Our topic was the simmering chaos in free Iraq. With over 290 dead in the past month, the interviewer questioned me on whether things might get as bad as in 2006. My reply: They will get worse, because unlike in 2006 the American Army is not sitting in between the angry Sunnis and the Shias, meaning no third party is available to intercede. In addition, the sort of successful Sunni rebels in Syria (ironically supported by the US against the Shia government assisted by Iran, politics makes strange bedfellows) are at least an inspiration in Iraq and perhaps a source of arms. The Sunnis in Iraq appear now to be strong enough not to lose while not being strong enough to win, a prescription for more and more violence.
I also noted for the BBC audience that the U.S. still maintains the world’s largest and most expensive embassy, in Baghdad, some 11,000 American personnel. Their role in abating chaos is of course zero. No one really knows why they are even there anymore; the embassy’s last role is simply as an artifact of our errors.
Also while in Boston I had a chance to meet some of the students and faculty of Brandeis University. My hat tips to them for maintaining a broad curriculum that emphasizes social justice at its core, in every subject from Biology to Literature.
Lastly, it must be noted that Boston is the source of America’s original patriots, the ones who truly believed in creating a nation based on the rights of people, and who were willing to stake their lives in pursuit of those inalienable rights. These men stand as a reminder to modern Americans that the real meaning of commitment means more than just making it to the gym three times a week.
I thus dropped by the Sam Adams Brewery for a tour and tasting session, held under the oil-painted gaze of namesake Samuel Adams, Brewer and Patriot. Just because you believe in freedom doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
Bonus: Those of you who don’t get the reference to Shipping Up to Boston better go get a beer and click here.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
Now at the Washington Institute, a “think” tank, Jeffrey surveyed the current crumbling scene in Iraq from his office window (May is already boiling, and April was the bloodiest month there since 2008, with 712 killed, 1,633 wounded in sectarian violence) and wildly uncorked this remark:
Obama should also signal his willingness to consider new approaches to Iraq if the Maliki government continues its campaign against the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
[Jon Stewart-type mug face to camera look now]
OMG! A willingness, really? And to consider? And the stinger, a new approach?!?
Utter bullshit. All the impact of a David Bowie-Justin Bieber slap fight.
Heavens me, Prime Minister Maliki must be a’ quaking in his sandals. Maliki watched in 2010 as the U.S. stood aside and allowed Iran to broker the election that put him in power. He tried to arrest his Sunni VP practically hours after the last US troops left Iraq. He has seen the U.S. do nothing as he seeks to crush violently the Sunni and Kurd minorities over an extended period of time, including during Ambassador Jeffrey’s own lame tenure. Maliki has allowed Iran to tranship weapons into Syria across Iraq while the U.S. dithered from some dark corner.
Maliki knows a defeated nation when he sees one. This is how America loses wars, former Ambassador Jeffrey.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
My mom always forwards me the worst email crap, multi-megabyte Powerpoints of cats, or babies doing something odd, or homilies to life last century and the like. I usually thus delete most FWD’ed messages, but this one caught my eye. It’s making its way around the world so you might have already deleted it. If not, enjoy a cheap laugh. And be nice to your mother this Sunday, Mothers Day.
How to Be an Afghanistan Expert
1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
4. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering things about progress in Afghanistan.
5. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
6. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground, imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
7. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
8. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.”
9. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
10. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.
There is a school of physics, or maybe science fiction, it doesn’t matter, that posits if matter and anti-matter collide it will be the end of the universe. Collapse of the time-space continuum, regression of the speed of light, that sort of thing. We can say now that such theories are wrong, having witnessed a great collision of reality and anti-reality at the Bush Library opening and lived to tell the tale.
Last week found us wallowing in the opening of the Bush Library in Texas, a monument to George W. and his eight year reign of terror in America. The library opening also signified the opening shots of Bush revisionism, the signal that all loyal or ignorant (perhaps loyal and ignorant?) pundits should start trying to make up a new version of reality to replace the evil, horrible crap that really happened between 2000-2008.
Leading the pack was Charles Krauthammer (the name is somehow not a punchline of its own), who reminded us of how wonderful the Iraq War really was. Krauthammer fapped:
Finally, the surge, a courageous Bush decision taken against near-universal opposition, that produced the greatest U.S. military turnaround since the Inchon landing. And inflicted the single most significant defeat for al-Qaeda (save Afghanistan) — a humiliating rout at the hands of Iraqi Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the American infidel.
As with Lincoln, it took Bush years of agonizing bloody stalemate before he finally found his general and his strategy. Yet, for all the terrible cost, Bush bequeathed to Obama a strategically won war.
Wow. That’s enough to make an old man proud. Out of breath here, gimme a minute, OK…
Meanwhile, in the real Iraq, last week saw the deaths of some 200 people, mostly those perky Sunnis Krauthammer writes about, in combat against the dominate Shia regime (Krauthammer at least got it right that it was a civil war.) The fighting escalated to the point where Sunni fighters briefly took over a town and had to be killed by the Iraqi army to restore Shia order.
Also among the Sunni dead last week were two Sahwa (“Sons of Iraq”) leaders, gunned down with silenced pistols in a classic assasination. The Sahwa of course were America’s creation, the Sunnis willing to fight on our side for money.
The killings noted above were preceded by a series of pre-election bomb blasts across Iraq that killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 257 others. Suck on that Boston!
The whimpering U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was roused from its absinthe-fueled haze to issue a bland statement that “raised concerns” about the Sunni-Shia clashes, without of course assigning blame. It again called for an “urgent and transparent investigation.” And get this line, delivered without irony: “The United States stands firmly with the Iraqi people who seek to live in peace after so many decades of war.” Hah hah, it’s funny because it was the U.S. that created those decades of war! It’s like SNL, the good years!
But the most significant sign of Iraq’s state of democracy was that Iraqi authorities announced Sunday they revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a “sectarian agenda.” That agenda seems to include reporting on more than the wonderfulness of the Shia Maliki government, hence the censorship.
Now if you want to be sad, read this bit of revisionism, as one American soldier continues to imagine his time in Iraq “made a difference.” You understand the politicians and the pundits say their stupid things for gain or money, but this soldier is just plain sad trying to make his sacrifice seem worthwhile. My heart goes out to him in his ignorance of how he was used.
So, that all clearly justifies 4,462 American and 122,000 Iraqi dead under Bush’s war. Moving on…
Bonus: Condi Rice explains why Bush-era torture was OK (Turns out it was all nice and legal)
Extra Bonus: Handy guide, “How to Debunk George W. Bush’s Attempts at Revisionism,” neatly destroys the “but he kept us safe” myth.
Nominated last year, I was just a happy guest this year at the 2013 Ridenhour Prizes.
The Prizes recognize acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. These prizes memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling that whistleblower and investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career.
I am very proud to have had the chance to stand by these men, pictured left to right: Matthew Hoh, Colonel Danny Davis and Thomas Drake. All three were previous Ridenhour Prize winners for Truth Telling. If you don’t know them, each name is worth a Google to learn more.
There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.
Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.
The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.
What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.
Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.
But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”
Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.
America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”
In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.
Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam
Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.
As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.
While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.
Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”
Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.
The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.
In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com
Today, the writer is D. Inder Comar, a San Francisco lawyer who is seeking to do what the Obama Administration refuses to do, hold the Bush Administration accountable for the unnecessary invasion of Iraq and its ongoing, horrific, aftermath. Here’s what Comar has to say:
On March 13, 2013, I filed two lawsuits in the Northern District of California against George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz on behalf of an Iraqi client and on behalf of myself as a United States citizen.
My Iraqi client, Ms. Sundus Saleh, alleges that these defendants planned and waged a “war of aggression” in violation of laws set down at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. She has exercised the jurisdiction of the court through the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed by the first Congress in 1789. She seeks to hold these defendants personally liable for their actions.
My case seeks to set new precedent regarding the obligations of government leaders. I am asking the court to acknowledge that I have a common law and/or constitutional right (premised in the First Amendment) to receive honest and candid information from government officials with respect to war and peace. I have also alleged that the defendants violated California’s false advertising law in planning and waging the Iraq War.
I am handling these cases completely pro bono. I have litigated numerous cases in the federal courts, both as an associate for a major law firm and now on my own. I want to win these cases, both for my client and for myself.
But these lawsuits won’t go anywhere without the help of people like you.
First, the more people who care, the more likely the courts will care. Take the Prop 8 litigation: that legal case has acted as a spearhead for a larger movement that is recognizing that the Constitution cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation. These lawsuits need similar support for the idea that leaders cannot deceive and mislead the public, particularly in matters of war and peace, and remain unaccountable. With the Supreme Court tightening access to the courts (even with the Alien Tort Statute in the very recent Kiobel decision), the courts need to know that people want to hold leaders accountable under law.
Second, my firm is a small San Francisco boutique that is primarily involved in corporate counseling and court appointed trial and appellate work. I will shamelessly admit that I cannot handle these cases alone! I need the support of passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people to secure the court orders that I want for myself and for my client.
As Americans, we are fortunate to have a functioning judiciary. Today, there are millions of people living in other countries who would be killed if they dared to question their leaders. In America, we are heirs to an 800 year tradition extending back to Magna Carta that says no one is above the law – not even the king. And George W. Bush was no king.
Please join me to make this trial a reality. You can help by supporting our fundraising campaign at indiegogo, by spreading the word about the lawsuits, and by reaching out to me (inder at comarlaw dot com) if you want to get involved.
Please help me hold our leaders accountable to prevent another Iraq War.
Only my dog really listens to me, and she gets a Scooby treat in return.
However, if you’d like to listen to me voluntarily, Fox News and I celebrated the Tenth Anniversary of the Iraq War together.
Or maybe a story about Wikileaks guy Bradley Manning from Rolling Stone, with my quotes.
I also spoke with CCTV, one of China’s largest broadcasters, about Iraq.
For another version, stop by this link to the Peter B. Collins show to check out a recent interview.
Or, drop by WMNF 88.5 FM for more interview fun.
Also STAND UP! with Pete Dominick had me on.
One more, from Jonathan Pickering.
Or this one, a fave, from Louisville.
The interviews focus on last week’s report by Inspector General Stuart Bowen on the billions lost to waste, fraud, abuse, and stupidity on reconstruction in Iraq. I note that all of those responsible– except me– have been promoted, some to repeat these same costly mistakes in Afghanistan. In invading Iraq, the US did more to destabilize the Middle East than anyone imagined and that the US will pay the price for it for a long, long time. Listen up.
The We Meant Well wrap-up of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion was unfortunately tainted by several gallons of bile spilled on to my keyboard as I typed. It is important to note that while most of the U.S. Government people involved in Iraq well-deserved all the bile spattered their way, there were those who did try. So thus I owe a bit of an apology for the slam dunk I took on the Special Inspector General for Iraq, SIGIR, a few days ago.
Fair is fair; I wrote:
SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
The people at SIGIR, who clearly held the least-loved jobs in all of Iraq, were kind enough to write to me and point out that they were trying hard to be part of the good guys. They also ran at something of a profit. SIGIR wrote:
SIGIR pointed out that in its final report it stated that the financial benefits accomplished by SIGIR’s work included more than $1.61 billion from audits and over $191 million from investigations.
That works out to $2,329,268 recovered for the U.S. taxpayers per investigation, which is a pretty good return on investment. That is not counting perhaps another approximately $100 million we expect to recover by the time SIGIR closes.
I hasten to add that the scale of bad money collected by SIGIR is important not only for the dollar amount itself, but also as a sign of just how much freaking money was being spent/stolen during the Iraq campaign. The mind spins.
And for those in the Washington DC area, the SIGIR Inspector General Himself, Stuart Bowen, will speak today, Wednesday, March 27, 1:00 – 3:00, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Conference Room B1 A/B, 1800 K Street, NW, Washington DC, 20006.
If you can’t make the speech, you can read Learning From Iraq, A Final Report From the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction online and weep quietly alone at home as I will be doing.
It was with great fanfare a few years into the American invasion of Iraq that plans were announced to build America’s largest embassy, in the Green Zone in Baghdad. The embassy itself would cost over one billion dollars, and occupy more land than the Vatican. The U.S. ambassador of the time boasted it would be seen from space. As America’s largest embassy, no, the world’s largest embassy, it was to be a symbol of American might and power dropped smack dab into the heart of the Middle East. That it sat on land conquered– taken– from Arabs was part of the point.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was also a symbol that the State Department, left out of the Neocon fury of 2003, was going to be a player in Iraq’s future, and indeed in America’s broader plans for the Middle East. The military would soon withdraw (they thought) to a string of permanent bases large and small across Iraq, but the embassy would stand proud and big in Baghdad forever, full of important State Department staff doing important things for the United States. Daddy liked the State Department once again, and to make up for all those bad, bad things Daddy once said, had bought the State Department the world’s largest embassy as a welcome-back gift.
As the Iraq War crumbled underneath America, State still clung to the plan. Thousands of diplomats and contractors were flown in to fill the embassy which, even at its massive size, was still too small to house them all. At one point the State Department had close to 20,000 personnel on its pay roll in Iraq.
The war ended (for America) and the mighty U.S. military quietly slunk out of Iraq. The Obama administration began pretending like Iraq never really happened, devoting it no intellectual capitol and no bandwidth as it turned its attention to “winning” in Afghanistan. The Iraqis returned the favor, turning down American training programs and sidelining U.S. diplomats in favor of their Iranian counterparts. Everybody seemed to be reaching a new normal.
Everybody but State of course, which continued to staff the Baghdad Embassy as if it was the epicenter of the American Empire instead of an awkward mistake. A year ago State still had some 16,000 people in Baghdad. Even on the sad tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, State somehow still has 10,500 personnel on the ground. Finally, now, State has caught a glimmer of reality and ironically on the tenth anniversary date itself, announced that they will cut the head count to 5,500, of which over 4000 will be contractors and cooks. It is still a huge number of people, but it is slightly closer to the typical size of such a mission.
