A peace movement begins in Afghanistan

Truthout has a report about a movement that started among peace-minded young people in central Afghanistan and that is beginning to attract followers elsewhere.  Here’s a quote:

In the United States, we may find it hard to believe that anything good can actually come out of Afghanistan, or we may have fallen into a trap of thinking that Afghans cannot accomplish anything useful without foreign aid and assistance. I confess that I struggle to live outside the shadow of this narrow-mindedness and ethno-centrism. Certainly, if the scope of our imaginations is limited by CNN and Fox News, we would not be likely to imagine an indigenous peace group forming in Bamiyan Province. But this is exactly what has happened.

More information is available here and here and here.



Tom Tomorrow, Today

A quote from General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Afghanistan.  As always, click on the picture to go to the original site:

A deal with the devil

Afghan boy dancing

Citizens of the United States of America and other countries that have armies stationed in Afghanistan may wonder what sort of Afghans have made themselves allies of the forces operating in our names.   An article by Kelly Beaucar Vlahos on antiwar.com sheds a great deal of light on this question.  Vlahos quotes Patrick Cockburn’s remark that “one reason Afghan villagers prefer to deal with the Taliban rather than the government security forces is that the latter have a habit of seizing their sons at checkpoints and sodomizing them.”  There’s a great deal more to it than that, unfortunately.  On 20 April, PBS’ documentary series Frontline will be airing a report called “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” which should bring this situation to broader notice in the States. 

The portrait Vlahos and others paint suggests that the USA and the other foreign armies are in such a weak position in Afghanistan that they could not remain there if they did not have the support of men who make a lifestyle of enslaving and raping children.  If true, that is not only a reason to call for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan, but also a reason to discard the notion of “humanitarian military intervention.”  Whatever evils we may begin a war intending to stop are likely to be dwarfed by the evils we will have to promote in order to succeed in that war.

Chronicles, January and February 2010

When I wonder what’s gone wrong with the USA in recent years, I often come back to the idea that many of my countrymen have succumbed to a sort of mass narcissism.  US news outlets and public figures seem to believe that they have; when any sort of anti-Americanism anywhere in the world makes news, few voices with a national audience dare to go into depth about what might drive people to act against the USA or its citizens.  It’s as if the American public could not tolerate any reference to itself except in the form of a continuous stream of unrestrained flattery. 

Thus the US media often depicts acts of violence against Americans, be they acts of war carried out by enemy combatants or acts of terrorism carried out by private individuals, as if they were not only unjustified, but unmotivated.  Since we are not to admit that there is anything about the USA that could possibly be seen as unattractive, we are not allowed to say that anyone could have a reason, even a bad reason, to attack Americans.  When Americans are attacked, therefore, the attacks appear in the news not as the deeds of people who are driven to respond to some or other event or policy that has angered them, but as things that exist independently of any sort of cause-and-effect.  In that way, the attacks are taken out of time and are presented to the public as entities that have always existed and will always exist.  Thus we have obsessive coverage of  security lapses, even very minor lapses such as the gate-crashers at the White House last year.  An attack might be lurking nearby, seeking an opportunity to occur.  We must therefore be ever more on guard against attacks, which means in practice that we must be ever more submissive to the demands of the security apparatus and its masters.  Mass narcissism thereby leads to mass degradation. 

