How much more ironic could it be? More than 43 years after the last Americans evacuated Vietnam, ending our disastrous occupation there, the dateline reads Hanoi on President Barack Obama’s statement today on the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Mansour was the head of Afghanistan’s Taliban but was in Pakistan at the time the US killed him with a drone, striking a similarity to the US “secret” bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war.
From today’s New York Times, we have parts of Obama’s statement:
Calling the death “an important milestone,” President Obama said in a statement, released just as he was meeting with top officials in Vietnam, that the United States had “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces.”
“Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Mr. Obama continued in the statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.”
So Obama is saying that the Taliban should respond to our extrajudicial killing of their leader by reconciling with the Afghan government (chosen in large part by John Kerry) and working toward peace. What are the odds of that happening? Max Abrahms has some very important points to make on that topic:
Dr Max Abrahms, from Northeastern University in Boston, said the US Government does not look carefully enough at the strategic implications of its strikes on extremist leaders.
He said he had done a number of studies on leadership decapitation of a militant group and he had not found a statistically significant reduction in the amount of violence perpetrated by the group after a leader was removed.
“In fact these decapitation strikes can actually be counter-productive, because one of the assumptions of the targeted killing campaigns is that the replacement of the leader that you killed will be more moderate,” Dr Abrahms said.
“And yet I find just the opposite to be true. The replacement is even more extreme.
“So for that reason, in the immediate aftermath of a successful targeted killing, like over this weekend, the group’s violence tends to become even more extreme, in the sense that it’s even more likely to attack civilian targets.”
And so our circle of irony is complete. Obama’s statement on the killing of Mansour, released from Vietnam, shows that US military misadventures still rely on faulty logic when major moves are made. A strike made to make the Taliban more peaceful seems virtually certain to result in more indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Because I know how much Marcy enjoys miraculous “left behind” documents, I couldn’t resist following up on a Twitter reference I saw flit by yesterday about how a passport for Mansour somehow survived the conflagration in the taxi in which Mansour met his death by drone. By following it, though, I found even more deep irony in the drone strike. This article by ToloNews carries a photograph of a pristine-looking passport. Compare that with the photo in the New York Times article linked above with the burned out wreckage of the vehicle Mansour was said to have been in when hit. How could the passport have survived?
But wait, there’s more! ToloNews tells us that the passport has Mansour’s name and carries a valid Iranian visa. Furthermore:
Meanwhile, a number of analysts said the Taliban in recent months tried to extend relationships with Iran and Russia to fight Daesh and that there is a possibility that Mansour traveled to Iran to escape ISI and talk with Iranian officials.
“Iran is afraid of Daesh presence in Afghanistan, because Daesh is an enemy to Iranian clerics; therefore, Iran wants to eliminate Daesh with the help of the Taliban. Previously, Taliban had strong affiliation to Saudi Arabia, but now there is a rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran wants to expand its influence on the group [Taliban],” political analyst Shafiq Hamdam said.
So while Mansour and his group have continued to reject peace talks with the Afghan government, at least some observers believe that he was in the process of trying to join the fight against Islamic State. And it may well be that he died because of that effort. Here’s a map of the region, showing that the site of the drone attack, Ahmad Wal, lies about 100 miles away from Quetta (where the Afghan Taliban has long been believed to be headquartered) along the highway that is the most direct route to Iran from Quetta.
Last week, I pointed to a problem with Jonathan Chait’s defense of Hillary Clinton’s “pluralistic” approach to governance, noting that in an era of weak labor organization, such an approach leaves out the views of the great majority of working people, precisely the kinds of people Bernie Sanders is attracting.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but since got reminded of an important paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, released in 2014. It used a dataset matching polling data to policy outcomes to test four theories for how our political system works: Majoritarian Democracy (meaning policies adopted reflect what most people want), Dominance by Economic Elites (meaning the rich get what they want), Majoritarian Pluralism (meaning interest groups, including those that represent the non-wealthy, get what they want), and Biased Pluralism (meaning interest groups that represent the views of the economic elite get what they want).
