Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What Is It With Canada and Helicopters?

Helicopters seem to be the curse of Canadian federal governments.

Kim Campbell, back when she was Mulroney's DefMin, hatched a plan to buy hi-tech EH-101 anti-sub helos for the Canadian navy just when the Cold War was ending and the Soviet submarine fleet was being run up on the beaches of Murmansk.

Jean Chretien scrapped that deal and Canada got sued for a bundle.

The Libs went ahead and bought stripped-down EH-101 helos for our Search & Rescue services only to find them saddled with stubborn technical problems.

The government finally went ahead and inked a deal with Sikorsky in 2004 to buy 28 Cyclone helicopters to replace the beyond-mere aging Sea King aircraft the Navy has sought to replace since the Campbell years. $5-billion for 28 helicopters, that's a lot for just a few. But apparently it's not enough for Sikorsky. The company has come back looking for another $500-million and is warning that delivery could be delayed another two years even if their money demands are met.

The feds are making noise about canceling the contract and suing Sikorsky for breach but the American helo company realizes it has us over a barrel. We just can't go back to the bidding process and wait for another outfit to come up with an alternative.

Maybe we're just a bunch of dumb hicks. American defence contractors have had the Pentagon by the short and curlies so long that they can't imagine meeting their obligations to small-change outfits like the Canadian government.

Wouldn't it be nice if the government took Sikorsky by the lapels and told them to live up to their deal? Don't count on it. Besides, it's only $500-million, barely twice what Canada puts out for food aid to the world's malnourished people. Chump change.

By the way, Sikorsky pitches the S-92 Superhawk/CH-148 Cyclone as "...cost effective to own and operate." Yeah, sure.

Where Has All The Weather Gone?

The issue of climate change seems to have all but fallen off the radar in Canadian politics. Sure we've had a cold winter and a cold spring and of course the opposition parties are busy gorging themselves on Conservative scandal but how did the environment come to vanish from our consciousness?

Now the cold winter is the result of la Nina, the ugly stepsister of her brother, el Nino. Most of us living on the Pacific coast understand these southern ocean-based weather phenomena and the consequences they wreak on the entire world - from the Pacific to North America to Europe and Africa and all the way around to Asia. The freaky weather they bring isn't determinative of anything concerning global warming although whether and how they're tied remains to be resolved.

So what is our Furious Leader doing on the climate change platform, you know, the one he identified as the greatest threat facing mankind? He seems to be eager to do a lot about relatively insigificant threats - things like Islamist terrorism - but diddly squat to fight global warming. Oh I get it, the science isn't in! Right?

The fact is that there's plenty of science already in and more is coming in just about every day. We're learning that the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, isn't a bunch of radicals after all. In fact, its consensus-based format has been exposed as its Achilles' Heel, leading the IPCC reports to consistently underestimate the pace and extent of AGW-driven climate change. They forecast some dire result to arrive in 20-years and then it appears in just two.

The denialists have been busy indeed sowing doubt and uncertainty, even outright falsehoods. It's curious how their predictions have no bearing on the results that keep coming in but money talks, especially with a corporate driven media.

Every now and then it's good to go back to the basics for a reality check and a good place to start is to re-read the article from Grist on "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic":

If you haven't read it, check it out. If you haven't read it for a while, check it out again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

When the Red Phone Rings at 3 A.M.

If it's all the same to Hillary Clinton and her fans, when that red phone rings at 3 a.m., I'd rather it wasn't answered by someone whose idea of experience is having told audiences - five times - how she'd braved sniper fire in Bosnia. I had thought this was just a one-off fib when I heard it but the Washington Post reports she liked it so much, Hillary parlayed that whopper five times before she got called on it. She didn't "misspeak", she mis-lied - through her teeth - pulled it right out of her backside and just kept waving it around to prove she has "what it takes."

Now I don't know just what it takes in terms of experience to serve as president of the United States but Hillary obviously has some idea and she also must have a pretty good idea that she doesn't fit the bill, ergo the serial lying.

Hasn't this poor, bruised planet had enough of chronic liars in the White House? Do we need to shelve the Bush/Cheney Anthology of Lies with Clinton bookends?

But you know, maybe I'm being too harsh on Hillary. Maybe she wasn't actually lying. I mean it is possible that Mrs. Clinton is simply delusional. Maybe she actually believed she had been under sniper fire in Bosnia, believed it enough to describe the awful (yet enormously character-building) experience five times. Maybe, just maybe, she's as crazy as a cut cat. But, then again, if she is that divorced from reality, I'm not sure I want her taking that 3 a.m. phone call anyway.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Afghanisnam Now (Redux)

All that's missing is Francis Ford Coppola. If we could only get him to show up with one of his enormous camera crews, we might just be able to turn Afghanistan into a real war. And maybe that's our only hope of legitimizing the furious fiasco we're foolishly waging in that country.

Big events on the weekend. The Taliban put in an appearance at a big government whoop-up in downtown Kabul and got within spitting distance of Hamid Karzai, popping a few rounds into the reviewing stand and then evaporating. Apparently no one remembered to tell the gunmen to be sure to yell "Bitch" on their way out.

Now you would think that this latest Taliban attempt on Karzai's life would have him racing about in that lovely green cape demanding NATO hunt these bastards down and kill them, kill them all. Well, not quite. In fact, just the opposite. Hamid actually told the New York Times on the weekend that NATO and the US should stop arresting Taliban suspects. Yes, that's right - Hamid Karzai wants us to leave the Taliban alone, leave them to him.

This doesn't make any sense, does it? Of course it does. All it takes is a bit of grade school arithmetic. The Taliban is (optimistically) said to control as little as 10% of Afghanistan. Karzai is (optimistically) said to control as much as 30% of Afghanistan. The country's warlords (other than those who already work for Karzai) are then left with the remaining 60%. The warlords have coalesced into the thoroughly Disloyal Opposition even calling themselves the United National Front.

Now, as for the Taliban, the opposition United National Front is conducting separate negotiations with the Pashtun insurgents. They're cutting out Karzai and the Kabul government and they're doing it because - because they can. Our guy, Karzai, is getting sidelined. If the UNF strikes a deal with the Taliban, Karzai becomes effectively irrelevant.

But what about the Afghan National Army? Yes, exactly. Other than NATO and US forces, it's the Afghan National Army that props up the wobbly Karzai government. So far it's more or less been willing to fight the Taliban but that's no guarantee that the ANA would even consider moving against the Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara and lesser tribes. More likely it would dissolve along ethnic lines into modern, western-trained militias under the command of their respective warlords.

At the end of the day, "We" (NATO and the US) may be the force of unintended national unity for Afghanistan because history shows the one thing that manages to unite the usually raucous Afghan tribes is having a foreign invader's ass to kick. Karzai can be a stand-in for the former Marxist government and we can be the stand-in for the Soviet "assistance" force. Everyone else gets to play Mujaheed on our western ass until we give up and leave. Then, as before, they can sort out their own ethno-political differences in the time-honoured Afghan fashion.

How did we get in this mess? Simple. We failed to properly constitute the Afghanistan government after the Taliban had been driven out. Then we compounded that by failing to finish off the Taliban while we had the chance, when they were in disarray and hiding in the mountains. We left Karzai weak and unable to thwart the demands of the warlords and we left the Taliban able to regroup and recover. Here are some insights from Nick Grono writing last week in The Guardian:

"The sad reality is that Afghanistan has suffered from sustained conflict for almost 30 years. The enduring paradigm is that of abusive power-holders preying on the local populations. The power-holders change - absolute monarchs, Afghan communists, Soviet military, mujahideen, Taliban, and now re-empowered warlords - but the problem remains the same: highly personalised rule, a culture of impunity, and the abuse of large sections of the population on ethnic, regional, tribal, or sectarian grounds.

The US and its allies reinforced this pattern of grievance and impunity in 2001 and 2002 by outsourcing the fighting and stabilisation operations to discredited and largely disempowered warlords and commanders. When they entrenched themselves in their former fiefdoms, they reverted to their old practices of human rights abuse, corruption and drug production, working once again to build their own networks at the expense of central government authority.

The result is festering grievances and an alienated population that often has little faith in its leadership and offers rich pickings for insurgent recruitment."

Their folks, see, what did I tell you? We lost this thing at the very start and allowed our initial failures to ripen and grow and spread to where we are today. But we're the well-intentioned, rich and supremely powerful western world, aren't we? Yes we are indeed, and so what? Rich or poor, weak or powerful, when you get into a war, you have to fight the war that's in front of you. You have to meet its demands and its challenges because it doesn't respect your wealth and your power if you don't employ them.