With personnel soon down to about one-fourth of capacity, one wonders what life in the sprawling U.S. Embassy compound must be like. With three empty offices for every occupied one, for a huge cafeteria and gym designed to serve thousands now catering to only hundreds at a time, the place must feel like one of America’s decayed downtown old cities, like Buffalo or Louisville. In the Green Zone, have they boarded up windows? Thrown white sheets over the furniture? Do they turn off street lights in some parts of the compound, as they do in abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit to save money?
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, once intended as a monument to American power in the heart of conquered Iraq, now looks just like our own decayed U.S. cities. Now there’s your symbolism, and while the State Department may not fully get it, the rest of the world likely does.
Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
What if Iraq Turns Around?
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.
Failure Made Official
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”
There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I Told You So
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
What Went Right?
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”
Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.
History Repeats Itself
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation released an audio recording of Bradley Manning’s statement to the military court.
By releasing this audio recording, we wish to make sure that the voice of this generation’s most prolific whistleblower can be heard—literally—by the world. Please spread his words as far as you can: on your blog, in your videos, on Twitter and on Facebook.
LaSalle University in Philadelphia was kind enough to host me last week as part of their continuing series of “Diplomats in Residence.” The CBS affiliate in Philly wrote a nice story on my talk to the students:
La Salle University students heard a scathing account of America’s counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, from a former State Department officer who wrote about his year in the program.
The speaker’s darkly funny account could have been disheartening but the students found it a valuable lesson.
Peter Van Buren can sound like a cynic, with his tales of billions spent in Iraq on projects such as sheep for widows and art shows that provided little more than photo ops for U.S. officials, but the reason he gave at LaSalle for writing and speaking about his experience is decidedly idealistic.
As Van Buren says, “You all have the chance to not do this again.”
He has suffered for his candor. It cost him his job after the State Department conducted a campaign to discredit him. But Van Buren got his message across to the students.
“Hopefully, looking at what happened in the past, we can do things right and figure out how to connect with the people better.” He adds, “We won’t make the same mistakes. We see what we do wrong and we make sure not to do it again. We need to make sure that history does not repeat itself.”
U.S. completes half a regime change, over-throwing a stable government but fails to emplace a new government. Chaos results.
Balance of power in Middle East upended, Iran ascendant.
Weapons pour from Iran through Iraq into, among other places, Syria and Lebanon.
Americans get killed.
on of Terror. Repeat as necessary.
U.S. completes half a regime change, over-throwing a stable government but fails to emplace a new government. Chaos results.
Weapons pour out of Libya into, among other places, Syria and Mali.
Americans get killed.
Mali has a military coup but fails to emplace a stable government. Chaos results.
Americans and other foreigners are taken hostage in Algeria (asymmetrical war, look it up).
U.S. considers how to intervene militarily.
War on Terror. Repeat as necessary.
That’s not an angry screed, correct? Now, you kids get off my lawn, and turn that damn music down!!!!!!
Bradley Manning, the young army private who allegedly disclosed the Wikileaks files, must be given a fair, open and speedy trial. He has been held over three years, often in solitary and inhumane conditions. He has been convicted of no crime. This is simply and self-evidently wrong.
The crimes Manning is accused of, a cascading series of offenses all restating that he leaked classified material, hurt no one; the government, in fact, has gone out of its way to declare that it need not show any damage done in its pursuit of the death penalty for Manning. The US Department of State, whose 100,000 leaked cables have been on the internet for over three years, formed then quickly disbanded a “task force” designed to show all the terrible things that resulted from Manning’s alleged disclosures. The Department has since, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, itself released documents Manning is threatened with the gallows for releasing. No harm has been shown, no lives lost, no American goals thwarted.
I probably had dinner with Bradley Manning when we were both stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq at the same time (I worked for the Department of State). The office where he allegedly did his dirty work was down the hall from mine, so it is hard to believe we never walked past each other or shared a table in the single cafeteria on base.
In 2011 as a State Department employee, I linked from my personal blog to a document on the Wikileaks site, a document that may have been provided by Manning. In return for this simple internet link, the State Department took away my security clearance, threatened me with prosecution and stripped me of my career of 24 years as a diplomat, all without any review, due process or opportunity to rebut their silly accusation that I too had disclosed classified material, via a hyperlink. My life changed, with a stroke of a pen, as is said.
Bradley Manning, convicted of no crime, is in his third year of incarceration. He spent part of the first year in a literal cage in Kuwait, followed by a year or more in custody where he was stripped of his clothing, not allowed contact with any humans besides his jailers and constantly mocked, ridiculed a and taunted, all without any review, due process or opportunity to rebut the accusations against him. With a stroke of a pen, as is said.
A lot of things happen now in America with the stroke of a pen: innocent people end up on no-fly lists, Occupy organizers have their phone calls and emails monitored, jobs are denied to hard working people after some “background check” fails and in the ultimate, a drone may kill a person. All without any review, due process or opportunity to rebut.
Our nation was founded on a set of ideas, some dating as far back as the Magna Carta. Chief among those ideas was an overriding principle that the people should be able to live their lives unmolested by their government, and that to ensure that, restraints were written into law that would prevent the government from taking away someone’s privacy, freedom or life arbitrarily. Courts, open and public, would weigh the government’s desire to deprive people of their lives against these broader principles. It was what made America a special place, perhaps the only nation founded on an idea. We have abandoned those concepts. We have failed Bradley Manning and we have failed ourselves.
I don’t know what Bradley Manning did, and neither do you. A court must decide, in a speedy and open manner because that is what our America is about. Everyday Manning is denied that right—and it was 1000 days as of February 23—we are all denied that right. America is nothing but a sum of its people, and when we deny justice to one we deny it to all. Give Bradley Manning a fair, speedy and open trial for his sake, for our own sake and for this nation’s sake.
As the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) shuts down in what can only be thought of as a mercy killing, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) continues its dreary work. They send out regular press releases that all look like this most recent one:
Today, SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.
Photo of Facility (shown above)
Should you have any questions or need any additional information please do not hesitate to contact our Director of Public Affairs, Phil LaVelle at (703) 545-5974 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friends, do a little search and replace exercise and that SIGAR report could have been right out of Iraq circa 2006. It strongly suggests we have learned nothing, that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is simply another foreign policy feel-good farce. It means no… one… cares.
After all I went through personally to bring the abuses, waste and fraud of Iraq reconstruction to light, well, that makes me sad.
Video of my appearance at last year’s Louisville Idea Festival:
I am very proud to announce that the first trailer for SILENCED, a new documentary on Washington’s war on whistleblowers, is now available online as part of a Kickstarter campaign. See it here.
The film features whistleblowers Tom Drake, John Kiriakou, Jesslyn Radack and, well, an angry me.
While all of us in this important film have given interviews before, none of us has opened up, in depth, the way we did with Jim. It is also important to note that none of us are profiting from this film or the Kickstarter campaign, unless you consider the telling of truth on a large and public scale to be our reward. (HINT: It freaking is our reward.)
