Short answer: the Pentagon spent $800 million of your tax dollars to try and get businesses started in Afghanistan. They didn’t get any businesses started.
Nobody spent a f*cking penny to help Americans at home start businesses like that.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Brian McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support that maybe all that money wasn’t wasted. McKeon said that the costly effort “had mixed results, with some successes and some failures.” He urged patience before branding the whole project as entirely misguided. “It’s a little early to say,” he offered, adding that “the jury is still out” on the fate of various projects.
McKeon, however, listed no specific projects that succeeded and gave no information on why it may be too early to tell how things will work out in Afghanistan. He did not say out loud, but knew, that this sh*t has been going on in Afghanistan for more than 14 years already, so how can it still be too early to tell? Dude, you’re not aging whiskey here.
McKeon faced off before the subcommittee against John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who described the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, known as TFBSO, the folks who spent that $800 million because they could not find a match to simply set fire to it, as a “scattershot approach.”
“It sounded like they just got together and they said, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great idea, and we have an unlimited budget. Let’s just do it and see if it works.’ And that’s why no one could really say with any credibility that the programs were effective,” Sopko remarked.
Sopko’s office has unleashed critical reports about Pentagon spending in Afghanistan — especially TFBSO, which was finally disbanded in a mercy killing last year. Financial records show that the task force spent $43 million on a compressed natural gas filling station that has been widely mocked as the world’s most expensive. It also spent upwards of $150 million on private villas and associated security, bankrolled a multi-million dollar Afghan start-up incubator that is now defunct, and even paid to import Italian goats in order to jumpstart the country’s cashmere industry.
“Now what I want to know, Secretary McKeon, is who made this decision?” Senator Claire McCaskill asked. “Who decided it was a brilliant idea when the people of a country make $690 a year that we’re going to spend — I don’t care if it was $2.9 million or $200 million — who made the brilliant decision that this is a good idea, to put a natural gas gas station in Afghanistan?”
McKeon wasn’t prepared to answer that question, though he added “I’m not a businessman. You make a lot of valid points.”
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The U.S. government was nice enough to gift our loyal friends the Afghans $17 billion of your tax money, and, in the true spirit of giving, asked nothing in return for itself.
What that means in actual dollars and nonsense is that the U.S. government wasted $17 billion in taxpayer money in Afghanistan on various projects that never made it off the ground or were doomed to fail because of incompetence or lack of maintenance, according to a new report.
ProPublica looked at over 200 audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) over the last six years and tallied up the costs for the wide range of failed efforts to reach the $17 billion price tag. This greatest hits study only scratched the surface of the estimated $110 billion spent to rebuild the country (the U.S. spent some $47 billion in rebuilding Iraq, and how’d that work out?)
The new study touches on only the most egregious examples of waste, including:
— $8 million to end Afghanistan’s drug trade, which is flourishing today as never before;
— $2 billion for roads that the Afghan government is unlikely to maintain due to lack of funds and security concerns;
— $1 billion for unrealized criminal justice reform efforts;
— $936 million for aircraft that can’t be maintained;
— $486 million for cargo planes that can’t fly;
— $470 million on the Afghan Police;
— $43 million for a gas station that doesn’t work.
The timing of the report couldn’t be better. The chief of the watchdog office is slated to appear before a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel shortly after lawmakers return from their extended holiday break.
That January 20 hearing was originally set to scrutinize only the work of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which spent $700-$800 million (no one knows the exact amount) on economic redevelopment in Afghanistan, as well as $150 million on villas and private security for the group’s staffers. The agenda will now likely expand to a whole-of-government waste review.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
This story makes me so angry that I can’t even come up with my usual snarky introduction. I only weep.
The Guantánamo parole board approved the release of a Yemeni “forever prisoner,” dismissing intelligence that imprisoned the man for 13 years without trial. And if that level of evil and scorn for justice doesn’t radicalize a 100 people to join ISIS, then nothing can.
The so-called Gitmo Periodic Review Board heard the case of Mustafa al Shamiri, 37. Intelligence analysts, I’ll say it again, 13 years ago, wrongly labeled him as a high level al-Qaida guy, because his name was similar to actual extremists. For 13 years of hell, like some modern-day Jean Valjean, he was known only as Detainee 434 by his American jailers.
“In making this determination, the board noted that the most derogatory prior assessments regarding the detainee’s activities before detention have been discredited, and the current information shows that the detainee has low-level military capability.”
The military says the U.S. “ally” Northern Alliance captured Shamiri in Afghanistan in late November 2001 and held him for a time in a crammed fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. He was then rendered over to the U.S. Such renditions were typically paid for in cash bounty by the U.S. to stock up its offshore penal colony.
Now look at him, Detainee 434 Mustafa al Shamiri:
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, 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 estimates that the 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 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
This one’s so funny that it must be some kind of U.S.-led initiative; I can’t believe the Afghans have this kind of a sense of humor.
But whatever the origin, Afghanistan banned the sale of imitation Kalashnikovs and other toy guns after they caused injuries to more than 100 people during the last Eid celebrations. Children toting toy guns that fire rubber or plastic pellets are a common sight in the country during Eid al-Fitr, with sales surging every year amid festivities marking the end of Ramadan.
More than 100 children and teenagers suffered eye injuries during the last round of celebrations, the interior ministry said. “We have ordered police forces to confiscate all toy guns which can lead to physical and psychological damage among people,” a ministry statement said.
Now of course the hilarity is that Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily-armed places on earth. It is more than likely that every kid with a toy gun either has his own AK at home, or lives in a house with a real AK (or two, or four…) Meanwhile, the countryside is strewn with land mines dating back to the British 19th century defeat, buried under Soviet mines from the 1980s, buried under American munitions of more recent vintage. Car bombs are not infrequent interruptions to Taliban firefights and if none of that puts a kid’s eye out, there are always “accidental” U.S. drone strikes to help paint the landscape with Afghan kid splat.
Nonetheless, while the Afghan government can do nothing about any of that, it does claim it wants to reduce the influence of war toys on impressionable young minds.
But every action has a consequence. The toy gun ban, if vigorously enforced by the lazy, corrupt Afghan police who can’t stop car bombs, never mind plastic guns, would impact the booming toy business in the country. That, along with opium production, are possibly the last two for-profit enterprises functioning in Afghanistan.
The ban follows an earlier increase on import tax for toy guns from 10 percent to 50 percent to discourage it. The move could lead to an emergence of adults’ black markets and smuggling networks for children’s toys, the Interior Ministry warned. That situation will then mirror the lucrative black market for real firearms. Hey kids, just like daddy!
According to the AFP news agency, the toy gun ban was widely welcomed on social media, with some calling for extending the crackdown to include sales of real weapons in the war-torn country. “This is a positive step that will stop children from taking up real arms when they grow up,” one Afghani wrote on Facebook. “Militancy and war has promoted a brutal culture of violence in our society that is impacting children.”
Like I said, those wacky Afghans. Who knew after centuries of war against foreign invaders they still have their sense of humor?
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
Iranians may have learned how to disrupt and spoof American encrypted GPS systems, and that new ability is connected to the downing of an American drone a few years ago, and also to the capture of two American Navy craft earlier this month.
If true, this new tech is a potential global game changer. Here’s some additional information on what might have happened recently in the Persian Gulf.
To recap, after some bumbling false explanation about engine failure, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained that the captured American sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” as they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base. The LA Times added “a sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course.”
All that “misnavigation” would have meant two boats making the identical error in some of the world’s most volatile waters, and that no backup systems as simple as those in your cell phone were available. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Measure twice, cut once.
In 2011, when Iran downed an American drone that had “drifted” more than 100 miles into that nation from its flight path in Afghanistan, Iranian General Moharam Gholizadeh, the deputy for electronic warfare at the air defense headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stated publicaly “We have a project on hand that is one step ahead of jamming, meaning ‘deception’ of the aggressive systems… we can define our own desired information for it so the path of the missile would change to our desired destination… all the movements of these [enemy drones are being watched]” and “obstructing” their work was “always on our agenda.”
Technology site Daily Tech explains how this might work:
A team uses a technique known as “spoofing” — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain. In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, commonly acquired from several satellites [pictured above]. By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince the drone that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base. At that point the drone’s autopilot functionality kicked in and triggered the landing. But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone victim instead found itself captured at an Iranian military landing zone. Spoofing the GPS is a clever method, as it allows hackers to land on its own where they wanted it to, without having to crack the [encrypted] remote-control signals and communications.
What May Have Happened
If the Iranians have such technology, what happened in the Gulf with those two U.S. Navy boats is easy to explain. As they came close to Iranian territorial waters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) spoofed both crafts’ GPS system simultaneously. The navigation systems were told the boats were outside of the line, when in fact they were inside the line by about a mile. Two systems with the same information displayed at the same time are unlikely to be questioned.
If the Iranians had such technology since 2011, and assuming they have not used it before against the U.S. in any undisclosed incidents, why did they employ it now, and against such meaningless targets as two small patrol boats?
Timing is everything. The nuclear deal the U.S. made with Iran was not popular among its own conservatives. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard represents a conservative body of thought in general, and are specifically in charge of much of the weapons-side of the nuclear program. That opens the door to two potential “why now” answers.
