Iran Deal: open letter to Congress

Rail_map_of_China

image courtesy of wikipedia.org

Dear Sir or Madam,

Thank you for your service to our country. As you know, President Obama’s historic peace accord with Iran is in jeopardy. Granted, we could smash Iran into little pieces without very much effort at all. However, to do so would precipitate a catastrophic descent into world war, destabilizing our military hegemony and costing millions or billions of lives. It would also place America firmly in the historical category of hubristic villain states, and could very well bring about our downfall, if not our complete destruction. A vote against the Iran deal is a vote for that second option. Continue reading

For Memorial Day – The Promise

He was a surprise, actually, or “unplanned,” as they call such things, but in the coming years, no one ever really remembered that part.

She read Doctor Spock, just to get ready, to wile away the passing months. She monitored her eating habits, wondering if she was ingesting the right blend of proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals…the monstrously huge prenatal vitamins that made her nauseated, but she held them down, for his sake; spinach, which was necessary because of spina bifida; no caffeine or, at the very least, less than usual. For months, her mouth tasted strangely metallic, which wasn’t in any of the books, and she was tired, so very tired, as if her body had taken on some mysterious, otherworldly work without her and there was little energy left for herself. He grew until it seemed he would explode her skin, until she worried how he would ever emerge, whether he could ever emerge. Meanwhile, he kicked and spun as if starring in his own unseen circus. Continue reading

Don’t blame Shariah for honor killings in Afghanistan

Afghan justice is buried three sub-basements down.

Afghanistan CourtIn the New York Times, Rob Nordlund has been covering the story of young Afghan couple Zakia and Mohammad Ali, who, after eloping in March, have been on the run from her family. Since Zakia refused her father’s first choice for a husband, they fear her family will make her the victim of an “honor” killing. On May 3, in a piece about them and a young woman who was the apparent victim of an honor killing, he wrote:

Neither Amina nor Zakia and Mohammad Ali did anything against the law — or, more specifically, against two of the legal systems in effect in Afghanistan: the body of civil law enacted over the past decade with Western assistance, or the classic Islamic code of Shariah that is also enshrined in law. Both protect the rights of women not to be forced into marriage against their will. Continue reading

Emphasis added: the foreign policy week in pieces

CATEGORY: ForeignPolicyMental Illness a Prerequisite to Run for Public Office

It’s unbelievable what people would do to be in power. I know: It happens everywhere. I can’t believe that normal people in their right mind would run for elected position. There has to be something wrong in their value system to go through what they have to go through. What I saw here was much worse: so much humiliation to run for office.
—  Vihar Krastev

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga, John Feffer, Focal Points

No End to Atonement in Sight

Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering. … “History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising,” Günter Grass concluded in his 2002 novel “Crabwalk.”

‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement, Roman Leick, Spiegel Online

From Marijuana and Heroin in Vietnam to Antipsychotic Drugs in Afghanistan

… there has been a giant, 682 percent increase in the number of psychoactive drugs — antipsychotics, sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers — prescribed to our troops between 2005 and 2011. … The data suggest that military doctors may prescribe psychoactive drugs for off-label use as sedatives, possibly so as to enable soldiers to function better in stressful combat situations.

Wars on Drugs, Richard A. Friedman, The New York Times

Iron Lady Surpasses Hitchens’s Record for Most Disrespectful Obituaries of a Brit

… when I was a child she was just a strict woman telling everyone off and selling everything off. I didn’t know what to think of this fearsome woman. … It always irks when rightwing folk demonstrate in a familial or exclusive setting the values that they deny in a broader social context. They’re happy to share big windfall bonuses with their cronies, they’ll stick up for deposed dictator chums when they’re down on their luck, they’ll find opportunities in business for people they care about. I hope I’m not being reductive but it seems Thatcher’s time in power was solely spent diminishing the resources of those who had least for the advancement of those who had most.

Russell Brand on Margaret Thatcher: ‘I always felt sorry for her children’, Russell Brand, The Guardian

Giving the C.I.A. Its Head in Pakistan

[American ambassador to Pakistan Cameron] Munter was reporting daily back to Washington about the negative impact of the armed-drone campaign and about how the C.I.A. seemed to be conducting a war in a vacuum, oblivious to the ramifications that the drone strikes were having on American relations with Pakistan’s government.

