kill an idea that motivates millions of people with a Hellfire missile.


    6) Air strikes mean the U.S. is taking sides in a pit bull fight.

    The U.S. strikes would presumably be in an attempt to support the “Iraqi government and army.” The problem is that those entities are elusive. The Maliki government enjoys uneven public support, so supporting it alienates swaths of the Iraqi population and nearly requires them to take up arms against the U.S. and its puppets. The forces Maliki is putting into the field include a growing number of Shia militias under the control, such as that even is, of individual warlords and religious leaders. These are fighters who actively killed Americans just a few years ago, but somehow we’re on their side now. Maliki’s collection of forces are also bolstered in various ways by Iran. Somehow we’re on their side now too. Air strikes are part of a pattern of failed short-term thinking by the U.S.


    7) Air strikes are just more of “whack-a-mole” foreign policy.

    These entanglements are much more serious than to be dismissed as “well, politics makes for strange bedfellows” or “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Such trite phrases are typical of a U.S. foreign policy that only sees discrete crises within clear geopolitical borders. As long as the U.S. fantasizes that it can support Sunni fighters in Syria while striking them in Iraq, and as long as the U.S. believes it can bolster Iranian goals and credibility in Iraq while pushing back against it elsewhere in the Gulf, the worse things will get in the broader region.

    The same applies to the U.S.’ global “whack-a-mole” geopolitical strategy. Russia invades the Ukraine? A devoted by Washington to that. Boko Harem kidnaps girls? Ten days of Twitter memes. Iraq simmers for years? Let’s act now (and only now) before the next shiny object distracts our leaders.


    8 ) But air strikes are necessary because the U.S. must “do something.”

    Nope. There is nothing that says the U.S. must “do something” in response to all world events. There are many reasons to say even if we are compelled to do something, a military “solution” is not necessarily, or even often, the right thing to do. Imagine if you are outside a burning house, with a can of gasoline in your hand. With the compulsion to do something, is it better to throw the gas can into the flames, or stand back. Sometimes the best answer is indeed to stand back.

    9) ISIS is a threat to the U.S. and has to be air struck to stop another 9/11.

    ISIS is far from the Super Villains the U.S. media has seen necessary to depict them as. The groups fighting on the “Sunni” side, such as it is, are a collection of tribal, Baathist, religious, warlord and other conglomerations. Their loosely organized goal is to hold territory that criss-crosses the borders of Iraq and Syria. Absent some odd event, they are likely to withdraw or be chased out of central Iraq and hold on out west, where they have existed as a state-like thing for some time now. Central Iraq is way too far from their home base to retain supply lines (though they have been doing well capturing weapons from the retreating Iraqi forces), and Shia militia strength is more powerful the closer ISIS, et al, get to Baghdad.

    The threat line is most ardently espoused by who else, Dick Cheney, who brought out his own go-to scary thing, saying “One of the things I worried about 12 years ago – and that I worry about today – is that there will be another 9/11 attack and that the next time it’ll be with weapons far deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.”

    ISIS and/or its Sunni supporters in Iraq have held territory in western Iraq for years without being a threat to the U.S. Homeland. Little changes if they hold a bit more, or less territory.

    ISIS is not a transnational terror group, and unless the U.S. drives them into an alliance with al Qaeda (as the U.S. did in the early years of the 2003 invasion with the Sunnis), they are unlikely to be. They fight with small arms in small groups under loose leadership. They will not be invading the U.S.

    10) Bottom line why air strikes are a terrible waste.

    The U.S. lost the war in Iraq years ago, probably as early as 2003. It is time to accept that.




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Radio Interview: Between the Lines, with Scott Harris

    June 22, 2014 // 2 Comments »




    Here’s a radio interview I did with Scott Harris, host of Between the Lines. Follow this link for the full interview.

    The focus of the interview is how the 2003 invasion of Iraq upset a fragile but workable balance of power in the Middle East, unleashing the chaos we are witnessing today playing out in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. So the short version: yes, it is all our fault, and more airstrikes and drone killings will work out in current Iraq about as well as they have in Yemen, Libya and all the other places where lacking any alternative besides getting out, the U.S. just lashes out.

    Between The Lines describes itself as “a weekly syndicated half-hour news magazine featuring progressive perspectives on national and international political, economic and social issues” which seems about right. Have a listen to the interview!



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Classification: Hiding American War from Americans

    June 17, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    Our government classifies a lot of documents, some 92 million in 2011 alone.

    The ostensible point of all that classification is protect the nation’s secrets. Some of it even makes sense. Troop movements, nuclear things, identities of spies, traditional stuff you want to keep from your enemies. The purpose of classification is not to hide government mistakes or prevent embarrassing things from coming into daylight.

    The president even said so. Obama’s 2009 Executive Order on National Security Information made clear “In no case shall information be classified, continue to be maintained as classified, or fail to be declassified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error, or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency.”

    More Irony in a Nation Awash with It

    Yes, more irony in a nation awash with it. But seriously, when the point of classification is keeping the realities of America’s wars from Americans, that says we are the enemy. Today’s case in point:

    The top official in charge of the classification system decided that it was legitimate for the Marines to classify photographs that showed American forces posing with corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and urinating on them. Many of the photos have already been published, but no matter, whatever hasn’t leaked out is now a secret. A kicker is that the “top official” who decides these things is some guy at the National Archives you’ve never heard of.

    That top official is allowed to be the final arbiter of what Americans can see of their wars because of Executive Order 13526, Section 5.5, which grants him alone the authority to make a report to the head of an agency, or to the designated senior agency official for classified national security information, if any members of the agency knowingly, willfully, or negligently classify or continue the classification of information in violation of the Order. So, in this case, he just did that, confirming in a simple letter that the Marines can keep the photos a secret.

    Support the Troops!

    The stated reason for the secrecy? To support the troops, of course. The rationale is that the release of additional images would make the Taliban somehow even angrier at the U.S. for occupying Afghanistan for 13 years and provoke more attacks. The same rationale, though a different legal manipulation, was used to keep additional photos of American torture at Abu Ghraib and images from the bin Laden kill locked up.

    A video of the Marines’ now-classified act is still on YouTube:




    Unless the Taliban can’t see YouTube from Afghanistan, they already know what happened.

    Another thing the Taliban also know is that the Marine Corps sniper captured on a YouTube video urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan was only reduced in rank after a court-martial. So, an act by a Marine that supposedly could cost American lives is punished merely by a reduction in rank. And even that mild rebuke took two years to happen. That couldn’t possibly stir anyone up in Afghanistan.

    We Got This

    The Taliban, as the Iraqis before them, know darn well what happened. It is even possible they know of atrocities by American troops that weren’t photographed as trophies of war and are thus unknown to Americans. Classifying the photos does not change the fact that the atrocities happened. It only tries (albeit crudely and stupidly) to hide those atrocities from the American people.

    BONUS: For anyone offended by the images above, or who thinks I should label this article NSFW because of the pee pee thing, please stop for a moment and acknowledge what you see here was done by Americans to people they just killed. In that sense only is it offensive and obscene.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Why America Can Never Win in Iraq

    June 16, 2014 // 20 Comments »




    I think of it now, all the time.

    Sometimes I think I even recognize a place on TV I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation in Iraq, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded in turn with two Army brigades of some 3000 men and women each, far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had.

    Why We Lost

    I grow weary of the drumbeat for the U.S. to return to Iraq and blow more stuff up. Drones, airstrikes, Special Forces on the ground who are somehow not really “boots on the ground,” the whole bloodlust redux. As a human being I decry the loss of more life. As someone who cares about America’s foreign policy, I cannot believe (while believing) that we are continuing to misunderstand the larger picture, what might be called the strategic or long-term, once again for the tactical, the expedient, the short-term.

    Of all the many reasons why American could not win its Iraq War (and I wrote about one of the most significant, the failure of Occupation and Reconstruction, in my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People perhaps the one that is most applicable now is the most basic.

