The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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The cost of misusing American might

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: The U.S. military is like the highly skilled, gadget-toting contractor who promises to give your kitchen a nifty makeover in no time whatsoever. Here’s the guy you can count on to get the job done. Just look at those references! Yet by the time he drives off months later, the kitchen’s a shambles and you’re stuck with a bill several times larger than the initial estimate. Turns out the job was more complicated than it seemed. But what say we take a crack at remodeling the master bath?

That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.

Indeed, these days the United States absolves itself of any responsibility to finish wars that it starts. When we’ve had enough, we simply leave, pretending that when U.S. forces exit the scene, the conflict is officially over. In 2011, when the last American troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, President Obama proudly declared that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Sometime late this year, when the U.S. terminates its combat role in Afghanistan, he will waste no time consigning that war to the past as well. [Continue reading...]

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How the U.S. and NATO helped sustain the Taliban

Quoting Shelley, Anatol Lieven writes:

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

A number of writers have preceded me in quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to evoke the huge US and NATO bases planted since 2001 in Afghanistan. The comparison is irresistible, but not necessarily apt. Even if only the head and legs were left, bits of Ozymandias’s statue had still presumably survived for three thousand years or so, which is a pretty good record as these things go. Few US or NATO officials, by contrast, seem to be planning seriously much beyond the next three years.

In Kabul, the changes wrought by the West’s twelve-year Afghan adventure have a certain solidity, at least to the point where the banks and office buildings would make for reasonably imposing and long-lasting ruins. Even some more intelligent members of the Taliban seem to recognize that the Afghan capital, a city of some five million people, is no longer the rubble-filled and shrunken city that they ruled in 2001; that the modern educated classes have grown to the point where they cannot be subjected to the moral code of a madrassa in a Pashtun mountain village; and that if a future Afghan government including the Taliban wants the help of these people — those who do not depart following the West’s withdrawal — in ruling and developing Afghanistan, it will have to grant them some freedom.

In the southern Pashtun province of Helmand, however, the atmosphere is very different. The presence of the Taliban is much more palpable both from conversations and the watchfulness of the Western forces. The veil of progress brought by the West is also a great deal thinner. During a recent trip with NATO officials, I was kept within the fortified perimeters of the US and British forces and the Afghan government centers—an indication of the current level of concern about the Taliban.

Visiting US and NATO bases there, I found that the images that came to mind were not Ozymandian images of long-fallen imperial grandeur, but rather those of science fiction: of Ray Bradbury’s human and Martian species meeting under an enormous, indifferent sky amidst the vast and utterly strange landscape of Mars. In an even gloomier mood, I thought of the Strugatsky brothers’ dystopian novel Roadside Picnic, on which Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was based. The premise is that aliens dropped by briefly on earth for some reason of their own, leaving behind a weirdly transformed landscape littered with discarded alien objects. In fact, seen from the air at night, Helmand’s huge Western military installations — Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base, and the adjacent Camp Bastion, the main British base — look like a giant spaceship, a great blob of blazing lights amid a dark sea of desert. At the height of the Western occupation, the camps used more electricity than the rest of the province put together. Every drop of fuel for the generators had to be shipped in through Pakistan, along with every drop of mineral water and every bite of food consumed by the troops.

And if you want to move from science fiction to Alice in Wonderland, ask yourself this: how has it been possible to bring all that stuff in by road through areas of Pakistan controlled largely by the Pakistani Taliban, allied to the Afghan Taliban — areas from which Pakistani Taliban have launched innumerable attacks on Pakistani forces? Why have there been so few attacks, and those few (to judge by circumstantial evidence) only when the Pakistani military wants to send a message to Washington? The answer appears to be that the Taliban tax these NATO convoys as they tax all other trade in the region: Obtaining tax revenues from mineral water, fruit juice, hamburgers, and other NATO necessities that do them no harm at all is, it turns out, far more advantageous than interrupting our supply routes. In other words, all these years NATO has actually been subsidizing the Taliban’s war effort. [Continue reading...]

