Monday, August 31, 2009

Screw the Planet, Screw Your Kids and Screw You!

Big Oil and Big Coal ride again!

They're pulling out all the stops to undermine the upcoming debate in the US Senate over legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

America's fossil fuel industry knows that the key to disrupting international action to tackle global warming lies in Washington. America is the key to global consensus. Around the world, all eyes are on the US. The Copenhagen climate summit, which some believe is our last best chance to avert truly calamitous climate change, is barely a few months away.

Climate change is a top priority for the Obama administration. The problem is the Obama administration is awash in top priorities and he's running into determined, ultra-partisan opposition on everything from economic recovery to health care reform. In the process of these battles he's shown himself all too willing to water down his wine for compromise.

What it all boils down to is that the climate change issue may be Obama's and the American Congress' "bridge too far." Big Oil and Big Coal sense their opportunity and, according to the Washington Post, they're striking back hard:

The oil lobby was sponsoring rallies with free lunches, free concerts and speeches warning that a climate-change bill could ravage the U.S. economy.

Professional "campaigners" hired by the coal industry were giving away T-shirts praising coal-fired power.

But when environmentalists showed up in this college town -- closer than ever to congressional passage of a climate-change bill, in the middle of the green movement's biggest political test in a generation -- they provided . . . a sedate panel discussion.

And they gave away stickers.

...It seems that environmentalists are struggling in a fight they have spent years setting up. They are making slow progress adapting a movement built for other goals -- building alarm over climate change, encouraging people to "green" their lives -- into a political hammer, pushing a complex proposal the last mile through a skeptical Senate.

Even now, these groups differ on whether to scare the public with predictions of heat waves or woo it with promises of green jobs. And they are facing an opposition with tycoon money and a gift for political stagecraft.

Of course, who are we to criticize? Here in Canada the leaders of both major parties are unrepentant Tar Sands boosters. Even Jack Layton dummies up when it comes to climate change lest he be seen as supporting even a small tax on SUV juice. Self-serving cowards, the lot of them. Harper has EnviroCan's top climate scientists gagged and locked away in a closet and that's just fine with Ignatieff and Layton. Ignatieff even proclaims the Athabasca bitumen a "key to national unity."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Unwrapping the Lockerbie Travesty

There was no shortage of indignation in Western capitals at Scotland's decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the supposed Lockerbie bomber now suffering from terminal cancer.

Gwynne Dyer, however, makes the case that al-Megrahi should never have been in jail in the first place. Whoever did place a bomb aboard Pan-Am flight 103 in December, 1988, it almost certainly wasn't al-Megrahi:

Afghanistan - Time For a New Experiment

The Guardian thinks we should take a new approach to Afghanistan, try something different - leave.

...The view that elections are the essential ingredient for a stable future is undermined in a country where President Hamid Karzai has stuffed his cabinet with war lords and where a functioning civil society is but a rumour along with the notion of justice. They appear like a fig leaf rather than the ultimate expression of democracy.

It is easy to blame the Taliban for this. But it was the west's half-hearted engagement with Afghanistan, after bringing down the Taliban regime after 9/11, that created the social tensions, particularly in the south, that allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. Promises to create an effective national police force were not followed up with resources. Farmers whose opium was destroyed were promised aid that never came. Billions were spent with little impact on a country with huge unemployment.

This failure is a problem for all of us. With so much invested by the west in the result of the elections, the outcome threatens to leave our politicians without an obvious exit strategy for NATO troops.

We need to recognise that a large part of the difficulty lies with the west's support for President Karzai. For years, US diplomacy has been expended coaxing and threatening Karzai into doing what the west would like: to be less tolerant of corruption, to secure more international investment and to be more effective in delivering services and aid to ordinary people.

Karzai's relationships with drug dealers and war lords are, perhaps, not as serious in the long run as another culpability – his presiding over a regime devoid of the development of any party political system that might have thrown up options for his country's future, rather than a system that has supervised the sharing of its spoils.

It is clear that Karzai is neither capable of nor willing to change. The democratic process has run aground. The west faces the prospect of upholding a dubious regime for a narrow strategic reason – to prevent terrorism in the UK and the US and to stop al-Qaida setting up their terror camps again.

The question now is whether this is necessary. If Nato troops leave Afghanistan, it may become easier for al-Qaida to operate there but, equally, the sense of grievance that attracts Afghans to the Taliban and Muslims to extremism elsewhere may be diminished. But for as long as our troops are in Afghanistan, British soldiers will be killed, making it an increasingly urgent political problem for Gordon Brown.

The government finds itself nailed to the logic of a failed humanitarian intervention where it is hard to abandon what it promised to redeem.

...It is clear that there will be no obvious moment for withdrawal. There are two highly risky options: a commitment to do whatever it takes to rout the Taliban, rebuild Afghan infrastructure, reconfigure Afghan politics and stick around for a generation for which there is a fast diminishing public appetite. Or to set a time-table for a staged military withdrawal.

In the end, it may be that solutions cannot be imposed by the west, but need to emerge from within an Afghan society free of the interference that has for three decades exacerbated its problems.

The writing is on the wall. We in the West cannot relieve Afghanistan of the scourge of warlordism. That failure dooms any prospect of a viable, central government and leaves the nation in a state of suspended civil war just waiting for the Western forces to leave.

We're not just treading water in Afghanistan, we're loitering and the longer we hang around in that country swatting at Taliban flies, the stronger and more broad-based grows the insurgency. Every faction that joins the insurgency is a victory for the Taliban and a defeat for us. This is a war in which time is not on our side and a war that is going badly - on the front lines and in the capital.

The Guardian is right. If Afghanistan's tribes cannot resolve their differences without a civil war and if we can't change that, let's accept the inevitable and leave before that too becomes impossible.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Go Big or Go Home, Ah Forget It - Go Home!

That's the question on the minds at the Pentagon and NATO these days. It's a "more for less" bargain now, eight years down the road. The resurgent Taliban have plainly shown the Western forces need a lot more troops on the ground but the Afghan election has shown that the country's warlords hold the balance of political power and that's now been institutionalized into one desperately criminal enterprise.

Of course we're no longer just fighting the Taliban. That neat little scenario rode off into the sunset sometime around 2006. Since then the insurgency has morphed into a more complex alliance of religious fundamentalists, warlords, drug lords, common criminals, aggrieved folks looking for revenge and garden variety nationalists who just want these white people to go away.

Afghanistan's Deeply Fractured Power Base or Run-Off - to Where?

Right now signs point to a runoff election between Hamid Karzai and his Tajik-Pashtun rival Abdullah Abdullah. What hangs in the balance? A lot and, at the same time, almost nothing. How much different will Afghanistan be under a supposed reformer like Abdullah Abdullah? Probably not very much at all.

Power in Afghanistan isn't won in an election. The last vote that Karzai won in a landslide proved that. Despite his solid win at the polls, Karzai's powers almost immediately began devolving to the warlords who once comprised the Northern Alliance. They saw to it that Karzai's control remained largely bottled up within the boundaries of the capital, Kabul. Outside the capital, it was the warlords who shared their power with Karzai but only on their terms.

The West had five years to clean up the mess from that first election and, beyond bitching at Karzai about corruption, we did bugger all. That paved the way for an even more disastrous outcome in the current elections. Karzai didn't even attempt to hide the Faustian deals he struck with Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara warlords. He bought their support and they in turn cajoled and intimidated their own local authorities to support Hamid.

But what about Abdullah? If he wins he steps straight into the shoes of Hamid Karzai. He will have to confront not only the insurgency but those warlords who backed the incumbent. Does anyone really believe those warlords are going to allow Abdullah to consolidate his power at the expense of their own interests? Please, this is Afghanistan.