The first may have been to try and postpone or trash the nuclear deal at the last minute by sparking an international incident. Imagine if the more liberal, secular elements of the Iranian government had failed to get the American sailors released so quickly, and the whole mess developed into a full-blown hostage “crisis.” American war drums would have beat hard.
The second may be more subtle. The United States uses GPS technology to guide most of its long range weapons, the weapons that would play a significant role in any U.S. attacks on Iran. The Guards’ overt use of the spoofing tech may have been a warning shot to the U.S., a signal that any American aggression towards a non-nuclear Iran (as happened to non-nuclear Saddam, or in Libya soon after that nation abandoned its nuclear ambitions under U.S. pressure) would be complex, and possibly a failure. And if that wasn’t enough, the IRG may have sent a note via its actions that such tech could easily find its way into other unfriendly hands.
Speculation, of course. There may be an explanation for the boats’ misnavigation as simple as a young sailor’s human error. But the science suggests at least one other reason, with significant repercussions for years to come.
One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.
Ho, ho, ho, can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. That might as well be America’s war of terror slogan (copyright, 2001-2015.)
So see if you can sort out the Good from the Bad. Pretend you’re Secretary of State and this is a puzzle Barack has asked you to solve. Here are the facts:
Afghan militiamen loyal to no government but currently used by Haji Zahir, deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament, beheaded four Islamic State fighters and publicly displayed their severed heads. This ultra-violence highlights an increasingly brutal conflict as ISIS makes inroads in Afghanistan.
The beheadings by the Afghans of ISIS are in retaliation for ISIS earlier beheading four of Zahir’s own Afghan fighters. In what is a great statement, Zahir said “If they behead you, behead your son, do you expect us to cook sweets for them? Sweets are not distributed during war. People die.”
To make his point crystal clear, Zahir’s men placed the severed heads of the four ISIS fighters atop stacks of stones on the side of a main road.
ISIS, for its part, continues to scoop up disaffected Taliban fighters, who are unhappy with their own group’s level of violence and are increasingly lured by ISIS’ signature brutality.
— ISIS is now a thing in Afghanistan, after 14+ years of American occupation and nation building there. Fun facts: ISIS did not even exist when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the younger American soldiers now deployed there were in First Grade when the initial U.S. invasion kicked off;
— The deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament has his own militia;
— People sort of on the good Afghan side are doing the same brutal things such as beheadings without U.S. condemnation, as ISIS is doing elsewhere with U.S. condemnation, but that’s OK;
— Afghanistan is so f*cked;
— And so sorry to the 3,512 American and coalition deaths expended to create that free Afghanistan! Things will work out better in Syria, we promise.
Here’s what happened:
The three Navy SEALs stomped on bound Afghan detainees and dropped heavy stones on their chests. They stood on the prisoners’ heads and poured bottles of water on their faces in an improvised form of waterboarding.
A bomb had exploded at an Afghan Local Police checkpoint where the SEALs were conducting training. Angered by the death of one of their comrades, the police rounded up half a dozen or more “suspects” from a nearby village. Along the way, they beat them with rifle butts and car antennas. The men from SEAL Team 2 joined in, jump-kicking a man kneeling on the ground. They beat one detainee to death.
Four American soldiers working with the SEALs reported the episode. In a Navy criminal investigation, two American support personnel said they had witnessed the abuse by the SEALs, as did a local police officer. Another Afghan provided a detailed account to investigators.
SEAL command cleared the Team 2 members of any wrongdoing in a closed disciplinary process that is typically used only for minor infractions, disregarding a Navy lawyer’s recommendation that the troops face assault charges. Three of the SEALs have since been promoted, even though their commander in Afghanistan recommended that they be forced out of the elite teams.
Should we care? Yes, we should care.
The moral high ground is about all we have left on our side in the failed war of terror. The beating is horrific, and will echo through Afghan society and beyond. The lack of penalty against the SEALS is almost worse, because, like what happens all too often here in the Homeland everytime a cop gets away with the murder or beating of one of us, it simply sends the signal to the troops that their behavior is OK. Maybe the message is war justifies everything, or simply boys will be boys, or, like the Blue Line, thugs need to stick together and cover each others’ backs, right or wrong.
A man who had no reason to die is dead in Afghanistan (and Baltimore, and New York, and…) and no one is held responsible. See the pattern?
Just like their Sugar Daddy America bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan “by accident,” the Saudis bombed for the second time this year a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Yemen.
But it’s OK — just like the U.S., the Saudis will conduct an investigation of themselves, no doubt leading to the conclusion that as in Afghanistan, it was all a mistake.
Under any variant of the rules of war, international law and just plain humanity, it is illegal, wrong and immoral to bomb a medical facility. Doctors Without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization, is however an attractive target in modern war, because they treat all people who need medical care equally. That means they may be bandaging up a civilian child in one bed while working on a “rebel” fighter in the next bed. They believe strongly in helping those who require help.
That bothers folks like the United States and Saudi. Big countries have their own medical facilities for their soldiers. They have the air assets to whisk wounded soldiers off the battlefield to trauma care centers located safely behind friendly lines. In their minds, Doctors Without Borders exist primarily to give aid to the enemy. Boom!
Back to the Saudis. They have said they will form a “fact-finding committee” to investigate “allegations” that coalition warplanes had bombed a clinic in Yemen operated by Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders routinely and repeatedly provides all sides in conflict with their clinics’ coordinates to avoid such attacks. In an era of GPS-controlled weapons, that should be sufficient.
The photo above shows the hospital in Yemen. Note that like in Kunduz, it is a large structure somewhat separated from surrounding buildings. Hard to miss.
As in Afghanistan, only one side has airpower. The Saudi “coalition” has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since March and controls the airspace over the country. The strikes on Wednesday were the second Saudi attack on a Doctors Without Borders medical site in Yemen in less than two months.
The Saudis were quite blunt: They urged aid agencies to “remain away from the places where the Houthi militias are present.”
If you are in the New York City area, Monday, December 7 at 7 pm, please join me and several other writers for a series of book readings and some good discussion.
The event, organized by Words After War, will be held at The Folly, a nice bar located at 92 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012. Get there a little early and catch the end of happy hour.
I’ll be reading from my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, as well as offering a sneak preview of my next book, Hooper’s War, a novel set in World War II Japan.
I will share the stage with three other writers.
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose creative nonfiction focuses on the intersections of history, memory, and family. Her essays have previously appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Narratively, and Saveur, among others. She is currently at work on a book project about World War II and the lasting consequences of trauma.
Adrian Bonenberger is an author, essayist, and journalist currently studying at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA program for creative writing. He is lecturing at Yale University Fall 2015, a course titled “Memoir and the War on Terror,” following an Army career that included two tours to Afghanistan. His war memoirs, Afghan Post, were released in January 2014.
Brandon Caro is the author of the debut novel, Old Silk Road (It is excellent; I’ll have a review here soon.) He was a Navy corpsman/combat medic and advisor to the Afghan National Army in Afghanistan from 2006-2007. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, and elsewhere.
See you on Monday, December 7!
Mustafa Abd-al-Qawi Abd-al-Aziz al-Shamiri was captured in 2002 and believed then to be a major al Qaeda facilitator or courier, or maybe a trainer, according to the Department of Defense.
He was interrogated “vigorously” and when he did not admit to those activities and did not supply detailed, high level information on al Qaeda, was thrown away, without charge, into America’s offshore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay.
For 13 years.
Now, desiring after 13 years to reduce the prison population at Gitmo, the Department of Defense says al-Shamiri’s imprisonment was all a simply mistake of confused identity. In the Kafkaesque world America created post-9/11, al-Shamiri could not answer his torturers because he had no knowledge of what they were demanding from him. His silence was taken as insolence, and he was punished accordingly.
For 13 years.
Al-Shamiri is now age 37. He spent about one third of his entire life in Gitmo because of a mistake. And if somehow you are not human enough to be moved by that alone, perhaps you can care about the $2.7 million per prisoner per year it costs the U.S. to keep a person in Guantanamo.
For 13 years, the cost was $35 million (+ a life.)
“We now judge that these activities [first attributed to al-Shamiri] were carried out by other known extremists” with similar names or aliases, the Department of Defense stated as part of its plan to finally release al-Shamiri.
“Fragmentary reporting” did link the al-Shamiri to fighting in Bosnia in 1995. He also told interrogators that he fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban from 2000 to 2001. He was at worst one of tens of thousands of foot soldiers, never a mastermind or significant threat. He did not belong in the high-security confines of Gitmo. But he was left there.
For 13 years.
With more than a little irony, al-Shamiri will not be returned to his native Yemen. Following a U.S.-led change of government there, and years of American anti-terror actions in the country, civil war broke out. American aid to Saudi Arabia enabled a bombing campaign against civilian targets. Iranian proxy fighters moving into the power vacuum completed the transition of Yemen into a fully-failed state.
Al-Shamiri’s representative stated “He wants to make a life for himself. He is aware that Yemen is not an option and he is willing to go to any country that will accept him.”
There have been no plans announced to offer any form of restitution to al-Shamiri to help him restart his life.
After 13 years. Shame, shame on us.
