Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Counterpunch (11-30-09)
There are now at present some 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied forces occupying Afghanistan, in league with the Northern Alliance warlords and the corrupt and feeble Karzai regime in Kabul. President Obama clearly wishes to increase the figure and will announce before an audience of West Point cadets Tuesday that he will add over 30,000 more while pushing the Europeans to add 10,000. This will bring the total number of occupation forces to around the level of the Soviet deployment at its peak in the 1980s.
The Soviets were trying to protect the secular government in Afghanistan and to discourage Islamic fundamentalism, a potential threat to the neighboring Soviet Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan. What is Obama trying to do?
Because make no mistake about it, this is Barack Obama’s war now. With this announcement he will have personally increased the force in Afghanistan by over 50,000 troops in response to appeals from his generals.
Obama’s mantra about the conflict in Afghanistan is that it is a “war of necessity.” But this is really just a version of the neocon “War on Terror” trope, which is to say that it implies that it is the natural, reasonable retaliatory response to the 9-11 attacks. (They started it, after all, so we have to take the war to them.)
But neocon strategy has always required the simplistic conflation of disparate phenomena, and the exploitation of public ignorance and fear, in the execution of policy. Who are they, after all? The invasion of Iraq required the Big Lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9-11. The earlier invasion of Afghanistan required the clever sleight-of-hand by which the mainly Saudi Arab but international al-Qaeda was equated with the purely Afghan Taliban. “We don’t distinguish between terrorists and the governments that support them,” Bush declared.
This was almost a boast that the U.S. would be boldly ignorant as a matter of public policy, and a warning to the empirical rationalists of the world that the White House was in the grip of truly simplistic minds and would indeed shamelessly exploit popular Islamophobia as they pleased even as they made elaborate public gestures in support of religious tolerance. (The calculated message was: Be scared, world, because we’ve got cowboys in power, and hell, we can get kinda crazy when we’re pissed!)
The fact is, there was and is a difference between al-Qaeda, an international jihadist organization that wants to reestablish a global Caliphate and confront the U.S., and the Taliban, which wanted to stabilize Afghanistan under a harsh interpretation of the Sharia but maintain a working relationship with the U.S. And now, eight years after being toppled, the Taliban are back with a vengeance, demonstrating that they have a real social base. Moreover a Pakistani Taliban has emerged across the border as a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion.
Any number of intelligence reports have pointed out the obvious: more troops just breed more “insurgency.”
Obama’s national security advisor, Gen. James Jones, has stated clearly, “The Al Qaeda presence [in Afghanistan] is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” If there had been a “necessity” to destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that matter has been taken care of. What does Obama think necessary to achieve now?
I imagine he will argue that the Taliban must not be allowed to return to power. But doesn’t that mean implicitly acknowledging that they have genuine roots in Afghan, particularly Pashtun society? The best military estimates put the number of Taliban militants at no more than 25,000, with fully-armed fighters around 3,000. There are about 100,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army (ANA) in addition to all the foreign occupying troops. ANA forces are often described as of “poor quality,” meaning they are illiterate, and mainly attracted by the money. But the Talibs are also generally illiterate and many of them fight largely for the pay as well. Why is it whole provinces like Nuristan have come under Taliban control despite all the counterinsurgency manpower?
Why in attempting to “secure” Helmand province in an anti-Taliban offensive over the summer did the U.S. forces discover that their ANA allies included almost no Pashtuns but were disproportionately Tajiks? Why were U.S. forces unable to dislodge the Taliban from Marjeh, a city of about 50,000 people and hub of the opium trade?
The problem isn’t too few forces. Were that the case the increasing number of forces over the last several years would have produced a better, not worse, security situation. The problem is the premise that imperialists can re-colonize a country under the pretense of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency or liberation in the face of mass resistance.
But why is Obama so intent on staying the course in Afghanistan? What is so important about Afghan policy that the Man of Change can’t change it, even when 57 per cent of the people of the U.S. say they want out?
He will say on Tuesday evening, as eloquently as he and his speechmakers can manage the task, that we simply cannot afford to let Islamist extremists back into power so that they might harbor terrorists who’ll attack the United States.
But recall there was a time when the U.S. State Department was hell-bent to drive a secular government out of Afghanistan---one that wanted to educate girls and establish local clinics and curb the power of the tribal chiefs and mullahs---and determined to assist the most profoundly reactionary forces in Afghanistan with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at their head in establishing an alternative Islamist regime. Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski thought the pro-Soviet Saur Revolution in 1978, in which left-wing Afghan Army officers staged a coup and the Democratic People’s Party seized power, producing a backlash from the mullahs and tribal chiefs, was a golden Cold War opportunity.
Even before Soviet forces crossed the border in December 1979, the CIA was organizing Afghan and international forces to challenge the leftish government and Brzezinski was urging the fighters to view their struggle as a jihad or Holy War. This continued of course through the eight bloody years of the Reagan administration. The jihadis won, Washington’s friends established a regime in 1993, immediately fell out among themselves plunging the country into Tajik-Pashtun civil war involving the bombing of Kabul (hitherto spared in the fighting). Washington politely distanced itself, having lost interest with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving ally Pakistan to deal with the mess.