The director, Oscar-nominated Jim Spione, says this:
SILENCED follows a group of high-profile truthtellers who dared to question official national security policy in post 9-11 America, and have endured harsh consequences. I became increasingly interested in the issue of government transparency and accountability, and the ongoing efforts to punish those who reveal information about official wrongdoing, when working on Incident in New Baghdad. That film featured incendiary footage of a controversial U.S. helicopter attack purportedly released by a young U.S. Army Specialist named Bradley Manning, who is currently facing a court martial on charges that could result in a life prison sentence.
But Manning is not alone. Over the past several years, an arcane WWI era law called The Espionage Act has been used six times to bring charges against whistleblowers, not for revealing information to a foreign government, but for talking to the press. In fact, the current administration invoked this law more times than all previous administrations combined.
What does it take for an individual of conscience to speak out in this environment? What kind of courage and character does it take to challenge the national security policies of the most powerful nation on Earth? Though Incident was not directly about Manning, the experience of making it got me to thinking about the power of information: who controls and classifies it, who is allowed to release it, who is rewarded for its use and who is punished.
The targeting of whistleblowers raises profound questions that have implications far beyond the fates of the individuals profiled in this film. In an age where the spectre of terrorism is deemed an appropriate reason for the Executive branch to claim greater and greater powers, can the United States government maintain a commitment to the rule of law? How can a democracy that purports to champion human rights simultaneously attempt to quash criticism from within its ranks? What is the effect on our First Amendment right to dissent–and on the whole idea of a free press–when those in power single out whistleblowers for prosecution?
Demonstrating the core values of service and loyalty, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey now works directly for Exxon Mobile. Jeffrey was America’s man in Baghdad, helming the World’s Largest and Most Expensive Embassy there from 2010-2012.
The problem Jeffrey was most likely hired to resolve is oil, specifically oil in Kurdistan. The Kurds live in the northern chunk of Iraq and have always wanted to be an independent nation, separate from the Sunni and Shia Arabs who fill up the rest of Iraq. The “issue” of Kurdistan is one of the many significant genies the U.S. let out of the bottle with the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was left unresolved.
The Kurds have oil, which Exxon would like to have. In late 2011 as the U.S. military was sounding the call to retreat, Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil company, defied the instructions of the Baghdad government and signed a separate deal with the Iraqi Kurds to search for oil in the northern area of Iraq they control. To make matters worse, three of the areas Exxon signed up to explore are on territory in dispute.
Now, in 2013, the Iraq central government is in a muscle tussle with Exxon. Exxon faces a dilemma over whether to operate in the south of the country or honor its deals with the autonomous Kurdistan region. Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki and his central government says the oil company can’t have both. Maliki last month made Exxon an offer in a bid to woo back the company, which had seemed intent on pulling out of the $50 billion oilfield in the south under the central government’s jurisdiction. The substance of Maliki’s offer to Exxon is not known, but industry sources describe it as substantial and say it is likely to involve sweet contract terms. The condition is that Exxon quit the northern Kurdish region.
One in-the-know economist offered this insight into why Kurdish oil is so attractive to Exxon:
For all its faults, the Baghdad-run awarding of oil contracts is as open and transparent as you can get in this sector. The Kurds on the other hand have a very murky process that allows for immense kickbacks and skimming. U.S. companies prefer working with the Kurds because they simply wave a wand and awards a high-cost contract, while Baghdad nitpicks about every single cost.
So what’s a multi-national to do? Take the deal for the Shia south fields and abandon the likely richer northern Kurd fields? Why not hire a very recently ex-ambassador to pimp out his contacts with the Malaki government to see if you can score some crude from all sides? After all, since Jeffrey failed to positively affect the oil issue in Iraq as ambassador, what could possibly be wrong with him being hired as a consultant so that he, and Exxon, can profit from it?
So, to recap:
– Soldiers who fought in Iraq get killed, PTSD, record-high suicide rates, unemployment.
– Regular State Department drones who worked in Iraq get nothing special.
– Whistleblowers and those who pretend to be lose their jobs.
– Contractors who keep their mouths shut get rewarded with similar well-paid positions in Afghanistan.
– Ambassadors who stick to the party line get high-paid consulting gigs.
Jeffrey is pictured above, playing some sort of obscene hand gesture game with the vice president.
John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, pleaded guilty to leaking the identity of one of the agency’s covert operatives to a reporter and was sentenced on January 24, 2013 to two and a half years in prison. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges that had been filed under the World War I-era Espionage Act.
District Judge Leonie Brinkema noted the two and a half-year term was identical to that imposed on Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was convicted of leaking the covert identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame in a politically-motivated attack on her husband in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush to zero, while Kiriakou will be required to serve his full time.
In an America where the same crime is treated ever so differently– leak a name to help George W. Bush and get a reprieve, leak a name to expose torture and go to jail– Kiriakou’s story is worth repeating today.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Here is what military briefers like to call BLUF, the Bottom Line Up Front: no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.
A long time ago, with mediocre grades and no athletic ability, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. I guess the Rhodes committee at my school needed practice, and I found myself undergoing a rigorous oral examination. Here was the final question they fired at me, probing my ability to think morally and justly: You are a soldier. Your prisoner has information that might save your life. The only way to obtain it is through torture. What do you do?
At that time, a million years ago in an America that no longer exists, my obvious answer was never to torture, never to lower oneself, never to sacrifice one’s humanity and soul, even if it meant death. My visceral reaction: to become a torturer was its own form of living death. (An undergrad today, after the “enhanced interrogation” Bush years and in the wake of 24, would probably detail specific techniques that should be employed.) My advisor later told me my answer was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful interview.
It is now common knowledge that between 2001 and about 2007 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) sanctioned acts of torture committed by members of the Central Intelligence Agency and others. The acts took place in secret prisons (“black sites”) against persons detained indefinitely without trial. They were described in detail and explicitly authorized in a series of secret torture memos drafted by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, senior lawyers in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. (Office of Legal Counsel attorneys technically answer directly to the DOJ, which is supposed to be independent from the White House, but obviously was not in this case.) Not one of those men, or their Justice Department bosses, has been held accountable for their actions.
Some tortured prisoners were even killed by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder announced recently that no one would be held accountable for those murders either. “Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths,” he said, “the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Jose Rodriguez, a senior CIA official, admitted destroying videotapes of potentially admissible evidence, showing the torture of captives by operatives of the U.S. government at a secret prison thought to be located at a Vietnam-War-era airbase in Thailand. He was not held accountable for deep-sixing this evidence, nor for his role in the torture of human beings.
John Kiriakou Alone
The one man in the whole archipelago of America’s secret horrors facing prosecution is former CIA agent John Kiriakou. Of the untold numbers of men and women involved in the whole nightmare show of those years, only one may go to jail.
And of course, he didn’t torture anyone.
The charges against Kiriakou allege that in answering questions from reporters about suspicions that the CIA tortured detainees in its custody, he violated the Espionage Act, once an obscure World War I-era law that aimed at punishing Americans who gave aid to the enemy. It was passed in 1917 and has been the subject of much judicial and Congressional doubt ever since. Kiriakou is one of six government whistleblowers who have been charged under the Act by the Obama administration. From 1917 until Obama came into office, only three people had ever charged in this way.
The Obama Justice Department claims the former CIA officer “disclosed classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities.”