The two most recent issues of ultra-conservative Chronicles magazine both contain pieces that challenge this narcissism.    Ted Galen Carpenter’s article in the February issue about US torture policies that took shape under the Bush/ Cheney administration and that continue under Obama and Biden cites reports that show those policies to be the main motivation for foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight Americans in the years after 2003.  It’s a shame Carpenter’s article isn’t online; the whole thing is a powerful indictment of torture, and of advocates in the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The January 2010 issue carries a column in which “paleolibertarian” Justin Raimondo says that his job as editor of antiwar.com is complicated by the fact that most of his readers and many of those who write for the site are on the political left.  He is often puzzled by his readers’ unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their own arguments.  So, “For years, opponents of endless military intervention in the Middle East have been warning that our actions will lead to ‘blowback,’ a term used by the CIA to indicate the old aphorism that ‘actions have consequences.'”  Thus far Raimondo and his readers are in agreement.  However, when Raimondo suggested in a recent antiwar.com column that Major Nidal Malik Hasan may have acted on behalf of al-Qaeda when he massacred fellow US soldiers at Fort Hood, he was deluged with harsh criticism.  Unwilling to see the shooting as the major’s attempt to retaliate for US policies that had killed his fellow Muslims, many fans of the site insisted that the attack was orchestrated by the US national security apparatus to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rebuild public support for the wars in Afghanistan.  The mainstream press, meanwhile, tried in those early days after the massacre to ignore Major Hasan’s religion and his record of vehement opposition to US Middle Eastern policy, instead peddling the theory that as a psychiatrist he “had, in effect, ‘caught post-traumatic stress disorder, the very affliction it was his job to ameliorate.  According to this theory, the warfare-induced stress experienced by his patients had rubbed off on Hasan to such an extent that he went ballistic.”  The PTSD-by-proxy theory may preserve our national narcissism, ascribing the attack to a cloud of mental illness that drifts from one person to another, giving us an excuse to dismiss any questions about what we as a people may have done to provoke it.  Raimondo is having none of it:

[T]he facts are these: Major Hasan was perfectly correct in stating that the United States is embarked on a war against Islam, and that no one who is a practicing Muslim can consider taking up arms against his fellows in this fight.  All pieties to the effect that we’re on the side of the “good” Muslims notwithstanding, the United States has been fighting what is essentially a religious war.  Is it an accident that we’re currently occupying two Muslim countries, and are threatening to make war on a third?

Of course, the September 11 attacks didn’t have to be the first shot in a “clash of civilizations,” as the famous phrase goes.  We could have treated Osama bin Laden and his crew the same way we treated the Mafia and other criminal gangs from the land of my ancestors:  not by invading Italy, but by targeting their leaders, tracking them down, and pursuing them relentlessly until they were all captured or killed.

Later in the same column:

The horror of my left-liberal readers at the arrival of blowback in the form of Major Hasan is understandable, but the denial of reality is self-defeating and, as I have shown, self-contradictory.  You can’t say a “civilizational” war is a bad idea because we’re not prepared to accept the consequences, and then, when the war commences, refuse to accept the consequences.  We do indeed have a “Muslim problem” in this country as a direct result of our crazed foreign policy.  That is the lesson of the Fort Hood massacre, and denial won’t get us anywhere. 

Raimondo goes on to draw further conclusions.  We can sustain “our crazed foreign policy” only if we adopt an equally crazed domestic policy, and create “Muslim-free zones” wherever there are potential targets for sabotage or terror attacks.  I suspect that Raimondo intends the construction “Muslim-free” to jolt readers by its similarity to the Nazis’ word Judenrein.  Nor does Raimondo see this nightmare scenario as an impossiblity: indeed, he declares that “Another attack on the scale of September 11 would effectively lead to the de facto abolition of the Constitution, the disappearance of liberalism, and the end of any hope that we can rein in our rulers in their quest to dash the American ship of state on the rocky shoals of empire.”  The very leaders who speak to us only in words of the sweetest flattery may be preparing us for a future of servitude.  The very media enterprises that treat us as if our sensibilities were too delicate to endure a word of criticism may be preparing themselves for a future under the direction of a ministry of propaganda.

How the US funds the Taliban

nation 30 november 2009Welcome to the wartime contracting bazaar in Afghanistan. It is a virtual carnival of improbable characters and shady connections, with former CIA officials and ex-military officers joining hands with former Taliban and mujahedeen to collect US government funds in the name of the war effort.

In this grotesque carnival, the US military’s contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes. It is an accepted fact of the military logistics operation in Afghanistan that the US government funds the very forces American troops are fighting. And it is a deadly irony, because these funds add up to a huge amount of money for the Taliban. “It’s a big part of their income,” one of the top Afghan government security officials told The Nation in an interview. In fact, US military officials in Kabul estimate that a minimum of 10 percent of the Pentagon’s logistics contracts–hundreds of millions of dollars–consists of payments to insurgents.