Back in 2001-2002 we ought to have been deploying a force of 300,000 soldiers or more to Afghanistan, enough to secure the Karzai government, genuinely crush the Taliban and completely defang the warlords. We needed to occupy and secure the countryside so that the villagers and tribal elders were protected from the predations of the insurgents, the warlords and (shudder) the government itself. In neglecting to do those things, in being miserly with our wealth and power when they might have done some good, we prescribed our own defeat.

We're treading water, barely, while the sharks begin to gather at our feet and our government's only response is to not look down.

We've lost too many fine young people in Afghanistan and we're bound to lose a lot more before this farce is over.

Friday, April 25, 2008

It Doesn't Add Up

If we've learned one thing from that gang of right-wing mongrels in the White House, it's that we ought to take their claims with a truckload of salt. How can I put this respectfully? Oh yeah, they're a pack of manipulative frauds and liars (no wonder Harper adores them so).

So where is the healthy skepticism toward the latest White House claim that Syria, aided by North Korea, was building a nuclear reactor for the production of weapons of mass destruction until it was - blessedly - destroyed by the Israeli Air Force last year? The western media are swallowing this one quite happily, like trusting little children. No one is stepping back from this narrative, taking a careful look and asking just why it doesn't add up?

It doesn't add up.

The story is that Syria, with North Korean collusion, was constructing a secret weapons reactor in the middle of the desert. There's your first clue that this doesn't add up. A "secret" reactor in the midst of a "desert"?

How does any nation do anything secretly in a desert? If there's one place you can't hide anything of any size it's a desert. Now, unless the Syrians are complete morons they would know that their region is under constant satellite surveillance. They would have to know their every move would be observed, tracked and analyzed.

A nuclear reactor requires a building with unique design and construction. It's the sort of thing the computers that digest satellite imagery can spot instantly. A nuclear reactor doesn't look anything like the new 7-11 they built down the street last year. A nuclear reactor looks like - why it looks just like a nuclear reactor!

A nuclear reactor requires a lot of infrastructure - massive amounts of electricity, water, etc. Those aren't the sorts of things you'll readily find in the middle of a barren desert. That means you would have to build roads and power lines and water lines that would stand out in a desert and would lead the observer to ask, "hey, what are these for?" You can also follow them right to this big structure in the middle of the desert and say "hey, what is this?"

With satellite imagery capable of reading licence plates from space, concealing anything - any equipment, any structure, any activity - at a place of interest is extremely difficult even if it's not in the middle of a barren desert. In a desert, however, that goes from "extremely difficult" to "damned nigh impossible."

Another wee problem with building such an obvious target in the middle of the desert is that it makes targeting it a snap. There are no box canyons, no sheltering mountain slopes, just wide open spaces that allow an attacker to come from anywhere and make the target easy to locate and attack and difficult, if not impossible, to defend.

Okay, so maybe the Syrians are dumb as mules but the North Koreans sure aren't. They know a thing or nine about American satellite imagery and they've had decades to learn how to get around it. They also know that getting caught building a weapons reactor abroad would have enormous consequences for them.

So, take all these things together. You can't disguise what you're building, you can't hide it, you can't defend it, you know you're going to be watched and under constant surveillance and yet, poor as you may be, you're going to build a very expensive weapons reactor in this most unlikely of places knowing full well it's going to be destroyed and there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop that.

And that's the narrative Washington has sold to the western media. Dumb, dumber and dumbest.
Here's something else to dwell on. Just what is Washington up to? Why are Bush/Cheney running this particular scam at this particular time? These things do happen for a reason but the recesses of the mind of Dick Cheney are a damned dark place to go looking for one.
p.s. The pic above is Israel's Dimona weapons reactor.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why I Don't Hate Stephen Harper

I received some angry rebukes from Harper supporters in response to the item I posted, "What I can't stand about Stephen Harper." I was accused to hating Harper. Coming from that part of the political spectrum that embraces hatred, along with fear and suspicion, as philosophical staples, my critics probably just can't help themselves.

For the record, I don't hate Stephen Harper. I don't hate people as a rule, it takes far too much effort and tends to cloud the mind. I'll save my hatred for someone of much greater consequence than this fellow.

I can't stand some of Mr. Harper's policies and I can't stand some of his actions and skullduggery. I routinely comment on his hypocrisy and duplicity and yet I don't hate him. To me, at least, hatred is the most extreme variety of disapproval or dislike, an irrational emotion that carries a desire to see the person harmed or destroyed. I'd be enormously pleased to see Harper and his policies powerfully rejected by the electorate but that's about it.

Another point that my rightwing scolds bring up is the notion that Harper deserves our respect. I see nothing at all in him warranting my respect. Withholding my respect, however, is based on his actions and ideas and is not tantamount to hatred.

Harper loves America and he loves the American way although he's clever enough to know not to make that too obvious while he still heads a minority government. The irony is, if he was an American his political career would be dead. Look at the demeaning remarks he made about Canada and the Canadian people, how he mocked us to an audience of influential Americans in Montreal a decade ago. Any American leader who had shown such disrespect to his nation and people would be shown the door and handed a sandwich wrapped in a road map. He wouldn't be able to stand for dog catcher much less president. For Canadian conservatives, however, that same behaviour in their leader is just fine. Not only fine, they can't wait to proclaim their respect for the man who so plainly doesn't respect our country or our people.

I don't respect Stephen Harper but that's because I am proud of my country and my people. I don't respect Stephen Harper's policies or his chicanery or his hypocrisy or his duplicity. There are many things about Stephen Harper I can't stand. But I don't hate Stephen Harper. He's not worth that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What I Can't Stand About Harper

A few BC Libs have gotten together to exchange ideas about the LPC, the CPC and, of course, Stephen Harper. In search of consensus, each of us set out just what it is we most dislike about Stephen Harper. It's a neat exercise that does wonders to focus the mind.

Here are some of my thoughts on why I don't like Stephen Harper:

"My partner put it best. She doesn't like Harper because he doesn't like us. Harper's comments going back a decade reveal his contempt for the Canadian people and our social values. Harper is outside our values in a place more likely to be inhabited by right-wing ideologues, would-be Republicans. At a purely personal level I believe he has set himself up against me and against my country. Harper doesn't want to serve and build Canada. He wants to transform it by shifting it far to the right following the same method that has worked in the United States.

I don't like Harper because I find him parochial. His preference is for wholesale devolution, a rejigging of our confederation and a Balkanization of the nation.

I dislike Harper because he flies false flags and employs ruse to effect fundamental change. Take the GST cuts. Harper didn't cut the GST for economic stimulus. In fact economists were nearly universal in holding economic stimulus would better be achieved by direct cuts in income taxes. What Harper was really doing, without being honest about it, was defunding the government. Doing that, covertly, is, in my view utterly subversive.

The world is now entering an era that promises great upheaval - socially, politically, economically - and Canada, while relatively blessed, won't be immune. Yet our central government has been rendered impotent to act quickly and powerfully should that need arise. It has been deprived of its fiscal strength and that has been a deliberate but unspoken policy of the Harper cons.

I see in Stephen Harper a man guided by a narrow, mechanical ideology who pursues objectives but without any clear or compelling vision. He's a glorified clerk. His lack of vision is reflected in a common failing of our time among the political classes - an utter indifference to posterity.

The times that are upon us mandate that we incorporate posterity into all our decision-making. What's good for us in five years is important but not if it requires neglecting or impairing the welfare of the country for generations to follow. That surely must be the nub of the entire climate change dilemma. Looked at in the span of an election cycle, it's vastly different than when taken on a generational scale.

Harper's goals are immediate and that makes his focus small and devoid of the inconvenience of vision. It gives rise to that "bull in the china shop" decision making where immediate results eclipse long-term consequences.
The Tar Sands development to lever Canada into an "energy superpower" reflects that way of thinking.

Our society, our nation, our world are facing long-term challenges that can't be met by short-term thinking. It needs vision with an eye to posterity to begin developing long-term, effective responses - both remedial and adaptive.

The coming three decades will usher in enormous problems of a global dimension. Taken collectively they're unprecedented in scale and impact. Global warming, desertification, overpopulation, resource depletion, freshwater exhaustion, species extinction, the arrival of peak oil. Society is going to undergo change, the nation is going to undergo change, the global community is going to undergo change, often unpleasant and threatening and ultimately unavoidable. It's going to take strong social cohesion and clear vision-based consensus to find and implement the very best responses, short and long-term, to these challenges. Put another way, this will require leadership totally at odds with the corporate management style of movement conservatives."