NATO's Options - Bad and Worse

The outcome of this election - either way - could transform Afghanistan and not for the better. So long as warlordism holds sway, Afghanistan will never be more than a civil war on hold. Nothing more than that. Nothing.

Every warlord in Afghanistan has, by turns, fought against and fought alongside every other warlord. Treachery is their stock in trade. Every now and then they do unite - to throw out a foreigner (that would be us).

Up to 2001 the Northern Alliance was on the field, contesting the Taliban's control. After 2001 these guys moved to the bleachers (government) and sat by watching us try to keep their former rivals on the defensive. Now the Taliban are back and they're on the offensive. If those warlords are tossed from the bleachers by a reformer like Abdullah they have to go back to the playing field, they have to pick a side to join. What do they stand to gain by siding with us and what do they stand to gain by siding with the insurgency?

If this election sees the warlord base given the boot, we may find ourselves in a position remarkably akin to that experienced by the Soviets before they were driven out. All the tribes coalesce against us while we're left to defend a nub government that does not control the countryside with an indigenous army that doesn't want to fight. That is the worst case scenario.

The best case scenario sees Karzai holding onto office, the presidency even further weakened and more directly beholden to a group of pretty nasty warlords with names like Dostum and Fahim. There will be fallout. Those who have backed Abdullah, at least half the population, will believe the election was rigged, stolen. At that point the only question becomes how many of them choose to join or support the insurgency?

How much broader does the insurgency have to become before it transforms into a civil war? That's really debatable but we may be about to find out.

It's understandable that the Pentagon and key NATO allies are now calling for a substantial increase in Western forces in Afghanistan. We've been treading water but it's an ebb tide and we're getting swept out to sea.

Military Mumbo-Jumbo

To listen to Western generals stating their case is to listen to gibberish. They've proven themselves astonishingly adept at spouting nonsense for the past eight years. Remember our own military genius, swaggering Rick Hillier (the "Big Cod"), who boastfully pronounced that Canadian soldiers were going to take over Kandahar province to kill Taliban "scumbags" which he numbered at a "few dozen"? Gibberish then and it's been a steady diet of nonsense ever since.

These guys are still fighting the last war, the one that began in 2001-2003. That was a military war, at least from their point of view. However when the Taliban returned, they came with a classic political war, an insurgency. They had no artillery, no tanks, no jet fighters, no attack helicopters. Even if they were stupid enough to want a military war, they had no means to fight one. But they weren't stupid. They've been steeped in centuries of highly successful unconventional warfare, insurgency, political warfare.

When they came back we had to fight their war, the political war. Our war, the military war, could no longer decide the question. But fighting the political war would have required a massive infusion of forces and enormously costly aid programmes.

We needed hundreds of thousands of troops dispersed among the hamlets and villages of the countryside to secure the local populations from insurgent control. If you don't sleep in their villages, ever ready to repel the insurgents, the villagers have no choice but to co-operate with your enemy if they want to survive.

We needed thousands of additional troops to confront the enemy within, the warlords. We needed to support the central government to keep it strong enough to resist and overcome warlordism but we didn't even try. With that we surrendered the central government to corruption and thuggery.

At the same time we needed to create a viable, alternative economy but, instead, we sat by as the opium fields spread through the countryside.

For a while the generals had a pat answer. We were only staying in Afghanistan until we had trained an Afghan army capable of defeating the insurgency. At first we talked of a modest force and then we boosted that to 150,000. We're now at 180,000 trained soldiers and, not surprisingly, we have set the target at doubling that to 360,000 to 400,000 Afghan soldiers.

Why do we keep moving the goalposts? Because it buys us time and we don't have any other answers. If there's any country that cannot begin to afford to field an army of a third-million soldiers it's dirt poor Afghanistan. The central government's revenues are barely enough to cover the costs of the educational system. This also quite wilfully ignores the reality that there'll never be an Afghan army big enough to prop up a central government that's rotting out from within. What does that leave you with? A huge, unpaid army that exists to defend itself? Brilliant idea!

Canada's only saving grace is that we're out of Afghanistan in 2011. We should have been out this year except for Mr. Dion's fecklessness. Imagine if we'd had an election on the issue of Afghanistan. We might have lost, narrowly. But that would have made Afghanistan Harper's folly and we would have been powerfully positioned to sweep him away today. I guess that's the price you pay when you don't have the courage of your convictions.

I think the Afghanistan war is one that'll go into the "fiasco" column. It sure hasn't been the soldiers' fault, not in the slightest. They've done everything we could have asked of them and much more. They have been sold out not by public opinion at home but by their own generals who, from the outset, have persistently shown themselves unfit - and undeserving - to lead.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Adios Liberalistas!

It began with Mr. Dion and it's come to fruition with Mr. Ignatieff. My four decade-long affair with Liberalism is over. I wish I could boast that I'd found something better but I haven't. The NDP's not better, the Conservatives (whatever that means) much less so. I guess I've come to the point where it simply doesn't matter. As Riley B. King put it, The Thrill is Gone:

Just One More Legend

When the Rolling Stones were trying to put together a serious blues band they faced a lot of competition. But all the bands in London wanted the same guy - a jazz drummer by the name of Charlie Watts. Jones and Richards and Jagger knew this drummer could lift the band where it really needed to be.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Karzai Wins by Landslide

The British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, reports that early results have Hamid Karzai with 72-per cent of the vote versus just 23-per cent for rival Abdullah Abdullah. Worse yet, most of the votes remaining untallied are from areas of the Pashtun south where Karzai is heavily favoured.

This raises the strong suspicion of massive voting fraud and will certainly be taken that way by anti-Karzai forces.

Karzai warned before the vote that an indecisive first ballot leading to a runoff second ballot election could trigger civil war. This victory, if borne out, could send many of Karzai's enemies into the arms of the insurgency.

A Karzai victory would also consolidate the power of the country's warlords who backed the Afghan president.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Calley Apologizes for My Lai Massacre

It's taken four decades but former US Army lieutenant William Calley has apologized for the 1968 massacre when he and his men gunned down hundreds of villagers - men, women, children, even babies - in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. The US Army covered it up so well that the number of dead can only be estimated as between 350 to 500.

Calley had long refused to grant interviews about what happened, but on Wednesday he spoke at a Columbus Kiwanis meeting. He made only a brief statement, but agreed to take questions from the audience.

He did not deny what had happened that day, but did repeatedly make the point — which he has made before — that he was following orders.

Calley explained he had been ordered to take out My Lai, adding that he had intelligence that the village was fortified and would be “hot” when he went in. He also said the area was submitted to an artillery barrage and helicopter fire before his troops went in. It turned out that it was not hot and there was no armed resistance. But he had been told, he said, that if he left anyone behind, his troops could be trapped and caught in a crossfire.

Asked about American casualties, Calley said there were two injuries, but neither was the result of enemy fire, adding, “They didn’t have time.”

...When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful act, he said, “I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them — foolishly, I guess.” Calley then said that was not an excuse; it was just what happened.

The officer Calley said gave those orders was Capt. Ernest Medina, who was also tried for what happened at My Lai. Represented by the renowned Defense Attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina was acquitted of all charges in 1971.

Calley was convicted, spent a brief time in custody and then was paroled and discharged by the US Army.

A Civil War in Waiting?

We've abandoned all our nonsense about democracy and the claptrap about women's rights. You can lower a lot of expectations over the span of eight years but, eventually, you get to the bottom of the barrel. That's when you set your sights on establishing something, anything in the way of a functioning government that can hold itself together just long enough for you to get the hell out. And that's where we, the US and NATO, are at today in Afghanistan. But some are now asking whether even that is too much to hope for. From The New York Times:

Privately, American officials set out a number of possible ways that the election aftermath could affect their operations. During a meeting on Thursday, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO combat operations here, discussed how the military would have to adapt to each.