So file this one under “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” subcategory, “Everything.”
American ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran, reports the New York Times.
It is the first combat deployment for the mercenary army that the Emirates has built up over the past five years. And — small world –the army was raised and for its few years run by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. The mercs are presently controlled by the small Emirati military while Prince presumably has moved on to create private merc armies for others we’ll someday learn about.
The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the volatile stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Shia Houthi rebels supported by Iran. So, in theory, the merc army is semi-on the same side as the U.S.
As background, we all do remember that the U.S. government previously employed Erik Prince’s Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq as security for the American embassy and State Department diplomats.
After Blackwater imploded, killing 14 innocent Iraqi civilians and wounding 17 others, in Nisour Square and after a few name changes (Xe, Academi) to hide the fact that Blackwater was still employed by the State Department long after, the mercenary contracts moved to other similar but unrelated companies. Those companies in turn employed mercenaries from various countries in service to the USG. In addition to many mercs from Central and South America, popular hired guns also were recruited from Africa, where child soldiers and constant warfare created a steady pool of trained recruits.
“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order.
“The private military industry is global now,” said McFate, adding that the United States essentially “legitimized” the industry with its heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of war.
BONUS: Erik Prince is now chairman of another security firm, Frontier Services Group. It focuses heavily on providing logistics and aviation support in Africa. The company has a fleet of Cessna aircraft and “holds important customer approvals from the United Nations, the British government and the U.S. government.”
And what could possibly go wrong with all that?
Should Islamic State take things further and strike an American civilian target, President Barack Obama would be all but forced to “do something.” What would that “something” likely look like, and what might be the pitfalls?
Post-Paris, France and the United States immediately increased their air campaign in Syria. The visuals play well on television, as American audiences have seen over the last 24 years of airstrikes on Iraq. For an Obama appeared wary of deeper involvement in Syria, this may be enough to tamp down the pressure assuming no future attack on American civilians. France may also find a short and sharp set of revenge attacks enough for the near term, as Jordan did in at the beginning of this year, after the horrific burning alive of one its pilots captured by Islamic State. Things could settle back into a more routine fight.
However, if Islamic State were to strike against Americans, President Obama would almost be required to escalate, and more of the same airstrikes and colorful missile launches would not satisfy demands for vengeance. They would not have been sufficient a year ago, and certainly not in the midst of a presidential campaign. Any perceived lack of resolve would hand the Republicans a red, white and blue issue to take them through the next 12 months, and Hillary Clinton would be forced to break with the White House.
America’s escalation could take only one form: many more American boots on the ground.
No one would call it an invasion, but that is what it would be, regardless of scale. The most likely paths into Syria would be through Turkey if that government blessed it (and remember, Turkey refused to open their borders for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq), or, most likely, via Jordan, with a smaller force from the northeast, across the Iraqi border.
The United States has a notably infrastructure and a compliant government in place in Jordan. In May of this year, thousands of soldiers from 18 countries took part in war games in Jordan, overseen by the American Army. The Jordanians themselves are already considering a militarized “humanitarian corridor” into Syria that could easily morph into an invasion route.
Since 2013, the United States has been growing its military presence in Jordan, to include strike aircraft, missle defenses and strategic planners, lots of planners, the infrastructure of war. An attack against Islamic State from the south might also isolate Damascus for follow-on action against Assad. From a military point of view, Israel and the Golan Heights it controls provide neat protection on the invasion’s left flank. Lastly, Jordanian involvement would help dress up the American invasion by giving it something of an Arab face.
Sending large numbers of troops into Syria from the northeast, via Iraq, would likely encouch on Islamic State’s strongholds in northern Iraq and sandwich the United States between them and Islamic State fighters in northern Syria. Foreign fighters could also find their way in across the Turkish border. Still, moving airborne and special operations troops through Kurdish-held areas would be possible and necessary to reach Islamic State from another front.
It would very surprising to see any significant American escalation in Iraq proper, absent perhaps inside the Kurdish confederacy. Americans dying once again in the Iraqi desert would be a tough sell domestically, the Iraqi government in Baghdad and its Iranian partners would be less than receptive, and militarily dividing Islamic State into a Syrian force and an Iraqi force would accomplish much on its own without re-inserting American troops into the Iraqi civil war.
The problem with all this chess playing is the identical one that bred Islamic State into existence in the first place.
As the United States saw in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, winning on the battlefield is the easy part. Assuming Islamic State could be physically destroyed (a big assumption itself given its diffuse nature and political support among many Sunnis), what follows? Who will govern “liberated” areas? How much land will the Kurds seize for themselves in northern Syria and how will Turkey react to that? Syria is a wrecked wasteland flooded with internally displaced persons. Who will pay for reconstruction, and why would anyone think it would work any better in Syria than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the Russians simply stand aside?
Scenarios that put boots on the ground are easy to foresee, and the possible on-the-ground strategies are clear enough to speculate on. How to deal with the aftermath is what really matters, and what’s the plan for that?
You don’t want to read this, and I take no pleasure in writing it, and no one really wants to hear it right now. But I believe it needs to be said.
I join the world in grieving for the dead in Paris. I have grieved for the dead from 9/11 forward — the Australians who died in terror attacks on Bali in 2002, Londoners who died in terror attacks in 2005, the French citizens who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year, the Russians whose plane went down over the Sinai a week or so ago. So many more non-Western deaths barely noticed in the U.S. media. I grieve also for those killed in smaller attacks already smuggled deep into the obscurity of our memory.
And so we Tweet hashtags and phrases in high school French and post GIFs to Facebook. We know what to do; we’ve done this before.
But it has to be said, especially looking at the sick repetition of the same story, that despite fourteen plus years of a war on terror, terror seems to be with us as much as ever, maybe even more. It is time to rethink what we have done and are doing.
Since that day in 2001, the one with those terrible sparkling blue skies in New York, we have spied on the world, Americans at home and foreigners abroad, yet no one detected anything that stopped the Paris attacks. We gave up much to that spying and got nothing in return.
Since 2001, the United States has led nations like Britain, France, Australia and others into wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, with drone attacks on people from the Philippines to Pakistan to all parts of Africa. We have little to nothing to show for all that.
Since 2001 the U.S. has expended enormous efforts to kill a handful of men — bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki, and this weekend, Jihadi John. Others, many without names, were killed outside of media attention, or were tortured to death, or are still rotting in the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo, or the dark hell of the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.
And it has not worked, and Paris this weekend, and the next one somewhere else sometime soon, are the proof.
We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.
Note that it is the strategy of Islamic terror to generate a crackdown in France in order to radicalise French Muslims. Hundreds of French citizens have already traveled to Syria to fight with groups including ISIS.
As one of the most intelligent commentators on all this, Bill Johnson, said, terrorism is about killing pawns to affect the king. The attacks in Paris are not about the murder of 150 innocent people. Hell, that many die nearly every day in Iraq and Syria. The true test for France is how they respond to the terror attacks in the long-game — that’s the king in all this. America failed this test post-9/11; yet it does not sound like France understands anything more than America. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” French president Hollande said outside the Bataclan concert hall, scene of the most bloodshed.
If I had exactly the right strategy, I’d tell you what it is, and I’d try and tell the people in Washington and Paris and everywhere else. But I don’t have the exact thing to do, and I doubt they’d listen to me anyway.
But I do have this: stop what we have been doing for the last 14 years. It has not worked. There is nothing at all to suggest it ever will work. Whack-a-mole is a game, not a plan. Leave the Middle East alone. Stop creating more failed states. Stop throwing away our freedoms at home on falsehoods. Stop disenfranchising the Muslims who live with us. Understand the war, such as it is, is against a set of ideas — religious, anti-western, anti-imperialist — and you cannot bomb an idea. Putting western soldiers on the ground in the MidEast and western planes overhead fans the flames. Vengeance does not and cannot extinguish an idea.
Start with those things and see, even if you won’t give it 14 years to succeed, if things improve. Other than the death tolls scaling up further, I can’t imagine we could be doing anything worse.
A guest article today by Tom Englehardt, orginally published on his own website, TomDispatch.com, as “The American Way of War in the Twenty-First Century”
Let’s begin with the $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills, Iraqi oil money held in the U.S. The Bush administration began flying it into Baghdad on C-130s soon after U.S. troops entered that city in April 2003. Essentially dumped into the void that had once been the Iraqi state, at least $1.2 to $1.6 billion of it was stolen and ended up years later in a mysterious bunker in Lebanon. And that’s just what happened as the starting gun went off.
It’s never ended. In 2011, the final report of the congressionally mandated Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion taxpayer dollars had been lost to fraud and waste in the American “reconstruction” of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, for instance, there was that $75 million police academy, initially hailed “as crucial to U.S. efforts to prepare Iraqis to take control of the country’s security.” It was, however, so poorly constructed that it proved a health hazard. In 2006, “feces and urine rained from the ceilings in [its] student barracks” and that was only the beginning of its problems.
When the bad press started, Parsons Corporation, the private contractor that built it, agreed to fix it for nothing more than the princely sum already paid. A year later, a New York Times reporter visited and found that “the ceilings are still stained with excrement, parts of the structures are crumbling, and sections of the buildings are unusable because the toilets are filthy and nonfunctioning.” This seems to have been par for the course. Typically enough, the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility, a $40 million prison Parsons also contracted to build, was never even finished.