The charges result from a CIA investigation. That investigation was triggered by a filing in January 2009 on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo that contained classified information the defense had not been given through government channels, and by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of alleged CIA employees among the legal materials of some detainees at Guantanamo. According to one description, Kiriakou gave several interviews about the CIA in 2008. Court documents charge that he provided names of covert Agency officials to a journalist, who allegedly in turn passed them on to a Guantanamo legal team. The team sought to have detainees identify specific CIA officials who participated in their renditions and torture. Kiriakou is accused of providing the identities of CIA officers that may have allowed names to be linked to photographs.
Many observers believe however that the real “offense” in the eyes of the Obama administration was quite different. In 2007, Kiriakou became a whistleblower. He went on record as the first (albeit by then, former) CIA official to confirm the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, and then to condemn it as torture. He specifically mentioned the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah in that secret prison in Thailand. Zubaydah was at the time believed to be an al-Qaeda leader, though more likely was at best a mid-level operative. Kiriakou also ran afoul of the CIA over efforts to clear for publication a book he had written about the Agency’s counterterrorism work. He maintains that his is instead a First Amendment case in which a whistleblower is being punished, that it is a selective prosecution to scare government insiders into silence when they see something wrong.
If Kiriakou had actually tortured someone himself, even to death, there is no possibility that he would be in trouble. John Kiriakou is staring down a long tunnel of 30 months in jail because in the national security state that rules the roost in Washington, talking out of turn about a crime has become the only possible crime.
Welcome to the Jungle
John Kiriakou and I share common attorneys through the Government Accountability Project, and I’ve had the chance to talk with him on any number of occasions. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh at a bad joke. When the subject turns to his case, and the way the government has treated him, however, things darken. His sentences get shorter and the quick smile disappears.
He understands the role his government has chosen for him: the head on a stick, the example, the message to everyone else involved in the horrors of post-9/11 America. Do the country’s dirty work, kidnap, kill, imprison, torture, and we’ll cover for you. Destroy the evidence of all that and we’ll reward you. But speak out, and expect to be punished.
Like so many of us who have served the U.S. government honorably only to have its full force turned against us for an act or acts of conscience, the pain comes in trying to reconcile the two images of the U.S. government in your head. It’s like trying to process the actions of an abusive father you still want to love.
One of Kiriakou’s representatives, attorney Jesselyn Radack, told me, “It is a miscarriage of justice that John Kiriakou is the only person indicted in relation to the Bush-era torture program. The historic import cannot be understated. If a crime as egregious as state-sponsored torture can go unpunished, we lose all moral standing to condemn other governments’ human rights violations. By ‘looking forward, not backward’ we have taken a giant leap into the past.”
One former CIA covert officer, who uses the pen name “Ishmael Jones,” laid out a potential defense for Kiriakou: “Witness after witness could explain to the jury that Mr. Kiriakou is being selectively prosecuted, that his leaks are nothing compared to leaks by Obama administration officials and senior CIA bureaucrats. Witness after witness could show the jury that for any secret material published by Mr. Kiriakou, the books of senior CIA bureaucrats contain many times as much. Former CIA chief George Tenet wrote a book in 2007, approved by CIA censors, that contains dozens of pieces of classified information — names and enough information to find names.”
If only it was really that easy.
For at least six years it was the policy of the United States of America to torture and abuse its enemies or, in some cases, simply suspected enemies. It has remained a U.S. policy, even under the Obama administration, to employ “extraordinary rendition” — that is, the sending of captured terror suspects to the jails of countries that are known for torture and abuse, an outsourcing of what we no longer want to do.
Techniques that the U.S. hanged men for at Nuremburg and in post-war Japan were employed and declared lawful. To embark on such a program with the oversight of the Bush administration, learned men and women had to have long discussions, with staffers running in and out of rooms with snippets of research to buttress the justifications being so laboriously developed. The CIA undoubtedly used some cumbersome bureaucratic process to hire contractors for its torture staff. The old manuals needed to be updated, psychiatrists consulted, military survival experts interviewed, training classes set up.
Videotapes were made of the torture sessions and no doubt DVDs full of real horror were reviewed back at headquarters. Torture techniques were even reportedly demonstrated to top officials inside the White House. Individual torturers who were considered particularly effective were no doubt identified, probably rewarded, and sent on to new secret sites to harm more people.
America just didn’t wake up one day and start slapping around some Islamic punk. These were not the torture equivalents of rogue cops. A system, a mechanism, was created. That we now can only speculate about many of the details involved and the extent of all this is a tribute to the thousands who continue to remain silent about what they did, saw, heard about, or were associated with. Many of them work now at the same organizations, remaining a part of the same contracting firms, the CIA, and the military. Our torturers.
What is it that allows all those people to remain silent? How many are simply scared, watching what is happening to John Kiriakou and thinking: not me, I’m not sticking my neck out to see it get chopped off. They’re almost forgivable, even if they are placing their own self-interest above that of their country. But what about the others, the ones who remain silent about what they did or saw or aided and abetted in some fashion because they still think it was the right thing to do? The ones who will do it again when another frightened president asks them to? Or even the ones who enjoyed doing it?
The same Department of Justice that is hunting down the one man who spoke against torture from the inside still maintains a special unit, 60 years after the end of WWII, dedicated to hunting down the last few at-large Nazis. They do that under the rubric of “never again.” The truth is that same team needs to be turned loose on our national security state. Otherwise, until we have a full accounting of what was done in our names by our government, the pieces are all in place for it to happen again. There, if you want to know, is the real horror.
John Kiriakou maintains a personal web page, which includes information on how to donate to his legal expenses fund if you so wish.
Kiriakou, alongside whistleblowers such as Tom Drake and myself, appears in the upcoming documentary SILENCED, now in production. The film explores the steep personal price paid by those who challenge national security policy in post 9-11 America.
Originally published September 11, 2012 on TomDispatch.com, with updates on John’s sentencing.
Colin Powell, you need to shut the fuck up. Like Grandpa Simpson, every time you open your mouth you just embarrass yourself and demean all around you. Your time is done. Let the nurse change your diaper without fussing and just watch Matlock on TBS until you wither fully away.
Colin emerged from the land of creamed corn and denture adhesives to cast a shadow on the Sunday talk shows. He said this about Hillary Clinton and the deaths of four Americans at Benghazi:
I think she’s had a distinguished record. And I don’t think that this one incident–which is one of these things that those of us in government have been through many, many times where suddenly an action happens late at night … I don’t think it’s a blot on her record.
You’re surprised. Somebody gets killed, something gets blown up. And then the after-action reports start and everybody wants to know who was at fault. Who was responsible? ‘Why didn’t you keep this from happening?’ Well, you can’t keep everything from happening. Benghazi was a very, very difficult one and a difficult situation, and maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The reader is reminded that Hillary Clinton was the head of the organization that placed those Americans where, in Colin’s words, “maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place” and thus might, oh, I don’t know, have some responsibility for what happened. Colin, who likely can’t read anymore even with his damn glasses, wherever the hell he left them, might also recall that the State Department’s own report on Benghazi found “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection.” Since Slick Hilly was head of the pack that showed such poor leadership, maybe she had some responsibility?
