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War Crimes in Afghanistan? Time To Investigate

By: Josh Mull Monday January 17, 2011 1:34 pm

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed here are my own.



A few weeks ago, Rep. Darrell Issa, the new Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the House GOP’s self proclaimed “chief watchdog,” released his agenda for upcoming investigations in the new congress. Some of the issues he intends to focus on are dubious and partisan, but others slated for investigation are very serious.

One of these serious issues is the war in Afghanistan. Politico reported at the time:

Rep. Darrell Issa is aiming to launch investigations on everything from WikiLeaks to Fannie Mae to corruption in Afghanistan in the first few months of what promises to be a high-profile chairmanship of the top oversight committee in Congress. [...]

The sweeping and specific hearing agenda shows that Issa plans to cut a wide swath as chairman, latching onto hot-button issues that could make his committee the center of attention in the opening months of the 112th Congress. By grabbing such a wide portfolio — especially in national security matters — Issa is also laying down a marker of sorts, which could cement his panel as the go-to place for investigations.

Great, if there’s one thing we need, it’s a “go-to place for investigations” in congress, especially concerning national security.  And certainly most everyone agrees that “corruption in Afghanistan”, referring here to waste, fraud, and abuse by US military contractors, could benefit from much stronger oversight in congress.

But here’s the problem: the bloody occupation of Afghanistan has been dragging on for ten long years now, the long-term cost is estimated to be in the trillions. The catastrophes we’re facing are much, much worse than losing a million or two here or there in graft.

Take a look at what Paula Broadwell, a close advisor to General Petraeus, wrote about one mission on Tom Ricks’ blog.

The artillery unit, acting as a provisional infantry battalion, went on the offensive to clear a village, Tarok Kalache, where the Taliban had conducted an intimidation campaign to chase the villagers out, then create a staging base to attack 1-320th’s outposts. The village of Tarok Kalache was laden with IEDs and homemade explosives (HME) comprised of 50-gal drums of deadly munitions. Special Operations forces conducted a successful clearing raid on the village. Then Flynn introduced the Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), a rocket-projected explosive line charge which provides a “close-in” breaching capability for maneuver forces. The plan was for one team to clear a 600-meter path with MICLICs from one of his combat outposts to Tarok Kalache. “It was the only way I could give the men confidence to go back out.”

On October 6, Flynn’s unit approved use of HIMARS, B-1, and A-10s to drop 49,200 lbs. of ordnance on the Taliban tactical base of Tarok Kalache, resulting in NO CIVCAS. Their clearance of Babur, Khosrow Sofla, Charqolba Sofla, and other villages commenced October 7, aided by USSF, ABP, and an additional infantry company from B/1-22 IN. Not long after, Flynn shared one insight into the burden of command: “I literally cringed when we dropped bombs on these places — not because I cared about the enemy we were killing or the HME destroyed, but I knew the reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life.”

Basically, they completely obliterated entire villages in order to “save” them. That’s disgusting and horrifying on a purely human level, but it doesn’t end there.

Joshua Foust, Research Fellow at the American Security Project, writes that these horrors might be even worse:

Nowhere in this account is there a sense that the villagers felt any ill-will toward the Americans beforehand—rather, Broadwell explicitly describes the village as being victimized by the Taliban first, then being completely obliterated by the Americans. In other words, rather than actually clearing the village—not just chasing away the Taliban but cleaning up the bombs and munitions left over—the soldiers got lazy and decided to destroy the entire settlement… “to give the men confidence.” This sounds bad enough—like a nightmare from before there was a Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibited the collective punishment and expulsion of civilians from conflict zones—but it gets worse. [...]

Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.

This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. Broadwell explicitly states that it has the Petraeus stamp of approval, and Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.

Staggering, isn’t it? We’re not talking about one bad moment, one soldier losing his cool and committing a crime. We might be looking at a top-down, leadership-approved policy of violating the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan. War crimes.

We have to be careful to keep this in context. Petraeus has dramatically escalated the violence of the occupation, increasing special forces raids, air strikes, and even deploying tanks and other heavy weapons. But again, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident amidst the fog of war, it looks like policy.

Broadwell has attempted to walk back her piece, of course, but it just doesn’t stand up to the facts. And frankly, it’s too late for that anyway. You can’t un-tell a story, and Broadwell’s glib recounting of a village razing has already succeeded in raising serious and disturbing questions about our policy in Afghanistan.

What exactly is our policy on village razing in Afghanistan, and how does it reconcile with our stated “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency? How does it reconcile with the Geneva Conventions dealing with collective punishment and expulsion of non-combatants?

