Posted tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Whoa, Afghanistan, Really

December 12, 2019

The Washington Post has broken a tragic story, which is bound to elicit from those who were involved, “of course, everyone knew that”.  The story traces the US involvement in Afghanistan from the days shortly after 9/11 when the mission morphed from eliminating al Qaeda into nation building.  The story of how American policy tried to build a modern democracy, is not pretty and hardly heroic.  Rather, it is the tale of how national purpose drifted away from core values.

According to the Post, American Afghan policy has created a hugely corrupt culture, did not achieve stated goals including pacification.  The debacle began with George W Bush, continued with Barack Obama, and operates well with Donald Trump.  And even worse, there are officials who know about the corrupt practices and have been unable to do anything about the outcome,  As this unfolds, the Afghan scandal has the potential to ruin a great number of careers.

There is, however, another way to look at this government failure.  There is irony in that Bush and Obama were personally squeaky clean.  But both presided over organizations highly motivate to achieve goals.  Pacification of Afghanistan and the adoption of certain western values were key deliverables in the mind of American negotiators. What could go wrong?

How about trying to take a short cut, “money for results”, for example, money in exchange for human rights (as seen by the west), simple.  In theory the money was to buy arms, train militias, and build civil works projects, but in a wink, the local Afghans were also suppose to agree to certain human rights requests.

The Post reports that in addition Afghans learned that without the “grease” of money, nothing was needed to be done regardless whether the payer was the American Government or one Afghan doing business with another.

Does this learned behavior sound like the “art of the deal”?  “You do this for me, I’ll do that for you.”  Imagine, this dysfunctional behavior being witnessed in Afghanistan resulted from well intend US foreign policies under two different US Presidents, ostensibly for good intentions.  What might happen with a one-off, narcissistic President? 

The Iliad’s Lessons

November 21, 2019

There is a one person, 80 minute play titled “an ILIAD”** being performed in Philadelphia which makes one think.  The Iliad, written by Homer, is one of the oldest recorded plays dating back to 750 BCE.  “An ILIAD” closely follows the original version but has been adapted to modern language and expression.  The Philadelphia performance features a powerful presentation and goes further.

The Iliad covers the Trojan War where Greek armies lead by Agamemnon attempted to recapture Helen (the most beautiful woman in the world) who was kidnapped by Paris, son of the King of Troy.  the Greek gods play several roles but is not clear what there purposes were. The war boils down to “you took something without permission, I am coming to take it back regardless of the cost”.

The Greek Army contains thousands of warriors as well as Achilles, the greatest warrior of them all.  After a series of “why did this or that happen” and discovering no fresh answers to the questtion, “how can the Greeks continue to fighting for “Helen of Troy” after 9 years and untold numbers of dead Greeks, a final fight to the finish takes place between Achilles and Hector.  

Achilles vanquishes Hector and proceeds to drag the remains around the battle field rather than returning them to Hector’s father.  The point of all this is that the war was fought for dubious reasons, dragged out for no clear purpose, and even in victory, one side chose to keep heaping immense cruelty on the losers.

So what was Homer’s point?

The Philadelphia version sheds some light from a 21st century perspective.  Near the end, there is a recitation of all the major wars since the Trojan War up tp and including the current Afghanistan conflict.  With possibly the exception of World War II, none of the wars made sense for starting or prolonging.  The long list of conflicts seems to make sense only in the light of reaffirming man’s cruelty to man.  Noblemen make war, common people fight the war and pay the price with their lives.

Homer’s lesson seems to have fallen on deaf ears over the centuries since.  Post WWII, wars such as the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought in the larger context of “Communism versus Democracy” where Korea and Vietnam were surrogates for the perceived real enemies of China and Russia.  Afghanistan war was begun as “hot pursuit” of the Taliban and al Qaeda following 9/11.  But when Afghanistan turned into nation building, once again a conflict became a surrogate for something else, like stopping Islamic expansion.

Few other examples speak louder than the Iraq war in underlining that military conflict is normally a choice, not a necessity.  The Bush Administration cooked up a public rationale that Hussein’s regime was intent on building nuclear weapons and chose “regime change” as a cure.  Much has been speculated that invading and occupying Iraq was really about controlling oil, projecting American strength in the Middle East, and in the process reaping profits for political supporters from war supply contractors.  

The rationals for the combined Afghanistan and Iraq wars seem just as ridiculous as the Greeks 9 year war with Troy over a woman.  Once a war is begun, it is extremely difficult to shut it down.  The reconstruction of Europe post WWII offers a good example of how to deter future conflicts.  Investment in the vanquished followed by open trade where other European countries are mutually dependent upon the other European countries.

Brexit and “Make America Great Again” are counterproductive. Hmmm.


** an ILIAD by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare playing at the Arden Theater, Philadelphia, PA  


The Case For Afghanistan

November 24, 2014

President Obama has announced the complete withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Unfortunately it appears that one of the phased withdrawal steps due by January 2015 will not be met. The President has agreed to allow US troops to conduct further operations in coordination with Afghan forces. Hmmm.