And that, in brief, is what I can't stand about Stephen Harper. He's stuck in a rigid and atrophied ideology that does not serve this country well, even in the short run, and will certainly harm it in the long run.

So, do you dislike Stephen Harper? Is there something about him you can't stand? If so, why not take a few minutes, go to your blog and put your thoughts down in writing for the rest of us to share?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fighting the Past in the Future

The American general in command of NATO forces in Afghanistan confidently predicts that, in just a few years, the Afghan army and police could be able to shoulder the load of defending the Kabul government. General Dan McNeill told KanWest news, however, not to expect too much before 2012.

Is the general's optimism justified? There's no way of knowing but it is fair to point out that western military assessments have often been wildly off mark since this misadventure began in 2001.

A key problem is our constant inability to predict what we'll have to confront in the coming years. Who are we going to be fighting in 2011? I don't know, do you? Afghanistan is the very definition of confusion. Wheels spinning within wheels. Today's good guys may be tomorrow's bad guys but we can be pretty sure that today's bad guys won't be switching sides anytime soon.

The Afghan National Army? National? This is a "country' that's never been more than a lose amalgam of its four principal ethnic groups and their subgroups. There isn't one of these tribes that hasn't fought with and against each of the others over the past two generations. These are not conditions out of which a national identity is forged. Will an Uzbek corporal in the ANA heed the orders of a Pashtun colonel to take up arms against an Uzbek warlord and his fellow tribesmen, his own cousins? Until you can answer "yes" to that, the very idea of a national army is an illusion. That is an illusion that may be tested long before NATO is in any position to hand over the security mission to the Afghan National Army.

General McNeill's assessment also assumes the continuing viability of the central government now headed by Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai may still command the loyalty of those Pashtun not already supporting his Pashtun rivals, the Taliban, but he seems to be losing the support of the other ethnic groups who've coalesced into an opposition group, the United National Front, and are separately seeking reconciliation with the Taliban. The viability of a pro-western, pro-NATO central government in 2011 is anything but certain. If the opposition groups - the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara - unite with the Taliban what do we do, just fight the entire damned country? If you want to know how well that works out, the Brits tried it twice and, after them, so did the Soviets.

General McNeill doesn't have a gameplan to fight a wider war in Afghanistan. He doesn't have enough troops to win the limited conflict he's already fighting. Perhaps our biggest mistakes over the past seven years were 1) failing to crush the warlords when the opportunity existed in 2001 and 2) revealing to those warlords ever since the narrow limits of our power and the flimsy underpinnings of the Kabul government we created.

Here's something to watch out for over the next two years. It's been reported that the Taliban are planning to move out of their home turf in the south and carry on operations in the east and north. If they do, that will mean they're operating in collusion with the National Front warlords. The Taliban are Pashtun, quite ethnically distinct from their former mortal enemies, the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbeks of the central and northern regions. If they can safely operate in these areas, we are in a brand new ball game.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Are We Getting Squeezed Out of Afghanistan?

The United States and NATO have committed a fundamental blunder that will likely doom the mission to Afghanistan. Put simply, the high water mark was achieved in 2001 when the Taliban regime was driven from power. It's been steadily downhill since then but few have noticed.

Have you even heard of the United National Front? It's a new political movement whose ranks include people like this: former Commerce Minister Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, speaker of the lower house Younus Qanuni, Minister for Energy and Water Ismail Khan, communist-era Minister (Sayed) Mohammad Gulabzoy, and military aide to President Hamid Karzai Rashid Dostum. Former communist party leader turned MP Noor-ul-Haq Ulumi was added to the list along with First Vice President Zia Mas’ud, former Afghan Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Mustafa Zahir, the grandson of Afghanistan’s former king.

The UNF is a warlord's paradise and is rising up to form a shadow government to that of Hamid Karzai. Most of its membership was formerly known - by us at least - as the Northern Alliance, our onetime allies in driving out the Taliban. So long as these two sides were at each others' throats that arrangement worked for us. But that was then, this is now. From

"A number of of these individuals formerly served together in the disastrous government of the early 1990’s, committed grave war atrocities against civilians and have all fought each other at least once. When regional expert Syed Saleem Shahzad was asked whether this unsavory rogue’s gallery poses a security threat to the current administration he answered, “Of course it is. There are old traditions in Afghan society to switch sides and sometimes the alliances are very odd. One should recall that Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan (Rabbani) and Massoud were once ally of the Taliban against Hekmetyar when the Taliban movement emerged.” Most of the core members had numerous chances to redeem themselves, reform and fulfill promises and failed each time; giving observers and analysts no choice but to doubt the sincerity of this new alliance."

The UNF is now negotiating with the Taliban. From Asia Times Online:

"...former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and the top NA commander from Panjshir, Mohammed Qasim Fahim (who also holds the position currently as a security advisor to President Hamid Karzai) have been meeting Taliban and other opposition groups (presumably, the Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) during recent months for national reconciliation. ...these meetings have involved "important people" from the Taliban.

Indeed, Fahim (who was the chief of intelligence under the late Ahmad Shah Massoud) and Rabbani (who belonged to the original "Peshawar Seven" - mujahideen leaders based in Pakistan in the 1980s) would have old links with Hekmatyar and top Taliban leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani. Rabbani told AP that the six-year war must be resolved through talks.

"We in the National Front and I myself believe the solution for the political process in Afghanistan will happen through negotiations," he said. Rabbani added that the opposition leaders would soon discuss and possibly select a formal negotiating team for holding talks with the Taliban. He found fault with Karzai for not pursuing dialogue with the Taliban. "I told Karzai that when a person starts something, he should complete it. On the issue of negotiations, it is not right to take one step forward and then one step back. This work should be continued in a very organized way."

One key demand of the National Front is a new constitution providing for elected provincial governors which is widely seen as a vehicle for decentralizing power and restoring the rule and influence of Afghanistan's warlords. That would even further undermine the country's already wobbly national institutions including the police and army.

Here's another thing to consider. If the National Front and the Taliban strike a deal, Karzai is the odd man out and our 10-year lease on Afghanistan's civil war is effectively over, a lost cause. I suppose we could declare victory and leave but that victory would have to be framed by other interests at play. These interests include China, Russia, the other "stans" and Iran.

Our supposed ally, Pervez Musharraf, is now eager for another alliance to get involved in Afghanistan, the SCO or Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members and Iran and Pakistan as "observers". Musharraf gave his SCO endorsement while in Beijing and it's known that Pakistan is seeking full membership in the alliance.

Every member of SCO has a direct interest in Afghanistan. China wants a pipeline across Afghanistan to access Iran's natural gas. Iran and Russia are in talks aimed at co-ordinating their natural gas resources. Iran is looking for membership in the SCO. China has already tied up Afghanistan's huge copper fields in the north and is building a railway to access the ore. Afghanistan's United Front has garnered the support of key SCO states.

Step by step, NATO, the US and Karzai are being marginalized, shoved to the sidelines.

NATO's half-hearted committment to Afghanistan at the recent Bucharest summit has created an apparent power vacuum which the SCO and others are looking to fill. Karzai's and NATO's inability to crush the Taliban has left the National Front willing to cut a power-sharing deal with the insurgency.

We botched this from the outset. Nobody bothered to learn the history of this place. If they had, they would have known that we didn't have seven years much less ten to achieve what we wanted in Afghanistan. When Bush decided to go play in the sandbox of Iraq, he pretty much wrote the final scene for Afghanistan.

We're still there swatting away at an insurgency to defend what we make ourselves believe is a viable, central government in Kabul, a government that is actually virtually terminal. We don't have a Plan "B" but others do.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Steady Retreat of Privacy

I was brought up to believe that all rights are important and need to be respected, exercised and defended. I was given to believe that there exists no right that cannot and will not be taken away from us should we become complacent about it. Finally I was imbued with the concept that we don't have a single right that hasn't been bought and paid for, often in blood and often several times over.

Coming from this set of values, I find it hard to grasp how freely we have yielded our fundamental right to privacy. I watched a documentary last night about Britain's CCTV or closed-circuit television monitoring network, the most extensive anywhere. Travel through many public places in England today and there's a good chance someone or something is observing you and yet this inherent breach of individual privacy is actually embraced by the British people.

This month's Walrus magazine features a lengthy article on privacy in Canada and how it's been all but lost, largely of our own doing. Every time we use a credit card or a store card or a health care card or almost any card with an individual identity number, information about us is logged and stored away. From this information it's possible to build a profile of who we are, our preferences and weaknesses, where we travel, with whom and what we do when we get to our destination - the list is endless. Then there's the internet, instant messaging, chatrooms, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook. We practically beg to have people intrude on our private lives.