Who is responsible, and accountable, for this policy in Afghanistan? Did President Obama, Secretary Gates, or General Petraeus approve the collective punishment of Afghan civilians? If not, who did? As Foust notes, “you do not call in 20+ air strikes on an uninhabited village to turn it into dust without some higher approvals.” Who’s giving these approvals?

Which brings us back to Rep. Issa and his oversight committee. He has claimed national security and our war in Afghanistan as part of his portfolio, and now it’s time to live up to that responsibility.

Our soldiers are not toys for politicians and hacks, they are not to be ordered into these situations for the sake of someone’s career, or for flashy headlines about “progress” and “rebuilding”. The people need a “chief watchdog” to investigate the occupation and ensure that anyone issuing or approving orders to commit war crimes is held accountable.

This is not about scoring political points or shaving a few bucks off the budget deficit. This is about politicians, our elected representatives, committing “waste, fraud, and abuse” of our soldiers. We need to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and who is responsible for it.

We have clear evidence that there may be an ongoing policy of collective punishment and expulsion, war crimes under international and US law, happening in Afghanistan, and it’s time for the House oversight committee to investigate.

Contact Representative Issa here, post this article on his Facebook wall, link him to it on Twitter, or just call his office at (202) 225-3906. Tell him we need this issue investigated, and as “chief watchdog”, it’s his responsibility.


Conservatives Turn Against Afghanistan War, Max Boot Goes Insane

By: Josh Mull Wednesday January 12, 2011 3:22 pm

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Something very interesting has been happening with conservatives lately. They’re turning against the war in Afghanistan.

Sure, the majority of Americans have been opposed to the war for some time now, predominantly made up of Democrats and progressives.  But there was always that nagging little problem of the Republican base, specifically their ferocious pro-war attitude.

They carry a lot of weight in the public discourse, so their powerful vocal support for the war would often drown out the (vastly more popular) critical voices. But not anymore.

Axis of Agreement Watch: Joe Klein’s “Lucky” Strategy

By: Josh Mull Thursday January 6, 2011 2:15 pm

Joe Klein's secondary strategy. (graphic: openDemocracy via Flickr)

Last month we had the phony Afghanistan strategy review in Washington, and thanks to Politico, we got a shiny new buzzword: The “Progressive-Realist-Centrist Axis of Agreement”. It’s a fancypants way of saying “conventional wisdom”, roughly synonymous with the “Establishment” or Digby’s “Village”. Whatever the out-of-touch think tankers, journalists, and politicians in DC happen to think this week, that’s the “Axis of Agreement”.

The strategy review was Washington’s way of unveiling it’s brand new Axis of Agreement on the war in Afghanistan, transitioning from last year’s platinum mega-hit “COIN” (or counter-insurgency) to the new 2011 narrative. I wrote:

[The] review is not really a review of the military strategy, it’s an act of political theater. This is not the Commander in Chief and his generals tallying up their data and fine-tuning their tactical approach, this is the whole class turning in a book report so they get an A. [...]

[This] year’s line is “effective, affordable, and sustainable”. That means 30,000-ish troops, training police, drones ‘n Pakistan ‘n stuff, and also negotiating with the Taliban (ooh, controversy!).

Well, it’s a new year, and it’s time for the media wing of the Axis of Agreement to start turning it’s Afghanistan homework. A perfect example of this is Joe Klein’s new piece for Time titled “What It Will Take To Finish The Job In Afghanistan”. Here’s the plan:  . . . 

Who Becomes a Target in the Infowar?

By: Josh Mull Friday December 17, 2010 1:05 pm

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Last week I ranted about the way many Wikileaks’ supporters were framing their work as Information Warfare, “digital bomb-throwing”, and so on. My point was that by playing into the semantic games of the establishment, we not only jeopardize the efforts of transparency and accountability, but we risk turning what was once an unalienable right (a free press) into something dangerous, something worthy of retaliation – a weapon.

We seem to have perverted “the pen is mightier than the sword” into “the pen is a mighty sword.” Don’t get me wrong, it sounds super badass. Yeah dude, we are totally infowarriors throwing digital bombs and launching news missiles at the imperialist pigs!

