Once more Dear Friends

Pat Ryan

There's a story out today by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post about the new push by about 4,000 Marines into the Helmand Valley in Afghanistan. Helmand is the opium capitol of the world and a Taliban stronghold.

Like the drug trade everywhere, only a tiny percentage of the population makes any money at it, and in a lot of cases, entire small villages are sharecroppers under a sort of feudal system. Anyhow the Taliban can get a foot soldier for about $5 per day and it ain't about ideology as much as it is about staying alive. Better to be the guy with the gun than otherwise.

About a hundred miles away in Kandahar, the Taliban has been chased out, but there is no functional government. Saw Sarah Chayse sum it up nicely on a recent Rachel Maddow Show :

"....one of my cooperative members was bringing some car parts - he has an auto parts store - in from the border.  He had to pay bribes at eight different checkpoints, you know, to the police. 

So it‘s like you are afraid of the Taliban and then the government is abusing you, too.  And it is this constant navigation of trying to make your way between these two hostile forces in a way." 

 The Marines seem to have their work cut out for them. We've been messing around in Helmand for years, going at it from the top end of the KBR/Halliburton food chain with various large scale construction projects that wind up as besieged fortresses like the Kajaki Damwhich has a shiny new turbine, but gets attacked and harassed regularly. Meanwhile the farmers downstream don't have wiring in their houses anyway, so the Hearts and Minds thing ain't been going so well.

Obama's big plan is to get the troops out into the villages, run off any random Talibs and sit down with the local elders to run up to-do lists for the immediate betterment of the locals. Obama's wonks seem to get the whole economic problem and the governmental power vacuum, and the Marines have their orders, so we'll hope for the best. I used to work with some guys from this part of the world back in Esfahan Iran in '78, and they haven't had a moment of peace since. They definitely are due for a break.  Still it all reminds me of an old Firesign Theater sketch where the U.S Navy is anchored off the coast of Africa, firing (if memory serves) Levis and Nikes into the jungle, once and for all solving all post colonial ills.     

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    "Obama's big plan is to get the troops out into the villages, run off any random Talibs and sit down with the local elders to run up to-do lists for the immediate betterment of the locals. Obama's wonks seem to get the whole economic problem and the governmental power vacuum,..."

    The new generation of the "best and the brightest" are at it again with the prospect of creating another version of a Greek/Vietnam tragedy. Or another folly of positive thinking, Disney style. If you dream enough your dreams will come true.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Given the fact that the U.S. ambassador has put the squeeze on the German government raising the ante from 50 million Euros (about US$70 million) to $2 billion or 135,000 soldiers - http://www.zeit.de/online/2009/27/usa-deutschland-muss-in-afgha.

    "If you dream enough your dreams will come true." If they don't then lookout for a nightmare.

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    The US, IMHO, does not have a viable winning strategy in Afghanistan because it does not have a clear opium/poppy policy (that I’ve seen). We may just be muddling along.

    The Washington Post article does not say much about the poppy cultivation problem. Many analysts see that much of the Taliban funding comes from the illegal poppy trade and assume that part of the US mission in Afghanistan is to eradicate poppy cultivation. I’ve not seen that spelled out and it is not that simple. There is a dilemma, as I see it. We are going to try to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans. And the strategy of our troops living with the people described in the Post article is the way to do it. But how far can we get winning hearts and minds if we take the most profitable crop away from Afghan farmers. Opium/ poppies are about 60% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Recently, the NY Times reported that the value of the poppy crops was down and the value of wheat, the alternative for cultivation, was up. That helps. But much more will be needed.

    I previously wrote on my own blog (here) that “We cannot both “win” in Afghanistan and eradicate the poppy/opium trade there. That would be expecting too much. Too much of the economy is dependent upon the opium trade.”

    I’m willing to reconsider that assessment. But only if I see a realistic plan on how to do it. The Post article is not encouraging.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    The quote you're thinking of: "My God this is an awesome sight, the last stronghold of rebel resistance buried under 50,000 copies of a "Naked Lunch".

  • Scott Jorgensen (unverified)

    Sen. Merkley did a town hall in Grants Pass a couple of weeks ago, and the issue of Afghanistan came up. He gave what I thought was a good answer, and said we need to engage with limited goals. Clearly, there's no easy answer or way out. But that doesn't mean we should just stay there indefinitely, especially if the presence of our troops isn't really helping anyway.

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    The military approach to Helmund will work in Helmund. The Taliban will be chased out and reduced to an irritation while the troops are there. The problem is what happens when we leave and we can't stay forever.