Pakistan opted to support the Taliban, a force which against the motley backdrop of opium-dealing, boy-raping warlords seemed attractive by virtue of its reputation for moral probity if nothing else. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto later explained Islamabad needed to embrace the Taliban to maintain the trade lines through Central Asia. The U.S. kept its distance from the harshly fundamentalist group, which took power in 1996, withholding diplomatic recognition. But it was historically responsible for its inception and the descent of Afghanistan into the disaster of medieval reaction that began with the stoning of adulterous women in soccer stadiums and culminated with the blasting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001.
The sins of U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan are just staggering. Imagine what might have happened had the U.S. just stayed out of Afghan affairs from the late 1970s and allowed that experiment in secular. reformist government in a highly conservative Muslim society to take its course without billions in arms to precisely the sort of fighters who are being vilified as “Islamic extremists” and “terrorists” today. There may have never been an international CIA-coordinated mujahadeen movement, no young Osama bin Laden persuaded to suspend his studies to head up Arab holy warriors in coordination with the CIA, no total collapse of Afghan society, no “blowback.” Unfortunately people in this country are generally clueless about the recent history of Southwest Asia and the role of U.S. administrations in producing the very problems about which they complain. (I don’t include Obama among these; he knows what he’s doing. Hence total moral culpability.)
The Taliban never invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan; he was there when they took power, guest of a warlord who had been hostile to themselves. He had flown in from Sudan, booted out by the government there following a demand from the U.S. The Taliban extended to him the hospitality required by the pashtunwali code, in appreciation for his services in anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s. But as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have documented on this site, from 2000 the Taliban initiated talks in Frankfurt with the EU, facilitated by the Afghan-American businessman Kabir Mohabbat, to transfer bin Laden out of the country. Mohabbat was employed from November by the National Security Council to negotiate with the Taliban about bin Laden’s fate.
The Taliban, who had confined bin Laden and his key aides to his compound at Daronta, 30 miles from Kabul, invited the U.S. to send one of two Cruise missiles as the easiest way to solve the problem but the Clinton administration delayed in taking action. The Bush administration also dispatched Mohabbat repeatedly to Kabul---three times in 2001---to discuss bin Laden. In other words, at minimum, on can say that the State Department knew, and we should know, and Obama should know, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two very different things.
So if the president argues that we need to continue the fight with more troops to keep the Taliban down, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a center of international terrorism, he’s going to be speaking so much eloquent nonsense.
He will probably not address the recent comment by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the country after Afghanistan itself most victimized by U.S. aggression in the region. Speaking in English Yousef Raza Gilani told reporters:
“Our only concern is that when US sends more troops to Afghanistan’s Helmand area, if there will be influx of militants they will be moving to Balochistan. This is the concern that we already discussed with the US administration, that influx of militants towards Balochistan should be taken care of otherwise that can destabilise Balochistan.
“A stable Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest - but at the same time we also do not want our country to be destabilized. We have asked US administration to consult us in case of any paradigm shift in the policy... so that we can formulate our strategy accordingly.”
Balochistan is over 40 per cent of the land area of his country. It is beset with ethnic unrest; some of the majority Balochis resent the fact that they receive few profits from the exploitation of the uranium and copper of their region, and are neglected by Islamabad. There is an armed insurgency led by members of the Bugti tribe. This has some support from educated Pakistanis critical of “Pashtun chauvinism” who accuse the state of trying to keep Balochis backward. (While listed as “terrorist” by the State Department this movement is a separate phenomenon from the Taliban.)
State Department officials have dismissed Pakistani concerns. Isn’t that typical though? They have been dismissing them since the initial invasion in 2001, and as Pakistan becomes more and more destabilized, the U.S. merely repeats its demands for more military cooperation, continues its drone strikes across the border, and pursues its goals in the region in what Islamabad perceives as disregard for its interests. Pakistan has its own problems that policy-makers in the U.S. State Department seem either not to understand or to willfully ignore as it exacerbates them.
And President Obama will not mention that according to the Asia Foundation’s 2009 poll in Afghanistan 56 per cent of respondents say they have some sympathy for the motivations of the armed groups, including the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s outfit, opposing occupation. He won’t note how the PR strategy of depicting this effort as a “liberation” symbolized by the removal of the burqa has been long since quietly shelved, since the burqa is actually back with a vengeance and the warlords upon whom the U.S. must rely to maintain order have always laughed at U.S. proposals for social reform. They know that’s not what the troops are there for.
The U.S. intervened indirectly in Afghanistan in the ‘80s, with no thought for the welfare of the Afghan people and with tragic consequences for them, in order to fight the Soviets and the imagined menace of “communism.” To do that it nurtured a ferocious Islamist extremist trend. There’s never been any acknowledgement of error or apology and don’t expect one. It all made sense at the time from a U.S. imperialist point of view.
What makes sense now, from a U.S. imperialist point of view? Just look at the map. Realize that Afghanistan has no products the U.S. corporate world wants or needs. During the Cold War, Iran, Iraq, Turkey sometimes played crucial roles in U.S. geostrategic thinking but Afghanistan was practically conceded to the Soviet camp even before 1978. It only acquired significance as a Cold War battleground when U.S. strategists realized (in Brzezinski’s words) that they could “bleed the Soviets…the way they did us in Vietnam.” More recently, it has acquired significance as U.S. energy corporations do global battle with the Russians over access to Caspian Sea natural gas.
