Thursday, September 29, 2005

Dell's service going to Hades?

Change a couple of particulars, and this sounds a lot like the experience I had with Dell just this past week with a new computer I'd just bought from them.  Only my experience was even more aggravating than this:  Hanging Up On Dell? Gripes about tech support are on the rise, and the PC king is scrambling to upgrade Business Week 09/30/05 (10/10/05 edition).

It didn't seem as if he was asking for much. When the CD drive on Peter Ulyatt's Dell desktop computer failed this summer, he called the support crew at Dell, where he'd bought the $1,600 machine nine months prior. Armed with an extended warranty that cost him an extra $300, the Pasadena (Calif.) retiree got on the phone and waited. After sitting on hold for 45 minutes, a technician whom Ulyatt could barely understand came on the line and diagnosed a "software problem." Ulyatt's call, transferred to the software technician, was dropped. Calling back, Ulyatt waited on hold another 45 minutes, asked for the software desk, and waited a half-hour more before hanging up. "At the moment, I'm not high on Dell's service," says Ulyatt, who plans to buy two new PCs in a year or so. "When I buy again, I will look at others beyond Dell."

Actually, they saved this guy some frustration for the moment.  When I was in that spot and got transferred to the software department, after Lord knows how long on hold, someone came on the line and told me software problems weren't covered by the extended warranty.  Never mind that it was a brand new machine and the particular software was yet to work correctly even for the first time.

Dell has a serious problem with their customer service set-up.  And my experience in the past, with the previous desktop I bought from them five years ago, had always been good on the service calls.  Not last week.

In fact, about the only thing they did right was that the company they contract out installation services to contracted with a local technician who was very helpful.  In fact, I had him come back to do another unrelated computer task this week.

But don't even get me started about what happened when I tried to confirm the installation appointment through the Dell service line.  I'd have to seriously violate the AOL Terms of Service to adequately describe it.

Iraq War: The winning continues, and continues, and continues...

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

Knight-Ridder has consistently done some of the best reporting in the American media on the Iraq War.  If Dark Lord Dick Cheney doesn't have some secret operation going to take them over or sabotage them or something, it must be because he's too busy arranging contracts for Halliburton in the New Reconstruction on the Gulf Coast.

This is a remarkable article by Tom Lasseter that compresses an entire book's worth of analysis of what's going wrong with Bush's Excellent Adventure in Iraq: Insurgents play cat-and-mouse game with American snipers by Tom Lasseter Knight-Ridder 09/29/05.

Read the whole thing.  But I'll quote a few excerpts with quotations from some of the soldiers:

"Some people don't get the gravity of the situation here; people in the Green Zone are always trying to paint a rosy picture," said Molina, a 27-year-old sniper from Clearwater, Fla. He was referring to the fortified compound in Baghdad where U.S. officials work. "These politicians are all about sending people to war but they don't know what it's all about, being over here and getting shot at, walking through s--- swamps, having bombs go off, hearing bullets fly by. They have no idea what that's like." ...

"We go out and kill the bad guys one at a time," said Hendricks, 32, who speaks with the soft accent of his native Claremore, Okla., where his high school graduating class had 55 students. "But we're just whittling down one group so it's easier for the other groups to kill them." ...

"They say attacks are down. Well, no s---," Hendricks said. "We're not patrolling where the bad guys are." ...

Hendricks taught a sniper's training course to a select group of Iraqi soldiers, but stuck to marksmanship.

"I haven't taught them tactics because they're infiltrated," Hendricks said. "It's like going to a party where you don't know anybody, but somebody in the room - you don't know who - wants to kill you." ...

Hendricks has spent eight of nine years in the military as a sniper, including five with the Army Rangers. Including his first deployment to Iraq in 2003, he's had nine confirmed kills and nine wounded.

"It takes nothing," he said with a half-grin. "I don't care about these people." ...

[Another soldier:]"The reason why they're fighting us is not Osama bin Laden. They're fighting us because we're here. ... They don't want us here. They just want us to leave. I guess that would be a victory for them," he said. "As far as I can see there's not going to be any victory for us." ...

[Another soldier:]"In past situations you've had a good guy and a bad guy and the troops were impassioned, but now troops just want to go home," Sabin said. "I don't feel like there's a cause. I don't personally think there's a reason for this."

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Hammer going to the slammer?

That nice man Tom DeLay just got indicted on conspiracy charges related to campaign financing schemes.

He's says the bad Democratic distrrict attorney is picking on him.  The "Hammer" (aka, the Bugman, related to his previous profession as an exterminator) has been picked on a lot.  Like when he wanted to join the service.  Joe Conason tells the story in his Big Lies (2003) about how poor Tom couldn't get into the Army during the Vietnam War days:

Not every one excused from service was a chicken hawk, but every chicken hawk has an excuse.  Few were ever as creatively comical as Tom DeLay, a beligerent politician who loudly maligns the patriotism of his betters.  At the Republican Covention in 1988, he explained to reporters that there had been no space in the Army for "patriotic folks" like himself and Dan Quayle during the Vietnam War - because too many minority youths had joined the service to earn money and escape the ghetto.

Poor Tom.  And he really, really, really wanted to go fight in the war.

Anyway, The Hammer will be in the news a lot for a while.  I wanted to mention this collection of articles about DeLay's dirty-money political environment in Texas, from the Texas Monthly magazine:

TRMPAC in Its Own Words: Exhibits from a civil trial reveal potential illegality and influence peddling by Jake Bernstein 04/01/05.

Specifically, TRMPAC took corporate money in 2002 from companies with business before the Texas Legislature or the U.S. Congress and used it for fund-raising, phone banks, polling, and campaign support for individual state candidates. The interpretation of what constituted legal administrative expenses—up until now—consisted primarily of items such as rent, utilities, and clerical needs. Spending corporate or union money on candidates has been illegal in Texas since 1905, when farsighted legislators recognized that if the vast treasuries of corporations and unions were applied to elections, they could easily overwhelm our democratic system.

All told, TRMPAC spent $1.5 million, of which more than $600,000 was undeclared corporate money. (The PAC’s use of corporate cash went unreported to the Texas Ethics Commission.) TRMPAC documents, entered as exhibits during a week-long civil trial brought by losing Democratic candidates that ended March 4, refer to the historic opportunity that presented itself in 2002. (At press time, Senior District Judge Joe Hart, before whom the case was tried, had yet to reach a verdict.) Redistricting in 2001 had created new, solidly Republican House districts. And a number of corporate interests were bursting with pent-up desire for goodies past legislatures had failed to bestow.

The Rise of the Machine: How a small group of politicians and corporations bought themselves a legislature by Jake Berstein and Dave Mann 08/29/03.

In Austin, Texas, home to the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney, a grand jury is empanelled. Its mission is to investigate one of the most audacious electoral efforts seen in Texas since Lyndon Johnson stole the 1948 U.S. Senate election from Coke Stevenson. The inquiry revolves around whether business leaders and Republicans–including possibly U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land)–conspired to break state law to funnel corporate cash into local elections. At the center of the scheme is the Texas Association of Business (TAB), which purports to represent business and chambers of commerce, but in reality has become a de facto appendage of the Republican Party.

Although Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle launched his inquiry in December 2002, TAB lawyers have prevented a complete airing of the facts, delaying the grand jury’s work with a series of appeals. While the full picture of the multi-million-dollar operation has yet to be revealed, what is beyond dispute are the results of the machine’s activities. In 2002, for the first time in 130 years, Republicans won a majority of seats in the Texas House. These winning candidates did not resemble your grandmother’s GOP. By systematically marking for elimination moderate Republicans in contested primaries, the TAB and DeLay furnished a right-wing majority guaranteed to elect their anointed candidate for Speaker of the House, Tom Craddick (R-Midland). What transpired in the legislative session that followed is public record. Under Craddick, wielding his Republican majority like acudgel, the Texas House passed legislation that saved their corporate patrons hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Scandal in the Speaker's Office: A campaign finance scandal threatens to swallow Tom Craddick by Jake Berstein and Dave Mann 02/27/04

Craddick and DeLay have been friends since they served in the Lege together in the early 1980s. Only with his good friend Craddick as speaker and a compliant House membership could DeLay force his much-desired mid-decade congressional redistricting through the Lege. Assembling a majority to elect Craddick to the post wouldn’t be easy. Five-term House speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center) had considerable Republican support, especially among his fellow rural West Texans. Then there was the danger that a more moderate Republican would emerge as a compromise candidate. The conventional wisdom before the election was that Craddick needed a minimum of 85 Republicans to become speaker, meaning the GOP needed to gain at least 13 seats—an enormous electoral task. The Craddick-DeLay machine also needed money for Republican primaries to ensure that victors would be beholden to it. To do all this, TRMPAC and TAB required a ton of money. Old funding sources wouldn’t suffice. They needed corporate money. The only problem is that it’s illegal to use corporate money for electioneering.

