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    Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019 // 8 Comments »

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Who Said This? Fun Quiz!

    March 13, 2019 // 14 Comments »


     

    Fun quiz! Who said the following on TV this week? (The answer is below and will surprise you!)

    “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we are not involved in international conflicts, or trying to quell international conflicts, certainly the Russians and the Chinese will fill that vacuum. And we will step away from the world stage in a significant way that might destabilize the world, because the United States, however flawed, is a force for good in the world in my opinion.”

    Answer: Stephen Colbert, who supposedly is a comedian with a silly late night show, but instead ends up reading neocon talking points to millenials.
     

    The ever-sharp Caitlan Johnstone has the whole story here; Colbert was in the process of tearing apart Tulsi Gabbard for daring oppose American interventions.

    The correct answer is reading what Gabbard said:

    “The United States should not be intervening to overthrow these dictators and these regimes that we don’t like, like Assad, like Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi, and like Kim Jong Un. There are bad people in the world, but history has shown us that every time the United States goes in and topples these dictators we don’t like, trying to end up like the world’s police, we end up increasing the suffering of the people in these countries. We end up increasing the loss of life, but American lives and the lives of people in these countries. We end up undermining our own security, what to speak of the trillions of dollars of taxpayer money that’s spent on these wars that we need to be using right here at home.”

     
     

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    John Kerry Is a Man of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)

    January 31, 2019 // 18 Comments »


     

    Oh how easy it is to forget! John Kerry, fundraising for the 2020 Dems, write “Trump’s complete disregard for diplomacy has embarrassed our nation on the world stage” and “weakened the very foundation of our democracy.”

    Poor John Kerry doesn’t remember much about his own record. So, John, here’s something I wrote in 2013 to refresh your memory of what a hash you made of the world, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Vlad Putin during a USG shutdown.

    This one’s, again, for you, Johnny boyo!

     

    In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

    In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

    If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

    Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

    We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

    Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

    Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

    All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

    … in the Middle East

    If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

    The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

    Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

    Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

    Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

    State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

    Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

    … Everywhere Else

    Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

    Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

    After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

    Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

    … Entering Syrian Airspace

    The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

    Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

    Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

    His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

    But, But…

    As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

    In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

    Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

    Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

    Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

    Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

    The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

    Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

    The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    The Wall May Be a Waste, But It is Not a Crisis

    January 14, 2019 // 21 Comments »


     

    Trump’s wall isn’t going to stop much illegal immigration. On the other hand, it is unlikely to hurt much of anything; it will most likely just be another waste of money. It is certainly not a Constitutional crisis over authoritarianism.

     

    There are currently some 700 miles of fence/wall/barrier along the 2,000 mile southern border, built in pieces under the Bushes and Clinton administrations, and maintained under Obama. Clinton even called his 1994 wall effort “Operation Gatekeeper.” There was little-to-no national opposition raised when the various walls were constructed, and no widespread movement to tear them down when Democrats held full control of the government in the early Obama years. No Russian leader stood on the border and declared to freedom loving people everywhere “Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Other Mr. Bush, or Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!”

    Democrats in the Senate,including then-Senators Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed into law by George W. Bush. The law authorized a fence along about 700 miles of the border between the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2015, Customs and Border Protection had constructed 654 miles.

    There was certainly nothing on the scale of what we are hearing today, with Nancy Pelosi calling Trump’s plan to add another 234 miles of fence/wall/barrier “immoral… not who we are as a nation.”

    Maybe she forgot the beloved Abe Lincoln was an actual railsplitter, a person whose job it was to create rails for fences. The wall meanwhile wasn’t immoral in the 1990s and it wasn’t immoral a year ago when Democratic senators negotiated a compromise Republicans rejected for a wall in exchange for legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

    So what’s different in 2019? Via the New York Times: unlike the other parts of the existing fence/wall/barrier, the part Trump wants to add will be “a symbol of hate and racism.” How can one tell? Different construction? A sign? Why isn’t Trump’s part just another brick in that existing wall? What’s the message conveyed by the unwalled half of the border still left after Trump’s part is built?

    The president wants something and the other side doesn’t want him to have it. Think of this all as a prelude to the 2020 campaign, including the fierce commentary storm enraging everyone. The media even has us debating whether “walls” as a concept work; do or don’t people sometimes build walls around their (gated) communities for protection, some ask with great seriousness. WaPo ran an Op-Ed criticizing all walls, from medieval times to the present day.

    Silly media. Like the shutdown, this is not about walls. Every government shutdown is about brinkmanship. And brinkmanship is risky business, because it demands someone must lose and compromise is off the table. That’s not always a good idea when one side holds a trump card. The president’s is he may declare a “national emergency” (there are also less dramatic “declarable” options) which he feels would allow him to reprogram funds to pay for his contribution to the fence/wall/barrier. Within his narrative, it will play as decisive – someone had to solve the impasse – and as an antithesis to whatever people expected from the midterms’ Blue Wave. “No wall, no deal,” Mike Pence declared. “We’re going to keep standing strong, keep standing firm.”

    That sounds all scary, even authoritarian, and you will read articles about how it is unconstitutional or a crisis or an impeachable offense. One outlet called this a “Pandora’s Box” that could even lead to Trump shutting down CNN and Facebook.

    It’s not. Declaring a national emergency is at times necessary, at times bureaucratically convenient, and at times rough politics. Shutting down government over a policy dispute is always a cheap move. Trump and the others involved will be judged by the voters. But that’s about it, folks.

    Here’s a list of the current 28 standing national emergencies. See if you can find some that rise to the level of what any normal person thinks of as an emergency that couldn’t be dealt with except by the president using extraordinary powers. For example, Obama proclaimed Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela as a national emergency.

    Funny thing: the September 11 national emergency, still in force today, was used to have the military do some domestic construction work, the same thing anti-wall pundits claim is now illegal under Trump (other laws also suggest Trump can use the military in this manner.) What if Trump used the existing 9/11 emergency again for whatever he wants, same as Bush and Obama did, instead of declaring a fresh emergency? Maybe that would wake Americans up.

    Now if you still want to talk about misuse of executive power, you may want to look at the Constitution. The document doesn’t say much about walls, but it does limit the power to declare war to Congress. Nobody has done much about that misuse of power, as every president since WWII started new wars without any declaration and in most cases without even a head nod out of Congress. To make things clear after Vietnam, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973, a bit of executive power-limiting legislation that has been fully ignored ever since.

    Leaving aside the gross fig leaf of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has been waived over every American invasion, special forces incursion, regime change, drone attack, bombing campaign, reconstruction project, and police action in the last 17 years and still counting, there has been more debate given to the wall than much of any of the conflicts around it.

    Certainly more anger and angst has been spewed alongside the wall, and the waste of money it represents. Trump wants $5.7 billion to build it! That is all of about 1/7 of the yearly cost of the war in Afghanistan, and of course that war has run on at $45 billion a year for 17 years. Anybody want to talk about that money being wasted? Maddow? Pelosi? Ocasio-Cortez? Bueller?

    And for the media, who discovered via “fact-checking” Trump exaggerated the terrorist threat on our southern border, where were you when every facet of American foreign and domestic policy was driven by two administrations using this same lie?

    Apparently all the fears about abuse of power center on a couple of hundred miles of wall in the desert; wars in deserts further away now barely make the news. Spare us the hand wringing over crisis, abuse of power, and unconstitutionality. If anyone really wants to talk the talk on those topics, let’s reopen the debate on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria as part of the negotiations to reopen the government.

    That all of that is ignored while the nation is on edge over a slice of wall tells you what this is all really about: 2020.

     
     

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    Don’t Weep for Mattis but for the Global War on Terror, 2001-2018, R.I.P.

    December 25, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    Senior officials never seem to resign over a president starting a war. And Trump, the guy who was supposed to start new wars, instead ended one and is on his way to wrapping up another.