Nothing New for Colin Powell
But of course not being responsible for the deaths of others is Colin’s specialty, actually the hallmark of his career.
Colin Powell, as Secretary of State, lent his considerable credibility and gravitas to the case for war with Iraq.
Powell spoke publicly before the UN General Assembly, and privately in depth with America’s allies, about mobile biowar labs, weapons of mass destruction and the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed. While many people considered Bush an idiot puppet, and Cheney and Rumsfeld psychopathic fibbers, Powell convincingly represented the United States’ case for war. Of course, everything Powell said was a lie. Pimping his book Colin told all (like Benghazi, it was just a “blot”):
A blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me. There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.
So why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech? Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence. Try to get over failure quickly. Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it. If you are responsible, own up to it.
And My Lai Just Happened Too
Colin famously served in America’s retro-war of choice, Vietnam. He was charged with investigating the My Lai Massacre. Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Later, Powell’s assessment would be described as whitewashing the massacre. Almost rehearsing his Hillary lines to the very word, in May 2004 Powell told radio host Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Birds of a Feather
So it is no real surprise that Colin Powell, who took no responsibility for helping America into a horrible war with Iraq, is now dragged out of the retirement home toilet to tell us that Hillary also has no responsibility for the stuff that just kinda happens out there when you go intervening around the world. And hey, in Colin’s own words, you’d be surprised when people want to know who is responsible for the deaths of their sons and daughters. Gosh golly, why would anyone want to know who was responsible for just a blot? And why are we still listening to has-beens like Colin? Have we run out of Kardashians to interview? Do we have to wait for some pathetic sex scandal until we can heap Colin into the dust-bin of once-media-superheroes alongside Petraeus and Lance Armstrong? Colin and Hillary together, what a pair, which is good because without her Colin does not have one.
Thanks Colin, for all your
blots service. Now go away you tired old man. Meanwhile, let’s watch this:
This article was originally published on Salon.com, December 18, 2012
Why Zero Dark Thirty Won’t Settle the Torture Question or Purge Torture From the American System
If you look backward you see a nightmare. If you look forward you become the nightmare.
There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us — that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.
The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices. But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.
At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.
Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.
The Korean Poet
The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.
Under the brutal military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”
The poet quietly explained to me that, after his work came to the notice of the powers that be, he was taken from his apartment to a small underground cell. Soon, two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked him no questions. In fact, he said, they barely spoke to him at all. Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, even as a poet, he said that the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained with him for life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again.
The men who destroyed him, he told me, entered the room, did their work, and then departed, as if they had many others to visit that day and needed to get on with things. The Poet was released a few days later and politely driven back to his apartment by the police in a forward-looking gesture, as if the episode of torture was over and to be forgotten.
The Iraqi Tribal Leader
The second torture victim I met while I was stationed at a forward operating base in Iraq. He was a well-known SOI leader. The SOI, or Sons of Iraq, were Sunni tribesmen who, as part of Iraq War commander General David Petraeus’s much-discussed “Anbar Awakening” agreed to stop killing Americans and, in return for money we paid them, take up arms against al-Qaeda. That was 2007. By 2010, when I met the man, the Sons of Iraq, as Sunnis, had no friends in the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the U.S. was expediently allowing its Sunni friendships to fade away.
Over dessert one sticky afternoon, the SOI leader told me that he had recently been released from prison. He explained that the government had wanted him off the street in the run-up to a recent election, so that he would not use his political pull to get in the way of a Shia victory. The prison that held him was a secret one, he told me, under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.
It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.
Alone in the Dark
I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “black sites” and foreign prisons.
A widely praised new movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “the Water Torture,” later “the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.
These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a CIA Inspector General’s report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.
The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized. As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information — sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left 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. Yes, torture “works” — to destroy people.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.
Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture — the “extraordinary rendition” of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree — we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.
I grow weary of “journalists” who don’t get counterinsurgency. So I’ll try and use simple words: We kill the bad guys so that the LEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT can assert its control. The key to why almost every counterinsurgency struggle fails (Vietnam and Iraq are my faves) is the absence of that legitimate government. The U.S., using massive firepower, clears a hole that is filled either by the legitimate government should one exist, or, if not, by the insurgents, or, in worse case scenarios like Libya, no one and chaos ensues.
If you are Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, or know her, or read her dumb ass piece on Afghanistan in the Times, please re-read that opening paragraph above until it makes sense. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Reporting from Helmand Province
Rubin reports to us from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the once-to-be center of Greater Georgebushistan, when the U.S. had any plans for Afghanistan other than trying to figure out the best way to just make it all go away. It seems while we’ve been at the bar waiting for a table, 21,000 Marines have been surging the heck out of Helmand, clearing naughty Taliban out left and right. Rubin is now surprised that since the Marines have cut back to about 6500 on the ground, the Taliban are “creeping back.”
Counterinsurgency tip no. 147: Don’t fight the big guys, especially when you know they’ll only be around for a short while. Let them surge in as you surge out and then when their numbers drop off, move back in and reclaim your turf. Still not sure? Watch what cockroaches do when you flip on the kitchen light at night– do they stand on their hind legs and try to tear the insecticide can from your hands?
Now back to that legit government. Rubin does seem to have a bit of a clue when she quotes a local:
Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless “the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels.”
“Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade,” said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. “Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.
“We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban.”
A corrupt government that fails to ensure the livelihood of its people will not win a counterinsurgency war. The Marines can hold off the Taliban temporarily indefinitely, but they will never be an Afghan government.
To wit from a half-wit:
Hajji Atiqullah, the tribal leader in Nawa, says the road between his city and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been life-changing. “This road will last for many years, and I think people will remember it as one of the biggest contributions of the American Marines,” he said.
Other economic benefits, however, are dwindling as the Western troops leave. The surge brought jobs for many rural residents. There were small irrigation and construction projects, which are finished now. In Marja alone, about 1,400 people were hired to work for the informal security forces set up by the Marines at the height of the surge, according to elders in Marja. But when the Interior Ministry began to integrate these forces into the Afghan Local Police, they offered places to only 400, said Mr. Shah, the chairman of the development shura. As the rest find themselves jobless, village elders say, they will turn to whoever will protect them, even if that is the Taliban or criminals.
Counterinsurgency tip no. 672: If the government must rely on foreign troops to protect the people, it cannot be seen by the people as legitimate.
Looking for an Optimist
Rubin wonders “So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?”
Let’s help her figure that out by calling the Times and reading out loud to her: “Counterinsurgency will always fail without a legitimate government and Afghanistan does not have one. The Afghan government was created by the U.S. for our own domestic political purposes. It is corrupt. It cannot secure its people and cannot provide them with a way of living.”