My kids' generation has the weakest appreciation of the right of privacy but, then again, at least part of that is probably a function of youth. Yet I've seen no discernable interest on their part about the wobbly state of their privacy. It seems they just don't care.

Do we, as a society, continue to value the right of privacy? Are we willing to surrender it even more than we already have? I suspect our understanding of the significance of privacy in the 21st century is so weak as to almost ensure that outcome.

So, why ought we to care about privacy anyway?

Janna Malamud Smith, Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (1997, states:

"The bottom line is clear. If we continually, gratuitously, reveal other people's privacies, we harm them and ourselves, we undermine the richness of the personal life, and we fuel a social atmosphere of mutual exploitation. Let me put it another way: Little in life is as precious as the freedom to say and do things with people you love that you would not say or do if someone else were present. And few experiences are as fundamental to liberty and autonomy as maintaining control over when, how, to whom, and where you disclose personal material." Id. at 240-241.

In 1890, Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel D. Warren defined the right to privacy as "the right to be let alone." See L. Brandeis, S. Warren, "The Right To Privacy," 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193.

In their book, The Right to Privacy, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995) Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy describe the importance of privacy in this way:

"Privacy covers many things. It protects the solitude necessary for creative thought. It allows us the independence that is part of raising a family. It protects our right to be secure in our own homes and possessions, assured that the government cannot come barging in. Privacy also encompasses our right to self-determination and to define who we are. Although we live in a world of noisy self-confession, privacy allows us to keep certain facts to ourselves if we so choose. The right to privacy, it seems, is what makes us civilized."

By most accounts we're entering into an era of prolonged, social upheaval. I would think that, before we get too far down that road, we need to have a clear debate on our rights of privacy and how they're to be protected, even as against our own governments.

Social Conservatism or Gay Bashing?

Religious fundamentalist and Harper pal, Charles McVety, doesn't have a lot of time for homosexuals. He even thinks the homosexual arts community is quietly scheming to "proselytize young people into homosexuality."

At issue was a production called "Breakfast with Scot" which is about a gay, former hockey player and his partner caring for an orphaned boy.

McVety told the Senate banking and commerce committee that "(It) is about an 11-year-old boy who is being raised by a homosexual Toronto Maple Leaf to be a homosexual." McVety believes that Bill C-10 should be used by the government to deny funding to films that, in his view, "promote" homosexuality. It seems that, to McVety, anything that acknowledges homosexuality must surely promote its spread.

Bill C-10 is seen by many as an attempt by the Harper government to introduce a means for political censorship of the entertainment industry in Canada. Do ya think?

Loosening Opium's Grip on Afghanistan

It sounds like a "win-win" proposition. Rising grain prices, especially for wheat, may be enough to entice Afghan farmers to grow grain instead of opium poppies. In fact, UN experts say a switchover would allow Afghanistan to enjoy a food surplus instead of the serious shortages now faced.

While much of what we see of the countryside suggests Afghanistan is a region of barren foothills and mountains, the country actually has some good farmland of which some 190,000 hectares is used for growing poppies. The output is about 8,200 tonnes of raw opium which has an enormous street value in the west but earns barely enough to keep Afghan farmers out of total poverty.

That same farmland is estimated to be capable of producing 2.6 tonnes of wheat per hectare, slightly more than 500,000 tonnes in annual production and, at today's prices of $500 per tonne, that would be a pretty good income for many Afghan farmers. If that same land was put into higher-value crops such as fruit or vegetables, the returns could be even better.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for more foreign aid to be directed into agricultural programmes. Of the $15-billion in reconstruction aid spent over the past six years, a mere $300-million has gone into agricultural projects.

Of course the UN report fails to address the real problem. There may be a huge difference between what the average Afghan farmer would prefer to do and what that farmer may be allowed to do. A lot of powerful groups including corrupt government officials, the drug barons and even the insurgents rely heavily on the opium production and, while a shift to wheat might make sense to the farmer, it would trigger big losses to those who hold the real power in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Afghanistan's Latest Conspiracy Theory

Here's one you haven't heard about in Canadian newspapers.

Word is going around Afghanistan that NATO has been caught deliberately supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban. It's an account that's been carried on several Afghan news services.

The most common version of the story has one or more NATO helicopters dropping AK-47s, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and upwards of half a million rounds of small arms ammunition and dropped off not 300-meters from the home of a major Taliban commander.

According to these reports, NATO has acknowledged that weapons were dropped by mistake and were seized by the Taliban but legislators in Kabul claim it was no accident. From Pajhwok Afghan News:

Internal Security Affairs Commission of the Wolesi Jirga or lower house of the parliament on Sunday blamed NATO and Afghan forces for supply of arms to the militants in southern Afghanistan.

However the NATO forces and Afghan intelligence in their statement said they had mistakenly dropped items which later were commanded by Taliban.

The parliamentary commission claimed the operation had not been a mistake and the sacks dropped in the southern province were arms the NATO forces offered to Taliban.

Zalmai Mujaddedi head of the parliamentary commission claimed NATO forces from Kandahar province carried several containers of arms to Taliban dominated areas in Arghandab district of southern Zabul province 27th or 28th of March.

In the past too there were some speculations that the foreign forces were supporting the militants in the country, he added.

NATO forces have branded the act as a mistake and that they were going to investigate and punish the perpetrators but yet there is no step taken, he added.

The commission did not accept the act to be mistake, he argued, local Taliban commander Mulla Muhammad Alam had already taken security measures and preparations in the area.

Hamidullah Tokhi representative of Zabul people in the parliament confirmed the Mujaddedi's remarks"I wonder how does Muhammad Alam on the same night comes to a house 100 meters from the site where the helicopters drop rockets, bullets Kalashnikovs, arms and food and logistics?." He added." I dont believe it is a mistake, if the helicopter made a mistake to drop the arms there then who brought Muhammad Alam to this neighborhood."

Foreign forces were working for their own interests, he reckoned, it is a preplanned thing and the arms were supplied to devastate Afghanistan."

Now I don't believe, for a minute, that NATO is supplying weaponry to the Taliban but that's not the important part of this story. The critical element is that it's been carried, apparently widely, through the Afghan media which can't help but increase suspicion that NATO is just another bunch of westerners in Afghanistan to further their own ends. The way things are going over there, that's the last thing we need.

Nicholas Stern - Global Warming Worse Than I Thought

About 18-months ago, Nicholas Stern came to public attention for his study of the economic costs of tackling global warming now or later.

The former World Bank chief economist was recruited into the British government by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. In 2005 Stern was tasked with analyzing the economic aspects of global warming. His core conclusion, that the costs of not dealing with the problem effectively now could be 20 times greater than immediate action.

Naturally the key findings of the Stern Report were rebuffed by the denialists as scaremongering.

Today, Baron Nick told Reuters that the latest research shows his findings were, if anything, unduly rosey:

"Emissions are growing much faster than we'd thought, the absorptive capacity of the planet is less than we'd thought, the risks of greenhouse gases are potentially bigger than more cautious estimates, and the speed of climate change seems to be faster," he told Reuters at a conference in London.

Stern said that increasing commitments from some countries such as the European Union to curb greenhouse gases now needed to be translated into action. Policymakers, businesses and environmental pressure groups frequently cite the Stern Review as a blueprint for urgent climate action.

The report predicted that, on current trends, average global temperatures will rise by 2-3 degrees centigrade in the next 50 years or so and could reduce global consumption per head by up to 20 per cent, with the poorest nations feeling the most pain.

Some academics said he had over-played the costs of potential future damage from global warming at up to twenty times the cost of fighting the problem now, such as by replacing fossil fuels with more costly renewable power.

Stern said today that increasing evidence of the threat from climate change had vindicated his report, published in October 2006.

"People who said I was scaremongering were profoundly wrong," he told the climate change conference organised by industry information provider IHS.

Stern said that to minimise the risks of dangerous climate change global greenhouse gas emissions should halve by mid-century. He said the United States should cut its emissions by up to 90 per cent by then."

Meanwhile, America's Neanderthal-in-Chief, George w. Bush, today came out with his own proposal on fighting global warming. Rather than a 90% cut in emissions by 2050, Bush thinks just halting the growth of greenhouse gases by 2025 would be dandy.

A Window Into the Muslim Mind

In the view of some experts, the reason the west keeps screwing up in the Muslim world is because the west keeps screwing up the Muslim world. We've meddled there so much for so long that just about everything we now touch there turns sour.