    A full pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria and a drawdown in Afghanistan are much more important as markers of the end of an era than either a bureaucratic tussle (Mattis is stepping down as defense secretary after Trump overruled him and other top national security advisers) or a disastrous geopolitical decision.

    The New York Times, its journalists in mourning over the loss of a war, ask “Who will protect America now?” Mattis the warrior-monk is juxtaposed with the flippant Commander-in-Cheeto. The Times also sees strategic disaster in an “abrupt and dangerous decision, detached from any broader strategic context or any public rationale, sowed new uncertainty about America’s commitment to the Middle East, [and] its willingness to be a global leader.” “A major blunder,” tweeted Marco Rubio. “If it isn’t reversed it will haunt… America for years to come.” Lindsey Graham called for congressional hearings.

    What is history if not irony. Rubio talks of haunting foreign policy decisions in Syria seemingly without knowledge of its predecessor decisions in Iraq. Graham wants to hold hearings on quitting a war Congress never held hearings on authorizing.

    That’s all wrong. Mattis’ resignation, and Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, are significant as marking the beginning of the end of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, the singular, tragic, bloody driver of American foreign policy for almost two decades.

     

    Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    It’s 2018. Why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Defeat ISIS? ISIS’ ability to hold ground and project power outside its immediate backyard was destroyed somewhere back in 2016 by an unholy coalition of American, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and Israeli forces in Iraq and Syria. Sure, there are terrorists who continue to set off bombs in marketplaces in ISIS’ name, but those people are not controlled or directed out of Syria. They are most likely legal residents of the Western countries they attack, radicalized online or in local mosques. They are motivated by a philosophy, and that way of thinking cannot be destroyed on the ground in Syria. The fundamental failure of the GWOT is that you can’t blow up an idea.

    Regime change? It was never a practical idea (as in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, there was never a plan on what to do next, how to keep Syria from descending into complete chaos the day Assad was removed) and though progressives embraced the idea of getting rid of another “evil dictator” when it came through the mouthpiece of Obama’s own freedom fighter Samantha Power, the same idea today has little drive behind it.

    Russia! Overwrought fear of Russia was once a sign of unhealthy paranoia satirized on The Twilight Zone. Today it is seen as a prerequisite to patriotism, though it still makes no more sense. The Russians have always had a practical relationship with Syria and maintained a naval base there at Tartus since 1971, and will continue to do so. There was never a plan for the U.S. to push the Russians out — Obama in fact saw the Russian presence are part of the solution in Syria. American withdrawal from Syria is far more a return to status quo than anything like a win for Putin (Matt Purple pokes holes in Putin Paranoia elsewhere on TAC.)

    The Kurds? The U.S.-Kurd story is a one of expediency over morality. At each sad turn there was no force otherwise available in bulk and the Kurds were used and abandoned many times by America: in 1991 when it refused to assist them in breaking away from Saddam Hussein following Gulf War I, when it insisted they remain part of a “united Iraq” following Gulf War II, and most definitively in 2017 forward following Gulf War III when the U.S. did not support the Kurdish independence referendum, relegating the Kurds to forever being the half-loved stepchild to Baghdad. After all that, U.S. intentions toward the Kurds in Syria are barely a sideshow-scale event. The Kurds want to cleave off territory from Turkey and Syria, something neither nation will permit and something the U.S. quietly understands would destabilize the region.

    Mattis, by the way, supported NATO ally Turkey in its fight against the Kurds, calling them an “active insurgency inside its borders.” The Kurds run a propaganda operation inside the U.S. to rival any other, and, as if to signal that they would not go quietly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are discussing the release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners, a prominent monitoring group and a Western official said Thursday. Western media of course featured this story heavily, without thinking for even one second how stupid it would be to release thousands of ISIS prisoners who would immediately turn on you, just to spite the U.S.

    A final point — “The Kurds” are not a nation, or an organization, or a sports team. As referred to in this context, “The Kurds” are a violent subset of an ethnic group spread across multiple nation borders, including Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Supporting “The Kurds” means supporting a non-uniformed armed force which uses violence many classify as terrorism, including urban car bombs, to take and hold territory. The roots of these conflicts go back centuries, and the U.S. should tread carefully when inserting its 500 pound gorilla-self into them. Certainly discussion beyond Op-Eds is needed. Sorry, kids, it’s called real world politics: forced to choose between Turkey whose second-largest army in NATO controls the entrance to the Black Sea, and the stateless Kurds, um…

    Iran? Does the U.S. have troops in Syria to brush back Iranian influence? As with “all of the above,” the genie got out of the bottle years ago. Iranian power in the greater Middle East has grown dramatically since 2003, and has been driven at every step by the blunders of the United States. If the most powerful army in the world couldn’t stop the Iranians from essentially being the winners of Gulf Wars II and III, how can 2,000 troops in Syria hope to accomplish much? The United States of course wasn’t even shooting at the Iranians in Syria; in most cases it was working either with them, or tacitly alongside them towards the same goal of killing off ISIS anyway. Tehran’s role as Assad’s protector was set as America rumbled about regime change. Iran has since pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria and will not be giving that up, certainly not because of the presence of absence of a few thousand Americans.

    American credibility? Left is that once-neocon, now progressive catch-all, we need to stay in Syria to preserve American credibility. While pundits can still get away with this line, the rest of the globe knows the empire has no clothes. Since 2001 the United States has spent some $6 trillion on its wars, and killed multiples of the 9/11 victims worth of American troops and foreign civilians. The U.S. has tortured, still maintains the gulag of Guantanamo as a crown jewel, and worst of all credibility-wise, lost on every front. Afghanistan after 17 years of war festers. Nothing was accomplished with Iraq. Libya is a failed state. Syria is the source of a refugee crisis whose long-term effects on Europe are still being played out. We are largely left as an “indispensable nation” only in our own minds. A lot of people around the world probably wish America would just stop messing with their countries.

    Our allies? The much-touted coalition which the U.S. lead into Afghanistan was in pieces before it fell apart in 2003 ahead of the Iraq invasion. One-by-one, American allies across Europe, including Britain, as well as Canada, have dropped out of GWOT or reduced their participation to token forces. Nonetheless, the media has found people as far away as Australia to quote on how the U.S. is abandoning its post-WWII roll as the world’s protector. And of course any U.S. ally who feels the fight in Syria/Afghanistan/Yemen/Etc. is worth dying for is more than welcome to send in its own troops.

     

    So why does the U.S. have troops in Syria?

    Anyone? Bueller? Mattis?

    The U.S. presence in Syria, like Jim Mattis himself, is an artifact of another era, the failed GWOT. As a Marine, Mattis served in ground combat leadership roles in Gulf Wars I and II, and also in Afghanistan. He ran United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, the final years of The Surge in Iraq and American withdrawal afterwards. There is no doubt why he supported the American military presence in Syria, and why he resigned to protest Trump’s decision to end it — Mattis knew nothing else. His entire career was built around the strategy of the GWOT, the core of which was never question GWOT strategy. Mattis didn’t need a reason to stay in Syria; being in Syria was the reason.

    So why didn’t Trump listen to his generals? Maybe because the bulk of their advice has been dead wrong for 17 years? Instead, Trump plans a dramatic drawdown of troops in Afghanistan (American soldiers will be there in some small number forever to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops.) The U.S. presence in Iraq has dwindled from combat to advise and assist, and Congress seems poised to end U.S. involvement in Yemen against Mattis’ advice.

    There is no pleasure in watching Jim Mattis end his decades of service with a bureaucratic dirty stick shoved at him as a parting gift. But to see this all as another Trump versus the world blunder is very wrong. The war on terror failed, and needed to be dismantled long ago. Barack Obama could have done it, but instead was a victim of hubris and bureaucratic capture and allowed himself to expand it. His supporters give him credit for not escalating the war in Syria, but leave out the part about how he also left the pot to simmer on the stove instead of removing it altogether.