    America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space that imagines Blue Forces fighting Red Forces, Saving Private Ryan but with more sand. Instead, in Iraq right now, there are multiple layers of war going on. For those who like to look ahead a bit, you may feel free to substitute “Syria” for “Iraq” in the rest of this article. Most of this also applies to Libya, Afghanistan and pretty much the rest of the post-9/11 conflicts.


    A War of Layers

    Instead of a good old fashioned and simple Our Side vs. Their Side, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, the Iraq War is one comprised of many layers. They intermingle and overlap, kind of like the multiverse of conflict. Some of this is painted here in quibbly broad strokes, but the core is solid:

    — On the surface you have our media-view war: Jihadists vs. The Iraqi Government. This is the dominant view in Washington, because it is the easiest to understand in bullet points, the easiest to sell to the American people through an ever-compliant media, and the one that fuels the most defense spending. These sorts of wars need plenty of hardware for the U.S. military, and lots of stuff to sell to whichever side we support. You can imagine these sorts of wars as winnable with brave-but-Spartan-like-expendable Special Forces, drones and intel. Blue-on-Red wars also lend themselves well to demonizing the enemy (Terrorists! Who kill people! Who want Sharia law!)

    — Another layer down in Iraq you have one group dominated by Sunnis vs. another Shia one fighting a political civil war for actual control of territory. The U.S. willingness to devote extraordinary amounts of money and military power to keeping “Iraq” from not separating on its historical boundaries (the present national borders were drawn up by British cartographers after WWI) over eight years of Occupation and for four years of pretend democracy left this one on long-term simmer awaiting today’s boil. Enough power and money can reduce it again to a simmer, maybe, but it won’t go away.

    — Below that layer are intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite struggles for turf and power. There is no such thing as a Sunni Corporate Structure, or a Shia one, with privates reporting to colonels who report to a white house. Instead you have religious allegiances, tribal allegiances, warlord allegiances, paid for allegiances, allegiances of convenience and so forth. At some point they turn on each or dissolve, for awhile, then often reassemble. During the Occupation the U.S. thought they could play off various groups against each other, but the Iraqis had been doing that long before any Americans got there, and knew the game so well that it was like putting the U.S. soccer team up against the Brazilians.

    — Laying under it all is the much larger proxy war, including Iran’s support for the Shiites/Malaki government and Saudi/Kuwaiti support for the Sunnis. To zoom out for a moment, this is why invading Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan failed as well. Failure to focus on the proxy war means things like America supporting the same side as the Iranians in Iraq. Inevitably, this results in adding to Iran’s regional power with every drone flight and Special Forces action undertaken. That Iranian regional power will end up projecting itself elsewhere, such as in Syria, where the U.S. and Iran are not on the same side.

    — And just because many Americans don’t see/know this, the people in the region sure do: should airstrikes occur,or even just more military aid into Iraq, once again America is at war in an Islamic country. You cannot win the hearts and minds of dead people, but you sure can help recruit their friends and relatives against you. Worse, in that the U.S. promised to leave forever in 2011. America is also supporting Shias against Sunnis, which does not go unnoticed outside of Iraq.


    Why the U.S. Cannot Win

    The reason why America can never win the war in Iraq, et al, is because to win the war you have to somehow win all the layers of wars, and to win all the wars involves impossible to resolve paradoxes such as siding with the Iranians here while opposing them there. Here and there are often in reality the same place, such as along the Syrian-Iraqi border. It can’t be done. It is a trick, like a carnival ring toss game. The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just another sucker with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.

    BONUS: Not convinced yet? The aircraft carrier being sent into the Persian Gulf to launch any air strikes the U.S. deems necessary is the USS George H.W. Bush. Construction of the ship began in 2003, planning and funding well before that. I know irony is not a government thing, but using a carrier named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq is one level of it, and then realizing we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who started the adventure is another.

    BONUS BONUS: And for goodness sakes, stop saying this is all PM Maliki’s fault. It is, of course, but only after the U.S. slipped him into power in the 2006 elections, allowed him to cut deals with the Iranians to stay in power in 2010 elections and then has maintained him in power with money, weapons and support since then (including now).



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Whither Iraq? What’s Happening Had to Happen

    June 13, 2014 // 17 Comments »




    The events unfolding now in Iraq are inevitable. They are the latest iteration of all the good we failed to do from day one of America’s ill-fated invasion in 2003.

    Some History

    Iraq before our invasion was three separate pseudo-states held together by a powerful security apparatus under Saddam. If you like historical explanations, this disparate collection was midwifed by the British following WWI, as they drew borders in the MidEast to their own liking, with often no connection to the ground-truth of the real ethnic, religious and tribal boundaries.

    That mess held together more or less until the U.S. foolishly broke it apart in 2003 with no real understanding of what it did. As Saddam was removed, and his security regime dissolved alongside most of civilian society, the seams broke open.

    The Kurds quickly created a de facto state of their own, with its own military (the pesh merga), government and borders. U.S. money and pressure restrained them from proclaiming themselves independent, even as they waged border wars with Turkey and signed their own oil contracts.

    Sunni-Shia Rift

    The Sunni-Shia rift fueled everything that happened in Iraq, and is happening now. The U.S. never had a long game for this, but never stopped meddling in the short-term. The Surge was one example. The U.S. bought off the Sunni bulk with actual cash “salaries” to their fighters (the U.S. first called them the Orwellian “Concerned Local Citizens” and then switched to “Sons of Iraq,” which sounded like an old Bob Hope road movie title.) The U.S. then also used Special Forces to assassinate Sunni internal enemies– a favored sheik need only point at a rival, label him al-Qaeda, and the night raids happened. A lull in the killing did occur as a result of the Surge, but was only sustained as long as U.S. money flowed in. As the pay-off program was “transitioned” to the majority Shia central government, it quickly fell apart.

    The Shias got their part of the deal when, in 2010, in a rush to conclude a Prime Ministerial election that would open the door to a U.S. excuse to pack up and leave Iraq, America allowed the Iranians to broker a deal where we failed. The Sunnis were marginalized, a Shia government was falsely legitimized and set about pushing aside the Sunni minority from the political process, Iranian influence increased, the U.S. claimed victory, and then scooted our military home. Everything since then between the U.S. and Iraq– pretending Maliki was a legitimate leader, the billions in aid, the military and police training, the World’s Largest Embassy– has been pantomime.

    Post-America Iraq

    But the departure of the U.S. military, and the handing over of relations to the ever-limp fortress American embassy, left Iraq’s core problems intact. Last year’s Sunni siege of Fallujah only underscored the naughty secret that western Iraq had been and still is largely under Sunni control with very little (Shia) central government influence. That part of Iraq flows seamlessly over the artificial border with Syria, and the successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a war zone that now takes in both countries should not be a surprise.

    The titular head of Iraq now, Nuri al-Maliki, is watching it all unravel in real-time. He has become scared enough to call for U.S. airstrikes to protect his power. It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will comply, though covert strikes and some level of Special Forces action may happen behind the scenes. That won’t work of course. What the full weight of the U.S. military could not do over nine years, a few drone killings cannot do. It’s like using a can opener to try and catch fish.

    What Might Happen Next

    Things are evolving quickly in Iraq, but for now, here are some possible scenarios. The Kurds are the easy ones; they will keep on doing what they have been doing. They will fight back effectively and keep their oil flowing. They’ll see Baghdad’s influence only in the rear-view mirror.

    The Sunnis will at least retain de facto control of western Iraq, maybe more. They are unlikely to be set up to govern in any formal way, but may create some sort of informal structure to collect taxes, enforce parts of the law and chase away as many Shias as they can. Violence will continue, sometimes hot and nasty, sometimes low-level score settling.

    The Shias are the big variable. Maliki’s army seems in disarray, but if he only needs it to punish the Sunnis with violence it may prove up to that. Baghdad will not “fall.” The city is a Shia bastion now, and the militias will not give up their homes. A lot of blood may be spilled, but Baghdad will remain Shia-controlled and Maliki will remain in charge in some sort of limited way.