How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States, Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy blog Focal Points.

A roundtable: Is the Taliban losing?

A panel of experts looks at the U.S. and NATO end game in Afghanistan.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus Blog Focal Points.

Recent coverage of Afghanistan by Newsweek-slash-the Daily Beast has been illuminating. On December 30 Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau wrote:

A shroud of anxiety hangs over the coming year in Afghanistan. It’s not only the country’s war-weary civilians who are beset with trepidation and uncertainty—even the Taliban are uncharacteristically worried. … To be sure, the Afghan insurgents unabashedly welcome the impending U.S. troop drawdown. Maybe now they can start to regroup and regain some of the momentum they’ve lost over the past three years. At the same time, however, they’re acutely aware that their ranks have been decimated, while the Americans have worked overtime to transform the Afghan National Army into a credible fighting force. The Taliban’s propaganda department keeps claiming that the ANA is a laughably hollow threat, unable to fill the vacuum left by the departing Western troops. But privately, the guerrillas in the field aren’t sure which side is stronger now.

Also …

… powerful former warlords are hastening to rebuild and rearm the private armies they commanded during the 1990s, preparing to fight the Taliban—and quite likely each other—once again.

Before that, on December 12, Yousafzai had asked Will the Taliban Destroy Itself?

A serious power struggle has broken out among the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders. … the two top-ranking members of the Afghan insurgency’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, are battling each other for control. … Some insurgents blame [top-ranking members] Mansoor as well as Zakir for the Taliban’s setbacks. Both men have failed to gain territory in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. On the contrary, they have lost control of former Taliban strongholds. “… they’ve started pointing fingers at each other,” says [a] former cabinet minister. … To make the situation worse, he says, none of the other current leaders have any outstanding abilities as military commanders or as leaders.

A former Culture Ministry official told Yousafzai:  “Pakistan is sharpening its knife to remove the Taliban like a cancer from its body.”

As one who doesn’t follow Afghanistan as closely as he should, the idea that, once the United States and NATO leave it, Afghanistan will revert to Taliban rule was received wisdom. For added perspective on whether or not that prognosis has been upended, I enlisted the aid of a few colleagues.

The Roundtable 

Robert Naiman, Policy Director of Just Foreign Policy:

U.S. officials have been cited (not quoted) in the press as saying that when the U.S. leaves, it is de facto ceding control of Taliban-dominated areas to the Taliban. I don’t see how you can credibly call that “losing” for the Taliban. Of course, you can move the goalposts, and say that the Taliban lose if they don’t take Kabul. That the Taliban can be prevented from taking over the whole country seems like a very plausible goal; after all, the Taliban didn’t control the whole country before the U.S. invasion.

Mark Safranski, historian and proprietor of ZenPundit:

The Taliban controlled 95% of Afghanistan before the US invasion.

That was a different Taliban though than what exists today.

The Taliban has several strategic problems, if their goal is ruling Afghanistan as an independent government:

1. They are deeply dependent on the ISI for support, training, intel, safe houses, supplies, etc. Far more so than in 2001. They have not been able to move in large-formation units in open combat as they did against the Northern Alliance in years and most commanders with such experience are long dead. Shaking free of Pakistani Operational control will be very difficult.

2. They remain a radical Pushtun movement.  … They are also unpopular and feared which will come to the fore when America withdraws.

3. Without very generous foreign aid, the economy of Afghanistan is going to rapidly implode by orders of magnitude. Resulting in widespread destitution and likely, unrest and militarization of the population as groups scramble to grab what dwindling resources they can from whomever has or will offer any. Only some kind of negotiated settlement will keep the international aid flowing on which the economy of Afghanistan depends.  A Taliban victory by force of arms will end that aid, or most of it.

Steve Hynd, editor of the Agonist:

The unstated question is whether preventing the Taliban winning is the same as a victory worth the name. We’re talking about a reset back to the immediate post-Soviet civil war — I wouldn’t call that a win for anyone.