TRMPAC spent roughly $600,000 in corporate cash during the 2002 campaign (just over half the $1.5 million it raised was individual donations). Meddling with corporate money in politics puts one into risky legal territory, campaign experts say, and PACs that dip into the corporate pool must be extremely careful. Texas has prohibited corporate and union money in elections for a century. Lawmakers realized the potential for corruption if big business was able to funnel torrents of undisclosed, corporate money into the process—cash disbursements that shareholders would never be given the chance to approve.

Rate of Exchange: What might $1.5 million get you in the Texas Legislature? by Jake Berstein and Dave Mann 02/12/04

"I think the memo confirms people's suspicions about how the campaign finance system works," saysCraigMcDonald, who is executive director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice and who has heard about the documents. "Donors give for policy or access or even more explicitly it appears here, they have a specific legislative agenda that they are trying to buy and the politicians look like they were easily willing to sell."

After meeting with energy industry people all morning, it’s not clear Woolley and Lilly even had time to grab lunch before diving into the arms of other special interests. At 1:30 p.m. that Monday afternoon, Woolley and Lilly visited the Houston office of Charles McMahen, according to their itinerary. The 2002 general election was just 60 days away, and TRMPAC had big goals. The political action committee - along with a highly organized group of allies that included the Texas Association of Business - had targeted 22 House races in hopes of electing a large enough Republican majority in the Texas House to install Craddick as speaker. To do this, TRMPAC needed a lot of money. That’s where McMahen came in. He was then vice chairman of Alabama-based Compass Bank, which had amassed a significant amount of cash in its political action committee to spend on the 2002 election. Lilly, Woolley, and TRMPAC hoped to tap that Compass cash flow.

Bankrolling Beltway Badges: Meet the Law Enforcement Alliance that violates the law with IRS impunity by Frank Smyth 07/30/04

Those who track campaign money believe that the LEAA represents a troubling trend. “LEAA is one of a new breed of shadowy front groups that is willing to serve as a corporate money conduit and attack dog to benefit GOP candidates,” says Craig McDonald of the public policy organization Texans for Public Justice. “Its ‘issue ads’ are a mere hoax. When GOP candidates need a political attack from a so-called law-and-order group, they appear to funnel money to the LEAA to carry it out. “

What’s beyond dispute is the result of Greg Abbott’s ascension to attorney general. Without the attorney general’s approval, DeLay never would have been able to push through his redistricting plan. It was Abbott who was the first to rule that the state could pursue mid-decade congressional redistricting. This November, if Republicans do as well as expected, the GOP could lock in theircontrolling majority in the House of Representatives for years to come.

And some of the Texas papers will be providing their own coverage of the further trials and tribulations of The Hammer, including: the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas-Ft Worth Star-Telegram.  (Annoying registration required at a couple of them, maybe all three.) A sample:

Indictment 'a sham,' DeLay says by John Moritz and Maria Recio Star-Telegram 09/28/05.

The indictment is the culmination of a three-year investigation by [District Attorney Ronnie] Earle into fund-raising activities during the 2002 election cycle. Texas Republicans gained complete control over state government for the first time since Reconstruction.

The indictment, handed down as the grand jury's term expired, accuses DeLay and his political associates of conspiring to influence a number of swing races for the Texas House.

Earle said his investigation is no witch hunt.

"We prosecute abuses of power," said Earle, a Democrat who has investigated politicians of both parties. "You have to have power before you can abuse it.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican; former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, a Democrat; and former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, are among those Earle has taken on during his long tenure in Austin.

Suspension could hamper GOP agenda: DeLay has been a key ally for Bush on Capitol Hill by Michael Hedges and Bennett Roth Houston Chronicle 09/28/05

Bush stood by the Sugar Land legislator Wednesday, after the indictment of DeLay by a grand jury in Austin triggered House rules requiring him to step down temporarily.

"Congressman DeLay is a good ally, a leader who we have worked closely with to get things done for the American people," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "I think the president's view is that we need to let the legal process work."

For Republicans, the timing of the indictment was horrible. It comes as GOP Senate leader Bill Frist contends with allegations that he used insider information to bail out of a stock market investment before its value dropped. Also, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, may be in jeopardy from a federal probe into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identify.

Editorial: The felony indictment of Tom DeLay Austin American-Statesman 09/29/05

DeLay sowed the seeds that led to a GOP majority in the Texas Legislature after the 2002 elections, a majority that returned the favor in a mid-census redistricting that gave DeLay a more Republican Congress. But he reaped the whirlwind because he pushed too hard and demanded too much.

An angry and defiant DeLay blamed the indictment, which temporarily cost him his leadership position, on partisan politics by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat. Coming from one of the most fanatical partisans in the country, that charge is risible.

DeLay also ignores the fact that the indictment came not from Earle but from a grand jury of 12 local citizens who investigated a complex political scheme. They sacrificed long hours for one of the most important duties of citizenship.

Recent posts at The Blue Voice

My recent posts at The Blue Voice include the following:

VDH Watch 13: Vic sings the blues over New Orleans (again) 09/20/05

The Christian Right: Catholic version 09/23/05

Darwin and his religious views 09/25/05

Science and Christian "anti-intellectualism" 09/26/05

Monday, September 26, 2005

Antiwar demos

Three of The Blue Voice gang were on hand for the antiwar demonstrations in Washington Saturday, and they are posting their own first-hand accounts there.  Go check them out.

The rightwingers are doing what they can always be expected to do, trying to make the marches and rallies sound kooky and/or subversive.  If you think about it, they're almost forced to do that to defend the Iraq War now.  It's highly unpopular in the US.  It was started based on lies.  Except in the fantasy world of FOX News and OxyContin radio, it's a disaster.  The regime we eventually installed is a pro-Iranian, Shi'a, Muslim-fundamentalist one.  It's become the jihadists' chief recruitment sell.

And the Katrina disaster showed that the Bush administration has been completely neglecting critical elements of homeland security preparation while it created as big a disaster in Iraq as it did in New Orleans.

So how else can you defend Bush's war policies in Iraq but to trash the critics?

It's very clear from reports on the Washington event as well as others across the country - I've seen local reports from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Des Moines, and St. Petersburg - that they attracted a diverse crowd with a clear message: Get US troops out of Iraq.

So why are some liberal sources going out of their way to help the prowar advocates trash the movement?  For instance, I was surprised to see Steve Gilliard's blog partner Jen highlighting a ilam piece and linking to a rightwing Libertarian Party caricature of antiwar rallies: The two anti-war messages 09/26/05.

Then Salon's lead article on the Washington march leads off this way: "Make levees, not war" by Jeff Horwitz 09/25/05.

Though Saturday was the first day a permit had been granted for an antiwar march past the White House since the Iraq war began, one could be forgiven for having low expectations for the event.

To begin with, the joint organizers, International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), feud so regularly that they had to sign a pact promising not to attack each other until the event was over.

Then there was ANSWER's rejection of message control -- its leadership demanded that each of its component organizations be allowed to protest issues besides the war. Starting at 9 a.m., therefore, the Palestinian boosters took over Farragut Square with their own signs and chants, while bands of anarchists, affordable housing advocates, and Hugo Chavez supporters staked out intersections around D.C.'s downtown.

All politics has a tendency to factionalism, and protest politics notoriously so.  The big story, which Horwitz gets to several paragraphs into the article, is that the Washington march drew 200,000 or more people there to protest the Iraq War.  Given the number of organizations sponsoring the event, that's well-nigh miraculous.

