Thursday, December 31, 2009

Escalation in Afghanistan--the plot thickens

Escalation in Afghanistan – the plot thickens.

Pres. Obama's plan to send 3000 more soldiers to Afghanistan made absolutely no sense as presented. As many observers note, there are about 100 members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. With US troops reaching levels of 100,000, we have 1000 soldiers for every Al Quaeda member. That seems a bit excessive.

The recent attempt by the Nigerian Abdulmutallab to blow up an airplane underlines that Afghanistan is not the only center, if a center at all, of Al Queada. Abdulmutallab claims to have received training and the explosives in Yemen.

Moreover, Obama bin Laden is believed to be in Pakistan although our government claims not to know where.

The war in Afghanistan is the wrong war in the wrong place. So what is going on?
Information has emerged lately that makes this whole undertaking a little less bizarre but also much more frightening. Apparently the number of drone bombings of targets in Pakistan has gone up sharply in the last year of Obama's presidency. We are rapidly escalating a secret war in a country that is supposedly our ally. In addition, there are reports of up to 100,000 mercenaries working for Blackwater (now called Xe) in Pakistan doing jobs for the CIA and for the military. Both Blackwater and the US Defense Department denies this, of course, but the evidence for this shadow army in Pakistan seems fairly reliable.

In a recent issue of The Nation, Jeremy Cahill reports:

At a covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, "snatch and grabs" of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan, an investigation by The Nation has found. The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help direct a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes, according to a well-placed source within the US military intelligence apparatus.

This means that in escalating the war in Afghanistan we are also seriously escalating a secret war in Pakistan. Of the two parts of that campaign, only the escalation of drone bombings have been mentioned in the news. Again and again these attacks kill civilians. Claims to have killed leaders of the Taliban are often denied later on. But there seems little doubt that the bombings harm ordinary Pakistanis and Afghans and thus do terrible damage to the cause of bringing peace to these two countries.

Much less is know about the “snatch and grabs.” Who is being taken and what happens to them? It is not clear, given the paucity of information that these covert operations will serve to make Pakistan more peaceful and do damage to Al Quaeda there.

In that context, the thinking might be that unless Afghanistan is pacified, Taliban and Al Quaeda will simply move from Pakistan to Afghanistan if they are pressed too hard by the US forces in Pakistan. So it turns out that the escalation in Afghanistan may have to do as much with denying Al Quaeda and Taliban in Pakistan a place to hide as it has to do with Afghanistan proper.
But will escalation in Afghanistan and intensifying a secret war in Pakistan help to bring peace to the region and weaken Al Quaeda?

The people of Pakistan are understandably extremely resentful of US bombing and killing civilians in their country. The American presence in that country is becoming rapidly difficult to defend. The government we are propping up has always been weak. As America becomes more and more hated, the government's future becomes ever darker. Stubbornly committed to solving our problems in the Mideast by military means – in spite of Obama's public commitment to diplomacy – we may well increase chaos in the region.

As we begin to see a bit more clearly what the American plan in Afghanistan and Pakistan is, it becomes even more frightening because it becomes more and more obvious that the end result may very well be disastrous for the people in the region as well as for us. The very fragile societies and governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan may through our efforts fall part completely and drown in civil war. The escalation of war in Afghanistan and, secretly, in Pakistan may well hasten what we fear most: chaos and lawlessness in the region.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Peace On Earth, Good Will to All?

Peace on earth and goodwill to All?

It is the Christmas season. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus who enjoined all to love their neighbor as they love themselves.

That seems familiar, simple and heartwarming until I read this story: “ Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government - but he doesn't believe in God. His political opponents say that's a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they've got the North Carolina Constitution on their side. “

The good people of Asheville and of North Carolina no doubt are also getting ready to celebrate the birth of their Savior. But they interpret Jesus' message rather narrowly: they believe that Jesus told them to love all those who were like them, but to execrate all those who held different opinions.

Was that Jesus' message? Did he say: love all those who are just like you and whom you would have no problem loving? Or did he say love all those whom you find really hard to love?

Christians call Jesus the Prince of Peace. The people of Asheville, North Carolina remind us to ask ourselves and them: peace with whom? Peace with family and friends, or peace with strangers we distrust—with cheats, rapists and murderers? With people who worship different gods, with people who hate us, with terrorists?

Remember that Jesus spent his time with the people most despised in Jewish society of his day, with prostitutes, with tax collectors (tax collectors worked for the Romans, the enemy occupying force in the Jewish land), with simple folk who work with their hands.