Particularly worrisome was the specter of a divisive ethnic presidential runoff between Mr. Karzai, whose power base is in the Pashtun south, and Mr. Abdullah, whose main support resides in the Tajik and Uzbek north, officials said.

Mr. Karzai himself has in the past raised the specter of ethnic violence, telling officials that if there was a runoff it could lead to a civil war, Western officials said.

...For all of their worry about the problems that a runoff could bring, administration officials have also made clear they are not enamored of the Karzai government, and the president’s re-election would not be risk-free, either.

Mr. Obama, during his first news conference as president, criticized the Karzai government as “detached.” And administration officials have complained of Mr. Karzai’s failure to crack down on corruption and the drug trafficking fueling the insurgency. Western officials have also criticized Mr. Karzai’s alliances with unsavory figures to try to secure re-election.

Should Mr. Karzai win, either outright or in a second round, Obama administration officials could find themselves with a president who has engaged in so much deal-making that he may well be even more beholden to warlords than before.

For the past six years at least, Afghanistan has come to resemble a civil war on hold as the major players waited to see how well we would deal with their nemesis, the Taliban. Everyone, even us, knew that Hamid Karzai was much too weak to bring order, to stand up to his country's warlords. He couldn't eradicate them. Instead he had to embrace them, share power with them, just to survive.

Today the Western nations would be more than content to accept strongman rule in Afghanistan because there really is no other way out for us. The trouble is, strongman rule doesn't evolve out of a ballot box. It arises from the brutal suppression of all rivals. Its genesis lies in civil war. That's where Afghanistan was when we showed up eight years ago and that's where it'll be yet again when we leave.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Dying for Nothing" - Gwynne Dyer's Take on the Afghan Election

Our top political leaders may claim the Afghan elections were a great success - but they're full of crap. Fortunately there are some who'll speak the unvarnished truth, people like Gwynne Dyer:

...we are asked to believe that an election will restore confidence in the government. It is nonsense: this election has no more relevance than the ones that the United States used to stage in Vietnam. Col. David Haight, commanding the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the US 10th Mountain Division in Logar and Wardak provinces near Kabul, was helpfully indiscreet about it in a recent interview.

"I think that apathy is going to turn into some anger when the administration doesn't change, and I don't think that anybody believes that Karzai is going to lose," Haight told an embedded reporter from the Guardian. "There is going to be frustration from people who realize there is not going to be a change. The bottom line is they are going to be thinking: 'Four more years of this crap?'"

Unless bribery, blackmail and threats no longer work in Afghanistan, Karzai is going to win. He isn't even bothering to run a conventional campaign: he bailed out of a televised debate with the other presidential candidates at the last moment, and leaves it to them to hold election rallies in provincial towns. He has made his deals with the warlords and the traditional ethnic and tribal powerbrokers, and is counting on them to deliver victory.

Karzai and the United States are shackled to the warlords because those were the allies that the US recruited to fight the Taliban on the ground when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The Taliban, being exclusively Pashtun, never controlled all of the country; Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek militias continued to hold out all across the north. So the US made deals with their leaders, showered them with weapons and money, and helped them into power instead.

Western rhetoric insists that the hills of Afghanistan are directly connected to the streets of Manhattan, London and Toronto. But no Afghan, not even any member of the Taliban, was involved in the planning or execution of 9/11, nor in the later, lesser attacks elsewhere in the West. Nor would the Taliban sweep back into power if all Western troops left Afghanistan tomorrow; the other players are still in the game.

Everybody who dies in this conflict is dying for nothing, because it will not change what happens when the foreign troops finally go home. As they eventually will.

Let's Hope They Don't Get the Full Mulroney

Within a few months Canadian tax authorities should know the identities of Canadians who've buried an estimated $5-billion in Swiss bank UBS.

So far seven taxpayers are said to have made "voluntary disclosures," paying the overdue taxes plus interest on their holdings to avoid penalties (fines) and prosecution.

When Brian Mulroney was finally forced to come clean on undeclared cash payments he received from Karlheinz Schreiber, Revenue Canada cut him a sweetheart deal, accepting 50-cents on the dollar of what he owed this country. That sparked a lot of anger to which the Canadian Revenue Agency assured taxpayers that such deals are no longer tolerated.

And if the Conservative government is going to allow voluntary disclosure leniency for the UBS account holders there needs to be a clear cut deadline. Once the Swiss hand over names and account particulars tax evasion investigations should be deemed to have been started disqualifying errant taxpayers from applying to be let off lightly.

Just What Role Does Iggy Have in Mind for Canadian Forces?

I watched a video clip over at Liberal Video Depot of Michael Ignatieff explaining his view of the Canadian Forces' role in Afghanistan and the future roles they may serve in peacekeeping.

After rambling on about a job well done in Kandahar, MI discussed possible future deployments in other trouble spots for Canadian Forces. One point he stressed was that our troops should never be sent in anywhere with only sidearms, suggesting he would send them armed to the teeth.


You go heavily armed to places where you're expecting to fight. Once you show up with the full array of weaponry, you're not a peacekeeper, you're a combatant. You're not setting yourself up as an honest broker, a negotiator, but as a potential adversary. You're not seeking lasting consensus but temporary compliance.

Canadian peacekeepers must be armed and they always are given what's required for self-defence - sidearms and light automatic weapons. Heavy firepower isn't part of that equation.

NATO's (Opium) Pipe Dream

NATO's new Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wants to double the size of Afghanistan's security forces to 400,000 to allow Western forces to withdraw.

Rasmussen is, in a word, delusional. Look at it this way. Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations on our planet, has a population of about 32-million. It has a total GDP of but 25-billion dollars annually (the CIA pegs it at a mere 12.5 billion). Per capita GDP is $800 (CIA) which ranks the country 217th in the world. Life expectancy is in the mid-40's.

The central government's takings aren't enough to cover a decent education system. Bureaucrats and security forces alike are so poorly paid they're forced into corruption and extortion.

Even if Kabul could draft enough Afghans to raise an army of 400,000 (and keep them from deserting) there's not a chance in hell the government could pay them much less cover the costs to field them operationally. The United States, which is about 10 times larger in population than Afghanistan and infinitely wealthier, fields a regular force of just 1.45-million all in - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. America's army totals 550,000 personnel and somehow Rasmussen figures Afghanistan should have an army of 400,000?

Rasmussen is talking through his hat. We'd do well to keep a close eye on this guy.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Does Ottawa Even Care Who Rules in Kabul?

Shouldn't our government care whether Hamid Karzai retains power in Afghanistan? After all, what are our troops over there for if not to defend the central government?

The Americans care deeply about the Afghan election. They see Karzai falling in with some of the worst warlords in his country in a desperate bid to cling to power. It's been widely reported that Washington was furious that Kabul allowed warlord general Dostum to return to his Uzbek homeland days before the vote.

The US seems to be backing away from its support of expansive Indian influence in Afghanistan in favour of something more acceptable to Pakistan. Karzai is, of course, decidedly pro-India and anti-Pakistan, fearing the domination of his country's immediate and much more powerful neighbour. Likewise Islamabad isn't particularly fond of Karzai either.

America has actively sought to deny Karzai a first ballot win, hoping that a runoff vote might see Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah squeak into office. Karzai has responded by rallying warlord support and tribal intimidation. By many accounts there has also been a good bit of fraud thrown in to boot.

The question becomes does Stephen Harper still back Karzai or is he falling into line with Washington and Islamabad? I think it's time for Steve to fish or cut bait.

The outcome of this election could turn very ugly. Dissident tribesmen may flock to Karzai's only real opposition - the insurgency. It won't take an awful lot to transform the insurgency into a full blown civil war. If it comes to that, what business does Canada - or NATO for that matter - have taking sides?