Now, if I were organizing an antiwar event, my own preference would be to have speakers ranging from liberals to conservatives with labor union reps featured in particular, with the messages focused on getting the US out of the Iraq War, and to have all the marchers carrying American flags.

But let's get real.  If you want a perfectly-scripted political event, go to one of Bush's Potemkin "public" appearances.  Any event like this one is going to have its share of rough edges.  But anyone who reads more (or less) into this than opposition to the Iraq War is really stretching.

Mark Engler makes an important observation in March Madness 09/23/05:

No doubt, conservatives will try to conjure pictures of flag-burning hippies to make the anti-war movement look like a marginal fringe instead of a legitimate political force. But those who direct their energy to worrying about such backlash rather than organizing to build a better mobilization make two mistakes:

First, they miss the lesson of John Kerry, who showed that the right-wing machine will do its best to demonize all opposition, and that no amount of tepid moderation will deter them.

And, second,  they give too little credit to organizers in groups like UFPJ, Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War, who rarely match the stereotypes. These groups demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of tactics—eschewing radical dogmatism, they are combining marching, religious services, lobbying and direct action in DC—and are asking for the broadest possible support this weekend.

The more support the movement gets, the greater the chances are that the marches and other actions will ignite wider swaths of anti-war public opinion. In turn, more members of Congress will feel heat not just from the national Mall, but also from voters in their home districts. For a peace movement just re-emerging from the shadows, this would be a worthy contribution.

So you have to wonder why Jeff Horwitz and Salon opened with the John Birch Society caricature and stuck the real point farther down in their story.  Notice even in the second paragraph quoted below, the general emphasis on linking Katrina and Iraq is introduced with a sneer at the organizers:

But yesterday's protesters beat the odds and pulled off what was certainly D.C.'s biggest antiwar demonstration since the Iraq occupation began. Organizers claimed as many as 250,000 demonstrators attended; though D.C. police estimates were more conservative, none pegged the crowd at below 100,000. By the time the rally convened at 11:30 a.m., scores of demonstrators filled the Ellipse, spilling onto the Mall, the streets around the White House, and the Washington Monument -- a hopeful sign that the effectiveness of the peace movement may have reached a turning point.

While the half-dozen UFPJ and ANSWER speakers held forth on incongruous topics ranging from discrimination against American Muslims to the illegitimacy of Bush's 2000 Florida victory, their two principal demands were an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and a new federal focus on the devastated Gulf Coast. "National security begins in New Orleans, homeland security begins at home," Jesse Jackson told the crowd. "Bring the troops home now."

Other speakers made the same Baghdad-New Orleans link, reminding the crowd that many Louisiana National Guardsmen were fighting abroad when the hurricane struck. Demonstrators waved signs bearing the phrase "Make levees, not war" in response. "I think that it's broadening the focus," Baptist Peace Fellowship demonstrator Tom Burkett said of the combined antiwar and disaster relief message. "Are we going to be a better country by spending another 200 billion [in Iraq] or spending it on the Gulf Coast?"

Maybe this is a case of a liberal writer demonstrating his "tough-mindedness" by being "counter-intuitive", i.e., pimping the prowar propaganda point.

I just wish that Republican writers and bloggers were afflicted with the same malady going the other direction.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Speculations on the political aftermath of Bush's lost war in Iraq

The conservative military analyst and Iraq War critic William Lind is speculating about some of the political repercussions of the Iraq War:  Important Distinctions 09/24/05.

This is one that seems credible.  His reference to "Fourth Generation" is to the concept of "Fourth Generation Warfare", i.e., dispersed guerrilla-type warfare, to summarize it very briefly.

That is just what Fourth Generation opponents strive for, a systemic breakdown in their state adversary. The danger sign in America is not a hot national debate over the war in Iraq and its course, but precisely the absence of such a debate – which, as former Senator Gary Hart has pointed out, is largely due to a lack of courage on the part of the Democrats. Far from ensuring a united nation, what such a lack of debate and absence of alternatives makes probable is a bitter fracturing of the American body politic once the loss of the war becomes evident to the public. The public will feel itself betrayed, not merely by one political party, but by the whole political system.

The Democrats are in serious danger of passing up a real opportunity to benefit politically from Bush's disaster in Iraq by their timidity in criticizing the war.

Having said that, Lind considerably overstates the reluctance of the Democrats to criticize the Iraq War.  After all, Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Robert Byrd criticized Bush's drive to war even during the build-up in 2002.  And the likelihood of a present-day Republican equivalent to William Fulbright or Wayne Morse during the Vietnam War, who were willing to forcefully challenge the war policies of their own party's president, seems very unlikely at this point.

That great Maverick McCain can't come up with anything better than to call for escalating the war.

So it's not entirely right to say that there is an absence of debate among the political leadership over the Iraq War.  But I still think that because of the Democrats' general reluctance to challenge Bush over his Mesopotamian adventure, the outcome he fears, of the public feeling betrayed by "the whole political system" is very possible.

And that would not be good for liberal/progressive politics, or for the Democratic Party.  Voters who are cynical about government either don't vote or they vote for candidates who bash government, i.e., Republicans.  The Democrats' strength is among voters who appreciate the positive value of democratic government used on behalf of the people.

Lind then jumps to a conclusion that seems to me to be so vague as to be largely meaningless:

If the absence of a loyal opposition and alternative courses of action further delegitimizes the American state in the eye of the public, the forces of the Fourth Generation will have won a victory of far greater proportions than anything that could happen on the ground in Iraq. The Soviet Union's defeat in Afghanistan played a central role in the collapse of the Soviet state. Could the American defeat in Iraq have similar consequences here? The chance is far greater than Washington elites can imagine.

I don't regard that as much more than a melodramatic analogy.  But what is very possible is that the people of the US will insist on a more realistic - and far more modest - foreign policy.  And on one that doesn't involve trying to have the US unilaterally run the world, or using war and the threat of war as our primary tool of foreign policy.

As Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, if the US set a target of a military budget equal to the sum of those of the ten nations that are closest to us, it would still mean a huge cut in the military budget and yet leave the United States as the "hyperpower" of the world.  But doing that would also requiring adjusting the US foreign policy to realistic standards.  And it would certainly mean flushing the warmongers' doctrine of preventive war that the Bush administration has made the current official policy of the US.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Iraq War: Strange days in Basra

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

When I pulled out of Basra they all wished me luck
Just like they always did before
With a bulletproof screen on the hood of my truck
And a Bradley on my back door

                 - Steve Earle, "Home to Houston"

The Times of London is running a set of stories about British special forces who it says are fighting a clandestine war again "Iranian agents".  The strange case of the two Brits arrested in Basra and then busted out by the British army last week is supposedly related to this.

SAS in secret war against Iranian agents by Michael Smith and Ali Rifat 09/25/05.

Two SAS soldiers rescued last week after being arrested by Iraqi police and handed over to a militia were engaged in a "secret war" against insurgents bringing sophisticated bombs into the country from Iran.

The men had left their base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra to carry out reconnaissance and supply a second patrol with "more tools and fire power", said a source with knowledge of their activities.

They had been in Basra for seven weeks on an operation prompted by intelligence that a new type of roadside bomb which has been used against British troops was among weapons being smuggled over the Iranian border.

The bombs, designed to pierce the armour beneath coalition vehicles, are similar to ones supplied by Iran to Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group.

The special forces officers are saying that the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr took the two into custody.  In any case, the local authorities still aren't very happy with their British friends.  A local police officer claims they shot him in the leg with no good reason:

A judge said yesterday that he had issued warrants for the arrest of the SAS men over the shooting and the alleged killing of a second man shot in the car chase. Judge Ragheb Mohamad Hassan al-Muthafar told The Sunday Times in an exclusive interview that the soldiers were "suspects who attempted to commit a wilful act of murder".

He added: "Whatever their mission they have no right to fire intentionally on anyone, let alone a security man whose job is to protect this country."

The paper also reports on the claims of the former Iraqi defence minister Hazim al-Shalan, who seems to have spirited away quite a few dollars on his watch, that these Iranian agents are running around: How Tehran pulls the strings of insurrection: Iraq's former defence chief tells Robert Winnett he warned of the Iranian threat 09/25/05.