And these were hardly isolated cases or problems specific to Iraq. Consider, for instance, those police stations in Afghanistan believed to be crucial to “standing up” a new security force in that country. Despite the money poured into them and endless cost overruns, many were either never completed or never built, leaving new Afghan police recruits camping out. And the police were hardly alone. Take the $3.4 million unfinished teacher-training center in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, that an Iraqi company was contracted to build (using, of course, American dollars) and from which it walked away, money in hand.
And why stick to buildings, when there were those Iraqi roads to nowhere paid for by American dollars? At least one of them did at least prove useful to insurgent groups moving their guerrillas around (like the $37 million bridge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built between Afghanistan and Tajikistan that helped facilitate the region’s booming drug trade in opium and heroin). In Afghanistan, Highway 1 between the capital Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, unofficially dubbed the “highway to nowhere,” was so poorly constructed that it began crumbling in its first Afghan winter.
And don’t think that this was an aberration. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hired an American nonprofit, International Relief and Development (IRD), to oversee an ambitious road-building program meant to gain the support of rural villagers. Almost $300 million later, it could point to “less than 100 miles of gravel road completed.” Each mile of road had, by then, cost U.S. taxpayers $2.8 million, instead of the expected $290,000, while a quarter of the road-building funds reportedly went directly to IRD for administrative and staff costs. Needless to say, as the road program failed, USAID hired IRD to oversee other non-transportation projects.
In these years, the cost of reconstruction never stopped growing. In 2011, McClatchy News reported that “U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale programs and projects grew from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion despite the government’s questions about their effectiveness or cost.”
The Gas Station to Nowhere
So much construction and reconstruction — and so many failures. There was the chicken-processing plant built in Iraq for $2.58 million that, except in a few Potemkin-Village-like moments, never plucked a chicken and sent it to market. There was the sparkling new, 64,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, $25 million headquarters for the U.S. military in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, that doubled in cost as it was being built and that three generals tried to stop. They were overruled because Congress had already allotted the money for it, so why not spend it, even though it would never be used? And don’t forget the $20 million that went into constructing roads and utilities for the base that was to hold it, or the $8.4 billion that went into Afghan opium-poppy-suppression and anti-drug programs and resulted in… bumper poppy crops and record opium yields, or the aid funds that somehow made their way directly into the hands of the Taliban (reputedly its second-largest funding source after those poppies).
There were the billions of dollars in aid that no one could account for, and a significant percentage of the 465,000 small arms (rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and the like) that the U.S. shipped to Afghanistan and simply lost track of. Most recently, there was the Task Force for Business Stability Operations, an $800-million Pentagon project to help jump-start the Afghan economy. It was shut down only six months ago and yet, in response to requests from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Pentagon swears that there are “no Defense Department personnel who can answer questions about” what the task force did with its money. As ProPublica’s Megan McCloskey writes, “The Pentagon’s claims are particularly surprising since Joseph Catalino, the former acting director of the task force who was with the program for two years, is still employed by the Pentagon as Senior Advisor for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism.”
Still, from that pile of unaccountable taxpayer dollars, one nearly $43 million chunk did prove traceable to a single project: the building of a compressed natural gas station. (The cost of constructing a similar gas station in neighboring Pakistan: $300,000.) Located in an area that seems to have had no infrastructure for delivering natural gas and no cars converted for the use of such fuel, it represented the only example on record in those years of a gas station to nowhere.
All of this just scratches the surface when it comes to the piles of money that were poured into an increasingly privatized version of the American way of war and, in the form of overcharges and abuses of every sort, often simply disappeared into the pockets of the warrior corporations that entered America’s war zones. In a sense, a surprising amount of the money that the Pentagon and U.S. civilian agencies “invested” in Iraq and Afghanistan never left the United States, since it went directly into the coffers of those companies.
Clearly, Washington had gone to war like a drunk on a bender, while the domestic infrastructure began to fray. At $109 billion by 2014, the American reconstruction program in Afghanistan was already, in today’s dollars, larger than the Marshall Plan (which helped put all of devastated Western Europe back on its feet after World War II) and still the country was a shambles. In Iraq, a mere $60 billion was squandered on the failed rebuilding of the country. Keep in mind that none of this takes into account the staggering billions spent by the Pentagon in both countries to build strings of bases, ranging in size from American towns (with all the amenities of home) to tiny outposts. There would be 505 of them in Iraq and at least 550 in Afghanistan. Most were, in the end, abandoned, dismantled, or sometimes simply looted. And don’t forget the vast quantities of fuel imported into Afghanistan to run the U.S. military machine in those years, some of which was siphoned off by American soldiers, to the tune of at least $15 million, and sold to local Afghans on the sly.
In other words, in the post-9/11 years, “reconstruction” and “war” have really been euphemisms for what, in other countries, we would recognize as a massive system of corruption.
And let’s not forget another kind of “reconstruction” then underway. In both countries, the U.S. was creating enormous militaries and police forces essentially from scratch to the tune of at least $25 billion in Iraq and $65 billion in Afghanistan. What’s striking about both of these security forces, once constructed, is how similar they turned out to be to those police academies, the unfinished schools, and that natural gas station. It can’t be purely coincidental that both of the forces Americans proudly “stood up” have turned out to be the definition of corrupt: that is, they were filled not just with genuine recruits but with serried ranks of “ghost personnel.”
In June 2014, after whole divisions of the Iraqi army collapsed and fled before modest numbers of Islamic State militants, abandoning much of their weaponry and equipment, it became clear that they had been significantly smaller in reality than on paper. And no wonder, as that army had enlisted 50,000 “ghost soldiers” (who existed only on paper and whose salaries were lining the pockets of commanders and others). In Afghanistan, the U.S. is still evidently helping to pay for similarly stunning numbers of phantom personnel, though no specific figures are available. (In 2009, an estimated more than 25% of the police force consisted of such ghosts.) As John Sopko, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan, warned last June: “We are paying a lot of money for ghosts in Afghanistan… whether they are ghost teachers, ghost doctors or ghost policeman or ghost soldiers.”
And lest you imagine that the U.S. military has learned its lesson, rest assured that it’s still quite capable of producing nonexistent proxy forces. Take the Pentagon-CIA program to train thousands of carefully vetted “moderate” Syrian rebels, equip them, arm them, and put them in the field to fight the Islamic State. Congress ponied up $500 million for it, $384 million of which was spent before that project was shut down as an abject failure. By then, less than 200 American-backed rebels had been trained and even less put into the field in Syria — and they were almost instantly kidnapped or killed, or they simply handed over their equipment to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. At one point, according to the congressional testimony of the top American commander in the Middle East, only four or five American-produced rebels were left “in the field.” The cost-per-rebel sent into Syria, by the way, is now estimated at approximately $2 million.
A final footnote: the general who oversaw this program is, according to the New York Times, still a “rising star” in the Pentagon and in line for a promotion.
You’ve just revisited the privatized, twenty-first-century version of the American way of war, which proved to be a smorgasbord of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption as far as the eye could see. In the tradition of Watergate, perhaps the whole system could be dubbed Profli-gate, since American war making across the Greater Middle East has represented perhaps the most profligate and least effective use of funds in the history of modern warfare. In fact, here’s a word not usually associated with the U.S. military: the war system of this era seems to function remarkably like a monumental scam, a swindle, a fraud.
The evidence is in: the U.S. military can win battles, but not a war, not even against minimally armed minority insurgencies; it can “stand up” foreign militaries, but only if they are filled with phantom feet and if the forces themselves are as hollow as tombs; it can pour funds into the reconstruction of countries, a process guaranteed to leave them more prostrate than before; it can bomb, missile, and drone-kill significant numbers of terrorists and other enemies, even as their terror outfits and insurgent movements continue to grow stronger under the shadow of American air power. Fourteen years and five failed states later in the Greater Middle East, all of that seems irrefutable.
And here’s something else irrefutable: amid the defeats, corruption, and disappointments, there lurks a kind of success. After all, every disaster in which the U.S. military takes part only brings more bounty to the Pentagon. Domestically, every failure results in calls for yet more military interventions around the world. As a result, the military is so much bigger and better funded than it was on September 10, 2001. The commanders who led our forces into such failures have repeatedly been rewarded and much of the top brass, civilian and military, though they should have retired in shame, have taken ever more golden parachutes into the lucrative worlds of defense contractors, lobbyists, and consultancies.
All of this couldn’t be more obvious, though it’s seldom said. In short, there turns out to be much good fortune in the disaster business, a fact which gives the whole process the look of a classic swindle in which the patsies lose their shirts but the scam artists make out like bandits.
Add in one more thing: these days, the only part of the state held in great esteem by conservatives and the present batch of Republican presidential candidates is the U.S. military. All of them, with the exception of Rand Paul, swear that on entering the Oval Office they will let that military loose, sending in more troops, or special ops forces, or air power, and funding the various services even more lavishly; all of this despite overwhelming evidence that the U.S. military is incapable of spending a dollar responsibly or effectively monitoring what it’s done with the taxpayer funds in its possession. (If you don’t believe me, forget everything in this piece and just check out the finances of the most expensive weapons system in history, the F-35 Lightning II, which should really be redubbed the F-35 Overrun for its madly spiraling costs.)