Understanding how this situation came to pass requires untangling two threads. The first is the insider dealing that determines who wins and who loses in Afghan business, and the second is the troubling mechanism by which “private security” ensures that the US supply convoys traveling these ancient trade routes aren’t ambushed by insurgents.

Read the article.

The Nation, 9 November 2009

nation 9 nov 09For me, the highlight of this issue was a review of Mary Beard‘s The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found.  Beard’s “down to earth portrait of Pompeii” is informed by her grasp of “the latest research in demography, the history of Roman politics, architecture, ancient economics, feminist and post-colonial studies.” 

The same issue includes a number of articles about the war in Afghanistan.  As the editors summarize this symposium:

The principal rationale for America’s expanding military commitment in Afghanistan is that a Taliban takeover there would directly threaten US security because it would again become a safe haven for Al Qaeda to plot attacks against the United States. But the essays by Stephen Walt and John Mueller strongly refute that assumption, pointing out that a Taliban victory would not necessarily mean a return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, and that in any case the strategic value of Afghanistan and Pakistan as base camps for Al Qaeda is greatly exaggerated and can be easily countered.

Similarly, proponents of sending more troops to Afghanistan argue that Taliban success would embolden global jihadists everywhere and destabilize Pakistan in particular. Yet, as the essays by Selig Harrison and Priya Satia show, this narrative does not fit the realities. While American policy-makers and Al Qaeda may think of this as a grand meta-struggle between the United States and global jihadism, many Taliban fighters are motivated by other factors: by traditional Pashtun resistance to foreign occupation; by internal ethnic politics, such as rebellion against the Tajik-dominated government of Hamid Karzai; or by anger over the loss of life resulting from American/NATO aerial attacks that have gone awry.

As for Pakistan, the essays by Manan Ahmed and Mosharraf Zaidi explain why the Taliban threat to Pakistan is not as serious as many assume, and why a newly democratic Pakistan has turned increasingly against Islamist extremists. As Ahmed and Zaidi suggest, Pakistanis are quite capable of defending their country–not for American interests but for their own reasons–and Pakistani stability is more likely to be threatened than enhanced by military escalation in Afghanistan.

And finally, Robert Dreyfuss offers an exit strategy: as it winds down its counterinsurgency, Washington should encourage an international Bonn II conference that would lead to a new national compact in Afghanistan.

Well, not quite “finally.”  The issue also includes a piece by Ann Jones about Afghan women.  Jones mentions groups like Feminist Majority that argue for a continued US troop presence in the name of Afghan women’s rights.  She mentions her own years of experience working with women in Afghanistan, and gives it as her assessment that “an unsentimental look at the record reveals that for all the fine talk of women’s rights since the US invasion, equal rights for Afghan women have been illusory all along, a polite feel-good fiction that helped to sell the American enterprise at home and cloak in respectability the misbegotten government we installed in Kabul.”  In light of the fiercely patriarchal Shi’ite Personal Status Law (the SPSL, “or as it became known in the Western press, the Marital Rape Law,”) she goes on to say that “From the point of view of women today, America’s friends and America’s enemies in Afghanistan are the same kind of guys.”  She is unimpressed by the number of women in the Afghan parliament:

But what about all the women parliamentarians so often cited as evidence of the progress of Afghan women? With 17 percent of the upper house and 27 percent of the lower–eighty-five women in all–you’d think they could have blocked the SPSL. But that didn’t happen, for many reasons. Many women parliamentarians are mere extensions of the warlords who financed their campaigns and tell them how to vote: always in opposition to women’s rights. Most non-Shiite women took little interest in the bill, believing that it applied only to the Shiite minority. Although Hazara women have long been the freest in the country and the most active in public life, some of them argued that it is better to have a bad law than none at all because, as one Hazara MP told me, “without a written law, men can do whatever they want.”