At present Europe is dependent on the supply of gas via Russia from the Caspian Sea, principally from Turkmenistan. This gives Moscow enormous political leverage when it comes to such matters as NATO’s decision to admit Georgia or Ukraine. U.S. policy has been to build pipelines from the Caspian avoiding Russia or Iran. Construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline which will pump the gas straight to the Indian Ocean and on to world markets has been long delayed due to the fighting in Afghanistan.
The pipeline will run through Helmand province, then into Pakistan’s Balochistan. If it all works out, this will represent a highly significant improvement in the geostrategic position of the U.S. in the region, including in the event of another world war (such as might be provoked by a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and unpredictable repercussions of such action).
But Obama will not be talking about the history of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, or the feelings of the Afghan people about occupation, or the reactions of the Pakistanis to the unmitigated disaster on their doorstep, or the real geopolitical reasons for U.S. interest in this backward impoverished Central Asian nation that has been “the graveyard of empires” since the time of Alexander the Great.
He will say it’s still a necessary war to defend Americans from terrorist attack. We should recall, once again, the observation of Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering during the Nuremburg trial that while “naturally the common people don’t want war … the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
We should respond: No it’s not necessary! in the streets that day and those following---until we force Obama to end what are now unmistakably his criminal imperialist wars.
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 00:09
SOURCE: Salon (12-1-09)
President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy. Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.” But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq "victory" now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?
Obama explicitly referred to the Iraq withdrawal as a model for Afghanistan, saying, "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011." He was referring to the Status of Forces Agreement imposed on Bush by the Iraqi parliament in fall of 2008, which set a timetable for withdrawal. The SOFA has worked better than its critics expected, in part because the new Iraqi army is now capable of patrolling independently and is willing to stand and fight against popular militias, albeit with U.S. supplies and close air support.
Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gained control of his field officers, establishing forward operating bases that reported directly to him. He exaggerated his victory at Basra in spring of 2008 over the Mahdi army militia, and unfairly discounted the role of U.S. air power and troops in lending the operation crucial support. He and his American allies, moreover, seldom acknowledge the crucial mediating role of Iran in getting the Mahdi army to stand down. It is nevertheless true that the 275,000-strong Iraqi army can now face down most security challenges from militias. It cannot entirely stop terrorism and has not restored security to Sunni Arab cities such as Baquba and Mosul in the north, but overall attacks and civilian deaths have for the most part declined since the U.S. military ceased its active patrols. Iraq is an oil state, and is spending nearly $10 billion this year on the Ministries of Defense and the Interior (which oversees the police). Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product is only about $12 billion a year on an exchange rate basis.
In contrast to his Iraqi counterpart, President Hamid Karzai is said by U.S. intelligence to control only about 30 percent of the country, while the Taliban control 10 to 15 percent. The rest is in the hands of warlords. Karzai is known as a prickly micro-manager of his own bureaucratic turf, but seems unable to see the big picture. He has not attempted anything nearly as ambitious as al-Maliki’s Basra campaign. The attempt of Karzai’s camp to steal the recent presidential election deeply hurt his legitimacy, as President Obama acknowledged in his speech. Meanwhile, Al-Maliki’s Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party gained dramatically in popularity in last January’s provincial elections, suggesting that he has real popularity in the big Shiite urban centers. So the political situation in Iraq is much more promising than that in Afghanistan, despite the former’s tendency toward political gridlock and ethnic jockeying, which may delay the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for January.
A major plank of Obama’s Afghanistan platform is a troop escalation -- another 30,000 on top of the 22,000 he dispatched last winter. It inevitably calls to mind the Iraq escalation that then-Sen. Obama opposed. The Washington consensus is now that Bush’s "surge" or troop escalation defeated "al-Qaida" in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province, allowing the new Iraqi military to begin patrolling and ultimately to do so independently, and thus paving the way for a "responsible" U.S. withdrawal. While it is certainly true that the steps taken by Gen. David Petraeus in spring and summer 2007 contributed to a substantial reduction of violence in Iraq, the actions of the U.S. military were only one piece of the puzzle.
The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 amd 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing thereafter was so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed...
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 00:03
SOURCE: Talking Points Memo (12-1-09)
Barack Obama spent two years campaigning to become the leader of a corporatist, national-security state whose ways of wielding power aren't those of a republic. "States hover like crows over the nests that nations make," wrote the historian Robert Wiebe, and by the time Obama faced the state's gray ranks of cadets last night as their commander in chief, the crows of national security statism and finance capital had cannibalized so many of the republic's strengths that he found himself in command of the wreckage and Orwellian newspeak they've left behind.
He tried, at times, to tell the truth. At least he didn't promise to do for Kabul and Kandahar what our corporate state and its corrupted polity haven't done for New Orleans or Detroit. But the concentrations of power over which he now presides, and whose language he must speak, have no more truths to tell about how economic and institutional power flow in a free society. They haven't a clue where terror comes from, or what makes a society strong enough to endure and resist terror instead of recapitulating it in its entertainments, let alone its torture protocols.
To become commander in chief, Obama had to mortgage too much of his ability to change what he's now commanding. He needs a deeper, broader push now from the citizens who elected him. Unfortunately, his campaign was a terrific Michael Jackson performance for some, and a symbolic lifeline for others terrified of being swept under by riptides of predatory marketing and finance capital that are destroying their communities. But the campaign didn't become a powerful political organization, and now he's condemned to keep splitting the difference, as he did last night, between the swarming crows' bromides and the civic republic's fading echoes.