Ultimately, the paper showed that our system provides what interest groups want, not what the majority want. Importantly, it also noted that the interest groups that have influence don’t actually represent the preferences of the average citizen (which is defined to be policies supported by a median income voter).
But net interest-group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest-group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences!
It explains this, in part, because there are so many more interest groups (which include corporations) representing the interests of the economic elite that ultimately they’ll guide policy even when including those interest groups representing the interests of the non-elite.
As a result, majoritarian views — what most Americans want — have almost no influence on policy.
The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.
When the majority gets what they want, it is because the elite interest groups favor the same policy, not because anyone is responding to the interests of the average voter.
Finally, the paper further shows that that is even more true when the majority wants change.
A final point: Even in a bivariate, descriptive sense, our evidence indicates that the responsiveness of the U.S. political system when the general public wants government action is severely limited. Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system—federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism—together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority—even a very large majority—of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants.
So it’s one thing if the majority wants things to remain the same, when they might get what they want, but another thing if they’d like to change the status quo, when they almost never will.
I raise all this because it provides an important reminder for this year’s bizarre presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, the findings totally reinforce both candidates. Bernie Sanders is absolutely right that the system is rigged, that the government’s policies don’t reflect the interests of average Americans. But Hillary Clinton is right, too, that the way to get things done in DC — or at least the way that things have gotten done in DC — is to negotiate compromises within the existing interest group structure (which includes a nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations). She’s even probably right that in the current system you need to co-opt a certain number of economic elite interest groups (that is, largely, corporate groups) to be able to acquire the critical mass of support from interest groups to get a policy adopted. You’ve got to make enough Goldman Sachs speeches to get them to the table, Hillary might excuse her boondoggle speeches.
But that also has certain implications for the policy debate going on. One problem Hillary is having is in needing to champion — to legitimize — the compromises made within that system: notably, Dodd-Frank and Obama’s insurance reform. She’s doing that by suggesting, with the help of wonk-boys like Chait, that the compromises made in those legislative processes were all that were possible at the time. As I hope to lay out, not only the record — but specific actions by those who remain a part of the Hillary entourage — disprove that claim, at least in theory: 2009 was the rare year when that might not have been true. In addition, Hillary’s choice to function within the existing pluralist system also all presumes that the existing set of interest groups, with the nearly impotent labor movement and overly powerful corporations, are a fixed set.
Which brings us back to Bernie’s call for a revolution, which we might think of as providing average people some means of being an interest group again. Whatever else it is, it could become (unlike the Dean organization that became the 50 state strategy and Obama for America that became a messaging organization within a neutered DNC) a resilient interest group. In many ways, it is a more institutionalized and better funded reincarnation of some recent protest groups, with a very strong overlap with Occupy Wall Street, and as such might have staying power, regardless of what happens with the primary.
But that brings us back to the other problem Hillary (as well as the institutional candidates on the Republican side) is having: voters aren’t dummies.
While you can defend the claim that Obama’s insurance reform was all that was possible, that doesn’t mean — even with the many benefits it has brought about — that it was a sound compromise, much less policy that served the interest of the majority or the country as a whole. Similarly, while you can claim (even more dubiously) that foaming the runway to give the banks a soft landing was necessary, real Americans know we all would be better off with Lloyd Blankfein in prison. That is, you can claim that interest group policies are all we can get, but at that same time that means that interest group policies don’t self-evidently serve the interests of Americans. Hillary can’t admit that, but that’s the truth confirmed in Gilens and Page. It’s also the reason why the wonk-boys are working so hard to claim that these policies serve the good of most people, to try to refute the obvious ways they don’t.
Hillary may well win (the primary, at least) based on truthfully claiming she represents the continuation of Obama’s policies, as Greg Sargent argued yesterday.