Naiman:

I agree that the situation has changed since before the US invasion. My point was simply that to the extent that the goal is to keep the Taliban from controlling all of Afghanistan, that’s a very realistic and modest goal, because it was true before even the US invaded. There are a whole bunch of folks who don’t want the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan who have the power and willingness to do something about it and have demonstrated that power and willingness in the past: armed Tajiks, India,  Russia,  Iran, for example. If in addition to everything they had before, they now have US airpower, and if the US accomplished anything in the last 10 years, it stands to reason that the Taliban are going to have a hard time taking back the 95% of Afghanistan they had before.

So, to the extent that some people in the Taliban think that they can restore the pre-US invasion status quo, they are likely to be disappointed. People can call that “losing” if they want. To the extent that their goal is to drive the US out, they can claim victory to the extent that the US leaves. Studies of the insurgency have indicated that fighting the Americans/the foreigners has been a prime motivation for many insurgents. To the extent that that is true, it stands to reason that if the US withdraws, some people are going to say, ok, I accomplished my goal, I defeated the Americans, now there’s no reason for me to die fighting fellow Afghans. In that sense, a US withdrawal will weaken the insurgency, but I don’t think this is the kind of “victory” that the Pentagon originally had in mind.

People in Afghanistan are talking about what happens when the US leaves. That’s good. It causes fear, and that’s not good, but it also makes people talk more realistically about the future. A similar dynamic happened in Iraq when people started to believe that the US was really leaving: they started to focus on other problems. The Taliban will likely come to accept that they can’t control all of Afghanistan; people in Afghanistan who don’t like the Taliban will likely come to accept that the Taliban, in some form, are a permanent feature of the Afghanistan landscape, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, people on both sides who want to live in a unified country in some sense will at some point decide that they prefer accommodation to continued war. It’s beyond of the power of the West to decide when that point will be, but it’s more likely to occur the more the West withdraws its ground troops.

Hynd:

I believe Yousafzai is dead wrong about Pak intentions re: the Taliban. What they’ve been doing is spreading money around with the Pak Taliban to get them to stop attacking Pak assets and ditto for trying to bring the Afghan Taliban back under their full control as a proxy force. Anyone who thinks the Pak military and ISI are going to excise the Taliban like a cancer is either a subject of Kayani’s Jedi mind tricks or smoking Afghan hashish. They’re too valuable a potential proxy — mostly to deny Indian influence, to act as a training ground for other proxy groups and to enable/allow Pakistani strategic maneuvering space in Afghanistan in the event of an Indo/Pak war — and that calculus has not been significantly changed by a decade of US involvement.

Naiman:

I’m not privy to the internals, but common sense broadly supports Steve’s view. If you believe that the ISI and Pakistani military have been pursuing this proxy policy to the extent that they could get away with it for the last 10 years, why would one expect them to cut off the Taliban now? It doesn’t make any sense. Particularly, given that the US is now “leaving,” and that the US recently has made noises in the direction of accommodating Pakistani concerns and trying to bring Pakistan onside in its “reconciliation” plans. If I’m Pakistan, I’m thinking: my policy has been vindicated. Now is not the time to cut; now is the time to play through. To cash in chips Pakistan needs to keep the Taliban as close as they can, not cut them loose. Pakistan’s main value to the US in all this now is not helping the US kill Taliban leaders but helping push Taliban leaders towards a deal.

We’ll leave the final word to Naiman:

As for unstated questions, my favorite is: how is the deal that the US can get with the Taliban now better than the deal it could have gotten from the Taliban in 2006? Who considers that difference justified by the additional bloodshed of the last six years?

Maybe David Brooks could teach Gen. Petraeus and the Kagans a thing or two about humility

Gen. Petraeus allowed unprecedented access to conservative Washington think tankers.

On Tuesday, December 18, at the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran revealed that, while he was top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus relied on the advisory services of prominent conservative think-tankers and military historians Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. He seems to have allowed them near-total access.

Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.

But

The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank.

The Kagans had hoped to head off appearances of conflict of interest by working for free.

“There are actual patriots in the world,” Fred Kagan said. “It was very important to me not to be seen to be profiting from the war.”

