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Afghanistan: Endless War

In 2010, Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, vowed that the United States would be “totally out” of Afghanistan “come hell or high water, by 2014.” In 2014 Obama said that he would leave about 8,000 US troops there after all, and made an agreement with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, that extended their stay “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”

Donald Trump wasn’t having any of that. Back in 2013 he tweeted “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” But it looks like the generals have now got to him with what passes for military wisdom.

On Monday Trump announced that he would be sending more US troops to Afghanistan – probably around 4,000 – and that they would stay as long as necessary. He has a clever new strategy, too: “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.” (I bet George W. Bush and Barack Obama wish they had thought of that.)

There is a strong temptation at this point to haul out the hoary old line: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Trump is, indeed, proposing to do the same old things again, ostensibly in the hope of achieving different results.

Peak US troop strength in Afghanistan was 100,000 in 2010-11. If that did not deliver victory then, how likely is it that boosting US troop numbers from 8,500 to 12,500 will do it now?

Neither the Soviet Union nor the British empire at the height of its power were able to overcome Afghan resistance to a foreign military presence, and we now have sixteen years of evidence that the United States cannot do it either.

Both the British and the Russians were able to maintain a military presence in the country as long as they were willing to take the casualties that involved, but in neither case did the regimes they installed long survive their departure. Whatever their merits, those regimes were fatally tainted by their foreign sponsorship.

The United States now finds itself in precisely the same situation. Ashraf Ghani’s government is certainly not the worst that Afghanistan has had to endure, but it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan nationalists because it depends on foreign troops and foreign money.

Since those foreign troops dwindled from 140,000 in 2011 (including non-American troops from a dozen other Western countries) to only 13,400 now, the Afghan government has lost control of about 40 percent of the country. And the process is accelerating: one-third of that territory was lost in just the past year.

Helmand province, which Western troops took from from the Taliban in 2006-2010 at the cost of almost 600 deaths, is almost entirely back under Taliban control, and Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces are next. Even the capital, Kabul, for so long a bubble of safety, is now regularly targeted by suicide bombers: at least 150 killed in a massive blast in May, 20 more at a funeral in June, 35 more in a bus bombing in July.

So what would happen if the foreign troops all left and the Taliban became the government again, as they were in 1996-2001? Would the country become a breeding ground for terrorism? Would more plots like the 9/11 attacks be hatched there? Probably not.

The Taliban are essentially a nationalist group. Their extremely conservative take on Islam was not seen as a problem by Washington when they were fighting the Russians, and most rural Afghan males do not see it as a problem now. (Nobody asks the women.)

Most urban, educated Afghans are terrified of the Taliban’s return, of course, but they are a small fraction of the population. And many foreigners see the Taliban as the least bad alternative to the US-backed regime. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, said in early 2016: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”

What he meant was that the Taliban aren’t interested in foreign affairs at all. They do not dream of a world Islamic empire; they just want to run Afghanistan. Indeed, they are the main military rivals to the jihadis of Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are currently trying to establish a foothold in the country – and by and large they are winning those little private wars.

But what about 9/11? There is good reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden and his mostly Arab companions of al-Qaeda, then guests of the Taliban, did not warn their hosts before they carried out that atrocity, since it would clearly lead to a US invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Obviously, few of these considerations will have occurred to Donald Trump, but does that mean he really thinks he can win in Afghanistan? Not necessarily.

Maybe, like Obama, Trump has simply decided that he doesn’t want the inevitable collapse of the Western-backed regime in Afghanistan to happen on his watch. He’s just committing enough American troops to the country to kick it down the road a bit.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“Helmand…July”; and “The Taliban…women”)

Universal Basic Income

There’s a new idea that might be the solution to runaway populism. Well, it’s not that new, really – it has been kicking around in left-wing circles for a least a quarter-century – but it has suddenly gone mainstream. It’s called Universal Basic Income (UBI), and pilot programmes to see if it really works in practice are being launched this year in four different countries.

It’s populism that gave us Brexit in Britain and President Donald Trump in the United States. It could soon give us President Marine Le Pen in France. But the fundamental lie of populism is that it can “bring the jobs back”. It doesn’t even admit where they really went.

Indeed, in the 2016 presidential campaign in the United Statesneither candidate ever mentioned the ghost at the feast. Donald Trump promised to “bring the jobs back” from the foreign countries that had “stolen” them, mainly by ending free trade, while Hillary Clinton promised “a full-employment economy where everybody has enough to raise a family and live in dignity.” Neither of them ever mentioned automation.

This is curious, because the great killer of jobs throughout the developed world for the past two decades has been automation: computer-controlled machines replacing human workers.

Hundreds of thousand of ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) have replaced hundreds of thousands of human bank tellers. Seven million industrial jobs in the United States have been eliminated in the past 35 years by automation, while factory production has actually doubled. And the self-driving cars that are now being road-tested will eventually destroy most of the 4.5 million driving jobs – long-distance trucks, taxis, and delivery vans – in the USA.

I can watch what automation is doing in my own neighbourhood. There’s a big supermarket a five-minute walk from my house, and I’m in there almost every day to pick up something or other. Over the years I have got to know most of the people at the check-out counters, at least enough to chat a bit. And now the familiar faces are disappearing, one or more every month, to be replaced by automated self-checkout stations.

And don’t be fooled by the fantasy that computers create equal numbers of new jobs when they destroy old ones. When you lose your secure, well-paid job to a machine, you may end up with a minimum-wage MacJob if you are lucky, but you are just as likely to end up with no job at all.

It is the anger of millions of people in this situation that broke normal voting patterns and provided the extra votes that gave the Brexit campaign victory in last June’s referendum in Britain and made Donald Trump president in the US election in November. As automation continues to spread the anger (and the reckless lies of populist politicians) will only get worse.

The automation will continue to spread. The estimated impact over the next twenty years includes the loss of 47 percent of all existing jobs in the United States, 57 percent in Europe, and a stunning 77 percent of manufacturing jobs in China. That could mean a lot more anger, a lot more populism, and conceivably even the collapse of democracy.

It is also dawning on the owners and chief executive officers of major enterprises that if half the population are impoverished by long-term unemployment, they will not be able to buy the goods and services that the capitalist economies produce. That could lead to the collapse of their whole business model, so the right wing is now starting to look into UBI too.

The principle of UBI is that every citizen gets a basic income that allows them to maintain a decent standard of living WHETHER THEY ARE EMPLOYED OR NOT. They may also choose to work in order raise that standard of living, and that income would be taxed (probably quite heavily), but it would still be possible to get rich. This is about saving capitalism, not ending it.

Why do it this way, rather than just giving the unemployed some money? Because that is humiliating for them, and the humiliation feeds the anger. If everybody gets it, there is no shame in taking it.

Where would the money to fund UBI come from? Part would come from ending all existing government social payments: if you are getting UBI, you don’t need unemployment pay or an old-age pension. But heavy taxes on financial services and on automated factories and services would certainly be needed as well.

The biggest question is how many people would still choose to work if everybody was getting the Universal Basic Income. If 47 percent of today’s remaining jobs are being done by automated machines in 20 years’ time, then 53 percent of today’s jobs will still need to be done by people.

Finding the answer to that question is one of the main purposes of the new pilot programmes. They are getting underway this year in Canada (in the province of Ontario), in the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and in Finland. Others are being considered in Scotland and in Italy. Something big may be starting to happen.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“I can…at all”)