Beyond this, the big picture here is that Sanders has gotten as far as he has by offering up a serious, if partial, indictment of the Obama years. He is arguing that Obama era reforms — Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, his climate agenda — ended up being woefully inadequate to the scale of our challenges, because he failed to sufficiently rally the grassroots against the power of the oligarchy and because the Democratic establishment still remains in thrall to oligarchic money. Clinton full-throatedly defends Obama’s accomplishments as very much worth preserving, rejects the Sanders-promulgated notion that Obama could have gotten a whole lot more than he did, and vows to build on those achievements.
The bigger, more diverse, more moderate electorates in the contests to come might be more receptive to Clinton’s arguments along these lines. And one thing to watch will be whether Sanders tries to find a way to temper the criticism of the Obama years that is laced through the story he is telling.
I’d temper that and note that Bernie is probably closer to the real foreign policy successes of Obama’s post-Hillary term, including opening relations with Iran and Cuba and demanding that the Saudis actually start fighting ISIL. But on the Obama policies that are most obviously the result of letting interest groups, from the impotent labor movement to the overly powerful corporations, direct policy, Hillary is the inheritor of a historically fairly popular legacy. That’s true, and it may well be enough, barring any unforeseen economic reversals, though economic reversals are actually looking pretty likely, in which case that legacy may be of far less value.
The problem with being in that very advantageous position is that, especially this year, voters are all too aware that those policies didn’t necessarily serve their needs. And that, it seems, explains the disjuncture between Hillary’s claim (true or not) to best be able to negotiate the interest groups of DC and the fact that that hasn’t been enough to convince voters.
Seventy years ago today, on August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. By November of that same year, approximately 130,000 people were dead because of that single bomb, which targeted a civilian population. Three days later, the US deployed a second nuclear weapon in Nagasaki. It appears that these horrific weapons were not needed, despite the prevailing myth surrounding their use. Even with the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons, the US remains the only country to have ever used them outside a testing scenario, while countries as unstable as North Korea and Pakistan have achieved nuclear weapons capability at some level.
As might be expected, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is using the occasion of this anniversary to call for an end to nuclear weapons. Last week, Javad Zarif made an excellent move, in suggesting that now that Iran has signed an agreement with the P5+1 group of countries on its nuclear technology, there should be a push to remove nuclear weapons and all WMD from the Middle East. Recall that Iran has agreed to the most intrusive inspections regime ever put into place in a country that didn’t first lose a war, making their call for inspections of Israel’s nuclear weapons program especially strong. These two calls together represent an appeal to those who prefer peace over war while placing the highest possible value on civilian lives.
That attitude of favoring peace over war and putting civilians first stands in stark contrast to those who oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by the P5+1 and Iran. As Barack Obama pointed out yesterday, those who are opposing the deal are the same people who were so tragically wrong about the decision to invade Iraq in 2003:
President Obama lashed out at critics of the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday, saying many of those who backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq now want to reject the Iran accord and put the Middle East on the path toward another war.
While calling the nuclear accord with Iran “the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” Obama also seemed to turn the vote on the deal into a referendum on the U.S. invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago, a decision he portrayed as the product of a “mind-set characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”
Obama said that when he first ran for president, he believed “that America didn’t just have to end that war. We had to end the mind-set that got us there in the first place.” He added that “now, more than ever, we need clear thinking in our foreign policy.”
One of the saddest aspects of this push for war over diplomacy is that much of it comes from deep within the US government itself. In many of my posts on the path to the P5+1 accord with Iran, I have noted the nefarious process of anonymous “disclosures” coming sometimes from “diplomats” and sometimes from “intelligence sources” that get transcribed into the press by a small handful of “reporters”. Usually the worst offender on this front is George Jahn of AP. A recent retiree from this fold is Fredrik Dahl who now, ironically, appears to be the primary press contact for the IAEA. But never fear, rushing into the void created by the departure of Dahl (or perhaps his insertion into an operative role further inside the apparatus), we have the dynamic duo of Eli Lake and Josh Rogin. Their blather being put out as “journalism” is not worthy of a link here. If you want to find it, try going to Marcy’s Twitter and searching for “not The Onion”.