The decision to withdraw completely almost assuredly will set up an analogous situation in Afghan as we have just seen in Iraq. The Taliban will gain ground and continually threaten major Afghan cities. If the US has withdrawn, its capability to confront Taliban forces will severely strained.

A bigger risk, however, will not be on the battle field but at home in the political world of the 2016 Presidential election. Once again, the GOP will label Democrats as soft on defense and ineffective as leaders. Hmmm.

Afghanistan represents a difficult piece of culture and geography. From the days of Alexander the Great, each successive invader has had difficulty deciding when to leave.  What’s in it for the US to remain?

One advantage, some say, if the US keeps a sustainable Afghan force, is this presence would require an overall military size helpful in responding to flare ups other places in the world. The support infrastructure to maintain an Army in Afghanistan could also support a more rapid deployment of US troops to other locations in Asia or the Middle East, for example. And with a growing Chinese presence and a rejuvenated Russia, maintaining US military strength is a strong argument.

We must be careful, however, if any of our political or military leaders suggests that staying in Afghanistan is necessary to complete the Afghan transition to democracy. While Afghanistan does not present the Middle East “Sunni-Shiite conflict”, Afghanistan presents its own set of obstacles.

Afghanistan is a relatively recent State which has been cobbled together from dozens of ethnically different groups. The idea that modern Afghanistan can be anything other than a loose confederation of tribes for the foreseeable future is just dreaming. Poverty, corruption, and tribal jealousies will rule the day. The reason to remain in Afghanistan does not include helping to birth a democracy.

The rub in the “being ready for other contingencies” argument is an statement the US cannot make publicly.  More to the point, it will not sell well on the Sunday talk shows.

Another damaging aspect will be the budgetary considerations. How can the US support a continued war while cutting domestic spending?

Former President Johnson once said he would not be the first US President to lose a war when referring to a Vietnam withdrawal. President Obama may see that same writing on his history wall.  While leaving Afghanistan is inevitable since connecting it to US national interests any longer is too much of a stretch, President Obama may be thinking, “not on my watch”.

The case for Afghanistan is for the Afghanis to decide. We went there in hot pursuit of al Qaeda and removed the Taliban government because they tolerated al Qaeda presence. It is not our position to tell the Afghan people what type of leaders they should have. If religious conservatives like the Taliban, so be it.

The risk, of course, will remain that ISIS or al Qaeda or some other look alike will return. But frankly, a residual force of 14,000 will not be much of a deterrent anyways.

What say Chuck Hagel?

Shameful And Irresponsible

July 29, 2014

This week we may see Congress step up and hit a single. To be clear, the bi-partisan VA fix bill is not a home run but in a Congress where rhetoric trumps commonsense or logic, the VA compromise bill has elements that make total sense, and at least count as a base hit..

What could have been so hard in finding this path forward?

The winning words, by Senator Bernie Sanders, were “I don’t care about the VA, I care about our veterans”.

Ever since President George W Bush sent American soldiers in Iraq (and thereby extended the stay in Afghanistan), the fundamental responsibilities a government has to its soldiers has been disregarded. Equipment inadequacies, shortages, and multiple/extended tours are incompatible with wars of choice.

Topping the list, however, was the decision to hold pat with the VA staffing, funding, and facilities even though Iraq and Afghanistan were sending home thousands of new patients. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations have stood silently by as one VA horror story after another has come to light.

Congress has done no better and arguably worse. Where was oversight? Wasting time on Benghazi while Veterans waited for an appointments. Hmmm.

Fixes to the VA shortage problem has been well known. The problem was how to fund the large spending increase necessary.

Shamefully, the GOP blocked all solutions unless offsetting cuts could be identified. Irresponsibly, Democrats did not embrace the notion that government spending can be cut through retirement of unneeded programs or retooling existing spending programs and extracting greater efficiency at lower expenditure levels.

A government that spends about $3 trillion each year must have ample opportunities to cut spending and then reinvest this money in new initiatives.

Regrettably, our Congress members have been more concerned about their supporters (read defense contractors, farm owners, and those receiving social safety net benefits). Veterans just weren’t high enough on the food chain to count.

It is unlikely the VA emergency fix will initiate a fundamental change in Congressional attitudes.  We must, instead, be satisfied with the good news that, at least for a while, Veterans will receive attention they deserve.

Dysfunction Begins With Thinking

June 5, 2014

Congress has been accused often of being a dysfunctional organization. Many times this dysfunction has been correlated with individual Congress members’ personal search for financial support. Other times, the dysfunction could be more associated with blind party loyalties.  American citizens’s needs, however, has been normally vague in Congressional action (or non-action).

The current brouhaha over the swap of 5 Taliban detainees for Sergeant Bowe Burgdahl has reinforced a third reason for Congressional dysfunction. Too many simply do not think.