Let us now return to the words of the best writer on counterinsurgency, Bernard B. Fall, who covered both the French and the American defeats in Vietnam. Fall said:
The French in Algeria learned every lesson from the French in Viet-Nam. The troop ratio there was a comfortable 11-to-1. The French very effectively sealed off the Algerian-Tunisian border, and by 1962 had whittled down the guerrillas from 65,000 to 7,000… It cost 3 million dollars a day for eight years, or $12 billion in French money. The “price” also included two mutinies of the French Army and one overthrow of the civilian government. At that price the French were winning the war in Algeria, militarily. The fact was that the military victory was totally meaningless. This is where the word “grandeur” applies to President de Gaulle: he was capable of seeing through the trees of military victory to a forest of political defeat and he chose to settle the Algerian insurgency by other means.
Some of these wars, of course, can be won, as in the Philippines, for example. The war was won there not through military action (there wasn’t a single special rifle invented for the Philippines, let alone more sophisticated ordnance) but through an extremely well-conceived civic action program and, of course, a good leader–[Ramon] Magsaysay.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
With the start of a new year, it seems pretty common to sort of reflect forward, especially if you’re still drinking and on the sofa a week into 2013. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the problem seems to be, well, us.
This blog has documented concerns about Hillary Clinton as a leader. Highlights include her glee over the death of a world leader (Qaddafi) overthrown without real point by the U.S. (a decision that coupled with the lack of leadership within her State Department led directly to the unnecessary deaths of Americans), that lack of leadership thing within her State Department led directly to the unnecessary deaths of Americans, her often trite and casual traveling about as if miles logged had some greater meaning and so forth. Most recently, her serial health problems (flu –> dehydration –> concussion –> head clot), real or not, have had the direct result of her not speaking a public word about a significant event on her watch, Benghazi. She is fully absent on critical issues, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, either hiding from bad PR or, more likely, sidelined by a White House that prefers her on the sidelines as it makes its own foreign policy around her happy-talk travels.
On the plus side of the slate, her accomplishments after four years as Secretary of State are… Well, let’s let others catalog her accomplishments.
Time magazine (Slogan: Yes, we’re still publishing) writes from a favorable perch:
Eight months before her self-imposed retirement, Clinton is piling up awards and accolades faster than clear-cut achievements. She hasn’t done anything as momentous as opening the door to China like Henry Kissinger or assembling the first Gulf War coalition like James Baker. Still, the liberation of Libya, establishment of diplomatic ties with Burma and the assembly of a coalition against Iran bear her imprimatur.
Kinda thin, huh? I think I’ve said what needs to be said about Libya. Opening relations with Burma is not a bad thing, but it isn’t much of a thing. Not sure what that coalition against Iran is all about, and there is a lot more history to be written about the U.S. and Iran before anyone can claim anything like credit (or blame. The U.S. has declared war on Iran conducting diplomacy.)
Time keeps trying, however, to find something Hillary has accomplished. To wit:
Clinton’s endurance is legendary. She maintained a punishing 18-plus-hour-a-day schedule on her weeklong swing from Libya to Central and South Asia. At the end of her day in New York City last September, with its endless one-on-one meetings, public appearances and forums, Clinton sat down in a closed session with the 27 E.U. Foreign Ministers and listened as each aired opinions on U.S. foreign policy. Even as glazed looks settled over her staff, Clinton retained an easy and relaxed demeanor, speaking off the cuff and calmly responding to bitter criticism of the U.S.’s veto threat against a vote on Palestinian statehood.
To wit, OK, she’s a hard worker, again, not a bad thing but so what? And of course buried in the goofy praise above is the note that the U.S. stands in a tiny minority blocking Palestinian statehood at the UN as if that was an accomplishment.
USA Today digs deep and finds only:
Clinton convinced Chinese leaders to free blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.
A) About a third of you are Googling to find out who Chen Guang Cheng is and B) The other two-thirds are wondering so what? Chen has been living in New York City for most of the year and nothing has changed anywhere in China, America or New York.
USA Today continues:
If there’s a signature moment, I suppose it might be this: Mrs. Clinton got her first taste of high-wire negotiating last October in Zurich when she headed off a last-minute dispute that nearly scuttled an agreement between Turkey and Armenia on normalizing diplomatic relations. Sitting in a black BMW limousine, she juggled two cellphones, slowly nudging two ancient enemies together, if only temporarily.
Sure, we all heard about that and it is being taught now in schools. Huh? What was resolved? What problem was fixed where?
The Horse’s Mouth
Let’s go to the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and quote Hillary Herself, from a speech summing up her own version of accomplishments:
…hosting town halls with global youth, raising awareness for religious minorities, protecting Internet freedom and advancing rights for women and the LGBT community around the world.
OK, I guess, kinda hard to quantify, kinda hard to see as much more than self-promotion, but then again, here’s that travel thing again:
“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘I look at your travel schedule. Why Togo? Why the Cook Islands?’ No secretary of state had ever been to Togo before. Togo happens to be on the U.N. Security Council. Going there, making the personal investment, has a real strategic purpose.”
With a lovely sense of irony, Hillary’s own “I Love Me” pages at the State Department’s own website list no heading for “accomplishments” or the like.
PolicyMic lists the Top Five Clinton Accomplishments as People-to-People Diplomacy, The Importance of Economics, Restoring American Credibility, Diplomacy is National Security and, somewhat amazingly, “Texts From Hillary,” which the site tell us “Her star power and ability to capture the imagination of individuals around the world is one noteworthy aspect of her success.”
That same web site, which no doubt must also feature Twilight fan fiction somewhere, also reports this from an alternate universe:
Surely, the cornerstone of her legacy is the Arab Spring. Here, Clinton’s handling of the immense challenges associated with the revolutions across the Arab world was mixed. On one hand, she has done a good job at letting protesters do their work. Initially, the United States remained on the side lines, and allowed those on the street to take the reins in demanding their basic rights and dignity. Though, of course, the U.S. eventually stepped in later (most forcefully in Libya), it’s admirable that she was able to sympathize with the aspirations of protesters, rather than upholding the status quo and supporting the authoritarian regimes that the U.S. had previously defended .
Foreign Policy’s Stephen Walt starts somewhat ironically with a quote from the New York Times Magazine referring to Hillary as a “rock star diplomat,” and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her “the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson.” Walt then goes on to damn with faint praise Hillary’s legacy accomplishments as:
There’s no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player… She’s also proved to be relatively gaffe-free. Insiders with whom I’ve spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she’s helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues.
But We Love Her
I just can’t find anything that Hillary Clinton did in four years as Secretary of State that stands out as a legacy, an accomplishment, like say a Marshall Plan, or ending a war we didn’t start, or saving something or advancing peace in the Middle East or opening relations with China to forever change the balance of power in the Cold War.
Anything? This blog is open to a guest post citing Hillary’s accomplishments, or you may post links in the Comments. This shall be an ongoing, open invitation between now and election day 2016. Instead, Hillary chose to conduct herself as a figurehead, a minor celebrity, traveling around championing feel-good causes and goofy social media hijinks like a chunky Angelia Jolie. She should not look for legacy now.
But… but… we love Hillary. She has this year set a record in Gallup’s annual most-admired survey. Gallup has run its most-admired man and woman survey since World War II, and in the 2012 edition, Clinton kept her top positions among those asked a simple question: “What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most? And who is your second choice?” Clinton was named as most-admired woman for the 17th time since she became a national figure in 1992. Eleanor Roosevelt held the previous record when she was named 13 times as the most-admired woman. The only two women to finish ahead of Clinton in that 20-year period were Mother Teresa (twice) and Laura Bush (once). This year Clinton had 21 percent of the vote, followed by Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice. Clinton dominates polling for the democratic nomination for 2016.