Of course, the high point of this process of manufacturing nuclear charges against Iran and then getting them into the media is the notorious “laptop of death“. Running a close second, though, are the charges that Iran has engaged in developing a high explosives trigger device at the Parchin site. Showing that those who engage in this level of deceit have absolutely no pride, the charges of this work have proceeded despite an equally plausible explanation that the high explosives chamber could just as easily have been used to develop nanodiamonds. Further, those making these charges have allowed themselves to be baited into a ridiculous level of “analysis” of satellite photos of the site, with hilarious results from how Iran has played them.
Despite this level of embarrassment, one of the primary tools in this process, David Albright, couldn’t resist one last try on the satellite photo front. Yesterday, he breathlessly informed us that there are a couple of new sheds on the Parchin site and there is even some debris. And, get this, a crate has been moved! Seriously, here is the “meat” of Albright’s analysis (pdf): Continue reading
It has been nearly 20 months since the group of P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Iran reached an interim agreement limiting Iran’s work on nuclear technology. Progress since that interim agreement has been painfully slow (and obstructed as much as possible by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, neocons in Congress and United Against Nuclear Iran), with a number of “deadlines” for achieving the final agreement missed. Journalists covering the final phase of negotiations in Vienna over the last two weeks eventually got so exasperated with the process that they began reporting on the number of Twizzlers consumed by the negotiators.
Fortunately, the US, led by John Kerry, with technical support from Ernest Moniz (with the backing of Barack Obama) and Iran, led by Javad Zarif, with technical support from Ali Akbar Salehi (with the backing of Hassan Rouhani) did not give up on the process. A final agreement (pdf) has now been published.
The following sentence appears in the agreement twice. It is the final sentence in the Preface and is the third point in the Preamble:
Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.
That is the heart of what the entire process has been about. Iran’s uranium enrichment work, which grew to over 18,000 centrifuges installed at two facilities, was viewed as a rapid route to a nuclear weapon. Even though no facility in Iran has been identified where enrichment was proceeding to the highly enriched levels needed for a bomb and Iran had demonstrated no ability to make a bomb from highly enriched material, “conventional wisdom” stated that Iran would only need a few months (as of the signing of the interim agreement) to produce a working bomb. Throughout the process, Iran has claimed the work was only for peaceful uses (electricity production and the production of medical isotopes). Things had gotten really ugly back in 2011 when the IAEA lent credence to claims that originated in the Laptop of Death, where Iran was accused of past work aiming at developing a bomb. By making the blanket statement that Iran will never seek a nuclear weapon, Iran is publicly acknowledging that the West will reinstate economy-crippling sanctions should evidence surface that it is seeking a weapon. Further, by saying it “reaffirms” as much, Iran is sticking to its previous claims that it has not sought a weapon in the past. Those dual points are important enough to be appear twice on the first page of the agreement.
On first blush, the final agreement looks quite robust. I intend to address only the technical aspects of the agreement and will leave to others analysis of the aspects of the plan relating to the removal of sanctions, although it is interesting that it appears that the plan will be submitted for UN Security Council approval before Congress is expected to have a chance to chime in.
The plan is referred to as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. It establishes a Joint Commission of P5+1 and Iran that will monitor implementation of the agreement.
In order to achieve the primary aim of taking Iran’s “breakout time” (the time estimated to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb) from the range of just a few months at the time of the signing of the interim agreement to the stated goal of at least one year, Iran now agrees to stop all enrichment work with radioactive material at its Fordo site (the underground site that prompted the US to develop a new generation of bunker buster bombs) and to greatly reduce the number of centrifuges in use at Natanz. Further, Iran will no longer enrich uranium above 3.67%. Iran agrees to keep its stockpile of 3.67% enriched uranium at 300 kg or less. Here is the wording for the key part of that aspect of the agreement (from page 7): Continue reading
Alert readers here who have kept their scorecards up to date know that the “secret” US effort to train rebels in Syria actually began as early as November of 2012, more than two and a half years ago, even though Obama did his best to obscure that date once it became expedient to nudge the date of entry for the first graduates of that program. The US later decided to go above-board with the training effort for Syria (after spectacular failures of identifying “moderates”), and last fall approved $500 million to a program to train and arm those elusive “moderates” once again. Despite the huge expenditure authorized for the program, it turns out that the US appears to have overlooked a key detail: the “moderate” rebels whom they seek to now fight only ISIS and not Assad simply don’t exist. We can only presume that those who wish to fight Assad are funneled to the covert program, which appears to have been put into place to topple Assad from power.