But no matter. If a system works (particularly for those in it), why change it?
Brandon Caro’s debut novel, Old Silk Road, is an important, tough read, both for the dirt-under-its-nails portrayal of soldiers at war, and for a complex plot that rewards a reader with insights into America’s longest war, in Afghanistan.
But be careful. This is not a typical book by another soldier (though Caro spent a year in Afghanistan as a combat medic.) Almost every one of those books follows an outline you’d think they issue to servicepeople as they muster out: get energized following 9/11, throw in a boot camp montage and then drop into Iraq or Afghanistan all wide-eyed. The death of a buddy and/or local child changes everything. Wrap it up with some angst and ship it off to the bestseller list.
Caro instead gives us three distinct but overlapping stories, the first two only lightly fictionalized.
The first portion of the book is the one soldiers will want to hand to friends who ask “what was it like over there.” Caro captures two of the most common aspects of modern war: endless tension about what might happen next, and endless boredom between occasional acts of horror. The narrator, Specialist Norman Rogers, himself a combat medic, and his small team, drift among America’s archipelago of bases in Afghanistan, at one point setting off on a “mission” to eat Mongolian BBQ at a Forward Operating Base.
The details are carefully rendered. It’s a travelogue of sorts, but pay attention; scenes that seem to drift past play tightly into the book’s conclusion. One detail disclosed early on is that Rogers is addicted to the morphine he is issued to use as a painkiller on wounded soldiers.
Caro offers us something of a training sequence in the second part of his book, but with a twist. He lays things bare in a seminal chapter called The Goat School (excerpt). The reference is to a controversial military training technique, in which medics practice on wounded goats (pigs are also used in real life.) This is not PETA-friendly. The animals are shot at close range, and left in the care of would-be medics to treat. About half-way through, the instructor shoots the animal again.
The final story told in the book is the most compelling. Rogers’ addiction turns him deeper and deeper into the drug, to the point where his hallucinations take over his life, and thus the story. He is guided through his visions by a shaman, appropriately and ironically in the guise of Pat Tillman.
(Tillman was America’s once-walking propaganda dream. A pro football player making a $3.6 million salary, he gave that all up and volunteered for combat. When he died in Afghanistan, his family was told he’d been killed by enemy fire charging up a hill. After media interest tapered off, the Pentagon notified Tillman’s family he had actually died as a result of friendly fire.)
Through his drugs and his shaman, Rogers (and author Caro) present a deeply sad meditation on America’s war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and America’s longest war is held up alongside others who failed earlier: the Greeks, the Mongols, the British and the Soviets. Echoes of the questions many Americans should be asking are present – Why did we invade? 14+ years later why are still occupying? Why do we believe we will win when everyone else failed? Rogers unwinding as a human being mirrors America’s own efforts at war.
Criticisms are few. The book shifts in time, in narrator and between the character’s world in and out of his morphine haze. The reader must pay careful attention. Some passages meant to show the hurry-up-and-wait nature of Army life may themselves drag a bit.
But no matter. Old Silk Road is an important addition to post-9/11 war literature. While the message in the hands of others could have been pedantic or whining, Caro is a skilled writer and presents a statement that is not anti-soldier and not anti-American, but clearly anti-war.
We are all lucky that the U.S. just wasted $43 million on a natural gas filling station in Afghanistan rather than here in Das Homeland. In America, the money would have likely just been pissed away on schools, roads, bridges or healthcare for the elderly, instead of helping promote freedom among the freaking
Taliban Afghans. Well done, Skippy.
Oh, the details. The sad, nearly-suicidally depressed staff at the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report this week on the Department of Defense’s Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFBSO) project to construct a compressed natural gas (CNG) automobile filling station in Afghanistan at a cost of $43 million to the American taxpayer.
That SIGAR report noted:
— The CNG station was built at a crazy exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers. In comparison to the $43 million spent in Afghanistan, a CNG station in Pakistan costs no more than $500,000 to construct. That makes it about 84 times as expensive in the Afghan edition.
— The Pentagon claimed to SIGAR it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or answer any questions about the project. Sure, why not. SIGAR: So why’d this cost $43 million? Pentagon: F*ck, we don’t know. Go away.
— In addition, SIGAR “finds it both shocking and incredible” that the Pentagon asserts it no longer has any knowledge about its own Task Force for Stability and Business Operations (TFBSO) project, an $800 million program that reported directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nope, just don’t know, brother, sorry, wish we could help you.
— But just before the Pentagon stopped knowing anything about its own program, the former program head said, “We do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money.” Indeed.
— No evidence exists that TFBSO conducted a feasibility study before spending $43 million on the station. If TFBSO had conducted a feasibility study of the project, they might have noted that Afghanistan lacks the natural gas transmission and distribution infrastructure necessary to support a viable market for CNG vehicles.
— Additionally, it appears the cost of converting a car to run on CNG may be prohibitive for the average Afghan. TFBSO’s contractor stated that conversion to CNG costs $700 per car in Afghanistan, where the average annual income is $690. Oh, so close, assuming the average Afghan family did not wish to eat or purchase ammunition for a full year.
What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?
Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”
Let the History Begin
In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.
Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.
The Precipitating Event
Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.
There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.
Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!
The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).
Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.
And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.
Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.
The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.
The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.
In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.
Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.
As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”
In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.
Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.
Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.
An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.
Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers.
The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.
The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.
World War I
As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)
Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?
As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.
What Is This All About Again?
What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.
The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?
The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.
Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.
Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.
Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?
Shaker Aamer was just released, after 13 years in captivity, from Guantanamo, and returned to Britain. His wife lives there, and he has permanent residence there. He was never charged with anything by the United States, simply kept. Here is what was done to him over the course of his 13 years at Gitmo.
Bush denied, and Obama helped hide, the nasty stuff even existed, then used an ever-so-compliant media to call it all necessary for our security and very survival, then shaping dumb-cow public opinion with ersatz terms like enhanced interrogation to keep the word torture out of the discourse, then having the CIA destroy videos of the brutality, then imprisoning officials, such as John Kiriakou, who sought to expose it all, then refusing to hold hearings or conduct investigations, then employing black ops to try and derail even a cursory Senate report and finally allowing the torturers at the CIA themselves the final word on the watered-down public version of a Senate report on torture.
The Torture of Shaker Aamer by the United States
Yet, like a water leak that must find it’s way out from inside the dark place within your walls, some things become known. Now, we can read a psychiatrist’s report which includes, in detail, the torture enacted on just one prisoner of the United States, Shaker Aamer.
The once-U.S. ally Northern Alliance captured Aamer in Afghanistan and sold him to the United States as an al Qaeda member. Who knows at this point who Aamer was at that time, or what he did or did not do. If you think any of that matters, and perhaps justifies what was done to him, stop reading now. This article cannot reach you.
What was Done to One Human
In his own words, Aamer describes the casual way his Western jailers accepted his physical presence, and skinny confessions made under Afghan torture, as all the proof necessary to imprison him in U.S. custody from 2002 until 2015. The U.S. created a world of hell that only had an entrance, not caring to conceive of an exit. In no particular order (though the full report dispassionately chronicles every act by time and location), the United States of America did the following to Aamer:
— On more than one occasion an official of the United States threatened to rape Aamer’s five year old daughter, with one interrogator describing in explicit sexual detail his plans to destroy the child;
— “Welcoming Parties” and “Goodbye Parties” as Aamer was transferred among U.S. facilities. Soldiers at these “parties” were encouraged and allowed to beat and kick detainees as their proclivities and desires dictated. Here’s a video of what a beating under the eyes of American soldiers looks like.
— Aamer was made to stand for days, not allowed to sleep for days, not allowed to use the toilet and made to shit and piss on himself for days, not fed or fed minimally for days, doused with freezing water for days, over and over again. For 13 years.
— Aamer was denied medical care as his interrogators controlled his access to doctors and made care for the wounds they inflicted dependent on Aamer’s ongoing compliance and repeated “confessions.”
— Aamer was often kept naked, and his faith exploited to humiliate him in culturally-specific ways. He witnessed a 17-year-old captive of America sodomized with a rifle, and was threatened with the same.
— At times the brutality took place for its own sake, disconnected from interrogations. At times it was the centerpiece of interrogation.
— The torture of Aamer continued at Gitmo, for as an occasional hunger striker he was brutally force-fed.
The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. Torture is invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control, not gathering information. Even when left alone (especially when left alone) the torture victim is punished to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror.
And there you have the take-away point, as briefers in Washington like to say. The real point of the torture was to torture. Over twelve years, even the thinnest rationale that Aamer was a dangerous terrorist, or had valuable information to disclose, could not exist and his abusers knew it. The only goal was to destroy Shaker Aamer.
The combination of raw brutality, the careful, educated use of medical doctors to fine-tune the pain, the skills of psychiatrists and cultural advisors to enhance the impact of what was done worked exactly as it was intended. According to the psychiatrist who examined Aamer in detail at Guantanamo, there is little left of the man. He suffers from a broad range of psychiatric and physical horrors. In that sense, by the calculus his torturers employ, the torture was indeed successful.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed at great cost, al Qaeda has been reborn in Africa and greater parts of the Middle East and the U.S. has willingly transformed itself into at best a bully abroad, and a police state at home. But no mind; the full force and credit of the United States of America destroyed Shaker Aamer as revenge for all the rest, bloody proof of all the good we failed to do.