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As many as 50% of children in Afghanistan may suffer from chronic malnutrition

The New York Times reports: [D]espite years of Western involvement and billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, children’s health is not only still a problem, but also worsening, and the doctors bearing the brunt of the crisis are worried.

Nearly every potential lifeline is strained or broken here. Efforts to educate people about nutrition and health care are often stymied by conservative traditions that cloister women away from anyone outside the family. Agriculture and traditional local sources of social support have been disrupted by war and the widespread flight of refugees to the cities. And therapeutic feeding programs, complex operations even in countries with strong health care systems, have been compromised as the flow of aid and transportation have been derailed by political tensions or violence.

Perhaps nowhere is the situation so obviously serious as in the malnutrition ward at Bost Hospital, which is admitting 200 children a month for severe, acute malnutrition — four times more than it did in January 2012, according to officials with Doctors Without Borders, known in French as Médecins Sans Frontières, which supports the Afghan-run hospital with financing and supplementary staff.

One patient, a 2-year-old named Ahmed Wali, is suffering from the protein deficiency condition kwashiorkor, with orange hair, a distended belly and swollen feet. An 8-month-old boy named Samiullah is suffering from marasmus, another form of advanced malnutrition in which the child’s face looks like that of a wrinkled old man because the skin hangs so loosely.

Médecins Sans Frontières helped Bost Hospital nearly double the number of beds in the pediatric wing at the end of last year, and there are still not enough — 40 to 50 children are usually being treated each day, mostly two to a bed because they are so small. Nearly 300 other children, less severely malnourished, are in an outpatient therapeutic feeding program.

Now, M.S.F. is planning to open five satellite clinics with intensive feeding programs in Lashkar Gah to take the pressure off the overcrowded hospital.

Despite the increase in the malnutrition caseload, doctors and health officials are not sure there has actually been a sharp rise in child malnutrition that can be attributed to any single factor.

“It’s quite an unusual situation, and it’s difficult to understand what’s going on,” said Wiet Vandormael, an M.S.F. official who has helped coordinate with Bost Hospital.

In part, expansion of the hospital’s facilities has acted as a magnet, drawing more cases, Mr. Vandormael said. Unlike at other public hospitals in Afghanistan, patients and their caregivers do not have to pay for their own medicine and food at Bost. And M.S.F. has been able to ensure that it gets regular deliveries of Unicef-provided therapeutic foods used to treat malnutrition.

“Our treatment is better, so we get more patients as they hear about it,” said Dr. Yar Mohammad Nizar Khan, head of pediatrics at Bost Hospital.

Nonetheless, the numbers are still worrisome. Dr. Mohammad Dawood, a pediatrician at Bost Hospital, said there were seven or eight deaths a month there because of acute malnutrition from June through August, and five in September. Doctors around the country have reported similar rates.

Officials at Unicef and the Afghan Ministry of Public Health have declined to characterize child malnutrition here as an emergency, however. As defined internationally, that would mean severe acute malnutrition in more than 10 percent of children younger than 5; health officials in Afghanistan estimate the rate is more like 7 percent.

“Science-wise, the increase in number of children reporting to the hospitals is not an absolute evidence the situation is getting worse,” said Moazzem Hossain, head of nutrition for Unicef here. “It’s a good sign, the program is expanding, more are being screened, more are being found and treated.”

Another problem is unreliable statistics.

In January 2012, for instance, Unicef and the Afghan government’s Central Statistics Organization released a survey of more than 13,000 households showing that some provinces had reached or exceeded emergency levels, with more than 10 percent acute severe child malnutrition.

The survey caused an uproar, but Unicef and the Health Ministry repudiated it, saying it was based on faulty research. Unicef then financed a more thorough child nutrition survey, which was completed in November, but the government has yet to release the data, said Dr. Bashir Ahmed Hamid, head of nutrition for the Health Ministry. “Unfortunately, we faced some challenges with data analysis.”