Ah, the humility. Wait — I’ve got an idea. It was just revealed that conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is teaching a course during the spring semester at Yale titled “Humility.” Apparently, he’s spoken and written about the subject before.

Brooks told New York magazine via email: “The title of the Humility course is, obviously, intentionally designed to provoke smart ass jibes, but there’s actually a serious point behind it.” From the course description: “The premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness.”

Then why not invite Fred Kagan to sit in and learn a thing or two about humility? Then, should Brooks choose to follow up his spring course with one on the fall titled “Hubris,” he could invite Gen. Petraeus himself as a guest lecturer.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Afghan military killings of American troops underscores absurdity of our Afghan adventure

Nothing is sadder than dying at the hands of those you’re sworn to protect.

In an article for the Los Angeles Times, David Zucchino writes about the incident at Kabul International Airport in April 2011 when an Afghan Air Force colonel killed nine Americans.

The nine killings remain the single deadliest incident among insider attacks that have targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. … Although insider attacks in Afghanistan are persistent — at least 80 attacks and 122 coalition deaths since 2007 — no single incident seems to have registered on the public consciousness in the United States. Few family members of those killed have spoken out.

Until now.

Widows of two of the dead officers [and] retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sally Stenton, a former civilian police investigator who was a legal officer assigned to the airport the day of the attack … have pored over a redacted Air Force report, the Central Command report and a separate Air Force chronology.

They contend that the shooter, Afghan Air Force Col. Ahmed Gul … had help from fellow Afghan officers. … They point out that 14 Afghans were in the control room when Gul opened fire. None were killed or seriously wounded.

The U.S. Air Force investigation quoted Afghans as saying they fled or took cover when Gul opened fire. The reports, the three women said, indicated the Afghans did not attempt to rescue or treat the wounded advisors.

Furthermore

The three women contend that the [U.S.] Air Force failed to uncover Gul’s radicalization in Pakistan and Kabul — and the vows he made to kill Americans.

Such killings make a senseless war such as Afghanistan that much more so. Questioning the U.S. Air Force may help to make sense out of it, at least it attaches a semblance of honor to the deaths.

Meanwhile, those who lost soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq seek to make sense of their deaths by clinging to the belief that their loved ones died while defending the United States. But many of them know that the Iraq War was unjust and, even if they believe Afghanistan War was warranted, that it has passed its sell-by date. Nothing is more painful than acknowledging the truth of John Kerry’s refrain, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die” in a war.

Should loved ones also eventually acknowledge the fruitlessness and injustice of those wars, some solace still remains. First, soldiers in any war fight, in large part, to protect (and avenge) their squad mates. Second, those who die are, in effect, occupational casualties. However quotidian it may seem, just like work itself, dying on the job has its own inherent dignity.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Many share blame with Sgt. Bales for killing of 17 Afghans

John Stephenson for McClatchy reports that Afghan army chief Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief Afghan investigator in the killing of 17 civilians with which U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged, says “there’s strong evidence that only one killer was involved, a view that puts him at odds with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.”

A U.S. defense official said “such speculation was ‘commonplace, especially in small villages and especially about something as horrific as an event like this.'” Referring to a relative of victims, Karzai said: “‘In his family, in four rooms people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do.'” Continue reading

The lesson that bin Laden learned from Reagan

There is a particular narrative about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War that has always struck me as compelling. I bought the argument at the time and I think I still do, to some extent, even though I’m hardly a Reagan fan.

The story goes like this: Reagan was able to finally win the Cold War and drive a stake through the heart of the Evil Empire because he realized that the Soviet economy was already badly overextended trying to prop up the war machine. All he had to do was accelerate the arms race, dramatically increasing military spending (while also amping up the sabre-rattling rhetoric) and that would force the Russkis to bankrupt themselves trying to compete. Continue reading

As Taliban tactics grow more sophisticated, why does it still use suicide bombers?

Typical of articles calling the Taliban attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul a “showcase for their abilities” and a “carefully orchestrated operation” is this from the Daily Beast:

[The Taliban] had proven once again that insurgents can strike just about any time and anywhere against their chosen targets, exposing the fragility of Kabul’s security just days before Afghan security forces are scheduled to take responsibility for securing the city and several other towns and provinces around the country in the wake of President Obama’s announcement of the phased U.S. military withdrawal.