Talking exclusively to The Sunday Times, he said that the Iranians influence the Iraqi police and army and even the interim government.

More than 460 Iranian intelligence agents have been captured in the country, but many thousands more are openly operating, he said.

According to Shalan, the Iranian intelligence service began infiltrating Iraq two months before the allied invasion.

Now I've read enough James Bond and John Le Carre novels to be fascinated by stories that suggest wheels within wheels of intrigue.  And I have not doubt that such things are going on.

But I also remember how badly the Bush administration, and through them the Congress and large parts of the American public, were scammed by doctored intelligence cooked up with self-serving information provided by Iraqi expatriates like the embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be an Iranian spy himself and is now a senior official in the pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

And this story seems more than a little wobbly:

He believes that the Iranians have twoaims: to ensure Iraq becomes a religious state over which they have influence or control, and to keep the Americans under pressure.

"The insurgency is a diversionary tactic by Iran to keep the American army busy," he said. "The Iranian mission is to tie up the Americans for as long as possible so they can develop nuclear weapons.

"However, if the Americans pull out of Iraq my assessment is that the Iranians would be able to take control very quickly.["]

Reality-check: The US, with some assistance from our British allies, have installed a Shi'a, pro-Iranian, Islamic fundamentalist regime in Baghdad.  The leading Shi'a party SCIRI was largely trained and organized originally by the Iranians, and its leaders supported Iran in its long and bloody war with Iraq.  Ayatollah Sistani, the most influential leader of any kind in Iraq, is Iranian himself.  He's not even an Iraqi citizen.

And the Times is presenting reports on the fact that Iran has lots of friends in Iraq as though its a big surprise?  And just why would Shi'a Iran be supporting the Sunni insurrection against the pro-Iranian, Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government?

Something about the whole framework of these stories is very fishy.  Yes, wheels within wheels, Oriental intrigue, yadda, yadda, I'm sure lots of it is happening.  But the Blair and Bush government have a strong track record of running devious intrigues to deceive their own legislatures and publics, too.  Use of brain is recommended in looking at stories like these.

This article provides more details on the mission of the two Brits who were captured: Playing with fire: British troops are famed for winning hearts and minds [sic] but last week Basra erupted. Ali Rifat, Michael Smith and Richard Woods on an SAS mission that went horribly wrong 09/25/05.  They note matter-of-factly that it was "an incident that has revealed the fragility of the British mission in southern Iraq." Indeed.

This latter article is an especially lively and informative piece of war reporting.

After a week in which Iraqis fire-bombed a Warrior armoured vehicle and British soldiers fled in flames, the mood in Basra remains volatile on all sides.

Many Iraqis are incensed that two SAS troopers, disguised in civilian clothes, shot an Iraqi policeman and, allegedly, a civilian when challenged at a checkpoint. Another nine people died in the ensuing riot, according to the Iraqi judge handling the case, and 14 were injured.

Among British forces morale is suffering in the face of increasing hostility in Iraq and diminishing public support for the war at home. With the referendum on the proposed Iraqi constitution due next month and elections for the first proper government in December, the British find themselves caught between insurgents bent on mayhem and local militias desperate to grab power. Telling friend from foe is far from easy.

Referring to the story of the policeman who was shot, they write:

If this is a true account, why might the SAS have reacted by opening fire without warning? According to one former officer with experience of Iraq, troopers believe the Iraqi police are never to be trusted because their ranks are plagued by militia members and insurgents.

"It is commonly accepted that if you are captured by the Iraqi police there is every chance you will be handed over to the militia - which is akin to a death sentence," he said. "So the rule of thumb is to avoid being captured at all costs."

Even the Iraqi chief of police has admitted he cannot trust all of his men.

It's not surprising that the allegedly passionate supporters of this gruesome mess of a war like our keyboard commandoes couldn't turn out more than 150 demonstrators at their pro-Iraq-War event on Saturday at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

Near the end of the third article, the writers provide an observation which emphasizes the puzzle: why would Iran be funding insurgents against the pro-Iranian government in Iraq?

Gareth Stansfield, an expert in Middle East politics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Exeter University, believes the Iranians are already the real winners from the Iraq war.

"Iraq has been delivered to Iran on a plate by the coalition," he said. "It sits there as a powerful neighbour, with very complex and strong links in the south ... and politically with the Kurds in the north.

"I would goso far  as to say that the pre-eminent foreignforce in Iraq is not the US, it is Iran. It has succeeded in its geopolitical aim - Iraq will never threaten them again - and it has tied up the US in a swamp of insurgencies." (my emphasis)

It's also worth remembering that the US-British position right now is basically providing military support for the pro-Iranian, Shi'a-dominated regime in Baghdad in a sectarian war against anti-Iranian Sunnis.  As Gareth Porter recently wrote (The Third Option in Iraq: A Responsible Exit Strategy Middle East Policy Fall 2005):

Up to now, the political discourse on Iraq has reflected the administration's view of the policy problem as one of defeating a threat to a democratic regime from an antidemocratic insurgency composed of Saddam loyalists and foreign Islamic terrorists. The administration's definition of the problem has enormous appeal to Americans, who viewed the January 2005 parliamentary elections as an inspirational story of people choosing democracy in the face of terrorist threats. But it has obscured the underlying problem in Iraq, which is a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that is already becoming a civil war. Even worse, the administration's policy of backing the Shiite government against the Sunnis rather than promoting reconciliation between the two groups has actually encouraged the emergence of that civil war. (my emphasis)

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Friday, September 23, 2005

This might be worth a special trip to Ohio

Giant Jesus: Highway Guardian or Christian Kitsch? by Bill Sloat, Newhouse News Service 09/23/05.

A question for the ages.

Sweet country sounds

This is the kind of thing that warms the hearts of true country music fans.  From Merle Haggard's Web site, accessed 09/23/05:

Are you people ready for this?... Merle and the Strangers will be opening for The Rolling Stones on November 29th in Dallas, Texas at the American Airlines Arena...Is that amazing or what?!!!

Merle will be performing a 45 minute set similar to the Bob Dylan tour...what a great way to close out one hell of a great year...but stay tuned things are only gonna get even bigger and better I promise!!! There are some great things in the works for the upcoming keep checking back to this site for the only place to get official Merle Haggard and the Strangers news.

Take that, Clint Black of Rummy's I-love-war rally!

The chorus of the song I mention above the title goes:

Well, I'm a hillbilly pickin' ramblin' girl
And I'm hangin' in bars and listenin' to Merle
Drinkin' whiskey and beer
To wash this pain away
Singin' good old country songs
Not the ones they play today, hey, hey

Who's in the army now?

The St. Petersburg Times is one paper that still believes in doing serious news analysis and even investigative reporting.  This article is a reminder of that:

America's new warrior class? Race doesn't appear to be a significant factor these days in who fights the nation's wars by Paul De La Garza and Cathy Wos 09/23/05

Disroportionate numbers of blacks service in the armed forces compared to their portion of the total US population, the percentage of African-Americans serving in combat is lower than it was in the Vietnam War:

While African-Americans continue to serve in the military in disproportionate numbers today, other factors play a role in declining minority deaths. One factor is that the percentage of African-Americans serving in combat has declined appreciably.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, said the number of African-Americans serving in the infantry, for instance, is about 11 percent, down from a high of about 25 percent. He said more African-Americans are selecting noncombat fields in the military, such as unit administration and communications.

Moskos thinks the real issue is class, which is much harder to quantify because the Pentagon does not keep income data on recruits.

He said media commentators and intellectuals promote the idea that minorities bear the brunt of wartime casualties because it generates controversy. "I guess the intellectuals and media are not turned on by poor, rural whites," Moskos wrote in an e-mail. "Shame on the intellectuals and media."

The article gives only vague data about the regional origins of soldiers.  It mentions that 64% are from the "South and West," but it doesn't define the regions.  My understanding is that the South is very heavily over-represented proportionately compared to all other regions of the country.

It's a miracle!!!

I just can't resist this one: Christ's image twice survives deadly storms by Jean Prescott Biloxi Sun-Herald 09/23/05.

