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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

AFGHANISTAN: MIRAGE OF THE GOOD WAR by TARIQ ALI

Tariq Ali


Rarely has there been such an enthusiastic display of international unity as that which greeted the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Support for the war was universal in the chanceries of the West, even before its aims and parameters had been declared. nato governments rushed to assert themselves ‘all for one’. Blair jetted round the world, proselytizing the ‘doctrine of the international community’ and the opportunities for peace-keeping and nation-building in the Hindu Kush. Putin welcomed the extension of American bases along Russia’s southern borders. Every mainstream Western party endorsed the war; every media network—with bbc World and cnn in the lead—became its megaphone. For the German Greens, as for Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, it was a war for the liberation of the women of Afghanistan. [1] For the White House, a fight for civilization. For Iran, the impending defeat of the Wahhabi enemy.

Three years later, as the chaos in Iraq deepened, Afghanistan became the ‘good war’ by comparison. It had been legitimized by the un—even if the resolution was not passed until after the bombs had finished falling—and backed by nato. If tactical differences had sharpened over Iraq, they could be resolved in Afghanistan. First Zapatero, then Prodi, then Rudd, compensated for pulling troops out of Iraq by dispatching them to Kabul. [2] France and Germany could extol their peace-keeping or civilizing roles there. As suicide bombings increased in Baghdad, Afghanistan was now—for American Democrats keen to prove their ‘security’ credentials—the ‘real front’ of the war on terror, supported by every us presidential candidate in the run-up to the 2008 elections, with Senator Obama pressuring the White House to violate Pakistani sovereignty whenever necessary. With varying degrees of firmness, the occupation of Afghanistan was also supported by China, Iran and Russia; though in the case of the latter, there was always a strong element of Schadenfreude. Soviet veterans of the Afghan war were amazed to see their mistakes now being repeated by the United States in a war even more inhumane than its predecessor.

Meanwhile, the number of Afghan civilians killed has exceeded many tens of times over the 2,746 who died in Manhattan. Unemployment is around 60 per cent and maternal, infant and child mortality levels are now among the highest in the world. Opium harvests have soared, and the ‘Neo-Taliban’ is growing stronger year by year. By common consent, Karzai’s government does not even control its own capital, let alone provide an example of ‘good governance’. Reconstruction funds vanish into cronies’ pockets or go to pay short-contract Western consultants. Police are predators rather than protectors. The social crisis is deepening. Increasingly, Western commentators have evoked the spectre of failure—usually in order to spur encore un effort. A Guardian leader summarizes: ‘Defeat looks possible, with all the terrible consequences that will bring.’ [3]

Two principal arguments, often overlapping, are put forward as to ‘what went wrong’ in Afghanistan. For liberal imperialists, the answer can be summarized in two words: ‘not enough’. The invasion organized by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld was done on the cheap. The ‘light footprint’ demanded by the Pentagon meant that there were too few troops on the ground in 2001–02. Financial commitment to ‘state-building’ was insufficient. Though it may now be too late, the answer is to pour in more troops, more money—‘multiple billions’ over ‘multiple years’, according to the us Ambassador in Kabul. [4] The second answer—advanced by Karzai and the White House, but propagated by the Western media generally—can be summed up in one word: Pakistan. Neither of these arguments holds water.

Political failures

True, there was a sense of relief in Kabul when the Taliban’s Wahhabite Emirate was overthrown. Though rape and heroin production had been curtailed under their rule, warlords kept at bay and order largely restored in a country that had been racked by foreign and civil wars since 1979, the end result had been a ruthless social dictatorship with a level of control over the everyday lives of ordinary people that made the clerical regime in Iran appear an island of enlightenment. The Taliban government fell without a serious struggle. Islamabad, officially committed to the us cause, forbade any frontal confrontation. [5] Some Taliban zealots crossed the border into Pakistan, while a more independent faction loyal to Mullah Omar decamped to the mountains to fight another day. Kabul was undefended; the bbc war correspondent entered the capital before the Northern Alliance. What many Afghans now expected from a successor government was a similar level of order, minus the repression and social restrictions, and a freeing of the country’s spirit. What they were instead presented with was a melancholy spectacle that blasted all their hopes.

The problem was not lack of funds but the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process—aiming to construct an army able to suppress its own population but incapable of defending the nation from outside powers; a civil administration with no control over planning or social infrastructure, which are in the hands of Western ngos; and a government whose foreign policy marches in step with Washington’s. It bore no relation to the realities on the ground. After the fall of the Taliban government, four major armed groups re-emerged as strong regional players. In the gas-rich and more industrialized north, bordering the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum was in charge with his capital in Mazar-i-Sharif. Allied first to the Communists, later the Taliban and most recently nato, General Dostum had demonstrated his latest loyalty by massacring 2–3,000 Taliban and Arab prisoners under the approving gaze of us intelligence personnel in December 2001.

Not too far from Dostum, in the mountainous north-east of the country, a region rich in emeralds, lapis lazuli and opium, the late Ahmed Shah Masoud had built a fighting organization of Tajiks, who regularly ambushed troops on the Salang Highway that linked Kabul to Tashkent during the Soviet occupation. Masoud had been the leader of the armed wing of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, which operated in tandem with an allied Islamist leader, Abd al-Rabb Sayyaf (both men were lecturers in sharia at the law faculty of Kabul University in 1973, where these movements were incubated). Until 1993 they were funded by Saudi Arabia, after which the latter gradually shifted its support to the Taliban. Masoud maintained a semi-independence during the Taliban period, up to his death on 9 September 2001. [6] Masoud’s supporters are currently in the government, but are not considered one hundred per cent reliable as far as nato is concerned.

To the west, sheltered by neighbouring Iran, lies the ancient city of Herat, once a centre of learning and culture where poets, artists and scholars flourished. Among the important works illustrated here over the course of three centuries was a 15th-century version of the classic Miraj-nameh, an early medieval account of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven from the Dome of the Rock and the punishments he observed as he passed through hell. [7] In modern Herat, the Shia warlord Ismail Khan holds sway. A former army captain inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ismail achieved instant fame by leading a garrison revolt against the pro-Moscow regime in 1979. Backed by Teheran he built up a strong force that united all the Shia groups and were to trouble the Russians throughout their stay. Tens of thousands of refugees from this region (where a Persian dialect is the spoken language) were given work, shelter and training in Iran. From 1992–95, the province was run on authoritarian lines. It was a harsh regime: Ismail Khan’s half-witted effrontery soon began to alienate his allies, while his high-tax and forced conscription policies angered peasant families. By the time the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996, support had already drained away from the warlord. Herat fell without a struggle, and Ismail was imprisoned by the Taliban, only escaping in March 2000. His supporters meanwhile crossed the border to Iran where they bided their time, to return in October 2001 under nato cover.

The south was another story again. The Pashtun villages bore the brunt of the fighting during the 1980s and 90s. [8] Rapid population growth, coupled with the disruptions of war and the resulting loss of livestock, hastened the collapse of the subsistence economy. In many districts this was replaced by poppy cultivation and the rule of local bandits and strongmen. By the early 1990s, three militant Sunni groups had acquired dominance in the region: the Taliban, the group led by Ahmed Shah Masoud from the Panjsher province, and the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once Pakistan’s favourite, who had been groomed by the Saudis as the new leader. The jihad was long over, and now the jihadis were at each other’s throats, with control of the drug trade the major stake in a brutal power struggle. Under Benazir Bhutto’s second premiership, Pakistan’s military backing for the Taliban proved decisive. But the overthrow of the Mullah Omar government in the winter of 2001 saw the re-emergence of many of the local gangsters whose predations it had partly checked.