    A New Lens

    The raw drive to insta-hate everything Trump does can mislead otherwise thoughtful people. So let’s try a new lens: During the campaign Trump outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars. Pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas was driven by people who agreed with his critique, by people who’d served in these wars, whose sons/daughters had served, or given the length of all this, both. Since taking office, the president has pulled U.S. troops back from pointless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Congress may yet rise to do the same for American involvement in Yemen. No new wars have started. Though the results are far from certain, for the first time in nearly twenty years negotiations are open again with North Korea.

    Mattis’ ending was clumsy, but it was a long time coming. It is time for some old ideas to move on. And if future world events cause us to have some sort of debate over what the proper U.S. role is in places like Syria and Afghanistan, well, that’s been a long time coming, too.

     

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    Was Bin Laden Right About 9/11?

    September 11, 2018 // 25 Comments »

    9-11


    (A reprint of my 9/11 article from 2016…)


    OK, ok, serious now. It’s been 15 years now people, so we can talk about this kind of thing, ‘kay? That’s what anniversaries are for, after all.


    Peter Bergen, at CNN, who is often the sanest clown in the CNN circus, tell us that al Qaeda really blew it on 9/11.

    “Like the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Bergen, “9/11 was a great tactical victory for America’s enemies. But in both these cases the tactical success of the attacks was not matched by strategic victories. Quite the reverse.” He goes on to remind us the U.S. totally kicked Japan’s butt.

    Now it can get a little fuzzy when you try to jam 9/11 and al Qaeda into the Saving Private Ryan narrative framework. So it’s important to understand what Bergen thinks al Qaeda’s goal was with the attacks 15 years ago. I’ll quote him so when I call him an idiot a bit later, you’ll understand my reasoning:

    “Bin Laden believed that al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington would result in an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Instead, the United States quickly toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda… The United States not only did not reduce its influence in the Middle East, but it also established or added to massive bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, it also occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bin Laden’s tactical victory on 9/11 turned out to be a spectacular strategic flop.”

    Um, OK.


    Bergen is an idiot. Al Qaeda got much, much more than it ever hoped for out of 9/11, and Bergen’s silly retelling of al Qaeda’s goals is part and parcel of what drives American foreign policy off a cliff on a daily basis in the Middle East.

    Japan was a nation set on territorial conquest in WWII. It bombed Pearl Harbor to destroy as much of America’s Navy as it could to buy itself as much time as it could to conquer as much as it could across the Pacific before America got back on its naval feet. Standard war as it has been since Caesar.

    Terrorists fight a different war, a political one. They don’t have navies. They have guys who hijack planes.


    Quite the opposite of what Bergen says, bin Laden did not want America to withdraw from the Middle East, he wanted to pull America into a Middle Eastern quagmire as deep and sticky as possible. This would drive recruits to al Qaeda’s cause, establishing with global certainty the west was at war with Islam.

    That worked; see Islamic State, and the way war and chaos has spread from edge-to-edge in the region, as well as the presence of so-called lone wolves in the U.S. and Europe. And remember, on 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya were all stable countries and there were no lone wolves in California and Florida.

    Bin Laden did almost blow it. He expected the west to bog down in the graveyard of Afghanistan very quickly, but that didn’t happen. The early successes that drove the Taliban out of governing and into the mountains were done with very few troops and relatively clean bombing attacks. It was after that the Afghan war grew messy, when reconstruction and democracy and all that became the new goals interlaced with the U.S. having new tolerance for the nasty bastards running Pakistan.


    And, of course, the crown jewel of bin Laden’s success, still giving, was the invasion of Iraq.

    Bush’s invasion of Iraq was so transparently pointless to everyone but most Americans that it made concrete all the things bin Laden was saying: America was at war with Islam, America sought to conquer the Middle East, America wanted the oil, and so forth. But even bin Laden could not have hoped for the free gifts his cause got out of the invasion: the chance for al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq, the massacre at Fallujah when the Marines reduced the city to medieval rubble, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the jihadi training grounds at prison Camp Bucca, and, of course, the overall Sunni-Shia clusterf*ck the invasion ended up as. You know, the one that is driving the current ISIS war today.

    And never mind the U.S. destruction of the Libyan state, America’s clumsy hand in crushing the Arab Spring, the growth of Islamic State and the little wars between the Turks and the Kurds, in Yemen, and more to come. Chaos and failed states favor the terrorists.

    As Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer, a guy we all should be listening to said, “It is hard enough for Westerners to recognize that their attackers actually have a coherent strategy and are not simply mad fanatics motivated by hatred. To accept that these terrorist attacks are not really about Western countries at all, but merely an attempt to use the overreaction of Western countries to create change in the Middle East, is beyond their understanding.”

    What Peter Bergen cannot seem to understand himself is bin Laden was practicing a kind of tough love when he staged the 9/11 attacks, to bring the wrath of the United States down on innocent Muslims to radicalize and politicize them. It is, bin Laden (and now ISIS) believe, for their own long-term good.


    We’ll need to wait longer to find out if the U.S. will ever get it. See you next year for the next anniversary of 9/11.



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    Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments »



    America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

    Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

    The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

    Prior to the ‘Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

    Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

    On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

    Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

    It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

    The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

    The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

    Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.


    We Won! Sort of.

    Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

    The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

    The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

    This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.

    The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

    Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the U.S. insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

    After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victory conclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

    The U.S. sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the U.S. could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

    The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

    About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.


    The War to Make All Wars

    Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

    The U.S. put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. U.S. goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the U.S. will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

    U.S. troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

    In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

    More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

    The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.


    The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

    More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

    Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?




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    Afghanistan Video Game: You Win with ‘Hearts and Minds’ Points (Seriously)

    May 4, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    I suppose it had to come to this, perhaps the intersection of absurdity and unreality expressed through a video game as the only true way to capture the essence of America’s 15 year+ was in Afghanistan.


    I must stress this is a real game. It is not satire or a joke. The game plays you in the role of supreme commander of everything U.S. in Afghanistan and requires you to democratize the country. You do this by bombing the sh*t out of stuff, meeting with elders, pulling out “intelligence” and reconstruction cards, and accomplishing tasks like bringing fresh water to some village to pull it away from Taliban control. There are also drones you control, lots of drones.

    Winning is determined by collecting Hearts and Minds Points as determined by the computer based on your actions. The same company makes, and I swear to God this is true, a Vietnam War version of the game that works much the same way.

    Here’s a video of some Douchey McDouche playing the game. Be sure to fast forward to 7:10 , where he blows away his first Taliban for freedom.



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    Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    April 27, 2017 // 5 Comments »



    National Bird, a documentary film about America’s drone wars by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, airs May 1 at 10 pm on your local PBS station as part of the Independent Lens series.

    I had a chance to see the film in advance, and here’s why you should watch it: it is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decided who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are ironic elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have sadly grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul, a victim of moral injury. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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    Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan

    April 5, 2017 // 82 Comments »

    Here’s an excerpt from a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, by Douglas Wissing. The passage deals with the unnecessary death of State Department diplomat Anne Smedinghoff at age 25. Anne gave her life for a needless PR stunt as part of America’s failed reconstruction project in Afghanistan. It could have been any of us.

    ANNE SMEDINGHOFF IS A RISING 25-year-old diplomat, an assistant information officer in the Kabul embassy. She’s my minder, assigned to escort me to an interview with a Justice Department official who is heading up the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) that is charged with finding and disrupting sources of Taliban funding.

    In many ways, Smedinghoff is representative of many young American women working in Afghanistan, where they can combine adventure with a career-enhancing posting and hefty paychecks plumped with danger pay. As we walk to the meeting room, Smedinghoff quizzes me about life outside the embassy compound, as the staff is trapped inside.

