Af-Pak: Obama’s War

3 04 2009

As Obama ups the war rhetoric and tries to rally support at NATO for war in Afghanistan Immanuel Wallerstein, a sociologist and world-systems scientist, assesses his motivations, the details of the situation and the potential situation in six months time.

Af-Pak is the new acronym the U.S. government has invented for Afghanistan-Pakistan. Its meaning is that there is a geopolitical concern of the United States in which the strategy that the United States wishes to pursue involves both countries simultaneously and they cannot be considered separately. The United States has emphasized this policy by appointing a single Special Representative to the two countries, Richard Holbrooke.

It was George W. Bush who sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And it was George W. Bush who initiated the policy of using U.S. drones to bomb sites in Paklstan. But, now that Barack Obama, after a “careful policy review,” has embraced both policies, it has become Barack Obama’s war. This comes as no enormous surprise since, during the presidential campaign, Obama indicated that he would do these things. Still, now he has done it.

This decision is likely to be seen in retrospect as Obama’s single biggest decision concerning U.S. foreign policy, one that will be noticed by future historians as imprinting its stamp on his reputation. And it is likely to be seen as well as his single biggest mistake. For, as Vice-President Biden apparently warned in the inner policy debate on the issue, it is likely to be a quagmire from which it will be as easy to disengage as the Vietnam war.

There are therefore two questions. Why did he do it? And what are likely to be the consequences during his term of office?

Let us begin with his own explanation of why he did it. He said that “the situation is increasingly perilous,” that “the future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan,” and that “for the American people, [Pakistan’s] border region [with Afghanistan] has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

And why is it so dangerous? Quite simply, it is because it is a safe haven for al-Qaeda to “train terrorists” and to “plot attacks” – not only against Afghanistan and the United States but everywhere in the world. The fight against al-Qaeda is no longer called the “war on terrorism” but is hard to see the difference. Obama claims that the Bush administration had lost its “focus” and that he has now installed a “comprehensive, new strategy.” In short, Obama is going to do this better than Bush.

What then are the new elements? The United States will send more troops to Afghanistan – 17,000 combat troops and 4000 trainers of the Afghan forces. It will send more money. It proposes to give Pakistan $1.5 billion a year for five years to “build schools and roads and hospitals.” It proposes to send “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to Afghanistan to “develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.” In short, Obama says that he believes that “a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

However, implicitly unlike Bush, this will not be a “blank check” to the two governments. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” As for Afghanistan, the United States “will seek a new compact with the Afghan government that cracks down on corrupt behavior.” The Afghan and Pakistani governments are pleased to be getting the new resources. They haven’t said that they will meet Obama’s conditions. And Obama hasn’t said what he will do if the two governments don’t meet his conditions.

As for the way forward, Obama asserts that “there will be no peace without reconciliation with former enemies.” Reconciliation? Well, not with the “uncompromising core of the Taliban,” or with al-Qaeda, but with those Taliban “who’ve taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price.” To do this, Obama wants assistance. He proposes to create a new Contact Group that will include not only “our NATO allies” but also “the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran, Russia, India and China.”

The most striking aspect of this major commitment is how little enthusiasm it has evoked around the world. In the United States, it has been applauded by the remnants of the neo-cons and McCain. So far, other politicians and the press have been reserved. Iran, Russia, India, and China have not exactly jumped on the bandwagon. They are particularly cool about the idea of reconciliation with so-called moderate Taliban. And both the Guardian and McClatchy report that the Taliban themselves have reacted by creating unity within their hitherto divided ranks – presumably the opposite of what Obama is trying to achieve.

So, where will we probably be six months from now? There will be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the U.S. commanders will probably say that the 21,000 Obama is sending are not enough. There will be further withdrawals of NATO troops from there – a repeat of the Iraq scenario. There will be further, perhaps more extensive, bombings in Pakistan, and consequently even more intensive anti-American sentiments throughout the country. The Pakistani government will not be moving against the Taliban for at least three reasons. The still very influential ISI component of the Pakistani army actually supports the Taliban. The rest of the army is conflicted and in any case probably too weak to do the job. The government will not really press them to do more because it will only thereby strengthen its main rival party which opposes such action and the result may be another army coup.

In short, the “clear and focused goal” that Obama proposes – “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future” – will probably be further than ever from accomplishment. The question is what can Obama do then? He can “stay the course” (shades of Rumsfeld in Iraq), constantly escalate the troop commitment, while changing the local political leadership (shades of Kennedy/Johnson and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam), or he can turn tail and pull out (as the United States finally did in Vietnam). He is not going to be cheered for any of these choices.

