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The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight




Quote of the half-century: Captain Ted L. Shipman, American intelligence officer, “Only the fear of force gets results. It’s the Asian mind. It’s completely different than the Western mind… Look — they’re a thousand years behind us in this place [Vietnam], and we’re trying to get them up to our level.” (From Jonathan Schell, The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War, DaCapo Press, p. 112)


Laugh or cry department


Okay, let me lodge a small complaint. The Bush administration is making mincemeat of my writing plans. Yesterday’s Pentagon gambit was a classic — but nothing I was planning to write about. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz issued a “directive” that, “for the protection of the essential security interests of the United States,” no contracts are to go to enemy nations France, Germany, and Russia. An actual memorandum. As the New York Times’ correspondent Douglas Jehl commented on its front page Dec. 10, — and it was a comment — “The document does not spell out a rationale for its claim that excluding those three countries was necessary to protect American national security interests.”


I mean, really. And then one day later, the implementation of the policy is at least briefly halted (almost as quickly as policy reversals are being serially announced in Baghdad). After an instant outcry abroad and at home, according to Reuters, 12/10 “The Pentagon… delayed the issue of $18.6 billion in U.S. tenders to rebuild Iraq amid criticism over the exclusion from bidding of firms from France, Germany, Russia and other war opponents” due to “questions being addressed by procurement experts.” Ah, those little questions. Like Paul, baby, how could you?


In the meantime, foreign governments are, I suspect, having a fine old time of it. I mean, Germany, France, Russia, it wasn’t as if they didn’t know they were going to get the dirty end of the Iraq reconstruction stick. Bechtel, Halliburton… they don’t sound French or Russian to me. The actual “coalition,” after all, is a group of large American corporations tightly linked to the Pentagon and heavy financial contributors all to Bush administration coffers. Nobody else was ever going to get much, not even the “allies” in Iraq.


But Wolfowitz made it public. He issued an edict. And it was a classic. According to the Times, he wrote, “Every effort must be made to expand international cooperation in Iraq… Limiting competition for prime contracts will encourage the expansion of international cooperation in Iraq and future efforts.” That was a line worthy of the days before our great victory in Iraq when we were elbowing countries like Mexico, Costa Rica and Fiji for support at the UN. Then, it was classic imperial politics. Now, it’s straight out of Comedy Central. And the evil foreigners treated it as such. According to the Washington Post (“War Opponents Denounce U.S. Rules on Iraq Contracts,” 12/10):


“Reacting with anger and disbelief, some of the affected governments warned that the move could create problems for efforts to rebuild Iraq, restructure its foreign debt and patch up strained relations between Europe and the United States.

“France questioned legality of the ban, Germany called it ‘unacceptable,’ and Russia indicated it would take a harder line against writing off Iraqi debt. Canada, which has pledged about $225 million for reconstruction in Iraq and has sent troops to Afghanistan, threatened to withhold funding for Iraq… French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said France and its partners in the European Union were studying the ban to determine whether it violates international rules governing competition for public works projects. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said his country is owed $8 billion by Iraq and does not plan to write off that debt. The Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said the decision contradicted earlier promises by President Bush.”

James Baker, Papa’s friend and Bush family fixer, must really be looking forward to boarding that plane assigned to him Monday and hightailing it over to Europe to work out the Iraqi debt burden with the same group of Europeans. They’re even threatening to take this to the WTO. After all, they already won on steel. Maybe they’ll start targeting Florida’s orange crop again. High dudgeon is so darn much fun!


And how about the settling of scores? The Europeans are doing so now and with a certain gusto. And so was Paul Wolfowitz. I mean, how many days ago was Baker appointed to sort out the Iraqi debt burden with the Europeans and the Russians? I mean, this would have been a simple thing to do relatively privately. You just claim you considered every country fair and square before settling on the usual suspects. But Wolfowitz (who elected him anyway?) thought it important to conduct a little counterinsurgency warfare against the Pentagon’s real enemies: Baker, Colin Powell and the State Department, maybe Robert Blackwill, not to shoot himself in what looks far worse than the proverbial foot.


In today’s Times, White Officials officials were reported to be “fuming about the timing and the tone of the Pentagon’s directive,” and the President “distinctly unhappy” that he had to make previously scheduled calls to the leaders of the three main offended countries about easing their stances on the Iraqi debt burden just after the news broke. Isn’t timing a bear?


With $300 million in aid pledged to Iraq, Canada, also excluded from the list, evidently doesn’t count a whit in the White House. No calls heading in that direction, it seems, and you can see why. Its new Prime Minister-designate Paul Martin had this to say in response to the Pentagon ban (Canadian TV, 12/11): “I understand the importance of these kinds of contracts, but this shouldn’t just be about who gets contracts, who gets business. It ought to be: what is the best thing for the people of Iraq.” I’m sorry, Paul, what world are you living in? Where have you been for the last year?