Never Again, Always Again
Despite the horrors of World War II, the mantra– never again– becomes today a sad joke. The scale is different this time, what, 600? 6000? men destroyed by torture not six million, but not the intent. The desire to inflict purposeful suffering by government order, the belief that such inhuman actions are legal, even necessary, differs little from one set of fascists to more modern ones. Given the secrecy the Nazis enjoyed for years, how full would the American camps be today? Kill them all, and let God sort them out is never far from the lips.
Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. The ghosts don’t disappear the way the flesh and bone can be made to go away.
The people who did this, whether the ones in the torture cell using their fists, or the ones in the White House ordering it with their pens, walk free among us. They’ll never see justice done. There will be no Nuremberg Trials for America’s evils, just a collapsing bunker in Berlin. But unlike Shaker Aamer, you are sentenced to live to see it forever in your nightmares.
When I was a kid, three 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, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places 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.
The next 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 group 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. But we believed. It was a lie.
After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us 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 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 act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.
Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that 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 want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.
So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.
America’s presidential candidates go on TV and brag about killing a man with their own hands (one guy) and froth over the idea of starting even more wars (all the others.) In Canada, they get a supermodel as their new king, who speaks French, looks like a young Matthew McConaughey, and who tells America to shove its stupid wars up its overweight *ss.
Canada’s prime minister-elect, Justin Trudeau, pictured looking fabulous, said Tuesday he told Barack Obama that Canadian fighter jets would withdraw from fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Western nations only go to war when coerced by the United States in joining some coalition. No other nation on the planet makes war as often and as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.
So you can imagine the huge hassle it is for Canada to have to suck up to its war-loving, gluten-free neighbor to the south, tossing in a few planes or troops whenever America has another hissy fit and has to invade somewhere. Canada famously refused to be sucked into the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example (though did play in Afghanistan.)
Quick question: what about Mexico? They also share a border and NAFTA with America, plus America graciously buys up 99 percent of its dope crop, and thus has the same need to suck up, but they also always seem to duck these war calls. Hmmm.
Anyway, Trudeau said “while Canada remains a strong member of the coalition against ISIL,” he made clear to Obama “the commitments I have made around ending the combat mission.”
It was not immediately clear if Trudeau added “you warmongering bastard” and/or said he’d nail Michelle with his old man’s “moves like Jagger” at the next state dinner.
America and its allies make modern war in a way that assures “mistakes” destroy hospitals, and civilian lives are taken by drones. These horrors are all too often strategic decisions, or the result of the profligate use of needlessly destructive weapons. They are typically far from accidents.
The destruction of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, including the deaths of physicians from Doctors Without Borders, has become the celebrity example of America’s conduct of war. It is the one that made the news, much like a single child dead on the beach stood in for five years of unabated refugee flows out of the Middle East. But Kunduz is more important than just a dramatic news story, in that it stands as a clear example of a sordid policy.
After a series of cascading explanations, the United States settled on blaming the Afghan military for demanding a strike on the building which was the hospital. There is truth in that — the request likely did initiate with the Afghans — but it ignores the larger story of how “accidents” really happen.
The strike was conducted by an American AC-130, a flying gunship. A retired Air Force Special Operations officer explained to me that the AC-130 is considered a “first hit” weapon; its ordnance hits where it is designated to hit on the first try. The targeted hospital was marked by a U.S. Special Forces operator alongside the Afghans, using a laser. The AC-130 fired on the hospital for over one hour, in 15 minute paced barrages.
How could the U.S. have known the target was a hospital? Easily. Kunduz had been controlled by the Afghans alongside their embedded Americans for some time. It was a mature battlefield, with landmarks such as the hospital well-known on the ground. In addition, NGOs employ organizations such as The International NGO Safety and Security Association (INSSA) specifically to coordinate with armed forces working around their sites, to include providing precise GPS coordinates to avoid “accidental” targeting. Doctors Without Borders also directly provides combatants their locations; in Kunduz, as recently as September 29.
The latter details are especially important in evaluating strikes against hospitals and other civilian targets. Unlike in WWII when thousands of planes flew over cities hoping to hit a target only as precisely defined as “Tokyo,” modern ordnance is delivered by computer, using laser designation, satellite coordination, GPS systems and classified mapping tools.
America blew up exactly what it aimed at in Kunduz.
America’s Other Hospitals
Kunduz was not America’s first hospital. The U.S. bombed a maternity hospital in Baghdad in 2003, a hospital in Rutbah, and stormed a hospital in Nasiriya. Shells hit the large Al Yarmuk Hospital in Baghdad. A hospital in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, was bombed in the 1990s. In Hanoi, the United States struck the Bach Mai hospital — twice — during the 1972 “Christmas Bombing.” The United States also destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, citing inaccurate maps as the cause.
There are always investigations following such incidents, though in the history of modern American warfare none have ever been deemed such strikes as having been planned. Hospitals make attractive targets. Destroying them results in fighters dying of their wounds, and increases the burden on healthy soldiers, pulling them from the battlefield to care for their own wounded. In military terms that is known as a “soft kill.” Accidents emerge in war, but so do patterns.
Civilian Deaths and the Drone War
The killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals. The global drone war continues to take innocent lives, in what has come to be known without shame or irony as collateral damage.
Even conservative estimates of the number of civilians killed by drone attacks targeted on others are suspect, given the secrecy under which the U.S. drone program operates. The analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations tally assesses that 500 drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 civilians as of 2014. The count measures kills outside of Iraq and Afghanistan specifically because only those places are considered active war zones per se by the United States (known U.S. attacks inside Syria had not yet begun.)
In Yemen, in just one example, American drone strikes aimed at 17 named men actually killed 273 people, at least seven of them children, including the American Citizen son of alleged al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
But the killing of civilians as a result of American war is not limited to attacks on hospitals, or by drone.
Tools of Destruction
There is a commonality to the growing death count created by America and its allies: the inevitable civilian deaths caused by the profligate use of horrifically destructive weapons, especially inside urban areas.
Civilian casualties overall in America’s 2003-2011 Iraq War were anywhere from 140,000 dead to upwards of 500,000, many by artillery, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium munitions, indiscriminate weapons unique to American forces.
For its drone strikes, the U.S. uses Hellfire missiles, armed with warheads originally designed to burn through the heaviest tank armor. Aiming them at a person inevitably will kill others nearby; the U.S. claimed al-Awlaki’s son was killed inside a car, seated next to the actual target. Such deaths are also closely tied to America’s policy of “signature drone strikes,” where a missile is aimed at a “profile:” a suspect cell phone, a car matching some description, a suspicious gathering outside a home.
America’s allies, equipped with American weapons, follow a similar pattern in their making of war.
The U.S. throughout the Middle and Near East, the Saudis in Yemen and Israel in Gaza, employ cluster munitions in urban areas. Such munitions are known as “area denial weapons,” which cause massive, indiscriminate destruction over wide swaths of territory. Documented inside Yemen have been American-made CBU-52 cluster bombs, each loaded with 220 “anti-material” bomblets. Imagine the use of such weapons inside central London, or on a Manhattan street.
Though not confined to cluster munitions alone, the deployment of U.S.-made weapons by the Saudis in Yemen has only added to the carnage. Almost 4,000 people have been killed, with 19,000 injured and more than a million displaced from their homes.
In Gaza in 2009, the Israelis used cluster munitions, white phosphorus (a burning agent also used by the U.S. in Iraq), as well as standard artillery, rockets and airstrikes, all against dense urban areas. The UN estimates over 1,400 civilians, of whom 495 were children, were killed in the attacks. The Israelis also destroyed a hospital in Gaza, attacked two others, and shelled UN-run schools in 2014.
The U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that have refused to sign The Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty banning the use of such weapons.
The Cost of Modern War
Accountability remains in the hands of those with the weapons. America and Israel conduct self-investigations, and stymie independent ones, to clear their military of blame (the Saudi do not even appear to bother.) At the UN, the United States blocks action critical of Israel. In Yemen, the U.S. claims it cannot control how the Saudis choose to employ American weapons, and has stated the Saudi actions only “border on” violations of international law. NATO and the EU are deathly silent on the substantive issues, even in places where their own forces are on the ground.
It is clear that modern war as conducted by the United States and its allies in the Middle East has as a known outcome massive civilian casualties. The sites purposefully targeted can be civilian when needed, in violation of all known standards of international law. The steady flow of “accidents” and collateral kills are fully-expected, inevitable and foreseeable consequences of the choice of weapons used.
The civilian deaths are not accidental, but policy. Kunduz was no accident. It was simply another example.
As Obama fails on another campaign promise, this one to end the war in Afghanistan, and as that war moves into its 15th year, it is important to remember the U.S. has spent around $110 billion (no one knows the exact amount due to poor record keeping) to “rebuild” that beleaguered nation, so far.
We say “so far” in that the spending continues, and like the end of the war itself, as no foreseeable end date.
