Doctors Without Borders and War Without End

October 8, 2015

I heard an interview with John McCain this morning that was troubling. He was being asked about the situation in Afghanistan, and specifically about the bombing of a hospital staffed by Doctors Without Borders. Although the details of the incident are still unclear, some things are known, and it does not reflect well on our efforts there. The hospital was specifically targeted, and not the result of an errant bomb or miscalculation. The airstrike was requested by Afghan forces not receiving immediate fire from the hospital compound, and no American troops were being fired upon.

When asked about the incident, McCain responded that there were Taliban firing on troops “in the vicinity,” and when pressed for how close the fighting was taking place he simply said “they were in the city.” McCain denounced the description of the unjustified hospital bombing as a “war crime,” saying that if the Taliban had not entered Kunduz, then this “tragic event” would have never happened. His solution was sending more American troops to help train and assist Afghan government troops. When confronted with the fact that we had tens of thousands of troops training the Afghan army for over 12 years, and asked if the troops could ever be trained given the lack of success so far, he only responded that there may be a need for a permanent troop presence akin to what we have done in Post-WWII Europe.
I know men who have served in Afghanistan, two in particular who have served three or more deployments there. They tell me that Afghan troops (unlike Iraqi troops) do have a will to fight, but they are constrained by units segregated by ethnic and tribal identities. This creates mixed loyalties when these units are deployed in rival tribal areas. They are just as anxious to fight rival tribes as they are the Taliban. Speculation is that Afghan soldiers targeted the hospital to eliminate leaders of a rival clan, much the same as Gitmo was populated in part by innocent men who were falsely identified as Taliban by their ethnic rivals.
There is an even more compelling reason to doubt that any Afghan government, let alone army, could survive a U.S. withdrawal, and it is related to how the Taliban were able to capture Kunduz in the first place. The corruption of the Afghan government is so pervasive that residents of the city either stood by, or actually assisted the Taliban. It’s not that they want the Taliban as much as they want order and an end to corruption. Drug trade, sex trade, arms trade and demand for bribes for even the most trivial transactions is widespread. In other words, like Iraq and our long history of supporting many other unpopular and corrupt governments (e.g. Viet Nam, Nicaragua), we are on the wrong side of popular support. The widespread presence of American troops restrained the corruption of Afghan officials, just as we did in the post-Sadaam, Shia’ led Iraq. As the U.S. troops leave, corruption and ethnic violence becomes endemic.
In one sense, the nonsense of McCain did led to a valid point: without a permanent, significant American presence in Afghanistan, the country will collapse just as Iraq has. Only the most intransigent Neo-Con would advocate for a permanent presence, requiring an endless drain of resources and even more tragically, an endless stream of dead Americans not so much fighting terrorists, but supporting a corrupt, unpopular government.

Back to the Future in Iraq

August 12, 2014

We have bombed/invaded or otherwise initiated violent actions in Iraq 17 times in the last 24 years, starting with funding the coup that installed Saddam Hussein as dictator. This is hardly a record number of violent actions, especially compared to the ones we have committed in Latin America, but the scale of carnage is becoming worthy of historic note.

Now, President Obama is about to metaphorically ski down the Iraqi slopes again, claiming to be only doing the minimum to prevent genocide. On one side are the neo-con chicken-hawks who created the disaster we are now dealing with, arguing for another invasion. On the other side are the neo-isolationists who mid-wived the ascent of ISIS (ISIL), arguing for ignoring reality. It is remarkable that there seems to be no one anywhere in a policy making position who acknowledges the hopeless reality that is Iraq and the wider conflicts in the Middle East.

Dick Cheney, possibly the most celebrated war criminal at large, recently admitted that Bush-Cheney knew that social chaos would result when they overthrew Saddam Hussein. This is a remarkable comment, given their absolute failure to plan to preserve social order after the invasion and the profoundly ignorant policies that nurtured the rise of violent chaos. It is a crime of historic proportions, and we are only beginning to pay the price that over a million dead Iraqis have already experienced.

The entire Middle East is an artifact of European colonialism that created artificial countries with politically defined boundaries. The social reality of that area for millennia has been tribalism, not nationalism. The defining identity of people there is their tribe or their sect. The Caliphates briefly united the area under Islam, but the conversion never took and Islam is now as divisive a force as tribalism. Even Israel’s veneer of democracy is paper thin worn by the very reason of its existence: Chosen People in their Chosen Land.  The entire region is the tar pit of democracies.