He's buying time. But he's not welding a political organization strong enough to keep frantic claims that 9/11 was an "act of war" from stampeding us into tearing up the judicial foundation of a republic -- as the terrorists want -- or to keep fears of the Taliban from driving others to fantasize a re-run of Churchill v. Hitler. Such myopia is for crows, not citizens, not even if they're cadets. The road to "victory" is different now, and Obama knows it. But, last night, he only hinted at it.
Posted on: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 00:01
SOURCE: Private Papers (website of Victor Davis Hanson) (11-27-09)
There is a surprising amount of liberal discomfort, here and abroad, with the underwhelming nature of President Obama's Asian tour. Apparently this results from displeasure over the lack of any substantive dialogue with the Chinese about climate change (and China's inordinate coal burning), censorship, the lack of human rights, Tibet, unfair trade practices, etc. (In the president's defense, if we are going to borrow at an annual rate of $1.6 trillion for further entitlement spending, some of it floated at low interest from the Chinese, we are not going to have a lot of leverage with our creditors.)
The liberal discontent (even in the New York Times, of all places) is strange, inasmuch as Obama campaigned on exactly this sort of multilateralism and deference to the U.N. In this new approach, America doesn't try to "get" anything from anyone, but simply listens, and as a guest abroad defers to its hosts. After all, Obama has rejected in explicit language the notion of American exceptionalism. The Nobel Peace Prize committee correctly sensed Obama's departure from the past and preemptively awarded him the prize, both as praise for his utopian rhetoric and as a reminder than the first multilateral president should govern as if the United States is merely one among many nations in the world.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy sensed this as well at the U.N., in reference to Iran. I think most nations have caught on and are making the necessary adjustments, and the Asian tour will be followed by many more like it: inspirational photo-ops, soaring "I am the first Pacific, African, Latin American, etc. president," assurances that change abroad can happen as it has in America (as exemplified by Obama himself, of course), implicit "reset" criticism of the previous unilateral administration, and hope-and-change rhetoric about new multilateral partnerships, followed by a town-hall question-and-answer session (probably censored)...
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 23:22
SOURCE: Private Papers (website of Victor Davis Hanson) (12-2-09)
That was such a strange speech. Deploring partisanship while serially trashing Bush at each new talking point. Sending more troops, but talking more about when they will come home rather than what they will do to the enemy. There was nothing much new in the speech, yet apparently it took the president months to decide whether even to give it.
Ostensibly the talk was to be on Afghanistan; instead, the second half mostly consisted of the usual hope-and-change platitudes.
Still, the president, to his credit, is trying to give the best picture of the Afghanistan war. Obama started well in his review of why George Bush removed the Taliban. But that disinterested narrative lasted about two minutes. Then came the typical Obama talking points that characterize his reset-button foreign policy and don't offer a high degree of confidence that our commander-in-chief wants to defeat the enemy or believes that he can win the war:
1) Bush did it. Supposedly Bush neglected Afghanistan by going into Iraq, leaving Obama with this mess. (He does not mention why Iraq was largely won, much less why Afghanistan has been going backward the last ten months. If Bush was wrong in going into Iraq, exactly who was right in securing that country?)
2) Avoiding the V-word. Concluding the war seems to be the theme, as opposed to winning the war. "Breaking the momentum" of the Taliban, unfortunately, is not the same as crushing and humiliating the enemy. "Ending the war successfully" lacks the force of "defeating" the enemy and securing "victory." Rather than talk for ten minutes in soaring platitudes, we need 20 seconds devoted to the notion that we will win, the Taliban will lose, and Afghanistan will be secured. His emphasis on civilian and political strategies is fine, but those strategies are first predicated on security. If you are surging, then, darn it, tell the American people that we will secure a military victory...
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 23:20
SOURCE: Private Papers (website of Victor Davis Hanson) (11-28-09)
Two points about the strange decision to bring the 9/11 terrorists to New York:
One, Senator Grassley's point about federal attorneys and their past advocacy for detainees is worth listening to. I'll leave it to Andy McCarthy to ascertain the legal ramifications of Grassley's concern that there are lawyers in Eric Holder's Justice Department who (a) may be involved in the decision-making that brings the terrorist combatant KSM and others to civil trials in New York, and (b) not so long ago either were pro bono attorneys working on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees or were employed by firms who provided such subsidized legal work for those at Gitmo.
If any of that were found to be accurate, it would obviously present serious conflict-of-interest problems. But more important than the legal ramifications would be the political consequences.
I don't think the American people would take well to the idea that government prosecutors of the terrorists who had a hand in the murder of 3,000 Americans are, in some way, connected in the past with defense work on behalf of those very terrorists. That would be radioactive in political terms.
Two, we are now watching a very Orwellian development, as ACLU lawyers, civil libertarians, and liberal Obama-administration prosecutors all jostle to outbid one another in pretrial chest-pounding — boasting about the overwhelming evidence that will seal the fate of KSM. Our "don't rush to judgment" president has also weighed in and assured the country that the "suspect" will be tried and convicted in federal court, before being executed. (Obama had better be careful: There may be one or two ACLU attorneys out there who are not quite on the administration bus and, in customary fashion, may use all that "pretrial" prejudicial publicity as grounds for moving the case to, say, San Francisco, or perhaps as the basis for some sort of pretrial dismissal motion.)...