Anointment of Karzai

Washington assigned the task of assembling a new government to Zalmay Khalilzad, its Afghan-American pro-consul in Kabul. The capital was occupied by competing militias, united only by opposition to the toppled Taliban, and their representatives had to be accommodated on every level. The Northern Alliance candidate for president, Abdul Haq of Jalalabad, had conveniently been captured and executed in October 2001 by the Taliban when he entered the country with a small group from Pakistan. (His supporters alleged betrayal by the cia and the isi, who were unhappy about his links to Russia and Iran, and tipped off Mullah Omar.) Another obvious anti-Taliban candidate was Ahmed Shah Masoud; but he had also been killed—by a suicide bomber of unknown provenance—two days before 9.11. Masoud would no doubt have been the eu choice for Afghan president, had he lived; the French government issued a postage stamp with his portrait, and Kabul airport bears his name. Whether he would have proved as reliable a client as Khalilzad’s transplanted protégé, Hamid Karzai, must now remain an open question.

Aware that the us could not run the country without the Northern Alliance and its backers in Teheran and Moscow, Khalilzad toned down the emancipatory rhetoric and concentrated on the serious business of occupation. The coalition he constructed resembled a blind octopus, with mainly Tajik limbs and Karzai as its unseeing eye. The Afghan president comes from the Durrani tribe of Pashtuns from Kandahar. His father had served in a junior capacity in Zahir Shah’s government. Young Karzai backed the mujaheddin against Russia and later supported the Taliban, though he turned down their offer to become Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the un, preferring to relocate and work for unocal. Here he backed up Khalilzad, who was then representing CentGas in their bid to construct a pipeline that would take gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. [9]

After his appointment as interim president, the Saudi daily Al-Watan published a revealing profile of Karzai, stating that he had been a cia pawn since the 80s, with his status on the Afghan chessboard enhanced every few years:

Since then, Karzai’s ties with the Americans have not been interrupted. At the same time, he established ties with the British and other European and international sides, especially after he became deputy foreign minister in 1992 in the wake of the Afghan mujaheddin’s assumption of power and the overthrow of the pro-Moscow Najibullah regime. Karzai found no contradiction between his ties with the Americans and his support for the Taliban movement as of 1994, when the Americans had—secretly and through the Pakistanis—supported the Taliban’s assumption of power to put an end to the civil war and the actual partition of Afghanistan due to the failure of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s experience in ruling the country. [10]

Karzai was duly installed in December 2001, but intimacy with us intelligence networks failed to translate into authority or legitimacy at home. Karzai harboured no illusions about his popularity in the country. He knew his biological and political life was heavily dependent on the occupation and demanded a bodyguard of us Marines or American mercenaries, rather than a security detail from his own ethnic Pashtun base. [11] There were at least three coup attempts against him in 2002–03 by his Northern Alliance allies; these were fought off by the isaf, which was largely tied down in assuring Karzai’s security—while also providing a vivid illustration of where his support lay. [12] A quick-fix presidential contest organized at great expense by Western pr firms in October 2004—just in time for the us elections—failed to bolster support for the puppet president inside the country. Karzai’s habit of parachuting his relatives and protégés into provincial governor or police chief jobs has driven many local communities into alliance with the Taliban, as the main anti-government force. In Zabul, Helmand and elsewhere, all the insurgents had to do was ‘approach the victims of the pro-Karzai strongmen and promise them protection and support. Attempts by local elders to seek protection in Kabul routinely ended nowhere, as the wrongdoers enjoyed either direct us support or Karzai’s sympathy.’ [13]

Nor is it any secret that Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, has now become one of the richest drug barons in the country. At a meeting with Pakistan’s president in 2005, when Karzai was bleating about Pakistan’s inability to stop cross-border smuggling, Musharraf suggested that perhaps Karzai should set an example by bringing his sibling under control. (The hatred for each other of these two close allies of Washington is well known in the region.)

New inequalities

Also feeding the resentment is the behaviour of a new elite clustered around Karzai and the occupying forces, which has specialized in creaming off foreign aid to create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage. The corruptions of this layer grow each month like an untreated tumour. Western funds are siphoned off to build fancy homes for the native enforcers. Housing scandals erupted as early as 2002, when cabinet ministers awarded themselves and favoured cronies prime real estate in Kabul where land prices were rocketing, since the occupiers and their camp followers had to live in the style to which they were accustomed. Karzai’s colleagues, protected by isaf troops, built their large villas in full view of the mud-brick hovels of the poor. The burgeoning slum settlements of Kabul, where the population has now swollen to an estimated 3 million, are a measure of the social crisis that has engulfed the country.
The ancient city has suffered cruelly over the past thirty years. Jade Maiwand, the modernized ‘Oxford Street’ cut through the centre in the 1970s, was reduced to rubble during the warfare of 1992–96. An American-Afghan architect describes how Kabul has been relentlessly transformed:

from a modern capital, to the military and political headquarters of an invading army, to the besieged seat of power of a puppet regime, to the front lines of factional conflict resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of its urban mass, to the testing fields of religious fanaticism which erased from the city the final layers of urban life, to the target of an international war on terrorism. [14]

Yet never have such gaping inequalities featured on this scale before. Little of the supposed $19 billion ‘aid and reconstruction’ money has reached the majority of Afghans. The mains electricity supply is worse now than five years ago, and while the rich can use private generators to power their air conditioners, hot-water heaters, computers and satellite tvs, average Kabulis ‘suffered a summer without fans and face a winter without heaters.’ [15] As a result, hundreds of shelterless Afghans are literally freezing to death each winter.

Then there are the ngos who descended on the country like locusts after the occupation. As one observer reports:

A reputed 10,000 ngo staff have turned Kabul into the Klondike during the gold rush, building office blocks, driving up rents, cruising about in armoured jeeps and spending stupefying sums of other people’s money, essentially on themselves. They take orders only from some distant agency, but then the same goes for the American army, nato, the un, the eu and the supposedly sovereign Afghan government. [16]

Even supporters of the occupation have lost patience with these bodies, and some of the most successful candidates in the 2005 National Assembly elections made an attack on them a centre-piece of their campaigns. Worse, according to one us specialist, ‘their well-funded activities highlighted the poverty and ineffectiveness of the civil administration and discredited its local representatives in the eyes of the local populace.’ [17] Unsurprisingly, ngo employees began to be targeted by the insurgents, including in the north, and had to hire mercenary protection.

In sum: even in the estimate of the West’s own specialists and institutions, ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan has been flawed in its very conception. It has so far produced a puppet president dependent for his survival on foreign mercenaries, a corrupt and abusive police force, a ‘non-functioning’ judiciary, a thriving criminal layer and a deepening social and economic crisis. It beggars belief to argue that ‘more of this’ will be the answer to Afghanistan’s problems.

An Afghan surge?

The argument that more nato troops are the solution is equally unsustainable. All the evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban. American air power, lovingly referred to as ‘Big Daddy’ by frightened us soldiers on unwelcome terrain, is far from paternal when it comes to targeting Pashtun villages. There is widespread fury among Afghans at the number of civilian casualties, many of them children. There have been numerous incidents of rape and rough treatment of women by isaf soldiers, as well as indiscriminate bombing of villages and house-to-house search-and-arrest missions. The behaviour of the foreign mercenaries backing up the nato forces is just as bad. Even sympathetic observers admit that ‘their alcohol consumption and patronage of a growing number of brothels in Kabul . . . is arousing public anger and resentment.’ [18] To this could be added the deaths by torture at the us-run Bagram prison and the resuscitation of a Soviet-era security law under which detainees are being sentenced to 20-year jail terms on the basis of summary allegations by us military authorities. All this creates a thirst for dignity that can only be assuaged by genuine independence.