    When I mention some of the Kabul restaurants, she tells me the State Department banned dining at most places outside the embassy. She longs for a good pizza. I ask about her path from her home in the Chicago suburbs to this Kabul powder keg. Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins international studies, then the State Department. An interesting post in Venezuela. Then on to Afghanistan. Anne Smedinghoff is lively, bright, educated and funny; poised and gracious in a natural way. Brimming with youthful vitality, accomplishments and promise, she is the daughter any parent would be proud to have.

    We talk about my embeds in Zabul and Helmand, and she tells me in Venezuela she could explore the hinterlands when not working. But here in Afghanistan, she’s penned up like most foreign service officers. She tells me she wants to “break the wire” in the worst way. “On a good day, this is a like a small liberal arts college,” she laughs. “On a bad day it’s like a maximum security prison.”

    Smedinghoff’s career continued to go well after I left Kabul. She was a comer. Her colleagues started calling her Ambassador Anne. When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul in late March for an official visit, the embassy assigned Smedinghoff the plum job of escorting him. She was his control officer. As with other people, she made an impression on her big boss.

    Anne Smedinghoff did eventually get to break the wire — and in the worst way.

    A few weeks after the successful Kerry visit, she escorted a group of Afghan journalists on a media day down to Qalat City, the capital of Zabul, the Taliban-controlled province that so interested her when we met. It was one of those winning-hearts-and-minds missions, in this case to distribute school books that the US corporation, Scholastic, Inc., had donated to My Afghan Library, an aid program jointly run by the State Department and the Afghan Ministry of Education. Scholastic, Inc. wanted some good press for their donation.

    An email from the embassy public relations office stated, “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.” So the mission was a WHAM photo op to get some press for an American corporation, while pretending Zabul was secure and still receiving U.S. aid. “A media extravaganza,” a military briefing called it. “Happy snaps,” the security grunts derisively termed these PR events that they hated to guard.

    In my experience there, Qalat City was a wild and wooly ambush-prone place, where the military units took extraordinary security precautions before venturing from the tightly guarded US compounds. To travel two miles across Qalat City, we had to drive in a convoy of five armored MRAPs accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon.

    So I was stunned to later learn that Anne Smedinghoff and a group of journalists were walking around Qalat City—lost. That seemed insane. Taliban suicide bombers detonated their explosives near them, killing her and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter. Other Americans were grievously wounded. It was an egregious breakdown in operational security. An Army report stated the mission “was plagued by poor planning that failed at all levels.” And it was a great loss.

    I exchanged emails of condolences with the embassy public relations officer, who was a great friend of hers. I saw heart-wrenching tributes to Anne Smedinghoff posted on-line. Secretary Kerry eulogized Anne Smedinghoff, praising her idealistic commitment to “changing people’s lives.” He noted the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of her being killed while carrying books to a school. He described the Zabul media event was “a confrontation with modernity,” and said Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.” It did little to salve my dismay that yet another promising American had been lost for such a dubious, failed cause. I thought of the remarks Kerry made on Capitol Hill in 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet.

    The then 27-year-old John Kerry poignantly asked America, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

    ——————————

    Here’s Anne:

    The State Department tried to cover-up Anne’s death. Read more, and more.




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    Does it Matter Who Pulls the Trigger in the Drone Wars?

    April 3, 2017 // 28 Comments »



    We’re allowing a mindset of “anything Trump does is wrong” coupled with lightening-speed historical revisionism for the Obama era to sustain the same mistakes in the war on terror that have fueled Islamic terrorism for the past 15 years. However, there may be a window of opportunity to turn the anti-Trump rhetoric into a review of the failed policies of the last decade and a half.

    A recent example of “anything Trump does is wrong” has to do with his changing the rules for drone kill decision making. In May 2013 President Obama self-imposed a dual-standard (known as the “playbook”) for remote killing. The White House, including Obama himself reviewing a kill list at regular meetings, would decide which individuals outside of the “traditional war zones” of Iraq and Afghanistan would be targeted.

    Meanwhile, in America’s post-9/11 traditional war zones, military commanders then made, and now make, the kill decisions without civilian review, with the threshold for “acceptable civilian casualties” supposedly less strict. Of course the idea that any of this functions under “rules” is based on the bedrock fallacy that anything militarily done by the last three presidents has been legal under the never-updated 2001 authorization for war in Afghanistan. For perspective, remember Islamic State never existed, and Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen had stable governments at the time Congress passed that authorization.

    In sum: since 2013 the military can kill from the air at will inside Iraq and Afghanistan (the status of Syria is unclear), as well as other areas designated unilaterally by the U.S. government as “traditional,” with allowances for less regard for the collateral damage of innocents slaughtered. It is the president himself who plays judge, jury, and executioner across the rest of the globe, including in several acknowledged cases, ordering the deaths of American citizens without due process.

    Supporters of this policy set refer to the president’s role as oversight. And because the president is supposed to make his decisions with more regard than the military for civilian deaths (though there are no statistics to support that has been the outcome), the process represented, in the words of the New York Times, “restraint.”

    Now there has been a change. Trump in mid-March granted a Pentagon request to designate certain areas of Yemen as “areas of active hostilities.” Trump is expected to approve the same new policy for parts of Somalia. That would shift more decision making for drone strikes from the Oval Office to the Pentagon.

    The issue being raised by Trump’s opponents some is that the new policy will kill more civilians as it will be carried out by an unfettered military instead of a “restrained” executive, and that those deaths will lead to more radicalization of more Muslims, which will impede America’s strategic progress toward, it’s unclear, maybe a world without radicalized Muslims.

    Such twisted logic is based on an almost insta-nostalgia that ignores President Obama approved 540 drone strikes killing 3,797 people in non-traditional war zones. No one knows how many of those bodies were civilian, although for the record the U.S. says it was precisely 324. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations, however, assesses drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014.

    Those body counts do not include fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do not include any unacknowledged strikes elsewhere globally (stories persist, confirmed to me by a former U.S. Special Forces operator, of drone kills in the Philippines, for example.)

    Bottom line: There are already a lot of bodies out there under a policy of “restraint.”

    It is important to note Trump’s change in policy focuses only on who makes the decision to pull the trigger in places already under American attack, him or generals in the Pentagon. The killing itself is ongoing, seamless, and happening today as it happened six months ago (in fact, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration, suggesting changes in U.S. rules of engagement predate Trump.) It is unlikely the people on the ground know or care which official in Washington decided to blow away a vehicle with their brother in it. The idea that it matters a whit in terms of radicalization whether the thumbs up or down is rendered by Trump, Obama, or a general would be comical if it was not horrible.

    An odd sense that all this killing globally is something new and damaging to America was captured in a letter some three dozen former members of America’s national security establishment (including Bush and Obama-era staff) to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stating “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries — whether or not legally permitted — can cause significant strategic setbacks,” increasing violence from militant groups and prompting others to reduce collaboration with the United States. The letter claims that pre-Trump, public confidence and belief in legitimacy were important facets of U.S. policy.

    Even the American Civil Liberties Union appeared to wake from a long slumber, claiming with Trump’s decision to slide sideways the kill decision, “the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve. At stake is no less than the global legal framework that protects life and preserves international peace and security.”

    At that point one must sit back and ask: Seriously? Who besides presidents Obama and Trump has endorsed that framework and under what set of laws is it legal?

    Are the signatories unaware of the attacks on hospitals, the wedding parties in Afghanistan and elsewhere blown to pink mist by Hellfire missiles? Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War alone were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.

    As with the recent Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that took civilian lives, the new-found interest by the media and many Democrats in the costs of American war abroad is welcome. If it took the election of Trump to alert Americans what horrors are being done in their names, then that election has already served some larger purpose.

    But the next step is the critical one — can the new found revulsion for civilian deaths drive action to stop them or will nostalgia for the “good killings” under the previous administration block focus on ending the 15 year cycle of violence and revenge that has set the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia on fire? Will we simply again settle on a domestically palpable process of killing under Trump as we did under Bush and Obama?