Georgetown University Prof. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, helped organize a survey of 50,000 Muslims from 35-countries and churned their findings into a 200-page report. US News & World Report published a few excerpts from their book, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think:

We did a survey of Americans in 2002, asking what they knew about the beliefs and opinions of Muslims around the world. Fifty-four percent said they knew nothing or not much. We asked that same question in 2007, after we've had two wars and a great deal more media coverage of Muslims, and this time 57 percent said they knew nothing or not much. We are no closer to truly understanding this part of the world, even as we are more engaged with it.

Asked what they most admired and most resented about the West, they answered first technology and second, democracy. People would mention their support for freedom of speech, the rule of law, and the transparency of government. What they most disliked was the perceived moral laxity and libertinism of the West, which, interestingly, is exactly what Americans said when we polled them on those two questions. There is common ground on that issue.

Even in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, there were only percentages in the single digits that said they admired nothing about the West. When we asked Americans what they admired about the Muslim world, the most frequent response was "nothing."

Compared with the entire population of Muslims, those who don't condemn the 9/11 attacks are no more likely to say that they are religious. But they are much more likely to say that the United States is not serious about promoting democracy in their part of the world and that the United States will not allow them to fashion their own political future. When we asked their greatest fear, while the general population will talk about personal safety, this radicalized group most fears political domination and occupation. They have a heightened sense of being threatened and dominated by the West. But those same people are also far more likely to say that greater democracy will help Muslims progress. So, they have a greater desire for autonomy and a greater sense that freedom is being denied.

The important thing about this survey is that it confirms that Islamic radicalism is fueled by those who most want democracy in their homelands. They're not motivated by some irrational hatred of us. They pretty much want similar democratic rights to those we enjoy. Yet, by our insistence on propping up undemocratic, repressive regimes (Egypt and Saudi Arabia for example) we actually fuel the radicalism that is so essential to the future of Islamist terrorism.
Surely our own experience teaches us that democratic movements aren't easily crushed and may, if necessary, become revolutionary. This Islamic democracy movement isn't radical of its own choosing but out of necessity. It's also ripe for the picking if we want to drive a wedge between Islamist terrorism and its base of support.

When are we going to learn?

Iraq's Kurds Score Big. Thanks Muqtada!

Iraq prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has his hands full trying to suppress the rival Shiite militia, al Sadr's Mahdi army. That's why news of major concessions to the Kurdish autonomous region seem well timed.

What the Kurds won from Maliki was control of their region's oil and Baghdad's agreement to put the 190,000-strong Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, on the government's payroll.

The oil deal gives the Kurdish administration the power to sign oil development deals on its own. Until now Baghdad opposed such deals, claiming they would be null and void. This concession opens Kurdistan's largely undeveloped oil fields to development by foreign companies. Unlike the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is relatively peaceful and much more attractive to foreigners.

The Kurdish policy has been that all revenues from new oil projects should remain with the Kurds while revenues from any Saddam-era production would be shared with the rest of the country. Given that Saddam punished the Kurds by thwarting oil development projects, it's a pretty one-sided deal.

As for the Peshmerga, going on the Baghdad government's payroll won't see any change of loyalty. These are Kurdish militiamen, openly hostile to their Arab countrymen, who come from a part of the country where flying the Iraqi flag is prohibited.

Fueling Famine

Few understand the global food crisis better than Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme. Below are excerpts from a Newsweek interview with Sheeran in which she outlines the pernicious link between world oil prices and global famine:

What is the primary factor driving this surge in prices?

"The number one factor I look at is the price of oil. It may seem a strange thing, as I'm in the hunger field, but I wake up every morning and start in the back of the paper and I look at the price of oil, because if the price of oil stays high or goes higher, I know that the energy buyers in food markets will be buying food as an energy input at a very expensive price. That is the world we are in now that is new."

Are you saying that because people are buying ethanol—

"The demand for food as an input into energy production, whether it's biodiesel or bioethanol or any of these, is a global phenomenon. And it affects everything from palm oil to cassava to everything else … There isn't much marginal room in the global food supply system. We've been consuming more food than we produce for the last three years. "

"We" meaning the world?

"Yes, we the world. Now, there's a point at which it doesn't economically make sense to buy food as an energy input. It's pretty low; it's apparently when oil hits about $70 a barrel. So anything above that makes food a very viable energy production input."

The Distrusted Candidate

Maybe Canada should have 12-month long election campaigns. One thing is sure, the more you see of any particular candidate, the less you're apt to like them.

Running for president in the United States is a terrible grind. Hillary Clinton shows the wear and tear more than the others. They'll all probably look a lot worse by the time the summer is over.

No candidate's fortunes have changed as much as Hillary Clinton's over the past year. Once considered a shoo-in, she's now pretty much washed up. Her problems, however, extend well beyond the Democratic primaries. A significant majority of the American people find her dishonest and untrustworthy. The Washington Post:

"Clinton is viewed as "honest and trustworthy" by just 39 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post - ABC News poll, compared with 52 percent in May 2006. Nearly six in 10 said in the new poll that she is not honest and trustworthy. And now, compared with Obama, Clinton has a deep trust deficit among Democrats, trailing him by 23 points as the more honest, an area on which she once led both Obama and John Edwards.

Among Democrats, 63 percent called her honest, down 18 points from 2006; among independents, her trust level has dropped 13 points, to 37 percent. Republicans held Clinton in low regard on this in the past (23 percent called her honest two years ago), but it is even lower now, at 16 percent. Majorities of men and women now say the phrase does not apply to Clinton; two years ago, narrow majorities of both did."

Like Obama, Clinton has enough hurdles facing her in this race to the White House. A loss of trust among the electorate may be one hurdle she has no hope of clearing.

Taliban - Playing By The Book

Of course it's not our book they're using. Jonathan Landy of McClatchey Newspapers reports that the Taliban and al-Qaeda seem to have gone back to classic insurgency tactics, "...of avoiding U.S and NATO forces and staging attacks in provinces that haven't seen major unrest and on easy targets such as aid organizations and poorly trained Afghan police."

In essence, the insurgents are exploiting our main and possibly fatal weakness - our lack of numbers. We're long on firepower but very, very short on soldiers and that means we can't do the one thing our side has to do in this sort of conflict - secure the population.

Because we can't secure the villagers against the Taliban, the insurgents are free to control these communities, running the show when we're not there. Once your survival and that of your spouse and your kids depends on the whim of one side, the one that is constantly in your life, do you think you would support the other side, especially if you saw that other side, the government side, as corrupt and predatory anyway?

But aren't these Taliban religious nutjobs? Sure they are but, in Afghanistan, who isn't? Tribal peoples who pay fealty to warlords and hold sacred the right to sell their children might be excused for finding our values, our ways just a little curious. They may not like the Taliban any more than they like Kabul's marauding police and security services but I'm sure they don't see the Taliban anything like the way we see them. We just expect the Afghan people to see them the way we see them.

While the brilliant, pseudo-journalists of the National Spot may proclaim that we've got the Taliban "on the run" in fact they've just moved on to target NGOs and the police and bringing their war to new corners of Afghanistan.

"Operationally, the Taliban appear to be putting more resources into attacking in provinces where allied forces are weaker and which are less accustomed to clashes," says an April 6 analysis written by John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for dNovus RDI, a Texas-based contracting firm.

"They are starting to show the manifestations of a strategy" of keeping under-strength U.S. and NATO forces tied down in the south and east while stoking instability elsewhere, McCreary said in an interview

Spreading out of the south and east means moving out of the Pashtun homeland and into the turf of the supposedly rival Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara - the Taliban's mortal enemies, the former Northern Alliance. With different language, different customs, even different ethnicity than some of these other tribes, it's hard to imagine how the Taliban could operate in these other territories without the support of these former enemies.

Is this the first sign of a Pan-Afghan insurgency, one in which NATO will be placed in the same spot as the former Soviet forces and the Kabul government of Karzai in the same, unenviable position as the former Marxist government?

In a nation built on a history of shifting alliances serving narrow self-interests, just about anything is possible. But, of course, we don't see it that way.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

History's Verdict In on George "Loser" Bush

The non-profit History News Network has just released results of a survey of 109 professional US historians. By a margin of slightly over 98% they declared the presidency of George w. Bush a failure. It seems two of the 109, or a whopping 1.8%, judged the Bush presidency a success.

61% of the historians polled opined that the current presidency has been the worst in American history. Another 35% ranked Bush in the bottom quartile.

Hillier Smells Smoke, Bails Out!