Dr. Hamid said he expected the new data to show very high levels, probably more than 50 percent, of long-term or chronic malnutrition, which shows up as stunted growth in children. While acute malnutrition can be fatal, chronic malnutrition can cause multiple health and developmental problems. [Continue reading...]

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Poll: Majority of Americans say Afghan war has not been worth fighting

The Washington Post reports: Americans express near-record discontent and regret over the 13-year war in Afghanistan, during which 2,289 U.S. troops have died and more than 19,000 have been wounded, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Fully 66 percent of Americans say the battle, which began with nearly unanimous support, has not been worth fighting. A majority of respondents have doubted the war’s value in each Post-ABC poll since 2010, with current disapproval only one percentage point below July’s record mark. A record 50 percent now “strongly” believe the war is not worth its costs.

Despite the skepticism, a 55 percent majority favors keeping some U.S. forces in Afghanistan for anti-insurgency operations and training, while just over four in 10 prefer removing all troops. [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: Suffer the children

Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency.  This time, it was the NSA’s infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life.  And it was hardly a shock.  More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military’s collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There.  As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world.  In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life.  General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the “four million young people” who had signed onto that virtual online environment.

While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities.  A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a “target-rich communication network.”  They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, “an opportunity!”

In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed.  The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs.  And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community.  Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a “deconfliction” group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.

And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I’m not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots.  It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways. 

Today, Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America’s youth — via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.  It’s a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.

After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America’s veterans once they return from this country’s war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place.  If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again. Nick Turse

America’s child soldiers
JROTC and the militarizing of America
By Ann Jones

Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.

As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.”  That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.

Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries.  But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?

[Read more...]

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Karzai lashes out at U.S. ‘threats’

The Associated Press reports: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the United States, accusing it of making threats in the dispute over an agreement to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.

In an interview published Tuesday by the French daily Le Monde, Karzai says the U.S. is “absolutely” acting like a colonial power in its attempts to force him to sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of this year. The paper quoted him as saying: “The threats they are making, `We won’t pay salaries, we’ll drive you into a civil war.’ These are threats.”

Washington and NATO officials say the pact is critical to the plan to keep thousands of forces in Afghanistan after 2014 for a training and counterterrorism mission. [Continue reading...]

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How is Hamid Karzai still standing?

William Dalrymple writes: The Karzai family graveyard lies a few miles outside Kandahar, on the edge of the village of Karz. On the day I drove there, burned-out cars stood rusting by the sides of the road, children splashed through open drains and bullet holes riddled the mud walls opposite checkpoints. Amid all this, the graveyard stood out — gleaming, immaculate. Straggling bougainvillea and mulberry trees blossomed over the calligraphic tiles topping the cream-colored walls. Through the double gates were lines of cypresses. In the middle stood a domed enclosure containing the graves of the clan elders.

Hamid Karzai was entering the final lap of his presidency, and I had traveled to Karz with Mahmood, one of the president’s elder brothers, accompanied by a phalanx of his bodyguards. Afghanistan’s presidential election is set for April, and as the deadline for registering candidates approached, the country’s future seemed to hang in part on the fraught internal family politics of the Karzais. Hamid is ineligible to run for a third term, and it had been long rumored in Kabul that he would anoint his brother Qayum as his successor. Mahmood had made it clear that he wanted the presidency to stay in the family; he had even begun to raise campaign funds for Qayum, just as he once had for Hamid.

So far, however, the president had been publicly silent on the subject, and Qayum had yet to tip his hand. Mahmood’s business dealings — banking scandals and supposedly dodgy real estate deals — had long been perceived as Hamid’s Achilles’ heel, and it remained unclear whether family loyalty would trump the president’s growing preoccupation with his own legacy. All this, along with Karzai’s angry rhetoric against the alleged misdeeds of his American backers, had caused some tensions around the family table. “I don’t feel comfortable talking to Hamid these days,” Mahmood said as we rode in his armored Land Cruiser, sandwiched between pickup trucks full of troops. “These ridiculous conspiracy theories. And his cynical view of the West. These ideas aren’t helping Afghanistan. I don’t think he understands the importance of a good economic policy.”