Robert Burns of AP has a story today describing how the US program has failed to produce the thousands of trainees that were planned:
Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.
The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.
The main problem thus far has been finding enough Syrian recruits untainted by extremist affiliations or disqualified by physical or other flaws. Of approximately 6,000 volunteers, about 1,500 have passed muster and await movement to training camps in other countries. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon will not say exactly how many are in training. Officials said that as of Friday, the number was under 100 and that none has completed the program.
“We have set the bar very high on vetting,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the Central Command special operations commander who is heading the program, wants volunteers with more than a will to fight.
“We are trying to recruit and identify people who … can be counted on … to fight, to have the right mindset and ideology,” and at the same time be willing to make combating IS their first priority, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on June 17.
“It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria,” Carter said.
Many Syrian rebel volunteers prefer to use their training to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, the original target of their revolution. While IS has been a brutal occupant of much of their country, the rebels see the extremists as fighting a parallel war.
Ah, but fear not, dear US war mongers! Burns reports that when Tammy Duckworth recently asked Joint Chiefs Chair Dempsey if this training effort was worth continuing, he had this ringing endorsement of the the program: “It’s a little too soon to give up on it.”
So, we’ve had the covert training going on for 32 months. We approved $500 million for open training nine months ago, but have under a hundred trainees in the program now, with zero graduates. And yet, if you ask the military, training in Syria is just getting started and it’s too soon to give up on it. Recognizing failure is just not possible in the US military.
I will go ahead and say it this time. I told you so. Back in December, the Obama Administration tried its best to create the fiction that the war in Afghanistan was coming to an end. I called bullshit then. Finally, four months later, the New York Times has come to the same realization as well:
Months after President Obama formally declared that the United States’ long war against the Taliban was over in Afghanistan, the American military is regularly conducting airstrikes against low-level insurgent forces and sending Special Operations troops directly into harm’s way under the guise of “training and advising.”
In justifying the continued presence of the American forces in Afghanistan, administration officials have insisted that the troops’ role is relegated to counterterrorism, defined as tracking down the remnants of Al Qaeda and other global terrorist groups, and training and advising the Afghan security forces who have assumed the bulk of the fight.
But the US military thinks nothing of gaming the system to bring action where they want it:
Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.
“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”
And it’s not just field-level commanders making these decisions to circumvent the conditions laid out by the White House for fighting:
Commenting on the continuing military operations against the Taliban, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.
He has insisted that it is within his purview to target Taliban insurgents who pose a threat not just to American or NATO troops but to any Afghan security forces. And his options on the ground were clear, he said in an interview, even if Washington’s public description of them was not.
“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”
Honey badger John Campbell don’t care about selling a media piece when there are brown people to be droned.
But even this expanded role for US troops over what they are supposed to be doing isn’t helping, as our “trained” Afghan troops continue to lose the war. Buried deep in the article is a leak of classified information that Afghan troop losses this year are running 54% higher than last year’s disastrous level of losses. This will not be sustainable for very long at all. It seems likely to me that sometime this summer (or at the very least no later than next summer), the Afghan military will simply melt away in the face of Taliban wins on multiple fronts.
The US military’s addiction to war in Afghanistan is now in its fourteenth year. Such a long addiction can’t just be ended in a weekend of going cold turkey. Much of the effort to end the war has been cosmetic and semantic. Although troop levels are now down dramatically from the peak of Obama’s surge, Obama’s tactic at the end of 2014 was to declare the war “over” while at the same time signing a secret order allowing for expanded activities by those troops remaining in the country.