    No matter who pulls the trigger — Bush, Obama or Trump — civilian deaths are not accidental, but a policy of preventable accident. The new drone rules under Trump are simply another example.



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    Cornerstone of Afghan Reconstruction Effort — Roads — is Near-Total Failure

    March 24, 2017 // 40 Comments »

    road

    One of the planned cornerstones of the 15+ year Afghan Reconstruction Effort was to be an extensive, nationwide network of roads.


    The United States’ concept was roads would allow the Afghan economy to flourish as trade could reach throughout the country, security would be enhanced by the ability to move security forces quickly to where they were needed, and that the presence of the roads would serve as a literal symbol of the central government’s ability to extend its presence into the countryside.

    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its audit of the Department of Defense’s and USAID’s $2.8 billion investment in Afghanistan’s road infrastructure.


    The project has been a near-total failure. The audit notes:

    — An Afghan Ministry of Public Works’ (MOPW) official stated 20 percent of the roads have been destroyed and the remaining 80 percent continue to deteriorate.

    — USAID estimated that unless maintained, it would cost about $8.3 billion to replace Afghanistan’s road infrastructure, and estimated that 54 percent of Afghanistan’s road infrastructure suffered from poor maintenance and required rehabilitation beyond simple repairs.

    — SIGAR inspections of 20 road segments found that 19 had road damage ranging from deep surface cracks to roads and bridges destroyed by weather or insurgents. Some 17 segments were either poorly maintained or not maintained at all.

    — MOPW officials noted that Afghanistan’s road infrastructure plays an important role in the country’s development and governance, and if the Kabul to Kandahar highway were to become impassable, the central government would collapse.

    — MOPW officials stated it will cost $100 million annually to carry out the necessary maintenance on Afghanistan’s road infrastructure. However, between 2011 and 2016, MOPW received only an average of $21.3 million annually from its American patrons.

    — According to a former U.S. official, the Afghan government would always sign the required memorandum acknowledging it had the capability to sustain a project, despite not having the capability to do so. American advisors would always accept the memorandum despite knowing the Afghans did not have the capability to do so.


    BONUS: Who in America would not want to see $2.8 billion of American taxpayer money spent on roads here in the Homeland?



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    NYT Falsely Tries to Tie Afghan Visa Problem to Trump Travel Ban (Two Aren’t Related)

    March 12, 2017 // 25 Comments »




    Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.


    The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.


    The article includes these lines:

    — Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.

    — It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.

    — Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”

    — It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.

    — Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.


    To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.


    Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.


    Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.

    The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.

    The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.

    The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.

    Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.


    That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.

    And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.




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    So How’s That Coalition Thing Working Out in Afghanistan?

    January 13, 2017 // 68 Comments »

    embassy in iraq


    Short Answer: It’s been 15+ years of coalition and the Taliban are still there, the Afghan government in Kabul is even more corrupt, and most of Afghanistan is as economically decrepit as ever.

    A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.

    Here’s what they concluded:

    — The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.

    — Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.

    — Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.

    — Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.

    — Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.

    — One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”

    — Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.


    But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.


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    Symbolic Failure Point: Female Afghan Pilot Wants Asylum In The U.S.

    December 28, 2016 // 58 Comments »



    History loves little markers, tidy packages of symbolism that wrap up a big, complex thing.

    You know, the helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon standing in for years of failed war, the Berlin Wall being knocked down to visually note the end the Cold War, that sort of thing.

    Well, the never-ending-gobsmacker of the Afghan War may have gotten its iconic moment.


    Crash and Burn

    Afghanistan’s first fixed wing female pilot, Captain Niloofar Rahmani, above, has applied for asylum in the U.S., citing worsening security conditions, and harassment by male colleagues. Rahmani says her family faces serious death threats from the Taliban and her father has had to go into hiding to avoid being killed. The Afghan government even stopped paying Rahmani’s salary, despite earmarks from the U.S. government for funding.

    Captain Rahmani noted, as something as an afterthought, the Taliban also continue to make gains across her country even as America’s War for Freedom enters its 16th year of freeing Afghanistan.

    Being a Propaganda Tool is Hard Work

    As icons went, America loved Rahmani.

    Rahmani was once widely hailed in Washington, D.C., where she received the Woman of Courage award from the State Department in 2015 and was personally praised by First Lady Michelle Obama. Rahmani was rolled into an Obama policy move to focus greater attention and resources on adolescent girls through the Let Girls Learn initiative which no one ever heard from again.

    The Afghan pilot was even celebrated as a “woman who builds peace, prosperity, and stability,” which just happened to also be a U.S. propaganda slogan for the Afghan war. And sure, what the hell, the State Department threw in that “she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced.”

    Rahami also had her own Twitter, in English of course, but not updated in over a year. “Her” last tweet– “#Salute to the #daughter of nation #Flying #Officer #Marium embraced $shahadat today #Mianwali The few the proud…” And that Rahami was photogenic by coincidence was not unnoticed.

    The Captain summed it all up — her femaleness represented American goals of empowering women, her chosen career as a killer was in line with U.S. plans to destroy the Taliban, and her being in the Afghan Air Force seemed to justify the $3.7 billion U.S. tax dollars expended to create an indigenous Afghan fighting force.

    Mayday, Mayday!

    So it’s just a neat kick in the Uncle Sam ass for Rahmani, in the United States for all sorts of expensive training, to bail out and request asylum after 15 months in America training via photo ops and not fighting any Taliban. Why, it’s as if the entire war in Afghanistan itself was merely a lengthy exercise in Potemkin foreign policy…

    BONUS: Here’s George W. Bush posing with some Iraqi women of courage or whatever from that war. I love that photo.



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    An ‘Epidemic of Graft’ – Anti-Corruption Efforts in Afghanistan Fail Hard

    October 18, 2016 // 45 Comments »

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    The U.S. spends spends $5 billion of your tax money a year in “aid” to Afghanistan, plus billions more for the cost of the thousands of American troops and Pentagon-sponsored military contractors there.



    An “Epidemic of Graft”

    One of the (many) reasons why all that money has accomplished close to jack squat in 15 years of war is corruption. Extraordinary amounts of U.S. money simply disappears, siphoned off at high levels, passed on as bribes to suppliers and Taliban hustlers at the lower levels. It is, according to one study, an “epidemic of graft.”

    Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as one of the top five most corrupt countries in the world (Iraq, another U.S. project, is also in the top tier.) The UN says half of Afghans paid a bribe in 2012; that figure was as high as 70 percent in some areas of the country. The same survey found that corruption was roughly tied with security as the issue of greatest concern to Afghans.

    The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assessed corruption in Afghanistan “has become pervasive, entrenched, systemic, and by all accounts now unprecedented in scale and reach.” The U.S. Department of Defense Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, “corruption alienates key elements of the population, discredits the government and security forces, undermines international support, subverts state functions and rule of law, robs the state of revenue, and creates barriers to economic growth.”

    Of course USAID and the Department of Defense are who spends that $5 billion a year in Afghanistan that drives the corruption.



    Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight

    So to get this all cleaned up, the U.S. helped birth Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight (HOO), a big deal part of the Made in America Afghan government stuck together like very expensive Legos to create democracy. And since the U.S. sort of made/paid for the HOO, it was somebody’s idea (the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction, SIGAR) to inspect the HOO.

    Here’s what they found:

    — The HOO suffers from a lack of independence and authority to fulfill its mandate, lacks enforcement power, and has failed to register and verify asset declarations of senior politicians. An HOO advisor said “the HOO was never anything more than window dressing designed to keep the international community happy.”

    — Of the 47 Afghan officials who left office between 2008 and 2014, only eight complied with the Afghan constitutional mandate to submit an asset declaration form.

    — Further stymying enforcement efforts was the unwillingness of the Afghan Attorney General’s Office to investigate corruption cases. Some of those cases referred involved embezzlement, bribery, and forgery ranging as high as $100 million.