On arrival, however, the sight of the massed Karzai dead quickly brought back Mahmood’s sense of dynastic solidarity. “See over there — the grave with the old carved headstone?” he said. “That was my grandfather, the real leader of the family. He migrated to Karz from the west of the province and bought this land.”

He then pointed to a poster of a mustached man on the guardhouse: “That’s my uncle, Khalil.” Khalil was killed in the 1980s. Some say he was murdered in a family dispute, but Mahmood told me he was assassinated during the war with the Soviets. “And over there,” he continued, “another uncle. Also assassinated.”

We walked into the domed mausoleum where two recumbent gravestones were covered with pink plastic flowers: “My father’s grave,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “He was shot dead leaving a mosque. And that, by his side, is Ahmed Wali, my half brother.”

He didn’t bother saying what we both knew, that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, effectively governor of Kandahar and the man suspected by the West of controlling part of the Afghan heroin trade, but who also helped the C.I.A. operate an anti-Taliban paramilitary group, was himself killed by a trusted member of his inner circle. The shooting took place not far from where we were standing, two years earlier, almost to the day. I asked if anyone else in the family died violently. “Many!” Mahmood replied. He pointed to the different grave plots: “One, two, three . . . altogether about eight. Maybe more.”

From the graveyard, we headed on into Karz, where the brothers spent their childhood. Low mud-brick houses flanked the road. “Imagine having to live in these conditions!” Mahmood said. “If I had my way, I’d demolish the entire village, rehouse everyone in apartments and turn this space over to agriculture.” After decades in the United States, where he started an Afghan restaurant chain, it all seemed a bit of a surprise to him: “Imagine hanging up goat meat in the sun in this heat! So unhygienic. . . . And all these people just sitting there. Do they have nothing to do, for crying out loud? Just look how weak the retail community is here. Call these shops? What era are we in — the Roman Empire?”

I had asked to see the house where the brothers grew up, but after several false turns, we still couldn’t find the place. None of them had been back for years, not least because the village is now in the hands of a rival leader of the clan, their cousin Hashmat Karzai, and relations between the two factions of the family are not cordial.

“It’s changed beyond all recognition,” Mahmood said. “This mosque I remember: I used to play with Hamid over there. But the vineyards! Where have they gone?” Eventually his driver came to a stop. “This is it?” Mahmood asked. “It can’t be.” We got out in a field of dried mud, surrounded by mud houses with egg-carton domes. Mahmood summoned an old man in a turban wandering past and after conferring with him, announced: “The driver’s right. This is our home.” He gestured at the empty space around us.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The Russians.” He paused. “Any clan who were known to be prominent in the mujahedeen had their property seized or demolished.”

For the first time, Mahmood looked deflated: “Qayum and I were in the U.S., but Hamid and my father were prominent in the jihad. These houses here,” he said, pointing at the mud houses, “this was where my cousins lived. The same night the Soviet governor sent troops to demolish our house, they were all called out and lined up. Then they were shot. Every last one of them.” [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: War wounds

In 2010, I arrived at Harvard University with a mess of a manuscript — 10 years’ worth of research on American war crimes in Vietnam patchworked together in such a way that it was comprehensible to only one person on the planet: me.  But I was lucky.  I had a year to do something about it, and by something, I mean write the book again. From scratch. It was a daunting task, but the alternative was to declare the project a lost cause — and I wasn’t ready to do that.

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I was given an office, financial support, access to one of the world’s great libraries, and everything else that comes with a fellowship at an elite institution like Harvard.  I couldn’t have asked for more, but as it happened, I needed more. I needed help, direction, advice. I needed a sounding board. I needed the counsel of someone with an intimate knowledge of war, of violence, of atrocity.  Presumably, there was someone at Harvard with such credentials.  But where among the brick and ivy, could I find such a person?