Talk of ‘victory’ sounds increasingly hollow to Afghan ears. Many who detest the Taliban are so angered by the failures of nato and the behaviour of its troops that they are pleased there is some opposition. What was initially viewed by some locals as a necessary police action against al-Qaeda following the 9.11 attacks is now perceived by a growing majority in the region as a fully fledged imperial occupation. Successive recent reports have suggested that the unpopularity of the government and the ‘disrespectful’ behaviour of the occupying troops have had the effect of creating nostalgia for the time when the Taliban were in power. The repression leaves people with no option but to back those trying to resist, especially in a part of the world where the culture of revenge is strong. When a whole community feels threatened it reinforces solidarity, regardless of the character or weakness of those who fight back. This does not just apply to the countryside. The mass protests in Kabul, when civilians were killed by an American military vehicle, signalled the obvious targets:

Rioters chanted slogans against the United States and President Karzai and attacked the Parliament building, the offices of media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, diplomatic residences, brothels, and hotels and restaurants that purportedly served alcohol. The police, many of whom disappeared, proved incompetent, and the vulnerability of the government to mass violence became clear. [19]

As the British and Russians discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans do not like being occupied. If a second-generation Taliban is now growing and creating new alliances it is not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular, but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation. Initially, the middle-cadre Taliban who fled across the border in November 2001 and started low-level guerrilla activity the following year attracted only a trickle of new recruits from madrasas and refugee camps. From 2004 onwards, increasing numbers of young Waziris were radicalized by Pakistani military and police incursions in the tribal areas, as well as devastating attacks on villages by unmanned us ‘drones’. At the same time, the movement was starting to win active support from village mullahs in Zabul, Helmand, Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces, and then in the towns. By 2006 there were reports of Kabul mullahs who had previously supported Karzai’s allies but were now railing against the foreigners and the government; calls for jihad against the occupiers were heard in the north-east border provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan.

The largest pool for new Taliban recruits, according to a well-informed recent estimate, has been ‘communities antagonized by the local authorities and security forces’. In Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan, Karzai’s cronies—district and provincial governors, security bosses, police chiefs—are quite prepared to tip off us troops against their local rivals, as well as subjecting the latter to harassment and extortion. In these circumstances, the Taliban are the only available defence. (According to the same report, the Taliban themselves have claimed that families driven into refugee camps by indiscriminate us airpower attacks on their villages have been their major source of recruits.) By 2006 the movement was winning the support of traders and businessmen in Kandahar, and led a mini ‘Tet offensive’ there that year. One reason suggested for their increasing support in towns is that the new-model Taliban have relaxed their religious strictures, for males at least—no longer demanding beards or banning music—and improved their propaganda: producing cassette tapes and cds of popular singers, and dvds of us and Israeli atrocities in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. [20]

The re-emergence of the Taliban cannot therefore simply be blamed on Islamabad’s failure to police the border, or cut ‘command and control’ links, as the Americans claim. While the isi played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to power in 1996 and in the retreat of 2001, they no longer have the same degree of control over a more diffuse and widespread movement, for which the occupation itself has been the main recruiting sergeant. It is a traditional colonial ploy to blame ‘outsiders’ for internal problems: Karzai specializes in this approach. If anything, the destabilization functions in the other direction: the war in Afghanistan has created a critical situation in two Pakistani frontier provinces, and the use of the Pakistan army by Centcom has resulted in suicide terrorism in Lahore, where the Federal Investigation Agency and the Naval War College have been targeted by supporters of the Afghan insurgents. The Pashtun majority in Afghanistan has always had close links to its fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan. The present border was an imposition by the British Empire, but it has always remained porous. It is virtually impossible to build a Texan fence or an Israeli wall across the mountainous and largely unmarked 1,500-mile frontier that separates the two countries.

Older models

The current occupation of Afghanistan naturally recalls colonial operations in the region, not just to Afghans but to some Western myth-makers—usually British, but with a few Subcontinental mimics—who try to draw lessons from the older model; the implication being that the British were ‘good imperialists’ who have a great deal to teach the brutish, impatient Americans. The British administrators were, for the most part, racist to the core, and their self-proclaimed ‘competence’ involved the efficient imposition of social apartheid in every colony they controlled. They could be equally brutal in Africa, the Middle East and India. Though a promise of civilizational uplift was required as ideological justification, then as now, the facts of the colonial legacy speak for themselves. In 1947, the year the British left India, the overwhelming majority of midnight’s children were illiterate, and 85 per cent of the economy was rural. [21]

Not bad intentions or botched initiatives, but the imperial presence itself was the problem. Kipling is much quoted today by editorialists urging a bigger Western ‘footprint’ in Afghanistan, but even he was fully aware of the hatred felt by the Pashtuns for the British, and wrote as much in one of his last despatches from Peshawar in April 1885 to the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore:

Pathans, Afridis, Logas, Kohistanis, Turcomans and a hundred other varieties of the turbulent Afghan race, are gathered in the vast human menagerie between the Edwardes Gate and the Ghor Khutri. As an Englishman passes, they will turn to scowl on him, and in many cases to spit fluently on the ground after he has passed. One burly, big-paunched ruffian, with shaven head and a neck creased and dimpled with rolls of fat, is specially zealous in this religious rite—contenting himself with no perfunctory performance, but with a whole-souled expectoration, that must be as refreshing to his comrades as it is disgusting to the European.

One reason among many for the Pashtuns’ historic resentment was the torching of the famous bazaar in Kabul, a triumph of Mughal architecture. Ali Mardan Khan, a renowned governor, architect and engineer, had built the chahr-chatta (four-sided) roofed and arcaded central market in the 17th century on the model of those in old Euro-Arabian Muslim cities—Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Palermo or Córdoba. It was regarded as unique in the region; nothing on the same scale was built in Lahore or Delhi. The bazaar was deliberately destroyed in 1842 by General Pollock’s ‘Army of Retribution’, remembered as amongst the worst killers, looters and marauders ever to arrive in Afghanistan, a contest in which competition remains strong. Defeated in a number of cities and forced to evacuate Kabul, the British punished its citizens by removing the market from the map. What will remain of Kabul when the current occupiers finally withdraw is yet to be seen, but its spreading mass of deeply impoverished squatter settlements suggest that it is set to be one of the major new capitals of the ‘planet of slums’. [22]

The Western occupation of Afghanistan is now confronted with five seemingly intractable, interrelated problems. The systemic failures of its nation-building strategy, the corruption of its local agents, the growing alienation of large sectors of the population and the strengthening of armed resistance are all compounded by the distortions wrought by the opium-heroin industry on the country’s economy. According to un estimates, narcotics account for 53 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, and the poppy fields continue to spread. Some 90 per cent of the world opium supply emanates from Afghanistan. Since 2003 the nato mission has made no serious attempt to bring about a reduction in this lucrative trade. Karzai’s own supporters would rapidly desert if their activities in this sphere were disrupted, and the amount of state help needed over many years to boost agriculture and cottage industries and reduce dependence on poppy farming would require an entirely different set of priorities. Only a surreal utopian could expect nato countries, busy privatizing and deregulating their own economies, to embark upon full-scale national-development projects abroad.