If our guy is a treacherous, lying, manipulative reprobate willing to sell out his countrymen to murderous warlords simply to keep a grip on power, why are we supporting him at all? Maybe the Harper government can explain just what our troops are over there fighting and dying for.

Vote Early, Vote Often - Afghan Polls Close

Afghans have had their second election since the Taliban were driven out in 2001. The final results could take two weeks to complete but there should be clear indications of who did what well before then.

As Asia Times Online reports, the issue now turns to apparently rampant voter fraud:

Two US-financed polls published during the past week showed support for Karzai was well short of the 51% of the total vote necessary to avoid a runoff election. A poll by Glevum Associates showed Karzai at 36%, and a survey by the International Republican Institute had him at 44% of the vote. Those polls suggest that Karzai might have to pad his legitimate vote total by a significant amount to be certain of being elected in the first round.

Preliminary results were expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. But Karzai has been laying the groundwork for just such a contingency for many months. He has forged political alliances with leading Afghan warlords who control informal militias and tribal networks in the provinces to carry out a vote fraud scheme accounting for a very large proportion of the votes.

The socio-political structure of Afghanistan remains so hierarchical that warlords can deliver very large blocs of votes to Karzai by telling their followers to vote for him, and in some provinces - especially in the Pashtun south - by forcing local tribal elders to cooperate in voter fraud schemes.

The system in which warlords pressure tribal elders to deliver the vote for Karzai was illustrated by a village elder in western Herat province who said he had been threatened by a local commander with "very unpleasant consequences" if the residents of his village did not vote for Karzai, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Meanwhile the state of security in Taliban country was revealed in a story in The Guardian about a Chinook helicopter shot down in Helmand province. Another helo dropped down to rescue the four-member crew but then, instead of sending in an infantry force to secure the downed aircraft until it could be recovered, it was destroyed by coalition air strikes to prevent it "falling into enemy hands." Say what?

How can a disabled helicopter the size of the massive (and massively expensive) Chinook fall into enemy hands? What are they going to do, pick it up and carry it off? No, the Brits destroyed it because they weren't willing to risk sending soldiers in to defend the ship until it could be airlifted out. When you kiss goodbye a $32-million helo you've got problems.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Think Twice

Afghans are poised to elect a new despot - Karzai or Abdullah. The simple fact that either of these two is able to stand to run for president has been bought and paid for by many lives, including these:

I invite you to go to that link, look at each of those faces, and tell me what we have achieved to justify the sacrifice of these fine people. Then, if you believe their deaths have not been in vain, tell us all how many more should be fed into this gaping maw before we say "enough."

Afghan Election Winner Declared - the Taliban!

Tomorrow's general election in Afghanistan isn't expected to do the government a lick of good no matter who wins. Unfortunately, it's the Taliban who stand poised to emerge the winners. From McClatchey Newspapers:

President Hamid Karzai's re-election, powered by despised warlords linked to war crimes and drugs, could drive more Afghans to join the Taliban or other militant groups and stoke ethnic tensions, Western and Afghan experts say. A victory by his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, could bring a similar result, they said.

Widespread cries of foul or a delayed outcome could create a power vacuum and lead to violence.

"The election result will not have the legitimacy that it needs. That will add to the ranks of the Taliban and the disaffected and disenfranchised people. It will be a moral victory for the Taliban whichever way you cut it," said Daoud Sultanzoi, a leading parliamentarian from Ghazni Province.

It's been apparent for some time that these elections could leave Afghanistan torn along ethnic and tribal lines. I'd bet that if only Afghanistan had a functioning army capable of taking on not only the Taliban but also the former Northern Alliance warlords, Washington would like nothing better than to support a coup. That "last resort" option, however, doesn't seem viable which leaves the US and NATO having to brace for deteriorating conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Too little, too late, too bad.

What nobody is mentioning is whether this election could ignite another civil war. Afghan's warlords are notoriously treacherous, willing to jump freely from one side to the other and then back again. With the central government unable to consolidate its power much beyond Kabul except with the collaboration of the warlords, these guys stand to become "free agents" capable of throwing in with the insurgency whenever they judge the moment is right.
Asia Times Online has an interesting analysis of how badly the West, especially the US, has bungled the Great Game in Afghanistan:
Kayhan newspaper, which is identified with the religious establishment, commented: "[Afghan President] Hamid Karzai is truly in a bit of a corner ... Challenges are mounting from every side ... Presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah's camp has been acting most peculiarly." The commentary then came out with strong endorsement of Karzai's alliance with the so-called warlords as embodying an approach "to keep the country from falling apart", which recognizes that "Afghanistan is and has been a federation of provinces ruled over by strongmen".
It concluded: "Afghanistan can only be governed via federal rule and Mr Karzai understands the latter fact very well but he can't come out and say it to his Western patrons. His balancing act sometimes falls short of Western expectations and at other times gets right up Afghan warlords' nose. And criticisms immediately follow from either party. The West has sought to 'clear, hold and build' a functioning Afghan state on the Western model in which citizens' assent to a social contract that imposes social and political discipline in exchange for allowing a relatively wide berth in the personal realm. This places the Americans, right from the start, in total opposition to the last thousand or so years of Afghan history, just as it did the Soviets."
Tehran has every reason to be pleased with Karzai's close alliance with erstwhile mujahideen leaders such as Ismail Khan, Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq and Rashid Dostum. Tehran obviously had a hand in persuading Dostum to return from Turkey -- defying US warnings - and galvanizing the Jumbish party just in time to boost Karzai's electoral prospects in the Amu Darya region. The Uzbekis and Hazara Shi'ites account for well over a quarter of the Afghan population.
Besides, Ismail Khan, who is close to Tehran, is allied to Burhanuddin Rabbani. Khan's support for Karzai at this juncture undercuts the entire US-Pakistani strategy behind fielding Abdullah, which was based on the premise that he would garner Tajik votes. Thus, if Karzai's prospects have distinctly improved on the eve of the elections, Tehran has a hand in it.

Washington is aghast that its entire stratagem to prevent a first-round victory by Karzai is in serious jeopardy. (Karzai, the front-runner, would need to win 51% of the total votes cast to avoid a run-off with the second-placed candidate.)
In an extraordinary public vent of choler, the US State Department said in Washington: "We have made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concern regarding the return of Mr Dostum and any prospective role in today's Afghanistan." President Barack Obama has already asked his national security team to give further information on Dostum's "background", including concerns that he might have been involved in the deaths of a significant number of Taliban prisoners of war in 2001 during the US invasion.
Holbrooke faces a huge challenge. If Karzai secures a clear-cut victory in the first round on Thursday, it will bring into power a coalition that the US will find extremely hard to control as there will be multiple power centers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Methane Found Bubbling Up from Arctic Seabed

One of the great fears of climate scientists is "runaway global warming." This is point of no return climate change where manmade warming reaches the point that it triggers natural processes beyond our control that discharge masses of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These are often referred to as "tipping points" which if you've spent much time in a canoe you'll readily understand.

From BBC News:

Scientists say they have evidence that the powerful greenhouse gas methane is escaping from the Arctic sea bed.

Researchers say this could be evidence of a predicted positive feedback effect of climate change.

As temperatures rise, the sea bed grows warmer and frozen water crystals in the sediment break down, allowing methane trapped inside them to escape.

The research team found that more than 250 plumes of methane bubbles are rising from the sea bed off Norway.

...The gas is normally trapped as "methane hydrate" in sediment under the ocean floor.
"Methane hydrate" is an ice-like substance composed of water and methane which is stable under conditions of high pressure and low temperature.
As temperatures rise, the hydrate breaks down. So this new evidence shows that methane is stable at water depths greater than 400m off Spitsbergen.

The image above is an acoustic image of one of these methane plumes. Below is a clip of Alaskan scientists who are monitoring the emission of methane from melting tundra on frozen lake bottoms. They have trouble lighting it at first because there is too much pressure.