It turned out that she was indeed at Harvard — and conveniently located in an office about three feet distant from mine. Radcliffe, in its infinite wisdom, had made Ann Jones my neighbor for the year and her guidance helped transform that mess of a manuscript into my book Kill Anything That MovesThe Real American War in Vietnam.

Day after day, I would flop into a chair in her office and we would talk through various quandaries I faced: how to write up a particular incident, where to locate a key chapter, how to convey the horror I’d uncovered without traumatizing the reader.  In the midst of this, she began to share snippets of her latest interviews with damaged war veterans, their family members, and the American military personnel tasked with mitigating their physical injuries and psychological issues. In the midst of our mutual fellowship stays, Ann borrowed some body armor and jetted off to Afghanistan to bear witness to the wounded and the work of the men and women who attempted to save them. From there, she flew to Germany with the grievously injured and finally back to the U.S. where she began to keep tabs on their recovery and what has become of them.

As I listened to Ann, as I watched her office fill up with articles on combat, killing, and post-traumatic stress, as I saw her bookshelves strain under the weight of innumerable volumes on war, military training, and veterans’ issues, as I began to grasp just where her interviews and research were taking her, as we talked about all of this in detail, I became ever more certain that hers would be a special, even unprecedented volume, an “untold story” in the recent annals of American war. I knew that, as she was helping me, she was also writing a book which anyone interested in understanding the cost of war for soldiers and veterans, as well as their families and those who treat them, would need to read. I knew that her book would change the way we understand America’s recent wars.

I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would eventually have the opportunity to play a role in bringing They Were SoldiersHow the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story into being.  It’s a beautifully written, devastatingly poignant piece of reportage, and an instant classic on the hidden reverberations of our distant wars — from triage that goes on unseen behind hospital doors to the long, private struggles that occur anonymously in suburban neighborhoods and rehabilitation centers across the U.S.  As with so many works that are ahead of their time, They Were Soldiers had difficulty finding a home.  I was delighted then that Tom Engelhardt and I had a fledgling imprint, with Haymarket Books behind us, that last week made Ann’s book a reality. 

My role in They Were Soldiers has been modest.  Ann did the heavy lifting and it was, indeed, heavy.  At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war so you didn’t have to.  She watched the sort of “meatball surgery” that would have left you doubled over and retching.  She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could.  And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity.

I spent the last 10 years interviewing veterans and intensely studying war and I still find They Were Soldiers to be revelatory.  Just as our conversations did at Harvard, now her book has altered my outlook on American war and its aftermath.  Today, she’s offering to do the same for you.  If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to pick up a copy of They Were Soldiers.  It’s the next best thing to having Ann as your neighbor. Nick Turse

A trail of tears
How veterans return from America’s wars
By Ann Jones

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home.  This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard.  They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War.  They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

[Read more...]

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In Afghanistan, interpreters who helped U.S. in war denied visas; U.S. says they face no threat

The Washington Post reports: A growing number of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops are being denied U.S. visas allotted by Congress because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.

But the interpreters, many of whom served in Taliban havens for years, say U.S. officials are drastically underestimating the danger they face. Immigration attorneys and Afghan interpreters say the denials are occurring just as concerns about Taliban retribution are mounting due to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“There are tons of Talibs in my village, and they all know that I worked with the Americans,” said one interpreter, Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “If I can’t go to the States, my life is over. I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”

Mohammad received a U.S. form letter saying he had failed to establish that there was a “serious threat” against his life. He had explained in his application that the Taliban had spotted him on the job and spread word in his village that he was a wanted man. [Continue reading...]

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Senior leader of insurgent Haqqani network killed in Islamabad

The Guardian reports: A senior leader of the Haqqani network, one of the most feared insurgent groups fighting western forces in Afghanistan, was gunned town in mysterious circumstances on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital city on Sunday evening, Taliban and official sources have confirmed.

Nasiruddin Haqqani died in a hail of bullets fired by unknown assailants as he bought bread in a shopping area just a few miles from the heart of Pakistan’s government.