    — Although former President Karzai declared cash in two German bank accounts, he did not provide the bank account numbers for verification. Additionally, he declared personal effects in the form of jewelry but did not provide the owner’s name, the purchase cost, or the date of purchase.

    — Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili stated he had no cash nor any personal effects.

    — SIGAR reviewed 27 top officials under the current administration who were required to submit asset declaration forms to the HOO for verification. As of March 2016, the HOO reported that it verified one asset declaration form.




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    U.S. Spent $14.6 Million Taxpayer Dollars on Failed Hospital in Afghanistan

    October 11, 2016 // 25 Comments »

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    The war in Afghanistan is ready to enter its 16th year (if it was a kid it’s be ready to start driving) and by most definitions is pretty much a bust.

    Despite that, both mainstream candidates have made it clear in public statements they intend to continue pouring money — and lives — into that suppurating sore of American foreign policy. Despite that, there has been no mention of the war in two debates.


    Anyway, while we worry a lot about who call who naughty names in the final presidential debate, can you check around where you live and let me know if your town could use a new hospital, all paid for by someone else’s tax dollars, you know, free to you? ‘Cause that’s the deal Afghanistan got from the USG, only even that turned into a clusterfutz when no one paid much attention to how the facility was thrown together.

    There’s a photo, above, of the actual $14.6 million hospital. Seriously.

    And so again we turn to the latest reporting from the saddest people in government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just slit its wrists in depression after publishing an inspection report on the $14.6 million U.S.-funded Gardez Hospital.


    The inspection notes:

    — USAID, through one of its partners, awarded a $13.5 million contract to construct the 100-bed hospital by 2011. About five years after that deadline passed and after a cost increase to $14.6 million, the Gardez hospital is mostly complete.

    — SIGAR found deficiencies with the hospital’s fire safety system, including a lack of emergency lighting system, exit signs pointing in the wrong direction, and missing fire alarms.

    — And although the International Building Code requires hospitals to have full automatic fire suppression sprinkler systems, no one required the contractor to install any. Instead, the contract required it somehow only install the pipes, valves, fittings, and connections for the system, but not the water pump, nozzles, and several other parts to provide a complete and workable system.

    — Poor workmanship includes cracks in the roadways and parking areas, crumbling sidewalks, leaking roofs, cracked exterior plaster, peeling paint, and rusted hardware on the security gates. SIGAR brought a total of 42 deficiencies involving poor workmanship to USAID’s over a year ago. Only 13 have been fixed.

    — The hospital’s steam boiler system had not been installed correctly and had missing and damaged parts, a situation described as “dangerous.”

    — The Afghan government estimates it will cost $2.3 million annually to operate and maintain the 100-bed Gardez hospital, which is almost four times the cost to operate the 70-bed hospital that it is replacing. SIGAR found no evidence that USAID had conducted any analysis to determine whether the ministry had the ability to operate and maintain the new health facility, but just built it anyway.




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    Let’s Watch U.S. Government *ss Clowns Spend Your Money on Pakistani Dancing Videos

    September 17, 2016 // 18 Comments »


    This one’s a double play: the U.S. government is wasting your tax money on stupid videos while at the same time no doubt angering the very people they are somehow trying to impress.



    So the video above was made, using your tax dollars and on official government time, by the Public Diplomacy staff at the American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. As you can see, a Pakistani traditional dancer was hired, and alongside him were placed various overweight American State Department officials to act like *ssclowns.

    See, they can’t do the dance right, so it’s a funny! It’s on YouTube! It’s groovy social media! And it has all of 380 hits!


    The saddest part is that the stated mission of Public Diplomacy staff abroad is to enhance America’s image, make us some friends, that hearts and minds stuff. So it is only in a parallel universe that the staff could imagine the video above could be helping with any of those goals. Indeed, in many parts of the world, fat American’s mocking a local tradition is not seen as funny at all, but actually as a serious insult.

    Oh yeah, the Taliban are like a big problem in Pakistan and they are no doubt seriously in favor of the Americans creating their propaganda videos for them.

    Maybe not in Pakistan. Maybe the Pakistanis have a wacky sense of humor roughly the same as a 28-year-old ex-sorority member now employed by the State Department who cannot conceive of how a skit that went over so well during senior year Rush Week would fail overseas.


    FUN FACT: Foreign governments with offices in the U.S. do not seem to make these kinds of videos. They seem almost exclusively, uniquely, the product of American diplomacy.



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    Your Tax Dollars, Creating Jobs (in Afghanistan)

    September 8, 2016 // 2 Comments »

    sign


    The United States government spent over $42,000 per Afghan to create 500 jobs over there.


    And that’s the good news. The ever-cheerful Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; we have been paying to rebuild Afghanistan for the past 15 years with no end in sight) just released their inspection report on the State Department/USAID-funded Bagrami Industrial Park.

    The inspection notes:

    — USAID awarded a $10 million contract to Technologists, for the development of the industrial park. After modifications, the contract’s value increased to $21.1 million. So sorta more than double what it was supposed to cost you, the taxpayer.

    — As a result of some missing documents, including the record of final payment, USAID could not say when Bagrami Industrial Park was “completed” or when the park was transferred to the Afghans.

    — The contractor, despite doubling the cost, did not include adequate water and sewer systems. So, the Instead, the Afghan Ministry of Finance had to use additional U.S. funds to buy water from a nearby textile factory.

    — Because of the lack of proper sewage systems, the park’s remaining factories release industrial contaminants into the streets. This creates ongoing health risks to workers as well as to the local residents in the surrounding neighborhood.

    — In 2011 the park employed 2,200 people, still short of its 3,000 employee goal. By 2015 the number of employees had decreased to about 700. That dropped in June 2016 to about 500 workers.

    Rebuttal: On its website, contractor Technologists states the Bagrami Industrial Park “is professionally managed and offers investors clear land titles, perimeter security and entry-control points, secure parking, electrical power, clean water, and wastewater removal [and] the park has already attracted almost $50 million in investments and has created more than 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.”

    No details are available on the cost of the Bagrami sign, shown above.




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    Tell Us Why We’re At War, Candidates

    August 29, 2016 // 24 Comments »

    20090218221111!Vietnam_war_memorial




    When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, and so is the American army. We believed. It was a lie.

    After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    In 2011 the president and his secretary of state, now running for president herself, told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believe. We’ll let history roll around again to tell it is again a lie.

    The two main candidates for president both tell us they will expand the war in Syria, maybe Libya. Too many of our fellow citizens still want to believe it is necessary to protect America more. They want to know it is not a lie.

    So candidates, please explain why what you plan is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time.


    (This article is a reimagining of a piece I wrote about a year ago, when the war in Syria was less so, and the U.S. has not re-entered the fight overtly in Libya. I’ll update it from time to time as new wars happen.)




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    Afghan Maintenance Program You Pay For Wastes $423 Million

    August 8, 2016 // 8 Comments »

    afghan

    So, Afghanistan. America’s longest and wackiest war will soon enter its 16th year, and is scheduled to run through the next administration, as no one can remember why the U.S. is fighting there anymore and so no one knows when this thing is over. Did we win yet? How would we know?


    None of that matters of course, because plenty of American contractors are in their 16th year of getting filthy rich, thanks to extraordinary amounts of money being spent with no effective oversight by the Department of Defense. Let’s have the latest example.

    Our friends at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) are the poor b*stards charging with keeping track of all this waste. Once upon a time the point of an Inspector General was to point things out to upper management, like generals or Congress, so problems could be addressed. In 2016, the point of the Inspector General is to be ignored because no one in Washington actually care to fix anything.

    Nonetheless, SIGAR has its job, and so has published an audit of America’s Afghan National Army Technical Equipment Maintenance Program, designed to maintain Afghan army vehicles at our expense and develop a vehicle maintenance capacity within the army.