The only thing I'm wondering is this.  The surviving Jesus image is in an Episcopal church.

Does this mean God is an Episcopalian?

Saturday's antiwar demos

Antiwar rallies in Washington and other cities around the country are sponsored this weekend by United for Peace and International ANSWER.  I would encourage everyone who is so inclined to attend.  I probably won't be there myself because I'm still hobbling around from a broken leg.  But it's a very important event, a major chance for people to make a statement against Bush's Iraq War.

San Francisco being, well, San Francisco, there are several events going on in town this weekend besides the demonstration/march: Busy weekend on tap, if you can get there: Protest, blues fest, love and leather to pack the street San Francisco Chronicle 09/23/05).  And, yes, they do mean leather:

It looks like it's going to be one of those classic San Francisco weekends: a leather and fetish fair, a blues festival, an anti-war protest, a love parade -- and, of course, headache-inducing traffic.

In what organizers say will be an "only in San Francisco" weekend jammed with seven major events, residents and visitors are being advised to take public transportation, walk or ride bicycles. In other words, do anything but drive.

Aside from the usual Indian summer weather that attracts Bay Area residents to the city's landmarks, several major outdoor activities are lined up for this weekend. Hundreds of thousands of people -- extra people -- are expected to participate. They will let it all hang out in leather, protest the war in Iraq and dance in the streets.

Throngs will converge on the city Saturday for four events: the Love Parade and Celebration, the anti-war demonstration, the 33rd annual San Francisco Blues Festival and a night concert at SBC Park featuring the popular band Green Day.

In a speech in San Francisco several years ago about this time of year, Molly Ivins joked that it was nice to be in the Bay Area during "Native American summer."  Some people in the audience didn't realize she was making a joke.

So, in San Francisco, the antiwar march is likely to have the most stodgy-looking crowd of all the major events going on.

But in their never-ending attempt to discredit the antiwar movement, war fans are bitching and moaning about International ANSWER, which has leftwing ideas (gasp! choke!) on other issues than the Iraq War.  This news article gives a decent summary of coalition politics in organizing this march: War protests make for strange bedfellows by Joe Garofoli San Francisco Chronicle 09/23/05.

Criticisms of activists' associations are rooted in a fundamental red and blue political divide: Liberal-led demonstrations often are filled with supporters advocating a variety of causes in an effort to show how the issues are interrelated. That's why International ANSWER insisted on ground rules for Saturday's demonstration allowing signage linking the Iraq war to "the colonial occupation of Palestine, the occupation of Haiti and other anti-imperialist positions."

United for Peace will focus its signage solely on the war.

Conservatives insist that by participating in such a demonstration, marchers endorse the views of those next to them.

"People should be careful of the company they keep in these marches," said Kristinn Taylor, an organizer with "The question I always ask is, 'If the Klu Klux Klan led an anti-war demonstration, would you march in it?' "

Well, let's see.  On the one hand, you have International ANSWER, which promotes some dogmatic lefty ideas but whose entire reputation is built on its sponsorship of demonstrations against the Iraq War: a war that most of the world (with good reason!) considers a violation of international law; a war that was based on claims of "weapons of mass destruction" that were completely nonexistent; a war that has badly damaged American security and reduced American influence in the world; a war that has been a godsend (or, more precisely, a Bush-send) to jihadist recruitment.

On the other hand, we have the Ku Klux Klan, a name that has been used by a number of organizations and sects, all of which share in common a white supremacist ideology, a hatred of democracy, and an advocacy (and sometimes practice) of terrorism, torture and murder against blacks, Catholics and others who segregationists might dislike.  A group that was an integral part of the overthrow of democratic governments throughout the South by force and violence and fraud during the 1870s.

Is this Freeper criticizing International ANSWER?  Or trying to sanitize the Ku Klux Klan?

I was surprised in the prewar days to see some liberals like Eric Alterman fretting about the impurity of the antiwar coalition of those days.  It always struck me as silly, though any activist movement is going to have its sectarian splits for various reasons.

But if people are serious about stopping the war, it's silly to worry about whether other people in a crowd of thousands or hundreds of thousands of demonstrators might have political opinions that differ from theirs on some subject or the other.  If you need that kind of ideology purity and consistency, join the Moonies or the Church of Scientology.

The marches on Saturday are marches against the Iraq War.  Everyone except the drooling-at-the-mouth ideologues of the right will understand the turnout as being a statement against the Iraq War, period.  And maybe a few liberals whose politics are too pure to actually help accomplish anything in the real world.

I would add that, even though the article above talks about ground rules for signs, in a large demonstration, as a practical matter it isn't possible to enforce 100% conformity on the signs people carry.  So if some people show up with signs that say "Free Mars!", the organizers probably aren't going to try to kick them out of the march.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Iraq War: The federalist option

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

Peter Galbraith, one of the sons of John Kenneth Galbraith who is carrying on his father's diplomatic footsteps, has been an advocate of Iraqi Kurdish independence, either in the de facto form of very decentralized federalism or in the form of Kurdistan as a separate nation.

I've never been convinced by arguments put forward by him or by Leslie Gelb in favor of that position, either in terms of their analysis of the ethnic/religious divisions in Iraq or in terms of the desirability of a "Kurdistan" (de facto or otherwise) for American interests.

But Galbraith is a very well-informed observer of events in the Iraq War.  And he has written an evaluation of the proposed Iraqi constitution and what it implies for the situation in Iraq: Last Chance for Iraq New York Review of Books 09/07/05.

This description of the Iraqi army caught my eye.  Bush's "stay the course" strategy looks for the Iraqi army to "stand up" so that American troops can "stand down," i.e., leave.  Galbraith writes:

The Iraqi army nominally has 115 battalions, or 80,000 troops. This figure, often cited by those who see the Iraq occupation as a success, corresponds only to the number of troops listed on the military payroll. However, when the Ministry of Defense decided to supervise the payment of salaries, a third of the payroll was returned. (In Iraq's all-cash economy, commanders receive a lump sum for the troops under their command; this acts as an incentive for them to maintain ghost soldiers on the payroll.) One senior official estimated that barely half the nominal army actually exists.

Claims about weapons provided by the US to the Iraqi army are even more doubtful. Iraqi Ministry of Defense officials say the Americans have not provided them with records of who has been receiving weapons. Without such controls, soldiers sell their weapons on the open market where some are bought by insurgents. Most weapons captured in recent months come, I am told, from stocks supplied to the Iraqi army and police. Craig Smith reported on August 28 in The New York Times that the US military is now unwilling to provide more sophisticated weapons to the Iraqi military for fear they will be used in a civil war - or against the US.

This number of troops in the Iraqi army is a key figure to watch.The White House and the Pentagon likes to conflate the army and police to talk about number of "security" personnel.  Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a regular army of 400,000, not counting the more "elite" Republican Guard.  According to Galbraith, the official (and phony) account has Iraq with only 80,000 troops.  Jeffrey Record wrote in Dark Victory (2004):

The issue of U.S. force size in postwar Iraq is greatly compounded by U.S. dissolution of the 400,000-man Iraqi army and plans [at the time he was writing] to replace it, within three years, with a predominantly light infantry force of only 40,000.  Such a replacement army would be too small to defend Iraq against its more powerful neighbors, and might prove insufficient even to police Iraq's extensive and rugged border with Iran.  Indeed, such a small army, absent a major U.S. force presence or credible commitment to Iraq's defense, could invite Iranian and Turkish military intervention in Iraq.

Galbraith sees the proposed Iraqi constitution as offering a good chance for providing the basis of domestic peace in Iraq.  Galbraith is certainly no flak for the Bush administration, but I think he's being very optimistic about that.  A large part of that optimism seems to be based on his view, which he discusses in the article, that an independent Kurdistan is both workable and desirable.

On that subject, he writes:

Most Kurdish leaders say that if the constitution fails, the next talks will be about partition. An independent Kurdistan is no longer unlikely. Arab Iraqi leaders understand that the Kurds want out, and are increasingly weary of having to pay the price for keeping them in. Even Saleh al-Mutlaq, theSunni negotiator, has said in a recent interview, "If the Kurds want independence, they should ask for it." Every Shiite leader whom I asked about the issue—including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi—said that they would support Kurdistan's independence if that's what the Kurds want. Some Arabs bluntly told me that, at this stage, they would prefer that Kurdistan left.