I have the impression that Obama thinks that his speech left him some wiggle room. I think he will find out rather how few choices he will have that are palatable. I think therefore he made a big, probably irreparable, mistake.

Source: agenceglobal.com





Baghdad in a time of cholera

24 03 2009




A solution to the horror of the global trade in drugs?

22 03 2009

Anti-drugs policy is an absolute disaster. For decades governments have struggled to control the international trade in drugs. Prohibition has had consequences that are the polar opposite of its intentions. Policy-makers are hellbent on a regressive and ineffective approach that has done nothing to stem escalating violence in underdeveloped countries, the creation of a narco-state in Africa and rising drug consumption in western countries. The 52nd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna has just agreed to maintain this approach. The Economist, regardless of its ideological positions, has published four articles on “illegal” drugs. Here’s one of them.

A hundred years ago a group of foreign diplomats gathered in Shanghai for the first-ever international effort to ban trade in a narcotic drug. On February 26th 1909 they agreed to set up the International Opium Commission—just a few decades after Britain had fought a war with China to assert its right to peddle the stuff. Many other bans of mood-altering drugs have followed. In 1998 the UN General Assembly committed member countries to achieving a “drug-free world” and to “eliminating or significantly reducing” the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008.

That is the kind of promise politicians love to make. It assuages the sense of moral panic that has been the handmaiden of prohibition for a century. It is intended to reassure the parents of teenagers across the world. Yet it is a hugely irresponsible promise, because it cannot be fulfilled.

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. That is why The Economist continues to believe that the least bad policy is to legalise drugs.

“Least bad” does not mean good. Legalisation, though clearly better for producer countries, would bring (different) risks to consumer countries. As we outline below, many vulnerable drug-takers would suffer. But in our view, more would gain.

The evidence of failure

Nowadays the UN Office on Drugs and Crime no longer talks about a drug-free world. Its boast is that the drug market has “stabilised”, meaning that more than 200m people, or almost 5% of the world’s adult population, still take illegal drugs—roughly the same proportion as a decade ago. (Like most purported drug facts, this one is just an educated guess: evidential rigour is another casualty of illegality.) The production of cocaine and opium is probably about the same as it was a decade ago; that of cannabis is higher. Consumption of cocaine has declined gradually in the United States from its peak in the early 1980s, but the path is uneven (it remains higher than in the mid-1990s), and it is rising in many places, including Europe.

This is not for want of effort. The United States alone spends some $40 billion each year on trying to eliminate the supply of drugs. It arrests 1.5m of its citizens each year for drug offences, locking up half a million of them; tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars. In the developing world blood is being shed at an astonishing rate. In Mexico more than 800 policemen and soldiers have been killed since December 2006 (and the annual overall death toll is running at over 6,000). This week yet another leader of a troubled drug-ridden country—Guinea Bissau—was assassinated.

Yet prohibition itself vitiates the efforts of the drug warriors. The price of an illegal substance is determined more by the cost of distribution than of production. Take cocaine: the mark-up between coca field and consumer is more than a hundredfold. Even if dumping weedkiller on the crops of peasant farmers quadruples the local price of coca leaves, this tends to have little impact on the street price, which is set mainly by the risk of getting cocaine into Europe or the United States.

Nowadays the drug warriors claim to seize close to half of all the cocaine that is produced. The street price in the United States does seem to have risen, and the purity seems to have fallen, over the past year. But it is not clear that drug demand drops when prices rise. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the drug business quickly adapts to market disruption. At best, effective repression merely forces it to shift production sites. Thus opium has moved from Turkey and Thailand to Myanmar and southern Afghanistan, where it undermines the West’s efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Al Capone, but on a global scale

Indeed, far from reducing crime, prohibition has fostered gangsterism on a scale that the world has never seen before. According to the UN’s perhaps inflated estimate, the illegal drug industry is worth some $320 billion a year. In the West it makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens (the current American president could easily have ended up in prison for his youthful experiments with “blow”). It also makes drugs more dangerous: addicts buy heavily adulterated cocaine and heroin; many use dirty needles to inject themselves, spreading HIV; the wretches who succumb to “crack” or “meth” are outside the law, with only their pushers to “treat” them. But it is countries in the emerging world that pay most of the price. Even a relatively developed democracy such as Mexico now finds itself in a life-or-death struggle against gangsters. American officials, including a former drug tsar, have publicly worried about having a “narco state” as their neighbour.

The failure of the drug war has led a few of its braver generals, especially from Europe and Latin America, to suggest shifting the focus from locking up people to public health and “harm reduction” (such as encouraging addicts to use clean needles). This approach would put more emphasis on public education and the treatment of addicts, and less on the harassment of peasants who grow coca and the punishment of consumers of “soft” drugs for personal use. That would be a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be adequately funded, and it does nothing to take organised crime out of the picture.