    The U.S. will almost certainly pour arms and money into Iraq in the same drunken fashion we always have. Special Forces will quietly arrive to train and advise. It’ll be enough to keep Maliki in power but not much more than that. Domestically we’ll have to endure a barrage of “who lost Iraq?” and the Republicans will try and blast away at Obama for not “doing enough.” United States is poised to order an evacuation of the embassy, Fox News reported, but that is unlikely. “Unessential” personnel will be withdrawn, many of those slated to join the embassy out of Washington will be delayed or canceled, but the embarrassment of closing Fort Apache down would be too much for Washington to bear. The U.S. will use airstrike and drones if necessary to protect the embassy so that there will be no Benghazi scenario.

    What is Unlikely to Happen

    The U.S. will not intervene in any big way, absent protecting the embassy. Obama has cited many times the ending of the U.S. portion of the Iraq war as one of his few foreign policy successes and he won’t throw that under the bus. The U.S. backed off from significant involvement in Syria, and has all but ignored Libya following Benghazi, and that won’t change.

    The U.S. must also be aware that intervening to save Maliki puts us on the same side in this mess as the Iranians.

    Almost none of this has to do with al Qaeda or international terrorism, though those forces always profit from chaos.

    The Turks may continue to snipe at the Kurds on their disputed border, but that conflict won’t turn hot. The U.S. will keep the pressure on to prevent that, and everyone benefits if the oil continues to flow.

    The Iranians will not intervene any more than the Americans might. A little help to Malaki here (there are reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the fighting), some weapons there, but Iran is only interested in a secure western border and the Sunni Surge should not threaten that significantly enough to require a response. Iran also has no interest in giving the U.S. an excuse to fuss around in the area. A mild level of chaos in Iraq suits Iran’s needs just fine for now.

    Lost

    There are still many fools at loose in the castle. Here’s what Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics said: “There is hope… that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”

    Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, brought out a tired trope, on Twitter no less: “The U.S. has a permanent Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We have suffered and bled together, and we will help in time of crisis.”

    The war in Iraq was lost as it started. There was no way for America to win it given all of the above, whether the troops stayed forever or not. The forces bubbling inside Iraq might have been contained a bit, or a bit longer, but that’s about all that could have been expected. Much of the general chaos throughout the Middle East now is related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how that upset multiple balances of power and uneasy relationships. The Iraq war will be seen as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of recent American history. That too is inevitable.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Obama Official: Bowe Bergdahl was Swift-Boated

    June 6, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    Let’s be clear: I am glad Bowe Bergdahl is home from five years with the Taliban. If he was truly captured on the battlefield, give him a parade. If he ran away, send him to trial.

    At the same time, the Obama administration’s bleating that “all the facts aren’t in” and that somehow after five years some sort of endless investigation needs to happen are just sad. The military has had five years to interview everyone they needed to, except Bowe.

    They have, no doubt, five years of intelligence, electronic eavesdropping and many, many pages of transcripts of what the Taliban said while negotiating with the U.S. over Bergdahl’s release. Bergdahl may have left letters behind before he disappeared, so some of his side has already been heard.

    Oops, There Already was an Investigation

    Better (worse?) yet, the Army already has done an investigation. A classified military report detailing the Army’s investigation into the disappearance of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in June 2009 says that he had wandered away from assigned areas before — both at a training range in California and at his remote outpost in Afghanistan — but returned.

    The roughly 35-page report, completed two months after Sergeant Bergdahl left his unit, concludes that he most likely walked away of his own free will from his outpost one night, and it criticized lax security practices and poor discipline within his unit. But it stops short of concluding that there is solid evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl intended to permanently desert.

    The report is said to have been based extensive interviews with members of Bergdahl’s unit, including his squad leader, platoon leader, and company and battalion commanders. It is said to confirm certain other details relayed in recent accounts, including that Bergdahl shipped his computer and a journal home before he disappeared. It also confirms that he left behind his body armor and weapon, taking with him only water, knives and a compass.

    So all that’s left is to ask Bergdahl himself a few questions (“What happened that night you walked off base?” “Why did we pick up radio transmissions the next day saying you were in a local village, asking for people who spoke English?” “Why didn’t you try and return to your unit?”)

    And yet…

    And yet… we have these Tweets from an Obama administration official, albeit a minor one. The Tweeter is former Department of Veteran’s Affairs Director of Online Communications, and now Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Brandon Friedman. That’s the photo, above, he uses on his personal website. See, he’s holding the frame of an iPad, so it’s “hip.”

    Here’s what Brandon Tweeted about Bowe Bergdahl:



    Now for all you Snowden accusers out there, who claim Snowden is a traitor because he did not “go through channels” and all that, take a close look at Brandon Friedman’s statements. He claims that if you’re in the military and have grown disillusioned and no longer trust your leaders (You out there Edward?), it’s kinda sorta OK to just walk over to the Taliban and join their jamboree. After that, if any of your former squad mates call you out, well, they’re psychopaths and have a reason to smear you.

    Sorry, It is Actually Worse

    At this point you’d think “What does a douche like Brandon Friedman know about military life anyway? Guys like him fight wars from cushy dorms at Ivy League colleges.”

    Nope. Friedman served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. In March 2002, he led a rifle platoon into Afghanistan’s Shah-e-Kot Valley engaging Taliban and al Qaeda fighters as part of Operation Anaconda, a battle later written about in Not a Good Day to Die A year later, Friedman commanded a heavy weapons platoon during the invasion of Iraq. He led troops during combat and counterinsurgency operations in Hillah, Baghdad, and Tal Afar. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    One doubts Friedman would have been so forgiving of his own deserting troops when he commanded in the field. In other words, he knows better but writes idiotic garbage such as those Tweets anyway.


    Scabby Syncophants

    The Obama people knew all about Bergdahl. They knew of the serious questions about his disappearance. Yet they sent Susan Rice (again; she really just needs to sleep in on Sundays) on the talk shows to say he served “with honor and distinction.” Same swill from the State Department spokesperson. They have little bed bugs like Brandon Friedman out there saying ridiculous things.

    And there’s your tale of the infestation of the scabby syncophants we call our “government.” They’ll say and do anything to please their boss, with callous disregard for the public they are allegedly paid to serve.

    No man left behind? Brandon Friedman left himself behind and could do little more harm to respect and faith in government if he had joined up with the Taliban himself. I propose another swap. Send Susan Rice, too, for that matter. Or maybe just blame it all on some obscure anti-Islam video on YouTube?





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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Book Review: Pomegranate Peace

    June 1, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    Pomegranate Peace, a new novel by Rashmee Roshan Lall, is a funny, sad and all-too-true piece of fiction about the failure of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and about the crippling isolation America’s diplomats impose on themselves in that misguided war. The novel is also a cookbook, but we’ll get to that later.

    Pomegranates for Freedom

    The story is built around the arrival to Afghanistan of a fresh State Department employee, quickly tasked with one of the many reconstruction projects designed by the U.S. to gain the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, eradicate poppy production to save the drug-using American people and, not coincidentally, win the war. The project could have been any of the insane ideas tried in Afghanistan (as they were in Iraq) but in this case it was pomegranates. First step was five million dollars in U.S. taxpayer money, handed over to an Afghani-Canadian contractor resident in Vancouver. Said Canadian would then use the money to get Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates to replace the evil poppy, and then arrange for the fruit to be marketed worldwide. Afghanistan apparently grows some mighty tasty pomegranates.

    Though it would be wrong to spoil the tragic-comic details of how the project rapidly falls apart (alert readers may already be questioning how someone in Canada could affect much change on the ground in Afghanistan), it does, with the only pomegranates ever exported traveling out on a single U.S. military flight, and the protagonist fails spectacularly and semi-hilariously in her whistleblowing attempts to tell the State Department how pitifully it has again failed (“If we started to second-guess our colleagues we’ll never really get on with the task at hand,” the ambassador tells her.) It’s a good story on its own, and you keep turning the pages to watch it unfold.