But he seems to pass lightly over what seems to be a very complicated situation in the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds tend to see as part of "Kurdistan":

The constitution also has a formula to resolve Iraq's most enduring territorial dispute: between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The constitution includes mechanisms to return Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing to Kirkuk and for a referendum to decide its status not later than the end of 2007. The United States could promote the peaceful resolution of the Kirkuk question by encouraging power-sharing arrangements among all of Kirkuk's communities—Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, and Chaldo-Assyrians. Whether the Americans are capable of the more informed involvement in Kirkuk's ethnic politics that is now needed is not at all clear.

If a favorable resolution of that complicated situation depends on deft diplomacy by the Bush administration, I would say that it's a forlorn hope indeed.

Galbraith's provides a lot of information on the Iraqi constitution and some of the manuevers involved in bringing it into being.  This was a good tidbit:

The Kurds, and other secularists, were particularly appalled by the idea of clerics on the court, but since they had no support from the US, they chose not to make an issue of it. Instead, the Kurds stripped the Iraqi Supreme Court of jurisdiction over Kurdistan's laws. Here the Kurds' negotiators were influenced by US constitutional experience. Having seen US justices decide the election of 2000 on the basis of their personal political preference, they had no confidence in US arguments on the value of an independent judiciary. (my emphasis)

He summarizes the potential benefits of the proposed constituion this way:

The strongest argument for the new constitution is that it could avoid civil war. But it has three other virtues: (1) it may hold the country together, (2) it limits Iranian domination to the southern half of the country, and (3) it provides for a more workable military strategy than the one to which the US is now committed.

The "more workable" military strategy he mentions seems to consist mainly of turning over the main security duties to local partisan militias.

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Iraq War: Yeah, this sums it up

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

Ivo Daalder discusses the "stay the course" (i.e., more of the same indefinitely) vs. the get-out-now option: A Third Way in Iraq? TPM Cafe 09/20/05.  Responding to the idea that there might be a workable option somewhere between those two, he writes:

I'm not so sure. For there to be a third way our continued presence in Iraq, in whatever form, would have to make a material difference. Perhaps we're preventing an all-out civil war. But it sure doesn't look like it.

The real question is not how long we stay in Iraq - or even what we do while we are there. The real question now is how we can best minimize the damage caused by our having lost the war.

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Afghan War: Afghanistan Now

This article was written before last Sunday's parliamentary elections: Afghanistan Four Years On: An Assessment by Sean Maloney Parameters (US Army War College) Autumn 2005.  But the elections didn't change anything essenial in the situation.

Maloney opens by expressing "guarded optimism" about the situation in Afghanistan in 2005.  But based on the information he presents in the article, I would say the optimism would have to be rather heavily guarded.

This is an interesting factual observation.  Speaking of 2003, he says:

International forces in Afghanistan at that time included the 18,000 members of the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the 4,500-strong European-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

I haven't been keeping running notes on the public statements of the number of troops.  But I am surprised to see that the number of US troops was something approaching 18,000.  Because the recent figures I've seen reported put the current number at 18,000, which was supposedly the highest number yet.  Maloney does speak there of the American-led force, not all of which would have been American.

He describes the main opposition today in clearer terms than we usually get in the mainstream media reports:

There are, essentially, three enemy forces operating against the Afghan government and its Coalition partners. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) organization, still seeking to influence the brokerage of power in Kabul, operates from areas east of the city and still mounts usually ineffective attacks on ISAF, OEF, and Afghan National Army forces in the capital. Taliban military formations have been completely reduced by OEF operating methods and appear to have shifted from guerilla warfare to pinprick terrorist attacks, usually in ethnically Pashtun areas in the southeast. Al Qaeda provides training and equipment to both HIG and the Taliban. Additionally, al Qaeda mounts its own limited raids on Coalition forces located on the border with Pakistan. These raids appear to employ the well-equipped remnants of al Qaeda’s “conventional” formations which worked with the Taliban prior to 2001. Unlike HIG and al Qaeda, the Taliban are still trying to create a parallel government to garner popular support in Pashtun areas with the aim of retaking the country.

He continues, in his guarded-optimistic mode, "At this point, the synergy of HIG, the Taliban, and al Qaeda has been unable to significantly influence the direction that the Afghan people are taking under the Karzai government."  Given the reports on the strength of the warlords everywhere outside of Kabul, this is heavily-guarded optimism indeed.

But this assessment of the 2004 presidential election in Afghanistan is essentially just propaganda:

The importance of Karzai’s election in this milieu cannot be underestimated. It is a truism that government legitimacy and the support of the population are absolutely critical in the fight against guerilla and terrorist organizations. By most indications, this has been achieved for the time being in Afghanistan. The elections were fair and carefully monitored: the voter turnout, more than 80 percent, should put the citizens of the United States and Canada to shame with regard to their respective voter turnouts during elections in 2004. Attempts by enemy forces to use terrorism to interfere with the Afghan election process were crushed before they could bear fruit, particularly in Kabul, where ISAF and OEF forces operated together with Afghan police and military forces in a coordinated fashion.

The parliamentary elections that just took place this past weekend were originally scheduled for 2004 and had to be postponed because security was so poor.  Karzai had to travel under American military protection to campaign outside of the capital.  And he didn't do very much of that.

And this has very much the sound of putting the best face on:

The main cog here was the development and expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA), the second “moving part.” By late 2003, the ANA support process from the international community had become much more rational. ISAF (pre-2003) had dropped the ball in the training scheme and it was picked up by OEF, but the direction taken in the design of the Afghan National Army was initially haphazard and impeded by the chieftains in Kabul and their militia forces. Intime, high-quality instruction provided by American, Canadian, and British Embedded Training Teams established a significant confidence level in the fledgling Afghan Ministry of Defence and, most important, in its fighting units. The Afghan National Army expanded from three experimental “kandaks” (battalion-equivalents) toward a goal of 26. With an expanded ANA, the Afghan government has forged a power-projection tool to take advantage of the expanded Coalition presence throughout the country. ANA garrisons now exist in most urban areas. The development of the ANA, however, is still very much a work in progress. (my emphasis)

In other words, they have enough of an Afghan army on paper to have some of them tag along on "coalition", i.e., American raids and claim that they moving "toward" a goal of having a real army.

I can believe that the current NATO force in Kabul is functioning well.  But it is a sign of how fragile the situation in Afghanistan is that the Afghan government can't even depend on its own army to protect the capital city.  A real reconstruction of Afghanistan was always a long-term undertaking.  But I have to wonder at this point, what real hope does the current NATO effort have?

The weakness of Maloney's response to the news about the drug trade and the power of the warlords is pretty evident:

A simplistic analysis would have us believe that the main encumbrances to stability and peace in Afghanistan are “the drug-fueled warlords” and that there aren’t enough American troops on the ground in Afghanistan to confront them because of operations in Iraq.13 Such politically motivated critiques ignore the historical realities of Afghanistan, however, specifically that a large infusion of outside forces would place us in the same position that the Soviets found themselves in during the 1980s. They also are a slap in the face to those Afghan commanders and soldiers loyal to the Afghan government who have engaged in combat against those seeking to topple it.

It's undoubtedly true that the injection of a large number of American conventional forces would put the US in a very similar position to the Soviets in the 1980s.  But this is a tap dance.  It's "simplistic" to talk about the power of the warlords; it's rude to the Afghan officers.

When you have to base an analysis of the military situation on avoiding any description of reality that might hurt the sensitive feelings of our allied army, that's just not a good sign.

He talks about the "chess game" approach of introducing nationally-trained forces into local areas gradually.  Sounds good on paper.  But Maloney is clearly having to stretch to make it sound like it's having any success.