President Obama has pointed out (in professorial tones) that the US military does not leave behind on the battle field any of its ranks if it is at all possible to recover them. Full stop.

This position has long been a core value of our military top command and represents nothing new or modified. What’s hard to understand about that?

“Well”, say the critics, “Bergdahl is a traitor”. Hmmm. What do these people think the words “we do not leave any US military” mean?

For those who might not argue about the Bergdahl repatriation, instead mount their high horse over the release of 5 former senior Taliban detainees. Some think 5 was too many and others think that anyone of them was too many. They infer these 5 will rejoin the Taliban and create havoc for the US.

The President has pointed out (again professorially) the nature of the agreement releasing these detainees (exile in Qatar for a year and a promise to not rejoin Taliban military operations).   There is of course always a chance the promises will not hold.

But think about it. Not releasing these detainees now begs the question “when”?

Our Constitution sets the standard of rule by law and prohibits indefinite detention (except in time of war). Guantanamo Detention Facilities represent internationally a dark smudge on the US reputation, and domestically, honesty with itself is missing.

Guantanamo represents a departure form American ideals and the potential onset of a two tier judicial system. It leaves open the possibility for future authorities to detain Americans indefinitely simply because they are charged with being a terrorist threat.

Congress members might be justified in holding the position that 5 was too many or the 5 individuals were the wrong 5, but they are irresponsible (and guilty of not thinking) if they do not have an equally clear position on how these 5 and the rest of the Guantanamo detainees are to be render a law based disposition of their status.

Dealing with the Guantanamo mess will require thinking and courage. Congress appears short on both qualities.

The War Industry

May 28, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama made it official and public. He announced that he was open to US troops remaining in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014 providing a “status of forces” treaty could be signed. The nominal 10,000 troops would continue a training mission and assist on fighting al Qaeda remnants.

A sigh of relief could almost be heard from the Pentagon. The President went on to say these troops would, however, be withdrawn by the end of 2016 and the US Afghan page would be over.

This sounded like vintage Obama negotiations. “Lay out your preferred position first and then let your opponents shoot at it”.

As with his Afghanistan “surge” where the President announced (reluctantly) a surge in troops in Afghanistan while at the same time announcing a troop reduction against a future time line, the President, in essence, said to his military and civilian hawks advisers, you get your way for this much time and then I get mine.

This morning the nay sayers were out in force questioning how anyone could set a date for withdrawal. “Why not wait and see what happens” these supporters of an indefinite Afghan presence are saying.

Certainly, there is a case to be made for staying longer. It’s called Iran and China, and maybe Russia. Keeping a presence with eyes and ears in Afghanistan would allow the US to react to any future unknown provocation.

Seem reasonable?

What we must not forget is the ability to react with the 10,000 troops will also be with other people’s children. The Bush era “chicken hawk” mentality never seemed to realize that their personal Vietnam War deferments which avoided for them military service, ought to have disqualified them from so easily sending others into harm’s way.

The utter foolishness which got us into Iraq and allowed the Afghan stay to extend so long is just what President Obama is trying to prevent. Those who point to dangerous possibilities in a dangerous world are not prophets, they are opportunists.

The world will never be without risks and imminent dangers in the eyes of those who favor a strong forceful US presence. Events of course could lead President Obama to revise his timetable.

While remaining longer in my opinion is undesirable, I would trust someone who was set on getting out to make that decision far more than one who recommended “an indefinite stay and only if the sun shined, getting out.”

A Strange World

May 4, 2014

At least 29 Muslims were killed this week in India’s northeast State of Assam. They were not members of the local tribe and the wrong religion to boot. How could there victims have picked the wrong God.

Thanks to todays New York Times, the following stories were made known.

In Indonesia, a local Muslim man spent almost two years in prison. Why? Because he professed to believe in no God. Hmmm. You are either with me or you are against me…

In Afghanistan, a young 18 year old woman who did not want to marry the person her parents had selected, was killed by her relatives. Her parents had video taped their permission for her to not marry the intended, but this did not seem to mean much.  Honor is something larger.

In the Vatican, a special commission is grappling with creating clear rules on how to deal with priest pedophiles. They were trying to make the rules on what to do when child abuse takes place. Hmmm. These church leaders were focusing on what happens after abuse, not how to prevent pedophiles from ever getting into the church priesthood in the first place.

The message in all these cases is alarmingly similar. In a large number of cases, religion has little or no relevance to how people lead their lives. An active supreme being, if that’s the god you choose. has ample opportunity to intervene yet seems to prefer not to. The watch maker god, on the other hand, if that’s your preference, has created some unfathomable behaviors to watch. Doesn’t seem like a wise watch maker.

Of course these incidents all involve human beings and display just a small scope of how inhumane man can be to fellow man. Some men choose to hide their aggression behind religion, other choose nationality or race, or tribal connection. When these terrible acts are called out, one is left being thankful there were no lions to feed or witches to burn, or any cannons that volley and thunder.