    “We soldiered on proposing-– and paying for-– a philanthropic revolution at every level of Afghanistan’s life as a nation but our only measure of success was that the ‘small’ grants were big and the big were simply enormous,” says the main character. Indeed, since 2001 nearly $60 billion has poured into Afghanistan. Yet the author’s description of her city– “twenty-first-century Kabul’s story appeared to be written in the dust that overlaid a definite, if ill-defined sense of decay–” tells the tale of waste. “Be nice to America or we’ll bring democracy to your country,” one character sardonically jokes.

    Living Her Story

    The author, Rashmee Roshan Lall, worked for the U.S. State Department in Kabul as a contractor. Though she is clear that her book is fiction, and that none of the characters and events are real, her descriptions of her colleagues, their surroundings and their attitudes toward their work are scary-spot on. She reminds us that the Afghan’s referred to the flow of U.S. dollars as “irrigation,” and joked that those who worked alongside the Americans had been tamed.

    Her description of daily life inside the embassy is very accurate:

    …The odds were very good if you were an unaccompanied woman. The men– predatory or passionate or just passing through on what was called TDY or temporary duty – were decidedly odd. They were a mix-– military, diplomats, development workers, private contractors. It didn’t matter if they were married, unaccompanied and prowling, or unmarried and prowling – all of them suffered acutely from an affliction that Americans in the badlands of Afghanistan knew, dreaded and awaited with dreary expectation: an acute, aching loneliness. Being an American in Afghanistan was the loneliest you could get. The money was good; the levels of stress kept pace. It is curiously stirring in all sorts of ways to be constantly told-– and to believe-– that everyone is out to get you.


    About That Cookbook

    Paralleling the main story line is a more subtle one, as the main character comes to grips with the near-complete isolation that America’s warriors in suits live in. Referring to State’s walled compound in Kabul as “Americastan,” her quest to connect with the country she is tasked with saving fails several times, until the very few Afghans allowed inside the ramparts begin bringing her local food. The food enters her life as a respite from the cafeteria glop served to the cold warriors, but quickly becomes a window into the real world outside. Alongside the narrative, the book is filled with actual recipes, which grow in complexity as the story progresses. The inclusion of recipes is distracting at first, but they are presented in italics and thus easily skipped over if you prefer. Using food in this way is a nice tool to illustrate the problem of isolation.

    What It Is Really About

    I wrote my own book about the failure of reconstruction in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and can clearly see in Pomegranate Peace that art imitates life. In Iraq we wanted to save the nation by exporting chicken, and failed, while our contractors bought condos in Dubai. We even had a failed agricultural coop venture not unlike this book’s own. And the same cast is present: bureaucrats with no knowledge tossing around millions of dollars, smart careerists pressing forward in fear of rocking the boat, a few locals making bank off us even while so many others around them slipped further behind, unable to drain the American money teat for themselves. One could retitle Pomegranate Peace as We Meant Well, Too and not be too far off the mark.

    That the story told here about Afghanistan, as in real life, is nearly exactly the story that was told in Iraq, is what this book in a larger sense is really about. Two wars that if they had any validity ever, went on too long, took too many lives and consumed too much money. Hand maidens to the failures in both cases were bureaucrats who gleefully acted on their ignorance to, almost against the odds, make a terrible situation worse.


    Pomegranate Peaceis available on Amazon.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Memorial Day. Mourn Them, Mourn Us

    May 26, 2014 // 11 Comments »




    Memorial Day.


    3,441 Americans and allies have lost their lives in Afghanistan. An estimated 20,000 Afghans have died. Here they are. Scroll through their lives. Ask why they are dead and not here today. Mourn them, mourn us.

    Americans and Allies

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    Afghans

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Thank You Penn State!

    May 18, 2014 // 6 Comments »

    My thanks again to the students and faculty of Penn State (especially Professor Dennis Jett) for hosting me to speak about Iraq, my experiences at war with the Department of State and my new book Ghosts of Tom Joad.



    It is a positive and gratifying thing to realize that there are young people passionately interested in what is happening to our nation, and who instinctively grasp the connection between the horrific loss of life and spending of taxpayer money in wars like Iraq (Afghanistan, Libya, etc.) and the decay here at home. Why did we waste so much building things and trying to promote businesses in Iraq when so much is needed at home? they asked. They got it.


    There were also a number of foreign students, from China, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere taking notes on our America. I think they got it too.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    War Toys for Kids: Back to the Future in Afghanistan

    April 29, 2014 // 2 Comments »

    The things people do for money. At least I hope it is for money because if anyone stills believes this stuff they are in sad, sad shape.

    Drops in the Ocean

    Lt. Commander Jennifer Cragg at “NATO” headquarters in Afghanistan brings us (only on the “NATO” website of course; even the lamest of the main stream media has abandoned this meme) the story of one person who has “made a difference” in Afghanistan. Please have tissues at the ready to soak up your tears, then read:

    Alfredo Memmer, a German citizen who has worked here since 2008, helped launch a charity organization called Basic Needs Support of Afghanistan. Memmer has consistently found ways to impact the lives of dislodged women and children since arriving in Afghanistan.

    “Since my arrival I participated in various toy collections and clothing drives for displaced women and children,” said Memmer. “The creation of BNSOA is seen as a legacy to the innocent lives taken too early.”

    “Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.”

    The article goes on to say that the organization gives away donated clothing, food, blankets, shoes and toys.

    An Ocean of Dumb in Iraq

    Was it really only just a few years ago when these same stories, with nearly the same wording, ran in the steady flow of news explaining how well things were going in Iraq? Hit the Google with the search term “iraq giving toys to children” and you’ll come up with pages of photos. And they are all the same: a U.S. service member dressed like a Space Marine handing over some plastic piece of junk to some kid. Sometimes one or both are smiling, often times not. The images feel more like some freakish form of pedophlia than even decent propangada.

    As for the similarity of the glowing press releases, here’s just one from Iraq plucked out of the Internet Cosmos:

    It’s a lesson in contrasts. A heavily-armed American soldier giving away stuffed toys to children in Iraq.

    Barbara Cerniauskas [whose husband is deployed in Iraq]: “It really is just a small way that we can reach out to them and show them that our soldiers are there to help.”

    “No matter how you feel about the war, the children are just innocent bystanders.” These toys could even help save lives. There are reports from soldiers about children warning them of dangers from land mines and buried bombs.

    “We are doing something to maybe, you know, open the door to a new generation that will see that freedom and peace are possible. This is just a little token to maybe get it started.”

    Like the idea itself, many of the organizations that enthusiastically sprung up to donate stuff to kids when the wars were a “thing” are gone. FYI: The kids are still there. For example, Operation International Children (OIC), founded in 2004 by actor Gary (“I’ve lived off being Lt. Dan forever, suckers”) Sinise “to reach out to children in war-stricken countries and support American troops in their efforts to assist them” closed down. In its so-long message, the group reminded us all that “We believe those moments of joy [following a kid whose parents were killed in a drone strike getting a used made-in-China toy] have the potential to bring about great change and our joy comes from the knowledge that we have worked together to make that possible.”

    If you really, really want more such stories, including lots of wacky propaganda examples from Iraq, they are a Google away, or, conveniently, in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People


    Oceans of Garbage

    But we digress. That NATO charity group in Afghanistan says “Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.” One might ponder the fact that the U.S. and “NATO” have been leaving drops of hope all ver Afghanistan now for 13 years and haven’t managed to form a puddle, never mind an ocean. Perhaps more specifically in answer to the small drops add up to an ocean analogy, one could cite an alternative old saying about the value of “pissing into the sea.”



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    On the Death of Anne Smedinghoff, Three U.S. Soldiers and an Interpreter

    April 25, 2014 // 8 Comments »

    The Chicago Tribune gained access to the U.S. Army’s report on the death of State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan.

    She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians, three soldiers and a local interpreter killed in what was once the deadliest day of last year for Americans in Afghanistan. There’s always a new record set.

    Because karma demands balance, the same day that Anne was killed “NATO” forces accidentally killed ten Afghan children in an air strike. The children’s crime was being in a house of a suspected Taliban man. Neither the U.S. Army report, nor any of Anne’s official mourners at State, mentioned the ten dead kids. Nothing about them in the Tribune story this week either.