Canadian Researchers Weigh Zombie Threat to Mankind

Infectious disease researchers at Carleton and Ottawa U have released a mathematical model of just how long civilization could withstand collapse if attacked by - wait for it - Zombies!

Yes, zombies, those movie creatures that stagger along trying to eat your brain. From BBC News:

The scientific paper is published in a book - Infectious Diseases Modelling Research Progress.

In books, films, video games and folklore, zombies are undead creatures, able to turn the living into other zombies with a bite.

But there is a serious side to the work.

In some respects, a zombie "plague" resembles a lethal rapidly-spreading infection. The researchers say the exercise could help scientists model the spread of unfamiliar diseases through human populations.

Okay, so maybe there is a legitimate purpose for this modeling but it would help if one of the leaders, an Ottawa U mathematics prof, didn't spell his last name, Smith, with a question mark - that's right Smith? Oh yeah, the research showed we'd last days at best.

And did they really have to use zombies? Couldn't they have used a plague of Republicans instead?

Huckabee Slams Obama

Despite his gentle, folksy manner, Rapture-sucker and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee can't hide his fundamentalist zealotry for very long.

Huckabee hopped a freebee junket larded his way by Ateret Cohanim, an organization that buys land in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods and settles Jews there. And his benefactors got got their money's worth and then some. From McClatchey:

Huckabee criticized the Obama administration's calls for ending such settlements and said Obama's position had only encouraged the Palestinian government not to negotiate with Israel.

More important than Huckabee's words, however, was where he chose to deliver them: at several controversial Jewish enclaves in the mostly Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim.

"The policies are a drastic change from previous administrations," Huckabee said at Maale Zeitim, a 100-unit housing project at the foot of the Mount of Olives. "Halting peace talks until 20 families are moved out? Our focus should be on Iran, and not on where 20 Jewish families are moving."

..."It concerns me that some in the U.S. tell Israelis they can't live where they want in their own country," Huckabee said.

Jon Stewart's Favourite Douchebag, Robert Novak, Dead

Uber rightwing columnist with a voracious appetite for sleaze, Robert Novak, is dead of brain cancer. While it's never nice to speak ill of the departed, I'd rank Novak's dirt nap on the trauma scale as somewhere around the death of Karl Rove but well short of the demise of Dick Cheney, two men he literally worshiped.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Afghanistan - The Story of Failure in Four Parts

Afghanistan is falling apart - again. The West's eight-year fiasco in that failed state culminates this week in national elections that threaten to nullify everything we've tried to do there since 2001 and may leave the country shattered along ethnic and tribal lines.

What we're watching unfold today is the product of a succession of political and military blunders dating back to the Reagan administration that may finally have reached critical mass. Al Jazeera has produced a four-part documentary entitled Afghanistan: How The The East was Lost. You can watch them below.

Climate Change - India Doesn't Get It

Today's New York Times has a story showing how difficult it can be for local authorities to grasp the reality, much less the nuances, of global warming-driven climate change. In the Indian port city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) rampant growth continues apace without regard for the climate change that has already arrived.

“Climate change involves a shuddering of the weather thermostat,” said Bittu Sahgal, a leading environmentalist and the editor of Sanctuary Magazine. “More rain in one place, less in another. The problem is unpredictability. Mumbai’s rains this year were delayed but the city has been on alert for floods.”

According to Mr. Sahgal, climate change is going to increasingly “mock” economists.

“As a coastal city we should have been in top gear already, to adapt to climate impacts. Instead we see ignorant planners filling wetlands, planning construction on low-lying salt pan lands and otherwise adding to Mumbai’s heat sink effect by removing over 100,000 old trees,” Mr. Sahgal said — adding, that developers in Mumbai are “behaving as though climate warnings are an American ploy to prevent India from enjoying the fruits of industrial activity.”

Mumbai has become increasingly susceptible to highly destructive and deadly flooding as spreading development has been allowed to take out drainage canals and rivers. When heavy rains hit the sewer drains often become blocked with rubbish, making the problems worse yet.

While there are signs that New Delhi is slowly coming around on global warming, it's going to face enormous hurdles convincing state and municipal authorities to change accordingly. Those are the sort of hurdles that cost lives.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Guardian Calls Afghanistan - "Mission Impossible"

The Guardian has come out to declare the war in Afghanistan a truly lost cause.

...Counterinsurgency theorists imagine the role of the military mission as creating a "space" to be filled by the nascent institutions of the Afghan state – its army, police and judiciary. But here too, amid preparations for elections this week, there is scant evidence of theory translating into practice on the ground. The Afghan police are still reluctant to go into the Helmand villages that US and UK troops have cleared. And against whom is this "clearing" being defined? After eight years we still have no clear idea who the enemy are, or how to distinguish them from the local population.

Much will be made this week of the numbers who participate in the presidential election, an act that will spell defiance of the Taliban. This will be nowhere truer than in Kandahar, the country's second largest city, from where Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, began his march to power. A small Canadian force has prevented 15,000 Taliban from retaking the city, at a cost of 125 soldiers, the highest proportion of casualties of any coalition partner. As the Canadians acknowledge, theirs has been little more than a finger-in-the-dyke operation. The city is being held, not for democracy, but for Hamid Karzai's powerful half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has been accused of handing out government jobs and land to his friends and allies, and of extensive involvement in drug trafficking.

Here lies the central problem. As the casualties mount and domestic patience wears thin, the coalition mission will steadily downgrade its once lofty nation-building objectives. If it remained true to them, tackling corruption among the likes of Ahmed Wali Karzai would remain as integral to the project as keeping the Taliban out. In the end neither of these objectives will be secured, and the Afghanistan that the troops leave behind may not be unlike the one which greeted their arrival. Large parts of the Pashtun south will still be dominated by the forces we are currently fighting.

What The Guardian has announced may be a breakthrough in contemporary journalism but, in reality, they're only reading what has been so plainly written on the wall for the past several years. Maybe they needed a lot more convincing than some others, including this writer, but sometimes it takes a bucketful of empty promises and assurances and outright lies before a newspaper of this stature can throw in the towel.

Afghanisnam - Coup Time?

Prominent Americans are beginning to compare Afghan president Hamid Karzai to an earlier troublesome leader, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem who was murdered and removed from power in Saigon in 1963 in a US-backed military coup during the John F Kennedy administration.

David Kilcullen, former counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, drew the parallel while speaking to the US Institute of Peace:

"He [Karzai] is seen as ineffective; his family are corrupt; he's alienated a very substantial portion of the population. He seems paranoid and delusional and out of touch with reality. That's all the sort of things that were said about President Diem in 1963."

Then again, who wouldn't be a bit paranoid in Karzai's situation? Washington wants him gone, preferring Tajik rival Abdullah Abdullah. That's driving Karzai ever deeper into the arms of his country's worst warlords.

Asia Times Online outlines a massive US campaign to discredit Karzai:

...the vicious media attack on Karzai continues. Elizabeth Rubin of The New York Times magazine quoted a Western intelligence official as saying, "The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands ... When history analyses this period and looks at this family, it will uncover a litany of extensive corruption that was tolerated because the West tolerated this family."

Anthony Cordesman, senior foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who just visited Afghanistan to assist US commander General Stanley McChrystal in the preparation of the Pentagon's review of the current situation, wrote in the Times newspaper that Karzai's government is "corrupt, grossly over-centralized, lacking in capacity and virtually absent in large parts of Afghanistan". In an article in The Washington Post last week, US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry ostentatiously distanced the US from Karzai.

...Abdullah's camp openly threatens to create an "Iran-like situation" in Kabul if Karzai pulls off victory in the August 20 round. If violence ensues, the Tajik-dominated Afghan security will be hard-pressed to control the situation and foreign forces may need to intervene, which is hugely controversial.