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 23:16
SOURCE: http://uncpressblog.com (12-2-09)
Barack Obama has an impressive intellect, and he has given the decision on Afghanistan policy the careful, prolonged deliberation that it deserved. To this historian of U.S. foreign relations, the speech laying out his decision is, alas, striking not for its deep insight or its crisp logic. Rather, it brings to mind a score of other speeches delivered by presidents over the last sixty years justifying U.S. intervention in the third world.
In its essential format the speech follows the well-established rhetorical template. It begins with a rehearsal of origins — of a commitment made for reasons of national security so sound that the country has no choice but to continue and make it turn out right. It then turns to paint an alarmist picture of a cancerous threat to U.S. security posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in “an epicenter of violent extremism.” The President concludes with the required rehearsal of values — the ideals of freedom and the obligations of global leadership — that define Americans and that somehow require saving Afghanistan and shoring up Pakistan. Abandoning those objectives would implicitly put in question who we are as a people and our role in the world. Predictably, this nationalist boilerplate and the accompanying bromides about wishing only for a world of peace and prosperity for ourselves and for others drew the most applause from an otherwise subdued audience.
The illusions that inform this speech are as familiar as its form. The President seems to think a client dependent on U.S. troops since its inception will somehow gain vitality by the dispatch of more troops backed by a tough-love assistance program. Reviving the discredited notion of nation building is bad enough, but even worse is the failure to notice the imperial odor given off by this attempt to remake Afghanistan. But what to call a sustained effort backed by military force to shape a nation to our preferences if not an exercise in empire?
At the same time Obama demonstrates a touching faith in the efficacy of U.S. military power to defeat a force noted for its persistence — all before the eighteen-month clock runs down. No less worrisome, Obama seems to labor under the “indispensable power” illusion that makes other major players in the region irrelevant. Only Pakistan appears in the speech and even then as a problem to be solved. Russia, China, India, and Iran get no mention even though their long-term stake in the Afghanistan problem is far greater than ours.
Finally, the speech follows a long tradition of playing fast and loose with historical parallels. We are thankfully free here of references to Munich. But into the gap comes Vietnam and Iraq. The president’s shake-and-bake version of the Vietnam War has no room for the prime feature of current relevance: the failed attempt over twenty years to make our Saigon client stand up. Obama seems more under the sway of the Iraq parallel without realizing the perils of instant history. The notion of a successful surge in Iraq is popular among the army’s counterinsurgency advocates but widely disputed within the foreign policy establishment. Whether Iraq remains calm and what role the surge played won’t become clear for a long time.
Obama’s speech reveals how easily even keen leaders with fresh ideas and urgent new priorities get captured by the policies of the past. The question puzzling to this historian even after decades of policy watching is how and why does this capture occur so that in this case “the way forward” in a “new era” ends up drawing so much from the problematic outlook associated with the past. Is the answer in something simple like the White House drinking water or something broader and more complex like the national political culture?
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 18:48
SOURCE: Informed Comment (blog of Juan Cole) (12-2-09)
1. Obama's plan depends heavily on training 100,000 new soldiers and 100,000 new policemen over the next three years. It has taken 8 years to train the first 100,000 soldiers fairly well, and the same period for the Europeans to train a similar number of police badly. Can the pace really be more than doubled and quality results still obtained?
2. Obama's plan assumes that there can be a truly national Afghan army. But the current one is disproportionately Tajik and signally lacks troops from the troubled Helmand and Qandahar provinces. Unless the ethnic tensions are eased, training a big army could well provoke an anti-Tajik backlash in Pashtun regions that feel occupied.
3. Obama's goal to"break the Taliban's momentum" may well fail. Only 20 percent of insurgencies in modern times are defeated in a decisive military manner.
4. The US counter-insurgency plan assumes that Pashtun villagers dislike and fear the Taliban, and just need to be protected from them so as to stop the politics of intimidation. But what if the villagers are cousins of the Taliban and would rather support their clansmen than white Christian foreigners?
5. Obama is demanding that Pakistan help destroy the Taliban movement, a historical ally of Pakistan in Afghanistan. While Pakistan now has good reason to attempt to wipe out the Pakistani Taliban Movement, which has committed a good deal of terrorism against the country, Islamabad has no reason to attack the Afghan guerrilla groups fighting Karzai. They are fellow Muslims, and are Pashtuns (as are 12 percent of Pakistanis), and dislike India. The Northern Alliance elements in the Karzai government, which have recently grown stronger, are pro-India. Obama is asking Pakistan to betray its national interests, which is not realistic in the absence of some much bigger carrot than a few billion dollars in foreign aid.
6. Obama asserts that although the Afghan presidential election was marked by fraud, the results (the victory of Hamid Karzai) are legitimate within the constitutional framework. But isn't it possible that Karzai has decisively lost legitimacy among broad sections of the Afghan public, wounding him as a partner in working for a recognition of the legitimacy of a greatly expanded foreign occupation army in the country?
7. Obama is demanding accountability from cabinet members in Afghanistan and offering agricultural and economic aid. But 15 present and former cabinet members are under investigation for massive embezzlement, and 7 key ministries were only able to spend 40% of their budget allocation last year. Isn't Obama counting on a culture of official probity and a governmental capacity that simply does not exist in Kabul? What happens when there is more cabinet-level corruption and when the Ministry of Agriculture once again just can't spend the money Obama gives it?