The military has joined in Obama’s gamesmanship, taking as much of the war effort behind curtains of secrecy as it possibly can. In October, it suddenly classified information on Afghan troop capabilities and then in January it tried to expand that classification to nearly all information coming out of the war. While the military seems to have relented on at least some of that move, I haven’t yet seen SIGAR report on the information grudgingly given up after the classification was strongly criticized in Washington.
Two reports in the current news cycle highlight the military’s desperation in hanging onto as much combat activity in Afghanistan as it can. Yesterday, John Campbell, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the current schedule for drawdown of troops from Afghanistan must be slowed:
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan confirmed Thursday that he supports a slowing of the troop drawdown and slated pullback from bases in the country by the end of the year, as the White House reconsiders its plans.
Gen. John Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he has made those recommendations and they are now being considered by the joint staff and secretary of defense’s office.
It is hard to see this move as anything but an attempt to delay the inevitable total collapse of Afghan forces, just as Iraqi forces collapsed without US support. Consider how Campbell framed his testimony:
“This is their first fighting season on their own,” Campbell said, speaking of the Afghan forces the United States hopes will be able to secure the country against Taliban, Islamic extremists linked to the Islamic State, and drug lords.
Just like a junkie needing that next fix, Campbell tries to claim that just one more year of training will have those Afghan troops working perfectly:
A slower withdrawal time line could allow the forces to continue the train-advise — and-assist and the counterterror operations at more of the 21 bases it and coalition forces now use throughout the country.
This desperate plea for a slower US troop withdrawal and more time for training Afghan forces puts a much colder light on the sudden classification of Afghan troop capability. Even John McCain realizes that we are headed down the same path in Afghanistan as we saw in Iraq (but of course he used that make a dig at Obama while overlooking his own cheerleading of the ongoing clusterfuck):
“We are worried about it being done ‘just as we’ve done in Iraq,’” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., mocking a statement by President Barack Obama last year that touted the proposed Afghanistan drawdown.
But the classification of Afghan troop capability is not the only front on which actions in Afghanistan have gone secret. We learn today from the New York Times (h/t The Biased Reporter) that the US is relying on new authority for night raids as part of its counterterror activities authorized under the Bilateral Security Agreement put into place once Ashraf Ghani assumed the presidency. Unlike the days of the Karzai presidency, the John Kerry-invented National Unity Government of Ghani and Abdullah not only doesn’t protest US night raids, it actively works with the US to hide all news of them:
The spike in raids is at odds with policy declarations in Washington, where the Obama administration has deemed the American role in the war essentially over. But the increase reflects the reality in Afghanistan, where fierce fighting in the past year killed record numbers of Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians.
American and Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing operations that are largely classified, said that American forces were playing direct combat roles in many of the raids and were not simply going along as advisers.
“We’ve been clear that counterterrorism operations remain a part of our mission in Afghanistan,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Thursday. “We’ve also been clear that we will conduct these operations in partnership with the Afghans to eliminate threats to our forces, our partners and our interests.”
The raids appear to have targeted a broad cross section of Islamist militants. They have hit both Qaeda and Taliban operatives, going beyond the narrow counterterrorism mission that Obama administration officials had said would continue after the formal end of American-led combat operations last December.
The gist of the Times article is that this uptick in raids is driven mostly by intelligence contained on a laptop magically captured by Afghan forces, but it is clear that US forces would have used any excuse they could find to justify this increase in death squad activity now that the Afghan government allows their return.
Postscript: Somehow, even though the laptop is supposed to have been from an al Qaeda operative, it is even claimed to have had information that helped target drones to kill Abdul Rauf Khadim. I’m pretty sure that by now getting his al Qaeda space checked off, Rauf has completed his terror bingo card showing sides on which he has played, even if posthumously.
You can bet that the “he was just a disturbed person who snapped, don’t look at it as a trend” pieces to start flowing any minute, but how can we see the brutal, senseless murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha as anything other than the natural consequence of over 13 years of the US targeting Muslims around the world? Just this week, despite his own role in the carnage of brown people, when Barack Obama tried to dial things back a bit by noting that violence has been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, we had shocking defenders of the Crusades rush into the debate.