Before we allow the Christmas season to dissolve the message of Jesus into fuzzy sentimentalism, we should listen to the question from Asheville: who are the neighbors Jesus told us to love?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Afghan War is NOT a Just War

The Afghan War is NOT a Just War..

In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama once again showed himself for the intelligent, brave, and upstanding man he is. He boldly sets out to face the contradiction of receiving a peace prize while trying to bring the Iraq war to an end and escalating the war in Afghanistan. He refuses to plead that he inherited these wars and, instead, unflinchingly defends just wars, in general, and the Afghanistan war in particular as one such just war.

President Obama is keenly aware of the ambiguities in world politics – of having to wage war and kill in order to save lives and provide security, of having to use force in order to defend freedom. The president here points to a deep and frightening truth about human lives and human actors. We are all of us violent when it serves our self-interest, and that violence sometimes requires a violent response.

The president reaffirms that ambiguity over and over in his speech – until he comes to a description of the role our country has played in the world in the recent history. There he falls back on the rhetoric of the Bush years where we were always unambiguously good, and our opponents evil. There are no ambiguities in America's role in the world. According to Obama we are the champions of freedom and justice.

In his speech the president defends US military actions since World War II as helping “to underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of arms.” That is a surprising description of the years that saw us invade first Korea and then Vietnam, and then Grenada. None of these countries attacked us but they were considered a threat for being “communist” and therefore we attacked them.

By no stretch of the imagination has the United States always been on the side of justice and democracy. We instigated a military uprising against democratically elected President Allende in Chile and supported the military regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Chileans because the president they had elected was an avowed socialist. Fearful to the point of panic of anything that smacked of opposition to capitalism, we supported dictators who opposed communism and brought bloody wars to Korea and to Vietnam to prevent those countries from “going communist.” We have been comfortable with the absolute monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the autocratic regime in Egypt. For the longest time we supported the racist South African government that held Nelson Mandela in prison on Robbins Island.

It is not true that the United States has always been on the side of freedom. We have brought war and destruction to other countries motivated by our greed for oil, by fear of communism, and by the desire to open up countries to American investments.

President Obama insists on the relevance of moral judgment to international politics. I admire that. But the first requirement for justifying wars by reference to morality must be a very clear eyed appraisal of one's own choices in the international arena.. Self-deception is very tempting in the moral realm. But you cannot hope to do what is morally right in international affairs if you claim to be morally pure and innocent and condemn you opponents as morally evil. The first requirement for being serious about morality is an honest appraisal of your own actions.

President Obama calls the war in Afghanistan a just war. The first important mark of any just war is that it is a war of defense. The just warriors are defending themselves against unprovoked attacks. But are we the innocent victims in the struggle with terrorism?

Here we need to question the President's picture of the US foreign policy. The anger of many people in the Mid-East against America is not based on a total fantasy. We have made ourselves appear to be enemies of Muslims, of Arabs, of Persians and others in the region by supporting an authoritarian monarchy in Saudi Arabia and an authoritarian republic in Egypt, by supporting Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. For many years we supported a very repressive regime in Iran and undermined a democratic revolution there because it threatened Western access to Iran's oil. The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in1990 was given the green light by the US ambassador. We have been giving $3 billion a year to Israel and have pretty generally ignored the suffering of the Palestinians. In the Mid-East we have committed serious errors. We have have often pursued a narrowly self-interested policy and been disrespectful of the people of the region. We, too, are aggressors and cannot simply claim to have been innocently attacked.

It is not so clear that ours is a just war in Afghanistan. Yes, we have been attacked. But we have also attacked others, favored dictators and tyrants, and pursued our own national interests instead of seeking justice for all. For Obama to wrap his escalation of the Afghan war in the mantle of a just war of defense is remarkably dishonest for man of his integrity.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Can the Free Market Save the Planet?

Can the Free Market Save the Planet ?

This week 192 nations are meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark for a world climate summit. The task is to come to some international agreements for all nations to reduce their CO2 emissions. Failure to do so will raise the temperature around the globe, melt the ice caps at either poles, cause serious droughts over large areas which will bring with them famines due to food shortages. Increased CO2 in the atmosphere is a health hazard producing more children and adults suffering from asthma. The world is facing a series of major problems. Something needs to be done.

It is clear what that is: we need to reduce the amount of a number of gases—CO2 is only one of them--released into the atmosphere. This needs to be done by regulating emissions of factories, refineries, automobiles, airplanes, as well as land fills, stockyards and chicken hatcheries. We need to produce less of these noxious gases by reducing the activities that produce them. That is clear, very simple, but obviously very difficult to do.