    It has not gone well. The audit notes:

    — The five-year contract, originally valued at a fixed price of nearly $182 million, increased to $423 million due to contract modifications. The thing is still amusingly referred to as a “fixed price contract,” because words mean something else in the land of fairies and procurement.

    — The failure of the contractor, Afghanistan Integrated Support Services, to meet its most basic contract requirements and program objectives, and Department of Defense inaction to correct contractor deficiencies and seek repayment of funds, has resulted in not only the waste of U.S. taxpayer funds but in the need for a new maintenance contract that is projected to cost more than $1 billion over the next five years.

    — The contract was originally structured based on the assumption that the Afghan army had the capability to provide spare parts when and where they were needed, and that the Afghan army was capable of performing higher-level maintenance tasks, even though it had ample evidence that such capabilities did not exist.

    — The U.S. placed orders for spare parts for Afghan army vehicles without accurate information as to what parts were needed or already in stock.

    — The contract performance metric did not accurately assess contractor performance or progress toward contract objectives.

    — The contractor was cited 113 times for failing to fulfill contract requirements.

    — SIGAR found a number of instances where DOD could have demanded, but did not demand, repayment for services not rendered or inadequate services rendered.

    — The contractor was compensated for repairs it made based on the number of vehicles in the Afghan vehicle fleet and not on the actual number of vehicles repaired. Payments to the contractor based on Afghan army vehicle inventory and not vehicles actually repaired resulted in escalating per-vehicle repair costs from a low of $1,889 to a high per-vehicle repair cost of $51,395.

    — The Afghan army continues to suffer gaps in vehicle readiness, accountability, maintenance management, and supply chain management, and that these gaps affected their ability to execute military operations.

    Some of this could possibly explain why the U.S. keeps losing the war.




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    Waiting on Putin, The Dream Candidate

    August 5, 2016 // 14 Comments »

    putin


    It’s interesting that accusations that Putin is trying to swing the election to Trump peaked, for now, in the midst of the Democratic Convention, and distracted nicely from what was revealed in the hacked emails. Hmmm.

    Putin was then ushered off stage, to be replaced by the Wrath of Khan and their son, who died in Iraq 12 years ago. I wonder now when Putin will be brought back. He will of course be brought back, being far too good a bad guy to waste in this most obscene of elections.

    Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no global enemy for America to face down. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, or to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world, or to pick fights with to allow a president down in the polls to morph into a war leader.


    A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some real bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make narco-lords the new major threat, but they were too few in number to sustain the meme, and too many American loved their dope. Following 9/11, the bad guys were “the terrorists.” The Bush gangsters anointed Saddam a WMD threat and christened Iran and North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil.

    The Iraq War was ultimately very unpopular, and is never-ending. Meh. Bin Laden never launched a second attack on the U.S., and the Taliban had no poster child leader like him to snarl at for 15 years. Iran and North Korea just make a lot of noise. The United States made an effort to label others — Gaddafi, Assad, Islamic State — global enemies worthy of perpetual war, but the Middle East in general has turned into a quagmire we all want to really wake up sober from.


    Washington really needs an Arch Enemy, a guy who looks like a Bond villain with nuclear weapons he’ll brandish but never use.

    Putin.

    Americans are already well-prepared by the old Cold War to see Russia as an evil empire, and Putin does look the part. A new Cold War will require America to buy more military hardware, plus discover new places like the Baltic states to garrison. It might even straighten out a NATO confused about its role regarding global terrorism.

    Forget Trump and Clinton; Putin is the political-military-industrial complex dream candidate.



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    Who the Muslim Father’s DNC Speech Really Pandered To

    July 31, 2016 // 37 Comments »

    khan


    Last Thursday night, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan paid tribute to his son, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq on June 8, 2004, after he tried to stop a suicide bomber.


    As for every parent, husband, wife, brother, sister and friend who lost someone any war, I grieve with them. I am sorry for the Khan’s loss. I am a parent and can all too easily be sent to thinking about the loss of a child.

    So go ahead and hate on me. But of the almost 7,000 American families who lost sons and daughters in the last 15 years of American war of terror, why did the Democrats choose a single Muslim family to highlight?

    No one knows how many hundreds of thousands (millions?) of non-American Muslims were killed as collateral damage along the way in those wars. Who spoke for them at the Convention?



    I found the Democrats’ message shallow. It was pandering of the most contemptible kind, but not as some say simple pandering for Muslim votes from those alienated by Trump’s rhetoric.

    The Democratic pandering was to an America that wants to believe we have good Muslims (who express their goodness by sending their kids to fight our wars) and “they” have the bad Muslims (who express their badness by sending their kids to fight their wars.) The pandering was to the cozy narrative that makes the majority of Americans comfortable with perpetual war in the Middle East and Africa.


    MORE: At one point Khan challenged Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” True. But let us also remember the Clinton family sent no one to war. Their daughter did not serve any more than any Trump kid. Bill and Hillary served exactly as many days as Trump and Melania. Khan should have been more inclusive in his condemnation.

    I would also like to ask Khan how he reconciles his son’s death with the fact that only a few years later Iraq is still deep in war.

    Trump is an ass and I do not support him in any way. I am particularly troubled by his hate speech directed at Muslims, and Mexicans, and everyone else he hates.

    It is not disrespectful to discuss these things. Khan choose to put himself and his son’s death on television to serve a partisan political purpose. We need to talk about what he talked about.





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    U.S. Awards $1.7 Billion Contract to Buy Radios for Afghan Army

    July 29, 2016 // 24 Comments »




    I always found myself giggling during the Democratic debates when Hillary would ask Bernie how he was going to pay for things like healthcare or college tuition, and then Bernie stammering to find an answer.


    They both knew the secret but neither would say it — there’s plenty of money, we just don’t want to spend it on Americans.

    We think of that as freeloading, unearned stuff. Go get a job, moocher. But then move the same question overseas and everything changes. There is always plenty of money, and the people getting free stuff from that money aren’t moochers. They’re allies.

    So how much healthcare would $1.7 billion buy? Because that’s how much money the United States just laid out to buy radios for the near-useless Afghan Army. And while I don’t know how much healthcare the money would buy, I do know it will purchase a helluva lot of radios. Is everyone in Afghanistan getting one? Maybe we’re buying them for the Taliban, too.


    Anyway, the $1,700,000,000 radios for Afghanistan contract was just recently awarded to the Harris Corporation. And here’s a funny thing: only one company — Harris — actually put in a bid for the contract.

    But the Afghans must need more stuff than just radios, and so the U.S. has money ready for that.

    The United States will provide $3 billion to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces from 2018 to 2020 for, well, we don’t really know. Meanwhile, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said the White House planned to ask Congress for about $1 billion a year in development and economic assistance for Afghanistan through 2020. And if that isn’t enough, the United States and its allies are expected to raise $15 billion for the Afghan National Defense and Security forces at a NATO summit scheduled for next month in Warsaw.

    There’s money. You just can’t have any of it, moochers.



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    Don’t Trip on Those Milestones Strewn Across America’s Wars

    June 1, 2016 // 14 Comments »

    USCasualtiesC130DoverAFB


    Barack Obama called the drone assassination on May 21 of Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, “an important milestone.”

    It might turn out to be. But I doubt it. My advice is every time you hear an American official use the term “milestone,” run the other way.

    For example, back in September 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the formation of a new Iraqi government then was “a major milestone” for the country. But on the same day that Obama was proclaiming his own milestone, protesters stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad seeking the end of that previous milestone government.


    But in case you’re not convinced, let’s take a look back at milestones and their companion, turning points, from the last Iraq War.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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    U.S. Can’t Say Whether or Not $759 Million Spent on Education in Afghanistan Helped Anything

    May 10, 2016 // 14 Comments »

    Afghanistan Still

    If at where you work you spent $759 million on something, and then told your boss you have no idea if anything was accomplished, and that the little data you do have is probably fraudulent, how might that work out for you?

