Monday, March 30, 2009

Knitting the Afghans Together

A government that is losing to an insurgency is not being outfought, it is being outgoverned.
-- attributed to Bernard Fall in The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen

In this week's Sift:
  • Obama's New Afghanistan Policy. I read The Accidental Guerrilla to get a handle on the ideas behind it.
  • Looming Right-wing Violence II: Bachman Overdrive. Did you know that Obama is about to replace the dollar with a global one-world currency? That we need a revolution if we're not going to lose our country? That the American people should be armed and dangerous? That we have to make a stand here, because there are no other free countries in the world? Me neither, but Congresswoman Michelle Bachman knows these things. And she's taken seriously by the right-wing media.
  • Short Notes. A not-so-happy anniversary for the labor movement. Trash-talk about Michelle Obama. Big Agriculture wants pesticides on the White House garden. Cool British names. An AIG executive's appeal for sympathy. And more.

Obama's New Afghanistan Policy
For years, the Afghan War has been like a godmotherless Cinderella. This is the deserving war, the one whose connection to 9/11 was more than just propaganda. And yet our effort in Afghanistan has had to scrimp along with whatever resources we had left after showering everything on its undeserving step-sister, Iraq.

Now the Obama administration is trying to change course in Afghanistan, using many of the same counter-insurgency ideas behind the Surge in Iraq. It's way too early to tell how well this will turn out, but in an effort to understand at least what it's trying to accomplish, I've been reading the new book The Accidental Guerrilla by counter-insurgency guru David Kilcullen.

Kilcullen, an Australian on loan to the U.S. military, doesn't pigeonhole neatly as a liberal or conservative. For example, he writes things like this:
Iraq represents a cautionary example of exactly the type of conflict we need to avoid if we wish to successfully defeat the threat of takfiri* terrorism. ... The Surge worked: but in the final analysis, it was an effort to save ourselves from the more desperate consequences of a situation we should never have gotten ourselves into.
*[takfiri is Kilcullen's chosen label for al Qaeda's beliefs. Literally, it refers to the willingness to change another person's religion by force. He prefers this term to jihadi or mujahidin because those words have positive connotations in Muslim culture -- just as crusader has a positive connotation in the West. But Takfirism is recognized as a heresy by most Muslims.]

The easiest way I can think to explain Kilcullen's approach is to describe what he thinks we've been doing wrong in the Global War on Terror so far.

Killing Bad Guys Instead of Protecting the People. Kilcullen refers to our previous strategy as the "enemy-centered" approach. The problem: Smart enemies lead you on a merry chase through vulnerable areas, and you get blamed for the trail of destruction left behind. The people turn against you, and the enemy is able to recruit far more fighters than you've been able to kill. (Kilcullen's "accidental guerrillas" are the people whose concerns are local or personal, but who get swept up into the global insurgency by the course of events.)

What's more, insurgents only need occasional access to a village in order to intimidate its leaders into cooperation. Local leaders will side with the central government over the insurgents only if they are convinced that the government can protect them 24/7. So rather than sending troops out on search-and-destroy missions, Kilcullen wants them close to the villages where people can see them as protectors rather than raiders.

Helping the Enemy Unite. When we lump all the "bad guys" together, as the Bush administration did with its war-on-terror rhetoric, we give our enemies a unity that otherwise they would be hard pressed to achieve. Bin Laden is the one who wants to make One Big War out of the Chechan conflict, the Palestinian insurgency, the struggle for Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Danish Mohammed cartoons, the French headscarf controversy, and so forth. Al Qaeda wants to convince every Muslim with a grievance against his local government that he is a victim of American/Zionist/Western imperialism. We should be trying to dis-aggregate these conflicts, and separate the al Qaeda global insurgency from the local and personal issues ("they killed my cousin") that cause the masses to take up arms.