    Afghan society is too often primitive and tribal and the government corrupt. How long can the U.S. afford to pour men and money into the country? We have been there for seven years with little to show for it. If Bush-Cheney had not made the unnecessary and disastorous mis-tour to Iraq, we might have been making headway by now. At some point we will have to make some really hard decisions. If Al Qaeda didn't exist there we might be able to walk away and let the Afghans destroy each other again. The presence of Al Qaeda makes it our war. Perhaps a deal?

  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    Afghanistan is not called the graveyard of empires for nothing. The Russians found that out, as did the British and farther back the Romans as well.

    Leave these primitive, tribal societies to themselves. Every 30 or 50 years we may have to launch in incursion to eradicate whatever terrorist group is beginning to gain power but an ongoing presence is futile and counterproductive.

  • mlw (unverified)

    The Vietnam analogy is exactly wrong. The problem in Vietnam was that we didn't focus on the population. In any counterinsurgency campaign, military and progressive ideals align quite nicely - make the lives of the people better and you won't have to go around blowing things up as much. The new Afghanistan strategy is precisely that - rather than burn the opium fields of farmers who don't have the option not to grow opium, we're seeking to provide the kind of security and infrastructure (roads, irrigation) to grow other kinds of crops. In fact, the biggest complaint the Afghan government has with our new policy is that it's directed at the people, not the government, eliminating the opportunity for corruption by the government. This is exactly the kind of bottom up strategy that works. Indeed, it's how the Taliban came to power. The people only supported them because they provided security and a degree of peace, something in very short supply before then.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    Obama has frequently been identified with Franklin D. Roosevelt because of the economy. Harper's magazine just published an article by Kevin Baker suggesting a parallel with Herbert Hoover was more appropriate. Obama's choice to escalate the fighting in Afghanistan may prove to suggest yet another presidential analogy - with Lyndon Baines Johnson.

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    I'm sorta with Johyn Calhoun and mlw here. It looks like a solid tactic going from the ground up, and to John's concern, the Afghanis have some success in the Afghan Army, but the civil service and the police have a long way to go.

    Then you hope that guys like Karzai's brother (reputedly the goverment's main interface with the drug dealers)can be held out of the game long enough for actaul reformers to gain power at the grassroots.

    Long odds though.........

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    "The Vietnam analogy is exactly wrong. The problem in Vietnam was that we didn't focus on the population."

    Actually, the Vietnam analogy is exactly right because we have inexplicably been repeating all the same mistakes in Afghanistan & Iraq which were made early in Vietnam. The so-called 2007 "surge" in Iraq was more than just more troops (which ALL military experts had advocated for from the beginning), it was a change in tactics that FINALLY adopted the information learned in Vietnam (by everyone except the top tier of the Bush administration). Now we're finally adopting those lessons of Vietnam to Afghanistan, hopefully not too late.

    Think about this--the invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001, nearly eight years ago. That's first grade through eighth grade or fourth grade through graduation in the US high school system. Imagine if we had actually been defending schools and educating the entire generation that has grown up in Afghanistan in the last eight years? The wasted opportunities are legion. Hopefully the Obama administration will take the need to stabilize and develop Afghanistan once and for all more seriously than did Dumbass Rumsfeld, who could only lament there was so little there left to bomb.

  • marv (unverified)

    How does the disaster end when the same person who advised a war with the USSR to bring them down is Obama's adviser. It is not going to happen. Before the Afghan/USSR conflict Afghanistan was a food exporter.

    Control of the regions resources being the goal we trained and armed Bin Laden (Tim Osman when he traveled in the US) and now a half a billion dollars in profits from the opium trade fund the Taliban's arms purchases. Per year.

    Three and one half million people in Packistan have been displaced so far this year as Obama continues Bush policies. Can you name the country where drugs have been legalized for eight years with the consequence of reduced drug use?

    We (The US) want war. Drug profits fuel the enemy's arms purchases. The war on drugs? No. The war on the people.

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    In addition, IMHO, to the lack of a viable opium/poppy strategy, two additional operational issues concern me:

    (1) That the reconstruction effort will not be big enough. It is not reassuring to read in the Washington Post article that “The Marines have also been vexed by … a near-total absence of additional U.S. civilian reconstruction personnel…..”

    “Despite commitments from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development that they would send additional personnel to help the new forces in southern Afghanistan with reconstruction and governance development, State has added only two officers in Helmand since the Marines arrived….” Not reassuring.