Historically, only dictatorships have kept the area’s violent nature in check. There isn’t any proven political movement that is their salvation, and every military action we undertake virtually ensures the need for future violence. These people hold blood grudges for centuries. There doesn’t even appear to be any economic salvation either. In our country, economic opportunities have helped transformed past divisions somewhat. We may still hate “those people,” but if we can make money from them, well then welcome! This is not the case in the Middle East, where, even on those rare occasions of economic prosperity, the tribal animus continues unabated.

It seems the best we can do is start to play the intransigent divisions to our advantage: paying them off to kill our enemies (a strategy that worked to end the Sunni insurgence after the invasion), or at least not come after us. A friend of mine has two sons who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and they both recount the same lesson: “They shoot at each other all day long until the Marines come along. Then they both shoot at the Marines until we are gone and go back to killing each other again.”

That is the only lesson we need to remember and base our policy on that.

Bergdahl and the Real Threat to Americans

June 18, 2014

Jon Stewart got it exactly right with his Daily Show routine on the conservative media mania over the Bergdahl exchange with Taliban leaders from Gitmo. He called it “Home is Where the Hate Is” encapsulating the hatred being expressed toward Sgt. Bergdahl and President Obama.

We’ve talked before about my feelings about Bergdahl (we don’t leave troops behind and we don’t convict people without a trial – well we aren’t supposed to), but let’s reflect for a moment on the men who were exchanged for his return. None of the men released has ever been associated with attacking the United States. The chief prosecutor of Gitmo detainees has said they weren’t even on his radar (in contrast, the driver of bin Laden was tried and convicted even though he never participated in any attack anywhere).

They were leaders of the Taliban who were Afghans fighting in Afghanistan, which makes them enemy combatants, not terrorists. They were bad guys no doubt, and I have no doubt there is a drone with their names on it, but no more evil than the hundreds of Vietnamese exchanged for our POWs, or any other enemy combatant in every war we have ever fought.

In contrast to these Taliban leaders who never attacked the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been documenting dozens of terrorist attacks on American soil from right wing groups. The most recent was the attack was the slaughter of police in Las Vegas by two white supremacists.

In fact, in the time that these Taliban leaders have been imprisoned in Gitmo since Bergdahl’s capture there have been no attacks on America by Taliban and at least 35 deaths of Americans by American right wing terrorists. If the chicken hawks in Congress were really concerned about our national security, then they would be going after right wing extremists.

I would be a lot more worried about the right winger next door than a Taliban in a cave 8,000 miles away. 

Déjà vu – All Over Again

December 4, 2009

I read an interesting excerpt from Mikhail Gorbachov’s autobiography regarding the period of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He recounted a meeting when the Army and the KGB were advising Soviet leader Brezhnev that 150,000 troops and brutal tactics were not subduing resistance and that the only military and politically feasible solution was to reinforce their occupation with an additional 100,000 troops and then withdraw after a year. Sound familiar?

I share the extreme disappointment of many people in Obama. It started with his economic policy that favored Wall St. at the expense of working men and women (or should I say unemployed men and women?), worsened with his decisions to keep most, if not all, Bush era policies on domestic spying and executive privilege. But the Afghanistan policy has convinced me that Obama is no change at all.
What are we doing in Afghanistan? Obama tells us that our national security depends on it (sound familiar?). How? Why? There are already more terrorist camps in Somalia than there ever were in Afghanistan, there are more al Qaeda in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. The threat of international terrorism wouldn’t exist at all except for the funding coming from Saudi Arabia. All of those countries are a far greater threat than Afghanistan.

Do you remember the helicopter shot down in Afghanistan last month killing at least 14 soldiers? They were on a mission to capture Taliban who were guarding a cache of money and opium. Guess who owned the money and opium? Karzai’s brother. And how was it that the Taliban had been alerted to the raid and were waiting for us?

Troops there can’t trust the Afghans beyond the last bribe – they literally have to pay Afghan soldiers cash every time in order to get them to go out on patrols.

Another senseless war, this time Obama’s war, and to think I helped him get elected.