As I noted back in December, the evidence is strong that a military approach to terrorism is almost always doomed to failure. And yet, the US just cannot let go of this military-industrial-antiterror complex. It leads to exceptionally deluded thinking. Obama was claiming as recently as September that Yemen was an example of “success” in the approach to terror. We knew even then that the claim was bullshit. The US got played as a dupe early there when Saleh dialed up a drone hit on a rival. There was ample evidence that the drone strikes were a boon to AQAP recruitment. The US even stooped so low as to kill a teenaged US citizen in a drone strike there.
That shining beacon of antiterror success in Yemen is folding now just as surely as our failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond. France and the UK are joining the US in closing embassies as Yemen crumbles further.
The war on Muslims has created a United States that is polarized to the point of taking up arms against innocent victims. It has created factions that defend atrocities both in the past and in current events. We reward Hollywood with near-record profits for a movie in which the we vicariously shoot Muslim evil-doers from a sniper’s perch.
How different would the world be today if the US had chosen to respond to 9/11 as a police matter rather than a military mission?
In a stunning and blatantly obvious move to try to hide its failed efforts in Afghanistan, the military suddenly decided back in October that they would classify any and all information on the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) despite data having been provided to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for the 24 quarterly reports that preceded the one dated October 30, 2014 (pdf). Initial digging on that classification decision appeared to put the classification decision in the hands of ISAF Joint Command. The head of ISAF Joint Command then broke his own classification of ANSF capability a few days later when he proclaimed that ANSF is a “hugely capable fighting force” in a news briefing.
The timing for this classification couldn’t have been worse. US forces were in the final stages of the handoff of Afghan security to ANSF and Barack Obama eventually relied on butchered semantics to proudly proclaim that the war was over, despite a residual fighting force to which he had secretly given expanded combat powers.
Today, though, the classification of ANSF capability last quarter looks less like an arbitrary move by the Commander of ISAF Joint Command and more like a total information shutdown on Afghanistan. Perhaps Lt. Gen. Anderson just got the call for a shutdown before everyone else. In the SIGAR quarterly report released today (pdf), we learn that the military now has classified “nearly every piece of data used by the inspector general to assess the Afghan security forces.” In an appendix to the report, SIGAR lists the more than 140 questions that the military previously responded to openly but now says the answers are classified. Here is a sampling that SIGAR provided in the email sent out releasing the report:
–The over 140 SIGAR questions that received classified or otherwise restricted responses are listed starting on page 211. Sample of questions:
–Please provide a broad definition of the terms “unavailable” and “present for duty.” (page 211)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Army food from Afghan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) for the current year. (page 211)
–How has the $25 million authorized by Congress for women in the Afghan army been used? (page 212)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Police salaries from ASFF for the current year. (page 212)
–Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including: a. the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete (page 213)
–Please confirm that the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Afghanistan (CJIATF-A) is dissolved. (page 215)
–Please offer an assessment of the anticorruption initiatives of Afghan Ministry of Defense and Afghan Ministry of Interior (page 215)
As the New York Times article linked above points out, the military also initially tried to classify the number of US forces present in Afghanistan and only relented on that point when it was pointed out that the number had already been released by the Obama Administration.
The “explanation” offered by the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, is far from satisfactory. Here is an excerpt from his letter to SIGAR explaining the sudden expansion of classification:
Campbell then had the temerity to add later in his letter that he is “committed to maximum transparency in our operations”. Just wow. That sounds like Obama declaring himself the most transparent President ever, and then going on to rely on expanded classification coupled with unprecedented levels of prosecution of whistleblowers.
But instead of just looking like a move Obama would make, perhaps it did come at his behest. Not only is the military clamming up on virtually all information out of Afghanistan, it appears that the State Department is as well. From page 147 of SIGAR’s report:
Despite the requirement of Public Law 110-181 that federal agencies provide requested information or assistance to SIGAR, the State Department did not answer any of SIGAR’s questions on economic and social-development this quarter, and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up.