Legalisation would not only drive away the gangsters; it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public-health problem, which is how they ought to be treated. Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime is the central political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle. Plenty of American parents might accept that legalisation would be the right answer for the people of Latin America, Asia and Africa; they might even see its usefulness in the fight against terrorism. But their immediate fear would be for their own children.

That fear is based in large part on the presumption that more people would take drugs under a legal regime. That presumption may be wrong. There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer. Embarrassed drug warriors blame this on alleged cultural differences, but even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates. Legalisation might reduce both supply (pushers by definition push) and demand (part of that dangerous thrill would go). Nobody knows for certain. But it is hard to argue that sales of any product that is made cheaper, safer and more widely available would fall. Any honest proponent of legalisation would be wise to assume that drug-taking as a whole would rise.

There are two main reasons for arguing that prohibition should be scrapped all the same. The first is one of liberal principle. Although some illegal drugs are extremely dangerous to some people, most are not especially harmful. (Tobacco is more addictive than virtually all of them.) Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

What about addiction? That is partly covered by this first argument, as the harm involved is primarily visited upon the user. But addiction can also inflict misery on the families and especially the children of any addict, and involves wider social costs. That is why discouraging and treating addiction should be the priority for drug policy. Hence the second argument: legalisation offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designer drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take. The resources gained from tax and saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment to addicts—a way of making legalisation more politically palatable. The success of developed countries in stopping people smoking tobacco, which is similarly subject to tax and regulation, provides grounds for hope.

A calculated gamble, or another century of failure?

This newspaper first argued for legalisation 20 years ago (see article). Reviewing the evidence again (see article), prohibition seems even more harmful, especially for the poor and weak of the world. Legalisation would not drive gangsters completely out of drugs; as with alcohol and cigarettes, there would be taxes to avoid and rules to subvert. Nor would it automatically cure failed states like Afghanistan. Our solution is a messy one; but a century of manifest failure argues for trying it.

This article can found here, while one on the Mexican drug issue can be found here.

Check out the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, they are working to create a more humane drug control system.





Confidential NATO report reveals rise in civilian deaths from war in Afghanistan

17 02 2009

Wikileaks, a site that allows whistleblowers to anonymously post sensitive or confidential information exposing the activities of governments and corporations, has released a confidential NATO report on civilian deaths in Afghanistan. A Wikileaks press release states that:

“civilian deaths from the war in Afghanistan have increased by 46% over the past year…

The report [titled ‘Metrics Brief 2007 – 2008’] shows a dramatic escalation of the war and civil disorder. Coalition deaths increased by 35%, assassinations and kidnappings by 50% and attacks on the Kabul based Government of Hamid Karzai also more than doubled, rising a massive 119%.

The report highlights huge increases on attacks aimed at Coalition forces, including a 27 % increase in IED [Improvised Explosive Device] attacks, a 40%. rise in rifle and rocket fire and an increase in surface to air fire of 67%.

According to the report, outside of the capital Kabul only one in two families had access to even the most basic health care, and only one in two children had access to a school”

Futhermore:

“NATO is not likely to find Wikileaks’ source so readily. The site uses state of the art anonymization technologies, and the identity of its sources are protected under the Swedish Press Freedom Act.”

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Israeli F-16 bombers kill over a hundred Palestinians

27 12 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.





Nixon and Kissinger transcripts released

24 12 2008

The transcript of the April 15, 1972, phone conversation is one of over 15 500 documents in a unique, comprehensively-indexed set of the telephone conversations of Henry A. Kissinger—perhaps the most famous and controversial U.S. official of the second half of the 20th century. Unbeknownst to the rest of the U.S. government, Kissinger secretly taped his incoming and outgoing phone conversations and had his secretary transcribe them. After destroying the tapes, Kissinger took the transcripts with him when he left office in January 1977, claiming they were “private papers.” In 2001, the National Security Archive initiated legal proceedings to force the government to recover the telcons, and used the freedom of information act to obtain the declassification of most of them. After a three year project to catalogue and index the transcripts, which total over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection was published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest) this week.

The President/Mr. Kissinger 11:30 — April 15, 1972

Kissinger:

Well, they are just reporting it — it’s just the first wave there. It’s wave after wave of planes. You see, they can’t see the B-52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs…

Nixon:

That shock treatment of cracking them. The only thing I regret is that when we made this plan, we didn’t take out the power plants. The power plants, that can really demoralize a person.