So how is that rebuilding thingee going?
Not well, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which issued a report saying “The Afghan private sector has thus far failed to fulfill its potential as an engine of economic growth or an instrument of social inclusion.”
In addition to America tossing that $110 billion of taxpayer money into the hole, foreign aid groups have been flushing away $15.7 billion a year. Taken together, all that money now accounts for around 98 percent of the entire Afghan gross domestic product.
In something of an understatement, the Stockholm report notes “Popular dissatisfaction with unequal access to economic resources, flawed public services and goods, the adverse security situation, and predatory government activity undermine an effective and sustainable private sector.”
Among its other findings, the report blames foreign governments and aid groups for giving Afghans too much money, which they couldn’t spend wisely even if the country weren’t riddled with corruption. Intended to improve government and grow businesses, the report concludes the aid instead merely sustains kleptocrats.
As for what the $110 billion of U.S. money could have purchased had it been spent to rebuild America, VICE notes it is enough to dig a new train tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan, lay a high-speed rail link from San Diego to Sacramento, reconstruct New Orleans’ levees after a storm like Hurricane Katrina, and still have around $10 billion left over to construct a few hundred schools from Chicago to Houston.
In 2012 I published a book all about how the United States squandered billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Iraq. The main point was that we had no plan on what to do and simply spent money willy-nilly, on stupid things and vanity projects and stuff that made someone’s boss in Washington briefly happy. We had absolutely no plan on how to measure our successes or failures, and then acted surprised when it all turned out to be a steaming pile of sh*t that did little but create the breeding ground for Islamic State.
The idea of the book was to try and lessen the chance the United States would do exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
Now, I just read a speech given by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), entitled “Ground Truths: Honestly Assessing Reconstruction in Afghanistan” which says the United States has done exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
And like me, Sopko concludes if we do not learn the lessons from Afghanistan “we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come.” To which I can only say, “Good Luck” with that John.
Here’s some more of what Sopko pointed out, all his quotes from the same speech:
— There is a strong need for evidence-based policymaking, because if you don’t have a means of knowing whether or not your programs are succeeding, the policymaker’s job is that much harder.
— In a conflict-affected environment such as Afghanistan, the challenge of setting realistic standards is amplified. That said, perhaps constructing buildings to U.S. standards across the board in such an environment might be unwise, especially if we expect the Afghans to maintain and sustain what we give them.
— If after 13 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, we cannot be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting our entire mission there at risk.
— Incredibly, for the first nine years of CERP’s existence [an Army funding program for reconstruction], a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives could not be found in any official document beyond the generic inputs of “humanitarian relief and reconstruction.”
— It becomes really difficult for SIGAR to assess reconstruction projects and programs if agencies don’t set clear criteria or project management standards.
— USAID spent almost $15 million to build a hospital in Gardez, but USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.
— It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when we build multi-billion dollar roads to U.S. weight standards in a country that has no ability to enforce weight limitations, or when a military official suggested that we spend millions building high-tech bus stops in Afghanistan, complete with solar-powered lighting. This is not Bethesda.
— Two and a half years ago, SIGAR sent the Departments of State and Defense, as well as USAID, a letter requesting that they identify, by their own judgement, their ten most and least successful reconstruction programs, and why they selected those programs. We still have not received a straight answer from any of them. A USAID official even said that asking him to identify his agency’s top successes and failures was like asking him to choose which of his children he loved more.
— Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come. In short, we risk failing to understand the conditions necessary not only to produce peace and prosperity, but to sustain them.
The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.
Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.
The Day Before
Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.
With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”
Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.
The Day After
But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”
Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.
What He Said, What He Meant
Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.
To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)
Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”
Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.
As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.
It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!
The advice is valid. Most military schools teach their students to read the enemy’s manifestos, study his propaganda, learn as much about him as possible to better know how to defeat him. During World War II, British soldiers and scholars studied Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other Nazi documents. Martial needs aside, a basic principle of scholars is open access to information, and for libraries, to collect primary source documents while they are still available.
Yet fear now controls us, not thought.
The British Library
A decision by the British Library not to host a huge collection of Taliban-related documents, despite years of close involvement with the project, has added to concerns about Britain’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation.
Over nearly a decade, the researchers behind the Taliban Sources Project have painstakingly collected and translated into English more than a thousand newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, military and administrative documents, as well as handwritten poetry by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The group’s aim is to digitize the primary material, shedding light on the Taliban’s organization and the insurgency in Afghanistan. Altogether, the project’s ten-member team translated more than two million words of material.
The researchers took the project to the British Library (and for those not familiar with that institution, consider it in lay terms on par with the Library of Congress in the United States) in 2012. After first accepting the collection three years ago, the library has now declined to take on the project, saying it had been legally advised it contains material that could be in breach of Britain’s anti-terrorism laws.
The library recognizes the archive’s research value. But “it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act,” it said in a <a href="http://statement“>statement, “which would present restrictions on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers.”
The UK Terrorism Act “places specific responsibilities on anyone in Britain who might provide access to terrorist publications,” the statement added, “and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible.”
Knowing the Taliban
The Taliban Sources Project focuses on material from 1994 to 2001 that “gives a unique window into the Taliban’s world views, their negotiations with foreign governments, how they viewed history,” said Felix Kuehn, an organizer of the project, adding that the material could help provide a more complete picture about the organization in the run-up to the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan.
“Our knowledge of the Taliban in the 1990s is dominated by Western media coverage that was highly politicized, in part because information was not easily accessible,” Kuehn said.
David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s anti-terrorism laws, said the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned. “If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”
Knowing the Enemy
The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make it an offense “to collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism” and criminalize the circulation of terrorist propaganda. But under the laws, the police must show evidence that the owners intend to use the publication for terrorist purposes, and that they have a reasonable excuse to possess it, Anderson said.
Know thy enemy? What happens when the enemy is us?
Are American analysts skewing intelligence reporting and assessments to provide a rosier outlook of U.S. progress against Islamic State?
At least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst says so, and has convinced the Pentagon’s Inspector General to look into it. The analyst says he had evidence officials at United States Central Command, overseeing the American campaign against Islamic State, were improperly rewriting conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama.
While legitimate differences of opinion are common in intel reporting, to be of value those differences must be presented to policy makers, and played off one another in an intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion. There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the Inspector General is now looking at.
Cooking the intel to match policy makers’ expectations has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare. Analysis during the Vietnam War pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. In the run-up to Iraq War 2.0, State Department analysis claiming Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction was buried in favor of obvious falsehoods.
Jokes about the oxymoron of “military intelligence” aside, bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge loathe to admit it.
A guest blog, by Rory Fanning. Fanning walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. Fanning became a conscientious objector after his second tour. He is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.
Dear Aspiring Ranger,
You’ve probably just graduated from high school and you’ve undoubtedly already signed an Option 40 contract guaranteeing you a shot at the Ranger indoctrination program (R.I.P.). If you make it through R.I.P. you’ll surely be sent off to fight in the Global War on Terror. You’ll be part of what I often heard called “the tip of the spear.”
The war you’re heading into has been going on for a remarkably long time. Imagine this: you were five years old when I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. Now I’m graying a bit, losing a little up top, and I have a family. Believe me, it goes faster than you expect.
Once you get to a certain age, you can’t help thinking about the decisions you made (or that, in a sense, were made for you) when you were younger. I do that and someday you will, too. Reflecting on my own years in the 75th Ranger regiment, at a moment when the war you’ll find yourself immersed in was just beginning, I’ve tried to jot down a few of the things they don’t tell you at the recruiting office or in the pro-military Hollywood movies that may have influenced your decision to join. Maybe my experience will give you a perspective you haven’t considered.
I imagine you’re entering the military for the same reason just about everyone volunteers: it felt like your only option. Maybe it was money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom. Maybe you still believe that the U.S. is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and in existential danger from “the terrorists.” Maybe it seems like the only reasonable thing to do: defend our country against terrorism.
The media has been a powerful propaganda tool when it comes to promoting that image, despite the fact that, as a civilian, you were more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. I trust you don’t want regrets when you’re older and that you commendably want to do something meaningful with your life. I’m sure you hope to be the best at something. That’s why you signed up to be a Ranger.
Make no mistake: whatever the news may say about the changing cast of characters the U.S. is fighting and the changing motivations behind the changing names of our military “operations” around the world, you and I will have fought in the same war. It’s hard to believe that you will be taking us into the 14th year of the Global War on Terror (whatever they may be calling it now). I wonder which one of the 668 U.S. military bases worldwide you’ll be sent to.
In its basics, our global war is less complicated to understand than you might think, despite the difficult-to-keep-track-of enemies you will be sent after — whether al-Qaeda (“central,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Magreb, etc.), or the Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS (aka ISIL, or the Islamic State), or Iran, or the al-Nusra Front, or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep a reasonable scorecard. Are the Shia or the Sunnis our allies? Is it Islam we’re at war with? Are we against ISIS or the Assad regime or both of them?