The Pentagon also administered small whacks to India (Siddharth Varadarajan, “US leaves India out of Iraq spoils,” Times of India, 12/10), and Israel which, though left off the list of “allies,” hasn’t peeped. Bush did indeed call the leaders of the Big Three about what White House spokesman Sean McCormack called ‘the need to restructure and reduce Iraq’s crushing debt load.’” Well, Sean don’t hold your breath.


In the meantime, the Pentagon, which seems to have whacked itself hardest of all, began issuing thoroughly ridiculous statements. “The new contracting policy was not meant to punish opponents of the Iraq invasion, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday. ‘Nobody had the intent of being punitive when this was being developed’ as the policy,’ said Larry Di Rita, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld… ‘This is not a fixed, closed list… This is not meant to be exclusive. This is meant to be forward looking and potentially expansive.’” (Robert Burns, AP, “Bush speaks to leaders of France, Germany, Russia,” 12/10)


Remember when these guys looked so together? Before long they may seem more like some cross between crackpots and the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.


And talking about not shooting straight, it looks like our military attack teams in Afghanistan are going for some kind of record when it comes to killing children. Six more reported dead yesterday. Fifteen for the week and it’s not near over yet. Reports on these killings followed more or less the usual pattern: first we denied responsibility for them, kind of. I’m sure within a couple of days we’ll issue the necessary regrets, even “apologize” (with all sorts of caveats about the nature of the incident and the questions it raises), announce an investigation, and then… well, you know the rest.


According to Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times, 12/10:


“In the Friday incident, U.S. ground forces and warplanes attacked a site where a house wall collapsed, crushing six children and two adults to death, [U.S. military spokesman Col. Brian] Hilferty said. ‘The bodies were discovered the next day during a search,’ he added. ‘We don’t know what caused the wall to collapse because, although we fired on the compound, there were secondary and tertiary explosions… We try very hard not to kill anyone. We would prefer to capture the terrorists rather than kill them… But in this incident, if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences.’”

Kids who surround themselves with “thousands of weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and howitzers and mortars” are just asking for it, aren’t they? Kind of like the French, Germans and Russians. In the previous incident at least, the boys were playing marbles and the girls fetching water. Far less suspicious acts for children. There does seem to be a pattern to how American officialdom deals with such events, but you never hear anybody talking about the “American mind,” do you?


Paul Woodward of the War in Context website added the following to his comments on how CNN reported the previous child killings:


“Having acknowledged that nine Afghan children were accidentally killed in a U.S. airstrike on Saturday, the military now says that another six children died in a raid the previous Wednesday, east of Gardez, in Paktia Province. And yet again, CNN shares the military’s reluctance to assign blame. Its headline – U.S. assault: Children found dead – sounds like a murder mystery. The Americans attacked. The children died. Is there a connection?”

Let’s remember, we live in a country that can be convulsed by the kidnapping of a single American child. (It’s helpful, of course, if she’s blond and attractive.) Now, 15 Afghan children are dead in two American raids… but, as General Westmoreland, American commander in Vietnam, said so famously on camera back then, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. As the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.” All this certainly gives new meaning to the administration slogan, “No child left behind.”


War for what?


And — to segue as best I can into what was to be a round-up of war-making in our new age (to be continued this weekend perhaps) — speaking of Afghanistan, what was the war there all about anyway? Leaving aside the 15 dead children, the angered and grieving Afghan adults, the newly launched Operation Avalanche, the largest American military campaign against the Taliban in recent memory (didn’t we beat them back in 2001?), the murdered, kidnapped, or withdrawn aid workers, the increasing numbers of Taliban killings, the aid money that never showed up, the complete lawlessness in much of the countryside, and an Afghan “government” that can’t move or govern beyond its capital, Isabel Hilton in the Guardian (12/4) recently suggested we reconsider what it meant to make our allies of choice in the war against evil in that country, the Northern Alliance drug warlords. Not surprisingly, the poppy is now the plant of choice for the country, whose annual crop is about to hit an all-time high, perhaps three-quarters of planetary output.


A slightly panicky American government has just launched “Operation Containment” — there’s a name redolent with memories — against Afghan poppy growers, but there’s no way it can succeed, given the alignment of forces there. As Hilton writes,


“To wage an effective war against drugs… the US will have to confront some of its major allies in the war against terror, and that is unlikely to happen. It complicates the narrative of good and evil for one thing. As the administration well knows, the words war and drugs are closely related, but not always in the way we like to pretend… Afghanistan’s drug trade took off in the 1980s, when the CIA was sponsoring the mojahedin war against the USSR. The cocaine trade in Central America flourished when the US administration was backing the Contras to fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Clandestine flights that took arms to Central America returned with other illegal cargos. It helped the wheels of the war go round.”