8. Obama assumes that the US is not fighting a broadbased insurgency in Afghanistan. This assumption is true in the sense that there is zero support for Taliban or Sunni extremists among Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and a majority of Pashtuns. But if we looked at the equivalent of counties in Helmand, Qandahar and some other Pashtun provinces, we might find substantial swathes of territory where the insurgency is in fact broadly based. Moreover, Pashtun guerrillas can count on a certain amount of sympathy from other Pashtuns in their struggle against foreign forces-- including the 20-some million Pashtuns of Pakistan. If the issue is not the" cancer" of extremist ideology, but a form of religious Pashtun anti-imperialism, then that could be the basis for a broadly based movement.
9. Obama maintains that the"Taliban" have in recent years made common cause with"al-Qaeda" in seeking to overturn the Karzai government. But although the Taliban control 10-15% of Afghanistan, there are no al-Qaeda operatives to speak of in Afghanistan. That does not sound like much of a common cause. By confusing the Taliban with al-Qaeda, and by confusing the Taliban with other Pashtun guerrilla groups such as Hikmatyar's Hizb-i Islami, Obama risks making the struggle a black and white one, whereas it has strong regional, ethnic and nationalist overtones (see 8 above). Black and white struggles are much more difficult to negotiate to a settlement.
10. The biggest threat of derailment comes from an American public facing 17 percent true unemployment and a collapsing economy who are being told we need to spend an extra $30 billion to fight less than 100 al-Qaeda guys in the mountains of Afghanistan, even after the National Security Adviser admitted that they are not a security threat to the US.
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 13:03
SOURCE: Informed Comment (12-1-09)
President Barack Obama's commitment to "finish the job" in Afghanistan by sending 55,000 US troops to that country (counting the 21,000 he dispatched last winter shortly after being inaugurated) depends heavily on a hope of building up an Afghan government and army over to which the US can eventually turn control. But one of the questions we seldom hear any detail about concerns the country's governmental capacity. Does the government function? Can it deliver services?
As might be expected, governmental capacity is low, but here are some specifics. Months after the controversial presidential election that many Afghans consider stolen, there is no cabinet, and parliament is threatening to go on recess before confirming a new one because the president is unconstitutionally late in presenting the names. There are grave suspicions that some past and present cabinet members have engaged in the embezzlement of substantial sums of money. There is little parliamentary oversight. Almost no one bothers to attend the parliamentary sessions. The cabinet ministries are unable to spend the money allocated to them on things like education and rural development, and actually spent less in absolute terms last year than they did in the previous two years. Only half of the development projects for which money was allotted were even begun last year, and none was completed.
In other words, we can say of the Afghanistan government what Gertrude Stein said of her inability in later life to find her childhood home in Oakland, Ca.: "There is no there there."
President Hamid Karzai pleaded with the lower house of parliament on Monday to delay its winter recess by one week so that he can present his final cabinet nominees for confirmation, according to Pajhwok. Speaker of the House Yunus Qanuni sniffed that the parliament was responsible for setting its own recess, implying that he would not be strong-armed by the president. (Qanuni is a Tajik formerly a leader of the Northern Alliance, and has long been a rival of Karzai, running against him in 2004; he was a counselor to Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in the August 20 presidential election).
But Qanuni seems to have been one of the few members of parliament who cared one way or another. Nader Khan Katawazai, an MP from Paktika, complained that only 30 of the 238 MPs attended Monday's session. This is the government we are being asked to prop up with blood and treasure? Only 30 legislators bothered to come in to work?
By law, Karzai was supposed to have presented his cabinet to parliament within two weeks of being sworn in (which was two weeks ago). Since he has been insisting he was the winner since early September, he should have had time to put together a cabinet. But he presumably had to make some substitutions once he admitted that three of his current cabinet members were under investigation for corruption. (12 other former cabinet members, having fled the country, were also being looked at for criminal prosecution.
That is the government that the US has been propping up for the last 8 years. 15 cabinet members that Interpol is looking into?
Even the non-corrupt ministers may not be confirmed by the parliament because of substantial dissatisfaction with the inability of many of them to spend the development money their ministries had in the kitty.
Seven ministries spent only 40% of their allocated budget in the past year, according to Pajhwok News. And, the sums expended on development projects declined 10% last year from the two previous years!
Let's repeat that. The Afghanistan government presides over the fifth poorest country in the world. It has millions of dollars in aid to spend for the betterment of its constituents. But it actually managed to spend less on these tasks this year than in previous years, despite having more money.
The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development expended 10 billion Afghanis from its allocation of 22 billion Afghanis;
The Public Works Ministry spent 6 billion of 18 billion Afghanis;
The Water and Energy Ministry 9 billion of 17.6 billion Afghanis;
The Education Ministry 3 billion Afg of 8 billion Afghanis;
The Public Health Ministry: 2.3 billion out of 5.5 billion Afghanis;
The Finance Ministry spent 3.5 billion out of 5.5 billion Afghanis;
The Agriculture Ministry spent 1.5 billion out of three billion Afghanis.
The chairman of the National Economy Commission, Siddiq Ahmad Usmani, continued that 500 development projects were supposed to have been pursued last year with the 111 bn. Afgh. budget allotment, but in fact, "But work on only 263 of 500 was carried out which are yet to be completed,"
The low governmental capacity of the Afghan state bodes ill indeed for Obama's success in Afghanistan. He will be constantly looking for a reliable partner. He will find shifting quicksand.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, whom no one is accusing of apathy or inefficiency, have begun deploying donkey suicide bombs against foreign troops.
