Category Archives: afghanistan

afghanistan: the best way to peace

Anatol Lieven reviews recent books in Afghanistan: The best way to peace. But, even more notable is his commentary on the history of the conflict, the current dividing lines, difficulties, tensions, and prospects for the future.

It is exceptionally important that US policymakers read the book by Mohammad Khan, because there is a strong tendency in US official circles and in the US media to treat the Pakistani state as the enemy in Afghanistan, and to assume that Taliban resistance in Afghanistan would largely disappear if Pakistan could somehow be bullied or bribed into submission. This misunderstands the deep popular sympathy on the part of the Pashtuns on both sides of the border for the Taliban, who are seen among many Pakistani Pashtuns as a legitimate resistance force. A perspective such as Tomsen’s risks embroiling the US in a conflict with Pakistan that would greatly increase the terrorist threat to the West.

In these circumstances, it is highly probable that government-equipped military forces of one group or another will sooner or later stage a takeover of much of the country. The willingness of the US Congress and public to go on subsidizing Afghanistan would then be gravely undermined. If the coup were seen to be led by Tajik officers, there would be a counter-coup by Pashtun officers, and so on. If the Pashtun parts of the army lost in Kabul, many would defect to the Taliban—replicating in many ways the pattern of the civil wars that followed the Najibullah regime’s fall in 1992.

The Afghan civil war would then intensify drastically and continue indefinitely. The Taliban could not capture even Kabul, let alone the non-Pashtun areas to the west and north, in the face of the opposition from Tajiks and other ethnic groups backed by the US, India, and Russia; but the dividing lines between the different territories would be drawn in battle, and amid horrendous bloodshed.

The pursuit of a peace settlement should be combined with the discussion of a post-Karzai political order in Kabul, and with an Afghan national debate on reform of the constitution, which is now widely recognized to be deeply flawed and far too centralized, and which was never truly approved by the Afghan people. The first step to peace with the Taliban therefore should be to acknowledge their right to participate in a genuine national debate on a new Afghan constitution.


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a nice round-up of the failed american occupation of afghanistan. as the US withdraws, the taliban is optimistic and will become stronger. the government has little to no public support, and while not all prefer the taliban, there is a large political vacum.

Candid about Afghans’ criticism of their government, the Nato report is diplomatically reticent about the other main reason why the Taliban has been able to survive, recover and absorb the US counter-offensive in 2010-11. The Taliban benefits from simply being Afghans who are fighting foreign occupation, and “occupation” is the word used by both Taliban and government officials.

It is an extraordinary turn-around that a decade later the Americans are departing and the Taliban are back in business. A leaked Nato report on interrogations of 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qa’ida, foreign fighters and civilians shows that Taliban prisoners are in a confident mood. They believe their popular support is growing, Afghan government officials secretly collaborate with them, and, once foreign troops are gone, they believe they are going to win.

read rest here, Patrick Cocburn, The death of the American dream in Afghanistan 

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urination distraction

i wrote a piece for the sunday guardian on the controversy about us marines urinating on the taliban. see the piece here. here is a post on duckofminerva that continues in a similar vein.

In fact, urinating on corpses, torturing prisoners, and cheering deaths is predictable in any war.  Indeed, it shows that the military training necessary for most people to kill another human being is working.  No doubt it also shows a failure in training on the laws of war – but there is little doubt which of these two courses of instruction is more fundamental to our military.  Of course we should have laws of war and use them to prosecute violators.  But we should not be surprised if ordinary people placed in contexts of peril and power act brutally.
Low-level prosecutions also divert attention from the higher-ups who are most responsible.  Of course, some at the bottom may truly be sadistic.  But for the most part, they are ordinary men and women caught up in the fury of warfare.  Much of that fervor is in fact drummed up by superiors – through public statements or tortured legal opinions.  Prosecuting a few small fry for understandable if condemnable behavior makes it less likely that those at the top, who made it all possible, will face prosecution.

Most fundamentally, condemnations and prosecutions preserve and legitimate the war itself. They portray it – or at least our side’s engagement in it – as rule-bound, controlled, rational.  By making a show of censuring young men and women caught up in the awfulness of war, those in power deflect attention from the far greater awfulness and futility of the war itself – for which they are responsible.

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video games, army recruitment, and urinating on the taliban

A video of four US marines urinating  on corpses in Afghanistan, allegedly members of the Taliban, caused much out-cry last week.  (see video, if you must )The marines were  apparently aware that they were on camera. The act has been described as “outrageous”, “sick”, “utterly deplorable” and “inhuman”; some have argued that it is a violation of human rights and the marines should be punished.  The marines have been questioned by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, though are not in custody.

The mass emotional mobilization effects of video footage notwithstanding, why are we so outraged by this act?

In 2005, for the first time since 1973, the American military met all if its recruitment goals.  The success, at least in part, can be attributed to the release of a new video game, America’s Army,  and two graphic novels, Bravo Zulu and Knowledge is Power aimed at America’s youth. Knowledge is Power depicts a staff sergeant surviving an explosion unharmed. His exclamation to the rookie soldier who saved him implies that this shows that it is wrong to be “worried about bein’ here.” The release of America’s Army was accompanied by the setting up of a 14,500 sq.-ft arcade or ‘Army Experience Center’ in a Philadelphia mall, filled with simulators and shooter video games.  According to a 2008 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.”

Prospective recruits were sold the idea of joining the military by likening real life armed combat to a video game simulation. The strategy is particularly successful, intentionally so, with younger people, who are lured in by the video game imagery.  Colonel Casey Wardynski, who as director of the Army’s office of economic and manpower analysis came up with the idea of using America’s Army;  he argues that “It’s designed to give them an inside view on the very fundamentals of being a soldier, and it’s also designed to give them a sense of self-efficacy, that they can do it…  You don’t have to think what it would look like — you can see what it looks like.”

( see 2009 article in Christian Science Monitor; see also An article in The Washington Post from 2005)

But,  surely real life battlefields are surely different from the ones in America’s Army.

The video game imagery helps prevent thinking about the nature of the ‘enemy’ – that they are people, with desires, hopes, grievances, family, history –  a story. Rather, in the video game there is just the nameless, faceless, ‘bad guy’ representing evil, and the sole objective of the gamers  is to destroy the enemy; no gamer  would ever question the video game programmer about why the ‘bad’ guy deserves to be destroyed. The video game imagery also highlights the camaraderie between the good guys, the importance of sticking together and cooperating with one another. It encourages aggressiveness  and a trigger-happy mentality. It conveys a sense of  bravado and machoism derived from seeking and destroying the enemy. The use of video games is critical for the military – it enables them to recruit teenagers and young adults, psyche them up about waging war, de-personalizing their acts in the battle field, and removing questions ethical questions about the legitimacy of the war itself, the specific mission aims, or the means employed to achieve those aims.

The Wikileaks video which shows US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians in 2007 perhaps exemplifies  the video game mentality. When the lead helicopter opens fire, “Hahah, I hit’em” shouts one of the American crew; the other crew member responds, “ oh yeah, look at those dead bastards”. When one of the men on ground is wounded and starts crawling, a crew member is heard wishing for the man to reach for a gun so there would be pre-text to open fire – “ all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” (remember the wikileaks video of american soldiers opening fire in iraq)

Why then is it so surprising that the marines urinated on the Taliban corpses? The idea of the army has been to sold to them as a video game, precisely to remove any nagging ethical or moral doubt these fighters might have when on the battle field. In America’s Armies or the popular Gears of War, it would surely would not be objectionable if the good guys urinated on the animated figure of the enemy.

To those who argue that the marines should be punished, it is worth considering whether  individual culpability or responsibility applies in such a situation. Can individuals be held personally responsible when their actions are an extension – even if an extreme one – of the manner in which they have been trained? They have been recruited, if not trained,   to think about the ‘enemy’ as nothing more than an object that should be destroyed; this facilitates the aggressiveness and one-track mentality that helps win wars.

It is also worth noting that last week was the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, despite all Obama’s promises. As long as Guantanamo exists, the American soldier is part of a larger culture that permits or turns a blind eye to the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of suspected, but not proven, terrorists. Guantanamo violates international law every day that it continues to exist; what began as as emergency measure under Bush, has now become a permanent fixture of indefinite detention, abuse and torture under Obama How is it that we are outraged by the manner in which a corpse is treated, but say little about how the living are treated?

( see this piece from Slate – The Great Gitmo blackout)

Finally, consider the number of comments that accompany the you tube video, applauding the soldiers. Steven Clemons is right – ‘Whether many want to admit it or not, what those soldiers allegedly did represents “us” today — and that’s yet another part of the malignant manifestation of these current conflicts.’

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