Now that Canada's mission to Afghanistan has degraded to the point that the goal has shifted from idealism to realism, the guy who masterminded this screw up, the Big Cod hisself, has decided to quietly step out the back door.

General Rick Hillier has surprised no one in announcing he'll be retiring this summer.

Gee, with only another three years to go you would have thought Hillier might just stay around to see the Afghanistan mission wrapped up. Maybe he already sees the way it's going to wrap up and doesn't want to be around to have to wear that.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Delusional Fantasies of the National Spot

Forget all those awkward admissions Rick Hillier made last week about Canadian forces being so short-handed they've been dodging the hotspots in Kandahar province. Hillier doesn't know what he's talking about, at least according to the National Spot's Afghanistan specialist Matthew Fisher.

In today's paper, Fisher claims: "One can only guess at the reasons that Canadians have not been told that their soldiers have the insurgents on the run in Kandahar."

Now there you have it, Hillier is keeping this little secret to himself. He doesn't want you to know that his soldiers "have the insurgents on the run in Kandahar." One can only guess why, I guess, sort of.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the Taliban stopped running just long enough yesterday to blow up a British vehicle patrolling only a couple of kilometres west of Kandahar airfield (the Canadian base) killing two soldiers and wounding two others.

After that the Taliban ran straight over to a police station in Kandahar where they killed 11-officers as they lay sleeping. This was the second police killing in as many days in Kandahar. CNN reports the killings may have been an inside job:

"The Kandahar police official said an initial investigation revealed that an officer may have "had a hand" in the attack because the militants were able to fatally shoot the officers while they were asleep.

The attack occurred in the Arghandab district, some six miles (10 km) north of Kandahar city.
On Saturday, four officers were killed when militants attacked a police unit as they were eradicating poppy fields, officials said.

In recent months, militants have stepped up attacks against local police, coalition troops and NATO-led forces

Good thing for us that we've got the insurgents on the run in Kandahar, eh?

Why Settle for Cherniak If You Need a Lawyer?

Sorry Jason but there are a lot of lawyers looking for work these days.

Among the ranks of underemployed advocates you'll find the likes of Alberto Gonzales. That's right, he can't find a firm that'll take him in. From TPM Muckraker:

"Alberto R. Gonzales, like many others recently unemployed, has discovered how difficult it can be to find a new job. Mr. Gonzales, the former attorney general, who was forced to resign last year, has been unable to interest law firms in adding his name to their roster, Washington lawyers and his associates said in recent interviews....

"The greatest impediment to Mr. Gonzales's being offered the kind of high-salary job being snagged these days by lesser Justice Department officials, many lawyers agree, is his performance during his last few months in office. In that period, he was openly criticized by lawmakers for being untruthful in his sworn testimony. His conduct is being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General of the Justice Department, which could recommend actions from exonerating him to recommending criminal charges."

Then again, maybe you should stick with Jason.

Biofuels a Crime Against Humanity?

The developing world has landed in a full-blown, food crisis. It's the result of the combination of crop failures and soaring food prices. What that means is that, if the world's poor can find food, they often can't afford to buy it.

This is a global problem, afflicting the poor on virtually every continent on our planet. Even Mexico brought food riots to North America. From Haiti to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to Afghanistan, masses are facing the scourge of malnutrition, even famine.

Much of the problem is man-made, mainly due to climate-change related crop failures (droughts/floods), increased demand for feed grain to supply the growing demand for meat products in the emerging industrial economies and diversion of crops for the production of biofuels.

There has been a lot of attention paid to the food crisis lately, an awful lot of talk but precious little in the way of effective action. The World Bank is calling for the developed countries to put up half a trillion dollars for immediate food aid. Some nations are calling for the International Monetary Fund to make emergency loans to hard hit countries (great, if they can't afford to buy food, lend them money they won't be able to repay).

There is also a growing demand to scrap grain-based biofuel production.

"'If food prices go on as they are today, then the consequences on the population in a large set of countries, including Africa, but not only Africa, will be horrific,' IMF managing director Dominque Struass-Kahn said at a press conference.

"Hundreds of thousands of people will be starving. Children will suffer from malnutrition, with consequences on all of their lives."

That level of concern didn't translate into pledges for more food aid or concrete ideas about how food inflation might be reversed.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn said some ministers told him that using foodstuffs to make fuel amounted to a "crime against humanity."
The Bush administration, big time backer of corn-based ethanol, has announced that it's very concerned about the growing global food crisis. Spokesfemme Dana Perino said Bush is looking at new approaches such as buying more of the food needed for assistance from sources close to needy countries. Great, the US is going to compete with locals for already limited food stocks which should drive up the price putting food out of reach for even more people.
If Bush is sincere (and wouldn't that be a first?), he ought to announce an end to the corn-based ethanol scam.

Bernier to Karzai - Ditch Khalid

Canada's ForAffMin Maxime Bernier may need to brush up on his diplomacy.

Speaking to reporters at Kandahar airfield, Bernier said it's time for Afghan president Hamid Karzai to ditch Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid.

"I think (Karzai) can work with us to be sure the governor will be more powerful, the governor will do what he has to do to help us," he said. "There's a question to maybe have a new governor. They're a sovereign state, they're going to have to decide the measure the president will have to take about the future of the governor here.

"Is it the right person at the right place at the right time? President Karzai will have to answer these questions as soon as possible."

Of course there's nothing in Bernier's remarks intended to meddle with Afghan sovereignty. Yeah, right. Then again, maybe Karzai needs Bernier to tell him how to run Kandahar province, eh?

It probably won't take more than a day or two for Karzai to fire back. He got enmeshed in a pretty vicious war or words with the Brits over his appointment for governor of Helmand province. Being an Afghan, these remarks can represent a huge loss of face, especially to a national leader utterly beholden to (aka "held captive by") his nation's warlords.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Harp Of Darkness

When it comes to secrecy and one-man rule, Canada may never have had a prime minister who more closely resembled "Uncle Joe" Stalin himself than Stephen Harper.

Appointing political commisars in the PMO to block public access to information from Canadian scientists or our Defence Department so that the only "truth" we will hear is precisely the message Uncle Joe wants us to hear is despicably un-Canadian. It's not just shaping the message, petty spinning, it's outright information control through information denial.

Now let me get this straight. Our soldiers are giving life and limb in a noble quest to bring democracy to Afghanistan while this _________ (fill in the blank) throws a hood over its head at home?

These Gag Orders effectively set up our armed and our civil services against the people in order to serve not the country but, rather, the will of a decidedly undemocratic leader. It is an abuse of power, an act of political corruption, a subversion of democracy.

Now Uncle Joe's latest despotic gambit has been revealed. It came in the form of a Friday motion to the Federal Court of Canada seeking to suppress scheduled hearings into whether Canada turned prisoners over to Afghan authorities knowing they would probably be tortured.

In March the head of the Military Police Complaints Commission announced public hearings would be held because the government had stonewalled MPCC investigators despite their top-secret security clearances.

Now that the MPCC has been forced to go public, and only now, the government has seen fit to challenge its jurisdiction. That seems more than a little self-serving and duplicitous coming from the same government and the same ministers who pledged to co-operate fully with the commission back when the inquiry was launched.

The latest stunt demonstrates that it's not Stephen Harper's secret agenda that we need fear the most but his secret government. If this is the way Harper treats Canadians while he's leads a minority government, imagine what he would do to us should we be foolish enough to hand him a majority?

Friday, April 11, 2008

So, That's Why this Dick Is Smiling!

So just what is that image in Dick Cheney's sunglasses? He told Lynn he was off fishing. Just what sort of bait was he using anyway?
The debate rages whether the image is a sunbathing hottie or Cheney's own hand. What do you think?

Biofuels Pose Poverty Fight Setback

These are scary times for the world's poorest people. Food, for them, is rapidly becoming unaffordable. This isn't just one or two countries struck by some natural disaster, it's a plight now common to the poor around the world.

The World Bank estimates the food crisis has set back the fight against poverty for seven years.

World Bank president and former US trade negotiator, Robert Zoelleck, has called on rich countries to come up with an extra half-trillion dollars for the World Food Programme and to enact a "New Deal for global food policy." From The Guardian:

"Zoellick said: 'In the US and Europe over the last year we have been focusing on the prices of gasoline at the pumps. While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And it's getting more and more difficult every day.'
He said the price of wheat had risen by 120% in the past year, more than doubling the cost of a loaf of bread. Rice prices were up by 75% in just two months. On average, the Bank calculates that food prices have risen by 83% in the past three years.