America, it is us. We elevate to heights mediocre people pretending to be leaders who actually accomplish little or nothing. We allow them to use high office for self-promotion, and we swill like ignorant pigs the empty praise of dimwitted media. For example, Petraeus– history shows he failed in Iraq, yet absent a sex scandal he’d be in line for the presidency. Hillary isn’t a leader in any stretch of imagination. She possesses no substance. She is a reality show many Americans seem to enjoy, projecting their own ideas about women’s empowerment and modern social media onto her willing shell. We deserve all that we get– and are going to get– enroute to 2016.
They say you can’t put a price on safety, but the State Department has: $750 million to hire 150 new security agents.
Wait– that works out to five million per secure person hired. Where do we sign up?
Following the report on State’s security failures in Benghazi, the Department predictably tried to turn tragedy in cash money, asking for $$$ Congress previously assigned to the security needs of the World’s Most Expensive Embassy, the one in Baghdad. In a flurry of Iraq-induced mania, Congress buried State in cash last year to secure the Embassy in the aftermath of America’s victory in Mesopotamia. Because State had neither the personnel nor the programs paid for to need that much security, they haven’t spent it and want to re-purpose the money to the rest of the world, now also officially insecure and dangerous following the decade-long War of Terror.
Now before we start adding up dollars and (non)sense for the State Department, let’s take a tiny, tiny peek back at that report from Benghazi. While the report certainly did ask for more money (“The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs”), it seemed that the bulk of the report’s criticisms focused on non-monetary stuff like leadership:
Communication, cooperation, and coordination among Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi functioned collegially at the working-level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels. Among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations.
The Board found that certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection.
State Needs Leadership, Not More Money
Now, it appears that what the State Department really needs is some leaders, people more committed to serving their nation than sucking upward to please their bosses by shaving a few bucks off the security budget in Libya. That kind of thing may be harder to go out and buy, even at five million dollars a head. Indeed, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairm Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) suggested that the State Department might do better to examine its priorities before asking for more money:
We cannot expect the same bureaucracy at State, whose management failures are now manifest, to objectively review the department’s organization, procedure and performance. Nor can we have any confidence in their assessment of what went wrong and what actions are needed to prevent a repeat.
Ros-Lehtinen went on to critique Hillary Clinton’s launch this year of a flashy initiative to send American celebrity chefs on goodwill tours abroad, saying it seemed especially misplaced in a time of tight budgets. This blog enjoyed a fine bit of dining out on the stupidity of the chef idea, in a previous posting. Democrats in turn said Ros-Lehtinen was turning tragedy into a political football by turning Ros-Lehtinen’s partisan remark about a partisan remark into a partisan criticism. Whew.
Meanwhile, where’s Slick Hilly?
Mrs. Clinton, recovering from what must be the World’s Longest Concussion, has not been seen for weeks. With her terrible concussion, she was unable to (again) meet with Congress to discuss her organization’s flop in Benghazi. never mind the uber-flop of Hillary’s blood-thirtsy support for the overthrow of Qaddafi that lead to the deaths in Benghazi that lead, somehow, to the celebrity chefs (I’m not sure of the link but it’s there).
Hillary had nothing to say about the Benghazi report. Hillary had nothing to say about the Congressional criticism. Hillary had nothing to say about Susan Rice’s self-immolation, Hillary had nothing but a Tweet-length “congrats” to say about John Kerry taking over her job. There remains for Hillary a vague promise to meet with Congress in January.
Hence, as a public service, here are some questions to ask Hillary if she ever emerges from her concussion, now at three weeks and counting:
–How much of the State Department’s security budget is spent domestically, on security clearances, admin support, agents with pending murder raps on paid leave, prosecuting State Department employees for extra-marital affairs, domestic staff that never leave DC and the Diplomatic Security sub-offices in places like Miami, Los Angeles and Honolulu?
–How much of the State Department’s security budget is spent on protecting the Secretary of State? State Department employees know that Hillary does not even travel inside her own building without a security escort. Overseas she gets the full-meal deal with sniffer dogs and sniper teams.
–How much of the State Department’s security budget is spent on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan?
–How much of the State Department’s security budget is spent on the growing fleet of contractor-operated helicopters and fixed wing planes State now enjoys?
–What’s left for the other 180-some overseas posts Hillary?
The Money Shot
And, oh yeah, Congress, ask about this:
The State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security saw its budget expand about tenfold in the decade after the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Contributing to that growth were the U.S.-launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks. So where’d all that money go to if not into protecting places like Benghazi? Former FSO Bill answers:
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the increased budget went to increased personnel and better security. Most of the increased funding is dedicated to Special Agent pensions under Public Law 105-382, which establishes age 57 as the mandatory retirement age for Special Agents, and computes their annuity at 2.5% of high 3 average salary times number of years. This is far more generous, and far more expensive than pension benefits for other State employees. In the late 90s, both State and ICE scrambled to get their officers designated as Special Agents, a designation previously limited to fewer agencies. While it was a prestige and morale issue for both agencies, it has had a major impact on budget expenditures. Those who complain that military pensions are too generous should note that DS uses the same formula as the military, but DS average salaries are much higher than military salaries. Once they retire with a really good pension, they can come right back as contractors, who don’t have any requirement to retire at age 57. That’s where the money goes.
State doesn’t need more money for security. The State Department urgently needs adult supervision over the money it already has, now, before someone else gets hurt.
Hey, anybody remember we had a war in Iraq that turned out kinda poorly? I know everyone is all caught up in Christmas shopping and planning intervention in Syria, but once in awhile it’s also cool to look back. In this case, about a month ago.
Thumbnail history: U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003 to free it from the evil dictator. Iraq was to be a democratic ally of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism. Fast forward to November 2012, and Iraq has freed Musa Ali Daqduq, the senior Hezbollah commander who was tasked by Iran’s Qods Force in Iraq to mold Shia terror groups into a Hezbollah-like entity. Daqduq was directly involved in the murder of five American soldiers in 2007. The U.S. government moved Daqduq to Iraqi custody in December 2011.
Daqduq was freed by Iraqi authorities and transferred to Lebanon where there is no chance whatsoever that he will rejoin Qods or have anything to do with Hezbollah.
The release is seen as a barometer of U.S. versus Iranian influence in Iraq. In June, the U.S. requested that Iraq extradite Daqduq so he could be tried in an American federal court. In August, an Iraqi court blocked his extradition to the U.S. Iraqi officials had previously assured the U.S. they would prosecute Daqduq. Instead, under pressure from Iran, Daqdug was sprung.
So, in summation: U.S. invasion fails to achieve our national goals at the cost of some 4900 American lives, ally Iraq releases a known killer under Iranian pressure and the U.S. is left with the grisly option of droning his ass to death because that’s all we really can do anymore, lash out like some giant of a kid frustrated at his own failings.
It’s a Christmas story!
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