His body was later taken away for burial in the lawless border region of North Waziristan, apparently without the knowledge of authorities.

An Islamabad police spokesman said he was unaware of either the shooting or the removal of his body, despite extensive local media coverage.

Critics of Pakistan have long claimed it tolerates the Haqqani network, or even gives it some level of official support. Islamabad does not regard the organisation as a threat to its own security and believes it may even be a useful ally in its fraught relations with Afghanistan. Intelligence officials in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, said Haqqani’s body arrived at in tribal agency at 3pm on Monday and around 25 people took part in his funeral prayers before he was buried at an unknown location. [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: Silent soldiers, the losers from our lost wars

Back in the distant year 2003, my novel about a world I had inhabited for decades, The Last Days of Publishing, came out.  In its last pages, three superannuated book editors huddled in a coffee shop in Manhattan, dreaming about DIY publishing.  A decade later — for me — fiction has become reality.  Today, with the publication of Ann Jones’s magnificent They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, and with a major helping hand from Haymarket Books, Nick Turse and I are indeed DIY publishers, embarking on a venture that is less a potential business model than an urge to change the world and have an adventure in the process.

From time to time over the years, he and I had slipped into a booth at my local diner and, like those fictional editors of mine, batted around vague plans for creating our own press.  Finally, in 2012, we gathered up our collected essays about drones and tried a do-it-yourself one-off at Amazon that we called Terminator Planet.  It was a book made by a machine or perhaps an algorithm without, as far as I could tell, human intervention, and like the president’s drones, it turned out to come with “collateral damage.”  (It was the ugliest-looking volume imaginable!)  Next, we turned to Anthony Arnove, my publisher at Haymarket Books, and produced a little collection of Nick’s recent work, The Changing Face of Empire, which proved to be a jewel of a book and a modest success.  Emboldened, we started looking for a manuscript with which we could really launch an imprint, one that caught some unforgettable aspect of our dark world and, above all, needed a press like ours to be born.

When, in 1976 at age 32, I first became an editor at a mainstream publishing house, I had just one urge: I wanted to bring new voices, as young as I was, into the world; I wanted, as I used to say at the time, to publish “voices from elsewhere,” even when that elsewhere was right here in the U.S.A.  (Back then, I also proudly and only half-jokingly used to brag of being publishing’s “editor of last resort,” a claim that would now undoubtedly get an editor fired.)  Generally speaking, I think I reached that goal both in the books I helped to birth and, in more recent years, at TomDispatch, which is, I hope, regularly a voice from “elsewhere,” even though firmly located here.  Nearly four decades after my publishing career began, however, I find it strangely appropriate that the first voice Nick and I bring you isn’t youthful at all, but that of the vibrant Ann Jones, who, when she dons her combat boots and body armor, may actually be the oldest war correspondent on the planet.

It turns out that it takes an old lady with guts, someone who has long known the suffering that the Afghan War brought down on Afghans, to follow the trail and the lives of young American soldiers horribly wounded in that war.  Hers, like theirs, has been a harrowing journey, reported in her remarkable new book with striking bluntness by a woman who is herself something of a veteran of the catastrophes of our world and who, in the wake of her Afghan experiences, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder herself.  As it happens, she also writes like an angel, even as she brings us, up close and personal, the true costs to the young Americans she calls “kids” of our post-9/11 war-making.

You don’t have to believe me.  Consider what psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of the award-winning book Achilles in Vietnam, has to say about the way They Were Soldiers portrays the American wounded:

“This is a painful odyssey. Ann Jones’s superb writing makes it possible to take it in without sugar coating. Her scene painting takes you there with compassion and without flinching — no sentimental bullshit here, no lofty pity. We fly with her in the belly of a C-17 medical evacuation from Bagram [Air Base in Afghanistan], into operating rooms of the Landstuhl European way station, more surgeries at Walter Reed, into the gymnasium for the long, determined work with prosthetics, with the physical and occupational therapists. We go with her to the homes of the families receiving the brain-injured and the psychologically and morally injured. We hear firsthand accounts by families of service members who died of their war wounds in the mind and spirit, after making it back in one piece… physically. Her breadth of vision includes even contractors, whom most dismiss from their minds and forget. Read this book. You will be a wiser and better citizen.”