NATO’s goals

It need hardly be added that the bombardment and occupation of Afghanistan has been a disastrous—and predictable—failure in capturing the perpetrators of 9.11. This could only have been the result of effective police work; not of international war and military occupation. Everything that has happened in Afghanistan since 2001—not to mention Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon—has had the opposite effect, as the West’s own intelligence reports have repeatedly confirmed. According to the official 9.11 Commission report, Mullah Omar’s initial response to Washington’s demands that Osama Bin Laden be handed over and al-Qaeda deprived of a safe haven was ‘not negative’; he himself had opposed any al-Qaeda attack on us targets. [23] But while the Mullah was playing for time, the White House closed down negotiations. It required a swift war of revenge. Afghanistan had been denominated the first port of call in the ‘global war on terror’, with Iraq already the Administration’s main target. The shock-and-awe six-week aerial onslaught that followed was merely a drumroll for the forthcoming intervention in Iraq, with no military rationale in Afghanistan. Predictably, it only gave al-Qaeda leaders the chance to vanish into the hills. To portray the invasion as a ‘war of self-defence’ for nato makes a mockery of international law, which was perverted to twist a flukishly successful attack by a tiny, terrorist Arab groupuscule into an excuse for an open-ended American military thrust into the Middle East and Central Eurasia.

Herein lie the reasons for the near-unanimity among Western opinion-makers that the occupation must not only continue but expand—‘many billions over many years’. They are to be sought not in the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, but in Washington and Brussels. As the Economist summarizes, ‘Defeat would be a body blow not only to the Afghans, but’—and more importantly, of course—‘to the nato alliance’. [24] As ever, geopolitics prevails over Afghan interests in the calculus of the big powers. The basing agreement signed by the us with its appointee in Kabul in May 2005 gives the Pentagon the right to maintain a massive military presence in Afghanistan in perpetuity, potentially including nuclear missiles. That Washington is not seeking permanent bases in this fraught and inhospitable terrain simply for the sake of ‘democratization and good governance’ was made clear by nato’s Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the Brookings Institution in February this year: a permanent nato presence in a country that borders the ex-Soviet republics, China, Iran and Pakistan was too good to miss. [25]

More strategically, Afghanistan has become a central theatre for reconstituting, and extending, the West’s power-political grip on the world order. It provides, first, an opportunity for the us to shrug off problems in persuading its allies to play a broader role in Iraq. As Obama and Clinton have stressed, America and its allies ‘have greater unity of purpose in Afghanistan. The ultimate outcome of nato’s effort to stabilize Afghanistan and us leadership of that effort may well affect the cohesiveness of the alliance and Washington’s ability to shape nato’s future.’ [26] Beyond this, it is the rise of China that has prompted nato strategists to propose a vastly expanded role for the Western military alliance. Once focused on the Euro-Atlantic area, a recent essay in nato Review suggests, ‘in the 21st century nato must become an alliance founded on the Euro-Atlantic area, designed to project systemic stability beyond its borders’:

The centre of gravity of power on this planet is moving inexorably eastward . . . The Asia-Pacific region brings much that is dynamic and positive to this world, but as yet the rapid change therein is neither stable nor embedded in stable institutions. Until this is achieved, it is the strategic responsibility of Europeans and North Americans, and the institutions they have built, to lead the way . . . security effectiveness in such a world is impossible without both legitimacy and capability. [27]

The only way to protect the international system the West has built, the author continues, is to ‘re-energize’ the transatlantic relationship: ‘There can be no systemic security without Asian security, and there will be no Asian security without a strong role for the West therein.’
These ambitions have yet to be realized. In Afghanistan there were angry street demonstrations against Karzai’s signing of the us bases agreement—a clear indication, if one was still needed, that nato will have to take Karzai with them if they withdraw. Uzbekistan responded by asking the United States to withdraw its base and personnel from their country. The Russians and Chinese are reported to have protested strongly in private, and subsequently conducted joint military operations on each other’s territory for the first time: ‘concern over apparent us plans for permanent bases in Afghanistan and Central Asia’ was an important cause of their rapprochement. [28] More limply, Iran responded by increasing export duties, bringing construction in Herat to a halt. [29]

There are at least two routes out of the Khyber impasse. The first and worst would be to Balkanize the country. This appears to be the dominant pattern of imperial hegemony at the moment, but whereas the Kurds in Iraq and the Kosovars and others in the former Yugoslavia were willing client-nationalists, the likelihood of Tajiks or Hazaras playing this role effectively is more remote in Afghanistan. Some us intelligence officers have been informally discussing the creation of a Pashtun state that unites the tribes and dissolves the Durand Line, but this would destabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan to such a degree that the consequences would be unpredictable. In any event there appear to be no takers in either country at the moment.
The alternative would require a withdrawal of all us forces, either preceded or followed by a regional pact to guarantee Afghan stability for the next ten years. Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia and, possibly, China could guarantee and support a functioning national government, pledged to preserve the ethnic and religious diversity of Afghanistan and create a space in which all its citizens can breathe, think and eat every day. It would need a serious social and economic plan to rebuild the country and provide the basic necessities for its people. This would not only be in the interests of Afghanistan, it would be seen as such by its people—physically, politically and morally exhausted by decades of war and two occupations. Violence, arbitrary or deliberate, has been their fate for too long. They want the nightmare to end and not be replaced with horrors of a different kind. Religious extremists would get short shrift from the people if they disrupted an agreed peace and began a jihad to recreate the Taliban Emirate of Mullah Omar.

The us occupation has not made this task easy. Its predictable failures have revived the Taliban, and increasingly the Pashtuns are uniting behind them. But though the Taliban have been entirely conflated with al-Qaeda in the Western media, most of their supporters are driven by local concerns; their political evolution would be more likely to parallel that of Pakistan’s domesticated Islamists if the invaders were to leave. A nato withdrawal could facilitate a serious peace process. It might also benefit Pakistan, provided its military leaders abandoned foolish notions of ‘strategic depth’ and viewed India not as an enemy but as a possible partner in creating a cohesive regional framework within which many contentious issues could be resolved. Are Pakistan’s military leaders and politicians capable of grasping the nettle and moving their country forward? Will Washington let them? The solution is political, not military. And it lies in the region, not in Washington or Brussels.

Editorial New Left Review March-April 2008


[1] In fact, the only period in Afghan history where women were granted equal rights and educated was from 1979–89, the decade it was ruled by the pdpa, backed by Soviet troops. Repressive in many ways, on the health and education fronts real progress was achieved, as in Iraq under Saddam. Hence the nostalgia for the past amongst poorer sections of society in both countries.

[2] Visiting Madrid after Zapatero’s election triumph of March 2008, I was informed by a senior government official that they had considered a total withdrawal from Afghanistan a few months before the polls but had been outmanoeuvred by the us promising Spain that the head of its military would be proposed for commander of the nato forces, and a withdrawal from Kabul would disrupt this possibility. Spain drew back, only to discover it had been tricked.

[3] ‘Failing State’, Guardian, 1 February 2008; see also ‘The Good War, Still to Be Won’ and ‘Gates, Truth and Afghanistan’, New York Times, 20 August 2007 and 12 February 2008; ‘Must they be wars without end?’, Economist, 13 December 2007; International Crisis Group, ‘Combating Afghanistan’s Insurgency’, 2 November 2006.

[4] New York Times, 5 November 2006.

[5] Pakistan’s key role in securing this ‘victory’ was underplayed in the Western media at the time. The public was told that it was elite Special Forces units and cia ‘specialists’ that had liberated Afghanistan; having triumphed here they could now be sent on to Iraq.

[6] Masoud had been a favourite pin-up in Paris during the Soviet–Afghan war, usually portrayed as a ruggedly romantic, anti-Communist Che Guevara. His membership of Rabbani’s Islamist group and reactionary views on most social issues were barely mentioned. But if he had presented an image of incorruptible masculinity to his supporters in the West, it was not the same at home. Rape and the heroin trade were not uncommon in areas under his control.