Just who these groups are matters, but there’s an underlying point that it’s been too easy to overlook in recent years: ever since this country’s first Afghan War in the 1980s (that spurred the formation of the original al-Qaeda), our foreign and military policies have played a crucial role in creating those you will be sent to fight. Once you are in one of the three battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the chain-of-command will do its best to reduce global politics and the long-term good of the planet to the smallest of matters and replace them with the largest of tasks: boot polishing, perfectly made beds, tight shot groupings at the firing range, and your bonds with the Rangers to your right and left.
In such circumstances, it’s difficult — I know that well — but not impossible to keep in mind that your actions in the military involve far more than whatever’s in front of you or in your gun sights at any given moment. Our military operations around the world — and soon that will mean you — have produced all kinds of blowback. Thought about a certain way, I was being sent out in 2002 to respond to the blowback created by the first Afghan War and you’re about to be sent out to deal with the blowback created by my version of the second one.
I’m writing this letter in the hope that offering you a little of my own story might help frame the bigger picture for you.
Let me start with my first day “on the job.” I remember dropping my canvas duffle bag at the foot of my bunk in Charlie Company, and almost immediately being called into my platoon sergeant’s office. I sprinted down a well-buffed hallway, shadowed by the platoon’s “mascot”: a Grim-Reaper-style figure with the battalion’s red and black scroll beneath it. It hovered like something you’d see in a haunted house on the cinder block wall adjoining the sergeant’s office. It seemed to be watching me as I snapped to attention in his doorway, beads of sweat on my forehead. “At ease… Why are you here, Fanning? Why do you think you should be a Ranger?” All this he said with an air of suspicion.
Shaken, after being screamed out of a bus with all my gear, across an expansive lawn in front of the company’s barracks, and up three flights of stairs to my new home, I responded hesitantly, “Umm, I want to help prevent another 9/11, First Sergeant.” It must have sounded almost like a question.
“There is only one answer to what I just asked you, son. That is: you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.”
Taking in his military awards, the multiple tall stacks of manila folders on his desk, and the photos of what turned out to be his platoon in Afghanistan, I said in a loud voice that rang remarkably hollowly, at least to me, “Roger, First Sergeant!”
He dropped his head and started filling out a form. “We’re done here,” he said without even bothering to look up again.
The platoon sergeant’s answer had a distinct hint of lust in it but, surrounded by all those folders, he also looked to me like a bureaucrat. Surely such a question deserved something more than the few impersonal and sociopathic seconds I spent in that doorway.
Nonetheless, I spun around and ran back to my bunk to unpack, not just my gear but also his disturbing answer to his own question and my sheepish, “Roger, First Sergeant!” reply. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of killing in such an intimate way. I had indeed signed on with the idea of preventing another 9/11. Killing was still an abstract idea to me, something I didn’t look forward to. He undoubtedly knew this. So what was he doing?
As you head into your new life, let me try to unpack his answer and my experience as a Ranger for you.
Let’s start that unpacking process with racism: That was the first and one of the last times I heard the word “enemy” in battalion. The usual word in my unit was “Hajji.” Now, Hajji is a word of honor among Muslims, referring to someone who has successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. military, however, it was a slur that implied something so much bigger.
The soldiers in my unit just assumed that the mission of the small band of people who took down the Twin Towers and put a hole in the Pentagon could be applied to any religious person among the more than 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. The platoon sergeant would soon help usher me into group-blame mode with that “enemy.” I was to be taught instrumental aggression. The pain caused by 9/11 was to be tied to the everyday group dynamics of our unit. This is how they would get me to fight effectively. I was about to be cut off from my previous life and psychological manipulation of a radical sort would be involved. This is something you should prepare yourself for.
When you start hearing the same type of language from your chain-of-command in its attempt to dehumanize the people you are off to fight, remember that 93 percent of all Muslims condemned the attacks on 9/11. And those who sympathized claimed they feared a U.S. occupation and cited political not religious reasons for their support.
But, to be blunt, as George W. Bush said early on (and then never repeated), the war on terror was indeed imagined in the highest of places as a “crusade.” When I was in the Rangers, that was a given. The formula was simple enough: al-Qaeda and the Taliban represented all of Islam, which was our enemy. Now, in that group-blame game, ISIS, with its mini-terror state in Iraq and Syria, has taken over the role. Be clear again that nearly all Muslims reject its tactics. Even Sunnis in the region where ISIS is operating are increasingly rejecting the group. And it is those Sunnis who may indeed take down ISIS when the time is right.
If you want to be true to yourself, don’t be swept up in the racism of the moment. Your job should be to end war, not perpetuate it. Never forget that.
The second stop in that unpacking process should be poverty: After a few months, I was finally shipped off to Afghanistan. We landed in the middle of the night. As the doors on our C-5 opened, the smell of dust, clay, and old fruit rolled into the belly of that transport plane. I was expecting the bullets to start whizzing by me as I left it, but we were at Bagram Air Base, a largely secure place in 2002.
Jump ahead two weeks and a three-hour helicopter ride and we were at our forward operating base. The morning after we arrived I noticed an Afghan woman pounding at the hard yellow dirt with a shovel, trying to dig up a gaunt little shrub just outside the stone walls of the base. Through the eye-slit of her burqa I could just catch a hint of her aged face. My unit took off from that base, marching along a road, hoping (I suspect) to stir up a little trouble. We were presenting ourselves as bait, but there were no bites.
When we returned a few hours later, that woman was still digging and gathering firewood, undoubtedly to cook her family’s dinner that night. We had our grenade launchers, our M242 machine guns that fired 200 rounds a minute, our night-vision goggles, and plenty of food — all vacuum-sealed and all of it tasting the same. We were so much better equipped to deal with the mountains of Afghanistan than that woman — or so it seemed to us then. But it was, of course, her country, not ours, and its poverty, like that of so many places you may find yourself in, will, I assure you, be unlike anything you have ever seen. You will be part of the most technologically advanced military on Earth and you will be greeted by the poorest of the poor. Your weaponry in such an impoverished society will feel obscene on many levels. Personally, I felt like a bully much of my time in Afghanistan.
Now, it’s the moment to unpack “the enemy”: Most of my time in Afghanistan was quiet and calm. Yes, rockets occasionally landed in our bases, but most of the Taliban had surrendered by the time I entered the country. I didn’t know it then, but as Anand Gopal has reported in his groundbreaking book, No Good Men Among the Living, our war on terror warriors weren’t satisfied with reports of the unconditional surrender of the Taliban. So units like mine were sent out looking for “the enemy.” Our job was to draw the Taliban — or anyone really — back into the fight.
Believe me, it was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission. For many former Taliban members, it became an obvious choice: fight or starve, take up arms again or be randomly seized and possibly killed anyway. Eventually the Taliban did regroup and today they are resurgent. I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.
If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.
It was a remarkable formula for creating resistance in another country where surrender wasn’t good enough. The Americans of that moment wanted to control Iraq (and its oil reserves). To this end, in 2006, they backed the Shia autocrat Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister in a situation where Shia militias were increasingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Sunni population of the Iraqi capital.
Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.
Next, in that unpacking process, consider noncombatants: When unidentified Afghans would shoot at our tents with old Russian rocket launchers, we would guesstimate where the rockets had come from and then call in air strikes. You’re talking 500-pound bombs. And so civilians would die. Believe me, that’s really what’s at the heart of our ongoing war. Any American like you heading into a war zone in any of these years was likely to witness what we call “collateral damage.” That’s dead civilians.
The number of non-combatants killed since 9/11 across the Greater Middle East in our ongoing war has been breathtaking and horrifying. Be prepared, when you fight, to take out more civilians than actual gun-toting or bomb-wielding “militants.” At the least, an estimated 174,000 civilians died violent deaths as a result of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 2001 and April 2014. In Iraq, over 70 percent of those who died are estimated to have been civilians. So get ready to contend with needless deaths and think about all those who have lost friends and family members in these wars, and themselves are now scarred for life. A lot of people who once would never have thought about fighting any type of war or attacking Americans now entertain the idea. In other words, you will be perpetuating war, handing it off to the future.
Finally, there’s freedom and democracy to unpack, if we’re really going to empty that duffel bag: Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11 — more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?
When I signed up for the military, I was hoping to make a better world. Instead I helped make it more dangerous. I had recently graduated from college. I was also hoping that, in volunteering, I would get some of my student loans paid for. Like you, I was looking for practical help, but also for meaning. I wanted to do right by my family and my country. Looking back, it’s clear enough to me that my lack of knowledge about the actual mission we were undertaking betrayed me — and you and us.
I’m writing to you especially because I just want you to know that it’s not too late to change your mind. I did. I became a war resister after my second deployment in Afghanistan for all the reasons I mention above. I finally unpacked, so to speak. Leaving the military was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life. My own goal is to take what I learned in the military and bring it to high school and college students as a kind of counter-recruiter. There’s so much work to be done, given the 10,000 military recruiters in the U.S. working with an almost $700 million advertising budget. After all, kids do need to hear both sides.
I hope this letter is a jumping off point for you. And if, by any chance, you haven’t signed that Option 40 contract yet, you don’t have to. You can be an effective counter-recruiter without being an ex-military guy. Young people across this country desperately need your energy, your desire to be the best, your pursuit of meaning. Don’t waste it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia or anywhere else the Global War on Terror is likely to send you.
As we used to say in the Rangers…
Lead the Way,