And when you’re done, you won’t for a second doubt the high price some Americans have paid for Washington’s folly.

It’s with great pride, then, that I announce the official publication today of this first original offering from Dispatch Books.  To introduce it at the site, TomDispatch regular Jones offers an overview of what might be called her American experience in Afghanistan.  Read it and then buy her book.  I guarantee you one thing: when you’re done with it, as with the best of books, you’ll see our world differently. Tom Engelhardt

They didn’t know what they were getting into
The cost of war American-style
By Ann Jones

The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody.  They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.

It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage.  They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski.  They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.

[Read more...]

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Afghanistan: U.S. Special Forces guilty of war crimes?

Matthieu Aikins writes: In the fall of 2012, a team of American Special Forces arrived in Nerkh, a district of Wardak province, Afghanistan, which lies just west of Kabul and straddles a vital highway. The members installed themselves in the spacious quarters of Combat Outpost Nerkh, which overlooked the farming valley and had been vacated by more than 100 soldiers belonging to the regular infantry. They were U.S. Army Green Berets, trained to wage unconventional warfare, and their arrival was typical of what was happening all over Afghanistan; the big Army units, installed during the surge, were leaving, and in their place came small groups of quiet, bearded Americans, the elite operators who would stay behind to hunt the enemy and stiffen the resolve of government forces long after America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan officially comes to an end.

But six months after its arrival, the team would be forced out of Nerkh by the Afghan government, amid allegations of torture and murder against the local populace. If true, these accusations would amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001. By February 2013, the locals claimed 10 civilians had been taken by U.S. Special Forces and had subsequently disappeared, while another eight had been killed by the team during their operations.

Officials at the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, categorically denied these allegations, which came at an extremely delicate moment – as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the American government were locked in still-unresolved negotiations over the future of American forces in Afghanistan. The sticking point has been the U.S.’s demand for continued legal immunity for its troops, which Karzai is reluctant to grant. Privately, some American officials have begun to grumble about a “zero option” – where, as in Iraq, the U.S. would rather withdraw all its forces than subject them to local law – but both sides understand that such an action could be suicidal for the beleaguered Afghan government and devastating for American power in the region. Yet a story like the one brewing in Nerkh has the potential to sabotage negotiations.

Last winter, tensions peaked and President Karzai ordered an investigation into the allegations. Then on February 16th, a student named Nasratullah was found under a bridge with his throat slit, two days, his family claimed, after he had been picked up by the Green Berets. Mass demonstrations erupted in Wardak, and Karzai demanded that the American Special Forces team leave, and by April, it did. That’s when the locals started finding bodies buried outside the American base in Nerkh, bodies they said belonged to the 10 missing men. In July, the Afghan government announced that it had arrested Zikria Kandahari, a translator who had been working for the American team, in connection with the murders, and that in turn Kandahari had fingered members of the Special Forces for the crimes. But the American military stuck to its denials. “After thorough investigation, there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by ISAF or U.S. forces,” Col. Jane Crichton told The Wall Street Journal in July.

But over the past five months, Rolling Stone has interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses and victims’ families who’ve provided consistent and detailed allegations of the involvement of American forces in the disappearance of the 10 men, and has talked to Afghan and Western officials who were familiar with confidential Afghan-government, U.N. and Red Cross investigations that found the allegations credible. In July, a U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan warned: “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.” [Continue reading...]

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Afghanistan’s epidemic of drug addiction

The New York Times reports: Perhaps nowhere in Afghanistan presents a bleaker picture of addiction than Herat Province. Widely held up as a success story, the province enjoys a booming economy, a relatively progressive society and a vibrant capital free of the trash-strewn streets and waterways that choke most large Afghan cities.