But this only works in the favor of the authorities, those who would use it to oppress and violate our rights. My colleague D. Eris over at Polizeros did us the favor of laying out exactly how this works:

Over the last ten years, the Department of Defense has quietly been developing the conceptual and operational framework for what it calls “information operations,” or “info-ops” for short.  An Information Operations Primer published by the Army War College in 2006 (see the relevant document at IWS) delineates five core capabilities that constitute information operations: 1) psychological operations, 2) military deception, 3) operations security, 4) electronic warfare, and 5) computer network operations.  All of these are in play in the Cablegate affair

Go read the whole thing, it’ll scare the hell out of you.  Want another taste?

Among those speculating whether Wikileaks has effectively ignited an information war, the question has been raised as to what or where precisely the battlefield of this conflict is.  If one assumes that we are indeed in the midst of an information war, then the answer to this question is disturbingly simple: there is no space, whether physical, virtual or even mental, that is not a part of the battlefield.

Yikes! They’ll turn every last one of us on earth into combatants – into targets – if we let them.

And yet, some go down this path willingly. James Gundun writes at the Trench:

WikiLeaks represents the full glory of fourth-generation warfare: the blurring of military and non-military. A terrorist or insurgent isn’t limited to killing, but wields an arsenal of political and media tactics to control the flow and perception of information. Nor is warfare limited to terrorists and insurgents. Non-state actors practicing asymmetric warfare – often activists or hackers – is exactly the type of warfare expected in the 21st century.

This is real war.

Not every war aims for, “the complete destruction of society and basic human decency.” Especially fourth-generation warfare, which aims to break an enemy’s political will rather than destroy his territory. Fourth-generation warfare competes for information, for truth, and Wikileaks is locked in such a war with Washington. A war of politics, psychology, and technology.

It sounds like someone’s just read a little too much into the whole John Robb everything-is-kinda-like-a-terrorist-cell-if-you-think-about-it school of policy analysis.

Basically, Wikileaks, and by extension the Guardian, Der Spiegel and anyone else out there who does the same thing (journalism), is something like a terrorist or insurgent, doing something like destroying an enemy’s territory. This is beyond metaphor, he is explicitly saying that it’s warfare. Reporters are militants, news is a bomb.

That’s totally wrong.

Free expression and a free press are the most critical, most powerful agents we have for peace, democracy, and social justice. Warfare, weapons, and violence however, are precisely the opposite. They destroy, they violate, and they kill.

My personal experience is with citizen journalism and independent media. There is always a force working against you, someone or something that wants to shut you down, turn you off, and stop you from expressing what needs to be expressed. Ask any blogger or reporter out there. They know it’s a constant struggle just to be heard.

But it is not winning a battle or defeating an enemy. It is exercising our right. It is for all a human right, and lucky for me, it is also a guaranteed right by the US constitution. We’re not criminals, we’re not doing something wrong, we are doing exactly what we are supposed to do as citizens.

To illustrate where I’m getting this from, I’d like to show you some videos from projects I’ve been privileged enough to be a part of the last few years.

I want you to see what these so-called “infowarriors” look like, and I want you to see how much their lives suck. I want you to see all the ways that society, governments, and war itself stifles, harasses, and in some cases takes the lives of these people who only want to tell a few stories and express a little history.

This is from TheUptake, a citizen journalism outfit based in Minnesota:

And this from the Small World News project Alive in Baghdad:

Finally this from Rethink Afghanistan:

These are insurgents? These are combatants on a battlefield? Can’t we see what happens to these people already, without anybody calling them 4th generation terrorists?

We need to understand the difference between real warfare and fake-pretend-sounds-cool warfare, and we need to figure this out quick. Because in case you didn’t notice from the videos, the authorities and powers-that-be don’t retaliate against “Infowarriors” with fake-pretend-sounds-cool violence, they retaliate with real muthafuckin’ violence.

Reject the information war, reject the authorities’ framing of journalism as combat. Speech is a right, not a weapon.

Review This: Afghan War Collapses

By: Josh Mull Friday December 17, 2010 5:00 am

Ancient History

As we discussed previously, the Obama administration’s Afghanistan Strategy Review is basically an act of political theater, a demonstration of Obama walking back his massive overcommitment to occupying Afghanistan. Today’s speech confirmed that. Obama put a happy face (progress!) on the war, which is now an unmitigated disaster though you’d never guess that from the speech, and the warmakers (very quietly) took steps toward keeping their commitment of beginning withdrawals in July 2011.

So we got something good out of it, the July 2011 isn’t completely off the table (as the generals would have you believe), but they’re still not entirely comfortable stating that. However, the mainstream media got the spin loud and clear. Immediately following this morning’s press conference, CNN went live with two correspondents, one in Kabul and the other in Islamabad, above the bold headline “U.S. troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan in July 2011″. Sounds good!