Even worse than the Bush administration are the right-wingers who argue that Islam is the enemy. (More extreme version here.) Muslims haven't been united since the era of the Arabian Nights, but we might be able to unify them if we declare Islam to be the enemy. Heck, why stop there? Why not declare Allah to be the enemy?

Using Firepower Instead of Troops. This is the classic imperial mistake. When you aren't willing to commit enough troops to fight an insurgency, it's very tempting to compensate by blowing more stuff up. When you outnumber the insurgents, you can take them out at relatively close quarters, and maybe only kill the people who are actually shooting at you. But if they outnumber you, you're more likely to call in an air strike against a sniper and maybe kill a few dozen innocents -- all of whom have relatives who may decide they now are now honor-bound to take revenge on you.

Believing the Lines on Our Maps. Here's one thing Afghanistan and Iraq have in common: The British drew the border, and it signifies nothing. The dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan (around 40% of the population) is the Pashtuns, and the border with Pakistan (the Durand Line, named for the Brit who drew it) cuts right through their territory. So you've got 26 million Pashtuns in Pakistan and 13 million in Afghanistan, more or less.

Kilcullen argues that the Taliban is not so much an Afghan or Pakistani or Muslim insurgency as it is a Pashtun insurgency. We overthrew the Taliban in 2001 by backing the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of Tajiks and Uzbeks. (You can visualize the situation by looking at Wikipedia's demographic map of Afghanistan: the Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the north, the Pashtuns in the south, next to Pakistan.) So the quest for an Afghan solution is hopeless without a Pashtun solution that includes the 26 million in Pakistan.

You can see all these ideas represented in one way or another in the Obama plan: more troops, a regional Afghan/Pakistani framing, more talk about protecting the population. I find myself convinced this far: If you're going to fight the Afghan War at all, this is how you have to do it.

The problem is that it's a long hard slog. The enemy-centered strategy projected the mirage that we might kill all our enemies quickly and be done. (Seven years after capturing Kabul, we've killed a lot of people, but we're no closer to being done.) Kilcullen's counter-insurgency provides no similar short-term hope. Ten years from now, maybe well-functioning Afghan and Pakistani governments have won their people's trust and can survive on their own. But how much blood and gold should we be willing to spend on that outcome? What's the alternative if we don't?

Juan Cole doesn't like either Obama's new plan or the argument he makes for it. My Kindle has Cole's new book Engaging the Muslim World on it, and I'll report soon.

This bit of news from Iraq is really bad, and has implications for our counter-insurgency strategy in general: Forces of the (Shia-dominated) Iraqi government are clashing with the Sunni militias of the Iraq Awakening.

The Surge of 2007 took advantage of a developing split between al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Iraqi Sunni tribes. (In Kilcullen's terms, it separated the global insurgents from the accidental guerrillas.) Before 2007 they had been on the same side, fighting an insurgency against the US invasion and the new Shia government in Baghdad. But there had always been a tension between them. The tribes want local autonomy and the ability to live by their own traditions. AQI wants a global caliphate enforcing sharia law. (By analogy, imagine scripture-based Christian fundamentalists in, say, Guatamala dealing with a culture where Catholicism has absorbed local pagan traditions.) When several issues boiled over into violence, the tribal leaders started believing that AQI was a bigger long-term threat to them than the Americans were.

Short-term, flipping the tribes from AQI's side to ours gave us the local allies we had always needed in the Sunni areas, and went a long way towards racheting down the violence in Iraq. But the broader political settlement between Sunni and Shia has never happened. (That subtlety gets lost in those arguments about whether the Surge "worked".) Our improved relationship with the Sunni tribes has not developed into an improved relationship between them and the Baghdad government, as it was supposed to.

If this goes back to civil war, as it might, we're in the difficult position of arming both sides.