    The mission in which the four on the American side gave their lives was to allow a visiting State Department VIP participate in a book give-away to local Afghan kids, surrounded by media. These events were common in Iraq, and are common in Afghanistan, and are designed to generate “positive visuals.”

    Failed at All Levels

    The Army report cited by the Tribune (the State Department report on the incident remains forever classified) lays out in black and white what most people with knowledge of what really happened already knew: poor planning that “failed at all levels” led to the deaths. Specifics:

    “The [security for Anne] platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school.”

    The State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”

    The book event at the school was characterized in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza.” One soldier wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books also desired “more media reporting.”


    The people who created the mission that killed Anne have blood on their hands. However, in a statement in response to the new report, the State Department spokesperson only said “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission.”

    Dying for a Mistake

    A current Foreign Service Officer (FSO) meme is that if only they were not bound by overly-strict security rules, they would have been more successful in Afghanistan (Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan…) Diplomats, many say, perhaps in an attempt to seem less flaccid next to the military, should be allowed to assess their own risk. After all, they volunteered to be in harm’s way no less than the soldiers who die every day around them. Such a theme is present in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

    Without disparaging Anne, though she too was perhaps naive, there is that question about risk. The issue is that almost no FSOs in the field are in a clear position to assess risk. Having done my own time in wartime Iraq, I rarely had access to the full intel picture, never knew who the Embassy had or had not told about my movement outside the wire and never knew what military action might have taken place before I got there. And what specific knowledge or training did I, or most any FSO, have on military tactics and risk assessment? I was in a very, very poor position to assess risk.

    Instead, I trusted the State Department and others, as did Anne. What seems to have happened to her in part is that the desire to hold yet another pointless media event overshadowed a proper risk assessment by professionals and the taking of proper steps to mitigate that risk. To me, the “hero” tag applies when one knowingly acts, consciously setting aside personal safety (like running into a burning building to save a child), not when someone is gullible enough to stumble into something.

    Everyone a Victim

    As for the “helping others” part, well, I wrote a whole book about how little help we gave to Iraqis. In Anne’s case, her mission that day seemed highly skewed toward a VIP photo-op, what the Army called “Happy Snaps” and offered little to the Afghans except the chance to again serve as props for our attempts to dis-portray reality. How did the Afghan kids who were to receive books from Anne and the Afghan kids who were blown up by NATO that same day differ? Just an accident of location. Everyone was a victim.

    In Iraq during my own service I came to realize I was putting my life, and those of the soldiers around me, at jeopardy so someone in Washington could have fresh photos for another Powerpoint proving we were winning. It would have been a poor exchange of my life if I had been killed doing that, and, with respect to the dead, it was a poor exchange for Anne, the three soldiers, and the interpreter.

    For this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Let’s Easter Twitter with US Embassy Kabul

    April 20, 2014 // 13 Comments »

    Let’s enjoy a quick look at what the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is Tweeting. This is called “social media diplomacy” and is designed to “reach out” to “local” people in the host country and make them love America more. State is kinda shy about saying it, but given the world-wide nature of these things, there is also a sweet little domestic propaganda side to it all. And get this– you pay for all this with your Bitcoins! Have a read:



    To begin, like the U.S. Embassy said, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. Thing is, Afghanistan is remarkably not Christian, and the purpose of social diplomacy is to “reach out,” so opening with the Christian thing might be… awkward? Many Muslims in the target area already characterize the U.S. as a Crusader at war with Islam, so there, there’s that going for us.

    Next up the Embassy reTweeted something in Spanish about the U.S. Ambassador visiting one of the Crusader bases in Herat. Apparently the base contains some Spanish troopers, so that’s the linguistic connection sure, but like Christians, there are relatively few Spanish speakers among the local Afghan population.

    And on to the domestic side of today’s social diplomacy Tweets, two cheery notes.

    The first heralds Afghan efforts to build an new “Silk Road.” The many Afghans still fighting for, with or against the Taliban and/or the U.S., never mind those whose relatives have been blown up by car bombs or drones, may not fully share the vision of progress, but one guesses the whole Silk Road thing is meant more for gullible Americans than gullible Afghans.

    The second Tweet doubles down on the good news, this time sharing the breaking story that “U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia [is] A Vision for Prosperity and Security.” So that’s sorted. The only skeptics on that front might include the relatively few Americans who read the news, and pretty much everyone in Afghanistan.

    BONUS: Wait a tick– if the purpose of social media diplomacy is to engage with the local people, why are the Tweets all in English (and Spanish?) Maybe it is like a language tutorial, some kind of “linguistic diplomacy.” There’s also the “issue” that Internet use in Afghanistan varies from 12 percent in Kabul itself, to zero percent lots of other places. The average is about two-three percent. Subtract out of those already low percentages those who do not read English (or Spanish) and those who do not use Twitter and you’ve got a pretty small pool of targets. Anyway, those happy few Afghan web browsers are no doubt the most important people in the country and all that. Besides, you know, social media, Cuban Twitter, youth demographic, whatever.

    We are a sad and lonely people, aren’t we?



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Torture and the Destruction of the Human Being Shaker Aamer by the United States

    April 15, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    Somedays we have a little fun in this space, commenting on world events with a joke, some satire, a little snark. Today will not be one of those days.

    The Bush and Obama administrations have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide America’s archipelago of secret prisons and systems of torture. They at first denied any of that even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and, of this date, allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on what if anything will appear in the public version of a Senate report on torture that may or may not see the light of day anytime soon.

    The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States

    Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.

    The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.

    What was Done to One Human

    In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until forever. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:

    – On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;

    — “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.

    — Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For twelve years. So far.

    — Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”

    — Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17 year old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.

    — At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.

    — The torture of Aamer continues at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he is brutally force-fed.


    Torture Works

    The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.

    The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.

    Never Again, Always Again

    Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposefully suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.

    Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.

    The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremburg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Did You Know We Won in Afghanistan?

    April 14, 2014 // 10 Comments »

    You’ll be forgiven if you somehow had come to the conclusion that the U.S. has not won the 13 year war in Afghanistan.

    You might have been mislead by the constant “Blue on Green” attacks, where people in “Afghan Army Uniforms” kill their American comrades. Or that the Taliban still controls whole provinces. Or that drug exports are up since the war started. Or that Kabul is regularly attacked. Or that Afghanistan’s leaders, led by Hamid “Da’ Fresh Prince” Karzai have funneled billions of U.S. dollars into their own accounts in Dubai while flipping off ol’ Uncle Sam. Or whatever is on in Pakistan. Or that after 13 years, trillions of dollars and uncountable loss of life Afghanistan is pretty much still a dangerous, awful place unlikely to host a Spring Break parteeeee anytime prior to the Sun imploding into a black hole (namecheck: Neil Freakin’ Degrassee Tyson!)

    Why We Fight

    Anyway, forget all that because the ever-reliable Fiscal Times says we won. OK, that’s sorted. Here are some highlights from their recent victory lap article (emphasis and laugh-track added).

    First, some Fiscal Times background on the war. Forget 9/11, or bin Laden, or bases. The real reason we have been at war in Afghanistan is revealed to be:

    We are fighting an insurgency based in the Pashtuns, a majority ethnic group that has always ruled modern Afghanistan. If the Taliban regained enough support among that base, their overthrow of the Kabul would be very possible.

    Not sure how much of that insurgency was there before we arrived, or how much was born because we arrived, but at least it is not 9/11 again.

    Afghanistan Doesn’t Really Need a Strong Government

    But don’t worry, because we have an ace in the hole:

    The saving grace for us is that Afghanistan doesn’t have to have a strong central government.

    Good. Despite another recent round of “purple fingers” photos that mean Democracy! the State Department has been right all along. Their total failure to build a strong central government has been part of the plan. Crazy yes, but like a fox.

