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Imperfect Afghanistan

“We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it’s not America’s responsibility to make it one,” said President Barack Obama last May. No, it isn’t, and Afghanistan is a strikingly imperfect society in almost every respect: politics, economy, security and human rights. But it isn’t entirely a lost cause, either.

President Hamid Karzai, who was given the job of running Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001 and subsequently won two deeply suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, finally left office on Monday, although he didn’t move very far. (His newly built private home backs onto the presidential palace.) On the way out, he took one last opportunity to bite the hand that fed him for so long.

“The war in Afghanistan is to the benefit of foreigners,” he said. “Afghans on both sides are the sacrificial lambs and victims of this war.” The US ambassador, James Cunningham, said that “his remarks, which were uncalled for,…dishonour the huge sacrifices Americans have made here,” but they were, of course, true.

Karzai’s remarks, though undiplomatic, are just common sense. The United States did not invade the country to bring democracy, prosperity and feminism to the long-suffering Afghan people. It did so because some of the senior planners of the 9/11 attacks had been allowed to set up camps there by members of the Taliban regime who shared their religious ideology.

You could argue (and I would) that luring the US military into the quagmire of a long guerilla war in Afghanistan that would drive millions of Muslims into the arms of al-Qaeda was precisely what Osama bin Laden was hoping to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. The United States simply fell into the strategic trap that he laid.

Even so, and despite all the rapidly changing reasons for “staying the course” in Afghanistan that Washington deployed in later years, the original and abiding motive in Washington was the perception, accurate or not, that who rules Afghanistan is a matter of great importance for the national security of the United States.

Over 1,400 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan (together with 400 British soldiers, 150 Canadians, and sundry others), and they all basically died for a particular US official vision of how American security might be best be assured. How else could the 13-year US military commitment in Afghanistan possibly be justified to the American people?

As to whether the long occupation was also in Afghanistan’s interest, that depends very much on the stability and success of the two-headed potential monster of a government that is now being created in Kabul.

Karzai has handed over the reins of power to two very different men, after five months of bitter disagreement over which one of them had really won last April’s presidential election. It was not as blatantly rigged as either of the two elections that maintained Karzai in the presidency, but it was still pretty dodgy.

In the first round of voting, when there were eleven candidates, the leader was Abdullah Abdullah, with 45 percent of the vote, and the runner-up was Ashraf Ghani, with only 31 percent. In the second round, Abdullah Abdullah’s vote actually dropped two points to 43 percent, while Ashraf Ghani’s almost doubled to 56 percent. The age of miracles truly is not past.

Even more suspiciously, the number of people voting in some of the districts that supported Ashraf Ghani tripled between the first and second rounds of voting. So Abdullah Abdullah cried foul, and the inauguration of a new president was endlessly postponed while the ballots cast were “audited” by an electoral commission that had been chosen by Hamid Karzai.

There was never going to be a clear answer to the question of who really won the election, and so after months of drift and delay a deal was struck. Ashraf Ghani, a former senior official at the World Bank, will be president. Abdullah Abdullah, a former resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and later foreign minister under Karzai, will nominate a “chief executive officer” who will act more or less as prime minister.

It is, in other words, a traditional Afghan carve-up, with a proportional slice of power for every one of the country’s ethnic groups. Ghani will ensure that Pashtuns get the biggest share of the good jobs, and look after the Uzbeks as well. Abdullah will take care of the Tajiks and Hazaras. But compared to your average Afghan warlord or Taliban fanatic, both men look pretty good.

Indeed, Afghanistan’s government and nascent democratic system might actually survive and prove to be fit for purpose. After three decades of Russian and American occupation, a significant minority of Afghans (certainly several millions) have been exposed to many examples of how post-tribal societies run their affairs.

Afghanistan is still a tribal society, so this carve-up of power on an ethnic basis may be a better option for the country than winner-takes-all politics. And if the United States and its allies do not abruptly cut off the foreign aid that keeps the whole show on the road, post-occupation Afghanistan may at least avoid a rerun of the disastrous civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the sudden ending of Soviet subsidies in 1992.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Karzai’s…States”)

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

14 April 2014

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

Why would anyone believe Seymour Hersh? True, he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who broke the story of the massacre committed by US Army troops at My Lai in 1968 during the Vietnam War, and revealed the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US military police at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. But he’s getting old (77), and he’s a freelancer, and he won’t even disclose the name of his key informant.

Whereas the US government has hundreds of thousands of people working for it just gathering and analysing intelligence, and the American media are famed worldwide for their brave defence of the truth no matter what the cost. Besides, has the US government ever lied to you in the past?