Jones sees little hope, and much tragic irony in the possibilities facing Afghanistan:

So there’s no point talking about how women and girls might be affected by the strategic military options remaining on Obama’s plate. None of them bode well for women. To send more troops is to send more violence. To withdraw is to invite the Taliban. To stay the same is not possible, now that Karzai has stolen the election in plain sight and made a mockery of American pretensions to an interest in anything but our own skin and our own pocketbook. But while men plan the onslaught of more men, it’s worth remembering what “normal life” once looked like in Afghanistan, well before the soldiers came. In the 1960s and ’70s, before the Soviet invasion–when half the country’s doctors, more than half the civil servants and three-quarters of the teachers were women–a peaceful Afghanistan advanced slowly into the modern world through the efforts of all its people. What changed all that was not only the violence of war but the accession to power of the most backward men in the country: first the Taliban, now the mullahs and mujahedeen of the fraudulent, corrupt, Western-designed government that stands in opposition to “normal life” as it is lived in the developed world and was once lived in their own country. What happens to women is not merely a “women’s issue”; it is the central issue of stability, development and durable peace. No nation can advance without women, and no enterprise that takes women off the table can come to much good.

Jones knows Afghanistan quite well; I know it not at all.  I can only hope that there is something left in the local culture of the seeds from which a relatively woman-friendly Afghanistan once grew, and that those seeds will again send up green shoots once foreign armies leave the country .

The American Conservative, October 2009

american conservative october 2009

The cover may suggest an alarmist piece about Pakistan.  The article actually in the issue, though, is precisely the opposite.  Granting that Pakistan is an important country that has very serious problems, it asserts that there is no chance that it will break up, fall into the hands of Osama bin Laden, or launch a nuclear attack.  If the USA sobers up and pursues a more realistic policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan might even make progress on its real problems.

Elsewhere in the issue, Andrew Bacevich quotes Cold Warrior Richard Pipes’ 1979 declaration to the effect that since Afghanistan is a place of no strategic importance, the Soviet invasion of that country must have been a step towards a goal elsewhere.  Bacevich agrees that Afghanistan was without strategic importance when Pipes said that, and says that it continues to be so.  Where he disagrees with Pipes is in his assessment of the rationality of the Soviet leadership of the 1979-1989 period, and indeed of the US leadership of today.  He claims that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan because they believed that showing power there would shore up their empire; in fact, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a significant factor in the eventual collapse of the USSR.  Likewise, America’s leaders want to persist in Afghanistan, not because of they have made any rational calculation indicating that they should, but because they are dare not make a calculation that might indicate that they should not.

This issue includes a piece by always-intriguing, highly eccentric writer Eve Tushnet.  Tushnet has a gift for the lapidary; she describes growing up in Washington, DC as one of very few white children in her neighborhood, albeit one “weird enough that my skin color was not one of the obvious targets of teasing.”  Recounting her childhood Halloweens, she writes that “A mask is above all an attempt to communicate, to create and reshape meaning over the silence of skin.”  Quite a provocative phrase, “the silence of skin.”  On a par with her line from 2008, “by religion, I mean an understanding of the nature of love.”


The American Conservative, 20 April 2009


humane-economyAn old, and possibly apocryphal, story anchors Dermot Quinn’s appreciation of twentieth century German-Swiss economist Wilhelm Röpke.   Röpke was walking along a road with Ludwig von Mises, the great champion of free-market economics.  The two saw a neighborhood garden in a crowded urban center.  Seeing land that was in high demand for residential and commercial development given over to an elaborate tangle of separate plots and shared irrigation,Mises sniffed that it was “a most inefficient way of producing vegetables.”  Perhaps so, said Röpke.  “But it is a most efficient way of producing human happiness.”  Röpke has attracted every label in economics, from socialist to free marketer.  None of those labels really fit Röpke, because they all classify thinkers by which answer they offer to questions about what sort of economic system allocates resources most efficiently.  These questions struck Röpke as absurd.  Though as a technical economist Röpke had few peers, his interests were always in human beings and their development, not in any of the fashionable abstractions of his time such as “The Economy” or “The Market” or “The State” or “The Proletarian Revolution” or “The Aryan Race.”     