Well, you will be happy to hear, that this financial geniuses who bought us the bubble in the 1990s and the sub prime mortgage bubble last year, have now developed a way of making it much easier to reduce pollution and to clean up the environment. It is called “carbon trading” or more popularly “cap and trade.”

It seems like a wonderful project. The government of any given country sets limits to permissible pollution and over the years those limits become lower and lower. In this way pollution will be reduced substantially over a number of years. That is the “cap” part of “cap and trade.” The trading part seems similarly simple. The government gives different industries permits to produce a certain amount of pollution. If a company succeeds in reducing air pollution levels below required levels, they will not use up all their pollution permits and they can then sell those permits to someone else who has trouble meeting the expected limits of pollution. Since companies, so the story goes, make money selling their permits they have an incentive to lower their pollution below required levels. They also have an incentive to invent new, cheaper ways of reducing pollution because that will allow them to sell extra pollution permits and spend less money reducing pollution than their permits are worth. Once again everyone wins.

The trouble with that scheme is that it does not work. It has been tried for a number of years in Europe. There the companies who received free pollution permits from the government made out like bandits; pollution has not gone down but gas and other energy prices have gone up. The European cap and trade scheme turns out to be a boondoggle – good for polluters; bad for everyone else.

We can understand how that happens once we find out how people get pollution permits. In Europe, and also in the US, the government gives away a pollution permits free to certain industries. The government gives polluting industries the right to discharge noxious gases into the air for free. It is as if the government gave away broadcasting frequencies, or mining rights, or significant portions of public lands to private companies who were cronies of the government. The air into which CO2 is discharged belongs to all of us, but the government gives away for nothing the right to foul this air. In Europe, governments furious lobbied by industry, overestimated how many pollution permits should be given away. Industries had more permits than they needed to continue polluting as they had been and still could make extra money selling extra permits. At the same time, they claimed that lowering pollution was expensive--even though they did very little lowering--and passed extra cost on to consumers. The whole process was blatantly corrupt.

According to the Wall Street Journal “According to European Commission figures, emissions from the 27 member [European] states rose by 1.9% in the first three years of the regime. Following criticism, the caps for the period to 2012 were reduced for the majority of member states, but only to a little lower than actual emissions in 2005, and the evidence is that the recession is having a much more direct impact on emissions than the trading scheme (incidentally putting a lot of low-priced permits on the market)..”

There are other ways of getting pollution permits and they too undermine cap and trade. One can obtain pollution permits by what is called an “offset.” Planting trees is one offset because trees absorb CO2. Here is how this works: a company acquires a large tract of forest, bulldozes the trees in order to plant palm trees for palm oil production. The company is not penalized for bulldozing the forest but then applies for a carbon offset for planting palm trees. It can then sell these permits and make some money. But total carbon emissions have not been reduced.

Sometimes pollution is reduced due to declining industrial activity. In the 1990s the Russian economy was in total chaos. Industrial activity declined precipitously and Russia now has a bunch of pollution permits which it can sell. The same is happening in the United States where the current economic crisis has slowed down production and thus has given various companies pollution permits which they could get without cleaning up their industries or doing anything to combat global warming.

In this way pollution permits can be gained easily without doing anything. It cheapens pollution permits and that makes it easy for other companies to avoid cleaning up their production because they can just buy some reasonably cheap pollution permits.

But sometimes cap and trade seems to work. In the US we have had a cap and trade scheme to lower SO2 emissions--the source of acid rain. By all accounts that program has succeeded in lowering overall SO2 emissions from power plants in the US. But this success conceals one of the serious problems of cap and trade programs. They allow plants that lower their emissions more than required to sell some pollution permits to other plants that have difficulties lowering their emissions to required levels. Thus some plants may well increase their emissions as long as countrywide emissions go down.

But by its very nature, cap and trade has no effect to lower emissions of gases that are harmful to the people living near a power plant. SO2 is one of these gases. It causes asthma and other lung diseases to people living near the source of emissions. Since cap and trade only addresses overall levels of emissions it is compatible with increased emissions in some plants, thereby affecting populations living near the power plant. From the point of view of public health, cap and trade is a failure.