So we obviously should not give much credence to Hersh’s most recent story. It alleges that the poison gas attack in Damascus last August that killed more than a thousand people, and almost triggered a massive US air attack on Syria, was not really carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime (which the US wants to overthrow)

It was, Hersh says, a false-flag operation carried out by the rebel Al-Nusra Front with the purpose of triggering an American attack on Assad. If you can believe that, you would probably also believe his allegation that it was the Turkish government, a US ally and NATO member, that gave the jihadi extremists of al-Nusra the chemicals to make sarin (nerve gas) and the training to carry out the mass attack in Damascus.

Hersh even says that it was General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told President Barack Obama just days before the American strikes on Syria were due to start that the evidence was not strong enough to justify an American attack on the Syrian regime.

The rest of the story we already know. Obama postponed the attack by deciding, quite suddenly, that he had to get Congressional support for it. Then he cancelled it entirely once the Russians gave him the face-saving alternative of getting Assad to hand over all of his chemical weapons for destruction. There is no chance of an American attack on Syria now. But could Hersh’s back-story be true?

Not one American paper or magazine was willing to print Hersh’s story, so it was finally published in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The US media are still studiously ignoring the story, and the Turkish government and various branches of the US government have naturally all issued indignant denials. But the official story never made any sense at all.
By last August it was clear that Assad’s regime would eventually win the civil war unless there was some radical change in the situation (like an American bombing campaign against it). So Assad’s survival depended on not giving the United States any reason to attack him.

Barack Obama had already said that any use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” and trigger an American attack. In mid-August there were United Nations inspectors in Damascus to look into two much smaller attacks earlier in 2013 that seemed to involve poison gas. And we are asked to believe that at that precise moment Assad thought it would be a neat idea to kill one or two thousand innocent civilians in the city with poison gas.

So who did it? The obvious question to ask was: Who stands to benefit from this attack? – and the answer was certainly not Assad. He would not have done this unless he was very stupid, and being wicked does not make you stupid. Whereas the rebels had every reason to do it, in order to suck American firepower in on their side.

But I must admit that it felt very lonely making this argument at the time. I had no evidence that al-Nusra, or any other rebel group, had carried out the attack. I just said that motives matter, and that Assad had no plausible motive for doing it. And of course I couldn’t say where the rebels would have got their chemical weapons from, if they did it. Hersh says: the Turks.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the past eleven years, has backed the Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war from the start, and he will be in deep trouble if they lose. They WILL lose, unless either Turkey or the United States comes to their aid militarily.  Erdogan would obviously rather have the US Air force do it rather than his own armed forces. So he had a good motive for giving the rebels the poison gas.

Hersh says that he has been told by a former senior official in the US Defense Intelligence Agency that that is what happened.  You can read the details on the website of the London Review of Books. And yes, he’s old, but that just means he has been getting it right about a lot of different things for a long time.

He’s just a freelancer, but that’s why people with a whistle to blow trust him to get the story out. And no, he hasn’t got confirmation from three separate named sources. That’s not how whistle-blowing works. But he is Seymour Hersh, and I strongly suspect that he is right.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 14. (“Not…all”; “But…Turks”; and “He’s right”)

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

25 November 2013

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to fierce Israeli criticism after the first round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month failed to reach a deal. Now the deal is done, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is even harsher in his condemnation of Kerry’s handiwork.

“Israel has many friends and allies,” said Netanyahu, “but when they’re mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out….What was achieved last night in Geneva (24 November) is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon.”

What he meant was that the interim agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But that right is already enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, and nobody ever thought that Iran was really going to renounce it. What was at issue was whether it would enrich its uranium to “weapons grade” – 90 percent pure – and make nuclear bombs.

The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union ensures that it will not, at least for the next six months. All uranium enrichment above 5 percent is to be halted, and Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched material – the potential feedstock for a “dash” to weapons-grade material – is to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment.

Iran is not to install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich material), and large numbers of the existing banks of centrifuges are to be left inoperable. Even Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium ( for use in nuclear power reactors) is to remain the same between now and the end of the six-month period. And there will be no further work done on the Arak reactor, which might give Iran plutonium, and thus a second route to a nuclear bomb.

Iran will also allow more intrusive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, including daily access to the key enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow. All it gets in return is $7 billion worth of relief (about $100 per Iranian) on the sanctions that are crippling its economy. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed – if it is – six months from now.

Iran can therefore make no further progress towards nuclear weapons while the detailed negotiations continue, if that is actually what Tehran ever had in mind. Yet Israeli officials are talking as if the United States has been both blind and stupid.

On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and the world’s self-delusion.” And Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, warned: “If in five years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning.”

This is so far over the top that you wonder whether the speakers even believe it themselves. Israel has talked itself into this obsession with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons project – Israeli sources have been warning that Iran is two years away from a bomb at regular intervals for the past twenty years – but the constant talk about it has also served to draw attention away from Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories.