Looming Right-wing Violence II: Bachman Overdrive
Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Right responds to despair with fantasies of violence while the Left responds with fantasies of escape. Case in point: Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (the one who in October called for an inquisition into whether other congresspeople were pro-American or anti-American). A week ago Saturday, she talked in a radio interview about wanting the American people to be "armed and dangerous" because
Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country.
OK, a spokesman walked that back a little, saying she was talking metaphorically about being armed with information about outrages like Obama's cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming. (So, we're going to "lose our country" if we have to reduce our carbon footprint?) Then Wednesday she's talking to Sean Hannity and goes off again. More about "revolution" against Obama's "economic Marxism." Escape? No way:
Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now.
If you're a right-wing loony, that's the problem in a nutshell: Every other country that isn't a hellhole is more liberal than we are. Bachman's state borders Canada -- she could get there without an inner tube. But if liberalism means slavery, then Canada, Denmark, New Zealand ... they're not free countries. There's no place to run. America is the Alamo.

Bachman's spinmeisters can reinterpret her however they want. But when it becomes clear that they're not getting their way, people who really believe what she's saying are going to get violent.

Let there be fear. Bachman was one of several Republicans fear-mongering this week about a conspiracy to replace the dollar with a "one world currency". ThinkProgress notes not just Bachman, but also Senator Jim DeMint, Glenn Beck, and Karl Rove pushing the story. Numerous claims have been made that somebody -- Tim Geithner, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. -- are advocating a one-world currency. But when you chase down the references, no one is proposing anything of the kind. Like the God of Genesis, the conservative noise machine has created this story from nothing. Matt Yglesias explains.

Another manufactured story recently made the trip from right-wing-talking-point to the mainstream media: something about Obama and teleprompters. Bob Cesca summarizes the non-issue, and DailyKosTV demonstrates how widespread the non-story suddenly is.

Let's think this through: A teleprompter is a way for a speaker to deliver a prepared text; it replaces papers on a lecturn. Making an issue out of Obama's teleprompter is supposed to frame him as a mere mouthpiece for whoever is writing the text.

But does Obama rely on prepared texts more than other recent presidents? In fact, the exact opposite is true. Unlike Bush, Obama exposes himself to uncontrolled interactions. Bush only appeared in front of friendly audiences, and only hand-picked people got to ask him questions in public. In press conferences, Bush would repeat the same talking points over and over, because that was all he knew. But President Obama can answer reporters' questions with a detailed exposition of his point of view, and holds town-hall meetings that people get into on a first-come first-served basis. (The crowds are mostly pro-Obama because those are the kinds of people who will wait in line all night to see him, not because they've been hand-picked.) That means he sometimes has to answer hostile or wacky questions -- something Bush would never do.

Short Notes
The next time somebody tells you that workers don't need unions or governments to protect them, because industry can regulate itself -- don't argue with them, teach them some history. Wednesday was the 98th anniversary of one the pivotal events in the American labor movement: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. 146 of the 500 employees died -- mostly young women, mostly from Jewish or Italian immigrant families, some as young as 15. Many of the factory's exit doors were routinely locked to keep workers from sneaking out early. They stayed locked during the fire. Cornell University's online archives tell the story.

No one should kid themselves that this couldn't happen again today if workers had only their bosses' goodwill to protect them. The Kader Toy Factory Fire in Thailand in 1993 was even worse. There, rural Thai girls new to the big city made stuffed animals for delivery to American companies like Disney and Mattel. (You may own one.) Piles of stuffing were everywhere, and they went up fast. Again, exit doors were locked. Don McGlashan wrote a song about it.

Just in case your blood pressure is still too low, listen to this 2-minute clip from Tammy Bruce, who was the guest host on Laura Ingraham's right-wing talk-radio show. She starts by ridiculing a tape of Michelle Obama talking to kids in a D.C. classroom, and concludes with "We've got trash in the White House."

Bruce went on to defend herself here, claiming that the "trash" comment was mild compared to what Democrats said about President Bush -- like calling him a "war criminal". Let me explain two differences. First, this is the president's wife, not the president. If the Left ever abused Laura Bush like this, I missed it. Somebody's going to have to play me a tape before I'll believe we did.