    (2) That our Marines (and other personnel) may not have the Afghan language skills to live effectively among the people and to win their hearts and minds. Culture classes and interpreters can only do so much. So, how many of the 4,000 Marines will speak the language of the village they are stationed in? As the Post put it: “Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population.”

    There is an Oregon connection. The recent session of the legislature failed to invigorate the learning of foreign languages in Oregon’s K-12 education system. HB 2719 could have begun sending high school students to study abroad for academic years to learn these strategic foreign languages. HB 2605 would have specifically targeted additional study abroad funds for high school students willing to learn “critically needed” foreign languages, such as Pashto, Dari and the other languages of Afghanistan. Both bills died in committee.

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    Writes John Calhoun, "The problem is what happens when we leave and we can't stay forever."

    However, the generals are planning a 15-20 year time horizon. And the problem J.C. identifies will still be there.

    Nothing is being done that will change "the reasons" why "we" "can't leave now." This is sometimes called "no exit strategy," but that doesn't really cover it.

    This quote from former Oregonian Norman Solomon, though referring to D.C., applies to much of what's written here:

    "The political rhetoric in Washington is close to 100 percent humanitarian, while the new supplemental infusion of U.S. spending for Afghanistan is 90 percent military."

    Afghanistan wasn't the graveyard of the British Empire, that would be Belgium & NW France, ca. 1916, but it was where British South Asian imperial expansion was halted.

    And empire of course is the bigger question. We shouldn't have one. We have military bases in 140 countries. In its heyday the British empire's naval policy was that their navy should be twice as big as any other. The U.S. navy today is bigger than the next 15 combined.

    We are bleeding ourselves with military spending, above all in the occupation wars where the costs are not just unproductive opportunity costs, but loss of life, wounding an maiming, traumatic brain injury and PTSD, and our weapons are not just unproductive materiél but go to wreaking havoc, death and destruction on huge numbers of people. But it is not just in those wars of empire. It is the whole military budget. Our military is not designed for self-defense, but for domination and aggression. And it is part of what is driving our economy down, along with the favoring of finance over real goods and services.

    We do not need to be discussing marginal advantages in an unwinnable war. We need to be discussing how to end the policy of empire. IMO.

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    Thanks for the Burroughs reference.....

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    The quote is from the album "Waiting for the Electrician or someone like him", side 1, cut 3; "Le Trente-Huit Cunegonde"

  • Kurt Hagadakis (unverified)

    This has been very good for KBR, and I can tell you that we continue to make the policy in Washington, as in the last 8. Think I exaggerate? Trivia question: how many contracts does KBR have and is currently executing, to build mass detention facilities in the US? Yeah, you know where your watersheds are, but has the admin told you where the nearest KBR detention facility is? I have to tell you. We are really liking Obama. Same bottom line, MUCH smoother operation of the machine.

    The War on Drugs is a corporate subsidy, has been since Ford's days. The only drug law you ever repealed was supposed to have torpedoed the candidate from within- so that's a fluke- and corporate America have every provision they've ever asked for.

    Eisenhower warned, and everyone thoroughly rejected- it was BOOORING- about the corporate military and its desire to control the national agenda and mindset. Look around. Try to re-enact what happened outside the REPUBLICAN convention 30 years ago, next month. You'd be locked up as a terrorist.

    Bottom line, as long as you have to pee in a cup to pass a political litmus test that the employer does not even have to demonstrate the validity of, you ain't gonna have our military doing anything rationale overseas. Rationality begins at home, and we are fresh out.

  • Stephen Amy (unverified)


    This is Pepe Escobar's piece, "The Ultimate Prize is Balochistan".

    Seems the eradication of opium in Helmund is merely a precursor to establishing the U.S. military in south Afghanistan and, ultimately, the Balochistan province of Pakistan (where the port-terminus of the natural gas pipeline is to be located).

    Mr. Escobar has quite a mastery of the region. His report has the ring of truth, in my opinion.

  • Stephen Amy (unverified)

    translation: Happy 4th of July, "we" (the U.S.) are, once again, in a long series of such conquests, brutalizing residents of another country in order to access resources.

  • Assegai Up Jacksey (unverified)

    Posted by: Stephen Amy | Jul 4, 2009 3:22:22 PM

    translation: Happy 4th of July, "we" (the U.S.) are, once again, in a long series of such conquests, brutalizing residents of another country in order to access resources.

    Which we will celebrate by gratuitously burning jet fuel and paying military overtime, because...well, you know when you see a chimp beating the ground with a branch?

    He wouldn't be best pleased with my questioning his beating off either.

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