On the other hand, if a runoff becomes necessary, a date needs to be fixed for that, which cannot be earlier than end-October. Meanwhile, the Abdullah-Ghani combine, with tacit encouragement from the US, is bound to challenge the legitimacy of Karzai running a government even after its mandate expires on August 20. But Karzai will most certainly resist any demand on him to step down.

... Behind all this looms the grim reality that the Afghan body polity has been hopelessly split on ethnic lines. The election campaign has aggravated the creeping ethnic polarization. Every political issue today takes ethnic overtones. The US should have anticipated this and taken the lead to create a level playing field but instead it narrowly focused on ousting Karzai.

If this assessment is right, Afghanistan is poised to fracture along ethnic lines as the result of this election. There's plenty of reason to fear an anti-Western backlash also following the vote. And we thought the Taliban were trouble enough.
(photo - Hamid Karzai shows SHarper the size suit he'll be wearing after the Americans finish carving him up)

Afghanistan Braces for Election

As the Afghan people prepare to head to the polls in four days time, a clearer picture is emerging of a desperate country in which an election will probably improve nothing, especially if the frontrunner, Hamid Karzai, manages to horse trade his way to another term in office.

According to The Guardian, Karzai's fate and fortunes likely hinge on Kandahar City where even the local emergency ward is furiously stocking up on "election supplies." It's an eye-opener. Read it here:

The article claims that Karzai is the Taliban's favourite in this election. That shouldn't be too surprising given how well they've done against him so far.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Wrenching American Take on Canada's War in Kandahar

McClathchey Newspapers has published a truly excellent evaluation of Canada's war in Kandahar. Read it, you'll likely be glad you did:


With an Afghan general election just five days off, I went wandering through some old posts on this blog. In one from last September 16 I found this prescient passage:

...Unless the United States can craft a much more successful effort, reinforced by international diplomacy, to strengthen Iraq's central government, "we're midwifing the dissolution of the country," Steven Simon, a senior director of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration said.

He continued, "There are two things that every successful state in the Middle East has had to do to insure its viability. One is to stamp out warlordism, and the other is to suppress tribalism. Where that has not happened, you find unsuccessful states, like Yemen, for example - and now Iraq... We're creating dependencies in a decentralized state that will be at risk when we leave."

Note that Simon speaks of "successful" states. That's successful as in viable and functioning, not successful as in democratic. There are a great many functioning states in the Middle East that are still a far cry from democratic.

But if this is the formula for a successful state - the total eradication of warlordism and the suppression of tribalism - why are we tolerating a central government in Afghanistan that both cultivates and empowers warlords, that exists in a highly unstable, symbiotic co-dependency with creatures like Dostum, Hekmatyar and Gul Agha?

If we don't want a successful - as in viable and functioning - Afghanistan, what do we want? Or maybe we don't really "want" anything, maybe we've settled for the worst-possible option, maybe we're simply running on autopilot.

You may have noticed that completely missing from this discussion has been mention of Western (US & NATO) military intervention or the Taliban insurgency. That's because you could hypothetically wipe out the Taliban and remove all Western troops tomorrow and Afghanistan would still be just as far away from becoming a successful state as it ever has been since we arrived. The obstacles to a viable and functioning Afghan government are as great or greater from the inside than from without.

Warlordism enshrines tribalism and operates within a central government only out of convenience and only for so long as its demands are met. If tribalism is suppressed it guts the warlords' power base. Tribalism is the very lifeblood of warlordism. And so the warlords must seize the levers of power to prevent the evolution of a cohesive Afghan nationality, a multi-ethnic reunification.

The way things are shaping up the August 20th election seems to be a warlord popularity contest between Karzai and Abdullah. Karzai was, until very recently, seen as a shoo-in but then figitive warlord Dostum's Uzbek political party/militia (take your pick, it's both), split in his absence with half going over to Abdullah. In a nation where loyalty and treachery are two sides of the same coin, allegiance is an obscure concept. I'd bet that a lot of warlords are keeping a close eye on the Uzbeks to figure out which way to jump.

Which finally brings us to NATO and the Taliban. With all of this skulduggery going on in the rear areas, what do we hope to achieve on the frontlines? If we're not fighting to defend a successful central government, a legitimate, viable and functioning national administration, just what are we aiming to achieve?

I know we're fighting to hold the Taliban at bay and we're not doing too well at that. NATO is now falling back to defend Kabul and the provincial capitals. Gullible journalists may swallow the line that this is some new offensive strategy but falling back is just that - falling. We're not doing this to lure the Taliban into urban warfare where our big firepower advantages - our tanks, artillery and airstrikes - are neutralized. It's so obvious that it makes me cringe when I read the utter crap our supposed journalists mindlessly regurgitate on command.

For all we know the Afghan war may already be lost. As I've written before, in the type of warfare we're fighting, the issue is often decided long before our side, the government side, the heavy firepower and latest toys side, realizes we've lost. Our sheer supremacy in firepower ensures we cannot be defeated, at least not militarily. However insurgencies are political wars, not military wars. They don't have to defeat us, they merely have to survive relatively intact until we get fed up with our inability to achieve victory and simply leave. However our side will just keep up the pointless airstrikes and artillery barrages for years before we throw in the towel.

I think we may have lost this war in Kabul itself many years ago. We were a "no show" when we needed to truly dismantle the country's warlord power structure. It was the slackers in the rear echelons who sabotaged the guys in the frontlines, leaving them nothing worthwhile to fight for, no successful government to defend.

Maybe this election will be a second chance for us. Maybe if Abdullah pulls an upset win, this Pashtun-Tajik upstart might be one last best chance to take down the warlords. If so we'd better be willing to flood that country with the military and financial resources he's going to need. We lost the chance to do that eight years ago and we've been paying for that mistake ever since.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Here's a Real "Death Panel" - Big Oil

Despite all their apologies, despite all their claims to get it, Big Oil is about to launch a campaign aimed at derailing Obama's climate change initiatives. In other words, they're putting themselves on the other side on the most dangerous problem facing mankind. If you're looking for something akin to Death Panels, look no further.

From The Guardian (if you can stomach it):

The US oil and gas lobby are planning to stage public events to give the appearance of a groundswell of public opinion against legislation that is key to Barack Obama's climate change strategy, according to campaigners.

A key lobbying group will bankroll and organise 20 ''energy citizen'' rallies in 20 states. In an email obtained by Greenpeace, Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), outlined what he called a "sensitive" plan to stage events during the August congressional recess to put a "human face" on opposition to climate and energy reform.

After the clamour over healthcare, the memo raises the possibility of a new round of protests against a key Obama issue.

"Our goal is to energise people and show them that they are not alone," said Cathy Landry, for API, who confirmed that the memo was authentic.

The email from Gerard lays out ambitious plans to stage a series of lunchtime rallies to try to shape the climate bill that was passed by the house in June and will come before the Senate in September. "We must move aggressively," it reads.

There it is. If you think we need to slash carbon emissions, even decarbonize our economy, for the future of your children and grandchildren, Big Oil has chosen to make itself your enemy and your kids' enemy and your grandkids' enemy.

Despite the real, and potentially cataclysmic consequences of failing to meet this challenge, Big Oil is bound and determined to use its wiles to undermine this effort.

It's time to draw lines and put Big Oil right where they insist on being - on the wrong side. If they insist on putting maximum profitability ahead of the welfare of the planet, so be it. It may be time to lower the lumber on these scoundrels.

Climate Wars? China and India Square Off in Himalayas

Asia's two emerging economic giants, China and India, have a lot in common. One thing is a common dependence on Himalayan glaciers for meltwaters to feed their key rivers. These glaciers are fast retreating thanks to global warming and a couple of other contributing factors but there's not a lot China or India can do to prevent that. They're going to have a hard enough time just trying to adapt to it.