Second, I'm one of the people who called President Bush a war criminal, which I admit is a seriously negative thing to say about a person. I said it -- and continue to say it -- because he has claimed responsibility for authorizing specific acts (waterboarding three Guantanamo detainees, for example) that are recognized internationally as war crimes. So, "Bush is a war criminal" is an assertion about facts, which opponents can dispute by citing other facts, if they have them. I'd love to see Bush dispute the claim in court.

Calling Michelle Obama "trash", on the other hand, is just a gratuitous insult. It serves no purpose other than to raise hate. Is that clear enough?
Another place where Michelle is drawing fire: She has broken ground on an organic garden to supply fresh produce for the White House kitchen. Seems harmless at worst, right? Well, not to Big Agriculture. A trade group has started a letter-writing campaign to convince her to use pesticides, or "crop protection products" as the industry now calls them.

She's the Limit. British people just have cooler names than we do. After 9/11, I envied the UK for having a foreign secretary whose name sounded like the plucky hero of a fairy tale: Jack Straw. (Now he's Lord High Chancellor Jack Straw. How cool is that?) And then there's their attorney general, Patricia Scotland -- that'd be like us appointing Captain America or maybe Joe Montana. But the latest great name I've run across is the British woman who is General Odierno's political advisor in Iraq: Emma Sky.

Speaking of Lady Scotland -- I'm still trying to picture a U.S. attorney general named Lord Vermont or something -- she has asked police to investigate charges that British officials colluded with the U.S. in torturing a British citizen at Guantanamo. Apparently the British have something they call "the rule of law" that forces them to investigate things that look like crimes -- even if the government would rather not. Weird. And Spain is part of this rule-of-law fad as well: It's thinking about indicting several Bush officials.

I wonder: Will Dick Cheney's book tour make any stops in London or Madrid?
Oh, and this just in: More reports that torture didn't accomplish anything.

John Shimkus, the Republican Congressman from the Illinois district just south and east of where I grew up, on why he opposes limiting carbon emissions: "So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?" He's serious.

Portfolio magazine has an interesting article on how Governor Palin has bungled the natural-gas pipeline she bragged about during the campaign. Apparently, she has a tendency to do things that sound good without thinking them through. Who could have guessed?

Glenn Greenwald argues that decriminalizing drugs is working in Portugal.

The "sexting" controversy -- teens using their cellphone cameras to send naked pictures of themselves to their friends -- is getting even weirder. Now sexting teens are being prosecuted for child pornography. In other words, the law that was supposed to protect an underage girl from exploitation is now being used to prosecute her for exploiting herself. But if we start using the laws that way -- if anything that would be illegal for somebody to do to you is also illegal for you to do to yourself -- then I think a lot of us committed sex crimes in our teen years.

Apparently the ACLU isn't happy about this either.

A longer article on the economy is overdue, but got squeezed out again this week. (I try to keep the Sift's length down.) In the meantime, Jake DeSantis' resignation letter from AIG -- which was at the top of the NYT's most-read articles list all day Tuesday -- underlined the cultural divide between the financial community and the rest of us.

DeSantis is bitter about being villainized for receiving a bonus. He wasn't involved in the activities that destroyed the company. He has lost money in the collapse of AIG stock. He works very hard. He agreed to work for $1 a year in expectation of a bonus. And now he's being pressured to return the $742K he got. He's so bitter he's going to quit and give the after-tax portion of his bonus to charity.

He was doing great until he mentioned the amount. Ordinary Americans understand that innocent people suffer when a company goes under. We feel bad for them. But we don't feel $742K worth of bad for them. Lots of hard-working people don't get that much in a decade. DeSantis and the folks who forwarded his article to all their friends don't seem to understand that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Doug: Jim Parish here. John Shimkus is my congressman. Imagine the shame.... (At least I don't live in Bachmann's district.)