But beneath the surface, Herat is contending with the country’s most serious drug addiction problem.

The head of the counternarcotics ministry in Herat says there are 60,000 to 70,000 addicts in the province, though some health officials figure the number is closer to 100,000. In the capital, roughly 8 percent of the population uses drugs, the new international report found.

The addiction crisis brings with it all manner of problems, including crime and public health concerns. A 2010 report by Johns Hopkins University found that about 18 percent of intravenous drug users in the provincial capital were infected with H.I.V., compared with just 3 percent in Kabul.

Long a staging area for men who work as day laborers in Iran, Islam Qala is now also a frequent waypoint for addicts returning to Herat. Most of the men say they picked up their habits while in Iran. The authorities there, struggling to deal with a widespread drug crisis of their own, are quick to banish Afghan addicts back across the border by the thousands, and the deported people stream back into Islam Qala six days a week.

In Herat’s capital, addicts fill the streets and parks, begging from pedestrians and motorists with relentless persistence. Pockets of the city have been transformed into junkie ghettos, like Kamar Kulagh, a roadside slum of sandbags, rocks and rags. [Continue reading...]

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The military’s toxic burn pits are making soldiers sick

Katie Drummond writes: At the height of the war in Iraq, US forces operated out of 505 bases scattered across the country. Joint Base Balad, a 15-square-mile outpost north of Baghdad, was the second largest. Home to 36,000 military personnel and contractors at its peak, the base was considered a vital hub for operations throughout Iraq — largely thanks to two 11,000-foot runways and one of the best and biggest trauma centers in the region. Balad also boasted a notorious array of amenities: troops living in the makeshift mini-city could dine on Burger King or Subway, play miniature golf or relax in an air-conditioned movie theater, and browse for TVs or iPods at two different shopping centers.

But when Le Roy arrived at Balad in the summer of 2007, the first thing he noticed was the smell. A noxious, overwhelming stench reminiscent of burning rubber. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is something really bad, really really bad,’” he recalls. Soon, he also noticed the smoke: plumes of it curling into the air at all hours of the day, sometimes lingering over the base as dark, foreboding clouds. That smoke, Le Roy soon learned, was coming from the same place as the stench that had first grabbed him: Balad’s open-air burn pit.

The pit, a shallow excavation measuring a gargantuan 10 acres, was used to incinerate every single piece of refuse generated by Balad’s thousands of residents. That meant seemingly innocuous items, like food scraps or paper. But it also meant plastic, styrofoam, electronics, metal cans, rubber tires, ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, and human body parts — all of it doused in jet fuel and lit on fire. The pit wasn’t unique to Balad: open-air burn pits, operated either by servicemembers or contractors, were used to dispose of trash at bases all across Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I remember waking up with soot on me; you’d come out and barely see the sun because it was so dark from the smoke,” says Dan Meyer, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran who lived adjacent to the burn pit at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Base. Meyer is now confined to a wheelchair because of inoperable tumors in his knees, and breathes using an oxygen tank due to an obstructive lung disease. “It would just rain down on us. We always called it ‘black snow.’”

It’s no secret that open-air burning poses health hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long warned that burning waste — even organic refuse like brush or tree branches — is dangerous. Burning items like plastic water bottles or computer parts is even worse. “It’s appalling,” says Anthony Wexler, PhD, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis and the co-author of a 2010 review of the military’s air-quality surveillance programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “From a health perspective, this kind of open-pit burning, especially when you’re burning everything under the sun, creates a real mess.” That’s because of both the size of the particulate matter emitted from the pits and its composition. Smoke from any combustion process fills the air with what are known as “fine particles” or PM2.5. Because they’re so small — measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less — these particles burrow more deeply into the lungs than larger airborne pollutants, and from there can leach into the bloodstream and circulate through the body. The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments. Among them are chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, allergies, neurological conditions, several kinds of cancer, and weakened immune systems. [Continue reading...]

For more information, see Burnpits 360.

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