[7] The stunning illustrations were exquisitely calligraphed by Malik Bakshi in the Uighur script. There are 61 paintings in all, created with great love for the Prophet of Islam. He is depicted with Central Asian features and seen flying to heaven on a magical steed with a woman’s head. There are also illustrations of a meeting with Gabriel and Adam, a sighting of houris at the gates of Paradise, and of winebibbers being punished in hell. European scholars have suggested that an early Latin translation of the poem may have been a source of inspiration for Dante.

[8] Afghanistan’s ethnography has generated a highly politicized statistical debate. The 6-year survey carried out by a Norwegian foundation is probably the most accurate. This suggests that Pashtuns make up an estimated 63 per cent of the population, along with the mainly Persian-speaking Tajiks (12 per cent), Uzbeks (9 per cent) and the mainly Shia Hazaras (6 per cent): wak Foundation, Norway 1999. The cia Factbook, by contrast, gives 42, 27, 9 and 9 per cent respectively. The tiny non-Muslim minority of Hindus and Sikhs, mainly shopkeepers and traders in Kabul, were displaced by the Taliban; some were killed, and thousands fled to India.

[9] The CentGas consortium, incorporated in 1997, included unocal, Gazprom, Hyundai and oil companies from Saudi Arabia, Japan and Pakistan. In late 1997 a Taliban delegation received full honours when they visited unocal hq, hoping to sign the £2bn pipeline contract. According to the Sunday Telegraph (‘Oil Barons Court Taliban in Texas’, 14 December 1997): ‘the Islamic warriors appear to have been persuaded to close the deal, not through delicate negotiation but by old-fashioned Texan hospitality. Dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, Afghan waistcoats and loose, black turbans, the high-ranking delegation was given vip treatment during the four-day stay.’ The project was suspended in 1998, as the Taliban were split on whom to award the pipeline project to: Mullah Rabbani preferred the offer from the Argentine company Bridas, while Mullah Omar was strongly in favour of the American-led deal. But us–Taliban contacts continued till mid-2001 both in Islamabad and New York, where the Taliban maintained a ‘diplomatic office’ headed by Abdul Hakim Mojahed.

[10] bbc Monitoring Service, 15 December 2001.

[11] The late Benazir Bhutto made the same request for American protection on her return to Pakistan, but in her case it was vetoed by Islamabad.

[12] Barry McCaffrey, ‘Trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan’, us Military Academy Memorandum, West Point, ny 2006, p. 8.

[13] Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: the Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, London 2007, p. 60. The corruption and brutality of the newly established Afghan National Police is also widely credited with turning the population against the Karzai government.

[14] Ajmal Maiwandi, ‘Re-Doing Kabul’, presented at lse, 11 July 2002.

[15] Barnett Rubin, ‘Saving Afghanistan’, Foreign Affairs, January–February 2007.

[16] Simon Jenkins, ‘It takes inane optimism to see victory in Afghanistan’, Guardian, 8 August 2007.

[17] S. Frederick Starr, ‘Sovereignty and Legitimacy in Afghan Nation-Building’, in Fukuyama, ed., Nation-Building Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, Baltimore 2006, p. 117.

[18] Barnett Rubin, ‘Proposals for Improved Stability in Afghanistan’, in Ivo Daalder et al, eds, Crescent of Crisis: us–European Strategy for the Greater Middle East, Washington, dc 2006, p. 149.

[19] Rubin, ‘Saving Afghanistan’.

[20] Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, pp. 42, 69.

[21] ‘Per capita income was about one-twentieth of the level then attained in developed countries . . . Illiteracy was a high 84 per cent and the majority (60 per cent) of children in the 6 to 11 age-group did not attend school; mass communicable diseases (malaria, smallpox and cholera) were widespread and, in the absence of a good public health service and sanitation, mortality rates (27 per 1,000) were very high.’ Dharma Kumar and Meghnad Desai, eds, Cambridge Economic History of India, vol. II: c.1757–c.1970, Cambridge 1983, p. 23.

[22] Mike Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, nlr 26, March–April 2004, p. 13.

[23] The 9.11 Commission Report, New York 2004, pp. 333–4; 251–2.

[24] ‘Must they be wars without end?’.

[25] ‘Afghanistan and nato: Forging the 21st Century Alliance’, 29 February 2008; available on Brookings website.

[26] Paul Gallis, ‘nato in Afghanistan’, crs Report for Congress, 23 October 2007.

[27] Julian Lindley-French, ‘Big World, Big Future, Big nato’, nato Review, Winter 2005.

[28] Rubin, ‘Proposals for Improved Stability in Afghanistan’.

[29] In response to Karzai’s pleas, Teheran proposed a treaty that would prohibit foreign intelligence operations in each country against the other; hard to see how Karzai could have signed this with a straight face.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Latin America: the hidden war on democracy by John Pilger


In an article for the New Statesman, John Pilger argues that an unreported war is being waged by the United States, and Britain, to restore power to the privileged classes at the expense of the majority. 24 April 2008

Beyond the sound and fury of its conquest of Iraq and campaign against Iran, the world’s dominant power is waging a largely unreported war on another continent – Latin America. Using proxies, Washington aims to restore and reinforce the political control of a privileged group calling itself middle-class, to shift the responsibility for massacres and drug trafficking away from the psychotic regime in Colombia and its mafiosi, and to extinguish hopes raised among Latin America’s impoverished majority by the reform governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

In Colombia, the main battleground, the class nature of the war is distorted by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the Farc, whose own resort to kidnapping and the drugs trade has provided an instrument with which to smear those who have distinguished Latin America’s epic history of rebellion by opposing the proto-fascism of George W Bush’s regime. “You don’t fight terror with terror,” said President Hugo Chávez as US warplanes bombed to death thousands of civilians in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Thereafter, he was a marked man. Yet, as every poll has shown, he spoke for the great majority of human beings who have grasped that the “war on terror” is a crusade of domination.

Almost alone among national leaders standing up to Bush, Chávez was declared an enemy and his plans for a functioning social democracy independent of the United States a threat to Washington’s grip on Latin America. “Even worse,” wrote the Latin America specialist James Petras, “Chávez’s nationalist policies represented an alternative in Latin America at a time (2000-2003) when mass insurrections, popular uprisings and the collapse of pro-US client rulers (Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia) were constant front-page news.

”It is impossible to underestimate the threat of this alternative as perceived by the “middle classes” in countries which have such an abundance of privilege and poverty. In Venezuela, their “grotesque fantasies of being ruled by a ‘brutal communist dictator’”, to quote Petras, are reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South Africa’s apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as a “monkey”.

This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism, public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role – acknowledged by one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Chávez in 2002. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “The media were our secret weapon.”

Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being “on the left”. This is not surprising. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo, resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular sovereignty was anathema, and still is.

Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite “public” Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper and “middle” classes. These and other elite students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.

With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to understand why. One of Chávez’s first acts was to revitalise the oil producers’ organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels. At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela’s new wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina’s, and, in effect, expelled the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once ruled. He has cut poverty by half – while GDP has risen dramatically. Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their lives would improve.

The irony is that, unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, he presented no real threat to the well-off, who have grown richer under his presidency. What he has demonstrated is that a social democracy can prosper and reach out to its poor with genuine welfare, and without the extremes of “neoliberalism” – a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the British Labour Party. Those ordinary Venezuelans who abstained during last year’s constitutional referendum were protesting that a “moderate” social democracy was not enough while the bureaucrats remained corrupt and the sewers overflowed. This critique of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" from the barrios was drowned in the Venezuelan and foreign media's unrelenting propaganda that he was planning a dictatorship.