Still it came as a surprise to read in today's Sydney Morning Herald of a border standoff underway between India and China along China's border with the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh.

China lays claim to much of Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous Indian province on the country's north-eastern extremity, and strategic experts in New Delhi warn that tensions in the remote border region are on the rise.

''Largely unknown to the rest of the world, India-China border tensions have escalated in recent months,'' says Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at Delhi's Centre for Policy Research. ''Things are getting really intense and from the Indian perspective outrageous.''

More aggressive border patrolling by Chinese forces including incursions into Indian territory has forced the Indian army to bolster its presence along the 3500-kilometre border, analysts claim.

The newspaper account suggests that China is beginning to play hardball.

...A day after this week's talks, India's foreign policy establishment was rattled by Indian media reports that a think tank linked to the Chinese military had called for India to be split into 30 independent states. The paper said that if China ''takes a little action, the so-called great Indian federation can be broken up''.

This would be in China's interests and lead to more prosperity in the region, it said, according to reports. Countries friendly to China like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal could help ''different nationalities'' such as Tamil and Kashmiri people so that they can establish independent nation states of their own.

...In June the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh and former army Indian chief, retired general J.J. Singh, said up to 30,000 new troops would be deployed in the region. In June a state-run newspaper in China accused India of ''unwise military moves'' along the Arunachal Pradesh border.

Professor Chellaney says the border tensions are ominous. ''Any doubts that the Indian foreign policy establishment might have had about the threat posed by China have evaporated in recent months.''

How would we like it if Russia began egging on the Greenland Inuit to spark a seccesionist movement among Canada's Inuit? Not so much I'm guessing.

Right to Starve Women - And the Band Played on in Kabul

You know something? We're just going to have to take a big bite out of this shit sandwich we call Afghanistan. Eight years we've been over there fighting to keep this gaggle of sick bastards in power and we can stay another eighty and they're not going to change. They're religious fanatics and warlords and drug lords and common criminals and corrupt bureaucrats and cops.

The Afghan legislature passed a law that allowed a man to beat his wife if she didn't put out on demand. Boy didn't we raise a fury over that! We gave them one up alongside the head, didn't we? For sure. That's why the legislature passed an alternative measure. This time it's "no sex-no food." If a wife doesn't meet her husband's sexual whims, he can deny her food and sustenance.

From The Guardian:

The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work.

"It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying 'blood money' to a girl who was injured when he raped her," the US charity Human Rights Watch said.

You see the problem is to make Afghanistan a viable government we can't just take on the Taliban. We have to crush our friends too. They're every bit as vile. That means we'd be fighting both sides of the civil war that went into intermission when the Americans bombed the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001. Fighting both sides - that's what the Soviets tried, and how well did that work out for them.

So kiddies, including all you Afghan war supporters, here's the deal. We're not going to change these people - not the Taliban and not their Northern Alliance counterparts. You can't change one without changing both and we're not interested in doing that are we?

A telling remark this week from Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke in response to reporters' questions about how the United States would know that it has won in Afghanistan. From the Washington Post:

Holbrooke said he preferred to use the word 'succeed' rather than 'win.' So what's success?

"It's really hard for me to address [the question] in specific terms," he said, "but I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue: We'll know it when we see it."

Okay, if after eight years of waging war in a country you can't muster a coherent definition of "success" that's because success is nowhere on the horizon and you don't know if it ever will be. If you can't figure out what you're fighting for, if you can't point to the end zone or even the direction it's in, you're not in it to win and you're not going to win. Eight years, my God.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Union of Concerned Scientists - Cartoon of the Year

No explanation needed

What Will Tomorrow Look Like?

There's a human trait called landscape amnesia. It's the tendancy to see what you've seen in the recent past as 'normal' while forgetting about what your world was like a generation or two in the past. But it's more than an amnesia, it can be an anaesthetic numbing us to rapid change that ought to be stirring us to ask what's going on.

Another bad year for the Fraser River sockeye run. There's barely a million, million and a half sockeye returned this year. Sounds like a lot until you realize there ought to be another nine and a half million that are nowhere to be found. Nobody knows what happened. Nobody has seen anything like this before. The run totalled 1.4 million last year, 1.7 the year before that.

Our Department of Fisheries is left guessing. One idea is that rising ocean temperatures may have sharply cut the availability of plankton the sockeye feed on but that's just a guess. Who knows, maybe we'll discover that new predator species have travelled up from the south to take the salmon, spurred on by the earlier collapse of salmon stocks in California and Oregon (both states have shut down salmon fishing entirely for the second year in a row).

We were all taken by surprise this week when 300-500 giant Humboldt squid washed up on Long Beach near Tofino. Those things are supposed to be in the Sea of Cortez down in Baja, Mexico. They shocked the good people of San Diego last month when a mass of them washed ashore down there. How and why the Humboldt migrated up here no one knows.

The once rare giant sunfish, normally from the south, is now spotted fairly commonly in BC waters. Anchovies have moved into regions normally inhabited by herring. Humpback whales now have to migrate into the Beaufort Sea because the krill have moved north out of the Bering.

We're seeing these events with our very eyes and they're occuring over a span of years, not decades. Our ecological landscape is rapidly changing. Makes you wonder how long it will be until we forget the way it was around here even ten years ago. Makes you wonder what tomorrow will look like.

And It's One, Two, Three, What Are We Fightin' For?

Next week's general election will reveal just how much good we've done in Afghanistan since 2001. I've been pretty negative about this poll but how about a second opinion? Here's how the Brookings Institute sees the situation:

...As governance continued to deteriorate and Karzai’s legitimacy based on the inadequate performance of his government continued to slip, Karzai progressively sought to cloak himself with other forms of legitimacy, instead of finding means to improve governance. Indeed, these other sources of legitimacy frequently clashed with efforts to improve governance. At first, Karzai appointed very conservative ulema in Kabul to claim religious legitimacy. Then he embraced nationalism – decrying both Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan and civilian casualties caused by NATO and even questioning NATO’s presence in Afghanistan at times. Most lately, Karzai has latched onto a renewed cleavage in Afghanistan between the old mujahideen commanders (with a checkered warlord history complicating their anti-Soviet heroism) and ex-Communist Afghan commanders who it turned out had better skills at governance in the post-Taliban era than many of the ex-mujahideen and tribal leaders. The high praise lavished by the international community on General Mohammad Gulab Mangal for his performance as governor of Helmand has become an emblematic thorn in the side of many of the former mujahideen commanders eased out of official power at the instigation of the international community for their poor governance, human rights abuses, and criminality.

Yet it was precisely these problematic power brokers to whom Hamid Karzai reached out in the 2009 pre-election bargaining process. In return for supporting his reelection, they were promised appointments in his cabinet, governorships, and other positions of power. The newly co-opted power brokers include Fahim who is running as one of Karzai’s vice president, Dostum, Akhundzaza, Jan Mohammand, Matullah Khan, Gul Agha Sherzai, and Mohammad Mohaqiq. Karzai’s co-optation of them assured that they would not run against him (notably Sherzai) and deliver important tribal and ethnic vote (Mohaqiq the Hazara; Mohammad, Khan, and Sherzai the Barakzai; Dostum the Uzbek).

If Karzai wins the presidential elections (whether in one or two rounds), it is difficult to see how the pre-election bargains will allow him to come back to the presidential Arg Palace with a clean slate and strong commitment and capacity for good governance. At the same time, the marked escalation of tensions between Karzai and the international community during the pre-election period (such as Karzai’s attacks on NATO for civilian casualties and his resentment at the U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry appearing at a joint press conference with his two rivals, Abdullah and Ghani) will make the relations between the Afghan national government centralized in the president and the international community difficult. At a time when close cooperation and coordination is necessary for the increased effectiveness of the counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts, such a tense relationship will be a major impediment. Karzai may well have a tendency to perceive appropriate suggestions of how to improve governance as driven by a desire to undercut him.

