Focal Points Blog

Costa Rica’s Love-Hate Relationship With Heavy US Military Footprint

Playa Dominical, Costa RicaThe Costa Rican Congress recently voted to open its country to 46 U.S. warships (with their attendant helicopters and planes) and 7,000 U.S. Marines from July through the end of the year. The U.S. military’s stated mission is to interdict drug dealers and arm merchants, as well as expedite humanitarian missions. (Thanks to Sean Paul Kelley of the Agonist for bringing this to our attention.)

The Tico Times reports:

“What seemed like normal protocol — seeking the approval of the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly for another group of Marines, with their support ships and planes, to monitor the country’s coastline for signs of drug traffickers — erupted into protests and angry comments as some Costa Ricans complained that their country’s sovereignty was being trampled upon.” reports:

Costa Rica’s opposition [describes] the permission as illegal and in violation of national sovereignty. … Luis Fishman . . . presidential candidate in the past elections, said the legislative approval was like handing over a ‘blank cheque.’

The Tico Times again:

The response caught the U.S. Embassy . . . by surprise. “We are not sure why there is this uproar,” U.S. Ambassador Anne S. Andrew said, explaining that the request is the same one that has been submitted each year for the last 10 years under a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

But, according to the opposition, as reported in the article, the agreement “allowed the entry of coast guard vessels, but not war ships.” Furthermore, it “urged consideration of the geopolitical situation [which] the US [has created] in the region . . . which includes offensive actions such as the coup d’etat in Honduras and the installation of military bases in Colombia.”

Also at Insidecosta, John Holtz writes:

Limiting the attack to our oceans makes no sense for such a large scale operation. Money is not laundered on the high seas and neither are those who direct the drug trade. … Many Costa Ricans are angry, scared and certainly confused.

On the other hand, it can’t be denied that, devoid of a standing army, they feel more vulnerable than ever. The Tico Times again:

A recently released study by polling company Unimer showed that Costa Ricans’ greatest fears involve issues relating to security and crime. And few disagree the problem has arrived mostly from the outside, much of it on the backs of drug-smuggling cartels that have found room to maneuver along Costa Rica’s lightly protected coastlines and borders. … “This (protest) seems to arise at a point where there is no question that there is a serious security challenge ahead for Costa Rica,” [Ambassador] Andrew said. “In the last 10 years, the efforts of Costa Rica and the United States under the Joint Maritime Agreement have been responsible for the interception of 115,000 kilograms of cocaine and $24 million in laundered money off the coast of Costa Rica.”

From the Tico Times report again, a member of the opposition argues that “the destructive force of the ships and manpower [and] helicopters is disproportionate to the threat caused by drug traffickers.” For one year, the figures above break down to 11,500 kg of coke and $2.4 million of laundered money. Will 7,000 marines, 46 ships, and 200 helicopters and planes substantially improve on that? Oh, sorry. The deterrence inherent in the knowledge that this massive force is patrolling Costa Rica’s shores is, uh, priceless.

Sri Lankan Minister’s Sad Parody of Satyagraha

Sri Lankan housing minister hunger strike“A Sri Lankan minister says he has begun a hunger strike outside the UN’s Colombo offices demanding that it stop its probe into alleged war crimes. Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s announcement follows two days of demonstrations outside the office by protesters angry over the inquiry.”

. . . reports the BBC . . .

“The BBC’s Charles Haviland in Colombo says Mr Weerawansa is lying alone on a mattress on a bed near the main gate of the UN office. …

“Several Buddhist monks are also there and have given blessings to the demonstration.”

Maybe, but Gandhi would be rolling over in his grave to see satyagraha* used as an instrument of the state.

*Satyagraha, of course, is Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.

It’s Not an “Anthropology of Afghanistan” We Need, But of Us

At Armchair Generalist, Jason Sigger comments on an op-ed that a British member of Parliament wrote for Der Spiegel on July 1. But Scotsman Rory Stewart isn’t just any MP. He’s the man who wrote The Places in Between (Mariner Books, 2006), an astonishing account of trekking across Afghanistan in the wake of the initial post-9/11 U.S. attacks. Incidentally the danger to which he exposed himself was not only to an alternately hospitable and hostile people, but to winter storms while hiking in the mountains.

Stewart gained instant authority, beyond diplomats and military commanders, on the subject of Afghanistan and, while one might not always agree with him, he’s always worth reading.

“. . . everyone — politicians, generals, diplomats and journalists — feels trapped by our grand theories [such as counterinsurgency] and beset by the guilt of having already lost over a thousand NATO lives, spent a hundred billion dollars and made a number of promises to Afghans . . . which we are unlikely to be able to keep. [Thus] it is almost impossible to imagine the US or its allies halting the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in the years to come. … And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact. …

“The only way in which we could move beyond the counter-insurgency theory [is] to understand that however desirable [defeating the Taliban and creating a legitimate state in Afghanistan] might be, they are not things that we — as foreigners — can do. … But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.”

Jason Sigger writes:

“It would be nice to have some articulate, moderate Democrat voice these words. It would be even nicer to imagine that Obama’s National Security Council has recognized these issues. … I am not sure if there’s a significant difference between the objectives of neocon ‘idealism’ and liberal internationalism right now, and I think that’s a major flaw in the Democratic party right now.”

Applied to neocons today, the term was once more commonly used to describe rebellious youth in the sixties, such as those who protested against Vietnam. As for that “anthropology of ourselves,” after that war, the United States, including the national security community, seemed to have done a national soul searching in hopes of inoculating ourselves to future such situations. But the Vietnam vaccine didn’t take — apparently our “work-up” of the body politic was flawed.

What Barry Should Say to Bibi

Behind all the photo ops and making nice speeches from US President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House today, a hard reality lurks. The blank check Israel has enjoyed from the US all these years is about to be torn up. After over 60 years of friendship, Israel – of its own volition and through its own actions – has become an economic and security liability to the US.

Here’s what POTUS needs to say to the PM . . .

“Sorry, dude, it’s out of my hands. You have from two and a half to four and a half years before a congress is elected that is, at best, indifferent to Israel, and at worst, actively hostile. As the Holocaust generation and their children die off, the allegiance and priorities of American Jews are shifting. More are now in support of social justice and repairing the world (tikkun olam) than an overseas ‘homeland’ that is increasingly seen as both incompetent and immoral.

“You have been blessed by an American media that is largely Jewish or sympathetic to Jewish causes. That model is dead. The new media is a 16 year old with an iPhone and a Facebook account, and he / she will take great delight in exposing your perfidies to the world. This will only get worse as technologies advance.

“AIPAC, AJD and JDL are the past. They are newspapers in a digital age. The new forces are entities like J Street and Another Jewish Voice, plus passionate individuals with strong networks. With the exception of evangelicals, the American public is mostly indifferent to Israel. Leon Uris is dead, and the myth he and you helped perpetuate of a plucky David against an ugly, evil, Arab Goliath is dying, too. The Gaza invasion and the flotilla fiasco were your Waterloo – you just haven’t tallied the butcher’s bill.

“America is broke. We will soon have to give up a significant chunk of our defense budget, raise taxes and reduce services. No one is going to be able to stand up in Congress and explain why our money should go to build illegal settlements for a fundamentalist, apartheid regime. Especially when high visibility people whom Americans believe in, like David Petraeus, explain how Israeli intransigence threatens our security. We may be able to shield you from condemnation in the UN, but on the ground and in the voting booth, it’s just about over.

“If you truly want Israel to continue to exist, then figure out how to make peace within the 1967 borders AND with compensation for those who were displaced in the 1948 nakba. We can help you with that and I’ll lead the charge if you’re truly willing to play.

“If you don’t, demographic forces will compel a one state outcome, and you will not be its ruler. If that happens, your best case scenario will be a secular, democratic state in which Jews will be a minority. Your worst case is that it will be an Islamic state, and the oppressions and proscriptions you have inflicted on others will come back to you like karmic whiplash.

“The simple fact is, it’s probably too late for a two state ending. You have done too good a job in erasing those old boundaries. The Occupied Territories are a tar baby, and you’re stuck fast.

“Nor can you hope to hunker in the bunker of ‘Fortress Israel’. The ‘evolution of lethality’ means that your model of deterrence – massive conventional and even nuclear force – is obsolete. We live in an era of ‘open source’ warfare, where small groups and even individuals can fight states and have a reasonable chance of winning. Consider the implications for your economy when you have to buy F-35’s for hundreds of millions a copy, while your opponents can build increasingly sophisticated rockets and even cruise missiles in a garage-based ‘fab lab’ for thousands. To say nothing of the implications of DNA sequencers being sold on EBay for a few thousand dollars, and biogenetic precursors available by mail order.

“In an open source world, you cannot expect your opponents to remain incompetent. (Which of your former leaders was it who said, ‘Thank God our enemies are Arabs, and not Germans’?) Just as Iraqi and Afghani insurgents have begun to master the tactics and technologies of open source warfare, so will the Palestinians if you force them to.

“Even worse, the ability of your enemies to attack your systems will only increase. And they may not even need to do it themselves. Expect not only boycotts and disinvestment drives, but also focused attacks from contractors, such as the Russian Business Network and Chinese hackers. Your information, financial and governance systems, along with physical infrastructure, will be attacked relentlessly. The point is to make return on investment so lousy that investors and supporters will go away.

“Israel is incredibly vulnerable. Your economy is reasonably diversified, but it’s heavily dependent on imports and a few export markets. The vast majority of your oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment come from abroad, and 80 percent of your GDP results from foreign trade. Most of that trade is with the US and the European Union, and that’s where public opinion is shifting from pro-Israel to actively anti-Israel.

“There’s an old saying, ‘If you’re in a hole, stop digging.’ You’re in a serious hole, but you keep buying new shovels. If you don’t change course dramatically and almost immediately, our own actions – tied to demographic shifts and economic realities, multiplied by open source media and networked information flows – will lead to Israel’s implosion in the foreseeable future. Some of my advisors have put a 20 year window on this, but the pace of history keeps accelerating, and I suspect it will really be less than that. Maybe even less than 10 years.

“In short, Bibi, the fat lady is singing her final stanza. You have a very brief window to make nice and try to salvage a Jewish state. I’ve already bet Hillary $100 that Israel is toast – and I gave her 8 – 5 odds. It’s probably the only profit I’ll make on this deal.”

Picture Obama Authorizing a Nuclear Attack

Since the end of the Cold War, the circumstances under which a U.S. president might authorize the launch of nuclear weapons have changed. First, it bears mentioning that, even though he or she is always accompanied by the “nuclear football,”* a president’s ability to exercise complete command over the response to a nuclear attack has long been overrated. Back in 2004, Global Zero Co-Coordinator and President of the World Security Institute Bruce Blair wrote:

“. . . the president’s supporting command system is not actually geared to withhold retaliation in the event of enemy missile attack, real or apparent. [Nuclear commanders] knew full well that the U.S. nuclear command system would collapse under the weight of . . . a Soviet first strike, and that their ability to [retaliate depended] on not waiting more than a few minutes before initiating a large-scale counterattack. [Thus the] bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it.”

Today, however, a nuclear attack is less likely to be the result of another state dropping bombs from above or launching missiles than a non-state actor (terrorist group) detonating a weapon without warning on American soil. If there’s an upside to such an occurrence, it’s that it allows a president time to consider his response.

Most assume that a nuclear attack is automatically met by nuclear retaliation. But that might prove equally uncalled for and unfeasible. Andrew Krepinevich, director of defense think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, makes that clear in his 2009 book 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (Bantam Books).

The second of Krepinevich’s seven eye-opening and plausible scenarios is titled “War Comes to America.” In 2011, a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon is detonated in San Antonio, home to several major Air Force bases and an intelligence center. Krepinevich writes:

“Strategic Command’s nuclear forces are placed on high alert . . . military specialists pore over incoming satellite imagery to determine if they somehow missed a missile launch indication . . . and to detect any additional missile launches that would indicate a follow-on strike. … That evening President David Reynolds . . . informs the American public that [they've found] no indication that the weapon was delivered by any kind of missile or aircraft. Simply stated, the bomb was prepositioned in the city covertly and then detonated, perhaps remotely.”

Thus neither was it possible to initiate a retaliatory strike at the time nor mount an attack in the aftermath. For better or worse, the situation rendered launch on warning and hair-trigger alerts useless. Still, even though it’s a different kettle of fish from the Cold War, nuclear forensics reveals that it’s a Soviet weapon. But the Russians disavow the attack, though they concede that the weapon was stolen from them. They vow to track down the guilty parties, which they soon locate among rogue elements of their military and the Russian mafia and military. Krepinevich again:

“‘Intensive interrogation’ (that is to say, torture) of these individuals reveals that nine Soviet-designed atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) have been sold on the black market to Islamic militants. … but no group has presented compelling evidence that it is the true source of the attacks.”

As you can imagine, the American people “want the perpetrators identified and destroyed. Around-the-clock news coverage, along with intense blogosphere activity, keeps the public’s anger and fear at a high level.” But retaliation is still just a gleam in generals’ eyes because 1. the attackers have yet to be identified and 2. even when they are, since they don’t inhabit a state per se, they don’t present a ready target.

Two more nuked cities (sayonara San Diego and Chicago) and a total of 60,000 dead later, various Islamist groups now claim responsibility. Worse, two stolen Soviet weapons are still outstanding.

By this point, Krepinevich writes, “Many Americans would welcome a broad attack on Arab states like Syria and Lebanon and the occupation of Persian Gulf oil fields as a means of providing reparations to the United States for the attacks.” (Can we do that second one now? Kidding, of course.) “With no indications from the president that he’s inclined to either course of action, his “public support . . . has now plummeted. Most Americans see his efforts as weak and ineffectual.”

Then Boston is struck and during a “U.S. Coast Guard boarding of a cargo ship approaching U.S. territorial waters, a nuclear weapon . . . believed to be the final weapon . . . detonates.” The national nightmare seems to be coming to an end. The “president announces that the United States will work with its allies and partners . . . to pressure those states suspected of supporting radical Islamist elements to cease all such activities. In the interim the United States is intensifying its worldwide military operations to locate and destroy radical Islamist groups with the cooperation” of other countries. [But the] response to the president’s address is lukewarm at best. [His] approval ratings sink below 20 percent [and soon] the House of Representatives begins hearings to determine if the president should be impeached.”

Finally, a radical Islamist group provides irrefutable proof to the CIA that it perpetrated the attacks. Just when it feels like the United States can at last put a name to its pain, the Director of National Intelligence delivers the punch line: “Mr. President, they inform us that they have other nuclear weapons in the United States and will begin using them within a week unless we meet their demands, which are as follows . . .”

Scenario 2, were it to come to pass, would be our second object lesson in that unique way nuclear weapons have of fast-tracking us into crisis mode while leaving us without the means to retrace our steps back to a steady state. The first, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krepinevich’s President Reynolds might have been intended as a hybrid of President Obama, attributing to him a reluctance to use nuclear weapons, and President John F. Kennedy, who finally became obstinate in his refusal to resort to nuclear weapons. Of Reynolds, Krepinevich writes: “Privately, he tells those closest to him that he is willing to suffer public disapproval in order to spare the country the dangers of a full-scale war.”

In fact, the pressure Kennedy faced from the military to use nuclear weapons was much stronger than that which Obama has thus far faced about remaining in Afghanistan or, for that matter, dialing down our nuclear-industrial complex. Kennedy, however, had proved his intestinal fortitude during World War II with PT-109. (Revisit that incident: his heroism bordered on a death wish.) Besides, in those days, bold initiatives were expected from leaders, unlike today, when consensus rules at the executive level in business and government.

Returning to Krepinevich’s scenario, even Kennedy might have nuked a host state after hearing about the additional bombs. Obama, I regret to report, unlike President Reynolds, might have succumbed to pressure to authorize a nuclear attack after the initial attacks.

*The nuclear football is an industrial-strength briefcase containing retaliatory options, site locations, and authorization codes.

Speaking of authorization codes, here’s one for Technorati to verify our blog: Q7N2EXJ85J9R

The Red Mosque Was Pakistan’s Waco

Ghazi, Pakistan's David Koresh“Pakistani authorities now believe a dangerous new militant group [the Ghazi Force], out to avenge a deadly army assault on a mosque in Islamabad three years ago, has carried out several major bombings in the capital previously blamed on the Taliban,” reports Kathy Gannon for the Associated Press.

“The emergence of the Ghazi Force was part of the outrage among many deeply religious Pakistani Muslims over the July 2007 attack by security forces against the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, a stronghold of Islamic militants. … The new group is made up of relatives of students who died in the Red Mosque assault. It is named after the students’ leader, Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was also killed.”

Last June I hosted a FireDogLake book salon for Nicholas Schmidle, the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. Before the attack, he visited Lal Masjid and interviewed Ghazi, who, along with his brother, inherited its leadership from his father, who was assassinated there. Of the three only Ghazi’s brother, who, you may recall, escaped dressed as a woman in a burqua, was spared that fate. (Later caught, he was recently released from prison. Guess Pakistan’s prison system is still a swinging door for jihadis.) The first mosque built in Islamabad, Lal Masjid once served an exclusive neighborhood of Islamabad.

Ghazi impressed Schmidle with his genial nature — in appearance, he reminded the author of Jerry Garcia! Gannon again:

A former senior official [said] that the police wanted to storm the mosque and end the siege at its outset [and] send the students home . . . until tempers cooled. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf refused, the official said, even though police knew that members of [an al-Qaida] affiliate organization . . . were bringing in weapons for the students. Musharraf relented and ordered the assault after militants kidnapped several Chinese nationals running a massage parlor in Islamabad, accusing them of prostitution.

Since the Chinese had invested hundreds of millions in buiding up the port in Gwadar (on the Arabian Sea), they pressured Musharraf to protect their people in Pakistan. Despite a government clean-up after the attack faster than Ground Zero after 9/11, Schmidle estimates that as many as 1,000 of those inside the Red Mosque were killed.

Meanwhile, news that it wasn’t the Taliban that had committed the string of Islamabad attacks caught many by surprise. In retrospect, though, it was no more surprising than when David Koresh and his Branch Davidians were slaughtered at Waco, Texas in 1993 and, along with Ruby Ridge, became a rallying point of the American militia movement.

Me to Nicholas Schmidle: How is it that the genial, level-headed Ghazi, as you wrote, “morphed from an outspoken extremist with a perma-smirk into a bona fide terrorist”? In other words, how did he wind up becoming Pakistan’s version of David Koresh and backing himself and his followers into an apocalyptic corner?

Schmidle: Ghazi was not a suicidal dude, or at least I didn’t think so. If anyone reads my account of him, you’ll see that he was critical in me getting access to jihadis that would have otherwise been unthinkable. … I felt remarkably safe in his presence.

But I believe that he was a victim of his own personality cult. … He had built up the jihad and built up himself to such a degree, and surrounded himself with some bad-ass fighters from Pakistan’s most elite jihadi organizations, that when it came down to the final showdown, he left no room for himself to back down.

Likewise, apparently, those carrying on his legacy leave no room for themselves to back down — or give no quarter.

Friday Fun: Imams Gone Wild

At Psychology Today, Molly Castelloe points out: “The blogosphere is abuzz with a recent breast-feeding fatwa or religious ruling in the Saudi world.

Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a scholar and consultant at Saudi Arabia’s royal court, called for women to give breast milk to their drivers and male coworkers in order to avoid illicit mixing of the sexes. Yes, you heard me. [Emphasis added]

According to conservative Islamic tradition, if a woman breast-feeds a man five times they are considered “relatives” rather than potential lovers. They are therefore allowed to intermingle or be alone together. This milk-relationship permits other familiarities normally forbidden between an unmarried man and woman: the woman can also remove her veil and reveal her hair.

One’s first impulse is to laugh this off because aside from not constituting actual laws or even decrees, fatwas are sometimes issued by lesser clerics. Thus the Sheik’s affiliation with the Saudi Arabian court makes this somewhat troubling. In fact, Ms. Castelloe continues:

Religious and political leaders in the Arab world declare that recent fatwa practices are causing a crisis in Islam because they promote extremist thought and intolerance. … This mammary madness, which fueled a week’s worth of headlines in the oil-rich Saudi kingdom, highlights the challenges some Muslim scholars face as they strive to interpret their faith — while also preserving balance and flexibility in Islamic law.

Incidentally, lest I be accused of bias towards Islam, this kind of arcanery is common to all religions. It’s a men’s sport, of course. I urge Focal Point readers to read the rest of the Psychology Today post and see if you agree (with me, anyway) that the more deeply “theologians” such as the Sheikh explore the recesses of their minds, the farther they move from spirituality. Kindly respond in the comments section.

What Effect Will Resignation of Iran Hard-Liner Have on IAEA?

The International Atomic Energy Agency “said on Thursday its top inspector Olli Heinonen, head of investigations into Iran and Syria, has resigned for personal reasons after nearly 30 years at the Vienna-based organization,” reports Reuters.

Heinonen, 63, is head of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards department which verifies that countries’ nuclear programs are not being diverted for military use. [He] is probably best known for giving a presentation to diplomats on Iran in 2008 which indicated links between projects to process uranium, test explosives and modify a missile cone . . . for a nuclear warhead.

As those in the disarmament community are well aware, the IAEA is wrought with a deep fissure. In autumn of last year, at Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis quoted then-journalist Mark Hibbs, famed for busting the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring.

During preparations by the IAEA and the board for a routine board meeting held last month, sources close to the IAEA said that senior officials in two departments, responsible for verification and diplomacy, respectively, had strongly disagreed over whether data obtained by the IAEA concerning alleged nuclear weaponization activities by Iran is authentic. … Officials at . . . the diplomatic arm [known as Expo] of the agency, have raised concerns that evidence may be faked, as Iran has charged. … In recent years the two departments [Expo and verification, the latter headed by Heinonen -- RW] have differed about how to handle sensitive allegations that member states [such as Iran have been guilty of] safeguards violations. …

Since 2003, when the IAEA determined that evidence brought forth by the US suggesting Iraq had resumed nuclear weapons work was fabricated, officials at Expo and [former Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei's office] have been wary that the US has tried to manipulate the IAEA during its investigation of Iran, according to officials from IAEA states.

In other words, Ollie Heinonen was an Iran hard-liner. Whereas Expo and ElBaradei, concerned the West was using Iran’s dodginess about a nuclear weapons program as a pretext for an attack, might have given Iran the benefit of the doubt. (That’s also the source of charges that ElBaradei exceeded the scope of his title.)

No word yet on whether the fissure spurred Heinonen to resign or whether he just wanted to play golf (ElBaradei’s passion, actually). Reuters also reports: “Diplomats said new IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano . . . had said in private there would be changes in the agency’s top staff.”

It’s possible that Amano didn’t want Heinonen leaning on him to lean on Iran. On the other hand, he may have valued Heinonen’s fervor about bringing Iran to task and just sought to replace him with an individual with whom he felt more comfortable. Reuters again: “The IAEA said his position should be filled soon. One of [Heinonen's] deputies is Herman Nackaerts who oversees Iran inspections and holds the position Heinonen had before he was promoted.”

The larger question is whether Amano sees himself and the IAEA as the roadblock of last resort to Western aggression against Iran.

Here We Go With the Pallets of Cash Again (Remember Paul Bremer?)

Kabul corruption“Show me the money, or at least some receipts scribbled on the backs of old envelopes and grocery bags,” wrote Joseph Galloway at Common Dreams in February of 2007. He continued:

“This week, we were treated to the spectacle of the former U.S. civilian overlord of Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, squirming in the hot seat as he attempted with little success to explain what he did with 363 TONS of newly printed, shrink-wrapped $100 bills he had flown to Baghdad. [He] said that a lot of the cash was delivered to ministries of the Iraqi government to meet payrolls that were patently fraudulent.

The Department of Defense’s special inspector general for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, said that a 2005 audit he conducted found that in some ministries the payroll was padded with up to 90 percent “ghost employees” — people who didn’t really work there or perhaps didn’t really exist. Bremer said that he decided to provide the money to meet those payrolls, even though he knew they were bogus, for fear of starting riots and demonstrations among the Iraqis, real and imagined. …

I can think of no period in American history when we sat idly by while $12 billion just disappeared, poof, without a paper trail; without heads rolling; without someone going to prison.

Remember the sense of vertigo this story induced in you (well, me anyway) when you read it? If you haven’t heard about the latest wrinkle, prepare for your head to spin anew. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Corruption Suspected in Airlift of Billions in Cash From Kabul, Matthew Rosenberg reports:

In Iraq, the brutality displayed by Americans toward Iraqis and Iraqis toward Iraqis was shocking. Many Americans wrote American brutality off to our soldiers put in the impossible position of making hair-trigger decisions about who was an insurgent and who was a civilian. Nor did most of us want any part of responsibility for Iraqi brutality. It may have been an unjustified war, many of us no doubt thought, but at least we gave them their freedom — and look what they did with it.

At least this time, while they can’t expect a Presidential Medal of Freedom to be forthcoming as it was for Bremer (generosity above and beyond the call of duty?), “U.S. and Afghan officials,” the WSJ article continues, “say they are targeting the flows in major anticorruption and drug trafficking investigations because of their size relative to Afghanistan’s small economy and the murkiness of their origins.”

Okay, Americans are notorious for tuning out the violence committed by our government and military in our names. But why didn’t Americans react more strongly to the visceral image of cold hard cash — shorn of the discretion of checks or wire transfers — stacked on pallets sent to a corrupt government? If one of those pallets were stacked with just singles, it would be enough to provide any one of us with income for life.

More to the point, do Focal Points readers think this new story from Afghanistan, on the heels of McChrystal’s faux pas, as well as his fatalism about our mission there, could gain traction and convince Americans once and for all that there’s nothing to be gained from our presence in Afghanistan? Kindly respond in the comments section.

A Confirmation for Petraeus Is a Confirmation of the Surge Narrative

Petraeus, the SurgeTwo nominees walk into the capital for their confirmation hearings on Tuesday morning. One is a war hero. The other, a lawyer. They meet under the great rotunda to give each other a little pep talk before what promises to be a long day. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about my lack of judicial experience,” the lawyer confesses. “No, problem,” says the war hero. “I have enough experience for the both of us. Take some of mine,” and he sprinkles a little of his experience dust over the top of her head. “Damn it,” says the lawyer, “Now I have a record.”

This conversation is, of course, imaginary. But it does illuminate a real difference between the issue of experience in the hearings to confirm Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justice and David Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Kagan has never served as a judge. For this reason, Republican critics have argued that she simply isn’t qualified for the job. But Kagan’s hearings would likely be more heated if she had judicial experience. The very same critics would pore over her record to support their claim that she is just another liberal activist cloaked in a judge’s robe. Thus, experience can be a double-edged sword.

But this isn’t the case for the war hero. The widespread support for Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement has revolved in large part around the general’s experience in Iraq. Echoing the news reports, in his opening remarks at the confirmation hearings, Senator Carl Levin underscored Petraeus’ “highly experienced leadership.” Other members of the committee followed suit. While several of them asked challenging questions about the current strategy in Afghanistan, nobody critiqued Petraeus’ experience in Iraq.

Experience is not a double-edged sword for Petraeus because of the bi-partisan consensus that the war in Iraq was ultimately a success, if not a victory. This consensus has emerged out of the surge narrative that has become so dominant in discussions of the Iraq War. According to this narrative, when Petraeus took over the war in 2007, he led a strategic revolution in Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency was strongest. As a result of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Petraeus, the insurgency was persuaded to turn against Al Qaeda and throw its lot in with the U.S. The Anbar Awakening, as it is called, was a pivotal turning point in the war, after which the insurgency increasingly lost traction and momentum. Even Obama, who had been a sharp critic of the war in Iraq, has called the surge a success.

Ever since the surge narrative took root, there has been little public debate about the situation in Iraq. Thus, it is no surprise that, instead of an ongoing conflict, Iraq figured into the hearings as an historical event. It mattered only insofar as its success could be applied to Afghanistan. Along these lines, a few senators asked whether there might have been more popular support for the U.S. in Anbar province than in Marja, Afghanistan. But none of them asked whether the success in Anbar has led to long-term stability or effective governance in Iraq. If they had probed into the more recent history of Anbar, they would find a province wracked by political infighting that constantly threatens to self-destruct. The Awakening Party, whose members led the turnaround in 2007, has been accused of intimidation and corruption, and was unable to command the popular vote in last February’s election. Meanwhile, multinational companies are scrambling to get a piece of Anbar’s future oil and gas production, leaving it unclear whether and how the local population will actually benefit. While violence is down, it is far from certain that the Clear-Hold-Build strategy has had lasting success in the region.

When the Judiciary Committee asks a Supreme Court nominee to answer for their judicial decisions, it is less an interrogation of individual qualifications than a provocation for debating deeply engrained differences over the principles and values of our political system. Along the same lines, many progressives hoped that the change in command would prompt a discussion not of Petraeus’ qualifications, but rather, of the guiding principles and values of the war in Afghanistan. So far, the more complicated legacy of the surge in Iraq has been left out of that debate. The erasure of the long-term effects of counterinsurgency in Iraq does not bode well for Afghanistan, where corruption, lack of popular support for the government, and sooner or later, a battle over the country’s newly-discovered natural resources, similarly plagues the war effort. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the wake of the Great War, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

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