Across the border in Colombia, the US has made Venezuela’s neighbour the Israel of Latin America. Under “Plan Colombia”, more than $6bn in arms, planes, special forces, mercenaries and logistics have been showered on some of the most murderous people on earth: the inheritors of Pinochet’s Chile and the other juntas that terrorised Latin America for a generation, their various gestapos trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. “We not only taught them how to torture,” a former American trainer told me, “we taught them how to kill, murder, eliminate.” That remains true of Colombia, where government-inspired mass terror has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others.

In a study of 31,656 extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances between 1996 and 2006, the Colombian Commission of Jurists found that 46 per cent had been murdered by right-wing death squads and 14 per cent by Farc guerrillas. The paramilitaries were responsible for most of the three million victims of internal displacement. This misery is a product of Plan Colombia’s pseudo “war on drugs”, whose real purpose has been to eliminate the Farc. To that goal has now been added a war of attrition on the new popular democracies, especially Venezuela.US special forces “advise” the Colombian military to cross the border into Venezuela and murder and kidnap its citizens and infiltrate paramilitaries, and so test the loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces. The model is the CIA-run Contra campaign in Honduras in the 1980s that brought down the reformist government in Nicaragua.

The defeat of the Farc is now seen as a prelude to an all-out attack on Venezuela if the Venezuelan elite – reinvigorated by its narrow referendum victory last year – broadens its base in state and local government elections in November.America’s man and Colombia’s Pinochet is President Álvaro Uribe. In 1991, a declassified report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency revealed the then Senator Uribe as having “worked for the Medellín Cartel” as a “close personal friend” of the cartel’s drugs baron, Pablo Escobar. To date, 62 of his political allies have been investigated for close collaboration with paramilitaries and their death squads. A feature of his rule has been the fate of journalists who have illuminated his shadows. Last year, four leading journalists received death threats after criticising Uribe. Since 2002, at least 31 journalists have been assassinated in Colombia. Uribe’s other habit is smearing trade unions and human rights workers as “collaborators with the Farc”.

This marks them. Colombia’s death squads, wrote Jenny Pearce, author of the acclaimed Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (1982), “are increasingly active, confident that the president has been so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little attention will shift to their atrocities”.

Uribe was personally championed by Tony Blair, reflecting Britain’s long-standing, mostly secret role in Latin America. “Counter-insurgency assistance” to the Colombian military, up to its neck in death-squad alliances, includes training by the SAS of units such as the High Mountain Battalions, condemned repeatedly for atrocities. On 8 March, Colombian officers were invited by the Foreign Office to a “counter-insurgency seminar” at the Wilton Park conference centre in southern England. Rarely has the Foreign Office so brazenly paraded the killers it mentors.

The western media’s role follows earlier models, such as the campaigns that cleared the way for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the credibility given to lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The softening-up for an attack on Venezuela is well under way, with the repetition of similar lies and smears.On 3 February, the London Observer devoted two pages to claims that Chávez was colluding in the Colombian drugs trade. Similarly to the paper’s notorious bogus scares linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, the Observer’s headline read, “Revealed: Chávez role in cocaine trail to Europe”. Allegations were unsubstantiated; hearsay uncorroborated. No source was identified. Indeed, the reporter, clearly trying to cover himself, wrote: “No source I spoke to accused Chávez himself of having a direct role in Colombia’s giant drug trafficking business.”

In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that Venezuela is fully participating in international anti-drugs programmes and in 2005 seized the third-highest amount of cocaine in the world. Even the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has referred to “Venezuela’s tremendous co-operation”. The drugs smear has recently been reinforced with reports that Chávez has an “increasingly public alliance [with] the Farc” (see “Dangerous liaisons”, New Statesman, 14 April). Again, there is “no evidence”, says the secretary general of the Organisation of American States.
At Uribe’s request, and backed by the French government, Chávez played a mediating role in seeking the release of hostages held by the Farc. On 1 March, the negotiations were betrayed by Uribe who, with US logistical assistance, fired missiles at a camp in Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, the Farc’s highest-level negotiator. An “email” recovered from Reyes’s laptop is said by the Colombian military to show that the Farc has received $300m from Chávez. The allegation is fake. The actual document refers only to Chávez in relation to the hostage exchange. On 14 April, Chávez angrily criticised the Farc. “If I were a guerrilla,” he said, “I wouldn’t have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren’t soldiers. Free the civilians!”

However, these fantasies have lethal purpose. On 10 March, the Bush administration announced that it had begun the process of placing Venezuela’s popular democracy on a list of “terrorist states”, along with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the last of which is currently awaiting attack by the world’s leading terrorist state.

US Election, The Wages of Left Capitulation By PETER CAMEJO

Peter Camejo and Ralph Nader in 2004

I was stunned to see Medea Benjamin complaining to the Nader/Gonzalez campaign because the campaign had used the word "shameful" in referring to "progressive" Democrats who had supported the pro-war, pro-Patriot Act, anti-labor, and anti-environmental candidate John Kerry in 2004.

I have great personal admiration for Medea Benjamin for many of the stands and actions she has taken through the years. But her capitulation to the Democratic Party has been truly disappointing.Medea Benjamin eventually joined the "progressive" Democrats and has become an active supporter of the Democratic Party.

Without the Democratic Party's support, Bush's war policies could never have been implemented. The Democrats voted in Congress a resolution that included the phrase, "unequivocal support for George Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq."

They have voted for all the funding requests for the war in Iraq. In 2005 at the State of Union address, the entire Congress, with few if any exceptions, gave George Bush 39 standing ovations in one hour. They rose to their feet and applauded every time Bush used the word Iraq even before he finished his sentence.

Of course this is nothing new for the Democratic Party. This is the Party of human slavery, of the Jim Crow of 5,000 lynchings, of fighting the right of women to vote, and of imprisoning Japanese Americans in camps.

This is the Party that launched a war of mass murder killing two million Vietnamese as the "peace" party in the 1960s. It is the party that has supported the destruction of the trade unions, lowered taxes for the rich -- while raising them for the poor. The Democrats voted 98% in favor of the Patriot Act in the Senate without reading it.
Earlier, 100 percent of Senate Democrats voted to confirm the right-winger Antonin Scalia for the Supreme Court.

In 2004 the Democrats ran John Kerry for President -- the same John Kerry who said he could implement Bush's war policies better than Bush especially in increasing militarization in America and promoting the war in Iraq.

What confuses so many progressively inclined people is they do not really understand that our society is controlled by the corporate power of concentrated money.

The corporations and the super rich -- through their domination of the government, the media, and educational institutions and of course the two parties -- run our society.

The totalitarian rule of money is a self correcting mechanism. It has flexibility which is part of why it is so powerful.

The two-party system allows the appearance of differences and adjustments to public sentiment. It has become the single most successful political form for the rule of a minority over a majority in the history of the world. How this system of control developed, consolidated, and has survived through the years will be studied for years to come.

The front line in this denial of democracy is the Democratic Party because it is the instrument that controls, channels and co-opts the forces that otherwise could challenge the rule of concentrated money.

It is precisely the "differences" between the two major parties that makes the system effective.
And the front line in the battle for the control of money over people are the so-called "progressive" Democrats who talk the talk. They confuse people, prevent free elections, and fight hardest to undermine a Nader/Camejo candidacy or a Nader/Gonzalez candidacy or any other candidacy whose voice for democracy begins to be heard.

They may think they are helping move the country toward a more progressive agenda. But in fact, they are deepening the illusion that answers can be found through the Democratic Party. In turn, this reinforces the two-party domination over the United States, making possible the horrendous policies we have seen over the last eight years.