"In Bangladesh a 2kg bag of rice now consumes almost half of the daily income of a poor family. With little margin for survival, rising prices too often means fewer meals," he said. Poor people in Yemen were now spending more than a quarter of their income on bread. "This is not just about meals forgone today, or about increasing social unrest, it is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth. Even more, we estimate that the effect of this food crisis on poverty reduction worldwide is in the order of seven lost years."

Zoellick criticised the subsidies and import tariffs used to promote wider use of the fuels.

Liz Stuart, spokeswoman for Oxfam, said: "Europe and the US must stop adding fuel to fire by increasing crop production for biofuels. These have dubious environment benefits, and by driving up prices, are crippling the lives of the poor."

Now, let's see how long this New Deal takes to make it to the legislative tables of the western nations. Surely there has now been a critical mass of research showing that our hopes for biofuels were unfounded and they're causing more harm than good.

And He Blames the Civilians?

Generalissimo Rick Hillier, the Grand Cod of Candahar,har,har, has never hesitated to fault civilian aid agencies for not doing enough reconstruction work in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Aid workers have, in turn, said areas like Kandahar were just too dangerous for them to do any good. Now Hillier has proven the civilians were right and his complaints nothing more than self-serving, cheap shots.

Hillier has told Parliament's foreign affairs committee that everyone at NATO knew, two years ago, that the combat force fielded in Kandahar, Canada's 1,000-strong battle group, wasn't even half the minimum necessary. From the Toronto Star:

"As they were doing the assessment of force structures needed because of ... Taliban activities, it was clearly delineated that a second battalion was required in Kandahar," the chief of the defence staff told Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

As no new troop contributions were coming, Canadian military officials made a deliberate plan to limit the scope and ambition of its operations in Kandahar. Instead of tackling the province's persistent trouble spots, such as along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where Taliban fighters seek refuge, soldiers focused on strategic pockets of the province, taking essentially a village-by-village approach to the task of securing one of the most dangerous provinces.

Hillier said Canadian forces conducted operations in areas where it could be done responsibly, with success and with minimum risk to life."

So, to recap, Canada's armed forces with their tanks and artillery and air support knew they had to play Taliban Dodgeball in Kandahar but expected civilian aid agencies without tanks and artillery and air support to ignore all that and get on with the job.

Here's a question. If Canada's mission was so woefully understrength in the face of a resurgent enemy, why wasn't Hillier actually speaking up for his men and demanding reinforcements two years ago? Surely he should have been yelling at everyone who would listen that his troops were at such risk that they had to avoid his own theatre's hot spots.

Another question. When did Hillier first realize that a 1,000-strong battle group was woefully inadequate for the Kandahar mission and why did he recommend that strength force in the first place?

While many Canadians have been fawning all over Hillier, I never saw what they did in the guy. To me he was always more grandstanding politician than military leader and I think that's becoming more obvious by the day.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Operation Realism" - New Roadmap for Kandahar

You were expecting what? Democracy, human rights? No, no, no - that's what you were told Canada's mission to Afghanistan was all about but that was so 2007 and this is 2008 and 2011 will be here before you know it.

You gullible fools - the 40-odd per cent of you who really believed all that spin about how our Canadian soldiers were giving life and limb in Afghanistan to bring freedom to the people - you had better put away your gingham bag of delusions. You were had.

Even Lib turncoat David Emerson, the consummate turd polisher himself, has folded his tent and says it's time mission enthusiasts stowed their rose coloured glasses. From Canadian Press:

"I don't think any of us should be under the illusion that Afghanistan is going to be a thriving, prosperous democracy by 2011.

"But we hope we can get to the point where Afghanistan has become a viable state and we can normalize Canada's relationship," said Emerson, chair of a cabinet committee overseeing Ottawa's war-and-development strategy

But not everyone is without hope. Generalissimo Rick Hillier who conceived this fiasco said, "The mission continues in a positive direction, but that threat remains high especially in the south of Afghanistan and especially, from our perspective in the west and north of Kandahar city itself."
A positive direction, is that right Rick? And just what the hell would that be, boyo? I expect it's positive for the Taliban and there's no doubt it's positive for the drug barons and the warlords but, from our perspective, isn't that negative? I suppose it doesn't really matter any more, now that we've ditched the idealism and settled for "realism" which sounds more and more like fatalism, eh?

Born To Be Mild

An awful report today in the New York Times about Death and the Older Biker.

Not surprisingly, a study has found that motorcycle fatalities have increased substantially since several states began weakening helmet laws. The troubling part was this:

"Notably, nearly half of the riders killed in 2006 were age 40 and older, and nearly a quarter were older than 50. The average age of motorcyclists killed in accidents was about 38.

Transportation officials told the news service that the age trends reflect the growing popularity of motorcycles among older people with increasing incomes but decreasing physical dexterity and reaction times."

Even though I fall well into the "past 50" group I'm a devoted rider. That said I regularly see plenty of bikers, including older guys, who are just newspaper reports waiting to be printed. I've even pulled over a couple of fellows and told them just that, urging them to get some proper training.

For a lot of older riders, those motorcycle licenses were pretty easy to get when we were kids. In my case I was already riding when Ontario introduced its first motorcycle licensing regime. Back then you could just go down, sign a document attesting to having ridden a bike 1,000 miles and - voila - you had a license, no testing involved. You might have gotten a couple of tips from your dad but that was about it. I actually got a few pointers from a guy who'd been a motorcycle dispatch rider in Europe during the war - good stuff if you ever find yourself being raked off the road by a German machine gun.

Many older riders put away the two-wheeled toys while they go through the "family and career" thing. Then, once the kids are on their own, the lure of that glossy paint and blinding chrome becomes too much to resist. For a lot of these guys they now find themselves with the cash to buy the sort of bike they could never have hoped to afford in their youth. Suddenly it's Motorcycle Mardi Gras. This guy may not have been on a bike in 20-years but he still has his motorcycle license so there's nothing standing in his way.

Motorycles have changed enormously since I bought my first Honda shortly after Lyndon Baines Johnson became US president. Even the powerful machines like my BSA Lightning and Norton Atlas were clunkers compared to the bikes on the market today. Back then a 650 cc. machine was Top Dog. Today's equivalent bikes run 1,400, 1,800, even 2,300 ccs. Where 40 horsepower was once dazzling, today it's 170 plus hp. A superbike that once came in at 400-pounds is now creeping up toward 700 lbs.

Riding a 21st century road warrior is not the same thing as bashing around on a hunk of mid-20th century technology and yet guys with lousy riding skills are plonking down their money and riding off on machines they don't begin to know how to handle. In a heartbeat (and that's all it takes, believe me) they find themselves in a situation with the bike getting away from them and it's all over save for the landing. Good luck on that, by the way.

The solution? Fortunately there is one. Through the initiatives of our provincial safety councils there is now an excellent motorcycle training programme available in every province in Canada. Every rider 45 or over should be required to attend and pass one of these courses.

I took the BC Safety Council motorcycle course when I hit 50 and it was the best money I ever spent on motorcycling. Not only did I learn a lot of vital things I'd never known before - "conspicuity, conspicuity, conspicuity" - but I also "unlearned" a lot of the bad and dangerous habits I'd collected over the years. I didn't even know these habits were bad or dangerous until that was shown to me and suddenly it was all wisdom and light.

Oh yeah, another thing that study found was that fully half of all motorcycle fatalities did not involve collisions with another vehicle but simple loss of control. That's what happens when riders aren't properly trained and, also, when they indulge in the trendy practice of "bar hopping." Here's a tip - motorcycles and booze don't mix, not at all. Maybe 0.08 is okay for car drivers but it's a lethal limit for a lot of bikers.

Mission Creep

David Petraeus, he's the Gold Standard for western generals including our own Rick Hillier.

The 4-star top honcho of American forces in Iraq, along with ambassador Ryan Crocker, just put on the lamest presentation ever about the Iraq war in their appearance at congressional hearings.

Jon Stewart had the best analysis of Petraeus' performance on last night's The Daily Show, calling it a "polished turd." Lest you think that a bit harsh, Stewart was responding to Petraeus' godawful, circuitous doublespeak in which he said that American troops can't be withdrawn until they've created "winning conditions" and then responded that he couldn't describe what winning conditions would be. He, naturally, had no hesitation in describing, in precise detail, what losing would look like should US troops be "prematurely" withdrawn. Winning? Well that's something else best left to others in, say, ten or fifteen years, maybe more.

Here's a hint. If a general can't tell his political bosses what winning his battle is, much less how and when he's going to do that, get rid of him, he's a damned loser, a careerist, a useless ticket-puncher. Go to the next guy in line and just keep going if necessary until you find the "Can Do" guy, the one who has some idea of how to win the battle and give you some idea of what it's going to take to win it and when that'll be done.

