Friday, March 16, 2012


Here is a quote from the L.A. Times:
That said, the violence — in which more Afghans than Americans have been killed — is an ominous reminder of the fragility of the relationship between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and an Afghan populace wearied by a decade of Western occupation on the other. Especially shocking was the execution-style murder of two U.S. service members assigned to the supposedly secure precincts of the Interior Ministry. The gunman, who is still at large, is suspected of being an Afghan police intelligence officer. Afterward, U.S. commanders withdrew Western military advisors from various Afghan ministries as a precaution. The symbolism was stark: Americans couldn't trust their Afghan allies.
I agree the symbolism is stark: succeed in getting one spy in and our entire team of advisors can be run off. Our readiness to attribute the actions of a handful of fanatics to the entire Afghan people mirrors the willingness of so many Afghans to attribute the actions of one deranged man to the entire American people. We are allowing terrorist with the support of a small fraction of the population to defeat us. It is a tragedy for Afghanistan and an ominous precedent for our foreign policy and alliances in an age of terror. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

It is always capitalism and America

I am watching a movie called the whistle blower. It is about the UN Mission in Bosnia and shows how the UN employees used controlled the human trafficking rings. The amazing thing is that mainly through casting they make it seem like the problem is the Americans. None of the peace-keepers are Americans, all the really bad guys with guns are Americans. Even though the ultimate villain was the US, even though it was a UN operation. Somehow all the really bad guys have to have American accents. Can't be a problem with the UN, it has to be a problem with the UN and private contractors corrupting the UN. Still, it is something.

At the end of the movie, which is a true story, it says that many of the guilty parties were sent home to be prosecuted by their home governments and that the US state department continues to do business with private contractors like the one depicted in the movie. Now this is nice. The "home countries" are never mentioned by name. The implication is that their countries are Western and probably America but, as I recall, in fact most of the contractors came from non-Western countries.  And they imply that the problem is the private contractor company. They never show that the company is making money on this or that the UN bureaucracy is trying to clean things up. It is all shoe horned into the narrative of America-->private contractors-->trafficking. The UN is the victim. All the really idealistic people are UN professionals. The bad guys are military (always US) and the Americans who work for private contractors. There is never any suggestion that the people who work for private contractors in UN operations are most often not Americans but are from non-Western countries. They manage to make a UN scandal into an indictment of America.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Idiots of a Feather

I am listening to Lou Dobbs talk to Bill O'Reilly about the evils of oil speculation. This is truly painful.

Dobbs points out that the supply is greater than demand right now so that it must be the fault of oil speculators. Morons!

If you had something that you knew was 6 months from now going to be worth twice as much as it is now would you sell it for the price it is going for now or would you hold on to it for six months and sell it then? Of course you would wait. And if someone wanted to buy it now how much more would they have to pay for it to get you to part with it now instead of waiting till the price went up? Probably something close to the price you expect it to be six months from now.

That is how the futures market drives up prices in the present. Because people are not idiots, unlike O'Reilly and Dobbs.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

My friend has a curious ritual in the mornings. I have to put things in my pockets. He has to take things out of his pockets. He takes everything out of his pockets that comes from the 20th century. He is in particular careful that he has no pieces of paper on them with writing on them. He is an official in Afghanistan. His way home includes roads that have Taliban roadblocks at random points. They stop all cars and search all occupants. If any piece of paper is found that has writing on it the person is taken away and decapitated.

"The Taliban can't read so they assume anything that has writing on it is proof that you work for the government."

I have heard this story from many people. In my five years of traveling to Afghanistan to study the attitudes and values of university students and professors there I have heard versions of this story in many variants. One student witnessed a man being taken away by the Taliban for having a bank card. Another for having a piece of paper which advertised the opening of a grocery store. The words civilized and barbaric are liable to be applied with too much ease. They are liable to be dismissed as terms of propaganda, the sort of words that are so loaded that one scarcely credits them. But here we have a set of facts to which they can be justly applied. Indeed, from throwing acid in girls faces for the crime of learning to read to murdering school teachers the word 'barbarism', in its original sense opposition to reading, settling differences amicably and the rule of law and living in a fixed abode, in short, civilization, is the only word that captures the issue of contention in this conflict.

We are now negotiating peace with the leaders of the Taliban. This is called progress. It is if you are a man and have no interest in say, reading books or being able to shave or wear blue jeans or make any of the thousands of decisions great and small that we take for granted as being the birthright of a free human being.

There is a groaning feeling among Americans of all political persuasions that this sort of backwards, medieval fanaticism is representative of the Afghan people. All that Americans see of Afghans are the relatively small but extremely violent crowds that mount attacks against outside our airforce base or against Afghan police and that our press insists on calling “protestors”. Once you throw a grenade surely you are no longer a group of protestors but insurgents using our tolerance and felt obligation to respect freedom of assembly to provide cover.

And so the fact that the Taliban are proving hard to finally defeat because they are supported by the people of Afghanistan. Such an opinion is quite unfounded. In the five years I have been traveling to study the opinions of university students there is no group that is rated lower in esteem than the Taliban save one: al Qaeda. This is not an artifact of the fact that I am studying an uncharacteristic and relatively privileged population (if you can call studying in a university that often lacks electricity and where you must hide your school books and destroy anything you have written if you travel outside the security perimeter of the capital city privilege). In fact, all of the survey data we have shows the the Taliban is deeply unpopular and that the ISAF war against them is widely popular. The complaint that Afghans  whom I have talked to is that we are not dealing roughly enough with the Taliban.

The thing that I have heard most often over the five years I have been traveling to Afghanistan and talking to university students at all universities is that the Americans are pretending to not be able to defeat the Taliban. To the extent I have encountered anger it is at what they perceive as the reluctance we have shown in killing the Taliban. When in am there I constantly hear stories about the Americans or ISAF letting the Taliban go, failing to pursue or even actively supporting the Taliban. On closer inspection these stories are seen to an American to be instances of our legal strictures and applying rules like innocent until proven guilty or not taking risks unless you are absolutely sure or arresting people instead of killing them.

But these legalist rules often make little sense to the Afghans. For the US and its allies the fact that the war has changed from being a war against a foreign enemy and the Taliban being members of a foreign army to being a civil war or internal conflict and the Taliban being citizens accused of crimes and having due process rights. The fact that the Taliban were fighting in uniforms meant they could be killed on sight. The fact that they are now often dressed as civilians means that they often have to be allowed to walk away. This makes sense in terms of international law but it means little to Afghans. They see us destroying the the Taliban wholesale in 2001 when they are 60,000 and we are a few hundred and being bogged down and talking about negotiating when they are perhaps 30,000 and we are 120,000. When bin Laden was killed and many Americans were fretting about the lack of a trial the Afghans were fretting and complaining as well, but to the opposite point. One friend said to me, “If you can kill bin Laden so simply why can’t you take the same sort of decisive action here?”

Once we called the Taliban enemies of humanity and America. We have decided that we would rather not be there so Now we call them partners for peace. Perhaps the Afghan war is un-winnable, at least under the  constraints we have set ourselves. But let us not say that the problem is the Afghans don’t want us and their democratically elected government to win. It is we who are undecided.