You -- Medea Benjamin -- are now one of those on the front lines defending the two-party domination, and as a direct result, defending the rule of concentrated money and other illegalities and injustices of our present system.
You can't have it both ways.

In 2004, the Democrats went further than just supporting Bush's policies.
They led a massive campaign to silence the only well known candidacy that opposed Bush's policies. They did this by manipulation.

They sent representatives into the Nader/Camejo campaign to disrupt it, to seek to prevent his supporters from getting Nader/Camejo on the ballot. They actively sought to prevent those who disagreed -- and favored peace, social justice and democracy -- to have a voice.

They harassed people trying to petition for Nader/Camejo. They brought at one time over twenty lawsuits to try to block Nader/Camejo's campaign from state ballots. They spent tens of millions of dollars in their battle against free elections and against voter choice.

Even today they are trying to "fine" Nader/Camejo tens of thousands of dollars for merely seeking ballot access in the State of Pennsylvania.

I personally had to pay them $20,000 not to have a lien put on my home for having been Ralph Nader's Vice Presidential candidate.

The Democrats, especially the people you, Media Benjamin, call "progressives," were the most vicious in their endless diatribes against Nader calling him "crazy," "ego maniacal," "stupid," and "agent of Bush."

Media Benjamin you are now shocked that the Nader/Gonzalez campaign used the term "shameful."

Where was Medea Benjamin during the Democrats hate campaign against democracy in 2004? You were campaigning for a pro-war candidate and supporting the vicious anti-Nader/Camejo campaign.

Medea Benjamin in her effort to support John Kerry helped successfully to manipulate within the Green Party support for David Cobb, the anti-Nader pro-voting Democrat candidate who favored US occupation of Iraq in two public debates with me.

She worked to get the Green Party convention to prevent Nader/Camejo from being endorsed after Nader/Camejo representatives won a number of Green Party primaries and state conventions, including California.

During the 2004 campaign, there was a letter on David Cobb's web site titled "Vote Kerry and Cobb." And it was signed by Medea Benjamin, among others.

If you are going to seek fairness and oppose "trashing," why don't you start with all your friends whose extreme public attacks on Nader/Camejo you never protested?

Why not promote among your Democratic friends the publishing of ads apologizing to Nader and the American people for the twenty-four harassing lawsuits in twelve weeks filed by Republican corporate law firms like Reed Smith and Kirkland & Ellis and abuses they committed in 2004 against the rights of the American people to have free elections and voter choice?

Yes Medea Benjamin you have the right -- like so many before you -- to seek to reform the Democratic Party. The truth is, however, that what you actually achieve is to give cover for this pro-war anti-labor political organization. Millions upon millions have tried to reform the Democratic Party for decades.

The AFL-CIO went in to reform the Democrats with millions upon millions of supporters only to be reduced from 33% of the work force to 12% -- a submissively controlled force ineffective in defending even their own existence -- unable to even get the Democratic Party to repeal the notorious anti-labor Taft Hartley law of 1947.

The generation of progressive "leaders" that capitulate in 2004 will have to be replaced by a new generation that will stand by principles like the early abolitionists of the Liberty Party, the Populists who led the uprising of 1890s, the Debsian socialists and Women's Party activists of the early twentieth century -- and yes like Ralph Nader who refuses to capitulate to a Democratic Party that has and is selling out the American people.

Making personal attacks on Ralph Nader is starting to get a little old. Maybe it's time for your Democratic Party friends to end their political bigotry against Nader/Gonzalez.
Yes we should all work together on issues we agree on. Yes we should try to get people regardless of what party they are registered with to support specific objectives.

That is how the most massive peace demonstrations ever were organized in the 1960s and 1970s or the millions who marched together for immigrant rights just a couple of years ago. Of course none of those actions were ever supported by your Party, the Democrats.
The ranks of the Democratic Party are desperately seeking change.

In time they will see that the Democratic Party cannot be and will not be the agency through which peace, social justice and saving our environment will come. On this issue you and I remain divided. On the debate about this issue Nader and those supporting him have been saints in their language in comparison to your friends in the Democratic Party.

The Nader/Gonzalez campaign has nothing to apologize for. Nader has been one of the most beautiful examples of showing respect for all including those who disagree with him.

It is time for you and your Democratic Party associates to show respect and apologize to Ralph Nader.

Peter Camejo was Ralph Nader's running mate in 2004. He lives in California.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

‘You Become Accustomed to the Smell of Blood During War’ by Robert Fisk



John Hoyland’s artwork, capturing the brutality of conflict, is as eloquent as any journalist’s article

I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook.

Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys — Palestinian boys — were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn’t bring himself to write the details on the page.

But I understand Hoyland’s picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk’s Fires — a title I could have done without — in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes — and which they could then see with theirs.

But John Hoyland’s Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we — be we photographers or writers — look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.
I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war - at the apogee of the casualties — and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice’s hospital delivery rooms…

I’m not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles — one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war — than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince — just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.

I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain’s First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts — the desert dogs — tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots — God bless them — refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs — undoctored — can tell you what we see.

Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago — the irony of my father’s trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me — and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?

When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it’s at times like this that we need John Hoyland.
–Robert Fisk

Published on Friday, April 25, 2008 by The Independent/UK

Monday, April 21, 2008

Losing Latin America ... All the Way to Tierra del Fuego, The Bush Legacy By JOHN ROSS Mexico City.


For George Bush, the March 1 anti-terror strike by the Colombian air force under U.S. guidance on a FARC guerrilla camp deep in the Ecuadorian jungle had everything to do with legacy.
During eight years in the White House, Bush's war on Iraq so absorbed his attention that for once in three centuries of Yanqui hegemony, Latin America has breathing room to shore up common defenses against the Colossus of the North, build alliances, as the pendulum swings left from neoliberalism, and even elect some social democratic presidents.

"We're back!" U.S. Undersecretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon greeted the crowd at the Council of the Americas in New York on April 2, signaling renewed Bush government interest in the Western Hemisphere. Not that the U.S. had ever really been away: "Our influence is not diminishing--it's just changing," the undersecretary argued before his well-heeled audience, most with serious fiduciary interests south of the border. Shannon conceded that the administration's temporary inattention had created a vacuum that "offered an enormous opportunity to articulate one vision"--a long-winded euphemism for the hated Hugo Chavez. But now Chavez's space was "shrinking," and with Colombia (the key U.S. proxy on the continent), Brazil (neutered by Lula's ambition), Peru, Chile and Mexico back on board, "together we can overcome our recent history."

What seemed most significant on Shannon's shopping list of new and old accomplices were the absences: Argentina, for example, the third largest economy in Latin America and an important player in the southern continent's tilt to the left, where Peronist Social Democrat Cristina Fernández de Kirchner succeeds her Social Democrat husband Nestor. The Kirchners have been in the Bush doghouse since they helped torpedo his neoliberal pipedream ALCA (Free Trade Treaty of the Americas) at a 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar de Plata.

To complicate Cristina Kirchner's investiture, U.S. authorities in Miami and Washington charged that the dreaded Chavez had financed her campaign. The scenario was a twisted one. On the eve of Cristina's inauguration last November, Argentinean customs agents in Buenos Aires confiscated $800,000 from a Venezuelan "businessman" living in Florida, Guido Antonini Wilson. The ultimate destination of the money was obscure.