Israel’s basic position is that the Iranian regime is entirely composed of evil terrorist fanatics who should never be allowed to have refined uranium of any sort. The only recourse is therefore to tighten the sanctions more and more until Iran’s entire economy and government crumble and a completely different sort of people emerge from somewhere to take over the country. No deal can be a good deal.

Israel’s leaders are dismayed that they can no longer keep their allies and friends pinned in this extreme position, but endlessly quoting the ravings of former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not enough. They would have to demonstrate that Iran actually intends to attack Israel, and they cannot. So eventually their allies just moved without them.

As Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid told “Time” magazine, “We’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” But the game is not over yet. Israel’s influence in the US Congress is still immense, and its Congressional allies are already talking about heaping more sanctions on Iran (in order to kill the deal, though they don’t admit that).

President Obama could veto those new sanctions, of course, but he will find it a lot harder to get Congress to revoke the existing sanctions if the final deal is done six months from now. That’s why Iran gets so little relief from sanctions now in return for its concessions: Obama needs more time to work on Congress. But Israel may still win this tug-of-war.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)

 

 

The US Government Is Not Broke

6 October 2013

The US Government Is Not Broke

By Gwynne Dyer

A salient feature of American “exceptionalism” is the belief that the United States can never be ordinary. If it is not the best, then it must be the worst. If it is not destined to dominate the world forever, then it is doomed to decline and decay.

This kind of thinking explains why much of the commentary in the United States about the recent “shut-down” of the US government, and also about the impending default on the national debt (due on 17 October), has started at hysterical and quickly geared up to apocalyptic. We Americans have lost the mandate of Heaven, and it will soon be raining frogs and blood.

So everybody take your tranquiliser of choice (mine’s a double scotch), and let’s consider what is actually going on here. The United States is the world’s oldest democratic country, with an 18th-century constitution that is bound to be an awkward fit for 21st-century politics. But that hasn’t stopped the United States from becoming the world’s biggest economy and its greatest power. Has something now gone fundamentally wrong?

The problem lies in Congress, specifically in the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority is refusing to pass the budget, and threatening not to raise the official debt ceiling either, unless President Barack Obama postpones the implementation of his bill extending medical care to all Americans.

The Affordable Care Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Obama almost four years ago. Last year it passed scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and was subsequently welcomed by a majority of the voters in the presidential election, so Obama is understandably refusing to yield to blackmail. But the House Republicans seem mysteriously unworried by the fact that the public blames them for the impending train wreck. Why?

Because 80 percent of the Republicans in the House of Representatives don’t have to worry about what the general public thinks. They represent Congressional districts that have been so shamelessly gerrymandered by state legislatures that it is almost impossible for anybody who is a Republican to lose an election there. National public opinion is no threat to them, whereas the views of their extremist Tea Party colleagues are a potentially lethal danger.

You can’t gerrymander the Senate; every senator’s “district” is the entire state he or she represents. State legislatures controlled by the Democrats also gerrymander congressional districts to create safe seats for their own party, but there is no organised extremist group in the Democratic Party that will try to destroy elected members of their own party who do not toe the ideological line. Whereas in the Republican Party, there is.

Republicans seeking reelection to the House of Representatives may not have to worry about their Democratic opponents, but they certainly have to fear the Tea Party. If it decides to mount a challenge to an incumbent in the Republican primary elections, the far-right challenger will be lavishly funded by the Tea Party’s wealthy supporters, and that may mark the end of the incumbent’s political career.

So the Republicans in the House of Representatives, even those generally open to compromise, are keeping their heads down for fear of angering the Tea Party. That means it is possible (though not probable) that the October 17th deadline will be missed, and the US government will be forced to default on its debt. How bad would that be?

Very bad, according to a US Treasury spokesperson. “Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, US interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world.” And it might rain frogs and blood.

Or maybe not. There would certainly be turmoil in the markets: many people would lose money, and some would gain. But it would not be a repeat of the crash of 2009, when it was suddenly understood that huge amounts of the mortgage debt held by banks could never be repaid. The US government can still pay its debts; it just has to get Congress’s permission first. And the markets, while prone to panic, are not completely stupid.

 

Nor is the US Constitution fundamentally broken. It always requires a fair degree of compromise between the various branches of the government in order to work smoothly, and at most times in history that cooperation has been forthcoming. The current paralysis is due mainly to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts that makes members of the House of Representatives less afraid of public opinion than of the views of their own party’s hard-liners.

It wouldn’t hurt to put some controls on election spending as well, so that rich ideologues had less influence over the political process. But that is merely desirable; ending the gerrymandering is absolutely essential. It will take time, but this is a problem that can be fixed. And in the meantime, the US government is not really going broke.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“You can’t…there is”)