Posted on: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 00:53
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (11-30-09)
On one level, the vote to ban minarets in Switzerland is a triviality. The constitutional amendment does not ban mosques, it does not pull down the country's four existing minarets, nor does touch the practice of Islam in Switzerland or bear on the many issues concerning Swiss Muslims. In all likelihood, the political establishment in Bern, which abominates the amendment, will find some way to overturn it.
But on another level, the 57.5 to 42.5 percent vote represents a possible turning point for European Islam, one comparable to the Rushdie affair of 1989. That a large majority of those Swiss who voted on Sunday explicitly expressed anti-Islamic sentiments potentially legitimates such sentiments across Europe and opens the way for others to follow suit. That it was the usually quiet, low-profile, un-newsworthy, politically boring, neutral Swiss who suddenly roared their fears about Islam only enhances their votes' impact.
Nov. 30, 2009 update: Responding to this analysis, Matthew Yglesias of ThinkProgress writes that I see it as "a good thing" that the Swiss explicitly expressed anti-Islamic sentiments. I do? I did not write that. My intent in this brief comment was objectively to note the impact of the Swiss vote, not to condemn or condone it. Re-read my words and that is what you find there, with no hint of my personal view about the vote being "a good thing" or even a bad thing.
Comment: Yglesias' manimpulation of my words fits into a long and ignoble tradition in which Leftists distort my words or my intent. I collected some of the most egregious examples at "Mangled by Leftists and Islamists."
Posted on: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 03:25
SOURCE: Informed Comment (11-30-09)
Switzerland on Sunday voted by 58 percent in favor of banning minarets.
This campaign poster was banned for being racist, but apparently the goal of the poster, now that is all right.
Swissinfo surveys the headlines in Switzerland Monday morning and finds that the press there universally condemned and expressed dismay at Sunday's vote. Editors expressed consternation at the inevitable tarnishing of Switzerland's image and worried about the consequences. Will there be boycotts? Sanctions? Appeals to the European Court of Human Rights?
I can anticipate right now arguments to excuse this outbreak of bigotry in the Alps that will be advanced by our own fringe Right, of Neoconservatives and those who think, without daring saying it, that"white culture" is superior to all other world civilizations and deserves to dominate or wipe the others out.
The first is that it is only natural that white, Christian Europeans should be afraid of being swamped by people adhering to an alien, non-European religion.
Switzerland is said to be 5 percent Muslim, and of course this proportion is a recent phenomenon there and so unsettling to some. But Islam is not new to Europe. Parts of what is now Spain were Muslim for 700 years, and much of the eastern stretches of what is now the European Union were ruled by Muslims for centuries and had significant Muslim populations. Cordoba and Sarajevo are not in Asia or Latin America. They are in Europe. And they are cities formed in the bosom of Muslim civilization.
The European city of Cordoba in the medieval period has been described thusly:
' For centuries, Cordoba used to be the jewel of Europe, which dazzled visitors from the North. Visitors marveled at what seemed to them an extraordinary general prosperity; one could travel for ten miles by the light of street lamps, and along an uninterrupted series of buildings. The city is said to have had then 200,000 houses, 600 mosques, and 900 public baths. Over the quiet Guadalquivir Arab engineers threw a great stone bridge of seventeen arches, each fifty spans in width. One of the earliest undertakings of Abd al-Rahman I was an aqueduct that brought to Cordova an abundance of fresh water for homes, gardens, fountains, and baths.'
So if the Swiss think that Islam is alien to Europe, then they are thinking of a rather small Europe, not the Europe that now actually exists. Minarets dotted Cordoba. The Arnaudia mosque in Banja Luca dates back to the 1400s; it was destroyed along with dozens of others by fanatics in the civil war that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
As for the likely comeback,that Muslims came to Europe from the 700s of the Common Era as conquerors, unlike Christianity, actually both were conquering state religions. It was the conversion of an emperor that gave a favored position to Christianity in Europe, which was a small minority on the continent at the time. And Charlemagne forcibly imposed Christianity on the German tribes up to the Elbe. In the cases both of European Christianity and European Islam, there were many willing converts among the ordinary folk, who thrilled to itinerant preachers or beautiful chanting.
Others will allege that Muslims do not grant freedom of religion to Christians in their midst. First of all, this allegation is not true if we look at the full range of the countries where the 1.5 billion Muslims live. Among the nearly 60 Muslim-majority states in the world, only one, Saudi Arabia, forbids the building of churches. Does Switzerland really want to be like Saudi Arabia?
Here is a Western Christian description of the situation of Christians in Syria:
' In Syria, as in all other Arab countries of the Middle East except Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion is guaranteed in law . . . We should like to point out too that in Syria and in several other countries of the region, Christian churches benefit from free water and electricity supplies, are exempt from several types of tax and can seek building permission for new churches (in Syria, land for these buildings are granted by the State) or repair existing ones.
It should be noted too that there are Christian members of Parliament and of government in Syria and other countries, sometimes in a fixed number (as in Lebanon and Jordan.)