But sadly, it’s not that simple. President Obama and Secretary Clinton talked a lot of game about 9/11 and honoring the memory of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. They wove some interesting tales about progress in Helmand and increased cooperation from the Pakistanis. They insisted that they would not be making policy based on opinion polls, and that the American people should trust that they’re working for the long term public interest. All lies.

There is no progress to speak of, Afghanistan is a nightmare, Afghan and American deaths are through the roof. Pakistan’s national security establishment is sponsoring just as much terrorism and militancy as always, and their civilian government is a joke. And the “opinion polls” don’t reflect a moment of “doubt” as Secretary Gates said, but the total collapse of public support for the war. There is no confidence in this administration; the policy has to end, not re-adjust.

Think that’s over the top? Let’s see what’s happening.  . . . 

The Politics of (Ending) the Afghanistan War

By: Josh Mull Wednesday December 15, 2010 3:58 pm

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Vince Gill (left) gives a casualty report to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. David Gillingham after an improvised explosive device detonates on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, Dec. 05, 2010. The explosion wounded 7 U.S. service members and killed 2 others. (source: USAF Staff Sgt. Jason Colbert at DVIDSHUB via Flickr

We understand that when it comes to making policy around, say, health care, it’s a show. But War? War we have trouble with. According to what we the mainstream media tells us, the image that most Americans get of war, the whole thing just appears confusing and frustrating.

Now there’s even more heavy stuff going down in Washington dealing with the war in Afghanistan, and if we don’t understand the politics behind it, it’s going to be just as confusing and frustrating as the mainstream media makes it appear. If we can see ourselves with the same clarity that we see Afghans however, the whole Beltway affair will make a lot more sense.

Politico lays out the story for us:

As the Obama administration prepares to release its third strategy review of the war in Afghanistan, discussion of U.S. policy focuses on three conflicts. First, the actual military campaign against Afghan and Pakistani insurgents. Second, the political jockeying among Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his countrymen and international groups attempting to get a handle on massive corruption and poor governance. And third, the Washington shadowboxing between factions supporting “double down” or “out now.”

Meanwhile, a growing progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement has emerged. This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that share a stunning amount of agreement. As a group, they offer a way forward that could be effective, affordable and sustainable.

How do you like that phrase, “progressive-realist-centrist axis of agreement”? It’s like someone disemboweled Morning Joe and bled out all the undigested bullshit buzzwords onto the screen.

Journalism is not an Attack, Wikileaks is not Warfare

By: Josh Mull Wednesday December 8, 2010 2:49 pm

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Wikileaks is under attack!

Journalists and politicians are calling for the criminalization of Wikileaks, or worse, the assassination of its members. The US government is coercing companies into blocking access to Wikileaks, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is normally very strong on internet freedom, has been forced to “evolve” her positions.

If you’re a supporter of Wikileaks, or even a relatively dispassionate observer, you likely find these actions to be offensive, or even downright criminal. How dare the US move so arrogantly, so aggressively, against Wikileaks for what seems to be nothing more than the second coming of the Pentagon Papers? We believe in free speech, in transparency and accountability for our government. It’s outrageous that Washington would move so decisively to crush a project like Wikileaks.

But are Wikileaks’ supporters actually feeding this response from the government? In our rush to rationalize and defend Wikileaks and their actions, have we inadvertently opened the door to attacks by the US government?

The answer can be found in how we’ve chosen to frame the debate so far.

Afghanistan: No Withdrawal, No Reconciliation

By: Josh Mull Thursday November 18, 2010 2:12 pm

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on Firedoglake or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Back in the summer of 2007, there was a debate in the Democratic presidential primaries over whether or not the United States ought to negotiate without preconditions with our enemies. Senator Obama said he would meet with Iranian president Ahmadinejad, among others, and Senator Clinton replied that this was naive, that it would be used for propaganda purposes, and so on.

Obama eventually won out, but the criticism of his position continued into the 2008 general election. The McCain campaign doubled down on the Bush policy of negotiations as a “reward”, and they relentlessly attacked Obama as weak on national defense, cozying up with dictators – you remember the commercials.

Despite all that, candidate Obama held firm in his position that the US should negotiate with its enemies. And not just dictators and foreign leaders, mind you, but even militant groups like the Taliban. Here Obama explains his rationale to NBC’s Brian Williams:

So far, so good. He uses some really unhelpful language (what the heck is a “moderate Taliban”?) but he admits that the process will not be easy or quick. . . .