But even if Karzai does not win the elections, improved governance in Afghanistan will not automatically follow. Although of mixed origin – part Tajik, part Pashtun – Abdullah Abdullah, even if elected legitimately, will struggle to persuade the Pashtuns that he genuinely represents their interests also and does not favor the northern Tajiks. While an effective non-Pashtun at the helm of the country could be a great force toward consolidating democratization and state-building in Afghanistan, he will be highly susceptible to charges of anti-Pashtun sentiments. A widespread Pashtun suspicion about the legitimacy of a non-Pahstun leader can complicate the counterinsurgency effort. Already the accusation that the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance has dominated the post-2001 government has fueled the Taliban.

Not very optimistic, is it? Karzai, it seems, can't rule without the crooks and the thugs. If his rival, Abdullah somehow pulls a rabbit out of his hat and wins, it's like pushing the "reset" button on the insurgency. From everything I've read, Abdullah would be the best guy for the country and for the Afghan people, but it's hard to see how he would be able to purge the legislature, the bureaucracy and the security services of the rampang corruption they're known for today.

So, to sum up, we're up to our alligators trying to hold back the Taliban as this criminal enterprise of a failed state continues to rot beneath our feet. Sooner or later we have to accept that, unless and until we find the resolve to overcome the scourges of warlordism and tribalism that plague Afghanistan, there is no hope - none whatsoever - of realizing a stable government for this country, democratic or otherwise. It will remain what it is today, an unresolved civil war on hiatus. What's the point of simply treading water when our treasure and forces could be deployed elsewhere in places where they could actually do some lasting good?

title credit - "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag"

An Election Worth Following

Hamid Karzai should keep his job in next week's Afghan elections but it's not going to be a smooth ride. And this being Afghanistan the election is fraught with intrigue and defections and plenty of murderous, barbaric villains.

Karzai's main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, also a former Mujahadin, is a Tajik, the country's second-largest ethnic group with just over a quarter of the population. He's also an educated man, a medical doctor. Tajiks make up a lot of Afghan's white collar class - doctors, professors, bureaucrats, merchants and artists. The downside is they're mainly Shia Muslim in a nation that's about 80% Sunni.

The Pashtun, with 42% of the population, are mainly Sunni and everybody pretty much sees them as the natural rulers of the country. The other ethnic groups, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, etc. were just travelling through and decided to stay. That's why there are close to 30-languages spoken in Afghanistan today.

Karzai is desperate enough that he's been seeking alliance with some of the most vicious thugs in his country's recent history including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who's officially considered a terrorist on America's most wanted list and who, until recently, had his followers in an alliance with the Taliban.

Another Karzai backer is Uzbek strongman, the brutal General Abdul Rashid Dostum. The general has spent the last several months hiding in Turkey after beating the living hell out of former ally, Mohammad Akbar Bai, leaving Akbar Bai in hospital with internal injuries. That little spat happened in Kabul.

Dostum's deal seems to be a "get out of jail free" card and a power position in Karzai's government should he be re-elected. It's rumoured Hekmatyar, the guy known for throwing acid in girls' faces for not being Islamic enough, has been offered the same deal as Dostum. Won't that be a lovely trio.

Dostum, however, may not be able to deliver the Uzbek vote en bloc to Karzai. His political organization has fractured during his self-imposed exile to Turkey and up to half of it is said to have switched to Abdullah.

It's not often you get so many murderous bastards as these playing key roles in a national election and, depending on the outcome, these guys may well wind up holding the levers of power alongside Karzai.

France & Germany Lead World Out of Recession

France and Germany appear to have come through the recession. Both nations' economies grew, albeit only slightly, during the April-June quarter.

The banking systems in both countries took a real hit during the Made-In-America global meltdown. Canada's banks, by contrast, remained the strongest in the OECD, largely thanks to Liberal fiscal conservatism.

So ask yourself why France and Germany are bouncing back while we're still reeling. Maybe because we're joined at the hip to the US economy and we haven't cultivated the diversity in international markets that might soften the impact.

Remember Pierre Trudeau speaking about the mouse sleeping with the elephant?

Les Paul - Dead at 94

The man who brought the world the electric guitar, Les Paul, has died at the ripe old age of 94.

Paul's death was appropriately announced by Gibson Guitars, long-time makers of the legendary - you got it - Les Paul guitar.

Draining India

India and its increasingly perilous freshwater supply are a formula for no end of trouble.

Ever since Western science brought India the blessings of the Green Revolution, the "world's largest democracy" has been rapaciously consuming its freshwater resources, mainly for irrigation. The problem is that Indian farmers, just like farmers around the planet, have become dependent on water resources, especially groundwater, that nature simply cannot replenish.

It's easy to grasp. If you're irrigating your fields from water pumped out of an aquifer at the rate of 10X per year but precipitation trickles back into that reservoir at only 1X per year, you're on a one way road to the very bottom of that reservoir. Eventually your agricultural production, that has become dependent on 10X per year of water is going to find itself with but a small fraction of its needs. That's when agriculture craters, leading to food shortages, triggering social unrest.

From BBC News:

Parts of India are on track for severe water shortages, according to results from Nasa's gravity satellites.

The Grace mission discovered that in the country's north-west - including Delhi - the water table is falling by about 4cm (1.6 inches) per year.

The finding is published two days after an Indian government report warning of a potential water crisis.

That report noted that access to water was one of the main factors governing the pace of development in the world's second most populous nation.

..."We looked at the rainfall record and during this decade, it's relatively steady - there have been some up and down years but generally there's no drought situation, there's no major trend in rainfall," said Matt Rodell, a hydrologist at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington DC.

"So naturally we would expect the groundwater level to stay where it is unless there is an excessive stress due to people pumping too much water, which is what we believe is happening."

The Indian government is right, this is a genuine crisis. For, bad as the groundwater problem is, India also faces two other problems - disruption of the Monsoon rains and the headlong retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. When the country's food supply depends on pumping groundwater at plainly unsustainable levels and the mountain headwaters that supply its main rivers are in jeopardy and the Monsoon has become unpredictable/unreliable this is a house on fire.

India's dream of its own Industrial Revolution is little more than a dream without an abundance of water. Manufacturing of almost any sort demands massive amounts of freshwater, massive and reliable. To that add the wastewater problems - pollution and other contaminants that can render other surface water resources unfit for human or agricultural use. That's what China has been doing for many years.

Forget oil, water is the key. Water is life itself and the more densely populated the nation the more that's true. We know the Indians have a major water crisis in their cities. Some of the secondary cities haven't had municipal water since April and the current drought isn't going to make that any better. Residents have to rely on trucked water, creating the inevitable supply and demand pricing which is bad news for cities with a lot of urban poor. The UN maintains that the minimum freshwater requirements for hydration, cooking and hygiene is 20-litres daily. What if you can only afford half that?

Without plenty of water, India's dream of economic superpowerdom slips straight through its fingers - and down the drain.

(The map at top shows agricultural water use by nation. The darker the red, the greater percentage of the existing water resources is taken for agriculture. The darkest red represents 90% +. India is shown in the 75-90% range. Unfortunately this is based on normal precipitation and doesn't account for the current droughts or the looming problem from the disappearing Himalayan glaciers. Every country in the two darkest colours is facing an eventual freshwater crisis. Nations in the second-lightest colour - such as the United States - are facing freshwater problems. Take a look at what's left - Northern Europe, Russia and Canada.
The map below shows current drought regions. When you match up water use from the map above with drought shown below, it gives you an idea which countries are burning the candle at both ends.)