    The Afghan Local Police will Save the Day

    It gets better. Fiscal Times:

    There are recent reasons for optimism, however. One is the growth of the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which began in 2010 as a program that recruited rural Afghans to protect their own villages. The ALP has been so strategically successful that their authorization has expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 fighters (My Note: That authorization takes the form of the U.S. Congress agreeing to pay for more.) The most recent Pentagon report on the war said that the ALP was “one of the most resilient institutions in the ANSF,” or Afghan National Security Forces, with the ANSF’s highest casualty rate.

    I got nothing. If anyone believes a high casualty rate means winning, I can’t top that. Also, here’s a neat argument that the police are just another brand of lawless militia plaguing Afghanistan. Another on when the U.S. suspended training for the ALP because of too many insider attacks. Here’s one about how the ALP engages in human rights abuses such as “rape, arbitrary detentions, forcible land grabs, and other criminal acts” and how the ALP favors warlordism. Anyway, that’s all in the past now.

    Key to Victory: Use U.S. Money to Pay Off Warlords. Or Kill Them

    Moving on:

    The second necessity for victory is a responsible-looking central government with which foreign countries can interact. To be a sustainable recipient of Western aid, Afghanistan simply must have a more sympathetic government than Hamid Karzai or somewhat thuggish local power brokers. Only with a regular supply of Western aid will the Kabul government be able to bribe the regional powerbrokers to tilt towards it, and stay within our commandments. And if they don’t – if they really don’t, and flaunt it – then eventually they may have to die. An American high-end special operations capability in Afghanistan is critical not for Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorists, but also to drop the hammer if local warlords step too far out of line.

    Leaving aside the obvious contradiction that Afghanistan doesn’t need a strong central government and Afghanistan does need a strong central government only a few paragraphs apart, Fiscal Times does get a gold star for turning the use of U.S. money to bribe warlords into paid-for cooperation into a positive thing. In most instances paying protection money to thugs is sort a dead end street (they usually keep demanding more and more money.)

    The kill them all idea is just rich. Hasn’t that sort of been the failed policy for the past 13 years? What kind of unmedicated mind can even write that stuff? I’m sure our elite special forces community is also now proud of their role as Mafia enforcers.

    Time to Declare Victory and Leave

    It is time. Thirteen years of a war that no one can even agree anymore what it is about is enough. If it helps you sleep better, sure, we won. Is that enough? Can we just stick a U.S.-funded knife into this and slink away? Syria is calling.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Selfie Diplomacy Solves all Problems in Pakistan

    April 13, 2014 // 9 Comments »




    You’ll be forgiven if you did not know that your Department of State in Pakistan hosted Social Media Summit 2014. A bunch of bloggers gathered under the wings of the U.S. embassy to discuss “Social Media for Social Change.” Panel sessions focused on perennial, go-to U.S. feel good topics such as youth activism, peace promotion, women’s empowerment, and entrepreneurship. Fun fact: those same topics form the “broad themes” of U.S. reconstruction efforts now in Afghanistan, and were our major goals in Iraq.




    You could have followed this dynamic event on Twitter via #SMS14. There you can see a sub-theme of the event, awkward selfies by white people, which count as diplomacy nowadays. That’s your American ambassador pictured there, “getting down” with “hip” youngsters prior to their initiation ceremony as Taliban recruits.

    The Summit’s Twitter output also includes the Tweet above, sent by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. If anyone can explain in the comments section exactly what the hell that Tweet means, I’ll feel much better about this whole thing.





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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    The British Empire, the Eagle and the Bear: Non-Options for Crimea and Ukraine

    March 5, 2014 // 30 Comments »




    “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” John Kerry said on Meet the Press. “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.”

    Following Kerry’s comment, laughter could be heard from Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, many undisclosed parts of Africa, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and across the Middle East. Faint chortles echoed out of Grenada, Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Snickers in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    The Triumph of Syria

    Kerry of course had previously brought the joy of laughter to the world in the midst of the last Syrian “crisis.” Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the Obama administration’s urge to launch strikes against al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.”

    But like any good comedian, Kerry saved the big joke for last, when, in London enflight to the new, bestest war ever, Kerry famously and offhandedly said conflict could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach, with Vladimir Putin as an unlikely peacemaker. The U.S. did not attack Syria and the show ended with a good belly laugh for all.

    Onward to the Ukraine

    With Kerry once again taking the show on the road by flying to the Ukraine, all of cable TV has arisen as one demanding options, demanding cards to be played, demanding a catalog of “what the U.S. can do.” As a public service, here is that catalog of U.S. options for the Crimean Crisis:

    –Seal Team 6 will infiltrate Russia, ring Putin’s doorbell late at night and run away in Operation DING&DITCH. Ashton Kutcher will lead the Team.

    — A senior U.S. Embassy official in Moscow will cluck his tongue and roll his eyes disapprovingly.

    — State Department social media rangers will send out Tweets calling Putin a “poopy head.” The Russian translation by State will actually come across as “A green dog’s sandwich” but sure, they’ll get we’re mad.

    — The NSA will hack Putin’s web cam sessions, showing him shirtless. Putin himself will turn around and post the video online.

    — The NSA will also break into Putin’s NetFlix queue and change everything to romantic comedies and Jack Black movies.

    — The U.S. will recruit remaining allies Lichtenstein, Monaco, East Timor and Freedonia to enforce sanctions against Russia.

    — The State Department will direct Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to say “F*ck the E.U.,” in a recorded conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

    — Obama will unfriend Putin on Facebook.


    Flashman at the Charge

    As is obvious, there is little the U.S. can, should or will do. The more the U.S. swaggers hollowly about the Crimea, the sadder it all sounds.

    John Kerry, in what he thought was a stinging remark, labeled Russia’s invasion of the Crimean “19th century behavior in the 21st century.” As usual, Kerry was close to being right without actually realizing what he said.

    The 19th century player in this Great Gameis actually the U.S. itself. After following the footsteps of the British Empire into Iraq, after plunging deep into the graveyard of the British Empire in Afghanistan, after fumbling in the British swamp of Pakistan, the U.S. now returns to the land of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimea. Like the Victorian British, the U.S. imagines the world as a chessboard where it can move pieces around with predictable results, shaping world affairs to its own advantage while placing opponents in check. If that was ever true, the events of the last decade demonstrate it is not true anymore.

    As with everyone else who failed to learn the lessons of history and thus will be doomed to repeat them, inevitably next, the U.S. will slip beneath the waves as did the British Empire, over-extended, bankrupt and endlessly tied to foreign policy adventures that mean nothing while the world changes around it. It’s been a good run though, right?



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    The Tao of Political Ambassadors

    February 17, 2014 // 20 Comments »

    The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.

    You don’t have to know anything, or have any specific background or training, to be the president’s personal representative abroad and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the World’s Most Powerful Nation (c). You do have to donate heavily to the president to buy one of those appointments.

    Back during my own 24 years working for the State Department as a diplomatic serf my mother asked what I’d have to do to make ambassador. The answer was simple: dad needed to die young, and mom should donate the entire inheritance to the winner of the next presidential election. I’d get appointed and hobnob with State’s elite!

    For so many reasons, I am glad dad is still alive.

    What is an Ambassador?

    The U.S. ambassador is the head of the embassy in a particular country, and serves as the senior representative for the United States there. S/he interacts personally with important leaders of the host country, negotiates on behalf of the U.S. and serves as America’s public face and mascot, appearing in the media, making public appearances and hosting social events that in some parts of the world are the primary venue for serious business. Some say it’s an important job. Guys like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson did it once.

    Embassies are otherwise primarily staffed by foreign service officers, folks from the State Department who are diplomatic professionals. The question here is between those two groups– political hacks or trained professionals– who should be an ambassador?

    Is the U.S. Exceptional?

    The U.S. is exceptional, because every other major country in the entire known universe answered the question already: being an ambassador is a job for professionals. It makes sense that a person who likely has already served in a country, who probably speaks the language and who is familiar both with U.S. foreign policy and the mechanics of diplomacy might do a better job than a TV soap opera producer who turned over $800,000 to the president’s campaign (true; see below.) Why, in almost any other setting other than U.S. politics, that would be called corruption.