Still, the eight attackers, all armed with suicide vests in addition to weapons, were killed. This begs the question: with its increasing tactical sophistication, why does the Taliban continue to rely on a technique that’s as strictly from hunger as suicide bombing? Continue reading

Who's serious about reducing the deficit?

Cut Medicare payments and tweak Social Security. Cut defense spending by directly reducing spending and getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Raise income, corporate, and payroll taxes. These issues essentially define what it means to be serious about eliminating the federal deficit, because all of them need to happen before the deficit can truly be brought under control. Serious people can debate how much of each is necessary and where to make the largest changes, but anyone who rejects even one of the issues is either ignorant of the scale of the problem, blindly beholden to their preferred ideology, or lying.

Yesterday we discussed these issues. Today we look in greater detail at the public statements of various individuals and organizations to see if they are actually serious about cutting the deficit, or if they just claim to be serious.

The Republican Party

Since President Bush II presided over a massive expansion of government during his eight years in office, the GOP has, in most respects, become the party of “spend and don’t tax.” Continue reading

How to tell who’s serious about reducing the federal deficit

The federal deficit is a major topic of conversation these days, both in the media and around the nation’s water coolers and copiers. In fact, many freshmen Republican Representatives and Senators believe that they have been sent to Congress specifically to shrink the deficit and the related national debt. But it’s become clear to me from reading and having multiple discussions about the deficit that not everyone is serious about actually addressing the problem. Sure, most citizens think they’re serious about eliminating the deficit, but because they don’t have any clue about the scale of the actual problem, they offer up “solutions” that aren’t even tenth-measures, never mind half-measures. And given the positions of the political parties and various politicians, it’s difficult to see how they might even think that their positions amount to a serious attempt to eliminate the deficit.

So how can we tell whether someone is serious about addressing the federal debt? Continue reading

Nota Bene #118: VOTE!

“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Who said it? Continue reading

Aid worker Linda Norgrove victim of the "Entebbe Fantasy"?

Yesterday at Newshoggers, Steve Hynd wrote: “Marc Ambinder and others are now confirming the Guardian story today that a U.S. SEAL killed kidnapped aid worker Linda Norgrove when he threw a fragmentation grenade instead of a smoke one, fatally wounding her.”

A recently mustered-out special forces member of our acquaintance provided testimony to the extent — heavy fire or no — of the ineptitude involved.

A smoke grenade and a fragmentation grenade are COMPLETELY different in size, shape, and feel. Hell, they are probably designed like that to help avoid accidents like this. I don’t see how a private in a regular infantry unit could have made this mistake much less a professional soldier. Continue reading

Review: Dying City by Christopher Shinn

“This city is dying and we are the ones killing it,” writes Craig, a U.S. soldier stationed in Abu Ghraib, in an e-mail to his twin brother, Peter.

But Craig’s statement is playwright Christopher Shinn’s metaphor for the larger War Against Terror—just as it also captures the very private, personal dysfunction between Craig and his wife, Kelly.

First produced in London in 2006, then exported to the U.S. in 2007—where it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama—Dying City is a taught, simmering little play that focuses on Craig’s deployment and the heartbreak he, Kelly, and Peter all suffer as a result.

The action takes place in Kelly’s apartment. “I imagine a design that lives in naturalism but suggests something beyond it,” Shinn explains in a note at the beginning of the script. There are doors that lead offstage to a bedroom and a bathroom—important points to note in order to allow the play’s main conceit to work: Peter and Craig, as identical twins, are played by the same actor. Continue reading

The Petraeus bait and switch maneuver

by Gareth Porter

In interviews in recent weeks, Gen. David Petraeus has been taking a line on what will happen in mid-2011 that challenges President Barack Obama’s intention to begin a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by that date. This new Petraeus line is the culmination of a brazen bait and switch maneuver on the war by the most powerful military commander in modern U.S. history.

It represents a new stage in the process by which Petraeus, abetted by his allies in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, has appropriated much of the power over decisions on war policy that rightly belongs to the commander-in-chief. Continue reading