Finally, we note that a new personal statute was promulgated on 18 June 2006 for the various Christian Churches found in Syria, which purposely and verbatim repeats most of the rules of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches promulgated by Pope John Paul II. '
That is, in Muslim-majority Syria, the government actually grants land to Christians for the building of churches, along with free water and electricity. Christians have their own personal status legal code, straight from the Vatican. (It is because Christians have their own law in the Middle East, backed by the state, that Muslims in the West are puzzled as to why they cannot practice their personal status code.) Christians have freedom of religion, though there are sensitivities about attempts to convert others (as there are everywhere in the Middle East, including Israel). And Christians are represented in the legislature. With Switzerland's 5 percent Muslim population, how many Muslim members of parliament does it have?
It will also be alleged that in Egypt some clergymen gave fatwas or legal opinions that building churches is a sin, and it will be argued that Christians have been attacked by Muslims in Upper Egypt.
These arguments are fallacies. You cannot compare the behavior of some Muslim fanatics in rural Egypt to the laws and ideals of the Swiss Republic. We have to look at Egyptian law and policy.
The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Seminary, the foremost center of Sunni Muslim learning, 'added in statements carried by Egyptian newspaper Youm al-Saba’a that Muslims can make voluntary contributions to build churches, pointing out that the church is a house for “worshipping and tolerance.” ' He condemned the fundamentalist Muslims for saying church-building is sinful. And Egypt has lots of churches, including new Presbyterian ones, following John Calvin who I believe lived in . . . Geneva. Aout 6 percent of the population is Christian.
The other problem with excusing Switzerland with reference to Muslims' own imperfect adherence to human rights ideals is that two wrongs don't make a right. The bigotted Right doesn't even have the moral insight of kindergartners if that is the sort of argument they advance. The International Declaration of Human Rights was crafted with the participation of Pakistan, a Muslim country; the global contemporary rights regime is imperfectly adhered to by all countries-- it is a claim on the world's behavior, something we must all strive for. If the Swiss stepped back from it, they stepped back in absolute terms. It doesn't help us get to global human rights to say that is o.k. because others are also failing to live up to the Declaration.
The other Wahhabi state besides Saudi Arabia, Qatar, has allowed the building of Christian churches. But they are not allowed to have steeples or bells. This policy is a mirror image to that of the Swiss. So Switzerland, after centuries of striving for civilization and enlightenment, has just about reached the same level of tolerance as that exhibited by a small Gulf Wahhabi country, the people of which were mostly Bedouins only a hundred years ago.
Posted on: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 03:22
SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer (11-30-09)
Do you want to "hook up"? If you're like lots of American high school and college students, the answer is "yes."
But when you look at their reasons, you'll find an enormous gender divide. Girls have sex to score a boyfriend, and boys simply want to score. And the boys are winning.
That explains the overwhelming success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books for teenagers as well as the most recent film adaptation, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which sold a whopping $140 million in tickets during its first weekend in North American theaters. Eighty percent of the audience was female, and half of it was under 21.
Why are young American women flocking to a movie in which the hero - Edward, a hunky dude who also happens to be a vampire - refuses to have sex with the heroine, a loner named Bella, lest he harm her with his supernatural powers? The answer lies in a University of Missouri survey of 4,000 Twilight fans, to be published next year. And it's not that complicated: Girls want love, not just sex.
"This series represents a backlash to the hooking-up culture," explained one author of the Missouri study. "Twilight has been a way for young girls to acknowledge their emerging sexuality without actually having sex."
In other words, it's a female fantasy. It's also every boy's nightmare. After all, the hooking-up deal works pretty well for guys: lots of sex without all that messy relationship stuff. What's not to like?
On this subject, I've heard plenty of my 40- and 50-something male peers complain that they were born several decades too early. But I have never, ever heard a woman my age say she would prefer today's hooking-up system to the dating rituals we grew up with.
Remember dating? As quaint as it might sound today, dating required a guy to get to know a girl before he did anything else. The goal might have been the same - indeed, it often was the same - but he had to follow several other distinct steps to get there.
That was far better for girls, who could decide if they liked a guy before physical intimacy began. Now, the order is reversed: you hook up first, then decide if you want to "go out."
And it turns out - surprise, surprise - that most guys don't want the second part, so long as they get the first. "They're in college; they don't want a girlfriend," one female college student told La Salle sociologist Kathleen Bogle. They just want to have sex.
Why do women put up with this? As Bogle explains in her indispensable 2008 book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, part of the reason is that they overestimate the frequency of sex among their peers. Nationwide, about one-quarter of college students remain virgins. So when women presume that "everybody is doing it" - and that they have to do it, too - they're wrong.
Moreover, "it" can mean many different things. In one survey at a large Northeastern university, 78 percent of students said they had "hooked up" at least once. But among those students, only 38 percent reported that the encounter involved sexual intercourse.
No matter what you call it, though, many women feel that they must engage in a certain degree of sexual activity to have any hope of finding a boyfriend - and, down the road, a husband. They certainly understand that most hookups will not lead to the type of relationship they really want. But they just don't see any other way to get there.
It doesn't help that women outnumber men on most college campuses, with about 80 men for every 100 women. So men are the scarcer resource, and they get to make the rules. And they know it, too.
"No real commitment, no real feelings involved - this is like a guy's paradise," one male student told Bogle. "I mean, this is what guys have been wanting for many, many years. And women have always resisted, but now they are going along with it."
He was right. Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, women have made enormous strides in education, income, and professional achievement. But when it comes to sex itself, it's still a man's world.
And that's why young women are celebrating an imaginary one in the movies, where the guy actually loves the girl before he makes love to her.
Even if he is a vampire.
Posted on: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 - 03:22