Barack Obama was elected president with the votes of millions of Americans who had had enough of war.  Now that Mr O has announced plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and officials of his administration have suggested that they may expand the Afghan war into Pakistan, his antiwar supporters are hardly raising a peep.  This leads Justin Raimondo to ask “Was the Left antiwar or just anti-Bush?”  Raimondo started antiwar.com when President Bill Clinton ordered US forces to bomb Serbia in 1999.  At the same time, your humble correspondent was also active in the antiwar movement.  Like Raimondo, I was struck by the passivity with which the supposedly dovish members of the Democratic Party went along with that adventure.  I’d always been curious about the antiwar Right, ever since I was a little kid hearing my parents reminisce about how their staunchly Republican parents had opposed FDR’s military interventionism with the same fervor that they opposed his economic interventionism.  After 1999, I was convinced that the “Old Right” was indispensible to any effort to break America of its addiction to warfare. 

The “Deep Background” column is less pessimistic about Afghanistan, pointing out that while “the nation-building agenda” that Mr O has publicly espoused for Afghanistan “is unrealistic and likely unattainable, a security framework to facilitate the kind of limited political consensus that would permit American withdrawal might just be achievable.”  So, the grounds for hope is that the stated purposes of Mr O’s actions in Afghanistan are so patently absurd that they likely mask an unstated plan to withdraw American forces from the country. 

Peter Hitchens, whose brother is also a magazine journalist, worries that all is not well in the new South Africa.  President-designate Jacob Zuma’s fondness for the song “Bring Me My Machine Gun,” his closeness to the South African Communist Party, his refusal to be interviewed by journalists, his open practice of polygamy, his public boasts that he used to make a habit of beating homosexuals senseless, his apparent belief that HIV-AIDS is something that can be cured by a nice hot shower, and his former role as the defendant in a rape trial all combine to suggest to Hitchens that Zuma might be something less than the ideal leader for South Africa at this particular moment in its history.

The Nation, 9 March 2009

nation-9-march-2009Robert Dreyfuss looks at the regional elections held in Iraq on 31 January and finds good news.  A new alliance of Shi’a and Sunni groups is beginning to operate in Iraqi politics.  Soon, Dreyfuss hopes, this alliance will be strong enough to present itself as a genuinely nationalist bloc and to insist on an end to the US occupation. 

No such development is in sight in Afghanistan.  An editorial expresses the fear that the Obama plan to send more US troops to that country will make “Bush’s War” into Mr O’s very own. 

Katha Pollitt speaks up for free speech.   On the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwah against Salman Rushdie, she finds fault with fellow leftists whose only response to violent behavior by Muslims who have taken offense at speech labeled anti-Islamic is to “see these incidents as gratuitous provocations by insensitive Westerners” and to support restrictions on speech that amount to blasphemy laws.  She grants that many of the incidents that have generated violent responses in the Muslim world have indeed been gratuitous provocations by insensitive Westerners, and is happy to list extremists from other religious groups whose conduct has been every bit as deplorable as the worst we have seen from Khomeini and his coreligionists.  But:

Appeals to the hurt feelings of religious people are just a dodge to protect the antidemocratic and retrograde policies of religious states and organizations. We’re all adults; we have to live with unwelcome expression every day. What’s so special about religion that it should be uniquely cocooned? After all, nobody at the UN is suggesting that atheists should be protected from offense–let alone women, gays, leftists or other targets popular with the faithful. What about our feelings? How can it be logical to say that women can’t point out sexism in the Bible or the Koran but clerics can use those texts to declare women inferior, unclean and in need of male control? And what about all the abuses religions heap on one another as an integral part of their “faith”?

An essay about Israeli novelist David Grossman of course concerns itself chiefly with Grossman’s insights into the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict.  What sticks with me from the essay is this quote from Grossman about writing:

[Y]ears ago, reflecting on a story he was writing that featured a bitter, emotionally unstable protagonist, he described his desire to have the tale surprise him. “More than that, I want it to actually betray me,” he wrote.

To drag me by the hair, absolutely against my will, into the places that are most dangerous and most frightening for me. I want it to destabilize and dissolve all the comfortable defenses of my life. It must deconstruct me, my relations with my children, my wife, and my parents; with my country, with the society I live in, with my language.