Although the investigation into the origins of the boodle was strictly within Argentinean jurisdiction, FBI agents in Miami promptly arrested four Venezuelans suspected to have been involved in the affair for failure to register as Chavez's agents. Wilson himself was not indicted, having worn an FBI wire in order to implicate the others. Despite the lack of credible evidence, the story that Washington is broadcasting to the continent is that Hugo Chavez, the Saddam of South America, bought the Argentine presidency for Cristina Kirchner.

"We're back!" Tom Shannon declared, and Cristina Kirchner's first 100 days were troubled by mischief that had a distinctly made-in-U.S.A. whiff. As the 32nd anniversary of the installation of the military junta--that set off years of dirty war in which as many as 30,000 Argentinean leftists disappeared--approached, agribusiness tycoons, miffed at a 9 per cent tax Kirchner had slapped on soaring soy exports, hired armies of goons to block the nation's highways and shut down commercial traffic in and out of Argentina. The shelves of Buenos Aires supermarkets quickly went bare.

Thirty two years ago, according to an account by the Argentinean journalist Stella Callone, one of the organizers of the lockout, Sociedad Rural (Rural Society), financed the military junta that seized power on March 23, 1976. The road blockades brought back bad dreams. The 1976 coup had been preceded by a similar lockout.

"Pintas" (wall slogans) were slapped on the walls of Buenos Aires: "Volvere Videla!". General Videla headed the junta. On March 23-24, 2008 the anniversary of the junta's coup, thousands of upscale housewives gathered in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House, and staged a "cacerolazo"--beating on pots and pans in support of the striking tycoons.

The cacerolazos \ brought back memories of middle class housewives' marches in Santiago that led up to the 1973 assassination of Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende, a U.S.-overseen enterprise. More recently, in Bolivia and Venezuela, the CIA's apptoach has been to encourage such mobilizations of the "gente decente" (the "decent people") against the socialist regimes of Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez.

Curiously, as the cacerolazos clattered in the plazas of Buenos Aires, leaders of the Latin American right were gathered in Rosario Argentina at an "Encounter of Young Leaders," hosted by former right-wing Spanish Premier Jose Mara Aznar. Among his guests were Bolivian ex-president Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga; the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, now a Spanish citizen; and Roger Noriega who once occupied Shannon's post and was the late Jesse Helm's hatchet man in Latin America.

Tuto's stay in Rosario struck a familiar chord. Well-to-do agroindustrialists in Bolivia's four breakaway eastern provinces, known collectively as the Media Luna (half moon), had been blocking roads and borders for days to protest President Evo Morales' edict banning exports of cooking oil until domestic demand was met. The secessionist provinces--Santa Cruz, Tariya, Beni, and Pando--hold much of Bolivia's natural gas wealth, the second largest such deposits in Latin America, and wield clout in Washington. Demanding autonomy from the central government, provincial leaders who represent the oligarchy and are universally white in a majority Indian nation, reject Morales' new constitution and have put Bolivia on a civil war footing. One item gaining traction in the Latin press has the bloodthirsty Colombian paramilitary AUC (Autonomous Units of Colombia) training secessionist troops for eventual hostilities. Both the Catholic Church and Bolivia's immediate neighbors seek a negotiated settlement, but the secessionists have refused talks.

Across the Chaco to the east, U.S. Special Forces are garrisoned at Mariscal Estagarribia, [Paraguay, strategically positioned to keep an eye on the purportedly terrorist-ridden Triple Frontier (Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay) at Iguazu Falls, the largest fresh water reserve on the continent, and the breakaway Bolivian provinces.

Much to Shannon and President Bush's consternation, Paraguay, with the deepest income divide in the southern hemisphere, may well become Latin America's latest left domino in upcoming April 20 presidential elections, as former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo is favored to upset the Colorado Party, the longest ruling dynasty (61 years) in the Americas.

On a Mexican swing last fall, Lugo insisted that if elected, he would shut down the U.S. military operation in Paraguay much as Ecuador's Rafael Correa has vowed to do with the U.S. drug war installation at Manta. The of losing bases on the Latin mainland naturally causes alarm in Washington, D.C. In a desperate maneuver to keep Lugo from the presidency, the U.S. Embassy generated alarm by charging that the Colombian FARC is operating in San Pedro, the ex-Bishop's ex-diocese.

Although Lugo has advertised his support for Hillary Clinton and Venezuela's Chavez hopes that relations with the White House will improve once the present occupant has departed, a change in mindset at the Casa Blanca seems unlikely. Bush's potential successors have had little to say about the future of bilateral relations with the countries of the south. All three denounce Chavez. Republican John McCain calls him a "thug" and has promised to topple the Venezuelan strongman if elected.

The White House's aggressiveness in pushing for a free-trade agreement with Colombia is payback for years of loyal service as Washington's most assiduous proxy in the region. As did Bill Clinton (still lobbying hard for it), the present commander-in-chief regards the trade agreement as a crucial matter of national security and tries to frame the debate for passage in Cold War terms: the Free Market vs. Chavez's 21st Century Socialism. Democrats who won't support the FTA are redbaited as Chavistas and supporters of narco-terrorists. But, despite the risks, many Dems [spell out] are reluctant to give in on Free Trade. Big Labor has conditioned its support for the candidates on a continuing "No" vote.

Just how deeply the FTA issue has contaminated Clinton's campaign was embarrassingly spotlighted by the resignation of Mark Penn as Hillary's chief advisor. The departure of Penn, chief of the powerful PR lobbyshop Burson-Marsteller, who had signed on with Colombia to lobby the Free Trade Agreement through congress despite his boss's outspoken opposition (at least in rust bowl states like Ohio and Pennsylvania) has Clinton's campaign in a tizzy.
Failure to move the FTA through the U.S. Congress will put one more tear in George Bush's tattered Latin legacy. Bush desperately needs passage to validate not only his doctrine in Latin America but James Monroe's as well.

But George Bush's real legacy continues to exhort the Latin masses from the balconies of Miraflores Palace in downtown Caracas. Despite eight years of foiled plots to remove Chavez from office, to fund the opposition and foment coups, and even kidnap the comandante, he remains at the helm of state, and Shannon's "shrinking space" seems delusionary. Painted by the Bushites as a totalitarian, when ambushed by a "No" vote on a cherished referendum that would have extended his stay in power, Chavez chose to accept the "No" to underscore his democratic credentials.

Chavez's people are wary. "This is Bush's most dangerous moment," worries Venezuelan Communications Minister Andres Izarra. Prospects for a Bay of Pigs or Panama Deception-like invasion are still on the White House drawing board, although all sides know that such a desperate aggression would spell suicide--Venezuela provides Bush with 1.5 million barrels of black gold daily and is Washington's fourth largest supplier. Indeed, without Chavez's oil, Bush's war in Iraq would be grounded.

In times of stress, President Chavez has often threatened a cutoff of U.S. shipments, his ultimate weapon. Meanwhile, threats of a new aggression by Washington may well be met by Venezuela with a demand for payment in euros and not worthless US dollars. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez remains politically incorrect--at least in Washington's vision--financing elections of left candidates up and down the continent, underwriting Mercosur, and re-nationalizing industries that were once privatized, with zeal. Two Mexican billionaires have been recently buffeted--Lorenzo Zembrano, whose CEMEX cement conglomerate the comandante nationalized in preparation for a major housing program, and Carlos Slim, Forbes magazine's richest [although, he is not magazine's richest man, but he is riches man according to this magazine] man on earth, who last year lost the recently purchased CANTV phone company to Chavez.

Arriving for a state visit in Mexico on April 11, the sixth anniversary of the failed U.S. coup against his ally Chavez, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa cautioned Washington: "I hope they understand that Latin America has changed and that change is irreversible."


John Ross is in Mexico City and can be reached at johnross@igc.org.