    If you are the U.S. government in Afghanistan, you would actually have no problem at all. Just another day at the tip of freedom’s spear, pouring taxpayer cash-a-roni down freedom’s money hole.

    The ever-weary Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), chronicling U.S. government hearts and minds spending in Afghanistan over the last 15 years, issued a new audit on Department of Defense, State Department and USAID’s $759 million “investment” in primary and secondary education in Afghanistan. Here’s what they found:

    — While USAID had a defined strategy for primary and secondary education in Afghanistan, DOD and State did not. They just spent money here and there without adult oversight.

    — DOD, State, and USAID have not adequately assessed their efforts to support education in Afghanistan. DOD did not assess the effectiveness of its education efforts, and State only evaluated self-selected individual programs. Same for USAID.

    — Without such comprehensive assessments, DOD, State, and USAID are unable to determine the impact that the $759 million they have spent has had in improving Afghan education. They agencies do, however, continue to spend more money anyway.

    — In 2014, USAID cited Afghan government data showing increased student enrollment from 900,000 students in 2002 to a whopping million in 2013 as evidence of overall progress in the sector. Unfortunately, USAID cannot verify whether or not the Afghan data is reliable. In fact, both the Afghan Ministry of Education itself and independent assessments have raised significant concern that the education data is not true.



    Interest from the American public remains at exactly zero, because we don’t need no education about where our government spends our money.

    BONUS: Anyone’s town out there in America that would not benefit from a handful of cash out of that $759 million spent on Afghan schools? Flint? Newark? Philly? Bueller? Anyone?




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    Film Review: National Bird Looks Deeply in the Drone War’s Abyss

    May 6, 2016 // 5 Comments »

    national bird



    It is terrifying even in the quiet moments; it is most terrifying in the quietest moments.


    National Bird, a new documentary by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, co-produced with Errol Morris and Wim Wenders, is a deep, multilayered, look into America’s drone wars, a tactic which became a strategy which became a post-9/11 policy. To many in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world, America’s new national symbol is not the bald eagle, but a gray shadow overhead armed with Hellfire missiles.

    The Silence

    Scattered throughout the documentary are silent images from drones and aerial cameras, sweeping, hypnotic vistas taken from above both Afghan villages and American suburbs. The message could not be more clear: the tools used over there can just as easily be used over here, not merely for surveillance (as is already happening in America) but perhaps one day soon to send violence down from the sky. Violence sudden, sharp, complete and anonymous.



    The Americans

    The anonymity of that violence comes at a price, in this case in the minds of the Americans who decide who lives and dies. National Bird presents three brave whistleblowers, two former uniformed Air Force veterans (Lisa Ling, Heather Linebaugh) and a former civilian intelligence analyst (Dan), people who have broken cover to tell the world what happens behind the scenes of the drone war. There are elements of “old hat” here, chilling in that we have grown used to hearing that drone strikes kill more innocents than terrorists, that the people who make war justify their actions by calling their victims hajjis and ragheads, that America draws often naive young people into its national security state on the false promises of hollow patriotism and turns them into assassins.

    Heather suffers from crippling PTSD. Lisa is compelled to travel to Afghanistan with a humanitarian group to reclaim part of her soul. Dan is in hiding as an Espionage Act investigation unfolds around him. A sobering side to this all is the presence of the whistleblowers’ attorney, Jesselyn Radack, who currently also helps defend Edward Snowden. Radack ties the actions of the drone whistleblowers into the larger post-9/11 narrative of retributive prosecutions and government attempts to hide the truth of America’s War on Terror from everyone but its victims.



    The Afghans

    The final layer of National Bird is what may be some of the first interviews with innocents who have suffered directly from drone attacks. The film interviews at length members of an Afghan extended family attacked from the air in a case of mistaken targeting even the Department of Defense now acknowledges.

    The family members speak six years after the fact as if still in shock. Here’s a boy who shows off his leg stump. Here’s a woman who lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the same attack. Here is another father discussing the loss of his own child. In a critical piece of storytelling, National Bird does not seek to trivialize the deaths in Afghanistan by weighing them against the psychological trauma suffered by the Americans, but rather shows the loss to everyone done in our names.

    National Bird is in limited film festival release, most recently at Tribeca in New York, before moving wider theatrical release in the U.S. this fall.



    (Full disclosure: Jesselyn Radack helped represent me in my own whistleblower fight against the U.S. Department of State in 2012)




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    Happy bin Laden Day! CIA ‘Live Tweets’ bin Laden Killing to Celebrate Fifth Anniversary

    May 3, 2016 // 6 Comments »

    bin laden


    Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?


    For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.


    Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.

    1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.

    3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.

    That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.

    Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.

    It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.

    Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?



    BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”

    “If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    The U.S. Is Dropping Bombs Faster Than It Can Make Them

    April 26, 2016 // 15 Comments »

    B1-B_Lancer_and_cluster_bombs

    Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.


    America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.

    “We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.

    “The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”

    Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.

    But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.

    Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.

    Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”

    The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.

    Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Why Don’t the Candidates Talk About Afghanistan?

    April 19, 2016 // 13 Comments »

    Local Afghan

    Heading into its sixteenth year, with no endpoint in sight, America’s longest war is its least talked about.


    Afghanistan has not come up in any Republican or Democratic debate, except perhaps as one of a list of countries where Islamic State must be destroyed (left out is the reality that no Islamic State existed in 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, who, by the way, are still not defeated.)

    For her part, the only mention of Afghanistan from Hillary Clinton is a vague statement last year of support for Barack Obama’s decision to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan when he leaves the White House in 2017. Bernie Sanders’ web site has a long series of statement-lets that generally say things have not worked out well in Afghanistan, but stays away from much of a stance.

    Republican front runner Donald Trump, least at first, was more honest on the situation. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess. And at this point, you probably have to stay because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave. Just as I said that Iraq was going to collapse after we leave.”

    However, once it was clear no one wanted to handle the truth, Trump quickly walked his statement back, denying that he had characterized U.S. entry into Afghanistan as a mistake and said he had only talked about Iraq.


    As the United States appears prepared for an indefinite presence in Afghanistan, what really is the situation on the ground 15 years in?

    The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, had a few thoughts on what has been achieved in those years, all at the cost of an estimated 149,000 Afghan deaths, alongside 3,515 American/Coalition deaths. No one really knows how much the U.S. has spent in dollars on the war, but one reasonable guess is $685 billion.


    Sopko, in remarks recently at Harvard University “The Perilous State of Afghan Reconstruction: Lessons from Fifteen Years” said:

    — Conditions are not, to put it mildly, what we would hope to see 15 years into a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign.

    — Large parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits to foreign personnel.

    — Other consequences of insecurity are less headline-grabbing, but are still evil omens for the future of a desperately poor and largely illiterate country. Late last month, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Education was quoted as saying 714 schools have been closed and more than 2.5 million children were being denied schooling, mainly because of the war.

    — Bombings, raids, ambushes, land mines, and temporary seizures of key points can all serve to undermine the government’s credibility and affect security force and popular morale.

    — Security is where most of the U.S. reconstruction funding has gone, about 61% of the $113 billion Congress has appropriated since fiscal year 2002, or $68 billion.

    — As a result of the U.S. military draw down in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense has lost much of its ability to collect reliable information on Afghan security capability and effectiveness. We continue to rely on Afghan reporting on unit strengths, a concern because the rolls may contain thousands of “ghost” personnel whose costs we pay and whose absence distorts realistic assessments of Afghan capabilities.

    — Fifteen years into an unfinished work of funding and fighting, we must indeed ask, “What went wrong?” Citing instances of full or partial failures, is part of the answer. But no catalog of imperfections captures the full palette of pathologies or root causes.



    A lot of chew on there. Perhaps at some point the media, the voters, or the next debate moderators might inquire of the candidates what their current thoughts are.




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