Why are governments, including our own, fully supporting cap and trade schemes? For the same reason that most of the bailout money went to save the big financial traders and banks who were behind the current economic crisis, while ordinary Americans who lost their houses and jobs receive very little help. The large financial houses have a hammerlock on the government; they get what they want because they have an army of lobbyists to make sure that they are first at the public trough. Cap and trade is obviously good for traders while, once again, ordinary citizens and future generations do not get what they need. But that is unfortunately not a big surprise. Even the Wall Street Journal, the voice of large business in the US, admits that “When push comes to shove, governments will always protect their national champions. The German government, for example, negotiated an easing of planned caps on emissions from cars to the advantage of manufacturers of higher-powered cars such as Mercedes-Benz and Porsche."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What were they thinking?

What were they thinking?

In his recent speech Pres. Obama announced that he will increase US forces in Afghanistan by close to 50%. He justified that decision by reminding us that in 2001 “Al Quaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan.” To be sure, but has he not heard that the Al Quaeda leadership has long since decamped to Pakistan? There are about 100 Al Quaeda left and we are increasing our military to 100,000 men and women in order to keep them from launching more terrorist attacks. 1000 Allied soldiers for every Al Quaeda? They must be supermen, to be sure.

It makes no sense.

But here is the real puzzle: Pres. Obama is very intelligent; so is his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Their advisers are equally able. They went through a three-month, extremely careful discussion before they adopted the current plan. On more than one occasion the President and his advisers spent 11 hours in meetings to discuss this decision. Why then have they made this incomprehensible decision?

One explanation offered for the President's decision has, once again, to do with oil. Large reserves of oil have been discovered north of Afghanistan, at the edges of the Caspian Sea, in Turkmenistan and Khazakstan. The only existing pipeline for this oil goes through Russia giving Russia control over the flow of oil. That is totally unacceptable. Since 1995 there have been plans to build a pipe line through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some people think the rush to pacify Afghanistan has little to do with the war on terrorism but, in reality, serves this pipeline project.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan to make it safe for an oil pipeline makes about as much sense as pacifying Afghanistan in order to make the US less vulnerable to Al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan. For many years to come Afghanistan is going to be a dangerous terrain for oil pipelines.

A second explanation of the escalation bases it on considerations of domestic US politics. Some recent work on the history of the Vietnam war argues that Lyndon Johnson's reluctance to give up on that war was mostly motivated by domestic policy considerations. When, in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took power in China a great hue and cry was started by right wing politicians about the government “losing” China. The State Department, they claimed, was riddled with communists. That story only died at the end of the red scare that Sen.Joe McCarthy orchestrated in the early 1950s. From this perspective, President Lyndon Johnson perhasps continued the Vietnam war, against the advice of his staff, because he was afraid the right-wing would attack him and the Democratic Party for “losing” Vietnam.

Similar considerations could be moving Pres. Obama. Perhaps he does not want to appear weak in the face of terrorist threats or indigenous insurgency in Afghanistan. Christian Parenti stated this view very bluntly: “The real purpose of these 30,000 soldiers is to make Obama look tough as he heads toward the next US presidential election.” Once again domestic political considerations would be playing an important role. But that, of course, does not justify the escalation. We would not want one American or Afghani to be harmed for the sake of protecting Democratic politicians from attacks by right wing Republicans.

A third explanation points to the President's conception of America's role in the world.

In 2007, then candidate Obama spoke about American leadership, how in the past America “led and lifted” the world and promised to renew that leadership. When, very recently, now Pres. Obama left for China he repeated his views about American leadership of the world. This idea may well be behind this escalation of the Afghan war.

The war begun eight years ago to destroy the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan has, so far, failed. The Taliban are gaining in strength; the devastation of the country is worse than ever. Does a leader give up when projects seem to fail? Failure is not a word in the leader's vocabulary; he does not accept defeat. Instead he goes back into the fray, redoubles his efforts and, as Obama keeps saying about Afghanistan, “finishes the job.” As leaders of the world, we Americans must finish the job we started – whatever the cost. According to the account of the deliberations in the New York Times “The more he [President Obama] learned about the consequences of failure, and the more he narrowed the mission, the more he gravitated toward a robust if temporary buildup.” Gen. McCrystal warned of “mission failure” and the President responded with the decision to escalate. When Vice-President Biden asked whether the Taliban were a threat to the US, the President responded: “I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan.” Withdrawal was never an option. Leaders always emerge as winners.

That image of ourselves as World Leaders-- more than any of the other motives discussed – seem to encourage the President and his advisors to escalate the Afghan war. But this explanation also fails. It does not justify sending one more soldier to Afghanistan.