“A casualty of Watergate”

Kissinger/Reston 4:30 p.m. — April 16 1975

Kissinger:

The big problem we have now is to change the world – there is nothing we can do about the world’s perception of Vietnam, but there is a lot we can do about changing the world’s perception about our reaction to it and that is our big problem right now.

Reston:

Well, sure but it is a perception of ours and what we are and what we stand for.

— —

If you havn’t seen it, there is an interesting documentary called “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” by Christopher Hitchens that examines evidence of Kissinger’s involvement with war crimes perpetrated in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor.





How biology explains war.

22 11 2008

Malcom Potts and Thomas Hayden have wirtten a book called ‘Sex and War’, it seems to present an interesting exploration into the evolution of humatiy’s violent tendencies for war. They also cover the issue of how population growth, resource use and violence intersect. This point relates well to my previous post on military expenditure and ecological footprints. I would like not to think of a barbarized future in which millions of people try to migrate to northern latitudes.sexandwar_5inch_bright_op_400_600

“Today’s most brutal wars are also the most primal. They are fought with machetes in West Africa, with fire and rape and fear in Darfur, and with suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices in Israel, Iraq, and elsewhere. But as horrifying as these conflicts are, they are not the greatest threat to our survival as a species. We humans are a frightening animal. Throughout our species’s existence, we have used each new technology we have developed to boost the destructive power of our ancient predisposition for killing members of our own species. From hands and teeth tearing at isolated individuals, to coordinated raids with clubs and bows and arrows, to pitched battles, prolonged sieges, and on into the age of firearms, the impulse has remained the same but as the efficiency of our weapons has increased, the consequences have grown ever more extreme…The evidence of history is that no advance which can be applied to the killing of other human beings goes unused. As scientific knowledge continues to explode, it would be naïve, to expect any different. As if we needed any more reasons to confront the role of warfare in our lives, the present supply and future potential of WMDs should convince us that the time has come once and for all to bring our long, violent history of warring against each other to an end.”

“…all team aggression, all raiding, and all wars are ultimately about resources, even if the combatants aren’t consciously aware of it. All life, in fact, at its most fundamental level is about competition for resources. Evolution has been driven by this competition for billions of years, and today’s animals, plants, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi all exist because they competed successfully with their rivals in the past. If we are to have any chance of avoiding the wars of tomorrow, as the destructive power of today’s weapons tells us we must, then we have to address this most basic of biological problems: The fact that as the population of any species grows, the pressure on its natural resources increases and competition becomes more severe…Biology has invented a million ways for plants and animals to compete with each other. A tree may compete for light by growing taller; early mammals competed with dinosaurs by only coming out at night; humans and chimpanzees—especially the males—compete for food, space, and reproductive opportunities by fighting with each other. Human wars may come wrapped in a veneer of religion or political philosophy, but the battle for resources is usually just below the surface…In World War II, the need for land and resources was expressed as Hitler’s concept of lebensraum, or “living space.” “The aim [of] the efforts and sacrifices of the German people in this war,” he wrote, “must be to win territory in the East for the German people.” The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they knew they had to destroy the American Pacific fleet if they were to access the Indonesian oil they needed to supply their industries.”

“The population of Rwanda was two million people in 1950, and on average each woman had almost 8 children. By 1994, average family size had fallen slightly to 6.2, but the population had quadrupled to almost eight million, resulting in a population density of 292 people per square kilometer, the highest in all of Africa. James Fairhead, an anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, adds an economic dimension to the analysis. Preceding the Rwanda genocide, Fairhead points out, agricultural land prices had reached an astronomical $4,000 per hectare in a country where many people lived on less than $500 a year. “Land,” Fairhead concludes, “is worth fighting for and defending.” Tragically, the fighting which took place in 1994 left between 500,000 and one million dead. It was cast as an ethnic conflict, and senseless. Once its roots in resource competition are laid bare, however, the violent extermination of an identifiable outgroup takes on the all-too familiar logic of team aggression.”

“For billions of years, evolution has been driven by competition caused by the simple fact that, left unchecked, all living things can reproduce faster than their environment can sustain. Our population growth today is largely unchecked by hunger, disease, or predators, and it is highly likely that our numbers and industrial demands have already exceeded the environment’s capacity to support them. Mathias Wackernagel in California, Norman Myers in England, and others calculate that we may have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity as long ago as 1975. According to these calculations, we already need a planet 20 percent larger than the one we have. Such estimates are difficult to make and open to criticism. But it doesn’t take much more than an open set of eyes to realize that current human population growth and economic expansion are going to be impossible to sustain in the long term. competition for resources is about to increase markedly.”

Check Wired.com for more.