In fact, to return to our Vietnam moment, the CIA first fell into bed with drug growers and drug lords when it began to wage a secret war in Laos in the 1960s. Alfred McCoy wrote a classic book on the subject (since updated): The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. You can draw a line from that Laotian counterinsurgency drug moment to Afghanistan in the anti-Soviet 1980s to Afghanistan in this anti-Taliban new century, and both the CIA and drugs run right along it. Now Sudha Ramachandran of the Asia Times on-line suggests that, taking drugs into account, the disastrous situation in Afghanistan is far more complicated than we imagine (“Afghanistan’s own opium wars,” 12/9):


“The spurt in violence in Afghanistan in recent months has generally been attributed to the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. However, aid workers in Afghanistan are saying that it is warlords with connections to the production and trade of narcotics who are behind many of the attacks.

“The sharp rise in killings, say aid workers, coincides with the autumn harvest of the poppy crop… A report in the German newspaper Der Spiegel draws attention to ‘an open secret’, which throws light on why action is not taken against the narcotics network. ‘Even the topmost member of the central government,’ it says, ‘is deeply mixed up in the drug trade.’ Describing the situation in the Kunduz province, where German soldiers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have been deployed, the report says that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim’s power in this part of Afghanistan ‘is in large part supported by drug money. Up to now, his commanders have been regulating the opium trade within their spheres of influence. It’s their primary source of revenue. Anyone who interferes with the trade in their districts lives dangerously.’”

Meanwhile, in the south of the country and across the border in the tribal areas of Pakistan a revived Taliban seems to be operating with impunity. Operation Avalanche may have been launched, but the question remains, on whom exactly is that avalanche to fall. After the brutal Taliban murders of aid workers, the south is now largely cleared of those who might offer constructive help. All that’s left is the American military effort; that is, the brute use of force often based, as in Iraq, on hopelessly compromised intelligence leading to large-scale death and destruction (think 15 children) guaranteed to further alienate the local inhabitants. A recent Guardian report by James Astill, who spent time with an elite unit of U.S. Green Berets in southern Afghanistan offers descriptions like this (“Taliban spies keep strong grip on south, 12/11):


“‘As soon as we leave the base, we see lights flashing down the highway for miles,’ one senior officer said. ‘Whenever we enter the town the horns start hooting. The enemy intelligence network is on top of every move we make.’

“Across impoverished southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s tribal homeland, the same desperate pattern is emerging. Military analysts and aid agency bosses in Kabul say America’s two-year military campaign has failed to root out the Taliban or to bring peace. ‘The Taliban are getting stronger; they’re regrouping, reorganising, and we’re getting a lot of fire right now,’ said Sergeant Ken Green, a National Guardsman seconded to US special forces. ‘We’ve racked up over 1,000 kills in just the last five weeks, mostly by air, putting B-52s over those bastards and bombing the hell out of them.’”

Lots of dead but not a winning strategy. In a vivid recent report, Massoud Ansari of the Asia Times followed a single Taliban “recruiter” through a busy day on the other side of the border (“On the job with a Taliban recruiter,” 11/26). He writes in part:


“Indeed, on a visit to the border areas and Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province [in Pakistan], one witnesses hundreds of Taliban in their unique black robes, black turbans and long beards. They reside in mosques, madrassas and in nearby villages or refugee camps, seemingly with the full support of the ruling provincial party and militant groups. In many of the mosques in the surrounding satellite town of Pashtunabad or Nawakili, the clergy openly incite people through mosque loudspeakers and ask them to sign up for jihad.”

Finally, Conor Foley and Mark Lattimer, two NGO officials connected to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, suggest the outlines of a failed American policy in that country, where — as in Iraq with the Sunnis — the Pashtuns of the south were more or less shouldered from power and written off in the wake of the 2001 war and now feel they have no stake in the new government in Kabul. They write (“The new tragedy in Afghanistan,” the Guardian, 12/10):


“At least 11 aid workers have been murdered in the past three months as part of a new strategy by opponents of President Karzai’s government. The killings are a demonstration that much of the country is still ungovernable and they increase the suffering of the civilian population by disrupting the delivery of assistance. They also show how misguided US policy on Afghanistan has become. The concentration on the “war on terror” and the attempt to defeat terrorist violence by military means have been a major cause of the current crisis and, paradoxically, helped create the conditions for the Taliban to rebuild support…

“One of the big lessons from Afghanistan is that good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law are not optional when it comes to rebuilding a country, but an intrinsic part of reconstruction.”


 


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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