He does talk about the opium trade, and presumably he's not intending to present a "simplistic" analysis.  But it sure sounds like there are quite a few problems left to solve in connection with that:

This takes us to the narcotics problem. The assumption among some international entities operating in support of the Afghan government in 2004 suggests that the removal of chieftains engaged in narcotics cultivation and trafficking via the “chess game” may have two effects. It may result, in the worst case, in better networking under the guise of legitimate government activity. Second, the removal of the prominent leadership will devolve power to second-, third-, and even fourth-tier local personnel engaged in narcotics production, trafficking, and protection. By no means are all of these personnel former militia force personnel, which complicates attempts to identify and deal with them. Though this works to the advantage of the Afghan government in that the traffickers’ ability to organize a “narco-insurgency” is severely reduced, the lack of police and judicial capacity means that Kabul cannot yet target these dispersed, low-level groups. Similarly, an anti-corruption force will have to be formed to police the chieftains and others in the government to ensure that they remain uninvolved in narcotics production and distribution. In effect, Afghanistan will become like every other nation trying to take on organized crime (and not a Colombia-like narco-insurgency), but only if the right tools are forged and brought to bear.

Two other extremely important aspects of extending government influence to the provinces are sometimes overlooked in militaryassessments. These are the lack of roads and other infrastructure, coupled with the extremely high illiteracy rate. How does one provide anti-narcotics information to a nearly illiterate population? How does one deploy police and a legal system when the roads do not facilitate vehicular traffic? The deployment of PRTs, be they NATO or OEF, will assist in collecting information as much as they will assist in the local and provincial coordination effort, but how will Afghanistan “balance its books” in the reconstruction effort? And what priorities will be assigned? Politically motivated criticism in the Western media can interfere with the assessment and establishment of priorities. Demands by Western politicians and their mouthpieces for a huge and expensive counternarcotics force could divert the Afghan leadership’s attention from what they rightly view as their own established reconstruction priorities. (my emphasis)

This is pretty much saying that those dang civilians should just shut their mouths and believe the kind of hokey propaganda the Pentagon cranks out.

But what's interesting about Maloney's article is that even though he's trying to put the best face of the current situation and to discourage any criticism by mere citizens, his article still shows some of the real problems in the Afghan War.  I'll close this post with one more:

... [C]oncerns within the intelligence community of the “migration” of tactics used in Iraq to Afghanistan are very real: in May 2005, a mosque in Kandahar was attacked with a significant death toll. In July, captured Afghan police were beheaded by insurgents, while a car bomb was used against the PRT in Kandahar. This new emphasis on mass civilian targets and gruesome terrorism against police indicate that while there has been success in countering the insurgency, there are still those who seek political change through violence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Disputed lessons of Katrina

Some liberal writers are cautious about emphasizing the possible racial aspects of the New Orleans disaster.

It seems clear to me that the Katrina disaster and the federal abandonment of New Orleans has highlighted both race and class differences in a way not unlike the Mississippi Flood of 1927 did.  As I've said before, if people can't bring themselves to criticize racism or look at how race shaped the response to Katrina until they hear a tape of Bush and "Brownie" saying "let's let all those black people drown, starve or die of thirst," then they've put themselves in the role of the Southern "moderates" of the segregation years.  As one of Herman Melville's characters said of "moderates" on the slavery issue, such moderates are useless for good but indispensable for evil.

Having said that, though, it doesn't mean we have to turn off our brains, either.  I think Molly Ivins has it right with her perception: George Bush investigates! 09/08/05

According to The New York Times, Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, began a campaign this weekend to blame local and state officials. The "woefully inadequate response," said "sources close to the White House," was the fault of "bureaucratic obstacles from state and local officials."

The bottom line is they're playing the race card. As many of you have noted, it IS a racial issue that poor people suffer most in any natural or economic disaster. Because Katrina hit the Deep South, a great many of the poor people affected are black, especially in New Orleans -- both hit hardest and majority black to begin with.

I'm not sure what to say about a cable news station that plays a "loop" of black looters over and over -- about 20 seconds of actual footage, replayed for four minutes, while the voiceover dwells on the looting problem. Obviously, there are some looters in New Orleans and elsewhere, and equally obviously, there are lots of people who were without food or water for days.

She refers to the famous radio interview during the crisis week following the hurricane when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin used some cuss words:

The mayor  was in tears. I heard two nice, white American "ladies" deploring this interview. "Well! He should remember there might be children listening!" Children still without food and water. What happens to people when they talk about race? Of course, most of us don't actually talk about race any more, we refer to it only indirectly, we talk "those people."

Watch carefully, listen carefully -- minority groups have always been blamed after natural disasters, since the days when the Hungarians were supposed to have cut the fingers off bodies to get the gold rings in the wake of the Johnstown Flood. Dirty Bohunks.

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby has been dubious all along about the way many commentators and public figures have emphasized the racial angle.  He's hit on the issue in several of his posts, including this one:
The Joy of Race/The Joy of Class! 09/20/05

Gene Lyons (An equal-opportunity disaster Daily Dunklin Democrat 09/21/05) is impatient with the quibbling over the word "refugee."  He writes, "A refugee is somebody who takes refuge, period.  Americans of every race and ethnicity are refugees from Hurricane Katrina."

But he realizes that the results and reactions have a racial element to them:

Democrats have tried for generations to craft a populist message that cuts across racial lines, and have mostly not succeeded. But the Bush administration's sheer incompetence in the face of a natural disaster that has rendered hundreds of thousands jobless, homeless and seemingly hopeless provides Democrats with an historic opportunity to restate their case.

Here's one example: One of President Bush's first official actions after Katrina was to make an emergency declaration that the Davis-Bacon Act requiring federal contractors to pay the "prevailing local wage" to workers will not apply during the reconstruction effort. In the largely non-union Gulf Coast area that wage is roughly $9 an hour--barely above the poverty level. Bush's action will depress salaries throughout the region.

Think about it: Working people throughout the region have losteverything. And this president's first thought, along with awarding billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to Halliburton, Bechtel and other big GOP contributors, is to cut their pay. Republicans have sought unsuccessfully to eliminate Davis-Bacon for years. According to the Washington Post, they consider it "a taxpayer subsidy to unions."

But unions get nothing out of the law; only employees do. Cutting workers' salaries won't save the government money; it means bigger profits for Halliburton, and the rest, period. Hence much of the cash will be siphoned out of the region that needs it so desperately.

Jules Witcover thinks that John Kerry could have come across more forcefully on the New Reconstruction scandal in the making: Democratic Overkill on Katrina Tribune Media Services 09/21/05.  But he also gives Kerry credit for calling Bush on the New Reconstruction scam:

The senator, who clearly has not ruled out a second try for the presidency in 2008, said the Bush recovery plan would turn the Gulf Coast "into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments."

Bush in that speech [of 09/15/05 in New Orleans] did indeed invoke several proposals that fit neatly into his basic objective of converting what Newt Gingrich likes to call "the welfare state" into what Bush repeatedly describes as "the ownership society" of individual initiative and self-reliance.

He talked of creating a Gulf Opportunity Zone where small businesses would get tax breaks enabling them to make fresh starts, of providing federal land grants to hurricane victims with which they could build new homes of their own, and school vouchers for evacuated children.

It would be a big mistake for liberals not to confront the racial issues in the Katrina disaster, because, as Molly Ivins indicated, the Republicans are not reluctant to draw their own racial conclusions from the experience.

Hurricanes come and go, but the Bush dynasty just goes on and on

I'm not surprised by it, but I hadn't heard this before.  It is almost an aside in an article about the politics of Bush's Supreme Court nominees: Bush's Second Supreme Decision by Lorraine Woellert Business Week 09/21/05.

Sources close to White House political strategist Karl Rove say Bush 43 [Shrub] made a solemn promise to Bush 41 [Old Man Bush] that he would do anything to avoid harming brother Jeb's chances at the Presidency.

Islām's first theological controversy

The first major theological controversy within Islām came during the Umayyad dynasty's rule. It gave rise to the Qadarīya, who took positions on the key theological questions that differed from those preferred by the caliph's court.

Christians have had their own differences over the questions of predestination and free will.  Although the issue at first glance seems very similar to that which occurred during this Islamic controversy, I always hesitate to assume that surface similarities between religions are necessarily reflective of deeper ones.  The content and particular understanding of an issue can be very different and often can't be understood well without that broader religious context.