If a commanding general can't tell you how he defines victory, it's a safe bet that he doesn't have a damned clue how to get there. And, if he doesn't have any idea how to get there, he's not going to get you there now is he?

What's particularly disturbing about Petraeus is that he knows full well how to "get there." It's plain as day in his latest book, FM 3-24, the US military's new counterinsurgency field manual. Petraeus knows it, he co-wrote it. If you want an insight into the wisdom of the ages, check it out. It's available, free, in PDF format on the internet.

It's too bad none of those concerned congressfolks had the guts to hold up a copy of FM 3-24 and ask the good general just how the war he was waging in Iraq compared to the tactics for success enshrined in his own manual. They probably haven't even bothered to read it themselves.

The cardinal lesson of Petraeus' manual is that counter-insurgency warfare is enormously labour intensive. He knows the reason that so little progress has been achieved over the past five years is that there were never enough American troops, only just enough to knock over Saddam's already devastated forces. That, of course, was the easy part. Only after Saddam was driven into hiding did the hard part begin. Saddam's soldiers took their weapons and went home. The Americans didn't have enough troops to secure Iraqi installations so many arsenals sat unguarded for a year or more while Iraqis looted them at their leisure, hauling away truckloads of small arms, rocket propelled grenades, raw explosives - the very stuff that's been used against US forces ever since.

The grossly negligent and unfathomably incompetent American invasion created an enormous power vacuum into which militias and insurgents poured, heavily laden with looted weaponry. Without sufficient troops to secure Iraq and impose order, sectarian violence broke out leading to ethnic cleansing on a grand scale in Baghdad and other cities.

Petraeus points out in FM 3-24 that in unconventional (guerrilla) warfare, time is not on their side. Time only works for the insurgents. The way he put it was that liberating forces have a brief shelf life before they morph, in the locals' eyes, from liberator to despised occupier.

It's no wonder Petraeus can't define "winning conditions" for the wars he's babysitting (there are several underway) because he knows that the essential steps needed to create such conditions were ignored back when they might have done some good. I'll bet he knows that winning in Iraq is out of the realm of possibility without instituting another draft which, in turn, would be political suicide, even for John McCain.

In other words, General David Petraeus can't define "winning conditions" because he knows that, five lost years later, there aren't any.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Is Failure the New Norm?

It may just be anecdotal but the claims made this week by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker about progress in Iraq suggest that we may have entered an era where we've set the bar so low as to render failure irrelevant.

Five years to the day after Saddam was deposed America's top general and its chief diplomat in Iraq assured congress that progress is indeed being made, that Iraq may be about to turn the corner. That's all nonsense of course, it's all been said before, but that doesn't matter. Simply by refusing to admit failure they've guaranteed another extension for the occupation of Iraq by American forces.

What would success actually look like in Iraq. That's hard to pin down but I think it would definitely feature the following:

1. A national constitution that genuinely unites all Iraqis - Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shiite;
2. An oil law that serves the Iraqi people, not foreign oil companies;
3. Some sort of recognition of Iran as a regional power and engagement of Tehran;
4. The return and resettlement of Iraq's 4-million displaced citizens;
5. The re-establishment of Iraq's professional classes - doctors, teachers, engineers;
6. The restoration of Iraq's core infrastructure, notably water, sewer and electricity utilities.

Five years down the road these things are not too much to ask and yet progress on these essentials has been minimal at best. Until these conditions are met, Iraq cannot and will not break its dependence on the United States and its armed forces. Can't be done, won't be done.

The lack of progress on these issues screams failure but rather than acknowledging that and finding ways to do things differently, means to success, the approach is to "stay the course." That, in turn, enshrines failure as the standard for the occupation which, if it achieves nothing else, is bound to perpetuate failure as the norm for years to come.

This is a never-ending dog & pony show. The essentials to return Iraq to viable statehood - things as mundane as safe water, sanitation and electricity - are almost as distant today as they were when the infrastructure was originally destroyed. Imagine ongoing gasoline shortages in Iraq, a country that is a veritable sea of oil.

For diplomats and generals, Iraq is viewed in the context of the enemy du jour. In this year's hearings the villain of choice is Iran, by a landslide. In previous years it was Saddam's Baathists, the deadenders, the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaeda or the Shiite militias. They rotate in and rotate out as necessary to perpetuate the narrative of the need to keep America's military strength bleeding out into the Iraqi sands for yet another year.

But even that is a failure. Look at the list: Baathists, deadenders, Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias. Name one that's actually been eliminated, just one. They've ebbed and flowed, to be sure, but not one of them has been defeated and removed from the equation. The ironic part is that it is in the context of these enemies that America now judges its progress in Iraq.

Living In Butland

It can be a bit of a shock to the system to wake up one day and realize you're living in Butland, part of Butworld on planet But.

It seems that everything these days is delivered with a big, shiny "But." We're winning in Afghanistan, but... . Iraq is a huge success, but... . We're going to tackle the greenhouse gas business, but... .

"But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

We're stuck in the era of "Ifs, Ands, or Buts." For every proposal, every problem, every event there's bound to be an If or an And or a But thrown in somewhere around the very end to make everything you just heard or read almost completely meaningless. You get your hopes up and then - someone drops the But bomb.

Take this story out of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They just came out with some wonderful news. They're on track to cut global poverty by half by 2015. Now that is big news, certainly the best thing I've heard in a while. Until the But arrives.

It seems we're poised to cut global poverty in half but, if we don't want to see that success completely reversed, we'll have to tackle the little problem of - wait for it - global warming. The bank and the fund define extreme poverty as living on less than $1 per day. That bottom rung still stands at about a billion people.

The industrialization of India and China is creating market demands that spread newfound wealth to many impoverished corners of the earth. Unfortunately that wealth can come at the cost of a nation's rain forests and fisheries.

Raising a person's income from under $1 per day to over $1 per day may be significant to the World Bank or the IMF but it isn't that great a blessing for the individual who finds that grain prices and his basic sustenance have increased 100% in just one year. It isn't much of a boon if that individual can no longer find affordable fish to buy.

What it all boils down to is that the World Bank/International Monetary Fund goal of halving global poverty is being assessed in the context of a world that doesn't exist - a world without resource depletion, food shortages and all the environmental effects that are already being felt due to global warming. Give them credit for good intentions, but...

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Will the Next US President Heed the Constitution?

If only the United States was governed by its Constitution it could be a wonderful country again. But, despite all the fanciful oaths they've taken, the members of the Bush regime have gone out of their way to circumvent or subvert the very instrument they've sworn to uphold.

Bush/Cheney have operated like political gluttons, bloating the executive branch's constitutional powers and, in the process, undermining the constitutional powers of the American judicial system and the nation's congress.

Thumbing their noses at the most basic principles of the Rule of Law, Bush and his troll, Cheney, have introduced arrest without charge, secret trials, torture, illegal war, warrantless spying on American citizens and many other abuses, all cloaked behind a veil of decidedly unconstitutional secrecy.

It is lamentable that the US Congress lacks the will to impeach Bush and Cheney but the prospect of obtaining a 2/3rds majority in the Senate needed to convict is unfathomable when the Repuglicans are going into the coming election with a presidential candidate who embraces the core policies of this administration. To impeach Bush or Cheney would require a measure of repudiation of their policies and tactics that could ultimately sink John McCain long before November ticks along.

The grounds for impeachment, stated in the 1886 trial of Andrew Johnson, were the subject of some debate: ''An impeachable high crime or misdemeanor is one in its nature or consequences subversive of some fundamental or essential principle of government or highly prejudicial to the public interest, and this may consist of a violation of the Constitution, of law, of an official oath, or of duty, by an act committed or omitted, or, without violating a positive law, by the abuse of discretionary powers from improper motives or for an improper purpose.''

Yet without some powerful congressional censure there exists the prospect that Bush/Cheney may stand as a precedent for a seismic shift in America's system of checks and balances in favour of the executive branch. The nation's chief lawmaker then stands above the law and America's constitutional democracy is maimed.

Why is no one directly asking Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and John McCain if they will pledge to restore the integrity of the US Constitution should they become president? Why are they not being challenged to undertake to reverse the abuses of the Bush regime and support legislative amendments to ensure they cannot be repeated?

The existing punk administration has defied the Constitution. Isn't it vital that Americans should vote for a president who won't follow suit? For if a second presidency embraces the constitutional abuses of the Bush regime it will become much harder to restore American democracy afterward.