    Bipartisan Patronage

    A quick note to people of the internet. Every political party in power doles out ambassadorial appointments as patronage, and has, from the 19th century to the present day. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, the Boston Tea Party and all the rest did it and do it. Obama is slightly ahead of the 30 percent historical average, though many pundits are over-weighing his second term picks because he is filling his First Class (i.e., political posts) before the generally mediocre locations allocated to career jobs. This is true bipartisan sleaze, an issue we can all get into regardless of our views on other issues.

    Yet despite the clear record of patronage, the State Department insists that political campaign donations have nothing to do with diplomatic nominations. “Either giving or not giving money doesn’t affect either way. It doesn’t make you more or less qualified,” deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters this week. Talk about your credibility. You could almost watch it drain out of the spokeswoman as she spoke the words with a straight face.

    Why It Matters

    Many, many politically appointed ambassadors are frighteningly unqualified. Sure, many don’t have a clue about the country they’ll serve in and very, very few have any language skills or experience in diplomacy. Some haven’t even been abroad, except maybe a bus tour or two. The latest crop, however, are reaching new heights of stupidity:

    –The nominee to China admitted he’s no expert on China;

    –The nominee to Argentina never set foot there and speaks no Spanish. Same for the nominee to Iceland, who never visited and also does not speak Spanish, though that is less important in Iceland;

    –The nominee to Norway insulted their government in his Senate approval hearing (he was approved by the Senate anyway!)

    –Then there is Colleen Bell, the nominee for Hungary, whose qualifications include being the producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful” TV soap opera, and of course raising $800,000 for Obama. She stammered her way through testimony to the point where John McCain basically begged her to just shut up as a kind of mercy killing.


    Political Appointees in the Wild

    What happens to these kinds of boneheads abroad is not hard to imagine. Some wonderfully extreme cases include the American ambassador to Finland, who sent out official Christmas cards with him in “Magic Mike” beefcake poses and whose signature accomplishment is basically renovating his own office. A political appointee ambassador to Kenya paralyzed his embassy with personnel demands, including internet access in his executive toilet. The political appointee ambassador to Belgium was accused of soliciting sexual favors from prostitutes and minor children.

    As for many other political appointees, some, like Caroline Kennedy in Japan, understand they are just living photo-ops and stay out of the way of the adults working (which may sum up Kennedy’s entire life.) A few appointees become sentient and actually turn out to be decent managers based on their business backgrounds before being sidelined by State’s incestuous culture. The best political appointees are old pols like Howard Baker, whose Washington connections and political savvy make them at least effective stooges for the president’s personal political agenda, if not always America’s.

    Why It May Not Matter

    The bad news is that there are equal inconsistencies on the side of State Department professionals who become ambassadors outside the political appointee spoils system.

    Many, especially to smaller nations (think Africa, parts of the Middle East), have spent most of their careers in the neighborhood, and have built up significant, trusted relationships. Many of these career ambassadors got to know young leaders long ago, and have kept the relationship intact as those men and women ascended into positions of authority. Pretty cool to call your old buddy and sort out a diplomatic problem using first names and shared experiences as a base.

    There are exceptions to excellence; watch one of our career ambassador’s in a Congressional hearing not know how much money his embassy is spending in Afghanistan nor the U.S. death toll for the year.

    Unfortunately, even for out-of-the-way places, it is very hard to make it to ambassador without sucking up to State’s big shots, even if you have the chops to do the job well. Every careerist at State (i.e., everyone) wants that title, the big house and the limo that comes with the job. As an autocracy, just being the most qualified for anything inside State is rarely enough. That leaves plenty of suck ups, wankers and toadies of the higher ups mucking around to get into an ambassador’s chair. It’s unavoidable.

    The last sticking point on why foreign service officers can make lousy ambassadors is the dual nature of the job. While in most cases the ambassador’s primary task is headline-level “policy,” s/he also is the head of the embassy. Many administrative and personnel issues rise to the ambassador’s office. Most State Department ambassadors have gotten as far as they did based nearly 100 percent on those policy things, and many thus make very poor managers. The best defer the decisions to their own management staff; the worst dive in, wielding power without responsibility and the very worst use the position to settle old scores and promote the interests of their own lickspittles.

    Why It Really, Really Doesn’t Matter

    Critics of political appointee ambassadors inside State are quick to point out that people don’t get appointed as generals in the military. Senior leaders in the Army are expected to have come up through the ranks. Admirals have captained ships. Marine generals have eaten snakes, that sort of thing.

    The reason big campaign donors don’t get appointed as generals in the military is because what generals do can matter, matter beyond at least embarrassing the nation. Not to say all or even most generals make the right calls, but to say that generals need technical knowledge of the services they work for, and the decisions they make literally affect lives and can shape world events.

    Ambassadors are increasingly becoming curios left over from a distant past, before instant worldwide telephone and internet communications, before senior White House officials could jet around the world, a past when ambassadors actually had to make big decisions in far-off places. Nowadays most ambassadors don’t change their socks without “conferring with Washington.” Their own jobs matter less and less, as does the State Department they work with.

    So never mind ambassador slots, which often stay empty for months as donors wrangle for the prime positions. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows that more than one fourth of all U.S. State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008.

    In government, what matters most gets funded most. There are more military band members than State Department foreign service officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. The State Department is now a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has 22,000. The Department of Defense has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the U.S.

    In an age of military ascendancy, when State and diplomacy are seen as tools to buy time for later military action instead of as potential solutions themselves, it just might not matter who is ambassador anymore. Of course the man or woman in the chair might best avoid sexual solicitation of minors and inane, embarrassing acts, but really, that’s just a nice thing, not a requirement.

    Old-school political patronage was about giveaways, handing over some largely ceremonial job to a hack. The medieval kings had it down, appointing dukes and grand viziers and equipping them with plumed hats and lots of gold braid while ensuring they stayed out of the way.

    Political appointee or career foreign service officer as ambassador? Why does it matter?



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Happy Valentine’s Day: U.S. (Hearts) Karzai

    February 14, 2014 // 25 Comments »

    In an article headlined The U.S. Has Finally Outfoxed Hamid Karzai, the occasionally-respected Fiscal Times explains how for months Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, causing mounting frustration within the White House and the Pentagon. Now, according to the Times, “it appears as if President Obama and his advisers have finally outfoxed Karzai, marking the end of a long and tumultuous relationship.” The Times:


    The White House and DOD have decided not to make any agreement until after April’s presidential elections in which Karzai is not expected to be a candidate. They’ll only make a deal with Karzai’s successor.


    “If he’s not going to be part of the solution, we have to have a way to get past him,” a senior U.S. official said of the elected leader. “It’s a pragmatic recognition that clearly Karzai may not sign the (deal) and that he doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”

    By way of perspective, the U.S. has previously outfoxed Karzai by handing him fantastic amounts of unmarked cash and creating a massive, corrupt system in Afghanistan that bleeds the U.S. taxpayer while feeding even more money to Karzai and his family.


    (None of the above is satire. It is true. Here’s the satire part.)

    Karzai, however, is a sly old fox himself and is thus not easily outfoxed. Unbeknownst to U.S. authorities as the NSA was preoccupied with Beyonce’s selfies folder, Karzai has moved to Washington DC. While the Old Grey Fox first was just using the money he stole from the U.S. to buy up real estate (“giving back”), these days Karzai is shipping hundreds of his relatives, friends and his favorite hired gunmen into the DC suburbs.

    “It’s freaking dangerous in Afghanistan, and you crazy Americans want to keep the war going forever,” Karzai exclusively told this blog, “I’ve got ‘graveyard of empires’ printed right on my wallet so its not like the Ambassador doesn’t see it every time we meet, but that dude is crazy. ‘We don’t want another Vietnam, er, Iraq,’ he says. I guess his solution is that as long as the U.S. keeps killing Afghans they can say it’s not over and they haven’t lost. So anyway, who wants to be a part of all that? I’ll just pack up in April and let the next jerk to do this job sort it out. I still can’t figure out why the Taliban want this dump anyway.”