Had only one Federal agency, the Defense Department, suddenly shut down the flow of information, it would have been easy to believe that they were ones trying to hide their own failures. But now that a second agency, the State Department, has shut down information flow at the same time, and won’t even provide an explanation for their move, it seems clear to me that the order to shut down information flow had to come from above. With both the Defense Department and State Department going silent, could such an order have come down from anyone other than Obama himself? The failure that is our Afghanistan war has entered its fourteenth year, has spanned two presidents and is now being summarily swept under the rug by the Most Transparent Administration Ever®.
Postscript: For more evidence on just how failed the Afghanistan effort has been, recall that John Kerry’s brokered extra-constitutional National Unity Government was over three months late in finally announcing a full slate of 19 cabinet nominees. Sadly, the slate included poorly screened candidates and the Afghan Parliament yesterday rejected 10 of those nominees while voting to confirm only 9.
Hell froze over yesterday:
The United States military is investigating reports of civilian casualties that may have occurred as part of the American-led fight against the Sunni militancy known as the Islamic State, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters during a news conference that investigators with the United States Central Command had begun looking into whether coalition airstrikes, which have targeted Islamic State fighters, equipment and oil depots, may have inadvertently hit civilians. Admiral Kirby said he had no additional information. It was the first time that the Pentagon had acknowledged that the air campaign against the Islamic State may have caused civilian deaths.
Recall that US air strikes began in early August. In late September I looked into some of the reports of civilian casualties, and it was not difficult at all to find credible reports. Later on the same day of that post, Michael Isikoff reported that the White House had exempted ISIS air strikes in Iraq and Syria from the new standards of preventing civilian deaths in drone strikes that Obama had announced in 2013.
The Pentagon provided the flimsiest of excuses for having no evidence of civilian deaths at that time:
Earlier Monday, the Pentagon admitted that some assessments of civilian casualties were “inconclusive” since the U.S. was only using drones to assess the results of strikes from the air.
“The evidence is going to be inconclusive often. Remember we’re using [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] to determine the battle damage assessment,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday.
A defense official told The Hill earlier this month that accurate assessments of damage from strikes are impossible without U.S. forces on the ground to exploit the attack sites, since Iraqi and Syrian partners did not have the capability.
So the Pentagon claims that they have sufficient intelligence resources to choose targets for attacks, but those same resources magically become incapable of determining the outcome of those attacks.
It’s not like the Pentagon would have to work hard to find credible reports of civilian deaths in their air strikes. Reuters reported back in October that in Syria alone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had documented 32 civilian deaths from US air strikes in a one month period.
The numbers are much worse when we move to Iraq. CNN cited Iraq Body Count data for 2014:
But according to Iraq Body Count’s analysis, 1,748 civilians were reported killed by Iraqi military airstrikes, while 4,325 were killed by ISIS. There were also 118 civilians reported killed by U.S. coalition airstrikes last year.
So while Iraqi air strikes dwarfed US strikes in terms of civilian deaths, it still is remarkable that the Pentagon is finding it so hard to find incidents to investigate when there are over a hundred known dead from our strikes in Iraq in the last year.
Despite those staggering numbers, here is all Central Command could come up with in followup to Kirby’s statement at the top:
Sgt. First Class Sheryl Lawry, a spokeswoman for Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said in an email that Centcom was investigating two instances, one in Iraq and one in Syria, that may have resulted in civilian casualties. The investigations are a result of Centcom’s internal review process. Another three reports of civilian casualties are pending an internal assessment before determining whether they need to be investigated, she said.
The military has examined the credibility of 18 allegations that coalition airstrikes led to civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria from Aug. 8 to Dec. 30 last year, Sgt. Lawry said. Of those, 13 have been determined not to be credible.
Imagine that. Of the the 13 investigations completed, all 13 have cleared the US of killing civilians. There are two that are credible enough that they are still under investigation. Presumably, it is taking some time to manufacture a basis for claiming the reports are not credible. And who knows what those three events still under “assessment” means; we can only guess that they are more recent events and the Pentagon is merely determining how large the whitewash brush needs to be.