Fortunate in inhabiting a fertile country with a population enriched generation after generation by enterprising and talented members of other peoples, the United States has become a very rich country. It has become, for that reason, a very powerful country. But being powerful is not the same as being a leader. The powerful are often bullies and we have frequently used our power to try to impose our will on other nations. The Korean War was costly for us and the Koreans. But Korea is still divided. We fought the Vietnam war in order to prevent the world from going communist. We lost that war but all the dire predictions about Asia going Communist turned out to be false. President Reagan invaded Grenada – a country he probably could not find on the map. The elder Bush bombed Panama City killing 1000 civilians. The younger Bush did untold harm to Iraq and to Afghanistan. We have not acted a leaders but as thugs and bullies. If President Obama wants to restore genuine leadership, he has to restrain the military and its inclination to solve all problems with bombs and bullets. He has to withdraw from Afghanistan as he is withdrawing from Iraq.

Escalating the war in Afghanistan will cause untold harm to people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will cause untold harm to our nation by perpetuating our role as world bully.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Illusory Security

Illusions of Security
President Obama has decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan. In his speech he was very clear about the purpose of that escalation: “I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11 and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.”
Many commentators have questioned whether the means chosen by the President are feasible: Will we be able, in a year and a half, to train an Afghan army and police force able to keep the Taliban in check? Will we be able to persuade the Afghani government to eschew corruption? Few people believe that these goals can be reached in less than 5 years--if ever.
But there is another question which is very rarely being addressed: has the President chosen the right means to enhance our security? The purpose of this escalation is to reduce the danger of further terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda. But is escalation in Afghanistan the best way of gaining greater security for ourselves and other Western nations?
There is general agreement that Osama bin Laden and his people are not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan--although the Pakistani government has recently denied that. Fighting in Afghanistan in order to reduce the power of Al Quaeda reminds one of the drunk who looks for his wallet under a streetlight. Someone asks him: 'Did you lose it here?' The drunk answers 'No, but this is where the light is.' We are trying to protect ourselves against Al Qaeda in a country where they have a very limited presence. Why fight the Taliban in Afghanistan if our enemy, Al Quaeda, is in neighboring Pakistan? The answer: Well we are not at war in Pakistan but in Afghanistan so we might just as well fight there.
This makes absolutely no sense.
The Taliban have some sort of complicated relationship to Al Qaeda. But they are not going to fly planes into buildings in the US – they do not have the capability. The Taliban in Afghanistan do not threaten the security of America. But since we can't catch Osama bin Laden and his staff, we make war against some of his friends and supporters.
That makes no sense either.
The government of Pakistan appears not at all happy with this plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. They fear that Taliban will flee from American attacks into Pakistan and thus bolster their presence where Bin Laden is now hiding out. Attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan will only strengthen them in Pakistan.
That will not make America more secure.
Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan. We do not have troops there but we are regularly launching bombing attacks on militants in the border regions. A while ago, these drone attacks managed to kill an Al Quaeda leader. But, as David Bromwich wrote in the Huffington Post,
“To assassinate one major operative, Baitullah Mehsud, as Jane Mayer showed in a recent article in the New Yorker, 16 strikes were necessary, over 14 months, killing a total of as many as 538 persons, of whom 200-300 were bystanders. What comes of the reputation of policemen in a crime-ridden neighborhood when they conduct themselves like that? And what makes anyone suppose the reaction will be less extreme when the policeman comes from another country? And yet, from the president's West Point speech, one would not guess that he has reflected what our mere presence in West Asia does to increase the enchantment of violent resistance and to heat the anger that turns into terrorists people who have lost parents, children, cousins, clansmen, and friends to the Americans. The total number of Muslims killed by Americans in revenge for the attacks of September 11th now numbers more than a hundred thousand. Of those, few were members of Al Qaeda, and few harbored any intention, for good or ill, toward the United States before we crossed the ocean as an occupying power.”
In the light of these horrendous civilian casualties, why would Afghanis not regard Americans a terrorists, just like Al Quaeda,--only much more deadly. Why would they not believe that we are just out to kill Muslims? Once they came to believe that, they would surely throw their sympathies and support to Al Quaeda, making us less secure.
Increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan and increasing American and NATIO firepower will increase the number of innocent civilian victims. Surely that will not “win the hearts and minds” of people in the Middle East for us. If anything, it will gain more supporters for terrorist attacks on us. It will not enhance out safety.
The means chosen by President Obama to increase our security are bound to have the opposite effect. They will leave us more vulnerable. The sooner we leave that part of the world, the sooner can reduce the threat of terrorist attacks.