In this case, the question was closely bound up with the issues of right conduct by the rulers.  Mu‛āwiya and Abd al-Malik held to a strong deterministic position which justified the actions and decisions of the caliph as representing the will of God.  Yazīd II (caliph 720-724) held a particularly clear form of the idea, which in Hans Küng's description in Der Islam (2004) said that "a caliph is not required to give an account of himself before God, because everything the 'rightly guided deputy' of God [the caliph] does, is by definition right."

Küng observes drily that this doctrine proved especially convenient to the "life-loving" al-Walīd II and his life of "wine, women and song."

But there was a dissenting view which developed into the beliefs of the Qadarīya.  It held that while God is responsible for the good deeds of the caliph, the bad deeds were due to the less-than-infallible decisions of the human rulers.  The word "qadar" is used for both the will of God and for the responsibility of people.  But it was those who emphasized the latter who became identified as Qadarīya.

Küng describes how such a view could become especially undesirable from the rulers' point of view in certain circumstances:

For evil, humans are responsible; it cannot simply be attributed to God.  Every person is created by God for good, but  is nevertheless free to do evil, as well.  As an individual, he is [angesprochen] and so has his own qadar, his own self-determination and responsibility.  One immediately recognizes the political brisance [sp?] of such an apparently purely theological controversy: If a person is responsible for his evil deeds, he can also be held responsible for them before God - whether subject or caliph!

It comes as no surprise, then, that leading Qadarīya found themselves in rough political waters at various times.  ‛Abd al-Malik inquired of al-Hasan al-Basrī (642-728) about his ideas, which held that the strong predestinarian view favored by the caliph was an innovation - and not an altogether good one - in the Islamic religious tradition.

Karen Armstrong in Islam (2001) writes that the Qadarīya supported the Ummayad dynasty as being the best way to preserve the unity of the ummah (Muslim community).  But they were also willing to criticize its faults - sometimes at great risk to themselves (see below).  And she writes of Hasan (her spelling conventions are somewhat different than what I use):

He had opted for a theology known as the Qadariyyah, because it studied the decrees (qadar) of God.  Human beings had free will and were responsible for their actions; they were not predestined to act in a certain way, since God was just and would not command them to live virtuously if it was not in their power.  Therefore, the caliphs must be accountable for their deeds, and must be taken to task if they disobeyed God's clear teaching.  When Caliph Abd al-Malik heard that Hasan had been spreading this potentially rebellious doctrine, he summoned him to court, but Hasan was so popular that the caliph dared not punish him.  Hasan had begun the strong Mulsim tradition of combining a disciplined interior life with political opposition to the government.

In his article for Britannica on Hasan, David Ede writes ( "Hasan al-Basri, al-."Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD .[Accessed  September 20, 2005]):

The enemy of Islām, for Hasan, was not the infidel but the hypocrite (munāfiq), who took his religion lightly and “is here with us in the rooms and streets and markets.” In the important freedom-determinism debate, he took the position that man is totally responsible for his actions, and he systematically argued this position in an important letter written to the Umayyad caliph ‛Abd al-Malik. His letter, which is the earliest extant theological treatise in Islām, attacks the widely held view that God is the sole creator of man's actions. The document bears political overtones and shows that in early Islām theological disputes emerged from the politico-religious controversies of the day. His political opinions, which were extensions of his religious views, often placed him in precarious situations. During the years 705–714, Hasan was forced into hiding because of the stance he took regarding the policies of the powerful governor of Iraq, al-Hajjāj. After the governor's death, Hasan came out of hiding and continued to live in Basra until he died. It is said that the people of Basra were so involved with the observance of his funeral that no afternoon prayer was said in the mosque because no one was there to pray.

Another notable Qadarite was the Syrian Gailān ad-Dimašqī (died 732).  He was an official responsible for coinage under Caliph Umar II.  Küng summarizes his view as follows:

The rulers should not look upon their power as simply "a gift from God," with which they can do as they please.  They should rather be much more conscious of their responsibility before God for their people.

Gailān would later be cited as an authority by Muslims who challenged what they saw as illegitimate authority.  Gailān himself was executed as a conspirator against Caliph Hišām (caliph 724-743).

Another Syrian Abū ‛Abd-Allāh Makhūl, became known as a kind of father figure for the Qadarite movement.  He barely escaped execution himself under Hišām.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Iraq War: Options for the US and Britain - all bad

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

The London Independent runs a piece sketching out four basic options for the US and Britain in the Iraq War:  Iraq: Is there a way out of this mess? 09/21/05

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

Vatican shielding a Croatian war criminal?

This is a disturbing bit of news: Vatican accused of shielding 'war criminal' by David Rennie Daily Telegraph (UK) 09/20/05.

One of the most wanted war criminals is being shielded by the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican hierarchy, the United Nations' chief prosecutor for former Yugoslavia said yesterday.  

Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the UN international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said she believed that Gen Ante Gotovina was being sheltered in a Franciscan monastery in his native Croatia. ...

 Frustrated by months of secret but fruitless appeals to leading Vatican officials, including a direct appeal to Pope Benedict XVI, Mrs del Ponte has decided to make the matter public.

Gen Gotovina, still regarded as a hero by many Croats, is the most important war crimes suspect still at large from the Yugoslav conflict, after the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen Ratko Mladic.

Coatia was "our side" during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.  And just to be clear: I supported the NATO interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo.  Unlike our Republican war fans, though, I don't think that obligates me to make propaganda defenses of anything and everything the US and our allies did.

I was intrigued to discover that Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister that I quoted in the last post, essentially agreed with an American position on the Balkan Wars that is obscure but important.

That set of conflicts began in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia.  Germany took the lead in recognizing those two countries as independent, followed immediately by Austria, though the move was opposed by the United States.  This was generally seen as a sign that the united, post-Cold War Germany was beginning to assert a more independent position in world affairs.

The official American position under Old Man Bush was that Germany was to blame for the war because they recognized those two countries as independent at a time when neither was fully in control of its own territory.  Even the Clinton administration hauled that one out at least once at a moment of frustration with Germany.

But Fischer has publicly agreed with the original American position, arguing that the premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia polarized the situation in such a way that made for a wider war than might otherwise have been possible.

But during the Clinton administration, the US and Germany were agreed in wanting more vigorous Western action against Serbia, while France and Britain were opposed.  This produced a stalemate on NATO action, because Clinton was understandably unwilling for the US to take the lead on any military action in the Balkans without the full support of the major EU countries.

Serbia was justifiably notorious for its brutal "ethnic cleansings".  But the ugly fact is that Croatia did the same against ethnic Serbs, even though their actions were not as extensive as Serbia's.  When Croatia's army became strong enough in 1995 to push the Serbian army out of Croatia, they also carried out their own murderous ethnic cleansing in their own country.  But it was the Croat army's victory over Serbia that broke the diplomatic logjam for NATO and allowed an intervention to save Bosnia-Herzogovina from Serb depredations.

As so often happens in these things, the Western countries decided to keep a discrete silence at the time about the Croats' ethnic cleansing against Serbs.

But it also was the policy of the United States and other NATO countries that war criminals of all sides should be prosecuted, including those from Croatia.

It is in connection with those 1995 crimes that Gen. Gotovina is being sought:

A former French foreign legion officer, he is accused of overseeing and permitting the killing of at least 150 Serb civilians and the forced deportation of between 150,000 and 200,000 others after Operation Storm, a 1995 offensive to reimpose Croatian control over the Krajina region. Gen Gotovina's whereabouts are of interest not only to lawyers and historians. They are at the heart of a political mystery that has divided the European Union.

In February, the Balkan intrigue took a poisonous turn for Britain when the general's allies inside Croat intelligence "outed" several war crimes investigators in Croatia as serving MI6 and United States intelligence officers.

The next month, Britain led a successful campaign to halt the planned opening of talks with Croatia on joining the EU. Those accession talks remain on hold until Croatia is found to be "fully co-operating" with the tribunal, an assessment to be made by Mrs del Ponte.

In the past few days, Austria, Croatia's most fervent supporter within the EU, launched a fresh attempt to demand that the Balkan nation be allowed to begin accession talks early next month.

Austria and Germany are traditional allies of Croatia, which was once part of the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The Croatians were predominantly Catholic, the Serbs Eastern Orthodox.  Religion did play a role in the Balkan Wars.