    “Despite all that, I still like the Ambassador personally. Funny guy. He once gave me a stack of Benjamins just to “like” the embassy Facebook page. Sometimes when the Ambo and I are just kicking back with a few 40’s he talks about the U.S. not wanting to lose the gains they’ve made over the last decade in this rat hole. I always end up with beer spraying out my nose when he says that. I mean, look out the window– that goat cost you Americans 75 billion dollars.”

    Karzai did get reflective at the end of the interview, remembering his first cash bribe from a then-junior CIA officer. “That guy is now running their whole op here,” said the president. “Twelve years goes by. They just grow up so fast.”

    “Anyway, I’m out of here. Somebody tell the U.S. Army ‘last man to die for a bad idea, turn off the light when you leave.’ That’s the expression you guys use in English, yes?” By the way, what do you think about BitCoin as an investment? I’m fat with cash right now and how many Rolexes do you really need?”



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    Delusions Drive (More) U.S. Aid to Afghanistan

    February 10, 2014 // 13 Comments »





    When a person sees things that aren’t there, hears voices that tell him to do irrational things and insists on believing things that simply are not supported by fact, most psychologists would label that person delusional and seek to help him regain his toehold on reality. When that person does all the same things regarding U.S. aid to Afghanistan, it is called statecraft.

    The Obama administration unveiled Monday yet another aid package for Afghanistan. The country remains one of the world’s poorest and most dangerous countries despite a dozen years of massive international aid efforts.

    The announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of three new development initiatives worth almost $300 million is part of a U.S. effort to ensure that Afghanistan, as its ‘war economy’ ends, won’t “reverse gains made over the last twelve years.”

    How Much We Have Already Spent

    To fully grasp the insanity of yet another initiative that drains taxpayer money into the open sore of Afghanistan, some numbers may help. Over the past twelve years the U.S. has given the Afghans some $100 billion in aid. About half of all “aid” goes directly to the Afghan military. There have also been significant amounts of aid delivered to Afghanistan by other countries and private donors.

    The Return on Investment: 80 Percent Never Gets There

    The aid money works out to be over $3300 per Afghan, assuming any of the money actually reaches an Afghan. The reality is, according to a Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction auditor, that 70-80% of the money is siphoned off by contractors as overhead.

    The Return on Investment: Losses to Corruption

    No one knows how much of the money disappears as bribes, graft or outright theft. However, a 2009 U.S. State Department cable disclosed on Wikileaks stated “While reports vary widely, records obtained from Kabul International Airport (KIA) support suspicions large amounts of physical cash transit from Kabul to Dubai on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. According to confidential reports, more than $190 million left Kabul for Dubai through KIA during July, August, and September.” A 2012 report showed $4.6 billion fled via the Kabul airport, about one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. The year before, $2.3 billion in cash left via the airport. In a single incident, the then-Afghan Vice President flew to Dubai with $52 million in unexplained cash.

    The Return on Investment: Funding the Taliban

    And that’s all the good news because as Douglas Wissing points out in his excellent book Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, significant amounts of U.S. money are paying for the enemy to keep fighting. U.S. ignorance and naivete in the contracting process sends money to Taliban-affiliated subcontractors, and direct payoffs to warlords and others known to work with the Taliban are made for safe passage guarantees for military supplies.

    The Return on Investment: What the U.S. Government Believes

    Here’s what the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has to say for itself:

    Our work continues to be a vital support to Afghanistan in its efforts to ensure economic growth led by the private sector, establish a democratic and capable state governed by the rule of law, and provide basic services for its people. The Afghan people rejoice in peace and freedom. They are dedicated to working for a better future for the generations to come. USAID assistance is crucial to achieving this goal… Only investment in Afghanistan’s human capital – that is, in its people – will ultimately lead the country to prosperity, peace and stability on a long-term, sustainable basis.


    Delusional

    When I wrote my book on the waste and failure of the similar U.S. money hemorrhage in the Iraq War, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, there was no widespread agreement. Many people, both in and out of government, questioned my conclusions. Fair enough, though they were obviously proven wrong.

    With Afghanistan, it is difficult to find anyone, outside of a few true believers and U.S. government PR people, who believe the money spent on aid to Afghanistan is not a waste. What charitably could be called at the time a difference of opinion over Iraq allowed the taxpayer money to keep flowing. With Afghanistan, there is no charitable explanation.

    One service member characterized the situation as “A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached.” That service member served in the British Army that was destroyed in Afghanistan in 1843.

    Delusional. That’s really the only word that applies.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    War Movie ‘Lone Survivor’ Makes a Porno

    February 4, 2014 // 27 Comments »

    I don’t watch a lot of porn, or a lot of other movies, but stuck in a motel off a highway on the edge of nowhere, it’s either pay-per-view or Meet the Press, and that show crosses a line in offensiveness.

    The movie I watched, Lone Survivor, was made by Leni Riefenstahl to tell the story of four Navy SEALs in Afghanistan who, in the process of mowing down about ten million Afghans (“Taliban”), end up with only one SEAL guy surviving. If that spoils the end of the movie for you a) watch Meet the Press. It too has its whole narrative in the title and b) I’m glad it spoils the movie for you because I should be the last person on earth who pays to see it.

    But flipping between the porn and Lone Survivor, I realized they are pretty much the same movie.

    Both lack context. In porn a woman sits in a room, a man enters and they have sex. We don’t know or care about who they are, why they are there, even what their pretend names are. In Lone, we do know from the credits it is set in Afghanistan (albeit an Afghanistan that looks like New Mexico.) Otherwise, it’s just one set of guys killing another set of guys for our vicarious pleasure. We don’t know who they are (the SEALs are all named Mac, or Murph or Biff anyway), really why they are there except to kill (have sex) and we really don’t care.

    A feature of porn seems to be denying the realities of biology and physics. Every thing is bigger than in real life, even to the pneumatic point where no one is even trying to pretend it is real. It obviously is completely fake, but that doesn’t matter because that’s what porn is about.

    In Lone, the main character falls off a mountain not once, but three times, bounces down off rocks, lands on his back on rough ground, slams into a tree, only to show up at the bottom with some scratches, shouting “good to go.” One Biff gets shot multiple times, including in the head, and keeps going. The lone survivor dude (and they are all dudes) does not bleed to death or go septic over giant pieces of shrapnel in his leg, and even digs them out with a dirty knife. Oh– the wounds were also rubbed in dirt and dunked in a stream. Guess he got a tetanus shot.

    Depending on your point of view, typically one partner in a porn film is really just there as a kind of prop, to support the person(s) you are supposed to want to see. Same in Lone. The literally hundreds of evil dog Taliban have no purpose other than to be slaughtered, often in the super close-ups also favored by porn. Things spurt as bullets enter their bodies, and they move through the movie anonymously like, well, sorry, a gang bang crowd. In both movies, everyone is just a target.

    The worst thing however about Lone Survivor is that in the end it is a terrible movie. Porn is what it is, and sort of exists simply to provide whatever stimulation one gets from watching it. Lone just devolves into an endless loop of killing that gets so boring the viewer keeps flipping back to the pizza guy surprising the lonely woman in the bath.

    When the time is up for both movies, you feel about the same. Any pleasure is wiped away as you realize people were exploited, and your emotions hijacked, for a cheap thrill. You feel empty, used. You’re embarrassed by war porn that tries to convince you that killing people in Afghanistan has some purpose, same as you’re embarrassed that you believed for a selfish moment that all those oohs and ah ah ahs just might have been real. Both movies make you feel good briefly about something that isn’t good.

    And you can’t tell anyone about what you did. You are the Lone Survivor.


    BONUS: Despite constant bragging about how the SEALs are the most highly trained warriors on earth, not one in the movie speaks one word of Pashtu. In the odd moments were Afghans need to be told how to service the SEALs’ needs, communication is done via shouted English and threats. You’d think at some point in all that training a little local language would come in handy. But, like with porn, you’re not there for the dialogue, right?




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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen