Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

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Obama’s “Responsible Conclusion” of the Afghan War

CounterPunch, 2-4 January 2015

During the Christmas-New Year period, President Barack Obama formally announced the end of America’s longest war, fought over thirteen years in Afghanistan. The invasion of that country was ordered by his predecessor, George W. Bush, following the 11 September 2001 attack on the United States. Obama called it the “responsible conclusion” of the Afghan war. Claiming that the United States was more secure, he thanked American troops and intelligence personnel for their “extraordinary sacrifices,” but acknowledged that Afghanistan remained a “dangerous place.”

The central point in these comments is that Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place, radiating its woes beyond its frontier. A few hours earlier in Kabul, the end of NATO’s “combat mission” was marked at a ceremony held in secret because of fears of a Taliban attack. Retired Air Commodore John Oddie, former deputy chief of the Australian contingent in Afghanistan, described the secret ceremony as a “sad commentary.” Oddie has grave doubts over the Afghan forces’ capacity to secure the nation.

The year 2014 was the bloodiest since the Americans returned to Afghanistan in October 2001 and the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime in Kabul was overthrown. The number of civilian casualties reached nearly ten thousand in 2014; five thousand Afghan soldiers were killed. These figures tell the story of Taliban resurgence and that they are stronger than at any time since their removal thirteen years ago. They control large parts of Afghan territory. Even in the capital, hardly any place is beyond their reach.

More than a hundred and thirty thousand foreign troops were deployed across Afghanistan at the peak of the US-led operation to eliminate the Taliban threat. America has failed in this respect, leaving the government in Kabul vulnerable. The NATO mission’s end was announced with claims laced with optimism. Western officials praised the dedication and bravery of Afghan security forces, whose official strength is around three hundred and fifty thousand.

It is claimed that they are capable of continuing a strong fight against Taliban and al-Qaida elements. Given the last year’s record, however, the assertion is not credible. Internal rivalries have delayed the formation of a full cabinet three months after the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as president and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive. Vacuum in the Defence and Interior ministries is a cause of worry.

The end of the US combat mission is a point worth reflecting on how the Soviet Union’s decade of occupation of Afghanistan came to the conclusion in February 1989 and its consequences to date. The strength of the Soviet occupying forces at the peak was similar to American-led troops this time. The Soviet aim was to defeat the anti-communist Mujahideen militias and protect the pro-Moscow government in Kabul.

In an intense final phase of the cold war, the Carter and Reagan administrations in Washington decided to confront Afghan and Soviet communism in the most cynical way, with little forethought of, and regard for, possible consequences. The Soviet Union lost, but then the same Islamist groups befriended by Washington mutated into the Taliban militia; with their al-Qaida allies, the Taliban became America’s deadly enemies.

Fortunately for the United States, Russia was helpful in Washington’s war against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Even so, after thirteen years of bombing, drone attacks, extra-judicial killings and torture, America’s resolve has come to an end. Washington will leave just a few thousand troops in Afghanistan to “advise and support” a beleaguered government.

It is also worth remembering at this stage how America’s Vietnam war ended. In a speech at Tulane University on 23 April 1975, President Gerald Ford announced that the Vietnam War was finished as far as America was concerned. Ford made a painful admission saying: “Today, Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.”

US combat forces retreated despite the South Vietnamese regime pleading for fulsome US support as the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon. A month before President Ford’s announcement, the North Vietnamese had launched a big offensive on Ban Me Thuot, the provincial capital of Darlac province. Following the South Vietnamese losses in that battle, America’s resolve had finally come to an end.

President Obama’s reference to the “responsible conclusion” of America’s combat operation has a similar echo. The government in Kabul is besieged. The Taliban can attack targets in the capital and almost anywhere else at will. Years of drone attacks, Guantanamo, and Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, have not defeated the Taliban. The year 2014 was still the worst of America’s thirteen year war.

The main factor behind fewer casualties among US-led foreign forces was that Afghan troops had been deployed to fight the opposition while occupation troops were largely confined to their bases. This, too, reminds of the 1980s, when Soviet forces previous to their withdrawal stayed in their barracks. Afghan government troops took heavy casualties.

With most of the Americans gone home, leaving behind a fractured pro-US government in Kabul dependent on dollar assistance, greater conflict and political uncertainty loom. The numbers of non-Pashtun troops, from Tajik and other ethnic minorities, are disproportionately high in the Afghan military – a country where ethnic Pashtuns are dominant. The government in Kabul will face serious challenges, both internal and external, in 2015.

As battlefield pressures grow, the government and the military will struggle with their own internal contradictions. Afghanistan has a history of constitutional governments being overthrown by coups. So the question remains whether the Afghan military, with a history of volatility and ethnic rivalries, has changed enough to be a united force committed to defending the elected government and the existing constitutional structure in the country.

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When nation-building goes wrong

Middle East Eye

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.

Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.

Iraq descends

Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismanted Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.

Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.

It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.

Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.

However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.

After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.

Ruthless rulers emerge

Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.

Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.

The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.

As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.

A graveyard for nation-builders

Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.

Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.

The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.

The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.

Fragmented societies

Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.

America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.

The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.

America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.

The Afghan experience

Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not be signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.

After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.

Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.

Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.

In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Geopolitical interests

These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.

Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.

Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.

Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.

A history of failures

United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.

Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.

America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.

The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.

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Drone Wars from Britain: How Many More?

CounterPunch, October 29, 2012 

Urgent Purchase

Now we know that not only did the United Kingdom already have drones, but more are coming to join the Royal Air Force for surveillance and combat operations in foreign lands. And, for the first time, they will be controlled from Britain.

According to a report in the Guardian, the United Kingdom has made urgent purchase of five more Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will double their number with the British military. Initially they will be deployed in Afghanistan and are expected to start operating within weeks. So, instead of sitting with their American counterparts in Nevada, the British “pilots” will be playing with videogame killing machines from RAF Waddington in the English county of Lincolnshire. These latest developments come as the United Nations has finally decided to investigate American drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of “terrorist suspects.”

In the main, three factors have influenced the British government’s decision: the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan beyond the military planners’ original estimates; the rise in the deaths and injuries of British and other Nato soldiers at the hands of Afghan security personnel; and President Obama’s plan to withdraw most of the U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Surely other Nato troops cannot stay in the country beyond that point.

Whether President Obama is reelected or Mitt Romney wins on November 6, it can be taken as certain that drone wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and their use will be extended to other places. So mechanized, refined and cheap to manufacture are these instruments of the “war on terror.” In the present economic difficulties, the governing coalition of Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg probably feels that Britain’s urgent purchase of Reaper drones is a “good investment.”

Sources in touch with American policymakers in Washington confidently predict that drone wars will continue. So, there seems to be no reason for the British government to withdraw its aircraft from the region. Under rules imposed by the European Union and the Civil Aviation Authority, drone missions can only be flown in certain places in Britain.

Civilian Deaths

In a recent article, I discussed a study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools. It concluded that the CIA’s targeted drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas were politically counterproductive, killing many civilians and undermining respect for international law.

That British drones have been in operation from Creech air base in the United States has been a less known fact. The Ministry of Defence in London insists that only four civilians have died in its drone operations in Afghanistan––in line with the Obama administration’s claims of there being very few civilian casualties. However, British defence officials say they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the legal charity Reprieve, says that “decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations.” In a recent comment, he wrote: “Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.”

It is wholly inconsistent for any Western leader or government to assert that they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of “immense difficulty and risks” and yet for Prime Minister David Cameron to claim that by December 2010 British drones had “killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan.” No wonder defence officials denied that the information came from them, and said that “they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure.” So the question arises, as Smith has raised, whether the kill-numbers are being “conjured up by politicians.”

For several years since the “war on terror” started a decade ago, the British government has sought to deny accusations that its forces have been involved in terror and torture––against mounting evidence. The Stanford and New York universities’ report is among the latest and most damning. The truth about the use of circling drones to terrify the 800000 citizens––men, women and children––in a remote tribal region is a kind of war forbidden under the Geneva conventions. But the rules of war are being changed with disregard for established conventions and law. The West’s drone policy is on trial.

In a legal challenge before the High Court in London brought by a man who lost his father in a CIA drone strike, Britain once again faces accusations of providing intelligence for such attacks and therefore of complicity. After reading a harrowing account of drone terror from Noor Khan, a resident of northwestern Pakistan, Lord Justice Moses described the evidence as “very moving.” It is our responsibility as citizens wherever we may be to read Noor Khan’s testimony and ask ourselves, “How many more?”

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American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden (on Obama’s personal order) is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority.

Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

[END]

Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republicreads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

 [END]

War, Humiliation and the Making of History

CounterPunchJune 18, 2012; The Nation, June 20, 2012

The “global war on terror” started by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago has taken a new and more sinister turn. Now we know that Barack Obama, the current president, goes through the profiles of people he wants eliminated (New York Times, May 29, 2012). He decides their fate in escalating drone wars in a growing number of countries.

Those to be killed may or may not be combatants engaged in war against America. They may or may not even be involved in an armed struggle against a brutal dictatorship which is America’s regional proxy. Mere age of others or their relationship and proximity to the “target” in a loose tribal community can be enough to be given the label of “militant”––a crime punishable by death. In Obama’s world, what else could their motive be if they were in the same area as a “terrorist?” It is a license to kill at will.

But never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished or their successors to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world confirm this, often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What has transpired forms a pattern.

Those lands include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid extreme volatility in this region, there has existed something consistent. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river in India and Pakistan. Exhausted, his troops mutinied, refusing to march any further. The rebellion continued later at Opis, a Babylonian city on the east bank of the Tigris, where Alexander gave a stirring speech admonishing his troops. But his rhetoric failed.

Elsewhere in the Kunar and Swat valleys, tribes put up extraordinary resistance forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he had appointed in charge. They, too, misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura of invincibility having abandoned him. Alexander became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years later. A remark attributed to him at the time: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with lands of the vast region of South and West Asia, have been subjected to repeated invasions through the centuries. The soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. The soil is fertile for resistance as it is for agriculture. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time and again.

Subjugation by external forces renders victims helpless, but consolidates their long-term resolve. It breeds local resistance to foreign occupiers and their culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; or by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s work is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Examples are provided by Spartans and Romans. The Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there, although in the end they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and so never lost them. They wanted to rule Greece almost as the Spartans did, freely, under its own laws, but they did not succeed. So, in order to maintain their power, they destroyed many cities in that province.

Five centuries after, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on–– despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed extensively in practice.

Since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led Western military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both terms remain highly contested. Definitions, when attempted, are arbitrary, incoherent and irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the underdog’s right to self-defense and to resist.

We hear the absurd logic of brute military power couched in legal jargon. As an example, the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians. Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region. Elections in Iran are “fraudulent” in the absence of irrefutable evidence. But polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan where plenty of evidence of fraud exists. High-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and drone attacks killing civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Talk is rare of “night raids”–– a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes at night. Those at the receiving end of such treatment see it as humiliation under foreign occupation.

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. There exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity arises. History has repeatedly shown that the price of great power intervention is high; national humiliation caused to the victim leaves a legacy that haunts the intervenor and tempts the conqueror to resort to even more force.

The dynamic of the victor-vanquished relationship is that the fewer means the humiliated has, the more precious his honor becomes, and the stronger and more determined his retaliatory instinct is. Imperial powers like Britain and Russia––and more recently the United States––have intervened at will in the oil-rich Middle East and surroundings for resources and access to waterways. The legacy of imperial subjugation continues in the form of conflict and social upheaval.

At the advent of the twenty-first century, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to reshape the region in President George W. Bush’s vision. The world’s greatest military power found the spirit of resistance in the peoples radicalized by past interventions as strong as ever. When Bush left the White House in January 2009, America was involved in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exhausted and in deep economic crisis. Under the Obama presidency, the “war on terror” has been expanded and the economic crisis is deeper, not only for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

Unchecked military power and hubris, seeking pleasure in the abuse and humiliation of others, are corrosive. They take the perpetrator on a path of infamy leading to the abuser’s own humiliation.

War is history’s revenge.

[END]